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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

Friday, May 29, 2009

Guest Post from My Brother Dave

You have heard me write of my brother Dave. You've heard me say that he was the best "dream teller" and storyteller of all us kids. I have tried to encourage him to start a blog because when we visit about posts here at Patterns of Ink, his "take" on the same events is always interesting to me. He has sent me another "guest post" which I'll share in the weeks ahead. Four years ago, I posted his take on a story I'd written, "Dream Pony." That one was funny. This one shows another side of my brother that I also respect, and honesty and candor that I think you'll enjoy. He sent this several weeks ago when he knew what these more recent chapters were leading up to. I've chosen to post it now as a prelude to the chapter I said would be here Wednesday. It's the last week of school. Commencement is tonight. Busy busy days. I hope to have time to write next week. In the meantime, enjoy...

Dave's Take on the Fall of 1970

The summer of 1970 had ended, and a new chapter in our lives was about to begin.

Our family had never been far apart at any one time before. It seems that moment by moment we were all within an arms reach or shouting distance of someone in our home. Except for the year that dad was in Detroit and we lived in [Port Huron] township. [During that year he transitioned to a new job, Tom was four that year.] We only saw Dad on weekends where he mostly worked on the house but also took us on long walks in the woods along Black River.

But in our home in Roseville [the family home in the woods was not yet built] we were always close. Never cold or colorless but very close. Our house had always been crowded so we didn’t really know anything different. Throughout my years in high school I took a great deal of family life for granted. I believed that most families lived in homes with well worn carpets, had lawns with weeds, and that most everybody wore old under wear that at some time or other had belong to their dad or an older brother. It seemed that most of the people that had really nice grass were old and didn’t have kids running around or an old dog that had his trails worn to the nubbins in the dirt.

It had been a good summer, the summer that ended my tenth grade year. It may have been the year of the “well” or the year we tore down the “old school” to get lumber for the house or the year we pulled stumps with table spoons or finished the barn. They're all a blur to me, and I leave the details to Tom, who recently pointed out the date in the cement around the mouth of the well. Sure enough, that was 1970. I do know that it was a year that dad packed full of hard work that kept the boys busy. So it is not surprising that I didn’t have time to notice what was unfolding in our family.

It was nothing that most families don’t go through at some point in their journey through life. For me, it was an event that began a change that I knew would come sooner or later but I always thought it would be later. I only wish I had seen it coming. I would have paid more attention, maybe been a bit kinder, noticed what Kathy wore to the Senior Banquet or even asked her if she had fun. I was a young kid so consumed with stuff around me and so naïve about time and speed that I hadn’t noticed it coming. Kathy, our protector, our Mother Theresa, trail blazer, older sister, had reached a mile stone in her life. She finished High School.

At the time it still hadn’t hit me. I recall laying in bed at night listening to the voices in the living room. The screen door would slam as she came in from a date. Mom, Dad and Kathy would talk and I would fall asleep not knowing or caring what was taking place. I now know that Mom and Dad were catching up, racing against time, trying to soak in as much of my sister as they could. Their only daughter would be leaving and they were asking those questions that I had not taken the time to care about. They were soaking it in the moments. Looking at her eyes, her laughter, her movement about the room. All of the little things that would be huge when she was gone. All the things that I had taken for granted. I don’t know because I don’t have daughters. I do know that my wife was once a daughter and as precious as she is to me, her parents must have experienced those same late evenings hoping to capture the moments that summer before she went off to college.

Summer came and went like most others in our past. Working hard with Dad on Saturdays, family reunions, vacations to our favorite places, and those rare late Sunday evenings on the beach in Port Huron with the family. All seemed the same.

There were a couple of exceptions that made it different. Mom seemed a bit melancholy and dad would give a long sigh at the end of most family adventures and say something like “It goes fast boys, and the older you get the faster it goes.”

I heard it but I didn’t catch his meaning. I couldn’t see his eyes so I didn’t catch his heart.

As I recall, the week before Kathy left for college seemed somewhat normal. Kathy was more excited than usual. Mom was unsuccessfully trying to avoid the reality of the whole thing. She dreaded good byes. Worse, she hated sending her kids off to stay anywhere for longer than a few days. This would be the beginning of a new chapter for dad and her.

Mom had arranged that Tom and Jim would stay with my aunt and uncle in Croswell, a small farming community in the thumb area. [Because Michigan is shaped like a mitten, residents here use terms like “the thumb” and everyone knows what part of the state we mean.] My brother Paul and I stayed at my grandparents who still lived in the house in Port Huron that Mom was born in and lived in until the night before her wedding.

I looked forward to this last week of summer in Port Huron, just three blocks from the beach. There were selfish reasons that I kept hidden inside. When I stayed with grandma, I was my own boss and as long as I stayed anywhere that she was familiar with I was safe. My grandmother knew every one and every thing in town. That meant I was safe to do anything. For me, this was going to be a week of no rules and freedom.

Kathy was with Mom and Dad as they dropped us off at Grandma's. Needless, to say when the moment came for Kathy to leave, I missed the significance of what was actually happening. She was gone and I missed it. I mean, I saw her leave; I gave her a hug; I watched the car disappear down Forest Street and turn the corner. That moment would change our family as I knew it, and I missed it all. I was clueless. I bounded up the gray wooden steps on my grandma’s front porch two at time, bolted across the porch and flung open her old, black, wooden screen door. The very door that my sister and brothers and I had used so many times before as a gang of kids at Christmas or some other holiday or the Sunday's we enjoyed there...not even pausing to think about Kathy waving from the back window of dad’s old station wagon. I was free. I was clueless.

The first day of classes was fast approaching. I was going into the eleventh grade. It was to be my second year of varsity wrestling. As a freshman I had earned a Varsity letter, and had earned a few pins here and there. I believed that this was going to be a great year.

The first day of school was a difficult one. I hadn’t expected that. Something happened that changed me. My English teacher happened. Mr. Jones. He began taking the role. He called my name and paused for a moment. He looked up at me and quietly shook his head with a grin. He asked a simple question. It was something like, “Are you related to Kathy?” I nodded quietly. He said something like, “She was probably one of the nicest kids I ever had the privilege of teaching. Did she get accepted at that college she was hoping to attend? I wrote a recommendation for her and couldn’t say enough good things about her.”

I sat quietly for a moment as he went on with the rollcall. I turned my head to the window and watched the yellow leaves on a maple. [I thought it strange the leaves were turning so fast...so early in September. It was then I first] realized what had happened. Things were never going to be the same. I would hear Kathy's voice only through a phone or in letters that mom would read at the dinner table. Dad and mom saw it. I guess Jim and Tom felt it. [He'll post about that soon.]

Paul was a senior somewhere in the same building. His time was quickly approaching. I saw that now but had somehow missed it with my sister. Looking out the window of Mr. Jone's English class, a tear trickled down my cheek. I was a varsity wrestler. To this day I'm not one to cry. I tried to hide it by putting my head down but started crying uncontrollably at my desk with my face buried in my arms. I was not embarrassed, [but hoped no one heard my halting deep breaths].

I don’t know if anyone noticed or what they thought if they did, because it never came up, and I've never spoken or written about it until now. But it was in that moment that I realized this is how life goes. I would know this feeling again many times in the years ahead. It would be reinforced with each marriage of a sibling, with each passing of a parent, and as I watched my own boys become men.

Thanks, Dave. Folks, his next guest post is even better. Look for that in late June. I will post the next Unsettled chapter within a week (I hope).

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Unsettled chapter 25

"A Time When Certain Things Were True"

It was a time when certain things were true of boys and certain things were true of girls and it was okay to say so right out loud.

That suppertime in August 1970, when Dad remarked that Dave and I were "brown as berries" stands out for no reason at all. It was like the thousands of other meals we'd shared around the table. But the very commonness of life is what makes it so remarkable. It is through remembering life’s uneventful events that our eyes are open to what was, what is, and what has changed.

Take tenting in the back yard, for instance: Back then, that was more of a guy thing. True, Kathy had tried it a few years before, but what she and her girl friends did was more like "playing house" and getting the tent all situated for the evening, which was a waste of time since they got scared and ended up inside the house by midnight.

When we boys camped out there, we were up 'til all hours playing very quiet "war games." Quiet because none of our parents would have approved of us traipsing around the neighborhood when they were sound asleep. The real "danger" of getting caught only added to the fun.

After a night of espionage, we'd climb up on our garage roof; a place not unlike the Chinese Elm in front of our house where early summer mornings we'd climb to watch the neighbors heading off to work.
Sometimes rising just above the earth and seeing more at once brings a better understanding of the world.

But at night, the garage roof was our favorite place to hide. We'd lie there with our backs against the rough and crumbly shingles staring up at the stars and wondering about things out loud. After an hour or so, we'd inch toward the edge, drop like sandbags to the damp grass below, "water" the silver maple tree, slip through the zipper door of the tent, curl into our sleeping bags, and mumble ourselves to sleep. At dawn, we'd mumble ourselves awake in the green glow of canvas in the morning sun.

None of that would have happened if Kathy had been tenting with us in the back yard. She never climbed the Chinese Elm, always warned us to stay off the garage roof for fear we'd break our necks, and would have thought it vulgar to water the silver maple as we did in the cloak of darkness. I'm not saying there were no "tom-boys" back then who would have joined us in the tree during the day; I'm just saying that generally speaking, especially at night, most of this was a guy thing.

This is not to say we did not love our sister dearly. She taught her brothers many things boys tended not to know... like how to buy gifts for parents on special days; how to enjoy a good story read aloud while waiting for the approved time to open Christmas presents; how to treat young ladies—something in which we were taking increased interest. We learned some things without being told directly. We knew there were those clock-work days each month when anything we did could make our sister cry, and eventually we knew why it was true for her and every other girl we knew. In time, she became our number-one advisor on girlfriends and dating, and heaven knows we needed it. Because as I said: It was a time when certain things were true of boys and certain things were true of girls and everyone accepted it.

It had been obvious to mankind since time began that male and female were designed differently, as if with separate but equally important things to do. Formed to push and pull sometimes in opposite directions. It was true on the outside. Men and women were literally shaped differently and did not share the same plumbing so to speak. It was true on the inside. They were wired differently. So differently, in fact, that to force them into role reversals would probably have doomed civilization as we know it. It was inherently “fitting” that the gender with the ability to suckle a baby, could also imagine no better thing to do in that moment. It was good that the baby’s father, who could not feed it, saw fit to be productive in other ways. They were wired and “plumbed” for different roles, and they could imagine it no other way.

Speaking of wiring and plumbing, when the trades of electricity and plumbing actually came along, they borrowed the terms “male” and “female” and “coupling” to describe parts that needed each other to function. When a man says to the hardware clerk across the counter, “I’m looking for a male adapter for this female end,” there's nothing suggestive about it… it’s just obvious.. It was through working with Dad and hearing these terms that “the facts of life” gradually became apparent to us boys long before the movie was shown at school.

Dad didn't get into the details with us (Mom eventually did that) but he would point out generalities about the different ways the genders were “plumbed” and “wired.” They may seem like opposites, but in reality they’re matched sets, made to function in pairs. These things were assumed and “taught” from fathers to young men for thousands of years. Little did we know in 1970, that within a decade or two these simple, self-evident differences between the sexes would become contested by activists with an agenda.

Toward the end of the 20th Century, it became politically incorrect to speak of inherently advantageous differences between men and women. Equality was the goal, and believe it or not, equality became confused with “sameness.” Intelligent people began to pretend that there was no fundamental difference between male and female. Gone with the old “weaker vessel” cliché. Gone with the pink and blue. Gone with the assumption that little girls tend to play with dolls and little boys tend to play with Tonka trucks. Gone with commercials like this 1972 Easy Bake Oven spot showing only a girl using the toy. And the 60's TV jingle “G.I. Joe, G.I. Joe, fighting man from head to toe” would soon be considered sexist.

Experts began speculating that inclinational differences between the sexes were due to nurture not nature. “Liberating” parents who observed traditional, gender-specific role-playing in children were told not to re-enforce the behavior but rather do the opposite in order to start the rewiring process as early as possible. (While they couldn't change the plumbing, they could change the wiring so to speak. In time they would also find ways to change the plumbing.). More recent studies have reversed earlier claims about "nurture and nature" once avowed by the Women's Liberation Movement, but at the time those new political forces considered it important to ignore differences between male and female. Then and only then would women be seen as equal; then and only then would society correct the terrible injustice of fathers sitting at the head of the table when it was Mom who cooked the meal.

The following statement may sound narrow-minded at first glance. It could get me in trouble with many “thought police” because terms like equality and fairness are so ingrained in the American psyche. But the truth is such terms are ideals not outcomes. When we mislead people into thinking equality means all efforts should produce the same “outcome,” we rob people of the risk-reward process inherent in the pursuit of happiness. When we confuse “equality” with homogenized “sameness”—especially when we’re talking about gender—we take the flavor and the yeast from the basic breads of life.

Don’t get me wrong, there were many things in the pre-1970 workplace that needed to be corrected. I’m all for “equal pay for equal work,” for instance. And I'm glad that the so-called "glass ceiling" for career women has been broken. But in hindsight, folks on both sides of the issues agree that we went too far in neutering the roles we were wired to enjoy. We were wrong to confus equality of the sexes with “sameness.” Ignoring the fact that the sexes are differently gifted and that they naturally "complete" each other defied common sense, and we are now living with the most illogical “logic” and politicized agendas mankind has ever witnessed. Did I use the words “same” and “sex” in this paragraph? Forgive me. That was completely unintended (as were many of the consequences of the gender conflicts and/or confusions that began in the Seventies and the attempts to redefine marriage that came thirty years later).

Before I digress further and cause offense with additional over-simplifications, allow me to conclude with those harmless words that triggered this unplanned chapter: It was a time when certain things were true of boys and certain things were true of girls and it was okay to say so right out loud, because we knew from looking at our parents that the two completed each other, fit hand-in-glove, as had been true since time began.
Chapter 26: "When Kathy Left For College"
coming Wednesday.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Unsettled Chapter 24-C "Sacred Suppertime"

Dad sat at the head of the table. To his right, squeezed in between the table and the wall, was Paul and then Dave. Mom was at the other “head of the table,” which all mothers know is the working end, the end where the stove, sink, silverware drawer, and cupboards are just a step away. At her right hand for similar reasons, I suppose, was Kathy, the oldest, the sibling in charge whenever Mom and Dad were away. Jimmy sat an arm's length from the table in his highchair to Kathy's left. I sat to her right and to Dad's left, completing the circle around the table. I don't know when the seats were assigned but they never varied.

I think my seat was assigned back when I was a little kid. Dad wanted me near him because back then I was a fussy eater, a food tucker. I would tuck things I didn't like under the far edge of my plate or strategically under my knife. I could get about five peas under an overturned teaspoon. When I would say "May I be excused," (and, yes, we said that before leaving the table with the promise to return for kitchen chores) Dad would give my plate an inspection, and he knew all of my tricks. Many a night I sat at the table staring at cold food and chewing it to a pulp in my mouth but failing to swallow between forkfuls until the wad too big to swallow but not too big to hide in my far cheek. I'd wait 'til Dad was distracted and excuse myself to the bathroom where I spat the cud into the toilet with a splash.

Dad and Mom knew what I was up to, but I think they hoped I was somehow getting nutrients through this abridged digestive process. I was thin and very small for my age, and this force-feeding ritual was there way of making sure I did not starve. Note to parents: Don't do that. I turned out to be a fine eater and I am not under-sized anymore.

We ate supper together every evening, no matter what. Yes, we were busy active kids (now teenagers), but it was a time when the family meal just after father came home was deemed sacred in not just ours but all homes in the neighborhood. If we had friends over (playing in the back yard or whatever) when Mom yelled out the door, “Suppertime,” those friends were to go home. “But we already had supper at our house,” they’d sometimes say. That, however, was not the issue. Dad wanted and expected peace beyond our windows for the forty-five minutes or so that it took to gather round the table, say grace, eat, visit about the day, and do kitchen chores.

On the evening after returning home from Georgian Bay, a day Dave and I had ridden our ten-speeds to Metro Beach, Dad glanced at our reddish-tanned faces while putting a pork chop on his plate.

“You two look brown as berries,” he laughed.

He meant it as a compliment, but I really didn’t get the metaphor. I could think of no berries that were brown, (but years later, while teaching British Literature, I saw that the expression may have originated in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales"). I looked across the table at Dave. His face was tan, yes, but it was also quite sunburned on the cheeks. Maybe that’s what the phrase meant...that after a summer of sun and a fresh sunburn we looked like “sun ripened” berries. Either way, it gave Dad pleasure to know we had enjoyed a leisurely day.

"I see you got the tent set up, too. Thanks, boys."

"Dave and I are sleeping out there tonight." I said, and he smiled again.

It may seem strange that a father who worked so hard himself and worked us so hard on Saturdays enjoyed hearing about our care-free days. It may be even more surprising that he did not want us to get “jobs” (other than the paper route that we had just gotten rid of). I was too young, but Paul and Dave would sometimes talk of applying for a job to get enough money for a car or whatever, and Dad would say:

“Don’t get a job. Enjoy high school while you can. You’re going to be working the rest of your life; you’ll be buying and fixing broken down cars for the rest of your life; once you get a job, your time is someone else’s to schedule. Believe me. Everything changes then. There will be a time, when you have to get a job, for college money, but don’t get a job for something like a car. That’s like getting two jobs.”

I once wanted a “mini-bike.” They were very popular at the time, and our property in the country was perfect for one, but Dad used the same argument with me that he did with Paul and Dave. “Let’s say you can save up the $150 to get a mini-bike. Have you added up the true cost of having one—not the cost of buying one, but the cost of having one—the gas, the oil, the tires, the chains. Those things are constantly needing work.” In about three minutes time, I completely lost all desire to own a mini-bike.

Dad’s “don’t get a job” speech was some of the best advice young teenage boys could hear. Do not confuse this advice with an anti-work or “slacker” mindset. The opposite was true. Dad’s work ethic was impeccable. When he retired from Bell in 1989, they mentioned that he had gone decades without taking a “sick day.” He kept a journal, and I know this is true. He had not missed work (other than vacations) since the summer of 1958 when he missed a week due to a case of full-body poison ivy. How did he get that? Clearing the land for the “dream house” he would build on Atkins Road in Port Huron, the one we sold when we moved to Roseville. Dad’s “don’t get a job” speech reflected a work ethic that he expected his boys to reflect once they had to work. It was for this reason that he thoroughly enjoyed hearing his kids talk about “those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer.” It was for that reason he smiled when he said, “You two are brown as berries.”

There were other reasons Dad did not want us to have jobs. He liked that we were involved in sports at school and church (church league basketball and softball). He liked assigning little chores around the house like mowing and pulling weeds. He liked us to be “free” for the work we did with him on Saturdays.

But the reason I did not recognize at the time was that he liked us all to be home when he arrived for supper—jobs change that. We were not always good at doing chores for Mom, but when Dad was home, they went like clockwork. After supper, for instance, we all helped clear the table and do the dishes (we had no dishwasher but each of us had a rotating duty in the rotation: scraping and or feeding Duke [it was then we were most likely to remember he was gone], washing dishes, drying dishes, or mixing milk, which was the most dreaded of the chores.) This pattern of hearing Mom call us to supper, sending friends home, eating, then wrapping up family conversation while cleaning up the kitchen was the way life had been for as long as we could remember.

But in two weeks time there would be another “spot at the table”—not the one Mom had blown up with a pot of scorched potatoes. No, this spot was far more noticeable than that one; this spot left us sitting sometimes in silence with awkward attempts to start conversations, which, if they began, were missing a voice to my left. For the first time in 18 years, Kathy was not at the table and her spot was empty. She was 700 miles away at college.
More about how each of us face this dramatic change in Chapter 25

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Unsettled Chapter 24-B "Timing is Everything"

It was a patriarchal world we lived in. What I am about to say may be hard for some to hear because in the decades to follow the 60's it became less and less true. But in my elementary classes from kindergarten through sixth grade, I only met one boy who was being raised by a single mom. Of the dozens and dozens of families I knew in my neighborhood, not one of them did not have what we now call an “in tact” family: Dad, Mom, and four or five kids. Of the fifty-two houses on our Detroit News route, I don’t recall one where there was not a Dad, and it was typically the Dad who opened his wallet and paid when we knocked on the door and said, “Collect.”

Family sit-coms at the time, were parent-centered. The writers portrayed moms and dads not as perfect but as exemplary “in charge” parents. (No, my mom was not like June Cleaver in "costuming," but yes, she was like her in the "dealing with kids" department... though she did it in more of a Lucile Ball sort of way.)

Whether it was Robert Young in “Father Knows Best” Or Ward Cleaver in “Leave it to Beaver” or Oz Nelson in “Ozzie and Harriet” or Fred MacMurray in “My Three Sons” or Andy Griffith in his own title show, families who watched these shows could learn a lot about functional relationships, and we weren't missing anything by not witnessing every aspect of marriage (adult bedrooms were not seen or they were showed in separate beds e.g. Dick Van Dyke).

I’ll leave it to the historians and sociologists to sort out what happened in the wake of the turbulent 60’s, but I will say that the first stake driven through the heart of the traditional patriarch came when Norman Lear lampooned the "father" role in Archie Bunker. It seems that from then on (with the possible exception of historical shows like “The Waltons” and “Little House on the Prairie” and, perhaps, Bill Cosby in the 80s), television fathers became “second fiddle” oafs falling somewhere in a spectrum between drunken buffoons like Homer Simpson and lovable mamma’s boys like Raymond Barone.

Do I exaggerate? Think of every family-centered sit-com in the past thirty years and see how many of them portray the father as a likeable but not-so-bright man-child (e.g.Tim the toolman Taylor) while the wife/mother basically runs the show with aplomb. (It's not the positive portrayal of moms that I mind, but the belittling of dads that is the issue.)

What harm is there in laughing at our foibles?

Okay, I'll admit I've had many laughs watching nearly every show I've mentioned, but it goes deeper than that. The “harm,” if that is the right word, comes in an entire generation of young men who have not seen what male leadership, problem solving, and “others first” hard work looks like while in the same formative years they are watching professional athletes and hip-hop artists behaving like video-game thugs whenever they don’t get their way. To whatever extent we learn by example, it is to that extent that we may someday see the harm done by making television fathers invisible, insipid, or inane—especially when more and more young men do not have an in-home father from which to pattern good fatherly behavior.

As I said, my point here is not to discuss the causes or effects of this cultural shift or whether TV reflects or determines social norms. I mean only to point out that the conditions that were true for my family and every family I knew in our neighborhood in 1970 are simply no longer statistically-supported assumptions.

In most families back then, the father was the “bread winner” and the mother was a “housewife,” and both were generally content with their roles.

In addition to all of Mom's daily duties, having supper on the table when the father came home was one of the most important. It was this fact that made it very important for mom, on the day she blew up grandma’s table, to place a saucer over the proof until Dad had come home, spent his time in the bathroom, changed his clothes, and eaten a good hot meal followed by some ice cream and cookies for dessert.

As she was clearing the table, Mom called Dad back into the kitchen and said nonchalantly, “Oh, yes, I wanted to show you this. I’ve already fixed it, but the funniest thing happened today...” And then she moved the saucer.

Timing is everything, and Mom's slightly postponed confession somehow worked. Dad was not mad. It was he who explained the physics involved… how the extreme heat caused the expansion and “explosion” as the laminate separated. Sometimes men can dissipate the emotional or adrenal reaction to “bad news” by quickly converting it to mere “fact.” This was not always the case with my father, but it seems like the older he got and the more practice Mom and us kids gave him, the better he got at it—especially when we understood that “timing is everything” and delivered the bad news after supper.
Note: Julie and I are with a fine group of seniors in Florida. If any of our senior parents are reading here, all is well. You can be very proud of these young adults. As is true every year that we bring seniors down here for their annual trip, it would not be possible were it not for the good job you've done in raising them. They're getting along fine. All doing their share of cooking and cleaning up, and so far we're all in good health. We've been swimming in the ocean and pool, but at this moment, the girls are shopping and the guys are watching the Detroit Red Wings beat the Chicago Blackhawks.
Chapter 24-C is in the works.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Unsettled Chapter 24-A: "A Spot At the Table"

Our kitchen table was the Formica sort from the late fifties, designed to hold up to the wear and tear of the baby boom. (It was the age of plastics that by then had transitioned from the war to the kitchen.) The smooth table surface had large flecks of white and gray with a broad green stripe from end to end and three-inch fluted aluminum that wrapped around the edge—except where the leaf went in. The 12 inch leaf had no fluted edge, leaving a gap that looked out of place for the many years that it was permanently “in place” to give us elbow room.

I said “smooth surface” and it was with one exception: in front of Mom’s place, to the right of where she put her glass, and smaller than a saucer, were pieces of broken Formica that had been glued back in place (but not very well). It was a blemish in a house grown accustomed to blemishes and in a family inclined to overlook them—especially when they pertained to Mom. This was true of the scabs on her arms from “picking” and in a similar sense, it was true of the table scar near her plate, which we did not talk about.

But now, these four decades later, I suppose there’s no harm in telling how it got there.

The table had come from my Grandma K’s house. Earlier that year in 1970, Grandma had moved from her bungalow on Griswold Street in Port Huron to her daughter's house in Indiana. Her couch and kitchen appliances were given to my parents. (By then the Firestone fridge I’ve written about before was nearly 20 years old. It still worked fine but was not as large as Grandma K’s General Electric, which came with a matching stove. Likewise Grandma's kitchen table was bigger and had that needed leaf. Mom loved all three kitchen pieces. They were a step up from what she had (which was not true for the other aunts who encouraged Dad to take them when Grandma sold her house).

One early afternoon not long after the table arrived, Mom was cooking supper as usual in that "frantic" one-hour window just before Dad came home from work at 5:30. (It was in that hour that Mom typically noticed she still had two hours worth of stuff to do.) She stepped outside to pull the laundry off the clotheslines that stretched from post to post along our neighbor's fence. As was often true, Mom's next-door-best-friend, Kay, was just across the fence pulling down her own laundry, and she and Mom got talking.

Most moms by nature are what we now call “multi-taskers,” capable of doing a dozen things at once. Mom was sort of a “multi-tasker” in that she was able to start many tasks in a given hour, but sometimes—especially if there was someone nearby—the “multi” part faded into the pleasant task of talking, Mom's favorite pastime. "Pastime" is an understatement. To Mom, the minute hand on a clock spun like the finger-flicked arrow of a game board whenever conversation was involved.

I don’t know how long she was talking over the fence, but it was long enough to prompt Kay to sniff the air and say, “Do you smell scorched potatoes?”

“Jupiter!” Mom yelled, dropping the basket of sheets as she ran into the house. Inside the tiny kitchen, the lid was tap dancing on top of her biggest pot, which by then was a small volcano of starchy white froth running down to the red-hot element below. Mom grabbed to hot-pads and moved the mess from the stove to the kitchen table.

“It’s alright, Kay,” Mom laughed out the back door.

And without thinking she stepped back into the yard to pick up her toppled basket. It was not alright, but Mom was trying to save face with her friend, who was an excellent cook and never scorched her potatoes. Then just as Mom was about to say “They’re not burnt too bad,” a loud bang rang out from the kitchen behind her.

I was in the basement at the time, and it sounded like someone shot the pistol Dad sometimes used for target practice in the woods. I ran up the stairs just behind Mom who had again dropped her basket outside the back door.

“What was that?” She screamed.

“What’s that smell?” I asked with a grimace.

“Oh, that’s just the potatoes—the potatoes!” she screamed, lifting the pot.

And there it was: a big black hole in the Formica where the surface had literally blown up. The pot was so hot it took only a few seconds to "fry" and expand the Formica so quickly that the thin veneer exploded into fragments exposing the wood surface below.

“Mom, you can’t put something that hot on the table,” I said, as if it were something I had learned long before that moment. “Why didn’t you put it in the sink?”

[She turned to the sink full of the Tupperware tumblers and green Melmac plates from lunch. (We had six Tupperware tumblers in various pale opaque hues, each assigned to one person in the family. Jim still drank from a tippy cup.) She had moved the dishes to peel the potatoes but then put them back in the sink. We had no dishwasher. None of the houses I knew had dishwashers. The plates would go from the sink back to the supper table in about an hour.]

“I didn't think, Tom. But if I had put the pot in the sink, I’da melted my Tupperware!”

“Better to melt your Tupperware than to blow up Grandma’s table.” I said, displaying the kind of after-the-fact logic that men (and fourteen-year-old boys) use to imply that they never make a mistake in a crisis.

And then I added just what my jittery mother did not need to hear: “What’s Dad going to say?”

Before she could answer, Kay came running in the front door without knocking.

“My Gosh, Bev, what exploded?” Unlike some of the other Italian women in our neighborhood, Kay had no accent but a warm and ever-recognizable nasality in her inflections.

“Look, Kay, look!” Mom burst into tears, “I ruined my new table!”

“My Gosh, Bev. How’dja do that?”

“The potatoes…” she sobbed.

Kay looked to me for translation, and I obliged with a sigh: “She put the pot from the burner on the table.”

"Geez, Bev, you can’t do that."

"I didn't think," Mom repeated.

"Don’s gunna kill ya.” Kay said, meaning no harm.

["Gunna kill ya" was an expression used often in friendly settings throughout the latter part of the 20th Century. It was a time when very few cases of such killings had ever actually happened and the hyperbole was clearly understood. The expression in its harmless sense became less common in the post-Menendez-OJ-Postal-road rage-Columbine era of the 1990s when people began to mean it.]

"I know Orly would kill me," she added. [Orly was short for Orlando.]

“I know. We just got it from his mother a few months ago. What’ll I do.”

“I don’t mean just the table, “ Kay clarified, “I mean the burnt potatoes. Orly would kill me if I did that. Where’s the switch to the fan?”

The switch to the fan was in fact exactly where it was in her house. It was the same place in every house in our neighborhood, all built by the same contractor at about the same time. The greasy, dusty fan cut into the ceiling over the stove was turned on by the second switch deep behind the left side of the fridge.

“There. That’ll get the smell out," Kay said, waving the air toward the clickity fan. "Tom, go pitch these potatoes in the garbage can. Put ‘em in this sack so your Dad doesn’t see ‘em.”

She reached into the narrow broom closet by the stairs where Mom had countless brown paper bags folded and tucked behind the waste basket. “Take 'em clear out to the garbage can, Tom. Now, let’s get boiling some more potatoes. What are you doing, Bev?”

Mom was on her hands and knees on the tile floor.

“I’m looking for the pieces to glue back in place.”

“Well, there’s a big one over there by the wall, but are you sure you can glue it?”

“I’ll have to try.”Mom said, letting out a deep breath.

“Well, you and Tom do that. I’ll take the potatoes over to my place an peel ‘em and boil ‘em. You want me to mash 'em?"

"Kay, you don't have to do this."

"Uh, uh..." Kay warned.

"Yes. We're having hamburgers and gravy. Don like's 'em mashed."

"And you laugh at my Italian meals," Kay joked (having heard the story about hamberger gravy many times) "Just give me the dish you serve them in.”

Mom laughed, “I mash 'em and serve them from the pot except on Sundays.”

“Well, not tonight you don’t. You don't want that pot on the table when you tell Don ‘bout how that hole got there.”

“No. You're right,” Mom said, reaching up in the far cupboard for her red Pyrex bowl. “Here. This will work. Thanks, Kay. You’re a life saver!”

“That’s what neighbors are for, Bev. Have Tom help you with that glue. Hope it works.”

She was stepping out the front door just as I came in the back with the empty pot.

"The bottom has black spots," I said, "I'll try to get 'em with an S.O.S pad."

Mom did not hear me. She was sitting at the table with four fragments in her hand turning them this way and that as if finishing a jigsaw puzzle.

“There. How's that look?" She said with unconvincing hope.

I looked at the little puzzle. The pieces were all there, but they were also yellowed from the heat, a fact I decided not to point out at the time.

"Tom, go down to your Dad’s work bench and bring up the Elmer’s Glue, and then go next door and help Kay peel the potatoes.”

I didn't mind going next door. Our neighbors had a daughter, Pam, who was like a sister to me, a sister I sometimes had a crush on. But that is another chapter called "Don't Walk Around in Your Underwear When Your Mom Forgets to Tell You that the Girl Next Door is in the House." That chapter is still to come in this story.

Chapter 24-B resumes at the kitchen table months after the day Mom blew it up. That night, by the way, went surprisingly well thanks to a well-placed saucer during the meal, and Mom's gentle telling of the news AFTER Dad had a good meal in his stomach. No 24-B resumes at that table the night Dave and I rode to Metro Beach, the Monday before Dad replaces the ruined transmission in the car, two weeks before Kathy leaves for college... that is where our story will resume.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

The Wind in Your Face

I just came in from a bike ride cut short by rain. Yesterday was a beautiful day that had "bike ride" written all over it, but it was also a very busy day at school ("Grandparents Day") that left no time or energy to peddle off toward the setting sun. Then today came rain, and though I did begin to ride in it, I suddenly remembered I had four tomato plants to put in, and what better time to press them into the narrow garden plot beside the house than in a gentle rain? Maybe after writing a while, the skies will clear, and I'll roll down the driveway to disappear with the wind in my face.

Did you know that the bicycle is the number one mode of personal transportation around the world? Let me rephrase that (since you can't ride a bike around the world).... Around the globe, the bicycle is the most commonly used mode of personal transportation. The popular use of bikes on every continent is even more remarkable when you consider the fact that until the 1890s, bike-like contraptions were considered impractical oddities for the rich.
Considering that all the parts needed for a "bike" were in use for centuries--wheels, gears, nuts and bolts, it amazing that the history and evolution of the bike is so recent. It is said that Leonardo DaVinci's students made sketches of bicycles in the 1490s, but the concept never left paper until the 1820s when German Baron Karl von Drais (who had never seen DaVinci's sketches) pieced together this impractical "velocipede," which means "fast feet." It worked very much like the Flintstones' car, but it is considered the forerunner to the modern bicycle. The "pede" part ("foot") of velocipede prompted the word peddle (once they were added to the bike). (Notice the seat was made of leather like a saddle. Leather bike seats are still called "saddles" to this day.)
Through the 19th Century, a few other inventive people began tinkering with the basic "bike" idea, and eventually "cranks" were added that made self-propulsion possible. Still it took a century to weed out a lot of bad ideas.
Take the penny-farthing bike, for instance, so named because the difference in the size of the two wheels. This bike was difficult to mount and even harder to "dismount" because by the time the rider had the speed to balance, the fixed peddles kept turning, making it difficult to stop safely. Riding downhill was very dangerous. The rider's head was nearly nine feet above the ground. It is no wonder that until the early 20th century most onlookers scoffed at people attempting to ride bikes.

This model was closer to the ground but still had no brakes and kept the pedal cranking at all times. Like the penny-farthing, the rider had to slow down by resisting the spinning peddles with the strength of his legs.
Two things led to the first true bicycle craze in the 1890s: First, improved roads (bikes were more dependent on good roads than the automobiles which began appearing around this same time). Second was the invention of "chain driven rear wheel" bikes. Strange to think that in the 70 years that followed the simple velocipede (first photo), its most obvious mechanical change was the use of a chain for "rear wheel" drive, which allowed "coasting" without the peddles moving. This new bike craze lasted through the turn of the century until the 1920s when the photo on left was taken.

It was that same bike craze that prompted Orville and Wilber Wright to jump into the bicycle business and eventually open their now famous Wright's Cycle Shop (which can be seen at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan).
With the profits from their bike business, they funded their experiments in aviation, and they used the same chains from their bike designs for many of the "chain drive" functions on their first self-propelled airplane on December 17, 1903. (That is another story, but it's worth a quick peek.)

Next time you get in an airplane, remember that it all started with a bike and the thrill of feeling the wind in your face. But my purpose in providing this glimpse of bicycle history actually ties into our ongoing story. When Dave and I rode our bikes to Metro beach in the summer of 1970, we were in the first wave of the Bike Boom of the 1970s.

Long after the bicycle craze that launched the Wright brothers' career and changed the world of transportation. Long after the development of air travel, and the automobile, and the Great Depression, and World War II, and the Eisenhower 50's. (In fact, President Eisenhower was born during the first bicycle craze and died just as the second bike boom began.) Long after all that, came the bike craze of the 1970s, which was prompted by two developments: first, there was fear of a fuel shortage and high gas prices (if you can call 34 cents a gallon high), bikes were seen as a money-saving mode of transportation; second, and probably the biggest factor, was the development of the "derailleur" system (once found only on racing bikes). It was this invention that made peddling easy and efficient in various conditions. It was the derailleur that put five gears on the rear wheel and two gears on the peddle crank, thus launching the ten speed.

Dave and I bought our first ten-speeds the summer before we dug the well. Dave has literally owned dozens of ever-improved bikes in the forty years since. I have purchased only four. That first one was from J.C. Penney. True it was a ten-speed, but it was not a good bike. I bought it because the Schwinn Continental that I wanted was in such demand that there was a one-year waiting period. I later endured that waiting period, sold that 10-speed to a friend, and bought this blue Continental in 1971 (which I still enjoy riding). I bought a "mountain bike" in the '90s, which is fine for off-road trails. And then last year bought a nice 24-speed hybrid (for road and trail), which is what I was on this morning when the rain began.

In the time it took to plant some tomatoes and write this, the clouds have passed, the sun is shining. I gotta go... Gotta go feel that wind in my face.
Coming Soon: Unsettled Chapter 24, which touches on one of the unintended consequences of human mobility.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Unsettled: Chapter 23-C Souvenirs on the Sill

Many thoughts have filled these pages since we finished the well, buried Duke, and went cliff-diving in Georgian Bay. Some may be wondering if the intermittent flashbacks belong in this "Unsettled" series at all, but it's my hope that talk of fans and laundry chutes and the boys room helps give a sense of the cramped but comfortable life we led in the suburbs. It is that life that stands in stark contrast to the stump-pulling, barn-raising, well-digging life we shared with Dad on Saturdays. In spite of all those chapters since my squeeze through the milk chute, it may help to remember that this chapter is only about ten hours after Chapter 20.

We did not know it at the time, but the camping trip to Georgian Bay in August of 1970 would be our last time there as a family. In all the years of going to Killbear Park, we had never tired of the place or talked of not returning. It wasn't a conscious decision on Mom and Dad’s part—in fact, I doubt they themselves yet knew that the changes waiting for our family (e.g. Kathy starting college and us starting the new house) would bring new priorities of Dad's limited vacation time. On the other hand, if they did know it was our last time there, they may have chosen not to tell us. We were (and are) a sentimental lot, and it's a sad enough thing to leave a patch of hard-packed sand and pine needles pressed flat from the family tent; knowing it was the last time to see it would have made the trip home unbearable.

In the early years, Dave and I would sometimes fight over whose foot was the last to touch that sacred Killbear site. One year, after striking camp, I deliberately worked it out to be the last in the car. Pulling the door behind me, I turned to Dave at the other door and smiled. As we meandered through the campground’s dirt roads, Dave opened his door and tapped the ground with his foot. I opened my door and did the same. Then he did it again. This went on back an forth until Dad figured out what all the opening and closing of doors was about. He stopped the car, turned around and said sternly:

“Both of you put a foot out the door. When I say ‘now,’ pull in your foot and shut the doors. Call it a tie and be done with it before the door bumps one of these posts and you lose a leg.”

Looking back on it now, I'm surprised he didn't just yell, “Knock it off!” Such harsh imperatives were commonly drawn from his arsenal of parental reactions. The clarity of that vague demand spoken with an unmoving jaw implied the threat "or I'll wring your necks" without actually uttering the words. But that time, Dad didn't say "Knock it off!" and his frustration seemed tempered by an appreciation of both the foolishness and affection of our game. He may have found it flattering that, at an age when some kids complain about their father's hard-earned vacation choices, he had two boys fighting over who got to touch the place last.

By 1970, we had outgrown the “last touch” game but still kept one other tradition as we began our trip home. Before leaving the area, we always stopped at the same general store near Parry Sound to buy a souvenir from the trip.

On the very first trip, Dad had advised us to buy something small that had some “real value” rather than some cheap thing that may have said Canada on the front but in the fine print on the back it said Hong Kong or Japan. [Today it would say China, but back then all cheap souvenirs and carnival prizes were made in Hong Kong or Japan.] To sweeten his advice, Dad told us he'd chip in half the cost if we bought something worthwhile.
[This "going half" principle was a wise way to teach us the value of things, and it worked with everything from souvenirs to bikes to college tuition. Dad figured "saving up" for half of something helped us understand its cost and its true worth--as in worth-y, worthy of our time, effort, and energy to own. Parents sometimes think they're doing the right thing by their kids to buy them whatever they want when they want it, but at best that teaches only the cost of things while failing to teach a higher value. The "going half" principle served us well, and I have done the same with my own kids. Okay... back to the story...]

"Hey, Boys, here's something worth taking a look at," Dad announced, turning our eyes to a Dinky Toys display on the main counter of the store.

Behind the slanted glass were rows and rows of cars in no particular order. Dinky Toys were known for detail in the die-cast miniature car market. They were larger than Matchbox and were meant for hand-held gentle play. Mattel had not yet launched Hot Wheels, which reflected America's flair for outlandish style and speed.

Dinky Toys ranged in price from 3 to 5 bucks apiece, and without Dad's offer to pay half, we would have turned away. But in his opinion they were a better investment than some "Made in Hong Kong" trinket. (Imagine talking of souvenirs as investments, but that was Dad. He had some cast iron toys from his childhood, and he knew that small durable things have a much better chance of being cared about through the years, which in his mind was the truest test of something's worth.)

I was not yet convinced that a Dinky Toys car qualified as a souvenir.

“They say nothing about Georgian Bay or Killbear Park or even Canada." I whispered to Mom with some concern. Dad heard it.

“But look on the bottom by the drive shaft," Dad said holding up the car Paul had already chosen. "See that: ‘Made in England,’ and Canada is part of England, so that’s practically the same as 'Made in Canada'."

[At that time, Canada was considered part of the British Empire. and was still flying the Union Jack (as you can see in the pendant below). It was not until after 1965 that we were greeted by the red maple leaf flag as we drove across the Blue Water Bridge into Sarnia, Ontario.]

The clerk nodded at Dad from across the display, impressed by Dad's salesmanship, then turned to me and smiled with his hand poised under the glass to grab the car beneath my pointing finger.

"Okay. I'll take that one. It's a dollar cheaper than Paul's. That way I'll have enough money left over to also get one of those Killbear pendants. You don't have to chip in on that, Dad. I'll have enough"

Impressed with my budget management and eager to hit the road, Dad agreed.

In the years to follow, we stopped by that store and bought a different Dinky Toys car, so that by this point in our story, in 1970, both window sills of our room were lined with the cars as if in a parade. There was barely room for one more, so perhaps it was a good thing Paul and Dave had decided not to buy one that last year. They now had their drivers licenses and having one more toy car on the window sill held little interest.

I took the car from the box, stepped gently onto Paul’s bed (the window was over his headboard) and put the newest car at the front of the line.

“What are you doing?” Paul moaned, rolling over in bed.

“Just putting this with the others,” I said, shaking the bed again as I stepped off.

“Well, you picked a fine time. I’m trying to sleep.”

“We have to get up anyway. Dad told us we had to unpack the car. And don't forget he told us to “air out” the tent in the back yard, too. It’ll take all of us to set it up.”

[Because the places we camped were always deep in the woods, and because we typically had some rain on our trips, Dad liked to set up the tent in the back yard for a day of direct sunlight before putting it away for the year. This pattern led to another tradition enjoyed by us boys: camping out in the back yard. Sometimes Kathy would have a "girls night" in the tent, but those had ended a few years before. Typically through the years, we boys would have some friends over to sleep out in the tent for a night or two--sometimes longer--and by the time we took it down there was a big square patch of yellow matted grass where it had been, but in a day or two it turned green again.

I was 14 and still considered it fun to go tenting in the back yard. Paul was now 17 and did not; Dave was 16, but part of him still valued the last remnants of childhood his little brother kept within reach.]

"We don't have to set it all the way up to air it out," Paul moaned still half asleep. "We can just unfold it on the driveway and flip it over now and then."

"What fun is that?" I asked.

Dave's groggy voice joined the discussion, "I think we should set it up."

"Me, too," I said, stepping into my cut-offs. "Don't you guys want to sleep out in it a few nights like we always do?"

"We just did that for a week," Paul moaned. "I want to be right here in this bed tonight."

Dave sat up, grabbed his shirt from the bedpost, and pulled it over his head. "I'll sleep out there if you want, but let's get the work done now. Then we can eat an early lunch and ride bikes to Metro today. I'm taking the long way through Grosse Pointe, then down Jefferson to Lakeshore to 16 mile."

[Metro was "Detroit Metropolitan Park" on 16 Mile Road. We rode our ten speeds there at least once a week, and with nothing but a pocketful of change we could have fun, lay-out, swim in a gigantic pool, eat a hot dog and fries for lunch, and ride back home in time for supper. We typically took the short route, which was only about eight miles. But sometimes, especially after a week away from his bike, Dave would map-out long trips just for the fun of it. Grosse Pointe was only about five miles away but in the opposite direction of Metro Beach. Personally, I preferred the more direct route, but if I wanted to be with Dave, and I did, I knew there was no changing his mind. He was far more independent about his bike riding. To this day, he is an avid cyclist; to this day, I prefer the shorter route.]

So we unpacked the trunk and car-top carrier, set up the tent and threw our gear inside for that night. Kathy's bedroom window looked out on the tent in the back yard. Inside, she and Mom had been talking and crying. The contrast between unpacking camping clothes while resuming her packing for college was more than the two could bear, but we boys knew not to interfere.

As we rolled our ten-speeds from the garage, I yelled toward Kathy's window: "Mom, we're all done out here. We're going to Metro."

By then the sun had past the crest of the roof and was hitting her screen in such a way that we could barely see their ghosted faces leaning toward the screen.

"You can't go without eating," Mom said.

"We already ate lunch," Dave said, still stuffing the second half of a sandwich in his mouth.

"So you guys are riding to Metro?" Kathy asked, trying to sound cheerful and hoping we hadn't heard her crying. "I wish I could go."

[In all our years of riding to Metro, I don't recall Kathy every joining us. It was kind of a guy thing, but she often said she wished she could do this or that with us as a way of saying, 'It's hard being the only sister. Why don't you guys ever do something a girl can join in on?' But on this day two weeks before she left for school, she may have been thinking other things as well.]

"You're always welcome to come," I said.

"No, I have to pack, and besides, you guys go to fast. My bike can't keep up with your ten-speeds."

"Be back in plenty of time for supper," Mom added. "You're dad's going to be pooped. He was up way before any of us this morning, and he's not going to want to wait for dinner."

[Yes, back then lots of people not just my mom said "pooped"--meaning tired--and thought nothing of it, but remember this was also the same era that called flip-flops "thongs."]

"We'll be back in plenty of time," we recited in unison.

Dad wiped his his sandwich crumbs on his shorts, and with that we rolled down the driveway and peddled toward Grosse Pointe, home of the Ford Estate and a thousand other 20th Century mansions that sprang from the white-collar side of the booming auto industry, an industry whose assembly lines and chimney's and smoke and clamor were completely detached from the rolling hills and winding shaded roads of castles on the shore of Lake St. Clair.

[End Note: I say with no regret that my little brother Jim eventually played with all those Dinky Toys cars on the window sill--literally drove the little rubber wheels off of 'em. Jim, if you're reading this. I don't mind a bit. They were meant to be played with, not looked at. I'm glad you had fun with them. Not one of those Dinky Toys cars survived the decades. (If they did, I never found them later on. The photos above are from the internet.) But strange as it would have been to Dad, that cheap felt pendant held up fine for 45 years and counting.]

To Be Continued: Chapter 24: "Oh, Sister, Where Art Thou"


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