358. Oh, No, Toto,Come Back!

Way, way back in my memory bank vault, third shelf on left side, halfway down, is a story that still stings to recall, though I have no real guilt about it at all. It fits under the damp tent of family shame, I guess. Kind of has that putrid mildewed odor in my memory nose.  You be the judge.

My dad’s sister, her husband and their brood of six kids lived in Hawaii for many years during the late 60’s, I think. They had previously lived just ten miles away from us in the burbs of Northern Virginia when I was young, and our families interacted regularly. (I liked my Uncle Jim.  He worked with the Corps of Engineers. He was a kind man who smoked a pipe and laughed genuinely.) My father’s irascible mother would visit both homes the way a ping pong ball visits both sides of a net when she came down from Boston occasionally. “Kitty” was her name and she was the original pretentious piece of work, creating drama where none had existed prior. An emotional pyromaniac, if memory serves me accurately.

Aunt Jean was the hard pear that did not fall far from her mother’s tree, but she strained to be as far away as possible. Intellectualism was her passport. Conflict her train. Acceptance her destination:  To be approved of  by those whom you approve on the spiral staircase to the ivory tower’s penthouse. How very prepositional. Impulsive and free flowing in a pre-hippie era. She longed to talk about books and ideas with my dad while putting up with my unintellectual mother.  Jean had green hair in the freakin’ 60’s.  Granted, it was a hair dye chemistry error, but she wore it like a proud leprechaun until it grew out.

Anyway, the family was coming back to NOVA by way of a cross country drive in a big van, starting in California and ending on our doorstep. They asked my father to pick up their little dog Toto at National (Reagan now) Airport and convey the neurotic little terrier to a kennel. Simple, right?  However, you have to get some background description of my father to understand what follows. He was not an engineer nor was he a great problem solver. He served in the Army at the end of WWII in England and then Germany. He told a story of catching a mouse in his barracks and telling others not to kill it. “Then the damn thing bit me.” In a mouse’s thimble, that was my father.

One time we borrowed a neighbor’s truck and drove into D.C. to pick up a dining room table and chairs that my mom bought from a coworker who lived in a swanky apartment overlooking the Potomac near the Watergate. My dad did not tie anything down in the bed of the truck though we had rope, and as we bounced across the Memorial Bridge in pale orange mercury vapor light, the extension leaf bounced up and out of the truck, landing flat on the bridge where the next fifty cars ran over it and pulverized the damn thing. I ran back and picked up the gravel encrusted table leaf. When we got home, my mother cried in absolute frustration and disappointment. We did not have a lot of nice things, and she put so much psychic energy into the few high profile things we did own. See, if  you have a nice carpet in your living room, you rock. My mom liked images and mirages.

 

 

 

So now you are ready for the main point. My sappy sentimental dad could not find it in his milksop heart to take Toto to the kennel. The dog was in absolute panic mode after flying from Hawaii to L.A. to D.C. in the belly of a huge noisy plane without Xanax. He brought the dog home in its cage and tried to comfort the poor thing in our living room. No good. No sir. We had a wide eyed, panic stricken terrier on the loose in a totally foreign environment.

Just then one of my brothers walked through the front door and Toto hit that hole faster than any NFL running back in modern history. He shot across our yard, through the intersection, and zipped out of sight in the woods beyond the Parkway as the summer sun set. At least he was heading west, I thought. Hawaii is west of here.

There were no words. That dog probably ran until it had a heart attack or seizure. In any event Toto was a total goner, and sentimental JJ was left with an empty cage full of dog guilt. It was bizarrely funny and painfully tragic at the same time. The awful wait began. Dread built. Excuses were rehearsed.

A couple of weeks later, lo and behold, the van with our cousins rolled up to our house. Nervous greetings were exchanged. They may have sensed that we were not so glad to see them. “Come in. Come on in.” And as they gathered in the living room, Jean said, “The kids can’t wait to see Toto.”

That’s when I left out the front door… a little slower than Toto had rocketed away. But I knew I could not endure the shock and horror, the guilt and shame of dogicide. Toto’s blood was not on my hands. Still I imagined the interaction that went down as everyone gathered around the damaged dining table.

“Toto ran away.”

“From the kennel? How?”

“No, from here. You see, I brought him here because he was so upset…”

“You? What? The dog is gone?”

Six kids start crying as voices turned metallic with anger. I don’t like the squeak of fingernails on a chalkboard, so I could not have handled the symphony of discord that must have erupted.

“Oh, no. Toto, come back!”

313. Boyz in the Woodz

How many stories took place in the woods across the street from my childhood home in the suburbs of Alexandria, Virginia? It was a no man’s land of wonder and risky adventure for me through early high school,   actually until my frenzied focus turned to cars and girls from other neighborhoods. The Woodz were only about 10 acres of hard clay ground that dropped into a creek bed and were cost prohibitive to develop in the cookie cutter housing tracts logic of the 1950’s. Hemmed in on four sides by nearly identical brick box houses, someone owned it but no one built on it,  unless you count forts made from leaves and sticks covering holes in the ground, lit by candles. It was a great place to play army games and have snowball fights when we were little, or to make out with a girl while smoking a cigarette in junior high. There was also a well worn path next to the stream where kids would run and ride their bikes. We knew every inch of those acres. If someone hid a Playboy or beer out there, well, it was liberated for the proletariat comrades’ edjumakation.

Before the families on that side put up fences, the high field was open for community grazing for baseball and football games. One level area was used once a year for the after-Christmas community bon fire, hosted by the never sober Leroy King. All that open ground enabled boys who were up to no good find many escape routes from their misdeeds, like pelting cars with snowballs and stealing Christmas light bulbs just for the challenge of maybe getting caught. Of course there was a rope swing over the deepest drop of the creek that was so often dry. I broke my wrist there in 3rd grade, I think. My playmates continued to swing over me, trying to hit me with spit for points as I lay groaning and in shock in that dry creek bed. But it was worth it all to have a cast on my wrist for two months. You see, we kept track of who had how many stitches and broken bones. Everything was a competition where a reasonably cautious kid didn’t have a chance. A broken wrist was easily worth fifteen stitches.

Across the Parkway was another patch of woods, maybe 7 acres, that separated a row of houses from the school yard and baseball fields. We cut through friendly yards– the Murrays, the Audettes, or that family with five girls– Hope, Charity, Faith, Smite and Vengeance–when we needed to. There were two old homesteads tucked into those woods, so technically they owned those woods. Now the poor miserable Rileys rented their shack and floated an old bathtub boat in the small pond behind their rundown abode. Bad stories told in whispers wafted from the Rileys like skunk stink. A horrid Steven King novel could have been set there. The other dwelling was a decent farmhouse with a nice large garden. No one knew their name. I don’t recall vandalizing their garden or trick or treating there,  but I remember being chased off and told about trespassing. Hey, there was no fence and we were on the prowl.

But the granddaddy of all the woodz lay beyond Kings Highway. It ran for a mile or two south and a mile or more west. Eventually it ran into federal property with missile silos and serious double fences long before you could reach the Coast Guard station on Telegraph Road. Something shady was going on there behind SECRET signs, like aliens in jars of formaldehyde weird.

Anyway, the older we grew the more deeply we explored those woods surrounding Ben Mae Manor. We caught spring peepers in the ditch beside the road. In the snow we’d track animals and one another by following footprints. We also stole apples off an old dude’s trees farther down Kings Highway. It was rumored that he shot rock salt at kids who trespassed. That suburban myth  just added to the excitement of snitching apples. On the other side of Kings Highway was St. Mark’s Church. This was also the back way into the ball fields. Another homestead sat there with a few goats and chickens and beehives. Who could resist hitting the hives with rocks?  We couldn’t. Stirring up the bees ended our boredom temporarily.

Near that spot I witnessed one of the coolest Crocodile Dundee sort of things ever, and this was before he was even invented. A seven foot black snake slithered out of a big brush pile where some trees had been bulldozed for parking space behind the church. One of the baseball team kids’ dad grabbed the tail of that snake and snapped it like a long bull whip. All of us astonished boys watched in amazement as the snake’s head went flying by without its writhing body. That event was a lunch table tale topper for years afterwards.

“I mean the head flew by with the snake’s mouth open, trying to bite the air! And its body just squirmed grossly with no head. Blood squirted out like ketchup bombs all over.  Are you gonna eat those fries?”

In junior high my neighbor Richard decided we needed a minibike trail to the Hayfield Farms community, a mere four miles south and west of our starting point. A group of us determined to blaze a trail of glory and promptly got to cutting down trees and uprooting bushes that were in the way. It was a fall project that didn’t last too long. We probably blazed about 200 yards before we petered out and settled for a camp out in the woods. Later on older boys built real woodzy cabins down there for parties of the psychosexual variety. The age of innocence was over but not forgotten, all hail the joyz of the boyz in the woodz.

 

306. Burning the Dead

When I was a kid living in the cookie cutter housing tract known as Virginia Hills, summers were hot and humid and forever. As a little kid I have vivid memories of white and yellow honey suckle vines and pink feathery mimosa blossoms beyond my barren back yard. (With four boys in one quarter acre lot, ours was the designated turfless baseball or football field.)  Lying on the ground between damp sheets under the laundry line was an early form of air conditioning.  And digging in the clay with my mother’s treasured sterling silver soup spoons was an early science camp. They turned black and blue magically when you dug into that moist orange Virginia clay. Later on we had skate boards, the home made type– a board screwed onto roller skates. And then two wheeler bikes when we were big boys.

Along the way we also did a lot of walking. The closest stores were roughly one mile away in any direction. Without a lot of other competition we’d sometimes decide to walk up to the Super Giant on Route 1 to buy a pack of gum or a five cent store brand soda. I know it’s inconceivable of a modern kid walking two miles for anything, but we did without a second thought. Many times we began the store pilgrimage penniless but relied on faith that we’d find returnable bottles along the road sides as we slogged across shaded streets. Usually our faith was rewarded by others’ litter.

My partner in lizard catching, bird boxing, turtle hunting, crawfish nabbing, snake grabbing, and any other wild life adventure was Chris Young. He had three brothers also and lived around the corner on The Parkway. Like me he was third in the male birth order, which is not such a bad slot for wanderers to inhabit. Parents don’t miss the third child as readily as the first or the baby. And this opens up unearned opportunities for adventure and risk taking… and crime.

One late summer day Chris and I decided to take the not so short shortcut across Mt. Comfort Cemetery on our way up to the Giant store. I did not like hopping strangers’ fences and cutting through their yards, but Chris reassured me it was all good, which is an incomplete translation of … “until you get caught”.  Anyhow, we experienced no troubles on the way up as we came out of the wooded back yards of a contiguous neighborhood and into the almost golf course feel of the cemetery where no vertical monuments are allowed. My Catholic faith told me to respect the dead and not walk over their graves but around them. Chris never saw the inside of a church and walked in various states of ignorance. We cut across the bone dry grass past the Last Supper Monument toward the fountain of the All Seeing Jesus for a drink of water.

 The deal with that carving was that no matter where you stood, the eyes followed you. It was both freaky and guilt inducing if you had an IQ plus a conscience. I did not suspect then that Chris lacked one or both. However, in the intervening years it has been confirmed. We took a long drink of water that was likely not too pure and walked the last half mile to the store with Jesus staring at our blissfully ignorant backsides. “Oh pride goes before a fall.”

We chilled out in the air conditioned grocery store for as long as we could without attracting too much attention. Chris also liked to shoplift on occasion. My parochial school training (i.e. institutional shame) offset my desire for immediate impulse gratification. On the way past the cigarette vending machine Chris picked up two packets of matches that customers had left behind. It seemed pretty innocent.

On our return trip across the cemetery we stopped for a second drink from the fountain of the All Seeing Jesus and then trekked slowly toward the white oak trees that curved along the perimeter of the graveyard. Chris took out a pack of matches and flicked a lit one into the dry white grass. It immediately caught fire and began to spread. He swooped his Chuck Taylor sneakers across the flames and immediately the fire was over, leaving only a small black stain in the acres of gnarly white carpet.

“That was cool. Let’s see how big we can make the fire.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Image result for fire in a field pictures

But no sooner were my words out of my mouth than the next match was igniting more dead grass at our feet. The flames spread exponentially it seemed. Every second the fire was double. This time I ran around the edge and smothered the leading edge with my Converse sneakers while Chris stomped out his side.

“That was close, man. Don’t do it again.”

“Oh come on, one more time and then we’ll get out of here.”

And again he carelessly tossed another lit match onto the pale thatch that had been green grass months ago. This time the flames must have had a little breeze aiding them. No matter how we ran and stomped, the ring of fire was faster than our tap dancing feet. Chris began to yell something incomprehensible and then he bolted for the tree line, leaving me alone with the spreading fire among the deceased safely six feet under the flames. Out of nowhere I saw a man in a Jeep come flying at the fire circle. He drove around the perimeter in a heartbeat and then jumped out with a fire extinguisher to finish off the inside flames. Amazingly the fire was out in a minute.

I was sooty, scared and shaking as the man yelled at me. I immediately ratted out Chris as I awaited a lifetime in prison for arson. For some reason the guy let me go, perhaps because I was peeing my pants with fear. I don’t know if Chris ever faced the music for his pyromania. I know that I learned un-incinerated boredom is not so bad after all.

Somehow I knew Jesus had seen it all even though He was facing the other way.

286. It all began innocently enough…

How many times have you heard a tale of woe and misery begin with an introduction like that? “It seemed like a good idea at the time…. and then everyone died.” In earlier posts I detailed many impulsive adolescent excursions– climbing on the roof of a furniture store to watch the x rated drive-in movie next door; the mid- night ride of Raul Severe; the mid-night ride to Ocean City; the mid-night ride to pitch a tent in the dark and wake up foodless and foolish; the mid-night ride to hit a deer on the Dulles Access Road. (Note the “mid-night ride” theme being developed here.) Yes, all these adventures and many more began innocently enough. Many times after partying late into the night with friends at my apartment in Richmond, Virginia I got the brilliant mid-night idea to hitchhike to Williamsburg and visit my friends Mark, Bob, Gerard, and Dan and their friends, uninvited and totally unexpected. Hey, no one had a personal phone back then. Sure, it’s all fun and games until someone lost an eye or their lease or their relationship with a neighbor. But it was always fun rolling down the 60 miles of Route 60 that separated our worlds.

Now you may not know that folks truly do lose eyes, especially unsupervised boys. It’s not just a line that your parents yelled at you, “You’re gonna put an eye out!!”  No, in an exhaustive 4 minute search of four internet sites on ocular trauma I found no supporting evidence for my following assertion– Boys are eleven times more likely to damage an eye than are girls of the same age. I refer instead to my own anecdotal records to support my assertion. In my neighborhood two boys lost one eye each due to play activities.  Unbelievably, they lived nearly across the street from each other on The Parkway, a nice name for a through street in a cookie cutter housing tract built in the 1950’s and ’60’s outside of Alexandria, Virginia. Virginia Hills was the name for the cookie dough housing development pressed there by a disembodied Divine thumb. The sameness of the sameness was both comforting and numbing, depending on your level of consciousness or coma. I’ll always recall sticking my thumb up at the foot of The Parkway in 1978 to begin my journey to Los Angeles. The Divine thumb was upon me then. But back to the boys.

First there was Lee. He and a bunch of us were playing with toy cap guns and sticks and plastic weapons. It would have been in the mid 1960’s. We were shooting at one another across the Scholls’ half completed rec room. Then Barry brought a real bow and arrow to the plastic gun fight. Incredibly he launched one steel tipped arrow over the crest of the roof just as Lee looked up. The cold steel Arrow met and destroyed the warm soft Eye.  Lee was lucky to live. Somewhere in my memory I see his dad carrying a limp Lee up the street like Atticus Finch carried Jem in To Kill a Mockingbird. (Which is a confabulation because it was Boo Radley who carried Jem home.)  That one unretrievable moment defined Lee and Barry forever. It was truly tragic.

Like cancer and sex, drug use and domestic violence, pedophilia and adultery, this story took on taboo qualities. Everyone knew the story and the fall out that followed, but no one ever talked about it, as I  recall. Barry lived in the shadows, though, like Boo, unable to unshoot the arrow or turn back time.

Years later the other Eye boy Steve was riding around in a Jeep with his buddies. They were old enough to drive that summer. The good idea at the time was to throw cherry bomb explosives out of the Jeep’s back window where Steve was riding. Problem was that he threw one which bounced off the car door frame and it then exploded right in front of his face, burning his soft warm unprotected eye to a fried egg state. In one stupid second Steve’s life changed forever. His promising baseball career ended that day as his nascent anxiety grew tenfold. I can only imagine what that sort of self inflicted disability does to one’s self esteem.

In both cases you just shake your head and ask “WHY?” Maybe mumble something about “such a waste!” Yet, 40 and 50 years later there is some evidence that these guys persevered and made good lives with only one good eye. I suspect they grew cautious over time and a bit more prudent about their health and their kids’  health. Still not something talked about… “Hey, how’s the EYE?” And why should it define someone’s life. Do you ask your neighbor, “How’s the DUI?”  “Oh, good, good. How’s that assault charge comin’ along, Bob?” There is the old saying that goes, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” Not that Lee and Steve became kings, but maybe royals. Both graduated college.

Grieving your own mortality at a young age is not entirely a bad thing. I’d bet that neither of these one-eyed royals had a mid life crisis because they had dealt with death and disintegration as kids. Heck, Lee was a very good baseball player despite the missing eye. Think about that for a while, blogtators. It’s hard enough to track a curveball coming at your face with binocular vision. Now cover one eye and try to hit it or avoid it. Pretty amazing if you ask me. More amazing was that Lee had a sneaky good pick off move to first base, faking a look with his left eye and peeking over his right shoulder with his good eye. See, the kids on the other team didn’t know his left eye was glass.

So tragedy depends on when you look at something, I suppose. St. Paul said it this way,

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.  And now stays faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. (1 Corinthians 13: 12-13)

When all the kids are called home to heaven by their heavenly Father, I hope we will see clearly and purely. Perhaps what was begun as a good  idea will eventually end innocently enough.

 

272. Melancholy psychic closet cleaning

Oh, my Blogginis, you little canaries, it is a combination of joy

and trepidation

that leads me to the contemplation

of all the odds and ends

stored back, way back

in the psychic closet of

my memories. I need the soundtrack to be melancholy,

Over the Rhine, “Latter Days” is perfect.

Scented with musty old books and worn leather shoes.

No mothballs here. The moths are thick.

Chew a stick of old style teaberry gum as we look with the heart

A favorite baseball glove

lives there tenderized with neatsfoot oil,

abandoned

along with my photo pack

of black and white Washington Senators

circa 1967 collectible portraits

and various colorful baseball cards

We got in to D.C. Stadium for free if we wore our Little League uniforms on certain generous days. Fathers and sons in all sorts of uniforms filled the arena so vast that the announcer’s voice echoed in a time delay. “Now batting….atting, atting, atting,  for the Senators….enators, enators, enators,  Frank…. ank, ank, ank. Howard,Howard, Howard, Howard.” Thunderous applause for the Hondo.

It was another world driving across the Potomac River

before everything broke loose in 1968,

Bobby Kennedy was killed a month after Martin Luther King… and the stadium was renamed to quell the trauma and grief sweeping the landscape.

It was safer then, before the riots and the rights marches, when I was still a child. Freedom can be radioactive and it was in the late 60’s. That freedom energy lit up a lot of cities that summer for better and worse. I watched D.C. burn for a week in person while many other cities burned on our black and white television.

I never imagined our  cities would still be radioactive fifty years later in the second term of a Black president. Nothing is as simple as it seems.

In the back of my cold closet, moisture would gather due to the fact

that it backed up to an unheated shed full of dust and rust

I housed a possum in that shed once but not for long

I managed to send him to meet Jesus with a bathtub baptism and Right Guard aerosol chrism plus below freezing temperatures. Marsupials are hard to love. I tried.

With three brothers I hid things like gum and money, maybe cigarettes later on

I found that the ultimate hiding place was behind the light switch

Who would look there?  for your silver coins? One of them would eventually.

I had the human figure target from our third grade trip to the FBI, Shot to Shreds for our unending excitement by an Agent with ear muffs. “Any questions, kids?”

“Why didn’t we get ear protection?” I wanted to say.

I asked the agent guide/shooter if I could have the target

“Sure, kid. Here ya go.”

Boom! Instant jealousy from every boy I knew who knew I had it

My mother could not bear to see it on my bedroom wall

Image result for human figure shooting target pictures

It freaked her out beyond the planet Valium’s orbit

So I had to roll it up and  put it in the closet.

I don’t think the FBI gives kids that tour any longer. It’s not safe or we are paranoid. Or there’s liability involved. You know how it is. If a kid pees on a tree, the EPA has to call the CDC to check with the NSA for a tox screen and DNA and satellite pictures which are lost when Congress wants to see for themselves if that kid was Bill Clinton.

In  sixth grade I recycled the name stone for Ben Mae Manor

an historic old manor a block down the Parkway from my house

By balancing it on my purple spider bike seat

That historic stone sat heavily on the parquet wood floor of my closet for years

Until my younger brother moved out in the 1970’s and took it with him

It really ought to be returned one day. So Chris, where is it?

Way, way back in time our cat Pinky had a litter of kittens in that closet. It was dark and safe. We’d peek in with unrestrained glee and count the little fur balls as they suckled before they all had to go “to a family with a farm”. My parents didn’t know any farmers.

And the St. Louis Catholic School uniforms– white collared shirts with navy blue pants and a blue bow tie. Yeah, big fashion. Only black shoes were allowed. They hung in that dark space like mason jars of authority ready to can and pickle me. I refused a lot. I still do. My wife and friends tell me the nuns didn’t beat me enough. That’s cold to say though it may be true.

I had a pair of green leather Converse All Star low top sneakers when I ran away from home around 16. I wore them through the rainy night as I hitchhiked past Baltimore and into near oblivion. I thought I was going to hitch all the way to Boston where other family might appreciate or tolerate me. Not to be. A van full of hippies picked me up on their return drug trip from Philly. They got me stoned and I spent the night with them tripping out over split pea soup. It was very groovy. When I put those damp shoes back in my closet, my feet remained green for days, algaed evidence of my prodigality.Enos Country Slaughter St. Louis Cardinals unsigned 8x10 photo Nice

I had a baseball bat with Enos Slaughter’s name burned into it. I didn’t know who he was or where he played ball, but what a name! go out swinging, kid.

Latter Days… Over the Rhine

What a beautiful piece of heartache
This has all turned out to be
Lord knows we’ve learned the hard way
All about healthy apathy

I use these words pretty loosely
There’s so much more to life than words

There is a me you would not recognize, dear
Call it the shadow of myself
And if the music starts before I get there
Dance without me, you dance so gracefully
I really think I’ll be okay
They’ve taken a toll, these latter days

Nothing like sleeping on a bed of nails
Nothing much here but our broken dream
Oh, but baby, if all else fails
Nothing is ever quite what it seems

And I’m dying inside to leave you
With more than just cliches

There is a me you would not recognize, dear
Call it the shadow of myself
And if the music starts before I get there
Dance without me, you dance so gracefully
I really think I’ll be okay
They’ve taken their toll, these latter days
They’ve taken their toll, these latter days

Tell them it’s real
Tell them it’s really real
I just don’t have much left to say
They’ve taken their toll, these latter days
They’ve taken their toll, these latter days

 

Maybe we should just leave that melancholy closet locked. The past need not be repeated.

257. The Lone Ranger

Well, we could all use a little cheering up, I suppose. It’s the tail end of the year, and like the last hour of a party, there’s litter on the tables and smoke in the air. Some tidying up will be needed in the morning of the new year. The floors are tacky with spills, and the 90 minute soundtrack of 2014 has repeated for the third time. Cheetos and pistachio shells are scattered about. Time for cheer, oh yeah. 2104, you were something.

So let me tell a positive story that inspires you, blognados. Perhaps you will draw a deep breath and relax, even move boldly through the unknown of 2015. Back  in time, back before all the electronic stuff came to market, there were simple toys for simple children. Balls, dolls, train sets, bicycles, sling shots, and board games. It was basic stuff that came from catalogue stores or was placed on something called “lay away” by parents who paid weekly on their Christmas gifts. Credit cards had not come to dominate and seduce the multitudes yet. The J.C.Penney and Sears Roebuck catalogue came to everyone’s house through the mail back then in late summer. And housebound mothers and kids would flip through the pages anxiously, hoping for the magical goodies on the glossy pages. These catalogues were not ever considered junk mail, no. They were encyclopedias of materialism, promising transformation of dull lives into something else, something more, nearly divine, museums of grandeur. Who could argue with avocado and teal blue combos?

Living Room (1962)

One Christmas I ordered a Lone Ranger makeover kit that would transform me from a suburban proletarian’s third son into a masked hero who sought no fame for his sacrifices. It was more than I could have realistically expected, a double holster with two plastic cap gun six shooters, a hat, and the black cloth mask. All worn over a pair of jeans and a western shirt. Man, look out bad guys, cattle rustlers, whiskey sellers, bank robbers, and claim jumpers! Justice was about to be unleashed!! The entire transformation package may have cost up to seven dollars in real 1960’s money, which is the equivalent of  about $500 in today’s money, I think. I hoped for and imagined all my heroic adventures would play out in the narrow woods that were left undeveloped by the first wave of urban sprawl builders. We had forts made of sticks and leaves and sometimes a sheet of plywood over a hole. A kid with a mask and two  plastic pistols would rule that no man’s land. I touched the page of the catalogue and wrote down the order number code, offering hopeless prayers heavenward, “Oh God, please let me be a Lone Ranger hero. Amen. I promise to behave and only to kill bad guys who deserve it.”

Weeks went by. The weather got colder. Anticipatory anxiety grew. As the Christmas decorations were brought out again, I could taste the courage rising in my belly like acid reflux. I licked my wind blown, chapped cowboy lips as I practiced my Lone Ranger lines, “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”  “I was just doing the right thing, Ma’am. No need for any compensation… but shucks, if you want to kiss the Ole Lone Ranger here on the lips, that’d be okay with Tonto, I suppose.”

I had no horse named Silver. He would only have gotten caught up in the briars of our narrow woods and there would have been zoning problems with a horse in fenced suburban yards. I never reached for that impossibility. Where would I park him at night? What would I feed him?

There was also that kid four houses down on Virginia Hills Avenue who dressed up as Zorro and just schwashbuckled his way into our violent war games. I would have to shoot him with the cap gun to teach him not to bring a mere sword to the field of battle. No one knew his name, though I think it was Wayne Newton and he eventually moved to Las Vegas. See the resemblance? Zorro unmasked.

Christmas decorations were up in folks houses, the old fashioned basic bulbs that were hot and big and bulky, which we would unscrew and throw into the street to hear them pop as they exploded on the asphalt. Whoops! That is outlaw behavior. I’d have to shoot myself with my longed for Lone Ranger pistols. I vowed to change and leave the dark side once I got the Lone Ranger kit for Christmas.

Until then I figured I had to get all my antisocial activities out of my system. Since it snowed that year early we boys naturally made snowballs and hurled them at cars from hiding places where no one could possibly identify or catch us. It was so much fun to bombard a car or truck as it pulled down the street. If you had enough arc on the snowball, you could plop it down almost vertically on the target vehicle. Then the driver would be clueless where the snowball had originated. Rookies simply hit the vehicles broadside and were easily apprehended by angry drivers. It’s hard to run in the snow.

One time I recall bombing a station wagon at night. I stood behind this enormous oak tree and tossed my slush sphere as the car drove along Kings Highway at a good clip. Boom!! It was a great strike and I felt so safe and invulnerable in my bad spot. Why even the Lone Ranger wouldn’t be able to find me…but the man in the station wagon pulled around and came up behind me as I was ready to throw another snowball. He had on a dark ski mask and scared the moisture out of my throat. He put me in his car next to his kids in the back seat. I was a criminal. He yelled at me. I was dead road kill. He asked me where I lived and I told him.

I was ready for the gallows when he told me to get out. Maybe the Lone Ranger would swoop in at the last second and shoot the rope I was to be hung by. Suddenly the station wagon pulled away in an aggressive act of grace. I deserved a bad consequence, but that dad let me go. Maybe he had been a car bomber in his childhood. All I know is that I didn’t need the Lone Ranger kit any longer. I had met and been delivered by some masked man already.

250. “Heck yes, I would!”

I don’t even know the precedent to this title, but I figured that I could comb through my thinning synapse farms and glean a memory or two where that line would fit as a response to a distant call. [In case you are wondering what a synapse farm looks like, it’s sort of like a catfish farm where fish swim through chutes and ladders and finally are selected for market by a dimwitted minimum wager with a net when they are plump and delicious, and exhibit just a tinge of orange around their gills.] Sort of like the Amazing Carnack routine of Johnny Carson, where he gave an answer to a sealed question and then opened the envelope and read it aloud for the punch line.  It’s harder than you might think to challenge yourself with such an open-ended gauntlet toss. You can wind up smacking yourself with the glove of challenge. You’ve heard of Russian roulette, yes? But have you heard of Russian bocce? Since it snows so much in Russia, they throw the polina ball straight up and pray it does not hit any of the players assembled below. And then they roll their balls at it as if playing horseshoes with bowling balls.

The line reminds somehow me of the terrible old joke from childhood that was told to me about the dance where the boy with a wooden eye worked up the nerve to ask the girl with the harelip to dance. When she responded excitedly, “Would I? Would I?” He could not help himself and yelled back, “Harelip! Harelip!” Why anyone would tell a kid this joke is beyond me, but somehow these cruel jokes filtered down to junior high kids who told them to elementary age kids, who lost some of their innocence in the process. Would you repeat such an awful joke? In a male-dominated neighborhood in the 1960’s, the answer “Heck yea, I would!” was a fairly common response to any challenge.

Across the Parkway lived Pat and Dougie Fontaine. Mean boys in a lower middle class community. Pat was older and in high school as I recall. He built himself a little putting green in his side yard, the Dorset Drive side. That was quite an accomplishment now that I think of it, and smelled of social climbing. Well, one day the prison road crew were working on the street just beyond the intersection of the Parkway and Dorset Drive. The prisoners watched Pat putt very self righteously while they sweated away picking at asphalt on a humid Virginia summer day. We younger boys were enthralled with these convicts and the one guard with a shotgun.

“Mister, is that loaded?”

“Wouldn’t be much good if it weren’t, kid. Wanna hold it?”

“Heck yes, I would!”  That did not happen. Laughter erupted in the gap between innocence and corruption.

One of the prisoners drew a bottle of chewing tobacco spit from the tailgate of the truck. He said to me, “Hey kid, you want to pour this prison juice into Arnold Palmer’s golf hole over there?”

“Heck yes, I would!”

I did and later on Pat beat my butt. Hey, I deserved it.  The prisoners got a kick out of the whole scene. I guess I got a literal kick out of it. I was destined for smart assery, I suppose.

We Hillians used to roam the woods near our neighborhood back in old Virginia Hills, which was situated between Kings Highway and Telegraph Road in Fairfax County, Virginia. 300 cookie cutter houses laid out on identical quarter acre lots. Those woods have all been plowed under and built upon, but back in the 1960’s they were wild and wooly. The eager young boys in my circle of friends just about lived in those woods, which may have preserved the little bit of sanity left to our stay at home mothers. “Go play”, they’d tell us, without any concern that we might wander literally miles in any direction. And we did wander with regularity. We caught lizards and turtles and snakes and toads and frogs and salamanders and crayfish and baby squirrels and birds and anything slower than we were. It was great suburban adventure to climb trees or have a little campfire wherever we chose.

Across from the Methodist church on Kings Highway was a dirt lane that ended at an old run down farm house from the 1930’s covered in clapboard that needed paint twenty years ago.  It could have been a set  piece for “To Kill A Mockingbird”. I don’t know the occupant’s name, but we had some tall tales about him being a drunk and a crazy man. It was quite a challenge to go down near his house where he had apple trees growing on either side of the lane. Now this may not seem too exciting to kids who play Call of Duty on X Box today, but back in the world of three dimensions this old cuss had a real shotgun with rock salt instead of lead, so the legend went. We knew about the dangers as we quietly snuck down the lane toward his apples, hearts pumping and adrenaline pulsing through our bored little suburban brains.

Now it wasn’t enough to simply slide in through the brush and the tall grass at dusk to snitch some apples in early fall or late summer. Someone always had to push the envelope and throw down a dare. I don’t know which kids dared which other kid. I just know that I was neither. I was along for the adventure not the record book. Anyway, let’s say Michael dared Steve to run up to the old man’s porch and knock while we ran to a safer distance to duly verify the completion of the dare. Steve ran like a bat out of Hell across the crumbling wooden porch and knocked rapidly on the old guy’s door as he also turned to run for his life. It was all in one fluid motion as my memory recorded it. Anyway, as we all held our collective breath, the old man came to his door, flung it open and began shooting some sort of gun at Steve as he scampered away like a zig-zagging jack rabbit through a briar patch. It’s amazing what adrenaline can do to ten year olds’ nervous systems.  When we finally got to a safe place on the other side of Kings Highway and lay on our bellies in the leafy carpet of the woods, we laughed and caught our breath again.

“Want to do it again?” (Not knowing life would wind up far less exciting.)

“Heck yes, I would.!”

 

240. Time is short

No time for silliness, my silly blogwillies. Get that smirk off your face and stand up straight! It’s time for sober realism. Or somber surrealism. Pick one.  It’s the end of the world as we know it…. We could say this every day, dontcha think? We do say it every day… on the news anyway. “It’s the worst case of the dreaded Ebola virus since the last one. Epidemic Domestic Violence. HIV/ AIDS. Anthrax. Epic Abuse. WMD. Chemical weapons. WWJD? Catastrophic. WWTMW. Expialadocious.” And that’s just the sports section.

 

“Oh my furry whiskers, I’m late. I’m LATE!!”

So, in order to save time and live expeditiously, we began planning our funerals at coffee summit nation this morning. Steve volunteered way too much information about his post-life needs. He expressed his wishes that the nation would function as his pallbearers, providing there were six of us, sober, and at least four capable of weight bearing loads. Dustin has a bad back but was assigned side, left duty between two taller members in good  standing. He can still call cadence without actually supporting any of Steve’s corpse’s weight, unless Steve consents to post mortem mummification. As in life, so too in death.

Steve asked that I would give the eulogy if I did not precede him in death. I am considering preceding him just to get out of that gig. What would I say, ” Steve liked pain. Amen.” Further, he requested that the pallbearers wear black suits with white shirts and black ties and dark sunglasses like Men in Black or the Blues Brothers, depending on our collective mood– high tech or old school blues. Furthermore, which is more than further, he wants Taylor Dayne’s greatest hits played at his funeral. He said his widow Robin will understand and appreciate this 1980’s touch. Well, in my journalistic effort to document her greatest hits, I found that Taylor’s real name is Leslie Wunderman. Okay? Uh, I was crushed almost as thoroughly as when I learned John Wayne’s real name was Marion Morrison. And John Lennon’s real name was John Lennon. Do you see a drift toward crisp, one syllable Nordic stage names here? But never mind; we have no time to waste. Steve is aging and we must plan his memorial. Fortunately we still have him presently carrying on across the table this dreary morning about needing to go to Vegas and be tazed. “Wouldn’t that be fun?”

“And so, let us remember him in death as we did in life. Steve liked pain, NASCAR wrecks, Taylor Dayne, lots of napkins and mindless violence. Amen. Please lower the carcass now before the shedding of the tear gas. Thank you all for coming. There will be a reception at the coffee shop following Steve’s internment, if his name really was Steve and not Rod Blogoyavich or Petroff Nogoodnovich.”

Meanwhile Gene brought his class picture from 1965 to the table for our inspection and to see if we could accurately pick him out of the black and white line up. Only the newest provisional member, David, was correct. Which means that, counter-intuitively, the longer you have known someone, the less likely you are to be able to pick him out of a childhood photo line up, thus proving once again that eye witness testimony is shady at best.

To test our theory we had Gene commit a simple crime in full view of pedestrians and commuters and then hang around for identification. He kicked the glass out of the Gypsie gift emporium door and then sat back down. Ten minutes later the Turtle Town police showed up. When they asked us if we’d seen who did it, we identified Gene and his younger version in the old class photo. The cops arrested him, thanked us and hauled him away as he tried to con his way out of it with “it was an, an, an, experiment, officer.” I hope he gets out in time for Steve’s funeral. I don’t want to carry all that dead weight alone, mummy or no mummy. I think it’s odd carrying corpses around, unless you are in an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

It’s unfortunate, indeed, that life is so short that we must occasionally throw one another under the troika, as they say in Russia. But we can’t be wasting time. No sirree. However, as I consider this profound thought, it brings the entire Coffee Summit Nation’s purpose into question. Our sole expressed and implied mission is to waste time, to avoid work, and to contribute next to nothing to the greater good. I guess that’s three missions tied tightly in our one-sided napkin constitution, thus the previous troika allusion. (The original magna napkina is getting harder to read after five years in my wallet.) If this mission statement is true, then something important needs to happen soon for the Nation to continue in its false sense of urgency. We must invade another table or challenge the banker contingent to a uselessness contest. You see, three snappily dressed, snarky bankers from an abbreviated bank (M&T) stroll down to the coffee shop every day whilst we are harmlessly wasting our time. They laugh and make comments about the Nation, but one day Boy oh Boy, we are gonna go off on them like espresso steam spigots. We may have to wait till Gene gets out of jail and Lance remembers what time we meet so our numbers are in our favor.
Steve may have to postpone his funeral and take one for the team until we re-establish hegemony in the downtown community of nations. Oh, so little time and so many delusions.

234. Wanderlust

“Wanderlust may be driven by the desire to escape and leave behind depressive feelings of guilt, and has been linked to bipolar disorder in the periodicity of the attacks. Or it may reflect an intense urge for self-development by experiencing the unknown, confronting unforeseen challenges, getting to know unfamiliar cultures, ways of life and behaviours.

In adolescence, dissatisfaction with the restrictions of home and locality may also fuel the desire to travel.” That’s Wikipedia’s quick and dirty definition.

I had a good dose of wanderlust as a young guy. I grew up in the same sameness of a cookie cutter neighborhood in the 1960’s while the world raged around me and I could not engage it. My parents’ frame of reference was pre-World War II and later on the marvelous uniformity of the 1950’s. Life seemed pretty well scripted for them– go to church, go to school, go to work. Asking why or what else there could be never seemed to occur to them. Or for their entire generation for that matter. And it makes sense when you consider that they were born during World War I, into pre electrification and pre automobile America. They came of age in the Great Depression and the rise of global Fascism. Wanting a predictable script is understandable when the world you live in has unleashed fear, loathing and insecurity again and again. Having safety, food, a job, a home, and predictable routines trumps having an adventure. I always say, “We want what we do not have, e.g., If you have a double cheeseburger, then you don’t want one.”

So when my turn came to bat, I had all of the things my parents often lacked. Consequently, I wanted what I did not have– travel, adventure, novelty, diversity, art, music, romance, etc. I did not want the cookie cutter house, the government job, the Catholic faith, the same old same old. I began exploring as a kid, often wandering off to see what was on the other side of the road, the neighborhood, the highway, the world. In an odd way childhood wanderlust confirms the security or desperation at the heart of the matter. This sort of thing was not encouraged, by the way.

One of my first wanderings was away from the childcare room at my mother’s bowling league on Thursday mornings. I was five, I think. I took my little brother Chris along with me and started walking home, about two miles. No one noticed. I knew the way and we crossed a four lane highway and walked along a two lane country road before our neighbor lady, Connie Page, stopped and picked us up. I got my butt whipped for that adventure; to no avail. I liked the taste of risk. No one died, and besides, you ought to pay more attention to sneaky kids, dontcha think?

When I was older, I’d ride my bike farther than permitted, out into the hinterlands of the unknown. Maybe a half mile away. Maybe five. It was never hard to find another boy in my neighborhood with absent-minded parents and an itch to go. Sometimes we’d ride in little gangs of four or five, jabbering as we pedaled without helmets or pads, often without working brakes, “Look, No hands!” up to the Giant store on Route 1 or down to the 7-11 on Kings Highway or over to Rose Hill shopping center. At other times we’d simply follow woods or streams as far as we had daylight and then come home again. Often enough we’d collect returnable bottles to fund our soda or pack of gum at the destination, at two cents per discarded bottle.

By age 12 my world expanded with junior high school and lots of new folks from other neighborhoods. The local Metro bus stopped at my street corner and continued all the way to the Mall in D.C. For thirty five cents you could cross state lines and arrive in another world full of diverse tourists or civil protesters. I did that at 12 years of age, just out of curiosity. I wanted to see what an anti-war protest looked like up close in 1968, I believe it was. Thousands and thousands of hippies were camped all around the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, smoking pot and burning flags. They were bathing buck naked in the reflecting pool and in a fountain near the Smithsonian. Thus my wandering was lustfully rewarded with large doses of nakedness. Yes, my grandchildren, it’s hard to believe now, but it’s true: The Nation’s capital was briefly a strip club before the D.C. police started firing tear gas all over the place. Then it was just naked brutality.

Hitchhiking was a common practice back then. I used to hitchhike back and forth to high school without too much effort or worry. Later on I hitched back and forth to college. And ultimately across the country in 1978. That was some awesome wanderlust that I posted about early on in this blog.[ I even hitched a few rides in England when I was there in 1973 trying to impress my lost high school girlfriend with my wanderlust. To no lustful avail, my blogguppies.] In those days I knew where I was, and I didn’t want to be there. My blinking GPS pin was always somewhere else. I wonder if an Irish gypsy slept with one of my ancestors.  Eventually life became too harsh for hitchhiking, maybe in the go go 1980’s when the gap between rich and poor skyrocketed; when free agency came into mainstream American life; and greedy individualism swelled up with 401k’s and property values. But I believe those days are gone… replaced by bunkerlust, a longing to burrow into one’s own luxuriously appointed gated community.

What was is no more and yet there is nothing new under the sun, except for the folks who have not learned this lesson. Wander on, young ones. Someone will pay more attention to you after you’ve gone.

 

 

201. Unsupervised

I should not be left unsupervised. It’s just not wise. And yet, that is where I find myself quite often. I work by myself nowadays, usually for 12 hour stretches. Now, I do have lots of face time with folks, so don’t go thinking that I am a recluse or even a recluse spider. Still, I think it’s safer all around if someone responsible watches me. My wife and daughter are out for the evening, leaving me alone with Johnny the dog on a silent Sunday night. I have not thought of anything controversial to do yet, but the night is young. If I were more ambitious, I’d think of something goofy to do in the name of creativity. Most of you know that there is a thin line between creative and insane. I walk that razor wire daily. Plus I have a  history.

As a kid in a cookie cutter neighborhood of the 1960’s, I was often unsupervised along with my three brothers and the kids next door and across the street and down the hill. Our exhausted mothers would say, “Go play!” and we’d be gone until darkness or hunger overtook us.  A favorite winter activity was tracking animals in the snow. My woodsy friend Chris Young would usually be with me. It was exciting to find deer tracks in the thin woods next to our housing development in Northern Virginia, minutes from the Beltway.  And raccoon tracks were big ticket items. Rabbits too. We dreamed of catching and domesticating these poor creatures. Post 31. Possumly is just one example of boys left unsupervised and the messes they make.

There was the time when I was preschool age. The tired mothers in our neighborhood bowled at Penn Daw Lanes bowling alley on the other side of Rte. 1. It was a familiar two miles or so from our house. I had a good visual memory and could tell you the names of most of the cross streets on Kings Highway that led to the intersection with Rte. 1.  Anyway, one Thursday morning I was plopped into the nursery room with about twenty five other grimy kids and my little brother Chris. If I was five, then he was three. After a short while of noise and chaos I took matters into my own unsupervised hands. I think I probably told the child care worker/head babysitter that I was taking my little brother to the bathroom cuz he’d pooped his pants or something. Once outside of that windowless, hot, overcrowded room, we made a break for it out of the glass doors downstairs. No one noticed us sneaking out behind the teams of desperately bored housewives bowling their unmet needs away in the fluorescent lit noise.

Once in the fresh air we stealthily crossed the parking lot. Chris followed without complaint, but my memory is pretty foggy. He could have screamed bloody murder and it would all come out the same in my personal history. The next challenge ahead of us was the four lane Rte. 1. Well, in those days, I’m talking 1961 Blogamicekins, traffic was not so heavy. We darted across the lanes, pausing at the concrete median strips and then the triangle wedge that fed Kings Highway into Rte. 1. After that it was just two miles uphill and one right turn. We’d be home then. It never occurred to me that I might need a key. Not sure we even locked the doors back then.

Kings Highway was a two lane road with ditches on each side. No sidewalk or shoulder to walk along. When a car came, we’d hop into the ditch as it passed close by us. We were at the bottom of the first big hill, where the stream ran under the road before it ran next to Mt. Comfort cemetery, when Mrs. Page stopped in a worried state. At great personal risk and possible peril she stopped, yelled at me and Chris, and forcefully parented us into her car. I think she took us back to the bowling alley and my panicked mother. My butt can tell the rest of the story. I just have a slight memory of my mother converting her panic into kinetic energy that resonated with my buttocks. She beat my unsupervised ass a good one. I guess I earned that one…but nobody died.

While I’m in the old neighborhood, I recall another unsupervised summer day walking home from the Giant grocery store at Rte. 1. Chris Young, my woodsy mate, and I were walking through Mt. Comfort cemetery. It was hot and we were bored 10  year olds maybe.  We had already stopped at the fountain at the entrance and drank some water out of the pool under it. We had stared long and hard at the face of Jesus in relief across the traffic circle from the fountain. Because it was cleverly carved in relief, the eyes followed you no matter where you stood. Chris stood on one side and I on the other. We each testified, “He’s looking at me.” Unfortunately, we were just unsupervised boys again. We wandered across the bone dry grass.

As we got farther from the maintenance shed and office, Chris began flicking matches onto this tinderbox grass. It would instantly burn and a circle of fire would zoom out from the match. Chris would swish his Converse sneakers over the rim of the fire circle and put it out. I was nervous about getting in trouble, but Chris was too stupid for fear. He flicked another match; made a bigger circle and then another. He wondered how a big a carbon foot print he could leave on the grass. Well, his last attempt was the winner. The circle grew exponentially fast and both of us dancing along the edge could not get ahead of the fire. It was out of control and headed toward occupied graves on the one side and crackly dry woods on the other. Chris ran away into the woods like an ostrich with burned feet, leaving me behind as the maniacal maintenance guy came tearing toward my shaking carcass in an old green Jeep. He circled the fire’s edge with his tires and quickly put out the inner circle flames with a fire extinguisher. He was not happy and wanted to kick butt and take names. I immediately ratted out Chris– address, phone number, which bedroom was his, and how his father liked coffee. I was scared and my feet smelled of fire. Which is why I should not be left unsupervised. Ever.