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.

Empty Nest Diaries Part 1: Denial

 A guy can wear the dark glasses of denial for only so long. Eventually, it gets so dark you have to remove them to be sure you are hitting the toilet. Yet, denial is fundamental to psychological survival. It’s a form of emotional procrastination allaying our anxieties until we man up enough to show up to life’s inevitable root canals. 

Denial is a comforting enabler and companion– he is the ultimate sycophant that tells me that my excess weight is no big deal – in fact, my jelly belly may come in handy following the famine, economic and social meltdown that may occur if Trump or Clinton is elected. My good buddy denial indulges my lethargy whispering that I “deserve to conserve” my energy while my 100lb wife unloads 200lbs of groceries from the car. 

Yet, that perfect storm day inevitably arrives when you hit a birthday divisible by five coinciding with a sobering milestone that confirms your mortality. At that moment, life exposes your feckless friend denial as a seductive liar. In that dark passage, you must reassess who your real friends are and finally swap out that Blanche Dubois 25W energy saver light bulb for a 100 watt spot light. 

In a few weeks I am hitting 55. It’s okay. I understand there is no permanence in this life. We are all Joad families one step removed from the dust bowl where we maybe forced to pack up the chickens and rocking chair and head off into parts unknown. 

And so it came to pass that the next season of life arrived and dropped autumn leaves at our door. We released our last kid ( and a hell of a big tuition check ) to college and came home to an empty museum. 

I admit to being a tad blue. I like hanging with my kids and love being a Dad. Releasing your pups into the wild is a Born Free moment. If you didn’t cry when Ilsa was turned loose by her humans, you can stop reading this and go back to reading the personal ads in your Soldier of Fortune magazine. 

I am a wimp. I cry at old movies and reruns of Family Affair ( I’m looking like Mr French every day ). Passage of time moments are always bittersweet. They are the last day of a great vacation, the final holiday present to be opened or the delicious penultimate paragraph of an epic novel. Joy can be found in the simple serendipity of coincidence. 

I’m temporarily indulging my self pity through an obnoxious display of exhibitionism. This includes sharing the accomplishments of all my kids with anyone who has the misfortune of making eye contact with me. I’m really bad in working into any conversation the fact that my youngest son is now at Duke, my middle boy is loving lacrosse at Wesleyan and that my daughter is happy in her life and career. 

I can segue from any topic to kids faster than you can say Coach K. You want to discuss Syria? Did you know one of Assad’s nephews may have gone to Duke where my son is? 

I have Blue Devil swag to go with my Cardinal and golf USC football and dirty bird Wesleyan lacrosse outfits. See how I worked each kid into this again? Sneaky! 

Today I’m sporting the Blue Devil baseball cap and navy pullover with its D insignia – even though it’s 90 degrees out. I am becoming what I used to loathe – a pathetic suburban boor who mistakes his children’s accomplishments for his own. As of yesterday, my wife has given me exactly thirty days to snap out of it. 

To a naturalized Brit, my ostentation is all terribly bad form and must be beaten down like a banana republic rebellion. 

She is annoyed with my new found conceit ( as if my old egotism was not enough). She is proud of all of our children but is egalitarian in her distribution of praise and attention. I, on the other hand, feel like the insane guy at Penn Station just trying to make eye contact with someone. I have something I want to share. Instead of someone saying “get a job”, they’re probably muttering “get a life.” I’m trying, really. 

My spouse is not emotionally invincible and is coping with her own version of the empty nest bends — that rapid ascent toward the quiet surface of abandoned bedrooms. She is genetically predisposed to suffer in silence and not draw attention. As if the last kid leaving was not bad enough, our one year old cat ran off and has not returned. This cat was a sweet surrogate of sorts and was doing such a marvelous job of distracting us from our confusion. 

She would crawl into bed with us at night and patter behind us in search of affection. She also gave us huge cases of poison oak. Each night passing cats are likely to spy two shadows scratching their arms yelling “here kitty kitty !” 

Out nighttime searches have yielded nothing. Posters and offers of reward have remained unclaimed and I’m struggling with the fact that she is gone. I keep turning on Disney’s Homeward Bound and reading about animals lost for months who have returned home. I don’t think those families lived adjacent to Wiley Coyote -the half wolf/half chupacabra that trots through our dreams each night. 

I’m bummed. I look for a sty of self pity where I can wallow and question the meaning of my new life and ponder the hopelessly complicated mysteries of life like why a dog sitter when explicitly told to keep doors shut, opened the damn door and the cat escaped. I’m having a hard time with forgiveness. 

I really don’t understand martyrdom. I need to share and get fake empathy back from my friends. I know when people ask “how’s it going” that 99.9% hope that I say “great”. The burden of bad news is a downer. 

Yet, I like to share. I am the anti-Percival, forever on a selfish quest for a grail of sympathy or an extra piece of chocolate cake. 

I like attention and constant action. I like waking up to life’s problems and reacting when God hits perpetual hard fungo ground balls my way. I loved the purpose that three dependent children gave me as I navigated the tightrope of work and life. 

Kids are the ultimate air cover. You eat your meal and then finish their food. You use them as an excuse to revert to your favorite period of adolescence. BB gun? Done! You can blame them for everything. Who took the last cookie? Probably Cole. Who left the window down during the rainstorm? Most likely Brooke. Honey come to bed? I’m teaching the boys how to use an RPG on Call of Duty! Geez! 

I’ve known this empty nest day was coming. You may see me wandering Greenley Road at night calling out for a cat and scratching my arms like an addict. If you stop, I’ll tell you my problems and likely find a way of telling you about each kid and my son at Duke.

Better yet, for your own sake, just honk hello and keep driving — at least until I snap out of it. 

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.

Postcards Hung on A Distant Mirror

imagesThere is an ancient oak on the corner of my rural street that is always first to turn its back on summer. The pastel colors appear unobtrusively frosting the highest branches and whisper that change has once again found me. Life in a small New England town has its own predictable rhythm of seasons and stages. The dog days of August have been reduced to a collage of digital pictures littered across Facebook pages – a happy memorial to moments when our family once again finds each other for adventures across lakes, mountains and across two coasts of America.

My body and my priorities are shifting with middle age as I become keenly aware of the passage of time. As a helicopter Boomer, I have spent two decades along a thousand green grass sidelines and silhouetted in the deep recesses of school auditoriums. I did not want to miss a single moment of my captive constituents. It is in sharp contrast to my own childhood where we were released into the wild as soon as we could master a Schwinn bicycle. Fathers were only seen after 9PM at night and on weekends.

My Dad chuckles at the myriad photographs of our teenagers logging more frequent flyer miles than a traveling salesman.  He wonders whether my insistence on work life balance is an improvement on his T-Rex parenting or perhaps a sign of the permanent blurring of the lines between parent and child and as such, the decline of Western Civilization.

“You don’t see the Chinese attending every school concert.”  It’s always about the Chinese.

“Well, Dad, I don’t know.  I’m not living there.  And besides, most families have only one child.”

We usually end up tangled in a kite string knotted with political disagreement.

“I was not supposed to be your friend. I was preparing you,” he would retort as we argued over his logic enforcing some nuclear punishment for a molecular misdemeanor. Ah yes, grasshopper, times have changed.

I now find no greater pleasure than sitting around an August dinner table becoming the butt of my adult Millennials revisionist recounting of any day spent together – unplugged and in close quarters. As they grow old and leave our nest, the house has transformed into a listless museum of artifacts from an earlier time. I am reduced to a mere curator.

I am the ornithologist who, having spent months feeding his captive condors with a bizarre plastic hand puppet, must now release them into the wild. Our drop-offs at college have now become emotional pilgrimages as we take endless iPhone photographs and splash them affectionately across social media documenting our fledglings in their new nests. This sits in sharp contrast to 1979 when my parent’s loaded up my possessions in large hefty bags — barely slowing their car down to 15mph before shoving me out on to the curb of a blazing hot suburban, Claremont College street.

I could have sworn I heard Dad say, “Have a nice life!” as he whistled “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” My mother yelled something about not mixing colored and whites ( she meant laundry)  and my father reminded me for the millionth time of the myriad sacrifices he had made to finance my expedition into a private college education. Within days, he would turn my bedroom into a third home office. There was no such thing as a living shrine to his collegiate children. It was his house and he was taking determined to take ground lost to his teenaged parasites…damn straight!

An hour away, I was optimistically navigating a phalanx of young men moving toward what I thought was a keg of beer but turned out to be the only good-looking girl on our entire campus. I was on my own.

My roommate, Donald, was a circumspect academic who instantly assessed that I was going to be a problem. He had arrived hours before me – with both parents. His side of the room was outfitted with a mini-refrigerator, coffee machine, photographs of his family and a stereo system that resembled a NASA workstation. He was an only child.

After living wild among four feral boys, an insane cat and a promiscuous dog, I was unprepared for this massive dose of personal consideration and responsibility. I was a slob and could leave a trail that Helen Keller could follow. I was Oscar and Donald was my Felix. I am not sure which of us was more distressed by the fickle fates that lashed us together. He was a soft, erudite Eloi – spending his early mornings reading the Wall Street Journal in the dining hall, and faithfully attending 8AM classes while I led the sullied life of a carnivorous Morlock, laboring at night – refusing to rise before the sun had arced above the trees to remind me that lunch was being served.

Over the year, the room became a collision of ideologies. One roommate – a German laser guided missile who would make provisions for events that might be years away; the other, a loud Irish skyrocket with no discernable trajectory. Donald was a genuine passive aggressive. He would not have survived a nanosecond in the house of my father. He looked at me as if I was an I-5, ten-car pile up and would talk to himself in first person when he was upset with me. As a single cell paramecium that moved only toward light, food, Grateful Dead music and the opposite sex, I was an alien – an extraterrestrial from a universe that seemed content with chaos and the sybaritic notion that tomorrow was at least 12 hours away.

I caught him one day dressed in his “church clothes”. It was a Tuesday and it seemed odd that this organized Lutheran would be attending a religious service.

“Did someone die? Are you, like, going to a funeral?” I asked.

“I’m interviewing for a summer internship with Goldman Sachs.” He sighed in the mirror as he looped his foulard tie under his collar.

I was perplexed. “Why would you want to work at a department store for the summer? I mean you could do much better working in a warehouse or washing windows.”

He started talking to himself again. “He thinks it’s a department store…a department store…” He left the room. I waited a few minutes and then helped myself to some Chips Ahoy cookies from his refrigerator and turned on an old episode of the Twilight Zone on his television. I laughed to myself thinking of Don working in the Men’s department in some lonesome mall.

It all flooded back to me as I dropped my son off at college this week. In many ways, he is my carbon copy – and each of his life experiences flood me with déjà vu moments of amusement. His departure has left our home with only one child remaining – me. My sixteen year old is unervingly responsible to a point where I am uncertain whether he was a changeling from the hospital.  There is now no one to blame for a mess or accuse of eating the last cookies. My collegiate was my air cover and my deflection and I was now releasing him into the wild.

We lugged his bedding, lacrosse gear, clothes and yes, coffee maker up to a pleasant two-bedroom suite on a heavy, humid afternoon. Students swirled like fireflies in blazing red shirts flashing smiles that masked apprehension and nervous sense of adventure. His roommate arrived – another lacrosse player and wide-eyed freshman excited to be free of his hand puppet feeders. Once the all-important beds were made and clothes put away, it was time to leave. The Resident Assistant stopped by to remind them of an orientation session while they stared out the window at a gaggle of girls confidently moving across the quad toward the cafeteria.

He seemed happy. I leaned in, “Be a good roommate. Don’t be a slob. Don’t waste this opportunity.” I was running out of advice – since most of it had already been heaped ad nauseum on his shoulders through four years of high school micro-management.

I turned one last time.

“Hey, if UBS or any of the local business guys interview on campus, let me know. You should get an interview.”

He gave me an odd look. “Why would I want to work at a postal company? I’m wanna make money. Besides, next summer is so far away.”

I opened my mouth and instead just took a deep breath.

Yep, that’s my boy and I already miss him.

A Final Kiss for Miss Crystal

IMG_6671The doctor studied the malignant shadows on Crystal’s lungs as the weak arc of winter sun was being devoured by denuded trees. Amidst these winter solstice days, the world is trapped in permanent twilight.

Her breathing had been labored for the past few days and she had stopped eating.

“I really can’t tell if the fluid is from some type of heart failure or a mass in her chest.” He remarked absent-mindedly as he turned the X-Ray image sideways. “We probably need a EKG. She’s an old lady and well, these things happen. I suppose we can refer you to an oncologist but if it is a mass, you might do well to start thinking now about making arrangements.”

Arrangements?

“She could be in pain. There’s no way of knowing at this point until we drain the fluid and try to see what’s causing it. It’s not good though. For now, take her home and try to keep her comfortable.”

 Is there not a Sloan Kettering for cats?

It had been a long day and I was not emotionally prepared for a dinner discussion about palliative care, hospice or Dr Kevorkian. This was not just any cat. This was Crystal – – she-wolf of the pachysandra, eviscerator of all raptors and rodents and my literary muse. The vet seemed not to notice that his suggestion was asking our family to euthanize a section of our own hearts.

My wife looked as though she had been on the losing side of a Joe Louis fight. Her swollen eyes betrayed her maudlin day as she sat on the edge of a bed stroking the gaunt, aging lioness whose purr still thrummed like a 350hp engine.

It all hit me, the flood of memories: cats, dogs, fish, turtles, newts, snakes, hamsters, rats — all prematurely taken by automobiles, old age, ignorance, disease, other pets, and in one case, a cannibalistic sibling – a crime scene that still ranked in my mind with the Tate & LaBianca murders. There was never time for emotional preparation, we would return home from school only to be told of Frank, the alligator lizard’s untimely demise. We would mourn life’s cruel inequities. Each death would often be followed by a memorial worthy of a head of state. We would carefully prepare a shoebox coffin often with one of my mother’s expensive silk hand towels. On this particular day, we had gathered at the edge of a small dirt fissure near the back ivy yard fence. We gave everyone an opportunity to share stories about Jay, the kangaroo rat.

“He was a friend to every kid.” Someone said.

We used kite string to unevenly lower the cardboard shoebox into the dirt – the way my brother had seen Churchill slowly interned on television during his state funeral.

Yet, here I was, at 52, moved into adolescent depression by my cat’s terminal prognosis. In my slow shuffle across the sweeping steppe of middle age, I have come to accept that each life is indeed terminal but also understand, as Lincoln mused that “it is not the years of living but the living within the years” that counts. In time, a man may become the things he once ridiculed. As a young invincible, I routinely cast stones at death the way a child might throw rocks at headstones as I whistled passed a graveyard. I was convinced my broad mind and narrow waist would never change places.

This milestone was inevitable. Yet, I felt unprepared. Death, the thief, was once again scratching at my window wanting to steal my precious whiskered talisman into the night. In a life so jammed with preconditions and contingencies, I increasingly found delight in the simplest things – my favorite chair, my routine and the unconditional love I would receive from an ordinary white house cat.

In her youth, Miss Crystal expressed her unconditional love for us in macabre and graphic ways – often leaving what appeared to be a small lima bean or earth worm in a conspicuous location. Upon closer examination, the odd gifts were confirmed as the internal organs of some unfortunate rodent who could not even be identified by its dental records. Perhaps, the bequest was a spleen or a segment of intestine. She radiated feline conceit and like the Victorian mad man from east London, could perform complex surgery with a single talon. On the lethal day she arrived in a crate from JFK, rumors and raw fear began to circulate through the New Canaan rodent community of a new and terrifying Ripper, an alabaster Lizzy Borden that swept in like a silent avalanche capable of devouring rabbits and small dogs.

She was in fact, a Cinderella story of sorts – a rag to riches housecat rescued from near death in a grubby, ramshackle pet mill in southwest of London. She was a Father Christmas surprise for an eight-year-old girl who was homesick for friends after moving half way around the world to start a new life with her family.

“I’ll call her Crystal because she has such blue eyes.”

I had been chasing the kitten around the house for hours after she had escaped our bedroom late Christmas Eve. I could no longer disguise her existence as an increasingly suspicious and excited trio of children writhed in their early morning beds. As I smiled with satisfaction, I mindlessly scratched an itch on my arm which turned out to be ringworm, courtesy of our new family member. In time, we would endear ourselves to many families in SW19 as our cat became the local distributor for the loathsome skin disease.

Both cat and young girl eventually grew into women but they never stopped cuddling or consoling one across four thousand nights of adolescence. Nighttime would find them in deep conversation, a unilateral discussion about what to wear to school or perhaps who to invite to tea. She would visit me at night after the children had gone to bed, weaving between my legs like a pilot fish before leaping on to my desk and sitting on my paperwork, daring me to play by knocking every pen, pencil or moveable object off my desk. She would swat at my hand without bearing her claws, boxing and trying to lure me into a game of cat and crab.

She was like Wordsworth’s solitary cloud. Her purring reassured us, soothing our trauma in the months following 9-11. She padded her way through fifty-two seasons of life. She always seemed to sense when a gray cloud was crouching on one of our heads and would find us, coaxing us back into her world of gardens and butterflies.

Her foreign policy was fickle – a shrewd mixture of passive aggressive affection. It soon became apparent that she preferred women to men and children to adults. She would occasionally use her bodily functions as method of conveying her judgment of people, places and things. A male house sitter vowed never to return when a simple “present” was left right in the middle of his bed. It seemed to suggest that he spend the remaining evenings at his apartment.
Like most pets, she taught us responsibility, the risks and rewards of unconditional love, the vagaries of living with domesticated animals and the simplicity of sitting in a window watching as the world swirled all around you.

Time moved on and the English matron chose voluntary exile to the upstairs with the adoption of an Australian Shepherd pup. She loathed him and never forgave the Gods for upsetting her perfect only-child world. She lived with the girl, watching her grow into a woman – all the while weaving in between prom dresses, suitcases and increasingly long absences. In fits of loneliness, she turned to the inferior boys and on rare occasions would work her way down the stairs to yowl like an alley cat for attention. She resorted to exploring the house in the dead of night – an ancient Grace Pool exploring her former domain, ever wary of the jingling collar of her nemesis – the dog. She had gone from making history to being a relic of a waning age of innocence. Yet, she rested and waited for the girl to return – always appreciative of any affection and the attention that came when the upstairs would be once again crowded like a Pullman sleeping car.

I shift off of my stiff right shoulder. It’s now dark outside and the room is dimly lit. I sit on the floor, my arms stretched under bed where she rests in the dark – her sides scalping as she wrestles with lungs that cannot purge the fluid that keeps filling within them. The reassuring bustle of her purring rises each time I move my hand across her head and down her back. Her tail twitches with a slow rhythmic snap, a sign of happy fatigue. I scuttle my fingers across the floor emulating a crab. She half-heartedly swats at me and closes her eyes. The graying man and the snow-white grand dame now resting side by side. She moves closer and I touch my nose to hers, prompting her to lick her lips – a kiss goodbye. She falls into a fitful sleep and I descend down the stairs.

She’s still fighting the shadows so she might remain at our sides.  When she finally releases this life, she will be remembered like a singular snowflake.  Perhaps she will be reincarnated into a magnificent monarch butterfly or a tempestuous French actress.

One thing is for certain: Miss Crystal makes my weird little world a better place and leaves only love – and small rodent spleens — in her wake.

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…”

Unplugged and Out West

Sunset from the Minarets Vista viewpoint near ...
Sunset from the Minarets Vista viewpoint near Mammoth Lakes, CAa (Photo credit: Alaskan Dude)

Each year we swim like salmon against a current of temporal obligations and fight to return to the calm, sun sequined rivers of our west coast youth.  We always arrive conflicted — barraged by the need to see family and old friends but at the same time — wanting to immerse our family in this massive, self-obsessed amusement park called California.

I am always nervous returning to Los Angeles as every email I receive from my father suggests that his once Golden State has declined into cesspool dystopia where rampant illegal immigration, corrupt public officials, profligate public spending and fewer public restrooms has made it unfit for working people, the elderly and those with prostate issues.

My west coast past and east coast present are two distinct worlds and I worry when they collide.  The stories of my youthful mischief have been well hidden like state secrets that must incubate in silence for at least seventy-five years. There is always a risk of coming west that we will encounter a long-lost acquaintance who will proceed to tell one of my children, “your father, oh, he was a wild thing!” This opens a Pandora’s Box of interrogation that I increasingly find hard to navigate.

As my Digital Age children get older, the logistics of our time together are further complicated by their own predictable canyons of self-absorption and technology.  They are like single bar cellular calls that often drop unbeknowst to the speaker.  One can spend minutes talking unaware that the other party is no longer on the line.

“I’m sorry, Dad, I lost you after you said, ‘can you please’…” is followed by the always irritating”I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish” expression.

The family road trip has radically morphed since the days of “shut up or I’ll give you something to complain about” automobile travel.   In the 1970’s, we were a predictable part of a summer land rush of urban and suburban families, enthusiastically driving to the same vacation destination and establishing ourselves for a week like hives of yellow jackets.  We would normally infest some sad, rental beach house or motel and find things to do.  “I’m bored” was always met with, “go outside and don’t come back until dinnertime.”

And we would find things to do – some legal and some illegal.  But, we would invariably return to our home base for food, medical attention, zinc oxide or with the feral dog we had just found and wanted to keep.

Comfortable mini-SUVs have replaced the Fleetwood wagon and its rigid Russian cattle car seating arrangements. A Grand Bazaar of roadside fast food chains has supplanted warm Shasta sodas and bleeding Wonder Bread PBJs that we greedily devoured at highway picnic areas.  If we were to ever actually frequent a rest stop today, my kids would assume that we were merely stopping to dump a dead body.

“I want a Jamba Juice, Dad.”

“We’re in the middle of the California desert, buddy.  There’s nothing here but sand and horizon line highway.”

“Well, actually, I just Yelped Jamba Juice and there is one in Victorville. It’s only five miles off the freeway on a frontage road and it’s near an In and Out Burger.”   Cheers erupt from the trio of digital back seat ninja drivers.  We are suddenly eating double-double cheese burgers under a neon high desert sign.

Everything has changed. In restaurants and fast food joints, the American meal has kept pace with our soaring national debt with portions eclipsing the size of Central American banana republics.  To combat the disease of over-sized portions, we assign a “designated scavenger” at each meal.  The scavenger does not order any food but can sample from any and all plates.

Since she is the smallest and least selfish, my spouse often assumes this role believing that food tastes better when it comes off other people’s plates.  As a child of Brits who survived the London blitz, she is genetically predisposed to be a scavenger.  We estimate ordering for four instead of five saves between 15-20% on meals, impedes inevitable holiday weight gain and modestly improves the mileage on our fossil fuel guzzling, Sherman Tank of an SUV.

The once almighty 20th century automobile pilgrimage replete with its sibling battles, rites of passage car sickness and endless boredom has been tenderized by satellite radio, personal entertainment systems, instant messaging and ubiquitous Wi-Fi coverage.  My children have been reduced to digital cocoons.  No one listens or looks as my wife and I happily describe the rugged beauty and history of California’s eastern Sierra and Owens Valley.

While we might be together on vacation, it is a rare harmonic convergence when we are all emotionally present. The digital age has broken the nuclear family into pieces – we are isolated microbytes of data symbiotically sharing a common ecosystem called a house. Each day the modern family must compete with alternative communities — enemy cells of friends via Live Chat, a conveyor belt of Instagram photographs  and a mindless, sewage pipe of text messages.

We arrive at our mountain destination and a late dinner at a crowded restaurant.  The entire establishment is also suffering from digital-cocooning with three out of four patrons slumped at the altar of their glowing hand-held devices and smart phones.  I assume everyone is texting or making power point presentations to one another. There is one loud table.  It is a group of five men and women who are actually talking and joking.  People leer at them with distain.  It seems so rude that they should be making noise in this quiet car of digital dining.  Sadly, the digital pollution drift has invaded the last place where table manners, grammar, syntax and personal mythology is passed on – the family dinner table.

I conjure up the countenance of my T-Rex father and growl at the children mandating that I am capable of extinguishing them if they do not extinguish their devices. You would have thought I had asked them to French kiss a cannibal.  I suggest a trivia game where we might stimulate our minds. My son protests, “How can we play trivia if we can’t look up the answers on Google Chrome?”

“Name five famous people whose surnames are a color?”

Feeling clever, I eagerly await their answers.  I could see the encouraging signs of nascent collaboration.

“Pink.” My daughter says shrugging. “Can we use our phones now?”

“No, damn it!” I hissed. ” I want four more”. You would think I had asked them to explain the Fibonacci Sequence.

“Who was the coach of the Boston Celtics? Who played football for Syracuse and the Browns? Who starred in Nacho Libre and School of Rock?”

“Okay, here’s a hint. What about the names with “Red”, “Brown”, or “Black”

“Oh I know.” yelled one of the boys. “Red Brown.”

“Who is that?” I queried.

“I don’t know, wasn’t he like a football coach? I should get two points for that!”

I shake my head and to my wife’s chagrin regress into off-color jokes and potty humor as a lowest common denominator way of keeping our conversation afloat.

It is indeed harder each year to be an analog parent in a digital world that so empowers the individual.  The road trip holiday continues to meet stiffer headwinds as our young adults become addicted to the instant gratification and entertainment of digital media.  The notion of down time is tantamount to prison time with the definition of “fun” having morphed into the need for 24/7 distraction.

Our learned behavior of working as a team arose out of our Bataan Death March childhood vacations and our common circumstances — the tedium of long car rides, carsickness,  the inconvenience of being torn from the moorings of friends and roadside Bates motels with creepy proprietors, toxic, chlorinated pools and no televisions.

Each summer, we were forced to hang out as a family and amuse one another.  We were unplugged and managed by unfiltered, orthodox parents who reminded us that they brought us into the world and that they could take us out of it.  They told us to eat all our food because children were starving in China.  We now are concerned our kids are eating too much and that China is no longer starving.

For the twentieth century vacation, each kid saved money for the annual road trip to places like the Grand Canyon so we might buy a magical vial of Painted Desert sand or a sinister scorpion encased inside a paper weight. It now seems we are constantly looking for a store that sells iPhone power cords. Travel was about seeing new places and punching holes in the walls of our suburban cocoons. The new millennium road trip has evolved where each person is a self-contained cosset.  As we move along the blue highways of our country, it seems we are not lost in America but lost in a conceited cyberspace.

“Are we there yet” has been replaced by “where the hell are we and will they have Wi-Fi?”  We are becoming part of a new slang and don’t yet understand its meaning. We are middle-aged pragmatists who have seen too much lashed to the mast with young immortals who believe that bad things only happen to other people. We will forever disagree on whether tomorrow is guaranteed. We have evolved as a modern family unit and it will fall to sociologists and our descendents to determine whether we have regressed or progressed as responsible stewards of our tribes.

We now actively seek vacation destinations that lack cell service – remote locales and pristine back roads where our digital progeny are forced to notice the tumbling streams, alpine lakes and rock strewn paths lined with purple lupine and blood-red Indian paintbrush.  On today’s hike, my daughter adroitly spots an almost invisible mother deer and her spotted fawn navigating a steep brown hillside of talus.  At home, she can barely discern stop signs.  We watch and stand quietly at a forty-five degree angle before the fauna melts into a stand of pines at the timber line.We stop for lunch and break out books or just meditate absorbing the grandeur of this glacial basin reflected in mirror of an emerald-green alpine lake.

I am convinced that our biology requires us to be upright and outdoors.  We are not constructed to sit behind desks with compressed vertebrae and atrophied abdominal muscles. Evolution has not yet come to a firm conclusion but our activities would eventually turn us into human thumbs with massive derrieres and no peripheral vision.  While it is has already happened to the stars of the reality show, “Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo”, we must resist the sedentary siren’s call.  Our hike will take all day, cover eight miles and two thousand feet of elevation gained and lost.

I help set up fishing rods and devour a half sandwich which after three hours in my pack appears to have been the seat cushion for a circus fat lady.  I chase it down with water that I have just filtered from a stream.

“Hey, I got a fish!” my son yells. I rush over to extract the treble hook lure from the oversized mouth of a spotted golden and red bellied brook trout. At this altitude and in this harsh climate, the fish cannot get enough nourishment. Yet, they adapt and thrive because they are wild — often healthier than their corpulent brethren raised on Power Bait hand-outs in the captivity of a state run hatchery.

As the sun retreats below a 14,000 peak, we estimate that we have two hours of light left to navigate the four miles of switchbacks down to the parking area at the base of Bishop Creek where we initiated our day.  We are unplugged – a simpler sweeter kind of music.  These moments are gentle notes from a six string guitar.  We joke and gently deride each other’s shortcomings – limitations magnified by proximity, the day’s physical challenges and the absence of creature comforts.

I begin to retell the stories of our mythology – tales of my family and these sacred places — times that shaped this part of America like the winds and glaciers that dominate the landscape.  I am trailing the group and yelling ahead to them, talking to no one in particular.  I am proud of my ability to wrench them out their routines and put them in touch with their more durable alter egos.

I notice someone has a single white strand of wire surreptitiously falling between his hair and his backward facing baseball cap.  My son seems to be moving, but not to the rhythm of a story of how ignominious Convict Lake got its name.  He is clearly advancing to the cadenced percussion of a band called Phoenix.  More earplugs appear and my wife and I are once again alone – travelling with our digital cocoons. She smiles.

“It was nice while it lasted.”

Like everything in nature, unplugged passages soon fade.  They are momentary — a fish rising in the early morning light leaving only green sequined circles of water.  They are a night canopy of stars, unpolluted by the distant light of cities and material obligations.  The sky is an unexplained ocean where satellites move like distant cargo ships and meteors course past the corner of your eye with sudden streaks of light.  Only the earth and sky are permanent. I recognize that my children’s cocoons are temporary. They exist for a short time in this insular chrysalis that forms and protects them until a butterfly can emerge and fly away.  For a moment, I can see them through the gossamer threads – moving, jostling, evolving  and changing.

A blue jay scolds me as I take one last look on the valley below.  My legs hurt and my body is reminding me of my mortality.  Yet, I have made it once again to this special place, the high palisades of my youth — mountains that required my full attention and commanded respect.  They underscore my insignificance but reinforce the notion that I am part of something divine.

My son stops and takes a picture of the valley and the deeply shadowed, late afternoon peaks.  He stops and peers at his photograph.  He smiles. The memory memorialized, it will soon be distributed to five hundred followers who will participate on an endless digital social comment thread.

“Dude, where are you?  That place looks wicked.”

It is.  It’s really cool.

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

Women Are From Venus, Men Are Just Arsons

Burning

In the summers of my youth, campfires were rite of passage places where one’s physical celebration of the day could not consecrated until flames flickered and chased away the final shades of twilight lupine sky.  It was a sacred time where a boy could poke a stick into burning embers and experience the raw power of Prometheus and Zeus.

Greek mythology teaches us about the dawn of man, when life was an epic struggle for survival.  Mortals were at the whim of Gods whose capricious acts often visited disaster and plunged them into darkness.  Humans needed divine allies in the heavens and there was no better friend than crafty Prometheus. Driven to return fire to the hands of man, The Titan trickster deceived all-omnipotent Olympian, Zeus, stealing the secret of combustion and releasing the heavenly bounty to mortals.  In committing this celestial felony, Prometheus was condemned to have his liver eaten each day by a voracious eagle, only to have the liver grow back and be eaten again for eternity.   With his gift of fire, Prometheus was ensured a heroic place in our pantheon of Gods.  But he got burned in the process.

It seemed that fire has forever been both a blessing and a curse.  With Prometheus’ gift came fascination, chaos, destruction, warmth, romance and mythology.  As children, we learned some hard lessons and came to understand the risks filled euphemisms as “he likes to play with matches” and “that could easily become an uncontrolled burn”.  Yet, we are fascinated with fire.  We gaze into the bursts of swirling flames thrown from a bonfire on a clement summer’s night, we can almost sense something in the air – a magical confluence of charged ions, created out of combustion, smoke and an electric night.  For a moment, we are at the warm center of a safe universe while all around us swirls ebony unknown.

From an early age, men more than women, seem to be obsessed by fire.  Criminal profilers confirm that 90% of all arsonists are male.  Many of these unfortunates use fire to act out unfulfilled aggression and power. Most women would agree with this prognosis as they watch their husbands, boyfriends and significant others yield to uncontrolled pyromania when afforded the opportunity to build a fire.

For men, there are essentially two types of fire starters the pyro-purists and the anxious arsons.  The “pyro-purist” believes a fire is like a slow kiss.   In the pyro-purist world, initial sparks should come from a flint and steel, flicked into a small hollowed log where it can be succored with gentle breath and fed like a baby chick — nurtured with small combustible pieces of cotton and rotted wood chips.  The purist is certain that in a past life he was an explorer or mountain man.  Near the fireplace are the tools of his trade – the building blocks of combustion : tinder dry kindling, paper, sticks and bone dry branches.  For this hearty pioneer, each fire is like conceiving and rearing a child.  He must give it confidence.  It must be coaxed and led through its adolescence until it bursts into a mature blaze that is finally worthy of a log.

The purist knows that the finest fires come from a slow, even burn – a fire that throws off extreme heat with only a wisp of light smoke.  These glowing works of art can only be achieved from hardwoods – ash, oak, hickory, dogwood and almond wood.  Each type of wood is like an exotic coffee throwing off its own unique aroma and flavor with earthy rich smoke and even fragrant burns. If you are hosting an outdoor party, perhaps a split pinion pine with its deep resins and occasional pops and crackles might be in order.  An intimate dinner for two requires a cedar, which offers a heat that slowly builds and throws off a seductive aroma.

A big-time burnmeister insists that all his logs be seasoned in a protected woodpile for six months.  These fanatics of flame understand the gift of combustion and that each log brings a certain thermal energy content.  It is not just a fire, it is homage to Prometheus.

At the other end of the spectrum is the “anxious arsonist”.  This impatient greenhorn does not grasp the concept of kindling and combustion.  After three frustrated attempts to get rain-soaked logs that are heavier than concrete sewer pipes, he retreats from the fire pit scouring the perimeter for anything flammable including his child’s favorite stuffed animal or perhaps his spouse’s ancient down jacket. The next phase of his helpless huffing and puffing might include hacking green branches from an adjacent tree which produce more smoke than an NYPD gas canister.  To this environmental disaster, he may add toilet paper, torn magazines and even the road map that helped him navigate to his godforsaken campsite.

The neophyte’s blaze begins and ends unceremoniously with a great-polluted gasp of smoke and sizzled hissing that leaves all family members with coughs similar to incurable tuberculosis. The anxious arsonist is undeterred and begins a frenetic search for highly flammable items including Mennen underarm deodorant, perfume and the lighter fluid that was intended for the morning pancake breakfast.  In one great mushroom cloud burst of incompetence, the fire ignites and the Dr Flamenstein is knocked back to the ground with singed eyebrows and a blackened face.  It does not matter.  He stands and proclaims, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”

Women witness this bizarre ritual every summer and shake their heads at the pathetic Groundhog Day behavior of the anxious arsonists and pyro-purists. It is simply a fact – men are obsessed with making fires.  But according to some sociologists, the more advanced the civilization, the more men grow up unable to shake the arson monkey off their backs. It seems the less we play with fire as kids, the less the need to burn leaves our psychological systems.  As anthropologist, Dr Daniel Fessler describes, western society is regressing.  We have moved from playing with matches and to anxious arsons.  Fessler writes:

The latter aspect ( man’s penchant for fire making) stands in contrast to results from a survey of ethnographers which reveals that, in societies in which fire is routinely used as a tool, children typically master control of fire by middle childhood, at which point interest in fire is already declining. This suggests that when fire learning is retarded in western children, arguably due to patterns of fire use in modern societies that are atypical when viewed from a broader cross-cultural perspective, fire repressed men will have a higher probability to become arsonists.”

It has been confirmed that we need to let our kids play with matches. If we don’t allow an occasional controlled burn, we are elevating the odds that years from now we may be paying for junior’s decision to torch a truck stop outside of Bishop, California. Psychologists further argue that the need to make fire grows and becomes a surrogate for latent sexual frustration playing out in a destructive behavior.  About this time, many men are saying, “I am not sure I like where this whole thing is going.”  Ok, I admit it.  I made all this stuff up because some kid paid me $20 to try to convince his Mom to let him shoot off some bottle rockets.

But, hey, it is summer time and a campfire remains one of life’s simple pleasures.  The fire you dig may rest deep into the cool sands of a beach, blazing recklessly – urging its audience to dance some pagan homage to the summer equinox or it is hidden – tucked carefully between large granite rocks by a lake, sheltered from high alpine winds that sweep down, tugging at the flames and dispersing curious smoke that seems to follow you wherever you choose to sit.  In the firelight, our shadows leave us and sway giving the illusions of shape shifting giants rising like great waves.

In the end, the fires we make are homages to the Gods. The fires we start allow us for a brief time to gather, share our mythology leaving only footprints and shadows. With the heat splashing our faces and our backs turned to the cold night, we come to better understand our physical world and chase away the things that go bump in the night.  And when our little ones grab a stick, igniting a broken branch and their imaginations, let them play a while.  It was, after all, a gift – – and anything worth receiving must be shared.

My Heroes Have Always Been Screw-Ups

Pete Rose at bat in a game at Dodger Stadium d...
Pete Rose at bat in a game at Dodger Stadium during the 1970s (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The true hero is flawed. The true test of a champion is not whether he can triumph, but whether he can overcome obstacles – preferably of his own making – in order to triumph.”
― Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain

I just learned last week that Abraham Lincoln was a vampire hunter. I was not upset.  Personally, when I saw Honest Abe wield his silver forged axe in Tim Burton’s revisionist film, I was impressed.  Sadly, critics and historical experts derided Sir Tim’s turn of the screw treatment of our thirteenth president, questioning how a great American hero could have found the time to rid the South of slavery and defeat the undead at the same time. I kept an open mind.  I’m used to finding out new and disturbing things about those I admire.

We live in a fiber optic era where it has become in vogue to demythologize everything.  We worship perfection producing dysfunction-free digital vacation photographs, buy genetically modified pets and cosmetically alter ourselves seeking to avoid the indignity of imperfection.  Despite our lust for perfection, we love to tear down the pedestals that elevate others.  We secretly long for someone worthy to follow but now are able to get so close to one another that we resent the blemishes and imperfections that we inevitably find. We are in search of the perfect hero but cannot find them.

The age of ten is innocence’s high water mark for any adolescent boy.  When you are emerging from the chrysalis of childhood into the world of men, you are tribal and look to attach yourself to things – movements, ideas, teams and if you are really lucky, a thirteen year old girl.  In the early 70’s, my wellspring of passion was overflowing with the need to define myself beyond my white picket world.  I followed professional sports teams and players – flashing statistics and personal insights like a switchblade.  Like Thurber’s Walter Mitty, I daydreamed  about meeting one of my sport’s heroes, perhaps even rescuing them from a burning car wreck or insane fans.

“Hey, Wilt, quick! Get on the back of my bike.” I would begin to pedal furiously as the seven foot Laker star grabbed my waist. Soon the throng of adoring women would be a distant memory.  (Years later, I would learn that Wilt had actually been running towards the women, not away from them. But, hey, this is a family newspaper.)

My idols in the summer of 1972 overflowed from a generous cup of amateur and professional athletes and beloved public figures.  I cheered for gold medalist swimmer Mark Spitz, and yelled for the underdog USA boxers who were taking on the dreaded Communist elite from Eastern Europe and Cuba in the Munich.  That baseball season, I followed the every move of Pete Rose, the hyperactive Cincinnati Red known as Charlie Hustle.

Weeks later, I declared to my father that I would be an astronaut  but was secretly uncertain whether I could hold my bladder to the moon and back — as the idea of peeing in my spacesuit was too gross to consider.  Years later, Tom Wolfe would infer that at least some of these astronauts indeed had zippers. I switched gears and decided to become a cop. I shivered with delight at the notion of carrying a 44 magnum like Dirty Harry, resolving society’s problems and ridding my community of the social weeds that grew between the cracks of our fractured moral foundations.  I admired my father for his strength and creative profanity and for a brief period decided advertising would be fun –especially if they let you curse at work.

Years later, I would be subjected to kiss and tell biographies and that would deconstruct my idols into troubled souls and demagogues..  While they accomplished great things, life often proved to be a zero sum game where public accomplishment masked personal failure.  When we learned that our Gods were merely mortals flying to close to the sun, we became despondent and cynical. We were obsessed with learning the truth and felt cheated for having held a mere human in such high esteem.  We watched with Schadenfreude fascination the painful character autopsies of our icons.  Camelot was indeed polluted and Eden was, in fact, corrupted by man and his appetites.  We were all mortal, put our pants on the same way, and in a few cases, took them off in public.

Personally, I refuse to live in a godless, dystopic society.  I appreciate heroes because they are flawed.  They are human.  They rise above others simply by getting up and dusting themselves off.  My heroes are measured not by where they have ended up but by how far they have come.  I have come to appreciate that how winners achieve their success is as important as how much they actually achieve.   Those I admire take risks and are unwilling to allow someone else’s opinion of them to define them. They are mothers and fathers.  They are cops, soldiers, teachers and executives. They are divorced. They are single.  They look for opportunities to be of service and defend those who cannot protect themselves. They suffer from bouts of self-pity and vanity and like all of us, vacillate between self-loathing and self-worship. In the end, they come to recognize that they have a higher purpose and their acts of humanity shine brighter than their own self serving shadow.

My heroes are Republicans, Democrats, hail from every ethnicity, race, sexual orientation and creed. They include Mohamed Yunis who won the Nobel Prize for Economics for his concepts promoting micro-finance and community banking and was also accused of being a loan shark and political opportunist.  They were peace makers and diplomats like Gandhi and James Baker who were accused of everything from megalomania to closet imperialism.  Some are politicians.  Lincoln and John Adams were both maligned in their time and paid heavy prices for their convictions in their personal lives.  They are ex-boozers like Bill Wilson who started Alcoholics Anonymous and saved a million lives and Lt Mike Murphy, medal of Honor winner who died while serving our country in the Kandar Province of Afghanistan.

If you dig deep enough, you find heroes everywhere.   They are all around us. And, they have big noses, flawed resumes, scars and can’t fit into size 38″ trousers. We are preprogrammed to lie, covet, gossip, err and lose our way. Yet, heroes overcome their poor choices and circumstances to achieve greatness across a range of professions.  They are mirror reflections of what is best and worst within each one of us, reminding everyone of our incredible capacity for good and our potential to be change agents in a society that desperately needs role models.  My heroes never left.   I left them.  Sinners, some say, make the best saints.

And yes, even after learning that Lincoln lied about moonlighting as a vampire killer, I still admire the guy.

Road Trip

Cover of "National Lampoon's Vacation [UM...
Cover via Amazon
 

Road Trip

This is no longer a vacation. It’s a quest, a quest for fun. I’m gonna have fun and you’re gonna have fun. We’re gonna have so much *%$#%ing fun they’re gonna need plastic surgeons to remove the smiles from our *&^%ing faces. –  Chevy Chase, “National Lampoon’s Vacation”

In the days before emission standards, mandatory seat belts and mini vans, there was the family station wagon.  This V8, 360 horse power gas guzzler was a modern day Conestoga wagon on steroids.  Over two decades, this car and others liked it transported more adventurous families to more domestic destinations than any commercial airline.

A mixture of concern and excitement sparked with the ignition of the Chevy Impala wagon.  Like the crew aboard the Pequod, we knew that with each mile, we would be further indentured to the whims of our Captain Ahab who would not rest until he could safely guide his ship into the parking space of a distant motel.  The trip would span three states, 1000 miles, four motels, eight rest stops and one empty glass gallon Motts Apple Juice bottle.  There were no bathroom stops until we reached our destination for the day.  That’s what the Mott’s apple juice jar was for. ( I am not making this up ) The captain of this craft felt he could make better time if his sailors used a make-shift urinal.  The process of relieving one’s self was a tad humiliating as it involved crawling into the back of the wagon and trying to hit a target the size of a lacrosse ball while being heckled by three spectators.  Where’s the Flomax when you need it?

The luggage was secured to the automobile’s roof rack with a gray canvas cover and rough, hemp rope.  The cargo was tied with angry knots that would have confounded Houdini. The back of the car was a jig saw puzzle of cardboard boxes filled with groceries, clothes and odd supplies.  A sleeping bag cushioned the ground between the boxes offering a place to lay down — if you happened to be a midget or contortionist. On any given day, a child would be unnaturally curled in breech birth position between the boxes.

The anxiety was palpable. It was dawn and in the cool twilight, each child felt ill and out of sorts. Privately, each boy was confronting his “Four Horseman of Travel” – our possessed driver, the eventual need to pee, the endless purgatory of Interstate 5 and the most fearsome specter of all – carsickness. My brother was so afraid of getting sick that he once threw up before we even got out of the driveway.  Dad pumped the brakes harder than an organist during Handel’s Messiah creating a sensation not dissimilar to being on an Alaskan crab trawler on the TV show “Most Dangerous Catch”.

“Dad, can I please put down the window?”

“Go to sleep. I’ve got the air conditioning on.” He directed his comment toward my mother.  Secretly, he would have loved to open the windows to the 100 degree heat but my Mom hated July in Central California.  He did not like what air conditioning did to his mileage.  Every time he filled the car with 35 cent a gallon Shell gasoline, he copiously recorded his mileage on an index card and tucked it back into his glove compartment.  I never understood his fascination with the Impala’s miles per gallon.  One thing was certain, he hated using the air conditioning and always turned on the recycled “economy” air before yielding to our protests about the car’s heat.

My older brother was always first to barf.  He tried to roll down the window but his scrambled eggs hit the top of the windows and sprayed back toward the middle seat. We all screamed and tried to move away as if an alien had burst out of his chest.  My Dad swerved, pulling over to the shoulder of the road, a skidding plume of flying pebbles and dust.  In the rear of the car, my youngest brother had been covered with a towel trying to go to the bathroom in the Motts Apple jar.  In a flash, the bottle spilled a quart of urine onto the sleeping bag.  It was only 11am and the vehicle already smelled like a Metro North urinal during the evening commute.  Yes, we were on “vacation”.  My father looked as if he might spontaneously combust.  About this time, my Mom took control – – taking out a moist wash cloth and paper towels.  She turned around to calmly administer Dramamine and housekeeping service.

We were probably on our way to a cheese factory or perhaps to see the world’s “largest ball of string”, a sight that the AAA Road Guide insisted was a “must see”.  Just the notion of a detour adding time to our journey made me dry heave. The only antidote to nausea was a restless Dramamine induced sleep or some sort of mental distraction.  The boredom of road trips and the constant need to avoid thoughts of motion sickness required us to play games such as trying to identify license plates from different states.  Kids living on the east coast might regularly see licenses from multiple states.  However in a state the size of California, an Oregon, Idaho or even Nevada plate was a big deal.  Hawaii, Maine and Alaska plates were the rarest according to my brother and as such, not a day would go by that a boy emphatically claimed that he had seen the someone with plates whose mottoes read: The Aloha State, Vacationland or North To The Future.

Lunch was at roadside parks or rest stops.  Our rations were PBJs that bled through the white wonder bread to form soggy clotted tarts.  Grapes and cheetos followed, chased by warm Shasta Lemon Lime soda.  We lodged in motels with two queen beds for a family of six.  Kids slept on the floor or in roll away cots.  Within minutes, our room would be transformed into a refugee camp.  We would head for the green, over-chlorinated pool that was usually surrounded by a metal fence and worn chaise lounges.  We swam until we resembled shriveled Shar Peis.  As we crawled from the water, we squinted through chlorine burned eyes that produced an odd chemical halo if you would gaze directly at an illuminated light.

Despite the chaos and drama, we loved these adventures.  My parents understood that these trips were critical building anchors in our restless lives. We looked forward to each summer and begged my parents for more.  Food tasted better on the road.  We slept deeper, read more books, used our imaginations and stimulated parts of our brain that had gone dormant under the prosaic routine of the school year.  These trips were in fact, treasured times together.  The family road trip required patience, teamwork and stamina — all attributes we could not achieve on our own.

Someone once said that “a family vacation is much like love and childbirth – anticipated with pleasure, experienced with discomfort, and remembered with nostalgia.” Even to this day, driving is still boring. “When will we get there” remains the eternal question from the back seat.  However, road trips are no longer the equivalent of a buckboard wagon lurching across an endless prairie.  Starbucks has replaced Stuckey’s Diners. Interaction has been replaced by a tangle of white earphones and hand held electronic devices. Vacations are silent passages where each person is a self contained entertainment system. Yet, despite its metamorphosis, the family car vacation remains a rite of passage.  As kids mature earlier and earlier and seek to fly the nest, the road trip is an important touchstone reconnecting family and reinforcing the ties that bind us.

As for me, I love our road trips.  Although it was years later that I realized that not every family required their male occupants to relieve themselves in a jar.  And yes, I still have to close my eyes when drinking apple juice.

My Blackfoot Whispers

AUTUMN 2006 Blackfoot River
AUTUMN 2006 Blackfoot River (Photo credit: Doug kueffler)

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.  The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time.  On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops.  Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.  I am haunted by waters.  ~ Norman Fitzroy MacLean, A River Runs Through It

In the summer of 1981, I worked as town boy and ranch hand for a small guest ranch tucked into a great stand of cottonwoods, aspen and pine at the confluence of Montana’s Blackfoot and Clearwater Rivers.  I was given this gift and, like so many that are wasted on the young, didn’t fully appreciate it until the experience had been swept from my hands like so many granules of sand. 

Montana is a rugged place.  The Blackfoot valley was carved by an ice flow fist formed in the Pleistocene period by a great glacial lake.  In this less traveled part of America, people live in respectful harmony at the foot of mountains that can be penetrated only by logging roads and on horseback.  Some places in the adjacent Bob Marshall Wilderness remain untamed and only tolerate those who choose to pass through.  And for the experienced angler, the Blackfoot ranks among the Madison, Frying Pan, and Fire Hole as sacred places to practice the mystical art of fly-fishing.  

I had fished for perch, blue gill, sunfish and trout in local lakes as a boy, but never held a 9 weight switch of graphite rod that whipped neon line out across the water in a great rolling sine wave.  My first day on the river, I watched spellbound – the last of a fisherman’s line hesitated, silent in the air, his monofilament leader attached to a microscopic artificial caddis fly that would alight gently on the ripples.  As he stripped his line toward the shore, a flash of brown and red shot through the green riffle of water as a brook trout rose to attack.  There was no bait, no shrill cry of victory nor creaking of a rusty reel.  There was only sweeping wind, a splash and an ancient struggle as the angler landed a three-pound, 18-inch fish on a silk thread capable of snapping once two pounds of pressure had been applied. 

Netting the fish was as much an art form as the act of hooking him.  Yet, within minutes, his creel was opened and the fish was deposited to be served within two hours for dinner.

The Blackfoot is a magnificent and reckless flow of water that cascades 137 miles down from Rogers Pass atop the Continental divide — some of the wildest land in the contiguous United States.  Fishing consumed my waking hours.  My friend and I called it “Stalking Big Daddy.”  Although chores on a working ranch never truly conclude, on brief breaks and on our one day off a week, we would ride rusted bicycles down long dirt roads through sagebrush and chaparral, bumping along with fly rods, creels and nets.  We carried an insect net fashioned from a metal coat hanger and cheese cloth, which we would sweep beneath stands of cottonwood along riverside reeds, catching insects and hoping to match our fly patterns to the color of the captive bugs. Big Daddy was the term we used to describe the biggest fish in the river – a fifteen pound brown that lingered in the shadows of the cut river banks near our ranch. 

Our heroes that summer were curmudgeonly anglers who would don neoprene waders and work the river’s edges and runs — whipping home tied, wet and dry flies with the precision of a lion tamer.  As the trout would jump, tail and sip at the confederate lures, we would stand at a respectful distance trying to emulate the effortless bullwhip strikes of line that would extend across the water, dropping flies into places no larger than a postage stamp.  Big Daddy was there, watching us from underneath a shelf of rocks and branches. 

Fly-fishing was our new religion and these ancient fisherman had become our reluctant clergy.  They would shake their heads in condescending contempt as we shook at branches and tore at tree limbs that had snagged our back casts.  A retiree named Bud patiently taught us roll casting and how to read a dead drift. It seemed an innate obligation that they pass on this knowledge to the hungry neophytes who caught more leaves and sticks than trout.  John, a local rancher, scolded us to understand that each day the river changes, so you need to know how the water will guide and place the trout you want to catch and release.

We became part of that river, spending hours wading its shallows and sand bars, often stopping to watch an osprey, eagle, moose or white-tailed deer hesitate for a moment then melt back into the deep forest.  Each trout that rose to our fly had the potential of being Big Daddy.  If you were fortunate enough to hook a phantom brown or cagey cutthroat, your fishing partner would stand in silent envy, torn between not wanting to acknowledge your superiority as a fisherman but tortured by the need to know what fly pattern you were using.  “Black ant?” he would say nonchalantly, looking down river.  “You say something?”  I would smile, and then finally confess to the Wolf Hair Caddis. 

Twilight lingers forever in the Montana summer.  The dry, warm air slowly rises, giving in to small pockets of cool air that rush like phantoms down across the river at night.  The “early evening boil” was something to behold, as the trout would once again rise to feed.  We stood, silent silhouettes, swaying rhythmically with dark cords lashing quietly against a pink and purple sky.  Suddenly it would be dark, and we would pedal by moonlight to the cabin we shared with wranglers who worked the corrals and led the guests on horseback rides. 

Late that summer, I arose at four to take guests to the airport for an early morning departure and saw what looked like great wavy spikes of white light rising into the sky.  Dawn was still an hour off, but these beautiful sheets of light moved and swayed – blown by some magic celestial wind.  It was my first glimpse of the aurora borealis, and it is burned into my memory against the jagged skyline of the great Swan range.

As I get older, many of my senses have dulled while others have seemed to sharpen.  I sometimes stop to just listen as the wind rakes pine trees that guard the adjacent woods. I can almost hear the dry Montana wind sweeping down  pushing the tops of the pines, and shaking cottonwood and aspen leaves until they quake with exhilaration.  The river moves tirelessly and is restless, always eager to lean somewhere beyond the bend of an adjacent dirt road.  The Blackfoot is like the course of my life, creating new banks, patterns and places for others to hide and watch. 

The river provides for everything that lives along it and ministers to anyone who takes the time to listen closely to its sacred theology.  It flows back to me at night in my dreams.  I am always standing in the river, the weak morning sun streaming over the trees.  Just out of the corner of my eye, a faint riffle and flash.  A trout rises.  I roll a cast across the sequined water, squinting to see if I landed the fly on the narrow run that eddies into a deep pool.  A large brown belly turns as the white mouth gapes for the fly.  It is only eight in the morning and the Blackfoot whispers to me that there is no rush.  We have all day.   

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.

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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.

Guns, Germs and Hypochondriacs

Opposites attract.

Staff Sergeant Kevin L. Zetina, Platoon 2085's...
Staff Sergeant Kevin L. Zetina, Platoon 2085's senior drill instructor, bellows cadence while practicing for Company G's final drill competition. Deutsch: Ausbilder (Drill Instructor) beim United States Marine Corps. Español: Un instructor abordando a los marines estadounidenses. A drill instructor addressing United States Marines / Not Drill Sergeant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They also  marry and discover along the primrose path of marital bliss what the French call, “le difference”.  Love is indeed blind and when a couple is first intoxicated by mutual attraction,  a thick cataract forms over their eyes  – precluding any ability to see things for what they are.  Eventually the X and Y chromosomes recover from their initial pheromone-fueled joy rides and discover the differences in how they approach life.  

Men are loud, visceral creatures who aggressively seek to conquer and accumulate.  Secretly, they are neonates seeking to return to the womb.  Women are more subtle and versatile forms of fauna using their twin skills of nature and nurture to navigate a thankless peanut gallery of expectations. Privately, they just want to be in charge of an all-Italian male model pool cleaning service.

Men are a mass of contradictions. After years of being indulged by their mothers, watching sitcom matriarchs and digesting blatant misinformation from other men, they enter marriages and relationships with a distorted expectation of what their partner must bring to the party.  Apparently, a nice cheese dip is not enough. Men also want their mommy.

Women fall in love with the notion of being in love.  Men appear to them like puppies – cute, friendly and somewhat fragrant.  By the time, they have been taken home, it is too late to give them back and your house smells.    When a woman realizes that her knight in shining armor is really sporting tin foil, wearing dirty underwear and perpetually prone to watch re-runs of the Godfather, a woman can become disillusioned.  This is why you often see mothers and daughters crying at a wedding.  They are not overcome with emotion.  The mother, having drank too much champagne, has just taken their daughter aside and shared with her what life might be like after the honeymoon.  Men misinterpret this matromonial female cry-a-thon as a byproduct of nostalgia when in fact, it is Mom breaking to daughter the news that behind the hunter-gatherer lurks a child who just wants to stay home from work and play with his plastic soldiers.

When it comes to the cold and flu season, roles change with women often morphing into the “drill sergeant “ and men into the “baby”.  A drill sergeant views illness as a temporary setback that must be denied at all costs.  Sickness is a self-fulfilling prophesy and the drill sergeant refuses to acknowlege anything less than blood from three orifices.  Drill sergeants hail from large families and the “suck it up“ school of parenting.  They believe in mud poultices and Mary Baker Eddy.  Babies, however,  are still nostalgic for small country inns, soft blankets and the pulsing heart beat that comes at the beginning of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” — anything that reminds them of the nine months inside Mom’s pouch. 

Men become huge infants when they are ill.   The slightest cold or fever is usually the beginning of a pandemic. Women are taught to endure.  This plays itself out each season as men complain to other men that their wives show them little sympathy when they are ill.  Wives must keep the house going even when they are sick and as a result, have contempt for “babies” who cannot get up to get a cup of water, let alone, help with the kids.

Men never really notice when their wives are ill.  “My wife never gets sick” a friend shared with me as his wife was coughing up a lung while we were out to dinner.  Yet, when a man is sick, he reverts to fetal rocking, moaning and deep adolescent dependence.  To a drill sergeant, this contemptible behavior is worthy of court-marshal.

I should have registered the subtle harbingers of  intolerance when my wife and I were dating.  I knew she was a first generation Brit.  However, I assumed the “stiff upper lip” and “it’s just a flesh wound” thing was Monty Python hyperbole.  I assumed when the chips were down or coming up, she would transform into a Florence Nightingale that would nurture me by candle light – holding a vigil by my side of the bed until I was well.

 I had grown up in a household where sickness afforded you a temporary celebrity status. In the home of my mother, there was an unwritten  rule that if you were even thinking of getting ill, you went right to bed, eschewed all social obligations and incubated until the illness either hatched or the false alarm had passed.  My mother would organize around the illness.  She would sit like Mother Teresa, a kind silhouette in the flickering shadows of a night-light – cooling our feverish heads, rubbing our backs and humming soft songs.  In a four-boy family where you had to compete for everything – – food, air, space and attention, illness gave you temporary immunity from obscurity.  I often found myself envying my brothers when they became sick.  The mother shepherd focused exclusively on her one wounded lamb, assigning us to our father who resented the fact that he had to talke care of us. It was clearly better to be sick than under the care of a man who still insisted that the Germans had been invited into Poland in 1939.

The arrival of a major epidemic like chicken pox or measles was greeted with 19th century pragmatism – – the infected child and his brothers were quarantined together in a room until everyone came down with the illness.  “Best to get it all over at once “, She would shrug.  In later years, we would feign illness by placing the thermometer on a hot lamp or enduring scalding hot showers to raise our body temperatures.  We would then moan like ghosts wandering into her room to complain of a headache.

When I became a parent, I would disintegrate into worry when my first child became sick.  Yet, I had been trained by the best in triage and bedside manner.  In a strange way, their maladies made me feel more relevant.  Enter the British wife.  To the British female, illnesses are like road works, a temporary impediment that must be driven around.    Years later, as we brought children into the world, the “Stiff Upper Lip“ school and the “It Could Be Plague“ schools would routinely clash over diagnoses and prognoses.

At the first sneeze, she would say, “it’s just a cold.” I would be certain it was Ebola.  At the sound of a muffled midnight cough or sniffles, I was on the phone demanding access to a pediatrician.  A headache ? Meningitis.  That sore throat could be bird flu.  “The last I checked none of us have been to China” my spouse would respond.  ” We ate Chinese food the other night. Those dumplings could have been cooked by a carrier. “

As more children were born, I mellowed, graduating from burning the pacifier when it fell from their mouths, to wiping it on my pants to just popping it back in their mouths. My spouse, born to a midwife in a small English village, seemed pleased with my progress.  We made quantum leaps such as actually agreeing to carry on with a vacation if one of the children came down with the sniffles or developed a cough.  We braved a dinner party if I felt a little under the weather.  And yes, we did send a child to school before they had been symptom free for 48 hours (that one had me sweating)

I suppose this pragmatic return to 19th century medicine is healthy. But, there are times when my entire family is fighting illness — coughing and sneezing, spreading their germs throughout the house – that I hide, paranoid and alone in my den.  I sit wide-eyed reading – a modern day Howard Hughes devouring a book like, Guns, Germs and Steel.  I may have lost the germ wars at home, but I am staying informed on epidemics and holding out for the day when they reconsider my years of hypochondriacal behavior and shake their heads saying, “My God, he was right“.

That’s usually about the only time my wife declares she needs an aspirin.

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.