A friend posted a version of the “what is your name backward?” quiz. My name is not only the shortest possible palindrome, but it is still my name no matter how you turn the letter. Also, no matter where I go, maps have an “X” on them, and state, “You are here.” It’s like they KNOW. X is not only the antepenultimate letter of the alphabet, but it is also the third-least used, which explains why dates were so hard for me to come by when I was younger. In math, X is an independent and unknown variable. (Which also explains my dating issues when I was younger.) On the plus side, I rarely had to do math, because the teachers instructed my classmates to “solve for X.” X has also become a non-binary gender identifier, indicates buried or hidden treasure, used to indicate a signature and/or illiteracy, can be used as a multiplier, indicates Voiceless velar fricative (that’s a literal mouthful), an axis in the Cartesian coordinate system, is a stand-in name for people undergoing spiritual conversion, the number 10, and also indicates that a work is the result of a collaboration between two artists. Though it inexplicably angers some, the X in Xmas stands for Christ from its Greek roots. When I picked the simplest possible name, I missed the boat!
After I wrote my Rip-Shirt story, someone messaged me to tell me she knew who the person was I taught to stitch. And then she gave me the gift of sharing a few anecdotes about the time she spent with him. My memory didn’t keep any recollections of them being close. But I take pride in knowing that my little story, the one about a sliver of my life, took her back to another time. I did that. And she felt comfortable enough to share bits of herself with me – someone who is a hack but loves personal stories.
I think we all crave personal stories if we can stop worrying about language or our words being misconstrued. Who are we kidding? We don’t understand ourselves, not really, so the expectation that others conform to an idea of our self-image that we don’t even possess is a bit preposterous.
I love to think that every once in a while that I write something that triggers a memory and hopefully a fond one. While we should not get anchored in the past, there are few greater pleasures than using our nostalgic eyes to wander in time. As we age, we change around the static memories. It’s our gift. For anyone lucky enough, our memories soften and gauze our eyes to the harshness that pervades people.
As for the man I taught to stitch in my story, I have a couple of stories that are simply hard to believe. One of them is either incurably romantic – or breathtakingly odd. The overlap of both possibilities is what makes me remember it. I don’t remember all the details, but I’ll try to write the story in a future post in such a way so that no one gets in the crosshairs about it. Other than the man in question, only one other person knew it happened. I used to think I understood his motives clearly. Age taught me that I was mistaken. I wish I had known then that piece of his heart. Though you don’t know of which story I’m writing, I laugh and admit that the day I’ll write about would definitely have ended differently.
For now, I just wanted to share that I feel like my rip-shirt story pushed several people back in time to consider people they loved. People wrote to me on my blog, too. Sewing is an activity that most people predominantly feel echoes from their childhood.
Each time I share such stories, many of them seem to take on a life of their own. Others see them and realize that they too are connected to me in intangible ways. Whether it is a plane crash on a clear blue day, an untimely death, that some of our family are not who we think, the closets of secrets so many of us carry in our front pockets as we live our lives, we each are capable of surprising ourselves and others.
The coincidences and unlikely overlap of our lives should no longer surprise me.
But it does. And whatever regard for other’s people stories I have, they envelop me.*
Although it seems insignificant, I deleted a story today, one that was 40+ pages. Not because it was a lesser story, but because I am incapable of the subtlety needed to capture the bittersweet dread and optimistic anticipation of each of my days.
Each fall, I look back and remember when a plane crashed where I lived. It could have easily zeroed me out in a blink. The story I wrote involved Joe Frasca, the dead pilot, visiting me, much in the way Scrooge had visitors from the past and future.
In the story, Joe Frasca did not waste his time telling me to use my allotted time wisely.
Instead, he told me that the only authentic life is one that’s observed, felt, and experienced, regardless of location. We focus so much on the Kodak moments, the vistas snapped in impersonal pictures and the adrenaline-laced remnants of activity that we forget that every single moment of our lives is a solitary window observing everyone and everything around us.
That Joe was an expert stunt pilot and saw the world from one of the best viewpoints possible isn’t lost on me.
I forgot that the pilot was engaged at the time of his death. Someone sent me a link to a blog post his sister wrote. After reading it, I realized that the lessons he did actually leave me with aren’t mine to fictionalize. One day, if I am capable, I will revisit the story, in the same way that I still look to the sky, wondering about the other universe floating above us.
I hope you find it in your heart to forgive me for writing stories in related batches. Like any storyteller with a labyrinth of brain cells, I find myself wandering between branches of the same story. At times, what seems interesting to others is evident to me. In others? I’m clueless.
As I attempted to finish this, I thought of the innumerable times I’ve wondered about how I acted and what I was trying to say with this story. I’m not sure. It’s an apology at heart, though inexpertly written. It’s a wildly imperfect recounting, too. And that’s good enough for me. The day is too long to slow the urge to share. One of these days, as I write, it will be the last time I do so, though I won’t know it. As with the millions of stories everyone holds close to their secret hearts, they will vanish and with no witnesses to bring life to them.
As my senior year in high school ended, I moved to Elm Springs. I’ve written a few stories about it, both the violent end of my parent’s marriage and others about the whimsical encounters of life I experienced there. Nostalgia paints it in a way that evades mundane description.
This one is an apology. Though it is likely that the person I needlessly harmed doesn’t recall, I do. I’ve done so many things that are much worse than this. Trying to explain why my brain zeroes in on this relatively small story and goes back to my choice to be cruel offers no explanation.
A friend I didn’t initially know very well named Don Braden occasionally came over in the summer. I can’t even remember how it started for him to visit. For anyone to come over to my house was an anomaly. Only a couple of people in my childhood knew the shorthand of dread that I experienced at the idea of others knowing the content of what passed as a homelife for me. Many of us experienced this, and it is a strange common ground upon which to stand with human beings. A couple of childhood friends knew: Troy Duncan, Mike Hignite, and others to a much lesser degree. It is no accident that, despite the intervening distance, the fondness I feel for them is distilled nostalgia. I can’t explain why there were some people I could just say, “My parents are violent and drink too much. It might not be safe at my house. Also, I don’t know what the heck I’m doing.” I have no gauge or measure to explain what allowed or compelled me to be forthcoming to some and guiltily silent with others.
Don would sometimes ride my terrible bicycle (or his, too maybe? – please pardon my lack of recall) as I ran several miles around the long circuit of the lake’s roads. He was an awkward guy – but certainly not to my level. I’m confident I misjudged how smart he turned out to be. He had a quick wit and smiled relentlessly. While I ran, having him talk to me was a welcome way to relax and melt the miles away.
One of the things Don didn’t know was how uncertain the storm of my Dad’s anger could be. I don’t recall Dad exploding in anger in front of Don, but I remember snarled mumbles and veiled complaints. Due to my limited ability to warn people, I didn’t know how to navigate the implications of just yelling out, “It might not be safe here.” Don gave no indication (that I remember) that he had any idea of what a terrible family life might be like. As I grow older, I am still astonished to discover that people precisely like me were hidden in plain sight. Some make my stories of vulgar violence seem meaningless. I think and hope that Don’s childhood is what shaped his effortless ability to laugh. And that he still possesses the superpower of humor.
If I did yell out a warning about my parents and didn’t remember doing it, I know that I wasn’t entirely honest. There were a couple of times before Dad ran off to Monroe County to start a new life that Don barely missed an outburst, both coming and going.
I liked running and riding with Don. But the fear of ‘something’ happening convinced me to be a lesser human being to him.
One early afternoon, Don drove over. He knocked. Instead of answering the door, I hid in the back. The console tv in the living room, visible from the front windows, blared. He waited. Finally, he retrieved a large watermelon from his vehicle. He broke it on the concrete porch in front of the house, creating a delicious mound of watermelon pieces and running juice. Instead of coming out and admitting I was at home, I went out the back door and waited. How long I waited, I don’t remember. Don ate handfuls of the watermelon. At some point, he decided that no one was at home or coming out. He cleaned his hands with the water spigot outside and left.
It was a dumb thing to do. In my defense, I was an idiot. I don’t know if it would have helped him to know that my stupidity and lack of understanding of how to deal with people was the problem – not him. I don’t understand how letting him stand outside with a broken watermelon could have saved him from any potential craziness had my Dad came home, much less violently. That seems to highlight precisely how muted my ability to be logical regarding my situation was.
I didn’t keep up with Don. I didn’t keep with most people. Don went to the Air Force, someone told me. And I was glad for him.
Though I found Don on social media. I didn’t reach out to him. He is smiling and apparently living a good life. I wouldn’t want him to remember that I was a jerk, nor to disturb his life. If Don miraculously ever reads this, I, of course, later figured out that Don could have been a great friend, especially if I could have been honest so he could see that I was just an idiot. It’s easier to be friends with an idiot than a bad person.
Not that my blip of hideous behavior could deflect someone from the trajectory of a great life, but it is increasingly evident that we have no idea whatsoever what the smallest thing can do to affect another person’s life. Given the terrible things I’ve said and done in this life, I haven’t been able to put this one aside. I can’t explain my reluctance to share other stories of pure craziness and yet find this one stuck in my throat.
Recently, a friend posted about kayaking on Lake Elmdale. He also mentioned that many people seem to be unaware of its existence. (The lake, not kayaking – although I do wonder if such people who kayak really exist.) I tend to agree with him. Lake Elmdale is an artificial lake built in 1953. It derives its name from a mix of the names for Elm Springs and Springdale communities. I think they missed their chance by not naming it something extraordinary, like “Devil’s Tooth Lake,” or even “Drowning Hole.” Arkansas already boasts Nimrod Lake, named after Noah’s grandson. (Sorry, but the word “Nimrod” was forever redefined by Looney Tunes.)
Since I have your attention, in 1950, Springdale had a bit over 5,000 people. Ten years later, the population doubled. Elm Springs started at 217 and, by 1960, added a whopping 21 additional people.
I have dozens of stories from my youth involving this body of water. Many from my early childhood are fishing stories involving my Dad and Uncle Buck or a rotating series of misfits called friends. Other stories are from the time when I lived in Elm Springs in the mid-80s.
If you look at the picture, you can see one of the lake access roads on the right, about halfway up. Just a short drive beyond, and you can take a left on Lakeview and quickly reach Elm Springs road. Continuing on the circuitous route past the lake entrance, and you’ll emerge on Elm Springs Road further east and headed to what is now I-40. This story is really about the roadway’s right side, where the lake access ramp road intersects with E. Lake Road.
(GPS coordinates if such things interest you.)
My Dad loved a good scare while driving. Whether it involved turning off the headlights at any random moment, cutting unexpectedly through a field (fence or not), jumping out of the vehicle if it were going slowly enough, leaving the wheel to whoever might be both inside and paying attention, shooting a pistol or shotgun from inside the cab, playing chicken with unsuspecting people dumb enough to be on the road at the same time, driving on railroad tracks (sometimes suspended) over creeks, marshes, and rivers, or hitting things for no discernible reason, my Dad often had no limits.
I know that the last sentence is intolerably long. I wanted to pile it all out there to give you an idea of the level of crazy that might Dad exhibited. Sometimes, it was scary. Looming death tends to be that way. Other times, it was fun – but after the fact. Surviving such ‘fun’ colors the ability to laugh about it.
My apologies for taking so long to get to the point. Before this picture was taken, the road was less maintained. Edges weren’t graded appropriately, and erosion and run-off worsened already bumpy or uneven roads. This specific spot was no exception.
While I don’t remember the first time Dad revved his truck to 50+ mph and fly across the edge of this entrance as he passed, I remember coming off the cab’s seat and floating for the briefest instant. Whether the vehicle had a solid axle or good suspension had a say in managing the landing. If you’re thinking of the Dukes of Hazzard reading this, you’re not far off the mark. Though you might think I am exaggerating, Dad once convinced me and my brother Mike that he would do it at 80 mph. He did, after telling us he was going to for a long approach. Our butts were clenched until the point we realized that Dad wasn’t bluffing. Afterward, I felt that Dad would have regretted doing it had he not been three sheets to the wind. When I tell the story, I usually say, “I could see Kansas from up there.” It’s a joke. It was decently dark when Dad took that last quarter of a mile stretch before hitting the bump at 80 mph. After keeping the truck in the road, he hit the brakes and skidded to a full stop. He took the Camel cigarette out of his mouth with a flourish, looked at Mike and me cowering against the other door panel, and said, “Which one of you wants to drive and do it again?” Dad took the same jump, albeit slower than 80 mph, while we were in the back of the truck in the bed, too. We failed to determine whether clutching the truck’s side was safer or to lay against the tailgate.
At times, Dad doing this sort of thing would involve Mom being in the car or truck with him. Mom’s reaction to being scared like this can best be described as “murderous rage” or by one of her signature phrases, “Go# Da## It, Bobby Dean!” shouted at ear-piercing levels. If it lands me in hell for saying so, I’ll admit that hearing her squawk like that was amusing as long as we weren’t witnessing the oft-overlooked attempted murder aspect of many of our weekends.
If you are wondering if Dad ever wrecked, broke an axle, or blew out a tire doing these things, the answer is “yes.” Likewise, if you wonder if any of us ever suddenly experienced bladder control issues, you’d be right for questioning.
On one occasion, Dad drove with his boss back to his house in Elm Springs. The truck was a Cheyenne or Chevrolet truck of some sort, one of their favorites to restore. In those days, rednecks often stated with confidence, “I have to blow the cobwebs out.” Being young, I didn’t understand the cliché but did know that it roughly translated to mean, “I’m going to go incredibly fast and possibly die in this vehicle.” Dad wasn’t drinking. I was in the bed of the truck with Duke, Dad’s german shepherd. Charles sat upfront up with Dad. He had a cigar in his mouth as he often did. Charles was also married to one of Dad’s cousins. I didn’t figure that out until years later.
We drove down Highway 112 and turned on E. Lake Road leading to the lake. About halfway between Highway 112 and the lake, Dad slowed and shouted to me out the window, “White lightning!” I immediately realized that it was a “go” for Operation Scare the Boss Shi$less.” The phrase could refer to the hell-raising 1973 movie starring Burt Reynolds or to moonshine – and sometimes both.
About 100 yards from the side road to the lake, Dad pushed the gas hard and shifted gears. As we hit the bump and sailed off the ground, I laughed. I heard Charles scream in surprise and then scream at Dad, asking if he’d lost his ever-loving mind. By the time we reached Charles’ house, he was laughing and jokingly cursing at Dad.
One more note. Thanks to Dad, I learned how to drive through barbed-wire fences, closed gates, front lawns, flooding creeks, and just about anything else. Here’s the secret: you have to not give a damn about what happens when you do it. Once you master that skill, sober or inebriated, you too can be an amateur stuntman. I wish that I had experienced that version of my Dad freed from alcohol. There’s no doubt he would have still managed to convince me I might die at a given moment.
When my brother Mike came home from leave in the Army, I didn’t get to spend much time with him. Life’s demands and the constraints of his limited time conspired against us. We did drive the road leading to Lake Elmdale, though. I knew Mike was going to ask before we ever approached the jump zone. “Should we?” he asked me, laughing. We were in my car. He was driving. “How can we not?!” I shouted. We hit the bump going 50 mph. As soon as we started to lift, Mike regretted testing his courage. After the adrenaline subsided, we drove for another hour along what once were quieter roads. 33 or 34 years have passed.
In the years since, in the spirit of full disclosure, I too have excessively sped toward that same bump without warning the occupants of the car. Though the ridge is considerably flatter than it once was while I am much fatter, it never fails to fill me with nostalgia for both the times that were and those which weren’t.
Back in the 80s, a popular photographer roamed the hills and valleys of NWA. One of his spots was a spot off E. Lake Road in Elm Springs, not too far from the post office and cemetery entrance. Because I know better than to trust my memory, I can’t be sure his tradename is as I remember it, but it was close. He was popular for senior pictures. One of the spots he used wasn’t too far from the road, in part because of the dense trees, foliage, and sloping once you stepped off the side of the road. It used to have a short section of lateral fencing there. Many seniors, especially girls, found themselves at this spot posing. The people I’m going to mention had nothing to do with this photographer, at least as far as I know. I mention him only because of what happened. The photographer I crossed paths with did use one of the senior photographer’s go-to spots, though.
I lived next to the Willis Shaw lot, near what is now the Police Department on Jayroe Avenue, on the other side of Highway 112. Many days, you could find me running, sometimes biking, and often walking the miles of roads in the area. It was a beautiful place to be able to do so. Those familiar with the area need no convincing.
One summer evening, I walked several miles and was coming back home on E. Lake Road after walking to Springdale. It was about 8. I can’t be sure because we didn’t have cellphones and I certainly had no watch. The sunlight was fading, and the valley there was dense and beautiful in a backroads way. Even though I was wearing a cheap radio, the batteries went dead a few miles into the walk. I’m sure I listened to KCIZ FM-105 for most of my walk. The insects were deafening. Over them, I could hear voices shouting and laughing. Their voices carried surprisingly well. I walked at least a couple of more minutes without being able to see them. I realized that their voices had shifted and that I had probably passed them. Even though I was exhausted, I turned around and walked a few feet down a horribly-maintained side driveway. The laughter that I heard was raucous and fun. I didn’t see a vehicle. As for my curiosity, youth usually overrides caution.
I stopped in my tracks. About twenty feet from me stood a naked man holding what appeared to be a large, expensive camera. In front of him and to the right was a naked woman. To get this out of the way, the woman was beautiful. She had black hair down to her shoulders. Although no one remembers her now, I’d say she looked like Phyllis Davis. She was teasing the photographer about taking too long with the shot. She stopped talking momentarily when she saw me. And then waved and smiled, as if I were expected at any moment. The photographer turned and laughed. “Hey bud!” he said, smiling.
It seemed like I just stood stupefied for a few seconds. “Hello,” I said, much too loudly.
Then, I turned and sprinted away from the driveway and up the road, all the way to the highway. I could hear the two of them laughing with strange merriment as I bolted away from them.
I ran past that spot at least five hundred more times. While I didn’t run past to see the woman, I did look to see if she was there. She never reappeared, though I did see a lot of unexpected people and things on those backroads. Walking quietly at any hour of the night often yielded people in places where they were expecting privacy. The cemetery there in Elm Springs certainly gave me a list of stories I could share.
Thirty-five plus years later, I sometimes wonder what the story was with Phyllis Davis’ doppelganger. She had the looks to be a model, and she didn’t seem surprised by seeing me magically appear from the roadside.
P.S. She is the only reason I remember Phyllis Davis or her name.
“As sorry as I was to hear of my brother’s passing, I’ll bet the news bothered him a LOT more.” – X
There’s a considerable risk in people misunderstanding you on a good day. Many of us tend to judge others with the worst possible filter. I’ve found that good people can understand and appreciate contradictory and sublime behavior. Those who don’t just aren’t my people. Old age and experience, if we’re lucky, gives us more latitude in recognizing this.
The greater danger is people hearing what you actually said, and you having no defensible context to mitigate it. So much of life is context, and much of that isn’t immediately explainable. “You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t” is a cliché for a reason.
The joke that started this post? I’m sure people can and will get angry if they choose to. They’ll claim I wrote it as an insult to Mike. It’s not. He would laugh his ass off reading that joke. About one hundred times over the years, I threw one of Woody Allen’s jokes at him: “I’m not afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Years later, I threw in another one: “My relationship with death remains the same,” he said. “I’m strongly against it.” When Mike and I were young, we both read “Death Knocks,” a story (turned play) by Woody Allen. It was a sometimes topic of hilarity, even though Mike did not like Woody Allen as he grew older. Mike and I both made many bargains with imaginary devils and deities when we were young.
Only those who can imagine hiding in the space between the bed and the wall in the dark and waiting for a parent to come for them in a drunken rage might be able to understand the connection between bargaining and gallows humor. I have a list of stories about these incidents, and some of them surprise me by being funny. If you’ve read my blog, you can see that I’ve largely refrained from identifying some of my family by name. Despite this, I still infrequently find myself at the receiving end of hateful criticism.
When we lived at City View Trailer Park in Springdale, Mike swallowed an incredible amount of tobacco juice. Several of us had played and fought down at the retched pond that once stood at the end of City View. Mike spent much of his time between punches proudly with a mouthful of tobacco. He puked violently on the floor for what seemed like a full minute. That black juice stained the purple carpet deeply. No amount of cleaning could remove it. We’ll talk later about how someone thought purple carpet in a tinderbox trailer might look attractive. When the trailer burned, the stain obstinately remained. The carpet was dark, of course, but the underlying stain plainly stood out. Years later, when Mike and I spent the night at Mom and Dad’s house on Highway 49, Mike compared that stain to dealing with being helpless all those years, or nearly so. That was the same night we discovered that a nest of yellow jackets inhabited the other bedroom’s west-facing window. That’s a story for another day. As for the tobacco, despite attempts to make Mike stop, he dipped most of his adult life. I have at least three dozen pictures of him spitting into a bottle, cup, or a family member’s potted plant to prove it.
After Dad died, my cousin jimmy recommended that I watch a particular Billy Bob Thorton movie. Most people have never heard of “Daddy And Them.” You’ll be shocked if you take a look at how many stars joined this movie. Because it was set in Arkansas, it accurately grabs the absurdity of white trash living and wraps it in comedy. (A difficult feat.) After Jimmy twisted my arm and made me watch it, I did the same to Mike. In it was one of the jokes my brother and I shared as hilarious. Here’s the joke:
“Hey! Do you know what Dad would say if he were alive today?” One of us would reply, “No, what?” Dramatic pause. “Let me out!” With the last line, we scratch the air in front of us with both hands as if we were clawing our way out of the coffin. Last year, an Irish veteran stole the joke and shocked funeral attendees by having a pre-recorded tape of his voice shouting to be let out played during his service. Mike thought it was hilarious and an excellent way to separate the humorless from the good people in a crowd. “Can you imagine how tightly wound up Aunt Elsie’s panties would get if someone did that?” was part of his reply.
I have to say, though, that despite the immense teeth-gnashing my brother and I often shared, our deplorable and macabre sense of humor was unrivaled. Marines and serial killers alike cringed if they accidentally overheard our nonsense.
No matter what you’ve read and heard on sitcoms or dramas about the impossibility of confining an involuntary laugh at a funeral, my brother and I separately were a disaster; in combination, we probably deserved the death penalty. Some of the fault lies with my Dad. Even when he wasn’t drinking, he could say some of the most outrageous things devised by a human being. He once called the preacher a “co$$su$$er” in front of about 50 people just to get a leg up on him. In a twist of fate I’ve written about before, Dad and the preacher somehow became friends.
My brother Mike once unknowingly used an open mic at a funeral home in Brinkley to improvise a bit of comedy regarding our Grandma’s teeth. The funeral director sheepishly ran into the outer area to grab the mic from my brother and tell him that it was a ‘hot mic.’ It’s essential that you know that my Grandma was one of the two closest people I ever loved. Despite that, I laughed. I cannot think about that incident without losing a little bit of my soul to laughter. I’m convinced each chuckle puts me a foot further into purgatory.
There’s no greater or sublime pleasure having someone who is both smart and willing to go the extra mile for a laugh, joke, or smile – even if it burns down a few villages on the way there. I give Mike the win, though, because he could tell jokes that I wouldn’t. That’s saying a lot.
Not too many months ago, I sent my brother a collection of hand-written postcards, each with a joke from comedians we both loved. As with index cards in my back pocket, I’m also a fan of prestamped postcards for quick notes. Even while we were uneasily bickering, I wanted him to know that humor was still a big part of my life. (Even if I’m old, boring, wear a lot of black socks as leisurewear, and get too excited by an early buffet.)
Mike would see these words as a compliment.
Because of our relationship, I tend to expect someone to emerge with poison in their hearts to attempt to silence me for joking. Those who know me also know I’ve written multiple times about the fact that they have my permission to mock me to the end of the world when I’m gone, especially if it is funny or creative. Mike was not someone to pull back from a bastardly comment. The same quick and violent tongue he sometimes used to wound me also created some world-class humor. For everyone who knew Mike and watched him in action on solemn occasions, the Bobby Dean in him could not be confined or controlled. Trying to do so was just catnip for his enthusiasm to up the ante.
It’s not reasonable to accuse me of glossing over or attempting to sugarcoat Mike’s life. Equally so, I have to tip my hat when it is merited. Both of us emerged from childhood with a scorched-earth comedic streak. It probably saved us as many times as it caused us grief.
As it turns out, Mike was indeed there when death came for him. His birthday would have been November 1st, the day after Halloween. For some, it is All Souls Day. When I sat to finish Mike’s ancestry record, I noticed that his two children are the same age I was when our Dad died. Mike was 20,062 days old, the mentioning of which would irritate him due to my occasional reminder that I still keep a tab of how many days old I am.
My job is to remember the Mike who put a fish under the driver’s seat of my 1984 Oldsmobile in the middle of summer during a visit to Aunt Barbara’s. (Without telling me.) Or the Mike who read “Lord of The Rings” in almost one sitting back in the early 80s.
Please don’t fault me for taking refuge in contradictory stories about Mike. But if you do, I’ll accept that charge. Given the arc of my origins, I find this potential sin to be minuscule.
P.S. The word “acolate” is mine, one devised to denote eulogic remembrance, perhaps a day too late.
This post is a portmanteau of lives. One was a dedicated writer, and one was a policeman; both failed to adequately recognize their afflictions.
My wife’s eyes sometimes glaze over when I hear tales of “writer’s block.” I don’t know what that is. I can’t help myself: I always say, “What’s that?” half-jokingly. It’s the same way with me regarding boredom. Reading, writing, genealogy, humor, photography, and just scrolling the window of the internet could entertain me for fifty consecutive years. I’d be ideally suited to be a vampire.
This time, we were watching “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” on HBO. Michelle McNamara had her deadline pushed forward a month and struggled to realize her ambition of finishing her book. It was her lifelong dream. She died before DNA solved the case of The Golden State Killer. Michelle and I share many attributes regarding writing. I don’t put myself on her level, though, so there’s no need to remind me snarkily. But I don’t understand the inability to plow through. She resorted to drugs to keep her up and allow sleep when necessary. The thing she relied on to help her achieve her ambition also undid her life.
I can’t walk the street, work, or sit and listen to music without wanting to research a hundred different ideas. Things breeze into my mind at a velocity that I cherish. The satisfaction of an overactive mind isn’t diminished by the value or result of the ideas. I’m able to divorce content from needing a goal. This allows me to produce dozens of things that never see the light of day or end up in the ‘delete’ file simply due to happenstance.
Had Michelle raised her hand and admitted she was overwhelmed, Patton Oswald and their mutual daughter would still have her in their lives. Instead, her book and ambition fell to uncertain others to complete, and Michelle lost a presumable thirty or forty years with family.
While I wrote the first part of this a few weeks ago, it still is on my mind. Not just because it was a great show, or a peek into a writer’s life, but also because a piece of it parallels the life of my brother. He was ridiculously smart. He could have worked to be a writer. As I do with anyone I recognize as innately great at writing, I repeatedly tried to convince him to spend a portion of his life writing his stories. I do not doubt that he easily had several books of material in him. Much of his writing might have derived from his professional career as a policeman and detective. Even his Army career was as an MP.
Michelle McNamara’s life revolved around crime and its intricate tendrils. My brother Mike spent his career investigating and collaring criminals. While Michelle’s ambition always included being a writer, Mike could have done the same, and just as expertly.
The contradiction is that his job itself was one of his biggest impediments. It put a wedge between his personal life and his ability to live it. The schedule, the demands, and the danger of having a job that perilously exaggerated his tendency toward authoritarianism. People often ask whether the job makes the man or the man gravitates toward it. I’m not sure. As much difficulty as my brother had coming out of his youth, the job exacerbated his personality defects. It’s no secret that police are more likely to be abusive and susceptible to addiction. My brother chose alcohol to appease his conflict. Michell McNamara chose prescription medications. Anyone who gets angry at me for saying so doesn’t understand me. In Michelle’s case, her husband Patton capably framed her turmoil in a very public and touching television show.
My brother’s intentions to retire as a detective after a full career collided with his inability to stop drinking. He was forced to retire. Even still, he could have turned that blow into a blossoming retirement. Had he stopped drinking, he might have lived to be seventy instead of dying before his fifty-fifth birthday. Because he was smart enough to work in the north, his pension was protected by a formidable police union. He had the option to pursue any interest he desired.
I was envious of that and his ability to work a job that allowed it. It’s a fantasy for most of us to round fifty and shift to do whatever interests us.
In the last couple of years, I sent Mike books, starting with “The Accidental Salvation of Gracie Lee.” I knew it would ignite his interest and recognition of what writing about the South could do. It was my hope he’d begin to leave the alcohol to the side, even if it cost him herculean effort to do so. He’d be able to careen into another career writing feverishly. Whatever else Mike did or didn’t do, he also loved books and libraries. That’s something that can’t be said about many police.
Mike’s death not only closed the door on his gift of writing, but it also cost him a couple of decades with his family. They’ll each struggle with the legacy of his big personality and choices. As Mike declined, I couldn’t help but get irritated at him for the waste of his life. Instead of pivoting to change his course and take advantage of the privilege of a chosen life, he furiously wasted his and his family’s energies to dedicate himself to drink. As bad it was, we were all lucky a few of the circumstances didn’t cause greater harm to others.
Now, silence. What could have been a rejuvenated family and life is now a complicated and unenviable path to an uncertain future for all of them.
As in my mother’s case, I know that much of the harsh words I shared with my brother were a result of alcoholism. Knowing it helps more now that they are passed than it ever did while they lived. He recognized the danger, just as I always did, but relied on his devious inner voice to convince himself he could overcome it. The same personality that made him loud and larger than life also participated in his fall. Many of our family and ancestors did the same. None of our ancestors who knew they were alcoholics successfully pulled out of it. It’s a sobering thought. I’ve written about the infection of my family. While I cannot adequately describe it, the trajectory of those around me gives proof that my theory must have some validity.
Mike loved that I wrote stories. Some of them caused him grief, especially before he could come to terms with the magnitude of the shadow that our dad and others left behind us. He vested energy in secrecy while I opted to throw open the windows. I was often a terrible brother. The only safe harbor I had at my disposal was separation. Mike had trouble seeing that my life was not one punctuated by drama. He also hated that I told him more than once that were I in his shoes, I would do anything and everything to break my addiction. It wasn’t because I felt superior to him in that regard, but that I never fooled myself into believing that any of us have magical skills that preclude us from behaving stupidly. Behavior that is obviously hard-wired into our DNA is that much more insurmountable.
The shelf that could have held Mike’s books will be forever empty.
The lives he could have intersected with for the next twenty years will now bounce obliquely off someone else.
The silences and subsequent shouts of confused recrimination will echo in his vacant place.
The first picture is my sister, my brother Mike, and me laying like a lump of coal. This picture was taken at Grandpa and Grandpa Cook’s house in Rich, when they lived near White Cemetery. The second was taken when we lived in Springdale for a short time.
My brother recently died as he neared 55. Our dad died before he turned 50.
The military was not Mike’s first, second, or third choice. But it’s the choice that got him out of Arkansas and into a career in law enforcement. Whatever else the military does, it spectacularly solves a multitude of problems when people join. It may present others, that’s true, but those are unseen and delayed when you decide to join. No matter how old we get, option fatigue is paralyzing.
Out of high school, my brother recently returned from a very brief stint at Arkansas State University. He convinced me that the military was the worst possible choice for me, even though I was being offered an incredibly cushy spot in the Army music program. As it always does, hindsight paints a panorama of choices and chances for me in the Army.
Mike then turned around unexpectedly and went directly into the Army and off to another life, leaving me with a wtf-face beyond description. He went to Germany while there were still two of them and then to Northern Illinois, where he remained.
Over a decade later, I seriously considered the option of the military again. I had my physical and background check, and also signed up for delayed entry. He got me out of that idea, too.
Because of our upbringing, I often wonder what would have been the course of our lives if he stayed in Springdale and I had left for the Army as a musician. Would his tendency toward drinking and anger blossom so fiercely. Would mine, had I untethered from family?
In those early years, he publicly held the family honor, even as it continued to vex him. Me? I changed my name and kept my distance. Being poor helped me in this regard. Being ignorant didn’t hurt, either. Mike gave me a lot of grief for my dislike for most of the family’s ideas of politics and how to behave. In my defense and as I increasingly learned, racism often disguised itself as politics. In part because he was the big brother and in part because he thought he was indeed the authority, he fought and lectured me to stop sharing family secrets. I often called him Mike O’Reilly, even though he wanted to break my fingers for it. As time passed, it became evident to anyone paying attention thought although I was the weird kid with the weirder name, I was dead on regarding our biography. Mike favored the Terry family while I loved the Cooks. Both had an equal measure of mishap and heartbreak. The Terry family just had a bigger rug they used to sweep everything under.
As late as last year, I was still uncovering skeletons from our family. People make movies and write books about such strangeness. Had I followed Mike’s insistence to let it go, I would have never picked up genealogy or pursued DNA trails.
Who we once were does not determine who we will be; however, its aim is so undeniably true that those who manage to escape their fate are miracles at work. A lot of smart people know their arcs. Few see themselves in the shadow of their choices. I’m often as guilty as anyone. I’ve never doubted that I inherited the infection of whatever ails my family. I’ve felt its breath to varying degrees for my entire adult life.
Mike was smarter than me. It’s unquestionable. There must be some magical sliding scale and accounting that would prioritize other things over intelligence. I would have cashed in a bucket of compassion and a dose of deafness for a lower IQ. When you are as under-prepared for adult life as we were, it is folly to follow our trajectories and assume success.
Somewhere in those years, that shared biography and its litany of grievances overtook my brother. While I arced into a middle-aged life, he let his guard down to how human he was and how inescapable the dungeon of the lesser can be to us.
While I was still talking to him at length, I asked him at least fifty times to take his time and energy and sit and write his stories. He loved to read and had lived a life stuffed with unusual characters. He told several book that he was excited about the book I was going to write. He didn’t take me up on my enthusiasm. So many stories passed with him.
No matter what anyone else said or will say, one of the things I consider a gift is to often recognize the universality of a good story. Mike had many of them. As I’ve often echoed about my youth, though Mike and I often were at odds, I’d be the first to line up to read a book of stories from his life, whether they were darkly shadowed or humorous.
I’m ready to rush ahead to the magical time when our memories shift and shuffle and lose their harsh edges. Nostalgia is one of those things that’s hard to define yet bangs a gong in all of us.
Though my dad died over twenty-seven years ago, I’m still pondering his choices, his secrets, and his pathology. I still find new revelations.
I suspect it will be the same with my brother.
We fought bitterly a few times in my life. As hard as it was for him to understand, I usually fought for quiet.
Some will exit onto the revisionist road, believing that one’s life and echoes end with death and that those who remain can change the stories of a person’s life. Others will individually have their own stories to tell and questions to ask. It is our way as human beings.
As for me, all judgement laid to rest, all I see is a reservoir of memories and stories. Whether they are told or not is not a valid question. They’ll be told, whether in whispers or shouts.
As we learned in “Like Water For Chocolate,” the emotions experienced while preparing food can significantly affect the culinary experience. (If you haven’t read this book or seen the movie, I will wait while you do so. You can read it in English if you need to.) The book on which the movie was based is separated into twelve sections, much like the months of the year. Each era is associated with particular foods that define the protagonist’s life.
It was important for her to unexpectedly inflict a bit of terror (or at least a sense of dread or apprehension) in someone in her vicinity while cooking. In part, it would explain the tendency for someone to wail, cry, or whimper while we ate supper. You might presume we were whimpering from the flavor otherwise. In mom’s defense, she didn’t need to concern herself with food. We were trained to eat anything without an audible complaint. In my case, I loved macaroni and any vegetable, even if coming directly from a can. Because I trusted my Grandma, I’d eat anything she offered. While there were times I didn’t like something she made, I never questioned whether it SHOULD be eaten. With my mom, this definitely wasn’t the case. There were exceptions. Because of my youth’s craziness, people often overlook the exceptions that were not characterized by the lesser human emotions I experienced growing up.
While it may not come across as funny, dad often did have a humorous way of driving mom bonkers about food. “What’s cooking,” he might shout. Or, “What in f$$$ is that smell?” Mom sometimes would scream back at him – and sometimes be funny in her response. It’s hard to explain how shouting and annoyance are funny, but it was. “Whatever the g####mned f### I want to make is what you’re eating,” she might scream. It probably sounded like WWII from outside. While they were often angry about it when their ability to tease back and forth emerged, it was obscenely sublime.
More than once growing up, we’d wake to the horrid smell of a burned cast iron skillet. A couple of times, mom did it. But it was usually dad who left the skillet on the stove. He’d arrive home drunk and cook a chunk of meat or fried bologna on the stove. There were a dozen times he’d try to cook frozen meat – and eat it anyway. It wasn’t unusual to pass through the kitchen and see an array of meat, grease, and a mess left there. Because mom usually got up insanely early, we knew dad left her a mess because mom would be in the kitchen cursing and banging every metal surface possible with pans, metal spoons, or by slamming the stove repeatedly. I’d generally not recommend this behavior if you have someone with both anger issues and a hangover in the house. By the way, a scorched cast iron skillet leaves a stench in the house for DAYS.
Much of the drama could have been sidestepped if someone had just asked us what we wanted. They could have fed me incredibly cheaply and often without the need for any actual cooking – and no ritual sacrifice of animals. In my world, kids were not asked what they wanted. Such a thought was heretical nonsense to people such as my parents. They didn’t need to tell us about starving kids in other countries; we knew that they wouldn’t be bothered with such an explanation when a good backhand said a thousand words. Note for those who don’t know: a backhand can be rendered at twice the speed as a forward-motion slap. Mom certainly could have handed me a can of tomatoes, corn, or green beans and sent me outside to eat in peace. Sitting at the table brought unseen battles to the front. By the 4th grade, I could expertly tip an opened can and eat the contents without utensils. Or without cutting myself.
We were lucky mom didn’t poison us, even if her target was my dad. Like most women in her class, she had no choice but to work full-time and perform all the other menial but necessary tasks of living for the household. Obviously, a lot of mom’s cooking stress was anger and resentment at being married to a lout. Mom didn’t have ‘signature dishes.’ I don’t remember her being romantic about cooking or the subtle art of gastronomy. To her, cooking was limited to the practical necessity of getting it done. It was a bizarre sight to witness her in the same kitchen with other people cooking. It might as well have been alien races sharing cooking space.
On another note, mom could have easily taught us to make one or two meals each. We would have willingly learned and helped had we been shown the attention—anything to avoid potential stress and drama of a ‘family’ meal. I know I couldn’t have been trusted to prepare any meal with meat. My recipe would have consisted only of tossing the meat carcass directly out the door and into the jaws of our succession of German Shepherd dogs named Duke.
Looking back, I’m still surprised that so many supper meals blur together into one indistinguishable mass in my memory. Few at-home suppers were devoid of distrust, dread, or unease. More importantly, I have no memories of meals wherein we gathered to eat where we shared our day, laughter, or happy moments. This was not part of our DNA. I like to think it must have happened accidentally. If it did, my treasonous brain has erased most of these memories. Exceptions tended to happen if dad arrived home drinking without his surliness or if extraordinary circumstances were at play. Watching sitcom families verbally teasing and laughing during dinner were Twilight Zone episodes for me.
On a typical day, mom had to read the tea leaves and decide when or if dad might come home. She was obligated to prepare some horrid slab of meat, partially cooked on the stove in a frying pan if he did. Dad was one of those absurd men who proudly pretended that the meat he consumed could indeed be eaten half-alive. “How in the hell can anyone eat that smell?” was a thought I often had. Along with the immutable truth that you don’t want to see sausage being made, the other is that no one should witness my dad eating meat. He was proof that our ancestors once jumped on wild walruses and ripped their ears off with their bare hands.
As you would guess, I generally wanted no part in the meat process. Given a choice between the meat prepared and eating live crickets culled from the underside of the trailer, you could find me with a mouthful of insect legs protruding from my mouth. Note: crickets thrive under trailers if you happen to be in the market for a truckload of crickets. If a vegetable were offered, I fought to eat an excessive portion of that and be happy. Truth be told, many of my supper experiences revolved around trying to be small and avoid my dad’s gaze. Though I’ve mentioned it before, his barbaric streak often led him to force me to eat things that should never pass the lips of a human being. If he noted I didn’t want meat, I often found myself chewing the fat off a bloody half-cooked ‘steak’ or the dark meat near the bone of an unidentifiable piece of chicken. (I shudder.) Or worse, the skin of a piece of chicken. I ate chicken skin quite often when I was very young and without dad around. It didn’t occur to me to think of how horrible it was. Later, though, I ate a mile of poorly-cooked or unappetizing skin that ruined me for the rest of my life.
It happened so often that I still have no desire to eat such meat. People underestimate how true this experience was. I was the youngest child; as such, dad felt offended by the lack of overt masculinity. He spent much of his life committed to ensuring that I consumed an array of inedible pieces of animals. His alcoholism is probably the single biggest factor that helped me escape his scrutiny. Unless mom was at his throat, dad’s drinking made him magnanimous at times, and his insistence on forcing me to eat things I didn’t like vanished. Some of the Terry family cooked very well and with love, so I didn’t understand how dad could be so barbaric in his approach, and other members of his family could prepare a wide selection of both meat and vegetables. My Uncle Buck cooked a few things extremely well. He also enjoyed cooking and preparing dishes. Especially gumbo and fish.
While I noted I disliked an increasing number of poorly and inexpertly cooked animal carcasses, it did at least drive home the idea that who and how something is cooked can often be 75% of whether you’ll like something you are about to eat. I felt like a medieval court taster who was anxiously waiting to feel his throat constricting against whatever poison had been inserted into the king’s food.
Despite all the instability in our house, mom spent a sizeable chunk of her money from her SW Bell operator’s paycheck going to the meat shops. It seemed strange to me that her dedication to doing this was so pronounced. Dad often could not discern the difference between a decent cut of meat and something found in the dumpster and fried in a pan for 30 seconds. Dad’s nutrition plan included chunks of meat, cigarettes, whiskey, Dentyne gum, and Brach’s peppermint candy. If I accompanied mom to the meat shop, I stood in amazement that there were more than 2 cuts of meat or 3 types of sandwich meat. It seemed odd that anyone needed something except bologna, salt pork, or bacon for a boy who loved mustard sandwiches. Mom was an impatient customer at such shops. It’s hard to believe that smoking was permitted inside them. And smoke she did, tapping her feet as she moved from one foot to the other, expecting her choice to be hurled toward her in less than 3 seconds. It seems strange that the building that currently holds the Las Margaritas Mexican restaurant in Springdale once was mom’s ‘go-to’ meat shop. I doubted my memory so strongly that I once searched for proof in the old phone books at the library and then matched the addresses against old maps.
Between errands, it seemed like mom was always buying cigarettes and alcohol. Much of my Springdale geography command resulted from the infinite trips to liquor stores and places to buy cigarettes. I could walk from Uncle Buck’s house to the liquor store that once stood at the intersection of Gutensohn and Highway 68/412, but wasn’t sure about the route to one of the grocery stores.
My access to the larger world and food expanded only because of my cousin Jimmy and infrequent visits to other people’s houses. Everything seemed exotic to me. Things like bbq sauce, olives, flavored pickles, and lemon pepper ignited my imagination. At home, we didn’t have these things. If such a store existed, my mom would have gladly shopped at “Bare Minimum Essentials.”
This impacted my brother Mike much more than me. He enjoyed eating meat. He also was a bigger boy, more athletic when we were younger, and had an expansive appetite. This annoyed the hell out of my dad. Unlike me, Mike loved grabbing a handful of dad’s prized sliced deli ham and stuffing it into his mouth as a snack. It was a perilous day to hear my dad holler, “Who ate all the g$$$amned ham!?” In turn, it annoyed Mike that I loved mustard sandwiches and was happy to eat basic food. If I annoyed him, he sometimes would take a piece of ham, roll it menacingly into a ball, and stuff it into my mouth, laughing at my cries of torture. I detested ham so much that I might as well be Jewish. Don’t get me wrong; I’d eat it sometimes but never with any enthusiasm and certainly not as a first choice. Having been in my brother’s ham hock of a hand, I liked it even less.
When the grocery store opened across from Johnson Road, my cousin Jimmy went to get Ron Calcagni’s autograph. Mom later went to the store and scoffed at the incredible selections, after listening to my Aunt Ardith list its array of food. I was mesmerized by the dozen types of bread and the endless row of assorted pasta. I wanted to live inside that store and stuff myself with gallons of marinara and spaghetti. Other kids could be seen getting politely or angrily admonished by their moms as they begged for treats from the candy aisle, special cereals, or ice cream. So dedicated was my mom’s brutality regarding asking, this simply didn’t happen with me. I didn’t touch – and never asked. It was a sin akin to peeing on someone’s head while riding the bus. There were a couple of memorable times I forgot myself and vocalized my desire to have something. Because I was a little strange. one of those times was when I saw Mexicorn, the kernel corn in a can with peppers. I didn’t want sweets or chips. I wanted that exotic can of corn. Not only did mom swat me with the wrath of Khan, but she waited to ensure that dad could put his 5-knuckles-worth into the equation. By the way, I had my first can of Mexicorn at my cousin Jimmy’s. Aunt Ardith bought several cans. She watched in amazement and then horror as I ate all of them, at once. When she put butter in them and stirred it, I felt as if Heaven had descended upon me and wrapped its arms around me. While I don’t know for sure that Aunt Ardith treated me to endless Mexicorn because of how my mom behaved, it seems likely. She smiled at me like Christmas while I ate. “You’re going to be sick,” she kept repeating, her voice growing more amazed as I emptied the cans one by one.
It was sometime in the summer of 1st or 2nd grade that I discovered that canned corn and green beans were delicious. Heating them was a needless step for me. Being able to skip steps to eat was a revelation for me. Soon enough, I learned how to make macaroni and spaghetti. Though I’d seen it made one thousand times, I was stupidly surprised by the fact that cooking it only required boiling water and waiting long enough for it to soften. A monster was born, one that still resides within me. While I could eat noodles plain, if tomatoes or tomato sauce were available, I would dump it into the water and noodles. We didn’t use strainers; we had to risk burns over the sink using the pot’s lid to drain spaghetti. I think the lack of good strainers is one characteristic that most poor kids share in common. Skipping all those steps was a benefit. Regardless of the size of the package of pasta, I cooked it all. And then ate it. Wasting it wasn’t a consideration.
All of which brings me to the Golden Macaroni Era at City View trailer park. Infrequently, mom would recover from the cyclical violence with dad. She’d violently clean the trailer and then later that evening make a pot of macaroni soup. Instead of simply making macaroni and adding tomatoes or sauce, she would cut up potatoes, onions, and a few other things and boil it into submission. Mom and I would sit at the table and eat. She would watch me eat a gallon of it in one sitting. Though it was simple, it was delicious beyond measure. While she made this after City View a couple of times, I’ll never forget the period at City View when she often did it. Usually, only she and I would eat this soup. She must’ve realized from Grandma that this was one of my favorite things in the world. Over one summer, my Grandma made a version of this for me at least every other day. Weirdly, I didn’t mind that mom had magically used at least 2 large onions in the soup. I count these nights eating macaroni soup as one of the few ways and times that mom tried to have a selfless connection with me, even if only through food. One of the other memorable times was her return from alcohol rehab in Fort Smith after I graduated high school. She made a mammoth pot of macaroni soup, and we ate the entire pot. I can’t see this moment as accidental. Mom returned from rehab, a completely different person.
When our trailer burned at City View and we moved to Tontitown’s fringe, this tradition died. My “cousin” Leta, who owned the house in Tontitown, where we moved, worked at the Venesian Inn. Because she could bring home endless food, it was from there I discovered my love of Italian dressing. Even as dad and family and friends had endless drunken cookouts, I found that salads with huge cut-up tomatoes and a bottle of Viva Italian salad dressing were available. I consumed truck loads of rolls and salad.
In closing, I’ll finish with mom’s secret Mashed Potatoes recipe. This recipe has been sought after for years, so share it only with trusted friends and family.
You’ll need whatever kind of potatoes are on sale, a bit of milk (canned if you have it), a bit of pepper and salt, and access to non-menthol cigarettes. You’ll need to smoke constantly while boiling, mashing, and mixing the potatoes. Also, don’t knock the ashes from the cigarette as you cook. Allow them to fall freely into the potatoes. If you’re adventurous, coarsely cut a large onion into preposterously large pieces and throw them in the mashed potatoes. If the potatoes are lumpy, don’t notice. Hungry people don’t notice, much less comment, that the potatoes are lumpy. If you get a particularly large chunk of onion, spit it into your hand and keep eating. If anyone notices something that looks like ashes in the potatoes, tell them it’s pepper. Fun fact: it is almost impossible to taste cigarette ashes in mashed potatoes, no matter how much is present if you add pepper and onions to them. It’s for that reason that I mentioned that you shouldn’t smoke menthols – which are easily detectable.
Note: I was pleasantly surprised to learn that no one else puts onions in mashed potatoes. In 2017, I wrote about “Newport Potatoes.” Many people thought I made it up, even after citing the episode of “Master Of None.”