Friday, September 30, 2016

FIVE SHEETS OF DRAWINGS

Here's a story that brings a couple of familiar threads together--the vocation, and the relationship between father and son. The relationship that Jim Morphesis describes here threatens, at first, to be one of those in which the son craves his father's approval, and suffers profoundly when he fails to get it. The young Jim in this story, though, rejects that possibility. In an act of what he calls "revenge," he decides he's going to prove his father wrong... It turns out to be a story of a young man's persistence and dogged belief in himself.  Jim Morphesis today (the link here is to an article I wrote about him some time ago for Huffington Post; if I have it right, he does not have a website) is, of course--what else?--an artist of distinction. I'm attaching images of two of his paintings below the text.


FIVE SHEETS OF DRAWINGS
Jim Morphesis

I was fifteen years old when I decided this would be the evening that I would declare to my parents that I was going to be a professional artist. 

For as long as I could remember, I had been painting, drawing and sculpting objects out of clay, sticks, feathers, and whatever else I could find. I had won a prize in every annual school art competition. I did request drawings for teachers in my grade school and for about a third of my classmates. I did, however, put an end to this habit before advancing to junior high school. 

In junior high, and into high school, I designed theatre sets, drew cartoons for the school magazine and even painted my version of our high school mascot, a big growling tiger, right in the middle of the basketball court. From grade school into high school, I was the “go-to artist.” I felt certain that my parents would be delighted with my decision. 

And so that evening I confidently headed for the den where my mother and father were watching television. I practically jumped into the room, stood before them, blocking their view of the television, and exclaimed that I was going to be an art major in college and become a professional artist. 

My proclamation was met with no applause. Not even a smile. Well, all right, I think that I remember my mother at least having a “that’s nice dear” expression on her face. On the other hand, my father’s gaze was definitely severe and it wasn’t just that I was preventing him from seeing the TV screen. Why was he not excited? My becoming a professional artist made perfect sense. Telling my father, some years before, that I wanted to become a professional football player was, of course, ridiculous. But this decision was sound. To become an artist was surely my destiny.

My father fixed me with a disturbing stare and took a moment to collect his thoughts.  “OK,” he said finally. “If you want to get serious about being an artist, you have to fill five large sheets of sketch paper with drawings every week.  At the end of the week, you will present me with these drawings. If I don’t think they’re good enough, you won’t be going out with friends over the weekend.” I knew immediately what was going on in his head. He was thinking that I wouldn’t be up to the challenge, that I would give up on this idea of an art career. Damn. I was left with no choice. I agreed to his demand and turned to leave the room. As I walked to the door, I heard my father say quietly to my mother: “He hasn’t got it in him!”

Feeling absolutely crushed, I headed back to my room with a strange, queasy sensation in the pit of my stomach. What was I thinking? I should have expected this. My father’s approval was hard to come by; tossing out demeaning comments and unfair demands was a tradition with him.  But could he be right? Maybe I didn’t have the discipline, or worse, the talent to become a real artist. It wasn’t as though my father didn’t know what it took to be a professional artist. There was a time when he was one of the most sought-after young illustrators in the Northeast. But the outbreak of World War II put an end to his burgeoning art career. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps and thrived on the authority and the fascinating experiences that the military provided him. After twenty-six years of service, he retired a full Colonel. My father’s achievements were significant and would always seem impossible to match.

That difficult evening, and for a moment, I remembered a brief but wonderful time when my father returned to commercial art. For his illustration assignments, he would often use my mother, my older brother, neighbors, and myself as models. We would be dressed in costumes and posed as the different characters that he painted for his advertising jobs. He was, unfortunately, never able to return to the big commissions he was offered prior to the war and before he had the responsibilities of a house and family. Once again, he abandoned his artwork and moved on to other professions. But for a time I had been able to watch my father work in his studio. He was a skilled draftsman and his artwork was technically exquisite. Being with my father in the studio was a privilege I took full advantage of and I learned so very much. These remembrances, however, made his harsh reaction to my wanting to be a professional artist all the more devastating.

The dreary walk to my bedroom finally ended. I stepped into the room and, suddenly, things seemed different. A number of my artworks were lying around the room and when I looked at them, my attitude changed. There was something good in these works. I started to feel a little aggressive. I thought to myself, “No, Dad was wrong. I have the talent and the discipline and I’m going to prove it to him. Later that night, I snuck into where he had for years stored his art supplies. I procured a large drawing pad, a handful of pencils and erasers, and began my revenge.

Well, perhaps this was not the most positive motivation, but it worked. The next day I began drawing. I drew everything, apples, bananas, trash cans, my left hand, people I saw walking dogs out the window, and from photographs printed in Sports Illustrated I drew a portrait of my football hero, Jim Brown. Light bulbs, I drew piles of frosted light bulbs.  I loved drawing those light bulbs. When my father looked at my first five sheets of drawings, and specifically my light bulb renderings, he paused. He asked where I learned to rub the graphite to a smooth, middle, value and erase out light areas to create the reflections on those bulbs. I told him it just seemed the natural thing to do. I noticed an approving smile. With that quiet response, I knew that he was coming around. That was quite a moment for me.

Another special moment occurred while I worked to fill those sketchpads, to prove myself right. One morning, I flipped through the pages of National Geographic looking for inspirational images and the photo of a woman carrying a sack of grain on her head caught my eye. I decided to draw her. When I finished the drawing and leaned back to better see my work, I noticed that the voluptuous little figure that I drew was very animated. With a great deal of attitude and balancing that big bundle atop her head, she seemed to dance across the drawing paper. My drawing was alive—and this didn’t come from the photo. I thought to myself, “I think I made art. Maybe I do have something to offer!” No longer would I have to try to be an artist. I was being one.

After a few weeks of examining sheet after sheet of my drawings, my father went back to concentrating on golf. He never again questioned my commitment to art or my abilities to create it. Later, during my first year of art school, I chose to major in painting and not illustration. He didn’t interfere. 


Jim Morphesis, Rose XIII, 2012, oil & mixed media on wood panel, 26  x  26 inches
Jim Morphesis, Untitled, 1985, oil & mixed media on wood panel, 26 x 20 inches







Wednesday, September 28, 2016

PUNISHMENT


A few days ago, I raised the issue of punishment, in the hope that I'd receive some further memories from men about their experience as boys. The response I'm posting today is a reminder that no more than a few words are needed to condense a complex blend of thought, profound reflection and feeling, subtle analysis and judgment into a story that says a lot about how a small boy is confronted with the cruelly arbitrary quality of rules and their insensitive application by the adult world. The understatement tells us more, and more intensely, than might a much longer piece of prose. It also reminds us that truly hurtful punishment can take a more subtle form than the cane or the angry reprimand. Reading these words, and remembering our own encounters with arbitrary authority at an early age, we understand in our hearts and minds far more than what is actually told. 

The author requests anonymity. Here's his story:

PUNISHMENT

At summer camp, 4 years old.  I go to visit my sister, in the girls' camp adjacent. Not supposed to do that, and I am "caught" and told I cannot go to visit her without telling the counselor in advance that I will be there.  I say I understand, and immediately announce that I am going to see her.  Permission is denied; I cannot see my sister; and I cannot understand how to use the rules.  Three punishments in one declaration.  

A FOOTNOTE: Please... more stories about punishment!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

THE SWING

My mind betrays me. I don't remember whether I mentioned this here, on the "Boyhood Memories" blog, or elsewhere. I do remember writing about it only recently. Perhaps I was simply writing to a friend. Perhaps I was writing to my "boyhood memories" contact list. So if I repeat myself, forgive me...

... I was recalling a challenge I was offered in the course of one of those weekend workshops, perhaps at the Esalen Institute, a number of years ago. The challenge was to return to the last moment at which I could remember being truly and completely happy--the kind of happiness that is unclouded by even the slightest fear or worry, the sense of complete, unfettered bliss.

I'd like to offer that challenge to anyone who cares to take it. You might surprise yourself. It's no easy task. It requires some quiet reflection, some intimate connection with the unconscious mind. Given a moment of spontaneous insight, it will pop up. If you seize it at that moment, you'll be rewarded by an always-accessible gateway to the source of happiness in your life... And all you'll need to do is write it down.

Here's what popped up for me:

THE SWING
by Peter Clothier

Here I am. It is a warm day, the sky unusually blue. I swing back and forth, back and forth, out over the Bedfordshire landscape, flat and wide.

The swing hangs from the lower branch of the great pine tree that stands halfway between the Rectory and the church of St. Botolph’s, toward which my father now strides purposefully on his way to Mattins, his cassock flapping at his heels, a prayer book in his hand, and notes for his Sunday morning sermon.

Beside me, on the grass, sits Hank, the border collie, with his shaggy coat of black and white, his ever watchful, ever patient, ever calm brown eyes.

Back and forth, back and forth…

In the far distance, the tall chimney stacks of the brick works penetrate the purple line of the horizon. Up close, the Tudor farmhouse and its big barn stand across the street. Chickens peck at the seeds amongst the straw, ducks quack contentedly as they waddle in the mud.

Behind me, the Rectory windows glint, reflecting sunlight, clouds. High up, the small dark oculus, through which the barn owl flies at night to attend to her owlets in her attic nest.

My mother works at the kitchen range. She is cooking jam, perhaps. Perhaps, if I am lucky, I will later be allowed a spoonful of the sweet hot scum that rises to the top. Now and then she will look out, through the kitchen window to watch me on the swing. Perhaps she calls my name…

Back toward the Rectory, forward toward the church. Swinging back toward mother, forward toward dad.

This is how it is with me. Up into the sky, back down toward the earth. Back and forth, back and forth… Timeless. This is the happiest of all memories.








Monday, September 26, 2016

THE MOMENT

(Before we start, a note: I was just this morning watching a television news report on the golfing great, Arnold Palmer's death. The report replayed a clip from an interview from a number of years ago, in which Palmer recalled, with vivid, moving clarity, the moment at which his groundsman father first showed him how to grip a golf club. He was a lad of probably no more than seven or eight years old, and that intense, sparkling memory had stayed with him for more than seventy years. Quite obviously, it shaped his life. That's what this blog is all about....)

And we have yet another magical moment today. (In case you missed it, check back on The Swallows by Masami Teraoka). For many boys, magic is just what happens to us every day... This memory comes from Ron Wigginton, a painter and landscape artist whose work today (in both fields) addresses the peculiar magic of landscape; his story, as I read it, evokes the kindling of an original creative imagination. I'll attach an image of one of his paintings below.



THE MOMENT
by Ron Wigginton, 9/12/16


This moment from my long-ago boyhood only grows more vivid whenever it’s recalled. Not that I think of that event frequently, but the more I understand that it did happen, the more I feel that the path I followed and lead today was right. Did it inform me? No—rather, it appears that it defined me.

I was six when we moved a few blocks within the bedroom community of El Cerrito overlooking the San Francisco Bay. This Behrens Street neighborhood was built just before World War II and varied little in size or shape from wood frame to stucco; ours was the latter. Good-sized backyards to play Cowboys and Indians with the small gang of grammar school buddies made for great fort building and discovery. This was a time of contemplation and solitary wonderment to me… and the dawning of deeper questioning.

At seven I could roam free to walk the two blocks to Harding School. The world was exciting: vast and minute at the same time. My parents were always over-engaged in themselves, and I came to see that they were part of the mystery and misunderstanding I had of these environments. To my awakening mind it was taking a long time to get a handle on this world I was born into.

The adjoining neighbor to the north was also a mystery. A “regular” post-war family, they did things a little differently. They cooked in their backyard, and they fished in the Bay. Their stucco house was like ours, but less kept-up and maintained; dead lawn, boat in the driveway, and so on.

It was warm, probably June, clear sky, end of the day around 4:00. The neighbors were washing fresh bay salt off their small boat. Two very big galvanized buckets of half-dead sea bass in salt water from the day’s fishing were sitting in the driveway. Half-dead fish were a very big-time kid draw. Shortly, the buckets were carried down the property line into their backyard and set up on the green paint-shedding picnic table. Big lidless fish eyes stared up at us. The grownups had lit the charcoal BBQ and were bringing out plates and salads while we snuck slices of white bread.

The first big fish was hauled out and plopped on newspaper to be filleted for the fire. Its beautiful sparkling silver and blue colors were slowly starting to fade, but it was supple, slippery, and seemed to be staring at us kids gathered around: Sally Rich and a couple of other children. My view of the fish’s body held upright shifted to the serrated fishing knife that shone in the sun; poised. The point went in just behind the gills; we winced. But then, instead of blood or worse, everything froze, or appeared to slow and come to a stop. That’s when it happened…

A crystal green inverted teardrop the size of a baseball emerged above the knife from the top of the fish’s head. It moved ever so slowly until it hovered a half-foot over the body. Sound continued, dimly, movement occurred, slowly. This beautiful orb-like liquid form seemed other-worldly in its transparency and grace. It kept its perfect symmetry then began to slowly climb into the sky above us kids standing beside it. The silent form paused, showing itself so clearly; then it rose faster and faster as I watched until it was only a tiny dot in the blue sky; then gone. In awe and delight, I knew this was a wonder that would continue to astonish all of us throughout our lives. 

I snapped out of my focus and yelled, “Did you see that!”…

Nobody saw it.

Nobody.

Time and place roared back. The moment was past. I don’t recall what happened to the fish, the BBQ and the people. Strangely, my shock was not as much at seeing this “soul” (for lack of a better word) ascend into the heavens, as comprehending the fact that no one else claimed to have seen it. I brought this incident up a few times to that same audience, and even briefly to my mother, but then had to stop. There was just no way to talk about that moment to anyone then or for decades.

We were approaching serious Cold War years at a time when most adults had been in a real war and gone through the Great Depression. Few had a higher education and their perspectives were simple and direct. Soon, the commercial capitalistic world was filling their heads with childish advertising and ridiculous slogans and song on the radio and black and white televisions. Kids were expected to be happy with idiotic toys and music that all seemed to point in the wrong direction. Nothing really rhymed correctly, nothing spoke to nature or directed us to what might be the reality or the potential of our internal lives. The world was madly making itself into something very abstract. But then, what did I know—a seven year old boy?


Ron Wigginton, "Land and Studio," 2010, Co-polymer and dye 140# C.P. Arches, 30" x 22"











Friday, September 23, 2016

THAT TOOTHPICK: A FOOTNOTE

You may have wondered about that portrait I included with Jayme Odgers's story yesterday. I myself had not thought to ask--had thought it a kind of charming metaphor for insouciance and defiance as the face and body age and disease takes its toll. Turns out I was pretty much right in my interpretation, though I was ignorant of the back story. Jayme sent me a follow-up yesterday, as a clarification. Here's the image again:

Jayme Odgers, Wearing the Toothpick High
And here's the back story:


Wearing The Toothpick High
by Jayme Odgers

The title for the self-portrait came to me by way of a story I was once told by a dear Japanese friend.

During Japan’s feudal era life was good for the samurai. Being at the top of a caste system of farmers, artisans and merchants, they were kept well fed so they would have strength to protect those that hired them. The samurai code of bushido, or the way of the warrior, was one of high honor, extreme discipline and deep morality.

Samurai traditionally made their living on a fixed stipend from landowners. However, with more peaceful times, circa 1588, stipends dwindled. This literally put many of the samurai out of work. Many lower level samurai starved to death, unable to get work.

The few that survived had immense bushido, or warrior pride, in themselves and their highly evolved skills. Being seen as hungry was the surest sign of their appearing to be out of work, therefore unwanted. To be desired one had to appear successful—this was most easily accomplished by being seen as well fed.

Unemployed samurai would stride around making a show of themselves by rubbing their bellies while brandishing a large toothpick in their mouths, acting as if they had just eaten a hugely satisfying meal while actually being starved. This hopeful pretense was called “wearing the toothpick high.”

I made my “wearing the toothpick high” self-portrait to show that, even though being wasted away by a dreaded disease, I can still appear the picture of health. I might even convince myself!


Thursday, September 22, 2016

INNER CONVICTION

Here is the first example of several stories I have received concerning boyhood illness and disability, and the ways it which they left lasting marks on the one who suffered them. All of them managed to triumph over their affliction in one way of another. Jayme Odgers, the author of this current story, simply dug his heels in, refused treatment, and handled the problem in the way that he saw fit. He did the same, many years later, with other attacks of ill-health and rejection of doctors' urgent recommendations. As you'll see from the resume on his website, Odgers has a history as a graphic designer with scores of distinctions and awards, and his paintings have been widely exhibited. He is currently at work on a remarkable and deeply moving series of self-portraits...



... tracking the inevitable (for us all!) path of aging, illness, and the confrontation with death. 


I N N E R   C O N V I C T I O N
by Jayme Odgers

Truth be told, the most normal of childhoods is anything but normal. Mine was exceedingly cornbread-apple pie, Montana-mid-Western normal, so it was a considerable shock to me when my mother carted me off to the doctor’s office at roughly eight years of age. She had seen something I had been overlooking, if not completely ignoring. I was pigeon-toed. My right foot toed-in slightly; my left foot, however, turned inward considerably. To me, my feet simply seemed idiosyncratic, akin to my being left-handed. To mom, it was something that needed to be fixed. Off to the pediatrician we went. I recall feeling that if my mother thought it was important enough to see a doctor, it was. She always knew what was best.

Within a very short time at the doctor’s office it was determined that this was not going to be a quick fix by any means. In the midst of considerable confusion for me, a disturbing word arose out of the din: braces. Why did he use that word? It was a word that clearly applied only to other people, certainly not me. As the pediatrician continued to diagnose my condition and determine that I needed braces, it stopped being an abstract word, it became literal—cumbersome metal bars leather-strapped to my legs for an indeterminate amount of time. How could I run? Worse, how could I be me? At one point, my mind went blank. Strangely, the conversation that centered around my feet and legs stopped having anything to do with me. It was like an out-of-body experience.

The next thing I recall is being back home with my mother going over what the doctor had just said to be sure I understood what was to come next: going back to the doctor to be fitted with those gothic, life-altering braces on my legs. It was then that I rebelled and went against my mother’s wishes and the doctor’s demands—I simply put my foot down and absolutely refused to accept braces in my life. Even though mom was always right, and doctors were gods incarnate, I refused to obey their commands.

“What do you intend to do then?” my mother challenged. I pleaded with her to give me a chance to fix the condition myself, that I would take care of it in my own way. Slyly she acquiesced, probably knowing I’d soon change my mind and become a wiling supplicant. With an insane amount of focused concentration, heightened by a deathly fear of braces, each step I took, repeatedly, every day, every week, month after month, over time I mentally forced my feet to become straight. It worked. Mind over matter. They have remained thus to this day.

I chose this story for several reasons. I’ve always sensed that it gave my parents confidence that I could take care of myself even at an early age. It also gave me a sense that I am in charge of my own life to a greater degree than I could ever imagine.

Five years ago, at age 71, I was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a hellish condition if ever there was one. Once again, I willed and worked my way out of its horrendous clutches against exceedingly stiff odds. By age 73, I had become my neurologist’s poster child for MG, free of all medication, strong and active. One year later, I was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. The doctors emphatically suggested four series of three-stage chemotherapy, and I quote, “If you live through that,” removal of my left lung. I refused both therapies, telling them I’ll take care of it in my own way. With that, they sent me home with instructions to get my papers in order.

That was two years ago. Every other day my partner and I hike in Griffith Park. When I’m at the top of the mountain after an hour-long hike up some fairly steep climbs, feeling invigorated, I look around. Not surprisingly, everyone else up there is half my age. Life is good.



P.S. Here's Jayme today, taking the waters in Lake Hemet!






Tuesday, September 20, 2016

CRUZIN'

In our teenage years we boys are notoriously oblivious to risk, particularly in fancy cars on the highway. We bask in the sense of our own invincibility. Alas, the realities of life still tend to intrude. This story comes from Kurt Grosz, whose rock band was nearly decimated by the experience he describes. Kurt is today in the construction business in Orange County California. He reports that he is "under pressure from clients. Just the normal 'want it yesterday' demands. Nature of my expert work. Hurry up and wait. Currently they are omitting the wait phase."  


CRUZIN'
by Kurt Grosz

Wow!  Are we going to have a great time tonight!

It was a warm late August evening in New Jersey. Cooler than earlier. Skin still hot from the sun earlier at the swimming pool. Cruzin’ with my buddies and band members in that convertible Corvair.  With no cares and the feeling of invincibility, we were off to party at someone’s house (no parents) to indulge in the drink and herb and who knows, maybe a little “slap and tickle”.  The road to the festivities is covered in a canopy of trees as it winds through the hundred-year-old houses toward the little Tudor-styled train station; past which lay our destination.

I was in the back seat with the beautiful long blond-haired, blue-eyed, busty athletic girl who dumbfounded all the guys who were sniffing around like curious dogs; which is exactly what I was.  The fact that she was a genius and had a laugh like a burlesque performer was a bucket of cold water shock to most however I was undaunted... 

I heard the sound of cars colliding; a sound less like smashing of projectiles than the anguished cry of some prehistoric beast. Then nothing.

I awoke in a hospital bed, disoriented but aware that there had been an automobile collision.  With what?  How? Why? How was everyone?

After lying there for what seemed like an eternity, a white-coated man came in and asked how I was.  I was sore and apparently had some stitches in my elbow, so I responded with that self-inventory.   With the bedside manner of a political pundit with an agenda, his response was, “Well, your driver friend is dead and the guy in the passenger seat may not make it."   

I asked how the girl was and he said, “What girl?” 

I never have remembered that evening in spite of a psychologist’s assurance that it would come back like a freight train running through my head.  What I have pieced together from the passenger, our lead guitar, after many months of reconstruction surgery, and from people who lived nearby the fiery collision who assisted in the rescue, as well as from the court transcript and newspaper articles was this: 

·      The driver, lead singer and harmonica player, was incinerated.
·      The passenger, lead guitar, recovered but battled prescription drugs and multiple wives until he finally was done in by alcohol and cocaine years later.
·    The back seat beauty we wished to be our groupie went on to be a Merit Scholar with advanced degrees and drove a cab in NYC.
·      Our vehicle was hit by a station wagon driven by commuter from “the City” who had just spent his train ride in the bar car.  He crossed the line and ended the innocence of youth for all of us.

·      And BTW: I learned but did not remember that after a Good Samaritan pulled me from the burning car, I asked about my date in the back seat.  She reportedly had sunk to the floor boards in the crash.  I rushed into the flaming wreck and pulled her out.  Though she was grateful for that feat which was lost in memory, we were always haunted by the events of that night and lost touch a few years later.    

Monday, September 19, 2016

HOP ON POP

Here's another "absent father" piece, this one with the added leitmotif, perhaps, of a creative vocation discovered as a child! The Dad in question is caught in the black and white photograph, below. Gregg Chadwick is today a Santa Monica-based painter whose work is widely exhibited and acclaimed. His blog is titled Speed of Life. His boyhood memory skirts subtly around the pain of separation, deflecting it first, jokingly, onto a prank played on his mother with his toys; then on a treasured book, a parting gift from Dad. But by the end, we're left in no doubt that the pain is there, along with a misplaced sense of responsibility for Mom...


HOP ON POP

By Gregg Chadwick


As a kid, I liked to build private worlds out of drawings that I would cut up and paste into scenes with soft plastic bugs pulled hot from my Creepy Crawlers molds. I would squirt the Plastigoop from a small bottle into the empty molds and heat them up on my Thingmaker. Once, late at night, I cut out a darkly drawn semicircle, taped it to the kitchen floorboard in our rented carriage house, and placed dark rodent Creepy Crawlers around my invented mouse hole. As a last surprise, I hid one in my mom’s coffee cup. My brother and I would get a great laugh, because my mom hates rodents of all shapes and sizes.

I woke to the baconesque smell of Tastystrips and the caramel espresso smell of Mom’s percolating coffee. She was at the stove pulling strips from the pan and lining them up on a golden, grease filled sheet of paper towel. Her coffee mug sat nearby. My brother was already at the table reading a cereal box before turning to my mom to chat about a birthday trip to the Revolutionary War encampment up at Jockey Hollow with his friend Casey Jones. Yep, the same name as the famous railroader. Our portable transistor radio was on; it should have been playing "Cannonball Express" in honor of that other Casey. I sneaked a quick glance to be sure that my mouse hole was still there with its attendant rubbery rodents. OK, the plan was still in action. I walked over to the stove and looked into my mom’s cup. I gulped as I saw myself reflected in the dark liquid.

“How’s the coffee Mom?” That sounded wrong. Was I in a Folgers commercial or something?

“Fine dear. Careful of the hot stove. Don’t burn yourself.”

I sat down without a word and quietly ate my breakfast, glancing at the line of dark Crawlers on the floor.

A honk outside interrupted the quiet and my brother jumped up to run out the door. My mom called after him, “Don’t forget your jacket.”

“It’s June Mom,” my brother said.

“So it is," said my mom as she marked off another day on the calendar.

“One day at a time,” she told me. “That’s how we get on until your Dad comes home.”

I didn’t mention the Crawlers on the floor and especially not the one in her coffee cup. She never mentioned them either. I did make some Crawlers that day for my Dad, though, and Mom and I placed them carefully in an envelope and addressed it to his Fleet Post Office address in Vietnam.

My dad didn’t really need any more bugs in the jungle. But I kept sending them anyway. They were small packages of memories. And I wanted to thank him for the going away gift he had given me before he went to war in 1965. We were in the car. I remember ripping the paper off that package like it was the wrapper on a popsicle on a hot summer day.

It was a book! I could begin to make out the title as I shredded the wrapping. "'Op on Op” peeked out at me through a hole in the paper. “I can read it all by myself Beginner Books," it said.

I tossed the decorative wrap onto the car floor and held up my prize with its aqua, white, orange, and yellow cover. “Hop on Pop” by Dr. Seuss. I laughed at the two small bears jumping on the daddy bear’s tummy. “We like to hop. We like to hop on top of pop.”

“Thank you! Thank You!” I said, in between pages.

Mission accomplished. My dad and mom smiled as we made our way back to my grandmother’s house. But I was sad, too. I knew even then that a good little Marine didn’t cry, and that my brother and I would need to be tough for Mom.  I put the book down, held my tears back and looked out the window. As if in a movie, the scenes scrolled by. Even though I had been born here, it seemed a new landscape for me. 

We would have to run our recons without Dad for quite a while. 





Friday, September 16, 2016

THE SWALLOWS



Some of the stories I receive reflect the almost magical quality of boyhood wonder. This one comes from Masami Teraoka, the noted Japanese-American artist now based in Hawaii. (Here's a link to his Wikipedia page, with a fine portrait of the artist.) His meticulously painted, ukiyo-e influenced triptychs satirize everything in contemporary culture from the abuse scandal of Catholic priests to the technology revolution, from American political absurdities and contemporary art itself. Brought up in Japan, Masami's boyhood memories include the distant view of the irradiated sky over Hiroshima in August 6, 1945. That story is for another time. For now, let's settle for magic:


THE SWALLOWS
by Masami Teraoka

The girl next door gave me a swallow one day. My sister said, "I know you love birds, so you should take care of it".  I was so excited. Our neighbor had put the swallow in a little insect cage—a very small cage, about 4 x 6 x 6 inches. The little bird’s feathers got trapped every time he or she flapped its wings.


My grandpa was watching all this over his glasses, from the tatami mat by the register in his kimono store. "Oh, Masami!” he said. “A swallow is a good bird, Ekicho; but it’s unlawful to keep a swallow as a pet." "Oops!" I thought, “I’m busted.” But anyway, my sister and I went ahead and climbed upstairs to the 3rd floor—a huge empty defunct space that had been built as a western-style restaurant. When my grandpa opened the kimono store, he opted for an ultra-"modern" concept, where his clients could have lunch upstairs at this western-style restaurant on the 3rd floor. But the idea did not do well, with WWII in progress, so the former restaurant was in a bad state. The curtains at every window were fraying. I had made this my studio.

As soon as we were upstairs, my sister insisted that my granddad had told me to let the bird go, but by then I was already attached to it. I loved the beautiful feathers, the splash of red feathers on the head. They all looked so organized and sleek. Wow, this bird is beautiful, I said to myself. The most striking thing was the swallow’s head, which unlike a sparrow’s is rather flat. I never also had the chance to see a swallow at such a close range. Every part of the bird was new and stunningly beautiful. The long tail feather was really special.

OK. After I had studied it, I realized the time had come. I had spent about ten minutes with the bird, and my sister once again reminded me that I was supposed to let it go. She opened the large sliding glass window that captured the entire view of Mt. Senkoji. I was so sad to let the bird go! Still, I decided to say goodbye, and opened the cage door. The swallow took a moment to collect him- or herself before flying off toward the Saikokuji temple—one of the many in my home town in the inland sea area.

Yasue and I waved goodbye as we followed the bird’s swift departure. Moments later, it had disappeared into the sky. Whoosh, and it’s gone.

And then, perhaps no more than five minutes after it had left, the bird came back—back to my empty studio space. It started off flying counter-clockwise. We were astonished, excited, elated!!!  We followed the flight-path of the bird in a state of total ecstasy, of total disbelief!!!!  And that was not all…

Before we knew it, there were a few more swallows vying to get into the studio. And then more. Amazed at the spectacle, I started to count them. Wow! Wow! This was incredible! Some began to alight on the curtain rods. Others joined the flock that continued to stream counter-clockwise around the studio. I kept counting, one, two, three… seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve… fourteen, fifteen, sixteen… Wow! And still more? Twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty six… thirty-five, thirty-six!!!

We were intoxicated, thinking they had come back to thank us!!!  Wow!!!!! We watched the birds’ flight patterns in that counter-clockwise circle, following the movement of the leader. We were totally in heaven!!!!!

Eventually, though, the swallows seemed to have decided to leave. First one left, then another a few seconds later. Then a group of a few birds flew off, then another, and another. We were so sad to see them to go. But we thanked them for their beautiful gratitude. We just could not thank them enough for what seemed almost like a fairytale.

Next thing I knew, this thought popped into my head: what if I had trapped 36 swallows and let them go one by one? Would each of them have brought 36 birds back? What a spectacle that would have been!