Witnessing

In 2014 I went on a trip called “Witness and Remembrance” with the Road Scholar organization, studying the Holocaust in Berlin and in Auschwitz, the camp/museum. I write here only of the touring of Berlin, and some of the surprises I found there.

These are called ‘The Stumbling Stones.”  They are small brass plaques found here and there in the neighborhoods of Berlin. They are only about three inches square, so in order to reach what is written on them, one has to bend very low – or kneel down.

One of them reads: “Here lived Jacob Bergoffen.”  He was a Jew, and this was his home. It tells us that he was born in 1892, deported to Auschwitz and murdered there on the 31st of August, 1942. Next to his Plaque is one for Felli Berghoffen, her dates, her deportation and murder in Auschwitz. Here was a couple who lived in a house on a street at this site and mingled with non-Jewish neighbors, perhaps worked with them. They were Germans of Jewish Faith, and the assimilation story of the Jews into German life, up to 1933, was a success story. There was always a vein of anti-semitism, but not until the Nazi regime came to power and began its ‘Race War’ did that vein begin to bleed.

When Jews were deported to the camps, non-Jews moved in and took over their homes, and often all their property was sold at auction, the money going to the State, the Nazi Regime. All traces of the Berghoffans and so many others were wiped out as if they had never existed. Not anymore. Now there are the Stumbling Stones, about 5,000 so far just in Berlin.

Jews and non-Jews did the research on the murdered and raised neighborhood initiatives to mark the spot where they had lived. Jews and non-Jews keep the plaques clean, shine them. In order to shine a Stumbling Stone, one has to bend very low – or, as I said, kneel down. In this way the Berghoffens are remembered, honored and not erased.

This is typical of the movements toward understanding, full disclosure, and the honoring of all the victims of those twelve years, 1933-1945, when Germany was driven by racial hatred and true “Race War" as the Nazi’s called it. In 1939, before the war began, in a speech by Hitler, he promised “the historic annihilation of race enemies.”  Annihilation. What a word.

Now memorials exist throughout Berlin, for the murdered Jews, the Gypsies, the homosexuals, the very elderly, the sick and the mentally ill and the deformed – all murdered by the Nazis. In breeding the myth of a strong “Aryan Race” the Nazis believed these elements were poisonous.

Now people come to these memorials from everywhere in the world, and some leaves stones and flowers – just to mark that someone stopped here, some one took note, someone cared.

Even the train tracks are now marked, where the journey from Berlin to the camps began, as a reminder. Every train that left the city carrying people to the camps is remembered here, when it left, how many Jews were carried, and where the train was bound, and here, too, people come to leave tokens as a remembrance, an honoring, a witnessing that those murdered millions were not erased, not forgotten and will never be forgotten.

Latin Jazz?

“What do you think of Latin Jazz?”

I throw him that question as a rope because he’s off balance and about to fall into his delusion, telling me again how he was driven down a dark road and someone in the back seat put the barrel of a gun against his head. “I swear I heard that hammer cocked.”  He has said this three times, and I ask him again, "Who would do that to you?” “Greyhound Bus drivers,” he tells me.

This was one day after his ex-wife had called from Illinois, saying he had borrowed money from one of his ‘bar friends’ and was on his way to California to see me. I’m his friend since the fourth grade, through high school and college and first marriages. He had decided to visit me instead of our usual two letters and one call a year, and he had been ejected from a Greyhound Bus in one of the tossed off towns at the southeastern end of the L.A. sprawl.

“The driver said I was drunk and was disturbing the passengers,” he told me when he called, “but the driver lied.”  He had to put the phone down and ask for the name of the town and the motel. I called the motel office for directions. In an hour I was knocking at his door, and he was opening it and stepping back. He’s my age and we have the same name. Jerry. We were sixty-two then, but he looked seventy that day. More. He was smoking and shaking. He told me his Greyhound story. I took him out for something to eat.

Jerry was a bassist in jazz groups that played in clubs around Chicago, played for weddings and parties. He was also a bartender and a skilled repairer of reed instruments, and he was a loyal lover of alcohol, like his mother, who had died of it, and his sister, who had also died of it, and his father, who had almost died, but sobered and survived.

After eating, Jerry is calmer, and we go back to his motel room so he can pack his things and come home with me to Santa Monica. He’ll stay with me for a few days, dry out, make a plan. I’ll buy him a plane ticket, give him some cash and wish him luck. Why not?  For years he was the only one who knew me, all of me, from fourth grade through one year of college, through all those years of shyness that made us nearly mute, when we were observing the world like scouts, studying and reporting back to each other what we had seen and heard and felt, and wondering if we could ever understand that world and belong to it.

In the motel room he admits that some of his Greyhound story is blurring in his memory, and I suggest that he might have had a panic attack. He says maybe, but I see that he’s holding on to that ride through the night and the cocking of the gun and is about to tell it all over again, so I say, picking up on a conversation we had in the restaurant, “What do you think of Latin jazz,” and I don’t do this just to deflect him. I’m offering him a place to stand and a venue for expressing what he knows, what he owns.

He goes through a moment of cigarette management, lighting it and inhaling and fingering it out of his mouth and blowing the smoke as he squints, and this gives him back some of his style and his cool, and he shakes his head and says, “I don’t like it. Too much percussion.”  And for a minute, he’s another Jerry, more solid and well.

He went back to Chicago and didn’t follow his plan. He never wrote or called me. He gave me no phone number where he could be reached. He was my old friend, and I helped him, but how much?  I was afraid. I admit that. I was afraid of the drink. I was afraid of the con. Later, I heard from his ex-wife that he had lost his instrument repair job, and he had lost his apartment, too. She thought he might be living in his car, and then there was nothing more.

He could still be out there, though, somewhere, surviving. I think of him that way. I picture him somehow reading this. Jer, are you reading this?  Are you out there?  If you are, listen to me, and please tell me something, will you?  Tell me this. What do you think of Dave Brubeck as compared to Oscar Peterson?
    

The Wild

Faces lit by flames then disappearing into the night, appearing again in a great whoosh of air and fire – worried faces or full of wonder, disappearing again as I’m hurried into place.  “Lie down, quickly!”  
  
In the flashes of firelight I see a large basket tipped on its side, and this is where the people lay, two to a compartment.  “Hurry, we have to leave now!”  I slide into the basket, lie on my back, but my wife is shaking her head, frightened.  “I can’t do it!”  “You can,” says our guide, pushing her forward.  She looks at me, and I’m smiling within the fiery chaos as if to say ‘what the hell are we doing?!  And she smiles, too, and slides in beside me as flames reach out and silk billows and air gushes and the silk stretches and moves along the ground, dragging the basket, dragging all of us by heavy ropes as we grip the edge of the basket, and it is dragged and dragged and then begins to lift.

Scan.jpeg

We feel ourselves leave the ground, but are we lying or standing now?  We each rise to full height, eight passengers and a pilot, as the balloon lifts above us just as dawn bleeds into the sky.  The pilot is laughing.  “We got off just in time!  The wind is perfect!”

When we look over the rim of the basket, we see we are gliding fifty feet above the earth. Whenever a rush of heated air is released, we hear the great whoosh, but mostly it is quiet, the earth, the sky, the dawn, and each of us passengers, stilled by the sight and the feeling that we’re in a flying dream, or we’re birds, or this is some magic.

We speed toward a hilltop and miss the grasses there by only ten feet.  The dawn light is spreading, and as we top the hill we all gasp as we see them, thousands of them.

We are flying above the great migration of animals across the planes of East Africa, just fifty feet above the tens of thousands of moving or grazing wildebeests and zebras, mingled with herds of elephants, with giraffes, and every kind of sleek, darting antelope. 

We take some photos, but it’s futile.  We want to simply breathe it in, all of it, all of the wild life moving beneath us as we move above it.  We notice that our shadow, when it glides over a group of elephants, frightens them and makes them run.  The wildebeests and antelope and zebra scatter when the pilot pulls the lever and the animals hear the heated air rushing into the balloon.

It’s amazing what we can see, the thousands and the individual, the old and the young, some lumbering water buffalo now, and even the sparse, scattered trees -- to see a tree from above it, to glide over it’s top branches and see, at the very top, a nest, and in that nest, an egg, to see the multitudes and the single bits of life.

We’re above the surging thousands as they cross streams, sometimes forming long lines at the shallows, and there are predators far off, watching for the strays, the sick, old, or very young.

We pass above a kill.  A lion has downed a wildebeest and is feeding on the carcass.   As we approach, the lion looks up.  It looks right at us.  There is nothing in this great passage above the migration that will linger in my mind like the look on the face of that lion.  She cares nothing for our shadow or bursts of air.   She dares us.  Her look, her eyes, dare us to come to her, to try to take her kill from her -– and the stare seems to range beyond this kill and this feeding.  She, the lion, dares us, we humans, in our great, birdlike ship, to land, to confront her where she lives, where she hunts.  There is a deep challenge in her look.  I am the lion she says to me with her eyes, come and show me who you are.  She is proud.  Her stare is fierce.  She is ready.

We sail over her, and she watches us go.  We take more pictures of the endless migration.  We settle in a field where they wait for us with sandwiches and a bottle of champagne for a toast.

We speak excitedly and smiles stretch our faces and we shake hands or embrace and pose together for photos, but deep inside I am saving and protecting this memory, the lion, the lion’s eyes.  I saw the wild there. 

Drummer in the Band

I think being a drummer is like being a redhead. You just are. At sixteen I’m the snare drummer in the Round Lake High School band, the only snare drummer. It’s a small school.
I’m head of the percussion section in the Round Lake High School concert band, pep band and marching band, and in the marching band I’m trusted to create my own street beats, those drumming solos between songs when the band is parading.

There was one long march where the crowd was in clusters along the rural highway, and I was instructed to begin a street beat whenever I saw a crowd – and that would be a signal for the band to begin our next marching tune. On this never-ending parade we past farmland, pastures, some of the band members huffing under the burden of bass drum or a Sousaphone.

We marched in silence along an empty highway. A herd of cows saw us…and came down to the fence. I started my street beat. The kids laughed.  The conductor, Mr. Genualdi, gave me his wry smile, and the band played – we played The Stars and Stripes Forever to the cows, and their mild eyes followed us for a long, long while.

As a concert band we won awards, traveling to exotic cities to compete:  Peoria, Rockford, Waukegan. We were good because of our conductor, who was a teacher every kid prays for, a bright, enthusiastic, compassionate man who demands your best, and so you find your best, you create it for yourself and for him, for Mr. Genualdi.

We travel to a town where the bands will compete. We reach the hotel. I share a room with a trumpet player a tuba player and the other boy in the percussion section, who plays the big bass drum.  More band members begin collecting in our room, even some girls, even a boy who has somehow bought beer. Just three bottles for all of us, but we feel wild. I engineer the room, giving orders. Stand the tuba in the corner, slide the drums under the beds, put the trumpet case in the closet – give us room. The place fills up. We sit on the beds and talk with the girls.  You, see, it’s 1957. So we sit on the beds and talk with the girls. Later there’s some kind of water fight. There’s more beer. A card game. Nobody sleeps. In the morning we put on our uniforms and board the bus.

We try not to sleep on the bus. We have to be sharp.   We’re first on the program out of the ten competing bands, performing as soon as we arrive at the hosting school.  The bus ride will last only another ten minutes. We have to have our edge, for our band, our school, our town, and for him – Mr. Genualdi in his all white uniform, sitting up front behind the bus driver.

It’s at that moment that I realize that the drums are still under the beds back in the hotel. The realization cores me like an apple. I’m hollow inside, and I’m sweating now, soaking my shirt, and yet I’m chilled. Maybe I have an instant fever. I hope I’m going to die. I keep trying to hold off the fact of the left-behind drums. It’s as if it’s a too-bright light, and I can’t look at it. Maybe if I close my eyes; maybe if I don’t think about it, or maybe if I think so hard that its not there, I can erase it.

I close my eyes, but when I open them I see the bright light. It’s the white uniform of Mr. Genualdi, who is sitting in the front of the bus, and there is nothing else to do, but to stand up and walk down the aisle and tell him.

I stand up. I begin to walk. I steady myself. The aisle seems so long.  I want it to be long. I want the walk to take forever, so I never have to tell him. He sees me now, coming forward. He smiles. I try to swallow. I can’t. I have to speak. His smile is gone because he sees my expression.  “I’m really sorry,” I tell him.  And then I form the sentence that is like a club. He’s a mentor, he’s an inspiration, he’s a great guy, and I’m about to club him. I say the sentence. “I left the drums at the hotel.”

His eyes widen. He pales. I say again, “I’m really sorry.”  Anger and disappointment crash on his face, and then he turns away. He looks out the window. He looks at his watch. His sigh is a sword entering my chest. I wish I could cut out my heart and hand it to him.   When he looks at me again, he has his control. He says, “We’ll borrow some drums from a band that’s not playing till later.”  And then he sighs again and shakes his head at me, but this time the small, wry, tolerant smile comes with it.

This boy standing in the aisle beside him is a good boy. This boy tries very hard. Mr. Genualdi likes this boy, and he sees this boy’s pain, and so he gives this boy absolution like a priest. Instead of the sign of the cross, it’s that wry half smile and a tolerant shake of the head. I feel relief; I feel even love; and I feel older. And we reach the school, and we play, and we win a first place for Mr. G.

 

Two Movie Monsters

Two Movie Monsters
(my most frightening moments in film)

“Creature From the Black Lagoon” – No

“The Wolfman” – Nope

Face-hugging Aliens from “Aliens” – scary, but…no

Dracula – Nahh

“Cujo” – Oh come on

No, the two movie monsters who scared the hell out of me, got inside me, invaded my dreams and twisted them into nightmares, gave me the tingling neck when alone in a dark place, may seem, to you, odd or even mundane, but they had power over me from ages five through twenty.

The reason they hammered me like no other monsters is a kind of mathematical equation: good acting, good direction and production + my own personal vulnerabilities = true gut-level horror.

It’s a good list of directors, by the way: David Lean, and Alfred Hitchkock. Are you starting to guess?  You’re thinking, was there ever a monster in a David Lean movie?!  For me there was, and she was first created by Charles Dickens and then by David Lean and then by actress Martita Hunt.

She was Miss Haversham in “Great Expectations.”  Remember her?  In her youth she was left standing alone at the altar, and the despair and the shock of this made her insane. When we meet her in the 1949 David Lean production she is an old woman in a decaying wedding dress. The long dinner table is still set for the wedding, but the rats have eaten the cake. She thinks the groom is still coming.

Why did she frighten me so deeply?  I was eight years old in 1949. We lived in an apartment in a tough neighborhood in Chicago, and my mother, to give herself a break and to trade life for fantasy, walked my brother and I to the local movie house twice a week, every time the pictures changed, no matter what was playing. So, at only eight, the idea and the sight of a crazy old woman took my breath and made me a statue in my seat.

My brother was 12, and I didn’t think he even noticed, but the idea of a WOMAN monster, a CRAZY WOMAN, terrified me in a special way. My mother was loving and playful, and we brothers depended on her for everything because my father was usually working and we were already afraid of him, anyway. Not that he was a bad man, but there was a force in his eyes, his Italian temper, and he didn’t know how to play. It would be another decade or more before I was certain that he loved us, and it helped to see him weep at sentimental television commercials as he matured.

Was I so afraid of Miss Haversham because she showed me that a WOMAN can be crazy, and did that meant it could happen to my mother?  What a spooky thought for an eight year old. I’m not sure what I thought, but that experience left me with a serious fear of crazy women on the screen, and I wasn’t the only one. Years later I told my brother and he nodded, saying “Oh, yeah. Miss Haversham. She really got me.”  So it marked him, too.
Cut to 1960, and I’m a freshman in college, home for a weekend, taking my girlfriend, Joann, to a movie that was making its way around the country, causing a ripple that was felt even in little Round Lake, Illinois. We were eager to see it and chuckling over the very dramatic ad campaign. Something like: “No one will be admitted to the theater after the start of this film. Nurses will be present at many showings in case patrons faint.”  The film was called “Psycho,” starring Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins.

Now we’re about 20 minutes into the movie and Janet Leigh is getting undressed. Anthony Perkins, the motel clerk, is watching her through a hole he’s made in the wall.
As Janet prepares for a shower, we hear a far away argument between the peeper, played very well by Perkins, and a woman we take to be his mother, but we don’t see her. Anthony is trying to calm the old woman who is shouting and seems dangerous.

Janet enters the shower. It’s 1960 remember, no nudity yet, only suggested, the entire sequence staged and shot to perfection by Alfred Hitchcock.

As she showers, the film suddenly explodes into a frenzy of violence so shocking it may never be equaled. It seems the old woman has rushed into the bathroom, swept the shower curtain aside and is stabbing Janet Leigh!  This can’t be!  Janet is the star of this film!  Adding to the shock is the shrieking music, driving the scene as the knife strikes again and again and the blood begins to stream.

What we have here is my worst movie fear, the crazy old woman, like Miss Haversham, but now she has a knife!  She stabs directly into my fear spot, killing the star of the movie only 20 minutes into the film!!

This old woman, to the same shrieking music, also stabs to death a detective who is mounting the stairs in her house, and by the end of this film, I am terrorized and wrecked. It’s as if I have been personally attacked. Such is the power of what (at it’s bottom) is a mere B-movie ‘slasher’, but due to genius film-making is an unforgettable shocker and a Jerry DiPego anathema.

I didn’t show Joann my fear, not wanting to seem weak. I drove her to her house and kissed her well as she kissed me, and I went to my home where my mother was absent – in the hospital for tests. I walked quietly past my parents’ bedroom where my father slept alone and turned to the staircase to my upstairs bedroom. I stopped. I could not climb those stairs – having just watched my most terrifying monster stab a detective on a similar stairway.

I was nineteen. I was so afraid. I could NOT climb those stairs. There was a monster waiting for me. I knew it wasn’t real. I was afraid of the crushing fear itself. 
I walked softly into my parents’ bedroom, stared at my sleeping father, and I forced myself to speak, whispering, “Dad?” and said it once again, and he woke.

“It’s Jer,” I said. “I’m…not feeling so good. Can I sleep with you?”
He nodded, turned on his side. I took off my shoes and jeans and got into the bed beside him, nineteen, afraid, ashamed.

It was at least a year before I could take a shower without my chest tightening with ambient, illogical fear of a monster who never existed.

I’m no longer afraid of monsters, but I have never watched “Psycho” again – and I won’t. Ever.

Something About a Desert

There’s something about a desert. I mean a big desert, a get-lost-and-they-find-your-bones desert. It’s not quite emptiness because they’re not quite empty. I once drove all the way across Death Valley and saw one creature. A rabbit. It was dead.

I know that deserts are ‘alive’ because when I was a kid I saw the Disney documentary, “The Living Desert.”  I remember a snake shaking its tail like a swift marimba, its song of poison and death, and I recall a tarantula fighting a huge wasp. I think it was a wasp.

Yeah, okay, snakes, bugs, and what else?  Succulents, right?  And stubborn little arthritic trees, brittle weeds, armadillos – which are like small armored vehicles, which also speaks to me of danger and, again, death.

But as I aged through my sixties I began to lose all my fears, as if I dropped them along the way, as if my pocket had a hole in it and shyness fell out and was gone and self-consciousness, too, and what was left of timidity and modesty and even larger fears, public speaking, acting, and I even dropped a legitimate phobia. I can climb a tall ladder now and even let go and raise my arms above my head and unscrew the ceiling fixture in a room with high ceilings and hum a song while I’m doing it; goodbye, acrophobia.

So, feeling fearless, I decided a few years ago to make friends with the desert.  I like to take a solo trip now and then, a private getaway, and this time I headed into the Mojave. It’s easy to find. Start in Southern California and drive east until the cities run out, and then the towns dwindle, and the space between everything increases, and the small inhabited places you continue to drive through are not so much towns, but desert outposts, scattered along the rim of the Great Mohave Desert.

 You can’t live in these outposts without the desert getting at you. You see it all day, hear it at night, taste it’s grit, squint at its withering shine. People either don’t stay long in these outposts or they stay forever, and they make a life among the few shops and the tattoo parlors and cafés and bars. There are always bars, where people go to drink and think about…the desert.
Okay, it’s beautiful, with its spare palette, but always changing light, as the sun does its tricks near the horizon when it isn’t sledge-hammering down from above.

I chose Joshua Tree as my personal piece of the desert where I would shake hands with it and get to know it, and feel, finally,  a relaxed comfort in the distinctive landscape created by Dali, maybe, and seen nowhere else in the world.

I checked in at the ranger station, then drove along one of the paved roads toward a hiking site, but was stopped along the way by the red-rock outcroppings, not jagged rocks, but big isolated piles of boulders as if ruins of some unknown kingdom. They called to me, these rounded rock piles. I wanted to walk the half mile or so (distance is hard to measure by eye in the Mohave) to one splendid castle of heaped, monolithic boulders and move among them, stand upon them and look about like a pirate on a ship, gazing at this vast sandy sea.

I knew I could keep my red Prius in sight from my destination in the rocks, and I took a camera and a sun hat and a full bottle of water. I’m no fool.
I enjoyed exploring the rocks and using their height to see my surroundings, and I saw other piles of the red monoliths, as if this area of the desert had once been a city, or a place of a hundred temples. One pile looked easily climbable up to a high perch, where I’m sure I could see the earth curving.

I walked to these boulders, settling the schematics in my head: Prius is there – first rock pile is there – second rockpile now takes me to exactly this angle from the road.

I must have spent a happy hour climbing and resting and shooting photos and drinking water, and when I was done, I climbed to a nearby shelf of rock and set my gaze toward exactly where my red car would be parked, but it wasn’t there.

This was a strange, disorienting feeling, because I had been so sure. It was one of those moments when your brain rejects the intel from your eyes. Can’t be. Is.  I climbed higher and looked and…and then turned all about. Even behind my sunglasses my eyes were narrowed down because of the overpowering light.

I looked at each rock pile, trying to pick out that first one which would orient me. I wasn’t sure. I tried to crawl into my memory and FEEL the way I had come, but I still was not anywhere near certainty.

So, what could I do?  No I didn’t have a cell phone, and the Mohave is short on WI FI. I had to pick the most likely direction and what?   Walk, walk and keep walking until I struck the road, and what if I didn’t come upon the road after two, after three miles?  The sun was still hammering, and I realized I was actually scared now, scared of the desert. I felt it had tricked me. And I wasn’t ashamed to be scared. It was logical to be afraid, but even inside the fear I still felt somewhat confident that I could choose the direction and find that road, and then find my car – or flag down a car, or…..

I started walking, aware of the irony, even smiling wryly at myself and shaking my head. He got you – this devil, this Spririt of the Desert. He tricked you, Jer. Part of this attitude was bravado I guess. I just kept walking.  
It’s not easy to count miles when you walk. How many feet to a mile?  And I have about a three-foot stride, so…. I just kept walking. I saw no road. I heard no cars. I just kept…..

I had a third of a bottle of water left and was tired and sore from all the climbing. It must have been about three in the afternoon. Should I stop a while in the shade of some rock or scrawny tree?  Could I walk all the way back to where I started and choose another direction?

Hey, I thought. This is real. This is how a desert kills people, people who don’t really understand its power, people who screw up. I was angling toward the sun, and when I corrected and kept walking, I saw the shine of something. It could be pavement, very far away. It could be the road.

I had more energy now, but didn’t want to tire myself. As I walked, my eyes tore at that infrequent shine ahead of me, scratching for details, for certainty. After navigating a slight rise in the land and staring downward, I stopped, stopped breathing, too. There was a road.

I arrived at the road, sat on the side of the road, touched the beautiful road and smiled and waited. A car full of family stopped as I waved them down. I could see they were suspicious, some of them actually  scared of me. I asked for the entrance they had used. They told me. It was only about three miles ahead. Did you pass a red car pulled off the road?  They had not. So I knew my direction. It was the same direction that this family was taking, and I supposed I could have squeezed in among the children in back, but I saw their nervousness and just thanked them. They droved off, and I began, for certain this time, walking toward my car.

The red Prius was another two and a half miles down the road. I wanted to hug it. I sat inside a while, looking over the landscape, thinking again, so that’s how a desert kills you.

I imagined the Desert Spirit as a man. He wore a slight smile, just curving up slightly on one side, stared at me. Then the son of a bitch winked.

Lake Town Christmas

Part Two

(The arrival on Christmas Eve of my mother’s family, visiting from Chicago at our home in rural Round Lake, Ill, 1950s:  my favorite uncles, Motts and Tony, Cousin Jim and his new wife, Carolyn, my mother’s jolly sister, Inez — these characters described in last week’s post of Part One).

They moved into our home wailing and shouting and sometimes breaking into song – the tune of Auld Lange Syne with the words “We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here,” and I can hear them still, and hear my family calling out our own greetings, and broken bits of sentences were surfacing and disappearing as if in a swift river as they came deeper into the living room clutching bags clumsy with ribboned presents, but the presents were irrelevant to me even then, because the gift was themselves and the night to come.

The food, too, was unimportant. Tomorrow would be the meal around the table. This was bread and olives and prosciutto and salami and Parmesan, and drinks were made and a gallon bottle of red wine opened and the sofa and chairs filled so that my brother and I roamed or sat on the floor, and the stories rolled out and the jokes began and the teasing and the chaotic harmony of laughter, my brother smiling but cool and quiet at first and then, and I see this so clearly, buckling as if from a blow to the stomach, bending with silent laughter, his eyes squeezed closed, and my father smiling and chuckling as if he was watching a comedy on television and my mother giggling, giggling like a girl, and then making us laugh in turn by speaking in different voices and smoking her cigarette in strange, stagey ways, and I know now that a portion of my great joy in these Christmas Eves came as I saw my own family captured and changed, our silences abandoned, our seriousness deserted.

Once the visitors came in the door, I dropped all anticipation and expectation, and there was never a plan for what we would do. It was a kind of improvised theater where any topic could catch us up and fill the room with extemporized humor on its theme. “How’s college,” Motts might ask Paul, and Paul would say, “Fine,” and Motts would look at Tony, and they would begin: “Any knowledge at that college?  What have they taught you so far?  Tell us something you know. Did they teach you yet about the Sanafran?  No?  They didn’t teach him about the Sanafran. Oh, my God. If you don’t know about the Sanafran, how’re you ever gonna learn about the Spinowizz?  I don’t think I like that college. Does it have a fight song?  Let’s hear it.” 

And Paul would try to sing it, his stomach hurting from the suppressed laughter until his eyes watered, and soon we were all singing it, and I can hear it now. I can. I can pick out each voice, the memory making me smile at this moment, and I’m feeling tears in my throat as if this one moment in this one chosen night has been distilled into a small amount of precious liquid, and I close my eyes and listen, because now Jim, the crooner, is singing us a song from the nightclubs, and when he finishes, he’ll sing another and then begin to do impressions of the singers of the time and then sing in comic voices and made-up languages and Motts and Tony will join him while my smile shines on them like a flood light

I never knew what would happen next, and never cared, never thought ahead and never imagined that I would remember so vividly those nights and treasure those nights, and that they would sustain me through yet unimagined tragedies and lift me whenever I studied my life for meaning or sense or tried to total the pleasure against the pain.

 I felt no hurry in the center of that joy. I knew there would be time, as the night ran on, for quieter moments with each of the visitors, and I knew they would listen and even care what I said, and I watched them slowly sink from the shouted hilarity into a softer mood, Motts and Inez feeling the alcohol and mourning, with my mother, the loss of a brother. There was always a somber nod toward the ghost of Frank, but then the old stories would rise and all would rise again toward the laughter, and even my father would grow small, slow eyes from the drinking, a face of his I rarely saw. He was a solid man with little to say, and he had no play to give his children, no look that lingered and examined and searched for my dreams, nothing at all that could compete with these visitors except his solidness and his steady work and the security he gave us and taught us. I knew he sometimes loaned money to my mother’s family, and I had a sense, even then, that I was somehow safer with him, in spite of his temper, but how I fed upon the play that was sometimes in my mother and that always rushed through the door with these visitors who connected with a child and reached inside of a child and somehow preserved the children within themselves.

  As the level of the wine sank in the big bottle, the conversations separated and softened, and I had my time to step away with Carolyn and speak of what we’d been reading, and she would ask me if I was writing and ask to see it, and really want to see it, and I would share it with her and with no one else, not because my family would have been harsh but only because they didn’t care to go where I went with Carolyn, to the place of stories, to the mind-created worlds that presented me with wonder like a talisman to keep and to wear, and I’ve always worn it and wear it still, and in time the drinking and the clock would press our visitors down into the beds and the foldout couches, and I never remember feeling sad but only filled as those nights ended, but, of course, they haven’t ended because I can live them again and am living them again as I make these pages, and they can never be erased, even by what came after, by the changes and the losses that came swiftly at the end of those years, by Tony’s death from cancer, and by Motts finding a wife who gave him a loving steadiness and a sweet daughter and moving with them to Texas, and by Jim and Carolyn divorcing, my Carolyn moving back to Louisiana, and Jim marrying again and having a family and becoming a machinist who would not give up his dream of singing so that he sang into the noise of the machines to keep his voice strong, and, slowly, time and death took them all away from me, even Paul, all except one.

In college I wrote to Carolyn, and we connected again and I saw her when I hitchhiked to New Orleans one Easter break, and it was a deeper pleasure than I ever imagined, seeing her again, her smile entering me and finding the place I had kept for her there since I was twelve and she came for the Christmases.  We wrote steadily after that and even sent tapes of our thoughts, and she married and raised two children and so did I, but all the while there was Carolyn and me and the books and the films and the wonder we shared, a relationship that lasted more than fifty years until she died only months ago, and a love that will last until I die, and when I die, there will still be one last survivor of those Christmas eves, and that will be the boy, that eager boy who waited at the window and waited to hear the train, and that train will keep wailing and keep bringing him his visitors and his dream and the pure heart of joy again and again forever.   

Lake Town Christmas

A Memory

Part One

I’m remembering Christmases when I was a boy living in the country, and my favorite relatives came out on the train from Chicago to stay through the holiday, but these aren’t the memories of time and place that can be entered into a book or an album of photos or recorded on film. I’m remembering a dream of Christmas. I’m inside the dream, at its center, and around me are voices tangled in laughter and shouts and song. People appear and disappear. Some are gone forever, some come back older, fatter, thinner, with different hair, and I remain in the center of this dream and my face is stiff and even sore from smiling. I’m happy. I remember that as a fact as certain and solid as a tree, and I embrace this tree and hang on, my happiness imprinted on my face forever in the memory of muscle. I’m so happy I can hardly speak. Speaking means shouting, because the volume of the voices is so high, and sometimes I add my shouted words. Sometimes I’m being asked questions. My favorite uncles are asking me, with straight faces, questions I find so funny, that I can’t answer them.  I try, but mostly I laugh so hard that my eyes tear. I’m so very happy.

It’s 1953 and also 1957 and all the years in between knotted together, and I’m twelve and also fourteen and twelve again and then fifteen, and I stand or sit in the center of the dream, and I’m in the dining room or the living room or the kitchen of our house in Round Lake, Illinois, and it’s the night of Christmas Eve, and if I could grasp the dream as if it were spinning around me like dark silk, all the images and faces appearing on the dark silk, if I could put my hands into the dream and follow the fabric of it to the beginning, it would start with the fall of darkness, the chilled, early December darkness that settled in quickly because nothing could move slowly in that dry, dead cold that caused the snow to squeak under my shoes and caused the branches to cry out as though they were aching when a wind moved them and caused the earth to freeze tight and even the air to clench and wait, wait for the seeming impossibility of spring, and I was waiting, too, waiting at the window, though it was far too early for the cab to come, but I wanted to picture in my mind the cab coming, bobbing like a boat over the mounds of moonlit snow on the road in front of our house, so I would stare through the chilled glass at where the cab would come, where it had to come, where it must, and then I would listen, because sometimes I could hear the train from Chicago as it called out and said in a weak voice, a frail voice, that it was coming, coming soon, coming swiftly now, even now on Christmas Eve, coming to the station where the cabs were waiting, bringing Inez and Tony and Jim and Carolyn and Motts, bringing them to our house, to my family, to me.

Inez was my mother’s sister, a tavern lady full of mirth and mischief, a barmaid ready for a joke, with a look that held on my face and said, truly, that she loved me and loved knowing me, me, this shy, unfinished boy, and Tony was her husband, dark, leathery, with threatening eyebrows, but eyes that sparked beneath them, humor flaring in a small spark in each eye if you looked quickly and if you caught it. Tony Pappas, a driver of cabs and private cars, driver of gangsters sometimes, driver of Golf Bag Sam, a name whispered by my brother Paul and me as modern mythology, and Jim was their son, my cousin, but already a man, dark and Grecian like his father, with an eyebrow slashed from a boxing wound and with a trained and powerful singing voice, an entertainer in the neighborhood clubs of Chicago who had spent whole summers living with us, being a third brother to Paul and me, and he had been in the Air Force in Louisiana and brought us a gift from there, brought me a gift of great value and delight, brought me Carolyn, his wife, a reader of books, like me, a pretty, loving girl who talked to this eager boy of authors we shared and films we loved and spoke all of this in the soft rhythms of a south deep and old, and with them came my mother’s brother, Motts, with a wife or between wives, Motts, the wise guy, the clown, a plump, fast-talking Mickey Rooney, a man who made me laugh by simply appearing at the door because I had saved up so much laughter for him that it was already spilling over.

They came in shivering and tramping off snow in the tiny foyer, wiping shoes, bringing the cold inside on their urban coats and jackets, and they filled our small house with voices like large bells ringing Christmas, and our voices rang in answer, but quieter, my older brother pleased, but restrained, my father a happy spectator, and my mother in the throng of her family, her old family, her history, turning into a girl.

Oh how the tension was exploded by the opening of that door. All the anticipation swelling inside of me, all the fear that they might not come, not ever, because I wanted so achingly for them to come, all the watching out the window for the lights of a car, all the cars that rolled by not being them, and then the cab, and the voices outside and my hurry from the window to the door with happiness filling me, a tangible, thick, sweet liqueur, moving through me with my blood, and my smile stretching impossibly wide, and all of this running inside my mind now like a flickering film, even now, more than fifty years later, and I’m seeing the opening of that glass-paned door, seeing the flood of them, seeing all of this and seeing even my face somehow from the inside, from the memory of mirrors and photographs, seeing the boy of me and his pure, deep, unguarded joy. 

Part 2 next week ...

 

Places

#1 Upper Yellow Pines

There are places in this world that, when we see them, they humble and bless us with their beauty and drama and we never forget them. Now and then, in these pages, I’ll write of such a place from my life, and I’ve chosen to begin with Upper Yellow Pines, a waterfall, a pond, a high mountain meadow in the beautiful Uinta Mountains of Utah.

I first saw it on a horseback camping trip in 1982. I went on one or two of these trips every summer for over 20 years, some with my two sons and some with four friends. (The guide named us The California Five.)

 

It’s a great outdoor vacation. An outfitter supplies the horses, the tents and food for a week, all packed on a mule train, also there is a cook, a wrangler to tend the horses and often the outfitter himself (or herself) goes along as a guide.

We put up our own tents, saddled our own horses and went from being comfortable riders, to good Western riders over time. Our favorite outfitter, Arch Arnold, had been an officer of artillery in Korea, and was now living the quiet back-country life with his wife and working staff. We often called him ‘Colonel.’

On a day ride out of camp, he brought us to Lower Yellow Pines, and we loved the sight of it, a postcard mountain lake fed by a creek, with enough flat ground around it for wandering, resting, eating our saddle-bag lunches, dozing in the sunshine.

After lunch the Colonel announced he was now taking us to UPPER Yellow Pines. Being on horseback in the mountains often puts you above where the hikers care to travel. Even in summer we crossed the high passes in blowing snow at times, watched by some curious mountain goats, but the climb to Upper Yellow Pines was only rugged and craggy, and so, so worth the journey.

On arrival we simply sat our horses and stared at that waterfall splashing into a pond, which became a creek, with the bluest possible sky behind it and the wildflower-speckled meadow in front of it, all of it laid out for any creature lucky enough to be there and to behold.

It took us a while just to dismount, we were so enchanted. We let the horses graze a while and filled our canteens with the icy creekwater. A few of us washed up and got three days of dust out of our hair, but traded that for a temporary headache from the icy chill. In not too long were playing horseback games, jumping a fallen tree and creating a relay race, handing off a stick to the teammate thundering past us.

No matter what we were doing, though, we couldn’t help glancing at the place we were, the place where this ride and this life had taken us. We were so thankful. We took dozens of photos, but never captured the awe that had sucked our breath away.

It was a thoughtful, dreamy ride back to camp. I had the shortest horse, being the shortest of the California Five, and a short-legged horse will naturally fall behind the others on the trail. I welcomed that, falling further and further back until I couldn’t here the hoofbeats and the jangling and the Broadway songs sung by the one of the Five who had a voice and enjoyed singing in the saddle.

I enjoyed singing, too, but just above my breath, and what I sang on the trail were the few songs of the 1800s that I knew. Yeah, I admit it, lost in a mingling of fantasy and history, becoming, in my mind, the first Native American or conquistador or mountain trapper to see the sight of Upper Yellow Pines. I’m sure he or she never forgot it.

Then, when out of songs and fantasies and with my mount growing agitated, not seeing his herd, I did my favorite riding. I stopped my horse, sat him a moment as he jittered and called out to his mates and then I said quietly, barely touching his sides:  “Let’s go.”

We took off,  but I wouldn’t let him gallop. We settled into a lope. Riding a loping horse is, to me, the classic example of two creatures of this earth connected and moving as one, in partnership, in a fluid, iconic dance. I was grinning like a fool and pictured my horse doing the same as we shared the grace and the power of that lope in the shadow of the mountain falls and the pines above us. What a ride this life can be.

Scan.jpg


Two Dreams

Dream One

How many people does it take to make a movie: actors, director, cinematographer, set designer, lighting crew, editor, sound crew, prop dept., casting dept….and many more -- all of them making important choices in their areas of expertise.

And yet each night all these skills are present in our dreams, and they all come from one human subconscious mind.  Amazing: that our subconscious casts and produces and edits and delivers us this story.  Amazing: the depth and power these brief ‘films’ can have.
 
Last night my subconscious mind made me a dream about Jerry Grinolds, my closest friend from age nine through our early twenties.  In his sixties Jerry lost everything, job, marriage, apartment through alcoholism, and then he disappeared, possibly into homelessness and possibly into death.  But he was there last night, starring with me in a short ‘buddy picture.’

I dreamed he called and said he had a present for me.  He directed me to a nearby street corner in the city where I lived.  He said I should go there and find a stick and bang on the mailbox that was there, just keep banging on it.

It was night, and I followed his directions and found only a telephone pole on the corner, and then noticed a small mailbox attached to the pole – and a stick nearby. I began banging on the tin mailbox until I heard another sound: his footsteps coming closer from across the dark street.  I couldn’t see him, but I knew it was him and I smiled.

“I thought the mailbox would be bigger,” I said to him.  He said, “Let’s do this.”

I would still, even today, recognize Jerry’s voice,  and I smiled again and dropped the stick and stood there, wondering what his gift was.  I heard him walk around me in the darkness and stand behind me.

“What are you up to,” I asked.

“You’re stalling,” he said.  "Fall back.”

Then I knew, and I took a breath and let myself fall backwards.  I was fearless.  This was Jerry, my friend.  He caught me around the chest.  I noticed his puffy down coat sleeves.  I never saw his face.  I laughed, very happy with his gift – and I woke up smiling in the darkness, still, for a moment, held in the trusted arms of a missing friend.

Dream Two  

My father has been dead for years when I dream I am visiting him in an apartment built out of fragments of homes long left behind.  He moves in methodical grace, readying his topcoat and hat to dress for work.  He complains softly, his head shaking, his eyes not on me, but on the lint on his fedora.

He says I haven’t visited enough.  There are tasks I haven’t performed for him, and he adds that he doesn’t ask for much.  He must be right because I’m feeling guilty and desperate to please him.  I help him with his coat.  A small man with stature, he places his hat on his head, composing his likeness without a mirror.

I walk him outside into a city of dull red bricks and a light, breeze-blown rain.  I offer to drive him to work.  He tells me it’s not far to walk, but I’m driven to make amends, and I insist.  I tell him to wait while I bring my car, and I hurry away, the keys like a wound in my tight fist.
I stare at a street of parked cars, but mine isn’t there.  Anxiety dries my throat and quickens the blood through my heart.  I rush to the next block and turn in each direction, feeling the icy drizzle on my face, and a bolt of panic forces me awake.

I did visit my father in his apartment, but he never complained.  He would open the door and smile and say my name like a surprised child.  When he was very old he would lean forward through the doorway and close his eyes and kiss his youngest son on the lips.

He slipped away in the long pauses between his speech, until there was more silence than conversation, and then only silence.  His mind traveled for years while his body stayed behind like a forgotten suitcase.  He saw through our world into another beyond the wall.

He took millions of breaths because his lungs would not be denied until he reached some unknowable number and was satisfied and stopped.

This is the story I tell when I’m awake, but in another story, just as true, I don’t remember where I’ve parked my car, and my father is waiting in the rain.

A Thousand Miles

It’s so simple. I walk to the highway, hefting my small duffle. I turn south and see the road swallowed by the horizon. I turn north and see on-coming traffic about to pass me. I step onto the edge of the pavement and point my thumb in that wordless and iconic question: going my way?

I’m traveling from Northern Illinois University to New Orleans, Louisiana, about one thousand miles south. It’s Easter break, 1961.

Imagine the moment, standing on one spot on the map of this country and choosing another spot, far, far away, and thinking, I will go there now. I’ll begin. All I have is a map, some clothes for bad weather and food for the first eight hours.

I am a young man from Round Lake, Illinois, a quiet boy who has grown in a small town in the 1950s in a functional lower middle class family, and I am not especially courageous and not at all worldly, but I am game.

After my early short rides, a semi-trailer truck passes me and pulls off the highway. I jog ahead, but when I reach the cab of the truck, the driver is beginning to move into the small compartment behind him, and we stare. 

“Tired,” he says. “I was gonna sleep.” Then he sighs and says, “Well, you keep me awake talkin’, and I’ll make some more miles.” He gets behind the wheel again. I climb up and sit beside him, and he drives me all the way to a truck stop in Tennesee. He drives barefoot, chewing tobacco and spitting the juice into an old coffee can. I can smell the tobacco and, unfortunately, the feet, but he teaches me all the gears and talks of a week home with his family after just a few more thousand miles.

It’s night when we say goodbye, and I’m turned loose in a wide area of parked trucks with a shop and café nearby. I talk to people about getting rides and find that I’ve entered another country. I don’t speak Tennesseean. It’s part southern, but spoken more quickly, and it’s part country twang, and I just can’t capture it, so I say “Pardon?” again and again and strain to follow. 

None of the truckers say yes to a ride so after a hot sandwich I move back onto the highway and use my thumb, and in a few hours of waiting and riding, I enter the Deep South.

This is Mississippi in the early sixties, and people are nervous. Several of the white drivers feel they need to explain the situation to the Yankee college boy.

“It’s really outside agitators that are stirring up the Coloreds. Probably Communists, ‘cause we get along down here. People know their place and everybody gets along.” “You’all up North think we hate the Coloreds, but it’s not true. It’s separate but it’s equal. Hey, we got a town just East of here, all Colored. Even got their own colored sheriff. Separate, but…” 
One black man picks me up and smiles kindly and says nothing, answer’s only a word or two to my questions. I doze, and he let’s me off at an all-night gas station where he’s turning off the highway. I thank him. He nods and says, “Be careful,” and he drives away leaving me wondering, and very weary.

I ask the gas station workers if I can sleep inside the garage portion of the station and one of them shrugs, and I use the oil-stained floor and my duffle for a pillow and drop into the sleep of exhaustion.


Only a few hours later I wake up and wonder why. It’s still dark. I can hear only the occasional roar of a truck on the highway, and some sort of undercurrent: the voices of the two station workers who sit on chairs in a corner of the garage, and now and then I make out a phrase and think, Jesus, this is what awakened me, what they’re saying.

“…gonna kill some of these uppity fuckers. You watch. …asshole college guys, girls, too….  Think they’re so fuckin’ smart…. You watch… …go huntin’ (laughter) Yeah, go coon huntin’. (laughter) …get me a college coon…. Or one of these Jew girls comin’ down here lookin’ for trouble…”

One of the men moves outside to gas-up a car. I wait a minute, stand and stretch, thank the other man with a nod, walk out into the chill. The stopped car is headed the wrong way. I decide to stand on the roadside in the light of the station and try and get the hell out of there. I want to be in the French Quarter of New Orleans with two friends who are meeting me in two days. I want the jazz that’s there and the history and the adventure. I’m way too young to die.

The night isn’t quite over, though, and the danger seems to hang heavy as the humidity in the Southern air. Man in a sporty car picks me up, doesn’t talk politics, points at his glove compartment. “There’s a flask in there. Help yourself and pass it to me.” I open the compartment and see a flask and a revolver. Makes me hesitate, but I bring out the flask, close the compartment and take a sip of whiskey, pass it on, my throat burning with a cough I will not allow.

He sips and talks about cars and women, and when his flask is empty pulls into an all-night bar. A black man stands outside, giving us a very bad eye, but the man says “S’all right. No trouble.” We walk in, and the place is crowded and everybody is black. It goes a little quiet. I swallow, and my mouth is dry. A woman bartender is staring at us. 

“Just want to buy a bottle. We won’t be drinkin’ in here,” the man tells her. “Sell us a bottle?”

She doesn’t sell us a bottle. What she does is spread her arms on the bar and lay her head on her arms like she’s sleeping. What she does is ‘go away.’ There is no yes or no. She just disappears. I wonder, in those lengthy seconds, what will happen, and I’m remembering the revolver in the car and also the Black man who gave me a lift and said to me, “Be careful.”


The bar owner comes over. I think he’s the owner. He wears a suit. My ride makes the same request to him. The owner stares, then nods, looks at the woman. She gets a bottle. Somebody puts it in a bag. The man pays and we leave. He sips and talks and drives as if nothing happened, and…nothing did, except for the tension and the humidity.

He lets me out in a pretty little town as the morning is rising, and he drives on. I walk around the sunwashed village, just to move and feel the warmth on me. People smile, nod. I feel all right. I am just a couple of hours from the French Quarter of the Big Easy, standing in the sunshine with enough money to buy myself coffee and some of that home-made bread I can smell. 

I find the bakery with my nose, and it has a few tables inside. I eat my bread with a lot of butter and cheer myself with my coffee cup– a small move only I see. Well, Jer. You actually hitch-hiked, didn’t you, and you’re just about there. I sip the hot, sweet coffee and lose my smile and stare at nothing – at thoughts. You’ve come a long way, haven’t you, Jer.  A long way.

end

A Movie That Made Me Me

I was nine and ten, and I was eleven and twelve, watching the 1939 film “Stagecoach” at least once a year on our 1949 television’s 12-inch screen, sitting on the floor and thrilled to my bones and in my heart every time. In those early days, stations had little programing, so they relied on showing classic movies again and again, to my great joy.

“Stagecoach” follows an ancient path of storytelling: a mixed handful of characters on a dangerous journey, each personality revealed by the turns of the tale, and this particular tale takes its stagecoach through Apache country in the American Southwest in the 1880s.

One of the passengers is a young man who has escaped custody in order to hunt down the dangerous Plummer Boys – who have murdered his own brother, and this young man’s name is Ringo, and he is played by another young man named John Wayne.
I unabashedly admit that when Wayne played his first scene, when the stage met him on the desert road, horseless, carrying his saddle and a rifle, and he became the seventh passenger, he also became my hero and an extension of myself. I thought: I could BE him. I WANTED to be him, not the actor, but the man in the movie, Ringo. Oh, to someday move as he moved, in a deliberate way that also contained manly grace. To be what he was, a good man, a bit toughened by life, but left with a sense of humor and a surprising tenderness.

This Ringo, who was my model, was the only passenger who treated the prostitute among them as a worthy woman, worthy of kindness and respect. It touched her. I could do that, I thought at ten, eleven. I could grow to be that. I was already kind. I could surprise a woman some day, win her. She could trust me. I was already trustworthy. I just needed to grow. I needed some years to grow more confidence, and then I could make my way in the world as Ringo did, taking his time, moving gracefully, never nervous or awkward and always ready for a laugh or a fight – but only a worthy fight, a good against evil fight.

Of course, the Apaches attack the stagecoach, and seeing the fluidity of Ringo in action stopped my breath. Maybe I could learn that, I thought, that knowing efficiency of motion, that courage and grace under pressure. I could learn to do that, I hoped, if I kept Ringo as my model and never forgot him.

Tomorrow, in school, I would walk down the crowded, booming hallways more slowly, more contained, I thought. My shyness would lessen. I would feel that. My fear of bullies, well, I would be ready. Not keyed up and tight, but steady, and calm and ready for anything.

Of course the cavalry rescues the stagecoach, but when the passengers arrive in town, as night settles, Ringo realizes he has to face his toughest challenge of all: The mean-hearted, murdering Plummer Boys.

Ringo was not fearless. I could see that he knew he might die, but he was steady. He was teaching me. Steady, Jerry, be steady and face it, whatever it is. Even that damn impossibly tall ladder in my father’s store, changing the sale signs by reaching nearly to the high ceiling to pull them down and raise the new ones, my knees visibly shaking, stomach tight, groin sending a tingling message of DANGER, DANGER! I would do it differently next time – slow and deliberate, and I would make a face like Ringo, maybe scared but stalwart and steady.

As I remember, there were three Plummer Boys, impossible odds, walking straight for Ringo on that dark street. When would they shoot? When would they shoot?!

The shooting began, and after firing his first shot, Ringo throws himself down on the ground to make less of a target and keeps cocking and firing his rifle because he KNOWS what to do and does it in that deliberate and fluid motion. He knows – like someday I would know, just simply know and not hesitate or flinch or wonder but KNOW like Ringo.

He kills the evil, murdering Plummer Boys. He thinks he now has to go back into custody, but the sheriff surprises him, says that he’s free, lets him have a buckboard and his new girl-who-loves-him, and they go off to the ‘little ranch’ he told her about, and maybe someday, I thought, I’ll have a little ranch and a loving girl and I’ll make it happen because of a movie I saw, and because of the touchstone I have carried in my head and heart called Ringo.

A Book That Made Me Me

I know I was created out of more than the books I read and the films I watched – genetics and environment also fashioned who I was and grew up to be.

Ah, but I’m going back to those years between 12 and 17 and remembering myself as impressionable as new clay, still forming, curious to know more of life and the wider world, full of wonder and a fear, too.  Would I be able to find a place in this immense, towering human hive with all its evils to be faced and it’s pleasures to be discovered, and could I rise to all of this and make a place to stand?

I lived in a rural town in Illinois, trying to imagine the man whom I would be, and like a dry, unplanted field I began to absorb stories like a great storm of rain, and some of these stories sank deep enough to touch my soul.  I will never forget them or forget the way they made me feel.  Now and then, in these posts, I’ll share these books with you.

#1.  “Kipling’s Stories For Boys.”  This was not the Kipling who told how the leopard got his spots or the one spinning the wonderful “Jungle Book” tales of Mowgli.  When this Kipling says in this title: ‘For Boys’ he means boys who are getting ready to be men, and these stories of his are mature and full of romance, murder, ghosts, despair, bloody combat and unbeatable adventure, all of themgraced by the master storyteller he was.

They include “The Man Who Would Be King,” one of the finest adventures ever written, and the story, “Bimi” the jealous Orangutan who (the reader does not witness this but learns…) attacks his rival, a woman, and “scattered her about the hut like a deck of cards.”  No bedtime stories here.

The story that gripped me like strong old hands and shook me and then held me close, made my boyself weep, made me proud and inspired me to be brave, was “The Drums of the Fore and Aft,”  the ‘Fore and Aft’ being the nickname of a British Regiment busy colonizing India’s Northwest Frontier with bullets and bayonets in the 1870s. 

The Regiment, among others, had marched into the wilder reaches of what is now Afghanistan and the tribesmen there had rallied against them and massed in front of them.  There would be a battle.

Before the battle begins let me introduce the protagonists of this tale, two of the regimental band boys, no more than fifteen years old; Lew a fife player, and Jakin, one of the drummers.  These boys, raised rough in London, can fight and curse with the best and worst, and they love trouble and cause the Bandmaster and their Colonel fits.  We’re listening in when they talk of their lives now and their dreams for later in a Cockney accent Kipling paints with a thick penpoint.

(Did it matter to me that I was the drummer in my grade school band?  Did it help me slip into the tale?)

Back to the battle.  The fierce tribesmen charge the British line, and most of the regiments stand fast and fire withering volleys, but the Fore and Aft is an untried outfit, and it’s officers order the men to close ranks, fix bayonets, and meet the charge as it comes.

The Afghanis rush at them with spears and swords and muskets and screams – and the red line wavers…and then the Fore and Aft breaks!  They give way and then turn and run for the rocks behind them, running so fast they nearly trample their own regimental band, leaving Lew and Jakin startled and dusty and mad as hell.

They curse the running men in their boyish voices, screaming their outrage.  They had come to do battle and…  Well, by god, THEY’RE not running.  They face the enemy and damn if they don’t move toward the horde of them, marching in step, as Lew Fifes and Jakin drums the tune of “The British Grenadier.”

The tribesmen stop and stare at this amazing sight, and the regiment, panting among the rocks, also stops, wide eyed, as the drum and fife rattle and pipe along.

The Afghani warriors begin cheering the bravery of the lads – and the Fore and Aft, why, look:  they’re coming down from the rocks and forming up, very steady now, and here they come, advancing into the fray!

Each side fires its first volley, and the boys drop down dead in the sand.  The regiment’s soldiers come ahead stone-faced, quiet and deadly, stepping over their fallen Lew and Jakin and taking on the foe like they were born for it, and the battle is won – by the bloodied boys on the desert floor.

At this point, as a boy, reading this story, I was weeping, and, I admit it, I’m welling up now.  Call it corny, but my young self, torn with sorrow and pride, was never quite the same boy after that, because this deep stirring was always there, remembered, accessible, and it still is. 

That a human being of 12 years old in 1953 in a small town in Illinois could be so lifted, transported by words on a page into these crashing events and live them so hard, so deeply – this was powerful magic to me, and the magic of storytelling has held my devotion ever since.

(In a future post -- book #2. “The Big Sky” by A. B. Guthrie, Jr.

Tellers

I heard you’ve been traveling...

Oh, god, what a great trip. I mean awesomely great. We did the whole Southern Med. Y’know? Greece to Portugal. I don’t think anybody has really, really traveled until they’ve been to Greece – where everything started! We did it all in 2 and a half weeks. I learned so much. Have you been?

Not, Greece, but we...

Greece is the basis for everything. Go to Greece. I’m telling you. Then you can say you’ve traveled. Then we crossed to Italy. Great food! 

Yeah, I’ve been to Italy. It’s...

Oh? Did you happen to visit the town of Poggio?

No, never saw... 

You didn’t see Poggio?! Then you haven’t been to Italy. No. I mean it. I have a cousin who works in Rome, and he sent us three pages of everything we had to see, I mean HAD to see so that we could really, really say we’ve been to Italy. This guy is a brain. Went to Yale. He’s my brother’s adopted son. Yes. Hong Kong Chinese. Brilliant. Name's Ken. No, wait. Uhhhh, Kevin! Yeah, Kevin is just brilliant. He’s got two little kids, uhh, four and seven, and a wife and they all live in Italy, and my god, Italy!

Yeah, I have family in Lucca, so I... 

Oh, sure. Lucca. I’ve seen Lucca. We drove by Lucca, fine, yeah fine. We had a rented Fiat 279 and that’s the way to go. I’m telling you. We’ve got the whole itinerary printed and we’d be glad to give it to you so next time...but you MUST start in Greece. You haven’t tasted lamb, you know. You might think you’ve tasted lamb, but I’ll tell you the place to go for lamb....

The above is not a conversation. One person is a normal person. The other person is a Teller. Tellers don’t have conversations, though they think they do. It doesn’t occur to a Teller to truly engage with another person, to inquire, to explore. They are not interested in your experience of life, or of Italy, or of lamb. They are much too busy telling you their experience because, somehow, they believe that their own experience is THE experience THAT COUNTS and they must tell it, must tell it, and tell it and tell it and... 

Who the hell are these people? How are they created? And why are there more and more of them? Do you think it could be spreading, like a plague? 

My wife and her friend call them the “On and Onners,” but it’s more than just the abundance of their talking, it’s their blindness of ‘the other’ that worries me. They might as well be talking to a cactus. And rather than come to an ending or even take a breath, they’d much prefer to continue, going further and deeper into the forest of their thoughts and opinions, lost in the maze of their own making, telling you, for instance, all about a friend of their second cousin who’s name they are trying so hard to remember even though YOU ARE NEVER GOING TO MEET THIS PERSON. EVER. 

Are they afraid? What do they think might happen if they stop and say, “What are some of the places you’ve been to in Italy, and what’s your favorite?” Do they think they’ll be bored? Do they think they’ll burst open because of all the words they haven’t spoken? 

What is so important to them about THEIR STORY, so important THAT IT MUST BE TOLD – their recent illness or recent comedy or tragedy or oil change or the details of their past in New Jersey with NO stopping for the exploring of anyone else’s past. No. Their story MUST be told or.... Or what? Or they will feel unimportant? Insignificant? Small? 

Is it silence they fear? Is that why they have to pour non- stop words into that silence? What makes them vulnerable to silence, to being still? Why are they so afraid of your story and my story? It’s a mystery, and even an intriguing one. 

These are not bad people. Tellers can be annoying, but there is also something sad in this equation, something desperate and sad. I hope a psychologist does a study and writes a good book about this phenomenon, and lets us know what to do about it and how to protect ourselves against it. After all, it might be catching. Do you have any tips for me, any insights? I don’t want to hurt a Teller’s feelings, but I’m afraid, at some point, I might just grab a Teller’s shoulders, right in the middle of their story about their endless oil change, and start shaking them, shouting, LISTEN. LISTEN. LISTEN TO SOMEBODY!!!

The Battle

Like many boys who are growing up rural in the fifties, for my fourteenth birthday, I get a gun.

I had asked for this gun, a medium-light 20-gauge shotgun from the JC Higgins catalogue.  When I asked, my mother made worry sounds, but my father nodded solemnly and said, resigned, “It’s time.”
In the autumn prior to this, my best friend Jerry (same name, same age) and I had gone along when his father and three other men went out hunting pheasants.  This is Illinois, and the prairie state is full of weedy fields, the vegetation up to a man’s thigh in the fall, good cover for the birds.

You form a line and walk, the men holding their shotguns in both hands, chest high, with a finger near the trigger.   Walking those field, my body was always tight with excitement, ready for the thrill – and the thrill was is the flushing of the big and beautiful birds.  They explode from weeds.   The hunters stop and throw their guns to their shoulders, pick a bird, follow it, get the barrel just beyond it, and fire.

The second thrill is the firing, like a battle, Jerry and I feel.  just like a battle.  The third thrill is seeing a successful shot, a bird hit and jerking in its flight, feathers knocked from its body by the buckshot.  It falls back into the weeds, and we rush toward the kill. 

This fall we’ll be hunters, and Jerry says that the men will bring dogs for the flushing of the birds.  My father tells me he wants to be with me when I first fire the gun.  I call Jerry and he is driven to my house with his own new gun.  My father walks us across farm fields, looking for a good place to practice.

We stop, looking ahead about 70 yards to a small pond, downhill from us.  There are ducks on that pond.  We look at each other, excited, Jerry and I trying not to look too eager, reining in our smiles.  My father nods.
My heart is beating through my jacket.  The guns are loaded.  “Think we can hit one from here?  We could!  Should we fire together, Dad?
He nods and says, in his slight Italian accent, “Hol’ it tight.  Tight against da shoulder.”  He has never had a shotgun.  He grew up urban in Italy and emigrated to Chicago, then when the neighborhood grew dangerous, sold his bar and found a small grocery store to buy in this country town, moving his family here when I was nine.
 
Jerry and I fire at the same second.  The kick against my shoulder is more than I expected, but I’m elated.  Jerry too.  We grin like Christmas.  “Wow!  Loud!  My shoulder.  Yeah!  Me too!”

We study the pond and are surprised to see the ducks still there, bobbing on the water.

“Guess we didn’t hit near’em.  They musta heard it though.”  All three of us stare, and then we see movement in the tall weeds near the pond.  It’s a man.  Oh, God, it’s a man, a large man, with a shotgun.  He’s looking at us, his face stony.  He starts trudging up the hill toward us.

“Lemme talk,” my father says quietly, and he takes a few steps toward the man to encounter him away from us.  Jerry and I are statues, not breathing or swallowing.

The man asks, roughly, “what the hell d’ya think yer doin’?”

“Dey shot at da ducks,” my father says.

“Those are our decoys.  We heard some of the buckshot come right through our blind!”

“Well,” my father says, “der kids.”

“Well you should know what yer doin’.”  And the man trudges back to his duck blind, and I must tell you that as I’m writing this, many years later, I’m chuckling at the whole event, a kind of slapstick comedy for all the players because, after all, no one was hurt.

When pheasant season opens, Jerry and I march along with the men, the dogs snuffling through the grass ahead.   This time, with my gun held chest high and my finger near the trigger, I fantasize a war, a possible ambush, as if the frightened birds might be the attacking enemy.
 Birds are flushed.   We aim and shoot.  I drop no birds. 

This is repeated for two hunting days.  On the night before the next hunt, I reach deeply into the back of our hall closet and pull out my Grandfather’s gun.  It’s a single shot, long barreled 12 gauge, much more powerful than my gun.   We were given it when he died because we were the only relatives who lived in the country.  I say to my parents, “I’d like to use Pa’s gun.”

“More kick,” my father says.  My mother says “Tch” with her tongue, and shakes her head, worrying.

On the next hunt, I’m carrying the heavier gun with its old pitted stock and long barrel.  My finger is near the trigger, and if I’m breathing as I walk, I can’t feel it, my chest held in suspended animation.  Inside my face I’m wearing a big smile, and I know Jerry is, too.  Like a battle, Jer.  Just like a battle.

Pheasants suddenly blast out of the weeds like winged missiles and beat their way into the sky in a frenzy of survival, pumping their wings with all they’re strength to get aloft and away.

I throw the heavy gun to my shoulder, follow a bird, then lead it, then fire, and as I’m rocked from the kick I see the bird
blown from the sky and plummeting down, and I run toward where it is falling, hearing the words: “You got it, Jer!  Nice shot, kid,” that stretch my smile even wider.  

I find the bird near a fence, lying on open ground, feathers awry and body twitching.  The body is twitching.  I wait for it to die, my smile escaping.  It continues twitching, and I continue watching.  Its claws seem to clutch the air, clutch nothing, but still it grips and holds life and twitches with the effort.
 
One of the men hurries to me, excited.  “Big one, kid.  Here, you gotta kill it.”  He bends to the bird, and I turn away, take a few steps away, but, of course, I still see that twitching bird, see it even now as I write this 60 years later.

Now I kill spiders if they look like biters and they’re near my bed, and I’ll slap a mosquito flat on my arm, but I don’t hunt animals or birds.  I do not take any moral credit for this.  I eat the flesh of birds and animals, order it in a restaurant, buy it in the market, but I don’t kill them because of the day reality grabbed hold of my battle fantasy, my glory-in-war fantasy and wrung its neck it until it twitched once more and died.
    
 
    

Uncle School

The “Favorite Uncle” is an iconic figure in history, in fiction, too.  Some boy who is not very close to his father and whose life is staid and lonely, is enlivened when his favorite uncle arrives.  It seems his quiet mother or father have a black sheep brother, an adventurer, a clown, a brigand or, at least, a man full of life.

I was blessed with two of them; and only now, in my later years, am I appreciating how lucky I was, along with my older brother, Paul.

Our father was quiet, mostly serious, and didn’t know how to play.  Maybe he had never played.  There is an old photo from Italy where he stands with the family, the oldest of twelve, all of them looking either nervous or scared, with a blank, staring mother, and a father whom I’ve heard was severe.

Dad was, though, a very good man, and we knew he loved us.  He was also scary as our sometime volatile boss in the family grocery store.  But to balance our dad’s temper and awkwardness with play, we had Motts and Tony.

They came to visit at least twice a year, part of my mother’s family, coming out of Chicago on the train, her brother Mario (Motts) and brother-in-law Tony.

Motts was short and plump and Italian-American, like all the family, a talented jokester with a snappy energy.  Think of a rounder Mickey Rooney (for those of you who remember Rooney).  

Tony was taller, Greek-American with bushy eyebrows and a face and even a voice like Humphrey Bogart (for those of you who . . . etc.)  

They could keep up a quick patter of improv funniness that would keep my brother and I laughing for half an hour, until our faces were stretched into that wonderful smile-pain that comes only unbidden and can never be forced.

The uncles always came together in a group, my mother’s side of the family.  Tony drove a cab, and his wife, my aunt Inez, was a bartender.  Motts, who was sometimes married, sometimes not, worked in a photo lab.

This decade of visits that I remember like best-loved films started seven years after World War II.  Like my father, Motts had been in the navy, and I have photos of him in his round sailor hat that he wore far back and jaunty on his balding head.  Fortunately neither Motts nor my dad were in combat, but Tony served as a machine gunner in an engineer battalion, and he saw Anzio, all five months of Anzio – and he would never talk about it, waving it off, just the way he waved off what he did in the thirties, driving a mobster named Golf Bag Sam.  Because of the name we kidded him about it.

Just a few years ago, I was telling this story to my sons, and they looked him up.  Golf Bag Sam was Al Capone’s most efficient hit man.  That wave that Tony had, brushed aside a lot of darkness, but it never showed in his face, in his eyes.

These two uncles must have gone to Favorite Uncle School and graduated with honors.  They were just coming through the door and Paul and I were already swept up in their playful razzing.  Even my dad was laughing, and my mother became the girl she had been and actually giggled.

THE NIGHT GAME:  We played our invented game, bouncing a golf ball off the cement outside so that it would hit the house wall and come back at us, and we’d have to catch itand throw it back for someone else to catch – fast and hard, it was, and try playing that when you’re laughing your ass off.

THE BVDs: Motts knew that in a few days, my mother was hosting a canasta party (look it up, you kids ya) for her women friends, and he swore to Paul and I that he was going to come running through the party in his BVDs.  Of course we didn’t believe him – but then I’d look at Paul and ask…do you think he will!?  Well, he kept us hoping and smiling, seeing it in our minds, so we enjoyed it almost as much as if it really had happened.

THE FISHING TRIPS: This was the best of it, renting a cabin on Pistakee Bay (northern Ill.) and a small boat with outboard motor and buzzing out into the wide water to stop and drift and fish for Bluegill and Perch and maybe a Bass, and MAYBE a sharp-toothed Gar!  It wasn’t the fishing, it was the time, long silent time, or long talks, and you can talk to favorite uncles often more than you can to parents.  It wasn’t all laughter and jokes.  It was about life and worries Paul and I might have, and dreams and fears and girls, and I’ll always remember THE MIRACLE.

We were drifting, talking, even catching a few fish we would cook in the cabin that night, and we saw a storm coming toward the lake.  We stared into it and wondered.  Shall we go in?  Go in where?  It’s coming from the direction we’d have to take.  Do we try to go through it?  Nahh, let’s just sit it out.  And we did.  We stared across the lake and saw the rain begin to zap the lake water like a million bullets.  We could study the edge of the oncoming storm by watching the line of the rain on the lake, moving closer, closer.  Before it hit us we all looked at each other, Paul and I a little worried, but Motts and Tony softly grinning – here it comes, kids, the storm.  Here it comes, kids, life.

Copyright Gerald DiPego 2015-2017