Camp Whencanicomhomma

Summer Camp Personalities
Image by Transguyjay via Flickr

 

Camp Whencanicomhomma

“Hello muddah, hello faddah

Here I am at Camp Granada

Camp is very entertaining

And they say we’ll have some fun if it stops raining.”

It was early winter when the phone call came from California.  It was below zero, and the woods seemed to be cracking under the arctic blast that had buffeted us for days. Our then 11-year-old daughter was catching up with a friend and hearing all about a two-week sleep-away camp, nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills.  “Waterskiing, boys, horseback riding, boys, dances at night and…boys.”

Our first child pleaded with us to allow her to attend this amazing adolescent Pleasure Island.  After carefully evaluating Camp Skyline, we realized it was time to push the first chick a little farther from the nest.  In the ensuing weeks, as snow thawed and the first breath of spring hinted at warmer days, she marched around the house with a reckless bravado, crowing condescendingly at her brothers, “I am going away for two weeks this summer and you babies have to stay home.  You had better stay out of my room.  It’s going to be soooo fun without all of you.”  As younger brothers so often do, they looked up, merely shrugged and went back to their video games.

“I went hiking with Joe Spivy

He developed poison ivy

You remember Leonard Skinner

He got ptomaine poisoning last night after dinner.”

The departure date finally arrived.  I served as escort on a transcontinental trip that included a brief stop in Denver where I had to give a speech. My daughter loved the taste of being an only child again and sat maturely in the audience as I delivered my presentation.  That night, we shopped along Denver’s esplanade – walking arm in arm and I was, for a brief moment again, “Daddy.”  The following day we landed in San Francisco, and drove to the East Bay where we stayed with friends.  In a mere twelve hours, canary yellow buses would portage a new generation of girls and boys  to Bass Lake and their summer world of adventure.

Late that evening, there was a tap on my bedroom door as my little girl walked into my room and asked if she could sleep in my bed.  This hadn’t happened for years — I could tell something was weighing on her mind.  The next morning dawned and she looked as if she was deploying for a year’s tour of duty in Afghanistan.  When we first spied the parking lot of idling school buses, her hand squeezed mine.  She sighed and hugged me tighter than she had in years.  As the buses drove off, scores of arms and hands waved from the windows. I spied her circumspect face under a tangle of enthusiastic teens and realized my sparrow was flying right into her first major bout of homesickness.

“All the counselors hate the waiters

And the lake has alligators

And the head coach wants no sissies

So he reads to us from something called Ulysses.

 

Now I don’t want that this should scare ya

But my bunkmate has malaria

You remember Jeffrey Hardy

They’re about to organize a searching party.”
 

I recognized all the symptoms that morning – her need to use the bathroom, yawning, and an endless stream of redundant rhetorical questions.  You see, back in the summer of 1972, another young man (who remain nameless) attended High Sierra Summer Base Camp and went three days without eating any food – – claiming he had contracted a rare stomach parasite and needed to go home immediately.  His incredible persistence and exaggerated symptoms fooled all but the most veteran of camp counselors. At the boy’s insistence, the camp reluctantly arranged for the boy to call home where his parents refused to allow him to return before the week had concluded. Once reality set in, the boy was seized by the sudden craving for a hamburger.  Four days later, he returned home with pictures of trout caught in high mountain lakes, strange wonderful stories about new friends and a veteran’s resolve to return to the “greatest camp ever.”

“Take me home, oh muddah, faddah

Take me home, I hate Granada

Don’t leave me out in the forest where

I might get eaten by a bear.

Take me home, I promise I will not make noise

Or mess the house with other boys.

Oh please don’t make me stay

I’ve been here one whole day.”

 

 

Her first letter arrived within two days.  It was hastily written, as if the prison guards might arrive at any time and once again beat the soles of her feet.  “Please come get me, NOW,” she pleaded.  “It is horrible here and everyone is miserable.  It’s hot and there are mosquitoes and the food is terrible and I can’t sleep at night…”  The second postage stamped SOS suggested some form of child slavery might be operating at the camp as she was being forced against her will to bus tables as part of kitchen patrol.  Letter three alleged emotional abuse.  The Camp Skyline website which faithfully posted daily pictures of laughing campers and rowdy campfires – including a girl we recognized – seemed to conflict with her  information.

“Dearest faddah, darling muddah,

How’s my precious little bruddah

Let me come home, if you miss me

I would even let Aunt Bertha hug and kiss me.”

 

As was the case in 1972, the parents held firm and the letters stopped coming.  She was either dead or waterskiing.  We suspected the latter.  The day we arrived to pick her up at camp was emotional — she did not want to leave her new friends or the counselors she’d become so attached to.  “It was sooo incredible.” She leered at her brothers. ” And you won’t be able to come for at least two more years,” They looked up at her, shrugged and went back to their video games.

“Wait a minute, it’s stopped hailing.

Guys are swimming, guys are sailing

Playing baseball, gee that’s better

Muddah, faddah kindly disregard this letter.

~ Camp Granada by Alan Sherman

The Sandwich Hour

Medical Equipment in the hospital room
Image by cote via Flickr

Bad news usually stalks you under a cloak of darkness. After midnight, a ringing phone is a collect call from the shadowlands – a realm where the awful things that happen to other people find you.

The cell shrilled as we worked our way through traffic on a bright Sunday afternoon of broken clouds.

” Dad, had a stroke,” my younger brother shared with serious certainty.

” The doctors actually think he suffered two but we don’t know much right now. He’s paralyzed down his left side. He can talk but he’s blind in one eye. It occured in the back side of the brain where the speed of recovery is less certain.”

There was a long pause.

” Mike, you still there ?”

” Yeah, I’m just digesting it. How’s Mom ?”

“She’s doing almost too well. She thinks he will be home in a few days and doesn’t really grasp that everything has changed.”

My dad had been caring for my Mom who has Parkinsons disease for the last seven years. He had turned into a resilient caregiver. Over the years, we had teased him mercilessly on his heavy handed approach to child rearing. Yet, there was never any doubt how much we loved and respected him for making his family his primary priority. We were amazed at how easily he shifted from old school overlord and moody shapeshifter to new age male nurse when Mom got sick.

” She basically ran the house while I was building my career. ” He explained when asked if Mom’s constant care was wearing him down. ” It’s my turn and I love your Mom more than life itself. She has made me a better man and given me you four boys and a life beyond anything I could have imagined.”

When I would visit my parents I would always smile with amusement at their symbiotic routines. I would enter their house to find more prescription drugs than CVS, calendars with various doctor appointments, a hospital bed and durable medical equipment that now occupied the first floor living room — a virtual conveyor belt of medical delivery and 24 hour care.

While caregivers would come at strategic times of day and night to give Dad relief from Mom and my Mom relief from him, they had become a loving Abbott and Costello act.

With the TV blaring at AC/DC concert decibel levels, I would hear them yell at one another.

” I NEED MY MEDS, MILES” Mom would announce above the ear splitting dialogue of another Hallmark channel movie.

A yell from the second floor

” WE DON’T NEED TO CHANGE THE BEDS !”

“I SAID I NEED MY MIRAPAX AND SINOMAT !”

“RUTH ,I AM WEARING MY HAT ”

I once called and Dad was pratteling on about how proud he was of my mother for her resilience in the face of her debilitating disease. “Your Mom, Michael, is a brave woman. I love her so much.”

( A noise in the background of another voice and of course, a loud TV )

” Just a minute” he said with minor irritation. With his hand unevenly over the mouthpiece, I could hear him yell downstairs,” what ? Damn it Ruth, I am trying to talk to Michael. Can you just wait a damn minute?”

He returned to the phone perfumed in love and nostalgia. ” Where was I? Oh yeah, your Mom is just amazing.”

I was apprehensive as I called and heard a weak voice on the other end of 3000 miles. “I’m not afraid to die” he shared, ” I just want to be sure you boys take care of your Mom.”

He was exhausted. His brain was working at triple speed trying to repair the broken synapses and uprooted wires that had connected his muscular and nuerological circuit board. The physical therapy was brutal but necessary to quickly recondition the body to learn to walk – not unlike a toddler who must continue the frustrating trial and error of falling until he had mastered his equilibrium.

I flew out to LA where my younger brother had been busy sorting through a landslide of bills, logistics and a thousand speed dialed questions from my mom.

He looked exhausted and welcomed the cavalry. Another brother had also jumped in and we had soon stitched together a primitive stop gap safety net of care, financial support and hospital visitation.

I was unprepared for my visit. The man who had seemed so indestructible for 48 years of my life was bed ridden and vulnerable. ” This damn left hand has a life of its own.” he said weakly. ” Sure is good to see you, Michael. How’s your Mom?”

I was a wreck. My brain was a rapid screen saver show of faded polaroid vacation shots – the flat topped, ex-lieutenant and his four boys with heads shaved cleaner than recruits. ” Mom’s fine. Looks like you have gone to great lengths to get out of commode duty.”

He managed a smile and patted my hand. I was about to lose it but did not want to break the implied ” Stay Strong ” covenant that had been drilled home since an early age.

We talked for an hour until fatigue overwhelmed him, gently taking him from me as he slumped into a deep sleep.

“Welcome to the sandwich generation.” A voice chipped from behind a half drawn, hospital curtain. A gaunt, 50 something, cowboy of a man peered around the corner with a wry smile. His left side had been crushed in a motorcycle accident but he was now on the better side of weeks of arduous physical therapy.

He smiled sympathetically.
“Name’s Doug,” he held out a crooked talon of a hand that gripped mine like a vice. ” You get the complete short straw. You will be caring for your parents, possibly for those extended family that fall prey to the recession and your own kids who will have to work in the long shadows of a sputtering US economy.”

I thought, “who is this guy, Milton Friedman’s Hell’s Angels brother? ”

” Your Dad’s a great guy. All he talks about is you kids, your kids, his wife, Ruth, and of course, how much he dislikes the Obama Administration and Congress” Well, the stroke clearly has not effected his mind.” I mused.

I wondered if the extra burden of caring for Mom had been a factor in his stroke. In recent months, he seemed tired when I would see him but would quickly animate when the subject of politics or business arose.

But each time, he looked like he was losing steam and in some ways, lost to me – beginning some final journey that for the first time in years I could not join him on.

” Dad, where are you going.”

” A business trip, buddy. I will be back home tomorrow night to play baseball with you and your brothers.”

” Can I come?”

” Maybe when you are older pal,” I would watch as the car backed out of the driveway to take him to some exotic location like San Francisco or New York.

.Days later my visits became routine and I witnessed my father’s painful swim back to the surface of the whitewater that had broken his body – but certainly not his sense of humor.”

” I call this useless left hand, ‘ Harry Reid ” and my disobedient, frustrating left leg, ‘Nancy Pelosi’. He grinned. The nurses and physical therapists swirled around him having obviously been charmed by his graciousness and complete willingness to cooperate so he might be released to go home to my mother.

My brothers and I were now wrestling with their fixed income that had not anticipated 24 hour care for two people and a financial meltdown which redendered his fixed income instruments incapable of keeping pace with his expenses. For the first time in retirement, he would be eating into principal. For a depression baby, this was tantamount to deficit spending and leveraging your tomorrow.

Truth be told, he was fine but the anxiety over this next highly complicated stage of their life was weighing on them. Suddenly, father became son and son became father in a bizarre transformation that neither of us enjoyed. We discussed all the salient issues and tough possibilities. In the end. We agreed on a course of action.

Meanwhile, my Mom had mobilized wanting to take a greater role in decisions but missing details that would render her interventions more a distraction than a help. However, without my Dad’s equilibrium, the household was void of control and she was determined after seven years to fill the gap.

Again, we donned one another’s clothing and carried on a difficult discussion about our division of labor and the need for her to let us ” take over”. For someone who bailed boys out of every conceivable miscue and misstep, she still saw us as lacking a critical ingredient of pragmatism that only she possessed. It was some time before we forged an uneasy detente over next steps.

” How are Harry and Nancy today day, Dad?” I chirped as I entered his room the final morning before I was to leave LA

. He was unusually relaxed having gotten an initial conditional release to return home in few weeks. Some motor skills were returning. He would probably never drive his car again.

>”What do you expect from a couple of confused lefties – out of touch with the main body? It’s just one big give away show!”

I smiled and leaned over – hugging him longer than normal and feeling his release twice but choosing to prolong our embrace and not let go. ” I love you.”

” I love you too. I am proud of you and your brothers. Now if those damn Bears can only do something with Jay Cutler at QB, I will die a happy man.”

” I think you should tie your recovery to something more stable than a Chicago sports team.”

” Like what ? ” He laughed. ” The country is going to hell. Obama is running the biggest give away show since LBJ and America will keep reelecting fools like Reid and Pelosi to Congress instead of waking up and realizing they are leveraging our future.”

I left his hospital room and glanced back as he picked up the Wall Street Journal and scoffed at some headline. He was going to be fine and clearly was not going gently into that good night.

For one of the sandwich generation, I began my long journey down a new and unfamiliar road. There is no room for self pity or self centered thinking. It won’t be easy if oracle Doug proves correct – this triple decker sandwich of responsibility. But hey, if Dad can teach Harry Reid to hold a cup and Nancy Pelosi to dance, I can certainly carry my load…

Back To School

Back to The School

Students at Washington High School at class, t...
Students at Washington High School at class, training for specific contributions to the war effort, Los Angeles, Calif. (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

It’s the week after school has started and I am already having those yips like a war veteran as I watch my soldiers leave each morning at 6:45am with field backpacks, educational essentials and new clothes to be sent into the ” bush ” of high school.  It is a time of great anticipation and angst.  We are on a slow conveyor belt to an empty nest with one in college and two in high school.  I confess to being one of those parents who live each kid’s experience vicariously and constantly relive my own roller coaster ride of hormones and missteps on the pot holed path to adulthood.

The term “Homeroom”…still sends chills down my spine.  I was wedged for twelve years between Tammy T and Brad W.  Tammy was gorgeous and to my alphabetical delight, was seated in front of me.   Judging from her Facebook photo, she is still inspiring men’s imaginations.  Brad was my periodic wingman in mischief and malfeasance.  He fell off my radar for a while and is now either a successful creative artist or possibly making license plates somewhere in a minimum security facility in the high deserts of California.  We will have to wait for our 35th reunion to find out.

The first few days of school were always an exhilarating rush of change – – new and old faces, strange text books the size of War and Peace, anxiety that an upper classman like a horse, might sense your angst and ride you off into a corner.  Schools have gotten better about bullying and overt acts of harassment that were viewed as critical rites of passage in the 60s and 70s. However, a stare can still be withering and a turned back can be considered the worst of omens portending a horrible year.  A lifetime is a day.

I think of my own teachers and the odd chemistry they created that helped move me through adolescence.  Miss S was my firestarter and inspiration to read, write and give a voice to the my own seemingly inconsequential existance.  To Miss S, each of us was a Forrest Gump innocently flying through life’s seminal events and playing a supporting but vital role in the mythology of our generation.

There was the Vietnam Medic turned history and PE teacher whose unconventional courses, extreme behavior and daily boxes of Uncle Joe’s donuts had him repeatedly voted teacher of the year.  He later married one of his students which seemed for some, to change his reputation from creative to creepy overnight.  Secretly,  he still garners my write in votes as the best teacher to follow through the history of the United States.  There was Mr R, the charasmatic, first generation Irish, high energy math and track coach whose bad knees were only eclipsed by heavy Irish brogue.  For the hip and unconventional kids, there was always Mr I – the biology teacher who wore flip flops and coached the High School Ultimate Frisbee team (this is California in the 70s, folks).  And one of my favs, Coach K, a sensitive and inspirational guy who produced championship swim teams and taught pre-Calculus and Algebra.  He was in tune to the ravages of exclusion and once remanded our class with a punitive pop quiz  for behavior he saw within the student body that disappointed him.  I always had this theory that when he was young, he was on the wrong side of some bully and the experience transformed him into a sort of uber musketeer – – a D’Artagnon of the disenfranchised.

School was hard because you were constantly encountering things for the first time and learning how to react to the vagaries of community living.  Think of it as being deposited daily in the middle of the expressway of life while being injected with a cocktail of hormones.  This explains the Chernobyl meltdowns that often occur in our houses every night as tired soldiers trudge in from the bush and literally fall apart.  Everything is tinged with melodrama and hyperbole…” Everyone has this except me”.  “No one will be there, except me”.  “No one wears those anymore” Oh, that’s right, I forgot, everyone now dresses like Jody Foster in Taxi Driver. “The teacher said we did not have to do that section”.  “I forgot my backpack at Teddy’s house”. On and on it goes like a great metaphysical wheel in a hamster cage – the only thing missing is the sawdust, rodent kibble and salt lick.  I often feel trapped like a rodent when I come home to the “House of Pain” on a weeknight.  Activities and sports are key as they seem to generate critical self esteem that keeps kids from drifting into those dark alleyways.

Despite the best efforts of an engaged parent and our educational institutions, some kids stub their toes.  Some do it quite spectacularly.   Many are now entering that electrifyingly exciting and dangerous era of being “young and invincible “. It means cars are driven at break neck speeds, new things are tried, popping off to your elders is a form of boundary testing and the advice of a chronically lying, pre-pubescent, acne ridden teen is of infinitely greater value than your insights – – you, with that big “ L” on your forehead.

In my old high school, we had the East Parking lot where the non conformists, disenfranchised and loadies would congregate.  The lot was situated behind the woodshop and metal shop which ironically became the future vocations for some of these maligned kids.  I played sports with many of them and while there was always an open invitation to exit the shadows and join the sea of polo shirts and deck shoes of the main stream social circles, the East Lot had its own lugubrious allure and a tight knit community borne out of being and feeling different.  Some felt most comfortable hanging out only with these kids who seemed to know their pain.  Invariably, they were always labeled as “bad kids”.  However, my Mom used to say, “There are no bad kids, only bad choices with bad consequences.” Given she was raising four potential felons, this made sense to me and I vowed I would adhere to this theology of parenting later in life. There were drugs, accidents, deaths and the occasional scandalous revelation.  Yet, the kids seemed to cope sometimes better than their parents and understood that school was an important training ground for finding passion, community and a sense of self worth.  We sometimes forget how emotionally charged the decade of age 8 to 18 can be. While elementary school is generally a time of wonderful learning and innocent exploration, middle school has become the demilitarized zone between childhood and full blown adolescence, a sort of no man’s land where kids are growing up faster than their brains can keep pace and they are experimenting to find their place in an evolving society of peers.  High school starts to lay the foundation. The pressure to fit in and the agony of being banished will never be forgotten or in some cases, forgiven.

Years later at my high school reunions I would learn of dysfunctional homes, alcoholism, abuse and mental illness that were hidden from everyone like an ugly scar and whose burden drove many of these kids to seek solace from others who were in their own way, struggling to fit in and cope.  I felt guilty that many of these kids that I harshly judged where in fact, just coping and at the same time, desperately trying to send flares into the night sky hoping that help might arrive and ease their pain.

I was amazed how many people came to these reunions, not just for the sheer nostalgia of the gathering but to mend some ancient wound.  Beautiful women that no one recognized at first – ugly ducklings turned to magnificent swans paraded defiantly across the floor.  Others that had been marginalized came to just make sure everyone knew their net worth, zip code or resume.  There were those who were hoping to regain even for a brief evening, the alpha status lost the day they graduated and entered the real world.  Everyone was once again, for a brief moment, seventeen — vulnerable, excited, secretly wanting to see what their old flame looked like, falling back into old cliques, feelings and friendships.

Everyone remembered that feeling when life was raw and unfiltered, witnessed through an innocent lens of a kid living and learning.  It was all the experience with much less responsibility than one will ever have again.  To feel again, just for a moment, the excited ache of a crush, the thrill of a new experience or revel in the triumph of peer approval.  Now imagine it all that again for the first time.  Imagine being barely mature enough to cope with the tsunami of emotions that come with those experiences.  It’s a wild whitewater ride that each kid responds to differently.  It’s about learning to fly and bumping your butt.  It’s back to school time parents, buckle up.

A Free Range Kid

A Free Range Kid

In 60’s and 70’s suburban Los Angeles, each planned community was a perfect grid of magnolia and palm tree lined streets with green carpets of manicured lawns stretching for entire blocks, interrupted only by cement driveways which served as primitive lines of demarcation for the packs of children that would roam their environs looking for field to play.  In our town at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, everyone knew the neighbors and the neighbors knew you.  It was difficult to engage in any form of civil disobedience – – blowing up anything with an M80s (1/8 stick of dynamite) purchased in Tijuana, BB gun wars, or heaving water balloons at passing motorists – – without someone id’ing you and reporting you swiftly to your parents, sometimes before you even made it home from the caper.  In my case, the fear of parental retribution would cause me to entertain wild thoughts of running away – – “I will sneak in, grab my clothes (and a few Hostess Fruit Pies) and shack up in Charlie’s tree house until I can get a job and then I will hitchhike to Montana.”  It did not matter that I was nine, uncertain of where Montana actually was or that Charlie’s tree house was a four by six spider colony.  This was secondary to avoiding the belt that was certain to find my adolescent behind for crimes against humanity.

When we moved into our new home in the summer of 1968, we quickly got to know our neighbors who lived behind our red tiled, stucco Mediterranean.  The backyard was still under construction and while my parents conducted their final walk through, we discovered a cachet of dirt clods that were unlike any organic material we had ever seen.  These massive dirt blocks, forged together from drought and construction digging, became weapons of mass destruction as my brothers and I squared off in primitive slit trenches and behind ivy fences.  As the battle raged, an errant clod flew over the redwood fence and resulted in a “splash”.  Like the old EF Hutton commercial, we froze, intrigued by the sudden sound of water.  My brother tossed another dirt clod over the fence testing the radius of the hidden water – – splash!  We took a third clod the size of Delaware and pushed it over the barrier- – “ker-plunk” followed by a geyser spiking higher than Old Faithful.  The barrage lasted for the next hour. As my father and mother toasted their new home and expanding social circle, the phone rang.  It was their new neighbors…their angry, new neighbors.  A reign of terror began that would last fifteen years. 

Despite these and many other transgressions, we were absorbed into this melting pot of young and old . Our neighborhood was a microcosm of every suburban community in America.  We had Howard, next door, who had possessed every conceivable power tool known to man and would voluntarily assist my father in fixing anything that broke, chipped or even looked like it might break. Years later, my youngest brother, home from college, got a hysterical call from Mildred, Howard’s wife, that he was gravely ill and needed to be lifted into the car so she could take him to the hospital.  The strapping do-it-yourselfer had been reduced to less than 100lbs from cancer but his sense of humor stayed in tact.  “Tell your Dad, he can have the band-saw if I don’t make it back home.”

 

We were all odd passengers lashed to the mast of a massive ship of streets and yards.  We had one neighbor who liked to make himself martinis, sit in a lawn chair and light off fireworks.  The problem was – – it usually around 12 at night and year round.   We sort of got used to the roman candles surging like a distant firefight and became indifferent to the Piccolo Petes that would shrill like incoming artillery fire.  We had your token grouchy old man who would threaten us with bodily harm ‘lest we venture on to his carefully manicured lawn to retrieve a baseball.  We named him “Groucho” and as we got older, we found increasingly ingenious ways to torment him including one night, lighting smoke bombs, donning dark bed sheets and circling the smoke, repeatedly chanting“ pagan sacrifice “.  I wasn’t sure what “peg and sacrifice “ meant but my older brother told me to say it.  Groucho called the police.  He reported hooded dwarves were committing ritual sacrifices on his dichondra and he had just reseeded. There was Mr. Brown who loved to sunbathe naked in his back yard which horrified Mrs. Cunningham next door, but the police would do nothing about it.  “Don’t look” they told her.  I recall lighting a fire in the bushes in front of another neighbor’s home but was so intent on my pyromania, I did not realize the fire was also in full view of their living room window where they sat and watched me.  Imagine my surprise as I exited the bushes with my friend, and noticed the police and fire truck car in front of our house.  I balled my eyes out when the fire chief said that they sent arsonists to reform school.  I was not sure what reform school was but I was sure they did not serve dessert there.

Diagonally to the north, we had the large Italian family with 12 kids.  They had their groceries delivered by The Helms Man Grocery Service – a luxury unheard of in the 70’s.   The Helms Man truck driver was not the sharpest tool in the shed and while other kids would distract him, we would empty his change dispenser and then buy candy from him with his money.  It worked for months until to our chagrin, a new driver showed up. Like all communities, we lived with illnesses, divorces, aging neighbors and people troubled by demons and dysfunction – – a bonanza of mania and mayhem.  There was the neighbor that snapped one day at work and came home to hold off the police for four hours with his son’s BB gun.  There was a suicide.  There was a murder.  There were robberies.  Life did not bypass this bucolic oasis.  It drove in like an ill wind every couple of years to remind us that we needed to look out for one another.   Through it all, every neighbor always was there for every other neighbor.  Every adult felt they had proxy authority to discipline other people’s kids and enforce a community standard.  We were free range kids – – roaming miles away on foot or by bicycle, making mistakes and learning coping skills that would serve us throughout life.

 

Times have changed.  Geography and social boundaries have made it harder to be a free range kid.  The requirements have not changed nor the have the dividends.  Free range kids need a little extra rope, independence, trust, support from their community and the ability to make mistakes.  Captive kids have “high bottoms” because parents love them to the point of not wanting them to fail, at anything.  Captive kids are tightly managed and live life within a set of guardrails built of myriad commitments and shielded with a two parent safety net.  When a free range kid gets into trouble sometimes he/she has to figure out how to get out of it.  Free range kids make bad choices but they learn, grow and some even believe these kids cope better when eventually introduced into “the wild”.    

 

Me and Myself and the Mets

Shea Stadium - 2007 New York Mets-Boston Red Sox
Image via Wikipedia

To my friend David, who is convinced that on the first day, God created the baseball stadium – and it was good.

April 17, 1964 – David was 8 years old, the same age of his father when his dad died of a sudden heart attack.  The father’s painful loss was hidden away like an old memento stored in the dark crawl space that lies between the present and the past. In a working class family, the patriarch was king.  To lose a father as a boy was to suffer an egregious identity theft, a deeply traumatic felony that robs a child of innocence and adolescence. The son, now a father, was suddenly fitted with size 34 pants and spent the next decade growing into them.

But on this day, for the father to be taking his young son to the opening of Shea Stadium, after a morning at the New York World’s Fair, must have seemed like he had hit a celestial round tripper.  The son clutched his father’s hand, a great catcher’s glove of security and watched as the world unfolded in a great sea of orange and blue.   It wasn’t the young boy’s first major league game but it was unlike the ancient brick of the New York Yankees.  There was a thrill of seeing something new, a franchise and a stadium with its whole future ahead of it, unencumbered by the gilded chains of nostalgia.  For father and son, the day represented all of life’s possibilities.

The Mets were hapless supporting actors in a play that ran every day in Queens.  “ A face only a mother could love” a favorite expression to describe anyone whose endearing under-achievement and ineptness condemned them to the fringes of society. The Mets, not unlike their fans, were a roster of young and old assembled by a general manager making the best of a tough situation.  In their first seven seasons, the team was a combined 394 – 737 for a winning percentage of .348.  For many in Queens, the basement seemed a familiar, reassuring place.

The father and son never had season tickets for any New York area sports teams.  In life and in sports, the father was never a great spectator. That dark corridor that he was forced to walk alone between eight and eighteen left him focused on doing, not vicarious living. He never went to college.  It seemed as if he was born and then went to work.  But like so many of his era, he never shirked his responsibilities.  He married, enlisted in the service during the Korean War and came home to start a family.  Yet, he was drawn to the Mets.  In life and in baseball, great teams were characterized by a blue collar work ethic – – the predictable integrity of repetition and the character of never accepting a mediocre result regardless of how mundane your own assignment might be. . The Mets represented a less than glorious franchise, located in perhaps the least glorious part of town.  Some called them the workingman’s team.  His loyalty to the Mets somehow softened his hard childhood – abandoned by his father and their baseball team, the Giants, who left NY to move to California in 1959. It just made sense that this orphaned soul would adopt this team.

In a world wracked by uncertainty, the son looked to the father for predictable leadership.  The son’s successes were nourished by the staples his Dad provided – durability, punctuality and resilience. With his son, the father maintained the distance of a third base coach and his star player, choosing to convey his delight or displeasure with subtle signs and signals – – a twitch of an eye brow, a hand to the chin or the sudden clap of determined encouragement, “C’mon, get a hit!” Trust, emotional proximity and unconditional support were the foundation of their relationship. It was as if they were seated next to one another in life’s stadium – each with their own ticket but sharing the game together.

Life is all about perspective. In the 1960’s, most of the boy’s friends were Yankee fans.  Following the Bronx Bombers seemed to represent a superficial kind of loyalty – something borrowed because it was popular and easy.  At 13 years old, the boy was at the peak of his adolescent fanaticism. He had recorded the entire Mets line up neatly on my seventh grade denim three-ring notebook. In June, the boy asked his dad if he would take him to a Mets game.  The entire neighborhood was elated that the lowly Metropolitans, a team that had lost 120 games in 1962 and were synonymous with last place, were now in first place with a chance for post- season play.   The dad asked his son to get him the schedule, and confidently pointed to the last home game of the season and boldly announced “The Mets will clinch the division championship here”.  On September 24, 1969, they were rewarded with a miraculous NL pennant for their unwavering loyalty to “ the Lovable Losers.”  1500 miles away, Chicago Cub fans were writing another painful chapter in their star-crossed history.  To this day, the son reminds his father of his Kreskin-like powers of prediction.

The son still recalls that night – the air thick with cautious anticipation and an ill fall wind that seemed full of broken promises for a winning season. When the Mets won the game, father and son erupted with the entire sea of humanity spilling on to the field. Today it would be impossible to penetrate the phalanx of mounted police that line the field.  That night, they roamed the stadium as if it was their own front yard.  On that day, the boy began to understand what the father had always conveyed to him – that anything was possible.

September 28, 2008 – It was never an option that they would not attend the final game at Shea Stadium to pay their respects to the passing of an age of innocence.  The father, now 80, complained to his son about his legs, and in doing so, foiled the boy’s best laid plans to retrace their 1964 “walk” into Shea.  The son, now a successful executive, had season ticket located two rows behind home plate.  Their journey from nose bleeder bleacher seats to the prime field level real estate was a map of their life’s journey.  The father had not seen Shea in 20 years.  The Mets lost, eliminating any hope of a post-season birth.  Yet, it was somehow apropos.

For a team as famous for losing as winning, it was a fitting eulogy.

I Collect Therefore I Am

I Collect, Therefore I am

Of course, I started as a collector, a true collector. I can remember as if it were only yesterday the heart- pounding excitement as I spread out upon the floor of my bedroom The Edward G. Robinson Collection of Rare Cigar Bands. I didn’t play at collecting. No cigar anywhere was safe from me. My father and uncles and all their friends turned their lungs black trying to satisfy my collector’s zeal. And then came cigarette cards, big-league baseball players. I was an insatiable fiend, and would cheerfully trade you three Indian Joes for one of that upstart newcomer, Ty Cobb. Edward G Robinson

I have started and stopped more collections than Imelda Marcos has shoes.  My attention deficit disorder is reflected in the half completed ensembles of stamps, coins, first edition books, lead soldiers and baseball cards that could only temporarily hold my interest.  This was in sharp contrast to my older brother whose collections were meticulous and whose stamps, record albums and coins were lovingly organized and catalogued in a manner that would bring tears to the eyes of any anal retentive.

One fateful winter, my jealousy turned to larceny.  I surreptitiously began to steal his coin collection and insert them into my incomplete catalogues.  It was benign at first. A Morgan dollar here, a mercury head dime there, he’d never know the difference.  Yet, impatience got the better of me and I started to purloin an increasingly large part of his coins.

As quickly as my rare coin collection swelled, my interest waned.  Spring had arrived along with baseball. It was time to spend afternoons hanging out at the local Little League diamond, practicing, playing catch and learning the finer points of life from 13 year old boys who like merchant marines, seemed to have figured out all of life’s mysteries.  These long days would invariably bleed into dinner time.  To satisfy this adolescent need was Al and his snack truck – – a mobile Petri dish of gastrointestinal diseases and food inspection violations.

Al sold candy, ice cream and suspicious tube steaks wrapped in wax paper.  He would curse the mob of children that would gather by his truck. He peered through smoke as his three inch cigarette ash dangled from his mouth, “what do you want kid? “

It was on a spring day in 1973 that Al struck gold, or should I say, silver. On that afternoon, I decided it was time to begin to divest myself of my new coin collection.  Given that most of the coins were stolen, I was stymied as to how I might begin to diversify my holdings.   Al became my fence.  “Get out of the way” he would yell at the other kids as I rode up on my bike and sheepishly gave him my rare coins in exchange for food and candy.  He kept a face as straight as Johnny Chan and sifted through my offering – – “let’s see that’s $ 1.53.  What do you want to buy?”  The “dollar“ just happened to be a rare silver certificate dollar.  The fifty cent piece was a silver JFK half dollar.  The nickel?, a Buffalo head and the three cents all dated back to the early 1900’s.  Painful, isn’t it?  Occasionally an older kid might notice the coins and ask, “Say, is that a mercury dime? “  Al would chase them away from his truck and quickly distract me with offers of cotton candy and ice cream.

It all came to head when my Mom noticed I had put on weight and found empty coin display cases in my sock drawer.  As she interrogated me, my brother overheard the line of questioning and ran upstairs to his room.  The blood curdling scream confirmed her suspicions and she suddenly had to protect me from an apoplectic sixteen year old. “I’ll kill him “was all he kept screaming.  My near death experience was followed by endless days of punitive weeding and death threats.  At my parents 50th wedding anniversary, I “unearthed” a time capsule for the family celebration.  The contents were items from the 60s and 70s, including were several rare coins which I presented to my brother.  “You see, Miles, they weren’t stolen after all”.  After 35 years, he was still not laughing.

EBay has rekindled the world of collecting.  The massive internet based flea market is a collector’s Mecca.  Whether you favor stamps, coins, quilts, Flintstone memorabilia or underwear of famous rock stars, there is a market for anyone. My friend Mark collects antique penny banks. David, collects ticket stubs from every movie he has ever seen – -including a diary of the film’s date and time and his overall impressions.  Red Auerbach, celebrated one time coach of the Celtics, collected letter openers.  Quentin Tarantino collects vintage board games.  Tom Hanks is never far from a vintage typewriter.  Harry Connick Jr. is rumored to collect cuff links.  Perhaps the most obscure is the Johnny Depp who collects bat and insect skeletons.

Rare item collecting must be reserved for the world’s rich and famous.  The British Guiana One Cent Magenta Stamp is the world’s rarest stamp and was auctioned for $ 935,000 in 1980.  1969-S Lincoln Cent with a doubled die obverse is exceedingly rare and some are still found in circulation. A rare double eagle gold coin sold for $7.9m.  There are only six known signatures of William Shakespeare all selling for a paltry $ 3m.

Most collectors play it safe, sticking to fine wines, plein air art, antiques, flags, posters or in the case of New Canaan Cleaners, bobble head dolls.  I search for lead soldiers, scouring the electronic stalls of EBay auctions and antique stores – -the more dingy and out of the way the lead soldiers store, the better.  I am always looking for that bargain find  – -a complete set of early 19th century Britains made from solid molds, or perhaps a lead rendition of El Cid as he is ridding the Iberian Peninsula of the Ottomans and Saladin.  Like many things in life, it is the journey, not the destination that defines the joy in collecting.  It is the pursuit, not the kill. Collections require patience, passion, emotional intelligence and resourcefulness. The pathological resolve to scrape and save, to go to unnatural lengths to find, at all costs, that Mickey Mantle rookie card is an art form.  Finding that rare Lincoln Wheat VDB 1909 penny minted in Philadelphia is not just a purchase, it is a historical event to be recounted ad nauseum when someone is unlucky enough to innocently trigger the trip wire of a budding numismatist.

How people collect tells you a lot about their emotional intelligence.  Some allow their obsession to get the better of them and end up with a house full of WWII Gurkha army knives.  Some build their collections with restraint and finesse.  Each acquisition is a slow dance, or a fine meal – – an event to be savored and appreciated.  The beauty of collecting is that anything has the potential to become a collectible.  The most prosaic trash can be another man’s treasure.   While I still collect my lead soldiers, my golden age of collecting has passed.  I realize that I do not have the patience, financial resources or stamina to be a true collector.

However, owning a snack truck ?  Now that is a collectible.