Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Long Walk to School Part 2

Here is part two of a little memoir I am finishing in my classroom about a childhood adventure with my best old friend Rick Kadar and a neighborhood dog named Buck.  If you want to read part one click here.  

Part Two

Buck was a good dog and I loved that big old thing.  He was smelly and matted and greasy.  Occasionally they would cut the shaggy hair from around his eyes.  It must have been a shock for Buckley to suddenly see the bright sunlight without the filter of that long wiry hair over its eyes. 
Rick and I would walk through the middle of that block, behind those houses, talking of just about everything: how mean the teachers were, how cute certain girls were, what was up with Rick’s beloved Cubs, Blackhawks, Bulls or Bears.  We talked about music and styles.  We shared just about every thought and secret we had.  We were like brothers.

 We would stop at Buckley’s fence, his long pink tongue lolling out of his mouth; spit dripping off of it in long slippery strands.  He liked us coming to his fence every day, at least it seemed that way.  He would wag his stub of a tail and lean into us as we petted him, making satisfied grunting sounds.
It went on like that for quite some time.  Lunchtime, walking home through the backyards, Buckley bounding over to meet us, Rick and me stopping to pet his big old blocky head.  Floppy ears, big wide tongue, dog spit, wiry hair, dirty dog smell, greasy hands, dog breath, and clinking chain-link fence.  One day, it was warm out so it was probably springtime, when we stopped to pet old Buck on the way back to school, he behaved differently.  I remember the sun was shining.  The breeze was cooling the perspiration on my neck. 
When he jumped up to get his daily dose of head rubbing, he had the same enthusiasm that he always had.  We were giving him double petting as usual.  Suddenly his tail stopped wagging.  He became still, stiff. 
“What’s up with Buck?” Rick asked, the sun glinting off his wire rim glasses.

“What do you mean?” I kept petting on Buck but Rick had stopped. 
“His tail stopped.”  Sure enough the lower part of his body was rigid, his shoulders were stiff.  Somehow he didn’t seem… happy.
“C’mon boy.  What’s the matter?  You OK, old buddy?”  I kept petting, trying to prompt his usual friendly response.  Then I heard it.  No, maybe at first I felt it.  It was a rumble, a faint vibration coming from way down low in his throat.  When I looked through the greasy strands of hair into his eyes there was something suspicious there, some unfamiliar look – or was it just a feeling?  Something was definitely not right.  Rick knew first and backed away.  My response was to keep petting, to keep trying to get him back to his normal waggly self.
“You’re OK, boy,” I soothed.  But Buck was definitely not OK.  Something was wrong.  The snarl became a little louder.  He slunk his shoulders down a little lower, closer to the chain-link fence.  His lips pulled up and away from his teeth, his furry muzzle wrinkling, white teeth showing, and his growl louder, more menacing. 
“I’d stop petting him if I were you,” Rick warned.  It was too late.  It happened so quickly that it barely registered.  I certainly didn’t have time to pull my hand back.  Buckley lunged and snapped.  He got my right hand at the base of my thumb.  It didn’t even hurt right away. 
When I pulled back there was a flap of skin, an almost perfect one inch semi-circle, which was pulled away from my hand.  It didn’t bleed right away.  For just a moment I could gaze into the wound.  It seemed like I could look right in on the muscle.
Then it did bleed.  “Oh man,” Rick said in a soft voice, a scared voice, a voice that said, “I’m glad that I’m not you right now.”  Blood oozed from the round cut.  Then it started to pour.  I held up my hand and a crimson liquid line ran down my forearm to my elbow where it dripped and dripped.  He must have torn through a blood vessel, because the blood was pulsing out.
I looked over at Buckley who was still on his hind legs, still hunched up with his head down low. Still snarling quietly, deeply.  I whirled and kicked that fence as hard as I could right where he was standing.  I was scared.  “You idiot!” I screamed.  Then he barked savagely, dog spit flying.  I knew there was something terribly wrong with him.  

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Long Walk to School

I started writing this little story a year ago or so.  I wrote it while my students (second and third graders) worked on their own pieces in our writing workshop.  It is a memoir.  Nothing fancy.  No great shakes.    It is the memory of walking home from school for lunch with my old best friend Rick.  We were blood brothers, sworn in a solemn ceremony where we both picked off scabs and swapped some blood.    We lived close enough that we had tin can telephones from our kitchen to his bedroom.  My older twin sisters used to jump Rick, snatch him up, hold him down and smack his belly until it turned red, a practice called "cherry belly".  He usually put up a half-hearted fight, but in truth, I think he liked it.

Rick passed away in August last year.  This story was cathartic for me to write.  It reminded me of a time in our lives when our friendships were simple and true, our adventures real, and memories lasting.

It is a little long for a blog post, so I'll break it into parts.  Here is PART 1...

The Long Walk to School

When Rick Kadar and I were young, we were the smugglers for our class.  Candy smugglers.  Back in the day, Rick and I lived close enough to school so that we could walk there.  In fact, since we lived only about a mile away, we were no longer allowed to take the big yellow school bus.  But we didn’t mind the walk at all.  We liked trudging through the deep snow, through the empty lots and the new home construction sites.  We walked to school kicking cans and watching birds and jumping over puddles.

            Because we lived so close, we were among the lucky ones who could walk home for lunch.  Unfortunately, we also missed a lot of recess.  But that was fine with us.  For that little amount of time right in the middle of the day, we were free.  Right in the center of the school day, Rick and I could walk through the sunshine or the wind, through leaves or ice covered snow.  There were no grownups to interfere with our childish freedom.  For about 50 minutes we were on our own. 

            My mom was a school teacher so when I got home at lunchtime I let myself in and made my own lunch.  Some days I ate at Rick’s.  His mom made the best food and did fancy stuff like cut the sandwiches in half on the diagonal.  They had Coke to drink, something that was never allowed in our house.  They used paper napkins at every meal.  At my house we were pretty heavy on leftovers or the classic PB and J with a glass of milk.  I liked eating at Rick’s.  His mom was there almost every day.  Her name was Arlene.  She was a small woman, very pretty, very petite and very kind.  She had cool cat-glasses, the kind I wished my mom wore.
            When Rick and  I walked home we took the shortcuts between houses and through woods.  We didn’t have a whole lot of time, but we usually stopped off at the candy store. 
            Back in those days you could get a LOT of candy for a little money at Ameling’s Sundries.  Truly.  For 15 cents you could get 15 pieces of real candy.  That could last you a real long time.  Our friends at school would pay us to stop by the candy store and buy candy for them.  They would give us a nickel or a dime extra so we could get a treat for ourselves as well.  Rick usually had a little extra money.  His parents paid him to do the same household chores we had to do for nothing.  When we griped about it, my dad would say, “You get food, right?  You get all the clothes you need?  Then that’s your allowance.”

If you had a quarter (a “quack” to us) your bag would be some kind of full.
            While I doubt that our teachers would have sanctioned it, we were never strictly forbidden to go to the candy store.  But I don’t think that the priests, nuns and lay teachers would have approved.

            Flying saucers, Necco wafers red and black licorice, dots, buttons, bottle caps, kisses and, if we were willing to go whole hog and spend 2 cents, you could buy a box of licorice snaps.  They gave you a little paper bag for your goods. 
       Our neighborhood was divided into blocks of houses.  Rick and I lived next door to each other on Adams Street.  My address was 5600 Adams.  Funny, after all these years I still remember my phone number 887-3910.  That was back in the day before cell phones and all of Indiana had the same area code, 219.  There was just one layer of houses on each street so there was sort of an empty space between back yards.  If there weren’t fences these empty spaces became our shortcuts.  And we trespassed regularly through backyards and between hedges.  Some of our neighbors were irritated by this.  Some were downright angry.  But when you only had 50 minutes or so to get home and back to school (and work in a candy run to Ameling’s Sundries) one had to do a little law-breaking.
Our fifth grade path home for lunch took us through the backyard shortcuts on the block across the street from ours.  In one fenced in backyard was a sheepdog, a boy dog.  He belonged to the Davies.  Rick and I would stop and pet it nearly every day.  It came to expect us because it was usually waiting, standing on hind legs, front legs resting on top of the chain link fence.
Buckley is the name that comes back to me after all these years.  Buckley.  He was part of our daily ritual, our walking-home-for-lunch routine.  Buck was a good dog and I loved that big old thing.  He was smelly and matted and greasy.  Occasionally they would cut the shaggy hair from around his eyes.  It must have been a shock for Buckley to suddenly see the bright sunlight without the filter of that long wiry hair over its eyes.  

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Gift

One of the finest gifts I have ever received was my first guitar.  A three quarter sized TOYOTA (yep, they made some guitars) was purchased for me by my sister Annie's boyfriend Joe Oshins.  It cost 60 bucks, which was quite a lot back in 1973.  He assured me that he haggled it down from $75.  It was only gently used.  It had a laminate top, mahogany sides and back and came with a cardboard case.  It was a solid little ax that saw me through those mid-to-late teen years of high school, girlfriends, lost girlfriends, campfires, a couple years of college, dorm bands, and just sitting around jamming with new best friends.  Joe taught me my first song - The Younger Generation Blues by John Sebastian.  He added this little blues lick on the end that I practiced for hours until I had it down pat.

More than just about any gift I ever received, that little TOYOTA changed my life.  It opened my eyes to music that I would have never listened to, opened the door to friends that I would have never allowed in and opened my future to a life of creating and living music.

Let me say that I am not putting on airs.  I don't claim to be any good.  I am a hacker by anyone's standards.  But there is a place in my life that cannot be filled in any other way.  And I owe it all to old Joe Oshins.

Along with that little guitar, Joe gave me my first song book.  It was Bob Dylan's A Retrospective.

Bob  Dylan: A Retrospective songbook

Nowadays, you can get the chords to almost any song online for free.  There are so many websites you can go to to find charts.  I'm sure that every song in A Retrospective can be found on line.  The songs included A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall, Blowin' in the Wind,  Don't Think Twice It's All Right, Mr. Tambourine Man, and The Times They Are-a-Changin'.  And there were a bunch of songs I had never heard before including The Death of Emmett Till.  

I remember sitting in the bottom bunk of the bed set I shared with my little brother and strumming those songs over and over, just using my thumb, never a pick.  I didn't know how to make the chords but the book came with little diagrams over the lyrics and the "real music".  The diagrams showed where to place your fingers for each chord.  So, my first guitar teachers were Joe Oshins and Bob Dylan.  Not a bad start.

While I had never heard Dylan's version of The Death of Emmett Till, it didn't stop me from  playing that song.  I don't remember the melody that I completely made up to go along with the chords.  I strummed the chords over and over and howled that song because it was simply so powerful, so haunting, so real.  

I came across the best version of him singing it at a radio station.  

This was recorded in March of 1962, just a couple weeks after he wrote the song.  He admits to the interviewer that he swiped the chords and melody from another singer/songwriter he admired (Len Chandler).  "He uses a lot of funny chords when he plays," he said.  This version is played out of tune, raw, spontaneously, with sincerity and a sense of the song's importance.  There are lots of slicker versions of this tune online, but this version with all of its imperfections is one of the most powerful songs I have ever heard.  He changes some of the words in later versions, tweeks the tune and adds backing instruments.  But the freshness and clarity with which he sings couldn't ever be topped with more production.  Even if you are not a Dylan fan (ahem, Nic), I believe that this will affect you in some deep place.  Because it is true.  This young Dylan remembered the incident of Emmett Till.

This is a cool version also because it is Dylan as a YOUNG troubadour.  He is outside of the box.  And he knows it.  He sings off key.  Doesn't care.  Fishes for compliments from the interviewer.  He barely finishes the last chord, stops the guitar from ringing and asks, "Do you like that one?" obviously pleased with himself and the song.  And she gushes, "It's one of the greatest contemporary ballads I've ever heard!"

And it surely was.  

This is a spooky old song, not one for the kiddies.  But give a listen.  Learn some history.  Hear a musical icon right out of the gate.

"Twas down in Mississippi not so long ago,
When a young boy from Chicago town stepped through a Southern door.
This boy's dreadful tragedy I can still remember well,
The color of his skin was black and his name was Emmett Till.
Some men they dragged him to a barn and there they beat him up.
They said they had a reason, but I can't remember what.
They tortured him and did some evil things too evil to repeat.
There was screaming sounds inside the barn, there was laughing sounds out on the street.
Then they rolled his body down a gulf amidst a bloody red rain
And they threw him in the waters wide to cease his screaming pain.
The reason that they killed him there, and I'm sure it ain't no lie,
Was just for the fun of killin' him and to watch him slowly die. (Cause he was born a black skinned boy, he was born to die.)
And then to stop the United States of yelling for a trial,
Two brothers they confessed that they had killed poor Emmett Till.
But on the jury there were men who helped the brothers commit this awful crime,
And so this trial was a mockery, but nobody seemed to mind.
I saw the morning papers but I could not bear to see
The smiling brothers walkin' down the courthouse stairs.
For the jury found them innocent and the brothers they went free,
While Emmett's body floats the foam of a Jim Crow southern sea.
If you can't speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that's so unjust,
Your eyes are filled with dead men's dirt, your mind is filled with dust.
Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood it must refuse to flow,
For you let this human race fall down so God-awful low!
This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man
That this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan.
But if all of us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give,
We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Alone Together

Empty Nesters.  It's kind of a funny term.  But applicable.  The boys are in college, and while Devin has been around a lot this summer, the fall semester has begun and both guys are heavy into school, music, college living.  We don't see them as much as we would like.  But it is right.  They have their world.  They are building ideas for the future.  Music.  Business.  Physical therapy. Computer technology.  Friends.  Hanging out.  I get it.  I've been there.  Below is a picture of Heidi and me circa 1977.  We were just about the age that our Colin is now.  We were thinking, and dreaming, and loving, and scheming - just the way our sons are now.  

A few days ago I found a draft of something I wrote just a year ago.  It was early October when Heidi had some weird, unexplainable symptoms.  Severe vertigo, brief aphasia where she was talking but what was coming out was not language.  Scary stuff.  Life changing stuff.  December 5th was her brain surgery and now all is well.  But as I read this old draft, I could put myself into that mental space of being afraid of possibly losing her.  

My best friend is having a major health scare.  What started out as possible fluid in her inner ear, for which she was treated with antihistamines, is now considered something much more serious.  It has already involved many uncomfortable tests and procedures.  No doubt there will be many more. There will be surgery, a hospital stay, a lengthy recovery time.  There will be post –op visits, more tests to see if things are OK and regular uncomfortable tests from here on out.

Throughout this whole ordeal so far she has been calm, resolute, brave – the epitome of grace. Always the teacher, her response to a tense diagnosis has been hopeful and optimistic.  She is, just by being her beautiful serene self, teaching all of her family, friends and students how best to meet adversity.  Head on.  With a strong heart.  And, perhaps surprisingly – with gratitude.  She has already told me several times how this had made her grateful for her life, for her family and friends.  And for me. 

So many people who have known her and found out about this episode have called, sent wonderful cards, letters and emails.  When I read them, I tear up. Because it’s all true.  She has changed lives. Personally and professionally.  This world is a better place for the way she has touched so many. 

And so she has been grateful for this problem – because folks who might have carried on and known her loving touch, her wise council, her easy laugh and sparkling eyes – might not have shared their beautiful appreciations. 

I called to have some questions answered about insurance.  The woman on the other end of the phone answered all of my questions clearly and carefully.  She wanted to be sure that if there was any way at all that she could help to please call back and ask for her.  I said I would.  And I thanked her for her concern.  Before we rung off she said there was one more thing.  “Would it be OK for me to put Miss Heidi on my prayer list?”  I was humbled by her spontaneous outpouring of faith and love for a stranger.  I only had a minute before my students came back from PE.  But I had to wipe my eyes and take a few deep breaths before I could greet them at the door.

When I get into that quiet space to pray, often as I lie in bed well before dawn, before the alarm goes off, when I can hear her soft, steady breathing, and we are touching beneath the covers – my prayers are those of gratitude.  Of course I am grateful for my sons and my siblings and our beautiful home in the woods.  I am grateful for my vocation, which I love, and for my friends.  But what I am most grateful for is the presence of this good woman in my life and the love we have shared for all these many years (36 by my reckoning).  And I am grateful for the many years to come.

Here we are a year  or so later.  Our boys are men, pretty much into their own adult lives.  Oh, they'll be back.  We look forward to every visit.  But it will never be exactly the same as them living here.  They know it and we know it.  But it is right.

We spend lots of quiet nights scrounging dinner, taking our evening walks, preparing for work, taking care of the dogs, the house, checking out The Daily Show or Rachel Maddow.  We are still planning ahead.  But because of what has happened we are both hyper aware of the present.  And it is right.  We are sort of where we were about 22 years ago.  Taking care of ourselves and each other.  Being grateful for the precious time we have - being alone together.

Isn't it great that we haven't changed a bit?