October Country

chaneyjrlon03

“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright…”

“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright…”

Curt Siodmak

There’s a shaded glen on the edge of any small town where apparitions and dimly lit phantasms move with the silent uncertainty.  It’s a shadowed meridian separating the Indian summer days of September and the twilight chill of a dying November.  The celebrated science fiction writer Ray Bradbury called it “October Country” — a slate gray world where things happen out of the corner of your eye and life seems to be just a quick gasp away from the extraordinary.  It’s along these foggy back roads and footpaths of the unconscious mind that a young boy is likely to meet things that go bump in the night.

Monsters represent our first collision with life’s deep mysteries – forces that we cannot control but might possibly be controlled by how we respond to them.  Later in life, our childhood preoccupations – dinosaurs, sharks and imaginary beasts fall away and are replaced by temporal threats – terrorists, financial insecurities and a world that seems to always be on the cusp of chaos.  While we have grown gray, we have never forgotten those first feelings of irrational adolescent fear when we were forced to confront the creatures and demons that lived in the deep forests of our imaginations.

In 1969, the movie “The Wolfman” prowled the foggy roads and villages of the television countryside.  Lon Chaney Jr. played Larry Talbot, a poor American unfortunate warned by a traveling gypsy that he would be bitten by a werewolf and would transform into a carnivorous monster at the next full moon. “The Wolfman” scared the dog dirt out of me. Once bitten by a werewolf, you would be doomed to become a creature of the night.  The fact that you would kill by a full moon and then wake up the next morning refreshed could mean anyone could be a werewolf.  Since I had a bad habit of sleep walking, I would often wake up in unfamiliar parts of the house.  Had I killed an old woman the night before? Was that hair in my teeth mine?

Were others werewolves?  I watched to see who ate the extra hamburger and who seemed to enjoy their steak rare.

Yet, after seeing the movie, Dracula, I was uncertain if werewolves scared me more than vampires.  The early vampires of film were hardly the young, swarthy teens of the Twilight series.  In 1922, creepy FW Murnau filmed the German silent film “Nosferatu”.  To say the ugly stick had hit this Teutonic vampire was an uber understatement. How this gangly ghoul got any fräulein to show her face, let alone her neck, was beyond the rules of the natural world.  Later, actors like Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi starred as leading vampires seducing women and leaving a trail of blood and perfume in their wake.  In a strange way, these ugly middle-aged actors gave men hope.  If a pallid 40 something guy that looked like a grocery store manager could get a gorgeous woman to surrender her neck and about five pints of plasma by saying, “ look into my eyes, my eyes “ in a faux eastern European accent, there was a chance that paying that $60 cover charge for a NY night club was not in vain.

Between my own preoccupation with these scary stories, horror movies and comic books with names like “ The Unexpected” and “ Tales from the Crypt”, my imagination had no room for rational thought to filter the ghosts, demonic possessions and phantasms.  My obsessions turned inevitably to irrational fear and I began hearing noises under my bed and seeing monsters in scabrous shadows.

The fear became so acute I literally found it impossible to walk the ten feet of hallway from my bedroom to the restroom.  So, like most red-blooded eight year olds, I improvised.  If awakened during the black hours between midnight and five am, I would relieve myself behind the bedroom door.

For weeks, my new solution worked beautifully until, to my horror, the cat started to also relieve herself in my spot behind the door.  At first, I whisked her away but I realized that during school hours she would be using my room as a litter box.  I decided to kill the increasingly stinging odor of ammonia with a bottle of my father’s English Leather cologne.  The mixture of cologne and urine created a pungent scent reminiscent of a loo in London’s Waterloo Station. The new aroma was successful in repulsing the cat that would not even enter my bedroom.

“What-the-hell-is-that-smell?” My dad asked as he came into my room.  I was jolted with a consequence I had not contemplated.  What if my parents discovered that I had been peeing behind the door? Being a young boy, I was highly skilled at the art of diversions and redirected his attention to my recently organized desk drawer and numerous questions about his job.

He would shake his head still unable to find the epicenter of the miasma.  “I swear to God if I catch either that cat or dog upstairs, I am going to tie them to the back of a truck.” I thought about implicating the animals but loved them too much to risk the potential that he might leave them tied to a moving van  I went to bed each night declaring that this would be the night I would brave the darkness for the sake of hygiene and yet, each time I awoke, I could not risk getting my trachea ripped out by Larry Talbot aka Wolfman.

Each night, I would stare at my Aurora plastic models that I had constructed with the glowing faces and hands – the Wolfman, Creature From the Black Lagoon and Dracula. I would turn on my radio to listen to the voice of midnight DJ’s as if to reassure myself that others were awake somewhere. Like clockwork, the song “Nights in White Satin” would moan like a dirge out of the weak illuminated light of my AM radio.  The Moody Blues would croon hauntingly, ” breathe deep, the gathering gloom, watch lights fade from every room…Cruel orb that rules the night, removes the color from our sight…” By the time the British voice asked the listener, “ and which is an illusion,” I was utterly freaked out and convinced that outside my room the undead waited patiently to eat my face.

By day, I was a young, invincible fear junkie wanting to hear every gory detail about every scary thing that ever happened to anyone – particularly kids my age.  My brother was very accommodating – sharing stories of escaped insane asylum inmates with hooks for hands. He told me of ghostly hitchhikers that warned drivers of dangerous roads and people buried alive.  By the time you finished a fireside autumn monster story session, you would more likely let your kidneys fail than venture by yourself into a darkened toilet.

The day arrived when my mother decided to pull up all the shag rugs to take advantage of the wood floors that rested unappreciated under the bedroom carpets.  In the corner of my bedroom was a rotted hole where the permanently wet wood had yielded my relentless nightly assaults.  Instead of being implicated, my mother mistakenly presumed that the shower was leaking.  When I arrived home,  she was moments away from paying a plumber to tear up the floors to find the leak in the shower tray.  In a moment of moral crisis, I confessed that I had been fouling the bedroom corner for eight months.  Instead of punishing me, she just sat down and started to laugh until she literally cried.  “ Please just use the toilet,” she said. “ And stop reading all that garbage that scares you at night.”  She never did tell my father.

I stopped my midnight number one runs but occasionally a bad dream got the better of me and I found myself racing into my parents’ bedroom to sleep on their floor.  My father hated this invasion of privacy.  It was bad enough to have four boys and no intimate time with one’s spouse but I also had the annoying habit of thumping my head on the pillow when I was scared.  On a typical night, one could hear a rhythmic pounding from my room as I soothed my anxieties and quite possibly damaged my brain.

My Dad would know I had arrived as he was soon awakened by the THUMP-THUMP-THUMPING of my head pounding the floor at the foot of his bed.  In a half stupor, he would say, ” Jesus Ruth, the workers are here awfully early!” Then he would slip temporarily back into slumber.  At the next THUMP-THUMP he would bolt awake recognizing the cranial percussion.  If an anthropologist were studying the scene, he would explain my head banging as the innate warning system of an animal trying to terrify its antagonists – both real and imagined. Eventually, the concussive noises would die down and I would pass out from sheer exhaustion.

” Michael, cut that crap out.” He would hiss in the dark.

I was relieved that he was awake. If I could just fall asleep before him, all would be well.  At first, I was too anxious and felt too much pressure to sleep.  Soon, his snores indicated that he had left me behind to find my way through October country.

Thump! No reaction.

I could not stop myself but wanted to avoid another rebuke. THUMP-hesitate -THUMP! “Damn it, Michael. Cut that out or you have to go back to your room.”  I smiled. I could tell he was more awake now.  I would be able to fall asleep before him and would live to see another dawn.

It seemed in October country the sun came up later and the night arrived well before it was welcome.  However, if you could keep your dad awake, at least until you fell asleep, you just might make it to your ninth birthday.

Where The Wild Things Are

Where The Wild Things Are

 

“The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind…. and another

His mother called him ‘WILD THING’ and Max said ‘I’LL EAT YOU UP!’ so he was sent to bed without eating anything”…..Maurice Sendak, Where The Wild Things Are

 

We called it, “Animals in the Dark”.  In retrospect, it was a fitting name for a game that boys invented for the expressed purpose of rough-housing.  The rules were uncomplicated so even the least focused among us could instantly participate in the mayhem.  The goal was simple: survival.  One kid, usually a masochistic younger sibling, would draw the short straw to be blindfolded and turned lose into a pitch black room filled with bad intentions. 

The windows would be covered to achieve a perfect blackout.  The “animals” strained to adjust their eyes so they might be able to distinguish the defenseless, sightless victim as he wandered the room like Audrey Hepburn in Don’t Be Afraid of The Dark.  The animals were armed with make shift black jacks fashioned out of tube socks and pillows filled with underwear and knotted tee shirts.  Downstairs, an innocent Norman Rockwell scene unfolded with my Dad reading his newspaper, my mother baking a pie and a dog curled under the dining room table. But, all was not well……

 

My mother’s philosophy raising four boys was simple. There were no bad kids, only bad choices.  She understood the adolescent mind was a twisted topography of firebreaks and unconnected roads that often led to bad neighborhoods.  She also knew that adolescence was a protracted illness from which most would recover. She understood boys were physical forces of nature – wild things. Life was a succession of high and low pressure systems, constantly moving in and out of the geography of her boys creating dramatic and spectacular perfect storms of stupidity and achievement. When boys hit adolescence, their bodies started to wreak havoc – stretching, fighting, pulling and tugging.  Nothing seemed to properly fit a teenager and nothing could ever be fully articulated.  She understood that the body starved the brain, compensating for its exhausting Kafkaesque journey by conserving fuel for physical growth.  The brain would just have to catch up. Physiologically, this transformation caused teens to speak in a strange abbreviated dialect of “yups” and “nopes”. Boys became tribal animals learning the call of the wild and the unmistakable hierarchy of their pack.  They moved like herd animals in thick knots of baseball caps, shorts, athletic shoes and tunnel vision.  Life was whatever happened right in front of them. They had no peripheral vision.  They could hit a 20 foot jump shot but not seem to hit a toilet six inches in front of them.  They could remember the lyrics of a song or statistics of a third string running back but fail to remember to feed the dog or change their underwear.  Understanding the feral mind, my mom had a high tolerance for mischief and urged my father to develop a thicker skin to the slings and arrows of our outrageous behavior.  Boys will boys…

Max said ‘ Be Still” and tamed them with a magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once and they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all….and made him king of all wild things. ‘And now’ cried Max, ‘ let the wild rumpus start!”

The door creaked ever slightly. A blindfolded silhouette stood hesitating, unable to enter but incapable of resisting the siren’s call of abuse that was waiting motionless like a thousand trap-door spiders.  The room was a black hole from which nothing could escape.   Slipping in through the narrow crease of light, the shadow stopped again.  The door shut and for a moment, no one breathed.  Thwack !  A scream and laughter.  Thwack!  Thwack !   A cry for help and more sadistic laughter.  The game quickly disintegrated into a riot at an English football match.  The hooligans escalated their blind battle with screams, yelling and then a sudden crash of a glass.  The room went still.  Someone was moaning on the ground and a shaken voice whispered,

“dude, what was that?”  “ I think it was Mom’s lamp”  Downstairs, the thumping had aroused the dog who looked up to the ceiling and whimpered. My mother suddenly stopped kneading her pie dough and wiped her floured hands on her apron.  Her trouble sonar was already returning with pings of concern.. As she walked to the base of the stairs, she caught a glimpse of my father’s backside as he is roared up the stairs in rapid two step leaps.  His shoes pounded on the red tile floor creating the sensation of a brakeless truck barreling down an alleyway.  “Dad!” my brother hissed.  Even my friends had acquired a healthy fear of my father’s temper as he felt he had every parent’s proxy to discipline their children as his own.   At this moment, everyone rapidly sought sanctuary – under a bed, in the adjacent room or under a blanket.   The door burst open followed by a machine gun burst of expletives.  Even the injured victim with a rapidly closing left eye was crawling for safety.  The game was over. 

Fast forward.  It is Friday night, a particular moment in the week when wild things begin to stir.  On this night, I agreed to host thirteen of my son’s friends for a sleepover. The numerical omen of 13 was lost on me as I picked up several padded warriors from football practice.  On the way home, we stopped for gas and I agreed to buy them each a soft drink.  Five cans of 16 oz. Red Bulls suddenly appeared in my car.  It would be a very long night. Within a half hour, the group had swelled to a full pack. The family dog was in heaven as he instantly understood that this would be no ordinary night.  The animals loped uninhibited across the darkness of our property playing “manhunt” – the modern day equivalent to Animals in The Dark.  They descended on the dinner of pizza like rabid carnivores and proved once again that the toilet remains the most elusive target on earth.  The Red Bulls were kicking in about 11:30 as they adjourned to the basement – the basement that rests directly under our master bedroom.  For the next several hours the pack was in full motion with thumping, screams, laughter and the occasional angry shout of a wild thing who had ended up on the wrong side of a practical joke.  I repeatedly walked down to enforce curfew and each time, was neutered by my own nostalgia at the sight of the boys draped all over one another like pups in a carton – not the least bit self conscious that they were firmly in one another’s personal space. 

At 2am, I drew the line.  I pounded down the stairs and threw open the basement door.  Facing into the darkness, I hissed, “It’s 2am.  We can hear everything you guys are saying. SHUT UP and go to bed.”  For a moment, there was silence.  I stood triumphant the king of the wild things.  As I turned to close the door, someone passed wind.  A dozen fatigued giggles erupted from the ebony cave.  I turned away, utterly defeated but secretly smiling.  Whoever had control enough over their body to make that noise at that exact time would be forever memorialized in the pantheon of wild things. 

The next morning, as each wild thing was returned to his handler, we began to clean up and reconstruct our day.  My son who had slept a grand total of two hours, sat dazed, exhausted and triumphant, head leaning on his cocked arm as he slowly lifted a fork of pancakes to his mouth.  I looked at him and saw myself in that wolf suit, making mischief and cavorting on the island that I would one day leave to become an adult. Across all the years and over all the oceans of time, it was still the best to be a wild thing. 

“The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws but Max stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye.  And he sailed back over a year….and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him…

 

And it was still hot.“

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mater Ex Machina – Mom in the Machine

magna-mater-1971

In ancient times, Greek and Roman plays would incorporate chaotic twists and turns resulting in situations so entangled that only a God or Goddess , literally descending amongst the quarrelling mortals via a basket or rope, could reconcile the temporal knots, bringing order and a timely but highly improbable resolution. The term to describe this miraculous intervention – – Deus Ex Machina:  God in the Machine.

In ancient times, Greek and Roman plays would incorporate chaotic twists and turns resulting in situations so entangled that only a God or Goddess , literally descending amongst the quarrelling mortals via a basket or rope, could reconcile the temporal knots, bringing order and a timely but highly improbable resolution. The term to describe this miraculous intervention – – Deus Ex Machina:  God in the Machine.

Our family gatherings are now reduced to weddings, funerals, anniversaries and medical crises.  On these rare occasions, we reconnect through story telling, usually at the expense of our father.  Each son arrives with his own mental shoe box full of stories, taken out and mischievously shared.  My Dad takes it well but at times, contests our version of the “Brussel Sprout Affair” or disputes the actual percentage of our wages he garnished for punishments.  My mother, who is now stricken with Parkinson’s Disease, sits and listens intently as we gather to gently dredge the river of our lives.  Her loud laugh and tireless energy depleted by a disease that has conspired to rob her of her mobility and sense of serenity.  Her eyes still flash bright, opal blue when we recount the myriad stories which have become threads in a raucous and irreverent family tapestry.

My mother was made to have four boys.  She used candor, insight and trust to soften and shape the well intended but clueless denizen of men that she inherited.  She had a sixth sense about people and would often encourage us to “use our antennas to read people and situations”.  “Everyone’s antenna is different with some people picking up only major signals, like your father. Others, like short wave radio operators, pick up multiple signals making them both intuitive and easily distracted.”  Her intuition proved an invaluable asset to my father in business and in life.  She could anticipate situations, reading people, and disarming stiff customers with her humor and alarming candor. She longed for a daughter but resigned herself that her life would be a world filled with dirty toilet seats, sweaty clothes and GI Joes.  She waited patiently for the day that her sons might bring home girlfriends and wives – –   girls who would later be very alarmed by just how much these boys confided in their mother.

Jack Nicholson once yelled at Tom Cruise, “you want the truth?  You can’t handle the truth!”  My father was an advertising executive from a generation whose marital trousseau was limited to a strong work ethic.  He worked countless hours driven by the four horseman of financing college, orthodontia bills, mortgage and car payments.  My mother was left to serve as teacher, confessor and staff sergeant of this testosterone army.  She could handle the truth. Her army had basic rules:

1)    If I hear it from you first, the punishment will only be half as bad.  Her “tell me everything approach” worked as a catharsis for guilty minds and a means of teaching boys how to communicate.  The “tell me first “rule resulted in a scene to be repeated many times where a Turpin boy was seen racing home desperate to beat a patrol car or a neighbors call.  We referred to her as “Sodium Pentothal “as she could get anyone to tell her anything voluntarily.

2)    I’ll decide what I tell your father.  Given my dad’s limited bandwidth to deal with much beyond job and family obligations, my mother would not burden him with all the daily infractions and near death experiences that occurred.  She is only now breaking to him things that happened in 1982.

3)    I want you open to new things.  While my dad escorted us to church and religion each Sunday, my Mom offered us spirituality during the week.  She was curious about everything.  The house was littered with books about the sacred, profane and paranormal.  She reveled in history, scandal and alternative points of view.  She was a devil’s advocate that helped balance a house heavy with conservative dogma.  We read the bible on Sunday but Monday through Saturday, we perused books on psychic pets, the Bermuda triangle, famous hauntings and conspiracy theories (who really killed JFK, anyway).

4)    Grades: A’s meant freedom, B’s meant do your homework with the TV and radio off, C’s meant you are getting a tutor and D’s meant martial law.  My parents felt grades were “the canary “ in the obscure, coalmine existence of an adolescent.  There was no tolerance for poor academic performance.  However, there was patient recognition, (before terms such as Attention Deficit Disorder), that each kid learns differently.  She met with teachers.  She had the inside scoop on every person that made up our uneven world – teachers, friends, coaches, parents of friends.  She insisted on being informed.  All this from a woman who dropped out of college as a sophomore to marry a penniless, Army Second Lieutenant and later returned to complete college after 30 years to gain her degree.

In the wild seventies, she became a self anointed DEA officer.  She understood that a kid with red eyes and the pungent smell of smoke around them did not mean they had been out fighting forest fires, was struck by lightening or was just really tired.  Like a champion contestant on Name That Vice, she could identify bad behavior at 1000 yards and would never shy away from making sure we knew that she knew.  Her candor and caring made it safe for us and often for our friends, to confess issues that she could adroitly handle.

Her passion was the latest technology ( and useless gadgetry ) .  While this gave our family a critical start on personal computers well before most households knew that a Mac was anything but a burger, it also resulted in weird experiments: food being preserved under pyramids (Pyramid Power was big in the 70’s), dietetic forays – – no salt, all carbohydrates, no carbohydrates,  all fish, no fish, no fat, all rice, all protein, Carnation Instant Breakfast, Space Sticks and Tang ( if the astronauts can eat it, so can you boys).  Our house was a grand social and technological experiment in a period of great societal change. The 21st century Mom and the 19th century Dad managed the yin and yang of competing opinions, always agreeing on what mattered most.

We made all the classic mistakes. While our punishments usually fit our “crimes”, she defended us like a mother lion ‘lest anyone contend that her boys were “bad”.  She would always seem to appear in times of chaos to resolve the crisis du jour.   If I had one wish, it would be that I could descend and resolve the chaos of her Parkinson’s disease.  For my brothers and I she was,  “Mater Ex Machina”:  Mother in the Machine.