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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

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Working Title: "Unsettled" Two

Chapter Two: A House in a Hurry
(Second map added Friday AM)
In 1961, seven years before the picnic and the heron, we’d moved from the country to the city...if you can call Roseville, Michigan, "the city." It was not the kind of place that Dad would choose to live, one of a dozen melded suburbs on the north-east side of Detroit. These were “cities” by name
and cities with names, but as places there was little to tell them apart. They ran together like the thin whites of eggs in a pan that doesn’t sit flat on the stove.
Unlike the seemingly random sprawl of the suburbs themselves, the streets in our part of Roseville were a grid of tightly-woven streets and patch-pocket yards. By 'tightly woven' I mean 'close knit' without the comfortable give. They were rigidly laid out like giant rulers in a row with driveways at the inch-marks stretching up between the houses that barely had room to open car doors between them. The endless row of small three-bedroom brick ranches had floor plans so identical a blind man could walk them all without a tap of his cane.

View Larger Map
Perhaps the most redeeming feature of the streets was that each yard had, between the sidewalk and the curb, a tall canopy shade tree arching over the street (a consolation that sadly vanished in the years ahead [as seen above] after the scourge of Dutch Elm Disease).
In time, we'd learn the neighbors were wonderful but the neighborhood itself--compared to the one we were leaving---was not the kind Dad ever thought he’d settle for, and yet he did. In fact, he picked it on his own. The first time Mom and the four of us kids saw 18140 Buckhannon was the night we moved into the house. In fairness to Dad, he needed a house in a hurry.

Our house in Port Huron (before Roseville) was perfectly situated on an acre of land on a on the south ridge above the Black River. At the end of a long shaded drive, sat our tri-level brick colonial with a cupola on top. The house-in-progress was starkly furnished but held the hope of comforts yet to come. All around were other new homes on their own acres, a good distance apart, with big oaks all around.

View Larger Map
[That's it there on the west (left) corner of Atkins Rd and Charmwood Dr. It's hard to see the house for all the oak trees. We had a tire swing in the tree between the house and the "C" in Charmwood. When Dad was building that house (1960-61), most of the newer streets and developments in the vicinity were not there.]
Off the record, men will tell other men that the ideal space between houses in the country is no less than what allows him to water the far side of a tree without notice from a neighbor. This act is the fifth freedom that FDR and Norman Rockwell chose not to illustrate in their, Four Freedoms, but in civilized parts of the world, it is perhaps the key distinction between urban and rural living. If asked about it on the record, most men play dumb, "What do you mean? Water a tree? I have no idea what you're talking about." Likewise, just as magicians die with their secrets, I'll not discuss this further here, but I learned of this fifth freedom as a four-year-old on Atkins Road where Dad chose to build Mom's dream house with the help of his friend Virg Palmer. This was the best in "country living."
Just after the roof went on and the plumbing went in, we moved from Lapeer Ave. to the unfinished house on Atkins. But that same year, 1960, Dad got a promotion at Michigan Bell which took him to Detroit. He accepted the new job on a trial basis, and for several months he lived in a little apartment Bell provided while the four of us kids remained with Mom in Port Huron. The other three kids had started school, and Dad hoped they could finish one year as he settled on whether or not to accept the transfer for good.
Every Friday afternoon, Dad commuted the three hours home (pre-interstate, he took Gratiot all the way) and spent the weekends working on the house with Mom and us kids clamoring for his attention. We existed this way through the fall, winter, and spring, but as summer approached, Mom was convinced this was no way for a family to live--not even temporarily. One Sunday night, as I lay on my mattress on the floor (we had no beds but knew they were coming after we got carpet) I overheard them talking in the only bedroom with a door (the other doors were coming after paint). Knowing Dad would be leaving again the next morning, Mom's whispering voice grew louder through her tears.

“Don, if this job in Detroit is what you want to do, I’m with ya, but I’ve gotta be with you! The kids need you. I need you. You’re burning the candle at both ends, trying to finish this house, but why? If we keep the house, the job keeps us apart. If you keep the job…we can’t keep living here. We can't keep the job and the house. You've got to choose!”

Rarely had Mom been so settled on a matter. It was not an ultimatum but a statement of fact, and Dad knew she was right. He knew it Mondays when he went away alone; he knew it weeknights as he slept on an inflatable mattress in that little Detroit flat; he knew it weekend evenings when he put away his tools and swept the quiet sawdust of the day. He'd known it for some time, but hoped the choice would somehow go away.

The inside of the Atkins place was far from finished. The floors were bare plywood, the walls had not a lick of paint, but from the road the house had charm and sold before the sign went up, and just as fast we moved into the place in Roseville.

The night we stepped into the city house, the tight quarters were upstaged by more important fact Mom noticed right away: the house was finished and furnished. Every room had hung doors, painted walls, light fixtures and switch plates. There were hardwood floors and tile and carpet and cupboards. Even the basement was finished with tile and knotty pine. As Mom and I passed on the stair, I announced, “Mom, we don’t have to paint a thing!” She, too, was beaming. After ten years of works in progress, “doneness” was a feeling she'd forgotten a house could have.

Now add to this luxury the fact that Dad bought the house furnished--beds and dressers, couches, chairs, all appliances--even the mirrors and paintings on the walls remained. What this means, of course, was that the sellers were "movin' on up" and so ready for change that they left their post-war- modern furnishings behind per Dad's request.
To many wives such an arrangement would not do at all. The décor was not what Mom would choose, but the fact is, at the age of thirty, after ten years of marriage (with four kids born in the first six), Mom had not yet settled on her taste. She knew her wants in spurts (like the Duncan Phyfe table they’d bought ten years before and lugged from place to place [which indecently went to the basement in Roseville]). And on Atkins, she’d hoped someday to go with “Early American,” but she often joked that her “taste” at the time appeared to fall somewhere between late-Depression and post-partum.
For these reasons and more, she was willing to accept this pre-feathered nest along with the "doneness" of this home. It was not the perfect place but perfect for the place in life in which her family found itself. As we hurried through the house, Mom was all aglow. “Isn’t this cozy!” she chirped to each of us in passing. She said it again as we all stood in the hub-hall that connected the bedrooms and the bath.
"It'll do for now," Dad smiled, glad she was pleased, glad we were all happy with his choice, but wanting to remind us that this was only temporary... 'til we found a place to settle someday.
To be continued...
Note: In the first map above (Roseville), our house was near the corner of Marlene and Buckhannon (the roof below the "a" in Buckhannon Street). My "grammar school" (as they called them back then) was the building on the right. "Wooden Box" One and Two was set there in the 2nd grade room [then under the gray part of the roof].

Friday, July 25, 2008

Working Title: "Unsettled" One

Post was called "Series Not Yet Titled"...
As mentioned in the previous post, we're on a "staycation," camping just a half-hour or so from home. The girls are reading, and I've been pecking away at my laptop when not bike riding, hiking, swimming, or sleeping in a hammock. I wanted to post about the summer of '71 when my brothers and I helped Dad hand-dig a 32 foot deep cistern well. It's the how of the well that I think you'll find of interest, but you really need to know the where and why of the well as well. It may take a while to get to the well, but oh, well, it's best to start at the beginning. Here goes….
Chapter One: The Picnic was a Ruse
Revised slightly Tuesday, July 29th
(the word "unsettled" was added twice to the paragraph 3rd from the end).

The summer and fall of '68 was unlike any other in my twelve-year-old memory. Partly because I'd finished Huron Park Grammar School and was entering Burton Junior High, the halls and characters of which my brother Dave made bright with stories I would soon be stepping into. But mostly '68 was unique because my little brother Jim had been born in May. I was twelve, my older sister and brothers were teenagers, and Dad and Mom were nearly forty, but they seemed young again, and with a baby in the house, the details of time and space and life seemed to matter more.
One October night at supper Dad casually announced that the next day he was going squirrel hunting. It should have struck us that never before had he taken a day off in the middle of the week in the middle of the fall to go to the middle of nowhere to hunt something we never ate. To this day I don’t know if he found the property while truly hunting or if, to avoid premature questions, he took his gun along to look at some land he'd heard was for sale. All I know is he was pretty happy the next night at supper--considering he didn’t bring home a single squirrel.
What he wasn't telling anyone but Mom was that he'd found a piece of land about a half hour north of our small suburban l home. It was close enough to get to, and far enough to take us from the city. Fourteen acres of virgin timberland--maple, hickory, sycamore, beech, sassafras, and oaks by the score of such girth two men could not touch fingertips around the trunk. And right through the middle of this dense woodland was a winding creek just big enough to take a canoe from there to the Salt River which fed into Lake St.Clair.

Contemplating such a purchase was a rite Dad chose to perform alone. He wanted to take his time, walk it with a compass, look at it from all sides, pace the unmarked lot lines in mumbling incantations of math, trudge up and down the hills, pull branches from the creek, pretend for a while this land was his. And at the end of the day, after all this tromping 'round the edges, he stood dead center of it and turned deliberately east, then south, then west and north to see if it still felt right. Then looking up he sighed, "Lord, help me know for sure." He’d done this before with less perfect plots and come home without a word, but this time it was different. This time he knew he would return.

The next Saturday, Dad and Mom took three of us on a picnic in the area where Dad had gone hunting. Kathy and Paul didn’t come. Paul had his Detroit News route, a thing he hated, but money was money. With a double canvas bag on the back of his bike and a third ‘round his neck like an albatross, each day he paid his penance to the press. Kathy had other duties. As an officer of the “Young Peoples” group at church, she was expected to attend the "fall planning party." “Young Peoples” was no doubt a name chosen by old people decades before, but it was much more fun than its innocuous name suggested--they had parties to plan parties! And the week before this fall planning party, Kathy and her two best friends, Sharon and Minda, had a sleep over to watch “Tammy and the Doctor” and then stay up late planning for the planning party. [To this day, Kathy is a compulsive organizer of events that would otherwise never happen, and we four brothers are forever indebted to her.]

Truth is, they didn't miss much of a picnic. Mom packed sandwiches in a bag, and once we were out in the country, we ate them right in the car while Dad ate and drove with one hand on the wheel. Jim ate to--took a bottle I should say--while Mom held him in her arms. [“Child safety seats" were yet unheard of--not that they would’ve done much good since most cars on the road had no seat belts.] So Dave and I were eating, lost in other thoughts ‘til Dad slowly rolled by a long stretch of woods with huge oaks that stood at attention as we passed. He didn't say much else aloud but began tapping Mom's leg and mumbling things we couldn't hear. This was the purpose of the country cruise. We didn't know it then, but the picnic was a ruse.
Continuing down the road, the tree-line abruptly ended where a wide square of land had been cleared between the woods and the Salt River. With the sky now in full view, Dad saw something to his right and shouted, “Look at that!" Mom’s hand went to her chest to brace for some horrific sight. We were relieved to see instead a gigantic bird in flight.
.“Is that a crane or a heron?” Dad wondered aloud,
as if he were not the only one in the car who could venture a guess. No sooner had he spoken, and the graceful thing, whose focus must have been the water below, flew headlong into the electrical lines that scalloped the horizon. For a moment it was tangled in the clash, then tumbled limply from the air and disappeared in a drove of cattails on the far side of the narrow river. With a gasp Dad stopped on the bridge and ,as if he were somehow to blame, ran down the grassy hill and into the high weeds.
“There’s nothing you can do, Don!” Mom said to her closed window.
Dave and I got out and followed him until our shoes started making sucking noises in the spongy wet ground. Dad trudged on. We could see only his head bobbing in the bulrush until it ducked to dodge a blur of blue-grey feathers. Having caught its breath, and taken Dad’s as well, the fallen creature fought to catch the wind. Up, up in frenzied flapping then out and over the river where it found again the rhythm of its wings. Drawing in its long neck, it climbed high above the power lines, and then swept left toward St. John’s Marsh a few miles further east.

“Did you see the wing span on that thing?” Dad laughed, emerging from the high weeds. “It was a heron not a crane. A blue heron.” He caught his breath and repeated the news to Mom who was now standing beside the car burping Jim on her left shoulder.

“Don, look at your shoes. They‘re soaked.” she scolded.

“Yeah, it was wet down there, but I stayed out of the mud… mostly.” He picked up a nub of stick beside the road and, balancing on one foot, turned up the sole of the other shoe to scrape a thick wedge of mud from the front edge of his heel. “But did you see it take off? His wing span must have been five feet. It was like slow motion-- just scooping air." He switched legs to do the other shoe. "I’ve never been that close to one. It’s a wonder the fall didn’t kill him or break a wing. He sure took off when he saw me.” This child-like chatter was not common for Dad, but it was typically brought on by the adrenal rush of such experiences. He took a breath, then turned quite seriously to Mom and said, “You’ll never see that in the city. Never see any of this there. The river, the trees, wildlife--this is what I mean, Bev.”

To Dave and I it seemed a sudden change of tone, but the remark, like most things we overheard in life, was actually part of a life-long conversation we’d not been privy to. This one in particular had been whispered behind closed doors since '61, when we first moved to the city, and it always ended with the same word: “someday.” But such talks were more than idle thoughts to Dad; it was a recurring dream that occupied his mind by day: to take a bit of unsettled land and work it with his hands into a place his kids and grandkids would call home. Each time this wishful thinking slipped out in words, Mom’s unsettled enxiety kept the dream in check. And so as not to tip the scale, Dad knew we boys must be the last to know for just a hint of what was on his mind, he knew, would stir our imaginations beyond the quieting power of “someday.”
The date Dad put an offer on the land is a matter of record, but I've always thought that it was there along that river, where we’d seen the fallen heron rise, that he knew he must this time grab hold of his intentions. And it was there on the bridge, when he was scraping mud from his shoes, that Mom saw a sparkle in her husband's eyes, an energy for life she feared would fade when now, with a baby in her arms, they needed it more than ever. It was in that moment that her years of apprehension gave way to all she knew this moment meant. Dad's "someday" had come.

So safe was their secret that Dave and I stared out the windows all the way home, still talking of the heron, oblivious to all else we had seen. It was a week or two before we knew where we had really been.
Posted during a brief window of "internet." Still camping through next Tuesday....

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

From a Wooded Dune along Lake Michigan

Hello, All,
This is just a short post--a rare thing indeed here at POI--to let you know that we are camping and I have no access to the internet until Friday. The camp site is just six east from this one we had last summer. The girls are reading books, and I'm writing about the time we dug the cistern well. As you know when I write a story about one thing (e.g. a Duncan Phyfe, a motel, or whatever), the story takes a while to lay the ground work for that one thing. This is true of the piece I'm currently writing. Hope you'll check in Friday afternoon for the first installment.
Hope you're all enjoying July!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Father Far and Away: Part VII (the end)

I slipped below the water and a pushed off the pool wall, torpedoing back and forth five times before coming up for air on the far side. Jim was already there, arms perched again on the rough but rounded concrete edge of the pool. After catching my breath, I mumbled some lines out of the blue:

"But Mousie, thou art no thy lane, [not alone]
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!"

"Say what?" Jim said opening only one eye in the bright sun.

"It's part of a poem by Robert Burns I learned in Freshman Speech class. You asked why Dad is pumping gas, and it reminded me of that poem, "To a Mouse."

His other eye opened. "Some guy wrote a poem about pumpin' gas... to a mouse?"

"No, that's the poem's name--but come to think of it--yes, he wrote it to a mouse that he accidently dug up with a plow. It was nesting underground like that little one we found when we were laying the sewer pipe with Dad. Were you with us the day that happened?"

"Nope. I'da remembered a thing like that. Was it dead?"

"We thought so at first. He was curled up in a ball. Dave picked it up and it scared us when it moved--real slow like it was coming out of a coma. Then Dad explained that it had been hibernating in its little nest below the frost line. It was still groggy when Dave put it back down on the ground."

"What happened to it?"

"We kept digging the sewer line, and it crawled off into the trees like it was sleep walkin'."

"Seems like you should have killed it. What if that same mouse gets in the house some day. Mom hates mice."

"Then we would kill it because it would be in our space, but at that moment we had broken his space. It was just like in that poem. That's why I liked it first time I read it, but then at the end it's like something hits Burns about life while he's talking to the mouse. 'The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft agley.'"

"What's 'Gang aft agley'?" Jim asked.

"It's Scottish. Burns was Scottish," I said, a bit surprised to enjoy teaching a 7-year-old about a poem--a thing I'd never done before."'Gang aft agley' means 'Often go wrong'--or 'don't turn out as planned'." I quoted the six lines again and added, "There's a book by John Steinbeck called Of Mice and Men, and the title comes from that poem. I'm not sure why. [It would be another two years before I would actually read Of Mice and Men and know why the title was perfect.] Anyway, I guess I thought of the poem because this trip has not gone the way Dad planned."

I backstroked across the pool and looked over at the station. Another car had pulled up and as Dad began filling the tank, Dave walked over to the Country Squire and looked underneath. Dad ran in and out of the station--to make change I guess--and the customer's car rolled away. Then he and Dave were talking again. We could hear nothing but a song sparrow chirping on the chain link fence, a sound that seemed out of place for a silent movie flickering on a far away screen.
Jim sighed again, "I wonder why Dad's pumping gas," and at that moment, Dad turned to wave at us in the pool. Had he heard us talking? Could he see us? Our heads were barely above the pool wall and our voices barely above a whisper. We felt 'caught.' We'd gone swimming hundreds of times while Dad was at work--far away at work... at his job, but we'd never been swimming so indifferently while he worked and could see us. What if his suggestion to swim had faded in the heat of the day? Such things can happen after hours of knuckle-busting wrench work. But he sent Dave back our way with a pat on his shoulder and waved again. We waved back blankly.

"What did he say," I asked as Dave approached the fence.

“The owner had to go back to the junk yard to get Dad one more part so he asked Dad if he minded tending the station 'til he got back. There’s nothing we can do on the car until then."

"So he's still okay with us swimming?" I asked.

Dave shrugged. "I guess. I offered to pump gas, but he said he'd better stick to what Clee set up. It's kind of weird... I mean... the guy left Dad in charge of the place. There's nobody else there right now, but Dad told me to come back and tell Mom it will be another hour or so."

"What time is it?" I asked. None of us had on a watch. It felt like eleven o'clock but was actually well past noon.

We thought Mom had spent the entire morning propped up on the bed in front of a cold rush of "air conditioning" billowing from the wall unit. Like most Americans, we had never lived in a house that had the luxury of air conditioning, and to sit directly in such a sensation was a pastime all its own. We figured all morning she'd been flipping channels with a remote control, which was another touch of modernity unfamiliar to our family. "Would you look at that!" she had said that morning as we left for the pool. "I can turn the channels and everything from right here." So naturally, we hadn't given Mom much thought after leaving the room.

But what we didn't know was that about an hour before noon, Mom had gotten nervous about checking out on time and went to visit with the lady at the front desk who told her we could keep the room until we were ready to leave. Mom had a way of making fast friends with total strangers, and the two women had kept right on talking for nearly an hour 'til Mom remembered she needed to make Dad lunch. On the way out the door, the lady said, "Here. Take him a bucket of ice. Your husband's over there workin' in the heat. Poor man's going to want a shower before you hit the road, and the boys look like they're enjoying the pool. Just keep the room key. No hurry. We're mostly empty anyhow."

Swimming has a way of making you forget to eat until suddenly you're so hungry you could eat a whole bag of potato chips. And just as our stomach alarms were about to go off, Mom came walking across the parking lot with a stack of sandwiches and glasses of ice water on the little plastic tray from the room.

"Lunch time," she announced as if approaching her own pool behind the kind of house she'd never dreamed of owning. We had, in fact, been the only ones swimming all morning as well as the night before, and it did feel like 'our pool.' She put the food on a round metal table that wobbled as it straddled a huge crack in the cement deck. "I'm going to take some sandwiches over to Dad and then come back to put my feet in. What did you find out over there, Dave. Is he almost done? I feel bad. Us over here and him working out in this heat."

"We do, too..." I'd started to explain our guilt but Jim said at the same time, "Dad's pumping gas. He's runnin' the station." And Dave squashed Jim's line with "It's okay, Mom. He's just keeping an eye on things 'til Clee gets back" I added, "We were goint to go help, but..." Jim blurted,"I thought maybe it was like washing dishes..." "It's nothin', Mom," Dave said, but Jim continued, "I was only trying to say that..." "Nothing," Dave said firmly. The exchange felt like that slap happy game we sometimes played with our stacked hands on the table. Dave's hand was on top since he was the one who'd actually been with dad, so Jim and I got the hint he wanted us to shut up.

He was trying to keep Mom calm, from jumping to conclusions and tumbling into the very kind of panic that Dad did not need brought with his lunch.

"It's' nothing to worry about," Dave calmly continued, "Clee just went to get one more part Dad needs. It's not even gunna cost us because Clee says it should have been attached when they bought it. Dad's almost done. I was just over there, and he sent me back. Let me take the lunch over to him. You just wade your feet. Really, Mom, everything's just perfect... just perfect."
Dave was right. Mom sometimes needed help navigating the unseen aberrations in her mind. Hadn't she, after all, just a few years before when we were digging the well in what would be thebasement of our house, gotten all worried when a man stepped out of the woods, just crossing through our land. He was curious about the concrete culvert pressing down in the earth, puzzled by us pulling up five-gallon buckets of dirt from a hole twenty-five feet deep, shocked to hear Mom talking to a man way down in the hole.

We'd been digging the well for six long Saturday's in a row. If all went well from dawn to dusk, we could sink a crock a day. The stranger laughed and said, "A well? You're digging a cistern well?--all you'll get is salt water 'round here. Why do you think they call it the Salt River?" He was referring to the river just east of our land, and on that ominous note, the man walked away not knowing he'd just picked a scab from my mother's nervous skin.

"Don't tell your father what that man said," she whispered to Dave and Paul as they lowered the extension ladder down the well to Dad. But all throughout lunch, she was uneasy. So much so that on her way back home she momentarily thought her '65 Plymouth was the old '39 Ford with a column stick shift and put it into "R" (as in "reverse") while driving 50 MPH down the road... but that's another story. I allude to it here only to say that Dave was right, it was best for him to take the sandwiches to Dad. Mom ate with Jim and I, and then went back to the air-conditioned room.
Sometime after 2:00 PM, we heard the latch of the pool gate lift. There was Dad in his filthy clothes, arms black to the elbows, but a smile shone through the grime. “Wow! You guys are brown as berries,” he laughed. [Dad always said that when we were tan.] “Well, she’s ready to go!” he announced pointing at the Country Squire, which we had driven unnoticed from the station to the motel.

“You never called for help,” I said, still feeling bad about the way this day had gone.

“I didn’t need it. Clee had some free time toward the end, and it went fast with his help.I‘m going to take a quick shower and change out of this shirt. Unfortunately I didn‘t bring another pair of pants, but we‘ll be home before you know it.” [It was no less than an eight-hour drive at the 55 MPH national speed limit, but he was feeling a second wind.]

Dad and Mom stopped by the motel office to make sure we were square, and then we stopped by to get gas at the station. “It’s the least I can do,” Dad explained, “He won’t take a penny for everything he did for us--not even the tow.” Mom’s jaw dropped, “What? But he did so much. What about the parts?” “I paid for the junk-yard parts, of course, but that wasn’t bad at all. I tried to put the money in his pocket, but he wouldn’t hear of it.”

Clee approached the car as if we were regulars. “Fill ‘er, up, Don?”

“Yes. It ought to take us pert near home,” Dad said.

I smiled to hear Dad say “Pert near.” I'd heard Clee say it the night before. Somehow in their long day together, Dad had picked up the phrase from a man who had shared his truck, his tools, and his time with a family in need.

So went our first time ever in a motel, and so began my first “college summer.” Less than a month later, my sister Kathy got married on June 28th. It was the beginning of the kind of change all families go through. Two years later, Paul got married. The year after that it was Dave, and in 1980 it was me. Jim was twelve as he walked down the aisle as my "Junior Best Man." He and my parents still had a whole lifetime ahead of them, one that included many stays at motels, but Jim’s favorite memories were the ones with us all still under one roof. The seven of us crowded in a three-bedroom brick ranch, or the old canvas tent, or stuffed into that Country Squire station wagon.

The next fall (the beginning of my sophomore year), we again packed the station wagon to head back down to school. The day before, Mom baked one of her famous Banana Cakes with Butter Cream Frosting, her specialty, the magnum opus of her culinary arts, but the cake was not for us. Dad planned it so we'd stop for gas at the Berea, Kentucky exit. He was glad to see Clee at the station, glad that he recognized us and the car right away. Mom got out and and gave him the cake she'd been tending by her side for nearly eight hours. He was very moved by the sweet gesture of remembered kindness and insisted that we all sit in the garage stall and have a piece with him. He and Dad joked and talked like old friends. Mom added her pleasant two cents. We boys, having never spent more than a minute with him before, just smiled and ate Mom's cake.

As the others visited, Jim and I walked outside across the vacant lot to the pool where we'd spent the day just three months before.

“The best laid schemes o' mice an' men Gang aft agley...” he said.

Surprised that he remembered, I couldn't help but finish out the poem clear through to the end...
"An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!
Still thou are blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!"
I dreaded the thought of another year so far from home.

End note: A week ago, when my brother Jim (now 40) reminded me this story took place in Berea, Kentucky, I Google-mapped the exit. To my surprise, the pool (or one like it) was still there. Clee's* station has been replaced by a huge Speedway Gas Station and convenience store. There is no garage for car repair. [*Clee was my freshman roommate's name and not the garage owner's. My brothers and I can't remember his name. Dad and Mom would know it... if they were here.]

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Father Far and Away: Part VI

[Revised Saturday, July 12th.]

I woke up to the sound of Mom unpacking a grocery bag of breakfast things and lunch snacks that Dad had picked up on his way back from the junk yard. Had it been twenty years later, the filling station would no doubt also have been a convenience store, but in 1975, the notion of combining gas and groceries had not yet occurred to men like Clee. Back then they were called “service stations” and there wasn’t a loaf of bread, gallon of milk, or Slurpy in the place.

The inside of most gas stations was only big enough for a few paying customers to stand while they waited for service in the garage. Gas customers rarely got out of the car. They paid the same man who filled up the tank, checked the oil, and cleaned the windshield. It was the concept of “self service” (pumping your own gas) that brought foot traffic into the station, and gradually, aisle by aisle, service stations became "convenience stores." But that was still a few years off. So after Dad found a '64 Ford rear axel at the junk yard, Clee was kind enough to stop by a store on the way back to the station.

We ate a quick bite of powdered donuts, and got dressed to go help Dad, but Mom had surprising news: “Dad told me to tell you boys just to stay here and swim. There’s nothing you can do over there.”

“Are you sure?” Dave asked.

“He said if he needs one of you, he’ll come get you. So put on your suits and enjoy the pool. We don’t have to check out until noon.”

We did just that. Basking in the sun. Jumpin’ in the pool. Drying off to soak in the sun again. It was not a new pool--in fact it was the painted-cement kind, so hard to maintain that many were eventually filled in, leaving a pool-shaped patch of lawn or asphalt. .

Beyond the chain-link fence was the parking lot that ran to edge of the garage property where Dad was working on the car, safely held up on blocks. He was out of earshot, but Dave (who played center field and had a great arm) could have easily thrown him a ball.

We swam for a couple hours, until the three of us paused at the deep end with our crossed arms perched on the side of the pool, chins resting on our wrists. In the distance, we could see dad through the squiggly-mirage lines that rise from hot pavement, and a sense of guilt came from the scent of chlorine on our skin.

“It just doesn‘t seem right,” Dave said, and then his eyes squinted toward the gas station. “Is that Dad pumpin’ gas?”

“Looks like him,” Jim said.

“Why would he be pumpin’ gas?” I asked.

Jim ventured a guess: “Maybe he has to do that to pay for the repair. Sort of like washing dishes at a restaurant when you don‘t have enough to pay.”

“That does it,” Dave said, angry at himself, “I can’t be swimming over here while Dad’s pumpin’ gas over there.”

He pulled himself onto the cement deck in one athletic motion, grabbed a towel, and ran to the room. Jim and I stayed in the pool, still soaking in guilt.

“Dad did say he’d call us if he needed us,” Jim reminded, not wanting to leave the pool, “and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s to stay away until Dad needs me.”

“I know what you mean, Jim. I think he likes workin' alone from all those days of building houses by himself when we were little. Seems like whenever he worked on cars, he was alone, too, except when he’d call one of us for something. He’d be out in the garage under a car and yell, ‘Tom, go down to my tool board and get my crescent-wrench,’ and all the way down the steps I’d be trying to remember what a crescent-wrench was. I’d grab three or four things that looked kind of "wrenchy" and hope one of them was what he wanted. Pipe wrenches, box wrenches, adjustable pliers, and with any luck at all an actual crescent-wrench." [Dad had an authentic Crescent brand wrench, but the term "crescent-wrench" is spoken as if one word and is generically used for any adjustable wrench other than a pipe wrench. Old adjustable wrenches are sometimes called “monkey wrenches“ because the forerunner was invented by Charles Moncky in 1858.]

Jim interrupted. "But, Tom, you work with tools all the time."

"You can use tools and not know their names. It's only when two people are working together--or trying to teach--that agreeing on the names of things matters. Sure, I know all of his tools and what they do NOW, but back then I called a Phillips head a 'star' screwdriver because it made star prints when I poked it into Play-doh.'”

Jim laughed and turned his face toward me. He was a towhead, and with his cheeks reddened from the morning sun, his hair looked all the whiter. “Now that you're away, he calls me to bring him tools, but if I'm not sure which one he's talking about I just ask him.”

“Just like that?" I was bewildered. "And he explains it?”

"Well, sure. How else would I know what to bring? I’d ask him ‘which one’s the crescent-wrench?’ and he’d say, ‘It’s an adjustable wrench with a thumb knob that opens and closes to fit the nut. Bring the big one--it says Crescent right on the handle--not the little red one. Center of the board to the left of the ball peen hammer.' Like that.”

"It says Crescent on the handle?" I asked, wondering how I'd missed that simple clue all those years.

"Yep. Forged right there in big letters."

"I guess I remember that," I mumbled, trying to hide my amazement that this 7-year-old could explain a crescent-wrench and more so that his question had produced such a teachable moment with Dad. “Wow, Jim! You've got it made. I used to think Dad thought boys were born knowing the names of tools."

“You should have asked him?”

“Maybe we did in the beginning, and maybe he did explain. All I know is eventually I quit asking. But if I came back with the wrong tool, he’d be sore, so I always brought him plenty of choices."

"He was the same with knots. He knows all the knots and can tie them at will--sheepshank, bowline, clove-hitch--but we boys never knew any of them. One time just a few years ago, we were tying down a tarp over a load of lumber and Dad says, ‘just throw a double half-hitch in it.’"

"I started some complicated triple knot with no name and he yelled again, ‘just throw a half-hitch.’ I actually had the nerve to yell back at him, ‘Dad, has it ever occurred to you that I don’t know what a half-hitch is!’”

“You actually said that?” Jim was shocked, because in all his observation and the long oral history of his three older brothers working with Dad, he'd yet to see or hear of one of us "talking back" as if on equal ground.

“Yes. I said it. Dave and I had been working with him all Spring Break, tearing down that building in Mt. Clemens to get the wood to build the house. Now it was Saturday. It was late and dark and drizzling. We still had to drive out to the property and unload it all in the barn before going home. We were all tired, and I just kinda snapped.”

“What did he say back?” Jim’s eyes were wide.

“He said, ‘You mean to tell me you don’t know how to tie a half-hitch?’ He was mad, and I said, ‘No, Dad, I don’t. Why don’t you come over to this side of the trailer and show me how to tie a half-hitch.”

“You said that?” Jim gasped, "I would have kept the trailer between."

“I don’t know where I got the courage but I did. Dad shook his head all the way as if he was about to tie a grown man’s shoe, but he calmly showed me how to tie a half hitch and explained why it was perfect for this situation. He started out sarcastic, like 'how could I have a 16-year-old son so ignorant of knots,' but then doing it step-by-step like that he must've remembered the time somebody had shown him how. After he was done he took a deep breath, looked up at me, and said, ‘I’m sorry I never taught you that before now.’ The teeth were gone from his voice, and I felt bad for talking back to him."

"All you did was ask him to show you. I do that all the time." Jim said.

"There's nothing wrong with a question, but I asked it just to yell back at him. I think I wanted him to feel that way, and then when he did, I felt like a creep."

Jim was about to speak, but then his eyes looked past me. He saw Dave, dressed and jogging over to the station. I wondered again whether I should have stayed or gone. It was like watching a coin toss in slow motion until Dave stepped beyond our view into the station door. “Well, anyway,” I said with my mouth in the crook of my arm, “that’s why I’m taking Dad at his word that he’ll call us if he needs us.”

“Dad’s not so much like that anymore,” Jim said. "The mad part, I mean. He's more like the teach you how part now."

“I’ve noticed,” I smiled and looked down at the water in the shadow of my arms, pondering whether or not I should point out to Jim that Dad was now a year shy of fifty with a seven-year-old son. He had not only mellowed--he was, in fact, a wiser man. A decade before, at forty, working with three boys who would rather be playing, I think he always felt one step ahead of Murphy’s law. Now, with Jim, it was different. With this broken axel, it was different.

I'd heard Dad say he believed God was sovereign and in control of everything that comes at us--good or bad--and it's all part of a purpose beyond what we may understand. He’d said that for years, but I think it must've sunk in that if that’s true...then life is as much about the obstacles as the goals. [I later put it this way in a letter to him: "Life is the meal God serves while we're reading our hand-written menus."]

Deciding not to say anything about Dad's age or Jim's youth, I turned to face the sun. Jim did the same then broke the silence with the original question: “So I wonder why Dad was pumping gas?”
To be continued...
Note about revision: A day or so after writing something, I like to "read" my own writing as if I hadn't written it,,, as if I'm seeing it for the first time. Afterwards, I revise and tweak. This chapter was revised quite a bit after I visited with Jim Thursday night who added some details about that day in 1975. He reminded me that it took place at the Berea, Kentucky, exit. I google mapped it and to my surprise the motel and pool are still at that exit. The service station is gone; a big Speedway convenience mart is there. Friday night, I went back and added "Berea" in all the places I'd said "somewhere in Kentucky.". I have not been by that exit in over 25 years, and though I've been writing about it for three weeks, I'd forgotten the name of that little town.

Then this morning, a journalist and Bush Press Secretary whom I highly admired died of cancer. I was reading this article about Tony Snow, you can imagine how serendipitously strange it felt ot learn that Snow was born in... Berea, Kentucky.

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Friday, July 04, 2008

Father Far and Away: Part V

The Meaning of Cozy
I have shared in other pieces that my mother had the gift of childlike glee. These spells of high-pitched enthusiasm came at predictable times: the first snow fall of the season, the first sign of spring after a long winter, and the first day at our favorite beach after a chilly spring. They also happened whenever she got something big and new with Dad‘s approval--especially if it had been a long time coming.
(If she bought something “big” without Dad’s okay...say a new vacuum cleaner...she would be more frightened than giddy because Dad liked having a say in such things; he studied up on them the week before, could tell Mom all the pros and cons of each model and tell Mom why his choice was the best buy. But Mom would occasionally come home with a "big" purchase based only on a statement like, "I liked it better than the other one they had," and Dad would just shake his head as if quoting P.T. Barnum to himself. Mom often said that she lacked Dad's confidence, but actually it takes quite a bit of confidence to buy "the one you like"... what she lacked was confirmation...
but I digress...)
A few times in her life really big and new items came to Mom almost like gifts for no occasion, like her new fruitwood piano or her maple dining room table and chairs. She couldn’t help but smile each time she sat at them. It took years for the giddiness of such things to wear off--in fact, I'm not sure it ever did until the table sat empty and the piano fell silent near the end.
But the times I remember Mom’s childlike joy most were the times she‘d step into a place and chirp with glee, “Isn‘t this cozy.” It typically happened the first dozen times she stepped through the zipper door of our family tent when our camp site was finally set up for the week. It would happen again each night when it was time to turn in. We’d all be side by side in six sleeping bags, staring at the faint shadows of branches in the moonlight on the tent roof, soaking in the smell of the canvas, listening to the crickets chirp, and Mom would say in the dark… “Isn’t this cozy!”
To this day for me, cozy is not merely the feeling of comfort found in a feather bed with flannel sheets and a patchwork comforter on top; it’s not a cabin with a fireplace. Cozy must be shared. It can happen anywhere except alone. Perhaps it's a feeling that begins in the womb and is subconsciously recreated whenever loved ones huddle close against the elements or some subtle unknown force.
Cozy may be four kids and a mom sharing three towels on a beach blanket when the wind switches and a cold breeze comes in off the lake. It may be the whole family tangled together on the couch because no one wants their feet to touch the floor during a scary movie. It can be two silver-haired sisters, in the twilight of their years, together again on a front porch glider with a lap blanket on their knees.
Cozy is whenever the lost time, a lost cause, a change of winds or fortune is trumped by the single most important fact: we’re together, safe and sound, and that‘s what matters. It’s the scene at the end of Peter Rabbit, when Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter, after a long day of work and misadventure, are watching their mother make chamomile tea?
When we came in from the pool that night, with our car still up in tractions across the way, we stepped into the simple room with two double beds and a roll-away all in a row. There was barely room for the five of us to walk. Jim dove on his bed, rolled over, crossed his legs at the ankles, laced his fingers behind his head, and grinned as if in the lap of luxury.
“Isn’t this cozy?” Mom chirped.
Dave and I just raised our eyebrows. It had been years since we shared a bed, and cozy wasn't quite the feeling generated by maintaining an invisible line down the middle while trying to sleep, but after being away for a year, we couldn't help but smile at Mom's familiar line. It confirmed what Dad’s surprisingly pleasant mood had already suggested: we’re together, safe and sound, and that‘s what matters. My little brother Jim was 7, Dave was 21, and I was 19, but whether we would admit it or not, you're never too old for cozy. It was the first time in our lives to stay in a motel with Mom and Dad.
I slept like a rock.
To be continued...

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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Father Far and Away Part IV

The relationship between man and machine was once rooted in the bond between man and beasts of burden. Since the beginning of recorded history, man has bred and bought and sold and sought the animals best suited to help him in his toil. From sled dog to African elephant, camel to horse, between man and these beasts there was a good-faith trade of sweat for care.

The animal understood that in exchange for the power of its legs, the strength of its back, the lather dripping from the collar or saddle it willingly wore, the man would provide enough food and water for another day. He may even provide shelter for a momentary rest from the endless dominion of plodding his domain.

Then came the Industrial Revolution, when man created machines to replace nearly every working beast. But for quaint exceptions, the snowmobile replaced the dog sled, the tractor replaced the draft horse, and the car replaced the carriage [from which the word "car" comes]. With this latter change, man transferred his care from horses to horsepower. And for much of the machine age, he began caring for steel and gears and belts and bolts as if the relationship were meant to last a lifetime.

But soon this care was reduced to mere maintenance, and in time that maintenance was passed along to others. So much so that today men and women alike know little about how things work and care only that they do.

Make no mistake, America was built on know-how, and there will always be a chosen few who know the how, but more and more consumers know less and less about the things they depend on everyday. They turn the key, push the button, flip the switch and expect to do their will. And when the machine goes kaput, they cast it aside for another. .

Wherever consumers consume, dumpsters, scrap iron yards and acres of junk cars have become testaments to both planned obsolescence and man’s short attention span for the machines in his disposable world. .

I confess that when it comes to cars, I take care of the things I can see and touch, but under the hood my skills are limited to the user-friendly yellow parts that are clearly labeled. Beyond that, I call our friends at "Total Car Care."
But my father was one of the old-school men who was not a mechanic by trade but of necessity. He did not so much enjoy working on old cars, but he knew it was part of the deal in owning them. Since saving money was the purpose of driving older high-miles cars, it made no sense to pay someone else to keep them running, and the owner of the garage in Berea, Kentucky seemed to understand Dad's plight.
So there we stood with the rear end of our car still held in the air. Clee was pumping gas for another car, so we climbed in the second seat door and wrestled out the clothes we needed for the motel from our bags in the back. Dave and I had swim suits stuffed in our college clothes. We grabbed them but hid them inside some other things, uncertain of when it would be prudent to let Dad know we'd found the silver lining of this cloud.
"You all go ahead over to the motel. I'm going to stay here and make a list of the parts I need to get at the junk yard." Dad said, and then he smiled. "Hey, look! A pool. Too bad we don't have our suits."
"Huh?. Oh that..." Dave and I acted as if we hadn't noticed, but Jim held up a pair of shorts and announced, "I'm in."
"Good thinking," Dad laughed, and Dave and I held up the suits we'd wadded under our arms.
"Now you're talkin', he laughed again.

Mom joined in, "Dad and I will just put our feet in."
"Sounds good, Bev, but go ahead and check in without me. I'll be there in a minute."
Walking to the motel, something occurred to me for the first time. From the moment the wheel fell off, Dad had not blown his top--not even a hint of anger or frustration toward the costly inconvenience that sidelined us in our journey home.
There had been times when Dad would not have handled this as well. Like most men, the slightly younger version of Dad, the Dad we’d worked with as young teens, sometimes cursed the obstacles of life. He’d start a day with goals--ambitious goals--which can be a good thing, but he sometimes failed to realize that they were somewhat arbitrary and at times unrealistic.
I don't know about his weekday goals, but for about ten years we shared Saturdays from before sun rose 'til long after it set, working out at the property.
Whether it was sharpening all of his chain saw blades before dawn, or felling three tall oaks by noon, or uprooting a half-ton stump by dusk, sometimes the goals Dad set were hindered by things that broke down. The kind of obstacles that say, “You thought you were doing something else today, but I have news for you: your time will now be spent fixing this thing you need to have before you can return to the thing you want to do.” The Dad I knew hated when things broke and tended to be vocal about it until they were fixed, but something had happened in the more recent years he spent with my little brother Jim by his side. Maybe he was just glad the broken axel had not resulted in much worse.
Either way, we swam in the outdoor pool that night. Had the whole thing to ourselves. Though it was nearly June, the night air was cool which made the unheated water seem almost warm. As we were drying off with the towels from our room, it felt for a moment like the kind of "motel" vacation we had never shared.

Early the next morning, before the gas station opened for business, Clee took my dad to the junk yard five miles up the road in hopes of finding a rear axel for our 1964 Ford Country Squire.
When we woke up Dad was already at work on the car.
To be continued...
[Written and posted from a farm in Kansas, where there are three large Belgian draft horses in the pasture beside the acres of lawn Julie and I mowed this morning. The horses are occasionally put to the quaint task of pulling hay wagons full of campers at the summer camp across the small lake. They are owned by Julie's father who taught me nearly everything I know of the old relationship between a farmer and his team.]

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