Down to the sea in ships (or, summers on the not-so-high seas)

Vic was the only one of us three brethren to realize his childhood dream. He loved the ocean and wanted to sail the seas. After graduating from Kings Point Merchant Marine Academy in the late ’40s, he got a job with Sun Oil as an advanced deckhand, called an able-bodied seaman (universally known as an AB), rose steadily through the ranks to become, finally, Captain of the Fleet. He retired as the company’s top sea dog.

As his brother, I had an in with Sun Oil, so I sailed two college summers on the ships as various types of dogsbody. 

The normal complement of bottom-rung deckhands, called ordinary seaman (universally known as, yes, ordinaries), was augmented in summer by temps to repair the damage resulting from the winds of winter. These extra-ordinaries removed rust and repainted every exposed surface on the deck.

I was hired on at a time when the family-owned company hired no Blacks or known non-Christians. I sailed initially on Vic’s ship, the Eastern Sun, where he was the regular first mate but was then on vacation. Over those summers, on several ships, I never sailed with my brother.

Graceful, ambidextrous, athletic, Vic was yet dogged by physical misfortune. He broke several fingers, a leg and an arm (while clumsy me, I’ve never broken a bone… well, I did cut off parts of a couple fingers). For example, he slipped on an oil slick while carrying a glass sample phial and deeply cut a finger. The tendon retracted before it could be attended to and he was left with a permanently curled digit.

Example two: Each ship carried an “anchor buoy” – a piece of wood attached to a rope which was attached to the anchor chain. Why? Because (snort, chortle, GUFFAW) they’d once lost an anchor in the river! Now, if one dropped along with its chain, you’d know where the poor thing had gone! Vic was standing near when the anchor was released one time and the buoy rope whipped around his arm, smashed it against the rail. His shattered bones were patched with screws and borrowings from other parts of his body.

The worst disaster did not hit him, personally (except spiritually). Whether he was first mate or captain at the time, he was in charge of a three-man crew sent down to check an empty toluene tank. A spark, probably electrical, caused an instantaneous explosion. All three died of oxygen deprivation or seared lungs. The bosun leading that crew was tall, blond, magnificent, a near perfect physical specimen. Almost unimaginable to think of him dead. Vic’s conscience was in shreds for months.

The Eastern Sun‘s captain was an ass. Stupid, superstitious, fearful, he killed the ship’s engines the moment we entered the Delaware River channel lest he might lumber into something while chugging north. It took four hours to drift up the river to the docks at Marcus Hook (once a hangout of Blackbeard the Pirate). One time his tardiness missed high tide and he tried to cinch the ship to the dock by over-tightening the three-inch polypropylene lines fastened to the mooring capstans. One snapped. Under massive tension, the broken line moved faster than the eye could register. It could have cut a man in half.

By contrast, Capt. Brown, the “relief captain” who filled in on vacations (to the entire crew’s relief), would zip upriver in under two hours, screech to a stop mid-stream, then slap the ship home against the dock like parking a motor scooter.

Between full-timers and us summer ordinaries, the Eastern had a varied load of seamen.

Blackie was bosun (foreman of the deck crew). A short, growly taskmaster, he was an OK guy if you enjoy tough love while doing boobic jobs.

Smitty, probably in his mid 30s, was imperturbable, amiable but quietly cynical. 

Tiger, in his late teens, a fundamentalist or born-again, boasted incessantly of his sexual conquests. When he left, I inherited his cabin. The top dresser drawer was stuffed with those little green and-purple-inked religious tracts.

Bell, another spare ordinary, could fart on command. He introduced me to the six categories of farts: fizz, fuzz, fizz-fuzz, pooh, tearass and rattler.  He had little trouble producing on request, though he could not always guarantee a pure category – a fizz-fuzz, apparently, is especially taxing. 

I can’t recall the name of the AB who bestowed the best advice ever given a fellow worker: “Walk fast in the open spaces.” He would barrel along the deck at full-throttle, arms pumping, to midships, where he would enter the paint locker, heave himself up onto a wide shelf, and fall asleep.

My difficulty, as in many (if not most) physical situations, was trying to comprehend what was going on. When first told to help stow the lines after casting off, I shuffled sideways, grabbed something, backed away, looked panicked – and froze. The first mate (Vic’s vacation replacement) asked why I was “standing around while everybody else is doing something.” Because I don’t have the least friggin’ idea what to do.

(Recently I’ve realized that, for all the times I would stumble and bumble through some simple task, most fellow workers ended up liking me. I find that unnerving.)

For entertainment… well, there wasn’t much. The lounge – what the hell was it called? can’t remember – sported an ancient shortwave radio that could being in countries from across the waves. It was also where we did our laundry in a massive washer, using a super-powered detergent called sougie (sp?) kept to clean the decks. It could incidentally dissolve the accumulated oil in our clothing (and probably our faces if we dared apply it).

While a deckhand, I numbed the nerves of two fingers using a handheld pneumatic paint chipper for hours on end. It took six months for full feeling to return. Later, working on a small Sun barge along the southern New England coast, the idiots in charge insisted I steer the thing into a canal – me, who had never driven a car, who had fallen off bikes at five years old and refused to ride again. Two years later, the barge was cleft in twain by a larger ship. I wonder why.

My next bottom-feeder job was “wiper.” Wipers toiled in 110-degree heat and 90% humidity down in the engine room, sopping up grease, servicing machinery, crawling through bilgewater. To offset the gloom, we painted the handrails bright yellow, the steel flooring kelly green. (Later, on an older ship run by pistons, I sat in inch-deep puddles of oil trying, with two others, to loosen steel nuts half the size of my head that held a gargantuan piston in place.)

For a trip or two I even worked in the galley (kitchen), serving meals and cleaning officers’ cabins. The steward – the galley boss – was mid-40s, heavy, bald, profane, likable enough. He ran a constant game of cribbage, a card game where scores are tallied by moving pegs along holes in a wooden board (an English game, of course).

The steward nearly always won; here’s why: The cards were old, greasy, nearly rotting. The galley crew was usually half drunk and about as bright as pewter. They’d shuffle the cards two or three times, which left them adhering in clumps. After half a dozen cards had been played, it wasn’t hard for the steward to determine who was holding which sticky wad. I watched, never played.

Most Sun tankers seldom went anywhere interesting (though over many years Vic ended up in Egypt, Japan and India). The standard run was to Port Arthur, Texas. Tooling up the Sabine River, you passed lush houses along the banks, but when you got to P.A. proper, you had the choice of a couple dive bars, where the crew blew enough money to need to draw against their next paycheck by the end of the run.

I did get to Puerto Rico once, and hired a taxi up a switchback hillside road to the local town, where I was greeted with some amusement. I don’t speak Spanish and, in my shorts, verging-on-albino hair and dead-white skin, I looked as Latin as a border collie. I grinned, nodded and found my way to a liquor store where I bought a couple bottles of rum. Then I shagged up into the hills, sat down, and read. Later, I skittered down at full run, holding my bagged liquor and thinking Hemingwayesque thoughts. 

On every voyage, I hauled along my battered Underwood portable typewriter. I’d buy government-issue postcards – no pix, just an outlined green lozenge on the front above the address space. I’d type across the entire back and front, right around the address, which I’d circle in pen: not a millimeter wasted. Many of the cards I sent to a lovely young lady in Providence, RI. She had gorgeous legs but did not in any other way excite me. The cards were just a mark of friendship.

One who did excite me:

Between trips, I had just enough time to take the commuter train from Marcus Hook to Philly and spend a few hours at our house on Mole St. in Philly. Why, I can’t recall, but this time I was sitting in the small, quiet, concreted back yard, talking to a very bright, belligerent 17-year-old and his mother. The mother was slim and wondrously sexy. At one point she sat in my lap – some sort of comment to her antagonistic son? What effect it had on him I don’t know. The effect it had on me ….

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Of tigers, horses and primates

Big brother Rod loved all of nature, so while he was studying engineering at Penn when we were living in Powelton, we spent a lot of time at the Philly zoo, with his main concentration (of course) on the Reptile House. We lived about half a mile from the zoo, which had free admission on certain days.

The zoo then was fairly primitive and rattle-trap: heavily barred cages set on concrete bases outside, not that much different inside. No matter how recently we’d visited, Rod would stop to read each descriptive sign top to bottom. I’d be worn down like an old watchspring by the end of the day, my feet whining despite my love of the big cats and the Small Mammal House. Rod, as sturdy as an English oak, would carry me home on his shoulders.

One of the zoo’s stars was Bamboo, the oldest gorilla then in captivity. He had two unfortunate habits: One was luring unwary gawkers to his enclosure, then rearing back and pelting them with a fistfull of shit. The other was ripping the arms off keepers. He was not a happy captive. 

Next to him, Massa was just a couple years younger and went on to outlive Bamboo by quite a spate before choking to death on a cake presented to him on his last birthday: “It’s my party, and I’ll die if I want to…”

When I joined the Welcomat as arts editor in 1981 or ’82, I picked up side work writing features for the Philly zoo’s membership quarterly. It took me behind the scenes for long interview-chats with the curators at a time when the zoo was continually modernizing. The mag’s editor was a freelance designer who also forged guns in his garage machine shop. I found him genuinely crazy. We got along fine.

The zoo’s director, Donaldson, was a bearded, fatherly type with an endearing charisma. But he harbored a… strange undercurrent. Talking to him in his office, we drifted onto the subject of raising teenagers. His approach: “When they reach 16, I break their plate and tell them they’re on their own.” He illustrated the comment with a sharp, plate-shattering gesture. 

As one of my perks, Donaldson invited Linda, me and my daughter Erin to an evening members party at the Cat House (as I thought of it). Forty or fifty people jostled in front the the tiger cages, where Monty, a large tiger (son of Kundar, a momentous tiger) stopped dead in his tracks, staring at Erin. As she moved, he followed her, first with his eyes, then with his pacing. This kept up the whole time she was in sight of his cage. I took perverse delight that a tiger would want to eat my daughter. 

When Donaldson died a few years later, I wrote an article for the Welcomat extolling his work at the zoo but suggesting that his divide-and-conquer approach with the staff had set them dueling. I also referred to one of the staff as Snake Woman – and not for her love of legless reptiles. The next day the zoo mag’s nutty editor called Dan, the Welco editor, and demanded that I be fired for anti-zoological heresy. Then Snake Woman called me directly – uh oh, I do not like confrontation – to tell me my comments had been spot on. Ya never know.

Linda had a more direct encounter with a tiger at the Cape May Zoo in New Jersey (a remarkable small zoo). We were standing close to the outdoor enclosure. The cat nonchalantly backed up to the fence and I yanked Linda aside as it let loose a firehose of piss in her direction. And some people think animals don’t have a sense of humor.

The saddest day in the history of the Philly zoo involved a fire in the primate house that killed most of the gorillas. The biggest loss was the alpha male, John. Snake Woman had always been adamant that no one should anthropomorphize an animal. With John, I found it unavoidable. He would sit with majestic, commanding indifference, unperturbed by gawking humanity.

During my trip to Europe as a proper young bum-around with my friends Marcia and Steve, I spent time along the Dalmatian coast of Yugoslavia, back when there was still a Yugoslavia (someone had carved “Tito” into a watermelon left sitting by the roadway). 

The tight, peninsular city of Split, now in Croatia, harbored a small zoo with a wide range of exotic animals, including a stunningly gorgeous Indian pheasant. I stopped by a cage holding a large monkey – not a baboon, I’m pretty sure, but definitely male, as it made plain by humping at me through the bars. That was the only time I’ve been propositioned in public.

Zoos enthralled me, but I never much liked circuses as a kid. Every year, when the granddaddy of all, the Ringling, would set up its monstrous tent in the lot at the end of my Aunt Beck’s street in Upper Darby, Rod would buy a couple tickets and take me. We didn’t have much money, so we ended up near the top at one end, where it was about 105 degrees. With my wretched eyesight I couldn’t see half of what was going on – and it was all going on at once, in all three rings. The third ring, down at the other end, was a misty supposition, while the main act, in the center ring, was  mostly obscured by the always-lesser antics directly below us.

These were great seats for the aerial acts, but somehow they never caught my fancy. I admired the trapezers coordination, since I had none, but I couldn’t see the point to all these spangled people spinning around and catching each other. I wanted them to drop. Most of them had nets, so they’d just bounce anyway. Worse were the choreographed spangle-fests with over-muscled men and women sliding down wires while twirling to insipid music.

I did like several individual acts, like the guy who could balance on one finger on a spinning globe… though I wondered how anyone came to choose such a life’s work. Did he wake up one morning, thunderstruck: “I shall commit my existence to balancing upon one finger on a spinning globe”? Or did a ringmaster, hoping to shoo off a would-be roustabout, tell him, ”get outa here, ya friggin’ idiot – go spin on your finger”?

Still, the only thing I really cared about was the cat act. In those days it was almost always lions – tigers were a rarity. Lions are lazy and dumb. Tigers think too much; they’re wired and they yearn for action. They don’t want to be part of the act, they want to be the act, and they don’t take shit. Lions want to eat. Tigers just want.

In those days, when the Ringling big top was the world’s largest portable structure that didn’t fly, when freaks like the Monkey Woman and her husband the Alligator Man held forth with strange dignity in the wondrous sideshow tent, lion trainers fired blanks and made pointless lunges at their beasts with stools and chairs. The Ringling trainers did it better than the others. I always flinched at loud sounds, and those  ringing shots had me hanging onto the bench ten feet from the sloping top of the tent. It was more hype than grace – just what I needed. 

Years later, Julie and I took Morgan and Erin to the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus. It too set up in tents – long after Ringling had folded theirs and moved to arenas – at a race track north of Philly. It was a more intimate affair than Ringling, maybe because the lure of the circus was dying by the early ’70s. We could get front row seats near the center of the action and be bothered by the clowns, who hated children. They “pretended” to chase kids or stomped them or loomed over them like falling asteroids. One grabbed a cotton candy from a five-year-old, then shoved it in the kid’s face.

We went to the Cole Bros. show three years running. My eyesight had improved somewhat, and I was close enough to see what was going on. Even the aerial acts began to intrigue me. Alas, the lion tamer was a rank idiot who stormed into the big cage shooting his blanks, cracking his whip and waving his chair like a vaudeville act. The lions looked like they’d just been prodded awake from a two-hour nap – because they had. Outside, I’d watched the keeper jabbing them with a pole in their portable cages, trying to get them to stand up straight; they just snorted “piss off” roarlets at him. So the cats generated slightly less tension than tainted mayonnaise at a church picnic.

During a dozen years of reviewing the annual International Theatre Festival for Children at Penn’s Annenberg Center, I saw six or eight small-scale circuses, three- and four-person outfits that could fit on a mainstage – acts from Canada, Moscow, England, China, all the hell over the world. Most were amazing in their dexterity, tilted humor and ability to master every kind of circus act known to man. They could put the Ringling to shame in virtually every area but one – no cat acts. You don’t want lions and tigers and bears, oh my, roaming the audience of a major cultural center.

I never fully understood circuses until one of the trips Linda and I and Caitlin took to Pentwater, MI, in the early ’90s. We saw advance signs for the Franzen Bros. Circus, inviting people to the school ballfield to watch them set up their tent. I looked at those signs with a visceral turn of wonder… Will they do it? Will they really do it?

They did. They used elephants to put up the tent, like in every circus fairytale you’ve ever read. The pachyderms wrapped their trunks around ropes big enough to knot two semis together, and up went the tent; then roustabouts whacked pins into the ground with sledges and cinched the ropes. A sight I’d long hoped for but never expected to see.

If the Cole Bros. was intimate, the Franzen Bros. was like crawling into a friend’s glove. We roamed the trailers, petting poodles that would later perform like canine sufis, bought balloons from frowsy peddlers who later performed double somersaults that almost brushed the canvas top, paid a buck to a guy who looked like one of Linda’s Kansas relatives so Caitlin could ride a pony that slogged around in a circle, like Arnold Schwarzenneger in Conan; later, that could-be Kansan turned into the circus owner and most incredible animal trainer.

I’d watched Gunther Gebel-Williams at Ringling, and he was spectacular, especially when he stood in the middle of a monstrous arena and bellowed commands to half a dozen elephants dispersed to the far corners. But Gebel-Williams was in spangle mode, bleached hair in waves, Vegas-Elvis leotard poured onto him by the Ringling illusion machine. He was, technically, maybe the best ever – but he’s what you could (and did) see on TV. You could admire Gebel-Williams comfortably while munching potato chips.

But when Wayne Franzen waved his hand and half a dozen tigers – tigers, not wimpy lions – rolled over in unison like pussy cats, I couldn’t eat a thing because my mouth was hanging open.

He was just as good with horses, not only getting the steed to count and spell (like any horse counts and spells in public), but holding a back-forty conversation with the animal, gently chastising “errors,” sharing horsey jokes. And I couldn’t figure out his signaling mechanism. At the Land of Little Horses, near Gettysburg, PA, the woman did it with a slight waver of her left knee, but I haven’t the least idea how Franzen clued the beast. Maybe the horse really could count.

But those tigers… the ease, the lack of hype. No guns, no dickhead props, just a quiet man and his friends, the cats. It created the kind of awe that should surround a circus – a great mystery almost revealed.

Another decade later, in Chambersburg, PA (not that far from the Land of Little Horses), Wayne Franzen was killed by one of his tigers, Lucca, in front of 200 kids at a benefit show, hooked clean through on one of its claws and dragged around the ring like Hector at Troy. Sadness, horror and a strangely personal sense of loss: This man was killed by one of his friends.

Some expouser suggested that Franzen’s new “bright costume,” used only once before, had set the tiger off. I don’t buy it. No, I think brother tiger just woke up pissed off at the world that morning: “Who the fuck’s Wayne to tell me what to do?”

When you look at it, Franzen had a damned near perfect death. From drudgery as a 26-year-old shop teacher he’d gone on to realize a quintessential American fantasy – not just to run away to the circus, but to create one of his own. 24 years later, he ended his career with one of the greatest circus acts of all time.

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Ugly plates and voluptuous forks

In memory, I often paint my kid self with no sense of beauty – someone  with a blank internal stare that excluded judgment. But on closer examination… not really.

The oatmeal we bought in the late ’40s, Mother’s Oats (Quaker Oats under another name), came in boxes with dishes inside. The big square boxes held plates or soup bowls, the smaller ones, cereal bowls. Round boxes may have held cups – I can’t recall. 

They formed our default breakfast dishes, off-white low-fire ceramic with raised fruit around the rim. I always felt they were crappy, cheap, not something a caring human being should eat from. But not because they came in a box: All sorts of interesting shit came in cereal boxes in those days: The cardboard dividers between levels of shredded wheat had printed patterns your could cut out to make little airplanes (I’d as soon have eaten the cardboard as the shredded wheat). 

No, I reacted to those bowls because they were ugly, and anything that ugly should not be! 

At age four I could lay formal dinner place settings, complete with napkin in napkin holder and butter knife crossed above the fork. We ate all our meals, including breakfast and snacks, with my parents’ sterling silver wedding set. Every other Saturday it was my duty to polish the silver. I would compulsively rub down every last piece, including items we never used (such as a silver cane handle). I looked with snobbish rejection at the few pieces of silver plate, their brass underwear showing through.

Many a breakfast I ate from a sterling silver bowl with the alphabet stomping around it in huge embossed letters, or off a silver plate of the same design. I still have the silver knife and cereal spoon that went with them, though the bowl and plate are long gone. I don’t think I ever had the fork.

My mother’s china cabinet was jam packed with cups, plates, wine glasses, tureens, gravy boats. Etc. Many were delicate and beautiful and seldom used. A few remnants of an old set – a sugar bowl, small plates, some kind of server – were white with angular green and olive-grey lozenges repeating around the rim, inside a gold edging. Between the repetitions of the main pattern, the dark lozenge outline would cross over in a complex way – it may have been a Celtic knot. I felt irradiated, almost blessed whenever I had the privilege of using one of these exquisite plates or placing the sugar bowl (too rarely) on the table.

Try as I might, I can bring up no image of the plates we ate off every night, a selectively failure of memory.

Each family member owned a personal napkin ring. My father’s was silver with his initials, my mothers a heavy, wide hammered silver (Linda and I still  have it). I can’t recall my brothers’, but mine was some lightweight pressed compound (redeemed sawdust?) with a lacquered plaid overlay; I never set it out without a minor resentment that, as the youngest, I had been granted a leftover.

Each brother also had a decorated beer stein. A colorful medieval scene ran around Rod’s, with a shoe or slipper sculpted on top. Vic’s was also elaborate. Mine was a knobby, unfigured ceramic blue topped by a pointed lead lid half attached to the handle by a broken lead band. I never resented a single thing that my glorious brothers possessed; but again I resented being handed what I saw as the leavings. (In retrospect, my stein was probably inherited and worth more than the others put together. Kids are dumbasses.)

The damnedest things sit in my mind as physical symbols of family life: The wooden, lidded jar with painted Russian figures that held a collection of Wendell Willkie buttons from the 1940 presidential campaign (likely worth hundreds on eBay these days); the stainless steel Ingersoll-Rand letter opener with a riveted bronze relief of a man operating a jackhammer; the ten-inch pair of woefully dull paper scissors. 

Both the letter opener and the scissors resided on the most wonderful physical memory of all, my great grandfather’s magnificent walnut partners’ desk. I refinished it slowly over the years, never did quite complete the job. It’s gone now.

So I definitely did have a sense of beauty back then, and I did form aesthetic judgments. These days, I see beauty as central to being alive.

From our early years together, Linda and I ate from her hand-made plates – far more beautiful than whatever our family used back then – but we wielded flatware bought at a restaurant supply house in Philadelphia, while my parents’ silverware snoozed in the back of a drawer.

A few years ago, a friend mentioned that she regularly set a formal dinner table. At first that sounded like a ridiculous throwback. But the more I thought about it, the more it resonated. So one night I whipped together a compartmentalized wooden utensil tray that would fit in the top drawer of our hutch, which also held our recumbent tablecloths and napkins. Now, each evening, we set the table with a tablecloth, Linda’s plates, sterling silver utensils, cloth napkins – and napkin rings, made by Linda (plus my mother’s). 

My parents’ monogrammed wedding silver is a simple but elegant design of different-width parallel lines around the handle, focused on a blunted end with sloping shoulders. It’s proto-art deco, I guess (they were married in 1922). We use the knives from that set nightly, but the forks are from an earlier era, presents given piece by piece to my mother, each dated holiday, as a child. The eldest is from her birth year, 1902.

They celebrate a voluptuous woman in full relief, naked above the waist, wrapped in classical flowing cloth below. I’ve always called them the “naked lady forks.” (If you enter “naked lady fork” in Google, there they are, the very same  – at $74 apiece, or $18.50 a prong.) Food really does taste better when eaten with a naked lady fork.

Where has beauty taken me as an adult?

“‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ – that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” — John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

I’d go with that, but I’d substitute “knowledge” for “truth.” They’re much the same in most ways, but I’m more scientific than poetic (though I love Keats – try “The Eve of St. Agnes” for sensuous color imagery). For me, finding things out, slowly coming to understand, may be the highest level of beauty; discovering connections, the glory of possibility – what fits together and how it fits, no matter the subject, no matter the presentation.

We were listening one nnight to Under Milk Wood, Dylan Thomas’s play for voices, recorded in 1953, just months before his death. The language, the reading (led by Thomas with a group of out -of-work New York actors) have such a resonant, mercurial, lush and rambunctious beauty that I find it almost painful to listen to. To a particular turn of mind, such gorgeous things are close to unbearable, soul-stripping. Thomas may have been the most sound-obsessed poet ever and one of the funniest: His humor rips, ripples and runs ragged, nowhere more so than in Under Milk Wood.

But I don’t find all beauty that straightforward or obvious. The most hideous can become the most beautiful when you’re given leave to experience its distorted construction: The beautiful should make you gasp or squirm; the most beautiful should make you do both at once. 

Where I see beauty in the unlikely or the hideous:

In music, Antony and the Johnsons, with Antony wishing to grow up to be a “beautiful woman, but for now I am a boy”; the Tiger Lillies yearning to have sex with flies; Killdozer finding redemption in the disfiguring explosion of a grain elevator.

In literature, the horrifying last sentence of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano; Dostoevsky exploring the humor in epilepsy and the defining grace in mental dissolution.

In city streets, the shimmering effervescence of broken glass on the sidewalks; the sudden assault of rank piss when entering the subway.

In art, Hieronymus Bosch or the festering Grunewald crucifixion.

I can’t avoid giving unfair advantage to beautiful people (especially women). Face, figure, grace, energy, resilience, a turn of body, the sudden gesture of a hand – any or all can turn a person luminous in an instant. Sexuality is part of it, of course, but it goes much further, to a sense of rightness that skews my perceptions and interactions. 

The down side of my obsession with beauty is my overreaction to human ugliness. I feel immediate repugnance for ugly people. It’s a moral failing by any spiritual measure. I try to compensate, to push it under. It flavors any dealing, interferes with fairness and basic decency.

Yet even here… there was a teller at the downtown savings back I visited every Friday to withdraw the $25 that would see me through the following week. Her face was disfigured, shifted, yet her gentle charm always left me feeling uplifted from that brief interaction.

Beauty can be ecstasy but equally a knife-edge away from misery and dissolution. If we are willing to accept the ugly as potentially beautiful, if we reject the easy assumption, still, how do we walk that knife-edge and not fall into the pit of abomination on one side, the consuming cuddle of illusion on the other? 

The Higgs boson, to me, is beautiful; the emptiness of space (“Winken Blinken and Nod”) is negating in its aloneness, unsalvageable. What we label “good,” what “bad” is often what we see as “beautiful” or “ugly.” We think we’ve found the truth while only passing along the skewed image of what was impressed on us through genetics, upbringing, experience or mindset. 

What beauty should never be is a cheap imitation of or limitation on our ability to understand and absorb: Thomas Kinkaid, Hallmark cards, soulless Catholic saints – the unquestioning underbelly of comprehension that leaves reality denuded, impoverished.

What I experience as beautiful I want to share, to fling away with abandon, but so often it falls down a hole to be devoured by reality before the gift can be received – or if received, tossed on the ash-heap by the recipient.

And how can we share beauty when the ways to view it, the comprehension of it are so varied? We each have our individual ideas/ideals of what resonates, of what we will wake up tomorrow morning and smile to recall. They spring from who we are, who we were, what has happened, what will happen, what we might wish would happen but will not live to see. 

I cry old-man tears because I see the beauty both of having and of losing. Is that part of learning or part of falling apart? Yet my failure to find an answer is itself a superlative kind of beauty: I’ve reached as far as I know how to reach, and when it all leads to tears and sorrow, still I know that I’ll keep looking, that the sorrow, as well as the joy, can support me. 

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How did you spend your summers when you were a kid?

Summer was always the Time of Year for me growing up.

I never joined anything. I wasn’t in any sports. Looking at an application for summer camp made me sweat and tremble. The thought of all and every bit of that panicked me. But summer itself was sacred, precisely because I was away from everyone. I puttered and walked around and ate blackberries and looked at stuff and… no idea what else.

No memory of anything but the joy of sunshine and not being in school. Summer should extend at least 11 months a year. I still feel that way.

But for one whole summer in my teen years, I sat hunched over a table in the stone-walled basement of our rented house off 37th Street in Powelton Village. I’d decided to paint all the little metal animals and people and landscape bits that I’d inherited from my brothers and that my mother had given me as Christmas presents over the years.

While I was growing up, beside my bed lay a box, probably a foot square, six to eight inches deep (cardboard? wood?) chock full of English-cast farm animals, milkmaids, itty bitty cats, firemen, interlocking fencing, shrubs, lampposts, tiny tractors, zoo species, train conductors, butchers, playful children and townspeople of all sorts. They knocked against each other in that box, all higglety-pigglety, some with broken limbs, all nicked and missing shatters of paint.

At Christmastime I’d spread two cloths, one green, the other off-white, around the Christmas tree, which usually stood on our “library table,” the long, narrow, solid  mahogany table my parents had purchased along with the 14th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The encyclopedia fit exactly into the deep shelf that ran along one side. The duplicate shelf on the other side was free for you to extend your literary imagination.

On those cloths I would create town streets and stores, using wooden blocks, and wide farmscapes divided by the interlocking fences and whatever else was handy. Then I would meticulously arrange farm animals, townspeople, yard workers, zoo creatures, machinery and the tiny girl who sat in her tiny leaden boat on a mirror lake. It was a lot of effort, taking a nitpicky concentration I can’t quite fathom today. 

That teen summer I vowed to repaint and repair all the older pieces, maybe in their hundreds. The house we rented then had once been a pair of slim two-story twins that someone had run together – with two front doors, two simple concrete porchlets. The house next door was the same. They stood by themselves on a courtyard in the center of the block, up a brick walkway entered through a trellised opening. I have no idea how they came to be. There was nothing else like them in the neighborhood. 

One side of the basement, where the stairs came down,  held the furnace, a round coal-fed monster with oversized ductwork that I stoked daily in the winter from a pair of coalbins (I also pissed in it, which raises an unholy stink). On the other side, through an open doorway in a solid, stolid stone dividing wall, spread an equal but unencumbered space – no furnace, stairs or coalbins. A space. Its empty rectangularity drew me. For an equally empty kid, what a hideaway! 

So I bought a selection of half-pint cans of variously colored paint, carried down the animals and milkmaids and began work.

How do you mix minute quantities of paint tones? Our milk was home-delivered from Wawa (that unlikely name now graces a proliferation of Pennsylvania mini-marts and service stations). Each milk bottle came with a golden aluminum cap. Carefully levered, inverted, they provided tiny bowls.

I knew nothing of color mixing (still don’t). But all those English cows and horses must look right when repainted, so within these tiny milk caps, I set out to create Cow Color and Horse Color.

I don’t know the breed of my metal cows, but most were a uniform off-white. No righteous American cow would put up with that, so I decided to try to duplicate the shade of the few sister brown cows. After numerous failures I came up with a tint that could add acceptable cow-splotches to the off-white metal sides. Now those were cows.

Horse Color diverged only slightly from Cow Color through added red. Fine horses, noble horses.

From there I went on to green – the shrubs, the faux-grass at the base of the street signs, the hollow tree and swing for the little boy in shorts, a roofed bench (a bus stop?), a few dresses here and there. Then I moved to red.

I held off on flesh tones because a) I had no idea how to achieve them, and b) doing faces would mean I’d also have to re-color eyes and mouths. I’ve always had an unsteady hand. The slightly de-featured faces would have to stay as they were.

I never got beyond those first colors. I still have the metal animals, now layered in batting so they will never again jostle each other and do interactive damage. Lots of chipped faces there on the few occasions I pull them out for inspection. My attempts to repair limbs with glue, solder, tiny lengths of coat hanger and aluminum foil were mostly dismal failures. 

But those cows… Ah, they look mighty fine.

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What the patterns read

I’ve never had a career.

Throughout school and after leaving college, I never considered a coherent direction for my life. The concept simply wasn’t in me. I graduated Penn in the early ’60s, perhaps the only time in the country’s history when it was possible for a broad segment of muckabouts like me to drift through the world without having to worry about making a living or doing anything useful. I lived in group houses or really cheap apartments but gave no thought to a coherent future. 

It was all out there: If we ran out of money we could float it, just do without until something happened. I had written a daily column for the student newspaper at Penn, then used that “talent” not at all to find work for the next 20 years. Oh, I did stuff, took odd jobs (carpentry, office temping, stacking boxes in supermarkets), spent a few years doing part-time maintenance at my kids’ private school, Miquon.

Thing is, I’m still the same. Nearly everything I’ve earned from 1980 on has come from freelance writing and editing, but it was work picked up, again, without direction, without a reflection on “making a living.” Most of it fell in my lap, each job tacking onto the one before.

A lot of people like things I write, but I’m not a “writer” in any glorified or cohesive sense; I’m not anything I can point to. I’ve self-published three novels and a collection of short stories, am working on another novel, but have made no attempt to promote them. Now I’m verging on 82 (an 8-decade-old “vergin”!) with the sense of nothing coming except death – and not disturbed by that realization.

The novels are not only not part of a series, but consciously structured as different from each other as possible – what’s the point of writing a pile of words that isn’t personally unique? That’s the opposite approach of the current era, that can’t churn out a “life” article without the word “career.” (I don’t intend that as a snub to careerists. I don’t try to be different from other people, it just works out that way in the alleys that lace my head.)

What we do yesterday, today or tomorrow doesn’t have to lead anywhere, and in most cases doesn’t. I guess I see that as one of the few truisms of being alive; and if I’m right, then at least I’ve accidentally lived according to a personal truth.

Amazing. And somehow disconcerting.

*    *    *    *

Linda and I got talking about pattern-recognition the other night. The conversation started because of a plot element in the book I’m working on, but then it veered into illuminating an idea that’s been flitting through my head off and on. 

It started with Bush the Younger. The general consensus was that he was just plain dumb. I’m not saying he wasn’t or was, but watching his responses, what struck me as most likely was a learning disability. Maybe my response came from Linda having been a reading specialist who dealt with first-graders who had a rough time untangling written words.

One time Bush was pictured supposedly reading to a kindergarten class in Florida but holding the book upsidedown. I thought then (and still do) that it was just a really bad photo op, but it fit fit well with that stunned look of confusion that would cross his face when he was trying to make sense of something – less stupidity than, “Geez, what the hell?”

“I’m having difficulty comprehending written words” is not the kind of announcement a major country’s leader is going to broadcast, but such a condition must have created a hell of problem for those briefing him.

These days, massive amounts of time are spent focusing on Beloved Seditionist Stump’s bumbling, nonsensical pontifications, analyzing how they reflect stupidity, ignorance, a racist mental rash, and narcissistic self-glorification. I’d go with all that, but I think there are also important underlying neurological problems. I mean, what’s really going on back there? And what does it say about the man himself – a unique entity, as we each are?

When he mischaracterizes a fairly simple statement made to him, is it lying, deliberate misdirection, political gamesmanship, or a simple failure to understand what was said because he can’t form it into a coherent mental pattern? When he rants against anything that doesn’t mesh with his pre-conceived ideas, is it (only) bilious arrogance, or that when he can’t assimilate new information he has to throw it away, deny its existence?

He comes across as bad enough in person-to-person conversation and interviews, but his staff have made it clear that he never “likes” to read anything put in front of him. What if he just can’t? Oh, I’m sure he can recognize individual words, but what if sentences disentangle from their meaning, run off the page and fornicate in the undergrowth? What if he can’t see a coherent pattern in a paragraph? 

(Hell, I get that way with certain essayists. I was trying to read Francis Bacon yesterday and it was like somebody forcing my head under muddy water and yelling “Drink!” I think there are still scholars who want to credit him with writing Shakespeare’s plays; let me tell you, simply and flat out – NO!)

I’m making no apology for Lump’s behavior. I’m just trying to find explanations that could explain some parts of it: because if you don’t know the cause of a given problem, you’re not going to find a solution.

As for the larger issue of personal responsibility, many a soul with learning problems is fully decent. For any limiting mental condition – no matter what the details – some will be decent; others, by nature, rotten. Physically, morally, spiritually, Sump is a vile human being. 

*    *    *    *

Apropos of nothing… How do poets and songwriters “see” their rhymes?

In Blake’s “The Tyger,” we have this:

What immortal hand or eye, 

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In “The Ploughboy and the Cockney,” a song on Maddy Pryor and Tim Hart’s album, Summer Solstice, there’s this rhyme:

Oh, carry me to London and there let me die,

Don’t let me die here in a strange country.

And in Hank Williams “Jambalaya” we find:

Pick guitar, fill fruit jar and be gay-oh

Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou.

I each case, the written rhyme works as it is seen, though in recitation or as sung, the sound… does not rhyme:

“symmetry” is spoken as “sim-met-tree,” which doesn’t rhyme with “eye”

“country” is sung as “cun-tree,” which doesn’t rhyme with “die”

“bayou” is sung as “bye-oh,” which doesn’t rhyme with “gay-oh”

Makes me wonder – what would blind Homer have said about this?

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Possum Hollow and Rose Valley Roads

Possum Hollow and Rose Valley Roads

That was the exquisite yet ridiculous address of the house where Rod and Ginny lived for 40 years before moving farther into the suburbs. There I spent my Christmases (and occasional New Years) in the ’60s, also during the years of distress following the breakup with Julie, and still later with Linda and the kids.

Rod and Ginny loved cats. Too much. Rod had picked up a mentally disturbed tortoiseshell from his work in R&D at Sun Oil, followed by strays from their local parking lot that had, for some odd reason, become a cat dumping ground. All these muck-abouts produced an endless line of interbred progeny – blind cats, deaf cats, entire litters of kittens that didn’t play, a feline Jukes family that rested blank-eyed on their haunches like discarded pincushions and had as much smarts as would make a jelly bean roll over.

Julie and I adopted two gray kittens that seemed marginally brighter than the others. We named them Thin Tail and Fat Tail. Fat Tail soon morphed into… Fathead. He finally figured out how to jump the back fence one day but never found his way home again. Which is to say, he got lost 15 feet from his own door.

Rod’s total, cats and kits, maxed out at 26 by my count. They sent my allergies into overdrive. Ginny would meet me at the front door with a bottle of Dristan in hand, and I would bolt a couple pills before entering. The cats pissed on everything – including the stove. Turn on a burner and run for the hills.

Their one accommodation to the cats was to scatter the floor under the Christmas tree with mothballs to discourage them from climbing and dislodging ornaments. I slept on the couch across the living room from the tree. Or tried to. The mothballs warred with the cat hair to keep me from breathing.

But those Christmas trees… Rod, with his mania for numbers, set out each year to a cut-your-own tree farm to search for the largest tree that would fit in their living room. The all-time champ was lopped off at eight feet to accommodate the ceiling, but had a 12-foot wingspan, extending from the far corner of their sizable living room to half way across the fireplace. It took Rod and then teenage son Roddy a good hour to wrestle it through the side door.

Even this massive invader from the woodlands was overburdened with decorations of all kinds, including the somewhat disturbingly embellished Christmas balls created by a local friend, Nancy. She turned a simple round ornament into a fat (pregnant?) angel in flight – revolting or erotic, depending on your leaning.

Rod’s was the first place I tried any kind of drug. Dexedrine, an upper that could make people squirrelly, was then legal and used to promote weight loss. Rod had some in his medicine cabinet, so I took one or two on Christmas Eve to see what would happen as I lay across from the mothballed tree extravaganza. Listening to the radio, I had the good fortune to hear Schutz’s “Christmas Story.” I’d grown to love Schutz, and this is probably his friendliest piece. The Dex brought an intensity, almost a melding with the music. I’ve never tried uppers again. Huh.

Gift-giving, especially once Roddy grew to an adult still living at home, was an enormous production. For stockings, each gave each of the others an entire full-length nylon stuffed with exotic food and (in Roddy’s case) joke items – an overpowering eruption of stuff. I couldn’t (wouldn’t want to) match this potlatch. In later years, Roddy would give Linda and me drinking glasses. Whether through innate clumsiness or the fact of having a tiled kitchen floor, we constantly shattered glasses; each year Roddy would replenish the supply with a new design. 

Getting there for Christmas was not always easy. By myself or with Julie, we took the commuter rail line. Rod’s house was bracketed by two train stations, at one of which they’d pick us up.

With Linda and the kids, we made the journey in our first car, a rattletrap ’64 Dodge Dart – when we could. One Christmas morning we found the battery dead. On whim, I moseyed around to Pearl St. to check for CJ. CJ, in his 40s, repaired cars out of a couple rental garages. Why would he be working on Christmas, and why did I somehow think he would? He came around and jump-started us and we were on our way. Merry Christmas, CJ!

Another year, Linda, Morgan, Erin and I went out by subway and trolley. Was the car dead? Were we between cars? (We didn’t take the train because the Christmas schedule was sparse and erratic.) The subway took us to the 69th St. terminal, where we grabbed a suburban trolley (the last one leaving that day). In Media, the nearest town to Rod’s house, we waited, at eight degrees, to be picked up by Rod, dancing around in circles in the snow to keep warm. Cold as a teacher’s wit.

(The opposite weather extreme ruled for Christmas of ’64 or ’65, when I invited friend Carol to join me at Rod’s. That day, the temperature reached 77. Carol was short, zaftig but plain, with red hair hair so luxuriant and thick she could comb it all the way around her head, switch her glasses to the rear and appear to be a fiery haystack moving backwards. 

(Carol and I trained back to my apartment where we spent two days in exploratory sex that did not end in intercourse (bizarre, if not just stupid). Fortunately, we were out when her father and brother dropped by looking for her or I might have been hospitalized. Instead, they just shoved an unfriendly message in the mailbox.)

New Year’s at Rod’s did not quite become a tradition, but an off-again, on-again happening, ultimately leading to my fusion with Linda in 1978. Before that, the most memorable New Year’s was riding around with my chucklingly crazed friend Chris Hessert. Were we driving to anywhere in particular? Don’t think so. I told Chris that we were close to Rod’s and he thought it would be a delightful idea to drop in, though he had never met Rod and Ginny.

We did that, just before or after midnight, and Rod and Ginny were awake. We had a fine time that Ginny still remembers fondly. For me, that particular memory of Chris is lost. Though so many more remain.

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The infidel within

There’s been speculation springing from studies of separated twins that there may, in effect, be “spiritual genes.” That’s putting it in a deliberately simplistic way, but the general idea is that some of us are wired for religious, or at least spiritual, throughput, others, not.

I entered Catholic school in fourth grade, not previously having been exposed to god (or if so, the exposure’s lost in time’s mists). The nuns’ continuing message of justified punishment, however, quickly turned my ever-quivering kid weakness to jelly, with their vision of perdition waiting to mug me around every corner. Without conscious transition, I accepted god, devil, ritual, sin and eternal retribution.

Yet once in college, I just as quickly lost all active traces of religion. And they have never come back, never hovered in the background; over the years, the distance between myself and – not just belief, but the possibility of belief – has become an unbridgeable chasm. 

After returning from my abortive post-grad stint at Stanford, I plowed through occultist materials and Eastern religious tomes under the maddening hiss of defective fluorescent lights in the Van Pelt Library at UPenn, until one day I realized I was reading down the center of every page because the same ten code phrases, repeated, rearranged but unvarying, had piled up like driftwood on my mental shores. There might be a stout trunk of truth in there, but the branches of differentiation had withered and died.

These declining days I’m probably the most materialistic person I know. It’s easy to dismiss my current dearth of spirituality as a rejection of what went before; it feels more like easing into my natural state. 

For the last few decades England’s been going through a remarkable academic debate about whether there is or isn’t a god. It takes on a rather nasty tone at times, and god knows (or doesn’t), the militant atheists are as rampantly pigheaded and doctrinaire as the righteously religious.

The pro-gods point to scriptural truth, gauzy internal knowledge and the “intelligent” complexities of creation for their justification. The anti-gods haul up the established laws of physics which, they say, will fully explain those complexities without the need for external intelligence (which, by Occam’s close shave, makes god unnecessary).

Of course, a hundred pages of “convincing” proof on either side will convince no one not otherwise ready to be convinced. For each of us, in a general sense, the Great Ruler is either faith or logic. 

Those spiritualizing genes (if they exist): Do they make us slaves to our predispositions? Or, more realistically, do they gently nudge us with their chromosomal arrangement? Either way, looking at my family, we seem to be missing a spiritual underlayment.

My mother was a (first Presbyterian, later Episcopalian) church secretary, and heavily into the social side of the neighborhood Episcopal hangout. Yet I can’t recall an instance of her extolling god or making a religious statement.

My father was Catholic and went to Mass every Sunday – because my mother badgered him into going. Why should she do this? As a power maneuver? Dad, likewise, said nothing about belief (then again, Dad seldom said much). Because of a “football injury” he’d received in high school (which failed to manifest itself during the remainder of the week), he found it too painful to kneel. He would hunch slightly forward off the edge of the pew during the those parts of the Mass when our church’s unpadded wooden benches impressed their grain into my knees.

Brother Vic? Not a word. I was closer to Rod, who claimed to be agnostic on a technicality: As a strict logician he could not say definitely there could be no afterlife or beatific vision, “but I’d be very surprised.” (I loved Rod’s wonderfully understated sense of humor.)

For those of you suffused with belief, I don’t know how to elucidate its lack. It’s generally impossible to describe a negative – though I don’t myself view this lack as a negative. It’s more that I can’t see anything out there to believe in. It’s hard enough to believe in the daily vagaries of the “real” world without drifting into veneration of the amorphous woo-woo. 

But is my disbelief determined, or have I chosen not to believe? Either way, innate compulsion or choice, I’m not accepting of the idea of god, whether as totem, anthropomorphic super-daddy, or fluid, unifying reflection of nature. I don’t view the totality of existence as inextricably linked. (I mean, should I intuitively imbibe the acceptance of a rock or be attuned to my cat’s deliberations?) And how does adding a god to the universal mix make it any more palatable, exciting, rewarding or comprehensible?

Good gravy, folks – the Big Bang! How much more visceral hoopla can you want? And couldn’t you, I or any concerned four-year-old design a more fair, decent and kindly universe?

There used to be (may still be) sanctimonious hogwash about deathbed reconversions – especially of Catholics – once they’ve recognized their “error.” Within our relatively long-lived family, at age 81 I’m about nine-tenths of the way to the Great Beyond (barring the iconic anvil dropping on my head), but I sense no intimations of religious immortality – God and the tooth fairy weigh about the same for me.

As for cozying up to a deity who would kick me down the heavenly staircase for faithfully following my own sense of the truth (which includes the lack of his existence) – would I want to spend eternity with a guy like that?

I “found” science after college and have cuddled alongside it since – petted it, gently nipped its ears, kitchy-cooed its silky fur. The religious might be justified in calling such adulation a “belief,” but I don’t think it’s the same kind of belief. I don’t believe in an afterlife (or a forelife, for those reincarnatedly inclined). I’m intrigued and delighted by the simple proposition: “I was not, I am, I will not be.”

I can’t offer the slightest hint as to why the universe exists – why there’s “something,” rather than “nothing” – but I do “believe” that physical law will prove fully adequate to explain the form and movement of the “something” that we experience.

The mind-rendering transformations of religious leaders – Saul to Paul, Mohammed to Prophet – came about during those converts’ middle age, a time of major shifts in brain chemistry. At one time I looked forward to something similar for myself – not because I gave a bean-eater’s toot about transcendence, but because knowing All The Answers would make it easier to steamroll ahead and the hell with everybody else. 

But though, as “The X-Files” rather lamely put it, “The truth is out there,” we, for better or worse, are stuck here. I find it more interesting to try to figure out existence on my own than to work with somebody else’s instruction booklet, no matter how attractively packaged with a gift certificate to the afterlife.

I’m not fond of the idea of dying, but I kind of look forward to rotting.

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Retrieving the past that never was

Sitting on our old car seat on the front porch up here in the mountains, watching the sun drift down a few months back, I got to thinking about memory as key to the past.

My generation tends to wonder if the kids who’ve grown up with instant “presence” can fully comprehend a world (my world) where events could not be immediately shared. I started thinking that we and all generations of the last two centuries suffer collectively from a similar limitation: We can’t mentally recreate the hundreds of thousands of years when the past existed only as personal memory and communal consensus.

Until the invention of photography in the early 19th century, all events died without leaving a corpse. Yes, an artist might attempt to reproduce a face or a battle scene, but the result was filtered through conflicting memories and the unique, often idiosyncratic attitude of the artist. 

Printing was the first development to “freeze” any aspect of the past: Never before could a collection of words be reproduced flawlessly, in quantity, without the inevitable human lapses and errors of a Bartleby. As one result, oral poetry – the recited epic of Homer and medieval bards – largely disappeared. Such prodigious arabesques of memory where no longer needed (though I’ve often wondered what new ways of cadging spare change the literate blind then devised).

Photography upended memory itself. The exact lineaments of a visual object could be fixed and reproduced, essentially without limit. Uncle Eustace, in his twenties, could live not only into his own old age, but into the old age of his grand- and great grandchildren. 

The camera, the mechanical child of physics, has no attitude, no personal investment, no “outlook.” You may quibble that the image depends on the angle of the shot, the stance of the photographer. But any two cameras of the same type and quality could produce the same picture when the conditions were equal. Personal memory and common consensus were trumped by an independent record that could be declared definitive.

Later in the 19th century, sound recording worked a similar revolution. Accurate reproduction was initially limited, but the effect was the same – the recorded song or sonata faithfully reproduced that song or sonata as heard on a given occasion. It was the difference between imagination and immediate perception. Now we could thumb our photo album to pull Uncle Eustace from his grave and place a needle in a groove to relive his laughter.

And here we are at the next step.

I delight in the online world and, like most today, feel cheated when all information does not swoop instantly to hand. (God forbid my ISP should tumble into the ditch, as it did a year or so back: “A tornado hit two miles down the road? Why the hell does that mean I can’t access the news from Ukraine?”) 

Yet in the midst of successfully nailing down an obscure etymology, I’m sometimes hit with a pang of loss: A lingering quizzicality – my cloaked friend all these years – has been executed by the Google mafia.

Will my brain atrophy if I’m no longer required to incrementally trace myriad possibilities back to a most likely probability? And should we really recover the lost eight hours of von Stoheim’s Greed, only to find them mundane? My personal reluctance to use a camera may stem in part from a desire to keep my memories firmly mine, even if that leaves them inaccurate and subject to the muddling meddling of my mind.

As printing silenced the oral epic, so has ubiquitous recorded sound smothered the intimate musical gathering. Here in our mountains, the tunes of the settlers have all but disappeared under the attack of generic country radio – not only for the younger generation, but for just about everyone. 

Only the very oldest residents express nostalgia for the progressive parties that ferried neighbors from one farm to another in horse-drawn wagons (summer) or “bobsleds” (winter) to dance to live jigs and polkas in living rooms where the furniture had been herded against the walls.

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Relativity in Kansas

Relativity in Kansas

As for Linda’s relatives …

Linda was born in Wichita, Kansas, where she lived most of the years until coming east with her first husband, Rusty in 1965. Her parents both had jobs at Wichita aircraft plants, then moved back briefly to their tiny home town of Cedar Vale – which, by chance, has about the same minuscule population (650) as Dushore, our town in upstate PA. 

In Cedar Vale, her father toiled in Uncle Floyd’s Garage until he realized he preferred the aircraft work, so the family moved to Herington (then the demographic center of the contiguous US) to work for Beech Aircraft, and again to Wichita when the Herington plant closed. They retired to Cedar Vale shortly before Linda and I got married.

I think I’ve got that right.

Her parents visited us two or three times at our Baring St. home in Philly. Each time, their van was broken into, which didn’t help their unease with city living.

Linda and I lived together for two and a half years before we got married. During that time, her dad treated me as next of kin to the Devil. Invited to our favorite Indian restaurant (where he and his wife got little joy from the food), he would not look at or speak to me directly, throwing his words across the table 45 degrees past my left shoulder. 

When, later, Linda called them to announce our wedding plans, he chuckled at me like an old chum. I’d offended his bedrock social sense of decency, so I suppose this change in attitude made at least superficial sense. I found it difficult to talk civilly without biting the phone cord from a fury I’ve seldom felt against another human being – was I now a separate person from the lout who had sullied his daughter? 

The year after our marriage, our family  – Linda, me, my daughters Morgan and Erin and Linda’s son Ben – drove to Florida to visit her parents, living for the summer with Linda’s 8-years-older brother Carl on his chicken ranch in Apopka, Florida, northwest of Orlando – I sincerely hope our only trip to that determinedly repellant state. 

A side note on our means of transportation:

Once merged, Linda and I shopped at the dingy excuse for a supermarket on Haverford Ave., hauling groceries back in the only conveyance we could afford, a foldable shopping cart that tottered closer to extinction with each trip. For the rest of our transportation needs, we pulled Linda’s little red wagon, which served us well for a year or so. (Would you believe someone stole that little red wagon from our front yard? Of course you would.)

So we bought a 1964 Dodge Dart – of the famed slant 6 engine – for $350. The speedometer and odometer were dead, someone had repaired the driver’s door with aluminum flashing and pop rivets, a gaping hole in the rusted backseat flooring wafted noxious gases to the inhabitants, and the heating failed in mid-winter. It consumed a quart of oil every 70 miles, and once stopped, would not restart for the following ten minutes.

Yet Linda and I (even the kids, I think) grew fond of this wounded beast. 

Back to Florida:

While Linda’s mom and dad and Carl’s family stayed in the main house, we spent the nights in her parents’ tiny RV, downwind from the chickens. In the mornings we could watch the chickens, confined in wire cages of half a cubic foot each, being fed some kind of slurry while feral cats lapped up broken eggs.

For recreation, Linda’s parents took us to Disney World, where we spent 70% of the time waiting in lines. What fun!

The way back from Florida would have been a total horror – except for the fact that we were no longer in Florida. We bought a case of oil before lumbering up I-95, which has convenient mile markers to count off the 70 miles for odometerless us to the next oil change. 

Ben and Erin raised such holy hell in the back seat that we seriously considered abandoning them in Newark, Delaware, if we could make it that far without murder. Morgan, even ten minutes, would collapse sideways in her seat and intone, with Russian inflection, “I have no weel to livvve,” our one bit of pleasant entertainment.

The next year, Linda’s mom developed cancer that metastasized like a rabbit on estrogen. Within a few months she was in a nursing home, and by the following February (1983), she had died. Three months or so later, Linda was taken aback when her dad said he was planning to remarry.

He certainly didn’t have the stash to lure a gold-digger, so what was going on? From Uncle Frank (Linda’s dad’s brother), Linda learned that Treva, the intended bride, had been the subject of her father’s intense devotion when he and she were 14 – so intense that his mother had scuttled their romance as unfitting in ones so young. Treva, a widow now living in Oklahoma, read of his wife’s death, sent her condolences, and things swept on quickly from there.

We were invited to the wedding and took our first cross-country visit to Cedar Vale. Were we still driving the Dart? You’d think that would be stamped in my memory, but it isn’t.

The flatness of Kansas is exaggerated, at least in the eastern sector. (For flatness, go to Saskatchewan and Manitoba’s 1200-mile tabletop of wheat, a nightmare of the mundane.)

Cedar Vale had a squat Main St. with standard little stores and semi-deserted storefronts, one of which seemed to be a pool hall, and one good restaurant, (the Café). A numbered route, 166, doglegged through the town in those days; it was later diverted to a bypass – god knows what’s left of its near-terminal commercial center. A bus stopped a couple times a day in front of a leather store, a cross between a saddle emporium and a ’60s craft rediscovery.

While we stayed in her dad’s house, Linda offered to clean out the excess that any couple accumulates. In the garage she found that her parents had not thrown out a plastic container over the last decade. Whole racks of shelving were packed cheek by jowl with empty gallon milk jugs and yellow margarine dishes (her parents, in cow country, never bought butter). Linda disposed of the plastic, but when she returned a decade later for her father’s funeral, she found that he had replenished the supply.

I was much taken with her Uncle Frank, who owed a small dairy farm nearby. Good-humored, bright, straightforward and mildly sarcastic, he was a full character filled with a genuine love and appreciation for his land. He drove us to a small hill so we could gaze down on his holdings – “a pretty man’s farm,” as he described it. 

All his family – wife (also named Treva), sons F.E. and Bobby – were good souls. I was enthralled by F.E, with his massive square head and love of rollercoasters and motorcycles (one of which had spilled and left him on crutches for a year and a half).

Her dad’s youngest brother, Johnny, had been the black sheep of the family, an alcoholic nomad rodeo rider and riverboat rat recently settled down with his champion coon dogs and realigned (after a separation tumult) with his wonderful wife Joann (pronounced “Joanne”). I felt easy with him, accepted.

An unsettling sidelight: Johnny’s almost blind father would, unknown to Johnny,  seat Johnna, Johnny’s daughter then about five years old, on his lap while driving to tell him when it was safe to move ahead or turn. Johnny – whose weirdly-set false teeth made his mouth look out of balance – said he was rightly pissed when he found out.

We’re not sure if Johnna –one of the most outrageously sexually exciting women I’ve ever been around – recalls this. Last time we visited her, she was living with a dissipated-looking limousine driver and wondering if she might end up “polluting the gene pool.”

Johnny died of a heart attack in his late 50s, which initially wrecked Joann, though she later sent letters indicating she was doing well in Iowa or somewhere else, far from Kansas.

Linda’s father’s only sister, Ferne, lived in one of the few interesting houses (perhaps the only interesting house) in Cedar Vale, where she sewed quilts and crocheted brilliantly colored afghans. The house had been left to her by her husband, who ran off with the “town floozie” (how often do you here that designation?). Ferne had a hole in her vocal cords and could only speak at a rasping whisper. A thoroughly gracious lady.

Johnny, Frank and especially Ferne had a strong sense of beauty, an appreciation for nature and for art in its various forms. Linda’s dad, so far as either of us could tell, had no aesthetic sense whatsoever, except for flowers – no interest in music, paintings, reading for pleasure. He seemed indifferent to food (his almost undeviating supper was cornbread and milk). That Linda could have sprung from such a contained man astounds me.

I knew far less about her mom (a schoolteacher for many years) – I think Linda’s amazingly wide range of interests and talents more likely came from her. Except… Frank, Johnny, Ferne: Where do genes or interests get passed along, where lost?

Linda’s father had been a lifelong Baptist and had intended to marry reunited teen sweetheart Treva in the local Baptist church, but the pastor frowned on remarrying one so recently widowed. Without skipping a beat, her dad switched to the Lutheran church for the ceremony. When it came time to kiss the bride, let us just say this late-70s man did not restrain himself in front of the altar.

Treva was a solid, contained, confident presence. She did much to open up their few remaining years – few because she developed cancer, refused pointless extended treatments and left him a widower a second time at age of 80.

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Relativity

How much sense can most of us make of our ancestral relatives? 

On my father’s side, his mother (Josephine Rogers Davis by name) was the one with a definable lineage, going back to almost Pilgrim times in the U.S. (or so I was told – my daughter Erin has not been able to confirm this through her genealogical program).

Her father, a Rogers, died two days before my father was born, in 1891. He owned a huge swath of land in Texas that has passed down, gradually diminished, to the current generation, now a square mile of mostly arid cotton-growing land with a smattering of wildcat oil wells that the family owns in common. (I sold my share to my Aunt Beck in the ’70s, when the wells were producing mostly dust, and so lost out on the later discovery of fossil leftovers that brought the others a modicum of cash. I’ve never had financial sense.)

I have the family portrait of that great grandfather, recently reframed. He looked a lot like me, except he had eyebrows. Rumor said he possessed an unregistered deed to what is now Brownsville, Texas. Had it been registered, we would all be filthy rich. None of us is rich. I’m just filthy.

My grandmother, called Nana by everyone except Dad – he referred to her as Muddy, a nickname emanating from an interchange between them in his childhood – was the matriarch throughout my youth. As the youngest of my generation and congenitally out of place, I would sit like a pillow at gatherings where Nana’s clan would form a circle and drink tea at each other. A bright, quiet, friendly but fiendishly uninteresting bunch, few had done anything of note, or if they had, seemed incapable of expressing it.

Nana lived most of the year with Aunt Beck, her daughter, in Upper Darby, ensconced in her chair like an icon, a thin, revered Buddhetta who was allowed to do virtually nothing. During the summers she lived with her other daughter, Mary Rose (pronounced Mare-rose), in Chatham, NJ. Mare-rose made sure Nana actually did things around the house, giving her an actual reason for being.

Now and then, after I finished exercises with my Austrian eye doctor, Miss Brunn, in Upper Darby, I’d walk over to Aunt Beck’s house, on Kent Road. If Aunt Beck wasn’t there, Nana would somewhat cook me scrambled eggs to the consistency of snot (though less tasty).

About Dad’s father I knew and know little. An obese man addicted to key lime pie, he died of a heart attack in his 60s, before I was born. Somehow he lost all the money invested by his wife’s family, who sued him for it. But then, who hadn’t lost everything by the 1930s? 

My mother’s side of the family was more populated in my head but wholly mysterious. I met only her sister Melba and one female cousin (Hildegard? something H) who visited from England. 

As for the rest, everything about them was conveyed in letters that passed to and from Canada. (Mom corresponded regularly with her fifth cousin – only English progeny are aware they have fifth cousins. Her letters became increasing strange; she died of a brain tumor.)

With each telling of their Canadian adventures my confusion grew. I finally asked Mom to make me a list of these strange creatures, referred to by such unilluminating terms as “W.J.” and “T William.”

In a 3×5 notebook she jotted down and annotated over 50 names, in no chronological, genealogical or other logical order. I wish I still had it – I might know a smidgeon about these people. Erin finds most of them untraceable. 

I think W.J. was the one who’d been a teetotaler all his life until, in his 80s, a doctor prescribed an alky-laced medication and he became a raving alcoholic. T William lived to the age of 94 and died from complications of having a glass catheter broken in his penis. (No, I don’t want to picture that.)

Some of the others come across as wholesale wackjobs. One committed suicide by leaping off a ferry boat. Another tried to knife his mother during Thanksgiving dinner to speed her course to Heaven. Like Mom herself, her two previous female progenitors died of early-onset dementia (likely Alzheimer’s).

Mom’s father was only 42 when he died. Mom was 10. The head of the “black gang” (engine-room crew) for United Fruit’s ships, he’d received an almost lethal electric shock aboard ship and never fully recovered, being later eliminated by a minor heart attack.

United Fruit was responsible for the term “banana republic.” Through their stranglehold on production in Central America, they controlled the politics of the nominal countries providing the fruit. According to Mom, my grandfather, with the help of his black gang, put down a native revolt somewhere – Colombia, Venezuela? They then broke into and robbed the Indian graves. He came back with a small squatting stone statue, its arms crossed, that mimicked the mummified deceased with which it was found. Mom called it “Daddy Jinx,” I guess because of his death soon after.

She said he was also an inventor who developed the pocketed conveyor belt that loaded bananas onto the ships, and also a device for men to iron a crease in their trousers while they wore them. That may well be so.

After her father’s death – I recall nothing about her mother – Mom was passed like a suitcase from relative to relative, up and down the coast from Canada to St. Augustine, Florida. Why? Unclear.

What once seemed important and vibrant about these mythical figures matters less to me today. But they’re fascinating in a small and poignant way, like uncovering a mouse skull in the sand.

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