Friday, September 25, 2009

Boxes and Paper Stuff and other Childhood Games: Vancouver 1966

Ah, we played a lot when I was a young kid. I guess I can break up my childhood into being a baby/little kid in Sioux Falls, being a young kid in Vancouver and an old kid in Tennessee (and an adolescent in Iowa). So, in Vancouver we played the most games, I think. There were my three brothers and my sister, there were the three kids next door on one side and two more kids on the other, there were the three brothers across the street, there was Joey a few houses down the block and a few others behind us. We could always get a gang together just be walking out the door and jumping around: someone would show up.
We played all the games you would expect: tag, hide and seek, two-square and four-square, kick ball, doctor, war. We had a few dirt clod battles when new homes were under construction (these could be painful games--dirt clods instead of snow balls because it never snowed [or barely snowed] in Vancouver--and only the hardiest of us played this game) and there were a few fights, mainly just wrestling matches. We played a game called--and I'm not sure about this--Spud, where you through the ball up in the air and everyone ran and then the ball-catcher called out freeze and through the ball at the nearest person--something like that. Then there was red light/green light, there was the statue game and other physical games. There was our tree house out back and the swing set where we had no swings and we just did things on the poles, there was the sandbox where we had elaborate games, including a train made out of coffeee cans and such. And then there were the two games of imagination: Boxes and Paper Stuff.
These two games were led by Oldest Brother, pretty much. I don't recall Second Oldest Brother playing them much, but the rest of us did (but maybe not Youngest Brother, as, he was pretty young), but neighborhood kids played. These games were very basic in concept.
Boxes was simply taking cardboard boxes and cutting them down to make castles and forts out of them. Now, theye were huge boxes that we climbed into, no they were for plastic toys and "dolls" and such to live in. But these box-homes became very elaborate, with rooms and additions and working drawbridges--all made by ourselves, not bought. We drew on them and wrote on them and kept them in our house to be pulled out when we wanted to play. Because of oldest brother, there were kings and queens and wizards and magic things. It was all based on things hae (and we) had seen or read: King Arthur and Greek Myth and Grimm Fairy Tales and just stuff from our imagination. We used plastic toys and also just household finds to invent this world. I guess maybe soap operas played a role (and TV shows such as Bewitched, the Munsters, Addams Family), because there was also a on-going social network among each of our sets of characters, and each kid had their own family of people (or, in my case, creatures) that had their own continuing storylines that interacted with the storylines or narratives of the other kids' creations. It was pretty complex.
Paper Stuff was like that, too. With Paper Stuff we had big binder notebooks where the pages were homes for our paper doll creations. The first page might be a lawn, the second the front of the castle and then the rooms after that. The thing was, we'd glue the edges of pages and stick them together then cut doors and windows on one page so that they could open, so that our characters could go inside and the pages would hold them in there. We drew and colored all our own pages, we created our own paper characters and cut thyem out and created lives for them to live. Now, this wasn't just your ordinary paper dolls. One, we created the whole thing from blank pages. Two, they were not dolls. Three, we had complex narratives with--again--soap opera like dramas between characters and overall story arcs. The characters themselves were not exactly human. Yes, we used animals and creatures from Mythology, but Oldest Brother's main creatures were Itts, based off of Cousin Itt from the Adams Family TV show (oh yeah, there were also "Things", big hand-people, based off the same show: Itts and Hands). I mainly used monsters and animal stuff. We had Vampire Itts and Ghost Things and this and other creatures--this based off the show Dark Shadows, I think, as well as Sword in the Stone and Mary Poppins and the like (A Wrinkle in Time, no doubt). But it was all our own imagination that made it work, that provided the narrative. That made things come alive.
It's difficult to remember. It's difficult to explain and describe these two games, Boxes and Paper Stuff. But they took up vast hours of our free time. We built them ourselves, drew and colored them, breathed life into these plastic and metal and paper creations. Their stories spanned years. This was all in Vancouver. I don't recall us playing with these things in Tennessee. In Tennessee there were different kids and we were older, new things and ideas possessed us.
But in Vancouver, Washington on a rainy day (or sunny day, we usually played these games outdoors) give us some paper or cardboard, some scissors, glue, tape, some crayons and we could invent a world.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Day-Night-Day Drive: Santa Fe 1984

I don't recall how this came about. All I know is that Joel had one of those little MG cars--a convertible, maybe it was a midget, I don't know--but he rarely drove it. It had problems. So, that day, he must have been working on it, got it up and running. I'm thinking maybe we'd been drinking some tequila, but maybe we were sober. Anyway, we decided to go for a drive.
So, we took off towards the north in the afternoon. We hit Espanola, then drove by Abiquiu (where Georgia O'Keefe lived) and we kept going. We had the top down, some beer, only the clothes we had worn for that day. The landscapes were stunning, the air fresh and thin. We joked around, acted foolish, acted profoundly. We kept going and it was getting dark.
Night came as we headed up into the high pass around Chama.
"Joel, it's getting cold as hell," I said. I was grinning.
And yes, it was cold. This was when we had turned off on little Highway 17. There were now alpine forests--big pines on big hillsides in the dark. Stars were scattered like childhood marbles in the boot-black sky. And there were patches of snow. Joel reached into the shoebox-size backseat and pulled out a Mexican blanket, which we both used.
This was Cumbres Pass. 10022 feet hight.
We ran out of beer, out of things to say but kept going. We came back down into southern Colorado, went through another high pass then took a dipping highway into Alamosa, Colorado.
In Alamosa we found a city park. It was big and spacious with long lawns, trees, picnic tables. We got out of the car and went to sleep on the grass. Woke up a few hours later to the sunshine and families around us, eating, cooking, throwing the frisbee. We got back in the car and kept going.
I don't remember what we ate or drank or did for energy--we'd drank beer and maybe tequila, that's for sure--but we headed up into the San Luis Valley, to the Sangre de Cristos--the Blood of Christ Mountains--to the Great Sand Dunes National Park (it wasn't a park back then, only a monument or something). There we hiked the tall dunes, washed off in the shallow river that ran in waves. It was hot there. I had been to the same spot years before with Matt and Clyde (or was it Matt and Brock?). Anyway, we finally ran out of juice and headed back down, south, to New Mexico.
I remember we stopped for gas once on the way back and Joel was reluctant to turn off the engine while he pumped gas--he was afraid the little car wouldn't start up again. I convinced him to turn it off: why ruin a perfectly good impromptu road trip by blowing up the car? And, it started afterwards. So, off we went again, south, rolling downhill back to Santa Fe, where I think we went to sleep.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Going to Portland: Vancouver 1965

Though we lived in Washington we spent a lot of time in Oregon. That was because we were in Vancouver, directly across the Columbia River from the city of Portland. And going to Portland was--though common--always a big thing to us kids.
The main attraction in Portland for us was Lloyd Center, the mall. Now, this was the mid-sixties, before malls were as common as chicken pox. And Lloyd Center was the only covered mall in America at that time! Maybe it was even considered the biggest mall, I'm not sure. Anyway, going there with my mother--we five kids--was an adventure. Pier One Imports was everyone's favorite store (this is also before it became ubiquitous upon the retail landscape of America). I think my mother--from the small town of Arlington, South Dakota, to whom Sioux Falls was the big city--especially considered Pier One to be exotic. I do remember that for a while they had little canisters of edible insects. They had put these out on display--chocolate covered ants, crispy-fried grasshoppers--and we kids sampled them freely. They tasted a-okay to me. But there were other stores and small restaurants that became important to us. Though nowadays, I dislike malls. I detest shopping for the most part.
Another place in Portland we loved was its zoo. We especially liked the penguin exhibit and would watch them for what seemed like hours. And the science museum--it had a display of geodes and brilliant minerals that lit up under special lights (black lights, I guess) among other interesting things.
Coming into Portland you had to cross a toll bridge. The bridge itself was big, green-painted with tall struts or supports. You could buy tokens to cross the bridge. Right after the bridge was the little burb of Beaverton and in Beaverton was a little cafe called Waddles. Waddles, as you might suspect, had a duck theme. We kids loved it and any time we got to eat at Waddles it was a treat.
So, Portland was where we shopped (Oregon had no sales tax, Washington had no state tax) and ate and played when we went out. I recall very little about downtown Vancouver, except one Christmas night when we went shopping there and the stores were full of toys--the town looked pretty fantastic to me then. But, in many ways, I think my parents--Mother especially--considered themselves Portlanders (Portlandites?) and almost Oregonians.
I went back to Portland very briefly in 1983, while on the way to Alaska. I think maybe--maybe--Waddles was still there. I do know that there was a big new ugly Interstate bridge crossing the Columbia and that my bridge--now old and small in comparison--was no longer a toll road. One of the few infrastructure projects I know of where they actually stopped charging a fee once it was paid off. I went back to the city for a true visit in 1990. Fru and I drove over from Missoula in the spring. Fru and I were thinking of moving to Portland (either that or Seattle) and wanted to see the city. We stayed at a small motel in the city. It rained buckets, of course. We did get out to the Hoyt Arboretum, to a micro-brewery, to a few bars downtown and a walk along the Willamette River. Though gray and wet, it was a fresh green pretty city (though I heavily favored Seattle, I think Fru liked Portland). I believe we drove by Lloyd Center and it looked old, run-down, maybe not in the best of neighborhoods.
Though I thought I--we, Fru and I--would move to the Pacific Northwest, we didn't. It wasn't long after the visit to Portland that Fru was offered a job back in Champaign, Illinois and we returned there from Montana. And I haven't been back to Portland since. I understand it's turned into a great, environmentally-conscious small city. Though I like very much where we live now, I sometimes still kick myself for going back to Illinois and not out further to Portland.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Texas Trip-Ups: Iowa City 1981

Somewhere, I'd read about the coastline of Texas. About San Padre Island and Port Aransas. So, while living in Iowa City, I decided that we should go there. And we turned out to be Matt, Greg, Mike (Chicago/L.A. Mike) and me. I think we took Matt's car. And I think we drove down for the weekend.
We did our usual short-notice road trip: got a couple of small tents, sleeping bags, a cooler, threw in some ice, beer, sodas, hot dogs and bologna. Snacks. Cash for gas. Cassette tapes for our musical pleasure. Then we hit the road. Drove all night, taking turns at the wheel, hit Oklahoma in the middle of the night, southeast Texas by dawn, popped through Corpus Christie where the natural gas burned bright, then headed into the flats of the coast and Aransas Pass, then over a bridge into Port Aransas and the island.
We went to the campground, which was semi-primitive, and the ranger told us we could camp anywhere in the dunes for two dollars. $2! Okay, so we drove into the camp and onto the beach (like Daytona, the sand was packed enough to handle cars) and set up our tents in a bowl of sandy land nestled in between dunes. Nice. It was sunny, hot, sandy. Sand got in our drinks, in our chips, in our hot dogs. Eating was crunchy. The water was brown and warm and tar balls washed ashore. Our feet were messy. I jumped down from a dune and landed and felt a stab in my heel--someone had left a glass bottle buried in the sand. Ouch. The rangers said they couldn't touch my wound, but gave me the stuff to fix it myself. And I did. It was okay. We went into town, bought cheap t-shirts, drank beer, goofed about. Someone had caught a shark on the pier. It was a small shark and didn't deserve to die. That night we had a fire. Laughed, joked, drank beer, then went to bed in our two tents. I think I shared a tent with Matt.
Then, in the middle of the night, we heard this huge roaring. RHRRR-RHRRR-RHRHRHRRRR. It was mechanical and it sounded like it was right on top of us. Then there were voices, one clearly saying: "It sure looks pretty up there."
Matt and I scrambled out of the tent. There, stuck on a dune, was a full-sized truck with giant wheels. That truck had come up the dune, reached the top, but had gotten stuck by the apex of the dune--it's front wheels couldn't touch the ground, maybe the rear ones as well. And that truck--how many tons?--was stuck directly above our tent.
Mike and Greg came out, too. We sat, dumbfounded, looking on as the two rednecks talked about the truck while the rangers came with flashing lights and a tow. No one said a word to us, like, "Lucky you didn't die tonight." We didn't take it all that serious until later, the next day, as we thought about the implications of the dangling truck and how we could have been very well smashed.
But, after two days, we went home, back to out chores in Iowa City.

It was maybe a year later, on a night when we had all been drinking, that Matt and Brock decided they'd drive to San Padre Island in Texas. Like I said, we'd been drinking and this was late at night, after the bars had closed. We always had some bugaboo up us, were always ready to take off on some road trip. I was not alarmed by their decision, but when they asked if I wanted to go, I said no thanks. I had other things planned, but did not worry that they were going to go. Usually such drunken late-night plans are never taken seriously, are never really put into action. But they said they were serious and again I said no, and, lo and behold, off they went, just the two of them.
What was it? One, two days later, I found out they hadn't even got to Des Moines before Matt fell asleep at the wheel, drifted into the median and crashed his car. There was some glass, some blood, some bruises--but they were okay. Still, I'm glad I didn't go and that was a wake-up call to some of our foolishness.
Texas was a wake-up call to foolishness. For us, the state had the smell of death about it.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Childhood and Race: Johnson City 1969

I don't recall any black people or other minorities when I lived in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. There must have been a few, but we're talking the late Fifties and early Sixties, we're talking about my age being between birth and five years old. In vancouver, Washington, I recall one friend in my class who was black (his last name was Bell, but I don't remember his first) and we ran around and wrestled and such. Though the distinction in skin color was there, I don't recall any other distinction between us in my mind. I wasn't raised like that. But when we moved to Tennessee--to a small town in northeast Tennessee in the late Sixties--racial tension was obvious.
I still made little distinction between people of different races as I hit my teens, but I was much more aware that other people did. Though there were many black people around, I don't recall there being any in my first two schools: Jonesborough and Cherokee County elementary schools. There must have been some, but I don't recall. And certainly, there were no hispanic or asian kids in my class (again, maybe there actually were, but I don't recall). But when I entered seventh grade and went to East High in the city of Johnson City, there were plenty of other kids there who were black.
In fact, my pal--Dana--was black. I considered him my best friend at school. True, we never did get together outside of school, I didn't know where he lived and he didn't know where I did, but some of that was because I lived outside of town and my parents paid for me to go to the city school. I had my regular neighborhood pals, I had my brothers and sister. But while in school, Dana and I had classes together, ate lunch together, goofed around a lot. But it was also at that school that, as I walked the hallway, other kids--white kids--would look at me and whisper to me as I passed by, saying: "Nigger-lover".
This surprised me. Maybe even shocked me. I was from Washington State (I still considered myself to be from there all the time I lived in Tennessee, even after we moved to Iowa, if someone asked where I was from I'd say Vancouver, Washington) where life was a wee bit more progressive than the upper corner of Tennessee, so the use of the word nigger and the application of it to me was strange in my mind. We moved out of Tennessee by the end of that year. I don't know what would have happened if we had stayed and if the taunting or anger of the racist kids had escalated. Back then, I was not shy about fighting or defending what I thought to be just causes. So, it could have ended up a problem.
But there was another issue that I was thinking of when I started this post. It was towards the end of my short tenure at East High in Johnson City. I was in my homeroom class and a sort-of friend--I think his name was John--was teasing me about a girl who liked me. (She was a very pretty girl, a cheerleader on the junior squad where I played football. I don't remember her name.) "I think 'So-and-So' likes you. I think you're going to get married." He wasn't teasing me in a bad way, a taunting way. "You'll break her heart when you leave." Maybe she had put him up to it. John was a smart kid, a nerd really (though we did not have that terminology at the time), a brain. So, though I was happy to think this girl liked me (and she did, I already knew that), I decided to tease him back.
I looked around the classroom to find a girl that I could accuse of liking him, one that would be a bad joke, and I settled on Alice (I can't recall her name, so I'll call her Alice) who was not an especially good looking girl (by no means ugly or bad, just plain). She was also black. And I admit the main reason I chose to name her was because she was black, knowing that this was virtually taboo in Tennessee, to say a white boy liked a black girl. So I said, "And you know who likes you? You're going to marry Alice."
I smiled at him, thinking how clever I was, how shocked he would be by naming a black girl for him to marry. But John looked over at Alice (who was unaware she had been named) and back at me, and he said, "I happen to think Alice is very pretty."
Now, I was the one who was shocked. He knew exactly what my intentions had been in naming Alice and, in a split second, used that against me.
I wasn't shocked because he would think Alice--a black girl--was pretty. I was shocked because he had the maturity to say such a thing. He took my intended joke and turned it back against me. I didn't think that a Southerner--a seventh grade Southerner at that--would admit to liking a girl openly, let alone one of a different race. And the fact that Alice wasn't considered particularly pretty anyway, for him to say that she was showed a fine sense of grace and intelligence. It also made me feel ashamed for using Alice's race as a point of amusement, as something that would be a cause for rejection by someone else. I was not as pure as I thought.
And that has stayed with me--that boy's comments at that age in Johnson City. It's often shocking to say the right thing, the gracious thing. I still often use that "trick" to this day when someone says something offensive or offending in the guise of a joke. I just turn it around. If the comment is against me--insinuating I'm ignorant or something--I just go ahead and calmly agree with them, but in a subtle manner that shows I'm not really the ignorant one. I thank John for that.
I also recall one other instance. I used to go to the Little League baseball games of my friend, Kent, who lived in the neighborhood. His dad would drive us there (they were in-town) and I'd hang out, watch the game, buy sodas and snacks at the concession stand, interact with the other kids. There were quite a few black kids on the team, one of them named Oliver, who was at home plate taking batting practice. I was hanging out along the fence and some other kids came up, black kids, and started talking to me. They talked about so and so being their brother, who was on this or that team. They asked who I was with, who was I related to. And I immediately said I was related to Oliver and pointed. They looked at me much the same way I must have looked at John that one day at school, but then they smiled. This was northeast Tennessee in the late sixties, but most people got along just fine.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Riding Bussy's Bus: Jonesborough 1967

When we lived in Vancouver, Washington, I always walked to school. That school was a mere two blocks or so from home. But when we moved to Tennessee and rented that strange house in the strange town of Jonesborough, we had to take the bus. By 'we' I mean my two older brothers, myself and my sister--Youngest Brother was not in school yet. Now, we were sort of out in the country and many other students were definitely out in the country and came by bus to attend the town school in Jonesborough, so the bus would drive down all these rural roads and into these hollows before getting to the school. My brothers rode a different bus (maybe they went to a different school--I can't quite recall--because I never saw them in school) but I rode the same bus with Sister.
We were all in the throes of culture shock when we moved to Tennessee. Riding the bus did not help to alleviate that shock. First of all, our driver's name was Bussy. As I understood it, this was not some nickname, but his real name. He was an old grizzled man, small and slouchy with black glasses and grey unshaven cheeks. He had a sour personality. Bussy would play old time country music as he drove the bus around, picking up old time country kids. This wasn't the kind of country music you might think of when you hear the word, this was Opry/Gospel/Hillbilly country music. They were the kinds of songs that started slow and then got slower, sad lonesome songs with deep nasal-voiced male singers who would often stop singing and just talk the lyrics for a few refrains, sounding like they were on the verge of crying. God-Trucks-Dogs-and-Broken-Hearts kind of music. Sister and I were quite confused.
I rode next to my sister and I had many guys ask me if she was my girlfriend (perhaps to them, it was quite possible for a sister to be both [actually, that's an unfair comment]). When I told them she was my sister, they thought it was strange I would ride next to her.
There was a winter when, on the ride home, the bus could not make it up the hill from central Jonesborough because the road was slick. Bussy made us all get out and walk up the hill. He then was able to drive it up and pick us back up. I don't understand why this was--wouldn't the added weight of the children help the bus climb the slippery hill? Maybe it was a safety issue, in which case Bussy did the right thing. Bussy was probably an okay guy and did his job well, and only in my mind is he an odd character linked to the oddness I found in Tennessee.
I rode the bus some when we moved out of Jonesborough and began going to school at the Cherokee County School--but most of the time Mother drove us or we traded rides with a family. When we moved to Des Moines, Iowa in 1970, we again all walked to school. So, Bussy was the bus driver of my childhood .
I can recall one day at school in Jonesborough--the school itself was massive, old and run-down, maybe five stories high (at least this is how I remember it)--I was in class and got up to go sharpen my pencil. The sharpener was by the window, which was open, and as I cranked the handle I felt the spring breeze and looked out at the lay of the land: the budding trees, the hills and small buildings and homes, the winding roads. And there, off in the distance, I saw a school bus rolling along one of those hills, the bus a bright yellow, a pin-point of color and movement among the resurgence of spring foliage. That vision struck me as being somehow profound--for reasons I didn't understand--that rural landscape of contours and distance with the school bus drawing your eye was like a painting, a work of art. I didn't know why it brought a sense of pleasure to me, as I was only eleven years old at the time, it just did. It was a pretty sight and I can recall it to this day . . . And who knows, maybe it was Bussy's bus, and he was driving it along that ridge, listening to Little Jimmy Dickens or Hank Williams or someone so sad and obscure and lonesome that it made him cry.