The Llano Estacado lays on the earth like an overturned platter two hundred miles long and a hundred and fifty miles wide. With no rivers, ponds or even patches of damp earth, it is one of the most inhospitable places in the country. The hard dry earth barely keeps alive the short crab grasses that are scattered around, their course stems reaching across the ground like dying tarantulas crawling towards a mirage. Life only exists there because it is unaware that there are better places to be. The plateau would have remained barren of human life except that underneath was the Ogallala Aquifer, a vast, fresh water ocean that, once pumped up to the surface, created the perfect environment to grow cotton. The same endless sun that hardens the ground on the Estacado prevents the seed rot and wet weather blight that is so devastating in the traditional southeastern cotton growing states. Combined with the recently discovered source of infinite water the area became a new growth area for cotton farming.
Growing cotton was the reason my grandfather in 1915 loaded up my mother, her three sisters and four brothers and all their worldly goods into two horse drawn wagons and migrated seven hundred miles across country from Arkansas to New Mexico to became tenant farmers. The four brothers, my uncles continued to lived there growing cotton for the rest of their lives. All my uncles lived in the country, their farms scattered across the "table rock" as they called the Llano Estacado. Their houses were scattered across a landscape so flat and sparsely populated they could be seen far in the distance, small as peppercorns on a table top. The houses slowly expanded as we approached to reveal a modest wooden homes, a couple of out buildings and a tree or two.
My mother and father were always bouncing from state to state between Montana and New Mexico causing long absences that enhanced the celebrations of our return when were always joyfully greeted as if we were a long lost prodigal family. The cousins always had to be reintroduced to me because time was fogging our memories and reshaping our young bodies into new beings. "Do you remember?" preceded each new meeting.
The cousins let me pet the horses, try to milk the cows, chase the chickens, play on their tractors and swim in the deep irrigation ditches running through the patches of cotton like streets through a city. The water was pumped out of the ground with Allison V-12 aircraft engines, the same kind used to power the Lockheed P-38 fighter planes during WWII. The enormous engines sat on the flat land towering above me like a cathedral, with twelve exhaust pipes pointing up at the sky blaring out a thunderous roar that vibrated the ground and rattled my chest. It seemed like it could have gone to the moon if it had not been bolted down. The engine blasted out a twelve inch column of water like a fire house before the stream arched down to dig a deep hole in the earth. The water was then channeled into ditches spreading across the flat dusty earth in rectangular paths around patches of lush green cotton plants. My uncles would walk along the ditches in hip waders dipping u shaped tubes under the water, covering one end with their palms and throwing over the ridge of the canal to siphon water into the rows of cotton. My cousins and I would swim in those canals as if they were highways passing through cities of green leafy sky scrapers arching above us.
My grandmother lived in one of those peppercorns. It was a gray weathered house, the paint blasted off long ago by the sandstorms that passed through frequently. She was a widow and lived the the house by herself. There was no electricity so during our stays we guided our way to her homemade feather beds by kerosene lamp, my young arms so small they wrapped around the glass base like it was barrel. The light flowing along the hallway into the dark rooms like an amoeba was fascinating to me. She wore print dresses hanging down to her ankles with her hair twisted on top of her head like a hat. Let down, it hung to her mid calves. She also chewed tobacco and spit the juice into an empty coffee can while sitting in a rocking chair that I imagine came from Arkansas with her. If an AI was asked to make a avatar of a pioneer woman it would be my grandmother. She and the house seemed like a natural growth sprung out of the table rock like a small mesa. Even at my young age I knew she was unique, life stripped down to its essence. She became the rock of my soul. As I drifted untethered through the world that gray house with my grandmother in the dim room rocking in her chair and spitting tobacco in the Folgers coffee can made me feel solid as the earth the house was sitting on. I was proud of her. She was the gateway to my ancestry and the spiritual keel keeping me stable.
Living alone was not a bother to her since one or the other of my Uncles visited her daily and one afternoon all the Uncles came at once for a family reunion. Just like my mother, the aunts had married and moved away with their husbands so it was just. the Uncles and their families. I could see the cars coming from a mile away, a dot moving across the flat land with a fuzzy caterpillar of dust trailing behind. The cousins all collected together and we scoured the desert for lizards to hang on our shirts with the while the wives prepared dinner. After eating we ran around into the black desert, orbiting around the distant glow of the house like planets, before being called in. On the unlit porch Uncle Custer, Lucian, Pride and Charlie sat with my father and talked long into a night vailed by a Milky Way now dulled by modern lighting. I sat on the floor listening to their laughter like it was music. Story after story came followed by the continuous flow of peaceful laughter. That is how I remember them, a tight, loving and peaceful family; my tribe and my origin story. If they had a family crest I would have tattooed it onto my body.
My mother's name is Ovie, a name so weird I was always uncomfortable using it. According to the US Social Security records only around three hundred fifty people were given that name in the last one hundred years. Her name seems as ancient as my grandmothers house. Older than that even, as if it were a scared word from a secret cult. I rarely heard it, my father always called her Dear and Andrew and I only used Mom. Only when my Uncle Charlie drove up to stay with us occasionally did I hear her real name used. He said it with a southern drawl soft as a breeze.
Uncle Charlie would often stay with us for weeks at a time at the various towns we lived in. He was a bachelor and had the luxury to do so. Uncle Charlie and my father were best friends and father was the happiest when he was with him.
I loved his company because he showered me with loving attention. His nickname for me was "Happy" and years later I used that name in the credits for the movie "In the Cut". He served in WWII and had plenty of stories of battles he fought. I believed them all until he said a scout he was fighting with could throw his voice and fool the enemy, misrepresenting the powers of ventriloquism. I still prefer to believe his story of hand to hand combat on the canvas top of a moving truck that he won by kicking the assailant in the jaw. Uncle Charlie lived a long life and I have the flag that draped his casket. It is so big I don't have a place for it to hang so it remains nicely folded in the pouch presented to me at the funeral. Normally it would have gone to my brother but be had died at forty three with cancer years earlier.
As happy as my father was around Uncle Charlie, my mother seemed equally relaxed. Socially, my mother was a very shy person, a fact I became aware of only after I was old enough to know what that meant. If spoken directly in gatherings, such as before church services, she always turned sideways with one leg stepping slightly back as if in preparation to turn and run, her hand brutalizing a wad of tissue paper into vapor.. Her responses often began with a bird like vibrato twitter and her body compressed into itself as if it was a bellow used to push out the words. When she walked her legs drew straight up into her long dress like a robot eliminating any sway of the hips. She complained to me once about men watching her and I have to wonder what may have happened in her unknown past that made her so restrained.
Uncle Charlie and my mother's sister, Aunt Maggie had tricked my father into marrying my mother. According to Uncle Charlie's telling, after an eleven year engagement my mother's fiancé had moved on to another woman leaving my mother unattached in her mid thirties. Maggie, her older sister, gregarious and full of adventure, had secretly put an ad for her in the Lonely Hearts Club to be posted in the Denver Post. My father saw the ad and sent a letter along with his picture. My mother refused to write back so Maggie secretly sent a letter and included my mother's picture.
Maggie, apparently with my mother's blessing, began corresponding regularly with my father while pretending to be my mother. She used all her fun and flirtatious skills to develop a persona for my mother that my father loved. He drove nine hours from Denver to Lovington, New Mexico meet my mother to be. Maggie and the four brothers, Charlie, Custer, Lucian and Pride rallied together to make sure he got a royal, full of Southern Baptist love, welcome. My Uncle stuck by my father's side to make sure he was throughly entertained enough not to notice my mother's lack of conversational abilities. It is possible that my father, a single, divorced father with a sixteen year son and far from his Pennsylvania home fell in love with my mother's whole family, married her and moved on top of the Llana Estacado just to be part of their tribe.
The co-conspirators, Maggie, my mother and Uncle Charlie
According to Uncle Charlie, he and my father instantly became best friends. He expressed his love for him to us with such sincerity that, since he was a bachelor, it just occurred to me as I write this that his love may have been more than just friendship. Perhaps a cynical interpretation but I don't care. Love, the bubbling up of affection, is so rare it needs to be taken when it can. Love or not, Uncle Charlie thought it worth a laugh when he told us how confused our father was that our mother turned out to be so quiet. That may have been why our Homelife always seemed so peaceful and gentle.
My father was the manager of the Gambles store in Clovis. Gamble-Skogmo was a chain of retail store scattered across most of the plains states. After returning from Pennsylvania to deal with his delinquent bank loans he got a job with the company and worked his way up to manager. My mother told us Gambles considered him one of their best managers and would send him to stores that were lagging behind in profits to get them back on track. Once that particular store was up and running they sent him to the next one. Corporate policy not adventurous spirit created our nomadic life. Such a transfer moved us to Clovis where I did my first stick figure drawing.
I was just entering kindergarten and too young to remember much of where we had come from other than it was from up north and the winter had a lot of snow. Clovis Elementary School sat on the edge of town like the gateway between the desert and the cultivated yards, flowers and trees huddled inside the village. On the day of the stick figure drawing, my kindergarten class had exploded out of the back doors during recess and had run furiously into the emptiness as if we launching ourselves into space, the same as every day. I loved racing neck and neck with the other boys across the hard ground, my legs churning with infinite energy. Burned out and with lungs heaving in oxygen, we stopped and looked back at the school to see how far we had gone during our race into nothing, feeling as if our tethered bonds to the town had been stretched to the maximum and we were almost floating free. Once reenergized, we chased the lizards that ripped back and forth across the dry earth in a blur between the short crab grasses. If a lizard was captured, it was put it on our shirts where they hung peacefully like medals on a general’s uniform until recess was over and they were put back down. Once settled inside I fold a piece of paper into the rectangles for my first stick figure story. Memories flash past me in quantum packets like flip cards in a Rolodex. The memory of that day is always easily accessible. Maybe as my aging brain fades only the memories of the good days will remain.
Acres of pages were dedicated to my version of a flying saucer. The stick figure inside the cockpit was me, secure and safe flying above the world. As soon as I began the drawing gravity started letting go and the exhilaration of flight took over. Up, down and loop de loop. the feeling was so real that my hair could have been waving in the wind. Not until the, clouds, birds, horizon line, mountains and speed lines behind the spaceship were finished did the full force of the imaginary flight kick in. I had to immediately start another drawing to keep the sensation going. Over and over, almost identical drawings crowded into and over each other to float me through the day.
My special homes
According to Nature.com the twelve basic emotions are adoration, amusement, anger, awe, confusion, contempt, desire, disappointment, distress, fear, interest and sadness. Home should be the thirteenth, a warm, comforting feeling of self contained safety. It is a feeling solid enough to reach out and hug.
The little tug boat captured the feeling of home so well that just remembering drawing it makes me want to sing, "Love that boat". Just by drawing a little stick figure commanding the wheelhouse, down inside the cabin, eating at the table, sleeping on a bunk bed or standing on the bow put me there, safe, self contained and free on the open sea. I could not get enough of the wonderful tugboat. It felt like home, the most thrilling of homes, the most self contained of homes, the most mobile and invisible of homes. My little tugboat must have been drawn a thousand times, thrilling me as the pencil moved, but only as the pencil moved. The pencil had to keep moving.
I was equally happy drawing the cliff dwellers, walking along the narrow trail, standing inside their caves and looking down on the distant towns below, distant but yet available. The sensation was the same sitting in the back seat my father's big black Chrysler Windsor while he drove from our most recent home to a new place some unknown distance away.
The back seat of the Chrysler was like a couch, more than big enough for me, my brother and our dog, Ripper, to lounge in comfortably as we watched the endless open plain slide past the car windows. We sailed through the open plains and the small towns like our own planet, a self contained eco system, my father, mother, Andrew, Ripper and myself bound together by the steel astroid that was our brief home.
A large moving van parked in front of our rented house was a spectacle that almost always brought the neighborhood out it witness the launch and wave us goodby. Once the big double doors of the moving van were closed and the big latch swung closed we grabbed our traveling bags and loaded them in the car. I stepped into the back of the Chrysler Windsor, situated myself upon the rear seat and slammed the heavy door shut like the hatch of a spaceship. We were leaving, perhaps not earth, but we were leaving. There was a delicious feeling saying goodby to the friends I had made. Leaving them gave me a sense of power. I was going and they were staying. I still fall into the trap of thinking my absence makes my presence more important.
Father sat much tall behind the big steering wheel, his slim neck balancing a broad brimmed fedora, a sun reflected jaw jutting out with determination from underneath the dark shadow of the hat as he drove drove down our old street for the last time, following the van to the highway.
I turned around on my knees, head nestled in my crossed arms on the back of the seat and watched the town shrink into the distance. The low grasses, sporadic yuccas and scruffy greasewood bushes that sped by the car in a blur gradually came into focus as they shrunk into the horizon, replacing the memories of my year in Clovis with motion. Soon the motion itself became almost still, becoming just fluttering outside the windows. I turned away from the window and leaned against the door.
My teeth vibrated when I pressed them against the metal frame of the backdoor window. By humming along and matching the pitch, the harmony with the vibration of my teeth made my whole head buzz. Ripper stood on my lap while he stuck his head out of the window, the wind flapping his lips back like a sail while I held tightly to his warm barrel chested body. He may have not been a wolf in the wild but was experiencing speed they could not have even dreamed of. No one in the back seat knew where we were going, how long it would take to get there or if life would be better or worse when we arrived.
The double ding of the gas station bell as the front and rear tires ran over a black hose that triggered the ring was a universal sound that never varied from state to state or year to year. It was the Milton 805 and the company had apparently cornered the entire market of the Great Plains states. The sound triggered a rush of relief through my entire body as it anticipated stretching itself out and going to the bathroom. The greatest joy during the trips were the stops at the diner. Normally our family never ate out, so the simple hamburger tasted as if it came from heaven. When the plate was delivered to my Mother she burst into giggles of delight.
The evening sunlight swayed from one side of the backseat to the other like a wave as the road turned back and forth creating the sense of gently rocking on an ocean. The glow sweeping over us changed from gold to red to purple as the day aged. Curling up together with Ripper pressing firmly against my brother and me, we napped while, upfront, my Mother and Father quietly talked themselves into the evening. As the last bit of deep space indigo lost its glow, the conversation turned to animated chatter as it became time to decid when to stop for the night and where to stay. The car cruised the motel row of the next town as each one was judged as either too dirty or too expensive until, at last, having past the last colorful glow of the neon signs into the desolate blackness, my father turned the car around and a choice was made.
The next day the new town could be seen peaking up on the flat horizon of the open plain before hiding behind the shallow bulges of the earth to reappear again larger, like a sparrow hoping from rooftop to rooftop. We entered our new neighborhood like children approaching a Christmas tree, the houses tickling us like packages with hopeful promises. Every new apartment we moved into was an adventure, the rooms ready for imaginative play. We surveyed the neighborhood like explorers in uncharted jungles, approaching the natives with minds washed clean by the distance we had just traveled. Friendships developed naturally and without effort on our part. All that was required was to present ourselves out in open and we would be soon approached by the neighborhood children to find out what use we would be in their games.
Once in bed in our new home I lulled myself asleep by imaging being in a large tent. I was laying on the ground with my head stuck outside where it was icy and cold. Inside the tent, however, it was warm with entire village of aunts, uncles and cousins eating by a fire, laughing and hugging each other. It was a wonderfully cozy feeling having them in the warm tent while my head was outside looking at strangers ride by, the hooves of their horses barely missing me.
Moving as often as our family did had made packing and unpacking almost a ceremonial ritual. As limited as our possessions were, we had an intimate relationship with them. The favorites: the ceramic blue bird family and the porcelain owl cookie jar taken down from the top of the refrigerator where it sat keeping an eye on our appetites. With his tiny baseball cap wrapped with multiple layers of the current news he was laid next to the plates and glasses in the cushioned box as if being tucked into bed like a child.
Dad’s coo-coo clock got very special attention. He had brought it with him when he left Pennsylvania and said it had been his father's, who had been killed in the Harwick Mine Disaster when my father was only two years old. The gentle clack clack of the pendulum and the call of the coo coo bird as it launched its head through the little wooden door to mark the hours was a constant background song inside our homes. Each time we moved it was carefully disassembled. The carved birds and maple leaves that adored the top were slid out of the slots that attached them and wrapped in paper along with the leaf shaped pendulum. The weights, shaped like narrow pine cones were surprisingly heavy. My brother and I always took time to bounce them in our hands before laying them in the box with the darkly stained body of the clock. We carefully tucked dish towels around it and covered it over in layers of wadded paper to cushion the blow of its transportation. in each new house my father picked the position for the clock with a ceremonial flair. Assembled and mounted he pushed the pendulum to start its swing and turned the hands of the clock towards the new local time, pausing each half hour so the coo-coo could pop out and mimic the bird song. Towards the end of his life the clacking of the pendulum sounded like an echo of a hammer pounding him into the grave but afterwords the clock became treasured as his memorial. It is the spirit of him, his heart beat anyway.
Several years ago I dismantled the clock because the poor bird had lost its voice and all that could be heard at the top of the hour was the grinding and clanking of the gears that ran the bellows and sent the bird out the door to sing its mute song. I glued new paper on the box whistle and replaced the pair of small bellows that pumped the air. The coo-coo sang just fine and the clock operated as always but I soon stopped it. The sound was not magical as it was when I was young. The poor bird had become mechanical and was better off as a silent memorial.
In every town we moved to the boys loved to have pretend battles, throwing ourselves into air from the impact of the pretend bullets or arrows and tumbling to the ground in imagined death. I tried to recreate those sensations through drawings, repeating the same gestures over and over, exaggerating the pose, digging the pencil into the paper and drawing fast as I could to enhance the feeling of impact of a bullet or thrust of a sword. The pursuit could last for hours and then the drawings were discarded.
My son, when he was seven or so, was sitting at the dining room table playing with his GI Joes. They are about three inches tall, proportionally correct and realistically articulated. My son could sit them on the edge of the table and have them stand in multiple positions. He was delicately assembling them into a human pyramid. With four GI Joes standing side by side he carefully stood three others one top. Barely breathing I watched perch two more and then the final one on top. It was an amazing feat of dexterity and I congratulated him. As we both were sitting in quiet revery looking at his assemblage he asked, "Why do boys play war and girls play with dolls?"
There was a debate at the time whether war play was from social influences glorifying violence behavior or natural neurological impulses. Believing in the new age evolutionary advance towards peace and harmony we had eliminated all television shows or any references to guns or war. With his first toy hammer and a couple of pieces of wood, however, he made a gun ending that phase of parental control.
"Perhaps,," I said, not being self assured enough to declare a definitive answer even to my own seven year old son, "the possibility that you may really have to kill or, even be killed, in a war someday is so frightening that boys have to rehearse everyday of their young lives". That answer does not explain why it was so much fun to play killing and being killed however. Drawing arrows piercing through my little men sending them dramatically to ground like a choreographed ballet gave me thrills. I could not get enough of imagining the impact of the bullet or the thrust of the sword in my own body as I drew out death over and over. Maybe war is not fun but the imaginary power of the battle is.
Years later, when my son was eleven years old or older, he was sitting on the floor of his bedroom, filled wall to wall with abandoned toys, holding a GI Joe he had been playing with. He was slowly twisting its body as the loose arms flopped side to side and said, "I am just not feeling it anymore". He seemed puzzled and sad, as if mourning the child he was leaving behind as he was aging past past imaginative play.
When I was his age, boys had starting moving past imaginative play and on to sports. Seventh grade was the first opportunity boys had to join an organized team complete not only with uniforms but an audience to cheer their achievements. Heroes were being born and the budding men were beginning to separate themselves from the boys. Physical education was introduced trapping everyone in confined spaces to battle it out for supremacy, the flaring passions easy enough to avoid and observe like a play on a stage.
I drew instead doubling down on imaginative play. My style of had not changed and there were only minor improvements in my command of anatomy but the subject shifted dramatically. Gone were the superheroes, swordplays and gunfights, all replaced by school sports. I drew out entire games, play by play with the same conjured up defeats and victories inside the area of my own head, still capable of stirring up the sensation of throwing a punch or the satisfying swish of the basket or the impact of a hard tackle. I remained hunched over my desk. The drawings continued their relentless march through my notebooks but I had become aware the habit needed to be even more secretive. For the first time I tried to stop those drawings but the desired sensations overpowered me. Those sensations, the imitations of a life I was not living, had become an addiction forcing me back to the lure of its pleasure where I could get lost before being snapped back to the reality of the classroom. I was never teased but I was feeling increasingly obvious and weird. Attempting to break the habit was my own choice and my private battle.
I did not play sports because I was weak. My frailty was not from illness, it was more of a runt of the litter kind of frailty, a kind frailty that forced me to make excuses for my performance. Beyond just excuses I had become a whiner, which earned the label, "You just have an inferiority complex," just to shut me up.
However, I had proof. The frailty was not just in my head, it had been displayed for all to see, a matter of public record. The public school system certified me inferior. For example, every year in gym class, probably because of Nebraska law, the students were required to take a fitness test, all written down on a form attached to the coaches clipboard. Push ups, sit ups, running, rope climbing and wrestling were all public performances that left no doubt that I was not a physical threat to anyone, being last in all categories. Not just last but ridiculously last; cartoonishly last. Especially running. I simply couldn't move my legs.
The most torturous test was running the four forty around the track circling the football field. Grasping for air and barely able to move my wobbly legs I was hardly past halfway around when I could see the rest of the class milling around the finish line watching me. "Come on Nace!" the Coach Thorell yelled loud enough to travel across the hundred yard expanse of the football field to inspire my wobbly marionette legs to squeeze out their best effort. Through the eyes in my bobbling head I could see the class had begun walking toward the main building to change clothes. The coach stayed behind as I lumbered along the cinder race track giving every ounce of energy I had to end the embarrassment. "Good job Nace", he said when I finally crossed the finish line. He dramatically clicked his stop watch with the braided leather cord and wrote the results on his clipboard for the files.
Coach Thorell was handsome and so full of himself that all the girls loved him and the boys wanted to be like him. Besides being the coach also taught history and civics. He was my seventh grade teacher. My approach to class was to sit in the back, hunker down and try to be invisible as possible. It been only nine months since my father's death so I was not ready to be corralled together with the new students from the two other elementary schools in town. Random seating arrangements each hour gave me the opportunity to get lost in the crowd. Having willed myself to be invisible, by that I mean not worth warranting a second look, I felt relatively safe. At least until Coach Thorell announced in front of the class that he was going to make me smile before the year was over.
There was no smile in me or any reaction as the whole class turned to look in my direction. I remember at that moment having a steely reserve not to. What chilled me was the possible sudden exposure of a bizarrely obsessive habit I had developed with a bolo tie.
A bolo tie is a braided leather cord with decorative metal tips (called aiguillettes) hung around the neck collar and secured with a decorative slide made of silver and turquoise. They were popular in the southwest and I had the habit of wearing one everyday. The metal tips of my tie were made of coiled wire and looked like a rattlesnake rattle. I had discovered that sliding the tip between the side arms of my glasses and my temple created a ratcheting sound I found soothing; so soothing that I could not resisted doing it continuously throughout the day. So much so I was probably boring a hole in my skull. Such behavior had to look extremely odd I knew, which was another reason to hunker down in the back row. I cannot remember if I was rattling the bolo tie in my glasses or not when Coach Thoreau threw down his challenge. I stopped wearing the bolo tie.
During the winter the gym class played inside. At the end of each session we ran circles around the gym. Being the slowest I drifted to towards the center of the gym to let the rest of the boys pass me on the outside. I was bobbling along when Coach Thorell yelled "Push him!". A hand in my back suddenly thrust me forward. "Keep pushing," Coach Thorell yelled again, then again and again as I was continuously thrust forward by the hand. Barely able to keep my legs under me, I was hauling in painful quantities of air, burning my throat, ripping my ribs open and exploding sweat out me like tears. After a seemingly endless torture of public humiliation and betrayal the class went into the locker room to change clothes. No one looked at me and I looked at no one during the showers. I was sitting on a bench, towel wrapped my waist when Coach Thorell walked up, followed by the athletic students who had pushed me, and asked how I was feeling. The sincerity of his question or the fact that he seemed concerned at all wiped away the tumultuous thoughts in my head and I accessed the condition of my body.
Physically I felt fabulous. Electrical circuits I didn't know I had were firing and blood was cascading through arteries I didn't know existed. In that moment I was in a new body filled with a sense of power that thrilled me. I was actually giddy when I told him I felt wonderful. The boys who had been pushing me let out a cheer of congratulations as if I had passed a test and joined an exclusive club. I felt loved or, at least, forgiven.
I realized at that moment that Coach Thorell had not been torturing me, he was just doing what coaches do everyday, push athletes beyond their physical barriers, usually by yelling at them. He had opened up a new world for me, life after breaking into a sweat. However, without a coach, without that hand pushing me, breaking a sweat was almost impossible to achieve. But I knew it existed and that was a valuable thing to know and a goal I always try to reach for even today, even though I was and still not team material. If anyone my age who is not a physical phenomenon can be on a team.
Instead Coach Thorell asked me to be the student manager for the football team, a position I accepted with total defeat. The lack of my self determination positioned me, the most frail of the frail and shy of the shy, with looking after the needs of the most gregarious and strongest gang of boys in the school. Looking back, objectively, I was pretty pathetic. But I could have just as easily been pathetic alone. Coach Thorell had drug me out into the public and, in retrospect, the public treated me kindly. Perhaps, as my best friend Dave told me not too long ago, I had been on a class wide suicide watch back then. Perhaps, by an odd turn of my tragic situation, I had been treated to a kinder world.
The time line of my development had been torn apart. There was a gap between the age of eleven and thirteen that had erased a decade of social experience and deposited me on the other side a blank slate.
Alliance, Nebraska was the last stop on our families nomadic journey. My mother's longing to move to Galveston, Texas would have to wait even though she considered it the most wonderful place in the world. A few months after arriving my father packed a bag and drove to the train station at the southern end of Box Butte Avenue, a brick street laid with such mastery it was like driving over glass. He boarded up for the thirty six hour trip to the mythical Mayo Clinic for reasons I only understood as worrisome. He been gone for several days when he called to say he had been given a clean bill of health. Mayo’s prognosis was that Dad was suffering from stress and all he needed to do was take a shot of whiskey every night before bed. This was hilarious to us because neither my Dad, Mom, aunts, uncles or anyone I knew, drank. We found an old whiskey bottle and filled it with tea to give him as a joke on his return.
My father came back home empowered with a new ideas about his future. He quit Gambles and took over a small neighborhood grocery store. The store, “Corner Grocery”, was about the size of a double wide mobile home. The exterior was made out of Stucco with a faded whitewash barely covering the grays of the rough cement. The corner facing Niobrara Avenue and East Fifth Street was angled like a block of cheese with the corner sliced off. The building was windowless, except for two in the front and one in the back. Sitting next to an empty lot it looked more like a large boulder than a building.
Uncle Charlie came up from New Mexico to help My father refurbish the inside of the store. They ripped out all the old shelves and build new ones. They tore out the old floor, which had sections worn down almost to the substrata, and laid in new. I was the helper, fetching tools and handing out nails as needed. They also allowed me to help paint the walls and the new shelves, showering exaggerated admiration on my efforts each step of the way.
Balloons, free coffee and donuts opened the store in a festive style and my father greeted each customer with more smiles and charm than I have ever seen come out of him before. Almost all the conversations I witnessed my father having with the customers involved laughter. Many became regulars, stopping by for lunch or dropping in after their workday and staying around for a brief chat. One of the men, Hugh Bunnell, the editor of the Alliance Times Herald would often engage my father in long conversations. They both admired Adlai Stevenson for his intelligence and wit and expressed so much regret for his loss to Eisenhower that I felt sorry for him.
Every few days a truck would come and unload several boxes of grocery goods. My job was to unpack them and stack the groceries in the shelves. After school I went directly to the store and took up my position on the raised platform behind the glass counter to wait on the wave of local children who came in with their pennies and nickels to buy candy. The counter was filled with the boxes of candies I had carefully arranged in neat rows. Babe Ruths, Snickers, Milky Ways, Butter fingers, Sugar Daddies, Almond Joys and candy cigarets on the top shelf and the penny candies; bubble gum, jawbreakers, candy wafer rolls, Dots, and Fizzies on the lower. My father gave me control of the counter during that period because waiting for the younger ones to make up their minds was frustrating. It was also the time of day when he wanted to sit in the over stuffed old lounge chair in the back and relax. The children would sweep their eyes from one end of the counter to the other, torturing themselves with the decision of which penny candy to buy. When my patience ran out I would point to a box and say “How about that one?” They usually would say “yes,” allowing me to guide the next child to their decision. The older children knew exactly what they wanted, the nickel candy bars or the sodas sitting in the big blue Pepsi cooler by the front door.
The little bit of height from standing on the platform allowing me to look down on the young customers gave me a sense of power. I especially enjoyed waiting on adults, handing them the packs of cigarets requested or totaling up their purchases on the adding machine before punching the number into the cash register and counting out the change with a chant, "33,34,35,40,50,75, one dollar, two, three, four and five". Life had been reversed, I was the stable citizen and the customers were the transients coming and going.
Before I was born, my father had built his own desk out of tiger wood, dark with blond swaths running through it like rivers. This is where he would often do the extra paperwork he brought home from Gambles when he had still worked there. The papers were kept in a tan leather brief case with the flat bottom and curved top that opened up like a fish’s mouth. He appeared very regal sitting at that desk.
One evening my Father laid newspaper over the top of the desk, and sat the adding machine top. The machine’s long handle had not been operating smoothly lately. It had to be jiggled side to side to complete a stroke. That day the handle had stopped working at all, jamming itself halfway down and staying there. My father took off his usual white dress shirt and stood silently looking at the machine in his sleeveless undershirt. With a deep sigh he bent over the machine and removed the screws along the bottom and lifted off the cover. With the cover on, the machine looked simple, with nine numbered keys, a zero key and addition key to press so the total could be printed on the roll of paper when the handle was pulled down. Inside, the machine was unimaginably complex, with rows of metal tabs, gears and levers disappearing into the interior like a hall of mirrors. I had never seen anything so complex. I laid my head sideways on the table looking in between the rows of metal plates and springs trying to get a grasp on how that machinery worked. My Father worked the handle up and down as he slid a flat bar connected to it side to side and back and forth. He worked at it patiently, his fingers intertwining with the rods and gears trying to shift them back where they were supposed to be. Suddenly, he grabbed the whole machine and slammed it hard against the table. I jumped back about two feet. My Father stood staring at the machine clasped between his hands, his lips curling into a snarl that frightened me. “God damn it!” he screamed then slammed the machine down again, two, three, four times before throwing it in the wire trash basket, grabbing his shirt and striding out the back door. After that we totaled the groceries by hand.
The summer after my fifth grade year in Emerson Elementary, on the western border of Alliance, with wide open plains on the side just like in Clovis, my parents rented a house behind the Corner Grocery and we moved. I did not like the new house. It was shabby compared to all the others place we had lived in. The builder must have considered windows an unnecessary luxury since there was only one skinny one for each wall. The bathroom looked like a camper trailer was screwed to the side and the kitchen in the back was long and low with a slanted roof like a shed’s. An obvious add on. The uneven wooden floors seemed to slant downhill from any place I stood, like ice cream sliding off a cone. The heater was a free standing gas burner by the middle wall between the dining room and living room which required all activities in the winter to happen in front of it. The one actual bedroom was between the slapdash kitchen in the back and the living room in the front. The room where my brother slept had been sectioned off beside kitchen and was just big enough for a bed and a dresser. My bed was a cot in the kitchen next to the refridgerator.
My father had begun complaining about the pain in his chest again and was feeling too tired to make it through the day so my mother quit her job at Safeway Supermarket to help with store. Shortly after the move my father took his complaints back to the doctor who ordered the X-rays of his lungs that revealed the large settlement of cancer. After discovering that Mayo Clinic had missed the cancer on their own X-ray our whole family felt slapped in the face. Mayo Clinic was the best hospital in the country we were told and the because the best hospital missed a golf ball sized lump of cancer in my father's lung that could only mean a spiritual force of some kind had picked our family out for a cruel joke. Fear instantly consumed me, fear for my father, fear that more jokes were coming, fear that we were being set up for another betrayal. Constant prayer was my only weapon which was quickly shorted to a "Please God" chant to ward off the threat that seemed to circling us like an invisible black cloud.
Emergency action whirled around us. The diseased right lung had to be removed and in order to do that my father had to be driven to Scottsbluff, sixty miles south and the only hospital in the area capable of such and operation. We loaded ourselves clinched jawed into the Chrysler Windsor and headed south, leaving Ripper with the landlord, who agreed to watch him. Please God. We sat anxiously in the waiting area, rocking on the seats and pacing the hallways, sitting and pacing, sitting and pacing. Please God. The operation was a success we were told and we hopefully sat and waited to see him. Please God, please God. After an endless time only my mother was allowed into the intensive care unit and then there was nothing to do but go home and wait. Please God.
I have vague memories of my brother and I watching the store during the midday while my mother drove down to see him, during the follow weeks of his recovery. It must have been weeks because there was enough time to accidentally leave Ripper in the car one hot summer day where he suffocated from the heat. The air was hot and wet when I opened the door and shook his still body. That evening my mother drove us out of town beyond the site of any houses. She pulled off to the side of the road and my brother and I laid Ripper in the grassy ditch next to the road, the slight breeze rustling the curls of his fur. We did not know what else to do. In the position of family dog, Ripper was responsible for the joy and love inside our house when no one else had the energy. That joy was now in the ditch with him. "Please God" was all I had left in me.
The diesel locomotive bringing my father home looked big and powerful enough to turn off the tracks and plow through the platform at the Alliance train station station, straight up Box Butte, scattering the perfect bricks like a wave, north to the County Court House, turn right and grind one more block to stop in front of 249 East Fifth to deliver Dad directly to his bed. Instead the train slowed to a stop at the platform and two men entered a double door in one of the passenger cars and came out with my father on a gurney. With my mother holding his hand and us trailing behind the gurney was taken to a waiting ambulance for the ride home .
The main bedroom where my Father was positioned had two open doorways on either side. In fact, excluding the added on bathroom and little bedroom, the house could be circumvented in a continuous circle through the living room, dinning room, kitchen and back to the bedroom by the second doorway all without interruption. An activity I would be pursuing for hours later on. The room was always dark, partially because the window faced east and because, for lack of room, the vanity with its mirror was in front of it, blocking most of the reflected sunlight. The light on the nightstand needed to be turned on even in midday to see anything with clarity. Dad’s feet, closest to the window and doorways were more in focus than his head, which receded into the dimness of the far wall.
After my father was situated, the doctor, an older man with a slight paunch, came into the bedroom and sat his medical bag on the dresser and asked my father how he was feeling. My father smiled at him, then at me standing by the vanity, at Mom on the opposite side of the bed and, with a slight lift of his head, to Andrew who was in the kitchen doorway.
“What we are going to do now is change your dressing,” the doctor said. “Lets see if you can sit up.” he continued, clasping Dad’s right arm by his elbow with one arm and sliding the other underneath his shoulders. Dad’s bed was low and could not be raised like a hospital bed, making sitting him up difficult. After the doctor gave a gentle tug he motioned with his head for Mother to help. Mom scrambled up onto the mattress and waddled across the bed on her knees to where she could help lift Dad by pulling on his left arm, the good arm. With Dad sitting upright on the bed the Doctor took off his hospital gown and examined the gauze wrapping his chest. He held up Dad’s right arm and began unwrapping the dressing, lifting each arm in turn as he passed the gauze underneath.. As the wrapping unwound it became wet and yellow looking and as the last layer came off it stuck slightly to the wound before releasing and exposing the damage. A thick purple rope of flesh wound evenly with blackish stitching traveled down from his sternum, along the bottom of the rib cage under the right arm and up to his spine in the middle of his back. The ropy scar was floating in a patch of marshy yellow skin that dissolved into the translucent white of his naked back.
After redressing the wound the doctor took a clean shirt from my mother and gently put it on him. Together they laid my father down. Reaching into his medical bag, he took out a small square cardboard box, placed it beside the bag, opened it and pulled out a tiny, clear glass vial, barely and inch tall. It looked a tiny princess in a long gown. He held up it between his thumb and forefinger for my mother and I to see. The light from the window made the amber liquid inside shine like gold. It was beautiful. “This is the morphine,”, he said. “Give him a shot in the morning and one at night.” He showed to my father before setting it on the dresser.
Next he took out several cellophane packages and opened one, taking out, to my young eye, a dangerous looking hypodermic needle. Picking up the little glass lady from the dresser and snapping off her head, he inserted the needle, sucked up the fluid inside and stuck it in my father’s arm pushing in the plunger slowly. As my father drifted off to sleep the doctor put his hand on my shoulder and said. “Its not going to get any worse than that.”
That same day I was surrounded group of dark pants, leather dress belts and white shirts which were disappearing up into clouds of gray hair and serious faces looking down at me. My Mother was there too. I was inside a canyon of serious adults discussing what should be done about taking care of my Father.
Alliance, Nebraska was a long ways from Vienna and Freud’s teachings had been left on the east side of the Mississippi River on the migration west. The closest thing to social services the town had was the deputy sheriff who came to our store to buy bologna for the prisoners in the jail at the County Courthouse across the street. There were only two families in our newly formed Church of Christ and all our relatives were a thousand miles away. Mother had to stay with the store from morning to night to make ends meet and we could not afford to hire anyone to stay with my father while he recovered. Andrew was about to enter high school, a time of life that should not be disrupted. That left me. Those serious adults were there to talk to me. One belt was the doctor and the other was the principle of Central Elementary School, which I had yet to attended. They were proposing that I skip school to stay with my father while he recovered from the lung operation. If it was okay with me it was okay with them. After all, it should not be for very long until he was up and about. A few weeks at the most, they told me and I should be able to return to school. They were asking me, adult to newly initiated adult, if it was okay with me to skip school and stay with my father. I would have crawled over the top of them for that chance.My job was simply to be available to Dad for little things, like bring water and the cool wash cloths he like to lay across his forehead. Basically, I was just there for him to know he was not alone. For anything more than that I would was to run across the yard to the store and change places with Mother while she went to help him. He was supposed to recover, get up, walk around, eat at a table, drive and be normal. However, as the days got shorter and the house got darker none of that happened. By late December he was too weak to remain at home and was taken to the local hospital. Tiny flecks of memory are that is left of that time spent in the dimly lit house. Far too little to piece together into a narrative. A few disturbing moments were scattered among the days but nothing extraordinary enough to reveal just for the revealing.
For some reason, that apparently confused even the doctor, my father’s body was not responding correctly. The doctor seemed disappointed by my father’s lack of performance. The usual encouragement he expressed when talking to me was lacking. Darkness crawled in from the corners of the bedroom and clouded my eyes like an advancing mold. Even the light on the nightstand seemed to emit only enough illumination to identify its own position and the winter clouds had put the uninspired sun into full retreat. My father's five o’clock shadow had grown right into his eyes and was barely distinguishable from his skin. The bed my father lay on seemed to be lowering itself in the dim floor as I stood next to it with my mother as Doctor explained to us that the pleural space that used to hold my father's diseased lung was not filling up with fluid as it should. The good lung was becoming unstable because of that hollow next to it, causing him to have trouble breathing. The time had come for him to be taken to the hospital.
The sun shining through the hospital windows blazed the room with light. The bedsheets on my father’s bed glowed as if lit from inside and I could see color in his cleanly shaved face for the first time in weeks. When I walked into the room he looked down at me from the tall bed, high as my shoulders, smiled and said “Hi Donnie.” A nurse came in the room and looked at me and said “Well hello.” She turned to Dad “Whose’s this little man?” She asked. “That’s my son Donnie,” My father said, smiling again. The nurse, looked down at me and said “Aren’t you a handsome boy,” which made me spurt out a giggle. She grabbed Dad’s wrist and looked at her watch, then checked some numbers on the side of a bag hanging from a stand and wrote something a chart. She then followed the tube hanging from the bag to my father’s arm looking at the wrappings. “You comfortable?” She asked, “Bed okay, want it put down lower? Dad said he was fine so she looked back at me. “Make yourself at home, pull up the chair. I’ll come by again soon” she said and left. An enormous wave of relief washed over me. Over the coming days I came to the hospital so often and stayed so long that I no longer had to identify myself. I just waved at the reception desk and said hello to the nurses on Dad’s floor. Having such freedom of movement made me feel special. I sat in the chair next to his bed for hours entertaining myself with my obsessive drawing. The figures had been fleshed out over the years and more autonomically correct thanks to comic books for reference. It was comfortable in that chair. I had no worries, the nurses came in to check on him on a regular basis, food came and he ate bits of it, the doctor dropped by and said hello to me, shots were given and he drifted off to sleep. Even as he slept I preferred to stay with my note pad and drew into the evening when my mother came and sent me home.
One midday Dad suddenly woke up and looked around the room until he saw me. “I heard angels singing,” he said. I told Mom and later Dad told her again and she told other people that he heard angles singing. It was a special thing.
My father's wish was that I go back to school so the next day she locked up the store and walked with me the two blocks north to Central Elementary, a grand square brick building made of light orange brick and surrounded by a large lawn in front and a gravel playground in back. I sucked in a big sigh to wash away all thoughts that could generate emotions and followed my mother into the building focusing just enough to make it through the door.
We stopped in the same principles office who had talked to me months before. He assured my mother that everything will be okay and took me down the hall and introduced me to the sixth grade teacher, Mr. Howard. He looked just like President Eisenhower, tall and trim with a bald head collared on the sides with a wrap of fine gray hair. He wore crisp gray western dress pants with arrow tipped pockets lined with pipping all held up by a thin western belt with a silver belt buckle. His shirt was white cotton with pearl snap buttons, scalloped pockets flaps and a shoulder yoke outlined with white embroidery. There was a bolo tie hanging from his collar. Fortunately he ushered me straight to my seat without introduction where I sat with my eyes nearly closed to fog out the focus of the room and concentrated on not knowing, not thinking and, especially, not feeling until the class filed towards the music room for choir practice.
Mrs Crookshank was the music teacher and I was surprised to see her as we filed into the room. She must have taught all the schools town, I concluded by a thought process that sneaked through my soft coma, because my fifth grade class saw her weekly at Emerson Elementary. She had a movie-style old maid look, from her thin frame and hawkish nose to her print dresses. At one point she called each student up to her piano and had them hum alone to a tone she was creating by hitting a single key. It was a test to see if they could find the harmony. I searched like a starving wolf but heard no clues that gave me a hint what harmony sounded like.
Our sixth grade class had been learning songs for a Christmas concert. I mouthed silently along not wanting to expend too much air and accidentally haul in a deep breath that might accidentally wake me up. A couple of days later the class filed out of the school and loaded into the bus. My eye lids had automatically lowered themself to the position of not seeing but not tripping as I climbed aboard but they were shocked wide open when the bus pulled up in front of Box Butte General Hospital where my father was.
Apparently, I had not only made myself dum and blind but deaf also because I knew nothing about this plan. All my senses were on high alert it dawned on me that we were going to sing Christmas Carols to the patients. I felt and I thought and I knew that I absolutely did not want this to happen but shear obedience to social norms walked my body through the large double doors and into the lobby with the rest of the class. We assembled at the first open door in the hallway where my father was and, at Mrs Crookshank’s signal, the class began to sing to the unknown person inside. I stared at my father’s room, about four doors down, a confusion of thoughts refusing to form. The class angled across to the next door on the opposite side of the the hallway and back and forth until reassembling themselves in front of my father’s door. I was relieved to see it was partially closed revealing only the foot of his bed. The class began to sing. My mouth clamped shut to prevent the treating tears. He was so close that with couple of steps and I could be inside and slam the door shut on the unwitting strangers benignly singing cheerful songs to an unfathomable agony. I teetered forward almost taking the crucial step but not. With quick secretive sideways glances I checked the faces of the students see any if there was sign they were aware my father was inside that room or not. There was not the slightest hint that they knew this door was different than any than the others. As the class moved away so did I, with no more will than a candy wrapper thrown in a stream. When the class moved to the next room I moved with them and when they got on the bus I got on with them. I followed them into the school, down the hall, into classroom and sat at my desk like everyone. After class I walked back to the hospital, waved at the nurses and sat beside my father.
My mother was determined that the Christmas tradition had to be honored so she bought a tree and we decorated it. We had no energy for gifts but we had a lot of empty candy boxes from the store so I wrapped them in gaily colored wrapping paper. They looked magical reflecting the colored lights through the dark room. I sat in front of the heater curled up with a blanket and stared at it for hours. On Christmas Day Mother closed the store, baked a chicken and a cherry pie in the rarely used oven of the house and we ate. Afterwards we all went to the hospital together and sat with Dad. He looked at Andrew and me and said, “My main regret is that I didn’t spend more time with you boys.”
January came but I did not go back to school. Mom did not have the energy to fight my resistance. It made more sense for me to stay home and watch over the store during the midday so she could spend more time with Dad. I felt much better sitting on the stool behind the cash register than at my desk at Central Elementary. In early afternoon she would come back and I would walk the five blocks north to St. Joseph’s Hospital, sit with Dad and draw.
Jack, my father's son from his first marriage, got a special leave from the military to visit Dad for a few days. He was much older than me, probably by twenty years or more and was a “lifer” in the U. S. Air Force. Mom did not like him. Jack was the beer drinking teenage high school drop out that came with my father to the marriage as a package deal. "Oh, he was just so much trouble", my mother would say summarizing her thoughts, adding how grateful she was when he joined the Air Force and disappeared. My brother and I liked his visits when we were young. First thing after arriving he would lay out the local maps across the kitchen table, plot out the best looking spots to go fishing then took Andrew and I out exploring for the ideal location to throw in the bait. “When you guys grow up we should get a cabin in the woods and all live together,” he said repeatedly to us, year after year. He would wind up getting old alone and finally dying in a small camper in a friends back yard somewhere in Ohio. I was excited to learn that he was coming for a short visit while on his way to a airbase in Japan, felt like the troops had been called in finally.
On his the last day of his visit, his bags on the hospital room floor ready for the cab that would take him to the train, he dug into his shirt pocket, pulled out a cigarette and lit it up. The exhale drifted across the room like a cloud “I miss that the most,” my dad said. Jack extended his hand holding the cigarette perpendicular between two pinched fingers towards him and said, “You want a puff?” Dad reached up and held it between his fingers the way I had seen him do for years. He looked at for a long time before bringing it to his lips, closed his eyes and began to suck in. In a split second his head shot back against the pillows, mouth straining open in a silent cough then lurching forward, a gurgling blast of air bubbling into the room. His face became blood red as his body wrenched forward and back, delivering short explosions of air. I ran into the hallway and screamed towards the nurses station. Two of them jumped up and ran into the room. They held on to him as he squeezed the last of the air out of his lungs. He froze in place, body ached forward, eyes wide, lips spread out like an open hand, imperceptible gasps coming from his throat.“It’s okay,” I heard the nurses say, rubbing his back and smoothing back his hair. “Its okay,” they said as they laid him back and arranged the clear oxygen mask over his face, still stroking his hair. I should have given the nurses names, described their looks, developed their personalities and given them histories because they were saving Dad. He began breathing calmly after several minutes and, after looking at the nurses, nodded his head in thanks before drifting off to sleep from the shot they had given him.
The phone was hung head high on the wall just behind the meat case. It was our only phone. Back then the connections were run by operators. You picked up the receiver and they would come on the line and ask what number you wanted. Usually when I was in the store I was anxious to answer the phone and say in my most calm and serious voice “Corner Grocery.” Lately, however, each ring sounded like a clap of thunder and I avoided it, instead watching my Mother carefully each time she answered. I knew every call could be the call and I knew from Mom’s first, almost imperceptible gasp, that this call was that call.
The tears sprayed out of me immediately. We howled together and then Mom said to me, “Donnie, go to the house and vacuum the rug .” Almost blind from tears I crossed the yard to the house and vacuumed the rug. It was January 9th, 1959.
Almost sixty years later, while driving home after a days work in NYC, I told the story of my sixth grade choir sing outside my father's door to a friend. I chocked up during the telling, like a stone dropped into a well and splashing into the dark water at the bottom. My friend said they probably did that as a show of support. The thought had never occurred to me but it may have been true. In the nineteen fifties, secrets were preserved so, if it was true, the gesture was never mentioned. The class, almost certainly, was aware of my situation before I appeared mid year. Most likely I was a story before I became a classmate. Looking back now it seems I was always treated very kindly. I cannot know because the subject was never mentioned. It was a time, unlike today, of just getting past and moving on without complaint. That very spring I was screaming with joy as I ran toward a hand held chain line trying break through in a game of Red Rover.