Wednesday, February 1, 2012

First Period: November, 1971

It wasn't raining, at least not yet.

Instead of a slog through tire ruts ankle deep in cold mud, on this morning the alley behind my house was a crisp one. Where puddles of brown water would have otherwise been soaking, there were pockets of ice, dotting down the path like a thin layers of white candle wax. The route stretched five blocks, dead-ended on the same block as the High School. The last minutes of a full moon dangled pale on the horizon, as if a faded Christmas ornament, drifting alone. It was starting out to be a beautiful day.

I could hardly remember a morning- a sunny morning - when at least one gull had not straggled in from the banks of the Skagit, a couple miles south, for a morning sweep over town, and there were usually several. Motionless, they swayed in wide arcs a hundred feet high, north to south, east to west, coasting on the same cold breeze that swept the hair out of my face as I headed to school. My hair was still summer-blond, almost but not quite genuine hippy-length, it was still longer than the local male masses, most of which adhered to shorter (though equally rumpled) styles, cuts which often included lots of bangs sloping right or left, the rest maybe touching the ears but hardly ever much past the collar. Except in the case of the occasional wild mullet, which numbered under a dozen.

I was aiming himself at the vanishing point of the alley and the blue, making my way as shadows and sunlight flickering across my face to First Period. Which in my case meant Junior Art. An elective, Art was conducted in one of the half-dozen shabbier, basement classrooms at my high school, one with just two windows on two walls, both which opened to a ground-level view not up and to the sky, but to rain spouts and more walls of brick situated close enough that updward they were all you saw until eclipsing your line of vision.

Because of it's subterranean location and often shabby selection of paints and other art supplies, I had come to presume that Art had become one of the underfunded classes in my school. While this notion did not rank high on my list of daily meditations, I'd nonetheless resolved that the reason for this was due to (although I was aware I had no way of ever knowing for certain) - to one or both of two things: the general lack of esteem placed upon the subject itself by school administrators; or the timid, perhaps even quietly desperate temperament of its single instructor, Miss (Judith) Higgins.

Miss Higgins was overweight, overwrought and always appeared in a rush, such as when to discussing her latest extravagant topic or technique (Papier-mâché being one of the more exotic). While a somewhat imposing figure at nearly 6' (in heels), this was still not her most defining feature. Here was a woman so tragically self-conscious of her own hairy forearms that she appeared to shave them on a semi-daily basis, and to well above the elbows. Ironically, the end effect of this regimen was that her arms would alternately - and conspicuously - appear as either satin-smooth (an early- morning shave perhaps), or else covered with a noticeably thick, dark stubble not unlike a five-o'clock shadow. The latter, of course, being most of the time.

This situation, however pitiably, did serve to inform me how such a minor flaw as this could reduce an individual - even an adult, and a reasonably fine person as was Miss Higgins - to be regarded as pathetic, and thereby largely impotent as an authority figure of any kind. This despite her most assertive - and heartfelt - attempts at keeping her classroom under control, to not spiral down into a cacophony of wisecracks, laughter, and general anarchy. The end effect, was that most class time in Miss Higgins' Art was spent in a class-wide chorus of don't-give-a-shit, with most everyone doodling away on pictures of a motorcycles or race cars or horse heads, as opposed to sketching the object du jour, as they'd been meekly instructed. In other words doing whatever they damned well pleased 90% of the time.

Mind you, these were not your lazy or usual unruly bunch of schoolyard routs, but students who otherwise, in other classrooms, were largely a picture of cheerful, scholastic goodwill. As if a rotting animal carcass on the hot African tundra, the smell of failure on Miss Higgins was as acute and obvious to a teenager as would have been the soured stench of death itself. This, of course, only granted an additional degree of hopelessness to her situation, one that might seem to beg pity as well as minimal facade of compliance. Instead it demonstrated in brutal fashion that sympathy came less easily to heyenas and fifteen year-olds than did contempt, and especially when the food chain of authority was called into question.

In fact, had any of her students possessed the gift of precognition it might still be anybodies guess if that would have made any real difference, or moved the needle a significant degree on our dials of adolescent empathy, such was our mutual self-absorption. Whatever the case, in a handful of years this fretful woman would be buried, and long after, when I'd eventually learned of this, her face and figure remained a clear memory. I cannot begin to guess at the details of her personal life, only that human lives are sometimes overwhelmed by a darkness they cannot endure, and in her case, ending in a final descent to death at her own hand. A suicide. I have to hope that if the slack-jawed faces in her classroom had haunted her at all, that we did so not as demons, but simply as the clueless, bratty teenagers we were.

But back on this particular morning Miss Higgins was still very much alive, left alone to suffer out this first period class and a remaining full days worth of other ones just like it. She chatted away - most of the speech being largely ignored past the baritone of her voice - as her students dragged out their 8" x 8" squares of red linoleum and continued (or pretended to continue) their lesson in print-making from last week. A simple picture or design was to be first outlined in pencil on the linoleum and then a curved cutting tool used to scoop out the image, now in relief. This image or shape - now in shallow two dimensions - would later be coated with a layer of a thick ink and pressed onto a sheet of paper, or in the case of a especially enthusiastic student, a white t-shirt.

This was one of the art projects that I personally enjoyed, as it gave me the opportunity to embellish the logo of my 8mm film club "Greasey Films" onto a virtually endless host of objects. Just as I was nearly done cutting my block print (a design variation of a "bomb with wings" I'd admired in a book of military insignias), the linoleum cutter jumped from the square, landing in the tip of my left thumb, and partially "scooping' out a 1/4" thick strip of my flesh instead of linoleum.The skin flopped back into place, and as I gaped, for an instant, it did not bleed. In that moment I was unable to judge how badly I'd injured myself. Another moment later and the blood, almost purple, arrived - seeping in first under the flap, and then into my palm, then the table.


In a sweep to pinpoint the epicenter of that blurted this profanity, Miss Higgins' face whipped upward with an expression with equal parts surprise and anger. That face melted nearly instantly, replaced with furrowed brows as she came scurrying to stand at my side. "Oh, my gosh!". I was still staring at the wound, from which now emanated a dull, ever- increasing ache. Our eyes locked, first on one-anothers, then back to the wound: It was probably going to require stitches. To her credit, Miss Higgins did not over-react, but stepped calmly to the large sink in the rear of the classroom and tore a long sheet of paper towel from the dispenser. Soaking under under cold water, she gently wrapped it around my thumb. "You'll need to see the school nurse. That might even require stitches."

Impassively, I rose from the chair and lumbered to the classroom door. As I stepped out, I could hear "Way to go, Ketchup!" followed by a small chorus of laughter, one of which was unmistakably that of Rob. I didn't bother looking back, but kept walking, turned the corner, and started up the wide stairwell that led back up to the first floor.

The Attendance Office, in addition to being the main entrance to the teacher's lounge, was also homebase to the Principal and Vice Principal's offices. Additionally, a adjacent alcove served as the "sick room", a tiny nook where the part-time attendance secretary played double-duty as part-time school nurse. When I arrived at the attendance counter, however, neither of her two persona's were present, so,after glancing up at the clock (20 minutes 'till my next class), I stepped back and slumped into one of the chairs under the teacher's mail nooks.

While the seating arrangements were not new to me - I'd be waiting in precisely the same place if I'd been called into the Vice-Principals office for a dressing down or under the worst of circumstances, a swat.

In about five minutes, Mrs. Lagstrom finally showed up, unlocking the door to the nurses room and lead me inside . "That's a nasty one!" the comment came from over her shoulder. I thought the room smelled faintly of mouthwash. Two plain oak chairs sat in the room, painted entirely white, across from a single narrow cot, also white, which was covered with a plain wool blanket and a single pillow. Once, as a freshman, two years ago, I'd spent a few minutes on this cot while he waited for a phone call from my Mother, standard procedure when students were targeted for going home early, sick. Mrs. Lagstrom took her time carefully cleaning my wound, dabbed it with a pink cotton ball soaked in disinfectant, then covered it with a large wrapping of white gause, which was then taped again, almost from top to bottom. The ridiculously huge bandage would no doubt supply my friends with additional fuel for their amusement, and as she finished up I considered my options.

"I'm going to call my Mom and see if she can take me to the doctor."

Nurse Lagstrom agreed it might be a "good idea, just to be safe" and I stepped across and out of the room and dialed my home number. Over the sound of unanswered electronic ringing at the other end, I pretended to be talking to my mother, supposedly arranging to be taken to the doctor "for stitches". I wrapped up the phoney conversation with"OK, I be out front. Thanks, Mom!" and glanced up at the nurse. She seemed pleased.

I headed out of the building and started walking home, ,thinking maybe I'd watch cartoons for while then head back in time for lunch. Join my friends for a smoke before heading to my afternoon Periods, once of which was working on the school newspaper, a class I probably enjoyed more than all my others combined, except maybe for Drama.

I crossed the intersection and headed to the alley, turned into it and pulled a wrinkled pack of Old Gold cigarettes out of my coat pocket. I looked down at the bandage on my thumb, then pulled it off. My thumb badly swollen and also bright pink (from the Mercurochrome). I'd intended to throw the bandage away, but instead pushed it back on, crumpling it slightly and causing a fresh jolt of pain to jump up my arm. Fuck. I raised my smoke and took a long drag, then started walking again. In another minute my eyes were fixed once again on the blue sky, and the gulls, still up there.

It was Wednesday, and I was starting to wonder if I could find some acid by that Friday night. Mikey, a teenager with as purely sweet a soul as ever their was, would be the guy to see.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Asked to describe himself in a single word...

He replied "Easily confused".

Friday, April 1, 2011

long ride home

I just now finished an excellent online read of a mother who, accompanied by her two young daughters, pays a visit to her ailing father, who is likely drifting into the last, exhausted stages of his long life. It is a meditation on dying, and not so much on death, but how we introduce such a concept - and it's cacophony of complex emotions - to our children. Very thoughtful and wise.

It occurs to me midway that I share little with this woman, save perhaps that we were both raised in families that kept a tight lid on the topic of death, a subject which was never broached, a word that was never used, at least never aloud or in the presence of me, my brother or sister.

My first personal impression of loss came when, at the age of around four, I was suddenly sent away to live with an aunt and uncle in Seattle. My memories of that summer visit are vague and strange, and include my first glimpses of both false teeth (my aunt Aggie's) and a lightening storm, which I beheld, alone and breathless in the late hours of night, as spied through a thin part in the long, blue curtains that hung next to my bed. Both events were impressive, and seemed equally ominous.

As far as the idea of death itself goes, while no explanation was offered to me regarding my re-location (not to mention what had became of my parents, brother or sister), it soon became my silent presumption that my mother had "gone away", was in fact, gone. I had no innate concept of death, but of finality, yes.

So it was then with immense surprise that several weeks later - with equal abruptness - I was ushered back again to my family and home, which appeared to be miraculously intact. There was no pomp and circumstance to my reappearance, it appeared merely a simple matter of my aunt and uncle dropping in to say hi, and then driving away, leaving me behind to resume where I'd left off, once again with no explanation or even acknowledgment of what had been or now would be. What little I recall of the matter shuffles in a pale fog, as surely I must have too. Only too happy to bolt for the back door and out into the fields where I could quickly put the entire, very odd, experience behind me. I was never told why I was away (at least not for several years) and I never asked. A hair past forty-eight months of age, my mental vacancy regarding this seemed a clear demonstration that I had absorbed as much emotional confusion as I could manage.

Fast forward six years: my mother has divorced and remarried, this first time to a skinny man in a cowboy hat and boots, whom we join in his rural home outside Ferndale, Washington.Name is Don. Although countrified and in a slightly emaciated fashion, Don physically resembles a man not unlike my real father, in the style I would now have noted as the none-too-subtle signs of a heavy drinker.

The house is two stories of gray, asphalt tile, heated with a single downstairs wood-burning stove, and has two bedrooms upstairs, the smaller of which has no wallpaper (mine) and the larger of which has no closet (my sister's). Don and mom share a bedroom off the kitchen. A recent high school grad, my brother wastes no time in exciting the situation, pointing his Ford towards the promise of a big-paying job in the Montana oil fields.

We have one pastured cow (which is eventually butchered for meat having suddenly dropped dead) and Don's most prized possession, an Appaloosa mare. I have no recollection of him ever actually riding the creature, although I'm sure he also owned a saddle for it, which I had observed being stored in a small tack shed behind the main house, a untidy but revered location which was soon deemed to be the one space forbidden above all others to me.

It is a time when my afternoons after school are spent mainly alone - no other kid I know lives closer than several miles - with a lot of wandering in the woods. But I do have a dog, named Cindy, who over the course of our year's interment I have successfully raised from a puppy to a full-grown mutt. She is simple company, but faithfully so.

My mother's days appear equally uneventful, except for her frequent trips to the supermarket in town, and occasionally visits to a friend or acquaintance, also by car. On these occasions, largely out of a complete lack of other prospects, I generally tagged along, curled up in the back seat of my mom's black and white '55 Fairlane.

I don't recall knowing any of these people in particular, or even knowing anything about them, only that I usually kept outdoors during her stays, every so often in the company of an equally anonymous child who may or may not have been in my general age range. Either way, I was glad for the company, as was my mother, evidently.

It was to be one of these visits wherein I would be passed a first lesson of loss and death, and it would come to me on the long drive home, my mother at the wheel, me in the back seat, flattened down in my way against its cool vinyl seat covers. The ride home began with my mother cheerfully wishing her friend well, tucking herself and purse behind the steering wheel. The door closed, the engine revved, and we pulled away, Mom aiming one last smile over her shoulder to her friends on their front porch, slipping finally out of view. She drove, I starred \out the window, blankly observing cornfield after cow pasture that streamed past.

At a certain point - I have no grasp of how soon or later - and without so much as shifting in her around in her seat, my mother's voice announced: "Sonia called while I was inside. Called from home."

"Yeah? What?"

"She said Cindy was run over by a truck out in front of the house. She's dead." Just like that.

I squinted a short while in the direction of the back of her head while her words slowly took a legible form in my head, she now completely silent, and then turned back again to the scene outside the. whatever it might have been.

In the next instant came an explosion, a burst so huge and sudden it was like stick of dynamite had been lit and shoved inside my gut. I was literally all over the place-- up against the roof, on the floor, the seats, kicking, crying, screaming, shrieking, with every bit of strength in my lungs, lashing out with both arms, both feet, both hands like a giant, crazy cat caught in a spring trap. How I missed breaking a window I can't image. And this went on for miles, this rage, this fit of all fits, body parts continuing to fly in in every direction.

I was a human hand grenade, and she'd pulled the pin.

Mom, she was like a statue.

As astonished as I am know to recollect it, she didn't pull over, didn't reach out a hand, didn't so much as even glance in the rear-view mirror at as far as i could tell. Just sat there and stared ahead, gazing down the road as if it were an endless tunnel, never herself making as much as a single peep, or sigh.

The next thing is it's all over, and I'm laying sprawled flat across the rear floor, fingertip to toe, and I hear the sound of the gravel, popping under the car as we pull into our driveway. She parks, turns off the engine, steps out and closes the door behind her. I laid there for a while, all cried out, then pull myself back up into the back seat. I am still dazed, but beginning to move on, towards considering the practical matters of the event.

I buried Cindy out in the big pasture behind our house, under a tall fir. It seemed like a nice place. When I checked the following week I realized I hadn't buried her deeply enough, as coyotes or some other varmint had raided the grave site, dragging her remains off somewhere else, to eat, most likely.

But it didn't seem important to me by that time. I knew she was gone already, long gone, dead and gone. Gone forever.

All that remained was me, and a word that had once been her name.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

paradigm shift

This is not pronounced "para-dig-em"...

In a most-beloved state of mind (3 VERY stiff screwdrivers) I have this to offer to my regular readers (1): Life is a jigsaw puzzle that is presented with 8-10 critical pieces missing.

Good luck figuring it out. You may come close, but...

Monday, August 2, 2010

some kid, calling...

Late summer, a simmery afternoon. A voice juts out, screaming in unmistakable child octaves. "Hey, Geff!" This time it's through the open rear window of my car as I cruise the last block to our house in south Tacoma. Kids in their yards, on their bikes. Running off, to something, to somewhere.

By the time it had reached my ears it was already a chorus, joined with a hundred echoes of a dozen other kids, calling out my name across my lifetime, hundreds of times - across a street, across a playground, a stream, down a hallway, down an empty street, up a tree, way over there. On the beach. It's what you do when you spot an old friend. Old, friend.

From there it was a short shot to my heart, and even before I had a chance to catch it it had already ripped it, slightly. All I could do was to be left sitting there, parked at the familair curb, sobbing a bit like an eight-year old kid would, mainly because it was an eight year who was crying, and it was me.

Now that I realized, I knew it wasn't really me they called for. If they had any news, any use for me at all, it would have been "Hey, Mister!".

Back, alone again. Locked away in a grownup life, with the face of a middle-age man, dressed for the role. But then suddenly aware it was not unthinkable that no little boy or girl might ever care to call out my name as I drove up the street - my first name - again.

Not "Hey, guy!", but the automatic exclamation that bursts out when seeing a familiar, regular friend.

Far off, somewhere deep, the eight year old in me had stirred, awakened, and thought, just for an instant, that someone had called out his name. To play?

When the nameless little boy or girl who owned that voice realized that they'd been mistaken, seen another person, caught a shadow, meant another name, they fell silent. Oh. Just a moment, mistaken.

Not today. They were calling someone else. Do they even know I'm still here?

You push it away and watch it become invisible again, as if it had been your own breath fogging a tiny spot on the window, almost forgotten.

Get up, Mister. Grab your work stuff and head in.

Time for supper, you know. That's what time it is.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Bob T Collection

This is something that Bob T would have really appreciated knowing: .

Bob T, and his wife Fefee, were house parents at a group home where my wife
and I worked at in the mid '70s, a hodgepodge of largely decent, but DSHS dependent kids ranging in disposition from dangerous to merely bored. Mainly, they were just teenagers, a condition which is cruel enough without imposed legal custody, but we did the best we could to remind them it was temporary confinement and for the most part, generously benevolent.

Back to Bob T, though: one of the duties of the houseparents on duty was to arrange entertainment,
and while that budget was always a tight one, it occasionally meant the boys being treated to a night at the movies, selected by Bob T.

Bob T loved
disaster movies, or for that matter any movie that dealt with something involving large, calamitous special effects, the more ridiculous and unlikely the better. Bob T himself was large, a reference I make with due reverence to that term, as it applies to the male human physique.

But as for movies, Bob T had been blessed with the '70's being a very good place to land if you were looking
for bad action-disaster films. To name a few: The Towering Inferno,
Airport, Airport 1975, The Poseiden Adventure (in the '70's an "adventure" is what you called it when you are trapped in an inverted, sinking cruise ship with Shelly Winters), The Hindenburg, Hurricane, City on Fire, Avalanche, Skyjacked. At some point George Kennedy became linked, either by karma or an overly-abitious press agent, to almost every one of these. But I digress...

The ultimate in this furious spate, without doubt, was Earthquake, a film which
not only starred
Charlton Heston (and Geroge Kenendy) , but also one that featured Sensurround, an overly-hyped soundtrack gimmick which employed a bevy of single-story speakers and was billed to be "So real, you'll FEEL it!").

Needless to say, Bob T had finally come into his own. As I recall, he was so excited he'd have payed for the entire boys
home to see this film even if he'd had to pay out of his own pocket (which was not the case, then or ever).

Ok, now. Hoardes of people - normal people - flock to movies like this (and worse) and I have no problem with
that. I personally have an extensive list (in writing, yet) of my favorite "bad" movies, and to a degree I simply resign it to personal taste and the trends of the times - so what.

But the thing
with Bob T was, he would never admit to actually liking them. Not at all. No. Absolutely not. Bob T insisted that these films were "educational".

"Wouldn't YOU want to know what to do in a situation like
that? Well, wouldn't you? You don't admit it, but I know you would." He was that kind of guy.

And more. Bob T was not only large in substance, but multi-dimensional as well, having worked at a variety of jobs that would have been impressive had it spanned a half-dozen men over
their individual careers. A range which spanned the menial to the majestic, and beyond. He boasted of having been a window cleaner on the Sears Tower and with equal veracity insisted he had at one time also privately counseled deposed Heads of State. He worked, allegedly with a Top-Security Clearance, shredding documents at the Pentagon. lHe was a turnkey at an exclusive east coast facility that housed both the criminally insane and very famous (I know this to be a fact, as years later it was verified by a very impartial third party). He lived in an Ashram in India, and forsook it. Was an EMT, and saved the life of an over-dosed Govenor-who-shall-remain-nameless. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. There were times I wished he was kidding, but knew he wasn't. Somehow, in some way, Bob T and George Kennedy had taken on similar roles, one in film and the other - however unlikely it seemed, and still does - in real life.

And the thing was, any one of these jobs you could look
at Bob T and think "Yeah, I can see him doing that."

Eventually the key ingredient seemed to be that, to Bob
T, the world was
Black and White. Totally. Right or wrong. Sane or insane. Correct or in need of correction. His logic was as intangible, defensive, and stubborn as it was iron-clad.

6 feet and just under 400lbs, Bob T clearly intended no slight when he once looked over to me and observed, in obvious and utter sincerity, "I was slender once, just like you. I looked just like you, I had a frame like yours. But you'll gain, you'll see, just like me." And then the capper "Geff, by thirty-nine you'll weigh exactly as much as I do now." Had there not been such a tone of kindness in his voice, I might have challenged him on it. But the truth is, it still worries me.

A devout (and morbidly devoted) Mormon, Bob T showed no shame in proselytizing to his workmates or friends, and did so frequently, often sweetening up his hopes of conversion with a dinner invitation or afternoon picnic. Truly, the word duplicity could never be applied to Bob T, as his intentions were always as conspicuously transparent as the windshield in a new Pontiac. Cleaner, even.

But Bob T could be persuasive, if need be. This was adroitly demonstrated (with no small degree of glee) with two of our then-closet friends, who worked
at the same group home. They were about the same age as us and had long-before established themselves to be - and quite joyfully so - died-in-wool hippies, replete with tandem 3-foot ponytails, a log cabin, hobo-patched jeans and equally strong Buddhist leanings. Surprised was not the word to describe our reaction when they both suddenly dropped out of site for several weeks, only to reemerge and reveal they had both converted to being
Latter Day Saints, under Bob Ts proud tutelage. Just like George Kennedy, landing that Jumbo jet in the last reel, and pardon me when I scream Christ O Mighty!

Bob T also had this thing for sugar.

That's a whole 'nother story...

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

child bride

First off, I'm trying hard not to go on and on about this. I'd just like to make a certain point, which I think bears mentioning, if not just for the fun of it. Especially for those of us at a certain age.

There's also going to be a lot of numbers flying around here, too (I actually needed to pull up my desktop calculator to help keep track). But it's worth it, I think.

OK, now. So. The first time I watched The Bride of Frankenstein was in 1962, on a local TV late-show, I being eight at the time.

Fast forward to 1998. I'm watching another film, Gods and Monsters, a mildly fictionalized account of the last years of James Whale, the man who directed The Bride of Frankenstein. Seems as though by 1957 Whale was regarded - by Hollywood standards and popular culture both - not only as something of a virtual dinosaur, but an extinct dinosaur as well. This despite the fact that in '57 only 22 years had passed since the BOF had uttered her first beguiling hiss.

Well, all this talk of Hollywood dinosaurs gets me to thinking. About time in general. What is "old" as compared to "new", and how that perspective changes so very rapidly with each generation. At jet speed, really.

Consider this: Bride of Frankenstein was 31 years old when I first saw it back in 1962.

If you went looking for a film today, in 2010, that was the same age now as BOF was to me then, you'd be looking at films released in 1979. To refresh your memory, here is short list of notables from '79: Alien, Kramer vs Kramer (it won the Oscar for Best Picture that year, in addition to four other Academy Awards), Apocalypse Now, Rocky II.

To keep this in perspective, Sigourney Weaver - does she seem like a fossil to you? Interesting to note also that when she made Alien, Weaver was 30 years old, only three years younger than Elsa Lanchester herself when she became The Monster's bride in 1935.

So, just to wrap up on this theme, how about this one: a teenager today sitting down to watch a DVD of Easy Rider (released in 1969) is the same as if - using my earlier comparison of me in 1962 - instead of Bride of Frankenstein I'd tuned in to watch The Sheik, starring Rudolph Valentino, released in 1921. That's a silent film, of course.

It's odd: That Bride, she looks prettier every time I see her.

And so young.