The Mother Network!

As a kid growing up in the ’70s, I never planned out my Saturdays…they just happened. They always started early; you rose with the sun to get the most out of your day. Out the door by 8 a.m., Davey’s house by 8:05. In Davey’s driveway, I hopped off of my bike before it came to a stop and was walking toward the garage as my bike continued forward into the grass where it fell over on to its side upon losing momentum. I entered the garage through the side door and moved to the interior kitchen door. It only took a couple of knocks before Davey’s mom answered the door dressed in her house coat. “Well aren’t you up early” she exclaimed! “C’mon in…Davey’s upstairs getting dressed.” She pulled the door open and I passed by into the kitchen.

Davey’s little sister was sitting at the kitchen table. An open box of Quisp® cereal to her right. She was eating pancakes with syrup; pieces of cut-up pancakes remained on her plastic plate, a few more were stuck in her hair. “Oh Marie…look at you!” Davey’s mom grabbed a dish towel and attempted to clean the pancakes out of her hair. Davey’s father entered the kitchen from the living room; an empty bowl in his hand, which he placed in the sink. He turned and closed up the box of cereal.

Davey’s mother put the dish cloth down on the table. “Did you eat breakfast?” “Do you want some pancakes?” I’m sure I made an involuntary expression of disgust, which gratefully passed unnoticed. “No thanks…I think my mom is making them for dinner.” “Well you need to eat something…how ‘bout some cereal?” She opened a cupboard and brought down a bowl. Davey’s father pushed the cereal box toward me before he walked back toward the living room. I sat down and poured some Quisp® into the bowl. Davey’s mom passed a carton of milk to me, which she had grabbed from the refrigerator, then sat back down at the table to read the magazine she had put down to answer the door. I tried to read the “fun riddles” on the back of the cereal box as I ignored the pieces of pancakes flying in my direction. For the remainder of the wait, the three of us sat at the table in silence. I hurriedly scooped spoonfuls of cereal into my mouth, anticipating that Davey would come down the stairs at any moment so we could start our day.

I thanked Davey’s mom for breakfast, as Davey and I shot out the kitchen door and into the garage. “Hey…” she yelled; interrupting our escape to the great outdoors. “Take these in case you get hungry later.” She handed me two chocolate pudding cups and Davey two plastic spoons, and at that, we continued our advance outside.

Davey and I spent the next couple of hours moving from various activities. We shot some baskets for a while at one of our neighbor’s driveway basketball courts before moving on to throwing a football we had found in the yard. We had eaten the pudding cups as soon as we had left the house. I shot a pass over Davey’s head and we watched the ball bound off of the road into another neighbor’s yard, taking it as a cue to find something else to do.

We then rode our bikes around the neighborhood with no intent or objective; past Billy’s house twice before Davey suggested we stop. It was two knocks past 10:30 when Billy opened the door and welcomed us into his house. We moved through the house to the basement door, flicked on the light and headed down. Billy’s parents had recently finished their basement…paneled walls, shag rug, furniture, bean bag chair, and cable TV…24 stations of it…Hallelujah! We were a half-hour into watching professional wrestling when Billy’s mother came down carrying a basket of laundry. “Billy…you should have told me that your friends were over.” “Are you guys hungry?” She didn’t wait for an answer and we didn’t offer one. She had put the basket down and was already heading up the stairs. We were focused on André the Giant’s signature knee-drop.  We all cringed in unison!

A few minutes later, Billy’s mom was back down the stairs carrying boxes of Bugles® and potato chips and a container of onion dip. She placed everything on a table before moving back to the clothes basket. “There’s sodas in the refrigerator.”

Forty-five minutes passed before Billy’s mom headed back up the stairs carrying the now empty basket. At the landing, she peered back over her shoulder to see the three of us sitting on the shag carpet staring intently at the TV; empty soda cans on the table and Bugles® on each of our outstretched fingers.

At noon, the three of us headed up the stairs and back through the house to the front door. We found time during the commercials to plan a baseball game, but needed more players. Our first stop was Tommy’s house. We found him in his kitchen eating lunch and decided to wait. As we sat there watching him eat, the door into the garage opened and Tommy’s mom entered the house carrying a bag of groceries. “Oh…wow…I didn’t expect to see you all!” Tommy mumbled something with his mouth full, which none of us could understand, other than his mom who took the cue to offer us something to eat. She pulled bread and cheese out of the grocery bag and made us all toasted cheese sandwiches; two sandwiches for Davey, who indicated he hadn’t eaten breakfast. We thanked Tommy’s mom for lunch before heading out to find the other players.

To speed up the team building process, we split up to gather players and equipment. We agreed to meet at the circle in a half hour. I arrived on time with Curtis and Marvin, a couple bats, Curtis’ glove and a bag of M&Ms® from Marvin’s mother. Davey rode up with Royce and his sister.  A few minutes later, Tommy rode up with a left-over pizza from Charlie’s mother. “Where’s Charlie?” I asked. “Visiting his grandmother,” Tommy answered. “But his mom said we could have the pizza.”

For the next couple hours we had a grand ‘ol time playing baseball and feasting on M&Ms® and cold pizza. It was close to dinner time when the bell rang out calling me home. I hopped on my bike, said my goodbyes, and pedaled as fast as I could toward home.  I turned down my street and, as tradition dictated, headed for the storm gutter grate along the side of the road at its intersection with the cross street. I had successfully accomplished this exercise a hundred times before; taking for granted that the wheels would glide smoothly across the grate. Not this time! The front wheel dropped into the slot between the two cross bars, locking it in place. As physics dictates, the back of the bike continued to rotate forward advancing me over the handle bars and onto the awaiting, unforgiving pavement.

“Are you alright?” Charlie’s mom called out to me from her backyard. She had witnessed my fall and was hurrying toward me as I started to get up. I was intact except for a few patches of skin, which were left on the pavement. “We can’t have you going home looking like that!” “Let’s get you cleaned up.” My bike was surprisingly in good shape; better shape than me, so I left it on the grass as I walked with Charlie’s mom into her house. She cleaned up the wounds and placed bandages with antibiotic cream on each one. When she was done, she asked me again if I was OK before sending me on my way. I thanked her for helping me and for the leftover pizza she had given to us earlier. Before I left, she gave me a blue raspberry freeze pop. Back outside, I stuck the freeze pop in my mouth, and walked the rest of the way home.

I entered the house as my mom was placing a stack of pancakes on the kitchen table. Through the eyes in the back of her head that mothers have, she was able to see the bandages on my legs and arms and was quick to my side. “Oh my goodness…what happened?” “I fell off my bike, but I’m OK…Charlie’s mom saw me fall and helped me.” “Well that was really nice of her…I’ll have to give her a call after dinner.” “You must be starving…you didn’t eat breakfast and didn’t come home for lunch.” “I’m really not hungry.” “Well…you can’t just not eat!”

There was a knock at the door; my mom and I both turned to see Davey. I could see my bike behind him.  “C’mon in Davey!” my mother said. “Did you eat dinner yet?”

The Hunt!

The alarm went off at 4 a.m. It was Fall, the end of daylight savings time…time for the clocks to “fall back!” While the rest of the world was getting back their “lost hour” of sleep, I was going downstairs to eat breakfast.

Our hunting gear was piled by the front door; amassed there the night earlier. Our bows and arrows lay side-by-side. My dad was in the kitchen making coffee. “Good morning sleepy head!” I was a few minutes late. “Here’s a few candy bars and hand warmers…don’t put them in the same pocket.”

It took 5 minutes to pack the car, 10 minutes to scrape the frost off of the car windows and 2 minutes to run back inside to grab a few more hand warmers and candy bars. By 4:45 a.m., we were on the road to Morgan Hill.

We arrived at Morgan Hill early! Too dark yet to hike into the woods, but not enough time to nod off. I’d have to wait till I was safely up in my tree stand! We had “staked” out the area weeks earlier….looking for signs of deer, clearing lines-of-sight, and setting up the tree stands my father had constructed. More importantly, we had identified a good local diner back in town.

We parked the car down one of the fire roads. Another car was parked in front of us…our hunting buddy. He was a friend of my father; a man he had known for years…and a fellow printer. Now, he was my friend too.

With a flash of our headlights, both cars were turned off and we disembarked. The unloading of the gear was mainly accomplished in silence lest we spook the deer (wake them I thought). A few whispers here and there focused on the day’s strategy. We hunted in three phases…the morning and afternoon “hunts,” separated by lunch. We agreed that we would meet at the cars for lunch at noon.

We dressed like trees, camouflaged from head-to-foot. Just before dawn, three new trees entered the woods along a worn path to blend in with the other trees. We followed the sound of a gurgling brook, which through the years had cut down through the exposed shale bedrock.  We were together at first, but at the slightest of signals, one-by-one, we veered off in a direction perpendicular to the path…and so it went until each of the three new trees were moving separately toward their pre-determined place in the woods. With the sun rising and each of us safely sitting in our stands, we began the “hunt.”

Let’s set things straight. The “hunt” was never about hunting. Two facts: 1) Sitting in the woods on a late Fall morning was like sitting in a freezer (99% of the people we knew were still asleep in a warm bed), and 2) The deer were smarter than us (100% of them and they were also still asleep)! It was unspoken amongst us, but the “hunt” was about the bonds between men…about spending good times together, enjoying each others company. Although sitting there alone and freezing twenty-feet above the ground was contrary to that objective, it did give us time to make up stories about seeing deer and missing shots.  We knew the best times were when we were together. And while we feigned hubris regarding who would break down in the cold first to head back to the cars, more often than not, we met at the cars simultaneously ready for our noon lunch together. Usually around 10 a.m.!

Lunch was typically hamburgers cooked on a hibachi. Like hotdogs at a baseball game, hamburgers always tasted best when they were cooked by my dad while we were hunting. We gathered around the hibachi for warmth and conversation.  On special occasions, our hunting buddy would bring venison stew. “What is this?” I asked. “It’s venison.” “What’s venison?” “It’s deer.” “They sell it in the stores now, but they call it venison.” “That’s interesting.” I said as I yawned. “Boy, I could use a few more hours of sleep…huh…you say you can purchase deer in a grocery store?”

The afternoon (after lunch) hunt was typically shorter. It was daylight now; the “venison” were moving about, which allowed them to show us how much smarter they were. On one occasion, the three of us were walking down the fire road away from the cars. We started to enter the woods about 100 yards down. With our first step into the woods, we saw a big buck take one step out of the woods…right in front of our cars! In response, we backed out of the woods and, on queue, the deer walked back into the woods…we stepped back into the woods and the deer walked back out…and so it went! I suggested that maybe next time we should leave the car doors open! “We could rush the woods and the deer would jump right into one of the cars!” A good idea my father responded, “…but no…deer carjackings are difficult for insurance companies to understand!”

Over the years, we hunted with several other buddies. On a few occasions, my brother also joined the “hunt.”  Being the newbie, I would explain to him the basics. Things like “We’ll give you a 15-minute head start!” and “If you get into trouble, shoot 3 arrows straight into the air and, by no means, should you move from your location…after you shoot the arrows…stay put!” “Trust us, we’ve been trained on these things!”  “Don’t listen to your brother…you only get a 10-minute head start!”

Weather permitting, there were days when, by consensus, we would forgo the “afternoon hunt” and drive directly to the diner. Pre-selected for its interior design of deer-illustrated wallpaper, we used the illustrations as a reminder of our quarry, as we seldom saw such examples in the woods. We also used the time to talk and catch up…and the food wasn’t bad either.

Years passed and my father grew ill. Cancer had made him too weak to hunt. I used the little time left to just be with him. Like sitting in a tree stand in silence, it was more about enjoying each others presence than trying to communicate what we already knew. We never did bag a deer together…in the woods or at the grocery store!  But it went without saying that we had many successful “hunts.” Our time together formed a unique bond between us…hunting was “our thing.”

Toward the end of my father’s life, our hunting buddy stopped by to spend time with my dad. “Let’s go check out Morgan Hill…get ready for the next hunt!” He helped my dad into his car and they drove one last time to our “hunting grounds.”

I don’t know what they talked about; they had been friends for years going back to the days they worked together as typesetters…I’m sure there was much to talk about. But maybe they spent their time together in silence…one last “hunt.” They returned to the house later that day. Our friend helped his friend, by dad, back into the house. He then unburdened his car of the rocks he had collected down at Morgan Hill on that day; flat rocks of shale for my parent’s backyard garden. Momentoes of their last “hunt.”

My father passed away in March of 2003. Our hunting buddy passed away this week and, with his passing, a chapter in my life has now closed. I will always reflect back upon those times together with appreciation, respect and happiness. Appreciation for the time we had together, respect for the bond between two good men, and happiness both for the stories they have left me with and the ability to tell others. Those “hunts” were some of the best times of my life. Three men giving up their “lost hour of sleep” to spend time together in the woods; communal with nature and each other. I can see the two of them together again, sitting in a diner decorated with deer print wallpaper, catching up on old times. “Did you see that large buck pass on through at 7 this morning.” I did, but I didn’t have a shot.” “I didn’t either…but he was a beauty!” “We’ll get him next time.”

And when you see me, ask me about the cow in the woods…I’d love to tell you that story…

Car Talk!

My father was a mechanic, not by trade, but by necessity. Whatever broke, my dad fixed, including his cars. His wealth of automotive knowledge was as vast as the tool set and parts he maintained in our garage. Preventative maintenance meant inspection, detection and correction and that required assistance…a sidekick. For that, my dad had a plan. Him and me, side-by-side…wearing matching mechanic’s overalls, wrenches in hand! The grease monkey version of American Gothic. A father and son working together on the family sedan. It doesn’t get any more Americana than that! I had a different plan. I called it “run and hide!” because I knew little about cars and even less about holding a flashlight steady. “Son of a sea captain!” my father would say as the wrench came off of the nut located deep within the bowels of the engine compartment. “Yes, Captain?” I inquired.  “Just hold the flashlight steady!” For whatever reason, my father enjoyed that time with me. He would continue to seek out my help. It was no fault of mine that his need to conduct quarterly vehicular maintenance conflicted with my need to conduct a quarterly cleaning of my bedroom closet! I often responded to my dad’s calls to meet him in the garage with silence. “Dads calling you, he wants you to bring him a flashlight.” I turned on the flashlight and slid the closet door shut, watching as my younger sister disappeared from view. [“Tell him I’m busy cleaning the dust off of the clothes hangers!”] But that was then and this is now. On this day, there was no running and hiding. He had cornered me in the living room. “To get started, we’ll put the car up on the lifts…I’ll drive…you just need to tell me when the windshield hits the tennis ball hanging from the rafters!” “And remind me to put the blocks behind the rear tires.” I nodded in recognition. “We’ll need to change the oil as well, which includes draining the old oil and changing out the filter. I’ll need you to get the oil drip pan down; it’s hanging on the wall above the ladder. We’ll wrap the old filter in a newspaper after we drain it…and we’ll need some rags. Changing the oil is the dirtiest part of the job, so don’t wear your Sunday best!”  My dad laughed and I laughed back in response. “Next we’ll change out the spark plugs and check the gap settings. The gap tools are hanging on the garage wall, next to the shelf with the extra spark plugs.” I shrugged my shoulders and kicked my feet! “We’ll also need to check the ignition timing to make sure that the spark plugs are firing at the appropriate moment in the ignition cycle. We’ll use the timing gun on the belt, but I’ll need you to rev the engine.”  I maintained eye contact as he continued on. “While the car is up on the lifts, we’ll grease the ball joints. We’ll use the hand-pumped grease gun. I’ll help you get it situated on the fittings.” I laughed again, not knowing why…he just sounded funny, but it didn’t seem to bother him. “Once we’re done with that, we can take the car down off of the lifts. I’ll let you back the car off the ramps and out of the garage onto the driveway. We can finish the work there…change the air filter, check the tire pressures…then clean up the garage.”  My attention on my dad was broken momentarily by my older sister, who had run through the living room. I had found that funny too. “Now you need to pay attention. Cleaning up and putting everything back in its proper place is important. Remember, if you’re going to do a job, you need to do it well.”  I looked at him and smiled. My mom entered the living room and walked over to my dad and me. “OK” she said, “That’s enough car talk…it’s time for his nap.” She took me from my dad’s arms and placed me on her shoulder…rubbing and patting my back. “He’s going to be daddy’s little helper!” my dad proudly stated to my mom. “That may be” she said. “Lets see how that goes once he learns to walk and run!” She placed me in my bassinet and covered me with my blanket. My dad got up, dressed in his mechanic’s overalls, and went out to the garage to run through his quarterly maintenance checklist. A few minutes later, his voice reverberated throughout the house…“son of a sea captain!”  There was no reply from inside the garage; but from the living room, down in the bassinet, a baby giggled in response to hearing the sound of his father’s voice.

The Reputation!

The Brooklyn Bridge is a hybrid cable-stayed/suspension bridge in New York City and is one of the oldest bridges of either type in the United States. Completed in 1883, it connects the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn by spanning 1,595 feet over the East River. In 1883, construction of the bridge cost approximately $15 million ($1.5 billion in today’s dollars), and in 1901 a man was sentenced to two years of detention for ‘selling’ the bridge to a tourist.

My brother’s intention to resell the Brooklyn Bridge was unknown to me until the 8th grade, when during a chance introduction to his colleague, my math teacher identified me as the younger brother of the kid who had recently tried to sell him the bridge. The second teacher nodded in recognition. Apparently, my brother’s business plans were common knowledge among the faculty. “Well…we’re going to keep an eye on you!”

Having people “keep an eye” on me was not part of my plan. As a kid, I sought out obscurity. The tenets of my existence were: abide by the rules…stay in the shadows. I gained an early reputation in the family as being excessively virtuous…a “Goody Two-Shoes!” Siblings, however, are typically different…180 degrees different…and my brother and I were, no doubt, two ends of the same stick. Those differences can often “play off of each other”…in spectacular fashion…and it was for that reason that our parents often put us together in contentious situations…soley for the entertainment value.

The sign read “No Changing In Bathrooms!” It used an exclamation point! The exclamation point was the deciding factor for me. Despite our parents telling us to go change into our bathing suits in the gas station bathroom, we were not going to change into our bathing suits in that gas station bathroom. The ocean surf would have to wait. From the other end of the stick, my brother, predictably, had an opposing opinion, which he loudly expressed to me using many more exclamation points, which also caught the attention of onlookers.

My brother spent much of his vacation time as a youth with our dad in the family car; his penalty for over use of exclamation points.  (I’m still waiting for the expected publication of his book “Great Vacation Spots I’ve Seen From the Backseat of Our Car!”)  I, on the other hand, spent time in the ocean surf, in my bathing suit, having changed in the gas station bathroom, while everyone else was distracted by his exclamation points!!!! In hindsight, my smirk and wave as I walked by the car may have been too much, but I did overhear the beginnings of a conversation in the car. “I didn’t do it…!” I may have also heard my dad say something about the Brooklyn Bridge. A little while later, my brother was on the beach with the rest of the family. SOLD!

And so it went…my brother and I remained divergent souls. He continued to work on his reputation and I on mine. And never the twain shall meet….until high school…

By the time I entered high school, I had been enlightened to the pretense of my brother’s bridge selling acuity. He had a certain standing he occupied in the opinion of others. Venerated by his peers, but disparaged by the faculty, my brother’s reputation was known throughout our high school, even in the shadows, where it would remain until I passed through them seeking to maintain my obscurity two years later. It almost worked. For four years, I had no first name, but I shared his last name, and inherited all of his reputation…at least from the perspective of the faculty. In 10th grade, that reputation and that faculty rewarded my want of obscurity with my own detention. “What’s your name kid?” “Oh, really!” “We’re keeping an eye on you!” “I didn’t do it…!” Too late, I had crossed over the bridge! I was a bad boy by his reputation and there was no crossing back. I moved out from the shadows to become proficient in my own bridge selling technique. In hindsight, his reputation became the needed devil on my other shoulder when the opposing angel became predictably boring. And his reputation has its advantages!

“Hello ladies……….NO…the Brooklyn Bridge is not mine to sell!”

I just needed to work on it a little bit more!