For the first time in a decade I stepped up on the small concrete pad on the side of the house and into the small room that we used to call the back porch. My immediate impression was “this place is tiny!” The house consists of less than 1,000 square feet but seemed much larger when I was much smaller, and growing up there left me fully comfortable with its size and fit. Now, returning after living in own houses which were all of a good deal greater size, I was shocked by how snug this house really had been. There was still a washer and drier in that little room, but probably not the ones that Mom left when they moved in 1976, and my eyes lifted instinctively to the shelf above them. That was where Dad kept his liquor.
My father enjoyed his alcohol. You could never describe him as an alcoholic, although he did get hammered from time to time, and those were good times to be somewhere else. A cold beer when working outside under the San Diego sun was a given, and a bottle of inexpensive chianti when eating Mom’s spaghetti or a pizza from Lido’s in Lemon Grove was not uncommon, but Dad was particularly fond of a snort of whiskey every now and then. He kept that bottle on the shelf, and we left it strictly alone. There was no doubt in our minds that Dad knew how full that bottle was the last time that he touched it. We will return to that bottle momentarily
My guide led me through the kitchen, and the old stove and even the linoleum floor were the same. I’ll never forget the day that we installed that stove. The part on the back; you know, the upright part where the clocks and knobs and things go? Well, this one had a fluorescent light and I pushed the button to turn that light on. Fluorescent lights, as everyone but, apparently, me and my parents, knew required that one hold the button in until the light flicked on and stayed. I only pushed the button and released it, the light flickered on, and then it went out. “You’ve broken it already!” groused Mom. Dad instinctively reacted much the same as Franklin D. Roosevelt did after Pearl Harbor. It was tense and more than a little painful until Mom pressed the button and enjoyed success in lighting the backboard or instrument panel or whatever the hell you want to call the damned thing. I waited a diplomatic moment and then removed myself from the kitchen; in all likelihood I went up the tree in the front yard. I didn’t know about the spiders at that time, or else I would have retreated to the roof of the old garage.
In the dining room, which I could easily see from the kitchen, sat a man at the table. He had on work clothes and appeared to be eating his lunch. “Jorge, este hombre se crió en esta case. Te importa si ve interior?” My host asked her husband if it was OK for the gringo who grew up in his house to look inside. Jorge thought about it for a moment, then shrugged his shoulders and went back to his lunch, which was no doubt a good deal better than mine had been. We passed through the dining room and I looked through the wide square portal which opened into the living room, and memories flooded over me like the Santorini tsunami over Crete.
Directly in the middle of south wall between two windows was a little table with a statue of the Virgin Mary and a couple of candles. I quickly remembered the day that we put our first television in that spot. Television was not exactly new then, but in our lower-middle class neighborhood it was far from ubiquitous. Dad must have really wanted one of those things though, and so we tightened our family belt and saved so that the television could be purchased, and now it sat in regal state right in the middle of the room. The first thing that I saw when Dad turned on the set, once the vacuum tubes warmed up that is, was a test pattern. “That’s cool” I thought. “None of my friends have a test pattern in their living room.” Then Pop screwed down the connection from the rabbit ears antenna on top of the big mahogany cabinet to the contacts on the back of the set and voilà: a picture appeared on the screen. I don’t know if it was Beanie and Cecil the Seasick Serpent or Howdy Doody or just what, but my brain exploded with joy over the recreational possibilities of that magic box in the middle of the room.
We had that television set for many years, and frequently we would eat dinner in the living room while watching it. Brad and I would have our plates on the low coffee table in front of the sofa and Mom and Dad would place their plates on TV trays, and we would watch the western shows that were so popular at the time while we ate. Gunsmoke, Maverick, Have Gun Will Travel, Wanted, Dead or Alive, Rawhide; we watched all of them. Dinner would vary, but the entertainment remained the same.
One night I told Dad that I wished that I could have been a cowboy so that at the end of a dusty trail I could belly up to the bar at the saloon and down shots of whiskey. “Oh, so you think that would be a pretty nifty thing to do, eh?” Dad asked. “Yes” I responded. “They all look like they like it, and then they do so many cool things while they are there.” Actually, they usually got into fights or got shot, but then there was never any blood and most of them appeared in the next installment, so it looked pretty cool to me. “I know that I would like that too.”
Dad, as I mentioned before, kept a jug of rye whiskey on the back porch. His favorite brand was Old Overholt, which has become a trendy drink in Portland, Oregon hipster bars these days but was a rotgut cheap whiskey back then that Brad and I called Old Overshoes. “I can set you up with a shot right now if you want it” said Dad, and I hungrily took him up on the offer. We retreated to the kitchen, where Dad procured a shot glass from the cupboard over the sink and then retrieved his bottle of Old Overshoes from the back porch. Pop poured me a shot of that toxic waste – well, maybe a bit more than a true shot – and said “You know how the cowboys do it: Bottoms up.”
Feeling as grown up as it was possible for a ten year old kid to feel I picked up that shot glass and slammed whatever quantity of rye whiskey that Dad had poured into it down the hatch, and then immediately thought that I was going to die. That fiery fluid rolled across my taste buds like the German Wehrmacht across Poland, erupted into an apocalyptic inferno around my tonsils and landed in my stomach with the grace and delicacy of the British bombing raid on Dresden. I dropped the glass and plopped into the first chair that I could find, hands on my knees and head down low, trying to keep from launching that shot and whatever I had eaten for dinner all over the dining room floor. Dad laughed, but not maliciously, and asked “now what do you think of whiskey?” I don’t remember my response, but to this day I enjoy only the most limited amounts of distilled spirits. Whether on purpose or by accident, I think that Pop scored a home run with that lesson.
As I have written already, I had been struck by the smallness of the house. I was bowled over by that same impression when I stepped into the living room and then looked to the right and down the old hallway to the three bedrooms and the bathroom at the end of it. It seemed so short and tiny that I could hardly believe that it was the same hallway that I remembered. When I lived there the hallway was the spine which connected the front and back of the house and seemed a half mile long.
And memories of that hallway began to flood back as well. The hall was floored with wooden boards which Mom would keep clean and well waxed. That well waxed stretch of wood floor was, in the eyes of young boys, a place where we could slide in our stocking feet from the kitchen door to the table that held our telephone at the end of the hall in the back of the house. I can’t remember how many times we did this, but I remember well the last time that I did it. As usual, Brad and I backed up into the living room in order to get a good running start. Upon hitting the hallway we threw our weight forward and would slide like shuffleboard discs all the way to the back. On this day however entropy, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, reared up its ugly head.
That hallway had been walked on and slid over for more than thirty years when we were doing our act that day, and finally the wood fibers of that flooring yielded to the insults of time and pressure. I think that the devil had something to do with it too, but I can’t prove that. Anyway, as I slid down that hallway a large sliver or wood finally gave way and poked its head up slightly so as to bury itself in the bottom of my foot.
I yowled like a banshee and plopped myself down on the floor right where I was. I pulled my sock off and could see that the offending splinter was deep into the bottom of my foot. Shuddering as I pondered the probable solution to my problem, I then hobbled to where Mom was folding clothes on the back porch in the feeble hope that she could solve my problem in a kinder and gentler way. Mom led me onto the sofa and laid me out on my stomach, examining my foot closely. “No,” she said finally. “I can’t get this one. I’ll have to go get your father.”
I quivered at the thought. Dad was a simple man who, in his youth, had plowed the fields of southern Georgia behind a mule. His approach to any problem was to identify what was needed to correct that problem and then take the most direct path between points A and B. In this case point A was a splinter in the bottom of my foot, and point B was the small blade on his pocket knife that he would use to dig it out; the pocket knife which he had named “Briar Picker.”
Fortunately for me I was young and did not know that there existed in some other corner of the world that thing known as anesthesia. I had always known that briars or splinters or whatever else managed to get buried in the flesh were ultimately retrieved by Briar Picker; it was an axiom of life to be endured and not questioned. And so with a heavy but resigned heart I agreed that Mom should go to the back yard and alert Dad to the need by his youngest offspring for his rustic (dare I say shade tree) surgical ministrations. Pop came in from the back yard and inspected my punctured foot. “Yep. We’re going to have to go after that with Old Briar Picker.”
Dad stretched me out on the sturdy wood and metal ironing board and opened up the small, and especially sharp, blade of his knife. I couldn’t see what he was doing and didn’t want to even if I could. Dad dug into the flesh of the bottom of my foot, locating the splinter which had entered at nearly a 90 degree angle, and then extracted it with a pair of Mom’s tweezers. Through it all I alternately grunted through gritted teeth or cried like a baby, but eventually Dad pronounced the operation a success and a band aid was placed over the surgical site after that site had been doused liberally with mercurochrome, and I was condemned to wear socks and shoes for the next week. I have never slid over that damned floor or any other like it to this day.
There are many other stories that I could tell of that hallway, such as the time that I snapped a towel at my naked brother Brad who was drying himself off after a bath in front of the wall-mounted heater. Brad jumped back to avoid the snap and roasted his bare backside on the hot heater, which left marks that persisted for years. Brad landed many well-aimed and equally well-deserved blows before Dad intervened to restore order. And then there was the phone conversation at the end of the hall with Karen Berry, but we’ll let that one slide.
I had been in my old home for but a short time but it was clear to me that it was time to go. I had no interest in peering into this family’s bedrooms and I could anyway declare my itch to have been scratched in spades. I told them all how much I appreciated their hospitality and then, for the last time up to this moment, I walked out of the front door, onto the little porch, down the two steps and onto the walkway poured by Dad and me, and into my car. I turned the engine on, waved to my new friends, took one last long and loving look at the foundation of my life, and then drove south on Highland Avenue to return to my world of 1987. I felt full and satisfied and could state then as I can state now: Hell yes, you can go home again!