Tag Archive: children


Swimming In the Snow


Swimming In the Snow

 

As an eleven year old boy, raised with grits and biscuits in the sultry south, I found my sudden transplantation into Germany to be a time of wonder and beauty. I was absorbed by the culture and customs, the strange snow covered country, the quaint villages and towns. Towering castles stood on the peaks of mountains; small hamlets cowered below. And one of the things I remember is this:

 

“Bring your swimsuits to class!” the teacher had reminded us the day before, “We are going swimming tomorrow!” — and so we did – each clutching our suits and wondering. I know I was confused – outside the snow was at least a foot and a half deep, but always obedient to commands, I had done as I was told. The fact that I even had a swimsuit was amazing – why would I need a swimsuit here?, I wondered – especially during the winter? Shivering in my thick coat, my mittens clumsily stuffing the flimsy piece of fabric into a pocket, I stood huddled with the other kids, waiting for the German bus to come.

German buses weren’t like our school buses. Our school buses were . . . well, they WERE school buses, but battered and green and usually used to shuttle people from one military base to another. That was their only purpose until it came time for school. Otherwise you would find them . . . shuttling. Picking up passengers at the “shuttle” stops and dropping them off again. We used shuttle buses the way you walk around your yard – to go from one part of “our world” (the U.S. Military bases) to “another part” (another military base). Very few Americans had cars, and the ones who did had to go through the tedious process of getting a German driver’s license – a process that could take weeks, even months. (Even getting a fishing license was a weeks long process, involving classes and training and things.) Bicycles were all the rage – but you had to have a properly equipped one (according to German regulations) – with a bell, a functioning headlight, (preferably with a wheel powered generator), plus reflectors. A basket was good for carrying things home from the market. Everyone rode bikes – not just kids – but the grownups, wives, and G.I.’s as well. They were the de facto method of transportation, unless you could absorb the exorbitant taxicab fees – and most of the G.I.’s didn’t, preferring instead the open air freedom of a two-pedal ride.

But this time we were going riding on one of the German buses. These buses – so clean! – and with wide, tall windows – not a smudge! Unlike the thinly padded green vinyl seats of our school buses, these buses had corded cloth seats – and they even smelled good – clean inside. Not like our American buses with the litter on the floor, spills on the seats, and the smell of body odor everywhere. These were a pleasure to ride on.

Eventually – us stomping our feet to ward off the cold, noses sniffling and dribbling in the air – the bus came, sighing up in a wave of warm exhaust. The doors eased open with a smooth grace – not like our clunky school bus doors, which were given to opening in fits and starts – and the driver let us on.

“To your seats, children! To your seats!” The teacher anxiously waved us on. She was always nervous – a lot of the teachers were when it came to us American children interacting with our German ‘hosts’. I think the teachers knew all too well our wild and American ways, and knew the signs of German disapproval. German kids weren’t a bit like us, or at least not in a number of ways – something I was soon to find out.

We already knew that German kids went to school six days a week – five full days of school, followed by a half day on Saturday. We couldn’t imagine anything being much more horrible, unless it be going to school on Sunday as well. (Little did we know they also got more holidays than we did – the Germans have holidays for everything!) We’d heard how hard the German schools were – in our imaginations they sat in drafty dusty rooms in the middle of castles under the stern gaze of overbearing teachers, getting punished for every infraction, every scratch, every itch. We wouldn’t of traded our lax American status for anything – we knew that we had it good. We had to have it good: after all, we were Americans, no? And Americans always have it good.

So we get on the bus and the teacher gets us all settled down, turns and talks to the driver. He closes the door (again the soft sigh; the gentle thump of well gasketed doors closing) – and smoothly slips it into gear. Before I know it we are wheeling down a black asphalt road, and the snowy countryside is sliding the wide paned windows (curved at the top, like a miracle of engineering and style – SO unlike our flat paned, military style school buses). Again and again I wonder where we are heading. The only swimming pools I am accustomed to are an old military VA pool – an inside pool in a dilapidated building, full of noises, echoes, and peeling paint – and Misty Waters, a pool that spans acres, and is spring fed. It is a sunny day, and the snow is bright – billows and drifts across the farmer’s fields, encroaching close to the road. The road is narrow, as are so many of the roads in Germany – and we seem to drive forever. I am transfixed by the scene outside – Alpine mountains in the background, their flanks draped in snow; beautiful wood and timber houses sprinkled across the valley. There is little traffic. We ride for awhile – maybe an hour – until finally we get there.

It is an indoor pool – and unlike anything I’ve seen. Instead of concrete walls and a concrete ceiling, there is glass and glass everywhere! Even the roof is made of glass. We get out, lining up in the snow – there is a path beaten up to the entrance. Stomping our feet we look around, blinking in the brightness like sun stunned birds. Finally the teacher has us go in.

Inside the building – inside! Warmth at last. A moist, humid warmth – one that almost reminds me of home, except for the chlorine smell. The place is neat and tidy, brightly colored – and there are kids there! I am surprised as the teacher motions us towards the changing rooms. The place is far from silent – there are the splashes of people swimming, divers diving from the diving board. But strangely enough – and this was one of the first things that struck me: there is no yelling there. Slight sounds of polite laughter as we make our way into the changing area – a place of benches and lockers – but it is so clean! There are a few German kids in there: nodding tight little nods, we greet our compatriots, not understanding a word they say as they turn and talk to each other. Their conversation is low and muted; you can see them glancing at us as much as we are glancing at them – and our conversation is muted as well. And then we go out to the swimming pool.

I’ll never forget that sensation – of swimming while watching the snow. Outside the windows – snow piled deep, knee deep against the lower panes of the glass. Inside: warm, wet, humid. How they kept the windows from foggin I’ll never know. But swimming there – watching the cold outside – what a luxurious sensation! I floated on my back, swam around in circles – my eyes on those billows of white. How could it be? I wondered. To be so warm and comfortable – while just a few feet away lay those freezing temperatures. It was a miracle to me.

And the German kids. That’s where I learned a lot about the differences between them and us – between them and me. They were politely lining up at the diving board – no pushing, no shoving, no messing around. They would talk in low tones – not like the shouts and yells of American children – and our teacher was busy shushing us. It didn’t take us long to emulate them; taking lessons from our German counterparts – without a single word being shared. Before we knew it we were like them: lining up politely for our turn to dive, no cannonballs, no jackknifes into the water. Politely swimming back and forth in the lanes, and not rocketing around like a bunch of wild dolphins. Laughing softly, not open mouthed yells; whispering instead of shouting. Maybe that’s why the teacher took us there; then again, maybe it was for fun. At any rate we all came away having learned something from our exposure to those kids – and yet not knowing what we had learned, or how we had learned it.

It was a muted group that went home that afternoon. I don’t know if it was because we were tired, or from our exposure to those German kids – our exposure to another culture. Another way of thinking and being. Instead of being the boisterous kids we were, we came back quite another group – or at least I know I did. It was strange to me, and for me. It made me . . . a bit different after that.

I think that week was one of the quietest weeks we had in that class, that school. There again – I don’t know – it might of just been me. Germany was already beginning to have an effect on me, and my memories aren’t very clear, not about a lot of things.

But the day we went swimming in the snow – of looking outside those windows from the warm luxurious waters of that pool to the white snowy billows beyond – and seeing those German kids – it is something that has always stuck with me, a sharp memory from that time.

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In Deep Water


In Deep Water

The building echoed with whispers and wet laps. Every sound in the cavernous concrete room was accentuated a thousand times. Water chuckled behind me and the row of children, and I could smell damp concrete in the air. We stood in a tight row, our backs arched at attention, paying attention to our instructor.

“. . . and this is how you equalize your eardrums,” the instructor was a young strict looking woman. She was thin, dressed neck to ankle in some form fitting long sleeved outfit I did not recognize. I thought it was a bathing suit. She held her nose and pretended to blow, keeping her mouth shut while she raised one hand, pointing her index finger at the ceiling hidden by the glare from the metal coned steel housings hanging there. Then she stopped, dropping her hands, both from the finger and the nose.

“You’ll feel it going down,” she warned, looking at us kindly. “It’ll start hurting in your ears. When it does I want you to stop and do this.” She stopped to repeat the gesture, holding her nose, but keeping her other arm down. Her face changed from kind to stern in an instant. “And then you keep down down. Until you reach them.” She pointed at the dark bars lying on the floor. Each was about a foot long, and they had magnetic ends, color coded so you would know which was which, north end from south. We were supposed to build something with them; that or retrieve them from the bottom of the pool. I could feel my insides squirming with gleeful anticipation. This is going to be fun, I kept reminding myself, taking nervous glances over my bared shoulder at the pool. The water was dark at the bottom . . . they had warned us it would be deep. I just hoped I could hold enough air to carry out the mission.

Several adults – some of them G.I.’s, I suppose, stood around in relaxed poses. They were wearing black trunks, and alternated between studying us with what seemed a deep curiosity and looking at the water. I threw them nervous glances. They had been whispering behind cupped hands, and in some strange way I knew they were talking about us. “Us” was a small group of kids – about six or eight of us, not more. We were standing in front of the female instructor; behind us was “the pool”. This was on a base not long after we had arrived – both this base and this location in Germany. We moved around a lot.

This wasn’t the first pool we had went swimming in nor would it be the last – but it was by far the deepest and indoors. Because I have trouble believing what my memory tells me – I can’t believe how deep it felt – I tell myself: “Oh, it couldn’t have been more than sixteen feet deep.” But the truth of it was – I think it was a lot deeper. A whole lot deeper.

I know the water got a darker as you went down. A lot darker. So dark that you couldn’t hardly see those bars laying on the blue bottom; so dark that all of the colors had drained away – you could only tell the white end because it was gray (white was the ‘North’ side) and the red because it was a little bit darker. While as an adult I have trouble believing it, it felt more like thirty feet, the pressure was so bad. You could feel your chest crushing in. Of course we were kids; our ribs were thin – but still. It hurt to be down there a long time. And we were trained to hold our breath over a minute – hyperventilating until you were silly from dizziness before diving in . Twenty-four seems to a number I recall hearing, though the German measurements were based on meters. I think it might have been something the G.I.’s said, or we might have asked our instructor. I do know it was deep enough that despite the overhead lights the water got dark and I had to stop at least three or four times to equalize my ears against the growing pressure.

“Okay, everyone turn and face the pool!” As I recall, this class was an equal opportunity instruction – I seem to recall one, if not two or three girls in my class. Everyone, if I recall, wore black or dark colored swimsuits – the girls one piece ones that went from the crotch all the way to their shoulders. I think my mom had enrolled me in this class, though how she’d ever managed to find one on a base over there – one where I could be attending without the interruptions of school and moving – is beyond me. However, she knew my love of swimming – oddly enough, my brother was never there – and she was quite determined that I do it well. (I later went on to earn my Red Cross Advanced Life Saving Certificate, but that’s quite another story for another time.)

I turned; everyone turned, as if on a pivot, the way we’d trained to be.i We were near the far corner of the pool, away from the shallow end. You could hear the soft patter of bare feet as we shuffled on the wet cold concrete floor. It was rough. We weren’t shoulder to shoulder, but close enough you could reach out and grab someone. Everyone was pale, milk white from lack of sun. We almost glowed under those lights, except the little girls who stood at the very end. They had those tight fitting bathing suits on, strict little things fitting like skin covering their thin bodies. No one was fat in there. I hadn’t even gained the weight I would soon be packing on. I often glanced curiously at them as they made their way single file into the girl’s locker room, wondering what went on in there. What their pale little bodies looked like. If they were as pale as mine. I remembered my cousin Julie; how brown her body had been. I wished that I could be friends with them – anyone! – but in this group I knew not a single one. We were all kids thrust together at our parent’s whim, joined on an Army base by a Government order and whimsical fate.

None of our parents came to watch us, not that I recall. None of the kids parents were there. Maybe they were but I don’t remember it. The room was almost always empty except a few men standing around the pool when I walked in. It seems to me my mom dropped me off the very first time to show me where it was. From there I was on my own. She would tell me when it was time to go and that was it. Later I would just know when it was time to go – a little bit after dinner – grabbing my bathing suit and a warm towel. I guess she figured I was pretty good at finding my way around. That, and on the military bases it was pretty much safe. Of course if you want to take the ‘other side’ – it was preparatory to some training. (or at least that is my thought here.).

After that first visit we would walk to the pool on our own. It seemed I always went in the evening, and that I went two weeks, every day, for two or three hours a day, starting at twilight. I seem to remember seeing stars in the sky, walking – but I don’t trust every last detail of this memory, not for certain. And I’m almost certain it was in the late fall. The air of these memories (for there is another one about a young lover I found who found a friend in me) – is always cold; crisp and cold, generally with the wind blowing. Cold and windy days – those gray ones promising rain, snow, or thunder. And the shortening of days as the days go marching on until the next thing you know you are eating breakfast in the dark and supper in the dark. Five o’clock – that’s what time we had to be home for eating supper. Dinner was served at five-thirty – that’s when my dad would come home, though on the bases he would sometimes arrive for lunch or at odd times to either pick up some gear or drop something off. In those northern climes due to global tilt and angle, and especially during those cloudy days when the clouds would all stand still and pile up, five thirty becomes the twilight zone. At least seems that way. All the colors drain away into the shadows; ghosts haunt buildings, shining their light into your faces – until you turn around and realize it’s just the reflection of some streetlight ‘yonder’ – far off, in other words . . .

wandering those bases at night was a trip sometimes.ii

“Okay, you know what to do.” The woman walked to the edge of the pool. Her suit came down to her ankles. She had a load of those bars in her arms. “Everyone get in.”

She started throwing the bars in – half to a quarter of the way across, and about fifteen or twenty feet from the end – where it was the deepest (as I was about to learn). This was kind of a “final”. The bars made dull splashes. We had learned to swim starting ‘on shore’ – everyone laying on their belly on these little stools and feathering their feet, making swimming motions with their arms. We were also taught to dive from a high place – and speed dive. Surface dives were rough – we barely had enough legs to shove us under the surface, much less give us any acceleration to go down like the big men did – for they got in around us.

We all jumped in – freestyle, laughing out loud, preparing for a good time, but the water was cold, almost freezing. I know I was overjoyed to be in it– it seemed a natural environment, and I could hold my breath for over a minute. But that was without hyperventilating. I don’t know how long I could hold it hyperventilating. They never told us how long we were ‘down there’.

The G.I.’s – at least two or three of them (and I don’t think there were any more) jumped in with us as we paddled out to the middle of the deep end where the woman had thrown the bars. One or two of them went down and did some thing – or some things. And then we started diving.

As I said, the water was cold, but our bodies soon warmed to the task. It was hard work – diving down – and down and on down deeper – holding our noses and blowing from time to time. I learned to keep mine in check – blowing as I went down instead of stopping like some were – swimming on forward, kicking with desperate feet, trying to reach that dim bottom. From there it got even trickier. The G.I.’s had built structures out of these things – small pyramids and boxes for the most part. And in every one they would place a bar, usually at an angle, with one end hanging out. You would have to go and pull out the bar without disturbing the structure. It was harder than it sounds.

For one thing, you had those magnets going against you. Get too close to the structure and it would fall down, or the magnetic forces would go tearing it apart. I remember on my first one – a cube, I’m pretty sure – the end of the bar got too close to another magnet – it ‘sucked’ the end down – and I was left with this disentegrating box, a rod in one hand – those divers growing closer and me imagining that they were getting angry – as I desperately tried to rebuild the box on the bottom and retrieve the bar like I was supposed to do. Instead I ended up making a mess – the bars were scattered all over as I finally gave up my try and went surging from the bottom – running out of air and hoping I would make it in time to the surface.

That’s where I learned about diving – free lung, any style. You don’t want to wait until the last minute. You’ve got to learn just when to turn around – go up towards the surface. Otherwise you’re gonna run out of air on the way there. This was something they had warned us about – and not all the kids seemed to take it to heart. I recall the G.I.’s having to rescue several of them. “They” (the G.I.’s) would keep jumping in, always keeping someone near the bottom, keeping an eye on us. The woman never went in – she stayed on top, on the concrete, directing us.

“Time to go down again!” she would call to the class. “You, you, and you! I want you to go down there and do (fill in the blank).” And she would describe the task to us. And then we’d go diving down – bending, folding, thrusting our legs up – using their weight to drive us down – and we’d swim like dark fish, lemmings – swirling shadows on the edge of my vision as I used my arms and legs to pull myself down. All the while the water would be growing darker, duskier until it was almost night – and then you’d see that bottom swimming up. From there I’d go desperately darting in a serpentine pattern, keeping a distance from the other swimmers until the bars – sometimes scattered – came into view. From there it would be a matter of ‘diving’ down to them, and hoping you had enough air to ‘complete your mission’ – whether that was disassembling something, assembling something, or simply bringing the bars up one by one. (For some reason you weren’t allowed to bring up two – one in each hand.)

Meanwhile those G.I.’s kept an eye on us and pulling out a child from time to time. I can still see them in mind’s eye – hovering there in the dark water at the edge of our vision all the time. They’d take them over to the edge of the concrete pool where they would drag them out and over, pump ’em dry and start over again. They’d sit them down for a few minutes – the kid would choke it out, sometimes vomiting – and then he (or she) would get back in. And do it again. Retrieving some, leaving behind some . . . we got into building ‘structures’ for later on. Those were for the short kidsiii. But it was a short course, only two weeks (I think) though we stayed late into the evening. About nine or ten sometimes. Maybe even later. I remember always being a sleepy head going home. Swimming had wore me out for good reason . . . it was hard sometimes.

(later, sitting in the dark thinking, I try as I’ve tried to envision this place, the building. The lights, I’m sure, were set off to the sides, in the high corners where the wall joined the ceiling. And it was tall! But those lights set like that – I think they caste a shadow off the side of the concrete pool, adding to the impression of dark water. Kind of like in a swimming pool early in the morning – swimming in the shadow of a concrete wall, the water becomes a bit ‘darker’. “Dusky” is a good word for it.

As for this thing’s depth . . . well, the building.

Again we are relying on a faulty memory system; parts and glitches in the system; snapshots and feelings; the impressions of a twelve year old child who was (evidently) having some memory problems – or ‘switching’ – because we can’t remember one move – there’s a lot of holes in this thing. But sitting . . . I kept trying to look at it from the water’s edge – when I was treading water – my lungs giving out, chest sore, panting – going down for one more dive, doing this again and again. I don’t think they gave us one break for more than – well it felt like three hours, but probably was two. And truthfully, some of the kids came near drowning – they would stay down there too long, trying to build something or bring something up – forgetting that rule or pushing to the limit that which dictates how long you can stay down. And that’s approximately half the air that you breathed getting down there. There wasn’t much room for error, not if you were going to do this thing: go down and ‘fetch them’ – or worse and harder still, build something (typically a square cage) using the magnetic ends.

But I remember – or think I remember – seeing this number painted on one side. The end.

11”.

And as I mentally squinted over the choppy water towards the side (trying to force my attention on that and not the other little boys and job I was doing – because I was concentrating on that and not this number I was seeing) – I’m seeing a small “m”.

Which means the depth would have been 11 meters.

That’s quite a deep depth for a little boy to be climbing – up or down, water besides the point. That’s over three stories deep. If my somewhat faulty memory rings true. (And the numbers are painted white; that’s what I noticed right off; usually on a pool they’re black; here they are painted white, with that little serrif on top. And tall ones.)

The building itself – as I kinda remember it – wasn’t in the usual place for that kind of thing. Usually the Army tends to keep things together – amenities all in one section, PX, barber, ‘bought’ things in another – the tools of war and their trade stored in another, the soldiers bunking in some barracks grouped in a cluster – very organized.

This building (again, to the best of my faulty memory, for which you may have to excuse me – and again, to the depth perceptions of a twelve year old child) – sat on a low hill in the ‘industrial’ or ‘utility’ section on that base – not the normal one, which would mean not far from the PX, E-Club, Theater and things. No, this building stood off – and it was a tall one – and you had to climb some steps to get in. And it was echoey and dark inside; the lighting was (I think) perimeter lighting around the pool, nothing hanging over. Which again explains the darkness of the water I was seeing.

But if I’m getting it right – if that number means what I think it’s meaning – then that pool was over thirty foot deep. That would explain the pressure I was feeling. Because it was like a squeezing hand, a squeezing fist – you could feel it. It hurt my chest – for hours afterwards I would feel it. A soreness in the middle of the ribcage, and tender sometimes on the sides.

Eleven meters. Thirty-six feet. I know: I looked it up.

That’s a long way for a child to be diving.

Deep water.

Story of my life sometimes, LOL.


i ~ Oddly enough, this sentence has a DID symbology, though I didn’t realize it when I first wrote it. Might just be a case of seeing coincidences where there are none – but it’s almost as if it’s done quite deliberately. Which it may be. On behalf* or by some ‘part’ in me. *

“Behalf”, I’ve figured out (because it’s a phrase I sometimes use) means “for the ‘all’ of me in some way. “Pivoting” means “turning” – ‘switching’ from one phase/person/persona to another. As in to spin (in mind’s eye I see a flat round smooth brown table slowly turning . . . as if in the wind). From one personality to another in a flash or a turn.

ii ~ And for a child it could get scary. You had to avoid the MP’s in their jeeps – the grownups milling around – dodging around corners and behind bushes . . . making your way ever closer to ‘the system’ . . . usually the supply depot to meet someone, steal some supplies – sometimes for the soldiers out in the woods.

iii~ another odd phrase in my mind. “Short” in military terms means “soon to be transferred”. But it also could mean younger (smaller) children.

On Thin Ice


On Thin Ice

When I was growing up in the ‘hood, there was no place to skate. Roller skates don’t work too well on soft dirt roads or sandy drives, and as a result, we had none. I don’t recall anyone in the ‘hood wearing roller skates. But when we got to Germany some of kids had roller skates. I used to watch them whizzing by, envy in my heart at their smooth passage, until eventually, saving up money from my garbage hauling job, I purchased a pair of used, metal wheeled skates.

Now this was back in “the day” when the song “Brand New Key” by Melanie Safka had just come out – and trust me, you needed that key. These metal framed skates bolted to the bottom of your shoes, clamped into place and secured with that all too necessary key. Nylon wheeled skates were unheard of (remember: everything came from an Army PX in Germany) – and “real” skates – the ones with shoes “built on” were beyond my meager budget. Hence my purchase of a cheap metal rollers from a family that was due to get shipped back “Stateside” at any moment.

It didn’t take me long to realize I didn’t have the heart, skills – or bottom – to be a true roller skater. Those metal wheels telegraphed every grain and granule of the asphalt roads; they caught in the cracks of the sidewalks, and slipped out from underneath me with a butterlike consistency, catching me unawares and dropping me onto my elbows – and butt – with a jarring frequency. (This was before the day when elbow pads and helmets became ‘necessary’ equipment.) I would often watch the other kids – the ones with the nicer roller skates – zipping along, my mouth twisted with frustration and butt aching from frequent falls. It didn’t take but a few months to consign them to a cardboard box, from which they simply faded away.

But when winter came, I discovered a whole new way of getting around – one that seemed to suit my disposition and skill level much better – and provided a whole new level of adventure.

Ice skates.

 

For a boy raised in the South, there was nothing like ice and snow. Each winter in Germany was greeting with joy and anticipation despite the necessity of thick clothes and heavy boots. Fluffy white flakes drifting down, icicles draping every horizontal surface like crystalline filigree – I found winter beautiful and fascinating. I had seen a few people ice skating – mostly kids – but after my experience with the steel wheeled roller skates, I figured it would be just as hard – and disappointing. Plus there was the cost factor. Clamp-on roller skates were relatively cheap. Ice skates were expensive. You had to buy the boot as well as the skate. But one day my parents took us to an open air ice skating rink, and donning my doubts and a pair of rented skates, I gave it a try.

To my surprise, they were remarkably easy to get around on – much easier than roller skates. The ice was smooth – no rocks or pebbles to trip you up, and no cracks for the wheels to fall in. (If there were cracks in the ice – you stayed away. Even a dumb Southern boy like me knew that much.) And speed! My mom and I both have a love for speed – shooting across the ice like a comet, I recalled the story of Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates – wishing for a canal’s straight run so that I could go faster and faster, leaving my troubles and life behind. There is nothing quite like ice cold air whipping past your face, the smooth gliding sensation – I fell in love with ice skating right away, and began begging my parents for a set of ice skates.

That first Christmas when I turned twelve I opened a box underneath the tree to find – long silver blades attached to shiny black boots, creased and buffed with age. My dad had given them a quick lick with the shoe polish, and they fit just right – tight around the ankles, snug around the feet. Of course the next problem was finding a place to use them.

Military bases weren’t well known for their entertainment amenities, especially if you were a kid. A small library, a small theater, maybe a swimming pool (not much use in the winter) – not much more. Some had Youth Activity centers, but those were generally boring, given over to arts and crafts. There were other “entertainments” us children would find, but I won’t go into them here – the military would disapprove!

However, it didn’t take us kids long to find what we were looking for: ponds across the fence. Usually they were short shallow ponds – mere rectangles in a snowy land, almost impossible to spot after a heavy snowfall. I always relied on the other kids on a base to lead me to where they were – and then, pushing aside as much snow as we could, we would skate and skate all day. For the most part this action was heavily frowned on by the military – there was a chance we’d find a pond with too thin ice, and no one ever knew where we were. Creeping along like little Indians, buried in our coats, we’d find a hole in the fence – and then setting out across the farmer’s fields, we go slugging through the snow to a pond that someone knew. Had one of us fallen in – well, they probably would’ve drowned. These ponds were sometimes miles (or kilometers) from anywhere – out in the thin, snow covered woods, or in some distant field. But we didn’t care. The thrill of skating called us.

 

I was no figure skater – I wasn’t interested in fancy footwork, skating backwards, or cutting nice curlicues in the ice. I always – and still – had one goal in mind: go as fast as I could as far as I could, and I would keep on going until something eventually stopped me – whether it be a snow bank, the end of the lake, or the sun creeping down in a gun metal blue sky, signaling it was time to go in. Pure and blinding speed – that was where my interest lay – not in impressing the people around me, nor racing someone across the ice. What I wanted was that sensation of eyes crying in the wind, the landscape streaming past, and the past left somewhere behind me. Speed and more speed. Only when I got to going fast enough could I escape from everything – sliding from the ‘now’ into the ‘now’, every thought concentrated on one thing: staying upright, and going even faster. No future, no past – just the thrill of the moment; no worry about impending disaster, no regret or memory to intrude: just the cold, cold wind whipping past.

 

There was one pond I’ll never forget near Old Argonner, an Army base near Hanau. Unlike the other ponds, it was “sanctioned”. The Army used it for tank training (I’ll never forget watching the tanks plunging and roaring through the pond) – and during the winter they would come and test the ice along the shores to ensure it was the proper thickness. That didn’t matter to us – we would start skating long before they came and chopped holes in the ice, measuring it for thickness. And I don’t think they could of stopped us: we were intent on having fun, it wasn’t on the base – and even if they had tried, we would have simply waited until they left and went skating anyway.

This big pond was no mere mud puddle – it was a lake. When the weather got cold enough we would begin venturing out, taking hesitant steps onto the ice until it would start to dip and crack, marking the limits of “good ice”. Then we would skate in the shallow inlets and coves – small circles, growing ever wider and more daring as winter settled in. Eventually we would venture further out – twenty, fifty, a hundred feet from the bank. Like kids, we were always testing the limits, going a little further each day. And eventually the braver of us – the crazier of us – took the long discussed “dare”.

I only remember three of us ever taking “the dare”. I had long eyed the wide snow blown stretch across the middle – the part beyond the “thin ice” flags – for therein lay the straight shot, the long run, the place I could get the most speed. Looking across that quarter mile or so of thin ice, I could almost see the long straight run described in “The Silver Skates” – could imagine the speed required to get across. For there in the center of the lake lay the most dangerous section, the section where no one went – not unless you were willing to risk your life for the thrill of adventure. Thin ice.

We’d ventured out on the ice many times before – never far, not much further than the flags. As you’d go out the ice would bend and crack dangerously; we’d always turned around before. But there was a rumor going around that if you could skate hard enough and fast enough across the center you could beat the cracks, racing just ahead of a fatal plunge into ice cold water and almost certain death. And as time went on I found myself staring across that distance more and more – seeing not the threat, but the promise of speed, underlaid with the thrill of adventure. And so one day it came.

“I’ll do it,” I told my fellow skaters, mere kids like myself. There were no grownups around – they were all at work or “home” in the apartments, as they so often were. Ice skating, it seemed, was a sport for kids; I don’t recall ever seeing a grownup on the ice except when the Army would send someone out to check the thickness, and that was just at the beginning of the season. Two other kids, sensing the challenge, nervously joined me. Looping nervously around the main cove where we generally skated – shooting glances across that treacherous no-man’s land in the middle of the lake – we gathered up our speed and courage – and shot across the ice.

I’ll never forget that wild, exhilarating rush across the thin ice. From the corners of my stinging eyes I could see the ice dipping like a huge concave saucer, with me in the middle. To my left and right were the other two skaters, pushing themselves forward with all their might. Shoving my blades against the ice, pushing myself forward faster and faster, while all around the ice creaked and groaned. I could see fine white cracks spidering out from beneath me, shooting out in all directions. The dipping saucer, tracking us like a target, seemed to grow deeper the further we went. It was a long run, and my muscles burned as I approached the middle, but I didn’t dare stop – not now, not in the most perilous of places. Already the cracks were outracing me; feeling my heart skip, I pushed even harder. Finally passing the oh-so thin center, I could see the dark water a mere inch or so below, air bubbles racing away as I fled onwards. Here and there I thought I saw a few fine sprays of mist, like some creature breathing through the ice, though perhaps it was wind blown snow; liquid bulges emerged from the cracks and spread like gloss, as though the lake was bleeding – then I was past, racing towards thicker ice, my fellow skaters trailing in a ragged vee. Finally reaching the other side – empty, unpopulated except by bushes and weeds bowing their heads beneath the snow, I stopped, bending over to grab my knees, blowing out thick clouds of smoke. My two friends stopped alongside, equally winded.

“That was fun,” I finally gasped, looking up at the far side from whence we’d come. “Lets do it again.”

And so we did.

 

The second trip was much more dangerous than the first – I recall cutting through thin skims of water, hardening on the ice – but I didn’t care. We’d done it once – I knew we could do it again. Once again that sensation of sinking down into a bowl – the cracks, much more numerous now, shooting out beneath our feet. Small geysers of mist shooting up here and there, as though the lake was breathing. The thrilling sensation of speed, wind whipping past. Reaching the other side, we all but fell into the congratulating arms of our peers – the ones who were too afraid – and put our dreams aside for the moment. We knew we’d been pushing our luck coming across the lake the second time – lungs heaving, I looked back at the treacherous lake, knowing something.

I had beat it.

 

A few weeks later they shut the lake for about a week. A kid, attempting the same stunt, had fallen in. Rumor had it that he’d drowned. Maybe he did; maybe he didn’t. Bases are notorious for rumors. But being a kid, I didn’t care. I just know one thing: it increased my sense of pride. He had failed where I had succeeded: skating across thin ice.

And therein lays a lesson for life, I guess – albeit an oblique one. If you are skating on thin ice: don’t stop, don’t give into your fears, and whatever you do, don’t stop and turn around. Just keep on going – as fast as you can, because sometimes safety lays on the other side.

You’re in the Army Now


You’re in the Army Now

One of the things you’ve got to understand is that for military families, the military is GOD. The Commanders and Officers will tell you that: you obey military commands first, then you can consider what God wants later. And of the two, you’d better put the military first. God comes second. You come a distant third, and if you are a military dependent, perhaps fourth or fifth.

In some ways this story is a precursor for understanding the second “set” of stories; stories about our lives on the military bases overseas. My life can be defined as a series of sharply defined periods, separated by sharply delineated lines. There was the period “before” the hood, from age one through five. There was the period “in” the hood, from five to eleven. Then there is the period “after the hood”, from age eleven to fourteen. There are other sharply defined periods as well, but they are for later stories. In this “series” of stories, we are entering the third period: the time when I went to Germany. Whereas before we had almost always lived in the “civilian” world – in civilian neighborhoods surrounded by civilian friends – a new factor was to enter our lives: the all-powerful hand of military command, military protocol, and military rules. No longer did our parents come first, though they would relay our new god’s commands; our parents came second. We could see that in our parent’s behaviors – the meek subservience of my mother to this “greater god” (her, who had never bowed to anyone); my father’s sternness about us “behaving in a proper military manner”, and obeying every military command, and our own helplessness regarding our fates, our lives. We were in the Army now, and there was no escaping it.

 

When you live on a military base, no matter who or what you are, you are expected to follow military protocol. There are announcements (both formal and informal) which may take place at school (if you go to a military ran school, such as we did overseas) – or by your father, or your mother (having been told what to say by the father, who in turn is told what to say by his commanding officer, “the CO”) – or simply posted on one of the innumerable bulletin boards. They may range from mild reminders (“Residents will their lawns manicured and litter free”) to more serious issues (“Children will NOT throw rocks at aircraft”) to ones that leave you scratching your head in bemused befuddlement (“Residents may hang pictures without attachment.”) Regardless of the regulation, you obey.

Obedience comes in many forms, whether it be standing up in the theater and putting your hand over your heart at the beginning of the movie, when they would play the national anthem, to pulling over your car (or bike) and getting out, stand at attention facing the base’s major flagpole and standing at attention when taps are played (promptly at five o’clock). Failure to do so can result in more than disapproval by your fellow slaves; it can result in demotion (if you are military personnel) or persecution of the person responsible for your care (and thus your behavior). I have been with civilians on an Army base when taps are played – they are amazed: everyone stops what they are doing, and everyone faces a central point – even if you can’t see it from where you are standing – and stands at attention. The Mecca of their attention, that single flagpole set somewhere – is rendered proper respect while the flag goes down.

Obedience comes in several other ways, some almost too subtle to be seen, the unwritten rules governing everyone’s behavior. No one cuts in line – unless it is the officer’s wife, and then only in an emergency. (They are given priority, anyway.) In some of the military branches (eg. The Marine Corps), the enlisted (lower ranks) eat first; the upper ranks come last (part of “looking after your men”.) The MP’s (military police) are the arm of god; they are given obedience at the least, respect if you are wise. They are the ones who can “take you in” – and pity the military dependent who gets taken in. While they will be treated with respect, their “sponsor” will bear the full brunt of their punishment – and it is not uncommon for that “sponsor” (the military member) to take home that punishment and deal it out among the offending dependents thrice-fold. Thus if you are a military dependent who is intent on breaking the rules, it behooves you to take the utmost care. Some behaviors can get you “ejected” from the base – or if overseas, from the country you are in. Not that the country cares; they won’t even know (the military keeps it’s embarrassment and secrets to itself). But you will, for if your sponsor is ejected with you, you can count yourself fortunate. It is not uncommon for the dependents to be ejected, finding them homeless and without care here in the United States while their military member continues to serve their tour of duty elsewhere. It’s can be hard life, and the military used to be harsh that way. I do not know if such practices still exist today.

“Rank has it’s privileges” goes the old saying, and as a dependent, you find that you, too are ranked according to your “sponsor’s” rank. Officers and enlisted do not mix. High ranking enlisted may mix with lower ranking enlisted, but only to a limited degree. The Commanding Officer doesn’t mix at all. As an enlisted man’s dependent’s we found ourselves giving preference to the dependent’s of officers. The officers had separate housing on the military bases – real houses instead of the apartments us “lower class” or lower ranking dependents had. In Germany the officers inhabited the houses of their former enemies; us dependent’s lived in our former enemies enlisted housing. It was almost as if there was an invisible line drawn across the base: they had “theirs” and we had “ours”. Theirs was almost invariably better – to be envied by us enlisted brats. And the separation showed everywhere – from school, where officer’s kids were isolated, almost shunned by us “enlisted brats” – to the commissary, where the enlisted mens’ wives would silently steer their buggies in wide circles around the higher ranking officer’s wives. It showed in the clubs and recreation areas: you had the stiffly opulent “Officers Club” – and the more relaxed atmosphere of the “E-club”. In the Youth Activities center the officers’ kids were often at one end – and us “enlisted” kids at the other. As a result most kids kept the identities of their father’s rank secret. But for the Commanding Officer’s kids: there was no way for them to hide their identity. Because a word from them to their father could result in further investigation, no matter what the crime or slight, real or imagined – they were shunned. We rarely mixed with the officers’ kids, if only for that reason. Anything we did or said could impact our father’s career – and thus it was better to err on the side of safety, and just stay away from them.

This is not to say the military is unfair. The military seemed extraordinarily fair. As far as I could tell throughout my entire twenty-four years of military association (twenty-eight, if you count my contract experience) – they didn’t care what color you were, what religion you practiced, or what your rank or status was – as long as you obeyed the rules. Break the rules and you would be punished. It was that simple. Obey the rules and you would be rewarded through advancement (and thereby pay and privilege). And the same went for dependents. Obey the rules and your sponsor would be rewarded. Disobey the rules – and the sins of the dependents would fall upon the sponsor’s head. Thus the inversion of the old saw: the sins of the father will be laid upon their children – for in the military that saying was reversed. The sins of the children would fall upon their father’s head. And woe to the child who did that.

For that was one thing odd and strange. On a military base it didn’t matter if you were three or thirteen, two or twenty: you were expected to obey the rules. The Army seemed blind to age and children. They seemed blind to a lot of things, such as expecting that six year old or eight year old – or fifteen year old – to obey with the same blind obedience that they expected everyone to obey with. The thing is: kids will be kids. They will get into things – and sometimes things they aren’t supposed to get into. Kids are enormously inquisitive; if there is a hole, they will crawl into it; a fence, and they will scale it. And we were a lot like that, getting into things and places we never should of belonged, and doing things that quite frankly should of gotten someone killed.

Another thing about being a dependent – and it’s something you’ve got to realize right away. You are a second class citizen. The soldiers come first, you come second (or third or fourth or wherever the military decides you belong). It is evident in military care: in the hospitals there were signs stating that dependents would be treated ONLY after all the G.I.’s had received their care. It is evident in their rules: the rules go to the G.I.’s – and then the G.I.’s are expected to make sure their dependents follow them. If there is a convoy – you give way. If there are soldiers marching – you step aside. And if there is an alert – the military rounds up the troops, and the dependents are expected to make their own way to safety, minus the comfort and protection of the one who is supposed to be comforting and protecting them. It is evident in everything the military does: the soldiers always come first, the dependents come second. And before you go condemning the military for that, think hard and fast – for who has the military hired? You, the dependent? Or the military person who has accompanied you? And if the enemy is invading, which is more important: that soldier separating himself (or herself) from her duty to aid his or her family – or standing and fighting while the dependents get away? There is a weird and bizarre logic behind the military’s doings – and while I sometimes saw some sad results of that logic, rarely could I argue with the military’s mind. Not that it would of mattered: the military is like a machine, governed by procedure and regulation – and nothing short of God moving heaven and earth can change it.

It was into such a world that my brother, thirteen, and I, eleven, suddenly found ourselves in. Gone were the carefree days of doing as we wished outside: now we had a invisible head watching us, a stern and unyielding hand to guide us. No longer could we be friends with anyone we liked, nor could we speak bad of anyone who disliked us – and whose fathers exceeded ours in rank. Never before had our father’s rank in the military mattered to us, nor our own behavior in terms of how it might affect him. Neither had our father ever had to consider how we might impact his career. But now – thrown together on military bases overseas – it all seemed to matter – from how we held ourselves in the theater, to whom we greeted on the street or in the PX – and how we greeted them. Unconscious actions could have extreme consequences – a perceived slight could echo up the food chain – and then back down again, ultimately falling on your own head. It was strange, and yet oddly predictable – just as the military is. You always knew where you stood in station, life, and priorities (which for us enlisted dependents was pretty low) – and slowly it would dawn on you.

Piece and parcel, body and soul: You were in the Army now.

Krautland: 1969


Krautland

When living in Germany on an Army base in 1969 there was a very strong sense of “us” and “them”. Notice I didn’t say “us versus them”, though only thirty years earlier their grandfathers had been sorely intent on killing our grandfathers and vis versa. And we lived on “their” former military bases, occupying our former enemies’ houses, and using their facilities. We depended upon “them”, and perhaps they depended upon us – or at least they liked our American money.

This was a time when a dollar bought you four German marks, and a mark bought about a quarter’s worth of goods (unlike today, where a dollar buys you about fifty cents worth of goods – if you’re lucky!). The Germans would send a “roach coach” around every day where you could buy candy (and where I first saw Gummi bears) – and there were the various sundry other services the Germans provided. And the Germans even had a place of their own on the base, the German “canteen” – a bit of their “country” within our “country”, which lay within their “country”. Americans were forbidden from entering the German canteen, though there were a few times we did. If this seems somewhat strange, then you can imagine what it was like living in it. Strange, sometimes stranger, and sometimes just downright bizarre, leaving you to feel like you were tottering on the edge of the twilight zone. Throw in the sudden appearance and disappearance of individuals – Army families in transit, friends come and gone – the combination of seemingly randomness coupled with the perfectly predictable world of the military – well, to us kids it made that “Twilight Zone” feeling even stronger. And then sometimes it got really weird – especially when we’d venture off base, out of our “own little world” – and into the world of the Germans.

“Krautland”. That’s what us kids called everything beyond the fence, just as a prisoner might refer to everything beyond the walls as “The World”. There was “the base” – and “Krautland”. Home was overseas – “Stateside”, and we lived in quarters. Over time “Stateside” became more distant in our memories, like a treasured dream fondly remembered. The reality of our situation was in the “now” – and that “now” was life on a military base overseas – a literal island of Americanism in a foreign land.

There was only one official way off the bases: through the gates. But unofficially it was different, and us kids were always keeping a sharp eye out for a means through the fence – whether it be a hole through or under. One of the first things we’d do upon arriving at a base was to make friends with other kids and we’d gather in clandestine meetings, staring at Krautland through the fence and finding out where the chinks in the American armor were. And invariably they were there. And we weren’t the only ones who used them.

I remember on one base us kids had discovered a hole in the fence – a tear near a locked gate that no one seemed to use. Beyond lay a farmer’s field, dressed in green, and a jagermeister’s hut (a hunter’s hut high on poles) – set in the middle of the field. There was an unusual “hill” next to the fence – not far, just a few hundred yards – with a twisted old tree growing next to it. We weren’t brave enough to widely explore the field and woods that lay beyond – we knew we did not belong there, we belonged on “our” side of the fence, and not “theirs”. The only sanctioned way off base was through the gate – but being kids, that did not stop us.

That hill – it was one of many such strange places we found in our explorations – turned out to be an old German WWII bunker. A metal hatch on top opened to reveal a ladder down the wall, and stinking of piss and ankle deep it water, it didn’t hold our interest for long. But there were other bunkers . . .

One gray, overcast day we were sitting like vultures in that tree – a group of about six of us. We’d crawled through the hole, mounted the bunker – given it our now disinterested and precursory inspection – and then climbing the tree, just sat in it. (Entertainment being what it was – rare – this was about as exciting as it often got on base.) As we are sitting there we spy a couple of G.I.’s worming their way through the hole.

Hunkering down, we watched them, gathering our coats around us. It was unusual for G.I.’s to do this – they could get into serious trouble for leaving the base in an ‘unofficial’ way – and we knew something was up. It was late fall or early spring – no snow, I remember that. And these two G.I.’s, not noticing their audience perched in the tree, began to do something that . . . well, we were caught between emotions. You could say they freaked us out, scared us, and made us laugh all at the same time – but being the careful vultures we were, we remained quiet – for a time.

These guys pull out a sheet, then undressing, go chasing each other for a short way across the field, naked as jay-birds. We are already in shock, looking at each other and suppressing our giggles. Then the two G.I.’s wrap themselves up in the sheet and begin rolling around on the ground. That was when we realized what was going on. These two guys were gay.

I don’t know what set it off – whether someone laughed a bit too loud, or made a comment, but suddenly the G.I.’s become aware of our presence in the tree. Leaping up, they begin running towards us.

Well, that was all it took for us vultures to decide to fly. Realizing we’d been caught in an act of voyeurism, we scrambled down from that tree – falling over one another and jumping from low limbs – with cries of “Book! (which meant run like mad in our lingo) Book! Run!”. And we scattered, all with the same intention: don’t get caught and head for the hole.

I think as I (one of the last) hurried through that hole in the fence I heard on of the G.I.’s laughing.

It was strange.

Germany itself was a strange and wonderful place. I loved “going to town”. Walking out the front gate you could often catch a German bus, and from there go anywhere you pleased. Figuring out the German bus schedules and signs, however, was quite a different thing. Whenever I traveled I felt half-lost – probably the same sensation you might get in a strange city – with one difference. You can’t read anything. Everything is a half-guess, an exercise in scratching your head – reading the few words you can understand – and wondering about the rest. You hoped you were picking the right bus; you hoped that it would drop you off at the right destination, and you prayed that you could find it when you got back. But the German towns, like their public transportation systems, were wonderful.

I remember one store we used to visit – sometimes I would go it alone, a boy of twelve or thirteen in a foreign city. It was called “the HoffKoff” – literally translated as “the Head House”. It was a huge department store full of the neatest goods – little washers and dryers for the German apartments, odd kitchen appliances unlike anything I’d ever seen before – all in bright, primary colors – and food. Food was a wonderful thing in Germany – so many new things to try, and a lot of times you didn’t know what you were getting into.

Food. The markets. The open air markets in the city squares on Saturday. Those were my heaven. There was nothing like going to the market early in the morning. The vendors would set up their wares – rabbit carcasses strung up in one stall, layers upon layers of colorful vegetables in another. But my favorite thing of all were the small carts which sold “bratwurst mit brochen”.

There are many types of bratwurst – one for almost every district in Germany. In northern Germany they sell “weissewurst” – white, fatty sausages which to my American palate were totally disgusting. But in the south they sell meaty red bratwurst with crisp skins that burst with juices when you bite into them – and serve it on freshly baked rolls with a hard, yet almost flaky crust. I’ve yet to find anything comparable to it over here in the United States – and served fresh with German mustard . . . eating in an open air market while admiring the beautiful splays of flowers in one vendor’s table – or eyeballing the mysterious corpses hanging under another vendor’s tent – was a sensation not to be denied. I could not visit a market without getting my favorite – bratwurst mit brochen, and a squirt of mustard on the side.

And the towns themselves – every town had at least one bakery, maybe two, sometimes more. And the delicacies they baked! Cakes and cakes galore – there is nothing quite like true Bavarian chocolate cake, loaded with cherries and creme fillings – and scones and tarts, pies – more cakes – German bear claws, candies . . . the list goes on and on, and I added many of them to my favorite lists of things. But I learned a hard lesson in one bakery. . . .

Going in I spied what seemed the most beautiful cake of all. Richly textured, kind of red, kind of brown, with sort of blue-black speckles in the batter, it called my name. Begging my parents, who had come there for . . . what? Something, no doubt – I bought a slice.

I don’t know what that cake was made of – but it was one of the more disgusting tastes I’ve ever had in my mouth – and I have eaten a lot of things. (Snake? Lizard anyone? How about ancient C-rations which are three times your age? Been there, done that.) But . . . my parents had a rule. You order it: you eat it. So I ate it – choking down every beautiful bite.

Germany is an old country. A lot of Americans are awed when they run across a building built in the 17 or 1800’s – but that’s nothing! In Germany there are structures that go back eight hundred, a thousand years, making our American landscape look positively juvenile. The massive cathedrals, cobblestone streets, and roads so narrow that only two horses can pass – the castles with their massive fortifications, breweries that go back to before America was founded. And we traveled – a lot. I was constantly amazed and awed by the architecture – sweeping buttresses inside of churches so large it seemed you could fit a football field in them – ornately decorated, with every surfaced carved and painted. And castles – their diminutive doorways because people were so much smaller then – literally of a smaller stature, so that even as a young teenager I sometimes found myself ducking through the entrances. And every village seemed to have some statuary, a center plaza, and an ornate fountain. Some were positively grotesque – I remember one which was fascinating, featuring gaunt emaciated people, all nude, dying from the Black Death – the bubonic plague. One was a withered woman, her breasts sunken dugs dangling down her chest, her mouth gaping to the sky; underneath her a plump child writhing in pain. Death was no stranger to our ancestors, and was frequently referenced in their ancient art and sculpture. From what I saw, apparently it wasn’t uncommon for our ancient ancestors to come across human skeletons from time to time – and they simply accepted it as a matter of course.

I remember one town we lived near. There was a church near the market square where we often walked. It was one of those hundreds of year old churches, and the Germans decided to do some work on it. Pulling up the floor stones paving the center aisle, they found . . . hundreds of skeletons, all thrown down into a large pit-like room. They apparently were monks or religious acolytes, and instead of burying them, the church clergy would just toss the bodies beneath the floor. We had visited this church before, and it was bizarre knowing that for so long people had been walking and worshiping over this cache’ of skeletons. Of course the Germans being the orderly people they are, and on intimate (if somewhat ashamed) terms with their histories, they promptly threw a ribbon barricade around the pit and opened it up to visitors. The last I saw it was still there: a big circle in the middle of the church, in which there was an immense pile of bones.

There were a lot of other things about Germany which to an eleven, twelve, and thirteen year old boy raised in the humid South were strange, weird, wonderful, and interesting. Coming from a dirt poor rural neighborhood, raised in the sand hills among the scrub pines – I found myself suddenly surrounded by a world rich in art, museums, and items of interest. The German people were wonderful as well – courteous, though strict in their own ways; being helpful when they could, and laughing good naturedly at all of our mutual embarrassment when they couldn’t. The world outside our world – the world beyond the fences – Krautland – was an experience which opened my eyes and made me realize: there was a world beyond the world I’d known, the one back in “Stateside” – a place of different values and culture; beauty and wonder – a strange and fascinating place.

A World Unto Itself


A World Unto Itself

Living on a military base in Cold War Germany in the late ’60’s and start of the 1970’s was weird for a child raised in civilian ways. For despite having been born an Army brat, we had almost always lived among civilians, in a civilian neighborhood, with civilian friends. I guess that was my parent’s attempt at giving us kids a “sense of normality”. But that was in the U.S.A. In Germany we had no choice – we had to live on a military base. And living on a military base in a foreign land is an experience unto itself – even if you never leave the base. For it is a world unto itself, and it is ruled by an iron hand. And that hand is the base commander (the C.O., or commanding officer). He comes first, the military second, and though it is his responsibility to pass on the military’s rules, he can make exceptions. Usually those exceptions come in the form of more rules (directives, they are called) – ones specific to the base he commands. Next comes “country” (the U.S.A.), then, perhaps if there is room for it, religion.

For us kids you could add even another layer: our parents. Those fit somewhere between “duty to country” and God. They could not supersede the military’s commands, nor could they buck the base commander. They, like you, were expected to follow the rules handed down by the military. You always came second . . . or third . . . or fourth, depending upon your position. And for us kids, the position was very far down on the totem pole. You had this sense of a structure towering over you, the hand of god (which for us was the military, and not the true hand of God) – poised to strike at the least infraction. But, of course, we often broke the rules anyway.

Living on an Army base in Germany . . . especially the smaller ones – how to describe this thing to those who have never lived on one overseas?

Imagine a world built of Army trucks and tanks, marching G.I.’s singing randy slogans. We lived in the buildings the Germans had built for their own military back during WWII – quite literally occupying the homes of our enemies (though they weren’t our enemies anymore – for the most part). You couldn’t just plug in your nifty American appliance – you had to get a bulky transformer, or else you would fry your toy, because the electricity came from the German grid. Therefore, these transformers were considered precious – as precious as a refrigerator or vacuum cleaner, and almost as hard to find. Amenities were few, and often small. The only shopping for American goods was at the PX (Post Exchange) – which in many cases was a small building offering only a limited variety of goods, most of which were for the G.I.’s (such as uniforms, boots, insignia and such). Grocery shopping was done at the commissary, though we often visited the German markets (held in the town’s center squares) for fresh fruit and bread sometimes. Eggs were at a premium. Ditto steak, American bread, milk in those green cartons, and a hundred other things. For big items you had to drive for hours to another base, going to the AFEES center. Often you would be allowed to look at a “display sample” – to actually get the thing you had to order it – and like all mail orders in Germany at the time, it would take at least twelve weeks to get there, sometimes longer. You might not even be at the same base by the time it came in.

Entertainment was extremely limited. There were small libraries (just a few rows of books) – and the base theater. Almost every base had one. And even that was strange – or it would be to a civilian. For these were military theaters, and like everything military, there were procedures to be followed, rules to obey – and you didn’t dare disobey any of them. That would result in immediate ejection from the theater – and perhaps disciplinary action against your father. (This being the early 1970’s, not too many mothers were among the enlisted – though they – and we – had to follow the same rules as the enlisted.)

In a military theater it always started the same way. Everyone would sit down – quietly. Talking and discussion – laughter or fidgeting around – would earn you stern frowns from those around you. You waited for the movie to begin. And then it would start – and always in the same way. (The proper – and best way – in my opinion.) For it would open with the National Anthem, the flag and scenes from America on the screen.

And everybody – and I mean EVERYBODY – would have to stand up. If you were in uniform, you saluted that screen. If not: hand over the heart, standing at strict attention. No looking around. No conversation. Just gestures of pure respect towards the images on the screen. And woe unto the person who decided to remain seated. This was a command directive – not just by the C.O., but by the Army. “Everyone will stand – and remain standing – during the playing of the National Anthem.” No exceptions allowed. You WOULD place your hand over your heart. You WOULD stare at the screen. You would NOT shift around uncomfortably. You did NOT chew popcorn while it was playing. I always thought this was a wonderful thing, and still support the notion. After all: I’m proud to be an American, even if we do come up with some f****’d up policies sometimes. And I’m proud that as an American, I can say that. There are some countries where that would get you jailed, maybe even killed.

Such was (and is) the power of a base’s Commanding Officer that I remember one movie – a “premier” (though the movie had been out in the United States for well over a year) – where the CO was expected to show. He was late. Such was the respect (and fear) of the CO that they held off showing the movie for almost a half hour, waiting for him to get there. There were no open complaints made by the members of the audience; we all sat there, frozen in our seats, waiting for him to get in. The harshest thing I heard anyone say was “I hope he gets here soon.” Nothing else.

I’ve said that these military bases were worlds unto themselves. This was true. We dependents (kids and wives) felt free to mix with the G.I.’s – even when they were at work sometimes. I remember wandering into the hangers (my dad worked on aviation electronics – the “spy” stuff) – looking at the Cobras, UH-1’s, and Mohawks (a “spy” plane). Cruising out onto the tarmac to feel the rotor wash of a helicopter taking off – close and personal. G.I.’s would greet you like an old friend – even if you didn’t know them. After all: we were all bound together by a common thing – the military, our country of origin, our sense of “us” versus “them” – those who lived outside the base. There was always an acute awareness of our presence there among ourselves – that somehow we were just there temporarily, to do a job — and yet bound by ties thicker than blood. And the job of us kids was to obey.

That world ended at the fence — the eternal fence. (The military is fond of fences.) Beyond lay “Krautland”, within lay our world – the “American normalcy” – or the closest thing the Army could bring to it. We would gaze through the wire like tourists on a ship – the world ended there, right at the wire. Beyond – beyond lay another world, one strange and wonderful and full of pitfalls and traps. The gates that guarded our world were always eerily similar – you would know one if you drove by. Even if you didn’t know where you were at or if there was an American base there – you just knew. There would be a single guard hut planted in the middle of a road – red and white striped iron drop bars blocking the way in. A soldier – an “MP”, actually – standing at attention on the “in” side of the gate. An American flag set on a short pole on or near the shack. The fence stretching away on either side of the road opening, blocking all other ways in. There were times when touring through Europe when we’d see such a thing, and we knew: there lays “home” – or at least as much “home” as we’d ever be able to find here. A place of refuge if we needed one; a place we could run to if in trouble. The hell with the American consulate – that was way too far off. If there was trouble, we’d be running to the American base – into the open arms of the Army, for the Army had become our home. You might get into trouble when you got there – but at least it would be familiar trouble spoken in words you could understand. You may have committed “infractions” – but those infractions would be dealt with in an orderly military fashion, a military way. Outside the gate was chaos – or at least a system we couldn’t understand. Our unfamiliarity with foreign law, foreign ways made their system seem that way to us, even though we knew on an instinctive basis the Germans had to have a system. They had a system for everything.

This weirdness of living on a military base – separated from the world by a thin narrow fence, inhabiting a world of the Army’s making – was to become a factor in our lives. A familiar factor for many, I know, for some of you have done that – lived on a base overseas in the mid-60’s, the early 70’s – and you know what it is like. The rush to the PX when there is a rumor of a new shipment of a “new” thing arriving; the long lines there to purchase it (if there are any left) when you get there. The preference the military gives to their military men over the dependents (for dependents always come second – or third – in the military’s mind — which in my opinion is the way it should be). The anxious waiting for a new movie to appear in the theater; the sound of choppers thundering overhead. (I still find myself rushing outside when I hear that distinctive “thump-thump” of military choppers going by.) The smell of O.D. (olive drab) canvas – such a familiar smell that whenever I smell it (and I love it) – it smells like going home. The sound of a hundred booted feet striking the pavement as one; the chorus of voices in the morning as the G.I.’s march off to work . . . or somewhere. I love these things (cut me and I bleed OD green like a Navy officer bleeds blue) – and to me they are some of the most precious memories of all.

Military bases. Overseas. Worlds unto themselves. Places of their own. Separating you from the outside world and creating a world within – neither one ‘normal’ but a mixture of both. A bit of home away from home, and yet not home at all . . . a feeling of impermanence, of being in transit all the time – not where you are from nor where you are going, but stuck – for years! – somewhere inbetween . . .


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.


Odds & Ends From The Hood

Before I get to the last story of my last days in the ‘hood as a child, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t include the odds and ends of recollections that I carry in my head like eggs in a basket. The ‘hood defined my childhood more than any other period; that time between the ages of five and eleven. What came before and what came after . . . was something different. Profound changes lay in my future; I was unaware of what awaited me and the huge impacts these changes would have. But for now, for this, I include – and conclude – my time in the hood, with the exception of one more story; one to come, entitled “The Last Days of the ‘Hood”.

You will pardon me if I ramble a bit, skipping back and forth through time – a period roughly between 1963 and 1971. These memories are pure flashes; smaller stories of that time . . .

Pre-hood Tidbits

I remember being very small, sitting on a concrete driveway somewhere and picking the flakes of rust off the bottom of the door of my father’s car. I loved the gritty feel and the irony taste when I’d put my fingers to my mouth. My dad, I remember, was washing the car one time while we were in the driveway. He fussed at me about that – picking holes into the bottoms of the side panels – but despite the aggravation he smiled and left me alone . . .

I remember when we first arrived in Georgia. There was no home for us. The Army put us in a a barracks style building out on Fort Gordon. We were given steel framed beds – cots, it seemed – in a big room with other families, similarly displaced by their father’s move. . . . My teddy bear, which my parents had bought for me overseas when I was born was my only companion. My mom is amazed I remember that place.

I remember as a very small child creeping into my parent’s room at night. We weren’t allowed to go into their room. It was strictly forbidden – very much so. But I would lay down next to their bed, taking comfort in their presence – and then getting caught in the morning, scolded, and sometimes spanked. By the time I was four years old I knew, and would sleep in the hallway, pressed tight against the door like a dog waiting on his master. Even that was punishable, and by the time I was five I had given up on the idea, shivering in bed with all the fears of childhood while storms raged outside, or just hurting inside because I wanted to be near my parents . . .

I remember my brother running into the first house we had, before the ‘hood, screaming. Blood was running down his face. He had picked up a baby blue jay, and landing on his head, the parent pecked a bunch of holes in him. After seeing that, there was no way I was going to mess with a baby bird. . . .

I remember going to the neighbors one evening after supper to see if the kids could come out to play. Their front door was open, but the screen door was shut. Just as I raised my hand to knock, I looked down to see a giant snake crawling into a vent. With a scream, I burst through the screen into their living room, where they were sitting with TV trays eating dinner and watching TV. I didn’t even bother opening the door. Boy, did they look surprised – but they were not nearly as surprised as I had been by that giant snake. . .

My parents bought me a luxurious toy – a pedal powered tractor with an umbrella and a wagon. I was four. It was my pride and joy. My mom had to chase me down several times when I decided I could compete with the traffic in the street, and would be madly pedaling away. . . .

I remember the floor furnace in the living room of that old house. In the winter it was something to be wary of. If you stepped on it when it was running, it would leave a pattern of burns that looked just like the grating covering it. How I hated that thing. It would roar and murmur, with its red eye looking out at you from the darkness of its innards, and even in the summer it would tick and chuckle to itself . . .

I loved my pajamas with the footies. I wore them out . . .

In The Hood

Like many children I had a soft “blankie”, or blanket. It was blue. It disappeared sometime early on while I was in the ‘hood, becoming nothing more than a memory by the time I was seven. I missed that ‘blankie’ for years. . .

I remember us kids piling into the station wagon – that trusty Ford Grand Torino – and going to “Kelly’s”, a fast-food restaurant some miles away. It was always a special treat for us to go, and we only went when my father was home. Each time my dad would order for us all – and ordering something I liked, and something I hated.

What I hated was what my dad insisted we ALL would eat: the chili dogs. I hated chili dogs with a passion, but he would order them for us anyway – and then make us eat them. No matter how much we complained (and we didn’t complain too loudly) – chili dogs it was. I can still see the place – it had grand illuminated arches, not like McDonald’s, but different – and it was always a cool place to go. But those chili dogs – I was in my late twenties before I got over my aversion to them.

My love? The soft drinks. This was the only time we ever got soft drinks: when we went to Kelly’s. Otherwise they were non-existent. We didn’t even know what they were called – just that they were fizzy with wonderful carbonation – and so sweet! Like any kids, we slurped them up, washing those disgusting (but probably pretty tasty to a grownup palate) – chili dogs down.

I remember the teenager next door stringing a fifty-five gallon barrel between two trees and tying a bunch of ropes to it. Challenging anyone to ride it, he and his friends would yank on the ropes, giving us an “authentic fifty-five gallon bull ride”. It was hard for us little kids to hang on with our short legs, and many took a tumble. But it was great fun, a huge lark, until his father had him take it down.

I remember (bad child that I was) – sitting in the sand of our driveway with a magnifying glass, trying to burn holes in the tires on my father’s car . . .

I remember us stringing used inner tubes between the mailboxes as part of our “wars”. We would use the inner tubes like giant slingshots, capable of hurling dirt clods way over the roofs of the houses – well over a hundred and fifty feet – and bombard our enemy with surprise. This kept on until one day when a kid got hurt by a huge dirt clod, delivered with deadly force at close range, which sent him crying all the way home. After that the grownups forbade the use of the “slingshots”, reducing us to throwing by hand once again. . .

War. God! Was that the only game us boys played? Sometimes it seems that it was. “Nazis and Germans”, “Vietcong and G.I.’s”. My father brought home some old helmet liners and used disposable rocket launchers (which looked like bazookas, complete with sights) from the fort where he worked. We were in high heaven. We waged war in dead earnest – we dug pits lined with punji sticks, attempting to cripple each other. Fortunately we had no real way of digging, and no knives to sharpen our “stakes” – thus no one ever really got hurt – or at least not badly. “Rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat!” we’d yell, dodging across the yard. We were too poor to afford toy guns, so we usually used sticks. “You missed!” someone would always cry, and continue to run across the grass. Amazing how many imaginary bullets missed their mark – leading to other, and much more real fights sometimes. (“I DID shoot you!” “No you didn’t!” “Yes, I DID!” “No, you MISSED!”) . . . and I ambushing a boy and breaking a fallen pine’s trunk as thick around as my arm back then across his back, and leaving him breathless in the sand. We played for “keeps” when we played war . . .

Speaking of “keeps”, I remember the teenager teaching us how to play marbles, and the endless marble games in the sandy driveway . . . the teenager usually won the “pitch to the line” games, whereas I was a deadly shot in the “knock it out of the circle” . . .

I remember busting in on my dad in the tub one time to ask him if I could go somewhere – and my fascination with that dark mass of hair – “there” – and his look of surprise. He managed to remain calm, asking what I wanted. But that sight is still frozen in my mind. I knew I had done something forbidden, busting into the bathroom like that. By “their laws” (my parents), I should have been severely beaten. . . . .

I remember watching the man across the street beat his wife with a garden hose. What started off as a game grew to something else – a something violent. I think he was drunk, or well on the way getting there. Swinging the hose in big circles he kept smacking her until she cried in pain, that just seemed to spur him to greater efforts. Her kids and I were standing around, occasionally dodging the hose. He didn’t seem to even see us. Eventually my mom came over to save her best friend (and my “other mom”) from him. He smacked her as well, until they were able to overpower him and striking him, took the hose away.

I remember in the same yard us kids gathering around to watch “Prince”, the big German shepherd, mate with a smaller dog. Most of the kids didn’t know what was going on. I knew too well, and it disturbed me.

I remember taking piano lessons from the woman across the road who was beaten with the hose. My parents even bought a old piano! I was thrilled, and remember watching the repairman tune it. I would go across the dirt road every few days, then come home to practice. When I was with her she’d sit right next to me on the bench. Whenever I hit a wrong note, she would pinch the nerves in my knee, tickling the crap out of me, and she always gave me great big hugs when I left. My favorite songs were “Born Free” and Beethoven’s fifth symphony. Often I would sit there pounding out Beethoven’s Fifth as loud as I could, over and over again. Now I can barely find “middle C”. So much for piano lessons and the aspirations of a parent . . .

I remember my dad “testing” me for worms. Coming in early one morning and waking me, having me roll over. Spreading my cheeks and taking a swab and swabbing me “down there”. I think I remember that so well because of what the teenager was doing. It reminded me too much of him. But I was too sleepy to be embarrassed or afraid. . . .

I remember when I caught worms. My mom didn’t tell me what to do with the suppositories; handing me the tinfoil wrapped ‘pills’ she told me sit on the toilet and insert them . . . down there. I didn’t know the tinfoil was supposed to come off . . .

I remember my mom slinging my most precious toy of all – my teddy bear, my constant companion and friend from birth – out of the car window one day. I was so devastated and crying so hard that she eventually turned around and got it, shoving it back into my arms with an angry scowl. . . .

I remember how badly I wanted to be a “good soldier” for my dad. I remember trying to impress him with my prowess in fighting, my toughness. Polishing his boots (and not meeting his standards). Wishing he would teach me more (he taught us very little). Seeing his pride when he made Warrant officer – and how he scolded me when I went to touch his magical uniform.

I my brother and I kissing, laying in a tight embrace on the floor. This was no child’s kiss; it was my first “grown-up” kiss – you know the kind. I didn’t like it, but did it anyway . . . I was glad when he quit. I didn’t like him much anyway. . . .

I remember the bus monitor, a ornery and bossy teenage girl. She was well developed with spade like hips and very full breasts. Her “boobs” fascinated us little boys. Getting off the bus on spring day, I reached up and “swung” down the stairs by her breasts like a monkey swinging on drooping vines. Outraged, she chased me across the road into a yard and threw me to the ground. Leaping onto me like a panther, she pinned me down. With a confused look of dawning awareness that she was about to beat up a little kid, she told me: don’t do it again, dammit. Laying there in breathless laughter, I watched her get back up and go back to the bus. I never messed with her again. . . .

I remember the teenager patiently trying to teach us little kids to play football. He taught us how not to get “taken down” by shaking your butt when someone grabbed you around the hips. That was a lesson that was to come in handy . . .

I remember us playing football as well. Due to my aggressiveness and lack of skills catching – or throwing – the ball, I was always put on “forward rush”. Small as I was I was quick and nimble, and would bust through any force. Often I would get a bloody nose and never notice. The other kids respected my talent for breaking through the defense, and even the teenager (who always played quarterback) learned that he should run.

I remember a big kid, all full of himself, coming into our yard. He was new to the neighborhood. My friends were all around. This kid started saying how he could whip anyone. My friends told him that he couldn’t beat me; that I was the toughest kid in the neighborhood. He laughed and faced off with me, doubling his fists and talking trash. Before he could throw a fist, I kicked him in the shin and he fell down, crying and begging and swearing his leg was broken and for me not to beat the living crap outta him. He lost any respect he would of gotten that day . . . from me, or any of the other kids in the ‘hood.

I remember when I went outside to feed the cat during a thunderstorm – and a lightning bolt struck right between the houses, only a dozen or so feet from me. Screaming at the top of my lungs, I fled inside, bowl flipping up over my head, and scattering cat food from the carport to the kitchen. My mom and dad, sitting at the kitchen table, laughed and laughed at the food everywhere. Us kids found a fused piece of sand there the next day, where the scorched mark lay. . . .

I remember my mom teaching us to shoot her bow and arrow – a light weight bow, cream white. We became very good at the thing, drawing it back with our strong seven year old arms. . . .

I remember we were so poor that my mom took pity on us and made uniforms for our G.I. Joes. After a few years of play the feet and the hands would come off of the G.I. Joes (my brother and I each had one) – simulating injuries for them. . . . she also made clothes for our most important stuffed animals, and each night I would change my bear from his day clothes to his red night pajamas. They were a one piece with snaps made of soft fuzzy cotton, kinda like the pajama I wore as a young child. My brother’s bear had an “Army” uniform I can recall; overalls with a patch on the front from one of my dad’s uniforms . . .

I remember my mom spent a lot of time sewing late into the night; sometimes it seems like she was constantly in her room, making clothes or alterations for money. She made custom dresses and skirts, blouses and things for most of the neighborhood women, and not a few of the neighborhood kids. She made our clothes quite often as well. They always fit better and lasted much longer than store-bought clothes, but even still . . . us kids were not happy with them. If it had been up to us there would have been but one outfit: a t-shirt and shorts; nothing else, not even underwear . . . flashing bare feet and a smile . . .

Shoes were a constant concern. How happy I would be when we’d go shoe shopping in the fall! Red Goose Shoes were my “usual brand”, though I always had my heart set on a pair of the Buster Browns. I loved the feel of the soft suede leather, but my mom wouldn’t let me get any. For one thing they cost more, those Buster Browns with the boy’s smiling face that I liked – and for another, suede was just a bad idea for a country child who like to go trompsing through field and stream – with red clay no less! – and living beside a dusty road out in the sticks. Not that I would have been allowed to wear them except to church and to school – but with the playground that we had (or rather should I say the one we didn’t – it was just a big red empty field) – I would have been brushing those things until the leather wore off instead of learning to polish them the way I did . . .

I also hated getting new shoes – and by that I mean the good leather ones that were supposed to last me all year; not the tennis shoes I wore some of the time. They were stiff and made my feet sore after a summer spent running around in bare feet with calloused treads, and when you’d first put them on it was like having weights on your ankles: they drug me down, slowed my steps, tired me out sometimes. Plus I had high insteps, which made loafers – which I really wanted – even more impossible. I wanted a set so bad – you could just see it! – slipping your feet in and out rather than having to tie your own shoes . . . as a kid they were quite appealing, but we never could find a set that could fit me . . . until we finally gave up on the thing, consigning me to lacing up my shoes for a long, long time.

And I remember the Red Goose Kiosk – the one with the big fat goose within. Feed her a quarter and she’d give you an egg . . . nothing major, just a really cool thing as a kid . . .

and my fascination with those measuring machines the clerks all used – the things to measure how wide your feet were – how cool those smooth metal boards would feel beneath my feet! And how strange and suddenly important I would feel, making sit up just a little bit higher as this clerk – an adult human being! – tended my feet. It felt strange every time . . . but I always used to relish the feel of that smooth cool metal against my feet, and that little thing they used to measure the width with . . .

I remember other things; unimportant flashes through time. A boy inverting a bicycle and spinning the back tire, letting it rub him ‘there’. “I’m gonna make myself a girl!” he proudly crowed. Strange child . . . that was at my birthday party and I sat there wondering “What the hell?”.

I remember my best friend and I, thirty feet up in a tree.  He’d brought sex catalog of some kind; it was in black and white.  We looked at it for awhile, him and me; I think I was about nine years old.  I remember the wind, soft, coming over the platform’s sides of the treehouse we’d built up there; the sky so blue you couldn’t hardly stand it; the warm breezes . . .
and then he and I began to have sex; the oral kind.  And when I was giving him the pleasure he sorta started laughing and I felt a trickle come and I jerked away . . . he busted out laughing; he’d almost peed in me . . . something his brother, the big one did when he would anally rape us sometimes . . . I hated him for that sort of thing.

I remember me and my best friend smashing one another’s faces in and laughing insanely while we did it . . . we gave each other bloody noses and puffy lips, and then hugging chest to chest, eyeballing the damage we’d done to one another, we both agreed we were still tough and I could still “whoop” his ass when it came down to it . . . and we walked off to the hose cooing over our injuries and in a mutual arm-over-shoulder buddy embrace . . . we thought our friendship would last for all time (and it nearly did in some ways . . . not that I’ve ever seen him except once or twice since . . .)

I remember an extensive underground fort our teenage friend dug and built . . .

I find it disturbing just how many of us children he ‘abused’ . . . molesting his 6 year old little sister when he was about 13; me and my brother; his own brother, some other kids across the ‘hood . . .

I actually went to his wedding.  And I didn’t say a thing.  I was about 14 then and he scared the shit outta me.

I remember getting buried a couple of times.
I remember when a stack of concrete blocks fell on me.

I remember THE Halloween party my mom threw. She dressed up as a witch – which she told everyone she was. We played a 45 rpm record of “Icabod’s Last Ride” all through the night. The neighborhood was invited over; there was the classic game of “this is the dead man’s eyes” (grapes), and “this is the dead man’s brains” (spaghetti). To this day Halloween remains my most favorite holiday, even more than Christmas. . .

Speaking of Halloween: being so poor we could afford to buy costumes . . . using an old bed sheet instead I came up with what seemed to me the most horrifying monster I could be: the ghost of a werewolf. I had a hard time coloring “bloodstains” on that old bed sheet with a crayon . . . and had to explain at every doorway exactly what it was I was supposed to be. . .

The ‘hood. A place. A life time and a childhood.

Seemed quite normal to me.

(Note: we here are getting close to the end of the “Tales from the ‘Hood” . . . not much more to go from here . . .then comes the really scary part in some ways . . . both in writing and our therapy . . .)

War In the Hood


War In the Hood

I stood next to the path, gritty sweat running down my face and bare chest. Overhead the sun shown like a molten rock in a diamond sky. I patiently waited, shifting restlessly from bare foot to another, feeling the gritty sand shifting beneath my feet.  A big bark covered log leaned across my shoulder, my hands gripping its rough gray surface like a baseball bat. It was pine, about two inches around, and much longer than me – about six feet tall. Beneath my bare feet the fine white sand was cool between my bare toes; a gentle summer breeze caressed my dust covered legs. All I wore was a set of short cutoffs made from a pair of pants; nothing else. I had no shirt or shoes on – just a firm brown tan carrying a scar or two.

I cocked my head, listening. Not just listening, but listening hard ­for that soft ‘pad-pad’ of feet striking soft sand. Thus far, nothing. The narrow path I was standing next to meandered down the hill in a more or less straight line, threading through thin pine and oak and around scrappy clumps of scrub. I had stationed myself somewhere in the middle, not far behind our house, and almost right behind the teenager’s place – hiding myself beside a thin screen of leaves and finding my weapon of choice.

We had been busy, my team and I, digging sporadically spaced shallow holes along the path. There was one every four or five feet from where I stood, stretching away for a good sixty or more foot in each direction. My team had disappeared – that was the plan – and I stood by to catch ‘them’, the enemy we had been given orders to harm. Even killing was an option, though I chose not to do so. I simply wanted to harm someone, do my part: take one out, or down.

In each hole we had placed stakes selected for the task. Unfortunately, none of us owned a shovel much less a knife, so we had to rely on our skills and intuition – digging holes with our bare hands and fashioning stakes by breaking dry branches so sharpened ends would form. Sometimes we sharpened them on rocks a bit. Then we would dig our shallow holes – odd how the land turned from stark white to a chocolate brown as soon as you scraped the earth. It was a painful task, packing dirt underneath our fingernails and almost ripping them off. Mine were kept short, courtesy of my nervous habit of biting them all the time, but still it hurt as the sand ate away at the skin on the end of your fingers.

I wanted our holes to be deeper, so I had encouraged my team to use the stakes as digging sticks where they could, but soon it became obvious. Looking up and down the path we could see the pine needle patchworks like frayed brown mats covering the holes scattered up and down the sandy white path.  None were much bigger than my foot.  I had measured mine to determine the size of the holes we must dig – and none were very deep. We had covered the holes with laced pine twigs to hold the pine straw mats, but there was no denying it: our traps stood out in the noontime sun like furry brown blisters on the fine white sand. I wiped sweat from my brow with the back of a dusty hand. Above the sun hung like a molten moon – small, distant, and hot. The sky, white-azure, was a leaded plate of glass radiating the heat down, only to suck it back up and send it back later on with more fury. It beat in a continuous wave – a hot July that left your breathless, like standing in blast furnace at noon, which would settle out to simply sweltering at night.

That was one thing about the Georgia sand hills, site of ancient seas – it was cool sometimes despite the rich Southern heat. Set above the Savannah river valley, the breezes carried wafts of ancient air, as cooling to the dinosaurs as it was to me. The settlers ‘down there’ in the valley would come up here in old times, seeking relief from the heat and diseases of the swampy south part of town – Augusta, Georgia it was, and we were not too far off the Tobacco road of fame and infamy.  Not that it had progressed much since that novel was written. Jeeter still lives there, with his mother-in-law and kids – many of them, for they have reproduced like rabbits down here in the south, and there’s no fox to kill them. So they just go on, generation after generation . . . drifting down into the earth like the fossils they are, and leaving only derelict buildings and old outhouses behind . . .

We had moved there some years before, and I was the one calling the shots. After all, I was an officer’s kid – or so they thought. In actuality my dad was but a Warrant Officer, W-1 – the earliest grade available. He was the one who had taught me to fight and showed me some pressure points and things – this was when I was about seven years old and was being matched up against the teenager and kids much older than me. He’d seen me come in bleeding but proud – I’d won another fight with my windmilling approach, but I had no sense of guard; I knew nothing about blocking any blows. Instead I’d just go ahead and suck them up while attacking the other kid – windmilling my arms, head down, feet a’charging. This, I later learned, was not the way to be doing things – and even while fighting like that I knew there had to be something better. So he spent a few hours one afternoon teaching me how to hold my arms up, make a guard – punching out instead of simply lashing out with those wide round houses kids often made. And I became a good fighter, practicing on my friend. He and I were into fighting all of the time; that’s part of what made us such good friends! We’d fight for awhile, determine who was the dominate one – and then with wide grins and big smiles we’d clasp each other around the shoulders and go walking down the road like two soldiers or best buddies, best friends until the end. There was never any animosity between us: we’d simply fight, settle it out, and go on about our play – no harm done.

But this time we were on a different kind of mission. The teenager may had set this one up, though I may be wrong. He often worked for his father as a mason and during the summer he was gone – off on some job site hauling some block, mixing some concrete, or doing some other kind of errand for his dad. That’s why he liked school so much, but it made him strong. The teenager was one of, but not the strongest in the ‘hood. That in part (I think) was due to his age: he was younger than some of them, but older than most of ‘my gang’ – who he hung around most often. Sometimes his attention was split between us – trying to seduce us kids while at the same time maintaining a somewhat normal relationship with the teenagers he in turn wanted to be like: the Fedrickson’s with their nice cars, or even the Stephensons, though he, like us and the rest of the hood hated their bullying ways. All of those kids were older than him – not by much, but enough, I suppose, to have that effect on him: him always ‘looking up’ and wanting to be like them (plus their families were ‘rich’ compared to him; they seemed to have everything, but his own family? Some of the poorest people in the ‘hood. Sometimes ‘we’, our family, came in at a close second. A very close second sometimes.)

This time we were in a war. My ‘team’ – a group of three of my friends and myself – had been selected to patrol – and set up and ‘mine’ – this part of the path. Then, after my friends were done, they were supposed to hightail it up to ‘the ridge’ (a hump in the ground further up on the hill) where our opponents, vastly outnumbering us (it was about twelve to one, including a teenager on their side) – were waiting for us to come up there, or us wait for them. Us little kids had immediately decided to take an alternative action. We had dug our traps – my team had gone up as described – and now I was waiting for something else. That’s why I had picked up this log.

Looking at this path it had occurred to us just how ineffective these traps were. For one reason: you could see them, scattered like the wind tossed mats of pine needle. Our team had discussed it after trying to top the needles with sand (it simply trickled through, burying the hole – or the weight would collapse it down). Not only that but the holes were too small – just big enough for a bare foot to get caught in, sparing a few inches. Due to our lack of construction tools, most of the holes were quite shallow – four to six inches deep, maybe a bit more, depending on the hardness of the sand we were digging in and the time we had allotted for ourselves to get this thing done.

We had brushed out most of the tracks on the path and fingermarks scarring the holes. Most of the kids knew about pit traps – or at least those who played war did. And this wasn’t the first time we had used pit traps. We’d even remarked how bad it was that we couldn’t get some feces to rub on them – that way the ‘enemy’ did – but in the end we had abandoned that idea. Everyone knew we’d get into trouble if we did – the grownups would get mad. Just the pit and the stakes were enough – all that was asked for. Injure some kid bad enough . . . it was enough to make the whole group of us shudder . . .

So we had discussed it, my team and I, before coming up with another plan of action – one that ran counter to what we had been told. I would stand beside the path and ambush somebody – taking them down – and then fading back, do it again – if anyone should come running down that path. We were all agreed I was the most capable of doing this thing: tackling somebody and bringing them down. Meanwhile my team would go ‘up there’ towards the other team’s home (which was behind the ridge) – and lead them down this merry path to my hell. And I was waiting for them to do it; exactly this kind of thing.

However it had occurred to me as my team dissipated along the sides of the path, scurrying through the low brush towards the top of the hill that I was unarmed and unable to do anything against a group of kids who might be coming down that hill. Critically scrutinizing the path, I thought about the games I played – the other games with my dad. A lot of them were ‘war’ games, meaning chess and things – but sometimes he brought equipment home. We had yet to get the missile launchers* – those would come later, when I was about ten or eleven – but they were unarmed. They were simply the collapsible tubes and aiming sights (as well as fold down hand grips, buttons, and instructions on how to use them) – which we would aim at each other when playing war.

So I looked at the path and thought about it – seeing ‘me’ running down the path and knowing what I would do when I saw ‘them’, the traps we had made. I could literally almost ‘see’ myself running towards me, head down, scrutinizing the path – dodging this way and that, avoiding this hole and jumping over another one. I looked up. There was yelling on the hill. Looking around I espied this stick of mine – a broken down tree laying on the ground. I picked it up and took my station, positioning myself behind the bushes . . .

because I knew – knew with an almost complete certainty how the kid would come. He would come like me – head down, concentrating on the path – looking where the next hole was and not where he was going. Already I could hear one running down the path. I knew it wasn’t one of my own – we had all agreed not to use this path; it was mined and ‘booby trapped’ from stem to stern – if not by one of our boys, then one of ‘their’ own. We would just wait here . . . waiting by this path until the enemy came . . . with this great big old stick braced against my shoulder, its end dug into the ground . . .

I heard the pitter-patter of feet coming a lot closer – and the yelling and shouting like mad Indians or wild hoodlums grew louder as the crashing of bushes came down the hill – and I tensed, bracing myself. Glancing around the thin screen of bush I could see him – a kid like me coming on down the path, his head down, hair crew cut like mine – maybe a spot or two thinner (all of our ribs were showing) – and a bit smaller in frame – and he was running, his head down as he concentrated on his path. He was hopping and dodging like a rabbit down the path, his feet skipping between the holes like it was a game, shooting little sand geysers like sparks and flame, leaving dust behind. As he came abreast of me, I stepped out and took my swing . . .

He barely saw me – barely had time to slow down, his face a slate of blank astonishment – but the motion of his body carried him on – and before he had time to turn around, I had taken that great big ‘log’ – that two inch wide stick in my hands – and cracked him in the back with it – right there, right above the middle section, just below his ‘blades (his shoulder blades, I mean) – and POW! – he goes down skidding across the sand on his belly, hands thrown out in front of him. And I had hit him so hard that that branch or log or stick in my hands broke right in half across his back – one end going spinning away into the brush somewhere while the other end stayed in my hand, flaking bark still from the force of my blow.

I looked at him. He looked like a beached fish in the sand; he lay there gasping, his hands making vague clawing motions in the sand. I could hear the yelling on the hill. It was no longer growing louder; indeed, it had settled down somewhat. Had my team taken them? Spinning in my heels I turned, looked up the path and then back down at the kid. He had stopped moving and was just laying there, his ribs going up and down. I felt a wave of contempt mixed with self-sympathy and sympathy for him. That, I knew deep down as I began running through the woods towards where my friends were battling the teenager and someone else, could have been me. That was the nature of our warfare. Grim and determined. And sometimes we kept it real.

Real wars in the ‘hood.

Battle and battle on . . .

Sometimes it seems it was the story of my life sometimes . . . in those days and days to come . . .




*I learned later those disposable rocket launchers were M72 LAW‘s , a Light Anti-Armor weapon which was developed after the Korean war in response to the expected threat of overwhelming masses of Soviet tanks and armor crossing into Western Europe – and perhaps America – in a war which was to come. One might think this, along with the training I had later overseas as an older kid would lead to something . . . but I think not, or do not know. It almost seems as though ‘they’ (the parents, the grownups, and the Army) were training kids for ‘that war’ (the one that never came). The expectation was a Soviet invasion in which our soldiers might die – and so maybe us kids were meant to fight as guerrilla fighter, individually or in groups – and fight hard – until we either died or succeeded in our mission – which was to overcome, overwhelm – and simply survive, if nothing else, in a forgotten and blasted land . . .

Team Sports: A Close Encounter


Team Sports: A Close Encounter

When I was a kid, there was only one “team sport” in the ‘hood.  Not that there was a team – nor did we really follow the rules of sport.  But we played football. I don’t recall ever seeing a baseball bat, and baseballs were rarer than hen’s teeth.  ANY ball was unusual and hard to find; however, we had a football that became used by the entire neighborhood. Or at least I think it was; its the ball I have in our closet. There may have been others, but like I said: balls were rare, and hard to find.

Football came in two forms: Scrimmage, and “kill the man with the ball”. Usually there’d was only us younger kids playing with the teenager from next door – racing around our backyard, the dog in tow (he thought he was one of us kids, too, when he wasn’t thinking he was a cat like the cat that had raised him had taught him to be). Charlie was his name – and he’d groom himself like a cat and try to climb a tree. Just like his momma had showed him.

And when it was time to play football – as I said, there were two games. There was ‘scrimmage’ where we’d line up in two lines – the teenager functioning as coach-cum-quarterback most times, showing us how things were done. He taught us how to squat, one hand on the ground; how to ‘launch’ from a squat – head down like a human bullet leading with one shoulder. He showed us how to shake someone off our back – shimmying our butt and swinging our shoulders and squeezing through.

I was only given one position in “the ‘hood” – that of ‘forward rush’ and never receiver. That was because I threw the way I had been shown – like a girl. The way our momma had showed us. After all, she was the only one who would play ‘pitch’ with us kids, ‘catch’, and games like that. Our father never played ball. Not at all. If it wasn’t something he would win, he didn’t play (and he still dislikes losing, never playing for the game’s sake, but only for his own). The only game he played was chess – and then only for the fun of showing how he could beat us. I was a steady study, willing to learn – knowing I was learning while being defeated all the time – but I only won one game against him – and then accused him of letting me win, which he relished and admitted readily enough.

My job was one I enjoyed – I relished charging and smashing my way through a crowd of sweating milling players, my eyes on one goal: the ball. My job was to take the person with the ball down. And a lot of times I would take him down – getting him in the knees, or around waist – or my favorite, leaping up and wrapping my arms around his throat. Oft times the teenager would charge, already winded, as us kids piled on – and then down he would go. We’d pile on him – “dog pile” we’d yell and scream – and then everybody would jump on. And I mean literally everybody from both sides of the team.

There weren’t any rules to the game, or at least not a lot of them. I hadn’t seen a football game before – didn’t see one until I was about fifteen or so; nor had I even heard of basketball, golf, tennis, soccer, or a host of other sports. Swimming I knew – but not as a sport or sport form. It was just something to do, albeit I loved it very much. I grew into some experience with ping-pong, courtesy of the Army Community Youth Club or organizations – running across it here and there, but usually the balls were broken or dented from overly aggressive hits.

We never scored any ‘points’ – there wasn’t any goal to run to – and we didn’t know a thing about field lines, out of bounds – any of that sort of stuff. All we knew was hiking the ball – throwing the ball (passing) – and running. Two teams of kids smashing each other up was what it came down to, with the teenager in the middle, running the chaotic show – and the dog running ’round and ’round in circles, willing to take down any ‘man’. He was like the ‘random factor’ – against (or for) anyone who held the ball – sometimes taking the ball for his own – sometimes just randomly taking down some player by knocking them in the knees. (He took me down a few times as well!) And to us kids he was simply a dark skinned, thick furred, non-English speaking kind of stranger who was welcome to our games, even if he didn’t understand them at all.

The other variation of the game was even simpler: “Kill The Man With the Ball”. That game was was even harder – and unlike the first version of football, it was a lot rougher. The idea was simple – go after the ‘man’ with the ball, take him down, and pile on top of him. And by pile on top of him, I mean everybody would pile on top – a squirming mass of kids, with a kid with a ball buried underneath it all. And it was crushing. It was so crushing my brother got knocked unconscious when one time he found himself at the bottom of the pile – the air literally crushed out of him – which is why I was unwilling to play the game – or at least be the man with the ball. I held the ball only once – a few times, actually – but there was that one time when I was buried beneath that mound of squirming bodies – and I couldn’t draw a breath at all. The weight of them was crushing me – and as the darkness swarmed in (and it was hot and moist with kids breath and sweat down there) – they let up and I was ‘saved’. It was a close thing.

But all that changed when we went to North Carolina. There there was no ‘ball’ – at least not the kind I was used to. Instead there were the ‘team sports’ – and I was a member of one.

I don’t know how it happened, or who put me in it, but I suddenly found myself one day riding my bike after school to the try-out field where they were playing baseball. Now I hadn’t seen any baseball before; didn’t know the game – hadn’t a clue, and still threw just like my mom had shown me – like a girl. Naturally the coach put me on as a catcher – since I didn’t know anything. I didn’t even know how to catch the ball. And being the new kid on the block (all the time: the new kid on the block – I knew it but didn’t know it, didn’t know the effects of the thing since I was always the new kid and not some other) – I had no friends at all: none to teach me or throw after the game, nobody to run with or play with at all (unless you count my brother).

It was kinda lonely like that, and one day it really struck me hard. As I was riding my bike back home from practice one day (this was some hilly land) my bicycle chain caught my pants leg in the sprocket (there was no chain guard) and yanked me off my bike in the middle of the road while a thunderstorm was moving in. I was panicked – and then mad – because I wanted to get home before it thundered and roared, plus I didn’t want to get drenched. So here I am all tied up with this bike in the road – and there’s no one to help me. That’s when it sort of struck me in the back of my mind: I am alone in this thing; I have to deal with ALL my problems alone, by myself – and then there’s this: another one to solve. My leg was hurting (the chain had dug in); my butt and shoulder were hurting (from coming down on the pavement) – and there was no one – absolutely no one to help me. Same with the ball. No one to help me; I had to figure it out on my own. Nothing was going right and it never did. . . .

I started to hate that game: I was ridiculous at it, I was unprepared, and no one had taught me a damned thing.

So I gave it up as soon as they let me (I think it was when we moved; that put an end to that thing.) I still have my catcher’s glove – that useless old thing. I doubt it’s caught more than a dozen balls; not worth the money spent. Nor was the lesson learned.

But one thing I did learn: if I gotta problem, I gotta deal with it.

‘Cause there’s no help coming from home.

And sports sucked.