Sunday, December 29, 2013

FROM DREAM LAKE, OHIO--Part Six

   I felt low. Anger percolated somewhere. Betrayal knocked on my head. And Guilt. Let us not forget that vengeful monster beast Guilt. An old movie blared on the TV set. I loathed the sight of it. My nerves had been sandblasted. I needed something and the answer wasn't television.
   Pulling back the shades, I looked out onto a parade of Special Election advocates smacking their drums, blowing their horns, and airing their lungs. I dropped the curtain back and sank into the sofa.
   Anger was the easiest mood to embrace, but it resisted my efforts. Ultimately I felt confused, so I decided to do what I always used to do in those days when bewilderment kept calling my name and hiding: I decided to make a list.
   The room was a mess, naturally. I found a pen behind a sofa cushion. Great. Now all I needed was some paper. I grabbed a page off the kitchen counter and sat down to the task at hand.
   That night I had slept very little. After we ran out of beer, Randy had guzzled all my Coca-Cola, a heavily caffeinated beverage which always had a reverse effect on me and actually made sleep easier. What a stupid thought, I said out loud. Worrying about soda. I rubbed my eyes on my shirt sleeve and put pen to paper. I drew a line down the middle of the sheet. The left half of the page I titled Things I Know. The right half read Things I Do Not Know. 
   In no time I had crossed an X through the left side. I didn't know anything.
   On the right side I wrote:
1.  I do not know whether what Randy H. said today was bullshit.
2. I do not know if he is really still in the Air Force.
3. Whether he has seen his mom and brothers.
4. Where he is staying.
5. Whether I have become an asshole.

   I wasn't joking about that last item, either. I had considered, even during my conversation with Randy, that it was possible I had turned into a bastard of a jerk and he had been too reserved to point it out. After all, I had left him in my apartment under the pretense (lie) that I had urgent work to do when the reality was that I had told myself that since every time I had conceded a point to Randy, he had used that as an opportunity to advance. In other words, unless I had completely caved in--which was never going to happen--the conversation would have escalated into an argument. From such arguments came dissolved friendships. On the other hand, deception wasn't a good foundation either. I didn't know what to do about anything of this.
   What was I writing on? Oh, yeah. The past due electric bill. Maybe the power company would appreciate getting their money attached to my list. That would make the day for the guy in the mail room.
    Just as I had wadded up the bill with the line down the middle, a thought came from nowhere. I had forgotten all about Rita Gird. Surely Randy would have contacted her before he did me. And if so, then he had no doubt told her something about what he'd been doing in the Air Force. His confession to me about being a "mechanic" explosives guy had come tripping out just a bit too easily for me to completely believe the story. Maybe he had told her the same thing or something different. And there was the undeniable fact that seeing Randy, however awkward it had been, I was very much aware that I missed the people I used to know and love. Those people were in a large sense responsible for who I was, at least in the positive sense. The things I liked about myself--sense of humor, knowledge of music, love of life--I had "stolen fair and square" from those friends. And I had ditched them the first chance I got. I needed to reconnect and quickly.
   It took me the better part of the afternoon to find Rita's phone number. The instant Randy had left for the Air Force and I had left for college, all the promises I'd made to myself about staying in touch with our mutual friends had been forgotten. I remembered how, in something of a self-righteous fit, I had cursed the heartless imbeciles who spent the first quarter of their lives making the best friends they would ever know only to abandon those memories the first time a political science essay question stumped them, or the first time they woke up in bed with a beautiful person whose name they couldn't remember, or the first time the college team won the big game. I was under no circumstances going to be one of those insensitive, unfeeling, insincere, traitorous scumbags. I certainly would never desert the guy who'd been my best friend, the guy who had taught me my own neighborhood, the guy who had made school tolerable, the guy who had taught me how to fix my bike's derailleur, to make model rockets you could actually launch half a mile into the sky, the guy who had taught me to skateboard, who had taught me girls, a lesson on which I could have used an occasional refresher. 
    It was with that conflux of thoughts that the image of Rita Gird appeared in my mind. Randy and I hadn't talked about her during his visit. I had no idea if they were still an item. As with everyone else I'd known in high school, I had stupidly abandoned that friendship too.
   Going to school and living on the outskirts of Columbus, I no longer had a phone book for Dream Lakes. So I ran my eyes across old yearbooks, old notebooks, the kind of ephemera you save to further the illusion that you actually are still connected to your past despite the glaring insistence that you outgrew it all twenty-four hours after Labor Day. I finally found a clue on the back of an old school bulletin. The number was scrawled above the words "Rita G." That number would have been her parents' home telephone. As a now twenty-year-old woman, she might have moved away, gone to beauty school (as she often mentioned), or taken up with a separatist band of cowboys from Idaho. I had no idea where she might be.
   Her parents number was all I had. I hated talking to my friends' parents. I never knew what to say to any of them. "Say, your daughter sure is pretty, huh? Gosh, I really enjoyed watching her roll that joint with one hand last night. I didn't mind a bit that she copied my algebra homework a while back. Nice place you have here. You folks have anything to eat?" What was there to talk about? Still, she was the only lead I had to get some sense as to where Randy might have gone or what he was really doing with his life. The more I thought about it, the less believable I found his story of being a bomb-making psychopath in service of his country.
   I dialed the number. A woman who I took to be Rita's mom answered on the third ring.
   "Hello, may I speak with Rita, please?"
   "Who is this?"
    The woman did not say "Whom shall I say is calling?" and she did not say "May I tell her who this is?" She did not even express bewilderment by asking "Who is this?" This woman had moaned out her question, had sounded agonized and angry, as if I, the caller, were the perpetrator of some hideous joke. Something was very wrong. Had her father died recently? Was her brother in jail? 
   I answered immediately because those thoughts arrived and vanished in only a moment.
   "I'm sorry. This is Johnny Davis. I went to high school with Rita and--well, is she home?"
   "Rita is not here!"
   The woman hung up.
   The first time in years I'd initiated a conversation with someone else's mother and it ended like that.
   I added a sixth item to my list: Where is Rita G?
   It was then I thought of Glynda Bernstein. Rita hadn't had many girl friends in high school. She'd been more of a beautiful tom boy who preferred hanging out with the guys. Why she had befriended Glynda I did not know. There was nothing wrong with the Bernstein girl. It was just that Glynda had been a somewhat promiscuous party girl cheerleader whereas Rita had found that kind of thing ridiculous. But something had made those two simpatico. I remembered how at our senior prom the two of them had giggled through most of the pre-dance presentations and when a few of the more shy boys didn't want to dance, those two young ladies had gone up to the wall and pulled them out onto the floor. Floyd Willis, with his horrible stutter, had gone to the trouble to put on a suit and Glynda had brought him out to the strands of "The Way We Were," a song from a movie I never liked, but any time I hear that song I remember Glynda placing his hand on her back, holding his other hand to one side, really just shuffling their feet while Floyd tried not to faint at the swell of Glynda's cleavage. Raymond Lowe, with his maddening complexion, hadn't allowed his own self-consciousness to keep him from attending the dance and Rita made sure his bravery was rewarded. She pulled him onto the floor by the front of his belt and shouted "Dance with me!" as the cover band blared "Play That Funky Music White Boy." Raymond hadn't been half bad, too. I had studied the look on Rita's face. There was nothing mocking on that sweet visage. No sense of ridicule. She had connected with Raymond, just as Glynda had with Floyd. Before the night was out, those two girls had lifted the spirits of half a dozen guys who otherwise would have gone home with a far deeper sense of frustration. Compared to those two, my date, Cheryl (the last name escapes me, which is how memorable she was) fizzled like a wet firecracker. And that was just fine. My night had been made perfect watching Rita and Glynda breathe life into boys who deserved to feel good about themselves every bit as much as the rest of us did.

  I found an old number for Glynda. It was, I imagined, her parents' home. 
   "Hello?"
   It was the voice of a young woman.
   "Hello. My name is Johnny Davis. Is Glynda available?"
   "Johnny Davis! Well, how in the world are you? This is Glynda!"
   She sounded incredible. After a year and a half, you wonder if they'll still remember you, if they'll feel obliged to pretend to place you, or if they'll know exactly who you are and demand to know precisely what the fuck you want.
   "Glynda. Good to hear your voice. Really good."
   "You too. Say, is everything all right with you? What have you been up to?"
   "Nothing much. Got kicked out of college for a little while."
   "Oh God, did you?"
   She hadn't lost that Oh God thing. It had sort of been one of her trademarks. 
   "I did. Going back in a few weeks. What have you been doing?"
   "I got a job at the drug store. They call me a pharmacy assistant."
   "You like it?"
   "Not a lot. Mr. Lindsay likes to play grab ass. But it buys the weed. God, it's good to hear your voice. Do you still hang out with Cheryl?"
   "Cheryl? No, not at all. I mean, she was fine, I'm not knocking her, but--"
   "Just didn't work out, huh?"
   "No. I mean, with college and all."
   "Sure, I know. I'm still single. Dad says I'm gonna be an old maid, which is fine by me. Say, do you still hang out with Randy?"
    "Matter of fact, he just left here last night. He's been in the Air Force."
    "Oh God, has he? You two were always so funny, always laughing all the time. I just loved you guys."
    "Thanks. Yes. I liked you too, Glynda. I don't suppose you ever see much of Rita, do you?"
    "Oh, Johnny. That was a terrible thing, wasn't it?"
   "What was terrible?"
   "Well, you heard that she had been in that crash last week?"
   "No. What crash?"
   "God, you don't know, do you? Well, she had been out, drinking a little, they say. She was on her way back to her folks place, crossing the Logan Bridge, or trying to. Her car went off the side. Crashed right through the railing. Johnny, by the time they found her, she'd drowned. It was just terrible."
   I listened in something of a thick fog. There was a patch of silence, then a little clarity. Finally Glynda broke it. "She had still been working at the L-K motel. You remember that place?"
   "Sure, I do. Jesus, Glynda, this is just terrible, like you said. Just very bad."
   "What are you doing right now, Johnny?"
   I could picture her saying that with a thoughtful finger just below her lower lip. In high school, she'd always answered questions in a mock-coquette kind of way. But she didn't sound sly or mocking now.
   I had a hunch where our conversation might be headed and while I had always liked Glynda, I was still reeling from the news. I said, "Just talking to you, trying to accept this. When Randy came over yesterday, he didn't say anything about Rita. I don't know if he knows anything about it. He had just been home one day."
   "Listen, I'm going stir crazy hanging out here with my mom. Do me a favor?"
   "If I can."
   "How long would it take you to come pick me up? We'll go have some coffee. It'd be good to see you. It sounds like you need to talk about this and I'm going straight bugfuck."
   Bugfuck? That was a new one. 
    "I look like hell. Been up all night."
   "I don't care. Let me give you my address."
   I grabbed the power bill and wrote it down. I wasn't especially in the mood for this, but at the same time, I felt the need to have somebody tell me what to do. Sort of the way Floyd and Raymond had had to be commanded to get out on that dance floor. 
   I didn't bother to shower. I just combed my hair and drove.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

FROM DREAM LAKE, OHIO--Part Five

Read Part One HERE
Read Part Two HERE
Read Part Three HERE
Read Part Four HERE   

    A big part of the blame or credit for the changes in my way of thinking had their origins in our school's small but vocal Philosophy department. My first and unsuccessful attempt at getting an education had wasted everyone's time with the exception of the three Philosophy classes I took. For those courses I not only showed up, I actively participated in the assignments and classroom discussions. Then again, this shouldn't have been much of a surprise because from first through fifth grade I had been in the pedagogical arms of the Walsh Holy Cross, the Dream Lakes Jesuit School for boys. The expression "Give me the boy until the age of seven and I will give you the man" came from the Jesuits, and not without good cause. One learns to think from the Jesuits; one also learns that certain Saints (such as St. Agnes) are constantly watching errant school boys; so as one learns to think, one also allows the priests and nuns to instill a lifelong sense of paranoia. All that made me a natural for our university's Philosophy classes.
    But those classes somehow got me to questioning everything I thought that I already knew, a process that is said to be the real start of a person's education. No one in that (to me) fascinating department ever bothered to advise 
that getting an education in the field they called critical thinking would likewise serve to isolate the student from all but the most hermit-like mentalities. And hermits have a notoriety for being unwilling to fraternize, even with their own kind.
   So I had changed since the last conversation I'd had with Randy Howard. I had changed even more since the last time he and I had hung out together during the summer of 1976. Randy had taught me the art and science of skateboarding, feats which our neighborhood thoroughfares facilitated nicely. Skateboarding in 1976 shares little with the styles and techniques begun in the late 1980s. At that time, boards were often made of wood, but just as often made (as mine was) of some kind of polyurethane substance that gave the device a weird feel that was just pliable enough to be exciting. The wheels were smaller than today's models. Perhaps the biggest difference is that they were not designed to do the things that they do today. No one in 1976--at least to my knowledge--ever stood for hours trying to jump in the air and use their feet to flip the skateboard at the same time. Instead, ours was a wild form of transportation. The practice was often called sidewalk surfing and that was exactly correct. Boys and girls will, of course, be boys and girls, so our minds turned to innovations. Soon Randy and I perched on our boards at opposite ends of the street, each of us with a metal trash can lid in one hand and a powerful squirt gun in the other. And so we jousted, each getting more soaked than his opponent. Eighteen may be a bit old for such carrying on, but we both laughed ourselves breathless throughout that hot summer Ohio afternoon.
    It is hard living up to a memory of skateboard jousting, especially after one person has endured military training and the other has spent time dwelling on the nature of knowledge. 
   Randy showed up at my apartment on a new motorcycle. He'd given the AMX back to his brother Rocky.
   Other than appearing tired from the ride and being in civilian clothes--old jeans and sweatshirt, just like I was wearing--he looked very much as he had in the first photograph he had mailed us. 
   I opened the door before he could ring the bell.
   "Johnny! God damn Sam, I'm thirsty. Where's your bathroom, I need a beer."
   He winked and I realized he was almost joking.
   We hugged. Somehow a handshake would have been inadequate.
   "You're going back to school, huh?" he asked after his third bottle of Michelob. 
   "In two weeks."
   "You like college?"
   "I think so. I was kind of depressed when I started. I couldn't apply myself."
   "What're you gonna be?"
   "Be?"
   "You know, when you finish up. What're you gonna be? Doctor? Scientist? What?"
   "I honestly have no idea. I wish I did know."
   "So you're spending, what, four years, all kinds of money, and you don't have something that you're aiming for? Hey, must be nice."
    "Well, I'm majoring in English, so--"
    "English? Jesus Christ on a half shell! You gonna be a teacher, like in a high school? You always did have a mind for that kind of thing. Me, it was always nuts and bolts, science and math. You had a good head for, you know, reading things."
    "How do you like the Air Force?"
    "I'm an E-4 now."
    "Oh, is that good? What does that mean?"
    "Means Senior Airman, SrA. I work on engines most of the day."
    "You like it?"
    "Don't get to talk to the pilots too much. My Master Sergeant thinks I'll make Technical before the year's out."
    "Technical?"
    "Yes."
    "What's Technical?"
    "Technical Sergeant, man."
    I decided to try once more. "You having a good time?"
   "Now? Sure am."
   "I'm asking if you like your job in the Air Force?"
   "Who's that in the poster here? That Castro?"
   "Not exactly. It's Alfred E. Newman made up as Castro."
   "Mad Magazine, huh? You still read that? Jesus, you got a lot of books, don'tcha?"
   "If you don't want to talk about it, I understand."
   "Oh, you do, huh? What is it you understand? Do you understand what it is to jump up at o-five-hundred to clean some Lieutenant's head? You understand that?"
   I thought that maybe he was ready to open up. He was ready, but not in the way I'd imagined. 
   Instead of waiting for an answer, he walked over to one of the bookshelves, bent on one knee, and checked out the titles.
   "Yeah, you do read a lot. I got out of basic, I took some classes. Radio, mechanics. You have to study a lot. So what do you think about Carter giving away the Canal?"
    "The Panama Canal? Well, see, we didn't really own it anyway. We just transferred possession of the Canal and the Canal Zone back to Panama."
    "We built the damn thing! What happens if the Panamanians decide to deny passage to our vessels? They could hold us ransom and we'd have to do whatever they say."
    "You agree then with Senator Hayakawa?"
    "Who?"
    "He's from California. When they asked him what he thought about the Panama Canal, he said, and this is a quote, he said, 'We should keep it. After all, we stole it fair and square.'"
    "Damned right!"
    I wasn't about to lose a friendship over something as far away and situationally removed as a Central American waterway. I said, "Anyway, you were in Florida the whole time?"
   "Nope. I shouldn't say anything about this, okay? I had a TDT to the Philippines. Lasted seven months."
    "What were the Philippines like?" I was trying to figure out all the abbreviations he used from the context. I was NAS (not always successful).
    "I didn't see a lot of the countryside. I was sent there for AFISRA and--"
   "Which is what?"
   "Air Force intelligence. Like our own miniature CIA. I was doing recon missions. The paperwork says I'm a mechanic. Actually, this is pretty funny, what I really do is called being a mechanic. It means something else, though."
   "So what you're doing--"
   "I'm blowing up shit."
   I didn't have words.
   "Man, Johnny, you should see your face. Look, I drop in from the 'pines to Okinawa, spread a little foreign currency around, talking to hookers while I'm standing there with twenty kilos of explosive taped to my leg. My Okinawa contact shows up, signals, we hit the bar's head, he hands me some script, I let him take the bomb off my leg. Shit, Johnny, we may not have a declared war out there, but don't you fool yourself, man. We are at war. Then fuckin' Carter comes along and makes things harder on us. Johnny, those other countries out there are laughing at us, man. Do you understand that?"
    I nodded enthusiastically, smiled and took him out to a bar where he talked and I listened, agreeing only by my extended silence. When we came back to my apartment, he slept on the sofa. I woke up early, left a note and left period. In the note I explained that an emergency had come up. I had to leave, didn't want to bother him. Told him to make himself at home but that I wouldn't be back until late.
    When I finally chanced returning home after nine that night, Randy had already gone. He wrote on the bottom of my note that he'd had a great time. We'll do this again when he got his next leave, he promised.
   I was fairly certain that would never happen, which just goes to show you how wrong a guy can be. I saw Randy Howard at least a half dozen times after that, the last two times under extraordinary circumstances.
  

Thursday, December 26, 2013

FROM DREAM LAKE, OHIO--Part Four

Read Part One HERE
Read Part Two HERE  
Read Part Three HERE


   Everyone tried to talk Randy out of joining the U.S. Air Force. His girlfriend Rita Gird went so far as to throw herself in front of his American Motors AMX. (Randy's reflexes were impeccable. He stopped short with yards to spare.) His mother wailed from the bedroom where Rudy, the somewhat mobbed up oldest brother drowned out her anguish by shouting over and over, "You see what you're leaving me with here?" Middle brother Rocky offered a modicum of dissuasion by putting one hand on Randy's shoulder and saying, without evident affect, "Man, don't enlist." As for my own futile efforts, I tried to convince him that the processes of the military would change him in ways that those of us who had known him for a long time might later find strange. He responded very much the way I expected, which was the way I myself would have responded had the military boot been on the other foot. He said, "I realize that. I'm sorry. I need to do this."
   To allow the reader some historical perspective, this happened in 1976, which was the year Randy and I graduated high school. America's official and real involvement in Vietnam had ended in April of the previous year. It would be three more years before the infamous Iranian hostage crisis where the followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini, with absolutely no serendipity, teased from the United States a rabid sense of what had been a dormant preoccupation with gunboat patriotism. The closest thing to a military scare for the United States had happened in December 1975 when then-President Gerald Ford and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had met with President Suharto of Indonesia to inform him that he had their moral--and if necessary military--support in his invasion of a colonial possession called East Timor. Even though the Indonesian occupation ended up lasting more than twenty years, most Americans--myself included--realized that the bumbling Ford could not have found East Timor on a map had he had money riding on it and so this would not have likely called for the use of any air strikes by the U.S. 
    But the military changed people's lives in ways that were often unexpected by the recruits themselves. Randy and I had each talked with returning Vietnam veterans and while some of them appeared reasonably sane, a majority of the ones we knew had come back nervous, jittery, shaky and occasionally frightening. In those days everyone knew somebody who had gone over there and being "over there" in those days had meant either fighting in the fields and jungles, spraying napalm from helicopters, or dropping bombs from several thousand feet. No one who attended that slaughter party escaped without seeing or participating in things that no human being should have had to experience, which was the main reason that military conscription had been necessary for that war. Although in 1976 men of eighteen were required to register for Selective Service, there was no active draft board and I for one could see no reason for my best--my only--friend to sign up.
   "I want to fly, Johnny. How else am I going to do that?"
   Well, yeah, there was that. There were also flight schools, I mentioned to him. 
   "There's also a little thing called money. Rudy wants me to join his operation. No thanks. Rocky says he can get me a job at the garage."
   "You're a great mechanic."
   "I'm a good mechanic, at best. There's way more that I don't know than what I do know. I'm gonna do this thing."
   "What if they mess you up?"
   "What if who does?"
   "The Air Force people."
   "How they gonna do that, Johnny?"
   "Boot camp. Drills. Indoctrination. Programming. Brainwashing."
   "Give me some credit, huh?"
   I'd overstepped. Plus I didn't necessarily know what I was talking about. In addition, I did not know then but have come to see in the years since that most people are at some point in their lives willing to accept--maybe eager to accept--some degree of programming. If the programming has been effective, a person comes to believe that he or she is safe in what might otherwise be an unmanageable situation. We all assume roles throughout our day. But some days are different and they require different mental wiring. So when you start a new job, for instance, you accept a degree of nervousness, especially if you've started new jobs in the past. You know the nervousness and confusion won't last long, so you calm yourself with that knowledge. Nevertheless, what are the first things you do on a new job? Your previous conditioning has taught you that you need to get to know what your boss expects. You know to pay very close attention to the important rules and you learn which rules have some flexibility. You find out where the bathroom is. You quickly learn ways to avoid embarrassing yourself in front of strangers. On your very first job, however, you probably took some lumps because you didn't know that these things mattered. But by the second or third time around, you protected yourself because you had been conditioned--programmed--to make yourself feel safe. In the military, the way to feel safe--even if such a feeling is objectively illogical--is to either create your own reality through the use of force or narcotics, or to cling to the rules like a frightened baby's hand to a blanket. Once the very fact of rules becomes paramount to a person's psychological survival, the rest of the programming comes easy. There's people out there called the enemy. The enemy wants to kill you. The only way to prevent that is to kill them first. Since you do not wish to die--at least not consciously--then your duty is clear. Throw some appeal to God and country in the mix and you have yourself an army. Or an air force. 
   Of course, when Randy and I were eighteen and this decision was being considered, I did not have the intellectual wherewithal to explain this or even to conceive of it in this manner. I certainly could not have successfully debated a recruiting sergeant who was getting paid some kind of salary to paint enlistment as a positive step in a young man's future. So when Randy asked me to give him some credit for not being weak enough to allow the military to change him in some undesirable way, I gave in. He was going to do it anyway, I told myself.
   The postcards arrived from Lakeland, Florida Air Force Base at least once every month for the first year of his four year hitch. The first one we got was an impressive snapshot of Randy in his uniform, kneeling on one knee in front of some type of military air craft that he would have recognized before he ever left the state and which I couldn't have identified if it had had the make and model emblazoned on the outside of the plane in green neon. I had to admit that he looked good. His Florida tan had already returned in full glow. He'd gained a few pounds of what looked like upper body muscle. He was wearing an Air Force cap of some sort, but his longish hair had been left on the barber's floor. 
   Something else was missing from the photograph, something that nudged me far more than the disappearance of his locks of hair. What bothered me was that this was a picture. He was looking directly into the camera and he was posed, so there could have been no reasonable doubt that he knew full well he was being photographed at the time the picture was taken. Yet he was not smiling. He looked as if he did not know what a smile was. 
   My dad looked at the photo. His response was that they--the Air Force--was making a man out of him. Dad had been in what at the time was called the Army Air Corp, a predecessor to the current independent branch of the service. Dad had also enlisted. It had been shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He had been sent to a lot of different countries and had brought back postage stamps and coins from those countries. He had also returned with a small arsenal of weapons that he kept under lock in the basement. And although my father had mentioned at least once a week from the time I had been six years old that the military had made a man out of him, despite all this evident devotion, he never once related an anecdote from the three-and-a-half years he had served. He never spoke of that time in any specific manner at all. Only one thing about him--other than being made into a man--ever signaled that he had so much as worn the Air Corp uniform (which hung in the locked area next to the weapons): he steadfastly refused to get on board any type of airplane. Something had happened to him "over there" and my father went to his death bed never once speaking about what that thing or things had been.
   That was one of the reasons I had not wanted Randy to go. Aside from changing his personality, his outlook on things, in some permanent manner, it occurred to me more than once that he might come back at the end of four years with no desire whatsoever to get anywhere near an air craft again.
     When you spend what you even then recognize as formative years with someone who has taken an active role in helping to form what you yourself have become, you resist the idea of that person exiting--however temporarily--from your life. I think most people also quietly realize that there is also a chance that we too will change and appear different to the much missed yet eventually returning comrade. 
   At the same exact time that Randy disappeared into the clouds of the Air Force, I sequestered myself in my freshman year of university studies. 
   It is fair to say that I did not immediately excel.
   At the end of my third consecutive semester of sub-par performance, I received an important looking envelope addressed to me from the Dean of the Liberal Arts College of the University. The letter, which was well written, sympathetic, and firm, advised me that because of my unimpressive grade point average, I would need to sit out the following semester, although I would be more than welcome to come back in what would have been the summer of 1978. 
   I did sit out that next semester and I did return in the summer of 1978 with what can only be described as a very different attitude. That particular life lesson learned, I applied myself with considerable intensity to my scholastic lessons and am somewhat happy to confess that I never earned any final grade below a B. 
   In truth, that latter point is not only gratuitous, it is irrelevant and, as such, I suspect, redundant. If at all possible, please forget that I even mentioned it.
   What actually matters is that during my five months off from school I went back to work at RCA from January until the end of May. It was during the weekend of my birthday in May, about two weeks before the first summer session of my re-enrollment, that Randy Howard came home on leave.
   The timing was perfect and of course, like everyone else he knew in Dream Lake, I was dying to see him. Still, I wondered and worried that he might have changed in some way.
   As it turned out, we both had.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

FROM DREAM LAKE, OHIO--Part Three

Read Part One HERE
Read Part Two HERE

   Being Randy Howard was not all gin 'n' tonics and waitress girlfriends. He still had high school to think about--that and whatever life-long career he could sort out for himself. Schoolwork came easy to Randy. Whereas I had to forego sleep just to pull out B's in my classes, Randy could work an eight-hour shift, drain a flask of cheap gin, show up for class and handle the resentment of teachers who had gained their employment on the layaway plan.
   Mr. Riggs, for example, had been a beat cop in some crap New Jersey town before somebody decided he'd make a crackerjack geometry teacher at a small school in central Ohio. Riggs never let us forget that he'd been an active member of the law and order contingent and that none of us had better grow up to be like those long-haired dissenters the liberal media was always filming and making heroes out of on the TV. I considered the man to be a bug, but Randy would always jar me into calming down by saying something like, "Guy's just trying to do a job in a world that scares him shitless, Johnny. Put yourself in his place."
   I had no interest in putting myself anywhere near where Riggs had been. And Randy's cavalier comment was belied by something that happened during the second six-week track. Riggs had assigned our class to do the even numbered problems in our dusty-sleeved textbooks. The last problem, number twenty, was a proof we had to complete. I usually did well in the class, despite the moronic teacher, but that particular problem stumped me, so I called Randy to ask his advice. He had said, "That one was a little tricky. But you have to remember that the theorem presupposes that the two lines in question are not perfectly parallel, which means that they'll eventually intersect, right? So that changes everything that follows. Get it?"
   I didn't get it at all, but I wrote down every word Randy said, including the word "presupposes," which I can say with some certainty, I had never heard used in a sentence before that day.
   The next day in class, Riggs went over each of the ten problems. When he came to the last one, he exhaled what sounded like a highly congested sigh and said, "As you've all probably realized by now, the last problem actually cannot be solved. The people who wrote your textbook were in error. So if you were sweating that one out, well--"
   Randy's hand went up. He snapped his fingers as if he were about to complain to a waiter about his steak being underdone. 
   "Yes, Mr. Howard?"
   Taking the textbook with him, Randy hustled up to the front of the classroom, grabbed a piece of chalk and wrote out the proof from beginning to end, at the conclusion slapping the chalk down in the tray and saying "Q.E.D!"
   The kids in class who knew Randy less well than I did looked at him with fresh eyes. Did that just happen? they seemed to be wondering. Did Randy Howard just totally emasculate the geometry teacher in front of all of us? Oh my yes. And Lord did he pay for that.
   Julie Seaver, who, over the previous summer, had grown a pair of prematurely humongous  breasts and apparently believed herself to be the only schoolgirl ever to have such things, sided up next to Randy in the hallway after class to comment on Randy's one-upmanship. He didn't see Rita standing a few feet back of him. He just yawned right in Julie's face and then said, "I don't think Rita would like me talking to you. The football team's not busy, though. Maybe give them a call."
    She didn't even know she'd been insulted. She beamed with delight, said "Okay!" as if uttering a one-word question, spun on her heels and danced off down the hall. Rita and I exchanged a look over Randy's shoulder while he looked inside his locker.

   Randy asked me to come over after school. He said his big brother Rudy was pissed about something and it would be better for him if I was there to deflect the heat. I didn't know what he was talking about, but I said sure because when Randy Howard asked you to do something there was just this indefinable impulse you had to do it, not out of a sense of being intimidated or coerced, or out of a sense of obligation like you might owe to a child, but out of a sense of figuring that if Randy asked you to do something, even if it wasn't all that pleasant, there would come a day when you'd be glad to have done it. Besides, he was a friend, really my only guy friend in the whole school. Ultimately, even though I expected to be bored, I said yes because he asked. 
   He was right about Rudy being pissed, just as I was wrong about being bored.
   Randy and I sat on the living room Davenport, legs uncrossed, feet on the shag carpet, hands dangling between our legs. Every so often Rudy would stop talking and stop pacing simultaneously, as if trying to remember where he was in his litany of outrages. But mostly he droned on. And people thought my dad sermonized.
   "I get a call this morning while I'm making eggs and toast for mom, right? You know how she likes the eggs not too runny, not too firm? The toast, it can't be the white stuff. Can't be whole wheat. It's gotta be rye. Fine. So I'm fishing the burnt toast out of the contraption with a paper clip so the house doesn't catch fire and the frigging phone rings. Mom wants to know who's calling so early. How the hell do I know, right? I answer the phone and again she's with the who is it nonsense. Finally I find out it's Jeff. He just got a call from Mason the Jew. Don't act like you don't know who I'm talking about, Randall. You know Mason the Jew. Smart guy, sharp dresser, kind of squirrel-like? He's the family attorney, Johnny, in case you need to know. Why you're here I don't understand, but Randall says you're okay, so that's gonna have to do. So Mason told Jeff that two of my guys are in the hoosegow. I say which two guys? He tells me. I say that's too bad. He says it's worse than that. I say it can't be worse than that. Jeff says it is because Mason told him that he found out in court that my own little brother is the rat bastard who turned them in."
   When Rudy got to the word "bastard" he made as if to swing his open hand at Randy, but Randy dipped his head a little and at the same time Rudy thought better and curved his arm up enough to miss Randy and whacked me instead. He looked as if he was going to apologize, but apparently thought better of that as well.
   "I told Jeff that Mason must have it wrong. My own baby brother would have enough sense to at least check to see if what he was talking about might have some bearing, right? But he says Mason swore on a stack and that was that. All the while mom is whining about the toast is stinking up the house and the eggs are probably getting too well done and where's the fucking orange juice? I couldn't believe mom would use that word, but that's how ticked off she was and that's the situation you put me in, you stupid prick."
    Randy had been staring at his hands as they hung from his wrist, looking at them as if he couldn't decide whether to walk away and leave them behind or smash them against Rudy's head. What he finally said was, "Our boss called us in, okay? He kind of suggested that maybe Johnny and I had something to do with this burglary."
    "Aw, don't give me that, alright? I already know this guy Pauley had two flats in his office talking to you guys, alright? What I'm saying is when you see something with your two eyes, maybe you think it's a little suspicious, you don't know what's going on, what you gotta do--and this goes for you too, Johnny, and you can shove that grin right back down your throat--what you gotta do is consider, for our sake, is maybe you don't know what it is you're seeing and so then you need to shut up about things until you check with me, alright? You see Marvin the pimp slapping one of his girls around, you check with me. You see some guy's grandma jay walking on Court Street, you look the other way and mention it to me before anybody else. I don't care if the President comes to town and you see five guys crouched down in the grassy frigging knoll, you keep your yap shut until you speak to me, alright? I said, alright?"
    Randy nodded. "Alright, Rudy. You're right."
    "What about you, Johnny Davis? That's your name, right? Sure, I seen you hanging with Randy ever since we moved here. First I thought you was a sissy, but Randy says you just don't eat that much. That's alright. So, you guys got any questions?"
   Randy said, "So what about those two guys?"
   "What about them? You're gonna forget you ever saw them. If the District Attorney asks you something, you tell him you got a little drinking problem, you don't remember breakfast, much less who you saw at the RCA glass manufacturing plant, alright?"
   "Alright, Rudy."
   "Alright. Now you two get outta here. Rocky's supposed to stop by later to help me give mom a bath. Christ Almighty. Unless you want to help with that?"
   We got up to leave. Rudy tapped me with what I suppose was tough guy affection on the back of my head. "Loose lips sink ships, my friend. That's how we was able to beat Hitler. Don't forget it."
   As we reached Randy's AMX in the driveway, he stood with his door open, waiting for me to catch up. He said, "Not so bad being an only child, huh?"

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

FROM DREAM LAKE, OHIO--Part Two

   Read PART ONE here.



   The manager of the L-K Hotel let us drink cocktails without any grief. Randy and I were sixteen, the guy figured. We worked hard, he knew. We didn't tear up his lounge, he understood. We paid, which he was in business to have people do. And we never got sick enough to make a mess in his men's room, which he'd have had to clean up should the occasion have ever arisen, which it didn't. 
   It didn't hurt that the manager liked his front desk girl, Rita Gird. 
   The three of us sat at the bar on Rita's sixteenth birthday, stirring the swizzle sticks in our gin 'n' tonics, laughing about what we thought of then as old times.
   "Johnny here damn near broke his arm," Randy said, pumping a fist against my bicep. 
   "Oh God, did you?" Rita asked, looking from Randy to me, stirring, sipping, smiling all the while, making the situation more important than it really was. 
   "Well, I sprained my wrist. Nothing broke."
   Randy thumbed a cigarette from a pack of Salem's. "Your mom was pretty cool about it."
   She hadn't been that cool about it, but if Randy remembered it otherwise, that was okay with me.
   "Good thing your dad wasn't around."
   "What's your dad like, Johnny?"
   I didn't say anything. This was Randy's show.
   "His dad is a good guy. He just--he kind of lectures everybody."
   "Lectures?" Stirring, sipping, smiling. Over dramatizing. 
   "No offense, Johnny."
   I looked beyond Randy over at Rita. She had an incredible head of hair--long and dark and so shiny clean that when it caught the light you could see yourself staring back at it. Her complexion was fair and crystal clean. No zit would have remained long on that pristine face. But even then you could get a sense as to where the laugh lines would take hold in years to come. And Rita, everyone just seemed to understand, would have many years to come. She lived kind of rough (motorcycles, cigarettes, a few drugs, lots of drink), but her pretend armor of innocence kept the abuse she was getting at home from crippling her inside. Years later people would call her a survivor. 
   "No offense taken."
   Randy squeezed Rita's hand. "His dad just gets on the sermon, that's all. You show up, maybe smell a little like cigarettes--there's a two hour lecture about the hazards of tobacco. 'I preach my dear friends you're about to receive on John Barleycorn, nicotine and the temptations of Eve.' A few drops of oil leak out of your engine onto his driveway, you're gonna get a lesson in proper auto maintenance."
    Rita dropped Randy's hand and looked beyond him toward me. "Hey, at least he cares, right?" Then back at Randy, she said, "Give the guy a break, huh?"
   Randy wasn't saying anything I didn't already know. By that point I wasn't spending much time at home anyway. Randy and I worked forty hours a week on assembly at RCA. School and homework took out another forty. Most of the rest of the time I spent at the cabin out near Dream Lake. 
   Randy spun on his stool and looked out through the enormous plate glass window onto the nearly deserted parking lot. "His mom was great about it. At first her face got all scrunched up and for a second I thought she was gonna blame me for what happened. Then Johnny just looked her right in the eye, told her everything was fine. All the while his hand was just hanging on the end of his wrist, turning green and swollen."
    "Did you cry?"
    "Hell no, he didn't cry. Why would you even ask that?"
   "Okay, okay, did you want to cry?"
   I had wanted to run through a wall of fire to take my mind off the pain, but there was no sense in saying that to them. "I didn't know what she would say. She's always been kind of over-protective."
   "Does she drink?" Rita asked, for what reason I cannot imagine.
   I shook my head. 
   "Does your dad?"
   "He likes beer, but not that much. I'm the only one in the house who ever really boozes."
    She cackled in advance of what she was about to say. Cackling was a weird sound from a teenage girl. "My mother hasn't had a sober day since I was born."
   Randy spun back around, his thumbs hooked in his belt loops. "I wonder why those two guys were hanging around outside the plant."
   RCA didn't have security guards patrolling on Sunday nights. Randy and I had noticed two men who looked to be in their thirties sitting in a sedan out in the parking lot when we'd left to go pick up Rita. At first I didn't think too much about it. I was tired, dreading going out with Randy and Rita but stuck for a ride, and the truth is that at the time I didn't care enough to worry about it. Sitting there, I still didn't much care.
   "They can't be waiting to pick somebody up. We were the last one's out. Maybe they were casing the joint."
   I said, "Casing the joint? Who are you, one of the Hardy Boys?"
   Rita cackled again. The sound was brittle, low and raspy. It was a laugh that could get a guy drunker than any bottle of gin. 
   Randy hopped off the stool, motioned Rita, then me. I paid the manager. Rita left the tip. We split in Randy's AMX. It was a two-seater. Rita sat on my lap. 
   
   In most ways, it just wasn't that big of a deal. But in that funny way that life has of sometimes foreshadowing a trend in the making, what happened froze time like an iceberg imperceptibly drifting. When we made our way back to the RCA parking lot, doing far in excess of the 55 mile per hour mandatory recommendation, we saw the two older guys trying to climb in through one of the windows in the back of the building. If this attempted break-in were happening today, we'd have surely just called 911 on our cell phones. But this was not today. This was considerably earlier than today. When this took place, I'm not even sure there was a 911. Had it been today, it also occurs to me, corporate paranoia would have led to there being internal and external security coasting around to discourage exactly this type of project. One of the men had busted out the glass window. Had it been today, someone would have stopped them before they moved three feet onto the property.
   We watched for a few seconds as one of the two men helped to hoist the other up so he could reach the bottom of the pane and presumably they would have broken in, stealing whatever it was that they had come to get. But Randy acted fast. He leaned on the car horn and shouted for the the guys to make like a tree and get out of there. None of us stopped to consider that those men might have been packing guns (they weren't) or might want what they wanted so bad that they would try beating us up (they didn't). What they did instead was to walk with a determined pace back to their car. They got inside. They started up the engine. They drove off. 
   I told you it wasn't that big of a deal.
   The next day, however, had big deal written all over it.
   After school we drove in Randy's car to the RCA building. We'd left a note for Mr. Pauley on the employees entrance glass door, telling him briefly what had happened. When we walked inside, Mr. Pauley was standing just inside the building. "Been waiting for you two. Come with me."
   My first thought was that we were going to be fired. My second thought was that maybe randy had done something to piss off one of the other assembly line employees and this was going to become a personnel issue (Human Resources, as a department, was still a few years off). I never considered that Mr. Pauley might want to talk with us about what had happened the previous night.
   "We want to talk with you about last night," he said as he closed his office door and motioned for us to sit in the two chairs across from his lopsided desk. I felt crowded in that office because in addition to Pauley, Randy and myself, there stood next to us two of Dream Lakes' finest, their arms crossed and their lips pruney. 
   "Now I know you two boys never had nothing to do with the robbery last night 'cause you both know that if I thought you did, I'd bounce your bald-headed asses the hell out of here, right?"
   We whispered that that was right.
    "These two detectives want to ask you boys some questions."
   The first detective, who was a dead ringer for Captain Kangaroo--except for the suit--leaned over the desk and spread out ten photographs of ten men's faces. "Tell me if you recognize any of these gentlemen."
   I couldn't put any of them together. Randy did, however, He slid all but two of the black and white images to one side. "These two right here."
   "Where do you know them from?" asked the second detective, the Captain's own Mr. Greenjeans.  
   "Saw them last night, trying to bust in here."
   "What about you, John Davis? You see either of these gentlemen before today?"
   I shook my head. "The guys last night were too far off, it was dark, I just couldn't--"
   The Captain Kangaroo cop interrupted me. "Randall Howard, how is it you could see these gentlemen well enough to make a positive ident, but you buddy here cannot?"
   "My buddy here needs to wear his glasses more often."
   He was right about that. Still I didn't exactly care for the way Randy said it.
   Mr. Pauley, no doubt wanting to reassert the fact that this important conversation was taking place in what was, after all, his very own office, cleared his throat immediately prior to making the observation, "That's two guys out of ten. If Howard here says he saw them, then you can take that to the bank, fellas."
   The two detectives looked at each other from the edges of their eyes. Greenjeans fingered his shirt pocket as if reaching for a pack that wasn't there. After registering his disappointment, he said, "Off the record, you picked the suspects. We know these are the guys. They've burglarized Dupont, Mead Paper Mill, 84 Lumber."
    Kangaroo spoke next, needing to make it clear that he too knew the facts of the case. "Corporate espionage is what we think it is. These two gentlemen swipe employee records, help their paymaster to gain access to potential blackmail material. We'll pick them up later today. Howard, if it turns out to be necessary that you go to court to testify, will you swear under oath before God and the holy angels that these are the two men you saw last night?"
   "Yes."
   "Good. Then we'll be in touch soon as we know something."
   The Dream Lakes Ledger ran on their Tuesday morning edition a picture of Randy Howard standing outside the front of the RCA building. The headline read LOCAL BOY SAVES DAY FOR RCA
   Randy Howard stood upon that rarest of high school vantages: He had excelled in something that had been neither academic nor sports related. He was just a guy who saw something, got worried about it, and called out that thing that was worrying him. 
   At school later that morning, Mr. Estes, the principal, broke with tradition and usurped the vice-principal's daily routine by taking the microphone for himself. "We have in our midst a genuine hero, people. At a time when so many of us are caught up in the business of trying to keep the two-percenters in line, it's easy to forget the majority of you are good citizens. I hope you will all take time today to reflect on the civic-minded actions of Randall Howard."
   Yet with all this good public relations, Randy never mentioned the incident again, at least not in my presence. The girls, meanwhile, continued to swoon. Rita Gird fell deeper into that abyss called love. And I began to seriously wonder if what I had long believed was true: was it possible that this young guy could really do anything--everything? And was I really going to sit still for that?

FROM DREAM LAKE, OHIO--Part One

   Randy Howard never set out to be a hero. He told me many times how what he wanted--all he wanted--was to pilot an airplane, something small, nothing flashy. All he wanted to do was lean back in the pit and look out over the horizon, up beyond the Appalachian Mountains, over the breaks in the rivers, swaying in his chair with Christmas music skinning back his lips while he dipped his free hand into a bag of Lay's potato chips. That's all he wanted out of life. Randy Howard's dream may not have had much in common with the dreams of the kids who wanted to grow up to be great academicians, scientists, lumber mill workers, car salesmen, pharmaceutical technicians or parrot trainers. But it was his dream and those of us who knew him well would have rather chewed tin foil than spit on his dream. After all, at least he had a chance.
   Rita Gird, his girlfriend throughout high school, ended up shaving sheep in Florida. When she was twelve, she did not wile away the hours with the radio buzzing in the background, playing with her hair while daydreaming about a future filled with sheep hair balling up in the quivering blades of an electric shearer. What she did wool-gather about (you should pardon the pun) was trying to sing like Darlene Love sang on that great holiday classic "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." You could pedal your ten speed by her house in the heat of deepest summer and--if her bedroom window was open (and it often was)--you could hear Rita Gird blowing her lungs out trying to capture that mounting call and response sound. She didn't have anyone to sing with her so she sang all the parts herself: "Please! Puh-lease! Please! Puh-lease! Please Pul-ease Please Please Please Baby Please Come Home!" She wasn't very good, in my opinion, but you had to respect her for all the effort she put into it. Besides, had anyone told Rita what they really thought about the limits of her tunefulness, Randy Howard would have grinned and smacked that person on the side of the head.
   As I said, Randy Howard had a chance, which was something neither of his brothers ever had. Rocky was a good enough looking guy, in spite of a few random acne scars. By his high school graduation, Rocky Howard lumbered under more than six feet of well-built lankiness. When he walked by, the girls swooned. When he drove by, the guys bowed and nodded. If Randy wanted to fly, then older brother Rocky was married to driving any kind of hot rod he could find. When I knew him--from about 1969 through 1976--he sported some serious future classic four-wheel machines, including a white 1968 American Motors AMX, which, as a two-seater, was, at least for a couple years, a legitimate competitor for the more conventional Corvette. But Rocky's top car was the 1967 Pontiac GTO convertible. It was a regimental-red three-speed with bucket seats, hood scoop, 335 horse power, chrome valve covers and dual exhaust. Rocky picked up that car in the summer of 1973, while most of us teenagers were glued to the Senate Watergate hearings. Rocky always had cash and that car had set him back three grand. The day he bought it, he turned over the keys to the AMX to younger brother Randy. And Randy sure could drive. I rode shotgun with him on more than a few wild trips across central Ohio.
    With the boys' father being out of town at any given moment, the real patriarch of the Howard family was Rudy. He was twenty-four when Randy and I were thirteen. Most of the time Rudy stayed home and took care of their mother. Margaret was always sick in those days. She stayed in bed for weeks at a time and Rudy was her physical and material support. Still, he managed to take care of business from midnight until six in the morning. What that business was, none of us--at least at the time--could have quite said. The word on the street was that Rudy had gotten himself mobbed up, working as a collection assistant for some juice guys up in Columbus. We didn't know the half of it, of course. What we did know was that Rudy's knuckles were always either scabbed over or bleeding and that whenever Randy or Rocky found themselves paddling in some minor law enforcement waters, Rudy would be the one to toss them a life line. While Randy and I relied on the then-current teenage wardrobe of blue jeans, t-shirts, denim jackets, tube socks and high-top tennis shoes, Rocky favored leather jackets, muscle shirts, tight pants and black boots, while Rudy's idea of fashion held with the notion that a bright green leisure suit made the man. On anybody else, such clothing would have garnered snickers. Nobody laughed as Rudy walked on by. There was just no sense in courting that kind of danger. His swollen knuckles were the size of baby fists. 
   Most of the girls in my high school class were starry-eyed and drool-lipped over Randy. Originally from Orlando, Florida, Randy never quite lost that sunshine tan, even in the angry Ohio winters. His black hair hung longer than most of our parents would have tolerated. If you get an image of eyes that are said to be the bluest eyes in the world, those eyes paled compared to Randy's and they were offset with the almost effeminate length of his eyelashes. It didn't make any difference to anyone that Randy stood only five-five. No one ever thought of the guy as short. That was probably because Randy could do damn near anything. And he just seemed to know things that the rest of us hadn't even considered.
    He moved into our neighborhood about two weeks after the start of school. Our sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Benner, walked him into the classroom, draped a hand over one of his shoulders, and announced that a new young man would be joining our classroom. I noticed right away that he was missing that nervous, faraway look that almost all new kids bring with them to a new school experience. Looking out over the thirty-odd faces that looked back at him, Randy grinned like a smirking Elvis Presley, ran his hands along the inside of his opened denim jacket, and without turning to the teacher, asked, "Where's my desk?"
    There was an empty spot across from me and directly behind Rita Gird. Without waiting for an answer, Randy walked away from Mrs. Benner, turned right at the front of the room, and sauntered back four rows, plopping himself down. He turned to me, snapped out a nod, roped his legs beneath the desk and began drumming his pencil's eraser on the top of the desk. Some guy from across the room said, "Get a haircut." Randy either didn't hear it or didn't care. Some of the girls giggled, but not because of the comment. They giggled because he was the new guy and they'd never seen a new guy like this. They giggled because they were feeling something they'd only read about in their mother's magazines.
    After school sometime during that first week, Randy wheeled over on his bicycle. It was early October and the kiss of snow flitted on the wind. As kids we didn't pay much attention to weather forecasts. We lived in central Ohio. October meant wind, some sleet, probably a touch of snow from time to time, then a quick blast of warmth that forgot to go south, then five months of cold weather. Randy, being from Florida, knew nothing of our weather. When he arrived on his twenty-inch wheel bike, he was still wearing that same denim jacket.
    "Let's go exploring," he said, his tone carrying just enough weight that it didn't quite come off as optional. It sounded as if a person would have to be strange in some way to want to do anything else. I grabbed my big warm winter coat, pulled on some navy blue cloth gloves, opened the garage door and guided my standard twenty-four-inch wheel mobile out into our long driveway. 
    That afternoon Randy Howard showed me my neighborhood, the place where I'd lived the last twelve years, introducing me to places you couldn't find riding in the family car on Sunday afternoon. We lived in the suburbs and I had come to understand the Van Harrison Community to be split level homes, half-acre yards, narrow two lane roads, yapping dogs at every third house, garages used as hobby rooms for fathers, living rooms filled with mother projects, cookies on a tray and both parents working. I didn't know anyone with less than two parents. Most of the community went to one church or another: Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopalian, and a smattering of Catholics, just for punctuation purposes. My family didn't go to church. When Dad was home, we spent our Sundays riding around in Dad's Chrysler New Yorker, looking at property he and Mom might someday buy, upon which they hoped to erect some type of ice cream parlor. 
   That particular afternoon, my dad was still at work at the oil refinery. He did shift work, seven days straight, then three off. He lived in a travel trailer just across the state line in Cattlesburg, Kentucky. When his days off arrived, he'd drive the two hours from the refinery all the way straight through. Mom and I would listen for the hum of that Chrysler. It was a big deal when Dad came home.
   My mother worked retail in town. She could stand on her feet for hours without so much as a twinge, directing little old ladies to the piece-goods department, showing new cashiers how to operate the register, taking teenage girls by the arm right to the young women's area, discouraging the boys from shoplifting without making them feel like petty criminals, taking on the paperwork the assistant manager couldn't decipher, and dancing around to the popular tunes piped in on the store's tinny public address system. She and her two best friends there could often be observed smiling in mock-delight at what they thought of as the silliness of modern music. Still, they had the times of their lives, and a lot of shoppers visited that store just because they found the natural merriment to be contagious.
   Randy led the way out the driveway and north on what I'd always thought of as "our" road, a fast left then another right until we slid into the old gravel quarry that had been abandoned ever since a bigger version had been set up a couple miles down the way. I skidded to a stop, almost automatically, once we were just a few feet onto the property. Hearing my skid on the thin limestone, Randy swung back and asked "What gives?"
    "We can't go in here. It's private property."
    Randy laughed. "It's private all right. Nobody's been here in months, from the look of it. Nothing to be afraid of. We're just gonna ride around, maybe set up some speed ramps, pop some wheelies. Come on."
    No one had ever suggested to me that it might be okay to trespass if a company was deserted. That was a different way to think about things. I didn't think about it much at all. I just sighed and followed Randy around back of the quarry, where we passed stacks of splintered wooden pallets, enormous rotten truck tires, wheel axles, the mouth of a steam shovel, and walls of sky blue metal weakened by rust. Randy grabbed his right hand brake and spun his rear wheel in an arc as he slid to a fast and dramatic stop. My brakes were pedal operated and I tried never to skid because I didn't want to wear out my tread. I eased back on the pedals and glided to a halt. 
    "We can use that board over there as a ramp. We'll lay it over that concrete pipe, hit the wood doing ninety and be airborne."
   I didn't know what he was talking about. I just watched as Randy used his feet to roll the twelve-inch pipe over toward the entrance. I helped carry the hard wood plank and set it down so that it rode up the top of the pipe. I began to get a sense of what was going on and I felt a nervousness in my stomach.
   Randy didn't allow much time for nerves. As soon as the ramp was placed, he jumped on his bike, shot back about fifty feet, turned around, bore down over his monkey bars and slammed on and off that plank doing what was closer to thirty miles an hour but all the same he went into the air, landing--finally--in the middle of the road, just a couple seconds after someone drove by in a Country Squire station wagon. He spun around on one wheel in the middle of the road, leaned forward again and brought his front tire down with the delicacy of a feather drifting to the earth. He looked at me, motioned with a sweep of one arm, and nodded. It was my turn. 
       

Saturday, December 21, 2013

CHRISTMASTIME IN THE CITY

   A kid, about twelve or thirteen, walks into the convenience store just ahead of me. He gives me a look of guilt before I even realize what is happening, which is that he is planning to steal as many milk containers and candy bars as he can without, he hopes, getting busted. I'm going in to get beer and ciggies and Coke. This kid isn't running a dare, he isn't boosting for the sake of it; he's desiring to bring back a little comfort for his younger brothers and sisters. He lingers in the store, spending too much time for a typical customer, adding to his own risk of being caught. I walk right up to him, slide him a dollar and tell him to buy a soda. He looks up at me, not smiling. I nod. If he's going to steal, he needs to at least pretend to be a legitimate customer. He takes the dollar, buys the soda, and leaves. 
    On my way back home, I drive up a thin road. On the left sits a storage facility where people of all shapes are loading belongings onto the back of a truck: mattresses, dressers, socks, glasses, tennis shoes, pants, and boxes galore. 
   It's Christmastime in the city.
   On the right side of the road, three consecutive houses are having yard sales. Here's an old and shiny dresser, there's a box of paperbacks, over there they have old VCR tapes, while over here they have children's slightly worn dresses and baby shoes. A woman smiles as a car pulls up and a man with his own smile asks her in Spanish how much for the whole box of clothing. Behind the boxes, up on the front of the house, carefully placed, neat and tidy, hang Christmas lights and some reindeer decorations. Little kids are running everywhere.
   It's Christmastime in the city.
   A guy with an old Charger roars down the road in the opposite direction. He hasn't any money because he spent it all on his car stereo. We can feel the vibrations a hundred yards away. I don't recognize the tune but I don't think it's from Phil Spector's Christmas album. 
   Back home the roomie is playing Broadcastify on the computer. It plays live police calls. Sometimes it's nice to get a sense as to why the helicopters are circling overhead. Sometimes it's not so nice.
   It's Christmastime in the city.
   The kids next door are worrying about whether their mother will be able to afford to buy them iPods, minipads, tablets, or other noisy electronica. I'm worried that she will be able to afford them. 
   The kid back at the convenience store doesn't care about mobile devices. He just wants his family to stop sweating out the rent payment for the first of the year. His older brother, who isn't around as much as he was last year, plans on pulling three beer runs before the month is out. If he makes it, he'll sell the cans for a buck apiece. That'll get the family by for another month, at least for shelter. For food, they'll hold yard sales. With nine people living in a 500 square foot apartment, they should have enough stuff to sell to keep themselves in peanut butter. You don't see a lot of satellite dishes on the rooftops there. In that complex, you just see women outside the gate, smoking rollies and getting fat on cheap junk food. The convenience store overcharges them for hotdogs and kicks them back a few cash dollars off the food stamp card, knowing full well they'll have no choice but to spend that same money right back in the store. No one who lives there has a car that runs and the real grocery store is too far away. 
   It's Christmastime in the city.
   I tell the middle-age woman cashier that I like her green-and-red-painted nails. I don't really like them, but it's something to say. She smiles through her own exhaustion. She'll be working Christmas day, feeling blessed to have that job. 
    Even though I think it's cold outside, the ice cream man plays his annoying jingle music for the kids in the foster home kitty cornered from us. I used to think the guy sold drugs out of his wagon but he only sells bad ice cream that's too old for the stores. The kids stare in wonder as he coasts by. They don't have the money he needs. He can't really afford to pay for the gas his machine uses but he doesn't have anything else to do. The wheels keep on turning.
   The dogs from what is probably a puppy mill across the street yelp at the sound of the ice cream man's jingle. They yelp and our dogs cry out in unpleasant discord. Somebody not far away owns a rooster.
   Christmastime, the most wonderful time of the year.
    The landscapers will come by on Monday. There's nothing for them to do, but they'll plow over the yards anyway, trying to look essential for four hours. The dogs will bark at that, too. What a drag.
   Teenagers stroll along the avenue all the time. They bury their hands deep in their pockets. The wind gets cold here in December. Sometimes the maintenance man finds one of them asleep in the laundry room in the morning. Sometimes he finds hypodermic needles along the wall. 
   When I first moved to Phoenix the streets on Christmas Day were deserted. You could walk almost anywhere and feel like you owned the whole town. Now Christmas is another day. People will pile into cars after four in the afternoon, head out to the movies or some sports activity. 
   Somewhere a baby will be crying. No one will hear it. Like the lone tree falling, the sound will be unheard and smart people will debate whether the crying is actually happening. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

MONSTERS ON THE STREETS

   With the combination of my present relative maturity and the psychological battering that befalls any of us who remain even half conscious of world events here on this madly spinning orb, I find the news that Phil Robertson has been softly and temporarily kicked from the "Duck Dynasty" program to be somewhat outside the purview of my concerns. To my deep regret and moderate embarrassment, some people whom I would otherwise consider bright and mentally nimble have prattled on at great length about "political correctness" and "hyper-sensitivity" getting in the way of what we here in America refer to as Free Speech. Many of these otherwise fine folks imagine that they identify with the evident redneckedness and "rags to riches ain't changed me none" attitude of this proud clan/klan of woodsie gentlemen and so take a deep and abiding umbrage at the temporary shame that has dropped its bird turds on Mr. Robertson. This concern for Robertson appears to be founded on the idea that the man was merely expressing his opinion and certainly, the argument goes, everyone is entitled to an opinion.
   To which I reply: Wrong! Everyone is entitled to an informed opinion. And in the case of the Duck Man, his opinion was not only uninformed, it was uniformly stupid. To advocate for this imbecile's alleged right to spout off superstitious musings on the behavior of a considerable segment of the population is to endorse the unfettered right to be a moron. But don't take my word for it. Here are the remarks he made to the reporter:
Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men. Don't be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won't inherit the kingdom of God. Don't deceive yourself. It's not right. . . It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man's anus. That's just me. I'm just thinking: There's more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I'm saying? But hey, sin: It's not logical, my man. It's just not logical.
   At a time in our history when glorified idiots are not only celebrated for their stupidity but actually manage to propel their willful ignorance to political gain (think Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, the better part of the state of North Carolina, Michele Bachmann) and the current bozo's comments (and his defenders' outrage) suggest once again that the sub-average illiterate is our Common Man Hero. As such, how dare those effete snobs at A&E even think about harnessing our brave freedom rider?
   My answer, as you may have anticipated, is that Phil "Ignoramus" Robertson serves to validate the wasted lives of his bigoted and self-righteous barnacle fan-base. Naturally, the only defense his supporters can muster is that the poor fool is being persecuted for exercising his right to be an asshole, you should pardon the expression.
   The other reason this annoying issue warrants the amount of space I'm giving it today is because all those right wing trailer trash freedom of speech aficianados are (again) willfully ignoring the fact that the amount of free speech one actually has correlates to one's position in our society. Had any of my friends who were so befuddled over this matter uttered the exact same sentiment, there would have been little if any brouhaha over it because no reporter for a big name magazine would have cared enough to print it. It is only because "the duck boys" have a (to me, bewilderingly) successful TV program that his stupid words ended up in print. GQ, Playboy, Esquire--they don't interview people with only fourteen friends on Facebook. They interview writers, movie stars, fashion moguls, and the occasional backwoods barbarian with a hit program on A&E. And since the power of a given person's freedom of speech depends in great part on that person's stature in society--meaning that reach and impact are connected to that relative freedom--then we all have different levels of liberty. Robertson has more than you likely do. Therefore, at least according to me, he bears more responsibility for what he says. When he says something that's stupid even by "Duck Dynasty" standards, he gets to suffer just a little. As did Alec Baldwin. As did the Dixie Chicks. 
   Someone with a television show gets to lumber under a greater degree of responsibility than the rest of us. When you try to dress up a beaver-faced bearded clown as an important thinker, he's going to eventually say something like this. The only wonder is that it took this long.
   Now in the perfect world I often imagine, we could turn all the millionaires loose on TV, shoot them up with sodium pentathol, and get them to say what they really believe about all kinds of things. What shatters this fantasy to bits is a piece of wisdom from Eric Hoffer, a man far fewer people know of than Phil Robertson, a man whose feet Robertson isn't fit to lick. What Hoffer wrote was: "What monsters would walk the streets if men's faces were as unfinished as their souls."