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!”

354. Mad Elf

       I avoid product and political endorsements. I don’t like advertising for clothing brands either by wearing logoized clothes. I abhor bumper stickers too.  On the other hand, if something or someone really sucks, I will comment appropriately. See post #305. Narcissus Maximus Trumpus or #258. Kim Young Fool, or my rant against big chain strip malls for deeper details, #194 Empty Space? This post, however, is neither an endorsement nor a condemnation. Rather, it is a first hand experience with an alcoholic beverage brewed in Hershey, Pennsylvania by Troeg’s Brewing Company. As the label proclaims it’s 11% alcohol, which is roughly double the average for beer.

We met innocently enough one night in the lounge at The Orchards restaurant. We sat at one of those high boy tables– me, my wife, and youngest daughter. Jess was chatting with the manager about a singing gig, so we were just checking out the atmosphere. A nice young waiter told me what beers were on tap. He pushed Mad Elf, “We’re selling it at two dollars a pint, just trying to get rid of it. It didn’t go over too well at $8 a glass.” Okay, I don’t mind helping a guy drink discounted beer.

I tried to follow the waiter’s words but kept getting hung up on Mad Elf. I thought he was saying My Delf,  May Shelf, or Maid Elf. Finally he just brought me one. I tasted this intriguing brew unlike any beer I’d ever sampled. Supposedly it’s made with honey and cherries, but so are cough drops. At first blush all I could think of was lower octane Robitussin, but as I ate some snacks and sipped at this brew, I fell under its spell. Whew! I’m not much of a drinker, so about 2/3’s of the way through my Mad Elf I began to feel like I was way up in the air on my bar stool and magically in charge of the universe. How would I get down? Being a responsible driver and citizen, I handed the car keys to my lovely, doe eyed wife.     “Don’t let me order another one of these, honey cheeks.” I don’t think she needed any more motivation than those words and the slack lipped mouth from which they emanated.

I remembered one of my young male clients referring to someone as a “Two Beer Queer” and wondered if I qualified as a one beer queer, and many other very forgettable thoughts. And what does that even mean?  The Mad Elf was on the loose in my brain like a rat in a dark kitchen’s dishwasher, chewing up hoses and making a mess. I felt many urges bubbling up in my amygdala.

 My inner James Brown was wrestling my inner Barry White for control of the wheel of my brain’s car or my car’s brain. Or somsing like that.  Whew, it was warm in that lounge. I looked around at the other odd groups. A couple behind my lovely bride seemed to be celebrating a big event, maybe an anniversary as they schmoozed all over each other. “Hey, get a room!” I didn’t yell, but I thought I did. I knew that I was not schmoozing; I was merely the photographer of this candid world. My camera was the now empty 20 ounce glass that once held my Mad Elf. At the bar were three folks who seemed unusually intimate with each other– two guys and one girl in the middle. They merrily drank more than they ate and seemed to be very familiar with one another and this dark lounge. I didn’t want to speculate on anything. Who am I to judge? Merely an elf gone mad. Here I sat between two beautiful ladies myself. Oh, take the speck from thine own eye…
Our waiter came by. “Another?” In stereo my wife and I nearly yelled, “No”. I ordered a Bud Light as a chaser. Whew. It was high and warm in there. I recalled times in college when I felt this way on purpose, walking along the main street in Blacksburg, Virginia wrapped in toilet paper like the Mummy after getting separated from my friend who was hosting me and my buddy Sammy. Wild Turkey was in that scenario as I recall. Sam found our way back to the dorm apartment where we crashed.
Cherry brandy was a hit in high school, I think. The cherry flavor was sailing along liquid memory highways in my brain’s closet or my closet’s brain. It was winter then, I was sixteen, as the liquid fire plunged down my throat and into oblivion we sailed. Somewhere it was clear and bright and good. Truly, youth is wasted on the young.  Dang!
Thank God for that anemic Bud Light. It seemed to suck the alcohol out of my brain like naloxone does with heroin. Who knew? Cheap weak beer can rescue you from tough thug beer that’s kicking you around like a new inmate in the Big House.
Oh yeah, there was that party we crashed with Jack and Alan and some tough guy punched me out to impress his girlfriend. That was fun. I didn’t feel much pain despite his best efforts to knock me out. I was under the influence of something stronger than insecure teen age jealous anger. I asked him if he was finished when he stepped back to see if I’d retaliate. I was smarter than that, even drunk. It was his scene and his boys were all around. I rode in on my buddies’ coattails…and rode out.
In the background Zepellin cranked,
Walkin’ in the park just the other day, Baby,
What do you, what do you think I saw?
Crowds of people sittin’ on the grass with flowers in their hair said,
“Hey, Boy, do you wanna score?”
And you know how it is;
I really don’t know what time it was, woh, oh,
So I asked them if I could stay awhile.
I didn’t notice but it had got very dark and I was really,
Really out of my mind.
Just then a policeman stepped up to me and asked us said,
“Please, hey, would we care to all get in line,
Get in line.”
Well you know, They asked us to stay for tea and have some fun,
Oh, oh, he said that his friends would all drop by, ooh.
We left in one piece and chuckled at how stupid the bully was. These things happen when elves are loosed on the unsuspecting public. Cheers, my blog mates.

316. The Prom Blast

Rarely do I dwell on the past. I’m talking like forty years ago. I enjoy visiting yesterdays for laughs. That’s about it. So today I am not missing what wasn’t there to begin with; rather, I am chuckling at how adolescence moved like a morning fog over our lives, making some obvious things seem mysterious till the sun of adult life burned it away.

In my junior year, which turned out to be my last year of high school, the Prom was the irresistible buzz, a siren’s song of sensual delights. Oddly, that spring awkward teen boys and slightly more mature girls paired off as if by some biological cue. Dates were needed to go to this magical evening of enchantment in our high school gymnasium that had been transformed from a mere basketball court into a fairy tale castle that beckoned for perfect knights and ladies to promenade through the gates. Oh Teen Glory. Oh Holy Adolescent Grail!!

I rented a powder blue tuxedo and got my hair cut. I think I bought my date a corsage, though I had no idea what a corsage was. I managed to have a bottle of champagne tucked away for later with two wine glasses. I made dinner reservations at a lousy steakhouse in D.C. that had an interesting name, then spent most of that Saturday washing and waxing my dad’s Oldsmobile Belmont 88 till it gleamed like milk fed veal in a vat of Oil of Olay. If you leaned on any part of the car,  you’d slip off immediately. I Armour Alled the fake leather upholstery so much that you could slide right out the other door if you moved too quickly along the bench seats. Yeah, “Stairway to Heaven” played on the FM radio dial through tinny speakers. It was perfect, just like my girlfriend was, before I realized that perfect does not exist. All this vehicular preparation allowed me to ignore the fact that I was totally unprepared for a real live mature date that might require some class and an air of confidence.

But what could possibly go wrong?  I was triple dating with my two buddies, Steve and Bernie, and their very pretty girlfriends. I’m stretching, but I think the girls’ names were Sonja and Denise. Denise was in the Prom court, so our logistics had to be precise. Steve and Bernie showed up at my house halfway through a case of beer by mid afternoon. I was going to be the designated driver before that term had been coined, which is odd since we were all 17 in 1973. What I didn’t realize at the moment was that Steve and Bernie were even more self conscious than I was about getting into our rented monkey suits. I guess beer makes a tux fit better.

My next door neighbor Richard had no girlfriend, but he had good weed and a flair for the outrageous. He rented an outfit that could only be described as a cross between Elvis and a bull fighter. His blonde hair was permed and he wore make up. It was the 1970’s and glitter rock was on the uptick. His “date” was another friend, Dwight in a wig and a plain blue dress. He was a homely looking girl. Oh, and he had a purse that held more weed, I think. They had some pictures snapped with unnatural smiles on their faces. The neighbors peeked at their antics as if they were staring at the end of civilization.

So driving with two embarrassingly drunk buddies is awkward even when the stakes are low. But on this most magical of all adolescent nights, the stakes were very high. Steve and Bernie clowned for one another to ease their social awkwardness. They busted me out as I drove across the 14th Street bridge into D.C. and up to a dark steak house. A valet took my dad’s shiny car from me. I had no idea what was going on, but I kept my cool. The maître de seated our party next to the kitchen. I didn’t even have to tip him for such thoughtfulness.

We started to order, when Bernie’s girlfriend realized she had to be back at the school in about 4o minutes, the time it would take to drive there. Several incomplete sentences were uttered but not answered. Everyone ordered and then Bernie and Denise took off in my dad’s shiny Oldsmobile with the champagne in the back seat, leaving me with drunk Steve, his angry girl friend, and my bewildered girlfriend. The waiter was confused about serving dinner. We tried to explain the stupidity of our situation. I don’t think such a campaign of stupidity had been launched in D.C. since Wilbur Mills had almost driven into the tidal basin with the Argentinian stripper Fannie Foxx the previous year. Oh, the good old days!

For two or three hours we sat, waiting for Bernie, my dad’s car, my champagne, and the Prom Princess whose beauty had caused all this cursed affliction. We ate quietly with long pauses and sighs and speculations. Cell phones were decades away. We were so lost imagining the ecstasies our classmates were enjoying at the big show. Finally Bernie and his  date showed up with sparks in their eyes. They had been to the magic castle and had drunk my champagne on the way. “It was good, Dude.”

The waiter brought their cold meals to them and they hurriedly ate. The staff could not wait for us to leave, nor could we.  I felt as used and abused as an Amish mule.  I drove as fast as I possibly could out of D.C. as time slipped away. It was a sad song experience, like Mc Arthur’s Park… “someone left a cake out in the rain, I don’t think that I can take it cause it took so long to bake and I’ll never have that recipe again…”

We pulled in and jumped out of the shiny Olds as the last song was being played. We had managed to miss the entire extravaganza. Two girls cried joyless tears. Richard and Dwight were a hit as they walked out of the gym all smiles.  Oh the Glory lost. The unholy Grail was not in the gym as the house lights came up, revealing a basketball court with awkward paper decorations everywhere. What a blast!

 

 

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.

 

311. Scotch

Long, long ago, 42 years to be exact, I traveled through England and Scotland by train, taxi and bus, losing articles of clothing and my high school ring along the way. It’s not hard to lose things unless it’s a misbehaving two year old that you’d like to drop off at the mall, but then everyone jumps up and says, “Hey, you can’t leave that kid here.” Anyway, on the train ride north from London I recall a 15 year old jockey who looked 12 offered to buy me a pint of Guiness. Yes, he was legal age to do so. He drained his and I gargled and gagged on what tasted like a coal miner’s tobacco juice spit. The kid won by six furlongs, roughly 1,320 yards.

I rolled into Edinboro, Scotland a couple of days before New Year’s Eve of 1974, i.e. it was still 1973 and I was still 17. I toured the city and the castle up on a prominent hill and wandered up above the Firth of Forth past wild heather. It was a harsh beauty that far north, but softer than what I was told existed way up in true Scotland, where true Scotsmen wear kilts. The accents grew more primal along the latitudes also.  I bought a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker hat and matching scarf in Cooper Tartan (to fit in) and wore them with my old bomber jacket, bush jeans and blue suede sneakers. It was a memorable look that still makes fashionistas wretch. I think I stuck out like a butt blister Yank.

 As luck would have it, I met three Australian guys at the youth hostel. We got along immediately. Two of the guys were on their tour of Europe before returning home to university. The third was their old mate, Rob Campbell, whose family had moved to London several years back. Nice girthy guys with meat on their bones. It felt comfortable to have new mates. And so, as New Year’s Eve approached, we decided to celebrate our good fortunes with large quantities of scotch whiskey. Off we went on Princes Street acting like we knew something, like we were princes of a sort.

So many liquor stores to choose from and so little time. We walked into one that seemed affordable and asked for scotch. The proprietor smirked, “Which one, me Buccos, we’ve got over two hundred types. You want single malt or a blend?”

“Uh, (trying hard not to look as stupid as we were) how about the one with the pirate on the bottle?”

“Ummm hmmm. That’s rot gut but cheap, one pound twenty.”

“We’ll each have a bottle then. Cheap is what we’re looking for. And pirates.”

“Aye, matey. Here ye be.”

We walked along and took piratey swigs from our bottles, pretending it tasted good when it actually tasted like smoked ammonia from an old rubber hose. When we got back to the hostel, many of the guests were gathered in the expansive basement kitchen, including an old, very drunk, white bearded Scotsman in full kilt regalia.

 He was from the north of Scotland and nearly unintelligible with his brogue over a quart of scotch in his belly. He hiccupped, staggered and swore aggressively. He was down to maybe six active brain cells, which were jumping off of him like fleas on a drowning basset hound. We called him Scottie and he answered our probes.

Of course one of the Aussies asked if he wore anything under his kilt. The old man made a mean face and squinted at us, and then peed on the floor.  He slurred, “What do you think, mate?”

We howled with laughter and made sure to avoid Scottie, the mean drunk from Glasssszzzzzgoooowwww. He was going to be very sick in the new year, and stinky damp. Off we went to find rare adventures on Princes Street. And I ‘m sure we had some fun times, none of which I can recall. I remember vaguely meeting some girls and going to a club or pub or something…. I became separated from the group, although I might have simply fallen asleep while they moved on. In any event I was many furlongs behind my new friends and very lost in Scotland. (I remembered being in the same predicament once back home on a summer’s evening. I crawled into a dry storm drain and slept on a bed of dry grass and leaves, maybe a snake too. I believe I survived. ) So I decided to bunker down for the night in a dark doorway, which I did for a few hours. Eventually a foot patrol cop woke me up and directed me elsewhere, just like that line in the Who’s song, “Who are you?”

I woke up in a Soho doorway
A policeman knew my name
He said “You can go sleep at home tonight
If you can get up and walk away”

I staggered back to the underground
And the breeze blew back my hair
I remember throwin’ punches around
And preachin’ from my chair

Well, it wasn’t like that. I simply started looking for landmarks and trying to regain cognition. I turned the focus key but nothing happened in my brain. I staggered around Edinboro on New Year’s Day like it was a ship tossed at sea. “Oh it’s a pirate’s life for me.” Like most bad ideas that later turn into good stories, this one finally ended.  I rode the train back to London and stayed with Rob for the rest of the week. We had a romping good time doing things I still cannot publicize until my deathbed confession. I don’t believe I’ve had any scotch fur many long furlongs since then, Mates. No regrets.

 

 

 

 

310. Tragic Muscle Head Cars

My blog post numbers are getting up near the high horsepower engine range. It is just a natural association for me to recall that 327 CID was a Chevy engine, though I am no motor head.  There was a Ford 302. Chevy also had a 350, 396, and 427.  I just know that they were powerful and fast, too fast for the teenagers who tried to drive them. Which is perhaps symbolic of how woefully unprepared some adolescent males are to maneuver through the twisting course of adult life.

Where to begin?  Charlie Young drove a Camaro Z28 when we were all teenagers. I have no idea where he got the money to even buy the gas, though it was cheap in the early 1970’s. It was a sweet car to be sure, green base with wide white racing stripes. A shrine to the young male ego, sporting  slotted mags, a Hurst shifter, slick spoiler on the back, and fat tires. Yeah. Charlie posed in it like Clint Eastwood on a racehorse. Cool squint and a John Travolta smile.

There was talk of races behind the high school and big talk about how fast this car was or how fast that guy shifted gears. I don’t recall how Charlie fared in these much heralded races. I just recall that the Z28 went away one day, and not into a museum. He got married early and moved into a travel trailer parked in his parents’ side yard. The last I heard about Charlie was that he was working for the sheriff’s department back home transporting prisoners. Someone told me that one of the prisoners persuaded Charlie to stop at a liquor store during the trip to jail for one last good time. Good Time Charlie obliged and got drunk too; the prisoner escaped; Charlie was fired. The funny part is that there is no surprise here. It just got away from him like the Z28 did years before.

Let’s go up a few cubic inches. I believe Glenn Barret’s Nova SS had a 307 or a 350. I used to know these things like baseball players’ batting averages. Glenn’s car was red and black, manual transmission. He was constantly cleaning or waxing it, posing with the door open. He had this cool rolling start he liked to pull where he’d start the car just by popping the clutch. Cool cubed, man. He’d silently cruise into a parking space with the engine off or drift down a grade noiselessly and then pop that clutch. VRRRoooom!!

One day he was parked on the incline in front of Bobby Doering’s house, door open, coolness spilling out of his car like chilled air conditioning. He was all set to do the silent back out, but this time he forgot to close his door. As he glided back down the hill, his driver side door caught the fire hydrant he had neglected to account for. The interaction ripped his door out away from the frame of the car like an airplane wing.  Now this would upset any driver of any car, but factor back in that Glenn worshipped this Nova SS. It was his first love, his status symbol, his everything. Like Barry White sang,

“I know there’s only, only one like you
There’s no way they could have made two
Girl, you’re my reality, but I’m lost in a dream
You’re the first, you’re the last, my everything ”

He married young and took up golf. Not sure how either of those endeavors turned out.

Then there is the king of foolishness, the late Bobby Doering. He moved from Oklahoma in his junior year of high school. He could talk and bluster and brag with a western cockiness that was infectious and charming. He was famous for sayings like, “That sounds like a cow pissing on a flat rock.”

Bobby had a couple of cute sisters, plus his dad had a Porsche that we drove around when we cut school. What more could a 17 year old need? He also played ice hockey when that was unheard of in our experience. What more? How about a  forest green Chevelle SS 396 with boss wheels and dual exhaust? One of the coolest cars ever.

 Bobby lacked common sense and a healthy fear of death or injury. He’d smoke the tires with no provocation whatsoever. I imagine there is great pressure to blow out the four barrel carburetor when you have one, just like the pressure to drive your dad’s Porsche 135 miles an hour on the Beltway while skipping school and listening to the Stones “Under My Thumb”.

Bobby was keen on my girlfriend’s girlfriend Lisa, who was 15 then, I think. Lisa’s parents weren’t too keen on Bobby being around Lisa, for obvious reasons.  However, on Halloween of that year Bobby was driving both girls around the neighborhood  in the SS 396 when he decided to gun the engine and smoke tires. He did and lost control of the green monster, dumping it into a deep ravine to his left. He and both girls fell forward as the Chevelle went 90 degrees into the concrete culvert. I forget the physical damage done. Everyone received injuries as no one wore their seatbelt. Bobby was bankrupted. The car was totaled but the loan against it was not. He had to get a job and work off the debts he’d accumulated while  worshipping at the shrine of the 396.

I don’t know when, but through the grapevine I learned that he died a couple of years later, maybe while playing hockey. Cardiac arrest. Rest in peace, bro, like Dick Clark– forever a teenager.

I don’t recall the CID of Mike Dean’s Charger or Challenger. It’s too far back there. It was a big muscle car, I do know. He hung out in the same neighborhood of Wilton Woods, where there were plenty of cute girls. Mike’s car was not the problem, though. The story is murky, but as I heard it he blew his brains out with a gun after this girlfriend dumped him. Too much power in the hands of boys wanting to be great.

Tragedies are poignant because they did not have to happen. Some character flaw or bizarre circumstance destroys a good manboy. Yeah, well let me finish by directing you to Tom Waits’ “Big Joe and Phantom 309”, a lovely old ballad with a tragic seed.

 

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.

289. Something/ Nothing?

                               

I liked Todd Rundgren’s music in the 1970’s. His double album Something/Anything (1972) was pleasant enough as I recall. Not groundbreaking or toothchipping… just enough of something salty and sweet together, like tortilla chips and chewy caramels for my ears to chomp.  He played all the instruments and sang all the tracks, which is pretty impressive, I think. I recall a review in the Washington Post that called him the clown prince of rock n roll. I guess that was accurate. He made some money along the way and did a good bit of successful producing. So I suppose he knew a thing or two. I mention him as a surveyor’s reference point in time and culture that I am racing away from.

I saw him at the Kennedy Center in 1973, I think, with his Nirvana band. (No, not that Nirvana band! Duh!! They were still in elementary school then.) I wore gold glitter across my metrosexual collarbone and sprinkled more on the tops of my literally blue suede Converse sneakers. And, yes, filthy ones, I wore other clothes. [Strike that last image from the record, your Honor.] It was a fashion statement I will never need to restate, unless it would get me out of prison early. Get this: during the show some joint burning pothead (not the Burrito Manchild ) was being escorted from his seat by security when Rundgren stopped the show and told the wannabe cops to leave the guy alone. Strangely enough, they complied. Who knew that celebrities on stage commanded civic authority? Keep in mind that Richard Nixon was in the White House, and at the Opera House next to our auditorium, Washington’s finest sashayed in the great hall under JFK’s bronze bust while the other glitterati pranced about during a shared intermission. Someone should have lost his scheduling job for that faux pas. When hauled before the review board the next day, in response to the question, “What were you smoking?”, Ted the scheduling director pleaded simply, “something, anything”. “Shoot him!”

Bust of JFK in the lobby of the Kennedy Center

Fasten your seat belts as I whip the narrative violently away from this scene. The other day I believe a musical person by profession at my Sunday School table told her husband that he should never agree with me or say “Right” if I just said “Right” or “Never” if I just said “Never”.  Okay, hurt me. I believe it was a case of Something/Nothing. Robert was confused.

“Can I say ‘Right’ when you say ‘Right’, Dear?”

“Yes, but not when he says it. Okay?”

“Okay.”

I whispered, “Right on, Robert. Right now. You’re righteous. Right?”

He looked at me like I had an ice cream cone on a hot summer day… and he didn’t. “Oh no you don’t, Buddy. Not a single lick.”

“Ri…. ri…ri…”

“Robert!”

Crackamundo, he heeled.

I get a good bit of this reaction from others. I must provoke a certain socially acceptable disdain in folks who feel familiar and comfortable enough to mildly insult me. They tell me I bring it on myself and I can’t disagree. I think it is a pheromone that I emit.

The other night after our ballroom dance class a bunch of us went to a local restaurant and had a drink and an appetizer. I sat across from my lovely bride who sat next to Don the dancing dentist. Within a short period of time Don felt familiar and comfortable enough to drill and fill me. He asked my wife where our daughter got her musical ability. My wife said something like ‘Well, I took piano and guitar lessons, but my husband did not. His family didn’t do much with him.’ To which Don replied something like ‘So you contributed something and your husband contributed nothing’ or something like that.  To which I complained, “Don, don’t you even use novacaine before you stick a knife in a man’s gums?”

We chuckled nervously. I wanted him to think that I am a dangerous ex-con with a hair trigger temper and pistol under the tabletop. At least I wanted to think that he thinks I’m  more dangerous than an ex-hairdresser with a sparky blow dryer in hand. I am no marshmallow, Dude! The bullseye on my back is an unfortunate birthmark not an invitation. But alas! It’s a target for the disenfranchised to franchise like a McDonald’s. (If  you have any ideas what that last sentence means, would you please personal message me? I’d really like to know.)

So, the theme, the overarching theme that I must support with related drivel… hmmm. I seem to have lost it along the way. This is of no concern to me since I don’t usually follow the rules of proper writing. I just accelerate to maintain control. I first over heard this statement in a small English pub outside of Bury St. Edmunds, East Anglia in 1973 or so. Some American military guys were talking quite loudly as they sucked down pints of ale. One guy was reviewing driving training he’d received State side. He was yakking about driving through a culvert when he blurted, “I accelerated to maintain control”, as if that were the punch line to an extended joke. I was seventeen and alone. I wound up chatting with one of the military dudes. He was righteous and much smarter than I was. He told me of the vast peacekeeping mission of the military, how they were agents of peace. I did not believe him, still don’t. However, I had a copy of a science fiction book that a former classmate claimed to have written. Wilbur even autographed it for my girlfriend’s gift.  This military guy clarified that the Great and Powerful Wilbur was lying, which was true, of course, but it wasn’t nearly as cool a story as having gone to school with a famous science fiction author. Just another something/anything that turned into nothing. Why do folks insist on the truth when a faint gauzy blur will do just as well? We know Bigfoot doesn’t exist, but why crush us?

“Hello, it’s me
I’ve thought about us for a long, long time
Maybe I think too much but something’s wrong
There’s something here that doesn’t last too long
Maybe I shouldn’t think of you as mine”
Something cannot come from nothing. Right?
“I’ll have an Anything with a twist of lime.”
Oh where is Todd Rundgren when you need him?

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.

 

281. South Central Brovania

Image result for dudes with beards picturesInside the boro limits of Turtle Town Is a little 2 bedroom apartment known affectionately as Brovania. That’s hyphenation talk for “brothers in Pennsylvania”. The two Bros who live there are Mitch and Byron, former barristas from my coffee shop. Nice guys, both of them. And single. It seems that nice young single guys are fairly rare, vastly outnumbered by nice young single ladies. This imbalance causes much anguish on both sides of the dating football or croquet mallet… or any other bad metaphor you can come up with, my bold bloggnats. It appears to me (as an old geezer from two generations back) that modern dating is far more fragile than it used to be. The vetting process is longer, even arduous at times. As if each person involved were a possible fake Rembrandt that needs to be tested and insured before it can be loved. In my old days it took a smile, eye contact, a little chat, a suggestion and then the promise of the next day… until a string of days ran unbroken into an exclusive relationship. There were no “friends with benefits” that I knew of in the 1970’s.  Nor were there long times of testing and making sure of relationships. We just dove in, or maybe it was just folks like me who dove first and checked water depth second. Some friends’ marriages wound up with broken necks. Mine was merely strained.

Perhaps there is less trust left on the planet, you know, like fossil fuels. Everything is tested and surveyed– our political candidates have focus groups for their campaigns; television shows and movies are previewed with mock audiences prior to launch. I want to yell, ‘Hey, if your ideas are worthy, why are you shaving them for public  approval?’ Leading from behind is what that is called, I believe.  Ahhh yesss, it’s about the consumption and profit motive. “Trust me, friends. I want what’s good for me.” Your approval equates to their power and money. Even Enterprise Rental cars called me while I was in the bathtub to see how I felt about my recent rental car experience. “Wet. Warm. Clean.” This after the hospital sent me a survey about my recent $2,000 ER visit for a paralyzed neck. (This had nothing to do with the state of my marriage.) Please comment below: “Um, SHOCKED  but insured, thank God, rather than bankrupted.” But dating? You need trust, which is truth over time. Both, not one or the other.  On-line sites are everywhere advertising great outcomes for their users. Sure, it’s possible. But every week Comcast sends me slick advertising urging me to switch over to their bundle of services, while my phone rings with offers of reduced utility bills. They are all moving product or services. Maybe I could bundle my internet, with E-Harmony, and my electric bill. Buy, save, now. It’s exhausting if you take any of this endless feedback loop seriously. But dating??? It’s swimming with sharks outside of Brovania.

After a while all this quality control crap becomes so much background noise to tune out. So I’m tuning out and wondering how life is inside Brovania. But I need not wonder for long because the boys Facebook (verb use here) all their major activities. I know where Mitch is more often than Mitch does with only occasional F’book cruising. The old saying “Youth is wasted on the young” has a lot more grit and traction the older you get. Folks said that when I was young. I didn’t get it then, but I do now.  Reminds me of an old poem by Irving Layton that intrigued me as a kid.

By walking I found out
Where I was going.

By intensely hating, how to love.
By loving, whom and what to love.

By grieving, how to laugh from the belly.
Out of infirmity, I have built strength.

Out of untruth, truth.
From hypocrisy, I wove directness.

Almost now I know who I am.
Almost I have the boldness to be that man.

Another step

And I shall be where I started from.

I would add that by aging I have learned how to be young. And I treasure that innocence and optimism that the boys from Brovania still exhibit. The freshness of young love, a good buddy to hang with, a local brew, the unlimited horizon. The view from Brovania is awesome once you learn that life is lived looking forward but understood looking backward.

Reminds me of the time Sam and Chris and Mark and I took off in the middle of a summer night and went camping at the Meadowlands State Park just south of Paris, Virginia. It was a straight shot out Route 50. We pitched a tent in the dark and fell down laughing. In the morning we realized we had not a single crumb of food. We manufactured some fishing poles out of discarded hooks and fishing line. In no time we had caught several blue gills and cooked them on a grill. No one had a fishing license, I’m sure. We did have a bag of pot in Sam’s glove box, which we enjoyed to excess.
On our way out of the park the road was so rutted and bumpy that we got out and rode on the hood of Sam’s Ford Falcon to help balance the front end and stop bottoming out. Wouldn’t you know that a county mounty rolled up and wrote Sam a ticket for reckless operation of a motor vehicle or some such thing. Sam reached into the glove box for his registration just under the ounce of pot. It was  a long moment till we all exhaled. After a lame lecture about safe vehicle operation, Officer Barney Fife let us go.

I’ve never forgotten the incident. It resides next to the memory of driving back from Dulles Airport under a full moon without headlights in Dwight’s old green Volkswagen bug. He turned on his lights only to see a large doe standing in front of us with the original “deer in the headlights” look. We hit her and then the front trunk blew open, which caused great panic among us four guys. When Dwight finally stopped the bug just short of the pine woods on the right shoulder, we watched his spare tire bounce away into the woods. It was another long moment before we all exhaled and saw the deer hair stuck in any crack in the VW. The hood was forced back into its original shape. We retrieved the spare tire while laughing outrageously. Dwight was an official Deer Slayer. “By turning on my high beams, I saw where I was going.” That’s not a poem. It’s just a message smuggled out of Brovania.

*** continue the fun at 52. Mitchlessly