Wednesday, December 24, 2008

First News of the Fatman... direct

We were all riding in the Chrysler the night Mom & Dan announced that Paul was in the works. I was about 13, John was 10. Dad must was about 36, Mom must have been 33. (Math isn't my strong suit.)

**********

It's early evening, we're driving to a restaurant, Mike's Pizza in Van Nuys. It's raining outside.

John and I are in the back seat messing around, paying no attention to the world outside the car. The sound of wet streets and wipers on the windshield. I touch the convertible top with my fingertips and wonder at the damp cold telegraphed through the canvas by the storm outside.

"Kids we've got something to tell you....we're going to have a new baby."

"Oh No!" I moaned.

"All right!" John shouted.

I instantly understand that nothing would be the same again.

I'm stunned for a long moment by the shocking knowledge that my mom and dad must be sexually active.

Gross.

****************

We were going to have a new brother or sister. I know Mom was hoping for a sister.

For me, a miserable adolescent on the verge of having to go out there into the world and still scared of everything, everything, it was like being hit in the belly. All the predictability was knocked out of the family. This new sibling would irrevocably upset the balance of kid power. I'd be out of the nest before it could be restored.

I resented any hit on my #1 son status. I was thirteen and the world revolved around me! But I could hear footsteps, see dimly ahead to a time when I'd have to leave and start a life of my own. My last years on top of the heap wouldn't be the same. This new information was a Copernican heresy. "Huh? Oh no! The sun and the stars don't revolve around me?

I didn't spare a moment to think about the effect a new baby would have on Dad. A quick calculation puts him at about the age Erin came along for Jan and I, before Kyle's time. Not so damn old, but then I didn't have a 10 and a 13 year old at the time, nor was I glimpsing the possibility of a life beyond children.

Before I knew it the little chicken necked red squawker was taking up a room of his own.

We'd set him up in his car seat on the big maple table. He'd kick his chubby legs and scream if any of us looked at him too long.

You couldn't talk to the fat man direct.


**************

Years later Dad said our reactions on that first night were the opposite of what he''d anticipated. I'm still kicking myself for not grilling him on that one. I've always wondered why. What had he anticipated and why?


Melbo Miller

I am afraid of railroad tracks. I get the chills when I even see them. Feeling that gruesome double bump when I drive over the tracks makes my skin shiver. I've got Melbo Miller to thank for my phobia.

Melbo was a typical junior hi kid. The type the other kids called a geek, although he'd be labeled a dweeb or a nerd these days. Not that Melbo was particularly smart when it came to his school work. He was an indifferent student. But he had hidden passions and a wealth of secret knowledge.

Melbo was the definitive expert on plastic toy soldiers and Revell model warships. Melbo could quote serial numbers and ship displacement. He knew the difference between a 30 mm cannon and a 16 inch gun. He knew how to follow a model's complex schematic. He had 1/125 scale down pat. Melbo had fought all the major battles of WW II in miniature in his backyard. He was a toy soldier Patton and war was his obsession.

Melbo was an odd looking adolescent, big for his age (13), with grossly over sized feet and ape long arms. He was big, but he wasn't flabby. He consistently beat me in arm wrestling. I was awed my his biceps. He could make them bulge and twitch. He'd put one of these green plastic mine sweeper soldiers on his forearm (he used mine sweepers because they had a broad base and were easy to balance( and twitch the little green guy off through space.

Melbo had a complexion like a battle scared mine field, pitted bumpy discolored, his skin was a teenage mess. It drove me crazy that his nose and chin would be covered with blackhead, huge ones ready to burst. How could he stand it? I spent a good deal of every evening squeezing and swabbing, using hot wash clothes to open up the pores and pushing at the nasty little volcanoes with pinching fingers. I'd follow up with then a hot stinging alcohol rub and the Clearasil treatment. But not Melbo. He didn't care about his complexion and you could tell.

All Melbo cared about was building models, playing army, and running his trains. Melbo was real interested in trains.

When my folks said I could spend the night at Melbo Millers house, they'd made a big mistake but I didn't realize it at the time.

Melbo told me a lot about his army battles, but I'd never been a combatant. Now I had a chance to see his army in action. We set up the army men in the back yard, working them into the cover of the shrubs, making dirt walls for the riflemen, setting up the green plastic troops in defensive positions. The kneeling bazooka man was next to a rock. A line of mine sweepers were on the edge of the lawn. A crouching radio man made his report to headquarters from a blackened rose bush. Melbo had legions of the little soldiers; their arms spread, tiny plastic faces grimacing under the strain of tossing a grenade at the enemy.

He carefully dug a trench out of the lawn with a kitchen spoon. We placed each of the grenade throwers in the trench, about 6 inches apart. They became our first line of defense. Scattered behind the lines were numerous jeeps with officers on board. Finally we laid out a line of tanks and howitzers. The heavy guns covered us from sneak attack, the tanks were hidden in the weeds to turn the flank of the enemy force.

Melbo was every inch the general while we laid out all these troops, I was a lowly lieutenant. Rank didn't matter; after all it was his house, and we were both lost in the fantasy of charging troops and toy war heroism. I remember Melbo's intense concentration as he balanced an officer on a rock. The figure was looking through field glasses. It was one of the soldiers that had a small base and would always fall over. Melbo's eyes were magnified behind his thick horn rim glasses. His eyes crossed and the tip of his tongue darted lizard like from his lips.

"Richard! You and Dennis come in now, it's time for dinner."

Melbo's mom never called him by his nickname. In fact she hated the name Melbo, which made it tough when she was around, You could slip so easy and call him Melbo. She'd grimace. "His name is Richard. Remember that! Richard! " Mrs. Miller always seemed like she was in pain, like she'd just heard something that had hurt her. She had a whiny voice. I asked Melbo once how he got his nickname but he didn't know. Melbo had been Melbo for as long as he could remember.

After dinner we went into the backyard to play with our setup. It was getting dark the best time of day to play. The heat is starting to fade. The sky turned colors, and the low sunlight made everything a luminous muted tone. The army was casting long shadows, they looked cool dug into Melbo's back yard. We made air raids with rocks, dropping stone bombs on the troops, rattling machine guns trilled off our tongues. We flicked soldiers down and scored the battle with muted screams and death cries. The battle wore down. Most of the soldiers had been knocked over. It got dark and we went in the house to watch T.V.

***

Later that night Melbo whispered " Let's go out and finish the battle." He had a crazed look in his eyes. His voice quavered a bit. I didn't get what he was so excited about, but it was Melbo's house so I went along. It was dark out now, just a thin slice of moon showing in the sky. As we walked across the dark lawn I felt and heard a squishy crunching sound. Ugh snails! If you held your head at an angle you could see the silver of their tracks. Melbo just laughed and stomped on several more. He grinned as he ground them into the grass. The snail shells snapped in the moonlight. Melbo laughed again.

The snails had moved in among our troops. Their tracks crisscrossed a fallen rifleman. A Snail oozed over the hood of a jeep. The slimy things had rolled right over the tanks. Melbo looked at me and giggled. His glasses reflected back the crescent moon. "Looks like we got infiltrators!" There was an urgency in his voice. He ran for the back door of the garage, returning with a long aerosol can. "Hairspray" he whispered. A flame jumped out of his hand. He held the lighter up in front of my face and flicked it on several times. "Have you ever made a flame thrower out of hair spray?" I shook my head no in open mouth wonder.

Melbo got down on his hands and knees, carefully positioning himself in front of the line of grenade throwers. The snails were in the trench. A dozen oozed along the scoop in the lawn. Melbo flicked the lighter and held it in front of the spray nozzle. Two feet of roaring blue flame jumped from the can, bathing the trench in fire.

I jumped back, scared. "Jeeze Melbo, your mom is gonna catch us." I was scared of the fire. Kids weren't supposed to play with fire. I glanced at the sliding glass doors on the other side of the patio. I could see the blue rectangle of the flickering T.V set. His mom and dad had to see the flames.

Melbo didn't say anything. He was concentrating on smoking the snails and troops with repeated bursts from the flame-thrower. A grenade man's arms were beginning to bend and melt, already the strained look on his plastic face had dripped away. The snails curled up into their shells when the flames touched them. Then as the water inside their bodies boiled, the shells snapped apart in a black ooze.

"Knock it off Melbo." I felt very uneasy. It was a mean thing to do. But Melbo just kept blasting the snails & melting his troops. The bursts of flame were so large I couldn't believe his parents were still in there in front of the TV. set. "Melbo! Your folks will be out here and catch us any minute. "

Melbo breathed through his mouth. "My parents don't care. I do this all the time."

Flames jumped from his hands, setting a few blades of grass on fire while the soldiers melted. "You wanna try it? Its fun."

I shook my head no. The air was heavy with the sickly sweet smell of hot hairspray, burnt plastic and roasted snails. I didn't want to watch anymore and went back into the house. Melbo came to get me when the hairspray can was empty.

"Come on, let's put some ships out on the pool!"

Melbo was good with models. He'd built several destroyers, a flattop and a battle ship. The guns were all painted silver, the bottoms of the gray boats were painted black with a red stripe at the water line. He had the decals on straight and there were hardly any glue smears. It had taken time to build these models.

We took the ships out to the edge of the pool. Melbo flipped on the pool light and the water turned pale blue. Normally Revell ship models were lousy for floating, they were top heavy and would capsize immediately. But Melbo had weighted the hulls with clay and heavy washers. The boats dropped down in the water and sailed across the pool with an easy shove. I got on one side of the pool, Melbo was on the other. We cruised the ships back and forth over the pool water.

We talked about school, and T.V., models and which boats or planes we wanted to build. Melbo had built the Visible Man. The man stood in a corner of his room. You could look through the clear plastic skin and see all the internal organs. " My mom's gonna get me the visible woman. She's about two feet tall and 'anatomically correct'... " He said that last part like he'd memorized the pronunciation. "You can see everything,." Melbo was looking kind of dreamy.

"You're a goof Melbo, you just want to look at her things!" I laughed at him and shoved the aircraft carrier at him. It swerved half way across the pool and drifted side ways in the middle of the pool.

Melbo was embarrassed for a moment. To cover his thoughts he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small flat square package. He motioned me over. He covered the package in both hands and made a big show of revealing it.

"Firecrackers!" Melbo laughed. The crackers were wrapped in a dark waxy paper. All of the fuses were twined together. Melbo looked at me and then ran back into the house. This time he had scotch tape. "Let's see how the Navy takes a bombardment."

I couldn't believe it. Firecrackers! My folks would kill me for having firecrackers and Melbo was talking about shooting them off in the back yard at night with parents just a few yards away. "Don't worry about it, I do it all the time. " He was so casually sincere I knew he wasn't bluffing.

We taped a bundle of firecrackers to the deck of a destroyer. The thin paper tube was placed just behind the forward turret. Melbo lit the fuse and shoved it into the center of the pool. The fuse sputtered and smoked but the firecracker didn't go off. The destroyer was just floating there in the center of the pool. "Rats!" Melbo muttered as he reached for the boat with the leaf scoop.

Just as he got the net on the destroyer it blew. The explosive cracking sound punched the water. The turret tore through the scoop net and flew fifteen feet into the air, splashing down in the shallow end of the pool. Over the next hour we destroyed the whole fleet. Just as Melbo had promised, his parents never came to investigate the explosions and bursts of light that rocked backyard far into the night. I couldn't believe we were getting away with this stuff.

The evening ended, predictably, with a bang. We'd already destroyed about three quarters of his toys when Melbo returned to his room and brought out a big rubber band powered balsa wood plane. It had wide wings and a red plastic prop. Wire struts with black rubber wheels poked out of the nose. We took turns winding the propeller until the thick brown rubber band was a mass of knots. I held the nose of the plane in one hand and the propeller in the other. Melbo taped the biggest of the fire crackers to the body of the glider, up near the propeller. "This way it will be balanced for a good flight."

Melbo lit the fuse and I threw the plane into the air. It took off with a whir, climbing fast up toward the top branches of the big walnut tree near the house. Just when it seemed the plane must crash in the branches before it could explode the plane banked sharply, twisted and headed back at us.

We ran for it. The aircraft honed in straight and true. I heard the whir of the propeller, the balsa wing brushed my ear, then the explosion flashed in my eyes. I felt stinging and flying pieces of wood peppered my cheeks. I opened my eyes and saw the front wheels and propeller flying alone across the patio. It so amazed me that I forgot my fear and pain in the wonder of the sight. The prop still spun and the wheels rolled on across the lawn, past the charred ruins of a dozen snails, crashing into the line of tanks with a clatter before it came to a rest.

My ears rang, and I had to pick a couple of slivers out of my cheek. My mom's remembered warning, "You'll put your eye out someday .." played across my mind. But my eyes were okay. We both laughed when it was clear that I wasn't hurt. Melbo laughed a little harder than I did. We retold the flight of the prop and wheels across the grass several times before falling asleep that night.

I fell asleep wondering at all the stuff we'd gotten away with. What did his parents think when they scooped broken plastic from the pool filter? Weren't they bothered by the sunken hulls of shattered war ships drifting among the leaves at the bottom of their pool? Didn't the blobs of melted soldier and roasted snail gum up Mr. Miller's lawnmower? I'd never get away with this stuff at my house.

I was sure we'd get caught eventually. There was big trouble coming to Melbo Miller and anyone who played with him. I was sure of it, absolutely sure, but I still agreed to go down to the rail road tracks with Melbo the next day.

***

"I play down here all the time" he laughed as he showed me down a path through the high weeds. The tracks were about a mile from Melbo's house. The whole rail bed was elevated, we had to climb up a steep bank to reach the tracks. The tops of the rails gleamed like polished silver making a long curve back into a tunnel. The tunnel was a black round mouth yawning in a concrete enforced wall. A few cars and trucks moved over the bridge above the tunnel. The odor of tar and burnt steel radiated from the black dirt crusted gravel hugging the thick square ties.

Melbo pulled a handful of pennies out of his pocket and began to lay them out on top of the tracks. "A big train will be through pretty soon. We'll smash these pennies flat!"

It was a hot day and I was sleepy. I never got much sleep when I went to visit a friend overnight. I felt fuzzy and dull, being on the track was dreamlike. Watching Melbo prepare the pennies consumed all my attention. He was meticulous. He laid them out one at a time, six inches apart. Each penny was aligned with Lincoln's head facing back down the tracks toward the tunnel. Each new penny gleamed in brassy contrast to the silver rails.

"You can tell when a train is coming by touching the rail. It tingles and shakes for a long time before the train is in sight. "

I touched my hand down to the rail. The wheel burnished rail was hot to the touch and absolutely still. No train was coming.

"If you put your ear on the rail you can hear the train from even farther off."

Melbo laid his ear down on the rail. I expected him to jump up burned, but he just winced and stayed down there listening.

Several minutes passed. A breath of air stirred some dust on the bank. Melbo had that dreamy goofy look on his face again. He was breathing through his mouth and humming to himself. He had the same thousand yard stare I'd seen when he was roasting snails and toy soldiers. "Come on, give a listen. I think one's coming."

I shook my head no.

"Come on I dare you. I dare you!" his voice had an edge. Melbo wouldn't let up and my uneasy shame at being chicken drove me down on the tracks. The gravel poked my knees. The hot rail stung my ear, but as the pain faded I could hear and feel something different. It was a faint keening. The tar and metal smell was overwhelming down near the ties. The rail started to tremble and hum. "Its a train, " Melbo whispered.

I jumped up and stepped off the track. Melbo stayed down low, on hands and knees, with his ear to the track. "Its a train..."

I was feeling really scared now. A hollow place had opened up in my stomach. This wasn't any fun at all. I could tell that Melbo had something in mind. The thought made me ill.

Melbo jumped up and began walking down the tracks. We turned our backs on our pennies and the tunnel. If you set your pace the right way you could step on every other tie. The bank was steep tumbling down into weeds and rocks, the rail bed was the only flat place to walk. About a hundred yards beyond the pennies Melbo stopped. Turning to face the tunnel he jumped up on one rail, flung his arms out and started to balance walk it.

"You ever played chicken? It's a great game. You just stand on the tracks and wait for a train. The first one to jump is chicken."

"You're crazy Melbo, we could get killed. "

"No way man, I do this all the time."

"No way, you're full of it!

"Oh yeah? Well you just wait and see chicken boy, you just wait! You're chicken alright. Chicken through and through! Bawk, bawk, bwaaak!”

Melbo walked up the rail, head swaying, arms flapping like wings, dragging out the chicken call and sneering at me. It was the worst thing in the world to be called chicken. "Come on Dennis I double dare you, chicken!!'

"Okay, Okay. We'll see who's chicken!"

I stood up on the rail. By now I could feel the rails telegraphing up through my Keds. I was trembling. The train was coming. Melbo walked back and stood next to me.

"The game really begins when the train rolls over the pennies. The first one to jump off the track is a chicken." Melbo looked at me like I was one of his toy soldiers. There was both a challenge and the plain assumption that I was going to take this risk. It seemed extra hot all of a sudden.

"Did you ever see that story about the kid in Life Magazine?"

"Come on Melbo, knock it off." Everybody in school knew the story. We'd passed the magazine with its gross photographs around during lunch period. The kid had been doing just what we were doing standing on the rail road tracks playing chicken. Only he'd jumped too late and the train had clipped him. Somehow this kid managed to straggle back to his house. When his mom came to the door she saw her son with his arm just hanging on by a thread. The doctors sewed the arm back on. But the kid could only move the arm a little bit now, the fingers were almost useless. I remembered the picture of the kid laying in a bed, the whole top of his body in a cast.

"Yeah I got that magazine in my room. The arm was just hanging by a thread."

The train was getting closer. An angry scream came from the train. The whistle yelled, "Get of the track, get off the track you idiots!" I lost my balance and stepped down from the rail. The train must be just on the other side of the tunnel now. The rails were beginning to rumble. Melbo looked over at me with a really stupid grin.

"Don't worry I do this all the time!"

The train came through the tunnel slowly. It seemed to be going no faster than a car in light traffic. We both stared at the train as it got closer. We were on a conveyor belt rolling toward the train. The whole world was rolling toward the train. The headlight on the nose of the diesel grew bigger and bigger. The headlight was bright even in the full daylight. The whistle blew a bellow again. The monstrous red diesel was getting closer to the pennies and to us.

"Come on Melbo let's quit this damn game. It's dumb."

"You chicken out if you want. I'll win."

The rails were really shaking now. The diesel ran over the pennies and let out another blast from the whistle. It was just too close. I jumped to one side, tripped and slid down the gravel embankment. I shoved my hands out trying to balance. My palms scraped and burned across the rocks. I stopped stumbling down in the dust and big rocks at the bottom of the bank. Melbo still stood on the rails laughing down at me, shouting, "I Win! I Win!".

I slipped again and when I looked up the train rumbled past, it was moving faster than I thought. The engineer and brakeman shook their fists at me and shouted something that was lost in the noise from the engine. The big wheels clacked along, clicking over the rails, nicking at the spots where the rails met. The cars rolled from side to side: Pacific Northern, Cotton Pacific, Northwestern, steel pipe cars and open bins. The train was a long one. I tried to look through the wheels to the other side of the tracks.

There was no sign of Melbo.

I scrambled back up on the tracks well after the train had passed but the rails still rumbled when I stepped on them. "Melbo! Where are you?" I felt kind of silly, and kind of afraid calling out his name. But I couldn't see him anywhere.

"Hey Dennis!"

Melbo was down by the pennies. As I walked up he was squatting by the rails, holding his glasses on with one hand. The ear piece on his glasses was broken. His shirt was torn and the knees on his jeans were both blown out. " I really tore up my knee when I slid down the bank, see...." The knee was badly scrapped, bits of black grit were pushed into the skin which oozed red blood.

"You're gonna have a big scab on that."

"Yeah... Catch a penny!"

Melbo flipped a quarter sized piece of flashing copper at me. I caught the disk. It was hot! I bobbled it and dropped it in the dust. Melbo grinned at me as he played hot hands with another penny. The thin disks of copper didn't look anything like pennies. They were smashed into something entirely different.

I thought about the guy in Life Magazine, and what could have happened to both of us. I felt sick. I tried to not let Melbo see how badly I was taking it. Melbo didn't seem to notice.


****


"Richard! What's happened to you?" Melbo's mom was really upset. "Your new jeans...they're ruined!" I'd never seen her so mad. She got even madder when she spotted Melbo's skinned up knee. I got my stuff out of Melbo's room. I waved at him as his mom closed in. Then I left. Mrs. Miller was still yelling when I shut the door.

I called Melbo the next day to see how it had gone. Mrs. Miller answered the phone.

"Is that you Dennis?" Mrs. Miller's voice sounded sort of mean.

"Yes ma'am."

There was a sharp sound in the background. It sounded like a small explosion.

"I don't want you playing with Richard anymore. I'm afraid you're a bad influence on him."

******

A memory from 1961.

~ Written 1990

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Kitchen Table

A kitchen table is a magnet for memories. Especially a table that's grown old while the family grows up. Our family's maple table served through a lot of our lives. I remember it first in our kitchen at the Callahan House. It must have weighed a couple of hundred pounds. It was huge, oval, long enough for a big man to lay on top and still not have his feet dangle. It was a table that made a room seem small, a table that the whole family sat at through a thousand meals.

I see that table in your house today. The drop leaf sides are folded so it can fit against the stair well. The table is too big for your house now, and you are thinking about getting rid of it.

I run my hand over the surface. Like everything, the top is clean and well waxed. The window light catches the surface just right and I can see through the polish to the dents and dips that speak of a lifetime's use. The whole family grew up around this table. Here are the thousand nicks and gouges of growing up, dropped plates, pencils pushed through homework papers, perhaps these two dents were caused by Paul's kiddy seat. He used to reign from the center of the table back when we called him the fat man, and you couldn't talk to him direct.

This is the spot on the table where I wrote my times tables. I see the tracings of my pencil, faint veins sketched forever in the surface. It's easy to remember sitting at this table, 10 years old, copying over the awful 9 tables. 9x1=9, 9x2=18, 9x3=27, over and over again, drilling and drilling. I'm preparing for the quiz that dad will give me when he gets home from work.

Mom's cooking fills the kitchen with dinner's almost ready odors. I'm trying to lock the numbers into my mind. The times tables are a sing©song chant. I think I know them, then they fade.

Dad drilled me on the times tables endlessly. We used flash cards bought in a teacher's supply store. He prompted and I recited. We quizzed out of sequence and in order.

Up the ladder, "9x1=9, 9x2=18, 9x3=27"

Down the ladder, "9x9=81, 9x8=72, 9x7=63".

I'd pass my school test, usually missing one or two, and promptly forget them all until the next drill session. Dad was very patient, explaining, (like I now do to my kids and students) the importance of having the times tables down pat.

Too bad it never really stuck; I've never been much with rote learning. To this day I only remember the states and capitals and times tables while I'm drilling my classes. The unit changes and it all fades away.

This table that's too big for just the two of you, is also the table where we set up the electric trains that Christmas at the Callahan house. The layout was fastened to a half sheet of plywood, it covered most of the center of the table. In the middle was a snow topped mountain with tunnels. We glued down flock grass, and painted a mirror blue to create a pond. The H/O gauge track was pinned to the board with small brass nails. Spongy green lichens were glued in clumps like real shrubs. There were houses and a train station. Some of the houses had lights that really worked.

The railroad on the kitchen table was powered by a big black transformer with red handles. Cranking on the power the transformer hummed and vibrated, throwing off electrons and sweating ozone. I had a red and silver diesel, the Santa Fe Express, with a head light that flashed through the mountain tunnels. John had a black locomotive. A few drops of mystery liquid in the smoke stack and the thing would huff its way around the track, belching tiny puffs of smoke, giving the air an oily tinge.

The layout stayed on the kitchen table all through Christmas vacation. We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner seated at the edges of a miniature universe. It was the essence of Christmas to see the trains all over the kitchen table every morning. I'd have my bacon, peanut butter toast, and milk not far from the tracks. I sat there to chew, swallow, and watch the trains go round and round.

There was lots of room at the big maple table for a special guest the night Mr. Brown, my grade school teacher, came to dinner. I was proud and amazed that my teacher was going to come to my house and have dinner. The kids at school didn't really believe that the teacher would actually be there." No way, you're making it up!" Maybe inviting the teacher to dinner was old fashioned even then.

Mr. Brown was a tall, lean man. He always had a dark tan. I was sure it had something to do with his name. He looked a little like Gary Cooper did in Sergeant York. Mr. Brown wore a corduroy coat with leather arm patches to dinner that night. He even had on a tie. He was honoring my family by wearing a tie, he never did that in class. It seemed fantastic, unreal, that my teacher was actually out of school and in my house.

But there he was sitting at the big maple table with me, my Mom and Dad and my little brother John. Mr. Brown was smiling and making polite conversation. I was mostly quiet and listening. I worked hard at my manners, taking small bites, using the napkin, trying to be mature.

I wasn't adolescent enough yet to be embarrassed by my family, I just felt proud. It was a great night. Even John was good. Mr. Brown talked about his summer job as a Park Ranger. It was easy to imagine him in a ranger's uniform and now I knew the origin of that tan. Mr. Brown got sun burnt every summer and his tan lasted the whole school year. For the rest of the 6th grade Mr. Brown had a special smile for me when ever our eyes met.

Understanding a little piece of Mr. Brown's life gave me my first thought of becoming a teacher. Summers off to be in the woods, and free meals. It looked pretty good from my side of the table.

Twenty years later Gavin, one of my students, stood at my desk, and looked me in the eye "My Mom and I would like you to come to our house for dinner." I accepted immediately. In 15 years of teaching this was the only time I'd been invited to dinner. That invitation was very special to me. It made me think of Mr. Brown. Was our dinner invitation the only one Mr. Brown's ever received?

Now, I sit at another dinner table. I'm wearing a corduroy coat with elbow patches. I have a tie on. The kids stare at me with big eyes, amazed I'm at their table, in their house. I smile, make polite conversation, watch my table manners and enjoy this rare evening. I had a special smile for Gavin for the rest of the year.

Turning the tables helps me remember that kids don't believe teachers are real people, with lives outside the classroom. No, teachers are different than other adults. They live at school and only think about the subjects they teach. Kids know that teachers spend every evening preparing tests and grading papers. Students are sure that teachers believe absolutely in the impeccable recall of times tables, have a perfect knowledge of the parts of speech, and never misspell a word. It is too high a standard.

The marks, dents, gouges and chips have been polished smooth. But I still can read the big maple table like a map. It hasn't changed that much, but we have.

It must be lonely, just the two of you, having a meal at this vast, well worn table. I know the table really doesn't fit your house now. You could find something half the size that would serve better. It makes perfect sense to get rid of it.

But I hope you don't. I hope you keep the table. Put a fresh coat of wax on it and make some more memories. Written 1990.

-----------

The table is in my house now. Both my parents are gone, but the memories scribed in the table remain. It's almost Christmas, and most of my family will sit around the big maple table in just a few days.

~ December 2008

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Confessions of an American Teacher

I’m tired of saying the right thing.

I've taken too many bullets for the team.

I've been a Pollyanna with my head stuck up my ass… and a visionary that changed kids lives.

I've walked picket lines, exposed evil, compromised my integrity, and given freely with all my soul. I’ve ranted across the desks of more than one superintendent, and rolled over for others. I’ve charmed, trashed, ignored, sympathized with and bull shitted hundreds of parents. I’ve gotten up and faced surly classes and then flipped them into open minded learners. I’ve missed as many teachable moments as I’ve caught. I’ve helped some kids gain 4 years on the reading test and ignored others because they were hopeless punks who pissed me off. I’ve hung around in the computer labs and classrooms of my school weeping with inspiration and happiness for simply being part of a learning environment I’d dreamed of building, and I’ve hated the deep rut of driving back to school every morning to participate in the systematic destruction of joy and trust that small minded inane administrators and school board members call education.

I’ve been an American Teacher for 37 years and I’m sick at heart about public education. I want to tear the system down and let the ferrets run free. I want to teach skepticism and critical thinking and create a generation that will fight for their minds, fight for freedom, but I’m so scarred by tilting at wind mills that I’ve learned to choose my battles. I’m not sure how much fight is left in me.

Sometimes I just want to scream and tell it all. All the good, all the bad, the lunacy and the laughs and everything in between.

Instead, I’ll just blog.

I got my credential in 1974 in-spite of a system that kept trying to talk me out of wasting my life in the classroom. All my neurotic friends in the English Department at Berkeley thought I was nuts.

“You’re too good for teaching. Why waste your talent in a classroom?”

The application committee at the teacher’s college asked me the same thing (after beating me up for misspelling the word professional in my writing sample). “You don’t want to teach. There’s no money in it. You wont’ be able to get a job, there’s too many teachers already.”

But I was stubborn and burned out by the life I’d been leading and looking for direction.

I’d gone up to Canada found a spot deep in the woods and thought about it all. I’d spend a lot of time on mountain tops and in the wild thinking about it all. After awhile talking to fish and sitting on the high ground with a rifle gets old and you’re still left with the questions only you can answer…

It came down to law or education. I could be a lawyer or a teacher.

It came down to making a living working with people at their worst or helping kids learn. I chose teaching and despite 37 years of classroom joy and pain, I don’t regret the choice.

It was Mr. Pinto in the 8th grade that sealed the deal. Mr. Pinto saved my mind from the terror and made me want to be a teacher.

I was 14 year old living in gut grinding terror of getting nuked out of existence. The junior high I attended had me cringing under my desk, conditioned like a rat in a Skinner box by institutionalized drop drills.

Every time I curled up under that pitiful flimsy little wooden desk I could imagine the flash and blast of a hydrogen bomb taking out downtown LA and rolling hell fire over the hills to the San Fernando Valley where I’d be toasted alive.

I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, panicked adults fighting over groceries and the afternoon when everyone thought the button would be pushed.

I remember the sincere horror of thinking the whining air raid sirens were for real.

I remember just wanting to ride my bike home so I could die with my family. Instead I cowered on the floor, weeping, huddled on the dirty linoleum of the overheated classroom, backs to the wall under the windows so the flying glass wouldn’t shred us.

My teacher was crying, she wouldn’t answer when we begged, “Is it real? Is it the bomb?”

Hell the teacher was crying, kids were running through the halls screaming…it had to be real and I was going to die, away from my mom and dad and brother.

After fifteen minutes the moron who was principal got on the P.A to announce it was all just a drill.

I learned a lot that day. I learned that faced with certain death I was too afraid to get up off the floor. Nice lesson.


That’s American education: just curl up in a ball and wait for it… lay on the floor and pray… let’s spend a fortune to train kids this way… children, when it comes to fiery death, STOP! DROP! and wait for it like sheep.

In my day it was the Russians and ICBMs, overkill and nothing left but the cockroaches.


Now it’s a Stalinist Dictator with a nuke or a Jihadi hoping to pack a bomb in a suit case…or an FBI agent dragging out an 8th grader for threatening the president on MySpace… and let’s not forget the twisted 15 year old in a trench coat shooting kids in the head while they lay on the floor and pray.

After the phony air raid, Mr. Pinto gave me a way to deal with my fear.

We were debating nuclear war in his Social Studies class and someone asked him what he’d do if the air raid sirens went off for real. Just thinking about this 50 years later makes my stomach knot. Thinking about Mr. Pinto makes me smile too.

"Kids, if the bomb gets dropped we’re all finished. We’re so close to prime targets.. there’s nothing we can do. I’m not hiding under my desk. I’m getting a six pack of beer, and a folding chair and climbing up on the roof where I can see it all. It will be one hell of a light show…"

We cracked up… “The teacher said hell!”

Nuclear annihilation suddenly seemed funny. Mr. Pinto with a little smidgen of honesty, helped me vent the paranoid steam of the arms race. He gave me a way to confront my fear and begin to stand. His fatalistic and funny advice gave me a game plan.

I was 14 years old. That’s when I started thinking seriously about being a teacher. I could say things that might help people… and get summers off!

Now after decades as a teacher, it seems right that my career choice was founded on visions of Armageddon laced with fatalistic humor.

My years in the classroom have been sublime and mediocre. I love it and I hate it. I’ve gone farther and done more than I ever dreamed and I’m still dissatisfied with what I’ve accomplished.

I've met some of the finest people on the planet and I’ve uncovered power corrupted evil-doers. I’ve fought the good fight and lost.

I've stood up for my principles and been cut off at the knees.

I’m not done. I still want to break on through to the other side. If that means taking another beating… I’m going to punch back.

I’m still standing… maybe I’m standing on stumps, but I’m still upright.

... and I'm still teaching. It's how I breathe.


Saturday, October 04, 2008

Dad's 1965 Chrysler Newport Convertible

The day you brought home that new, black, sleek, '65 Chrysler Newport convertible was a special one. That long machine parked out front under the shade of a walnut tree said something to the whole neighborhood. The hood polished so deep and wide the whole canopy of that huge old tree was reflected back from between the front fenders.

It was fall, the new model year just announced; the street was deep in crisp leaves. They crunched underfoot as we sprinted out to admire the enormous new car. John and I ran our hands over the convertible's long waxed flanks. We breathed deep the new smell. Sunk in the rear seat we looked up and watched as you lowered the top. The deep mechanical groan as the convertible top elegantly descended, folding itself accordion style into the boot behind the rear seat. It was miraculous.
John and I stretched the snaps of the tonneau cover into place. Then scrambled again into the back seat and sunk into luxury. The newness was overwhelming, the smell of the upholstery, the flawless flanks of the black beast gleamed and unmarked. Truck was enormous. We could almost lay down full stretch. The two long doors were heavy, solid, with heft like refrigerator doors.
Why is it that I have no other solid memory of the Chrysler? Must be that I was off to school the next year, and I'm sure I didn't get to drive the thing.

That car lasted. Morphing from a fine mid-sixty's high status Realtor's Ride into a ragged, beat, brick truck. The once pristine interior was now thrashed and coated with a fine red dust. Dad hauled load after load of used brick for one of his Great Chinese Wall building projects in the poor sagging thing.
Still, like Dad, the Chrysler had style. Even at 200 thousand miles, despite the beat down of time, with the rear end sagging low over the tires, it was a ride to remember.



Pop-on's Death

I could hear you crying mom in the other room. It scared me bad, scared John too. John and I shared a bedroom in the Callahan house. I didn't know before that night that sound traveled so well through the walls of the closet. You were sobbing on the other side of the wall. You just kept crying. John and I got into the closet and listened to the awful sounds of your sadness. Your pain came through the wall. Dad's voice was murmuring, trying to soothe, your wails came in waves, reaching a peak, splashing over us, receding, and peaking again.

We didn't know what to do. We huddled there in the closet surrounded by our toys, the clothes hanging down over us and looked at each other. We bit our lips, tears came to our eyes. We were paralyzed with sadness and fear. John and I had seen you mad before, and unhappy. But the only time we'd seen you cry was in laughter, begging us to stop some joke or monkey business. We'd never heard or seen you cry like this.

I was afraid to come out of the room. As much as I wanted to know why you were hurting, I was afraid to knock on your door. I was afraid to move. It felt like I was holding my breath for hours. I strained my ears for the sounds of doors unlocking, knobs turning, footsteps in the hall knowing that It would mean you were coming to get us, that you were ready to tell us what the terrible thing was.

But you didn't come get us. Instead you cried all night, the waves pounding on our bedroom wall. Both John and I returned to our beds. I covered my head with my pillow. But I could still hear you, the awful murmur of your distant tears seemed to make the walls swell and crack. I tried not to listen, but could only hear more and more. I fell asleep to that awful sound.

The next morning you said nothing. Your eyes were red, but you smiled as much as you could, shrugging off our tentative questions. It was bad knowing something was wrong. It was worse not knowing what it was.

That night John and I were ready for you to begin crying again. We lay in bed waiting for the sound to come back through our wall.

Silence.


We quietly crept into the closet, scooting down on to the floor, with ears to the all.

Silence still.

Several days later you told us that Pop-on was dead.

I had my answer. I understood why your were crying that night. Your dad had died. I've always wondered about that night. Had you just heard he was dying? Had you seen him at the hospital that day? I should have asked these questions sooner.

When Honey died I knew I had to tell my kids about it immediately. I didn't want Brenna or Erin to know. But I knew it would be worse if they misunderstood my grief. I wanted them to know why I was sad. Waiting wouldn't help.

I told Brenna first. "Brenna I have bad news. Honey has died." She cried, we talked.

Erin didn't really understand. It was very hard to do. But better than waiting. There's never a right time to tell your children about a death.

You just do it.

Justice for Penny

"Neeyah! Neeyah! Neeyah! I'm having a birthday party and you're not invited!"

Penny stuck out her tongue, dug a few more Neeyah! Neeyahs! into my soul then flounced off head held high. Penny radiated aloof, self-satisfied disapproval. She left two little boys in her wake. We were not invited to her birthday party. Neeyah! Neeyah!

Her name was Penny. She was an enemy!

It must have been something about the soil in Encino, a lot of clay was turned up when the subdivision was graded. It clumped great. Dirt clodded into fist size chunks naturally.

I seized a coconut sized chunk and looked at my buddy Ira. He nodded in wordless agreement. “THROW IT!”

Penny was a long way down the sidewalk by now. She seemed small in the distance, an impossible distance to throw a dirt clod. She was just a silhouette skipping down the sidewalk of a 1950's middle class sub-division in the late afternoon at Encino California.

I threw the clod high, arching, and well to Penny's right. It soared upward truer than any baseball I was ever destined to toss. The clod arched slowly reaching the apogee of it's flight, just as Penny turned right on her walk. It dropped straight down, exploding on top of her head.

The clod vanished in a halo of dirt. Penny dropped instantly. A perfect hit. Ira and I couldn't believe it. I never dreamed I'd get close, let alone land a perfect hit. I looked at Ira slack-jawed. His eyes glazed behind his glasses.

"It was perfect." he whispered. "She just turned and walked right under the thing at the perfect moment and “Wham!” and she's down!"

"Daaaaaaaaaaaaaady!" Penny was up and screaming. Three front-yards away and I could hear the shock, anger, and hunger for revenge in her whining, Neeyah! Neeyah! little girl voice.

The beauty of the shot was forgotten in guilty panic. Ira disappeared. I ran for home, slammed through the door, scooted into my room and slid under my bed.

I knew Penny's dad was coming for me. It was claustrophobic and quiet under my bed. Little dust balls rolled in front of my nostrils. I counted dust tumbleweeds in the high desert under my bed. I knew a storm was coming.

Thump, thump, thump! I heard Penny's daddy's angry fist on the front door. Thump, thump, thump!

I could hear the floor creak as my Dad walked to the front door. (Even then I knew you were big dad.) I heard angry voices and stayed very still. Slamming doors.

Dad came into my room and called me out from under the bed. Gentle voiced. No shaking rage, no heavy anger. In a gentle voice. "What happened Dennis?"

I told you. You listened. And as the story unwound, I know you understood the wonder of the shot, that magic trajectory, the incredible long flight of the clod as it extinguished the ringing sound of ²Neeyah Neeyah³s in my ears.

Later mom told me you'd grabbed Penny's daddy by his redneck and held him up a bit when he'd tried to pass by you to get to me.

I don't know if that really happened. But I hope it did.

Green Star

I wanted a star on my paper. The star's color didn't really matter, the size didn't matter. I just wanted a star on my paper that said I was one of the smart ones.

But I could never get one. I already knew I was one of the dumb 6 year olds, I just wasn't smart. I knew it. I couldn't read or add. The books were always too hard and directions confused me. If you weren't neat and couldn't follow the directions you didn't get a star. At least not in the first grade at Our Lady of Perpetual Yearning Elementary

I could read numbers though, and I had a theory about my situation. I was certain that the # 2 on the spine of my reader stood for second grade. I hung on to this belief as an explanation for why I couldn't read. It was my secret hope that I wasn't so stupid after all. I was convinced, despite mounting frustration and embarrassment that my problem was caused by a book that was too hard. None of my classmates bought my thinking, but I hung on to the hope that I wasn't really dumb after all.

Finally, one day late in the year, after the longing for a star had given way to hopelessness, it happened. Sister dropped my paper down in front of me.

There it was attached proudly to the top of the page near my name, the green star!

I knew that the best stars were the big golden ones. The next best were blue, still larger than the green star I'd gotten. But my first star seemed huge to me. It was a metallic, shadowed shamrock color. I traced my finger over the thin foil ridge on each of the 5 points. Points of achievement there on 'my page'. I couldn't believe it! I was reeling, flabbergasted, overjoyed,

I'd gotten a star!

I turned proudly to the kid next to me, and shoved the paper under his nose. "I gotta star!" I crowed.

As the words left my mouth a shadow descended. The tall dark habit of Sister blotted out the sunlight. She swept up the paper.

"No Talking!" Sister shrieked in a fury.

Slowly, meticulously, with a pent up frenzy that said this woman longed for a world without loud boastful little boys, Sister meticulously tore my paper into shreds.

As she swept away, Sister dropped the crumpled fragments on my desk. I searched through the remains, but I couldn't find my green star. Now I wouldn't be able to show my mom.

My green star was gone forever.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Confessions of an American Teacher: Choking on it...

I’m not supposed to talk about this.

Guilt, wrapped in denial, and re-enforced by a federal court order are powerful ingredients that still induce my silence.  These words are leaking out, extruded under high pressure that’s’ built over the years.


I have to tell. I have to face what happened. I have to get the ugly reality written.

Maybe it will stop the headaches and the sleeplessness. Maybe I’ll be able to recapture my hope again… If I can just tell it, get it out on the page and expel this evil hairball that’s clogged my teaching spirit for so long maybe I can believe in American Schooling and stop seeing the whole system through the lens of my own experience.

As I look back I realize I should have stood up sooner.  Oh, I took a stand and took a major hit for my ethics. It cost me my job, most of my pension, a good chunk of my self respect.  Standing up also launched me. Cutting lose (and being cast out) made me build skills and muscle.  My life is so much better now. I’m more self realized, more articulate, better educated and making three times the money I made back in the classroom. Hell I should go back and kiss the sobs for kicking me in the jewels and waking me up. Ultimately they helped me find my way to a better life. As a friend told me just the other day: “..it’s an honor to be extruded from a dysfunctional system”.

But I still know that I waited too long. That when the test came, I stood and fought, but it was with an attorney and not my fists.  (And I do crave some vigilante justice.)  Instead, I fought fair.  And just like my lawyer warned me up front… I got no justice. There was no satisfaction.  Wrongs were not righted. There was a little money, but nothing was made whole.  My hired gun, the professional cynic, the street fighter in the three piece suit was so right when he said: “.. starting a lawsuit is going to war… and it’s a sin to go to war.”

It took many years to work my way out to the end of the plank. I have to remember that there were a lot of good years in the classroom building the learning world I’d worked my whole career to create. But with time, more and more of my energy was spent fighting for the freedom to do the good work.  More energy went into watching my back and fighting the system until eventually, most of my juice went to just coping with the controlling, totalitarian bastards set on destroying what they couldn’t duplicate or control.

I can remember thinking first they came for the…
They came first for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time no one was left to speak up.
~ Martin Niemöller (more or less)

It was all gallows humor when I began thinking that way. I didn’t realize how real it would become.

I was happy in my little enclave, my realm of responsibility, my small pond where I was the big fish in a remote school on the edges of the district orbit… we were the outlier, out of the way, easy to forget. The District Office was down the hill dismantling and reforming the other schools, instigating the strategic plan, rewriting the history books.. it would take them years to get to me and mine.

Still I knew that the Borg were coming… and that, by all accounts resistance would be futile.

One day I found myself holding a picket sign in front of the school board meeting. I don’t remember the cause.  Radon in the classrooms? Sick building syndrome? Some small pay raise?  I don’t remember a lot of what happened… denial is like this. Regardless walking a picket line was a futile thing to do in a ‘right to work’ state that had an unwritten school labor approach that basically came down to, “There are plenty of holes in the desert”.

Our pictures (complete with signs) appeared on the front page of the local paper. Within a few years all of us would be gone. A combination of psy-ops, burn-out, retirement, and despair would take us all. But at the time I didn’t see it coming at the time.

I just didn’t get it. I thought that doing the right thing would protect me. I didn’t understand that the leadership of my district would trade the welfare, the safety, the minds and innocence of the kids for the little bit of power they had.  Yeah I’d called them fascist lemmings who worshiped at the altar of appearances at the expense of common sense.  But like a fool, I didn’t get what it really meant to be right about them.

That’s why I got my Pollyanna ass kicked by the system.  It took me half a century to grow up.

Here I am still crying about it.  At least I’m not numb any more. At least I’m finding my voice.

At the heart of my anger is the betrayal I still feel. The Assistant Ass, who eventually became the Top Ass, was an old colleague… we’d known each other for years.  While we weren’t friends, I thought we at least had respect for each other.  I remain amazed and infuriated that this fellow, who was one of the smartest, most able, even brilliant educators I’d worked with would sell his integrity for a little piss-pot job in a backward school district out in the sticks.  I’m shocked and I’m angry that he became a banal, evil little man. By the time he reached the top, he was morally bankrupt. And what was he on top of?  A backwater, small town conservative, rural school district with delusions of grandeur.

So here I am again. Pleading with myself and ranting on the web about the betrayal of innocence I was part of as a public school teacher.

Why can’t I spit this out? I still can’t name it. 

Damn.