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.

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.