Monday, November 28, 2016

ON DEATH AND DYING

I do very much enjoy the fact that the voices on this "Boyhood Memories" blog are so diverse. Here's one that recalls the death of a sibling at a very young age, and reflects profoundly on the event itself, its meaning, and the lasting impact of the lesson it taught. I have had high regard for Howard N. Fox for many years, first as a curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and, more recently, as an independent writer and curator who is passionate about art and artists in Southern California and beyond. This piece is an extract from a letter he wrote in response to an old and dear friend--you'll see that her name is Rosemary--who had recently written to him about her own sobering close-encounter with the inevitability of death. As Howard notes here, it triggered his own memories and thoughts, which resound with a depth of acceptance, understanding and compassion.



BUNNY
(An extract from personal correspondence)
By Howard N. Fox

... As you said, "time marches on...and on...and on...until it stops!"  At least for each and every creature alive.  I've always thought about death--in an unseemly way according to my husband Douglas and to my parents, when they were still alive; maybe it's because I had a sister who died when she was only seven and I was only three.  I have only two memories of her--one, probably my very earliest memory, is quite pleasant: she was trying to comfort me by tickling me under my chin as I went into a bawling fit because my father was leaving the house to go to work.  The other memory, much less clear, was visiting her in the hospital when she was dying of leukemia.  I have zero memory of her funeral, and I'm quite certain my parents didn't take me to it, but I do remember asking my mother, probably a day or two later, where Bunny went.  She told me she died, that it was like going to sleep forever.  But mommy where is she now?  They put her in a wooden box and made a hole in the ground and put the box in the hole and put the dirt back on top of her.  The image I had then, standing in the laundry room of our house in the residential end of Atlantic City, was, quite specifically, that the box was an orange crate and that Bunny could see them putting the dirt back on top of her.  It was a disturbing image to me then, as it is now.

But I no longer fear for the dead nor pity them, nor myself for being among them one day.  The change was gradual but inevitable as I grew up.  However, the real realization came when I had neurosurgery on my left elbow at Cedars Sinai, I think about eight years ago, when I started to lose sensation and dexterity on the left side of my left hand.  The condition is called cubital tunnel syndrome–something like well-known carpal tunnel syndrome, but it occurs to a compressed nerve in the elbow rather than the wrist.  There I was, prepped and laying on the surgical table in the operating room and staring at the operating lamp above me, with its many intense facets and multiple lenses focused on my left arm.  As I was looking at the lamp, I felt something with the intravenous connection on my right arm, and I asked if they were ready to start.  The assistant surgeon declared "No, Howard, we're done.  You've been out for about 90 minutes."  I was amazed--flabbergasted.  I had absolutely no sense that I'd virtually ceased to exist as a sentient being for an hour and a half.

And truly, Rosamarina [my affectionate nickname honoring Rosemary’s Italian heritage], my immediate, first waking thought was that I have no need to fear being dead.  Not for myself or for anyone else.  I recall quite vividly being wheeled on the gurney into the recovery area with that idea firmly–and happily!–in my mind.  It was a life-changing--and I guess you could say a death-changing--experience for me.  (BTW, the surgery went fine.  The chronic tingling stopped, though as the surgeon explained going into it, I would never regain the feeling I lost nor the dexterity my body forfeited.  Big deal.)  The most salient content of the whole experience was that welcome realization about non-existence.

Of course there's a major difference between being dead and dying.  We can only hope for the best when it comes to dealing with the "endgame".  But the subtext of your letter is about engaging, or at least beginning to acknowledge that, perhaps, its earliest incidentals have begun.  To quote you, again, "Elevated liver 'counts,' anyone?"  Been there, done that, got the tee-shirt....  I've had one or two scares; and Douglas has had prostate cancer, has had a knee replacement, and has repeatedly had a procedure, under anesthesia, to burn away precancerous esophageal cells.  It's no fun, and it brings anxiety.  But neither are we afraid of the inevitable outcome.  As Voltaire says in Candide, the only thing one can do is tend one's own garden.  

It's a simple truth, but sometimes knowing simple truths is the most important thing of all.  I'm not a believer in any religion, you know that.  God forbid, were I!  But I recently re-heard a recording of Leonard Bernstein's “Mass”, which he was commissioned to write for the opening of the Kennedy Center.  The one line that I remember most from the time we saw it at Kennedy Center to the time I heard it last week as I drove on surface streets to Pasadena, is "God is the simplest thing of all."

I also remember reading an article about the Big Bang theory of the creation of the universe, in which a physicist was quoted as saying "No God is God enough for me."  When you think about it, that's a rather profound statement, maybe not about religious devotion, but about the wonderment of it all.
I'm heartened that Brian is up and around again, attending to those myriad household details and maybe even returning to painting.  He's tending to his own garden.  Good for Brian...!


*****

PC notes: As to Howard's final paragraph, I take the liberty of appending this delicious quote from the astrophysicist and cosmologist Carl Sagan:







Thursday, November 24, 2016

FATHER & SON

A Happy Thanksgiving to all fathers and all sons! Here's a painting by Bruce Richards, an artist of meticulous skills, a wry sense of humor, and--not least in my book--a commitment to real human values. Thanks to him for allowing me use of this image.

Bruce Richards, "Father & Son," 1996, 3 3/4" x 5 5/8", oil on linen 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

FIRST TOUCH...

From "First Love," posted a couple of days ago, to today's "first touch". The author of this memory, Jorg Dubin, is an established artist based in Laguna Beach, who works with both paint and sculpture. As you'll see from the image below, he loves to work with the human figure these days, and is fascinated by the erotic. No surprise! His story describes the real physical excitement of the first discovery and the first tentative exploration of the body of a fellow human being. 

It's a great rite of passage. I'm still awaiting the next step in this progression: the first infatuation, the first touch... I'd love to have a memory of the first fully consummated sexual experience. Anyone out there? Or do I have to do it myself?



Jorg Dubin, "Pearl Earring," 2004, oil on linen, 48" x 36"


THE TIPPING POINT                                                                                                                             

When does that moment happen in life when girls go from being objects of ire and grossness to that of obsessive adolescent desire? I suppose it is different for every young boy. For me, the trigger was early in my young life and has informed my sensibilities ever since.

It started with me going down to the local five and dime and hiding a Playboy inside a Mad Magazine so as to disguise the naked lovelies from the clerk who watched my nine-year-old eyes grow wide with nervous anticipation. Oh, that feeling never leaves! Primordial human desire for the opposite sex and, for some, the same sex. No matter. The feelings are the same!

I knew that before long I would have to encounter something beyond the pages of a Playboy magazine. But how, and who, and what to do? No clue! How does one know such things at nine years of age?

Somehow, at some point, it happened! I am clueless even as to her name a half century later. We were young and curious in those first moments of discovery. What would it feel like to kiss with passion? To touch a girl in places I had only heard about from older boys? And yet there I was, with a willing partner (to a point), and hungry to find out.

Kissing her lips, touching tongues and fondling through her clothes... Jesus, I wanted more! My fingers’ first encounter with a bra! First on top of it! There they were! The young female breasts I had seen only in magazines, and now my boyish hands were around the real thing, the undergarment alone obstructing me from touching her soft, budding flesh. What now? More, please! I must feel her for real. But how? Hooks, straps, elastic!!! Why are these things in my way! How do I deal with them? If there were a God, he or she would certainly guide me through divine intervention!

Through sheer force of will and nature, my hand was finally able to caress her small but ample breasts. I couldn’t get enough! All my earthly desires now rushed at me like an unstoppable train. And what more is there to explore? My hands begin to move downwards towards the unknown. This is what I have been waiting for, longing for. Like nutrition for body and soul! Life, right there in my hands…


A knock on my bedroom door and, like that, my prepubescent party ended without conclusion, other than leaving me with an unfulfilled hunger. But the next day, riding bikes with my friends, the bragging rights were off the hook! I had been “there,” or close to there. I was no longer a boy. I had touched life and could not wait for my next encounter. I knew that it would happen sooner or later, but it would be several more years before the “big one”.

Friday, November 18, 2016

FIRST LOVE


We all remember it, don't we? That first moment of instantaneous attraction, overwhelming in its intensity? The pounding heart? The feeling of terrified inadequacy, and yet... the desperate need to say something, anything, to prevent the moment from slipping away before we're even noticed? The sense of emptiness and loss that's bound to follow...

Chris Gordon Clark remembers it. Sometimes I just run into a man who seems like he might be responsive and I tell him about my "Boyhood Memories" project. Sometimes the man responds with amazing enthusiasm. I ran into Chris outside the local pet store, where we had both been buying dog supplies. We stood and chatted for a few minutes and I invited him to join us. Not more than a day later he had sent me two memories, along with a note to say how "wonderful and cathartic" it had been to bring them back. "First Love" is one of them.  (Next post: "First Touch"!)

Enjoy! You'll likely find something of yourself in the experience Chris describes...



FIRST LOVE...
Chris Gordon Clark
Thursday, 10/13/16

The halls were empty.  1986.

It was summer, and Mr. Sunby (Carl, we called him, well out of earshot) was teaching what would be his last driver’s ed. class to 15- and 16-year-olds.  He was also my P.E. coach and a terribly funny, warm, and approachable guy, even so close to retirement.  Maybe especially so close to retirement, now that there are 30 years between experience and memory.  For Mr. Sunby, I soon became "Mr. Facetious," but he did not know the truth.  His nickname for me was so far off the mark. Painfully shy, that was the reality, despite classroom sarcasm and the need for attention...

Did she turn a corner or did I? It was next to the chemistry rooms. My locker was there one year, sophomore or junior, below all the windows and light.  Vibrant colors, a skirt or a sundress, maybe a white top, shoes. I’m sure that she was wearing shoes, but I couldn’t stop staring at her eyes. Brown eyes, black shiny hair, a senior… She was so beautiful, a near panic immediately set in.

Brown eyes. Nerves of steel? Not even close. Did she smile at me? Is that smile in my mind the real memory? I was frozen. How wildly my thoughts raced in that moment when she walked away, continuing down the empty hall!  Painfully shy myself, how could I summon the courage to say something? Anything…

What was said is completely lost in three decades. But she did stop.

She must have known how terrified I was. It was obvious! Was I cool for just a minute or two? A few weeks later I was rudderless again. She was gone.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

BETRAYAL, PUNISHMENT

Here's another in our punishment series... this time with an added twist: the perpetrator of this misdemeanor chickens out and lets his brother take the punishment first. When he eventually confesses, it's all the worse for him. What he describes is actually one of the cruelest punishments I have come across. For the author of the story, who has recently moved into our neighborhood, it's clearly a painful memory. It also belongs, surely, in our "dad" series. Far from anger or bitterness, the story ends in genuine love and admiration for the strong, strict father who could punish this severely.


RAW WHITE RICE, ST. AUGUSTINE GRASS, AND FIRE RED ANTS
By Johnny Fotsch


At nine years old, growing up in Metairie Louisiana, my responsibilities were few. Most days were carefree, especially during summer time. When I wasn't riding bicycles, playing with friends or fishing on Lake Pontchartrain I was busy doing chores. My dad compiled a list of weekly household chores that would rotate between myself and my two younger brothers, Kevin, seven years old and Pat, five years old. 

It was the summer of 1968 and my turn in the hopper. Mow the lawn. Ouch! Our family lived at the corner of West Esplanade and Page—a busy traffic corner right across from James Madison Elementary School. Just about every neighbor drove by our house at least twice a day, so even at nine years old I knew how important it was that the lawn was mowed on a weekly basis to look manicured. My dad reminded me of this often. 

Well, I learned early on that the only grass that grew fast, stayed green and was harder than hell to mow was St. Augustine. It would take all morning to mow the front and back yards with a gasoline push-mower. I became very adept at avoiding the plethora of Red Fire Ant mounds that dotted the entire property—although on a rare occasion I would mow right over one of the "Red Devil" mounds and in turn perform the "Fire Ant Dance" for all our neighbors to see. Quite a spectacle. 

One summer morning while I was refilling the gas tank on the lawn mower, I spilled a few drops of gasoline on the milkman's Styrofoam delivery chest that sat in the carport by our kitchen door. Well, for a nine-year old boy, watching the reaction of gasoline in contact with Styrofoam is more exciting than any chemical experiment in eighth grade science class. Wow! The gasoline just shot through the Styrofoam like a science fiction laser beam. I couldn't stop myself. I just stood there letting the gasoline drip from the gas can onto the chest, until where there was once a chest there was now no more than a puddle of syrupy ooze. And as an innocent young boy, the last thing to cross my mind was to clean up the scene of the crime…

Later that day I returned home from one of my summer bicycle adventures. As I put my bicycle away in the shed in the back yard, I could overhear my dad’s baritone voice through the window of my brother Kevin's bedroom. It didn't sound good. As a matter of fact, it sounded bad. I decided it would be a good idea for me to remain outside under the window and listen further. Apparently on returning home my dad had left his car and stepped into the syrupy ooze I had left by the kitchen door earlier in the day.  My dad was angry, assuming that it was Kevin who had left the mess, and my brother Kevin was about to be the recipient of our father’s wrath.

My dad proceeded to mete out justice, and although I couldn't see the punishment I knew all too well what was happening. The sound of my dad’s huge "Golden Glove" boxing champ hand landing forcefully on the bottom of my brother’s Fruit of the Looms was unmistakable. I sat there quietly as my brother received the punishment that I deserved. When he’d finished, my dad exited the bedroom and slammed the door behind him. This was my sign to wait at least 10 minutes for calm to return before entering the house as the Golden Child.  I walked by Kevin's bedroom door and could hear his muffled whimpering.  I have to admit I was just starting to feel the pangs of guilt.

I knew I couldn't fess up to my dad. My mom was shopping for dinner so I went outside and sat on the steps right by the scene of the crime and waited for my mom to come home. As I helped her unload the car I admitted what I had done.  Her jade green eyes began to pool with tears as she admonished me for allowing my brother to take the heat for my bad deeds.

She then uttered the words I feared most. Go inside and tell your father exactly what you just told me and don't leave anything out. She then reached into her purse grabbed a tissue and her rosary beads and proceeded to pray for me. Not a good sign.

I walked slowly to my dad’s den where I found him sitting in his overstuffed leather recliner enjoying his pipe. He smiled and said "Johnny, how was your day today?”

I stood there shaking and proceeded to spill my guts. With every word, I witnessed a new shade of red cascade across my dad’s face. When I’d finished, my dad just sat there glaring at me. He was contemplating the next hour of my existence, I'm sure.  He rose slowly from his recliner, grabbed my hand and walked me to the kitchen pantry. He opened the pantry door and pointed to a large bag of raw white rice and instructed me to pick it up and follow him back to the den. We walked over to the far corner of his den, where the rug no longer covered the hardwood floor. He ordered me to pour the rice on the oak boards, which I quickly did. He then told me to strip down to my Fruit of the Looms. I did what he told me, and stood there bewildered. He pointed to the rice on the floor and said, "Kneel.” 

I slowly got down on my knees amidst the rice that was scattered across the floor. "Face the corner,” my father told me next, “and stay there until I say it’s time to get up.”

I must have had a puzzled look on my face that only angered him more, so I quickly turned to face the corner. It was quiet for the first minute or so, before I heard the drone of the television warming up.  It was a familiar sound every evening after supper. It was Wednesday, so that meant "Combat." Oh, no! “Combat” was an hour-long WWII drama. I was too scared to look over my shoulder so I kneeled and squirmed, chanting all the while to myself: "I hate you Vic Morrow.”

At the end of the show I could hear the click of the switch as the television was turned off. My dad then slowly walked to my side and asked, " Well? Will you ever let your little brother take the punishment for you again?”  

"No, never," I promised in my agony. 

"Well, then,” Dad said, “you can get up now. You'll need to go see your mom."

I staggered across the house to my parents’ bedroom, where my mom was sitting on her bed. "Come, sit by me," she said with a tender glance. Then she kissed me on the forehead. Kneeling down and reaching into her dress pocket for a pair of tweezers and a cotton ball, she began to pluck out dozens of grains of white rice from my skinny, sunburned knees.

Yes, I miss my Dad.  He was a WWII Navy Cross recipient, a Golden Gloves boxing champ, and the list goes on. Most of all I respect and admire his quiet, unassuming approach to life. He was like so many of his peers in "The Greatest Generation" who sacrificed greatly so that those of us who follow them can enjoy this wonderful cornucopia of choices that we are offered in our lives today. 

P.S. Behind every great man there is a real hero. Love you Mom!

Saturday, November 12, 2016

GRANDFATHERS

I'm a grandfather now myself. Four times. My youngest was five years old just the other day.

It's a venerable position, one not to be taken lightly. We are fortunate if we can be close to them, as boys, before they move on into the great mystery that awaits us all. Grandfathers are revered in every culture known to the human species, as the holders of wisdom and the purveyors of family tradition. Of my own grandfathers, one died when I was a year-and-half old. I have no memory of him, just of a photograph in the big family photograph album my mother kept--I wonder where it got to?--where he's holding me on one knee and my sister on the other. 

My mother's father lived on until I was perhaps twelve or thirteen years old. He was a man with a wonderful, wry sense of humor, a Welshman, the former chancellor of Brecon cathedral. All the cousins of our generation called him "Grimp." When I was a child, he lived with my grandmother in their small retirement cottage in the village of Aberporth, on the Cardiganshire coast--only a few miles from the rural farm where Grimp was born. I recall him almost always in his black cassock--though he surely can't have worn it every day, even in retirement. 

If I close my eyes, I see him as an old man with sparse grey hair and sparkling blue eyes, carefully cracking a boiled egg in its eggcup, at the breakfast table. And I remember that he said of me, as a child, that I never saw the joke until ten minutes after it was told. He got a laugh out of that...

So here's another man's grandfather, and the beautifully remembered image of a child confronted with the mystery of dying and death. Tom Russo has been teaching Art and Art History for many years at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri. His special passion, as he suggests at the end of his story, is for medieval art and architecture. Here is his boyhood memory:



FROM HIS HEAD TO HIS FEET
By Tom Russo

Winter in the New England can be cruel and beautiful.  My earliest memory is of December, 1964, when I was a three-year old and we were visiting my grandparents in Cheshire, Connecticut.  My grandfather had been ill for a while and was always in bed.  I didn’t know why.  This day, there was a lot of commotion in my grandparent’s bedroom down at the end of the long hallway that connected all the rooms in their small, one-story house.

I was in the kitchen, at the other end of the hall, with its light yellow walls on which several shelves held my grandmother’s extensive salt and pepper shaker collection, and was standing by what we would now call the “mid-century” kitchen table with its cold Formica top and shiny, triple-grooved aluminum edge.  I know one of my parents must have been with me, but who I can’t recall.  Suddenly this long, shiny metal contraption on wheels was rumbling down that hallway with my grandfather strapped on top of it and wrapped in a blanket.  It came rolling off the thin rubber mat that lined the hallway and onto the white linoleum floor of the kitchen, being pushed and pulled by two men in strange uniforms.  Abruptly, they stopped in front of the kitchen door that led a couple of steps down to the driveway.  

I didn’t know what was going on but suddenly I was lifted up from the ground and over my grandfather’s face so I could kiss him goodbye.  I remember the warm feel of his skin as I kissed him on the forehead.  Out the door they went and into the funny looking automobile that was parked in the driveway.  I recall running into the living room then and climbing onto the 1940’s art deco couch covered in red mohair to look out the large picture window.  In my memory I can still “feel” that mohair.  I watched the odd vehicle, with its cherry-red light whirling around on the roof, head down the wintry road and away from the house.  I asked when grandpa was coming back and was told “we don’t know.”  

I never saw him again.  He died in the hospital. 

I have always considered that to be my earliest memory, but it actually isn’t, it can’t be.  Because I also remember, very distinctly, my brother and I sneaking into my grandpa’s room when he was sick and tickling his aged feet sticking out from under the blanket at the foot of his bed.  This would elicit a small, but quiet laugh from grandpa and we thought it was great fun.  Until recently, I wasn’t consciously aware that this must be an even earlier memory than the ambulance event.

Of course, at three years old I had no idea that what was going on was about death.  Though now I wonder if my interest and academic research on sarcophagi and eschatological imagery in the early Christian church was in some way subconsciously fertilized by this early childhood memory.  I don’t know.  But it makes me smile now to know that my very first memory is not about death, but about laughter.  Hmm…I wonder what the study of laughter is called.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

AFTER THE ELECTION

I have to go in for very minor surgery tomorrow and will be out of commission for another couple of days after that. Since the right hand is involved (Dupuytrens contractures, anyone?) I'm not sure how long the recovery period might be, but I'm choosing the less invasive treatment, so a couple of days should see me through. Meantime, I had some post-election thoughts I'd like to share, in case you missed them on my Facebook page. Okay, so this is once again not strictly a "boyhood memory," but it helped me to get the thoughts written down, and I hope it might in some way help others to read them. It also gives some of the history of my previous blogs...

  

AFTER THE ELECTION
November 2016

I remember waking up in shock and horror one morning in November, 2004, the day after George W. Bush was re-elected to the presidency. How was such a thing possible, after his disastrous and illegal invasion of Iraq, his refusal to finance his war and his munificence to the wealthy? Had we Americans learned nothing about the man in his first four years in office? Did reason and just plain human compassion count for nothing any more?

The inner turmoil awoke my Mr. Fixit: what can I do, I asked myself, in desperation? What can I do? A wordsmith by trade, I started to play around with words. By sheer accident, I fell into the blogosphere. Fumbling around, I learned that I, too, could use “Blogger” to create a blog. I started to follow the online instructions and was asked, first, for a title. I found myself typing in the words: “The Bush Diaries.” And was soon writing the first of many, almost daily letters to George W. Bush. I intended them to be not unkind, but irreverent, a teasing reminder of the error of his ways in almost everything he did for the remaining four years of his presidency.

Well, almost four years. There came a time, after several years and many, many letters, that I woke up one day with the realization that I had become captivated by my own addiction: I was waking up every day with Bush in bed with me! And that same day, The Bush Diaries morphed very naturally, very comfortably, into The Buddha Diaries—the blog I wrote, almost daily, from January, 2007 until October, 2016—close to 10 years!

The Bush Diaries satisfied my need to “do something,” but there will be no “Trump Diaries.” I woke once again this morning in shock and horror at the election results. We Americans had voted—incredibly, to my mind—for the anger, ignorance and intolerance that the now President-elect had appealed to during his campaign; we had collectively voted to a man who is, to my mind, plainly narcissistic, willfully ignorant, authoritarian, and willing to exploit misogyny and racism in his greed for power. How could that be?

The old “what can I do?” impulse came rushing back. That old sense of despair. The anger against those who had failed to see things the way that I do—the right way. This time, however, I must choose to recognize that I’m unable to arrange the world the way I want it to be; to understand that everything that happens out there in the world is eventually beyond my control—that some things will go my way and others not, and that it is beyond my power to decide which is which. The only thing over which I’m able to exercise some modicum of control is what happens here, in my own mind.

It is indisputable that, like it or not, there is a new reality out there. If I reject that reality, I risk inhabiting the kind of bubble I readily attribute to those with whom I disagree. There is a great deal of anger, a great deal of fear, a great deal of chaos—not only in our country, but in the world at large. I cannot change this. I cannot control it. Accepting this truth, however, what I can do is acknowledge that the chaos out there is at best a reflection of the chaos within; to realize that my best contribution to heal what I perceive to be a sickness in the world is to start by cleaning up the mess of anxiety, anger, grief and fear that pollute my mind and distort my vision. If I grow inseparably attached to my fears and judgments, I’m fated to see only them and to project them out into the world. I will succeed only in making matters worse than I believe they are.

Remember Voltaire’s Candide? When the last of his illusions is shattered, he comes to the realization that his only option is to “cultiver son jardin”—to cultivate his garden. My garden is my mind. It’s up to me to tend to it, carefully, no matter what may happen in the world beyond my reach. My intention, following this election, is to do my best to clear my mind of the weeds that have grown there, thanks only to my indulgence and neglect, in order to reflect the world with greater veracity and equanimity. To do otherwise is to contribute to the chaos that I fear.







Monday, November 7, 2016

RINGING DOORBELLS


Larks. Much of the joy I recall from my own boyhood days took the form of larks of one kind or another. Mischief. Harmless, in retrospect, but at the time it must have seemed adventurous, even risky.  Most of us got up to all kinds of mischief; that's what boyhood's all about. Flouting the rules. Testing the limits--our own, and those imposed on us by the adults in our lives. Michael Dennis Browne is a distinguished poet and librettist, born in England like myself--as you'll note from some of the references and language in his story--but has been living in Minnesota and teaching at the university there for as many years as I have been in Southern California. We first became friends at the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa in the mid-1960s, and have remained fondly in touch in the intervening years. Michael's latest publication is The Voices--a lovely, elegiac book of poems which I was happy to review a while ago on my other blog, The Buddha Diaries. Recently, I was much moved attending a performance of Considering Matthew Shepard, a tribute by the composer Craig Hella Johnson to the young gay man who was brutally attacked and killed near Laramie, Wyoming in 1998--a haunting piece of music for which Michael wrote the libretto. Here's his beautifully told boyhood memory, more prose poem, I think, than prose:



RINGING DOORBELLS
By Michael Dennis Browne

Once we rang the same doorbells three times in a row at the large old house that was the Conservative Party Headquarters and watched, panting and trembling from the bushes across the road, as they brought a dog out. I couldn’t see him in the shadows by the house, but he was big and he barked big. At least he didn’t bay, so he wasn’t a bloodhound. That was the only time we pushed our luck so far.

“We” is Angela and me. She’s two years older and so much fun to play with. We formed The Black Heart Gang and left threatening notes for our neighbor Mr Booley, a retired policemen who lived in the flat under us. Amazing that his police instincts, however retired, never led him to our door with not one but two pairs of handcuffs swinging from hairy hands that must have turned the key on so many.

We had tree houses and forts inside bushes, and we planned, after we were grown up, to meet once a month, leaving our families behind, and in the middle of some deep wood exchange copies of The Beano and The Dandy and feast on Mars Bars and Condensed Milk.

Ringing doorbells and running (hurtling!) away was a special adventure on windy nights when the leaves rattled down the hard streets and the wind blew shadows of swaying branches across the lanterns of the lamp-posts. To creep up, to jab a finger on the button—or sometimes to rap quickly with a big knocker—and then to run, to run, the ecstasy of fear, to scamper down the path or driveway, lungs pumping, giggling, shaking

 . . . to have rung a stranger’s doorbell! To have tricked some neighbor into thinking there was someone come to visit them and there was not! O the little bit of power a child could have in a world where so much was done to you or you did as you were told and were little and felt you counted for little. The authority of that small finger on the button—that slight, first taste of power!

                                                   
                                                           


           


Friday, November 4, 2016

AS AN ASIDE...

... not exactly a boyhood memory, but I thought that readers might be interested in my appearance, this morning, on national TV (NBC's The Today Show), in a Maria Shriver interview with three other men. Here's a link to the episode:


... and with grandson, Luka

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

SUMMER IDYLL

Some of the stories I've been receiving strike this ex-pat Brit as pure Americana, and today's description of a 15-year-old's summer with his grandparents in West Kansas is a wonderful example. Reading it helps me to understand much more about the America that was before my time here--I first crossed the Atlantic in 1962 and lived in Nova Scotia for two years before coming to this country in 1964. I have lived here ever since. But the America of the 1950s eluded me, and it's my belief that much of what we're seeing in the political upheavals of today harks back to that time--the time before the anti-war, flower child events of the 1960s sparked the right-wing backlash that has dominated the political scene for half a century. What my friend Fred Thompson describes here is a Thomas Hart Benton American Midwest which is long since lost to the memory of the vast majority of our current population, but which continues to live, with nostalgic longing, in the minds of a displaced older generation. Those were the days...




HARVEST SUMMER
By Fred Thompson


The summer of 1958 was the first great summer of my life, a landmark in my growing-up years. I was fifteen, and had just finished my sophomore year at Monmouth High School. I was 5’ 8” tall, and weighed about 125 pounds, a skinny kid. I was an average student. I did not belong to any of the leading student cliques, had not begun to drive, and had never had a girlfriend. My chief interests were swimming (I was on the swim team), and hunting small game with my .22 rifle in the patches of timber to be found on farms around the town.

My family had moved to Monmouth, Illinois, in 1953 from Dodge City, Kansas, when my dad’s company opened a new plant there. We had many relatives in Kansas, including my maternal grandparents, John and Laura Brock, who had a farm near Ensign, eleven miles west of Dodge City. In late May of 1958, my granddad called to ask if my parents would allow me to come help in the wheat harvest. At fifteen, he felt I was old enough to drive the farm roads, and could serve as truck driver, moving the harvested wheat to the co-op elevator in Ensign. I was his oldest grandson, and I think he missed me a little, and wanted the opportunity for us to get to know each other better. I was excited at the prospect of an adventure, and could barely wait for the day I’d board the westbound Santa Fe Chief.

Western Kansas is high plains, over 3000 feet in elevation. It’s dry and flat; buffalo grass prairies cover the unplanted land. When I arrived, the wheat was golden ripe and nearly ready for harvest. Granddad gave me a few truck-driving lessons. I soon learned to shift the gears and turn the wheel. After a couple of days an elderly hired man arrived to help in the harvest. His name was Jess, and he’d been working with my granddad for many years. He was a big, friendly Arkansan with a nearly unintelligible accent. It seemed we were ready to start. Then the rains came. For days.

It was not possible to take the combines into the soggy wheat fields, so we had to wait for them to dry. Granddad, Jess, and I passed the time playing cards. They taught me pitch, which I was terrible at. We’d also play dominoes and checkers, which granddad always won. I also read paperback books in granddad’s collection—Mickey Spillane, and the like.

My grandmother arranged to introduce me to a kid my age who lived in Ensign, Bob Brauer. He came to pick me up one evening after supper. He had a battered old pickup truck, and after introductions, he drove me into town. He stopped a gas station and while the attendant was putting gas in the truck, Bob went inside and returned with two bottles of Coors Beer. Bob was fifteen just like me, but he’d made the purchase with complete assurance. He popped the caps and handed a bottle to me. I drank the first beer of my life that night. Later he introduced me to another Ensign kid, Mike Sayre. The three of us saw each other nearly every night that summer. Both these guys had driver’s permits and owned vehicles. None of my friends in Illinois had cars. They smoked cigarettes openly, a habit I soon adopted, to my granddad’s amusement and my grandmother’s disapproval.
When the fields dried out we began the harvest. Jess and Granddad each drove a combine harvester around the fields. When their bins were full, they’d signal me to drive the truck alongside, and the flexible spouts would empty the wheat into the truck. I’d then drive three miles to the elevator and get in line with all the other trucks waiting to be unloaded. By the time I got back to the farm, they’d be ready to give me another load.

At noon we’d break for lunch. The three of us would drive to a cafĂ© in Ensign, and join a throng of other sweating farmers. Lunch was always the same: hot beef sandwiches with mashed potatoes and gravy. Then it was back to the fields until suppertime. In the evening grandmother would prepare roast beef, fried chicken, or hamburgers, with lots of potatoes and canned corn or green beans.

Sometimes Granddad would take a break from the combine and come sit in the truck with me and spin yarns about his youth, and his horse-and-buggy courting days with my grandmother. He’d been ready to enlist in the army during WW I just as the Armistice came and deprived him of the adventure. He had tales of the dustbowl, and the depression. He idolized FDR and the New Deal. I loved hearing his stories, and I realized I was getting to know him as a person—not just as my grandfather. He was fun!

When harvest was over, I spent several weeks on a tractor turning over stubble in the fields with a one-way plow. I’d go shirtless and soon was burned brown by the sun. In the evenings I’d hang out with Bob and Mike. 1958 was a plague year for jackrabbits—they were everywhere you looked. Some evenings we’d take our .22s and drive the country roads while riding the fenders of Bob’s old truck. The rabbits would be frozen in the headlights, and we’d slaughter them by the dozens.

One evening near the end of summer, I was invited on a double date with Mike and his girlfriend, Ingrid. They’d arranged for an Ensign girl named Patty Reinert to be my date. After our movie, Patty and I were left alone together. I somehow summoned the courage to kiss her. To my surprise, she melted into my arms, and then she opened her mouth and began probing mine with her tongue! I nearly fainted. I fell in love with Patty right there. My parents were coming out to pick me up soon. I resolved to ask them to let me stay in Ensign and finish school. I’d never find a girl like her again. They didn’t go for it, of course.


It had been an unforgettable summer: I’d learned to drive; I’d held a responsible job and worked beside grown men; I’d bonded with my grandfather; I’d learned to smoke cigarettes; and I’d always have the memory of that kiss.