Monday, June 29, 2009

Related Memory #3: House on a Beach

I recall that Tee and I knew this one guy--John--who lived just outside of Gulf Trace. John was older--probably close to fifty (maybe fifty five)--and had been a boat captain. He had made a lot of money in Alaska during the building of the pipeline. He was big into Ham Radio and showed me his set up, which was in a spare room. His house was the only one on a road where a development had been planned. This road led to other roads in the woods, but no houses had been built--I think it had been bought up by the state, so it sat idle (now it's where you can go to some cabins in the state park there), was just a bunch of woods and then a big stretch of dunes (where I walked around quite often, though now it's all off limits). But the thing was, John lived all alone.
He was kind of an odd guy--well-off, into his ham radio, alone in a big house that itself sat alone off the main road, didn't work any job that I knew of. I don't know how we met him--guess Tee was the one. He took us out to dinner once, we visited a few times. It was later, after he got to know us, that he told me he'd had a wife who was an alcoholic and he told me--specifically--that you don't want to get into a relationship with an alcoholic, that there was nothing you could do for them and that it would all just be heartache. I think he was telling me because Tee was probably one, or close to being one--I knew she had other habits as well. (Her ex-Vietnam-fighter-pilot father was alcoholic.) But, I wasn't really set on such an investment, anyway, as much as I liked Tee.
I know, after I left and went to Seattle, Tee told me that John invited her to go to the Cayman Islands with him--where, no doubt, his money was invested, tax-free. She asked if it included any funny business and he'd said, no. So, she went. Took advantage of his offer and when he tried to take advantage of her--as Tee pretty much expected--she locked herself in the room. Really, she should not have gone in the first place.
Don't know what happened to John after that. I was in Grayton about a year ago and his house was still there, still all alone.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

House On A Beach: Grayton Beach 1986

Really, this wasn't in Grayton Beach but in Gulf Trace, a development just west of Grayton, with a swath of open dunes and scrub separating them. It was when I'd dropped out of the Iowa Writer's Workshop and headed back down to the panhandle to live with Tee. At first we lived in the place she'd been renting along a red-dirt road back in the woods below the bay, but then we found an unfinished house to rent that was Right ON The Beach.
This house was owned by some guy who said he was allergic to wood--nice guy--and he couldn't live in it (or so he said, said even paper affected him, that he lived in a Gulfstream trailer, and he was working on inventing some gadget to develop a person's golf swing; but one day an old pal of his came along and when I told him this, the guy said, no, that he was just an old alcoholic), so it didn't have it's insulation or heat and was not painted, but other than that it was livable. The only heat was a fireplace (and if you think it doesn't get cold in north Florida, then come visit--it's a wet heavy cold). The house was barn-like, with two stories and a porch that opened out to the Gulf of Mexico. It was up on the dunes--white dunes with flowing sea oats, the sand soft as powder and the color of pure spun sugar or snow--and down below was the floury beach and the bluegreen waters. Man, that was nice--you get quite used to the sound of the waves lapping or smushing or crashing. And usually the little development (it wasn't even a town) was empty--they were mostly summer homes for wealthy Birmingham Republicans, maybe a few Atlanta people as well. So, Tee and I lived quietly. I got a job painting houses in Seaside. We got two cats--Lucy and Velcro--and things looked pretty good.
But they weren't pretty good.
Sure, who doesn't dream of living right on the ocean, especially a place as beautiful as the panhandle? And this was before that area of Florida was well known (now it's year-round tourism, crowded, built up--that beach house would be worth millions, back then we paid maybe $350 a month, maybe less). But I felt bad because I'd dropped out of the Iowa writing program, and Tee--though I cared for her very much--was not the easiest person to live with. She had a bit of a habit, I think. We had some good times, but also some bad . . . I recall she called me cheap once, so I went out and bought a whole slew of groceries to make a Thanksgiving dinner: good wine, duck, mashed spuds, nuts and berries, cheeses, bread, pecan pie for desert and more. She knew of this, but was not there. I cooked it all up, she came home, but could not eat--had been out drinking margaritas and eating junk food. Hmmm--I didn't ask with who. Anyway, I could go on and on (I spent Christmas night all alone--drinking cheap beer and feeling sorry for myself--while Tee went to visit her family--her father had been a fighter pilot and lived in the little town of Baker, where they had some land (nice folks) and farm animals--but Tee and I had argued, so I declined to go) but I also was not always the best person, either.
It was also lonely out there in Gulf Trace. Like I said, few people were there in the winter. It got cold and damp--the ocean air heavy and sticky, the air salting the windows so they were always filmy--and the single fireplace couldn't keep up. Winter's the rainy season and the little place was often empty and gloomy. We had a party once, and some younger fellows knocked over the neighbor's mailbox. I put the box back up and--to my surprise--someone was actually living there in this big old house. I went and apologized to him. He was a little older than me, and he invited me inside and we went upstairs (this was a big house) and he offered me a beer--a Bud--so, I drank a cold one with him. He was cool about the mailbox, but there was just this air, this aura, about him: sad, lonely, the smell of personal disaster. And as we chatted, it came out that he was getting divorced, his wife had their house in Alabama, and he was exiled--for now--to the empty beach house in winter. He was a lonely guy, unhappy--he just oozed this pathetic unhappiness. He was an okay guy, personally. Not the kind of person I'd normally hang around with, but polite, nice, humbled. He asked if I wanted another beer, but, I couldn't bring myself to stay with him. All he wanted, I think, was some company, someone to talk to, and I could see myself doing it (I was a bit lonely for company myself) and I could see he'd be the kind of guy to always buy the beer, to provide food and have access to things I didn't have. Yet, just the same, I didn't want to. I felt bad--and maybe I saw too much of myself in his predicament--but I rejected his offer and avoided him in the future. It was too dreary and sad and, anyway, I was already thinking about my own escape.
Yes, life was a beach. A downhill one. Tee and I hung on past the time we should have. It wasn't horrible, but it was not pleasant, either. We ended up like a married couple who didn't really like each other but still cared for each other, or rather, were too afraid to make the jump--one who should have divorced and moved on.
So, by February of '87, I moved on. Enough was enough. I packed my car, drove away from the beach house. Spent a few days in Pensacola with friends, then hit the road for that long lonely drive--alone in my powder blue Ford Maverick--across the south, across Texas, to L.A. and then up, eventually in Seattle, where Matt and Brock were.
I had lived right on the beach, and it was good, but I didn't want to end up like that guy next door. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Almighty Hammer-Stick: Jonesborough 1968

I think it was during the long long drive from Washington State to Tennessee--via California/Texas etc--that we kids discovered the world of comic books and superheros. I guess Mother bought a handful of comics to keep us occupied--all five of us young kids--in the car during the long drive south into southern California and then across to Tennessee. They were DC Comics at first (Atom Man was my favorite, and Hawkman), but we must have bought more along the way, because by the time we reached our new "southern home", we'd found Marvel Comics, which were much superior in style and content than DC. And when we first got to northeastern Tennessee, we rented a house in the little strange town of Jonesborough. And it was in Jonesborough that I found my all powerful Hammer-Stick.
I was into the comic Thor--based on the Norse god of thunder, of course--and walking in the woods behind the house, I came across a crooked stick that had a nice size, weight and shape to it. The stick was bent, like a lowercase "r", and it soon became magical to me and was of great use for my superhero playacting.
I was very attached to that stick.
Often I was by myself, roaming around that area of town or in the woods--it wasn't really town, it was more outside-of-town: a string of old houses along a highway/road with fields and acreages and woods. So I wandered, lost in my own mind and fantasy (much as I am today), being a superhero with great strength and nobility, which was all brought to me through my Hammer-Stick. I can't recall the particulars, but I know I used the stick to take out weeds and plow through vines (like a machete), I used the stick in imaginary battles with evil forces and to hit rocks with and to smash it down upon big rocks in a show of force. Man, that was some stick! I would also throw it: enemies at a distance were not safe, as my Hammer-Stick could be hurled with great force, knock them down, and then it would magically return to me (like a boomerang or, maybe, a good dog). (In fact, I loved the stick like I would a dog, in many ways it was my best friend and had a personality traits that I attributed to it.) But this hurling of the Hammer-Stick is also how I lost it.
Or, almost lost it.
I was in a field of flowering weeds, across the street near Judge's house (yes, we knew a boy named Judge [it was Tennessee]), and I was playing my lonely fantasy game with my stick and I hurled it at the fantasy bad guy and the stick--which really could not magically return to me--sank down into the thick weeds and disappeared. This was a big field and my stick was gone. Lost. A runaway dog. I was very upset.
Sure, I was willing to go look for it--not an impossible task--but right where it had sunk down into the flowering weeds there was a huge fat black/yellow bumblebee. Man, I hated bumblebees the most. (I recall in Vancouver, I'd picked a bunch of flowers for my mom--iris' mostly--and was carrying them home, when a big bumblebee came zooming right after me and I dropped the flowers and ran in fear of my little-kid life.) And this fat bee was going nowhere--was lazily doing its bumblebee things right over the spot where the Mighty Hammer-Stick had disappeared. So--like any kid--I asked god to get rid of it: "Please god, make the bee go away so I can get my friend the stick."
But the bee did not move.
So, I asked again, adding a qualifier, maybe not so kid-like: "If the bee goes away, then I will believe in you, god."
And, lo and behold, the bee did go away. And I waded into the blooming brush and did find my stick--happy again.
But, did I believe in god?
Yes, even at a very young age, I had serious doubts. And though this event with the Hammer-Stick should have been a proof-is-in-the-pudding moment, I still was not convinced. Sorry, god. You could argue that he kept up his end of the bargain and I didn't follow through, or, you could see it as I came to--coincidence. Bees and sticks didn't make up too much of a miracle.
I've always gone back and forth on the matter--still do--but also don't worry about it too much. I have faith, simply, in that no one knows and will never know. Religions are best kept to spiritual matters, not ones of dogma or sin, and I don't want to wallow in the subject which usually just comes to trite foolishness. Believe and you shall believe, is about all I can say. Though, a life with god is probably much more interesting that one without, as long as it's not used to manipulate you. But--again--a healthy dose of skepticism is just that, healthy . . . Anyway, I got my stick back, was happy for it, and went about playing my games with it for quite a while after. (I think I lost the stick when we moved to Johnson City later that year.)
Yet, you can see the dilemma, was it god or was it the bee needing to be somewhere else? And I can still think of it, at this late age, and still be undecided--though I tend to side with the bee. I mean, really, if god's going to go about granting prayers, then keep my stick and answer someone's prayer for a sick loved one. Or even a lost dog.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Second House: Sioux Falls 1962

The first house I knew--and the house I think of when I think of Sioux Falls--was a one story, corner lot home in the Hilltop neighborhood. It was white with black trim and had a big weeping willow tree. There were many other homes just like it and also open fields (probably just empty lots) full of dandelions where we--my brothers and sister, neighborhood kids--would run and play and catch bees (scary business as a kid, catching bees). It was a nice place. Then--for reasons I know not--we moved to a different house.
The second house was older and in an older neighborhood (whose name I also know not). It was a two story, stucco, odd house. It had a basement that was somewhat finished and we used it as a family room, but also in the basement was an unfinished segment which had a wooden door and on the door someone (the previous owners?) had drawn a skull and cross bones and--I think--the word DANGER. I was four, not quite five, and it always scared me. It was kind of a cool, fun scared, but also a deep down eerie scared. Maybe that's why I never quite warmed to the second house. Also maybe because it was kind of dreary looking, with its pitched roof and mustard-brown-yellow stucco exterior. I don't know. Maybe also because we didn't live in it all that long--again, I think--before we moved off to Vancouver, Washington . . . also it's where I started school--kindergarten--and I hated school and the teacher.
But we did have some fun there. I recall, our bedroom was upstairs and had a screenless window and we put on a few plays up there for other neighborhood kids, performing in front of the window while they sat in the lawn down below and watched. In one play, I was the Jolly Green Giant. We also had some nature areas where we goofed around, catching insects. One older kid told us that dragonflies could spit in your eye and make you go blind--I believed that for a long time (until Tennessee) and was very afraid of dragonflies. The same kid, once, when I'd caught a bumble bee in a small jar and was ready to flip it over and had my hand under it, stepped on the jar so that I could not remove my hand . . . I don't remember his name or what he even looked like, but if I saw him maybe I'd punch him to this day. And there was a our next door neighbor, some high-strung little girl who would come over and play and when we played out front with the sprinkler--one of those round ones with a whirring blade--she stuck her toe in it and got a big gash and went home crying. She did this not once, but at least twice (maybe three times). She was funny.
(I remember, in the second house, I had a plastic chicken for a toy--one you could take into the bath with you. I had a stuffed seal that was old and one day I saw it outside in a box of things to be thrown away. I remember being in the basement room at that house and Mother asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I answered: "A frog.")
We were all funny. A family of seven. Five kids, four boys and one girl, who were free to roam, summers spent mainly outdoors with no household chores, just a mild set of rules and regulations and supervision--you rarely see that nowadays; too many parental fears. So, the second house was okay, really. Maybe I never got the chance to appreciate it or maybe I just missed the first house. I do know that when we did go back to Sioux Falls to visit--which was rare, maybe only two or three return visits in my lifetime--we went back to the Hilltop neighborhood, to the first house and the people we knew there. 
I don't recall ever seeing the second house again.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Visiting The Pacific: Vancouver 1964

I really don't recall the first time I saw the Pacific Ocean, but it was the first ocean I saw.
We had moved from South Dakota--where I had reached the ripe age of 5 before we went west--and had only gone to places like the Black Hills and Iowa. Chicago once. But my parents took us out to see the ocean quite a few times (in fact, we traveled all over the west when we lived out there, mainly camping at National or State Parks). We went to beaches in Oregon, mostly--Tillamook a number of times, Cannon Beach, a place called Castle Rock where we could see sea lions (perhaps this was along the Columbia River and not the ocean). There was also a place called Beacon Rock, some huge boulder where you could hike up to the top--we'd get about half way until you reached a sign that said WARNING: Continue At Your Own Risk, but I finally one time had the courage to continue and make it to the top--but, again, maybe that was along the river. I know we went to some place on Washington's coast where we had a motel room. The motel was on the water, officially, and had glass sliding doors that opened to the beach; but the beach was huge and the actual ocean was waaaay down there, I mean, you had to walk and walk across empty flat sand to reach the water.
But the smells and creatures--the crabs and starfish and mussels and seaweed (deep green plants that had little air sacs to keep them afloat and you could pop them and these long walking stick-like things that had a bulbous end on them) and seals and sea lions, and the odors of the sea, sharp and smelly and salty--became a part of me when I was young. I used to collect the dead crabs and put them in jars of seawater to keep them as pets--even though I knew they were dead. The Pacific is often a rough ocean, but we swam in it. It's also a cold ocean, but--being kids--we swam in it. Sister, I recall, her very first time entering the ocean, was knocked flat by a big wave and she would not go back in for a long time. We would beachcomb it, usually with Mother, and found glass floats, a board with Japanese writing on it, many many shells of course, came across a small dead seal once. Trash. But, we did not live on the Pacific, only visited, and after we moved away--to Tennessee--I only saw the other ocean--the Atlantic, at Myrtle Beach, SC--a handful of times during my childhood.
I did come back to the Pacific--in California, in Seattle (Puget Sound, at least, was viewable everyday that I lived there), in Alaska--and camped along a rugged stretch of it with Matt and Brock in the Olympic Peninsula. Later, I spent part of my honeymoon in La Push, Washington: Fru and I drove out from Seattle and found this dirty little fish camp that was on the water and the fog horns blew and huge walls of waves came crashing in. I also viewed it, waded in it, in Mexico, in 1990, in a little town called San Blas . . . But after childhood, it was mainly the warm waters of the Atlantic--Florida's coast, the Keys and the Gulf of Mexico--which drew me near and--despite the honeymoon--I have lived next to Atlantic waters more than not. I have also spent many years in the Midwest, with only waves of corn and soybean fields to dream at.
But I miss the Pacific. I have not seen it--let alone swam in it--for many years: probably since 1990. I'm used to warm, usually calm ocean waters now. I'm not sure I'd have the temperament to brave the waters of Oregon or Washington (maybe not even Southern California, brrr), but I'd love to see and hear those big rollers of the north Pacific again. I'd love to walk the rocks at low tide with my boots on, smell everything, dip my hands into the tidal pools, climb the giant denuded blond logs that litter the beach, see the pines out on the sea stacks . . . But, I can't say when I will see it, smell it again. But, I can say, that I will. I'll be back someday.

To Whom It May Concern #5

Just a few thoughts about what I'm doing with this strange memoir/blog: So far I've only written about the 80's--and really have not tapped too deeply into them at that--and have moved into the 60's. As said before, I mainly track my past through places I have lived and small events within those places. It's haphazard in scope and order and I like it like that. But I have enforced some control by sticking with the 80's at first, then moving into the 60's now. At some point I'll include the 90's, then the 70's and so on, until--should I really keep doing this--I'll catch up to the present. Then I can write about any time and any place I happen to think about that day--which is how I do this--which is to say, I sit down and think and start typing and end up with crazy annoying sentences like this one sometimes. (Sorry.) There are many things I have not touched upon. Things such as sex and politics and social mores can be tricky subjects and I don't want this (essentially unread, un-followed) blog to become an outpost for my own erotica, political theatre or sermonizing. I remember quite a bit of the changes the 60's and early 70's brought to society--which shaped me, politically, sexually, morally (as did the 80's through the 00's, for that matter)--but for now, I don't choose to go there. At least not in a direct manner.
Okay, this is enough indulgence for a self-indulgent post.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Three-Legged Box Turtle and The Magic Rock: Jonesborough 1968

When we moved to Tennessee--all seven of us and a Siamese cat in a black-green 1966 Ford Falcon station wagon driving from Vancouver, Washington down into California and across the southwest/south to northeast Tennessee--we rented a house in Jonesborough for a year before buying a place outside of Johnson City. Jonesborough was a tiny town in the hills south of Johnson City, where Father had a job with the V.A.
The house was on a main road, but was sort of out in the country (it's hard to say what was country and what was city in northeast Tennessee in the 1960's). The house was split-level with wood floors and a den and garage. The backyard sloped downward with a few "switchbacks" (in my childhood mind they were switchbacks and I'd often play on them) then leveled and then rose again into a few acres of woods that came with the house. I recall other homes in the area also had huge small-farm-like yards or fields or woods, and it was all very haphazard and southern. But we--Oldest Brother, Second Oldest Brother, me, Sister and Youngest Brother (and the Siamese cat--Witty)--would go for long hikes into those woods. It was really a lot of fun and a magical place.
This was your typical southern woods full of hickories, sycamores and walnut trees, full of poison oak and stickers and big ropey vines, but also walkable. In the woods were animals, as you might expect. I don't recall deer (though there must have been some) but there were your usual raccoons, possums, the occasional skunk; there were rattlesnakes, copperheads, water moccasins and cottonmouths (where there was water) and non-poisonous snakes; there were frogs, toads and turtles. Box turtles. (I also recall all the ponds--looking out from the school bus at these algae-infested ponds in the spring and you could see great gobs of frog eggs in them, I mean huge visible blobs of them that were both repulsive and fascinating.)
And there was a three-legged box turtle in our woods. Because he (or she) had only three legs, he was easily identifiable each time we found him. The first time we picked him up and played with him and considered taking him home, but let him go. The second time, we were again interested in him, but the many times we discovered him after that, it was just our old pal the three-legged box turtle and we let him be. But--I don't recall if we named him, though am sure we did--I do remember him (or her) to this day.
There were also quite a few rocks in the area. Some rocks were pretty big and jutted out of the soil like small boulders, others were just small or large everyday rocks that were scattered about here and there. But one rock was something in between. It was one of the silvery white rocks like the boulder type, but it was square-shaped, thick and even, like a table or tablet. This became The Magic Rock. And The Magic Rock became the alter for our games that we played in the woods.
It was mainly Oldest Brother who came up with this stuff (as it always was). But we had a clearing in the woods where we would meet like some secret society and The Magic Rock was at the center of this clearing where we would hold court. I think we had a staff--a big walking stick--and you would pound the stick on the rock to bring order and start the court where we'd talk or decide what game to play or whatever it was we did. I know we were all into comic books at that time, mainly Marvel Comics (I was big on the Avengers, the Hulk and Thor; Captain America--oldest brother went for more of the soap opera-ish Fantastic Four and Spiderman, the Sub-Mariner) and this all played into our fantasy world in the woods with The Magic Rock and meetings and sometimes the three-legged box turtle (and our cat, who would follow us around like a dog at times, even taking the big loop walks around Sycamore Circle, a development near our house).
It was all very interesting.
But then we moved. We were glad to move because we didn't really like Jonesborough. (We didn't really like Tennessee--except Father.) But, we kids made it a point to go into the woods, to the clearing, and dig up The Magic Rock and take it with us (we left the turtle behind, thank goodness). And, later, when my father made a patio out of flat stones--most of which we had gathered from stream beds while on picnics in the mountains--he used The Magic Rock for the center of that patio. I think we had mixed feelings about him doing that, but at least it gave The Magic Rock a permanent place among us while we lived in Tennessee . . . And I doubt the subsequent owners of that house ever knew they had a magic rock among them.
And though I say we disliked Tennessee--and we did, overall--there are many things I miss from there. I spent so much time out of doors and in nature there, had great childhood adventures that you can't find in the suburbs. It helped form me and, having gone back once, I found both Johnson City, but especially Jonesborough, to be completely charming. Maybe northeast Tennessee is like the three-legged turtle--strange yet interesting, comforting as you become familiar with it. An old friend . . . Living there in the late 60's helped me to realize, eventually, that it's unfair to judge places and people by simple comparisons, by your own cache of expectations.
Perhaps The Magic Rock was magic after all and it helped spark the transformation of northeast Tennessee--if only in my own mind.