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.

 

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.!”

 

171. Adolessons 2

I recall a night in mid-May of 1975. I had just gotten home from my first year of college. My buddies came by and we drank some beer and perhaps smoked some pot. It was a long time ago. All these things were legal then if you were under the influence of adolescence. There was Craver, Tim Gulley, Gerard Windt, my older brother Steve, and me. Craver and Gulley were big boys– 250 each; “G” was like a piece of shoelace licorice; and my brother and I were average size 20 and 19 year olds. Anyhow, we wound up at Craver’s kitchen table, blathering and joking, and we were looking for some adventure. Gulley was blathering on about his father and how he worked at the White House. I challenged his b.s. He called the White House and handed me the phone. “Good evening, this is the White House. How may I help you?” said the very adult voice on the other end. I hung up. “I hope they don’t trace prank calls”, was my lame reply to Gulley. I wouldn’t want Mark’s dad, Colonel Craver, to get that follow up phone call.

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“Uh huh, they did what? Why that’s un-American. I’ll take care of it with my Ranger-trained hands.” He served much too long in Vietnam, and the country changed on him while he was deployed. That’s another blog post.

I suppose the conversation moved on to our girlfriends. Somehow I mentioned that mine was stuck at college in Richmond till her mother could drive down and fetch her on the weekend. Gulley, ever grandiose and seeking universal approval, offered that we all pile in his Volkswagen and drive to Richmond and bring her back immediately. “Gulley, there are five of us going down in a VW Beetle. One of us would have to get out and hitchhike back.”

“No, we’ll squeeze in on the way back.”

The funny thing about substances is how they can make what is clearly impossible seem viable. We piled into his Beetle. It was tight. Gulley was over-excited and did a very Gulley thing: he punched his windshield and made a fist-sized spider web appear. Now usually such a bad omen would make an audience reconsider what’s up. Nope. We just headed down the road in the dark. Luminescence became pleasantly kaleidoscopic as we passed streetlights and other vehicles.

Now a careful reader might ask at this juncture, “Don’t you ever learn?” I mean there was the broken foot while skipping school; the mangled deer with the headlights out; the somnambulance ride to Ocean City; not to mention the ticket Sam got when three of us rode on the hood of his Falcon to keep it from bottoming out on a back road in Fauquier County, and a local sheriff couldn’t see the wisdom of that move.( Another pile of guys had decided to go camping in the middle of another bored summer night.) And the answer is an unequivocal “NO”.

Our first destination was the 7-11 store for more beer. Strangely, we thought, they stopped selling beer at 2:00 a.m. We could not figure that one out. Again, another bad omen, but we forged onward, down 95 to Richmond.

It must have been 4:00 a.m. when we arrived, unannounced and strolled right into Johnson Hall, the dorm I lived in as well as my girlfriend Sara. I think after brief introductions we all slept on the floor of her dorm room, or maybe it was mine. In any event the sun came up soon after and the alcohol’s effects were worn off. What seemed gloriously fun and cool and inimitable the night before looked like a dirty Volkswagen with a broken windshield in the pale morning light. Reality was like a flea in our sleeping bag. How to squeeze six people into an overcrowded VW? Sara had to go in the back seat, and though her weight was welcome at first, after an hour it was painful and then numbing over the final hour as the sun heated up and the engine whined under the strain of 1,000 pounds of human cargo. If nothing else, my respect for clown car passengers in the circus grew immensely on that morning. It was wisdom born from pain.

Back at my house, where the saga had begun twelve hours earlier, the VW disgorged its occupants. Normalcy returned in the daylight. And here’s the odd thing: normalcy is forgettable. The mundane is not memorable. Just ask a tollbooth worker what moments were memorable in his/her career. Was it the 12 millionth suit and briefcase or the nude woman with a pet zebra in the back seat who whispered ala Marilyn Monroe, “This is my birthday zoot suit” ? That’s not a fair question, I realize this.

Those days were thirty eight years ago. Gerard lives in San Francisco now and has an awesome life according to his Christmas card letters. The last time I saw Gulley he picked me up hitchhiking on the way to California in 1978. Craver died in 2004. In 1979 I married the only girl in the VW, and my brother Steve is still her brother-in-law.

What to make of these adolescent lessons, because logical outcomes and life altering wisdom are not the only lessons we gather in life. Life rushes out of us, even on boring summer nights that seem to lack meaning and purpose. Some heavily potentiated moments gel into little gemstones that we bury in the subsoil of our consciousness. Somehow these stem cell moments achieve critical mass and arc into the idealized timelessness of nostalgia. And that has to count for something despite the mixing of metaphors.

136. The Fun Club

I always wanted my own play house or tree fort when I was a kid in the suburbs of Northern Virginia. Unfortunately that never happened. My family lacked tools, talent and materials to build much of anything. Also, there was only one tree in our yard, the same ugly elm tree that was planted dead in the center of every front yard in the cookie cutter neighborhood of post war Virginia Hills. A young elm is not a tree that is conducive to supporting a homemade fort in its branches.  Of course, there were other trees growing in folks’ yards, but in the 1960’s they were weak saplings just trying to survive in the hard clay of the area. In the neighbor’s yard behind us, (the Emkirs at one time), was a small circle of mimosas, lovely to sit under on a hot summer day but totally incapable of supporting a boys’ clubhouse tree fort. So I lived without. Not exactly the desolate Great Depression tale of my folks, but it was the cross I had to bear during the Great Society of Lyndon Baines Johnson.

No one in our working class neighborhood did much that could be considered gardening or landscaping. That took time and money and must have seemed foolish to veterans of WWII and Korea and Vietnam, the gritty men who lived on Dorset Drive and the Parkway, Virginia Hills Avenue and Enfield Drive. Kids in those days were told to “Go outside and play”.  Being constructive was for men. Tired out men did not play. They sat in lawn chairs and drank cheap beer on warm summer evenings in wife beater tee shirts that were never gonna be fashionable. They smoked short cigarettes that had earned their lifetime loyalty– Winston, Lucky Strike, Camel, Salem. Like the cars they drove, things were pretty darn basic back then. Hand crank windows, no air conditioning, a.m. radio, and an ashtray with a lighter. Had to have a lighter since everyone smoked then, even in grocery stores.

We kids had forts made of sticks and leaves, and many years later we had big boxes and shipping crates that served as hideaways, but by then girls and candles and cigarettes and beer were part of the equation. Those were nests for unsupervised horny adolescents not innocent tree forts or kids’ clubhouses. The best thing to do with those nests of nadirity would have been to burn them alongside the Christmas trees we burned each January and thus purge the earth of two sand grains of adolescent sin. {Note: nadirity is a construct made from the root nadir, meaning lowest point. Yes, I made it up, thanks to Mark Craver.}

When my girls were old enough to want their own playhouse beyond our basement, they were maybe 11, 6 and 2 years old. I say that they wanted it, but if I were being totally honest, it was my idea. I wanted them to have the experience that I had wanted as a kid. A fort with a window and door and a ladder and a slide and a sandbox. One summer I decided that they were getting their own play house at the back of our yard. I laid out $500–600, what would have paid for a week’s vacation at the time or a month’s mortgage, for the materials needed. I had a very simple plan: an 8′ x 8′ deck that sat up 4′ off the ground above an 8′ x 8′ sand box. On the deck would be a little house with a slanted roof. The single room measured about six by eight feet and was seven feet tall. It had a single window and a hinged door like a horse stall.

It took me several days to put the parts together– pressure treated 2″ x 6″ decking on a 4″ x 4″  frame set in post holes with concrete. I wanted everything to be solid, plumb, square, level and worthy of time. The house part was 2″ x 4″ construction covered with T-111 siding. It was a thing of basic beauty. My girls could not wait for occupancy. Before I had the guardrail installed on the front walkway, my daughter Grace pushed the neighbor boy off and shattered his elbow, requiring surgery that night. My wife and I were watching him, and I did watch as Grace pushed him and he doubled over and collapsed into a ‘V’ as he fell four feet and his elbow met a rock. It was one of those moments when you just knew that you weren’t gonna get any closer with that family. You had come as far as you could. It was time to eat them or turn back…or something like that.

In any event, my three daughters and two of the neighbor girls took occupancy and declared that the fort was to be called THE FUN CLUB. The two older girls, Erin and Suzanne, appointed themselves dictators for life without chance of overthrow. They began making up rules for their younger siblings to follow, which was briefly tolerated in the new colony. But like their British predecessors, they overstepped natural law and fueled a rebellion. Grace and Kristy seceded and took the Gerber baby Jessi with them. Basically they waited until the older girls grew bored and then squatted in the abandoned playhouse. However, while they were a united colony, they wrote and sang their theme song in all their throaty glory.

“This is the fun club; this is the fun club; this is the fun club so let’s have fun! fun! fun!” to the sped up melody of “You are my Sunshine”. Very primal, like spring peepers croaking out their calls into the stillness of spring nights.

The older girls moved on to post-Barbie appointments with destiny while the three younger ones kept a diary and collected dues for future expenses that were never incurred. Pennies and old pink sticky notes adorned the FUN CLUB for a couple of years and then we used it for storage until the ladder steps broke and the roof began to leak. It was an odd arrangement to store summer chairs and toys in an old playhouse four feet above an old sandbox. Cats and groundhogs enjoyed the structure, though.

Years blurrily passed. I don’t remember when, but I found myself tearing down the playhouse and exposing the deck. And then I cut the 4′ x 4′ posts and dropped the deck onto the sandbox frame where it has sat now for a dozen years or more. It’s an odd sight to see an 8′ x 8′ deck at the back of one’s yard. The uninitiated would never guess that there had once been a FUN CLUB on that very spot; a spot as pure as the white sand that filled the box beneath it. My childish dream had come full circle.

12. timelessly

Days like these are harried– run, run, run so that you can sprint later on. Faster and faster we hurtle forward into the faster and faster life of breaking bonds– speed, gravity, religion, family, friendships. All my life, records have been broken… man in space, man on the moon, man with a heart transplant, faster internet speeds, faster computers, faster news reporting, faster wealth, faster wars. And where is the counterbalance? Has anything become slower or calmer? Nope.

I can recall being a kid and lying on my back watching clouds go by. Occasionally a prop plane would drone overhead. I’d walk between cool sheets drying on a laundry line on a hot summer’s day and think ‘Wouldn’t it be neat to go fast?’ Things going fast were desirable then. No one could have imagined the frenzied pace of life fifty years later. Well, maybe New Yorkers could have, but freckled suburban kids digging in the dirt with their mothers’ sterling silver spoons did not. They (I actually) just marveled at the black oxidization on the shiny spoon as I dug in the orange clay.

In the early 60’s Television had three or four channels; black and white! horrors!!!  and then really blurry color came later. No remote controllers either.And it was free, no monthy cable or dish payments. Baseball was the nation’s past time. It moved slowly and went into extra innings often enough. There was no sudden death rule, but games were often carried over to the next day when a double header would be necessary to finish the previous day’s game.  (Life was leaner and simpler like Johnny Cash songs. He was the white man who called himself “the man in black”, just like black and white t.v. Like a modern John the Baptist.) People were not so rushed. Sleek airports and superhighways were being built to hurtle us along, but they were novel then. Now they are expected to be all that and the awe has been replaced with impatience. We have become a nation of speed junkies.

Back in the day stores gave stamps as rewards for doing business with them. Housewives (they went extinct in the late 60’s) would collect these and turn in completely filled up books for electric toasters or can openers. Do you know how long it would take the average housewife to gather 800 yellow or green stamps when groceries cost a fraction of what they do today? A year maybe. And all throughout that year she’d look longingly at the many other things she could redeem with her stamps. Oh delayed gratification!

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And there were other slow payback deals in grocery stores. You could collect the greatest classical music ever recorded for $.99 per lp if you bought your groceries at certain stores. (LP stood for long playing record album, by the way.) There were other methodical programs where you could buy encyclopedias each week or collect plates or glasses. All these programs were tedious exercises in delayed gratification from this modern perspective, but they were awesome marketing tricks then.

If you try to pour a 2 liter bottle of soda into a shot glass, you will spill all but 2 ounces. Maybe that’s cool to do once for giggles, but it is an insane proposition– pouring too much into too little, and yet this is what we do daily. Plug 26 hours into 24. Shave sleep. “Hey, sleep when you’re dead.” Multitask. Smoke, talk on the phone, do your make up, drive. I saw a bread delivery truck driver this morning eating a bowl of cereal as he drove through town. He balanced the bowl with the spoon in it in his left hand as he drove the big truck over a hump with his right hand and knees. He did it with such skill that it was clear to me that this was not his maiden milk management voyage.Image result for overflowing shot glass pictures

Like entitlement programs, fossil fuels, carbon emissions, and bad marriages, speedy lifestyles become unsustainable. And not just for old geezers like me, but for the young and spry among the population. Mindlessly run, run, run into timelessness. Don’t mind if I do.Image result for grave pictures