The Lost Archives of Captain Hook

thMy wife surprised me this Christmas with an extraordinary gift — two decades of mothballed VHS home movies converted to DVDs. In minutes, I was pulled through a looking glass of my life as a parent and across the sweeping steppe of time – two continents, three children, four homes and one half-dozen pets. The last occasion I had stumbled across such riches of nostalgia, I had been weaving in between boxes and neglected items of my retired parents when I unearthed worn, misplaced photo albums and a vanished 8mm family film from the 1960s – cinema and snap shots that graphically depicted a middle class family of four boys as we traveled the blue and black highways of the Western United States in a modern day Conestoga called the station wagon.

The first thing you notice about most 60’s family films is an adult is always waving hello and a child is usually crying. Today, Child Protective Services would use any of these clips as Exhibit A in the trial of an unfit parent. We wander dangerously close to the Interstate as we stop at roadside rest stops for jelly stained Wonder Bread PJs chased by warm Shasta Lemon-Lime soda. There were pocketknives, BB guns, bows and arrows, and an absence of helmets, seatbelts or the restrictions of an adult. There is no sound, gratefully, as the film would quickly become X-rated when punctuated with the anxious calls for “stopping the grab-ass” by my father who had a black belt in cursing and for giving you a red hot behind.

As I threaded the fragile film through a viewing monitor borrowed from a college professor friend, the archipelago that was so many phases of my life mended into a single land mass when reunited with the young boy I saw in these photographs and movies.

He was the third of four boys with an XL head and tennis-ball buzz cut. He was nine – an advanced pyromaniac, collector and kleptomaniac. The boy loved his matted, filthy mongrel dog that the father referred to as “The Democrat”. He spent endless Southern California hours painting Airfix 56mm plastic military figures and then would burn them in epic battles behind an old two-car adobe-style, stucco garage. He lived for sports, Christmas morning, the Fun Zone of Newport Beach and girls. I watched him dart through iconic places – the Grand Canyon, Crater Lake and SeaWorld in San Diego. Memories perfume the world around me. Each moment a feeling, each file an indelible memory of the sweet bird of youth.

th-2A conveyor belt of boys with buzz cuts move in and out of photos wrestling like pups in a whelping box, only to appear on the next page with noses covered in zinc oxide and faces freckled by the sun of a Newport Beach August. A husky fourth grader, the middle child had a romantic sense for everything and a leg that twitched faster than a floundering sea captain typing a Morse code SOS. Life was we imagined of the military, endless ceremony, uniforms, chores, boredom, moments of terror and the nine weeks of leave we called summer vacation where we would travel to exotic ports of call with names like like Newport Beach, San Francisco and Sedona, Arizona.

I recall being so bored one summer that we spent an afternoon pushing a dead cat with a stick. Vietnam was thinning our ranks of young men on television each night while we rode bikes through back alleys to tree houses defiladed from any parental supervision, decorated by hobos and stacked with Playboy magazines. The purple and sienna horizon line of the San Gabriel Mountains marked the eastern edges of our future. At night, you would look up and see the flickering lights of the radio towers – a West Egg star to steer by as you contemplated turning ten. If you were masochistic you could ease drop through the heating ducts to hear adult conversations — bungling politicians, war, stagflation, incomprehensible ethnic conflict and another orthodontia bill. These were adult hemorrhoids that the boy would not have to worry about for many years – unless he sat too long on a toilet reading comic books.

The boy loved his wolf pack. Beyond the holidays and Christmas mornings, there was uncontaminated humor, eternal optimism and the larger than life David Lean longing for epic adventure.

My mother reminded me a few years back when I complained about one of my children’s short attention span that she had to endure a phase where I had self-diagnosed dyslexia.   I used the “Mislexic” defense when I got pinched for stealing candy at the local Huntington Pharmacy. My mother was furious – asking rhetorical questions like “what were you thinking?” and “do you know what they do to boys who steal?” I recall looking her in the eye and saying, “I think I’m mislexic. I wasn’t sure if I should pay inside or after I got outside the store.

I progressed to feigning deafness to avoid the pressure of being called on in class. In retrospect, I should have become an attorney. At the time, I had a middle school teacher who used the Socratic method of calling on random students. To buy time, I would ask her to repeat the question two or three times. She recommended to my mother that I get my hearing checked.

Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep!

“Michael, let me know if you can hear the beep.”

The ENT made a perplexed face at my inconsistent answers. He expanded the headphones to reach across my massive dome to cover my ears. I suddenly realized that I did not want to fail this test or I might end up with those strange plastic tubes curling around my cochlea like the deaf kid who spoke such slow exaggerated words at summer camp. So I mixed up my answers. “Yes, no, no, yes. yes… “

“I don’t know what to make of these tests. His hearing – it’s all over the map. “

She seemed to know I had been faking but could not understand why. I confessed an hour later to my mother after being plied with a number Two burger and milk shake from Twoheys restaurant — and the ironclad promise of amnesty from my father who must never know I had pretended to be deaf. My mother had looked relieved. She really only had three looks – loving amusement, anger and relief.

I’m still searching the Turpin archives for the lost episode called “To Catch A Thief” where we were lined up like POWs because four recently baked cookies were reported missing.

“Okay, I’m going to close my eyes and leave the room. When I come back I want those four missing cookies on the plate.” All four boys shifted and shuffled at nervous attention. When my mother returned to the room, four more cookies were missing. It was in fact, a pure genius suggestion. It should be noted that a future investment banker orchestrated the caper – perhaps there was some merit to the efforts of Dodd-Frank.

As I sit in our Connecticut family room and return to a warm fire and these lost films of the 1990’s, I am swimming in another slow moving river of nostalgia. I recollect how important these moments were – the dawns and dusks of living at the center of a diminutive universe. Unconditional love. I’m smiling unconsciously at the invidious daughter who wants to return her newest baby brother to the hospital via the toilet. Her only-child days have ended and she will not go gently into that good night. The home movies chronicle a young family struggling up a mountain of life — moving to England with three small children, celebrating major holidays in strange and exotic places while recording each milestone through the mongrel accents of California children as they collide with strict English grammar and syntax.

Christmas, 2002 – A 3-year-old boy appears on camera, perturbed as he opens Father Christmas gifts.

“Dad?” He asks with a silky Etonian accent. “My friend Henry hates Jesus. I don’t hate baby Jesus but Henry says he hates him.” Muffled laughter on the other end of the camera.

(Camera pans to a lattice of gloomy windowpane)

In the northern hemisphere, the English winter malingers with ephemeral mist and dreariness. The sun is a pastel color form clinging to a low horizon. The camera zooms in on a cherub-cheeked boy who looks exasperated. He is excited for Christmas but can’t seem to shake the revelation that someone dislikes the child lying in the manger. (The scene cuts to bath time.) An older sister threatens her younger brother again with the toilet. Another DVD is a hard hitting interview with a five year old boy who agrees to a rare discussion about everything that scares him.

“Let’s see. Monsters. The Grinch and oh yeah, I really, really, REALLY hate Captain Hook.”

captain-hook-disney-villains-29300024-800-600“Hide and Hook” was a favorite game among my fear-addicted children. Like J.M. Barrie’s orphans, they dreamed of an island where kids were in charge and unexplained forces of nature were clumsy and easily vanquished. This version of Captain Hook had a softer and more incompetent side. He remained permanently one step behind, incapable of following through on any threat. He was a punching bag and a deep pocket willing to bribe children with sweeties – daily dishonest attempts to corrupt a child into the life of a buccaneer’s. My middle son was our emotional canary in the coal mine – losing his feathers during any time of stress or change. He had night terrors. My brave soldier once attempted to thwart his nighttime demons by he wedging a pillow against his bedroom door. The only person he could have possibly kept out would have been a starving vegan and there were certainly none in the year of our Lord, 2001. Our youngest supporting actor appears in each scene with a Sippy-cup – clad in the robin’s egg blue soccer jersey of the Italian star “Francesco Totti”.

As I devour the home movies, the phone rings and shatters my reminiscence. It is my Dad.

He wants to talk politics. I try to explain that I’m watching old movies and we divert from toxic polemics to the past. Normally, the conversation concludes with him wishing Hillary be indicted, Bill castrated and sent to Oman to guard a Harem and Obama given a one minute head start from Seal Team Six. Tonight, we float back like Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past. We talk about growing up, aging, the wonderful holidays and all the traditions that have survived the decades. Time sandpapers any hard edges. For a moment he is no longer the critic – lamenting our cultural decline and complaining about the soft accommodations we now make in the name of inclusivity. He is Peter Pan who has grown up and forgotten he was once Captain Hook. I love him. For a moment, he laughs and remembers Never Land. That flicker comes into his voice falling like the ancient pixie dust of Tinker Bell. The space between us across three thousand miles of America is filled with the simple green grass promise of childhood.

It’s hard to avoid his fate and I yield a little more each day to the emotional calcification of one who has bitten the apple and been banished from Eden. I’ve played many lead and supporting roles in these movies of my life: ingénue, feckless husband, sybarite, world traveler, director, evangelist, coach, paternal sage and aging oracle. Yet across time, my favorite character was always the supporting role of Captain Hook – adversary to the Lost Boys and incompetent foil to those who seek to live for today and never grow old.

A Farewell To the Pirate King

It’s was 9am and a chill still hung in the summer air. The coastal wind whipped by a shifting high pressure system had lifted a fog bank off the Farallons and gently deposited it on to the Western Edition. You could see it cresting up from the Golden Gate and settling like soft cotton on the crowd that slowly moved from cars and cabs toward the cathedral that rested at the top of San Francisco’s Parnassus Heights.

These early days of summer are whispers from a distant youth – soft breezes and a warm sun promising a day bursting with possibilities. We arrived in tight, somber bands shuffling toward the Mass where we would mourn and celebrate the sudden passing and life of our friend and confederate, our “blue sky” giant who could see a little farther than the rest of us — always promising treasure and believing that tomorrow would hold a bigger and better island to explore than today.

Larry Del Santo Jr. Aka Laurie, Little Lar, The Giant, Mr Blue Sky etc had more monikers than Methuselah. He had been pried loose too soon from his grasp on life’s mortal coil and gone to surprise his mother who had been mourned in this same church on this same day some seventeen years earlier.

Growing up, I can only see Becky Del Santo in some form of pregnancy. She was in this compromised state for twenty five consecutive years. Larry Jr. could never remember a time when his mother was without a child stuck to her breast or wearing a floral sun dress that portended the arrival of another brother or sister.  Like all suburban 60’s mothers, Becky was two parts Saint and one part clairvoyant, air traffic controller. She and my mother were best friends and compared notes on how they could keep their kids on the right path and out of harms way.

Becky’s eldest boy, Larry Jr was her agent and proxy tasked against his will with leading the procession of Del Santos through life and toward a chance at Heaven. We grew up in the great Jurassic age of American families. It was the final epoch of politically incorrect patriarchal rule where children were viewed as useless lumps of coal requiring swear words and enormous pressure so they might one day become a diamond in the eyes of society.

img_0810To be the eldest kid in this patriarchal community carried its own unique burden. You were expected to serve as defacto adult when no parent was present and would invite admonishment and reprisal if something illicit actually occurred on your watch. In our Southern California suburban neighborhood, alpha older brothers directed traffic and meted out pioneer justice on an ecosystem of middle class kids who were blessed with time and a less suffocating form of Darwinian parenting that afforded them a free-range childhood with community supervision.

The average family had four kids — hedging in the event someone got a faulty fuse while playing with an M80. Silent Generation fathers disappeared at 7am and staggered home at 7pm asking their wives two questions,”how was your day and who do I hit?” Mothers were soft breezes that blew in to sort out the chaos, prevent the T-Rex fathers from devouring their young and to ensure the laundry got folded. Matriarchs were the de facto rulers of the roost and over time, slowly learned to exercise the power that Gloria Steinhem so desperately tried to convince them they possessed.

In the long hot summers of the late 60s, packs of free range children migrated on foot, skateboards and bikes across a lime green veldt of manicured front lawns, latticed by magnolia tree lined sidewalks and perfect two car driveways. Larry Del was a giant towering over any kid south of Huntington Drive. He would not stop growing until he cast a 6′ 7″ shadow against the broken red oak fence that separated our two abutting properties. He was the eldest — a mischievous man mountain that appeared to have stumbled out of some Northern Italian fairy tale. He was blond with a massive grin and eyes that narrowed as he surveyed how he might torment you. His mere size compelled a kid to offer up your lunch money.  Yet, his Catholic compass kept him on the right side of decisions. As with all industrious Italians, he would periodically remind you that he would indeed call on you some day for a favor — a social contract in which you would be well served to comply.

He accepted us before we ever met. Our addition to the neighborhood would turn out to remove pressure and suspicion that often rested firmly at the door of the Del Santos of Warwick Rd. The day my parents were signing papers to purchase our new home on adjacent Windsor Rd, my brothers and I were in the back garden, unsupervised ( big mistake ) and launching the largest dirt clods known to man over the backyard fence into what sounded like a rural pond. We laughed hysterically as the nuclear bombs repeatedly hit their target launching water spouts eight feet high. We could not see our new neighbor’s pool nor knew that the five kid Del Santo family living next door to these ill-fated people, would be initially blamed for the first of many decades of transgressions.

Later that night, eleven year old Larry Del Santo Jr would grin upon hearing that four boys were moving into the house behind them. With two brothers and two sisters and another sibling on the way, Larry Jr understood this new tribe of Presbyterian boys could prove a useful distraction to his house of diapers, Von’s breakfast pastries and Catholic expectation.

His dad, Big Larry, and our father were the most feared Dads in the neighborhood. They shared a belief that no one was innocent and while it was God’s job to punish in heaven, a parent was God’s quartermaster here on earth.  Big Larry was a tough food industry executive and practicing Catholic who felt the Spanish Inquisition was justified and that a few public burnings could do wonders for kids and politicians.  He did not publically take the Lord’s name in vain but secretly admired my father’s profanity which could have won a gold medal at the Cursing Olympics.

img_0811Larry Del Santo Sr, aka Big Larry, liked to remind you that a father was the ultimate alpha male. You were a child – a single cell paramecium that moved mindlessly toward food and light. To emphasize your utter uselessness, he would compel you whenever he saw you to shake his hand. “Get over here and shake my hand you little creep.” He would then squeeze your digits so hard your knuckles would be touching. He’d release you and as you fell to the ground massaging the broken bones metatarsals he’d bellow to your father. “Jesus, Miles. You’re going to have to toughen up these pansy boys.” If we had been meat, we would have been placed under his Hun saddle to be tenderized.

From 1957 to 1982, Becky Del Santo would give birth to twelve children with Larry Jr the steward and standard bearer as the eldest child. In life, he found his purpose in being a first child. He had the “blue sky” humility of a man who somehow knew his role was not just to be a standard bearer but to forever lead the denizens of adolescents who would follow. He would serve as the tallest tree on our horizon line and and a non judgmental lighthouse for his siblings and any friend that sometimes got lost in the marine layer of life — reminding us all where the shoals had scratched the keel of his boat. He was always just ahead, yelling back to that everything was fine and to keep following his voice.

He thunderous laughter could perfume any room and his capacity to find trouble was legendary. He was a self anointed Mr Fix It — the kid in the neighborhood who “kind of knew” how to use his all dad’s tools and could build everything from tree houses to trebuchets. Like PT Barnum, he could smell a sucker and often organized his growing army of younger siblings and neighborhood kids to carry out a personal vendetta that might increase the chance of our arrest and his damnation. Yet, the benefit of Catholicism was weekly absolution in confessional followed by a dozen “Hail Marys” and “Our Fathers”.

When the local Helms bakery began delivering baked goods, Larry Jr recognized that the Helms driver was not the freshest bun in the oven and proceeded to develop a strategy where we might distract him while others emptied his change belt and then proceeded to buy all his donuts and candy back from him. Years later, we would conclude the Helms man had been intellectually impaired. ( Yep, we’re doing’ time in Purgatory for that one.)

In the days before helicopter supervision or political correctness, kids played a major role in the neighborhood ecosystem as a part-time labor force, extended family for kids from broken homes and change agents interpreting for one another the strange mysteries of life.  This required collateral material usually stashed in Larry’s tree house — a cornucopia of Oui and Playboy magazines . In an age of Moon shots and mainframe computers, we were pirates and he was the Pirate King. To possess Larry’s physical prowess meant that you could move freely across streets and no one would dare fire a BB gun or launch a bottle rocket.

As kids, we were forever in search of money –to buy food, fireworks or attend a double feature at the local Alhambra theatre.  Larry’s larceny included a black market in fireworks and quarter sticks of dynamite that would be administered to the mailbox of any octogenarian bold enough to chase us off his dichondra lawn. If that subtle warning did not intimidate the offending neighbor, we might resort to eggs launched with a funnel and surgical tubing or perhaps Epsom salts were poured on the lawn to spell a forbidden word. The doorbell might ring to a flaming bag of dog poop or an empty space.  When the usual suspects were hauled in for questioning, we became one another’s permanent alibis.

When the Pirate King punched your shoulder, your arm would hurt for a week. He once had me lean on his feet while he laid on his back. “It’s a rocket launcher ride” I sat on his feet as he yelled “next stop the moon.” He proceeded to “launch me” fifteen feet into the side of my Dad’s Ford Granada almost breaking my arm. When we saw the dent I had caused, we all fled the scene. “Boy, kid, are you in trouble” Larry Jr yelled as he climbed over our fence where Tipper his faithful Irish Setter waited on the other side.

Like wartime prisoner exchanges, my brother Miles would invite Larry Jr with us on vacation while the Dels might get a “Turpin to be named later” for their week down at the beach. Years later, the families finally saw the logic in renting homes in Newport Beach at the same time. Big Larry loved his time on the Balboa Peninsula and was always surrounded by a swirling, one degree of separation scallion of food, beverage, insurance and consumer goods Catholics – small armies of six, eight and ten kid families all renting beach houses near one another each August. In time, Larry Jr, his brothers Michael and John, sisters Mary and Therese would end up helping their own and other people’s siblings.

The Pirate King longed for his own ship and state room but instead had to settle for a few precious belongings.  His most treasured possession was his stereo. In the last golden age of high fidelity, Larry Jr became an audiophile. He matched a Pioneer turntable with a stylus as sensitive as your shy cousin with a 200 amp Kenwood receiver, Bose amplifier, Infinity speakers and an eight track deck to create a system so powerful it could knock down an old lady fifty yards away.

He had plastic sleeves for each Beatles album and would spend hours listening to the dulcet music of Paul McCartney on his headphones. Just for a minute, he was alone — in his own room with no filthy crew and cramped quarters. Moments later, the magic would always be broken by the scent of a dirty diaper announcing the arrival of an infant sibling who would drunkenly stagger into his room looking for his or her mother.

Perhaps being surrounded with so much life compelled the older Del Santo boys to flirt with Death — activities that by today’s standards would land parents in jail for child endangerment. Yet, we were the pioneers of mischief – ancestors whose BB gun wars became tomorrow’s paintball and whose motocross and mini-bike jumps laid the foundations for X Games.

Our friend Judd recalls that common sense was permanently on vacation in those days. A favorite high risk game required one kid to ride a mini bike up and down the street and through the back yard while others would fire BB guns at him from concealed sniper nests. When a bullet lodged under the driver’s eye, they quickly picked it out with tweezers but explained the injury as a baseball accident. Injury was not a badge of honor but a potential invitation for punishment. A contusion was something to be disguised. Blood or a tear in one’s clothing was a sign that a kid had been engaged in grab-ass. You tear your shirt? You pay for it. You get a cut requiring stitches and scare the hell out of me? Ill make you wish you died out there. Injury was a kid’s fault. “What in the God’s green earth were you doing over at the Del Santos?”

Life in the late 60s and early 70s was a death defying time of discovering boundaries, learning through failure and encounters with authority figures. The police did not work at cross purposes with your parents. The cops often brought a kid home to a punishment that they knew was likely to be more painful and decisive than any visited by local law enforcement.

Larry Del Jr was exposed to the full radiation of first child accountability. It pulsed from a busy father and an overwhelmed mother who looked to him to ride shotgun for an army of children still finding their way in the world. He never relinquished the job of Pirate King. It became his raison d’être.

Larry had his share of life’s successes and disappointments but he was always grounded in the singular fact that he was his family’s sibling leader — large and in charge, ready to give advice to anyone. He deeply loved his own kids who had become his pride and joy. He was genetically predisposed to be a Dad. Later in life, he would make it his priority to know each of his thirty nieces and nephews.

For four decades, our lives would intertwine – vacationing together, swapping kids, offering summer work, helping potential felons find the right college. It was always the same — the cabal of Italian Catholics and the feisty and felonious quartet of Presbyterian boys who were uncertain whether they wanted to be superior court judges or wards of the criminal justice system.

It’s 4am now. I’m feeling old driving south on Highway 101 to SFO to fly back to JFK. A tangerine sunrise to the east feels like a home fire burning. The San Francisco Bay is an ebony inkblot sequined by the lights of a hundred high tech office parks and residential homes along the waters edge.

I’ll miss him. He was a thousand summer nights running across the innocence of my youth and my fascination with risk. He was a surrogate big brother and a talisman for the truth. He was a Pirate King, the Leader of the Lost Boys — always itching for a golf game or a dinner with as many people jammed into one house as the fire marshal would allow. He was big in every way and his heart showed how endless our capacity for love can be.

All hail to the Pirate King, our Blue Sky Giant, the vanquisher of bullies, master of mischief and champion of all sound systems. He blazed a trail that we will follow for the rest of our lives. His inate sense of kindness taught all of us that God does not work through burning bushes but through people and he was perhaps, the tallest and most amazing juniper in our garden.

Don’t worry Larry. We will pick up the torch and the funnelator to be sure we keep things loose and when it’s necessary, we will enforce the community standard – perhaps launching a few eggs at a grumpy neighbor’s house.

Buy a T-Rex Book for Someone You Love….

Buy a T-Rex Book for Someone You Love….

We all have that certain special someone in our lives – that angry, disaffected, the world-is-going-to-hell and our President is really an enemy agent kind of friend or relative who needs to either be euthanized like a lame horse or trained to laugh…Arsenic is expensive and unless you live in Oregon, I suggest you give him or her a copy of T-Rex By The Tail or Bicentennial Rex for Christmas or Hanukkah. Hell, get them both books!

At a minimum, do your patriotic bit to stimulate the local economy and buy a copy from Elm Street Books or simply click on this web site’s masthead and help Jeff Bezos make an extra $10k to tip his pedicurist by using Amazon.com.

According to one angry T-Rex, “each dollar you spend helps prime the economy, keeping  people employed and paying taxes – taxes that go to fund do-gooder give-aways, socialized medicine and stitch together a social safety net that is becoming a massive European style hammock….Grrrrrr!”

A few reviews:

5.0 out of 5 stars LOVED IT, July 29, 2012
Amazon Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
This review is from: T-Rex By The Tail (Paperback)

I knew it was going to be a good read, have known Mike for years. All I had to do was get past the first few pages , it was tough, and the rest was easy. I do remember being raised by a “dinosaur” and even see Woody in alot of the chapters. Mike has done a great job of allowing the younger generation to see what child rearing was, and maybe still should be, like . Congrats to a great author, and THANKS !!!!!

5.0 out of 5 stars Not Your Father’s Brady Bunch, July 29, 2013
Amazon Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
This review is from: BiCentennial Rex (Tales of The T-Rex) (Volume 2) (Paperback)

This is a fun book. What self-loving Baby Boomer wouldn’t love to take a trip down a memory lane lined with humor and keen insight? And it’s a very fun and realistic trip at that. Turpin captures the charming idiocy of the adolescent male (I apologize for the multiple redundancies in this sentence) growing up in the 1970’s with wit, verve and understanding. The Patton family is much more realistic (and amusing) than that “other” southern California tribe, the Brady’s. Just as clearly, Central Casting could never have managed to find an appropriate Karl (“Rex”) . . . the Patton patriarch – a cross between an Old Testament prophet and a sleep deprived George Patton.

This is a great and funny read, full of smarts and happy memory ghosts. I highly recommend it.

The Diary of A Mad Third Grader

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“The only problem with the world is a lot of people DON’T have ADD” — Andy Pakula, CEO of Think! Interactive Marketing

“He just can’t sit still…I think he gets it from my father who everyone refers to as ‘George Blast-off’.  He can’t stop moving.  If Dad’s not working, he’s golfing or planting his monster gardens with tomatoes the size of basketballs.  Really.  Its quite amazing.” Nervous laughter.

“Ma’am, I know this difficult but have you ever considered Ritalin? I mean, it’s a big step but clinically it’s proven to help many hyperactive kids.” The voice sounded vacant and bored like the conductor guy who mindlessly asked for our ticket on the Amtrak train to San Diego.

“Ritalin?  Oh no, no, no… Really, I don’t think so.  I’d rather have him twitching like a worm on hot pavement than jumping out a third story window yelling, ‘Look at me, ‘I can fly’ Thank you very much.  Anyway, boys are wiggly creatures.  They’re always making noises, and shifting around to liberate some body part. You know, Mister Crimms, I was actually born a Christian Scientist.  Didn’t see a doctor before I was nine and only when they thought I might have polio.  We converted to Lutheranism at thirteen.  My father was German and convinced my mother that God approved of immunizations although he used to make us sleep together in one room when one of us got sick.  ‘Get it all done at once’. He would shout in German.”

I was swaying like a palm tree on the top of a wide oak worktop that doubled as the nurse’s office storage cabinet.  I was playing a game to see how far I could lean headlong without falling off the bench.  I rocked headfirst peeking around the corner to spy on my mother as she mimicked her father, my Grandpa George.  The young male counselor with the flattop haircut stared unimpressed as Mother rose half way in her seat and raised her hand in the air looking just like my father during one of his Sunday night dinner diatribes.

“Look, Mrs. Turpin, Michael has a ‘D’ in citizenship.  He’s a very friendly boy but he’s disrupting the other students.  He talks in class, can’t sit still and today, he provoked one of our special education kids into chasing him around the room during rest time.  I believe he’s suffering from hyperactivity syndrome or possibly some type of undiagnosed personality disorder.”

There was a pause as the thermometer dropped in the office. My mother’s tone went serial killer cold.  I knew that voice.  It was a declaration of war – the seven seconds before the bomb is dropped and life as we knew it would be forever changed.

“Now whom are we talking about, Mister Crimms? It’s my understanding that the boy in question is quite enormous – a lot bigger and older than Michael – and it would be unnatural not to run if someone older and larger was pursuing you.  That’s a sign of intelligence.  Exactly how long have you been employed by the district’s pediatric counseling office?”

“Now, Ma’am, if you’re questioning my experience…”

“Just answer my question, young man.”

“Well, if you must know, I finished my graduate degree in pediatric psychology from St Mary’s last year and I am getting my PhD from USC.”

He sounded officious and offended.  “Look, I have seen Methylphenidate work very well on children to help them focus.”

“Mr. Crimms, you know, I’ve done my research.  The sources of any child’s hyperactivity can stem from a number of organic sources like sugar, caffeine, food allergies and other environmental causes.  Why would you want to dope him up without ruling out all other sources first? How do you explain his high marks in all the subject matter tests?  He is intellectually in the top ten percent on all tests.”

She composed herself, “With the exception of physical education, my son is a very committed student.  He does have an aversion to organized exercise.  He hates PE but plays Little League and YMCA football. The child can play for hours with his toy soldiers and his brothers.  Why on any given day, he’ll spend hours out of doors …”

“Ma’am, some savants have been documented to possess extremely gifted intellects but lack the social filters and controls.  These syndromes stem from innate behaviors and chemical imbalances that medication can help to mute.”

“Chemical imbalances? Are you a student psychologist or Nurse Ratched in Cuckoo’s Nest?  Have you read the book, Mr. Crimms?  It’s seems modern medicine cannot always cure what we have the capacity to remedy ourselves.  It’s as much about self-esteem as it is about brain chemistry.”  She stood up and walked into the foyer clutching my wrist.  As she turned to leave the office, she bullwhipped one last barb at the fledgling educator.

“What’s next, shock therapy? Are you sure you did not study under Tennessee Williams or Ken Kesey?”

My mother would always get in the last word.  In a scene that would repeat itself with each of her sons over many years, she rushed me out of the nurse’s office – speaking to herself and her mother as if Gran was walking right behind us.

“Mother, will you listen to the man? A personality disorder? How dare he?  He looks too young to even drive a car.” She stopped and looked down at me, smiling.

“Tomorrow, we’re weaning you off that god damn Mountain Dew and Pop Tarts!”

Years later, she would be proven correct on almost every front. She rarely confided in my father about our brushes with educators at school.  She knew almost every boy had difficulty concentrating and sitting still.  She also understood that he disapproved of the gentle process of diagnosing a problem by eliminating the potential causes.  He preferred  more medieval remedies to correct any kid who appeared on the wrong trajectory.

“Cut that crap out.” He would hiss as I tapped my tight-fitting loafers against the pew in church. He would slip his arm behind me and knock me on the back of my head like it was a door.

“Ouch, that hurts, Dad.”

“I’ll give you something to cry about if you cannot keep still.”

We always sat in the back row of the Presbyterian church so that he could administer mid-sermon punishments with fewer witnesses. We sat two deep on either side.  If he was highly agitated, he could simply lean back and knock multiple heads together like the Three Stooges.

 Between the toe tapping, wrestling, whispers and sudden outbursts, the people seated in front of us must have assumed we were visiting Baptists. 

“They are such animated Christians,” a woman whispered to her husband.

For a low attention span kid, an organized religious service was tantamount to being nailed to a cross.  I tried everything – drawing on pew envelopes, even listening to the minister urging me to accept Jesus as my personal savior.  I had accepted him as the Son of God but I was fairly certain that he was less my savior and more a bearded goodie-two-shoes accountant who scrupulously recorded each and every one of my misdemeanors and could not wait to tattle them to his father.  God knew that we played with matches, had impure thoughts and occasionally made crank phone calls to our next-door neighbor pretending to be her grandson.

My mother did not seem to worry about our spiritual destinies but instead focused on the more temporal problems of grades and social assimilation.  She was certain that diet, exercise and more frequent activity breaks would allow any mildly “hyperactive” male to improve in social responsibility.  She understood that boy’s exceled at the things that interested them the most and most often floundered when lacking interest in a subject.  My brothers and I could spend hours focused on a single task — drawing, assembling model air planes or painting miniature 78mm Airfix soldiers with petite Testors brushes, recreating the precise regimental colors of the British 8th Army and Rommel’s Afrika Corps.

One would need the Jaws of Life to pry me away from any form of television or film, particularly a double feature movie at the Rialto Theatre – although my brother had recently misinformed me that the theatre’s proprietor had hung himself during a kiddie matinee and had swung lifelessly across the illuminated screen in front of one hundred horrified third graders.  His ghost was rumored to haunt the poorly illuminated bathrooms that rested at the base of an ominous staircase leading from the mezzanine theatre seats.  This led me to avoid the toilet and in a full-bladdered crisis, courageously attempt to pee in a Coke cup. This, of course, disrupted my friends who laughed and stood up to move, which attracted the flashlight light of a conscientious theatre usher. Shortly thereafter, my mother was having yet another discussion with the very much alive theatre manager regarding my mental stability.

My mother understood that four boys were a breeding ground for germs and adolescent neurosis.  She preferred to organically unravel each twitch, tic and nervous repetition to understand the demons that occasionally set up shop in our vulnerable minds.  Nurture would win out over nature and the subconscious would always give up the bodies that rested at the bottom of a child’s mind.  Like Freud and Jung, she believed in interpreting dreams and in psychoanalysis.  The last few minutes before a tired child fell asleep was a pre-hypnotic phase where semi-conscious kids were likely to give up secrets and be open to home remedies to counter strange fear based behavior.

In the last ten minutes of every night, she would appear like Florence Nightingale, the angel of the night-light, gently extracting the day’s mental splinters of bullies, bad teachers, first crushes, bad choices and the irrational phantasms that arose out of sibling disinformation.

I always felt that I was her favorite.  She seemed to spend more time with me than the others – interpreting my behavior and my dreams, reassuring me that one day those twitching cement pipe legs and monkey mind attention span would morph into the butterfly of a grown man and athlete.  I was, in fact, the most neurotic of our four man army.

“Michael, dreams where you are being chased or can’t get out away from something, those are your subconscious mind trying to work through problems.  It’s healthy.  The reveries where you fly or move things with your mind? Those are power dreams.  You may even be in astral flight where your soul is out exploring in the world.  I often wonder what you were in a past life?  I am sure you were a kind king or perhaps or a Shaolin warrior.”

I smiled thinking of myself as a benevolent monarch or a flying lethal weapon, perforating a knot of evildoers with a soaring kick and arm chop.

My father would be waiting for my mother — a trim and shadowed spectator in the doorway, peering into my room but not buying into her “Age of Aquarius BS”.

“Jesus Ruth, don’t fill his head with that crap.  He’s got one life and he’s gotta stop screwing around to make the most out of it.“

My mother continued to look down at me, her smile piercing the darkness. “You’re father was a Templar Knight in a past life. He likes to fight for what he believes is right.” My father shook his head and once again took the Lord’s name in vain.

“Well, you may be right.  I’d like to go over to the Middle East and kick some ass again.” He laughed as he walked back into the light of the hallway.

My mother ran slender fingers across my scalp.  “Such wonderful hair.”

“I gotta a big head.  Somebody called me pumpkin head today.”

“Honey, everyone in our family has big heads.  They’re full of brains.  Third grade is a tough time.   You need to ignore the other kids and learn to sit still and focus on what your teacher says.  When you’re bored and you want to talk to your neighbor, just take out a piece of paper and write down what you want to say.  That way the teacher won’t get mad at you for disrupting the class.  Got it?  Here, I got you this.”

She opened a white paper bag from the local stationary store handing me a leather bound book.  She turned on the bedside lamp. I opened it and saw that she had written my name on the first page: Property of Michael Turpin.  “You write everything you think and feel in here.  Draw pictures or doodle.  It’s a diary and it’s better than any silly old pill from a doctor to help you focus.”

Months later my father would discover what was to be the first of many diaries.  Inside were primitive hand drawn pictures of epic WWII battles, monsters, space ships, and racecars and in almost every picture, there was a kid with a big head who was the clear protagonist in the illustration. He would often use X-Ray powers from his mind to vanquish the bad guys.

“Jesus H Christ.  A shrink would have a field day with this crap. Why in the hell is this kid drawing Captain Pumpkin Head?”

My mother just laughed as she ran her fingers through his haircut that grew like straight grass above his unusually large cranium.

“Yes, dear.  It’s strange. I wonder where he gets that from…”

Bicentennial Rex is ready for your summer reading.

Bicentennial Rex is ready for your summer reading.

In 1976, it was a hell of a time to be a conservative. OPEC embargoes, women’s liberation, Carter, Watergate, the fall of Saigon, Laos and Cambodia as well as sex, drugs, rock & roll tugging at the pant legs of teenagers. It’s indeed a dark ( and humorous ) time in the Force of the Alpha Jedis…Read the book and expand your mind!  Here:s the link !  Pop it in your URL and buy some for friends and family.  Don’t let your kids read it.  It will blow your cover. http://www.amazon.com/BiCentennial-Rex-Tales-T-Rex-Volume/dp/1481200054

Bi-Centennial Rex is Coming: Be Ready By Reading T-Rex By The Tail –

T-Rex By The Tail; Volume I

 Image

Authored by Michael Anthony Turpin 

When 81 year old neo-conservative Karl Patton dies, his four sons must gather up his bones and dredge the river of their own lives lived in the shadow of their father — the T-Rex.

“The T-Rex father possessed an abnormally large mouth from which he would chew out loud, belch, curse, and devour any weaker form of life. He possessed a great sweeping tail that could strike with unusual dexterity, hitting anything, including his own children, for the slightest infraction. His arms were unusually short, which precluded him from washing dishes or changing diapers. He was the perfect machine-an eating, sleeping, and working automaton preprogrammed to control every aspect of his white-picket world. The T-Rex father was fashioned out of reptilian conservatism, while his partner, the She-Rex, served as his alter ego. In an epoch of profound social climate change, the T-Rex father would have devoured his young rather than yield to sacrifice them to a softer ecosystem of collectivism. She-Rex served as his interpreter and voice of reason, helping her companion defend their family against a frontal assault from change, battling the corrupting elements of the antiwar demonstrations, oil embargos, drugs, terrorism, racial strife, assassinations, pandemics, and urban decline.”

As the boys gather to break the news to their mother who is suffering from early stage Alzheimers, life takes a turn for the bizarre and forces each son to come to grips with their birth order, personal biases and comical shortcomings.

For anyone who has wondered whether today’s parents are indeed a more evolved or devolved version of those who preceded us, grown up in a household fashioned out of conservative timber, felt the sting of a belt or heard the roar of creative profanity, this eulogy to the last great age of Jurassic parenting will have you feeling right at home.

To Order:  T-Rex By The Tail
Publication Date:
Jun 20 2012
ISBN/EAN13:
147515156X / 9781475151565
Page Count:
244
Color:
Black and White
Related Categories:
Fiction / Family Life
 

Stranger Than Fiction – The Anatomy of a Novel

Jurassic Forest
Jurassic Forest (Photo credit: pixelens photography)

“Genuine polemics approach a book as lovingly as a cannibal spices a baby”. Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) 

After years of penning what I considered to be Pulitzer Prize winning memos at work, crafting short stories that nobody read and submitting exaggerated youth sport write ups that lost my reader’s faster than a blind crossing guard, I decided to try my hand at writing a book.

I have to admit that being an aspiring writer in today’s digital age is the like being a portrait artist at a hyperactivity convention.  I have so many pearls to string on an endless necklace of insights but my end customer has the attention span of a flea and reads a maximum of 800 words a day – all of them tweets from Kim Kardashian. Yet, the dream to write burns inside of me like an underground coal fire or perhaps, severe indigestion. For an ex-college jock that took literature and played baseball because both involved the least amount of effort, the dream of publishing a tome is the equivalent of hitting a home run in Dodger Stadium. Most of us lead lives of quiet suburban desperation and do not want our ultimate legacy to be that we were really good at picking up dog poop.  The French, by the way, never pick it up. This gives them more time to drink espresso and write books.

I knew I was facing some headwinds as an aspiring author but was self-aware enough to recognize that I lacked several critical prerequisites – brevity, humility and a good editor. Yet, the voices inside my head continued to offer unsolicited ideas, strange characters and challenges to put pen to paper. My doctor explained to me that I could take medication to make all these feelings go away but it seemed cheaper to write a book since his drugs were not available in generic form and my company had just implemented a high deductible plan.

I began to record in earnest humorous stories about life as a middle child in a four-boy family ruled by a neoconservative alpha male and a new age, psychic mother.  My primary purpose was to use humor to reassure any reader that our lives are trains that run along parallel tracks.  The only normal people we know, they say, are those we do not know very well.  I also wanted to use the book as a warning to anyone under eighteen to not try to outrun the police in your Mom’s Ford Granada.

My photographic memory carefully sorted through the thousand sepia photos which were lovingly cut and pasted into a picture album documenting suburban life in the 1970s – the final days of Jurassic parenting – where T-Rex fathers roamed the hardware store aisles and She-Rex mothers moved in the shadows tenderizing everything before it was fed to their clueless progeny.

In considering the daunting challenge of penning a book, it seemed logical to string together a series of vignettes already written about my family.  I had written some articles for local papers and had penned a few “tattle tales” for family events. Yet, this would not be a “kiss and tell” autobiographical account.  I would be creating a new genre that recalled the days before child protective services felt the need to stick their noses into suburban life. I christened it “swear and yell” fiction.

Just as Tom Brokaw, Stephen Ambrose and others insisted on chronicling the Greatest Generation, I felt compelled to raise a glass to The Silent Generation.  They are slowly disappearing and with them we are losing a piece of our own mythology. Today’s “think, but don’t say” society has slowly forced them into hiding and with each sunset,  a generation that found its thrills on Blueberry Hill, is slowly relinquishing their colorful profanity and creative punishments — watching them beaten into plowshares fashioned out of “I messages” and “timeouts”.  The T-Rex father is disappearing into a tar pit of political correctness – and with his passing, we are losing a valuable link to our past and to certain values that used to serve us as important social and moral guardrails.

Yet, to pen a tribute that both serenades and teases the age of Jurassic parenting presents challenges for a writer who often sacrifices tact for the sake of a cheap joke.  The best stories in every family are best served like rich, blue cheese. They require time spent curing and fermenting out of the eye of the public – at least until the statute of limitations is expired. Comedy is tragedy plus time and those who do choose to tattle on their parents and/or siblings do so at their own risk. They may also find a sprig of arsenic in their iced tea at the next Fourth of July picnic.

If one wants to freely write about life and borrow from the past, they must turn to fiction where one can play Mr. Potato Head with each character – mixing vices, virtues and vicissitudes into people that resemble everyone and no one.  Any first work of fiction borrows liberally from an author’s experiences that are disguised behind a primer of odd events, improbable situations and plausibly deniable moments. The problem is that the truth is always trying to wiggle out into the light of day.

The challenge is everyone wants to know which part is true and which  is fiction.  Upon receiving my draft novel, friends and family scrutinized the freshly created fiction like Egyptian hieroglyphics attempting to decipher the story and its characters for hidden messages and personal judgment.  It was particularly justifiable in my case as I had crafted a novel about a family of four boys from Southern California with a conservative father and a liberal, intuitive mother.  Given that art so often imitates life, it is a love story that takes place at a train wreck.

My next problem was getting every family member to read the entire book.  Eventually, everyone came around – asking for a copy of the manuscript and then disappearing into weeks of radio silence as they digested the story and their perceived Doppelgängers.

“Why did you have me saying this?” asked one brother.

“It’s not you.” I emailed back.

“Oh yeah. Why can’t my character have said that?”

“It’s not you.”

“Oh yeah.”

Gratefully, each brother loved and approved of the manuscript but concluded with the same question, “ Have you shown it to Dad yet?” The answer was always the same – “not yet”. I was rationalizing that I wanted all of their feedback before proceeding to the Supreme Court for a final review. The future of my nascent manuscript which now had the working title, “T-Rex by the Tail”, hung in the balance.

“Dad, it’s an anthem to your generation and your unfiltered lens to the world.  You are the last great land mammals in a time of profound social change.”

He listened and said nothing – a long, pregnant pause across three thousand miles of fiber optic phone line.

“Look, just as long as the book does not end with Obama in the White House or taxes being raised on the middle class, I can handle a few lampoons.  We managed to raise you knuckleheads.  My generation can take it.“

He paused and then added. “I’m not sure your generation will be able to take it when its your turn.  But, hey, that book is for your kids to write. And one more thing, just be sure to make the father in the story a Republican – a Reagan Republican.”

Dad, no problem.

T-Rex By The Tail

ImageI am publishing the first chapter of my new novel.  It will be published on Amazon – both Kindle and soft cover – by mid June.  Hopefully, just in time for Father’s Day.  It’s been six years in the making but really fifty years in its creation.  Some readers will completely relate to the characters and others will choose to scratch their heads and wonder how drivel can find its way into print.  Like all art, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.  And yes, the line seperating truth and fiction is sometimes measured in inches..  Feel free to subscribe to the blog if you enjoy it. And, keep your eyes peeled for an announcement when the book is made available on-line and in a few bookstores. Cheers !

Book One – The Cretaceous Period

Chapter 1

 

You don’t have to deserve your mother’s love. You have to deserve your father’s. He is more particular. . . . The father is always a Republican towards his son, and his mother’s always a Democrat.

—Robert Frost

October 1974

In the past six months, the Patton boys—Matthew, John, George, and Freddie—had hit the rock bottom of adolescence. The neighbors had begun quietly referring to Susie as “that poor woman.”

On that particular evening, Karl was returning from a seven-day business trip to London. As he pulled down the brown garage door for the night, he recalled his last phone conversation with Susie just after he’d arrived in England. They’d been commiserating about the challenges of raising four boys, and, for the first time, Susie sounded tired and uncertain of her ability to hold down the fort in Karl’s absence.

A week later, Karl staggered through the back door, his military bearing and meticulous dress having disintegrated into a wrinkled suit, a tie at half-mast, and dark circles under his sharp brown eyes. He dropped his chrome gray Samsonite suitcase on the back porch and stared in befuddlement. Susie had her back turned to him and was gazing vacantly into an illuminated oven. Her floral apron was tied tightly at her waist, accentuating a figure that had maintained elegant curves despite infrequent exercise and four pregnancies.

Turning, she used her forearm to sweep back a tangle of hair from her eyes, blowing away a few remaining strands with pursed lips. The raven-haired girl with the cornflower blue eyes who had once won an Elizabeth Taylor look-alike contest at the Marin County Fair looked as though she had been dragged behind a bread truck—for a week.

The usually immaculate house was as disheveled as Susie was, with laundry piled in the hallway and dirty dishes stacked haphazardly in the sink.

Susie didn’t greet him as she normally did after a business trip—hurrying to give him a kiss and run her fingers through his flattop hair. Typically, she led him into the dining room, poured two glasses of cabernet, served him dinner, and listened sympathetically to the vagaries of the insurance industry, and its endless conveyor belt of incompetent people who populated Karl’s universe.

On this evening, however, Susie launched immediately into an unfiltered inventory of the week’s misdemeanors. Her voice was an interesting admixture of consternation, resignation, sarcasm and thinly veiled amusement.

“Let’s begin at the beginning, shall we?” she said as she raised her right finger into the air. “George and Bruce Hegarty lobbed lemons at what they thought was a slow-moving group of cars near Magnolia Road. It turned out to be a funeral procession. It seems as though the boys have never seen a hearse before.”

She opened the broken back-porch door and jerked her head toward the garage where Karl had parked only moments before. “It’s possible you didn’t notice that our garage is lined with stolen goods. John and the Hughes twins used the glass cutting kit we gave to him for Christmas to break into school. The boys are uncertain what to do with five overhead projectors. Apparently they need to find someone who specializes in fencing audiovisual equipment.”

Turning back toward Karl, she allowed the broken door to swing shut before she unconsciously arched her rear end to stop it a millisecond before it slammed.

Reentering the lighted part of the kitchen, she sighed. Matthew had a particularly good week. It seems your oldest son and five of his friends were suspended for streaking through what he swears was an all-girls’ high school. It turned out to be the all-girls’ elementary school. The girls are traumatized, to say the least.

And for the grand finale, Freddie’s school counselor thinks he may be suffering from something called traumainduced pyromania. The counselor wants to meet with both of us. She seemed to think this form of personality disorder is the only acceptable excuse for his fascination with setting fires. We have yet to diagnose his ‘trauma’ but we have been invited to meet with the school psychologist.  Otherwise, everything was okay.”

She shook her head and gave Karl a rueful, cynical smile. In the pale light of a Fridayevening kitchen, she was stunning. In spite of her faded lipstick and disordered hair, she radiated femininity, grace, charm, elegance, and steel, just as she had every day of her life.

“And how was your week…dearest?”

After twenty years of marriage, Karl could detect one of Susie’s rigged, rhetorical questions when he heard it. He was dog tired and jet-lagged after an eleven-hour flight from Heathrow. The last thing he wanted was a fight. He had spent a week entertaining Lloyd’s of London underwriters and debauched clients who wanted to drink, chase hookers, and only occasionally conduct business. Immediately upon his return, he became irritable after glancing at an LA Times and was annoyed to learn that in his absence a junior Democrat had taken a local election for the California State Assembly in a formerly Republican district.

“Who do I hit?” He asked.

Karl wasted no time in faithfully meting out corporal punishment. Like a man-o-war’s sergeant-at-arms, he conferred with his captain and discussed methods of reprisal—the leather belt, a firm hand, or a hairbrush. His boys were lumps of coal that required enormous pressure if they were going to become acceptable diamonds of society.

š

December 14, 2011

Karl Patton pulled his Cadillac into the driveway of the home he’d lived in for forty-five years. He was exhausted. Since his stroke, he had moved more slowly, but was still able to drive the onemile each day to Morningside Village to spend his entire day with Susie. She had good days and bad days. On days when her dementia conspired to rob them of memories of their fifty-five years together, he was profoundly sad.

When he imagined a life without Susie, it broke his heart. He wanted to live just five minutes past the love of his life to be certain no one mistreated her or forgot that she was the glue that had held the family together for so many years. When he allowed himself to detour down these shadowed alleys, pondering a life that seemed to be slipping away, he wanted to lie down and never get up. For an eighty-one-year-old man, Karl remained ruggedly handsome, with short grey hair that spiked like the first cut of rough on a golf course. He was the same weight he had been in college and could probably still fit into the wedding tuxedo that he kept—along with nearly every other suit he had ever owned—in his upstairs closet. His French-blue Brooks Brothers pinpoint was tightly folded on each side and tucked into chinos whose creases were ironed to a razor-thin edge. Karl looked the way he had lived, with bearing, restraint, and focus. Yet, for all his discipline, the river of his life had now chosen its own course, breaching its banks and flooding his best-laid plans. He was swimming against a current that was now too powerful to deny.

It had been only one year since he made the excruciating decision to move Susie to Morningside. However, after the “incident”—a frightening episode of disorientation that led to a frantic search for his wife—he had to accept that the revolving door of home-health nurses attempting to manage her care was not the optimal solution. It was selfish for him to keep her in an environment she rarely recognized anymore. When she was confused, Susie became despondent—something Karl Patton never imagined could happen to the person he referred to as “Susie Sunshine.” The choice became inescapable.

He missed her. He longed for her smell and constant humming as she floated like a spring breeze through their home. Susie O’Reilly Patton was a mother robin perpetually in motion, preparing a nest that was never complete.

Karl walked into an empty kitchen, the back door gently closing behind him as the well-oiled pneumatic mechanism slowed it to a barely detectable tap. He walked into the foyer and emptied his pockets, placing his keys, wallet, and loose change in the Italian leather desk caddy Susie had given him for his sixtieth birthday.

Junk mail and unopened Christmas and holiday cards littered the entry room table. He smiled and held up a card postmarked from Rye, New York, trying to remember who the hell lived in Rye. It was probably an ex-client of Susie’s or one of the hundreds of people she still insisted on sending greetings to each December. In the past, Susie would have faithfully opened each one, admiring the progress of acquaintances, friends and family and smiling at the notes and personal messages. She would, in turn, write her own message on every Christmas card she sent. She felt the effort to communicate with friends individually said something about a person. It was the one chance each year to tell them how you felt.

“Who the hell are these people?” Karl would grumble looking at faces of adult children he did not recognize.  Karl was always on Susie’s case about holiday cards and how she ran herself into the ground each Christmas, writing endless notes to ingrates who often never reciprocated.  When he was CEO of his insurance agency, he had his secretary buy, sign, seal and send his cards to clients. The day he retired was the day he stopped sending cards.  

Karl glanced into the mirror illuminated by the flat light of a desk lamp and its sixty-watt energysaver light bulb. The ridges of his eyebrows and strong chin cast odd shadows, reminding him of the actor Boris Karloff. His brown eyes were faded and opaque like the marbles he used to shoot as a child.

“Jesus Christ, you are an old son of a bitch,” he muttered as he turned off the light.

He mindlessly wandered the perimeter of the first floor, moving from a living room full of photographs into a dining room that had not hosted a family dinner in a decade, across the cool red floor of smooth Spanish tiles in the breakfast room, and finally, back into the kitchen. The house smelled of bleach and sterile emptiness. It was not decorated for Christmas. In the past, the living room, foyer, and staircase would be festooned with garlands, ornaments, tasteful talismans of the yuletide season, and a nativity scene. The “House That Hugs” would have smelled of cinnamon and peppermint. Susie would have been mobilized for the holidays.

Like a night watchman on his final key run, Karl made certain that his area of responsibility was locked down. He turned handles, pulled on doors, and jiggled windows to ensure a tight seal. He felt like a forgotten curator, caring for and attending to memories, artifacts, and relics of a past age. Somewhere along the way, he went from a man who had been central to his family’s past to one who merely worked to safeguard it.

The four-bedroom Mediterranean house, built in 1928 and home to only two families, was his castle, lacking only a moat, drawbridge, and portcullis. Across sixteen thousand twilights, his car had crunched down the uneven gravel driveway. He would turn off his engine and headlights and listen. He could see an illuminated upstairs window and already hear the reverberating bass of a teenager’s stereo system. The music mixed with the pitched voices of two boys in mortal combat, a dog chasing a cat, and a mother probably refereeing the fight while managing to talk on the phone at the same time. He would take a deep breath and brace himself for the chaos and medieval world of his boys.

That night, he could almost hear the thumping of the boys wrestling in the upstairs bedrooms and the loud slap of the broken back door as their mongrel dog, Max, slipped outside to patrol the neighborhood. He hated that dog. Dogs were like welfare recipients—lazy and promiscuous. He could smell Susie’s perfume and feel her fingers in his hair. He closed his eyes and wished just for a moment that he might once again feel the exhilarating surge of his family, moving and swirling in their self-absorbed routines, so alive with flawed perfection. He felt very tired, as if the caffeine rush of his life was wearing off and he needed a nap.

He started to shout upstairs to Susie, but stopped himself, instead looking out the French doors to the patio and the pool. The “mow and blow” guys had been there. The yard and garden looked immaculate, almost too perfect. In his prime, Karl supervised his sons as they completed yard work each weekend.  Dressed in an intimidating ensemble of military boots, cut-off fatigues and a white undershirt, Karl would prowl the property to ensure weeds were properly extracted by their roots, the lawn was uniformly mowed and the carpet of pine needles that blanketed their patio were swept up and deposited in an oversized trash bin. He considered shoddy home maintenance a sign of weak character. Lack of character led to apathy.  Apathy was the mother of the sickening twins, decline and dependence.  Nothing bothered Karl more than people who expected handouts As he looked at his finely edged lawn and rows of manicured boxwoods, it bothered him that he must now depend on outsiders to maintain his property. Yard work was why you had boys.

Karl climbed the stairs and slipped into his pajamas, briefly turning on the television and making the mistake of lingering for a moment too long on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. “That little liberal smart-ass,” he muttered. The guest panel was an intellectual cesspool composed of a mindless Berkeley communist, the “Reverend” Al Sharpton, New York Times writer and PBS commentator David Brooks, and a twenty-something starlet who had recently lasted eighty-two minutes before dying in a vampire movie. Brooks seemed lost, possibly wondering why he let his agent talk him into pushing his new book on this pinko talk show.

Karl cringed as the vacuous micro-celebrity spouted her MSNBC sound bites and cotton-candy views on the need for larger government, more regulation, and nationalized healthcare.

“Those guys on Wall Street are bad people,” she said emphatically, nodding her head as the audience applauded and the other panelists joined the lynch mob. Brooks smiled and said nothing. He was like a conservative trying to get laid at a Democratic fundraiser.

Karl turned the channel to COPS. He liked that program. It reassured him to know that justice was happening somewhere, even though the show gave him the impression that the entire nation was on crystal meth and that urban and rural American decline was even more pronounced than he had once thought.

A century ago, that toothless piece of tornado bait trying to cook up a homemade batch of crank on his trailer-park gas stove would have been a tanned, proud laborer in a field or factory. The ascent of America from agrarian culture to industrial and technological world leader was now in reverse. Congress and multi-national corporations had abandoned the middle class, outsourcing their jobs and creating a new generation of Joad families who wander like tumbleweeds in search of an America that no longer offered opportunity. Failure and poverty were forms of social leprosy in a material world that no longer held an allegiance to anything other than shareholders and one’s own bank account. He hated Wall Street for how they had exploited the deregulation he had supported. He had lost all respect for the Grand Old Party, which had sold out their values and seemed to be firmly in the pockets of special-interest groups. Yet, he hated Democrats even more. The thought of Barack Obama in the White House nauseated him. It meant the inevitable liberalization of the Supreme Court, the treasury used as a personal war chest to buy votes, and a generation of citizens completely dependent on Big Government. America was in deep shit. Americans all seemed to disapprove of Congress.  Yet, those same Americans were so lazy and so stupid that they did not have the energy to change.  Did people not understand that these vacuous, corrupt politicians were merely a mirror reflection of the mediocrity of the society that elected them? Were they not embarrassed? He seriously wondered if his grandchildren might become the first American generation that would have to emigrate to another country to find a decent job.

He was proud of his own sons. Each had navigated successes and misfortunes—marriages, children, divorces, job changes, sickness, and stupid decisions of one kind or another—relatively successfully. But they all made it through that horrific period of the 1970s, and Susie had a lot to do with it. She stayed close to her boys and understood the subtle warning signs often missed by less intuitive parents.

His boys would all be okay. The fact that, even as adults, they made constant fun of how they’d been brought up annoyed him. If he had not kicked them in the ass a few times and come down hard at the right times, they might have ended up on COPS—tattooed, on crack, living in some flop house with a bloated bacon-eating wife, and no prospects.

He left the TV on low. As he reached to turn out the light, he felt a little indigestion. He had taken a Prilosec earlier in the day to reduce his heartburn. Without Susie at home, he was eating later at night and waking up coughing from acid reflux. His left arm felt weak. It had never really come back to full strength since the stroke. But what do you expect from anything on the left? You might get motion but never purposeful movement. He chuckled at his own joke and fell quickly into a deep sleep.

He never woke up. About three-thirty Thursday morning, Karl Patton suffered an acute myocardial infarction and died peacefully in his sleep. On the flickering television, a cop had just unleashed a K-9 unit to chase down a fleeing pimp.

The Day Rick Saved the Stars and Stripes

Photo by Jim Roark Rick Monday grabbing the Am...
Image via Wikipedia

Ah, October. Autumn arrives and with it the final leaves of a 4860 game baseball season begin to fall as the competition is reduced to twelve teams across six divisions and two leagues.

As a young man, our four-boy family ritual of male bonding included trips to Chavez Ravine, a 350 acre terraced plateau of chaparral, eucalyptus and palms overlooking downtown Los Angeles. Dodger stadium sat like the Masada, a mountain top fortress on the southwestern plateau of the Elysian Fields neighborhood of Los Angeles. It was the center of the baseball firmament – the sacred home stadium of the Dodgers. Each season, our “boys in blue” would battle the hated San Francisco Giants and the despised Cincinnati Reds for the National League West pennant.

My father loathed the crowds and the traffic of sporting events as they equated to a perfect storm of human imperfection – bad drivers, inept parking attendants, cretins with their hibachi BBQs, legions of loud, drunken buffoons and filthy public urinals. Adding insult to injury was the sobering fact that every LA sporting venue was usually located in a very rough neighborhood.

Despite his misgivings, he understood the need to allow his boys to experience the electric atmosphere of a stadium packed with rabid fans and to witness young men who had so honed their athletic talents that they were afforded the chance to play Major League Baseball.

It was 1976 – America’s Bicentennial year – and it seemed everyone was declaring their independence. I was a surly freshman in high school and could not create enough distance between myself and my father. His existence annoyed me. Every syllable he uttered skidded like fingers on a chalk board. I cringed at the way he ate, talked and even breathed.  It seemed that his principle job description was to control my life.

My mother had already crossed this hostile adolescent desert with my two older brothers and suggested to him that we spend some father-son time at a Dodger Game. On this sunny April Sunday, it would be a chance for my Dad to see his beloved Chicago Cubs and for me to reconnect with a more innocent time of Topps baseball cards, the chance to catch a foul ball and if we were lucky, a nostalgic glimpse of a time when my Dad was viewed as mentor instead of tormentor.

We exited the Pasadena freeway on to Academy Road, winding through a densely populated, graffiti-scarred neighborhood of chain linked front yards. Run down homes built in the 1930’s were perched on steep hillsides with laundry on clotheslines flapping like Tibetan prayer flags in the spring breeze. Like clockwork, my Dad told me to keep my eyes peeled. I suddenly remembered why I did not like going to sporting events with my father. The toughest person we actually saw on the street was a 75-year-old Hispanic woman pushing a baby stroller.

“Careful, Dad, that grandmother might have a gun”, I said sarcastically.

At 16, I had begun to routinely challenge my father’s conservative peccadilloes and delighted in touching each one the way a sadistic dentist might probe a deep cavity. Dad had finally come to recognize when I was baiting him and ignored the provocation, writing it off as the price of being together. He was a creature of habit – robotically driving the exact route, to the same parking area, to the same space– a location furthest from the stadium and closest to the exit.

My father’s greatest nightmare was to be trapped in post game traffic when Los Angeles’ great social insurrection occurred. He believed these neighborhoods to be major social fault lines where pressure was always building. One day, urban rebellion would explode in an earthquake of civil unrest. When it happened, he damn well would not be stuck in his car when a gang of peasant farmers with pitchforks decided it was time to take back California. It was a thankless time for my Dad. I had spent the last year challenging his views on everything. I complained about the distance we had to walk to enter the stadium. He walked slightly ahead – eager for a coke and the cool shade of the concession area.

I was impressed as we were directed by an usher to field level seats off the first base line. The Dodgers were expected to be decent this year and showed some promise with a line-up that featured Billy Buckner, Ted Sizemore, Ron Cey and Steve Garvey. The meat of the Cub lineup was Rick Monday and Bill Madlock.

As we sat down, I suddenly saw a different side of my father that afternoon as he began to rattle off statistics and insights into his favorite Cub players and the pitching match ups.

“The Cubs will probably lose. They have no damn pitching this year and there’s nobody to support Monday and Madlock. Those cheapskates the Wrigleys are too tight to pay for good players. They are no better than that idiot GM Jim Finks for the Bears who won’t get them a decent quarterback to help Butkis and the defense out. Monday hit .267 with 17 homers last year. He is hitting .365 now and is on fire. Steve Stone was 12-8 last year but his ERA was too high at 3.95. But, the numbskull likes to give up the long ball”

My Dad wasn’t even looking at me. He was like a little kid playing with soldiers, chatting away to invisible friends. He spotted Roger Owens, the famous peanut vendor.

“Michael, remember this guy? He once threw you a bag of peanuts between his legs over ten rows.”

“Hey Roger!”

He held up some money. The popular redheaded peanut vendor smiled and pointed at my father. He was four rows over and six rows up. Owens whirled and shot a bag of peanuts behind his back. Dad snapped them up as they flew above his head. There was a smattering of applause as he handed $4 to a daisy chain of fans who passed the money up to Owens.

The actual game was a nail biter that was likely to be decided by one run. However, the game proved to be a mere sideline to the drama that unfolded in front of 25,000 fans.

Heading into the bottom of the fourth inning, a fan and has 11-year old son leaped on to the grass of the outfield. Initially met by raucous applause, our cheers quickly turned to boos when people realized their intentions. My Dad turned to me and said, “Hey, give me those binoculars!” I heard him swear as he hissed, “that son-of-a-bitch Communist is trying to burn an American flag!” As he said “Flag”, I saw Cub outfielder, Rick Monday, rush past the protestors and grab the flag. The stadium went berserk and cheered even louder as security roughly escorted the agitators from the outfield. I looked up to see an entire small town of Americans standing and cheering.

“Dad, can you believe that?”

I looked over and saw that my father was almost crying. He was clapping his hands so hard that they must have hurt. “Atta Boy, Monday!” Dad was one of the last people to sit down as the game resumed. In his next at bat, Monday received another standing ovation from the grateful crowd.

The scoreboard flashed, “Rick Monday, you made a great play!” Dad stood again applauding the young Cub player who as it turned out, was also an ex-marine. I was about to tell him to calm down and sit but somewhere in the back of my adolescent brain, I knew this was the right thing to do. I stood up beside him and started clapping again. He turned to me and shouted over the din, “That’s what makes this country great. It’s patriotism. It’s goddamn patriotism. Don’t ever forget that!”

I suddenly felt a surge of pride.  It was an awkward feeling to feel pride for being part of something bigger than you when you seemingly had made no contribution.  But, I had witnessed something special. I was proud of Rick Monday, proud of my Dad and proud to be an American.  In the thirty-five years that would follow, I cannot not recall a time when I saw my father so spontaneously happy.  It happened as fast a lit match – – a hero deciding to take action.  I realized action is what heros were all about – normal people, that in an instance, stopped watching and started moving.

The following year, Rick Monday was traded to the Dodgers and helped lead them to two division pennants. He became a permanent family favorite and a role model for a new generation looking for reliable points of reference in a rapidly changing society.

Jurassic Mom

Mother helping her young son to urinate.
Image via Wikipedia

All God’s children are not beautiful. Most of God’s children are, in fact, barely presentable. Fran Lebowitz

“He is in a phase”, she signed absent mindedly as she mixed ground beef, eggs and spinach into an any time of the day “feed a family” concoction she called “Joe’s Special”.  The phase was a term my mother used as an intellectual shield – an emotional whistling in the dark that reassured her and others that the highly anti-social behavior being exhibited by one of her sons was in fact, temporary.   “Phase, my ass. “ My father would hiss.  “I’ll phase him.” My father would always threaten to retaliate using whatever last word had rubbed him in the wrong fashion. If a child were to curse his brother calling him a “dwebe”, my father would snarl that if we did not stop fighting he would “dwebe” us.  He was, in fact, a paper tiger and his comments often actually made no sense.  His admonishment would only serve to confuse us as he mixed misunderstood teen epithets into a knee-jerk Molotov cocktail of threats.  My mother would sigh – trapped in this endless rut of testosterone and male thoughtlessness.  Life was not as she had expected.  She had come to understand that little boys really were made from snails and puppy-dog tails. 

She longed for a daughter but in a time before selective reduction and high-tech pregnancies, the risk of having a fifth boy was greater than her desire to enter a room perfumed with pigtails and Barbie dolls.  She instead dwelt in a land of dirty underwear, GI Joes, wet beds and savage tribal fighting.  Barely thirty with four boys was tantamount to a life of hard labor.  It was a physical world of daredevils whose sense of adventure was only eclipsed by a total disregard for personal safety.  Life was a succession of sudden earth quakes and flash floods that ripped across her domestic suburban life and hardened her into a clever cartographer who would come to master the bizarre topography of the adolescent mind. 

It was not atypical to have a child in crisis – a tiny mind struggling to adapt to the greater oceans of maturity.  On this particular day, my older brother was in the throes of some undiagnosed adolescent angst which manifested itself in a constant need to urinate. He could not actually pee with any person watching or standing within a twenty-foot radius.  This created a range of insurmountable issues for a family that lived in a four bedroom, two-bath home where the urinal was shared by four children.  While we gathered outside the locked bathroom door jumping with a full-bladdered frenetic wiggle, my brother would stand for minutes, a frozen Flomax poster child three decades before his time.  As we pounded on the door, he would swear at us and threaten to relieve himself on us.  We quickly realized his condition made this threat virtually impossible.

We tormented him mercilessly with nicknames like “pee-wee” and “peanut bladder”. We took advantage of any opportunity to distract him during a potty run. We were immediately chastised by my mother and informed that his condition was brought on by nerves.  It would only be a modest inconvenience.  This proved highly inaccurate for over the course of one weekend we waited a half hour at a restaurant, twenty minutes at a movie theatre and a grand 45 minutes outside of a gas station rest room while he concentrated – clearing his mind of any thought other than an empty night sky  and a great porcelain moon.  The slightest distraction was a setback – a knock on the door, a shout, a honking horn or the flush of a nearby urinal would return him to lock-down mode.  A week later, the doctor found nothing physical wrong with him and suggested that perhaps the frenetic rush of our testosterone filled home was overwhelming his nervous system.   “He’ll grow out of it”, the pediatrician reassured her. 

My mother improvised purchasing a knit ski cap and encouraged him to pull it down over his eyes each time he used the toilet.  “Imagine you are alone in the desert.  It’s night. No one can see you.”  He immediately questioned her. 

“What if there is a scorpion or a sidewinder?” Nearby, my father narrowed his eyes like a reptile as he peered above his Wall Street Journal.

“Listen, you numskull. There are no god damn reptiles or scorpions in Mom’s desert. “ 

My brother had a very high IQ and was not buying it.  “Which desert?  The Mojave?  The Sahara? There are Gila monsters, coral snakes…”

 “Enough! Why can’t he be on the moon for God’s sake?”

 My savant sibling rolled his eyes at my father’s obvious ignorance and asserted very empirically,” There is no gravity or oxygen in space.  It is 100 degrees below zero and my pee would freeze.”

 My father uttered a guttural growl and shifted from the room.  In time, my mother and brother agreed on a biofeedback loop that relaxed his bladder and allowed him to return to the land of the continent.  Her pragmatism was legendary with boys.  Yet, she longed for a girl to share secrets and dabs of perfume.  The secret society of boys was a dirty sock drawer of half-thoughts and grunts.  Yet, she would be denied entry to the world of girls and get drawn into a deeper season of young men.  She developed a keen antenna as sensitive as any mother in the animal kingdom.  She would innovate, investigate, interrogate and if necessary, incarcerate. She had to make adjustments for every conceivable circumstance.  “Life is what happens while your busy making plans.” She would quote John Lennon. When the unexpected came scratching at our door, she would accept life’s unannounced intrusions with a resigned sardonic greeting from Steinbeck, “Ah yes, the best laid plans of mice and men ….”

 Her life as a mother of young men was an anthem to family anthropology, tolerance and comical dysfunction.  A mother first learns acceptance and then comes to understand that it is perfectly normal not to be normal. It is the human condition to err and it is a mother’s job to ameliorate the suffering that accompanies accidents, mishaps and comical collisions. Now in her twilight years, she rests in a chair and remembers fondly the comical journey of her boys.

 She loves to retell the story of a certain January Saturday night. I still wince in pain at the stinging memory. She was readying for a rare evening out – a chance to disappear into the lace and tinkling cocktail glasses of an adult dinner party.  The teenaged baby sitter has just arrived.  My mother’s perfume permeated the upstairs hallway as she prepared for a long-awaited evening away from her feral boys. Her low-cut evening gown and pearl necklace were accentuated by crimson lip stick so red that it could knock a man into Sunday. 

 In the chaos of the adults changing to go out and the babysitter’s arrival, my brother and I shut our bedroom door, turned down the lights and began to play with his new Christmas present, a desk lamp with a high-powered light bulb.  We had discovered that if one turned the lamp upside down, it would project images on to the ceiling of the darkened room.  We laughed hysterically at the silhouettes of our hands as they produced dogs, rabbits and eventually more bizarre and inappropriate shadows.  This led to my brother putting his finger beside his shorts and making an even more obscene gesture.  More hysterical laughter followed. Another brother joined the exhibition.

 It was at this point, as is so often the case that a devil lighted on my brother’s shoulder. “Wouldn’t it be funny if we projected our private parts on to the ceiling?”  At 5 years old, I quickly agreed.  After all, we were boys and boys did gross things for a cheap laugh. Soon something that resembled the Hindenburg was floating across the white sky. The gigantic shadow was met with howls of laughter.  We quickly discerned that the closer the light was to the object being projected, the more pronounced the projection.  No one seemed too concerned that the bulb of the desk lamp was now heated to over 500 degrees.  As I volunteered to take another turn, my brother got a mischievous look in his eye.  To this day, he swears he did not intend to burn my “twig and berries” with the lamp. 

 My unearthly howl of pain seemed to rise out of the depths of Hades.  It was at this precise moment that my mother realized that a life with four boys would be a perpetual blind-folded rollercoaster ride.  If she could not have a little girl, perhaps, the best she could do was to make sure that the “little girl” inside of her survived this deviant siege from her feckless pirate progeny.

 Moments later, I ran out of the bedroom and down the stairs naked – shrieking that my franks and beans were on fire. The baby sitter was visibly unnerved by my nudity and hysteria. She was now having second thoughts about her evening assignment.  My father sensed this and immediately moved to reassure her as my mother tried to corral me as I contorted in naked pain. I distinctly recall her laughter and tears as she developed an ice pack fashioned out of my father’s underwear and a Saran Wrap. She smiled surveying the boy who literally and figuratively had been burned for bearing it all.

There would be decades of monumental blunders,  incidents and a lifetime full of pea-brained male mistakes.  Yet the girl became the woman, the nurse, the confessor, the educator, the ombudsman, the partner and the warden.  She grew up but never stopped softening our world, leaving in her wake a scent of love and understanding.  If you ask her today if she regrets not having a girl, she laughs. “Oh, I don’t think a girl would have survived in this prehistoric clan. There was only room for one girl and God clearly wanted that person –to be me.”

What Goes Around, Comes Around

Santana
Image via Wikipedia

It was September and with four boys finally back in school, my mother acted as if she had just been informed that her life threatening illness was in complete remission. Nothing fazed her – not the early autumn heat waves, suffocating smog or chaotic evening routines filled with school forms, bike bags, books, homework assignments and back to school nights. It was, as Andy Williams crooned, “the most wonderful time of the year.” In 1976, we were officially on our own. She had declared her independence, no longer rising with us at dawn – choosing instead to sleep in and get my youngest brother off to school at the civilized hour of 8am.

It was the first day of my freshman year and I needed to wear something that made a statement about who I was. Perhaps a new girl would notice me or an upper class cougar would choose to toy with my affections. As I looked at my pathetically worn periwinkle Hang Ten tee shirt with its signature footprints, I knew I must take a calculated risk. I considered the suicidal thought of borrowing my older brother’s Carlos Santana tee shirt – yet, this was simply too perilous a move considering that we shared the same high school hallway. I was desperate. I needed to showcase that this middle school caterpillar had emerged from his summer chrysalis to become a teenaged tiger-tail. It was in this moment of imminent crisis that I made the fatal decision to “borrow” one of my father’s pinpoint Oxford dress shirts.

My father was a hoarder. He literally possessed and stored every piece of clothing he had ever bought. His dress shirts filled multiple dressers and several bureaus. Each drawer was filled with a prime color palette of neatly folded and bagged 16/34 dress shirts that easily accommodated my adolescent build. My mother stirred softly as I tiptoed in to survey his treasure trove of Brooks Brother Oxford cottons. In typically twisted adolescent reverse psychology, I resented his surfeit of clothes. He had so much and I had so little. I also considered the low probability that he would even know that one of his sixty shirts was even missing. I was wrong.

My father had been the eldest of two sons by eight years. He took little interest in his younger brother and considered himself an “only child”.  He inherited Midwestern frugality and understood the need to care for possessions to ensure they would last. The shadows of the Great Depression had only recently receded and the goal in any family of modest means was to get maximum utility out of any apparel, appliance, toy or equipment. When your shirt collars frayed, you reversed them and squeezed another two years out of the garment. Frugality was tough but at least as an only child, he never had to share.

When my father married and had four boys, he had no notion of how his organized, rational world would come unhinged. Life became a permanent freeway and he was living in its middle lane. He now seemed to understand why men died earlier than their spouses.

His home office became his castle and its door his portcullis. One could not enter this sacred chamber without knocking. At times, his door would be locked. One was forbidden to borrow a pencil, piece of paper, tape, scissors or any other item from this eight by eight man cave. My mother accepted his periodic self exile as a way for the “only child” to cope with the fact that he must now share everything. He loved his family but needed some place where he could work, protect his sanity and preserve a few precious possessions. He could not trust his sons to care for his things the way that he had been required when he grew up.

Weekends would find him justifiably ballistic as tools that he had wirebrushed and lubricated after each use were left to rust outside by a teen trying to fix a flat tire. He would see red as paint brushes were not cleaned as prescribed with turpentine and returned to their milk carton home – but instead discarded to harden like rigid punk rock mohawks. Bikes were routinely left on the front lawn and sometimes stolen. He could not fathom how this spoiled generation had so little regard for precious possessions. We were pampered, unappreciative, sloppy, and undisciplined ingrates who knew the price of everything but the value of nothing.

His biggest peeve was how we treated our Sunday clothes. He would turn five shades of purple when entering our closets to see blue blazers and clip-on ties cast on the floor with grey slacks crushed under items that had been tossed into the closet when we were ordered to clean our rooms. For an ex-Army officer, our disrespect for clothes portended disregard for other things – work, authority and responsibility. To add insult to injury, our indigence came with a price tag as it was often necessary to take our wrinkled finery to the local cleaners to be steam pressed. My father hated paying for laundering dress shirts and dry cleaning.

My mother had gone on strike several months back refusing to iron or press anyone’s clothes. She had done the math and realized that her domestic obligations were paying her less than minimum wage. My father was convinced that some labor organizer in the neighborhood had undermined her commitment to Home Economics. This was a time of women’s independence led by Gloria Steinhem and the “I am Woman“, communist Helen Reddy crowd. Outsourcing something as intimate as the care of his clothing to a third party that charged an exorbitant .50 per shirt was anathema to my father. (Mr) Delsandro, the drycleaner proprieter, might just as well be wearing pantyhose over his face and wielding a gun. He was engaging in highway robbery.

Delsandro did not like my father. My father intimidated him. It was not uncommon to enter the cavernous cleaners and find the front counter unattended. The drone of rotating dryers, the hot breath of steam and the chemical smell of dry cleaning would conspire to push any kid outside. Through the front window, I would watch as my Dad would rapidly ring the small bell indicating a customer had arrived. The owner would appear from behind a mechanized clothes line of hanging garments and plastic bags. As soon as he saw my father, his pace would slow – the way a dog moves once it has been ordered out of doors. He would endure the detailed list of my father’s demands and specific requests for mending, spot repairs and pressing.

My mother had recently issued another edict that was ostensibly part of a grander plan to prepare us for when we went to college. It required that we wash and fold our own laundry – including washing and ironing our own shirts. In life as in politics, it is an accepted fact that when simple systems try to regulate complex systems, unintended consequences follow. As our fresh supply of laundered clothes dwindled, we chose not to wash our own clothes as instructed.  We instead began to steal clothes from our father and then slip the soiled goods back into his laundry hamper.  None of us knew that the others were also swiping his tightie whities and tube socks. I did not realize it but my brother had also crossed into the valley of death and taken several dress shirts.

On a bright Saturday morning, my Dad and I were doing errands and made an unexpected stop at the cleaners. A young girl came out to the counter and asked if she could help us. “Is your father here?” my Dad sarcastically inquired. There was a pause. She glanced nervously behind her. “He’s busy in the back. Can I help you?” To the rear of the building, hiding underneath an endlessly rotating line of hanging garments, my father spied two legs. “I know you’re back there, Delsandro!” He shouted. The man’s legs were frozen. My father feigned a smile to the young teenager and spoke over her shoulder. “Please, tell your father when he is no longer busy that he needs to call me. I am now missing FIVE shirts!” My heart nearly exploded in my chest. How the heck was he missing five shirts?  I had only swiped two.

Terrified that I would held responsible for all the missing shirts or would be implicated in the death of Mr Delsandro as my Dad stuffed him into an industrial dryer, I confessed to my mother that we had been stealing my father’s clothes. When she stopped laughing, she chastised me and my brothers ( who were not happy that I ratted them out ) for creating such tension for my father. She explained that he had been an only child and was very meticulous about his things. She told us each to wash and fold our laundry – the Catholic equivalent of five “Hail Marys” and three “Our Fathers”.  Once again engaging her Solomon-like wisdom. my mother “miraculously” discovered the five missing shirts.  She promptly took us clothes shopping and agreed to one weekly wash of clothes – if we consented to fold and iron our own laundry.

My father’s supply of undergarments and dress shirts returned to normal inventories. However, he still suspected that he was being insulated from the truth.  After years of broken buttons, misplaced garments and too much starch, my Dad could never bring himself to apologize to the dry cleaner. However like Holmes and Moriarty or Batman and the Joker, these two men needed each other.  While he could have patronized any other cleaners, my Dad seemed to delight in this strange game of cat and mouse with his Delsandro.

Like all adolescent recidivists, we continued to ocasionally sneak his clothes in times of crisis and lethargy.  As we grew older and all wore similar sized clothes, we actually had the audacity to argue with him when he caught us that the clothes were actually ours.  Dad finally broke down and lifted his leg on his entire wardrobe by writing “DAD” in indelible ink on every sock, pair of underwear and shirt that he owned. For years, my youngest brother thought “DAD” was a competing brand with Haines.

It is now decades later and my clothes are disappearing at the hands of thankless sons who covet my socks, gym shorts and tee shirts. I can now sympathize with the man who I initially wrote off as selfish and unreasonable. After chastising my oldest boy for stealing my shorts, he retorted, “they look a lot better on me than they do on you.”  Like the endless line of garments moving methodically around the dry cleaners rack, life was repeating itself.

It’s just like the man said, “What goes around, indeed, does come around again.”

Summers With Lampwick

Disney's Electrical Parade: Lampwick and Pinocchio
Image by armadillo444 via Flickr

“Juvenile delinquency is a modern term for what we did when we were kids” -Anon

My mother called them, “Lampwicks”.

She ascribed this sobriquet to any of our friends who exhibited anti-social tendencies.  She seemed to have a sixth sense about boys and almost mystically understood which kid would be most likely to become Chief Justice or a ward of the criminal justice system. “Lampwick” was the name of the truant, ne’er-do-well, delinquent kid who befriended Pinocchio as the two “boys” were swept off by the dark shadows of temptation to a seeming adolescent paradise called, “Pleasure Island.”

In this land of youthful hedonism, there were no adults and a cornocopia of self indulgent choices – – shooting pool, staying out past curfew, smoking cigars, damaging public property, eating candy and exhibiting limited common sense.  Lampwick was Disney’s and every suburban picket fence parent’s poster child for the “wrong” kind of companion.

Each town had its Lampwicks – the habitual class clowns, east parking lot smokers and reckless free spirits who were on a first name basis with every vice principal and cop in town.  While some parents were not up to speed on kids and their transgressions, my mother knew every kid’s rap sheet. She knew that people judged a kid by the company he kept.  Shady companions could lead you down dark alleys and get you into trouble. It was, after all, out of the sight of parents where bad judgment could take root and blossom into highly regrettable mistakes.  The simple act of “borrowing” another kid’s bike for a joyride could eventually lead an adolescent to commit mass murder in Kansas for no apparent reason.

Like most matriarchs, she deployed a powerful BS meter that included a lie detector system more sensitive than a Cal Tech seismograph. She could easily distinguish the earnest kid from the obsequious trouble maker. Over time, she simply defaulted to the code word, “Lampwick”, as a terminal judgment – forever branding any undesirable acquaintance that we might try to insinuate into our circle of friends.

Summer was her greatest challenge as we were rudderless ships – – unable to navigate a day pregnant with possibility because we lacked imagination and our closest friends who had left town for family vacations and sleep away camps.  With the loss of our approved social circle, we went in search of new confederates.  Summer was a season for exploration, experimentation and rite of passage “firsts”.  July and August meant hot sidewalk days that simmered slowly and dissolved into heavy, woolen nights that would cloak our illicit activities. The grass stayed dry under your bare feet as the evening could never quite reach down enough to find its dew point.

The child of the 70’s was not oversubscribed.   Summer’s primary focus was to find a source of income.  To a kid, a job meant financial freedom and spending money.  To a parent, work meant less potential idle time for trouble.  Inevitably, most kids ended up partially employed and filled long open afternoons in search of water, dangerous liaisons and forbidden things.

Summer meant new things – the kid who just moved to town and did not know a soul, a day camp or a summer school class.  Invariably, one would make new “friends”. In our house, it might start with an innocent request to spend the night at “James” house. Having never met James, his parents or not knowing whether James was real or on a work furlough program from the California Youth Authority, my mom would insist on meeting and interrogating my new companion. If he passed this simple litmus test, the sleep-over might be redirected to our home where she could carefully size up the child as well as discern the level of engagement from his parents. She would look for signs of absentee parenting – did they call to speak with her about the alleged sleepover? Did the father even bother to slow down the car when he dropped James off? My mother considered the “drop-off” a leading indicator of how active a parent was in managing their child’s activities.

Mom understood that the mistral winds of July and August carried on them lost souls and latch-key kids whose absence of supervision was only eclipsed by their complete lack of judgment.  They were sirens calling to us with promises of throwing jack knives, shop-lifting from one eyed store owners and staying out all night. They were Lampwicks offering us the chance to bite from a tree laden with forbidden fruit.  After all, no one was ever home or sober at Lampwick’s house.

My mother’s finely tuned antenna could detect any criminal in waiting: the arsonist, extortionist, the joy rider, the daredevil, the school yard bully, the BB gun freak, or the demolition expert. Her thinly veiled, sodium pentothal questioning could disarm any kid into revealing a personality profile that would reliably indicate the probability for a restful summer or a summer full of arrests.

I was in the throes of begging to spend the night at the broken home of a boy I had just met at the community pool.  Within a span of 2 hours she had gleaned through her phone tree of friends and a few select questions the fact that the boy’s brother was a suspected drug dealer, the house was teeming with teens that had no supervision because the Mom was holding down two jobs while the stay at home grandmother was motionless in the den watching “As The World Turns” in a semi stupor.

How the heck she could gather this much intel in such a short period of time was beyond my comprehension. In a time before police blotters, she always seemed to know before I did which of my friends had broken his arm trying to jump his moto-cross bike off the roof of the school. She knew who had been arrested for shop lifting and who had been disarmed after shooting their Daisy BB gun at cars.  As a red-blooded child of adventure, I was starved for the adrenalin rush that only came from being chased or at risk of physical injury.  This led to a succession of alliances with boys who my mother had blacklisted for their ingenious ability to break the law and whose parents seemed impotent to stop them.

Through my arsonist friend, Ed, I developed a profound fascination with fire.  My budding pyromania and Ed’s engineering prowess teamed us up to create the first tennis ball cannon. The device was constructed by hollowing out three metal Wilson tennis ball cans, taping them together and puncturing the base of the bottom can with a ballpoint pen.  We would spray copious amounts of lighter fluid into the sides of the three-foot mortar and then shake the lighter fluid to even distribution.  We would load the device with a tennis ball soaked in gasoline, leveling the improvised weapon at a predetermined target. A match would be placed against the small pen hole at the base of the bottom can. With an oxygen sucking “whoosh!,” a flaming tennis ball would be propelled 500 feet through the silky morning sky.

As the incendiary bomb landed on the neighbor’s roof igniting dry leaves, we panicked – scrambling up a trellis in an effort to extinguish the blaze. The home’s elderly occupant was suddenly concerned at the sound of reindeer on her roof as she was certain that Christmas was not for several more weeks. A phone call, sirens, an ill-timed leap into another neighbor’s garden led to our subsequent “arrest”. Hours later, the verdict was delivered – – Ed was given the death sentence of Lampwick.

Despite my mother’s best efforts to steer us along a straight path, we could not help but test the boundaries of our suburban cocoon. We once built an elaborate mannequin out of street clothes and dropped it off a bridge into the path of an oncoming car.  The horrified driver stopped and took our dummy resulting in the loss of clothing and a visit from the police when my friend, Mike realized that his mother had written his name in an indelible marker on his shirt collar and pants.

We pretended to foist an invisible rope that caused cars to screech to a halt. Using surgical tubing and a plastic funnel, we fired water balloons, oranges and eggs with pin-point accuracy at buses, trucks and bicyclists without regard to the damage or risks that would ensue. We once tried to ride our bicycles twenty miles through fenced off sewage culverts.

Invariably, we were ratted out, eye-witnessed, caught, injured, or incapable of out-peddling a police car on our bikes – and subsequently incarcerated. Each kid’s parent would inventory the circumstances and promulgate punishments and tighter controls to prevent their child from becoming labeled “delinquent” in our small town.

After my new friend Scott and I got caught stealing bottles from the back of a store so we could turn them to the same store for recycling refunds, my mother had declared enough and forbid me from seeing my friend. I had to call him and share the bad news that he had made the dubious Lampwick list.

As I was preparing to dial his home, the phone rang.  It was Scotty.  “Mike, my parents won’t let me come over to your house any more.  They say you are a bad influence. “

He was suggesting that I was Lampwick.

I shivered at the thought.  Every kid knew that Lampwick eventually turned into a donkey and was dragged off into the salt mines of Pleasure Island to labor forever as a beast of burden – a high price to pay for making bad choices. Upset at the tables being turned, I sought out my mother for advice.  She smiled as if she had been waiting for this opportunity. “You remember what happened to Pinocchio? He almost turned into a donkey as well. Just be careful…“

At 12 years old, I did not buy into the whole Disney Pinocchio parable.  But just in case, I went in to use the bathroom and studied the mirror.

Were my ears getting bigger?

.

All Creatures Great and Small

If evolution really works, how come mothers only have two hands? ~Milton Berle

I noticed the red hooded house finch as it darted past me gaining and losing altitude from a beak filled with long pine needles.  He was clearly in the process of building a nest. Off just to the side of the house came a cheerful warble and series of chirps.  A female finch was obviously supervising her mate’s construction of her spring nursery.

“I think a bird is building a condominium on our front door.” I shouted as I came inside. I turned around to examine the wreath with its arrangement of dried flowers and bird nests filled with artificial gray speckled eggs.  I could see how a finch could be fooled into thinking this was perhaps a perfect spot for public housing.

“Oh, my,” my spouse smiled approaching with curious approval.  She frowned. “Not exactly the most convenient location.” She pointed to the base of a fresh cone of tightly constructed twigs, green needles and mud.” A solitary speckled turquoise egg had tumbled out and now rested precariously on a ledge of uneven stained rattan.

I moved closer.” Oh, don’t touch it!” She whispered. Within minutes there was a sign on the door reading ” Birds Nest – knock lightly or use side door.” Mother Nature was now in charge.

Upon arriving home from work later in the week, family court was in session. “I didn’t do it.” was the plea from my youngest son who was being arraigned on one count of egg manslaughter and two counts of contravening a direct order to use the back door.

I had to give him credit. He had obviously been watching the Discovery Channel. “Listen, mom.  Birds lay more eggs than they need because some will die. It’s part of nature.” Yet, my spouse was already deeply attached to her feathered sister and her four unborn children. She knew Moms drew the short end of the stick. Occasionally, we would catch glimpses of the male finch, only to see him fly off to watch highlights of ESPN through someone’s den window or hang around a bird feeder talking to cardinals.  Like all males, he was always off somewhere when things happened.

As I watched the mother of my children open her heart to yet another dependent, I could not help but smile at the timeless ties between all mothers and the extended families of pets and animals that they are forced to adopt over the course of a child’s life.

Not a day that went by in the house of my youth that a boy would not come home, cupping some mysterious maimed, captured or presumably lost life form and beg the eternal question, “can I keep him?”

My mother dreaded these encounters – – the filthy child replete with earnest, Wild Kingdom expression. She had endured this “Groundhog Day “movie time and again. It always concluded with her feeding, caring, emotionally attaching and then eventually flushing, dumping or burying the pet of the month.  A pet’s lifespan might be reduced by one-half when it was introduced to our house of four boys, sadistic cat and determined dog.  By week two, the animal had usually been attacked, dropped so many times it had brain damage (that’s amazing, your lizard is so docile) or starved from neglect.  Invariably, it fell to our mother to make the last few months of the animal’s life as comfortable as possible. Caring for pets was just another thankless footnote in the fine print that she had failed to read when she met and married her dashing second lieutenant in 1955.

Our home was a living farm. Each boy’s room was adorned with some live animal – – an ant farm with red ants encased in a plastic window, a fish bowl or terrarium with a reptile that was always hidden under a dry branches or a rock.  There was a brief period of turtles that was cut short by a libelous article in Ladies Home Journal about diseases turtles carried including salmonella and e coli.  Since she knew we had not washed our hands since LBJ was President, turtles became amphibians non grata in our home.

There was a rodent period with rats, mice and hamsters.  A hamster is essentially what you get if you breed a rat and a mouse. They lived in expensive translucent plastic cages joined by tubes and habitation spaces called a Habitrail.  At one point, my brother had four hamsters moving through a complex grid of adjoining cages, tubes and running wheels – – until the cat discovered how to knock the tubes off and proceed to harvest the chubby hot dogs one by one across a long hot summer afternoon while we were at the beach.

When the inevitable last breath bubbled from the lips of a pet, our mother was there like a funeral home director to make arrangements. In a period where heads of state funerals were often shown live on TV, we held a public burial for our kangaroo rat who we had made the mistake of housing with our common gangster house rat.  No one knows what words were exchanged but the next morning, we found “Oz” without his head and Fritz covered in blood with a ” hey, he called me vermin and nobody calls me vermin” look.

We used kite string to lower Oz into a two-foot hole.  Given his condition, it was closed casket. We somberly returned to the house, ate some Oreos and reflected on the good times we had with the kangaroo rat for all of the two weeks that he had been in our family.  We were learning about life and death.

The 70s was a Wild West time for pets. In many houses, mothers actually allowed snakes as pets.  There was one problem: serpents always escaped. My mother drew the line at snakes.  She loathed them and refused to even entertain an earthworm after hearing of a Burmese Python that escaped into its owners house (the son apparently did not tell his parents that the six foot snake had flown the coop), ate the family cat, and was finally captured after it slithered under the dining room during a dinner party with a huge bulge in its mid section.

Our mother understood that caring for pets was essential to a child learning responsibility.  Perhaps the most dominant trait she hoped to teach was to subordinate oneself to a greater purpose, person or cause.  She knew pets could teach us how to unconditionally care.  I am certain my mother resented every poop scoop, litter box, meal worm, salt lick, fish feed, and squeaky hamster wheel moment of it. Yet, like all moms her feet went in one direction – – forward — for a kid, for a dog and even for a slimy, brown newt.

Fast forward to Finchville 2010. I hear a grand commotion and screaming. “Dad! Dad!” My son is yelling.  “The bird flew in the front door and the cat has it!” More emotional shouts as my wife, daughter, her boyfriend and our two sons are attempting to rescue the bird. The cat’s tail is twitching in triumph as the mother finch struggles in her mouth. My spouse asserts herself. ” Crystal, let her go!”

The cat is stunned with the scolding when she had expected praise.  The stunned mother finch falls to the ground and flies erratically into my daughter’s bathroom. For the next hour, the animal rescuers try vainly to coax the bird out of the tiny upstairs bath. Judging from all the arguing and yelling, it is not going well. I am annoyed, as it is looking inevitable that I am going to be asked to play Animal Control. My daughter’s boyfriend has been banished into the dark front yard and instructed by my wife to warble like a male finch.

As I walk upstairs I hear him tweeting outside (lucky your buddies cannot see you doing this) trying to coax the bird outside. I enter the bathroom and stoop down to grab the bird as it flaps to the other side of the room and hits the wall. My wife squeals, “Oh, don’t hurt her.” I finally cradle the bird and toss her into the night. As I turn in triumph, she proceeds to fly right back into the illuminated window.  As I reach to grab the bird, my wife turns off the light thinking the light was confusing the bird. I now cannot see a thing and proceed to crash into my daughter’s shelf.  Perfume and shampoo noisily cascade to the floor.  “What are you doing in there?” my daughter yells from outside. More crashing.  “Turn the light on! I cannot see a thing!”I finally catch the finch and drop her into the ebony chasm of the front garden. My wife runs downstairs to see if the brave girl has returned to her dimpled blue eggs.

Hours later, we finally see her tiny head poking out of the nest. She is back safely – for now.  My spouse is exhausted but content having helped her feathered friend to save her fledgling family. The crisis has passed. As we talk across the darkness at bedtime, I can hear her exhaustion and relief.  “What a scene that was. I hope she and the babies are alright. As she falls asleep, I recall the old Yiddish proverb, “God cannot be everywhere at once.  That is why he invented mothers.”

Watching for Falling Rock

Bell Rock in Sedona, Arizona, USA
Image via Wikipedia

Watching for Falling Rock

When I was eight years old, my grandfather moved from Southern California to Sedona, Arizona.  My dad did not completely understand his father’s decision to exile himself from civilization and his immediate family. The move was cause for consternation and subtle tension.

Yet, my grandfather had wanted a new start.  Suffering from chronic arthritis and the emptiness of having lost his wife of 30 years to breast cancer, he had remarried to a woman that neither son really accepted as their true mother.  With a private resolve, he longed to renew his life among the great red rock mesas and cliffs of the mythic West.  He did not view this retreat from humanity or family as a resignation from life but in fact, a beginning born out of the ashes of tragedy. My grandfather’s renaissance rose like the phoenix and over the next fifteen years, he transformed into a quirky artist, high desert outdoorsman and amateur Native American historian.

His letters were rich narratives describing the desert as a vast and ever changing ocean of life. He came to understand the hidden power and the healing presence of the natural wonders of the world. He was reborn at the sight of the Grand Canyon and cured of his gray flannel color blindness after gazing across the Painted Desert.  He marveled at the swirling, polished ravines of Canyon De Chelly. He often wrote to us of the ancients that had lived in these sacred places — the Navajo and Hopi who had walked as one with the land prospering in cliff dwellings under great overhangs of red rock and limestone.

We would travel over hundreds of miles of broken, lonely space to visit him in a mobile home outpost whose floor was a carpet of rocks, red soil and saguaro cactus reaching up to a great blue house of sky. We preferred taking the overnight Southern Chief Amtrak that followed intermittent stretches of Route 66 from Los Angeles to Chicago.  My grandfather would navigate his car up the serpentine roads of magnificent Oak Creek canyon to pick us up in Flagstaff on the 7AM train.  It was our first taste of freedom and he would begin to feed our restless imaginations from the moment we stepped on to the cool dry morning air.  He would faithfully retrace his route down the canyon’s nauseating switchbacks descending into warmer air and the backwater pueblo that rested like a homestead in some John Ford movie.

During our visits, he would take us hiking and point out the more hidden aspects of the desert and the natural world that seemed so foreign to suburban children.  At night, he would tell stories of the West and always regale us with the timeless classic of an Indian brave named Falling Rock who had disappeared trying to warn his people against the gathering threat of soldiers and the encroaching tide of pioneers.  The story always concluded with Rising Star, the Navajo chief and father of Falling Rock, consenting to the Army to peacefully lead his people to a life on the reservation in exchange for help finding his lost beloved son.  “That is why you will always see signs that say, ‘ Watch for Falling Rock’, he would conclude – allowing the weight of the night and the unsolved mystery of a boy swallowed up by history to settle on our narrow shoulders.

Over the years, the LA train deposited fewer boys on that summer green platform.  Finally, there came a day when no boy wanted to spend a “boring” week in the hot desert with an old man and his dog.  When he died, it seemed like some ancient tie had been severed.

As the years carved lines onto our faces, my three brothers and I went the way of men and built our own lives, allowing obligations and temporal commitments to eclipse the sage scented memories of four squinting, crew-cut boys standing next to a man with a hiking stick and a white and brown dog.

My brothers and I intuitively understand that we are bonded by a thousand invisible sinews forged during those summers of diving into an ice cold canyon creek, dodging cholla and cactus across a blazing hot broken field of rocks looking for arrowheads or sitting silent bathed in the glow of a twilight fire. Those strands stretch across a thousand miles of ribboned interstate and time. We remain mirrors of one another but we are each painted with a slightly different mix of colors from a palette of sunshine yellow 60’s, brown and orange shag 70’s, chrome and silver 80’s and black and blue 90’s.

We are a genetic collision of German resoluteness, Irish mischievousness, English hooliganism and French elan. We were pounded in the same blacksmith’s forge, alloys created out of a firebrand conservative and a new age free spirit. Over time, the boys that had once scoured the mountainsides for Falling Rock and marveled at the mysteries of great lightening storms and ancient tribes – lost their sense of wonder. As Kurt Vonnegut once lamented,” We do, diddly do, what we must, middly must, until we bust, bodily bust.”

We now only see one another when life crushes one of us with an unforeseen landslide. We gather at odd, unpredictable times, rarely achieving a quorum for a dinner or lunch –separated by miles and our own dreams. To find ourselves together unobscured by the shadow of a funeral, crisis or life milestone is a rare and fragrant moment as fleeting as a night blooming cirrus.

Observing the silent march of our independent lives, I was determined to bring us together for the simple purpose of celebrating our connection to one another.  The storms of the previous two years had not left us untouched and had formed new fissures of uncertainty across our paths.  Fear is a funny thing.  It seems when you need people the most, you often choose to isolate yourself – choosing to follow your own best thinking which often excludes those that know you best. While your partner or spouse may be there for you, no one knows you like your brother.

I became obsessed with getting my brothers together.  What better place for us to gather than among the red rocks of Sedona?  Perhaps this special place that was so symbolic of our childhood and spiritual rebirth could reconnect us to the powerful mythology of our past.  It had been over 30 years since we had communed in that sleepy community of hippies, artists and restless souls in search of some great intangible.

I sent out an earnest invitation reminding each brother that hospital beds and church pews were not appropriate locales for reunions. I challenged everyone to retrace one last time those same ribbons of highway to the crimson rock sanctuary of our grandfather. I was nervous that the memories of those few summers had been swept by life’s flash floods leaving only rock strewn gulches of empty space in their wake.  Gratefully, everyone accepted.

As the long gray line of boys arrived, I was pleased to find us falling comfortably into old stories, gently dredging the sediment of our past and current lives. Our birth order remained forever established but had clearly molded from a line to a circle. With the addition of our own children and partners, the group had swelled to thirteen.  Those outside the inner sanctum of boys could only watch in amusement as our sarcasm, hyperbole and humor rekindled a thousand stories. To their chagrin, neither my father nor our mother were able to attend to defend themselves from our relentless revisionist barrage of warm hearted lampoons.

Our time together dissolved too quickly under warm, wind swept days and cool mountain evenings.  On the last night, a sunset burned tangerine pink illuminating the great citadels of iron and limestone to the east. We paused and said nothing as if we all understood how brief our time together would be. We were ten years old again – laughing and recklessly hurtling through life like dust devils whipped up by a sudden burst of canyon wind.  The energy from forty summers past returned to radiate from somewhere among those great iron, lime and sandstone monuments.

On my final day, I looked back one last time across the great canyon lands and was warmed by a new memory and by the thought of our own shadows that would now forever dance among the mysterious Kachina who dart unseen across this mythic landscape. I turned, not wanting to say goodbye, rolling on to stretch of canyon highway that would lift me over a mountain pass and gently descend into suburban Phoenix.  As we narrowed between two monoliths called Cathedral and Bell Rock, I noticed a warning sign, “Watch for Falling Rock.”

At that same moment, perhaps on a dusty blood red road, the silhouette of an old man and dog can almost be seen disappearing into the adjacent National forest.  He comes here every day to walk his dog at twilight – and on this night, he is pleased because his grandsons have returned one last time to honor him – – simply by the act of never forgetting.