[Edge of the Earth
Published by Shores Edge Books
Distributed by Shakespir
Copyright 2015 Lawrence Edge
All rights reserved.
To those whose lives supplied the rich matter from which I drew in compiling this memoir, thank you. To those who know some of my facts are a tad off…other than changing a few names, I’ve been as accurate as memory will allow. To those whom I’ve offended, I apologize. It probably could have been worse.
email: [email protected]
Cover photo by Wes Shealy: Lake Drummond, The Great Dismal Swamp, Virginia
Mr. Bragg doesn’t know me from Adam’s housecat, but he has helped me a great deal. Whenever I became stingy with words, or my writing became staid, stodgy, or stuck in the mud…whenever I was searching for my train of thought…I would simply open his memoir to any page and read, and his styling would kick my caboose back on track. Thanks, Mr. Bragg.
The Cruel Sea flashed into my head, dredged-up from some long unreferenced memory cells. I felt betrayed, as though I’d just found out a lover wanted to kill me. My sea was heartless, uncaring; I was near drowning, and it didn’t care. I finally reached the surface, and it pulled me back down before I could get a breath. I was starting to realize the sea is an inanimate object…it’s not my friend or my enemy. I was a lover of the sea, but it couldn’t love me back. It’s just water.
I popped up, along with a million bursting bubbles, and took a quick breath in case I sank again. It was time to stop “thinking thoughts”, a method I used to keep track of time and prevent the panic feeling of drowning while my fate was out of my control. Time to get back on my surfboard and get out of Dodge post-haste, before the next wave came and made life even worse, but I had to wait until the tension on the stretching leash fixed to my ankle relaxed and I could pull the board to me. The board, one I had made myself, came loose and rocketed backward at me across the surface, the pointed tail narrowly missing my face. Not good. I quickly got on it and started stroking hard for the safety beyond the “impact zone”.
My board slapped down as I barely made it over the lip of the next breaking wave, and I could see in the distance a darkening horizon as several increasingly large waves marched, unstoppable as freight trains, in my direction. Perhaps I could get over them before they broke, perhaps not…I had no choice but to try with everything I had.
Although I was in water, I could feel my palms sweat as the fearsome beasts approached. I stroked up the face of the first one accompanied by a light spray being created by wind the wave made as it displaced the air being pushed up and over itself. I made it over the top in a noisy hail of huge raindrops tossed up by tons of exploding water behind me. The next house-high wave had already broken, and I prepared myself for the roaring wall of white water that was about to thrash me.
Abandoning my board to its fate, I swam down as far as I could before I felt the leash trying to pull my leg off as the turbulence rolled by overhead. I came up, managed a breath, and dove again as the next noisy monster, only a few feet away, was about to repeat the scene. I didn’t get deep enough this time and was picked up and utterly worked-over in what felt like the world’s biggest washing machine. I ran a series of words through my mind, this time slowly, one at a time, “thinking thoughts”: I…know…this…is…going…to…end…sometime…today…
After a while I found which way was up and got to the surface once again; the next swells were smaller, and it became obvious I was going to make it, death averted once more.
On the distant beach of soft North Shore sand, kids played, “surf widows” sunned, and a small Circle Island tour bus waited for its Japanese photo club to re-embark. They were all blissfully ignorant of the life-and-death aspect of the drama being played out just a couple hundred yards away. I could relax with them now and enjoy the blue skies, scenic Hawaiian coastline, and adventure that the ocean provided…yeah…my friend the sea. My sometimes violent friend.
Sitting on the half-sunken surfboard, lightly bobbing around, watching for the next set of waves while my heartbeat returned to a normal cadence, I reflected on what a lucky guy I was. I’d been skiing in New England just two days prior, fully covered up against the chill of Vermont’s beautiful winter scenery, and here I was now, 48 hours and half a world later, wet and hardly clothed, enjoying 74 degree water with warm Trade Winds. I’d ridden mountains of water the past few days, some frozen, some not. I felt grateful; grateful for jet planes; grateful for America; grateful for my home; grateful for my job; grateful to be sitting there feeling grateful. Certainly a poor kid from the Catskill Mountains of New York was unlikely to wind up here, these years later, sitting pensively in the balmy breeze on a surfboard he made himself, at the best surf spot in the world. Then again, I was a lucky guy to have been raised in the Catskills.
Of course the Sullivan County Catskill Mountains aren’t really Alps; in fact they’re not really mountains in the ice axes and pitons sense. They’re really the green rolling foothills of their larger tree-covered brethren to the north and east. But when 1920s New York gangsters would “give Chahlie cement ova shoes and take him to da mountains to teach him to swim” deez was da mountains to which dey was referring. More than one wise guy has spent his afterlife standing loosely at attention on the bottom of Swan Lake.
This is Bucolic Central. In fact, it’s so bucolic some character called Rip Van Winkle fell asleep here and didn’t wake up for twenty years! The western border of Sullivan County is the northern Delaware River, tenderly watched over and restricted by the National Park Service. The eastern half is bisected by a four-lane once selected for the annual honor of America’s Most Scenic Highway. Trout fisherman everywhere recognize the convergence of the Willowemoc and Beaverkill creeks in Roscoe as ground zero for a fly fisherman’s fancy.
One gets the impression that one is not being warmly welcomed while driving the bucolic roads. That’s because this area probably has more NO TRESPASSING signs than anywhere else on God’s green earth. Many more deer than people live here, and it is only one hundred miles to New York City. Those two facts are why mothers keep their kids close to the house during hunting season each fall. I mean, if someone had your goat strapped to the roof of his car, claiming it was an albino deer (true story), you’d keep the kids inside too. One farmer found one of his prize milk cows shot dead. Ironically it was the one he had put the letters COW on it in red paint. Some city people just can’t read.
Sullivan County has a long and rich history. Whether you were a Dutch settler, a pre-air conditioning city dweller in need of rejuvenation or an aspiring Jewish comedian, somewhere in those hills you’d find your final destination. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, hordes of fresh-air worshippers made the summertime pilgrimage from the teeming metropolis via train and trolley. Every hamlet and lake had at least one hotel catering to those longing to shed some baggage and relax. Those hotels and boarding houses are virtually all gone now, replaced by….well…nothing. The money vacationers brought cruised down Route 95 to Florida with them in the Cadillac Caravan of the fifties and sixties or jumped a jet plane to more exotic locales.
The winter dwellers, we who endured months of frozen ground and slush-covered roads so that we could live there year round, were poor by national standards…or, at least, short on cash, since there just wasn’t much to pass back and forth.
My father worked in the traffic department of Grossinger’s Hotel, a resort large enough that it had its own zip code. He worked seven days a week for little pay, although he did get a few perks, like giving blond bombshell Jayne Mansfield a lift to the city in a Limo. He was a favorite of Jenny and Paul Grossinger and would take my mom with him while serving their transportation needs as they went on vacation (to Florida of course). For a dollar we could go watch Muhammad Ali spar at the hotel or see ourselves on ABC’s Wide World of Sports as rink-side spectators at the World Barrel Jumping Championship. In the winter, the hotel let my Boy Scout troop use its impressive indoor pool with 3 meter diving board and underwater viewing window.
Grossinger’s gave a complimentary stay to the crew of the first submarine to traverse the North Pole. My mom was at the viewing window as one of the sub sailors sliced cleanly through the water below the high-board, his Navy trunks sliding to his ankles. She’s sad to see pictures of the pool, now…dry…grass growing between the floor tiles…its chandeliers broken and askew. Well, at least she has her memories.
This was the Borscht Belt. The founders of Stand Up comedy from Milton Berle and Buddy Hackett and Sid Cesar to Joan Rivers and Rodney Dangerfield played here. Jerry Lewis’s parents owned Brown’s Hotel, just down the road from Grossinger’s. Every comedy club and late night TV show in America has its roots in these rocky hillsides, but it’s possible a bowl-shaped hayfield facing a pond in which my mother swam as a girl has had an even greater influence on American culture.
Here is the site of the 1969 Woodstock Festival. When Canned Heat sing Goin’ Up The Country, or when Crosby Stills Nash and Young need to get themselves back to the garden, they are referring to my childhood stomping grounds.
Max Yasgur was one of just a handful of Jewish farmers in Sullivan County. When driving by his fields we were always aghast at the risk of spontaneous combustion he took by baling and putting his hay in green. But he was a savvy businessman whose farm actually processed and bottled its own milk and distributed it to the local markets, and he was savvy enough to provide the venue, at the last minute, for the Woodstock gathering.
Had the local politburo had time they would have stopped it, in fact, in hindsight, with what they know today, they would still stop it. Though the county is still basking in its fifteen minutes of fame all these years later, to the planning department Woodstock Wannabees are persona non grata, at least in large unauthorized groups.
Residing on the original festival site is a mega-million dollar venue, Bethel Center for the Arts, and a Woodstock museum. It’s okay to be part of a big audience attending one of the weekly summer concerts featuring Santana, Keith Urban or other top-name entertainment, but, for the plop-down-in-a-field crowd in need of a permit, the old Hippies versus The Establishment still goes on. A restrictive ordinance is passed only to be bypassed by the creation of a political party (the Wanna Party…“because we wanna party“) whose assembling cannot be legally restricted. Back and forth to this day.
…Cool babbling brooks; quietness; orange newts that only come out when it rains; the Milky Way at night; pine and hemlock trees murmuring in the gentle breeze by day…
Move over, R. V. Winkle, there’s a spot that’s mine…a place to which I will return when heart-rending tragedy comes, or I just need to rest…to sit…just down from the family farm, not a hundred yards from the knoll on which we bury our own next to civil war soldiers and others, long gone and forgotten, who spent their lives nearby. I’ll sit under evergreen trees beside a pool only ten-foot wide and two-foot deep, in which we swam as little kids…and our kids did…and their kids will. Dead quiet, except for the sound of cool, clear water falling over blackened stones…dependably constant…unchanging through centuries…babbling still, even right now…at the place I had in mind when I wrote this, years ago:
[Rain is falling in the Green Room, hemlock filtered, sweet,
Calling out the orange salamander and freshening deep beds of moss.
Its wetness—cold to the skin, its sound a blanket of warmth
Filling the forest,
Making it home to those that don’t run to escape the rain.]
[I’m alone…apart from my kind…no longer bound by the ties that bind.
Heart-naked before Him who sees the heart.
Soul-mate of this orange salamander…
Ruler of his diminutive domain.
Princess Pine his pine trees…the ferns his towering pines.
Standing firm on his moss carpet.
Exulting in the crystalline spray of life.]
So, were we poor…or were we rich? You tell me.
It was May 12, 1949, and news organizations around the world were proclaiming the easing of East/West tensions. That day the Soviet Union lifted the overland blockade of the city of West Berlin. The constant and dramatic re-supply of food and provisions to its isolated populace by airlift would finally end. At least one woman in upstate New York could not have cared less; I reckon being in labor with her first child took her mind off current events, no matter how significant. Edna Edge delivered a baby boy that day. To her and her husband Art, that was all that really mattered.
The next two or three years are a blur, at least to me. I’ve been told I tried to take a long walk off a short pier in St. Petersburg, Florida, and would have done it, too, had it not been for an interfering early-morning fisherman who grabbed me by the diaper as I was leaning over the end of the pier to see the fishies. He then sought out and found my father’s mother, who’d been sleeping soundly in a house across the street. Close call number one.
Not long after that, my parents decided to make the next of our many moves, this time to my mom’s girlhood home in the hill country of New York. Until we got our own place in town, a couple of miles away from Grandpa’s little farm, we stayed with him and my grandmother.
My mother and her two sisters had husbands, therefore their kids had paternal relatives, but in each family we kids considered our lineage, for the most part, to be Danish, and the central figure in the family to be the women’s father, Grandpa Moller.
Vigo Moller made the voyage to the open arms of Lady Liberty at the turn of the twentieth century, disembarking at Ellis Island with twelve American dollars in his pocket and facing the probability he would never return to his native Denmark.
The Land of Opportunity gave my mother’s father a job as a longshoreman, loading and unloading ships on the rough-and-tumble docks of New York City. As I hear it, “He got in a fight every day and lost every one of them.”
My grandmother was much younger than him and wouldn’t have gotten with him at all had her sister, whom he was dating, been home when he showed up one day to take her out. The girls had raised themselves when their midwife mother abandoned her three daughters and went into hiding, getting a job as a live-in domestic and pretending she couldn’t speak English, because the law was after her for performing an abortion that resulted in the death of a young woman. So he married the younger sister, twenty years his junior, and at age 42 began a life that would eventually place him as the patriarch of a healthy and thriving branch of the Moller family tree.
With the American Dream open to him, and with determination and hard work, the common laborer eventually owned his own place in the dairy farming country of the Catskill Mountain foothills. His son, my Uncle Arkie, still lives on the five acre property.
It was a great place to begin my youth. I had a mother who loved the outdoors…picnics in the nearby woods…fishing in a farm pond a mile away at her sister Tassie’s place…wild blueberries by the quart…gooseberries, currents, raspberries or blackberries for jam, or just served with milk and sugar. There was a naked, featherless pet crow named Jimmy John who could nearly speak, and a vehicle that was no more than a frame, bench seat, and motor that we called a doodlebug. Best of all, I had free run of my little world. I had one issue, though.
I realized that three-year-olds remember very little of their short lives. I saw that as a major difference between myself and older people, so I devised a way to exercise my memory by placing a Raggedy Andy doll inside an unoccupied chicken coup at Grandfather’s and remembering to crawl through the tiny chicken door to see it whenever we were visiting him. Each time I lay in feathers and dry manure and forced my body through that chicken-sized opening to see that doll, I had the distinct impression my mind was improving.
I wish I could say that is my earliest remembrance, but it’s not. My earliest memory is of running toward a large door opening in a building, from the inside, just before the lights went out.
We were living in Jeffersonville without my father, because he had reentered the Navy during the Korean War and gone off, leaving us in an apartment in what was called The Mansion House. Nearby was a barn-type building with a large front door that hung from a track and ran on rollers. The door had been removed and left standing inside, leaning against the far wall.
My little friend Kay and I were looking for treasure, namely the fancy tops that screw onto liquor bottles being stored by the bar next door. I remember her pulling on the door to see what was behind it, and I remember her yelling, “Run!” The opening was getting closer…and that’s it.
She ran for help…it was midday and there were no men around, except for one. Fortunately for me, Tom Devaney was home. He was recuperating from a construction accident that caused him to lose an eye and the use of one arm.
He managed to use his good arm to lift one side of the three hundred pound door crushing the little boy, while Kay dragged my limp form out from under. I awoke in bed after eight hours of unconsciousness, having escaped with a concussion, a broken nose, a cracked neck…and my life. Once again, Edna Edge had averted the loss of her first child.
Life went on. I was learning all kinds of useful things; things like you can’t carry fresh eggs in your pants pockets from the chicken coop to the house. It doesn’t work, no matter how careful you are or how many times you try. You can’t grab snakes behind the head, like the experts do, because they can still twist around and bite you in the webbing between your thumb and index finger.
Speaking of (non-poisonous) snakes, I liked ‘em for some reason and caught bunches of them.
Once, my mom was visiting her friend Doris while I poked around, shirtless, outside in her yard. The interminable confab going on in the mobile home gave me time to catch and “train” an unfortunate garter snake. When Doris finally came out on her porch, I held the exhausted critter up by the tail and declared, “I have a trick snake!”, whereupon the beast reached out and latched onto my navel. I dropped the tail and let the snake hang from my belly as I tried to pry its jaws open. The resulting high pitched screaming is an indication Doris has probably suffered from a type of PTSD from that day to this, at least in the area of snake training.
My father didn’t go to church, but he was Roman Catholic and had attended St. Leo’s Catholic high school in central Florida. (A classmate was Lee Marvin, the actor, whom he called “Dog Face”) My Lutheran mother had agreed, as a prerequisite to marriage, that she would raise her kids in the Catholic Church, and so enrolled us in the local parochial school named Our Lady of the Angels (sometimes sarcastically called Our Lady of the Little Angels, which we were not).
Mom had taught me to read, so at five years old, I was put on a bus and sent off, trembling, to attend First Grade with kids a year older than myself.
My teacher was the kindly Sister Joanita. She reminded me of a character in The Wizard of Oz…the one who could pedal a bicycle through the sky.
She had information she needed to get into the heads of her tiny charges, and she could really drill it home. For a minor information absorption problem she would poke you repeatedly with her boney index finger on the top of your head or in the temple until you had properly learned. Now, if you were at the blackboard, tongue out, scratching some erroneous nonsense on her personal teaching aid, you could expect a thick “Dick and Jane” reading book to come repeatedly against the back of your skull as it rebounded off the blackboard.
When the end of the school year came and you, sadly, had to leave Sister Joanita, you needn’t fret. She taught Second Grade also. There were two grades to a classroom at Our Lady of the Angels.
I learned more about human nature during recess at that school than I could have ever learned in a classroom setting. In the eight years I went there, no adult supervision ever occurred on the playgrounds. We were entirely on our own, even in Second Grade, and I had learned the extra fun game of “dog pile on (somebody’s name here)”.
I had a pal named Henry Terlick, whose last name (i.e. “Terlick Bowl”) I was grateful for, since it relieved some of the pressure I was getting from having the last name of Edge.
One recess I joined in by shouting, “Dog pile on Henry”, which caused a bunch of kids to knock Henry down and joyously pile on top of him. What fun, and I caused it!
In the following days, I called out a couple more names and was strutting due to my newfound power, so I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard “Dog pile on Larry”. I didn’t see any joyous faces as I struggled to breathe at the bottom of that pile of snarling, snapping, uniformed little darlings. One cute little girl reached in and tore my shirt. I was humbled. The lofty had been brought low; human nature had been revealed. Try and teach that in a classroom.
The consensus may be that 6-year-old kids have no sexual inclination at all, but I can tell you that’s not true. I was mesmerized by Janet Keeler’s golden blond hair. Absolutely smitten. I was enthralled with any girl sporting buck teeth. There could be no more beautiful feature on any female human being.
I fell in love with a “high born” sixth grade girl…the local insurance broker’s daughter, Mary Margaret Tegeler. Neither a five year age difference nor her two foot height advantage could deter my ardor. Of course, she didn’t know I existed. Throwing caution to the wind, I remedied that one day on the school bus by hitting her on the head with my lunch box. She noticed me! I had made contact with the girl of my dreams! She kept a close eye on me after that. I went home and told my mother I had a relationship.
Sister Joanita must have taken note of my heterosexual tendencies when she devised a method of discipline meant to embarrass me into compliance. She had one of the other students bring a girls dress to school, which she put on me and had me stand all day in front of the class. That didn’t sit well with my mother, who accompanied me to school the next day and let the staff have a piece of her mind.
She made it up to me by telling them that day was a fishing day, pulled me out of class and took me to the mill-pond to give some sunfish sore lips.
Before I reached my fourth birthday I had decided I’d turned the corner and would never again allow swear words to proceed from my lips. I was proud of that, so, when I saw two nuns seated in the waiting area of a train station, I stood in front of them and announced, “I don’t say ‘st’ anymore!” I was sure those righteous beings would be happy to know that. They smiled and nodded angelically.
I knew nuns were women. I knew that; but to me they weren’t really people like the rest of us. They were holy. They had taken something called “vows” that put them on the other side of some divide between themselves and regular humans. They got up and prayed every morning at five o’clock. They never married and they owned very little. All you could see was a black and white “habit” and a face.
You don’t want to know what it feels like to sit on one’s lap. I sure didn’t, but, due to my behavior in fifth grade, I was to find out. It was mushy. My teacher was a sweet person, but when I put a gag bottle of nail polish with a fake spill on her meticulously inscribed open ledger book, she decided to teach class with me sitting on her lap like a baby. Embarrassing.
I liked Sister Mary Francis. We all did. She oversaw square dancing lessons for the boys and girls. She was a fun-loving young woman who seemed to be having trouble settling into her adopted life. That was confirmed, because, after two years of teaching, she was sent off to get some alone time meditating in the solitary confinement of a cloister. It was a sad day for the kids. I hadn’t caused her much trouble, at least I don’t think I did, but I can’t say the same for the nun teaching seventh and eighth in the classroom below ours. Our time together began before I even left sixth grade, when I threw a paper airplane out the window and it turned back and flew into her room as she was teaching class.
Besides teaching seventh and eighth grades, Mother Victorina was the school principal. She had taken a load upon her four-foot-ten shoulders and probably should have selected an age-group that she could have looked down on, rather than up to. She picked a hard group. From my experience in her class, if I were advising someone aspiring to be a teacher of adolescents, I would say “run, don’t walk”.
She gave us boys the job of receiving and distributing the individual lunchtime milk cartons. The refrigerator in the basement was ours, and we got some good use out of it. It kept cool the four pound bass I brought in to show to my friends, while regaling them with the true tale of how I dove into shallow water and pinned it to the bottom, after it broke my line. Besides holding the school milk, there was plenty of room to store field mice and muskrats, prior to skinning them and stretching their hides on boards we’d brought in. Naturally, when found out, we were told not to do that. Mother Victorina meant well by giving us responsibility, but she was learning something, too…the Law of Unintended Consequences.
She got a new student in the seventh grade…a tough guy named Artie Boyle. He had been expelled from public school for behavior, and his parents had come to an arrangement with the Catholics to pay tuition and enroll him at Our Lady of the Angels. Artie and I were in the outfield, on the same softball team one recess, when a ball was hit beyond us. We both ran for it. As we got to it, he pushed me down, then stood next to me belly-laughing. In a temper, I kicked hard at him and somehow caught him just right so that his feet went up, and he came straight down on his head. I ran. A pair of big eighth-grade boys, both named Doug, got between me and my team-mate and saved me.
Artie sat next to me in class. At fourteen and eleven, he was older than the eighth-graders and I was younger than the seventh-graders. I don’t know why, but I didn’t fear him like I should have. We got in a verbal tiff when the teacher was out of the room, and I challenged him to fight. He stood up, I stood up, and, for the last time at Our Lady of the Little Angels, my head bounced off the blackboard, this time from being punched in the face.
Mother had to reprimand her charges. Artie caught the worst of it, which I thought was only right, since I lost. He managed to make it through the year with the rest of us, and I didn’t see him again until years later, during the Viet Nam war, when I ran into him in a restaurant in Liberty. He was a Green Beret in the Army…Special Forces. Mother had done the right thing. He didn’t need to be expelled again; Artie just needed his energy channeled.
Mother Victorina took away my Duncan Yo-Yo. That may not seem important, but to a kid who spent his only dollar bill on it and practiced incessantly, lest the fad pass him by still unskilled, it was major. She put it in her desk and promised I could have it at the end of the school day, but she forgot. That was on a Friday, and the weekend was upon me. I was lost without it. I rode my bike by the school Saturday morning and saw that the front door was ajar because the janitor was working. I went in, opened her desk and took what was mine.
Monday morning she asked me why the Yo-Yo wasn’t in her desk, and I told her. She cried. I’d broken her. That affected me more than any of the discipline I’d received at that school, and I pretty much behaved myself for the remainder of my time there.
One midday recess, while playing outside, I saw the four nuns get in their car and head off in the direction of their convent in Jeffersonville, leaving the school with no adult presence. That day the softball was knocked over the fence into the cold, rushing creek, and I ran to get it before it drifted beyond reach. I fell in. I was soaked. The time to be called back to class had come and gone, and the nuns hadn’t returned. My house was separated from the school by just one mile of country road, and I decided to walk home and change. I made it back before they did. One of the girls told them what I’d done, but they never said a word to me. I realize, now, that the thought of what could have happened when they left the school unattended probably scared them.
We never knew what important issue caused them to abandon their posts, but the school didn’t remain open for long after my class graduated eighth grade. It was a true ministry, with no tuition being charged the Catholic kids. Most of the donations the congregates dropped into the church’s offering basket each Sunday made noise, so it wasn’t hard to figure out why it failed. Bingo tournaments, church carnivals, and having the kids sell raffle tickets for a “basket of cheer” (booze) couldn’t support the facility and those laboring there, even if they had taken a vow of poverty.
But the nuns didn’t fail. They gave us an education that prepared us well for adulthood and afforded us a solid base for all our subsequent schooling. If I hadn’t suffered through years of diagramming sentences, I might not be sitting here writing this right now. They were just real people, after all, like us, and, although they’re probably all gone now, it would be great to show them the results of their efforts. Thanks, Sisters.
Jeffersonville (pop. 400) had every feature of a full-function town, except a police department. There was a bank, a bakery, a drug store/soda fountain, a fire house, an A&P market, and two doctors who made house-calls if you got sick. It had a two-lane bowling alley that offered boys employment setting the pins back up after each frame. (The rest of the country got to see that mini-sports complex restored, decades later, when the village was selected for a television show called “Town Haul” on The Learning Channel.) In the 1950s, the local celebrity was the secretary at the livestock auction barn, an armless fellow who expertly typed on a manual typewriter with his bare feet.
They say you know a town is small when the Mayor and the Village Idiot is the same person. Each hamlet could support about one homeless guy. Narrowsburg had “Roosevelt”, who was known to turn down car rides, when offered, saying “No thanks, I’m in a hurry”. Jeff had “Woodchuck”, who had been given the title of Honorary Mayor. He lived for years in a converted one-car garage overlooking the creek that ran through town. Eventually, the community built him a little place of his own near the town dump and gave him a paid job, his main responsibility being to monitor the dump and make sure no one discarded dead chickens.
When I was four, we moved to Jefferson Avenue, a dead-end street with a few houses and a small synagogue. Our street was dubbed “Jew Street” by the non-Jewish, giving me my first taste of the anti-Semitism that follows the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob wherever they’ve gone, no matter how successfully integrated into society.
The County Judge was a Jewish neighbor whose backyard faced an open field near our house. His yard featured an artificial pond filled with a prize collection of Japanese Coy fish. Though I didn’t own a fishing rod, I had some idea of what it was supposed to look like and fashioned one from a stick, a string and a safety pin. I cleaned that pond out. My parents had to answer to him for it and were pretty worried, but he let them off the hook, which was more than I did for his fish.
I didn’t know much about fire back then, so when I found myself alone in our backyard with trash burning in a metal drum, I got a dry stick and held it in the flames until it ignited. I then transferred the flame to the dry lawn a few feet away to see what would happen. What happened was that half the town turned out to man a bucket brigade to keep the expanding forest fire from destroying their homes. The teenager in charge of the drum was blamed for not watching it, and I let him take the heat, not revealing to my mom who the real arsonist was until I was 50 years old…she was still pretty upset to find out…I should have waited a few more years.
On Saturdays, I would lace up my PF Flyers and head to the baseball field, where an old man would park his car and lift the trunk lid to reveal the goodies he enjoyed passing out to the local kids each week. Some weeks it was girl toys, sometimes modeling clay or cap guns. I was totally disappointed because I missed the best Saturday of them all, when he gave out war-surplus Army gas masks. On that day, encountering a roadside host of those miniature, faceless, bug-eyed warriors would have given any sci-fi literate adult pause before entering town.
In those villages people love a parade. Every patriotic holiday generates one…4th of July, Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day. My dad would brush the mothballs out of his Navy uniform, put it on once more and proudly march down Main Street bearing the flag as the high school band’s bass drum banged out a cadence. The American Legion would participate, and, of course, the current high school Beauty would wave to the appreciative crowd from someone’s convertible. Every fire engine would be employed to slowly pass by, and not just because the smiling volunteers riding on them were related (by marriage at least) to every spectator, but those expensive machines were the equity of a committed and close-knit community. The entire town turned out, and everyone had a front seat.
Oh, and let’s not forget tractors. Proud tractor owners would sneak a few into each parade, pulling a float set up on a hay wagon, if no other way. These days, Callicoon, some miles down the road, has eliminated all the unnecessary distractions and gotten down to the nitty-gritty by staging an annual parade of nothing but tractors…big…small…old…new…celebrating the county’s rural heritage. A good time is had by all.
The Jeffersonville Fireman’s Supper is the get-together of the year, now as it was then, and everybody who is somebody is there, as well as everybody who is not somebody. It’s cross-generational, too, unlike in a city, where you’d expect the youth to have something else to do. It’s the time to catch up with those you haven’t seen for a while, not that you’re not fully aware of what’s gone on in their lives. Nothing escapes the grapevine around there.
Each fall, a workshop attended by some of the world’s best photojournalists is held in a converted Jeff barn. It was the vision of local Eddie Adams, the photographer who took the Pulitzer Prize winning execution picture during the Viet Nam war. Ninety-nine students are selected for the free Barnstorm Workshop to be mentored by the pros in an intense, four-day competition capturing the local flavor on SD chips (used to be “on film”).
Patty Hearst spent time here, in a house right behind the ball field, when she was on-the-lamb with her Symbionese Liberation Army captors in 1974. In her book, she describes Jeffersonville as simply “near nowhere in particular”.
I reckon she’s right. Norman Rockwell would have loved it.
I was just a skinny blond kid who usually wore no shoes or shirts when not in school, after the snow was gone and before it came back. I had a skinny blond friend who lived in a little house beyond Youngsville, Jeffersonville’s sister town, on the downslope of the far side of East Hill…..we were typical country kids.
Kevin was a fellow student in my class at parochial school for eight years. I’d say that, during our last two years there, we were as close as any two boys. Though he was feisty and had a strong aversion to injustice, I never had any conflict with him, like I did with my friend and neighbor Danny, when we got into an hour-long fist fight over a girl whose honor he was defending because I pelted her with a dry cow patty.
In summer we were together nearly every day, even though we lived several miles apart. I’d get on my bike, a pre-owned three-speed English Racer that my parents had sacrificially bought for me, and head to his house on a hillside. Mostly, we terrorized the local trout population, learning to catch them by any means possible, legal or illegal, including by hand.
German Brown Trout are the smartest fish in fresh water (if you’re fishing with a rod and reel like you’re supposed to) and also the most ignorant (if you’re feeling for them under rocks and such). I’d caught a big one, twenty-one inches, by diving under an embankment in the creek, feeling along its body ‘til I found the gills, then grabbing it with both hands and throwing it up to Kevin on the bank. We mounted it using a mail-order taxidermy course he had bought, and proudly displayed it on his living room mantel piece. The course material didn’t tell us that cats like to climb up on mantle pieces and eat the fins off mounted fish…we had to find out the hard way. We also mounted a sitting rabbit. His ears drooped, and his skin fit him a little loosely. He looked like Woody Allen in John Goodman’s overcoat. Sad, real sad. So much for taxidermy.
Like many of the boys in that area, at that time, we were Boy Scouts. A week-long campout at Beech Mountain, a remote property in the Catskills, was the highlight of the summer recess. The week included a ten mile, overnight hike through the watershed of the famous Beaverkill trout-fishing stream. A couple of miles in, camp was made at a site already home to some raccoons that sounded very much like bears, as they tore up our gear in the middle of the night. Nearby was a tree-enclosed natural pond. Kevin and I built a raft from logs and cast off. It came apart out in the middle, and we had to swim back…no loss…it didn’t float very well anyway.
I found a small stream and went off for a little while to go a-fishing in my traditional way, coming back with some trout to cook on the campfire. The Scout Leaders couldn’t figure how I got the fish and were sure I had sneaked a hook and line in my backpack.
The next morning, after we broke camp, we were crossing a bridge while hiking, and I declared that I saw a pair of trout hide under a log. I told the troop I was going to go down and get dinner. As they stood on the bridge overlooking the pool, I got down in the water and reached up under the log. I told my incredulous audience that I had two trout trapped, and I was going to have to let one go. The unbelievers were astonished when they saw it swim off, and even more so when I pulled up a nice brook trout and put it in my pack for the evening meal some miles away at the main camp.
On we went. A wooden fence surrounding a nudist camp, along a road we hiked, provided a feeble attempt at privacy. There were no people out. A wonderful, clear stream passed through it. A trout made the long swim to the surface from the bottom of a deep pool of crystal clear water at the base of a waterfall, broke the surface, turned and headed back down. Now, that‘s a thing worth seeing…not that we were looking.
After hiking all day, as we neared our destination, our group was strung out in a pathetic line of sweating misfits a half mile long. There were no lightweight camping supplies in those days, and our burdens were starting to take a toll. Some of the bigger boys carried two backpacks because the weaker ones couldn’t go on. Still, everyone arrived somewhat fine…everyone except my trout, that is, who hadn’t fared too well in the heat and had to be discarded.
Weeks later, back at home, our Scout Leaders decided to let the troop camp-out with no adult supervision. They let us know we were on our best behavior. I can still see those eleven to thirteen year-olds walking up the hill to the campsite carrying six-packs of beer and other contraband stolen from their parents.
We made it through the night, and in the morning the fireworks were brought out. Small firecrackers were used to pop tin cans a few feet into the air. We had one Cherry Bomb, and that was saved for a special demonstration. It was placed under a large, empty can, and, with some fanfare, set off. We expected the can to go pretty high, but it just disappeared in the blast…then someone saw the bottom of it, way up, glistening in the sun. The sides had been blown off, and the cupped can-bottom was spinning like a flying saucer, drifting off in the direction of the tent at the bottom of the hill, where Kevin’s cousin Doug, the biggest guy in our troop, was still sleeping. The explosion had woken him, and, after dragging himself to the tent opening, he stuck his head out and yelled, “WHAT’S GOING ON UP…”…he didn’t finish, as that spinning missile clocked him right in the noggin. I’d say it was one chance in a million, but it was probably more improbable than that. It was obvious he wasn’t feeling like an odds-defying lottery winner as he lay face-down holding his head, wondering what the heck just happened.
Yeah, that campout was a disaster. It goes without saying the Scout leaders didn’t push the boundaries of trust like that again.
Kevin and I did some camping outside of the Scouts, too, and got in the local newspaper for sleeping on the ground for three days in late winter (granted, the area was a little strapped for news). A third boy was with us. Timmy was the biggest of the three and helped with carrying the gear and fording a fast-flowing stream between us and the hillside we wanted to trespass on. (At that age, we never worried much about who owned the ground under our feet.) It snowed the first night. Timmy was looking for something in the dark by holding up a flaming can of Sterno, which is used for heating food, and burned a hole in the canvas tent. We made him sleep on that side with the snow coming in. The next morning, he was warming his feet at the campfire and ignited his shoes.
We needed to cross a branch of Lake Jefferson. (To get to the other side, of course!) A new layer of ice had formed during the night that was so thin beavers had broken breathing holes in it with their heads. Kevin and I lay down and scooted across on our bellies, one at a time. Timmy was next. He got half-way, and, due to his added weight, water from the beaver holes started to run toward him across the sagging ice. He was going to get wet.
He frantically yelled, “What should I do?”
It seemed to me he had two options, the obvious one he apparently wasn’t happy with, so I told him, “Stand up!”, which he did, and went through the ice at the expected speed of zero seconds. We took him to my house and got him dried up.
Timmy was a good guy, and he had a mind, once, to marry one of my cousins, which would have been okay with me. As an adult, he lost some fingers while trying to clear a running snow blower. I’ve been told by my friends that I’m accident prone, but if they knew Timmy, maybe not so much.
One time Kevin and I (a pair of 12 year olds) went hunting for partridge in the brushy fields near his house. He carried a shotgun. I was walking next to him on his right. He had been talking about how his older brother had discharged the shotgun from the hip and how cool that was. A partridge burst into flight toward the right, a couple feet in front of us. Left-handed Kevin instantly swung the gun up, and, from the hip, cut loose a blast, the end of the barrel inches from my face. We were stunned, except for the bird, which was dead. Never mentioning the fact that he nearly blew my brains out, we proudly brought it home to his family and prepared it for the evening meal. It cooked up great, but, having been shot from a distance of about six feet, was full of pellets. We just didn’t bite down too hard.
We went our separate ways after grade school: he to Liberty High and myself to Missouri. Two years later, circumstances had me enrolled at Liberty High School in the eleventh grade, and we were together again, albeit loosely.
One of his friends had come into a cache of M80 firecrackers, which are really small sticks of dynamite with side-fuses, and they begged to be used in some dramatic way.
A new club was formed and given the cute name “Sons of the Mad Bombers”. Hmm, what to bomb? Someone thought it should be an anti-Semitic club, but that didn’t work because one of the members was Jewish, so it was decided teachers would be the appropriate targets.
I was honored with an invitation to become a founding member…after I passed an initiation. One night, I was given an M80 and a cigarette (for a delayed fuse) and told to drop it near the police station front door. Standing in front of the police station, I couldn’t light the cigarette, because I didn’t know you had to draw on it, so I just lit the fuse. As I looked up, a man was walking toward me on the sidewalk. I stared him in the face, hoping he would look away before the thing went off, which he did, and I dropped the lit IED in front of the doorway. I only made it a couple steps when that thing exploded like a civil war cannon. I walked at a normal pace to the end of the block, without turning my head, rounded the corner and ran.
It was pitch-black as I cut across someone’s yard, completely blind, taking a shortcut to come back around to the soda fountain where the members were observing the spectacle. My foot-falls sounded hollow and I was suddenly airborne, falling ten thousand feet into some trash cans. I had run onto the roof of a garage built into a hillside. Unhurt, I made it back. The guys were beside themselves, exclaiming how great it was. “Man, the cops poured into the street and put up the hood of an old ladies car. They thought it blew up. You‘re in, man.” Initiation successful.
We formulated an elaborate plan to bomb a teacher’s house. We would surround it at night and, at a signal, would light our explosives and throw them all over the roof. The plan was put into action. We were at the ready. The signal was given. “Kadoo, Kadoo, Kadoo”. We lit ‘em up and tossed ‘em. In our excitement we’d forgotten to plan an orderly retreat and had no escape route, except through a dark grove of small trees, which we crashed through, getting slapped in the face by limbs as the war-zone-like Grand Finale erupted behind us. I’m not sure who got the worst of it, us or them.
That house-warming was our only gig. The club was short lived. Kevin was partly responsible for its demise, because he had a girlfriend to whom he was “joined at the hip” and brought her with him to clandestine club get-togethers in the cemetery. Anybody who has watched old black-and-white films of “Our Gang” knows that you can’t bring a girl to a meeting of the He-man Woman Haters Club and expect it to survive. But it didn’t matter. We were out of M80s anyway.
The friendship Kevin and I shared in elementary school didn’t reestablish itself in high school. He had a new set of friends, and one is obligated to distance one’s self from students not fully accepted by the group whose friendship one values. We were on a couple of the same sports teams, but he was a good athlete; I was mediocre. There was a new order, and the reasons we had been close no longer applied. We were both good with it…you do what you have to do. It’s the Law of The Way Things Are in high school.
The last time I saw him was after our high school days, at the entrance of the movie theatre in Liberty. We had each been greeted by a girl we hadn’t seen for years. In eighth grade, we were both crazy about her and were rivals for her attention, which she gave to neither of us. Now she was extra friendly…now that she had a serious case of face-scarring acne. He asked, bemusedly, “Did you see her?” I said, “Yeah.” I was a little tickled myself. I didn’t care if it was cruel to feel that way. It didn’t matter; she was the one that reached into the “dog pile on Larry” in second grade and tore my shirt.
Now that Kevin and I are at retirement age, we’ve been in contact via e-mail, and I’ve done an on-line search to see how he’s gone. I’m greatly moved by what I found. He got a degree in forestry, then entered the Peace Corps and worked in forestry in Chad and Niger. He was hired by USAID (United States Agency for International Development) and held a number of leadership posts in Haiti, Bangladesh, and Mali, and was Mission Director in Rwanda, then Senegal, and most recently led the USAID mission in the violence-wracked new nation of South Sudan. He’s an expert in agricultural assistance and a respected career foreign-service officer. The last thing I see is that USAID assigned him as Senior Development Advisor to the Africa Command in Germany.
I know that each generation replaces the last one. All the vocations, jobs…every avenue of life left behind by those that pass on will be occupied by the next set of people. From head landscaper to the head of the free world, my generation has filled all those positions…still, this is my friend we’re talking about, and it’s an amazing thing to see what my left-handed little buddy did with his life. The kid who I hung around with, camped with and all that, spent his days in Africa at the point of the spear…hung out to dry, in some respects, in some of the most dangerous and chaotic places in the world…places where many thousands were hacked to death by their next-door neighbors, or left to starve by their own governments…his job was to bring hope and sustenance from America the Bountiful by putting his own butt on the line…standing out like a sore white thumb in places the protections and laws of his own country do not apply. Truly America’s best…and still my friend.
Big changes were coming…just how big we didn’t yet know. We were all slipping into the future and away from the blissful days of family get-togethers every weekend…Aunts, Uncles, and eight cousins…all girls but me…making “ghost towns” from small unused chicken coops and playing out the fantasies of youth. Those things don’t go on forever. We just thought they did.
The center of the family was Grandpa Moller. Everyone cared about him, and with all these women and girls, he had a full life in his later years. Being as how I was the only boy at that time, he made me feel special by secretly calling me aside, and, in what sounded a bit like an Irish brogue, whisper, “Lahry, take this, don’t tell your mother”, while stuffing a one dollar bill into my pocket…five percent of his monthly social security check.
I have a fondly-held image of him during one of his grumpy moments…an old man sitting in a chair in his daughter Jinny’s dining room, pouting unto death; the girls had gone off in the car and left him alone, and he wasn’t happy about it. So, when an abscess on his ankle started bleeding, he just sat in that chair and let a pool of blood form on the floor until they returned, telling them that if they didn’t care enough to carry him along he’d just as soon bleed to death.
Grandpa had been flirting with the end point of his life for years, so it seemed normal that he would go into hospital on his last leg, stay a while and then walk back out. Then one day he didn’t.
Being old and full of days, he left us. He had survived a couple of close calls, one of which was falling through the ice of a woodland pond while bringing home a Christmas tree, unable to climb out. Just like on “Lassie”, he was saved by his dog, who ran home barking and brought help.
I have difficulty remembering the faces of some who have moved on, but not Grandpa. Even after all this time, it’s easy to remember what he looked like. I simply think of his ears and the rest falls into place…big old ears, catching the breeze like the sail on a Viking longboat.
Grandpa Moller… Republican, Lutheran, Patriarch…buried next to his wife behind the little Lutheran Church in Jeffersonville, on a hillside nearly too steep to mow, about a million miles from the flat Jutland Peninsula where he was born.
Changes were coming, and it wasn’t just the loss of Grandfather. My parents’ marriage had faded away into divorce, and, about the time I turned 13, my mother married a man who was the exact opposite of my slightly-built, gentlemanly father. He was a tattoo-covered former Army paratrooper who had dropped into Sainte-Mere-Eglise, France during the D Day invasion. He survived the hand-to-hand combat that day, and the rest of the war, with only a bullet hole in one knee received while jumping into yet another German-occupied area.
His mother once showed me a long New York Times newspaper article about him, written by a war correspondent who had joined him after seeing the soldier walking through a freshly ravaged battlefield escorting several captured Germans.
When my father died, an old veteran who wheeled himself to the graveside service declared, “He was one tough SOB; had we had more like him the war would have ended sooner.” He didn’t know my dad. His statement couldn’t have been less true. But with Melvin Brown it couldn’t have been more true. He was tough by anyone’s standards and perfectly suited for armed conflict…big, strong, and afraid of no one. He was raised by a father that didn’t spank him, or even beat him, but flogged him with a cat-o’-nine-tails for juvenile indiscretions. This is not really someone you want to mess with. An officer threatened him on the airplane as his unit was about to jump into combat and did not live to regret it.
“He said, ‘When we get to the ground, it’s me or you, Brown.’ I saw him first.” is how Melvin told it.
I might have doubted that story had we not been denied an Army plaque for his grave, years later. My mother finally revealed that he had been unceremoniously drummed out of the Army after the war for firing a warning shot into the leg of yet another officer, while on sentry duty. No glory there; one “Aw Shucks” can cancel a hundred “Atta boys” and so, after nine years in the Army he was taken to a train station, had his insignia removed, and transferred back to civilian life.
This was the man that was to be my stepfather. He had dropped out of school in the eighth grade to enter the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was established to put young men to work during the Great Depression. He helped build roads with a sledge hammer, making little rocks out of big ones dumped on the road bed. To him, hard work was a virtue; in fact it was the virtue by which all men (and boys) were measured. He wasn’t the kind of dad a boy might expect to “play catch” with; in fact, playing with a ball of any type was for children, not for adults, and that includes members of the National Football League.
Before they were married, he saw me argue with my mom about washing the dishes. I had no idea how much that mistake was going to cost me.
Mom was in no position to stay single. She had lost her stake in the family house, after getting divorced, when my father let the bank take it, and he simply didn’t pay the seventy-five dollars a month child support a judge told him he owed. She worked night shift as a Nurse’s Aide in a local hospital. Her three kids, ages twelve, nine, and one had to be left alone at night in a drafty, cold apartment building so she could earn ninety-three cents an hour emptying bed pans. During the day she took over the duty of minding the one-year-old, Pammy, from my nine-year-old sister, Vicki, and in the evening she fed and tended Vicki and me. This couldn’t continue; even Carl Marx allowed for the fact that workers bodies require a few hours of sleep.
One of her patients was an object of curiosity for the staff. How could a man have survived having a bulldozer slip sideways off a trailer and lay on his midsection for nearly an hour before it was lifted off? This was a real man…and a good provider, who, after he recovered, brought us bags of groceries when he visited. He got along fine with my mom, so they got married, dropped off the kids at a relative’s and set off across the United States looking for a new life.
They reached Knob Noster, Missouri, where he found work installing Minuteman missile silos in farmer’s cornfields. They came back to New York, picked up the kids, and got back on the road for the twenty-two hour, nearly non-stop return trip along America’s partially completed Interstate Highway System. Long sections of road were still two-lane, bi-directional death traps carrying much of the country’s interstate commerce in eighteen-wheelers barreling along at 70 miles per hour. The combined closing speed of 140 MPH and resulting sonic boom as the trucks passed by two feet away thwarted any attempt at sleep for us kids. It was a great relief to arrive at Rigdon’s Trailer Park.
Our trailer was 28 feet long and 8 feet wide, plus a little room we called a “cabana” built on one side. It was actually roomy enough for the five of us. Then Ronnie Donovan arrived.
Ronnie Donovan’s real name was Bobby Ellis. He’d had a little problem with his girlfriend back in New York and slapped her up a little bit, whereupon she’d stabbed him a little bit with a fork. The tiny pink scars showed that it was a four-tine fork. Anyway, Bobby needed a new name and a place to stay, so he located his Uncle Melvin, made up a cool new name for himself and dropped in for an extended visit. He didn’t have a lot of luggage, but he did have an electric guitar and amplifier that he set up in the cabana. I can still see him standing Elvis-like, his wetted hair dropping a little wet curl on his forehead, legs apart and bent backwards, clad in sharkskin pants and a collared shirt opened half-way down, entertaining us by practicing the same amplified riff over and over.
Melvin absolutely tolerated him. It wasn’t just that Ronnie was the son of Melvin’s sister, May Belle. He possessed the “hard worker” virtue, and, even more than that, Melvin had seen him brutally beat some men in a bar fight. He was welcome to stay, pretty much as long as he wanted.
He bought a green Cadillac convertible, with a white ragtop, and found a truck-driving job delivering frozen eggs to the East Coast. The boss’s daughter was his girlfriend. Things were looking good for him, until he returned from a trip and found that he was fired. Seems the daughter had tired of him and, as a last blast, had bombed around town in his fancy car, putting a rip in the side of the roof. So her father backed her up by firing him. He covered the rip by having matching green shamrocks sewn onto the roof sides. At least his image was still intact.
Ronnie needed some way to meet a new woman. He could go to a city park and walk a pet alligator on a leash, hoping it would swallow some chick’s dog…or, just about as strange, he could take his 24-year-old, cool self down to the high school and hang around. That’s what he did, and he got away with it. He needed to find a girl who came from a large dysfunctional family and had to get away from home. She would have to like super-cool guys with a slight psychopathic edge. She couldn’t be put off by a guy who was a divorced father by his seventeenth birthday. Believe it or not, he found a pretty, intelligent high school girl that fit that bill. Her name was Beverly, and she was destined to be his second wife.
Ronnie burst into the trailer one night, got his gun and got back in his car. It seems some mother and her two sons had been practicing their drop-kicking technique on Ronnie’s prostrate body in a bar parking lot. Melvin understood “Death before Dishonor”, as evidenced by a tattoo on his upper arm. He knew that his nephew was going to shoot those people, no matter the consequences, rather than suffer humiliation. He got in his car and gave chase. Fortunately the gravel roads that split Missouri cornfields occasionally make sharp turns that cannot be negotiated at 90 miles an hour. Cadillacs and Combines apparently share this characteristic: they are both able to go off-road and mow down long swaths of green corn stalks. Ronnie missed a turn…and that’s how Melvin’s car chase saved his sister’s son from a life behind bars.
Mr. and Mrs. Bobby Ellis (aka Mr. and Mrs. Ronnie Donovan) set off on a life of adventure, eventually moving to Alaska building the Trans Alaska oil pipeline and raising a family.
Years later I was surprised to see Beverly at Melvin’s funeral. A few weeks prior, she had left her husband and the sons he had taught to disrespect her and traveled to New York to be with Melvin. It seems someone with her taste in men has few options. She didn’t know that Melvin had been living most of his life on borrowed time, and the loan had a very specific due-date. We buried him on his sixtieth birthday.
Melvin had been involved in yet one more change of domicile…moving again…starting over again, this time with Beverly. One of the young men helping him move stole his most prized possession, a briefcase full of silver coins he’d been collecting for twenty years. When confronted at the police station with some of the coins in his pocket, the younger man swore and laughed at him, and Melvin came across the table and dropped the laugher in an unconscious heap with one blow. But that was all the satisfaction the cops would allow him; they didn’t let him turn the young guy into a putty-like substance with the consistency and appearance of yesterday’s road-kill, like he wanted to. The man who had parachuted into the street in front of German headquarters and, with one other soldier, dispatched four big Germans hand-to-hand; the guy who, in his forties, left a California cop laying in the street with one punch out his car window, lest the cop find out he’d been drinking and driving on Christmas Day…his traditional day to drink; that guy had to tolerate this young thief’s ridicule. The stress of that incident, coupled with a lifetime spent consuming meat and potatoes, was more than his heart could take, and within a week he left this world.
He always said to just put him in a pine box and put him in the ground, so Vicki ordered up a furniture-quality wooden casket and left his sister Kate with the bill. A country funeral was held with all the typical goings-on, like Mom’s friend Frances telling anyone who might be crying that they needed to “get ahold of yourself”, or my brother Perry threatening another former stepson, who I didn’t know, with a beat-down if he didn’t leave. Mom and Melvin had been divorced for years, but at a time like this, that didn’t matter at all, not to her or anyone else who was there. Perry was their son.
They found a preacher who delivered a Sunday sermon, without one mention of the deceased, because he didn’t know him, and because this was the only time in their lives these northern hillbillies would ever sit still to hear the gospel. Even former wife Betty was there…the “Betty” we only knew from the tattoo on his arm. His hands were laid over each other rather than finger-linked, so that you couldn’t read the suggestive comment tattooed on the backs of his fingers; it was only readable if he locked them in praying position.
My sisters Pam and Vicki sat in the front row. Pam started silently laughing during the quiet time and leaned over to Vicki and said, “Look at his thumb”, which was sticking up slightly. “He’s saying pull my thumb, pull my thumb”, just like when she was little and he was having some gaseous fun with her. They both laughed.
We followed a black Cadillac hearse that struggled up the steep grade to the gravesite, puffing and straining, with a noisy muffler and an engine that could have used rebuilding, and buried him next to his nephew who died while we lived in Missouri. Vicki had put a ring, an opal set in gold, in his pocket to take with him into the afterlife, and then someone who claimed ownership asked for it back after the grave was filled in.
I was sitting next to Beverly, when she received a call from Ronnie after he heard of Melvin’s death. He laughed and mocked her for being stupid enough to take up with that old man (the man who had taken him in and probably saved him from prison). I didn’t know I could think less of Ronnie, but he dropped down one more notch in my eyes. As for Beverly, she went back to him.
The phrase “never a dull moment” applies to some families, but to Melvin’s extended family it was the motto under the family crest. His wild bunch made my mother’s colorful clan look like “American Gothic” by comparison. His sister, May Belle, lived with her husband and her boyfriend as though that was just everyday normal. I watched the men to see how that worked. They didn’t speak to each other unless they were fixing a car together…multiple men…sort of like Reverse Mormons.
From our elevated position on the other side of a valley, my Uncle Arkie and I could see the cow barn of Melvin’s sister, Kate, fully engulfed in flames. On leave from the Navy, I had been visiting my mom’s brother when we noticed the distant orange glow beyond the horizon that always accompanies a structure fire on a dark Catskill night. We decided to go for a drive to see where the action was unfolding. Unhappily, it was Kate’s barn. From the distant hilltop we could see the burning building and flashing red lights of fire trucks but were spared the close-up drama of shouting men and bawling cattle that could not be saved. One of the kids had been smoking in the hay loft.
Kate was married to Russell Klein. They had a bunch of kids, mostly boys, and lived on a productive dairy farm. They were a practical people, finding multiple uses for household items. If a kid felt like it, the new pool table could double as a bed. As long as tin cans didn’t roll out onto the hardwood floor, the new fieldstone fireplace could be used to burn trash. The matching bathroom appliances included a tub that was a decent temporary backup to the toilet if it got backed up.
Now, Aunt Kate did set limits, such as “no horses in the house”. I saw her enforce that, saying, “Get that thing out of my kitchen!” when one of the boys brought Mister Ed inside to meet me. With some difficulty he managed to get it turned around without knocking over the kitchen table and took it back outside.
One might think after reading this that these were ignorant people, but one would be mistaken. They just lived on a different level, at a faster pace than most of the rest of us. Uncle Russell had a bachelor’s degree in agriculture. A trophy on the mantle honored the “Most Improved Herd” in New York State.
His cows were an awesome lot of bag-dragging, black-and-white bovine beauty, each with papers showing her pedigree. He ran a sawmill on his property, as well, to ensure his family didn’t share in the marginally impoverished state of some of the other local farm families. It didn’t hurt that the whole family possessed the work ethic of Melvin’s parents, farmers who had milked, by hand, twenty cows apiece twice a day, in addition to all the other work a dairy farm requires. The Kleins actually had money to buy new school clothes if the kids didn’t have time to do the wash. I was in awe.
Moss didn’t grow on anyone’s backside in that family. Perhaps a little less of a frenetic pace may have prevented some of the pain and suffering that goes with not sitting on one’s keester. Uncle Russell might have stopped the tractor before jumping off to let his son get on. His boy might not have fallen down and gotten run over, surviving, thankfully. Slowing down might have saved another of his sons a hospital stay due to flipping a tractor over backwards. Had Russell taken more time to be careful he might not have pinned his son Carl against the barn with a truck, causing him to lose an arm.
Some handicapped people say that they don’t let their condition slow them down. Carl epitomized that saying. He was known locally as a pool shark. He was the one-armed guy who used a chain saw. He really could do anything except shoot a bow and arrow, but that’s not required for ‘coon hunting, so he wasn’t hindered in that endeavor either. He and his prize ‘coon dogs were stacking up trophies in chase-em-up-a-tree-and-shoot-em contests.
One night, while hunting with a friend, he shot a raccoon that didn’t want to fall out of a 50 foot tree, so he climbed up to dislodge it. He missed a hand-hold and fell, his miner’s headlamp tracing his path to the ground. He broke his back; his legs were paralyzed and he knew it, asking his friend to “just shoot me”. The friend ran off for help, later realizing he’d left a gun with Carl, but was relieved on his return to find him still alive.
Carl’s life had just become much more difficult.
After a long period of physical healing and mental adjustment, he had to face the fact that he had a family to support. He had married a schoolmate of mine, Chris Cross, and had two little daughters. He couldn’t return to his job at the trotter track, Monticello Raceway, and his prospects as a high school dropout were slim. He had to go back to school.
A few years and a lot of effort later, Carl Klein found himself in the rose garden of a big white house being presented an award as the nation’s most outstanding handicapped student, by the President of the United States. He said he didn’t deserve it; some people didn’t see it that way.
The last time I saw the Klein family, my mother and I and my brother, Perry, happened to stop by on a day the whole family and some friends had gotten together for a picnic at a pond they had created in a little valley on their property. The unrelated were warmly greeted as Aunt Edna and Cousin Larry; when you’re family, you’re family with them, and little things like divorce or lack of bloodline can’t change that. Russell was hospitalized with but a few days left to live, and son Kelvin, having survived the tractor flipping incident, had long ago died in a car wreck, but a few of Kate’s other kids were there. Carl was a college professor; Shirley a postmaster; Barry a prison guard.
Aunt Kate sat at a picnic table contentedly surveying her middle-aged brood. In the distance behind her, four horses could be seen walking single file along a ridge in a field she owned, backlit and silhouetted against the late afternoon sky.
The men tried to throw their women in the pond, but the women weren’t having it, and the whole lot of them went in fully clothed.
Barry had provided a bonfire of scab lumber from the sawmill, and was standing, half-lit himself, tossing fuel oil onto the eight-foot-high conflagration. His back to us, he swayed to the music of Pink Floyd wafting through the trees and rebounding off the hillside, declaring that his generation doesn’t need no education, and that teachers amount to little more than wall bricks.
Missouri was a world away from upstate New York. In the early sixties, the homogenizing effect of television had not yet softened the cultural edges that define the denizens of one demographic area from another. The people of “The Show Me State” acted different from me. Some thought Roman Catholics had horns. This was Baptist country. The town’s greasy spoon was called a “café”. Soda was “pop”. A short distance away was Whiteman Air Force Base, home of the Strategic Air Command, the western world’s trigger-man in the “Mutually Assured Destruction” nuclear standoff. The entrance road to the nearby town of Warrensburg sported an archway emblazoned with the words “THROUGH THIS PORTAL HAVE PASSED THE MEANEST MULES ON EARTH”…Knob Noster, Missouri…Culture Shock USA.
In late summer of ’62, as Mom and Melvin settled us into our new lives, I enrolled in a public school for the first time, with different subjects being taught in different rooms and hordes of students, who knew what they were doing, passing from one room to another at the prompting of a bell. I went with the flow, eventually figuring things out without being late too many times.
It didn’t take long for the school bully to locate me, a phenomena that was to repeat itself in the subsequent schools I attended. This guy scared the pants off me. He was a big Latino from Texas who had engaged in gang-related border war with “Mex-cans”. He told me to meet him after school at the west end of the building so he could “kick your ass”. Each day he accosted me with the fact that I hadn’t shown and told me I was only making it worse for myself. I finally just went and awaited my fate, lest I make him even angrier, but he didn’t show. He found out I’d gone and waited, and that was the end of it. I think he liked me.
Melvin had decided before he wed my mom that I was lazy, and that he needed to “train” me. My training took the form of washing his car every day after he returned from driving the dusty backroads leading to the various ICBM construction sites where he worked. He would inspect the car, when I was done, and find some spot I missed, bringing a punishment usually reserved for little kids. I stood in the corner for hours. He found an unwashed spot every day and became convinced, as he told my mother, “He’s just trying to see how far he can push me.”
I wasn’t allowed to go to school ball games or dances, etc. although the school was nearby. No reason given.
I was always on restriction, except one day when the trailer park owner’s son and another boy my age showed up with three girls. They stood outside and called to me to go with them to the “washroom”…the trailer park’s laundromat. The little Hispanic girl reserved for me stood sheepishly to one side.
“Come on, Larry, come on out, we’re going to the washroom”, the boys said.
Melvin chimed in, “Go on out there boy, get your feet wet”. I didn’t know what that meant, but it didn’t sound like something I wanted to do. I wouldn’t go.
“Something’s wrong with your boy, Edna. Go on out there and get your feet wet, boy.” I never did go. Melvin was sure there was something seriously wrong with this kid…wouldn’t even get his feet wet. I wasn’t endearing myself to him.
I saw a notice on a school bulletin board announcing a nation-wide speech contest, open to all high school students, sponsored by the Optimist International Club. I was just a thirteen-year-old freshman, but I entered and wrote a five minute speech on the designated subject “Youth’s Approach toward World Forces”. My mother attended the local contest, which I won, to her surprise, since she hadn’t heard my memorized speech before that night. I was to represent my area in the regional contest in St. Louis.
The Optimists set me up with a ride to St. Louis provided by a local motel owner using his own car (a large man, I don’t remember his name). He promised to get me there “by hook or by crook”. Another man rode along, ostensibly as a back-up driver. A few miles into the trip, on a one lane country road and doing about sixty miles an hour, we came down a hill with a bridge at the bottom that was elevated a few feet higher than the road surface. Motel Owner didn’t slow down. We launched from the ramp-like approach and came down hard in the middle of the bridge and then really lifted off as we left the other end. This time I drifted to the ceiling. We came down nose first and slid to a stop, oil pooling in the road, the crankshaft pounding loudly against the oil pan. The back-up driver said “I was going to say something. I thought that was a little fast.”…yeah, and Adolf Hitler had a little personality problem; But, never fear, the driver had another car, which we sped back to get before all the oil ran out of the one we were in.
We made it to St. Louis and Motel Owner dropped me off at the Chaise Park Plaza Hotel, informing me that he had “business to attend to” and would pick me up in two days at the end of the contest, which was held at the same hotel. I explored the city for a couple of days, enjoying my first taste of that sort of freedom. Two things I remember that exemplify the fact that we were once a less litigious society: a drinking fountain in Forest Park that shot water thirty feet in the air, nearly taking the head off the un-wary in need of a drink, and the window sills of the ballroom on the top floor of my hotel. They were one foot above floor level, just high enough to launch stumbling party-goers head-first out the large open windows on their way to the sudden stop twenty-eight stories below.
On the day of the contest, I got lost while exploring and barely got back in time. Exhausted from running and a little breathless, I delivered my speech. My monologue was based on the fact that I rubbed elbows with a small community at the control center of the nuclear defense of the free world. The contest was won by a boy who compared current events to a football game; Ingenious! Why didn’t I think of that?
Motel Owner was in the audience, in the front row, sound asleep. Obviously the business to which he had to attend had something to do with the ingestion of alcohol. Each of the contestants got up and introduced their parents to the crowd. I introduced “my driver”, spread out, slovenly and snoring, to a very amused audience. He was the comic relief, and he never knew it.
He got me there and back by hook or by crook, drunk or not drunk.
Although home life was difficult, the year I spent in the mid-west was a valuable experience. I got to experience a culture, foreign to me, that to a great extent no longer exists. The opportunity to meet real Missouri natives arose when our family was invited to the home of one of the men working for my stepfather. Melvin was a boss, now; he had devised a way to eliminate much of the tamping required to obtain a specified density in the soil surrounding missile silos, by using a crane to drop dirt from an elevation, and he had been promoted to foreman. His crew consisted mostly of older men, because he felt they were more productive. Mr. Zumwalt was around sixty.
When we arrived at the Zumwalt’s home, I was struck by two features: a storm shelter with a steel door in the center of the front yard, and a refrigerator, meant only for beer, on the front porch.
This could have been Auntie Em’s homestead. It consisted of an older white house, an unpainted barn and a number of smaller unpainted outbuildings. It was situated in wide-open farmland, treeless but for a few hedge-apple trees along a small creek bed nearby. (Hedge-apples resemble green brains, with the hardness factor, density and, probably, taste of a bowling ball.)
The soil in Missouri is productive and plow-able, unless you get down to what they call hardpan, which is partially cured granite. They were dirt farmers who also put up some hay for a few head of livestock.
The Zumwalts had a two year old grandson, the same age as my sister Pammy. A footrace between the toddlers was announced. After a few steps, Pammy fell on her face; the boy won and then continued to make his family proud by climbing, clad in only a diaper, into the engine compartment of a car in the back yard with its hood up, just for him, then banging away with a crescent wrench for a couple of hours.
“That boy’s gonna be a mechanic.” Mr. Zumwalt declared.
After some confab and a few trips to the front porch refrigerator, Mr. Zumwalt decided it was a good time to get on his tractor and try to back a four-wheel trailer loaded with hay into the barn. Choosing to leave his guests for a few minutes to show off his farming skills turned out to be anti-social behavior, since it is impossible for an old man to direct two steerable contraptions backward in a straight line before most of the alcohol is out of his system.
As that was going on, the young adults and teens, about six of us, were in the kitchen when the twenty year old son burst in excitedly. He was a nice looking, dark haired kid with the build of a weightlifter.
He announced, “Come out and see my convertible!”
“You don’t have a convertible.”
“Come and see!” We all went outside, and there it was…a convertible. He had made one from a four-door ‘55 Chevy by taking an axe to the roof. Bright, shiny, jagged steel defined the passenger compartment.
“Let’s go to the quarry for a swim!”
“Yeah! Let’s go for a swim.” We started to pile in, when someone opened a back door and it nearly fell off because the door post had been chopped off at the top. We needed to keep the doors on. A cross-car rope did the trick, and we took off down the gravel road… ‘Jethro and Friends’ in a brand new convertible.
After a great swimming and cliff-diving session down at the old abandoned quarry, we headed back in time to see Mr. Zumwalt still trying to back that load of hay into the barn. His son offered to help. He wasn’t interested. At least he waved goodbye to us as we left for home.
Fortunately, once again, I didn’t leave my mom with one less kid, but it was close. I went swimming in a nearby lake in the State Park. A picnic table had been placed on one of those 55-gallon-drum pontoon rafts to serve as a diving platform. I decided to do a back-dive from it. The painted surface was wet and slick, and I slipped as I dove, coming down on the edge of the raft in the middle of my back. I was stunned, waking up on the lake-bottom face down. I remember how the water layers looked from the bottom up…brown, then yellow, then light blue, and then clear toward the surface. I shoved off the bottom with my hands and got one of them out of the water. Someone grabbed it and pulled me up on the raft. Two guys were there, but no one jumped in to help me. One was a young Air Force enlisted man who was AWOL and didn’t want to get involved. The other just couldn’t think. My lungs were full of water, and I couldn’t breathe for a while until I got some of it out myself and was able to take very shallow breaths. I’m glad I didn’t pass out, or, without competent help, I’d have been done for. At least they pulled me out. With the buoyancy of a waterlogged stump, I had barely gotten my hand out of the water. I don’t think I could have climbed out on my own.
I had three friends, all over six feet tall, who lived in nearby trailers. I was shorter than most of the girls in my class, so they found it funny when I told them I was going to be tall. They knew each other from other job sites like Wichita, Kansas and Montana. Big game hunting in Montana is a long-range proposition, and, when I told them my Uncle Arkie had shot a trophy deer from his porch, they were convinced I was a liar. We went fishing. I caught nothing until after they left, and then I caught a dozen, which I released. “Liar!” It was a title I didn’t shake for the duration of our friendship.
One day we got a phone call. Melvin’s favorite nephew had been killed in a car wreck. He had just won a stock car race on an oval dirt track and was leaving the venue pulling his trailer. He pulled out in the road and got “T-boned”. Melvin cried like a baby. Seeing him cry shocked me, but I’m glad I saw it. I wondered if he had cried like that when he lost a close buddy during the war. Under that man’s-man hard shell somewhere was a heart, maybe not for me, but it was there.
Mom and he left the girls with friends and jumped in a car to head to New York for the funeral. Seizing the opportunity to get me out of Melvin’s hair, they took me with them and dropped me at my Aunt Jinny and Uncle Bill’s farm in the Catskills. Nothing better could have happened to me.
Bill Keesler, husband of my mom’s sister, Jinny, made a living trapping foxes and selling their pelts, prior to enlisting in the Army during World War Two. He asked to be assigned to tanks in the European Theatre, but, given his background, was selected to be a Scout on the other side of the globe, point-man leading his squad into dense jungle in China. Aunt Jinny joined the Army also, and they corresponded by mail for the duration of the war, getting married afterward and settling into a life of living off the land in the traditional way. It was a time when a young couple could actually purchase a farm, support a family and pay off the mortgage at the same time. These were two very intelligent people who simply loved life in those hills and each other. Eventually they owned a four hundred acre dairy farm located hard-against the largest wilderness area in the county.
My parents made an arrangement with the Keeslers and dropped me off. This was the place I loved most in the world. It may be hard for a town-dweller to grasp the excitement of living where you were only able to wave to two or three cars passing through per day, belching dust as they rumbled down the dirt road bisecting your homestead. Although I was just a nephew, this was “my home, my native land”—the roots everyone should have. It was green grass and cow manure…pasture nibbled so short it could have passed for golf green except for the indigestible thistle here and there. It was perfect quietness but for a rooster who hadn’t gotten the message that he was only supposed to crow at dawn or a noisy peacock’s “helllp…helllp” echoing off the wooded hillside beyond the brook. It was homemade bread, still-hot applesauce, and no-recipe cake baked new every night and served with hot coffee or cold and creamy milk to those just finished with the evening chores.
Aunt Jinny and Uncle Bill had four daughters, fairly close in age. At 14, I fell between the first, Suzie, and the second, Lindy. Their parents believed a farm family needed a son, at least one, and gave it four tries before temporarily giving up. They only had one name selected as their third was born and had to give it the feminine form (Randi) when she arrived. Patty was born on St. Patrick’s Day and was easy to name. If you have girls that can sling a hundred pound sack of potatoes over a shoulder and walk off, you probably don’t need a son, but they gave it one more try and had a late-in-life male child they named Charlie.
Every boy needs one man in his life he admires and looks up to. Uncle Bill filled that bill for me. Quiet, unassuming, passionate about fairness…a tall, sinewy Abe Lincoln look-alike who shared Honest Abe’s intellectual prowess and woodsman’s skills. He showed me how to fell a young tree with only a few blows of a double-bitted axe, creating a low, flat stump while sending large wood chips sailing onto the dry leaves of a woodland floor. He gave me the tools and knowledge to successfully trap a fox. Mostly, though, I tried to shape my character (with limited success) by attempting to emulate his attributes of quiet strength, generosity, and a live-and-let-live attitude.
He saved his wrath for midnight poachers, running after a carload of armed men engaged in jack-lighting deer—smashing their car’s trunk lid with a rock…or he might cut loose with words slow, deliberate and off-color, to the quiet sniggering of the kids, when a cow wouldn’t cooperate. “I’ll turn you into HAM—BURGER, you rot—ten sonuva !@#$%^”.
His ways influenced the children he raised; Suzie spent her life as a civil rights advocate…Patty followed him as an elected member of the Bethel Town Council.
He was a long drink of water, six-foot-three and wiry, his forearms as strong and sinewy as tree roots, the back of his neck perpetually sun-bronzed, the scalp under his straw hat and thinning hair lily-white. He could fly over a barbed wire fence when chasing down last year’s half-wild heifers, unhindered by baggy coveralls and size 13 work boots, and he could fix anything worth fixing with baling wire and his ever-present pair of pliers.
He seldom had more than one battery for truck, tractor and car, and carried that bugger from vehicle to vehicle as the need arose…didn’t have too much disposable cash, but he worked every day of the year and gave his family a good life, as much as lay in him. None of them could have asked him for more, and none of them did.
There was a day that I stood with Uncle Bill and up-the-hill neighbor Lester as those two were having a conversation, me just a teenage boy absorbing real man talk, when I noticed Lester’s tractor start moving in our direction. He had parked it uphill from us and somehow it had broken loose. I wasted no time, but ran straight up at it, intending to get around back as quickly as possible before it got going too fast to mount from behind. I misjudged its acceleration and very nearly got run over by a back wheel, managing to barely dodge it, get on and stop the thing just before it went off a steep drop-off on its way to crashing into the woods. The two men never said a word…no holy cow; no thank you; no you nearly got yourself killed…just went back to talking. No sense getting excited about something that doesn’t require massive repairs or a hospital visit. These were some cool characters. Farmers.
The one incident that I think exemplifies Uncle Bill’s coolness was the day he was alerted to the fact that a little boy (me) was breaking the windows in the horse barn with rocks. All he said was “boy’s got a good arm”. I can’t even emulate that.
Aunt Jinny’s door was always open…literally…there was no lock on the front door of the large, early nineteenth century house. The kitchen table was the meeting place, around which friends or family would sit every Sunday, having arrived unannounced for coffee, cake and conversation. Dinner time? Always room for one more…or four more.
When it was time to leave, all the girls retired to the driveway and bade visitors farewell until they were out-of-sight…always.
It wasn’t until now that I’ve been able to fully appreciate the unwavering hospitality given without bias to visitors. I’m a nice guy, but I know I couldn’t have been as accommodating as Bill and Jinny Keesler. When that cobbler from New York City showed up with a large box of lightly used shoes that didn’t fit anybody, to trade for “a few tomatoes”, then completely emptied the garden of bushels of them, I would have at least said something…if not right then, at least outside of his presence. Aunt Jinny wouldn’t even complain about him after he left but just advised me to “let it go”.
When Little Pauly and Tee-Tee Boy needed a place to go, there was little question as to whether they would be welcome. They had been taken away from their mother, who lived a couple of miles away, because she was not competent to take care of them. The little boys, aged 4 or 5 years old, hadn’t been taught to speak but a few words…one of them had always been kept in diapers and in a playpen and needed surgery for a minor birth defect. They were taken in at the farm until a good home was found for them.
Not many years ago, a full grown Tee-Tee Boy showed up unexpectedly to express his gratitude…he could speak just fine and he had a real name…not only that, he was a husband to a wife and a father to children.
Then there was Dolph, an octogenarian who lived in a very small house up on the hill with another old man, until his friend died. They took him in, and he spent the remainder of his life at the farm…a man his age shouldn’t live alone. He made himself useful by splitting firewood. One day, while doing that, he either fell and broke his hip, or broke his hip and fell…either way, he didn’t recover, but his last days were spent with people who cared about him…neighbors being neighborly in a way seldom seen.
So they took me in, no questions, and I accepted that as just something families did, not yet knowing how extraordinary my extended family was. When the new school year arrived, I enrolled and joined my cousins at my second public school in as many years. The farm was in the Narrowsburg school district and was the end of the line for one of the bus routes. We left home early and got home late, and I don’t think there was a single day, ever, that all five of us were ready and waiting when the bus pulled into the driveway to pick us up and turn around. Early every morning, someone would spot that empty yellow box emerging from the woods and yell “Here comes the bus!” to trigger pandemonium and get the frenetic stampede of long-legged young women charging single-file out the front door…stumbling down the steps, shoes half-on. I can still see it, clear as day, and it still makes me smile.
The farmhouse and barns were located near the entrance to a large wilderness area that had only been logged once in the two centuries since the Revolutionary War. Remnants of dams and canals built to float timber out of the area were still evident under the quiet canopy of ancient Hemlock, Pine and Butternut trees.
The sandy soil under the farm was unique in that area, providing Uncle Bill an additional source of income, as Town of Tusten heavy equipment tapped deep deposits of sand and alluvial gravel obviously left there in an eddy of a raging torrent of meltwater from a receding two-mile-thick glacier during the last Ice Age.
Like every other family, the Keeslers had neighbors. It’s not a question of whether you have them, just one of how many and how far away they are. There were two within buckshot range. Up the hill, fifty year old Lester lived alone on a decent size dairy farm he had inherited from his school teacher parents. Down the road, not too far beyond the sand pit, lived the Kuen family (pronounced Coon) consisting of elderly parents and three adult children, Bob, Johnny and Leona.
Bob and Johnny lived in a converted chicken coup behind the main house. The interior walls were decorated with partial deer skulls displaying antlers of varying sizes (and seasons, a few of them covered with velvet). Bob was a nice looking, tobacco-chewing, fun, intelligent young man who had dropped out of school in the fourth grade at sixteen-years-old, a feat he achieved by seldom showing up for class.
Leona was single, Lester was single, and although there was a significant age difference between them, they got married and had a daughter. Bob married Lester’s daughter from a previous marriage (making his sister his mother-in-law or something) and they had a passel of kids, girls and boys. As for Johnny, he had an ever-present companion named Snuffy, a male beagle.
Like the others, Johnny was a unique individual. It quickly became obvious to your olfactory senses that he had never taken a bath in his life. His perpetual smile revealed he had never brushed his teeth either. He would walk the three miles to the store in the next valley over…up the hill, across the top and down the other steep side…buy a six pack of beer…back up the hill, across and down…sometimes run out of beer before reaching home…turn around, go up the hill, across the top, down, buy more beer, etc.. If we saw him while we were driving, we would roll down the windows for ventilation and give him and Snuffy a lift…if Snuffy felt like it, that is. Snuffy only listened to Johnny if he felt like it. I can still hear him trying to get that dog’s attention as it walked through the roadside weeds…”Snuffy, Snuffy, come here, Snuffy, come here”…uninterested dog…totally ignoring him.
Johnny never drove, and he wasn’t the kind of person you would require responsibility from or depend on. We were always tickled by some of the things he came out with, like referring to armpits as “pubical areas”, or being agreeable by saying “pobly so, pobly…pobly so”. A very nice person…I just thought he was kind of dumb.
Many years after I left home I returned for a visit to the farm and saw Johnny, in the kitchen, for the first time since I was a teenager. His hair was white and his teeth were nearly gone. Other than that, he hadn’t changed at all…still grinning broadly and gregarious as ever. He looked at me and said “Larry, what do you think of the emerging situation in the Middle East. Will the parties involved be able to come to some kind of mutually beneficial arrangement, or will the strife continue unabated?” I couldn’t even believe my ears. Talk about misjudging someone; Johnny wasn’t stupid at all…just different…very much so.
As I left that day, I stopped by the Kuen house just as Bob was out in the front, drawing water from a well with a hand pump. He recognized me instantly, using the name he called me decades before. “Edgeworth!”
His parents were long gone, and he had raised his family in the house. We had a good visit, and, as I drove away, Bob’s boys were standing solemnly on the roadside watching me pass. I smiled and waved to the unresponsive gauntlet and then looked in the rear view mirror to see they had moved to the middle of the dirt road and were giving me the one finger salute they obviously reserved for passers-by.
I was told Bob had arranged with a company of men to harvest the standing timber on his property, but they had walked off the job after a few days. It was their own fault, really…if they hadn’t worn hard-hats, the boys wouldn’t have felt compelled to hide in the trees and attempt to test their safety equipment by continually trying to bean them with rocks.
Who raised these kids? Well, it was Bob himself. He raised the kids as his wife worked and brought home the bacon. That was a decent arrangement, except for the fact that somewhere amongst that malevolent brood were daughters. My family put out some effort and took the youngest one under-wing to help her be a little girl. In time she got engaged to one of my cousin Lindy’s sons. And, believe it or not, the boys have grown up okay and have been a big help around the farm when needed.
Johnny’s gone now and Bob is, too, the second tobacco-chewing friend I’ve had that died of mouth cancer. I don’t know how the bulk of his life went, except I hear that he’d gone from being a serious drinker to not drinking at all. When I visited him in the hospital, he was a thin shell of what he had been, laying on his side, wearing one of those gowns they give you to make you feel more naked than if you’re actually naked. With some effort he blocked off his tracheotomy and let me know he was a believer.
Looking back on Bob’s life gives me pause for thought. He was a great laugher, a dependably happy person…an intelligent person who was always fun to talk with…a man who kept his promise to his bride, raised his family, and died with hope…believing in Jesus Christ and trusting Him for the eternal disposition of his soul. If those good points were to apply to the life of one of America’s royalty (our movie stars), people would say how different he was from nearly all the others and what a wonderful person he must be. Here’s a guy who’s still hand-pumping water in his front yard in the twenty-first century, and when his curtain closes, he’s lived a happier life and been a better person to know than most of the rich and gorgeous ones walking the red carpet on Oscars night. Food for thought…
Narrowsburg was a great little school…and when I say “little”, I mean miniscule. The student body of the four-year public high school (which was in the same building and just upstairs from the elementary school) consisted of about eighty kids. The administration didn’t worry about students going off school grounds during lunchtime or girls wearing slacks or jeans to school…even in the early sixties. When taking finals at the end of the school year, we would go down to the river between tests and go for a swim, diving off the rocky cliffs into the deep pool created by the Delaware River as it passes through the narrow gap that gives the small town its name.
The day I arrived in Mr. Burke’s tenth-grade English class, he had me and a couple others standing in front of the class with the blackboard behind us, telling of summer exploits or, in my case, introducing myself. As Willy Nuemuller expounded on his vacation adventure, I could feel he wasn’t the most popular guy, so I grabbed a piece of chalk, reached over my shoulder without turning or looking and drew a big zero on the board. The class started laughing, and, when I sensed Mr. Burke was about to figure out why, I reached over my shoulder and with a single sweep of the butt of my hand wiped the circle clean off the board. He stared at me, but he couldn’t figure out what I’d done. He knew it was me, as I stood there looking innocent as a Jay bird, so he ordered his new joker to drag a desk up front and put it right next to his. That’s where I sat for the year.
A significant amount of homework was assigned in that class. We had to write a composition every week, and since the teacher loved words, we had to be ready with a vocabulary word every day. Five students per day were selected to write their word on the board, complete with definition, root, pronunciation, etc. The class wrote those words down and we were tested on them at the end of the week. I still remember a few of them, like obsequious, or truculent, or gregarious. Willy Nuemuller was picked one day and posted this: Eaglet, a baby eagle. That brought forth some serious laughter, and also brought the blood to the surface of Mr. Burke’s face, as he castigated Willy for the egregious affront to his avocation.
I was in that class the day President Kennedy was shot. The newscast was piped over the school intercom; girls were crying; all schoolwork was suspended. Ignored by all, Willy found that the distraction created the perfect opportunity to get his homework done. That’s what I remember about the day Kennedy was killed: girls crying everywhere, and one Willy Nuemuller, head down, intently scratching away on a piece of paper.
The most significant event that year happened on the basketball court. With only forty boys in the school to choose from, a team had been assembled that averaged over a hundred points per game and won both the league and the region. It was a similar story to the movie Hoosiers, in which a tiny school won the state tournament in Indiana; but this wasn’t the Midwest, it was New York, and the chance of beating any team from Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s hometown was beyond calculation.
Nevertheless, the town was hopeful, and so turned out in force at the first game of the tournament, barely filling the center of the stands on one side of a large gym to watch our team get stomped by one from Harlem. No shame in that at all.
Nearly forty years later, with the same number of boys to choose from, the unlikely happened again. Cousin Lindy’s son Paddy was league MVP, her sister Randi’s tall son Danny was also on the team. They won the district and the regional tournaments, setting themselves up to play a top seed in the state tournament to be held at West Point.
The town was charged-up and got some buses together to transport players, students or anyone else who was free to support the local heroes and wanted to ride along. On the big day, the caravan set off.
Along the route to the game, banners had been hung from bridges the buses passed under, urging the team to slay the giants, or just showing the love. Cousin Randi’s husband Richie wasn’t feeling the love. He was perturbed that the coach had not put his son in the starting lineup. Never one to mince words, he let his unhappiness be known by finding his own bridge over the thruway and hanging his own banner ordering the coach to perform a certain anatomical impossibility on himself. He needn’t have bothered. The coach had a bad enough day at the hands of a team from New York City, but once again, there’s no shame in being thrashed by a school district that regularly supplies players to the NBA.
Narrowsburg school has been closed for a few years now, as some people thought it was a good idea to merge the kids from four towns into a new high school at a central location many miles farther from home than they used to travel twice a day. I attended one of the final graduation ceremonies conducted at Narrowsburg, as my cousin’s kids were leaving. I’m glad I did.
The commencement speaker was a former member of the 1964 championship basketball team, and was, at the time, the Comptroller of the US National Guard. Before diplomas were handed out, the school song was sung with much enthusiasm. Virtually every person in that gym, young and old, knew it by heart…I was tickled by the lyrics. It sounded no less pompous than if Narrowsburg had been a member of the Ivy League, with” thees” and “thous” and fervent pledges of lifelong loyalty to the banner of blue and gold.
One of the teachers on the platform had been a girl in my class. She was in the final stage of terminal cancer, and each student got a smile and lingering hug from her after receiving their diploma. The affection between the students was palpable as well, having been together since they were five years old, almost as brothers and sisters.
I got bounced around a bit through my high school years, but I couldn’t have been bounced to a better place for the one year I spent there. I get a feeling of fulfillment just writing about it.
Male kids living in the hills find fun and excitement by utilizing the three main resources nature provides: wildlife for hunting, fish for fishing, and gravity. Of those three, the one guaranteed to get your blood flowing, every time, is the one you can’t see: gravity…the resource Game Wardens don’t care about.
In summer seasons of my youth, all you needed was wheels. A “go cart” could be fabricated from scrap lumber, rusty nails, and baling twine for steering; as long as you could find wheels from an old baby carriage or something, you were good-to-go…right up until the point the brakeless contraption flipped over and pitched you onto your face on a steep downhill. Bikes were more dependable…and already assembled.
It was summertime, and I was looking for something to do. I thought of a young friend of mine who had taken a shotgun shell, removed the pellets, put it in a vice and struck it from behind with a hammer and punch. He said it was a blast. Somehow that seemed like a fun idea that could backfire, so I never tried it. As far as jumping off the barn roof with a bag of chicken feathers to see if I could fly…I’d given up on that idea before I was even seven years old. What I was contemplating, now that I was a budding teenager, was a much more sophisticated and calculated experiment.
As I stood with my old one-speed bike at the top of the steep hill on the road leading down to the farm, logic told me that, since the turn at the bottom was banked, I would be able to descend the long drop without using brakes and still be able to negotiate the turn.
I set off. As tears began to form in my eyes from the wind, I held fast to the confidence that my scientific calculation was correct, and I would just swoop the curve. I didn’t touch the brakes. What I learned as I entered the turn was that it wasn’t banked nearly enough, and secondly, big old bike wheels have a gyroscopic aversion to leaning at high speeds. I went straight off toward the barbed wire fence that was about to filet me like the boy I knew in Jeffersonville who got more than 100 stitches in his scalp while pulling the same kind of stunt on a sled.
As I reached the fence, I was unexpectedly flung head-first over the handlebars, the bike having hit a log that was lying hidden in the grass. I found myself on the other side, completely uninjured, with not so much as a sore spot…out in the pasture, wondering how? who? I didn’t feel anything. I had the distinct impression that someone had carried me between the wires. I still do, only now I’m pretty sure I know who it was.
Excitement can pop up unexpectedly while biking downhill, even on a gentle slope, like the time I was riding double with Danny Welton…him sitting sideways on the cross-bar…barefoot. We were just coasting along comfortably, early in the morning, on our way to the fishing hole, when he got his heel caught in the spokes of the front wheel. I was instantly launched over him and landed in the road in the broken glass from a jar of worms we’d been carrying. I was hurting, but he was worse, his foot still stuck in the ripped-out spokes, so I went back to help him. The stop had been so sudden, and the front fork was bent so badly, that the front wheel was touching the bike seat. That was the end of his brother’s brand-new bike, something those kids didn’t get but once, if ever. I don’t think Danny went fishing that day.
It’s a wonder those Welton boys made it to adulthood with most of their essential body parts intact. I got out of their neighborhood with only one major bike-riding scar, and you wouldn’t even see that if the stitches hadn’t pulled out. Unfortunately, I had something to do with some of their injuries, and I’m sorry, but at least they got a huge kick out of it whenever one of the others got hurt. I saw their sister slip and free-fall eight feet onto solid concrete and lay there groaning, as the boys laughed so hard they could barely breathe.
That reminds me of a non-gravity story I don’t want to forget. I was with brothers Billy and Alan Welton, behind their house, throwing green apples with sticks. We’d take a three-foot switch, sharpen a point on it, force a hard little green apple on the point and then fire that thing over the trees onto the neighbor’s property a hundred yards away. I told them to “watch this” as I pressed a green one onto my new, extra-long stick, then whipped it side-arm as hard as I could. The apple came off early and turned into pulp as it hit Billy square in the forehead. Alan laughed as though that was the funniest thing he’d ever seen, while Billy cried and held his head. I apologized to him for not pressing the apple on far enough, pushed another one on, harder this time, then asked them to step aside, pulled back and let that rock-hard little projectile fly. It went about five feet (this is the honest truth) and pulverized itself against the middle of Alan’s forehead. As Alan cried, Billy’s knees buckled, he laughed so hard, the tears and apple juice still running down his face, the red knot on his forehead still swelling into a good size egg.
Gravity is particularly essential to wintertime fun. If parents cared as much about their kids back when I was one as parents do now, I have to assume ours didn’t know how dangerous “sleigh riding” (sledding) actually was. Kids today are made to wear helmets when riding a bike, for crying out loud. We would lay on a sled and take off on a steep downhill, head-first, on snow that had melted and refrozen to crust, a surface that offered virtually no resistance to metal runners. Breakneck speeds were achieved…literally.
My friends and I were sledding on crust, on a hillside next to a frozen lake. The younger brother of one of my friends was zipping along a pathway which cut diagonally across the face of the hill, then turned and dropped straight down a few hundred feet and delivered us onto the surface of the lake. I was close behind him as we accelerated down the final drop. I saw him reach the bottom, then, for some reason, he drifted off the straight path and ran directly, head first, into a large maple tree. The impact obliterated his sled, splitting it in half and turning it inside-out with one runner on each side of the tree, its boards sliding out across the lake ice. He lay in a heap at the tree. When we got to him he was in a stupor, not a coma, so we laid him in the sun on a raft that had been pulled up on the bank for the winter, to let him recover as we continued sledding. (It’s not that we didn’t care about him; had he been dead we would have immediately taken him home.) After a fashion he was able to speak and managed to get home under his own power.
I’ve got a hundred sledding stories like that one, nearly one per session. I hope the kids back home can still have that kind of fun, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the threat of being sued has limited the use of the best hills. Landowners today have to worry about the neighbor kid getting scalped on their property. Those of us who survived frigid sledding fun with no obvious deformities have some warm memories.
I want to take this opportunity to give a Shout-Out to my childhood pal Billy Welton, who had doubled-up with me and was laying on my back that day, near his house, as we were screaming across an icy area toward the only tree in sight, unable to effect a turn at all.
Bill, had you not been so convinced we were going to hit that tree, you would not have leaned out as we passed it, and, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, let it catch your shoulder and snatch you away. Had you not done that, my dear friend, your body-weight would have come down on the back of my head when I landed in the middle of that dry road and ground my face into the pavement. Thanks, buddy.
(By the way, I’m sorry I punched you in the face those years ago, the last time we saw each other, when you got me bent backwards over that roll of chicken wire as we were horsing around. I hadn’t seen you in a while, and I didn’t know if maybe your personality had changed and you were actually going to use that knife you had pulled out. Sorry, man. I apologize.)
Uncle Bill had an old Allis-Chalmers WC tractor whose most prominent feature was a small platform in front of the radiator and above the dual front wheels, inches apart. When I was seven-years-old, he sat me on the protrusion…which extended maybe eight inches in front of the grill, the front wheels directly under it…and took off down the road.
The orange land-yacht with the juvenile figurehead cruised comfortably; all I had to do was keep my legs up so they didn’t get rubbed by the tires. It was easy going until we started going down a steep hill and I could feel Mean Old Mister Gravity trying to throw me in front of the rolling wheels. Uncle Bill couldn’t see me in front of the engine, and he couldn’t hear me over the popping and backfiring motor. I was on my own, barely holding onto the heads of two bolts with my fingertips, one on each side of the platform under me, so near to losing it. Somehow friction won out over gravity and I wasn’t cast face-first onto the road and crushed…but it was very close. I think that was the most precarious position I’ve ever been in. Why did my favorite uncle and mentor do that? Who knows? Stupid Stuff happens… Some make it…some don’t.
At 11 years old I was put on my 10-year-old friend Danny’s personal tractor and told how to operate the clutch…besides steering, that’s all you need to know when pulling a hay wagon in a field as hay bales are tossed on-board for others to stack. “Let it out easy” wasn’t enough instruction, judging from the prostrate people lying on the wagon, having been jerked off their feet by the first time driver.
By 14 I had the clutch thing down-pat and was living on the Keesler farm and driving all over with Uncle Bill’s big Farmall, mostly to cut and carry firewood. Tractors are slow for a reason, but they also have a highway gear that can get those liquid-filled back tires tooling along at a pretty good rate. I was cruising along on a dirt road in fifth gear, coming up on the spot where I was to turn into the woods, where I had felled some trees. Rather than slow down, I just turned off the road into the woods. (Why did I do that? We’re talking about a 14 year old here. Any question that starts with the word “Why” when talking about a 14 year old boy does not have an answer and is therefore an invalid question.) The first bump I hit threw me up in the air; only my grip on the steering wheel kept me connected to the tractor, and I came down hanging off the back with the seat in my face. That thing was charging between trees bucking like a wild horse with me hanging on for dear life…I finally got the gas lever pulled down and managed to stop…didn’t hit a thing…went about my business.
Later I was coming down the steep hill that led down to the farm. One of the brakes, the right one I think, didn’t work…which was okay because you could just stay in a low gear and you would slowly descend, the engine straining and making noise. I was messing with the gears, changing them without using the clutch…just letting it roll until the tire speed matched the engine speed and I could slip it out of, then back in, gear.
Unfortunately, I missed the highest gear and got going too fast to get it in gear even using the clutch. I didn’t dare hit the brakes because it would have pulled left and maybe wrecked. By my calculations I could just let it go and I would still be able to make the turn for home at the bottom without leaving the road, so I let her have her head and hung on.
I did make the turn and felt home-free for a moment but was greeted with an unwelcome sight—a slow-moving carload of rubber-necking city people right in the middle of the dirt road and coming straight at me. They didn’t move over at all, so I put the right rear wheel up on the 3 foot embankment and took out several fence posts as the car people watched the farm boy and his tractor pass them…a look of bewildered enjoyment on their faces, oblivious to the fact they had nearly been crushed.
After that I got pretty good at turning into the house driveway too fast, kind of sliding sideways on the sandy surface while retaining some steerage. Aunt Jinny told me not to do that because baby Charlie often played with his toy trucks there, and, besides, I was driving the family’s only tractor and they couldn’t afford to have it flip over. She pointedly made no mention of the fact I could be killed—that wasn’t lost on me…she was inferring that the dark cloud of losing their only tractor might have a silver lining.
The key to getting anywhere on winding back roads is speeding. Driving ten miles on those undulating, bending, frost-damaged asphalt pathways that seldom give you more than a few hundred feet of line-of-sight is a major trip anyway, without making it worse by observing the speed limit. Uncle Bill did 40 miles an hour, period; whether he was blocking traffic on the freeway or sliding diagonally around a blind curve on a dirt road, 40 was his number. It was exciting either way.
My father was a driver by trade, working in the traffic department of a resort, so you’d think he’d be good at it. Not according to his Catskill driving record. He totaled a car nearly every year. One early morning he took the bark off one of the two huge matching maple trees straddling the entrance to the Dutch Reform Church in Youngsville, seriously irritating the congregation when it had to be taken down. You’d think having to drag himself across the road with a broken femur would have slowed him, or at least caused him to forgo “one for the road”, but that would have been untraditional. He almost bought it the next year when he was grazed head-on by a car that killed the occupants of the car following him.
The leading cause of death among males under 50 years old was not bullet holes made by idiots taking “sound shots” during deer season; it was just plain old car wrecks…by far. The fact that there was nearly zero police presence, leaving the open road wide open, had something to do with the mortality rate. I lost step-cousin Kelvin Klein; Roger Beaver, my boy scout canoeing buddy; Artie Scullion, the kid that taught me to “finger” trout…and his young wife as well. Doug, one of the kids who saved me from Artie Boyle on the ball field, is blind, his wife crippled; the biggest football player from Jeffersonville is paralyzed. It’s not even the turns, so much, it’s those doggone immovable trees. As for the dead or disabled girls, it’s riding in cars with boys.
I saw a foot-thick pine tree that had been hit at an up-angle by a couple of fourteen-year-old lads doing over a hundred miles-an-hour while on a late-night fun run in one of their parents’ cars. The tree was de-barked for a dozen feet from the ground. Their mangled car battery was found a few hundred feet away on an intersecting road, but that tree was still standing where it had been before all the excitement. I guess I ought to thank God I failed my one shot at the driver’s test before I left home. Unlike those two kids, I’m still here.
In 2008, already tired from traveling a good while to get to where our employer needed us, I was behind the wheel, driving with a fellow technician on a serpentine hillside road on the Italian island of Sardinia. As we rounded one of the outside turns, I could see that there was no oncoming traffic for the next couple of curves cut into the steep hill. Suddenly the feeling came back, the one that says “This is how we drive a road like this where I come from”, and I began to accelerate on the blind turns and take my half of the road out of the opposing lane. Brian, my passenger, a careful driver from Mystic, Connecticut, about freaked out, and would have made me give him the wheel right then and there, had there been a place to pull over. There was no way to justify taking his life in my hands by informing him that was how I was brought up, so I didn’t try. I just apologized and made a couple of promises. I think his heart is still jammed up in his throat.
Mom, Melvin and my sisters returned to New York in early 1964 after following the work to North Dakota and California. They rented an apartment right on Lake Huntington, still in the Narrowsburg school district, so that I wouldn’t have to change schools so near the end of the year, and brought me back into the fold.
I found that the school bus carrying students of all ages from that area had its own system of government. Ultimate control, of course, was in the hands of the driver, but he had a student enforcer in the form of one big country boy who lorded over the little kids and kept order with an iron fist. I didn’t care; I was his age. He didn’t bother me—until he told me he was rearranging the seating and putting me where he could keep an eye on me, and that I was to move. I gave him an order as well. I told him I was going to rearrange his face and put his nose where his eye used to be, and that he was to meet me the next day at lunchtime, off school grounds.
He showed up at the appointed time and place and got me in a bear hug around the waist, the perfect position from which I was able to just lean back and pound his face into a nice pink color. When he let go, I figured he had enough. After that he went and told people he’d won the fight, I guess because he had never actually fallen down, but, from that time on, with the system broken, the bus driver reckoned he better do his own enforcing, much to the relief of the liberated pre-adolescents.
When school ended, we moved to a small farm that had not been occupied for years. Setting it up required a lot of labor…fences built…wooden barn floor replaced…livestock acquired. We got some calves to raise and purchased some smart-Alec young pigs that managed to escape every day and evade my efforts at capturing them until late afternoon feeding time…every dang day.
I hid around the corner of the barn and watched to see how those piglets were continually finding a way out of the stonewall enclosure I had built. It turned out they had a leader. They all followed him, single file, around and around the pen as he inspected the wall intensely, grunting once in a while. Suddenly he stopped, his somewhat less intelligent entourage running into each other and waiting, as he jammed his snout into a small hole and pushed until he had an opening big enough for them to each scurry through. He was One T-E-R-R-I-F-I-C pig…shame he wound up as bacon on somebody‘s plate.
We had one sheep. I got an education on how docile sheep really are when I cornered him in an alley-like spot in the barn. His only way out was through me, and that’s how he got out…head down and charging…knocked me flat on my back and made tracks on my body. I thought only billy goats could do that. Surprise!
Melvin was partial to work horses. He bought a big Strawberry Roan that we hitched to horse-drawn equipment (a mower and a rake), for the purpose of putting-in hay. I was riding him bare-back one day when he decided he was going back home. He galloped down a hill and I was unable to slow him or to stay on his wide back. I slid around and went right under him as his giant back hooves pounded divots into the ground on one side of me, then the other. Tell me somebody wasn’t looking out for me that day.
We also used horses when harvesting and selling timber. I wasn’t a horse lover, but I was totally impressed, watching their incredible strength and determination while noiselessly dragging logs through the woods…amazing, loyal and obedient animals.
I put hay in the barn while my stepfather spent the days away, working odd jobs. I filled an entire barn with loose, un-baled hay by myself. Then we moved again.
The next farm we rented included a house, two hundred good acres, and the remaining infrastructure of a once modern and thriving dairy operation. The livestock and equipment had been auctioned off after the farmer had taken his own life by piping tractor exhaust into the milk-house, then sitting down for a spell. As we got to know his widow, it wasn’t hard to figure out why. His morning routine included rising at 4 o’clock, milking 60 cows and going back to the house to feed himself and his kids and get them off to school…all while Agnes slept. Then his work day began.
Down in the woods, where Melvin was having me cut down some nice trees on the neighbor’s property (so he could say “the boy didn’t know where he was”), I found what looked like an open shallow grave. I could think of no other reason for a 3-foot-deep, 6-foot-long hole in the woods with a dirt pile next to it. I think the farmer had decided that somebody had to go, and just changed his mind as to who that would be. Agnes never found out she could have been pushing up beech trees.
Agnes had two daughters. One pretty girl, Shirley, was my age and lived with her mother in a house not far from ours. The other one was a young mother, stunning in appearance, who lived with her husband and baby in a mobile home half-way between the houses. On New Year’s Eve she asked me to babysit while she and her husband went to a party. They came home early. He entered the trailer first and, buttons flying, tore off the new silk shirt she had given him. Her offense: she had talked to another man at the party. She came in and begged me to not leave. Under the increasingly menacing stare of her insanely jealous husband, I felt like I had better get out. I’ve often wondered how life went for her and if she survived.
I’d like to report on all the good stuff that happened while living there, but there isn’t much “wise and wonderful”… mostly just work. Shirley never fell for me, but got pregnant…and married, while still in high school, to a friend of mine who looked just like me. You could say that I got lucky, in a way.
Two things happened there that stand out:
Melvin stood in front of the harnessed team of horses and beat them about the face with a leather strap. They had been trying to fake each other out by pretending to pull, to get the other guy to pull the whole load…but they were both doing it, so nothing was happening. When the beating and screaming ruckus was over, he hitched them to a section of an old building that had to be dragged off, and handed me the reins. Man, they were ready to go now. I just let them have their heads, as they took off at a full gallop across a field and down a wooded path with me riding the big slab of lumber. One took a shortcut on the other side of a tree, and the harnesses tying them together slammed into it hard. The one on the right went down. Melvin had to come and get the mess straightened out. I didn’t get in trouble since he’s really the one that caused the calamity. Except for a broken “whiffle tree” and a couple of parted straps, there was no permanent damage.
The other incident involved a pickup truck overloaded with wet manure. As I was backing it out of the barn, one of the back wheels broke through a wooden board that spanned a trench crossing the concrete floor, and the truck went down on its frame. I got a screw-type jack under the axle and raised it until I was able to slide underneath and raise the truck to a height needed to replace the board. Immediately after I crawled out from under, the jack went through the floor and the truck frame slammed down on the concrete. Obviously, if you are reading this, I got out in time, but only by 2 or 3 seconds. Once again, my mother was spared telling the gruesome story of how she lost her first son.
I’ve come close, but that was the closest. I still shudder.
My stepfather couldn’t take it anymore (again) and sent me to live with my father in Liberty. He handled the big issues, like crashing the horses or putting holes in his car because I backed the truck up against it with the extended tailgate down, but the little things just tore him up.
When I was driving the pickup truck on our sparsely used road and needed to turn left toward the barn, I moved to the right, then cut left. A huge bumper appeared in my side window and I cut back away from it. An eighteen wheeler I didn’t see had started passing me when I moved right and the driver had locked it up and skidded off the road to a stop when I cut him off. He had his head down on the steering wheel recovering, as Melvin stood on the roadside laughing his head off at Edna’s boy. He could handle that easily. It was the small stuff that got to him.
The last act was a little dead-battery incident. He needed my help getting his tractor started. A logging truck was chained up to pull it, and I was put in the driver’s seat as he got on the tractor and told me to go. I put the truck in second gear, because first gear was so low it would just creep along. I was pulling him down the asphalt road, but the truck was jerking and wouldn’t smooth out, so I stopped, put it in first and tried again. Now it was pulling smooth. I looked in the mirror, finally, and what I saw is etched in my memory. The tractor had started the first moment I had begun pulling. He had locked up the brakes and was standing, swearing and yelling, trying to get my attention. The tractor was sliding on the pavement at a diagonal, a hundred feet of black skid marks stretched out behind. I locked the doors, rolled up the windows and waited ‘til my mom came and saved me. Good thing it wasn’t his truck or he may have broken the glass.
So Liberty it was. This was a much better idea than giving me to that old Russian man who told Melvin I would inherit his farm if I gave him a few measly years of indentured servitude.
My dad and I lived in a one-bedroom studio apartment over the Thunderbird Bar where he worked as a bartender. Bars were my father’s only social life…in fact they were his only life. He no longer worked at Grossinger’s Hotel, having left that job when he and Mom divorced; now all his waking hours were spent in the pub downstairs. As a patron he would take every family dollar he had and lay them on the bar to bankroll the few drinks he was going to nurse. He wasn’t an alcoholic or even a drunk, at least not back then. I think he liked being the customer who remained in control when all those around him were making fools of themselves. When they were stupid, he was the Sage.
When tending bar, the greatest moment possible would be when he had the opportunity to jump over the bar to break up a fight. Apparently breaking up fights always requires jumping over the bar. If you have to walk around there’s no point even bothering…why risk getting hurt if you don’t come out of it with a dramatic bar-jumping story.
Thankfully, I never lived in a home with an alcoholic father, but the bar scene was always close by and had an effect on the path our lives took. I thought every kid spent hours sitting out in the car waiting for Dad to finish up and come out…but it turns out it was just me and my sister and a few other bar orphans.
It’s ironic that he had no use for drunks, being as how he spent his life with them, and nearly all his friends could be counted in that lot from time to time.
His mother was a physically beautiful woman and a talented classical pianist, but by the time she was in her fifties, she was a true alcoholic. When she came to stay with us, she was on the wagon…not drinking at all…so maybe my parents should have gotten rid of the liquor in the cabinet she got into when they were away one day. He was furious at her for getting falling-down snockered, packed her up, took her to the airport and sent her back to Florida—the last time he was to see her. She died of the DTs during a forced withdrawal in a hospital bed after being struck by a car.
In time, Vicki showed up to live with Dad and me, too, having been evicted from the Blue Collar House of Bliss, where everyone worked hard, nearly reaching the standard that was expected of them. Vicki was slight, but not a push-over, and let her mind be known, even to Melvin. Me, I just did what I was told, whether it was removing the dusty rubble of two demolished buildings under a hot July sun with just a wheelbarrow and a shovel, or holding a copper pipe steady (“DON’T MOVE!”) while molten solder dripped on my hand and hardened as he worked above me (still have the scar). I’m not complaining, mind you; now that we’ve moved on, I can say Melvin taught us how to work, and that is one part of his legacy that has served us both well…I’m just glad the teaching session is over.
Liberty High School had a fairly well defined pecking-order. The student groupings weren’t based so much on race or even income level. Like the adults in the community at large, the students split to an extent along Jewish/non-Jewish lines. The dance scenes in the movie “Dirty Dancing” didn’t resemble anything I ever saw there, they were Hollywood choreography, but the rest of the movie, depicting the relationship between the two white “races” interacting in our little corner of the country, was spot on. It’s an amicable but tenuous relationship. It’s not a religious thing so much, since the secular Jews there, in general, don’t take their religion very seriously and the Gentiles, by-and-large, aren’t religious at all.
Without being biased (I’m not Jewish), my observation is that, overall, the Jews are an intellectually superior race of people. That isn’t too hard to figure out. The world population of them is equal to one half the population of Iraq, yet 20 percent of the 850 or so Nobel laureates are Jewish, including Albert Einstein. They succeed financially…that torques people off. My dad once worked for a local Jewish guy named Alan Gerry, born in Liberty, who parlayed an Associate’s degree in electronics he earned using the GI Bill, into Cablevision Corp., which he sold to Time Warner, making him a Billionaire.
I worked at the indoor ice skating rink of a Jewish-owned hotel in a setting very much like “Dirty Dancing”. The person that hired me: Personnel Manager and owner’s son, a kid in my class. More than the money, it’s the fact that they rise to the top that bugs people; after all, there’s only so much room up there.
For me, autumn was a time of melancholy and reflection. Spring had sprung and melted into summer, which wasn’t long enough to have never-ending fun. Autumn was a peaceful time… a time to feel lonely… to sit back and think about my place in the big scheme of things…and write poetry.
I wrote a long poem that attempted to express deep feelings about feeling deeply or something. I didn’t write it for anyone else to hear, but the fall dance was coming up at my new school, and somehow I got the bright idea that I might be able to deliver a reading to the appreciative crowd. The “King Neptune Dance” had an undersea theme, and I owned flippers and a swim mask, so what’s to stop me from dressing up as a diver and delivering my verse? It never occurred to me to ask permission or anything…typical.
The sound system at the dance had a microphone setup in addition to the record player the student disk-jockey was using to pump out some tunes. When the moment seemed right, I flipper-flapped up there, dressed in black, mask in place and asked him to flip over to the mike. I stood in front of it and started to read.
The dance floor was quiet, couples were still and attentive, all eyes were upon me and every face was puzzled. The mike wasn’t working. I raised my voice and continued reading, but the volume wasn’t high enough to get my deep meanings across to the listeners. I could hear people asking, “What’s he saying?” “What’s going on?” I got louder. They still couldn’t hear me. I continued to raise my voice until I was virtually shouting. I got to the last line; suddenly the microphone came on. “I WAS ONE WITH THE UNIVERSE, WE WERE ONE AND THE SAME”. To the thundering lack of applause I exited Stage Right…flap, flap, flap…and I wondered why I didn’t have a girlfriend.
Getting that weekends-only Ice Rink job at Young’s Gap Hotel kept me out of trouble. I’d been taken from a restrictive situation and dumped on my father, who didn’t see it coming. He worked in the evening, and I was pretty much free to do whatever I wanted…a formula for disaster when you’re talking about a kid with a brain the size of an un-ripe walnut.
The job paid much less than the minimum wage because I was afforded “room and board” (a daily vanilla ice-cream soda, and a bed in an unheated, abandoned building). But it was a good job, considering all I had to do was skate around to background music I picked out that the older generation hated.
One of the older generation was an old woman, probably in her seventies, dressed all in black, looking like she’d come over from the Old Country and had recently disembarked at Ellis Island. She went ‘round the rink very slowly, maybe once an hour, as I skated backwards monitoring the fun-havers. I felt a bump and turned around to see her sliding face down. She was pretty mad, telling me to watch where I was going and to be careful. I apologized, of course, and got back to my safety monitor job.
A while later, skating backward, being careful, I felt a bump and sure enough there she was, sliding on her face.
This time she was extra mad, “Young man, I will have your job!”
“Yes, Yes. You’re right. I’m sorry.”
“You better be careful!” she warned.
Embarrassed, I just got off the ice and went in to the counter to hang out, change music and sharpen skates. After a fashion I went back out, skating forward, but couldn’t help myself, turned around and…bump…sure enough, there she was, sliding face-first having done another belly-flop and so mad she couldn’t speak. I was an idiot. I was perfectly willing to turn in my skates and go home, but she just stared at me, took off her skates and left. Kids. Like I said…a brain like a green walnut—hard as a rock and smaller than a golf ball.
The best thing about working there was having free run of the place in our off-hours. Each hotel had something they called a Night Club that put on musical and comedy acts, the quality of which was directly proportional to the financial state of the hotel. I remember sitting there in the Night Club one evening with a young Jewish girl named Sandy on my knee, her parents eyeing me disapprovingly…sort of a poor-man’s Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey scene. I don’t remember the stage performance. It wasn’t very good…but night-time was good for other, more fun activities. Like Russian Roulette.
One of my fellow Gentiles brought a 22 revolver to work. The plan was to go down to the dining room after dark and shoot ourselves in the head. Not with a real bullet, of course; he brought a shell with him that he told us was a blank. So four or five of us gathered there in the pitch-black empty room and began taking turns pointing the gun at our noggins and pulling the trigger. My momma may have raised an idiot, but she didn’t raise a fool, and when it was my turn, being that they couldn’t see me anyway, I pointed it over my head and made it go “click”. The guy I gave it to pointed it right at his temple, which was plain to see as the blue flame wrapped around his head, illuminating the room for a split-second like a single-frame strobe light. Thankfully the shell turned out to truly be a blank…a real bullet probably would have missed his brain anyway…there was a lot of empty space up there.
So we went on to the next fun thing, which was sledding on a steep slope on the golf course under a cold, moonlit sky. Trouble was we didn’t have a sled, so we grabbed some of the waiter’s trays from the dining room and took them to the top of the hill to use as flying saucers. At ten degrees below zero, the snow had a hard crust on it and was as slick as the ice rink. We lined up at the top of the hill and took off on our makeshift saucers simultaneously. Two things that made the downhill trip extra exciting, besides the speed, were the facts that flying saucers always turn backwards so that you can’t see where you’re going, and golf courses are never straight, flat and smooth. The ones of us that didn’t launch off a hump and land backwards on our heads drifted off into the woods at high speed and slammed into trees. Self-examination revealed there were no broken necks…that meant a good time was had by all. The aluminum former waiter’s trays didn’t fare too well, but who cared…they were part of our compensation.
At least half the kids at Liberty High School had something to do with hotels, in one way or another. If you didn’t belong to an owner’s family, there was still a good chance you could find summer employment in the county’s main industry.
A couple of friends told me of the hotel where they worked. At the outside pool, the women’s shower room and the pump house were in the same building. At quitting time each day the girls would go to the shower room to change, etc. and the boys would pile into the pump house…you guessed it…there were nail holes in the dividing wall.
It so happened that one of the female life guards was one of the school’s most attractive girls…a little older than me. Yes, she was on display. Yes, she never found out. Yes, I know her name…no, in the remote chance she, or a friend of hers, might read this, I’m not going to reveal it. All you former Catskill female lifeguards are just going to have to wonder…….
I got a summertime job as a dishwasher at the Howard Johnson’s just outside the entrance to Grossinger’s Hotel. It was a very busy restaurant with a line forming outside most days. It was also as much an education as it was a minimum-wage job with no benefits. I’ve never forgotten the lesson I learned, that some of the hardest jobs available are also the ones that pay the least. Besides feeding and unloading an insatiable commercial dishwashing machine, I was required to bus the soda fountain, clean up any spills, empty the trash, mop the kitchen floors, unload delivery trucks…all while moving as fast as humanly possible…but worst of all, I had to clean the bathrooms…the woman’s, in particular, was a nightmare. Paper towels, having long since filled the trash receptacle, were climbing the walls. As I struggled to straighten up the mess, a growing line of very unhappy, knee-knocking women formed outside the blocked entrance, demanding I finish. Some would even break ranks and push past me, declaring “I don’t care!” as they closed the stall door behind them, not giving me time to escape.
A prospective employee required a walk-through of the responsibilities of a dishwasher, and I was told to give him one. As I enthusiastically described the job to my Hispanic potential fellow employee, he looked at me as if I was out of my mind and walked out.
The only other dishwasher was an old guy who obviously felt that being able to steal a five gallon container of ice cream, once in a while, made it all worthwhile. When he called in sick, my workday extended to seventeen hours…minus a half hour for a free lunch (limited to a dollar and a half).
The opportunity to work at the bowling alley came up and I took it without letting anyone at the restaurant know before the day I didn’t show up. Even though the manager had to take my place that day, when I returned for my final check, he begged me to stay. I appreciated it, but fitting pretty girls with smelly bowling shoes was a bit more appealing…and paid the same. I opted for my new summer job.
It was relaxing, just sitting behind a counter taking money and passing out score sheets. Once in a while I had to clear a jam in a pin-setting machine or fetch a ball that a little kid couldn’t roll hard enough to reach the pins.
I took some of my work time to make a little card that said something like “MY NAME IS LARRY. I AM DEAF. IF I AM FOUND, PLEASE DIAL 222-1234”.
I saw a couple city girls at the juke box, looking to select some music, and went over to them. Of course they ignored me, something they had to do to obnoxious city guys every day, until I showed them my card. They nodded expressively as I tapped on the glass to show them which song they should select, which they did.
Later I tried to ignore a friend as he spoke to me in the girls’ presence, so he said, “Are you messing with that fake deaf stuff again?” They were furious. They should have been mad at themselves, thinking a deaf guy would care what song they selected.
Yeah, it was a good job.
I spent two years at LHS, broken by about a month back in Narrowsburg. After that summer vacation between my Junior and Senior years I walked the 22 miles to my Aunt Jinny’s and announced that I would be going to school in Narrowsburg in the following year. Never one to say no, she gave me a place to sleep and enrolled me in school. That could have been a good year, except for a couple unfortunate incidents.
One, I “accidentally” spit out the bus window and hit the daughter of the chairman of the school board. Two, I scared the screaming b’jeebers out of all four cousins by walking into the room they were in, after an argument, with an unloaded shotgun. That added to my aunt’s unhappiness. She was already irritated with me for telling her she needed to spank little Charlie once in a while…something that had never happened to any child in that house, including yours truly.
In hindsight, if any kid did something there that should have earned a whipping, it was me. Here’s an example:
I don’t know what came over me. I didn’t like to be bullied myself, and actually had never done that to anyone else. Whether the bullying spirit came from within or jumped on me when I had my back turned I don’t know, but the fact was I was enjoying tormenting this petrified little boy running to get away from me. His parents watched the scene through large windows while sitting at Aunt Jinny’s dining room table.
They were from Eastern Europe…from the USSR…citizens of Czechoslovakia who had somehow escaped to the Free World, and they were having trouble assimilating into American society. Every aspect seemed against them, and they found relief at the Keesler Farm where friendly and caring people reminded them of home, where people shared what they had and watched out for each other.
Watching this 9 year old chase their 6 year old was unsettling. Their son got in the family car and locked the doors. I stood, tugging on a handle, and when his 12 year old sister grabbed me from behind to pull me off I turned around and socked her in the face. That was it; his parents gathered up their clan and left.
That was the straw that broke the camel’s back…they packed up and went back to Czechoslovakia. As unbelievable as it sounds, I caused a family that had escaped communism to go back behind the Iron Curtain…by driving the final nail into the coffin of their American experience.
Had I thought of that incident, maybe I would have understood what cousin Suzie meant when I visited her on her deathbed and she told me I was a good dad, but I had been a little SOB.
I’m hoping maybe it was their destiny to go back to their homeland, and I helped. Then again, maybe I was just a little SOB.
So, after just a few weeks back on the farm, having once again seriously irritated my favorite aunt, they dropped me in Liberty to let my dad buy me some clothes and then just refused to come and get me when I called them.
My first day back at Liberty High School I was given a printed class schedule on a 3 by 5 card. One of the periods showed the word English, so I went to English class, already in session. After entering the room, the teacher was puzzled. He asked to see my card and found that I had read the history teachers name, Mrs. English, as my next subject. This class was attended by his hand-picked best pupils, and he got a huge laugh out of them by telling the semi-literate goofball who had stumbled in, out of his league, “No, I don’t think you belong in here”.
Thus was my introduction to the teacher who would keep me from graduating. In the class of his where I belonged, I flat refused to do the catch-up work he required, mainly because learning the names in Greek mythology required homework, something I didn’t do outside school hours. At the end of the school year he told me that if I failed the final test by even one percent I was not to ask him to change the score because he wouldn’t do it…then he made sure that happened. I didn’t go see him.
He was a small, thin man who had been a top wrestler in school and was a black-belt karate expert. He was almost arrested in New York City after being mugged by a couple of thugs who were found lying in a heap after picking on the wrong little guy. He also had the ability to look at two things at once. I had the impression his strength may have resulted from a lifetime compensating for his extreme wall-eyed condition. He knew his material, as evidenced by the fact that he went from Liberty to a professorship at Columbia University not long after I left. I didn’t like him…not because of the conflict we had over my homework, or even that I failed to graduate because of that class…it was because of what he did to one of the girls.
Rita was a cute little thing trapped in a big girl’s body. She was six feet tall and somewhat heavy, but she tried to be small and feminine, keeping her make-up fresh and joining in the other Jewish girl’s conversation…a dainty hand movement and ”Can you beleeeve?…Oh, I can’t beleeeve!” When a group of girls were caught talking in class, he always singled her out to be verbally reprimanded. It was obvious he didn’t like her because of her size. One day he told her to get up and stand in the corner, which she did, crying profusely and ruining her make-up. He kept her there, enjoying it. He may have been a physically tough, smart, accomplished teacher, but that day he revealed himself to be a mean-spirited, small-minded little punk. That’s how I remember him.
Frannie and Ruthie were old maids. The two elderly teachers, each of whom had never married, were best friends with adjoining classrooms. Fran English taught History and Ruth Noel taught Math. I was taking Advanced Algebra, a half-year class that required a bit of home study. As was my custom, I didn’t do any.
Ruthie told me, “Young man, if you come in here tomorrow without your homework, you’re out of here.”
The next day, “Where’s your homework?”
Me: “I don’t have it.”
I didn’t have a speech worked up to offer as an excuse, but I wouldn’t have had time to deliver it anyway. It took her about a split-second to yell “GET OUT!” and point to the door. I found myself out in the quiet, empty hallway with nowhere to go, until I found a study hall and sat there twiddling my thumbs.
My next class was Frannie’s History class, in which I sat quietly. The first time I turned my head toward the back she yelled “GET OUT!”, and I found myself wandering the halls again. Obviously the two of them had talked during the time between classes. Frannie had to take me back, but I was out of Ruthie’s math class until the mid-year break when she informed me she had signed me up for Solid Geometry and was giving me another chance.
She laid upon me her hope that even the most recalcitrant can be redeemed, and she was overjoyed when I came out at the top of the class after the first marking period. That hope dimmed as my grades faded to mediocrity when the work got hard enough to require homework.
Ruthie was old and wrinkled everywhere except her very shapely legs, as though she‘d had a legs transplant. The room had chalkboards front and back. She was teaching from the back one, no one turning around to watch, much, when there was a thud. I looked back and saw her legs quivering as she was laying on her back, struggling to get up and saying “I don’t know what happened!” The back of the room was where the big guys sat, football players and such, and they just sat there and looked at her, not helping, the synapses in their walnut brains not firing as the unusual scene unfolded. She got herself up, and class resumed.
I passed that one.
I asked a sporty-type girl, whose name I don’t remember, for a date, and she accepted. Not one to do anything normal, I told her to meet me on Saturday morning at the sports field of the elementary school. I brought a bow and arrow, and when we got bored shooting at a target I fired one straight up in the air knowing we would have time to take cover before the arrow came down on the top of one of our heads…but it never came down. I left that morning one arrow short. I found it a couple weeks later…you could see it from the street in front of the police station, stuck in the flat roof directly over the entrance door, looking like the cops had been attacked by a band of Indians. I have no idea what they thought when they found it.
My Liberty bully was, like the others, a scary guy. At least the Narrowsburg one, who made me tell him I liked his shoes better than my own, was a student at the school. This one wasn’t a student anymore…he was too old…and he didn’t even come from our town but had graduated from Monticello, a few miles down the road. Word was that the five-foot-eight tough guy could stuff a basketball. He hung around our school in the off hours and had seen me in my wrestling outfit during team practice. At six-foot-one and a hundred-forty pounds my wrestling “tights” fit my legs like two feed sacks on a skeleton. Pathetic. Each time he saw me he would take a round-house swing at me, missing my nose by a half-inch and promising he wouldn’t miss next time.
We had a wrestling match at Monticello High School, and I was on the roster at 145 pounds. When we came in, I saw my bully in the audience, sitting with a friend, a member of the opposing team. The friend looked like a Puerto Rican with a fit, ripped physique. When I went out on the mat for my match, I found that he was my opponent. Great. The whistle blew and he had me on my back in twenty seconds struggling to avoid a pin. Somehow I survived that, and near the end of the match I found myself just one point down with seconds to go. We were both exhausted, but I had more at stake and mustered the energy to make a move that gave me two points at the last second. I won. I never saw my bully again.
It wasn’t just my behavior that put me “in with the out crowd” at Liberty High School…I was born on the wrong side of the invisible tracks I described earlier. A Jewish student who owned a Nikon SLR camera called for the winners of New York State Regents Scholarships (determined by a test, not grades) to gather for a group picture to be published in the newspaper. I was “first alternate” in the county…sure to get one in a few days (which I did when a winner turned the award down in order to attend an out-of-state school)…so I went.
He was just a student, but he had the power to tell me to leave…“I said winners…not alternates”. I left.
Another confirmation of my status happened during the presentation of the school play that year, The Sound of Music. I was given the job of running the spotlight, something no one really cared about. At a certain cue, a student (from the right side of the tracks), who was operating the stage lighting, was to cut the lights. I noticed that the cue line was similar to a line that occurred a minute earlier, and I kept that in mind. Sure enough, during the Standing-Room-Only play, he dropped the lighting at the wrong time, which would have left the players in the dark had I not flipped the spot to “flood” until the proper cue. I saved the play…no matter, I wasn’t invited to the post-production party anyway.
This was 1966 and the hippie era was not yet upon us. Girls wore dresses and boys dressed conservatively, except for one skinny blond kid who couldn’t seem to find a school he could attend two years in a row. I wore black-and-white “hounds tooth” pants, or pink sharkskin pants with the bottoms “fringed” and a matching vest over a red and white broad-striped shirt. The School Psychologist, a Dr. Spiro, must have thought…well, who knows what he thought…he called me in for three or four sessions in which he didn’t say anything, just asked a question and sat and stared at me for half an hour. Funny thing is, I saw him years later on national television giving a weak opinion about something, having risen to the top of his profession. I haven’t figured that one out yet, maybe he could help me.
I found a child’s nightshirt, red in color, in a thrift store, with “BATMAN” emblazoned in black across the chest. It fit me like a long t-shirt. I wore it to school with a regular shirt over it, cut off half way up. I had fashioned a flap that could be lifted to reveal my true identity. Before sending me home to change, they tried to embarrass me into compliance with the dress code by having me stand in front of the principal’s office as the entire school passed by on their way to an assembly. (It didn’t work) The teacher’s lounge must have been abuzz with that one, since they all called me Batman from then on.
The school Yearbook from that year shows that the student body voted me “Best Dressed”…but I had to share the honor with a guy who wore suits…I guess that year they let the runner-up get mentioned too.
It seemed as though everyone in school found a soul mate and walked around holding hands. Each girl wore the class ring of her steady date on a gold neck chain to inform the world she was already taken, deeply involved and happy. Each guy had the hottest girl on the planet. Love’s springtime had arrived for everyone…everyone but me. The fact of the matter was that I was just one of the eighty percent of the kids who were on the outside looking in, thinking they were the only one left out. I wasn’t alone; nevertheless, my high school love life had me looking in a mirror saying, “What the heck?”
It started when I was thirteen and had a crush on a girl I passed in the school hallway every day. She had never noticed me up to the time I handed her a heart-shaped box of Valentine’s Day candy as we passed on that fateful February-fourteenth, when I made my move. I couldn’t speak, seeing as how my eyes were tearing up from fear and all. Surprised, she said, “Thank You?” I think she took a different hallway after that.
Then there was that statuesque red-haired cheerleader I asked for a date on a day I was bold and outgoing, feeling my Wheaties on the upslope of my biorhythm. She accepted. I overheard the other cheerleaders ask her “Who is this fun guy? We’ve never noticed him!” Unfortunately, the school dance happened during my much longer biorhythmic down-slope. I became totally intimidated by her and could only say “hi” each time she came near me, until she walked away from me, disgusted…but it was okay…she found a guy who had a car, unlike myself, and caught a ride home with him.
Somewhere in New York City a woman has a souvenir from the time she went up to a resort hotel in the country and met a sweet boy (me) working there. She asked to see my class ring, which I handed her, and never gave it back. There was nothing I could do to get it from her. She probably keeps it by her bedside to remind her of girlhood days of yore and the blond country boy she left behind. Nah, she’s probably in jail. That would be nice.
I had an “almost” girlfriend once. We only ever saw each other within the confines of the Narrowsburg school building. She was famous for getting excited at basketball games and passing out. She hurt me bad when she broke up with me, saying “I just want to be friends”. That day the school chorus put on a Christmas show. She was part of it and looked over at me a few times while singing. I still fill with sadness when I hear the plaintiff refrain “Silver Bells”.
I was going steady with another girl when an unfortunate accident happened. I spit on her. It wasn’t entirely my fault…the bus driver on my bus had warned everyone not to make a peep or he would throw us off, so, when I saw her walking by the bus, I spit out the window, never imagining I would hit her. She immediately took my new school ring off her neck chain and threw it in an un-mowed field.
So, in summary: Freshman year…nothing happening.
Sophomore year…complete flop.
First senior year…gave up two class rings. No results.
Second senior year: I find myself mesmerized by a girl young enough to send me to jail, but for two saving graces: First: her mother kept the reins on her so tight she could barely leave the house, and Second: she didn’t care about me one way or the other.
Her name was Prudy…as in Prudence, an indication that whoever named her wanted to raise a plain little girl who would one day join the Temperance League and bake cookies for the Presbyterian Church. She was gorgeous. Her mom could see what I saw and put the kybosh on any hanky-panky before the buds even started to form on what I could only dream would become a flourishing beanstalk of love.
She was my sister Vicki’s friend, so I had occasion to at least be in her vicinity now and then. I didn’t let on, as best I could, but the name I called her, “Spoonful”, betrayed my feelings a bit. I kept a lid on my ardor until, as chance would have it, I wound up sitting next to her in the back seat of a car full of kids with whom her mother felt comfortable because my sister was one of them. I planted a wet one square on her lips. She didn’t resist at all. I continued planting. The Presbyterians in that area have had to bake their own cookies ever since. Vicki told our mom I was disgusting, but I couldn’t have cared less. I had finally kissed a girl.
I hear that upon finishing high school Prudy married one of her teachers, a young man whose tenure at that school was over shortly after it began. The scandal landed them in New Jersey where they raised a fine family and still enjoy a marriage more successful than those of many of their detractors.
I had three friends at Delaware Valley who, like me, had no girlfriends. We called ourselves the “Stud-men”, an obvious case of wishful thinking.
On a Saturday night I went to a dance at the Youth Center that was attended by a girl considered one of the best looking in our school. She was also one of the best athletes. She was also not available, being one of those girls with an adult boyfriend you’ve never seen. Since she went right by my house on her way home, I asked her for a ride. We were walking to her car when the carload of stud-men pulled up next to us and told me to get in. I said “See ya” to Nancy and got in, leaving her alone and a little dumbfounded as I bombed off, hootin’ it up with my cool, misguided buddies.
The Senior Class trip that year was a multi-day visit to Washington, DC. The bus pulled up at the Treasury Department and our chaperone said “Ten of you get off for a tour”. I was number nine. Nancy was sitting in the front. I put her on the spot by blocking the bus’s door and not moving until she agreed to get off as number ten. Thankfully Herbie didn’t jump up to take that slot. I would have had to shoot myself.
She was my companion for the remainder of the trip, and I think at that time she decided she had an excuse to leave her tall, good looking boyfriend, who her parents loved, who had a car, who was determined to spend his life as a farmer…something she didn’t want to do. She traded him…someone with prospects…someone bona fide…for a tall, skinny pedestrian who showed up at school during her final year wearing a letter jacket from another town and offering nothing but a personality she found interesting. Hey, I didn’t care; I could look at myself in the mirror. I had a girlfriend.
Somehow, (I don’t remember how) I wound up living with Mom again and getting ready to start attending another new school for my second senior year. Before the Delaware Valley school year began I met the girl next door. She was a nice enough person…an ordinary, small in stature, somewhat quiet girl with glasses. I accompanied her to a local parade and held her hand as we walked. The murmuring among the spectators was obvious. “What’s this? Phyllis has a boyfriend?” What I didn’t know, but was soon to find out after one day in school, was that for some reason Phyllis took the brunt of ridicule in that place. Why? I don’t know. Maybe because she couldn’t, or didn’t, defend herself. I’m sorry to say that upon finding out I was identifying myself with an outcast I backed away from her as fast as I could. It’s the high school way.
A boy named Herbie was easy to tease, therefore he caught it, just like Phyllis. He was a simple, harmless country boy whose goal in life was to be liked and fit in with the other guys, so he kept a close eye on trends and a close ear on AM radio, hoping to be the first one to report any new songs.
Herbie had a car…so some of us other guys let him drive us around. Three of us were his passengers on the freeway one night, allowing him to use up his gas taking us where we wanted to go.
A black limousine passed us. I recognized its plates as Paul Grossinger’s, my father’s old boss. I told Herbie to pass it back, which he did. It passed us…we passed it, etc. until he had that six-cylinder cranked up to 90 miles an hour and smoke started to rise from the center hump.
The State Police were waiting for us. After Herbie collected his citation, we drove past the police barracks and saw that Limo in the parking lot. Turkeys. After a few weeks I noticed Herbie was taking the bus to school. He never talked about it.
I solidified my standing as the Passenger from Hell when I caused another student to lose his driver’s license. I was attending the “Fireman’s Field Day” picnic with a couple other kids when the fire siren sounded, indicating an emergency to which the volunteers had to respond. As they lit off the fire truck and jumped in their cars, I suggested we follow them to the scene of the action. We wound up right behind the fire truck and in front of the firemen’s cars racing through Lake Huntington. When one of the firemen on the fire truck lost his hat and it landed in the road, I said “Stop!” The driver jammed on the brakes, resulting in that distinct “boom boom boom“ sound made as volunteer firemen wreck into each other. There were some unhappy people walking that day, and in the future, I noticed the student/driver doing the same.
My second senior year in high school didn’t require much effort. I had failed to graduate from Liberty simply because I flunked English, and that was the only serious course I had to take at Delaware Valley Central. I filled my dance card with courses like Art, Typing and Electric Shop, unaware that those would become the most useful courses of any I would take in my five years of secondary education. My new school was located “centrally”…equally far in any direction from any significant grouping of human beings. No one walked to school.
I was finally on the proper grade level for my age. I had grown taller than the girls, and I was getting a fresh start at a place the school psychologist wasn’t bugging me to come back and see him. I toned down the crazy way I dressed and wore my Liberty jacket festooned with sports letters and patches for which I had barely qualified (unbeknownst to anyone but me or a true Liberty athlete I might have the misfortune to run into). Nobody was afraid to go near me. I was instantly popular.
Complimenting my new estate was the freedom I had to attend after-school functions. I was living with just my mother and siblings, Melvin having gone abroad. Stepfather had accepted a position with his former construction company as a supervisor on a contract building the airstrip at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam. He was scheduled to be gone the whole year but came back a few months early because of a medical issue. He had been bayoneted by three South Korean soldiers in a bar fight. He was cut up bad…run all the way through in one spot…but won the fight, as it were, and walked to a clinic. Somehow he’d lived, which I must admit I found disappointing due in part to the million dollar life insurance policy that went unclaimed.
So, after just a few months, he came back. The naked woman tattooed on his chest, seated with her feet in a washtub, was just a thin blue line now, after the surgery that removed skin in an attempt to hold-in his ruptured abdomen. He had a soft spot for women…that’s what kept my freedom intact. I was dating a girl, and far be it from him to interfere with Edna’s boy finally getting his feet wet.
When he first went away, I was checking in on the first day of school at Delaware Valley, and some of my new pals looked at my class schedule and told me it looked like I had to meet Coach Dober. They pointed me toward the gym and off I went.
I held out my hand and said, “Coach Dober, I’m Larry Edge”.
His reply: “Let me tell you something, son, you’re either gonna straighten up and fly right or you’re not going to make it around here”…seems his real name was Kobylenski. He had been dubbed “Dober” after the chubby little sidekick “Doberman” on the Phil Silver’s Show, and he hated it. I got a poor start with him, but my belly-laughing new friends thought I was alright.
The Science Club was the school’s most popular club because of the great trips they took each year. I decided to join, and at the first (crowded) meeting I was elected club president. Everyone was on board with that except the science teacher, who thought the president of the club should at least be taking a science class, but the students prevailed and I was sworn in. I think we took a trip. It probably had something to do with science because I was so bored I swear I can’t even remember if we took a trip. I got the teacher to set up another trip later in the year to New York City ostensibly to visit the Dow Chemical building.
When we got there and had spent fifteen minutes in the building looking at stuff, which I can’t remember, I broke the club into two parts and assigned each a student chaperone. One group had me and Nancy, the other had another senior couple. I told my group where and when to re-group for the return trip home and just turned them loose in the big city so that I could have some fun with the person I actually cared about. Thankfully, every one of them made it back home to their trusting parents. As for the science teacher, he chalked off that year as a loss and set his sights on the next one.
I had a friend who would use his parents’ Cadillac to chauffer Nancy and me on dates. Tony was the most easy-going guy ever. I saw someone rip his shirt up the back in the school hallway, and he thought it was funny. He was the only boy the school allowed to have long hair in 1966/67, possibly because they thought it was his cultural right as a Native American, or maybe because they just plain liked him.
He was in his senior year and had been taking shop classes since eighth grade, none of which he had passed. The shop teacher was a Bob Newhart-like dry-humor type who had been having a running tongue-in-cheek conflict with Tony for five years. I took Electric Shop with them. Each morning Mr. Sturdevant would don his neck lanyard and microphone, say “Good Morning”, crank down the volume on his home-built amplifier, which was, by then, screaming due to feedback (there were only eight of us in this class) and ask Tony, who lived in Pennsylvania on the other side of the Delaware River, “How was your swim this morning, Cochise?”
Mr. S looked down and saw that Tony was not wearing socks. With slumped shoulders, he went to the chalkboard, got a piece of red chalk, bent down and spent the next ten minutes of class time drawing socks on Tony’s ankles. The next day Tony appeared in class, having not bathed, with red chalk dust getting on his shoes and pants. He was sent to the locker room to wash, lest the principal ask how that mess happened.
I like the story of how he failed metal shop. In the beginning of the year he pulled a block of slag out of the forge. He flattened one side, drilled a hole in it and polished it for the rest of the school year. The teacher never spoke to him about it. At the end of the course, the students were told to turn in their projects. Tony held his out to Mr. Sturdevant.
A pause, then Mr. S asked, “What is it?”
Tony: “It’s a pen holder.”
Mr. S took it from him, went outside, walked across a field and tossed it down in the woods. That night Tony found it and presented it again the next day. Mr. S took it, walked across the field, walked across the road, walked through the woods down to the river, threw it in, came back and gave Tony a zero for the year.
The girl’s gym coach was the most unlikely of characters. He was six foot ten and not thin. As a coach cheering for girls’ teams, his size and deep voice just seemed to upset the balance of nature. One lunch recess my sister came to me and said he had grabbed her and pushed her around. I went to the gym where he was monitoring pick-up basketball and walked up to him.
He smiled and said, “Hi, Larry”.
I responded, “Why don’t you pick on somebody your own size?”
His smile dropped, his face flushed red, and he grabbed my arm and said “Come with me”.
I walked (I could have let him drag me) into his office guided by the extra-large hand jammed in my armpit. After he closed the double doors behind us, he turned and I saw what an enraged giant looks like. He was livid. I knocked over some volleyball uprights and broke a ball crate as my body was tossed about the room.
I put one of my low wrestling moves on him and got him around the legs, in a perfect position to dump him on his head, but I had the foresight to let him go, not knowing what I would do with him once I got him down. He got me over his desk choking me, but came to his senses, thankfully, and sat down.
“Now let’s talk about this” he said, calmly. It turned out to be no big deal. As I left his office I saw that Coach Kobylenski had been standing guard outside the doors, keeping people away and probably hoping Coach Pasega would beat the snot out of that wise-Alec little SOB. Although the whole school knew about it before I could even get to my next class, we both just kept quiet about the incident…me because I had disrespected a teacher and him because he almost choked-out a student during school hours.
Art was my favorite class. For one project, the students were instructed to draw caricatures of someone well known. Exaggeration of recognizable features is the foundation of a good caricature. I chose to do a drawing of Mr. Brown, the school’s Principal. He was heavy and had a good-size skin tag next to his nose. I drew him as a swaggering, short-shirted, button-popping policeman, hat askew and swinging a baton. The oversized wart on his face was a nice touch.
An annual art show was on-tap and the school’s students and staff were invited to stop by the Art room during the day to check it out. When I got to school that morning it seemed most of the students hadn’t arrived yet. That wasn’t the case. Word of that picture had traveled through the ranks and they were all down at the Art room crowding in to see it. It was so disruptive the teacher had to take it down. She apologized; she was an artist, but most of the staff had little appreciation for fine art and a limited sense of humor.
My caricature-drawing talent continued to serve me well the day of graduation. I did a life-size picture of Coach Kobylenski lifting a bar-bell. It was draped across his rounded, bare belly at an angle, and his eye-popping, sweating, red face showed that he was having a bit of a hard time. I rolled it up and gave it to Terry Fink, one of his best varsity athletes, who volunteered to present it to him from the graduation stage and did just that, unfurling it in front of God and everybody. The coach wasn’t amused, and, even though he was seated in the front row, refused to come up and get it. He just sat there fuming, consoled by the fact that in twenty minutes, Edge, that sorry little so-and-so, would be gone forever.
And gone I was, but not without having been fully revived by my experience at a rectangular, brick school building that looked, to every first time visitor, like someone had built a Bangladesh garment factory on a secluded hillside overlooking the Delaware River. Its featureless appearance was belied by the wealth within, the richness that was the student body. I left there with whatever positive self-image I may have lost at Liberty restored. Having watched my Liberty graduation from the audience was a blessing in disguise. I would have launched into life from there with few friends, too young to join the military and with zero prospects. As it was, I had a desirable, intelligent girlfriend, another New York State Regents scholarship, and I’d been named the schools best artist. Best of all, I was the outgoing President of the Science Club.
We were moving from Hortonville (pop. maybe 200, birthplace of Fredrick Cook, North Pole explorer) to a house my Uncle Bill owned, which had not been used for years. We’d been preparing the property for habitation for a few months…the house had never really been finished and was still actually a cabin without modern stuff like electrical wiring, etc. I remember being lowered headfirst down an old stone well to bring a pipe through the fieldstone sidewalls so an electric pump could be used to provide running water.
In order to get permission to go on a date with Nancy, I was required to fence-in a five acre field with barbed wire and build a vehicle gate at the near end…all in just two days. I worked hard and got it done. Melvin pointed out that one of the gate fence posts I had driven into the stony ground was crooked. Permission denied…misery allowed.
Moving again…the twenty-first time in my 18 years. Stepfather was over at the destination house, and I had loaded the pickup to the sky with our worldly goods. (Plywood side extensions, Grapes-of-Wrath-esque) My mother and sister Vicki were with me. I felt I was at the junction of my life, and continuing to be a dependent of Melvin at this time was just not going to cut it.
Mom snapped at me, “Get in the truck.”
I said, “I’m not going.”
She stared at me as the meaning of those words sunk in, then came over to me crying and hugged me. Vicki cried, too, we had a group hug, and they wished me well.
Mom said, “Take care of yourself”, and I set off down the road toward North Branch with no bag and 70 high school graduation dollars in my pocket.
Walking along that country road, I passed the little house of Jim Braddock, who came from nothing to win the world heavyweight boxing title from Max Baer in the 1930’s, and whose life, more recently, inspired the movie Cinderella Man. It seemed fitting to be walking on the same road he once walked…we all do what we think we have to do.
I passed Buck Brook Road, whereon dwelt the faire damsel Nancy, my beloved…she who nature’s God had gifted with a natural beauty rivaling that of any farmer’s daughter abiding in the nearby Pennsylvania Dutch countryside…she with the great legs.
I lumbered up the hill and past Hy Frank’s chicken farm, where tens of thousands of noisy egg-laying hens went about their business in a cacophony of mindless exuberance.
On I went, until I was out of earshot; the sun was shining, it was quiet, I had a full belly and I wasn’t responsible for anyone but myself. I had no worries.
I got to Jeffersonville and applied for a job at Katz’s Bakery. I’m not sure why that seemed like a good idea. Behind the bakery was where a barn door had fallen on me and nearly killed me when I was three years old. Mr. Katz asked for my address. I said I didn’t have one…but, hang on, I’ll call my girlfriend and get that set up. She said no, and he called the police. (Things weren’t working out) Rather than wait for the cops to come and take me back home, I got out on Rt. 52 and started hitchhiking toward Liberty where there was a bus stop.
One moment of that segment of the trip is etched in my memory. Just past Youngsville a black ‘54 Ford pulled over for me. I opened the door to get in, and the sight is like a snapshot in my mind. It was like something out of a movie. Looking at me from the other end of the slick old bench seat was the most beautiful girl; long flowing brunette hair, short shorts and bare feet, I knew who she was. I had never seen her, but I had heard other guys telling of a most good-looking girl in these parts. It was obviously her. I remember feeling unworthy to be in her presence and glad that for some reason she would stop for a hitchhiker. I think she even talked to me a little on the way…I’m not sure…
She let me out in Liberty.
I had nowhere to stay, so I went to the town reservoir and slept under some pine trees, using pine needles for a blanket. That doesn’t work. I didn’t sleep, and my body warmth enlivened the indigenous insects.
Somehow I had my paternal Grandfather’s address in Florida (I hadn’t seen him since before my long term memory kicked in), so the next day I bought a bus ticket and set out.
I was seated next to a young woman on her way to New York City to meet her husband, who was flying back from Europe. When the skyline came into view, I went into some emotion-laden spiel about the millions of people in the big city being like little insignificant ants and how small we were in the big scheme of things. I didn’t mean any of it; I was really just practicing my budding verbal skills as a rising adult.
It’s a long bus ride to St. Petersburg, especially when buses stop in every little Podunk town within ten or fifteen miles of a direct route. Somewhere in the South I noticed this sad-sack, droopy-eyed girl staring at me from her bus seat. We picked up a young man, and before too long I see those two meet, and, not much after that, I see them making-out with much gusto. The bus pulls over at some dirt road, and he gets out. On we go.
We stop at another little town, and, from across the bus station waiting area, I see Droopy-eyes staring at me again, starving for more. I don’t look at her again.
Back on the road, a young man of the African American persuasion sat next to me. He was a Southerner and well versed in the ways of southern reptilian fauna. I learned that Cotton Mouths can bite you underwater, contrary to some local lore. A friend of his put down a snake-challenge by swimming in a farm pond. He lost a leg to snakebite. Because of that story I have never challenged poisonous snakes to bite me underwater. Bus rides can be an education.
The bus got to Tampa as the Florida sun was rising in an awesome, bright orange and pink display, unobscured by hills and valleys. I went outside the bus station there, still wearing my jacket from up north. That was a shock. It was 6 AM and it was hot! No need of pine needles here…back on the bus to cross the bay to St. Petersburg.
The street/avenue layout in St. Pete is hard to figure, and walking miles in the Florida sun was a challenge, but eventually I found my way to Granddad’s door and knocked.
Fortunately, he was home…unknown to me he could have been gone for weeks on one of his annual cross-country road-trips to a working silver mine that he had a stake in.
“Yes?” He didn’t know me.
“I’m your Grandson.”
A pause, then “Well, come on in, I guess.”
It wasn’t long ‘til he asked what Service I was going to join. Seeing there were no other career alternatives on the table, I said “Air Force”. We went to the recruiter, who said there was a three month wait. The Navy recruiter was right across the street. Only a one month wait…the Navy it was…that’s what determined the course of my life…pretty well thought out, huh?
C.F. (Larry) Edge was the US Coast Guard’s thirteenth pilot, and, for many years, having survived four plane crashes, that Service’s oldest living former pilot. He graduated in 1927 at the head of his class at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. He’d had a life of adventure right up until the time he retired after a tour of duty as Commanding Officer of the St. Petersburg Coast Guard Station. He was never employed after that, apparently because no life outside of the military is worth living.
The Naval Aviation Museum Foundation published a shiny magazine containing an eight-page article about his exploits, aptly named “Edge of Alaska”. It followed him exploring the coast in a bi-wing seaplane that had been transported to the “last frontier” and hoisted over the side of a Coast Guard cutter. He had been sent to locate a site for a joint Navy/Coast Guard base, which, at his recommendation, was established on Kodiak Island.
He was a man of many stories, from his inside knowledge of Custer’s last stand gleaned from Indians he knew, to his Golden Gloves boxing bouts, to burning airplanes he’d landed, and friends he’d lost. As a junior US Army private, during the White/Red Russian conflict, he’d accompanied a French pilot flying the Siberian railroad, interpreting English and Russian for him. I got to hear all the stories.
“See that sword?” Two draws on his ever present pipe, then “took it off a Rooshin” …puff… ”tried to use it on me”.
British men of his ilk would have been found swapping similar yarns through the curling smoke rising from bent-stem pipes in a room decorated with leather easy chairs and old walnut paneling. That’s where I thought he belonged, not in a little Florida-style home with Bermuda grass and Yucca plants. But I was glad to be there, and he loved having company that listened.
A month later the next phase of careening off the bulkheads of life’s rocking ship began…the course was set.
After spending a month with my obsessively orderly, military-minded grandfather, I was ready to leave behind his meals (fish sticks and hush puppies every day), his stories (heard most of them), and the Florida July sun (self-explanatory). He was an honorable, intelligent, racist, somewhat vain man to whom I was grateful for his hospitality. It was time to follow the Navy’s directions, now, and head to Jacksonville and the Armed Forces Induction Center.
These were the days smack-dab in the middle of the Viet Nam war and the Induction Center was processing all those going into every branch, including draftees. I got to Jacksonville, and they put me up in a hotel room with a fellow from the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia. One of his legs was significantly shorter than the other, and I wondered if he could fake his way into the Navy. He did, in fact he ended up in my boot camp company and was appointed Flag Bearer. Dumb move…we failed inspections because he stood crooked.
So, anyway, the next day was the first day of the rest of my life…after a few hours at the Center it started to seem like my life wasn’t going to be so hot. I tried to comfort a blond surfer dude with flowing locks, who was being drafted into the Army, losing his life-style to possibly be killed, and he just sat quietly and cried. I told him I’d just gotten a haircut a few days ago and it really wasn’t so bad. He looked at me speechless as though I was out of my mind.
So, we all lined up and were interviewed by a doctor. The guy in front of me answered “yes” to every question. i.e.: “Have you ever had Yellow Fever?” “Have you ever had Cancer?” etc., etc. The Doc stopped, gave him a wry stare and continued. Seemed like some people didn’t feel like this was the path they were supposed to take.
Me, I just drifted along, until some guy said I was going to be sent to San Diego to boot camp rather than Great Lakes, Illinois. I had a girlfriend in New York. I protested. He yelled. He gave me some information on who gave the orders and who was supposed to follow them. Then he saw I had been placed in the Advanced Electronics Program, a six year obligation, and quietly offered to let me go back to St. Pete for a few days so that I could return and start the process over…then he could send me to Great Lakes. I opted to stay.
Four of us got on a plane to San Diego, getting along fine, just like human beings, ‘til we got to the San Diego airport at 2 AM and found out we weren’t. There to emphasize that fact was our greeting committee of one snarling, yelling Chief Petty Officer who didn’t care what time it was, where he was, or who heard him. He was a kindly gentleman who got us to our sleeping arrangements by 3 AM. At 4 AM he threw a galvanized trash can down the center of a large room full of stumbling, sleep deprived civilians who, with one third of their brains engaged, tried desperately to follow the orders being shouted at them. “TAKE SHOWERS”, they yelled, then “FALL IN…OUTSIDE.” Some two minute time period must have expired or something. Fortunately I wasn’t one of the four or five guys that actually got wet. They were late.
We marched dutifully down the pitch-black road, stepping on each other’s feet and getting every order we were given wrong. The Order Barker was beside himself. How could any group of people be so stupid as to not be able to understand orders (that they had never heard before).
After arriving at the chow hall, a couple very enthusiastic demonic fellows formed the 60 of us into a 10 foot by 10 foot block to be herded in for a 5 minute breakfast of the Navy’s finest cuisine: eggs, bacon, toast…all nearly cooked and neatly thrown on top of each other. What a gas boot camp is! I had survived Melvin. I felt sorry for the rest of these guys.
We had a new leader now. He was of a ruddy complexion with a short, solid build and a square, no-nonsense face. He was a Navy cook who made it known that first day that no one was to ever call him “Cookie” or his wrath would be incurred. I believed him. This guy was Little Melvin. He appeared stronger than any of the younger men he controlled, and I’m sure he was. He liked to prove it by walking around with an M1 rifle held out at arm’s length balanced on his thumbs while he lectured. The rest of us were also holding M1s out, parallel to, and at varying distances from the ground. Some arms had fatigued to the point that the suspended rifle was against the knees of their groaning, back-arching recruit. On he walked, droning on, amusing himself.
This was serious business. Nothing was funny, even though I was sure that somewhere down deep these screaming, swearing old salts knew this was just an act. If they did, they never let on. This was a weeding-out process that sent a few of my fellow complete idiots home.
We were “squirrels” those first four weeks. All recruits on our side of the Recruit Station were “squirrels”. An arched bridge over an estuary separated us from the more advanced side of boot camp. In time we would transfer over that bridge and become “Lads”. Oh, to be a “Lad”! Another time and place that would be a pathetic title, but here it was a gateway to some form of acceptance and possibly even sanity.
Squirrels attended some classes on the other side of the bridge, and about once a month some recruit would break ranks while crossing that bridge and dive for life in a futile attempt to return to the world via the nearby yacht harbor. Even though the escapee invariably wound up wet and in the brig, I still wondered what it would feel like to have those minutes of freedom. Lucky guy! Brave, too. Dumb, too. Free, lucky, brave and dumb…an unusual combination of personal attributes. I never could have done it…didn’t have the brave part.
Little Melvin wasn’t a smart guy, and he had a soft spot for young men that shared his lower testing scores. Our company became a holding area for recruits that had been “set back” from companies before us. He kept them all. That made it hard on the rest of us, cleaning these guys up, trying to get them sorted out so they wouldn’t cause us to fail inspections. In hind-sight, I’m glad they were there because they supplied my best boot camp stories.
I’ve forgotten most of the other guys but not Nelson, Gibson, Polodichuk, or that guy with the bloodshot eyes (turned out he was wearing hard contacts continually, for the entire ten weeks he was in boot camp). “Contacts guy” had skin that exuded some sort of orange color. That’s not good when you wear white clothing and hats. So we scrubbed (his clothes, and even his body…only once, since the scrub brush left marks). We folded. We carried him and the others. We were a Band of Brothers…Brothers of the marginally retarded.
Polodichuk had been set back to us. He looked just like me, even to me. This was a problem for the Company Commander, exacerbated by the fact that he couldn’t say Polodichuk. He came up with a novel solution by moving him to the bunk above me and simply calling us both Edge. That was just fine with Mister P as he contentedly received one of his frequent tongue-lashings under an assumed name. I could only hope the CC didn’t decide to solve his discipline problem by simply getting rid of everyone named Edge.
Nelson was a Texan about the size and shape of Porky Pig with Coke bottle glasses. There came a day when we were to march to a personnel inspection, and, while we were gone, our barracks was to be inspected. That meant our bunks were to be made up just so and all our clothes folded just so, etc. We were in a hurry and working hard to get ready. We were finished. The call to attention rang out as the Company Commander appeared in particularly ill temper. We all “popped tall” at the end of our racks. A rustling sound broke the silence. The CC’s curiosity drew him toward the sound until he arrived at Nelson’s rack. Unfolded clothes lay all over it. Nelson spun around, surprised, his glasses askew and declared in a loud drawl “I didn’t realize it at the time, Saar!” It was the only time I saw Little Melvin laugh.
Gibson. Gibson was a redhead who might have had a successful career modeling for Mad Magazine had he been born a little sooner. He had a small head and ears that stood straight out like the fins on a ’57 DeSoto. Buck teeth and freckles finished off the look. He was childlike and harmless and not a genius. Failing a personnel inspection meant hours of physical corrective training for the entire group (sometimes known in the real world as corporal punishment). It was to be avoided. Fortunately we had to leave a “roving patrol” behind in the barracks when we went off to an inspection. Gibson was appointed. That reduced our chance of failure by a factor of one.
The way back from the inspection took us through the concrete area between rows of two-story barracks buildings. We were marching pretty well now, and the rhythmic sound of sixty left heels striking the ground simultaneously echoed off the faceless buildings. The CC walked on the left side of the marching block of young men as we came into sight of our own barracks. Our area was upstairs, and staring out one of the upper windows our “roving” patrol could be plainly seen. The Company Commander mumbled epithets until we were nearly home, and Mr. “you can’t see me” finally ducked away. Gibson got a standard butt-chewing and training as to the duties of a roving patrol.
A week later the situation repeated itself. The company went off to inspection and Gibson assumed his duties as roving patrol again. As we marched back and our building came into view, we could see Gibson. This time he was hunkered down. Only his eyes, ears and the top of his little head could be seen peeking out the same window. I could hear the CC mumbling something about “stupid” and “Gibson”. Gibson didn’t wait as long to duck away, but he still thought he was invisible. Surprisingly, the Company Commander didn’t make too much of a fuss. I think he just gave up.
Eventually we crossed over the bridge and became Lads. It was a happy day, which was soon tempered by a “work week” during which most of our company was employed as slave labor in the mess hall. Somehow I got the most fantastic job of riding a bicycle all over, transporting paperwork for the headquarters building. A dream job. Maybe Little Melvin felt bad about the time he shoved me in the chest, over and over, knocking me into people until I was in the “back of the ranks where you belong!” Seemed he had a thing about people back-talking him while in ranks. Eventually, he moved me back up to the position I’d been fired from. I’d gotten the highest score in our battalion of 960 recruits on placement testing. Maybe that’s why he recommended me for the headquarters job. Maybe he didn’t dislike “those kind of people” so much after all.
I met two interesting people during work week. One was named Larry Edge like me. I saw his name somewhere and rode my bike to his barracks and met him. The other was the first Master Chief Petty Officer of The Navy on his first tour of a facility. I told the CC I’d met him. He told me I was lying, until he read about it in the paper. I was a Lad big-time now. Good thing I didn’t jump off that bridge.
The Company Commander needed help. He’d been picking up the mail since the beginning because he couldn’t get any of his recruits to pass the test given to qualify a Mail Petty Officer. Well, he had this !@#$%& genius test taker in the midst. Might as well send him and see if he can do it. So he gave me the study material. When I got to the battalion HQ I was asked questions that had no remote connection to the materials I’d been given. I flunked completely. I was getting the impression these guys were messing with my CC, who was pushing through his first company. My new masters told me to assume the pushup position and said they were only allowed to make me do 10 pushups in a half-hour. At 30 minutes and nine pushups I could not rise up and finish, even with the loud vocal support I was being given. In fact, I had to roll on my side even to get up from the floor. One told me he was going to walk over to a nearby window, and when he looked out he better see me running. I took off.
Later, I found myself on watch in the same building in the middle of the night. Mostly I was there to make entries in a log book, but it looked like a position of authority. My roving patrol came and told me he’d found a barracks watch asleep…a major offense that could land someone in the brig.
With no authority whatever to do so, I told him to bring the guy to me. After abandoning his post, the guy arrived, and I had him stand at attention while I chewed him out and then sent him back. He was more than willing to submit humbly to another recruit if it would make this go away. Therein was a microcosm of an entire military career. Test Flunking Loser rises in position and gets to enjoy passing on the misery to someone in no position to resist. I was starting to figure this stuff out.
An announcement was made that anyone who had ever been in a chorus or choir was to report to a certain place at a certain time. That included me because I had been in the chorus at Delaware Valley Central School in my second senior year. The chorus in that school put on the plays, and since someone had noticed my superior ability to make a fool of myself, I was asked to join. One of the plays we put on was the musical Oklahoma! in which I had a (mostly) speaking part. I talked my few singing lines and got by.
So I reported as ordered to what turned out to be an audition for the San Diego Recruit Station Men’s Chorus. Those selected would no longer be part of a regular company but would spend their time in boot camp practicing or going around Southern California performing. Um…I can’t sing? anybody? No problem, I’ll just wing it.
The group that gathered were given an hour to semi-learn the Armed Forces Hymn. I decided to try a very deep voice…sort of a counter-falsetto. During practice, I heard one of the song leaders tell another, “Sounds like we’ve got a nice deep bass voice in this bunch.”
Time to audition. They took three guys at a time and had them sing, listening carefully and then telling the individuals selected to have a seat to one side.
My three got up and started in. “Eternal Father strong to save, whose arm has stilled the restless wave.” Man, I was belting it out, chin back and voice as deep as possible, when I heard “STOP…STOP…you two…GET OUT…GET OUT!” His face flushed with anger, he had thrown out the poor guy standing next to me as well. Somebody had come in there to make a mockery of the whole chorus selection process.
After he calmed down, he let the other guy who’d gotten the hook try again. He was selected. Me, I was free to go. That was fine with me. I didn’t want to have to dress up all the time anyway.
I decided to amuse myself by pulling a little fun prank on the biggest guy in the company. In the middle of the night, I snuck over to the bunk where His Massiveness was snoring away and tied the first part of him I found to the “centerboard” with a length of thin clothesline; then I went back to my bunk and watched until I saw some stumbling, half-asleep recruit, on his way to the head, run into it, half-dragging the large guy out of bed by his big toe.
I enjoyed that, so when I heard that the Religious Petty Officer, a recruit appointed to that lofty position due to his extreme nerdiness, was going to get a “blanket party”, I volunteered my services. A fun blanket party is when a group of six or more gather around the sleeping subject’s rack and pull a blanket down hard on him so he can’t move, then pound the dickens out of him.
The surprise party happened at three in the morning. I just tapped his immobilized form a little, but one guy was slugging him in the head like he hated him. I fully expected it to hit the fan the next day, but the victim never told a soul. I admired him for that.
The rest of boot camp was a series of classes, swim school (where Contacts Guy was set back again because he sank like a stone), athletic competition, a gun shoot, and fire training in which we were locked in a simulated ship compartment filled with real oil smoke. One guy I was responsible for actually started crying. Seems he had some aforetime hidden fear of being burned to death in a locked room. Big sissy. I told him to “just stay down”. I bet that surfer dude I advised at the induction center got a haircut and did just fine, too. I should have been a doggone military counselor. I really shined at that stuff.
Well, all good things must come to an end, and, besides hell, all bad things too. Boot camp was coming to an end, and I was starting to realize maybe the real Navy was a little different. I’d seen an overweight, disheveled Petty Officer crossing a street. Amazing. I’d seen a Chief Petty Officer with a company of recruits tell some ordinary sailors to move by yelling, “make a hole!” whereupon one turned and calmly showed him a circle made with a thumb and index finger. Then…No response!? Amazing. Maybe life will be OK after all.
Like most recruits, I took all the money I had earned in boot camp at something like 96 dollars a month and bought a plane ticket home. After arriving, I reckon I would have made more than a token effort to visit family had I not had a girlfriend who my mind’s eye couldn’t see past. Fortunately, Nancy’s parents were about to drive to the Finger Lakes region where she was attending college and bring her home for a break. I rode along.
On the Sunday evening drive back, the car lost a front wheel bearing, placing the burden of everyone’s wellbeing square on her dad’s shoulders. He located a mechanic at the guy’s home, who then removed the roller bearings, and, since he didn’t have the parts, packed the area with grease, said “Good luck” and sent us on our way.
We actually made it back, but things were torn up in there and cost a lot to replace. Her father was a butcher in a local food market and the family’s sole bread winner, and he didn’t need the unexpected expenses. He lived with his family on a small farm cut into a steep hillside and managed to get by on the income from a job that, today, simply wouldn’t support himself, a wife, one precious daughter and a son.
As it was with most families in the area, the kids were expected to act maturely and work like adults and were given the commensurate respect. They honored their daughter’s choice in boys, but I became aware that they, privately, weren’t too keen on me. I have to say they were right; I had nothing much to offer. I didn’t help around their farm; I didn’t even drive. She was going to a good women’s college on multiple scholarships and at great sacrifice to themselves, including selling one of their few cows to finance her educational effort. I was an enlisted sailor who posed the risk of getting her “in trouble” and ruining everything. I wouldn’t be too keen on me either if it was my daughter. She never said so, but I think she was swayed by their tacit disapproval, and her enthusiasm for me began to wane, even though we were an item for a couple more years. (My “Animal House” moment, when I intentionally turned the stomachs of the girls in her college cafeteria…the details of which are not fit to print…probably didn’t help.)
After my short leave back in the Catskills reacquainting myself with humanity, I returned to San Diego to attend a few months of school.
San Diego at that time had barely emerged from its status as a World War II jumping-off point for the Navy. The downtown buildings were still mostly Spanish influenced architecture, and commercial pilots landing jets at the airport did not yet need to worry about smacking into a high-rise. City cops still harassed sailors for jaywalking whether they had or not, and one could catch a whole night’s sleep at the cinema for the price of only one admission.
I went to a “Burlesque Show” playing to a not-packed house of about 6 disappointed patrons witnessing an overdressed singer belting out the last refrains of a dying art form. Then I discovered the beach.
Ever since Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello twerked 60s-style on the California sands, I was hooked on surfing. Not that I’d ever seen a wave, mind you, it was just my destiny. Some things can’t be stopped, and such it was with my determination. I found my way to Mission Beach and rented a 30 pound surfboard with a big hatchet-shaped fin. I was Beach Blanket Bingo in a baggy, cotton, navy-issue swimsuit.
The November water temperature called for a wetsuit, but to someone who was used to checking water temperature in the old swimming hole by standing ankle deep to see if his feet went numb, it seemed about normal. I charged. The first wave I paddled over pushed that 10 foot board into my face and nearly broke my nose. No matter, I turned and paddled for a wave and drove the thing straight into the bottom. It came down on the back of my head. Nearby, I watched another guy, just like me, rent a board and come out and do the same thing. I watched him exit the water with his board under one arm and blood mixed with water running down the other one as he held his head. I watched him take his board back and turn it in, done forever, but I watched him while sitting on my surfboard. That’s what separated the surfer from the non-surfer. Determination. I’ve surfed ever since, and I have the scars to prove it. Shaka.
Tijuana, Mexico is just down the road. An unending stream of stories emerged from that bawdy, decadent, crime-ridden foreign town. Eighteen year olds freshly flown from their Mama’s nests trekked down there nightly to get drunk on their butts and get thrown in a Mexican jail, or worse. I never went. I think it was seeing a friend show up at morning muster in a filthy white uniform, no hat, and one ear filled with dried blood that discouraged me. He made the point that Tijuana gutters are not comfy. Well, I reckon. I didn’t lose anything down there. My cousin Riley proved me right when he was robbed there at midnight, years later, and wound up with brain damage. Sometimes I made good choices, even at that age. They can keep their fake zebra-striped donkey.
The next phase of my education was in Vallejo, a few miles past San Francisco at the northeast end of the bay. I had three buddies that were going the same way, one of which had a Volkswagen bus. We decided to make the transition into a road trip adventure by buggin’ it up the coast. That hippie mobile was roomy but pathetically underpowered, especially with four passengers on uphill grades. It had to be rested halfway up some of them to allow the engine to cool off.
It was a long trip, but we finally got to San Fran at night and searched out a place to eat.
In our restaurant sat two middle-aged men and an attractive young woman. Being as how our obviously new uniforms gave us away as fresh meat for every fake jewelry salesman and otherwise unsavory character seeking to separate suckers from their money, one of the men approached our table and introduced himself as a high-class pimp. The young woman was new to the business, and he had her under his wing. He found it quite amusing that she was sending her earnings back to her parents in the Midwest. He needed “fine young men such as yourselves to help in the indoctrination phase”. Two of us went with them to be lightened by 50 dollars each, but a South Carolina “mush mouth” guy named Kenny Blackwell and I deferred. Another wise decision, though not a difficult one.
We arrived at Data Systems Technician School in early winter, and because the place was shut down due to the holidays, I was assigned to a work detail painting concrete floors. My first job was to clean out the freshly-used paint brushes, and, being an experienced house painter, I demonstrated how to swoosh them around in turpentine and then shake them out. The first shake sent a spray of paint thinner through the large fan set up to dry the newly painted floor and ruined the paint job…it had to be re-done. After exactly five minutes on the job, I was reassigned to a team inventorying parts in a warehouse…that was fine with me…at least I didn’t have to breathe paint fumes.
I spent more than a year at that one-subject school with a class more full of bona-fide characters than I’ve ever found concentrated elsewhere. The Data Systems rating was newly established in the Navy and the students were selected to attend based on smarts. It appears that as you raise the bar, you can arrive at levels of Stupid you haven’t seen before—like the classmate who ran out into the street in San Francisco in his underwear because the girl he was with turned out to be a man, and the next weekend was driven 90 miles away by a couple of girls he met, then put out of their car in the pouring rain to fend for himself when they decided it was time for them to go home.
Character Number One—Frank. His family ran a large resort hotel on the island of Aruba in the Caribbean. The fact that he came from wealth and was raised by nannies and hotel help may explain his lack of true feelings for other human beings…I say true feelings, because he did display feelings, but if you really got to know him you’d find they were all fake…he really didn’t care about anybody. When he was a student at an Ivy League university, he started a pro-war demonstration across the street from an anti-war demonstration—just for fun. He didn’t care about the war one way or the other…or this country…or the woman whose son had just died in Viet Nam, who he got all riled up until she went across the street and caused a confrontation that drew the police. The anti-war people were arrested, and he testified against them in court…just for fun. The story was true, I read the newspaper article.
Frank put his affable and caring fake character to good use. People liked him. He couldn’t play volleyball with our class team because he had a polio-shortened leg, so we made him the coach. He couldn’t pass a single test in “DS” school and actually didn’t belong there, so someone, willing to risk his own career, passed him notes during the weekly testing and got him through school. He had a sweet and very cute wife (a brunette ringer for actress Julianne Moore), who he had somehow tricked into marrying him, but he thought nothing of cheating on her if the opportunity arose.
When he got stationed in Virginia, he convinced the owner of a townhouse complex right on Chesapeake Bay to make him manager, in lieu of paying rent. Later, he convinced the owner to throw all the tenants out (his friends), furnish the townhouses and make them a weekly rental for vacationers, with him as manager.
When it came time to file his taxes, he falsely claimed every exemption and deduction possible on the form…and got away with it.
The last time I saw him, he demonstrated his opinion of God by putting his head back, arms out and saying, “If you’re up there, strike me dead!” then, “See? Nothing.”
I hear he got out of the Navy, then the townhouse project flopped and he was thrown out. His wife caught him cheating and divorced him. The Internal Revenue Service caught up with him and nailed him to the wall. I’m not sure he truly cared…I’m told his parents gave him a travel agency in South Florida.
Philip was another friend of note I met while attending that Navy school at the far north end of San Francisco Bay. He was a local boy, hailing from the nearby town of Grass Valley, and the only sailor I ever met who came into the service intending, from “day one”, to spend 20 years and retire. Most of us could barely plan beyond the next payday, so we made sure this overly-mature individual suffered a constant measure of ridicule for his lifer attitude.
He was a third generation, how can I say, occult involvee, only then we didn’t use the word “occult”…we might say metaphysics, or maybe say he was “into eastern religion” or he was “spiritual but not religious”.
His grandparents were like big cheese in the State of California, in that world, and were the sponsors and leaders of a meeting to be held in Berkeley called the Space Convention. His parents were involved as well, so of course he attended, and I went with him. We were given little name tags to wear; that way when we were hob-nobbing with other deep thinkers they would know our names weren’t followed by PHD like theirs, and they could dumb-down the conversation to our level.
The speakers were experts in any and all aspects of the strange and unseen. All topics were welcome, as long as they didn’t include something like “needing forgiveness for sinful behavior” or other traditional nonsense like that.
One of the orators seemed a bit off…he was the former head of the branch of the US Air Force that dealt with UFO’s. When he got up to speak, he produced a folded piece of paper from his pocket that he said someone had passed to him. I heard a couple of low groans from people who already knew him, when he pulled that out and read it: “Have aliens been in contact with you since the last time you spoke?” The answer, of course, was that yes, indeed they had been in contact with him, and as he expounded on the message from beyond, which I can’t remember, his face turned a bright pink. That seemed a bit suspicious.
The guy I was impressed with had been a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. He said that during his time there, he had perfected a method of mind-control over matter. As he sat on the stage, he went into a sort of trance and then ran a large, dirty needle through his bicep. You could see the skin stretch just before it popped through. When he pulled it back out, there was no bleeding and the holes quickly closed up and went away. He said he was currently involved in trying to absorb his energy from the cosmos, rather than from food, and had reached a point where he was barely eating anything.
A few weeks after the convention, Philip said to me, “Remember that guy who was getting his food from the cosmos? Well, he up and died.” I was a bit shocked, but Philip thought it was funny. He confided in me that he didn’t believe any of that stuff, anyway, and only used his vast knowledge of the spiritual as a way to get girls, since most of them seemed fascinated by it. Great! Here I was…just about to rise to a new level of consciousness, exploring the intricacies of the deep, led by a third generation spiritual intellectual, and I get slapped up-aside the head. I had the inside track, and my Guru just burst my bubble. Well, maybe I could use what I had learned to get girls.
One of the guys in my class liked to go to San Francisco on the weekends and “panhandle” (beg for money). Ronnie didn’t need the money. He just liked the sporting aspect of standing on a street corner pleading with folks to part with their spare change. I agreed to make the thirty-mile trip with him one weekend, and, to get ourselves into a more destitute mind-set, we decided to hitchhike rather than take the bus.
We arrived at the freeway entrance where we were going to start thumbing, only to find a long haired hippie already standing, thumb out, in the middle of the large concrete area. Ronnie walked right up to him as though he wasn’t there, stopped two feet in front of him, turned around and put out his thumb. The hippie guy’s arm slowly dropped and he said, “I’m psyched!”, whereupon Ronnie turned around and said, “Oh, man, sorry man, I didn’t see you there. It’s okay, man, you can share our ride.” The three of us caught a ride as far as UCAL Berkeley. Psyched and unhappy, the hippie didn’t say another word.
A city block in Berkeley was unofficially designated as the pick-up point for student hitchhikers needing a lift into the big city. The sidewalk was full of college kids catching rides, and we didn’t have a problem doing the same. It was 1968, still a time of idealistic innocence, and we didn’t worry about who we were jumping in with. Serial killers had not yet come along and ruined everything.
When we got to town, we picked up our girls from their women’s boarding house, and set off on foot. As we walked along Market Street, we passed a character panhandling on the sidewalk. He was a Hare Krishna looking, shaved-head type wearing a long, bright blue, flowing satin robe emblazoned with the sun, moon and stars. A small crowd was watching him beg, obviously amused, and not just because of the effeminate way he asked “Excuse me sir, do you have any spare change?”
As I passed him, I saw out of the corner of my eye that he spit on his fingertips and flicked it at me. I stopped, took the gum out of my mouth, put it on my fingertips and flicked it against his heavenly garment. That kicked the amusement level of the crowd up a notch.
I wasn’t really interested in Ronnie’s sport, so Laura and I split off and did something else. We probably went to Golden Gate Park to take in the impromptu rhythm section that gathered there every week to bang on Conga Drums.
She was a haole, or white, from Hilo, Hawaii, and had been sent to San Fran, like the other girls in the boarding house, ostensibly to start a career. Truth is they were there to find a mate in a wealthier setting.
I went with Laura just because I needed a stand-in for Nancy until we were together again. I dropped her when Nancy came to visit. It’s one of those things I’m still ashamed of and embarrassed about. She was an honest, simple and sweet person…very nice, and now that I’m a decent human being, I’d fall all over myself apologizing if I had the chance.
Golden Gate Park was a great place to hang out, sit up in a tree, or whatever, and it was just down the street from the Haight-Ashbury district, ground zero for the “Summer of Love” the previous year, when kids from all over the country crowded into California to find the “dream” was just that, before heading back home.
The original Hippies decided the popularity of the counter-culture had ruined it, and so it was time to put it to bed.
I was in the area when they “Buried the Hippie” in a ceremony conducted in the park. The funeral procession going down the street on the way to the grave site consisted of an empty casket carried by black-clad long-hair pall bearers with two black-robed women dancing and twirling, fore and aft.
Thirty years later, I was seated on a flight to Orlando, Florida next to a well-dressed Graphic Artist who told me she was one of the two women dancers. Life tickles me sometimes.
San Francisco was decadent, no doubt, but not particularly dangerous as large cities go, so my friend Kenny Blackwell and I would sleep anywhere we could on Saturday nights after our girls, who were best friends, went home when their 11 o’clock curfew arrived. Construction sites were the choice digs because one could usually find cardboard or plywood to keep the damp mist, for which San Francisco is famous, from settling on one’s body. The sun came up every time, I’m glad to say, but there were times it didn’t seem it ever would as we lay there wishing for the day. I still hate false dawn.
“Blackie” and I were an odd couple in most ways, me a lanky youngster from the north and he a mid-twenties, average-height adult from a wealthy southern family. One similarity between us was that neither of us had a driver’s license: me, from being too poor to pay attention, and him, from drag racing in the street, rather than at the track like the rest of his family. Somehow our personalities just matched up and meshed into a lasting friendship.
Blackie’s beautiful girlfriend, Liz, was from the very top tier of Philippine society, and her family was not happy with her selection of Kenny as “the one”. She had turned down wealthy, handsome, ethnically correct boys for this average-looking Spartanburg, South Carolina guy, who she would marry and spend her life with. From the time they saw each other on our mass blind date, they were, and still are, inseparable. He retired from the Navy as a Warrant Officer and then retired from a government job as a supervisor, and she retired as well. So they’ve done fine no matter what other people thought.
I like one little story he has. During Viet Nam, he was a young enlisted man seated in the Combat Control Center of the aircraft carrier USS America, anchored off The Philippines, when a high-level tour group of Pilipino politicians and military brass came through. After the tour left, he was admonished to never again stop and talk to a tour group like he had just done, to which he replied they stopped on their own, since he already knew most of those people from a party he had attended at the Presidential Palace.
Every once-in-a-while I run into him and Liz…some time ago in Spain, where they told me their six-year-old only-child could speak fluent Spanish, and more recently here in the States where they said she was attending Harvard.
Someone in my DS class put forth a plan, and about a dozen of us, boys and our girls, agreed to go camping. We got all the supplies needed for such a trip together, tents and such, and set off. As is the way with kids that age, we didn’t remember everything…like having a place to camp reserved or even identified. By the time we located a nice grassy area on the shores of Lake Berryessa, it was nearly dark and we had to hustle to get set up. The following day arrived sunny and clear and we found that we were located near a nice rope swing that hung from a large tree on the lake bank.
Patty and Artie were the couple that arranged the blind date in the beach town of Santa Cruz that saw Ronnie find his girlfriend; Kenny met Liz, and I met Laura. Patty was built a little unusual. She couldn’t find a bikini that fit her right because the ones with big enough cups didn’t have a back strap small enough and so they fit her loosely, but she bought one for the camping trip anyway and was wearing it that day. We all sat on the elevated lake bank and cheered as each of us took a turn hanging on the rope, swinging out and letting go for the twenty foot drop into the water. Patty took a turn. She took hold of the rope and kicked off, her top immediately sliding up around her face as she swung out, sweeping through the air in all her glory as the rapt spectators watched from their perch on the bank. She let go the rope at its peak, got the wardrobe malfunction fixed before she hit the water and was awarded perfect tens for the most spectacular athletic performance of the day.
A helicopter appeared overhead, a boat with a flashing light pulled up, and suddenly we were surrounded by police approaching by air, land and sea. It seems we hadn’t seen the signs declaring the area off-limits to camping when we arrived in the fading light the previous evening. After finding out we were in the Navy and accusing us of being with under-age girls (which we were not) they told us to break camp and let us go. They recognized that we were young and foolish. Had we been old and responsible, we would have camped in a campground, bought clothes that fit, etc., and none of us would even remember that day. As it is, whenever I see any of those guys or girls, we never fail to resurrect the memory of camping in no-man’s-land…and of Patty and the Flying Trapeze, floating through the air with the greatest of ease.
Back in the classroom, we were biding our time, waiting for assignments to our next duty stations as the Navy distributed its newly trained Data Systems Technicians throughout the world. One afternoon my class was on its own as the instructor went off to take care of some business. The guys were making little match-rockets that would shoot a couple of feet and do no more damage than burn a hole in someone’s shirt if they went where they were aimed. I intended to make one that would actually go somewhere, so I found an empty Paper-Mate pen refill and packed it with ground-up match heads. I crimped the end of it down small to make sure it would really shoot, then opened a window and announced it was “T minus zero”.
I took the instructor’s thick glass navy ashtray and propped the projectile in it, pointed it toward the open window, lit a match and held it under the end of the thing. It wouldn’t light, so I crumpled a piece of paper under it, lit it, and sat down and waited. That thing exploded like a cherry bomb, blowing glass all over the room and embedding a shard of refill metal in the concrete ceiling. The students lost their collective mind, jumped up and ran out of the room, except for one, who locked himself in. Fortunately, it just happened to be quitting time. Beside the fact that no one lost an eye, or worse, the thing that saved me was that an instructor in another classroom stepped out in the hallway and yelled “Slam it again!” as my classmates and I bailed. The other instructors hanging out of their doors accepted that, and I got away with it.
Instead of going to prison for injuring people at a military installation with a home-made bomb, I was sent to an engineering center in Norfolk, Virginia, having been hand-selected for an experimental project using a few mature, responsible, trustworthy sailors to replace civilian contractors installing major changes to computer systems throughout the fleet.
I arrived at my new duty station in January of 1969. I remember that well, because it was cold and I didn’t have a jacket or the money to buy one, so I nabbed a thin sports coat for two bucks at a thrift store and caught a city bus to check out the ocean in Virginia Beach. Cold, windy and damp, it was. Minor inconveniences aside, it was a beach, with sand and all, just like I expected, and when spring arrived I intended to attach my umbilical cord.
Nancy got word to me that The Youngbloods were to perform near her college in the Finger Lakes region of New York. There was no question as to whether or not I was going to be there to listen to the group that epitomized the San Francisco “summer of love”. I lived in southeastern Virginia and had no car and little money, but I did have a thumb, a Navy uniform, and plenty of hitchhiking experience, so I asked her to get me a ticket.
The hour came when I was to hit the road. My roommate, Denny, was waiting to drive me to the main highway to get this hitchhiking adventure underway, but I wasn’t moving off the couch. I was consumed with the absolute knowledge that I wouldn’t reach my destination. After a while he asked me, “What are you doing?”
I replied, “I’m not going to make it.”
After half an hour…“Are you going or not?” Resigned to my fate, I went out and got in his car.
When I got near Washington DC, I remember catching a ride with a carload of stoned soldiers. After that, I got a ride with a young Navy chaplain. He invited me to continue with him to a gospel concert, featuring a youth group, where his wife and children awaited him. I normally would have said “no thanks” for two reasons. One, I never wasted time while enroute to see my girlfriend, and, two, I never wasted time listening to pushy Evangelical Christians like the ones that lured me into a building in San Diego with the promise of a free breakfast and then wouldn’t let me leave until I raised my hand as though I accepted some mumbo-jumbo a man preached at me. I had a feeling of hopeless resignation that I wasn’t going to make it anyway, so I agreed to go with him.
The youth group’s music was okay, and I listened quietly to the mumbo-jumbo gospel stuff again, but I was at my limit. I liked this chaplain, but I was ready to rip into him, wife and kids or not, if he tried to preach at me. He didn’t.
Back on the road, I was picked-up by a big-rig truck, then by a soldier in a week-old 1969 Chevy Malibu. We had some conversation about the car he’d just purchased with the money he accumulated while away at war. He was just out of the hospital, missing a lung, having barely survived being shot through in Viet Nam. It was dark by now and we were cruising along on freshly-laid blacktop in northern Pennsylvania. I fell asleep.
Something jarred me awake! I opened my eyes and saw trees passing the windshield from left to right. I awoke again. “This isn’t right, the car’s upside down!” entered my mind as the fog left. I was in the back seat now, and gas was pouring in on me. Some advice I’d once heard said I needed to get the key shut off to prevent being burned alive, so I reached forward ‘til I found it and shut it off.
After a short self-examination, finding only a broken collar bone, I managed to roll “down” a window and get out, intending to help the driver, but I was in shock and forgot him.
The next thing I knew I was struggling, barely conscious, trying to stop walking as a speeding 18-wheeler was passing inches in front of my face.
A Volkswagen minibus stopped, and a couple of cautious, black-clad gents approached me, a sailor in “whites”, wandering in the road. This part of the country is home to Amish, Mennonites and Quakers. These guys obviously belonged to one of those communities. I pointed out the other fellow, now standing in the woods, blankly staring off somewhere, his broken lower jaw hanging loose. They got us into the van, took us to the regional hospital and dropped us off.
Being paid was the foremost concern of the hospital admissions staff, but no one would take the responsibility to go into the soldier’s wallet to get proof he was in the military. Had I not done it, it appeared they would have turned him away, shock or no shock. They X-rayed my cranium by placing me on a hard surface with the huge and painful knot on the back of my head directly on the table…nice folks.
The soldier’s family came to see him. He couldn’t speak. I remember his sister just quietly standing next to his bed, tears running down her cheeks, with the look of someone just plain worn out by crying for a brother who was putting her through it yet again.
Nancy got a couple of friends to bring her down to visit me before they shipped us off to Valley Forge army hospital, then me on to the Naval Hospital in Philadelphia. That place was an experience in itself, with a steady flow of wounded Marines medevac’d from Vietnam keeping it busy.
My ward had a solarium attached, leftover from the days when sunshine was considered to be the main therapy for TB. That room had been transformed into Heavy Metal Haven with a stereo system and large speakers. Recuperating military dudes lay about in there experiencing Iron Butterfly therapy and rattling windows.
In the bed to my left was a guy in traction. These were the days before a rod would have been inserted into a fractured tibia, and the poor guy had to lie on his back for a couple months with a pin through his heel and weights and pulleys keeping his leg straight until it healed.
To my right was a marine with a bullet wound in his shoulder that had to be packed with a ribbon material a couple of times a day and kept open to keep the outside from healing first. Twice a day he had to grit his teeth.
One seemingly normal patient, from the local area, invited me to go to his parents’ home with him. While driving there, he described how he was shot in the foot while making a marijuana-run in Nam. He and two other marines were driving in a jeep when “just like in the movies” a line of bullet holes shattered the wind screen. The driver was hit and fell across the steering wheel and held on to keep them on track. My friend jumped out while firing into the trees at the unseen ambush party. When he hit the ground his foot gave out, his first indication he’d been shot. The guy in the middle had the drugs under his shirt and wasn’t hit at all, so they weren’t caught with them.
We got to his parents’ place and were having a nice backyard picnic when he asked them where “that picture” was. They freaked out, telling him to just leave it be. He went in and found the photo of a Vietnamese older man whom he had shot rather than pay him for some weed. “I came back the next day to get a picture of him, and he had dragged himself over to this rock and died.” He was amused…truly amused. God help us.
My immediate group of ambulatory friends included a patient who’d broken his femur twice. It healed the first time and broke again when he was thrown from the hood of a car while horsing around. Five months had passed, and it wasn’t healing the second time; his prognosis was uncertain. He had a full cast on the leg that extended to, and included, his waist.
I went on an outing with him and another guy who had met some girls, one of which had been designated for me. I was surprised to find that she was quite good looking and somewhat of a wild thing. After lingering near a low waterfall on the Schuylkill River, ignoring the smell of pre-environmental reclamation mist, we all got back in the car. I decided I had to go back to the hospital or I’d be caught missing at the next head-count and put on report. Reluctantly, they took me back.
I found out the following day that full-body-cast guy somehow had sex with my date. That was my first and only encounter with hospital groupies.
It was time for me to leave. The hospital admin was a little strapped for cash and could only give me thirteen dollars to get back to Norfolk, which I managed to do without hitchhiking. I realized the significance of having nearly been killed in that car wreck, so I wrote a letter to the Navy chaplain that had given me a ride, describing the ordeal and expecting that he might assign some religious meaning and send me some words of wisdom. I was ready to hear whatever he had to say. He wrote back and just said, basically, “sorry to hear about that.”
I went back to work. My Division Officer had been worried. It seems I had been gone long enough that, according to Navy regulations, I could have asked to be transferred, and he couldn’t afford to lose me.
It wasn’t the last time I gave him something to worry about.
The Engineering Station, where I was assigned with three other sailors, employed a cadre of civilian electrical engineers of the first degree. The one directly involved in my project was named Larry, like me, but was more commonly referred to as “Roger Ramjet”, a moniker that had followed him since boyhood for obvious reasons. He was hairless…I mean he didn’t even have eyebrows or eyelashes…and blamed it on some science stuff he did as a kid. He had limited social skills, but he was a bang-up engineer who taught me many things I’ve used throughout my career, and whom I credit with being my “Sea Daddy” (mentor).
Two of us were assigned to cover all the ships on the East Coast that had a certain type of computer system. Thirty-two-year-old Denny and I shared an apartment, he being single as well, at least temporarily. He was an after-work heavy drinker at that time who walked deliberately, one foot in front of the other, as if a cop had just told him to take 10 steps along the white line, heel to toe. During the day, his ever present coffee cup was held directly in front of him as he went, successfully traversing the tightrope only he could see.
After a year of working on various ships, Denny and I were sent to an old aircraft carrier in Florida, the USS Shangri-La, which was supposed to be getting underway in a couple weeks. By now I had a car, bought with the 300 dollars I got as an insurance settlement from the wreck I was in while hitchhiking through Pennsylvania. We threw all the parts and tools we were going to need into the back of my station-wagon with the side curtains and flowers painted across the dashboard and started out on a 700 mile trip to Jacksonville. We didn’t get too far when we ran into a snowstorm in North Carolina, of all places, and came upon a long line of vehicles that were unable to get up a slight incline in the two-lane highway. I was probably the only car that had snow-chains on board, so we mounted them and commenced to pass all 50 cars at the same time. Unfortunately, a car showed up heading toward us from the opposite direction and I had to get off the road, slamming into, and over, a curb hidden by the snow. No flat tires…on we went until the road got dry and the chains could be removed.
I dropped Denny in Jacksonville and kept going, intending to visit family in St. Pete. I was going past Tampa, significantly speeding, like all the cars around me, on a snaky section of freeway. As we came over a rise, we were greeted by a highway worker who had just stepped into the road with a little orange flag and a sheepish look on his face. All tires locked up in a movie-worthy display of squalling rubber and crunching sheet metal. The car I was about to slam into skidded off into the guardrail, and I passed by him and through the mess without a scratch, thankfully…I still had all the government equipment in the back. Beside the fact that, without a car, I would have had no way to get the stuff back to Jacksonville where I was supposed to be, had I hit something I may have gotten an unrestrained oscilloscope in the back of the head.
Denny and I got to the ship to commence work and found out that she wasn’t leaving in two weeks as we had been told but was pulling out in two days. We had no desire to go to sea on that ship and decided to try to accomplish the job, which normally took ten days, in the two days we had.
We put in two twenty-two hour days—hard enough without someone from below-decks walking across our quiet space, then checking a three inch fire-main ball valve by simply opening it. The resulting blast of water filled the room inches deep in just a few seconds and sent the stranger backwards, stepping through someone’s guitar and instantaneously punctuating the hours of quiet desperation with chaos. The uninvited “snipe” and the broken guitar’s owner got the water cleaned up so we could keep on.
Somehow we got ‘er done and turned ‘er on, her lights doing things they shouldn’t have been doing. Then she started letting her smoke out. [Electronic circuits will operate properly only if they retain their smoke. It has been proven that when the smoke comes out, circuits cease to operate. It stands to reason, therefore, smoke is essential and must not be released.]
We were going to sea.
Underway and enroute to Puerto Rico, we discovered I had wired a relay wrong and sent high voltage to all the wrong places. The unit was fried. We got a message off to Norfolk asking what to do, but, before we got a reply, the ship arrived at the island. The Commanding Officer got on the horn and told the crew to be on their best behavior, since this was the first time in years a carrier had tied up at the pier in Roosevelt Roads. Here’s a little piece of advice to the CO of any carrier that’s going to tie up to a remote pier for just one night’s liberty: Don’t do it! The crew’s best behavior appeared to be breaking every beer bottle in the on-base club, then moving the riot out into the street, where I saw a helmeted Shore Patrol charge into the melee with his baton swinging. I didn’t see him anymore, but his helmet flew back out and rolled down the hill.
I wanted a coconut. Off to one side of the brawling shipmates was a tall, skinny palm tree with several of the tropical fruits calling to me from the top. I hadn’t been drinking, but I found a sailor who obviously had been and challenged him to get one of those coconuts down. He shinnied up there and threw me one. I’m sure he got back down, but the last time I saw him he was hugging the top of that tree in his sparkling white uniform wondering how that was going to happen.
I got back to the ship around midnight and was told a message had arrived that said we were to remove both electronic chassis’ and their attached wiring from the unit and get all that and ourselves on a plane that was leaving at 6 AM. Denny was three-sheets-to-the-wind and couldn’t help, so he went to his locker to pack his belongings while I worked on the gear. He came back after a fashion complaining that his key was “all crookedy” and wouldn’t go in his lock, so one of the sober sailors went with him and got him packed up.
I managed to get him, myself, our bags, and a wooden crate full of electronics to the plane on time and get back to Norfolk…then flew back to Florida and retrieved my car. After replacing more than fifty circuits, the equipment was good as new…but it doesn’t matter now…it’s long since been trashed, along with the decommissioned ship…the only long-term repercussion being the likelihood of skin cancer I now have after receiving the worst sunburn of my life while lounging for an hour on the flight deck of that underway flat-top, under a beautiful, clear, Caribbean winter sky.
Early summer, 1969 arrived, and I headed up home for a visit. I hooked up with a friend from Narrowsburg High School who invited me to accompany him on his route. George was delivering milk to area grocery stores for Max Yasgur’s dairy. I went along for the ride.
While enjoying the simple pleasures of cruising the countryside in a “box truck” with the doors open, the cool breezes swirling, drinking pilfered chocolate milk skillfully removed from the inventory, George told me of a project in which he was involved. He was helping build a stage at the base of a sloping Yasgur’s hayfield on Hurd road. He told me that an impressive list of well-known bands was going to perform in a concert there in a few weeks, and I needed to attend. I agreed.
Back in Virginia, I enlisted my California friend, Philip, to go with me to the concert, and when the time came, we headed to New York in his Corvair. We got about five miles east of the site and traffic came to a dead halt. People were getting out of their cars, trying to see what was holding things up over the next rise. Being from the area, I knew we still had a long way to go, and I had Philip take a round-about path so that we could approach from the west. We ended up parking right at the site.
Philip and I bought tickets prior to arriving, though we shouldn’t have. The site was enclosed with “cyclone” fencing, and ticket counters had been set up at openings. The fencing was not attached at the top of the upright supports, and, as the burgeoning crowds began to attempt climbing over the fences, the fencing collapsed and slipped to the ground. Considering the futility of trying to collect entrance fees, an official got on the mike and made himself appear benevolent by announcing “It’s a free concert, man!” A great roar went up. FREE! Yeah, like us.
We found a nice grassy spot with a good view and settled in. The first musician was announced…Richie Havens…one of my favorites before coming here. He played until he ran out of material, and since no one was ready to follow him, winging it, he made up the iconic song from the Woodstock Festival. “Freedom”… exemplified by Richie Havens himself…free from dressing like the establishment, free to play in an off-key, free from wearing his false teeth while singing. Freedom, man. He set the tone.
Years later he would sit, nearby, in my Aunt Tassie’s farmhouse kitchen enjoying incredible food and great conversation, as I have many times, listening to stories that were so much fun to relate that two or three of them would go on at the same time…everyone talking and somehow everyone listening and laughing. He was back where the defining performance of his career occurred. Mr. Woodstock…in his heart, he never left.
Due to the miles-long traffic jam, the performers were being flown to the site by helicopter. The announcer got on the mike and declared that the State Police decided to stay away from the concert and concentrate on traffic control. Another roar went up. The children of America’s Greatest Generation were energized. Our parents were war-hardened, poverty-educated control-freaks whose rules and requirements got in the way, but not today. We had our own clothes; our own music; our own attitude. With wide-eyed wonderment we established our own nation; a nation with only one law: Thou Shalt Not Hassle Thy Neighbor.
My cousins from the Keesler side of the family got there by walking from the farm, which was located on the other side of the large wilderness area called the Ten Mile River Boy Scout Camp. Somehow they found us. One famous act after another performed as the sky became pitch-black and the cool country air settled in. Somewhere nearby a loud voice would declare at regular intervals, “Nothing Matters”! A guy not far in front of us would stand, face the crowd behind him and lecture on how all this landscape was once as flat as a fry pan until a nuclear blast carved it into hills, valleys and lakes. Then he’d apologize for being under the influence of LSD and sit back down, only to stand and repeat the speech thirty minutes later.
Cousin Susie showed me how to conserve body heat by lying against her, back-to-back, and I fell asleep. I awoke just before dawn as “The Who”, from England, were finishing an hours-long rendition of “Tommy”. The climax was a spectacular display of illuminated swinging arm-fringe and great guitar work, but Pete Townshend could have forgone smashing his guitar. In my opinion, the clunking sound of trying to break a perfectly good instrument, which didn’t want to smash, added nothing.
With dawn came eight hours of quietness as people began to mill around, seeking to satisfy bodily needs. Very little food was available. The shelves in a small country store nearby were stripped bare. One man in Jeffersonville gave the local children eggs and asked them to have their mothers hard-boil them for the teeming, hungry masses, which they graciously did, not realizing he was going to sell them for a dollar apiece…seven or eight dollars in today’s money.
The not-too-bright, drugged out MC got on the mike and risked causing violence by announcing that a person running a food concession was “trying to rip us off, man!” “Let’s let him know we’re not going to put up with it, man!” Thankfully no one responded beyond lighting fire to a couple of food stands.
Philip and I visited Aunt Tassie, just three miles away, and never got hungry.
What seemed like a lot of porta-potties worked out to a ratio of three per ten thousand people. Obviously the vegetation in the area was bright green for at least the next year.
A few hundred yards from the stage, I noticed a couple of really nice looking horses tied up against a barn. It seemed odd that they were haltered and saddled. Perhaps someone was giving the hippies horsey rides. Thirty years later, while attending a backyard barbeque at my next-door neighbor’s in Virginia, I met the man responsible for those horses.
His story went something like this: “I was employed by a horse farm here in Virginia. They were grooming me to become a trainer. Me and another guy were told to carry a pair of expensive horses to a show in upstate New York. We were headed north on the New York State Thruway when traffic stopped. We didn’t know what was going on, so we found a State Trooper who told us that a ‘Rock and Roll party’ was going on a few miles over that hill over there. We parked the truck and trailer in the median, unloaded the horses, and set off on horseback to check it out.
“When we got there, we were swarmed by Hippie girls. Chicks love horses. I was super popular. I dismounted and got caught up in the whole scene. They introduced me to drugs for the first time. I got thirsty and found a line that had formed at a water spigot near a barn; the hold-up was a topless Indian girl cooling herself with a garden hose. I jumped line and asked her if she needed assistance. She did, in fact she stayed with me, and wound up coming with me back to Virginia.
“After three days of girls, drugs and grooving to the mellow vibe or whatever, I had a whole new outlook on life. After a fashion, I realized it was time to head home. No worries, I had a good excuse for not making it to the horse show; Horse Show?!! Where are the horses? I found them still tied up and saddled. Fortunately somebody had fed and watered them. I mounted, pulled my girl up behind me, gathered up my friend, and we rode back to the freeway to find the truck.
“The three of us made it home and turned over the horses. I introduced the girl to my family, but she made the mistake of mentioning marriage. I put her on a bus and sent her back to her tribe up near the Canadian border.
“My boss told me ‘We’ve got an important horse show coming up in Texas. You’re going to have to wear a suit for this one’. I told him ‘Man, us young people aren’t going to put up with you establishment weenies telling us how to dress anymore’. Obviously, I never became a horse trainer. That Rock and Roll party was the secret to my failure.”
The only person I’ve met in Virginia who was at the Woodstock Festival turned out to be the rider of those horses. Small world.
The performers were just as excited to be there as anyone else, having never performed before a crowd of that size. Some were good, some not so good. Janis Joplin…drunk. Jefferson Airplane, Crosby Stills Nash and Young…OK. Sly and the Family Stone…very good. My favorite was Joan Baez singing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” a cappella; her strong clear voice echoing off the night-time hills.
By the second night the grass had been pretty much worn away by a million human feet walking, dancing, twirling around. The ground was prepped for the mud-fest that was to happen after a downpour. Philip and I, along with most other folks, missed the mud party because we had to be back at work Monday morning. Therein lies the truth. The great majority of Woodstock alumni were just regular people who were fully integrated into American society, if not right then, in the near future. Bob Flynn, a guy I knew from high school, appears skinny-dipping in an iconic photo from the event. He would one day be my mom’s mailman.
The organizers like to say the festival was a microcosm of life, with births, deaths, drug over-doses, homicide…only they don’t mention the latter, so I‘m going to. I saw a local farmer charging around on a tractor, and I looked at his face. I saw a young man irritated by the intruders in his way, invading his space, interfering with his work. I had driven a tractor too, in fact in the same general area, and I knew he wasn’t being the least bit careful as the sea of humanity parted before him. Someone in a sleeping bag was run over by a tractor and killed. There was never an investigation to even determine who was driving. At best, that guy didn’t care whether the sleeping bag contained a person or not…and that’s at best. At worst, he did it on purpose. I hate bringing negativity into my narrative, but I watched the guy and saw his attitude. If he’s not going to be held accountable, I feel like I should at least give him the exposure he deserves.
The thing was a one-time event, maybe a once in human history event, mainly because it was a surprise and our more nefarious brethren didn’t have time to organize. Debauchery of the mild type happened, like the movie shows, but it didn’t reign as is the common perception, in fact I didn’t see much of it, having been afforded the advantage of a hot meal at one of my family’s farmhouses during the extended daily intermissions.
With no police presence, no supervision, no rules except the common decency our parents (!?) had instilled, a half million of us did pretty good and got to enjoy a few days of peace and music unmolested. A distinct atmosphere covered the place…if not love, it was at least a near total absence of strife. Yeah, we were still lost and seeking, but we’d gotten some rest from our individual burdens, and, for those of us who didn’t give up on life, thinking Woodstock was the final answer, it was worth being there.
Dorothy was pregnant, but the thought of marriage never entered my mind. Lots of guys got girls pregnant and simply did nothing, dumping them and going about their lives as though nothing happened…that was the path I decided to take. I was living in a beach house with three other guys and intended to continue to do so…the little bit of irritation I had to put up with, caused by the people I was going to upset, would go away if I ignored it. MaryAnn, Dorothy’s sister, came over and told me I would not be allowed to see the baby…Baby? This causes a baby? Hadn’t really thought about that, not that I cared much, but she did plant a little seed of shame in my subconscious…somewhere in the seldom used shadows.
That summer I walked along the Virginia Beach boardwalk with my friend Keene Lafontaine, a French Canadian in the US Navy…the best looking friend I’ve had…to select a pair of sunbathing girls to pick up. He had no problem squatting down next to them on the sand and introducing himself, and I had no problem squatting down off to the side to take the one he didn’t zero in on. The one melting in his presence was Peggy, who had made a pact with the other one, Olga, that they would not talk to any boys on this trip; they were just going to relax and take a break from life in Pittsburg…that went out the window as my mature and handsome friend made small talk and set up a date for that evening.
Peggy was Miss Alcoa Aluminum; in those days it wasn’t uncommon for a company to select a Poster Girl to represent her employer, and that year, she was Alcoa’s.
Olga was a little blond head-turner with an interesting history. She was bi-lingual, her parents having come from Ukraine. Her mother singled her out as the disliked child, and, at 16 years old, Olga found herself pulled out of bed and thrown out of the house in her PJs in the middle of the night. She hadn’t been home since, having lived with Peggy and completed high school from her house. After our first date (during which I ran out of gas and she had to walk) I suggested she marry me…of course she had the sense to say no…I think I might have done it, too—married someone I didn’t know to lock someone I didn’t love out of my life. Stupid…super stupid.
I visited Olga at Peggy’s in Pittsburg. She had me drive by her parents’ house, the home in which she grew-up but hadn’t seen in three years. As we approached, we saw a large woman in a simple cotton dress stand up from her chair on the porch and look intently into the car…she had seen us first from her higher vantage point and had obviously spotted her daughter. Olga tried to slide out of her seat and hide under the dashboard. We kept going and returned to Peggy‘s house.
The following day, I accompanied Olga as she went to work in the downtown business district of the city. I found out what it’s like to be a pretty blond girl in a short black dress on the sidewalks of Pittsburg…it’s faces everywhere…you don’t see the back of any heads, at least not male ones.
Peggy’s dad was a retired US Marine Corp officer with a piece of shrapnel, lodged near his spine, that caused him constant pain…he found me irritating as well…particularly when he suggested I take a shower, and I told him, “It isn’t necessary, since I spend so much time surfing in the ocean and the natural body oils…” He cut me off…
“NATURAL BODY OILS!?!”
That was it. I lost him for good. When I was leaving, backing out his driveway, a ball joint on my car snapped and the car fell flat on its frame. He wouldn’t let Peggy use his car to take me to the airport (nor let me back in the house), so I had to get a cab and leave my car with a repair shop ‘til the next week when I returned and drove it home.
I saw Olga again a few years later, in a magazine ad. She wanted to work for the airlines and must have succeeded because she appeared in a full-page airline advertisement as the foreign girl on the ground you were watching out the plane window, waving goodbye as you’re leaving her, the prop-wash tightening her sheer dress and blowing her long blond hair horizontal.
Back home I went about my lah-di-dah life, casually telling anyone my situation. No one seemed to care any more than I did.
I was eating in a mess hall near the Navy’s music school when a white-haired enlisted man came in. He stood out, not only because a First Class Petty Officer is not supposed to be sixty years old, but also because everybody he met seemed to fall all over themselves being nice to him. He got his food and sat on the other side of the nearly empty room. He looked at me, got up and moved to the other side of my round table, got up again, walked around and sat next to me. After a short conversation I told him I had gotten a girl pregnant and wasn’t going to marry her. That spun him up. “Let me tell you something,” he said, “I married a woman who had a son from a situation like yours, and that boy has given me more joy than the rest of our kids put together. You have no respect for God or man.” He apologized before he left. I’d touched on a sore subject with him. That little shame thing in the shadows awakened a bit.
Keene and I were casually walking on the Virginia Beach boardwalk during the big annual art show, when he suddenly said, “Look at that!” An excellent oil portrait of a girl with a guitar looked exactly like Dorothy. Being an artist, I had to have it, just because. I went to the bank and got the money, returning just in time to buy it before another person who wanted it did. I hung it behind the bar at our beach pad and it stared at me whenever I was in the room.
Bruce Brown’s movie The Endless Summer took the audience around the world searching for “the perfect wave” on continents and islands most would only dream of. Later that summer I found it…I found the perfect wave. I was surfing south of Virginia Beach at a secluded spot that is now a restricted part of the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. It was mid-morning on a cloudless, windless day…perfect, clear little barrels were breaking in glass-smooth lines along a waist deep sandbar…I was alone…not another soul in sight but for the sandpipers scurrying about for food on smooth beach sand left by the last receding shore-break. I could just walk back out chest deep, turn, take two strokes and I was in another barrel…again and again…absolute perfection. I thought, “For a surfer, this is it. Nothing could be better, and nothing will be better.” I looked within to see how fulfillment felt…looked to find the acme of joy at the apex of life. It felt good, but I didn’t feel the absolute bliss that should accompany the end of life’s search. There was still a piece missing.
The day came when something clicked…I had to be a dad. My friends tried to stop me, but they couldn’t, so I called Dorothy and told her I wanted to see her. She agreed, and we drove to a spot near the bay where she told me she’d marry me, but if I changed my mind she never wanted to see me again. Thus concluded the romantic proposal. George and Maryann were glad to hear she’d be getting wed; beside the fact that she’d crashed George’s car through the plate glass window of a fast food restaurant, they just didn’t need her and a baby in their house.
I called Nancy in her college dorm and let her know I was marrying her current stand-in…I didn’t think she’d care much since she’d let our relationship slide to almost-gone. She told me, years later, it did come as quite a shock, even though she had decided she wouldn’t marry me under any circumstance.
The wedding happened on a Chesapeake Bay beach presided over by an Episcopal priest who sold Buddhas and other concrete lawn ornaments in front of his church. My friends came dressed however they liked, some in beach attire, some in flowing robes, me in a tuxedo with bare feet, her in a white gown with an empire waist (emphasizing the seven month bulge…but she always wanted an empire waist). My father came up from Florida even though his boss told him he couldn’t go to his only son’s wedding or he’d be fired…so he lost his Yacht Club bartending job, probably his best job ever. I appreciated that; it was the most he could do.
We had a backyard reception where my friends got my father stumbling drunk, and I proved what a jerk I was by french-kissing my new sister-in-law during the cake cutting ceremony. (Nobody’s going to punch-out the groom.)
Dorothy’s parents gave us a three-day honeymoon in a local oceanfront hotel, with a nice high room from which she was able to watch me spend the whole time surfing.
The transition from Footloose and Fancy-free to Family Man is not necessarily difficult when a young man is passionately in love with his bride, but it’s still a transition some are unwilling to make. As for me, I was just drifting along, free of the frustration of being single…out of the chase…settled down…committed to responsibility…but not passionate. I thought I had married down, and she thought she married too young to have first enjoyed a little youthful freedom. The not-blissful union was a tenuous balancing act without a foundation, undoubtedly dooming ours to join the 50 percent of American marriages that fail, scurrying hopelessly over the brink like a sea of lost lemmings.
That old saying about praying together and staying together certainly didn’t apply. About this time, my dislike of “born again” Christians had grown to the point it could be called hatred. I really hated ‘em.
I had been asked by a sailor friend to help him repair a computer system where he was stationed, and I was told when I arrived that the Officer in Charge was one of those idiots I didn’t like, pushing his religion and basically irritating other people. When he passed through the computer room we were working in, I accosted him openly, calling him a “bible pusher”. He wisely ignored me and kept on walking. For a Second Class Petty Officer to disrespect a full Commander like that is unheard-of and shows the depth of my enmity….little did I know….
I had a good situation. We’d rented a little house in the neighborhood in which I wanted to reside, with good proximity to the ocean so I could get in a surf most days. The Navy had removed me from the Engineering Center where I was stationed, back when George, who worked there as a civilian engineer, had complained to management that I had gotten his wife’s younger sister pregnant. A friend had managed to get me transferred to a shore command, rather than a ship, so I was still around.
I had a few loose ends to clean up, like the job I had been doing where I lived when single, painting the trim on twenty brick town houses on the Chesapeake Bay. On a bright autumn day I took some time off to take care of that job before the air got too cold. It didn’t take me long to tip over a bucket of yellow paint on one of the black roofs of the two-story buildings, forcing me to quickly go off and get some black paint to cover it up before the mess was noticed by residents coming home from work. When returning with the paint, I noticed one person was at home, and, after the masterful cover-up, went and had a visit with her. She was an army wife who had come down from Buffalo, New York to live with a girlfriend while her officer husband was away fighting the Viet Nam war. She told me that she was disappointed I had married because “the main reason I came here was because of you.”
I said, “Let’s go upstairs”.
She was caught off-guard, not being prepared to hear that, and said, “Why?”
I didn’t have the nerve to explain the obvious, so I stood up and said, “I gotta go” and left.
As I was driving, I knew sufficient time had passed for her to process what she had heard, and she was ready to respond. If I turned around and went back, it was going to happen; I knew her well enough to know that. I hated to do it, to ruin my six-week-old marriage, to send my fledgling family down the tubes…but I couldn’t help myself…it was out of my control. Like my father and his father before him I was going to cheat on my wife, whether the decent side of me liked it or not. I was feeling sad as I looked for a place to turn around along a wooded stretch of road leading to the oceanfront.
Someone was beside me in the car, a presence just as real as if the door had just slammed. I knew who it was…that was a shock…it was somebody I didn’t believe in. It was Jesus…old-fashioned boring old Jesus…the one whom drab, rejected religions built statues of and such. I said out loud, “You’re real!” and kept driving; my mind turned away from the certainty of destroying my marriage…as though a snagged line pulling my ship down had just parted. The bondage of generations had been broken in that one moment. The road ahead of me, and indeed my life, looked like a straight new path, the trees passing by on both sides; there were no turn-around places, and that was fine with me.
Must I be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease/ while others fought to win the prize and sailed through bloody seas –Isaac Watts
I started accompanying Dorothy to meetings in the living room of a fifty-something woman named Cleo King. She was one of a group of five Christian female friends who were as close as sisters. The first time I met her I felt a strong sense of love, and I reckon she felt it too, because when she saw me she said, “I feel like he’s my son”. That gave me a feeling I hadn’t had since a Christmas Eve when I was a little boy and Mom took me and my sister, one on each side of her chair, and sang carols…just one more evening my daddy was still at the bar, not yet home once again…a quiet, serene moment I can remember everything about. Mom took us aside in that Dutch Colonial house they bought with her savings as a down payment…her dream house with the split entrance doors and the seven foot ceilings…and we sang Christmas songs in the candlelit living room as she sat in a chair against the wall opposite the fireplace…before divorce turned her life upside down and the bank took the house.
Subconsciously I missed it. I felt that kind of mother’s love again. That was enough to bond me for life.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this was no ordinary group of women. People from around the world, who had come to be interviewed on the fledgling Christian Broadcasting Network, would stop by for a refreshing evening with the like-minded in that living room. A fire would be burning in the fireplace, and the lights would be turned down low, then prayer would take place in a relaxed and perfectly comfortable atmosphere.
I wasn’t the only young one there; my sister-in-law had brought in several others.
MaryAnn’s best friend’s husband, Skip, a handsome former Navy pilot, sat on the fireplace hearth one night when a group from overseas had come by. A spiritual giant about three feet tall, a former circus midget from England, went over, jumped up and sat on Skip’s knee. After a few words of small-talk, the small guy took the cigarette pack from Skip’s shirt pocket and threw it in the fire. That’s how Skip quit smoking, but as he told it later “That little guy almost followed those cigarettes into the flames”.
I was gung-ho for this new life. I painted JESUS in huge red letters on my surfboard, and hardly missed a day hitting the water at the Steel Pier in Virginia Beach. I talked to people everywhere…friends, strangers…offering them hope and comfort if they’d only believe. Some lives were permanently changed.
I had a little problem though. It was obvious God actually spoke to these older Christians, and He never spoke to me. Here’s an example: As Dorothy and I drove to a meeting in the former flower shop the group was renting, we argued in the car. I mean drop-down, drag-out fighting…we had never been angrier. Upon arrival we each gathered ourselves, relaxed and walked inside to pleasantly greet the folks. Erlene, one of the older ones, came over smiling to say “Hi”, but her countenance changed to Serious and she said, “You two think you can fight like that and then come in here smiling as though no one would know it?” In the six months I had been at this, I never once heard Him like she did. Not only that, occasionally Mrs. King would say, “I don’t know what Larry is; I’m just leaving it alone.”
It was a Saturday morning when I finally let the truth settle into my head. I wasn’t on the inside. I wasn’t one of them. I was one breath, one heartbeat away from eternal damnation and all the good stuff I’d done, the show of sincerity I’d put on, didn’t count for anything. That day I said the magic words that are supposed to get you saved, over and over, but it just didn’t work…If some guy had come to me and said “You’re not supposed to feel anything, just take it by faith” I would have told him to go bark up a tree. I knew I was still the same old me, and, until that changed, I wasn’t leaving my house.
By evening I wasn’t getting anywhere and so called Mrs. King for help. She was busy, but reluctantly decided to ruin her Saturday night for me. She picked up MaryAnn, who was her right-hand-man by this time, and came over. They prayed with me, and for me, and advised me…I was face-to-the-floor, covered with sweat, desperate, and yet every word out of my mouth was insincere. It just didn’t work; I was just too much of a phony. I didn’t know what else to say; God just wasn’t buying it. After a few hours, Mrs. King started saying it was getting late and she was going to leave…that scared me good…how could she be so casual and uncaring…I was barely balancing on the cliff edge overlooking the pit of hell, and she was going to go home and feed the cat?
Then she said, “Tell Him you need Him”.
I could mean that. I told Him I needed Him and meant it…it seemed the leaden sky opened up and turned blue, even though it was dark out…an amazing sense of freedom and calmness came over me. Those two knew it, too, and sat back. I was changed. I felt so different that I was surprised I could remember my past. Relief at last…I would live…but not the person I used to be; he was gone, and I didn’t want him back.
The subsequent days were a mopping-up operation of cleaning my house of the past. I got rid of things that tied me to the old person too much…including all the artwork I had created and hung on my walls. I’m sure I over-did it and threw out some stuff I wouldn’t mind having back, but all-in-all it was the right thing to do. A few days later, as I stepped outside on a sunny afternoon, I felt the pull…it was time to grab my surfboard and head to the beach, the love of my life. There was nothing wrong with surfing, but I just felt like it was pulling me back, away from my family, demanding all my time, so I decided to get rid of my board. I leaned it against the front steps, stomped it into two pieces and put it in the trash, just to make sure it couldn’t call to me before the garbage truck arrived. I didn’t surf again until my son took it up in his teen years.
Why did it have to be so hard for me, when others seemed to just waltz right in? It wasn’t easy for Cleo King either. She had a weakened heart from rheumatic fever and in her thirties was given-up-on by her doctor, who gave her a quart-size bottle of Digitalis and sent her home. In despair, she gave up, also, and watched herself pour the medicine down the kitchen sink. As the liquid last-feeble-hope drained away, she was too numb to be surprised when she heard the words “the red print in the Bible is Jesus words”. They could have been blue words for all she knew, but she found a Bible, opened it and it fell open to a place where both sides were red. Over the next days and weeks, in the quiet of her own home, she absorbed what she read, and as she was changed her physical heart was strengthened. This was the birth of a spiritual powerhouse who caused a split in the first church she attended along the lines of those who agreed with her enthusiasm for the One who saved her life and those who didn’t.
Maybe I’m wrong, maybe nobody waltzes in…not if they’re really in. Maybe being “born again” later in life always involves as much trauma as being born.
House cleaning was needed in the non-physical sense as well, as I now embarked on a journey completely unfamiliar to me. I needed to stop using some words and phrases that had become second nature but were inappropriate for a Christian to use…things like that…but the fundamental change was already real, and deep. The first time I stumbled upon a centerfold pin-up of a naked woman on a wall at work, I momentarily didn’t know what I had seen, as though I just spotted the pink, skinned carcass of a giant tree sloth or something; the lust it normally would have inspired was missing, so I didn’t recognize it.
Situations that had always, instantly and involuntarily, caused rage had no effect…that was really noticeable because the anger, now missing, was something I couldn’t prevent in the past.
And every once in a while I felt that “joy unspeakable”, that impossibly perfect elation I looked for but never found on a seven-foot-two surfboard still embedded deep within Virginia Beach’s “Mount Trashmore”.
I had heard some of my relatives describe a man who has lost his mind as “God speaks to him”, the reference being that those who are truly out of their minds think that God speaks to them. No matter, that was exactly what I wanted. I wanted reality, not religious ritual or nice feelings. I was on the inside now, and I wanted to hear Him directly, no matter what He had to say.
Hearing His voice is not always the same, but once in a while it’s like hearing anyone else’s voice, like the time, early on, as I was walking to my mailbox, an unfamiliar word came into my head: “potsherds”. I dismissed it as a normal rambling thought, but it came back again as I was walking back to the house, and I took note of it, as it could be from Him. The next day, Erlene began a teaching lesson by saying God had changed what she had prepared by giving her a scripture she didn’t really understand: “Let the potsherds of the earth strive with the potsherds of the earth”. The meaning of it didn’t matter to me. I heard Him is what mattered. That was the lesson.
The Engineering Center, where I had been stationed previously, scheduled a conference, and all available Data Systems Technicians from the East Coast were invited to attend. At home the morning of the conference, God spoke to me in an unmistakable way. I was positive it was Him. He directed me to a certain something in the Old Testament portion of the Bible. The gist of it was that I was expected to tell someone the truth that day…I was to tell someone the gospel, and if I didn’t, he would die with his sins still intact, and I would be held responsible…but if I told him, he would still die, but it was on him as to what he had done with it, and I was free of the responsibility. I went to the conference that day with a fear-driven sense of purpose.
The meetings that morning were completed. It was lunch time and the guys were milling about having a gab-fest. I had been told I didn’t have to stay for the afternoon session, and any other day I would have been glad to take the rest of the day off, but I still hadn’t found the person I was supposed to talk to, so I stayed.
Somebody gave a lewd version of an occurrence that had happened in that building. He told of some sailor who had gotten an engineer’s sister-in-law pregnant and had been thrown out…he didn’t realize it was me. Then an old friend of mine named Nelson, who knew I was the guilty party, came over and asked me how I’d been going, and I saw my opening. I told him I’d become a Christian and started to expound on how great it was. Nelson was thoroughly embarrassed and his face turned a bright pink. I didn’t care…I was on a “mission from God” like the Blues Brothers, only this wasn’t a comedy; it was as serious as life and death.
An officer overhearing me laughed and said, “I’ve heard this crap before” and turned and walked away, but off to my left a young US Marine, who had come up from a base in North Carolina, seemed intensely interested, so I turned my attention to him. He didn’t know anything at all. I got real basic and told him things like Jesus died in his place…the Marine was fascinated and said he’d never heard such a thing…I told him his only responsibility was to believe it.
In all the years I’ve been at this, I have never met anyone else so devoid of knowledge of the gospel, or as eager to hear it. Telling him the “greatest story ever told” was like feeding water to a sponge…After a few minutes of talking, I felt free to go home and did just that.
Two weeks later I ran into someone who had been at the meeting. He said, “Do you remember that marine who was at the conference?”
“Well…soon after he got back to North Carolina he was killed in a head-on collision.”
The year 1971 had arrived bright and clear, with a new marriage, a new baby, a new place to live and a new way of living. The believers I was with decided it was time to get our own building, both to accommodate the group of twenty or so (plus kids) and to make room for other people who might show up…and they did, most of them just passing through. We converted a former flower shop at the beach into a chapel and commenced what amounted to an intense three year learning experience with the five older ones teaching, mentoring and showing, by example, what a Christian is supposed to be.
One of our efforts in reaching out to the community included volunteering at a local medical facility, feeding patients, mostly elderly, who had trouble feeding themselves. I still remember some of the personalities I got to know when feeding the lunch meal, something I was able to do because I was working nights at my day job (I didn’t sleep much).
The Sparrows were a sweet old couple who shared a room, their last room together, both of them such nice people.
Then there was that grouchy old woman that would stop and stare at me when passing by, while she was out cruising with her walker, and ask, “Who’s the Boss?”…to which I always gave the required response, “You are”…and on she would go.
There was Birdy Miller, fifty pounds of ninety-year-old bones, all curled up with arthritis…laying on her side, hands immobile, feet turned under. Each time I would feed her she would say something like “You look like a nice young man; if I weren’t in this bed I would #$%^&* your ^%$ and *&^%$, etc. etc.” –shocking words streaming from this lewd little voice. I got the impression that whatever hidden traits these folks kept under control in their youth just spilled out in their declining years.
The best part of it all was being the last voice some of them heard…and being able to bring comfort and share simple spiritual truths with them just before they left their body behind. I can still see the blue eyes and white hair of that once attractive woman in a quiet room at the end of the hall…unblinking…her eyes locked with mine when I told her there was hope in Jesus. When I came in the next day, her bed was empty; neatly made; ready for the next guest.
1974 was the year we bought a seven acre piece of property in the farming area of southern Virginia Beach called Blackwater, hard against the North Carolina border (the same Blackwater that lent its name to the nearby mercenary contractor that gained notoriety in Iraq). It had a nice brick ranch house with a detached garage that we converted into our new chapel. One by one, the families found available housing in the area and moved down.
The locals consisted of folks who dwelt on the fringe, and not just because they lived barely within daily driving distance of jobs at one of the shipyards or the Ford F150 truck assembly plant. Some of them had to live away from society because they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, fit in, and Blackwater was just far enough out to provide them a safe haven as well as a place to shoot things in the fall.
Brothers Archie and Herman lived a couple houses down the road with their mother, as they had for the seventy-some years they’d been alive. They spent every day it didn’t rain “hunkered down” against two odd-looking, giant but stubby sycamore trees directly in front of their house and four feet from the road…checking out every car that passed by and maybe lifting a hand a few inches in greeting.
Every once in a while they’d turn up in my driveway offering to sell me vegetables from the trunk of their black 53 Chevy. Funny thing was, they’d lie about what kind of vegetables they had, as though the new folks from town wouldn’t know the difference between something edible and “corn field snaps”. I tried to eat them, I think they were just seed pods that grew on weeds…so I stuck with buying the deformed or over-ripe tomatoes their momma didn’t want.
Their momma died and left the boys to get by on their own. That put Archie in charge of things. He was the brains of the operation, the smooth talker, the one who drove the car. He would keep an eye on Herman in the Trading Post to make sure the things his brother ate as he wandered the aisles got paid for.
Herman never said a word; Archie talked enough for the two of them. Ever the one to know how to make money, Archie sold their car…got a good price for it…no matter that it was five miles to the nearest store and they had no other means of transportation…what do you think God gave Herman legs for? We’d pick him up when we saw him on the roadside carrying groceries.
The day came when Archie marched up the road and declared that he was willing to marry one of the pretty single women in our group, and in return he would bequeath his share of the property to her upon his inevitable demise. She politely refused his kind offer, but it turns out maybe she shouldn’t have. He didn’t live long after that, and at that time it was revealed that they owned several houses and a large chunk of the valuable acreage in the area.
Herman didn’t know what to do about his brother’s dead body lying in bed for a week or so, and when the authorities finally came, they were told by the neighbors that it was okay, there was no need to suspect foul play.
Herman was alone. He didn’t hunker down by himself, nor did he sit on his laurels; he painted the entire place black, including the house, several sheds and a good size barn…everything, even the roofs. A few months later he must have decided the mourning season was over, because he covered all of that with a couple coats of light blue.
I was car-pooling with my friend Gary to save on gas money, since we were both stationed on the Norfolk Naval Station, 50 minutes away by car on a good day. It was my turn to drive and I was late picking him up, so I was pushing my Opel station wagon a bit, coming up on a slow-moving farm tractor heading the same direction. I kept my eyes on him for any indication he was going to take the left-hand turn coming up, didn’t see any, and began to pass him without slowing down. He turned left. I slammed into his left rear wheel with my right front, hard enough that I bent the rim under the tractor tire and nearly flipped over as the rolling wheel lifted my car then dropped it in the road.
I’d been disabled at this very spot in the road before, due to my Volkswagen Bug that aspired to be a roaring blast furnace, melting everything aluminum in the rear engine compartment by pouring fuel from the gas tank (higher than the motor) into the conflagration caused by a loose fuel line. The fireman on duty at the fire station (which I could see from where I was) got to me in the Southern Virginia Beach Farm Country Rapid Response time of 15 minutes and put it out.
This time I took matters into my own hands and limped back home.
The Opel actually drove quite well, considering that the right side, including the wheel, had been pushed back six inches. I decided to just straighten out the sheet metal, so the headlight wouldn’t illuminate the tree tops, and drive it as it was. If I could just pull the metal in the right direction I could get it back in shape, so I took my other car and tied a rope from it to the bent quarter-panel.
I was alone at MaryAnn and George’s rented mobile home when I implemented my automotive reconstruction plan, not needing anyone’s help, since my Chevy was an automatic and could just be left in gear, running, to apply the required tension needed to assist in the hammer and anvil phase.
The Chevy was running. The rope was nice and tight. I banged on the sheet metal with my hammer. The quarter-panel fell on the ground. For a second, this puzzled me, but, as the thing began to drag across the ground, the shocking realization hit me that the big old Chevy had ripped it off and was heading toward George’s house trailer. I ran as hard as I could to the driver’s side and dived, foot first, through the open door toward the brake pedal, breaking off the light switch with my knee. The car didn’t actually enter the trailer since my foot hit the pedal at the time of impact and kept the eight-cylinder Impala out of the kitchen.
There was a hole in the trailer. I couldn’t believe what I had just done. I fell flat on my back in the middle of the lawn and asked God to strike me with lightning…but the sky was bright blue with nary a cloud, so there was no chance. I got up and assessed the situation, deciding to try to fix it as best I could before they got home. I actually got it reasonably concealed by banging the skirt close to its original shape and painting it, then closing up the tear in the trailer siding. Somehow they didn’t see it right then and eventually thought it had always been that way…until they were moving out and the owner asked them what happened, and George asked me. Rightfully, he was incensed when I told him, and gave me the “what for” I deserved. I’d made things worse by the lengthy deception, during which I was unable to locate new side skin for the trailer.
I drove that Opel in the condition it was in for some time, never wearing out the right front tire, until the engine blew-up half way to Florida and I had to give it away. As for the house trailer, I eventually bought it and the half-acre it sat on, changing my name to Lawrence Edge, Esquire, and planting twenty-six fruit trees.
By this time, our main focus had become a daily radio program produced on the property, a monthly mailing to about ten thousand addresses, and schooling the kids with whom we’d been entrusted.
Mrs. King just happened to have a spare adult son available who had recently written, then discarded, his doctoral thesis, and he was willing to take the position of school superintendent, or principal, or boss-man or whatever. Tommy was the best teacher I have ever witnessed in action…actually a joy to behold, as he transferred knowledge from himself and his huge personal library into the heads of his young charges. (He didn’t wear socks, and he didn’t have, nor care to have, a driver’s license…marks of a true intellectual.)
Mrs. King and I had sort of a mother/son relationship, not that I didn’t already have a mother, and she had given birth to real sons, but I had a strong sensation one day, as I drove past her house, that there was a lifeline between us, like a heart-to-heart umbilical cord. Like a real mother/son, we didn’t agree on everything, and, unlike many of the other people in our group, I let her know it. I didn’t like the restrictions put on the kids we were bringing up, and she never felt like I measured up to what she expected of me. Still, she was closer to God than any other person I’ve ever known, or even known of, and I still have a great deal of respect for her.
After a few years, I wanted her to treat me like an adult, like she did the other men in our group, all of whom were in their late thirties or early forties, 10 years my senior. I was an avid gardener, and could have been given responsibility in our common vegetable garden. I knew that if I asked her to start treating me like a grown up, she would say, “If you want to be treated like an adult, you need to start acting like one.”
In private, I asked the Lord, “I know she can hear you. Would you please tell her what I want so she won’t say that to me?”
The very next time I saw her, she looked up from the chair in which she was seated and said, “If you want to be treated like an adult, you need to start acting like one”. He told her…she heard Him…and she still came out with what I think was the wrong response. Even though she was the best, she definitely could be wrong. In fact, being wrong was wrecking her health. She was stressed, feeling that the whole lot of us would never be ready to send out with the gospel, as seeds are broadcast…like her original vision.
Her boat was hung-up on a snag, and the rest of us were treading water, waiting.
That was what I was thinking as I drove back from my stepfather Melvin’s funeral in New York. I had never gone up there to tell him what happened to me and give him an opportunity to hear my story of how God changed me. My sisters had long ago forgotten the hard times and had a good relationship with him, but I hadn’t seen him since I was a young sailor, because Mrs. King never thought I was ready to visit, and now he was dead.
Returning from my trip, as I drove past her home at sunset on the country road that led to my own, at the same spot where I had felt that heart-to-heart umbilical cord years before, I steadfastly refused to look in her direction. I’d been with her for a decade. I thought, “It’s time. I’m breaking the lifeline that connects us.” That evening her heart just faded to a gentle stop over the course of a couple hours, and she was gone.
Her body was prepared for burial and there was a viewing the day before the funeral, more notable for those that didn’t attend, than for those that did. Our little group was all there, of course, but the founder of a world-wide television ministry and university, who lived a mile away, and who she had helped get started, wasn’t. Neither was the pastor of a nearby mega-church she’d helped populate at its inception. She always thought men should be the leaders and she never wanted acclamation for herself, and it’s a good thing, ‘cause she didn’t get any.
I sang at her funeral, a cappella, out at the graveside, and the others joined in for a verse or so. The wife of a local prominent businessman came over to me later and said it was the prettiest thing she ever heard. What a change from that day at the boot camp auditions when the chorus director wished he had a hook…actually, he probably wished for a club and hook so he could knock me unconscious before dragging me off.
I’ve since sung at weddings, church services, other funerals, and with a “Southern Gospel “quartet as the baritone. Humility has been key. It’s hard not to be humble after the experience of having been unceremoniously pitched into the street for my extreme lack of talent; there’s no room for vanity when you know, for sure, you weren’t born with it…it’s a gift you didn’t always have. I keep that in mind when I sing, and somehow the sound has always come out pure…at least that’s what I’ve been told. It’s a side gift I was given that night on my living room floor when a silver haired woman with the catchy name Cleo King gave up her evening and stayed until the lost had been found. I’ll forever owe her for that.
Each household grew a garden at home, if they felt like it, and shared in working the common garden on church property. Mrs. King had placed a former airline stewardess from New York City as boss-lady over the garden, rather than someone with prior gardening knowledge who might have employed the use of hoes, rather than picking every miniscule weed by hand as directed by the overseer, who felt there was a spiritual analogy between little weeds and little sins. Who could have known that move, more than any other, would serve to dismantle the church after Mrs. King’s death, when the garden guru saw herself as the heir-apparent to the whole shebang. None of the weed pickers were having it.
It sounds silly, but if you were to poll those that scattered nation-wide after that phase of our lives, the most common remark might be “OMG, do you remember pulling weeds in that garden?” Right then at the ten year point, we were meant to be scattered…like seed, we were broadcast from coast to coast.
I lived near the largest naval base in the world and should have been able to get stationed on a ship homeported there, but it didn’t happen. The aircraft carrier USS Franklin D Roosevelt was based in Mayport, Florida and in need of someone with my background, and so, against my objections, my minders in DC stationed me on it. My young family would stay in Virginia.
The trip from my home to my ship, underway in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, ended, after three days of travel, with the eye-popping sudden stop of a tail-hook grabbing an arresting cable on a flight deck. Travelling with me the whole time was a young sailor fresh from basic training. The first bunk he was assigned, after all that training and travelling, was in the brig…marijuana was found in his sea-bag minutes after his arrival.
The fact that the Navy is made up of ships, and ships go to sea, is something enlistees don’t really consider when first signing up…at least I didn’t. I now saw my favorite ocean as the Atlantic Fleet’s two-way watery street, with east-bound vessels manned by crews of quiet, sullen, basically unhappy men leaving their friends and families, and west-bound ships full of expectant, relieved, joyful fellows looking forward to getting back to their lives and more than happy to pass the baton to their relief at the Strait of Gibraltar.
It seemed to me that the pilots, who were officers free of leadership responsibilities, must have been having a pretty grand old time…the other thousands of us were there to support them and their zipping about at more than the speed of sound in their multi-million dollar fun-mobiles.
During much of my time spent on that “haze-gray and underway” rust-bucket, I felt that life consisted of weeks of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer clinical depression…but hindsight has erased all those dark feelings. Looking back, I now see those two years as full and worthwhile.
I arrived on-board shortly after an incident occurred on that ship that affected the whole Navy. Racial tension culminated with a number of black sailors staging a sit-down strike on the flight deck during air operations. It was a huge deal that resulted in a bunch of Court Martials.
A team of race relations specialists were sent from Washington to the ship to conduct seminars which everyone on-board (and soon everyone in the Navy) were required to attend. I was scheduled to attend the first classroom session, and I got there one minute late, just in time to be reprimanded by the Commanding Officer, who had gone there to make sure the high-profile thing was taken seriously and nobody showed up late. That was my second contact with the CO in my first few weeks; during the first contact I failed to show proper military decorum during an introduction on the bridge and caught a small rebuke. I had two other contacts with him during my time on-board, both negative. Oh well. He was a pretty good guy…it must have been me…
A new Division Officer had arrived just before I reported in, Ensign Land, or “Ducky”. He picked up the moniker “Lame Duck” when he arrived with his left arm in a sling, having shot himself during a robbery. He had pulled his pistol out while being robbed, seated in his Volkswagen. It went off and put a bullet through his arm…the thief then used it to rob him at gunpoint.
Ducky was a good guy, but couldn’t catch any respect at all, so he went to his boss, a Commander, to get permission to put anyone on report who disrespected him. No more of this “Ducky” stuff, or letting the air out of his bicycle tires, or anything. He was given permission to break-out the report chits, even though he had the authority to “write up” people the whole time anyway.
Like any government organization, in Mr. Land’s Division 90 percent of the important work was done by ten percent of the people…specifically one Data Processing Technician named Mike Broome, also a talented musician. Mike did not fear being written-up, unless Mr. Land didn’t care if the work got done properly or not.
I saw Mike trying to explain something to Mr. Land over the phone…Mr. Land wasn’t getting it and Mike was getting frustrated. He stopped arguing, took the phone away from his ear and stared at it for a few seconds, then put it back to his head and began singing “Anchors Away” in Duck.
“QUAAACK QUACK QUACK QUACK quack QUACK. QUAAACK QUACK quack QUAACK”…all the way through. Then a pause. Then the entire Marine Corps Anthem…”From the hills of Montezuma” etc., in Duck. “QUACK QUACK QUAAACK QUAAACK QUAAACK QUAAACK QUAAACK qua QUACK” all the way to a rising grand crescendo of quacks at the dramatic finishing bars.
Then he spoke calmly into the phone, “Now what was that Mr. Land?” Ducky just went ahead and continued the conversation where they left off, before he had been given those stirring renditions of military pomp and ceremony in his own language.
Living in a machine can be a dangerous prospect. You’d think that if your sons or daughters went to sea on a navy ship during peace time, they’d surely make it back home alive, but that’s not always the case. A crew numbering four thousand is going to lose one now and then…and not just to motorcycle accidents. One left a suicide note after getting a “Dear John” letter from his wife, and then went for a midnight swim while underway. We lost a couple Marine pilots when an arresting cable snapped and their jet trickled off the flight deck into the sea.
The most unusual case was the demise of a Chief Petty Officer, who lost his life during a freak cloudless wind-storm in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The ship was heading into the largest seas anyone on-board had ever seen, after three days of steady sixty-knot wind hitting us right on the nose. I went topside and watched the giant swells, at least 50 feet high, moving so slowly they looked almost stationary as the thousand-foot-long vessel rode up each wave, over the top, then dipped down and dived into the face of the next one, water washing over the flight deck and pouring off the sides. Rainbows appeared and disappeared everywhere, created by sunshine and wind-blown spray. Tied-down planes were doused with salt water, and horizontal whip antennas and safety nets were torn away.
A carrier’s hangar bay, the huge area below the flight deck, is open to the weather at the exterior elevators that carry planes and equipment between the decks. During this storm it had been sealed off by closing giant sliding doors that hung from tracks, not unlike huge barn doors. One of those doors sported a large painting of Snoopy the beagle, laying on his back on the red roof of his dog house, which was tied to the ground with a chain and stake. The caption under the drawing said “Happiness is Security”. That door was the poorly secured one that got knocked loose by a giant wave and crushed the Chief against a plane. The height of irony…double irony, since he was only days from a secure retirement. He never could have imagined that just short of his dream of spending his days chilling at the old fishing hole, his body would be chilling in the ship’s salad locker, having been killed by Snoopy. You just never know.
Back in Florida, one still, quiet, sunny Sunday morning, I was just about to step onto the brow, leaving the ship, when there was a huge “boom” to my left. A 20 ton “mule”, one of the yellow vehicles used to tow aircraft, was laying upside-down on the lowered elevator, its wheels slowly turning, not more than a dozen feet from me. Looking over the edge of the flight deck, about 50 feet up, was its driver, who happily wasn’t wearing a seat belt when the thing started going over and had managed to get off. A couple of stunned individuals were standing even closer to it than I, not yet comprehending what they were looking at. I just went on my way, thinking Sunday morning is a poor time to let a sailor drive, seeing as how it so closely follows Saturday night.
The thing that struck me about the incident was that it didn’t even make the ship’s gossip mill. Even though, because of it, today’s aircraft carriers have a restraining cable that rises from the flight deck when the elevators go down, so many things were happening all the time, to most of the crew (since no one was crushed) it wasn’t even news worthy.
The ship was about to get underway, still tied up at Mayport, with men standing-by on the pier to cast off lines. At that time someone decided to test the bridge-to-engine-room communications by announcing the test over the voice intercom, then sending a command via “bells” to the engine room. The bells telling them to give it the gas worked fine, but the voice system saying it was a test didn’t, so, as instructed, the engine room put the pedal to the metal…with the ship still tied up. It was a good test though, and proved that those three-inch nylon hawsers are no more able to hold back an aircraft carrier under power than if it had been secured with sewing thread. Fortunately there was only one non-life threatening injury produced by the parting lines, and an exciting time was had by all. That one made the gossip mill.
The last time I saw my old ship, no one lived on-board. Three years after I left, it was parked at a pier in Norfolk, a few hundred feet from a building I was working in, its elevators cut off and dumped on the flight deck while it waited to be towed to an ignominious end in a scrap yard. I went aboard and found the storeroom where I once kept a lawn chair that I would take with me when I went outside to an obscure weather deck while underway…lounging and imagining I was on a pleasure cruise. Remarkably, all the other items in the storeroom were gone, except for that chair. I still have it.
That’s not the way I want to remember the Roosevelt. I have a memory that ship provided that I’m sure few people share. One of the most moving scenes in the movie Titanic is the “I can fly” scene that takes place on the bow of the ship, where the girl closes her eyes and puts herself in a precarious position of hands-free trust, then opens her eyes to thrill to a feeling of flight, as Celine Dion sings her into the sunset. I can relate to that scene.
Long before that movie was made, I stood on the flight deck at the “pointy end” of the FDR as it transited the Atlantic westward, toward the setting sun. Every few hundred feet, a sea turtle could be seen in the clear water below, intently flapping its flippers, heading southwest like the others, being called somehow to an appointment with a specific beach somewhere far away. I took a chance that no one was watching me and slid over the front, down into the safety net strung from a frame extending from the ship, far above and in front of the bow slicing through the water. As I lay on my back, lounging in my airborne hammock 80 feet above the deep-blue, turtle-filled sea, I could see no ship around me or under me. I was flying, cruising over the open ocean into the sunset, feet-first…suspended high above the face of the deep…as in a dream. It was an awesome feeling.
One of the young sailors in my division on the Roosevelt was a feisty red-headed kid from Sanford, Florida who I didn’t like. He came from privilege, Navy style, his dad being a retired Navy Captain who had been the Air Boss on the USS Saratoga, an aircraft carrier that tied up next to ours in its homeport of Mayport. Ken said he had been bounced on the knee of the then current Chief of Naval Operations, a friend of his father’s, as a child. I saw him as a spoiled brat who got busted for smoking pot on the jetty near the pier…who ran with lewd women when we were overseas.
As a teen, he literally crashed one of his mother’s garden parties…the ones senior officer’s wives hold for other officer’s wives in the immaculate backyards of the homes their husbands provide for them. He lost control of his dirt bike as he was coming across the yard and laid it down. The motorcycle slid right through the party, scattering women and knocking over white lawn furniture….a Grade A officer’s brat.
The Roosevelt was anchored off Palma de Mallorca, Spain, and I had just arrived back on-board after taking the liberty launch over to the beach to get something to eat. As I sat in the computer room, I had the distinct impression I had done the wrong thing. I was supposed to have taken Ken with me. Reluctantly, I asked him if he wanted to go ashore and have dinner, and he said okay. We headed to the launch for the three mile boat ride.
As I sat with him in a little Spanish restaurant, stuffing my face for the second time, Ken told me he was thinking of going to church, or something, and asked me a few basic questions about what I believed…and that was it. We went back to the ship and I went about my business.
My division had a little storeroom that had been converted from an officer’s stateroom, because its proximity to the old ship’s stern made it difficult to sleep while underway, the vibration rattling the fillings out of one’s teeth and all. I would go there to get a little alone time and maybe read my Bible if we were doing under twenty knots and I could see the words.
I was in there one day, as the ship was underway conducting flight operations, when there was a knock on the door. I opened it to see Ken standing, his head down, struggling to speak. He managed to get out “I’m such a mess”. I was overwhelmed by the sight and just turned away from him and got down on the deck on my knees, leaning over a box. He came in and fell over some boxes praying and crying.
He didn’t come back to work for three days; somehow word got out that he was pale and sick, and people left him alone. When he did come back, he was a changed person…a bona-fide Christian. This started a bit of a conflict among the rest of the guys, one of whom hung a men’s-magazine centerfold in front of the machine Ken used. I demanded it be taken down, which resulted in my being called before the Command Master Chief, who thought I was being unreasonable but couldn’t order me to change my mind, since the Admiral agreed with me. The argument was moot when the owner took it down on his own.
The ship scheduled an early spring, three-day ski trip to Andorra, a country between Spain and France consisting of seven mountains in the Pyrenees and not much more. Due to limited space, a lottery was held to determine who would be allowed to go. Ken and I each won a seat on the bus.
We arrived at the pristine ski slope just after the first real snowfall of the whole winter season, and, besides a busload of crazy Englishmen, we pretty much had the place to ourselves.
Enthusiasm is the trait I’ve always admired in Ken. He never, never does anything half way, and that included skiing. The Florida boy had a tendency to get going backwards, then fall, and, after he snapped two skis in half, the rental place almost put an end to his first ski adventure.
After a while, he got to where he could go forward in a straight line, and, in his mind, that meant taking-on the big hill.
I was riding the main lift, and, as my chair reached the point where a long, steep, straight run passed under it, I could see Ken in the distance, way up the hill. He wasn’t shushing back and forth to keep his speed down like everybody else, but was coming straight as an arrow, feet about a yard apart and hanging on for dear life. He crashed just before going under the lift, and I’ll never forget the sight of his train wreck sliding past the overhead onlookers…skis, ski poles, goggles, hat, Ken…sliding a hundred miles an hour down over the next drop-off and disappearing. He took the second day of the trip off to recuperate.
Back on the ship, as Ken and I were becoming fast friends, the son of a pastor found us and joined us on a little secluded “weather deck” as the ship passed northward through the Strait of Messina…the sun setting behind Mount Etna to our left. He was a “preacher’s kid” displaying the rebellion so many of them have against being forced into church by virtue of their birth. We had what he wanted. He wanted it, but on his own…and he found it…at sea and on his own. Later, he told us that when he was finally able to call his dad to tell him, his father broke down…he said he’d never heard his father cry.
Ken got out of the Navy and moved up to Virginia to live with my family and church until he was a more mature Christian. I spent a few more months on the ship before being transferred back. He beat me home.
After a couple years, he went back to Florida, got married and raised a family…supported them by delivering pizza. Never one to do anything without going full-bore, he was the leading delivery man at the busiest Domino’s Pizza in the country, just outside Disney World, zipping about with abandon. He even got his wife to quit teaching school and join him. One day he cut off a car in traffic while on a delivery run…a car that, unfortunately, was driven by a radio talk-show host who complained about him on the air. Dominos told him he needed to zip on down the road and find another job…which he did.
We still catch up via email once in a while. Ken…a kid I didn’t like…still my good friend and brother.
After leaving the Roosevelt, I made my way to my new duty station just a building away from the piers on the Norfolk Naval Station. It was the Fleet Assistance Group, Atlantic, as declared by the large, circular painted logo over the front entrance…gold letters on a blue background: FAGLANT…..I’m not kidding.
The Command consisted of about 80 Computer Programmer positions evenly distributed between civilians and military.
The sky opened-up my first day on the job, raining so hard you couldn’t see 50 feet. One of the senior civilians introduced himself to me and then opined “I think it might rain today.”
I gave a slight smile at the obvious joke, to which he replied, firmly, “I’m serious”, opened a window, put his hand out, palm up, and stood there until the water running down his arm was pouring through the elbow of his white dress shirt.
He said, “I think I felt something!”
I had no need to visit the zoo or the circus during my three years in that building. We had animals; we had clowns; we had the prettiest female in the US Marine Corp, as well as the homeliest male…the only one brave enough, or free enough from lust, to order her to wear a bra when in uniform.
There was a lunch-time fist fight over a card game, lunch-time love affairs, people eating other people’s lunch, people pouring water over a bathroom divider onto someone’s head because that person ate their lunch.
We had Petty Officer Fitzworth. I already knew him from when I was on the ship. As described in the command’s monthly newsletter, he was one of “The Flying Fags” (once again, true) who would visit to deliver computer software while we were deployed overseas. His behavior on the beach was considerably more decadent than the ship’s crew, and I was surprised to find him much reserved back at home…then I saw his wife as she made her bi-weekly arrival to pick up his paycheck. He was large, but she was larger, both taller and heavier, and never used his first name. “Where’s Fitzworth’s check?” …twice a month.
Fitzworth and another overweight sailor, a lieutenant, were friends. The lieutenant drove a small MG sports car to work, with the battery located under the back seat. He was driving in one morning, and the battery fell through the rotted floor boards as he rumbled over railroad tracks. He got Fitzworth, and the two of them went outside to do something to keep the battery from dragging on the road.
I saw them come back into the building. Fitzworth came in first, obviously put out. Turns out the lieutenant told him to get under the car and hold the battery up while he wired it in place. As the lieutenant was leaning inside working, Fitzworth was softly mumbling something that sounded like “gurrah, gurrah”.
The lieutenant leaned farther into the car, over the open hole, and said, “What did you say?”
The response was a strained, barely audible whisper: “Get out of the car.”
These were software types, not hardware (that would be me) and their expertise happened on paper, not while doing physical stuff. One shirt-and-tie guy decided to pull a full pallet-jack load of computer paper down the passageway, something I normally did. As he got to the double doors leading to the warehouse, he reached out to push the horizontal bar to open them, not knowing the doors were locked. The wooden doorframes burst to splinters as his body busted through, pushed from behind by the gross tonnage of his slow rolling load.
My job was to maintain two computer systems that were used in software development, spending most of my time telling programmers to go back to their desk and stop blaming the gear for their mistakes. I did that alone for some time, until another technician, named Bernie, arrived. He took over maintenance on one of the systems and relieved some of the pressure I was getting, by backing me up.
Bernie was a burly guy, a cat washer, who once told me that day was Feline Cleanliness Day, and after work his 8 pound pet was going to find out who was boss.
He came in the next day with a large white bandage on his nose. Seems he gripped the cat’s front feet in one hand and its back feet in the other and dunked it down into the tub, whereupon it reached up and touched its upper and lower teeth together through his now throbbing schnoz, showing him who was actually boss. Unless he grew a third arm, I don’t think he tried that again.
Jean was a female sailor who poured herself into a too-small dungaree uniform before reporting to work each day as a computer operator. She was a pudgy blond of Swedish decent, cute, married to an officer…she was a nice girl. While I was stationed at FAGLANT with her, her husband left her for another woman the day she went into the hospital to give birth to their first child. After the divorce, the single mom got out of the navy and got a job as a civilian at the Navy Supply Center.
I didn’t see her for over a year, until one day when I got in an elevator at the Supply Center for the six story ride to the top floor, and there she was, dressed in civilian clothes and absolutely stunning. She no longer wore glasses; her natural blond hair, normally loosely pinned-up, hung half way down her back…she’d lost about thirty pounds and wore dressy clothes and heels. The other young man in the elevator was obviously quite impressed with her, as he stood to one side and watched our reunion.
She was so excited to see me. “Hi, Larry! Larry, how have you been? Larry, it’s so good to see you!”
The suddenness of the encounter and the shock of her vastly improved appearance had me speechless. Just like at the high school dance, I couldn’t say anything but “Hi”.
She finally said, “Larry, what’s wrong?”
Unable to hold back, the stranger chimed in, “Yeah, Larry, what’s wrong?!?” The doors opened, I said “bye” and escaped.
I didn’t see Jean again, but something tells me she did just fine.
I was coming up on the time that I was either going to get stationed on a ship or get out of the Navy, but, before I made that decision, I was told I had been selected to be advanced to Chief Petty Officer and had to accept the position and sign up for at least two more years, or turn it down and leave. I wanted to do the right thing…to do what God’s will for my life would be. I asked Mrs. King’s advice and she said to turn it down and get out. Trusting her, after nearly twelve years as a “white hat”, that’s what I did. Right or wrong, I turned Chief down, not for her, but for Him, and the way things have worked out, I have no regrets.
There was another guy leaving as well: Danny, my ping-pong partner. He was a young computer operator whose wife had left him, and, with no hope of reconciliation, he had decided to go back to his native Guam. FAGLANT had three ping-pong tables back in the warehouse, one of which was designated the team championship table. Teams would practice on the other two, then challenge other teams on the main table. In our two years playing together, Danny and I had never won a game against these battle-hardened table tennis pros, but we gave it a shot every day at lunchtime anyway. They knew we were a joke.
The day before Danny left, he was playing with absolute abandon…slamming everything…without missing…stunning everybody. He was playing out of his mind. I just did my job and got the ball back to the other side of the net. We beat all the other teams that day……..a joke, huh? Laugh on, losers.
As the day approached when I was to leave Fleet Assistance Group and the US Navy, a sailor stationed on one of the ships found his way to my office and asked me to change my mind. I knew him, at one time, as just another guy who didn’t want what I had. A couple of years prior, I had the feeling he was supposed to be a Christian, and had talked to him extensively about it, but he said no, his wife was adamantly against it, and he wasn’t much interested himself.
I didn’t know it, he told me, but those little talks had changed his life and that of his wife, as well. They were both serious Christians now, and thankful for the influence I had on them. He felt I needed to stay in the Navy for the sake of other guys like himself. I told him I was glad he stopped by, but the die was cast.
I got out in mid-winter with no job and a family to support.
Five weeks of unemployment was getting a little concerning. I had an application in with Sperry Corp. for a job that seemed like a perfect fit for me, but I was being strung along, waiting every day for a promised call that never came, so I decided to look elsewhere. I picked up a low-paying position with a copy machine company and called Sperry to let them know I was moving on…they offered me a job that day.
I was told I would be teamed with another new-hire named Mike Toliver, just out of the Marine Corps. A nice English name, I thought. When I met him, I was surprised to see he was black. Black is a good way to be, it turned out, if you’re visiting Minneapolis, Minnesota, the place the company sent us for a few weeks of schooling. Folks like him were fairly unique in those parts.
We went to a YMCA to play a little co-ed volleyball one day after class. Mike was mobbed; everyone seemed to be fascinated with the intelligent, cultured, dark-skinned guy from somewhere else. Me? It seemed like I wasn’t there; so I decided to go swimming.
I knew that, in one respect, Minneapolis was considered to be the San Francisco of the North, so I wasn’t surprised when I went into the shower room to take the required showering-off before using the pool, and found six naked men standing under streaming water and having a lengthy confab. They got quiet as they watched me enter. Feeling on display before an audience, I refused to remove my trunks, but went straight to an unused shower and turned it on, blasting myself with freezing water. I quickly cranked the handle the other way, was scalded with steaming-hot spray, jumped back and turned it off.
As I walked out toward the pool, the silence was broken by the last guy I passed. “Invigorating…wasn’t it?”
After returning home to Virginia, Mike and I completed a two month contract on the Norfolk Navy Base and then were assigned to a project at the engineering center from which I had been removed nine years before. When I had been stationed there, I could only imagine working there as a civilian…my dream job…and now there I was. A few civilians remembered me, but all the military were long gone.
We worked in a lab called Test Bay 3, checking-out and burning-in whole computer systems before they were installed on submarines.
Once again, I was put in a moving picture with a cast of characters, some of whom could have come from the funny farm…or the funny papers.
Matt was one of the type of fellow employees that most folks find unlikable. Technically he wasn’t a bad guy, and if you were to try to tell him why no one liked him you probably couldn’t put your finger on it. The more he sensed people didn’t care for him, the more he worried about it, the more self-obsessed he became and the more people didn’t like him. He was unlucky at love and every girl he managed to get a date with instantly became “the one”. Invariably, after two dates they ran away.
Matt’s least fan was another employee named Dana. Dana disliked Matt intensely. He was from our company’s corporate headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota, as was his sister, who was coming to visit. Someone had the nerve to suggest to Dana that he introduce his sister to Matt when she arrived. Dana’s response was both negative and profane. He didn’t think that was a good idea.
Eventually Dana moved back to St. Paul and sometime after that Matt found a position there and also moved. I got the word, later, that Matt had indeed met Dana’s sister somehow and that they had entered into the blissful sacrament of marriage. They moved to a house next to Dana. I wonder how that worked out.
Besides cooking gourmet meals for girls that called at the last minute to say they wouldn’t be coming to dinner because they met someone else, Matt didn’t have many skills, but I’ll say one thing about that short, somewhat pudgy guy, he was a virtual rocket scientist at the art of scaring the pants off people. Some may have found that to be a character flaw, but I thought he was a genius.
Working night shift with Matt was an exercise in trying to continue to generate a heartbeat, as he practiced his stock-in-trade. It’s all about positioning. I once squeezed between some equipment, scooting sideways to get through, unaware that he was behind me. He let loose a shout as he was squeezing through…the last place on earth I thought he would be. I almost left little stains on the computer floor. As I chased him through an open warehouse, he never turned his head. I jogged behind him, knowing he was going to try it again…and he still got me. A petrifying genius. The next guy who worked the night shift with him didn’t appreciate his ability as I did and was livid one morning, ordering him to stay until the boss arrived. Matt didn’t hang around.
Some years later, at a different time and place, I employed the lessons I had learned from Matt on a poor young lady that had to traverse our warehouse area on her way to the dumpster behind the building. She got so traumatized by repeatedly having a frightful creature leap out from behind things, that I could simply walk up to her in the open, facing her, and say “blah” to get her to scream.
Her trips were always preceded by a security guard who opened the back door and waited. I came up with the ultimate. When I saw him open the door, I knew she would be coming, and I went out and got in the dumpster. The dumpster door opened and a bag flew over my head. I stood up in the opening, and when she turned with the second bag, I said “blah”. The resulting scream as she nearly fell to the ground scared me and prompted me to promise her I would never do it again. There’s something about the thought of being fired that just sucks all the entertainment value out of making people wet their pants. Maybe that’s why Matt didn’t hang around.
Not long after I arrived at the Test Bay, the need arose for someone to fly to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to help a fellow technician repair a piece of computer equipment he’d been struggling with for two weeks. Earl was one of Sperry’s best technicians, but he needed bailing-out. Unfortunately, I was just a new guy, but I was all they had at the time, so they sent me.
Earl wasn’t unfamiliar with me. Months before, he had been seated next to his friend Chuck, another great field engineer, when I called Chuck for some technical advice while working on the same type of machine Earl was having problems with. Before Chuck answered my question he lectured me. “I thought you were supposed to know something about this equipment.”
I’m sure, after he hung-up, they had a discussion on the poor quality of people the company was hiring.
As I descended the airplane stairway at GITMO, Earl and a female Data Systems Technician were standing on the tarmac at the foot of the steps, expectantly hoping to see an expert arriving to save the day. What they got was that same dude Chuck had ridiculed…a new-hire, no less. When he saw me, the disappointment on Earl’s face as he stared at the ground was unmistakable.
After the bus ride to the main part of the base, he recovered enough to say, “Let’s get something to eat, and then get some rest, and we’ll hit it in the morning.”
That’s what we did, but just before he reached over to kill the table lamp in the barracks room he and I had to share, he said, “I want to apologize to you in advance. I can’t help it. I snore.” Then he turned out the light.
In about two minutes, I felt transported back in time to the woodland above the Keesler farm, as Uncle Bill pulled hard on the trigger of a thirty pound McCulloch chain saw and muscled it into the base of a fifty foot hardwood. This wasn’t your garden variety snoring; It was shock testing for faulty light fixtures and loose window panes. As I lay there hoping to get some sleep in that darkened room, I couldn’t help but wonder how in the world he had a wife, and if they sometimes spent the night in the same house.
Morning arrived and we went to the computer room to let me have a crack at the problem. The female technician wanted to see the “Eureka!” moment when a hot-shot field engineer resolves a dilemma, so she had stayed in that computer room day and night for two weeks as both Earl and some military techs basically disassembled and rebuilt the entire unit. She was tired and leaning against a wall with her eyes closed when I pointed out they were thinking wrong, then corrected the mechanical problem. She missed it. I never saw someone so bummed-out to get something fixed.
I grabbed my stuff and got back on the same plane that brought me there, for the trip back home. Earl couldn’t get packed in time and had to stay until the next week. He called me a few weeks later to thank me and say that he thought he knew all there was to know about that machine, but that he had been humbled. I appreciated the call; I just wished Chuck had been sitting next to him.
The question arose during a noon-hour conversation in Test Bay 3 as to who in our little group would be considered normal. Looking around, I suggested that I would be a good candidate. After the laughter died, I was told that I was the least normal of all. I’m sure that they were wrong; after all, we had a beautiful blond girl whose Russian father worked for Voice of America; a former semi-pro football player who believed in “punch first, ask why he got in your face later”; the two best race walkers (they who walk like dorks) in the five city area; an electrical engineer who knew nothing about electricity; an electronic technician with a degree in biological chemistry “so I can understand those medical TV shows”; a Vietnamese former lawyer and special forces officer (who eventually fell down and died in the grocery store); a skinny guy who would eat a dozen donuts for breakfast and who now may be your pilot if you fly Delta Express, and more…..and I was the one that was least normal? I gotta go look in the mirror.
I’m not sure why stories from the mouths of those who once gnawed on used soup bones are more interesting than those told by steak eaters, but it seems to be true.
Charlie Sprague’s house is now just an abandoned shack embedded in a hillside and only a few feet from a paved, steep two-lane road. He didn’t have much, but when Charlie Sprague told Uncle Bill a deer hunting tale, all the money in Hollywood couldn’t have duplicated it. His voice slowed and changed to a deeper tone, and when he suddenly “come up with that shotgun” as his heavily antlered quarry burst from a thicket and went airborne over a lichen-encrusted stonewall, he could transport you to a place of instantly broken silence, snapping limbs and crashing leaves as the majestic creature made his bid for life against the aging woodsman.
I can’t claim to be a storyteller of his magnitude. If dwelling in abject poverty is a requisite characteristic of great tellers of tales, I don’t qualify. We weren’t dirt-poor, though we could have been at times if it hadn’t been for family and a mother who was too hard-headed to just strike the tent and give up. I thought I was in high cotton when the day came that I was allowed to dish food onto my own plate, rather than my mom rationing it out, and I didn’t eat my first store-bought steak until I entered the Navy and found myself tossed into a melting pot of disparate mother’s sons, many of whom were fortunate to have shared the yarn-spinner’s background of subsistence living on the poorer side of the national equation.
Joining the military affords a kid the opportunity to meet people he or she would otherwise never get to know, by bringing in Americans from every corner of the country, making them live together and giving them plenty of time to bend each other’s ears. I’ve met representatives of many of our cultures, but if I have to choose a favorite, I reckon I’m partial to the cash-poor great-grandchildren of the Scotch Irish, the rich storytellers from the hills and hollers of Appalachia and the mid/southern US. Maybe I’m a decent story listener. I’ve picked three of my former mates to share a few of their tales.
Dew was a “country boy who never should have left the country” according to his wife. His lack of a country accent and apparent seamless integration into the “Soccer Dad” lifestyle of a Virginia Beach family man belied his shoeless upbringing in the Arkansas backcountry. I knew him as a manly-man with a great family…a fine wife and three sons…a career sailor who had succeeded as a Data Processing Technician in the military, and who had no good reason not to be content, but one who couldn’t shake the feeling that he was not where he belonged. I’d say he did his job well enough for a man who was always a tad distracted, but his superiors may have disagreed. He is the only Senior Chief I’ve known who, on a regular basis, was instructed to “get a haircut”.
His father was a widower with children, four girls and a son, Dew being youngest of the five. This man had a rough row to hoe, trying to be both father and mother to his brood and put food on the table in an impoverished area of the country. He had no time, nor desire, to sort things out when coming home exhausted from a day of hard labor and then having to listen to one of his kids asking for justice to be meted out on a sibling. His boy seemed always to be part of the problem.
“She burned my stomach with a red-hot poker from the fire!”
“He wouldn’t stop teasing me.”
He took off his belt and whipped them both. Problem solved. Time for supper.
He brought home a pair of shoes for his eight-year-old boy…his first new shoes. Dew proudly wore them to school the following day. On the way home from school he took his normal route through the pig pen, but this time he ran, not wanting to spend much time crossing it with his brand new shoes. One, then the other, got sucked off his feet in the muck. The whole family turned out to find them, but they never could. So much for buying this kid shoes.
Dew told me of a neighbor with eighteen children, all boys. It was not a good idea to mess with any one of them, unless you were feeling a little froggy and wanted to take on the whole clan. The father supported his hoard by preaching the Gospel and selling moonshine whiskey. Dew was in attendance at his small, unpainted church one Sunday, listening to a couple of young fellows from town who had been invited to conduct the service. One of them, using his superior knowledge of scripture, made a point which obviously irritated an old guy in the congregation.
“That aint right!” said the old fella.
“I’m sorry sir, but it is right, you simply don’t know your bible”.
In deference to the fact he was in God’s house, the old guy declared he was taking the disagreement outside and would be waiting out front because “I’m gonna kick your asses!” Other good Christians in “the little brown church in the vale” hustled the two trembling bible scholars out the back door and pointed them back toward town.
Dew retired from the Navy and got a job as Harbor Master of the Chesapeake Yacht Basin, but the last time I stopped by to see him I was told he’d finally given-in to his calling, pulled up roots and headed back to the hills where he belonged.
Don. I knew Don when I worked for Sperry Corporation. He was a former sailor hailing from the mountains of Kentucky. He was an animated story teller with a bunch of good ones from his boyhood days. One of them was about a kid who took him up in the woods to teach him to sniff glue. The kid poured some in a paper bag and “huffed” it, instantly passing out and falling flat on his back. Just as quickly, he jumped up and started backing toward the cliff behind him. Each time Don moved in his direction the boy moved back more. Don took off the other way to stop him from stepping off into space. When he came back, the kid was sitting, in his right mind, asking him why he had left.
The story I like best concerned a train that had to slow down to a crawl to traverse a trestle that had been deemed unsafe to cross at a higher speed. He and a friend would crawl over a rail between the moving wheels and climb into a basket under a flatbed car. They would then ride over the bridge, crawl back out between the wheels as the train was still going slow and make a big deal out of rolling down the grassy slope of the track bed.
One time they brought another kid with them and taught him the procedure. The two of them made it across, crawled back out between the moving wheels, and rolled down the hill to the applause of the imaginary crowd. ”Tah Dah!” The new kid didn’t make his appearance. Maybe he chickened out. They walked back over the trestle to find him, but he wasn’t there. Maybe he went back to town. They went back. Three o’clock in the morning the kid’s father got a call from Cincinnati, Ohio from his son, who needed a ride back home. He had been afraid to crawl back out between the wheels and had spent the night traveling 80 miles an hour one foot above the track bed.
Don was a Bluegrass Music lover and musician, who also felt a different calling. He eventually left his job working with me as a computer tech to pursue a career as a guitar-playing singer. He got gigs. He was good.
Robin Dennison, son of Buck Dennison out of the Ozark Mountains of southern Missouri, was a natural storyteller with a manner that can’t be conveyed on paper. He continuously smiled broadly when telling a tale, whether it’s content was happy or sad, enjoying it at least as much as the listeners.
One of his thumbs appeared to have been crushed, because it was wide and flat. I asked him what happened to his thumb, and he replied, “This is a toe”. As I waited to hear of the modern medical procedure that had transferred the digit, he held it out and said, “Here, smell.” He was always smiling, which made it hard to anticipate a joke.
Robin told of a day he was sitting in a bar with a few others, including a Native American guy who had been an explosives expert in the Army. He still worked in that field, blowing up rocks at a nearby stone quarry. That day he was standing, leaning over the bar with a forgotten stick of dynamite protruding from his back pocket, when an old, mostly drunk guy came up behind him and started striking a Zippo lighter near his backside.
He turned. “Hey! What are you doing?!”
The old guy said, “Let’s light that thing off, man.”
Everyone else: “Yeah, let’s light that thing off!”
It was decided they would go down to the river and light that thing off. The Indian took the old drunk in his pickup truck with the driver’s door wired shut, and drove down to an elevated spot above the river that was a dead-ended roadway where a bridge had been removed. The rest of the gang went to a spot on the riverbank to watch, below and to one side. Sitting in the truck, the explosives expert let the old guy light the fuse and throw the dynamite, which he did…straight down on the ground. It rolled under the truck. From down below, the spectators could see the driver piling out of his open window and scrambling down the slope as fast as he could crawl, as the old guy sat inside with his eyes closed and his ears covered.
Nothing happened. When the dynamite hit the ground the lit fuse had been extinguished.
The Indian lit it himself, this time, and threw it in the river.
Robin said the blast was huge. “Holy Moses and the Angels! That thing went off and nearly emptied that river.
“Had the fuse not gone out the first time, the old man in the truck would have been launched to Kingdom Come. Makes me wonder how many times Saint Peter has seen an ol’ boy coming up to the pearly gates with his fingers still in his ears.”
I’m happy to report that the military mixing pot is still with us, though the mix is getting a little more diluted as modern mass-communication moves us all more toward the center. Not only do we watch the same shows on TV, but there seems to be a national standard being established for what the perfect American is supposed to look like and be like. For once, I’d like to see a newscaster in the Deep South do his job with a deep southern accent, but that’s not the way it is; they sound like me. Then again, new cultures are coming on-line as new immigrants are setting up shop and bringing a new diversity. Maybe things are the same, only different. I hope they’re bringing some good stories.
A mobile home keeps the sun and rain off your head and provides all the basic creature comforts a family of limited means requires, but it always has wheels under it, even if they’re hidden. When you want to put down roots, you don’t go looking for a house trailer. After a few years of living in a fifty-foot cheese box with two-inch-thick outer walls, I began to research the best way to replace it with a dwelling that couldn’t be rolled down the road. I decided that the most economical thing to do would be to build a regular stick-frame house on the same site…by myself.
I took pencil and graph paper and drew a professional looking set of plans that I presented to the one-man Building Inspection Dept. of Currituck County, North Carolina.
He took one look at it and said, “Did you draw this?” then, “Sit at that table over there and I’ll show you what’s required.” After a while I got his approval.
So, armed with a building permit, some stakes and string and a shovel, I was ready to start. I just needed to move the trailer.
I had a big Lincoln Continental sedan with a tow hitch, and I thought it might have been up to the job, so I disconnected all the pipes and wires from the trailer and hooked up to it. It wouldn’t budge. I began to rock it back and forth a little, knocking Dorothy off her feet and sending a 20 gallon fish tank crashing to the living room floor. Then I found a kid with a full-size farm tractor and paid him to move me closer to the road.
A couple months of digging and I was ready for the cement truck to deliver my liquid foundation footing. The driver wasn’t happy when he arrived and found me alone and standing by a feeble contraption he knew wouldn’t work. I had built a chute to direct the concrete to the far reaches, which instantly collapsed under the weight of the mix just like he said it would. Thankfully he was a nice guy and helped me get the stuff spread where it needed to go.
A couple months of building the cement-block foundation and I was ready to receive the lumber order. Because I lived so far out, it was sent on a single truck, the lumber stacked ten feet high and banded. The driver tipped the bed and let the load slip off. It hit the ground and the banding broke, allowing the top boards to shoot out like a rocket…right through my new foundation wall. I told him not to worry about it; I was just happy to get such a nice pile of shiny new lumber, spread out and ready to re-stack.
A couple months of building the floor and I was ready to frame the walls and roof. Putting up rafters was more than a one man job, so I enlisted the help of two fourteen-year-old boys, the sons of my Christian friends.
By this time it was mid-winter, and I had those youngsters out in some damp and cold weather…worked ‘em hard, I did, affording them the opportunity to become acquainted with the building trades and acquire some skills…it never occurred to me they might have liked to be paid with money instead. But maybe they did get a free education out of it, learning they might want to do something with their lives other than building houses. Steven, who bashed the same thumb with a hammer at least five times, decided to use his hands to transplant hearts instead (literally, he’s a Heart Surgeon), and Matthew received from me the impetus to concentrate on his education (he’s a University Dean). Now, what might have happened to those two doctors if I had paid them? …probably be racing around in 1987 Chevy vans with ladders on top, trying to beat each other out of framing jobs. At least that’s my theory. Another theory says that I’m cheap.
A couple years later, having busted my tail building a house while earning the money to pay for materials at the same time, I was nervously ready for my first building inspection by the same guy who had given me permission to do this.
Foots and I were waiting for him. Foots was already living in the house and happy to do so as long as there were no doors hanging yet. He couldn’t stand to be on the inside of a closed door. He was a German Shepherd mix who had turned up needing a place to stay…probably someone had dumped him in the country. Someone else had shot him with birdshot, a few pellets of which could still be felt under his skin, leaving him with a serious fear of guns. If he saw one, he was outta here at a full run…definitely not a hunting dog. But he was a really nice dog…very friendly…and when the building inspector arrived in shirt and tie, he greeted him by standing on his back feet, looking the man in the face with one giant muddy paw planted on each shoulder of his white shirt. The inspector said, “It’s all right, I like dogs” and brushed his shirt without looking at the dirty mess…he didn’t know, and I didn’t tell him. I passed inspection.
Foots liked to lay in the sun on my new front porch. Each day the neighbor living down in the woods would drive slowly up his long driveway, past my property on his way to work. His big, short-haired yellow mutt would follow him to the road, then come over to Foots and get in his face snarling, snapping and growling, before heading back home. Foots just laid there, calmly looking at him.
I went on a two week business trip, and, when I returned, a neighbor driving by stopped and asked me, “How’s your dog?”
I told him, “Fine. Why do you ask?”
He said, “Your dog and that big yellow dog got in a fight and fought all the way across that field over there. When it was over, that yellow dog’s ear was torn almost off his head and hanging under his chin.”
One morning at a later date, I was working on the house, Foots was lying on the porch, and I saw that yellow cur follow his master to the road, turn back toward home, give two or three snarls from the safe distance of his driveway and go on his way. Foots just lay there looking at him.
It took a total of three years to build that house by myself. As I approached the finish line, Dorothy said she couldn’t wait anymore and moved back to town to live with MaryAnn, telling me she wouldn’t return until the house was finished. Rather than put the pressure on me, her absence was a great relief which, after a few months, I was starting to enjoy a little too much, forcing brother-in-law George to light a fire under me by demanding I finish and get his wife’s sister out of his house.
It was done…finished, furnished and the family installed. The last piece remaining was the threshold under the front door. As I sat relaxing in an easy chair one evening while the rest of the family slept, a six foot black snake came under the door into the living room, head-up and checking the place out. I escorted him back outside and installed the last piece…without telling Dorothy why.
We lived there for about a year, when she demanded we move back to town. I didn’t argue. Most of the group of friends with whom we moved down there had disbanded and left for parts unknown, and we were the last young ones still residing there. I didn’t mind the thought of living 15 miles closer to work, so we moved to a place a friend owned in Virginia Beach and I rented the house out. That family broke up and left, and I rented the place again, to a couple with a baby boy that the handsome young father doted on.
The attentive dad came from the Rockefeller family of Kansas; his parents were well known and respected educators in that State. One day he was flying a kite in the field across the road from the house and got it caught in the power line stretched overhead. He got some plastic-coated aluminum hookup wire that I left in the shed, and, thinking it was clothes-line, tied a brick to it and tossed it up there to dislodge the kite. He got that hung-up, too, and tugged on it for a while until the 20,000 Volt line discharged a lightning bolt across the surface of his body. After suffering ten days in the burn unit at Chesapeake General Hospital, he died of heart failure.
That was enough for me. I let his widow live rent-free, until she could move, and sold the house. I lost half the money from the sale in the stock market crash of ‘87. The other half dwindled away, making up the difference between the new mortgage payments on a house we purchased and what my salary could actually afford. Was all the effort worth it? Not if it cost Rocky his life. The money did enable me to buy a nice house I otherwise couldn’t have, so there’s that. I gained the knowledge that building a house by one’s self is a once-in-a-lifetime young man’s game. So there’s that, too.
Dorothy was a good mom. She gave me two very attractive children, upon whom she doted as attentively as any mother could without harming them too much.
Lars was born 11 years before Elisabeth and was raised apart from other kids, except during school hours, an arrangement I was never happy with during the ten years or so we were with the little church in southern Virginia Beach.
Dorothy had a hard time letting children leave childhood, but I’ll say this: had she not been so obsessive, Lars wouldn’t be here today.
When he was 10, playing alone as usual, he took a minnow trap to a water-filled ditch up the road from our mobile home, to catch him some small ones.
Dorothy said, “Where’s Lars?”
I said, “Up by that ditch”.
She didn’t say another word (if she had, I might have told her to leave him be) but immediately went out, got in her car, and drove up to get him. She found him walking sideways through the bank weeds, poking around in the water with a long stick, trying to find the minnow trap. Two side-steps away from him, in the direction he was headed, she saw a large cottonmouth moccasin, jaws fat with poison, coiled up and ready to strike.
When I went back there to dispatch the snake with a pellet gun, he was still at the ready…he wasn’t messing around. Lars’ mom had saved him.
Dorothy didn’t want a second child, something I always wanted. When she finally changed her mind, I felt that the state of our relationship was so tenuous that it might not last the length of a child’s youth. I nearly refused to cooperate; in fact, the month she got pregnant I had decided that was the last try.
At that time, you didn’t know the gender of your new arrival until it entered the world. As I stood looking at the wooden skeleton of what was to be the new baby’s room in the house I was building, I had a distinct feeling that could be described by these words: “This is your daughter’s room.” I should have painted it pink.
I was there when my little girl was born, and I got to pick her middle name, Joy, which she has proven to be. She was a fun and fulfilling child to raise to adolescence, and beyond that she was no trouble, except for the fact that she could hurt me when playing catch. Being the parent of a varsity player on a championship team is not something I ever thought I would be, but, in her high school years, she gave me that. She still plays softball and is still a very good player with a strong arm and bat.
When people speak to me of my daughter, one of two words always comes up: either beautiful or gorgeous. Her brother says his sister is the prettiest redhead he’s ever known. What father would not like to hear that? To this day she hasn’t given me any trouble, has a great sense of humor, and she’s the only one in my immediate family to earn a college degree. My Joy, I’d do anything for her…even write a book. She’s the one who asked for this.
One of life’s most enduring memories for a man blessed to have been given a baby daughter has to be returning home from work to her unrestrained, excited, arms-wide-open greeting at the front door. Every day I went to work…every time I cut the grass…every move I made was motivated by the love I had for my little girl, and for my family. I just didn’t realize how much…not until the day I came home and the door was locked. That was the day I found out what it feels like to have your heart ripped out.
As I tried to get some sleep in my car, I felt like my eyes had been opened to something I had never seen, though it was right in front of my face. There was an epidemic in my country…an epidemic of pain. I couldn’t have known it until I was stricken with it myself. I knew of broken homes…I’d been part of one and was determined I would never do such a thing to my own children…but I never knew how deeply a tossed-aside father of a small child could hurt…and now I knew. It was painful enough to make some dads take their own lives, or cause some otherwise law-abiding, middle-America provider to become a murderer.
After a month, Dorothy agreed to go to a marriage counsellor, where I allowed the two of them to dissect me to get to the root of the problem. I worked on me too, trying to communicate better or whatever else they had a problem with. She let me come back.
Three years later, I came home from work to our new house, as I did every day, and, as I entered, something seemed a bit different. It took a few seconds to realize the furniture was missing. Here we go again, only this time she’d emptied the bank account and hired a lawyer to get court-ordered support.
After a few weeks of living alone with Lars, I was right in the middle of applying liquid resin to fiberglass while making a surfboard in my open garage, when a Deputy Sheriff walked up and insisted he hand me a little gilt-edge invitation to appear in court. I told him, through my respirator, that I was unable to invite him in for tea, right at the moment, but if he would please wait a few minutes my project wouldn’t be ruined and I’d be glad to take off my rubber gloves. The smirk on his face let me know he was sure he knew why my wife found it necessary to have me served with a subpoena.
In a conference room at the courthouse, the two young lawyers yelled at each other, with mine jumping up and calling hers a liar, while a feeble-minded old judge attempted to make one income support two households and at the same time calm the situation and get them to sit down. During a smoke break, I heard the two friends talking, outside, asking each other how their ex-wives were doing.
I kept Lars. She took Elisabeth, now four years old, and moved to a townhouse. After six months, with winter coming on, I went over there one evening to put anti-freeze in her car, and as I was underneath draining some water out of the radiator, I noticed a pair of legs standing next to me. I slid out to find a man glaring at me with an unhappy face. He turned, shut the door of his pickup truck and went inside the place next-door.
I left the motor running to mix the fluids and told Dorothy to go out in ten minutes and shut it off. I went home. At three o’clock in the morning I got a call from the police, telling me to meet them at a certain address. She had forgotten to shut the car off, and someone had stolen it and crashed it into a house, running it up some steps and busting into their kitchen. After the car was towed, the necessary paperwork had been filled out, and the police had informed me there was little hope of finding the thief, I went over to the front door of Dorothy’s neighbor and banged on it. A half-awake woman answered.
I asked her, “Who owns that pickup truck?”
She said it was her brother’s and that he was asleep in the back room. I told her Dorothy’s car had been stolen and run into a house, and she went back inside. After a fashion the whole family appeared outside, including the dog but not including the brother, got into their car…and the brother’s pickup truck…and left. They didn’t come back for days, during which time I told Dorothy I could no longer afford the situation, and it was time to come home, which she did, partly because she was afraid the guy who took the car would return.
In 1995, we got our third child, this time delivered at the front door. Lars’ ex-girlfriend Jeanie had given birth to his baby boy, and, at just a few days old, she handed him to Dorothy to babysit. She wouldn’t hand him back, so Lars took him and handed him over. A few days later, the same thing happened. This time Dorothy wasn’t letting go.
The police were called, and they told the parties to take it to court, which we did, and at the reluctant recommendation of the baby’s court appointed advocate, Lars and Dorothy gained custody of Tyler. After another eleven year hiatus, Dorothy again had a little one to dote on and mother.
Jeanie had four kids already, two being raised by other folks and two younger ones that she took with her from motel to motel and bar to bar. As painful as it was to hear her on the phone, asking for the baby, I knew she was in no position to raise him, in fact she had another one after Tyler, and that daughter stayed with the father’s family.
Jeanie came to Ty’s first birthday party, and that was the last time she saw him. He never knew her. She died in her forties of liver failure.
Life resumed. Occasionally I had to deal with (ignore) some little incident like finding suntan lotion drizzled all over my car’s dashboard, or dried, thorny rose bushes tucked neatly between my sheets. Every six months, or so, I’d get a blistering lecture with the recurring theme “You know what you’re doing!” It took years to find out she meant I was controlling her life via a device I had doctors implant in her body during an operation she’d had when Elisabeth was born.
She couldn’t work in the yard because I’d buried something out there as well…a kind of thought-monitoring device. It was impossible to tell her that was impossible.
Reality notwithstanding, the stress of being mentally monitored at all times was breaking her down. Fortunately for me, she leveled a barrage at her sister and brother-in-law as being part of the conspiracy, which afforded me some much needed company, though they could just ignore her and retire to the security of their house. I was the one wondering if sometime I wasn’t going to wake up dead.
By the time she left the third time, twenty years after the first, she’d signed my name to the title and sent my best car ever, a black ‘87 Mustang, to the junkyard while I was at work, and she was really bearing down hard on me. I wasn’t sad to see her go. She took Tyler with her, and after a year, for his sake, I let her move back into the house while I found another place to live. I told her they could live there until he finished school, and I’d try to wait until then before submitting the already signed divorce papers to be finalized.
It wasn’t until a few years later that other people became aware of what I’d been through, when she began telling everyone she’s a government agent married to Bill Clinton, doing her best to defend the area against communists and displaying a particularly bitter attitude toward “Hillary Rodham”.
I don’t hate her…far from it. The alimony I pay is still her only source of financial support, and she still lives for free in the house that should have been sold years ago. I felt a strong sense of compassion the last time I ran into her and asked “What’s happened to you?” as she ordered me down the road, exercising the authority vested in her new identity. I reckon I could have been a better husband to her along the way, but it’s downright hard to love someone who hates you deeply for things you haven’t done. It can be hard enough when things make sense.
It’s good to be a celebrity. I just didn’t know I was one; in fact, I didn’t find out for twenty years. I was known at Great Bridge High School in Chesapeake as the father who would pull his teenage kid out of school to go surfing…not all the time, of course…only when the waves were good.
Lars’ good fortune was the result of bad grades. His school performance after our little Christian school closed was dismal. He attended three larger private schools, the last of which asked us to remove him because he was involved in every disturbance that happened on campus. Even though he was the one being bullied, they asked us to cure their problems by pulling him out.
Public school wasn’t much better. I got so tired of being called down to the school for minor behavior issues which seemed impossible to curb, I just begged him to please stop getting caught. At the end of his first year of high school he had accumulated exactly one half-credit, twenty-one and a half short of what he would need to graduate.
He was numb to discipline, so I tried a different tack. Rather than beating him with a stick, I tied a carrot to it and held it out. That rabbit food was a surf trip to Hawaii; we’d go, if by some miracle he could manage to graduate. Rather than send him to summer school, we just started him over in ninth grade.
You don’t surf the punishing waves of the North Shore without knowing what you’re doing, so, armed with the best of excuses, we practiced every chance we got…for four years. Besides having numerous great sessions ninety minutes down the road at North Carolina’s Outer Banks, my work requirements had me in Hawaii many times. In my off time I’d be scoping the place out, as it were, and accumulating scars.
I found that getting cut-up surfing out there is taken lightly…just a part of the game…like getting a “coral shampoo”. (Scenario: You’re exiting the water, board under your arm, mixed blood and water flowing over your body from the hole in your head. Hawaiians are smiling at you. One says, “Hey Bra, you take coral shampoo, yah?” You say, “Yah” and flash the thumb and pinky “Shaka” sign. They love that stuff.)
Lars’ first surfboard was a beater I picked up from some Coast Guard guy for fifty bucks. It had been confiscated in the Caribbean from a drug smuggler who used it to ferry dope from a small boat to the beach. When the nose broke off it, rather than put the pieces together, I just sealed the bigger piece with fiberglass and threw the pointy-end away. Lars used that chunk of junk for a while, then I stripped all the glass off it, reshaped it into something that looked more like a surfboard, re-glassed it, and handed it back to him. Thus was my first attempt at making a board.
Lo and behold, the time came when Lars was in his senior year and preparing to graduate. He was sure he was going to make it and asked me to keep my promise; so, as a final act of parent-sponsored truancy, we packed our stuff, including boards I had become much better at making, and headed for the friendly islands in the spring of 1989, at the trailing edge of the winter season and three months prior to him getting his diploma.
The day we got there, Sunset Beach was going off…it was a classic west swell with light trade winds, throwing over wide-open almond-shaped tubes big enough to swallow a North Shore Toyota rust-bucket. World-class surfers were in the “line up”…super-athletes easily recognizable from a thousand shiny photographs in magazines we never threw away.
Lars was going left on the inside break, something that could be done only rarely and so he had it to himself. I sat off to one side, staying out of the way and hoping to snag a big one the main crowd let go by. It was the beginning of a great two-week camping trip that ended with a relentless two-day storm that tried to flatten our tent every few minutes, until we gave up hope and headed home.
We got back, and, sure enough, the day came when Lars put a square piece of cardboard covered with green satin on his head and went forward to get his high school diploma. He also was in the school yearbook in the best surf photo they’d ever printed to that point, and had been elected “Most Unpredictable”, something he was proud of.
Just a few years ago, I sat at breakfast on a Sunday morning, before church, with my four friends—something we do every week. A son of one of the two couples was also there, visiting from New York City. I’d heard of Doug, a rare breed of a fellow…a surfer living in the heart of Manhattan and using public transport to get to the beach…including the subway…while carrying a surfboard. The others listened as Doug and I swapped yarns, and when he heard I made boards, he told of a friend of his who used to ride a laughable “piece of junk” made by the boy’s father.
When he said, “Lars actually rode it pretty well”, I asked “What was his last name?”
Doug said, “Edge”, and I said, “That’s my son.” We were both surprised. I had no idea Doug had grown up in the area.
At that point, he was back-tracking and apologizing as hard as he could, and I was telling him it was okay, he was right anyway, and since that misshapen mess I’d gotten a lot better at making boards.
He said, “Man, I can’t believe I’ve been sitting here talking to the Larry Edge. You were a legend in that school, man; a legend.”
Each of my parents went to the altar four times. My father married two women, both of them twice, and my mother wed three men, my dad being her first and forth husband. Late in life, they honored one of Grandfather Edge’s last wishes and remarried after thirty-four years apart, my mother finally making an honest man out of Art Edge and enabling him finish his course as one. He lived less than a year after the hospital bed nuptials, and she picked up his pension when he died. She’s lived on it for more than two decades, and he, in effect, has compensated for his complete disregard of a court-order for child support, which was badly needed at times. He was a nice man, greatly liked by his peers, but his record as a father was somewhat less than sterling, especially in regard to his third child. He tried to make it up to her toward the end of his life, but he just couldn’t pull it off. It was too late.
Pammy was born under a cloud. Shortly after she entered the world in 1960, our parents divorced. It was kind of a quiet affair by comparison, in fact I don’t remember them fighting…I just remember hearing my mom say something about a bar and “that redhead”. They dropped us off at Grandfather Moller’s, including the baby, and she went off to another State for a month. When she returned, she was single, and we were on our own. We didn’t see our dad much after that.
The rented apartment in which we lived was the bottom floor of a three story building built into a hillside too steep to have a lawn. No other houses were nearby. Mom made a valiant attempt to heat it, because a baby needs to be toasty warm…or at least not cold…in a place where it’s not unusual to see below-zero temperatures every winter night. The upper apartments appreciated her effort, because most of the heat from our drafty place went up to them.
Melvin did rescue us, financially, when he wed my mother, but if he was a hard taskmaster to her children, he was a flat rotten father to her baby. His theory of childrearing was that they needed to be trained…sort of like when you train an elephant: if you beat it enough it becomes trained. By the time she was three, when he grabbed her arm to spank her, a conditioned response caused both her feet to come off the ground and block her rear-end as her other hand went back so he couldn’t get a clear shot. She had a rough life during her formative years.
The story that rips me up the most was the time, in California, she pooped her pants while waiting for the visiting Ronnie Donovan to finish grooming himself in the bathroom mirror. Too afraid to say something, she took it out with her hand and hid it. Melvin punished her, but he thought it was funny that she made up an excuse saying her hand was dirty because she’d gotten into chocolate…he couldn’t see that only a strong, unhealthy fear could cause a little kid to do something like that.
When she was nine, she was caught smoking while wearing her Brownie Scout uniform, and Stepdad forced her to smoke the rest of the pack as punishment…18 cigarettes one after another. She was super sick, but not destroyed. I’d say she was discipline-hardened and could take most anything thrown at her, which explains why, in her teens, she could swear at a teacher in a classroom without worrying too much about the consequences. You’d think the hard life would have made her mean, but it didn’t; it just built a shell on her that deflected the blows that would have destroyed another person who was happy by nature, like herself. She could lift her feet against the world when it grabbed her.
When she was grown, living in Florida, she worked on commercial boats as a “long line” fisherman in the Gulf of Mexico. She married a fellow fisherman and had a child, a cute little red-head girl. She could have had a normal life from that point, but the “Demon Rum”, the plague that has dogged my family as much as cancer has, got the better of her, and by the time she was in her late twenties, even a Russian would have called her an alcoholic. Any woman who bicycles to the 7-11 in the morning to buy a six pack, in a Florida thunderstorm deluge, because she needs it to get through mid-afternoon, is an alcoholic. Her husband had to leave her. He got the baby.
In her mid-thirties, she got married again, to a man who had a full plate of his own issues, and when he decided to leave her, she saw her last chance at happiness going with him.
Mom knew something was different with Pam and nearly cancelled a scheduled vacation, but was persuaded to go anyway. She saw Pam was unhappy in a way she had never been, even separating herself from sister Vicki, her life-long best friend. When Mom got a call that Pam, who had never had a license, had driven her car, she jumped on a plane and hurried back to Florida…but it was too late. Pam had swallowed a whole bottle of Tylenol, which shut down her liver. Mom saw her before she went, but she couldn‘t be saved…and so ended the thirty-six year life of a little girl who never knew a father’s love.
Her friends held a funeral for her in Florida…friends from the bar, mostly…people that cared about her and loved her as best they could…people who mostly have plenty of their own problems and can’t really help anyone else…not really. We brought her ashes back to New York, to the farm’s cemetery in the woods to be buried alongside Civil War dead and family members…back to a place where she, as a little girl, played just like any other little girl.
I was asked to speak at the family gathering and talked about a thief who was crucified, a man who had been admitted into heaven simply because he reached out to Jesus during his last moments. I held that out as hope for her…hope that she had done the same when the fear gripped her in its iron fist…when the cold and lonely moment arrived with a stark-naked realization that, for her, there would be no tomorrow. But before I addressed the generations that had gathered on that cemetery knoll to place her ashes in the ground, I went up on the hill alone and poured out my heart on paper. I read this to them that day:
[Twenty-some years have passed since you wandered here and played,
As the Catskill mountain sun shone on the springtime of your days.
When timeless youth sees ghost-towns only young people can know,
You tied your wild ponies where the wild violets grow.]
[As Morning Glories wither before morning’s warmth is through,
The grasses rustle in the wind where wildflowers grew.
Too soon the Little Folks move on, forgotten days behind,
And mothers mourn in silence the relentless push of time.]
[When called, you took the traveled road that leads away from here.
You took your load to Florida and parked it by The Pier
And set about doing larger things, a fisher of the sea,
But the child never left you, and you never set her free.]
[The burdens of our lifetimes just weren’t meant for you.
You cast your lot with wildflowers and lived among them, too.
You were a Morning Glory’s friend, a fading flower’s wife,
And so you broke the fragile thread that tethered you to life.]
[Beyond the Crystal River’s banks, across the mirrored seas
God has a gardened hillside that morning never leaves.
Pam, may you ever there reside and in His warmth repose
And know eternal happiness where the wild violet grows.]
President Kennedy’s war on Appalachian poverty had one positive affect on my family. It enabled Terry and Jeremiah to leave city life and move to the Keesler farm as Vista volunteers. City kids don’t bring much to the table except enthusiasm, and they were no exception, but they were willing to work and able-bodied. Those are the qualifications that supersede all others when throwing hay bales or shoveling manure; and so they dug right in.
Jeremiah was a quiet, gentle soul, whose kindness, demeanor, and long hair complimented his biblical name…a generous person who truly thought of other people before himself. We hated to see him leave when he took a job dressed as a colonial re-enactor at an historic site on the Hudson River.
Terry had suspended his training for the Catholic priesthood to work and live on the farm of a “needy” family, only to find he got more than he gave. He never went back. He was a good worker and an asset to my Uncle Bill. Like the rest of us, he respected my soft-spoken uncle and dutifully ran for a tool when asked, though he hadn’t heard exactly which one. He came back and asked what Uncle Bill had said, got a reply, not too clear, and headed off again, sure he could figure out which one was needed. But he couldn’t, so he came back and asked again, to which Uncle Bill loudly replied, somewhat irritated, “I SAID, it might RAIN this afternoon”.
Terry had a host of stories. Every son of a life-long con man and petty criminal does. His father bought their house with money from a settlement paid to passengers injured in a bus accident. That’s fine, except he wasn’t on the bus until after the accident. The kids need school clothes? Go to a department store, check out the manager’s name under his picture at the entrance, go in the back and grab an employee smock, put it on and go inform a cashier “Mr. so-and-so needs to see you”, and you’ll have a cash register full of school clothes money. That’s how Terry’s father did it. Once he impersonated a store detective when he saw a shoplifter in action, mercifully letting the woman go when she paid him for the merchandise. That put some food on the table.
His dad was a hard man, a harsh father, a brawler who also beat his wife. I’ll never forget Terry telling me, through unashamed tears, that a day came when he put his father against the wall and told him that he would kill him if he ever put a hand on his mother again. “He knew me. He knew I would do it, too, and he never touched her again”.
This was the background of someone seeking the priesthood. That never happened, of course, since he decided to marry my cousin Lindy and repopulate the earth. They had eight kids.
In the area of raising a family, he struggled. He worried that he was like his father. He was like most of the rest of us; the most influential training we have in child-rearing we received from our parents as they raised us, and we tend to follow in their footsteps.
He had a standard answer when someone told him he had “such great children”. He’d say, in the kid’s presence, “Ya want some?” No one laughed, since he wasn’t smiling. Therein lay the dilemma, he didn’t seem to like children, but he kept having them.
Lindy’s extended family was truly upset with him, keeping one of the favorite girls pregnant though he was appallingly poor and ill prepared. “Lindy has had another miscarriage, what’s Terry trying to do, kill her?” “Lindy’s pregnant again, what the hell is that Terry thinking?” It never occurred to anyone that Lindy might have something to do with it.
He had sketchy employment, often no job. He had student loan officers pursuing him, tax collectors trying to squeeze blood from a rock. Disabled cars. Mouths to feed. Broken windows to fix. He found relief in the only wintertime activity available to men in that area besides bowling or square-dancing, eventually becoming a full-on, paper-skinned alcoholic. It seemed he was pretty much done.
I hadn’t been home in a long time, ten years to be exact, and I had my wife and young son in the car, heading up the New York State Thruway still seventy miles from our destination. The highway was three lanes wide and congested as we cruised at the obviously acceptable five miles an hour over the speed limit. I heard some kind of peeping sound and noticed movement beside the car. It was Lindy, waving her arm, trying to get my attention. She and Terry had been visiting his family on Long Island. He noticed that a family in a car that he was passing consisted of two adults and only one child.
“Isn’t that nice”, he thought and then recognized us.
She pointed ahead. “Come to our house”. I gave her the thumbs-up and we altered our visiting plans.
We went straight to Terry and Lindy’s house. They were excited! Ever the perfect wife, Lindy had accompanied him to AA meetings because “we were” an alcoholic. The twelve step program had a recurring theme: turn to God. Many first time AA attendees went back out the door when they found that out, but to him, it was an epiphany. It pointed him back in the direction he was headed before the troubles. He was sure he had turned the corner and was heading, at last, in the right direction. We talked into the wee hours.
In time he got a job for which he was infinitely qualified. He was a counselor at a school for the troubled and troublesome teenagers of the rich and famous. He was the least educated on staff, having not finished college, but he had an ability you couldn’t learn or buy with money. He could control the uncontrollable. When a Senator’s little darling boy wouldn’t get up off the floor and move, Terry would be called. A little whisper in the ear and off he went. Terry knew what was appropriate for each situation. Sometimes a calmly delivered, profanity-laced death-threat can be the key.
The Family School knew they had a gem, eventually giving him a company car, on which he put a lot of miles driving his hearing-impaired son back and forth to the deaf school near New York City each week. He worked at the Family School for the remainder of his career.
Being headed in the right direction doesn’t mean you’ve arrived at your destination, but he stayed the course. I had told him that these little kids of his would one day be the joy of his life. Skeptical response: “Well…we’ll see”.
He didn’t know that someday he would be anxiously glued to the radio as his eldest son’s tank unit charged through Saddam Hussein’s burning trenches of oil. He would be the proud dad who attended every high school basketball game with a tripod and video camera to record another step in his son Paddy’s journey to becoming MVP on a championship team. He and Lindy would be honored by the US Army for being the parents of four active duty soldiers. Eventually six served, including two daughters as Officers.
I have an enduring memory of him leading five of his adult sons, single file, into a church sanctuary as groomsmen at Paddy’s wedding in Iowa. His face showed the deep satisfaction of a man with a full quiver of fine and very tall human beings. His pretty daughters, in dress uniform, delivered scripture readings during the wedding. Like “The Village Blacksmith” his heart swelled with pride.
The little kids had become the joy of his life.
Lindy and he moved back to the farm so that Paddy’s new family could have the house, and they could help her sister, Patty, with the ever-present chores of a dairy operation. They returned to their beginning, and that’s where he died. He had a heart condition that required him to have a pace-maker installed at a relatively young age, and the consensus in the family is that one day he worked too hard. Ironic, seeing that the family consensus was, at one time, that he was lazy.
Terry’s life had come full-circle. The pot-smoking anti-war liberal had become the proud, patriotic father of America’s Finest. The alcoholic child-hater had become the school counselor, liked and respected by both staff and students, many of whom attended his funeral.
The Family School published a book, Tales from the Chicken Farm, a compilation of his essays…wisdom from the perspective of an alcoholic who overcame. The most moving part of it is the twenty final pages of short testimonials from people whose families he helped restore and whose lives he touched in ways they will never forget.
The priest that gave his eulogy told of a guy who had accompanied him to Lourdes, France, ignoring his own health problems to carry those that couldn’t walk down into the healing waters.
Somehow, the word Redemption seems to fit. I loved the guy. And I miss him.
In the late nineties, a reunion at a restaurant was called for by my friends and co-workers from Test Bay 3 of the Engineering Station, which had been shut down a few years before. This was a close group, having known each other quite well outside of the workplace, and it was good to see them all again.
One of the guys, Bob, and I had a bond due to the particular way our minds worked. He was an engineer who liked things, whether inventing them, fixing them, or just having a good conversation with me, delving into the fascinating world of physical stuff. I had helped him design changes to electronic equipment that the Navy then installed fleet-wide. We also designed and built a contraption for use in the construction industry that we should have patented, since a similar one is now on the market.
Without asking Bob whether or not he had been there, I said, “How do you like the new tool store?”
He replied, “I try to leave my money home before going there”.
He then started to tell everyone about something he bought there recently. As he raised his hands to begin describing it, I knew exactly what it was and said, “Stop! I know what you’re going to say.” He stopped and looked at me. God had shown me what it was. I was so sure of it, if he had told me I was wrong, I would have told him he was mistaken.
I said, “It’s a tool for evacuating automotive air conditioning systems using a compressor and the Venturi Effect”.
Bob was stunned and said, “What’s going on here?” his mind racing to find a way I could have known that. What was going on there was this: Bob needed to see the difference between the simple truth of Christianity and the stuff his wife filled his home with, from the power of crystals to the huge domed yurt in his yard in which she and her occult-aware friends meditated. He didn’t need just another series of words; he needed some concrete evidence. Later, I wrote him an email explaining the incident in the restaurant, but I was wrong to do it; I should have gone to lunch with him and had a face-to-face talk.
I learned something that day myself. I had always wondered if it was God who showed me I wasn’t going to make it to the concert in upstate New York, the time I could have died in that upside-down, gasoline soaked 1969 Chevy Malibu that didn’t ignite…the time I allowed myself to hear the gospel while on the road. It was the exact same firm-knowledge sensation…I had often wondered how it could have been God speaking to me then, since I was a solid Christian-hater at the time. Now I knew it was Him.
I also learned something deeper than just finding out who was speaking to me before I set off on that near-death road trip. I learned that He who engineered time is not bound by it, and that He knew not only who I was when I hated Him, but who I would be.
“There is but a small step from the sublime to the ridiculous”—Napoleon Bonaparte
When I was 35, I was using a circular saw while kneeling on the ground. I released the trigger and brought it across my lap to set it down easy, but the still-spinning blade hit my thigh, causing the “twang” sound blades make when they mix blood and blue jeans.
When I was 45, I was using the fancy new circular saw I bought with the automatic electric brake that stops the blade when the trigger is released so you don’t cut your leg off. It was nearly midnight on Christmas Eve, and I was in a hurry to finish my wife’s present of a new hardwood foyer floor, plus, my mom was on TV, sitting in the front row of a nationally televised congregation. I wanted to get done and get back to the couch. I began to cut the last little piece, holding it in my right hand, and “twang” the blade snatched the board…and my hand, into it. (Hint: If you go to shake your fist in someone’s face, and all you can do is point at them…like “Hey, I know you!”…you have severed tendons in your index finger. I know this for sure.)
When I was 55, I was playing “ultimate grandpa” for my grandson, Tyler, by roller skating with him at the local skating rink…spun around…did a half split…put down some low moves (just in case some appreciative admirers were watching)…tried to outrun the Skate Guard…skidded sideways…”twang”…actually it was a “pop” sound as both bones in my lower leg broke…exited stage left…on a stretcher. The crowd clapped as they carried me away, like they do when a wounded football hero is carried off the field of battle. I gave them the thumbs up. (In hindsight, I think they just wanted to get back to skating.)
At 65, I had Tyler’s car up on a rolling hydraulic jack on my concrete driveway. I whacked his ball-joint with a hammer, it popped out, and the jack shot back…right over the tip of my ring finger…split the bone clean as a whistle…except for the bloody mess.
I haven’t decided what I’m going to do for an encore at 75. I’m thinking something like this: I’m walking briskly along a sidewalk next to a busy roadway when my walker wheel gets caught in a storm-drain grate, tossing me headlong into oncoming traffic. Nah, on second thought, I don’t want to involve other people. I always make my most spectacular moves solo. I’ll just have to think of something else.
The preceding may sound like dumb stuff, but actually those were just accidents, like every active person has. Real dumb stuff would be like if you went to trim your nose hairs and wound up setting yourself on fire. Here are a few examples:
My friend Jaye and I were driving the dirt roads leading to the world-class surfing destination of Pavones, in southern Costa Rica. We were looking for the cable-drawn barge that ferried cars across a muddy, moving river, and we needed directions. A very small building in an open field was obviously a food store, so we stopped, and I went inside to ask for help. Poor Spanish and hand gestures got me what I needed to know, and, rather than take without giving, I purchased a soft drink. The guy asked me a question in Spanish (sounded like “blah, blah, blah?” only faster) to which I responded, “Si.”
Another question…“Blah, blah, blah, blah?” to which I gave a knowledgeable-sounding response…“Si!”
He shrugged his shoulders, got a plastic bag, poured the Coke into the bag, tied a knot in it and handed it to me. As I walked out the door with my prize, another gent stood to one side watching me with a small amused look on his face.
Adding the final touch to my story, I tried to drink my soda sack in the car by biting a hole in the corner of the bag and spilled Coke all over myself.
(Note to self: If I don’t learn any other Spanish, before I go down there again, I should at least learn the words for “Would you like your Coke in a bag?” and “Would you like me to pour your Coke into the bag and tie a knot in it?”)
Vanity can greatly add to the amusement value of stories about things going pear-shaped.
Like this one: I was an expert at driving fence posts into the ground, due to having driven hundreds of them into the rocky soil of my youth. I was sure these southern flat-landers who used boring machines to dig post holes had never seen such skills, and some of them were probably watching as I placed the first sharpened post into a guide hole I made with a crow-bar.
With both hands together on the sledgehammer’s handle, like holding a baseball bat, I placed the side of the hammerhead on top of the post, setting the measure of my swing. I let it drop off the post to begin the full round-house first swing, to be followed by a series of uninterrupted, full-on, full-circle impacts. If old John Henry had me by his side, he probably would have survived his race with the steam hammer. I hoped someone was watching this.
The sledgehammer head made the first circle and missed, going just past the top of the post. The impact jerked the handle out of my grasp and sent the eight pound block of iron back toward my head. I barely got my blockhead shifted to one side as the iron went over my shoulder and the handle caught me in the lower neck. The post fell over, and I fell flat on my back…and there we lay in the middle of an open field, the fencepost, the sledgehammer and me, in pain and laughing at the absurdity. Too bad nobody was watching…their loss.
When properly doing dumb stuff, it’s always a good idea to have just enough knowledge to get yourself in trouble.
I knew that the riding lawn mower I owned had a lever inside the engine that relieved some of the compression so that the starter could “turn it over”. That was obviously broken, so I removed a side plate on the motor and used a screw driver to hold the exhaust valve slightly open until it started, then quickly put the plate back on as the warming oil began to spray out. It was a tricky little routine that saved me having to actually fix the thing.
The mower also had a dead battery.
It was parked in my garage as I set up to start it by removing that side plate and hooking it up to my car battery with jumper cables. I pried the valve open with the screwdriver, reached over and hit the key. It started and took off.
I had accidentally left it in gear with the blades on. It’s amazing how a quiet morning can be instantly converted into a scene of total chaos with the simple turn of a key. It took all my strength to lift the mower from behind to get the back wheels off the floor and keep the chopper from chopping up the contents of my garage. I stood there holding it, the stretching jumper cables sparking against each other, the wheels spinning, the hot oil spraying all over the place…unable to put it down.
This couldn’t go on. With all the strength I could muster, I held it up with one hand, reached up quickly and cut off the key. Ah……stillness. Except for a large pool of smoking oil, everything returned to normal…once again a quiet morning in the Lawn Service Laboratory of Lawrence Edge, Aspiring Mechanical Genius.
Dumb Stuff. Hey…like I always say…nobody’s human.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the air. I’m not one to automatically bury my nose in a book or put on the headphones as soon as I’m seated; I like to give my seatmate a chance to talk and me to listen. Everybody has a story.
I spent hours, on a long flight, talking with a happily married Christian mom whose family friend, Jimmy Swaggart, had just been at her house for her daughter’s birthday, banging out a rendition of “Peggy Sue” on the piano…just weeks after the world became aware not only that he had feet of clay, but that he’d been mucking about in it. I ran into her again, sans the children she was travelling with, at a remote location on our destination island, and she didn’t seem happy to see me. She was in the company of a man she failed to introduce. I figure our encounter was meant to be. The phrase “caught with one’s hand in the cookie jar” comes to mind.
Another time, I met a little old Chinaman on his way to his granddaughter’s birthday party in California. He’d gone from making eight dollars a month as a cook on tramp steamers in the 1930s to being father of the Harvard-educated Vice Chairman of a major movie studio…it turned out the octogenarian had worked in the same hotel as my dad and lived directly across the road from Liberty High School, while I attended.
On another cross-country trip, the wife of our State Department envoy to China for cultural affairs put her head on my shoulder and fell asleep. No story there.
A bug man, an entomology professor from Mississippi State, sat next to me while crossing the Atlantic after having given a lecture in Spain on the vein patterns in moth’s wings. He told me he had never earned a cent in his life that didn’t come from bugs. When asked, I told him I was a bug man, too, chasing them out of electronic systems on submarines. He found it fascinating that someone who had never attended university could have possibly attained to such a position…like some Haratio Alger story of leap-frogging the caste system. It was probably good for him to get out once in a while. It’s not the lack of a university pedigree that makes my employment history unlikely; it’s the fact that foolish young men who set off explosives in front of police stations or in classrooms generally derail their own futures.
Most applicants for the training I was given by the Navy were assigned to other fields of endeavor. At the time, the guys that succeeded in getting into that newly established digital electronics school were either already electronic technicians or had attended college. I think I got in for two reasons: I was good at taking general knowledge tests, and I had an amazing high school transcript, having taken a seemingly impossible number of courses my senior year…actually it was a truly impossible number of courses…whoever wrote my transcript got the dates wrong and had both senior years’ work jammed into one, making me look like a homework-doing fool…so I fooled ‘em, in a way, and that’s how I got in.
After more than eleven years, I got out of the Navy at the exact moment Sperry Univac needed my skills to fulfill a government contract they had been awarded, and I got hired. When that three month job was completed, they moved me to a lab that was being set up at the engineering center where I was once stationed, and gave me my introduction to the submarine force.
I was familiar with the mild rivalry between the surface and subsurface branches of the Navy…the name-calling between “bubbleheads” and “skimmers” and references to each other’s vessels as “sewer pipes” or “targets”. What I wasn’t familiar with was the high level of professionalism of the sub sailors. It made them seem like the only connection between themselves and the Navy I knew was the uniform they wore…like they should have been a separate service. Within the lower ranks of the crew of my aircraft carrier, for example, a goodly percentage wouldn’t have minded at all if their own ship sank…that, of course, is a given with a submarine; it’s coming back up that seems to be a bit of a concern, and I find that the sub crews, top to bottom, are unanimously in favor of it.
Those guys are really run ragged, spend a lot of time on the job, care about their ship and their shipmates, scoot about the seven seas in a world without windows and earn every cent they make and more. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a submariner say he’d rather be at sea doing his job than be in homeport, but I can tell you the number of times I’ve heard that on a surface ship anywhere south of officer’s country. It starts with the letter Z (…and it’s not zillion).
I was pulled out of the lab for emergencies quite a few times, flying hither, thither and…yither, often carrying a surfboard for my off time, but it took me years to get a trip to Hawaii, not for lack of trying. I’d written a couple of short courses on practical maintenance, and the Navy bought-off on them, sending me out to teach sailors at various locations. Hawaii was a location, the North Shore a destination, Sunset Beach an education. I learned what it feels like to drown due to lack of preparation. That experience prompted me to start running, to improve my wind so I could hold my breath longer while paying the price for being a thrill seeker at the “seven-mile miracle”. I ran for seventeen years (No, not continuous like Forest Gump) and stopped counting Hawaii trips when they exceeded fifteen.
That travel provided me with the most exciting few moments of my life…dropping, weightless, down a large wave at Sunset Beach, getting to the bottom and feeling like I’ve gained four hundred pounds as I lay the board on edge and sweep to the right, then seeing a long pile of water three times my height ahead of me…a vertical wall, changing shape, mere seconds from going past vertical and throwing over… and me with it, if my speed doesn’t carry me through…
After ten years, Raytheon nabbed the contract from Sperry and I hired-on with them, but not until I had negotiated a salary increase they weren’t happy with. Five years later, Raytheon had to cut our workforce from 53 to 7 when the lab closed, and they were happy to let the overpaid go. Fortunately, I had just tried to dissect my right hand with a circular saw and was out on sick leave. Before I came back to work, one of the seven quit, and I got his position.
Raytheon lost that contract and I hired-on with the new contractor, still doing the same job, until, after three years, I got on with the government (doing the same job, same desk), and the annual fear of being cast into the outer darkness of unemployment was relieved a bit.
The Navy had consolidated a number of organizations, all doing similar work, into one unit charged with answering the call when sailors have to turn somewhere for help. That was the job…being part of the sailor’s last cavalry, charging to the rescue all over the globe, hell-bent-for-leather and tooting our own horn. It has taken me to all four hemispheres…a good job, I’d say.
I’ve a fairly long list of places I’ve been sent, both in this country and others; the grand total of time spent away from home would be in the “years” category, though travel has slowed some, of late, and that’s good, too. I wouldn’t want my bass boat or my new wife to get lonely.
The most interesting place in which I’ve spent a fair amount of time is Rome, a waypoint on our once frequent trips to Sardinia. I’ve hoofed-it all over that ancient city, mostly in the wake of one Jimmy White, a fast-walking, short-legged, big-personality encyclopedia of Roman history, with whom I often traveled…the Little Corporal leading his one-man Foot Cavalry…burning up shoe leather and trying not to get run over while jaywalking our way to the catacombs or Vatican City.
It’s all been good. Had I gotten a degree, I would probably be sitting behind some desk engineering stuff, or pinning moths to a white display board at Mississippi State University. I’d rather be the kind of bug man I’ve become, thank you.
I have a friend named Bruce. That may not seem like an earth-shattering statement, but those that know him might, at this point, be wondering where I’m going to store the volumes of stuff I’m about to write. We’re all different from other folks, and some are more different than others…Bruce is another species…one that will be extinct when he’s gone. But I’ll try to keep it short.
My friend and I work together now, and have, on and off, since we were in our twenties, nearly forty years gone. He is the most disagreeable person I have ever known. If you put forth a statement that you know is true, he will respond. The first word of his response will always be “No”…that’s the pause that lets him formulate the reason why you are wrong, which you always are.
You say, “The sky is blue.”
He responds, “No. The sky is black, except during daytime, when sunlight illuminates the atmosphere, preventing you from seeing the sky.”
You state, “That is the sky.”
He says, “No it isn’t.”
You say, “Yes it is.”
He says, “No it isn’t.”
…Etcetera, etcetera, until you give up.
That’s just an example I made up, but you get the idea…usually his arguments are more extreme and irritating than that. Even more irritating, of course, is the fact that you are never right…It’s just something you’ve got to get used to. (By the way, if the “discussion” is about American military history or Star Trek, you actually are wrong, so quit early.)
Was he always an old crank? Yes, only more so when he was young…he’s mellowing out now. When we worked for Sperry Corp, back in the day, as field engineers, he was told that the T-shirts he wore to work were inappropriate, so he came to work in a brand new three-piece suit. After crawling all over, and inside, electronic units, something we did every day, of course the suit soon got damaged, so he demanded reimbursement from the company. Everything is at one extreme or the other; there’s no middle ground with Bruce. Middle ground is for sissies.
Going to the doctor would be middle ground. If you get skin cancer on your temple, don’t be a sissy and go crying to the doctor. Wait 15 years until they have to scoop away half your head to save your life. They can always take a big chunk out of your thigh to replace your eye and the surrounding flesh and bone. Your peripheral vision will be halved and your depth perception will be non-existent, but you don’t need to drive a car. Take Bruce, he didn’t drive for decades before his cranial overhaul, and he’s gotten along fine; driving is unnecessary…and just too middle ground, anyway.
Seeing the comparatively diminutive, one-eyed, skinny guy with half a face, sporting a Father Time beard and long gray pony tail, wearing a leather outback hat with crocodile teeth, the guy with the non-conformist attitude (only drinks during the week, not on weekends like everybody else), you might think he’s sort of an old Hippie. Or maybe a loner. No, you are wrong again, as usual. He’s a life-long member of one of the tightest groups going…a “former” US Marine like his brothers and their father before them…and proud of it. He wears a jacket that declares as much…summer and winter. He is, in the words of some of the other guys,”150 pounds of South Carolina Whup-Ass.”
Unless he takes a cab, I drop him off each day after work, either at his favorite watering hole or near his house. Near his house, because for the past 30 years no one has been allowed to see precisely where he lives…you can only have a general idea. That’s the rule. I reckon it’s about privacy and personal space…at least, that’s what I reckon.
With a slight nod to poet Gelett Burgess of “Purple Cow” fame, I submit this, something I penned 20 years ago:
[I never seen old Bruce’s house.
He lives I know not where.
But I can tell you anyhow,
I’d rather see it than live there]
[Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the thought
Of grunge that gets me stirred.
The dearth of dogs, and kids and cats
May even be preferred.]
[I’m sure it’s warm and dry and stuff;
It’s a place to lay his head.
I just hate the thought of a full grown man
With computers in his bed.]
Having said all that, here is a glaring fact that no one I know denies: he is an asset to the United States of America. He’s earned his pay, and on top of that, he has saved the taxpayers more than he has earned.
In one instance, he and I went to a Navy school that had lost all copies of their essential computer program and had paid $90K to an organization of experts who responded that “the data cannot be recovered, and could you please send another million dollars so we can get started rebuilding things?” We asked for a shot at it, and Bruce managed to get them back on their feet in two days. No one else could have done that, and everybody knew it.
He’s built electronic devices that replace major units (even designing and building the circuit boards), but was unable to get the military to buy them…maybe because they didn’t cost enough.
I’ve seen him scratch lengthy “machine language” computer programs on bar napkins…programs that worked on the first try in the morning…with no book to go by.
In short, he’s a whiz. We’ve travelled the surface of the earth assisting the silent service, helping our denizens of the deep keep the world safe for democracy, and when they see Bruce arriving, they know something broken is going to get fixed. Guaranteed.
He carries a glass fake eye that he had me make for him from a white “shooter” marble. When he sees a kid staring at him, he’ll cough and drop it on the floor and then grope around for the little roller as though it just fell out and he can’t see…or he’ll leave it with the crew of a submarine when they go to sea, telling them to mount it somewhere in the open so he can “keep an eye on things” while they’re gone. He’s a curmudgeon with a sense of humor…a constant naysayer with whom I’ve had many a good laugh and whose company I enjoy.
He seems to be mellowing in his old age, even flying cross-country to visit his six-foot-five son after not seeing him since he was a pre-teen, thirty years ago…before he grew. There’s a new arrival, a baby that got a kick out of pulling Grandpa’s beard. This is all middle ground stuff. He even joined the mainstream and bought the infant a present, a stuffed teddy bear. He’s looking for a box in which to pack it and send it west.
It’s six feet tall and weighs twenty pounds.
Sixty-five years after my stepfather participated in the D-day invasion of Normandy, France, I visited the perfectly manicured American cemetery above Omaha Beach. Seeing the names, the dates…a lieutenant, probably a college graduate, killed June 6, 1944, the first day of the invasion…rows and rows of markers over the aging graves of the young. I walked pensively among the stones, moved by what I was seeing.
At three in the morning that night, as I lay in bed in a French hotel, this came to me in its entirety, and I got up and wrote it down before it went away:
[Row on row
Row on row the headstones go
as far as can be seen.
White and perfect in the sun
Over a soldier, every one
a youth whose life had but begun.
Still and silent beneath the green.
Still silent ‘neath the green.]
My paternal grandfather was an Army enlisted man and a Coast Guard Commander, involved in both World Wars; my dad was a Navy corpsman during WW2 and the Korean conflict; I was a sailor for eleven years; my son went in the Navy and my grandson intends to do the same. We’re a military family of the seagoing sort. I know firsthand that the separation from home and loved ones is the sacrifice sailors make…and there’s a lot of it.
When I travel, I’m glad to see people thanking service members, though I’m not sure they know what they’re saying. It always seems to me a type of penance for the shameful way our honorable sons were treated when they returned from the Viet Nam War, to be spit at by the ignorant after answering their country’s call. If I were in uniform today, and someone in the airport said to me “thank you for your service”, it would make me uncomfortable. I would accept it, though, as one standing in for those who deserve gratitude, those who have been in combat.
My service consisted of being away from home and keeping military computer systems operating. Yes, I gave up some constitutional rights, but I was well-compensated for what I did, and I was never in danger of finding my place among the white rows of headstones. I was given an education and a paycheck, and I never felt I was one of the thinly compensated volunteers who put it all on the line for their country. Those people deserve to be honored.
The families of the ones that come back in boxes bear a burden of service to their country a hundred times heavier than any of the rest of ours. Friends of mine, George Lutz and his wife Patty, exemplify that fact. On December 29, 2005, their son Tony, serving in the US Army, was killed by a sniper’s bullet in Fallujah, during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Tony is gone, but the pain of losing him is still here and carried by his parents every day…at times you can see it on them.
In 2007, our church sent George and I and a few others to help folks devastated by hurricane Katrina on the Mississippi coast, right at the point the eye came through. The landscape at Waveland was wiped slick of anything resembling a building…just a few support uprights remained of houses that had been built on stilts…other than that, there were concrete slabs. Wind driven flotsam had marked the bark on trees thirty feet from the ground, like some monstrous bathtub ring.
The church camp that took us in assigned our group of eight to build a house ten feet off the ground for Jeff and Jaxene, a married couple who had lost everything. They were living in a FEMA trailer on the site of what was once their nice little home, a half mile inland from the Gulf of Mexico. George and I trimmed the upright wooden supports, already set in concrete, and framed and bolted down the platform which was to become the main floor, as the others readied the plans and materials to get a building under-roof in less than two weeks.
Owner Jeff had a bad back and couldn’t help in the work, so he spent every morning preparing a hot meal of true southern cuisine for our lunch break. As Jeff and George and I stood and talked during the break, Jeff began to relate that he had been a contractor driving a truck during the Iraq war, carrying supplies to the warriors in Fallujah, and how his truck had been “blowed up twice”, whereupon Jaxine told him to “come on home or you won’t have a wife to come back to.”
Referring to the soldiers, Jeff shook his head and said softly, “Those kids were something else.”
George said, “My son was killed in Fallujah.”
Jeff and George just stood and looked at each other, as though there was something in the air between them only they could understand. Then they each turned and walked away without saying another word.
In 2010, George felt compelled to do something special for all those who lost their lives in any of America’s conflicts. He designed a great looking banner displaying an eternal flame, a folded US flag and the words “Honor and Remember” and began a campaign to have it officially adopted nationwide, similar to the POW/MIA flag.
He outfitted a motor home, had it fully vinyl-wrapped with Honor and Remember graphics, and set out crisscrossing the country, meeting with members of the State Legislatures, getting the process started to have the flag adopted in an official way. He covered nearly 30,000 miles and travelled to all 50 States, many of which have now completed the process and adopted the flag.
Unexpectedly, in one or two places recognition of the Honor and Remember flag has run into opposition. There are some who feel our war dead are well served by the Stars and Stripes, the flag that led them into battle or draped their coffins, and flying a second flag under it is akin to saying Old Glory is insufficient. Though I disagree, I can understand their view; those Americans that gave “the last full measure of devotion” gave it under the star spangled banner.
The writer of our national anthem glorified our flag when he saw it in the morning, still standing above a fort devastated by a nighttime bombardment, yet waving above the weary and wounded defenders as day broke. But George’s flag isn’t about them…it’s about the ones buried under the rubble. It’s about honoring them and their families and their children that were never born. It’s about remembering those brave who are gone and oft times forgotten…it’s something special, just for them, and that’s all it’s about.
You go, George.
She arrived at the airport in my town after a thirty hour trip from Australia, coming for me. I was waiting at the lobby end of the long passageway leading to the gates as she came into view, perfectly formed, wearing a strapless dress, her long blond hair framing a fine face and falling over bare shoulders…her exceptional busty-ness being announced by each heel-strike of her high heel boots. When she saw me, her future and first husband, a smile came on her young face and she quickened her pace until she could throw herself into my arms.
Then the alarm went off, rudely shaking me awake and dragging me back to the quiet reality of living alone, except for my adult son.
Not this time. This actually happened. I held her for a while, knowing she needed comfort after such a long trip, and that, for her, this moment was realizing the dream she held since she was a girl. As for me, I was struggling with a feeling of awkwardness that love seemed unable to overcome. We were from different worlds, she and I, and I don’t mean geographic locations or age groups. She was in the arms of someone who was fulfilling her lifetime dream; I was holding someone who was not my wife. I may have been married to a mentally ill woman who was sure I was the enemy, and who had passed the torment on to me for years…decades…but I had been a loyal husband right up until she left me and beyond. I had a new role to play; my body was playing it, but my mind was playing catch-up, and it was having a bit of a hard time…hopefully she wouldn’t notice…
It all started on an airplane, seven years prior, as I was leaving Olbia, Sardinia for Rome. I was in a window seat on a Meridiana flight…just being one of the seated judges watching the not-yet-seated undergo the involuntary inspection suffered by every passenger who ever pressed single-file through the coach cabin of a full plane. A particularly nice looking, thirty-something woman made her way back and found her seat right next to mine…nothing wrong with that. When we were airborne, I found out she spoke English (the Aussie version), and, during the short flight, learned that she needed to pick-up and transfer three large bags to Alitalia on a multi-leg trip to Brisbane, Australia. I told her that, if I had time, I’d meet her at the baggage claim and give her a hand.
After catching up with Jimmy White, who I was travelling with, and verifying my next flight and gate data, I went and found her and helped her with her bags, and it’s a good thing I did, because I knew a short-cut to Alitalia that kept her from missing her flight. She asked the counter attendant for a pen and gave me her email address, and I went on my way.
Writing someone you’ve met only briefly can be fun, particularly someone from somewhere far, far away. We exchanged emails detailing weather events, minor life issues, etc., every few months for about four years and then lost track. I dropped a line after two years of nothing, to see if the connection still worked. It did.
Things progressed rapidly when she found out I was free…really rapidly. Our life situations coincided, and we spent long hours on the phone, falling into the first, intense stage of love as deeply as any eighteen-year-olds…more deeply, actually, seeing we had both spent years in fruitless relationships and unhappy situations, and now we each found hope in what seemed to be an amazing person.
It helps if you’re not with each other. If “absence makes the heart grow fonder”, seven years, 10,000 miles, and 10 time-zones of separation will put you into cardiac arrest. Because of my values, and considering immigration law, there was only one way we could be together the way we wanted to be…Cathy agreed to marry me.
That ignited a conflagration in her family like a South Australia bushfire. She was just getting back on her feet after some difficult times, and she was going to ruin it all by getting involved with some old American she hadn’t seen in years…the latest in a line of losers a half-mile long. Nothing good could come of this.
I made a DVD of myself talking to the camera, addressing her parents’ concerns, and sent it to them. They liked me, and got on-board with the whole thing but wisely refused to show the video to her siblings, who never did come around. I called her older sister to put a human face on things, but that turned out to be a bad idea, as a verbal confrontation ensued. Cathy had proclaimed she didn’t care what anyone thought, but that was obviously not true, as she was, in her words, “over the moon” at her parents’ acceptance, particularly her dad, a Doctor of Mechanical Engineering who I got to know as a fine man. After seeing the DVD, he had uncharacteristically called her himself to tell her he was good with what she was doing.
Christmas was nearly upon us, and it seemed a good time to head up north and visit family. I rented a car for the trip, and since she only knew how to drive on the wrong side of the road (there was a difference of opinion on that), I jumped on a bicycle to go pick up the car. On the way I crashed and sprained my wrist. When I got back I told her it was because we hadn’t prayed for this trip…so I did…just asked for traveling protection. She said me praying scared the hell out of her.
Got on the road, got an ice pack for my wrist, and visited the family in New Jersey, then the Catskill hill country, then on to my mom and brother Perry’s house in Endwell, New York where Mom had moved to end well. From there we went to Niagara Falls, Canada and stayed in a two-level suite with a perfect view of the falls.
Standing by the falls, she told me I should don my sunglasses because it seemed to be awfully dusty around there…she’d never seen frozen precipitation.
We took some pictures where Superman saved that kid.
Re-entering the US, I made the mistake of telling the border agent that she was my fiancée. It was his first day on the job, and he was taking it seriously. Even though she had a visa waiver from L.A., he raked her over the coals for 15 minutes, as though she had some nefarious reason for entering the country…marrying a guy eighteen years her senior just to get in. Why else would someone like her marry someone like me? She asked him why anyone from a great country like Australia would want to sneak into a place like America. That didn’t help.
He noticed an open can in her hand and asked her what she was drinking, to which she replied “Kahlua and Milk”. He told her it was a good thing it wasn’t alcohol, because, with an open container in her hand, she’d be violating US law. Had he realized she had just told him that was exactly what she was doing, it probably could have gotten pretty serious. I suppose breaking the law while trying to enter the country could be serious. Then he asked who I worked for. I told him I worked for the same outfit he did, and, after a few more minutes, he reluctantly released us. Had he detained her, I was thinking they had better get used to me sleeping in the parking lot, or bring out the cuffs, because I wasn’t going anywhere.
Back at Mom’s, Christmas was in full swing, her house wonderfully decorated inside like a nineteenth century fairy tale. I went off by myself to do some shopping, and Mom felt compelled to take the opportunity to advise Cathy not to go to church with me. She thought she was doing me a favor. Her view was that I had gotten involved in some kind of mess that made Dorothy lose her mind, and she didn’t want to see that happen to Cathy. When I got back from the store, Cathy told me the wedding was off.
She told me I was too old. She said she’d discovered love couldn’t conquer all.
By the time we got back to Virginia the new reality was established; we were to be traveling companions, not newlyweds, and she still wanted to see something of America.
We flew to Orlando, Florida, stayed a day, drove to St. Petersburg and stayed (for 80 bucks in an 800 dollar suite) right under a revolving restaurant, right on the beach…then through the everglades to Miami Beach for a couple days…back to Orlando…then flew cross-country to San Francisco.
After a few days in arguably the best city to visit in America, I wanted to go somewhere I’d never been. I rented a four-wheel-drive SUV and we headed toward Yosemite Valley. We had a reservation at a rustic lodge at the top of the long rise at the south entrance. Half way up we ran into snow and a police road-block turning around cars that weren’t carrying chains, so we went back a few miles, bought some and gave it another try.
I started up the mountain in 4WD without mounting the chains. The SUV I rented had fairly smooth tires, and being as the wet snow was as slick as grease, forward progress slowly came to dead stop. I had to back down the narrow road to an open area where I could put on the chains. I was anxious to get down because there was two-way traffic on the road and I didn’t want to encounter another vehicle, but I knew I had to take it super easy. I still got rolling backwards too fast and totally lost control, all four wheels having broken loose. There was no way we were going to stay on the road.
There were two sides to that road: an uphill side consisting of a ditch then a steep embankment, and a downhill side consisting of outer-space and tree tops. It was 50-50 as to which way the spinning SUV was going to choose to leave the road. We were facing down for a second, then kept going around and went off on the uphill side, nose down in the ditch. Thankfully we’d come to a stop; had we gone off the other side we’d still be tumbling, maybe picking up speed end-over-end, or sideways, or both.
We were perpendicular to the road, and I just knew that if someone came down the hill they wouldn’t be able to stop, so I had to get that thing out of the ditch quickly before the sound of crunching metal ruined the day. It wouldn’t budge. I grabbed a jacket, put it on and got out to see what I could do. A guy with a shovel dug us out a little as I frantically and futilely tried to get the chains on while the wet sleet soaked me.
In the background, I kept hearing Cathy say, “Do you want your jacket?”, but I didn’t have time to pay attention. I got in and managed to rock the thing back and forth until it popped out of the ditch and I got it turned downhill. It was then I noticed my jacket sleeves were extremely short; that’s because I was wearing her jacket. I gave it back and drove down to the open area.
That’s about the time she started to ignore me, and she was good at it. I tried to get her to step back from the tracks in the snow that cars coming down were following, lest they see her, hit their brakes, lose it and run into her, and she ignored me…not like she couldn’t hear me, but like I didn’t exist. Then she ignored me when I had the car rolling on the snow and didn’t want to stop, lest the tires lose their grip. She was in front of the car walking slowly, her back to me like I wasn’t there. I kept asking her to move, to no response. Had she not jumped out of the way I would have bumped her…on purpose.
I had found an aspect of her personality I hadn’t seen before. She had been unreasonable and unhelpful as I battled the elements in an uphill quest to witness one of the natural wonders of the world. She told me she’d also found something out about me that day that she didn’t know before: I was an idiot. It was hard to argue with that. If I saw some guy running about frantically in a woman’s coat, soaked as a drowned rat, who then tried to run into me with a car, I’d think the same thing. It’s a matter of perspective, I guess.
Well, we never did get up that hill. The chains were the cable type and the slick tires just slipped in them; I couldn’t get them tight enough.
On the way out, we stopped at a restaurant and she managed to contact the lodge and get reimbursed for our “no refunds” reservation, as well as that of a fellow lawyer from England and his family who were in the same situation, but he didn’t have the confidence to even try to take care of it himself (some kind of lawyer!)…the more she teased him about it, the more he withdrew…and the more his wife seemed offended that Cathy was talking to her man. We got something to eat, said our cordialities and left.
A side trip to Hawaii was already planned and paid for. We went, but she was disinterested enough in being there with me that I have nothing to write about it, except that it was a pretty miserable experience. When we got back to Virginia, I had to decide whether or not to accompany her to Australia, another trip already mostly paid for. I mostly wanted to go, so we loaded up our ten suitcases (one of them was mine) and set off on the return adventure. I’m glad I went.
Oz is another world…another country from which we are “separated by a common language”. I was surprised by how close they still are to Mother England, and not just because the Queen appears on their folding money. They were never “revolutionary” and are not as addicted to the concept of freedom as we are. It is inconceivable that a law could be passed in a US State making motorcycle clubs (“outlaw bikie gangs”) illegal, as it is in Queensland and Victoria. Their system is fairly socialistic, with the government having a significant presence in most aspects of daily life, but, besides having to pay a painful fine for failing to vote, they seem to be quite happy with the way things are.
Misconceptions abound on both sides of the Pacific. One lady would never come to the US because she’d surely be car-jacked. I thought (National Geographic said so) that Aussies love a good knock-down drag-out brawl, as long as no one gets mad. Turns out that if one of your mates tries to kill you with a golf club, and you successfully defend yourself with a baseball bat, you’d better hope he was using something bigger than a 9 Iron, or you’ll go to jail for escalating the level of violence.
News reports can be shockingly biased…in the name of being balanced. For example: If a news segment is being presented concerning a war event, right in the middle of a presentation of facts, some turkey will be allowed to interject his opinion that weapons are the root of all evil and should be confiscated and destroyed. We would put that on the editorial page. Even on national TV, news isn’t just about reporting; everybody gets to put in their two cents.
And proud? No one is more proud of their homeland than an Aussie. I don’t remember one of them asking me about America, unless it was to confirm their belief that it wasn’t nearly as good as Australia. When I said they were both great, only different, I invariably saw a look of disappointment at my answer. Well, guess what, they’re both great, only different.
I found the topography to be amazing…the Glasshouse Mountains are giant volcanic cores rising straight up out of a perfectly flat coastal plain…the Whitsunday Islands—more beautiful than a postcard. The seaside cliffs of Noosa Heads and Byron Bay are as impressive as any I’ve seen elsewhere. And the people…unique as well. On the whole, very friendly…and accomplished. Considering that the population of upside-down-land is seven percent of ours (smaller than Iraq or Nepal) they are remarkably competitive with us in a number of ways.
If any country could justify isolationism, the island/continent could. The mostly European enclave located beyond the Far East, down in another hemisphere, surely could be excused from participating in international affairs half a world away, but they have always joined in, often for no other reason than, as a member of the world community, it’s the right thing to do.
Cathy’s paternal grandfather’s name is engraved on a wall of the Australia War Memorial, having lost his life in aerial combat in New Guinea when the Imperial Japanese were pounding on the door. We gave them a hand then, and they haven’t forgotten it, sending their sons to fight and die alongside ours in conflicts far from their own shores and often more for America’s interests than their own. In fact, they’ve been our closest ally in time of war for more than a century…closer, even, than Canada, America’s Hat.
Another glaring difference between Redneck England and the US is the religious landscape. Cathy noticed it first, as we drove on Kempsville Road, not far from my home in Virginia.
“There’s a [expletive deleted] church every two hundred feet around here!” is how she put it. Hearing that, I counted them: nineteen in an eight mile stretch, just on that road. It was a huge difference from Oz…one neither of us appreciated early on. I told her, while we were heating up the phone lines circling the globe, that I am, and will die, a believer, and if she expected that to change, it wasn’t going to happen. I told her that if there was a deal-breaker, that was it. She thanked God for sending me into her life and asked me to give her a chance, and I was more than happy to.
I had a dream for her. I could see her standing before a large group of people relating the most amazing story. She would tell how she got her law degree and how, at a young age, she became acting Chief Clerk of Court in one of her country’s largest courthouses. I could see her telling, through tears, how she had it all, and lost it all, but that, now, she had found peace and happiness she never knew existed…how that this joy was so much greater than any she had ever known…greater than the happiness she had when sailing the Mediterranean Sea or travelling the world. She could have told of being asked to board Richard Branson’s yacht by the man himself, or of twice meeting the King of Spain, who gave her use of his villa…and now she’d met someone greater…she’d met the King of Kings, who had given her more than those two wealthy men owned…He had saved her life and recreated her from the inside out…
It had been eight o’clock on a Thursday evening, back in Virginia, when she chose the path that leads to forever…in this case, the dark road. I took note of the time and the day of the week, because I knew the significance of that moment, even if she didn’t. That was the day she declared her decision: Christians were a pathetic bunch of misguided losers who missed out on the best things in life due to some meaningless moral self-denial. She described their lives as “Sad” with a firmness that made her sound like she knew what she was talking about. I could have told her there had been a time I would have agreed with her wholeheartedly…but that light and life had flooded in like the dawning day. I didn’t say anything…it’s an exercise in futility trying to call back someone who’s already way down the road and headed away hard.
Travelling about in Australia with her keeping me at arm’s length, making my small faults into big issues, making sure I didn’t get any ideas that a relationship might still be possible, was downright stressful, but I hung in there and didn’t fight back. I’ve been asked why I did it. There were three reasons: one, I still cared for her; two, I wanted to separate myself from all the self-serving men in her past and future; three, and most importantly, I was her protection.
As long as I kept my mind on the Lord and “kept my heart right”, I stood between her and the forces that she had no defense against…the ones that caused the dark cloud that had been, nearly always, present…that made her envy those that successfully commit suicide, since her own determined attempt, two years earlier, had failed.
With her against me as well, I was getting bashed from both sides.
We had flown to a small town that serves as a jumping-off point for the southern Great Barrier Reef and the Whitsunday Islands. One night, at four o’clock in the morning, something happened that fleshed-out the spiritual warfare. I awoke and saw the dent in a pillow left by her resting head where she had been sleeping before she got up to get farther away from me. I let loose the reins on my suppressed anger and hit the pillow hard. That stuff between her ears was the source of my problems, and I told her demons they could have it. By daylight, she had a headache so bad she could barely function.
She needed to get medical help. Since I had not been driving on the left, and since she was barely able to walk, much less drive, a taxi transported us to the local clinic in Airley Beach. I sat quietly next to her bed as the doctor tried to get a handle on her condition. It was concerning, being that she was not given to headaches. As the day wore on, he considered having her taken to another facility in a larger town to get a CAT scan, but she slowly started to improve. By evening we were able to leave.
That night, back in the lovely condo on a hillside overlooking a bay littered with sailboats at anchor, she thanked me and apologized for the extreme irritability she displayed when her head was “killing”. I told her it was okay, sick folks had a right to act that way. She didn’t know the whole story, and I kept it to myself, determined to not do again what I had done.
We returned to Brisbane. The four month adventure since she had arrived in America was coming to an end. A couple of days before I was to fly back home…alone…I felt my joy coming back. I felt the heaviness I’d been carrying being taken off me and put on her, and I thought, “that’s where it belongs”. The day I left, she told me that for two days she’d been battling the debilitating darkness, barely hanging on…something that hadn’t happened the whole time she was away.
She took me to the Brisbane airport to see me off. The last time I saw her, she stood behind a glass wall one level above the hallway I walked along on my way to the gates. I looked up and mouthed, “Thank you”, and she mouthed back, “No…Thank you” as I willed my legs to keep walking, until her image left my view. Then I found a place to sit, feeling like all my blood had drained away, knowing I would never see her again.
A few months later, partially recovered, I was waiting for my luggage at the baggage claim of the Norfolk Airport, after returning from yet another business trip, and I noticed something familiar about a couple waiting also…he a slim, silver-haired gent and she a very attractive, very busty woman twenty years his junior, neither of them wearing wedding bands. They looked like they were just getting back from a trip to an exotic location…probably on his dime. He joked with her, showing a lively sense of humor…snatched a bag off the conveyor with little effort, showing strength…hugged her from behind, showing virility. She stood there, passively unresponsive.
He looked like a fool.
“Fools rush in, where angels fear to tread ”- Alexander Pope, 1709
I was fine with acting the fool when shared passion was the motivation. I would have married Cathy, retired early, left my home and family and moved “down under” without a sufficient superannuation (money) to pay our way…because that was what she wanted. What she wanted now was for me to disappear…that, I had a hard time doing. I had quite a hard time following my own sage advice: “If you find people are avoiding you, never speak to them again”. That’s when I made a fool of myself of the pathetic sort, still writing her and her family, until her older sister, now with the upper hand, wrote and told me to stop bothering people. Not long after that, Cathy herself gave me closure, as when a dead body is finally buried, by telling me, “Do NOT write again”.
A recurring dream made me fear for my life; I dreamt I was with her in Oz and she was unfairly ignoring me. The pressure increased as the dream went on, until I found myself sitting straight up in bed, unable to breathe until the panic subsided. I told myself, aloud, “One of these times, I’m not going to wake up. I have no choice…I’ve got to find somebody.”
The traditional method of finding somebody can be a difficult and lengthy proposition. I was interested in an attractive woman who sat near me at church, and she knew it. She wasn’t attracted to me at all, and I knew it. That method just wasn’t going to do it; I simply didn’t have enough remaining years.
Thank God for dating websites. You pay your nominal fee; upload your best selfie; write a glowing profile of self-aggrandizement; throw in a few expectations and demands, and the world of off-the-shelf possibilities is wide open to you. Thousands of them…all with pictures.
I started with whether or not they went to church, then moved quickly to their photos. Shallow? Sure. Fun? Absolutely. It was a blast, really, reviewing hundreds of profiles, chatting-up some woman online, eventually moving to the telephone. I met four of them in person, all working-out regularly and in just amazing physical condition for women in their fifties, three locally and one, named Kevin (a real woman, trust me), in Los Angeles. Terri, a Messianic Jew, felt a relationship developing…that made her uncomfortable, so she said good-bye.
The best photo I saw was shot through some out-of-focus reeds, showing a blond beauty with bedroom eyes, looking back over a bare shoulder. I just dropped a single line with no hope of getting a reply: “Kim Basinger is looking for you. She wants her face back.” Never underestimate the power of a compliment…I got a response.
Long story short, I found myself on a plane in November of 2009, heading to Birmingham, Alabama to meet Barbara. By this time, I knew the reed photo wasn’t current by a few years, but I had developed a close long-distance bond with this amazing, never-married artist with the sweet Alabama accent. She said she’d like to lose a little weight before we met, but I didn’t feel like I was getting any younger, so I set off on the adventure.
She showed up at the airport two hours late and got out of the car. Her physical appearance was shocking. She was way overweight and walked with two canes. I knew she’d been sick for some time, but I had no idea how much her health had been devastated by chronic Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, Bell’s palsy, bad knees and just plain pain. Other than her face, she was a mess.
She said “You can go back if you want.”
It was an option. I stood between her car and the airport door. I was free to head in either of those two directions, right at that moment, but, after that, there would be no turning back. I could do to her what had been done to me and get back on the plane, or I could put my money where my mouth was, look past the superficial and see what love actually could conquer. As I stood there, I asked the Lord for a little help. I felt like it was my choice, but if I left, I would hurt her deeply, and I would leave as a shell of who I’d been, having lost the moral high ground to pursue flesh. I got in the car.
A year and a half later, I stood with her on the manicured lawn that is the northernmost point on the island of Oahu, a North Shore Hawaiian sunset serving as a backdrop…at that moment, the luckiest guy in the world, responding to a preacher and swapping promises with the most amazing person…the perfect woman for me. That experience was the convergence of dreams…her’s: finally marrying the man she looked for since she was a girl, and mine: having the woman that cancelled the question I posed under a canopy of stars a few years before, on a moonless night: “Why have I never had someone truly love me, as others have?”
Young girls are famous for their fantasies, but they’re not alone. When I was quite young, I used to see myself standing on a bleak mountaintop, facing determinedly into the roaring forces of nature in the waning light…hurricane-force wind, imbedded with rain, hail and sleet, ripped at my clothing. Standing behind me, sheltered from destruction by my body, was a girl whose life depended on my strength and determination. I leaned forward into the driving storm. I would protect her at all cost…standing alone, the evil blast unable to defeat me. I would not be moved.
That’s a bit more dramatic than appearing in Barbara’s life with thin gray hair, driving a well-worn 95 Ford Contour and volunteering to stand between her and the bridge she was shortly going to have to live under, but the gist of it applies. She had come to the point where she was selling the family heirlooms in order to eat. She couldn’t work, the credit cards were maxed-out, and her retirement check didn’t even cover the monthly cost of her medications. The last of her daddy’s inheritance was wrapped up in the little house she lived in, and, except for her sister’s daughter, Blake, living in Las Vegas, every member of her family had passed away. The end was near…still, just like when she gave up looking for a husband in her mid-thirties and went into foreign missions, she trusted her God to provide her needs, as He always had, often just at the last moment. That’s what happened. Right on time, He fulfilled her childhood fantasies by matching them up with mine.
Finding someone to love is the easier part; finding someone to really love you back is rare. That’s who I found. We’ve been married a few years at this point, and we get closer every day. We laugh. We spend a lot of time together.
She got new knees (the fashion trend of our generation) and so has a lot less pain, though the back pain and fibromyalgia are still there. I do most of the housework: cooking, cleaning, washing, etc., and I don’t mind at all; I don’t even notice it…I love a woman who loves deeply…, not kids or small animals.
And hidden behind all her obvious hindrances…the body that can’t get around very well…the physical pain constantly knocking back her joy…the frustration of not being the wife she wants me to have…hidden to all but me is the most honest and beautiful soul…a talented, intelligent, Christian Southern Belle with a child’s pure heart…unpretentious…self-effacing, gentle and true…actually, too good to be true…but there she is…reaching up and hugging my neck, head on my chest, looking like those girls in high school I watched slow-dancing with their steady dates…then she cries and tells me she loves me.
Sometimes taking a chance has left me an embarrassed, unwanted fool; sometimes it has been the key to an unseen treasure chest. Not taking a chance on Barbara would have left me a fool still standing and staring up at the stars, not knowing what I’d missed.
Barbara Shores was thought by some to be a “Brookie”, because she lived near the wealthy city of Mountain Brook, Birmingham’s neighbor, and attended Shades Valley public high school in the early-to-mid sixties. In fact, she didn’t qualify to breathe the rarified air of that lofty social strata due to the middle-class family income her father earned as an architect.
The family lived in a house he had designed and built himself, and managed an annual vacation trip to the beautiful sugar-sand beaches of north Florida, the “Redneck Riviera”, but they were by no means rich. Author Rick Bragg wrote a great memoir of his coming up in abject poverty in northeastern Alabama. In it, he described rubbing elbows with the wealthy, including a time when he dated former majorettes from Barbara’s school, but in the end found that he simply didn’t belong. Barbara belonged. She hadn’t been a cheerleader since junior high and didn’t have a sports car until she earned one herself in her twenties as an award winning graphic designer, but what she lacked in affluence and social standing she made up for in the looks department, and some of her dates were with teenage guys driving Jaguar XKEs, Alfa Romeos, or Lamborghinis. I had no idea a place like that existed in the South…or even in the country. More recently, Mountain Brook is known as the home of Natalee Holloway, the girl obviously killed by a young Dutch psychopath named Joran van der Sloot, while she was on a graduating class trip to Aruba.
As I sat in my attic looking through four volumes of her Shades Valley yearbooks, I was impressed with how the pretty girls conformed to the popular hair style of the day. Early-on it was teased “big hair”; that gave way to “straight and long” as the era of mod clothing and go-go boots progressed.
I felt there was something odd about the similarity of everyone as I scanned the pages of individual photographs…then I realized what it was…there was no color. Shades Valley was as white as a Ritz-Carlton bed sheet.
I’d like to be able to display a nice photo I found in one of her albums, of her father standing in an office next to the Governor of Alabama after a building design project was awarded to him by the State, but it’s not going to happen. The Guv was a famous man, a serious presidential candidate; unfortunately his name was George Wallace, so I don’t think that photo’s going to get a frame…at least not in Barbara’s lifetime. Since the day, as a little girl, she asked her mother why there were two water fountains, one White, one Colored, she has been unable to understand racial unfairness. She never bought into it.
For years, she was ashamed to tell anyone she was from ground zero of the racial divide…the place where the governor stood firmly against the federal government’s demand that schools be integrated, and where Bull Connor’s police force cleared the streets of black youths with dogs and fire hoses…and she’s still ashamed, to a degree. To me it’s history, and in the past, well and good. The right side won the race war, a key battle of which was fought on her doorstep, and it’s over…at least the old institutionalized apartheid is over. I’ve been to Birmingham, and I don’t see a dimes worth of difference between that area and my own, regarding white/black relations. A “mixed couple” is no more likely to draw a second look there than it is here in Virginia, at least it seems that way to me. Barbara says blatant racism has gone underground, existing in the hearts of those few that never gave up, and maybe in their kids. The die-hards are still there, but dying off……just a few more generations….
She has stacks of photo albums, and I’ve looked through them all, sitting in the perfect stillness of my attic. The pictures she took of the Swiss Alps or the coast of Cornwall, England, where she lived, are beautiful, but of little interest to me…I’ve seen postcards that are almost as nice. They don’t bring up any memories of mine. It’s the ones showing a cute little girl who became a pretty teenager, then a beautiful woman, in whose life I have become such an important part, that talk to me.
I’ve heard her stories and can put faces to the names. I know that her first boyfriend, Doug, was so clever and charismatic that girls melted before him. He convinced the platinum-blond, “breathtakingly beautiful” Homecoming Queen of Shades Valley to wash his car so he could take Barbara on a date. I’ve seen him, as well as the one she described as looking like Cristopher Reeves, only taller and with auburn hair, or Harold, a really handsome guy she went with for eleven years. Sometimes she slips and calls me Harold. I’m not offended at all, I’ve seen his picture; I tell her “no worries, just call us both Larold”.
The poignant ones are those showing a myriad of family members posing in front of old Buicks or seated with her around a feast table, looking toward the camera…all gone now…all of them but her.
Her mother would dress up for her father’s return from work, every day…and she wore make-up to bed, unwilling to give an inch to any competition she might have for the attention of the dark-haired, blue-eyed man she loved. His picture causes me to wonder if he shared some of my thoughts…not knowing how my daughter’s life will go after I’m gone…hoping for the best for her. I hung a picture of him in our living room, dressed in his army captain’s uniform with aviator’s wings, and I can see where Barbara got her eyelashes…the man was pretty. When I look at his picture, I have the satisfaction of knowing I’m taking care of his little girl, and that he needn’t have worried. I wear the wedding band he wore, as a symbol of that continuity as well as a promise I made to his daughter.
The picture albums, the heirlooms from generations gone, the trophies she won racing sports cars…all speak of a life already spent………..…BUT WAIT!…there’s more to come. It’s beyond ironic that her married name is Barbara Shores Edge, seeing all the photos she has of herself at the beach…always facing the ocean with her back to the camera. Few love the ocean more, and I mean just to sit and see it and listen to it. I can tell you from experience, not many surfer’s wives are willing to park on the sand for hours while her man is staring away, hoping for just one more wave. We have that in our future, seeing that we’re twenty minutes from her beloved ocean, and being that an annual week in a rented place on (not near) the North Carolina beach is an absolute requirement for her mental health and happiness.
What can an old surfer say?…please don’t throw me in that there briar patch….Oh, and bring the camera.
If life on Earth was a huge empty room we were to fill with our experiences as we passed through, we would enter at one end through the only door, unaware that there is a wall at the far side, door-less and impervious and inevitable…you can’t see it in the distance for a long while, but eventually it comes into view as you walk toward it…we all walk toward it, rich, poor, fat-dumb-and-happy, young and old…it comes into view if death hasn’t cut us off early…snatched us away before we get there. My Dad sent me a birthday card when I turned forty, a humorous one that said “40 isn’t the end of the world…but you can see it from there”. Actually you can’t…not at 40 if you’re still healthy…but when you’re approaching serious old age, like your 70’s, you can see it plain as day, that stark, white, end–of–the–line wall that no one walks around. It doesn’t block your view; in fact, it opens your eyes.
You see your own face, mostly, changed, wrinkled, old and unattractive. Lost beauty is a commonly raised topic in my home, mostly because it’s a big issue for my wife. She was a natural beauty by anyone’s standards, then or now. In comparison to women her age, and with her “war paint” on, she still looks good, but no young man is going to whistle at her from the street, or no old man is going to stop her on the sidewalk to say she has a face like an angel, as they have in the past. The athlete is gone, supplanted by an overweight body that hurts to live in, physically and emotionally.
I can see that she’s still the cute and precious person she was when her outsides declared it. Life’s far wall has shown me that we are all just people, in a way that nothing else could have. No one of us is more valuable than another as we walk out our lives in our assigned bodies and situations. It’s a revelation that surpasses book learning or head knowledge…I could have used it when I was young…but I couldn’t have purchased that wisdom with money. Only from the vantage point I stand on now could I truly have seen that people are not white, black, fat, short, ugly or beautiful…those are the trappings that become meaningless as we face that end point…the wall that shouts “YOU SHALL NOT PASS” as our time on Earth winds down.
My wife and I are two kids who have declared a desire to get old together and are now being held to our promise; we’re both still here, for now, holding hands and hobbling toward the last few steps. Sure, we’d like to have it back; it would be fun to have a chance to go back and do it again, maybe better this time, but we’re not enamored with youth as some are. Youth may be wasted on the young, as they say, but here’s another saying: wisdom is a thing of beauty youth can’t see. It’s a thing of true value which she and I have been given as Earth’s end comes into view. It’s the thing that enables us to deal with our own old age and to look right past the outsides and see each person as God always has.
You might ask why someone like me, who believes firmly in life continuing after death, would say there’s an impenetrable wall at the end of Earth…there is, and like everyone else, when I walk slam into it, it’s going to take my breath away. There’s no molly-coddling death…it’s a fearsome thing that each of us will face alone. Even if those that love you are by your bedside holding your hand in your last moments…they’re your last moments, not theirs. They’re not going with you, and there is truly only one whose hand you can hold until the storm passes by and you find yourself on the other side. Grip it hard, my friend.
I started writing this book fully intending to share in detail the most important short story of my life…an event that has affected my thoughts and actions every day for nearly five decades. Without the need to finally tell that story, I wouldn’t have started this project.
I’m not going to do it. I’ll tell you why.
When I was 22 and a young Christian, I was allowed to see hell, briefly, then, two weeks later, a glimpse of heaven…for real. Why? Why me? Besides having put in a sincere request for a vision of hell, I don’t know, but I knew, way back then, that heaven was not something I was willing to talk about, so I decided I would wait until I was old, then I would share it. I’m old now, so I’ve told a couple of people…intelligent, spiritual people…and the results are disappointing, but not unexpected. It is impossible to explain to someone time (as we know it) not existing or emotions that are never felt on earth, sound that has never been heard here or a set of physical laws that are not remotely similar to those we consider inviolable. My hearers weren’t excited about what I was telling them, like I thought they would be. But what did I expect?
I’m going to recommend two books, written by men who were killed in accidents, then lived to tell about it. They have the credentials to know whereof they speak, and I’ll let them take the loss of having the most meaningful moments of their existence exposed to us who can’t understand. Both of them waited decades to tell what they experienced…not even telling their wives…same as me. I can vouch for what they saw, and it’s been exciting to have accounts that corroborate my own. The books are: “90 Minutes in Heaven” by Don Piper and “Flight to Heaven” by pilot Dale Black.
Until just a few years ago, I didn’t read anything anyone wrote on the subject; I wasn’t interested in hearing anyone’s opinions, conjectures, imaginings or anything else that might differ from what I had seen and heard. Since reading those two books, I’ve gone on the internet and found that there are a number of amazing, similar stories. No one with access should have an excuse for being ignorant. And, I might add, no person, who has not died and come back to tell about it, has any basis, at all, to call the accounts into question.
In the book, I purposefully avoided scripture references or lengthy philosophizing and just stuck to the memories I have of my life…a memoir. I wanted to make this enjoyable…readable to anyone and, hopefully, fun. My proofreader (my wife, Barbara) says I need to include something that gives a reader who might want to find God, the way I did, a roadmap showing the way. Well, that’s something else I’m not going to do. There are no magic words to get you there, and I’d be doing a disservice to say otherwise. In the final analysis, folks will get what they really, really want. God will make sure of it. If I had one thing going for me when I was young, it was not (as you know) my wonderful goodness, it was this: I never thought human beings are just a high-functioning complex life form, the way our “geniuses” do. I wanted to know the meaning of all this, the reason we’re here, the truth, no matter what it was and no matter what it cost me. I could have drowned, been crushed graveyard dead, shot in the head and burned alive. He didn’t let any of that happen before He got my attention.
My talented literary inspiration, Rick Bragg, has written, in his memoir, that if you do some good things in your life, he reckons that will be good enough to get you into heaven. If I were making this stuff up, that’s the way I’d have it, but it just doesn’t work that way. Helping an old lady across the street a few times isn’t going to cut it.
My final entry is this little bit of tough love: If you haven’t believed in Jesus Christ for real, I wouldn’t want to be you a couple minutes after you draw your last breath…but if you have, I’ll be seeing you.
A memoir that is much more than an autobiography, this is a storyteller's recollection of an unlikely life: a landlocked Catskill country kid who surfed the world's best waves; a woodland-roaming farm boy whose employed life occurred on submarines; a northern skeptic who finished his course as a southern Believer; and along the way a host of unforgettable characters whose lives enriched and filled-in this well-written narrative. Take a trip with the author to the Woodstock Festival or to the streets of San Francisco in the late sixties; travel the world; find true love; live to tell about it; enjoy the ride. Laced with humor, this is a book that will leave you disappointed when the end arrives...wishing for more.