Friday, December 17, 2010

Driving to Saylorville Lake: 1976

There weren't many swimming options in central Iowa. There was Camp Dodge Pool and smaller community pools, there was the Des Moines River and the Raccoon River--but people didn't really swim in them, there was Big Creek--a man-made lake--and then there was Saylorville Lake (also a reservoir).
My best friend Kevin had a little black late 60s Volkswagon Beetle. He and I often drove to the lake, often with my other friends who were from my high school class (Kevin was from the class ahead of us, but he and I had become good friends--I was always one of the oldest in my class) and I can still recall that feeling: summer, no school, the warm hot air coming in the open windows, the trees full and open land full of weeds or crops and even above the rush of the air you could hear the calls of redwing blackbirds . . . It was just, by 76 and right out of high school for me, a feeling of youth. And we'd have his cassettes or 8tracks playing--usually the Eagles--we'd sometimes sing along to them though I never got the lyrics right because I've had bad hearing all my life, but it didn't matter, it was the drive and the lazy day and the looking forward to the lake and the friends and the girls that would be there, the sun and the water and what passed for a beach in Iowa, it was a time when time was endless. We were all very young.
But by, say 78, my attentions were shifting. I'd been off to school at Iowa, in Iowa City, while all of my friends--including Kevin--had gone to Iowa State, in Ames and they did not think of staying there in the summer, as Des Moines was so close. And by 79 it was--to the best of my memory--my last summer of coming back to Des Moines and I pretty much lived in Iowa City from then on, until the end of 83, and after that I lived in a series of places for brief months or years (as well as back in Des Moines and Iowa City) until, say, about August of 1990 . . . Anyway, this is a long way from a post about driving to Saylorville.
Saylorville Lake. We swam there. I swam there. Used to go water skiing with Seth who had a fast boat and all the accoutrements that go with the sport. I recall one fall--late fall, maybe even November--there was a late Indian summer and Kevin and I--perhaps I was home on Thanksgiving break from Iowa, or perhaps it was the semester I took off from school with the idea of going to Europe (Brock and I--he went, I did not and went back to school instead; just one of a number of times I backed out on good ol' Brock)--and we decided to go to the lake. We donned swim suits and took towels and when we got to the beach no one was there. The water looked gray and cold, the trees had few leaves. But, it was warm, and we went ahead and got in the water--it was cold, but tolerable--and swam. Not so bad. I recall I went ashore while Kevin kept swimming and I picked up a rock, not a big one and not a small one, and tossed it out into the lake at him. I hit him in the head. You've got to understand, this is a big lake with a big swimming area and no one was out there, not even a boat and I threw the rock from a far distance, never thinking I'd hit him, but I got him right in the forehead. It must have hurt. But Kevin and I were pals and shared a wickedly sarcastic and pessimistic sense of humor, so he laughed it off. I apologized and neither of us could believe I'd hit him from that distance.
But after I'd lived in California and Florida's panhandle, when I went back to Iowa and I'd see my friends, I couldn't bring myself to swim in Saylorville anymore. It looked ugly, the water was thick and dirty--unclear and unclean. It was cold compared to the Gulf of Mexico.
Kevin had stayed in Iowa (as had almost all of my high school friends) and so he didn't know that it was ugly and dirty.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Pajamas With Feet: Sioux Falls 1961

Ah, I can barely remember this. I must have been three or four, but this could have been when I was a bit older. All I'm thinking of is that Mother used to buy us kids these pajamas with feet. You know what I'm talking about? One piece kid's PJs that were like a costume of sorts, where they covered your feet and, I think, your torso and arms and all--kind of like long johns but with the attached feet . . . All of us little kids loved those pajamas (we loved pajamas anyway--though my mother and father were not, we kids were a family of loungers, given the opportunity). The best thing about them was that, on the bottom of the attached feet, there were little round non-skid beads. The soles were white and knobby. And, this is really where this tiny memory comes from: Oldest Brother used to pretend they were poison pills. This is what I recall, me being little and my PJs on and Oldest Brother creating some narrative or another, playacting, and I'd sit on the couch and he would pretend to pick one of the "pills" off my feet, swallow it, and with great theatrics, die. Man, I laughed and laughed . . . I don't know why, or how, young kids can find death so funny.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Sitting By My Window Reading: Urbandale 1973

This was in the summer. This was when I shared an upstairs room with my brothers. Not all of my brothers, but at least some of them. This was when I had a bed next to the lower window in the first room down the hall, the upstairs being the first floor, not the basement, in our one story house. This was when we did not use air-conditioning. I grew up without A/C.
What I recall, is that in the summer I sat in bed reading a book. I'd gotten the book at the Urbandale Public Library--Mother was a big reader and I'd gone with her to the library and randomly looked around in the Young Adult section and picked out books. I had this novel that was set in Russia and was about Cossacks and Tartars and such and I was very involved in it. And I was reading it one lazy summer afternoon by the window in my bed, the window wide open against the hot Iowa day and outside in the street kids were playing. I knew the kids that were yelling and running and scuffling through some game out there, and as I heard them and watched them I thought that I should join them. I was an active person, I liked games and sports and running around. Yet, I really liked the book I was reading.
It was a warm summer Iowa afternoon yet I was inside reading by the open window. I should be out there with my neighborhood peers . . . But, no. I wanted to read my book. I loved reading that book. So, I stayed inside, consciously relishing the air from the window, the sounds of kids playing in my absence while I read my library book set in the old Russia of cossacks and czars. I realized that I liked the excitement in my head--from the book--as much as the excitement of reality, at least for that moment. The world of my imagination was more important.
It's not as though I became a bookworm from then on, but I think I still remember that otherwise mundane instance because I realized that I had something else, something small (or big, depending how you feel about books) and private and that there was a value in pursuing it. I'd always liked reading, writing, but until that day by the window in the summer I don't think I realized how much it meant to me.

Watching Dr. Who: Iowa City 1978

By 1975 to 76, after a childhood rich in watching a lot of television, I quit the habit. Sure, I still saw a thing or two now and then, but no more gluing myself to the tube as an opiate, watching reruns and prime time shows, I gave it up cold turnkey. But then, by the second semester in college, while living in Burge dorm, I started watching a bit again. One thing was our small dorm fllor, the majority of us, began getting together in Marty and Tim's room to watch Mork and Mindy once a week. I know, I know--lame show, lame activity, but it was a communal event and Robin Williams was funny enough. But the Tv watching I enjoyed the most became a semi-weekday habit of tuning in old Dr. Who reruns on a PBS station.
I'd head of Dr. Who but had less than a passing understanding of the show. But the local PBS station ran the half hour show every weeknight around the or ten thirty at night and, by that time of the day, I was done with classes and studying and Morn and Mindy etc and ready to settle in a bit before bed. Now, I had no TV set, but my roommate, Chuck (my third roommate being Jeff) had brought one, a small black and white thing which he had set up on some kind of pole near one of the desks. So, despite all of my good anti-TV intentions, I began to turn it on at night and watch the show. And I got hooked. It became a bit of a ritual: come 10:15 or so, I'd make the walk (sometimes with friends, often by myself) down to Vendo-Land (what I called the bank of vending machines down in the basement of the dorm; our half-hall was essentially in the basement, just 1/2 a flight of stairs up from it) and get my soda and snack, then return to my room to tune in Dr. Who.
The thing is, despite having two other roommates in the small dorm, I always watched the show alone. Not even Brock--a candidate for serious Dr. Who watching if there ever was one--joined me. So maybe this was part of the enjoyment, being alone, munching on my Sour Cream and Onion Lays potato chips, drinking my Coke or Mt. Dew or whathaveyou, watching the silly British show with tacky and campy special effects, semi-humorous story lines and characters. That Dr. Who was the big red-haired guy who always had a long scarf. That's my Dr. Who. Black and white. He had some primitive cave-girl type companion then (if you know Dr. Who, there are many actors who played him and he always has a constant Earth companion or two along for the adventure) and she was not horrible to look at as they gallivanted around the universe saving alien races or planets or saving Earth itself. Fun enough.
It was always a moment of respite. Moments of respectable waste of my time. Dr. Who and Sour Cream and Onion Chips. Dr. Who is back now on the BBC and I admit I've watched it. New actors and better special effects, an hour time slot. But it'll never be the same as when I was in Burge Hall in Iowa City in 1978.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Bird in the Garage: Urbandale 1975

I can't recall exactly how old I was when I found the baby bird. I know I wasn't 13 or 14, must have been 16 or so. Not sure. The bird was a robin, small and newly hatched, found on the ground below the maple tree that grew in our front yard. I did not try to return the bird to its nest--I saw no nest. Instead, I put it in a shoebox with nestlike materials and put the shoebox in the garage.
For the next several weeks I fed the bird. I fed it bread and raw hamburger and insect-like stuff. It grew and feathered up and responded to my feeding of it. My father knew the bird was in the garage--which was a detached garage, half-old and wooden--and my sister came out to see the bird a few times. It was early summer by then. The bird was growing but it did not come out of the box. I did not handle it.
At some point I decided it was time for the bird to learn to fly, or some such. I took the box off the shelf and carried it out of the garage. When I finally took the bird out of the box itself, I saw that it had deformed legs. It could not stand on its own. It could not fly.
"Maybe that will teach you to let nature take its course," I recall my father telling me, intimating that I should have left the bird alone, that its mother no doubt had pushed it from the nest.
The next day, I ground up two aspirin and mixed them in with the raw hamburger. I carried the meal out to the garage and the shoebox. I fed the aspirin and hamburger to the baby robin, the bird eating it just as it had eaten all the meals I'd been feeding it. I can't recall if I stayed or walked away.
I buried it in the garden.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Sandlot Baseball: Urbandale 1971

I was never much of a baseball person. My father was not a fan, I was not a fan, I didn't toss the ball around much or favor an old glove--none of that stuff. I recall in Johnson City, Tennessee I decided to try out for Little League: I signed up, my father took me to the try-outs (or whatever they were) and it was crowded with kids, we stood around and I looked around, there were so many kids, and I told him to forget about it and we went back home.
When we moved to Iowa, to Urbandale--a suburb of Des Moines--I was the new kid once again. I'd started school halfway through the year. Down the block there was one kid my age named Bob and we struck up a semi-friendship. he knew a group of kids from around the immediate neighborhood--most a bit older, some in the same class as us--and he invited me to play baseball with them at a field behind Jensen Elementary School, which was close to our street, just across Aurora Avenue. So, I went.
I played horribly. I was athletic but I could hardly hit. I let ground balls roll between my legs, I was timid and uncertain in the infield, misjudged balls in the outfield. They other boys laughed at me. I took it in stride, told them I was better at football, but still, it stung a bit--like I said, I was the new kid.
(I had plenty of experience being the new kid--I'd been in five different schools by then, in four different states ranging from South Dakota to Washington to Tennessee and now Iowa.)
I just didn't have any baseball skills. I was also into the beginning of my adolescence so some of the confidence that used to come naturally to me was now failing, diminishing, leeching out of me and being replaced by I didn't know what. But I soldiered on with bat and glove and (over the years, not the summer of 72) I got better. I also came to understand the game of baseball better. I really didn't take an interest as a fan until much later, in the 80's, when I made up my mind to follow the Chicago Cubs one year and asked my very good friend Kevin to teach me why people liked baseball so much. And it wasn't until the 90s and 2000s that I finally got it.
But anyway. After my baseball fiasco, where I was pegged as the clumsy kid on the block, not too long after that, Bob came and said they were going to play football behind Jensen. "Okay," I said, eager. And off we went to the school, Bob and I, Blair, the McIntire brothers, Scott Oaken and maybe one or two others (I'm surprised I can recall these names). We stood there in the grass and the two eldest picked teams.
I was the last one chosen.
But as the game began--we played two-hand touch--the team that didn't pick me soon regretted it. I can to this day still recall the catches I made, the runs, interceptions and touchdowns, the surprise on the faces of my more-or-less-peers. I was tall and fast, confident, had sure hands and quick reactions. I had football skills. And from then on I wasn't the clumsy kid anymore.
I still played sandlot baseball, but among the group of friends--good friends--I fell into and acquired over my years in Urbandale, football was the game we played. It was the most important. We came to mainly play at Lions Park, just across the road from Urbandale High. The games were great fun and full of exercise--I recall years later I happened to meet an ex-Urbandalite and he said he remembered seeing us play football in the park; he had been a pothead, essentially, and he told me he couldn't understand how we could just play football and have fun and not be stoned or drink or whatever, said it in a wistful way almost, as if he regretted not being so simple or smart . . . And I am glad I played all those games, that I did not learn to drink and smoke until much later in life. I believe I built up a very healthy base for myself physically by being so simple and semi-innocent, by playing sports and riding my bike, building myself up (innocently enough) in those years when your body is still growing, your brain still developing. I can say that, at least.
I played a lot of basketball, too. And baseball--which is what this post was supposed to be about. But, as you can see, even a post about baseball becomes one about football. Football was very important to me in those years--not organized football, not the high school team, but just sandlot, just among friends. All of that was very good.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Coming Into Iowa City: 1977

I recall that I drove myself to Iowa City from Des Moines (Urbandale, actually) for freshman orientation. I'd been to Iowa City before, but only with family. My father had gone to the University of Iowa--so we had visited briefly when I was younger. Oldest Brother and then Second Oldest Brother went to Iowa, so I must have gone along to help move them or visit them at some point in time. Father took me to a Hawkeye football game once--just the two of us, as no one else in the family had much interest in football--so I'd been there for that. But I had no true sense of the town and school when I drove there. I recall I came up the back way--through Coralville--from Interstate 80 because I knew of no other way (the more direct way) to get there. So, I ended up on the other side of the Iowa River, feeling my way through the campus around the science and education buildings, past the hospital and stadium.
I parked in some garage across from the Union (I'm not sure it's even there anymore) that was on a hill and connected to either Gilbert or Trowbridge Hall (Trowbridge, I'm thinking) and attended the orientation, didn't stay the night, and then drove back home.
I didn't really understand what I was doing.
Even though I'd taken a year off--working and traveling to Florida (Key West!)--I was still not clear of mind, I still didn't quite grasp what the heck I was supposed to be doing in the world. But I'd decided to go to college, to go to Iowa, had taken my SAT or ACT entry tests a year later than I should have and applied and was accepted and so on. And then went to orientation, signed up for classes, applied and got a dorm assignment, and then I think my parents moved me over to Iowa City just before classes started.
I was wary at first. Uncertain I'd done the right thing. Was ready to return to Des Moines (Urbandale, actually). But then, slowly, I got it.
College was fun!
Being in Iowa City was fun!
And Iowa City became the place I'd rather be.
I can still recall drives from Des Moines, coming down I-80, and as I neared the city of Iowa City I'd get a slow burn of excitement, of anticipation. I remember the exit onto Clinton Street and there would be the sign for Iowa City and the university--a shiny black metal sign with gold lettering (Iowa's colors) with some symbols: the Old Capitol, an ear of corn--and it just plain made me feel good. (I was into signs back then. I loved to drive long distance and the sight of highway signs could elicit the same feel-good emotions in me, feelings of adventure and anticipation. I recall walking the pedestrian bridge on the other side of campus to cross the busy road and there was always a highway sign right there--some numbered highway leading out of town--and just the sight of the sign would evoke travel and escape and new frontiers; I loved it.) So, just coming into Iowa City became a pleasurable endeavor for me.
I don't know. I mean, I was young, a late bloomer, I'd lived such a small and insular life for many years that a place like Iowa City, that roadside signs, became symbolic for a new and open world, one of fresh uncertainty and challenge. To this day I still love Iowa City. I don't know if I could live there--well, not true, I know I could live there, just don't know if I'd really prefer to live there--but it's always close to me. I realize that almost everyone has great affection for their college, their college town, but I'd like to believe that my connection is a little more than that, a little more tied to my personal history. It is, after all, where I bloomed.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

To Whom It May Concern #9

I know of only one person who reads this blog. And I'm very intimate with that person, so I'm not sure that counts. Doesn't matter. This wayward blog is still in it's beginning form. Not there yet.
It makes me recall a time in Montana. I worked with this very nice guy, Bruce, at the Old Town Cafe in Missoula. He was from Glendive, MT which is way out in the eastern part of the state and is full of treeless expanses and wind and dust. But what I recall is he told me a story about a friend who wrote a play that was set in Glendive. In the play there was only one act and setting--it was set in a radio studio where a disc jokey is spinning his music. He's also talking. Suddenly something happens to him--I don't remember if it was a medical calamity or he was being threatened with murder, something--and he yells out to his audience that he's in trouble. But, there's no response. Or, maybe he's just doing a call-in show and no one ever responds. Anyway, what the point of the play, and the theme being an existential one, is that he was all alone with no listeners. He was talking into the void, playing music for no one. And--if he is indeed in need of help--I guess he dies because no one was listening.
The fact that no one is "listening" to this blog, however, is fine. Perhaps for the best. It is after all irregular and idiosyncratic at its base. In many ways the posts are only dry runs for potential ideas and possibilities much later in life.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Radio Days: Champaign 1993

Was thinking about when my girls were very little and I wasn't working unless you consider working taking care of two babies and not being able to sleep or shower or do anything of you own volition except take care of babies . . . So I often had the radio on for company there in Champaign. In the spring I'd tune in WGN from Chicago and listen to the early baseball games--the Cubs, with Harry Caray. Harry Caray was the greatest and i could listen to him and the soft cheers and pinks and snaps of the game as I cared for my little kids. It made good background noise even if I could not follow the game. And other times I listened to the local NPR station with it's mix of shows and music and news. They had this local guy, a weatherman, named Ed and had a show called Talk to Ed where people would call in before the weekend and say they were traveling to such and such a place and Ed would let them know what the weather would be like there. This was before the internet and when the Weather Channel was in its infancy (not that it's that specific) and Ed had a natural and soothing voice/demeanor and it was always pleasant to listen and think of those places people were going to. And then there was WEFT, a community station from downtown Champaign. Now THAT was a radio station. They played jazz and blues and old time country music. They played rockabilly and rasta and sub-genres of sub-genres--eclectic stuff depending upon the taste and mood of the volunteer disc jockeys. I learned a lot about music and musicians by listening to that station.
Harry Caray is gone. I'm sure Talk to Ed is gone. WEFT is still there, I believe. But, I'm not. I'm gone and those days are gone and I don't listen to the radio anymore . . . Maybe when I have grandkids.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Minnesota 3 Green Bay 0: Urbandale 1972

My father was a Minnesota Vikings fan and so when I started watching football, I became a Vikings fan. This was when Joe Capp was their quarterback. This was when the had Carl Eller and Alan Page and the Purple People Eaters defense. Anyway, what I recall is one game where I stayed in my room and listened to it on the radio.
It was a late season, winter game--freezing cold afternoon, the game in Minnesota when they had an outdoor stadium--and I had this little green radio that I used. It was not televised (like almost all the games are these days) and my radio was round like a ball, which I had won in some kind of contest through a local radio station by calling in or something. Weird. Anyway (again) I stayed in my room and listened, following the game on my scratchy radio. And it was a boring game. I mean, it was arctic with wind and snow and nobody could move the ball. 1st Quarter: 0 - 0. 2nd Quarter: 0 - 0. 3rd Quarter: 0 - 0. 4th Quarter: still 0 - 0, until about the very end.
Finally Minnesota moves the ball down into Green Bay territory. Their stubby-legged kicker comes out (and again, this is all through the radio), Cox I think his name was, before Gary Anderson was their kicker, and he hits a field goal and the Vikings win three nothing.
But what amazes me is that I sat through that game, only listening on my tiny green ball of a radio, sat glued to the whole zero to zero ball game. And I pretty much enjoyed it.
Man. I must have had no life.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Destroying the TV Guide: Urbandale 1974

The TV Guide used to be the #1 selling magazine at one time. It was a small publication, thick and hard and square, about the size of a current-day DVD box. It was published once a week, I think. Embarrassingly enough, we were big TV people when I was a kid. We--us kids (except perhaps Second Oldest Brother) and my mother--used to get excited when, each year in the fall, the TV Guide featuring all the new shows would come out. We would read about them and decide what we would watch and what we would not. And we watched a lot of shows together as a family: The Addams Family, Mary Tyler Moore, M.A.S.H.--oh crap--and many others (which fortunately I can't even recall now). But, that's not what this post is about. It's about how I came to enjoy destroying the TV Guide.
As I've mentioned before, I was a very unhappy adolescent. I had a lot of pent-up anger. I was introverted most of the time but also an aggressive little snot. (Okay, I wasn't little by then, probably at or over 6ft by then, nor was I ever a snot. I was sensitive and introspective and depressed and could be dumb about the most basic things. I was also a boy and as a boy I liked to knock things down and tear things up and run around till I fell down.) So--and I don't know how I discovered this--one way I found to get out my aggression was by destroying the TV Guide each week.
As soon as my mother bought a new one (or it arrived in the mail, I think she subscribed eventually) and the week was over, I grabbed the old magazine and began to punch it. I would throw it up in the air and kick it, slap it, crunch and chop and slice and dice the fat little thing with my bare hands. I killed it. Murdered it. Mutilated it. It brought me great joy to start it out fresh in the living room and smack its glossy pages--Blam Blam Blam--and see how the magazine began to fall apart as I worked it all around the house. I made it fly against walls and down the stairs and back up, it hit ceilings and floors, the stove and fridge, chairs and doors, my knuckles dug into it and its spine would crack and bend and pages would fly and I did not stop until it was a mealy mess.
I did not imagine the TV Guide to be anything other than what it was. It did not represent authority figures in my life or boys I disliked or evildoers or enemies of any kind, it was not a fantasy moment, this destruction. It was just a pure outletting of desire, desire to destroy something. I became very concentrated as I hit and swatted and dismembered that magazine. And I understood what I was doing, that it was a release, that it was a type of therapy. I know my mother was somewhat unsettled by such behavior, but she couldn't stop me. No one could. And I so enjoyed it. I looked forward to it each week.
Ahhhh. It was fun.
And it was only the TV Guide, no other publication would do. And, maybe but two years later, I learned to dislike TV itself. I remember I sold my own little TV for 50 bucks to Jim at Younkers, because I wanted to give it up. And I did. I think I was so full of TV watching by the time I was in my late teens that I had no desire to watch much of it ever again. I still don't . . . As for the TV Guide, as far as I know it still exists, but I'm not sure. And if it does, I think maybe I could still put it to good use if I bought one; I bet I still have a lot of aggression to release. Lord knows I could use the exercise.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Seattle and Walla Walla: Vancouver 1965

When I was a little kid and we lived in Vancouver, Washington, my father worked for the VA and sometimes he had business trips. Conferences or whatever. Often he'd take all of us--our whole family: Mother and Oldest Brother and Second Oldest Brother and me and Sister and Younger Brother--along with him. These trips were usually either in Seattle or Walla Walla. We may have gone to Camas once, that smelly paper mill town along the Columbia River, but I'm not sure. But it didn't really matter where to us kids, it just meant we got to stay in a motel.
We were not hotel people--we'd stayed in few by then, in Chicago maybe (and later in Atlanta)--and we weren't even motel people all that much, though we had stayed in quite a few by then and in some cabins back in South Dakota (where all of us kids had been born, where my mother was from, my father being from Red Oak, Iowa [though he had been born in Nebraska]), but we had become mainly campers after moving out to Washington. So, a motel stay in a city was a treat. And my father would go off to his meetings and my mother would get us all together and take us out around the town.
In Seattle, going out around the town was fun. We had a place close to the Seattle Center and the Seattle Center (home to a World's Fair at some time, when the Space Needle was built and where the Space Needle was) had amusement rides and park-like settings and monuments and the monorail. Ah, the monorail! Here was a futuristic ride that you did not find just anywhere. So, we rode that. We went on a few rides, got some cotton candy, walked and looked and stuff like that. We went back to the hotel--all of us crammed into a single room (I have no idea how my parents did this, seven in one motel room)--and discovered Seattle cartoon shows like Patches the Clown and other things that were different than home. Seattle was the big city. We liked it.
But we also went to Walla Walla . . . Hmmm. I think Walla Walla--the town with the funny name--was smaller than Vancouver. Vancouver was really a bedroom community for Portland, Oregon (though we never felt this, that I recall) so it had a larger city attached to it. But, in our kid eyes, Walla Walla was just fine. Sure, there was no Space Needle or monorail, no Patches the Clown, but there was a toy store and other stores and all we needed was new coloring books and crayons and a TV in the motel and that kept us busy enough. That's what I recall of Walla Walla (which, like the name, we went to twice; Seattle twice, too, I think), that we got some new monster-themed coloring books (it must have been close to Halloween--a big holiday for kids) and worked on those the whole while.
So, these were little adventures. I came back to Seattle in the eighties, lived there for a bit just a few blocks from the Seattle Center, then visited often with Fru when we were in Montana, but by then I required more than just a motel room and coloring books to make me happy.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Waiting For Rick Kading: Urbandale 1975

I didn't get my drivers license until my senior year of high school. By then quite a few of my friends already had theirs. I was from a family of five kids with two older brothers, from a family that usually only had one car. I had two older brothers so, even though by then we had two cars, it didn't mean that one was at my disposal. Though I did drive when I could.
The reason why this was important was because my social groups entertainment and world revolved around driving. And I mean, literally, just driving. We'd pile into someone's car, start up the main streets of Urbandale--down Aurora past the high school, down 73rd to Douglas and downtown, maybe down around past the mall and then around and around and around . . . We joked and listened to the radio (not our 8-tracks or cassettes and there were no CDs or ipods and such--I had an 8-track in my van that I bought after high school) and looked to see who was out and about just like us. This is what we did on Fridays and Saturdays and other days and summer days, at least for a couple of years. Sometimes we'd go somewhere specific--a movie or bowling or whatever. Sometimes we'd venture into Des Moines and go to The Loop, which was a circle downtown among the big buildings where all sorts of strange people went around and around and around to no purpose other than to go round'n'round and see others do the same. Ah. Sometimes we'd hit the Interstate--I-80 or I-35--which was an even bigger circle and we'd see what we saw.
Talk about your wasted youth.
But the person who drove the most was Rick Kading. He was a good guy, from my class and my lab partner in biology and botany and friend. I did most of the work (all of it, really) as lab partner, but I liked Rick very much and he was good to me. He'd come pick me up at my house in his car and we'd gather others for a night of driving. he had a Chevy Nova--his car--that looked cool and whenever the song Don't Rock the Boat came on he'd turn his wheel back and forth and make the Nova rock like a boat. Yes--very inventive . . . Anyway, we had fun and I used to sit out on my front porch each evening waiting for Rick to come driving down 65th Street and stop so that I could hop in. He didn't come every time and then, if he didn't show up, I'd feel shunned and sad. I don't know why I didn't just call him (he lived only a few blocks away from me in the older part of Urbandale), but that just wasn't done. (We did NOT have cell phones and that constant need to be in touch, anyway.) So, out I'd sit and hope Rick Kading would come driving down my street in his Chevy Nova.
There were adventures to be had--girls to meet, near fights with older classmen, car chases with strangers on the Interstate. But ultimately, besides just enjoying a newfound motorized freedom, we were just killing time. We didn't know what to do with ourselves in a place like the suburbs of Iowa's biggest city other then to circle around within it. I mean, we socialized and had our routines and it was not a long period, this driving around, but still: we were going nowhere while pretending that we were going somewhere.
But that's how it is in those years. Eventually we did grow up and go--to college, to other states and such. Rick never went to college. He married and had a kid and stayed in Des Moines--in Urbandale. I lost touch and we weren't close friends, I'd hear of him here and there through the high school friends I did stay in touch with. I did come back to Iowa one summer and Rick called and he gave me a day's work doing concrete, which I appreciated. But, just like not calling to see if he was coming by in his car, I never asked him for more work. Rick became a very successful person, as I understand it. But, like I said, he was a good guy overall. And I got my hand on cars and vans and such and I drove all over the place in the following years. The following decade or two.
Maybe Rick got it out of his system while in high school. But I made bigger and bigger circles, still thinking I was getting somewhere.
Do I wish I had stayed in Des Moines? No way.
But I'm still circling.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Killing Of A Deer Fly: Missouri 1974

This was the summer of 75 (I think) and I was getting older. I went on a camping vacation with my parents down to Missouri (from Iowa, of course). It was the last vacation I ever took with them, now that I think of it. My two older brothers had both declined to go on this little trip, so it was just my parents, Sister, Younger Brother and me. My parents had a camping trailer by then.
First we stopped at this state park called Johnston Shut-Ins. I'm not a big fan of Missouri (though I've come to very much appreciate St. Louis), but the Shut-Ins was a great place--it was woods and had a stream that ran through carved rocks with big boulder-like surroundings and many pools. You could swim and stream down the semi-rapid small waters from rocks to rapids, from pool to pool, all of it natural and fun. But, I was also an older boy and I felt a tad foolish acting like a kid. I was also checking out all the women and girls who swam and camped there.
Then we moved on, further south to the Ozarks area of Missouri. It was along some lake, in the woods, you know, a campground. It was not nearly as interesting as the Shut-Ins. We cooked out, swam in the lake, stuff like that. And there were flies. Sure, there were mosquitos, there were dragonflies and bottleflies--we called them horseflies, those long skinny blue flies, smaller but similar to a dragonfly--and there were deer flies. I hated the deer flies. They were big and fat, looking like mutant house flies, and swarmed around all day long and into the night. And they bit. Not a small bite or a prick like a mosquito, but a sharp stinging bite that made you sit up straight. Ouch. So, deer flies were low on my list of needed creatures in the world.
And what I remember--what this post is about, essentially--is that I was coming back from the lake at dusk, headed back to camp. I was barefoot, bare chested, making my way through the darkening trees and here was this one deer fly buzzing me, landing on me, biting me. I began to jog a bit but could not shake this single fly. I was swatting at it, so it was attacking me where it thought I could not reach. So, I slowed down a bit. I was very angry at this fly. I hated it. And I walked, waited. The fly--and I could tell this, it was a very evil-genius type of deer fly--the fly thought it had the best of me, that I was but its very large young meal for a while. And I watched waited until I felt that big fly land squarely in the middle of my back. Who could swat such a thing in the middle of one's back? I'm sure the evil genius fly thought this.
It turned out that I could swat it.
I was in my teens. A strengthening boy. Nimble and quick. And when I felt that pestilent pillaging fly land on the middle of my back, I quickly brought my arm and hand behind me, using the back of my hand, and smacked it! Good god that fly must have been surprised! I smacked it and felt it with both hand and back and knew I had gotten it and I stopped and looked down behind me and there it was. Yes, it was dusk, but I had my keen eyesight and I could see the damn thing in the leaves and it wasn't quite dead and I took my bare foot and stomped the bastard until it was dead. Dead as a door nail.
Ha ha.
One dead deer fly out of a million, but it was the one who bothered me the most and I am--to this day--very glad it is dead. Yes! I would never harm a person or animal, even some insects (well, I should not say never, because there are always circumstances when no doubt I would, or even have to some degree) but even now I find delight in recalling the death of that deer fly in southern Missouri. I've killed other flies or beetles or bugs that bugged me (I killed two flies on a low mountain top in Santa Fe because they would not leave me alone--snatched them cleanly out of the air and squished them and buried them in the sandy soil--I remember that), but this one was my most triumphant. So, other than the Shut-Ins, what I remember most about Missouri is the killing of a fly.
Maybe that's why I'm not so big on Missouri.

Monday, October 25, 2010

8hr Layover: New Orleans 1995

I'd been accepted three places for graduate school: the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, Colorado State in Ft. Collins and Florida International in Miami. I'd been out to Ft. Collins and loved the place, but was unsure of the program. I'd been to Fairbanks way back in 1983 and, thinking how I had a wife and two little little kids (ages 2 and 4) I ruled out Alaska. We--my family--drove down to Florida and I found the writing program at FIU to be much better then expected. Still, I was not sure. Was torn between Colorado and Florida, with the idea of living and possibly settling down in one of those states, cities. I was looking to get my MFA (in creative writing, fiction), though I had already been to the Iowa Writer's Workshop (and had subsequently withdrawn from there for reason to ignorant to account here). So? So, I decided to take a train ride down to South Florida, on my own, for one last inspection of FIU.
And, that loooong Amtrak ride had an 8hr layover in New Orleans.
I don't know if you've ever ridden the train, ridden it long distance. It's clanky, somewhat spartan (somewhat not, as well), makes plenty of stops and it's hard to sleep on (I had no sleeper car, was doing it about as cheap as possible). But you do, inevitably, end up talking to people.
I met and talked to a lot of folks, but towards the end of the first stretch, before I got to NOLA, I met this guy who I'll call Ferris. (I can't quite recall his name.) He was older than me by a little. He was from Detroit and on his way to visit his brother in Pensacola. He was big and black. I'm white. No, this is not a big thing, of course, this racial difference, but it's also a bit interesting. You'd be surprised, perhaps, how places and people will divide themselves along racial lines--in neighborhoods and bars, in public places and while traveling. But, Ferris and I sat together and started talking and we slowly got to know each other pretty well. We opened up a bit and I found out that he had played football at USC--was the running back behind James White, a guy who was very talented but lost it all to drugs and abuse--and that he had been given a writer's card by some screwed up Hollywood producer (or some such) and that other members had asked to see the card and then promptly burned it, right in front of him. Ferris was not from places I had been, not from a comfortable neighborhood in Detroit.
But, we got along well. And by the time we stopped in New Orleans, we were pals.
He had not been to the Crescent City before, so I suggested--since we had 8hrs--we go to the French Quarter. And he was good with that. So, we stepped out of the big old train station in New Orleans and tried to get a cab. We found one--and older black guy as driver--and got in the backseat and then Ferris said something about money or some such and the cab driver promptly tossed us out of the cab. Huh? I didn't get it. So, undaunted, I said we'd just walk.
I did not know the city that well, but I recognized a few landmarks, I knew sort of where to go and knew if got to Canal Street I could probably figure it out. And . . . I did. It wasn't such a long walk, really and then there we were in the Quarter, wandering and looking and drinking. Yes, we drank. We drank hurricanes and beer and ate meat-on-a-stick while wandering Bourbon Street and Charters Street and Royal and Decatur and Governor Nichols and all others . . . we went to the French Market and there they had tons of vegetables and fruits on display, candies and souvenirs and other items. "All this color, the smells, the sensations," Ferris said. He was happy. I was happy. We were pals.
We went to Pat O'briens--one of the few places I knew--and sat at the inside bar, near the entrance. The place was pretty crowded and we had our drinks and we were animated, talkative, drunk. There was a group of people--all white, of course--sitting with us and they liked talking to Ferris. Like I said, he was a big and little bit rough-looking guy (I'm kind of big, also) and this was where the racial differences became sort of acknowledged, not in a bad way but in the sense that Ferris knew these genteel white people wouldn't be talking to him except that we were together, that he was okay because he was with me. He even said, out loud, "I'm here with my white buddy" and he clasped me in his arms and laughed, inferring that he was safe and accepted. Ah. And I admit I enjoyed hanging out with him because he was a big black male, because we worked against type among the revelers in the Quarter. A woman with the group even began flirting with Ferris--much to the chagrin of her male companion. It was a bit awkward, but again it was because he was deemed a nice guy. We both enjoyed that conception. But then, we were both nice guys.
We kept drinking. A cabbie told us of a good, out-of-the-way strip joint to visit. We went there. It was a little hole in the wall, cheap, dirty, very French Quarterish (except for the cheap part). We didn't spend too long there, just enough to pass out a few dollar bills, just enough to say we'd done it while in New Orleans. then we were off to other bars, other drinks, making jokes, enjoying ourselves. Then, we had to be getting back to the train. We found a cab. The driver did not kick us out.
On the train, we were still giddy. It was late at night. The train had few riders. Now it was time to settle down, to come down from our French Quarter shenanigans and dissolve into the coming hangovers. We exchanged phone numbers and addresses. Ferris asked if he could borrow twenty dollars. He was broke and wanted to get a beer, a sandwich or something. Ah. I knew I'd never see that twenty again, but, sure. I gave it to him.
The train started. It was night--well past midnight I think--and off we went, lurching sideways through the South.
I didn't see Ferris again.
The train stopped in Pensacola very early in the morning. I woke but did not see him from my window. The train went on again and, after many hours, I made it to my stop in Ft. Lauderdale. (I'd chosen to stay in Ft. Lauderdale over Miami--I still did not trust Miami, but that's a different story.)
I took the train back after a few days. Another looong ride. No long stop in New Orleans. I played cards on the train, hung out, I made it a point to integrate myself--I think, because of Ferris--and everyone was friendly.
I think it was close to a year later--maybe only six months, I don't recall exactly--when I got a phone call.
It was Ferris. He was at home in Detroit. I could tell he was a little drunk, that he was with friends. But it was good to talk to him. He was laughing and recalling all the things we did in the Quarter. Then he said, "You know, that was the best time I had the whole trip. My brother was so serious, he was telling me I had to get a good job, had to do this and that. But New Orleans, that was fun, that was something." And I said it was the most fun I had had, too. And it was.
I never heard from him again. I never got my twenty dollars.
But that's okay--it was worth way more than a simple twenty.

Friday, October 15, 2010

I Found A Wallet: Alabama 1988

I was driving through Alabama in the winter to go see Fru for the first time since she had visited my place in Seagrove Beach. In the Florida Panhandle. I was on some lonesome highway or another and it was cold and I pulled over to take a piss in the woods.
All there really was was woods.
I'm a pretty private guy sometimes (as in I'm English, from my mother's side; but I also like to trek in the woods), so I walked and hopped a low fence and walked up a slope a bit into the thick trees. And I took my piss. Then, as I was walking back, looking around at the leafless trees and the leave-full ground, I notice a brown wallet. (I've always been good at spotting things. My father would always come to me when something was lost, no matter how small.) I bent down and picked it up. I looked through it seeing a drivers license--it was an Alabama license, white male, in his thirties--maybe a credit card and other things. There was no money. It looked like the wallet had sat in the leaves for a while, it was damp and worn, but it also was not covered by the leaves, or I would not have seen it.
I still think of this wallet. And in my mind, I took the wallet and stopped in the next town and dropped it in a mailbox. Sometimes I think that I really did that. But, I don't think I did.
I think I looked for the cash, and where there was none, I tossed the billfold back into the leaves in the woods on a hill along a nameless roadside in Alabama . . . In those days I had never had a credit card (had never had credit) so it wouldn't have occurred to me that I could have taken the credit card (if there was one). All I, unfortunately, was interested in was some cold cash. Some wet cash. And I went back to the car,got in, drove off, thinking of my appointment with Fru, who--already--I loved.
And it was when I was down the road apiece that I began thinking about it. This poor guy. I thought that he'd probably been hunting and lost it. He'd probably been hoping it would
somehow return. And I could have done that. That's why I often think that I kept it and dropped it in a mailbox--who knows for sure, maybe I did. But later in life I even imagined that he had been a man who had died, or been murdered, and the wallet was the needed clue to solve his disappearance. Yes, I have thought that. But really, as I got older and had credit cards and changed licenses and such, It's about that bother of not having your identification, your insurance cards, fishing license, voter registration, your library card--your credit cards!--that will devil you. And this poor guy went around knowing his wallet full of ID was missing.
Ah. Anyway.
I know I've found other wallets, some since then. A few. Maybe it was one of those I dropped in the mailbox. Prior to the Alabama billfold, I recall in Iowa City, in maybe 86 (when I was in the Iowa Writers Workshop), I was walking back very drunk from the Deadwood with Craig (not Craig P., who was also from Iowa City and became a screen writer/cartoon editor in L.A. and who I collaborated on a screenplay based off an unpublished novel of mine . . . Nor was it Craig S. who was from Des Moines and who I worked with at Younkers [nor Craid D. M. who I went to high school with]; this was the artist Oregon/Iowa Craig) and I found a wallet at the Quick Trip, on Market and Linn. I was drunk and obnoxious. An unhappy person. At odds a bit with Craig. So, I opened it up, found some money--cash-- and took it. I brought the wallet into the Quick Trip and handed it to the cashier, and said: Someone lost their wallet by the pumps. If they ask, I already took the money."
He smiled uneasily, I smiled easily, Craig was both stupefied and also thinking I was stupid. But, again, I looked for the cash. I did at least leave the wallet--otherwise untouched--where it could likely been found.
But, as I said, I still think of that tiny incident. The lost wallet.
Who was that guy?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Camp Dodge Pool: Des Moines 1976

Camp Dodge was north of Des Moines, just outside of Johnston. It was big place where the Iowa national Guard was located, though I think it used to be an actual Army base. It had a huge pool--and I mean big big--that had been built for and used for aquatic military training during WWII (it was that big, larger than a football field). But it had been a recreational pool for some years by the time I moved to Iowa.
I'd gone to the Camp Dodge pool a handful of times with my Mother and brothers, my sister, but it wasn't until high school and I had set friends, when we could drive, that I went often during the summer.
It became THE place to go. Iowa does not have a beach or many lakes; there was the river (two rivers in Des Moines, actually) and there were two reseviors, Saylorville and Big Creek. But the natural--or naturalish--bodies of water were brown and sandless, though we went to Saylorville pretty often, the best place for swimming and sunning and seeing girls was Camp Dodge.
It was mainly me and Kevin, Larry and Bill. Others came too: Randy, Jim, Dave, Bob and such. But, as I recall, it became Kevin and I, Larry a lot, who habitually went to the pool in the summer--almost every day. Though I was working at Younkers in the summer, I'd sometimes go home for lunch then skip the rest of the day and go to the pool (and then return to work at the end of the day and pretend I'd been there all afternoon--yes yes, my bad). There was this older guy who ran the pool--was the head supervisor. he had a big nose and white hair and a loud voice. Kevin and I called him Foghorn. As time passed, Foghorn recognized us each day. the lifeguards recognized us and Foghorn began calling us The Golden Boys . . .
I guess we were golden. We mainly sat poolside along the deep end, sunned ourselves like reptiles, jumped in the water only to swim to the raft (it was big enough and deep enough to have a raft at the deep end) and sun ourselves some more. We were brown (except Larry, who remained white no matter what, Larry who would not swim out to the raft and would say, "I don't have to prove anything!" [I guess he was a bad swimmer]). Ah. Summer. Golden summer. We had no worries, really. No jobs of import, no need for great sums of money--but we were still wet behind the ears, so life was full of the usual turmoil, teenage turmoil. Still, at the big Camp Dodge pool, even that turmoil was mostly gone, life was but our place in the sun.
That was golden, too.
And when we left the pool, which was situated down in a hollow-like area with a big hill leading back up to the main road, we'd drive up the hill and I'd get out and stand on the car, surfing the car, doing "My Spiderman Routine". Yes, I crawled all over the car as it moved up to the main road--I have no idea if people watched me, but we all got a laugh from it.
I don't know. day in and out, swim and sun in a big pool in Iowa summers . . . a waste and yet not so much. It brightened my life, I think, I who was sad and foolhardy, a self-pitying teen. Camp Dodge was a bright spot. It was the only place in the world--since I had moved to Iowa--where I was a Golden Boy.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Blizzard Triptych: Des Moines 1973

ONE: The blizzard was a big one and, what made it unusual and what makes me recall it, it happened in the spring. In April.
When you live in the northern climes where winters are long and often brutal, spring becomes very important. Now, someone who lived north of Iowa, say in Duluth or the U.P. of Michigan, or a Canadian, they may look at Iowa and say what nice short winters we had. But they are not nice short winters. Tennessee has nice short winters. So, I can recall livng in Iowa and hating the month of March because in March winter was dissolving but never quite went away--the weather would tease you with snow melt and hints of warmth only to turn around and freeze and sleet and snow a little and piss you off. But April? Ah, April is crocuses and tulips and daffodils. I mean, it's not May, but April is usually more sun than snow, there's no more hinting that spring is here. But not that winter.
I think there may have been flowers out and leaf buds and the first insects of the year, but a huge winter storm came roiling in out of Colorado and across Nebraska and it dumped pound upon pound of wet heavy snow on Des Moines and Urbandale. Upon central Iowa. Whiteouts and roads closed, people and animals trapped, cities shut down. Schools closed (Yes!).
But despite all the trouble, a blizzard is fun, it demarcates the season, your life. Even though a feeling of spring had been trashed, I went out into the blizzard to goof around. The next day my neighborhood friends, my brothers and sister, went out to play. It was fun. Huge drifts, our boring landscape changed. Snow wet and thick, perfect for snowballs and snowforts and snowmen . . . Okay, if you're going to have one last shot of winter in April in Iowa, why not a blizzard?

TWO: I built a huge snowman. This may have been after a blizzard, but don't think it was the one mentioned above. I built the snowman out of a drift that had blown in against our front door covering the porch. I'd shoveled the porch, piling it upon the drift, and I then shaped that--because it was wet snow--into a ballish shape, then made another huge snowball, rolling it up in the front yard, then added a smaller one for a head, then packed snow all around that. Did the usual stuff with charcoal, carrot, hat, sticks and had me a snowman. But like I said, it was huge. It was maybe seven feet tall (I could reach its top by standing on the porch), big and fat and solid, as solid as a snowman can be, I'd say.
It stood by our front door like a sentinel, a winter god, a big oaf to scare off solicitors. It stood there for days and days.
Now, I was the kind of kid who liked to stay up late. Living in a smallish house with a family of seven, sharing rooms all my life, arguing over tv shows and such, I loved the night when everyone else was asleep and the house was dark, living room empty, streets outside empty. So, I was up one night after my snowman was into his second week of existence. I was up, alone, looking out the window, houselights off, streetlights on outside shining cold and yellow upon the snowed suburban landscape. And what do I see? I see the neighborhood kid from down the block come sneaking into our yard. This was one of the two boys (or were there three?) who lived across the street and about four houses down, maybe less. I don't recall their names. I don't recall which one it was. They were not friends. They were rough kids, mean-spirited (the Howles?)--to me at least--who would throw eggs on Halloween and mistreat animals. So, I see him sneaking up. He does not know I'm awake and watching. And he comes up to my snowman, looks it over, then goes behind it and braces his body up against it and heaves, trying to topple it.
I watched his push and push.
I don't know why I didn't tap the window or open the door or go out the back door and confront him. I wasn't afraid of them, just disliked them for the most part, but I was in my lonely groove and only watched as he pushed.
And he could not do it. My snowman did not budge. And I enjoyed that, seeing him unable to knock my giant snowman over. he tried and gave up and that was good enough for me . . . He may have been the one I had the snowball fight with where I had to pay for the broken window.

THREE: I was walking home from school on a winter day and when I got to 65Th Street--where I lived--there was one of the boys from down the street and he began to throw snowballs at me. And that's fine. There may have been a malicious intent on his part, but to me it was just a snowball fight. So, I dropped my books and bunched up some snow and tossed snaowballs back at him. The snow was heavy, icy (oh, ice balls--the worst of snowball fights; I got hit in the face by an iceball one of my first winters in Iowa, by a guy who was pretty much a friend, when I was walking to Joe Strayhall's house; it hit me in the nose and I bled all the way to Joe's). So we battled back and forth and I had him on the run. He backtracked to his own house, to his driveway where I had him cornered, though his garage door was open. So, I tossed a good fastball right at him as he backed into his garage and, as the snowball flew hard and straight, he reached up and pulled the door down. he got it closed just as the snowball came and--BLAMCRASH--my snowball went right through one the garage door's windows. Glass was strewn.
I didn't think too much of it, but within a day his mother called my mother and demanded that I pay for the broken window.
My mother was always of the mind to just pay it and be done with it--no arguments--and ignore people like that. So, she gave me the money in an envelope and I went and put it in their mailbox. But, what injustice! I can see that he never told his mother that he was the one who had lowered the door, who had stared the fight . . . but there's more to this, in a way.
The Howells (I'm pretty sure that was the family name) had two, maybe three boys, as said. But one of them was killed a few years later, maybe in the early eighties. I think maybe it was the oldest boy, not the one I had a snowball fight with, not the one who tried to topple the snowman, but then again, it could have been him. He wasn't murdered, I believe. I think he died in a hunting accident or some such thing. But he wasn't much older or younger than me.
Winter. Winter. Winter.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

A Confounding Idiocy: Urbandale 1974

So, I was in high school and I'd been in the Urbandale school system for about three, really two and a half, years by then. I wasn't the new kid anymore, but I also wasn't an established one. I was tall, broad-shouldered, lean and lanky. My face full of acne by then, I think. And I was on the football team.
What I'm thinking of--what I'm remembering--is one particular football practice when one of my teammates began to hit me. Not hitting like you're supposed to, but hitting me with his arm after a play was done. This was Noel. I was not friends with him, not even really acquaintances. He was, socially, in the upper echelons of the high school world and I was one of the invisible minions for the most part. Now, I had met Noel before, early on when I'd first come to Iowa from Tennessee. This was the 7th grade and I was brand new to the school and bewildered (well, I was bewildered most of my teens) and was thrown into some kind of counseling session with some other students--something I guess all the students were put into. The counselor was, I guess, the counselor for our class all the way through our Urbandale school career (I hardly knew who the guy was). In this forced get-together we had to partake in a role-playing game where we pretended to all be in a life boat--with the likelihood we'd stranded on a deserted island--and, as best I can recall, we had to pick who should survive or not, that there was only so much room on the boat and only so many supplies or something. (Yes, a nice game.) We essentially were supposed to argue among us who should die and who should live. This was the counselor's set-up, mind you.
I guess the idea of the exercise was to either learn how to work together or get you to stand up for yourself, to list your qualities and qualifications to live. I immediately said I would get out of the boat--I would die. I mean, I did not take this seriously. I could see what was going on and I thought that it was idiotic. It was all pretend, so, heck, I'll jump off the boat and into the sharks . . . The counselor (Mr. Woodley?) did not like this. Noel scoffed. Okay, I thought, then I'll play. I said I'd stay. I said I knew how to live in the woods, to find food and build shelter. Noel came back and said that he could beat me up. This was his qualifications for him living and me dying. Hmmm. He was a small guy but a tough guy, I don't know if he could beat me up or not, but this was his logic for being a superior specimen.
Which brings me back to that day in practice. I was playing on the defensive line. Noel was somewhere, maybe even on defense too, my teammate. It was a practice play and someone ran the ball, was tackled, the coaches blew the whistle. And just before the whistle and then quite a while afterwards I could feel this guy on my back, not just on my back but he was taking his forearm--which was padded--and repeatedly smashing it into my helmeted head. He was reaching around and trying to get his arm between my face guard and helmet to hit me in my face, rendering blow after blow long after the whistle. And it was Noel.
I really didn't react. One: I was kind of shocked--why would he do this? And Two: I had hardly noticed it at first. I was sort of a big guy--especially compared to Noel--and he was sort of a nuisance on my back. In football, bodies are always crashing into each other and it took me a few moments to even realize he was hitting me with his forearm. I just couldn't quite fathom the point, didn't realize the purposeful maliciousness of it. I wasn't mad. I was simply perplexed. I thought that he was an idiot and--somewhat like the counselor meeting--I was confounded by this idiocy.
But, perhaps I was the idiot. No doubt the coaches liked this display of aggression. That anger was needed for a good football player. They don't need a player who is perplexed. That mean-streak (even if it borders on the sociopathic) is part of the competitive spirit, and to take it further, part of the competitive world. It's very much part of the American psyche: violence and competition, action over thought, attacking over consideration. Isn't that why football is the national sport--a game of controlled warfare? It's just like in the counselor's meeting when Noel said that he could beat me up so therefore he should survive and I should not, what he was saying is that he would kill me in order for him to survive.
But what may have surprised him is that, if it really had been real and not a game? If it was not just a psychological exercise in a room in a junior high in Urbandale, Iowa? I would have killed him first.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Into The Dorms: Iowa City 1977

When I graduated from high school I had no real interest in going to college. So, I didn't.
Instead I worked at a department store--full time--bought a van, got a dog, and planned to head out into the world thusly. I didn't.
Instead I worked and saved and took a long trip down into Florida, to Daytona Beach and then Key West. When I came back I got a job at the local UPS distribution center unloading trucks in the middle of the night. By then, I knew I wanted to go to college. I knew that I wanted to go to the University of Iowa.
I was a pretty insular person by then. Iowa was my realm from which all other places were judged. It wasn't that I loved Iowa or Des Moines/Urbandale (actually I had a great disdain for it all, especially Urbandale) but it was what I knew. It had--despite my growing up in South Dakota and Washington state and Tennessee--become home. My frame of reference. Most of my friends from high school had gone on to school and they'd gone on to Iowa State, in Ames. I'd been to Iowa City, where the U of Iowa was, and preferred that town, that campus, that school (I mean, if you knew anything about the two, who wouldn't?). My father had gone to Iowa. My two older brothers had gone there as well (as did my sister and younger brother and even my niece later), I also had a few friends of a friend (people who later became my friends) who were at Iowa--they were from the high school class who graduated the year before I did. So, Iowa it was.
I applied, got accepted, got a dorm room assigned to me.
But like I said, I'd become a rather insular young man.
So when I got to the university--my parents moving me in and leaving--I wasn't so sure of my decision. I was used to sharing a room, but my two roommates were, of course, complete strangers. Everyone on the floor was a stranger. Everything was strange . . . Yes yes, it's the usual normal experience, the strangeness is also part of the excitement, but I was ill prepared for it in many ways. I guess I hadn't considered it much and my parents had offered little guidance for the situation. So, my first thoughts after about a week were: This is too strange. I'm getting out of here!
Of course, I didn't. No, it took only one more week where I began to see the fun of it, accept it, to make friends and go to classes and be independent (sort of, at least feel independent) among others my same age. Again, yes yes, usual and normal. It all turned out to be very very good.
The dorm was Burge Hall. I had wanted to live in Daum, which was next door, because I'd known someone who'd lived there (Keith). Burge was much bigger, but I had been assigned to a floor that was a half-floor. It was essentially a semi-basement floor, a step below the main floor of the dorm, a small floor whose windows on one side looked out on the loading ramp. I had such a room and every morning the trash truck or the food truck or other delivery trucks would show up and come beeping backwards. Ah and oh well. I got used to it.
I stayed in the dorms for two and a half years. I liked it. I stayed in Burge and on the half-floor--the 2000 floor. Met most of my Iowa City friends through there. And then I stayed a summer and worked and never really went back to Des Moines. I lived in apartments around the town, always close enough to walk to classes or work or the bars.
The bars. That's a different part of the Iowa City equation.
But I still hold a great fondness for dorm life, for Burge Hall, for the University of Iowa and Iowa City. Now that I've been gone so long, I have a new respect and appreciation for Des Moines.
I'm still a little leery of Urbandale, though.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Fantastic Miraculous Bicycle Wreck: Johnson City 1968

When we moved out of the rental house in Jonesborough, we moved to a brand new split-level house in a brand new developing development just outside of Johnson City. Really, the newer developing development was across Antioch Road and where Mother and Father had bought the house there were already quite a few homes. But the homes were new and they still had plenty of trees and it was, essentially, only a string of homes along a single street with thick woods, pastures and farmed land surrounding it.
And it was on a steep hill.
So, on our side of Antioch you'd turn and go up the steep hill (the other side led to flat fields, the creek, woods and then two steep hills) and then there was a turn and a cul-de-sac and then you'd have to turn around and come back down the steep hill. Our house was about half way up the slope, on the left, the lot with lots of black walnut and hickory trees that abutted a farmer's field where tobacco was grown and dried in an old wooden shed. But it was coming down that steep hill one day that I had my fantastic bicycle wreck.
First of all, I must have been eleven, maybe twelve years old. I had an oldish, beat-up-abused blue-black Stingray bike. It was beautiful. I used it about every day, over dirt and grass and asphalt, over rocks and broken glass and sticks and mud. There were a number of kids in that little one street neighborhood, a few who lived across Antioch and at the top of one of their hills, and we all had bikes (though by the next year, mini bikes would be added to the mix). But on the occasion, I was alone.
That's right, my fantastic bike wreck was only a wreck with myself.
Being kids and having Stingrays with fat tires, we boys would often take off, peddling as fast as possible and then slamming on our brakes to make big thick skid marks in the street. These were foot brakes not hand brakes, so you could really jam down on the pedals and make your mark. So, that's what I was doing on that day. All alone out in the street, I decided to go all out super fast down the hill and then slam on my brakes.
I went to the top of the hill, pedaled pedaled pedaled, coming down the sheer cliff face of the hill, picking up mach speed, still ramming forward, me all alone, no one else even seemingly remotely around, and then just around my house I slammed those brakes on, pounding my feet backwards on the pedals. And the bike's tires caught that pavement well. There was the big shhhqurinschhhh that the tires made as all that forward downhill motion came to a sudden attempted stop and, as you might imagine, the bike started to flip.
The bicycle fishtailed and popped up and jerked face-forward downhill with me still upon it. This all happened in a matter of seconds. I had no time to think but I also did have time to think. I did have no time to be scared. Okay, I knew I was crashing, I knew it was going to hurt, I understood that the bike was pitching forward on the hard concrete asphalt pebble-studded hard-sloped street, so I figured the best thing to do would be to let go of the bike, follow through with where I was headed anyway and just tuck my body up and roll with it, like a tumble. A somersault.
And that's what I did. I rolled forward with my bike, landing hard but not so hard on the pavement, my head tucked, my arms and elbows bent ball-like and over and over I went downhill, my bike clattering along next to me, until I and the bike came to a stop and miraculously I was not hurt. Even my bike was okay. I mean, I crashed and rolled and popped right up in the street as healthy and unscratched as a armadillo. And I was so pleased with myself. In those seconds of just before the crash, during the crash and jumping up from the crash, I realized what a great childhood event this was and I came up from the roll like a magician, my hands out, my face scanning the neighborhood for an audience.
But, there was no audience.
Ah, my greatest bicycle moment in my life and no one was there to witness it but myself . . . that must be why I'm compelled to write about such things as this.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Football and Clouds: Johnson City 1970

Now that I realize I spent most of the year of 1970 in Tennessee (and not Iowa) I realize that I first started football then as well.
That was not my first dream. Being a comedian was what I wanted to be when I was about five years old. But when I hit my early teens, my desires changed to sports, and of those sports football was the thing for me. I wanted to be a wide receiver. Well, I still wanted to be a comedian, so maybe a comic wide receiver? No, I was actually an athletic person and was very good at catching a football. My father spent a lot of time with me there in Tennessee, in our neighborhood just outside of Johnson City, throwing the football to me, long and short, straight and over-the-shoulder. This was one of my few lone connections to him--just he and I out of a family of four boys and one girl--as no one else in the family liked to watch football, let alone toss the ball around. (Another connection, later, became plants and gardening.) He had grown up without a father (my grandfather had been a WWI navy pilot and 'scout' (he'd go up an a balloon/blimp tethered to the ship and look out for coming enemy aircraft, a dangerous job) and had come back from the war shellshocked (post traumatic stress syndrome, nowadays) and my father never really saw him. We kids never met him. But, that's not football.
So, there finally came the day when I was going to enter the 7th grade. I'd gone to the county school but my parents had paid for me to enter the city school--East High--in Johnson City and I was going to join the football team. We lived out in the semi-sticks (well, all of Tennessee was pretty much the "sticks" to us back then), an area that was a development not yet developed that had only a scattering of houses, a lot of empty red dirt lots and a lot of woods, pastures, small tobacco farms and such. So on the day of my first practice (maybe a week before school was to begin) I recall riding my Stingray bike down the hill and over to where the creek was, my mind full of football and anticipation. I was telling myself that, "This was it!", the beginning of my fame and fortune (more or less that was my fantasy), the start of my football career.
But as I sat on my bike among the wild fields and the creek, I looked into the sky where it was blue and there were tall white clouds building up and up. Beautiful clouds. And my mind wandered there, into the dreamscape of the white and blue, the billowed terraces of cloudwork.
Football turned out to be quite different than my dreams of it. It was rough and dirty and they wouldn't let you drink water until the end. That's not to say I didn't like it, but let's say that I wasn't as well prepared for the aggressive aspects of it as I was for the more sublime. But I stuck through the practices, made the junior varsity team (but not as a starter), had a pretty cheerleader interested in me. And then came the news that we were leaving for Iowa that fall. Moving . . . But, this was not a bad thing. Our family, all of us except perhaps my father, had been wanting to get out of Tennessee, that little strange northeast corner of it. So, this was welcome news. I was ready to go. And, I quit the team.
The guys razzed me about it, called me a quitter (I guess I was) but, I wasn't really playing any and we were moving and, to tell the truth, I was more interested in other things.
I did play football in Iowa, but I found that I was not really the overtly aggressive type. I didn't have enough of a mean streak. My mind was always off somewhere.
In the clouds, I guess.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Mountain Man: Urbandale 1977

When I was eighteen and it was the nineteen-seventies I wanted to be a mountain man. Now, I knew I couldn't be a true mountain man (those days were long long past and I wasn't quite that naive and stupid) but I still dreamt of going out west (of which I had personal knowledge from childhood), of living close to the woods or at least living a nomadic existence, town to town, out west.
It's still a bit fuzzy to me, these memories of the seventies, of adolescence and very young adulthood. It's such a strange period in life--at least for me--as in some ways I was very mature and intelligent and understood basic principles for life and in other ways I was confused and exceptionally ignorant and did the dumbest things quite frequently. But by age eighteen in the 70s you could legally drink alcohol as well as vote as well as run off by yourself to see the world. In my case, my world was a suburb of Des Moines, Iowa--which I hated very much yet also felt very secure within--and I wanted out. I never thought much about true world travel: Europe or Asia and such. Sure, I had my tropical isle dreams, but my main idea of getting away was always within the confines of the United States and was almost always limited to the western states with usually Montana, Idaho, Washington/Oregon (where I'd been happy as a child) and Alaska. This idea of going to these states was not a fresh one in the 1970s--this was a time of a big ecology movement among young people after all and there was John Denver on the radio and Jeremiah Johnson on the movie screen, there were serious people--mainly out west--doing serious things to help and preserve the environment, to curb pollution and change corporate and factory ways.
The 70s were not all disco and polyester and leisure suits.
I was a big reader--though a haphazard one (or, eclectic, I should say)--and one of my favorite books was Mountain Man by Vardis Fisher. I read and re-read that book as a teen. I also had books by a man named Angier (I think) that told me how to survive in the woods, how to build a long cabin and such. I had pamphlets on how to obtain free land in Alaska (which i think was real, that there still was free Fed land in AK in those waning 70s years--though it was not a simple process to obtain it). But then again, I wasn't completely stupid. I knew I didn't have the discipline or self-knowledge to actually go out and try to live off the land by myself. So, when I was nineteen and done with high school and uninterested in college, was working full time at Younkers department store in the stock room and living at home and stuffing my money into a savings account, I decided that it was the highway nomad's life for me.
This was before I'd read such things as Kerouac and the Beats, so I'm not sure exactly where I got the concept, other than as a family we'd moved around the country and had always taken long car trips and I'd loved that.
But in 1977 I bought a used van from a friend of Second Oldest Brother. I saw an advertisement for a dog--puppies that were part wolf--and went out and got a puppy and kept it in my parent's basement (where I had a room). I'm not sure why my parents allowed me to do this, that is get a dog at their house, not buying the van and planning to travel. (And as a current dog owner, god, I feel bad about that puppy, who I of course named Wolf. I did not have time or understanding for the poor dog. I mainly kept him leashed beneath the basement stairs and didn't give him the attention and care he both required and deserved.) So, my plan was to quit my job, take my money and my dog and drive out west by myself, town-to-town (as I said), state-to-state, concentrating on Idaho and Oregon and Washington. No doubt I planned to go to Alaska. I was going to camp mainly. Live in the woods. Sleep in my van. Be lonely and mysterious. I'd write. I'd work some job or another if I had to (I didn't bother to think who in the heck would hire me, a man with no address, a van and a dog that was part wolf). I would be my own version of a mountain man.
Of course none of this came to be.
I was at least smart enough to give my dog away to someone who would care for it. (The people who sold me the dog contacted me and were not happy that they had sold it to me, but I can't recall if they were the ones who took the dog.) I kept the van and-instead of the mountains of the west I got three friends together (Bob, Kevin and Mark Lobsinger) and drove down to Florida instead.
I know.
But that was how I discovered the Florida Keys, Key West, which I still love to this day.
And then, after working a few jobs back in Des Moines/Urbandale, I decided that maybe college was not a bad idea and I enrolled at the University of Iowa in Iowa City (another place I came to love).
I kept the van even though I was in school, but it sat and sat back in Urbandale until the neighbors complained and then I sold it for a pittance. I was glad to be rid of it.
But, in the longer run, I did live my highway nomad life in a way. I did live in the west (New Mexico, California, Washington, Montana). I even made it to Alaska in 1983, though did not stay all that long, and though I lived in a tent in the woods (more or less the woods: a free state park north of Anchorage in Eagle River), I came back to Iowa and finished college. Which was for the best.
I don't get out to the woods much these days--and miss it. I get to the mountains even less and haven't been out west for many years now. Don't dream much about being a mountain man, though still sometimes dream of living a lonely and mysterious life.
I drive a Volvo.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Math, Detention and Mr. Shutters: Urbandale 1974

I always disliked Math. I always found it difficult, almost to the point where it was a phobia. I think I had a mental block against it--a stubborn sense that I'd never be able to do it, so why even try. (Some of this may have come from Oldest Brother, who I recall always telling me ho hard math was, scaring me about fractions and such . . . but, really, I can't blame it on him; I just plain hated math.). In high school, when it came time to do Algebra (ah, I remember in Junior High, when I first got to the school and they asked me to do math problems on the board in front of the class, I'd just go up there and stand [I'd become a shy and introverted boy] and wait and not even make a mark on the board) I had a teacher named Mr. Shutters. "Dr." Shutters, he was known as, because he had a PhD (and was teaching high school in Urbandale, Iowa?). Well, Dr. Shutters did not like me. He was teaching one day and while we were supposed to be working on some problems he caught me drawing my wild cartoon doodle pictures instead. I remember he grabbed me by the back of my neck and squeezed down hard (how today I'd like to think I would have acted differently, such as: Get your goddamn hands off me" or "Don't do that Mr. Shutters, it's indecent" or some such) and I just let him squeeze my neck as he asked what I was doing and, you know, it was obvious what I was doing and the next week I had detention.
This was not an after-school detention. This was a daily detention that I otherwise would have had as library time or extra lunch or something. It was really for troublesome kids, the bullies and pot smokers, the F students and trouble-causers. I was none of theses things. I really had no idea why I had even been sent to this long-term detention (though later was told it was because of my poor math scores). But I wasn't an arguer, and my parents--with five kids--never really got involved with my school life, so if the vice principle said I was in detention instead of the library (where I talked with my friends and read books--I loved books), then that's how it was.
And in detention is where I fell in with all the pot smokers and bullies and bad apples of the school. And you know what: they were not bad people. They could tell that I wasn't one of them, but I've always had the habit of winning over people, not in a gratuitous way, but because I rarely pass any big judgement on people and, if they treat me okay, I treat them okay. So, I got along fine with the school's malcontents.
I suppose there was some danger that I would become a troublesome student due to my association with the other troublesome students. I did get to know a number of the tough guys and relate to them but I never got to the point where I hung out with them outside of school I pretty much kept the friends I had made--which were good kids, middle-of-the-road kids who did what they were supposed to do, didn't fight, were not part of the high or low social strata, not nerds of jocks or anything--pretty much just the invisibles. That was me. A nobody in high school (and it wasn't bad, though I pretty much hated high school and assumed about everyone did [though I was wrong about that]).
I recall once, when the teacher who headed up detention was taking roll, she skipped me. I was behind a student in the row of desks and I usually hunkered down--writing or reading or drawing--and she missed me and that afternoon in the hall the vice principle stopped me--came to find me I guess--and asked if I'd skipped the detention class. I looked at him honestly, a bit bewildered, a bit scared, and said, "No." And, to the vice principle's credit, he believed me. He said something to the effect, "I didn't think you would." And if he hadn't believed me and my detention had been extended, who knows? Maybe I would have ended up with the tough guys, maybe I would have been a delinquent.
But what I came away with from that detention was:
1. The bad guys aren't always that bad.
2. It's not always best to do what you are told without question.
3. Dr. Shutters was an ass.