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patterns of ink

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

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Chapter 28-B "There Was Magic in The Shoes"

Happy 4th of July! Thank you all for your patience. I have been away from the internet but have had time for writing. Hope you enjoy Part B.

Paul and Mom were not with us at the East Detroit wrestling meet, even though it was only a few miles from our house. Paul was not much interested in wrestling. His winter sport was basketball. All three of us boys played in the church league, but Paul played many more hours on his own time than Dave and I did. He was also dating a nice young lady from church who captured much of his attention. Basketball and the girl explain why Paul is not in many of these chapters.

As for Mom, she found it difficult to watch her boys wrestling. She did come to some events through Dave's three years of high school, but more often than not she stayed home with Jimmy who at this time was nearly three years old.

She did play one brief and unforgettable role in Dave and my wrestling experience. That previous Christmas Break when I was practicing with Dave’s team, Mom was our ride to and from wrestling practice five miles from our house. The ride to practice was never a problem because Dave and I were there to tell her it was time to go. She’d say, “I’m coming. I’m coming,” throw on a wig, pull her winter “furry hat” over it, step into her snap-over boots with the “furry” top, throw on her overcoat with the furry collar, and drive us to the high school.

The ride home was another matter. We were not there to remind her it was time to go get the boys. So each day after wrestling practice we sat on the slatted benches outside the cafeteria, waiting… and waiting…and waiting. It was a long-standing pattern of our lives to wait for Mom at nearly any event in life. This was long before “cell phones,” and we never seemed to have the change to use a pay phone. So we just waited and waited.

In fact, I think that if there were a special card that we could pull from our pocket that said “Bonus Hours for Waiting on Mom” and if we could use that card at our appointed times to die, we’d keep Mr. Death standing there several months tapping his foot and thinking no one in the history of dying was ever awarded so many bonus hours. And when we finally got done doing whatever we did with our granted time, we’d walk up to Mr. Death and say, “Now you know how we felt as kids.”

But waiting is a part of life…not death. At least it was a part of our life with Mom, and after the fourth all-morning Christmas Break wrestling practice, Dave and I sat there on the bench waiting for an hour.

Dave threatened to get up and walk home, but we had gotten nine inches of snow the night before, probably enough snow to cancel school if it had been in session, and he hoped Coach Nelson would have cancelled wrestling practice, but no such luck. Coach did say that if it kept snowing and we got a few inches more, the next day’s practice would be canceled. But what we saw out the window looked more like the wind stirring the snow up than more snow coming down. In spite of this, Dave finally stood to his feet up with disgust and said, “I’m walking home.”

Over his jeans and sweatshirt, he had on only a knit scull cap that did not cover his ears and a Navy pea coat which had been our Uncle Dick’s (Mom’s younger brother) nearly twenty years before. (He and later I wore that pea coat with pride.) I had on the “snorkel coat” Mom and I picked out at the Macomb Mall Sears.

It is possible that some readers have never heard of a “snorkel coat” so named because the hood zipped up and so far out from the head that the wearer breathed through the opening like a snorkel. The narrow-tunnel opening of the hood was encircled with fake “wolf” fur. These coats were all the rage at the time, but you don’t see them much anymore. I think it’s because the tunnel-vision we had when that hood was up made us turn our whole body just to look to the left or right. Snorkel hoods were downright dangerous…warm but dangerous.

Dave stuffed his gloveless hands in the stiff woolen pockets of the pea coat and marched outside without another word. Knowing the doors would lock behind us, I stood for a moment in the threshold with the warm air of the school hall behind me and a snow-splintered gust in my face. And as I had done nearly all of my life, I decided to follow Dave. I zipped the furry snorkel around my head and trudged across the drifting parking lot to catch up to him. We walked down Common Road and then left down Utica Road.

About a mile-and-a-half from the school, we approached our church, and I noticed that no one had shoveled the sidewalks. This bothered me—not that we had to walk unshoveled sidewalks. We’d been doing that the whole way. It bothered me because I felt guilty that they were not yet shoveled and sensed it was my duty to do something about it.

It was a time in my life when I was constantly obsessed with James 4:17, which says “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” Most of my life, I thought that sin was when you did something bad--and it is, of course, but some time before I’d heard a sermon explaining that there were sins of “omission” as well as sins of “commission.”

Talk about a double whammy! It was hard enough trying to avoid bad things, but now I had to worry about not doing the good things I thought up, too. It makes a person hard to live with. I'd be walking home from school with friends and step over some litter on the sidewalk, then feel guilty that I should have picked it up. I'd sometimes run back a block to stuff a paper cup or something in my pocket. The inability to sort out what was and was not my problem to solve drove my friends and family crazy.

On this walk home with Dave, I was trying real hard not to think about what a good thing it would be to volunteer to shovel the church sidewalks. But it made sense. After all we were right there. The shovels were in the side entry of the church. I wrestled with these thoughts with each snowy step then finally spoke up to Dave.

“Hey, Dave, I got an idea. Let’s shovel the church sidewalks and then Mom will probably come by and see us and she’ll wait for us ‘til we get done. Isn’t that a good idea?”

“No. That’s a rotten idea. I’m cold. I’m hungry. I’m mad at Mom for not picking us up. If you want to stay here and shovel the sidewalk go ahead. I’m walking home.”

I stood for a moment at the corner with the snowy walks behind me. Dave pressed on with his collar and shoulders raised up to cover his red ears. I remember wishing I had Dave’s ability to avoid seeing opportunities to do good because, if I understood the verse correctly, it only held accountable the person who “kneweth to do good” so if I could avoid thinking of such good things, I’d be free not to do them. Dave hadn’t thought of shoveling the church sidewalks, and even when I told him about it, it didn’t seem like a good idea to him. He was guilt-free and kept walking without the slightest regret. I ran to catch up with him but my guilt felt deeper than the snow. By about the time we got to the Roseville Theater two blocks from the church (a theater we’d been in once to see Third Man on the Mountain, but that was before we’d joined the Baptist church), Mom pulled up behind us at the snowplow’s ridge over the curb and beeped the horn.

It had begun snowing lightly—new snow coming down mixed in with the blowing crystals in the air—and Dave just stood there staring through the flakes, glairing at Mom with frustration. I think he half intended to walk the rest of the way home just to make a point, but as I stomped over the bank of plowed snow and climbed into the family wagon, he let out a long breath of frosty air and stepped around to the far side of the car and got in behind Mom.

“I’ve been looking all over for you two.” Mom said attempting to sound prompt.

“We sat there forever,” Dave said with disgust.

“Time got away from me. I had no idea it was noon.”

“Ma, it was noon over an hour ago,” Dave said, “Just drive.”

There was something in his voice that should have made me know not to say what I was about to say. If this were a movie, and if I were watching it instead of being in it, I would be on Dave’s side, and I’d want to backhand the little brother. But at that age, I was not able to imagine how the “movie of life” played out one frame at a time. I was not able to know that we can sometimes actually control the next frame. A line can come to our lips, and we do not have to say it. The script is not set in stone. We can edit the film before it’s shot so to speak. I didn’t think of that at the time, and without that moment of thought, I stepped into a role and said that character’s line. I guess it’s who I was at the time.

Here is what that fourteen-year-old Tom said: “I wanted to stay and shovel the church sidewalks but Dave didn’t want to.”

I know what you're thinking: No, Tom! Tell me you didn’t say that! You self-righteous little snot! Here your brother was being cool enough to take you to high school wrestling practice with him even though you’re in junior high, and you get into the car and say that to your mother? You’re right, Tom, I’m on Dave’s side, too. But wait. It gets worse.

“Well, it won't take long to go back and do that." Mom said.

“Won’t take long! It’ll take an hour. Tom, is a slow shoveler. No, Mom. I’m hungry. If Tom wants to shovel the church walks, you can bring him back. I don’t care. Just take me home.”

Dave was right. He and Paul could shovel circles around me. But in fairness, we only had two good snow shovels at home and I was always stuck with the small scoop shovel which was only good for the small “detail” work around the porch steps and edges. He was also right that this was a bad time for my “good idea.” We’d been practicing hard for three hours.

We needed to eat, and though we passed a McDonalds on the way home [could not find a picture with snow], the thought of “eating out” was something we only did on vacation and only with Dad present. Hard to imagine that we “ate out” so seldom that McDonalds was considered “going to a restaurant,” but in fact, we could count on our hands the times we had eaten out including the handful of times Dad had pulled into the golden arches (at that time there was no indoor seating at the Roseville McDonalds). It was to home and a can of Campbell’s Vegetable Beef Soup that we wanted. Add a PB&J, and to me that was the perfect meal.

We traveled the three miles south on Gratiot Avenue and turned left at the Detroit Bank and Trust at the Eastgate Shopping Center. A few blocks east, and we turned right from Marquette onto Marlene. One block to go and we were home, and that’s when it happened….

Wham! A snowball splattered on Dave’s side of the car. It was not the first time we’d been hit by a snowball. In fact, the three of us boys used to throw snowballs over the Hill’s house behind ours and listen to them thud on the roofs of passing cars on Frazho Road, but we were never so brazen as to actually hit a passing car in plain view. The fact that the snow ball hit Dave’s window and made him jump, and the fact that the kid laughed when Dave turned to see him, made this a personal matter.

“Stop the car, Mom!” Dave shouted, jumping out before she did

And with all the pent up anger of the hour on the bench at school, the two miles of trudging in the snow, the church sidewalk debate, and the knowledge that there was no such thing as “bonus hours at death,” Dave bolted across the yard toward some kid about my age whose grin had turned to a look of terror. Dave was gaining on him, and oh what a face-washing this squirt was about to get when Mom stepped out from the car and yelled:

“I’ll bet you have fart stains in your underwear!”

She said it with passion. She said it in full support of her son’s noble defense of the family car. She said it very loudly.

And in that moment, everything froze like breath on a frosted window. Mom’s absurd remark came so unexpectedly it was as if we had been listening to the climax of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture on a phonograph, and just as those chords of adrenaline rose and the first cannon shots were about to fire, someone bumped the needle arm and sent it scratching across the vinyl to the center post leaving only a faint skipping sound in the cold air.

Dave stopped in his tracks and looked at his mother in disbelief. The running kid stopped and looked at the strange lady with the furry hat pulled over her wigged head. His puzzled eyes, to Mom’s way of thinking, begged her to say it again.

“I’ll bet you have fart stains in your underwear!” she repeated.

To Mom, this was the ultimate put-down and about as "vulgar" a cursing as she could imagine uttering. (It’s not as if she could never have said the same thing of her own boys, but that did not occur to her at the time.)

The moment the words hit the air, Dave’s countenance fell. His shoulders drooped as if some invisible referee had just raised the other kid’s hand at center mat. Clearly no true threat could follow such a remark from a blood relative of the vengeful aggressor. The chase was over. Dave waved the kid on as if to say, “Forget it, kid. Feel free to pummel our car any time you like.” He slunk back to the open door of the station wagon and plopped in the seat.

“What?” Mom questioned, pulling her door shut. “I’ll bet he does."

“Just go, Mom. Go home,” Dave said, sinking lower in his seat. “I never want to see that kid again for the rest of my life.”

“I was only trying to help. I didn’t want to see what you were going to do to him.”

“Just drive, Mom.”

The rest of the day was quiet. That night at supper, (which by the way was not in the kitchen but at Mom’s new and long-awaited dining room table that she had gotten for Christmas), things were still quiet until Mom brought up the church sidewalks. By then, my sympathies for Dave’s position had grown and I winced when the subject came up, but Dad said, “Tell you what, after supper the three of us will go see if they got done. If not, it won’t take any time at all.”

And so we drove to the church in the dark. When we got there the sidewalks had been shoveled by the part-time custodian. One might think this brought a smile to Dave’s face, but the day had done its damage. He just kept staring out the window.

I’m not sure when I learned that not all “good things” can in fact be done, and that sometimes countless "good things" can distract us from our equally good original goals (like walking safely home in a blizzard). I don't know when I learned that guilt is a counterfeit form of "caring," but it's true. When we do "the right thing" merely to avoid guilt we are robbed of the joy that comes from serving others as Christ modeled. It's a variation on the "cheerful giving" principle. I don't know when I learned that "heart-felt" ideas cannot be imposed on third parties and remain "heart-felt," but one thing is for sure: I had not yet learned these things.

Whatever learning began that day was temporarily upstaged and made more indelible by Mom's improvised indignation. To this day, when we speak of Mom yelling her fart-stain remark at that kid, Dave just shakes his head and takes a slow, deep breath, but he can’t help but chuckle when he lets out the sigh.

Mom was not with us when we stepped into East Detroit High for my first match on Dave’s team.

To be continued and concluded in Chapter 28-C which I hope to post Wednesday.



Blogger the walking man said...

For the seeming imprudence and totally unexpected remark from your mom, she most likely saved Dave from feeling even worse if he had gotten his hands on the kid.

I do believe it would have gone a bit further than a "face washing" with that much anger and frustration fueling the fire of retribution.

I like that I was able to see your route and all of the landmarks you pointed out on the way home Tom. Just makes it that more "real" to me.

5/7/09 7:36 AM  
Blogger Nancy said...

Okay Tom, I'm still laughing...I would never have predicted that those words would come out of your mom's mouth. This was totally unexpected and I can't wait to use them myself at the appropriate time. I wonder how long it will take for the appropriate time to crop up...I will keep you posted!

6/7/09 1:10 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

I do believe that was Mom's motive--not embarrassing Dave but stopping what was about to happen.

Between driving to school and driving to church, our car practically knew the way without us.

There used to be an Arnold Palmer Putt-Putt course next to the Roseville McDonalds. And Marquette at Eastgate used to run between DB&T and Cunningham Drug Store, both are gone and Marquette is now blocked off at the back of Eastgate. I don't know when that happened.

I wrote this early in the morning and posted it and then was away from internet for three days. I was wondering if I should have told this family story because it was a bit out of character for Mom, but that is why we all laugh when we think of it.

6/7/09 8:06 PM  

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