The Heroes In Our Day!

In 1969, Apollo 11 went to the moon. On board the flight were Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins. It was Armstrong and Aldrin who traveled to the lunar surface to become the first two humans to step onto a celestial body other than Earth. Collins remained in the command module…the tin can that had delivered them into orbit around the Moon and would ultimately deliver them, with the expertise of Collins, the pilot, back home…back to Earth. For now, the tin can, with Collins aboard, continued to orbit the Moon, while the two other men stepped into history below.

Davey and I took turns looking through the telescope. Through the eyepiece, the bright yellow cratered surface of the lunar surface peered back. “I think Armstrong and Aldrin are getting way too much of the attention…it’s like Michael Collins doesn’t exist.” Davey agreed. “We should write a letter to NASA…tell them that the mission will not succeed without Collins piloting the command module for its rendezvous to dock with the lunar module, then bringing them all home.” Well, we didn’t really articulate our words that well…we were 7!  But they do encapsulate the essential features of our concerns!

My mom gave us some paper and a pencil and we proceeded to lay out our “concerns” across and down the page. “TO WHO IT MAY CONCERN…” We’d heard that phrase somewhere…it sounded official! “Whom honey…it’s ‘whom’ it may concern.” my mom interjected. “TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN…” We constructed our argument…laying out the importance of a pilot; not just any pilot, but a pilot who knew where the Moon was. There was no stopping along the way to ask for directions. Like a guy would do that anyways! “Heh…heh…that’s a good one…put that in there!”  We were especially impressed that Collins would be navigating across 480,000 miles to the Moon and back. We included a picture we had drawn with crayons to illustrate the vast distance. Success was not based on happenstance…it required expertise. My mom folded our completed letter and picture and placed them in a stamped envelope, which we had addressed to “TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN c/o NASA.”

The next day Davey and I stepped into the tin can parked in the driveway. My mom sat in the pilot seat. She had offered to drive us to the post office so we could hand deliver our important letter directly to the federal government, lest there was a conspiracy to silence our concerns. We made it safely to the post office and handed our letter to the clerk. He handed us lollipops…conspiracy forgotten! My mom piloted us safely home.

I’m not sure if our letter had any affect on NASA or if it was even received before the Apollo 11 mission was completed. I do know that the mission was a success and all three astronauts were given a hero’s welcome. Mr. Collins was where he needed to be when he needed to be there and brought them all safely home. Mission accomplished. Thanks Captain.

My mom was the captain of our ship. She kept things orderly and on-schedule. Her expertise was indispensable to us in completing our homework and she was always available to deliver four kids to where they needed to be when they needed to be there. Up to the onset of our driving years, she likely piloted us 480,000 miles in our tin can…to the Moon and back, all the while never asking for recognition and always being 100% successful in bringing us safely home. Thanks my Captain. She was the hero in my day!

In 1971, the Pittsburgh Pirates of the National League defeated the defending champion Baltimore Orioles of the American League in the Baseball World Series…four games to three. The Pirate’s Roberto Clemente became the first Spanish-speaking ballplayer to win Most Valuable Player honors; hitting safely in all seven games.

“Who did you get?” While still sucking on the straw that was in his mouth, Davey twisted his baseball-themed commemorative cup around to look at the picture and autograph displayed on the front of his Slurpee. He hesitated in his response to let the brain freeze headache run its course! “Rob…Roberto Clemente…Pittsburgh Pirates” he finally stammered out! “Ah…Clemente is great…I got Brooks Robinson of the Baltimore Orioles…the human vacuum cleaner…nothing gets by him at third base!” I read his stats on the back of the cup as I used the spoon end of the straw to scoop the flavored ice into my mouth.

“You can have my cup after I’m done.” “Why?  Don’t you want it?” Davey asked. “No…I already have a Brooks Robinson at home.” “Wow…thanks!” Davey responded. “But we need to make sure the cup is rinsed out…I forgot last time and left it on my bedroom floor…my mom yelled at me when she saw all the ants.” I looked at the sticky soda-coated sides of the cup. “Hey…lets hide them in your sister’s room!” I offered as we both climbed onto our bikes for the ride home from the 7-Eleven.

That night I sat in the bleachers at a local softball field to watch my dad play ball with his work team. Davey sat next to me.  My dad had played varsity and semi-pro baseball before getting married and starting our family.  He played third base. He was a married man now, with a job and four kids.  On this day, as with every work day, my father had put forth his best effort to produce high quality work products and meet client deadlines. The money he earned for a good days work went to support us kids, often at the expense of our parent’s own needs.

The batter hit a hard grounder down the third base line. Our heads darted to the left as my father dove sharply to his right to snag the ball, and, in a singular motion, jump to his feet to make the long throw to first base in time for the out. “Wow…is your dad on a Slurpee cup?” Davey blurted out.  I beamed with pride as my Brooks Robinson brushed the infield dirt from his uniform. Tomorrow it would be back to work for my dad. He was the hero in my day!

In 1972, Richard Nixon was the President of the United States.  On a dark June night, several men entered a room in the Watergate Office Complex…  Well…let’s not go there!  Suffice it to say that I continued to benefit immensely from keeping the heroes in my day close to the heart! Who are the heroes in your day?

The Number 4!

The grocery cart moved stubbornly down the aisle; three metal wheels rolling in unison while the fourth flitted back and forth on its casters, periodically pushing the cart to the left. Our weekly trek to the ACME supermarket with our dad was an event aimed at stocking the food pantry and temporarily delaying my “post-apocalyptic, pancakes-for-dinner, nightmare scenario.” Or maybe its purpose was to give our mom some much-needed down time. Whatever its purpose, as a five-year old, I looked forward to shopping in what I had learned from Saturday morning cartoons to be the supply depot of preference for Wile E. Coyote! Where are the explosive ACME tennis balls?!

My father perused his more mundane list, while pushing the cart down the produce aisle; my younger sister sat quietly in the front kid’s seat. I hung onto the back of the cart; my feet firmly planted on the rail above the wheels. My two older siblings walked on opposite sides of the cart, periodically appropriating items from their respective sides of the aisle and throwing them into the cart.  My introduction to Marshmallow Fluff was due to their efforts!

Oranges: 4 for 30¢. My father placed four oranges into the lap of my younger sister and proceeded around the corner to the next aisle; three wheels turning in unison, while the fourth wheel continued to flutter. “Well hello there…taking the kids for a walk?” The fourth wheel moved perpendicular to the other three and the cart skidded to a halt. The fourth orange fell from my sister’s lap and rolled quietly away from the cart. “Hello Mrs. G…just resupplying…the four kids are eating us out of house and home!” “Good to get them all out though…gives their mom a break…how are you doing…” The conversation between our neighbor and our dad continued in the background, as my attention focused on the fourth orange and its silent journey down the aisle.

A few minutes passed and the sudden movement of the cart stirred me back to the task at hand as we recommenced our journey through the store in search of ACME rocket skates. The fourth orange now laid still and unnoticed under a shelf at the end of the aisle. Our cart moved forward; the fourth wheel periodically pushing it to the left.

The number 4 is remarkable. It’s easily partitioned into quarters. Inherent to its structure is a disincentive to remain whole. Lose one and at three there is 75% success; respectable! I know what you’re thinking, but that’s not where the story is going. To the contrary…no fears…we made it home…all four kids and three oranges! Remarkable for the kids; respectable for the oranges.

But that’s the magic of family. For a number so easily divided, the four of us kids spent a lot of time together; sometimes with our dad…at the grocery store or perhaps ice skating or sledding. Or with our mom shopping for school clothes or baking in the kitchen. Most importantly we spent time with both our mom and dad…traveling, camping, going to a baseball game, visiting family and friends, or just playing games together at home. As a family of four kids, the number 4 created an inner attraction among the siblings that drew us together instead of apart. We recognized that there were times when, like the cart, the four wheels didn’t roll in unison, but the framework of family kept us whole nonetheless. Through our differences, we learned the value of diversity and tolerance even as our common threads stitched us closer together.  And we were always better together!

Back home, in the kitchen, our mom had finished mixing the chocolate cake batter and was pouring the mixture into the greased baking pan. She handed one of the two beaters to each of my older siblings, the spoon to me, and the plastic mixing bowl to my younger sister who immediately placed it on her head. The cake was a welcome change to the four kids since our mom’s original plan for dessert called for the juice, pulp and grated rind of four oranges. We had finished licking the batter and our mom was beginning to prepare the frosting. The four of us kids fought for her attention. We were super energized on our sugar highs, but deliberate and together in our objective. She began to count out the four tablespoons of additional sugar that the recipe called for…“One, two, three…”  Call-outs of “mom” came from all angles. Distracted for a moment, she began again.  “…two, three, four.”  Heh…heh!  150% success! Remarkable!

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!

The Lesson!

The car was stopped in the middle of our street; the driver’s door wide open.  The only evidence of a potential driver was the young girl running up the driveway…my older sister.  The front door opened and slammed, followed by the rapid pitter of steps as my sister ran up the stairs to her room…a second door slammed exactly 5 seconds after the first; a record I surmised…the girl could certainly move fast!

Back in the car, my father sat in the front passenger seat.  He adjusted the radio knob, moving through static until a song of his liking filled the speakers.  Connie Francis!  Not one to waste a good moment, he sat back and listened…alone in the car…in the middle of our street.

I stood next to my brother as we peered out from behind the living room curtains toward the street. We had anticipated their return. In addition to the entertainment value of watching our sister have her first driving lesson, we also had a vested interest in the outcome as we were next in line. Setting a bad precedent now could have lasting effects on the most formidable years of our lives.

The curtains had only now returned to their place against the window, having fluttered from the rush of air pushed by the slamming door. From our perspective behind the curtains, things did not appear to have gone well…not well at all!

When things didn’t go well, my older sister had a reputation for sending herself to her room, much to the chagrin of my parents who had to be inventive in regards to alternative punishments.  “Go to the living room and watch TV…with your brother!”  And the pièce de résistance…“Answer all of his questions!” He was infamous for interrupting the flow of a show with questions…countless questions! As for my sister, it was a safe assumption that if she was storming to her room, something had not gone to her liking.  But looks and sounds can be deceiving.

Back behind the curtains, my brother and I came to the quick realization that our father would be next through the door and that the sheer curtains did not provide us sufficient protection from his need to share the lesson of the day. We dispersed to our friends’ homes with the thought that we would likely have to rely on these friends for rides for the rest of our teenage lives! Unbeknownst to us, my father remained in the car in the middle of our street. The driver’s door remained open; Tom Jones now sang on the radio and my sister remained in her room.

The lesson had started about an hour before. My sister was nervous, but upbeat…my father was just nervous, which lead to extraordinary planning…checklists, driving guides, maps, Rolaids®…all neatly packed inside the glove compartment, available in short order. Well…that wasn’t true…but he had selected the desolation of an empty industrial parking lot near our home to teach our sister the basics. If necessary, he’d have hundreds of yards of clear space in every direction to get things back under control. From our vantage point behind the curtains, we watched them successfully navigate down our street…my father in the driver’s seat…so far so good! My sister adjusted the radio knob, moving through static until a song of her liking filled the speakers. Barry Manilow! My father winced and instinctively increased his foot pressure on the accelerator. They turned the corner heading out of our neighborhood, moving quickly out of our view.

And that’s about the extent of what my brother and I witnessed from behind the curtains…the circumstances of their departure and the aftermath of their return, right before we headed out of Dodge! It’s the story we’ve been telling for years…about our dad, left alone in the car in the middle of our street and a sister, who sent herself to her room. A lesson gone bad!

But maybe…

My sister exited the car and in her eagerness to get to her room, neglected to close the car door. Preoccupied with the task, she ran quickly up the driveway, blind to the two boys peering at her through the sheer curtains that framed our living room window. She opened the screen door, pushing back on it hard as her momentum carried her up the stairs. The broken spring on the door allowed the door to slam loudly. At the top of the stairs, she turned right and moved quickly toward her room at the end of the hall. Her mind raced with memories of the past hour’s events. She was full of emotion, which expressed itself outwardly in a second incident of adrenaline induced strength, exactly five seconds after the first. She pushed firmly on her bedroom door causing it to slam loudly against the side wall. Downstairs, her brothers reacted to the noise by exiting the house through the back door.

My dad was still waiting patiently in the car in the middle of our street, when my older sister ran back down the driveway in complete obscurity. At the car, she sat down in the driver seat and closed the door. “Did you find it?” my dad asked. “I did!” she responded. “Are you sure you want to do this?” My sister looked at my dad before replying. She put the change purse, which she had just found in her bedroom, down on the center console. She buckled her seatbelt, asking her dad to do the same. Putting the car into gear, they successfully navigated down our street…my sister in the driver’s seat. “Today has been a very good day…you’re a wonderful teacher…thanks dad…ice cream’s on me!” They turned the corner heading out of our neighborhood, moving quickly out of nobody’s view. “My Girl” by the Temptations played on the radio. 🎶 “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day…” 🎶

…maybe we just missed the lesson of the day!

The Conversation!

Davey was waiting in the living room when my mom entered carrying Mikey. He stopped throwing the baseball into his glove as a measure of caution to the baby in the room. “Good morning Davey” my mom offered as she put the burp cloth over her shoulder. She settled down in the chair across the room from where Davey sat. “Getting the team together?…Just the brothers today or do you need their dad too?” Davey responded with a nervous laugh. “Just one today…he said he’d be right down.”

“Burrrrp!” My mom stopped patting the baby’s back. “Good boy Mikey!” she responded, as she turned him back around to face Davey. As he sized up the baby, Davey couldn’t recall his mom reacting that enthusiastically when he burped. “This is Mikey” my mom interjected. “He’ll be staying with us for a while.” Davey returned to tossing the ball into his glove and looked toward the empty stairs. “Where’s Dawn?” he blurted out; a bit of apprehension in his voice. “She went to live with her new family” my mom responded, noticing the look of confusion that had swept across Davey’s face. She began to explain.

“We’re foster parents. We take in and care for newborn babies until a family can be found for them. Last week Dawn’s adoptive family was found and she went to live with them! Now we’re caring for Mikey.” She talked as she held both Mikey and his baby bottle; Mikey’s blue eyes followed the nipple, focusing and refocusing as my mom moved the bottle in front of the baby’s face while continuing to explain the adoption process to Davie. Mikey started to fidget, as did Davey.

“Where are the ‘real’ parents” Davie asked? My mom explained that some kids, like Davey, are born into a family, while others, like Mikey, join a family through adoption. She added, “Being parents is a very difficult job and some people just aren’t ready.” An empty sucking sound caught her attention and she moved the bottle nipple into Mikey’s mouth. Mikey’s fidgeting ceased.

“You’ve had a lot of babies!” Davey remarked. My mom laughed at the comment. “Yes I have…the kids have had twenty or so brothers and sisters pass through this house!” “I bet they can still name every one of them!” She reflected for a moment…herself picturing every one of their little faces (including the twins) in her mind’s eye. In her lap, Mikey quietly looked up at her while continuing to suck at the bottle; his little hand wrapped around one of her fingers.

Davey had put the ball and glove down to his side and was now leaning forward, looking across the room at the baby. “Don’t you get sad when they leave?” “I do…we all do” she responded. “But they’re going to a loving family” she continued. “We get to say our goodbyes before the social worker comes to pick them up; usually when the kids are in school…it’s easier that way.” Her voice trailed off. After a momentary pause, my mom smiled, looked down at Mikey, then at Davey. “Do you want to hold him?” “I don’t know how!” he retorted. But my mom was already across the room and placing Mikey into Davey’s outstretched arms. “Just put your arm under here and hold his head up…there…that’s right.” Davey sat very still with the bundle of life in his lap. He looked up nervously at my mom…“He’s so little!” “Yes he is!” (But they always rush to the big game she thought!) “I like them when they’re this little!” Davy added.  He beamed as he became more comfortable holding the baby. “Well I’m sure that someday you will make a very good dad!” Baby Mikey looked up at Davey, and in the moment he smiled and cooed. Davey smiled and cooed back.

The moment was broken by the sound of my jumping down the stairs…”Thirteen steps!…heh heh…Let’s go play some ball!” I demanded as I pushed open the screen door. I was halfway down the driveway before I noticed the lack of Davey’s presence. I walked heavily back into the house to see my mom and Davey talking…DAVEY…TALKING TO MY MOM! “He better not be asking my mom to play in the game” I thought to myself. “LET’S GO!” I whined. Showing a level of care I had not previously seen Davey impart upon anything, he slowly handed Mikey over to my mom and kissed him on the forward; then nonchalantly picked up his ball and glove, and joined me at the door. “WHAT?!” he said in response to my sideward glance of displeasure. We ran down the driveway together. “I’m going to miss your baby brother when he leaves.” “Yup…me too!” I responded; the last words between us as we rushed to the big game.

The Stick!

In July 1973, little Danny Koster of Allentown, PA hopped onto a Pogo stick and didn’t stop hopping until he hopped a record-setting 17,323 times.

It was Saturday morning. I woke early to catch the latest installment of Monster Movie Matinee. Still in my pajamas, I approached the staircase at the end of the hall. Thirteen steps lay between me, Dr. E. Nick Witty and his one-eyed assistant Epal. I grabbed the bannister with both hands and began to lean forward, sliding my hands as far forward as I could, while maintaining my footing on the second floor landing. When I could lean forward no more, I jumped and landed safely with a thud at the bottom of the stairs! “Thirteen steps!” A record I surmised!

My younger sister appeared from the living room. I took the opportunity to lay my claim. “I jumped thirteen steps…it can’t be broken…it’s all the steps…it can only be tied…but I did it first….” I expected a response, but did not get one. My sister continued past me with a look of apathy, which made me uncomfortable. Jealousy I surmised! “At least I won’t have to fight for the TV.”

I turned on the TV in time to hear Dr. Witty remark, “Ahhh Dear Guest, welcome to Monster Mansion…” The long, sharp black fingernails of Dr. Witty’s ringed-hand came into focus. Maybe today would be the day the good doctor would find a cure for Epal’s lycanthropic condition. I glanced down at the coffee table. The July 1973 edition of Boy’s Life Magazine lay open to page 34. The feature story on The Guinness Book of World Records included a snippet on the exploits of a thirteen-year old boy who hopped himself into the record books. “Thats Crazy!” I thought as I sat back into my seat to await the beginning of this week’s tale of terror. “Thirteen steps…heh heh!”

My sister had continued down the hall and into the den to exit the house through the back door. The door exited into the garage. She pressed the garage door opener and watched as streams of early morning light pursued the door along its upward path. The pogo stick was leaning against the ladder that hung on the sidewall; she picked it up and walked to the center of the garage. A gift from the previous Christmas, the stick was her favorite possession and in the ensuing months she had quietly mastered her hopping technique. In the silence of the morning, within the confines of the garage, she started to hop. One, two, three…

Inside the house, Saturday morning life bustled. “No baseball today” my dad asked? No answer from me as I continued to stare at the TV console. On the screen the gill-man had escaped the aquarium and was fleeing to the ocean. My dad continued unconcerned into the dining room. My brother, who had joined me in watching “Revenge of the Creature,” was apprehensive. “Was that Joe he killed? Where’s the professor?”  I continued my silence. It was a defensive measure.  “They should have made that tank stronger…do you think he’s after Helen now…Where’s Helen…the creature looks fake…”

…one hundred one, one hundred two, one hundred three…

“I’ll need more craft glue” my mom indicated to my dad. The implements of my mom’s latest craft undertaking were spread out across the dining room table…styrofoam, barn board, scissors, wire, and lots of dried flowers, reeds and other various flora. “It looks good,” my dad responded. “We’ll need to make another trip to find some cattails,” she added. “Really…it looks good now…I thought it was done!” My mom looked at my dad without comment. “Why don’t we go to Switz’ later for the glue and pick up a Mondo’s pizza for lunch on the way home.” “I’ll send the kids over to the field later, maybe there are some cattails by the pond.”

My dad leaned back and peered into the living room. “Did you hear that,” he asked?” My brother responded with a question, “Do you think the professor will find Helen in time?” “Where’s your younger sister,” my dad responded?

…one thousand twenty three, one thousand twenty four, one thousand twenty five…

Gunfire broke out in the living room. The professor and the police were riddling the gill-man with bullets. Helen rushed into the professor’s arms and “The End” appeared on the screen as the creature moved backwards into the waters of the Black Lagoon. My brother’s line of questioning was interrupted by the sound of my older sister bounding down the stairs; one at a time I noticed! She was dressed in her girl scout uniform. “Mom!” It’s time to go,” she screamed! In the dining room, my mom put down the dried lotus seed pod. “Oh…the meeting…I forgot,” she mumbled to herself.

…five thousand two hundred fifty six…

“Change of plans,” my mom told my dad. “We’ll go to the girl scout meeting together…your daughter is receiving her badge for camping. After the meeting, we’ll go to Switz’, then pick up the pizza.” “Sounds like a plan,” my dad responded. “I can pick up a couple of pinewood derby car kits for the boys,” he added. In the living room, I was now watching “Jonny Quest” thinking that Jonny looked more like his bodyguard, Race Bannon, than his father, Dr. Benton Quest. “Where’s Jade,” my brother asked?

My mom, dad and older sister left the house through the front door; the station wagon was parked in the driveway. The car doors opened and my mom and older sister got into the car without comment. As my dad entered the car, he looked up and saw my younger sister hopping up and down in the garage. “Don’t go anywhere,” he called out. “We’re bringing a pizza home.” He continued into the car, started it up and backed out of the driveway and in a moment they were on their way.

…nine thousand six hundred and ninety five…

My brother lay asleep on the couch. I had set up my hot wheels track to start from the dining room, into the living room, over my sleeping brother, and downward to the hallway. H.R. Pufnstuf was on the TV…my younger sister’s favorite TV show. For a moment I wondered where she was as I quickly turned the knob.  Static blared between stations before talking chimpanzees appeared on the screen. “Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp,” I laughed. Cars whizzed over my brother’s head as Lancelot worked to overcome the latest evil plan from C.H.U.M.P.

…eleven thousand four hundred eighty seven…

My brother lay asleep on the couch. I was asleep on the floor. The dreaded Sleestak were after Rick, Will and Holly in the Land of the Lost. Outside, the station wagon pulled back into the driveway. Three doors opened and my mom, dad and older sister exited the vehicle. My dad carried a pizza; my mom a Switz’ bag. My sister beamed at her new badge, which my mom had sewn onto her sash during the drive home using a sewing kit she kept in the car’s glove compartment. Shadows had entered the garage and obscured my younger sister from view. My mom, dad and older sister entered through the front door.

…fourteen thousand twenty six…

I awoke to my older sister bounding up the stairs; one at a time I noticed! “The dinosaurs look fake…do you think the dinosaurs look fake,” my brother asked? My dad put the pizza on the kitchen table. My mom took the craft glue out of the bag and put it on the dining room table; she handed the pinewood derby kits to my dad, who turned to take them down to the cellar. “I’ll put the pizza under the oven warmer for a few minutes.” Food always needed to be reheated in my mom’s world!

…Fifteen thousand, six hundred and nineteen…

Twenty minutes later, the five of us were sitting at the kitchen table. “Can I go set up a TV tray table and eat in the living room,” I asked? “I want to watch the Yankee game.” My father and brother joined me in asking for my mom’s permission. “Go ahead,” she said as she looked at my older sister and the empty seat next to her.

…seventeen thousand three hundred and twenty four…

“Where’s your sister?” My older sister shrugged. “Last time I saw her, she was hopping on her pogo stick in the garage, but that was hours ago,” my father offered. The back door opened and my younger sister entered into the den. “Where have you been all day,” my mother asked? My younger sister shrugged. “Well go wash your hands and get some pizza.”

We all sat at our TV trays in the living room eyeing our pizza. We had to wait a bit, as it was too hot. The Yankees were playing the Red Sox. 0-0 was the score early in the third inning. “Do you think the Yankees will win,” my brother asked? No answer from anyone as we continued to stare at the TV console. I looked over at my younger sister, who was eyeing me with a slight smirk, which made me uncomfortable again. Still jealous about the thirteen steps I surmised!