Tag Archive: friends



Soon after we’d moved into the rental back in the ‘hood it became rather apparent that the old house – a slab floored stick-frame clapboard construction, which was quite weird, given the former and now deceased owner had been a mason.  The toilets kept backing up, vomiting the contents of their bowels and ours across the loose linoleum floors like bad memories of meals once eaten.*

So my dad did what he does best: he called someone in.

And here they come in their big white truck with a tanker behind – and a long, long hose for sucking the sewage up . . .

They park it behind the house, and after poking around with some shovels (I could’ve told ’em where it was at) they found the septic tank.

Digging at it most carefully, they outline the profile; then bringing in a backhoe, they go at it awhile, their ancient machine puffing and chugging like a dinosaur or dragon with a sting tail – lifting buckets of dirt, dumping them aside . . .

And then, finishing the job with the shovels, the expose the concrete lid.  It wasn’t as far down as I expected – but there they were, the workmen (or country bumpkins, from the look of it) – hooking big rusty chains with big rusty hooks to the rusty steel loops set in the concrete . . . then to the backhoe’s bucket . . .

The workmen stood back, and I, who had wisely placed himself in the bedroom, stood looking along with my tiresome brother – protection from the stench which would appear as soon as they lifted the lid.  I was quite sure my protection was futile, given the shallow aluminum framed windows and condition of the house.

Then the lid came up, looming and awesome as the backhoe’s engine gave a big chug and belched smoke, choking down as they gave it the throttle . . .

And then there it stood! it all its awesome and hideous glory: the thing we had been waiting to see: the staring open eye of the pit . . . only instead of there being sewage on top . . .

there was this thick, pink, undulating skin.  Ugly, mottled, smooth, it heaved like a living thing.

Immediately the workmen standing beyond the pit began chuckling, some of them chortling and slapping their knees and giving knowing looks at the house where my parents stood in embarrassed confusion, then comprehension . . .

And as I stood looking at that milky pinky white cloud floating in the museum of past bowel movements and desire, I realized what I was looking at:

the entire pool of the septic tank was covered in a thick floating layer . . . of condoms!

Huge it was.  In more ways than one.

And the workmen apparently thought so, too.  My brother began gagging as the stench oozed into the house despite the closed windows (the seals were no good) – and ran from the room into the interior . . .

while I stood alone, thinking.

Thinking about what HE did and our times together.

He never used a condom for that! I recall thinking.  He always rode me ‘bareback’, down on the dirt, face down in the grit . . .

But there they were: obvious evidence of the previous owners.  Maybe after too many children and not enough family or dollars to support it, they’d gotten a clue.  ‘Or,’ (the thought had occurred to me) – ‘this was from renters before, though after we’d left.’  I don’t know why I a) found it so disgusting, b) it bothered me so much, or c) it kept disturbing ‘me’ (and still does to some extant) so much later on.

But they were certainly gone, and I was here.

As I stood looking – and looking up (I remember looking at the sky a lot – so refreshing, though it was more an overcast blue and gray.)  Smelling that stench.  Reflecting on my past and theirs while relishing somewhat my mid-Western and prudish parent’s embarrassment – yet knowing they the ones, for we had just gotten there.

And yet all those facts didn’t matter, because it didn’t change anything.  My parents were still there and so was my brother (shudder).  Nothing was different.  That’s what we dealt each other.  Outside lay other lives; ones we were imitating, but not quite perfect.  We tried – and tried again.

But it was no use.

It was like I was something foreign here.  Or had come to a foreign land.  Again.

I saw my old best friend once.  I was standing in the sand driveway of the home across the street when he came riding on a motorcycle.  He stopped in front of me and we stared at each other.  I had grown fat, wore glasses – not the kid he knew.  Not a good match for his memories.  And as for him – his curly hair was wild from the wind (he wasn’t wearing any helmet) and his eyes wilder.  Like a feral cat.***

And I knew as soon as I saw him we’d have nothing in common, nothing to do together. We were no longer friends. I no longer knew him, nor he me.  He gave me a long look, a few words, and took off . . .

I saw him again, some thirty years later.  He owns a shop. He’s poor and rash. And he has (or had) a young boy. One of several . . .

and he hangs with his brother, his bigger brother, the one who ‘did’ me (and his little sister when she was four – and he 14 or so).

That thought’s kinda scary . . . but kinda sad.

The End.

(’13’)


Host Notes:
* Some part of me kept trying to connect the ‘vomiting toilets’ with the memories I kept having, only ‘I’ refused to do it (it made the sentences too long) – and it wasn’t the ‘memories’ which were bothering ‘me’ at the age of 13, it was the emotions connected with them – that along with the problems at school
** As a matter-of-fact the description of Jeff’s eyes in the when Matthew first see’s him in the book “The Boy” from when I saw him.  Feral, like a wild cat.
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A Friend Made; A Friend Lost


I guess we’ll call him “Dee.”  D.B. for short.  Something like that.

During my last year in Germany he became my best friend.

We met at a party my parents were hosting in our third floor apartment with its rectangular concrete balcony – thick walled, meant to withstand bomb blasts.  There were basements and tall concrete stairwells going up for five floors, built by our German hosts for their war and troops back in the 1940’s or so.  It was our enemies housing, meant to withstand our attack, with hidden bunkers beneath.  The most massive one was out at the airport – it was rumored to be seven levels deep, with only the first three open.  The others, it was rumored, were flooded and filled with German booby-traps and gear – including airplanes!  Imagine that – someone going down there now with an ROV, finding those old treasures of war.  The Germans were famous for their devotion to the Third Reich – and the idea of a Fourth so much they may have successfully sealed up those gasketed rooms, making them watertight for generations later . . . putting the airplanes (and their ammo, parts, and gear) with them . . . who knows?  I wish I did.  I wish I could attend an exploration there.  But you’d need the German government’s permission . . . and I doubt their going to give it.  They are for burying the past and that sort of thing.

But I’ll always wonder if those rumors were true.  It’s very hard to find out information regarding that airport – or what’s underneath.  But I know what I saw – and D.B., did too – he often accompanied me.

I first met him at that party – we were careful friends, cautiously extending our hands and shaking one another’s – three firm shakes (like you are supposed to) and releasing your grip.  He was half-Japanese and stood about half a head taller than I; narrow framed, narrow face, black framed military glasses just like his dad.  He wore his hair short, as I did mine – not too short!, mind you – for in the winter we tried to grow it long to cover our ears and the back of our neck to ward off the cold.  But he was different . . . smart, lithe, intelligent, sharp – I admired him.  And I think he must have found something to like about me.

My mom and dad had insisted we meet him and his sister.  Their parents were our ‘friend’s’ parents, and apparently we were going to become friends, too.  Whether we liked it or not.  That’s the way it went with these things.  Sometimes you had to play with a child when you did not want to – always proposed to do with something about somebodies rank and social standing.  Sometimes we just played with them because we felt sorry for them, as we did one kid in Germany.  Nobody liked him but me – and I didn’t even like him much, but I befriended him and tolerated him because he was one of the most disliked friends in Germany, and his name was Jeremy (I think).  The kids at school could not stand him because he was half-German, – but I could stand him, so I took him in.  He had to be my friend.  He had no other.  So we took him in under our wing.

He had been born in Germany (like ‘I’ was) but he had lived there a long time – up until his momma had met his dad, some G.I. down at the local bar.  He’d been taken in like a third shoe – one that didn’t fit the mold and the pattern of the family his dad was demanding at home.  He was a bit like me.

So we took him in and took him ‘home’ every once and awhile, this ‘friend’ of ours – feeling sorry for him though he was cocky as hell and wouldn’t hesitate to ask my mom for a sandwich or two from the fridge – though she kinda felt sorry for him, too, so she helped him: feeding him, tolerating him for my sake.

I didn’t like him, too, but I hung onto him for awhile . . . and then we moved and I met this other ‘friend’, the one I told you about.

D.B.

I guess I became that kind of friend to him in some ways – his best friend, but an inferior one in some ways, though he never said anything to make me feel inferior.  I know he liked me.  Perhaps it was my rough & ready attitude.  Perhaps it was because he also had been abused some by an anxious and expectant Japanese mother and a demanding fatherhood figure.  He dad certainly smacked him around some, including his mom and daughter I heard – but those were only rumors.  I know my friend sometimes came with bruises on his face . . . something I understood (although later it would break my heart to see them.)

He was smart and he was tall and he taught me a lot of things about “being human” – I, a child from the swamps and woods of the deep south – though a lot of that had disappeared as I ‘hid’ myself even further . . .

To this day I wear button up shirts because of him.  Odd the effect a friend can have all your life.  I learned to love him.  He was an athlete – agile, able to jump, whereas I had earned the nickname “Tank” because of my way through the woods and countryside when we had to get moving, or were attacking someone . . .

We hung out a LOT together; went on missions, diverted tanks, road bikes, explored hill, dale, countryside, German villages, midnight raids – you name it.  He delved into the more elegant tactics and taught me some more; I was elegant in my own way, though, and much bolder . . .

I would have done anything for him, man.  Really and absolutely.  I loved him.

And then . . .

He stopped coming over . . . stopped coming out at the owl’s hoot in the morning (something he’d shown me how to do) . . . passing me by without a word on the way to classrooms . . . team meetings, that sort of thing . . .

And then he moved.  I went over there one day, knocked on the door, and a stranger appeared.

It was done.

And the beginning of winter . . .

.

.


.

* ~ an addition to this ‘story’ . . . obviously ‘switching’ from various “points-of-view” . . . last year I found out via a story my brother told me that I lost this friend due to my dad – my dad had betrayed HIS dad (my friend’s) at work, and when asked “Why?” my dad simply said: “Because I could.”   Yeah – he’s that kind of man, really . . .
     but the thing is – in those last few months, he became suddenly much more ‘distant’ – no longer coming out in the early morning to meet me, no longer answering my call.  Not a word from him during their last few weeks there – he shed me like an old skin, moving on without me – and I loved him more than earth itself.  Such is one’s fate when in the Army, and quite young . . . I was only 12 going on 13 and it hurt . . . and it wouldn’t be long before we would be moving, too – coming back here and to the neighborhood I both missed . . . and yet now feared in some dismal way, suspecting my nightmares would soon be coming true . . .

The Game


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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

How I knew that I did not know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a hell of a game to play.

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

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

 

Castles In The Sand


Castles In The Sand

While we were overseas one summer in Europe, my parents decided to take the Green Eggs and Ham down to Spain for an extended stay on the beach. Rattling our way through Luxembourg and France, we avoided most of the major cities, sticking to back roads and small towns. Trickling down through high Alps, then across the rolling Spanish hills, we found ourselves at a large Spanish campground located on the Mediterranean.

The countryside was poor by American and Northern European standards, but rich in diversity. Ancient architecture, grand cathedrals, and Roman aqueducts competed with woman hauling buckets and baskets full of straw, rough paved roads and low slung rows of dirt colored buildings. Colors were either extremely bright or earthen, depending on whether you were looking at the people’s clothing or the houses they lived in.

The campground we found ourselves in abutted the Mediterranean shoreline, and was filled with a mix of gaudy tents (folks from Germany and France), mid-sized shelters, and lastly us in our ghastly green VW camper with its bright yellow bumpers. Pitching the Army pup tent outside, we settled in for a protracted stay.

I spent the first few days turning red as a lobster, then the remainder of the week shedding my skin. I’ll never forget the extant of that sunburn – how my shoulders and back were covered in huge blisters, how the tears would run down my face as my mom applied the “standard cure” – a sponge bath with cooling vinegar, which would leave me stinking and reeking for hours on end. This was long before the advent of sun-block, and before they made the connection between sunburn and cancer.

We lived simply, feasting on sandwiches and hot dogs and sampling the local fare. Most of our cooking was done next to the van on an old Coleman stove – an explosive affair, given to unequal scorching and bits of raw meat. But eventually my mom mastered the thing, allowing us boys to “pump up” the tank, and producing reasonably fried eggs in the morning and hamburger based meals in the evening. During one of our forays across this foreign land we slipped into the local restaurant where, gathering my courage, I tried what was to become one of my most favorite of seafoods – fried calamari. After a single bite I was hooked.

It was strange, yet beautiful, living there in the sand beneath the trees. We didn’t have anyone to talk to except ourselves – I didn’t know a lick of Spanish – and the cool blue waters of the Mediterranean beckoned just beyond the edge of the campsite. One thing I didn’t like about the Mediterranean was that it sometimes smelled like sewage, especially near a breakwater that had been erected near the far end. I suppose this was due to the practice of releasing untreated sewage into the ocean. Even as a kid I knew this was bad, and we tended to stay away from that particular part of the ocean. But the water – bluer than the Atlantic, with gentle crashing waves – called me from morning until night, and I found myself staying on the beach, day after day, diving through the surf and riding the rolling swells. I turned brown – a deep brown which reminded me of my days in the ‘hood, and lost some weight, trading in my fat for some muscle.

It was during our last week while I was there, sitting in the sand on the beach while struggling to build a sandcastle, that I met her.

She was a small Spanish girl with skin the color of aged bronze, and long black hair that fell down her back in curling locks. She was a few years younger than I, with thick black lashes and big expressive eyes, and she squatted next to me, watching what I was doing. Having no “beach toys”, not even a plastic shovel, I was scooping up handfuls of sand and clumsily attempting to form an outer ring of walls. She would look at me, look at my hands, then look at my ragged construction as though it was something to be pitied. And then she showed me a better way.

Without a word, she began to dig, forming a shallow hole. Unable to speak a single word of Spanish – and she evidently knew no English – I settled back to watch, curious as to why this girl had chosen me, my place, to dig a hole. Glancing up at me from beneath her eyebrows, she waited until water began to seep into the hole, then she began dipping her hand into the water, stirring it around. I watched as she withdrew her hand, the water sheeting from her fingertips in a shimmering cascade, and then she did something amazing.

Pulling out dips of mud, she began “pouring” a sandcastle. Letting the mud flow along her graceful brown fingertips, she showed me how to make a drip” or “dribble” castle” – one in which you let the mud flow out of your hand – soupy and thin – and wherever it would land, it would start to build up. One by one she constructed miniature minarets, graceful towers, and moving her hand back and forth in a steady line, built a connecting wall. Encouraging me with her other hand, she guided my clumsy movements until I, too, began trickling sand in the appropriate fashion, learning the proper consistency of sand and water to make these marvelous tool-free creations grow. And after that I was hooked.

We met each day at the same time and place – I don’t recall a word ever being spoken between us – letting our love of building sandcastles bind us together. She couldn’t talk to me, nor I her, yet we did not let this barrier to our communication stop us. Silently we would work – her smiling when she saw me (for it seemed I was always the first one on the beach) – and me smiling back as she ambled over across the hot sand, my heart warming at the sight of her. Yes – she was much younger – perhaps eight or nine? – and I was thirteen, but after what she had shown me, I knew but did not feel any disparity in age. She was teaching me something – and something more than just building sandcastles – for I grew quite fond of her presence there at the beach, teaching me, guiding my hands, and sometimes softly laughing at my failed attempts. We worked together constantly, sometimes for hours on that beach, listening to the waves crash and silently enjoying each other’s company under the blue sky and blazing sun.

Since then I’ve sometimes wondered about that little girl who taught me so much; what happened to her, how I may of affected her life – for she surely affected mine. I learned that it doesn’t take words to form a relationship; that nationality and ethnic background makes no difference when it comes to certain things. Forming a common goal, and working towards a single creation has more to do with life and loving than anything such as words can describe; she taught that to me, as well as teaching me to build sandcastles using nothing except my hands.

As a result, when I go to the beach, I build sandcastles – even to this day – in the way that that little girl taught me. (I wonder if she’d be surprised to know how highly I regarded her, our relationship – and that I still build sandcastles now, here some thirty-seven years later.) I’ve since learned to construct bridges and and balconies, and using my hand to support thin arches of sand, make those famous flying buttresses I had seen in Europe. People come from all over the beach to take pictures of my four foot high towers, the sweeping turns, the miniature minarets; kids wander about amazed, peering down into the hollow towers, wandering around the mud formed walls. And all the while in my mind I’m taken back to those days on the Mediterranean, building sandcastles in the sand – with a little girl beside me, showing me the way.

 


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 . . .)

Islands In The Sky


Islands In The Sky

One day the teenager next door came across a boon – a sheet of plywood. In those days such a thing was a problematic treasure. We had no way of cutting the thing, but it was there, huge and grand. Often we would use such things as the roof an underground fort, but we had just built a huge underground fort, only to have the parents make us fill it in again. I don’t know how long the teenager debated what to do with his treasure, but I do know this: once he made up his mind, we were his workforce, his day-laborers, his busy and willing hands. And us kids, he was our hero, the one who played with us, and we would do anything he asked, no matter how difficult or dangerous it might be. Sure, he abused his power sometimes*, but we loved him, respected him, wanted to be accepted by him, and were all too willing to please him in any way we could.

It was mid-morning when he came over, and somehow or another, he managed to wheedle permission from my mom to build a tree house in our back yard. I don’t know how that went; I rather imagine he just asked my mom, “Hey, do you mind in we build a tree house in your back yard?” – and my mom, typically indoors during the muggier portions of the day, probably just said yes, trusting our safety to his common sense. Sometimes the parents trusted him a bit too much.

So the teenager herds us kids together and states his plan.

We are going to build a tree house. And not in just any tree, but in one of the towering pines – one of the unclimbable giants, those ones with no limbs for at least twenty feet up, covered in rough and scaly bark. And this particular giant is unusually devoid of limbs at the lower levels; we are going to have to haul that sheet of plywood to a span of branches over thirty feet in the air.

Us kids are dumbfounded as we eyeball this tree. It seems to rise on forever; too wide to get our arms around, not the first hand grip or footing anywhere, unless you count the crevasses of the friable bark, which gives way beneath the least amount of weight, or a clawed finger’s pressure. We look at him; he looks at us, and says, “Come on, let’s go get that sheet”.

So we all go over to his yard, and it takes a half dozen of us, huffing and puffing, to drag the thing along. The teenager has the front end, he’s lifted it off the ground, making our jobs somewhat easier – but this thing is heavy! I know my doubts grew with each step; me being only eight years old. The pine tree seems to grow right before my eyes, reaching unscalable heights. “How are we going to get this thing up there?” I silently wonder, running my eyes up and down the tree’s formidable length and eyeing the fork above. But as it turns out, the teenager has a plan.

“Ya’ll wait right here,” he says, also scrutinizing the tree and our small group. He can see our doubts, hear our whispered words. “I’ll be right back.”

So he goes into his yard, back into their barn, and disappears for awhile. Us kids, we approach the tree, trying to scale it – wrapping our arms around it’s girth, but we can only reach a third of the way around. We try to climb it, like rats trying to climb a slippery pole, but it’s obvious to us; something we’ve always known: these forest giants are indomitable; you aren’t going to get up one easily, especially not this one. The only one in the neighborhood that we’ve ever managed to climb is one across the road, in the front yard of our neighbor’s house, due to its unusually low pitched branches. And even then, it almost took one kid’s eye out when he had tumbled down. But there was nothing like being able to get there, all the way to the top – eighty some odd feet in the air, the tree softly swaying – suspended between the ground and the sky. To be able to manage to climb this one – I wasn’t ready to give up, not yet. The idea of having this platform in the sky, in my own back yard, seeing far and wide – it was too appealing to me, and to the teenager as well, I reckon.

Eventually the teenager comes back, with a pocket of nails, some boards – and a long, long rope. Going up to the tree, he begins to nail the boards on, forming a ladder. Up and up he goes, coming back down between boards to get more boards, nailing them on, one at a time. Us kids crane our necks, watching as he climbs higher and higher. Finally he reaches the outspread limbs, and throwing the rope over one, drops both ends to the ground. He climbs down and looks at us. I look at his ‘ladder’ as he takes one end of the rope and ties it around the sheet of plywood. The boards are almost haphazardly nailed on.

“Okay, I’m going to pull the rope,” he says, propping the plywood against the tree. “You kids are going to have to help me.”

So we all get on the end of the rope, and we pull. The ply sheet rises a few feet. We pull. The ply sheet rises a bit more. We keep on pulling – but eventually we can make no more progress. The ply sheet is catching on the ladder, snagging on the bark, and we are all gasping, hands raw from the rope, muscles sore from the constant pulling. It’s hot; the sun has come up full, it’s midday by now, and we’ve only managed to get that board about fifteen feet in the air.

“All right,” the teenager says, staying the rope with his body. “Ya’ll are gonna have to climb up there; help me lift this thing.”

And so we do. Like a swarm of ants we attack the tree, climbing up the rungs of the ladder. Some of us get above the board, others get down under. There are about six of us kids, up in the tree, and we begin to try again.

It was a Titan struggle; a case of many little Davids against a huge Goliath. Those above pulled and kept the board from catching onto the tree, those beneath lifted it with our shoulders, those on the side grasped and tugged with their free hands. So many times we almost fell! I remember almost toppling away, laughing at my brother, watching his legs tremble from exhaustion beneath the board’s weight; his embarrassed anger as he looked down and snarled at me. I had never seen muscles quiver that way, but it goes to show how hard this task was. By the time we got the board up to the branches, my own shoulders and arms were trembling as well. It was hot and exhausting work, with chips of pine bark falling in our faces, covering our half-naked bodies. As always, we were in bare feet and cut-off shorts, but our bodies were toughened and inured to pain; scrapes and cuts and bruises weren’t going to faze us, not in our attempt to please this teenage friend of ours, the one we loved who ruled us.

It was with great difficulty and peril that we finally got that board up there and balanced it across those outspread branches. Climbing out on one limb, toes gripping the bark; delicately balancing thirty some odd feet above the ground, pulling that board – inch by inch – like determined little monkeys, intent on our task, we gave little thought to falling, except when we’d teeter near destruction. Finally we had the thing in its proper place, according to the teenager’s instructions, and he climbed up, nails in his pocket, hammer in his hand, and secured the thing to the branches.

“Now we need to make some walls,” he announced, sitting up there with us puffing kids. “To make sure none of you fall off.” Those walls, I was to discover, were to hide another activity, but that is for another time.

So he goes down and gets some odds and ends of plywood – again from that mysterious barn – and brings them over. Like ants once again, we go up and down the ramshackle rungs of the ladder, bearing our burdens, while the teenager sits above, nailing them into place.

And then finally, suddenly it seemed: we were done. The afternoon sun, already dropping down towards the horizon, shown across our new creation. From the ground I could see it – small as a postage stamp way up there – a small boxy construction, with walls that were only knee high. It was the best we could do with the wood we had, wood being such a precious thing – but it looked like . . . well, it looked unlike any tree house I had ever seen before, or have seen since. In my grownup’s eye it resembles something more like a deer hunter’s stand, with those low walls and wide platform. You couldn’t lean against the walls; they were nailed onto the sides of the platform, the nails driven into the edges of the plywood. If you leaned against them too hard, they would simply give way and send you tumbling down. But they were there, and it was there, and we were all quite proud of ourselves, even if at the time we were too exhausted, dirty and sore to take much joy in our creation. That would come later, the next day, when we would start using this thing.

It was about supper time, for about that time – before we could climb up to enjoy our creation, my mom called us in. After she squirted us off with the garden hose we went inside, our minds full of dreams, our imaginations in the sky.

That fort would become the neighborhood attraction. Not all kids were allowed to go up there; many mothers rated the climb ‘too risky’. But my own mom, in her own way, was proud of us boys as well, for she let us go up there any time of day, and often my best friend and I would go up there to ‘do things’. What kinds of things I won’t say, not here, but this I do know:

It was the hardest work, the hardest job, that the teenager had ever assigned us. It wore out us slaves, the teenager’s servants, building that island in the sky. And today I know: I would of never let my own kids take such a risk, not in that tree, not doing those things. But at the time it was a wonderful thing.

Odd how times change. Or how we’ve changed.

I don’t think we ever considered the risk at all.

Brother Bear


The Bear and I

When I was young, just starting school, I loved bears. Part of this was no doubt due to my love of the show “Gentle Ben”, about a black bear, that was often on TV. (I also loved watching “Danial Boone” if you remember that one. Me and bears, bears and I – maybe it was due to my teddy bear, who was often my ‘best friend’ when I was coming up. Boy, I loved that bear – still do – and he resides at my mom’s house, safe and sound with his ‘poppa’, “Grandpa” bear.

But this isn’t a story about stuffed bears and animal toys. Its about a real bear and me.

We took a trip from the sand hill plains around Augusta Georgia on year – it had to be when I was in first or second grade – up to the North Georgia mountains and beyond. Being poor, we did what so many families did back then: we camped somewhere around the Cherokee reservation. I still remember the ‘town’, with it’s (I guess) concrete teepees, trinket stores, and the hot sun filtering through the pines. Here, some forty-three years later, I can still remember the big open air shelter where the Native American Indians put on what I believe was the “Unto These Hills” open air drama . It was quite dramatic, even though I didn’t understand what it was about, but I was awestruck seeing those Indians dance in their regalia and hearing the pounding of the drums. It was high excitement at the time for a boy my age. I remember, too, how we begged and begged every time we would visit (we must have been camping near it) – or at least in every store we visited for one of those fancy Indian headdresses. My parents eventually broke down and bought my brother and I each one – a luxurious expense for a family so poor (but of course us kids had NO idea we were poor – and my dad was back from Vietnam, which meant more money in the household).

Occasionally while we were driving we would see black bears along the road. All the cars would slow to a crawl, and I would get all excited. “Brother Bear!” I’d yell, pointing. I was convinced bears were my friend; that they were “good people”, and I was a brother to them, and they to I. I was absolutely fearless about them.

Then one day we arrive at a big parking lot and pull in. People are standing outside of their cars in a long arc, and I look to see what they are looking at – and oh! Look! Brother Bear! I’m hopping up and down in my seat, anxious to get out and see this great animal – a friend of mine. So we stop, my dad opens the door, and we get out. My mom and dad – well, I don’t know. Maybe they started snapping pictures like all the other tourists.

Brother Bear!, I thought, cutting my through the crowd like a curious chihuahua to the forefront. I didn’t even pause. I was going to say hello to my furry fuzzy friend from Appalachian wilds. I paid no attention to the crowd, just happy to see my friend snuffling along in the parking lot. He was big — but not that big — and he was furry — rich and black — and oh my yes, what big claws, too. He stopped his snuffling and rambling to look up, no doubt wondering what kind of idiot — or tasty snack — this human thing was.

I stopped just an arm’s length from the bear.

Oh my! Brother Bear! What a fine coat of hair you have! And what beady black eyes you have. And what a long pretty snout you have! And how cute your whiskers are!

Brother Bear stuck out his head with interest. I could swear it was grinning, it’s face just inches from mine. The big black eyes regarded me with interest.

My, Brother Bear! What big teeth you have!

Smiling, I did what any six or seven year old boy would do when presented with this situation.

Reaching up, I petted him on the nose.

 

 

That I lived to tell this tale tells you something — but what, I haven’t a clue. The luck of a child? A well-fed park bear? A really fast parent? Or maybe Fate’s fickle finger, or the hand of God reaching down, pausing, and saying, “Hmmm — not this time.” Who knows?

 

All I know is that the next thing I knew, I was getting snatched up like a fumbled football and hustled away from the bear. (Do you know how hard it is to see straight when you’re getting hustled away tucked underneath someone’s arm? At least I was able to wave good-bye. Or at least I think I did.)

I know it must of made for some excitement to the crowd; it would of been a great photo op for someone, and I rather imagine it about gave my mom a heart attack. (My brother, meanwhile, would of been muttering under his breath, “eat ‘im! EAT ‘im!”) And of course nowadays, my mom and dad probably would have been cursed and faulted for not keeping track of their wayward child. And, no doubt, someone would of posted it on Youtube or one of the video sites. Heck, I might have been famous.

As for me — I was just sorely disappointed my meeting with my friend had been so rudely interrupted, and I wasn’t going to be meeting him again.

Because, I swear, the next thing that bear was fixin’ to do was give me a sweet little lick.

Whether to greet me or eat me: I’ll never know.

 

sigh.

 

I reckon it’s just one of those things that got left undone. Which may be for the best.

 

(waving goodbye with a salute to Brother Bears — everywhere!)

 

Island In the Sky


The Tree House

Our Island In The Sky

One day the teenager next door came across a boon – a sheet of plywood. In those days such a thing was a problematic treasure. We had no way of cutting the thing, but it was there, huge and grand. Often we would use such things as the roof an underground fort, but we had just built a huge underground fort, only to have the parents make us fill it in again. I don’t know how long the teenager debated what to do with his treasure, but I do know this: once he made up his mind, we were his workforce, his day-laborers, his busy and willing hands. And us kids, he was our hero, the one who played with us, and we would do anything he asked, no matter how difficult or dangerous it might be. Sure, he abused his power sometimes*, but we loved him, respected him, wanted to be accepted by him, and were all too willing to please him in any way we could.

 

It was mid-morning when he came over, and somehow or another, he managed to wheedle permission from my mom to build a tree house in our back yard. I don’t know how that went; I rather imagine he just asked my mom, “Hey, do you mind in we build a tree house in your back yard?” – and my mom, typically indoors during the muggier portions of the day, probably just said yes, trusting our safety to his common sense. Sometimes the parents trusted him a bit too much.

 

So the teenager herds us kids together and states his plan.

 

We are going to build a tree house. And not in just any tree, but in one of the towering pines – one of the unclimbable giants, those ones with no limbs for at least twenty feet up, covered in rough and scaly bark. And this particular giant is unusually devoid of limbs at the lower levels; we are going to have to haul that sheet of plywood to a span of branches over thirty feet in the air.

 

Us kids are dumbfounded as we eyeball this tree. It seems to rise on forever; too wide to get our arms around, not the first hand grip or footing anywhere, unless you count the crevasses of the friable bark, which gives way beneath the least amount of weight, or a clawed finger’s pressure. We look at him; he looks at us, and says, “Come on, let’s go get that sheet”.

 

So we all go over to his yard, and it takes a half dozen of us, huffing and puffing, to drag the thing along. The teenager has the front end, he’s lifted it off the ground, making our jobs somewhat easier – but this thing is heavy! I know my doubts grew with each step; me being only eight years old. The pine tree seems to grow right before my eyes, reaching unscalable heights. “How are we going to get this thing up there?” I silently wonder, running my eyes up and down the tree’s formidable length and eyeing the fork above. But as it turns out, the teenager has a plan.

 

“Ya’ll wait right here,” he says, also scrutinizing the tree and our small group. He can see our doubts, hear our whispered words. “I’ll be right back.”

 

So he goes into his yard, back into their barn, and disappears for awhile. Us kids, we approach the tree, trying to scale it – wrapping our arms around it’s girth, but we can only reach a third of the way around. We try to climb it, like rats trying to climb a slippery pole, but it’s obvious to us; something we’ve always known: these forest giants are indomitable; you aren’t going to get up one easily, especially not this one. The only one in the neighborhood that we’ve ever managed to climb is one across the road, in the front yard of our neighbor’s house, due to its unusually low pitched branches. And even then, it almost took one kid’s eye out when he had tumbled down. But there was nothing like being able to get there, all the way to the top – eighty some odd feet in the air, the tree softly swaying – suspended between the ground and the sky. To be able to manage to climb this one – I wasn’t ready to give up, not yet. The idea of having this platform in the sky, in my own back yard, seeing far and wide – it was too appealing to me, and to the teenager as well, I reckon.

 

Eventually the teenager comes back, with a pocket of nails, some boards – and a long, long rope. Going up to the tree, he begins to nail the boards on, forming a ladder. Up and up he goes, coming back down between boards to get more boards, nailing them on, one at a time. Us kids crane our necks, watching as he climbs higher and higher. Finally he reaches the outspread limbs, and throwing the rope over one, drops both ends to the ground. He climbs down and looks at us. I look at his ‘ladder’ as he takes one end of the rope and ties it around the sheet of plywood. The boards are almost haphazardly nailed on.

 

“Okay, I’m going to pull the rope,” he says, propping the plywood against the tree. “You kids are going to have to help me.”

 

So we all get on the end of the rope, and we pull. The ply sheet rises a few feet. We pull. The ply sheet rises a bit more. We keep on pulling – but eventually we can make no more progress. The ply sheet is catching on the ladder, snagging on the bark, and we are all gasping, hands raw from the rope, muscles sore from the constant pulling. It’s hot; the sun has come up full, it’s midday by now, and we’ve only managed to get that board about fifteen feet in the air.

 

“All right,” the teenager says, staying the rope with his body. “Ya’ll are gonna have to climb up there; help me lift this thing.”

 

And so we do. Like a swarm of ants we attack the tree, climbing up the rungs of the ladder. Some of us get above the board, others get down under. There are about six of us kids, up in the tree, and we begin to try again.

 

It was a Titan struggle; a case of many little Davids against a huge Goliath. Those above pulled and kept the board from catching onto the tree, those beneath lifted it with our shoulders, those on the side grasped and tugged with their free hands. So many times we almost fell! I remember almost toppling away, laughing at my brother, watching his legs tremble from exhaustion beneath the board’s weight; his embarrassed anger as he looked down and snarled at me. I had never seen muscles quiver that way, but it goes to show how hard this task was. By the time we got the board up to the branches, my own shoulders and arms were trembling as well. It was hot and exhausting work, with chips of pine bark falling in our faces, covering our half-naked bodies. As always, we were in bare feet and cut-off shorts, but our bodies were toughened and inured to pain; scrapes and cuts and bruises weren’t going to faze us, not in our attempt to please this teenage friend of ours, the one we loved who ruled us.

 

It was with great difficulty and peril that we finally got that board up there and balanced it across those outspread branches. Climbing out on one limb, toes gripping the bark; delicately balancing thirty some odd feet above the ground, pulling that board – inch by inch – like determined little monkeys, intent on our task, we gave little thought to falling, except when we’d teeter near destruction. Finally we had the thing in its proper place, according to the teenager’s instructions, and he climbed up, nails in his pocket, hammer in his hand, and secured the thing to the branches.

 

“Now we need to make some walls,” he announced, sitting up there with us puffing kids. “To make sure none of you fall off.” Those walls, I was to discover, were to hide another activity, but that is for another time.

 

So he goes down and gets some odds and ends of plywood – again from that mysterious barn – and brings them over. Like ants once again, we go up and down the ramshackle rungs of the ladder, bearing our burdens, while the teenager sits above, nailing them into place.

 

And then finally, suddenly it seemed: we were done. The afternoon sun, already dropping down towards the horizon, shown across our new creation. From the ground I could see it – small as a postage stamp way up there – a small boxy construction, with walls that were only knee high. It was the best we could do with the wood we had, wood being such a precious thing – but it looked like . . . well, it looked unlike any tree house I had ever seen before, or have seen since. In my grownup’s eye it resembles something more like a deer hunter’s stand, with those low walls and wide platform. You couldn’t lean against the walls; they were nailed onto the sides of the platform, the nails driven into the edges of the plywood. If you leaned against them too hard, they would simply give way and send you tumbling down. But they were there, and it was there, and we were all quite proud of ourselves, even if at the time we were too exhausted, dirty and sore to take much joy in our creation. That would come later, the next day, when we would start using this thing.

 

It was about supper time, for about that time – before we could climb up to enjoy our creation, my mom called us in. After she squirted us off with the garden hose we went inside, our minds full of dreams, our imaginations in the sky.

 

That fort would become the neighborhood attraction. Not all kids were allowed to go up there; many mothers rated the climb ‘too risky’. But my own mom, in her own way, was proud of us boys as well, for she let us go up there any time of day, and often my best friend and I would go up there to ‘do things’. What kinds of things I won’t say, not here, but this I do know:

 

It was the hardest work, the hardest job, that the teenager had ever assigned us. It wore out us slaves, the teenager’s servants, building that island in the sky. And today I know: I would of never let my own kids take such a risk, not in that tree, not doing those things. But at the time it was a wonderful thing.

 

Odd how times change. Or how we’ve changed.

 

I don’t think we ever considered the risk at all.

 

 

The BB Gun Wars


I’ll never forget the first time I got shot with a BB gun. It was in the laundry room, which was built onto the back of the carport – a separate room from the rest of the house. It was winter, I know, because I had a jacket on – and I’m glad I did.

My brother, a year and a half older than I, came in. He’d just gotten a BB gun – a Daisy “Spittin’ Image” – for Christmas. Pressing the end of it into the belly of my jacket, he backed me against the clothes washer, and then when I had nowhere left to go, pulled the trigger. Just like that. It wouldn’t be the last time he pointed a gun at me, and sometimes they were real ones. I’ll tell those stories later, and how they affected me. (Both bad and good – because I became a Marine one day, and was robbed at gunpoint once while working at a gas station. My lack of fear came in handy, then, and the robber was very lucky.)

Anyway, that first time he shot me – I was scared. I thought I’d been really ‘shot’. But those BB guns couldn’t penetrate skin; they’d just leave a little red dot on the skin, and hurt like a bee sting. No big deal. But this first time it was, at least for me. I pulled up my coat – I’m sure he’d shot me just to see what it would do – and there on my belly, about two inches above my navel (an “innie” and not one of those strange “outies” that some of the kids had) – was a bright red dot, almost glowing with pain. So I did what any normal six year old would do. I screamed and ran for my momma.

Mom, of course, was furious. She was madder than a badger in a trap. I don’t know what she did to him, only that it ended up with him getting his BB gun taken away. For about a week, I reckon, though it may have been a month. That’s how their time punishments ranged: One week, or one month. Same went for restriction, only they would restrict you to your room. A one month ‘room restriction’ was nothing to joke about, because they were serious. You didn’t come out of your room for a full month – no TV, no radio, no nuthin’. Only to go to the bathroom, eat, or go to school. Just four blank walls, your bed, and later on, my desk. Not a whole lot to do in there. After all, we didn’t have many toys, though I had my collection of stuffed animals to keep me company – animals from when I was one and two years old. We had quite a few parties in there, me and my favorite stuffed bear, Chee-chee, and Grandpa and Alley and Leo. Monk-monk, too, though he was a little bit stiff – due to his wire framed arms and legs (making him ‘posable’). Plus he was a late-comer to the game to replace one I had lost about four years earlier in some other, distant woods. He wasn’t the same.

I’ll never forget those BB gun wars. Oh, I can’t remember them all; just the big ones, and the one where I got shot up pretty bad. I ended up getting a Daisy myself, a year or so later – all the kids had one, except the teenager, who also had a pellet gun. He illustrated its awesome power to us gang of little kids once, by gathering us all around and shooting it through a tree – a scrub oak, to be precise, about two inches in diameter. That chilled us, and he was very serious about it – and what he intended to do with it if any of us ever made him mad. Mad about what? I’m not sure, but I think it was what he was doing to us in secret when the parents weren’t around, or when he was babysitting us. That was a very cold time indeed – seeing the neat round hole pop in one side; the splinted and mangled wood spraying from the other. We all went and looked, running our hands in amazement over the damage. He made no bones about it. He would kill us dead with that thing, if he had a mind to, a reason to – and we weren’t to give him any reason. Were we. Of course not. We all quietly agreed to his demand. We kept our mouths shut. I don’t know what set it off, but it did, and he showed us. Maybe he was just illustrating his power over us. I don’t know. But I do remember the cold fear.

My mom’s typical response to finding that me or my brother had shot the other with a BB gun was take it away – for a week or a month, as I’ve said. Then we’d get it back – and go right back to doing what we did before. Engaging in the BB gun wars.

I’ll never forget when I was sitting in our pup tent – the one me and my brother had. It was the standard military issue – thick green canvas walls that would weep in the rain, and two-piece wood and metal poles for standing it up. Military canvas has such a familiar smell; a unique one. It still conjures up many, many memories. We’d set that pup tent up in the back yard when my brother came to the ‘door’, pulled open the tent flap, and began pumping those rounds in. Bing! Zip! Bing! Whiz! Little BB’s bouncing all around, some ricocheting off the walls, some hitting me. I was unarmed at the time, so of course – “No fair!” I cried, and then went wailing off to my momma. He got his gun taken away at the time – but I still had mine. It felt good.

The other major war I remember (aside from pieces of memory of running through the woods, firing them at each other, or hiding behind some bushes, taking potshots at someone) is when the teenager and a bunch of other kids got into the tree house we’d built in the big old pine tree in our back yard. It was a good tree house, with a thick piece of plywood for a floor, and little knee high walls all around. You didn’t lean on the walls; they’d peel off and send you tumbling far, far down to the ground, some thirty or so feet below. It was our favorite tree house, and the one all us neighborhood kids would use (we believed in sharing back then – with anyone who dared to climb that big old tree with no branches to hang onto and only loose boards haphazardly nailed on to use for a ladder.). I went up there quite often, but this time I was on the ground. Me and a friend, both of us armed to the teeth with our Daisy Spittin’ Images.

I remember this quite clearly, the day of that war. It was late afternoon; the sun is shining off to my left, away from the tree house. Me and my friend are on the west end of our wood paneled house (redwood, that is, because it never rots and never needs painted). There is a bush on that corner we can hide behind. I can see that tree house in my mind – way up there, the end of it protected by a good thick branch, so we can’t get a clear shot inside. The boys up there – the teenager and his friends – are popping up over the walls like weasels, taking potshots at us. We can’t step out from behind the bush without getting hit. I get madder and madder at this seemingly unfair situation, and finally I’ve had enough!

I step out into the yard – away from our protecting shelter – and the teenager and his friends immediately start plinking at me. Zip! Zap! Ow! I’ve been hit a half dozen times before I can even get my rifle up. My friend, behind me, cowering behind the bush, is looking at me like I’m crazy. But I don’t care. I’m MAD – and when I’m mad, I don’t feel any pain. All I feel is . . . something. Nothing. Anger and anger again. Folding back in on itself. Apparently that’s part of being DID – they say it sets in when you are a young child, by the time you are five or six. I’ve separated myself from myself, totally ignoring the pain. I don’t even FEEL the sting as the BB’s come raining in. The kids in the tree house, realizing I’m just going to stand there, are rising up and sitting there, taking potshots at me like I’m a sitting duck. Which I am. I don’t care anymore. Shoot at me if you wish. I know it’s not going to hurt, because I don’t care anymore. All I care about is getting a good shot off at these strangers, these kids who’ve taken over my tree house, and are now shooting furiously at me. I raise my rifle, take aim – BB’s whizzing past, striking me, bouncing off like rain – and I still don’t care. I hold my position. I wait. Until I see my moment. Then I fire.

I hit that teenager – I don’t know where – but it was hard enough to make him quit. He yells. He cries out – loud. I shoot again and get him with a ricochet off the branch that was shielding him. He cries out some more. They quit the game.

I learned something then. That just one small man – a single soldier – determined not to give into the pain – can take out any number of enemy, given enough determination and guts. Given a single rifle, and just the right kind of shot. And I often felt as though I was a soldier back then; was training to be, wanted to be – exactly as my old man was. Tough. Mean. And a killer. (Maybe that’s where that ‘self’ came from, huh? Weird, I’m just now thinking that for the first time in my life. I reckon that’s one of the reasons I write these stories. They are a voyage of self-discover.)

And I also learned how tough I was. That these rifles couldn’t hurt me anymore. I look back at my friend, who is slowly creeping out from the shelter of the brush, his eyes wide with amazement as the teenager and his friends come climbing down.

I was much braver about them after that. Much braver – and not a bit afraid to take on someone twice my size. Whether they had a gun or not.

I have no fear, not of guns. Caution, yes. Wary of them? Of course. I know what they can do – up close and personal. I’ve seen it, from here to you, your computer screen to your face. It’s ugly. They can kill you dead; make a really bad mess of things. But even still – no fear. Not even now, this day. Respect: yes. Fear – no. Not no way.

After all – I’d been shot enough to know – and simply not care anymore.