Wednesday, December 30, 2009

bruce: weekends, radios, electric chairs

Workplace anniversaries are typically marked with perfunctory, polite accolades and tidy, room-temperature anecdotes, spiced up with few mildly embarrassing snapshots, and mine was no different.

Later that afternoon, as I zeroed in on our parking lot after quitting time, I was surprised to be gently confronted by a woman I did not recognize having met, on campus or otherwise. As she spoke she struck a classic poker face, vacant of both smile or frown: "They didn't mention the electric chair." she said.

For a long moment I mentally stumbled, speechless, and upped my effort to place her face. Nothing. Electric chair...? Then it hit me: during the first days at my new job, the employees had gathered for the annual after-hours Christmas party. Among the usual festivities and chit chat was also circulated a fresh pad of post-its, upon one of which we were directed to scribble "something about you that no one knows", to be left unsigned. Favoring a persona of vaguely weird over the ubiqitous cuddly or cute, I jotted that I "..had once constructed an operational electric chair". Party goers where later playfully challenged to match this "secret" with the wide range of mostly familiar faces.

My note and I were eventually paired up and, apart from a few snickers, that was that. Again I mention, this event being ten years prior to the awkward moment I was currently sharing in the parking lot. "You remembered that?" I asked. "Well, yes." These two words came delicately framed with a facial expression which hinted kindly at the obvious, and in this instance might best be summed up as being Vaguely Weird. Ouch.

But weirdness is spawned not from sunshine, a poet may have said.

In the Pacific Northwest of the mid-60's, rainy weekends were not typically special days, and very often only especially-boring. It was such a day, left alone to drift about our fir-enshrouded house, that the challenge became to find out how best to make a good time of it, in spite of the weather.

On summer Saturdays I could walk the train tracks out of town for two or three miles and pay a visit to Bruce's new residence (a much smaller abode just off Hiway 9), but during winter it usually came down to making phone calls and hoping that someone would just show up and help you pass the time.

Burt, the latest of my short string of stepfathers, was an electrical engineer who had a passion for electronic gizmos even greater than my own. One of his best was a console reel-to-reel tape recorder that he would use to compile hours of Louis Armstrong jazz tracks for later listening. For me personally, this was a toy almost as much a delight as a movie camera (or video camera, if it were 25 years or so in the future). In a similar vein, it seemed so natural at the time that both Bruce and I collected the same, enhanced stereo sound effect albums (LPs), that the fact bore no scrutiny between us whatsoever. Together with Bruce, Burt's tape recorder and our pile of sound effects records, every MAD magazine or ARCHIE comic became a potential radio script, which we populated with an ambitious and ridiculous assortment of voice characterizations limited only by our imagination and a mid-adolescent larynx.

But, getting back to the electric chair, that was Bruce's idea. And a short time later, his sincere regret, of course.

The whole thing began when Bruce, alone at home in his basement, had accidentally dropped a large vacuum-style radio bulb on the cement floor. When it shattered, it sent aloft a pale cloud of an anonymous gaseous nature, potent enough to send him running for the stairs, and then to his backyard in order to avoid fainting after his whiff of the mysterious and unnamed fumes.

This event appears to have posed to Bruce a reverie of sorts, but not in the cautious direction of self-preservation that one might have expected. Instead, he began to quietly ponder a diabolical use for his newly discovered supply of "gas". By his own admission, his first inclination came in the thought of constructing an actual "chamber", possibly employing a hollowed-out hot water heater for the vessel itself, it being the approximately correct size to encapsulate a like-sized teenager. Into this sealed vault he could then vent the odorous contents one of his broken vacuum bulbs, and then "just watch". Then what?

His zeal for this particular contraption lost steam when he began an actual examination of the family hot water heater. It was soon obvious that the transformation from heater to gas-chamber would demand heavy labor, too much, he decided. But with his appetite for mock-execution already wetted, he wasn't about to give up, and began looking at alternatives to his original plans for "gas". Iron Maidens and guillotines posed much the same obstacle as the gas chamber - too labor intense - and while a trap-door gallows held a certain charm, he ultimately judged it too pedestrian.

It was about at this point that my Saturday blahs and Bruce's gruesome imaginings met head-long, in the way of a serendipitous visit to my stepfathers wood shop. It was only by chance that on this particular day an ordinary, straight-back wooden chair had been left there by person or persons unknown, but there in the sawdust it did linger. Bruce did not, his inspiration once more aflame. An Electric Chair. Yes.

Rummaging my house and garage for the additional components required (electrical wiring, some steel grating, assorted bolts, straps and a helmet of some kind), we devised a blueprint on the fly that bloomed before us as if it were a sunflower in a dark swamp.

In less than two hours it was completed, right down to the leather leg straps we'd manufactured from an old belt. As much as possible, every necessary detail was attended to, including a five-inch eye bolt that could be "screwed" down into the head of the due-to-be-executed. Wooden manacles (sculpted carefully from plywood using a jigsaw) hooped around ankles, wrists and elbows with equal, solid security.

So there we stood, admiring our greatest creation, without doubt the pinnacle of our most heartfelt and malevolent mischief. The Chair. And if there was ever to be a single moment wherein our two peculiar-formed psyches merged to form a single, monstrous mind, this was it.

Of course, Bruce was a fool for ever letting me convince him to be strapped in. To say the least.

With every appendage secured or strapped into place, it was now all he could manage to simply twist his wrist, not to mention in any way actually free himself. True to his vision, he himself had made certain escape was virtually impossible, and he knew it. He also realized that, in as much as he'd become obsessed with the construction of this screwball abomination, so was I now being swept up with the notion of convincing him he would be it's first test pilot. So to speak.

As he bounced and squirmed atop the chairs steel-lined seat (an electrical conduit cleverly fashioned from the bottom rack of my mothers refrigerator) I held up the electric cord wired to the chair and dangled it absently in the direction of the electric outlet next to my stepfather's workbench. Try as he might (and did, desperately), he was trapped.

But of course I let him go, eventually. And he had his day as well, when my own time eventually came. In both instances we remained close friends.

While she doesn't actually know me, or for that matter ever heard of Bruce, or even the slightest in particulars regarding our friendship, the woman in the parking lot was right.

In fact, a few minutes later that same evening, as I drove home and caught myself giggling out loud, I was sure of it.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

bruce, later

Throughout my younger years, Bruce was (and even in absentia, honestly still is) a strange and singular presence in my life, a product of personality which I have observed emerges only in the rarest of circumstances from a mundane and healthy home life. Given his bloodline, this was a case which Bruce certainly needn't fret be his own.

Rosemary, the mother, a woman near a skyscraper in height and given to a forceful, no-nonsense nature, was quite as likely to deliver, seemingly without provocation, a flat-handed slap across your rump as she was an unexpected compliment on the curl of your hair. On a visit over coffee in our living room, she once bargained to buy all of the warts on my middle finger for a single copper penny. Soon after they promptly vanished, and remained so forever, she being not nearly as surprised as I, if she was even surprised at all.

Bruce's father on the other hand was as an unassuming individual as Rosemary was outspoken, nearly invisible, really. Although rumored to be an fanatical eccentric with esoteric dabblings ranging from antique steam engines to wild electrical experiments, and while his experiments may have been ignited from the published letters of Nikola Tesla, the man himself seemed more an apparition than a parent. Personally, I can recall nare a glimpse of him until I was almost out of high school, many years later. What I do recall is that he leaned towards wool cardigan sweaters and constantly smoked a pipe, a habit I took be a wonderful and professor-like distinction, in particular during an era where Camel, Pall Mall and Lucky Strike ranked (in every sense) supreme.

Their relationship itself appeared tepid to the extreme. Words were rarely exchanged (almost never in the presence of another neighborhood boy or girl) and, while his dad was odd enough right out of the box, Bruce was compelled to up the ante considerably: it was crucial that we all believe that he had also secretly been a pre-WWII member of the American Nazi party (this being a supposedly distinguished heritage), a footnote which I was in no position to challenge, either then or now. This was entirely Bruce's call.

All subjective observations aside however, there was one indisputable bit of evidence in his household which could not be overlooked, or set on spin: a few feet inside the entryway to his family's front room was a enormous, chest-high glass cabinet just too large to miss. Inside, gaping at you at full attention from the inside-out was not one, but two stuffed adult Emperor penguins, one slightly larger than the other, the two being nestled in an accompanying throng of dozens of smaller porcelain facsimiles, also glass-eyed, also erect. If they were a male and female couple it was a detail that escaped my pre-adolescence scrutiny. But, needless to say, it was the first thing you noticed when entering the home, and almost certainly the last detail you'd be pondering on the drive home.

Such was the mirror of Bruce's early family years, at least as I viewed it.

Rosemary taught piano, and while shy of being an bonafide child prodigy, her son still posed a mental force to be dealt with, headlines she simultaneously endorsed when proclaiming to friends and fellow parents that Bruce was both unteachable and gifted at the keyboard. He was able play the instrument completely and intuitively and without the cue or guidance of a single written note of music, "by ear" as she put it. Whatever the case, this was a boy clearly gifted beyond his years, a trait of fascination and frustration to the uneasy adults in his orbit, and one that he dispensed in gleeful torment, employing both his expanded vocabulary and guileless appearance to exhaust little doubt as to his complete and total disregard for grown-ups and all they held sacred. Indeed, even from the earliest age, Bruce was his own champion, living by his own standards, which included converting his upstairs bedroom into an combination chemistry lab and middle eastern oasis, or WWII bunker, at his whim.

Personally content with my own backyard sandbox, I was impressed to watch as, before he was even ten, Bruce managed to assemble a mail order HeathKit Ham radio entirely from scratch. At a time when I may have mistaken the name of Frank Zappa to have been an Tibetan mystic, Bruce informed me that he was, in fact, a genius at the helm of the next generation of music. "...the dream of a girl, just thirteen. Off with her clothes, and into a bed, where she tickles his fancy, all night long... BABY, BABY, BABY, BABY!!!". In a very real sense, of course (something it would take me a near-half century to confirm), he was largely correct.

As Sedro-Woolley offered no Louvre or Smithsonian Museum, or even the reliable outside possibility that you'd ever get closer than a postcard to either one of them in your own lifetime, Bruce was a precious commodity.

While his somewhat skewed portal to the real world may have been cluttered with stuffed penguins, rampant sarcasm and an intimidating mother, a portal, at least to the ragamuffin kids on Jameson Street, he truly was.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

last call

The right brain ponders: The lives we share, or choose not to, with our supposed most-loved ones, are victim by their proximity alone to also be our most contentious and confusing. This despite the rivers of love and understanding that run deep in such relationships, at least as commonly depicted across the maps of popular human culture. More often than not, given to the same flaws as their human craftsmen, these maps are in error. Even at the very end of a lifelong arch, at a time when we are lead to hope that the big picture might at last snap into focus, we are left lacking. No such map exists, or shall ever exist, except for what little landscape of light and darkness that we have foraged out somewhere within ourselves. This is our personal, imperfect guide to the experience of death, as was always the intention, it would seem.

On a recent Saturday morning, Linda and I met with the staff at a local hospice and checked my mother into a private room, a quiet and sunlit place that we understood was where she would take her last breath. Hovering in a coma since the previous weekend, she'd collapsed with a stroke on Sunday afternoon, spent several days in a critical care ward, with hopes she'd somehow bounce back. At 87, she'd held a reputation as a tough old bird, but the time for tough had run out. On the brink of renal failure and paralyzed completely on at least half of her body, she was now presumed never to awaken, or even live out the week.

Earlier, when the decision to withdraw feeding and fluid tubes was finally made, Mom was unplugged from her tangle of plastic tubes, scopes, probes and cables and set free to lean her head back and snore like a logger, as was her style, this time in the numbing embrace of a morphine IV drip.

During a long week in her hospital room, my brother Rog, Staci and I exchanged remembrances, do-it-yourself tips and hour after hour of topics ranging from my mother's current breathing rate, to HBO On-Demand, bargain gasoline, back exercises, best vacation stories and back again. We sought comfort in each other and the common thoughts and events of the everyday. Doubtless in countless rooms surrounding us in all directions, others were relating similar tales, and under similar circumstances.

Her gray head braced by a stiff pillow, the three of gazed silently at the woman between us: perilously near the edge of the past-tense, here was a helpless figure that for each of us at a given time had once been the bright center of our respective universe.

That same week, in the course of a regular-scheduled hour with my therapist, death was naturally the main topic. My summation came in the form of a childhood memory: when I was nine or ten and we lived in Burlington, I'd often ride my bike to the small park across the street from the city library. Here, I would sit and imagine how wonderful it would be when the carnival would return in June, and set up their show on this very lot. On one of these afternoons I looked up from my swing and saw my brother's '53 Ford sedan - canary yellow with a black top - heading up the street, just across the playfield. Mom was driving, alone and at the wheel, window rolled down, and when she spotted me she threw her arm out the window and flapped it in a tall arch, all with a huge, happy smile. As if it was the happiest day of her life. Back those days her hair was a rich, dark brown and her lipstick an impossibly bright red. Beauty, laughing. That image of her through the window, waving and waving with that big smile, in the old Ford, that picture is still as clear as if it had happened a few moments ago. At that same instant, the moment when I raised my hand to wave back, was when I also suddenly realized that She will die someday. She, my mother. Will die.

I lingered on my swing and let it in sink in, and then cried. As every child must discover, it was true.

On Friday morning, having shared the week in Mom's Hospital room, Stacy flew back to her home in Frisko, Texas. The evening just before, this most beloved granddaughter had slept in the chair next to Mom's bed for the entire night, their hands entwined in a familiar fashion, but for a last time.

Two day later, at the hospice, I gingerly combed my mother's hair and left for short trip to the local supermarket, then headed home. When the phone rang a few minutes later, I was surprised to hear the caller announce herself to be Resa, a hospice nurse we had met only an hour or two earlier. My mother had just passed away, she reported.

Whatever goodbyes were coming, had all been made.