Tag Archive: children

While we were overseas, there was very little to do in life during the evenings. We had our old black & white TV which offered up two channels – in German. There was nothing like watching Hoss from Ponderosa ride up on his horse exclaiming: “Vas is los!”.  And I like how they packed all their commercials at the end, and like sweets, sprinkled a little cartoon between them.

But what really saved us was Armed Forces Radio – and a reel-to-reel tape player that my dad had gotten in Thailand to record missionary spiels on.  In that collection of endlessly boring and droning voices was a tape of Bill Cosby’s earlier shows, the ones he’d done while he was young, and, I guess, touring for the G.I.’s on duty over there.

By this time – the time we’d found the tape – I was suffering from some pretty bad depression.  Shifting from base to base, living on American military bases in a foreign nation; no friends I could count, nobody to know me – or I them, and no time to do it anyway before we’d be separated, yanked apart . . .

I read books, I counted time till “the end” when we would return to Stateside (and I wasn’t the only kid doing this!) – usually bored nearly out of my mind, especially during the winter months when night started earlier – we’d sit and listen to those tapes, their contents unwinding from one reel to another, laughing at Bill Cosby’s outrageous stories of Fat Albert, Suicide Hill, and the Chicken Heart.  How I loved that tape!  It was double sided, and long.  We’d get lost inside those stories, watching the cop’s cuff’s slide off those kids signs, imagining rubber baby wheels gone, and home-built carts with those wheels.

He saved me.

There were times when, despite being 13, I had developed a cynical mind. I’d seen too much already: I knew about sex and gunfire, I had squatted and eaten with the  G.I.’s.  I’d ridden tanks and learned to fire machine guns; I’d learned survival.  I was reading ten to twenty novels a week, and could march 20 kilometers at a time.

I was hurt inside by the loss of my friends, and being stuck in a foreign land.  I had withstood school bomb threats (new to my experience), grown tired of the racism (something I couldn’t understand, but which had recently occurred to me).  My family – a shattered one at best, each individual plodding along as best they could, nobody for someone else.  You were expected to make it on your best bet, your best decision.  Your emotions were up to you, and it was up to you to control them – or at the very least, not express them to anyone . . .

In three years I had gone from an open, happy-go-lucky kind of child (“Gregorius”, my mom had called it) to a silent kid.  I’m sure I appeared sullen some of the time, but it was merely watching, mixed with a growing depression.  I kept on having nightmares all the time – not just the ‘normal’ ones (I had nightmares for 48 years) – but nightmares about what I feared was coming. A returning to something new with everything I had known gone.  The ‘end’ was approaching, our tour was fast running down.  And I knew it.

And I wanted to kill myself before the end.

And I can kinda blame Bill Cosby for reversing that when I’d get desperate,  feeling so bad . . . I’d kinda want to go bury myself in a road and let some tank run over me, take one of those .30 caliber rounds and set it off pointed at my head – do something stupid, something to get rid . . . of me.  End a deepening misery I could not understand nor articulate.  I guess I didn’t know anything was wrong – but felt it.  Hell, I was just a kid.    I suppose Debbie kinda helped me with that, in the end.

But nothing helped like putting that old Bill Cosby tape on and listening, doubling up with laughter again.  Interspersing it with some Armed Forces radio shows (“Suspense”, “The Shadow”, etc) we’d find ourselves coming back to that long reel-to-reel in the end.  It helped settle some of the violence in me that was struggling to come out, easing my on-coming rage issues (both inside and out), helped keep the depression and that tearing sense of loneliness – one that was growing every day – ever since I’d lost my best friend over there even worse . . .

and I had forgotten how to cry anymore.

I had done that when I was 13 – once.

After that it was all kept bottled inside.  For over forty-five years plus.

I’ve seen the movie “Hunger Games”, me and my wife.  I wasn’t impressed.

I guess it’s hard to gain an impression of that lifestyle when you’ve lived one as a kid, courtesy of the United States Army and a few other folks.

I grew up in a wartime culture, as lot of my peers did: steeped in the consequences of Vietnam, our father’s fresh from the horror of Korea (and the PTSD symptoms that followed – at the time unrecognized, but visited upon their kids and immediate family sometimes).

I well remember the hunger games.  The real ones.  The ones that WE played – for real.

Kids, gathered or ganged, platooned or assigned, guardian and guerrilla – we came in all kinds, and all kinds of us had our own specialties.  We’d gather in squads or platoons in the woods under the guidance of some counselors, be they military men or civilian, it really didn’t matter.  I even had a Scout Master – Colonel R., from the time I was 14 or so until I grew up and went into the military myself.

We were all a bunch of Army kids – always ‘fighting’, often playing war.  Our Scouts skills consisted of learning a bunch of survival; our overseas training, even more.*

Often the ‘award’ from such a fight was a can of C-Rats – C-Rations, to you civilian folks.  The favorite was fruit cocktail, pound cake (in a can) fell behind as a distant second.

A stack of “Silver Bullets” co-offered by some counselor (gathered from us, of course!) – would be enough for a reward.

To the spoils goes the victor.

They would set the “goody” somewhere (perhaps), divide us into battle groups (divisions, platoons – squads).  Generally the ‘armies’ were divided evenly, but not always.  Sometimes the ‘smart’ kids would be given the little kids to fight with – and the other team would be a lot of big boys.

Very big boys indeed.

I remember laying curled face down in a ravine, knees against my chest as dozens of kids, charging, dove across the ravine, their heels hammering along my spine and ribs.  I served as kind of a footbridge for a lot of them, or so it seemed.  Not that I was there for that, mind you!  I was a spy, and these were my enemies.  They had come up the hill (stealthily, you know), but I had ‘a-spyed’ them, lurking through the bushes, taking little ‘rushes’ from cover to cover, and had sent my young ‘aid’ a runner, about an eight year old kid (I was 14) to go and fetch help, give warning, do something.  Assemble the troops or whatnot.  Set off the alarm.  For I wasn’t the commander – just an infiltrator into enemy territory seeking a few goals.

Often the rules were uneasy.  You were allowed to hurt other kids – but not too badly.  Nothing that needed first aid (and we’re talking here in the serious days, where a small burn or scratch would get you a look of contempt were you to bring it to their attention, much less whine about it.  Kids today are so ‘tender’ . . . but there again, I had such a high pain tolerance (gee, wonder where that came from?  LOL!)

We “played” hard for that little treat, that can of syrupy sweetness, all swathed in green . . . O.D. green, that is, the color of war and canvas.  (How I like the smell of fresh tinted canvas – that military ‘stuff’, thick, green, and sturdy . . . there’s something about it that says . . . something.  Like ‘welcome home’, somewhat . . .)

I remember (and now this was in my older days, when I was 16 and had learned a lot about survival – and torturing folks) – we caught a kid.

He was from the other team, and he knew where in these deep woods (bounded by a highway and stream on one side, a tremendous lake on the other, bordered by woods and mud, and cut-through with ravines like an old man’s face . . .)

So I had him – or rather my helpers – tie him up.

At the first they were amazed when I took his shoe laces and wrapped them tight around his thumbs.  I tied a noose-knot, one that wouldn’t come unbowed, and would tighten whenever he drew it.

And then I showed them how . . .

to tie him up (to a stump) – and then to torture him . . .

without ever leaving a mark.

(That’s kinda funny, seeing as his name INDEED was Mark; Mark T. is all I’ll say for his own protection here . . .)

He had been boggle eyed and incredulous when I had tied him by his thumbs, sneering and saying:  “I’ll get out in no time!”  He was sure of himself, and that he could break those shoe laces.

While he was struggling with his bounds, I turned to my ‘men’ and began telling them – rather, teaching them what to do.

“We’re gonna tickle him,” I said, glancing over my shoulder.  He was sweating now, and his thumbs were hurting – I could seem them turning blue.

He, overhearing that, stopped struggling (whilst I went over and loosen his thumb braces a bit there) – and laughed again.

“Tickle me?!!”  He barked a laugh again.  “That’ll never work!  You can’t hurt me, you know!  Not really.”  And he smiled with a show of self-satisfaction, and leaned back, confident.

I smiled grimly.

He knew little of what was coming.

Turning to my three or four young charges, I looked over my team and said:

“Like this.”

And we began.  We all took turns in tickling him – him bound against the rough bark of an old (and somewhat soggy) tree stump, and those kids taking turns tickling his ribs, and up under his chin – using every trick in the book, even leaves and soft branches.  We had his shoes off, so his foot soles were bared.  At first he couldn’t stop laughing.

Then he couldn’t stop crying.

Then he couldn’t stop himself from peeing himself.

While we all stood around laughing at him he gave us the information we need . . .

Such is the fate, and the victor’s spoils.

He was only a little younger than me, by a year or two.   After ‘extracting’ our information (and me having two swift young runners go back bearing the news, by different ways should one of them get caught) – we found their camp and made havoc on them, taking care not to snap any of their tent poles, but otherwise ‘destroying’ their tents, and pity he who left a bit of food laying out . . . we would take it, every last drop and crumb . . .

Hunger games.


I’ve played them.



*We were being ‘trained’ to be infiltrators and ‘helpful little hands’ (in some terms guerrillas) for NBC war.  Those skills included, but were not limited to, learning to fire the minigun from a Cobra’s co-pilot seat using a HUD.  Just in case too many Army pilots got wounded . . . during a nuclear war.

The Girlfriend

“You wanna go together?”

“Huh?”, I said, not understanding the question.

“Girlfriend and boyfriend. You wanna be my boyfriend?”

I looked at her, a mushroom shaped girl with long dark hair draped below her shoulders. Her face was fat, a bit like mine, and she sat on a low bench, scuffing her feet in the schoolyard dirt of the playground.

She was fat, like me. I had gained a lot of weight during my trip to this ‘new’ land. The food was great, and the pastries to die for. There was lots of candy in my diet – I was used to doing a lot of work now, hustling to get jobs, anything where I could earn some money. I cut grass. I watched kids. I hauled garbage on a predetermined schedule – and this was back in the old days before plastic bags, and they put everything into paper. Paper could bust out and drop everything on eight sets of stairs; I had learned to be careful.

I thought about it. I thought I knew just about everything there was to know about ‘sex’ – I’d done some reading, too. One of the most valuable books I’d found was in the school library: “Everything A Boy Needs to Know About Sex” – and it pretty much covered it. I read the Girl’s version, too. I wanted to be sure I knew both sides, including their point of view.

Those books were pretty good, too – a lot better than the coach we had, the one who taught sex education in the basement. It looked like the boiler room: dim and dark, stacked with pipes and dark shapes running this way and that, the boys stacked wherever they could fit in the darkness. The coach sat in the middle (it was a poorly lit place, that’s a matter of fact!) and made a few raunchy jokes – just one or two – and set in with a five minute explanation of everything, as if that should cover it. In his mind, anyway. He sort of expected us to know and we did. So for the next thirty minutes or so we sat there – there was a lot of joking, nothing to be done, sat around and then got outta there.

That was the extent of the Army’s ‘to-the-point’ explanation of a sexual education. If you couldn’t get it on the run, you weren’t going to get it anyway else.

So I’m looking this girl in the eye, trying to wrap my head around my feelings – and I don’t have any, not really, not for her. But I’m lonely and bored. Lonely, in a way. I’ve got three months or so left to go (more or less) before we’re shipping Stateside (back home! My other way of life! If anything is left . . . providing dreams don’t come true . . .)

“Okay,” I say, my voice guarded. “I’ll be your boyfriend.”

Because, to put it quite simply, I am not sure. Cultures are always changing – people are in and out of my life like roses, blooming and fading – and I’m not sure how this ‘relationship’ will go. I’ve been bitten and burned by quite a few of them. I’ve lost all of my friends. Either we or they have all moved away . . . But what else are we to do?

Her name is Debbie, by the way (a wonderful coincidence later, you’ll see. Much later, in one of the stories I’m going to be writing.)

She’s a fat girl, just like me.

And lonely, too.

Her friends have all ‘moved’, she’s a short-timer, too. I had just lost my best-ever friend, DB. Later on I learned it was in part due to a betrayal by my father. I was lonely and bored. No one knew me, nor I them, and no one gave a damn. I hung out at the youth center, or in the bunkers, or over at the airport where the spying went on – hanging out, getting into things then getting out again. There was a lot of ‘snooping and pooping’ with the G.I.’s out in the field, plus our ‘games’ and training in the bunkers. There were several beneath the airport, and we became quite big fans of theirs.

Anyway, here’s this girl, asking me out to something . . .

I guess it was more in name than in something else; love (or even ‘like’) that is, if there were remotely any feelings involved. I didn’t love her, not at all – nor, I think, did she, I. I was something for her to hit on and hang onto – something to take up our time.

Having not had much experience with other kids (they kept on moving, shifting around) – she and I became a partners in the ‘permanent’ scene for awhile – going to the Youth Center, touring the woods, until someone gave up or someone had to fly. I think it was her, transferred back to ‘here’ (the good ol’ U.S. of A). A lot of my friendships (and acquaintances – and enemies) came to an end like that: all of a sudden, with the brute force of an Army Officer’s call (or some kind of Orders, anyway).

So we hung out together – bored in school, sitting around, that kind of stuff. There wasn’t a lot of romantic ‘kissing’ going on. There wasn’t any kissing altogether, not for a long time, not until

The Castle.

We went on a trip, one we had to get our parent’s permissions for. It was for a 3 day trip to a castle where we would be staying courtesy of some sort of Christian Fellowship. I didn’t know about the Christian thing until I got there and discovered this was the source (or one of the sources) of all those little religious pamphlets or “cartoons” that I kept discovering. Sometimes one would find one in airports, or in some restroom – they kept a pile of them by some cash registrars sometimes – and always there were ‘funny’ in some horrible tragic kind of way, featuring some goon or loser getting his just dues, maybe sent to Hell (or some other kind of eternal damnation) – then getting Saved (or else going on into Hell anyway). We liked them because they were kinda funny – in a way. Christ was always the Savior. I found them corny – one I remember featured a boy propped against a wall, smoking. I had been smoking for some time . . .

But Debbie and I had been planning this thing for a long time – or it seemed like a long time for kids like us. About three weeks or so I guess . . .

And so it was that her brother (and her BIG brother I’m talking about, mind you!) took it into his head to remind me that we were NOT to “do” anything with his sister (and this is his “little” sister, mind you, so he’s especially protective) – or he’s gonna “whip my ass.”

Fine, I’m thinking, because I’m not planning on “doing” anything or going there (though I probably would, had the opportunity presented itself). I’d already had sex on my mind. I had since I was eight or so.

So we go on this field trip with her.

And it’s a wonderful place, this old castle and all – and we’re given a tour of it, Debbie and I hand in hand, and they assign us segregated sleeping quarters (a long hallway with a bunch of bunks on either side) and/or a “day room” to ‘play’ in.

Now this day room is kinda cool. It’s in the center of a tower, or an old turret, so the room is kind of round and all, and there’s tall windows letting the light in – nice, big windows – and there’s a hidden circular stairway in the middle goes to the top of the castle turret through a square hole with a trapdoor . . . Nobody goes up in that dark old hidey-hole . . .

Except us.

So we do.

Eventually we end up making out – going on top of the turret where she shows me how to ‘do’ things (like rubbing her breasts, which were, I guess, just kinda budding – kinda hard to tell when you’ve got a fat girl there) – and she has me stick my tongue in her mouth, right between her teeth (something that I hadn’t realized, since it wasn’t covered in the book I’d read). So . . . I went along with it . . . but memories of her brother kept popping in my head.

But it was quite beautiful there on the turret in the spring air. And my friend taught me to play cards as well – “War”, it was called, the first card game ever I learned with standard playing cards. I ate my first ‘raw’ egg there – or rather, it was undercooked, or at least by ‘my’ standards (and my momma’s, so therefore I had judged it underdone) – and it was one of the best eggs I ever ate in my life. Boiled, and slightly done, cracked in butter and a whole lot of salt – stir it up . . .


But we spent a lot of time in that turret . . . in the darkness under the trap door, groping, fondling, finding one another, not that a lot went on . . .

and discovering the beautiful countryside from on high, between the stones of the turret,

I found a little peace and beauty, holding hands with a girl who wouldn’t cry when I left her.

The Game

The two little boys stood, staring at each other, their faces firm – stern, hard, laced with anger.  Their fists raised before them – small bald hands with knuckles staring out of them.  One had his thumb tucked in his fist – that was the wrong thing to do.

I should know.  I was one of the boy’s fighting.

Often us boys would play a game – this was back in the days of the ‘hood.  I don’t know what to call it except simply choking.

It’s been on my mind for a bit of time, so I’m going to write about it.


The two boys stood – this was another time, same place.   The teenager stood nearby, the other kids a loose ring – about seven of them, ranging in age from 3 to 12 years old.  They were my ‘audience’ – or theirs, my teenager and his friends.  My best friend and I, facing off one more time.  It seems like we were always facing off and fighting, trying to prove who was tougher than the other.  I always won, time after time.  But not in this one.  Not always.  Or at least I don’t think so.  It’s hard to remember those kinds of things sometimes . . .

I grabbed him around the neck with both hands – I can still see his sandy curly locks as he threw his head back, tightly smiling, instinctively protecting his features – broad brimmed face with wild cat green eyes – it was as if there was something feral behind them and pinpoint pupils from the bright Georgia sun.  At the same time he was opening up his neck, I grabbed him double-handed, placing both thumbs on opposite sides of the slender arching bulge of his windpipe, taking care to at least place the first joint of my thumb beyond it.  At the same time he grabbed mine in a similar grip – and I let him.  This was what the teenager told us to do.  I was about eight years old.

He started squeezing tighter and tighter as I tightened my grip.  You weren’t allowed to do it all at once – you had to do it slowly.  It was important that the thumbs remained wrapped completely around the throat – on both sides of the windpipe.  We didn’t want to take the chance of crushing someone’s windpipe – we already knew the consequences.  At least one kid had faced disaster – his windpipe crushed in.  The thumb joints, properly aligned, were where one could crush, squashing the throat below the windpipe and in the esophagus region.  This insured no one was crushing someone else’s cartilage.

How I knew that I did not know.

We would stand there stiff legged – this happened several times; not once but many through my childhood – our fingers wrapped around each other’s throats, both of us tightly grinning – an evil grin and a vicious one, but without any real malice towards our friend – squeezing tighter and tighter until someone would pass out.

The first few times I got knocked out, or at least very blank and dizzy.  There comes a time when the darkness rushes in from the edges of your vision, narrowing it down.  Outside sound becomes muted; your heart beat a dull thud in your ears . . . one that seems to grow even slower and fainter and then even it disappears, and you lose all taste and vision . . .

and you wake up on the floor.  Or the ground.  Or wherever you ended up landing.  And hope you didn’t get hurt.  (Once I fell out on a paved road . . . and woke with road rash and bruises all over my knees, elbows and hands.  At least the body had tried to catch itself . . . I don’t remember a thing.)

I won’t go into the mental aspect of knowing you are dying.  That’s a different sort of thing.

Sometimes my friend and I played with nobody watching – ‘practicing’ out in the yard.  You weren’t supposed to do that – someone could get hurt, the teenager had warned us many a time, adding that someone could die from this thing.  But on the other hand he was the one who had set the Games up . . . one of several kinds.

I learned you could hyperventilate prior to this ‘event’ to prepare – filling your body with essential oxygen until your head was swimming from the stuff – and then going right into the ‘fighting’.  I could outlast many an opponent that way – strangling him while he strangled me until someone gave up or went down.

It was a hell of a game to play.

It went on until we were about ten or eleven – by that time we were getting a bit dangerous with it.  We would hang on even though we were dying, or passed out sometimes – our hands unconsciously locked down like claw vises.  Then the teenager would have to pry them apart . . .

It was a hell of a game.  In many ways.


G.I. Joe Scouts

G.I. Joe Scouts

I was about twelve or thirteen when I joined the Boy Scouts. My parents told me about them – they were at the JYC or whatever acronym the Army used for that thing – an Army run “Juvenile Youth Center” where bored teens could hang out. It was worse than the USO, which had fallen into hard times during that period – probably due to the Vietnam war. They had an old dinged up ping-pong table, a couple broken balls, and a paddle or two – the rubber peeling off one side like dead skin. You could hear it flapping and woofing in the wind as you swung it around, batting the beaten balls on their unpredictable trajectories and hearing their dull thumps.

And that was about it.

Us kids were generally bored. We’d seen everything. I read a LOT. We’d scouted out the hangers, hung around in the barracks, stole supplies – you name it.   And we were very good.  Not that we were ‘bad’ kids, just generally bored Army brats with too much knowledge in this world.  So when my parents approached me – practically forced me – into this group, I joined as my brother did.

We were a very small group, this “Troop” of ours.  There were only five or six kids.  They were of various ages and colors – ranging from some small ones (two little black brothers), a medium one (Latino or Hawaiian) about my age, my brother, and someone else.  Race didn’t make any difference; never did, not until the blacks taught me to hate them for a while with their hatred for the ‘white man’ (though I was only a boy at the time).  Sometimes  I still have a problem with it, but then – so do they and they caused it.  At least in me later on.

We had a lot of ‘fun’ with those guys, our G.I. Scout Masters, serving as go-to boys for their beer. They sold it in the barracks in a soda machine – just insert four quarters and you were done – and we’d dutifully trot right on back, bearing their beer. We never drank it. Though German beer was good they didn’t offer it in the machines due to the higher alcohol content – and our Scout Masters always provided the quarters. They were our masters in more than one way, and we were their sons sometime.

They didn’t act like Scout Masters, not much. Nobody wore any uniforms, took any oaths or salutes. I wouldn’t learn those until later, when I joined a real Scout Troop over ‘here’ in the United States again. They acted like a couple G.I.’s who were set on having a fun mission – that of training us kids.   It involved a lot of hiking, quite often in Volksmarching (20 kilometers or more), hard winter camping, and learning survival skills, which included learning weapons and ammo, how to set up a tent, hunt for mines.  We met in one of the underground bunkers – the first of seven  of the rumored underground levels of the base we were on, Fliegerhorst Kaserne (Flying Horse, quite literally translated). These were also the two G.I.’s who took us on trips through parts of the huge sprawling bunker – it seemed to cover acres, and was built like a rat maze with rooms. All the doors were gasketed and vented with chemical ports – small black perforated domed eyes of thickly painted steel – with big dog-legged levers that pivoting in the middle, one on top and one on the bottom. There was a firing range there as well.

We spent a lot of time identifying bullets by their remains. The G.I.’s had us doing it at an outdoor mountain range one time, digging them out of a hill bank that acted as a range backstop, identifying them by name.

“This one’s a thirty caliber, and that one’s a forty-five,” they’d explain, holding up some mushroomed piece of lead, its copper jacket all torn and mangled. You could usually tell by looking at the lands (bottom rim) of the bullet what kind of gun it came from. But sometimes the bottom would be chipped and broken and you’d find yourself digging looking for the pieces, as if there was a story to be told and here were the hidden words. And that was the truth of it sometimes. Sometimes you could tell by small arms caliber fire what kind of bullets were used, and get some idea of the strength of their weapons. They could sometimes tell you the enemy’s – or a sniper’s – direction, though you hadn’t heard where the shot came from. And sometimes, piecing them together, you would learn a little bit about yourself. How to use your own skills to find things like that – those little bits and pieces, piecing them together, and announcing:

“They shot an M-16 from that booth on automatic,” and then pointing to the little holes, be able to explain where the fire came from, where was the enemy’s last known direction when this attack took place. From that you could determine where to go next. We always found ourselves going towards the enemy’s direction so we could track them, or else back to ‘base’ to make your report and stand by for ‘more orders’. A lot of the time those ‘something else’s’ ended up being extended marches – through the snow and woods; along some busy German road in the slush and the rain, backpacks bearing down across our backs. I wished so bad for a frame; mine didn’t have one. It took a long long time, saving up a little as I did, but it was well worth it when I did. My back became hard and strong by then.

One day we were walking when we heard some small arms fire coming from our right. Looking up the mountain, we could see a narrow green swatch of ‘range’ arrowing up on the mountains.  Earlier that day we had been poking for some mines and looking for booby traps and ‘things’ – those long thin wires they would lay out on the ground where a firework would go off announcing your presence to someone and you were ‘dead’.

Filtering up through the woods we ‘took’ that range strategically (announcing ourselves and surprising some older scouts posted around) and surrounding them, went into the long lean-to that served as wet weather protection and a place to clean arms. We all stood there fidgeting around while the two scout masters met, discussed something real quick, and the boys all laid down their weapons in the pits. I was hoping and praying we were going to get to firing them – you know, shooting the still warm weapons, but we didn’t. Instead the Sargent had us move on – filing out of the building single file. Later, after a long night, we came back and dug some bullets out – again, with our fingers stiff and sore because we had to use them. No one had a shovel, which I find rather strange – not even the two G.I.’s. Or if they had one I don’t remember.

So we walked again – a long time – set up our tents and laid down inside, still on the hard packed snow in our canvas bags because it had started snowing again. We were cold, wet and shuddering, wrapped in army canvas as we tried to stay warm . . . but soon the quilted warmth of our downy “Sleeping Bag, Arctic” kicked in, and we slept in our warm cocoons, our breath frosting our mouth and nose.

It was a long night . . . and just one of many I’ve experienced in my lifetime. And some not so comfortable as that . . .

Says a lot for the places I’ve been.

The Canteen: Part Two

It was a chilly early afternoon. Gray clouds scudded across a slate plated sky, broken by occasional shafts of sunlight marching across the verdant green land like golden lances. The tree shuddered and moaned under the wind’s brace, shaking its branches against winter’s advancing chill. Leaves shook with a delicate rustle, some tearing awayto go dancing down the hill and disappearing into the farmer’s field like mice among the grain.

My buddies and I sat on the grass covered bunker, a left over from World War Two. It was outside the fence in the ‘forbidden zone’ – Krautland – and we had gotten there through a hole in the fence. It seemed no matter where we went we could find an escape route – a hole in the fence, a poorly guarded outpost – sneaking out and sneaking in again. You weren’t allowed to do that. It was strictly against regulations. You were required to leave by the main gate if you meant to go, presenting your ID upon re-entering the base to the always present MP-cum-sentry there. Going through the fence was strictly forbidden and it was farmland there – farmland followed by stretches of woods where the tanks and we ‘played’.

We’d go there when we’d get bored, looking for something to do. It wasn’t that weren’t other distractions on the military bases, though we did a lot of things which were illegal, such as sabotaging an airfield’s radar installation, or stealing supplies from the supply depots – and the ammunition no less! – being another. Oft times we would go ‘play’ with the G.I.’s who were on maneuvers, lying and deceiving to our own parents about where we had been, and lying to the G.I.s commanders as well. It all depended upon whose side we were on at the time.

And of course there was the PX, theater, and snack bar – and if you were really lucky, a bowling alley or a pool. Most of the bases didn’t have the latter. That was about it. No TV or radio, no phones to use and play on, no internet, no . . . nothing. Us kids road shuttle buses like flies following a garbage truck. They were long green ones, driven by a German driver, with the classic folding doors and hard seats – Old Bluebirds painted green and recommissioned for the military’s uses. They also were our school buses when the time came, though you had to be on your toes to catch one. The Germans ran their schedules like everything – strictly on time, though God bless them, they would wait for you if they thought you were in trouble or something – on the military bases only.

But us kids were bored. We’d seen it all. We’d scouted the hangers, hung around in the snack bar, played the pinball machines – a costly expense for me. I was always hunting for one that was broken, whether by dropping my quarters back into the return slot like a loose drunk’s grip (while award a credit for our effort) or like a benevolent god, granting us kids our wish for endless credits in return for us sharing the thing and keeping quiet so the snack bar operators wouldn’t catch onto the free games. Once we kept a machine going for almost a week – gathering around it and shielding prying eyes from our gain.

This time we were on a mission, albeit one of our own making. We weren’t hanging out simply because we were bored. I had my purchase from the German canteen; another had the necessary items. We all hoisted ourselves into the tree that stood on the shoulders of the bunker, climbing its branches. We had already checked the single squared opening we’d found in the bunker – near the top, with a square runged ladder leading down. We’d gone inside a few times, but it just stunk of piss, like old beer, and there was always a thin film of water from one to a few inches deep at the bottom. A few G.I.’s had come out one time – we had hidden from them in the tree, not even knowing we were hiding – and then they had engaged in gay sex right there before us, in the weeds below the sharp rise of the bunker. It had grown funnier and funnier until we all started laughing like a bunch of crows – and then screaming “Book! Book!” we’d taken off running for our hole in the gate. The G.I.’s, all tangled in their embraces and the bedsheet they had brung had found themselves tripped up by their nakedness and the sheet they had wrapped themselves in. I was laughing so hard I was barely able to make it – ducking low as I slid like a baseball runner under that scornful lip of the bent chain link curling in the ditch near the bottom – scuffing up the dust as I went ‘in’, back on the base safe and sound, still grinning and looking at my friends . . .

We often came there where when we were bored. It was always quiet and peaceful once we’d get settle down. A Jagermiester’s hut stood out in the field – across the grain you could see fences of wooded land marching down across the horizon. It often brought me a smile, being in those woods . . . away from everyone and the base we were on.

I drew out the package I had purchased the night before and tore the top open. There were the German cigarettes I had bought and I hadn’t been picky about the brand. They were rough and unfiltered. I wouldn’t have known what brand to get anyway since I hadn’t smoked. My father owned a pipe – several well aged Meerschaums as well, but he had given up smoking some time ago. How I loved the aroma of a good pipe tobacco! How my mom hated those things – including the cigarettes I held in my hand. She hated a lot of things with a passion, insanely so some times. Including us because she hated men – hating them secretly and then vomiting out all her own fears and hatreds on us, her own children. There was a lot to be said about that woman, some of them good. But most of them are not.

This was a first for a lot of us, smoking. There were six of us in all that morning or afternoon. With the cloud cover it was hard to judge the time sometimes, but watches were rare. I had a Timex strapped to my arm; some of the other kids owned one as well – small white faces with thin black straps, each one a windup. They were for telling us what time to be home. Others relied on Taps sad siren’s song which would sound promptly at five o’clock pm to announce when it was time to be going. It was like a command from God himself, only more reliable and much more punctual.

One of the boys in our group said he had tried smoking before, sneaking some from his father. Another one chirped that they made you ‘high’, but nobody was quite sure what that meant. After all, what is ‘high’ when you are a kid and only twelve years old? You don’t associate it with some drinking that you did; that was “getting drunk” in our minds. And nobody talked about what others were doing, not much. Sometimes there were traitors in our groups, though usually we were best of friends. You never knew when a knife might fall – the knife of Army separation, or from a small group of friends, or from the disappearance of one individual by himself. Sometimes it would be the fathers who were in conflict – and then everyone would suffer. Sometimes the whole base would feel the wrath of a particularly mad and powerful C.O’s anger. Sometimes we were punished as a group; sometimes all alone. Sometimes it hurt, sometimes it didn’t; but as time went by I just quit feeling this ‘thing’: this sense of loss and separation. By withdrawing into myself I could feel myself ‘keeping myself whole’ in some way as I tried not to fracture into more pain I could bury, more parts than I was capable of keeping going at the same time.

“Here’s the matches,” said one of my friends, dragging one of those paperbacks from the PX, it’s logo small and round. It was a plain white rectangle, stamped with “PX” in black letters in something round. They burned, though, and that was the thing.

Passing the cigarettes out, I took one in my hand and put the pack back in my pocket, carefully balancing. I was sitting on a limb; we all were. Eventually I would learn to stretch out on them and take a nap – high up in the sky, unbeknownst to anyone below – sleeping and catching some breeze, one leg propped against a branch or in a vee, or if the branch was wide enough, cupping it between my shoulders and down the length of my body and letting my legs hang down.

I looked at the cigarette. It was small and round, its ends firmly packed. I was nervous. I had been warned again and again about this thing. How they were not good for you, how they could give you certain types of cancers and things. How your lungs would turn black and fall out in a violent fit of coughing (my mom’s threats on the stuff, including how she would cut our throats if she ever caught us smoking – and she had a good nose on her, that woman! She could smell a package of cigarettes a few yards away, hidden in the back of a drawer under some laundry. I should know as she caught me a few years later when I had the habit going, along with the habit of trotting up to the store where they sold those kinds of things in a machine. Marlboro became my favorite brand and you could get them for fifty to seventy-five cents, though they later went on up to a dollar, which nearly broke me of those things – and my paycheck.

They sold them in a machine over here, too, in Germany, and it had been by the machine the lady in the canteen had been guarding. It wasn’t uncommon for some Army brat to come in, and try to use the machine. But most of them had been caught and then marched away, maybe never to be seen again. You never knew. It depends on what other infractions they had been caught doing, what they were admitting, their own father’s career track and history – their future, everything, was up to second guessing. You never knew about Army command. Sometimes there were politics, deep and personal. Sometimes it just went by the book and regulation. Sometimes it depended on how much trouble the kid had got in – who had seen him do what to who’s or what things. It always depended upon your powers of observation, making sure no one was ever around. Sometimes your entire life was hinged on a word, a look; accurately guessing what others were thinking or which way they would look. We were sneaky as all get-out. You had to be.

For the most part, Americans being Americans, we were American kids. But then there were those special things, those things that set us apart from the groups of school children we were in and with. There were smaller groups among them, of course – there always are: loose groups of losers and friends, the popular ‘cliques’, the jocks and the ‘guys’. But even those were constantly changing, being revised as families shipped off overseas, or to or from somewhere. Our circle of friends was constantly rotating, the faces never remained the same. A few did. A few stick out in my mind with a burning intensity, some of them quite sad, but a lot of them are a blur. And so was this circle – all but one. He was my friend – my best one – and yet he was missing from that thing; this ‘group’ of rougher kids – and more daring kids. Of course his father mistreated him as well; expecting perfection and beating him when he was stoned drunk – sometimes beating him badly and violently in my mind. But not being there for this was good for him, for he went on, much later in his ‘career’, to become a fighter pilot of some kind. An expert in his field no doubt – he had a sharp mind, where mine was muddy as hell sometimes, even back when I was a kid.

“Here, I’ll take one,” I said as the kid, opening the pack of matches, struck one. He applied it to the cigarette he held posed between his lips. Drawing a deep breath he choked on the thing, nearly falling from the tree while simultaneously holding the pack of matches out to me.

“No! I’ll show you how to do it,” said the other kid, the one who had first spoken up about smoking to begin with. He was the one who had stolen some from his father; him and his friends had set me up on the dare; I had been the one to plan a night advance (when the canteen would presumably be at its emptiest, which it was not – it was in full gear when I came in!). He took the still smoking cigarette from his friend, and drawing on it a few times, got the coal red hot and glowing. Putting an unlit cigarette in his mouth, he touched it to the coal and lit up off of it. He handed the burning cigarette to a friend, then lit up another one. Taking mine from me, he lit that one up as well disappointing me – I had wanted to imitate what he was doing; he was saving matches, even I could see that.

As we all sat around – discussing smoking and how it should be done – I found myself growing dizzier and dizzier on the branch I was sitting on. My friends also complained about some vertigo.

“Maybe we should get down,” I said, wisely advising them in my best way. I didn’t want anyone falling and getting hurt out here. That would be sure to bring disaster down on our heads – beyond the fence, the fence would be mended, and we would all get our asses chewed for sure, beaten in some cases beyond a doubt. Mine was one of them for which I feared.

We all clambered down, still discussing this thing – whether to inhale them, or simply puff them away in spurts of smoke. At first we were just puffing on them, but as we grew stronger in our desire to try this thing – getting higher and higher all the time, we began inhaling on them, at first choking until we grew our brown wings and started getting the knack for holding them down. Then we smoked another – and by that time some of the boys were complaining about feeling like vomiting – and we headed towards the fence.

After that I never did give up smoking – at first sneaking a pack a week, sometimes getting them at the PX, but always with my own money. I usually stored them outdoors in some location – down in the community basement room system of supplies and locked doors, and maybe an old machine ‘laundromat’ of some kind – usually consisting of some old worn out machines scattered across a concrete floor in a cold damp room covered with slime from inadequate ventilation, and drain hoses snaking across the floor.

Later on I would go onto being a much more prodigious smoker, though I traded brands from time to time. For instance, I would smoke “Mores” later on during my high school days because cigarettes had gotten so much more expensive (I think they were about a dollar and a half by that time) – and I was always paying for them myself – working for my money and then some. I had an old bike for transportation – I got my first one when I was twelve (and often envy you ‘American kids’ who seem to get one every year or so, though I was an American child). We were just that poor sometimes. I only had three bikes as a ‘child’ – and I bought two of them with my own funds. I had to. My parents weren’t going to get them for me – and they said I would value them more if I worked for them, which I did.

I worked for everything in my life. Hard times – they do that to you. Instill in you a work ethic for life. And a good one, too, given my military background and training, though I don’t use it anymore, having become disabled due to my long stint in the Corps.

And smoking? I wish I had given it up; hadn’t even started back then. I’m still not quite up to a pack a day, though there have been times I exceeded that. I’ve been known to quit – two times. And then I gave up on the thing.

I shouldn’t have. I’ve got enough Nicorette – I worked for the company that makes them; hell, I even helped design the Commit factory – but oh well. We smokers would take breaks outside of that thing, that long tall brick building – smoking and discussing our commitment to this thing – both the building and the habit we would be breaking. Though none of us did it – not a single one.

They ended up hiring smokers for that thing (as much as possible, anyway) just in case someone got addicted to nicotine – which by the way, is an extremely poisonous drug to the system. It’s the plants way of keeping insects off of it. Think of it as a chemical insecticide – that’s what you all are smoking, and so am I. A chemical insecticide produced naturally by some plant, as is THC, by the way. Turns out bugs don’t like getting high any more than teetotalers do, especially when it comes at the risk of taking one’s own life. Which nicotine will do, especially when combined with the hundreds of other chemicals a cigarette is ‘providing’.

So . . . I urge you all NOT to take up smoking if you haven’t; and to give it up if you do (you will live a healthier and longer lifestyle), you will be happier, have more energy (due to lowered CO2 levels if nothing else); take more walks, have fresher breath, no more burn holes in clothes, no more stinking around the house . . .

While I go on smoking my own damn cigarette.

And think about giving up the habit, too.

(I am almost 53 years of age right now. I have been smoking continuously for at least forty of them. It’s really about time I did something for myself, if it isn’t too late by now. But even then I’m going to give up smoking sometime . . .

might be when I’m dying from ’em but I’m gonna have to put ’em up one day, maybe in my grave.

Speaking of which I left my lifelong friend and a guy who could’ve been my grandpa with five cigars – and a lighter – in his front pocket when he got buried.

One of the Boatman, one his well being, one for the Christ he believed in, and one for God the Being.

And one left over for me, when I come up there.

The End.

It was night, not that that meant much. Night came early during those days in Germany, especially in the fall and winter. Dry leaves rustled, stirred by a nipping wind. I could see their dark forms scattering before me like mice, rustling around my ankles and darting away into the darkness.  I stood, eying my target.

It was the Canteen. A low dome rose in the woods.  Cut into the outer edge was a dark ledge of steps going down and coming back up the other side – a line bisecting the dome. It was overgrown with grass; you couldn’t see it was concrete and alive ‘down there’. But I could make out the steam rising from the vents, smell the cooking. Occasionally a man would stagger out, ascending the stairs from the slits which cut into the dome’s great big blister, calling back to someone inside. You would see the yellow light briefly gleam on his face – usually thickset with heavy German features. I stood and watched from my position behind a tree, wondering if I should go in.

It was more of a ‘dare’ than anything, this thing I was about to do. No one had done it yet – no one had been allowed to. It was forbidden to go into the dome, the “German Canteen”. This was an installation on a military post, and only Germans were allowed in there. They were all German contractors, these men – some thick, some thin, and all with that thick guttural German accent when they spoke to us. Some were rather mean, but most were kind and friendly – however, they would be directing you elsewhere, always. With a firm command and a stern face if you hesitated or disobeyed. Their punishments weren’t harsh – they’d just turn you over to your parents. Usually that was all it took. However, in some cases – such as this one . . .

Darting forward through the scattered shadows in the darkness, I could see the bright lights and pinpricks of barracks and military installations all around. In the distance there were some streetlights. While this was ‘in the woods’, technically it was almost like a park – just a few acres around – with the German bunker in the center.  The ring of woods were clean of woods debris, for the Germans kept them painstakingly clean. They also kept their own woods – their own forests – ‘clean’, meaning you as you went strolling through their woodlands and parks you would see cords of wood stacked up, usually between some trees. The woods themselves were bare of scrub and undergrowth, rotting wood or fallen logs. All that would have been ‘cleaned up’ by the Germans – scouring the woods for firewood and stacking what they found. I was amazed by the thing. And it was the same on base. Everything was kept nice, clean, and orderly. Just like the Germans were.

As I darted forward, I became aware of a thumping – soft and persistent.  It it resembled an “omp-pah” band. The German kind. As I grew closer to the underground building the thumping grew louder, resolving itself into music – a lively German band.   The sounds were distorted by the thick steel doors resting loosely against their jambs – and the concrete slots they lay in – but I could hear the music faintly rising from the building underground.

It was an old World War II bunker. Like the base we were on, occupying our former enemy’s installations. Living in their barracks, working in their rooms, and in some cases using their old leftovers and equipment when ‘we’  or the US Army could. Bombs could still be found sometimes when they were doing excavations – they’d find that kind of thing – and explosive device, sometimes in a five hundred pound bomb – just waiting for something to set it ticking with a bump or a thump of some kind. Occasionally stashes weapons were found. like a case of hand grenades.  You never knew – or knew who might find them.  All us children had been trained – both in how to use them and avoid them.  That was part of our job.  It was a well known fact – you didn’t go around sticking a shovel in the dirt until you knew what lay underneath – especially in some places, where the Allied bombing had been good.  Or bad, depending upon your way of looking at it.

But this base – this was the one with seven underground levels (or so we were told). It was a ‘secret’ base for some time, then bombed to hell by the Allies. However, the Germans (it was said) had been prepared for that and had moved their planes underground. And they’re still there (it was said), deep under water – for the Germans had a pipe to a river somewhere, and they used it to flood the field, concealing it from the Allies by pretending it was a pond (it was said) – and then drain it off the shallow lake chase the bombers with their planes from underground – bringing them up on elevators and launching them from the hanger domes.

However, this had nothing to do with the mission I was on. I had been ‘sent’ on this mission by some of my friends – a small group of them, bored boys looking for something to do, myself included. I had a couple marks in my pocket (German money) which I had earned hauling trash for a ‘living’. I narrowed my eyes, looking at the dark opening and coming to my final decision – when to move.

I darted down the stair like a hawk, feet pounding. I didn’t want to miss a step. One wrong move and I might get caught. That would cause problems for my father – who (along with his wife) would cause some pretty bad problems for me.   But I was fairly confident.  I could duck and weave.  We’d already analyzed this, how this mission was going to go. I had visualized it in my head.

Legs pounding, knees high, I came to the steel door. It pulled outwards, its heavy handle a long slashof steel. I pulled on the door as hard as I could. To my surprise, it swung easily open. It wasn’t like the steel doors I’d trained on – the same kind as this – but they had felt much heavier, maybe because they weren’t used as much as these.  I desperately wrenched at it to keep it from clanging against the concrete shaft’s side, but once started, it was too heavy to stop.  It clanged anyway.  I darted in.

The building was moist and warm from all the German cooking, and the smell of sauerkraut and bratwurst hung in the air. The air was thick from smoke and cooking, and there stood about a dozen tables or so – rough thick legged things was my impression, covered by checkered clothes, glasses and food.   The light was dim and yellow.  A jukebox stood along the wall I was on, and already I could see the men turning to see who had come in.  Behind a long bar I could see a heavy waitress – a thick German woman, wide and broad. She was turning from the glasses on the back wall as I paused, looking for my goal.  Spotting it, I sped along the wall like a little rat, dressed in a thick green G.I. jacket and jeans.

I sped to the machine, passing the thumping wailing jukebox with its warm light and chrome. The men were turning back around again, though quite a few were keeping their eyes on me. I could see the German woman looking up in my direction. Quicker than I could say “breathe!” she started to move, coming around the counter with a surprising swiftness for a woman her size . . .

I looked away, and taking two marks in my hand (I had come prepared, shoving the marks from my pocket to my fist as I ran) – I slammed them in the machine – ‘clink!’ ‘clink!’. A moment later after I heard the coins hit some distant mysterious bottom, I grabbed a worn silver knob on the machine and pulled, looking over my shoulder at the woman and measuring her pace as she came on.

She was rounding the end of the bar in the corner of the room and proceeding rapidly my way, her mouth open and her thick arms coming up . . . I could hear her yelling . . .

I turn, looked, saw my choice had arrived – grabbed my purchase and ran, darting towards the equally thick door on the other side. Crashing it open with a big bang, I took those steps flying, two and three at a time, feet pumping, heart pounding, my ‘precious’ purchase gripped in my hand. Distantly I could hear shouting and laughter as the door behind closed, then it popped open briefly again – but I think seeing my shagging behind, the woman turned and went back to her business . . .

I ran through the woods to the edge where my friends stood, and I stopped, bent over and gasping, winded, and looked down at my hand. There it was.  In the palm of my hand. I had done something forbidden – not just once, but four times over. Once in going to get them – two in where they lay – three in having bought them – four in where they lay now: in my possession.  They were forbidden, extremely so . . . they were for me! – for me and my friends . . .

And we divvied it up with my friends the next day.

(This is part 1 of 2.  I shake my head, wondering how I came to that decision and kind of knowing why – and wishing I didn’t – any of it. It affected my life in so many ways – meaning core values, things I do every day – it became a ‘part’ of me.

You’ll see in Part Two.)

Ol’ Granddad

Ol’ Granddad

I squirmed in the damp sand, feeling the hard ripples beneath my back. A few inches from my face a curved concrete wall, lit by barely reflected light, threatened to scrape my nose. The tunnel was half filled with sand, its wavy surface betraying that flood waters sometimes rushed through. I squirmed a bit further, paused, and tipped my head so I could look between my bare feet to see my friend.

“You comin’?” I hoarsely half-shouted, half-whispered, trying not to sound loud, and spacing my words out. Sounds tended to get lost in the tunnels, bouncing around until each word and whisper got mixed. Somebody could be say something ten feet away and it would sound like it was in your ear – or hardly make a sound at all. Sounds seemed to travel a mile, rounding every corner. A shout would become a whisper, a whisper a shout – echoing in the tunnels, making judging distance difficult. It wasn’t uncommon to run into someone crawling in the darkness when we would make a chain – head-butting them in the rear with your forehead. You learned to crawl head down and bent. There’s nothing like a face full of butt to teach you that kind of lesson.

“Yeah!” I heard my friend whisper. Only, like I said, it sounded like he was beside me. I grimaced – the tunnel was pinching my broad shoulders – and wormed on.

Ahead the tunnel opened into a small space, a cube. Beyond lay the next round. I carefully shimmied into it, and stood, half squatting in the packed sand. A low concrete roof with an iron ring and cover was over my head; to my right a short shelf ran along the wall. I sat on the sandy shelf, looking out at the world beyond.

I was staring at a small street from a slit in the ground. Ahead lay the road, the dirt eye level. I shifted, digging my feet in the sand after checking for glass. This place was bright compared to some of the tunnels I’d been in. My thoughts turned to Ol’ Granddad – the granddaddy of them all.  All us kids called it that – that big round opening like the pale end of a worm tunneling into the dirt. From its entrance we would sit and debate entering. Few ventured beyond the narrow cone of light entering it during the day. Fewer still knew what lay beyond the curve – of the narrow rooms and narrower pipes that the bravest of us had found.

We were like rats, crawling – carefully, most often blind because none of us owned a flashlight. We would crawl and crawl – not hundreds of feet, but hundreds of yards. It was fun and always a scary adventure.  The fact that it did not bother our knees tells you how tough and hard scrabble us young boys were.  The fact that we were willing to brave the risks of the unknown, what lay in the darkness – knowing there might be rats or glass or snakes (including our own personal terror, the mighty loathsome cottonmouth).  There was a vicious braveness inside of us – a willingness to stick our heads in where angels feared to tread – if just to see what they were so mucking afraid of – and then challenge that thing.

Ol’ Granddad was a terminator pipe that dumped into a ditch a few hundred yards beyond the bend of the road at the bottom of the hill we lived on. It was the tail end of a network of pipes put in to handle the storm water that thunderstorms would bring. The water would sheet down the hill in a crystalline torrent when the Georgia thundershowers would roll in.  Granddad was big and built to handle them. He was concrete – big and strong – and long, curving into the dirt of the ‘hood, diving beneath it.

I don’t know how us kids – “older” kids now, ranging between eight and eleven – came up with the name for that particular section of concrete pipe, except that of them all, it was the biggest, longest, and to most kids, scariest. Few ever dared  explore the tunnels beyond. It curved with the road. Often us boys would gather at the end, for this was a favored dirt clod war zone. The ditches along both sides were deep enough to pose as trenches, protecting everyone who was smart enough – and quick enough – to duck a well thrown clod. Sandy clods full of sharp gravel would arc across that road until a car came, at which point a short truce would be drawn until it passed – then the rain of clods would begin again. Around the corner mid-hill where we lived there was no such protection, and the clods were as soft as sugar.  So we often went down there, slinging these clods – mixtures of clay, sand, and pebbles – at each other. We delighted in the way they would explode in a powdery puff when they hit someone. Using clods with big rocks was forbidden – not by the grownups, but by us – for when a regular clod hit you, it would simply disintegrate, showering you in dust and sand. The ones with rocks hurt; as did clay clods. It just goes to show: children can understand something about cooperation, or else it was from fear. Throwing a rock studded clod could lead to a violent escalation that could end in fisticuffs. At the very least, if you threw one you might find yourself pelted by rock studded clods by both sides, leaving you in welts.

But Ol’ Granddad – that was a big draw, a scary dare, luring us with its dark embrace, its cool concrete walls – beckoning with mysterious whispers. You could hear it whispering to you sometimes; strange sounds – especially when we were gathered around its entrance, debating about entering its mysterious depths and what, if anything we might find.

It took us months to decide to venture into this big old pipe. I can still see it now, still remember it as clear as if those times took place yesterday. How we would sit in front of the pipe, debating – and then finally making the decisions – who was to go first, who was going to go second, and so on.

“Rats might be in there,” someone would nervously say every time, eyeing the dark opening.  “Watch out for glass.”  We would look at our calloused dusty palms, as if envisioning cuts to come.

“Snakes, too,” another might whisper. Everyone was scared of snakes – we knew they sought cool shade during the summer – and rats, we were sure, carried rabies, turning them (in our imagination) into ferocious sharp toothed ravenous monsters. And I didn’t want to get rabies shots again!  (Those scarred me for life in some ways.)  Finally debating – and daring – each other out of our fear, we would venture in.

I’ll never forget those journeys into the darkness. You could ‘duck squat’ if you were short enough, but that took a toll on the legs, so we usually crawled.   The cool, rough cement beneath our hands and knees, we’d crawl along, dragging our toes; the entrance of the pipe – a round white circle – growing smaller and smaller and then disappearing as we’d round the curve. That final glimpse of light before it’s gone. Like an eclipse of the sun it would grow dimmer, the cone of shadow lengthen – and then it would be gone. There would be complete darkness. A sense of vertigo would overtake us; disorientated by the lack of vision, we would find ourselves slowly angling up the curved sides of the tunnel, our sense of gravity gone awry. Your only warning would be a vertigo to warn you. We never took flashlights; that was part of the dare – and it was a long way through the pitch blackness. Not to mention, I don’t think anyone had one. Then slowly, it would appear: a dim gray dot far, far ahead. We would crawl along faster now, more sure of ourselves – a line of boys all in a row, our voices and toes whispering along the concrete.

At the far end Ol’ Granddad abruptly terminated in a concrete room. It was tall – much taller than us, about twelve feet high, with about six feet on each side. Spilling out of the drainage pipe, we’d stand on the sand floor and stare up, relieved to be in the light. The light always seemed gray. Far above our heads the light would trickle around the edges of the heavy plated manhole, and seep through the finger holes you would use to lift it like lances. It was always dry when we crawled. We never ventured into it when it rained, or even if it looked like it might rain, instinctively knowing the threat of a flash flood, and knowing our parents would skin us alive if they knew we were there. There was only one other pipe leading into this terminal, this “junction box” as I came to learn in engineering. That pipe was much smaller, with a thick bed of sand. Looking into it you could see another dim circle of light further on. And of course, only the braver kids would go. There were only two or three of them – me and my best friends.

I remember that pipe very well, the one that we were facing as we stood in that narrow distribution box of the storm drain. It was always damp in that pipe, the sand rose to the middle. You had to crawl on your back or your belly, your nose bumping, shoulders scraping the walls. It wasn’t as dark as Ol’ Granddad – light would trickle in from both ends – nor was it was long as Ol’ Granddad. But the claustrophobic sensation of being squeezed in on all sides was always a bit uncomfortable – more mental than physical – until eventually you would find yourself emerging into a new room, a much smaller room, with another shelf to sit on.

From that vantage point us kids – or at least the few of us who dared – could sit and watch the cars go by on the road outside. Peering through the narrow slit of the rainwater inlet, we would sit there in the cool darkness, whispering and debating to one another, and feeling the thrill of seeing without being seen. It became one of our favorite secret hiding places: no one knew we were there, not even most of the kids of the hood.

“Pssst!” A sharp whisper came at from my feet. I looked down. My friend’s head, dirty blonde and curly, peeped from the pipe. I watched with interest as he squirmed through like a sandy brown worm, kicking aside a shard of glass that I spotted. He squatted, pivoting and peering through the slit, then sat on the sandy bench beside me. A car thundered by, its tires sending deep thumps through the tunnel ahead. The road was ribbed as well with an accordion like layer of sand on top of the hard packed clay and gravel. I could see the little spurts of dust glancing off each one as the car drove by. Its wheels just skipped across the tops of the curves. That’s the only way to take a washboard road – fast. If you go slow you beat both your car and yourself with its harmonics and rhythm. So you fly, just touching the tops of the bumps so that the shocks can’t drop your tires in the middle. It goes a long way towards smoothing out a ride on a washboard road. I know that from having driven plenty of them.

Facing us was another pipe. This one was small, dank, and round. Always it was almost full of sand, choked by the silt which would wash in. It ran directly underneath the road to the storm water inlet on the other side – sitting there on our ‘bench’ we could hear faint rumbles emanating from its dark throat as cars would pass overhead. None of the other pipes we crawled through passed under the road; only this one did. And this was the ultimate dare: to go through this pipe and see what lay on the other side.

As far as I know only I and another friend took that dare – and just a few times. Squeezing my shoulders together, I crawled in on my back – I didn’t want a face full of dirt – and with my nose scraping the top of the tunnel, I inched my way along. It was thrilling and terrifying, and like the patter of running rats my heart would race whenever a car would come over, its wheels sending thunder echoing around me. You could feel the vibration thudding through the concrete walls; the sand above was washboard, testing the car’s suspension – and our nerves. We would voice our fears in a whisper: what if a cave-in happened? What if the tunnel collapsed? And even worse: what would happen if we got stuck? Childish fears, of course – but we were children then.

At the far end of this tunnel lay another box, identical to the one we’d left, only more full of sand. To one side lay yet another tunnel, and even smaller section of pipe. It didn’t take us long, fresh from our fears, to decide: we weren’t going into that one. It was much smaller, much darker, and even more packed with sand. Enough was enough, we decided, and then sliding back into that dark dank pipe, we made our way back to our magic hideout.

Ol’ Granddad. I remember we abandoned our secret pleasure for a week or two when a murderous prisoner escaped from a local jail. The call went out; our parents warned us, we heard it on the radio. Warnings that he could be hiding anywhere – in the bushes, the woods, abandoned cars . . . and drainage pipes. That sort of perked our ears. For a week we would drop by the entrance to Ol’ Granddad and eyeing its round mouth, whisper.

“Do you think we should go in?”

“I don’t know – do you think he’s there?”

“I don’t know – why don’t you go in and find out?”

“Not me! You go! You’re the one that wants to go in!”

And so the debate would rage. Eventually we worked up our courage high enough to venture in – and no, he was not there. But every pebble we’d hear rattling, every stray glint of light from the errant pebble or piece of glass would throw us into a panic. Several times we had jumbles of kids as the ones up front would suddenly try to bolt backwards – only to run into us other kids who were moving on. But we found only the cool darkness, the mysterious stretch of black; the open pit, the branching tunnel. I remember the sighs of relief as we reached the ‘main room’ – the “Sun Room” as we called it, that concrete pit with its dim gray light.

Just one of our ‘grand adventures’ – one that, when we’ve gotten together as adults, we still talk about. The times spent in “Ol’ Granddad” – the pit, and how we’d sit in our secret hiding place, watching the cars go by. As a parent I know I would be horrified to find my child doing such a thing – but I would understand.  There is a huge maze of culverts not too far away – I wouldn’t be surprised to find children exploring them (though they are strictly forbidden).  The lure of the darkness, the desire to discover the secrets beyond. And I think after giving them a good scolding and warning never do it again, I would drop my arm around their shoulders in silent congratulation and pride as I led them gently away . . . shaking with silent laughter.

The boy sat at his desk, staring at it’s fake plastic wood, the hard curved panels of plywood behind him and under his butt.  Beneath him was a square cube; he sat on it, sitting on his books.  Before him were two walls, joined in a corner.  He smiled, playing with his hands and muttering to himself . . .

That was ‘me’ as a child in first grade.  I was the one who wouldn’t stop talking – not for anything, anyone, or despite the punishment they gave me.  Place me with other children and I would start talking with them, making friends.  Put me in the corner and I’d talk to myself.  Put me with grownups, and not yet unafraid, I would start talking to them – asking questions and getting into things.  I was a very inquisitive child driven by insatiable curiosity, a talented ‘artist’ for my age, with a wide ranging imagination, and . . . I had been highly abused according to what the professionals (and my wife) had told me.

The thing was: I was always talking to myself – inside, if not out.  But everyone does that: talk to yourself.  You even have ‘sides’ that argue.  So do I.  But as a child . . . a creative child blessed (and therefore cursed) with a wide ranging imagination.  This was not a “wild” imagination.  Imagination had to be based upon truth, or an extension of that.  There had to be what WE thought was a bit of scientific ‘truth’, even at play . . .

And so I suppose it started with those stuffed animals he ‘owned’ (knowing in his secret life that they were not his.  Everything belonged to the parents, even him.  How could HE own anything when he was not allowed to even own his mind?  Much less his body.  His parents and the Army owned those things.  He just ‘inhabited’ them.

The boy sits in his room.  There is a desk – a huge monstrosity his mother had special built for him, it holds everything – and a dresser, and a single bed.  That’s all – him and the stuffed animals he has gathered in a ring.  They are talking . . . constantly holding forth a conversation – him and his bear, him and his ‘friend’ . . . he’s been sent to his room again for ‘being bad’ – perhaps he’s gotten whipped, but he doesn’t remember that thing, not too well . . . he talks and whispers to his friends, his Leo the Lion hand puppet on one hand . . .  whispering in its ear, tears running down sometimes . . .

I don’t know what all he said.  I can’t recall a single word – I just can almost hear them – whispers in the back of my head. . .

“He won’t stop talking!” the teacher complained, frustrated.  My mom told me this – and I remember.  “I put him in the corner and it does no good!  Instead of talking to others, he starts talking to himself!  I don’t know what to do with him!”

She was a mean teacher.  She called me a Nazi and German and said I was no good.  Even at art though she gave me an award.  It wasn’t until I got the award that I found I had done bad.  But I wouldn’t cry.  Not for her.

Who was I talking to?

I know.

I was talking to myself.  All of the time.  My imaginary friends; the ones inside.  And my hands were for them talking to me.  I could make both my hands be my friends.  The dots on the board were my friends.  Even the flies became my friends when I was a teenager.  Sometimes they were the only thing to do . . .

Isolation.  Imagine a child and you keep ‘him’ in isolation.  Not constant isolation, mind you – but social isolation (sometimes) and isolated from family.  As far as he knows, there are only three members in his family – four if you count the dog.

(gee . . . this was right about the time the teenager made me have sex with ‘him’ . . .)

Not a good thing.  Especially to a highly creative, imaginative child who has been abused – badly abused – and is being abused still.  Hell, the situation is even worsening . . . but it does no good to tell . . .

“Doesn’t everybody go through something like this?”, I remember him thinking/saying to himself, looking at the neighbor kids.  Some of them ‘went through it’.  Some of them ‘went through it’ with HIM.  How could he not know?  And yet – how could he know anything different?  There was no one to teach him what goes on in back rooms . . . except for the occupants of that room themselves . . .

He goes on talking to his children.  The ones upon the floor.  The bear has become very alive to him.  They all have.  Along with some ‘others’ inside . . . inside his heart and his head.

He doesn’t even know who they are at this moment.  Sometimes . . . sometimes ‘he’ has difficulty recalling his own name . . .

The child who talked too much.  Talking to himself in the corner of the room.  Whispering while he watches his hands writhe in his lap sometimes, playing with themselves.  Listening to his own mind; his own echoes . . .  he personifies everything . . .

A lamp falls, its glass base breaking.  I had accidently pulled it down by the cord crawling around under the end table and it had gotten broken.  I wasn’t sad because I was about to be beaten.  I was sad because the lamp could no longer complete its function.  I had ended its ‘life’ . . .

I feel that way about a lot of things.  So does my daughter.  She is about to move and she worries her old apartment will suffer feelings of abandonment . . . even though her boyfriend says it’s not so . . .

Like daughter like son like father.

They say madness runs genetic.  It runs on one side of my family.

And I guess it runs in mine.




Changes In Behavior:

Living With The Folks Overseas

When I was little, we gotten beaten a lot. I won’t go into everything – the moral crushing words, the ego scathing attacks. Beatings usually consisted of us going into our bedroom – or just one of us – waiting for a half hour or so, which is why I have the phrase “Waiting is painful, too.” I credit those waits for allowing me to prepare myself for what was to come – waiting on those footsteps to approach, the closed door opening, my father coming in. Tapping his belt on the palm of his hand. Gently explaining what we had done wrong. And then the punishment.

My brother says he could hear me scream and scream from his bedroom room with both doors shut and two walls. I don’t know for certain. You reach a certain phase when you are getting beaten where you just sort of blank out. I would sit there waiting . . . waiting . . . fading away inside of myself, hardening; preparing for what was to come. I hated crying; I couldn’t stand it, especially among myself. Or Selves, if that’s the way you want to put it.

Then the old man would have us stand and bend over, grabbing our ankles. Of course our pants would be pulled down – or our shorts – though later I learned (rather quickly I imagine!) to take them off. They just would trip you when you started dancing, and that would be seen as an attempt to escape – falling on the floor – which would be punished even more harshly.

I learned early on to face the bed, too. That first shot would often launch you – and the best launch was onto something with a soft surface. It was best to have all your toys picked up, or at least nudged out of the way so you wouldn’t end up dancing on them, too.

My dad had a favorite question to ask (I think). “Have you learned your lesson yet?” And no matter what the answer was, it was wrong. A yes or no would earn you more of a beating. I think he just asked it to see if you lied or not. Or not, most likely. Maybe. I don’t know.

I do know that I was stupid sometimes. I would not cry. And my dad liked crying children – he loved to hear you scream; see ‘the dance’. Sometimes he would take you by the hand and whirl you around – you are running in circles, the belt or something else pursuing you – going ’round and ’round his towering legs with tears streaming down your face as you ran. Those kinds of things hurt; sometimes the blows kinda went wild. It was unusual to get hit about the hips and shoulders; or on the arms.

We always ate on a regular schedule – the Army one. Breakfast (if not served before leaving for school and whatnot) was served at eight. Lunch at twelve. Supper (or dinner, if you prefer) at five-thirty pm. Meals were usually fairly simple, and at school I ate with the lunch crowd – getting my tray and food from the school. Later on I would start brown-bagging it, but this was early on. And days were fairly quite easy.

The morning would begin in the ‘hood – I get up, get dressed (usually just a pair of shorts and underwear) and go out into the kitchen. There my mom would often be cooking breakfast (eggs, toast, bacon, milk – orange juice or some other kind of juice if she would afford them – the frozen kind; made from concentrate). Then if not to school, then outside. We’d spend the entire day outside from morning to noon – and then we’d hear that big old triangle ring, and we’d come home for some bologna sandwiches, peanut butter & jellies – something like that – and milk to drink. I remember we used to get milk in those long cartons the PX sold – dark green with white lettering, and a heavy wax coating on them. They were very valuable to me, those cartons! With them I could make boats and toys to play with, either in the tub or out of it. Those heavy waxed cartons would last a long while – several floatings in the tub – until after about a week later the edges would get soft and fuzzy and we’d have to throw them away. Many a G.I. Joe took a ride in those boats – all naked (just like me) in the tub, swimming his way to freedom when the boat sunk.

But things changed when we got overseas. It was like the physical abuse suddenly just stopped. I seem to recall my mom telling us: “You’re too old for anymore whippings. From now on we’re gonna be punishing you different. With restriction and such. Taking away your privileges.” I wish it had been like that. The truth is – they still continued to beat us from time to time – with as much frenzy and hatred as before – and they would impose these new rules on us. But overall the beatings diminished. LOL, I guess the moral of the crew improved or something. But the fact is: we were getting beaten with a lot less frequency than before, when we were young children.

However, the restrictions started to get a lot longer and more frequent. That’s not to say we made bad grades – we didn’t. We generally managed to keep it between a C and an A. However, those few times we made an F or a D were bad. (I made my first F in 5th grade, failing math because I had gotten caught up and lost in the system. Somewhere between North Carolina and the ‘hood decimals got lost. Or rather, the ability to change them from one thing to another (say fractions or percents) got skipped over. I can only assume that in North Carolina the military school was behind while in Georgia the civilian school (I am talking about Windsor Springs Elementary here) was ahead. As a result there was a gap in my education that the teach failed to detect – or correct – or she just didn’t have enough time to do it. Promising students weren’t granted any special considerations and favors back then; not like today with their “Magnet Schools” and schools for accelerated children. So I was just left to thrash along on my own – without any success at the thing. My father’s explanations were confusing, and my moms? She always sent me to my dad.

A ‘D’ or an ‘F’ would mean restriction to your room. How long depended on ‘you’. However, while we were overseas there was so much to do – my parents were constantly touring and we were moving around – that restrictions were usually of a shorter duration – may a few weeks or more, but sometimes just a couple of days (depending upon our behavior during the restriction time). Asking to be ‘let off’ or ‘get out’ would buy you a week or more, so you had to be careful about asking. You had to catch them in a good mood. And even then you’d better come bearing some proof you were doing better – a string of A’s, I presume. I rarely got off restriction early, however. Often we would come back from some ‘vacation’ touring over there only to find I was still on restriction, still confined to my room.

The belt fell out of favor except for with my dad – my mom preferred a wooden spoon. She had a wide bladed one with a thick handle that she used to beat us with – and you stood, just stood there taking it. Fighting back, it was understood, was forbidden. My brother tried ONE time. After that he never tried again. Reaching behind him he grabbed the belt from her hand – and when she got the gun he realized: that was the wrong thing to do. So she beat him with the belt in one hand, gun in the other until he was singing his tune and dancing, too. I think he was about fifteen, sixteen years old at the time. He never challenged her again.

As for me? Always the stoic person, I might have complained from time to time – did my crying when I’d get beaten – but I just sort of lumped it up; ‘forgot’ about it – rubbed my ass and went on. I had learned crying did no good. Indeed, depending on who was beating you, it could actually be bad. My dad would give up beating on you once he’d gotten his thrill. My mom, on the other hand, would be encouraged by your crying and whining to beat you some more – for crying and whining! – and then you would be sent to your room to finish it off. My dad? It always started in the room to begin with, so we left it there. (The pain & anguish I assume. “We” left ‘something’ – or someone – there to ‘take it’, deal with it, be done with it, et all.)

I assume that’s where my ‘high pain tolerance’ came from – all those beatings and all that waiting. Because that waiting gets you ready for the pain. You learn to control it – how to ‘turn it one’ (that pain tolerance), and ‘turn it off’. There’s a difference in sensation when I – and ‘we’ – do that. It’s like someone else is sucking up the pain for us. Little Mikie, I assume – since he was one of the ones built to do that. As a result ‘he’ has a lot of pain built up on the inside. On the other hand – ‘he’ is one of the sweetest human child(ren) I’ve ever met. There’s a little bit of artificiality to him there, too – which is what led me to suspect ‘he’ was a creation of Little Michael, the ‘real’ boy inside – the one who made all the decisions about who was to ‘come out’ at what time; who was to ‘do’ what, when and how – a whole lot of other things.

Anyway . . . just another story about how things ‘changed’ when we went overseas. How the discipline changed. I don’t know if that’s because we had new neighbors all around, or they were afraid of thin doors (what the neighbors may hear). I don’t know for certain it was our age at all. I certainly suspect it had more to do with other people being around – living so close to them, jowl to jowl, cheek to cheek so to speak – that they didn’t want anybody staring at them when they went to the commissary or PX, or simply stepped out the door. Noise levels were to be kept down in the apartments – in the houses it didn’t matter. So I reckon I’ll never know. Perhaps it was a combination – the parents realizing their children had gotten a little old for their ‘beatings’ – coupled with the instinctive knowledge they may be heard.

After all, you don’t want your neighbors to know you’ve been beating your kid. None of them.


Secrets have been told.

(big smile).