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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

Sunday, July 26, 2009

"The Oldest Voice in the Parlor"

In the summer of 2009, Iva Katherine McNabb Meneley (born 1928), the granddaughter of Iva Neal McNabb Cochran (born 1870), gave a family heirloom to her niece, Julie [McNabb] K______. [My wife of nearly 30 years.] The piece had belonged to her Grandma Cochran. It's more than 110 years old, but it is as beautiful now as the day it was first unloaded from a horse-drawn wagon.

My wife and I enjoy antiques. Through the years, we’ve purchased well over half of the furnishings of our home at estate sales, garage sales, auctions, and in the musty labyrinths of antique stores. A few were handed down as family heirlooms. It is dealers who assess the "worth" of such things, but their value is found in the people stories behind them. Of all the antique pieces in our home, the ones I enjoy the most are those whose contextual stories were not lost in the dust of decades. It is through story that "things" connect to flesh and blood and underscore the linear nature of time and generations on earth.

This is a long post for a blog. (I will be adding to it shortly after my daughter helps me download some pictures from her camera.) I'm writing a short booklet as a "thank you" of sorts to Aunt Katherine.

Part I of this booklet is taken from a letter dated 1918. The letter was from Grandma Cochran’s father, John Wesley Neal, to his granddaughter Lorena who wanted a written account of the stories she had heard him tell so many times as a child. He was 72 at the time. Perhaps, it occurred to Lorena that first-person accounts from primary sources of the Civil War would soon be impossible to gather. Perhaps it was more personal. Maybe she wanted a record of his safe journey home, knowing that if he had not survived the war, her mother would never have existed, and obviously neither would she.

The fact that someone else's existence (beyond our parents) led to our own is a realization that makes folly of absolute individualism or any notion that puts "self" above family or "self-determination" above divine Providence. The history of our forebears is, in fact, part of the mystery of life itself. And so it is a good thing now and then to make an effort to better understand the branch on which we are a twigs in an oft-forgotten family tree (and to remember that somewhere down that gnarly trunk...we are all connected). [This huge sprawling elm tree still stands on one of the family farms in Kansas. The house and barn are gone, but the tree remains.]

Part I: "Scratchless"

(Part I begins one generation before "The Oldest Voice" existed. If you wish to skip details of the Civil War, and go to the final detail that made Grandma Cochran’s life possible, you may want to come back after I've added Parts II, III and IV to this post.)

Iva's father, John Wesley Neal, had been born in 1844 on a farm near Enterprise, Sullivan County, Missouri. He lived on that farm until the Civil War broke out in 1861, when his loyalty to the Union prompted him as a sixteen-year-old to leave “the Compromise State” and head to Fountain Green, Hancock County, Illinois. Soon after he turned 17, he joined 84th Regiment of the Illinois Volunteer Infantry, serving until June 8, 1865. [This photo was taken in 1925, seven years after the letter was written.]

Here is his first-hand account of the war from the letter of 1918:

“[We] drilled two and one half months, then started for the Front. Joined the Arm at Louisville, Kentucky. Was assigned to the 10th Brigade 4th Division, 21st Army Corps…and chased the Rebel Army to Perryville, Kentucky…from there to Bowling Green...from there to Nashville.... On December 26th and 27th (1862) we commenced to move on the Rebels at Murfreesboro or Stone River. We numbered 45,000 and the Confederates 50,000. [On December 31 began] three days of hard fighting [which eventually] gave us the city. Our losses were15,000, and the Rebels 17,000. [A few days later,] the army was reorganized. I was assigned to the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, 4th Army Corps, Department of Cumberland at Chickamauga, Georgia.

In the first part of May we started on the Chattanooga Campaign…had three or four light engagements…flanked Brag out of Chattanooga on the 19th or 20th of September [then] one of the hardest battles we were in was fought. We were compelled to fall back to Chattanooga ([in other words] we got licked). The Rebels besieged us nearly three months. We were on one-fourth rations but Grant and Sherman relieved us and gave us a chance to get it all back with big interest at Lookout Mountain and Mission Ridge. We rested until the 3rd of May, 1864, when we started [what is now called] the Atlanta Campaign, 140 miles to Atlanta. We were in 17 battles…. Each side lost 50,000 men, got Atlanta, Ga. Rested one month. [We followed the Confederates] to the town of Graysville, Alabama, there we wintered [until] General Sherman took 65,000 of the Army and started to the sea—and got there. [After that I was in five battles] in Tennessee: viz Pulaske, Duck River, Columbia, Spring Hill, and Franklin. [The last] was the most desperate battle fought during the war. The Rebels had 45,000 and us 21,000, but only 15,000 were engaged as 6,000 had crossed the Harpeth River, and could not assist us. The Confederates lost nearly 7,000.... We lost 1,400. We were behind good breast works.

One more battle, the battle of Nashville, Tennessee, the last battle of the Western Army. It was fought on December 15th and 16th.... We captured 30,000 men, 65 battle flags, 60 cannons. We destroyed their Army.

In conclusion I will say I was in 27 hard battles, besides numerous skirmishes, traveled 8,000 miles and never got a scratch.”

To be Continued: The remaining parts of this booklet will be added here (not a separate post)within a day or so.[8-4-09: Sorry that didn't happen... went with separate posts instead.]

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Secret Has Been Out for Weeks...

I said at the end of last weekend's post that I had two updates that I couldn't wait to share. This first was something Julie and I and all the other family members on both sides had were asked to keep a secret for over a month.

You remember my oldest, Emily, who got married two summers ago? Well, the night before our second daughter left for Croatia, Em and her husband Keith came in to give Kim and Natalie their birthday presents early (they were both born on the same day eight years apart). That was just an excuse to give each of the girls one baby booty. When they opened the presents, they immediately put two and two together and knew that the booty was not a birthday present but a coming "birth" announcement. It was very exciting news, but we were asked to keep it quiet until after the sonogram.

So the morning of that appointment, a few weeks ago, Em and Keith came in and called us to the kitchen to show us this picture (taken at about eight weeks). I took a picture of the picture to post it in June but decided to give them plenty of time to tell everybody the news in their own way before I shared it here at Patterns of Ink. Julie and I are going to be grandparents. Or as Julie says "Nanna" and "Papa" next January.

This post was about this exciting change in our present and future; the next post is a huge step back in time--over 100 years. I've been doing some research on Julie's side of the family as a "thank you" to a very special aunt who recently gave Julie a special heirloom. If you like Civil War stories mixed with Little House on the Prairie mixed with an interesting twist of fate... I think you'll like "The Oldest Voice in the Parlor," which I hope to post Saturday. Then it will be on to Chapter 30 of our ongoing saga about the house we built in the Seventies. That chaper is called: "First We'll Need Some Wood."

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Chapter 29-D The Conclusion of...

"There Was Magic in the Shoes"

Weigh-in was no problem. Ninety-seven pounds in uniform and shoes. Coach Nelson was not a talker, but he usually managed to find a few words for Dave’s kid brother.

“You ready for your first match, Tom?”

“I guess.”

“Are you nervous?” he added.

“A little.” I smiled.

“Then you’re ready. I’d be wondering about you if you weren’t nervous. I want you to make yourself at home on that mat. Go out there and stretch and warm up just like we did at practice. This kid doesn’t know you’re in junior high so for now just act like you’re on the team. Okay?”

“Okay.” I said, feeling a little better for the moment. It’s amazing what a few words from a coach can do for an insecure athlete. I was glad that he spoke. After all, this whole thing was his idea.

The East Detroit High School gym was much older than our school’s which had only been built two years before. Old gyms have a aura about them—faded pennants drape the dusty rafters in the far vast corners where the lighting is not good. Below is the warm wooden tone of varnished bleachers. (Ours were beige-painted metal.) In old gyms, there are small holes in the cement-block walls, painted over but still visible, that hint that little changes have come and gone through the decades. None of this mystique was present in our new, bright gym, and to me the history of the place alone seemed to give a home team advantage.

Dad was about halfway up the mostly empty bleachers of the visitors’ section. Had Mom been there she would have waved and called my name until I waved back. She had learned long ago not to wave at Dave, or at least to know he might raise and lower his eyebrows but never wave back in front of friends, but the pattern had not ended with me. (Come to think of it, it never stopped at any point of my life.) Dad, on the other hand, understood this was no time for a wave from the bleachers. He smiled, crossed his arms and nodded at me. I’d seen him do the same thing to Dave at each of his meets, and the unspoken message was clear: “Just do your best, Son. That’s all anyone can ask.”

As was true in the locker room, the areas of the mat were occupied in order of weight class. There was a loose group dynamic as we stretched out, but each man set his own pace. Neck bridges, shoulder rolls, and then the quick jump up to a stance, during which came the occasional glance across the center circle as we sized up our opponents who were going through the same motions.

Mine was easy to pick out. Like me, he was the smallest guy on his side of the mat, but unlike me, he had confidence or at least he had learned how to act like he had it. As he struck his stance, his head cocked slightly to the left then right as if in primitive thought like a raptor. He was not looking at me but at some invisible prey. For the first time, I felt funny in my patchwork shoes.

The opening formalities of introductions and the National Anthem are a blur. I knew only one thing: my weight-class went first and in a moment I would be stepping center mat.

A smattering of applause in the bleachers began as a scratchy record from an unseen niche in the gym cranked out the final notes “and the home of the brave.” But in that moment I did not feel brave. Coach sent me to the mat. I looked at Dave who sat a few seats down a row of folding chairs alongside the mat. He nodded as Dad had done.

The ref motioned for my opponent and I to shake hands then suddenly looked at me again and raised both hands in the air.

“Wait a minute! Coach, this man needs headgear.”

“Headgear?” I thought, “They forgot to give me headgear.”

Headgear is pair of padded ear-cups and a chin-cup held together by three leather straps. It’s meant to prevent cauliflower ear. I knew it was required in a match, but I had never worn it at practice and completely forgot about it. Evidently so had Dave. Coach laughed and began digging through a duffle bag beside his chair but his hand came up empty.

“We’re all out,” he said.

“The man must have on headgear, Coach,” he repeated.

The gym was silent, and then from the home crowd bleachers some wiseacre stood up and yelled, “Just put some Band-Aids on his ears.”

The whole gym laughed. Even my own team laughed, but I'd suddenly lost my taste for stand-up comedy. I just stood there and tried to remember how to laugh mid-mistake as I had in the locker-room. I could barely manage a smile.

Stosh took off his headgear and tossed it to Coach who tossed it to me in what felt like slow motion, but as my hand reached for the tangle of straps, it hit me in the chest and dropped to the ground. I picked it up. There is a front and back to headgear but it is hard to tell which is which. I pulled it on my head and the chin strap was aimed at the back of my neck. I took it off, turned it around and tried it again. The ear cups were a little too high and the chin guard was off to the side, and the two parts of the snap would not reach each other. Who’da guessed Stosh’s head was smaller than mine? I took it off again and started adjusting everything as best I could.

The crowd was getting restless. “Just give him some Band-Aids,” the voice said again, but this time only the home crowd laughed. My teammates were reading my eyes and sharing a small part of my frustration. I glanced at the crowd to see who said it, but saw Dad instead. His arms were no longer folded. His hands clung to the edge of the bleachers beside his spread knees. He was leaning forward, as if he wanted to take the mat himself, but when our eyes met, he just gave another confident nod, and I felt better.

The ref stepped forward and helped me adjust the chin strap. I put it on my head. The snaps met, but no matter how hard I pushed them against my temple they would not snap in place. I looked hopelessly at the ref, and he reached up and began working with the snap himself. I felt like I was five and Mom was bundling me up to go sledding.

If there had been any doubt that this was my first match, it was obvious to everyone now. Whatever confidence I had gathered during warm-ups was still in that corner of the mat. Finally the two metal buttons snapped in place.

“There you go, son,” he said with a pat on my head.

The bleachers clapped insincerely. My opponent laughed a little laugh as he took his place on the center circle. There I was in my raggedy shoes and baggy uniform, humiliated for what felt like an eternity, but the cocky smile of my opponent triggered something deep inside me. Band-Aids on his ears: the words were still ringing in my head when the ref said, “Ready? Wrestle!”.

Raptor Boy stepped toward me and struck his stance, head tilting at his prey. Two more steps toward me, stancing again then cocking his head the other way. He tapped the top of my head, an old diversionary trick that almost always means a two-legged takedown is coming—even I knew that. And sure enough, he shot for my legs.

The following events take much longer to describe than they took to accomplish. Pancake; arm-hooks, and flag. Let me explain: wrestling moves have names, not names you’d find in a book, but ones that wrestlers make up that come in and out of use through the years. I’ll start with the first: “pancake.” He had shot for my legs in an attempt to lift me up and throw me to the mat for a two-point take down, but I pancaked, sprawled my legs straight behind me far and wide pressing my upper-body weight on the shooter. But during this particular pancake, I sunk a deep under-arm hook on his left arm pit and an over-arm hook on his right, and in the same split second that we dropped to the mat, I spun him to his back, keeping both arm-hooks deep. This put his head at a right angle against the back of my right shoulder and pressed his chin was deep in the top of his own sternum.

I had him. My grip was good. Almost no time had passed so our bodies were not slippery from sweat, just clammy enough to make my coiled arms and squeezing fingers stick like glue. This pinning combination is sometimes called a “flag” because the top wrestle is in complete control like the flagpole while the other is perpendicular to him, like a flag flapping in the wind. He squirmed. He arched. He wriggled, but each move allowed me to sink my grip deeper and pull his shoulder blades closer to the mat.

The same ref who snapped my headgear seconds before was now on the mat, studying two shoulder blades just above it. Our entire bench was on its feet cheering. I heard Dad’s voice yell from the bleachers, “Stick him, Tom!”

Lifting my sprawled weight up to the toes of my raggedy shoes, I put all of my ninety-seven pounds behind the strength of my arms and pressed him further down. The ref was scampering back and forth, poking his hand in the crevice where the flag met the pole.

And then came the wonderful resounding slap of flesh against dense foam. Raptor Boy went limp. As I dropped him from my grip and sprang to my feet, he just looked up at the rafters in disbelief until the ref made him stand beside me as he raised my arm in the air. I’m not sure refs are supposed to smile at that moment, but this one did. My team was still cheering. Dave was jumping and yelling more than any of them. I’d never seen him so happy for me.

I heard someone yelling “Yippee! Yippee!” in the bleachers. It was Dad who was waving at me the way Mom would have waved. It was not like him but a wonderful sight. “Yippee! Yippee!” He repeated with unleashed joy, and I remember thinking at the time that yippee was a word from old movies—no one said yippee anymore, but Dad was saying it over and over, and I laughed and felt like a young Mickey Rooney character smiling in black-and-white. It’s a feeling every kid should experience once and tuck away for the times when life feels nothing like it.

“Thirty-seven seconds!” Stosh said, reaching for his head-gear.

“What?” I asked, yanking it from my head.

“Thirty-seven seconds! That’ll be the fasted pin all night I’ll bet.”

Dave patted me on the back. I turned around still smiling uncontrollably.

“Way to go, Tom.!” He said, “Way to put the moves on!” Coach was smiling, too, as he motioned us to our seats. “Way to go, Tom!” Dave said again, and his eyes meant it.

There is another wrestling term I should mention here: It's “reversal.” That’s when the underdog, the wrestler who is being controlled, suddenly out maneuvers the guy on top, completely reversing the advantage. It’s worth only two points, but it can change the outcome of everything. This match was over so quickly it did not include any two-point reversals, but the entire event was a reversal of a different sort. Dave was cheering for me. Me, the kid brother in junior high; me, his rug-burned living room sparring partner; the tag-along who could barely keep up with him on bike rides; the guilty runt who wanted to shovel the church sidewalks that day in December… Dave was cheering for me. It was a reversal of enormous proportions.

Through the rest of the meet, I cheered on the others as they had done for me, but I confess between matches, when no one was looking, I looked down at my patchwork shoes and smiled.

Epilogue: Dave took this picture in our living room the next day. I wish the shoes were in the picture.
The next year, when I was with Dave at Brablec High School, they dropped the wrestling program due to a millage vote that had not passed. As a senior Dave organized a Wrestling Club, and we did have one meet against who else? East Detroit. I faced a different opponent that time and won a close match 4 to 2, but it was nothing like my first win. When I finally hit my growth spurt after 11th grade, I outgrew the patchwork shoes and didn't see them for a decade or more. Little did I know that Mom had kept them in a box of my stuff. Then a few years later she moved the box to the attic of the house we will build in coming chapters. I found them a few months ago while preparing for the estate sale.

I still believe there is a kind of magic in the shoes. It had nothing to do with my two victories in '70 and '71 when I wore them. I'm talking about the magic of memory that they held for nearly forty years, the magic that lets a graying man pick up a pair of silly, raggedy shoes while cleaning out an attic and suddenly be taken so completely back in time.

(If you look closely in the background, you'll see the kitchen table Mom' burned in Chapter 24-A Her new Ethan Allen table was in the "dining room," which was simply the far end of the living room to the right of the where the picture ends.)
I have two unrelated but exciting updates I've been waiting to share with you, but I needed to finish this story. I'll post those updates Wednesday.

Then next week I'll continue the Unsettled story. We're going to skip forward a whole year. Paul will be gone to college, and Dave and I will be helping Dad with the preliminary stages of building the house. Chapter 30 is called: "First We'll Need Some Wood.")

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Unsettled Chapter 29-C "There Was Magic in the Shoes"

Back in Chapter 9-A, I shared the following personal confession about this time in my life:

"It was that awkward age....I was what some adults euphemistically called a late bloomer with a "growth spurt" lost somewhere in my genes. Before graduating, I’d grow another seven inches, but for now, I was the third smallest guy in my grade level (which had about 400 students). I had never shaved and would not need to shave daily until my junior year--in college! [By the time I could grow sideburns, they had come and gone out of style.] There were sparse, struggling hairs under one arm but nothing under the other. I loved P.E. class but hated the required showers afterwards. Need I explain? Awkward age indeed! I was surviving sheepishly among a growing population of Neanderthals."

Make no mistake. Those feelings were real in the locker room of 9th grade P.E. class at Burton Junior High... and they were even more real at wrestling practice with Dave at the high school. So you can imagine how this "late bloomer" felt as he walked into the guest locker room of East Detroit High School and saw the team getting into their wrestling uniforms.

I had practiced with the team over Christmas Break. I'd seen them all in uniform at many wrestling meets, but until that moment it had not occurred to me that I have never put on a wrestling uniform in my life.

Guest lockers are not assigned, of course, but there are many unspoken rituals and patterns that groups fall into without thinking. And for some reason, the team tended to pick lockers in the same order they sat along side the mat. So Dave found an empty locker for me in the first row where all the lighter weights were and then he moved on to the next row of lockers where the mid-weights were, leaving me to fend for myself. I opened the locker and just stared. I had no uniform yet, and there was no way I was getting out of my clothes until I did. No way was I going to nonchalantly walk around in a jock strap or less as most of the team did before "weighing in." I was wrestling in the 98-lbs class but could weigh in fully dressed with a pound to spare. No problem there.

Perhaps more than other sports, wrestling generates "nick names" that can stick with a guy for many years. Stan Zelinsky was one of those guys. "Stan the Man" he called himself, but we all called him Stosh.

Stosh came by slapped me on the back.

"Hey, K'Spanky, you ready for the big match?" he laughed.

"I'm kind of nervous." I smiled

"Don't be. The other guy is the one who should be scared. You're gunna put the moves on him. Am I right?" ["Put the moves on him" was a general statement of wrestling domination at that time.] "K'Spanky's getting his first high school win tonight and he's only in junior high!" he announced, but no one was really listening.

It would be tempting to say that Stosh "high fived" me after such hype, but the high five as a form of athletic encouragement was not yet in common use. Strange as it may sound in retrospect, none of us had seen it done. The high five became popular a few years later and has become so common that it now seems impossible to remember a time when athletes did not naturally exchange them. No, Stosh did not high five me, he just laughed and moved on to the next man to begin a similar pep talk. That was Stosh's way of getting psyched up for meets. He was an average wrestler with more defeats than wins, but he was the kind of funny, encouraging guy every team needs one of.

DomZom came up to me with a tangled handful of purple and white spandex. His real name was Dominic Zombo. [In writing this part of the story, I learned that he is still in wrestling. Dom is the coach in Macomb County, and continues to inspire young wrestlers. I did not know it until now, but it is not surprising to me.]

Dom was a tall skinny senior just below Dave's weight class. Good wrestler. He had known my sister Kathy and still knew both Paul and Dave, and so... by virtue of blood... DomZom was always nice to me. Being the caboose of the family is sometimes hard, but following well-liked siblings through school is one of the highest honors of life.

"Coach says to try these on." he smiled.

I untangled the three pieces of the uniform, looked around to make sure no one was paying attention, quickly shucked my clothes to the floor, and pulled on the white shorts.

"Tights and then whites," DomZom said from the far end of the bench.

"What?" I said, not knowing he was looking out for me.

"Tights then whites," he repeated. "You gotta put on the purple tights first and then the white shorts over them." [Wrestlers no longer wear "tights."]

"Oh... That makes sense." I laughed.

Laughing mid-mistakes was a gift I'd picked up from my mother. We pretty much have three choices when we do something harmlessly dumb: get mad; get embarrassed; or laugh as you correct it and go on. Mom had lots of practice at the latter, and I'd picked up the mid-mistake laugh from her. It has served me well through the years.

I peeled off the white shorts, pulled on the tights, and then thought to ask...

"Is there a front and back to these things?"

"There is but it doesn't matter. Tag goes in the back, But they're kind of big on you so it won't matter once you put on the shorts," Dom said.

When he turned to his own locker, I pulled out the waistline and saw the tag in front, but there were no feet in the tights--just foot straps--so I pulled on the white shorts, and then began studying the third piece of the uniform.

It was more or less a tank top but it was also a "one-piece" that required stepping into like the swimsuits men wore in the Roaring Twenties. Great! I thought. Obviously, the white shorts had to go on after the top, too.

"Oops!," Dom said from the end of the bench. "I forgot. Tights, Tank, and then Whites. Just remember the shorts go last and you'll be all set."

For a kid who didn't want to get undressed, I was sure making things miserable for myself. I laughed slightly less as I pulled off the shorts for the third time. While I was at it, I switched the tights so the tag was in the back. By the time I was properly dressed and lacing up my patch-work shoes, the locker room was nearly empty. My brother Dave stepped up behind me.

"Come on, Tom. You didn't weigh in. They're waiting."

"You didn't tell me when to weigh in," I said like a little brother, "and it took me a while to figure this uniform out. Dom helped."

Dave's eyes widened. Until that moment, he'd forgotten that this part of his wrestling experience was all new to me.

"Sorry about that," Dave said. (It was a line made popular by Don Adams as Maxw
ell Smart. Get Smart was one of our family’s favorite shows at the time.)

"That's alright," I said, tightening the laces on my raggedy shoes. I stood on the wooden bench, temporarily above my brother.

A wrestling uniform is designed to look as if it can barely contain the muscular physique inside. Mine was only slightly more filled out than if it were hanging on a clothesline, but I was proud to have it on.

"Those shoes..." Dave sighed, shaking his head.

"Are cool," I finished for him. And still on the bench I did a little tap dance step. "Other than that, how do I look?"

"Fine. You look fine. But do me a favor: don't do that little tap-dance thing in front of anybody else. Put on your wrestling face and practice stancing like I showed you."

The term "stancing" refers to the various idiosyncratic moves and postures a wrestler assumes while stretching on the mat before the meet begins. He jumps in place, shakes off nerves, and then strikes a stance. It's usually the same posture he assumes while approaching his opponent after the ref says "Ready...wrestle." Stancing is a wrestler's trademark, a customized set of moves intended to reflect focus and the pent-up fury about to be unleashed. The little Sammy Davis Jr. tap dance I did for Dave in those patch-work shoes did not qualify as stancing. It was just the last twitch of the mid-mistake routine I'd learned from my mom. There was no way I would do such a thing in front of others and he knew it. I think he knew it....

Dave took in a deep breath, put his hand on my back, and we walked to the scales in the weigh-in room.

To be continued: I hope to post the 4th and final installment of "There Was Magic in the Shoes" in a few days, but we're going to the beach today and I have some chores to do in the meantime.

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.


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