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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Saturday, October 14, 2017

A Letter from My Dad

I headed off to college at the end of the summer of '74.

Let's pause briefly at those two words: "headed off." Those words typically precede lines like: "headed off in the wrong direction,"...headed off to war," and "...headed off to the army." But when I say "headed off to college" I don't mean to imply independence or courage as much as distance. Never in my eighteen years had I been further from home--695 miles to be exact--than the day my parents dropped  me off in front a large, three-story dorm at the end of a street lined with  four such buildings The sidewalks were bustling with suitcases, trunks, and duffle bags going in all directions.

Some kids can't wait to leave home after high school. This was not true of my four siblings and me. We were all pretty much "home bodies," and in many ways we still are. My first night in the dorm room, the day my folks left (the day before my roommates arrived) I stared at the bottom of the empty bunk above mine well into the night. It was just about the saddest time of my life.

By morning, I felt slightly better and took comfort in the company of many high school friends who also attended the same university. Among them was my older brother Dave, who was a junior, two years ahead of me.

It was a blessing to have an upperclassman sibling who knew the ropes in a setting that sometimes felt like a military academy. Dave knew the DOs and DON'Ts--the hard professors, the best bunks, and a hundred other things a freshman typically learns the hard way. The biggest perk of having an older brother on campus, however, was that fact that he had hundreds of friends who treated me like their own kid brother whenever we passed. I didn't think about it at the time, but feeling "known" in an otherwise strange place helped shape my entire college experience.

My sophomore year provided another bonus, my sister Kathy (who became a teacher in 1974 and had married in '75) accepted a teaching position on campus. Kathy and her husband Jack made the 700-mile trip themselves and moved into a quaint upstairs apartment in town. Dave and I often spent Friday nights there. It was not quite home, but it was a nice change of pace from dorm life. More about this in a moment.

Fast forward 41 years....

I graduated from college in '79; got married in '80; earned my masters in '81; welcomed three lovely daughters into this world in '84, '87, and '95; taught and administrated in Waterloo, Iowa, for 18 years; moved to Michigan in 2000; and have been superintendent of a fine school here for 18 years and counting....

So yesterday, I'm working in my office and one of our maintenance men surprises me with a box of books he found in a far-corner closet of our building. It's a small closet that rarely gets unlocked. Evidently I put some of my college books in there several years ago (though I honestly do not remember doing so). Back in the day, college students were told: "Keep your text books. You'll use them." Well, I kept 'em, but I really can't say that the advice applies equally to all books. Oh, I have some of them on my shelves for ready reference, but the ones in this box did not make that cut. They have literally not seen the light of day for decades, and had I never seen them again, I would never have remembered they still existed, and yet, I could not resist thumbing through them to see if I should keep or pitch them. The full box is still in my office. I got sidetracked by what became the subject of this post.

Inside an anthology of British Literature, marking the page of "Surprised by Joy" by William Wordsworth, I found a folded piece of paper. It was not nice stationary--just plain ruled paper. I opened it to see a long-forgotten letter in my father's hand. It was written in haste at my sister's request, but it was neatly written, polite, and to the point:


I had not seen the letter for 41 years, and looking at it simply as an artifact, I was surprised by my father's nice penmanship. My handwriting has never been good, and it seems to be worse with age. I did not remember this about my father. As soon as I saw the dates, the purpose of its writing came back to me. Dad wrote it on Monday, April 19. This is well before email and possibly before fax machines. So Dad probably talked to Kathy on the phone Sunday. (We always made long-distance calls on the weekend when rates were low.) She probably shared her idea, and he wrote the note the next day to drop in the morning mail.

What was Kathy's idea?

Well, as I recall, my brother-in-law Jack worked at a car dealership while going to grad school, and he had just bought one of the  coolest cars of the late 1970's: an AMC Pacer.


Jack was eager to take a road trip, and Kathy, Dave and I had never seen the ocean. (We had grown up surrounded by the Great Lakes, the largest bodies of fresh water in the world, but we'd never seen the Atlantic.)  So with the help of Dad's letter--yes parental permission was required for such things at this university--Dave and I got authorization for "cuts" (but you'll notice we were not actually going to "cut" any classes, a minor detail), and by Friday afternoon we began the 250 mile trek to Myrtle Beach, S.C. (This was before that venue was so developed.) Kathy got a good deal at a slightly run-down beach-side motel called the Tiki Inn. It was not run-down to us at the time, because at the time Dave and I had only stayed in a motel a couple times in our lives, and none of them were as nice as this one. In looking back, however, it was a small, comfortable place whose thematic décor was true to its name. Its single greatest feature was the short walk to the breaking waves.  

The next 48 hours were a holiday like no other. The temperature was warm, and compared to the Great Lakes, the ocean was like bathwater even in April. Dave and I were almost always broke back then, and I'm sure Jack and Kathy had little money to spare--what with the new car payments and all--but we felt like we were rich that weekend being far from books and bells and the bothersome routines of campus life. It is a trip that the four of us have talked about through the years, but never have the details come flooding back so vividly as when I read Dad's letter yesterday.

And here, I'll really bare my soul by sharing something I wrote in my journal (a habit I had begun upon recommendation of one of my writing teachers, Mrs. Doris Harris). It was the start of a poem with many scribbled attempts to bring more closure to the first eight lines. The rhyme scheme shifts without explanation. It was a work in progress that never progressed. Like Dad's note, it has not seen the light of day for nearly four decades. The lines were written as I sat alone on the dark beach on our last night there before heading back to campus.  Here goes...

Ocean Weekend
April 26, 1976

I've seen the ocean now, and tasted its salt.
I've felt its fine sand between my toes.
Our time has come to a sudden halt--
the ride is over--but forever goes
the roar of the pounding waves,
the cry of the gulls, and the wind across the sand.
     Dark is the sea that the night saves--
like looking over nothing to emptiness and
black. By then the sand is cold,
and in silence, strolling couples hold
their back's against the city's light.
Such is the ocean at night....

Thank you, Kathy for the wonderful idea for that weekend; thank you, Jack, for the privilege of being able to say I've ridden 500 miles in a Pacer; thank you, Dave, for being a cool brother in college (but not too cool to hang out with your little brother); and thank you, Dad, knowing the trip was worth taking the time to jot a quick note before beginning your morning commute into Detroit. You were about to turn 47 a few weeks after writing this letter. That seems so young. We miss you very much...

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Two Voices

Written on September 19, 2017, the birthday of my fourth grandchild.

Two voices of the many in the room
stood out like clover blossoms in a lawn
being suckled by a bee.
All other sounds were merely grass.
The sterile clank of steel;
the muffled folds of blankets on a bed;
the faint  squeak of a passing wheel;
the rush of running water on her head;
and people talking near and far
were unfamiliar notes in this new song.
But two voices caught her ear
like echoes of an unforgotten tune.
Two voices, among the clamor of shadows,
she knew well from months within the womb,
and when they came from somewhere in the room
tiny muscles in her cheeks felt the twinge
of what would someday be a smile.
There was care in all the other speaking ...
care and love and teaching how to do,
but only at a certain laugh or sigh or cry
or whispers back and forth from very near
from deep in her swaddled senses could she hear
the two voices...
                           that made her feel at home.
© copyright 2017, Tom Kapanka, Patterns of Ink




It was a quick delivery as these things go, and before we could make the four-hour trip, our daughter and son-in-law sent us video of nurse giving the newborn a bath over the sink in their room. There were lots of sounds in the background--the kinds of noises made in hospital rooms still in transition from "recovery." But now and then I heard the two voices I knew from somewhere off camera, and it occurred to me that perhaps this tiny baby felt the same way when she heard them. The first picture above is the last photo in the hospital room; the second is a quick snapshot I took from the car as we drove away after our stay with them. It was the beginning of their first time at home with just the three of them. 

See some pix by clicking on this link

Pictures from the first few days after "Two Voices" post above...

Below is our new granddaughter's first smile on day two. There are many theories about why baby's smile. I like to think it is simply very pleasant dreams. The book is a baby version of one of Nana's favorite Dr. Seuss books.


Three generations: newborn, Nana, and Mother looking on at the hospital shortly after arrival from Michigan.


First picture with Nana and Papa. Day Two.


Papa looking on his fourth grandchild. Three days old.


On Friday, Day Four, all the cousins arrived.


This pictures were taken after the lines at "Two Voices" post were written. They were post-dated in order to appear at POI after the title post.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Stepping Back in Time

Last year on April 22, I hit the big 60, and my wife planned a big family reunion over here on the west side of the state. As you can see from this picture of me and my four siblings taken that day, it was fun. Left to right and horizontal is Kathy, then me, Dave, Paul, and Jim.

This year, Julie planned little get-away to my home town of Port Huron on the east side of the state where all of my siblings live. It was especially nice to be together in Port Huron (our home town).  Below is the view from our room at the Double Tree (formerly the Thomas Edison Inn).

On Saturday afternoon, my brother Dave and I did a little sight-seeing. Not of the well-know sites like the Fort Gratiot Lighthouse or the Blue Water Bridge. No, we went to look at a handful of places where our parents and family lived a half-century ago. 

As we passed by the house Dad built and our family lived in from 1959 to 1961, we noticed the current owners working on an addition in the back yard. At first, we just stopped and looked, 

“Let’s go talk to them,” I suggested, and Dave was already opening the car door.

What do two strangers say as they’re walking across an open yard toward the folks who own it? It could have been awkward, but it wasn't. Dave was the first to speak.

“Hi, don’t mind us. We just wanted to say ‘Hi’ and say that our dad built this house. We lived here when we were little kids and  just came by to reminisce a little.”

There was no ice to break. The conversation was immediate and free-flowing. Within moments, the lady of the house invited us inside.

“Excuse the mess. I’m painting,” she laughed.

“Not a problem,” I assured her, “When we lived here the drywall was not yet painted and there was no carpet. It was all new construction and a work in progress in all of Dad's spare time.”

She was so kind to give us a full tour and to listen to our memories. The brick wall was nearly identical to the wall Dad and I built in the house on Sass Road in New Baltimore.

I stepped into what was my bedroom from which I stepped in the story below about May Day. It is also the room that was the starting point of the piece called “Kept.”  We spent about a half-hour with her sharing stories, and I briefly told her about Mister Pete whose little house has been gone for about ten years. I looked out the window that used to frame his little place across the road. It felt strange to be standing there, but she made us feel very much at home.

So to our kind hostess from last Saturday, April 22, 2017 (whose name I’ll not post here): Thank you very much for listening to two strangers talking about a place they once called home.

I told our new friends that I would re-post the following story for May Day. It took place in 1961 in their house and in the side yard where we met them Saturday.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Four in Corduroy: May Day. Part I

Originally posted: May, 2010

It was that very time of year
when open meadows hold the hue
of tiny flowers in the grass,
and all along the woodland’s edge
the blue bells and the purple phlox
stand tall and welcome all who pass
to spring.

It was, in fact, the very first day of May, a month the little boy did not yet know by name.

What use has a boy of four in corduroy bib-overalls for names of months or numbered squares upon a page? To children it is only the rhythm of remembered days that mark the passing of time. This day would never be forgotten, but the little boy did not yet know it had a name and number.

The little boy woke to a silent sun-lit room. Rolling from bed, he carefully stepped into the crumpled leg holes of the same corduroy overalls he'd stepped from at bedtime. His head popped through same striped shirt he'd worn the day before. He did have other shirts, of course, but barring a slip in the mud or jelly spills or wind-shifts in the weather, it was a time when little boys saw no need for different clothes on different days, and no one seemed to notice.

Thinking none of this, the little boy was stuggling to reach the second shoulder strap of his overalls. It had dropped behind his back, but then with a grunt and a swing of his shoulders the buckle came within reach. "Gotcha!" he laughed, pulling the wire clip to the slide-snap on the bib. Getting dressed by himself was a task he had only recently achieved.

He slowly double-stepped down the stairs for breakfast.  Turning into the kitchen, he saw his mother alone and drying dishes from a rack beside the sink.

“There you are. I was just about to come upstairs and say, 'Happy May Day!'”

“Happy what?” he said, rubbing sleep from the corner of his eye.

“Happy May Day! Today is the first day of May. Yesterday it was April, but starting today it's May. Here, I’ll show you.”

She went to the calendar on the wall beside the refrigerator, pulled out the tack that held it there, and flipped a page over the one of Easter lilies and a cross.

The new picture was a quaint stone house with flowers all along a garden path. Below the picture was a small word above a page of numbers. There were three letters in the word, but they meant nothing to the little boy.

Mothers relish "teachable moments" when they unveil a simple new fact in hopes that someday a teacher at school will be amazed by how swiftly prodigious displays of brilliance follow their child's raised hand. Subconsciously, this hope prompted the boy's mother to take a wooden ruler from the junk drawer and begin a lesson.

“M-A-Y,” his mother spelled, pointing at each letter. “This month is May.”

“So who makes it May? You? You just turn the page and then…”

“No, Honey, I didn’t make it May. I turned the page because today’s the day to do it. It was May before I turned the page.”

“Well, then who makes it May?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“God?” asked the little boy.

“I don't think so. Well, maybe. God made days and nights and the moon, and I think the moon has something to do with months. Maybe not." Her confidence began to fade.  "I'm not sure why we call it May."

"Well, if God didn't make it May, who did?"

May is just a name the whole world calls this month. May is a month. Let's start with that. There are thirty days in each month—except some have thirty-one days and February has only twenty-eight... except in Leap Year when it has twenty-nine.”

The little boy looked lost. "How many years are there?" he asked.

"You're making this harder than it is," she said, wiping crumbs from the table into her hand. "Years are a whole different thing. There are too many years to count. There's all the years that passed and all the years to come. This year is number 1,961, but there are lots more than that."

"How many more?" asked the boy.

"Thousands and thousands more. These pictures and numbers on the wall are called a calendar. Each calendar holds a year. We've  gone through four of calendars since you were born. That's why we say you're four years old. When you turn five, you'll go to school in a month called September, and they'll teach you a poem all about this. But right now, I'm just trying to explain why today is May Day. Let's just stick to months. There are twelve months in a year—like inches on this ruler. See? Twelve months and twelve inches.  May is just one of the inches—except it doesn't measure anything...well, time I guess. It measures time. So... there are thirty days in each month—except, like I said, for the ones with more or less."

The little boy looked more lost than ever.

Weary from one minute of teaching, his mother retired the ruler to the drawer and retied her apron strings. “There's a poem about it," she sighed. "It’ll all make sense to you someday. Just trust me for now. It’s May. Today's May first, and that's why I said, 'Happy May Day.'"

Ready to change the subject, she paused and squinted toward the picture on calendar. "Isn’t that a pretty cottage? Look at those flowers. I think those are tulips by the path to the porch. So pretty...."

“It’s very small house," the little boy said, "Too small for a family.”

“Maybe a grandma and grandpa live there.”

“Maybe somebody like Ol’ Pete,” the boy smiled.

“That’s Mister Pete to you, young man, and his house is even smaller than this one.” Then she added without thinking, “...and compared to this cottage, Mister Pete’s place looks more like a shack.”

She turned to look through the far window of the room at a small shape in the distance, shook her head, and smiled down at her boy. Taking the damp dishrag from the sink, she pressed down a cowlick in his hair and combed it into place as best she could with her fingers.

“That looks better. Now let me fix that twist in your strap,” she said, undoing the wire clip he’d worked so hard to fasten.

“Do you want breakfast or lunch?” she asked, and her son looked blankly back at her. “You slept in. The kids have been gone to school for hours. It’s past eleven o’clock— kind of late for breakfast.”

The boy was only slightly more familiar with clocks than calendars, but still he wondered where time went when he slept. He liked to wake up with his family for breakfast, but sometimes they were all gone by the time he came downstairs. The same thing happened when he took naps in the afternoon. Sometimes he was not tired at all and just stared up at the ceiling until he heard his siblings come home from school, but other times he drifted off so deep in sleep that his big sister, a nurturing third grader, had to wake him just in time for supper. Sometimes he fell asleep in the car but woke up in his bed. He never remembered being moved, but often spoke of flying in his dreams. He did not know that his dreams of soaring came when his father carried him to bed. It is a strange feeling to wake up and wonder where you are or what time it is, and had that feeling when his mother said, “…kind of late for breakfast.”

With a puzzled shake of his head he said, “I’ll have a peanut butter and jelly sammich.”

“A sammich?” she mimicked with a smile, grabbing the jars from the cupboard.

The little boy nodded, not knowing he’d left out the “w” in the word. His mother made the sandwich and cut it from corner to corner because she had learned that biting into triangle-shaped halves helped keep the jelly off her children’s cheeks. She took the knife, pressed off a corner of the oozing bread, and popped it in her mouth. This was her trademark on sandwiches, her meager reward for being “chief cook and bottle washer” for a brood of four children born roughly one year apart.

“There’s your sammich,” she said, pouring him a half glass of milk. “Your father called and said he’d be home by noon to work in the garage. Why don’t you play outside until he gets here. I have something you can do for me when you go out."

She ripped open a bag of sugar and poured some in cup. "Take this cup of sugar over to Mrs. Palmer for me. I borrowed it last week. Don’t bring back the cup because that is hers, too. Okay? Can you do that for me?”

"Okay," said the little boy. He drank the milk, and when his mother turned toward the sink, wiped the white mustache on the inside of his T-shirt. Picking up the second half of sandwich in his right hand, he took the cup in his left and stepped out the back door.

His mother watched him from the kitchen window as he stopped, pressed the last bit of sandwich in his mouth, put the cup in his right hand, and carefully proceeded.

Through the screen, his mother said, "When you give it to her, be sure to say ‘Happy May Day.’ She’ll like that."

It may have been a cup of sugar in quantity, but what carried it was actually a plastic thermal mug, the inside of which had been pink before it turned a shade of brown from years of holding coffee 'til it cooled. The outside of the mug was clear plastic over burlap. The boy had seen the set of mugs at the Palmer's house when the grown-ups sat around the table talking.He could almost smell the coffee in the air as he stared at the sugar in the cup.

He passed the oak that held the tire swing, and held the cup in both hands as he approached the ditch of the road between their house and the Palmer place. It had been a dry warm spring, and the ditches had no water he could see, but he had learned not to step in the soggy bottom that would sometimes wet his shoes, and with a small leap, he was half-way up the other side. He glanced both ways at the paved road, and then crossed the ditch on the other side. Standing there, he remembered something else he had to pass...

... Ol’ Pete’s little shack-of-a-house that sat on a sliver of land along the ditch on the other side. As he walked across the narrow un-mowed yard, the little boy stood to look at the house as if for the first time.
2883
Continued in Part II below:

© Copyright 2010, Tom Kapanka, Patterns of Ink
"Four in Corduroy" is a short story in three parts. It has been in various draft forms for years. It is based on a true story that happened more than fifty years ago. This is not a picture of Pete's house. His was not so overgrown in the front (as we will see), and his roof was shingled not tin, but it was about this size and looked very much out of place once larger homes were built in the area. About a decade ago, when I was visiting Port Huron, I drove by to take a picture of Pete's house on Atkins Road. It was gone, and a new house was being built behind where the little house stood facing Charmwood Road.

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Four in Corduroy: May Day: Part II

Continued from Part I...

Only once had the little boy seen Mister Pete up close. Several months before, in the flannel days of fall, he stood beside his father while the two men talked in the very spot where he now stood. It was then he studied the man’s face and knew why the grown-ups called him Ol’ Pete. Most of his hair was gone, and what had not turned loose turned gray before its time. Even grayer were his whiskers. He didn’t have a beard as such but never shaved without a reason. Sparse gray stubble circled his mouth and filled his hollow cheeks. He did not look as old as the little boy's great grandfather, but standing there beside the boy’s father, who was around thirty at the time, Ol’ Pete looked old enough for his name. His voice sounded old, too, like he needed to clear his throat but never bothered to do it.

Actually, Pete was not as old as he looked, but he was a little man whose trousers seemed synched a notch too tight and whose frame barely filled his worn shirts. HIs was a hard and lonely life, first in the Navy during the war and now as a deckhand in the Merchant Marines on one of the hundreds of freighters that coursed from port to port across the Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence Seaway. All of this the father was learning while the little boy, oblivious to most of the conversation studied only details of their faces.

The little boy gently tugged at his father’s hand to remind him he was there, but the men continued to speak of places that had "port" in their name—not like Port Huron but Port of Duluth, Port of Milwaukee, Port of Thunder Bay...names like that. His father told Pete that he had also been in the Navy, but only the Reserves, and soon the conversation grew thin until it sputtered into talk about weather and how it was getting darker sooner each evening. Eventually, the two men sighed in awkward unison, said 'good night,' and parted ways. The boy's father slung him onto his back and carried his tired son home. 

The boy recalled that conversation as he stood staring at Mister Pete's little house.

There were many things, however, that the boy, his father, and most others did not know about Mister Pete: To begin with, no one seemed to know his last whole name. Pete was all the name they needed for a man so seldom seen. He spent about ten months a year on the Great Lakes in cycles of four-months-on-three weeks-off. The weeks off were spent alone there in that little house—no wife, no dog, no friends or guests that anyone had ever seen.

The house was a small one-room structure with a low-peaked roof. In the middle of the front wall was a door with four-paned windows at each side. To the boy, the drawn curtains of the windows were like sleeping eyes. Such a little place could only serve a man accustomed to the tight quarters of ships who slept for months on a canvas bunk attached to a steel wall. Such a man has little need for extra space—what is space, after all, but emptiness? The smallness of the house helped hide the fact that it had so little to hold.

When Pete bought the place, ten years before, Atkins Road was just a gravel lane that ran along the southern ridge of the Black River, and the road now called Charmwood was a two-track winding back to a pasture. Pete had chosen to live his days on land in this rural part of Port Huron not for its solitude—though that suited him—but for the fact that he had grown up a few miles from the little house Those woods, and pastures, and the long hill down to the river felt as much like home to him as anyplace on earth.

Atkins Road was paved and wider now, and two years before, the pasture road was pave when the land was parceled into lots by a land developer. And that was the time when Mr. Palmer and the boy’s father bought each purchased an acre of land on which to built their homes with every thought of being neighbors for life. Pete's house was so near the new Palmer place that, had it been made of matching brick, it may have looked like a guest house on the far side of the driveway. But it did not match anything. It was out of place and in the way at the same time. So much so that the neighbors often treated the empty house as if  it weren't there. Not so for the little boy. He stared at the empty house whenever he walked past, much as one watches a sleeping dog when walking past the circle path that’s drawn by the compass of his chain.

The little boy resumed his walk with cup in hand and knocked on the aluminum side screen door of the Palmer house.

“Well, looky who’s here,” said Mrs. Palmer, followed by a gravelly laugh. “What have you got there?” she added.

“Your cup of sugar,” the boy said shyly, “Mom sent me.”

“She didn’t have to do that,” again came the gravel laugh. She opened and closed the door just long enough to grab the cup.

“Oh, and Happy May Day! That’s today. It’s not April anymore.”

“You are right. I’d let you in but the parakeet is out of the cage and I’m trying to get him back in. So I better go. Tell your mother ‘thanks.’”

And with that, Mrs. Palmer turned and bounded up the three steps to her kitchen. From an open screen window she said, “Oh, and Happy May Day to you, too. Say, why don’t you pick your mom some flowers and put ‘em in a May basket.”

The sun on the screen made it impossible to see her face, but the boy waved anyway, then turned and stepped from the driveway to Pete’s narrow yard. It was then the boy saw them for the first time. The reason he had not seen them moments before was because the idea of picking flowers had not yet been planted in his head. But there they were. Just like in the picture above MAY on the wall. Tulips his mother called them. Right there in front of him in a row. He bent down, carefully picked a handful, and continued across the narrow yard.

It was true the tulips were in a row, but what the little boy chose not to see was that the row was in front of the little house on both sides of the door below the sleeping window eyes.

He continued walking, down and up the ditch, across the road, down and up the other ditch, then walking faster as he neared the back door, crossed through the laundry room and up the steps to the kitchen.

“Happy May Day,” the little boy said, holding the bobbling bouquet up to his mother's face.

“Oh, my! Those are beautiful. That was nice of Mrs. Palmer. Did you give her the sugar?”

“Yes but she couldn’t let me in ‘cuz the bird would get out.”

“Let me put these in a vase. Your father’s home—upstairs changing into his work clothes. Why don’t you go surprise him. He asked where you were when he came in.”

The boy sneaked up the stairs but his father was already walking toward him as he reached the top. He scooped his youngest son up in his arms.

“Happy May Day!” said the little boy.

“Happy May Day to you, too, kiddo. How’s yer ol’ straw hat?”

“I haven’t got a straw hat,” the little boy laughed.

It was an exchange the boy and father shared whenever his dad came home with nothing much on his mind. They stepped into the kitchen, just in time to see the flowers being placed on the center of the table.

“Where’dja get the tulips?” the father asked.

“Mrs. Palmer sent them,” she said.

“No she didn’t,” the little boy said, “I picked ‘em for you by myself. Happy May Day.”

“Picked them where?” his mother asked.

“I don’t know. Just picked ‘em.”

The father sat the boy on the edge of the table, still holding him in his outstretched arms and looking in his eyes. “Picked them where, young man?”

Strange how the entire mood of the room, the house and world could be changed so quickly by such a simple question. The boy of four could feel his heart beating behind the bib of his corduroy overalls.

“Picked them where?” his father asked again, standing him on the floor.

“Over by Mister Pete’s house.”

The father walked across the kitchen to the far window to look at the house, but he could not see the flowers.

“Where by Mister Pete’s house?”

“I don’t know. By the front door I think.”

“Did you ask Mister Pete if you could pick them?”

The mother began, “He’s never there….”

“Well, he’s there right now,” said the father. “I just saw him step out and in his front door. He’s probably wondering who stole his flowers.”

“He didn’t steal them,” whispered the mother in his ear.

“Well, what else do you call taking something from under a man’s nose without asking?”

“Young man, I want you to take these flowers right back to Mister Pete…”

“Honey, don’t,” the wife interrupted, “He’s only four. He didn’t…”

“He’s old enough to know he can’t just take things from someone else’s house.”

“He didn’t take them from a house. They were outside..."

"Outside...inside... It's still the man's house..."

"He didn't know…”

“Well, now he does,” said the father pulling the flowers from the vase and putting them in his son’s hand. The boy began to cry, but his father was unmoved. “Now take these flowers over there to Mister Pete, knock on the door, tell him what you did, and tell him you're sorry.”

“He’s four. I’ll do it,” insisted the mother who was now almost in tears herself.

“No. He picked ‘em, and he can return ‘em. Now go on, young man, I’ll be watching from the window.”

A mere sixty seconds had passed since the little boy said, “Happy May Day," and now there was not a happy eye in the house.

Here we must pause in this scene from more than half a century ago. There are, no doubt, as many different ways to handle moments like these as there are different parents in the world. A thoughtful response is more prudent than a visceral reaction, and many a father wishes he could apply the wisdom of age 60 to his actions at age 30, but readers from one time would be wise not to judge too harshly parents from a different time. In mid-century America, the father was considered the head of the home, raising his family in an era when right and wrong were not explained away, and circumstance held little sway in telling the two apart. Self esteem was not bestowed by sparing kids from loss or guilt but by helping them strive toward the way things ought to be.  It was a time when the choice between right and wrong was sometimes as clear as knowing which was the harder thing to do. By that virtue alone right choices were often identified... and all that remained was the doing.

The little boy walked slowly past the oak that held the tire swing, as if carrying his own flowers to the gallows. Each breath he took between sobs sputtered and halted in his heaving chest, but his feet kept moving forward to the road. Down and up the ditch; a glance both ways through teary eyes before crossing; then down and up the ditch on the other side; a few slow steps and there the boy stood at Ol’ Pete’s door. With a half-dozen tulips in his right hand, the left hand reached up and knocked. The soft young knuckles barely made a sound. He changed the flowers to his left hand and knocked again, and this time the sound of his skin against the wood was heard inside the house.
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Part III, the conclusion
© Copyright 2010, Tom Kapanka, Patterns of Ink

Four in Corduroy: May Day: Part III (conclusion)

Continued from Part II

The knocking at the door sounded first like a mouse in the warrens of the wall, and Pete made a mental note to put fresh cheese on the traps he had emptied the night before. Oddly, he didn't mind that mice continued to find new ways into his private fortress. He considered it an ongoing game whenever he was there to play. But the second knocking sound, he could tell, was coming from the door, a fact that puzzled him much more than the thought of a mouse.

Opening the door, he saw the crying boy with tulips in his hand.

“Where did you come from?” Pete asked, as he tucked in his undershirt, hoping to look more presentable.

“From over there,” the little boy said, pointing with the tulips to his house across the road.

“I thought I’d seen you before. Did you bring me some flowers?”

“No. I didn't bring 'em—I took ‘em. See?” He pointed to the ground.

Pete stepped out his door for a better look at a flower bed he had not tended in years. He had planted the tulip bulbs beneath both windows the first year he moved into the house, but since that time,  they typically bloomed and withered on the stem while he was out to sea. Seeing them now in the little boy’s hand was the first time he had paid attention to the tulips in years. Even so, his first thoughts about the boy pulling them from place were anything but kind.
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“Can we fix ‘em?” the little boy sniffled.

“Well, lemme see,” said Pete, taking one of the flowers from the little boy's hand. He bent down and tried to stand it up in the soil then caught it when it fell. “That's not gunna work.  I guess there’s no way to unpick a flower is there?”

“I’m sorry, Mister Pete,” the boy cried. “I picked ‘em for my mom, but then my dad got mad, and told me they were yours…”

“You picked ‘em for your mother?”

“Yes, for May Day. Mrs. Palmer told me to…”

“Mrs. Palmer told you to pick my tulips?” he said scratching his bald head.

“No. Not your tulips. Just flowers. I didn’t know these were…”

“So today’s May Day, eh?” Pete interrupted. “I forgot they even called it that.”

“Me, too,” the little boy agreed. "I didn't even know May was an inch until today, but Mom says this is the first day of it."

"May Day..." Mister Pete said softly. Then repeated it clearly, "May Day."

Mister Pete looked across the road at the boy's house, took a deep breath and said, “Your old man was right, you know?”

“What old man?” he asked.

“Did I say that? I meant… Your father was right. You really can’t go around taking people’s flowers without asking. Daisies in the ditch are one thing, but flowers by a house were likely put there by the folks inside.”

“Did you put these here?” the little boy asked.

“Not those flowers exactly, but yes. Years ago, I planted tulip bulbs there. I don’t know what I was thinking. I'm never here to see ‘em, but they keep coming back each year with or without me.”

“I didn't mean to steal 'em,” the boy sniffled.

Mister Pete winced at the word steal, then shook his head. "Do you know what 'may -day' means on a ship?" he asked. "It's actually French—looks like 'M'aider' with an 'r" at the end, but it's pronounced just like May Day.  Know what it means in French? It means 'Help me!' We get the word maid from it. Know what a maid is?"

The boy shook his head "no."

"Well, never mind. Anyway, if we hear 'may-day' over and over on the ship radio, we know somebody's in big trouble and needs help. It's just like S-O-S. Did you know that?"

"No," the boy said again, "but I am in trouble...big trouble." He wiped his nose on the inside of his shirt.
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“Tell you what, boy. Hold these flowers.” Mister Pete dropped to his hands and knees and picked the remaining tulips from under the other window. “Now, step in here for a minute, and we’ll find somethin' to put 'em in.”

Pete looked toward the boy’s house, and gave a thumbs up to the parents he felt sure were watching.

The little boy stood with his back against the door jamb and looked around the curious room. To his left was a hat rack draped in shirts and sweaters and a housecoat but no hat. To the right was an old iron bed neatly made. At the foot of the bed was a flat-top trunk that served as a coffee table for a small couch covered in a blanket. In the far corner was an open closet beside a door that blocked the only space not open to the room.The boy assumed that was the bathroom.

In front of the closet was a chair beside a small table, a stove, and an old-timey sink in a white metal cabinet. Above the sink were two cupboards—not cupboards in the modern sense but in the literal sense: they were boards with cups and bowls and plates stacked in plain sight.
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On the top shelf, were empty jelly jars that had been collected one-by-one to serve as drinking glasses. From the far end of the shelf, Mister Pete grabbed an empty coffee can for the tulips, added some water at the sink, and brought them to the boy.

“Now let me put the ones you have with these, and then you can take them all to your mother.”

“I can’t,” said the little boy, “My dad told me to bring these back to you.”

“Tell your dad he was right, boy. These flowers weren’t yours to take... but they are mine to give. I'm giving 'em to you. That's different. I want you to have 'em. Tell him that. Can you see where you're goin'?” he asked, letting the boy out the door.

“I think so,” he said from behind the blooms.“But what if my dad says no?”

“You just tell him ‘Ol’ Pete said..." his voice cracked, "Tell him I said I wish I had a mother to give ‘em to." His voice cracked again. "Tell him that, and he’ll know I mean for you to keep 'em.”

The old man gently turned the little boy toward home, and started him on his way. The boy went down and up the ditch, glanced both ways, then crossed to go down and up on the other side. Then he turned back to see Mister Pete still standing by his door.

"Thank you," The boy said with growing confidence.

Mister Pete just waived him on, then nodded again toward the window of the boy's  house, somehow certain this whole scene had been watched from afar.

A few minutes later, a vase of opening tulips graced the kitchen table. The boy's father listened to his son, swallowed hard, and tousled the boy's hair with approval. He glanced at his wife but was at a loss for words. "I'll be in the garage," he said knowing he needed time to think. Things were quiet in the house.

Alone with his mother, the little boy said, "Mom, did you know May Day means you're in trouble? Mister Pete told me that"

"I guess I've heard that in the movies, but I don't think the May 1st  May Day means that."

"I do," said the boy, staring at the flowers in the vase.

The boy didn't know it at the time, but his father went from the garage to return the empty coffee can to his neighbor, who of course, did not expect it back. It was an excuse, really, to go and thank a man he barely knew for adding thoughtfulness to what he thought the boy must do.

"Doing the wrong thing for the right reason is still wrong," he said to Pete.

"True... but sometimes it's nice to find the right way to fix a wrong. You did what a Dad's gotta do, and I did what I had to do once your boy said 'May Day.' Kind of funny ain't it?"

"What the May Day thing?" the father asked.

"No," laughed Pete, "Two Navy guys talking 'bout tulips."



Some time later, a yellow school bus stopped in front of the little boy's house; the double door split open, and his two brothers and sister came running up the gravel driveway. They stopped to talk to their father in the garage, then passed through the kitchen to go upstairs. When they came down in their play clothes, their mother was starting supper on the stove, and their little brother was sitting at the table.

"Can we go outside to play?" asked his brother.

"For an hour or so," the mother replied.

The little boy did not join them. He had not taken his afternoon nap, and his drowsy eyes seemed fixed on the tulips in front of him. He was actually staring past the flowers  to the calendar on the wall. It was not the notion of time he pondered, not the numbers of days in a row, not the letters spelling M-A-Y, and not even the tulips standing tall along the path. What caught his eye was at the end of the path beyond the stone steps. It seemed to him that the cottage door was not closed tight, as if to say "come in," and he wondered what he would see if he could do just that.

To a boy of four in corduroy,
it is the rhythms of life that measure time:
the rhythm of lying down and waking up,
of tables being set and cleared,
of Saturday baths and Sunday shirts,
and all the down and up of ditches in between..
To a child it is the rhythms
of long-remembered days,
dropping one-by-one
like petals from a vase,
that mark the passing of time,
and this had been one such day.
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.© Copyright 2010, Tom Kapanka, Patterns of Ink
(The details and dialogue of "Four in Corduroy" are based on a very true story. It was an hour of my life that I would never forget with a character (Mister Pete) whose kindness turned a childhood blunder into a gracious gesture and a vivid contrast between justice and mercy for my father and me. I have no doubt that the next May, Pete and I could have picked Mom another bouquet (had he been home), but four months after this incident, we moved from our new house on Atkins Road in Port Huron to our little house in the suburbs of Detroit. Several years ago, I took my daughters down Atkins Road to show them the first "dream house" my Dad built. I also wanted to show them Ol' Pete's place (and see if it was as I remembered), but the little house was gone. Mrs. Palmer still lived next door, after fifty years. We visited a while, and then I asked her about Mister Pete. She told me he lived there alone and was just as enigmatic the rest of his life. He had passed away a few years before, but the house had just been torn down about a year before we stopped by. I told her this story. She assured me it was as I remembered. (The title phrase "Four in Corduroy" was a descriptive term my mother sometimes used of me when she spoke of the year-and-a-half we lived on Atkins Road I was actually five when we moved, and I began kindergarten at Huron Park Grammar School in Roseville, Michigan.)

Friday, August 19, 2016

A Boy's Life

How I Voted for Goldwater in 1964
[Re-posted from POI, 2006.]

Childhood is a delicate balance of expanding knowledge and carefully guarded ignorance. Never is more information pumped into young brains while other “facts of life” are blocked for future reference. This is as it should be. I’m all for growing slowly. In the case of my childhood, the “birds and bees” would be nothing more than feathered, fuzzy critters in the air until I was well past twelve. But as I entered third grade in 1964, an election year, I was exposed to the less pleasant facts of life about American politics.

Like most kids my age, I didn’t watch the news or pay attention to world events until Kennedy’s death. During the first four years of my life, Eisenhower was president, but I don’t recall knowing it. When his vice president, Richard Nixon, appeared in the first televised Presidential Debate in history against the younger, more handsome Kennedy, I wasn’t watching. When the first presidential election to include Alaska and Hawaii ended with Kennedy’s narrow victory (49.9% of the popular vote to Nixon’s 49.6%), I must have been in bed.

Three years later, those shots in Dallas slapped a copy of Life Magazine on top of the Boy's Life my brothers and I shared. [They were in Cub Scouts at the time.]












As mentioned in a previous post, 1964 was a high-water mark in pop culture, but those rising stars on the cover of LIFE did not cast enough light to fully remove the shadow of national grief. Election day came just days before the one-year anniversary of Kennedy's assassination. Johnson had become President not by ballot but bloodshed; he had taken the oath of office while that blood was still on the widow's dress beside him. That same day, he wasted no time in moving into the Oval Office (insisting that all of Kennedy’s things be removed within a few hours of the shooting). It was a coldly efficient transition of power. This 1964 election, if Johnson were to win it, would make him not a constitutional protocol but the elected President of the United States.

Johnson’s opponent was Arizona senator, Barry Goldwater. He had been introduced at that summer’s Republican Convention with a career-launching speech by Ronald Reagan (who two years later would become Governor of California and 16 years later…POTUS).
This moment (also shown here) was the silver lining to Goldwater's presidential cloud.

At the time, I was entering third grade and blissfully unaware of everything I’ve shared thus far . All I knew about Goldwater was that my dad was voting for him. That was enough for me. I was all in.

Eventually, I learned to think on my own, but as a boy, knowing where my father stood on issues helped me know where to stand. It was not so much blind obedience—it was simply trusting what was familiar without the need to see for myself. Sort of like going to the bathroom in the middle of the night without turning on the light. Nine chances out of ten, a boy can hit his mark without fully interrupting his dreams. Growing up, my odds were at least that good whenever I stood with dad.

As a Goldwater supporter in a mostly Democrat Detroit suburb, I soon learned the meaning of the word minority. I would be reminded of it three times a day: once at mid-morning break; once after lunch; and once after last recess. I don’t mean to be crude by sharing the following account, but I think my readers will forgive me for “talking through” one of the formative experiences of my childhood.

In the boy’s restroom in the northeast corner of Huron Park Grammar School, there were three urinals—the old full-wall models that stood about as tall as the boys who used them. This shooting range was ideal for the proverbial contests little boys of that time were known to engage in. I, of course, resisted the urge to participate, but I must confess to witnessing amazing feats of marksmanship, limited only by the dimensions of the room.
[My apologies to those unfamiliar with the gender-based plumbing alluded to in 1st Samuel 25:22 and five other times in 1st Samuel and 1st Kings.]
All such sport was put on hold in the weeks leading up to November’s election. The clever boys in the six classrooms who used that bathroom had more important matters to settle. They had devised a very pragmatic (albeit unscientific) polling method to see whose parents were voting for Johnson and whose were voting for Goldwater. The first fixture on the right was for Goldwater. (I’ll resist retelling the countless puns I endured because of that man’s name, but at least they put him on the right.) The other two were for Johnson. Needless to say, in my democrat neighborhood, most boys lined up at the two units on the left, and I (and one other kid) never had to wait in line to vote for Goldwater.

In addition to these childish politics, the grown-ups were also misbehaving. The Johnson campaign produced the following “Daisy Girl” political ad that implied Goldwater was eager to “push the button” that would trigger the mutually-assured self-destruction of the world. [The ad was pulled but stirred so much attention that it has never been forgotten.]

The Cold War was scary enough without ads like that. I actually watched election night coverage with my family that night. Goldwater did not win Michigan. While he was at it, he lost 44 other states. (In fact, he barely carried Arizona.) Nationally, he won only 52 electoral votes to Johnson’s 486. His loss came as no surprise to me. I’d seen his chances going down the drain for weeks. His campaign had a little surge toward the end, but every 3rd and 4th grade boy in my school knew from the start that Goldwater was a long shot.

[By the way... The plumbing picture above is not from the actual setting. I did go back to Huron Park Elementary School a few years ago. (It's no longer called a "grammar school."). It still has the same floor, beige tile walls in the hallways, same wooden doors, etc., but "security issues" that did not exist in the 60's are now a fact of life. I did not take a camera into the little boys' room and take the above picture. Can you imagine a fellow administrator trying to get permission to do that? Or worse yet...doing it without permission—snap a picture and step out with my camera to a nice school-police officer as the secretary says, "There he is, Officer, he said he wanted to take a picture of the urinals." No, I'm not that crazy. The fixtures above look just like the ones I was talking about, but they are actually from the Field Museum in Chicago—I got the photo from a web site that features famous plumbing from around the world. I'd pass along the address, but I don't want to dwell on this bathroom theme anymore than necessary.]

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