Stephen D. Lalonde

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Essays and other short prose

Essays and other short prose...

Woodworking for fun…


   According to the ultrasound, I had a sliver. They measured it to be 1.7 centimeters and it was embedded in the nail bed of my right thumb.

It all started when I was moving a piece of a branch in the wood shop. It was pretty heavy and as I was setting it down it slipped from my fingers, hit the floor and bounced back up. Somehow it managed to gash my thumb across the end and along the nail. I spoke to it in no uncertain terms about how displeased I was and how much it hurt. I grabbed a paper towel in an attempt to keep the bleeding to a minimum and headed for the house.

   When I got in the house and began sharing the experience with my wife. She was as excited as always to be of assistance, but did so anyway. We washed the wound and applied anesthetic. The cut was very open, but there was so much blood we couldn't tell for sure if it was completely cleaned out. We managed to get it bandaged with enough pressure to slow the bleeding. Through the rest of the day we changed bandages as needed and eventually the bleeding stopped.

   After a few days it appeared that the wound was not beginning to heal and decided to go to urgent care. The nurse practitioner studied the wound and asked, "How did you do that?” and for the fourth time since coming to urgent care I explained what happened. She said we had to be sure there was no material left in the wound, so she arranged for an ultrasound of the thumb.

   Even I could see on the monitor the clear straight line that didn't seem to belong there. They returned me to the examination room where I waited patiently for what must've been minutes. Eventually the nurse practitioner came in and said that there was a sliver measuring 1.7 cm that extended into the nail bed. It was more involved than they were prepared to deal with at urgent care and so an appointment was made with a hand specialist, Dr. Page.

   The next day I went to the appointment with the doctor who determined that surgery was needed to remove the splinter. Surgery for a splinter? Seriously?

I told the doctor, "If you manage to get it out in one piece, I want it. It will be the most expensive piece of wood in my shop."

   He replied, "It will be the most expensive piece of wood ever."

   The next day (it has now been a week since the original injury) I reported to surgical center for my splinter. I figured that they would probably numb up the thumb, pull the splinter, and I could be on my way. Silly boy.

   They took me back to a preparation room and to my amazement told me to put my clothes and personal belongings into this bag and put on the rear air-conditioned gown with the ridiculous tie strings that seem to serve very little purpose. For a splinter! When I had accomplished the assigned task, the nurse proceeded to start an IV. Did I mention that it is just a splinter? They injected something into the IV that made the world beautiful.

   A splinter by the way.

   They began to inject something else into the IV while explaining that I…

   When I woke up, I looked at my arm to see that it was painted orange from the elbow to the end of my fingers and my thumb was now bandaged larger than my head. Did I point out to you that there was a splinter? Well apparently, even that was wrong. The doctor explained that ultrasound can give false readings from time to time. He did find some wood fragments well into the thumb, so the procedure was appropriate, but I didn't get a splinter to take home, and I was so prepared to frame it.


Hold the Feathers

   Another glop of liquid-hot tar hit my wrist, and it hurt no less than the several other times it had happened today. I blew on it as if I were making a desperate wish on a birthday cake, trying to cool it enough to lift it off. This acid-base tar stuck to the skin even better than to the underground irrigation pipe it was intended to protect, and the top layer of cooked skin came off with the tar leaving another raw wound exposed to the air. I had been working for this rancher on weekends for a couple of months, and the cool spring days were yielding to the warmer pre-summer days. That lead to a good sweat by mid-morning. By late afternoon, my feet were dead weight on the end of exhausted legs.

   For the last several weekends we were putting mainline irrigation pipe in the ground so that the new wells could deliver water to the dusty fields. The investment in drilling the wells, putting in the mainline pipe system, and buying the massive self-propelled sprinkler lines, was readily accomodated by the incredible increase in yield, sometimes as much as quadrupling the wheat harvest. Financially this was a great investment for the rancher. But my minimum wage job was costing me dearly in skin and exposed nerve endings.

   I got the job through the rancher's two sons who went to high school with me. I was a junior, Dave was a sophomore, and Ron was a freshman. Both of them were good athletes. I got to play to fill out the team, whichever sport was in season. Small country schools needed every body they could muster to put a team in the league.

   So there we were, Dave, Ron, their father, Dick, the hired hand, Fred, and me working full-tilt all day to get this line in so that the water might do some good for this crop. Dick and Fred were a hundred yards or so up the line welding the seams of these twenty foot sections of six inch pipe. Dave, Ron, and I had been working together all day tarring the seams and any nicks in the pre-tarred pipe in order to prevent the rust-through problems that would necessitate shutting down the line in order to dig it up for repairs.

   Since we only had an hour or so to go for this day, Dave and Ron got in the boom truck and began dropping the far end of the line into the six foot deep trench. They had started a little more than a quarter mile away, and they seemed to be closing in on my location quickly. I was determined to stay ahead of them by not losing any distance from the welders. That was to be no small task as I was now tarring by myself and there was still two welders. But the day was nearly over and so I figured that I could hang on for the remaining time.

   My five gallon bucket was nearly empty, so I went the trailer where the tar was melted to near boiling. The tar came in hard blocks about the size of an apple box. These blocks were placed into a large tank on a trailer that also sported a huge propane burner that roared to life to convert the solid tar to a liquid. Since the burner was pointed toward the rear of the trailer we chose to step over the tongue of the trailer to get to the side where we could dip out the bubbling black goo. The fumes made my eyes water and smell was atrocious, but it only took a minute to get a fresh bucket and head back to the task.

   As I stepped over the trailer tongue on my way back to the line, my bootlace caught and I stumbled forward. I stayed on my feet, but I dropped the bucket. It fell straight to the ground and instead of tipping over and spilling, the bottom of it slapped the ground and the contents sprayed straight up. It was amazing how much tar came out of that bucket. It was even more amazing how much of it wound up on my face, the left side of my head and the back of my neck as I turned away in a effort to avoid the inevitable.

   The pain was beyond belief. I couldn't even curse it hurt so bad. I just jumped up and down and my insides churned with the kind of fear that won't let you hold still. The next thing I knew I was standing at the large mirror on the door of the truck that pulled the tar trailer, and in slow motion I reached for a blob of tar on my upper lip that extended along my left nostril. I pulled it off and looked at the layers of flesh and meat that were left exposed.

   Somehow, for the time being, I was strangely removed from the pain. It was there, but it didn't connect to me. I just starred in disbelief at my speckled face through the glasses that were also speckled ­and had probably saved my eyes.  By this time Fred, who had seen me jumping up and down and figured out right away what had happened, ran to me with Dick not far behind. The look on their faces told me more that the mirror had.

   They signalled to Dave and Ron. Both of them had burns on their wrists, but I had made the big time. Dick and Fred started gingerly lifting off tar and skin from my face while Dave and Ron unhitched the trailer and got ready to take me to the house. There Dick and Fred's wives called my mother and continued to try to remove the tar that remained on my face and left ear. They did not attempt to do anything with the tar that was matted in with the hair on the side of my head and the back of my neck.

   Some television personality was interviewing Evil Kneival on the TV, and I was drifting in and out of some dream-like zone. The pain, however, was beginning to become a very connected reality again, and the wounds left by the tar that had been removed began to weep a clear fluid to the point that it was actually dripping off of my face.

   I was vaguely aware of the unpleasantness that I had caused for the people who were attending to me, and my apologies were immediately met with renewed efforts to comfort me. I felt closer to these people than I had before. 

   At some time my mother arrived, and I was helped to the car. I didn't understand what was happening. I had been tired before the accident, but now I was very weak. Less and less of what was going on around me was making sense or even seemed real. Mom wasn't taking this well. She never was calm and collected about things, and she was unsuccessfully fighting back tears as she starred straight ahead and drove nearly beyond control.

   The country road soon brought us the the freeway that cut through the rolling hills of this wheat belt, and we headed for Spokane which was fifty-five miles away. I guess I told her that the pain was getting worse and she pulled off of the freeway into Cheney, where she was sure we could find a doctor's office. Since she had gone to school at Eastern Washington State College in Cheney, she knew right where to go.

   The doctor was still there, and they took me in right away. He gave me something to try to ease the pain. It didn't, at least not right away. Then he determined that the tar on the back of the neck had to come off right away. He told me that this was going to hurt and that I should hang on to the legs of the examination table and scream if I needed to. I did. I don't remember much after that until I was in the hospital in Spokane. A plastic surgeon worked with me for a week with a variety of ointments and salves. It was almost five weeks before my face, which by this time resembled hamburger, stopped oozing fluid from the wounds. And it was much longer than that before I stopped feeling like a some freak from a circus sideshow. The smell of tar, to this day, leaves me trembling.


Perilous Peppers


   The jar of jalapeno peppers still sits in the refrigerator as a memento to the evening of September 14, 1981 and my near brush with death. I was working at the time as a Field Executive with the local council of the Boy Scouts of America. The job description for a field executive is longer than a set of encyclopedias, just about as varied, and needs to all be done yesterday. Nobody that I knew then or since has had more than a vague idea of what the job really is, even those who are doing it. But whatever the job was, I was doing it for more than 70 hours a week.

   This particular two-day excursion had included helping to organize a new Cub Pack in Colville, training the new leaders, and talking a real estate agency owner into being next year's District Chairman. That would make him supervisor over all of the Scouting units in Steven's District, which happened to cover all of Steven's County in Eastern Washington.

   Recruiting a District Chairman is nothing less than hiring your own boss, because once you recruit him, you become his indentured servant for the next year. The one bit of justice in the whole affair is that District Chairman is a volunteer position, that is "unpaid", and my position as District Executive was paid, which meant that I was making more than my boss, at least in regard to Scouting activities.

   The truth was that back at the Council Office I had another boss, the Council Scout Executive, who was paid much more than me, and who hired me and could fire me, and for whom I was to recruit my other boss. Very little of this is explained in the job description by the way.

   I had spent two days working with many fine people in Stevens District who were volunteering their time to help boys learn citizenship, build character, and develop physical and mental fitness in a program that camouflages all of that with crafts, games, and ceremonies.  I was on my way home to see my own two boys and my wife. Being a little short on funds, I had skipped dinner and planned to drive straight through, which would put me home about 7:00 P.M. Getting home so early would be a pleasant surprise for my family.

   I decided that I simply had to have something to munch on during the drive. I didn't know what I wanted for sure, but I stopped at a wide-spot-in-the-road country grocery store to find something. They had the usual potato chips, corn chips, and candy stuff, but I was in the mood for something a little more exotic. On a shelf next to some chips, were jars of pickles and pickled things. I saw a jar of peppers there that looked just like the ones I loved so much at a barbecue cafe a short distance from my home. I have since made careful inquiry to determine that the peppers at the barbecue are called pepperoncini. I will never forget that, trust me. The jar of peppers that I took to the checkout and purchased were called jalapenos, and I, not being a connoisseur of peppers, did not know the difference- yet.

   Even though my mouth was already watering in anticipation of mild pickled peppers, I took the time to start the car and get back on the road so as not to lose any more time. A mile or so down the road I decided I could stand it no more and, still driving, I opened the jar of peppers, took one out and replaced the lid. Holding the pepper by the stem, I popped the whole pepper in my mouth just as I usually did, pulled it off of the stem and began chomping away . . . for about three chomps. At that instant, I knew I was in big trouble.

   This was not that mild pickled taste I was expecting. This was battery acid at 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Vision instantly blurred from the tears gushing from my eyes. I spit the mutilated pepper out the window, but it was too late. My own mouth was trying to drown me . . . and was succeeding. My diaphragm went into a massive spasm and now I was doubly deprived of the ability to breathe.

   I squinted into the rear view mirror to see the grill of a semi, which apparently was patiently preparing to run over me. The road was two-lane with oncoming traffic, and no shoulder at all and the white edge-of-the-road line was painted directly under the white guardrail.

   I was driving a Council car, a nice new car, and I couldn't see or breathe. There was nowhere to go but up, and I was thinking that may not be far off. Especially since the semi was now blowing his horn to emphasize the necessity of moving on more quickly.

   I made a desperate effort to take control of the situation. I grabbed the brand new package of Juicy Fruit gum off of the dash, and began stuffing sticks of gum into my mouth as fast as I could unwrap them. There was an electric sting on the fillings of some of my molars that let me know that I didn't get all of the foil off of the gum.

   I now had a mouth full of a golf-ball-sized wad of gum, which at least distracted some of the saliva that continued to pour from where ever saliva comes from. My diaphragm, on the other hand did not want to cooperate with the other breathing apparatus, and the brain was beginning to get desperate. So was the trucker behind me, and the rear view mirror was filled with truck grill complete with flies. I could see that because I had now discovered that if I blinked very quickly I could produce an instant of clear vision before the tears blocked the view again.

   I began having visions of tabloid headlines announcing, "Man Killed by Vicious Pepper". Would my insurance company pay a death benefit when the cause of death is listed as self-administered pepper? And should I survive was there a clause for 'loss of tongue'? Does workman's comp cover jalapeno attacks?

   The gum began helping, and for the first time since the fateful chomps I managed to get just a little bit of a breath. I could sneak just a little air before the old diaphragm clamped it off. It was enough to stay conscious, but at the time I wasn't at all sure that was an asset. I was still half an hour away from home where there was water and bread and all the other possible remedies I was mentally listing. It was the first time in my life when bland sounded good.

   That half hour passed like gravel through an hourglass. When I finally did get home, it took several gallons of water and as many hours to relate the experiences of the evening to my family. My near death experience drew little sympathy and much laughter. It wasn't until a couple of days later that I could see the humor in it. But lest I forget the severity of careless consumption, those peppers shall remain in my refrigerator.


WE DON'T SHOOT MEADOWLARKS

   "We don't shoot meadowlarks," Grandpa spoke as we sat just below the crest of a knoll on the back of his ranch. I sat with the single-shot 22 across my knees just as he did with his 22 pump rifle. We were waiting to get a shot at one of the ground hogs that infested the field that stretched out before us. Ground hogs were fair game because of the damage they did to his fields.

   I used to go out to watch him handle the gun, and listen to the rules for using it. Now I was allowed to use one. Sure, it was only a single shot and used shorts at that. Yet I knew it was a test to see if I could prove myself ready for something bigger. Safety was the first consideration, but it went beyond that. I was going to learn the right way to use a gun. I would learn to pick my target responsibly.

   Grandpa gently tapped me on the arm and pointed to a spot about thirty yards away. It was an invitation and I saw the ground hog about half way out of his hole. I slowly lifted the rifle to my shoulder with my trigger finger outside the guard, lined up the peep-sight on the ground hog, pressed the safety off with my trigger finger, then put my finger on the trigger and squeezed. The ground hog slumped and then fell back into the hole. It was a clean kill. I looked to Grandpa and he gave a simple nod as his eyes went back to scanning the field. It wasn't the first ground hog I had shot. But this one did not require that Grandpa go check that the thing was dead. I didn't feel the butterflies that I did the first time I shot one. After all, these weren't cute little furry critters, but destructive animals that cost Grandpa time and money in the damage to the farm equipment when it dropped into one of their holes. Not to mention the damage they caused to the crops. Killing one wasn't supposed to make you happy, just satisfied that you did what needed to be done. And besides they had to number in the hundreds maybe even in the thousands just on his place. The surrounding ranchers had the same problem. Shooting them was necessary.

   The sun was setting by now, and one of the rules was that you didn't shoot unless there was good light. So Grandpa and I started the long walk back to the house. We walked quietly with our gun barrels pointed at the ground through the field where he sometimes grew wheat and through the apple orchards that were the primary source of income for this ranch.

   We got back in time to wash up and sit down to the simple dinner magnificently prepared by Grandma. Mashed potatoes and gravy, roast beef, green beans with bacon bits, baked bread with butter and strawberry preserves, and apple pie with ice-cream on top. I helped her clear the table and do the dishes while Grandpa went to change the ditches. I liked doing that too; moving the little dirt dams and placing new ones to channel the irrigation water to different rows of fruit trees. But I knew I was expected to stay and help with the dishes. That was okay too. Grandma whistled tunes I had never heard before and chatted grown-up like with me about this year's crop or about the neighbors new tractor and such.

   After we finished the dishes and Grandpa got back, we went out in the small back yard surrounded by apple orchard and sat in the warm evening air with their old dog, Brownie. Grandma sipped on her tea. Finally, one of them- I don't remember which- said, "Time for bed," and I went to lay down on that giant soft mattress on the bed in the back room and fell immediately to sleep.

   As I grew older I was given more privileges with the guns. By the time I was sixteen I was pretty much allowed to take any of the guns out to the back field to target shoot or to work on reducing the ground hog population. Occasionally I would take one of the shotguns out and toss cans into the air and shoot them.

   In the late fall before my seventeenth birthday my family went out to the ranch for a weekend visit with my Grandpa and Grandma. My three sisters, all younger than me, usually stayed in or around the house unless it was a beautiful summer day. This particular weekend was cloudy and cool. The daylight hours were short and snow seemed inevitable, so I decided to take the 410 shotgun out for a little while. It was a single shell, breach-loading antique, and it was easy to clean quickly. I grabbed an open box of shells, maybe a dozen rounds. I wasn't planning to stay out very long in the cold air.

I walked through the apple orchard on crackling leaves. The old apple trees were bare and jagged looking from constant pruning over the years of fruitful bearing. These trees were old and sooner or later the trees in this orchard would have to be replaced one by one with newer trees. But Grandpa was moving slower now and was planning to leave that for the next owner to do.

   When I got to the empty chicken yard, this year's chickens were all arranged in neat rows in Grandma's freezer, I stopped to pick up several cans from the shop. There was always a box full of cans set aside for this purpose. I took the cans out into the middle of the field beyond the chicken yard. As I pushed the lever behind the hammer, the barrel of the gun dropped, opening the chamber. I slid a shell in and pulled the barrel up until the gun snapped shut. Picking up a can from the box, I pulled the hammer back until it clicked into the firing position, tossed the can high into the air, pulled the gun up to my shoulder, drew a bead and squeezed the trigger. The loud report was followed immediately by the rattle of the tin can as it was sent flying in a new direction. Too easy. Maybe clay pigeons and a launcher would make this more of a challenge, but we didn't have that.

   I popped the gun open, replaced the spent shell with a fresh one and closed the gun. As I tossed the next can, out of the corner of my eye I saw a bird flying fast from the left across my safety range. Without a thought I put the bead on the bird, leading it just a little, and squeezed the trigger. Unlike the cans I had been shooting for so long, this target became motionless and dropped through the air to the ground. I was amazed, not that I had hit it, but that I had shot it with such instant abandon. My heart was beating noticeable faster and harder by this time. I didn't like the feeling.

    I walked hesistantly over to the bird. It was a meadowlark. A meadow-lark. Suddenly I didn't want to shoot anymore.

   I picked up the box of cans and hurried to the shop. I was walking quickly, wanting to run, toward the house wondering for the first time WHY we don't shoot meadowlarks, as though I might reason my way clear of the deed. Surely meadowlarks die every day. We all die sooner or later. It's inevitable.

   As I approached the house I could see through the large picture window of the living room, Grandma holding a bowl below Grandpa's chin. My Dad was there too, and mom seemed to be escorting my sisters out of the room toward the kitchen. I ran in the back door past my sisters who were crying and my mother who was trying to calm them. But the look on her face told me that this was a bad situation. When I walked into the livingroom, dad told me to go out to the road and wait to signal the ambulance into the driveway. I paced the shoulder of the road, unable to stand still, choking back the tears that I knew Grandpa would not approve of. Time ceased to be.

   The ambulance arrived and they loaded my Grandpa into it and drove away with siren blaring. My Dad put Grandma in our car and headed out after the ambulance. I went back into the house, sat on the couch and tried to make sense of it all. I tried to convince myself that there was no connection between that meadowlark and my Grandpa.

   They both died that day.

   Grandpa's funeral was the first I ever attended. I viewed him in the casket, and thoughout the whole service all I could think of was my Grandpa, sitting on the crest of the knoll on the back of his ranch quietly saying, "We don't shoot meadowlarks."


THE MOVE


   The move wasn't really a matter of choice, but one of necessity. I understood that and yet the whole thing was too big and too complicated to think about at one time. I had to kind of divide it up and work it through a little at a time. One part was leaving the place. Ashland, Oregon was magical to me and, I assumed, to every other child living there. Even though the two years we had been there had been materially impoverished years, the place had been all I needed. Sure, I would have liked to have more to eat, but it hurt more to see my younger sisters go to bed with less than enough, and my parents occasionally with nothing at all. Life was so full of other things for me that food was a small issue. Still, I would have been happier if they had more to eat.

But, the place, the hill especially, was a wonderland.

   The houses and paved streets, and utility poles came to the base of the hill and then just stopped. No partial development, no graveled or dirt roads not even 'NO TRESPASSING' signs. The community came to the foot of the hill and reverently stopped as if to say, "We better not mess with this hill." It was ours, Jerry's and mine, and sometimes we would share our kingdom with some privileged friends. They would get to see the thick forest, dark and cool, on a hot summer day. We would take them to the huge boulders, bigger than large houses, moss-covered to a softness that invited sliding down them. A twenty-minute hike would take us far enough that no sight or sound of the town intruded. Only birds and various other creatures that we did not know created the peaceful symphony of freedom. The only threat to this bliss was the sound of the dirt bikes, carrying the toughs, the older boys that did not love the serenity of this place. We always knew where to hide from them. They probably didn't know we were there or didn't care, but even if they did, we knew they wouldn't be able to find us. After all, it was our kingdom. They were not reverent enough to know the secrets of it as we did.

   We would catch lizards, not by the tail. We found out right away that they were perfectly willing to depart with that replaceable part to keep their freedom. They were beautiful, so many brilliant colors, and so easy to care for. A simple screen cage and the ability to round up some flies was all a guy needed. My sisters failed to see the beauty of lizards. They just saw reptiles. We saw quickness, color, and the challenge of capturing them. We would keep them for a little while and then release them in something akin to a ceremony. Then we would catch new ones. They were houseguests, and we treated them as such.

   The oak trees that comprised much of the forest of this hill were covered with mistletoe, a harvestable item. My parents were so delighted when we brought a wagonload of it home late in the fall. All of the relatives in Tacoma and Bremerton were so impressed to receive a shipment of mistletoe fresh off the tree. It made me proud.

   Less private, but nearly as much fun, was Lithia Park. Rather unusual as parks go, this park was three or four miles long and only about as wide as a football field is long. It was a valley through which a crystal clear, shallow stream ran. It was full of gold to pan. It didn't matter to us that it was 'fools gold', iron something-or-another, our parents called it. It looked like gold, and it made the stream sparkle richly. Several fountains in the park had two fountainheads. One would be normal water, cold and good, but plain. The other would be natural mineral water that took some getting used to, but once a guy was initiated to it, it was the fountain of choice. At the far end of the park, the end away from the town, was the zoo. It wasn't much as far as big city zoos go, but it was more accessible. We could reach into the peacock cages and pick up the tail feathers that they seemed to frequently discard. We each had a large collection of these feathers. The farthest part was a huge fenced field that held several deer. They appeared to be in their natural habitat. They seemed happy.

   Sometime after we moved away someone killed them all. Shot them and got away without getting caught. That always bothered me. I was glad I wasn't living there when it happened.

   When we first arrived in Ashland, there were eleven of us in two families; my Dad and Mom, me, and my three younger sisters, and Rick’s Dad and Mom, Rick, and his two younger brothers. We must have had two vehicles to get there, but I can only remember the old grey Plymouth wagon. Both families had liquidated everything to get to Ashland to start a new sign painting business. There was a lot more faith than substance to this move. We did not even have enough money by the time we got there to rent a house. So the two Dads worked a deal with a guy that owned a meat packing business to do some sign work in exchange for a couple months rent on a house he owned. We were set.

   Everybody helped clean out the garage and the first set of signs was truly a team effort. The Moms tended to feeding the crew, that is the Dads and all of the kids. The Dads would paint the plywood signboards white. The kids would take the whitewashed boards out to dry in the sun, and take the dried ones in to be silk-screened. It seemed like there was hundreds of these signs. It probably was more like a couple dozen. But we helped and therefore we were 'paying our way'.

   The first winter was tough. There had been enough business that both families were able to have their own house to rent. It didn't really bother me that much that my clothes were patched up a good deal more than the other kids in school. Some of them made fun of us, but that was okay. Our clothes were always clean, and they had that clean, laundry soap smell and the stiffness that came with line-dried clothes. I liked that. Besides the only people that really mattered at this point were the members of the two families that were building a business, and we kids were always a real part of that. It wasn't token stuff, it was real, the kind of real that didn't require talking about. You knew it.

   Rick and I grew real close. He was a couple years younger than I was, but we were perfect buddies. We were approaching early adolescence, and we created incredible fantasy worlds. We were often partners in a military scouting party. We always managed to be captured. The adventure was creating an escape. How so many hours could be consumed by such a simple fantasy is beyond me now, but it was part of the magic of Ashland.

   One day Dad got a hold of some live wires in an electric sign they were repairing, and fell almost twenty feet. He was still rigid from the shock when he landed on his feet. Rick's Dad and Mom brought him home and he was going to try to rest until his feet quite hurting. After all, we didn't have the money to go to the doctor or anything.

   Later that night, Dad went berserk from pain. After they took him to the hospital, Mom came back and told us that all the bones in both feet were either badly broken or shattered, and that the broken pieces had come together on a nerve and that was what made him go berserk. A few days later he came home with both feet in casts to his knees. He had a wheel chair, and went to work to paint signs each day in his wheel chair. When dad was in the bathroom, we got to play with the wheel chair. It was a great toy. A couple months after the accident, on Thanksgiving Day, we were playing with the wheel chair, and he had called for it a couple of times. He got mad and came out of the bathroom yelling at us. We looked at him and then he too realized that he was walking. That was a special Thanksgiving. We knew that everything would be all right then.


The Fort


   I was twelve, Roger was ten, and it seemed like a good time to build a tree fort. Roger's family had a nice piece of property on Hood Canal at the tip of the Puget Sound about fifty miles west of Seattle, Washington. A road winding its way along the coastline cut into the hill about 20 feet above the beach, separated the beach from the rest of the property that extended a quarter-mile up the hillside. The hill was heavily wooded and seldom visited by the adults. That left the necessary exploration up to us. And explore we did.

   When the tide was low so that swimming was not a pleasant option (too much sea weed, jelly-fish, and such), we spent our time in the cool and mysterious hillside forest. We had often made short-lived attempts at construction on the hill, but had always lacked the resources or dedication to complete anything noteworthy. This summer would prove to be different.

   We began with the usual requests for some nails and tools to go build a fort, and received the usual patronizing "Sure, help yourself, but don't forget to bring the stuff back when you are through." It wasn't what was said but how it sounded that got us really going. His dad obviously figured that we were about to go waste a few nails - again. But we were of a different mind set this time, a little more sure of what we could do. And, though we didn't realize it yet, we were going to be thinking in a bigger way.

   We found a perfect building site. Three large fir trees in a perfect triangle would be the structural foundation for this venture. We found several Lodge pole pines nearby that were four or five inches thick at the base. We cut these down and chopped them into poles long enough to nail a triangular frame around the outside of the three trees, and then cut varying lengths of smaller trees to make the 'floorboards' to fill in the triangle. Now we had a nice triangular platform about five feet off the ground. We even borrowed a level to make the whole thing relatively flat. We were pleased as punch and decided that we needed a rail about waist high around the deck, which we quickly secured. Less than a day, and we had accomplished more than we had ever tackled in a whole summer before.

   Sometime between that afternoon and the next morning we decided that had been so easy that an ‘upstairs deck' was definitely in order. We had known for some time of a small stand of Quaking Aspen not far from where we were now building. But we knew that 'harvesting' there should involve some permission to do so. We hedged the request with an understatement of our intent. Roger asked, and this was carefully scripted, "Dad, could we cut down some of the small aspens to build our fort with?” We literally danced into the woods that day convinced that we had permission to log off the entire hillside, because his dad had not managed to qualify or quantify his "Yeah, I'm busy, go-ahead-and-do-whatever-you-want-so-I-can-concentrate-on-whatever-project-I'm-working-on," response.

   Work now began in earnest. We secured a tape measure, no more guess, cut, nail, and cut again. We assessed the materials required for the first level, made a list, traded the axe for a bow saw, went to the woods, and secured our materials. That took until 1:00. We stopped for the traditional (as in every-day-the-same-thing) tuna sandwiches and pop luncheon that we took back up to the 'job site'. We had also managed to secure just about the entire freshly opened, fifty-pound box of 16-penny nails. We were hoping that one would slide by for a while.

   By 3:30 we were standing on a second level, which we had manage to place nearly eight feet above the first by standing on the first level railing to nail on the triangle pieces, leaning on a second level railing, and discussing the potential of a third level. Why not?

   Day three saw the completion of the third level and a fair start on the fourth. And by 2:47 on day four we were standing on a deck leaning on a rail thirty-two feet above the ground, looking out at the water of the Canal, which was not visible even on the third level. There was one flaw. Up to now we had curiously not been questioned about the project. Out of sight, out of mind. The massive amount of nails was not noticed yet, and nothing we had done had generated more than some pounding barely audible down the hill. But there was this Fir tree, a rather large one, something over two feet across at the base, which was preventing an open view of a rather commanding portion of the Canal. It had to go.

   With axes and the anticipation of a completed project of magnificent proportion, we set to the falling of that tree. The little trees we had been cutting did not adequately prepare us for this. They barely rustled as they daintily toppled to the ground. As we got farther into the cutting of this tree, our resolve faltered somewhat, but we knew that we were past the point-of-no-return. It began swaying at first, at which point it finally dawned on us that this tree was tall, …very, very tall. Then it began to fall, downhill (just as we had planned), but like it was in slow motion, first with a load groan which elevated to a deafening roar, punctuated by a couple of canon blasts which definitely told Roger's parents, probably the whole Canal, and in our minds the whole world, that we had CROSSED THE LINE, and there would be hell to pay.


Bill and I


   Mom and Dad were hurrying back and forth between the bathroom and the bedroom, getting ready to go out. That seemed to be an event in itself, exhausting for them and amusing for my sister and me. After this lengthy period of confusion, they began the usual recital of rules, cautions, admonitions, lists of what we may do, what we must do, what we shouldn't do. My parents did this in shifts, each giving the other a chance to catch a breath before the next statement. I mimicked their pronouncements whenever they weren't looking my direction. Susan would watch me and half laugh, not daring to be too amused in case I should be caught being so irreverent. She didn't want to be guilty by association. Finally, they announced that they could be reached, if necessary, at the Flamingo Nightclub. In all of my seventeen years I could not recall a single time any babysitter, or relative, or anyone ever used that information. I was certainly not going to break that tradition. I knew that there wasn't anything that could happen that would prompt me to call my parents on an evening that resources of the house were mine. As they were going out the door to pick up Jan's parents, I mentioned as casually as I had practiced, "Hey, if Jan isn't busy why don't you see if she can come over to listen to the new Bill Cosby album?" I heard an "Okay", as the door slammed.

   There followed a moment or two of the kind of peace that resembles a vacuum. I began to wonder what it was about going out that turned these two organized, rational, and boringly methodical people into bumbling incompetents, but I decided instead to simply revel in it. It made visible a degree of humanity. It gave me hope for a future with more dimension in it than the work-a-day world my parents usually represented. In a way, they seemed more like excited children than my parents, and that meant that maybe I could grow up to realize something more than just being an adult. I immediately began getting everything ready. I had thought about this for some time, and even though there was always the possibility that Jan wouldn't come over; she might. I had to get everything ready just in case.

   I thought about praying for her to come, then thought better of it. The Other Party involved in that prayer might not approve of the dream behind the request. I normally considered myself a fairly religious person, but that represented some road blocks for this evening that were better avoided than addressed. Anyway, I set the record out, fluffed up the couch pillows, and tidied up using my customary out-of-sight cleaning method (what else were hallway closets really good for?). Appearances were all that were really important. I went into the kitchen and, sure enough, there was my younger sister Susan, right on schedule, standing in a bathrobe, hair in curlers, face greased, drinking her 8:20 glass of milk in preparation for her 8:30 bedtime. 8:30 that is, not 8:29 or 8:31, but 8:30, period. The picture of punctuality.

   I admired the discipline of my sister, the robot, and tonight I was especially glad for her dependable schedule. Don't get me wrong, we got along very well, better than most brothers and sisters. We used to play together when were little. Now we just teened together, that is, we would share totally insignificant information about the events happening around us, careful to avoid any pretense of actual feelings, concerns, doubts, real interests, or anything else that would make us as uncool as we felt, or at least as I felt. I obviously didn't know what she felt. I had a hunch that some of her girl friends might know more, and that might have bothered me after so many years of being the older and therefore wiser brother. I guess maybe it did. I knew what her answer would be, so I felt safe in asking with feigned sincerity, "Do you want to stay up and listen to my new Bill Cosby record with me and Jan?"

   "Please don't play it too loud. I need some sleep." came the reply.

   Predictable response, I had counted on it.

   How differently we both reacted to our conservative upbringing. I was trying to find the guts to do things I had been told not to do, with very little success. She was quite content to strive toward mental, moral, and physical perfection as defined by our parents. And for some reason, unknown to me, I sensed that she looked up to her big brother. I sure didn't understand it, but then there was an awful lot that didn't make sense. I sure didn't like spending time trying to figure it out. More and more often, however, I found myself trying to do just that. Maybe it was because we both had red hair, or maybe it had to do with birth order, or . . . oh well.

   She finished the milk, rinsed the glass, and put it in the dishwasher. As she brushed her teeth, I heard the water splashing in the sink, then the Water Pik running, and then silence during which she was undoubtedly flossing with a vengeance. She said good night, and went to bed. Maybe she needed sleep because the curlers didn't allow that. She had naturally curly, nearly kinky hair, and I know that sleep would have been a small sacrifice to those huge curlers that provided her with socially acceptable straight hair.

   I began to worry that Jan might not come, almost as much as I worried that she might. She had just broken up with her boyfriend a couple of days before when she found out that the victories he had been talking up were "not all won on the football field. I really liked Jan. She was a girl I could talk to. I liked her personality and sense of humor. I was passionately in love with her body. Well, as passionately as a virgin seventeen year old boy can be. Her hair was always perfect, yet I could not (or more probably, would not) imagine her in curlers. Her hair had to be naturally perfect, just like her complexion, and her teeth, and, well, everything.
   Sometimes when she spoke, I heard, "Why don't you come on up and see me sometime?", even though the topic was some algebra class, or what happened between Cathy and Jill at the "last basketball game, or whatever.
   When the doorbell did ring I smiled so hard it made the back of my head hurt. I had to make the conscious effort to calm down as I opened the door and asked her in. She smelled very good, the clean smell of shampoo and the fragrance of a perfume, which I had never noticed on any other occasion. She had been to our house with her parents many time for dinner. It really surprised me the first time she suggested we go outside to talk. She was popular at school and I was a nobody, and a year younger besides. Our discussions weren't much at first, but it wasn't long before they somehow became more, even maybe suggestive. We began with the usual small talk about many meaningless topics. But each time we got the opportunity, the subjects became more significant. The body language grew to out speak the words. Then at the dinner we went to when we were all invited to Doctor Collin's house, we adjourned after the meal to the den. Just Jan and me. We started talking and looking around in the den. It was what I imagined a doctor's den to be like. Almost like the waiting room in his office. We found a book on the shelf that dealt with various diseases and disorders. We began paging through and joking around. Then we came to the section on genitalia. Laughter covered sweaty palms and breathless wonder. Eventually, however, we actually began talking about things with a new license. Even though we managed to avoid any personal references in the conversation, Jan became the object of all of my fantasies, not just that evening, but every day; a sizeable task, had she been required to participate in them.
   Now she was here, in person, and we were, for all intents and purposes, alone. She came in and gracefully sat down on the couch. I put Bill Cosby's REVENGE on the stereo. Bill's voice began and I sat down beside her and sweated politely. I was afraid to look her in the eyes. They were the kind that can see    into your brain, and I feared that she would see the fantasies dancing around in there. The other guys just said that she had 'bedroom eyes'. They didn't understand like I did. I nearly knocked her nose off when I moved to put my arm on the back of the couch behind her, and the people on the record laughed, and so did she, casually and naturally. I wasn't sure whether I should listen or laugh, or rub her shoulder, or gaze longingly into her eyes. I knew the general direction that the evening of fantasy was supposed to take, but I forgot to bring the map, and I didn't know how to read the signs very well, or actually at all. In the fantasies, it all flowed like a gentle stream. Now it was all backing up behind the dam. Bill said something about buttons and she reached over and with the flick of her fingers undid the top one of my shirt and sat there with a Mona Lisa face. The flood gates were open.
   My heart was no longer normal. I was lost. I thought I was supposed to start things, and I really wasn't ready. Not ready but definitely and anxiously willing. I tried to calm down by attempting to convince myself that it was only a game, but no game I had ever played was so intimidating. My trembling hand undid the top Ibutton of her shirt. If I hadn't been shaking so much it might have been impossible. I had never undone a button with one hand before. For that matter, I had never undone a button on a girl's blouse with both hands... in a more favorable position... with adequate light. This was my first button, and if I had not been trembling (massively by now), it would not have come free. It was always so smooth and natural in my fantasies. Bill yelled something and the people laughed. She unbuttoned my second button and waited. It was a game!
   My brain Jiffy-Popped. It was my turn, and by God, I took it. Bill did one of his little-kid-in-trouble screams. The game continued and in the background, drifting farther away, so did Bill. The top button, the first that is, was really no big deal, after all that button often isn't fastened anyway. The second button on the other hand was in the "bra zone". Now we are talking major transgression. But I did it, or actually undid it. I was beginning to feel warm, especially my face. The blouse lay nicely closed still, but the game continued. I noticed that she did not seem the least bit flustered, and that put me in the novice seat.
   Maybe she was being the teacher here. If so, I determined that I would be an "A" student. My buttons were also being ceremoniously released and that served as the time I needed to try to keep control of myself. It was my turn and when I managed the third button, the two sides of the opening in the blouse shifted and opened somewhat and now we had "Exposure."
   The Sears catalogs did little justice to what was revealed here. This was real, Iliving, breathing, three dimensional flesh, . . . with cleavage. Now the trembling was increasing in my hands, a direct reflection of my heart. It was really strange. it felt good I guess, but the closest I had felt to this before was when I was sick with the flu.
   I don't remember the fourth button, I was still too enamored with the results of the third. The fifth button, Allah be praised, exposed her navel. I had seen her navel before at Ithe swimming pool, many times. It was an ordinary enough navel, I guess, not that I had that many with which to compare, but somehow it took on new significance, kind of like a major milestone in my personal development. That navel rested on the edge of the neutral zone, the marker of the not-so-neutral zone.
   A chorus sprang forth with a song my parents used to sing together, both of them being music teachers, "Ah, sweet mystery of life at last I've found you!" And there stood Susan, in the hallway, with her mouth open as if it were stuck in the process of saying "Oh!" or "God". The tears beaded up and raced down her greased cheeks.
   Jan was buttoning and saying she was sorry. I was thinking, "Don't say that, please, don't say that." Jan left, very quickly, and Susan cried, and I stuttered a half dozen, "What's wrong?'s", and then my embarassment changed to anger and I told her to quit bawling like a baby. That only seemed to make matters worse, and she was still crying very quietly but intensely. The kind of crying that comes from real pain, deep pain, all encompassing pain. It was all too obviously an inconsolable cry . . . the kind of cry that would live on for a long time in other ways.
   I had put the Cosby record back in its jacket and retreated to my room to try to make sense of the whole thing. I really wanted to be ecstatic with what had almost happened, or might have almost happened. I wanted to talk to Susan and try to apologize and explain and plead and whatever else was merited by the events of the evening. In a way, I wanted to understand why she was reacting this way. On one hand, I was very dissappointed in myself, and yet on the other I was pleased, even satisfied, in a frustrated kind of way. I felt as though in crossing over some imaginary line, I had gained and lost. I didn't have a sense of what the net value of the whole affair was. I felt that there was no going back to 'the way things were, and that was okay.
   Eventually, centuries later, my parents came home. Apparently, Susan was still crying. After they talked to her they talked to me for some time. They were not nearly as . . . mad, . . . or upset, . . . or whatever I expected them to be. I was expecting the end of every privilege ever known to me. I expected threats and rampages and long monologs that would sound like the rules given earlier in the evening put under an electron microscope and magnified into a universe. But they were calm and reasonable. They seemed to be more 'at home' with this than with many of the other problems I had given them. Somehow I knew that this event marked a new relationship with them as well. It was almost like they knew about the line I felt I had crossed. They said many things that night, and I caught the drift of most of it, but the only thing I specifically remember now is, "If you ever get into trouble with a girl, don't be afraid to tell us." They meant it, and I knew they meant it, and everything was all right. Several weeks later, Susan and I listened to Bill Cosby's record quietly, almost reverently and eventually, when I understood more, Susan became even more dear to me.