The Fire Next Time, Part III

Fire played a large part in my early life, and I was never far from one.  Sometimes my experiences with fire were frightening, as I have mentioned in the previous parts of this story, and sometimes they were humorous.  In Part III I am going to describe three instances in which fire was exactly what fire should be, and that is simply warm.  These stories were times when fire warmed the soul as much as the body, so much so that the glow of those fires continues to burn low even today.

The first story took place at Silver Strand, a beach on the narrow strip of land that connects the town of Imperial Beach, on the Mexican/U.S. border, with Coronado Island.  I have no idea why my father preferred to take us to Silver Strand, which was much farther away from our home than were the more popular Ocean, Mission and Pacific Beaches.  Perhaps it was the ubiquitous Navy presence in that South Bay area that drew my very Navy dad to choose that spot.  Ultimately it didn’t matter much.  He was driving and Silver Strand was his preferred beach.  Sand and water and waves were the only things necessary to me, and I spent many a wonderful, sunny San Diego day at Silver Strand.

One of the things that I liked most about the Strand is that it had concrete fire rings.  These circular pits were about four feet in diameter if my memory serves me correctly, and were raised about eight or ten inches above the surface of the sand.  The logic behind those rings was that if people’s beach fires were contained within visible and enclosed areas there would be fewer people stepping onto a smoldering beach fire left covered only by a thin layer of sand.  This happened often at other beaches and could result in painfully burned feet.  I never had the dubious pleasure of stepping in any such unintended booby trap, but I can’t believe that it was anything like a pleasant experience.

As I have written before, starting the fires was always my job.  On our visits to the beach I did so as speedily as possible so that I could get into the water as soon as possible.  My brother Fred, who had no such pyrotechnic contract with our father, was always in the water first, and so I poured my heart into plying Prometheus’ gift in order to join Fred as quickly as I could.  Once the fire was securely established I would turn it over to Dad and fly straight as an arrow into the waves.

At this point it is necessary to explain something about the water off the beaches of San Diego, and also about my juvenile physique, and how the two came together to shape this story.  Although San Diego has a warm, mediterranean climate, with palm trees and stucco houses hidden behind hedges of hibiscus and bougainvillea, the water flowing south past those beaches did not originate anywhere near the Mediterranean Sea.  The North Pacific Gyre draws water from the chilly northern reaches of that ocean and then impels them past the Washington and Oregon and Northern Californian beaches, until they finally arrive off the coast of San Diego.

In addition to the continuous flow of chilly northern Pacific water past our beaches, a phenomenon called the Ekman Spiral conspires with the Coriolis Effect to draw the warmer surface waters westward.  This, in turn, causes colder deep waters to well up from their abyssal depths to replace the surface layer, ensuring that nobody without a wetsuit of some kind will spend extended periods of time in the water without getting thoroughly chilled.

Now add to that picture my physical stature at that time.  To say that I was thinly built is like saying that Kim Jong Un has a really bad haircut.  I ate very little when I was young, and that fact was demonstrated by my spindly  frame.  Compared to my childhood form, Richard Scarry’s Busytown character Lowly Worm looked like the Incredible Hulk, all of which is to say that I had very little spare tissue to protect me from the usually cold water of Silver Strand.

I would persist, however, and stay in the water, getting the stuffing knocked out of me by waves and generally having a ball.  When I could no longer stand the cold I would emerge, blue and with teeth chattering, and return to our picnic site next to the blazing fire.  Mom threw a blanked around my shivering shoulders while Dad would scoop a trench in sand that had been warmed by the sun.  I would then forsake fire and blanket to lie down in the trench.  Pop would cover me with the warm sand and I would lie there like a corn dog, warming up from without and within.

Fred would usually come in about this time because my retreat from the water to my sand bed would normally signal the beginning of our meal.  Hot dogs were skewered on long steel forks that Dad must have fabricated in the metal shop at the Navy base.  They were then held over the glowing coals of our fire and quickly cooked.  Bell Brand potato chips and ears of corn and cold sodas and beer were brought out to make the feast complete.  Then, my body heated by sand, sun and fire, and my belly filled with all of the goodies mentioned above, and my ears ringing with Mom’s admonitions against going out too soon lest I get the cramps, or fall to rip tides, stingrays, Godzilla, and a hundred other threats and terrors that the deep had to throw against a ten year old boy (Mom was a bit of a pessimist), Fred and I would race down the beach and plunge into the frigid water, eager to do the whole thing over again.

My second remembrance of this trilogy took place somewhere around 1964 or 65 at Highland and Landis Recreation Center in East San Diego.  The Rec Leader, Mrs. Shumway, had decided to stage a week long summer camp for the younger children of our neighborhood.   She devised a plan to use the older teenage kids who made “The Park” their hangout as her assistants.  Those with intimate knowledge of what a gaggle of misfits most of that group was would have declared Mrs. Shumway to be out of her mind to even consider it.  Events proved instead that she was a genius.  But that’s another story.

For one week us teenagers arrived, helping with paper constructions or officiating games and the myriad other duties necessary to keep a hoard of young children busy and happy for several hours each day.  At the end of that week the parents, children, and helpers were to be treated to a feast.  A business run by Pacific Islanders was contracted to come in and cook a pig in a pit.

I had never heard of anything like this before, and I had serious doubts that any such thing could be done.  On the evening before the feast however, a bunch of really big guys showed up and dug a pit right where we would high jump.  The next morning they were there early with a pig; yes, a real, whole, dead pig, wrapped in banana leaves.

I don’t recall all of the details of the process.  Perhaps a fire was made, the pig laid on the coals and then covered with dirt and a second fire lit over it.  Maybe some other means was used to cook the now-interred pig.  I couldn’t tell you.  I was leery of the whole deal though.  I mean, bacon and chops and ham came out of plastic wrappers that Mom bought at the commissary on the Navy base.  I didn’t eat dead things buried in a burning pit where, by all that was right, we should be high-jumping.

The funny thing is that my attraction to fire overrode my antipathy to buried and burning pigs, and as the time approached to remove the pig from the pit I was sucked into the excitement which everyone else was feeling about the event.  In short order the pig was produced and, in spite of everything that my offended sense of propriety told me about this abomination, the meat which the cooks began to slice off and serve looked and smelled irresistibly good.

At last, with the pig looking accusingly at me through sockets from which the eyes had melted out, I accepted a plate of the pork and soon sat with Terry and Dennis and Eugene and Mack and Emilio and a dozen other boys and girls and ate a meal that tourists now pay hundreds of dollars to enjoy when they visit Hawai’i.

My final tale involving fire took place primarily at Green Valley Falls campground in the Laguna Mountains.  I loved camping there as much as I loved anything else when I was growing up in San Diego, and on this occasion Dad took my friend Mike and I for a weekend in the great outdoors.

One of the things that I enjoyed most about camping at Green Valley Falls was the weekend campfires that the rangers would organize for interested campers.  A fire pit was constructed in a safe area and logs were placed in a concentric semicircle, providing seating for the campers.  In the evening, as daylight faded into dusk, the fire was lit and a large, cheerful blaze hissed and popped while the ranger gave a talk on the fauna or flora or geology or other related topics concerning the natural history of that corner of southern California.

During this particular trip Mike and I discovered, to our delight, that the campsite adjacent to our own housed a family which consisted of a father, a mother, a young boy, and Clarice and Marcia.  I never knew the names of the father or the mother or the boy while we were camping.  All of my attention was on Clarice and Marcia.

The girls were roughly our age.  Marcia was the younger and they both seemed to be as interested in the two boys next door as those boys were interested in them.  We spent as much of the days together as we could, and on Saturday evening we managed to sit close to each other during the rangers’ campfire discussion.  I confess that I learned little that evening about the Black-headed Grosbeak, the incense cedar, and rocks such as the Julian Schist.

As we walked back to our camps after the ranger’s presentation, Mr. and Mrs. Madsen – that was their last name – allowed their girls to walk home with Mike and I, with my father trailing at a respectable distance.  We sat on an outcrop of boulders that separated our campsites and talked about anything and everything until the girls’ parents called them into their camp to prepare for the night’s sleep.

Sleep is something that I didn’t do much of that night.  I was very shy as a youth, and although I knew and counted as friends many girls from my neighborhood and from school, I had never before experienced a spontaneous and mutual attraction such as this, and it left my head spinning with possibilities.

But there was one complication; they lived in Norwalk, which is somewhere around one hundred miles north of San Diego.  Still, true love conquers all, so the next day as we were all packing to go to our respective homes, I procured Clarise’s address and promised to write, a promise that I fulfilled with great excitement and hope.

To my chagrin however, Clarice’s family was in the process of moving.  Now, instead of one hundred miles north, they were going to be more than five hundred miles away.  True love might conquer all, but my puppy love was crushed by this development.  I groaned at my bad luck and then turned my mind to resuming my normal activities of hanging out with my friends in the neighborhood, but now without even the semblance of a girlfriend.

As a postscript, I visited with the Madsens a few years later.  My Army basic training took place less than two hundred miles from Petaluma, where they now lived.  When I was able to secure a weekend pass I bought a bus ticket to that town, and upon arrival found their phone number and gave them a call.

I was treated very royally by that family, although Clarice and Marcia had their own lives and friends and were not overly excited about my visit.  I have concluded that my welcome was more likely the result of Mr. Madsen’s experiences during World War II and his understanding of where I would be going and what I would be doing in the very near future.

This concludes my reminiscences of fire in my life as a youth.  More stories abound, heaven knows, and I could write for a year and not exhaust them all.  I hope that you have enjoyed reading them, and I hope that you will take the opportunity to (safely) light a nice fire and create some new memories of your own.  These have come to be among the fondest that I have.

The Fire Next Time, Part II

In Part I of “The Fire Next Time” I wrote of one instance involving fire that was warm and fuzzy and two that could have ended badly.  In Part II I will share three more stories; one which ended badly, one which could have ended badly but did not, and one that left me scratching my head.  My first story, the one that ended badly, is the story of Hank Snell.

All of us kids loved to play with fire when I was young, and some of us were more inquisitive and adventurous than others.  I don’t know who it was that first learned about holding a lit cigarette lighter in front of a can of hairspray to create a serviceable blowtorch, but it wasn’t long before everyone was doing it.  In no time at all spider webs and model towns made out of popsicle sticks and plastic model airplanes and automobiles belonging to siblings were being incinerated by a horde of little fire starters who were imitating Carrie White decades before Steven King wrote a novel with that incendiary young lady’s first name for a title.

Anywhere, at any time of the day or night in my neighborhood of East San Diego, one might see a jet of flame piercing the air, making an alley or the Park or somebody’s back yard when their parents were away at work look like flares erupting from a Saudi refinery.  When I look back on the kids that I hung out with in my neighborhood, it’s a wonder that nobody ever got torched by an errant eruption on the part of a careless associate.  Hank was the one exception to that history however, and it was Hank himself who turned out to be his own worst enemy.

In the course of time we all grew tired of the buzz that we achieved by lighting up our San Diego neighborhood with Spray Net and Aqua Net blowtorches.  Something had to be thought up to take that trick to the next level and, sure enough, somebody did.

I don’t really know who that somebody was.  Maybe that person saw a circus act on television – I’m not aware of a real circus, other than my neighborhood of course – coming to San Diego.  Maybe they saw a sideshow at the County Fair featuring a human flamethrower.  I know that I saw a sword swallower and a fire eater there, so a flamethrower is possible.  In any case an evolution of the hairspray trick was needed and a cadre of intrepid teens in our neighborhood, which included Hank Snell, stepped up to the plate.

The new trick went like this.  A person would get a mouthful of rubbing alcohol, light their Zippo cigarette lighter, and blow the flammable liquid through the pilot light to create a human blowtorch.  The trick was sometimes successful but oftentimes it was not, so an improvement was made right away.  That improvement came in the form of taking in a mouthful of lighter fluid and then repeating the established steps.

The result was electric!  On every attempt, the highly flammable lighter fluid would blaze into an impressive bloom of flame as it was ejected forcefully through the lit Zippo.  Several kids found the courage to do this trick, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that several kids simply lost what few marbles that they had left.  Either way, it was an awesome display and none had a more spectacular delivery than did Hank.

Maybe he was just full of more hot air than were the rest of us, or maybe he tricked us and employed gasoline in his act.  I don’t know, but Hank could create a fireball that looked a lot like “The Gadget” which was exploded at Trinity in New Mexico in 1945, just before it’s two siblings were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But all good plans have a fatal flaw.  Hank’s fatal flaw was that he failed to take into account the wind.  Therefore, one fine day he was demonstrating his oral pyrotechnic prowess to a group of friends and blew his blowtorch straight into the wind.  The wind returned the favor and blew the flames right back into Hank’s face.

Hank got cooked like a deep fried turkey, or at least he looked that way.  Eyebrows and eyelashes were gone, but luckily the skin of his face did not burn into the dermal layers.  He looked plenty well done however, so his friends helped Hank to get home and then bailed out as soon as his parents took him off of their hands.  They had no interest in waiting around and having to answer embarrassing questions.  Hank was transported to a small hospital on El Cajon Boulevard; Hillside Hospital, I think it was, but I’m not sure about that one.  There he was treated with state of the art aid and, on the next day, received visitors.

I wasn’t with that group, but a friend of mine was.  He told me that Hank looked like the Mummy with all of his dressings, and that patches of red and blistered skin, all slathered in some sort of shiny salve, was visible.  Maybe a blister or two was dozing something for good measure.  I can’t testify to the truth of this account, but the story went on to tell of Bill Killman, one of the biggest, meanest and craziest kids in the neighborhood, passing out at his first sight of Hank’s face, and cracking his head open on the foot of Hank’s hospital bed.  I have heard that story from enough sources to believe that it is probably true.

On another occasion I experienced an episode that could have gone bad but somehow didn’t.  Jeff Brained and I were fooling around with matches close to the wall of the garage behind his house.  Jeff lived in the middle house of the three that were tucked in between the church on the corner of 44th and Wightman and the Park.  When they build the Park, or the Highland and Landis Recreational Center as official types preferred to call it, they took out most of the houses on that block, and Jeff lived in one of the few that remained.

I don’t remember what we were burning; it could have been just about anything.  The problem was that we didn’t find a place to burn that was sufficiently far from the weeds which had grown up after the scanty rain of spring and summer, and were now a foot or more tall and dry as a bone.  Predictably, the fire got into the weeds and was soon spreading towards the garage and the alley behind it.

Jeff and I were not very different from most of the other kids that we knew; that is, a couple of tacos short of a combo plate.  But soon even we could see that the situation was getting entirely our of hand.  We began to try to stamp out the flames, but with zero success.  Then we tried to kick an area free of weeds between the fire and the garage and weed-choked alley (which did not run the entire length of the block, and was therefore little used and thick with weeds), but that too was a futile endeavor.

At this time something happened to me for the first, but not the last, time.  On occasions of extreme stress I would sometimes sort of lose touch with reality.  I would go onto some sort of auto pilot, and while I still functioned in a normal manner at those times I would simply lose the memory of what had transpired.  This happened once or twice again in my teens, a few times in Vietnam and a few times in the first years after I returned to San Diego and civilian life.  It’s weird, and it hasn’t happened again for a long time now, but it happened the first time in Jeff’s back yard.

I think that Jeff ran and got the garden hose while I continued to thrash away at the flames, but I don’t really know that for sure.  One moment I was imagining the garage and perhaps more than that going up in flames, and the next I was standing in a patch of blackened soil, the fire thoroughly out.  I know that I had kept stamping at the fire because my tennis shoes were sort of melted and my jeans were blackened and singed.  Beyond that I didn’t then and still don’t know what happened.  If I ever run into Jeff I’ll have to ask him.

The final story of this round of tales took place in my own back yard.  I was probably twelve years old and, as I often did, I had a small fire burning in the middle of our back yard.  Now, I may not have been the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but I knew how to keep a safe fire.  Well, my own back yard at least.  Anyway, I had a small fire going and I was sitting on a big chunk of wood and tending my blaze while I daydreamed of pleasant things.  I still do that, by the way.

At some point the sound of sirens from a fire engine broke into my consciousness, and I began to think of putting out my little fire and riding my bicycle to what certainly must be a bigger show.  I scanned the horizon for smoke but saw none, so I resumed paying attention to my fire and my daydreams.

The siren grew louder and at last I decided that something seriously exciting was happening nearby.  Once again I looked all around for smoke, and once again I found none.  Getting back to my fire and my daydreams however was now out of the question.  The sound of the siren grew until it seemed like it was very nearly on top of me.  There was a good reason for that; it very nearly WAS on top of me.

The siren was turned off and moments later three gigantic firemen in full uniforms, with boots and thick clothes and those big, wide-brimmed fireman helmets on top of huge heads with scowling faces, came thundering around the corner of the house, burst into my back yard, came to a dead stop, and then looked around for the fire.

The only fire was my little affair, hardly big enough to cook a hot dog over it.  I stood by the fire, stunned and stupefied, looking for all the world like I had no idea what was happening.  This, no doubt, was because in fact I had no idea what was happening.

“Where’s the fire” one of the firemen asked me.  I looked around, hoping that a neighbor’s house was burning.  Alas, all that I could see, besides every kid that I knew running from the Park and lining my back fence, pointing at me and beginning to laugh, was my little Boy Scout blaze.

Pointing at my weak flames, I told him “I guess that’s all the fire that there is around here.”

Fifty seven years after the fact I can still remember the look of disgust on the fireman’s face.  “Well” he said.  “We got called to put out a fire, so let’s put out a fire.”

They brought a hose into the yard; not one of those big canvas affairs, but rather a smaller rubber hose which nevertheless had a good deal of pressure.  The fireman pointed the brass nozzle at my fire, pulled a lever, and blasted my little blaze out of existence.

Later, when my mother got home from work, she quickly figured out that our next door neighbor was the party who ratted me out.  She was a little bit odd under the best of circumstances, and she virtually never operated under the best of circumstances.  She was certain that I would eventually burn the neighborhood down.  I suppose that I might have gotten a little ash on her laundry once or twice, so that didn’t help things much.  My brother was in the house at the time, and he said that she was looking out from a bedroom window as the firemen ran up our driveway.  He said that she had a smirk on her face.

Which brings me to the end of Part II of this account of my early love affair with fire.  In Part III I will share two or three more stories that revolved around fire, and then put the topic to rest.

The Fire Next Time

I have been attracted to fire for as long as I can remember.  Like a moth to a flame, or a mosquito to a bug zapper on my parents’ back porch in the Southwest desert, I have always been pulled inexorably to fire as if by some sort of unnatural gravity.  Fire may be the devil’s only friend, as Don McLean assured us many years ago in the song “American Pie,” but the devil isn’t fire’s only friend.  It pains me to think that we have even that much in common, but I must face the truth of it;  I love a good fire.

From my earliest days, fire was usually associated with good, or at least not so bad, things.  My father was a welder and metalsmith in the Navy, and he made for us what he called a charcoal broiler, possibly out of scrap metal from his ship or else from somewhere in the Navy yard.  The squarish steel box, probably a foot across and about eight inches deep, stood atop a three foot pole fixed to two steel crosspieces at the bottom.  A grate rested on small ledges in the middle of each side of the box along the top.

Many, many burgers and hot dogs and steaks were cooked on that device, some in our back yard or at the beach or at camps and picnic areas in the Laguna Mountains and the desert, and it was always my duty to get the fire started and produce the bed of coals that was to get the meal cooked.  I was a terrible eater in my youth, so the payoff for me was more in the fire than in the food.

I remember having a bright idea one day; a way to save money on all of the charcoal that we were using.  I had read of Native Americans heating rocks and then dropping the glowing stones into pots of food that they wanted to boil.  “I’ll just throw some rocks in the broiler and heat them up.  It’ll save money”  I told Dad, and he knew of no reason why I shouldn’t try.

My plan worked great on the first try.  The stones heated up to a cheery glow and flawlessly cooked our dogs or burgers or whatever we put on the grate that day.  Basking in my father’s accolades, I looked forward to my first opportunity to repeat my performance.  That opportunity came quickly enough, and with it the flaw in my plan was exposed.

It turns out that there are fracture planes in many rocks, and that those planes are weakened when the rocks are heated and expanded, and then cool and contract.  They are then ready to snap apart the next time that they are heated.  The Native Americans knew about this and how to choose the right stones that could handle repeated heating and cooling.  They neglected to share that information with me.

I had no idea of what was coming until the first stone popped like a gun going off.  The chip flew off of the rock, bounced off of the side of the metal box and disappeared – – – somewhere.  I was mystified as to what had just happened and leaned over the broiler in order to assess what was going on in my fire.  At that moment another stone exploded, sending chunks of burning wood up into the air and several chips whizzing a couple inches past my right ear.

“*&%%#!” I yelled in this unguarded moment as I jumped back away from the infernal device which now promised pain and worse than pain instead of burgers and dogs and praise.

“Glenn!” came the stentorian voice of my father, calling me in, I knew, to have me account for the salty language that had just erupted from my mouth.  “Come in here.”

Dad’s bedroom window was not twelve feet from where I then stood, and his desk where he studied for his post-military college classes was situated directly in front of that window.  I knew that there was nowhere to hide.  The fear of exploding rocks and fire in my face was now replaced by my fear of the wrath of my father.

As I trudged into the house through the back door and then down the hall towards Dad’s room I pondered which of the two threats was the worse.  By the time that I walked through the door into his room I was still not sure of the answer to that question, but the fact that I had survived the first and had not yet seen a resolution to the second inclined me to consider the latter most likely to lead to definite discomfort.

To my surprise and relief, Dad was sufficiently impressed by the gravity of the situation to allow me to wriggle off the hook with no more than a mild admonishment to clean up my mouth.  I believe that he felt responsible for allowing a dangerous situation to develop on his watch, and although I couldn’t imagine how he should know any more about the lore of Native Americans on the subject of cooking with hot rocks than I did, I clutched my free pass with eager hands.  I felt like I had navigated between the Scylla of an exploding fire and the Charybdis of Pop’s judgement and emerged unscathed.  That was luck enough for me for one day!

Most of my experiences with fire were more benevolent that that however.  Dad and I played a game of sorts.   Whenever a fire was needed in order to cook outside it was my duty to produce that fire by the use of only a single match.  Whether it was at the beach or in the backyard during the summer, with an abundance of dry wood, good kindling, and no wind, or in the mountains in the dead of winter, surrounded by fields of snow and with a one-inch coat of ice over the grate of the stone and steel camp stoves provided at Green Valley Falls, my job was to get that fire going with the greatest economy possible short of rubbing two sticks together.

At first, Dad allowed the use of big strike-anywhere matches; the kind that you could light by scratching them on the zipper or the pant leg of your jeans.  Later, as I honed my skills, the challenge was made greater by limiting me to one PAPER match.  And no paper was allowed in the process, other than the paper of the match.  Paper was only needed by pansies.  Real Men, and Real Boys who wanted to think that they are men, took their knife and hatchet and produced a pile of shavings, then splinters, then sticks, until at last they had a pile ready to do the master’s bidding.

I never failed.  It never took more than fifteen minutes for me to have a roaring fire even on the coldest and frostiest and wettest days, days when I could hardly feel my fingers for the cold.  And the payoff was enormous.  Mom’s fried potatoes and bacon, eggs and biscuits, and the coffee that I loved to smell but did not yet prefer to drink were a prize beyond gold.

But even more than Mom’s breakfast I would enjoy Pop’s inspection of the blaze, nod of approval, and declaration that I had the makings of a man who could live off of the land, and that was heady stuff for a kid who was born and raised in the city, yet knew that there was a world closer to the way that things should really be out there in the fields and the forests.

Not all fires that I was engaged in were made by me nor under control however.  San Diego is a dry place, and in the 1950’s and 60’s the neighborhoods were laced with brush-filled canyons which led to dry creek beds that ran with water only when it rained.  And I mean rained a lot!

During the summers kids would play in those canyons, and while for some unknown reason I never started a fire in one, others were less cautious.  Many times we would hear the fire engines going down Fairmont Avenue, or Highland or Chamoune, or any of the numbered streets around us, headed to a canyon to put out a fire.

We might be throwing a football in an alley, or playing baseball at the diamond at Hamilton Elementary School, or just hanging out at the recreation center.  We would stop what we were doing, scan the horizon for smoke, and then upon sighting our quarry, mount our bicycles and pedal there as quickly as was possible.

The excitement which we experienced was palpable.  Residents on the fringe of the burning canyon would be out with their garden hoses, wetting down house and yard as much as possible in an attempt to protect their property in the event that the wind pushed the flames in their direction.  Firemen would already be on the scene, unlimbering hoses, connecting them to nearby hydrants, and plunging heroically into the heart of the inferno.

We boys would jump off of our bikes and find the first hose that looked like it needed an extra hand to drag its heavy self in the direction of the firemen, and we would then haul it into the canyon, allowing the firemen to worry only about fighting the fire.  For some reason which eludes me to this day, none of us got cooked for our efforts.  The firemen never let us get too close to imminent danger, of course, but they really did appreciate our help.  In retrospect I find it hard to believe that this was allowed at all.  In our current insanely litigious society, no fireman in his right mind would allow anyone, much less eleven and twelve year old kids,  to jump into such a dangerous situation.

And it truly was dangerous!  Many years later, while working on a construction job on Mira Mesa, a nearby canyon fire was my siren song once again, and I responded like the ten year old boy did over a decade earlier.  This time, thick smoke reduced my vision and I got turned around, and soon I was running like a jackrabbit only a step or two in front of Santa Anna Wind – driven flames.  It was the last time that I ever stepped up to help fight a canyon fire, or any other, fire.

The Garden, Chapter XV

Charlie didn’t feel ready to start looking for Maureen yet, but his mother’s advice to do so won the day.  He didn’t know yet what he would say, or how he would even say ‘hello.’  But first things first.  At the moment he had no idea where Maureen was.  He knew where her parents lived however, or at least where they had lived two years earlier, and that was less than a mile from his mother’s house.  He  knew that his best hope was to start there.

Charlie remembered their phone number, for what reason he couldn’t say. Butterflies were doing barrel rolls in his stomach as his fingers punched the numbers into his mother’s land line telephone.  He almost held his breath as the phone on the other end began to ring, but he made a conscious effort to steady himself for the moment when somebody picked up his call.  That effort paid off, and Charlie was reasonably calm by the time he realized that nobody was going to answer.  Sure enough, a voice came on saying “You have reached 821-0733.  Nobody is available at this time to answer your call.  Please leave a message at the beep and we will return your call as soon as we can.”

Charlie debated for a moment whether or not to leave a message.  If he did so, he would hot have the flexibility of a live call in which to make his case.  Perhaps his call would be unwelcome but not immediately rejected, and his speaking to a live human on the other end would give him a chance to make a case for continuing the conversation that might otherwise be lost.  On the other hand, he was now anxious to begin the process, and delay was more distasteful to him than maneuvering for advantage with a possibly reluctant ex-in law was attractive, and so he took the plunge.

“Hello.  This is Charlie Hamer.  I am in town visiting my family, and if it is at all possible I would like to speak with you while I am here.  I know that this comes as a surprise to you, but I hope very much that you will agree to a phone call or a visit.  The phone number at my mother’s house is 227-4413, and my cell is 360-415-4253.  There is not a voice recorder on my mother’s phone, but I do have one on my cell.  I hope that I will be able to speak with you soon.  Good bye.”

“There, it’s done” Charlie thought.  “They will answer or they won’t.  It’s out of my hands now.”  He placed the telephone receiver in its cradle and walked down the hall and into the living room, where his mother waited.

“They weren’t home, I guess,” he told her.  “That is, if that is even still their number.  A lot of things can happen in two years.”

“I’ll bet that they’re still there,” Elaine said.  “Our generation didn’t move around like yours does.  I think they’ll get the message.  It’s what they’ll do with it that’s the real question to me.”

“You’re probably right about that,” Charlie said.  “I don’t really know what I would try next if they won’t talk to me.  I suppose I could get in contact with her lawyer and try that angle, but I doubt that she would help.  Some sort of professional rules or something like that.”

“We could try to find her on the internet,” Elane suggested.  “Those snooper websites can find anybody.  If you want to give them $7.95 after the first free month, that is.”

Charlie chuckled at that idea.  “Mom! he said.  “You surf the internet?”

“Why, sure!” she replied.  “Why should you youngsters have all the fun?  You can find just about anything you want to know on the Web.”

Charlie laughed outright at this response.  He could still see his mother hanging clothes on a clothesline in the back yard, putting his school lunch into a paper sack and watching soap operas on their old Magnavox television in the summertime when he was out of school and home at that hour.  Now, in her late seventies, she was instructing him on how to snoop on the internet, and for only &7.95 per month!  “You can find anybody,” she continued to say,  “plus their tax and police records too.”

“You’re amazing, Mom!” he told her.

“Naw, I’m not amazing,” she replied.  “I’m pretty damn good, but not really amazing.”

They sat in the living room and visited for an hour more before Charlie began to get restless.  His business was weighing on him, and he knew that only by discovering if Maureen’s parents were really still at that number and would answer his call could he remove that weight in its entirety.  Having at least made his first attempt he felt some relief, but knowing that any moment they might call made this business so much more real now.  At last, his mother noticed his fidgeting.

“Look, Charlie.  Why don’t you go and do something?  You’re nervous as a cat at the dog pound.  You gave them my number, right?”  Charlie nodded that he had.  “OK then.  I’ll stay here and answer if they call.  I can say that you had to step out for a minute and that you’ll be right back.  I would call you then and let you know.”

That sounded like a good idea, and Charlie decided to take a walk in his old neighborhood.  He exited through the front door and began to walk north, towards southern rim of Mission Valley.  Almost immediately he was in front of the house on the corner, where the Burtons had lived.  “I wonder if they are still alive?” he thought.  “I wonder what that little girl’s doing?  I wonder if Mom could find them on the internet?  I wonder why I can’t remember a thing like what Mom told me about them, and about Dad.?”

He walked on, burning up nervous energy, and soon saw the Henning’s house.  In front of that house, on the side of a lawn that had now gone to seed, was the stump of the pine tree that he had climbed to find refuge from his troubles one day long ago.  “Jeez, why can’t I remember that?”  he asked himself.  Charlie could remember climbing that tree many times, in spite of the Hennings always chasing him out when they caught him up there.  Why couldn’t he remember that one traumatic day?

Charlie walked past Bobby Crowe’s old house and wondered what happened to him.  “I remember plenty about him,” he thought.  “I’d probably kick his punk ass if I could find him now.”  Charlie was surprised at how the resentment that he had felt against his tormentor of four decades ago rose easily into his consciousness now that he stood here in front of the house where Bobby had once lived.  “It would be a good idea to not have Mom find him!”

Charlie continued walking and soon came to the recreation center which still occupied a full block in the neighborhood.  He went into the field where some kids were throwing a frisbee and sat on one of the concrete picnic tables that had replaced the old wooden ones from when he was young.  He was sitting there, remembering times both good and bad, when the cell phone in his shirt pocket began to ring.  He pulled it out of the pocket and looked at the screen.  “PRENTISS” it said.  Charlie’s heart leapt into his throat as he pushed the place on the screen that said “Accept This Call.”

“Hello,” Charlie said, and lamely, he thought.

“Hello,” came a voice.  “Is this Charlie?”

“Yes sir, it is,”  Charlie answered.  “How are you doing?”

“Well, I suppose I’m doing well enough.  Question is, how are you doing?”

“Pretty good, I think.  And Mrs. Prentiss?  How is she doing?”

“Same as always; an angel for putting up with me.  I have to tell you that I’m very surprised to get this call.  So I ask again, how are YOU doing?  Is everything all right?”

“Yes, everything is fine sir.  I’m visiting my mother and family here for a few days.  I’m pretty busy up north but I wanted to come down here between projects.”  Charlie hesitated for just a moment at this point, and then continued.  “And, well, there is something in particular that I would like to discuss with you.”

Charlie paused for a moment, and Mr. Prentiss prompted him to continue.

“Well, this is the deal.  As you know, I had a very hard time dealing with Stevie’s accident.  I guess, really, that’s putting it too mildly.  Anyway, I finally realized that I needed help, and now I’m getting that help from a professional.  Because of that I’m getting back on my feet and I realize that even now, after all that has passed by me, there are still responsibilities that I have to my son and, who knows, maybe to your daughter as well.  I’m not trying to pick up where we left off, if that is what you’re thinking.  No, I’m trying to figure out what is the right thing to do in this situation and at this moment, and then finally do it.

Trouble is, I don’t really know what the right thing to do is.  Now, I always respected you, sir.  You always seemed to me to be the father who knew what to do.  So I was hoping that maybe I could talk with you while I’m here and ask you to help me figure this out.  If you would be willing to give me a few minutes, I would love to speak with you, and Mrs. Prentiss too, so that I can get a better idea of what helping would look like.”

After only a moment’s silence, Mr. Prentiss responded to Charlie’s request.  “We would love to speak with you Charlie.  Can you come over later on tonight?”

“You bet I can,” Charlie replied, knowing at the same time that Elaine had planned to have Clark and Emily and their families over for dinner that evening.  But it was her idea to have Charlie fast-track the process of reconnecting with the Prentisses, so he was certain that she would understand if he missed dinner with them that night.

“The only thing is that we will be with our Care Group from church until eight o’clock.  Can you come over at eight thirty?”

“Care Group?  Do you go to church now?” Charlie asked.

“Oh, yeah.  We started a couple of years ago, right after Steph – – -.  Well, right after the tough part set in.  It really didn’t have anything to do with your situation, but it was certainly in the nick of time.  Anyway, we get together and eat some wonderful food that everyone brings pot luck and we’re usually done by nine.  We could slip out and be home by eight thirty, if that would work.”

Charlie heard a murmur of conversation in the background and then Mr. Prentiss came back on the phone.  “On second thought, I suppose that you already have your own plans for this evening.  Why don’t we make it tomorrow morning for breakfast?  Maudie is already looking in the kitchen to make sure we have the fixings for pancakes and ham and the other stuff that she remembers you like.”

Mr. Prentiss’ response to Charlie’s call had relaxed his concerns completely.  He had feared that they would have considered him the author of their daughter’s misfortunes and shut the door in his face.  To his pleasant surprise they still seemed to like him and were open to communication with him.  Charlie wanted very much to press on with the main purpose of this visit to his home, but now he felt like there was space for him to connect with his own family as well.

“That sounds very good to me sir.  What time would you like for me to come over?”

“Oh, you know, I’m an early riser, so anytime after seven is fine with me.  Maudie usually has food on the table by seven thirty.  Does that sound OK?”

“Seven thirty is fine.  I’m an early riser too.  I’ll be there on the dot.”

“Bring your appetite.”

“Oh, I remember Mrs. Prentiss’ cooking.  I certainly will.  See you tomorrow then, sir.”

“You bet.  Oh, and Charlie.  It’s really been good to hear your voice.  I’m looking forward to spending some time with you tomorrow.”

Charlie pressed the disconnect button and continued to sit at the picnic table, processing the conversation that he had just concluded.  It was clear that Maureen’s parents did not harbor a grudge against him.  They could have easily held him somehow responsible for Stevie’s death and their daughter’s family meltdown, and they could have made a case against him for not taking care of his family; their daughter and grandson, after the accident.  But they did not seem to be inclined to do that.

Of course, this could be just a ruse; a friendly face designed to lure him to their house, where they could tear into him.  It wasn’t too long ago that he would have given serious thought to that possibility.  Today however, he was willing to accept Mr. Prentiss’ expression of good will as genuine and go to their house the next morning with hope for a good outcome.  “Heck,” he thought.  “Even if they do jump on me I can still try to do what I came for.”

Charlie sat at the table for a while longer, watching the frisbee throwers and some other kids shooting baskets in a court on the other side of the field.  Charlie had done those things here when he was young, but he was never really a part of the group of regulars at the rec center.  He had been too busy studying, delivering morning and evening paper routes, and working first as a laborer and then as a craftsman for a construction company in the summers, to spend much time playing.

The boys and girls his age would always be together, whether shooting baskets or playing wiffle ball or just sitting on the picnic tables smoking cigarettes.  They knew about each other’s lives and acted like some kind of surrogate family to each other, and he had never sought nor was ever invited to be a part of that family.

Bobby Crowe had been a part of that group, and that was one good reason not to want to join it.  Bobby had been a big kid for as long as Charlie had known him, and Charlie’s penchant for being more of a loner had tended to make him more of a target.  He had never been actually beaten up by Bobby, but the taunts, the shoves, the trippings and so forth were always a direct invitation to greater violence, and it was a challenge that Charlie had no interest in accepting.

As the years went by, Charlie had come to this playground less as his other activities occupied more of his attention.  The summers of intense physical work with the construction team had filled out Charlie’s previously thin frame and he had become quite muscular.  Bobby Crowe, who came into contact with Charlie less and less anyway, was a punk but he wasn’t stupid.  Well, not too stupid.  Their brief encounters at school or in the neighborhood became much more neutral events than before.  Charlie had thought from time to time about evening the score, but that seemed to be a pointless act compared with the more positive things in his life, and after he met Maureen there was no room in his mind for Bobby Crowe.

After a while Charlie’s mind returned to the present.  He had family coming to his mother’s house soon and she did not know yet if Charlie would even be there.  He punched her phone number into his cell and she answered on the first ring.

“Hey Mom,” he said.  “Looks like I’m going to the Prentiss’ house tomorrow for breakfast so I’ll be home soon.  What’s for dinner?”

“Oh, they called you on your phone!” she replied.  “Tacos.  So how did it go?”

“Better than I had hoped for.  Mr. Prentiss sounded friendly, and I think that he meant it.”

“So, does Maureen live here?  Is she going to be there too?”

“I don’t know, Mom.  He didn’t mention Maureen, I think.  Not much anyway, if he did at all.  No, I don’t think that she’ll be there.  We didn’t discuss a whole lot,  which is OK by me.  I don’t really like talking on the telephone anyway.”

“OK.  I can take a hint.  I’ll get off the phone.  The kids are going to be over in about an hour, and we’ll be eating right away.”

Charlie laughed at his mother’s quip and said ‘good bye.’  Tacos.  That called for beer and iced tea, depending upon one’s age and preference.  He remembered that Moe’s Liquors once stood on the corner of First St. and Washington, but there wasn’t the smallest likelihood that it still existed.  He had seen a small market on his walk, and he retraced his steps to that market and purchased two six packs of Coronas and a box of tea bags.  These he carried the short distance back to his mother’s house.

Elaine was in the kitchen when he returned.  He quickly put the beer into the refrigerator and placed a large pan of water on to make a pitcher of tea.  He then busied himself helping his mother to cut, chop and cook all of the ingredients necessary for a taco feast.  They were finished and Charlie had time to open a Corona and sit down before the first of the crowd arrived.  Soon after that, the Hamer home was bursting with family, from Elaine down to the several grandchildren, the oldest of whom was pregnant with her first child.

Charlie and his brother and sister gave affectionate hugs, an occurrence which surprised them somewhat.  Charlie was new to this hugging thing, and it would take some getting used to.  Introductions were made to grandchildren and before too long the dining room was filled with the happy babble of a family enjoying a vast meal and a reservoir brimming with fondness and joy.

Perhaps the happiest person in the room was Juliette Hamer, the ‘earth muffin’ wife of Clark who had suggested to Charlie that he should get outside of his apartment and reconnect with the soil.

“That was good advice,” he had told her at a moment when his mouth was empty of taco.  “In addition to growing some good and free food, I’ve met some people who have been a big help to me.”

“Who’s taking care of it while you’re loafing down here?” Emily asked.

“A very odd piece of work named Walt,” Charlie replied  “He’s a crusty old Vietnam vet who you wouldn’t want you children to be around, yet he works his own plot and mine too while I’m gone so that he can give the food to the county food bank.  I don’t think you would like him very much; not at first anyway, but he’s one of the best people that I know.”

“And just how many people DO you know?” Clark asked .

“Oh, let’s see.”  Charlie began counting on his fingers.  “I guess twelve people who I talk with much at all.”

Clark looked impressed with that number.  “That’s a heck of an improvement over the last time we saw you up in Washington.”

“You have no idea,” Charlie told him.  “Really, you don’t.  There’s no way that you could.”

He then looked directly at Juliette.  “And your advice came at the time when I needed it the most.  A couple of my new friends are religious people, and they talk about blessings.  Well, I haven’t had a lot of those the past few years but it looks like my luck is changing.  Or maybe it isn’t luck.  Anyway, it all started with your suggestion that I get into the dirt, and so I think that if anything or anyone has been blessing me lately, it’s you who’s leading the parade.”

The people sitting around the scratched old family table were silent for a moment, and then Clark raised his beer in preparation for a toast to Charlie’s rebirth into the ranks of the living.  Charlie saw that move coming and waved it off.

“No, man.  Don’t raise your beer to me.  Raise it to that lovely woman you’re married to.”  And with that Charlie lifted his beer in the direction of Juliette.  Four beers, two iced teas, and a mix of sodas and glasses of milk were lifted in the direction of a surprised and embarrassed Juliette Hamer.

Clark leaned over and kissed his wife’s cheek before looking back at Charlie and saying softly “Bravo.  Well done little brother.  Can I toast you now?”

The toast was received and soon the room was once again filled with the happy chatter of family eating too much food and making up for too long of an absence.  Elaine Hamer sat back in her chair from time to time and looked at her brood.  This much joy had not visited her dining room, or any other part of her house, for a very long time.  In fact, she was not sure if she had ever seen it there before.  Several times she sat silent, not because she had nothing to say but because she feared that her voice would tremble if she dared to try and say it.

After dinner and the clean-up, which was performed by Clark and Charlie and the eldest son of Emily, the family spent some more time together before parting to return to their lives.  Charlie talked with his mother for a short while longer and then retired to his room.

Lying on his old twin bed in the darkness he wondered how much of the life that he had lived in this house was locked away from his memory.  He had not lain in this bed for – how many years?  It had been a lot of them.  Now he lay here after spending an evening with his family that was unlike any he could remember, and the glow of this evening accompanied him into a deep and untroubled sleep.

Charlie’s internal alarm clock went off well before seven thirty the next morning.  Elaine continued to sleep and Charlie knew that a good meal awaited him at the Prentiss residence, so he dressed quickly and silently and began to walk the mile or so towards the Prentiss’ home.

Charlie had walked this path many times before, usually taking as long as possible to walk Maureen home from his house.  He thought about those times while he strode down the sidewalk, not nostalgically glorifying them, but simply reflecting on how things were so much simpler then, and what he would do differently if he could replay those days again.  He slowed his pace so that he could arrive on the front porch of the Prentiss’ at seven thirty, sharp, which is exactly what he did.

“Come in, son,” Mr. Prentiss said when he opened the front door.  Charlie did as he was asked, and shook the hand that was extended to him.  “We’re very glad to see you.  Maudie!” he shouted over his shoulder.  “Charlie’s here.”

“I’ll be out in a minute,” came a voice from the kitchen.  “See if he wants some coffee.”

Charlie said that he would love some coffee and before Mr. Prentiss could move to get it Maude Prentiss came out of the kitchen with a steaming pot of coffee and three cups.  She placed those items on the table and gave Charlie a long hug.  This was more than Charlie had expected or hoped for, and he had to fight to keep his composure.

Warren Prentiss refused to talk business until after breakfast, and soon all three were busy packing away a small mountain of pancakes and ham and eggs and fruit.  “I’m going to be big as a house if I keep this stuff up” Charlie thought as he wiped his fingers with a napkin and placed it on his empty plate.  The Prentisses were also finished, and Warren Prentiss suggested that they clear the table later and get down to business in the living room.  Maude and Charlie agreed and soon they were seated in comfortable chairs in that room that still looked nearly the same as Charlie remembered it.  Without wasting any time, Charlie launched into the reason for his visit.

“Like I said yesterday, I’m trying to make some things right that I dropped the ball on when Stevie died.  I can’t say that I know exactly what making things right  looks like, but I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t look anything like the last few years of my life, so I’m asking other people, healthier people, for help in doing it.”

“Well, you look like you’re off to a good start,” Maude said.  “I have to say that the picture of you that Maureen gave us was a whole lot different than what I am seeing now.”

“Maureen’s picture was probably pretty accurate,” Charlie replied.  “It’s only been a couple of months since I began to climb up out of a dark place, and I’ve been very lucky to have met some good people who have helped me on my way.”

“I’m not sure that luck has anything to do with it,” Warren said.  “But continue.”

“Well, I’m seeing a counselor.  A professional.  She’s really one of the smartest and most kind people who I’ve ever met.  Anyway, she suggested that I try to get in contact with Maureen in order to find out if there was a way to be a father to Jack, given the circumstances.  Another friend suggested that, without trying to write a fairy tale ending to my story, Maureen and I might have a need to help each other in some way to move on with our own separate lives.

I expect that Maureen is doing all right; she always was a stronger person through all of this than I was, but that’s basically what this visit is all about, and I wanted to get your advise and opinion on it.  I would also like to ask you to find out for me if Maureen is interested in any of this.

Warren and Maude Prentiss were quiet for a minute after Charlie quit speaking.  Warren seemed to be picking at a splinter in his though, wrinkled hand while Maude raised the now-cold cup of coffee to her lips and drained the last sip.  They looked at each other quickly, and then Warren  looked back at Charlie and answered him.

“Well, we spoke with Maureen last night and she said that she has no desire to see you.”

Charlie’s heart dropped into the soles of his feet.  He had known that this was a possibility, but hearing it straight and direct was like getting hit in the chest by a truck.  As he pondered what this refusal might mean to him Warren continued.

“We told her that you would be coming over here today and that we were going to share a meal with you.  You had always been welcome in our house before and unless you gave us some reason to change that policy you would continue to be welcome here.

I also told her what you said yesterday about getting help with your troubles, and that you were interested in being a presence in Jack’s life it it seemed like he needed it.  I’ll tell you now that I told her that I agreed with you on that idea.   Anyway, she said ‘no.’  I asked her if she would keep an open mind about the idea, for now anyway, and allow me to speak with her again after we met with you and could make our own assessment of the sincerity of your intentions.  She agreed to do that.”

Charlie was stunned by the frankness of Warren Prentiss.  He had always been a very direct sort of person, but Charlie had forgotten how he could cut right through the clutter and get to the heart of a matter.  As he reflected on this Warren continued to speak.

“Charlie, I’ve only spent an hour with you but I feel like you are on the right track.  I didn’t see you when you and Maureen were going through the aftermath of Stephanie’s accident, but I trust my daughter’s account of things and I like the path that you seem to have chosen.  Being smart enough to ask for help, even if it seems like you’re shutting the barn door after the horses have gotten out, is something that a lot of people won’t do, and it says a lot, to me at least, that you’re doing it.”

“Thank you, sir,” Charlie said.  “It means a lot to me that you feel that way.  I knew that Maureen might respond like that so it doesn’t really surprise me much.  I’m very disappointed, but not surprised,  I would appreciate it very much if you would just tell her that I am more sorry than I can express for how I wasn’t equipped to be there for her and Jack when I had the chance, and that my only intention now was to be a help if I could in any way.”

“Now hold your horses, Charlie,”  Warren said.  “I wasn’t quite finished.  Maureen said that she has no desire to see you right now.  She didn’t say anything about later, though.  You’ve sort of dropped in out of the blue, you know, and it might take a while for the idea of you being alive again to sink in.”

  “Being alive again,” Charlie thought.  “Yeah, that pretty much describes it.  Or maybe even being fully alive for the first time.”

“I told her that you would come over here and that I would see what I thought about you, and that I would speak to here again after I do that and tell her what I think.  Well, I’m going to do what I said I would do, and I’m going to tell her that I think you’re making an honest attempt to “do the right thing” as you say, even if you don’t know what that right thing is.  I’ll also tell her that I believe she should at least speak with you and give you a chance.”

Charlie’s thoughts were flying in at least a dozen different directions and it was hard for him to think, and he told Warren of that.  “I’m feeling kinda tongue-tied, Dad” he said, relapsing to the title that he had used long ago when addressing Maureen’s father.  “I appreciate what you’ve just said.  God knows I can’t thank you enough for that.  On some level I can’t even believe that I’m sitting here and that you’re talking to me at all, while on another I’m not surprised that Maureen might slam the door and close out this part of both of our lives.  It’s exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.  I will tell you one thing though, and you can share this with Maureen if you think it’s wise to do so.

This is the last time that I will bother her.  If she does not want to speak with me after your next contact with her, I won’t make a pest out of myself.  There’ll be no stalking ex-husband or any of that stuff.  If she wants this to end once and for all time; if she’s got her life going in a good direction and does not need me being a distraction to hold her back, it will end right here.  If she wants anything else, whatever that might be, I will be eager to pursue it.  Your word, sir will be the final word for me.”

Warren and Maude sat still and quiet after Charlie quit speaking, and the three of them sat motionless and in their own thoughts for what seemed like an eternity.  What Maureen’s parents might be thinking Charlie had no idea, and he wasn’t trying to guess.  His own thoughts were of Jack and Maureen; what he owed to Jack, at least, and to himself.  He thought of D’Andra and her wise, kind listening and advice.  He also thought of Billy, who knew a wound when he saw one and what to do with it.  Finally he decided that his business here was finished, and that any further lingering would be an imposition and an intrusion.

“Well, sir.  Ma’am.  I think it’s probably time for me to go.  I thank you for the breakfast,”  he looked directly at Maude.  “You know that I always thought you cooked the best meals in San Diego.  I also thank you for your kindness towards me.  I couldn’t complain if it had turned out otherwise.  And I thank you for your willingness to speak to Maureen in behalf of my attempt to help Jack, and maybe her and even myself too.  Please let her know that I only want the best for them both, even if that means that I disappear again forever.”

Warren was not able to say anything in return.  He extended his hand and pulled Charlie into a bear hug.  When he let go Maude took her turn, and she found her voice.”

Charlie, like we’ve already told you, you will always be welcome in this house.  When you get home, call us from time to time, or write to us even.  We don’t do any of that fancy electronic stuff.  Let us know how you’re getting on, and how we can pray for you.  No matter how this all works out, we will always be your friends, and you can always consider this your second home.”

With that, Maude gave Charlie a hug and then let him go.  His eyes lingered on this amazing couple for a few moments longer before he nodded to each and turned toward the door.  Without looking back, for fear that he would begin to cry like a baby, he stepped through the door and out into the warmth of a San Diego summer day.

Charlie had no idea how long he walked before he finally returned to his mother’s house.  He remembered walking along Park Boulevard, past the museums and art gallery in Balboa Park, over the high bridge that had the unfortunate name of ‘suicide bridge’ when he was young because of the many people who had found it a convenient place to put an end to their earthly troubles.  He remembered his own appointment with the middle of a bridge, and as he looked down at the traffic flowing under him far below he thought about how foreign that thought now seemed to him.

He turned at Cedar and walked the long, straight street back to his mother’s home.  She was sitting in her chair, pretending to have been reading, while Charlie knew that she had been gazing out the window, waiting for him.  He said hello and went to the refrigerator to get one of the last two beers that remained from the night before.  He opened the brew and sat down on the sofa opposite where his mother sat waiting.

“Well, how did it go?” she asked, point-blank.

Charlie took a long swig from the beer and then replied.  “It’s complicated.  The Prentisses are just like I remember them.  They’re on my side, I think, although of course they’re on Maureen’s side too.  Maureen doesn’t want to talk to me though.  Maybe not now, or maybe not ever.  I don’t know for sure.”

Charlie took another swig of beer and sat back into the sofa.  Elaine, as usual, wanted more details.  “So, how is Maureen doing?  Where does she live?  Why won’t she talk to you?  What all did the Prentisses say?”

“You know Mom, they didn’t say anything at all about Maureen.  I hadn’t thought about that before, but they didn’t.  I think they did that on purpose.  If Maureen wants to talk to me, she can tell me all of that stuff.  The Prentisses just talked about me and them and what I’m trying to do.”

“Well, I think that’s a shame,” Elaine said.  “They should have told you more about her.”

“I don’t think so Mom.  I think they did just the right thing.  They’re going to speak to her again and if she’s still opposed to the idea, I’ve promised to stay clear of her life.  And Jack’s too.  Under those circumstances, I think that they were on the right track.”

Elaine fluttered over that idea for a while but Charlie’s obvious contentment with it eventually smoothed her ruffled feathers.  Charlie talked his mother into joining hem in his rented car to drive around and see the city that had changed so much since he had lived there.  From Hillcrest to Alpine, and then back to Del Mar on the coast they drove and talked of anything that entered their heads.  Charlie stopped for ice cream cones here and donuts there, which Elaine loved, and ended with a dinner at a seafood place in Point Loma.

It was evening when they returned, and Elaine soon excused herself and retired to bed.  Charlie had the last beer while sitting in the back yard and watching what few stars could shine through the light pollution of San Diego at night.  His phone was in his shirt pocket, where he could instantly reach it should it ring.  It didn’t ring.

Finally Charlie went inside, took a long shower and stretched out on the bed.  It was a warm, humid night, but he chose to shut the vent that allowed cooled air into his room.  He opened the two windows and lay on top of his bed, listening to the crickets outside his window and distant traffic noise.  The emotional exertion that he had expended this day crept upon him and before he had lain on his bed for ten full minutes he fell into a dreamless and restful slumber.

The Garden, Chapter XIV

Charlie glanced out the window of the Boeing 737 as it flew past Long Beach, California.  He had brought a book, thinking that he might kindle an interest in reading on the two and a half hour flight from Portland to San Diego.  That plan didn’t work out however.  He had never been much of a reader before and it didn’t look like that was going to change any time soon.  The book remained in his lap as he flew south, back to the town where he was born and where he hoped to continue stitching his life back together.  His mind was free to roam as he sat back as far as the seat would allow, and he used that freedom to review the past three weeks.

The memorial service for Duane had been harder on him than he expected.  LuAnn looked drawn, and more frail than her normally thin frame usually looked.  Her eyes were red, as if her tears had tattooed her grief into her flesh.  The smoker’s cough was worse, suggesting long hours of finding solace in those packs of death instead of sleeping.  Charlie had expected LuAnn to be above grief such as he had felt after losing Stevie.  Why she should be any more impervious to the effects of losing a loved one than he had been, he couldn’t say.

LuAnn was surprised to see him there at the church, and when she did she put her arms around his neck and her head against his shoulder, gently sobbing and unwilling to let go for several minutes.  Perhaps it was because she knew about Charlie’s own dance with death, and she felt a kinship with a fellow sufferer.

All that Charlie felt at first was awkwardness,  This was something that he had never been able to do in his life, and his impulse was to disengage from the embrace and leave the church as quickly as possible.  That is what he would have done at any time before the last two months.

 

On this day however, he had memories of his conversations with LuAnn, with D’Andra, with Rachael and Billy.  Charlie knew that it was important that he stand and offer consolation to his friend, even if he had no way of knowing if he was doing anything the right way or the wrong way,  so he stood and held LuAnn’s thin and softly shaking body against his own.

He thought of the weight and health that he had added to his own body the past few months and wished that he could simply transfer some of that to LuAnn if only he could hold her long enough.  And perhaps something like that did happen.  When at last LuAnn released her grip around his neck and stepped back away from him she had ceased to sob or tremble.

“Now I know how you were feeling, Charlie.  I think I understand you better now than I ever did before,” she told him.

“You probably do,” he replied.  “And so you should also know that we can recover from it, with a little help from others.  Whatever you need, and whenever you need it, just call on me.  Remember.  Whatever it is.”

Other friends and family then surrounded LuAnn and she went to sit in the front of the church.  Charlie went to the back row and took his place between Jason and Tank.  Jason openly expressed his discomfort at being surrounded by a bunch of people who believed in fairy tales.  Tank was a little bit more comfortable, although he was Catholic and felt awkward in a Protestant church.

 

“In my community, Latino and Catholic were like saying the same thing” Tank told him.  “This here, it’s kinda like the same as being in a Catholic church, but at the same time it’s all different too.”

“So, how did you come by the name of Tank?” Charlie asked before the service started.

“Well, I was always bigger than the other kids in my neighborhood, and they began to call me ‘El Tanque.’”

Charlie looked at Tank uncomprehendingly.

“”El Tanque” he repeated.  “You know, The Tank.  Like a Sherman tank.  Well, it just sorta stuck.  You know what?  I like it.  Who’s gonna mess around with a guy named El Tanque?”

Charlie acknowledged the wisdom of that, and soon the service began.  Jason fidgeted and looked like he might bolt at any minute, while Tank sometimes said something softly in Spanish and did that crossing thing that Catholics do between head and chest and their two shoulders.

Charlie’s attention, though, was mostly on the speaker.  He guessed that he was a priest or pastor, or whatever they called him, and he listened carefully as that person spoke of a victory over death, of a place where Duane was whole and without pain in his leg and things like that.  He spoke of death not being final, but instead being the beginning of a new life, and how God was present here in this world of suffering and there in the next world where suffering ceased to exist, and was tying the two together and making all things make sense in the end.

Charlie thought of Stevie not as the pale, battered corpse that he had been called to view in the Clasp County Morgue, or the body thumping up against a pier in the middle of the Columbia River imploring him to jump and join her.  No, if this man was right, Stevie was now an even happier and more perfect model of a beautiful person than the one that he had previously adored, and was only waiting until he could join her in his own natural time.  That picture gave Charlie a chill, and he wished desperately that this message was the truth.

  “I’lll have to bounce this off of the guys at the Key and Lock,”  Charlie told himself.  He knew what Walt would think of it, and was pretty sure that Billy would not be sold on that idea either.  Dom, Ted and Joe however might have another point of view.

  “Rachael!” he thought.  “I’ll have to speak to her about this.  She’s more into this stuff than anyone I know.  I’ll see how she views this idea.”

But he didn’t get a chance to do that before his trip to San Diego.  Now that he had decided to make that trip he applied himself with even more energy than usual to the task of completing his remodel job for Carolyn.  He was on the job at precisely nine in the morning and worked with little more than a lunch break if there was enough to do in a single day.  At the end of two weeks after the memorial service he was dusting tile and countertops, adjusting the level on the gas range, and giving the cabinet doors their last swing open and shut to ensure smooth motion and balance.  Carolyn was very pleased with his work.

“Charlie, this is better than I ever imagined that it could be,” she said as she took her first walk through the completed project.  “This is exactly what I wanted.  I feel as if Mom could walk through that door at any moment.”

“I’m glad that you like it,” Charlie replied.  “And that’s not just blowing smoke.  I really do appreciate that you took a chance on me when I didn’t look like such a good horse to bet on.  Your confidence in me gave me back some confidence in myself, and that was worth more than the pay itself.  Well, maybe by only a little bit.”

Carolyn just looked at Charlie for a moment, wondering where that thought had come from.  She had worked with Charlie for nearly a month, off and on, and he was not given to expressing thoughts like that.  Charlie could sense her puzzlement.

“I learned about that stuff from my counselor,” he said with a laugh.  “I don’t usually think up smart stuff like that on my own.”

Carolyn laughed with him and assured him that her confidence had been amply repaid.

“And speaking of pay,” she said, “here’s your final draw.”  She handed him a check which signified her satisfaction that the job was finished.

Charlie thanked her and said “You know, I’m a little bit sad that this is finished.  I have really enjoyed working with Luke and you, and this was the first job that I’ve had in a while that was actually fun again.  I hope that it can stay like that for me now.  I’m guessing that it will.”

“I hope so too,” Carolyn said.  “And while were on the subject, do you have any other work lined up now?”

“Yes,” he replied.  “I’m converting a garage into a family room over in Parker’s Landing.  I’ll start in maybe two weeks.”

“Oh,” Carolyn responded.  “Well, the reason I asked is because I want to make you a proposition.  Have you got time to sit down for a few minutes?”

Charlie agreed and sat at his usual place at the table, which now rested closer to the dining area window and farther away from sink and stove.  Carolyn sat down opposite him and launched directly into the topic which she had in mind.

“I’ve told you a little about my work Charlie, how I purchase houses and renovate them to a level such that I can make a good profit and still give the buyer a good home.”  Charlie nodded and Carolyn continued.  “And I’ve also told you that I am not entirely satisfied with the general contractor whom I usually use for this work.  Since I began helping you on this project I’m beginning to notice how he cuts corners, does some things ‘good enough,’ and simply doesn’t pay attention to details.  Not the way that you do anyway.  When I all him out on something, I get a look that I don’t like.  Oh, he does what I tell him, but there’s no real respect for the work, as far as I can see, and there’s no respect for me either, I think.

So what I’m thinking is that I would like to replace him, and if you would be interested, I would like to hire you.  If you would like to general the whole deal, that would be great.  If you would rather work alone, and just do some of my work, that would be OK too.  Either way, I would like for you to still work for me in some capacity.  I trust your work and I appreciate the way you respect me.  As a woman, and still relatively new to the business that I’m in, both of those things  mean a lot to me.”

Charlie didn’t take long to accept Carolyn’s offer.  He could fulfill his obligations to the remodel at Parker’s Landing easily enough while preparing to take over the construction end of Carolyn’s business.  He would begin immediately as a consultant, supervising the work that was already underway, which would release Carolyn to find more houses which showed promise of being acquired and profitably resold.

“There is one thing though,” Charlie said.  “Next week I will be flying to San Diego for the weekend, and maybe a little bit longer if needed.  It is very important to me that I make this trip.  Once I return I should have no distractions other than a short hunting trip in August.  I’m taking a friend who’s got a disability, so it won’t be a long one.”

Carolyn smiled broadly at him when she answered.  “You enjoy your trip to San Diego, and it just figures that you’re taking a disabled guy on a hunting trip.  You know, you really have a heart for other people Charlie, and it shows all over you.”

Charlie blushed at this unexpected praise and replied “You may not have thought that about me for most of my life.”

“Well, maybe you’re right.  But this model of Charlie Hamer is the only one that I know, and this is what I see.”

They spoke further about Charlie’s new position, which was to begin immediately and with pay, and Charlie told her of Jason.  “He’s a guy who has been homeless, I think, since he got out of the Army.  Or nearly that long.  He’s now getting his life back together too.”  And then he asked her approval of giving him a chance on her work.  Carolyn just laughed and said “Oh, yeah.  This guy who never had a heart for people!  Of course you can give him a chance on my work.”

At last Charlie stood to leave.  He loved the feelings that he had experienced here in this kitchen with this sharp and compassionate person.  But it was time to attend to other things.  Charlie walked to the door and promised to be ready in the morning to begin supervision of the work of her contractor.  At the doorway Carolyn stood until he had cleared the storm door and was prepared to close it, and then spoke once again to him.

“Oh, and Charlie.”

“Yes’” he replied.

“I just want to thank you for sleeping in your truck while the exterior wall was open.  That was very sweet of you and I felt very protected.”

Charlie’s jaw dropped and he turned bright crimson as he realized that he hadn’t been nearly as clever as he had thought.  He recovered quickly though and said with an embarrassed smile “Well, I had to keep you safe so that I could get paid.”  They both laughed and Charlie drove away feeling something like ecstasy.

That feeling of elation had not entirely worn off as the day arrived for Charlie to board the plane to San diego.  He had expected that he would be nervous about flying to his old home to begin the process of trying to renew contact with Maureen and Jack, but the nerves were not nearly what he had expected.  The events of the last three months had made a huge difference on Charlie, and he viewed the journey that he was now on with a mix of anxiety and excitement, in what ration and proportion he wasn’t entirely sure.

As the airplane began to make its descent toward Lindbergh Field he decided that excitement was winning the contest.  Beach communities passed underneath him and now he could see the greatly changed skyline of downtown San Diego.  His heart began to beat just a little faster, and when the wheels touched the ground an unexpected sensation of being home greeted him.

Charlie’s mother had offered to pick him up at the airport but he had declined.  “No, Mom.  I’ll want my own wheels,” he had told her, and she was too excited about having her son visiting as if from among the dead to offer any resistance.  It didn’t take twenty minutes for him to be in a car and driving up the hill towards the Hillcrest neighborhood, and home.

Elaine Hamer was on the front porch waiting for Charlie before the car rolled to a stop two houses down the street from her residence.  Charlie knew that she would be sitting in a chair in front of the big picture window and watching for him, and so he wasn’t surprised at her greeting.

“Hi Mom,” he said as if he was just getting home from school.  Mrs. Hamer couldn’t say anything back; she just softly clapped her hands again and again as he walked up the flagstone path from the sidewalk to the house and mounted the stares to the porch.  When he arrived at the top she threw both hands into the air and wrapped her arms around her son.

Charlie had begun to learn the art of the hug and was able to return her embrace, which lasted longer than all of their previous embraces combined, he thought.  At length she commented that he must be hungry, which in fact he was. She ushered him into his old home for a lunch that would have satisfied three Charlie Hamers.

Finally, after eating and stowing his suitcase in his old bedroom, he sat down in the living room and began to get down to the point of his trip.

“So, Mom,” he began.  “I’m going to take this first day easy and relax right here.  I might take a walk in the neighborhood, or if you have any small repairs that are needed I could probably take care of them.  But tomorrow I’m going to start trying to find Maureen and Jack.  Have you been in touch with them at all, or with their parents?”

“No,” I haven’t seen Maureen or Jack in years, and I’m frankly unhappy about that.  I liked Maureen, and Jack is my grandson, after all.  I would have thought that I would get a little consideration”

Charlie was surprised to learn that there was another casualty in this affair; that there was another bleeding wound.  He considered carefully what to say next.

“Well, Mom, I think you have a right to be upset.  But I don’t believe that anything was done as an intentional slight to you.  Maureen liked you too, and her withdrawing from contact with you just shows how hurt she was by this whole thing.  Maybe if I can start a little healing, things can loosen up and you can reconnect too.”

And then an idea that Charlie hadn’t expected occurred to him.  “You know, Mom, this affair was probably as hard on Maureen as Dad leaving us was on you.  Maybe it was even harder for her, since at least all of us were still alive.  Do you think that’s possible?”

Elaine quit rocking her chair.  There was no expression on her face that Charlie could read.  She simply stared out the window for what seemed like several minutes, but was actually much less than that.  Finally, she began to rock her chair again slightly, and then looked at her son.

“Yes, I suppose that is possible.  Very possible.  I hadn’t thought of it in that context, but it could be.  The circumstances were very different though, so I would have to think about that.”

“How so, Mom.  How were they different?”

Charlie and his mother had never discussed his father before; he had never asked and she had never brought up his name.  In fact, Charlie realized, he didn’t even know his father’s name!  Mrs. Hamer thought a minute more and then spoke to Charlie on this topic for the first time.

“Everything that happened to your family was an accident, son.  Stephanie’s death was not your fault.  It wasn’t her fault either, and it damn sure wasn’t Maureen’s fault.  Sometimes when you roll life’s dice you get sevens and sometimes you get snake eyes.  Like the saying goes; ‘shit happens.’  Well, it happened to you.  I’ll not criticize how you handled it either, since I haven’t walked an inch in your shoes, much less a mile.  I guess I handled my grief a little better, but like I said, mine was different.  What went on in our house was no accident.”

Elaine quit speaking and stared back out the big window.  Charlie sat quietly on the sofa.  It was the same sofa that he would lie on as a child when he was sick.  He would watch the television and sleep, and wait until his body began to heal enough for him to keep down chicken with rice soup and Jello with cottage cheese and pineapple chunks in it.  He thought of that healing, and how he hoped that it would be replayed here once again. Elaine continued to look out the window, and at last Charlie prompted her to continue.

“So,” he said softly.  “So how was it different, Mom?  If you want to tell me, that is.”

Elaine looked back at her son, and in a low and soft but clear voice and with dry eyes began to speak.  “I kicked him out of the house.”

Charlie was shocked.  “I thought that he left to play the high roller,” he said.

“Oh, he was a high roller all right,” Elaine replied.  “He made good money.  Always did.  And he could flash a big wad any time that he liked.  But he was a player too.  He wasn’t satisfied with having a wife and a family and a home, and he wasn’t particularly concerned with keeping it a secret from me either.  He was not usually mean, but he really didn’t care about us at all.  We gave him a veneer of respectability, but I got tired of being used as a prop on his stage.”

Charlie was shocked to learn this about his father.  He didn’t know why he was shocked, exactly, but this was not the picture that he had expected.  He wondered what else he had wrong, and pressed his mother for more information.

“I was asked by my counsellor – oh, yes.  I’m seeing a professional who’s helping me to get my life back together.  So I was asked about my relationship with my father, and I realized that I don’t remember anything about him, really.  She thinks it might be good for me to know something about him; it might help me to get myself sorted out.  If you don’t mind talking about it, could you share some memories with me?”

Well, I suppose that I don’t mind.  Not really,” she said.  “But I don’t get any pleasure out of it.  Your father usually ignored you and the other kids, but you most of all.  You were the youngest and I think he was tired of kids by the time that you came along.  You also had an independent streak that irked him.  He always wanted to be the star of the show, even if he didn’t have a show worth watching, and you didn’t worship him enough, I guess.  He would push you to do things that you didn’t want to do.”

Things like what, Mom?”

“Well, I do you remember Bobby Crowe?”  Charlie nodded in the affirmative.  “You remember how he used to bully you?  Well, your father knew that you were not an aggressive kid and he said that he was going to “make a man out of you.”  So he took you up to the playground one day when he saw Bobby there and told you to go stand up to him.”

“Shit, I don’t remember anything like that!”

“Well, it happened.  You didn’t want any part of it but he wasn’t going to let you leave until you stood up to Bobby.”

“So what happened?  I don’t remember ever getting into a fight with Bobby.  He pushed me around until I graduated from high school, but I don’t remember a fight.”

“That’s because there wasn’t one.  Your brother, Clark, saw what was going on and came home and told me.  I went up to the playground and intervened.  While he was explaining himself to me you slipped away and climbed up in the big pine tree that grew in front of the Hennings’ house and stayed there until nightfall.”

Charlie declared that he did not remember any such thing.

“Well it’s all true,” she said.  “Chet always insisted on having dinner at four thirty in the afternoon, and when you didn’t come home until nearly dark he was mad, but I told him that if he said one word to you, well, let’s just say that he was in our bedroom pouting when you got home.

And then there was the time in the back yard.  We had guests over for a barbecue.  You remember the Burtons who lived on the corner?”

“Again, Charlie shook his head in the negative.”

“Well, they moved when you were seven or so.  Anyway, he was fiddling around with Mrs. Burton then, or maybe he hadn’t gotten that far yet and was still trying to impress her.  Anyway, you and Clark and Emily and their little girl, I can’t remember her name, were playing in the yard while Chet was cooking.  You threw a dirt clod up into the air for some silly but innocent reason and it came down on that little girl’s head.  It didn’t hurt her really, there was no blood or even a bump, but it scared her and she started to squeal like an angry tomcat.  Chet took off his belt and lowered your pants right there in front of everybody and whipped you until you nearly passed out.  You don’t remember that either?”

Charlie shook his head again to signify that he did not remember, and he now began to wonder how much more he had suppressed, and what D’Andra would make of this.  His mother began to talk again though and interrupted his thought.

“I didn’t know what I would do if I left him.  I had no skill that I could use in the labor force.  A lot of women were in that position back then.  I felt powerless, and as much a victim as you were.  I thought that I just had to be quiet and take it.  That day though, I began to wake up.

On that day I finally told him that that was enough.  I pulled your pants back up and took you into the house, and I made you a dinner in there.  He was really mad at me that night, and I thought that he might start in on me too.  He had been drinking that day and continued to do so into the night.  I think he passed out before he could get to that point though, and he forgot the whole thing by the next day.

Mr. Burton finally learned about the affair and they left that house on the corner.  I don’t know if they divorced, but they probably did.  Mr. Burton was a pretty big man, but your father moved in higher circles and knew people, so he simply came over one day and cussed Chet out and we never saw that family again.”

Charlie’s head was spinning by all of this information that was entirely new to him, and he pressed on to learn more about this man who was a total stranger to him.

“So, how did his leaving come about?” he asked.

“Well like I said, he didn’t just leave.  I kicked his ass out of the house.  I almost kicked it right out the door.  By the time that you were finishing elementary school I had had enough.  He was usually careful enough to not do anything that would show up on a police blotter but I had no guarantee that we were safe, so I went to our friends, the Turpins, the Essexes, and the O’Leerys, and I borrowed enough money to hire a good divorce lawyer.  In no time he had Chet out the front door with nothing but his clothes.

Our friends were more than happy to help.  They had watched him over the years and knew that he was trouble.  He could be a charmer when he wanted to, and we had friends, but making friends and keeping friends was two different things.  Soon enough they could see his true colors.  They swore under oath about the things they had witnessed, and this house, and those exceedingly ‘generous’ alimony and child support checks?”  My lawyer wrung them out of his cheap hide, and the judge smiled when he dropped the gavel on him.”

Elaine then turned her head and looked back out the window.  There was a glitter in her eye and her jaw was set so that Charlie doubted that he could open it with his wrecking bar.

“So I’m really confused now about something, Mom.  After he left I would sometimes see you sad, and I didn’t know what in the world I could do about it.  I thought you were sad because it was an anniversary or a birthday or something.  What was that really all about?”

“You were actually right about those times.  They were anniversaries and so forth; days that were special to me.”

“But, with all of that history, why did they make you sad?”

Elaine turned and looked directly at Charlie and said “On those days I remembered the dreams that I had when Chet and I first met and married.  I remembered how a girl from a poor family of Okies who fled the dust bowl and came to California met her Prince Charming.  He would come into a restaurant where I was working my first and only job on his lunch break.  I remembered moving into my first home of my own, my first dance, my first sex.  Oh, yes.  Don’t look so scandalized.  How do you think you got here?

I thought that I had moved into my best daydream, but it was not long after you were born that I learned that I’d moved into my worst nightmare.  I remembered the day we met, our first date, when he proposed to me and when we married.  His birthday, your birthday, and Clark’s and Emily’s.  Each one of those days had once been a blessing to my heart, and later became a bitter epitaph to my dead dreams of how it was supposed to be.”

Charlie was stunned and sat in silence as he tried to process all that he had just heard.  He had believed that his father had been a non-factor in his life and now had learned that he had been a terror to him.  He had believed too that his mother was abandoned and lonely.  Instead, she was the victorious survivor who cherished her freedom from the oppressive hand of this faceless father of his.

“So Mom, I’ve been feeling guilty lately because I never could help you when I saw you were down.  I’m thinking now that you were down, but in a lot different way than I thought you were.  I don’t know now if there was any way that I could have helped.  Was there any way?”

“I probably was in a different state than you could have imagined, and I suppose that I could have used a hug back then, but I didn’t know how to ask for one.  I had pretty much given up on sentimental stuff by then and felt like I had nothing to offer to anyone.

Fact of the matter, I’ve felt bad myself for a good many years because I was never able to be there for you.  You would get hurt, by your own doing or at your father’s hand, or get picked on by that damned Bobby Crowe, and I could clean you up and put a band aid on the worst of it, but I could never give you a hug, or even think of a word to say to you that would help.

I was so bound up in my own troubles that I couldn’t find a soft shoulder for you, and as time passed, my anger and bitterness about how life had turned out for me seemed to grow instead of wane.  By the time you met Maureen I felt like I was your nanny more than I was you mother, and that by my own choice.  Clark and Emily had grown up and moved out as quickly as they could by then and there was only us, and when you met her, she and her family took that responsibility off of my shoulders it seemed.

And I was glad to give it up.  I loved you and Clark and Emily.  I celebrated your victories and suffered for you all when you stumbled, but I didn’t know how on earth to connect with you on any more than the most superficial level.  I have friends, true enough, but it’s still like that.  We give each other enough support to keep a friendship alive but not much more than that.

That is not the girl that I used to be.  What I became was the result of being pressed and squeezed and deformed by my fifteen years with Chet.  I could protect you from him, but I couldn’t give you much more than that, and for that I am truly sorry.”

Elaine sat back in her rocking chair but did not allow herself to relax.  The jaw was still set, the spine rigid and straight, her chest rising and falling with short, shallow breaths, as if trying to vent off the anger that her story had dredged up from a vault of painful memories.

Charlie sat equally still, trying to begin to sort this new information that was exploding into his brain.  He didn’t need D’Andra to realize that his inability to extend comfort to other hurting people did not arise from his father.  It was his mother, who was a victim herself, and who’s wounds had locked her heart in an iron cage for which no key could be found, that had modeled this aloofness.

Now, as she approached her eighth decade of life, she had opened up to Charlie and allowed some of that hurt to ooze out onto the old, familiar living room floor; a floor that Charlie once played on, and where he had stretched out on a rug watching the television with Maureen, whispering things in her ear that would make her giggle and punch him lightly on the shoulder.  He thought of LuAnn, who had just lost her husband and was pouring out her grief to God and to family and friends, and who opened her heart to receive comfort in return and regain her balance.

Elaine Hamer never had those blessings; didn’t know how it all worked.  Charlie hadn’t either, until recently at any rate.  But as he looked at his mother he felt the beginnings of a caring response such as he had never experience towards her in his life.  He thought of Rachael and her damaged eye, Jason and Billy struggling to live and move on with the trauma of what they had experienced in war, and LuAnn, and it was as if a tide of human caring had at last ceased its ebb and slowly began to flow in his life.

He had no idea how it would be accepted, but he decided that he would not try to staunch that flow.  This was not a time to think of Civil War battles or problems in matching drywall to plaster.  Charlie looked at his mother, sitting proud yet wounded in her chair, lonely and still a victim of the disappointment that she had experienced in her life.

“Mom, would you let me hold you now?” he asked.

She stared at Charlie as if she didn’t understand his words.

“I know.  We don’t do this sort of thing; either of us.  It’s weird for me too.  But if it’s OK, I would like to hug you.  I’ll keep it short, if your like, but I wish you would let me.”

Charlie could see emotions playing behind the eyes of his mother, and he could only guess at what they could be.  He rose up from his place on the sofa and walked half-way to the chair where his mother was sitting and stood there.

She looked at him and said “We’ve hugged before.  We did on the porch, just today.”

“Yes, I know,” he said.  “That was ‘hello.’  This one would be ‘I know that you’re hurting.  This one would be ‘I want to help you carry the load.’  This one would be ‘I love you, regardless of our history.’”

Elaine sat for a minute longer and then, slowly and almost mechanically, she rose up and walked the few feet to where her son stood.  He wrapped his arms around his mother and pulled her gently against his chest.

And then, little by little, he felt the beginning of a melting, like springtime on a snowfield.  The spine softened and the head lowered onto Charlie’s shoulder.  No words were said; not a muscle moved, but two souls shifted with a power that could shake mountains.

After a long embrace Elaine let go and returned to her chair.  Charlie stood still for a moment longer, and then returned to his place on the sofa.  Elaine was rocking her chair again but the motion was more fluid and easy, a rocking of the cradle as opposed to a burning of nervous energy.  Charlie could see the change and wondered if a change could also be seen in him as well.  At last Elaine spoke to her son.

“Charlie, I know that you were going to wait until tomorrow to start looking for Maureen and Jack, but I suggest that you start right away.  I’ve been wound up tight as a drum for most of my life and it looks like I’ve shared that curse with you.  You’ve come here with a good mission in mind.  An important mission.  I suggest that you get busy with it now.”

Heidi (and Vivian)

My first crush happened when I was in the sixth grade. I had been envious of my older brother Brad, who was comfortable with girls and always seemed to be the confident boyfriend of one pretty girl after another. I would wish that Barbara was my girlfriend, or Claudia, or Roselynn (whom we called ‘Rosie’), but there was never any chance that something so far-fetched would ever happen. Brad was five years older than me and his girlfriends, naturally, were very nearly that much older than me too. I could drool. I could fantasize. But never was I foolish enough to actually hope.

Heidi changed all of that. Heidi was a new kid in our school, and in a school with maybe one hundred students in the sixth grade it was hard to stay anonymous. It would have been hard for Heidi to remain anonymous in a class of one thousand. Just as pretty as, well, you can provide whatever metaphor for pretty that suits you best. For me, she was just as pretty as a golden dawn, or a field of flowers, or a foggy morning at the beach, with a storm approaching and the waves crashing, and; well, I guess you get the point. I thought she was the definition of beauty itself, but I’ll allow myself to be content to say that Heidi was pretty.

We sat across the table from each other in Mrs. Parrish’s class. Heidi was quiet and reserved, and didn’t seek the spotlight in the classroom or on the playground, but she was really smart and had a good heart, and after a couple of months in the sixth grade when was friends with all of the girls and admired by all of the boys. The popular boys, Don Lewis, Frank Mathers and Lefty Wilson, all made a play for Heidi. She was kind and never rebuffed them in a public or haughty way, but she never did indicate any sort of preference for their presence or attention. With me however, it was a different story.

I was always curious about my world. I wanted to know how we humans came to be what we are. I read about dinosaurs and cave men. I read the Bible

and even in the sixth grade, the archaeologists who dug up the history of humans in Egypt and Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley and elsewhere. People were fascinating to me, and I wanted to know about them.

I also wanted to learn German. My father fought in Germany in World War II and stayed there, off and on, for ten years after war was over. I was born in 1948 and was in Germany for two two-year periods. Father loved Germany; loved the food, the beer, and the people and culture once they stopped shooting at him. Mother was entirely different though. Her father had died in the trenches of World War I when she was an infant, and two of her brothers from another father had died in the latest war, one on the beach in Normandy and another in the water off of the Philippines. Mother hated the Germans and, I think, hated father for taking her there, and did all that she could to keep me from learning German or anything good about Germany

I told Heidi about this one day when we were seated next to each other at Linda Swann’s birthday party. To my surprise, Heidi was friendly to me and spoke about herself. Her mother was German and her father a mix of German, Irish and a bunch of other stuff. Heidi’s mother spoke German as a first language and Heidi was fluent in that language as well although she only spoke it at home. I think that Heidi was only that open with me because I was too shy to try to make her my girl friend. I just knew that things like that didn’t happen to me.

With Heidi thought it did. I went to her house where she only let me speak German, but Heidi and her mother were lenient taskmasters. They let me fudge a lot, and it took longer than it should have for me to become anything like fluent. That worked for me however. My lessons stretched on for months, and during that time I would help Heidi and her mother in the kitchen, and would pick vegetables in the garden with Heidi and walk with her to the neighborhood store to buy flour or salt or any little thing that Heidi’s mother needed.

After a while I became aware that Heidi’s mother did not always need two more apples and a pound of butter; that it was just an excuse for us to walk together to the store, eventually holding hands after we got a block away from Heidi’s home. The neighbors, or course, knew all about the budding relationship, and word certainly got around. Heidi didn’t live in my neighborhood though, so it didn’t get to my mother who would not have approved.

My first kiss was on one of those walks. We decided to take a short cut through a canyon, and as we walked down the trail through tall brush I hatched my plan. My heart was pounding as we reached the bottom of the canyon and turned onto another path which led gradually upward and out of the far end of the canyon.

I stopped walking, and after Heidi became aware of that she stopped too, turned and faced me. I had practiced a lot of lines that I saw Cary Grand and Humphrey Bogart deliver in movies; lines that had always melted the girls’ hearts, but all of them seemed silly now and stuck to the roof of my mouth like a handful of peanut butter. I just stood in front of Heidi and looked confused and lost and in the worse possible condition of puppy love.

Heidi took pity on me and asked if I would like to kiss her. I nodded, like a kid who was just asked if he wanted to go to Disneyland, and then stepped forward and pressed my lips against hers.

The act had less actual passion than a handshake, but we used it as a base and learned over the next several months how to get more out of the effort. At he house, in the canyon, and anywhere else that we could get five minutes of privacy we would embrace and practice the art of kissing until we felt like we were becoming accomplished at it.

During this time I almost never saw Heidi’s father. He worked the night shift at a refinery thirty miles from their home and was usually sleeping during the day.

At least, that’s what they told me. In fact Heidi’s father drank a lot and was either drinking, asleep or passed out when i was there. He managed to do his job well enough, so he was never laid off, and his manager was also a veteran of the recent war, so he had pity on him.

It turned out that Heidi’s father came home from the war with more than a wife. People said he was different when he returned; he spooked easily, would jump at the slightest noise and seemed to look around with suspicion at his surroundings. Sometimes he was the life of the party, but other times he was withdrawn and seemed afraid to step out of his house, or even his bedroom. A lot of men came home from the war changed,m physically and emotionally or both, but we didn’t know what to make of that, so we ignored it as much as we could and hoped that things would eventually go back to normal.

Things didn’t. Heidi and I were close for almost a year and a half but one day in the middle of the seventh grade she didn’t show up at school. I called her as soon as I got home to see if she was sick but there was no answer. The first tingling of fear began to play around the base of my brain and I went to my mother to tell her that I was going to ride my bike to Heidi’s house to see how she was.

Mom had allowed herself to soften towards Heidi. “The only decent German I ever met” she would say. The look on Mom’s face cast a new and more dark shadow across my heart. She told me to sit down; that she had something to tell me. What followed was the news that Heidi’s father had gotten drunk, heard his wife speaking German, and then taken down a shotgun from a rack on the wall. He then blew his wife almost in two. After looking at the carnage that he had just created from a wife that he did, at some level, love, he reloaded the shotgun, placed it in his mouth and blew his head off. And Heidi watched the whole thing.

The only family that Heidi had in her town was her aunt Vivian. Vivian had lived a difficult life herself. She had beaten an abusive husband to death with a claw hammer and got off on all charges only because the large hunting knife found in the cold, dead hand of her newly deceased husband when the police arrived on the scene. Leroy, that was her husband’s name, was a pain in everybody’s ass anyway, so the law gave Vivian the benefit of the doubt.

Vivian never trusted men again though, and the event at Heidi’s house only confirmed her in her assessment of the masculine gender. She took in Heidi and set out to protect her from any repeat of the heartache that both of them had already endured. Heidi’s beautiful long hair, with that little flip curl on the ends that I loved to see as she walked toward me, didn’t last the first day at Aunt Vivian’s house. Any effort by me to make contact with Heidi met with a stone wall. Heidi called me once but I wasn’t at home. My mother told me about it; said that the call was cut short, and it never happened again.

Heidi changed schools, attending instead a school at Lebanon, some twenty five miles away from our town. I never saw her in our town again and nobody else claimed to have seen her either. Vivian lived near the edge of town and they must have shopped and done any other business in the surrounding towns or in Lewisburg, the city 80 miles away. It was as if Heidi had fallen off of the map.

I finally did get to see Heidi again. It was one week after I graduated from the twelfth grade and I had already enlisted in the Army. I was to leave in a week to take the long bus ride to my basic training center, and several of my friends and I were sitting on the picnic benches at the town park smoking and talking and spinning dreams. I wanted pictures of my friends to take with me, and had used almost a whole role of 110 black and white film.

I wanted another soda and a bag of sunflower seeds so I walked across the park to the little store that still stood and did battle with the big supermarket that

had come to Sommerville, only six miles away. As I approached the store I saw two women walking out of the front door and a switch went on inside my head. It was Heidi and Vivian, but I could only barely recognize Heidi. The face was neither masculine nor feminine. If I had to pick any description at all I would have to go with bitter, although empty would place as a close second.

“Guten tag” I said, and she stopped and slowly turned. Vivian turned to, and eyed me the way that one would eye something dead along side of the road.

“Guten tag” she replied. “Wie geht es ihnen?”

Good. Good I replied. I tried to talk to her but I could quickly see that such a project had little chance of success. I told Heidi that I would leave soon for the Army and then probably would be sent to Vietnam, and that I was taking pictures of friends. On an impulse I asked her if I could take her picture.

To my surprise she agreed. Aunt Vivian would not move from her side though, and in fact entwined her arm in Heidi’s in such a way that it looked like Heidi was holding onto her. Vivian was looking at me and I got the impression that she was wondering why it was taking me so long to get to Vietnam and get my ass shot off. Heidi didn’t look much happier, although I allowed that she was probably out of practice. I snapped the picture and they turned and left without another word.
I was left without words as well, and stood speechless as I watched them disappear around a corner. To this date, that was the last time that I saw Heidi.

I do not intend to let things stand that way however. I’m lying on a bunk at the replacement battalion now, waiting for my name to be called so that I can board a plane and return home, free from Vietnam and free from the Army. I’ve kept Heidi’s picture and probably looked at it every day that I wasn’t in the field trying t stay alive. I asked my father to inquire about Heidi’s status and location, and he told me that she is now a clerk in some position at the train station in Merrifield, about twenty miles from home. Dad said that she was dressed nicely: “like a

proper young woman”, and no longer resembled the person that he saw in my picture. “That would scare children and sour milk” he had said. Dad also said that there was no ring on the fourth finger of her left hand. I’m going to look into that when I get home.

A Market Tale, Part I

I was a young man in the days before the time of the supermarket.  My father was a career Navy man so we had access to the commissary on the naval base, and that would pretty nearly qualify as a supermarket in today’s sense of the word, but most of the other souls who resided in San Diego didn’t have access to that vast emporium of comestibles.  Instead, they did their shopping at small neighborhood markets.  The market in my neighborhood was Jim’s Market Spot, and there now follows a couple of stories about that business and also about the building which remained there after Safeway and FedMart and Albertson’s drove Jim and others like him out of business.

Jim’s was located in a brick building on the corner of Landis Street and Fairmont Avenue, about one block away from my house.  The building was not very large, but it was easily three or four times larger than were the tiny intra-neighborhood stores that dotted the residential areas of the city.  Jim’s occupied a corner on busy Fairmont and served the neighborhood with a variety of meats, vegetables, dairy and package goods that the little satellite stores simply couldn’t stock.  My mother did her monthly shopping at the commissary and we drove on weekends to get fresh vegetables and dairy from farms where  Interstates 8 and 805 now cross each other in Mission Valley.  At any time of the month however the baking soda or laundry soap or sugar or eggs would come up short and it was off to Jim’s Mom would go.

I was no stranger to Jim’s either.  I had little use for vegetables and only slightly more for soap, but Jim had a collection of candies that was more than enough to fulfill any young boy’s dreams.  Bubble gum, Pez candies, Likum Straws, jawbreakers, licorice; it was all there and more besides, and much of it could be had for a penny or, if there was a couple of baseball cards or some other prize to be found in every package, maybe a nickel.  That was the good news.  The bad news was that, in the mid 1950’s, pennies and nickels were not so easy to come by for a young kid in what I would later learn was a mid-lower income neighborhood.

That problem was temporarily corrected when, at the age of six, my father returned from a deployment into the Western Pacific.  His ship had been engaged in ferrying Vietnamese people who did not wish to live under the new communist government in the north down to the south of that country where an alternative government had been established.  During that deployment my father, who was a machinist, created a brass piggy bank from a spent three inch shell casing and put all of his spare change into it.  When he returned he gave that treasure trove to my brother Brad and I to saw open with the hacksaw in the garage and divide up.  This we did, and Brad poured that shining, jingling hoard out onto the workbench where we nearly drooled over our Midas-like unimaginable wealth.  We simply split the pile, half and half, and then retired to count our stash like Scrooge McDuck in his money bin.  The only problem is that I couldn’t count so well.  I certainly knew a penny from a nickel from a dime and so on, but I couldn’t really tell you what a penny plus a nickel plus a dime added up to.  Never mind.  It added up to a lot, and I was thrilled with my share.

So now I had to decide how to dispose of this bliss.  My friends, of course, had no end of ideas for the distribution of these bright coins, and more expensive items like ten cent sodas and twenty cent bags of Bell Brand Potato Chips were purchased and consumed at my house or the houses of Wes and Johnny and others, and still the money pile seemed great.  My next opportunity to share my largesse was unique however in that I was presented with the chance to give back to my giver.

Dad was in the Navy, as I have previously stated, and periodically had to deploy on sea duty for extended periods of time.  Upon his return my father would be engaged in all manner of projects, trying to put our house and grounds shipshape before his next deployment.  Painting, patching leaks around the windows, fixing electrical outlets or leaky faucets took up much of his time, as did weeding and repairing fences and many more such outdoor activities.  Dad was a country boy, Georgia farm-born, who preferred being outside to all things, and when he worked outside in the warm San Diego sunshine he would periodically enjoy a cold beer during a break in the action.

Usually it was Pabst Blue Ribbon or Eastside Old Tap Lager.  This was before the proliferation of micro brews and there was a much smaller choice of suds from which to select a favorite.  If anybody today was to taste a Schlitz, or Burgermeister, or Lucky or Blatz, my father’s preference for Pabst and Eastside would demonstrate that he had a discriminating palate indeed.  And when Dad peeled off a metal cap or punched a couple of holes in a can top with a tool that we affectionately called a church key, I would always be out there to get my swig to two from the jug.  Dad was of the opinion that alcohol should not be a mystery to kids, since mystery adds greatly to desirability.  He would therefore share with Brad and I when we were at home and under his direct supervision.  We were never given enough to make us at all wobbly, and I always loved taking a break and sitting with Dad on the big bench swing that he had built out of pipes and other pieces of metal that he cut, threaded and shaped at the machine shop on board his ship and sharing a beer while he told me stories.

It was on one sunny day when Dad was hacking rocks out of the cement-like adobe clay soil that made up our back yard, with the intention of starting a garden, that I had the bright idea to surprise him with a cold beer.  We had none of that commodity in the house and so I dipped into my booty and walked up to Jim’s.  I stepped into the cool, well-lit interior of the building and walked past the butcher counter, past the candy counter (with more than one sideways glance), past the butter and eggs and milk, and straight to the cooler filled with beer.

I was determined that this would not be a miserly show of generosity.  Dad usually bought six packs of stubby glass bottles or metal cans of beer to enjoy at various times of the day.  I had no interest in such a paltry indulgence for Dad’s break time pleasure and went straight to where the big boys rested on a shelf.  I don’t remember which brand I selected, but it was 32 ounces of cold joy which I could already see myself sharing with Dad on the swing.

I selected my purchase and carried it over to the checkout counter, waiting my turn behind a woman who was doing her weekly shopping.  Nobody noticed me, which was normal, and so when the woman concluded her purchase, loaded her bags in a sort of tall wire basket on wheels and rolled it out through the doors of the store, I stepped up and place my beer on the counter that stood a little less than eye level to me.

Jim turned to greet his next customer and just stopped dead in his tracks.  Before him was a quart of beer and a curly haired urchin (I hated that curly hair!) looking up at him with the innocence of a newborn babe.  Jim, who knew me and all of the other kids in the neighborhood, let out a peal of laughter.  As soon as he regained his composure he said “I can’t sell that to you Glenn.”  “Why not?” I asked.  “I want to surprise my dad with it.  He’s working in the back yard and I know that he would like it.”  “I believe you, and I’m sure that your father would be very happy to get your surprise,” Jim knew that Dad enjoyed a brew or three when working outside, “but I can’t sell it to you.  The law says that you have to be twenty one years old to buy it.”

I stood mute for a moment and then pled my case with the vigor and cunning of a pint-sized Perry Mason, but to no avail.  Jim was unwilling to lose his alcohol license or perhaps even his store to aid and abet my surprise gift to Dad, and in fact wouldn’t even let me put the quart bottle back on the shelf.  I left completely indignant and disappointed, and went straight to my mother to share this glaring example of injustice.

Mom laughed out loud, much like Jim had, and this did little to mollify my hurt feelings.  “He’s right” she told me.  “You have to be twenty one to drink beer.”  “But Dad lets me drink beer” I reasoned.  “That’s OK” she replied “As long as we’re here at home.  Out there,” she pointed out the window, “It isn’t allowed.  Dad doesn’t let you drink beer when we’re at the beach, or camping in the mountains does he?”  I had to admit that he did not, and it began to sink in that this surprise was not going to happen.  Mom, however, came to my rescue, as she did so many other times in my life.  “I’ll go up and get you your beer.  And you keep your quarter; I’ll pay for it.”

Cheap grace!  I get the surprise and don’t even have to pay for it.  I readily agreed and walked to Jim’s with Mom.  I stood by her side, and I’m certain that I must have been smirking just a little bit as she paid for the very bottle of beer that I had so recently been holding illegally in my felonious little hands.  Both Mom and Jim had another good laugh, an occurrence that was beginning to rankle considerably, but Jim patted me on my curly head, appreciative of the impulse behind my little role in this episode of life’s theater of the absurd.

We walked back home from Jim’s, with Mom holding the quart, and then I opened it up and went to the back yard to complete my irritatingly delayed surprise.  Dad, who was wielding a pick and shovel and had worked up a good sweat, looked up as I approached him and repaid my efforts with the look of surprise followed by a wide grin that I had looked forward to from the outset.  “Where did this come from?” he asked as he took a long and appreciative pull from the brown glass jug, handed it back to me, and led me over to the swing in the shade of a large Torrey Pine.  I took a swig and began to tell Dad the tale as we sat down.  He put his head back and roared with laughter, which confirmed my growing suspicion that all adults were either crazy or in on a plot to make me so.  He then put his arm around my shoulders however and thanked me for the beer, and that went a long way toward making the whole ordeal worth it.

This break took longer than most.  I shared a little more of the beer while Dad polished off the rest.  He told me stories of his boyhood in Georgia or adventures in China, the Philippines, Korea and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka),  or maybe just daydreamed with me about living in a cabin in the forest or starting a farm of our own.  It was a hard-won quart of beer, but the payoff was well worth it.

 

Can You Play Me A Tune?

“Glenn, you are going to learn how to play the piano.” My father’s words fell upon my ears like a death sentence, and one that I had known was coming for the past year. “Mr. Kadir says that you are old enough to get started, and that’s what you will do next Saturday.  I expect for you to practice one half hour every day and pay attention to Mr. Kadir.”  “Why do I have to learn how to play the piano?  I don’t want to play it” I whined. “That’s fine,” Dad replied.  “I intend for you to learn about some of the more refined things in life than climbing trees and playing with your useless friends, and so if you would prefer to take dance lessons rather than piano I will agree to that.”

Dance lessons! Just the thought of it gave me the shivers.  That would mean holding hands with a girl, and sometimes even putting your arm around one of them!  I didn’t want to play the piano but I certainly did not want to dance.  Imagine the reception that I would get at the local playground when I told Wes and Ralph and Dutch and Jake and my other friends that I had to leave on a Saturday afternoon to go take DANCE lessons.  “Go put your tutu on,” or “Can we see you in your leotard?” were only two of the taunts that I could already hear.  It was clear as crystal that my nervous system would not be able to sustain that, and so I mumbled a half-hearted assent and turned to face the new spinet-style piano that rested in the corner of our living room.  The spinet is a small piano, and that is what was needed to properly fit in the tiny living room of our small stucco cubicle of a home in San Diego.

“Good,” Dad grunted, and walked away, leaving me to stare glumly at the blond-colored vehicle of my immanent loss of freedom.  Later I would have to face my neighborhood pals who would be suffering no similar loss of their freedom, and that thought hurt like fire.  I walked over to the piano and lifted the hinged wooden cover which slid back into the body of the instrument to reveal the eighty eight black and white keys, which looked to me like teeth which populated a smirking smile.  “Screw you Kid.  I own you now” they seemed to be saying to me.  I covered the keyboard back up and left the house to go play in the dirt and try to forget this new intrusion by grown-ups into my life.

My father was on a mission to civilize his two boys.  Brad, my brother, had begun to take violin lessons from Mr. Kadir a year before, and he was pretty good at it although he liked music lessons even less than I would.  Already we had attended a concert at Balboa Park where Brad had played his violin.  Many of the music teachers in San Diego would show off their best students at concerts like these, partly to gain experience at playing publicly for their students and partly to showcase the accomplishments of their own studios.  Many a young boy or girl found their weekends doomed as mine had been after a parent attended one of those concerts and said to him or herself “That’s just what my little Johnny or Judy needs.”

Dad had grown up dirt-poor on a farm in southern Georgia during the Depression.  There was very little refinement in his life, and it was not until he joined the Navy and visited the world outside of Tifton, Georgia, that he realized there could be a lot more to life than sweet potatoes and cornbread.  He was determined that Brad and I would be exposed to finer things from an early age, whether we liked it or not.  And what Dad decided for us was absolute, unquestioned law.

So the dreadful Saturday came and Brad and I were packed up by our mother and trundled off to Mr. Kadir’s studio.  Dad would dictate our removal from all things fun on a San Diego weekend but had no intention of sacrificing an hour himself.  Mom introduced me and then left to do some shopping or go back home or whatever it was that she did when we were not slowing her down, and I sat on a sofa and watched Mr. Kadir put Brad through some scales and other exercises, and then practice some piece or other from the thick, yellow music book with the black notes all over the cover.

I looked through the National Geographic magazines which covered Mr. Kadir’s coffee table, paying special attention to the bare-breasted women from Africa or New Guinea or someplace like that.  I was engrossed in those photos and didn’t notice that Brad had finished his lesson and was putting his violin and bow back into their case.  “OK Glenn, it’s your turn” said Mr. Kadir in the cheerful way that adults do when they’re trying to convince kids that they really want to do something which in fact they really do not.  I arose and trudged over to the piano bench while Brad took my place on the sofa and began to look at the magazines too.  And so began my eleven year ride as a piano student under the tutelage of Mr. Kadir.

Brad did not take violin lessons for very long after I began to learn the piano.  Brad was, and remains to this day, four years older than me, and was more able to assert his will against our father’s in some ways.  He was also a pretty good baseball player and was successful in little league play, and when Dad retired from the Navy and began to take college classes in a teaching program Brad’s disinterest in the violin and his considerable skill at playing third base, plus the idea of saving twelve dollars a month, looked pretty good to Dad.  I had no such skills in baseball however, and had shown an unexpected talent for playing the piano, so Dad mandated that I continue on that track.

And I suppose that I was pretty good.  At the concerts which students all over the city had to endure, the order of performance went from least to most accomplished.  I was steadily moving up later and later in those concerts, and Mr. Kadir was certain that I had a future at the keyboard.  That rise in my skill was interrupted one day when my parents announced that they were separating and getting a divorce.

Freedom at last!  No more would I have to disrupt my Saturdays and waste a half hour every single day after school banging on the piano’s keys.  “Oh yes you do” said my mother, but she enjoyed little of the persuasive ability of Dad in making me practice and go to my lessons.  Consequently I learned little, and frequently “forgot” to practice or to go to my lessons.  Mom was working at a drug store in the evenings and could do nothing about my rebellion.

That all ended six months later when Mom, at her wits end with two boys who were spinning out of control, dropped her divorce proceedings and invited Dad to return.  This he did, and with him came the LAW.  On the first Saturday that I “forgot” to go to a lesson Dad came up to the Park where I was playing wiffle ball with my friends and walked me home, where he began to point out in unmistakable detail the error in my logic and the behavior that was expected of me, with a level of persuasion similar to that which was exercised upon two unlucky cities in Japan on August 6 and 9 of 1945.  Sitting on the piano bench was uncomfortable for the next day or two, but there was never any doubt thereafter that for one half hour every day and a full hour now on Saturdays I would be sitting on a bench practicing at home or learning from Mr. Kadir.

With my return to an enforced diligence of my practice habits I began to advance once again in my studies.  A year after Dad’s return I was accepted by our junior high school Boy’s Chorus leader as an accompanist.  My job was to learn a certain piece of music in order to play it while the chorus would sing.  I never really got the hang of this however.  My model for learning new music was to practice over, and over, and over again, for weeks or months or more until my fingers seemed to remember where to go on their own.  This model was not at all suited for a setting where the boys would begin to practice their singing almost immediately, and the accompanist must be up and running from the beginning.  To say the least, I failed miserably at my mission, and only accompanied one song before I was installed in the baritone section as a singer rather than a player.  It all worked out in the end however.  As a result of my dilatory effort as a pianist I was standing on the risers with the rest of the Chorus when we sang as President John F. Kennedy rode past us in 1963, which was one of the most stirring moments of my life.

I played the piano for four more years after that, gradually improving in the complexity and length of the pieces which my fingers came to remember.  I had moved up to the point where I was always last or second to last at concerts, and usually I played a boogie version of “Flight of the Bumblebee” by Rimsky-Korsakov or “Malagueña” by Ernesto Lecuana.  I had become very good at playing both.

One day Mr. Kadir took me to a gathering of students where he took his own lessons from a Mr. Strahan.  That worthy teacher was a retired concert pianist who had studied under a student of a student of Franz Liszt, or something like that, and gave lessons to piano teachers from around the city.  I got carsick on the way there, which was no surprise since I got carsick all of the time, and Mr. Kadir and his teacher took great pains to patch me up with Alka Seltzer and Seven Up.  Later, I was introduced and asked to play “Bumble Boogie”, which I did, and rather well as I remember.  Later, on the way home, Mr. Kadir told me that his teacher virtually never allowed people who were not his pupils play at his gatherings, and that this was a great honor that had been shown to me.  Fortunately I had been too carsick to worry about anything, even if I had known about this, and performed at the top of my game.

The last piece of music that I was working on when I gave up the piano was “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin.  I loved that tune then and I love it today, and I set out to remember all thirty two pages of it.  I had memorized something into the twenties of pages when, in my junior year at high school, my interest in the piano collapsed completely.  My father had begun to recognize that his son might be a reasonably skilled technician at the keyboard but would by no means ever become a real musician, and so he was not entirely surprised when one day I told him that I just didn’t want to do it anymore.

To my considerable surprise Dad agreed.  The freedom that I felt was immense!  I do not remember exactly what I did that moment but a good guess would be that I went directly to the Park and hung out with my friends like all of the other teenagers in my neighborhood were doing, happy as a pig in mud.  To my mother fell the task of driving over to Mr. Kadir’s studio and telling him of my termination of lessons.  My mother told me many years later that Mr. Kadir cried upon hearing the news.

I have hardly touched a piano since that last day.  Two years later I was in Vietnam, a future that my father could perhaps see when he allowed me my freedom.  A few years after that, in college, friends at parties might ask me to play when they learned of my lessons, but they wanted improv, honky tonk and rock and roll, not “Bumble Boogie” and “Malagueña.”  I eventually stopped mentioning my piano history.

But there is a legacy.  Fifty years after my last lesson I still love the great music laid down by Bach, Beethoven, Lecuana, Chopin, DeFalla and Gershwin just as much as I love the work laid down by John, Paul, George and Ringo.  Mr. Kadir, don’t cry for me.  You made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, and I will always remember you as one of the most appreciated guides of my life.

You Can’t Go Home Again, Part I

“You can’t go home again,” or so Thomas Wolfe told us in his novel bearing that title which was published posthumously in 1940. “I can never go home again” the musical group We Five melodiously assured us in 1965. I have no doubt that Mr. Wolfe was a very smart fellow, and heaven knows that I listened to and loved We Five’s album ‘You Were On My Mind’ album over and over again.  It was therefore with some trepidation that I pulled over to the curb and parked one day in 1987 right in front of the house in which I had lived in or been connected to for most of twenty four years. I had been thinking about this house for the entire morning, when I should have been paying attention at the conference in San Diego that my employer in Portland Oregon had sent me too. This was the first day of the conference but all I could think about was being back in the city where I grew up. Before long it became obvious to me that I would never be able to pay attention to speakers presenting on topics like “The Advance of Venous Duplex over Maximum Venous Outflow” or “Predicted Restenosis of Carotid Endarterectomy” until I put the distraction of being in my hometown behind me. The topics of the afternoon schedule did not apply to my practice, and so I checked out after the complimentary lunch and drove over highways and streets, some changed and some familiar, and soon found myself parked in front of the house in which I had grown up and wondering what to do next.

I could see at a glance that a good deal had changed in the ten years since I had seen the place. The postage stamp-sized lawn in front of the boxy stucco house was still there, but you could tell at a glance that it was not nearly the priority that it had been when I lived there. My father gave me the duty of watering and mowing the lawn every Saturday, complete with edging and raking and periodically spreading composted steer manure over the lush, green Saint Augustine grass. That grass, at least once the manure had been absorbed into it, made a soft surface upon which my brother Brad and I, and other kids in the neighborhood, would roughhouse. What I saw on that day would not be much fun to wrestle on. The ground appeared to be hard, the grass yellow more than green, and thin. Getting thrown on your backside in a game of ‘lawn football’ (invented by my friend Pat and I) on this grass would more likely earn one a trip to the chiropractor than the fit of laughter that more normally accompanied our games.

And the tree was gone too. We enjoyed a tall evergreen tree that grew on the property line between our property and our neighbor’s, or at least very close to it. I remember it to have been a pine of some sort, and we would spend a good many hours on any day of the year climbing to the top, or out as far as we dared to go on the big, spreading branches.  I would sometimes flee there to hide, such as the time that my brother Brad attempted to chop the head off of one of our chickens and only got the job mostly done.  We had purchased a dozen chicks and hoped to secure eggs from the hens.  Somehow we ended up with a dozen roosters (to this day I believe that we were scammed!).  Dad was determined that we should receive some benefit for our expense and efforts and decided, one day, that one of the birds would go into the stew pot.

The doomed chicken was selected an the neck laid against a big, rectangular block of wood that we had in the back yard. Brad raised the hatchet and down it came with a dull “Thwock.”  I have read that in some societies in the Middle Ages when a condemned prisoner was led to the block that he would give the axeman a small sum of money to ensure that the executioner would exercise diligence in completing his work with one clean stroke.  The chicken, unfortunately, had no small purse to offer and the stroke succeeded in only MOSTLY severing the head.

What followed was predictable.  The thoroughly dead chicken began to run around the yard ‘like a chicken with it’s head cut off’. Only it wasn’t entirely cut off.  Chicken blood was splattering hither and yon while the head flopped around madly, dangling from its tread of skin, until the bird ended its macabre gavotte and lay down in the dust, dead as a door-nail.  At least, that is how I am told that it ended.  I wouldn’t know.  Before the bird could lie down twitching its last twitch I has hiking my horrified ass up into the tree and climbing to the highest tip that would support my weight. I knew as a fact that the chicken was waiting around some corner of the house or behind a bush, and that as soon as I set foot upon terra firma it would be there to run at me, sling its head around on its bloody tether and peck me in the leg with its lifeless beak.  I stayed in that tree for hours, and Brad made himself scarce somewhere as well. Mom dutifully plucked and cooked the chicken, but Dad enjoyed a solitary meal that afternoon.  The next weekend the remaining eleven birds were packed up and given to a less squeamish family friend who lived in the country, where they no doubt came to a similar end, but one that I did not have to witness.

Now only a low, aging stump remained where that noble pine once stood. Our neighbor always feared that a good wind would one day put it down, turning her small replica of our house into a duplex. Dad didn’t care for the old harridan, but after we boys had grown out of climbing trees he slowly lost his determination to keep the tree, and finally caved in. I would have rather it had fallen on her, but then I would not have been the one to pay for the legal expenses, so I guess that I had no legitimate say in the affair. I had shortly become completely finished with the tree anyway, a story to which I will return later.

I stood on the sidewalk looking at the house, and debated what to do. I had seen it well enough that I should be able to declare that the itch had been sufficiently scratched and gone my way, but that stinking itch just wouldn’t go away. It became increasingly clear that I would have to go to the front door, knock, and if anyone should be home I would introduce myself and ask if it would be permissible for me to take a look in my old back yard. My mind made up, I strode up the concrete walkway that Dad and I had poured twenty years or more earlier, mounted the two steps onto the tiny porch, and knocked on the door.

The door had once been finely finished, well sanded and with many coats of varnish brushed it to protect it from the dry air of southern California. Now it was laced with myriad cracks, and the varnish was flaking and peeling.  I stood there looking at that door, remembering the pride that Dad placed in anything that he did and also thinking of all the times that I had burst through that door, ten thousand times at least, when at last I heard a locking mechanism turning and heard the hinges squeak slightly as the door swung slowly, partially open.

A small face appeared at the door, peered at me for an instant, and then turned back into the interior of the house and said “Mama, no sé quién es.” The door closed, and after a moment or two a larger version of the first face stared out at me from the small crack that the barely opened door afforded.  “Hello” she said tentatively.

“Hello” I replied. “My name is Glenn, and I grew up in this house. I’m sorry to be a bother to you, but I am only in town for a few more days and I would like very much to just take a look at the back yard. I have a lot of memories of growing up here and I would love to see what has changed and what hasn’t. I would completely understand if you are not comfortable with this, and if so I will not bother you again.” The woman said “wait a minute” and closed the door. No more than a minute or two passed but I was becoming convinced that this was a bad idea.  I raised my hand to knock on the door again, this time to tell the lady that I was sorry to have been a bother, when the door opened once again and the older, larger face reappeared. “Come around to the back, and we will meet you” she said.

Surprised and pleased, I stepped to the right of the door, through a small arched aperture which led from the porch down to ground level, a space of about a foot and a half, and on to the dining room corner of the house.  At that corner there began a low, gated chain link fence which stretched across the driveway; a fence that my father had put in after I had returned from Vietnam.  My eyes drifted over to a newer, whiter patch of concrete that stood out against the half-century old concrete of the rest of the driveway.  I chuckled as I saw that patch.

Dad had used a sledge hammer to pound out the three holes in the old existing driveway where he intended to set the poles which would anchor the two ends and the gate. I had just ridden my bike about twelve or thirteen miles from where I lived with several other people and smoked a joint along the way.  I enjoyed smoking marijuana in the most obvious of places because that is where people least expected one to do so, so after nearly exploding my heart by crawling up an almost vertical secondary hillside road out of El Cajon Valley into Fletcher Hills, I lit my cigar-sized joint and smoked it while I glided easily down the mostly downhill seven or eight miles that remained between me and my family home. I was going for dinner, which was certain to be a far tastier event than anything that I could whip up at the kitchen in our rented house.

When I arrived at my childhood home I asked Dad what he was doing. He explained his mission and then disappeared into the garage at the far corner of the lot to get something that he needed. With my well-addled senses I analyzed the holes in the concrete and somehow concluded that one more hole was needed. Perhaps because the two holes intended to hold the gate posts were clustered to one side of the proposed fence, far from the third  posthole which lay solitary and lonely at the other end, offended my seriously skewed sense of feng shui, or perhaps because there was some more elemental, bizarro caricature of common sense lurking in my Id that grasped at its opportunity to bask momentarily in the light of day, it seemed obvious to me that one more hole was desperately needed for balance, and I determined that I would step up to the plate and help Dad with his project.

The sledge was leaning against the house, and I picked it up and began whaling away at a spot I had somehow calculated to be the place where Dad needed one more hole in his driveway. In spite of my sketchy lifestyle I was twenty two years old and in pretty good physical shape. Therefore, by the time Dad returned I had a pretty good divot banged out of his driveway. “What the hell are you doing?” Dad asked me, more in amazement than annoyance. “Well”, I answered, “I thought you needed one more hole for balance, so I busted it out for you.”

If I would have done this before enlisting in the army Dad would probably have knuckled my head and given me a half-dozen nasty and annoying tasks to perform to atone for my sins. On this day he just laughed and told me to put down the sledge before I did any more damage. Dad explained the concept of gates needing posts but that the middle of a nine foot stretch of chain link fence did not need them so much.  In an instant I realized the idiocy of my act and apologized, but Dad said not to worry. “I’m mixing up concrete to pour around the posts, and I have plenty to patch that hole as well.” We retreated to the back yard and opened a couple of beers while the rented mixer turned Dad’s cement and sand and gravel and water round and round, until the slushy mess was ready to pour around the three poles, as well as patch the one hole that could not boast a good reason for being there. I thought of that day as I opened the gate of the fence that my Dad had set the poles for  sixteen years earlier.

The mistress of the house and two of her children met me at the back door and we walked together to the end of the concrete driveway which extended a few feet past the corner of the house. “We used to have a garage there” I said, pointing to an area of grass, dirt and weeds which proceeded fifteen feet or so from the end of the driveway. “My father wanted a bigger garage to hold the car and all of his tools, so he built that garage over there” – I pointed to the structure in the far corner of the back yard that opened onto the alley – “and we tore down the old garage which once stood here.”

That new garage was actually a source of angst for me.  My father had the foundation poured, but then he did every bit of the carpentry and wiring and roofing and siding, and everything else that one needed to do to build a functioning garage.  Dad had also done a lot of wiring and plumbing and other maintenance and remodel work on the house.  I had no natural ability for such things, and this was made worse by the fact that both Dad and my brother were very accomplished automobile mechanics.  I had neither the talent nor inclination to do these things but I certainly felt like less of a person because of that.  Dad didn’t help things when he told me one day “Son, when you grow up you had better learn how to make a living with your head, because if you have to depend on your hands you’ll starve.”  The really sad thing is that I spent seven of my adult years working in construction only to prove ultimately that my father was right.

“That was my bedroom window” I said, pointing to the window in the corner of the house that we had just walked around. “That’s my window” exclaimed the young girl who had initially answered at the front door.  “When I lived here we had a plant called a ‘night blooming jasmine’ that grew right there” – I pointed to a spot near the window – “and every night the flowers would open up and my whole room would smell like jasmine”.  “Oooh, I want a jasmine” the girl, who might have been twelve years old, squealed as she clapped her hands and bounced a little on her toes. Mom just smiled and mumbled “Maybe.” What I didn’t tell her was that the fragrance of that bush could actually be overpowering, and that I didn’t always like it so much.  It was nevertheless fun connecting over it with this new little resident of what I felt, just a little bit, was still my room.

I then walked over to a bench-style swing and set down on it. The swing faced west, towards the alley, and another swing much like the first faced back toward the house across a square wooden table top. The girl sat next to me, with us now being best buddies and all, while Mom and the younger boy sat on the swing facing us. “Let me tell you about these swings,” I began—.”

Camping Tonight, Camping Tonight

One of the great failed experiments of my life was a brief stent that I did with the Boy Scouts of America.  I have loved camping and the outdoors for as long as I can remember and the attraction to an organization that represented pup tents and hiking and sleeping bags was irresistible, so in due time I and several of my friends contacted the Boy Scouts.  After a short while Mr. Saysack made contact with us and our parents and we were placed together, along with several guys from the margins of our neighborhood, into something called a “pack” or “troop” or “patrol” or something like that.  While I don’t really remember what they called our little group I can clearly remember that we were number 926.

The goal of the Scouts is to turn out boys who become good citizens and the Boy Scout Oath says it all:  “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; To help other people at all times; To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”  The Scout Law mentioned above states “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful and thrifty.”  If I was to cudgel my brains for a week I don’t believe that I could come up with a group of kids less likely to succeed in this endeavor.

The core of our group were myself and my friends Wes Miller, Brian Nosanko, Butch Martin and Larry Gerrow.  I don’t know what Butch’s real name was, but I suppose that it could have been Butch.  I knew Butch through my friendship with Wes, and can’t say that I ever really liked him very much, if at all.  Butch lived with a single parent and used the freedom that that condition gave him to run completely wild.  Butch knew nothing about truth, honor, kindness or anything else of that nature.  I lived in a very authoritarian family situation and the utterly unencumbered freedom that Butch enjoyed seemed appealing to me, but any amount of time spent in his presence led me to believe that he was not a person whom I would ever call a friend.  In later years Wes, who stuck with Butch into early adulthood, came to call him “The Worm”.  It was an accurate name.  I have no idea what happened to Butch after we were all about 22 or 23 but I am certain that it wasn’t good.

Brian was more fun to be around, but he had his issues as did all of us.  Brian’s issue was that he was an enormous liar.  Now all of us would tell a fib every now and then in order to get out of trouble, impress a girl or something like that, but Brian would tell whoppers that were breathtaking in scope simply for the pleasure of telling them.  Most of Brian’s corpus of work I have forgotten, but his dad’s rubber blowtorch and his ability to take the head off of a wasp with a BB gun, or maybe it was a bow and arrow, stood out from amongst the throng.  One time Wes and I tried to count all of Brian’s lies and, with a little enhancing of our own, arrived at the number of 1,000.  Brian, who we called “Fantastiko” in a modification of his real last name, was outraged by this activity.  “It’s not more than 700” he declared.  I’m not making this up!  Brian was last seen wandering burned out, befuddled and homeless on a beach in San Diego many years ago.  I doubt that he is alive today.

Larry was just a normal guy, for our neighborhood anyway.  He had an edge about him and would not hesitate to fight over issues that I could not see the worth of, but he also had a good heart and was a lot of fun to be around.  We spent a lot of time just hanging out, daydreaming and competing with each other to tell the biggest lies about our significance, frequently with an eye towards impressing Susan Smith, who was not nearly as impressed with either one of us as we were with ourselves.  Larry moved out of our neighborhood in my early teens and I lost track of him.  I was told that he walked into a liquor store that was in the process of being robbed and was shot and killed, and I assume that this story is true.

If you have read any of my other stories you know about Wes.  He was also from a single parent family and was a handful for his mother, but Wes had a better grip on life than did Butch.  Wes always did have a sense of order and of right and wrong, and in the end turned out very well indeed.  We still write to each other to this day.

So we became part of the group numbered 926, and Mr. Saysack began immediately to try to mold us into something like Boy Scouts (a fool’s errand if ever there was one).  None of us were any good at tying knots with ropes, starting fires with a bow, or any of that other merit badge stuff.  In fact, I am not aware of any of us even earning a single merit badge.  For my part I lacked the self confidence necessary to even conceive of so doing, and the other guys just didn’t care one way or the other about it all.  What we mostly wanted out of the Scouts was the hiking and camping, and hike and camp is what we certainly did.

Our experiences were pretty much what you would expect them to be.  We cooked simple meals over campfires, with the scoutmaster doing the more complicated duties and us ineffectually trying to clean up.  We pitched our tents and gathered wood, climbed trees and descended from lower branches by climbing down ropes, and best of all, we hiked.

I loved the hiking and often engaged in that activity with my father.  He taught me to take water in a canteen, wear a hat to keep the sun off of my skin which refused to tan, and most important of all, find and carry a longish stick to use as a walking stick and also as a snake finder.  The mountains and deserts east of San Diego are full of snakes, some of which have a diamond pattern on their backs and a big rattle on their tails, and father taught me early about the wisdom of letting them know of my presence well before I put my shoe down in the midst of their coils.  Rattling my stick in the brush as I walked would alert the snakes to my presence and they in return would rattle their tails to alert me to theirs.

On one particular hike I was more interested in goofing off with my friends than paying attention to details like those mentioned above and we found ourselves running single file down a narrow path through the low chaparral in the hills east of the city.  The scoutmaster and his assistant had told us to stay together as a group but of course we blew that instruction off as quickly as we could.  I don’t remember just why we were running down that path but running we were, and I most vividly remember what happened next.

I heart Butch scream a short distance ahead of me, followed by a shouted curse word by Larry and then the same from Brian.  Wes and I had time to pull up and then we crept forward to see what was happening.  A couple of yards in front of us we saw a small widening in the path with a huge rattlesnake coiled on the edge of it.  It seems that the guys burst into that clearing running at full tilt as the snake was crawling across the path.  Snakes, as you undoubtedly know already, cannot strike unless they are coiled, and this snake was surprised by the appearance of three idiots who flew noisily over his head before he could coil for action.

He was most certainly coiled appropriately when I pulled up at the edge of the clearing and was sending an unmistakable message that any further interference with him was going to be paid for in the most painful of ways.  The three boys on the other side of the clearing were howling for the scoutmaster and Wes and I ran back up the path to find him.

Mr. Saysack came back with us and calmly assessed the situation.  Picking up a large rock he advanced to as close to the snake as he safely could and threw the rock down upon the snake’s head.  He repeated that process with another rock and then, holding the snake’s head down with a stick just in case it was only playing possum, extracted his Boy Scout knife from its sheath and cut off the snake’s head.  We dug a hole in the dirt and buried the head several inches deep, since one can step on the head of a dead snake and still receive an injection of venom through its sharp teeth.

Mr Saysack then skinned the snake and ordered two of the other boys to make a campfire.  We all carried with us our collapsable mess kits which included a frying pan that could also be used as a deep plate, and Mr. Saysack proceeded to use several of these pans to fry up chunks of that snake, using its own fat as oil.  Most of the guys indulged but I resisted eating any of that snake.  They said that it tasted like chicken.  No surprise there.

On another campout we were joined by several other groups of Scouts where we enjoyed joint adventures and some competition.  I recall one boy from another group trying to get a swimming merit badge by entering a standard swimming pool, swimming the length of it, and exiting the deep end, all without making a sound.  This is an impressive enough accomplishment in it’s own right, but in this boy’s case it was made all the more so by the fact that he got nailed on the shoulder by a drowning honey bee while making his exit.  None of us noticed this until he was declared successful, at which time he hopped around that pool like a jumping bean.  The stinger was extracted and a poultice of shredded potato was applied, and the boy’s status grew by leaps and bounds even among our own group.

Later in this trip we engaged in a match of “capture the flag” with another group of Scouts.  I knew that I was no way close to being fast enough to dash up a low hill and capture the other team’s flag before they could catch me, so I hatched a plan to crawl through the tall grasses on my belly like a reptile and catch them by surprise.  I moved out to the right edge of the field which stood between our two flags and began to execute my plan silently and invisibly.

I don’t know how long it took for me to use what the Army would later teach me was a “low crawl” to cross that field and begin to approach that low hill where their flag fluttered in the breeze at the summit, but I would say at least a half hour and probably more.  I had crawled through thistles and the occasional cactus, with bees and wasps fluttering around my head and anthills everywhere to be avoided, but finally I was at the base of that hill, well rested and ready to explode out of hiding, race up that hill to where the flag was, and carry it past tired defenders to the accolades of my fellow Scouts.

It was at that moment that Tim Jensen, one of the members of our group from the margin of the neighborhood, popped into view from the other side of the hill, snatched up the enemy flag and ran whooping past the boys of each group.  Tim was a pudgy kid who had less athletic ability than even I did, so I cannot adequately express how greatly it vexed me that he used some stratagem similar to my own to earn the cheers of our side.  I arose from my hiding place and took my time coming in, dragging my feet and pouting all the way.

We didn’t exist as a group for long.  Mr. Saysack grew tired of wasting his energy trying to make Scouts out of us, and we were just hitting the years where girls and cars and music and smoking and everything else was successfully competing for our attention.  My parents separated then and now I lived in a single parent family too, with predictable results.

Rumor has it that the Boy Scouts retired our number, not wanting to take the chance that anything like us would ever come around again.  I don’t know if that is true, and in fact it probably is not.  But we really were not what Robert Baden-Powell had in mind when he started the movement over 100 years ago.  Still we had fun, and while we were Scouting, however poorly we accomplished that endeavor, we were not doing anything worse, and for that I guess the Boy Scouts of America deserves a round of applause and a tip of the hat.