The Last Days of the Hood

My last days as a child in the ‘hood were a time of chaotic confusion laced with grief, horror, and sorrow, and tremendous changes which would sweep me and my family into a strange land of isolation and filled with new experiences which would profoundly affect my life for the next four years – and beyond. Some of the changes were to be in God’s hands – or fate, or karma, or whatever you want to call it. One change I saw coming, but could not control. I suppose I could have controlled my response to those other changes, and in doing so have made wiser choices, but I was young, having just turned eleven. I did not know – could not know – the effects of my choices. In some respects I wonder if I really had a choice in my reactions; or perhaps my reactions were the only reactions a child could have. Looking back, I can see where I went wrong in some cases, but in other respects I realize: wrong or right, how I responded to those changes was to determine who I am today.

The changes started with an announcement by my mom late in the fall – mid-October, to be precise. It was simple and direct, as most of her announcements were. She was never one to beat around the bush, or break things to us boys gently. She just sat us down at the table and stated things as they were.

“You’re dad got orders. We’re leaving in thirty days. We’re going to Germany for four years. I’m going to need you boys help to get ready . . .”

We had just returned from North Carolina the year before, so the idea of moving wasn’t alien. After asking my mom some questions about Germany (yes, Michael, it snows there; you were born there) – I was a bit enthused about the idea. Moving was exciting, though we had only moved twice in the past five or so years – up to North Carolina and then back. The moves of the past – before we’d arrived at the ‘hood – were forgotten memories. For me the ‘hood was my childhood, my home – and while deep down I felt a dark foreshadowing of the loneliness and grief I would feel at leaving my friends and the neighborhood where I had spent so much of my childhood, the prospect of seeing snow (so rare in Georgia!) was foremost in my mind. Little did I know. And four years. How can a child conceive of four years? I figured it would be just like before: go away, come back, and it would be as if nothing had ever happened, nothing ever changed. As far as I was concerned, it would simply be another jaunt to someplace else; nothing major. Boy, was I wrong!

I remember standing in the sand alongside the road, talking to my best friend, the boy next door, telling him we were going to Germany.

“It snows this deep!” I exclaimed, holding my hand half-way up to my shins. (Little did I know: it got much deeper than that, going over my head in drifts sometimes.)

“No!” he exclaimed in disbelief. “It never gets that deep!” Him,being born and raised in the south, and knowing no other place in than the ‘hood, could not conceive of snow deeper than our ankles. We argued about it for awhile, and then put our argument aside – still unresolved – and went off to play. If I’d only known what was going to happen next, I would of hugged him tightly – maybe even kissed him on the cheek – and done the same for the rest of his family. Because what happened next – what happened next is what shook our end of the ‘hood to it’s foundations.

It happened just a few nights, maybe a week before Halloween, late in the evening. Before I go on, let me explain a few things.

Next door, where the teenager lived (if you’ve read some of my stories, you know more about him than you’d probably like to know) – was the poorest family in the ‘hood. Make do and do without – that was their name, their lifestyle. The father, a hard working construction worker, was a huge, rotund man – strong as an ox from lifting brick and masonry all day, he always had a huge smile for us kids, and would lift four of us up at one time on his thick, brawny brown arms. He was quick to laugh – a huge laugh, as big as the man himself. We will call him “Mr. C.” His “help” was a man he’d rescued from a ditch years and years before – an Army retiree who’d been mugged and left for dead. That man – old and stinky with his cigars, would sit in an ancient lazy chair on the porch while us kids wheeled around him, begging for abuse by taunting him. We will call him “Mr. S.” I remember my best friend “loaded” one of his cigars one day; the look of amazement on his face when it exploded – his bushy eyebrows arching up towards his balding pate, and his thick fingers clamping down on the shredded remains as he peered over his glasses at us kids, looking for the guilty one – remains with me to this day. We all kept our distance from this man – if you got too close, he would catch you in a head lock and thump you on the noggin’ with his thumb, leaving a knot on your head. And the wife of the construction worker – another ‘second’ mom to me – meek and mild; hard working yet never complaining, running herd on a passel of rough and tumble kids. Even when she was scolding she was soft spoken, and the words were spoken with love. So much unlike my mom, whose words were often harsh and loud, and full of spiteful hate and vengefulness. It was to these folks that disaster was to fall – and disaster of the worst kind.

It was night, and we were getting our last drinks of water before going to bed when my mom came in through the kitchen door. She was pale and shaken, and we could tell right away something was wrong – bad wrong.

“Mr. C. (the construction worker) has been in a wreck,” she said. I guess she told us kids because – well, because they lived right next door, and I guess she needed someone to talk to. “Mr. S. (the old cigar smoking fellow) – is dead. The teenager got hurt, too. He was driving . . .”

And so the story came out – how they were coming home that evening from a job in Mr. C’s old pickup truck, the teenager driving (he was old enough) and Mr. S. riding in back with the shovels and equipment. Apparently the truck hit something or someone hit them, and a wheelbarrow hit Mr. S., breaking his neck and killing him instantly. Mr. C. had a hole in his leg – “big enough to put your fist through”, according to my mom. He had been rushed to a hospital. The teenager was “fine”, but pretty badly bumped and bruised. This had all happened a long way from our home and theirs – a long night’s drive away – and Mr. C. was in a small hick town hospital.

“I’m going to leave you two boys here,” she said. “Mrs. C. needs me.” Shaken, my brother and I could only nod our heads and agree. Mr. S. dead? Mr. S. dead?? That thought rocked my socks off. I had only played with him (or around him) the day before. And I liked the old man. While he didn’t put up with any of us kid’s nonsense, you knew – just knew – he was fond of us all the same. And that fondness was returned – in our own way. Just as he would thump our heads for ‘bothering’ him (and then let us go) – you could tell that if you didn’t ‘bother’ him, he would get sad. Mr. C’s being injured didn’t bother me as much at the time – I had been hurt before, and was convinced that the doctors could fix anything. And my friend, the teenager – well, I’d started having mixed feelings about him after the things he had done. But my best friend – the son of Mr. C – I almost panicked about him. I knew he had to be really upset.

Every day after that when we’d get home, my mom would fill us in. I don’t know whether it was because we asked, or if she just knew we were concerned. My best friend would still come out to play – but the family was subdued, as were our playtimes.

Three days later – on Halloween night – came the news.

“Mr. C. is dead,” my mom said as we prepared our Halloween costumes. “When you go out trick-or-treating with them tonight, don’t tell them. The kids don’t know yet, and we don’t want them to know. We want them to enjoy tonight without knowing their father is dead. Okay?”

And thus began the worst Halloween I can ever remember.

It had been a week of shocks. A month of shocks. First going to Germany – and soon. Then Mr. S. – our precious friend! – dead. The wreck. And now this. On Halloween.

I think my brother and I must have been in shock – shock after shock hitting us. But Halloween was upon us, and it was evening. All around us the ‘hood was coming to life – little kids wandering around, parents here and there – and us. I felt like someone had punched me; like a zombie, mindless. My thoughts were only about four things: Mr. S. being dead, and Mr. C. now dead – and my best friend – and this terrible secret we were suddenly burdened with keeping.

I remember us going out into the front yard. It was already dark. We waited awhile, then my best friend and his big brother, the teenager, came over. The teenager was the one who was going to take us on our rounds. Odd, now that I think of it, here, now, writing this. My mom had always accompanied us before on our Halloween rounds. This was the first time ever that she didn’t. Looking back, I can think of only one thing: she’d gone next door to Mrs. C’s house to comfort the poor wretched woman, and perhaps take care of the trick-or-treaters coming to Mrs. C’s door. After all – I imagine Mrs. C. was in no condition to do that herself. It would have been just too much, too tragic – to have to see a bunch of happy kids staring at her, some in death costumes – when her husband had just died – and her with no job, no income, probably no savings or life insurance – and four hungry mouths to feed.

We left the yard, the teenager being kind of quiet and curt with us – he seemed almost distracted. We had not even crossed the other next door neighbor’s yard when we saw the thing – something which still sticks out in my mind to this day, as graphic as if I had it sitting in front of me. I even gave it a name.

Flat cat. That is the name I gave it. For there, in the neighbor’s driveway, was a kitten, almost fully grown – smashed flat as a pancake by a car. It was laying on its back, and the only thing that stuck out were its eyes – huge and bulging, staring up at the night sky. I suppose at any other time it might have been comical, but on this night – Halloween night – with my best friend’s father suddenly dead – it was a horror.

Things get fuzzy from here.

I don’t know who said it, when it was said – and I’m almost certain I’m the one who said it – but somehow it came out.

“Your daddy’s dead.”

“I know,” the teenager said, his eyes rising to the midnight horizon. It was if he had suddenly forgotten we were there. I could feel my best friend flinch next to me.

“No he’s not! He’s not dead!” My best friend’s protests cut me to the quick.

I don’t recall exactly what happened next. I can only remember turmoil. When I was talking to a shrink about this (she laughed at the picture I drew of the flat cat, thinking it was funny – and really angering me) – all I could say is that I remember people running around. But it was Halloween, which would make sense. But in my heart I think what happened was this:

My best friend ran to his house, crying.

The teenager watched him go, looking real sad, but took us on our rounds to collect candy anyway. I don’t remember being happy, not happy at all. All I could feel was a deep upset and a sadness which wouldn’t go away. If I had to put it into words, it was the sensation of wanting to rip one’s heart out, to somehow go back in time – but as a child I hadn’t the words nor the concepts, only the feeling that lay within.

When we got home we told my mom: we spilled the beans. My mom was not happy about that, but I don’t think she did anything to us except tell us that we should of kept it to ourselves.

It was not a happy night.

We went to the funeral. I recall being dressed in my Sunday best. I could not understand why Mr. C. had died – it had only been a leg wound. How could a leg wound kill anyone? I didn’t understand; didn’t want to understand, but I wanted to know. Why was my best friend’s father – a man who I really had liked – dead? (And I loved Mr. S. I almost hate to say it, but I loved that grumpy old man.) She explained it thus:

“He got a blood clot and it killed him. The hospital he was in wouldn’t treat it. He didn’t have any insurance to pay . . .”

I don’t know why, but there and then I hated the insurance company – without even really knowing what such a thing was – only that they could have saved Mr. C. – but because he didn’t have enough money, they let him die. I was angry at them, but too confused to express my anger. How could they let him die?, I remember wondering over and over again. How could they do that? To this day I feel anger about that, and don’t have much more love for insurance companies than I did at that moment.

The funeral was like any Southern funeral. There was a nice church – we sat in back – and there were lots and lots of flowers. We never saw Mr. S. again. I guess no one went to his funeral, or (more than likely) – he was given a military funeral somewhere else and we didn’t go. I was sad – but I couldn’t cry. I just couldn’t. I remember feeling really guilty about that, and somewhere during the preaching in the church, I managed to force one tear. One single tear for the men who had died, a father I had known, and one of few grownups I knew and liked. Nothing more.

I’ve never been able to cry much since, except for one time, and that would come a few years later. I feel grief, but cannot cry. I don’t know why that is. I’ve been told that it’s a bad thing, but I think it’s just the way society views us men; the way I was raised. Big boys don’t cry, and men – never. It’s just “the rules”. And even many women, who in today’s society say that men should be “more sensitive” profess that the sight of a man crying bothers them, disturbs them, and makes them think less of the man.

I remember us going down to the passport building at the local fort to get our passport photos made. I remember that small building well; could even take you out there and show you where it is (or was). A squat wood planked building set high on blocks to thwart the termites, the white paint a dozen or more coats thick; four by eight paned windows, their panes like dots on dice – all the buildings were like that – their dull monotony even worse than blades of grass – and having to sit on my momma’s lap while the photo was taken. I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t have my “own” passport, but they said I was too young. My mom still has that passport – I’ve seen the photo since then. Black and white it shows a smiling young woman and a somewhat doubtful blond headed boy. She is looking at the camera; I’m looking slightly to the edge, because I was watching the photographer, and not the lens. I’ve always been that way: unable to directly meet people’s eyes without feeling disturbed, and unwilling to look into a camera lens. That’s caused problems in the past (people think I’m lying) – but it goes back to my past and psychology. You didn’t look my parents in the eyes when you were answering them. To do so was to make them angry – they saw it as a challenge. So I don’t like doing that unless I am challenging a person. Otherwise I’m taking in the details – the things around me. I’m very detail orientated like that, which I guess is part of the reason I remember all the little details of things (like that we were facing WEST in the room; the building’s door faced SOUTH, you walked to the RIGHT to sit in the chair, the floors were green linoleum, there was a clock on the wall with a black edged frame and a bubble glass front, the chair was a green or gray metal, the pads on it green vinyl, the windows wood framed, white painted, with four rows of panes across, four rows up, double hung; there was an office in the building facing the room you came in; there was glass in front of the office, and a chipped brown board under the window to rest your arms while you talked to the person inside, the door to the office was to the LEFT as you faced it . . . little things like that.)

We got our shots about the same time. I remember the pediatric clinic well: faded and chipped children’s pictures painted on the walls, the same type of hard framed metal chairs lining the middle; wooden benches like church pews along the walls. There were always people smoking – looking bored, reading newspapers, flipping through well worn and oft times ripped magazines. My brother – crying and wailing before they even came to get him; me sitting there watching the other little kids, my mom beside me, her black purse pressed against my side . . . . a yellow manila folder in her hand. Watching in fascination as the doctor stuck needles in my arms; how sore it made my arms for a few days afterward.

We left the hood a few weeks later. I have a ‘snapshot memory’ of us packing – my mom showing us how to pack glasses (“stuff them full of paper, then wrap them in paper. If you don’t stuff them with paper, they’ll break.”) Most of our stuff was going into “storage”, where the Army would keep it for the years we were gone. When we came back, most of it was missing, especially my toys. Those old G.I. Joes would’ve been worth a fortune by now. And my mom’s Corningware – something she still gets angry about ‘losing’ to this day. I guess storage isn’t as well guarded as we’d been told, despite being an “Army” institution.

And then, boarding the big jet plane in Charleston – we were “outta here” – away from the States – and everything I knew.

Life as I knew it would never be the same.

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