Cold W ar Kid

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Cold W ar Kid
Cold War Kid
The author is an artist,
writer, surfer, and a regular
guy. He’s a Leo, but not one
of those, you know, loud
and pushy ones.
He also wrote Flyboys.
Tom lives in Hawaii with
his wife and Dodger, the
Circus Dog.
Cold War
Kid
One would hope that a memoir
spanning from World War II to
present would be a sweeping saga
of war, passion, loss, redemption
and hope.
Take a whimsical journey
through postwar America–from
black-and-white TVs to nuns shooting
invisible atomic energy rays from their eyes. From
sleek jets and cars with big fins to our current upside-down culture.
One would be mistaken.
It’s a story about being raised
among the men and machines of
the Air Force, growing up
Catholic, living in a Texas
lighthouse, crashing the occasional
airplane, then following the call of
the surf to Hawaii.
plus ...
Tom Hanley
See the Amazing Jackalope
8 Miles Ahead
Clean Restrooms
a memoir of sorts
Tom Hanley
Cold War
Kid
Cold War
Kid
Tom Hanley
Copyright © 2014 by Tom Hanley.
Library of Congress Control Number:
2014906553
ISBN:Hardcover978-1-4931-9786-6
Softcover978-1-4931-9785-9
eBook978-1-4931-9787-3
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any
form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording,
or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing
from the copyright owner.
Photo credits as follows:
Cover background: 123RF, rorem
Back cover: 123RF, Visions of America LLC
Front fold inset (hardcover): US Air Force
Back fold inset (hardcover): joss4.com
This book was printed in the United States of America.
Rev. date: 06/12/2014
To order additional copies of this book, contact:
Xlibris LLC
1-888-795-4274
www.Xlibris.com
[email protected]
603473
Contents
Prologue
............................................................................................7
Foreword:Harch...................................................................................9
Chapter 1: Air Force Brats...................................................................13
Chapter 2: School Daze.......................................................................35
Chapter 3: Summer Vacation...............................................................63
Chapter 4: California’s Central Coast...................................................89
Chapter 5: The Lone Star State..........................................................109
Chapter 6: Corpus.............................................................................149
Chapter 7: Lighthouse Keeper...........................................................163
Chapter 8: Hawaii.............................................................................191
Chapter 9: Seattle..............................................................................203
Chapter 10:Swimming Back...............................................................211
Chapter 11:Hong Kong......................................................................243
Chapter 12:Hard Nights.....................................................................249
Prologue
I
knew how we would die. We’d hear the sirens, then scramble
under our school desks again, rolling our eyes at yet another “duck
and cover” exercise, the Air Force kids snickering at the futility of
it all. The civilian kids actually believed the films we’d watched—that a
desktop roof of maple wood and some geography books might protect
us somehow from an atomic hit. We’d done this dozens of times over
the years.
But today there is no “All Clear” and then we hear the alert bombers
from Forbes Air Force Base taking off, a continual roar from the south,
leading streams of black smoke across the sky toward the enemy. Some of
us get up to watch, then get a nun-bark to get back down.
“What the . . . !?” Billy Prescott actually mutters the f-word.
Sister Redempta is then urgently summoned to the quiet hall, has a
hurried conversation with someone, then rushes back into class, looking
pale. She claps her hands at the class to stop the murmurs and sniffles.
“Those who walk to school, go home now. Those whose parents drop
them off go to the cafeteria and wait. Military children board your bus in
the parking lot. No books, no running. Now.”
We military brats board the bus and chug off from St. Matthew’s
Parish, some kids crying, some spreading a little scuttlebutt, some trying
a few brave jokes. There is tremendous activity at Forbes as the buses
deliver us back to our homes. The rest of the squadrons are gearing up
to follow the alert bombers as fast as they can. The frenzied atmosphere
is ringing with insistent phone calls, tears, men stuffing things into
flight bags, car doors slamming. The mothers gather children, assuring
us, reminding us of the Fail-Safe points that would allow both sides to
check in and say “Oh, it was just a mistake, a blip. Everyone can go back
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Tom Hanley
now.” But not this time. Some families would frantically load up the car
and drive somewhere, anywhere, but most would stay, trying to be brave,
listening to the Civil Defense stations on the chunky Zenith.
Our family would share Little Debbie Swiss Rolls down in the
basement, as many as we wanted, our Last Supper. We would pray. We’d
try to sleep down there, my younger brothers and sisters sobbing, Mom
shushing us gently.
About five or six hours after our brave fathers have jetted off, the
first Soviet bombers will reach us. They are the survivors, the smart ones.
The crews that made it through the cold battles at the top of the world,
ripping through the defense shield of Canadian CF-100 Canucks, our
valiant but subsonic allies. The F-101 and 102 and 104 fighters that our
side sent up will have brought down scores more of them, but there were
too many, hundreds.
The men who will kill us are peering at their bombsights now, some
bloodied, the final adjusting, the crosshairs nearing the bend of the river
just north of town—their aiming point. Reading off their checklists at the
same time our fathers are reading off theirs, looking for their own rivers
near Minsk, Kiev, and Moscow.
After the fierce battle to reach us, me, the mortally wounded Russian
Tu-95 Bear bomber, Little Firefly II, one engine aflame, is a mile off
course and way too low, but it makes no difference. Its twenty megaton
airburst instantly incinerates all of Topeka, Forbes, St. Matthew’s, the
Soviet bomber itself, us, dogs, horses, the cat, everything.
Those of us who were good will go to heaven.
Foreword
Harch
W
hy a memoir? Because I tried fiction and it’s hard, man.
“Write what you know,” they say. A basic rule, but so true.
I am stunned by most fiction writers, completely in awe.
Who can come up with all that stuff? M is for Murder, A is for An
Inconvenient Truth. My gosh, where do they get their ideas? Am I just
stupid, or are most novelists really brilliant forensic investigators or global
warming sex poodles? As a fiction staple since 2006, Mr. Gore’s trendy
tome will convince you—prove to you—that your world is going to be
under eight feet of water by next week. Well, next month for sure. Or
if not next month, next year. Or maybe next next year. Just look at the
graph, you idiots! See? See!?
But as we all anxiously await our watery demise, the late, great and
prolific Mr. Clancy came along with an even bigger whopper just about
every year, and informs us that it’s all going to blow up pretty dang soon
anyway; so what the hell. And Clancy’s fiction is much more believable,
and certainly better researched. Al’s premise seems pretty simple:
Republicans drive their SUVs to their smoke-belching factories and we
all die. Especially poor people and polar bear babies. Clancy doesn’t lay
it out there quite so easy or direct—he goes deep, real deep. Step-by-step,
every angle. Makes you think a little. He’ll tell you the life story of
Klaust, the man who detonates the doomsday bomb, the history of the
small village in Switzerland where his shirt was made, where his money
was minted and why, an overview of the history of BMW just for fun,
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and what Klaust’s Nazi-sympathizing nanny fed him as a child in Silesia
(pate de mucilage).
And how I envy those writers who lived in Interesting Times, how
wonderful it must be to have momentous stories thrust upon you! Look
out the front door one morning—bam, you’re in a war. Peek into another
door—wham-bam, an intern hard at work in the Oval. Turn a corner—
revolution, riots in the street, the volcano erupts! Michener had those
bridges at Toko Ri. Hemingway had his bells and his Kilimanjaro. I had a
pet horny toad in a shoe box.
But I love to write, even though it’s all an accident, a misunderstanding,
really. I never really wrote wrote in school, just notes. When I got out of
college, I had this certain skill called “commercial artist.” The ads and
books and brochures back then were created—carved and constructed
really—with layers of amberlith and acetate film shaped with the steady
hand of an exacto-knife-blade-operator: me. It was a surgical skill, and I
was good. You held your breath, pasting down the registration mark exactly
on target.
Then computers happened, PageMaker and Quark, and I didn’t
much like it. Complete bozos could now draw a perfect 4"(wide) x
5.5"(high) box with the drag of a mouse; my realm was breached. There
was also a wide division of duties between artists and copywriters at the
time. A writer’s territory was jealously guarded. We could only imagine
the skill, the incredible genius they possessed as they struggled for days
over a caption or headline, finally getting it perfect, then sending it to
the typesetter while we artists stood dutifully by the waxing machine—
waiting for the hallowed prize.
Of course, computers changed publishing fast, and the artists now
had control of the whole shebang; the entire symphony was on the screen
before us—we were the conductors. Copywriters still wrote copy, of
course, but I had become, among other things, the typesetter. That little
blank copy block under the photo was blinking at me, just daring me to
give it a shot, while the copywriter was ha-ha-ha-ing it up and drinking
mai tais at The Royal Hawaiian, the deadline ticking away like a time
bomb. I wrote in a panic that day; the client loved it. I was a writer!
I slaved over a book a few years ago. It was amazing, the stories
are true: when you’re on it, you’re on it, you can’t stop, your fingers try
desperately to keep up with your brain, the messy pages fill the kitchen
table, and pretty soon the sun is coming up and you have to get ready
for work. Other times, of course, it’s all crap. You read it back to yourself,
Cold War Kid
11
disgusted. I do know one other thing about writing—that when I think
this page is absolutely, positively, perfect, I have four rewrites coming up,
maybe five, and the first two will be particularly bloody.
So a memoir; is it all true? I mean really true? A hard thing to ask
a writer. I’d say the answer is: mostly. It all happened, every bit, but I
might have embellished it just a little here and there. Like, that bandido
in Mexico pulled his gun on us, aimed it at Danny’s head, clicked the
hammer back, but didn’t actually fire like I wrote (although, I could tell
from the look in his eyes, he badly wanted to). Little things like that. I
imagine it’s Oprah-safe, I hope so anyway—she really nailed that one
poor sucker. Think of this book as a fun little read, something to chuckle
at as you sit on the beach or on the pot; like a comic book, or The New
York Times.
123RF, Mathew Hayward
Chapter 1
Air Force Brats
O
ur story begins, as with so many stories of the modern
American experience, with World War II. Now that there was
a war to fight, America needed warriors and my father was
no longer doomed to the railroads and grimy industry of Pennsylvania
where he grew up. Men and women across our nation marched out of
The Depression and had a new and dazzling array of jobs to choose
from: a seamstress moves from the country to an apartment in San Diego
with indoor plumbing, the first she’s seen, and is now sewing parachutes
for four times what she used to earn. A self-taught tractor mechanic
from a dilapidated one-bay garage in the sticks is now in a building as
big as his old town, installing a huge engine in a tank at three in the
morning. There were also careers in the military, tremendous life-long
opportunities offered you—if you weren’t killed.
With keen eyesight and little boy dreams of flight, my dad joined
the fast expanding Air Corp. I couldn’t begin to list all the testing and
requirements it takes to turn eager young dreamers into the Aces Of
The Future, but the training pipelines were full of hopeful cadets. Across
America, and especially in the South, thousands of men marched, saluted,
barked, got barked at, and learned to fly. My dad was halfway through
the pipe when the war was won, and hard decisions had to be made. Who
was good? How many do we need now? Most were let go, some were
kept. My dad made the cut.
At Ellington Airfield south of Houston, sweating young students
wrestled their T-6 trainers through the roiling afternoon air, learning
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Tom Hanley
the basics. Grizzled veterans of 25 or even 30 years of age instilled their
wisdom on the fledgling birdmen: “Step on the ball! More power! Keep
your scan going and watch out for the enemy. They come out of the sun,
those bastards!” Hot, exacting work in a hot, exacting airplane.
But on weekends they were—or tried to be—officers and gentlemen.
The action was either at the base pool, or sometimes a carload of
fresh-scrubbed cadets sped off to Galveston, the top down. They met
at the pool, my mom and dad. I can’t tell their story, the delicate dance
between them, that is things only they know about, of course. I can say
that my mother was beautiful; black hair, perfect teeth, button nose, the
works. Her family had recently moved to Houston from Missouri; her
father in the “oil bidness” as they say. We kids also knew that my dad
was shy and polite and skinny from dinner conversations that began,
“Mommy, how did you meet Daddy?”
The Air Force was changing rapidly. A B-36 had a crew of twelve,
only one could be the pilot. The Air Force needed navigators for
it’s expanding Cold War fleet and my dad was selected. If he felt
disappointed at first, perhaps resigned to it, he excelled nonetheless.
Hard lessons learned in WWII with unseen high-altitude jet streams were
taught in class after class, excruciating math involved. They had stumbled
into pressure navigation, a witches’ brew of temperatures and pressures
and winds aloft that required a new level of learning. Gone were the days
of looking out the window and visually sighting a landmark. All this, and
with the navigators using sextants and equipment not much different
from the sailing ships of a hundred years ago.
He is assigned his first duty station after graduation: Hickam Air
Force Base, Hawaii. Things happened fast now—asking for permission
to marry, he then flies ahead, signs in, finds a place to rent in town (no
quarters available on base for a lowly second lieutenant). She follows,
nervous, her very first airplane ride, Hawaii! They march beneath the
shiny crossed sabers of their comrades one Sunday at the Base Chapel,
and are married.
Photographs of them, impossibly young, are studied by their giggling
children years later on a dusty air base in Kansas. Two kids (Mommy and
Daddy?!) standing bravely in the wind at Oahu’s Pali Lookout next to
the old convertible. There were stories the brood demanded to hear over
dessert, adventures they had for those two precious years in that exotic
place: Hawaii.
Cold War Kid
15
They are welcomed by the locals there, and were soon included in
family parties and luaus from the lady who rented their house to them.
On paydays, they would have dinner at the Royal Hawaiian, then each
nurse a Coconut Rum Punch all night at Don the Beachcomber’s,
dancing in the warm night. On non paydays, there were the “tick”
or “tin” malts at Kau-Kau Corner or the occasional beer bust at Fort
DeRussy with the rest of the squadron. When driving to the base for an
early morning flight, Dad would pass the ladies of the evening up on
their second floor balconies on Beretania Street. They would be having
their last cigarettes in their red pajamas, gossiping, getting ready to turn
in after a hard night’s work, the sun just coming up.
He began in B-29s, the old workhorses from WWII and Korea,
dented and patched from years of hard use. The big Boeings were tired
now, leaky and cranky, but were all they had till the newer jets arrived.
When one of the four engines would cough and quit, it would raise some
eyebrows and anxieties, but would not stop the mission—they could get
by on three. “No sweat” was the Air Force’s dashing motto; the mission
continued regardless. You were either a tiger or a pussycat. You would
rather die than be labeled a pussycat, and many did.
My dad eventually advanced to position of check navigator, where he
taught other fledgling navigators to guide their own Superfortress (what
a gutsy, all-American name!) through the beaconless night sky over
the Pacific, using only a ship’s sextant, a slide rule, star charts and a #2
pencil. Help from computers was not imagined, much less a GPS. They
didn’t even have adding machines in there. It was all long math, really
long math. It was dangerous, too. There was nothing between Hawaii
and Japan if something went wrong. Nothing between Hawaii and the
downrange islands of Kwajalein and Eniwetok. Nothing. Some planes
just disappeared. Lost, out of fuel and out of radio range? A midair
explosion? An old wing buckles in turbulence and the crew is pinned,
helpless, by the wild gyrations as it plunges through the black night to the
ocean? No one knew. Sometimes they just never came home.
But for those who did make it back, the base at Hickam was
expansive, the housing quite grand. You could get pretty good meals for
a dollar or two at the Officer’s Club, plus there was entertainment on
weekend nights. Hard drinking in the service was not frowned upon like
it is now. That’s why we used to win wars, you know. The men drank,
grumbled, and were allowed to actually dislike the enemy, call them
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Tom Hanley
extremely un-PC names, and even unload a few bombs on them once
in awhile. A little crude, perhaps, but pretty effective when you did it
right. There were no cultural sensitivity classes to ingrain into them the
magnificence of the other sides’ religion and culture yet. Nor did they
send units to an enemy village to teach them to read, or how to flush a
turd. Nation-building my ass. Soldiers could actually go to war and fight
back then. With guns! Surrender first, then maybe we’ll show you how to
pave a road, or how a toothbrush works.
Rowdy two-fer nights at the Officer’s Club went on until the wee
hours. Men were men, and men drank, damn it. My parents listened to a
famously skinny crooner one night at a packed performance. A table-full
of happily inebriated officers chanted: “Ava, Ava . . . !” Ms. Gardner’s tits
were famous, and table six decided they wanted a look. Hard to tell what
they would do with her, even if her new hubby offered her up. Let her
gaze into your shiny captain’s bars? Yeah, that ought to do it. Mr. Sinatra
was pissed, and quit singing more than once to tell them to shut the hell
up. He was ready to take on table six, or the entire U.S. Air Force if he
had to, right now, as he and the crowd exchanged pleasantries throughout
the evening. A good night at the O-Club, lots of scrappers on both sides.
My parents lived in a small second floor flat on Paiko Drive, a few miles
east of Diamond Head. Rent was ninety dollars a month, pretty steep back
then. It was (and still is) a pretty little street, sparsely shaded by the thin,
swaying palms, all by itself out on a small peninsula. My dad would drive off
to the base in the morning, and my mom would cross the lane and be at her
own little private beach in paradise, just like that. Not bad for a Missouri gal.
The story goes that she would scoop a hollow in the sand at the water’s
edge, and ease her pregnant belly into it. Maybe that’s where I connected
with the ocean, with Hawaii. Maybe there was some primeval, seismic
signaling going on down there: the human heart, inches above, relentlessly
whoosh-whoosh-whooshing, and something else all around me—a rumble
of surf, a tidal pull. Could I hear the roar of the waves breaking on the
distant reef? Could I hear the raucous call of seagulls? Could I hear the
gurgling, clear waters advancing and then retreating gently around us
as we lay there? I don’t remember, I was pretty young, but I bet I could.
Maybe that’s what happens to salmon, some long-forgotten signals
imprinted on them at an embryonic stage—providing the instinctive pull
to return to their inception, to complete a cycle.
Thirty years later my salmon life is going great guns in Texas, no
problems, then one day I poke my head in the air and sniff and knew
Cold War Kid
17
I was going back to Hawaii. I didn’t know why, or how even, but there
it was: Hawaii. Quit job. Sell house. Swim if necessary. Hawaii. Our
neighbors didn’t understand, either. My new wife and I had good jobs in
Texas, a big yard, a fireplace, the works. We knew no one in Hawaii. No
job prospects. No car. No place to stay. No matter. Swim. Hawaii. Now.
Right up until the day we left, the very morning we went to the airport
even, some friends were still asking, “So, where y’all goin’, really?”
That word Honolulu followed me everywhere as a child, to every
base—so many forms to fill out in the military! Date of birth: August
12, 1952. Place of birth: Honolulu, Hawaii. Every new school wanted to
know it, every visit to the clinic. Heck, the library card application even
demanded it: “Honolulu, Hawaii,” I wrote, a magic name with no tails
hanging below the line. I hated writing Egypt, loved writing Honolulu.
When we were stationed in Kansas, most kids were born nearby, and
there was nothing special about Topeka or Wichita on the Place of Birth
line, that’s for sure. One kid could write: “Wiesbaden”, and I hated him
for that, just a little, but he soon transferred out and I was once again
Royal King Of The Exotic Birth Places. A name so delicious in 1950s
Kansas that the kids in my class and I would yell it together on the
playground, laughing, flapping our arms up and down, weaving through
the swing sets, “Honolulu, Honoluuuluuuuu!”
We left Hawaii when I was still a baby, barely walking—although I
told my sisters years later that I had been an expert coconut tree climber.
I was practicing my storytelling skills on them, my rapt audience. My dad
had been assigned to Forbes Air Force Base near Topeka, flying the exotic
new jet bomber, the B-47. It was, literally, the father of every passenger
jet you see today. This was the one that figured it all out, buddy boy:
swept wings, podded engines, everything since has been a variation of this
formula. His new tribe was the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, and
their mission was to use their new, fast jets to monitor and occasionally
stir up the Russian bear. Their cold war was getting hot.
Out of the Sun
Topeka, 1954. Kirklawn Street. The house is greenish, with a runway
by the front door. A normal, little, three-bedroom tract home, hurriedly
built as the new phenomenon of suburbia spreads across America. It’s
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Tom Hanley
summer, my third, and the scrawny, newly-planted trees are held with
twine and stakes against the wind. Imagine Levittown, but hot and
dry and without the pizazz. I ready my aircraft, carefully adjusting it’s
position on the runway. I step into the cockpit, squirming into position,
shoulders squeezed tight against the sides of the cardboard box. The
morning sun blazes over my left shoulder, the glaring concrete reflecting
the harsh light. I look away. There were sunglasses on the small table by
the front door, next to the car keys, but I couldn’t reach them. There is a
dot of oatmeal on my sleeve. My knees are raised, my boots pressed hard
against the firewall ahead of me.
Something was wrong. There were rules, basic ones, that I was
trying to learn, and I sensed I had not done something right. The early
rules were wonderfully simple: Do not hit your sister. Do not pick up
dog doo. Those mastered, I went on to more complex lessons. One that
was giving me particular problems as I learned to dress myself were my
cowboy boots, a recent present, extravagant almost beyond belief. I even
wore them to bed when I could get away with it. My small feet slipped
into them easily, any foot, any boot. There was a vague remembrance
of an instruction—something about the outside edges supposing to be
sloping or curving in slightly. I study the boots’ symmetry. The toes were
definitely trending outward, my feet making a fat, black Y. I had put
them on wrong again, darn it.
This stuff was hard! Now other decisions had to be made: does this
affect airworthiness? Do I get out and fix the problem, or just go ahead
and take off? Do I become a submarine? Yell for a Popsicle? However, in
my focus on this problem, I was neglecting the big picture, my scan—a
cardinal rule of flight. I look out of the cockpit to the left again, now
terrified. The enemy! We had tangled before, but never in these numbers.
How could they get this close, this fast!? They were already covering the
outside of my mount, and, having crawled up to the lip, were tipping
over the edge and falling into the cockpit with me.
The swarm of grasshoppers covered everything on my port side,
from the fuselage of my plane all the way down the sidewalk and over
to the tricycle. Time to act! I scream as loud as I can, over and over and
over, until I hear the screen door SLAM and my mother reaches down
and scoops me up, high into the air, seconds before I am devoured. I
knew now that those stories about flying were true: rewarding, yes, but
dangerous. Keep your scan going and watch out for the enemy. They
really do come out of the sun, those bastards.
Cold War Kid
19
Forbes Air Force Base
During WWII and after, the Cold War years, the Air Force was busy
carving huge air bases into the soft soil of mid America. Not only was
land cheap and construction easy, but cold calculations of how much
longer it would take the Japanese, German, and now the new Soviet
threat to reach and destroy our fleets added to the need to locate the
bases deep in the heartland. A few extra minutes was all we asked for,
to allow our men to scramble their planes and get into the air and head
for Moscow before the bombs hit. The rest of us were toast. You think
Donna Reed and John Wayne were expendable? Hah!
Forbes’ airmen and their families lived among the civilians in Topeka
for awhile, until their new houses were ready on base. As both sides added
more and more jets, alert times became more and more important; the
Air Force wanted the men close to their planes, not in town somewhere.
And if they chose to reproduce, well, that was something the services
would just have to put up with. So across America, Capehart and
Wherry housing (named for the politicians who pushed for their
construction) were scratched from the dirt next to the bases, to house the
ever-growing families. The houses were comfortable, if basic. Generally,
the duplexes were for men and their families from the rank of major and
below. Lieutenant colonels or higher usually were assigned the small,
single-family dwellings, some with an enclosed garage. What luxury!
There was a distinct divide between officer’s and enlisted men’s housing
areas, usually by a main boulevard that ran through the neighborhood
like a backbone. The houses themselves were pretty much the same on
both sides: wood siding, a few basic colors, a plaque by the front door
announcing the house number, occupant and his rank.
10 Clanahan, R. Capt.
17 Griffin, J. Lt. Col.
8 Kowalski, L. MSgt.
Sometimes there were attempts to spruce the squat dwellings up
a little. There were a few birdbaths, or bricks lined up in a border to
announce: “This mud over here is the lawn, but this mud over here is
the garden—so watch your step, bub.” There were no fences allowed, so
a square of four backyards became a raucous playing field for kickball, or
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Tom Hanley
whatever ball was in vogue that season. The roads were gravel smashed
into tar, which was perfect ammo for our kid-sized battles.
The teensy rocks would also deliver a great shrapnel attack on the side
of someone’s house. A scoopful would be dropped into the big, spinning
fans of the air-conditioner units on hot summer nights, and the bomblets
blew back out and peppered the house. We perpetrators then scurried
away into the night, giggling at our mischief. Most often, the dark
silhouette of an adult would appear at an open door and just yell, “Hey
you kids, knock it off!” But sometimes the shrapnelees would come out
and chase after us, cursing and tripping over tricycles and water hoses in
the dark. We’d be long gone by then, hiding in the scrawny bushes at the
perimeter, gasping for breath—quiet, shoosh—trying to disappear in the
night, like an Indian. One night, Captain Palmer came running out after
us and got tangled in a clothesline and sprained his neck or something.
We had to cool it for awhile after that one.
The decor inside the simple houses was determined by where the dad
had gone on mission deployments, or if the family had been stationed
overseas—an Air Force fashion statement. Our young nomadic lives were
fraught with a sense of wandering homelessness, new-kid-at-schoolitis,
and next door friendships ripped away with frightening regularity. But
our young nomadic lives were also surrounded with rooms and basements
full of neat doo-dads.
The Pacific Air Force families usually had a samurai sword (authentic
or not) hovering on a wall near a teak or rice-paper room divider. There
were delicate music boxes, with an intricately carved doll in a silk kimono
that popped up and spun to the tune “Sukiyaki” when you lifted the lid.
In the basement were the pachinko games—a sort of pinball machine or
a twenty pound PlayStation, but there was only one skill level and five
minutes was all it usually took to make you want to do something else.
There was usually a varnished bamboo fly-fishing rod that we kids weren’t
allowed to touch, with a hand-carved rosewood tackle box full of delicate,
colorful fishing flies. The television sets would have a huge, bleached
chunk of coral on top of them, ripped from the reefs of Guam or the
Philippines. Knee-high carved teak elephants from the Far East stood
guard at a hundred front doors across SAC.
Besides these goodies, a returning plane would also disgorge exotic
food: dusty burlap bags of pistachio nuts, Kobe beef, sake, and once,
two fifty-five gallon drums of fighting mad lobsters. The returning
squadron-mates and their families feasted that night at the O-Club; tales
Cold War Kid
21
of battle and derring-do echoed loudly through the warriors’ camp, like
cavemen sharing their successful hunt.
The European Air Force families sported cuckoo clocks on the wall,
Hummel figurines, huge painted steins, a Luger, a Nazi helmet. There
were lumpy leather hassocks stuffed with camel hair from Turkey, plus
rugs, tiny brass cups and saucers, and the intricate handmade knives from
Persia. There were cameras from Germany, cheese and tiny Eiffel Towers
statues from France. Hairy boda bags from Spain, useful for squirting
wine (or more often Kool-Aid) on your face and shirt. Fat bottles of wine
covered with woven grasses from Italy. I don’t remember anything from
England, but there were rumors of a little Austin Healey Bugeye Sprite
coming back inside a B-36, disassembled and stuffed into the many
compartments.
While most of the new cold war bases looked basically similar, their
difference with older bases was quite noticeable, depending on when
and where the old ones were built. As young SAC families, we were used
to the post-war layouts and dinky duplexes of the recently constructed
bases: Forbes and Schilling in Kansas, Lincoln and Offutt in Nebraska,
Carswell and Sheppard in Texas. A trip to an older, more established base
was a real eye-opener. The homes at Presidio near San Francisco seemed
as grand as mansions to us. Tooling down the wide avenues and past the
expansive lawns of Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, or Randolph
Air Force Base in San Antonio, whispered of a time of past glory when
personnel stationed there were among the elite of local society.
Our gravelly streets would barely let two cars pass each other. The
house we lived in the longest was one-half of a duplex, with an uncovered
carport at the end. The bedrooms were small, but the basement was an
added bonus. They could be used for a variety of things—we made an
extra bedroom there, others made rec rooms of sorts. Our favorites as kids
though, were the workshops down there. A lot of the men were airplane
nuts (go figure) and many basements had long workbenches with good
lighting, tools and solvents all around, with radio-controlled airplanes in
various stages of construction.
We held the huge planes in awe, the noses heavy with the big Cox
engines, the doped fabric stretched tight as a drum across the ribs of
the wing. We watched in amazement on weekend mornings as the men
primed them out in the field, then whipped the propellers around and
flung their fingers away from the snarling prop, a daring maneuver where
bloodless success or a lacerated finger was measured in milliseconds.
22
Tom Hanley
We rode bikes everywhere—mine was a red Huffy with white trim
and dual headlights. We put the baseball cards on the fender brace with
clothespins, and machine-gunned our way up and down the streets.
Rat-a-tat-tat! We were MiGs and Sabres, cops and robbers, weaving and
charging each other in constant battle. There were some pretty good
collisions, our small bodies and the big American iron co-mingling on the
curbs and sidewalks. If you weren’t sporting a bunch of Band-Aids and
a patch ironed on the knee of your jeans, you just weren’t playing right.
If someone had showed up with a helmet like everyone wears now, we’d
have thought he was a Martian or retarded or something. Oops, I mean
special.
I was going down a steep (for Kansas) hill, and thought I could add
to the card staccato from my spokes by including my rubber-toed tennis
shoe. I stretched it out, budda-budda-budda it said for a second, then
the spinning spokes grabbed my shoe, gave it one amazingly fast circuit
while hauling me off my seat; then jammed the shoe against the fender
brace. The front wheel stopped instantly, with me and the back of the
bike pivoting over it, launching through the sky. Those who saw it say it
was fantastic, the best crash they ever saw. I remember a real quick cycle
of confusion, flight, then searing pain.
When I woke up, there were adults hovering over me out in the
street, asking me to count. Later, I was perched up on the clothes dryer
in our house, my Mom picking pieces of Harp Street out of my face. I
was a bloody, numb mess: teeth loose, lips ripped open, nose waaaaay
smaller, my right foot sliced and diced. I must have looked a sight,
because she was crying more than me. My Dad brought the bike home,
tied to the top of the car like a hunter bringing home a deer, the front
end as mangled as my face. The real tragedy was that it was near the
end of summer vacation, so I spent the next week or two out of action,
recovering just in time for school.
On the wall over my recovery bed was a little magnet-map of the
United States. I had studied it for years, learning all the capitals. It was
rudimentary, a child’s toy really. You were supposed to match the state’s
motto, written in a column on the side, with the correct state using a
little numbered magnet. The Sunflower State. The Volunteer State.
The Last Frontier—a beautiful image to me, snowy peaks and aurora
borealis’s, with wolves howling in the months-long twilight. Then there
was the Show-Me State—what the heck was that all about? Somebody in
Missouri must have had a burr up their butt on motto-choosing day.
Cold War Kid
23
It was fascinating how the state borders would follow the banks of the
mighty Mississip, then someone, somewhere, said the hell with it and drew
a perfectly straight line west to the Missouri River below Council Bluffs
and announced, “That there is Iowa. Let’s go to lunch.” How did they
come up with the many boundaries? Who decided? Why couldn’t poor,
flat Kansas go west a little farther for a taste of the Rockies? And what’s
up with Michigan? It’s all chopped up, and half of it’s in Canada, anyway.
Minnesota gets 10,000 lakes, while the poor Dakotas next door get a few
scruffy ponds, a place for ducks to crap in on their way to someplace else.
I liked how when they finally made it out West, the map makers were
obviously getting tired. Huge, square chunks of the nation were traced
out with a yardstick and a pencil in about twenty minutes. WHAM, here’s
Colorado. BAM, here’s Wyoming. Anybody got a problem with that? I
liked Uath, its scrappy northeast corner keeping Wyoming from tipping
over. As I said, the map was rudimentary, poor little misspelled Uath
working so hard for all those years. I was in junior high before you could
convince me it was really Utah. I thought the Atlas was wrong.
There was Canada and Alaska up on top, the mercator-ness of the
drawing making the Hudson Bay as big as the Atlantic. And there was
The Aloha State with my Honolulu calling me, about an inch and a
half off the coast of San Diego; a little closer than it should have been,
perhaps, but good to know it was there, waiting for my return.
Here are the states’ mottoes as I learned them from my map, plus a
clever smart-alecky aside to each one, based either on personal experience
over the years, or driving like hell through them. And, of course,
vicious rumor.
Alabama, The Yellowhammer State.
The Limping Dogs State.
Alaska, The Last Frontier.
The Moose Shit In The Driveway Again State.
Arizona, The Grand Canyon State.
The Look Out For Snakes State.
Arkansas, The Natural State.
The Marry Your Sister State.
California, The Golden State.
The Everyone You Meet Will Have A Script To Show You State.
Colorado, The Centennial State.
The Coors Back When It Was Exciting Because You Couldn’t Get It State.
24
Tom Hanley
Connecticut, The Constitution State.
The Even Better Than Manhattan If You Can Afford It State.
Delaware, The First State.
The Most Everyone Can Park In A Handicapped Stall State.
Florida, The Sunshine State.
The Flat And Stormy Old People State With Lots Of Bugs.
Georgia, The Peach State.
The Deliverance State.
Hawaii, The Aloha State.
The Let’s Tax The Sun And The Moon And The Stars Too State.
Idaho, The Gem State.
The Since When Is A Potato a Gem? State.
Illinois, The Prairie State.
French For “My Nose Is Ill” State.
Indiana, The Hoosier State.
The Lots Of Basketball Players State.
Iowa, The Hawkeye State.
The Cows And Pigs And Politicians Running Around Talking State.
Kansas, The Sunflower State.
The State That Will Bore You To Tears If You Ever Drive Across It State.
Kentucky, The Bluegrass State.
The Bad Teeth State.
Louisiana, The Pelican State.
The Get Drunk And Party Then Puke State.
Maine, The Pine Tree State.
The Cold One Way Up In The Corner State.
Maryland, The Old Line State.
The Swamps Full Of Ticks, Crabs And Old Tires State.
Massachusetts, The Bay State.
The Catholic Pothole State.
Michigan, The Great Lakes State.
The State That’s All Chopped Up And Some Of The Pieces Are Up In
Canada State.
Minnesota, The North Star State.
The Somali Cab Driver State.
Mississippi, The Magnolia State.
The Really, Really Stupid Jury State.
Missouri, The Show Me State.
The Peanut Brittle And Nightcrawlers For Sale 100 Yards Ahead State.
Cold War Kid
25
Montana, The Treasure State.
The Dear God Get These Insufferable Movie Stars Out Of Here State.
Nebraska, The Cornhusker State.
The Football Stars Now Driving A Combine State.
Nevada, The Silver State.
The 4-Days 3-Nights Free Drinks Only $299 State.
New Hampshire, The Granite State.
The That’s It? Granite State?
New Jersey, The Garden State.
The Swear-To-God They Still Name Their Kids Vinnie Up Here State.
New Mexico, The Land of Enchantment.
The Land Of Enchanting Speed Traps State.
New York, The Empire State.
The Double Honk Middle Finger Salute State.
North Carolina, The Tar Heel State.
The Couple Of Liberal Universities Completely Surrounded By Hicks State.
North Dakota, The Peace Garden State.
But With A Hundred Nuke Missiles In It Anyway So Don’t Try Nothin’ State.
Ohio, The Buckeye State.
The Show Your Birth Certificate Plus Two Picture IDs To Buy A Beer State.
Oklahoma, The Sooner State.
The Convenience Store State.
Oregon, The Beaver State.
The Old Stoner Dudes And Hippie Chicks State.
Pennsylvania, The Keystone State.
The Nice Place, But That City of Brotherly Love Will Get Your Ass Mugged
In A Hurry State.
Rhode Island, The Ocean State.
The Lobster and Beer for Breakfast State.
South Carolina, The Palmetto State.
The Talk Waaaaay Too Slow State.
South Dakota, The Mount Rushmore State.
The That’s Still All We Got State.
Tennessee, The Volunteer State.
The Most Volunteer To Stay The Hell Away From This State State.
Texas, The Lone Star State.
The Mobile Roadside Sign With Stupid Yellow Lights Blinking Everywhere
State.
Utah, The Beehive State.
26
Tom Hanley
The State Where Lakes Will Dissolve You State.
Vermont, The Green Mountain State.
The Every Other Home Is A Bed And Breakfast State.
Virginia, The Old Dominion State.
The Deep-Fried Hush Puppies State.
Washington, The Evergreen State.
The Very, Very Wet And Dark State.
West Virginia, The Mountain State.
The Abandoned Cars In A Ditch State.
Wisconsin, The Badger State.
The People Wearing Cheese Hats Even When They’re Not Drunk State.
Wyoming, The Cowboy State.
The State Where More Fingers And Toes Are Lost To Frostbite Than Any
Other State State.
Later, as I’m older and flying over the vast countryside, I am amazed
again at our nation’s straight-line industriousness. Huge power lines
charge due W in a perfectly straight line over roiling, tortured terrain,
bending for no one. The impossibly smooth white swoop of a dam, with
sparkling water behind it for miles; a turquoise gem of life and prosperity
shimmering in the endless browns of the desert. Some roads follow the
curve of the land, some blast straight across. There are huge, irrigated
circles and squares down there, seemingly placed at random by someone
making a monstrous checkerboard—green oases in the dirt.
There’s only one machine that can make that kind of stuff happen:
Al Gore’s Enemy Number One—the internal combustion engine. Draw
a line on the map, get the permits, and evil bulldozers cough to life.
Helicopters haul the pieces of the tower up to the peak, while mobile
generators power the welders and drillers. Fuel trucks follow to feed
the thirsty machines, then semis of all shapes and sizes converge on the
worksites. Diesels, turbos—all offshoots of Nicolaus Otto and Gottleib
Damlier’s tinkering. Amazing amounts of work have been done by that
little invention. Who could have thought of it, how massive the changes?
“Hey, I know,” says crazy Otto, “let’s revolutionize the world. We’ll
have this round, metal piston thingy in a kind of a cylinder, and when it
gets to the top, it explodes and goes back down. Then we can hook it up
to gears and wheels and propellers.”
“Yeah, right.”
Cold War Kid
27
You probably remember your first otto-mobile, a couple hundred
dollars’ worth of tired old metal, sitting in your parent’s driveway. You’d
sit behind the wheel, determined, take a deep breath and: twice full down
on the accelerator, then off. Choke out between 1/4 and 1/2, never more.
Hit the starter, rumm, rumm, rumm, rumm, four or five times max. Stop.
Wait three to fifteen seconds (depending on the zen of the moment)
then hit it again, tiny gas strokes this time—don’t flood it—then when
it catches, you floor the mother and it roars. Success! You look around
proudly, your friends nod. You have made fire. Column shifting’s not so
easy, the first to second gear dance a particularly interesting route, but
you know it, you feel it, you see the parts sliding around down there in
your head, doing what they have to do; you persevere. Thanks to internal
combustion and gearing, you have obtained mobility. And once someone
has mobility, nothing can stop them.
St. Matthew’s Church & School
“Time to get up!” Mom yells down the stairs. Your feet hit the
cold concrete floor in your new room down in the basement, hastily
constructed with your dad after mom popped out kid number five.
Clothes on, school books and homework in the satchel, then up the stairs
for breakfast. Sleepy children gather around the table in no particular
order, and your mom puts assorted bowls of cereal out there, plus oatmeal
for the littlest brothers. There is juice, milk, toast, the funnies. You survey
the brood: As the oldest, my two younger sisters, Diane and Denise, were
my responsibility for the bus ride to school. Littler brothers David and
newborn Markie held down the fort all day with Mom.
Your sisters greet you with the line they rehearsed the night before:
“Good morning, ya lazy poopy-doo,” then giggle at their cleverness.
“Girls!” your mother scolds, as they continue to snicker.
You’re too old now to get in a doo-doo poo-poo argument with your
little scuzmotron sisters, so you do a quick calculation: Mom is in the
kitchen packing lunches, Dad is in Morocco. It’s safe. You kick Diane on
her shin, under the table.
“Mom, he kicked me, ow, ow!”
“Did not.”
“Did, too! Mom, I think it’s bleeding, do I hafta go to school?”
28
Tom Hanley
“Yes, you will go to school. And you, young man . . .”
And so it goes. Soon the teeth are brushed, lunches handed out, and
you escort your brood up to the bus stop. Denise, now in second grade,
has recently been gifted with her own bookbag, which she has discovered
makes a perfect weapon when swung out in a wide arc. She’s become a little
Tasmanian devil, clearing a swath through the crowd. Your sister Diane and
Connie Griffin are soon in their usual one-potato, two-potato circle.
The other kids mill about, tossing gravel at each other and trying new
insults. Soon, the muddy bus pulls up and stops with a squeal. The bars
on the windows are rusty; the two guards with whistles and dogs get out
first and position themselves on each side of the door. Then the big guard
with the scar and the shotgun gets out, snarls, and pokes us in our backs.
“Come on, get on up those steps you little—” We little prisoners file onto
the grungy bus, the letters emblazoned on the side: “Alcatraz.” But they
spelled it wrong. “St. Matthew’s Church & School” it says.
We are given a complimentary tour of the base as the prison bus
slowly fills, stop after stop. The houses all look about the same, so the
cars are the most interesting and colorful things to check out. General
Motors still seems to have a slim edge over Fords, with station wagons a
favorite on both sides. But the new Chryslers were showing up here and
there, muscling in on the auto rolls, especially among lieutenant colonels
and colonels. Big fins seem to be phasing out, and we’ll miss them—they
made the cars look like jets!
There were a few exotics: Captain Jenner had a goofy little Renault.
Paaaaathetic. The Wallace’s had their la-de-da black Olds convertible, of
course. And there was Lieutenant Campbell’s snazzy little MG—it didn’t
run, though. Well, sometimes, but not often. He’d usually work on it
every weekend, and by Sunday afternoon it was time for a test hop. He
could almost always push it back by himself, but if he made it out of base
housing, someone would always go look for him before it got dark and
tow him back with a rope.
Colonel Komanick’s spoiled rotten juvenile delinquent kid, Chuck,
had his candy-apple-red ’57 Chevy, with baby moons and dual cherry
packs. The gray bondo down at the corners of the door made the
thing look even a little more menacing. He smokes already; and peeled
out in the commissary parking lot once and got a ticket. Most kids on
base agreed that Chucky-Baby’d probably be dead soon. Or at least in
the Army.
Cold War Kid
29
The bus made the whole loop, then chugged out past the guard shack
and up to the traffic light on the highway. There was the big sign that
announced: FORBES AIR FORCE BASE. Under that: STRATEGIC
AIR COMMAND. PEACE IS OUR PROFESSION. Then a smaller:
You Are Entering THE MOST Dangerous Place On Earth, A PUBLIC
HIGHWAY. Fasten YOUR SEAT BELT. That last one made us edgy. We
were safety conscious Scouts, and knew how to drop and roll every time
we caught fire, how to lift with our legs and not our backs, and how to
suck rattlesnake venom out of some poor sap’s leg. But the bus, we noted,
had no seat belts. Just the big metal frameworks of the seat ahead to stop
our little bodies in the event of collision, right about tooth level. I had
mentioned this to my parents on numerous occasions, and asked if I had
to take the bus to school. Yes, I did. Could I go by bike? Nope. Go-cart?
No, I could not. Oh, well . . . some risks you just had to take. We all just
hoped that grumpy old Mr. Spence drove better than he looked.
The bus whined up the highway and sped past the new Holiday
Inn. It had the biggest sign we had ever seen, huge and green, with a
swooping yellow arrow displaying about a thousand yellow lights on it,
blinking in rapid-fire sequence. It started at the back of the arrow, and
blink-blink-blink in about three seconds, it blinked its way to the point,
drawing motorists in. Our eyes tried to keep up, it was mesmerizing.
Heck, who wouldn’t want to pull in? Sheesh! It only had everything:
ICE-COLD AIR POOL RESTAURANT TV WELCOME FUTURE
FARMERS OF BELL COUNTY HAPPY ANNIVERSARY LISA +
EDWARD. It was long, low, clean and futuristic. We bet the Russians
didn’t have anything like this!
Four stoplights later, we could see Burnett’s Mound, Topeka’s hill. It
had a water tank on its peak, like a nipple on a tit, we snickered (as if
we would know) and the hill was supposed to protect Topeka’s southern
flank from tornados. Oh, come on now! If you wrote something like that
down on a test, you’d get a D. But if grown-ups or Indians said so, it was
all right. It wasn’t fair, of course. Grown-ups always got away with murder
over kids, just because. But we also noticed recently that we got away with
a lot of stuff on the second and third graders, just because, so we knew
that kid life was probably some sort of a training program.
Soon the bus pulled up into the parking lot and the guards turn us
over to the nuns. Shotguns are replaced with Benedictine whips as we are
funneled down the hall and into church, grade by grade.
30
Tom Hanley
I join three other boys as we scurry from the crowd, run down the
side aisle to the back door, and rush into the dim vestibule behind the
altar. Father Trompeter sits, waiting patiently. He wordlessly looks at his
watch, so you hustle a little faster, pulling the vestments over your head.
Two of the older ones slip out to the altar as the pews fill up, positioning
the wine and water, the bells and his host. (To speed things up, only he
took communion till Good Fridays, when the whole school trooped up.)
When all four of us return to the vestibule, we line up. At exactly 7:40:00
he whispers, “Gentlemen.”
To be an altar boy at Mass was a high honor. By about third grade,
the nuns were shopping around for who they thought would be good at
it. There were some early tryouts, and the ones who were slow at reading
English has even less of a chance at Latin. By fourth grade, the entire
Mass was ingrained into us bench-warmers, we could speak Latin for
forty minutes—we even knew what some of it meant, but that wasn’t so
important at that stage. Just to be able to recite it was the main thing. A
good “Suscipiat” under your belt and you were a first-round draft choice.
We went to the silent church for altar-boy practice during social
studies—a treat. The nuns marching and swooshing us to and fro, strong
bony fingers on our little shoulders: “March from here, smartly, the back
two stop here, the other two proceed to here. Father will be in the center.
When he bows, you genuflect together, right knee first, backs straight.”
It was a complex choreography, not just the movements, but also
when to whip out your Latin response, when and who were to scramble
up to hold the water and the basin, who controls the carillon bells—it
was quite the event.
On your first Mass, you’re probably be as scared as you’ve ever been.
Not just of blowing the performance in front of everybody (fulfilling
the nightmare of the evening before), but there was a real sense of
connectedness to the ceremony, something big. The vestibule before Mass
was quiet as a catacomb as you were shushed and hustled into the correct
formation. There was glitter, gold, candles, mystery. High Masses were so
complex that days of practice would be necessary. We used cheat notes
when a bishop showed up; those guys threw off our game plan like crazy.
Lighting incense, Stations of the Cross, sprinkling holy water all over the
place. They showed off a little bit, to tell you the truth.
Easter Sunday. The choir ends on a wavering high note, the organ
exhales. Silence. Eight people on the field: four altar boys, two priests,
Cold War Kid
31
one bishop and a deep-safety deacon stand there in formation. Toby
hisses to me urgently, “The bells!”
“What!?” I hiss back. No way, not till after . . . well, not yet. I think.
Isn’t there a reading from the Corinthians in here right about now? You
check your sweaty palm, the inked smudges make no sense. Deafening
silence.
Toby again. “Get. The. Bells.”
Father Trompeter swoops in from tight end and makes the play.
Tinkle, tinkle. The Bishop’s head goes down, and a Pater Noster rings out.
Later, in the locker room, you go over the plays, the chalkboard scuffed
with white arcs, x’s mark where we blew it; but the Agnus Dei procession
was a touchdown, we all agreed. Excellent formation, perfect hand-off at
the altar rail.
The mystery and solemnity of the Mass kept us not only alert, but
entranced. Incense, booming organs, Latin challenges and responses
soaring heavenward.
Many years and many states later, while visiting my parents for
Christmas, I need to go to confession before midnight Mass. Boy, do I ever.
I tool into the parking lot around noon on Christmas Eve, one of those
long and low suburban-all-purpose-church setups. Dark, quiet, upholstered
churches with steeples are pasè out here in modern suburbia; the stained
glass and the soaring ceilings were of another place and time. This one
looks like a big cafeteria with pews in it. Of course, there’s the normal signs
of “Hosanna” and stuff like that constructed of felt and adorning the white
block walls, just so you wouldn’t accidentally start looking for the silverware
station and the salad bar. It looks about as much like a real church as the
high school gym looked like a real disco on prom night, with that stupid
glitter ball and some crepe paper taped up to the basketball backboards.
Churches, at least the ones I’ve been in lately, have no presence
anymore—and the language! Mass went English a long time ago, so
any mystery or connection with the past is long gone. Heck, anyone
can speak English. Even a Mass in Spanish would sound better than
English. What sounded so grand in Latin, so timeless, became some
poorly-written begging for forgiveness for one reason or another—with
the added bonus now of having to turn around and shake a bunch of
sweaty hands. Peace be with you. No, peace be with you. I love you. I love
you more. Who was coming up with all this pansy stuff anyway? I was still
in it, but slipping away.
32
Tom Hanley
I walk in and there is a youngish priest sitting on a folding chair,
another empty chair next to him. Some people are kneeling at the pews
near him, heads bowed in prayer, rosaries clicking quietly. I had seen him
a few times before on previous visits, but didn’t know his name. He has
bushy sideburns, a fish medallion, and he’s wearing Hush Puppies. He
gives me one of those eager, earnest looks and motions for me to sit down
next to him. So I do.
“Hello, my son.”
“Hello, Father.” Wonder what he wants? Silence.
He reaches his hand out and says, “Father Ray.”
I shake it and reply, “Tom Hanley.”
“Ah, you’re Polly and Tom’s boy, are you not?
“Yes, sir.”
“Yes, yes. They told me you’d be joining us this holy season. You’re
mother is wonderful in choir, just wonderful.”
“Thanks, Father. Yeah, she’s quite the soprano.” Nice enough guy, just
wants to chat, I guess.
“And you’re living now in . . . ?”
“Corpus.”
“Ah, yes. Corpus Christi. Lovely name, lovely town.”
“Yep, it’s all right.”
“Hmmm,” he nods. More silence. Then, “Shall we begin?”
I look around. Begin? Begin what? “Excuse me, Father?”
“You know: ‘Bless me, Father, for I have sinned . . .’”
There is something wrong here. An old grey head nearby turns
slightly, her eyes still closed, but her ears perk up. “Umm, this is the, uh,
confessional?” I ask with alarm.
“Certainly.”
“Here, right here? In front of these people?” I meant, right in front of you!?
“Certainly, my son.”
You’ve got to be kidding. I don’t think this is what Pope John
XXIII had in mind at all. Jesus H. Christ, that Second Vatican Council
was screwing things up left, right and center. This is crazy—I’m not
confessing my sins in front of everybody like some holy roller. What are
we, Pentecostals or Baptists now? I stand slowly and reach out to shake
hands again. He gingerly takes it, looking up at me, a little confused.
“Sorry, Father.”
I turn and leave the Catholic Church for about ten years.
Chapter 2
School Daze
Y
ou could say that Catholicism was pretty much drummed into us
all day at school; they don’t call it Catholic school for nothing.
After Mass, we got another dose of it right away in the classroom,
to start the school day.
After some shuffling and book unloading and “I-know-you-are-butwhat-am-I’s,” all the kids stood by their desks, looked up at the picture of
Jesus, put their hands in proper prayer position and chanted out an “Our
Father” and a “Hail Mary.” Then we topped it off with a “Glory Be.”
Jesus’ heart was out there, sort of floating around in front of his chest, a
little flame coming off the top of it. He peered down at the whole class,
looking sort of sad and disappointed. Plus He had, well, how else to put
it, girl’s hair.
Next, the whole class turned to face the other corner where the
American flag was, and droned out a Pledge of Allegiance. There were
pictures of George and Abe up there too, bracketing the clock, so we
wondered why they didn’t throw a prayer or two up at them? They looked
as disappointed in the class as Jesus, but with no hearts or organs or
anything showing. There were also The Rules Of Whole Numbers over
there on the display board (in construction paper) next to the chalkboard.
Surely that must have been worth a chant or two. And then, what the
heck, we could all turn to the window next and pray out to the swing
sets. The Swing Set Psalms! Then, why not pray to the trees, for cryin’ out
loud, and next, the dumb birds? Yeah! Then let’s whip back around and
35
36
Tom Hanley
pray to the coat rack and the light switch for Pete’s sake, and by then it’d
be 3:30 and we could just call it a day and get the heck outta there!
Sister Redempta was watching us all the time, checking for proper
enunciation, for slouching, noting who looked a little antsy or who was
smiling a little too much. The ones she would have to keep a special eye
on that day.
This year, I’m second row, fifth seat. An okay seat, not great, but
all right. The girl I think I’ll marry is one row to my left, two seats up.
Michelle Molson. Pretty face, nice brown hair, never threw rocks, and
best of all she has, you know . . . breasts. Two of them! The first in our
class! Big, soft, dazzling. Scrumptious, perhaps. All the other girls had
tiny little bumps, but these were The Real Thing, buddy boy! From my
position, my eyes could swivel up and over, never moving my head. Sister
Redempta would be walking the perimeter, thinking I was reading or
writing or generally following orders, but I could clandestinely zero in on
Michelle’s exciting gifts as they danced and wriggled around under her
armpit, trying to keep up as she bent over, scribbling away. She was a
furious writer, always took notes, and I appreciated it deeply.
RIIIINNNNGGGG!
And so began another exciting day of school. After a spirited religion
class (impure thoughts: mortal vs. venial) and a boring phonics class,
came spelling. I always liked spelling class (i before e except after c), and
even represented our school at the Kansas State Spelling Bee (but choked
on “subpoena”). Still, after awhile, my little mind started to wander.
Looking out the window, I saw some little sparrows magically spread
long, graceful white wings as they circled above a churning boat wake.
I squinted up at them in the tropical sun, and heard their boisterous
cries—the call of the wild.
“Another sip of beer?” asks Michelle, her voluptuous body glistening
in the hot, tropical sun. She holds the cool elixir to my appreciative lips,
and I, Splash Hanley, Big Game Sports Fisherman Extraordinaire, take
a long pull of the amber liquid, some of it spilling down my straining,
muscled chest. Michelle finds a towel and dips it into the ice-filled cooler,
soaking it in the freezing, cold, clean water. She pulls it out, shuts the lid,
and lets it drip tantalizingly on the teak deck. Then she returns to me,
walking slowly, gyrating in that special manner that she knows drives me
wild, licks her full lips in teasing anticipation, then straddles up to my
fighting chair. She slowly wrings the towel out over my tousled hair, the
fiery cold liquid cascading down my taut, straining body. “Mmmmmm,
Cold War Kid
37
still . . . hot?” Michelle purrs. She seductively wipes my head, then my
neck, then my chest, lower . . . lower.
“Cool it, babe,” I grunt. I’m enjoying the attention and the soothing,
cool water, but the last four hours I’ve been fighting this world record
marlin, and it is finally beat. Can’t afford to lose concentration now!
The huge beast and I have become as one, connected by a thin, taut,
monofilament line, with animal messages of prey and stalker, victor and
vanquished telegraphing themselves continually to each other. I know
from these signals when the behemoth will sound a split second before it
does so, and release the drag perfectly. I know when it will jump a split
second before it launches its massive self from the ocean, so have the rod
tip up high, the line reeling in just right, the incredible ballet of us two
warriors playing out perfectly on the briny stage.
The crew, up in the conning tower of the trim vessel, has never seen
anything like it. When we chartered the boat at daybreak, they thought
it would be a little trolling, maybe a few martinis, typical requests of
the jet-set that we so obviously represent. But when Michelle and I got
down to serious business and gave the captain firm but polite instructions
about where to go to find the great fish, everyone was impressed.
We even baited our own hooks! Any woman who’d dig into a quart of
night-crawlers like that was A-okay in my book. Theirs, too.
And now this! They’ve never seen a battle so perfectly fought, with no
wasted motion, and me with an uncanny sense of timing on the straining
reel. The great fish is sounding for the last time, everyone senses it. The
battle is over, Splash Hanley has won. They look down at my straining
back as I begin the last pulling, raising of the spent beast to the surface.
“I’ll bring him alongside, then you are to release the hook,” I
announce.
The crew looks at each other in disbelief. “But, this is a record-breaker,
sir. Over 2,000 pounds easy! And on eight pound test! You’ll be famous
from Kona to Key West. You—”
“No! We release him,” I command. “We’ll not tag this great fish,
either. That’s an order.”
“Yes, sir!” answers the captain. Never in their lives has this crew seen a
man so—
“RIIIINNNNGGGG”
The big Simplex clock announced 10:40. Dang. I looked up one row
to Michelle. No bikini. I looked down beside my fighting chair. No beer.
Oh, well. Time to release the fish, and get out my math book.
38
Tom Hanley
Mathematics bothered us—me, anyway. I wanted to like it, I
really tried, but every year they took the same perfectly good numbers
and thought of more and stupider ways to screw them up. Take a 10
for instance—a great number. It had built pyramids, had been at Kitty
Hawk. You could see a 10, work with a 10. So then they go and divide
it by three. Butcher it! You didn’t have a 10 anymore, you had fractions
of a 10. Body parts. You knew it made three 3.333s, but why the heck
not just start out with a stupid, useless, pathetic little 3.333 in the first
place? Why kill a perfectly good 10? What was the point? And this year—
the New Math. They finally got the old one so screwed up that they just
chucked it, and started all over. And it was even harder! All of a sudden,
a 10 didn’t even equal 10 anymore at all! Now, 10 = x! Who was the
spas-mo goonball that came up with this nonsense?
Another thing that made us nervous about math was the serious effect
it was having on our futures. If we wanted to be Air Force pilots, and we
all did, we had to get As and Bs in math. In everything!
“If you want to be a pilot, young man, you’d better pull that grade
up.” That admonition was repeated in houses all over base, every report
card day, and the admonitioners were serious! Air Force officers liked
math, they were great with math, it was easy for them. But of course,
C students would never have made it to be Air Force officers anyway.
Checklists were checked off “by the numbers.” Planes flew “by the
numbers.” So we tried. If they wanted fractions, we would fraction. If
they wanted long division, we would long division till the cows came
home. We were gonna fly.
After math came lunch. Cuisine de To-Peka. Lunch was eagerly
anticipated by all the elite little connoisseurs. The restaurant was okay,
with pretty good lighting, but it smelled a little like Pine-Sol. March
down to the basement, walk through the door (in line of course) and a
nun put a little wax carton of milk in your hand. Then you went to your
spot, by your friends. A little minimum security for 25 minutes, time to
compare notes on the day so far, catch up a little.
Open up the ol’ feedbag—no surprises there! Another Wonder Bread
sandwich, which helped Build Strong Bodies Twelve Different Ways,
housing some peanut butter and jelly. Grape today. It was wrapped
in wax paper as neat as a little present. An apple, two carrot slices, one
lonely, lovely Twinkie. Never the pair. Also at your table, Eddie had
a drumstick as usual. He lived on a chicken and tomato farm outside
Topeka, and couldn’t wait to trade for a sandwich. Eddie hated chicken.
Cold War Kid
39
After a hearty lunch, all the kids got to go outside and choose up for
baseball or basketball or something, and generally go nuts and scream as
loud as you thought you could get away with. This recess was the Big
One, thirty minutes, and you could get a good game going. We ran past
the slimeball juvenile delinquents who never played. Today they were
using the sun and a magnifying glass to fry some hapless roly-polies on
the sidewalk, snickering among themselves, nervously keeping watch. We
knew that if God was in every living thing, even things with spiracles,
those guys were dead meat.
We lined ourselves up with the other kids by the backstop, and let the
captains start choosing. The captains could choose whoever they wanted,
but nuns chose the captains, new ones each day, both for the boys and
the girls.
Today, I get on a pretty good team, except we have to pick Snotty
Scotty Valentine, because the other team has to get William (The Wimp)
Hodges. Our game starts, gets down to some serious screaming and
yelling, and by the bell it’s 4 to 3, us behind, but we have two on base
and Billy (Bombshell) Patterson is up next. We hurriedly scratch our last
positions on a piece of paper. We’re going finish this one tomorrow! We
all troop back inside, sweaty and flushed with the afterglow of a good
game, comparing scraped elbows and guzzling water at the hall fountain.
A few last shoulders are punched as the players take some deep breaths,
trying to go from recess mode to the unnatural quiet of the waiting
classroom.
Science class was next, and it was pretty okay most of the time. It
was usually stuff like levers and pulleys and how a lightbulb works, all
of which we boys liked. A lot! In fact, last winter, after a few long nights
of Dr. Jekyll-like experimentation, Mike Kontovan and I just about had
perpetual motion licked again—with some Tinker Toys, the Erector Set,
and the spring from the storm door. We were this close. We were sure it
would work next time if we just used model airplane glue instead of that
crummy civilian Elmer’s. But then my dad told us to put the spring back
on the door. We told him how close we were, showed him the gizmo,
even offered to cut him in on the royalties, but no deal. We had to put it
back, just because.
Science this semester was “The Wonder Of Life,” but The Wonders
Of Life that nuns thought we should know about were stupid little
thoraxes and pupae and compound eyes. Like Billy Fitzsimmons’.
There was a little human anatomy tossed in here and there, but not
40
Tom Hanley
The Wonder that we boys wanted to learn about. We didn’t know
much about girls’ anatomy yet, but we sure were trying. We could see
the bosoms of the older girls, of course, and were developing a keen eye
for those. Girls themselves weren’t so mysterious (they were dumb!) but
the you-know-what-part between their legs certainly presented a mystery
to us. Our only guide so far were some ridiculous rumors and a medical
encyclopedia at Bobby and Mike’s, with colored overlays showing all
the organs and arteries and everything. Veins were blue, arteries were
red, muscles kind of a brownish-pink, but everything in that mysterious
area on the woman picture seemed connected to bladders or intestines
or tubes that loopdelooped at the top. We were gonna crack this case
eventually, but it was something that did not give up its secrets easily in
the early sixties.
Anyway, this semester was bugs, so bugs it was. The class thoraxed
and pupaed and aphided and exoskeletoned. Then we colonied and hived
and furrowed and burrowed and took a trip down into the mound. We
rubbed antennae with the workers and the soldiers and the queen. Said
howdy to the marchers and the cutters and the swarmers and the biters.
Then Roger piped up without raising his hand, and asked if they had
account-ants and consult-ants down there (ha-ha). Oh, NO! What was
Roger doing? Twenty-eight children held their breath, mouths tight.
Sister Redempta spun around toward Roger like a gun turret, and
didn’t even say a word. Her eyes grew wide, quickly zeroing in on the
hapless target as invisible beams of atomic nun-energy rays shot across
the classroom sky and smashed right through his eyeballs. The rays
ricocheted and blasted around in there, scrambling Roger’s brain until his
head lowered, his face turning red. It became deathly quiet, except for
the sizzling noise of fried brain juice. Minutes passed. Hours. Finally,
the ray was shut off and Sister asked icily: “Are there any other questions
about the division of duties in an ant colony?” There were none. She
then cleared her throat to signal the end of hostilities, and the ant tour
continued. Roger’s head was still down, smoking. Sheesh! We were gonna
have to take him home on a stretcher! Holy Moly!
For our next battle, we whipped out our English books. We’re
diagramming sentences, and it’s hard, man. It even stumps some of the
smart girls, the predicates angling off this way and that as we attempted
to dissect a sentence up on the chalkboard. It’s a messy, bloody business
and I wanted no part of it. Timmy was rolling a boogerball and Matt was
nibbling on his eraser. A little bored myself, I tore off a small corner of
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41
the page and chewed quietly. Snacktime. We’re in our 2:30 stupor, the
second hand of the clock grounds down to slow motion. I squirmed in
my seat and listened absentmindedly to the drone of Sister Redempta
discussing adverbs or adjectives or some silly nonsense. She wrote on
the board: The clouds were like cotton balls, high in the sky. Oh brother, I
thought, rolling my eyes. The clouds were like what?
Michelle walks down the aisle of the sleek Lockheed Constellation,
steadying herself against the slight turbulence. She reaches the galley at
the rear and takes out her compact. Cathi, her good friend and fellow
stewardi is there. Michelle freshens her lipstick, and, still looking in the
mirror, hisses to Cathi, “When we get to Casablanca, 27A is mine!”
Michelle still likes Cathi and everything, even though she’s dating Gregor,
the creep, and she dots her i with a little heart. Ick.
Secret Agent Tommy Hanley, in seat 27A, stretches like the
finely-tuned, caged animal that he is and gazes at the endless horizon.
The clouds were like cotton balls, high in the sky. He watches intently as
the two huge Pratt & Whitneys on the left wing churn their way through
the endless Atlantic sky. There is a small trail of fluid etching from an
access panel on engine number two, probably nothing to worry about.
Nevertheless, he scribbles a note to the captain suggesting a hydraulic
pressure reboot on the port system, then looks back and signals to the
shapely stewardess. Michelle hurries over, Oh God he wants me.
“Can you run this up to El Capitan for me?” Agent Tommy asks.
Their fingers touch a little longer than necessary as he passes her the note.
She looks down, averting his steely gaze. Her face flushes slightly, and she
risks a gaze back into his eyes. Mrs. 27A she thinks dreamily, then hurries
to the task at hand.
Tommy’s meeting with the President had gone well, and his
mission was made very clear: Get the vial to Casablanca before the
big summit. There are dangerous people out to stop him, perhaps on
this very flight. Get the vial to Casablanca. A big responsibility for a
kid still in school, but Secret Agent Tommy was chosen (despite his
size and age) specifically because of his mastery of martial arts and the
new mind-fighting technique he is helping to develop for the CIA—
Brainiacal-Smashology: B.S.
Benghazi (Smith, ed.) rises, slow and menacing, from his seat near the
front. He turns towards the rear; the passengers gasp. There is a muffled
cry, a whispered prayer. The venomous smile widens as he takes off the
42
Tom Hanley
heavy black glasses, the plastic nose and attached moustache revealing
his swarthy (Aryan, ed.) face. He pulls up his thick kaftan (Lands End
cardigan, ed.) showing the bomb strapped to his belt. Passengers scream.
The dynamite sticks are wrapped with black tape. There are many wires
and, of course, the alarm clock.
“So, Agent Tommy, are you ready to die (begin a meaningful dialogue, ed.)?”
Tommy rises from his seat to face his adversary. “Well, well, if it isn’t
Señor Benghazi (Smith, ed.), the master terrorist (freedom fighter, ed.). I
should have known it was you, you bas—”
“Tut, tut. Such language from a CIA altar boy. Hand over the vial,”
he says while setting the timer on the clock. “You have five minutes to
hand it over. Correction, we have five minutes, then poof! The vial arrives
with me at our new destination, Baghdad (Kansas City, ed.), or no one
arrives at all. Nya-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah!”
“Benghazi—(Smith, ed.) how did you get on the plane?”
“Silly American. They had already searched two minorities for this
flight. They had to let me on—it’s the law!”
“But what about the—”
“My delightful suicide belt? I told them it was a Muslim (Southern
Baptist, ed.) goat cheese (gravy, ed.) timer and to deny my right to wear
it was Islamoracistfacistphobianism. Plus, if they didn’t let me on I would
sic my hotshot ACLU lawyer on them. Ironic, no?”
“All right, I’m bringing the vial.” Tommy knows what he has to do.
“Excuse me,” he says politely to 27B, as he maneuvers out of his seat,
doing the delicate Butt-In-Your-Neighbor’s-Face-Airline-Shuffle. He
heads straight up the aisle to the master terrorist. The passengers sense
the impending battle, silently rooting for their young hero. There is only
the drone of the engines as the two adversaries eye each other carefully,
waiting for the next move.
“Is this what you’re looking for, Señor Schweinhundt?” our hero asks
icily. Tommy holds the vial of fluid up, and Benghazi (Smith, ed.) follows
the movement, entranced. Agent T jiggles the red fluid slightly and
moves it further up and to his left. Benghazi (Smith, ed.) can’t resist the
prize, and like a cat mesmerized by a moth, his eyes follow it. He reaches
for the vial.
Well, the Brainiacal part of this lesson is over, thinks Tommy. Now
for some Smashology. The uppercut catches the hijacker right between
his gluteus plexus and he crumples to the aisle, moaning. In one smooth
Cold War Kid
43
motion, Tommy sets down the vial, throws himself on the master
terrorist, unstraps the bomb and tosses it to Michelle, who screams and
fumbles with it like a hot potato. “Don’t worry,” Tommy says confidently.
“Just don’t drop it. I’ll be finished with this yahoo in a sec.”
“Just don’t touch the red wire!” begs Benghazi (Smith, ed.).
Tommy now has a full-head noogy lock on the terrorist, his dark (light,
ed.) face smashed against the carpet, his limbs paralyzed in fear and pain. “Say
uncle,” Tommy seethes. The bomber resists, so the noogy tightens. Benghazi
(Smith, ed.) squeezes his eyes tight, tears flowing down his grimacing face.
“Uncle,” he whimpers.
“Uncle what?”
He cringes painfully, knowing he is beaten. “Uncle Sam,” he chokes.
Tommy looks forcefully to Michelle and says, “Take off your
panty hose.”
“What, here? Shouldn’t we wait until Casablanca?”
“No, honey-bunnykins, I need your hose to tie this mongrel (Golden
Retriever, ed.) down (up, ed.).”
Soon, the slimy bastard (perspiring victim of a one-parent household,
ed.) is fastened securely to the seat frames by three expert sheepshanks,
and Agent T turns his attention to the bomb.
He holds it up to the awe-struck passengers, explaining: “Remember
when he said ‘Don’t touch the red wire?’ I saw his left eye narrow
imperceptibly when he said it. Body Language 101. He wants us to touch
the red wire, so knowing that, I’ll simply cut the black one.”
Tommy holds the wire-cutters up to the black wire; the blade sinks
ever so slowly into the insulation as our hero cocks his head and looks
down at the vanquished foe. There is a muffled prayer to Allah (Saint
John Boscoe, ed.) from the floor, just as Tommy expected.
“Ah-hah!” he yells, pointing an accusing needle-nose foeward. “I
knew it! The old double—double switcheroo! It really is the red one, isn’t
it, you sniveling sneak! Well, your little scam won’t work here, buddy boy.
You can’t outsmart Yankee Doodle Dandy—not today.” Tommy snips
through the red wire before the passengers can even scream, and the clock
stops. Three seconds left.
Later, after the cheering has subsided and the champagne is drunk,
Michelle snuggles dreamily into Tommy’s shoulder, sighing. The captain
emerges from the cockpit door and approaches the young couple. He
holds out his hand, and our hero shakes it firmly.
44
Tom Hanley
“Well, you were right about the hydraulic reboot, too,” the captain
says. He peers out the window to engine number two. “Has the leak
stopped?”
“Yep, clean as a whistle. Good job, Cap.”
“Good job, heck!” he laughs. “You saved our lives up here. The
President has radioed his congratulations and there will be some very
special rewards coming your way, I’m sure of that.” He looks at Michelle,
then Tommy, and winks. Michelle giggles and Tommy blushes a little.
“We’re about two hours out, and there’s heavy weather ahead. We could
use a little expertise up front. Want to help bring her in?”
Agent Tommy stands up, stretching. Michelle looks up at him
adoringly as he slides his fingers smoothly down her cheek. “I’m heading
on up to the cockpit for a little while, babe,” he says with modesty. “See
ya in Casablanca. We’ll have fried kush-kush tonight at Rick’s.”
Tommy kisses her tenderly, then turns and heads purposefully toward
the cockpit, accidentally-on-purpose stepping on Benghazi’s (Smith’s, ed.)
throbbing plexus as he passes.
RIIIINNNNGGGG!
The bell startled me back to Kansas. I stood with the class, said a
last prayer together, gathered my books and headed out to the bus, still
thinking of that tender, delicious kiss with Michelle. Maybe I’ll try a
French one on her next time . . . whatever they are. I just heard about
them at recess. It might be just the ticket.
Saturdays
When we were little, we’d play in The Field. It was wilderness, the
only one we had. It was probably just a couple hundred yards square, but
it seemed like the Serengeti to us, endless. In the summer, the sunflowers
would tower over us as we hacked trails through our steaming Kansas
jungle. There was a drainage ditch full of frogs and crawdads, with a
spooky pipe directing the dark flow under the patrol road, seriously off
limits to us. An hour in the muddy water with a strainer or a brave grip
would yield a bucketful of crawdads. We would eat the smaller ones on a
dare, feet and eyeballs and everything. We were the wildlife.
Many years later, my daughter is taken on carefully-planned field
trips, to “observe” nature. Like it’s a disassociated piece of the planet, a
Cold War Kid
45
zoo of grass and rocks that you watch through bars. The eco-freaks who
arrange the hikes with the schools think they own it, allowing the lesser
mortals to traipse through it as long as they stay in line. It is all too
precious for us to sully. They literally whisper to the children, “See, it’s
so wonderful and pristine, thank goodness there are no evil humans here.
Shhh, don’t touch.” Stay on the trail, children. Observe.
We’d hit The Field right after breakfast, screaming, and not come
back till it was time for lunch or a Band-Aid. We weren’t “observing”
anything. We were as much a part of that field as the mice or the speedy
little garter snakes were. We burrowed in, dug our forts, threw our clods,
whacked down swaths of weeds and sunflowers for our runways and our
weed-hut villages. We observed frogs as we chased them down the creek
bed. We observed that big, black king snake as fast as we could retreat,
screaming. Heck, we didn’t even know it was called nature. It was just
that world at the edge of base housing, where all the little animals got
together and observed each other every weekend.
On bright, cold winter days, forts and igloos appeared at the most
defensible positions and snowball fights raged continually. Once,
we ambushed some kids with eggs—an expensive skirmish, but very
satisfactory. We skated the ice on the creek, hard to do in snow boots.
Cardboard sleds grooved icy paths as we careened down the one small
hill. In the spring, the same hill disgorged dizzy, laughing kids from
inside a big refrigerator box. We took turns spinning and rolling, crashing
down the flanks in it, our Kelvinator Cyclone.
One hot Saturday, Bobby and Mike Kontovan and I rounded The Hill
and saw Mitch there, sitting by the creek, halfheartedly lobbing dirt clods
at some frogs. Bobby is twelve, and the rest of us are eleven. Mitch was a
sergeants’ kid, and kind of dangerous. He stole candy bars from the Snak
Shoppe sometimes, and taught us Catholic kids the Johnny Longdong
jokes, the whole set. He pretended not to see us and kept tossing clods.
Some hit the water, some hit the muddy bank. Splish. Plop. Splish.
“Great shot, retard-o,” said Mike.
Mitch didn’t need this crap. “Oh, eat me, Kontovan,” he said, still
lazily flipping clods at the dumb frogs.
“Eat me?” Mike stared at Bobby. Bobby stared back, then looked
at Mitch.
“Eat me?” Bobby repeated to Mitch, as we all stared at each other.
That was a new one!
“Yeah, turdball. EAT me!”
46
Tom Hanley
“So what the heck is that supposed to mean?” I demanded cautiously.
Mitch had a pile of good-sized clods right next to him and closest cover
was over ten yards away.
“For your information, ya freckle faced turd knocker, what it means
is—” Apparently, Mitch had never had to define it before, so he cocked
his head a little and narrowed his eyes, buying a little time, so’s he could
find the right words.
Well, the heck with this, Mike thought, time’s up! He challenged: “So
let’s hear it, ya spasmo—” and was met with a blurring motion that was
Mitch’s right arm and a dirt clod whizzing so fast, all Mike could do was
cringe his eyes and turn his head with the clod zeroing in on his ear. The
clod zinged off the hangy down part. “YEOW! Hey you!” Mike yelled.
He spun around, found a clod, scooped it up and let Mitch have it.
It was a good hit, smack in his chest, a poof of dust coming off.
Mitch jumped up and started to charge him, but then Bobby grabbed
Mitch from behind and pinned both his arms to his sides. There was a
little struggle, but Bobby was bigger, so there were some symbolic grunts
and shuffles, and then it was over.
I was inspecting Mike’s ear­—it wasn’t bleeding. Mitch was looking
down, kicking stuff, muttering, still ticked. Tense seconds went by, slowly,
dangerously, and then Mitch piped up: “Just for your information, wise
guy, it means stick my . . . um . . . thing in your mouth. I think. So there!”
Well! This sounded so unbelievably bizarre to our little Catholic ears,
that we all just froze. Even Mitch seemed stunned as he realized what
had come out of his mouth. It got real quiet. The birds stopped chirping.
The bugs stopped bugging. We all just stood there in the sun, eyes wide.
There was only the quiet sigh of a dry Kansas breeze, stirring the tops of
the fresh spring weeds. More seconds went by, our little minds still trying
to register the . . . the . . . enormity of what we had just heard.
Mitch looked down at the dirt, embarrassed now. Bobby and
Mike and I were still motionless. Stunned. Absolutely wide-eyed. Who
could imagine such a thing!? Not us! Then all of a sudden, Bobby
let out a whoop and raised his face to the bright Kansas sky. “Yeeeeeeee
haaaaaaaaaaa!” he yelled. “EAT ME!” Boy, what a great new cuss word!
Wowie-ZOWIE!
Then we all let go, yelling it to the heavens: “EAT ME! EEEAT
MEEEEEEEEEE!”
“Hey, look, guys,” Mitch pleaded, “I didn’t make it up, I just heard it!”
Cold War Kid
47
Now we were really going. Hoo-boy! EAT ME! Wow! Where did he
ever hear a thing like that? Put my . . . in your . . . ! Ha! So ridiculous!
Who would do that? Martians?
We were falling over laughing now, pounding our fists on the warm
dirt, choking, tears rolling down our cheeks. Our sides were starting to
hurt and we couldn’t get up. Whenever we almost got stopped, somebody
would let out a horse snort and we’d start all over again. Man-o-man!
That Mitch! Those sergeant’s kids! Wow! Public school was different! We
didn’t have sex education or anything like that back then. Just sergeant’s
kids out in The Field giving us the scoop.
Over the years, younger tribes invaded The Field, and we moved on
to other things. You pass the lawn mower checkout from your dad, then
it’s time to earn some money, to mow a little nature. The lawns were
self-sustaining, and we’d harvest them every weekend. The economics
of the times were simple. One lawn: one dollar. Your dad supplied the
lawn mower and the gas, and he didn’t try any of that “Since you’re using
my equipment, son, you need to pay a percentage of your profits toward
the cost and upkeep, blah-blah-blah.” None of that Ward Cleaver crap.
Nope, he was just glad to have you out of the house on the weekends.
Regular lawns were dispatched quickly, the two or three houses
nearby that you did every week (plus your own) for a buck, but the
high-profit items came with a cold call. So we searched up and down
the blocks for long grass like, well, like kids looking for long grass, I
guess. You knock on the door, “Mow your lawn, sir?” It was yes or no,
not much negotiating or salesmanship necessary. Here’s where you could
make your big moolah, if your customer didn’t know the market.
“How much?”
“Two dollars, sir.”
It was worth a shot. Sometimes they’d take it, or else snort and
counter, “I’ll give you one-fifty.”
“Okay.” Bingo! You’re up 50% already. Rockefeller, watch out.
Wrap the cord tight like it was around mean old Sister Redempta’s
neck, then crank that sucker up. The teeny front yards of Capehart
housing are done in five, ten minutes, easy. You then shut it down as you
maneuver around the car and barbecue grill and junk on the carport at
the side of the house to the much bigger back yard. Crap.
German Shepherds were de rigueur for a few years there, and, as the
smiling captain ties a big, slobbering one on a short leash to the bumper
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Tom Hanley
of his car, you survey Phase Two. You’re committed, of course, and he
knows it, but you make it a point in your mind to skip Capt. R. Byrd and
Rin-Tin-Tin of 16 Northwestern from now on. Eight, ten piles of dried
shit that you can see, plus those two steaming fresh ones; the big, shiny
green flies feeding hungrily. The whiff of crap sears your little nose bud
as you make the pre-mow yard search in the blazing sun, sector by sector.
You lift two grimy towels full of pillbugs next to the doghouse.
The dog is watching you, patrolling nervously on his short leash.
Who are you? What are you doing with my valuables? Bones, old chew
toys, a food dish and a water bowl, plus a rusty pair of clippers hidden
in the high grass up against the rainspout are found and collected. Lawns
like this taught me advanced poetry cursing: This here grass is up to my
ass. Piles of shit I soon will hit. Not great poetry, perhaps, but hey, I was
in a hurry. Time is money for a busy lawn mower.
The pile of debris is carefully laid in a heap on the back stoop, then
the mowing begins. Up one row and down the other, distributing grass,
weeds and dog crap in an even spray. The old gray shit explodes in an
odorless powder, but the new piles disappear with smelly fwop, the flies
now searching for bits of their former buffet scattered in the short grass.
Back and forth for half an hour; it’s bumpy, hot and stinky. Once that
mess is handled, you squat at the backyard faucet and slurp water as it
dribbles down your chin and onto your dirty T-shirt.
Edging was blissfully short, usually just along the driveway and
a short sidewalk to the front door. The edgers of the time were a
broomstick with a little rubber wheel on the end. Attached to that wheel
was a revolving gear-blade contraption that cut some of the grass, some
of the time as you rolled it along, but it also just squashed it down into
the dirt if it didn’t feel like cutting it. Either way, the straight edge of the
sidewalk showed up eventually, and could pass the after-job inspection.
(Remember, these were Air Force officers. Your work will be inspected.)
Sweeping was quick and painless, then a knock on the door to tell them
you’re finished.
Sometimes the women would just look out from the front door,
satisfied, and even tip you an extra quarter if you’d sweated enough, or if
they played bridge with your parents. But the men would scout around
a little. You’d be standing there, sunburnt, dirt and grass on your jeans,
itchy sweat-soaked dust on your face; C’mon, let’s go.
He’s finished checking, and is now looking right at you. He opens his
wallet slowly, “Let’s try to hit that edger a little harder next time.”
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49
“Yes, sir.” Like there’s gonna be a next time, buddy.
He whips out the dollar, then two quarters, and hands it to you.
“Thanks, Captain,” as you turn to gather your equipment.
“Wait.”
You turn, and he fishes out another bill. “Good job, son. Sorry about
Thor’s mess back there.”
“No problem, sir! Thank you, sir!” Whoo-hoo—two-fifty, a record!
Capt. R. Byrd is now on your regular list, a preferred customer.
A good lawn mower could make a decent living. With model
airplanes at 98 cents, glue and paint ten cents each, candy bars also at
ten, and the incredibly delicious, greasy, dripping hamburgers at the golf
course Snak Shoppe at .55 (.65 with cheese) we were fat and happy. One
good summer’s earnings could hold you through till Christmas, easy,
unless you got stupid and started hanging out with girls.
Normally competent and sane male humans went stupid time after
time, you could see it coming. It would start innocently enough—sitting
by them on the school bus, talking with them at recess by the swings even
when a perfectly good baseball game was going on nearby; then before
you know it you’re buying the expensive vixens malts and Jawbreakers out
of your own savings. More than pitiful—fiscally foolish. ’Cause you ain’t
getting anything but a warm feeling from your purchases for six, seven
years at least, no matter what those lying high schoolers bragged about.
Both sides were well aware of the tremendous gap between us and
human females and knew we would intersect, eventually. To us, however,
at that stage, girls were expensive cootie-spreaders. But I imagine it was
even harder for them, sitting in a neat circle in the yard with their friends,
gossiping, discussing their wedding plans—as their future husbands
bombarded them with gravel, and chased each other through the yards
with a dead frog on the end of a stick. They’d roll their eyes in the spring
afternoons, disgusted, but still planning. Patience, dear ladies, patience.
We’ll be ready eventually. Not correct, by any means, but ready.
The best thing a dollar could do was bicycle down to the Hobby
Shop with you and purchase that magic model airplane box, wrapped
tight in cellophane. Once opened, it burst forth with the smell of fresh
plastic. The halves of the wings and fuselage lay neatly arranged on their
sprues, glittering in the light from the Davy Crockett desk lamp. The
highly detailed parts were inspected with reverence, the instructions gone
over carefully. There were different brands of model airplanes, and we
argued over their merits like grown-ups argued over cars: Ford vs. Chevy.
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Tom Hanley
Monogram had great interior detail, cockpits and gun turrets
crowded with little, raised, paintable doo-dads. Revell was just about as
good, but with better decals, lots of “No Step” and “Warning” stencils.
They also had a neat, clear display stand for a lot of their jets. We didn’t
realize that some bean-counter up at corporate just figured a clever way to
not have to produce the intricate landing gear; we just thought it was cool
to see them flying silently over our dressers. Aurora models were kind of
cheesy—big, oversized rivets and the little crewmen’s head and shoulders
were sliced in two, each a part of their half of the fuselage. Hawk was
dumb, Comet dumber. The Lindberg Line tried too hard, their harried
mold-makers churning out planes, boats, cars (some motorized),
see-through human bodies and hearts, Rat Finks, you name it. When
they really took their time on one—like the B-17G Flying Fortress—they
did all right, and the box art was fantastic. But for every good one, there
were about ten stinkeroos.
You take your model to your room, shut the door, spread the
newspaper and let the magic begin. The small parts get painted first, the
little crew sits drying, balanced delicately against the box: uniform, olive
green; helmet, white; Mae West, yellow; gloves, brown; boots, black;
face, flesh.
Then the larger parts are glued, wrapped tight with rubber bands.
It’s hard to have the patience to let it dry completely before you get the
urge to go to the next step, but you force yourself. You’re not a dumb kid
anymore, you know. Soon the rubber bands come off—it’s almost dry,
anyway—and the crew is glued to their seats, the landing gear struts poke
from their wells. Finally, guns, wheels, and canopy are now attached, and
it is finished—per-fect-a-mundo. It’s your best ever, you admire it from
every angle, the decals snugged up tight against the tiny plastic rivets.
It follows the normal favorite model rotation: place of honor by the
lamp on the desk till the next model shows up, then to the front of the
display shelf for a few weeks. That shelf gets crowded with newer, even
more perfect models, so eventually your prize is strung up with fishing
line from the ceiling. It joins the others up there—the dangerous Russians
and the sleek, shiny Americans. The Cold War jets spin slowly above the
bed. WWII is over by the closet, the Japanese Zero trailing cotton smoke,
little wood-burner dots tracing the path of the bullets. There is a graceful
Pan Am Connie and a Boeing 707 in the civilian corner, sort of staying
out of the way.
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51
Then you knock your prize down one night with an exuberant swing
of your Levi’s towards your little brother who is sneaking into your
room—“Get outta here ya dinkbutt!” You perform a quickie repair job, but
it’s not the same now. The delicate, busted fifty calibers from the belly
turret are not even searched for under the bed. It goes on the shelf again,
but now in the back, shoved up against the Erector Set Ferris wheel.
Then one day, after a kickball game, the Ruddy kids bring out some
old models and a lighter, and, well heck, that looks like a good idea. Soon
the doomed bomber is billowing flames from the number two engine, the
crew trapped inside with the deadly g-forces as the plane swings round
and round it’s creator and destroyer. It’s slinging off pieces of molten
plastic at the kids who are watching and cheering you on as you release
the string, and the whole blazing mess arcs up through the night sky, over
the curb, and then down to it’s doom over Berlin. Well, you can’t win a
war without some casualties. Military flying was dangerous—they knew
the risks when they signed up. Then your dad whistles, and it’s time to
head in.
Coffin Corner
Military flying was dangerous. Although the crews were highly
trained and the maintenance was good, many were killed anyway. Some
accidents were preventable perhaps, some not. The MiGs got a few who
flew too close, who shoved their ships right in their faces, daring them.
But most were the standard Air Force deaths; a misread altimeter on a
night approach, a midair with your formation mate or a sluggish tanker,
or a tired wing folds up on a turbulent, low-level practice run.
When a plane went down, it wasn’t just one death to deal with. It
was three in a regular bomber, six in the recon jobs. Sometimes they
bailed out, but that happened rarely. It was just too fast, too explosive,
when it went wrong. A pattern, distressingly familiar, happened after a
crash: shock, sadness, grieving widows and crying kids. Days of headlines,
then mounds of food for some reason, casseroles filling up the houses of
the dead men. There would be a constant swirl of neighbors dropping
by—“So sorry, he was such a fine man, a good father, can we help?”
In about a week, a moving van fills up, the last-minute excess is tied to
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Tom Hanley
the top of the station wagon and it pulls away. We wave to friends we’ll
never see again. In a day or so, another moving van pulls up, unloads,
and a new plaque is mounted by the front door. We bring food (again) to
welcome them. A cycle repeated on bases across the country.
The B-47s were getting older now, and they kept adding new things,
especially to the reconnaissance ships: new radars, new sensors, new
bumps, new weight, every pound an added danger. The accidents had
been happening more recently it seemed as the planes aged. The worst
were usually on takeoff. The fuel-heavy jet thundering down the runway,
a decision point is passed—committed to flight now, a tire blows or an
engine fails, acceleration slows, and the die is cast. Too far and too fast
down the runway to stop, yet too slow to fly, the ditches and fences and
scruffy trees are waiting to destroy them. Sometimes they struggled up a
little, desperately trying to bend the laws of physics. I can’t imagine their
last seconds. Did they scream? Curse? Did they pray? Did they calm each
other? “This is it, boys.” No one survived those, that I recall.
There were other ways to lose a dad, too. In-flight explosions were
hellishly popular for awhile—a click of a switch was exploding a certain
fuel tank, breaking the airplane’s back and somersaulting it’s dying
pieces and crew through the high, cold air at 600 miles an hour. The
lowering fuel level inside the tank was exposing the arcing wires of the
culprit pump to the volatile fumes; it would not ignite the JP-4 while
hiding down in the liquid. But no one knew what was happening, of
course. They were just mysteriously blowing up, no survivors. How many
went down that way before a copilot was spat from an exploding plane
and miraculously survived? Legend has it that they used hypnotism—
he remembers the formula, bruised and broken, from the hospital
bed—which tank they were transferring to, how much fuel was left, the
pressures. It was that switch, he remembers, that pump, so the fix was
finally in.
More ways: deadly spins. Speed was everything. Early jet wing designs
sacrificed lift for speed, too much sometimes—they were still learning.
Appropriately called the “coffin corner,” high and low-stall speeds
converged in certain lethal conditions and the big jets just shuddered
and fell. A spinning airplane on a sunny day has a strange beauty from
a distance, a glistening pirouette. This fanciful vision belies the gyrating
madness within—bodies smashing against their harnesses, helmets
crashing against the canopy hard enough to crack it, garbled panic amid
the shriek of wind and flying debris.
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53
From a high enough altitude, the spin can sometimes be arrested
and they can survive; from a lower altitude they will die. Unless the crew
ejects instantly, a stall-spin on final approach was always fatal: The shiny
plane flashing in the sun, spinning almost delicately down, like a falling
leaf. The catcher sees it first. “Look,” he yells, pointing. He flicks his
mask off and gestures up to the sky behind us. The team turns, looking,
gloves shielding our faces from the sun. Some kids cry out, I forget what
they say, and still it spins down. Flash-flash-flash, disappearing behind the
hulking hangars onto the tarmac. The flames and black smoke explode up
immediately, then seconds later, the hollow, sickening boom smashes into
our gut. Then the sirens. There will be funerals again, and later, empty
desks at school as the remains of the dead men’s families drive off to their
next, different lives.
To say we knew our airplanes would be a serious understatement.
Every plane that flew over us stopped whatever game we were playing
until we identified it: type, name, manufacturer, speed, range. We built
models of every aircraft in our inventory, and theirs. We woke up to them
every day, we heard them spool up, we felt them as they thundered over
the playground, reciting checklists out loud to each other, mimicking
what our fathers were doing up there: “Gear down, four green, flaps
thirty, fuel panel set, approach chute deployed.” We were born military,
we were raised military, we lived military. We were Cold War kids.
Dad was going on TDY again. I forget which time it was, there
were many. I also forget where he was going. Turkey? Alaska? Japan?
Somewhere near Russia, always. He would be gone awhile, half my sixth
grade anyway. TDY meant Temporary Duty, which always sounded
strangely weak to me, a bland acronym for what they really did on TDY
which was POTC: Piss Off The Commies. They would buzz around the
edges of enemy territory, daring them, seeing how long it took the MiGs
to scramble and intercept them, all the while recording the different pings
and buzzes of the latest Russian radars—important information the war
planners and bomber fleets needed to know. The trick was to get back
into international airspace a few seconds before the MiGs could shoot
them down. Deadly games of cold war chicken.
We families of the departing crew were allowed to watch a TDY take
off once. We were in an old training room building right on the flight
line. Wives and kids of the crew were milling about and other neighbors
were there, too, to see them off. Friendly and supportive, the Air Force
really was a family.
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Tom Hanley
On a long table in the center of the room was coffee for the adults,
Kool-Aid for the kids, and those powdered sugar donuts waiting to choke
us all. Two red bombs sat there, one by each door, perched on their tail
fins on the checkered linoleum floor. Deco de Cold War. Martha Stewart
would shit. The bomb’s noses were sawed off, their casings now filled
with sand and a few Lucky Strike butts with lipstick on them. “Reach For
A Lucky, Instead Of A Sweet.” They had sacrificed their fragrant little lives
for a donut.
The crew was buckled in now, the engines wound up with a painfully
shrill dynamo scream, then ignited with a boom and an earth-shaking
roar, all six jets going loud. I remember I was scared this time. I was
getting older and knew stuff, like how the whole fleet had been sent,
secretly almost (loose lips sink ships), one squadron at a time to a repair
depot in Oklahoma. Project Milk Bottle—named for the shape of a huge
metal slug inserted into the wing spar—was an attempt to keep the wings
from snapping off, which they had been doing with frightening regularity
lately. They were hoping this modification would keep the tired old jets
in the air a little while longer.
The plane maneuvered away from our building, crawling across the
acres of concrete, getting smaller in the distance as it found the end of
the runway. I watched carefully, knowing what they were doing in there.
(I had sneaked the B-47 manual from my dad’s flight bag, hid it under
my bed for years, and just about had it memorized. I kept waiting to get
caught and spend a few years in Leavenworth, but he never missed it. He
must have had another one somewhere.)
The bomber now squatting heavily at the end of the runway, the
final check, engines straining on their mounts, vibrating their impatient
messages through their metal, up through the wings, down the fuselage
and into the seats and bodies of the sweating crew members who sat
there, poised and tense, soaking up the messages, the noises, the dancing
instruments, feet standing on the straining brakes, making sure the
numbers of a hundred dials said exactly the right thing, feeling the feel
and sound of a hundred other motors and valves and switches that made
the bomber alive and then, satisfied, loosed their grip on the massive
brakes as the wheels started their rolling . . . rolling . . . faster . . . faster.
My dad sat in his little office in the nose of the bomber, full of scopes
and dials and one teeny window on each side—he could see nothing
straight ahead. The jet now roaring down the runway, black smoke
pouring behind, the wings flex up and from the nose my dad aims a
Cold War Kid
55
flashlight at us through his small window, clicking it on and off. “Look,”
my mother said, pointing. “He’s signaling us.” Flash-flash.
I want to turn away, but I can’t. I have to watch. I lean forward,
holding my breath like someone rooting for his horse at the Kentucky
Derby. Go Milk Bottle, go! Fly you crazy bastard!
Scout’s Honor
I was fitted for my first military uniform at the Sears and Roebuck on
Wyandotte Street in Topeka. The Young Men’s Department had a special
row of official clothing for young warriors—khakis, blues, summer
shorts, belts.
I stood there obediently as a yellow tape measure zipped along my
little body, arms outstretched. Clothes hangers clacked and things were
selected and grown-ups fussed about and soon I was staring at a boy hero
in the tall mirror: the blue long-sleeved shirt with official Cub Scout
verbiage sewn above the pocket, neatly tucked into the new blue pants,
with the cuffs rolled up about six inches and held with pins—my mother
anticipating a lot of growth that year.
The shirt was matched with an official blue cap, more like a beanie,
with a tiny bill of sorts. The cap had what appeared to be a little bear’s
head stitched on it, and magnificent yellow piping arced down from a
small blue button on top. It was all stiffly new except for my trusty
Red Ball Jets sneakers, black canvas trimmed with white rubber, which
were smudged green and brown by little boy play. But the kicker was
the yellow scarf, folded correctly by the doting sales lady, with the tails
inserted through a fat, brass ring thingy that had another bear’s head
stamped on it, but it could have been a dog with short ears. Whether
it was a Grizzly or a Husky, it made no difference—I was magnificent.
That’s what a uniform will do for you.
I automatically went to a kind of parade rest, not knowing what it
was at the time, but it just felt right. I admired my reflection—arms
behind my back, feet spread comfortably apart, little chin out, eyes
narrowed. I puffed my small chest out, standing tall (for a seven-year-old)
ready to do battle with communists or atheists; swarms of brave Cubs at
my side. Rest easy, mother. Rest easy America and all your women and
everything that is good—I will protect you.
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Tom Hanley
Patches were then chosen from the trays under the glass counter,
announcing my Den (2), my Council (Shawnee), and my Pack (97). And
since I had done such a good job of protecting her so far, my mother
promised she would sew them all on for me just as soon as we got home.
I even got a little blue folding knife, believe it or not, which my dad
showed me how to sharpen on this kind of a flat, square rock.
We studied the Cub Scout manual, memorizing the important
lines and oaths, and learned the salutes and decorum. We raced each
other to become Bobcats, then little Wolves. Each Saturday we met in
someone’s basement or garage to sharpen our Cub skills. We were a little
disappointed that there was no weapons training, but made do with
exercises like the elephant walk and frog leaps, then identifying seven
basic tools. We imagined that when we graduated to the big league, the
greenish-khaki-colored world of Boy Scouts, that’s when we’d learn to
operate the tanks and cannons.
The meetings began with salutes to flags, pledges of this and that,
awards ceremonies: “. . . and a Silver Arrowhead for Timmy here, who has
just completed a birdhouse that doesn’t leak. Congratulations, Timmy.” (It
did leak, though. We tested it with a hose after the meeting, and Timmy
smacked Billy Avila right in the snoot for testing it so hard.) After the awards
and announcements, it usually degenerated into the barely-controlled
bedlam of eight little boys down in a basement for two hours.
We had Den Mothers and Pack Fathers, and they were usually good
for about a year or so before convincing someone else what a good
and necessary and wonderful thing it is to guide us young boys into
manhood. “Seriously, Jim and Madge, this is a great opportunity for you
as well as the boys,” she says, when she’s really thinking: Those stains will
never come off the floor, the parakeets are still in shock, and I can’t believe
there wasn’t a dismemberment or electrocution every Saturday morning.
So here’s to you, Jim and Madge and everybody else who tried to
shape us into young men as we terrorized your home and pets. I still
remember the field trip to Topeka’s bread factory. It was, and probably
still is, the best smell I have ever experienced. To this day I sniff my
Parmesan and think, well, this is pretty good—but not like that blast of
wonderfulness that day, no sir. We were barking and arguing and being
little boys out in the parking lot, but when they opened the door to the
cavernous baking room, we just about started floating like Quick Draw
McGraw’s cartoon dog following the scent of his magic doggie biscuit.
You remember a smell like that.
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57
On the other hand, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe train ride to
tour the stockyards in Lawrence had olfactory memories too, but of a
different sort altogether . . . . and a Silver Arrowhead to Captain Eavers
here, who shaped eight little chopping boards for us out of smooth
maple with his jigsaw one spring, and Mrs. Eavers, who then spent the
next two weekends before Mother’s Day trying to get us to sit still and
sand the edges smooth and pick splinters out of our little warrior fingers
while feeding us peanut-butter sandwiches and Kool-Aid. Thanks, many
thanks. My mom still has the chopping board, no lie.
Boy Scouts was the big league. If we thought being festooned with
little arrowheads and beanies in Cub Scouts was something grand, we ain’t
seen nothin’ yet. I was transfixed at the same glass counter years later, now
in the Boy Scout section, gazing at row after row of stitched-fabric badges
of eagles, wolves, lightning bolts and that strange nether-rank: the Webelos
fleur-de-lis (to me, it looked like a corn-on-the-cob undressing itself ).
There were also pins announcing everything from how many years
you had in, to how often you gave blood. And the merit badges, good
gosh! It seemed there were thousands of them, announcing that the
wearer had perfected skills in Hiking, Forestry, Astronomy, Wilderness
Survival, or even Marksmanship. Marksmanship! Now we’re getting
somewhere, buddy boy. Gimme that carbine, let’s go!
In a particularly favorable Catch-22, right after you signed up and
sewed your troop numbers on your shirt correctly, they asked you a few
easy questions that even a doofus would know: Who was the governor?
(George Docking). What kind of legislature does Kansas have? (Bicaramel
or something.) Then after two hours of community service (cutting
weeds and picking up litter in the ditch along Second Street) and
bingo!—you just earned a merit badge: Citizenship, everybody’s first.
Kind of a pussy badge, but hey, a badge is a badge, right?
They were almost unrecognizable anyway from a distance. The
tripod-scope of the Surveying badge looked just like the totem of the
Woodcarving badge from more than a few feet away. It was the numbers
that counted. The more ambitious scouts covered themselves with merit
badges, announcing their many accomplishments. Some wore an extra
sash to hold them all. Some were shoved around for it.
We all strived mightily for our Tenderfoot rank—we had to pass that
one—the bare minimum requirement to get in the club. Most of us, but
not all, eventually earned the Second Class banner. You could hold on
to that one till retirement if you wanted, but a few forged ahead. You
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had to be careful if you went for First Class though, because then they
started grooming you for management, and you had to start ironing
your uniform. The First Class scouts, the little colonels, were the ones
who marched up to the podium and told us to knock it off back there
and let’s start the meeting. We mid-rankers could comfortably sit back
there, anonymous, and noisily scoot our folding chairs on the floor and
make rude noises at just the right time during a talk on fire safety. It was a
good gig.
But we didn’t join up to attend those meetings in the cafeteria, or
stand there like dummies with little flags pretending to wave semaphore
code to each other. Nope, we really joined up for the camping excursions.
Every once in a blue moon we’d earn a weekend in the boonies and it was
great. Sometimes we’d camp out in the Flint Hills or the ocean-huge (to
us) Tuttle Creek Lake, but usually it was just on some farm nearby. We
learned cool stuff like bird calls, and building a good fire from a teensy
smoldering piece of dried lichen.
We identified turds: rabbit (little pellets), deer (black pellets with
grass), and Harold Fisher’s (bozo pellets with corn). “Hey, knock it off
guys,” as he hops away, embarrassed, struggling to pull his pants up
behind the tree as we gather around the specimen. “Oooooo, Harold,
have some more coooooorn, Harold!”
We find favorable, gently sloping campsites and pitch tents and plop
Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup glops into our Rube Goldberg-like
unfolding mess kits. We tell stories around the campfire and tease and
fart and generally act like a bunch of adolescents out in the wild; and it is
very, very good.
Some of us are after our Astronomy badge, and the night sky out here
so far from anywhere is ablaze with stars. Our red-lensed flashlight scrolls
across the unfolding map as we match the glittering bodies above us with
our star charts—reliable Orion, the Dipper down low over there, and the
North Star. We study the nearly full moon with binoculars, lying on our
backs on a little hill, almost stunned with it’s ghostly, silent hugeness.
So bright, with sharp shadows defining craters and ridges, little blue
explosion patterns growing out of the impact sites.
We have to learn the Latin names for the moon’s seas and
mountains—easy for the Catholic kids. We have the normal little
whispers of God and who’s out there, the obligatory jokes about Uranus,
and eventually we get quiet and I get moonstruck. Entranced. I see
nothing around me—no trees, no kids, it all falls away. I feel like my little
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mound with me on top is elevating me up there. I’m rising, I am on the
tip of the earth, the apex, the very closest being on the planet to the vast
heavens above me. It is all I can see in any direction; there is no earth.
I am in space. And I’m only twelve. That’s how big the Kansas night sky
was. (Of course, those Chesterfields we snuck out of the Scoutmaster’s
tent might have helped my cosmic sensations.)
The morning hike begins as we huddle around a topographical map
and a compass, carefully planning our route like we’re going to blaze a
trail or something, but we stay on the path. The First-Classers and the
Scoutmaster take the lead. We follow in a basic rank-down pattern,
whacking the weeds and grasses with our walking sticks, generally
terrorizing any wildlife dumb enough not to hear us coming from a mile
away and get the heck out of there.
We are on the fallow section of some guy’s farm one weekend (with
permission, of course) and come across a house, probably empty for
decades. The door is hammered shut with boards, but the windows are
broken with slopes of sandy dirt blown in over the years that lead us
down into the house’s dark, cool secrets. It’s musty and quiet and somber
in there, and we shush each other. The faded wallpaper peeling from the
walls of the living room is ornate—there was a lot of hope for this place
once. There are holes in the floor and walls, and mold on the ceiling.
Plaster ceiling and wall fragments lay about, littering the undulating
dirt landscape. One piece has landed on its edge in the dirt dune rising
against the wall; a little white tombstone in a dark corner.
There is a black cast iron stove in the kitchen, and a rusted sink that
drained straight out through the wall to the backyard, but no faucets.
They brought water in from outside, we guess. There’s a serious mud
dauber nest built against the stove flu. We whisper around it as they
monitor us, an uneasy truce.
“Look,” says someone. We study the little marks on the door frame
to a small bedroom. “Tim,” “Beth,” and “J,” next to little pencil marks,
still legible. Tim and Beth and J race themselves up the jamb, mark after
mark, 11-43, 2-44, 8-44, 1-45, then Beth and J are alone, and Tim is
gone. Moved out, went to war, dead, what? It’s an amazing little history,
but a story we don’t know the ending of. Somehow, it doesn’t seem good
though, from where we are standing.
Later, hiking back in the hottest part of the day, we stragglers hear a
commotion from the front ranks. It sounds like an honest-to-goodness
battle is taking place up there. What the—? Yelling and confusion. The
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Tom Hanley
lead element races back down the trail at full gallop and rushes past us,
“Aaaaaah!” then plops down hard, catching their breaths.
We hesitate, then poke on ahead, not sure of . . . “Go back, get back,”
the Scoutmaster yells, rounding the bend and herding us back a few
yards, supporting a fallen trooper at his side. His face, as well as his young
baggage, look ashen. He finds a place for Robby, sets him down carefully,
then sits heavily on the side of the trail himself, obviously shaken. Robby
has puke on his shirt and he’s still whimpering.
We hear the story, told in little bursts: the lead group comes across
a cow, a very dead one. It’s on its back, swollen to the size of a car, a
grotesque balloon with little stick legs poking up to the blue Kansas sky.
An amazing find for a bunch of kids—they yell back to Captain Lowe
about their keen discovery. By the time he rounds the corner he sees the
ticking bomb, with the boys gathered close around. Robby Seeger has a
big stick and is prodding the taut leather. “Don’t . . . !” but it’s too late.
Robby’s stick penetrates, and the horrific exhalation of the beast,
putrid air and flying guts, envelops them and that was the horrible cries,
the panicky sounds we heard. As the yelling troops retreat, Mr. Lowe
actually has to run up to get the fallen Robby, and slips in the perverse
pile of guts. He slithers back up and scoops him up. He grabs him by the
scruff of his shirt and begins dragging him back down the trail. Robby
sort of came to on the run, offered a few feeble steps between upchucks,
but the main locomotor was Scoutmaster Lowe, who made it back to us
at the rear okay and sat Robby down and then sat down himself and they
all took deep, raspy breaths, purging their lungs of the horrific stench.
They guzzled from canteens, lots of it, and their eyes watered for a
long, long time. Later, on the way back to camp, a few of us broke loose
and went back to the scene, upwind, and saw the brown body now
collapsed, the little legs bent down to the ground. The vultures were
eating it, just like in the movies.
123RF, Andrey Bayda
Chapter 3
Summer Vacation
L
ate May, and school is o-u-t out! The packing starts almost
immediately. The nation used to take great vacations. Now it can’t
vacate it’s way out of a paper bag. Vacations used to be a relaxing
little breather from the day-to-day; camping by the lake or visiting
relatives. Now we plan and scheme, we outdo each other—we make a
Vacation Statement.
“Oh, Tuscany is so discovered. That’s why we’re traveling to Cabo
this year. It’s so good for the children to mingle with other cultures.”
Bullshit. It’s not good for them at all. They don’t need immersion in
another culture. They need a vacation—to drive through America with
the windows down, smelling the cut hay, begging and pleading to stop at
the next Dairy Queen.
“Seeeeeee the USA, in your Chevrolet,” Dinah sang to us, and we
used to do it, by golly. Hitting the road, Stuckey’s to Stuckey’s, exploring,
eating and arguing together. The station wagons roared across the nation,
crisscrossing the lower 48, Coleman stoves and lanterns rattling in the
back. There was a lot to see, a lot of exploring to do. It was still a big
country, the Wild West was still pretty wild back then. We stayed at a
motel where each room was a brightly painted teepee, standing side by
side on a lonesome highway. It cost $8 “Wampum” a night, and “No
Firewater” signs were posted at each triangular entry door.
There wasn’t just gas 8 miles ahead. There were “Three-Headed
Snakes!” “Half-Cougar, Half African Lion!” “Talk to the 108 Year-Old
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Tom Hanley
Indian Warrior, Veteran of Little Big Horn!” Down every highway in the
West, there were Amazing Sights Just Ahead. And Clean Restrooms, too.
But the most prolific feature was the Jackalope. Every state west of the
Mississippi seemed to have about six or seven of these critters on display
or captured. “Danger! Do You Dare Witness the Savage Beast?!” After
interminable pleading, we stopped to see an “Amazing Jackalope.” Just to
shut the kids up, perhaps tens of thousands of station wagons crunched
into that clever parking lot over the years, and we were one of them.
Hidden behind a big tree and a sign warning of the dangerous nature of
the beast was a fiberglass rabbit as tall as a car, with little steps carved into
it so you could climb up and sit in the saddle while your parents clicked
away. It sported an impressive rack of antlers, some broken off, with a
sign pleading: “Do NOT hang from antlers!”
Inside the sanctum, of course, was the real deal. Past rows of greeting
cards and potato chips, there is sat, within a glass trophy case: A largish
jackrabbit with teeny deer antlers grafted on. Dusty. Worn. Two marble
eyes. A drunken mad-scientist experiment, a concoction of fur and bone.
And perhaps one of the best return-on-investement vehicles ever invented
when you come to think of it. Twenty, twenty-five bucks for a glass case,
a rabbit, some thread, two marble eyes and some antlers while the cars
pulled in for decades. A little sadder for our discovery, we trooped back
outside. There, on a picnic table in the shade of Big Killer Bunny, a quick
pick-me-up of Payday bars and Grape Nehi’s eventually sated all the little
critics, while Dad and I got the map out and planned our next discovery.
Dodge City was an actual vacation destination in the early ’60s, believe
it or not. And Dodge City is not on the road to anywhere. We actually
had to aim for it. “See Where Wyatt Earp Lived From A Horse-Drawn
Stagecoach,” the brochure read. So we did.
We learn of a real live ghost town. It supposedly has graveyards, mine
entrances, and a house made of bottles. It’s off the highway quite a distance,
the map shows a dotted line. My mom doesn’t want to go, but dad finds
it anyway. We walk quietly among the bleached wood shacks. The town
is dead and scary; the heat oppressive. We had planned excitedly to roam
and explore, but we huddle close. The glass house is fun though, and the
light inside from the multi-hued bottles is dazzling. We become patchwork
people, little circles of brown and green and white light sketch across our
arms and faces and shirts as we thread through the colorful beams.
But the outward facing bottle openings are a condo for a jillion
creepy-crawlies and buzzing wasps. The bugs own it, and we have to step
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65
quietly. We have lunch (desert-dried sandwiches) on the shady porch of a
mercantile store—the windows grimy and broken. Little brother David
sees a scorpion and we all watch for snakes.
Later, off the dirt road and back on the highway, we pick up speed
just as the rattlesnake attacks. Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch from somewhere back in the
third seat.
“What’s—”
“Oh, my God!”
“Mommy-Daddy!” as we kids scramble toward the front.
“A rattlesnake!”
“What? Where!?”
“In the cooler, I think!”
The wagon brakes fast and pulls to the shoulder. The hisses slow
as we do, then become one long shhhhhhhhh as the tire exhales its last
air. We have to get out in the blazing sun as Dad unloads everything,
then struggles with the spare and the jack. While he changes the tire,
we all keep a very, very close rattlesnake lookout. That was a vacation.
Adventure. Danger.
Nowadays a man sits on the beach in Hawaii with his laptop,
checking his e-mails from work. No danger here, except maybe carpal
tunnel. He thinks he’s indispensable. We all think it will be impossible
for others to manage without us when we’re gone, trying to handle our
important tasks for us. Little secret: it’s not hard at all. We don’t frickin’
do it. We let it pile up and save it till you get back. Do you think we’re
crazy? His wife is on her second auto-dial to the office since breakfast.
Just checking, you know. She is also indispensable.
Just the trip over here would have been a majestic adventure one
generation ago, more than they’re getting now; the ship tooting it’s
farewell at the confetti-strewn dock, or the formally dressed passengers
slip into the big, comfortable seats of the shiny DC-6 Dreamliner. There
was one class then—first. Those were vacations, and that was just the
start. The man with the e-mail, however, was packed into the 747 like
fodder, never even looked out the window for 5,000 miles. He sits on
the beach, clicking his vacation away. “Seeeeeee the DJIA on your laptop
today,” we now sing. I’m glad Miss Shore’s not here to see us.
I design books and brochures for the hotels here in Hawaii. A big
feature they want promoted recently is their connected rooms, their
“business centers.” It’s the latest thing, total connection to your job
back home. Wireless this and that, faxes, wi-fi, all the bells and whistles.
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Tom Hanley
There is competition between the hotels to provide more of it. I see it, I
design it.
“Stay with us and you can still put in eight hours a day!” they boast,
but in discreetly different verbiage. Then the next hotel down the beach
comes up with a better offer: “Stay with us and you can work the whole
god-damned weekend!” Just like your office back home, but with the whiff
of distant coconut lotion and that free office coffee is now $3.95. But it’s
Kona. Tethered to death, we now commute 5,000 miles to work and pay
handsomely for it.
I’m going to start a new hotel: no phones allowed, a tiny chocolate
quaalude awaits on the pillow. Relax, people.
We’re connected in our cars, too. The majestic Rockies scroll past
the closed windows of a young family on a trip to Colorado. Incredible
natural diversity abounds—avenues of gold, shimmering aspen weave
through the dark pine, and the kids in the Grand Caravan watch a purple
dinosaur on a little screen up on the ceiling, cautioning them about real
diversity, that they have to love and respect everyone who does not look
like them or speak English, always.
They really know how to vacation in Europe, I’ve heard. But I’ve
never been; I really am indispensable, you see.
For a stretch of summers there, we would load up the wagon in very
hot Topeka and head for very hotter Fort Worth. Go figure. We readied
the car with Air Force precision; coolers, suitcases neatly packed against
each other; we had a checklist. The mirrors positioned exactly, the
oil was changed and checked. Last good-byes to the neighbors and the
instructions: the dog gets this much, once a day, the cat gets this much,
twice. We pull out, fresh and excited and head for the turnpike.
It’s cool still, we’re making good time. The big Chevy wagon roars
south, ticking off the miles. Dad was a Chevy man, always had been.
Powerful and thrifty, not too fancy. And, he explained, as soon as you
folded the matchbook cover about four times and stuffed it between the
windshield and the dash to stop that infernal buzzing, you had yourself a
darn fine car. Wichita comes and goes. My dad keeps a log on the visor,
a pencil clipped to it. At every gas stop, he carefully records how many
miles since the last fill-up, how many gallons it took, divide it like this,
carry that three there, and there’s your miles per gallon. See? I hated it in
school, loved it out here on the open road. We long-divide our way across
the hot plains.
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67
Things appear slowly in the distant heat waves, magically forming
themselves, like apparitions. Slices of floating, liquid silver slowly
converge and become the back of a semi. A shimmering globe evolves
in the distance, rising, it’s wavy trunk gains form and soon thrusts the
futuristic water tower high into the sky, a beacon of civilization ahead.
Like outposts evenly spaced across the heartland, these towers signal
that we had reached Fort Turnpike—safety from the Indians, a rest for
the weary settlers. There would be food there, gasoline, hay for the horses.
“Daddy can we eat here, can we stop, pleeeeeease? My apple is icky,
Markie put his cooties on it.”
Maybe, just maybe, we will stop. We hold our breath as it gets closer,
a half a mile away, now a quarter-mile, the exit is coming up. We’ll know
soon. Is he slowing, is there an imperceptible lessening of wind noise? A
foot lifts slightly off the accelerator, we feel it! Yaaaaaaaay! We’re in! Seven
humans and two hundred horses get to cool off and pee.
We park and scramble out, car doors slamming. Mom smooths
our hair, wipes the little kids’ mouths with the towelette and makes us
presentable. We troop up in line, the glass door opens, and the delicious
blast of air-conditioned wonderfulness makes us close our eyes for
a second as we just stand there, arms held slightly out from our sides,
absorbing the cool. A waitress with tall white hair calls my dad “honey”
and seats us at a long table. We could be in The Russian Tea Room, it is
so exciting.
And the food! Restaurant food, no peanut butter and jelly sandwiches
today, buddy boy. Hamburgers, milkshakes! I bravely order the Prairie
Delite Breaded Steak Sandwich with onion rings, looking cautiously over
to Dad or Mom, expecting an “Oh, no you don’t, young man,” but get
none. Dad’s feeling pretty good this trip, he just made major.
Mom and Dad study the menu and order for the little kids,
pretending not to hear my extravagance. Maybe they made a pact. Maybe
my mom pleaded with him the night before to just let’s please enjoy
ourselves this trip, okay sweetheart? Whatever, my meal soon arrives and
I dig into the glorious sandwich. It is fantastic. The salty meat drips, the
bun is crispy and buttered. Life is good.
Hours later, of course, it all goes awry. The carefully packed car is
strewn with abandoned paper dolls, Bazooka Joe gum comics, Life Saver
wrappers and gooey nut debris from a Stuckey Roll. We shift and push
against each other, glaring.
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Tom Hanley
“Daddy, I have to go to the bathroom.”
“Why didn’t you go back there?”
“I did, I just have to go again is all.”
“Darn it, get your head down back there, I can’t see out the rear-view
mirror!”
“Mommy, David got cracker crumbs on my Chatty Cathy. On purpose!”
“Mommy, now he’s looking at me!”
“Am not!”
“Are too!” The sound of little fists connecting with loved ones. A wail.
“Knock it off back there! Do you want me to pull this thing over? Do
you? Because by God—”
“Now, Dear.”
“Now Dear what!? I swear, Polly, those kids are driving me . . . .”
And so it goes, he drives us, and we drive him. Glad to help, we
certainly try to do our part, anyway. Oklahoma passes behind us as we
cross the mighty Red River, and an hour later, at last, 600 fun-filled
miles later—it arises out of the night like a glistening Oz: Fort Worth.
Cowtown, USA.
We pull into the driveway, the grandparents are in their pajamas but
waiting up for us, reading and dozing on the sofa. Excited kisses, squeals,
hugs and I love you’s. The line at the bathroom gets shorter and shorter.
We have bowls of Kix and Grape Nuts. It’s so fun to eat in someone
else’s house, so many exciting, different brands of cereal to try. Then the
beds are filled up, the couches fold out and the unlucky ones (me and
little brother David) get the air mattress, which, before the night is out,
will deliver our butts to the impossibly hard floor.
Omaha Beach
My first vacation without my family. I’m ten years old and lying on
my back in my uncle’s living room, halfheartedly watching a rerun of
“The Longest Day” and studying the ceiling. It’s the summer of 1962,
and my two older cousins are trying to murder me.
Bobby’s face suddenly leers into my field of vision from above, then
Jeff ’s. Uh-oh. They’re going to pound me again, or hold me down and
apply a booger or squashed bug to my forehead. Before I can react, Bobby
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69
says sweetly, “It’s alright Tommy, don’t call Aunt Dorothy. See? We’re not
going to hurt you.”
“Yeah, we’re not going to hurt you this time,” purred Jeff. “Want to
make a dollar?”
I nod cautiously. They look at each other, grinning, then Jeff fishes
something out of his pocket and shows it to me. A Monopoly die.
“Balance this on the tip of your tongue for three seconds, and we’ll give
you a dollar.”
“Yeah, a whole dollar, squid brain,” says Bobby.
Balance that on my tongue? You think I won’t? Easy money—watch
this! I take the die, put it on the little pink peak, and it immediately
skis down the slope into my windpipe. My surprised choke lodges it
further and deeper, and alarm bells go off in my head. I launch up as
my tormentors scatter out of the way and I immediately start stampeding
around the living room in a death circle, starting to explode.
On about my third lap, I take the kitchen exit, careen across the
linoleum floor and tug frantically at Aunt Dorothy’s arm—she’s peeling
carrots over the sink. “My word, what is it now, Tommy?”
I try to communicate with little hops and bulging eyes, clutching
my throat. She studies me carefully, waiting for the gag line as it were,
but there is none. My face goes from red to sort of blueish, by later
accounts. I point down my throat, eyes pleading tearfully, then to Jeff,
who is cautiously peeking around the kitchen door but disappears in
an instant. She spins me around, bends me over by the waist and yells,
“Chuck, get in here now!” while proceeding to strike my back hard.
WHACK! WHACK!
Uncle Chuck is puttering in the backyard, hears the order, and comes
bursting in through the back door, “Wha—”
“Go (WHACK!) find the boys!” (WHACK!) she commands. She’s
not even finished with the task at hand, but is already preparing for the
punishment cycle. She doesn’t even know what happened yet for Pete’s
sake, but she knows they did it.
Seven or eight good whacks later, the die dislodges from my throat,
clatters across the floor, hits the baseboard, and bounces back. A six! I’m
wheezing great gulps of air as Aunt Dorothy spins me back around and
studies my face. It takes her about two seconds to determine I’m going
to make it, so she turns and blasts into the living room, barking “Jeffrey
Lawrence Cramer!” and joins in the hunt.
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Tom Hanley
I’m still in a daze, I can’t talk and can barely move, but hear the
battles begin in the distance. The front door slams as Aunt Dorothy
corners Jeff on the front porch.
“I didn’t do anything! He’s lying!” he pleads. He’s almost as tall as her
now, but doesn’t stand a chance.
There’s screams and explosions, the whistle of incoming mortars and
the house reverberates with the sounds of battle. John Wayne yells for
artillery support on the tube, mixing in with the screams and clamor of
battle here on Pecan Street, Omaha, Nebraska.
Suddenly, there is a blur to my left as Bobby rushes from his hiding
spot in the hall bathroom out the back door, with Uncle Chuck two steps
behind, blasting through the screen door so hard and fast I thought it
would bang off the hinges. Bobby makes a run for the alley, but Uncle
Chuck catches him at the corner by the fence and grabs his T-shirt so
hard that it rips.
It’s all over in less than thirty seconds; Jeff surrendering on the front
porch, Bobby begging for mercy by the swing set in the backyard. Man,
Uncle Chuck and Aunt Dorothy sure were fast for big people.
It was an interesting summer. The hide-and-seek game where I’d
hide and Bobby and Jeff would run down to the Seven-Eleven and
look at the dirty magazines till they got chased out—while I was still
crouched behind the trash cans by the garage, feeding mosquitoes. The
nights of dodging spitwads in the dark as I lay at the foot of their shared
bed, me on my musty little army cot. The soothing rub of poison oak
behind my knee as they applied “Indian medicine” to me down by
the creek. That delicious bar of chocolate Ex-Lax. The die-balancing
incident, plus, oh, about a hundred shoulder punches, noogie burns,
and sneak-up-from-behind head slap attacks. Little things that “build
character” and “really hurt.” Where were you the summer of ’62? I was
getting pounded, man.
Beale Air Force Base
We are transferred to Beale, in the hot valley above Sacramento.
For a week or so we live in a dinky motel in Marysville until a house is
ready for us on base. One teensy motel room, two beds, and a bunch of
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71
sleeping bags lined up head-to-toe on the dingy carpet. Tight quarters for
seven, you’d better believe it.
Denise wants to sleep in the car after someone steps on her on the
way to the bathroom one night, but Mom won’t allow it. This isn’t
Kansas, this is California, she explains, and goodness knew what sort
of strange people were lurking about outside. But the motel has a pop
machine and a pool, so it’s kind of like a little vacation. I learn to dive
backwards into the pool, headfirst, and Denise learns not to sleep on the
floor between David (who loves a Fresca nightcap) and the bathroom.
We’re finally assigned a house on base. (By my count, this will be
our fifth house out of nine in our Air Force wanderings; the last five
houses just one year apart. I could write a book about what it was like
for a sensitive, bespeckled Air Force brat to go to four different high
schools, and I just might. I can name names, so you’d better worry you
vicious high school gym class dodge-ball bastards. You know who you
are. I haven’t forgotten.) Base housing looked pretty much the same from
the outside, base to base, but you were allowed to customize them inside
if you chose to do so. We could paint the rooms any color we wanted,
as long as it was approved by the decorating wizards of Strategic Air
Command. No kidding—you had to get an official color sign-off.
In every move, however, we obeyed my mother’s insistence on
painting at least the living room of each new house a color that not only
matched our well-traveled furniture, but supposedly helped soothe our
continuously uprooted family. Hey, she knew about this color stuff, you
know—she majored in Home Ec. She painted the walls herself until we
kids got old enough, then she enlisted our well-meaning (but messy) help.
So at one drab dwelling after another, year after year, we got out the
rollers, the pans, the brushes and the drop cloths, and made the Hanley
living quarters soothing and calm with gallons of paint labeled: Celery. A
nice, soft, light green color. By house number nine, I had grown to hate
Celery, absolutely despised it. When I finally escaped my parent’s house
and began my own journey of discovery, debauchery and expression, I
reveled in orange shag carpet, love bead curtains, faux-stained-glass and
dark cabinets. Real bachelor pads. No Celery anywhere.
Now, at a ripe old age, while writing this very book, my wife and I are
choosing the color for the upstairs bedroom, and I see with horror that we
have selected that perfect, delicate green that goes with the drapes: Celery. It’s
called Nantucket Breeze nowadays, but that’s just semantics. It’s still Celery.
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Tom Hanley
It’s such a Catholic color. I suppose other denominations could use
it, with permission from the Vatican perhaps, but it was our color. Green
like Ireland. Green like colored mashed potatoes with green beer on Saint
Paddy’s Day. Green like the two palm fronds from last Palm Sunday
wedged behind the crucifix over the couch. It identified us, and helped
save my father’s life once, as well as his crew. Watch.
Date and time: Feb. 8, 11:20 p.m. (Central).
Conditions: cold, really cold. Witches’ tit and all that.
Place: Heaven.
*Ring-ring.* “Hello.”
“Gabriel calling.”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, Gabe, I know that. What’s up?”
“Sorry, Sir. Reports indicate an American military jet has just lost its
canopy climbing through 18,000 feet. Explosive decompression.”
“Do they require divine intervention?”
“Your call, Sir, but it’s pretty hairy in there. The copilot’s helmet and
oxygen mask is ripped off and he’s starting to lose consciousness as we
speak. The navigator just unbuckled himself and is struggling back to
him right now with a portable oxygen bottle and mask. He could get
sucked out. The pilot’s trying to slow the thing down—he’s still got a
little piece of windscreen left in front of him—but he can barely see and
it’s blowing over 300 miles an hour in there.”
“So one of them is crawling around and not strapped in?”
“Yes, Sir, from what I can see on my screen.”
“And tell me again why hasn’t he been blown out?”
“Gosh, you tell me, Sir. Luck of the Irish and a strong grip, I
suppose.”
“And are they praying?”
“Oh yes. The usual combination of prayers and cursing, Sir. Some
doozies, too. It’s loud and cold in there, very loud and cold. Medium to
heavy panic.”
“I see. Number of souls on board?”
“Just the three.”
“Catholic?”
“Two.”
“Good ones?”
“One so-so, but the navigator attends Mass regularly and he’s wearing
a Saint Christopher’s medal.”
“Hmm. Anything else to help swing it?”
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“Well, according to my files the navigator hasn’t said the f-word since
high school, and he’s got some of those palm thingies behind a crucifix on
the wall in his living room.”
“Wall color?”
“Celery, sir. One of ours, definitely.”
“Okay then. Let’s bring ’em on in.”
See? Saved his life, dear reader. I don’t make this stuff up, you know.
As you no doubt learned in catechism class (if you were paying attention
that day) everything we do, and therefore write, is guided from above. So
if He says it happened like that, it did, so just get over it, and quit rolling
your eyes like that. Sheesh.
Beale is a huge base, miles and miles of bramble and scrub. The weeds
grew so wild and thick that when we rode our bikes to the pool in the
summer, the thistles would cut our legs—you could barely make out the
sidewalk in the growth.
A favorite pastime for us young boys was to bicycle down the runway
perimeter road, and pull over and hide our bikes in the drainage ditch
at the side of the street. Our heads would swivel carefully, checking all
quadrants, all clear! and we’d bolt and scurry low through the weeds to
the chain-link and barbed-wire fence near the edge of the runway. The
Air Policemen would chase you off if they caught you there, but if you
timed it right and got to sit under a stick of B-52s taking off, you were in
for a very, very loud treat.
In the distance, you’d hear the whine and thunder of engines, but
you couldn’t see the planes because of the heat waves radiating from the
runway. Soon you would see thick black smoke billowing in the distance,
then a trembling roar. In a few seconds, a tail would appear, arranging
itself in the waves of heat, then connecting itself to the head-on view of a
B-52 roaring straight at you, framed by black smoke behind. The wings
would flex up, and the huge jet would rise ponderously, skewing slightly
in the crosswind, nose-low, sniffing for you, looking like it was coming
right at you, which it was. As the thing thundered overhead, you’d roll up
in a ball with your hands over your ears—the beast shrieking over you at
perhaps one or two hundred feet, you and your buddies, screaming with
fear and delight, eyes wide, as the noise pummels you, gets inside you,
consumes you.
Then another, and another, and soon you actually want it to stop.
You are tired, drained, beaten by noise and concussion. You’d have to
spend ten minutes under a squadron of B-52s taking off, one right after
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the other, to appreciate the mind-boggling noise, black smoke roiling, the
greasy kerosene on your arms and hair and T-shirt as the unburned clouds
of fuel descend on you. Cold War fun! We were lucky to experience
things like that, but my hearing these days ain’t so hot.
There are vestiges of the last war on base, too. My dad and I drive
up to some old, rundown cinder block barracks out in the boonies.
They’re pretty much gutted, windows gone, with holes in the roofs
and walls. And inside, drawn on the walls in charcoal or faded paint,
fantastic pictures: a portrait of Jesus, Michelangelo-good, with Germanic
script beneath. Beautiful renderings of the lovers they long for, waiting
back home. There are kids, cats, landscapes and still lifes, calendars and
prayers. The lettering is wonderfully ornate. It goes on, room after room,
building after building.
It was a prisoner-of-war camp for German soldiers during WWII,
and man, we must have captured a battalion of artists or something. Did
they work on this just to pass the time, a lark? Did they ever consider
how timeless their work might be? Like an Irish monk patiently lettering
a parchment, did they give thought to the long-lastingness of their
scribbles? We are amazed at the talent, and glad their captors allowed it;
one can easily imagine a barking order to scrub it off, or whitewash over
it—thank goodness they didn’t.
When we moved to northern California, it was quite a change from
Kansas, a real eye-opener for us. There were tremendous opportunities to
see the wild, wild West. We scoured the Sierras and went to Lake Tahoe.
The family started camping a lot, the littlest kids were old enough now.
(We had tried some family camping in Kansas, but it was generally agreed
after that one aromatic night that we’d hold off on any further excursions
until we didn’t have to bring along the diaper pail.) We had the tents now,
the sleeping bags, the stoves and lanterns. Then, to top it all off, we got
Allegro, the boat. It followed us home from Sacramento one weekend, a
used 18-foot Glasspar with a little cabin, the sharp bow towering over us
through the rear window of the station wagon.
We pulled up in front of the house and all the neighbors came over.
They oohed and aahed over it, admiring hands tracing down the flank.
Kids crawled through the small cabin and popped up the small hatch on
the front deck like a Jack-in-the-Box. Dad showed off the engine, the
men admiring the stack of carburetors on the six-cylinder Mercury. The
next day, we were off to the lake.
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Lovely Lake Englebright is nestled among the cliffs and hills of Yuba
Canyon. Basically a fat section of the dammed Yuba River, it offers miles
of scenic, curved, smooth running. There are plenty of places to beach it
and pitch a tent or two. We learn to ski, to maneuver the ski rope around
a floating target (first a watermelon, then me), without slicing either to
pieces, while Mom tried to be brave about it all. We are soon past the
skiing basics, all the kids skiing now, the littlest on a ski-board or tube.
We older ones are now learning to go over the wake, giving a thumbs up
to the skipper: Faster!
It’s Diane and Denise’s turn. “Not so fast, dear,” Mom says, hands
shielding her eyes in the sun, looking for danger. She searches ahead,
to the sides—logs, other boats, sharks; then back at two of her precious
children, perhaps skiing to their deaths this very second.
“Honey, we have to go faster,” Dad explains. “That’s how they ski
better, that’s how they learn.”
“But Denise is still a baby. Look, she’s scared.”
Denise is squealing and grinning like an idiot. Diane cranks a turn and
heads over the wake. Almost makes it, does the whoop-de-doo and—splash!
Dad throttles back, but Denise hangs on. “Let go!” he yells. “Stay with
your sister!”
“Don’t let go!” Mom yells. “Hold on, sweetie.”
“Darn it, Polly.” He throttles way back, and Denise settles in.
“Sorry,” says Polly. “Oh, Lord, where’s Diane?”
Diane is miles away now, alone, huge waves crashing on her head, the
pack of sharks circling hungrily. She waves at us, and puts the ski high
to mark her position, just like Dad taught her to. She is handling this
life-threatening disaster considerably better than others, right here on this
very boat.
“Mom, look!” David and Mark yell from the front. They have learned
how to hook their legs under the hatch and lean over backwards off the
edge of the bow, effectively disappearing over the sides.
“What!? Where . . . ? Oh, hells bells! Boys, back in the boat, now! This
instant!”
“Aw, Mom,” they moan as they both pop up into sight again.
“Dear, please tell the boys never to do that!”
“Oh, Polly—”
We putter up to Denise and she scampers up the ladder, shivering
and blubbering over her skill and daring. Mom watches Diane drift
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farther away, the current whips her small head toward the crashing surf
on the rocky cliffs. Killer whales now fight the sharks over the tasty pink
morsel. Another boat zips between us and Diane; they see her easily and
steer away.
“Oh, sweet Mary Joseph,” my mother mumbles, praying, urging her
baby to hold on one more minute. Twelve gray hairs later, we motor up
to Diane.
“Daddy! Mommy! I almost made it over the wake, did you see me,
didja, huh? I wanna go again.”
“Now, sweetie,” says Mom, “I think it’s—”
Denise does a cannonball over the side, and comes up sputtering,
“Whee!”
“Denise Nadine Hanley, get back this—”
“Aw, Mom, gimme the skis, we wanna go again!”
“Yeah, we wanna go again,” echoes Diane.
Soon they’re arranged, side-by-side, ski tips pointed up straight. We
putter out tightening the line, Mom searching for giant squid or enemy
submarines. We hit it, they launch up, squealing.
Mom is drained. “Slower, Dear.”
“Huh?” Dad grunts.
“Please. Slower.” They’re barely skiing now, knees bent, wallowing.
Thumbs up, yelling for more speed.
Dad looks at them, their butts are dragging in the water. “Honey,
they have to go faster.”
“I know, I know,” Mom forlonly concedes.
The bow rises as we accelerate and she sits down on the edge of her
seat, watching her children gather speed, heading for the wake again.
Four wipeouts, one hilariously recovered whoop-de-doo, two successful
wake crossings and forty-eight gray hairs later, we putter in and beach
our hard-working steed. Later that evening there are squeals of laughter as
the best stories are retold amid the aroma of grilling hamburgers around
a blazing campfire. Polly carefully mixes her annual gin and tonic. Then
another.
Boat-camping at the lake had other treasures: the gold rush rivers of
northern California, including the Yuba, still had miniscule residues of
gold in them. Glistening flakes floated at the water’s edge. I don’t know
how gold could float, but there it was. We, of course, thought it was
the real deal. After an hour or so, we could have half a Dixie cup of the
treasure. We made our plans, how we would spend the booty: Bigger
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boats, mansions, ice cream. David wants to buy the robot from “Lost In
Space.” He will command it to make him honey toast, as much as he
wants, and zap Diane and Denise with his ray gun when they bug him.
Right on their big, dumb butts.
Another family putters up the next morning, and politely asks if
they can pitch camp nearby and share our little beach with us. When
they offer supplies of fresh ice, soda, and toilet paper, they’re welcomed
warmly. They have two kids, just learning to ski, so we impress them with
tales of our skiing prowess, and show them where the hidden tree stumps
wait hungrily for an errant skier or prop.
The cove is just big enough so that we can roar in with a skier, crank
a hard right (just missing those stumps) and the skier slingshots out over
the wake and coasts right up to the shore. We had it down, showing
off—sometimes we’d pull a double. The other kid wants to try it. He
gets the whip and when he’s supposed to let go, he freezes, holding on
tight. We yell “Let go! Let go!” but now he’s really screaming, literally and
figuratively, the shore coming up fast. He finally lets go, and a second
later the skis hit the beach at about ninety and stop immediately. He
continues, a somersaulting blur across the campsite, then the trees at the
edge of the camp shudder and some pine needles fall off. We follow the
screams and easily find him. He screams even louder when we douse his
ripped little body with Mercurochrome. He’s just one of those screamers
is all.
The base also has a horse stable out in the boonies, and some of the
kids own their very own horses. Unbelievable! We have trouble enough
arguing for a cat! I go with Larry one Saturday to watch him do whatever
he has to do everyday to his big horse, Bullet. It’s a lot. The stalls are all in
a line, a horse barracks.
We got off our bicycles, and all the horses poked their heads out their
doors, Choose me, choose me, they say as we saunter up. I didn’t know how
huge horses really were until then, Bullet’s towering head lowering to
Larry’s hand for a carrot. His deep, dark eye scanned me carefully as he
munched. Larry showed me how to always talk softly, to always stay in
his sight, or if you can’t, to keep a hand patting gently on his flank to let
him know where you were. We schmoozed around the big gelding like he
was a ticking bomb about to go off. Little did we know.
Larry did his normal horse keeping routine while I watched; fresh
water, more oats, grooming, always talking gently, shoveling out the
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massive turds and turning over the hay. Bullet shivered and quivered, his
veins were thick rivulets under the brown hide, zigzagging across his belly
and neck and head.
Larry went over to the wall and took down the harness and bit,
hanging from rusty nails. He clanked it around Bullet’s head and mouth;
the other horses heard the noise and started a low murmur of snorts and
stomps. Somebody’s gonna go out. I wanna go out. Why does Bullet get
to go out and we don’t get to go out? Six or seven jealous heads look on as
Larry opened the gate and led Bullet out into the hot afternoon. To think
a thirteen-year-old kid could lead and control a beast that big was just
preposterous to me. How does Larry just steer him around like that? Even
smacking him every once in awhile to keep him in line. Can’t the horse
see, can’t he figure it out? His head is towering over us, following us little
pink runts over to the corral. He could squash us like a bug if he wanted.
I forgot what Larry had planned to do with him in the corral, some sort
of training I suppose, but then he said, “Wanna ride him?”
“W-What!?” I stammered.
“We’re just going to the corral over there. Don’t worry, I’m leading
him. I won’t let go.”
“But I don’t know how to ride a horse,” I said fearfully. “Do I look
like the Lone Ranger to you? And he’s just too big! Jeez, Larry, I don’t
know anything about horses. I couldn’t even get up there anyways.”
“They ain’t so big when you get on ’em. Here.” He led Bullet to the
fence. “Climb on up.” He had Bullet’s head tugged down by his, eye to
eye, the rein tight, and Larry was patting him, soothing him, everything
fine and dandy. So I climbed up the fence railing, got to the top rail,
stretched my leg way out and slid uneasily onto the broad back. So far, so
good, the horse barely moved.
“Hey, this is a cinch, I think, nothing to it!” That’s when the hornet
did a few aggressive 360s around our heads and Larry ducked down just
as Bullet jerked his massive head up, pulling the rope loose from Larry’s
grip. The hornet kept buzzing; Bullet reared up on his hind legs. I yelled
and grabbed the mane to keep from sliding off, and Larry made a grab for
the rope but Bullet came straight down, and launched.
There was no saunter or gallop involved at all, we went straight to
warp speed in about two seconds. Now the stalls were just ten or fifteen
yards that-a-way, and the corral fence was right next to us, but in between
those two roadblocks was a wide open shot to the rest of Northern
California, and Bullet took it.
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I had nothing to hold onto, just a huge neck and a coarse, flying mane,
so I grabbed down hard, screaming at the top of my lungs. That probably
didn’t help, he seemed to go even faster. We got to the sharp corner of the
dirt road where he slowed down a bit, then he lurched straight ahead down
the gully, splashing through the shallow green water, up the other side,
then accelerated again across the field. Now I began a bouncy, helpless tilt
to one side. My left leg and foot grasped for traction at his smooth flank as
I kept sliding with each bounce. Then the tipping point: Ohno! and there
I was, my first horse ride, hanging onto two fistfuls of mane as I slid to
the side of his neck, one leg still barely hooked on the base of his neck, the
other drawn up tight, just inches above his thundering hooves.
His front knees were coming up at me like battering rams, in rhythm
with his loud snort, snort, snort. His hooves were a pounding blur, a flurry
of noise and dust and motion, ready to ground me to a pulp if I let go. I
cranked my head around just in time to see we were heading toward some
high brush and mesquite. He slowed up at the brush line, confused, then
trotted into the scrub a few yards, went left some, then right, hesitated
some more, then spun around and stopped.
I dropped to the dirt instantly and rolled away from those scary
hooves. Bullet looked at me, twitching, then his massive head came down
toward me. Aaaaaah! That ride was bad enough, but now he’s going to eat
me! But he didn’t, of course. He gave me a snort between huge snootfuls
of air and stood there above me, his wide chest heaving.
We were both still recovering, wide-eyed, gulping air, as Larry crashed
through the brush and found us. “Dang! You okay!?”
“I think so,” checking my body for broken bones or missing limbs.
All there.
“Man, that was something!”
Yep, I had to agree. It was quite the horsey ride. I still like horses to
this day; magnificent, noble beasts. I won’t ride them, but I like them.
California just does things to people. Besides the boat, my dad
shopped around for a second car and came back with a ridiculously small,
two-seat 1957 MGA. Just the ticket for a family of seven, right? In his
defense, it was only for his short commute to work on base, a bunch of
the other officers were getting little foreign cars, plus he was approaching
his mid-life thing.
We gathered around his tiny crisis, amazed, a window to another
culture. So tiny, so unlike a Chevy—so many questions: Why are the
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wheels made of spokes? (So the men could tune them, ie; drink beer on
the weekends.) Why is the horn button in the middle of the dash, like a
kiddy-car? (It is a kiddy-car.) What and where are the windows? (Plastic
sliders stored in the trunk, or “boot,” installed only when it’s rainy.)
Where are the door handles? (A pull-string in a cavity inside the door,
nothing at all on the outside—just a smooth, graceful, definitely feminine
flank.) And why do the lights go on and off by themselves, whenever they
feel like it? (Because British cars, cute as they are, suck.) No matter; we
grow to love it, like a pet.
Seven people in the family, seven days of the week. We gather around
the dinner table each evening, we have a system. Everybody has their
individual day to bless before we eat dinner. I was Tuesday. We’d bow our
heads, the Lucky Blesser would recite “Bless us O Lord, and these thy
gifts . . .” then we’d all dig into the lasagna.
After dinner, the blesser of the day grabbed a couple of pillows or
phone books for height, then got a complimentary after-dinner ride in
our new little toy, while the lesser mortals had to clear the table and do
the dishes. Dad would fire our little MG up and we’d head to the fun,
swoopy roads of Penn Valley just outside the base. It was a little evening
adventure, a romp, listening to the exotic sounds of the teensy engine as
it revved through the night, my dad shifting and steering through the
sinuous curves, startling the red-eyed deer grazing by the warm road, all
the while praying that the headlights would stay on. The saying went:
“Lucas Electric invented the darkness.” (Lucas provided the diabolical
electrical system for MGs.) More than once, Major Hanley brought a
wide-eyed child home at night with no headlights—a flashlight held out
the window dimly pointing the way back.
The dangers of skiing and horses and MGs are soon eclipsed by a
bigger one. We come home from the lake one weekend, and there is the
message: Vietnam.
Got Me an Armadillo Once
Dad will be gone a year. We move to Fort Worth, to be near Mom’s
family while he’s away. We find a nice little house and settle in. Dad
leaves soon after the moving van unloads. Mom snaps her fingers, keeps
us from moping, and gets a job herself. It feels a little funny living among
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civilians again, hard to put your finger on it. Everyone was nice, they
were normal red-blooded Americans and all, and yet . . . .
There was something shared on a military base, a bond that the men
and families had with each other. They knew each others jobs intimately,
and shared in each others’ promotions and occasional tragedies. Like a
company town, I guess, there weren’t that many secrets. We adjusted to
life on the outside, but strangely, when we perhaps needed them most, we
were separated from our military family. There were the weekend trips to
the commissary at Carswell Air Force Base, but no old, knowing network
of friends to encourage us, no scuttlebutt as to how he was doing over
there. No bridge games, no Little League. I felt that the kids around us
were clueless, for the most part. My brothers and sisters and I searched
for military brats within the ranks of school immediately. Of course, we
got to know some civilians, and they were all right, I guess. They were
here forever, but we were just passing through, and we all knew it.
My two brothers and I shared a room that year, kind of a skinny
den. They had a bunk bed and I had a cheap fold-out couch—I learned
exactly where to sleep to keep that relentless steel bar from digging into
my backbone.
I’m in a new school, the first public school I had ever gone to. There
were no nuns, so discipline seemed almost nonexistent to me. The
teachers spent most of their time on the one or two yahoos that yelled
questions and misbehaved for the whole class. Apparently, the faculty
here were not allowed to smack them with rulers, or even put them in the
janitor’s closet for an hour till they cooled off. Big mistake, I could tell.
We kids were feral, couldn’t they see it? Didn’t they understand? You
don’t pet a snarling dog, you kick it till it whimpers and runs away, its
tail between its adolescent legs. We would do whatever we could get away
with, and they let us. Kids could interrupt and not get swatted. Fights
on the playground were ignored. Kids wrote on the bathroom walls and
flushed whole rolls of toilet paper down the toilet till they overflowed.
The inmates ran the asylum, and this was back in 1967!
On the plus side, I got into the school band and learned to play
drums. I marched halftime shows at football games, and used my snare
to create raucous hysteria at pep rallies. My dad was gone, my sisters were
dweebs, school was a no-man’s land of juvenile delinquents and wimpy
teachers, and I wanted to pound something. Drums were a gift for me at
school, so why not at home, too?
“Please, please can I have a drum set for Christmas?” I pleaded relentlessly.
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Santa drops one off, and now there are three boys and a drum set in
one room; you will just have to imagine the noise, dear reader. Not just
the staccato from the snare, or the clash of the cymbals—but the clash of
little humans.
They, of course, were “not allowed” to touch the drum set. Can you
imagine two little boys in the same room with a shiny red set of drums
and not touching them? It was impossible, of course. And when they
did touch them, their transgressions announced themselves, they could
not escape punishment. I’d hear them from the other room, from the
backyard, from the playground at school, and then, as the Incredible
Hulk would announce: “It’s hammering time!”
It was a comic book year. The Hulk hammered, the Fantastic Four
did whatever they did, Superman flew, but Batman drew inward,
questioning himself. We think he was going homo. There were great
conversations in the lunchroom, our junior high minds overcrowded with
wickedness. Some defended him, but their arguments were weak. Put it
together, bozo-brain: the tears, the constant brooding, living in a cave
with magenta-shirted Boy Wonder. Those bat-nipples pushing through
the tight, rubbery leotard—Notice me, notice me! A skullcap with little
bat-chihuahua ears sewn on it, for Christ’s sake! Stevie Wagner had a
Batman-Robin-Penguin shtick so wonderfully evil, we blew milk out our
nose in the cafeteria. I still can’t write it down to this day. I mean I could,
but my editor would just put a big, red X through it.
My favorite comic book character though, was Sgt. Fury and his
Howling Commandos. Leaping foxhole to foxhole, he didn’t question
himself or anything else except where the next Nazi bastard was hiding,
or which weapon to use: the Tat-tat of the Thompson submachine gun,
or the Krrrack! of the heavy but trusty Springfield rifle. All the German
I know to this day was taught to me by the dying Nazi SS troopers,
clutching their freshly ventilated chests as Sgt. Fury and Easy Company
advanced through their confused, falling ranks: Ach du lieber! Vas is los?
Der Amerikaner commandos! Schnell, schnell! Budda-budda! BLAM! Aieeeee!
A bonus of our Fort Worth year were our excursions down to the hot,
flat beaches of the Gulf Coast. My aunt and uncle and their family lived
in Pasadena, near Houston, and had a beach house in Galveston. Uncle
Cecil was a good ol’ boy, raised in the Texas Hill Country, and was now
a doctor. Like most of his generation, he hunted and fished for food as a
youngster, and now still enjoyed them as a sport.
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He sort of took me under his wing for a year there, teaching me his little
country secrets. Uncle Cecil taught me how to gig a flounder at night while
not dropping the lantern in the water, and not getting bit by the pissed-off
fish when you weave on the stringer. He taught me how to sight and shoot
a 30-06 rifle (much to Mom’s worriment), and how to apply WD-40 to
just about anything that moved. We drove down the hard-packed beach at
Galveston, scouting for things washed up by the waves, or for the smell of
watermelon out in the surf where he insisted the speckled trout were feeding.
The first time I saw a dead dolphin on the beach, it could have been
a Martian. My biggest fish experience before had been the wiggling
bluegills of Kansas. This shiny being was from another planet. Bigger
than me, sleek, lying there like it was only asleep on the edge of the gentle
surf. This saltwater world was new and huge to me, so very different than
my ponds and drainage ditches of Kansas.
We also made jaunts to the Texas Hill Country, a beautiful, rocky,
wild belt of hills, deer and streams that stretched down the middle of
the state. That’s where I got me my armadillo. We was, oh sorry, we were
camped out for a week or so in this old stone farmhouse near Marble
Falls one Easter. A hunting lease. It was really neat, hidden all by itself in
the wilds of Burnet county; abandoned, leaky, no phone. There was an
old jeep out front that came with the place, my uncle taught me to drive
it that trip. Grinding the gears, easing out the old clutch, we finally got it
figured out. Now, that was a patient man.
Uncle Cecil and Aunt Nadine and their family were there to hunt
turkey, I think it was. But it was mainly an overall, get-out-of-the-city Easter
breather—showing us kids a piece of some Hill Country nature. There was
lots of it out there. The rolling landscape was absolutely ablaze with blue and
orange flowers, you would scarcely believe the colors. Birds were everywhere,
calling and bickering, feasting on the swarms of bugs. Pink flamingoes nested
in the tall trees, an amazing sight for us, watching as they glided in and out.
Other relatives and friends glided in and out, too, visiting and
bringing provisions of Frito pie and toilet paper. We slept on sleeping
bags on the stone floor, surrounded by newspapers, so we could hear
the scorpions coming for us in the night. The windows were grimy and
creaked when you opened them, the ones that opened at all. Some were
frozen shut forever. There were honest-to-God bullet holes gouged into
the stone blocks outside. Indians? Bandidos? Desperados? Exciting.
One morning, Cecil hisses, “Kids, looky here!”
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We wake up, still groggy, and out the open door we see them: a herd
or gaggle or whatever of humongous turkeys, gobbling excitedly, heading
down the hill and straight for the house. In the center is the female, with
the strutting toms, five or six, circling her noisily as she struts right up to
the parked cars out front. They don’t even notice them. A big strutting
tom walks right into the side of a ’66 Pontiac Bonneville station wagon, then
launches backwards a few feet, startled. I mean, how god awful stupid do
you have to be to walk into the side of a car? But I was young then, I didn’t
understand the power of love yet—how god awful stupid us toms could get.
There were small ponds, the banks a muddy collection of hoof prints.
One had a bass in it—a big, hungry one we found out. I plopped my
Jitterbug in the green water and it didn’t even have time to jitter. That
bass smacked it so fast and hard, my cousin Jimmy and I couldn’t believe
it. My little Zebco screamed and the green fish jumped like a marlin—a
two-pound pond monster with a bright yellow lure in his mouth that
wouldn’t let go. Despite a clumsy butchering job with a dull Cub Scout
knife, the two of us ate bass that night.
There were great little crystal-clear streams wending through the area.
Wild onions grew on the banks and Aunt Nadine taught us which parts
to eat. They had kind of a tangy-sweet flavor and they made us fart.
The streams were shallow, but wide. After we worked up a sweat
in our discoveries, we waded out to the middle and laid on our backs
on the flat, slippery rocks. Wonderful spring-cold water flowed up our
jeans legs, around our you-know-whats, up our sides and out the neck of
our T-shirts, gurgling around our ears. We watched the hawks above us,
almost motionless, banking among the clouds. No sound—sometimes we
shushed anyone who started to talk. The silence was deafening. We heard
a horsefly buzz in the distance, crawdads made their tic-tic noises on the
bank and the tinkle of water washed around us as we lay there, blissful.
Quiet, listen.
So anyways, here’s how you catch an armadillo: You chase it through
the weeds till it stops, then you stop. Then it takes off again, and you
take off again after it. See, they’re almost blind, but they hear real well.
So when they’re running around making noise, bouncing off rocks,
you can be running around too, gaining on them. After a few cycles of
run and stop, you’re finally just a few feet away, both breathing heavily,
motionless. You gotta get them before they find their hidey-hole. You’re
supposed to reach down, real easy like, and just pluck them up by the tail.
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Watch out for the feet though, they will definitely do a number on you.
They have these nasty, hairy little stegosaurus feet, with claws; sharp ones.
I reach down for my prize, but he bolts and scurries off, dang! I hustle
after him and grab his tail just as he disappears down into his burrow.
His feet, arms, whatever the heck they are, are thrust out tight, dug into
the sides of the hole. I pull, both hands tight on his clammy tail now,
bent right over the hole for best traction. He won’t budge. This sucker
is jammed in tight, he’s a toughie! He’s actually starting to make slow
progress down the slot against my pull, believe it or not.
I hear the Jeep crunch to a halt in the brush behind me. Uncle Cecil
then strolls up casually. “So there ya are, I was lookin’ for ya. Whatcha got
there, Tommy?” He’d seen the chase, he was following. He likes finding
kids in a pickle.
“Help me! He’s, he’s—” I huff.
“My, my. Can’t you just pull him out? Big strong boy like you?”
“Hell no,” I say. It may be my very first out-loud cuss word to an adult.
“Well, I’d say you was both dug in pretty hard.”
“Yeah, I know, Uncle Cecil, I know. So now what? I ain’t reaching
down in there, you know—dangit!” My sweaty hands are losing their
grip. There is maddening sweat on my face, my eyes, and I can’t wipe it.
“My, my. Well, let’s see—” He roots around for something, I can’t see
what, I can only watch my prize inch slower and slower toward it’s dark
freedom. He returns with a short stick, about the thickness of my thumb.
“Here, lift up his tail, lift it up high, c’mon . . .”
“I, I can’t—” I grunt.
“Sure ya can. C’mon now, just pull his tail a little higher, keep a’ holdin’
right there, there ya go.”
I pull and grunt, and Cecil crowds in on me. We’re shoulder to
shoulder now, staring at the south end of one stubborn armadillo. The
stick aims slowly toward the target, What’s he doing? and unbelievably, it
disappears halfway into the hairy, little anus. The very surprised critter
loosens his grip immediately and I almost fall over backward as I fling us
both up and away from the hole.
My uncle jumps back with his probe. “Whoo-hoo!” he laughs. “Why
Tommy, you should see the look on yer face. My, my. Why, you look
’bout as surprised as that armadillo! Whoo-hoo!”
I stand there, amazed, my wiggling catch claws away at the air,
but I don’t let go. Then, to top off the bizarre moment, he shits;
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poop-poop-poop-poop, four chocolate marshmallows launch out right in a
row. I jump back, dodging them, and Cecil laughs more.
By the time we make it back to the cabin, my arm is tired, he’s a big
one. We put him in a big wooden trough and he sniffs around, clawing
at the sides a little, but resigned to it all it seems. I imagine he’s about
as exhausted or perplexed as an armadillo can possibly be. Is he walking
funny? Hard to tell, they all wobble a little. Aunt Nadine and all the kids
come around to ooh and aah at my prize, daring to touch its hard shell.
We make conqueror’s plans: Armadillo soup first, of course, then a purse
for my Mom. Or perhaps I’ll have him mounted; he seems pretty good
at that.
The next morning, we give him one last pit-a-pat on his scaly back,
tip the trough, and let him go.
123RF, Eileen Mattil
Chapter 4
California’s Central Coast
A
fter a year, my Dad’s Vietnam tour is over and we’re at the new
Dallas-Fort Worth Airport to pick him up. My grandmother is
actually frightened, knuckles white on the dash, as we drive
through miles of parking lots and concourse drop-offs; she’s never seen
so many cars in one place. It’s bigger than Six Flags, believe it or not. We
park, find the terminal, and head inside to greet him. A big jet pulls up,
then nods to a stop. A pickup truck with a stairway on its back rolls up
to the front of the jet, the door opens, and the men start filing out and
down the steps. It’s a civilian plane, but most passengers are in uniform:
blues, khakis, greens.
“Is that him? Is that him!?” My little sisters squeal at every blue
uniform, then Mom announces, “There he is, I think. Yes . . . there!”
She points to a happy man bounding down the steps in an Air Force
uniform all right, but the hair is wrong. We sent a brown-haired daddy
to Vietnam, so who’s this gray-haired guy? I look back up to the door
as more emerge, but the wrong man keeps hustling toward us through
the crowd. I check the plane again, but by now the stranger is swinging
my mom around and my sisters are holding onto his pants, matching his
dance, squealing and crying. It’s him, of course. We celebrate and gab for
a week. Reports of school, awards, minor injuries, lives he’s missed.
With 19 years of sterling service behind him and only one year to go,
he is pretty much offered any job or base he wants. Since my mother’s
family is scattered throughout the Lone Star State, and we had already
bought a house here in Fort Worth, we decide to stay. He requests
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assignment at nearby Carswell Air Force Base, so the Air Force brainiacs
immediately transferred us to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California for
no other reason, it seems, than to prove their stunning ineptitude.
North of Santa Barbara on the wild Central Coast, Vandenberg
is a huge missile base whose mission is to test shoot missiles 2,000
miles downrange to Kwajalein Atoll, as well as send military and
communication satellites up to wherever they need to go. Night launches
were cool, and when they fired off the occasional Titan missile, dishes
rattled for fifty miles.
We settled in nearby Santa Maria, a typical California town. The
small, neat downtown was surrounded by cute, older homes, built in the
’20s and ’30s. It looked like a Laurel and Hardy set to me. Farther out,
the malls and newer suburbs started—with the low ranch-style homes of
’60s California sprouting up in the rolling hills, new roads and houses
spreading relentlessly.
My new school was St. Joseph’s High, a low, modern, open-air
campus run by some order of priests from Belgium. Their English was
poor, and they smoked their filterless cigarettes to the nub. My mom
got a job there, teaching Home Ec to the frosty lipsticked girls in go-go
boots. America was entering it’s silly phase, turning the hippie look to
high fashion. The outlandish styles of “Laugh-In” were worn by people
who really should have known better. Long boots and mini-skirts were
the uniform for the women; and the men, unfortunately, discovered
plaid pants and white belts. Alarmed, I even watched Ed McMahon
and Johnny wear turtlenecks and Nehru jackets, little high-heeled boots
topping off the pathetic ensemble.
Even in the military, the anti-military look was hilariously attempted.
Hair code manuals grew thick as pre-flight checklists and personnel
inspections now measured sideburns with a ruler; length, width, depth.
Bangs swept across the forehead were pulled down and studied carefully;
they couldn’t reach closer than 2-1/4" above the tip of the nose. Boots
grew tighter, with buckles replacing the laces when they could get away
with it. It was pathetic, really. We watched a young crew disembark
from a C-97 one day on the Flight Line—I thought The Monkees were
in town.
I supposed that once the base exchanges started selling Dippity-Do
For Men, the fall of Saigon was just a matter of time. We stopped being
warriors, it seemed. They wouldn’t let us win wars anymore, so what the
hell. There was no honor left in fighting an enemy. Honor had become
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stubbornness, victory only murder. Vietnam quit being our war, and
started to be our big, damned, over-reported hassle, man.
Bozos in D.C. gathered ’round the maps every morning, nursing
hangovers and eating official White House donuts, divined where enemy
had moved that night, and planned the bombing missions for the day.
How the hell are you going to win a war like that? You’re not.
After Mass one day, Dad introduces us to another family who had
just moved to the area. Their dad was just back from Vietnam, too. We
line up like opposing teams in front of the church, seven of us, six of
them, the kids sizing each other up, the parents in friendly conversation
already. I shake hands with John, Allan and Peter. There’s a cute girl,
Tina, who makes me blush as my sisters giggle. John will be in my class
at school—I tell him which kids to watch out for. I’ve only been there
a week, but try to impress him with my knowledge of the local culture,
something every military brat has to learn, and fast.
There is more shy talk, that uneasy search for common ground
that two newly met teens need to find. Looking down, kicking little
pebbles . . .
“So, do you wanna do something?” I offer.
“I dunno, what do you want to do?”
We discover we both like to camp, we’re two ex-Scouts who had been
ripped from so many troops over the years we had pretty much given it
up. We ask my dad where we can camp around here and he says he can
arrange for us to stay on the beach on base, by ourselves, down by the
missile launch pads. He has to clear it with Headquarters when there’s no
alerts and no launches scheduled. The next day he finds a window for us.
Late September.
We stammer through the first weeks of school together, learning who
smokes and which girls “do it”. The enticement of our camping trip keeps
us excited, we count the days.
We go over the maps with our dads on the kitchen table; it’s like
a little war. “We’ll drop you off here,” Dad says. “Head straight to the
beach, here. There will be a large bluff here, and cliffs over here. Don’t
go here, that’s off limits—Minuteman site. Don’t go there, that’s also off
limits—tracking radar, and they have dogs. Got it?”
“Yes, sir.” Oh, boy. Fun in the sun. They drop us off Friday after
school; we hike to our spot and make camp.
We’re up by the dune line where there’s no risk of tides coming
up in the night, plus it seems a little warmer up here. We’re away from
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the crashing surf, but it’s still cold. The beaches are wild, incredible,
available only to us. We suck in the good, tangy air. We’re it, the only
people around for miles. Well, us and the guard dogs over the next ridge;
and maybe a sniper or two. We pull away some ice plant and scoop a
hole in the sand. We scrounge around for driftwood, find a few pieces,
and finally get a fire going. We have a moderately successful campsite
going on when the fog rolls in, heavy and thick. We huddle around the
diminishing fire, getting colder. Soon, we’re shivering. At the beach. In
September. What’s going on here? Where’s that sunny California we heard
about from all those Beach Boys songs? Where’s the girls in bikinis?
The fog increases and our fire is losing the battle. All the wood is wet
now, the sand is wet, the sky, the whole world. Fuck it. We quit the fire and
charge off in the mist toward the sound of the roaring breakers. Skeins of
jagged rock ten feet high thrust themselves in straight lines across the beach,
heading right into the cold waters, daring us to follow them; a dangerous
path over the roaring ocean. We bound down the rocks. Sound is everywhere
this close to the surf, we have to shout to be heard over the constant roar.
We’re no longer cold, we’re excited and moving fast. We’re jumping
rock to rock, wild boys at our wild boy peak. Strong as a man almost,
but still wanting to explore, to have boy adventures, clinging to the sharp
edges of youth above the roiling waters, unafraid. We’re past the edge of
the surf now, heading farther into the ocean; twenty yards out, thirty, a
slip off the rocks now could be fatal. If you didn’t split your skull on the
way down, the freezing ocean would shock you, smash you against the
lacerating edges of the cliff. The heavy waters would fill up our jeans and
sweaters, our shoes, and pull us down.
The rocky shelf lowers gradually, leading us closer to the surging
waters. Every larger hole and crevice now is a brilliant aquarium, a city
crowded with anemones, swirling grasses and urchins. Every small hole is
packed also, mosses and fish so tiny you can scarcely believe they can stay
in position in the swirl and spray. From a distance it looks like lifeless,
black rock. Up close, slippery life everywhere.
John and I clamber out farther, trying new swear words and slicing
our fingers on the jagged mussels. Eventually, our highway disappears
completely into the roiling water—a six—or seven-foot section has fallen
away. We must risk a no-shit serious jump to the next ledge to continue.
Dare we go on? This would be a good time to stop, maybe. The distant
foghorn continues its warning lament. The ocean is a deadly green-gray,
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cold and swirling, hungrily waiting for us to try. It hisses at us. It lunged
for us back there when we needed to head low on the rocks to make
progress, clinging to the sharp sides. Now it has its final chance. We
decide.
We jump and make it, but John cuts his hand pretty good on
landing. We don’t risk traveling more after that, our rocky trail disappears
a little ways ahead into the ocean anyway. We’re lower to the water
now, the waves are bigger, and we’re pressing our luck. We’re spent
and bleeding, out of breath, but we just had to make that last jump,
you know?
The fog is still swirling, but we can tell the sun is low, almost down.
We look around, all alone, maybe fifty yards out in the cold Pacific,
waves hissing and crashing around us. No one on the beach, no one
anywhere. The wind’s coming up. We have to go back now. The jump
back is harder. We have to gain some altitude this time, actually jump
up, and we’re tired. We practice our runs, but it’s hard to find the right
hop-scotch pattern on the jagged surface to get a head of steam.
Finally, we count off, one, two, three, and jump for our life.
“Yaaaaaaah!” we scream at the top of our lungs, arms out—flying
through the air—and we make it. “Yaaaaaaaah!” again, little victorious
adolescents, our arms outstretched, yelling for all the world to hear. We
skip and dodge back over the familiar rocky ledges. Back on the beach,
we maneuver through clumps of kelp as big as a car, ripped from their
home out past the breakers. They lie on the beach, dying, turning from
green at the surfline, to gray farther in on the beach, then finally a crusty
black at the dunes, home to millions of tiny flies. It’s nearly dark when we
collapse, exhausted, at our campsite.
That night we show off our cooking skills: shish-ke-bob on an
unfolded coat hanger, with pre-boiled potatoes browning between the
juicy chunks of meat. It’s good, and so hot that when we put it in our
mouths, we breathe fast in and out over the meat to cool it, eyes wide in
mock pain. We’re cave boys, but with Pop Tarts for dessert.
Later, John fishes out four Marlboros that he swiped from his dad.
We suck and choke in the cool night, planning our future conquests.
“So, who would you wanna screw?” he asks.
“Joyce?”
“Nah, dream on,” he says, tossing more dried kelp on the fire. It
sizzles and pops. “What about Cindy? She’s pretty. I hear she puts out.”
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“Not to you, she don’t. Plus haven’t you heard? She’s dating dickweed
Kenny now, after him and Beth broke up.
“How do you know all this stuff already?”
“I just do. My sister Tina found all this crap out the first week. She
reports in every night at supper. There’s no secrets when thirteen-year-old
girls are yakkin’, my friend.”
“Hmm,” I said, still imagining my first conquest. “How about Lisa?”
“Lisa? Are you crazy? I wouldn’t screw her with your dick.”
And so it goes. Brave talk for two adventurers who hadn’t even had
an official date with the enemy yet. Meeting up at the movies with a
crowd didn’t count. Just campfire talk, you know. I look at John, lying
on his side, thick and sturdy, his glasses reflecting the hissing fire. His
beard is starting to grow out after only one day—an incredible gift for a
sophomore trying to get laid. He’ll win, I just know it.
The next morning, we’re up with the sun. We stir last night’s embers,
then lay on new driftwood and kelp to get a sputtering fire going as we
shiver in the mist. The early morning dew wets our whole world—we
didn’t think we’d need a tent, we were wrong. We pick at some canned
peaches, then make our trips up to the dunes to do our business. Around
eight, we hear the whop-whop-whop of a helicopter coming up the coast.
He sees us, and swings his nose toward our smoke, gingerly lowering to a
sandy patch between us and the beach.
My dad gets out, head lowered, picking his way through the ice plant
up to our camp. “How’s it going, men?”
“Fine, sir.”
He looks us over, our pitiful fire, our wet sleeping bags, the sloppy
bandage wrapped around John’s bloody hand. We’re dirty, our damp
sweaters smell of smoke, our hair is wild, our socks are draped on sticks
over the fire, still wet. He sizes it all up pretty good.
“I know you wanted to stay two nights, but I need Tommy here to
get home and start cutting that pampas grass out back.” He looks at me
seriously. “Your mother called and reminded me.”
I don’t think we even faked disappointment. “Oh, okay. Sure.”
“Meet you at the drop-off point in one hour. Police this area.”
“Yes, sir.”
The Huey took off in a spray of sand. I don’t remember now if I
worked on that pampas grass or not, but I do remember that glorious hot
shower.
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Surfing
Later at school, we hang around and finally meet a few of them.
Seniors. Surfers. They have cars and girlfriends. I tell them I’ve surfed
before. Yeah, where? Texas. Oh, sure. It’s different here, we learn. The
fun, little waves of Galveston summers held little consequence. I’d catch
a small Texas wave, ride it in, and my sister squeals and wants to try. My
sister. The waters here are powerful and cold. They take your breath away.
We’re at Pismo Beach, a parent has dropped us off, the board tied
precariously to the roof rack of the station wagon. John and I only have
one board, we share it. We went in fifty-fifty; me from mowing lawns,
him from stocking shelves at night. We have no wetsuits, not even swim
trunks—we wear cut-off jeans.
We struggle out, the board between us. We’re as deep as we can go while
walking, half-standing on the bottom, half-lifting and treading with each
surge. We duck beneath each roller, holding the board nose first into them. It’s
John’s turn first. We maneuver the board around, he climbs on, shivering and
determined. A wave comes, I thrust him toward the beach and he is gone to
me, disappearing behind the white froth. The board shoots up immediately,
skeg-first. He has pearled, the nose dug in. He comes to the surface, coughing
and laughing, “Whoo-hoo!” The board continues catching waves by itself all
the way back to the beach. We swim in after it, laughing, body surfing.
“Man, you suck!” I yell over the roar of the surf.
“No, you suck!” We are blue-purple with cold now, but we don’t care.
We race to the board and repeat the journey out; it’s been ten minutes
of battle so far for a two-second disaster. It’s my turn, and I won’t repeat
his mistake. He pushes and I splash ahead, stroking and yelling. The
cold wave hits me, envelops me, spits me forward. I keep my weight
back, the nose stays up, and we stabilize in a sort of uncontrolled rodeo
bounce-fest. I’m holding on like a rider on a bucking bronc, just along
for the ride. Only later, when the energy subsides some, do I dare stand.
I jump up fast; we don’t mess around with the knee-first method—what
are we, girls!? In a steady crouch now, arms out for balance, the board and
I slice along the cold wave. “Whooooo, I’m surfing!”
I turn back to gloat, searching for John’s small head in the breakers.
Then the board tips and bounces my little rodeo-surfing ass off onto the
shallow bottom.
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We progress that year. We have our own boards now, and wetsuits;
big, thick beaver-tailed monsters made for divers. Christmas presents. We
can barely walk in the chafing rubber; we waddle into the surf. We learn
to read the waves, anticipate their changing shapes, know exactly where
to paddle to punch through them with the least resistance. Our paddling
muscles, our backs and lungs, get stronger. I admire my new body in
the mirror in the bathroom at night and make bodybuilder gestures—
watching the new, young pectorals hatch out from beneath my armpits.
We surf gentle El Capitan and later, big, dangerous Jalama. Every
wipeout then meant a swim in, the wetsuits filling with fresh, heavy, cold
water, often from way out. There were some dangers: a surfer from Righetti
High takes a tumble at Tarantulas one nasty, windy afternoon. He screams
that something’s wrong, something’s fucking wrong! and we help him in.
“Oh shit, oh shit,” he chokes.
“Don’t be such a baby,” we say. We paddle back to the beach, tugging
him with us. We beach ourselves on a wave and then we see it. His lower
leg and foot is on backwards, his knee destroyed.
Once, all alone in a heavy fog out by the kelp line, I hear a huge
explosive exhale behind me. I’m startled; my legs whip up reflexively, and
I spin around. A sea lion’s head, big as a cow, stares at me. Sea lions aren’t
dangerous, you say? I say anything that big, blinking at you from six feet
away is dangerous enough.
There are other dangers out of the water. Heading south on Highway
101 during a construction phase, to get to Refugio Beach, we slowed up
and stopped in the left lane of the highway, blinker on, praying, waiting
for an opening across the oncoming lanes. I’m with Joe today and we’re
hit. No big injuries, but his cool, little red Monza is fatally bent.
We travel all over, there are still secret surfing spots, secret to us
anyway. Maps are shared at school and parties; pull over here, this is the
fence, the path, etc. We paddle out, shivering, through the rocky swirls
and clinging grasses, our only company are the gulls and the ghostly
kelp-cutter barge doing its gloomy business out in the mist.
One foggy morning, we park by the highway and jump a fence to
scramble the fifty yards or so to the bluffs, which we then half-walk and
half-skid down to get to the beach. We hear him before we see him, the
rumble of hooves that I thought might be an earthquake.
“Holy shit!” John yells as the black form emerges from the mist at full
gallop, head down. A bull, a pissed-off bull. We run and God Almighty
provides us a ditch not ten yards away. We throw our bodies and boards
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into the deep, narrow ravine to escape his charge. That huge, angry head
looks down on us from maybe only five feet above, victorious, slinging
ropes of snot as he swings his head back and forth in challenge. His eyes
zero in on ours—it is pure rage. He stomps and bucks, and kicks dirt
down the sides of our shelter. I’m afraid he’s going to jump in and crush
us, but he just snorts and spits and waits for us. A half hour passes before
he loses interest and trots off. We’re scraped and bruised a little, but John’s
new Yater Pocket Rocket is seriously dinged. We both have a newfound
respect for any bovine. I don’t even tease cows anymore.
It was the glory days of California surfing. Pull over on Highway 101,
clomp down a trail through the ice plant, struggle into your wetsuit and
paddle out. It was time to get out when your fingers went purple and
your teeth chattered so hard you bit your tongue. We’d come in and burn
tires on the beach, doused with gasoline. We follow behind the dense
smoke, circling and shivering.
We are surfing at Haskell’s one day near Santa Barbara, and Jimbo,
the best surfer at our school sees us.
“Hey, Texas kid.”
“Hey.”
A green wave rises, I spin and stroke in, carve a nice bottom turn,
then bank off the feathering top. Not a tube ride, but a good smooth
performance. The next day, holding court by his locker, I get the ultimate
compliment in front of his gang.
“Looked pretty good out there for a Texas puke,” he said.
I mumbled a smart-ass retort, beaming.
We shaped our own boards. The mass-produced boards of the early
’60s surfing phenomenon were rotting away in garages, dozing up on the
rafters or standing in dark corners. You could buy them for ten, twenty
bucks, all day long.
We’d put them on sawhorses in the back yard, then trace a new life on
them with a black magic marker. Every old board had a new one inside,
waiting to emerge. The skillsaw comes out, and you rough-cut, following
the line, keeping an inch or so out. At the wide part of the new board
there is usually no excess width, so the old glass is gently ground away at
it’s outside curve with a sander. The old, battered, discolored noses and
tails fall to the grass. Then the dead skin is peeled off with a satisfying rip.
The easy ones come off in one piece, but most fight more, offering up
only strips or smaller sections at a time.
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Then the fun part: the same disc-sander that dissected it at the
flank now forms the new, smooth shape. We are careful, because this is
definitely not the correct tool for the job, but it’s all we have. It worked
fine if you held it firmly and never let it bite too deep. Sharper, smoothed
noses appear slowly, pass after pass. There were a delicious variety of tail
shapes for us to choose from: pintail, square, quarter-round, and if the
preceding hulk was thick enough, the new Aussie V. Once the overall
shape is pretty close with the disc, we do the final sanding by hand.
Sighting down the increasingly graceful flanks, like fine furniture being
built, we caress it smoother for hours, smaller, smoother still. We groove
a thin trench for the new skeg. We look at it from all angles. It’s done.
We sip our father’s Schlitz and admire it into the night. It is perfect now,
perfect, and tomorrow we will destroy it. For tomorrow, we glass.
Fiberglassing a surfboard is a maddening, excruciating, smelly, sticky,
uber-challenging Keystone Cops dick-knocker of an operation. It involves
a lot of your common household utensils and tools: scissors, pots, jars
and knives, which will be ruined, pissing off your parents—even your
mom, who puts up with a lot. It involves rolls of tape, razor blades,
brushes, squeegees, lots of stirring sticks, mixing pails and newspaper.
You basically need the same things it takes to build a yacht hull, but
maybe not so much of it: Bolts of fiberglass cloth of different weights
and weaves, which will make you itch. Heavier for the deck—two layers
where you stand and paddle, lighter for the bottom. The wind will blow
the carefully trimmed cloth off the board when you turn to get the tape.
The dog will walk on it and it will come up with pieces of lawn and dirt
that will have to be carefully brushed off, or sealed in forever. It involves
resins, both matte and finish, each charged to chemical action with a
special little vial of catalyst, added drop by powerful drop to the brew.
You get the Betty Crockers’ out for the measuring tables, but it doesn’t
matter how much you measure: the cc’s or mm’s of catalyst per liter or
quart of resin will be, simply put, wrong. Not hot enough, or too hot—two
flavors only. The cautious not hot will dry with seasons in mind rather than
hours. Or the hot batch will smoke, and then you hurry, ohshit! and spread
it feverishly, cursing, as it hardens beneath the now-clogging squeegee.
You will forget stuff, need stuff now, and make a resin trail complete
with attached grass blades across the carpet to the kitchen. The sliding
glass door handle and numerous kitchen drawers will be coated with the
sticky goop. But don’t worry! It won’t be sticky for long—it will soon
harden permanently. The resin will be everywhere—on your doorknobs,
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on your dog, on your patio, and on your zipper and your sticky little
pecker if you have to pee. And you will.
It is such a maddening operation, that you are soon in business,
making boards for your friends.
I tried to get in touch with my surfing buddy John many years later,
and found out he had resigned his citizenship and moved to a foreign
country. Well, he always was a wanderer, an adventurer—I hope he enjoys
San Francisco. I did find his sister, however, the one who fed us all the
juicy gossip at school. She has an interesting job now, up in Anchorage.
A pet handler. Hmph, what’s a pet handler? What does a pet handler do?
Well I’ll just tell you: whenever an Alaska-sized pet starts growling lowly,
circling the dinner table or an aromatic guest, they call Tina and she
hightails it over there with her stun gun and the titanium pawcuffs.
So sit back, relax, and join us now in another exciting episode of:
Tina, Pet-Handler of the Tundra
In their massive designer kitchen, Tina was lecturing the Petards,
distraught parents of little Timmy. “And what have we learned from this?”
she asked, gently but firmly. Even though it had been a few days, Mrs.
Petard was still visibly shaken. Her husband, Jacque, held her close to
his side.
“Please, Tina,” reasoned Mr. Petard, “Mummy can’t speak just now.”
“Yes she can, she has to. We can learn and grow from this, all of us.
Please, Mrs. Petard.”
“Oh, I just can’t . . .”
“Try, my dear. Just try.”
Mrs. Petard raised her head, taking a brave breath. “Never let—” she
choked, then shuddered and stifled a cry, looking down.
Her husband held her closer. “There, there.”
“Never let . . . ?” prompted Tina.
“Never let . . . a large carnivore . . . sleep in a child’s bed.”
“That’s right. Very good, Mrs. Petard. And what do we do now?”
“Cl . . . clo—” she shuddered quietly, trying to be brave.
“That’s right,” Tina said. “We need closure.” With her steady hand,
she raised her client’s trembling chin, smiling into the reddened eyes.
“You can do this, shh, shh.” She directed the sad woman’s gaze to the
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corner of the huge kitchen, and over to the fashionable pet bed next to
the Braun trash compactor. The expensive tick bed smelled of cedar from
the Land’s End Pet Collection.
“But he looked so cute curled up at Timmy’s feet like that. I . . . I just
can’t . . .”
“You must. He needs to be disciplined, and it needs to come from you.”
Forcing herself, Mrs. Petard’s sad eyes made contact with the steely
gaze of the animal in the corner. Wolves were smart, and this one sensed,
no, knew, he had done wrong.
“Bad,” Timmy’s mother said, raising her arm and pointing directly at
the animal, aiming an accusing finger. “Bad, bad Thebey!”
The silver head of the one-hundred and twenty pound pet lowered
sadly into his paws, looking submissive.
“No squeaky toy for Thebey,” Mrs. Petard said firmly, reaching
down and removing the small pink piglet from the floor near his bowl.
She felt better now, in charge, feet spread slightly and towering over the
mischievous pet. Thebey whimpered slightly, but Tina cocked her head,
her ears tuned with years of experience. Was it a sincere whimper?
Mr. Petard didn’t want to know. He approached from behind and held
his wife’s shoulders gently. “Good, Mummy, that’s a good mummy,” he said
steadily. He turned them both around toward Tina. “We owe you a lot.”
“Nonsense,” Tina said, stretching her arms out for a group hug.
There were a few sniffles. “We’ve all learned a lot here. We’ve grown.
Let’s continue to grow and include Thebey, but as a pet, not a child, not
an ornament. A being with his own needs and wants. Animal diversity
is the future. They can live among us peacefully—it just takes time to
assimilate.”
Their three sets of heels clicked down the marble hallway under
the Louis XIV chandeliers, leading to the ornate double doors. As they
opened, Tina took in the delicious aroma of forest, then gazed across the
incredible landscape that had been attracting the wealthy from around
the world for years. People who meant well, who wanted to live close to
nature, but had no idea what they were getting themselves into.
It had all started with Goodall and those damned monkeys. Then
Redford and his buffalo, Dalai and his llamas, Siegfried and that tasty
Roy, those maniacs with Clarence the lion—each sharing a big estate with
the friendly animals, everything all hunky-dory. Now every rich wahoo
from Nantucket to LA wanted a piece of the great Alaskan outdoors with
a big pet to nuzzle for the cover of Forbes magazine. Eco-idiots.
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“And thank you for the thoughtful gift,” Mr. Petard said. “But . . .
well, I’m just not sure we’re ready to put it on the mantle quite yet.
Mummy needs a little more time.”
“Of course, I understand,” Tina said as the door quietly clicked close.
She had made them a small shadow box, about eighteen inches square and
four inches deep. Behind the glass, on sumptuous velvet, was mounted a
large portion of the little blue sleeper Timmy had been wearing. She had
pulled it from the wolf scat and cleaned it up. There was even part of the
little rubber-footed bootie still attached. She hoped they could put this tragic
incident behind them and live peacefully together now. The strongly-worded
reprimand to the hairy guest was a good start, but tempered, of course, with
the promise of better food and wolf opportunities. The next step in the
P.C. process was to consider putting the household under wolf-law. Because
in some cultures, it’s okay to eat children and who are we to say what is
“wrong”? Perhaps it would be better to let them continue to feed, rather
than suffer the ultimate horror of being called a “wolfist”. But that was a
decision the brave Petards would have to make on their own.
She stepped down the inlaid brick walkway to her LPG-decaled,
four-wheel-drive BMW and noticed the Petard’s new grizzly cub taking
a playful swipe at the juicy brisket of the gardener as he bent over,
mulching the plants. She’d have to talk to them about Achmed’s behavior,
but that would be another session.
Back at the fortieth floor of her penthouse office, she could see all of
Anchorage as well as a sizeable chunk of Alaska. Glaciers, valleys and dark
forests were undulating to the horizon. And every mile or so was a puff of
wealthy smoke rising from an massive fireplace, another mansion hacked
from the wilderness—home to more of the flood of wealthy boomers leaving
behind global warming and frenzied traffic. They were here to commune
with the last Great Frontier, to teach their children and grandchildren the
lore and mystery of the North, and to escape state income tax. Sometimes the
learning curve was steep. Poor Timmy. Oh, well, you win some and you lose
some. The normal dog walking routine that had been her core business had
been okay, but when the rich and famous began introducing live trophy pets
to show their oneness with nature, that’s when she hit the Purina Gravy Train.
Across the office, she saw his long, shapely legs poking out seductively
from behind the partition, the woven mukluk socks crossed atop the
mastodon-foot divan. Hidden in the shadows, she knew Stefan would
be pouting, sulking, doing his nails. He was six-three, blonde, trim as a
totem, and people were talking. Let them. He was curt and spoiled and
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smelled too nice, but damn, could he design a website. “Any calls for me,
sweetie?” Tina sang out across the tastefully appointed office.
“Maybe,” he huffed, staying hidden.
She wasn’t going to play today, not yet. She began filing her notes
on the Petard’s latest adventure and started adding up billable hours. She
heard him slam a desk drawer, then angrily Command-Save three times:
bing—bing—bing—bing. Blonds!
“Maybe?” she volleyed back. She put her number sixes up on the
huge hand carved desk, then kicked off her Chanel Snowspikes. One
landed at the foot of his partition and the other ringed a bullseye on the
musk ox rack over the bar. “So, what does ‘maybe’ mean, sweetcakes?”
He was in front of her desk in three smooth strides, his eighty dollar
suspenders pulling at his chamois pants, pulling a little too hard, she
thought. “Maybe I’ll quit,” he fumed. “Maybe I’ll move back to Seattle
with Bradley. Maybe I’ll just die.”
It was a dance they’d performed before, many times, and she was
letting him lead. She pulled a Macanudo from the Thermidor under
the armoire, bit the tip off and swirled her tongue around the shaft.
She sighted demurely down the aromatic tube, then looked up at his
perfectly-chiseled face while striking a match on the grizzly paw of the
mount to her left. Tina sucked noisily to get the stogie going, exhaling
over her shoulder toward the stuffed eagle. “Die? Oh, gosh, that would be
sad. But if you do, can I have your Enya collection?”
“Quit toying with me, damn you!” His eyes teared up, and he spun
around to collect himself.
That’s a fine toy right there, she thought, and blew a perfect smoke
ring toward his lovely assets.
He spun back around just as the ring rose to his face level; he jerked
his head back, raised his hand and made fast little swishy motions in front
of his face, scattering the smoky signal. “Damn you! You said you would
train me, but all I do is input, input, input.”
“Look,” she said, lowering the cigar and rolling it playfully. “You’re
just not ready, kid. Not yet.” She remembered when she interviewed him
at the club. She really didn’t need an eye candy secretary, but when he
slurped down those two dozen oysters-on-the-half-shell, then burped
those darling little champagne bubbles out his nose, he had his size
fourteens in the door for sure. She said she’d hire him on one condition:
marketing and receptionist. But now he wanted more. They always did.
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“But I am ready, I am!” He was starting to tear up again. “I can do
more than just decorate this office and make your web page pop up
whenever anyone in Alaska googles ‘free XXX.’”
That was a coup, she had to admit.
“And printing your stupid little LPG decals so people would think
you’re soooo nice and eco and everything. Maybe I’ll just tell everyone
that you burn fossil fuel.”
Yep, she mused, that LPG decal on the Bimmer increased business
55% on escapees from Marin County alone. “Look, kiddo, you just don’t
jump into the exotic pet business. I’ve told you before. It can turn on
you. It can bite, and bite hard.”
Still, the youngster only wanted a chance. She remembered when
she wanted the same thing, just a chance, and a kindly badger herder
took her in and showed her the ropes. She shuddered, warming to the
memory. Now that was a man. She remembered the night at his badger
corral outside of Juneau, the full moon blazing on the pristine snow, the
borealis dancing across the heavens. He showed her how if you rub their
little tummies counterclockwise while humming “Muskrat Love” their
eyes rolled up in their heads and they went into a trance. Four vicious
predators, flat on their backs, looking like a bunch of hairy trash can lids
with a stupid grin and razor-sharp claws fallen harmlessly to their side.
Later that night, as he was rubbing her own little—
“At least you can have the decency to answer me!”
“We’ll see. Soon, Stefan.”
“Oh, sure. Soon. You and whose army?” He huffed off behind the
partition, and plunked down in his bisque Aeron.
She sighed, blew out a doozie and surveyed the office. Not a bad gig.
Next to the sixty-pound sockeye (that she took on the Kickamee with
8-lb. test), was the Kimball’s bald eagle, Tweety, mounted over the rifle
cabinet. He had his wings spread across the window (she didn’t need
curtains now) with fierce talons extended, a little spotted owl in his left
claw, a mangled baby stroller (thankfully empty) in his right. That was a
close one.
And towering to her left was the pet-from-hell grizzly she took down
at the Simpsons that night as it circled the twin’s bunk bed. Modiciah
was his name. A bad seed. She warned them never to let the kids sneak
salmon sandwiches to bed, but would they listen, noooo. They were
Montessori raised; nothing is wrong, everything is a learning adventure.
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Big Modey was put outside for the night, but sniffed a little sockeye
and crawled in through the grizzly flap in the kitchen door. They almost
got the adventure of their life that night, but after a frantic phone call and
a mad dash (half-dressed) to Bruine Meadowes, the huge pet went down
with one perfectly-aimed shot of her Mauser 880 from the bushes outside
the children’s room. Sorry, Charley.
And the money was damned good—especially after Stefan suggested
she raise her rates 50% after 9 p.m. He had done a little research and
found that most of the big, bad ones feed at night. When all the pets
are asleep at noon, it’s easy to sign the contract, but when a hungry one
starts looking for a midnight snack in the children’s wing, who’s going to
quibble over a few lousy percentage points?
The phone rang, and she heard Stefan’s bored voice get more excited:
“Yes, yes,” as he scribbled notes. He leapt across the room to her desk like
a gazelle, his eye shining. “Oh my god! It’s them.”
“You mean . . . ?”
“Yes,” he shrieked. “The Montiqeus! Line two.”
She grabbed the phone, remembering when they first met Arnold and
Kitty. It had been at the Alaskan Fund Drive for Disadvantaged Animals
last spring in Nome. All the movers and shakers in the exotic pet biz were
there. As they laughed and networked over Caribou Stuffed with Wild
Wrencakes, Salmon Souffle, and Penguin Served In It’s Own Beak Boat,
they made their pitch. Well, we’ll see, the Montiques said. They already
had a staff up in Fairbanks, they explained, but they’d keep Tina in mind.
“Please do,” she offered, as they all exchanged cards, numbers and
pleasantries.
Networking, write-offs, maybe it’ll pay, maybe it won’t. And now
it looked like it was going to pay off, big-time. It seems the Montiqeu’s
Aleut staff had bolted, the killer whale had jumped from his pool to the
seal habitat for an impromptu snack, Bullwinkle had his antlers stuck
in the hanging pot rack in the kitchen kicking moose-sized holes in the
SubZero, and Marvin the Mountain Lion had the mister and missus
cornered at the top of the attic steps with nothing between the rich
couple and some curved, sharp canines but a sharp stick and a cell phone
with Tina’s number on speed-dial.
Tina hung up, crushing her cigar out in the Dunhill ashtray on the
corner of the desk, and bounded over the desk in one leap. “Let’s go, big
boy,” flashing a thumbs-up.
“You mean—” he squealed excitedly.
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“Yep, your big chance, you’re in,” she nodded. “Call the airport and
tell them to warm up the LearJet. Then get the animal crackers and the
kevlar net and meet me out front. I’m driving.”
Tire Tracks Across Your Back
We had a dune buggy in Santa Maria—which as I recall, only ran
over somebody that one little time, so it wasn’t that dangerous. It was a
pre-dune buggy dune buggy, no slick fiberglass anythings.
It consisted of an old Ford frame, no body, with a flathead V-8
completely exposed, painted orange. It had one old bench seat with
two bars welded across each end to keep you from sliding off into the
spinning tire. There was a serious roll bar, and a platform welded
behind the seat for stand-riding. That was probably the safest place; you
could get a good flex going at the knees to match the bumps, and the
roll bar was perfect to hold on to. It was right about tooth level. The
sophisticated tire system was two rims welded together, with an old tire
stretched across them. The dashboard was an iron bar across the front,
built primarily to mount the steering wheel shaft. It was also the seat belt
for front passengers; we held onto it. Instrumentation was an oil pressure
gauge and Denise’s lucky troll doll strapped to the shifter.
We would trailer it out to the big sand dunes at Oceano, fire her up,
and then the lucky ones started going on rides, while the rest of us ate
sandwiches and played at the edges of the cold surf, waiting for our turn.
I had an important job when it was my turn: I was the choke. Dad
took it easy with the little kids and mom, but we went looking for bigger
game by ourselves. When we would start up a particularly steep dune,
my dad yelled, “Choke!” and I would grab the dash-bar, lean over the
back of the engine, ducking sand from the front tires and, bouncing up
and down as we scaled the hill, stick the palm of my hand over the top of
the exposed carburetor. As it tried to rip the skin off my hand and down
it’s sucking craw, I would crack it open for a little sliver of air and feed it
whatever sounded right to keep the thing at maximum power. At the top,
we’d launch off the crest (my dad loved Rat Patrol) and I would try not
to get launched myself over the engine block and into the spinning fan as
we came down in a spray of sand. Gosh, it was stupid, now that I see it
written down.
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One of our neighbor’s kids was with us once, we hit some pretty good
whoop-de-doos, and he got to cycling wrong, and as he came down, the
seat came up, and batted him into the air. There was a blur to our right,
and a startled human chirp of sorts mixed in with the roar of the engine.
After we hit the brakes, we turned around and saw a very surprised young
fellow standing there, his T-shirt now decorated with a tread pattern
remarkably like the pattern of our very own tires! The combination
of really soft sand and low pressure tires did the trick; we just sort of
floated heavily over him for a sec, then spit him back up. We might have
installed seat belts after that, I don’t remember.
It was pretty funny as we relived it back at the station wagon, blowing
grape Nehi out our noses at the recollection, but I don’t think he came
dune buggying with us again after that.
123RF, epicstockmedia
Chapter 5
The Lone Star State
S
anta Maria, California, April 1969. After 20 years in the Air Force,
my dad was retiring. I was hoping, praying, begging him to stay
in California. I was just learning to surf. I had my license. I had
a girlfriend! My mother, however, had been away from her family since
about the Korean War, so it was time to let her live where she wanted to
for a change.
The verdict was announced over fish sticks one evening: we will be
moving to Houston. Dang! My mom’s parents were there with her sisters,
brothers, cousins, and old friends scattered from Pasadena (Stinkadena)
to Dallas to Odessa to Galveston. We knew Texas. We had spent a lot
of vacation time there over the years, plus one whole year living in Fort
Worth while my father was trying not to get shot down in Viet Nam.
As a military family we were used to packing up and moving all our
young lives, but now we were moving somewhere for good. The final move,
as it were. But Houston? Yep. Make the best of it, we were told (more than
once). I knew the heat, the drawl, the thick St. Augustine grass, the friendly
people making the constant pitchers of iced tea. Oh, well. As Willie would
say, “On the Road Again.” We’ll take it easy this trip; three days, my dad
announces, planning our route. Our trusty Chevy station wagon, seven
people, one dog, tons of luggage, towing a boat halfway across the U.S. to
meet a Mayflower van with the rest of our world packed inside. We were so
used to it, this was routine. I am to spend my last few months of my senior
year amongst complete strangers and graduate with them. This will be my
fourth high school. Thank you, Air Force.
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Supposedly, the South had become the New South. Oil and air
conditioning had made Houston a boomtown, and, in 1967, President
Johnson made it America’s official Space City. I was not going to allow
myself to go in with any preconceived notions of hicks or rusty cars up
on blocks. I knew, I hoped, that the space-age Houston would be a place
of the future, a sophisticated city full of go-getters and astronauts. In fact,
we weren’t even going to Houston, but to Pasadena—Houston’s smarter,
greener, more sophisticated sibling. Home of NASA, Ellington Field
where my parents met, new malls and the roaring industries crowding the
ship channel. Yep, go-getters and astronauts! The first people I met there
were JR and Biscuit.
It’s our first day of P.E., where I finally had a chance to mingle and
meet my fellow classmates. (In other classes we sat rigid on our desks,
got the agenda from the unsmiling teachers, and had no opportunity
to get to know each other.) In P.E., though, we could roam around a
little. I looked for a spot to sit on the bench, saw an opening, and ended
up between JR and Biscuit. As high school seniors, we had every kind
of body out there. Some were adults already, some still kids. JR looked
about 30, with sharp features and impressive black sideburns. Biscuit,
however, was small and smooth, almost translucent. He looked about 12.
He had an embarrassingly big “outie” belly button. We stripped to our
undies to line up for gym clothes, and I found myself staring at the back
of JR (for Bill Junior or something Junior, of course), his skin a horrific
line of gashes, scars and hacked up meat. It looked like an aerial view of
the Himalayas. “Jesus H. Christ,” I exclaimed, “what happened to you?”
He explained he had been hunting with his dad in the Piney Woods
of East Texas. Came to a trap, with a badger or wolverine or something
in it, apparently dead. As he pried open the bars of the trap, the “dead”
critter came very much alive, and went for his face. JR screamed, pried
the thing off and rolled over in the dirt, covering his head. The pissed-off
animal then proceeded to shred his back with a snarling fury like he had
never known. When his dad came charging up the creekbed to pull it off
and dispatch it with a shotgun, the damage was done. It had turned dark
so they had to spend the night there, his dad trying his best to patch him
up. They hiked back to the car early next morning and went to the closest
hospital. The infections had already set in; his fever about 103. He pulled
through, of course, but he had a topographical map on his back that we
admired all that year.
After that story, the guy behind Biscuit asked, “What’s that?”
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111
“Bullet hole,” Biscuit answered somewhat proudly, pointing to his
wound. It was a little incision on one side of his calf, with a big gray hole
on the other side, sunk in like a crater.
“Who shot ya?”
“Momma. She was aimin’ at Daddy who comes home drunk a
lot. Just tryin’ ta scare him, y’know. Bullet ricocheted offa the gate an’
got me.”
“No way. Is they still married?”
“Oh, sure. She’s just a hot-tempered woman is all. Daddy hid the
gun, though.”
Well . . . Texas lives sure were sure different. Don’t see too many
astronaut candidates here so far.
After the campus-style high school of Santa Maria, my school in
Pasadena looked like a prison. It was huge, a brown cube three stories
high, with rules and hall monitors and traditions I had never heard of.
What the heck is a “spirit ribbon”? And I’m supposed to pay fifty cents
for it? To go to a “pep rally” before the “big game”? Weird.
I sputtered through a year, made friends with the kids with surf racks
on their cars, and tried not to hate it too much. A tall and painfully thin
kid named Clint befriended me the first week. Witty and slow-talking,
he guided this inexperienced novice through the intricacies of southern
high school behavior, as well as saving me from more than a few scrapes
in the hallway as the locals tested the “new kid”. He was also one of the
few surfers around, so he introduced me to the breaks of Galveston and
Freeport. I had been there before, a few years earlier, but now the boards
were shorter and we went farther out. I missed California waves, but
learned the snappy little moves that made the Texas waves worth the long
drive. Any surf ’s better than no surf, if you’re a surfer.
Entering the Gulf of Mexico on a hot, summer day was like lowering
yourself into a warm broth; you became another ingredient in the soup.
There were jellyfish, sea lice, schools of slimy mullet to paddle through.
Everything bit. The gentle brush of an invisible jellyfish took about one
second to register in your brain as fire. I watched a man crying on the
beach, the medics trying to pull the serrated barb from his blue foot, the
flopping sting ray victorious, even in it’s death throes.
In Port Isabel, down Mehico way, a purple-clear man-of-war the size
of a football planted himself from a breaking wave to the back of my knee
as I paddled out. His blue tentacles grabbed onto me and held on for dear
life, drawing themselves tight, lacerating my leg. Later, on the beach, as
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I started to stop breathing, the decision was made to take me to the fire
station as there were no doctors near. At the fire station, they lowered the
oxygen mask to my face as I lay gasping on the metal table. It could have
been oxygen, it could have been spun gold, but whatever it was, my lungs
were not accepting anything with their shallow spasms. There was talk
of a med-evac helicopter, but my little gasps kept coming. An hour or so
later, I thanked them and dragged my bloody, swollen leg behind me to
Clint’s car for the eight hour drive home.
There was the good stuff, too, lots of it. A good wave is a good wave,
wherever you are. The sloppy onshore slop became perfectly shaped little
waves when the northers hit. We’d feel the north wind come through
in Pasadena and literally race it down the Gulf Freeway to the beach.
Hurricanes that sat out in the Gulf pumped huge waves to us for days
on end; we surfed Camille, Beulah, Anita, and others I can’t remember,
till we could barely paddle. We knew nothing of sunscreen—our skin
burned, then peeled off in sheets. We slept in pain, our bodies raw as a
burn victim. Later, someone discovered zinc oxide, and we wore the white
swatches across our nose and face, a wild tribe of surfing Redskins.
The fabulous Hill Country was a few hours west of Houston, and
our boat found a bunch of new places to play; Canyon Lake, Lake Travis.
We camped all over, with occasional excursions into the fun towns of
New Braunfels and Wimberley. There were trinkets and clothes for the
shopping-starved females, and the incredible barbecue sandwiches for all
of us. Once a vacation, we had steaks at The Barn Door in San Antonio.
Settling in at the long, dark table one time, sniffing in the wonderful
aromas, my mom orders a beer. She doesn’t drink beer—what’s up? She
pushes it over to me, winks. A good vacation moment.
Houston’s claim to growth was a ship channel where tankers could
drive inland for fifty miles, nose up to a dock right next to a refinery,
and do their business. This delighted the oil companies, as well as the
businesses and banks and merchants who supported them. Add to the
mix all the support troops—railroads, trucking centers, restaurants,
apartments and bars. There were zillions of acres of flat, cheap, black
earth in every direction with barely even a rock to make a bulldozer think
twice. You didn’t have to go through years of EPA interrogation to build
a machine shop or a pizza parlor and make a living. You could just do it.
Prosperity was allowed, even encouraged.
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Houston was a beehive of construction in every direction. Swarms of
surveyors and earth-moving equipment fanned out, followed close behind
by more swarms of cement trucks, carpenters and painters. Forests of #2
yellow pine, mountains of sheetrock, and PVC pipes by the boatload
were consumed, masticated, and arranged, layer after layer after layer as
the Houston hive relentlessly expanded.
Worker bees that helped in the construction flew back to their old
hives in Wichita and Newark and Chicago and did the excited bee dance,
pointing the way to the new honey, the new hive of the future. More
workers followed their directions: west on I-10, south on 45, blasting
through Kansas and Louisiana and Oklahoma to the scent of money and
growth and cheap rent. They came into Houston with their U-Hauls and
wives and kids and dogs, and began building their own three-bedroom,
one-and-a-half bath, two car garage, centrally air-conditioned hives as far
as the compound eye could see.
Houston grew out, quickly. Soon the outer edges were surrounded
with Loop 610, eight lanes of concrete encircling the sprawl, out in the
boonies, waiting for the growth to catch up. It did soon enough, and
eventually there was need for another loop farther out, the hive adding
layers with ridiculous speed.
There were amazing sights for a hick Air Force kid: the refineries
ablaze at night along the ship channel, lights winking everywhere in
the night—semis, cars, factories, planes, downtown. Harris county
was ablaze. Mile after mile of tremendous energy, noise, and the smoky
exhaust of industry.
In the fall, north winds would direct the stink into our houses, the
acrid smell of petroleum and rubber enough to make your eyes water at
times. Industry begat industry, and football field-sized metal buildings
sprouted up in any lot that could contain them. They serviced the
refineries with miles of pipes and valves and fittings, engine overhauling,
welding gases and equipment, huge trucks and cranes. Apartments
continued to spring up as the worker bees continued to swarm. Patterns
of huge oil tanks spread out like massive, overturned tuna cans on a giant
checkerboard.
Even in the suburbs, the material of the refineries spilled over.
Welders came home, ate dinner, and soon their garages were lit from
within as their next project took shape. A man who overhauls car-sized
transmissions all day at Caterpillar might have five or six of his neighbors’
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Hydramatics scattered on his driveway and porch, his side business
going well.
It was the bluest of blue collar, block after block of people who knew
how to make things, to fix things, who knew how it all worked. They
were unafraid of anything mechanical. Equipment I had never seen
before were scattered throughout the neighborhoods of Houston—they
were as common as swing sets, they even looked like swing sets, the
chains hung down, but there was no seat for swinging, only a big metal
hook. They were everywhere; in the musty back of cluttered garages,
or outside by the tool sheds, standing in the weeds. They were hoists,
for lifting the engine out of your car. A natural fact around there. One
morning you finish your coffee, and it’s time to yank the engine out of
the pickup. For that you need an engine hoist, and there she is. Like if
you want toast, you need a toaster. It was a common appliance.
One of the appliance owners was Lee. He and Clint and Walter
and I hauled the 389 out of his GTO one summer with the incredible
confidence of youth. We would take it out, bore it and stroke it (well,
a machine shop would do that part), install a bigger cam, headers, the
works. In the hot late nights, spread neatly across the garage floor or
lying in a halved drum full of cleansing gasoline, were hundreds of parts,
glistening under the garage lights. What had we gotten ourselves into?
I survey the amazing shapes, the incredible variety of metal. Can we do
this? How will all this go back together? It doesn’t phase them. Somehow
we would reassemble it all, sweating, cursing, dodging the tough little June
bugs that were attracted to the trouble lights, inches from our face. We dig
in for weeks, and they teach me how to use calipers and a torque wrench.
When there’s a question or problem we can’t solve by flipping through
the grimy pages of the Chilton’s, an older brother or neighbor helps us.
They’ve all done this, it’s a common thing—a rite of passage.
We grunt and heave, and the gas and solvents sting our sliced
fingertips. Parts are wrenched, gaskets are sealed, and finally it’s
finished—floating, turning delicately on the heavy chain, a shiny
masterpiece painted Pontiac Blue with custom valve covers. There is a
sleek chrome air filter covering the three Holley carburetors, glistening
like a crown on top. Slowly, our creation lowers from the towering hoist
into the bay of the car. The headers wait down there in the dark, spread
like a lover’s legs. The final positioning, the careful line-up with the
engine mounts, the bolts to the transmission, it lowers, easy, eeeeeasy, and
it settles. We torque the final bolts, and connect the last wires.
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It is a triumphal moment, the neighbors all come over to watch. It’s
a warm evening, there’s iced tea and beer passed around, and we get a
little more advice from those who have done this before. A final check
is performed, as important as a pre-flight. We hear the horror stories of
what could go wrong: Ricky forgot this, and the valves ground themselves
to death against the piston heads. Bubba forgot that, and the metal teeth
ripped through the timing chain.
Lee climbs in, pushes in the clutch and twists the key. Ka-room!
Magic! We jump and wahoo at the wonderful noise. He guns it, just
a little, careful to break it in just right, and the throaty roar consumes
us. It rumbles through the excited crowd and travels down the street,
announcing our feat.
Despite warnings from my American-car-equipped buddies, I
am smitten by a little MG. We had fun with our little MG-buddy in
California, so I thought, what the heck. Everyone has an experience with
them, they call you, like a Siren. You’ll never forget your first British car:
A low, sleek container for two wet people and a tractor motor. A shitty
tractor motor.
You sit in the tiny seat, amazed at the smallness of it all, how high
the world looks outside, and smell the damp odor of disintegrating wool
carpet—the smell of despair. Still, when it occasionally runs, the noises
and the feel of the dainty shift-stick is a pleasure. You ram a Hurst shifter,
but you snick-snick-snick the little MG through it’s pattern. It buzzes with
delight and balance, right up to the point where the throw-out bearing
disintegrates.
Sears was closed on Sundays, and we raced in the huge parking lot.
That’s right, children—some stores were actually closed on Sundays back
then. And Sears, Roebuck and Co., of Chicago, Illinois actually gave
the Houston Chapter of the MG Car Club permission to race on its
property. That’s right, children of lawyers—real live automobile racing, as
in noise and smoke and possible boo-boos. And on property with pretty
big pockets, as they say. Thank goodness your mommies and daddies put
a stop to all that. It was all vewy, vewy dangewous.
I secretly rooted for the Americans, they will always be the good guys,
you know? It was like WWII battles to me, Americans versus the Japanese
and the Germans. We raced each other, but one at a time, against the
clock. I even made comparisons between the cars with airplanes (believe
it or not). Early in the war, the foreign Datsun 240Zs and the Porsche
Speedsters were whipping our American butt. The highly-maneuverable
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little Zeros and Messerschmitts were zipping through the first part of the
race—the S-turns—with maddening, Teutonic precision.
The American Road Runners and Corvettes, those “sleeping giants”
slogged through the same turns, almost rolling over, sending cones flying
every which way, squealing painfully or spinning out—it was pitiful.
The enemy watches the time clock, smiling. He has a scar on his cheek,
and a monocle over his evil eye. But vait! Halfway through the war, our
Midway or Omaha Beach as it were, there was the final curve, and then
came the straightaway back to the finish line. The heavy American iron,
the roaring B-17 Chevelles and the snarling P-51 Mustangs (oh, bless
you, analogy gods!)—the ones that didn’t spin out and blow it during
the Battle of the S’s—faced their noses to the crowd from way off in the
distance and got ready to charge, the enemy in their sights now. The grills
jump up, white smoke appears behind them, and our American heroes
positively launch themselves down the straight, the super-charged V-8s
screaming with the fury of victory. The little Porsche drivers stand there,
looking at the time clock again, shaking their heads grimly. They had
done so well in the beginning of the war, then we dropped the big ones
on ’em—the Fat Man Hemis and the Willy Pete 427s. They never knew
what hit ’em. The smoke clears and they surrender congenially, discussing
past battles with their victors over beer and barbecue.
I met this girl. Cathy. She was pretty, popular with the boys, way
out of my league. After a few months of getting my courage up, I
accidentally-on-purpose bumped into her at school, Oops, hi. I don’t
know what I said, or maybe she just felt sorry for me, but we were soon a
couple. Her little brother was our paperboy, so I had a handwritten love
letter from her every morning, delivered inside the Pasadena Citizen in
a scented envelope. We were so gushy in love it was pathetic. Her kisses
would wind me up like a spring. In fact, my first French kiss was with
her and it invigorated my little body and mind like nothing that had ever
happened before.
Cathy had the normal civilizing influence that any wild, young turk
needed. I had to comb my hair and clean under my nails, had to put a
napkin on my lap at dinner and learn to make acceptable man-woman
conversation. Meaning nod your head appreciatively as she went on for
hours about this or that and the other thing, feigning attentiveness, your
eyes on the prize, both of them. We relearned to open doors for them,
and the “ladies first” rule (but now for a real lady, not our dumb-bunny
sisters).
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Plus, new tricks were learned: no farting in a car, no flagrant
nose-picking, and to never, ever, ever answer anything but “no” to any
form of “do I,” “does this,” or “will this” make me look fat? We tousled
the little brother’s hair, when we really wanted to pound them. We said
“yes, sir” and “yes, ma’am” to their parents, and always accepted a glass of
iced tea, a clever parental ploy for ten additional minutes of interrogation.
We did everything we could and should do to finally, finally, get them
to shut up and quit jabbering and wrestle around with us on the front
seat of a parked car out on that dark road by Hobby airport. Windows
fogging, groping and swatting in the night (we groped, they swatted)
begging and reasoning, finding our limits. Getting closer and closer and
closer, delicious advances week by week, month by month, thinking
you’re winning, but then realize with a start one night as she suddenly
mentions wedding plans that you’re in her trap, right where she wants
you, and probably were from the beginning. Decision time, buddy boy.
She was from a big family, sturdy German stock, ready to feather the
nest. I was still a dumb kid, but smart enough at least to know I was a
dumb kid. What would I do when the family started? Work in a factory
the rest of my life? Heck, what could I do? I don’t think the Exxon
plant would hire some eighteen-year-old to surf, doodle airplanes in the
margins of his history notes, or mow lawns—my only skills so far, and I
doubted they were marketable.
I’d seen enough high-school lovers tie the knot, then settle in with
little hope. All they had was each other, literally, then a kid. We’d still visit,
the foolish bachelors with the newly married couple. The girls we partied
with, those nubile young temptresses (now a wife frowning in the kitchen),
grew distant. We’d drink beer and light farts with our stupid buddies like
normal, but our stupid buddies were now someone else’s stupid husbands.
We could tell when we left late at night, Boy is he in for it.
I broke up with her, she looked confused. What a turd I was. But
there were more to come, and I was probably a turd to them, too. In fact,
I was probably a durned manure spreader there for a couple of years. I
didn’t mean to be, but well, young love is just so emotional. You’re the
most Wonderful Nice Young Man, From a Good Family, who Works
Hard and Gets Good Grades, and then you break up with them and
become just another turd.
There was no draft for us, we were a little young for the Vietnam
experience. We had a lottery once a year, and were eligible for two
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consecutive years, but it was winding down over there. We weren’t drafted,
but “selected” to go into service based on your birth date back then.
We gathered annually around the television and watched a prim lady
and a serious-looking man wearing a brown suit fish around for the lucky
numbers in a big bowl, like a bingo game. My good buddy Clint and I
were born just two days apart, a world of difference in bingo. “And the
winner is . . . August 10th!” they announced. And that would be Clint, of
course. “Come on up, all you lucky August 10thers! Yessir, free uniforms
and crummy chow for the next two years! Step right up! See and Feel the
Amazing Mean Sergeant Scream and Bark Right In Your Face!”
As a military brat, I was ready to go if called, willing even, so
naturally I got huge numbers, 280-something one year, and in the 300s
the next. Clint was petrified, so of course got lucky number 11. Bingo!
So, bye-bye Clint for a couple of years. If his parents had just held off a
few days those many years ago, he would have escaped his next two years
of insanity, and saved his poor drill instructor a lot of trouble, I’m sure.
There was a huge scramble to get in the Guard, or any other service
where you wouldn’t be sleeping in the mud. Discreet donations and
political connections helped, but there wasn’t much of that in our little
world. So good ol’ boy Clint, raiser of chickens and a 4-H blue-ribbon
cow named Redneck, was shipped off to who-knows-where. He came
back every once in awhile with a little spending money and the normal
horror stories of low-ranking military life, but I swear after two years
he still couldn’t march a lick. I don’t think he applied himself, or even
thought of it as an opportunity for growth. I think he just flat-out
hated it. Not a Gomer Pyle exactly, but a silent resistor and a Screw-You
Selectee, and darned proud of it.
A lot of the draftees had already come back from ‘Nam; we knew
them from college or the construction sites. Boy, they sure got a taste for
dope over there, the serious kind, not just doobies and quaaludes. Drugs
were still a scary felony to us back then. It took a certain kind of bravery
or stupidity to be around them. I watched in astonishment as the guy
next to me in some class in junior college, just back from the war and
discharged, licks a dot of acid from a piece of paper, then leans back,
satisfied, and waits for the hallucinations to begin. LSD! In class! Way
too scary for me. But I guess if you’d recently been dodging tracers in a
firefight in Fuk Binh, or mortared till your ears bled, it’s not that big a
deal. Just a pleasant walk in the pulsating, psychedelic park.
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Early on, a matchbox of pot at a party was enough to make our eyes
widen, even when it wasn’t smoked. It was a little signal to the tribe, just
like the unused rubber you carried around, that you were Out There, a
James Dean force to be reckoned with. A little later, of course, it got real
with lids and bongs. Then one day you walk into Jay’s house and they’re
cutting a pound of sinsemilla on the dining room table; it’s decision time
again, time for new friends. At this point the occasional party puffer (me)
and the more hardcore went our separate ways.
Clint still works in the refineries. Walter joined the Army and
became some sort of an electronic wizard. Cathy has four kids and seven
grandkids. Lee bought a liquor store somewhere north of Houston and
dropped off the map. Jay got busted, spent a little time in the joint and
came out quite docile—got a job, got married, finally settled down. I
don’t know what happened to Johnny H, Mad Max and the other dopers.
I suppose they’re still just killin’ time in Pasadena.
Blue Collar Lives
There was a tremendous variety of jobs available around Houston if
you weren’t afraid to get dirty. These were the jobs that the government
now says Americans “won’t do”. Strangely, we Americans managed
to do them just fine from about 1492 until about 1990, when we just
completely gave up our southern border and invented government-ese
semantics to excuse our border-policing cowardice.
I was a “painter’s helper” one summer, in the suffocating heat. My job
was attaching hose fittings to huge air compressors. The machines could
suck five gallons of paint as fast as I could kick the old buckets aside and
hustle a new full one under the spigot. I would have one or two men
connected to my Graco Bulldog by long umbilicals, snaking from my
position outside in the hot sun into the open windows. They would be
walking through the newly-constructed apartments, each spraying huge
swaths of paint. They were covered head to toe in protective clothing,
blasting a living room off-white in just minutes. We could paint eight
units on a good day.
Every thirty minutes or so, we’d stop and wipe the sweat from our
faces and necks, shut down the hot equipment and have a smoke break.
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(This is where I learned to really smoke, not the sneaky little puffs in the
bathroom with a window open. If I didn’t smoke with the crew, I had to
keep working. What do I look like, a dummy?) The spray painters would
emerge from the apartment, pull the respirators off their face, their caps
and bandannas; and their tanned, weathered heads would emerge with a
white stripe across the eyes, like a raccoon in reverse. Sprayers made good
money, and I would be one soon enough. Let someone else slog these
heavy cans of paint through the mud. But as a college puke, I had to pay
my dues first under watchful raccoon-eyes.
The men I knew in Houston, the men I worked with, were honest,
thoughtful, slow-talking men. When they worked, they worked hard.
They had an easy humor, and I fit in pretty good. What was different
about them, though, was their weathered look, even at a young age—
and the scars. It was not uncommon at all to have a finger missing, or
a mangled ear. There were gouges grooved into their bodies, big ones,
across the neck or forearm, where the backhoe dug in there, where the
winch line snapped there. In the Air Force, the men stayed groomed and
complete till they died, which was immediate. Southern men died slower,
their lives nicked away a digit at a time. They also had a habit of looking
off into the distance when they were about to say something important.
They were thinking how to put it, you could tell, so you’d better pay
attention.
There were the normal little bullshitters and drunks here and there
and on the job sites, but most still had that quiet honesty that Southern
gentlemen were known for in the past, and were still clinging on to for
the most part. I’m at a stoplight late one night out by League City and
the headlights rush up in my rear-view mirror, crash! My trunk pops
open, the little Datsun is seriously mangled. The guy admits he’s been
drinking, has been recently laid off from the Phillips plant and doesn’t
have car insurance to boot.
“Please don’t call the cops, son, please. Get an estimate, I’ll pay you.
Honest. Please.”
I think it over, trying to measure him up in the hot, still night. Forty,
forty-five years old, skinny, with gnarled hands, probably a pipefitter or
something. A little drunk and wiping a bloody nose from the crash, but
not weaving or anything. Okay, I say. No cops tonight. We exchange
names and numbers and go our separate ways.
Later that night, my dad says what a dumb move that was. With
no witnesses, there’s about a dozen ways he can skate now. Still, I get an
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estimate and mail it to him. Well, I mail it to whatever address he decided
to write down, anyway. $590. In a few days, there’s a knock on the door
at our house while I’m out at work. My brother says a skinny stranger
handed him this envelope with my name on it. Inside, carefully wrapped
in a sheet of paper with a surprisingly neatly written note of thanks are
seven one-hundred-dollar bills. That’s big money for a laid-off pipefitter,
I’m sure. Money he could have kept.
I painted one summer during college, then the next summer I was a
rigger. A rigger had the job of wrapping chains and ropes on extremely
heavy things that needed to be lifted or moved into position. If things
went wrong, you would be squashed like a bug.
In the Wild West of a typical Houston-area factory of the 70s, union
and non-union worked side-by-side. I hired on to chip and grind rusty
metal; then I started helping them move the pipes here and there, then
suddenly I was a rigger. I’d climb onto a load of painfully hot oil pipes
on the back of a semi, where I’d guess the center of one and strap a thick
chain around it’s middle, three or four wraps. I would then signal the
crane over to me, attach the chain to the huge hook, and guide the barely
balanced monster over the oily dirt as we drove to the pipe racks inside
the factory where the welders would take over. All day long, back and
forth—hot, dangerous work.
After the pipes were prepped, we “stabbed” them into a refinery oil
furnace others were building on the opposite side of the yard; a metal box
the size of a big bedroom. A 14-inch diameter pipe would be lined up,
balanced again from a chain, then rammed, jiggled, caressed, schmoozed,
and cursed through a 14-1/4" diameter hole. Some pipes were smooth,
but some had cooling fins, a glove-slicing bitch. The crane would drive
forward, the huge chain near the breaking point, trying to shove it’s
deadly missile through the slot.
While the poor rigger outside struggles mightily with this chore,
a much, much poorer rigger inside the box (guess who) wrestles with
shims to guide the front lip of the monster in, and at that precise second
it lines up, you whip away to the side as the pipe screeches in about six
feet worth in a split second, smoking and groaning. Then another crane
lowers its chain to you through the open roof, and you lash it around the
pipe and guide it to continue its journey, banging and sparking over to
the opposite hole. Then you stab that end, too, and it’s even more fun
because the second crane operator can’t see what’s going on in there. So
we shout out those universal commands heard on construction and job
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sites across this great land: “Down! Down some more! Now left! NO, MY
LEFT dammit! Down some more, just a cunt hair. That’s it, easy there,
eeeeeasy. now STAB THAT SONOFABITCH!” I jump back as sparks fly
and the pipe screams like an angry dinosaur. Fun as hell. I stand there,
panting, a thirty minute battle won. One down, thirty-five to go.
Beams of light arc into the box from the remaining holes, crazy stage
lights for the bedraggled crew waiting in the dirt and dust. You take a
swig of water and wipe your dripping face in the heat. It’s 102 outside
and about 90 percent humidity. Just another delightful August day in
Baytown, Texas. So how hot would it be inside a completely breezeless
metal box? God damn hot, that’s how, and pardon my French. One last
swig and the foreman barks at you to get in position for the next one.
As the jobs progress, we soon don’t even have the luxury of a dirty,
smooth floor to maneuver on. We’re walking and balancing on the pipes
themselves, going up layer by layer, guiding the monsters in till our little
room fills up, top to bottom. Kenny slips one day, breaks his leg in two
places and lacerates his cheek and neck. We get about a ninety minute
break as they load him into the ambulance and the OSHA guy snoops
around, getting his useless interviews. Thanks for the breather, Kenny,
way to go! And I bet he got a great scar. Chicks dig those, you know. Well
the ones who hang out around people like us do. Jesus H. Christ, why
don’t they export these jobs to New Delhi? It’s like those magician’s boxes
where they insert the knives and swords and some poor schmuck inside
squirms around and tries not to get killed. And for one long, hot summer
I was that squirming, exhausted, filthy schmuck.
I got a new crane operator one week, when my guy was on vacation.
This one was a wiry, sassy little shit who wore a polka-dotted baseball
cap and liked to drink at lunch. I told him to knock it off after I dodged
his hook about the third time—and he told me to stuff it, as he was not
only a Vietnam war hero, but a gift to all women from Deer Park to Texas
City. My back was to him one hot afternoon while I was wrestling a chain
when I heard the burp of a diesel at the wrong time and knew a hook was
now swinging somewhere near my head. I hit the deck and watched the
shadow whiff over me. “Fuck!”
I heard an “Oops,” then a hearty laugh. “No harm done, son. Right?”
I got up, brushed myself off, and slowly walked back to him. He was
looking down on me from the crane’s seat, silhouetted hard in the glaring
sun, smirking. Other people stopped work nearby, watching the situation.
He did a jovial Skipper from Gilligan’s Island, “What’s up liddle buddy?”
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I could smell the booze from six feet away. I raised my boot slowly to the
boarding step like I was thinking about how to answer, then lifted myself
fast and grabbed his arm with both hands before he could react. I yanked
back hard and flung him from his seat straight down onto the dirt. He
hit hard, cursed me, and scrambled to get up to fight, but my steel-toed
boot connected mightily with his ribs and he slithered back down on his
stomach. He swore again, and held his side, glaring at me, then at the
other workers who were watching the scene.
I was wearing gloves. I was ready. I actually leaned right over him, my
shadow on him now. “Let’s do it, dipshit.”
He stayed down, lying in the dirt. He called out “Man down” and
yelled out pathetically for a union rep between muttered hisses of “I’ll kill
you, you college shit-fuck.” And he might have. But he got fired first.
I spent an easier summer as carpenter, then a bricklayer—well, okay, a
bricklayer’s helper. I would mix the mortar, the “mud”, and struggle with
a wheelbarrow load over to the wall we were constructing. I would then
sling four or five big shovelfuls onto a metal pan on a scaffold just over
my head. Then I climb up, and sling that same mud up to the next level,
and so forth. Until I got the hang of it, I’d deliver, oh, about a cupful to
the pissed-off masons waiting on the fourth level, the rest slung all over
the worksite on the way up.
It was all hot, back-breaking work that taught me skills I use to this
day (thanks to a string of fixer-uppers). In fact, it could be said that what
I learned on those jobs working my way through college was more useful
than what I learned in the classroom. Carpentry and bricklaying do not
become obsolete, like much of what we learned in class.
The neighborhoods around the area had a lot of blacks, some
students, most not. We mingled pretty easily. We’re “brothers” to them,
but they’re “blood” to each other. Huge, globular afros were the rage,
it’s the Age of Aquarius. We lived and worked among each other in an
easy truce, even made friends. Crow from the wire rope factory had good
parties, outta sight, man! His friends snurfed at us, “Surfers!? Say what!?
Man, you ain’t gettin’ me in that muthafuckin’ ocean, no way.” Jaws was
all the rage that year, and it made us strangely proud. To be out there,
braving the monsters.
During the school year, we worked the night shift. There were
six or seven of us at the wire rope factory, black and white, boisterous
kids in hard hats and thick gloves. No adults around, none. Reels of
steel cable were unspooled like giant thread, then cut to length in the
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cavernous building. If we were making barge slings, 30-foot sections of
the cable were sliced with a saw so big we would lift ourselves off the
floor as we pulled the screaming blade down through the metal. A saw
blade explosion was a major event—it would shake the building like a
thunderclap. The blade shroud saved our lives more than once.
After the rope was cut, a loop was then fashioned at each end, with an
aluminum sleeve hammered over the loop. The sleeve was then wrestled into
position under the shaped die of a 200-ton hydraulic press. Two. Hundred.
Tons. It was one thing to study thermal dynamics and crap like that in
college during the day with dry equations. It was quite another to watch a
chunk of aluminum compress under that much pressure that same night,
and turn liquid while it seeped its way into and through the strands of cable.
On Friday nights, we’d bust our hump and finish our quota early.
Then we’d send Toby out with his fake ID to buy malt liquor and soon
we’re seeing what 200 tons could do to old watches and tape decks. After
that, we’d race the forklifts. Eddie got the big one up on two wheels once.
During a quickie one-week surfin’ surfari to California, Bergin and I
called in and got an urgent message: Come home immediately, the night
crew blew itself up. Stupid Eddie and Zack and his little brother thought
it would be funny to fill a well out back with propane and light it to see
how high the manhole cover would blow. They staggered back after the
explosion, hair and eyebrows gone, clothes ripped to ribbons, black and
smoking. There was a shitload of barge slings promised and paid for and
we had to get back to finish the order. Those three wahoos wouldn’t be
much help for the next couple of weeks—flat on their backs, covered in
gauze and Vaseline. Hard to believe any of us are still alive, actually.
Higher Learning
High school was pretty much like grade school for people who shaved
and applied too much makeup, but junior college was different. College
classes were full of kids who wanted to be there, the chaff of high school
had been separated. When we threw the hats up at Rayburn High on
graduation night, the smelly winds drifted some to the refineries and
some to the construction sites. Others went into the military, a few of
us to college. It was a new feeling, college—busy and serious. No dress
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codes, you could smoke all over the place, and there was a maze of
buildings and classes to choose from.
One interesting thing about college was seeing for the first time the
immense power (or not) of the teachers. They used to just watch us in
high school, teaching down to the lowest common denominator. Now we
expected more. We were paying good money, durnit. I walked happily
into an advertising art class, I was going to excel, I knew it. But the
teacher almost sunk us all. We sketched washer-dryers for weeks, were
told to make them attractive to the consumer. I drew a naked girl on my
Whirlpool, nipples erect. He wasn’t amused. The wind came out of our
sails, we drifted. I wanted bold headlines, excitement, explosions. Oh,
no—you don’t want that, he instructed. Here’s what you want: a nice,
informative, balanced grey buzz. Like him.
On the other hand, I had to take government, a requirement, and I
dreaded it. Professor Wall made it exciting, a real eye-opener. I arrived
early to class and couldn’t get enough. He was my first Rush, my first
snarling Savage, explaining a world with two faces; the public persona,
and the behind-the-scenes maneuvers which were remarkably cunning,
almost felonious. All we constituents were asked to do was to fund it all,
heavily, and shut the hell up.
The surfers gravitated toward water sports in P.E. while the good ol’
boys went for track and football. Our swimming coach was Kirby Jett, a
loud, funny bonedome with a whistle. He was all over the place, pulling
us under, almost drowning us in the deep end when we were trying to
learn rescue maneuvers, barking at us in the locker room to keep it clean.
“This is my hoooooome, people!” He took special pride in towel pops,
the tips delicately dipped in water, then the strike. It was funny if it wasn’t
you at the end of the pop.
The Water Safety Instructor course was fun for us. While others
struggled, the skinny surfers dove for the weights, tread water, hands over
our heads with ease. All those wipe-outs, the long swims in finally paid off.
One of my art courses way back in those Dark Ages was learning
to hand draw letters of different typefaces, perfectly. Ninety minutes to
pencil in a two-inch high “S” in Times Roman. You just never know
when you might need to draw one on the outside—hey, it could happen.
I liked the swoop of the curves, the domed foot at the end of the leg, the
serifs. We had no idea what was coming at us in the way of computers
soon, making our skills obsolete. We just happily penciled on, learning
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the latest in buggy whip technology, the glowing forge crackling in the
corner, pencil shavings on the floor.
After two years at junior college, it’s time to head out. Some of the
lucky ones get in at a party school—an acceptance at Southwest Texas at
San Marcos was coveted. Built near a clear, smooth-running river with
a funky little downtown, it was the perfect “college town”. Party, party,
party! All you needed was one in your group to make the cut there and
you were as good as in yourself—for the weekend action anyway.
Others made the “Big 3”—The University of Texas at Austin, Texas
A&M—home of the famously maligned Aggies at College Station,
or Baylor, up in Waco. I ended up at the University of Houston, not
particularly famous for anything, but convenient.
Soon, the hot, nasty drive up the Gulf Freeway from my house to the
university every day became too much. I was still working nights, I had a
little money saved—it was time to move out. Once we leave our parent’s
houses, we’re like gypsies. The bulletin board at the student center is
crowded with gypsy offers: share a ride, share an apartment, room for
rent. We’re constantly moving, it’s no big thing.
Robby is the poor shmuck with a pickup truck, so he’s busy moving
somebody about every weekend, but he eats and drinks for free. The
moves are the same—friends who can’t gracefully weasel out of it gather
at the old place, load up, then unload at the new place. It usually takes
three trips.
The inventories are the same, too: bed, dresser, one couch (bruised),
maybe a coffee table, one cheap dinette with 3.5 chairs. A pathetically
unmatched boxful of plates, glasses, pots and pans. Desk, chair and lamp.
Huge speakers and a stereo, plus an old television. Books and record
albums. The bookshelves are almost always an easily disassembled stack
of concrete blocks with a bunch of 1" x 10" boards for shelves that we
stack and rebuild at the new place. Once it’s all set in place, we hook up
the speakers, admire the new digs, get the beer out and order pizza. And
another gypsy camp is christened.
College years are passionate, intense for all of us. She looks at you
with beautiful, pleading eyes, explaining loudly in the chaotic noise of the
party the tremendous movement afoot, the liberation of women across
the entire planet. How the female had nurtured and shaped civilizations,
yet remained a second-class citizen, a property. She is fervent in her
beliefs and is now thinking about joining the Peace Corp. Yes, yes, you
agree with it all, you really do, lighting her cigarette. God, her breasts are
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fantastic, they’re quite liberated in there. Her name is Maggie, and I am
in hot pursuit.
Much more wise in the world than me, she takes me under her wing.
Our make out sessions in a hot car by the airport at night grow more
daring. A few days later, we are in my parent’s house, studying, goofing
around. “When will they be back?” she asks slyly, rubbing my temples
after a mind-bending kiss.
“I . . . I don’t . . . an hour?” It’s Sunday, the whole brood went to
church, then to Grandmas for waffles.
“Hmmm. We could do a lot in an hour,” Maggie teases. She pushes
off me, and heads upstairs.
Her seduction is perfect; hot, heavy smells, stroking and teasing.
There is a little shy talk. Soon, she tosses a leg over me, straddling me
now, smiling, in charge. She takes me and aims me in her. So hot,
incredible, like an oven. She is an oven. She arches her head back, and
lowers herself, moaning softly. I’m stupefied with sensations.
I wish I could have said that I was 100% immersed in this
magnificent action. But about 20% of me was listening for the garage
door to rattle the house as it came up. It would not do to have my family
witness their firstborn in this particular position after their morning of
Catholicism. Still, experiencing 80% of Maggie was an awe-inspiring
blessing. Heck, 100% of her and I might have blown up.
We rove party to party—meeting, testing, looking. We’re fueled by kegs
of beer and there’s whiffs of other things if you want in a darkened room
or out back in the shadows. I learn to do the tequila and salt-on-the-wrist
thing one night; I’m in a contest with some girl, shot for shot, and she’s
pretty good at it. As the night goes on (I am told later) we’re in a bowling
alley and my friends are assuring the cops that they’ll take me home, that
they don’t need to arrest me. I don’t do tequila any more. No way, Jose.
A major party will have a band playing their hearts out—too bad
they’re usually so shitty. They mistake loud for good, and “Gloria” and
“Wipeout” and “Satisfaction” assault us as we roam the county, the
party houses, the American Legion and Knights of Columbus halls every
weekend. We bust beer bottles on the table at Gilleys, cheering on the
mechanical bull as it sends our buddies flying through the loud night.
My wonderful Maggie announces that her dad, a NASA engineer, is
moving to the rocket test facility in Huntsville, Alabama. I want to go
with her. There is talk, unreasonable of course, of how we can pull it off.
I can live with them, I reason. Or I can rent a trailer nearby and go to
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junior college there. Or I can drive every weekend 750 miles to be with
her. Of course, it won’t happen. One more Romeo and Juliet story ripped
apart by things beyond our control.
I feel now what Cathy must have felt. Young love is so . . . intense.
Nothing but tragedy can come of it.
The Arizona Two-Step
I’m on a trip to California in my trusty little Chevy, surrounded by
a convoy of semis, screaming down the smooth west flank of the Gila
Mountains. We’ve been together quite a while, it’s early in the morning,
two or three. We’re going fast—85 easy, 90 every once in a while. These
guys don’t mess around.
My trunk is stuffed with camping stuff, my new little twin-fin
surfboard and other things. I’m trying to quit smoking again, chewing
on the buzzy little Nicobans, Janis is screaming at me from the 8-track,
“Come On, Come On, Come On, COME ON AND TAKE IT—” man,
we’re covering some bodacious miles tonight! The cold night air helps the
little engine stay cool at this speed, it’s never gone this fast—a free gravity
ride down a slope this long. Wickenburg glimmers in the far distance.
The big trucks start slowing up a little. What’s going on, come on
guys, let’s go! As they slow, I pull out, passing them. I get a few little
beeps, I give a friendly toot back. Once you’ve been at 90 for that long,
65 is a crawl, unbearable. Their big amber and white light displays grow
smaller and smaller in the rear-view mirror. Now there’s a new light
display back there, coming up fast, flashing red and blue, crap! I pull over
and shut it all down; he pulls in close behind, he’s pissed. I think he’s
going to just about rear-end me for a second. The angry lights flash in
the night, his high beams flood my eyes. He opens his door and his long
shadow grows menacingly on the shoulder alongside my car. He walks
slowly up to my open window, flashlight out, sweeping around, then
trains it on my face. He frowns. He doesn’t like me much. I will be polite.
“Going a little fast there, weren’t you, son?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Goddamn right you were. License, please.” I open my wallet in his
beam, take the license out. He clips it to his clipboard. My trucks pass us,
roaring by in the night, short honks: Ha-ha.
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“Your buddies was trying to tell you something.”
“Yes, sir.” Keep those sirs coming, boy.
He looks a little closer at my license, the flashlight now on my face
again, now the back seat. My hair is real long now, shoulder-length, bleached
from salt and sun—he thinks I’m worth a little check. Could be his best stop
of the night. It’s very cold outside. “Why don’t you come on back in my car
while I write this up?” He’s already radioed in my plates, I’m sure.
“Yes, sir.”
I slide in the passenger’s side up front. It’s a Dodge; the big Police
Special under the hood is humming away, the heater is on. Typical
Highway Patrol set-up: lots of radios, a short pump shotgun mounted to
the dash right in front of me. Wolfman Jack is on the radio, cackling.
“You know, son, I’m supposed to be taking you in to town for this.
Anything twenty over like you was doing, the judge wants a little talk
with you. But he’s a little sleepy now. Or drunk.” We both chuckle. “How
come you didn’t slow down with them trucks? They knew where I was.”
“How’d they know?”
“Oh, they just know this route is all. I’m always there. Plus they have
them CBs now.”
“CBs?”‘
“Radios. It’s the latest thing. They get reports where the cops are and
such, they warn each other. They yak on those things all night long, like
goddamn women.” He scribbles a little more, his dispatcher radios him
back on my license; no warrants. “Ten-four,” he says in the mike. He’s
still filling out stuff, needs the year, looks out the windshield to my little
red piece of shit and squints. “What model Nova is that?” A maddening
Southern tic, they always say what model when they mean what year. I
don’t correct him.
“’63.”
“Hmmm. Pretty fast for an old car like that. You soup it up?”
“No, sir. She just goes downhill real good.” He’s smiling, nodding a
little. He doesn’t hate me so much now. We’re getting to be buddies or
something.
“You work on it yourself?” He knows—he was young once.
“Yes, sir.”
“283?”
“No, sir. Just a six.”
“Hmph. The old Stovebolt. Good old motor.” He studies the license
some more. “Says here you’re from, what, Pasadena?”
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“Yes, sir. Next to Houston.”
“That’s a long ways away.”
“Yes, sir.”
“You’re pushing it, an old car like that. Pack your own bearings?”
“Yes, sir.”
Whatcha’ pack ’em with?”
“Havoline, mostly. My old man gets the tubes for me free—he works
at the Texaco plant in Houston,” I lie. I’m gonna go blue-collar here for
awhile.
“Pack ’em pretty good, do you? They was sure spinning back there on
that mountain.”
“Yes, sir, I think so.”
“Hmmm,” as he scribbles. “Well, I’ve seen me some wrecks at 90 out
here, son. Ain’t a pretty sight.”
I nod, I get the point. He’s about done now, he offers the clipboard
over to me, looking serious. I sign; did my hand tremble slightly? He rips
the top layer of the ticket off and hands it to me.
He stares at me, a little too much. Here we go. “Hair’s a little long,
ain’t it? For a Texas boy?”
I sigh, looking ahead. “Yeah, that’s what I hear.”
“Get any shit from it?”
“Some, you know.”
“I bet.” He looks right at me, uncomfortably close, and squints his
eyes, almost closing them, then sucks through his teeth. “Where you
headed in such a hurry?”
“California.”
“Got a hot date?”
“Just goin’ surfing.” Oops.
“Surfing?” he snorts. “So’s I got me a surfer, huh? Guess that explains
the hippie hair.” He looks ahead to my car, and nods toward it. “So
where’s your surfboard?”
“In the trunk.”
“Aw, go on now. A surfboard? In your trunk? A Nova!?”
“Yes, sir, they’re real short now. Mine’s five-six. Fits right in there,
kinda tight, but . . . .”
“Hmm. What else ya’ got in that big ol’ trunk of yours, surfer boy?
Got any drugs stashed in there? Hid under the spare? Pot?”
“No, sir.”
“Mind if I have me a look?”
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Knowing the question would come and that he could do whatever
the hell he wanted out here anyway, I answer calmly, “Sure, I’ll get the
trunk.” I open the door a little to get out and he stops me.
“Wait up a sec,” he says, his hand on my arm now. He studies me and
makes that irritating little sucking noise with his teeth again. Sizing me
up—he still isn’t sure. The cold wind blows into the car from the open
door. He looks at my car, then back at me. “Naw, gonna let you go on,
son. Slow her up a little tonight, though.”
“Yes, sir. I will.”
I get out into the cold night and stand by his front fender, feeling the
heat off the engine, watching him maneuver out. He turns the wheel sharp,
moves a few inches, then stops. I glance at his car and he’s looking back at
me, hard. He’s changing his mind, he wants to check my car after all. Shit.
Thinking fast, I carefully study the small distance between the cars,
then look straight back at him, raise my arm and make that little “come
on,” hand signal. I challenge him to make it. This better work.
He frowns at me, then peers ahead to the corner of his car, the big
Dodge crowding in on my left tail light, then looks back at me again.
Come on, I signal to him, come on, and he takes the bait—a 200-pound
bass smacking a Jitterbug. Reverse is not even considered in these manly
battles of automotive maneuvering. He inches his way up to the corner
of my bumper, chin out, determined, with me waving my hand in little
strokes, come on, come on now, you got it, way to go there, guiding
him gently away from the scene. He’s so close. He makes it, and waves.
Thanks. He gets on the highway, accelerating, heading west. We’ll be
heading west, too. Me and that seedless primo under the spare. But we’re
going to slow her up a little tonight, yes, sir.
Beach House
I drive by slowly, the tires crunch the crushed shell road. Can it be
this small? Could all our cousins, our food, our adventures really have
fit in here? I pull over and get out. It’s a little box on pilings, a smaller
storage room beneath. A rickety staircase leads to an impossibly small
landing. How could we have fit!?
We arrived in waves that long-ago summer of 1969, the Henkels
first, to air it out. Uncle Cecil launches the boat down the nearby ramp
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while Aunt Nadine opens windows to let the sea breeze sweep out the
musty air. The all-important porch swings are hung from chains, one on
the upstairs screened porch and one outside, underneath the porch—
uninhabitable when the mosquitoes come out.
Our family arrives next, slamming car doors and running up the
stairs. We yell our hi’s, and ooh and aah at the fun decor. We’d been a
year without it and had missed it terribly. Fishing nets strung across the
ceiling, holding starfish and old floats. Two big varnished puffer fish hang
in the corner, one wearing a Mr. Peanut hat. A sign on the bathroom
door: Gulls & Buoys. “Why can’t we have this stuff at our house all the
time?” “We just can’t.” “But why?” “Just because, now go help unload the
car.” Little feet hammer up and down the steps in a continuing flurry,
unloading boxes of food and supplies, filling the tiny house up.
Underneath the house, we struggle out of the storage room with two
dusty Sunfish sailboats. Cousin Jimmy and I can barely tug them across
the maddening burrs. Then we tip one off the wooden bulkhead into
the canal. Rudder on now, sails up, and off we go. We’re rusty at first,
blowing our tacks, getting smacked by the boom, but soon we find the
groove we left a year ago. After an hour, we can pull the sail tight and
actually get the tip of the mast to skim the water. We’re both perched up
on the side, leaning in and out, balancing the thing by ounces. We sail
past other houses, waving, their families getting their own toys readied.
We look for the girls of last season, trying to remember which house they
lived at, anxious to check out any new growth, heh, heh.
We sail back up our canal as Uncle Bob’s family arrives, a third station
wagon unloading noisily. We have five kids, the Henkel’s have four, and
now here’s six more, compliments of Uncle Bob and Aunt Patty. The
Omaha group will arrive tomorrow—could get busy. Our older cousin
Bobby is mowing the weeds, his shirt off. He has new little hairs sprouting
on his chest and wants to make sure everybody sees them. He sees us sail
up and immediately sets up to mow a line next to the water, to blow the
grass and burrs in our face as we tie up the boat. I give him a quick finger
as he yells over the noise of the mower that he’ll pound me later.
The men are in the shade of the house, drinking beer and oiling up
the reels and the tackle. The house is vibrating with the stomping of little
feet, and the barks and claps of the refereeing moms drift outside. The
seams eventually burst and some of us flow over to the house next door,
owned by neighbors in town. Positions are staked out at the new house,
toilets are tested, then we all gather back at Henkel’s house to eat. After a
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couple dozen hot dogs and tubs of potato salad give their all, we split up
into smaller tribes for games and gossip.
The grown ups head for the dark, cool porch. The girls gather ’round
on the tile floor, playing Spoon or Parcheesi. Boys generally play pretend
poker or Battleship, but whatever we choose, it usually evolves into
punching: “You’re cheating!”
“Am not!” Whack.
“Dammit, Richard!”
From the darkened porch: “Now, boys, none of that language—”
Some of the older kids are trying to read, shushing the younger ones.
Good luck with that. We sing with Neil Diamond on the chunky
Motorola, “Sweeeeet Caroline” as my cousin Carolyn stands, does a hula
and a pirouette, then takes a bow. We holler and laugh at each other’s
stupid jokes (Aggie, elephant, and Jose Jiminez), through final rounds of
ice cream, topped with Hershey’s syrup and peanuts.
“Tommy, wake up,” my dad hisses, as he prods me with his foot.
I am lying on the floor on a sleeping bag in the big room, along with
about a dozen other cousins and friends. I look across the landscape;
peaks of girl-woman hips on their sides, stretching across the horizon to
the sliding glass door and beyond, to the porch. It is barely light and I
struggle up without stepping on anybody. I unroll my Levi’s pillow and
slip into my cutoffs unsteadily, balancing between bodies. Hop scotching
through the human minefield, I maneuver to the bathroom. I take a leak,
aiming for the side so it won’t splash and wake anybody up, then tiptoe
out the front door and down to the boats where they’re getting loaded.
Today is a big day, we’re going offshore, heading for the blue water.
We load the boats, ice chests full of pop, beer, bait and sandwiches. We
have the big reels out, the Penns, the wire leaders and hooks half as big as
my fist. The seats are wet with dew, we wipe them down. I’ll go in Cecil’s
boat today, a nice little bowrider. My cousin Jimmy and I get up front,
the men in the back. The engine starts with a smoky roar and we cast
off. We putter out the canal, slow and quiet, all of Sea Isle is still asleep.
Once out the channel to West Bay, Cecil hits the throttle and we front
riders lift magically and smoothly up into the sky, then lower slightly as
the speeding boat finds it’s plane. I watch our Allegro alongside us in
formation, a deep-V Glasspar. My dad has his sunglasses on already. Cecil
looks to the side, speeds up a little. My dad matches him. They’re racing.
Cecil and Tom Sr. kind of have this thing.
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We’re heading all the way down to Freeport this morning, to use
the jetty passage there to the Gulf. It’s cool, almost chilly as we roar
through the morning calm. The clouds to the east are dark shapes on the
lightening sky; the puffy, soft edges tinged in gold as the sun comes up.
We pass the curious room-sized wooden boxes, the floating shrimp
stations, so weird to me. On other days, when we’re fishing the bay
and run out of bait, you would just pull up to one of these strange
contraptions and buy a half quart of shrimp from the stock trapped
inside. There would be a kid on it, about your age, who lived on the
thing all day long, for Pete’s sake. He might have a little skiff, but more
often his dad or a shrimper would just drop him off in the morning,
and he’d spend all day in the blazing sun by himself. Sometimes they’d
be swimming, sometimes fishing, little transistor radios keeping them
company—just goofing off. They had a little wooden seat hammered
across a corner, a net to grab the shrimp and that was it. How could they
stand it out there? Who were those guys? Future shrimpers? Future mass
murderers? No shrimp for us today, though. Our bait is needlefish and
ribbonfish, shiny eel-like dinosaur-looking things, bigger than the fish
we usually catch. We need big bait, big hooks and big reels for our game
today: King Mackerel. Kingfish.
We top off the gas in Freeport, then blast out the jetty to the gulf. I
see the dawn patrol surfers sitting in the cream-colored surf on the other
side of the jetty as we head out the channel. The water stays brownish for
about a mile or so, then becomes a sort of milky, blueish-green. “Is this
it?” we ask. “Nope, gotta keep going, gotta find the blue water”. “What
does it look like? This is blue, ain’t it?” “Nope, you’ll know it when you
see it”.
We keep heading straight out, land disappeared awhile ago. The
boat slows, we look ahead, then back at Cecil. “Why are we slowing,
are we there?” “Nope, trash line”. Sure enough, there is a distinct ribbon
of junk, floating, stretching out in a thin line in both directions: lots of
orangey seaweed, some old driftwood, light bulbs with their little worlds
of mussels living on them and a flotilla of detergent bottles. We motor
slowly through it, and a few seconds later the milkiness disappears in a
line, like magic. The water is clear. I think. Hard to tell, it’s so dark. It’s
dark, dark blue, almost black. “Is this it?” “Sure is”, Cecil says. “Watch
this”. He takes a pop can, bends it back and forth till he can tear it, then
drops it over the side. It goes down, turning slowly, flashing back up at us
five seconds later, ten seconds, twenty—unbelievably clear.
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We load up the hooks and feed our weighted lines over the side,
no need to cast. Just let it out. We watch the ribbonfish flash like a can
themselves, then instantly two of our four reels sing out. Strike! I am
struggling, I have never felt a tug so hard. The reel sings, Uncle Bob and
Cecil get the other lines in and out of the way as two at a time is plenty.
We reel in, the fish zip back out. Jimmy and I are screaming with delight,
the men offering suggestions. My fish comes close enough to see a flash
of silver, an angry eye, then he disappears straight down into the black
again, the reel now spinning water off onto my face.
They fight hard, but we slowly overpower the tiring fish. As my fish
is drawn to the side, Cecil reaches out and hooks him with a gaff. The
fish struggles and splashes all of us, hammering his body against the hull.
Cecil leans out further, and whacks it hard with a small baseball bat.
There is another spasm, another whack, and blood splatters on the side
of the boat. He tosses the still fish in, and now goes for Jimmy’s prize.
Soon the two are side by side, and we are guessing the weight—fifteen
pounds? Twenty? They are ten times bigger than the biggest fish I have
ever caught.
As the grown-ups pry their mouths open to get the hooks out, Uncle
Bob tells our new guests a joke, the one about the Aggie walking into the
dentist’s office with a frog on his head. Their teeth are like a barracuda—
the whole fish is like a barracuda and a tuna mixed together, skinny and
fierce. Over the next hour or so, we fill the boat up.
We hear the action and “whoo-hoo’s” over on our boat, too.
Sometimes we’re far apart, now maybe thirty yards as I watch a struggle
at Allegro’s stern. They pull in another one, and my dad turns toward our
boat and holds up eight fingers. We hold up ten, we’re racing again. The
cooler we brought specially for the fish is full, so we unload the beer and
pop from the others and fill those, too. The deck is awash with blood and
slime. There are sharks now patrolling alongside, gliding silently under
us, one the width of the boat, easy. Our last two kings come up bitten in
half. The sharks own the ocean here now. That’s enough, we head in.
Back at the beach house, the tired crews display their catch. We
pose for the cameras, skinny, sunburnt kids struggling to hold two up
at once. We retell the best stories and then the fun part—cleaning the
bastards. Despite a production line, there is a lot of fish, big fish, and it
is dark before we are even halfway done. We are soon ripping fins off and
scraping the dang liver thing out and filleting the things with our heads
in a cloud of mosquitoes. The voracious bugs get thicker, ridiculous;
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we are being sprayed with Off constantly, dripping in the perfumed
kerosene. Still they come, actually getting sucked up our nostrils and
landing on our eyeballs as we swat and curse and toss the long skeletons
and fistfuls of guts over the bulkhead to the hordes of crabs. I bet the
mosquitoes are still talking about that night, how many they caught, how
big they were, delicious blood everywhere.
As for all those fine kingfish—just like Forrest Gumps’ buddy
told him: “Thar’s fried kingfish, broiled kingfish, barbecued kingfish,
blackened kingfish, kingfish gumbo, kingfish stew . . .” I think there’s still
some kingfish, in fact, in the freezer in the garage.
Later that week, we watch him, holding our breath. So proud. Neil
Armstrong, our neighbor, our Neil, steps onto the moon. The beach house
erupts, as do all the others down the shell road, lit bright by the glowing
orb. It’s a wild night, grainy footsteps in the dust! Our flag! Our Neil! The
little kids are holding hands, jumping up and down, vibrating the whole
house. The grown-ups are toasting each other, listening to a teary-eyed
Walter Cronkite on the TV. They yell at the kids to hold it down, but they
don’t really care. Looking back, I wonder if our nation didn’t peak that
very night. We hadn’t given up Vietnam yet. We hadn’t whipped ourselves
down with the silliness of Watergate, hadn’t even heard of Carter.
We were on the moon. Now we’re on food stamps.
TV
We all experimented with TVs in those gloriously advanced 50s,
grainy temperamental boxes that required fiddling with knobs and
antennas to the point of wizardry. The art of really watching TV started
on our block by this guy across the street who wore a tie, even on
weekends, and sold Maxwell House coffee. He bought a super-duper
mahogany “hi-fi” television with an antenna on his roof as big as a
Volkswagen, and was the first we ever knew who dedicated a special
room for the new contraption—a little den with its own seating area and
couch. All the neighbors came over that day to christen it. I couldn’t see
much through the maze of adult legs and butts crowding the room, but
there were martinis and canapes for the adults, and root beer for the kids.
We heard someone named Lonesome George struggling with a ukulele
while the grown-ups laughed. We went back outside to play.
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Later, of course, we watched all the time. We’d watch Roy Rogers and
Dale Evans have an adventure every Saturday morning, then sing “Happy
Trails” to us. Zorro slashed his way across our screen, then the Lone
Ranger and Tonto brought bravery, a strange mask, and a perfectly ironed
shirt to the scruffy American West. “Dooooobie” they sang, as poor Dobie
Gillis came right up to the camera and told us how hard it was to be a
teenager. Like we cared.
There wasn’t enough on yet to argue about what to watch—if it was
on, we watched it. Even commercials: Speedy, the Alka Seltzer gremlin
jumped all over the place like a little spaz with an Easter hat; then that
poor sad-faced loser with a cracking voice tried to get us to eat a Chunky.
No way. Chunkys stunk. They were the first tradesies on Halloween
night. It took two or three Chunkys to get one Snickers bar.
I think we only had one channel for years, or maybe there were more,
but only one seemed to make it through with any success. Like salmon
struggling upstream, Desi and Lucy and Fred and Ethel somehow surged
and fought their way through the nation’s atmosphere, down the antenna,
up a wire, through hot tubes and switches, then presented themselves to
us, scratched and bruised, obviously drained from their journey. We tried
to calm them down with delicate adjustments of the Vertical Hold knob,
but they would flop-flop-flop like fish on the beach, gasping for air.
Shows progressed: we watched the suave Perry Mason, wondering
why Hamilton Burger, his white-haired lawyer nemesis, didn’t just give
the heck up and find another profession. He lost every single week. Then
we kids watched Lassie and My Three Sons and the Beav, learning a
lesson every episode—it was about as delicate as a sledgehammer. Even
a ten-year-old would roll his eyes as Theodore explained what he had
learned at the end of each episode to the stern, yet caring, Ward and June.
(We snickered as Richie Berg up the street did his perfect Eddie Haskell:
“My, what a lovely brassiere you’re wearing, Mrs. Cleaver.”)
When that scary, hairy gremlin ran up the airplane wing toward us on
Twilight Zone and pressed his face against the window, Chex Mix and
S’Mores went flying across living rooms from coast to coast. Every morning
at nine, Jack Lalaane persuaded millions of women to lie on the floor and
attach a thick bungee between their ankle and a doorknob, while every
evening at six, Walter Cronkite, our kind uncle, told us what happened that
day: “And that’s the way it is,” he announced, and we believed him back then.
On Sunday nights, Ed Sullivan introduced nervous singers or goofy
comedians or Sammy the Seal, plus a man who could spin twenty plates
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on poles. Ed bantered a little with Topo Gigo, then scolded us to use
Ipana toothpaste.
A phenomenon hit one year, “Saturday Night At The Movies”.
Someone discovered that every old black and white war movie could be
run again and again, week after week, and people would gather ’round to
watch it. Good or bad, we tuned in. Because it was a movie. On TV.
During this golden age of entertainment, we little boomers sat
cross-legged or lay on our tummies in front of the tube, rolling our
Wonder Bread into delicious dough balls, then washing the treat down
with Yoo-Hoo. We tuned in to Sky King once a week with a secret,
healthy interest in his niece Penny’s boobies. We rooted for Roger Ramjet
and Steve Canyon, then carefully scrutinized the cardboard rockets of
Men Into Space—nothing got past our eagle eyes: “Look, there’s the
string! I see it!”
We were the families of TV’s space-aged generation; we knew the
names of the seven astronauts, even got off school sometimes to watch
a Mercury countdown and lift-off. We drank Tang, and learned how to
get stubborn stains out of our space-age Ban-Lon shirts—you just gave
it to perky Betty Furness there. She was all over the place, every channel
it seemed, swirling anything America could stain into her trusty bowl of
New, Blue, Liquid Wisk.
We watched as huge, gleaming cars charged across America’s smooth
highways with Dinah Shore singing to us from behind the wheel.
The sleek, modern cars for space-age families had Spark-O-Matic
V-8s, Vista-Vision windshields, three-speed Hydro-Shift automatic
push-button transmissions, plus Hi-Speed Aero-Fins for Hi-Way
Aero-Control. It sounds silly now, pathetically hopeful, but it wasn’t. It
was real, our parents bought them, they were in our driveway.
Then color TV happened; “Yabba-dabba-doo!” Fred and Barney
schemed, while Wilma vacuumed with a baby elephant. A red-shirted
Gilligan and a red-faced Skipper frolicked shamelessly—a Laurel
and Hardy shtick on an uncharted desert isle. They built aqueducts,
feasted on fruit, fish and lobster, and raised monkeys that could do
sign language. The Professor could even make a short-wave radio from
coconuts and spare wire, but no one ever quite figured out how to patch a
hole on a boat.
Every Thanksgiving, the United States of American shut down, closed
up, and went inside to watch Dorothy battle the Wicked Witch of the
East. Also once a year, we held our breath as they announced, “And the
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first runner-up is . . . . !” then the glittering tiara descended to the head
of the teary Miss America. They were our princesses, our ideal American
Girl. By loving them, we were loving us.
The Rockies were at their most purple-mountained majestic when
Joe Cartwright, Hoss, Adam and Little Joe rode their horses up in a line
to tip their hats at us and say howdy. Later, in a leap of time as well as
advertising genius, Little Joe would ask us to buy a shiny red Chevelle,
like this one right here. He’d even squat down to show us the fancy
mag wheel covers. Buy a Chevy? How could we not? That wasn’t a car
salesman, that was Little Joe!
Then we started pushing it. Johnny Carson said “toilet” one
night, over the objection of Priscilla Goodbody, the NBC censor. We
giggled. Rowan and Martin danced their titillating dance around drugs
and sex and flying bippies. We guffawed. Movies got braver, racier.
Bullitt’s girlfriend said “God damnit, Frank,” out loud. We discussed it
thoughtfully, like adults. Then 007 smashed his gorgeous masseuse’s
buttocks against the glass in the shower. Hoboy.
The wall was breached, now the flood. Hundreds of channels, much
of it vulgar, most of it forgettable. You try to watch a “comedy” with your
little daughter as she’s lying there on the floor on her tummy, just like you
were way back when. Then the thinly-disguised blow job joke smacks you
both before you even knew what happened. She turns to you, her little
brow furrowed, trying to figure it out. Shame on us.
Lac
I can’t get Dad to talk about it much. He spent a year there, did his
job and made it back okay. “What was it like?” I ask. “Hot? Loud? Shitty?
Dangerous?”
“Yep,” he says, “pretty much like that.”
There were some photos, of course. Skinny men with short hair and
flyer’s sunglasses, unmistakably U.S. Air Force officers. Playing volleyball,
posing by a statue, hoisting a beer at a small table, fans overhead. “What
were the missions like?”
“Oh, you know . . .”
I finally get him to act, just to shut me up, I think. He pulls out a box
off the top shelf of an upstairs closet. We rummage through it. Letters
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from us to him, shrapnel he’d dug out of his plane or somewhere. More
photos, some medals, some big reels of audio tape, a popular fad then for
sending messages back and forth. One of them contains “Tom’s Mortar
Attack”, where he fortuitously left the recorder running when the shells
hit one day, mid-message. We hear an explosion, a garbled “What the—”
as a chair clatters to the floor and he’s outta there, looking for a ditch to
jump in while he generously records the whole attack for posterity. It’s
pretty darn loud. Then I find it, eureka! The Holy Grail, the flight log.
What does it contain, what secrets of battle and derring-do; of combat
with a mighty foe?
He flew gunships for a year over there. They were called “Spookys”.
The old WWII-era C-47s were fitted with three humongous Gatling
guns, poking out of the left side of the airplane. By flying in a circle, the
firepower could be concentrated in one place continuously. With about
every tenth round a brightly lit tracer, you could see exactly where your
fire was hitting and adjust accordingly—you just aimed it like a water
hose. Each gun spat out something like twenty rounds a second. They
didn’t go bang-bang-bang real fast, they positively roared. There were two
or three men back there, whose only job was to keep feeding ammunition
belts into the ravenous, glowing-hot monsters. They flew at night,
decimating the enemy when they attacked our lonely outposts. It was
brutally effective.
I look at the cryptic notes, page after page of . . . nothing! What the
heck is all this? The neat pencil notations on a piece of paper describe one
mission, one night: “Depart—Arrive—Rounds expended—” That’s it!? A
flyers’ war is ridiculously impersonal.
January 1967, Bai Tuong, People’s Republic of North Vietnam.
Halfway through his sixteenth year, Lac was getting stronger, he was
already taller than his father. He was an exceptional student, a Young
Pioneer of good standing. He wore the red scarf with pride. He knew
the drills, the songs, it was not propaganda to him—it was the truth. His
schoolmaster encouraged his passion for mathematics, he would one day
be the best engineer in the province, they were all sure of it. Lac respected
and obeyed his parents, hard-working people who slogged through the
paddies every day, cooked their meager rations for the family in the
evening, then slept, exhausted. They would work as hard as they could,
he knew, pay whatever it took, for Lac’s schooling. An application at the
university in Hanoi had even been discussed at village meetings. He loved
a girl with a gentle laugh, Mai, in the ways two closely watched teenagers
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in a small hamlet could love. Stolen kisses at the well; looks during class.
Younger children giggled and teased, skipping in circles around them as
they walked to school, holding hands.
The Army colonel arrived one day, an honored guest of the of the
village council. Young men were needed for the effort against the
Americans, he explained, to help deliver supplies to your brothers and
fathers fighting in the South. All hands shot up, volunteering, but they
needn’t have bothered—they were going anyway. He would not, could
not tell them that their sons weren’t coming back until final victory was
achieved. Which would be never for most, he knew. He looked at the
beaming young faces and the parents, stoic and proud. He sighed within,
but forced a smile. Morale was very, very good. They could yet win
this war.
There were tearful good-byes at the village square and later, a
ceremony for the young men, soldiers now. Their neighbors and friends
wished them strength and safety, and admonished them to represent their
village with honor. Small cakes were given to each, carefully wrapped in
waxed paper. There was a long hike to the bivouac area in the next valley;
their first camp. Excited boys received coned hats made of reed, with a
small red star on them. There were guffaws and teasing as the thatched
helmets swallowed a few of the smaller heads. They were given a strap of
webbing to attach various things, and a canteen.
The next morning, trucks roar into camp. Bicycles are unloaded and
dispensed, one to each young soldier. The boys are excited, jabbering—
we’ll ride our bicycles to the South, this is too easy!
They study their mounts, some nearly new, most battered and used,
but all serviceable. More trucks arrive and huge bags are tossed off the
back, landing on the ground with a dusty thud. Larger boys, regular army
soldiers, grab the heavy bags, one in each hand—they can barely lift them
both—and deliver their loads at the foot of each young recruit. They show
the now-confused young men how to tie the burlap sacks across the center
of the bike. Lac then realizes they are not riding their mounts to glory in
the South, but they will struggle aside them with huge bags of rice slung
on them like a pack animal. They are instructed as to the importance of
their work, that severe punishment will befall any who lose even a grain
of the precious cargo, but again, they needn’t have worried. Lac and his
friends are proud to do this, they only hope that they are up to the task.
Southward they travel, days of sweat and thirst on the well-worn
paths hidden beneath the high jungle canopy. They eat and laugh, sing
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and complain, always moving. Enemy helicopters and airplanes force
them to melt into the jungle on occasion, but they are not spotted. They
travel two weeks, now three, now four. The rains come, the trails become
a muddy morass and the wheels of the bikes collect the muck, gaining
more weight. They must be in South Vietnam now, or in Laos, according
to the rumors. They are getting stronger, they eat well. They compare
blisters and talk of home and imagined conquests of women, laughing—
they speak of the glorious adventures awaiting them. They move farther
each day, each night. They hear the explosions now, to the east in the
distance. The night skies light up often with the glare of battle, reflecting
ominously on the low clouds.
More rumors. They are close, they sense it. There are many regular
soldiers now, passing in either direction and sometimes joining them.
They stop at a larger camp. Under orders, letters are written home,
professing love for sweethearts, honor for parents. The letters are placed
in a large basket at the foot of a barking commander for delivery north to
their families and loved ones.
Their carefully tended loads of rice and supplies now disappear down
into the tunnels, whose camouflaged openings were next to them as they
sat, invisible! Later, amid much shouting, the same tunnels disgorge rifles
and grenades, a dizzying array of weapons. Lac is amazed, frightened.
Would they order he and his young friends to fight in battle as well? They
had all been assured that they would be couriers only, soon to return home.
Weapons are dispensed to them and loaded. So it is true, they will
fight the enemy! There are instruction for use of the weapons, easy to
understand. They had trained for this back in Bai Tuong; one real AK-47
for display on the schoolmaster’s table, while the pupils stood around
it, reciting the parts in unison as he pointed at them. They used carved
wooden guns in their drills, practicing daily. Lac felt ready.
It is the middle of the night now, and activity increases around them.
The battle begins in the distance, with the thuck-thuck-thuck of mortars
launching. Yelled orders now sound through the night as they follow the
older men in a crouch. There is tremendous noise ahead, shouting, and
soon Lac rounds a bend and sees the outpost, lit from within and slightly
below them, the barbed wire already being breached by the lead elements.
He can scarcely believe it, his heart pounds. He is so scared he thinks
he will faint—yet he follows, weapon in hand, running low. Hundreds of
them now, to his right and left, streaming out of the jungle to cross the
clearing which surrounds the camp. His head rings with the noise, the
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incredible concussions of battle. His eyes and nose sting from the clouds
of cordite swirling among them. They all now yell together, running faster,
bearing down on the enemy camp. Bodies of the fallen are strewn across
the coils of barbed wire, gruesome stepping stones they will use to leap
over the wall. He glances to his left to his friend, Wan, exhilarated, yelling
fiercely now in their triumphant charge, racing each other to the prize.
But further off to his left, a strange vision unfolds before Lac with
immediate and unimaginable violence. The towering trees shudder as
millions of pieces of leaves and branches suddenly break apart and swirl
in a whirlpool of debris, all split by the sudden bright yellow streaks
ripping down through the night sky. Then the dirt floor at the edge of
the treeline seems to come alive, the very earth itself heaves up as a cloud
of smoke churns across the clearing, the yellow streaks now reaching
the men to his left who are suddenly exploding and disintegrating—
their pieces of meat, bone and helmet fragments now join the growing
cloud, the fast-moving wall of filth. His final vision is watching Wan’s
head disappear in an explosive pink cloud, while the rest of his body
disassembled itself before Lac’s uncomprehending vision with demonic,
other-worldly speed.
His parents died long ago. He had no brothers or sisters. Mai died
of tuberculosis in 1977. Young, studious Lac, ground into the soil at
Camp Kilo, has long since stopped nurturing the ants and grasses. There
is nothing left. His brave young history is now recorded only on a dusty
flight log in an upstairs closet in Pasadena, Texas, as: 4 Mar 67. Depart
Nha Trang 0155. Arrive Camp Kilo, 6m. west Loc Ninh, 0220. Alt:
3,500’ Ground. freq. 119.7. Attack underway north wire. Many waves
VC and North Regulars. Repelled successfully. Rounds expended: 14,300.
Boy’s Town
Summer, 1973. We’re on the shittiest street in the shittiest part of one
of the shittiest little towns in Mexico, searching in the night for our way
back to this particularly shitty little bridge across the Rio Grande.
We had been at Popeye’s, a bar in the Boy’s Town section of
Matamoros, full of surfers from Texas and Florida, down for the big
surfing contest in Port Isabel, just across the border in Texas. We were
on a full-party mode, and determined to raise hell. Popeye himself
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encouraged it. The patch over his left eye was probably a prop, but he
was a happy business owner, especially this week. His girls were friendly
and relatively clean, and his waiters didn’t try to short-change us till late,
when we were good and drunk and didn’t care anyway.
Perhaps one of the most garish bars on the entire planet, its walls
were covered in aluminum foil, taped on sloppily. No windows, the haze
of cigarette smoke grew and swirled up through the loud night to the
whore’s rooms on the second floor. Colored Christmas tree lights blinked
and sizzled. The pisser was a trough on the floor that flowed out into the
alley behind. Every table was different and crooked. There were the regular
metal folding chairs, and some handmade of wood, but not well. It was
packed, you had to yell to be heard most of the time. Good-natured taunts
volleyed from table to table, tribal groups of surfers from all over the Gulf
Coast were swapping lies and guzzling the cheap beer.
A hooker rubs on Danny and he’s just drunk enough, so they go
upstairs. Some of them are cute, most aren’t, but all are excited to have
the big surf contest going on in nearby Port Isabel. Eager, fast dicks and
eager, fast dollars are in store this week for the working girls and the
smiling Popeye. We’re young and loud and tip too much, we love the
whole mess of it. We’re out-of-bounds; we’re in Meh-i-co.
A cute, short hooker tries for me; she looks 16 going on 40 with that
horrid makeup on her pretty little face. I let her sit on my lap, let her ooh
with fake delight as she rubs me through my Levis. I’m not getting the
clap tonight, no way, and finally tell her so after a few minutes of free
excitement. She’s pissed, she’s wasted valuable time. I get the final sales
close: “Oh, you queer? Angela can fix.” The other girls all giggle, your
buddies roar—that usually works. No dice. I’m still a good boy, mostly.
I’ve got a nice girl in Houston, so Angela’s off to greener, hornier pastures.
Danny comes down after awhile, and our table cheers for him. He
whoops back at us from the stairs and gives us a thumbs-up. We order
one last round. Our heat’s at 7:20 the next morning, so we need to get
going. We yell good-bye to the late-stayers, they yell back to us, and we
hit the street. We decide to take a back bridge over the river, not wanting
to hassle with the lines and crowds of the main crossing. Usually two or
three bucks will do it to the sleepy federales in charge of the back routes.
We stumble around the dark, filthy streets, trying to remember—was it
this farmacia where we hook a right, or that farmacia—
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“Señor suuurfers . . .” We spin around and see the pistol, a big one, a
huge chrome .44 staring right at us. Behind it is a small, fat, ugly little
face. He cackles, waving his gun, weaving back and forth. Crap! He’s
drunk. His face is pocked with acne scars, and his eyes are yellow and
glassy. He motions to our pockets, we know what he wants.
“Easy, there,” I say.
“Cayate!” he barks.
“Yeah, shut the fuck up,” hisses Danny.
“Cayate, focking gringos!” he slurs.
We ease our wallets out for him and he signals us to open them. He
just wants the money. We pass the bills to him. He rumples them into
his pocket and weaves a little more. There’s dirt on his pants, it looks like
he was on his knees recently, probably puking. He sees Danny’s diver’s
watch, and motions to it.
“Look, you already got my mo—”
KA-BOOM! Our world explodes in a yellow-white explosion that
blinds us. The noise splits our senses, we spin away and down, our heads
are in a cloud of cordite and we almost choke on it. Smoke swirls in the
night sky.
“Godfuckingdamn!” Danny yells, bent over, hands over his ears.
I’m bent over too, and I can barely hear Danny curse over the savage
ringing in my brain. My mouth is wide open.
Our robber looks as surprised as us, his eyes like saucers as he
stumbles back to lean heavily against a pink concrete wall.
Hard to tell where the bullet went, or if he missed on purpose, or
what. As the ringing subsides some, we hear dogs barking and women
screaming in the night. I feel amazingly calm, no shakes, nothing. We
ease up slowly, staring directly at the gun, nothing, nothing else exists in
the world for us but that still-smoking barrel.
He blinks, regains some drunken composure of sorts, goes “Eh-ehhh”
like “look what I just did.” He then smiles and aims back at Danny,
pulling the hammer back unsteadily: click. Oh. Fucking. Shit.
Danny holds his hands out. “Steady there, amigo,” he says, and
carefully unstraps the watch. The little thief takes it, holds it up and
admires it in the faint glow from a nearby street light, nodding. He puts
it in his pocket, chuckles, gives us one last barrel-wiggle, then turns and
wobbles away.
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Danny and I stare at each other in disbelief. Our ears are still ringing.
We look back to the street and see his uniform disappear into the night.
Danny sums it up: “Fuck a duck!”
“No shit!”
“Man, and I thought our cops were mean fucks.”
“No shit!”
123RF, Igor Sokolov
Chapter 6
Corpus
A
fter I get out of college, I head for Corpus Christi—halfway
down the coast to Mexico. That was about as far away as I could
get with the couple of hundred bucks I had in the bank. I might
try for California later, but I need to escape Houston now. I didn’t know
anyone in Corpus, but had been through it a lot on surf jaunts down to
Port Isabel. The beaches there were pretty nice, and I figured I could find
a job, the city seemed big enough. Drove into town, checked into a Motel
6, got a haircut and hit the streets, as they say.
I am hired by a big grocery company to work in their advertising
department. It’s a pretty good gig—steady pay with nice people. I have
my own little cubicle, free coffee, boring meetings, the works.
I rent an apartment, and soon befriend two engineers living in the
same complex. A few months later, we all pitch in and rent a big house
together. It has two formal living rooms with chandeliers; one became ski
storage and a sail locker, the other a gun and machine shop, full of lathes
and scopes and analyzers. It was like The Beverly Hillbillies—us hicks
cleaning shotguns on the “fancy-eatin’ table”.
Alan and Tim were the perfect Dilbert engineers. They would come
home from designing an off-shore rig ballast system, then squabble over
a malfunctioning four-dollar toaster, arguing over rheostats and stuff
like that. They were hardwired to fix crap, they just couldn’t help it. The
plush carpeting was crisscrossed with wires, attaching speakers and stereos
to self-made control panels with timers. Willie Nelson jolted us awake
every morning at 6:20: “Whiskey River, take my mind.”
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Tom Hanley
Parked in the three-car garage and alley and backyard were our toys:
a dangerously fast ski-boat, a four-wheel-drive Ford Bronco, two sports
cars—a Datsun 280 Z and a Toyota Celica, a Kawasaki 750 motorcycle,
and a sand-sailer. That was a little three-wheeled contraption with a seat
and a big sail like a boat but with no brakes, whose job was to crash, flip
over, or attract cops.
Fresh out of college, we’re ready to party, and our party house
booms on the weekends—we had us some doozies. Tim is the handsome
smooth-talker who gets the chicks over, and everyone benefits. He
couldn’t screw them all, so Alan and I and everyone else who showed
up got a shot, too. A pretty good system, actually. Very efficient, little
waste.
Another artist at the company, Dale, is a keen sailor just moved down
from Dallas. He’s a serious racer, and prompts me from the casualness
of Sunfish sailing to real competition. Race starts are hairy! There’s like,
twenty boats zigging around, crowding a little buoy and checking their
watches, wondering how to force the enemy to hit the committee boat
and sink.
Dale demands perfection and pouts when he doesn’t get it. I used
to putter around, drinking beer and thinking Great Thoughts; now we
chase wind lifts, watch tell-tales, shift our weight constantly, trying to
get starboard tack on the competition. That’s some kind of Wild West
gunfight rule where you aim at each other with a sharp boat, and at the
last second one of you has to back off. I learn sailor lingo; ropes are lines.
Way the hell over there is starboard.
Dale barks, “Cinch the barber vang,” as the boat suddenly tips,
or lists.
“This thing?”
“Noooo, that’s the boom splay. The barber vang! Over there, hurry!”
“This thing?”
“Yes, damnit, cinch it! We’re about to roundhouse.”
“Cinch it to . . . ?”
“THE GUNWALE CLEAT WE WENT OVER THIS!” he yells,
exasperated. The boat tips farther and my beer spills. Oopsy.
I find what could possibly be a gunwale cleat and cinch a line to it.
I turn to salute, “Aye-aye, sir!” as it immediately unravels itself in a blur.
The boat tips more, water spills in, and the jib makes a loud noise and
tries to go the other way.
“OhChrist! Release the jibsheet and prepare to jibe!”
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151
“Prepare to . . . die!?”
“No, jibe, jibe. Prepare to jibe!”
I have no idea what he means but he looks darn serious. “Um,
pardon moi?”
“RELEASE THE PORT JIBSHEET.”
“This one?”
“HELL NO, THAT ONE!”
This stuff is hard and I’m getting discouraged. There’s just too many
options up here, cleats and seats and lanyards and spanyards all over the
place. “Can’t we just pull over and get a fresh brewski or something?” I
ask, as more water pours in. “Can’t we take a little break?”
“ARRRRRRRRRRR!”
“Can’t we all just get along?”
This kind of screaming, or nautical commands, goes on all the time
on boats, I found out. There’s very little “Ahoy matey” or time to apply
suntan lotion to the very, very top of her glistening thigh as she lays there,
warming in the sun, “Mmmmm . . .” In fact, it’s really quite silly what
happens on little sailboats on a windy day out there, what with motors,
or outboards available nowadays.
Still, Dale teaches me, literally, to see the wind, anticipate what it will
do next and position ourselves to take advantage of it. We practice in his
little Thistle, an East Coast lake design, now planing at warp speed with
the spinnaker up, darting across the dirty chop in the howling wind of
Corpus Christi Bay, completely out of its element; a feather in a tempest.
We anticipate what the wind will do in the early morning calm, but we
know what it will do every afternoon: blow out of the southeast like a
sonofabitch while we hold on, careening down the hissing waves, blood
from our raw fingers dripping into the reddening bilge.
But in order to punish ourselves further, we sign up for an overnight
race, crewing on some big, visiting race boats. A fleet of them travel from
one yacht club to another, town to town—the Southern Ocean Racing
Circuit. They work and play hard.
They dock at Corpus one week for some loud partying with old
friends, then racing. This is serious stuff, and I am informed that they’ll
let me go, but only as ballast. It’s forecast to be windy and rough the
next day in the Gulf, and they could use a little extra weight. I am
important to them; weight. Meat. My initiation into Club Meat is
to drink enough beer at the dockside party to let them hoist me on a
“butt bucket” up the “mast” to squirt WD-40 on the “little windmill
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thingy” at the tippy-top. As soon as I’m up there and can just about
see Kansas, those fun-loving drunken bastards run from one side of the
boat to the other to get me rocking back and forth, to slam repeatedly
into the mast, lacerating myself on the “stays” and “sharp metal”, and
try to launch me out of my tiny seat to my death sixty feet below. And
after that doesn’t work, we grill cheeseburgers and finish off the rest of
the beer.
My incredibly important job during the race will be to act heavy and
hold onto an upwind fencepost, or stanchion, and not fall off. And maybe
fetch sandwiches. Dale is similarly employed on another boat.
The race from the yacht club out to the jetties at Port Aransas is a
fun afternoon battle. The boat hums, the sails are taut as drumheads. The
crew does remarkably well despite their alcohol poisoning. I dutifully
scramble where required and generally just try to enjoy the ride. We
battle our way across the wide bay, then funnel ourselves to the channel
entrance at Ingleside. It’s one long run up the slot from here to Port
Aransas, but then a series of fast turns, or tacks, will begin as we turn
directly upwind and out the jetty mouth.
Once that little duel starts, they inform me I’ll be positioned below
at the nav station to call out the depths as we make the final sprint out to
the Gulf. The channel sides are steep, it goes from forty-five feet deep to
zip pretty danged quick, and they would like to tack before the bottom
of the boat is ripped out by the rocks, and sinks. A snarly, tattooed guy
from the previous days festivities, or prick, takes me below and shows me
around. The inside is sparse, lots of sail bags stacked about, plus dozens
of neatly wrapped lines hang from the low ceiling, dancing and swaying
together with the rhythm of the boat.
A potty, or head, hides behind a small partition forward in the gloom.
There’s a cramped little corner next to the ladder full of navigation
equipment and radios, a small kitchen setup on the opposite side, some
swaying hammocks, and that’s it. It smells like gas and puke. No wood,
no furniture, none of the clever folding tables and comfy couches that
most yachts this size have. It’s strictly a racer. He shows me the gauges,
how to read the instruments. “Easy”, I say. “Don’t screw up”, he answers
back. No happy sailor banter, nor do we raise a cup of grog together.
Sheesh, so serious. We head back up to our stations.
As the boats approach the narrowing rock jetties, we’re in a serious
four-ship battle. Fast calculations are made on each deck, and we split
into two pairs at the marker buoy. We and another boat, only yards apart,
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aim straight at the granite rocks fifty yards in front of us and closing
fast, the men on deck poised and tense. The fishermen on the jetty look
concerned—What the hell? they seem to say, as the ones directly in our
sights zip in their lines and edge up the rocks a little higher.
I get the nod and scramble below, sitting all alone at the nav station,
watching the red numbers flash on the depth finder. I yell up through
the hatch, “Forty-four feet, forty-two, forty, thirty-six, twenty, TWELVE,
EIGHT . . . OHSHIT, TACK!”
The boat careens around and tips the other way so fast I slide off
my seat onto the wet, grungy floor. I hear a mad scramble above me,
shouting, sails pop-popping and winches grinding, and as suddenly as it
started, it’s almost quiet up there again. I get up, dazed almost, and hear
“LET’S HEAR A READOUT DOWN THERE—LET’S GO, LET’S
GO, LET’S GO!”
I scramble back to those scary red numbers and we repeat the fun six
or seven times when I feel the boat suddenly rise, then sizzle downward
as we clear the jetty entrance and begin charging through the swells. I
scramble up top, dutifully tie myself to the railing, and hang my legs over
the side.
I spend the next eighteen hours going from one side to the other,
performing my valuable skills of sitting down and staying out of the
way. Some of the crew sleep later, I do not. And if they thought I was
a valuable racer then, they should see me now. I am twenty-two pounds
more brilliant.
Back on the bay, my cinching improves over time. Dale and I win a
few races and I come back, exhilarated, reporting my latest adventures to
the Dilberts. Tim goes with us a few times, gets the sailing bug, then buys
a new (to us) phenomenon, an 18-foot catamaran.
The high winds of the Gulf and the design of the Sol Cat were a
perfect fit. We punched through the Port Aransas surf with amazing
speed, learning to balance against the wind by hiking out, sometimes
two or even three of us, shoulder-to-shoulder, going so fast that the boat
positively hummed out loud, the sails and windward stays impossibly
taut, on the edge of bursting it seemed. Three exhilarated crew crowd a
few square feet of the starboard aft corner, six feet up in the air, while the
knife-edged bow of the opposite hull is slicing through the water at thirty
miles an hour, only inches from deciding to dive through the surface and
turn us into a high-speed submarine. It’s called pitch-poling, and it’s a
daring maneuver in which you go from a team of brave and handsome,
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broad-reaching, America’s Cup wannabes to a human shower of pathetic,
screaming losers, in a straight-down, nose-dive, full-stop, Titanic train
wreck—with bodies flying and stays snapping and hulls akimbo, all in
the space of about two seconds. Our best time for a pitch-pole crash was
1.67 seconds and Alan’s still got the scars. Pitch-poling is a lot of fun, ask
anyone who’s tried it.
On the weekends when we weren’t skiing the Aransas River and
dodging alligators, or still bleeding from the previous week’s fun, we
would sail the catamaran out to the oil rigs in the gulf. Once they were
producing steadily, the rigs didn’t need a crew; they were ours to play on.
The girls would be nervous, Can we do this? We would tie up and clamber
on. First, we’d find the battery box to disconnect the dang horn, which
would scramble our eardrums every thirty seconds with a ship-warning
blast. Then we could snorkel amid the pilings, feeling sort of protected
from the imagined denizens circling us, just out of sight. Texas is just
plain sharky.
We were way out of the sight of land, completely alone, us and a
zillion fish. The water was offshore clear, and as we twisted mussels and
things off the legs of the rig with our knives, the fish would come and
feast—it was like being inside an aquarium. Hundreds of bright fish,
unafraid, eating out of our hand. Cool!
One time, the tiny fish all disappear. Hmm, wonder what’s up? Tim
prods my shoulder, he’s swimming back, slowly. I hear that strange
garbled squeak as he tries to speak underwater through his snorkel.
“Urkle! Ook!” I look up, and a huge barracuda is looking at us, calculating
the route he would have to take through the cables and pilings to eat
us. Right behind him is a brilliant ten-foot long trail of our tiny fish,
keeping the big fella exactly where they can see him. We were apparently
not worth the effort, his fish brain calculating the pluses and minuses of
attacking through the metal obstructions. His cold, black eye gives us one
last glare, then in two swishes of his massive tail, he is gone.
Some of the bigger rigs have helicopter pads at the top. Your first visit
up to one is scary, indeed. Clomping up the galvanized steps, you look
down at the crisscrossing guts of the rig below you, the water surging
and sucking, echoing weirdly amid the columns. You are startled how
high you are already, with more to go. In fact, once on top of the pad,
we can’t even walk to the edge—we crawl on our bellies, petrified of the
naked height, peering over the side. We can see the tiny, hazy lumps of
sand dunes way off on the horizon, it’s got to be ten miles. Our Sol Cat
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looks tiny tied off there down below us, like a toy. Then we see the three
brown shapes, six-footers easy, arise from the deep and weave slowly at
the surface. One nudges another unexpectedly, a huge splash, and they’re
gone. “Sharks!”
“What kind!? Blacktip? Bull sharks?”
“How the hell should I know? Where are the girls?”
“I see them down there, they’re still on the rig. It’s okay.”
Tim and I holler at the girls to stay on the rig, that there’s sharks in
the water. They yell back up that they have no intention of going in the
water. They’re just doing their nails and talking girl-talk in the shade on a
little walkway.
We keep watching, checking all quadrants, the sharks don’t come
back. We give it a little while, and eventually we’re walking around
near the edge, getting familiar with the layout, talking brave. “Don’t see
no sharks now. And we sure as hell ain’t gonna hit the bottom.” The
inevitable dares begin. I forget who went first, it wasn’t me. It was like
jumping off the top of an oil rig into shark-infested waters or something.
No, it was exactly like that.
After a good day of jumping and snorkeling, we’d re-hook the battery
cables and sail back in. We’d beach the boat, drop the sails, and then
it’s time to get the beer out, start the fire and cook the burgers. If it was
windy, we’d have to sleep right down by the surfline, or be encrusted with
sand. Some slept on the trampoline of the boat, some on cots. You do not
sleep on the sand unless you want to enter the food chain. If the wind
stops and the mosquitoes find you, you are in the food chain anyway.
The sand on the barrier islands of Texas is incredible. Huge stretches
of beach are so flat and compact you could paint a stripe on it and call it
a freeway. Other sections not much farther away are swallowing 300 h.p.
four-wheel drive posi-trac monsters whole, their huge tires flipping the
sand back in corrugated waves, like a roaring Galapagos turtle digging a
hole to bury her eggs.
The sand would blow, blow, blow in your face, your eyes, your ears.
It was a deadly fine salty sand, perfect for sandblasting the paint off your
car. Sometimes you’d go for a walk with someone you knew, and later
you’d look over and see a Bedouin struggling in the zephyr next to you,
his wild hair crusted with salt, his face and eyelashes and shirt slowly
turning the color of sand.
It ate the wiring in your car or boat, it ground your teeth, and it
absolutely destroyed any sandwich foolish enough to get near it. You:
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Safely ensconced in your air-conditioned kitchen in Corpus Christi—
there is thick, lush grass outside, no sand, none. You finish making the
sandwich, you put it in a Ziploc bag and place it carefully in the cooler,
next to the sliced carrots and the Coke. You get in the car, drive twenty
minutes to the beach, windows up, AC on all the way, pull up and stop
at the edge of the surf. You turn off the engine, reach around to the back
seat, take the sandwich out of the cooler, remove it from it’s little plastic
bag, and take a bite, ptoo! There’s sand in it. I ain’t shitting you.
There’s a big, fat boat in the British Virgin Islands that the owners
apparently want sunk, probably an insurance job. In order to sink it, they
decide to charter it to some idiots from Texas and their girlfriends, whose
only question concerning this new and large weapon is, “How much rum
will it hold?”
The Virgin Islands are a beautiful place, with crystal-clear water,
something we’re not used to yet. We leave the harbor at Tortola and
“set sail,” ie: ‘“start mixing drinks,” under an azure sky and a freshening
breeze.
We make it to our first night’s destination, Hawksnest Bay on St.
John’s Island, moderately intact. The sails come down and our spirits are
up, high and happy, very high and happy indeedy as we motor slowly
into the small bay. I take my position on the bow to help guide us in,
and as we leave the deep gloom of the deep ocean into the shallower bay
I shriek, “BACK UP! BACK UP! it’s only three feet deep—OH NO
WERE GOING TO HIT, AHHHHH!”
Drinks are spilled and women faint as anchors are tossed hither and
yon, some even attached to their lines, and the boat screeches to a halt.
We cautiously peer over the side to see how many big boat parts are
scattered on the reef inches below us. It is fifteen feet deep. Visibility is a
little better here than in Texas, but by golly we learn how to stop a boat
fast. And that calls for another drinky-poo.
If I remembered much more about the trip, this would be a real fun
chapter, I’m sure. There are waterlogged memories of snorkeling all day
every day, eating enough lobsters to put them on the endangered species
list, happy people who spoke beautiful King’s English, something else
about fire coral and the soothing medicinal effects of Mount Gay rum,
something more about a barracuda ambush, plus that little Jeep crash. We
made friends everywhere, even in jail, and after we made bail, we headed
on back to Texas, relaxed and refreshed. A fun trip, overall. Drive on the
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left, drive on the left, in the BVIs you drive on the left. (Sung to the tune of:
Here Comes the Judge.)
The Wrong Stuff
Back home safe in Texas, we’re at a boisterous party, a live band
three-kegger, and I get to talking with some Navy pilots. Corpus is
lousy with them, there’s a big Naval Air Station there. I yell that I always
wanted to fly in the military. “Well, why the hell don’t you?” one of
them yells back. I point to my glasses, a sadly resigned look on my face.
I knew that in the Air Force, nobody flies without perfect 20/20 vision.
The party guys allowed as how the Navy now took blind retards such as
myself in the back seat as the Radar Intercept Officer, or RIO. “Go see a
recruiter”, another roars over the noise of the party; “he’ll explain it all.”
A few days and a few phone calls later, I gather the requested papers,
visit the local recruiter, and explain it he does. We talk awhile and he goes
over my transcripts. He likes me, I’m a decent candidate. He shuffles
through file cabinets coming up with forms and brochures and whatnot.
I’m so excited, a complete life-changing event may be coming up here.
Do I want to do this? Quit a good job and do this? Hell yes, I do. A
dream I’ve had since my first cardboard cockpit full of grasshoppers may
be about to come true. He gives me stacks of stuff to read and sign, warns
of big tests coming up on things I never studied, never even touched in
college. He shows me a list of subjects that I’ll need to know to pass the
tests, advises me to study hard—get some help if I don’t understand it
all—and then notify him when I think I’m ready.
I enlist my Dilbert buddies back at Party Central, and they tutor me
in mechanical and electrical engineering 101, lots of math, plus other
things the Navy thinks is necessary for me to know in order to tool
around in the back seat of an F-4 Phantom. If I have to study this hard to
protect America, I will, but my real goal is more personal—juvenile even.
I want to get that pussy-magnet uniform, fly upside-down really fast and
make a shitload of noise.
Alan, Tim and I gather ’round and study, night after night. In
a month or so, I’m ready (or they think I am, anyway), and the test is
scheduled. A little apprehensively, I show up at the recruiting station for
my Naval Flight Officer written. They have the small room in back ready
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for me with all the test sheets on a table, along with a neatly arranged can
of pencils, a slide rule and protractor, and other scary tools. I’m nervous
as heck, the door is shut, and the clock is started. Some parts are easy,
other parts harder, and a few hours later it’s finished. I’m in kind of a
limbo for a week or two, then I get the letter—passed! “Congratulations
on this significant achievement,” it says, and I read it over and over.
Yahoo! I tell the Dilberts, I tell my dad, I tell the neighbors, I tell
everybody.
The next step is an all-day physical in San Antonio which is easy, even
fun. Rooms full of testosterone-saturated young men in their underwear,
trying to out-do each other in all manner of exercises and tests all day
long. Like a big gym class, with shots.
At a later indoctrination class, we watch the film of the men ejecting
the split-second they sense something has gone horribly wrong, their
crippled jet diving off the side of the carrier. One guy parachutes to safety
in the drink, the other lucky bastard actually lands right on his feet on the
carrier deck. Could we do that? Figure it all out that fast? Who knows? “If
you don’t, you’re out of the gene pool,” joked the instructor. He shows
us the charts, the loss rates of different programs—it’s pretty dang high
(stay the hell away from Harriers). “Some of you aren’t going to make it,”
he says. “You’ll wash out or worse.” This is the real deal. We watch other
films, not so dramatic—humorous, even—on the traditions we will be
expected to learn and uphold at Pensacola, our next stop.
I have The Interview scheduled a week later back in Corpus Christi,
where they will ask The Question, as everybody warns me. I even talked
to my dad about it, a little worried. He said, “Remember, son, they’re
looking for honesty above all. Honesty and integrity.”
Well, maybe they were when he went in in WWII, but by the go-go
’70s they were looking for the correct answer, honest or not.
My recruiter is there for the interview, with another officer I
hadn’t met before, both very pleasant. We talk a little and go over my
performance so far. I’m in, but nowhere near the top. They draw a
little triangle which encompasses a few factors: my age (oldish), college
major (art!?), Life-Saving and Water Safety Instructor certificates (very
good), test grades (okay), physical (not as good as I thought I did, but
also okay). They did a few little scribbles, and showed me where I was on
the pyramid: I was a sturdy little brick near the base, the Top Guns were
crowding the apex. But I was in, dammit, in!
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Then the interview. Here we go, I sit up straight. They ask if me
or anyone in the family is a member of the Communist Party. Nope.
Homosexual? No, sir. Ever used illegal drugs? This is the one I was
waiting for; I can’t lie, I won’t. Besides, every time I turn around the Navy
wants me to pee in a cup for them; they must know something.
“Drugs? Yes, sir,” I answer.
They both pause and look up at me, a little confused. My guy is
trying to tell me something with his eyes and eyebrows, but I don’t know
what. The new guy announces, very slowly, that everything I say from
now on goes on my permanent record, do you understand? I understand.
“Now,” he says slowly, “have you ever used illegal drugs?”
“Yes,” I answer again, stupidly. Hell, I did and they did and every
single candidate that goes through here has smoked some pot, or at least
tried it—everyone knows that. I thought it was a trick question. I figured
that anyone who said “No” would get a huge LIAR stamped on his record
in red ink, then shipped out to Iceland. Who could honestly answer “No”
to a question like that? Not one puff during four years of college? Come
on, give me a break.
Then he asks what kind of drugs I had used. “Marijuana only”, I
answer. Nothing else, ever. No cocaine, no heroin, no quaaludes, no hash
(well, a little), no acid. Of course, there was also that rum-and-back-pills
incident on a surfing trip to Port Isabel. It was completely flat, we were
bored, and Rick had this vial of little white pills that he recommended
highly. So we decided what the heck, and that whole day became sort
of a slow motion, blurry, time-flux. But that was due to boredom, not
addiction. Dad would be proud of me. They want honesty? Hell, I’ll be
an admiral in five years if they keep asking stuff like this.
My questioner shifts nervously and reads: “Have you smoked
marijuana cigarettes more than three times or within the past six
months?”
I still didn’t get it. Three times? In four years of college partying? Of
course, I tell them; don’t be silly. Three doobies of Texas home-grown
could almost get you high.
Well, that was it. The visiting officer rolled his eyes up as he made
a big “whoosh” noise, scooted his chair back, shook my hand and left.
Then my guy mumbled something like I could still be made eligible
somehow or another, perhaps, if I wanted it. But I would never, ever get
jets. Permanent record and all that. I barely heard him, with the slow
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realization of what had just happened. My world was spinning, my brain
was crashing with the message to myself: you idiot! Dumb, dumb, dumb.
Oh, well. The Navy just lost themselves a good, honest little RIO.
Anchors aweigh, boys; back to the grocery biz.
123RF, Jerry Nettik
Chapter 7
Lighthouse Keeper
T
his girl, Sandra, started hanging around at Party Central; well,
not hanging, dominating. She was one of those people who enter
a room and control it, completely. She was our age with dark,
Spanish eyes, a radiant smile, and amazing self-confidence. When she told
a joke or a story, the partyers gathered ’round. The floor was hers. She
was the personal assistant of the president of the grocery company that I
worked for, meaning she ran his life. She made dinner reservations for him
in Paris; chewed out his housekeepers in Nantucket. I told her my tragic
Navy story one day, how bored I was cranking out grocery ads. So she
decided I would run his lighthouse—he owned one. Sometimes he would
go there to unwind, more often he would let friends and family use it.
She arranged for me to meet El Presidente himself. We had shaken
hands and exchanged hellos before at functions, company picnics, things
like that. He was a personable boss, always liked getting out and mingling
with the troops. But a visit to his office was unheard of for a lowly artist.
My escort arrives, I wouldn’t even be able to find his office without him,
to tell you the truth. Fellow artists wave and snicker. One makes the sign
of the cross. There he goes.
My escort and I leave the boisterous art department at the edges of
the corporate circle, traveling in toward suitland. The mazy route to the
other side grows more formal, less cubicled and more quiet with each
layer. Soon, we are traveling past the hushed offices of the vice presidents.
Walls are richly paneled now, darker, the carpet gets noticeably plusher,
the hair more silver. The people who make it this far are corporate killers,
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territorial masters of the jungle. Voracious feeders, but who chew quietly.
Their heads swivel, eyes narrowing. Who dares pass them, these billy goat
gruffs, without their permission? Who dares go over the bridge to the
other side? It is I, Tommy.
Soon I am led into the quietest chamber of all—high ceilings,
imposing lights hanging from thick chains. A very proper woman at a
large desk looks up, nodding, and murmurs quietly into her phone that
the visitor has arrived. The office is decorated with incredible paintings
and models, mostly of classic sailing ships. There are some old, antique
coastal charts mounted on the twelve-foot high walls, whose frames
are probably worth more than my car. The hand carved mahogany
wainscoting at the waist of the office gleams. There are the tasteful
trinkets of the rich scattered about: tokens and plaques from governors
and potentates, photos of days spent with other powerful people, waving
from yachts and raising their glasses to the camera from long tables. It
smells of old, good, very expensive furniture.
I am forwarded to the last maze before the sanctum. She is the final
guardian, the Keeper of the Gate. Sandra looks up at me, takes off the
joke-shop glasses with huge bloodshot plastic eyeballs, shakes her killer
bee antennae, and says, “Charles said to wait. He’s pretending to be busy,
to make you nervous.” She turns her head toward the partly opened door.
“Aren’t you, Charles?” Things are different than they appear in the inner
sanctum, and that difference is Sandra.
Charles invites me in, has me sit down, and we make some small
talk. Then he says he was actually leaning more toward hiring a couple.
I ask, “A couple of what?” Things go uphill from there, more interviews,
resumes, background checks and all that. I’m given a trial week out there;
I learn the lay of the land, sweep a little raccoon shit off the porch, file a
report on it, and then I’m in. Keeper of the Port Aransas Lighthouse.
I stand on the weathered boardwalk on my first official day, taking in
deep breaths of the balmy salt air, tinged with the smell of creosote from
the pilings. My dog, Hip, is charging across the flats, barking happily,
stirring up whatever he can find. I look around, all alone, a gull floats by
overhead, his shadow flashes over me. It’s over a mile to town, accessible
only by boat—and there’s my boat, over there, tied up to the dock. My
dock. Water laps contentedly on the shore, flags stir in the breeze, and I
do something few people probably do their first day on the job—I yell for
joy at the top of my lungs.
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The lighthouse, also known as the Lydia Ann Lighthouse, was built in
1855. It’s job was to mark the natural channel through St. Joseph’s Island
from the Gulf to the back bays (the pass having long since migrated south
to where the town of Port Aransas now is).
During the Civil War, it changed hands numerous times. Confederate
troops under General John B. Magruder tried to destroy the tower, piling
a quantity of dynamite inside the base of the tower, lighting the fuse, and
running like hell. The tower acted like a huge gun barrel, directing the
explosion straight up the tube, blowing the top off like a volcano, but
leaving the rest of the tower intact. Well, as intact as can be expected
when two kegs of powder goes off in your belly.
Over the years, a variety of different dwellings were built, and most
either succumbed to storms or age. The basic configuration as I inherited
it was this: walking up the raised walkway from the dock—there was
the keeper’s house (1939) to the left, the tool and radio shed (1939) also
on the left, the promenade and flagpole (new after every hurricane) to
the right, the massive stairs to the main house (1919) and north house
(1943) also to the left, and ending straight ahead at the entry door to
the lighthouse tower. All buildings except the lighthouse were perched on
steel or wooden pilings, anchored in the caustic sand-mud of a mangrove
swamp. Usually you could walk on the ground between the dwellings,
but high tide brings the waters up twice a day, so the walkway is needed.
Plus five feet of altitude makes a world of difference in keeping us tasty
humans apart from the bugs and biting flies, which buzzed happily in the
mangrove by the jillions.
Guests use the main house and north house. The slightly warped
pool table is in the north house. The main house has a huge fireplace
located at the heart of the dwelling, which is shared by four rooms, each
getting a quarter of the beast. It is very famous for sucking any heat
out of the rooms and up the chimney, and also for supplying aromatic
smoke throughout the dwelling. The floors are old oiled wood, the walls
are stuccoed brick, and the attic is cluttered with neat things. A breezy,
shaded walkway and porches surround two-thirds of it at it’s flank. And it
is all very haunted, of course.
When there are people there, it is a happy, fun place at all times.
Never any complaints from anyone about strange noises, vibes, or things
like that. But when I’m alone out there, oh brother. So different. Some
claim to have seen the man sort of floating across the porch, an old
keeper who had drowned trying to save his daughter. A guy from town
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who used to work part-time for us saw him (or someone) sitting patiently
on the bench in front of the main house, looking, then pointing silently
out to sea. But he smoked so much dope, it could have been a pale guest
who just looked like ghost-like to him. Hell, he smoked so much it could
have been an ice chest pointing out to sea.
I never saw any apparitions, but at night, by myself, anything that
had to be done in the main house was done quickly, with the hairs on
the back of my neck at complete attention. My loyal companion, Hip,
who would follow me anywhere, anytime, would not go in the place at
night when we were alone. He’d sit by the front door, put his ears down
and whimper. That was probably the best testament to something strange
going on within. Dogs just know things.
In most households, a dog is a companion; in some, a decoration. At the
lighthouse, a dog was a necessity. You’re alone, really alone out there. It’s you,
your dog, and a gun if it ever came down to it. And as important as having a
dog and a gun, though, was the locals knowing that you had a dog and a gun.
On opening day of shrimp season; dozens of shrimp boats are
anchored right in front of the lighthouse, waiting for the starting gun
of the season, so to speak. Now I know that most shrimpers are honest,
hard-working men and women. But I also knew a few that definitely were
not. Walking past their table at the bar that day, I caught the throaty,
alcohol-slurred rumble of, “That rich lighthouse sumbitch.” I turned, and
got four very dangerous, broken-toothed grins. One had an eye out, top
and bottom lids sewn or fused together—a skin canvas stretched over a
sunken pit. Very serious bad-asses. And they were most likely on those
boats out front of the lighthouse right now, nursing hangovers, gazing
sumbitchward and planning their next felonious adventure.
So opening day of shrimp season was an invitation to all my
shotgun-owning buddies to come out and shoot skeet off the dock. The
Dilberts and their hunting buddies from Brown & Root and Alcoa, plus
cousins and in-laws and their buddies all gathered that important day for
a good ol’ down home Texas shootfest. Skeet and beer were on the house,
but it was BYO whiskey and shotgun shells. It got loud and rowdy out
there, just like I wanted, and everybody got the message. Skeet and paper
plate frisbees (soaked Chinets were the best) and later, whiskey bottles
and the occasional unlucky seagull were blasted to smithereens midst
clouds of cordite. (Yeah, yeah, we cleaned up later. Sheesh. And I’m lying
about the seagulls, officer. Honest. Heh-heh-heh.)
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I never had to use my gun in real life except for that rabid raccoon,
but we used the dogs once in awhile. When that little skiff puttered up
to the lighthouse dock at about two in the morning to see how secure
various outboards and radios were attached, and suddenly three dogs
charge out of the night and down the gangplank in unison and the
surprised enemy roars off Ohshit! And one of the snarling dogs actually
leaps off the dock in an attempt to land on the fleeing boat to bite
somebody and that somebody gets back to town and reports back to his
other drunken thief buddies about his harrowing adventure, well, that’s
better than a Neighborhood Watch decal, anyway.
Hip was the Alpha Dog. He would chase off coyotes, corner raccoons,
kill snakes. He just needed a girl dog to, you know, civilize him just a
tad. Someone to tell him to chew his decomposing fish before swallowing.
To sniff before biting. Yes, dear. So when I found Lady living in a tiny
fenced yard in town, I told the owner I had a better place for her. Lady
was a rambunctious Brittany Spaniel who needed open space, and I just
happened to have some. So one day she came out on a little boat ride
with me, and Hip sniffed her, and she growled and bit him and then they
got married. Her favorite hobbies were swimming and having kids. After
I’d finally get rid of her last litter (record, ten, 1983), she’d bat her eyes at
Hip and hook up and have some more. And after Hip died in a coyote
fight, she mourned for a week or so, then put on her makeup and swam
into town. She paddled back a day or so later with a dreamy look and the
next generation growing inside. A strong-swimming slut, but with a good
heart. Oh, don’t they all.
Close Encounters
The lighthouse guests’ visit begins at the boat dock in Port
Aransas—a long metal shed housing huge 40-foot sport-fishing boats.
Right in the middle of all that boat power are my little boats, looking like
toys. If the tide is low, you have to look over the edge of the bulkhead
to see them. We carefully pass the luggage down the ladder, then it’s
ladies and kids first. Kids get life jackets all the time, everyone gets them
at night. It’s usually a fun trip, coasting out past the breakwater, then a
charge across the ship channel.
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Sometimes huge tankers are gliding in or out and we escort them,
towering over us, amazed at their size. A lightly loaded one will often
show some of the room-sized prop, and we get a scary look at the huge
scythe, slicing relentlessly—tossing the water off in sheets. Dolphins often
accompany us, enjoying the free ride of the bow wave, or probably just
showing off. Kids squeal, and the cameras come out. At “the corner”, the
intersection of the ship channel with the intercostal canal, Brown & Root
has a huge manufacturing site. Monstrous, skeletal offshore rigs are lying
on their sides, with welders flashing on the thick pipes a hundred feet in
the air. At night, it’s lit up like Cape Canaveral.
Once past Brown & Root, it’s a straight shot down the intercostal
to the lighthouse. The narrow cut that is the entrance to the property
changes constantly, gradually filling up or moving around a little after
a storm. Sometimes we hire a small tug to anchor there, stern out, and
blow it out—the mud and silt propelled into the intercostal. That usually
holds us for a few months.
Often it is just deep (or shallow) enough that a full-power approach
at full plane will get you across, while a slower approach, riding deeper,
might get you stuck. It’s a tricky proposition; a boat-load full of guests
at warp speed, the final turn in, the trim button on the throttle bumps
the engine up, up, not too far—don’t let it cavitate now—as you try to
see the bottom with your X-ray vision, screaming by only feet from the
marker pole, a slight shudder sometimes as the prop bites a little into the
mud, but your mass barrels you through, and then you’re in. Power back,
the boat settles into the deeper water of the channel. Cameras come out
again for a classic shot of the place as we drift slowly in, and then we
maneuver alongside the dock, the dogs there to greet us.
In a heavy fog, the trip takes on a very different feel. The slow troll
out to the breakwater is okay, but the trip across the ship channel can be
dangerous. If the fog is thick enough, even the glow of Brown & Root is
barely visible till you’re almost next to it. A ship, even well-lit, can sneak
up on a little boat on nights like these. But to go slow is to increase your
time crossing their highway, so—heart in your throat and eyes peeled,
you blast across searching for the far glow you know is there.
Once at Brown & Root, your first checkpoint in a fog, you can
throttle back and get your bearings. You can now set up a compass
heading for the lighthouse—however, you inevitably drift a little, and it
is difficult to tell if you are near the edge of the channel, or smack in the
middle. There is constant barge traffic, and they can neither turn nor stop
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if you get in their way. We are on their radar, but they are invisible to us
in the thick night. The occasional blast of a tug horn gets your attention,
big-time. Four blasts and you had better do something, it means danger;
he’s coming down on you. Spotlights aimed toward the sound do nothing
but light up the swirling cloud and mess up our night vision.
On one wintery night, we are in fog as thick as I have ever seen.
There’s no wind, but it is very cold. We are past the corner, feeling our
way slowly up the intercostal and I lose my bearings. I’m out in the
middle somewhere, I think. There is the murmur of diesels all around us.
I turn west to find the bank, but it doesn’t appear. Damn, could we be all
the way over on the east side now? Just a few degrees off would do it, with
this current. Then we’d be cutting directly across the canal through the
invisible traffic. It just can’t be, yet . . . I’m tempted to gun it, but I need
to hear clues, to keep it steady. Everyone on the boat is tense, alert, eyes
straining in the night, ears trying to pinpoint the direction of their sound.
Keep 270 on the compass, steady. Suddenly, there are a lot of horn blasts,
there’s at least two barges out there pretty close, signaling both to me and
each other. We hear diesels roaring louder, then the dreaded four blasts, I
can’t tell how close. That’s it. Four means move or get hit. I speed up, we
have to be where I think we are—we have no choice, we’re committed.
After a few harrowing, excruciating seconds, half expecting the bow of
a ship to come looming over and crush us in the night, the tall sea oats
and mangrove appear out of the mist and I drive the boat into the mud.
Engine off and up, enough of this crap.
I jump out and hold it steady, cold water almost up to my waist
with this high tide. Is the noise getting closer? I ask for the bow line,
and announce that we aren’t going anywhere till all this settles out. I’m
shaking, I can’t tell if from fear, or the freezing water or a little of both.
“Were they close?” someone asks.
“I don’t know, can’t see a dang thing.”
One guest thinks I’m being over-cautious, and says so. I don’t care.
A green glow appears high above us and to our right, and then
the huge black slab of a barge looms out of the night with a silent,
unstoppable, menacing presence, parting the fog fifteen yards away, if
that. We are looking up at it, mouths open, offering some quiet “Oh,
my Gods.” We count one, two, three barges tied together—it goes on
forever—then the lights on the mast of the tug appear out of the fog,
and his engine noise surrounds us. He turns his spotlight on to search the
bank for us and the whole sky blazes white—it blinds him, it’s useless, so
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he turns it off immediately. He’s hugging the side of the channel himself,
slow and close as he can get, his diesel exhaust swirling around us, right
where we were seconds ago—making way apparently for another barge
coming at him down the channel on his port side; the other horn. Hell,
there might even be three out there. It is close, close.
The massive draw of water from the thing actually tries to suck our
boat out to follow it. I struggle to hold it, and one of the men jumps
out to help me. We see the silhouettes of two crew on the stern deck of
the tug as it passes, fat with their Mae Wests, lit from behind like the
aliens on Close Encounters of the Third Kind. They are searching for us,
or survivors, in the maddening din. Our radar signature disappeared
awhile back at this close range—they don’t know what happened to us.
Just gone. We yell and wave at them, but he’s maneuvering now with
tremendous bursts of power, port engine full reverse, bursts of starboard
full forward to swing back into the channel. They can’t hear us in the
roar, we can barely hear us. The now-muddy water really swirls around
us, so a third guy jumps out to help us hold it. I doubt they ever saw us
in this fog, a dinky boat in the weeds. In seconds, they disappear into
the haze, the lights slowly fade away, and we hear only the thunderous
revving of his engines. Holy moly!
We all look at each other, eyes wide, silent at first, then jabbering all
at once. Then the other guy and I start to pull along the bank, the mud
sucking at our shoes. A nice lady, Mrs. Paylor, starts singing, “Row, row,
row your boat,” and we all join in. Whoo-hoo! How exciting—water
temp maybe 60, air in the 40s, shiver factor: 9.9. Jeans, wallet, parka, all
soaked. When we’re sure there’s no barge traffic nearby, we struggle back
aboard. I putter us up the channel, keeping the mangroves close by on
our port side. We eventually make out the soft glow of the lighthouse in
the distance, schmooze through the channel and tie up. There is excited
talk about the event, and I am offered a swig of rum on the dock. I
usually only drink beer, but gladly accept tonight. Oh, man, it’s not just
good—it’s necessary! Warms me shivering timbers, matey. The old sailors
knew a thing or two about rum, ar-arrr.
Of course, it wasn’t all rum and revelry. I had two lighthouse lives:
the boating and show-the-guests-a-good-time life and a heavy-duty
maintenance life; I liked them both. Underneath the main house, a
massive junction of steel beams intersecting atop one of nine huge iron
pilings could take days of my maintenance life. Up on a ladder, chipping
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away the rust, then grinding the iron to shiny metal, treating it with the
appropriate wonder solvents, prime it, then paint it with two coats—and
a year or so later it’s time to hit it again. That’s just the way it was. Hard,
hot work. And sometimes cold. One winter night it freezes hard, bursting
dozens of exposed pipes under the houses. It even froze a little layer on
top of the salt-water in the toilets, for Pete’s sake. I don’t know how cold
it needs to be to do that? You tell me. Dang cold, though. For the next
few weeks, the tool shed was Freeze-Ass Plumber’s Central, with stacks of
pipe, and bucketfuls of fittings and elbows and sleeves scattered about. In
the finger-numbing cold of a howling Texas winter, I learned more about
plumbing than I ever cared to.
When not up on a ladder, the tool shed was where I spent most of
my time. Sifting through layers of old parts and tools and misc., like an
archaeologist on a dig. Drawers and shelves of stuff, with a battered old
workbench down one long wall. Generations of lighthouse keepers before
me had left their own layers of contrivances, and scratched their notes
for we who followed—their wise council: “Prime Seagull till fuel drips
from bowl + Unscrew Air Vent. Plug fouls E-Z, So Check Plug.” Another
note: “This drawer Pump Parts Bad.” Another: “Keep Line 2 gen. leads
off THIS MEANS YOU.”
The tool shed also contained the radio rack—there were no phones
when I first got there. You would call in to the marine operator and ask
her to dial someone for you. Cute, kind of like an old movie: “Mabel,
get me Doc right away!” The radios, too, had yellowed instructions from
the ages. A forgotten note to someone, a layer of the past, hidden in the
shadows behind the big, black Zenith: “Radio buz at 20 HZ use lowr
freq. Get Milk.”
The tool shed was a tinkerer’s dream. I fixed pumps, screens, doors
and hinges in there, day after day, in the wonderful quiet. Sometimes a
radio for company, or the clatter of dog nails on the walkways as they
patrolled, or perhaps the caw and squabble of some gulls in the distance,
but mostly languid and hushed. Taking things apart that seemed dead,
but just needed a little attention and a squirt of WD-40. Strips of wood
from boats or a kitchen renovation were always there, lying across the
sawhorses, soaking up the new coats of paint or lacquer.
After one hurricane, I found the battered, overturned, engine-less
little Boston Whaler a mile up the slough and towed it back. The
center console, splintered and bent, was rebuilt along with other
hurricane-damaged things in the crowded shed over the next few months.
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Wood, glue, clamps and screws, all patiently fitted and varnished
under the watchful eyes of the wooden duck decoys up on a shelf, and
a half-dozing dog lying below them, dick-up in a sunbeam. Tinkerer’s
dream, heck. It was tinkerer’s heaven.
The back third of the tool shed was storage, tons of cans of paints
and who-knew-what from about the Civil War era on stacked back
there. Once I went into the storage room through the narrow door and
froze. I sensed it before I saw it. The cello in my brain played the “Jaws”
music—a menacing ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum; I looked up and saw it’s
heart beating through it’s heaving chest, his huge yellow eyes hovering
over me about four feet up; the Angel of Death. His wings extended
straight out, entangled in the rafters, his face like an owl. A big, big, oh
so very big owl. Like four- or five-foot wingspan. (I don’t want to hear
any “aw, come on nows” out there. That’s my story and I’m sticking with
it—if you don’t like it, get your own durned owl.) We both froze, I don’t
think anything had ever stared so intently at me, ever. Other than Sister
Redempta, of course.
I backed slowly out and heard wild heartbeats, his or mine, I’m still
not sure. He must have flown in the front open double doors of the tool
shed after a rat or mouse or something, chased it through the back door
to the storage room, hit the brakes and swooped up to slow down, and
was now stuck up there. The windows in the back were shut, so he didn’t
come in that way. I found a long piece of wood, stood at the very edge of
the door, eased the stick inside, and jimmied up the window nearest him.
(We had those old, counter-balanced windows built with ropes, pulleys
and weights in the casings. They rose magically with a gentle shove—
surely the start of many a ghost story.) I said very softly, “Here, owly,
owly. Nice, owly, owly.” With the window all the way up, he still might
have to duck to make it out. But if he was really tangled up in there, well,
he’d have to pretty much figure that out himself. I wasn’t going to pull
any of that Marlin Perkin’s Wild Kingdom of Omaha silliness with this.
His claws were as big as my hands.
I left, but checked back every few minutes and he hadn’t moved, not
a feather. So I stomped down the boardwalk toward the docks to let him
know I was leaving now—so long, Mr. Owl, I’m taking off, it’s safe to
come out now. I might have gone into town for a stiff drink and some
owl spray, I don’t remember. Anyhow, I came back sometime later, and he
was gone. He was polite, he broke nothing, he didn’t even crap in there.
Plus he didn’t devour me, of which I will always be grateful.
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There was a wondrous variety of motors and things always under
repair in the shed. Pumps were scattered everywhere on the work bench;
submersibles, in-lines, you name it and I had a busted one of it. There
was a row of pump hangar queens on the floor, sacrificing an old this
or that to their newer brethren, so that guests could have the occasional
shower or flush the occasional poop.
One particularly unlucky little pump sat on a seven-foot high
platform next to the boat channel. It’s job was to suck salt water all its
tragic life, pump it into a holding tank, and try to maintain pressure on
it at all times so that the toilets 200 feet away would flush. I think on
some weekends when I would pull in with six or eight people, I could
hear it weep. We encouraged all males to pee outside whenever possible,
especially at night, and most accomplished this directive with aplomb.
After a few drinks, movers and shakers were standing shoulder to
shoulder with their things in their hands, discussing stocks or mergers
and acquisitions while aiming for the stars.
Salt water was pumped to the toilets, but fresh water was provided
by cisterns located behind the houses. As many of us old people know,
cisterns collect rainwater from roofs. They need real, live rain to work.
After one busy and very dry summer, the water is almost gone. There
is one last party scheduled, a big one. I report the scarce quantity of
water to Charles. Do we buy a barge load of water for just one party? It
could rain any time, but maybe not. I’m on my brand new, new-fangled
telephone recently installed, and he’s in his office in San Antone,
apparently in a full-on CEO mode. He gives me his ultimate boardroom
executive quip, meant to instill fear and action in all underlings whose
reports are less than satisfactory: “How could we have prevented this from
happening?”
I thought, gee, I don’t know, Charles, let me think. A rain dance? Or
maybe we can just move the whole operation to Seattle.
Work Party
The invitations were sent out months ago. Preparations at the
lighthouse begin days before the big July 4th party. We decide to go
ahead and buy the water, cleverly arranging for the water barge to arrive
at low tide. That way we got a free channel flush in the process as the
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valiant little tug shoves, bulldozes, grinds and generally flat-out rams his
heavy water barge through the slot.
Just about everyone in town with a skiff who doesn’t start drinking
at breakfast is hired to ferry guests; there will be about seventy attendees,
counting us worker bees. Cooks are brought out to survey their kitchen.
It will be set up under the main house, huge burners lined up, rows of
folding tables here, extra propane tanks over there.
We unload a backup generator and fire extinguishers. A doctor will
be there, cleverly disguised as a guest—but with a footlocker full of
defibrillators and other goodies hidden nearby. I string up the signal flags
from the top of the tower down to stakes in the mangrove in a maypole
pattern, three rows. Two say nothing, just pretty flags tied together, but
one will have a message. We get out the signal code book and tie the flags
together, snickering at our cleverness. I run out of “P”s but that’s okay.
“Ahoy Capitalist igs,” they welcome colorfully.
There are ice chests by the dozens, backbreakingly heavy, full of
wine and pop and yes, even a few beers. There’s the local favorites,
Lone Star, Shiner and Pearl, plus the exotics—the Heinekens, the
Lowenbraus and the lovely Coronas, with limes by the case. God, I love
this job. We unload shrimp by the boatload; steaks, salads, you name it
come ashore. About every piling has a huge trash bag duct-taped to it.
The all-important porta-potties are strategically placed downwind of
the kitchen area. My little pump weeps for joy as he watches his three
fiberglass saviors motor up on the launch.
At daybreak on the big day, the fireworks people are picked up at
the big dock in town; ammo and gunpowder and mortar tubes fill up
my trusty 20-foot Aquasport (the Chevy pickup of boats), two loads,
and we all quit smoking for an hour or so. The weapons and weaponeers
are dumped off on St. Joe’s Island, across the wide channel from the
lighthouse, where they start digging in to prepare for tonight’s battle.
Three big sailboats from town arrive and anchor in front of the
Lighthouse—rich boat buddies of the owner, and we ferry them in and
out. The women really do say “dahling”. The chefs fire up, their chili and
gumbo will cook all day. More wheelbarrows of food and ice roll up and
down the gangplank. The band is set up, wires snaking from amps and
keyboards to junction boxes all over the place. Billy the electrician from
town is invited, just because. Sandra knows who to invite to a party; the
plumber, the electrician and the outboard mechanic are all VIPs.
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The guests begin arriving, boat by boat—it’s a traffic jam at times.
Everybody gets a thorough doggie-sniff clearance at the dock as they
disembark. The party itself is frenzied fun: a swarm of people—up, down,
in, out, eating, throwing horseshoes, oohing at pretty things, playing
pool. The boats never stop, either someone has to leave early, or we run
out of red pepper flakes for the crab boil. “I leave zem in ze van, go,
hurry!” the chef pleads, almost weeping.
Charles weaves through the crowd, meeting up with old friends,
chatting and observing. He catches Sandra’s eye and motions her over to
him. “Sandra, mosey on up to our friend Vincent there,” he says quietly,
watching the young executive start to drunkenly blubber his career away,
“and accidentally knock his scotch off the railing. Then give him this.
Tell him it’s from me.” He hands the red plastic cup to her. An iced-tea
mickey.
I catch a precocious youngster hiding under a table downstairs,
feeding the hot dogs straight to the real ones—he’s on about the second
pack when I snatch him up and deliver the little dahling to his beaming
mummykins.
“What a good little boy he is,” she exclaims, and I heartily agree.
I then glance nervously to the side, and whisper, “You know there’s a little
bit of a tick problem down below. Shhh, don’t tell the other guests.” Dahling
little Cody and Mommy stay up on the walkways the rest of the night.
As the evening progresses, almost everyone makes a run up the
tower—one of the young boat drivers from town is stationed up there all
night to help guide noggins from the unyielding hatches and doors they
have to crawl through. The view from the top is great, but the alcohol can
make us sea-level people giddy way up there. It’s a hard crawl, especially
the last seven feet up the skinny ladder through the floor-hatch. We keep
our fingers crossed and the Band-Aids ready.
The fireworks go off on time, the food is great, no one falls or
drowns; it’s a successful party. We take them all back, there’s a convoy
of boats, a flotilla. Some express they’re undying thanks, love and loyalty
to whoever is available out on the dock, and we pour them gently down
into their seat, taking extra care with their life jackets. Big John, a
captain-of-industry steel guy and hotshot sailor from San Antonio shakes
my hand on the dock, his paw squeezing me at the edge of pain. “Good
job, son. Great party.” He smiles, but doesn’t let go. “All’s us ‘capitalist igs’
enjoyed it.” Oopsie.
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The next morning, the clean-up begins and takes all day. Here’s how
you put a full porta-pottie on a little boat: very, very carefully.
A big draw for guests was uninhabited St. Joe’s Island, across the
intercostal from the lighthouse. I would ferry a load of explorers across,
with plans to meet back up at a certain time. They disembarked, and
were as alone as they might ever be, ever. There is no one there.
After a little hike across the narrow, low island, they are on one of
the last stretches of completely undeveloped beach in the United States.
No people, no cars, no boats, no nothing. Just solitude. And trash, too,
according to the whims of the tides and storms. Except we didn’t call it
trash, we called it jetsam. Or flotsam. I forgotsom. Sometimes it was quite
pristine out there, scrubbed clean by a good norther, other times it was
an absolute junkyard—fascinating with its varied treasures. Tires, trolling
“doors” from shrimp boats, light bulbs of all shapes and sizes, too many
to count.
A Piper Cub tried to land once and tripped over on its back in the
soft sand. Before it could be salvaged, a fierce norther wrapped it into a
ball. It’s still there, anchoring a new little sand dune, and has become a
birthing center for coyote pups. Sometimes there were huge gobs of wax
half the size of a car—we think they used them to plug wells offshore.
A lumberyard of bleached wood, shells, pieces of unlucky boats, and the
ever-present plastic containers and bottles and six-pack rings—probably
the most prevalent feature of any beach, next to sand itself. I found the
top of a human skull once, and added it to my shell collection. Others
carted off buoys and floats of all shapes and sizes, driftwood to decorate
an entry or a garden, just a huge free trash sale, open 24 hours. Come ’n
get it.
We had a lot of famous guests whose names I am never supposed
to ever divulge, so I’ll start with Lily Tomlin. A very nice lady, shy, who
enjoyed St. Joe’s more than almost anyone. At first, she seemed stunned,
she couldn’t believe how isolated she was. No handlers, no paparazzi,
no one. I sensed this was new to her, completely new, so I stopped and
puttered with some sea shells or something and let her walk on ahead. I
remember her small figure amid the low dunes and sea oats, face to the
sky with her eyes closed, just turning slowly with a dreamy smile. It’s
Tuesday, and this is the first day it hasn’t been rainy and cold since she got
here, and we all appreciate it. Her trip was turning out fine.
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It had started a little rough. I’m at the boat dock, waiting for her to
show up last Saturday night, and there’s a wild Texas good ol’ boy party
going on Skipper’s huge Bertram next to me. Large, successful men under
the influence of expensive whiskey are telling bawdy stories in the haze of
cigar smoke. One yells, “Viet fucking Naaaaam!” and throws the closest
body he can grab over the side. Ker-splash!
At that moment, Lily and her two friends show up, tugging suitcases
through the small door, looking lost. One of her friends has bright,
electric pink hair, the first we had ever seen. The party stops immediately.
You could hear a pin drop. You could hear a man mutter “What the f—”
You could hear another man say “Shut the hell up, T.J.” Even the drunk
in the water treads quietly.
“Well, heh-heh,” I say, breaking the silence, “let me help you there,
nice to meet you. They won’t hurt you. Will you boys?”
“Sorry ladies, forgot our manners,” one says. “Have a nice fucking
boat ride.”
We hustle the suitcases down the dock and load up under the quiet
murmurs and stares of the Whiskey Brigade, then putter out into the
night. The girls are shivering like wet poodles.
James Michener’s wife and his ghostwriters came out on a huge
helicopter, researching his book Texas. (Mr. Michener was in Dallas with
some bigwigs and couldn’t make it.) The big helo couldn’t land in the
soft marsh, so it hovered as the dogs went apoplectic, and several figures
stepped out first, then his wife, Mari. We all had a nice lunch, while Mari
entertained us with stories of high society and adventure. She was a hoot.
His sleuth-writer-guys scouted around, taking notes, still wearing their
New York trench coats.
I would write about more famous guests here, but the Secret Service
said they’d shoot my little pink ass if I did. I really think they meant it,
especially that one scarily quiet guy, so I won’t.
Kids loved crabbing off the dock, the old fish heads from yesterday’s
feast are jammed into the traps, and soon—just minutes, sometimes—a
trap of fighting mad crabs are spilled out on the dock for the little girls
to squeal at, and the brave young boys to follow behind, trying to get the
courage to pick them up without the net.
Catching fish was a blast, too. The tug of a one-pound croaker or
gafftop was something a lot of these kids had never felt before. There
were some mighty battles fought on that dock. The type of fish we were
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after, or the bait used, wasn’t that important. We just loaded up the
hooks with whatever was handy and let nature take it’s course. Of course,
I was smart enough to know that the much-prized speckled trout would
only hit fresh, live bait, and told my fiancee so one spring morning.
Shawn poo-pooed me, stuck the sliver of bacon on a hook, and we still
have the photo of her cradling that magnificent trout, beaming at the
camera. She’s saying something, but I can’t quite make it out.
I met Shawn in Port Aransas a year or so earlier. She had just moved
from Scotland, had been living in Europe ten years. She was married to
a rich guy over there, so was a sort of high-society chick. They had Elvis
Costello at one of their parties. Recently divorced, she was now in Port A
to regroup; her parents were retired there, living in a little beach house.
She did not fit in, not at all. Didn’t understand the language, didn’t
understand the culture (as there was none, as far as I could tell, except
drinking and fishing). Clint was down for the flounder run one fall, and
he and I saw her shopping one night in the dinky, wooden-floored store
that passed for the supermarket. We made all the appropriate noises, the
hubba-hubbas—she looked away, disgusted. If only I had a dead frog on
the end of a stick to chase her with, I’m sure she would have bed me,
immediately. Other suitors clamored for her attention, the only woman
in town with all her teeth and no tattoos. A real catch. She was pretty and
thin, almost regal in her bearing. Her walking through town to the beach
was like the Queen visiting a refugee camp, the local peasants gawking.
Eventually, I woo Shawn out to the lighthouse. She gets the tour, I
get . . . nothing. Hmm, this one is going to require serious effort. We
date, she loves the lighthouse, is good with the dogs and the boats. She’s
fun, and a gourmet cook. Cornish hens one night, Beef Wellington the
next, with asparagus and hollandaise in her little trailer in town. We knew
that her parents would drive by late in the evening to make sure my car
did not spend the night. But clever lovers that we were, I’d park a few
streets down in the dark and hoof it back to her casa for fun and frolic.
Her father later confided that they were on to us. They watched in shifts.
Retired people have entirely too much time on their hands.
One afternoon at my palatial lighthouse quarters, she opens the
refrigerator—“What the heck is this? A six-pack of Lone Star beer and
leftover cheese dip from last week’s party? That’s it?”
“Don’t be silly,” I tell her. “There’s much more beer out back, by the
water heater.”
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She feigns disgust, then walks down the dock, fires up the boat,
and goes to town for groceries. I watched her roar down the waterway,
expertly threading the channel entrance, long hair blowing straight back,
and realized that this was the woman I would marry.
Ultralight
When I first saw one, I had to pull over. It was on South Padre Island
Drive. (A beautiful name, but with the terribly unfortunate moniker of
SPID.) You had to be careful not to get stuck in the sand on the shoulder.
This thing was brightly colored, maybe a quarter-mile away, flitting over
the flat pastures like a butterfly. The strange noise of it finally registered:
a chainsaw. Soon it was joined by another and they circled together,
buzzing. What the heck?
They came down the road toward me. As they got closer, I could
see the structure, or lack of it, tubes and wire, all wrapped in red and
yellow sailcloth, the sun shining through it. Closer still, I saw the pilots:
helmeted, with gloves and jackets even on a spring morning. They
lowered toward me, a lone target on the side of the road—perfect for a
strafing run—the noise increasing like a banshee. The first pilot waves
at me, I wave back. The second one makes his whole craft wiggle at me
somehow. They fly over me, following the road, getting small in the
distance.
I look back to where they came from. In the distance I see them.
There is a metal barn with bright planes sitting in a row, cows grazing
nearby. I drive over to them and pull off to the side again. What are
those things? Who are those guys? The caliche road leads in a straight
line toward the barn, over a cattle guard. I drive in and park by the barn,
which I now see is a makeshift hangar. I walk toward the group and
they look toward me, both of us sizing each other up. “What are these
things?” I ask.
“Ultralights,” one of them answers. “Take a look.”
I mosey from one to another, brightly colored cloth stretched
between anodized aluminum tubes, forming the structure. A few follow
me around answering my questions. The planes differ in shape, slightly,
but most follow the same basic format: high wings, seat slung below,
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with gas tanks mounted to the rear of the seat. Engines near the center of
gravity, some above and in front of the pilot, most above and behind him.
Basic controls: rudder pedals, a stick, some teeny instruments.
I see through the open doors of the Dodge van that it’s full of parts
and accessories: propellers, sail cloth and tubing. I get the feeling these
fragile little planes are like exotic little sports cars, and they probably
spend more time tinkering with and repairing than actually flying. They
ask if I want a ride, ten bucks. I say sure, let’s go. Am I afraid of heights?
No. On any kind of medication? Nope. I sign the release and a pilot
named Kenny and I walk out to a little two-seater.
Kenny is a lanky, cocky type—long hair and bushy sideburns. If he
wasn’t about to mount a little airplane, he’d probably be straddling a
Harley. He goes over a basic preflight, shows me how they are built, tries
to convince me that it’s stronger than it looks as it twists in the breeze. He
helps me into the seat and hands me a helmet. He does a last fiddle with
an overhead wire, then gets in beside me and his long hair disappears
under his own helmet. It’s jet black, emblazoned with big red letters:
KENNY done in that fiendish Grateful Dead sort of design. Underneath
his name in smaller type: “God Hates a Coward.” He puts his visor
down and motions for me to do the same. “Lotsa bugs down low. They
hit your eye, you’ll think you been shot or somethin’. Hurts like hell. A
dragonfly’ll probably knock your ass out cold,” he says with a sly grin.
“Now put your seatbelt on and let’s start this mother up.”
We strap in, then he reaches up over his shoulder for a pull-cord and
yanks down. The engine catches with a roar, the 40-horsepower chainsaw
roaring inches behind us. He opens the throttle and the banshee scream
increases. We trundle out to the runway, a cleared circle in the middle of
the cow pasture with a windsock in the center.
He positions us into the wind, pushes in the throttle full forward
and the scream gets even louder. We gather speed, dodge some cow pies,
then the bumpy ride becomes mirror-smooth and we’re flying. Levitating
is more appropriate. I look down, delighted, as the windsock and cows
get smaller, but don’t move behind us at any great speed. Man, this is
fantastic! It’s too loud to talk, so he nudges my hand with his, and points
to the stick. I take it, and make a few gentle movements, the craft follows
my input serenely. I turn an easy 180, and now with a tailwind, we sail
over the ultralights below us at a pretty good clip.
Kenny yells at me: “Use your rudders.” I give them a little dance, and
feel the tail swing out when I push a pedal down. Flying these things is
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just about as natural as it gets: left, right, up, down, it’s all too easy. He
nudges me again, he wants to take it. I’m grinning like a fool. “This is
far-out!” I yell. He nods, he knows. He does a few steep turns, shows me
a stall, then gooses it and heads up as fast as he can go (which isn’t much,
but it sure sounds impressive with a little two-stroke motor at 7,000 rpms
screaming ten inches behind your head).
We get up to a thousand feet or so and he reaches up and flicks off
the engine. Silence. What the hell is going on!? “These things glide real
nice,” he chuckles. “It’s perfectly safe to kill the motor and enjoy the
quiet. Just be sure there’s a good place to land underneath you when you
cut your power.” Wonderful, incredible! Cool-o-rama! I lean over and
wave at the crowd. I doubt they can see me, they’re little dots amid the
colored rectangles of the wings below. We weave down, he explains a
few things now that it’s nice and quiet, and soon we are positioning to
land. What seems painfully slow up high gets going pretty good when
your butt is a few feet off the ground, coming in for a landing at about
30 miles per hour. There is the soothing whoosh of wind in the wires, a
gentle flare, and we make bumpy contact as he steers toward the crowd.
With perfect timing, our engine-less momentum carries us right to them.
I let out a whoop and we all cheer for each other.
I’m out fast, signing papers, and my lessons begin the next day.
There’s some basic ground school, and learning where you can’t fly these
things is very important. I solo pretty quick, then buy a nice used one.
It’s name is emblazoned on it’s rudder in black Magic Marker from it’s
previous owner: Champ. I am hooked.
I immediately tell Sandra, and her good friend, Conrad. Older than
us by about ten years, Conrad is smart, stocky and confident. His house
is a maze of projects: hot tubs, fountains, fire pits and rebuilt engines.
When the nukes go off, when the whole thing crashes, when the wolves
are at the door, you would want to be hunkered in with your basic
Conrad. He is one of those maddeningly smart people who knows
everything and how it works: bugs, battleships, cocoa futures, it makes
no difference. He knows it. He can show you which bushes to eat. He
can get electricity from a rope. They come out the next weekend and I
show them my new toy. He buys one immediately (and improves on it, of
course), and soon we’re a common formation in the air.
After the Great Big Cow Stampede of 1983, our operations are asked
to move from the farmer’s field. So we find a new field in Portland, north
of Corpus Christi. Smooth grass, nice hangar, but no cows. We’ll miss
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that big, excitable herd. It’s the same group of pilots from the cow field,
plus some new guys. We go on excursions, gathering around maps in
the morning calm, planning the mission. Dawn patrol. We start up, and
soon a noisy formation of ships head out for so-and-so’s field, or a certain
beach. We’re explorers, strafers, barnstormers, flying by the seat of our
pants—exhilarated with the adventure of flight.
Portland gets to be too long of a drive every time I want to fly, so I
decide to base the plane at the lighthouse. Kenny, my instructor pilot,
thinks it’s possible and one day he lands there. “Needs a good headwind”,
he announces, “and you have to dump it right over the keeper’s house,
but you can make it.”
I measured off my meager airstrip between the house and the canal,
a wavy pattern of hard sand among the mangrove bushes. Seventy feet
of low scrub, then 105 of sand. Back at the Portland strip, I marked off
105 feet on the grass runway with a squirt of red spray paint, and let her
rip, practicing both landings and takeoffs. With a strong headwind, I can
make it, but without one, there’s no way. The wind is my friend.
One gusty day, I fly out to the lighthouse and made a few practice
passes. Dang, I don’t know. Too long here, and you’re in the water, that’s
just the way it it’s gonna be. On top of that, I have to come directly
over the roof of the two-story keeper’s house, lose altitude immediately
without snagging my ass on the lightning rod, and make the landing. The
FAA would frown, but Kenny did it, so . . .
The dogs are still not sure who or what the hell I am, flitting noisily
about, and they are running around, on the dock, on the runway,
constant motion. After about the third pass, each getting closer and closer
to the roof of the house, I go for it. I come in slow above the house, and
directly over the roof, kick in both spoilers, which immediately stalls me.
My craft plummets, but the forward motion carries me over the edge of
the roof, and then the walkway. Now my speed has increased, though,
in the dive. I level out at about three feet, too fast to land, and sail over
the horseshoe pit and a flash of low bushes and then my runway. Spoilers
out again, plus a juicy sideslip, and it settles. I brake hard, and, still
steering with the rudder on the crooked trail, stop with my front tire an
easy couple of feet from the water. And even if I do go into the water, it’s
pretty shallow till the drop-off—ten or fifteen feet out. Piece o’ cake!
The dogs are not pleased at all, barking and now starting to charge
toward the interloper. Hip is the closest, and even after I take off the
helmet, he’s not sure. I shut the engine down and try to call him. To let
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this, this noisy thing onto his property, even if it has a voice like mine is
still asking a lot. Eventually, he comes in for sniff, then he’s wagging and
it’s safe to come out of the beast. He christens a tire, I let him.
There’s probably better environments for a delicate little airplane than
tied down outside in the weather on a salt marsh, and sitting in a few
inches of saltwater during a tide. But that’s where she stayed, tied down
tight. I think it made her tougher, that and baths of WD-40 and fresh
water whenever I could.
I’m sure Charles, the owner of the lighthouse, cringed with every
flight—his anti-lawsuit prayers helping to lift me safely up. I fly a lot,
waiting for that strong headwind, then heading up for hops to town, or
Portland, or else just up the empty beach at St. Joe’s, racing herons or
my own shadow. The feeling of freedom is hard to describe when you’re
a few thousand feet up, and there’s nothing in front of you but your
shoes poking out. Reliving my first lesson, a fun thing to do was cut your
engine and glide down to a field. If you start high enough, you’ve got a
good five or ten minutes of fun, engine-less gliding and whooshing. Pull
the stick back till your forward motion nearly stops, and the wind in the
wires slows to a whisper. Then the nose drops at the stall and the shriek
of wind picks up, fast and loud as you want it. You yo-yo down, and it’s a
lot of fun. Then, if the small green bushes in the field you have chosen for
landing don’t turn into cactus at the last second like that one time, you’re
having a darn good day.
Conrad is still based in Portland, but we fly a lot together, meeting up
over Brown & Root or wherever, and when I crash that day way out on
St. Joe’s Island, in the middle of nowhere, he’s with me. He lands on a flat
spot near my wreck, and walks through some sand dunes to me. “You all
right?”
“I think so.” My helmet is cracked where the motor broke loose and
hit it. My ankles are twisted and sore. The plane is a bent heap.
“What happened?”
“Damned motor quit again. But I was too low to glide anywhere, I
just went in.”
“I’ll say you did. Picked a nice dune to hit, though.”
“Hell, it picked me—took about two seconds to hit. I hate these
damned two-strokes—” I’m hobbling, cursing. My plane’s a wreck.
Conrad sizes it up. “Take mine back to the lighthouse, and get
the boat.”
“What? I . . . I don’t think I want to fly right now.”
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“I know you don’t, but I’ve never landed at the lighthouse. If I
overshoot the runway and mess up the landing, we’re both screwed. Plus
we need the boat to get this wreck off the beach before dark. Can’t spend
the night here, feeling sorry for ourselves.” He turns and heads back to
take his tools out from the small backpack strapped to his seat. I really
don’t want to fly just now, but he’s right. I follow him, stumbling and
hopping. We crank his up, and I take off.
About two hours later, I find him with the boat and maneuver up to
the beach through the small breakers. He has mine disassembled already,
parts arranged neatly, a few untorn surfaces weighted down with scoops
of sand in the evening wind. He loads most of it, I can barely walk. We
motor back to the boat barn in town. The next day he gets a trailer and
takes the twisted remains to his house. I don’t know if I want to fly those
things anymore—I might give it up. Shawn never did like them, and now
she’s really scared.
Conrad calls me next week. “Come on over for a beer.” I drive up,
and Champ is sitting in his driveway, completely rebuilt. I can’t believe it,
I don’t know what to say. “How much do I owe you?”
“Two hundred for the sails, got ’em used. The rest is from Smitty’s
old wreck.”
“Thanks.”
“De nada, mi amigo.”
We push it up a few blocks and through some surprised traffic to the
median next to the Interstate, the closest clear stretch. I thank him again,
and I’m airborne and aiming back to the lighthouse before that Highway
Patrol car can even make a U-turn.
Puerto Rico
After surfing all that Texas had to offer, and after about our third or
fourth California safari together, my surfing buddy Bergin and I are ready
for something different; bigger waves, bigger adventures. Hawaii was
too far. The surfing magazines entice us with this place—Puerto Rico.
Hawaii-sized waves and cheap airfare. We talk to those who have been,
they tell us where to surf, where to stay; they recommend it—it’s a darn
good surf trip. We make our plans, pack the boards, and head for the
airport.
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Bergin eases into the aisle seat beside me. I remember when we first
moved to Pasadena, he lived across the street from us. Soon, he was
snooping around, bugging me to take him surfing. Snooping around my
sister Diane, too. (He later caught her, or she caught him. I’m still not
sure how that thing works.) He wanted to help me work on my car. He
wanted to help me fix dings on my surfboard. I chased him away at first,
he was two years younger, a lifetime then. But he persisted, and soon we
were on the beach and I was teaching the basics: how to wax it, how to
scramble up in a smooth motion. He’s ready. I announce in surf jargon:
“Let’s hit it.”
“Hit? Hit what?”
“The surf, ya little turkey. Let’s go surfin’. Let’s hit it.”
We paddle out, punching through the warm little waves. I show him
how to keep the nose up on takeoff, then turns. He’s a natural.
Now he’s a full-fledged part of the surf crew as we terrorize the breaks
of Galveston. Over time, the original crew began dropping out, getting
jobs, getting wives, or just getting out of the surfing life, but Bergin
stays on. He’s good, and getting better. We surf everywhere; Port Isabel,
California, every stinking jetty in Galveston. Freeport and Sargent’s. His
hair is long now, good God, what have I created? He’s a full-on surf rat.
His wisecracks are legendary, plus he can mimic John Wayne better than
the Duke himself.
So now we’re on a Continental Airlines DC-10 halfway across the
Gulf of Mexico. The stewardess offers us a choice: “Chicken or quiche?”
He gives her his best Duke: “Real men don’t eat quiche, little lady,
wah-hah.” She moans, but it is perfect.
The plane makes the normal noises as the wheels and flaps grind
down into the slipstream and the plane lowers, the ocean comes up closer,
closer, and there is the shoreline and then the city, immediately. We keep
lowering into the city of San Juan, right into the middle of it, it seems,
and right before we touch down, I am looking up at dreary high-rise
tenements, decorated with colorful laundry out on the stoops, fluttering
like prayer cloths.
We’re picked up at the airport by Kahuna, a big, fat, friendly guy
about 60 years old, with a battered blue van. He owns a surfer hostel in
Rincon. We load our bags and stuff our surfboards inside, crawl into the
van, and—nothing. He leans his head back and pulls the bill of his cap
across his eyes, then starts to snore.
“Hey, Kahuna, let’s go! What’s up?” I prod him.
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“We wait,” he explains. “Another flight coming, has other surfers on it.”
“How long?”
“Oh, one hour. Maybe two,” he answers, his eyes still closed under
his pulled-down hat. Welcome to tropical time, it’s no big thing over
here. We’re just not used to such casual wasting of precious life, but he is.
So we wait.
Soon, the next group arrives, kids like us, mostly from the East Coast.
The squeaky old van eventually chugs through Rincon and soon after
that, pulls into the compound at Kahuna’s. It’s a long concrete barracks,
with about eight or nine rooms, two beds to a room. There are two toilets
at the far end of the hallway and a shower. Out back is a big, sloping
lawn, decorated with surfboards.
Kahuna and Mama’s house is separate, and Mama keeps it neat.
There are brilliant flowers in rusty coffee cans all over the place—Mama’s
colorful touch. She’s even bigger than Kahuna (no mean feat!) and acts
as our own doting mother. She shushes us when we get loud or cuss, tells
us we need to eat more. They have a little kitchen set up for us, a bar
with stools and their son is the cook. He’s a gentle giant who knows two
recipes: he can pour a bowl of cereal, and he makes fantastic “jamon y
queso” sandwiches. Ham and cheese, built on the incredibly hard Puerto
Rican bread, melted in a little toaster oven. You can cut your mouth on
the bread there, I think they use cement instead of flour.
Once unpacked, it’s time to hit the surf. We head for Maria’s, our first
taste of tropical power. The water is clear and warm, and the rocks and
urchins on the bottom seem frighteningly close. The waves are big and
fast. People are pretty nice in the lineup; you know some from Kahuna’s
already. Soon comes your first wave and you discover your board is
wrong, wrong, wrong. The little twin-fins of ’70s Texas fame skip and
spin down the faces, performing incredible feats of daredevil foolishness,
right before they launch you into the waiting rocks. They work fine in
Texas and small-to-medium California, but not here. We figured a board
was a board, but we soon learned differently. Some of the Florida and
Carolina surfers tease us good-naturedly: “Man, you Tex-ass bozos suck.”
But they’ve been there, they remember.
That evening, as we compare wounds on the lawn, they loan us
their extra boards. Narrow boards—called “guns”. We learn more about
the thinner tails you need for the speed of the waves here, how the rails
need to be harder, to hold an edge. You don’t wiggle down the faces here,
you charge straight down, carve a big bottom turn, and get set up with
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some speed for whatever the wave offers next. We learn to ride bigger
waves—how when it’s windy and you think you have it, you need to give
it another few strokes and be going down the face as you stand up. Stand
too soon, and your silly little Tex-ass ass is perched at the top of a hissing
lip and you are about to be pitched, pardner, big-time. Yee-hah! Ride ’em,
cowboy!
But we eventually learn, and soon we own boards specially for Puerto
Rico; we go back often, year after year, sometimes twice a year. It’s a good
surf trip. We get a little more confident in large waves and meet up with
buddies from previous years. Some are married now. One wins a contract
to pour foundation slabs for all the KFCs in north Florida—he’s rich.
Another geek we harass for seasons becomes a VP for Revlon (with his
daddy’s help). He could buy Kahuna’s entire operation with lunch money,
but gives Mama a washer and dryer instead.
What was a slightly scary experience at first becomes easy—like a
second home to us. The old air base at Ramey offers a thick peak with
few rocks. You can try some more daring maneuvers there, and the
consequences are less bloody. We get to know more locals, we travel
further to “secret spots.” We learn where to get the 3.2 beer cheap. We
visit El Morro, the famous fort, do Old San Juan, tour the rain forest.
A roadside taco vendor entices us with his aromatic creations. We
dig in hungrily, then recoil at the greasy, foul taste. “What the hell is
this meat?”
He roars with laughter and points to a dog limping on the road. “You
eat his sister! Come back tonight, me cook whole family!”
We learn which stores stock the incredible varieties of food marked:
“USDA—Not For Sale.” It’s fresh and cheap. Their sweet gherkins and
polish sausages are the best we’ve ever had. The taxpayers back home
would be amazed at the bargains here.
Eventually, we’re loaning our narrow boards to the new kids now,
telling stories of bravado out on the lawn at night. We surf hard, and
sleep easy. The mosquito nets work most of the time, and the lizards are
too busy eating our soap and toothpaste to bother us in the night.
There’s the bad, too. Petty racism on and off the beach, some fights.
Crooked cops, the normal third-world thievery. There was a sad tribe of
dopers from the States pretending they had found some kind of tropical
nirvana, but really they were just some stoned dudes living in shacks.
Puerto Rico had it all: good, bad, happy, sad. But by golly, it had
some surf. Bergin and I keep a diary of our visits penciled on a beam at
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Kahuna’s. Most trips were good—some epic, some not so hot, just like
anywhere. He gets good, better than me, and is soon charging big Tres
Palmas, the ultimate ride out there. He later moves there with my sister
and their son, a story in itself.
I walk over to him one evening, I think on the beach at Wilderness.
He’s studying the rip, the line-up before our evening session. This can not
be the same little kid who pestered me as I tuned my car, who bugged
me to take him surfing with us. No way. Different person, entirely. He’s
a living poster child for Surf Hunk, USA. His long hair is lightened at
the tips by the sun. His strong chin and features are tanned dark. His
muscular body is the strong, lean build that years and years of serious
surfing will create. We are looking at waves we could not have imagined
riding a few years ago, but here we are. I ask, “Whaddya think?”
He turns his head to me, and with a grin says, “Let’s hit it, ya’ little
turkey.”
And one day, it’s my last trip there. But I don’t know it at the time, of
course. I go back to Texas and propose to Shawn.
joss4.com
Chapter 8
Hawaii
W
ell, here we are. Shawn and I on our Hawaiian honeymoon,
with a secret side mission to see if we want to risk a move
here and we find it: the Hawaii magic. It’s here if you look
for it and are open to it, even in crowded, noisy Waikiki. On our first day,
we are looking at the fantastic waves rolling in from our lanai at the Ilikai
(the landmark hotel from Hawaii 5-0’s famous opening sequence). We
take in the heady scent of flowers, the tang of ocean, the sweet air that
just traveled thousands and thousands of cleansing miles over the Pacific,
then right up our snoots.
Hawaiian music wafts up to us from somewhere below, mixed in
with happy laughter. There is a spectacular rainbow, and now something
new to this Texas thunderstorm refugee—a misty presence. Hard to
describe the rain here sometimes, it feels different on a molecular level.
Of course it rain rains here too, sometimes torrentially, but often it’s more
like a delicate sprinkle, a cooling mist. I watch the tiny droplets cling
to the hairs of my arm, a miniature landscape of glistening jewels. They
don’t penetrate to my skin. I am standing in the rain, but not wet, as a
gossamer veil of liquid paints me.
I look out to sea, back to the rainbow, over to my equally
wet-but-not-wet wife, then back to my glistening arm. I’m transfixed
with the beauty of it all and I’m not even drinking yet. We say nothing,
but we both hear each other’s silent decision: we’re moving to Hawaii.
Back in Texas from our trip, we make the big announcement. Some
friends don’t believe us, some throw us parties. Charles and Sandra
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Tom Hanley
interview people to take over the lighthouse duties and choose a nice
young couple. She’s a marine biologist, he can fix boat motors. They both
fell in love with the lighthouse dogs and want to keep them. Perfect.
Shawn and I sell our cars, and put our meager belongings in storage.
We say our last good-byes at the airport, and eight hours later arrive in
Hawaii. We struggle down the jetway, and are soon in the open-air lobby
of Honolulu International. The smell of plumeria lei is mixed in with the
odor of jet fuel. There is a lot of bustle to and fro as we put our bags
down, gather our wits, gaze out. We look out toward the city, Diamond
Head in the distance.
“Well, Hanley,” Shawn says. “I guess we’d better find us a couple
of jobs.”
I look at her and smile—What have we done now? “Yeah, I guess we’d
better.”
We’re booked for a week at a dinky hotel on Kuhio Avenue in
Waikiki. We scour the paper, make some appointments to see apartments.
Hawaii is crazy expensive, always has been. The rents are twice our
mortgage back home. We open a bank account and the lady at the bank
suggests a friend of hers who sells cars. We meet him, he’s a little shyster.
We look at a little blue car.
“Has it been in a wreck? It looks repainted,” I said, looking him in
the eye.
“Oh, no, Tom, all original, never damaged.”
I pop the hood, it’s painted a slightly different blue in there.
“Why, you’re right, Tom, it has been repainted. Boy, you sure know
your cars, Tom.”
We go to a dealer down the street, find a kid we like, and buy a used
Mazda from him.
Okay, now for a place to stay. We look at an apartment on Puulei
Street at the base of Diamond Head. An old hippie is showing it to us. It’s
dark inside, with plastic love beads for doors and nice orange shag carpet
that smells like cat pee. I’m not so much open, as desperate. Shawn sniffs
at it and we move on.
We finally find a nice place on the Ala Wai canal, right next to
Waikiki. We’re seven floors up. I’ve never lived up, anywhere. An elevator
to your house? Incredible. But it has a view of the ocean, and we take
it. Every month, it takes a huge hunk of our entire life savings in rent.
Despite Hawaii’s reputation as relaxed and laid-back, we feel a certain
pressure to get jobs—fast.
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In between interviews, I do what I really moved here for. Surf! The
water is so clean, the waves so fast and powerful—it’s nirvana for a surfer.
I start with the easy waves of Waikiki. Something about the sunshine,
the smell of coconut lotion and plumeria blossoms, that make even the
crowded waves here friendly. Visitors squeal and wipeout in front of you,
you don’t care. What would be a serious transgression in California gets
a pass here. There’s just so many waves, we’re having too much fun to
worry about little things. It’s a big, beautiful bunny slope.
However, even the bunny slope gets hairy when a big south swell
hits. Small-wave manners and small-wave riders disappear when the big
ones roll in. First of all, it’s not as crowded out there when the waves are
big, because the true bunny-slopers can’t make it out. The pretty, splashy
white water will knock the snot out of you if you’re in the impact zone.
And if they do make it out and catch one of the deceptively smooth
monsters, they are soon underwater, thrashing and struggling, asking God
or Buddha to please, please, please let them make it to the surface. They
come in whooped, but with the surf story of their lives and toast those
big waves with a mai tai from their lanai. They’ll never believe it back in
Baltimore or Osaka. Cowabunga!
A big, smooth wave at Waikiki is a treasure. It comes smoking out of
the blue, the top feathering already. You quickly calculate the peak, the
crowd—it’s yours, so you spin and paddle hard. The wave lifts you and
you stand and plummet down. At the bottom, you crank a long, smooth
turn, keeping your speed up and then start slicing along the smooth face,
as wiggly or as zen-smooth as you want. The wave rears up as it starts
to trip on the shallow reef. You know from experience that this is the
moment. You shift your weight slightly to the rear, raise the nose and stall
a little. Immediately, you shift your weight back forward and retrim as
your slowed board rises up the face, and just as the lip of the wave arcs
over your head, your newfound speed matches the curling section, and
you’re in the tube.
This is it, magic. Maybe it’s the adrenaline, or a trance of some sort,
or maybe there really is a little portal in there where time slows. I swear
it does, just for a second—plus it gets quiet. You are in the shadow of
your own time machine; notice the smooth wall to your right, you can
touch it. The water looks still till you put your hand in it, then the little
wake you make when you scratch the surface speeds back and up over
your head with amazing speed. The water curves, defying gravity. It’s thin
above you and you can see the sky through the water, and it continues
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down past your left shoulder, slightly serrated now. It’s a ribbony waterfall
and begins exploding on itself, curling in on itself a few feet below you.
Ahead, the oval picture frame speeds along, with you in it, your
left arm thrust out into the sunlight, the painting changes constantly as
other surfers paddle into your picture, whoo-hooing your ride. You see
the green of Kapiolani park, the hotels of the Gold Coast on Diamond
Head’s flank. Some waves swallow you at this point, and some let
you escape—blasting out, as you rocket yourself straight up into an
exploding, aerial kick-out, howling, flying through the air and then
falling, catching another glimpse of Waikiki before you plunge into the
clean water. Man, this is surf city!
Surfing at Diamond Head has a different feel. You paddle out the
long channel, slightly askew. There are big currents here, and lots of
wind. The waves are big and thick. A wipeout here is not the fun, giggly
wipeout of Waikiki. It’s dark, with a serious hold-down. Even when you
make it back to the surface, gasping for air, you are often hit immediately
with a second wave, then a third. Paddle-outs from the inside can be
fierce, the peaks shifting, and a path that you calculate will suddenly grow
a snarling peak, impossible, yet there you are, being thrown backwards
through the air with your hands over your face to soften the blow of the
reef or your board—if you’re luck continues the way it has so far today.
It’s an interesting sensation to be underwater, twisting and pummeled
by the wipeout, then feel the mighty tug on your leg as the wave snatches
your board hard enough to snap your leash, and you finally surface,
gasping for air, and see your board dancing it’s way all the way back to the
beach just as the next wave smashes you and drags you under. Not a fun
sensation, but interesting.
I surf many days at Diamond Head in the summer where the waves
are so scarily big, they close out. You will not make it, the waves throw
themselves out and explode in fifty-yard sections. Yet, we have to take it,
we have to at least feel that drop. The wind, the blinding spray, it’s just
sick, stupid really, and yet we launch. Kamikaze missions, hopeless from
the start. You sit in a tight group just outside the break with the local
surfers, and discuss the huge waves with them in their colorful native
language: “Whoa, fuck!”
“You see dat fucking fuckah?”
“Fucking A, brah.”
Even big Diamond Head pales by North Shore standards. I’m
not good enough to ride the huge winter surf. I’m a go-cart rider at
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Indianapolis out there. I’ve done what you might call medium-sized
North Shore, perhaps double-overhead, and it’s survival to me, every
second. I’ve paddled out when it was bigger, sniffing at the edges; it’s
frightening. When I get out of the car on a big day, gaze out to the
smoking breakers way out on the horizon, and all of a sudden have to
take a crap, that’s a little signal: brain to Tom—let’s not.
I land a job as a graphic artist for a tourist magazine, and Shawn sells
coral jewelry for a local gift shop. It’s quite an idyllic life for two Texas
transplants—evenings strolling the beach to catch the famous Waikiki
sunsets, and Shawn is soon heavy with child, as they say. Over the next
few months, we waddle to the beach with our friends, Joe and Amy. She
is equally pregnant. We have a favorite spot at Ala Moana Beach Park,
we christen it The Baby Tree. It’s a magnificent monkeypod, right on the
point by the seawall. Joe and I surf off the rocks there at Bamboora’s, while
the womenfolk sit in the dense shade of our tree and plan our futures.
Things will be different when the kiddo arrives, we know. We price
Pampers, go to Lamaze class, talk with those who know. Shawn allows
a gracious extravagance before the big event, a dream of mine only
half-fulfilled from my Texas ultralight adventures. We allocate some
precious moolah for me to get my pilot’s license.
Eight Yankee Whiskey
I’m getting close to solo, my flight instructor and I both know it.
After my ultralight stint, flying was pretty easy. Just a lot of procedures
and radio work to keep me honest, flying among the real planes, as Jim
put it. He’s my teacher, an ambitious little lothario who was on his way to
piloting the big jets, but has to jump through the normal hoops first, and
one was to be a flight instructor for awhile. Hours and hours in cramped
little Cessnas, teaching others, filling out logbooks—plus long nights of
teaching ground school.
The lesson starts typically enough. I preflight it, we go over the lesson
plan and climb in. Learning to fly in Honolulu is different than most
airports. We’re mixing in with heavy jet traffic from day one, so radio
work is very important. I make my calls to clearance delivery and ground
control, then it’s “Clear prop!”
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The quiet is shattered by the raucous little engine—the panel shakes,
the wings shake, you shake. I ease in the throttle and taxi to the run-up
area where pressures, temperatures and flight controls are tested. It all
checks, our hardworking little steed is running fine today. A final check
on the ground frequency, and the tower clears us to taxi. We hold on the
taxiway as a commuter jet slams in, white smoke swirling from the mains.
We look at each other and wince. I ask if that was one of his old students.
Yeah, yeah, very funny.
We’re cleared for takeoff and our little plane buzzes down the runway.
We lift off into the slight turbulence of the mountains upwind. It’s
early in the day, so it’s not too rough. Afternoon flights are downright
bouncy at this point. We’re cleared for the Red Hill departure, a sweeping
left turn, then to Ford Island to practice landings. I look down at the
complexity of runways and taxiways, the spidery terminals and industry
of the Honolulu airport, and miss my cow pastures, my own private little
Lighthouse International. Oh, well. This is fun, just a different kind of
fun. In just a few minutes, we get into the pattern at Ford Island, space
ourselves with other traffic and are soon on our downwind leg, the
runway 600 feet below and to our left. Ford Island is smack in the middle
of Pearl Harbor, where we little airplanes learn to land and takeoff and
stay out of the way of big boys. The runway begins at the western edge
of the island against the water, and ends at some palm trees and a dinky
golf course at the other end. There’s not much else there, old WWII-era
buildings, a faded tower, the Arizona Memorial on the southeast corner.
Surrounding it are various groups of mothballed ships, tied close together,
up against the edges of the harbor. We’re turning final now, I’ve made
my GUMP (landing) check, we’re lined up good for our first touch and
go. We come down smooth and easy, I crab it a little into the crosswind,
then we squeak onto the runway, rolling right down the centerline. I pull
flaps up, add power and carb heat and we accelerate down the runway
and take off.
At 600 feet, the power suddenly cuts back to idle—he’s going to test
me on an engine-out emergency again. It’s a basic training maneuver. You
have lost power; what will you do? Where will you land? He’s done this
a dozen times to me before, so I’m ready for it, this’ll be easy. I lower the
nose, begin a gentle left turn back to the runway and start to call the tower.
“I’ve got it,” comes an unusual command in my headset.
What? Jim’s on the radio to Ford tower, engine failure he says, clear
the pattern. The little motor is running, but barely. He moves the throttle
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in and out gently, trying to find a sweet spot where it will pick up. No
dice. We’re down to maybe 300 feet downwind and about mid-field.
I want to take it, I know we can make the turn and slip it in. He says
no, we might stall-spin. My ultralight instinct says bull, we had it. We
continue down, he slips it hard, power all the way back now, trying to
lose altitude, maneuvering over the centerline, still downwind. We’re way
too low to turn now and we can see that we’re not going to make it, we’re
going to sail off the end of the runway about twenty feet up, then into
the drink. Ah, crap.
So now he has to ask the sick little engine to rev back up, please! He
is massaging the throttle, the mixture, it picks up a little, still sputtering,
as we continue to lose altitude. I lean across him and crack open his door,
then mine. I remember that from a lesson. What to do when you are
about to go in the water: open the doors a crack so they don’t get bent
shut when you hit. Honolulu is a dangerous place to lose an engine. You
are going down in the ocean, the city, or the mountains. Our only good
place to crash-land is golf courses, we keep an eye out for them all the
time. Don’t see any at Pearl today, just a big damn water hazard.
We sail off the end of the runway, barely above stall speed and lower
to just above the water. Our descent stops, but we can’t go higher. We
are in ground effect now, a puffy little bonus this close to the surface.
We’re maybe six or eight feet off the water and struggling. The scruffy
banks of West Loch are ahead of us and coming up fast, so we begin a
smooth, careful turn to the right where there is room to maneuver back
around. He is sweating and serious—I pull his belt tighter, he nods. The
engine is on the edge of quitting, we hear and feel it, but the little motor
sputters on—I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.
We adjust our path slightly to miss a sailboat, an old man at the helm
turns and looks at us seriously, head swiveling to follow us. I see his face
clearly. Halfway through our turn, we’re headed for a flotilla of identical
mothballed destroyers, tied side-by-side, their anchor lines reaching out to
where we will be in a few seconds. We tighten the turn a little and the stall
horn, which had been chirping on and off since the beginning of this mess,
starts braying like a donkey. Shit. It’s a delicate balance between stalling
and snagging an anchor line, but I think we’ll make it. We turn, shudder,
straighten, lower the nose and turn some more. We look up at the bows of
the ships scrolling slowly by above us and ease over their chains.
We continue the turn, heading back for the narrow channel where
we started. Jim then eases a steady, wide left turn back toward the edge of
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the runway where we sailed off a minute ago. This is it. The rocky bank
is nearly vertical, higher than we are, coming right at us. We consider
quickly putting it in the water, it would certainly be survivable at this
speed. Nope, he’s going for it.
As the dirty rocks fill our windscreen, he actually dives a little for a
last ounce of speed, then hauls back and gooses it—we balloon up and
stall, immediately. The engine quits, the stall horn blares, but we’ve
cleared the rocks. We sail just feet over some scruffy grass as it rises to
meet us, then clomp down pretty hard in the turf, bounce up on the
gravely end of the runway and stop. Damn! The whole runway’s in front
of us. I mean, we have used no runway. I think it’s a record for short
landings. We’re goddamned carrier pilots.
Jim cancels our emergency on the radio, shuts off the switches, and
we get out and push it off to the side. We walk toward the tower and
meet up with the people who were running over to see us crash. There
were the normal whoops and congratulations, then the second-guessing:
should we have done this? Or that? What happened?
A mechanic from our flight school flies out and starts going over it.
Can’t find anything wrong. The gas is clean, everything checks, but no
power. Carb ice? No way, it’s been sitting for an hour. Then he finds it—a
wad of air filter has broken from it’s screen and lodged in the carburetor
intake. So we fly it back, filterless, and I solo the next day. Eight Yankee
Whiskey with a new air filter is my favorite ride now, it climbs really
good with only one person in it—like a little hot rod. Plus it will do
anything to stay out of the water. I like that in an airplane.
Jim has a watery adventure of his own the next year. He and another pilot
are hired to ferry a small twin-engine plane to California. It’s an elaborate
process, taking out the back seats and putting a huge gas tank back there.
Installing brand new, rock hard tires for the weighty takeoff. Special radios are
installed, and antennas are stretched out and drilled to the wingtips. Life vests,
life raft, flares, all loaded and stowed, the works. Reams of flight plans are filed.
They take off with no problems, and use the gas in the wing tanks
for the first eight or so hours. They remark how much better their
performance is than what was calculated.
Almost exactly halfway to California, the wing tanks are empty, and
they switch to the huge tank in the backseat—the one that had been
leaking ever since they left Honolulu. That great, big, empty one right
behind them. The engines sputter and die. “Gosh darn”, I bet they said,
among other things. Anyway, it was a textbook rescue, the “Maydays”
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relayed from the descending little plane to the jetliners miles above. These
calls were then forwarded to Oakland Center, and soon the Coast Guard
C-130s and nearby ships were converging on their last position. After a
relatively smooth landing in the water, they spend what they claim is their
coldest night ever, shivering in the freezing water sloshing into their life
raft. Plus they might have been just a little, you know, terrified.
A boat drifts up to them the next morning in a fog, a rusty old
freighter, no engine noise, silent and creepy. They clamber up the rope
hanging over the side, and there is no one on the boat. Just two words
written in blood on the forepeak: Help. Zombies. Well, anyway, that’s
what he told those chicks at the bar when he got back—kind of a hero.
One of the girls knows a thing or two about zombies it turns out, so they
go back to her place to perform some tests, to make sure he’s okay.
Lau-Lau
Our daughter Lauren was born in 1986, a little, happy, pink, bald,
expensive bundle of joy. Our friends warned us to not let her “train” us
to get up every night, responding to her cries. I couldn’t wait for her cry,
more like a chirp. I’d get up every midnight just about, get her bottle, and
set us down in the little recliner by the front window. We were in a dinky
house in Kaneohe now, banana trees out front. If there was a moon, it lit
up the yard and glimmered softly on the weaving banana fronds—Hawaii
has big moons. She would be sucking away, trying so hard to keep her
little eyes open, not wanting the moment to stop. I guess we trained each
other, it was pretty nice.
For two years, I sat at my little table at work, waxing paper strips
of copy and pasting down little screened photographs of mai tais and
hula dancers. We were building one of the many tourist magazines that
littered the streets of Waikiki. My coworkers were young, female graphic
designers who lived with their parents, and would stay at home and
cheerfully work for eight bucks an hour until their fiancee’s got their
degrees in law or medicine. And their replacement would be another
cheerful, industrious little graphic designer who’d live with her parents in
her own little room, in the little house she grew up in, in Kaimuki or
Kailua or Aiea, till forever. So if they worked for eight bucks, I worked for
eight bucks. It was just the cruel economics of the place. Why move out
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and struggle to pay the rent, they reason. Why not get a nice little car,
save the rest for trips to Las Vegas, and watch TV with your Mommy and
Daddy at night? Families are close-knit and tolerant here.
Most of my buddies on the mainland were pretty much kicked out
of the house at age eighteen with a hearty “Good luck, son.” Here there
are two, sometimes three generations sharing their childhood home in
crowded good humor. Everyone knows how much everyone else earns,
it’s not a deep, dark secret like it was at our house. The money was
often pooled, then divided with a plan, a communal interest. “Keith, he
da smart one, he will go Berkeley. You, you stay gas station, you not so
smart. But we find good girl for you. Can build in back.”
I showed him the article one day, told my boss sarcastically that if I
earned only twenty-eight dollars less a paycheck, I was eligible for free
government cheese. He said, “I’ll be glad to cut your pay.
I said, “That’s not what I mean and you know it.”
“I know, I know,” he sighed. He’s had this conversation before, many
times, with many people. “Look,” he said, pointing to a jet descending in the
distance. “There’s probably ten artists a week getting off those things, ready
to take your job in a second. They’ll work like the devil, surf their brains out,
and when their savings are gone, they’ll go back. That’s just the way it is.”
By now, Shawn was managing some jewelry stores on Maui and the Big
Island, as well as Oahu. This required her to travel a lot, so the decision was
made: I will quit my easily-quittable job and work freelance. This allows
me to be more flexible in my work hours, and also to work at home on
some projects. I will be Mr. Mom. I can also earn more, assuming I can
find work out there. If I can’t, there’s always government cheese.
The ad agencies were a little spooky to me, huge undercurrents of
political intrigue and conspiracy swirled invisibly around me, like a
dangerous day at Diamond Head. The decor was way too trendy; sleek,
dark and hushed. The people dressed like New Yorker wannabees, all
black and grey and hip. Success here was often earned with sleek hair and
a good golf swing. Some agencies were friendly, of course, but some were
downright sinister; beady eyes following your every move. Who are you?
How do you threaten me?
“Lighten up,” I’d say, with a little fart in the break room. “I’m just
here to save your ass, then I’m gone.”
Freelancers were usually brought in only when the stuff hit the fan, so
we worked in a frenzy. Problem solved, and then we’re outta there. Fine
with me.
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My freelance work at a magazine was no less hectic. At an agency we
worked on the brochure or the ad, getting the page absolutely perfect,
taking weeks if necessary. At the magazine, we had to make 144 pages
absolutely perfect every issue, each page fraught with peril. We’re finally
finished, it’s printed, then we all gathered around in helmets and flak
vests, waiting for the grenades to go off.
“What the hell is this, topical drinks? Who proofed this?”
“B-But I spell-checked it . . . it didn’t see topical, topical’s not bad—it
likes topical. I didn’t edit it.”
Our catastrophes weren’t as good as a stock crash or a refinery
explosion, perhaps, but we made do; we created our own little dramas.
143 perfect pages, one boner—and that was all we will ever remember.
Back in Texas, I’d spent three or four years in the advertising department
of a large company. An almost countless amount of ads were produced by
our busy group, thousands, tens of thousands, and I only remember that
one: Hane’s T-shits, pkg. of 3, $6.99.
I worked for her at the magazine. My wife still half-jokingly suggests
we had a fling. Never, honest. She was pretty though, and single. Things
had slowed at the magazine where she worked—sorry, no freelance work
for awhile—but she said her townhome needed painting. A lovely gesture
when you think of it. She knew we just had a kid.
I arrive Saturday morning with my rollers and brushes, my
paint-splattered work shorts and a raggedy old tank top. She answers
the door. I had never seen her except at the office, wearing her full office
regalia. Sheesh. Short green shorts, terrific legs, tight T-shirt. Gosh, is that
a nipple? I blush and look down quickly. “We’re going to have to, um,
re-caulk those baseboards.”
“Okay.”
There is never any flirting, no wink-wink suggestions, nothing. She’s
the perfect lady. It’s just our clothes, I guess. It’s just what we wear in
the steamy tropics on weekends—comfort clothes. Affair clothes. You
never hear about people having affairs in Nebraska and Wyoming—they
just don’t dress for it. It’s only in your warmer climes: your Florida Keys,
your Redondo Beaches, your Koolau Gardens, Unit 26A. Those are your
hotbeds of sin and passion—heck, we’re halfway undressed already. I
silently curse my Catholic upbringing, then get out my caulking gun and
get to work.
123RF, Chris Boswell
Chapter 9
Seattle
O
ur beautiful little three-year-old walked up the sidewalk to our
front door in Kaneohe and said in perfect Hawaiian pidgin,
“I haf go bafroom, yah?” Our dinky house was surrounded
by other dinky houses where everyone spoke this peculiar dialect—an
English language seasoned with Hawaiian, Samoan, Filipino, and
goodness knew what else. A big, melting pot stew of a language that
could sometimes barely be understood. The neighbors were nice, but very
“local” and Lauren was perfecting the danged local dialect all too well.
This could mark her for life, we knew, so we decided to move where they
speak English. Regular American English. That left out Texas, of course,
and the South. And fuhgeddabout the East Coast. We could’ve gone back
to Kansas or something, but once you’ve lived by the ocean, well, you
need water nearby, you just do. A lot of people in Hawaii get “rock fever”
and move back for various reasons. Hawaii is a hard place to make it for
most. We were doing okay, but there was no way we could afford to move
to a nicer neighborhood. This was our “rock fever” move.
We bought three one-way tickets to L.A., put a down payment on
a car and headed up the coast. We kept on finding little things wrong
with every place we drove through, even Cambria. Hippies and pervs
and million-dollar shacks were passed by right and left. Up the glistening
coast highway to the wet, surprisingly scruffy Northern California coast.
We had a brief fling with the idea of Portland, Oregon till the bums peed
on our car when we went downtown. So when we got to Seattle we sort
of ran out of America and thought, What the heck? We got there on a
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Tom Hanley
clear day, it smelled of pines and that delicious, heady saltwater tang. The
city glistened, and Mount Rainier loomed like Olympus. But we were
duped, man.
Seattle was absolutely, wonderfully gorgeous those four or five weeks
it didn’t rain between 1989 and 1993. We bought a house east of Seattle
perched on the side of a cliff overlooking Lake Sammamish, a long, thin,
glistening body of water. The porch off the second story struck out into
space, we had to look down to see our neighbor’s roof. Shawn couldn’t
look over the edge unless she had a drink. When a front blew through
(like every other ding-danged day), standing out there in slickers and
boots was like being on the bow of a ship in a storm. The huge pines in
the backyard swayed and creaked like masts, tricking your eyes and inner
ear, and it could make you sway yourself—grabbing the rail as you leaned
into the sheets of spray, your ship pitching and rolling in the storm as the
horizon disappeared and vertigo set in. And that was sober.
Lauren got into a lovely little school where English was spoken,
and Shawn and I went out there and hustled up a few jobs. All in all,
it was pretty, it smelled nice, and it was wet, wet, wet. I grew used to it,
discovered how to dress in water-resistant layers, grew little gills behind
the ears, lost all skin color—I was becoming acclimated. Shawn wasn’t.
“What a lovely, invigorating morning!” the well-dressed local woman
said, her scrubbed, healthy face looking up to the Seattle sunshine
dripping down on them, her $300 Lands End jacket and $4 mocha latte
insulating her from the reality of the situation.
“Oh, shut up,” Shawn answered, ready for a fight. “This place reeks.”
Still, we tried to like it. We skied in the winter and explored the San
Juan Islands in the summer. There were amazing sights, a real Northwest
wildness, all new to us. That eagle’s relentless pursuit of that poor,
drastically maneuvering seagull for some transgression, possibly fifteen
minutes of pass after pass, the seagull tiring with each frantic turn, then
the final, bloody swipe, the gull tumbling to the water, the dogfight of his
life over. We watch, stunned, as the bear charged up the steep Wenatchee
mountain slope like a dog, tucking his hind legs under him at each leap,
triggering little avalanches of loose rock with each pounce. It would have
taken a hiker twenty minutes to struggle up what took that bear about
thirty seconds. So very glad he was interested in something in the other
direction.
We learned the local lore, stood in awe at the roaring presence of
Snoqualmie Falls and watched them film “Northern Exposure” in a
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little town just up the road. I waved at Shelley once, the hot-chick main
squeeze of Holling, and she waved back, but that’s as far as it went
between us. I didn’t call out or blubber something pathetically fan-like,
that would be unmanly. If she wants me, she can find me. She’s a big girl,
and I’m in the book.
Lauren was at a wonderfully impressionable age then, just when
we learned about “vision quests” from a storytelling neighbor. It was a
sort of initiation rite where native children tromp off through the forest
to explore the spooky woods, and maybe later sit down for a little rest
on the side of the trail and close their eyes for a minute and when they
open them again, there will be a particular vision or critter staring right
back at them that will define who they are most like in the natural
world—usually a cuddly bear cub, or a crafty bobcat. But it could also
be a stupid, gooey bug, in the case of mean Matt down the street, her
nemesis, her enemy number one and, her daddy suspects, her secret love.
I eventually crafted an acceptable story of the brave little Lauren and
her loyal little Indian friends as they set out on their own vision quest
through the forest, choosing the animals (or insects) for each child with
elaborate care. We sat there on the high deck, the sun going down, the
lake glistening gold, watching the bats zig and zag after their bug dinner.
I recited the vision quest story over and over and over that year, her in my
lap, listening intently as children do, ready to jump in and correct any
mistakes in our journey.
I managed to befriend a pilot, and we zipped and swooped in his
snazzy little LongEze above the islands of Puget Sound. It was like a
little swept-wing fighter, control sticks instead of a wheel, with a clear
blown canopy—fast and maneuverable. I relearn the inherent danger
of flight, that things happen at such a great speed, you just can’t react
fast enough sometimes. Appearing suddenly from behind a small cloud,
some tiny white crosses became huge seagulls on a collision course with
us in seconds. Neither of us have time to maneuver; we miss by feet. We
fly island to island, landing for the famous “$100 dollar hamburgers”
(named for the cost to get there) that fliers savor.
We met another couple, Mark and Linda, with a young boy Lauren’s
age. Mark was the photographer at the advertising agency where I found
a job. He loved the Pacific Northwest and was more than happy to share
his knowledge of the area with us.
He had his head shaved smooth, a rarity then, and I asked why. He
showed me a photo of himself next to his bike a few years earlier. His hair
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was incredible—thick, matted, heading in all directions at once. “I’ve got,
I dunno, six or seven cowlicks up there. Everyone called me ‘Chewbaca’
after that Star Wars monkey thing. So guess what I was every Halloween?
I just got tired of it. This is soooo much easier, plus Linda always had a
thing for Yul Brynner. Heh-heh.”
We rented a rustic cabin for a week with them, perched precariously
on a beach cliff on Orcas Island. While the women and kids played
Trivial Pursuit inside by the crackling fire, Mark and I discovered a
magic portal from the back porch directly into The Milky Way. We were
stunned by its clarity, its denseness. There were too many stars, I’d never
seen anything like it, not even in Kansas. The stars were too bright, too
impossibly radiant. Our eyes hurt. We needed more whiskey to dilate our
pupils properly; we were being blinded by the heavens.
We discovered a new constellation that night, we were sure of it: four
little stars in line, blinking on and off like Christmas lights, it seemed.
They were talking to us, we could see it, they were sending us code; we
struggled to figure it out. “Dah-dit, dit-dah-dit,” it said, and we scratched
it down, got out the Boy Scout manual and interpreted it excitedly.
“Hello, earthlings,” they signaled, “We are the constellation Jack Daniels.
Now quit leaning on that spongy railing and call it a night. By the way,
your wives are pissed.”
Mark and I also did a lot of camping, sometimes short overnighters
with the kids, but also with this serious hiker, Peter. His short, thick legs
were like pistons; he set a constant, fast gait that left us behind, wheezing
at him to slow down. He was just one of those disturbingly fast trekkers.
I like to stop, look around, suck in the air. Not him, he liked to rack
up some miles. He was never winded and he’d talk constantly: women,
politics, baseball. He’d had a bunch of neat jobs; one was smuggling gold
or jewels around Thailand or somewhere. That’s where he learned to hike,
long and fast. A more recent career was some kind of a missile engineer.
He talked about missiles like normal people talked about cars: “Ah, the
Titan is a piece of crap. And the Atlas couldn’t lift shit till they strapped
that Thiokol booster to its ass.”
He led us past the treeline, commenting on rockets, gold, Republicans,
Montagnards, you name it. We’re high, really high, and finally reach our
campsite named Little Siberia. That should have been a warning right
there. We pitched the tent at dusk, warmed a little soup and bread, and
just broke out the libations when a funny wind suddenly whipped through
the night, cold and metallic-smelling, then stopped abruptly.
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“Uh-oh,” Peter warned, and scuttled into the tent.
Mark and I looked at each other, “Uh-oh what?” And then the
blizzard hit hard. We crammed into the tent, the weight of our three
bodies barely keeping it on the ground in the shrieking storm; but soon
the low ceiling was crushing down on us. Heavy wet snow was out there,
piling up fast. We couldn’t knock it off from the inside fast enough, so
we took turns hustling out in the storm to scrape the stuff off the tent.
About every ten minutes, one of us had to go out and snow-doze in the
howling night. After a shift, we’d crawl in, covered with the stuff, and
the snow melted on our clothes. We undressed the outer layer before
climbing, shivering, into the warming bag.
It really didn’t make much sense for all of us to be miserable in turn,
so I volunteered to just stay up and do the tent thing till the storm
abated. They agreed that was a great idea. I wasn’t sleepy, I was terrified—
there’s two feet of snow out there and it’s only been an hour. I thought
we just might get buried out here tonight. “You can’t really get trapped or
snowbound in 1993, can you? I mean, there’s rescue helicopters and dogs
with brandy running around, isn’t there? I’m new to this snow stuff.”
“Nah,” Peter said. “We’re probably dead. We didn’t sign in at the
trailhead, so no one knows where we are. Wouldn’t know where to look.
And we just ate all our food.”
Mark mentioned the story about the ill-famed Donner party and the
cannibalism that ensued—“Hey, those things happen out here.”
“Oh very funny.” The wind continued to howl, the snow piled down
on us; I took a warming swig of whiskey. “You two do look a little like
drumsticks,” I told them, wrapped in their brown sleeping bags.
Peter said, “Oh yeah, well, you look like a Twinkie.”
Mark says he wasn’t hungry, yet, and curled up in his very warm,
very expensive Gore-Tex sleeping bag. Peter purred that he’s also sooooo
warm in his la-de-da bag. Mine was thin cotton. These guys had the
best equipment, stuff you really needed if you were going to be serious
about camping up in the high mountains. I don’t. I’m a high mountain
camper-poser.
So all through the night, crawling in, crawling out, keeping
an anxious watch over my shoulder for bears or Yetis or whatever,
whacking snow, I did the cold calculations—what I’d need to spend to
make it out in the Great Northwest: super-waterproof lightweight tent,
$150. Gore-Tex sleeping bag, $150. Super-duper insulated parka (also
Gore-Tex), $100. In fact, I need the whole Gore-Tex undergarment
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family, long underwear and socks, probably another $50. Monster
Gore-Tex hiking boots, $150. I must Gore-Tex myself. All the other
warm, sleeping snoring bastards in my immediate vicinity had the best
equipment—their little bodies curled comfortably in their Gore-Tex
cocoons.
What the heck is Gore-Tex anyway, besides expensive? Named after
somebody named Gore? Or Tex? Would Tex Ritter use Gore-Tex? Would
Gore Vidal use Gore-Tex? Nah, but he’d probably blame it’s invention on
the military-industrial Pentagon death-junta, write a book about it, get
on Oprah, and make a million. Would Al Gore use Gore-Tex? Did Al
Gore invent Gore-Tex? He was on a roll with inventing the internet and
some other stuff back then, you remember. But if his dutiful wife was
helping him, down there in his basement laboratory, wouldn’t they have
called it Tipper-Tex? No, wait, she’s a Gore, too. No matter. All night I
swept snow, shivered, cursed and calculated. $600 for the whole ball o’
wax. Pretty big money just to sleep warm.
By morning, I had made my decision. I’ve got $600! I’m gonna spend
it! Tired and freezing, but with a sense of euphoria, I lead us down the
mountain under the thick gray sky, shoving through waist-high snow.
So good to finally decide, everything was so clear now. I was having my
own darn vision quest right now! I will sleep warm! We walked, no, ran
down the mountain in snow-crunching leaps, shin splints be damned.
We found Peter’s jeep, scraped off a mountain of white stuff, blasted
down Interstate 5 back to Seattle and unloaded at Mark’s house. Quick
good-byes and a last slug of whiskey. “Later, man. Good luck.” Then I
hopped in my car, rushed to the bank, took out the $600, and bought
three one-way tickets back to Honolulu.
123RF, Gennadiy Poznyakov
Chapter 10
Swimming Back
C
an salmon come back twice? Is it legal? Well, it may not be
legal, but it’s warm, dangit, and one ridiculously short flight
later we’re back in Hawaii. Lauren speaks English now (mission
accomplished!), and we fold back into our old jobs and lives with ease.
Sometimes you have to leave a place to appreciate it, even paradise. It still
costs a fortune to live here—try seven bucks for a box of Cheerios!—but
hey, we save a lot on heating oil. And of course all that Gore-Tex crap.
After the light deprivations of the Northwest winters, the yellow
glow of a December Hawaiian dawn is comforting. The early morning
paddle-outs are a light show, beams of sunlight surge out from behind the
silhouette of the Diamond Head like a cheap, overdone stage painting.
We early morning surfers kid each other about how freezing it is this
early, about who is already out in the dark ahead of us, trolling for sharks.
Waikiki slowly comes alive, and a dozen beachside restaurants send
their coffee and bacon aromas out to us on the breeze. It’s a good crowd
out here, surfers who appreciate the art as well as the sport. The early
morning crew have an easy banter, “no big ‘ting.’” We share waves, hoot
each others successes and offer gentle encouragement:
“So, I guess you lose your balance and hair same time, eh?”
“No worry da wipeouts for you brah—fat floats, you one lucky.”
I look around me, amazed at the beauty. I had LASIK surgery to
my eyes awhile back, and it’s amazing, especially out in the water. Blobs
of surfers have become real people and I talk to them now. And the
scenery! I feel like I’m in the Louvre, the paintings so wonderful! Sunrise
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in Waikiki, Renoir. How did the painter get that water to glimmer so?
Who would dare to paint that flock of birds turning instantly together, a
bright white flash in front of that brooding, dark, blue-black cloud? Most
of the time it looks pretty accurate, but sometimes, I must say, He gets a
little carried away on the magentas and golds. I mean, come on now. No
sunrises look like that.
Think I’m kidding? Monday, December 10; after a week of heavy rains,
it is calm. The water is perfectly glassy, no wind, not a breath. I paddle out
silently in the pre-dawn semi-darkness, and gradually discern a smooth, low,
layer of cloud covering the sky for miles above me. The sun slowly peeks
over the horizon and begins lighting the bottom of the cloud layer in a soft,
dreamy glow. The canvas glows brighter and brighter as the sun continues
to show more and more of itself, and in minutes the massive cloud is lit to a
blazing orange color, unbelievably bright and rich—a spilled can of orange
paint or a glowing-hot oven element would hardly do it justice. The sky,
afire, beams its color down to the still ocean, a mirror reflecting the light
show above. I sit in the surfline, silent, staring out to sea, stunned by orange.
My rods and cones are working overtime, feasting on input, my brain hums
from the buzzy signals arriving from my eyeballs. I see no horizon now. The
sky, the water, up, down, it is all one blended thing, it is all too much. We’re
not on planet Earth anymore; we’re on planet Orange-o or something. No
one surfs, we Holy moly and Ohmygod each other. We absorb it—awestruck,
and in five minutes it fades to memory.
An hour or so later, and we’re back on the beach. A quick rinse-off at
the shower by the palm tree, a hasty hokey-pokey change of clothes in a
cramped car, adding another day’s collection of sand to the ever-growing
dune on the floor mat, and it’s off to work for most of us. The younger
kids hit it after us and power on through the day, but we had it first. We
welcome the day in; that sunrise was ours, man.
I take walks along the Ala Wai canal, it’s right by the magazine office
where I work. It’s really a long, straight drainage ditch that catches the
wash from the hills of east Honolulu and directs it past the edge of
Waikiki and out to the ocean at Ala Moana Bowls. We surf in the brown
flow after a good rain, stupidly. Paddlers practice and race in it, a serious
industry here. There is a path of neat brick alongside it, I call it Central
Park—it’s very similar. The fica trees above create a shade so complete,
there is no sun, none, beneath them. It is peaceful, with peaceful people
on it. Walkers, joggers and bikers.
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There is the sparkling new convention center at one end, and next to
it are some little three-story WWII-era apartments, blocky and neat. You
half expect to see John Wayne and Patricia Neal and Burgess Meredith
come out to the lanai for a smoke and a drink in their Navy uniforms,
slamming the screen door behind them. Sometimes a police car cruises
slowly along the path, crunching the tree droppings, and the bums perk
up considerably, their belongings straighten up on the benches or their
shopping carts. They gaze thoughtfully off in the distance, like they’re
contemplating their next stock purchase.
The fish clean up, too. About every fifty yards or so, you see the tails
swirling slowly at the surface. The tilapia are in line, a fish wash, their
heads slightly lowered in some kind of submissive signal. Smaller, striped
wrasse fish dart around them, picking off little things. Seafood, probably.
This one’s done, and the next tilapia moves into position. There are
always small barracuda, completely motionless, until some goofy writer
tosses a pebble at them; then they’re pretty fast. There’s fugu, the puffer
fish, hilariously out of whack, his huge, blunt, volleyball of a body being
pushed around by a way, way, way too small tail, struggling mightily. If
it’s a high tide and the water gets real clean, huge spotted rays will swim
up the canal—like formations of black B-2 bombers camouflaged with
iridescent white dots, gracefully flying through the water.
I start flying again, too, when I have a few extra bucks that the wifey
and daughter don’t know about. There’s different kinds of flying: the
spit-and-polish watch-your-instruments kind that the instructors bark
for; and then there’s my kind: an artist amazed at the view, amazed, the
thrill of the g-forces in a little zoom climb, or dragging a wingtip (not
quite legally perhaps), through the edge of a puffy cloud. Poof!
I’m learning aerobatics, barely, and am at the top of a loop in a T-6
over the ocean. We’re just offshore of Dillingham airfield, on the North
Shore of Oahu. Peter, owner of the exotic WWII toy, is with me, talking
me through the maneuvers on the intercom, and is in charge of keeping
us both alive while I stumble through the lessons. I give the stick a final
little tug to get the nose over and then look up (down) through the open
canopy and see a whale jump directly below us, no lie, a beautiful white
splash on the dark water. I whoop out loud, my laughter whisked out of
the cockpit to join the throaty roar of the engine. Upside down, hanging,
laughing, flying. Then I think, gosh, I hope I don’t fall out. The view; the
sixty-year-old seat belts—that’s adventure.
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He teaches me a lot in that little airplane—loops (where if you plan it
right, you’ll fly through your own propwash at the end of the maneuver
with a little celebratory whump); rolls (gently dive to 140 miles per hour,
then pull up and slam the stick hard over, one wing goes up, the other
down, and suddenly you’re upside down then back to rightside up in
one smooth grin-inducing motion); and spins (a scary, out-of-control
Oh Shit I’m Gonna Die maneuver where the airplane makes that horrible
screaming noise that always precedes the crash in the movies).
Peter was a great pilot, the best I had flown with. He was piloting
a rescue helicopter, searching for stranded hikers in the steep cliffs of
Windward Oahu when he went down. His last lesson was to remind us
all that it can happen to anybody. Flying, despite its beauty and grace, is a
deadly serious endeavor.
Adios, Pete.
Rules for Non-Radicals
When Lauren was itty-bitty, I flew whenever I could scrape a few
bucks together, and The Rules Were Laid Out But Good: she will not go
flying with me, she will not be allowed to go to the airport and hang out
with my flying buddies, she will not be encouraged in any way to touch,
learn about, or even look at airplanes.
I retorted bravely: “Yes, dear.”
Of course, one day, Shawn comes home and announces: “I’ve signed
Lauren up for Civil Air Patrol. She starts this weekend.”
There are many mysteries in this swirling galaxy of gasses, and Shawn
is one of them, yes-siree-bob. All it took was a cute guy at a recruitment
table in a shopping center.
We take her to Civil Air Patrol every weekend, our precious baby
who was recently wearing oatmeal on her head, now learning to drill and
salute and maneuver a glider around. Incredible.
We also take her to piano.
We take her to violin.
We take her to ballet.
We take her to Chinese.
We take her to horsey lessons.
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We take her to pre-school, school school, after-school, summer
school. And when that doesn’t work, we take her to Sylvan, SAT prep,
PSAT prep, college prep. This puppy’s prepped.
Alas, she is gone to college on the mainland now, and my wife
continues to travel a lot for her work. So it’s just me and Dodger the
Wonder Dog in the backyard in the evenings, with a little ahi poke and
a cold brewski for me and maybe a Milk Bone or two for my buddy.
Most nights we’re back there together; writing, goofing off, chasing birds
around. (That is to say I write and goof off, he chases.)
Lauren was going through her obligatory teen-Goth stage when we
got Dodger, a few-weeks old Goth-dog. We walked into the pet store
and I immediately saw him, shivering in his cage, and thought “Oh,
please Lord, anyone but that one.” Lauren went straight to him, of
course. Bought the spiked collar, the whole bit. I think she wanted to
Mohawk him, too, but there just wasn’t that much to work with. He’s
a miniature-pinscher and chihuahua mix, black, about the size of a
teacup when we got him, I mean teeny. But he was apparently born
with full-grown ears—two huge sails half his body weight. A Ren And
Stimpy cartoon dog would have nothing on this character. But it wasn’t
funny, really—it was downright frightening. They were those icky
stand-up ears that you look right down the hole and can see the brain
almost, squirming around down in there. He also had that particular
and distinctive Chihuahua bug-eyed look of constant terror, especially
the first few days. He was as nervous as he looked; he seemed to be on
auto-shake most of the time. Not sure what he was, not sure if he even
belonged on this planet.
We introduced him to his new backyard, built him a doghouse, fed
him, and listened to him whimper in the night.
“Daddy can we bring him in?” Lauren pleaded. “He’s scared.”
“No. He’s an outdoor dog, that was the deal,” said the mean ole
daddy. There were neighbor dog smells out there to haunt him in the
dark, large bugs, towering structures, strange noises. For a 10-ounce
puppy in a strange land in the black night, death was everywhere.
Days were a little better for him, I supposed. At least you can see death
coming at you in the day and can brace yourself for it. But those ears! If
the wind was blowing, he could barely walk with those unwieldy things
up there scooping up the trade winds. He couldn’t go straight upwind,
no way, he had to sort of tack like a sailboat, trimming his sails as he
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went. Downwind was easier, of course, but if it was gusty and he couldn’t
get those spinnakers down in time or put on the brakes, well, there was
always the fence or bushes to stop him.
Of course, over the seasons he’s grown into those ears—he’s not
quite so top-heavy anymore. He’s fast, loves his spooky backyard now,
patrols constantly. There’s little Dodger trails through the grass that will
never recover. He’s a bit of a retriever, too. Once, the parakeet cage fell
off its little ledge on the patio for some reason and sprang open. Two
clipped-wing ‘keets began tearing across the grass at an altitude of about
six inches. They had never had the opportunity to try their colorful,
stubby wings before, so were bouncing off lawn mowers and lawn chair
legs and whatnot, screeching and totally confused. They could really go,
but not very high, and certainly not in any desired direction. Dodger,
of course, couldn’t resist tearing after the colorful, excited game and
nailed the first one under the patio table. I was busy chasing ‘keet #2,
saw Dodger’s victory, and yelled, “No Dodger, NO!” as his canines closed
around the screeching meal. He looked at me, surprised and confused,
a blur of green and yellow feathers beating at his face. He hesitated
chomping down and just stood there looking at me for a few seconds.
He was thinking. He then trotted over to me, the hyperventilating birdie
delivered to my feet, completely unharmed. How hard that must have
been. How can a dog reason, Do not eat this wonderful gift. It would be
wrong. I don’t know what was going through his mind, what sort of
guilt-reasoning process that he must have followed. Maybe he’s just a
good little Catholic dog, I dunno.
There’s another feature about him that I really like, something I will
insist on if I get another dog. Me: “How big are the turds?” Dog-salesperson:
“AA battery size, you’ll never see them.” Me: “Wrap it up.”
When I come home after work and head for the backyard nowadays,
Dodger the Wonder Dog starts bouncing off the walls and fences, barking
with joy, occasionally showing off one of his patented aerial 360 spins,
no lie, and charging at the bugs and birds who dare trespass his territory.
He’s so happy to see me he just about pees on himself, and that’s a pretty
strong hello. That’s what humans like most about dogs, I think. There’s
no measured response, no “So very nice to meet you” stuff. When a dog
loves you, man, you just know it.
I write back there, or on the front porch, where there’s a great breeze
funneling down the valley right into my yard. I always write the first
two drafts by hand, outside if I can. Love the scratch of the #2 across the
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paper, it feels like I’m creating something. I finish it up on the computer,
of course—but with a screen in front of me, it seems like work. Anyone
can write a book, here is how: unplug the TV. We did it five years ago,
and I recommend it highly. Grades will go up, and there will be an
overall calmness that was missing that you didn’t even know was out
there, waiting quietly to be invited in. The wars, famines, the crimes that
everyone at work discuss endlessly the next day mean nothing to me. I
don’t know about them. Why should I? What do I care if gangs of savages
wreak havoc in a land that knows nothing else, ten thousand miles away?
Let them figure it out. If someone is trying to kill you, kill them back.
Just leave me out of it.
You can still have a TV and watch movies on the DVD thingy,
but if you don’t plug in to cable, or satellites, or TiVos or whatever the
heck they have now, you won’t have a hundred channels of endless crap
distracting you from real life all night and day. Then you can write or talk
to your family or dog or other things. In fact, when the rest of the world
gathers round the tube to be force-fed things they don’t need to know via
satellite, I go out into the backyard and watch the satellites. Catch-22 that
one, professor. Lauren and I saw seven one night. Go on, turn off the TV,
I dare you.
You won’t.
Kalama Valley
The house was a fixer. It had been an old rent house for about thirty
years, everything was rent-puke-yellow inside and the roof started leaking
about a week after we got it. Just lucky timing, I guess.
We hired some roofers—they had just got started, been up there a
day or two, got the old shingles torn off and some plastic tacked down,
when it storms one night, a big one. The plastic is torn off over the living
room, and the water is not dripping, but pouring in, in a dozen places,
hell, a hundred places. It’s a high-beamed ceiling, a straight shot from
outside. We struggle through the night with pans and buckets. I heave the
full ones out the front door, then run back through the squishy carpet to
reposition it and grab the next one. The storm hammers the house, the
noise is deafening, sheets of rain, it’s bedlam inside. We have to yell to be
heard, it’s three a.m., an utter disaster. Shawn watches her furniture and
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brand-new carpet turn soggy black with the asphalt residue and muddy
water pouring down on us, and loses it.
“Call a damned lawyer!” she yells in the din.
I lose it right back, “Why? Do you think he’ll have some extra damned
buckets!?”
We recover, but it was a rough night, and a rough week. Cleaners,
insurance forms, and a crew of scared shitless roofers who now wait in
their truck two blocks away every morning, and won’t come to the house
till after they see Shawn’s car leave for work.
Still, we like working on the house together, love the smell of cut
lumber and fresh paint. Some of the rooms had holes in the wall, so we
decided to wallpaper those after a decidedly amateur patch job. We hung
a new, fancy front door—which was a little harder than it looked. We
studied the instructions, ripped out the old door and frame, readied the
shims, stood by with the level. I’d insert a shim, check the level, insert
another shim on the other side, check the level, have a beer. As the sun
went down, I had it relatively centered with six shims on the left, three
on the right. My daughter, showing off her math skills, asked why I didn’t
just have three on the left and none on the right? I told her I had been
doing this kind of work since before she was even a twinkle in her father’s
eye, miss Smarty-Pants, and please go get me another beer. And so we
found out that if you don’t finish hanging a front door in one day, there is
a pretty big hole in your house and someone (guess who) will sleep on the
floor all night on centipede-watch with a flashlight, a hammer, and a can
of Raid.
Mornings start early in Hawaii. Most of the houses have no
air-conditioning, none have central heating, so the windows stay open all
the time. We get up with the birds, no way around it—they’re loud and
they’re everywhere. About thirty minutes before the sun comes up, our
fine feathered friends come alive with their merry chirps, greeting a new
day and each other.
“Chirp-chirp!” (Get outta my tree!)
“Chirp-chirp-chirp!” (No, you get outta my tree, buddy!)
“Chirpity-chirp!” (Dibs on that bug!)
“Chirp?” (What bug?)
“Chirp-chirpy-chirp!” (That big one by the fence, hey come back
here, I called dibs on it you little turdball!)
“Ch-ch-ch-ch-chhhh-ch!” (Na-na-na-na-naaa-na! Gulp!)
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Lying in bed, listening to the day begin around us is a treat. The
rustle of oleanders soothes, and the famous sixty-second Hawaiian
showers pit-a-pat the roof just enough to make you sleepy again. At six
in the morning every Saturday, we lay in bed and awaken to the far-off
Jurassic roar of a garbage truck feeding and getting closer, house by house
by house.
As I survey my backyard, I’m pleased to note the oleander have gone
from coffee-can sprouts to thick bushes fifteen feet high, all in a few
years. Another benefit of tall oleander is that I can pee outside at night
and the neighbors can’t see me. Shades of the lighthouse life, and I really
missed it. This will be an important feature from now on if we move. Me:
“Can I pee in the backyard and no one can see me?” Realtor: “Yes.” Me:
“Wrap it up.”
It’s peaceful and nice back here, but perhaps I’ve set my sights a little
low. Watching oleander grow and scratching silly stories with a #2 pencil
while being entertained by a small, black circus dog is well . . . what? Is
it good? Have I given up? I see them at work and on the news—people
with real lives, wearing suits, negotiating, presiding over meetings, their
Captains-of-Industry faces stern and unflinching. They are the go-getters
and they are out there in huge numbers apparently, maneuvering through
life with a plan and industry that I seem to lack. The only maneuvering I
do is trying to miss the little turds and sticker burrs on my way from the
backyard to the kitchen for another beer. Methinks we maneuver too much.
Lauren returns only occasionally now. We get reports on her latest
forays to Amsterdam or Brussels, or the latest cool, undiscovered haunts
in Brooklyn. She looks so young still, can these fresh, little people actually
have done these things with such fearlessness? On a visit back, we watch
a grainy computer movie on MySpace in the backyard, under the stars;
her face is lit with the glow from the screen—the moonlight of a new
generation. We watch a recording she made of a boisterous kitchen party
in some hostel in France; Lauren screaming encouragement to a young
chef as their food suddenly ignites. She explains who is who on the tiny
screen, drinking a Coke and waving a Marlboro at the screen. I want to
scold her, but that was my brand, too.
The trail split off at a large rock—it smelled of piss, like a hot day
at the zoo. The Swahili tribesman shook his head. “Na, na simba,” he
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said gravely. “Simba kificho.” I know now that he was warning me, but I
didn’t understand at the time.
Bwana Hanley is visiting Africa, a gift from his wife. The tall grasses
sway, waist high, and I start down the narrow path past the smelly rock
to the cluster of trees beyond. I turn, the tribesman is looking straight
back at me, motionless. Turning back, four birds burst from the grass
ahead of me as I continued cautiously ahead. The warm breeze stir the
tops of the grasses gently to the right, except for one small section next
to the trail where the grasses shudder and move in the opposite direction.
I see the dark tail sticking up there, then the lion bursts from his cover
and is on me in four leaps. His blow knocks me over hard, my neck or
back is broken immediately; I can’t move. He comes back around over
my head, his huge, scarred face silhouetted in the bright sun. He snarls,
his saliva dripping on me, his eyes are yellow-green. He opens his mouth.
My world goes dark as his horrid breath envelops me. His rough tongue
maneuvers my head into his mouth, and I feel my face tight against the
hard palate. His teeth plunge through skin and bone into my neck and
shoulder and he begins pulling me off the trail. I am suffocating in the
wretched blackness and accomplish a small whimper and a kick from my
legs. He growls, swings his body around and places a huge claw on my
belly, stroking down to eviscerate me, my head still inside his mouth. His
claw catches on my belt, and he growls again, angrier. He tightens his
grip on my head, then strokes down savagely, severing my belt as well as
my abdomen in a single, bloody swipe.
I suspect it was the tarragon chicken—my wife had been
experimenting with lots of different spices lately. She has a new
cookbook, you know. I’ve always been a vivid dreamer, and my wife’s
creative cooking has certainly been helping them along. Funny how
one night she could send me flying like Peter Pan over soft clover,
floating effortlessly up into the cool twilight sky to survey my magical
surroundings. And the next evening I am learning firsthand the digestive
system of our friend, the lion.
The spices have many names—basil, marjoram, oregano; but if you
pour out what’s inside those innocent little bottles and study it, well,
it looks just like what was in that little baggie that your parents found
in your sister’s dresser drawer that day long ago when all hell broke
loose. The labels all say one thing: legal drugs—fun in a bottle. I’m a
conservative, you won’t catch me expanding my mind at all, thank you
very much. But fish sauteed with rosemary will send me somewhere—I
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won’t know where for a few hours, though. Thai food washed down with
a little Drambuie and a chocolate truffle is a ticket to Mars, and man, I’m
taking it. Let’s eat!
I gladly delegate indoor cooking duties to Shawn. The kitchen is
“her” territory, much as the “pee tree” or “the scary place up in the attic
with spiders where we put the Christmas decorations” is mine. So I don’t
cook inside, I cook outside. And I cook meat. And here is how:
Grilled Steaks, Casa de Hanlini Style: Time to finish: 40-45 minutes.
1. Rub Hawaiian sea salt on both sides of desired number of
T-bones.
2. Let sit 30 minutes.
3. Grill steaks (direct method) on rusty Weber in backyard over
super-hot fire, using briquets, not gas, and not those keroseney
self-lighting ones, either. Have water-squirter thing handy and a
1 (one) beer. Note: if chef tries to drink two beers during cooking
process, meat will be over-cooked.
4. Turn one time, two at the most, check for seared edges and hot,
pink center.
5. Yell, “It’s about ready, how’s that salad coming?”
6. Put almost done steaks on a plate and cover with foil. Wait about
10 minutes to let it finish cooking itself.
7. Give bone to dog when finished (1 bone per small-med. dog,
5-12 lbs.)
8. And if you do the dishes, there is a chance you will be rewarded
later that night (4-5 minutes, or until tender.)
Tycoons
We have a few investments now, even pretend to read the Wall Street
Journal, but all the numbers are a grey buzz to me, I have no clue. Like
getting caught with a Playboy magazine, I swear I only read the editorial
page and the book reviews. I know we had a particular new age mutual
fund once, where Shawn could call in and automatically move stuff
around with phone commands: “Hi-tech foreign,” “Med caps,” things
like that, code names beyond me. I forget what she was trying to move
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that time, and how much, but she kept getting instructions: for this, press
7; for that, press 2; and she got a little flustered. About twenty beeps later,
we had 300 shares of a Latvian rabbit camp or something. Its done okay,
actually.
People Way Smarter Than You have argued for years now how the
economy turned around and boomed so wonderfully in the ’90s. Some
insist it was tax cuts. Some say it was growth stocks, Silicon Valley, or
that rascally “irrational exuberance” that pissed off Greenspan so
much. Nope. It was the ATM machine they installed in Koko Marina
Shopping Center, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA. When that thing appeared
on that fateful day, it took my wife and daughter about thirty seconds
to realize the possibilities of this wonderful new contraption. Instantly,
money that had been hiding quietly in our bank for years, was out and
about—exchanged for shoes, chocolate sundaes, sunglasses, and roller
blades. It was a Koko Marina shop-a-thon! Flush with cash, Shawn and
Lauren did their darnedest to turn America’s economy around. The
happy Koko Marina merchants resupplied, the fresh products shipped
across the Pacific in a never ending stream. Clothing factories in China
and ice cream farmers in Wisconsin went on double shifts; barges and
longshoremen wrestled with each other in busy ports across the globe to
get more women’s shoes and yogurt to Honolulu. People struggled to fill
the orders—companies prospered, stocks soared. I’m sure other families
helped a little, too. With cash machines, America’s money was right there
all of a sudden, wanting to come out and play.
And lawyers and their hard-spending spouses! Don’t get me started!
The Jaguars, the golf memberships, Chivas Regal by the boatload,
Rolexes, monster TVs. They had a huge job redistributing all that wealth,
and they just gritted their teeth and did it—God bless ’em. Who says
America can’t sacrifice? Type in your lucky PIN number, press “Enter”,
and all of a sudden America had a pocketful of twenties to play with.
No lines, no checks to verify, no withdrawal slips to fill out. The experts
overlooked this economic phenomenon while analyzing the boom,
wanting desperately to claim it for themselves; but it was simple: with
ATMs, the world now had easy access to its money and it spent it like
drunken sailors. It trickled down, it flooded over, it went out there and
had a double-dutch parfait with sprinkles.
Like most women, Shawn dearly loves to shop—even grocery
shopping—but doesn’t make a list. Doesn’t need one, she says. She has
a code, a system for me, which is: Whatever I ask for, I get something else.
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I say, “Get SoftScrub.” The car unloads, the bags empty on the kitchen
counter and I sift through it. No SoftScrub, but there is a can of EasyOff.
I should have asked for EasyOff to get my SoftScrub, apparently. I need
to break that code, I’m still working on it. She’s my Enigma code box.
When I finally do discover her system, I’ll know. For example, in the
future, when I need charcoal lighter, I’ll ask for Muenster cheese. Simple,
really, when you crack the code.
Once I said, “Don’t forget the Dog Chow.”
“I won’t,” she said cheerily.
She came back one hundred and ninety-four dollars later—no Dog
Chow. But there was a Duralog sitting there, next to the sink—“good for
two hours of even flame”, it says on the package. I mention that we don’t
have a fireplace.
“Oh, I know, but it was on sale. And maybe we’ll get a fireplace someday.”
Well, who can argue with logic like that? Maybe we will get a
fireplace. Who knows about these things? The shopping continues
as I work on the code. So now when the sinks need cleaning, I ask for
EasyOff, and when the dog gets hungry, I say, “Don’t forget the Duralog,
honey.”
“Oh, shut up,” she snaps. “You’re not a bit funny, you know.”
A Behind-the-Scenes Peek
at an Old Fart’s Birthday
On my fifty-somethingest birthday, I received an aloha shirt and
a colon-snoop-optomy. The hospital called it a “sig-moyed-oz-co-pee”
but I can’t spell that, let alone say it. The shirt was very nice, lots of
’50s jet airplanes, sleek ’50s cars and jumping puppies, expressing the
unbounded optimism we had back then. And the colon-snoop-optomy
was a real hoot, too. I had heard of this amazing procedure before. A
tiny camera takes a trip through your bowels, checking things out, all
televised of course. I had figured that with fiber-optic technology and
supercomputers they way they were, the colon-snoop-optomy instrument
would be a thin, thread-like wire of super-strength, with a camera on its
tip the size of a Bill Clinton tear. I was wrong.
I sat in a standard issue open-butt hospital robe, alone in the cluttered
room, but it was pretty easy to make out The Instrument: alarmingly
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thick, black, perhaps four or five feet of gently coiled danger. I’d seen
Alien, and I didn’t like the looks of this thing at all. I instinctively
tightened up. One end had a rounded lens and the other plugged into
a big box which had a Rube Goldberg set of wheels and knobs back
there. The steering wheel. In the future they will steer from another room
with head-up-displays and digital joysticks; but not now, buddy boy. I
remembered checking in at the doctor’s office earlier that morning and
signing yet another medical disclaimer that warned of this and that and
so on and so forth. As I sat contemplating the crude steering mechanism,
I remembered distinctly some words in the disclaimer: internal bleeding,
unintentional perforation, things like that, and how if it happened, sorry,
but tough patooties. Sign here. Realizing that the perforatee would be
none other than yours truly, and the perforator was poised right there on
that cold metal table, well, it sort of tightened things up a little bit more.
The doctor came in and introduced himself. I had never seen him
before. But my real doctor had sent me to another doctor who sent me to
this one. You know how it goes. He was Pakistani or Indian or something
like that. He had a nice, soft, round face and little John Lennon glasses
and looked very eager to please.
“I am so sorry we are asking you to wait still. Waiting, yes waiting for
other doctor who is I think late. Do you have questions?”
I offered some wryly humorous things one thinks of before he is
anally penetrated. (I wonder what they say in prison? Hey, care for some
coffee while you wait your turn, bitch? Magazine?) The doctor stood
against the concrete wall, hands behind his back like a shy schoolchild,
making earnest eye contact and said he was sorry again, please enjoy
a magazine, and he left. So I flipped through a Field & Stream and
learned there are way too many whitetails out there; it’s not good for
the environment and its not good for the deer, either, so we need to
shoot more for their own good. I raised a leg up, giving my testicles a
little breathing room. Fifteen minutes later I hear the other doctor arrive,
clicking up the hall amid Sorry’s and Traffic was terrible’s as he swept
into the small room, the other doctor right behind, and a quiet, young
nurse bringing up the rear (so to speak). Doctor Thirty-Minutes-Late
introduced himself with more apologies and an earnest handshake. Mid
50s, grey hair and moustache, sharp features, and anxious to get the show
on the road as it were.
I was asked to lie on my left side and draw my knees up high. Higher,
please. There. Dr. Paki and the nurse disappeared behind me and
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Dr. Late stood directly in front of me, staring down at the TV screen,
fiddling with a knob or two. By tilting my head back I could see the TV.
By relaxing my neck a little I was staring into Dr. Late’s crotch about a
foot away. I decided to watch TV.
Well, here I am, about to do something very weird, with two doctors
I have never met and nurse who must be the hit of all party conversations
from Honolulu to Pearl City. The lights went off and the TV glowed
a mesmerizing blue, just like at home on channel 4 before we put in a
movie. There were murmured instructions and the clearing of throats
and assorted warnings to me from behind, then a swab of something
gooey and then the snake stuck its head into the hole. The TV showed
a indistinct red something, like a huge pink water balloon attacking a
window, and Dr. Late said get it in there, go on in and push. Dr. Paki
did, the balloon disappeared, and we entered a little pink cave, kind of a
cave-foyer with a dark round cave-portal to our right.
“See the opening?” Dr. Late said to Dr. Paki, “Turn right and go.”
Now why was one doctor telling the other one what was so obvious?
There was only one way to go as far as I could see. “Go right, right, turn
right and twist,” Dr. Late said, his hands controlling his own imaginary
snake inches from my face. What the . . . ? Dr. Paki made a stab and
the screen went gooey red again. “No, no, you’re against the wall. Back
off, find it again, turn right, twist and go!” Dr. Paki twisted and went.
“We normally don’t like to back off and lose ground like that,” Dr. Late
explained patiently to me, “But since we just got started in there it’s no
big deal.”
Now I get it—Christ! Dr. Paki’s just learning to drive this thing, and
Dr. Late is a goddamn driving instructor! Holy moly! Dr. Paki backed off,
missed the turn, aimed and went again. We bounced off the wall once,
skidded around the corner, then entered a much larger cave and Dr. Late
said very good, very good, and there was a pleased giggle from behind
me. Dr. Late then told Dr. Paki what we were looking at, explaining
little this’s and that’s and led us on a tour. “Keep on coming, here’s the
next turn.” Paki got a bead on it, and took a breather before entering the
next room. He was exercising his up-and-down control, the little camera
bobbing like a light on a spelunker’s hat who was inspecting the cave
ceiling, then his shoes: ceiling, floor, ceiling, floor, up and down but not
going forward.
“How are we doing?” asked Dr. Late.
“Oh fine,” Paki and I grunted together.
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“Then let’s go,” he instructed impatiently. The screen went red again.
“Back off, you’re too . . .” and the portal came into view for a second, then
disappeared again to another red blur. “Get off his wall, try twisting it,
twist, left and twist!” he urged, his fists maneuvering frantically inches
from my face. “Is this okay? Are you feeling pain?” he asked, this time
obviously to me.
“Noooo. Just fine.”
“Good, you have a high pain threshold,” he said.
There’s all kinds of stuff squirming around down there, but I didn’t
feel pain at all. I just felt like I should feel pain from what’s going on on
the TV.
“Now, make a fist for me and push your abdomen in below your
navel. Let’s help him out.”
Yes indeedy, I thought, my fist shoving my belly in, arranging my
bowels, trying to line up my caves where Dr. Paki seemed to want to go.
It was like trying to pave a highway in front of a drunk driver. Yessir, let’s
help him all we can.
Dr. Late wanted faster progress and his impatience tells in his voice:
“Back off, find it and go. Back off! Pump air, pump air!” he hissed,
pumping some himself with his fist, twisting his own snake and leaning
forward, urging Paki on.
Around this point I really wanted to say, “Just hang a left you dumb
bastard!” but I didn’t want him to start crying or apologizing or anything
and lose control and crash. Also, I didn’t think any words would come
out even if I tried.
Dr. Paki got to the next sharp corner and we slowly continued. He
grunted and sweated and steered, and Dr. Late clucked and barked, and
pretty soon went up and up and up into a nice, long, cool, straight cave
leading to a teeny portal way off in the distance. We arrived there soon
enough, and Dr. Late said, “See, here’s the end. It all looks good, really
good. How old are you?”
“Fifty-one,” I oofed. “It’s my birthday.”
“Well, happy birthday.” He had’t even looked at my chart. He was
indeed strictly the driving instructor. “Well, that’s a lovely colon for
fifty-one . . . Okay that’s it. Extract.” Dr. Late spun around, he’d made his
thousand bucks, and there was a quick sliver of light as the door opened
and closed and then it was just us chickens.
The little camera began its relieved journey out, but not like a piece
of limp spaghetti, no sir, it still had to be steered. But now in reverse,
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so my life was still fraught, yes, fraught with peril. But we all sensed
some relief as the procedure wound down. We hit a few curbs, failed the
parallel parking exam, smacked a few walls around here and there, but
were are getting o-u-t out and that was the main thing. Soon we were
back at the little foyer which I recognized: there’s the umbrella stand
and a little table where we keep the car keys. And then a totally weird
puckering feeling as the door slammed shut and the TV went off and the
lights went on and I thought, I need a drink.
Dr. Paki repeated what a lovely colon I have, whispered instructions
to the nurse and left quickly to watch the video and record the
play-by-play.
Then it was just me and the little nursie. I sat up straight and
exhaled. She asked me if I needed to go to the bathroom, and pointed to
the toilet in the corner behind the wizard’s curtain. I didn’t really want to
go, but something was still going on down in there, so I thought I had
better.
I sat on the toilet and farted for, oh, about ninety seconds, then
expelled a little lubricant and what was left of my dignity.
Then I put on my clothes. The nurse was still cleaning things and our
eyes never really met as I thanked her and headed out the door. Only a
few steps farther down the hall, I heard Dr. Paki’s excited voice from his
open office door as he described his adventure through my bowels to a
small recorder held to his lips. He had an uncanny memory of every twist
and turn, describing the colors and the scenery of his trip, the highlights
and Scenic Overlooks. I waved at him as I passed with a hearty, “So
long, Doc,” and he looked over at me, startled, not sure who I was. Not
recognizing the face. I considered dropping my pants and bending over to
refresh his memory, but I had to get back to work.
Cars I Have Known
’64 MG. Love-hate-love-hate-love-hate. Half the miles I put on it
were fun, fun, fun. The other half were connected to a chain, behind a real
car, getting towed home or to the repair shop. They liked me at Goober’s
Imports & Ice House. My payday was their payday. Every payday.
’63 Chevy Nova. Eureka! In an unusual burst of sanity, I decided
to get one of the cars that usually towed me and my exotic little MG
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Tom Hanley
around. I would be a tow-er now, not a tow-ee. My little red Nova was
a loyal, ugly, squeaky friend for many years. A good motor to learn to
work on, with about twelve moving parts. One Christmas I mounted this
newfangled thing called an eight-track under the dash. I cut a hole in the
low corner of each front door for speakers, wired it up, and heard real,
live awesome stereo music for the very first time. It was Jethro Tull. And
as long as the thing was parked with the engine off, the stereo sounded
great! But once underway, the moans, grunts, thunks and tappet racket
easily overpowered the sound system. The radio antenna was a bent
clothes hanger, the slippery nylon seat covers came from K-Mart, and it
went downhill really good.
’69 Datsun 510. The Chevy Nova of the Japanese car industry. The
bulletproof little engine got happier the faster I revved it. A poor boy’s
Ferrari that got me through college—the parking lot then was loaded
with the new, little Japanese phenomenons—rusty surf racks proudly
proclaiming our status. We drag-raced each other from every stoplight on
Spencer Highway on the way to San Jacinto Jr. College, being careful to
test only each other, staying clear of the American V-8s. I bequeathed it to
my little brother, David, when I left Houston. I wish I still had the owner’s
manual, the halting Japanese-to-English translations were wonderful:
Please to not drive spritely in the wet, which makes accidents appearing.
’73 Ford Bronco. Doomed to grind through the salty dunes and
beaches of Corpus Christi, the Yellow Peril led a happy, if short, life. If
you drive your Bronco in the surf like an idiot, windshield wipers on,
going “Wheeee,” your floor will eventually rust away and you will have
to construct custom wooden floorboards, fiberglassed in. If you put
drippy surfboards on the roof rack, you will also eventually have to
unbolt the rusty remains of the top and throw it into the bushes next
to Larry’s trailer. When the mighty Bronc diminished enough that the
safety inspector dude wouldn’t even let me get in line, my floorless,
topless buddy drove off to retire in the Hill Country on a hunting lease.
The last I saw it, it was an engine, a radiator, four wheels and a couple of
torn seats, headed west. Sayonara, Yellow Peril. Sorry about driving in the
ocean and all, but it was fun, wasn’t it? Wheeee!
’76 Dodge Dart. This unstoppable little hummer whisked me to
California and back two or three times from Corpus, the tough little
318 chewing up the mountainous miles and hot deserts with ease. It
never, ever broke. It did act a little funny after one self-inflicted tune-up,
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spitting and backfiring at odd times for a month or so, till someone
smarter than me switched those two crossed spark plug wires back to
where they belonged. It took the future wifey and myself to San Diego
once—we figured if we could survive an unair-conditioned trip that far
with only an AM radio and each other to keep us company and not kill
each other, we’d just go ahead and get married when we got back.
’83 Mazda 626. Nice. And hot. People said, “Oh, you don’t need an
air-conditioner in Hawaii.” They were wrong.
Assorted Nissan wagons, ’75 and ’82ish, I think. These, too, slowly
returned to nature under the rigors of Hawaii surfing life—pure ocean
water dripping from the surf racks and down the gutters to the doorsills
and rocker panels, feeding on the delicious, thin metal.
’84 Ford Tempo. I have a vague memory of some sort of a blueish
lump in our driveway in Kaneohe, that is all. Was it a dream?
’90 Toyota Camry. A wonderful, pretty, comfortable car that
positively ate taillight bulbs for some reason. It must have consumed
twenty. We’d never bought a new car, but this one was only one year old
when we got her—a real extravagance. One sad day, many years later,
the timing belt snapped at 60. The memory of the noise it made as the
engine devoured itself in the next three or four seconds still saddens me.
’94 Ford Escort wagon. Bought it for two grand, sold it for fifteen
hundred. Not bad for three years of transport. Now I’m not big math
guy, but I think that’s about $170 a year for a good little car that will
hold a surfboard, a bunch of 8-foot 2 x 4s, or haul seven ravenous
pre-teen girls to Chuck E. Cheese while shrieking at each other at ninety
decibels on the many flaws of their fellow classmates. Especially Jason,
who is a stuck-up, prima-donna, poop-headed retardo, whom they all
hate, and even more now, because he failed to ask one of them to the
Beach Night Under The Stars Dance. A total skunk-head. Ewww.
’99 Toyota Corolla. Our teeny friend who will probably outlive us
all—plus it makes the house look bigger.
2000 Ford Focus wagon. I thought it would be like the Escort. It
ain’t. It’s in the shop again as I write this. If you buy one, here is what
will break: Ignition switch, automatic door lock, engine mount (bring
money), condenser-coil thingy, brakes, computer sensors of some sort
(2), and air-conditioner. I may have left some out, the brain does tend to
block out unhappy things. I hope at least the airbags work, because I’m
going to drive that piece of crap off a cliff pretty soon.
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Sibling Rivalries
Here are the first humans I interacted with. As the oldest of five kids,
the opportunities for mischief were almost limitless. Sometimes, I could
get my sisters laughing so hard at dinner they’d pee in their pants, then
cry. My little brothers I just beat up whenever I wanted. It was good,
clean fun either way.
Diane, the second oldest. So good it was pathetic. She’s pretty,
smart, obedient. As she grows, she bakes cookies with her mother, learns
to dispense correct amounts of flour and oil. When out of the kitchen,
she cheerfully dusts. During the piano years, she actually practices thirty
minutes a day without being yelled at. She sometimes goes thirty-five or
forty, just to rub it in. When a camera comes out or company comes over,
her eyes sparkle and her hair combs itself. She glows with talent, earns A’s
all through school, then blossoms into a perky cheerleader. Go Team!
Once, I did something so bad to her, I will never, ever, tell anyone,
ever. Here is what I did: She is learning to write, X’s and O’s. My mom
tells her that X means a kiss, O is a hug. Her little eyes brighten with a
plan, an angelic industry. She sculpts X’s and O’s with colorful crayons
on little pieces of paper all day. She then scampers across the room to any
adult with an open lap, presents her manuscript and proclaims her love
for them—accepting obscene quantities of praise and kisses, her cherubic
face beaming. She must be destroyed.
Her written vocabulary progresses one dark season to the letter H.
“See? Two lines straight down, then connect them with another line, like
this. That’s an H,” an enabling parent explains. “And, if you write an O
after it, you just wrote a word, your very first word: HO. Just like Santa
says to good little children—HO, HO, HO. See?” Diane scratches an H,
then an O, while mother exclaims “Oh, what a smart little girl you are!”
Diane’s eyes widen like Shirley Temple’s as beams of radiant light emit
from behind her, surrounded by tiny angels, strumming their harps. The
ceaseless manuscripts grow sickeningly to: XXX OOO HO HO HO.
“Who spilled Cheerios?” a large person demands one morning.
“Tommy did,” she announces matter-of-factly, not even looking up—
already working on her daily quota of love notes, the deadline ticking
away. She has worn the magenta crayon down to a waxy nub, and is
now beginning her Prussian blue period. The little devil on my shoulder
whispers to me and I nod, eyes narrowing. We are at our grandparent’s
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house, visiting. A house, not a duplex, with a two-car garage. To top off
this civilian extravagance, their garage had actual walls inside, painted
white. No nasty, dusty, exposed 2 x 4’s—real, live, smooth walls. Later,
when the time is right, I consort with my little evil friend one more time,
gather my courage and proceed with Operation Goody-Two-Shoes.
Squatting down from a towering 3'2" to a more Diane-like 2'6" (if the
glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit!), I decorate the garage walls with
a colorful Crayola greeting: HO HO HO HO HO, about twenty of
them—hurry!—then retreat to my army soldiers battling in the dirt
revetments in the backyard and wait for the fireworks to begin. Tattle on
me, will you? I hear the arguments begin in the far-off courtroom, the
wails of innocence. We wait for the jury’s decision—guilty! You’re in over
your head, sister.
In hindsight, burning in hell for all of eternity, the skin sloughing off
my bones in molten, dripping slags, the devil hovering over me with the
teasing drop of water that never comes may be a steep price to pay, but
hey, what can I say? I was young, Your Honor. Plus, I meant to confess
it to Your hush-puppied buddy that day, but You had rearranged the
furniture. I demand a retrial.
Denise, the middle child. The most generous of all, but began her
career as an armed referee. Hey, the middle kid has to duke it out, that’s just
the way it is, and always has been. This one didn’t do Xs and Os for doting
adults, no sir. Obedient enough not to get in too much trouble, but that
was about as far as she took it. When something sneaky had to be done, we
went to her. More often, she volunteered. When her two younger brothers
needed mothering, she found a weapon and mothered them. She had, and
still has, a gift for planning. During the teen years, when the parents went
away for the weekend, it was Denise who phoned most of Harris County
with directions to the house, as well as deciding who should bring the kegs
of beer, and who should score the other goodies.
Nowadays, during family reunions and parties, it is she who determines
dates, places, times, menu selections, entertainment and sleeping
arrangements. When she finally gets all forty of us together, dazed with too
much barbecue and dripping wet from the Schlitterbahn water slide, when
we can’t remember if it’s Tuesday or Wednesday or if we tee off at seven,
or what’s the name of that Dallas cousin’s third kid, that one down by the
river making mud pies, it is Denise we look to for answers. And further
instructions, of course.
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Number four kid, David, was a rambunctious little dude, a good
fighter. We think he got that learning to defend himself from Denise.
Went cheerfully from base to base, school to school, slaughtering the
surprised locals. Texas and Davy-o were a good fit, he picked up the drawl
right away and soon learned to spit. He grew tall, lanky and relaxed—a
good ol’ boy. My prim and proper fiancee was appalled the first time she
met him.
We were at the lighthouse, gathered around the big wire rope spool
that we used as a table on the front porch. After a few minutes of formal,
polite chat, he shifted back into good ol’ Dave mode, dribbled a little
chaw spit into his cup, leaned his chair back, and continued: “So the
traveling salesman sees this farmer and his pig a’sittin’ on a bench on
their front porch. Salesman says, ‘That must be one special pig.’ ‘Yessir,’
says the farmer. ‘This here pig saved my life and my whole family. House
caught fire one night and this here pig ran in the back door and squealed
and grunted and carried on and pulled the covers off me and the missus
and the kids and led us all to safety.’ Salesman says, ‘How come he only
has three legs?’ ‘Well,’ the farmers says,” as Davids spits another brown
stream into his cup, “A pig like that ya’ don’t eat all at once.”
Shawn nodded, eyes wide, a forced smile plastered across her face.
“Yes, well . . . what a very interesting story. So very nice to finally meet
you, we simply must do this again.”
The youngest of five, Markie wins The Most Loudest Kid Award.
Boy, could he communicate. He was Gerber-baby cute when he was little,
with two doting sisters and a doting mommy. He would announce his
desires at about eighty decibels and those needs were attended to, pronto.
He grew to be a handsome and athletic all-American young man, and in
turn positively doted over his wife and two kids. Marathon bike-rider,
volunteer’er for multiple drives and functions, Old Glory flying from
a serious flagpole in the front yard—the works. His strong thighs and
attached parts earned him the tough moniker: Bubblebutt.
Smart, organized and hard-working, we laughingly went through
the paycheck stubs he saved from when we worked at the grocery store
at night when he was in college. He kept every stub, in order, three
years worth, in shoeboxes. Watching his eyes sparkle as we teased him,
it’s hard to believe he’ll be dead pretty soon. His disease is progressing,
the carefully attempted words stopped months ago. He’s in his third year
of Lou Gerhig’s disease, almost completely paralyzed now. He laughs a
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muffled laugh at a check, $167.55, not bad for two weeks of hard work,
huh? His wife Lynn clucks and fusses over him, the kids blast through the
front door, bounce up on his lap, quick kisses, then clamber up the stairs
to play and scream at each other.
Do you want a beer, we ask? He grunts a yes, moving his head slowly
and deliberately in the affirmative. Lynn pours the brew into his funnel,
which goes into a tube in his stomach. It bubbles up, dang! and she blows
the foam off his feeder tube like it was an overflowing stein. It gets on
him, on his wheelchair, on the carpet. “Mark, you’re always spilling your
beer,” she scolds. We have to laugh. Like the time when mom and him
were alone, and she tried to move him and they both fell down. They
just lay there on the floor for an hour or so, talking and laughing till
Slave-Boy, neighbor extraordinaire, came by to see how everyone was. He
was strong enough to get everybody situated again.
A few months later, I get the phone call and rush to the airport. They
administer last rites as we take off from Honolulu, but he is still alive,
surrounded by a growing clan of friends and family. I urge the plane to
go faster. There are about thirty people to see him off that night in the
emergency room, his big heart trying to hold on. We later calculated that
I was just about over El Paso when he died. Out in the West Texas town of
El Paso was his favorite song. He’d sing it till we begged him to stop. Oh,
how I would cherish hearing him sing it again
We all miss you so much, Markie. Some things just are not fair.
Sailing, Sailing
We leave Ko Olina Harbor on the southwest corner of Oahu at about
three a.m. in a drizzle, headed for Kauai. Pegasus, a fifty-four footer, is
fast. We will make it in one day. Bill, owner of the trim vessel, makes sure
I have the channel marker lights figured out, and then points out the low
lights of Waianae and Makaha to the north. We make the turn from the
channel to the open ocean, then he goes below to get some shuteye—
the half-sleep of a sailor whose body is tuned to every noise and motion,
ready to jump up as soon as there is a whisper of concern knocking on his
slumber.
The coast is to my right, the low lights of the highway and houses
alternately glisten and disappear as the clouds swirl between us and the
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sleepy island. I keep my compass heading pretty good through the rainy
morning. I’m still a little nervous overall, what with Bill and Shirley
snoozing below, trusting their boat to me in the dark; plus I’m wet. I have
on the rain slicker, but keep the hood off just because I think I can see
better without it. I peer into the darkness ahead, straining to see an unlit
ship or who knows what. Soon, we sail into a line of pretty heavy rain;
I pull the hood up. The water it had been collecting the last hour or so
pours straight down my back and into my pants. My pitiful shriek wakes
Bill up, he’s at the hatch with his flashlight on in seconds. I explain what
happened, standing in the rain. He chuckles and goes back to sleep, he’s
had worse—times a thousand.
An hour or so later, the horizon begins it’s soft purple glow to the
east, silhouetting the mountains of Oahu and the lighthouse at Kaena
Point. The clouds crowd the peaks of the Waianae range, but we’re in
clear weather now. It’s warming, and the colors start coming up. The
water glows a molten gold at the top of the now-rising swells, the bases
of the waves still dark. As we skirt past Kaena Point, we go from the
protected waters of the lee coast smack into a Hawaiian-sized northeast
swell and the boat begins it’s powerful charge up the swell faces, then
down the backs. The soft morning light glows more orange now, brighter,
and it shapes the waves dramatically, highlighting their huge forms. You
feel small amid their thickness, their unrelenting power. We’re in the
warming sun for a few fleeting seconds at the top of a wave, then charge
back down into the dark, cool shadows. Up, down, light, dark.
Oahu is well behind us and we are in the deep, really deep, open
ocean. It’s a beautifully spaced swell, like huge, glistening corduroy, lined
up one after another, as far as we can see. Bill takes over and trims it
keener as the sails hum; the boat is hissing now, moving fast. Shirley and I
are laughing at the speed, scarfing down cantaloupe and grapes, watching
Bill trim and charge, now in his element. This is high adventure to me,
but a walk in the park to Bill and Shirley. They’ve been all over the South
Pacific, Mexico, the Caribbean, you name it. They really know their stuff.
Hours later, we see the first one zip past us as we climb the face
of swell. A floating package of Winston cigarettes, perfectly sealed,
glistening red and white on the dark blue water. Then we see another
one, then two, then a dozen. Fresh cigarettes for the taking, a barge spill
most likely. It’s enough to make you want to start smoking again. They
are red-and-white patterns in the sun, glistening conga-lines of Winstons
dancing up and down the swells on both sides of us, hundreds of them,
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probably thousands, they go on for miles. We’re halfway to Kauai,
surrounded by packs of cigarettes. There must be a moral here, or at least
a punch line, but we can’t think of one. Just a flotilla of freshly escaped
cigarettes who must be having the ride of their little lives.
We hope two things: that the turtles don’t mistake them for
jellyfish, and that the poor slob marooned on a deserted island out there
somewhere has a lighter when these puppies show up.
UFO
I watch him on The History Channel, his dry, unassuming report of
the best UFO sighting ever recorded. It’s aggravating to me; his answers
to the interviewer are short and militarily-precise. There is no storytelling
or drama—just like his flight logs of Vietnam. The reporter asks juicy
questions, my dad’s replies are measured, honest to a fault. “Well, a flight
crew must always be aware of what is sharing its airspace.”
Yeah, no shit! Like flying saucers! I’m jumping up and down, pulling
my hair. Here, let me help.
Date and time: July 15, 1957. 0240 hours.
Location: 34,500 feet, over the north-central Gulf of Mexico.
Aircraft reporting: an RB-47 reconnaissance aircraft on a practice
mission, call sign Lacy 17.
Lt. James McCoid’s gloved hand reaches ahead and taps the exhaust temp
gauge of the #2 engine. Small fluctuations, but within limits. He’ll keep a
special eye on it tonight, though. He sighs, looking out to the black night
and thinks: How did I end up in a recon ship? I really wanted fighters. Everyone
in his class wanted Tactical Air Command with their new, fast F-100s. But
the Air Force needed him in Strategic Air Command, in B-47s, so here he
is, copilot of this beast. He has to admit, though, that the crews he flies with
on these recon missions are real pros. They are practicing tonight, one last
shakedown cruise before they head to Brize Norton in England. This will
be his second TDY with the 55th; they had pulled off some hairy stuff that
last time over the Black Sea. What a night that was. Had each other in our
sights—fingers on the trigger—a freaking MiG! but cooler heads prevailed,
thank God. He’s learning fast, collecting chits and medals. He’ll cash them
in when the time is right to get into fighters. But hell, he might even make
Captain in the meantime—with this outfit, promotions come pretty quick.
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Tom Hanley
He stares through the maze of wires and ejection seat plumbing
ahead of him to the back of the helmet of Major Lewis Chase, aircraft
commander. Jeesh. He remembers the first time they were introduced. He
was a short, cocky little dude, and had a scowl on him that made it look
like he was going to maybe just take a poke at this new 2nd louie, just for
the hell of it. He looked like a little bulldog, he even walked like one. An
excellent pilot, but just don’t screw up on a mission with him, or—well
he didn’t know. They hadn’t screwed up, yet.
“Copilot, this is the navigator,” came a sudden, crisp message in his
earphones, startling him from his musings. “I’ll be ready for the star shots
in a minute. Get the scope ready, would you?” That would be Hanley, the
navigator, up at the very front of the ship in his little office. This is one
part McCoid likes. He sure as heck wouldn’t have learned this in fighters.
Copilots got to shoot the stars for the navigators. They taught him
to use the periscopic sextant in training, but Hanley really taught him,
took it to a higher level. McCoid’s job is to screw the sextant into the
mount above him on the canopy, shove the lens up into the slipstream,
and sight the moon, a star, whatever the nav asks for, giving a time hack
and an azimuth reading. Hanley did it at first by himself, shouting in the
noisy cockpit what he was doing, and why he liked it done a particular
way. After the mission, he’d brief the new copilot on how he used the
information, giving him lessons in, well, navigating. It’s amazing to watch
the columns of numbers and equations turn themselves to a point on
a chart.
He wrestles the heavy instrument into it’s mounting, it is just like
a little periscope from the submarine movies. He makes the sights,
reporting the numbers back to Hanley in the nose. He keeps on Arcturus
for a little while, amazingly clear at this altitude, especially through
a piece of equipment as good as this. Bausch & Lomb, baby. Hard to
believe we were bombing the crap out of their factories a few years ago.
Now we’re allies. Buds. Funny planet. He makes a final sweep and gazes
at the heavens—just fantastic. He wonders silently that human thought
of the ages: Who else is out there?
The ship crosses the sleeping coastline from the Gulf of Mexico into
Mississippi over Gulfport. The navigation and gunnery legs now over,
the EWOs will start practicing against selected ground targets soon.
“Radio check,” comes a calm voice in the night, a quarterly-hour event.
All report in, including the three Electronic Warfare Officers (known as
Crows) down in the belly. In the bomb bay, in fact. They are surrounded
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by racks of the most sophisticated radars and monitoring equipment ever
made. Provenzano, McClure, and Tuscherer are packed tight in there.
Can’t stand up. Barely have room to crawl. They are the real reasons
for the missions. He and Chase and Hanley’s job is to get those guys as
close to the bad guys as possible—too close, sometimes. I mean, in their
face, getting the Russians to turn on every radar they have, to scramble
interceptors if they had to, to chase off the approaching Americans.
Then the EWOs in the belly record the furious enemy response, what
kinds of radars, frequencies, where they are located, scramble times for
the MiGs—critical information to be shared with the bomber fleets, if it
ever comes to that. He remembers the night they charged right at their
Navy base at Vladivostok from the cold Bering Sea, even turned on their
landing lights, for Pete’s sake. “Come and get us!” they taunted. Mama
mia, these guys are ballsy. Or nuts.
“Jim, do you see that!?” snaps Chase, an alarmed bark in the night.
“Eleven o’clock, a little high, what the—”
McCoid looks ahead and to his left a little. A very bright light—there
shouldn’t be anybody out here. “A landing light at 35,000?” he says to no
one in particular. And it is stationary, a bad sign. If it is another plane,
they’re on a collision course. “Think he’s closing on us, Lew!”
“Yeah, no kid—” Before Chase can even begin to turn, the light
flashes across their nose from left to right to their two o’clock position
almost instantly, glows brightly, then disappears.
“Kee-rist, did you see that!?” yells McCoid.
The white track is burned into Chase’s vision. “Man, I’ve never seen
anything that damn fast. That’s not one of ours, that’s for sure,” he replies.
“McCoid, set up Utah ground on VHF standby. Nav, are we on track?”
“Right on track,” responds the navigator. I’m making, um, eighteen miles
west-southwest of Jackson, heading 280. What’s going on up there?”
“Not sure, yet. Provenzano, what do you got for me down there? Did
you get any of that?”
Captain Provenzano, down in his crowded compartment, reads a
recording of a beam sweep from a radar that was on during the, what, a
practice attack? A game of chicken with one of those new F-104s? “Got a
big return, real clear,” answers Provenzano. “Eleven o’clock to two o’clock
at one-point-five miles, 1,500 above us. Jeez, I can’t even start to say how
fast. Mach 10!? Must be an error, because he’s gone now. McClure had
him on the DF, too, but now nothing’s showing—think our equipment is
fouling up?”
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Tom Hanley
“Nope, we saw it with our own eyes up here,” Chase answers. “It’s no
foul-up.”
“Damn, there he is again,” reports an excited Provenzano. “I’ve got
him at 3 o’clock, strong signal at 3000 mics. He’s tracking us!”
“I . . . I’ve got nothing out there,” says McCoid, searching to
his right.
“He’s there, dammit, less than a mile,” answers Provenzano. “Our
altitude.”
“No kidding . . . someone’s there,” reports Crow Two, McClure. “I’ve
got two more locks now, one at 040 and one at 070. Strong as I’ve ever
gotten on this thing!”
Chase answers, “Well, I don’t—” Then Chase and McCoid both see
them, two steady red lights to their right. They both brighten fiercely,
then go out. Instantly a huge white light appears at their 3 o’clock,
Provenzano’s invisible target. Damn! It’s as big as their ship, a white and
glowing cylindrical shape.
“Well, whatever the hell it is, it can just turn itself on and off,” Chase
says. “This is some serious stuff, men, stay sharp. Okay, we’re not playing
around anymore up here.” His left hand reaches down to his radio and
hits a preset frequency. “Utah, Utah station, this is Lacy 17. Reporting
unknown traffic, in close and erratic. Advise any traffic our vicinity.”
Utah station is a powerful ground radar near Duncanville, Texas,
controlling this sector. “Lacy 17, we have you plus one, sometimes two
others, all over the place. Thought your crows were trying some new
tricks on us tonight.”
“Negative, Utah. No tricks tonight. We should be alone up here. Any
other flight plans filed near us? Civilian?”
“Negative.”
“No Navy?”
“Nope, this sector is all yours, Lacy. Suggest you go IFF Mode III for
positive I.D.”
“Roger, Utah.” Then on the intercom: “McCoid, get on that, will
you? And log it.”
“Lacy 17, are you declaring an emergency or near-miss?” asks Utah station.
“Negative, Utah. Just sorting it out up here a sec.”
“Lacy 17, should I patch this to Omaha?” the perplexed ground
operator asks.
“Negative, Utah, stand by,” Chase replies as he clicks off the radio.
“McCoid, let’s keep this local for now. Call Carswell (Air Force Base in
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Fort Worth), and tell them we want to cancel our flight plan. Request
permission to pursue unidentified object.”
“Roj, I’m on it.”
Permission for this unusual request is granted by Carswell controllers
within minutes, as the formation continues it’s track west. The Air Force
and the FAA both begin clearing traffic from the area around Lacy 17,
of which there is very little at their altitude at this hour, but some ships
are below and ahead, on their track toward Dallas. The bright light is
occasionally joined by one or two smaller red ones, still keeping position
off their right wing. The weather is clear. They have crossed Louisiana
now, and are over east Texas. The smaller red lights disappear again.
“Here we go.” Chase begins a pursuit turn toward the large white
light, which now becomes a pulsing, blueish-white color. The target turns
away from them, and lowers into the night sky, accelerating. Lacy 17
follows, now at mach .085, their peacetime limit. They go faster. They
seem to be gaining on it.
Provenzano down in the belly radios the pilot: “Lew, we’ve got him
tracked on just about every receiver we’ve got down here. He’s spiking us
all over the place—got him cold. We’re photographing the displays, too,
to be sure.”
“That’s good, Crow One, we’ve got a good visual on him up here,
he—holy crap!” The object stops—completely stops—in midair! 640 m.p.h.
to zero instantly! The jet barrels over it as it blinks out again. Chase
begins a hard turn to port, throttles back now to tighten the turn, the
big jet arcing through the night sky, while he and McCoid search over
their left shoulders for the target. It will take miles for the big jet to turn
around at this speed.
“We lost him down here,” reports Provenzano. “He just disappeared,
again, dammit.”
“Yeah, I know, yeah . . .” They continue the turn, searching.
Nothing. They slow to maneuver speed, and complete two 360s in the
area, double-checking positions and equipment. It all checks. They
continue west.
There he is again.
Over the next forty minutes, the ships alternately appear and
disappear, visually and on radar. The colors change from bright white, to
a gently pulsing blue-white, to occasionally red. Usually one large one,
sometimes some smaller ones in formation. The large one comes close a
few times. It seems as large as they are, about a hundred feet long, and a
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Tom Hanley
classic cigar shape, though no hard form is seen due to the radiant light.
It passes close enough over the top of them once that both Chase and
McCoid involuntarily duck. Damn! No wings of any kind are noticed
on the closer passes, no tail, just a huge smooth shape. The lights
are sometimes rhythmic, sometimes patterned, sometimes steady—a
hypersonic marquee in the sky. The chase is strictly on the whim of the
unidentified craft.
Ground radars also track the unknown vehicles, when they choose to
be seen. There is talk of a Russian secret weapon or craft, later dismissed.
Civilian? Impossible. CIA? Man, there is nothing out there that could go
that fast, then stop in midair, or even reverse itself. Nope. This is from out
there. At times, the craft would casually circle around the B-47, an almost
effortless pirouette, then disappear at fantastic speeds. North of Fort
Worth now, the craft makes what seems to be a final pass across their nose
from right to left, then executes a 90 degree turn, and instantly disappears
behind them.
“Lew, we’re getting low on fuel,” reports McCoid. “We need to head
back now, or hit our alternate.”
Chase sighs, exasperated. “Yeah, I know. Okay, Jim, call Carswell. Tell
them we’re headed back to Forbes. Nav, give me a heading.”
The plane continues through the clear night. It has been over an hour
of chase, report, record. There’s still excited chatter among the crew. A
real, live UFO—best sighting ever, probably. All recorded, every second
of it. There is the celebratory banter of boys in a locker room after a big
game. “I wonder if they have tentacles,” someone says. “What are the
women like? Think of the possibilities, ha, ha.”
“Knock it off,” growls Chase. “Get your minds back on your jobs.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” says Provenzano quietly.
“What?”
“We’ve got a DF tracking at 190, skipper. Same weird frequencies.
He’s following us.” And it did, all the way to Oklahoma City. Well, it
could do whatever the hell it wanted, anyway. They are tired, and low on
fuel. They track it, silently, then it disappears for the very last time.
“Well, we have what we need,” the UFO commander telepaths.
“Yes,” his copilot answers.
“These subjects were interesting, just as the scouts reported. We have
their frequencies recorded?”
“Yes.”
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“The primitive amplitude modulation again?”
“Yes, plus ultra and very-high frequencies, and others. They have
not discovered space-skip yet. Also, a new band radar, according to the
computer, but very weak.”
“Bio-readings of the crew?”
“Six males, mid-life, typical dental corrections. One will herniate
soon, and five have darkened breathing sacs. Otherwise normal.”
“Good, well done. Take us to our next search sector.”
“Yes, commander.” Etak’s gloved tentitip reaches ahead and taps into
the holo of the #2 hydroplasmic-accelerator. Fluctuating, but within
limits. He’ll keep a special orb on it tonight. He sighs, looking out to the
black night and thinks: How did I end up in a recon ship? I really wanted
fighters.
123RF, Songquan Deng
Chapter 11
Hong Kong
F
lying into Hong Kong from Taipei, I’m treated to hundreds of
miles of the amazing, rugged shoreline as the Airbus finally drops
through the high layer of clouds that seem to continually cover
the Chinese coast. Hundreds, thousands of steep islands, from the size
of a house to little Manhattans crowd the dark flank of China. The air is
thick and wet, with wispy tendrils of clouds, thin lines of smoke low on
the land and water, just like those old panel paintings of the mysterious
Orient. The steepness of the hills, the clouds forming before your eyes,
you thought they were exaggerating, but they weren’t. Those guys got it
just right.
The jagged peaks of the islands collect the thick air at their bases and
funnel it to the peak where it “poof ” becomes a solid cloud and wafts
away in a line, hundreds of peaks smoking away like little volcanoes. The
sharp spines of the islands undulating through the dark water, smoke
growing from nothing—no wonder they call it the Land of Dragons. The
water is an amazing array of strange lines, too. Like the scratch of a tiger,
three or four parallel lines of black water gash the dark green sea. They’re
everywhere, sometimes following an undulating coastline, sometimes just
an angry straight slash for miles, a scratching post for an unseen demon.
The steep valleys disgorge their grungy-red streams into the dark water
and it fans out, finds a current, and wisps away like the smoke above.
Closer to Hong Kong, the villages and industry discharge their ochre puss
into the sea, a riot of filthy colors seeping into the water.
243
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Tom Hanley
I’ve been to Hong Kong a few time on business. We print our
magazines there, and despite the amazing advances in technology and the
Internet, a real, live human has to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the
pressmen as the pages roll through the presses to check that the color and
clarity is acceptable. It is hard, exacting work in an environment so loud,
even at point blank range you have to yell to be heard. Some presses are
two stories tall and as big as a barn, with dozens of workers scurrying
about in amazing proficiency.
As far as I can tell the only things to do in China are work and eat.
Everyone looks busy and well-fed. Day five, or is it six? Seven? No matter,
work and eat, work and eat. My daily rhythm is long gone; no surfing
before work, no walks along the Ala Wai at lunch, no beer, no wife, no
circus dog. I haven’t slept more than one or two hours at a time since I’ve
been here. I pace the room, I exercise, but it isn’t right. I have a cold. It’s
rained since I got here, there is absolutely nothing to do but wait for the
next press check. I feel like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, slowly going
crazy in his room: Charley gets stronger, and I get weaker. At least he had
dope and whiskey to help him along.
I can’t risk even the hint of beer on my breath the next morning as
the pressmen and I huddle close over the printed sheets, arguing loudly in
the din of the pressroom, “More magenta, less black!” That battle done,
I’m led to a small waiting room, where I fidget, take notes on problems
so far, exercise again, listening to the deep thrum of printing presses and
forklifts at work on the floor above.
I try to sleep on the uncomfortable couch, five feet of slippery, black,
cheap vinyl. As soon as I nod off, the small refrigerator near my head
snarls to life. I curse it, I bang it, then I unplug it. Satisfied, I nod off
just as the door opens and the polite young man whispers: “Good day,
Mister Tom, sorry to dismay you. Time for next press check.” Then that
press check, then the next one and eighteen hours later, the courteous
driver drops me off at my palatial hotel. I sneak a beer, lay down, and
one hour later the dull light creeps into my room and I’m Martin
Sheen again.
The Chinese people are unfailingly polite, traveling with me, guiding
me through the maze of streets and highways that are packed, day and
night. There is a courtesy there on the roads I find surprising; people
use their blinkers, don’t speed, don’t honk, very polite. Except for the
fact that they will run over a pedestrian and not even slow down, they
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are very civil. Pedestrians do NOT have the right-of-way in Hong
Kong, as I found out my first scary seconds walking through the airport
parking lot.
As in most of China, there are real cultural juxtapositions, a yin and
yang of old and new. Not a clash of civilizations per se, but modern and
ancient mingling side-by-side. Your hotel is a marble-floored wonder,
columns and art and sophistication. You take a clean, air-conditioned
taxi to town and soon you are walking on Gloucester Road past the
most modern, upscale shopping plazas you’ve ever seen, serious Gucci
and Rolex country. Shiny, architectural masterpieces crowd the harbor
edges, making Honolulu’s skyline look positively quaint. Then, three or
four blocks up the hill, you’re suddenly slipping on blood, the freshly
butchered goat spilling his life out onto the street, his head just lying
there. You jump back, and bump into an aquarium full of eels, the
tiny stooped women are selecting them for dinner, carefully, as if there
is a difference between them in the squirming mass. Forlorn turtles
are wrapped and hanging under the eaves in their own little nets, their
legs poking out to do a slow, hopeless, turtle breast-stroke against
the charged air. There are pieces of meat and bone hanging over the
sidewalk, you have to duck; and cute little birds in cages—I shudder
to think of their destiny. Maybe it’s just for the cheerful chirps, a Hong
Kong street-supermarket Muzak, but I doubt it. It’s noisy, it’s real, it’s
how food actually happens—the third world way—and they are not
at all squeamish about it. You give them some money and point at a
living thing, they kill it, you put the body in a bag, then go home and
eat it. Real Food 101. You could go vegetarian, easy, after a stroll in
Hong Kong.
My hosts and I leave Hong Kong for the real commie China one
day to check the presses for yet another magazine I must inspect. We are
traveling to Shenzen, a boomtown, a Chinese Houston. To get through
the border to China we are herded into obedient lines of taxis and buses,
and scolded repeatedly by the whistle-blowing cops—cops everywhere;
stop here, move here, pull over here. One rushes up to our van and berates
our driver for some imaginary transgression. What could he have possibly
done? We haven’t moved in twenty minutes. After screaming at us for a
little while, Super-duper Commie Cop leaves us and heads off for new
game. As he struts away, we all think the same thing, but in different
languages: asshole.
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Once past the checkpoint, Shenzen, an entirely “new” city, whisks us
off on freeways as good as any in the States. Smooth and landscaped, it’s
very much like LA; concrete everywhere, construction everywhere, and
smog—bad, nasty smog. A mile or so in, there’s an official square, with
a big government building welcoming us to Worker’s Paradise. There is
the big, red flag I had been taught to fear since the Korean War, since my
Treasure Chest propaganda comics in the fifth grade, but you can barely
make out the flag because of the huge banner stretching in front of it.
It has a happy couple beaming at their new home. “Build Your Dream
in Mission Hills,” it says in five-foot English letters. Welcome to the
New China.
From Hong Kong to China, it all switches. We drive on the American
side now, there is Western music on the radio, gas stations have troops
of little Texaco girls swarming over us as we pull in. I remember us, back
when: “You Can Trust Your Car To The Man Who Wears The Star, The
Big, Bright Texaco Star.” Change “Man” to “Comrade” and you will see
how the world changes at dizzying speed.
Later, off the expressways, we’re into the real China; squalid and
hardworking. Stalls of merchants and manufacturers toil in the dim light
behind corrugated tin storefronts; one houses a family squeezing jelly
from old fruit, next door is three generations of tire repairers, and next
to them, the Li’s huddle around their trusty family lathe, barking at each
other and the dog amid the choking wood dust. Like my old Pasadena
(but with considerably more grit), it is the bluest of blue-collar, block
after block, city after city of people who fix things, build things, and
recycle the refuse into the ditch out front.
The buildings, the sidewalks (where there are sidewalks), the
restaurants, the streets are packed and bustling, day and night. Trucks,
bikes, cars, mothers and children all merge together at each intersection
with some kind of unwritten rule of street maneuvering, a frightening
flow. You can’t believe we’re missing each other, it’s a question of inches.
Mens’ faces flash past my window at ridiculous speed, so close I catch my
breath. If one of these guys had a boner, we’d hit him.
My little jobs are successfully printed, bound, and loaded onto a
Honolulu-bound ship. But my lungs are now scarred from the smog of
the cities and the chemicals and solvents of the printing plants. China
is efficient and industrious and is poisoning itself. It’s filthy. I can’t wait
to get back to the friendly, laid-back folks of Hawaii, the sweet-scented
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247
air, the blue skies and clean water. I need a breather, a beer, a wave, a
walk with my wife. I click my heels together three times and leave the
glistening new Hong Kong Airport for home, but with an unpleasant
surprise waiting for me.
123RF, Thomas Dutour
Chapter 12
Hard Nights
A
s Frank would say:
I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet,
a pawn and a king.
I’ve been up and down and over and out,
and I know one thing—
And that one thing is that the life of a freelance artist-writersurfer-house painter can be fiscally interesting, to say the least. A huge
ad agency, my second biggest client for years, goes out of business
unexpectedly—poof. A lot of people are affected, a lot, so I suppose there
were many crises like mine going on in Honolulu that month. Some
planned to move back to the mainland, some were going to stick it out.
We’re staying.
Shawn and I go over the budget that night on the kitchen table,
trying to project what my now-struggling business might bring in
for the next few quarters. I suggest we take out a loan on the house to
keep Lauren in her expensive, la-de-da school while I build the business
back up. Shawn suggests I build the business back up anyway, plus
work nights. She’s right, of course. Crap. This can’t be happening. Not
to us. Not now. We’ve got a kid in college. We just bought a house.
Double crap!
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Tom Hanley
Each time I find myself
flat on my face,
I pick myself up and get back in the race.
Okay, I’ll find a night job. I ain’t happy about it, but I’ll do it. Almost
eerily, there is an ad in the paper to wash jumbo jets at night. It’s a new
company, just starting up. I show up to their cattle call interview at a
cheesy hotel out by the airport. I’m massively over-qualified they tell me.
I’m too old. They don’t want to interview me, let alone hire me. Well, yes,
legally we do have to let you fill out an application.
Days pass, I do the paperwork, get my security clearances. I’m
sorry, Mr. Hanley, but you’re still not right for this position. This is a very
physically demanding job. There’s about a hundred of us trying out for
twenty slots. We can’t pay anything close to what you’ve been earning.
I show up for all the training films. We appreciate your persistence,
but . . . I schmooze Tony, the owner. Are you still here? Are you crazy? I
volunteer for cherry-picker training, the hardest job, the most dangerous.
You maneuver like an old man. Get aggressive with that extend! To show
solidarity with the other applicants, I learn to cuss in Samoan: Kefe! They
finally relent.
2 a.m. We wait on the ramp at Honolulu International, me and a
slightly dangerous group of men. There were about twenty of us when
we started, but turnover is still high. Some lose their security clearance
to be on the ramp due to little things, like undisclosed manslaughter
convictions. Some go to jail, some disappear. It’s been a few months
now, we’ve pretty much sorted ourselves out and I find myself in charge.
They are mostly Samoan and Pacific Islanders, smart and hardworking,
but quick-tempered. There’s a scrappy little woman with us, the
freckle-faced wife of a Navy guy. She won’t take anything from anybody.
She’s supposed to be only guiding the lifts with a red-lensed flashlight
and a whistle, an OSHA-mandated safety position. But more often, she’s
shoulder-to-shoulder with us, tugging long hoses, scrubbing, sweating
and cursing with us into the night.
When one of the Samoans is screwing up—minor transgressions—I
am allowed to yell at him, but that’s about it. If further action is
necessary, I speak to the group leader. He will then decide if punishment
is needed, and only he can administer it. There’s a tribe of them, it’s hard
to tell how many will show up each night. They’re big and strong, and
one is a little crazy. He tests me, constantly. One night we go face-to-face,
Cold War Kid
251
wild threats, I see the dope in his eyes; he’s getting dangerous. I fire him
on the spot, no consultations tonight. They are sullen and mad at me for
a week, then we fall back into our normal routine. He’s shot dead in a
gang fight in Waipahu a month later. I’m not surprised.
Our equipment is checked, then moved into position: two scissors
lifts which can reach the top of the fuselage, and one cherry-picker
that can reach the top of the tail. The firehoses are laid out, attached
to hydrants. From the gloom of the dark taxiway, the star of the show
is towed onto the stage, emblazoned with spotlights—a United Airlines
Boeing 777. There is a mad scramble as the other men go about their
duties—some put huge plastic bags over the landing gear; United doesn’t
want soap or water on the massive brakes. There is much noise now,
engines revving in the night, yelled commands and responses over the
beep-beep-beep of lifts in reverse, all mixed in with the roar of jets taking
off and landing out in the dark.
While others scramble, I walk around the beast with a flashlight,
noting any damage and writing it up so we can’t be blamed for it later.
From a distance, the ships are shiny, flawless. Up close, you see they
are working machines, trucks with wings. There are patches riveted on,
scratches, dents left by a wayward service truck or a dropped wrench.
Sometimes I concentrate on the parts so closely it’s not even an airplane
anymore. It’s more like a bunch of panels and wings and windows
and flaps, all screwed together in the huge, dark shape of an airplane.
Airplanes, like art and sculpture, seem to evoke a mood in me. Or
perhaps my moods project onto the art. On some nights, the planes
are beautiful to me, a masterpiece. Other nights they’re just pieces,
components stuck together—strictly business.
My beam dances over the plane, noting its wounds. The bottom of
the huge, fat fuselage, especially near the back, is caked with grime—like
a dirty old locomotive. Some of the crew are under there in the black
shadows, spraying a loosening solvent on the mess before the washing and
scrubbing begins. I continue my inspection and see Joe and Loto driving
around the thing at flank level with their scissors lifts, taping plastic
covers over the many ports and holes and tubes that need to stay dry.
After I fill out the forms and get the sign-off, I do the obligatory
bullshitting with the United mechanics, sleepily watching us from their
van, tracking our many transgressions. Safety glasses? We don’t need no
stinkin’ safety glasses. Our steel-toed boots look amazingly like tennis
shoes and sandals. For the next couple of hours the plane will belong to
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Tom Hanley
us and our little washing crew—our insurer holding it’s breath, I’m sure.
We punched a small hole in a Continental jet once, I’ve never seen so
much paperwork. It was flying the next week; we’re still filling out forms,
I think.
Everyone is set up now, and I give the nod to start the wash as I stroll
over to the big cherry picker, positioned for me under the tail. I step
into my body harness, pull it up snug on my crotch, then loop the heavy
webbing over my back and shoulders. I climb onto the platform cage
and click the harness safety rope to a stanchion. Pops hands me the fire
hose, we wrap it three or four times around the railing, and I start the big
diesel. I have an ice-chest-sized bucket of soapy liquid, a couple of scrub
brushes on long poles, a walkie-talkie. I try not to feel too bad, washing
these things instead of flying them after all these years, but as soon as
I lift up into the air, all thoughts cease except the extreme maneuvering
required, calculations of where I am, where the hose is dragging, how
windy it is, how close can I get to that filthy rudder hinge without
hitting it.
The rudder is sixty feet up in the howling wind, seven stories, and
every slight blip of movement on my control knob is exaggerated by
the long boom. Sometimes I have to lean out, one foot hooked around
a railing, all alone, the wind blowing the soapy mess back in my face.
I’m fifty-something years old, it’s three in the morning. Dang, this is
crazy. Maybe they were right. Maybe I am too old. I think I could make
more money by giving speeches to kids in high school on the dangers of
majoring in Art.
I work both sides of the rudder, the filthy tail and APU exhaust, then
lower myself and hand off the water hose. I dodge and duck my head
under the tail fins, and maneuver the big machine carefully around the
men. They’re scrubbing hard, not noticing me in their zeal and all the
other noises. We started out being paid by the hour, but then it changed
to being paid by the job. Tony is smart. You wouldn’t believe how those
slow hourly workers hustle now. The old six-hour jobs now take half that.
I drive forward, to extend over the back of the huge wing. It’s easier here,
washing the fuselage over the wing, lower, and I can call for water to be
hosed up from below.
It’s been three hours now of exhausting, exacting work for a wash this
big. 767s take about two and a half. A little less for the 737s and 757s,
but the Air Force C-130s are the worst. We could spend eight hours on
those pigs. Their rough paint tears our cleaning pads, and the flap wells
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253
behind the smoky engines are a maze of filthy, knuckle-slicing metal. We
know each type, where they get the dirtiest, where the dark, unyielding
antennas are mounted, waiting to cold-cock us in the head as we scurry
under the fuselage to the other side.
The job is winding down now, we’re tired. If they want a wax job, we
do it all over again, retracing our paths and apply a waxy sealant to the
huge thing. No wax tonight, thank God. Soon we’re done, the hoses are
rolled up and the machines parked to the side. Tony drives up—he was
watching us from the dark shadows across the ramp, checking up on us.
Sometimes he does that. He’s a corporate pilot besides this business, and
lets me pretend to fly copilot in his King Air every once in awhile. I think
he’s still amused to have me working for him, we both know it won’t be
for long, though. At least I hope not. He gets out of his truck and joins
me and the United rep as we check the job, beams of light caressing the
shiny machine. It sparkles in the night. I think of my dad’s B-47, father
to this huge son. He flew them, I wash them. Have I failed? Or what?
Geez, I’m too tired to think about that stuff now. I’ll analyze it later in
the backyard, over a few beers. Me and Dodger.
Everyone’s satisfied with the job and they sign off on another one.
We head on back to the work truck, where the crew has already shuffled
onto the back bed and trailer, some dozing. Before I climb in and drive us
all back to the hangar to unload, Tony asks, “So, how’s the book going,
smart guy?”
“Still working on it.”
“Can I be your chauffeur when you’re rich?”
“Sure can, Tony.” I yawn in the night. Write what you know, they say.
Well, we’ll see.
The End
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The author is an artist, writer, surfer, and a regular guy. He’s a Leo, but not
one of those, you know, loud and pushy ones. He also wrote Flyboys. Tom
lives in Hawaii with his wife and Dodger, the Circus Dog.
Cold War Kid
Cold War
Kid
The author is an artist,
writer, surfer, and a regular
guy. He’s a Leo, but not one
of those, you know, loud
and pushy ones.
He also wrote Flyboys.
Tom lives in Hawaii with
his wife and Dodger, the
Circus Dog.
One would hope that a memoir
spanning from World War II to
present would be a sweeping saga
of war, passion, loss, redemption
and hope.
Take a whimsical journey
through postwar America–from
black-and-white TVs to nuns shooting
invisible atomic energy rays from their eyes. From
sleek jets and cars with big fins to our current upside-down culture.
One would be mistaken.
plus ...
See the Amazing Jackalope
8 Miles Ahead
Clean Restrooms
Tom Hanley
a memoir of sorts
Tom Hanley
It’s a story about being raised
among the men and machines of
the Air Force, growing up
Catholic, living in a Texas
lighthouse, crashing the occasional
airplane, then following the call of
the surf to Hawaii.