This is a haiku that I wrote several years ago, which I can't get out of my mind:
Pity the drowned moth.
So often do our desires
Become our demise.
Thursday, July 7, 2011
I asked a dear person in my life, recently, "Who is your favorite poet?"
It was a life-changing experience, when, with no hesitation, she said, "You."
With love to her, with love to my readers, here is a poem for you.
It is not very nice.
My name is Herschel Heinz.
I was a soldier.
I was a soldier in what
I believed was
A Great War.
I believed it a Great Action.
I joined the army in 1938.
I traveled to Czechoslovakia
When I truly became a soldier.
That I would make
My father proud,
My family proud,
That I would someday make a family.
I believed that I
Would make my
As I departed on the train.
I began to disbelieve
In my Rifle.
I began to disbelieve
In my officers
On the train to Czechoslovakia.
We arrived and we had food and barracks.
We had prostitutes.
We had wonderful beer.
Again and again,
We had wonderful prostitutes and beer.
We had what was called
The men and boys
Were taken from the towns
This, in front of their wives
And mothers, big and little sisters,
I did not so much mind
Continuing lives of the men and the boys
Would create future soldiers
Who would want to kill me.
Of a morning,
My men found
A cowering dozen
Men and boys in a cellar
By the railway station.
There were men,
And there were their sons,
And there were the men’s fathers,
And we had them all,
And we would execute them all.
For hiding, were they.
How dare they
Try to escape
My officers laughed
At the foible of the men and boys.
There was to be
Of their fate.
The February air was frigid.
Raised their pistols
And demanded that
The men and the boys strip naked.
Pistols drawn, the officers,
Still drunk on prostitues and beer,
Demanded that the men
Drop to their knees
And fellate their own sons.
I had been,
Proudly, issued a Luger handgun
Upon my induction
Into the German army.
I drew my pistol.
And the grandfathers
Were naked on their knees.
They and the boys were shivering
With cold and with fear.
I boldly overstepped
I strode forward
To the shivering
Men and boys.
You have only
Two choices, I declared.
You may die
Or you will die on your knees.
Avoided my gaze,
And drew back his shoulders.
It is a hero
I emptied my clip
A shot behind the ear
Of those men and boys.
Led to a truck, was I.
Put on a train
For the military crime
The following Bloodbath
Held no Mercy
For me or for any other.
I walked from the Russian battlefield home to Germany,
To my home, no longer.
I became a soldier
To be of a Nation,
To be of a Family,
To make my nation and my family
Sunday, July 3, 2011
Despite the fact that I often portray my parents as neglectful, they really did try to do right by me. In a way, I believe that they had their figurative hands as full of me as they did their literal hands with the seemingly constant flow of their new babies in my youth. I was five years old when my first brother was born, another brother two years after that, and a sister two years, then again, after that. For six years there was a baby around the house, and I was, at least, needy and uncooperative. I was at most, hyperactive, needy, and somewhere along the border of tyrannical.
This is not to say that I was always a badly behaved little boy; although, often enough, I was. This is also not to say that my adults were deferential to the babies, because both my mom and my dad really did go out of their way to attend to my upbringing and its financial and temporal needs.
Who brought me to the doctor and the dentist? Surely not the insurance company. Who bought the mail-order books so that I could learn on my own and keep my damn mouth shut for an hour a day? Who put people-food on the table, instead of baby food, for me? Who got me “big boy” clothes, in spite of the real deal that most of the clothing would not be around in five years for hand-me-downs for my siblings? Who else would have thought of those things? Nobody but Mom and Dad, that’s who. Yes, they had their hands full, and because of all of us kids, not their wallets full. Hands and money aside, imagine the expenditure of their time. In my youthful exuberance, there seemed to be always a sleeping or feeding baby or one whose diaper needed changing or one who needed bathing, or dad needed a couple hours to catch up on work at home, or mom needed fifteen damn minutes of peace and quiet to talk to one of her sisters on the telephone.
“Michael, go out and play.”
“Michael, go out and play.”
“Michael, go out and play.”
Honestly, I tried.
Sometimes there were kids in the neighborhood to play with. Sometimes there were enough around for a sandlot baseball game. Sometimes, if there weren’t enough to play pick-up football, you could just take what you had and, with boys and girls alike, play “cream-the-guy-with-the-ball.” With only one or two, you could play “army fort.” You could see who was at home and maybe play a board game indoors or watch some TV. All alone, you could slide down a snowy or muddy hill, climb a tree or up onto a garage roof. You could explore that garage without anyone knowing. You could piss in the bushes.
All alone, you could let your imagination glide like the shadow of a cloud over everything to which you were drawn, over everything with which you were tempted. Like the shadow of a cloud, there was nobody there to stop you.
All alone, I don’t know if I’ve ever known a kid who hasn’t dreamed of winning “The Big One.” And what could that be? The homer that wins the World Series? The winning touchdown? The girl playing house embracing the man of her dreams? A bloodied and beaten knockout in the twelfth round? The twenty-fifth service ace for the match? An Olympic gold medal? The shot that drops the Nazi sniper from his perch? The Easy-Bake cake that makes mom and dad proud?
All alone, one dreams. One wins. That is just that.
I am a lefty, and I am not much of a hitter or a fielder, so I did not pester my folks about getting into Little League baseball. I had killed many Nazis, and I had won several Olympic gold medals for the luge and in Track & Field, when my dad suggested I start playing Pee-Wee football. I was small for my ten years, but I loved the game and team sports. I was fast, and I had been brought down several times, uninjured, by as many as seven guys twice my size, in “cream-the-guy-with-the-ball.”
Hell, all alone, I had run back many a kickoff for the winning NFL touchdown.
Pointing back to my parents’ availability and responsibility toward me, they really did this one right. It was required that I sign up and have a regulation helmet, shoulder pads, and a mouthpiece. Dad took me out to the sporting goods store and spent his hard-earned money to get the equipment; mom helped me boil the mouthpiece, so that I could chomp down on it, and it would fit my teeth. Dad took me to Lincoln Junior High to register. He signed the paperwork. I was to be on the Dolphins. I was thrilled. On the ride back home, dad told me that there was one piece of equipment that hadn’t been previously mentioned, which was required for me to play. It was a jockstrap. My dad being my dad, he left it fairly to my imagination as to just what a jockstrap is and what it does.
He was working hard and late that week, so it was up to my mom and me to go and pick one up. A few nights before the first practice, mom and I went together to the sporting goods store. By this time, of course, I had asked a few friends, exactly what was a jockstrap, and what was it for, so I was loaded with youthful information. My mom and I looked around for one among the various sports equipment and athletic shoes, and we didn’t see any, so we went to the counter, and she asked the kid at the register where we might find one.
“Who is it for?” the kid asked.
“It’s for my son,” she answered, “He’s going to play football.”
She indicated me, and the kid looked me up and down.
“Oh, you playing Pee-Wee? You’ll need a ‘small,’” and he pulled one down from a rack behind him.
She paid him, and he smirked at me. “Do you want to wear it home?”
I didn’t think that was very funny.
Come Saturday morning, dad stayed at home working, and mom drove me to the practice field. She dropped me off, and I was on my own to find, among several groups of boys who were just about all far bigger than me, the Dolphins. I asked around and was pointed towards a group of kids who were the smallest in stature of anyone there. I had on my shoulder pads, carried my helmet, from which hung my mouthpiece, and was clutching my permission slip to play. The jockstrap was squishing my testicles. I approached a man with a stopwatch around his neck. His hair and face were red. He was smoking a cigarette, and he was addressing a gaggle of uniformed boys who were already assembled on a long wooden bench. I stood there until he was finished talking, and he turned to me, irritated, as though I was late, although I knew I wasn’t.
“What team are you on, kid?” he spat.
“Well, that’s us.”
He looked disappointed.
“What’s your name?”
I handed him my permission slip, and he looked at it, seemed satisfied, moved a pack of Old Golds off a clipboard and stuck the piece of paper onto the rest of them. He reached into a cardboard box under the bench and pulled out an arbitrary jersey.
“Okay Chandler, you’re number twenty-four. Siddown over there.”
He turned toward our fledgling team.
“Alright now, boys, listen up...”
The practice went okay. I wasn’t as fast as some of the other boys in sprints, but I got to knock around some kids who were bigger than me, even though the coach didn’t seem to notice. I was kind of shy, and I didn’t talk much to anyone, and I remember thinking that that was kind of tough, just like a real football player.
The following week, I found out that our coach’s name was Mr. Keith.
Mr. Keith set us up doing drills of running, throwing, catching, kicking the ball, tackling, et al., but he didn’t really explain any of the rules of football. Mind you, I had gotten my chops on “cream the guy with the football.” At the end of practice, Mr. Keith doled out our positions. I was to play defensive tackle. I was proud of that assignment. My dad had been friends with Nick Buoniconti of the real NFL Dolphins, and that was a legacy I wanted to follow... in both ways. I think it was, at the time, just as important for me to be friends with my dad as it would have been for me to become the next Nick Buoniconti. But I loved tackling. I followed the ball all over my side of the field, and after the final two practices, I learned that I would not start in our first game. As is the process in most sports teams, Mr. Keith gave instructions and encouragement to the team’s stars and to his favorites, usually better athletes than pee-wee me, or the sons of his friends. For all my enthusiasm in practice and attentiveness in team meetings, I was out of the loop and benched.
The Dolphins were not terrible; we were, for the most part, smaller and less experienced than the other teams we faced. We finally won our fifth game out of the nine to be played, as I mostly watched from the sidelines. Our team’s numbers dwindled as some of the boys didn’t like getting knocked around in the mud during what was obviously a losing season as we headed into game seven. I also think Mr. Keith’s commandeering attitude and his chain-smoking of Old Golds swayed some parents to grant their sons’ wishes to retire pee-wee football before their contracts were up.
“Chandler, you’re starting today,” Mr. Keith barked at the start of game number eight. He really had no choice.
I lined up across from a fat kid about my size, but who mightily outweighed me. As we went into the set position, he snarled at me and stared me dead in the eye. He growled and snorted. The ball was snapped.
On defense, I was allowed to use my hands, but I didn’t. I put my helmet into his right shoulder pad and knocked him back on his fat ass. On the second play, I put my forearm into his sternum. And now he had muddy pants and was getting frustrated. On third down, I just ran around him toward the quarterback and the ball. Seeing me coming unattended, the kid threw into nowhere, and they had to punt. As I ran back to the bench, Mr. Keith gave me a swack on the back of my helmet and coughed to the team, “That’s the way you do it, boys!”
On every subsequent running play by the opposition, I put Pudge onto his keister, and he began whining to the referee that I wasn’t playing fair. Oh yes, I was. On pass plays, I simply ignored his grass-stained uniform and followed the ball. I had one sack and two interceptions. We were up by four points late in the game, and they put on a running play to my side. I easily circumvented fatty-weepy and fearlessly ran for an open-field tackle toward their running back. It was me and him. He was at least a foot taller than me, a couple years older, more muscular, and definitely faster. I angled in toward him, saw my spot and, coming fast, dove for his knees.
If you have ever been the victim of a stiff-arm block, you know that it is an ultimate stopper. Mr. Keith had never taught us that one, yet it is a classic football move. As I flew through the air, the running back merely jammed his free hand into the top of my helmet, dropped me, and, with my facemask full of mud and grass, I watched him run for what became, for them, the winning touchdown.
As I trotted back to the bench, Mr. Keith did not acknowledge me. As the game clock ran out, he clapped his hands and called, “Alright, boys, next week!”
He lit up an Old Gold.
I, number twenty-four, started the Dolphins' final game in my spot at right defensive tackle.
I faced a kid smaller than me and, at scrimmage, put him on his back a few times until it looked like he was going to cry, and I pulled back on much force toward him after the second series of downs, and, I suppose, in gratitude, he let me run the field at will. Watching for the stiff-arm, I got a few open-field tackles. I blocked a couple would-be receptions on pass plays, and I dropped one potential interception. And the Dolphins were winning. We were up by three points.
The other team had one last set of downs at the end of the game to beat us. I knew the quarterback and his family. He was, again, older and way bigger than pee-wee me. On first down, he was running up the middle. I ignored the tow-headed kid in front of me, broke left, split the line, and I smacked that quarterback in the ribcage with my helmet and my arms. We both got up slowly. On second down, he threw a pass that his receiver couldn’t handle. On third down, I rushed him and he had to throw to Nether Land. To win, they had to make a play on fourth down, and I was becoming an undefended pest. They ran the ball, and there I was. I knocked that big guy into his stomach, and he fell, as did I. On the ground, he kicked me hard in the balls. We had won.
The quarterback got up and strode to his losing bench. I struggled to sit up. I struggled to breathe. I struggled to see what was in front of me. I heard cheering from our bench. After a few minutes, Mr. Keith walked over to midfield, where I was still struggling to my feet.
“Hey, we won. What’s the matter, kid?”
He was smoking an Old Gold.
I gasped a term of his, “I got my bell rung.”
“You wearing your jockstrap?”
“What. Did you forget your cup?” he asked.
“What’s a cup?”
“’What’s a cup?’ You tell your mom and dad to get you one next year.”
Another elemental football aspect that I had not been taught.
Mr. Keith turned, trailing cigarette smoke, and walked past the bench toward his car, far away in the parking lot.
There was no next year for me and Pee Wee football.
Friday, May 27, 2011
I could not wish for Luby Small to rest in peace, because he never, ever gave anything to The World That We Share other than peace, among many other gifts that we folks may often only fantasize of giving.
My father met Luby’s dad, Mr. Small, back when our family lived in Augusta, Maine, and Mr. Small was some manner of co-worker with my dad, as well as a pal. The two guys kept up a relationship after our family moved down to Portland. Mr. Small probably needed help with a CPA-related thing, and my dad, always with the eye for service work for a friend, put my mom, baby Charles, and me into the VW, and we rode the fifty-odd miles north to Waterville, where resided the Small family.
We got there, parked the VW, rang a bell, and walked up a couple short flights of stairs. On the second floor, there were the accustomed pleasantries between the adults. I tried to scope it all out. At my age of about eight years, I had mostly seen house-type homes. A walk-up apartment, within which a whole family dwelled, was new to me. Surely, any new environment is something which is to mentally process and quickly adapt. I felt an immediate warmth and comfort. It smelled nice there.
For me to assimilate next, of course, were the New People. We were met by Mr. and Mrs. Small, and by their daughter, Jean, in their kitchen. Jean was in her early teens, to me, a lot like another adult. She introduced herself, and she gave me a warm, confident smile that put me at ease. She and her parents used little effort to make we four Chandlers feel welcome. I happily accepted a glass of ginger ale out of the Smalls’ refrigerator and homespun kindness ...and with ice cubes in it.
After the pleasantries and my ginger ale, Mrs. Small and my mom left the kitchen to bond as women and to change Charlie’s diaper. My dad and Mr. Small plonked out their paperwork on the kitchen table. Jean took my hand and radiated, “Let’s go play with Luby.”
On the ride up to Waterville, my folks had told me that there was a kid around my age named, Luby, at the Smalls’ house and that I’d have a playmate. My thoughts danced. Throughout my young life, I had experienced, other than with cousins, only short, transient relationships with boys and girls my own age. Circumstance, not my adults, was responsible for this, but over my eight years, person to person, place to place, time to time, lives and deaths, I hadn’t gotten a much of a grasp of permanence. New friendships, to my young mind, were always welcome, yet I figured them as fleeting to me as I thought my new friendships were to them. I was excited to meet this Luby. Jean, I could see, was far more sophisticated than I, yet, from what I knew of girls, I was sure she’d rather play with dolls than to go in for my car, gun, action style of play.
Jean and I turned from the apartment’s short hallway into the family room, and the floor was somehow, neatly, cleanly, strewn with lots of basic toys and lots of books for kids to read and books of puzzles and crayons and pencils and pads of paper and boxes of jigsaw puzzles. And it wasn’t a mess. It looked like it all belonged right where it was.
“Luby!” Jean called, “Michael is here!”
Luby bounded awkwardly out of his bedroom toward me in his pajamas. He was pie-eyed with excitement to meet me, as I had been to meet him.
“Hi, Michael!” and he wrapped his arms around my far shorter shoulders.
I was surprised, taken quite aback, and, I must admit, somewhat revolted. Luby was severely mentally challenged, and that, due to hydrocephalus; he had what used to be called, “water on the brain.” His head was huge, his body, developed to hold his head up, was gangly. His smile sprang from his face in an unabashed way that I had never experienced. He was, as stated, taller than me, and he expressed far more immediate affection toward me than any of my grandmothers, great-aunts, or kissy, elderly neighbor ladies could ever muster. I cast a nervous glance at Jean. She beamed, saintly. Luby released me.
“Do you wanna play?” he asked, indicating the piles of stuff on the floor.
“Yeah, let’s play,” Jean answered for us all.
What a cruel trick my parents had played on me, setting me up in my child’s imagination for a new playmate. I was their rube. They had brought me up on this damn car ride to shunt me off while they did their adult things, onto a type of person that I wondered if they’d have invited over to their house. What a rip-off!
“Okay,” I answered.
Play we three did, and challenging, mentally stimulating play. Jean was intelligent, patient with us boys, gentle, encouraging, engaging, and that made her all the more, to my eight-year-old sensibilities, pretty.
Luby was fascinating. For all the toys and puzzles and books, which I knew for a fact he had played with again and again, each one seemed brand new to him. He showed and shared each one to me with openness and originality. Did we play!
Jean and I read aloud, to Luby Small’s delight. We all three played with cars and trains and the jigsaw puzzles. We built blocks, and until that afternoon, wooden blocks as a childhood recreation were beneath me. I learned. I didn’t learn about the complexities of reading words or those of toy cars and trains and building blocks, but I learned of simplicity. Between us three, there was no disparity. We were equals. What one lacked was shared for all by another.
I kept looking into Luby’s face and eyes and comportment to see or to perceive something; I knew not then, what. It was obvious that Jean had some of whatever that “what” was. She radiated it, and I somehow knew it was gotten from Luby. It was a purity, an innocence, a transmitted, transmittable comfort. It was a unifying, underlying ease. It was contagious. It filled the room, the heart, the mind, the soul. For goodness’ sake, it was in the toys and the puzzles and the books.
The adults said it was time for lunch, so we all had sandwiches and some more ginger ale together, and Jean played a few LP record sides that straddled everyone’s generational difference. Music. It seemed natural that Luby had even influenced the musical choices. Harmony was among us all, polarized, I have to say, by Luby. Nobody among all eight of us was the center of attention.
After lunch, it was time for the Chandlers to depart the Smalls’ home and Waterville, Maine, but not for good. We visited their place a few more times, and I hope we all experienced the same human magic that was present the first time. I know I did.
I have been of the mindset to try, in childhood and adulthood, to replicate a formative experience, but nobody in my life could do it like Luby. It was always like the first time we met. The Small family got us up to some lakeside cottage that they had rented for a long weekend one summer, and Mr. and Mrs. Small taught me how to eat and enjoy a lobster. Luby’s and my wading around among the minnows and the reeds was as original, as fun, and as memorable to me as any of our times together. We played and played and laughed and laughed and talked and talked.
A few years later, having not seen the Smalls during that time, and things being what they are in our societal lack of true observance of our friends and neighbors, we got a telephone call.
Luby had been riding in the school bus reserved for very special people. There weren’t too many convenient roads linking towns in the Great State of Maine, so the bus was making a short, daily trip on the interstate highway. Sitting across the aisle from the driver was Luby, being his gregarious, innocent, chatty self. The chain broke on a lumber truck in front of the school bus, and a long two-by-four smashed through the windshield and lanced Luby into his delicate, oversized, dear, dear cranium. It did not pierce either his heart or his soul. Luby lingered, comatose for several weeks, and I do believe that this was his penultimate gift to his loving family.
His final gift was given, at least to me, and I hope, several others.
We drove back up to Waterville, just me, mom, and dad, for Luby’s wake. I had been to several such ceremonies, so I walked immediately to his open casket, not out of curiosity, or anger, or grief, or a notion of loss, not to see, but only to be. Just like Luby.
I knelt, and I looked into his face and his being, searching for what he had, just like I did when we met. Just like what I had stopped doing during our times together and had simply accepted. That which I had begun to learn.
The top of his head was swathed in gauze. The make-up person at the funeral home must have had the easiest job of his or her career. Luby’s beatific face was what was very probably shone upon his proud new parents on the day he was born. The purity, innocence, emanation of care for others, then still alive in Luby’s countenance, could not have been augmented by a human hand. I glowed then, as he would have unknowingly prompted me in his living innocence. At peace was he, and so was I. He filled the room.
Thank you, Luby Small, for showing me and those around you a fragment of true peace, for which I still look to you so curiously, to vaguely understand, and thank you for your artless example of goodness, rarely duplicated, that you carried with impossibly unselfish ease.
Thursday, May 5, 2011
Of course, there were babysitters.
The first one I remember was Penny, a secretary who worked with my dad at Peat, Marwick & Mitchell when we lived in Holden, Massachusetts. She was called into our household after my adoptive mom had died. I’m sure Penny was, in a manner, pressed into child-minding service; although, the time being the early 1960’s, and she being a young, single woman, might have been thinking about children of her own someday and might have been modestly considering that taking care of me could get her closer to my dad, a fairly successful, intriguing recent widower. That is speculation, but what is for sure is that my memory of Penny is of her being nothing but enthusiastic, tender, and loving toward three-year-old me. This was at a time in her young womanhood when she could have been enjoying a steak dinner with a suitor who could stay up late, didn’t need help going to the bathroom, and probably wouldn’t have asked to be read a bedtime story before turning out the lights. To my childhood memory she was really pretty. I sure liked her, and she sure liked me. Heck, I’d take her out for a steak dinner today.
The next string of babysitters began several years later, after my dad had remarried and we moved to Portland, Maine with my new little brother. In the interim, there had been caretakers and aunts and uncles for days and weeks at a time, but when we finally settled in Portland, and the newest of their three babies was no longer an infant in a bassinette who needed to be changed, my mom and dad found some time to get out of the house for dinner, or for my mom to clear her mind of us millstones of an afternoon with either errands, or one of her many sisters. For the babysitting duties, we mined the Asali family, two doors down, whose oldest daughter, Rosie, went to Deering High School. Rosie, mercifully, was tapped to mind the Chandler siblings when I was at the most obedient time in my life and when my younger brothers and sister were sleepy enough at 7 p.m. to rarely stir. At about age ten, I was known in the neighborhood as a fair artist, and Rosie would bring over magic markers and poster paper for me to draw renditions of Charlie Brown and Blondie cartoons to use as publicity for Deering High’s dances. I would challenge her initial ideas, and we’d have a final mission statement before I began the pencil sketches. Doing art for high school kids, I felt really big. She thought the posters were better than I did.
After Rosie graduated from Deering, Kathy Asali was the sitter next in line. Then about age twelve, I was rambunctious, and Kathy, roughly four years my senior, was game. She was wiry, wily, and wise. I was wiry, wily and not so wise. I was about two-thirds Kathy’s size, and she was a good wrestling partner, which I do believe falls into a babysitter’s job description. One afternoon during a wrestling fall, I inadvertently plunked my hand down onto one of her breasts. Her eyes widened, as they might, to see if I had done that for a purposeful pre-adolescent feel, and, locking my gaze, I am sure she saw nothing but my desire to win the match. I gave her a left knee to the buttocks, and, if memory serves, she pinned me on my back, un-aroused, at least two more times. I have to admit, she smelled nice. As skinny as we two were, we had voracious appetites, and our guilty pleasures were copious salads and ice cream sundaes. We loaded each up with everything that was available in the refrigerator and the cupboards. Each dish would be disgustingly decadent, three types of salad dressing and any cheese we could pilfer, tomatoes, carrots, olives, pickles, Bac-O-Bits, piled high over a quarter-head of iceberg lettuce (the only type known in the 1970’s); the sundaes were more and more and more so and involved anything that contained sugar, probably equivalent to a quarter pound in each dish. Marshmallow, strawberry preserves, jimmies, fudge, any kind of nuts, peanut butter, maraschino cherries, Cool Whip, and... oh yeah, Sealtest ice cream--it didn’t matter whether or not they all tasted good together. The sugar combination only made our wrestling matches tougher, our TV watching more intense, my bedtime later, and Kathy to forget about her homework. With all that food raiding, it is no wonder she only got seventy-five cents an hour. I think that because of the hardscrabble wrestling and my folks’ absolute acknowledgment that I was nearly too wild to be handled, they gave Kathy Asali and most other babysitters a fair nightly tip.
After a couple of years at the Chandler household, Kathy got a steady boyfriend and was unavailable for most corralling duties. I do have a chuckle today, knowing that I had touched her breast before her boyfriend did. After Kathy’s tenure, my folks would have mined the large Roy family from across the street for more babysitters had it not been for what continues to be referred to as “the spaghetti fight.”
My mom had a dear, elderly aunt who was dying in Boston. She was a spinster and a poor, lonely woman, and my mom cherished her like a furless Teddy bear from one’s childhood; although, in our years as a new family, I had met her only once. As she, my great-aunt, lay at the point of death in Boston General Hospital, my dad and mom had to scurry down for the weekend, and they, in a bind, called up Joyce Roy to do a couple overnighters with me - the crazy kid - and my crew of malleable, willingly-participating younger brothers and sister. Joyce showed up in the morning, and we waved my parents off. It all looked so innocent and open.
I don’t know how or when I discovered the spaghetti fight process. It must have been of an idle moment, absently poking at my hand or forearm with a stick of raw spaghetti. It snapped, and it snapped again. The synapse happened that if I pushed that pasta with steady pressure, it goes, “brraap, bbbrraaap,” several times like the rhythm of a machine gun. It has an odd and distinct feel on the skin, like six or eight rapid pinches, which mildly sting but don’t hurt for long. Mueller or Prince spaghetti work the best; use #8 spaghetti, as I’ve tried, in my recent babysitting years, both angel hair pasta and linguini, and they don’t work. That afternoon, I opened up a box of #8 spaghetti (of which there were a few) and started freely stabbing the arms, legs, fronts and backs of Joyce and my siblings. As in any war, the side with the most advanced weapons is at the early advantage until the losing side develops the same weapon or something better. I knew that they all knew the cupboard where there was more ammo to be found, and, hell, it ain’t a game until everyone is playing. We ran chaotically through the house, “bbbrrraap”-ing one another with delight. The youngest, my sister Julie, about four, excitedly bewildered, scuttled about in the mix, screeching and chasing us with a piece of uncooked rotini. We all took that skirmish onto the porch, the driveway, into the yard, back into and out of the house. Couch cushions were thrown, chairs and tables upended, magazines and newspapers heaved in self-defense. I think, at one point, my brother Charlie had been so clever as to use the ironing board as a shield.
The problem with a spaghetti war is that it leaves its participants worn out, while there are several pieces of spent “ammunition” at the site of every hand-to-body attack. Thousands of half-inch shards of spaghetti littered the house and yard. The sun had gone down, and we all, worn and satisfied, had a little supper, and I agreed with Joyce Roy that we would clean up that spaghettified mess in the morning. I even changed the vacuum cleaner bag so that we would have a fresh start. We got the kids to bed and settled down to television.
True to many parents’ form, mine did not stay overnight at their destination, as they and we at home had planned. No, they returned late that night to a floor-riddled mosaic of dried #8 spaghetti fragments and a houseful of at least disrupted, if not overturned, furniture and appliances. Livid, my mom and dad paid and dispatched Joyce back across the street to her far more peaceful family in shame. I stood in my Nuremburg and took all of the blame. I was too much for Joyce Roy to handle, and without a doubt in everyone’s minds (and mine), I had created and executed the entire debacle.
“Ma,” I decried, “We were gonna clean it up, and look, I put in a new vacuum bag.” I was told to put that new vacuum bag to good use immediately, and I was sweeping up the back porch and driveway until about 2 a.m.
By age thirteen, I was certainly old enough to mind our home and the kids when the folks went out, but given my track record with babysitters, broken furniture, windows, garden tools and sundry items, and my instigative, inventive, and mischievous hold over my siblings, hiring an outside babysitter was worth the nominal amount of money and inconvenience, my parents, enjoying a restaurant’s Muzak of a pleasant evening, partially safe in the knowledge that there would be someone to at least call the fire department or run screaming to the neighbors. Somehow we got a hold of Rosemary.
She was a student at McAuley, the Catholic girls’ high school. She was stout and tall; I think she played field hockey. She didn’t put up with too much crap from any of us, but she was intelligent and fun to be around when she found, after a night here and there, that I was not the prescribed Holy Terror of whom she’d been warned. I washed and dried the dinner dishes, did my homework, and, after the kids were put to bed, she and I would have our television time.
It must have been a Thursday night, because we were watching “The Waltons” together. As stated, I was quite sexually naive. In conversation, my immediate and extended Catholic family never alluded to anything of even a romantic nature in other than hushed tones. What I knew of sexual relations came from youthful, sandlot myth and speculation and from dirty magazines that the big kids would leave behind after their beer parties in the woods.
As Rosemary and I watched “The Waltons” that night, there was a scene in which John Boy was taking a bath in a steel laundry tub. If I remember correctly, he was singing loudly.
Rosemary squealed, “Ohhh! I just lost my virginity!”
Catholic upbringing had brought me to where I figured that word meant not much more than something along the lines of “purity,” “goodness,” and being “faithfully forthright.” Think of hearing the term, “The Virgin Mary,” by, at my age, tens of thousands of times, and I was not thinking of fornication. I laughed along with Rosemary’s comment, and I then believed that we had shared quite a hearty moment together. We went back to the show.
My parents arrived a short time later, and pretending not to, nosed around to see that their home was still intact. Pleased, they, Rosemary and I gathered in the kitchen. I was standing in about the middle of the group, the easiest spot to be whacked had the household inspection not come up clean, Rosemary behind my dad’s shoulder, where she would be less likely drawn into a fray.
“So,” my mom chirped, “How did it go tonight?”
We were in the clear, and now I could be witty and free and – oops! – pure, good, and faithfully forthright.
Grinning, looking straight into Rosemary’s eye over my father’s shoulder, I spilled what was our evening’s bit of conspiratorial humor, “Rosemary lost her virginity.”
Like a tarantula, Rosemary’s hand clasped over her jaw-dropped mouth, and her eyes sprang wide-open in such a way that even a midnight strangler could not evoke.
As my mom and dad looked across me at one another, it quickly dawned on at least my mom that I didn’t know what I had just said. She blushed, and I’m sure she was trying not to laugh.
“I think you’d better have a talk with your son.”
Poor Rosemary did not look up from the floor as she went to collect her schoolbooks, put on her peacoat, and wait for my father to open the kitchen door to give her a ride home. My dad still had to pay her, but I don’t think Rosemary was, at that moment, concerned about her earnings. I believe that was her last venture into the Chandler household. I wonder if my dad had any kind of reassuring words driving Rosemary home that night, because he never did have “that talk” with me.
Wednesday, April 27, 2011
I lived in Austin, Texas for a couple years in the mid-nineties. I had many jobs over that short time, true to an alcoholic's resumé. I also packed about seven years of a normal person's life into those two and a half years, like a dog has to do.
Over part of my term in Texas, I had two jobs at once. I had gotten a lovely girlfriend, and she decided to start up a high-end tamale business. I don't particularly like tamales, but I dove into the fledgling company, plunked my hands into it, and I even named it. It was called "Hot Damn Tamales," which came from an Elvis Presley outtake. I am in the tamale 100,000 club. I have extruded, wrapped in husk, steamed, and packaged more tamales than one person could healthily consume in a lifetime. Between my girl and I, we sold, gave away, and traded about a quarter million of those Hot-Damn things. We traveled all over midland Texas establishing our business at barbecues, fairs, and, primarily, farmers' markets. We made these tamales at home, but, to be in accordance with the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission, we also rented the kitchen at Captain Quackenbush's on "the Strip," in Austin. After we started renting their kitchen, that horrible restaurant asked if I would help them out as a cook for "a few weeks." Thus came my two sapping jobs. Captain Quack's began at 6 a.m. and ostensibly ended at 2 p.m., and from 6 p.m. to midnight, Hot Damn Tamales would, as we ought, make tamales.
Don't get me wrong; each job was a good one. They were right in finding me to be a "character" at Captain Quack's, but they paid exceptionally low wages, and I was a tool, bespoken in no uncertain terms by the management after those first few weeks, at a staff meeting. They asked me to be their kitchen manager. Boldly, I responded, "So you want me to order your produce and your Sysco delivery, do inventory, schedule your irresponsible college student workers, work their missing shifts myself, and take the blame for whatever isn't done on time as a result. Oh, and I don't suppose I'll be getting a raise for all that, right?" They looked at each other around the table, wide-eyed, in that false, taken-aback manner and literally laughed about what I had said.
"Yeah," said the restaurant manager, "That's about what it is."
I laughed along, but I continued to wake up at 5 a.m., show up at 6 a.m., and I completed, daily, what to them was a chuckle.
The nascent tamale company with my girl was, what? A labor of love for a product I didn't actually like to eat? At least I didn't cut into the profits. She, however, in a somewhat controlling way, was the creative one. I was the muscle, and I had to defer to many of her decisions. I worked hard at both jobs, and we took Hot Damn Tamales to many, many, farmers' markets throughout that Great State, and I enjoyed some of the finest organically grown fruits and vegetables the USA has to offer. Texas grows some of the best tomatoes in the nation, and I love "love apples," as they are known.
I took one Saturday off from the farmers' markets in lieu, I believe, of a televised baseball game, a consistent case of manic-girlfriend-induced sleep deprivation, or both, and early that evening when she returned, I learned that I had A Third Job. She couldn't have come back with a bagful of sweet corn (although she actually might have) or Fredricksburg peaches, or wild grapes.
She brought home a puppy.
I am not a dog aficionado, I am an unrepentant dog lover, and this poor little thing was not yet even a dog. She (an easy call) was only about six weeks old, and I could hold her in the palms of my hands. To tell, at her pint-size, she was some sort of shepherd that any shearling lamb would easily trample, but I knew she would grow into her non-breed's height and weight. My girlfriend beamed. I asked, "Are you going to take care of this little thing? Do know what she needs to eat? Are you going to pick up her shit?"
"No," answered my lovely date, "I thought you would. She was the last one, and nobody wanted her. Don't you like her?"
I sure did, immediately. I believe it was that evening that we named that puppy "Ruby," and she was my favorite kind of dog; she was a mutt, and she was the runt of the litter. That makes a bitch smart and tough. She hadn't been properly weaned, so that made her smarter and tougher.
Tiny Ruby's stomach was distended with the farm-borne worms that had filled her intestines, and on that first frightful night off the farm, I counted her six week-old respiration at around 130 times per minute. I fed Ruby homemade chicken broth (from the tamale stock) mixed with over-cooked, mashed carrots and heavily diluted green tea as a laxative, to maybe poop some of the worms out and so that she might stay awake and not over-pant herself into puppy heaven. Of that Saturday night, cradling Ruby, I could not find a veterinarian by phone. She looked up at me with barely opening eyes in the apologetic way that dogs have when they think they're going to die on you. I cupped her in my hands and kept her warm all night long, in spite of the fact that it was late August in Texas. That night, I cried unashamedly and often over that poor little shivering dog.
I got to the vet on Sunday morning, and was told that I had done a good job keeping Ruby alive through the night. She was poked and prodded, and I got the damn worm medicine. Ruby liked the car ride home, and she seemed to understand that I had to jostle her in my lap while I operated the stick shift.
She began to thrive, loyal, healthy... but intelligent? True to her farm-bred nature, she was a herder. She was poised and strong. We had a fine backyard, and she did not have to be paper trained. Ruby also liked to do with me just about anything that I liked to do. She ran alongside me when I rode my bicycle. If I ate celery, she wanted to do that with me. She sat, rapt, as I did push-ups. She knew how to pay attention. That is, until it came to the word, "ball."
I don't think I have ever met a dog or a puppy who was not enthusiastic about a sphere. I have met Chihuahuas who will try for hours on end to get their jaws around a regulation NBA basketball. I have spent time with large-breed dogs who understand as many as thirty commands, look at a blue handball for the three-thousandth time like it was their first-ever experience seeing something they could go and chase, bring back, and do it all over again. When I say "ball," any dog I have ever known widens its eyes and expects me to do something with one and, if I'm not holding one in my hand, will at least make the pretense of looking for one or point me to where one might be. Not Ruby. She learned many words, and she loved to play ball, and I know she wasn't simply being obedient, but I could not, in spite of her overall intelligence, get her to pick up that word. She would tilt her head and gaze at me in wonder. This astounded me. She loved to play with a ball and knew what to do, but she just wouldn't get the darned word.
Over the days and weeks and months, I repeated the word "ball" to her at least 10,000 times. That count may not be accurate, because it might have been more like 12,500 times. She would not understand that word. Mind you, this was a puppy who, when I said, "No potato chips for dogs," would walk away and sulk.
"Ruby, get the BALL." "Where's that BALL, Ruby?" "Ruby, go find that BALL." "Here's the BALL, Ruby." "Do you want the BALL, Ruby?" "Here's that BALL!" "Ruby, do you like that BALL?" One hundred and fifty times a day. A guy can't do everything, and I want my dog to go find her own damn ball. I mean, why not? It's one syllable, and what a great toy! On the lawn, on the street, in the house, she gave me nothing but a longing, blank, probing stare.
One mid-afternoon, I got off from my Captain Quackenbush shift on time, for once, and I walked home. I walked Ruby, brought her home, cracked a can of Lone Star, and I plopped down in a big easy chair. She looked up at me. Just for the hell of it, for the twelve-thousand, five hundred and first time, I asked, "Ruby, where's the ball?" She tilted her head and gave me the perplexed doe-eyes. I thought I was going crazy. How could this seemingly loyal, intelligent, energetic dog not understand the one bonding, desirable word which the most moronic mastiff would comprehend before he could even learn the word "food?" My shoulders slumped. Dejected and tired, for the hell of it, I monotoned, "Ruby, get the ball."
She started whimpering. I didn't know what to think. She laid her head between my feet and poked her nose under my chair. I had a brief notion that I was not crazy, but that Ruby was. Ruby jiggled her tail, looked up at me, and continued whimpering. It dawned on me that this time, maybe, the ball was under the chair! My kitchen-weary knees cracked as I stooped down to look under there, and I pulled out one of her hairy, dusty, blue handballs from where Ruby couldn't get to it. We had broken through! She, on the twelve-thousand, five hundred and second time, not only knew what I was talking about, but she knew to tell me that she couldn't reach it.
I almost cried, and I rubbed her pink belly like the first night I met her. We played ball for hours after that, and you can be sure that, upon that afternoon and evening, potato chips were for dogs too.
Monday, April 25, 2011
I was six years old today, and I was just beginning to learn what a birthday means. It wasn’t and isn’t only about getting presents and getting attention from the adults around you. It is about having been born. As a child, it is about being borne by the adults upon whom you rely. Later on, you find that a birthday is about the life you must carry with family, friends, acquaintances and strangers who, encompassed, carry you further. It is about what you give to all of them in return.
I attended Lincoln Elementary School, in Augusta, Maine. I had a new mom and a new home. I had a baloney sandwich with mustard in a brown paper bag, because it was any day other than Friday, the day when we Catholics had to bring tuna fish sandwiches or at least meatless lunches to school. I do believe that bagged lunches helped all Catholic moms remember which day of the week it was. I also had an apple in the brown paper bag. I had little youthful trust in my new mom, but, heck, she had my lunch ready most every morning, and she made Maypo for breakfast most every day.
Who hoards brown paper bags? Ecologists? Puppeteers? Practical moms? Many women are expected to be all three. I guess my new mom was getting to the end of the under-sink, brown bag reserve that day, for the bag was huge; she had scissored it down to a manageable height, but it still had far more interior than a boy’s lunch would ever require.
I was six years old today. I ate my Maypo, got my big bag of lunch, and headed off to school. I decided to take a shortcut and eat the apple as I went.
Dearly I ask you, do you know what a shortcut means to a six year-old boy? In all practicality, I needed simply to take a right turn out the front door, walk down Prospect Street, take Winthrop Street straight downhill for about a quarter mile, and go left at the huge, red brick public school. Not on your life. I knew then what I know now about shortcuts, and those in-the-know call them “the scenic route.” Eating my apple, there were fences to hop, brambles to untangle, neighbors to meet, and, eventually, thistles to pull from my socks, shirt, pants, and hair, as I would stand line for the morning bell.
How is school for a six year-old boy? If one may not have an adventure in transit, one must make an adventure of the classroom itself. To my experience, most schoolteachers are dismayed by young boys’ school day “adventures” in the classroom, so we try to get them while we can. That morning, I first decided to take the shortcut though Mrs. Spencer’s hedges, yard, and driveway. Mrs. Spencer and Betsy were a latter-day pair of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Mrs. Spencer had dementia and an Oldsmobile 98 with the original Maine State license plate of number 99. Betsy drove the Olds and was Mrs. Spencer’s caretaker. My shortcut had me climbing over that car to get behind their house where there was an embankment I could slide down on last autumn’s slippery oak leaves.
“What are you doing out there, boy?” Mrs. Spencer shouted through a window, “Bring about my horses!”
Of course, there were neither horses nor a stable boy since she had been a young girl. Now it was just the Oldsmobile 98 and Betsy. I slid down the hill on the leaves and lost my half-eaten apple. I dug around for it for a few minutes and gave up. I stuck some acorns in my pocket instead. My butt was muddy and wet. I crawled through some brambles, stood up, reached up, and tugged down a handful of lilac blossoms. I would suck out their pollen later. I put them in with my lunch, and then I crossed the street at the bottom of the hill. My shortcut continued toward an expanse of front, side, and back yards; there were quite some neighbors to meet and fences yet to climb. I ran through an open lawn toward an apple tree. It was near a short chain-link fence leading me to the next yard. I figured jumping from the crotch of the tree would get me over the little fence. It did not. I caught my pant leg on the top of the fence and plonked my head onto a spongy lawn. A woman wearing Bermuda shorts, an oxford shirt, a pith helmet and gardening gloves, holding a pair of pruning clippers, looked up from her gardening.
Stuck on the fence, my feet pointed to the sky, I had an earful of sod. She walked over to where I was hanging. She smirked.
“So, what’s up?”
“It’s my birthday.”
“Let’s get you down offa there.”
She unhooked my pants from the fence. I stood up and rubbed my ear.
She looked at the driveway toward a motorcycle. “You know, I have a boy a lot like you,” she said.
I saw where she was looking. “Is he still in bed?”
“No, he’s in Viet Nam.”
“Oh, is he in the army?”
“Uh-uh. He’s a Marine.”
“I wanna be in the army.”
“I want him to be a doctor.”
“Okay, well, I gotta go to school.”
She ruffed my hair. “Yes, my darling, you really do.”
“It’s my birthday.”
She pulled a piece of grass from my eyebrow and nuzzled in my ear, “Now it’s mine too, kiddo.”
I thought it strange that we had the same birthday.
I ran out her front yard, making sure that I closed the little chain-link gate behind me. As I did, I took a look back at the motorcycle, and I guess she had just washed it. There was still soap in the sand, and it shone in the sunlight. I hoped that lady wasn’t lonely.
The gate across the street was of blue picket fence, and I hopped it without catching my pants or hitting my head on the ground. I whipped around the house to the backyard and checked that brown bag with my lunch. It was losing its creases.
“HEY!” I heard, “What are you doing?” It was a man, sitting on the back steps, reading the newspaper and smoking a cigarette.
“I’m going to school. It’s my birthday.”
“Oh, is it? Well, let me see what I got.” He went to reach for his pockets, but realized he was still in his boxer shorts. “Hold on, kid.” He stood up and went into his house. He returned, clanking coins in his hand. “Here ya go sport. Happy birthday.”
He gave me thirty-five cents, two nickels and a quarter. I was rich.
“What time do you have to be at school?”
“Well, it’s five after. You’d better run, birthday boy.”
I stuck the coins in my pocket with the acorns. “Thanks, mister!”
Jumping his back fence, run I did. I got to Lincoln School ten minutes late. I scrambled up the staircase to Mrs. Brown’s kindergarten room and knocked on the door. They had already said the Pledge of Allegiance, and I interrupted her reading aloud to the class. She approached.
“Michael. You’re late.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Brown.”
“Wait here,” she ducked her head back in the door. “Class, please behave for a moment.”
She clacked to the first-grade classroom.
“Miss Harden, will you please watch my class while I bring this boy to the principal’s office?”
I was filthy with leaves, soil, and grass stain. I clutched my deteriorating lunch bag. Miss Harden glowered at me and said, “Yes, Mrs. Brown, of course.”
The first-grade class tittered. Mrs. Brown snagged me by the shoulder hem and pulled me back down the interminable stairs and halls to the principal’s office. He was Mr. Jordan. We marched to the front of his secretary’s desk.
“Hello Dorothy, is Mr. Jordan in?” Still holding my shirt, Mrs. Brown waggled me, as much to shake off my accumulated grime and foliage as to indicate her subject. “Michael is late today.”
We could all hear Mr. Jordan through his half-opened door shouting at somebody on the phone, so he was obviously in.
“Let me see,” Dorothy answered. She pushed a button on the intercom.
Mr. Jordan yelled, “What is it, Dorothy?”
“A tardy student from Mrs. Brown’s kindergarten class, Mr. Jordan.”
“Well, get him in here.”
I didn’t know what was the use of the intercom. They could hear each other fine.
In his office, Mr. Jordan was pudgy, seated, wore a dark, wrinkled suit, and his non-neck led up to a bright-red face stuck under the graying, balding pate of a television banker.
“Good morning, Mrs. Brown, what is this?”
“Michael Chandler was late for school.”
Mr. Jordan’s eyes narrowed, and he didn’t take them or his half-glasses off me as he opened a file drawer in his desk. He barely glanced down, and he drew out a mimeographed sheet of paper.
“Should we call his parents?” he asked.
“I think we should,” said Mrs. Brown.
Mr. Jordan looked at the piece of paper, pressed a button on his phone and dialed. “Hello?” he demanded, “Is this Mr. Chandler? Your son was late to school today.”
His face got redder.
“What? No. Who is this? Is Mrs. Chandler there?”
My folks had a party line which we shared with Mr. Burliss, a cranky old man who lived about five doors down and and didn't really know how to use the party line. He picked up about half of our calls. Mr. Jordan’s face got closer to purple.
“Yes, yes, I see,” and he slammed down the phone. He locked eyes with me. “I don’t like this, and I don’t have time for this. Why are you late?”
I looked down at my messy clothes.
“I guess because I took a shortcut.”
Mr. Jordan rose, and his clip-on necktie caught on the key of his top desk-drawer, yanking the tie from his shirt collar. He leaned on his big oak desk and shouted, “What do you think this is?! Your birthday?!!”
I reached into my lunch bag.
“Do you and Mrs. Brown want some lilacs?”