Category Archives: Biographical

Read With Caution – But This Story Doesn’t End In the Manner You Imagine

 

I’m writing this story in one sitting, one draft, and without polish.

I don’t know who they were or where they were from, the couple that forced my day into an uncomfortable U-turn. I’m still a little nauseated, an hour later. When I came home, I immediately took a shower and did my best to avoid throwing up. The perfume or cologne of the couple is still on me, even after. My “What Would You Do” moment did call me to action, though. It also exposed my hardened view of so many things. The older man of the couple demonstrated an incredible amount of patience in the moments we shared. I am hesitant to tell any part of the story as even the most gently expressed truth often wounds people in ways which are unintended.

My wife and I capriciously decided to find a Mexican food place to eat today on the 4th. We drove by several and found all to be closed, one of which we missed by 30 minutes. On a whim, I turned at the last moment to check Las Palmas. My wife and I smiled at each other when we saw the mismatched cars aligned in the parking lot.

While we were eating, a woman and her children were behind us. The older boy regaled his table with stories involving vomit, bathroom misadventure, and the sort of thing one would expect from such a tender idiotic mind. Dawn was especially taken with the stories, given that the back of her head was a foot away from the mouth sharing the stories as fajita-scented smoked wafted in the air.

The restaurant had some unusual characters in it. The oddest was an unlikely couple seated in front of me and to the right, back against the bathroom area. The man seemed to behave almost like a caregiver. The woman, a painfully thin middle-aged woman, sat with her face mostly turned away from me. She was wearing a summer dress and several things seemed not quite right about her. In front of her was an almost empty margarita glass, the frosted and salt-rimmed kind one typically finds in Tex-Mex places. Toward the end of my meal, the antics seemed to grow more pronounced, much like a play in which the actors start to feel the audience respond to their comedy. I watched as the woman tried several times to get the straw of her drink to connect with her mouth. I was wrestling with the question of whether the woman had a mental condition. The margarita seemed incongruous to such a hopeful conclusion, however.

As Dawn sat across from me telling me stories, I found myself increasingly looking past her at the strange couple by the bathroom. I watched in horror as the woman tried to stand, much like a confused flamingo might do if its frail legs were tied to bowling balls. The man with her grabbed her as she started to pitch forward into the basket of chips of the Latino man seated nearby. He had her purse in one hand and somehow managed to grab her like a striking cobra.

“She’s going to fall!” I fiercely whispered to Dawn. “Don’t look,” I added, as she, of course, turned her head to look. (It might as well be a law in these situations, much like the involuntary cringe in one’s neck as someone shouts, “Watch out!”) I didn’t know it, but I was finished eating for the day.

After six or seven additional dramatic steps, the woman simply collapsed onto the hard tile floor, her male companion helpless to stop her. It sounded like a half-empty bag of potatoes as she hit the floor. My heart stopped for a second.

I locked eyes with the Latino man who had been seated near them. He looked down and away. Because I didn’t want John Quiñones and his crew from “What Would You Do” to jump out of the pantry and stick a camera in my face, I jumped up and ran over to help lift the woman. I didn’t know that my call to action was going to be so graphic or consuming.

“She’s got a bad leg and is going to have surgery on it,” the man told me. My heart hurt for him a little bit at that moment. I could feel his pain. I knew then that the woman was drunk and probably had a little pharmacological help mixed in.

Being careful of my back, I helped pick her up. I wanted to sit her in a chair for a moment and to give her time to get her bearings. The man with her forged ahead, trying to walk her, so I continued to lift and assist. Everyone inside was now looking at us. The restaurant had come to standstill.

We somehow managed to get her near the door despite the constricted walkway between tables. We were basically carrying her by this point. I wanted to sit her on the door side bench while the man went for the car. Instead, he said he’d never get her back up if she sat down there. Despite the voice in my head threatening me to continue, the man and I kept walking and made it outside. It’s hard to change course once you’re swept up in what seems to be impossible momentum.

I assumed his vehicle was the one two spaces from the door, given the woman’s condition, one which I assumed was normal for her. “Is this one yours?” I asked him.

“No,” he replied. “You’re not going to believe this, but THAT one is mine.” He pointed to the literal edge of the parking lot. The vehicle was some type of conversion Jeep, and the bottom of the door was more than two feet from the ground. I should have run. If I could go back in time, I’d go back and slap myself for not doing so.

The woman continued her best to succumb to gravity and fall to the pavement as we fought against it, moving slowly across the parking lot. She mumbled incoherently as the man continued to ask her to use her legs, to hold herself up, to move forward. I assumed everyone in the restaurant was pressed against the tinted windows, watching us do the impossible. I could hear the opening bell of Rocky in my head. My back sent warning shots to my brain. I couldn’t put the woman down, though, because the pavement was incredibly hot. The man seemed relentlessly insistent on marching to his vehicle, even if he had to drag all of us there by sheer willpower.

As we neared the Jeep, I got one arm from her and opened the door. It was going to be impossible to get her in there given the access available past the door. I knew then that the woman was most certainly not in such dire straits before her meal. Whatever medical condition was present before her arrival was at most responsible for no more than 10% of our current predicament.

We tried everything to get the woman up. She stopped responding to basic motor commands. At one point, the man ripped the belt from his cargo shorts in an attempt to fashion a lifting harness for her hand. We lifted her up and down no fewer than ten times. It was blistering hot in the parking lot. I knew it was burning the woman with each attempt, if not breaking her legs. I asked about an ambulance and should have insisted on calling one.

Honestly, though, I cannot express the pain I felt for the man as he struggled with a total stranger like me. He struggled to maintain his composure and sanity as the situation became more and more outrageous. I knew how sharply he was feeling the concern for the woman, while simultaneously being embarrassed and upset. He told me I could leave and that he appreciated the help. It made me wince even more.

On our last attempt, the woman’s sundress went completely up to the waist, leaving her exposed. I could not imagine a worse predicament for either the man or the woman. The woman, though, wouldn’t know it had happened unless someone tells her later.

After a long interval, Dawn came outside and watched as we continued to struggle. I wanted to both run and burst into tears. The man agreed that he might have to call an ambulance, even though I knew as he said it that he wouldn’t, for a variety of reasons.

The woman was curled into an unnatural ball in the passenger seat and floorboard, her limbs in seven distinct directions. The man was pushing at the small of her back, trying to keep her inside. He couldn’t do anything about her dress being around her waist.

“I’m not going to call an ambulance if you don’t want one, sir,” I told him, putting my hand on his back. He was in great shape for being in his late 50s or early 60s; It probably explains why he was still making the attempt.

We gave one more try to push the woman far enough inside. It looked impossible, but she was ‘inside’ in the most loosely defined way possible. The man told me he’d pile her in there like a spilled bag of oranges if he had to. Without exaggeration, I think about 15 minutes passed between the first time I picked the woman up from the floor and leaving.

I said a few things to get him to reconsider. I don’t remember exactly what I said because I was upset, whether I showed it much or not. As Dawn and I left, we drove around the lot so that I could see that the man hadn’t dropped her. Thankfully, he was standing by the Jeep, looking at the ground, a look of despair on his face. I was trying to picture what it might look like when he got her back to her house or his house or wherever they would end up.

I turned right and went the long way around, trying to convince myself to go ahead and call the police or an ambulance. If a police officer had been patrolling, I would have. None was to be seen. It was a relief in a way. Those two people have unimaginable problems in their lives. I don’t know who they are – or even the man’s name.

Dawn told me as we drove away that the woman walked into the restaurant without assistance. It confirmed my suspicion that alcohol had mixed with something else.

I can’t tie this story up into a neat little bow yet. I’ll let you know how mad I become at myself for helping. I’m glad I helped when someone needed it. I feel a deep sadness for the man who was put into that situation. I know nothing about who he is or his relationship to the woman. The not knowing makes it easier for me to avoid anger at the woman. My youthful exposure to so much alcoholism and addiction sometimes brings up a vengeful eye in me and it is something I struggle with when I’m around the consequences of someone who desperately needs help but won’t accept it.

I forgot to mention one key detail: it was an unfortunate choice of days for the woman to fail to wear underwear.

Of Love’s Comprehension

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Nothing is entirely real, not even much of our memory. We revisit the places of our past and often find our footing slightly unfamiliar.

Emotion and bias tinge everything, a spreading patina of ink from a single drop. The more desperately we cling to our version of events, the less firm is our ability to live a life worthy enough to satisfy us. The emotional context which surrounds us shapes our ability to recall objectively what precedes us.

My parents were a volatile mix of temper and tantrum and no one could be an innocent bystander. To be a witness meant participation was mandatory and choosing sides wasn’t optional. There was no Switzerland in the households of my youth.

Yet, my parents chose to marry each other again, despite their long and violent history and while ignoring incredulous scrutiny from friends and family. Both had married other people during their marital hiatus and neither found adversaries willing to suffer and share their scarring.

I’m guilty of allowing my own history with them to cloud my ability to see that somewhere out of my reach, they shared a connection with one another. While it was forged in years of anger, it was real to them. Alcohol, jealousy, and unhappiness were the fuels of their mutual fire. Both of them were adept at stockpiling these lesser tendencies for the upcoming fires that would rage. None of us was equipped with the right tools to combat their wildfires. Each of us tried and failed.

Mom and dad married on Feb. 12th, 1964 and again on Feb. 12th, 1993. Dad died 9 months later, once again with mom in his life and while trying to make his dream work, in a rural little gas station on the edge of highway 49. The gas station is gone and a field has enveloped even its memory. If my father has a ghost, these greening acres along a nondescript highway are one of its homes. Most of these stretches of rural America certainly feel as if they are inhabited by lost souls.

This picture is of us in 1993, at a small Lutheran church that still manages to survive today. Mom and Dad had just exchanged vows for the second time. Although Dad was visibly uncomfortable in the suit he was wearing, he was at home with mom once again in his corner. Twenty-five long years have intervened. The church sits defiantly and almost directly across the road from the gas station dad attempted to make successful during two tries in his lifetime. Small communities need churches to bond them, serving both spiritual and mundane connections. Many of us in this world converged upon that small church in different stages of our lives; most of us have at least a few memories that are rendered opaque and wistful by having done so.

None of the facts has changed, but I have. I’m a stranger in the lands of my memories and I take comfort in my distorted reflection.

Somehow, experience has wrapped me in its strange embrace and violently shaken me. Not only is the sum of my parts now more than whole, but things I knew and things in my field or ignorance have exchanged residency.

I’m not certain of anything anymore.

Yet, paradoxically, I think that it might bring me greater happiness to see a fuzzy world instead of one sharply focused by my own opinions and experience.

The gas station and church both left footprints somewhere inside me, just as my parents did. I struggle with the same forces now that tormented me when I was younger. I learned ways to mitigate the disaster of my upbringing. There was no easy road or prolonged escape from the lessons I learned involuntarily.

I can see immeasurable violence in those whispering the word ‘love’ openly in the world and compassion in the eyes of someone with snarled lip and ready fist. I saw both in Carolyn and in Bobby Dean, the people who played the roles of my parents.

Love’s mystery is that it flourishes at all, as we teeter on the edge of loss at every moment.

Love, X
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It’s A Place Which We Never Leave

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On the way back home from Texas, I turned off the discolored and uneven blacktop highway and drove through a small farming town in Arkansas. It was almost 7 p.m. on a windless Sunday evening. My windshield was a graveyard of hundreds of insects. The richness of the delta has its gifts.

I had lost all sense of urgency and time. Because I knew I wouldn’t drive all the way home that evening, I chose the blue highways to take me across part of my journey. These highways were once the only way to traverse the country and each one of them pierced rural communities, loosely connecting them to the outside world. As interstates rose to meet the demands of speed and commerce, the blue highways remained, like half-forgotten pictures tucked away in the top drawer of a dresser in one’s extra bedroom.

Downtown was a disintegrating and deceitful testament to the past. The solitary water tower still stood, rusting, and even the town’s name, once proudly emblazoned there, was long erased. The youthful graffiti always found on such a tower was illegible. The few young people who might live nearby attended school in another town, their own hometown mascot supplanted with another. Each of them quietly reminded themselves that they’d leave as soon as graduation came.

The jolt of crossing a desolate set of railroad tracks caused me to reach over and turn off the radio. A town’s railroad crossing conveys a clear message: a smooth transition indicates a thriving economy and nicer vehicles, while an uneven and poorly maintained one usually means that people live lives filled with less. People with money and separated from their agricultural roots clamor for better roads, ones devoid of historical reminders of commerce and transport.

History accompanied me as I made my way slowly across the brick-paved street. Without any evidence, I knew that several years ago, some well-meaning resident with a little money had vainly attempted to rejuvenate the corpse of this place, one founded on the backs of farmers. With his passing, the enthusiasm for saving the heritage of the place no longer loomed large on the psyche of the town. His tombstone, larger than those surrounding his resting place, is easily found in the cemetery not too far from the train tracks. In a generation, most of the cemeteries would be overgrown and many of these buildings would fall in on themselves, a gradual shattering and splintering of history. If I were to look, somewhere in the juncture of the small side streets would be a shuttered museum; its existence once contained within but with time, opened to spread out and include the entire town. My own hometown shares a similar and degenerative trajectory; the fiercely loyal will stay until nothing remains. They are the geographical observations points for entropy. Death need not make haste in these places.

Somewhere within the 4 blocks traversing west to east, I noticed a particular vacant storefront, displaying a single white rocking chair perched haphazardly up front, undoubtedly home to the bones of a once-thriving furniture store. The setting sun illuminated the faces of a hundred stacked cardboard boxes near the front windows. As carefully as the boxes were stacked, I couldn’t shake the feeling that they had been packed in haste and then abandoned, much like the store and probably like the town in general. I was certain that human hands hadn’t touched the boxes in years and that no one had relaxed in the rocking chair since its placement there. People were choosing to leave with as small a burden as possible.

Something about this store spoke to me. I pulled unevenly toward the broken curb and hesitated as I shut off the engine. The brick pavers had ended with the last block, probably as fund-raising dried up and people chose to leave instead. Every few feet a clump of grass was triumphantly sprouting from the untarred cracks in the road. I sat there, hands on the wheel, watching. Nothing moved around me. Maybe nothing had moved in the last hour, day, or week. A block ahead, the only traffic light in town blinked a dull red, casting a strange pall on an approaching evening. The light wasn’t blinking to any certain tempo and its arrhythmia went unheeded.

Looking at the sun reflected in the terrible facade of that building, I felt a creeping sadness wash over me. It seemed like I could feel the glances of the thousands of inhabitants who had passed here, reluctant to leave their hometown, but certain that they must. Brake lights always yield to a foot on the gas as nostalgia loses inevitably to hope. The fondness we so often feel for the places in our rearview mirrors softens our doubts about leaving yet rarely detains us.

The sun gave me its warmth as I sat in my car. Though the air was still and uncomfortable, I couldn’t break the silence by starting my car. The heat seemed to stir the ghosts of this place. I could hear their whispered names: Robert, Henry, Thomas, Samuel, Maggie and Jane Elvira. It was both melodious and cacophonous, like a choir warming up to an unspecified crescendo that would never quite arrive.

I could picture a shotgun house not too far from here, its ancient inhabitant eating cold cereal or buttermilk-soaked bread from a chipped white bowl. The metal fan nearby would be loudly alternating air through the cramped room. Around the person would be dozens of pictures, spanning generations, each of them revealing the face of someone long departed or of one who visits with less frequency. Next to the stubborn resident was a small wooden table. It was adorned with dozens of pill bottles, knick-knacks, and an older telephone, one wired to the world. In the rare event of a call, I could hear the fizzled and tired ring and recite almost every word that would ensue in the phone call, one measured by regret, loss, and small details.

I imagined the smell of cornbread, mustard greens, and fish quickly fried under the shade of any available tree. This place, once dominated by the sounds of screen doors casually slammed, pitchers of iced tea, and enthusiastic summer baseball games, was losing its voice. It seemed that even the echoes of lives once lived were fading now, departing with their particular smells and customs.

Before leaving town, I turned on the radio again. I pressed the ‘next station’ button and to my surprise, Merle Travis was singing “No Vacancy.” I smiled, pressed the gas pedal with enthusiasm, and took one last glance in the driver side mirror.

As I passed over the railroad tracks, I didn’t even notice the jolt.

I would wake up in another town tomorrow morning and this haunted place would fade to become an uncertain memory. All who had departed this place would unknowingly share this in common with me.

I, too, am from such a town. It is with me, always, in my quiet moments.

 

 

Celery Is The Cure For Happiness – An Autobiographical Anecdote

 

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The beet chip story from a few days ago forces my hand toward another story. It’s not one which ends with a grand moral observation, though, unless it’s a reminder for everyone to avoid being ‘food stupid,’ as I call it.

To assist you to better understand my youth, you can observe through the picture that while food scarcity was sometimes a problem for me, starvation was the least of my worries. It wasn’t until the end of my 9th grade year that I managed to break away from my intense infatuation with food. I probably should say ‘temporarily breakup’ given my adulthood. That’s my mom with her arms over my shoulders. She’d been drinking when my Aunt Ardith snapped this picture.

I wish I had been drinking heavily, especially if I had known I’d be writing about the herpes of the vegetable world: raw celery.

I mean no disrespect toward the current food waste programs. Teachers do difficult jobs and those involved in USDA-related food programs emphasize giving students control and also encourage eating what’s taken and taking only what one plans to eat. I went to elementary school 40 years ago, about the time that fire was discovered. What’s true now was definitely not true then.

Today, I listened to a story about food waste in schools. Most of the arguments were well reasoned and supported. They were so proud of the food waste reduction and that kids were now squirreling away leftover food instead of throwing it away at school. I knew immediately that at least one school kid was going to get his revenge on these well-intentioned people as they patted themselves on the back for reducing food waste. We not only don’t learn from history, but we also tend to amplify our egregiousness with even greater folly. I laughed as I imagined that imaginary and gleeful child puking all over the high heels of his well-intentioned teacher.

Thanks to my grandma, I was spoiled by food. Even though her type of cuisine leaned toward the basic, there was nothing as delicious in my mind as elbow macaroni soup, collard and mustard greens, green beans, corn in any form, tomatoes, okra, or potatoes. Unlike my parents, my grandparents were compassionate about food, even though they were children of the Great Depression. Both money and food were always held in high esteem. In my case, they didn’t care what I put on my plate as long as I ate it all. Wasting food was simply not something one could do. On the other hand, they didn’t threaten me for disliking food or force me to eat something for my own good. They weren’t “food stupid” as so many modern people are. They asked me to try everything before deciding whether I liked it or not. And I did, even things such as sardines and salt pork. I never rejected a food without trying it. My grandma knew that overall I was going to get much more than I needed, especially since I was known to eat more vegetables than any other 5 kids combined. I don’t know how harsh grandma was to other grandkids (because I was her favorite) but I do know that she would never have forced me to eat something I clearly indicated I didn’t like. In my defense, it would have never occurred to me to lie to her about it, either. I found out at a young age that I didn’t like beets, which puzzled my grandma.

At home, my parents were tyrants about food. I ate some of the worst, most ill-prepared foods known to man, many times under the guise of not being wasteful. This particular line of logic confused me, given that dollar for dollar, most of their money was spent on alcohol, cigarettes, or replacing broken furniture each time they decided to practice their ever-widening domestic violence reactions. Wherever we lived, most evenings threatened to turn into WWE nights, without referee or ropes. Never mind that because mom chain-smoked her entire life I had never eaten potatoes at home that didn’t look peppered already. Mom also put onions in everything. I mean that literally. I kept expecting to find several peeled onions in her bathwater. Because of dad, mom would often prepare the nastiest meats; large slabs of beef nonsense, barely cooked, smelling of old paper and blood. When she could, mom would buy large volumes of sliced ham, the kind that reminded of what a toilet smells like when seldom flushed. It’s one of the reasons to do this day that I dislike ham, and more so when it is sliced into slivers of hell like deli meat. Mom also made me eat potted meat and Vienna sausages, which as we learned from Karl in “Sling Blade”, is nothing more than brains and beef peckers.

I was content with noodles, soup, or vegetables. I was a simple kid and easily satisfied. Give me a soda, basic food, a book – and stop beating on me, and I could make a good day out it. As I’ve written about before, I also acquired an intense LIKE for over-cooked and burned food.

Even though it seems unlikely, it was because of my parents that I went years without eating much meat voluntarily. I wasn’t sure that meat could be prepared in an appetizing manner, so I’d eat salads, bread, and vegetables – or the tablecloth if it kept me from getting ill or having to force down food better suited to be thrown from a moving car at one’s enemies. Forays to other people’s houses showed me that the food at home versus out in the world were wildly different animals and that I was trapped in a culinary hell from which there would be no escape. It should be noted that no green leafy vegetables, much less lettuce, were kept at my house growing up. It was when I was older and had access to an unlimited amount of salad from a popular eatery in Tontitown and from a distant cousin we lived with that I found a love for lettuce.

Since I grew up in small-town Arkansas, I heard the phrase, “Boy, you don’t know what’s good” with such regularity that it lost all meaning. This phrase was considered to be the height of culinary comparative arguments. On one occasion, my Uncle Harold was chiding me for not wanting to eat any of whatever dead carcass flesh was being offered and proudly yelled, “Boy, you don’t what’s good!” Uncle Harold was one of the good guys, too. My grandma laughed and said, “Harold, why are you sitting there picking on the boy when you know darn well you wouldn’t eat a lot of things growing up?”

As for retaliation, for each gesture of love and kindness from my grandma, my dad would be capable of the most brutal reprisals for not wanting to eat whatever he wanted me to. I took beatings night and day. If I told him I didn’t want fried chicken or a slab of whatever animal carcass of the day he had, I would get hit by a fist, belt, spatula, or item he found nearby. He was like the Wile E. Coyote of food beatings. His creativity toward brutality was endless. To him, eating, especially meat eating was a characteristic of all real men. It incensed him that I had no desire whatsoever to eat what he dictated. Deer, frog legs, snake, gizzards, cow livers, boiled beef tongue, rabbit, and squirrel: all of these were required eating. I hated them all and don’t eat them willingly today. His cruelty expanded to other areas, too. Once, he forced me to try raw forest-gathered mushrooms at my Uncle Buck’s house. They tasted like a deer’s anus. When I started to throw up, he punched me. He then forced more of them into my mouth. Crying, I forced what I could down. He made me agree that I loved them. As soon as possible, I went outside and threw it all up on the next-door neighbor’s side of the house. This same scenario was re-enacted many times in my youth. (I often think I could have painted the house with vomit with sufficient time to do so.)

It is strange looking back, because despite having been in prison and falsely claiming he could eat anything, the truth is that my dad hated a lot of food, especially the healthy stuff. I’m not sure why food granted him such an expansive outlook on cruelty towards me. He never missed a chance, though, and I got it much, much worse than my siblings did. I often daydreamed of sautéing him a skillet full of wild mushrooms and steak – and then bashing him over the head with it.

In school, I learned that people would willingly barter with me, and happily, for my dessert or milk in exchange for whatever concoction of vegetables the school was inflicting on us that day. One of the most common was peas or one of the ten varieties of mixed vegetables that generally got boiled in huge cauldrons on the industrial stoves. Countless times, I would press my tray against that of a schoolmate and swap for something better. At home, I would eat green beans, corn, and tomatoes directly from the can – something I often do even now. While I looked like I traded for desserts, the opposite was usually true.

One day during elementary school, our teacher proudly explained that we would be graded on what we ate. “What fresh hell was this?” I asked myself. I figured there was some kind of error or that all the teachers had lost their minds. Unlike my fellow classmates, my world viewpoint didn’t preclude adults acting as if they had lost their minds at any given moment. At that school, we didn’t choose what we wanted. The school workers plopped, flung and threw whatever the next item was more or less into the segregated concavities of our food trays. There were things I simply couldn’t eat. Make no mistake, unlike most of my schoolmates; I overall REALLY enjoyed school lunches. They simply were miles above the consistency and content of what I could expect at home. Just like at home, I couldn’t always determine what the food was supposed to be. Unlike home, however, I could be reasonably certain it wasn’t poisonous, given the likelihood of dead children all over the concrete block cafeteria if things went terribly awry.

In those days, it was almost impossible to explain to your teachers that you were accustomed to being tortured by your dad if you said you didn’t like something. They didn’t know that if I wet the bed, I’d have stripes across my back and legs for a week if my dad had a hangover or was simply bored. I knew that with time, the school’s ill-advised plan to judge what I chose to eat or didn’t eat would cause a problem.

It was the same week that the food grading system started that I met my lifelong nemesis: Raw Celery. On a dozen previous occasions, I had attempted to eat this abomination without throwing up. I was scoreless against the impulse. It was puzzling, given my love of all things vegetable. If given a choice between licking the under-rim of a bus station bathroom toilet and eating celery, I would unflinchingly opt for the toilet, even if someone was sitting on it at the time. Lest you think I’m exaggerating, I will demonstrate this if ever given the choice between death and celery. If foreign terrorists ever capture me, all they’ll need to do is force me to eat celery in order to get a confession from me.

I don’t remember a lot about the lunch grading starting, honestly, other than dreading it. When I went up to put my tray on the conveyor, the teacher told me to eat my celery or get a reduced grade. As I was fearful of almost all teachers when controversy arose, I told her that I was fine with that. She got mad at me and reversed course. She insisted that I eat it – a reduced grade was no longer at stake. A paddle was in my future. I told her that I would get sick if I tried to eat the celery. She forced me to take a bite anyway and I spit it back out immediately. She let me go, through a clenched jaw. I knew the battle lines were drawn and that just like at home I had no artillery with which to fight back.

A few days later, celery once again made its disgusting appearance on the menu. They must have purchased a truckload of it from the local Satanic Distributor. I traded my celery and dessert for another boy’s mixed vegetables. He ate the celery with glee, as I did his vegetables. Soon enough, the Gestapo teacher doing lunch duty came over and told us we were forbidden to trade food. Therefore, I got another reduced grade, even though I had eaten more vegetables by trading for a serving of mixed vegetables compared to a slice of celery stalk.

How much later it was, I’m not sure, but the day came when celery was once again served. Except another horrific layer was added: they put peanut butter on the stalk. While I was okay with peanut butter, the only thing worse than a celery stalk with peanut butter on it would be if a large diseased bird pooped on it first. The teacher didn’t even wait for my reaction this time. She insisted I eat it, that everyone liked peanut butter and celery. Having forgotten the exact words, I’m sure she ranted off a list of reasons why I was being a little jerk for not wanting to eat the celery. Since I wasn’t getting out alive, she also insisted that I drink my carton of milk, something that I often didn’t touch. However, I held my nose and drank the milk quickly.

“Now eat the celery. You and I both know you are pretending you don’t like it.” The teacher glared at me. Having been shamed and beaten by experts way beyond her level of cruelty, I didn’t really care about getting a paddling. A paddling from someone at school was comparable to a pat on the back from Attila the Hun at home. The teacher, seeing my reluctance, came around next to me, picked up the celery stalk, and put it in my hand, then dragging my hand holding the celery toward my face. I unwillingly took a bite, immediately feeling the urge to vomit. “Keep going. You’ll see it won’t kill you.” The teacher stepped away at the end of the table. I took another bite – and that’s when the universe shifted.

The mix of peanut butter and raw celery triggered something in my mind. It might have been the last time my dad held my face into my plate and forced me to get a mouthful of whatever man-making garbage he wanted me to eat. Whatever it was, it was powerful. From my nose and mouth came a simultaneous torrent of milk and lunch remnants. It went across the table and onto the floor, splashing across to the table on the next aisle of seating. I flooded my plate with it, knocking over my milk carton. I heaved and expelled everything I had eaten for the last 10 meals, or so it seemed. Moreover, I then put my head down into the mess, feeling a massive wave of nausea and dizziness. Keeping my head up wasn’t an option.

This story would be much better if I remembered what sort of shocked reaction the teacher had on her face after seeing me projectile vomit. However, I don’t know. I was too sick.

Another teacher came and helped me to the restroom to clean up. I enjoyed several exceptional teachers. Like so many others growing up, I also had a few who somehow seemed to know that I was an easy victim. My secret shame from my tortured home life must have registered in some instinctive corner of their brains.

We didn’t do lunch grading for very long. I don’t remember why that it ended but I do know that my fantasy is that the teacher who was so intent on being totalitarian in regard to what I ate or didn’t eat was so sickened by my volcanic eruption of vomit that she insisted that the program be abandoned. While I don’t remember exactly which teacher was the mean one, I could figure it out, if I really wanted to. I won’t though because I might be tempted to go to her house with an array or reprehensible food and force her to eat them all, one by one until vomit ejects from her ear canals. I’ll start with beet chips and celery filled with tripe and livers.

She did me one favor, though: unlike so many other foods I grew to like or at least tolerate, raw celery to me is no better than raw sewage – and I’d drink a cup of the latter before I’d ever eat a stalk of celery.

 

If I every develop super-villain powers just spray me down with raw celery.

Another Nostalgic Surprise

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Recently, I wrote a story about finally discovering exactly what type of coffee cup I had used to drink my first cup of coffee with, back when people like my grandpa Willie believed that such things should simply just happen regardless of one’s age. I ordered a jadeite Fire-king cup from Etsy, more as a tribute than a keepsake.

A cousin of mine read my post and reached out to me. It turns out that she had a blue Fire-King cup, a cup my grandpa used to hold his razor and shaving cream brush. He was a minimalist, too, but for totally different reasons than mine.

My grandpa died on a Saturday back in October 1977. The cup he used most days sat dormant, waiting for me to wind my way through decades of intervening years. My cousin graciously offered to send it to me. I received it today. With the piece of ‘art’ I already posted about, this was a day for both something old and something new.

As sentimental as it may sound to say it aloud, holding the cup has already peeled back the foggy curtains of my youth.

The half-broken nail in front of the ‘shaving kit’ is the infamous nail that I wrote about in another blog post. This is the shortened version: A Rusty Nail…

P.S. My post about the jadeite green coffee mug on my blog and public figure Facebook page opened many doors for other people, people whose memories were triggered by the same recollections of family and home.
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An Imperfect Expression of Memory

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It’s strange that jadeite glass and kitchenware was created to brighten people’s day in the early part of the 20th century. The idea that the glassware was made without any real focus toward consistency of color and defects makes it more interesting to me. If I were in charge of the world, every cup, plate, spoon, and fork would be distinct, both in style and color. Consistency for appearance is one of the biggest constrictive forces in our lives.

When I was young, my grandpa often drank from a jadeite coffee mug. There’s so much I don’t remember or remembered wrong. A few years ago, I thought I had it figured out but as if often the case, my certainty evaporated into 100% confusion. I find it hard to reconcile that I remember so many distinct moments so vividly, but yet somehow have lost 99% of the memories around them. My grandparents were magical to me, in part to their living at the edge of a cotton field, and in part to my youth, one punctuated by upheaval and anger. If I had to define an anchor point of my young childhood, it would be the simple house along highway 39, where I learned to love salt pork, mustard sandwiches, and coffee. I once tried to enumerate the number of places I had lived in my youth and it exceeds 20 and almost certainly reaches 30. I would consider the place in City View to be another defining place for me, one completely dissimilar in geography and content than the one in Monroe County, but one which shared the connection of people.

I had my first cup of coffee when I was very young. I remember my grandpa shushing my grandma Nellie. He was a big proponent of letting people try things, even if they shouted in surprise or pain as they did so. It’s part of the reason I learned to wince when I hit my fingers with a hammer, instead of screaming in pain. I sat at the table, trying not to burn my fingers on the hot glass of the coffee cup. Grandpa made me that cup of coffee in a green jadeite coffee cup. He put a dollop of evaporated milk in mine, mainly because he thought I’d like it better that way. Given that I once loved eating ashes and cinders, he should have assumed that I would prefer it black and bitter. (I still prefer coffee to be black – and I still can’t resist the taste of a burned match tip and the much-maligned flavor of a lot of burned foods.)

It’s very likely that grandma and grandpa got their jadeite with promotional items. It was included in sacks of flour, at giveaways at grocery stores and with ‘green stamp’ promotions. Grandma always had several glasses that were, in reality, empty snuff jars. Most were W.E. Garrett snuff jars. Like most people of her time, she also had an extensive collection of butter bowls and other assorted kitchen items which served other purposes in their previous lives. Grandma also saved anything interesting so that I could bury it in my ongoing excavation project next to highway 39. Both grandparents lived through the Great Depression and it molded much of their attitudes about things. Because of nostalgia, mason jars for drinking are in vogue. I’m waiting for snuff jars to get their turn in the sun again. Jadeite made a resurgence a few years ago thanks to Martha Stewart and a few ardent aficionados. It’s also weird to think that jadeite was widely used in diners and cafeterias, an almost valueless item back then.

I also know that my grandparent’s glassware was by Fire-King because grandpa would often set his coffee cup directly on the wood stove in the living room. I learned to read a few words ahead of my time, as life was slower in that part of Monroe County. Sitting on the floor, idly tracing words and letters was a great way to pass the simmering days, or poking myself with a sewing needle as grandma patiently showed me to sew without a thimble. I’ve never used one, despite discovering that I could stick one into my finger fairly deeply when distracted.

It turns out that cups made from original jadeite glass aren’t supposed to go in a microwave. (I also find it incredible to think that residential countertop microwaves first appeared in 1967, the year I was born.) One of the things I learned is that a couple of the companies making jadeite glass used glass that contained uranium. They did so up until WWII. Like all things, jadeite has a wider history than I would initially believe. To learn one thing without learning a spider web of interconnected details is impossible.

Even though I’m a minimalist, I ordered a green jadeite coffee mug from a collector on Etsy. The one I ordered is similar than the one I recall. As a nostalgia item, it serves its purpose despite not being quite right. If my grandpa could see that I had not only figured out what type of cup it was but also buy one online, he would shake his head in wonder at the crazy things that people do, especially for dishes. Like me, he would think anyone wanting matching plates and cups had lost his or her mind.

After years of wondering and searching for the green coffee cup I remembered so well, a friend of mine on social media unexpectedly posted a link to the exact brand I was looking for. I can’t completely explain why figuring out the origin of the green coffee cup was so satisfying for me, but it was. A few years ago, I asked my mom about the green coffee cup. She remembered a couple of them but since her memory wasn’t tied to anything personal, it didn’t have the same power of imagination and recollection attached to it. Grandma had some blue cups made by the same company, too.

Holding this touchstone from decades ago, I can imagine my grandpa, sitting in his chair, watching me as I sat on the wooden floor in front of the stove. He gave me the gift of coffee and the effervescent joy of running carelessly in the mud which inevitably curves its way around the fields.

 

“The Picture” Lives On…

 

I originally posted this in 2014.

Enough time has passed since Jimmy died for me to remember the goofiness more than the anguish of cancer that he endured. It’s natural that death works that way, as he was alive and kicking for much longer than he was suffering. There are still those days when I catch myself wondering what Jimmy might make of something or I half-expect him to drive up to the house after getting more stuff for his hoard from a local garage sale.

Fair or not, a lot of Jimmy’s energy was siphoned away by his one family member’s obsession with money and getting what she thought was hers. It was a travesty and I learned a lot from it, whether I wanted to or not. It angered Jimmy that he was being punished with cancer. Had he survived and not relapsed, I think he might have begun to feel pity for his family member again, as she was at the whim of her own addictions and demons – and he could see it.

The above picture is one which my cousin Jimmy insisted I take of him. It was immediately after his first cancer surgery. We were at his mom’s house. (My Aunt Ardith.) As you can see, Jimmy was still smiling and laughing. His mom wasn’t too thrilled with our brand of humor. Our custom was to make the most outrageous, tasteless and macabre statements that we could imagine. Between the two of us, we used to come up with some epic craziness. Aunt Ardith would sit in her perch on the couch next to the sliding glass doors, drinking her whiskey and coke, smoking, and feigning surprise and mirth at some of our goofiness. We had the ability to literally say anything to each other or about each other, directly, without fear of anger.

Jimmy was very confident that he was going to beat cancer. When this picture was taken, I was very hopeful. Realistically hopeful, I thought. Jimmy joked that this picture would make an ideal Christmas card. His mom specifically told me that I had better not make cards with the picture on it. (My reputation for doing that sort of thing was quite well known…) Jimmy then chimed in that it would make an ideal “All I got was this lousy bout of cancer” t-shirt. It’s still funny, although with a slightly different twist to it now.

The plan was going to be to post this picture on Facebook after-the-fact. Jimmy was interested in being able to talk to people about his experiences. As a well-liked employee of Budweiser, he knew a lot of people and would have a lot of opportunities to talk to people. Unfortunately, his cancer came back to take him down.

This picture might as well have been taken in another century. It both seems like both yesterday and ten years ago simultaneously. His mom became ill and died a few short months before him after he relapsed. His mom’s house is sold to strangers and Jimmy’s life is fading in everyone’s collective consciousness.When Jimmy died, I had tried to get people to write anecdotes and stories to share with me. I had made a commitment to share them out in the world in such a way as to attempt to keep those memories alive. I did my best to disseminate his pictures to friends and family, sharing them on public drives and makings disks, printed copies and any other method I could think of. We all have our stories and moments to remember with Jimmy. Some of us have a strong collection of memories, many of which were times that weren’t fun while we were living them but are as much a part of his life as the “good” times. As time slides past us, our stories will slide into the fog with us.

Whether it is wrong to say so or not, Jimmy’s death affected me in countless more ways than my own mother’s death did. I was with Jimmy for much of his final time and was with him when he finally had nothing left with which to fight. He weighed so little that it seemed only his soul remained in him.

Not only were we contemporaries, but we shared a common bond of ridiculous attitude toward many of life’s idiocies. We were both forged in a family where laughter could be replaced by drunken rage without notice. My youth was fuller thanks to Jimmy and his parents, even when the times weren’t so good.

Jimmy’s life was one of potential. His younger years were full of missteps and mistakes. (Isn’t that true of all of us, though?)  It would have been interesting to see what he would have made of his promotion at Budweiser, of his relationship with his girlfriend (and then wife) before his passing, or of his new appreciation for the scarcity of life. Had cancer not kicked him, I think he would have been one of those people who would have flourished with another lease on life. His laugh would have been a beacon to people and his youthful impatience would have dissipated.

 

 

(Jimmy is on the far right. Picture from Dogpatch, USA, the 1970s.)
If you’re interested, you can find a few more stories about my cousin Jimmy on this blog by using the “Category” drop-down menu on the right-hand side of the main blog page.
Here’s one: A Reminder…   and An Unfinished Blog Post.

I Think His Name Was Johnny

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It is strange how the human mind works.

This is a picture of a neighbor of mine, from years ago. I had a picture of us once. I took it in a moment in which he was feeling spontaneous. Jokingly, he asked to see it one afternoon and so I went inside and found it, handing it to him with a smile, so that he could look at it and make a wisecrack.

“Thanks,” he said, and put it in his pocket. I never saw that picture again.

This picture is one I took when I came out of my place and saw him sitting on the stoop, watching life pass him on the nearby street.

 

He lived near me and I spoke to him at least 100 times. While I have the ability to newly discover his name, I don’t recall what it is without using the power of the internet. He spoke with his hands, always, as his fingers moved through the air to document how much he had seen in his life.

I think his name was “Johnny,” and even as I tell myself that this is the case, I doubt my memory. I remember how animated he was when another neighbor left their car in the wrong gear. It rolled down the slight hill and smashed his older and meticulously-maintained older car. I also remember asking him for a lit cigarette (I didn’t smoke) and sticking it up one of my nostrils. He laughed so hard I thought he was going to need CPR.

He killed himself with a pistol as he sat mired in his loneliness, near the narrow road in that insufferably small town, where the community pool once existed. The road is no longer so narrow, but my memory remains constricted.

I felt stupid and selfish, watching the thunderstorm of police and bystanders near the road. His wife was there, waiting for the rush to subside. I drank at least 6 cups of coffee, one after another as word spread that he had killed himself. He had lived a fascinating life, one filled with great moments and great turmoil.

I feel like my own unseen and upcoming suffering erased him from my mind.

I see his picture in my photo archives. It picks at me for reasons that I can’t quite place.

I added the hyperrealistic effect to the colors because my memory of who he truly was has made its escape from my grasp.

A Day in 2006

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As you get older, photo albums become museum exhibits, each page containing an increasing number of people who’ve departed. From life to history, exchanged laughter to memory, photos measure our metamorphosis into two-dimensional objects, even as our minds scramble to keep the growing blank spaces filled in.

One day, if we are lucky, loving hands will choose our picture to honor a place in their album. We’ll sit in frozen repose, our life encapsulated inside a rectangular slice of paper. Maybe someone will look at our features and shed a tear for our passing and perhaps even laugh uproariously as we are remembered in our glory of ridiculousness.

In time, though, even those hands will succumb to frailty and find their own place in an album chosen by another friend or family member. We are each a link in the perpetual chain of human memory.

This is not a call-to-action, nor another “carpe diem.” Rather, it’s a call-to-inaction.

I ask you to sit in silence and look at the arc of your life, one measured in mirth, connections in time, and moments. It’s impossible to reflect on one’s own life without appreciating the immensity of days most of us have been given. Each passes us by, though, and afterward, we are left to wonder how they slithered past.

Your series of rectangles will wait there for you, somewhere in the nebulous fog of time, even if you reach then unprepared.

We ask for things when moments always suffice.
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P.S. This is a picture I took years ago, in 2006. I was feeding the ducks and the half-submerged and hesitant turtles lurking near the bank of the pond. The lady and boy were visiting. While it was her clothing which caught my attention, it was the incredible wit of the young boy who stole the moment. He was a delight and my wife kneeled down to discuss important matters of zoology with him. I didn’t snap a picture because I was overwhelmed by the interesting people and moment. I don’t remember any other details about the encounter, except that it was a late Monday afternoon.