Sunday, June 27, 2010

news clips: heroes

The word hero seems to get a lot of extra mileage these days - I'm not certain of what to make of it.

When I was quite young it seemed to be a term reserved almost exclusively for the likes of Audy Murphy, or Desmond Doss, the World War ll army medic who carried or dragged 75 wounded fellow soldiers back from the front lines and to safety, miraculously dodging hours of Japanese bullets and hand grenades. Doss himself refused to carry a weapon.

Nowadays it appears that
occasionally even something as cozy as a fat donation to a local charity will win someone that same title. While I respect the privilege of folks in free country to dole out such distinctions as they personally see fit, I feel it's a bit overused. A devotion to one's community, for instance, while an important and admirable thing, does not necessarily qualify as heroic. My personal definition of a hero would be of one who displays courage or genuine bravery, and in in doing so violates his or her own safety in performing an act that will, or ultimately will, save lives.

I have never served in the armed forces, but I've met a hero or two, and photographed several, I'm honored to say. Many insisted they themselves were not heroes, however great their sacrifice or deeds. Instead they contend "I'm not a hero, but I have stood beside heroes", such is their humility.

It was a quiet Saturday morning and I'd been hanging out in the newspapers darkroom (as was my beat on that particular weekend), when I responding to a situation that the police scanner labeled as "a fully-involved structure fire". I gunned my engine and raced towards a small, dead-end street in South Tacoma so short I had a hard time spotting it in my Thomas Guide. Only few minutes later on this same trajectory, I would find myself standing beside some real-life heroes, one of which turned out to be the bravest person I'd even seen. He was only ten, and would forever remain so.

A good-sized battery of Police, Fire and Rescue units had already converged at the scene, the street now cordoned off. A woman police officer stood poised in middle of the adjacent main arterial, directing traffic by hand, stopping or diverting traffic, so I parked down the street. Leaping out with my camera, I hoofed it in as close as I dared into to the area. My caution was needless - the scene was chaos, everyone too busy to notice, and too busy to care to notice.

What events that follow must now be only by my best recollection, as no records appear to survive of that fire in any official archive (procedure requires that they be kept for ten years only), despite my attempts at rooting out exact details. Reporters, other photographers and even the Fire Marshal himself who conducted the subsequent formal investigation, report that they recollect the incident only in the broadest strokes. Six Feared Dead in House Fire.

That I myself am certain it occurred in 1989 is purely because my own son was also ten years old at the time, a corresponding fact that was preeminent to me then, and is still.

What did happen was this: I aimed my camera and fired off shots of the house itself - no flames were showing, but smoke was funneling out of the roof and windows, puffs that took the shape of rusty mushroom clouds. Then something else - simultaneously - caught my eye, something happening back out in the middle of that cordoned-off street. I glanced back, but firefighters were rushing past me, back and forth to and from their rescue units and pumper trucks, faster than I could keep track of. I moved up closer yet and saw it the same instant he emerged: a firefighter stepped from the front porch, carrying what looked like a three or four year old child, his or her pajamas and face covered with soot. When he'd gotten far enough from the house, he placed his bundle down onto the grass. Shit. Then, behind me: again I spun around to the commotion I'd heard coming from the street moments before. Somebody, a woman maybe, screaming and crying.

Back over there an adjacent drama had been unfolding: traffic was at a standstill, with shocked and curious faces pouring in from every direction, both in cars and on foot. One driver of an older-model sedan (a woman) was stopped dead-center in the street, clearly having been forbidden to move any closer, and was reacting
in hysterics to what she was seeing happening a few yards away. In the next moment the woman had leaned out her window, and now at her side next to the car, the traffic officer had taken her her hand to offer what little comfort she was able. She was looking past me as well, towards the nightmare-in-motion, spilling out across the house and small yard to my back.

The racket, radios and pumper trunks made it next-to impossible to decipher exactly what the woman driver was screaming, but pointing my longest lens towards her, it seemed to be this: "My children!", over and over. This was the mother, trapped outside the police barricade while smoke and fate unfurled. She cried out again, reaching almost her entire body out through her driver's side window, then suddenly pulled her hands back to her mouth, in terror of what she was seeing.

I craned my neck back at the house and recognized her alarm: another firefighter brought yet another child out of the house, and lowered it - limp - to the lawn.

I spun my eyes back and forth, from the street to the yard to the firefighters, then back to the street, not knowing where I should concentrate with my camera. I stood and took a last look back at the mother - trapped in a whirlpool of unimaginable panic - then opted to move again towards the house. I brushed the shoulder of a firefighter, took a startled step backward, and then understood the harbinger of her last screams. Three feet from me, cradled in the arms of a fireman moving in slow motion, was a boy, who appeared to be about ten years old. Used to framing and shooting in an instant and on pure instinct, I froze and watched. The blond haired boy was draped across the firefighters arms, his feet bare, wearing only a pair of white briefs. Eyes closed as if in sleep, his face - pale and white - was covered with thick soot except for smears where the firefighter had administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Looking on, the rescue attempt offered no clue as to success or failure. I remained still.

As news photographers, we're trained from our inception to capture not just telling and dramatic and moments, but the moment. It is most often the case that we chase them, but are alluded - they are too quick, too far, too fleeting.

But on this pale morning, at this scene, the moment hung motionless before me as of it were a finished painting, and I did not act. The firefighter neither had implored me not to shoot, nor did he so much as look up, or even in my direction. Standing outside
the open doors of a rescue unit, I'm not sure he knew I standing right there next to them. He was working.

I raised my camera, and then lowered it. I had only one thought, and for me it was an unexpected reaction. A single word filled my mind, gave me pause: disrespectful.

moment passed.

In doing so, things suddenly burst back to life in every direction, police and firefighters shouting, then running, myself running as well. When I returned to the newspaper later that morning I had many photos: the house, the smoke, the scene in the yard, even the frantic rush when two surviving infants were moved from the house to a waiting rescue vehicle. But the only pictures of heroes hiding in my camera were those of the firefighters, and police officers, and paramedics themselves, doing what they do.

Six Feared Dead in House Fire.

Incredibly, there were eight children in that house that early morning, with parents away. Five were declared dead at the scene, as it is referred, the event being a tragedy of scope shocking enough that it appeared in papers across the country.

As the day drew on, the next wallop came when the events of that morning were re-constructed and it was learned that the ten-year-old boy had, in fact, been the first child out of the house, uninjured. Calling upward to his brothers and sisters in the second story and unable to stir any of them to flee, he chose to re-enter the burning home to rescue them.

I once recounted this experience to a classroom of high school journalism students, exactly as I've outlined it here, then asked them what they'd do. The to explain to me what they thought would be the right thing do, and then to justify their reasons. Perhaps predictably, the majority of them indicated they would have acted just as I had, at they very least insisting that sparing the family the pain of that (uncaptured) image was the more noble deed.

Then I provided them with the wrinkle, the real wrinkle. It was a final twist that reporters did not learn until the next day, when fire crews were sweeping up, and had conducted a thorough search of the home. In it they discovered a fire alarm hanging from the ceiling, but one whose batteries had sometime earlier been removed, leaving it useless.

That dramatic or shocking photos have a way of driving home a message was not lost on me, of all people. A photo of this weight could (and does) wake up its onlookers, perhaps hundreds, prompting them to rise out of their chairs and check their own fire alarms, averting possible similar tragedies.

Except that was not a photo I'd taken.

As a follow-up to the story several months later, I accompanied a reporter to a nursing facility where the ten year old boy in question still lingered, unconscious, suspended by tubes and artificial airways that could furnish him a heart rate, but not a life. In a few weeks that too would vanish.

So. A newsroom can be a peculiar place, often at odds with the same conventions of the society towhich it also claims stewardship. An environment both extroverted and insular, it is one of generosity, but just as easily one where otherwise cruel and self-serving acts are praised and even rewarded. Humility, pity and remorse exist so at their own risk. But flourish, nonetheless.

It is at this difficult bridge - between the facts, the hard-headed and the hard-of-heart - that this story finally arrives. There is no correct answer lurking here, at least not by my own estimation.

My personal conclusion is, as decision makers, we are deeply flawed, which allows us only the most human of choices. I will also add this: that the older I get, the easier I am persuaded to believe that old aphorism that speaks to our flaws as being some of our most redeeming and compelling features.

There is also that rare and amazing force, built of bravery and self-sacrifice, the spark of which may indeed exist in all of us, but more in some, and in a rare few, infinitely so.

From it rushes forth our heroes, tall and small, and we are honored to have seen them. If only for a moment, even stolen.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

chances of survival

I received an email last week from Judy, an old friend that I've known since my high school days, and the email was blank except for one sentence:

Are you at work today?

There is only one other word on the whole page, but perhaps it is all I require for a clue as to her waiting message.

Subject: Matt.

Seeing his name, my mind had a completely automatic reaction: He is dead.

To be honest, while I had not seen Matt's face for perhaps 35 years, not heard of him for nearly as long, he was a friend not to be forgotten. Always cheerful, jubilant and easy-going, simply put, Matt was one of the nicest people I had ever known. Never had a harsh word to share against anybody, and had a smile for everybody. For reasons that will soon become clear, I never expected him living long enough to celebrate his 20th birthday.

Matt was the only kid in our high school that I personally knew to be regularly shooting drugs, which in 1971 was a minor distinction in itself, though a sad and dangerous one. By this time our bunch were onto a wide variety of drugs, mainly pot and psychedelics, but because Matt had offered me a setup to sample some real "junk", I also knew he was doing heroin, who knows what else. Cocaine had yet to arrive on the local scene.

I dialed Judy and she reported her latest news, and yes, it was about Matt.

But first will come a story of my own, also about Matt. It's a story which would seem to underline his fate from a young age, and those slim chances of him surviving to adulthood that I've already mentioned, smile or no smile.

Picture a Friday night, early winter, and one Matt and I had spent mostly walking around town, just the two of us. Hoping for news of a party somewhere, or at the very least somebody willing to share a joint or maybe a few beers, we'd struck out. Most of the town, it seemed, had packed into the Sedro-Woolley High School gym for that weeks big wrestling match, a bout that Matt's older brother was competing in. On our travels, we passed the gym and paused briefly, gazing in at the tint of the yellow gym lights and hollering crowd, but moved on, hoping for richer fare.

We eventually walked back over to where we'd started, Matt's house, which was on the complete opposite side of town. Matt lived with his folks and his older brother in a modern styled house the likes of which were then referred to as "ramblers". It was fairly new, at least relative to most of the other homes homes in town at the time, many of which dated back to the '20s, or even earlier.

I had never met or even seen Matt's father, but his mother was a very familiar face, since she'd worked for many years as one of the cafeteria cooks at the town's single junior high, just down the street. Like her two sons, she was shorter than average, but her emaciated figure gave the impression of her being even tinier. She seemed quite frail, in addition to appearing prematurely old, the way heavy smoking and/or drinking will make you look after 20 years of it. She also wore an expression of grief stamped permanently across her face. Very sad.

We arrived at Matt's home that night before 9pm, disappointed and dead-sober, turned on a few lights and went into the little den where Matt kept his stereo, LPs and 8-tracks, He slipped on an LP, perhaps "It's a Beautiful Day" (very popular at the time), perhaps not, but something I recall as being "cool" and fairly loud. He handed me his headphones to listen and then drifted away towards the kitchen.

I'd been cradling the headphones (by myself) for about 10 minutes when I realized Matt had yet to return, and slipped off the headphones to go look for him. Instantly I could hear there was some kind of commotion going on out near the kitchen and, rounding the corner, the first thing I saw was pat's mother wringing her hands, weeping. At her feet her husband (a much meatier male than either of his sons) had Matt pinned to the floor with one hand and with the other was punching him in the face, and then trying to strangle him, as Matt struggled to escape. He was screaming at full volume, accusing Matt of being "GOD DAMNED HIGH!", which ironically on this one occasion he definitely was not. Not that it mattered.

I have no logical explanation of exactly how I may have ascertained this, given the riot of swearing, screaming, crying and slapping, but what I believe to had occurred was this: About the same time Matt and I were roaming town, his parents - already drunk - had arrived at the school wrestling match, where they sat and watched as Matt's older brother fought his best fight, but was defeated. Although only a ten-minute drive back to their home, it was amble time for dad to knock back what remained of his bottle. His rage unabated, it might have been pure bad luck that Matt was the first person he spotted in the crosswalk, so to speak. Employing that same metaphor: when he saw Matt, he floored it.

By any estimation, it was a horrific scene, and looked as though his old man was going to kill him, trying to kill him. Matt himself was crying and screaming, trying to fight off his dad while at the same time begging for his mother to call the cops and "have me tested!! I'm not high!!" but she just stood there, afraid to move a muscle. Just like me, cowardly shit that I was.

In fact, I remained frozen and watched for a few more seconds, then just stumbled back into the den, put the headphones back on and proceeded to blank out. When his mother came into the room a few minutes it was to ask me, in tears, to please leave. I can't tell you if there were still sounds of a struggle coming from the other room, only that when I walked out of the house I wasn't sure if I'd ever see Matt alive again or not.

I walked home in the dark and never said anything about it to my mom or to anyone else, mostly out of pure shame. The whole thing still makes me a little dizzy when I think about it, literally.

At that point, on my long walk home, guided by a vanishing point of ragged streetlights, if Matt's deepening submersion into hard drugs had required an explanation, it did so no longer.

The next week I passed Matt in the hallway at school, and later bumped into him in the smoke lot. He never mentioned the previous Friday night and neither did I.

We continued to be friends, but lost track of each other shortly after graduation. While I may have heard brief, unsubstantiated reports of him from time to time, when I did try looking him up a few years back, I hit a dead end. The sweetest kid I'd ever met had dropped from sight, perhaps never to be seen or heard from again.

Now it comes, some forty years after the fact, that Judy has some real news for me: she's talked to Matt.

Matt is alive and well, and very happy. Chased the demons out of his soul years ago and made a real life for himself, a hard-working one. Never married. No kids. Not too long ago drove a full-dress Harley from B.C. to Belize, solo: "No booze, no dope, no women, just the bike." He laughs and his laugh has a familiar, warm resonance. Real. Matt.

When I hear that his dad has passed away, I feel no sadness. That Matt managed to carve joy and a good life out of that mess is to his own immense credit, as well as a measure of his own strength - part of that hard work he mentioned - against all odds.

One of the nicest, sweetest young souls I have ever known. One I judged would never to live even to legal age. But he'd made it. Happy.

He won.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

10 things I've learned from women

1). Grab a damn cart! I don't know how many times I've rushed into a supermarket on a "quick mission" thinking I had no use for a cart only to end up lugging an enormous, awkward armload of items to the checkout aisle, dropping a few en route. A large package of toilet paper skidding behind me was par for the course. Every woman knows this almost from the instant she takes her first baby steps: a shopping card is standard operating equipment!

While we're on this general topic,
2). Shopping is a journey, not a destination. I know this goes full-against our hard-wired DNA, but battle your primal male urge to "Pursue & Purchase". Your reward will not only be a less-stressful shopping experience overall, but one filled with surprise and friends, in addition to unexpected side-trips, and quite possibly a fabulous lunch. Note: Brace yourself that you may not, in fact, end up purchasing anything and remember your new mantra: Any man can purchase, but only real men can shop!

3) If someone says you are "fun to talk to", it usually means you're a very good listener. Take one step back to observe any recent, good conversation with any of your female friends and more likely than not you will discover that you did most of the talking, perhaps all of it. Women have intuitively known, since we all stumbled out of our caves, that men adore talking about themselves, and especially so when listened to by women. Next time you sit down over a coffee, beer or glass of wine, try turning the tables and subtly encourage her to talk totally about herself - you may be captivated by what you hear. Important: DO NOT INTERRUPT HER at this point, even if something up on the TV monitor is really interesting.

5). As a species, Women are more socially evolved. Observe them! Frankly, you have thousands of years of conditioning to catch up to do in this category, but it's never too late to start. Lessons learned here can benefit you not only with an expanded and enhanced social environment, but can add literally years to your life! Fact: After retirement, men on average will die 5.2 years earlier than women, and by age 100 are outnumbered by women 8 to 1. One key ingredient: have lots of friends and don't hesitate in asking them for assistance. Try these unthinkable few words in a sentence and observe what magic occurs: "I have a problem - could you help me?".

4). The only people who notice guys on motorcycles are other guys (or girls who also are on motorcycles). I know this is a heart breaker, but motorcycles (with a few exceptions) are pretty much another one of those guy things. It's the male tribal community that's paying attention here, so don't kid yourself. All the black leather, the tattoos, the boots, the premium-fueled flatulence, it all goes mainly unnoticed by the majority of female-kind. In fact, in this particular department, most of the human She's and He's are in full agreement: they'll take a reliable, clean convertible over any Harley, thank you very much.

5). The cast iron "steel nutsack" - the one hanging down under your 4 x 4 - is really gross. Really. It also implies the driver (that would be you) is the type of guy who meets most of his "dates" across his table at the local strip club. Or possibly a milking barn. Which is also not to assume that you are a very popular face in either.

6). Manners still matter. No, opening a car door has not gone out of style, and likely never will. This also applies to holding a door as you both enter a restaurant (or even a dive) and also pulling out her chair when being seated. Or making sure she has water in her glass, when your waiter doesn't. While it occasionally does happen (and most women who'd protest are quite content to serve notice when it does), most females don't object to the extra attention and thoughtfulness of a polite courtesy. Example: When was the last time you objected to a woman offering to cook your favorite meal, no matter how much work may be involved? Get it?

7). Just because she's never told you, do not conclude that the woman in your life doesn't consider your mother to be a total bitch. That one's simple enough, right? Now, you may be the lucky one in fifty men to which this does not apply, but remember, those odds are 50 to 1. Is that a horse you'd bet on?

8). Three words: Laser Hair Removal. Public enlightenment on this one has begun to infiltrate the male ranks, but just in case you haven't already heard - excessive body hair is a turn-off (That's why only the creepy, fat, evil guys in the World Wrestling Federation have so much of it, right? Think about it.). Now: A new chrome cargo rack for your jeep, or a shiny new pair of hairless shoulders for you?

9). Unless it's a wedding ring, or weighs in at over 3 carets, diamonds are dumb. A brief disclaimer here: She probably won't throw those $99 earrings back in your face, but poll after poll continues to bear out that the majority of women find diamond jewelry to be a boring, unimaginative gift, and in general, another "guy thing". What's the "guy thing" part? That you've been listening more to those cheesy TV discount-diamond ads than you have to your own girlfriend, who, chances are, has hinted to you dozens of times what she'd really like you to buy her. Still don't get it? Go back and read #3, again.


10.) You're just perfect - NOT! Sorry, but I had to break this one to you at some point, and now is just as good a time as any. No, you're not huge, not even larger than average, and your body is about in the same boat - merely average. The good news is that she still thinks you're a cool guy - in fact loves you - even loves having sex with you (most of the time), despite your newly-revealed deficiencies (which she's known about from the start). Here's a last tough one for you to swallow: she's probably had better sex with other guys, but still prefers you best of all. See how lucky you are she's not like us?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

tic tock goes the clock

I wander onto the online classroom homepage of an old friend, one quite long out of touch, and smile when I see the footer quotes a mid-life observation of Albert Einstein: "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious." How so I agree. Beautiful, but also an artwork rendered with colors human eyes cannot fully appreciate, if they are always able to identify them at all.

For people like myself, the realm of the mysterious in life appears to have to been shrinking annually, something like my tee shirts. Season after season sees it fade, grow flimsier, fainter, until it has become something impractical, something that no longer quite fits. Like the damned tee shirts.


In 1981 my son was five years old, healthy, of clear complexion and usually ready for bedtime by 8 pm. At the time we lived in a plain, single-story rental that featured a washer and dryer, a small front porch and the deluxe accommodation of a rope swing out in the front yard, which we shared with the second rental that rested further back but on the same lot.

It was the beginning of our second year in the house, Andrew had just started taking swimming lessons at the Y down the street, and I was settling into my new full-time photographer post at the Skagit Valley Herald, a local daily in Mount Vernon. After some early years with concerns for our son's health, and a spate of part-time jobs for me, life seemed to be settling down nicely.

Andrew's room was just off the living room, and without doubt was the prettiest room in the house- his mother and Nana had made sure of that, having spent days fixing it up with fresh paint and rolls of new wallpaper, a peaceful mural of clouds and kites in a blue sky that stretched from corner to corner, floor to ceiling. It was the perfect room for playing, and even more perfect for dreaming. I relished it at the time as a small corner of boyhood heaven.

Bedtime had become a predictable and playful ritual for us, one that usually included a rendition of his favorite, made-up bedtime story, "Cocoa the Clown". Following a rollicking series of events which included a ride on a steam engine, a ferris wheel and a hot air balloon, the story would always end with the same, spectacular stunt: the main character (Andrew) tumbles downward in a thousand-foot fall, down through the sky and ultimately right through our own shingled roof, finally bouncing safely down, uninjured, right into his very own own bed, which lay warm and waiting. The perfect end to any kind of day, for both of us.

After tucking him in with a hug and kiss, I would begin another part of the bedtime ritual, a secret second part, of which he was unaware and is perhaps still. While he was drifting off to sleep, I would stand outside of his pale blue room and peek back in through his door, making sure he didn't notice, until I could just barely see his face there on his pillow. My secret game was to stand in the shadows and imagine as hard as I could that I was now very, very old - many years had passed - and Andrew was all grown up. Flown the coop, and far away from his folks, living his life. With my imagination and some non-specific magic, I would then pretend that the "Old Geff" was then able to travel back into time, back through all the years, back until he was standing right there at that exact same spot. Where I/he could/would stand and watch and behold my beautiful little boy once again, safe and asleep, and for as long as I cared to gaze. And just drink it in, to my very heart's content.

It worked every time. Bedtime was magic time, that was for sure.

This went on for several months, my secret nighttime visitations known only to me, and the "Old Geff" from the future.

Then one evening, with no warning at all, the Universe decided to follow the two of us to bed. Or at the very least, its pocket watch did.

As I trailed Andrew into his room one completely ordinary night and approached his bed, I was suddenly aware - with no mistake - of a loud "ticking", apparently coming from nowhere. Pulling his blanket snugly up to his shoulders, I stopped, stood up straight and swept the room slowly with my eyes - no clocks, no toys, no watches, either, or radios. It was at that same, peculiar instant, that I also felt a string of words suddenly surge into my mind: "Time is running out." Just like that. The voice was calm and clear. It came in my own thoughts complete and with perfect diction, like a living flashcard. I felt a chill.

While I am not accustomed to messages coming by way of the supernatural, omnibus or otherwise, my ears are definitely perked at this. What the hell was that?

Time is running out.
A warning - of what? And from whom? Rather than worry Linda that it may just be some kind of foreboding omen or something having to do with our son, I kept silent. And chose to pretend that I may have been just hearing things, or imagining things, or had it happen in a dream even, who knows. Either way, it's over now.

Weeks pass, quite a few actually, and slowly the everyday hum-drum does its work, performing as a force of mental gravity that eventually lowers the importance of possible "mystical" experiences (and anything else it can sink its mundane little teeth into), first to eye level, then below, and then out of your peripheral vision all together. End effect: Weird, yes? Significant, doubtful.

I had the mundane to thank, at the very least, for sleeping better.

I'm watching television, alone in the living room - this is a good 6 weeks later - when all of a suddenly, out of the blue again, the ticking. Not like from a TV, or a record player, but as if someone is holding a fine instrument, an invisible stopwatch, right up tight, next to my ear. It is precision machinery I hear, held infinitely close. And yet it is nowhere. I take a breath, look over my shoulder, ponder my options, and decide to completely ignore it. Eyes back to the TV. Tic toc tic toc tic toc tic toc tic toc tic toc.

Absolutely ridiculous, but I refuse to let it shake me - whatever "it" is.

Linda enters the room, plops down on the couch, pauses for an instant and says "Do you hear that?"

"What do you hear?"

"You can't hear that ticking?!" And she begins (and I join her) to rifle the couch, pulling away cushions, reaching the arms, searching everywhere for it, the source of this insane ticking. We turn off the TV, slide the couch away from the wall, check the space behind it, under it, and make a cursory search of the entire room, ending up again on the disheveled couch, all the while the "clock" is ticking away.

Linda shakes her head, dumbfounded, perhaps now looking even a bit frightened when she says "It's so weird, Geff... it's like time is running out!" and that exact instant the ticking stops, dead, silent.

Now I'm fucking shook. I tell Linda my bit of backstory, that I heard the ticking weeks earlier, in Andrew's room while putting him to bed, but didn't know what to make of it. Shit, I still don't know. But something is definitely going on here.

We continue to tear down the room, to find nothing. We lay awake in our bed and swap possible scenarios, but not a one seems to make any more sense than the other. I am perplexed but have also come to the immediate conclusion that this all is 1). Defintely a message, and 2). One that does not require the talents of Edgar Cayce to interpret: Watch out, and possibly, watch out for you lives. That an impending catastrophe or tragedy lay in wait for Andrew, or Linda, or for all three of us, I had no doubt. Just a matter of... time.

And for two full years I payed very special attention, to every day, and every evening, and especially every moment that I spent with Andrew. And I was afraid that it would all end, end just like that. In a swimming pool, a side street, an intersection, a park, you name it. Bang. Gone. Over.

But it didn't, as it turned out. And what?

If you'd had almost an entire lifetime of years to unravel that strange little ball of string, what would you make of it?

Here's my best shot: What if it wasn't a warning, or at least not a warning that something bad was about to happen. What if, instead, it was a message, but a warning to be good. To "Take care. Don't let it slip by." What if someone had reached into our lives with a magic timepiece and was whispering to us: "You are together and these are precious, joy-filled years - pay attention! You have a beautiful, happy son and he will soon be growing up. Play on the swing! Love each other! Enjoy! Time is running out!"

And maybe to be a tiny bit afraid at the time isn't all such a bad thing, given the stakes, given what you have to loose. No rehearsals, people, you're on.

Come to think of it, that's exactly the type of message I'd like to send back, if I was able to, somehow.

Hey Andrew, hey Linda, close your eyes.


I love you. love you.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

one of us

I have a storyline in my head, a short story - not even quite enough for a novella - about this old timer who lives alone a few miles from a flyspeck town somewhere in Nevada or Arizona. The desert, way the hell out in the sticks.

It's still somewhat nebulous in my mind, but definitely does not involve any kind of huge, melodramatic plot, more like a slice of life kind of thing. A simple character study depicting a few days in the timeline of this old fart and the little life he has carved out for himself over the years, in a who-knows-where patch of sand and scrubgrass. Let's call him "old Ray". I picture him on a tiny ranch he's cobbled together (something hardly more than a shack, along with a small barn), where he spends his days and nights alone, but with the critter companionship of a goat, a scruffy old mutt, plus a cat or two (he likes "creatures").

Following along, we also observe him visiting a lonesome-looking grave (always bringing colorful, plastic flowers), as well as chatting with a few of the other local characters on his brief trips into town for food and various other provisions. The days pass slowly for old Ray, a fair amount of his time being devoted to wrenching on his worn out Land Rover, which serves, along with the mutt, and the goat, and cats, as something of a sidekick. As I mentioned, his is a little life, and one spent somewhat delicately at the perimeters.

One more thing regarding his situation: buried under the barn, a few inches down in the dust, are the remains of a shiny, broken spaceship. Ray's ship. We learn that a little over a half-century earlier (our time), alien-astronaut Ray
crashed his ship onto an unfamiliar orb of sand and sea, in a strange galaxy, light years away from his home planet, and was hopelessly marooned. Here. As weeks stretched into months and then months into years, old Ray accepted the fact that, alien or not, he'd be living out his years in a place about which he knew precious little, and amongst a people he had only the vaguest understanding of. Worst of all, and most worrisome, he possesses no powers here.

By the way - and I hope i'm giving away too much when I say this - the concept is somewhat autobiographical.

I'm not joking. I may not have had green skin and hairy antennae, but for a good percentage of the people I met in my early life, just having grown up in in a town named Sedro-Woolley would qualify me, if not for being pretty damned peculiar, at the very least highly suspect. "The Nuthouse?"

If you were additonally unfortunate enough to have had either of your parents (or in my case, both) locked up, er.... patients, in that place, then matters were only that much worse. As that unique sub-class of being, you no longer required odd glances or whispers to confirm your creepiness, you already knew it, from the inside out. Not that folks weren't happy as heck to remind you, just in case it occasionally accidentally slipped your (unsound) mind.


Modern kiddie self-help books seem to champion the notion that loony eccentricity can often be a creative and inspiring kind of thing.
I can personally vouch that this kind of diversity was as uplifting, spiritually speaking, as a diagnosis of ringworm. Both having very similar effects on your upward social mobility, not to mention your place in the lunch line. Few things serve to cool a relationship quicker, new or old alike, than having a bonafide lunatic in your family. The only thing worse was having one in the house with you. Trying to kill you.

Lucky for me I didn't have far to look to find a surrogate tribe: TV. I gorged myself on a childhood of Leave It to Beaver, Twilight Zone, and Ozzie and Harriet, convinced theirs was the real world, and my mine merely a temporary misunderstanding, like the stork who delivered the baby pig to pair of confused and disappointed baboons. As a result, my adolescent re-entry was a rockier one than some, and fueled with a hunger for life as 30-minute episodes, all which came with a interesting beginning and middle, and pleasant end. Drugs helped in the pursuit of the quixotic, and while that intermission lasted, I simply was TV.

in my case, unlike old Ray, there were other aliens stuck out in that desert besides just me. My friend Bruce was a first-string player on that team, and from an extremely early age, as anyone reading this blog has already surmised. And there were others out there, lost and found - or discarded - along the way.

So, in case I may have invoked your sympathies, here is the story of but one: I bumped into Philip on a noontime recess during my first few weeks at a new grade school in Bellingham, Washington. Right off the bat, we clicked.

Turned out it was Philips' first year at Columbia Elementary as well. The more we spoke and exchanged info, the more we seemed to share a remarkable degree of common interests, on and off the playground.

Philip appeared to be about my same age, and a very keeno kinda guy, even if he didn't have the same home room as I did, of which Columbia fifth graders there were three. We still lucked into sharing the same recess, however, and used that time to bear down each other with increasing mutual enthusiasm, cheerfully sharing stories, portions of our brown sack lunches and tales about other kids at the school that we both hated or feared.

We'd been hanging out like this for a few days when I had him over to my house after school - I lived a scant two blocks away - in a two bedroom rental kitty corner from a local mom and pop market. Over ice cream cup sundaes we pondered the finer points of James Bond's new super weapons and the latest jokes from MAD magazine. We snuck a long peek into one of my brother numerous editions of Playboy, and showed off my clunky selection of plastic WWII bombers and fighters. Philip totally got me, and I him. When he left my house that afternoon just before suppertime, he carried under his arm a library loan-out composed of the pride and joy of my private collections: a stack of my favorite issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland, Archie and Dennis the Menace. My best, as it were.

Philip seemed too good to be true, even then, so it is strange to me now that I can recall so very little about how he actually looked, or even dressed. Were his eyes were blue or brown (?), I'm clueless. Despite my great affection for him at the time, the single trait I can recall is a round and perfectly white patch of hair, about the size of a silver dollar, that stood dead-center at the top of his otherwise solid-brown head of hair.

It must have been only a short while later that same week that things changed. For some reason, my attention had been drawn to the fact that Philip did not appear to be in any of the 5th grade classes at Columbia, at least so far as I could observe. The more I looked into it, the more perplexed I became. It was with the vaguest of suspicions that I continued to casually investigate the puzzle, and only by complete accident that I discovered that he was, in fact, in the Special Education class.

The revelation went through me like a bolt lightning.

Special Ed.
Holy Shit.

As a footnote, it bears mentioning that this was the tail end of a sad era for Special Education in public schools, a time when it was perceived to be - often correctly - as an under-funded collection of unfortunate children huddled under a single umbrella, whose personal issues ranged wildly, from grievous deformities and other physical handicaps, to mentally retardation, to children who were perfectly normally (perhaps even gifted) but were confined to a wheelchair. Toss in a handful of kids with ADD (long before that diagnosis officially existed), one or two who might be genuinely emotionally disturbed - or just have problems fitting in - and you just about have it. Sometimes things even got a little rough, physically. It was not an enlightened time. "Mainstream" was still a concept yet to invented.

Although at the time I was not sure exactly how he quite fit into it, it was obvious I had learned Philip's secret. Here was the boy that I had believed was remarkably just like me - or was he?

I will save you any guesswork regarding my reaction: I completely shunned him, beginning at that very moment. If I could saw he was out in the playground, I avoided it. If I glimpsed him in a hallway or staircase, I turned on my heel and ducked him. Lunchroom: the same. Day in, day out. I don't recall ever having confronted him directly, or he me, only that I made every effort - successfully - to make certain we we would not cross paths ever again.

The innocent boy, whose oh-so tender heart had once sank upon hearing a cheap whisper of The Nuthouse, was not such an innocent after all. And while I may have neglected or failed at most of my homework on humanity, I obviously had at least one lesson down-pat: how to behave like a complete heel.

One image I can still recall, with with crystal clarity. It is the day, some time later, when I returned home alone after school and found all my magazines and comics
waiting on the doorstep, stacked ever-so neatly, as perfect as the day they had been lended. A note was attached, which stated simply "Thank you."

Over the years I have often wondered how my betrayal may have scarred him, as well as what great friends we might have eventually become, had I shown even one shred of courage, not to mention decency. My imaginings drift also to his parents: did they hearten and share his happiness when told of his new-found chum, only left to wonder when their son so soon appeared saddened, the new friend missing? I'll never know. I never saw or heard from Philip again, or if I did, I blocked it out of my mind. I guess I thought I was too good for him.

This, mind you, from a fifth grade boy who stayed in during his lunch hour to cut nazi armbands out of colored butcher paper.


Quite the bunch.