In the Appalachians

If you haven’t seen the hit movie “Bozo’s Boy”, or the blockbuster series “Bozo’s Boy in Hollywood”, it’s because they haven’t been produced, but I was there–born on the same day that, according the movie, Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge. From “Billie Joe” until “She Blinded Me with Science” I breathed in, and often breathed out, and thirty years later lived in a tent at Snag End, at the base of Snaggy Mountain, outside Boone, North Carolina. I could walk to my cousin’s barn, which she rented out for parties. She let me in for free, and I helped clean up.
One night a girl I’d seen the week before made a smartass remark about my wardrobe. Perri was a member of the Numuziklub (new music club) which rented her barn a few times a month. Across from her were a couple of fellows with about twelve teeth between them, and she pulled me into the seat next to her. I saved her from the pirates, and we went home together. That night, and every night since.
Perri went to Lees-McRae college nearby. Her family had recently moved from Sanford, Florida and now lived on Beech Mountain a few miles away. My father’s family had lived in the area for generations, but I’d grown up in Colorado.
We stayed together. Perri smoked, but I’d been vegetarian over half my life and hadn’t smoked in years. I didn’t try to change her, but within a few weeks she’d quit smoking, and eating meat except for occasional fish, and I was pleased. People do what they want, and when they’re ready they’ll listen. Some folks find religion, some want health, some wish to be ethical, some want to keep their boyfriends. I don’t judge unless asked, and even then not one person in fifty pays attention. It’s a nice surprise when they do, but doesn’t often happen.
When adults don’t pay attention it doesn’t bother me. Adults choose their life path, but it annoys me when children have poor health, allergies, mental problems, diseases and parents don’t have the will or awareness to help the kids eat right. Kids who eat nothing but crap have difficulties for life.
We spent a season in the tent, but soon decided to build an earth lodge. For the next couple years we dug dirt and pounded nails. It started as a huge tent made from old carpeting, but I brought leftover plywood and shorty 2x4s from my construction job to make the roof, then covered it with tarpaper and roofing cement. In its final iteration it was well sealed from the weather and toasty warm in the wintertime.
Beech Mountain
Perri’s mother had been divorced, and had three kids. When she married Ed, the kids called him Daddio, and from then on they were Mams and Daddio. Ed and Janis raised two more kids, then bought an old mill house in Tennessee and moved the 18th-century hand-hewn plank boards to the top of Beech Mountain, where he’d reassembled the two-storey structure and added a basement, sub-basement and a spacious attic. When I met him it was open from top to bottom, with only a small section of floor in the kitchen. He’d fallen and broken his arm, but had only put a little Ben-Gay on it and was sitting at the kitchen table, going over plans. Ed had bought the top of Beech Mountain and subdivided it into what he called the Crest of Beech. In the meantime he and the family were living in a small house a mile away. He was a veterinarian, and had an office in a building which I’d roofed the year before in cedar. Wildly popular in the 1970s, it was supposed to last 80 to 100 years. It had been little used in the south, but I was on several roofing crews who used a new technique, alternating rows of shakes with layers of tarpaper. Unfortunately, tarpaper held moisture, and after fifteen or twenty years the cedar rotted.
Mams worked for the Beech Mountain Club, a homeowner’s association which ran the camp, ski slope, skating rink and other activities on the mountain. For awhile one of the attractions was the Land of Oz, a theme park based on the movie, which my brother and I had auditioned for in 1975. It closed in 1981 or ’82 and Perri got possession of a few items; we still have a small step-stool, but a disco ball disintegrated, leaving behind hundreds of 1/2” mirror squares which still occasionally float through our lives, appearing in a dusty corner or sneaking out from behind a wall.
The winter of 1983 saw some of the coldest days on record. My sister’s husband Kevin and I often went to the package store in Blowing Rock–until about 1990 Boone was a dry town–and one displayed a huge bottle, a jeroboam of champagne, which had been there for ages. Kevin asked the price. The owner, just in the mood, said, “Tell you what. Give me $10 and you can take it home.” I immediately pulled out $10 and gave it to him for what was easily a $100 bottle of champagne. I left it in the earth lodge next to the stove, but even with a fairly constant fire going and large rocks to maintain thermal mass, the temperature got down to -25º that Christmas, and that huge bottle of champagne was mushy frozen when I rescued it. We opened it on New Year’s Day, 1984, a date which due to George Orwell’s melodramatic 1948 book seemed ominous, but came to be seen as just another somewhat pedestrian year.
Through the spring and summer of that overblown year we lived in and worked on the earth lodge. In May we took a vacation to the Outer Banks, Perri’s Subaru hatchback loaded to the gills. It was a first for us, and we had a lovely time. Highway 64 is known as the road which traverses North Carolina “from Manteo to Murphy”, and we went to Corolla and Duck in the north, then drove south, taking pictures with a couple box cameras I’d brought along. I’d been buying them since I was 12 or so, and with them we took double exposures of ourselves on the beach, “art” shots of our “dream” vacation, and stopped at every lighthouse, where I’d snap Perri from a snail’s-eye view, lighthouse looming overhead. In Kitty Hawk we paced out the flights of Orville and Wilbur Wright. We fought off seagulls at a picnic shelter and visited the site of the Lost Colony, a patch of grass where the English settled in 1587, well before the Mayflower, and were lost to history, likely melting in with the Indians a few miles inland. We bought hats with long bills in front and sunshades in back. We stayed in the Hatteras Hotel, which even at that late date had no television, only a radio, but for $20 a night suited us fine. We rode down the coast and took ferries across the Albemarle Sound, one a short jaunt and the other a journey of hours. We paid 50¢ each to see a fireman’s museum in New Bern and went to another in Belhaven which was based on Eva Blount Way’s collection of strange things–thousands of buttons, weird animal parts in formaldehyde, a 1/4” drill which had electrocuted a carpenter, old magazine covers, more buttons, fleas dressed up as wedding guests, more buttons and more buttons. We moseyed back across the state, stopping at the Rose Hill winery, the Duplin winery and the original town of Washington–known by Carolinians as The First Washington. We saw the world’s largest coffeepot in Winston-Salem, snapped pictures of us underneath it and in June were back in Boone.
We did a lot of work on the lodge and were well set by the following autumn. I worked at the elementary school, Perri finished at Lees-McRae and transferred to Appalachian State to work on a teaching certificate. For Christmas my parents gave us a “symbolic” gift–a light bulb. Instead of running an extension cord down the hill from Kevin and Fran’s trailer, we’d have a real power hookup at the earth lodge! I was overjoyed! My father was helping us!
It didn’t happen. A month or two later, one of my cousins tried to plan a golf course on my grandparents’ land, which now belonged to my father and his five siblings. If they all got together, there’d be enough land and everyone would own a share. This might have been acceptable, but it didn’t work out. The banksters wanted a buyout. As for the power hookup, it was a promise. One he never intended to keep.
I thought the whole was over, but Perri was furious. It was not considered that the two of us had put years of money and sweat into our home and the property. We weren’t asked. It was announced, a given, an aside, that of course our earth lodge would be torn down. She saw it as an outright and complete betrayal, of promises made, a breach of trust.
She was correct.
War Stories
Every generation has war stories, literally or figuratively. They may be keys to one generation understanding another. Or maybe not.
When Pearl Harbor was attacked, my father was fifteen. Ned and some friends were playing mumbly-pegs, an Appalachian stick-and-rock game resembling baseball. Everyone rushed in from the meadow and gathered around the Sears Silvertone when the Gene Autry Show was interrupted. The war was daily news, but he didn’t think he’d be part of it. He was student body president, and a popular debater. After high school he went to Mars Hill College in Mars Hill, NC for a year, then while he was on summer break, the Allies invaded at Normandy and the Army called for volunteers to join the Air Corps. In August 1944 he signed up to become a pilot, but the Army Air Corps had 30,000 more volunteers than they needed. He was moved into the infantry, a depressing development, but didn’t back out. After 17 weeks of boot camp in Ft. McClellan, Alabama, he volunteered to be a paratrooper and was sent to Ft. Benning, Georgia, but before the end of his training the Battle of the Bulge began. He got a two week furlough, but on Christmas Day was in Ft. Meade, Maryland, and on New Year’s Day, 1945, was sailing on the Queen Mary.
It took four days. Thirty thousand men slept in 8-hour shifts. Waiting for chow took forever, and after tasting it, he decided the British didn’t know how to cook. He survived on cigarettes and candy bars, and trimmed hair for pocket change (he later became a barber). They pulled into Glasgow, Scotland, took the train to Southampton, crossed the English Channel and rode in boxcars to Riems, where Germans had infiltrated, in American uniforms. Everyone had to keep up with the newest passwords, one of which was “squirrel”. He was assigned to the 35th Division, 1378th regiment, Company B. They went into Alsace-Lorraine, where the snow was waist-deep.
It was a brutal winter. The first night, his outfit was on one mountain and the Germans, across the valley, on another. It was snowing, and the temperature went down to 30 below. The Germans were sending out patrols; their black boots marched through the snow past his foxhole, but he kept quiet. The guy beside him was coughing, but the patrol passed by.
His feet were freezing. Trench foot. He cut up an army blanket, stuffed it in his boots. From that day onwards, for the rest of his life, he wore tight shoes.
Not much fighting was going on, so his company moved south, traveling through Belgium and France in trucks. In one little French village a woman and her daughter waved to the trucks and cheerfully yelled out “Boolsheet! Boolsheet!,” which some smartass had told her was a greeting–so the soldiers waved and yelled “Bullshit!” back.
The Germans were retreating. The Americans lined up outside villages to fire their weapons. The brass had decided every squad needed two Browning automatics, and Ned carried one. It was a pain in the butt. It fired a lot more ammo, but half the time would jam. It was heavy, and got very heavy as they marched. One moonlit night, about 2 am, they heard a sniper and everyone hit the ditch. Ned fell asleep, and when someone killed the sniper, he slept until someone shook him awake. They were lining up to take the next village, and just then a mortar shell landed where he’d been sleeping. A little mound of dirt on the ditch bank saved him from being hit.
They went into the village at daylight, firing away. In a little gingerbread house there was a man of eighty or so who didn’t care that Ned had a big Browning rifle and wouldn’t put his hands over his head, he just kept cussing in German and pushing him away. They put the civilians in the central square, and secured the village.
They’d reached the Ruhr river. Everything was misty and muddy. German burp guns were going off in the distance, shooting out beams like headlights. There was a phone line between the foxholes, and a couple guys named Quinliver and LaBota were in a barn. A little before daylight, Quinliver called and said, “Sergeant, there’s a patrol outside the barn.” The sergeant asked Ned whether he and Bryant had seen a patrol. They hadn’t. The sergeant asked, had Quinliver? They didn’t know. The sergeant told Quinliver and LaBota to “let ‘em have it,” and all hell broke loose. At daylight, there were five little cherry trees near the barn which Quinliver and LaBota had shot to pieces. The sergeant separated them, and Quinliver became Ned’s partner.
On the 4th of March, 1945, the soldiers entered a small village which appeared deserted, except for an air raid shelter in the side of the hill with a stovepipe sticking out the top. Like most of the officers, the lieutenant was a college kid who’d had 3 months of training, but didn’t know much. A lot of these “ninety day wonders” quickly got themselves killed. The “little lieutenant,” as they called him out of earshot, was at the mouth of the shelter, yelling. Ned told him he knew what to do. He climbed to the top of the stovepipe, put a big clod of dirt on it and 15 or 20 villagers came out, coughing. Among them were two soldiers, who promptly surrendered. They said they weren’t really soldiers, but had been captured, put into the army and left behind as snipers. They told the Americans the German outfit had pulled across the Rhine, a few kilometers away. The little lieutenant told Ned to guard the civilians, which they didn’t usually do.
Ned leaned back on the shelter, pulled out a K-ration, started eating. The sergeant came along, asked what he was doing. He was guarding the civilians, like the lieutenant had ordered. The sergeant growled, “You know better than that! Get your ass back up front where you belong!” He went back.
The last house in the village had a doorbell. Quinliver went to the back door while Ned rang the bell. Inside was a girl of twelve and her little brother, crying, holding their hands up, repeating “Nicht soldaten! Nicht soldaten! (we’re not soldiers!). Their grandparents were at the table, eating dark German bread. Ned picked up a piece and spread jelly on it. The grandparents, realizing the soldiers were hungry, went to the cellar, pulled out several loaves, and soon the whole squad was eating bread and jelly.
While they were standing in the kitchen, the little lieutenant said to Mahl, the staff sergeant, “Mahl, I don’t know–but I have a funny feeling I’m gonna get it today.” Mahl said, “Aah! Don’t talk that way, lieutenant,” He said, “Well, if something happens to me, you take over.”
There was a chill in the air.
As they left, the lieutenant told Ned and another fellow that it was their turn to be forward scouts.
They were in rolling hill country, and the road forked at the base of a little hill. The captain ran up with a map, and told Ned to go right. Just then, a German flare went up, and they knew it was a trap. Ahead to the right was a gravel pit, and Ned dived in.
All hell broke loose. The Germans had a machine gun and a mortar set up on the hill. The machine gunner opened up, but didn’t have the gun aimed and hit the dirt in front of Ned, who jumped and ran up the bank. The other fellow was hit. The Germans opened up on the company with machine guns on both flanks, and the mortar in the middle. A sergeant named Jackson joined Ned on the bank; he started to get up and fire his rifle, but Ned told him to get down. He did. They heard a tank coming and ran the other way, through the trees. A Tiger Royal with an 88mm gun came rolling down the road, firing toward the area they’d just left. By now, the lieutenant was a pile of dirty, bloody flesh. Mahl had been killed, and most of the company was piled in the road, dead or dying. Ned and Jackson lay on the hill beside the road. Ned knew the machine gunner could see him; the tracer bullets were pinging all around. He kept saying please, God, don’t let me die–then decided if he was going to die he’d read the Bible. He opened his little pocket Bible at random and read, “fear not the man who can destroy the body, for he cannot touch the soul.”
The firing stopped. Jackson said, “Austin, we can surrender.” They didn’t have anything white to hold up, but held up an old pair of gloves and left their rifles behind, hands in the air.
There were ten men left. A guy named Bachard walked up to a German soldier, and the soldier asked him, in English, “Do you have a family?” Bachard replied, “Yes. I have two daughters, and I‘m from Oregon.” The German said, “I have two daughters, too. I haven’t heard from my wife for 3 months. I don’t know what’s happened to them. War is hell, isn’t it?” Bachard said, “It really is.”
The Germans put everyone in a potato shed. They sent a doctor, who examined the wounded and told them, “Someone will come for you. Don’t leave the building or you’ll be shot.”
They were taken to the next village. The American artillery started up, and they were almost killed by their own artillery fire. They went across the Rhine on a ferry, and spent the next night in a home where a German woman fed them barley soup. It was new to Ned, and one of the best things he’d ever tasted. They were then taken to Dortmund.
As prisoners, they didn’t have a change of clothes, were covered in lice and were always hungry or thirsty. They spent the night in a railway station in Essen, watched by two guards. One was an old fellow who’d been a prisoner of the British in the last World War; his name was Willy, but they called him Pop. He spoke a little English, and they got along well.
They were then held in an air raid shelter in Essen, and various Germans with relatives in the States came by to talk. One of the German soldiers, when asked about the American military, said the artillery was excellent, the Air Corps was excellent, but the infantry was a joke.
Leaving Essen, they were simply passengers on a train, with Willy as guard. There was little point in taking elaborate measures, this far behind the lines, this late in the war. They went through a tunnel, heard planes above and stopped in a rail center. The American pilots would circle the train as a humanitarian act to let the civilians get out. All the civilians left the train and ran up the mountain, while the prisoners and Willy remained inside. The American P-47s bombed the rail center and strafed the train. When the destruction was finished, the civilians came back and started spitting and throwing rocks at the prisoners, but Willy got some German soldiers to protect the prisoners from the civilians. They couldn’t ride the train anymore, and started walking, but Willy made arrangements to have them ride on top of a bus. Willy handed his rifle to Ned as he climbed up to guard them–what was Ned gonna do, start shooting?–and when the bus cleared out, they got inside.
School children would practice their English on them, reciting nursery rhymes and asking simple questions. Ned asked them if they could get tobacco, and they gave the prisoners a bag of tobacco. None of the German people seemed to see the prisoners as enemies, just wretches who had even less than they did, which wasn’t much. The prisoners got one loaf of moldy, soggy black bread per day. Not tasty, but nutritious.
They arrived at the Lindberg prison camp, and were interrogated. A German lieutenant, who spoke very good English, talked with Ned, and Ned said, “Lieutenant, I feel very fortunate, because I don’t know anything that could be of value to the German army. You know more about what I know than I do. I understand that early in the interrogation, before you torture us, you’ll be very kind to us to see if we know anything. I wonder if you could give me a cigarette.” The lieutenant laughed and said he didn’t smoke, but called in a captain who gave Ned five cigarettes in a box. They asked what state he was from. He told them North Carolina, and they asked about a paper shortage they’d heard North Carolina was having. They asked a few questions about gas, and he told them yes, all the soldiers were very well prepared against a gas attack. They asked him if he had any friends in the 15th Army. He’d never heard of the 15th Army. They told him they weren’t surprised. The 15th Army was going to be the army of occupation.
In prison camp, for about a week, they got a big slice of black bread and potato soup, which was just boiled potatoes in dirty water. The lice would crawl over their skin when it was warm.
One day everyone got a full loaf of bread, and were all loaded onto French boxcars. There wasn’t enough room to lie down, only to stand or squat. Each boxcar had a can for water, and one to use as a toilet. Sometimes the water can got filled, sometimes it didn’t; they were always thirsty. They spent the next two days inside a tunnel. When they pulled out they were worried about getting bombed, because none of the boxcars were painted PW (Prisoner of War) and the Americans were bombing like crazy, all over Germany.
The train pulled into a little village. There were small openings covered in barbed wire in the corners of the boxcar, and kids started throwing in tiny green apples. They thought it great fun to hear the prisoners inside yelling and fighting for apples. Ned wondered how many people these poor kids had seen in his condition.
Quite a few prisoners lost their minds. They’d cry. Ned or one of the others would lecture them and tell them to be strong, how everyone was gonna get out and so forth. After seven days, Ned had a premonition. He knew they were getting off the boxcar that day, and started telling everyone. Most of the guys thought he’d lost his mind, too, but they got off! Some guys didn’t. They were too weak, and died right there.
They walked for two or three days, sleeping wherever they stopped. They finally walked into a village, and the villagers brought out a huge washtub full of soup, which was unusual as Germans rarely gave prisoners anything; they often didn’t have anything to give. The prisoners knew it wouldn’t be long before they were liberated, and on the night of March 29th, the guards simply disappeared. A buddy of Ned’s climbed a barn to watch when they heard tanks coming, and they ran to meet the tanks, which were American. The division sent ambulances and trucks for the prisoners and took them to a field hospital, where they burned their rotten, dirty clothes. They were de-loused, showered, got new uniforms and ate and ate and ate. They were sent to Paris and spent two weeks in the hospital, where those who could got frequent passes into the city, and had a wonderful time.
One day Ned was interviewed by a captain, who put Ned’s papers in a basket. When the captain was out of the room Ned saw they were for his next assignment. He threw his papers and the next few under them in the trash, and he and the other few guys spent another two weeks in Paris. After a month, he was shipped home. It was May 8th, 1945. Germany was out of the war and Ned ‘fhpirtpcg’;ofunitedegot a sixty-day furlough. He thought he might have to go to the Pacific, but the atomic bomb ended that. He was discharged in November of 1945, went back to the farm and back to school.
Ned graduated from Mars Hill College, went to New York City and from there summer stock theatre in Surrey, Maine. He never became a preacher, which had been his mother Minnie’s wish. A few years later Boone held a Daniel Boone festival, and from that came an idea to start an outdoor drama like the one currently playing at the coast starring Andy Griffith. A rustic theatre was built on a hill outside town and Ned landed the role of Daniel Boone in “Horn in the West”. My mother Bobbie was a singer in the cast that summer. When he saw her carry off a heavy prop anvil which had carelessly been left onstage, he knew she was the girl for him! After one date, he proposed. She waited until he sobered up, then said yes.
Did the war shape my father’s character? Of course. It shaped everyone’s character, and affected everything. In the 50s cheery musicals were replaced by dark drama. People drank too much. Method acting, the popular style of the 50s, now seems overblown and out of control, but he, along with the rest of the world, felt the need for psychological excess. It affected the kids; the “baby boomers” grew up in a world of fear. At age five, six, eight we’d hear a siren and fly under our desks, assume the kiss-your-ass-goodbye position and wait for the bomb to vaporize us. Metal bracelets we all wore reminded us that we’d be little piles of ashes in a few nanoseconds, but whoever swept up would know which crisp was which by our tags. None of us expected to grow up. I thought I’d be lucky to see fourteen–old enough to drive a motor scooter.
But if we grew up, we knew what to expect. We’d be fighting the Russians, on land, on sea and in space. Smart kids would be rocket scientists.
I was smart. I was the smartest kid in the state; my Stanford Achievement Tests proved it. I’d also been promoted a year, making me the youngest, smallest, and physically least matured–easily bullied by students, teachers, the system and especially by my father. He was brutal, which wasn’t uncommon. I knew lots of kids who were smacked around, whipped, beat up by their fathers. Didn’t make it right.
You get what you give. If you want love, give love. If you want honesty and respect, give honesty and respect. If you want to be remembered as a fine person, be a fine person. There are those who think my father was warm, generous, funny. They saw what he wanted them to see. I knew better. He was mean. He was black tar mean.
I couldn’t trust him. He was pleasant when we’d work together. I shined shoes and cleaned up his barbershop as a kid, and we sold Christmas trees together when I was older, but if I did anything well, be it praiseworthy, notable or simply competent, he’d find a way to wreck it.
For me this was commonplace, ordinary. He was thoroughly, completely, predictably untrustworthy. He’d forget a promise before he’d finished saying it. Sometimes this was carelessness, but often deliberate malice. Why? I don’t know, though I’ve thought about it. A lot.
My father was a deeply jealous man. When he saw innocent, pleasant, happy people he’d make horrid, despicable comments. He once blindsided a polite, cheerful waitress by asking her what it was like to be as ugly as her. He kept it up through dinner, loudly telling his dinner companion, my brother, that if he were that ugly, he’d commit suicide. She ran to the back and cried.
He’s dead now, and I’m relieved. Is that wrong? Should I care? Psychologists say to forgive “for your own good”. Religious leaders quote Jesus and say forgive your enemies, forgive seventy times seven, but if I wave a couple of fingers, make a Jesus face and say “I forgive”, I feel worse, not better. Truth is, I’ve done my seventy times seven. I’ve got no more. I tried to love him. He hated me for it. I have no obligation, no desire, no more room in my bruised heart. It’s over.
I’ll forgive what was done unawares, recklessly, heedless of consequence. Deliberate maliciousness demands a cussing out, and I’ll be done cussing when I’m finished. If that means spitting over the railing in heaven, so be it. I never did anything mean or vindictive to my father. I trusted him. I got a torpedo to the gut. I don’t need psychology. If he had issues from his childhood, from the war, from growing up in the Depression, he can hang around hell and commiserate with Bing Crosby. I’m done.
After the golf course debacle, I should have shaken off the dust, followed my woman and left forever, but I had a misplaced wish to build a life, a business, to be a loyal son, to do right to my utterly undeserving father and to the Austin family who’d lived in the valley for two hundred years. I hadn’t felt at home until I moved to North Carolina. I’d grown up in Colorado, where I hated school and now knew only a few folks from the old neighborhood; in Hollywood, I only kept up with a couple acquaintances from when I managed our rental equipment yard and played in a family band. I had lots of friends in Austin, Texas, where we’d sold Christmas trees for years and everyone remembered my name, but in Boone I had family. I’d built a home. I felt at home.
It didn’t mean as much to Perri. When the plans for the golf course fell through, like seventy-seven hundred other plans of my father’s, I didn’t think twice. To Perri, however, it demonstrated that whatever we did meant zip to him, that we could never trust him. She was correct, but I was blind. I continued working on the earth lodge, but Perri got one apartment, then another. We stayed in our lodge occasionally, then let friends live there, then the dream died.
Leaving Snag End
I’d towed my Model A truck to the earth lodge at Snag End to work on it with Jake and Kevin. Jake had been living on the property in a bus with his wife and kids and was a great help, but Kevin was increasingly erratic. He and Fran had joined a weirdo cult before they got married, and they’d quit the red-haired loony’s church shortly after the wedding but Kevin had taken up drinking. He’d drink a couple beers late at night for a couple weeks, then start after lunch. Soon he’d be walking around at 9am, beer in hand, a week later a liquor bottle would be half-empty at 11am and by 4pm Kevin would do something stupid. He’d quit drinking for a few weeks and the cycle would repeat.
My cousin worked for the school bus garage in South Carolina. There had been a horrible fiery wreck in Kentucky where a drunk driver, going the wrong way on the freeway, had plowed into the passenger side of a bus. “The Carrollton Bus Crash,” took place May 14, 1988. Twenty-four children and three adults died when its gas tank was punctured and exploded. School bus safety was improved, but rather than re-fit every bus in America, the old ones were sold cheap. We bought one for $600. We had to take out all the seats to drive it with a regular driver’s license, but we wanted to use it to haul Christmas trees anyway. It wouldn’t go over 45 miles per hour and only made four or five miles per gallon, so we purchased a 2-speed rear end for another $250. In top gear it now made 60 miles per hour and got seven or eight miles per gallon.
Perri’s friend Cindy had also worked on Beech Mountain. Her parents knew mine, though I didn’t find that out until later. The winter before we met, she’d had an argument with her on-again-off-again boyfriend of many years. He’d stormed off, wrecked his car and died. For many years afterwards Cindy was involved with one inappropriate guy after another–guys who were married, way older, immature, living at home at 40, etc. One day in the late 1990s she and I had a heart-to-heart talk. She realized she’d been picking guys she kinda knew from the start weren’t gonna work, because it wouldn’t hurt so much when they left–or died. Soon afterwards she found a nice guy. They have two kids the same ages as ours.
Perri went to school and found a part-time job delivering pizzas when we moved into the apartment. She had a habit of hitting me when we disagreed, and one day I’d had enough. I spun her around and punched her in the center of her back. That ended it. People say men should never hit a woman, but neither should a woman hit a man. One day I saw a 250-lb. woman on Phil Donahue sitting by her 125-pound husband and she (punch!) said (punch!) that HE’D(punch!) HIT (punch!) HER (punch!)!!! Nobody noticed that she weighed twice as much, and had just punched him five times.
For six months or so we received a subsidized rent, but when I received a raise of 25¢ an hour the rent suddenly doubled. We cleaned up the apartment when we moved out, It was absolutely spotless, but we only received $40 back on our $300 deposit. If I had it to do over I’d have trashed the place and set loose cockroaches. It was a scam pulled by an out-of-town real estate company on a couple with no money. Totally common.
We moved into an apartment outside town, up a steep hill. It was approximately the same size and rent we’d been paying before, but not subsidized and the neighbors were a problem. Below us lived a redneck fellow named Kenny, who was pleasant enough but worked all the time. His pregnant wife, her mother and no-count brother also lived in the one-bedroom apartment. Kenny had two jobs, but the three of them sat around watching TV all day, drinking soda, chain-smoking cigarettes. Kenny’s wife kept a broomstick handy and banged on the ceiling every ten or fifteen minutes while we walked around the apartment. The floor squeaked, but what the hell were we supposed to do? When our neighbors to the left played music, she’d bang on our ceiling. When our neighbors to the right got into arguments she’d bang on the ceiling. We started tromping around at all hours, for no reason. It didn’t matter anyway.
To our right, our neighbors loved the Doors, and when they got into arguments they’d crank up the stereo. We’d hear Jim Morrison braying “Don’t you love her madly?” interspersed with squabbling from her, thundering from him, kids yelling, banging on the ceiling while we walked on the squeaky floor. We were happy that Kenny’s wife kept the temperature cranked up to 80 and the heat came up through our floor. Our power bill was under $50, while theirs was over $300. We even opened the windows to cool things down, a small but delicious compensation.
I made a lot of jewelry that year and took some classes at Appalachian State University, where Perri had transferred. Over spring break Perri’s brother Wes and his girlfriend got a condominium in Florida (it was a perk from her job) and the four of us went to Disney World, visited Perri’s sister Joy and her friends in Sanford, then across the state to see her sister Glee in Sebring and brother Jimmie in Fort Myers. After a couple weeks we headed home. I wanted to visit my two sisters, who were in Melbourne, but Perri wanted to leave. I assented, but not at all happily. We’d visited with her family for two weeks, and if we couldn’t see my sisters for a day I wasn’t sure I wanted to be with her anymore. She saw my glum mood and we stopped, visiting my sister Genny, her husband Suzuki and my sister Laura.
I’d had a green 1972 Dodge Coronet for a couple years, a great car that didn’t get very good gas mileage, and bought a Toyota station wagon from my brother, who’d become a used car salesman. The Toyota had 160,000 miles but came with a little notebook in the glove box detailing everything that had been done it, a habit I immediately adopted.
We stayed at Mountain Ridge apartments through the winter of ’85. I got a job selling ski tickets at Beech Mountain. It was crazy enough driving up the road home in deep snow, much less up Beech Mountain. One day I had to put on the “chains” supplied by Toyota, little clamps with two chains about six inches apart. The tire would spin and grab, spin and grab. I got up the mountain an hour late and used a full tank of gas. I stayed at my supervisor’s condo that night and thereafter took the four-wheel-drive Subaru while Perri drove the Toyota to school.
On the Beech
Selling tickets was fun. On busy days I’d take in $20,000 or $30,000, one day $50,000, but most days, especially early or late in the season, I’d bring a book. I’d read a book a day, sometimes in Spanish, which I was mastering.
We split from Mountain Ridge Apartments in the spring of 1986. Perri started classes down the mountain in Morganton while I stayed in the earth lodge. We’d bought an Oldsmobile from Suzuki and I suggested to Genny that with the money they should take a vacation out West. They did, and had a great time, but Suzuki wanted to stay in San Francisco while Genny wanted to be a star in New York. They eventually divorced, though she called him, late at night, for years.
I took classes at Appalachian and worked with a couple rock masons on the off days. We built chimneys, walkways, patios, and I’d pick up leftover pieces of plywood and 2x4s from job sites and put them in the earth lodge. By the fall of 1986 it was a solid structure. That summer and fall I sold jewelry, flutes and toys at Mystery Hill, a tourist attraction along the Blowing Rock Highway, and found that my best sellers were stained glass kaleidoscopes. In late 1986 I made one which combined a color wheel and a tumble box, and christened it a Kallistoscope.
O Canada
For spring break of ’86 we started for a camp-out with my Earth Studies class, packed the Subaru and waited, but nobody showed. It was supposed to be the last weekend of Easter break, not the first. Since we already had everything packed we picked up our champagne bottle with 2-1/2 years’ worth of dimes in it and with the $200 or so and an Exxon card headed north. We drove to Niagara Falls, crossed into Canada, and then called everyone back home, who’d thought we were in Virginia! We toured Canada for the afternoon, bought souvenirs, then went to Cortland, NY, where I had many friends from five years of hitchhiking through town. I’d often stayed with Barb, who was out of town, but Eileen was there. We stayed the night and I kissed her goodbye, for the first, and last, time.
In New Jersey we visited Kevin’s parents while we got the shock absorbers to the Subaru replaced. The mechanic couldn’t believe how worn-out they were. Four years of gravel mountain roads had destroyed them completely. No resistance whatever. We tried to pay with our Sears Discover card, but Sears in New Jersey didn’t take a card from North Carolina. We had to arrange a round-about transaction from one bank, to another, to another, to put money in Kevin’s mother’s bank account to pay the mechanic. We stayed in New Jersey while the car was being fixed. I went with Kevin’s brother. I ordered my first legal drink of liquor, in a bar connected to a liquor store. I was 33, but had never ordered anything but beer or wine in North Carolina and during my five years of thumbing around hadn’t gone in any liquor bars. It felt strange ordering “whiskey”, then came the question, what kind?
I didn’t know. I was a country hick. I was even wearing overalls.
Kevin’s brother was wild and crazy, but friendly and very funny, like Kevin. We rode his three-wheeler ATV, a style popular in 1986 but even then being phased out for the far safer four-wheelers. One of the fellows on a four-wheeler hit a guy-wire and it snapped, flailing about wildly. It was fortunate he had a four wheeler. It now had a deep dent in the front, but on a three-wheeler he’d likely have lost his arm, his head, or both.
They told a story about a friend. A local landowner had stretched a cable across his private road. Their friend had gone riding, and the cable had taken off his head. The landowner was convicted of manslaughter.
Kevin’s parents were gracious and accommodating. They put us up, fed us, showed us around town and gave us a few dollars when we left. A few months later Kevin’s brother got a new job, celebrated, did too much cocaine and died.
We visited New York City for the afternoon, where my brother’s boyfriend Rob commented on my overalls. It hadn’t occurred to me that overalls were a fashion statement; they were convenient for travel, but in New York City, for what other reason than fashion would I wear them?
Shortly afterwards my youngest sister graduated from Warren Wilson College. We visited her in Asheville in May. It’s a lovely area, tucked into the mountains, and she got a job as a recruiter for the college, where she recruited our sister Genny.
My father asked me to draw the horoscope for a sale of our tree farm that year, to a fast-talking preacher. I warned him, but it was like pissing in the wind. Since we were getting out of the business, I rented a shop. I planned to get started with the half interest he’d promised me, but when I brought it up the promise he looked at me like I’d lost my mind. The shop went under, the preacher cut down hundreds of trees, sold them, didn’t pay up, and we got the tree farm back, minus all the best trees. I went back to trimming them, my “half interest” a big fat zero.
I lived in the earth lodge that winter and sold tickets on Beech Mountain again, while Perri found work student teaching in Alamance County. I’d visit one or two weekends a month.
A few years earlier, I’d occasionally dated a goofy, hilariously funny girl named Terry Smith. I knew her family well; she was a sweet, intelligent girl who’d been off to college, but now was back in town. I’d drawn her astrology chart years before, and now she wanted me to tell her about it. I told her to drop by. She came one night when it had snowed, and I was stuck on Beech Mountain. She pulled into my driveway and put a hose from her tailpipe into her Volkswagen bus. She was found the next day.
I learned later it wasn’t the first time she’d tried to kill herself. More like the fifth. I’d known her for years, but had no idea.

Perri’s parents had given us a VCR for Christmas, a top-loader with no real remote control, only a tiny box attached by wire, with buttons for play, pause, fast forward and rewind. There was a row of thirteen buttons on the front, and each could be manually tuned into a television channel using a hidden thumbscrew. I’d been practicing my Spanish, and had taped Spanish TV when I could, but only had 2 or 3 tapes. I’d play them all night while I slept, with the sound low and the picture dimmed.
After moving down the mountain Perri took a job at the local mall in a store called Just My Size, for larger women. I moved down in the spring. We’d socialize with her colleagues, sometimes taping movies from cable to watch together. One afternoon we’d seen a movie starring a popular punk rocker, Wendy O. Williams. We thought Steve and Chris had cable, but they’d spent good money to rent a VCR and the same not-very-good movie, which we watched again!
I worked on my kaleidoscopes and by the spring of ’87 had come up with an original and creative design. I’d sold a few at flea markets and acquired a regular customer who had a booth at a flea market and later a shop in Greensboro, the first place to sell my Kallistoscopes and puzzle rings.
My last winter in Texas, I’d caught a bad strain of the flu, and couldn’t shake it, never really felt like I was over it. The next summer I’d be absolutely exhausted after work, and in winter I’d catch it again. None of the pills worked. I thought it was chronic fatigue syndrome, a popular, non-specific ailment, and got interested in herbal remedies. They worked, but demanded a different mind-set. People are accustomed to taking pills, but herbal remedies require what seem to be massive amounts. Instead of one tiny pill four times a day, it’s a full cup of tea every hour.
In the spring of 1987 when the ski slope shut down I moved to Alamance County. Perri had found a tiny house about a mile from school and was student teaching special education. I was trying to make a go of kaleidoscopes and jewelry. My intent to have a profession that didn’t involve working in a particular place, so that I could pack up and move back to the mountains without a lot of complications. I made kaleidoscopes in the back room, drove around the state and sold them. It worked okay for awhile. Sometimes I’d come home with a thousand dollars, sometimes a hundred, but Perri had a steady salary, and as far as I knew we were planning to move back in a few months. Perri had put in for a teacher’s position in Boone. She hadn’t heard back yet, but it was no great surprise in a town centered around a teacher’s college. Sooner or later, her name would come up.
In the fall Perri was a teacher at Hillcrest School, minding emotionally troubled kids in special education, with an assistant Pat, who with her husband Randy and kids Carly and Leah became good friends. Another family was her colleague Loretta, married to Charles, with a daughter Jennifer.
We’d gotten a PCjr. computer from a fellow who worked for IBM; he’d supercharged it and now it had ten times the power of the computers Perri was using at school. A mind-blowing, exceptional 640K of memory.
We got a tree lot at the mall in Burlington at the Sears store–they had an outside garden area, unused after the fall. About a week into the season the Sears manager wanted us to pay the rent and all the expected percentage of the profits, up front, before we’d sold anything. We hadn’t been specific about when the rent and percentage of the sales would be paid, but that was ridiculous. I charged it to my Discover card and put Sears last on my shit list. My parents had a similar problem with Sears. They’d been loyal customers for 20 years, but after moving from Colorado to California were suddenly slapped with a $250 limit on purchases, which meant no washer-dryer combo in their new house. The next year I rented a lot in town from a fellow who’d been a customer and also said to hell with Sears.
In 1988 Perri and I married. On Leap Day we ran off to Danville, Virginia, not telling anyone what we were doing. We’d thought about it years before when we’d gone to Niagara Falls, but the secret plan got out and it didn’t seem so fun. By 1988 nobody suspected, except one of Perri’s colleagues who figured it out on her own, and gave us a nice basket of champagne and sweets. We’d made wedding bands for each other and wore them afterwards, but as both of us wore a lot of jewelry for sales purposes, nobody noticed. It wasn’t until October that my youngest sister asked about my ring. I wore it for several years, but one day when soldering a glob of molten metal rolled off a kaleidoscope and into the open-weave design of the ring, where it badly burned my finger. I stopped wearing jewelry while working, and eventually altogether.
The house we’d rented was four rooms with an open area in the center where the living room, kitchen and bedrooms met. To the back the bedroom had a half-size door for a half-size bathroom. Behind the kitchen was a small workshop, and behind that a deck. The second bedroom we used for a den, and there was a staircase in the den leading to the attic, finished and insulated but with only about 5’9” headroom, in the center, which wasn’t enough us to use comfortably. My sister Fran left her husband Kevin later that spring, though, and it proved perfect for her and her four kids. They’d left North Carolina when Kevin got his fourth DUI and stayed in Arizona while Kevin got ever more crazy. Genny and Suzuki visited them on their western tour, and Suzuki gifted Kevin with a fancy Japanese sushi knife, since he was working as a cook. Kevin later attacked Fran with the knife, and cut off her hair. She took her two toddler boys and premature, twin baby girls–one on oxygen, the other brain damaged–and left. We had a nicely finished attic with bright, painted walls and wall-to-wall carpeting, which only had about 5’10” headroom down its center~cramped for me but perfect for her and the kids. When Kevin found out where she was and started calling, we bought an answering machine. He filled up its hour-long tapes with angry, drunken rants. Fran took up with, and later married, a fellow named Rob she’d known since she was ten, and they moved in together after six weeks,. There were now three Robs in the family–my brother, my other brother’s boyfriend and my sister’s husband.
Six months later, Beth came to Boone. I’d been crazy about her, but she’d run off with a guitar player. After twelve years, she’d gotten divorced, in the same month I’d married. We had a long talk. I had a hard time getting to sleep that night.
In August of ’88 Perri and I took our second trip to the Outer Banks, with Loretta, Charles and Jennifer. I sold a few scopes in a shop in Ocracoke and on the ferry back from the southern islands opened up the hatchback and set several on display. I sold a couple to ferryboat passengers and met a fellow named Roger who owned a frame shop in the little town of Inman, SC. He bought several, and became a regular customer. We visited many places we’d not stopped before; Spot, Duck, the USS North Carolina. We camped out on the beach.
Our dog Daphne was hit by a car that summer. We’d been driving a few miles to the YMCA, playing racquetball and swimming, and sometimes she’d ride along. We’d walked home with her one time when the car had a flat, and some days later we’d left her at home. She decided to find us, and was walking to the YMCA when she was hit. The driver took her to the vet, and she lost a couple teeth but otherwise recovered.
Perri had her own classroom that fall at Hillcrest School, a glorified closet on the top floor of a building which had been built in 1931 and had no air conditioning. The first couple weeks were sweltering, but after September it became a nice cozy room to deal with the dozen or so kids who were too disruptive to stay in regular classrooms. She was happy to be teaching and had a good year, though her whole purpose was to take “emotionally disturbed” kids, who wouldn’t mind anyone else–teachers, parents, nobody–and make them mind her. She was good at it, too, but it’d lead to problems between us.
In the winter of that year I was off selling Kallistoscopes in the Subaru while Perri had the Oldsmobile. There was an ice storm, Perri couldn’t get the car out of the driveway and the power was out. She was in the cold dark house with the Oldsmobile stuck uselessly in the driveway, and decided to walk to the little store a block away and buy a soda. She got bundled up, put on her boots, headed out, slipped along the ice and tromped through the snow to the little store on the corner–but it was closed because of the weather. She went to the soda machine. It was working–but she only had one dollar bill, and the machine wouldn’t take it. She trudged back home again, glummer than before.
We taped hundreds of movies, because we knew we weren’t going to stay in the little house and didn’t want to pay for cable TV after moving. When we left we had about 400 or 500 movies. We listed them in a booklet we’d printed in the unmistakable dot-matrix computer print font which was universal in the ‘80s. We soon learned how fast we could see every last movie a half-a-dozen times each!
For Thanksgiving ’88 our parents had a get-together. Sam, his boyfriend Rob and my sister Genny were all down from New York; Perri and I were up for the weekend. Genny had offered my parents’ farm as a temporary home for a dog while her friend was out of the country, a big, dumb Irish setter named Leo. Perri and I were in my old room on the former front porch, Sam and Rob were upstairs. On Thanksgiving morning, first thing, Perri and I were awakened by Rob booming out, “Leo, you fat, stupid pig!!!” Rob had come downstairs to breakfast and discovered Leo had stolen the turkey and scarfed up so much that he’d puked all over the floor at the bottom of the stairs.
Our landlord Teddy had had a rough month. He split up with his wife and his brother died in a cycle wreck. He wanted to move back into the little house. We could’ve crammed everything in a jumble into the bus after Christmas, but he gave us an extra month. Perri moved in with her old friend Cindy, who was now living in Burlington. I stayed in the mountains and unsuccessfully tried to show the farmhands down the road how to make parts for kaleidoscopes.
We snuck in to see our new house. It was lovely, built in 1940 on a lot just under 2 acres. There were splendid archways leading from the living room and dining room into the hallway, and the kitchen had been accessorized with a breakfast bar which went through the wall into the den. Except for the kitchen, den and bathroom, which were linoleum, it had wall-to-wall carpeting. A couple of window-unit air conditioners and an oil-burning furnace under a grating in the floor controlled the heat. There were two very nice fireplaces, a large open front porch and an enclosed back porch. It had been remodeled ten or fifteen years before, and city water lines had just been installed, though the well still functioned. The property included a vacant lot to the right, while a small house to the left had been given to a daughter and the lot split off. There had been a well serving both houses, but a new well was dug many years beforehand.
A grapevine in the side yard was supported by a few old pipes torn out when the house plumbing had been replaced. There was a carport and a small cement-block building in the backyard plus a tumbledown wooden shed way out back which had a very large overhanging roof. It looked as if it had been a barn but half had been torn down.
With the bus packed and parked at Steve and Chris’ house, Perri stayed with Cindy and I spent the month in the earth lodge. We moved into our new digs in March. I set up my workshop on the back porch. Perri had applied for work in Boone, but hadn’t heard back. I wanted my work portable, for when we moved back within a year or two. Kallistoscopes, jewelry, toys–these could be made anywhere.We bought the house as an investment which we could sell or rent out when the time came.
Our dog Daphne was around 20 years old by now. She’d arrived at my parents’ house fully grown some 17 or 18 years before, and had adopted us when we lived at the earth lodge. She rode everywhere with me. I took her to work on Beech Mountain and she waited outside the ticket booth. She’d been slowing down and Perri’s father had given us some veterinary medicine, as her heart was failing. That spring my father was also in the hospital; he had quintuple bypass surgery and because our house was a lot closer to the hospital than the mountains were, everyone stayed with us. While he was recovering, Daphne died. We wrapped her in her favorite quilt and buried her under the magnolia tree in the side yard. It was Hitler’s 100th birthday.
Daphne had gotten incontinent in her old age and the carpeting stunk. We’d already pulled up the lime-green shag carpeting in the spare bedroom so I could use it as a glass workshop. Now we pulled out the olive green carpeting in the living room, dining room and hallway, leaving only the main bedroom. Under it all was a lovely oak floor. It seemed strange that anyone would cover up an oak floor with wall-to-wall carpeting, but that was the style. When we visited the older couple who fixed our lawnmower, we started telling the story and realized, halfway through, that they had wall-to-wall carpeting even in the bathroom, undoubtedly considering it the height of luxury!
About six weeks after Daphne died, Perri met a woman outside the grocery store giving away puppies. She found that the pups were born on the same day, and arranged to bring me one for my 36th birthday. Angel came home that June 3rd.
I felt strange about my 36th birthday because I’d noted many years earlier that Marilyn Monroe’s chart and mine were very similar, and Marilyn had died when she was 36. I didn’t consider it relevant that Andy Griffith was born on the same day and was still going strong.
Perri had not been out West since she was a baby, so when school let out in 1989 we traveled to Colorado. I wanted her to see my old stomping grounds and meet buddies from high school. We drove through the never-ending plains of Kansas and finally saw the mountains, way in the distance, at the Colorado line. We got a chuckle from a postcard offered in Kanorado, on the Kansas border, advertising inexpensive accommodations to skiers–the slopes were over 250 miles away!
Many in the East have no concept of Western distances. Some friends from New England planned a trip to Colorado and thought that over the weekend they’d drive to Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, since both were but one state away. Yes–but from Denver that’s a round trip of over 2000 miles!
By late afternoon we’d arrived, and Perri wanted to look for a place to stay but I insisted we go straight to Monk’s house. His mother gave us the spare bedroom. We spent several days exploring the mountains, visiting with friends, going to parties with Monk and his siblings. Monk had left the Hare Krishnas. My brother and I had taken him to the temple in Boulder in 1971; he’d joined in March 1973 and left five years later, though he still went to the temple. I’d thumbed through shortly after he’d quit the monk life and we had a few beers, which was the first time since that he’d had intoxicants. Once or twice a year I’d thumb through and keep in touch. He married for a few years Tara, a gal he knew from the temple, then briefly a “wild Indian”, whom I never met. By 1989 he was married to Carissa.
We went by their apartment and had a nice visit. At one point Perri and I were in the other room, passing around a joint, when I heard a commotion in the living room. There was a coked-up guy yelling that Monk owed him money and brandishing a gun. I introduced myself and held out my hand. To shake hands he had to put the gun away, and I explained we were visitors from out of town, that I didn’t know what was going on but it could all be worked out later and now wasn’t the time for it. He left quietly. Monk and the rest were dumbfounded and grateful beyond words. I didn’t think it was such a big deal. I calmly and sensibly told him to come back later, but everyone else was amazed. For the rest of the night Carissa blatantly tried to seduce me, touching me, flashing me from the other room. She was a good-looking woman, but I didn’t need the drama.
Monk invited us to stay the night, but I didn’t want the complication. In the next few days we visited all the brothers and sisters, sold enough kaleidoscopes and jewelry to finance the trip and visited all the haunts I knew as a kid. We went to Boulder and drove along the timberline, went to the Botanical Gardens, City Park and the Museum of Natural History. It was a lovely visit, and though I’d intended to come back the next year for my 20th high school reunion, we’d seen everything and everyone important and I discovered I didn’t have that much interest in coming back the next summer to meet my old classmates. I’d been living in North Carolina for 15 years, and visiting with a woman in tow who’d never been there I found the difference striking. I’d been very much the hippie, but my hair and beard were now trimmed short, while Monk had gone from the shaved pate of the Krishna devotee to wilder and woolier than ever.
Our clothes were subtly different, too. Perri and I had packed along several brightly tie-dyed and patterned shirts we’d acquired at a “Charlie’s Tobacco Field Festival” my cousin’s boyfriend had put together, a “Redneck Woodstock” where we camped overnight in the bus. We sold a few things but made more money selling kaleidoscope “views” for a quarter each. Monk’s sister Margaret especially loved the shirts, which were common in the South but caused a sensation in Colorado, and she sent us several Colorado themed shirts in exchange. Fashion is like that. What’s common in one region is unknown in another, and when an outsider comes to town, there’s a new fad.
After returning we settled back to life in the country. We had three big pecan trees in the backyard and baby ones sprouting in the field, which I carefully mowed around. In the spring I transplanted them. We fixed up the house, replacing the tiny and inadequate squatty little water heater stuffed under the bathroom with a standard one relocated to the back porch. When the sales girl tried to load it into my car I was apprehensive about helping.
I felt a proper respect for womanly strength and ability precluded my manly desire to load it, lest I be labelled a sexist pig. It was difficult to be courteous to women in the 80s, they didn’t want help. A strong liberated feminist needed a man “like a fish needs a bicycle”. Unfortunately, women who tried to do manly things weren’t very good at it. Such was the ‘80s. Try to help a woman, she’d be pissed. Let her do it herself, she’d be pissed.
I made twelve dozen scopes that year. I’d settled on design elements which made them easy and fast to assemble as well as beautiful and strong. Many kaleidoscopes were made with 150 pieces or more; mine used 25 or 30. I’d found a “coaster/ashtray”, made by a glass company in Indiana, that was perfect for the tumble box, sturdy and distinctive on the end of the scope and with the added advantage of lighting up around the edge when viewed in strong light–but it was soon discontinued, so I bought a kiln and made my own, with “Kallistoscope” and “DJ & PJ Austin” molded into the glass.
A mirror which worked well, front-surfaced quartz glass, is now used with laser readers everywhere but in 1989 was new, different, expensive and hard to cut. I broke a lot of it before I discovered carbide glass cutters.
Thanksgiving was the big occasion in Perri’s family, and we went to Beech Mountain for the week. We did some rock climbing and visited with JB and KC, friends from work. KC had been adopted, later found that the initials for her born name and her adopted name were both KC, and JB simply preferred initials. We had a lovely time and have a souvenir picture JB took from under the table at the bar, featuring KC’s underwear. KC’d been married to Dave, who’d had an affair with a co-worker named Sherri. They split, KC had moved back to Pennsylvania for awhile and was now happy and single.
We filled the bus with trees and took them to Burlington. Our tree lot was next to a little store owned by Richard, who’d bought a tree the year before. He saw my signs and hired me to paint a couple, which tripled his deli business. I camped in a tent and Loretta and Charles watched the lot for a couple evenings in exchange for my editing of Charles’ doctoral dissertation. It had been rejected twice, but after I’d cut it by about half Charles received his doctorate.
We went to Boone for Christmas, and then it was…
The Nineties
Our house had oil heat the first year. We only heated half, but the bill was over $150 per month, so we brought the woodstove from the earth lodge and installed it in the living room. My mother was happy to see the Fisher stove leave; as long as it was still at the earth lodge it could’ve been carted back to the house, and she didn’t want it, given my father’s propensity for accidents. Her hearth had never been constructed properly and the farmhouse was also better insulated than in their first winter, when snow blew through the walls and the water froze in the toilet. She was tired of the aggravation and ashes, but I kept a record and found that we spent one-twentieth as much on heat!
Perri’s family had a reunion that March in Florida. Her brother Wes drove a Budweiser truck and she danced as Spuds Mackenzie for a promotion. Everyone showed up in “Old Calvin Mill” T-shirts and Perri was VERY happy to take off the Spuds Mackenzie outfit, which was way too hot. We stayed with Wes and Helen and their little dog Wilhelmina, who had a freakishly pronounced underbite and whose name was longer than she was. We visited Sanibel Island, passed through Silver Springs, saw Perri’s sisters in Sebring and Sanford, but as we passed St. Augustine I wanted to visit my sisters. Perri didn’t want to. I said drop me off and I’d hitchhike. I meant it. She stopped. We had a nice visit.
My youngest sister Laura had graduated from Warren Wilson College five years before and now was working as a recruiter for Tusculum, a small college in Tennessee. My sister Genny was now graduating and we spent four days in Asheville visiting the local attractions. We explored the Biltmore estate, which can properly be called a castle, and later that evening we met a friend of Laura’s, a recruiter for the University of North Carolina named Robbie, who invited everyone to his “Let’s Kick Dick Nixon Around Again” party, scheduled on his resignation anniversary, August 8th each year. This annual party morphed into a decades-long once a month gathering of a wide variety of friends loosely associated with UNC, including local musicians, merchants, professors and visitors.
There was a balloon festival in Burlington when we returned, and colorful, original balloons filled the sky. It happened every Memorial Day weekend for years, but was discontinued in the late 1990’s.
In August my mother’s family had a reunion in Boone, the first for them in many years. For decades my father’s family had two about a week apart each summer, one for his father’s family and one for his grandfather’s, but they lived in the area. It was new for my mother’s family, who came in from all over, Maine to Florida to California. We spent a week canoeing local rivers, climbing mountains, mining for gems, seeing sights and telling stories. My mother’s family had roots in colonial Massachusetts, Georgia, Florida and Indiana, where a doctor ancestor had gone to practice after the Civil War but instead brought a beautiful young woman back to Florida with her piano. There were at least three versions of how the piano was transported to Florida, including wagons and canals and barges and one involving a hurricane and piano lessons on the high seas, but the truth was that a railroad had already been laid for most of the journey.
In the fall we were back in Swepsonville. Perri was teaching school and in the afternoons took our dog Angel to the playground after hours, where she’d climb the slide ladder and slide to the bottom. This proved a mistake, as one day she went there on her own, crossed the highway and was hit. She was born on Hitler’s 100th birthday and died on John Lennon’s 50th. I mixed up whatever liquors we had in the pantry and called it an Angel–vodka, spiced rum, creme de menthe, cherry kirsch, a little Kahlua, some cream, a few flakes of coconut. Her colors, and quite good.
In December that year my father came down to help sell Christmas trees. One of us would stay on the lot in the bus, which had a bed, hot plate, coffee pot, radio and TV. We got along well enough but when he went back to the mountains he stole my Skilsaw, which had my name ground into the handle in letters one inch high and 1/4 inch deep. I didn’t know what happened to it.
Ringo was born on Halloween of 1990, and we brought him home for Christmas. Our friends Jeff and Sue’s dog had puppies, and he was the smallest of the litter. Their daughter had christened him Bingo, but when we saw he had a “ring go’ round his tail” we called him Ringo. He was so small he could fit in the corner of the windshield behind the inspection sticker and in my jacket when I unbuttoned the top button. I walked him around the perimeter of our property every day and picked flowers for the kitchen. Our property line was well-defined in the back and sides with trees and ditches and we planted a couple dozen “red tips” along the front. The first night, Ringo dug up 8 or 10 in a row. We replanted, but they never came up right. We replaced them with crepe myrtles.
Randy and Pat had a little white dog named Oscar. One day shortly after Angel died they brought Oscar play with the neighbor dog, but he ran into the road and was killed. They also got a Christmas puppy, a small dark cockapoo they named Tangles. Both had been born on Halloween! Thy had a wonderful time chasing each other and digging in the yard. Ringo never stopped digging. He was a wonderful, smart dog, part pit bull and part Walker hound, loyal, brave and protective, but never outgrew the digging. We had a cement block work shed in the back yard and he dug so much under the back corner that both walls were undermined and developed huge cracks.
Since our anniversary is Feb. 29th, which only happens every four years, I always did special things on Valentine’s Day. After many years of heart earrings and heart themed glass boxes and rings with dangly hearts and such, it was hard to think up something original, but I cut a dozen pieces of wood into the letters “U” and “B” and buried them in Ringo’s hole. That morning I gave her a shovel and told her to dig in the corner–and she dug up a biscuit! Ringo had buried it on top of my project from the night before, but she dug a little deeper and found the wood. I told her it was a “wood U-B mine”.
We took another trip to Florida in the spring of 1991. Chris and Steve moved. We had a bus, so we drove them down. With its two-speed rear end, it went 60 mph down the freeway for several hours. We drove through North and South Carolina, the bus going a little slower, a little slower. We got off the freeway when our speed slowed to 45, and poked along through rural South Carolina looking at all the little houses with the blue lines around the windows and doors–to keep out the voodoo. By late afternoon our bus was making 35 miles an hour and we decided to pull into the parking lot of an auto parts place. It was 6pm, but they were closed for the night. We parked and walked next door to a musty motel, the Chat-n-Rest. We then went across the street to the Chat-n-Chew. After a chat, a chew and rest, I climbed under the hood the next morn, found the gas filter was clogged and got a new one from the parts place. We arrived in Jacksonville and spent a couple nights. While Chris, Steve and their son Jason unloaded their stuff we visited with Perri’s friend Kathy from high school, who lived in Jax with her new husband Gary.
When we’d unloaded, Steve rode back with us to pick up his car and we discovered “bus surfing”. With the seats out, there was nothing to hang on to, and as the bus swayed and shifted, maintaining balance felt like surfing. The floorboard had hundreds of 1/4” holes where the seats had been attached, and in a rain the spray came through the holes, making the illusion even more real.
My brother Robin decided to take up barbering that fall. The barber school was in Winston-Salem, closer to us than to Boone, so he stayed with us through the week and went home on the weekends for the next 6 months.
We had a push mower for the lawn, and Loretta and Charles gave us another which they said needed repair. I took the cap off the gas tank, which was from a 3-liter Pepsi bottle, replaced it with a real gas cap and it was fine. Now we could mow together, but as we had close to two acres this was still quite a job, so we bought an old Craftsman riding mower.
We visited Florida again that summer. It was Wes’s 30th birthday and we spent a week in Naples, drinking lots of Budweiser, partying and visiting several places in southern Florida, including taking a boat ride which was supposed to end up in the Dry Tortugas but which was cut short because of weather. We visited Perri’s older brother, a chiropractor in Fort Meyers, and on the way back passed through Sanford, where Perri’s sister Joy gave us a dishwasher. It barely squeezed into our little hatchback, and we roped all our luggage on top. We installed it, and it worked fine all week. We then left to visit my sister for the weekend.
When we returned the connection had popped off. The entire house was flooded, except for the one bedroom which was still carpeted. It’d been spared due to our uneven floor, which at 50 years old had settled. We mopped up for a couple days, but it became obvious we couldn’t do it all. We called in the insurance company, tore up the remaining carpet and linoleum and had contractors refinish the beautiful oak flooring underneath. We took out the window to the bathroom and set up a ladder through the window to get in and out, and climbed in through our bedroom window from the front porch. We had a lot of firewood we’d packed onto the bus that year from Perri’s father’s property development, and piled it up to enclose the front porch. Our furniture was all piled in the bedroom, the front porch or the bus. I made the porch my workshop for the summer while renovations were underway. Once the floors were done, we continued. By now I’d crawled under the house to fix plumbing, put antenna wire to all the rooms, replace the antenna wire with coaxial cable, jack up the house, again and again. I was tired of crawling.
We’d financed the house with three loans. One we signed for, a second co-signed with her parents and a third with mine. Keeping up with three different payments was a pain and we wanted to refinance, but the house appraised at a lower value. After the flood Joy and her husband Howard came to visit, and we renovated the kitchen, the bath, added a half-bath and trashed the 1970s paneling. Underneath was heart pine, and after a few coats of spar varnish it was beautiful all by itself. We put in closets, ceiling fans, display cases. When the house was appraised again, its value was up $15,000 on an investment of $6000, all on credit cards. We refinanced, and paid them off.
I’d planted 100 or so pecan trees, and we started a garden, with a couple friends sharecropping. Bobby was Vicky’s fiance, and though their daughter Misty was seven or eight years old Vicky kept putting off the wedding and they lived apart, she with her parents. Bobby worked the garden that year and the next, but late the following summer he was starting a business with a friend. He was working on the hydraulics to a dump truck, his friend came back from lunch and saw Bobby’s feet sticking out from under the bucket.
The funeral was truly heartbreaking. They’d never married, Misty had no daddy and the preacher didn’t know him. Bobby hadn’t been to church, but the preacher did his best, calling him a different drummer. It was our second funeral for a contemporary since moving down the mountain. We visited Vicky and Misty that night and drank up Bobby’s beer.
In late February 1993 I went to sell scopes in New York City. I stayed with my brother for a week and my sister for another, but sold nothing. I helped Genny clean out her apartment. We filled fifty lawn-size trash bags. She had magazines with unread articles, clothes intended for Goodwill, broken furniture and appliances. She wouldn’t throw away the magazines until I showed her similar articles which appeared every month. When I left, her apartment was in order.
On the train home I conversed with a Puerto Rican in Spanish. I held my own, and we played cards with a souvenir Amtrak deck. He told me the names of the four suits–espadas for spades, corazones for hearts, diamantes for diamonds and flores or “flowers” for clubs. I told him “diamantes para las bonitas, flores para las feas”–diamonds for the pretty girls, flowers for the ugly ones, my first joke in Spanish. We laughed, and a woman across from us shifted uneasily. I asked her, would she rather have flowers, or diamonds?
Seven Year Itch
I’d thought by now we’d finished renovating, but Perri wanted to keep going. Every comment turned into another project. One day I looked out the window and decided our grapevines needed a little more support. I was going to add another pipe to the two pipes laid across a couple of clothesline “Ts” we had. Perri instead wanted to replace the structure with a grape arbor, which involved buying a dozen 4x4s, four panels of heavy lattice, several 2x6s, a post-hole digger, a couple gallons of water seal and assorted nails, bolts and tools. Early in the process she stepped in a post hole and broke her foot, and for the next couple weeks I built the grape arbor and did all the work around the house while she sat with her foot in the air and stewed.
I knew her nasty mood was due to the broken foot, but after ten or twelve days of unrelenting criticism I let her have it. It was the first time I’d been exasperated enough to scream since we’d been in the new house, but it wouldn’t be the last.
Perri had a difficult job, and it was no help that her friend Loretta was a harsh woman. Perri fell into a pattern, coming home after a rough day and screaming at me for whatever caught her attention. I spent more time cleaning (the wrong way), organizing (the wrong way), washing (the wrong way), mowing (the wrong way), trimming trees (the wrong way), making the bed (the wrong way) or cooking (the wrong way), and less working on scopes. Instead of appreciated I was criticized; my business was “my hobby”, I was doing nothing, she everything. It’s a destructive spiral, not uncommon, and often starts after seven years. Right on schedule.
I’d moved to the flatlands specifically because we weren’t planning to stay. Because of that I’d established a crafts business, but she managed the bills, and my contribution was simply thrown into the pot. She’d applied in the mountains but hadn’t heard back. If I brought it up she’d get mad. If I brought up the mountains in any way she’d get mad.
It’s difficult job to teach kids nobody wants. They need love, but don’t get it at home, and teachers aren’t parents. Teachers of the emotionally disturbed don’t even leave their problems for someone else. Next year, same kids, plus or minus a few. Some have terrible stories. One kid lived with his father and stepmother. One day he found out a secret. His father had killed his mother, and had been in prison. I liked him; he was wild and difficult but seemed a good kid stuck in a bad place. He’d stay with us for a week or two and do yardwork. One day trimming the yard he accidentally “ringed” a young tree, which will grow back from the root but the top is doomed. It was a simple mistake, but he turned ashen, shaking as if his execution was imminent when I wasn’t even mad. He was well-behaved when with us, which was why Perri was a great teacher. We talked about adopting him.
Shortly after we were married, she’d gotten an abortion. I disagreed but didn’t feel it was my call. Twice before a girlfriend of mine got an abortion, but neither told me until later. I’d have been happy to marry either one. If it would’ve been a good match is another question, but afterwards it didn’t matter. It was a breach of trust for them to tell me nothing, and the romance was dead.
Perri had plans which didn’t involve a child. My sister Fran had other plans. She knew one of her twins would be brain damaged and had been given the option to abort one, but kept both and led a complicated life.
There are several sides to the question. As a teenager I checked groceries in a store near what was called a home for unwed mothers. Girls came through, bellies out to there, paid with checks and presented a shiny new Colorado driver’s license, replacing one from Texas or Nebraska. They’d show up a dozen times and then disappear, their babies in an orphanage. The lucky ones were adopted, but if they stayed a year they were quite likely to grow up unwanted, unloved, a bother. A problem.
I’m not of the opinion that these poor, lost, luckless souls are better alive and unloved than never born. Foes of abortion don’t deal think about thousands of kids without any parents at all. Adoption wonderful when there’s a shortage of kids and an excess of couples. It’s a terrible answer when there are too many kids.
So are the other options. In ancient times unwanted babies were smothered at birth, left by the side of the road, floated down the river in baskets, sold into slavery. They’d grow up gladiators, street urchins. Populations which had grown large would start wars with their neighbors, kill them and move into their houses.
A crime which was common a century ago is now so obsolete that most people don’t know what it is. A woman running a “baby farm” would take in babies, supposedly to find them homes, but soon enough they’d die of “natural causes”. She’d starve them, smother them, bury them in the field or feed them to her pigs.
Safe, hygienic abortions also, make no mistake about it, save lives. On one side of town girls would “vacation”, shopping in the grocery store around the corner; across the tracks the high school lost a girl or two every year or two for “unexplained reasons”. That said, I don’t feel abortion is “a good thing”. I don’t strongly object to some regulation. The choice shouldn’t be easy or smooth. I think it’s her right, but he should know.
This became contentious. I wanted to move to the mountains and raise a family, but Perri was growing increasingly hostile. We hadn’t heard back about teaching jobs either, though it’d been years.
Still, I tried. I made kaleidoscopes, jewelry, bamboo flutes, fabric hats, wooden toys, made my rounds every few weeks. I brought spring water back from the earth lodge in a dozen 2-1/2 gallon jugs. I did shows, stayed weekends, trimmed trees, rewired the farmhouse. Any occasion or reason I could think of. She rarely came except to visit her family. We’d stay with her family a week, then see mine for dinner on our way out. I didn’t entirely mind this–my father would get quite unpleasant after he’d finished off his nightly twelve or sixteen cheap beers. He was pleasant in the daytime, told funny stories and was complimentary and generous to most people, though my contributions were routinely overlooked. At night, though, he was horrible, drinking, chain-smoking Newports and systematically tearing apart the ego of whatever family member was across the table. It was a sport. He’d incrementally turn a pleasant dinner conversation into something vile, and when his companion felt like crap, he’d won. He’d eat something and go to bed. It was a pattern.
My sister one day wrote him a letter, one I saw little point in. She hoped some day he could meet her children, but with him smoking and drinking didn’t think he would. I didn’t think it’d do any good, but he actually quit, after more than fifty years smoking. He didn’t quit drinking, but he’d only have one beer after dinner.
It made a difference, but it was too late for Perri, and I still wasn’t comfortable. I’d seen it before, and he had hurt me. I wanted to feel he’d changed, but it wasn’t my obligation to believe him and certainly not my wife’s.
There was dissension growing between Perri and I, but it hadn’t taken over our lives. Perri’s harsh friend moved and we became closer to her assistant. The girls would gossip, the boys played backgammon, their daughters played in the yard. I showed Carly and Leah how to make jewelry, and everyone made crafts. Randy and I had both gone to George Washington High School, though his high school was in Virginia and mine in Colorado. We often camped together on weekends.
One weekend Perri’s college friend Robbie visited with his new wife Patti. The six of us discussed astrology, and found that each of us were married to the next sign in line. I was Gemini and Perri Cancer, Robbie was Pisces and Patti Aries, and Randy was Pisces and Pat Aquarius. Even more amazing, all our mothers were Leo, except for Robbie, whose father was.
That Christmas we set up trees in our front yard. The old fellow who’d owned our lot next to Richard’s deli had died and Perri was tired of the hassle, so it made sense to forget the rent, the commute, the schedule, the camping and sell trees from the house. I’d brought 75 trees for the first season, which proved the right amount. I sold them all, then late in the season bought a dozen from a fellow for $2 apiece and sold the last on Christmas Eve. I’d been putting a tree in the earth lodge all along, decorated mostly with old cans, but now I wasn’t spending much time there. It had been ten Christmases. I wanted to make it a dozen, so I put a tree in it for two more years, but it was abandoned. Our entire little community had broken up. Jake, Jody and the kids had finished overhauling the bus and driven down the road. Fran and the kids had left Kevin, and Kevin sold the trailer for a bag of pot. Adam and Karen left their teepee and euthanized a healthy dog. Their buddy Peter had left. Nobody lived in the earth lodge anymore, the dwelling in which we’d invested so much time, so much labor, so many dreams.
Round Robin
My five siblings and I started a round robin. We sent a batch of letters to each in turn and at the end of some weeks we’d exchange our old letter for a new one. It took awhile to establish protocol. The first collected an immense weight of paper and miscellaneous objects. It was lost before it made my mailbox. It’d included long letters from each of us, the spouses and children, kid’s drawings, pamphlets, cassette tapes. We agreed to limit content to letters from the six of us, plus occasional notes from others. Sam provided postage as his Christmas gift and I kept the archive.
I loved it. Everyone had a take on the family dynamics, and I had a record of the moves, breakups, new loves, new children, new cars, changes in seasons from whatever locations we were in, and all of us were in different locations. I was “down the mountain” in Alamance County, Robin was living in Sugar Grove outside of Boone, Sam had moved to New York City after graduating Yale, Genny had followed him there, Fran was in motion and Laura was in Tennessee.
My archive started in spring 1993. I’d gone to a kaleidoscope show in Kentucky; there were 65 exhibitors, twelve were from California, six from North Carolina and the rest from all over. For my birthday I got a small scooter. It had no pedals and was thus at the time in a legal limbo; the law stated that a moped couldn’t have an engine over 50cc but said nothing about pedals. It had been changed to require pedals, but mine was grandfathered in–important, because for years I became the only guy in town who could drive my motorcycle without a tag, license or insurance; all I needed was a helmet. It also outran all the all the other mopeds, it had shaft drive and I’d modified the carburetor.
I also had a 1959 Studebaker. It’d been featured on a promotional placard for a car show, and I was given one of the brass plates from an old guy, Robert Lindley, who worked on Studebakers and owned hundreds.
I sent the robin to my brother, and it continued on a crooked path. Since Genny and Sam lived in New York, it traveled not in birth order but 1-2-5-3-4-6. Sometimes one of us dropped out or moved, but it continued a confused path. The second round was lost when Genny sent it to the wrong address. She started another, which arrived after I’d sent a copy and Sam had replied.
Our house was back in order. The washing machine had been banished to the back porch and all the carpeting was gone.
Rob’s letter referenced some family conflicts and techniques for conflict resolution. Fran had moved into George Wallace’s former home in Montgomery. When she tore out the shag carpeting in the bathroom there were newspapers from 1975 underneath, on top of marble floors. It’s a huge house now, formed by bricking 3 structures together–the main house, servant’s quarters and a detached kitchen/dining room on the other. It had once been exceptional, but had come on hard times. The foundation had sunk, in places several inches. Doors wouldn’t close, upstairs flooring tilted inwards, the roof leaked, the hexagonal mosaic-tile floors in the fancy 1920s-style bathrooms were cracked and only half the bathrooms worked, distressed parquet floors were covered in lumpy carpet, former breezeways badly paneled, deteriorated brick walkways unevenly concreted over. A sad house, for a man who had met a sad end. George Wallace had been a progressive liberal by Alabama standards, though he became a symbol of old-time Southern conservatism. His famous stand in the university door was intended to prevent the riots and killings which had taken place in Mississippi, and was largely for show. He was shot in the 1970s and ended his life in a wheelchair.
Genny worked at Jan Hus Presbyterian Church in New York, but quit, and had some angst over a fellow named Walter, whom she felt like she should like but didn’t. She was in therapy, which she felt was good for her. It wouldn’t always be. Sam had an album, Rock and Roar, Dinosaur”, coming out by sheer chance in the wake of Jurassic Park, and was involved in theatre and music.
Laura had married Tom, the football coach. It was funny; Perri’s uncle Tom was a football coach for Austin High School in Alabama, and he married a woman whose name started with “L”. She’d received a promotion and was thrilled to announce a pregnancy! In March they’d welcome Matthew Cody, or Catherine Dakota, and the robin returned to me.
I was proud of my plumbing. There’d been no way to work on the plumbing without turning off all the water when we’d moved in. I’d bought cut-off valves as I went along, but in the winter of ’92 the only remaining faucet, in the tub, blew out. I was out of town. Perri found a wrench and ran to the front yard while water spewed, and I put in one last valve when I returned. I proposed a number, 1-900-ASK-DAVE, since I was often answering everyone’s practical questions.
In July Rob was in a poetry slam at a coffee house in Boone. He enclosed a few poems, a note from Anne and a “report” from his son Grant on “nothing”. At 100 words exactly, it was a gem:
“Nothing is when you want something and you don’t get anything. When you look at something transparent you think, is there anything there? If you said nothing is there nobody would look around or pay any attention to you. Some people say it as an expression like, ‘Oh, it was nothing’ when they are trying to say I didn’t go through any trouble to do it. If there wasn’t nothing you would have to use words like ‘not anything’ or ‘wasn’t anything’. Think of it this way, ‘If I had nothing, then I wouldn’t have anything at all’. That’s it.”
By August Fran’s brain-damaged daughter Sarah had discovered a fascination with breaking glass, and Fran awoke to find dozens of plates smashed on the floor. Genny was singing professionally, had made an ad for Bloomingdales and was roller skating. One of her rollerskating friends was working on a song called “Brontosaurus Rumors”–my brother’s song! His name was Robert. She worried if they became an item, there’d be brother Rob, Sam’s boyfriend Rob, Fran’s husband Rob and Genny’s Rob.
I’d remarked that I was “The Recorder”, and Sam adopted the sobriquet “The Controller”. We needed rules, and he proposed several. Length of the letters in the robin didn’t matter, but promptness did. Others in the family could contribute to a special “holiday issue”. Also, Rob’s wife Anne was an inveterate, unapologetic snoop, called everyone who received the robin and then broadcast the latest news, so that when the robin arrived it wasn’t any fun. Calling on the phone to find out what was in the robin was OUT!
Laura miscarried in August. There’d be no Matthew Cody or Catherine Dakota. Football season was beginning and Tom was gone all day. Our parents visited Tennessee, and swapped stories into the night.
I’d fixed up the scooter and was riding it everywhere. The brakes were no good, but it was easy enough to wear old shoes and stop like Fred Flintstone. I didn’t mention the miscarriage. It was painful to me to talk about kids and I didn’t want to mention Perri’s abortion. Rob commiserated with Laura, then filled us in on his life. He’d wrecked his bicycle, was recovering. He enclosed a long note about his church, which Genny had heard was a cult. He didn’t see it that way, but needed to address a scandal. He and Anne had joined Elizabeth Clare Prophet’s Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT). Several church members had tried to buy guns, under assumed names, to prepare for the apocalypse prophesied by Guru Ma, as she was known. For persuasion it underwhelmed, but it explained some of his motivations, though none of us started studying the Ascended Masters. Towards the end of her life Elizabeth Claire Prophet fell into paranoia and dementia.
Fran was dealing with school and psychologists. The teachings of CUT weren’t for her. Too much mysticism. She impressed the bigwigs at work with her grasp of computer software and they invited her to move to Texas, which suddenly led her Alabama employers to be super-nice and ease her workload. She had some issues with the house. They discovered a gas leak in the main heater and had to move into the guest apartment. The fridge and bedrooms were in the main house, but they managed.
Genny recounted a depressing 3 day workshop sponsored by the GBCS for UM, or General Board of Church and Society for the United Methodist Church, and found herself with “White Person’s Guilt”, when average white Americans feel horrible for what people they never knew did to other people they never knew, without realizing that the other other people did horrible things to other others and the other others did horrible things to other other others. No race of people, no religion, no sex, no class or type, is without sin. Lots of it.
She enjoyed New York though. She met Jacques Costeau at a party at Peter Yarrow’s place (of Peter, Paul and Mary) and had some poems published in The Religious Observer.
Sam sent the robin on, it got lost for a week, I sent him a copy of my copy, then the original showed up and he sent it with his contribution and a different zip code. He’d purchased a “Supermind Computer” advertised in Omni magazine. He had a meeting with Music Sales Corporation, who were eager to bring out “Rock and Roar Dinosaur” but hadn’t actually returned his calls. He’d also gotten in touch with the understudy for his role in the Disney film “Mountain Born” many years before, Jamie Newcomb, who had moved to Oregon and was starring in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
A Murder Mystery
Sam was involved in a murder mystery. A hot dog vendor in Haverstraw had found a severed head in a garbage bag at a scenic overlook. Sam had known him. The last place the middle-aged gay man, Michael Sakara, had been seen was at a bar where Sam played piano, and Sam’s friends had been the last to see him. Everyone was questioned. Sam asked the rest of us if we had any impressions. I read the robin, and got a flash of a thin fellow, staight blonde hair, who worked in a large building and drove a big light-blue car. His name was something like Mark, but not Mark. Suspicion later fell on a male nurse from St. Vincent’s who drove a powder-blue Buick, whose name was Mike. In the end, however, Richard W. Rogers, referred to as the Last Call Killer, was convicted.
Laura was in good spirits. Tusculum College had almost closed a few years before, and the football team discontinued until Tom was hired, so the team was Tom’s baby. Early on, the whole team had caught the flu, but afterwards, as a feather in Tom’s cap, they won several games, one by a score of 43-13.
For Christmas of 1993 I was again selling trees from the front yard. I worked on kaleidoscopes in the living room and kept an eye out the window. When Pat & Randy visited the kids “sold” trees to each other. One day a fellow I knew from Boone came by. I’d known Alan for at least fifteen years, he was from Boone and had moved to a house on Worm Ranch Road, a mile or two away. He’d been going by Ras Alan and fronted a reggae band. His car was a white 1962 Ford Falcon station wagon, with a brown interior–exactly what I’d driven at 16! He let me drive it for an afternoon.
I was learning banjo. Perri had given me one for Christmas the year before, and it was a great choice. I’d tried to learn guitar, but my left hand was a problem. My middle finger and thumb had been broken, my little finger mangled and my index finger deeply cut through the knuckle, with nerve damage. I’d try a few chords but it was painful. The banjo was less intimidating. I soon got a book of favorite American songs and learned many. It was the first stringed instrument I enjoyed playing; as a kid the cello had been a chore. I could now play drums, harmonica, penny whistle, bamboo flute and a South African instrument called a likimba, a variation on a kalimba or thumb piano, with an inverted “V” for a top bar which makes the keys sit compactly. Its rosewood resonator box had cracked and I’d tried to buy another, but there was an embargo on South African products and they were unavailable. I tore the box apart, replaced it with oak and had a sturdier instrument. I announced that 1-900-ASK-DAVE had been discontinued due to a low prophet margin, then included some remarks on an interesting astrological aspect, the quincunx. A person will have strong romantic attractions to the sign fifth in line, which isn’t reciprocated since the object of one’s affection is also attracted to the sign fifth in line. It also included some clippings. My scopes had been featured in a fall festival in Greensboro, and I’d been interviewed in the local paper about vegetarians as I was one of the only ones in the county. The article contained a few “vegetarian” recipes–but the first ingredient of the first was chicken stock! I wrote a letter to the editor, pointing out that a chicken was not a vegetable! I’d also been in the paper dressed as Willie Wonka for the second-graders, for which we’d been up all night making a brown top hat. I didn’t like the photo. My eyes seemed desperate, full of false cheer.
Happy Holidays!
We’d been discussing a “Holiday Edition” ever since the overstuffed ground-pounder had disappeared that spring, and Sam the Controller announced that this was the month. Genny started it off with an announcement that her squeeze of four months was off to Australia, and offered a couple scenarios where he either 1) came back or 2) didn’t, and she either 1) took him back or 2) didn’t, but Sam assured us she was fine. He also contended that while the Church Universal and Triumphant wasn’t the Branch Davidians, there was still a peril, as Sufis warn, of gorging on spiritual ideas prematurely, which eliminates their capacity for later impact–which is why Sufis don’t have a “big book of knowledge” and instead say “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear”. With a short note from Sam’s Rob–La Rocca–the robin was on its way.
Tusculum football had done well in the last half and had beaten Georgetown. Union College had also done well, until they hit Tusculum. The final score was Union 49-Tusculum 80, and Tom won Coach of the Year. She announced another pregnancy, and Tom included the cheery holiday statement, “I think I pass gas better than anyone else in the family!”.
Robin’s letter wished everyone a fine Christmas and included some cheery statements from Guru Ma, whose spirit contacts from history and other planets delivered, in an identical monotone, identical warnings about a coming nuclear apocalypse. Fran’s contribution was short. She and Rob were depressed with the domestic situation; daughter Sarah continued to be a problem and Rob had become a house husband, but Fran was doing well at work and everyone was healthy. Genny was in good spirits, though she noted she was now the only one single among the brothers and sisters; she and her Japanese husband Suzuki had been split up for 3 or 4 years, but she called him frequently until he announced he was marrying again, a gal who looked a lot like her. She was still happy to be in therapy, and was putting on a cabaret act.
February’s letter from Sam the Controller announced that, due to increasing delays from Fran, the robin would henceforth be sent direct to Genny and he’d send a copy to Fran. The “Merry Christmas” edition, launched in November, hadn’t returned until February. “Rock and Roar Dinosaur” was finally released, a cassette and songbook/picturebook combination. From there the robin went to Laura, whom the Board of Trustees had just praised as a “marketing genius”. From nearly having closed, Tusculum now had the highest application and acceptance rate in its history. She listed her wants as a piano, a computer and a long trip to see the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, Old Faithful, etc. I’d seen them, but it hadn’t occurred to me that my siblings had not. We’d been to Yellowstone when she was two, and with my father driving had always sped past everything. I hadn’t seen them until I was on my own.
Mercury Retrograde
In mid-February we’d debated trading in our Hyundai, which now had 118,000 miles. Perri said there was a noise in the front end. I took it for a spin and good god, I thought the wheel was falling off. I thought perhaps we should trade it in immediately, but I jacked up the wheel, took off the hubcap, wiggled it, started the engine and let it spin–no problems. Everything was tight. Then I spotted–the loose wheel weight rattling around inside the hubcap. I performed a thing-ectomy, which immediately restored our dying car to full and vibrant health.
I’d taken a job as a trailer park handyman. The secretary’s car had a problem. Half of her electrical system had failed, and two or three guys were looking under the hood and pulling at wires. I announced I could fix it and told her to jiggle the key. Everything sprang to life. Another problem at work, a washing machine which wouldn’t turn, I found to be an extra spacer installed where it shouldn’t have been. I knew big problems with minor causes are common when Mercury is retrograde. I was a hero!
The job was crappy, fixing up old trailers as cheaply as possible. I didn’t like it and didn’t last long. I started volunteering at night school, teaching English to recent immigrants. It was the first time I’d regularly spoken Spanish, and it helped my comprehension immensely. When someone knows English, if there’s a word one can’t think of, one can always use English. When someone doesn’t know English, it’s still necessary to find a way to explain things, using whatever Spanish comes to mind. After three hours, twice a week, I’d drive to work with random, nonsense Spanish phrases floating through my head–they sounded real, but were jibberish! I also had several VCR tapes, which I’d leave playing while I slept, and I’d buy romance novels in Spanish. Romance novels have several advantages. They’re predictable; the couples will get together, break up and get together again. They’re easy to read; they’re written simply enough for a poorly educated teen to enjoy, and they’re short. I kept a sticky note on the page and jotted down strange words, then looked them up, alphabetized and made my own sticky-note dictionary, containing only words I didn’t know. I’d finish a book and read it again. Eventually I was fluent.
Unwelcome Advice

Genny’s contribution changed my focus. She’d written a truly vile series of accusations dredged up by “therapy”, a 20-page rant. Our parents were “monsters”, our family “dysfunctional”, our society full of fiendish and violent Men. It was a common theme of the time, promoted on God-only-knows how many talk shows. Women’s lives were “unfulfilled”, because of Men. Her examples of “abuse” were petty and absurd. We’d had old coats in the winter, which made us “abused”. There was ice in the toilet bowl one morning, so we were “abused”.
These attacks hurt. I felt they were not only baseless, but that my sister was piling onto a tiresome pop-psychology bandwagon. She gratuitously, menacingly and with blatant disrespect “advised” me that I shouldn’t ever have children, because with my “history of violence” I’d most certainly be an “abuser”. In this ugliness I saw echoes of my father, who had no compunctions about using such “psychological” insults to tear down unsuspecting and innocent people. She was doing the same. I told her I was definitely a misunderstood child, but it was up to ME, not HER, to decide these things and ABSOLUTELY NOT her place to decide whether I should raise children!
I said our childhood wasn’t perfect, that nobody’s was, and that much of her reaction wasn’t due to “abuse” but a lack of deprivation to start with. I’d been in the military, and knew what I needed. She’d been in “therapy”, and knew what impressed a “therapist”. In the military, if the toilet froze you’d dig a hole. If you were cold, you’d build a fire, find a blanket, stuff newspapers in your clothes, not complain about old coats. I said I was overjoyed to have ten fingers and toes, working eyes and ears, clean water to drink. If kids learned through childhood “misery and abuse” to LIVE instead of DIE, then it didn’t matter if they had Nintendo games or sticks, they were better off than privileged New York whiners in “therapy” who didn’t know the difference.
When the robin reached Robin, he was in a production of “the Unsinkable Molly Brown”. His sons were in a student-written version of “the Iliad”, and his second son Jordan was building a balsa-wood bridge in a competition which had started between the physics and mechanical drawing classes in my high school in Denver, when I was there. It eventually went statewide, then nationwide, then worldwide.
Another Murder Mystery
Genny was involved in another murder mystery in March. A college friend had been strangled in Queens. She went to the funeral mass and got a very creepy feeling shaking hands with the stepfather. It was now three years later. She casually mentioned her friend’s case to a couple police officers and they arranged a meeting with the investigating detective–who’d had the same creepy feeling. Her case was featured in the March 1994 issue of Redbook.
Sam had started a new gig at a restaurant named Pegasus to complement his longtime gig at Marie’s, worked on theatre projects and was taking accounting. He’d purchased a Powerbook 180 with 10 megabytes of RAM, making it by far the most powerful computer in the family.
Sam’s English teacher, Nanci Nance from Watauga High, was visiting. She was everyone’s favorite, except me, since I’d never met her. Laura was doing fine with her pregnancy. She and Tom had refinanced the house and were planting a garden. She too knew Genny’s friend and had the same creepy feeling about the stepfather.
In March it was my turn again. Mercury retrograde had hit me hard this time; all four vehicles were broken down, though my moped was still on the road. Turned out we’d bought bad gas, all at the same gas station, though the Hyundai needed a new engine even though I’d replaced one of the valves the year before. I was pleased with Hyundai valve assemblies, they simply screwed out and a new one screwed in. I replaced the valve in the driveway of my parents’ house in an afternoon. It needed a new engine now, though. The transmission was also starting to pop out of one gear. It could’ve been repaired, but it was cheaper to replace the engine and transaxlethan to repair the components. We’d refinanced the house, paid off all the credit cards and had $2000 extra, but that evaporated quickly. I’d lost my job at the trailer park, which actually rather pleased me. Mobile homes manufactured before the 1970s had absolutely no quality standards. They were built with cheaper and cheaper materials until by the 1960s they had particle board floors and the kitchen counters were stapled through the outer walls. In the early 1970s there were new standards, but since the old ones weren’t being moved they sat in the same place while the floors rotted out and rodents invaded through the holes. Many had mouse colonies under the tubs, the plumbing was garden hoses and clamps and “repairs” were done with duct tape and wire. One trailer we were preparing to rent had a huge hole in the corner of the living room. The owner’s son told me to put an end table over it and leave. I told him it was a hazard; a kid could fall through it and break a leg. I scrounged a piece of plywood and started greasing the 4” decking screws. The owner told me not to bother greasing the screws (which meant burning out the drill). We ran out of screws. I went to the hardware store. The new ones came pre-greased!
Perri and I were fighting more. She was dismissing my dreams as fantasies and there were no calls coming from the schools in the mountains. I wasn’t happy, and felt a need to take action, though I had no idea what kind.
Rob had the best insight into this. He made the very germane observation that the partners we had all chosen tended to lead us along. Due to our upbringing, our relationships were based more on appreciation of our talents than on love and understanding of a whole person. It felt right. I’d never felt whole. I had little understanding of who I was or what I wanted, even though now I was over 40. He observed, through a tale involving his kids buying candy at Sam’s Club and selling it at a profit, that our parents treated profit-making ventures as “scams”, which had certainly had been the case when I’d sold Christmas trees. My father never felt I was entitled to anything at all, “deal” or no.
Sam had been also been fighting with his Rob. Sam’s Rob had been seeing a truck driver named David. One night Sam was commenting to his boss at the piano bar that he was sorry to be late but had been fighting. One of the customers asked him why, and he said mock-cheerily “the complete dissolution of a twelve-year relationship”. This fellow had just left a relationship of fifteen years. They soon moved in together on Staten Island.
Laura was still waiting on the baby, which by ultrasound seemed likely to be a girl. She and Tom decided on Mary Catherine.
Things had settled some in May. I’d bought a word-processing typewriter from a friend leaving town and remarked how easily it saved a letter and re-typed a copy by simply hitting three keys. It was a great advantage over our clunky IBM PCjr. which had been such a marvel seven years earlier. I printed letters and cards and wrote promotional copy for crafts. It was laughably limited compared to the computers of a few years later, but light-years ahead of the dot-matrix printers of the time. I loved it. A kid left who’d been driving Perri bananas–and by extension me, since she’d drive me bananas when she came home. I was happy not to work for the guy who was too cheap to buy nails to fix his rat-infested trailers while he parked his Jaguar next to the Mercedes he’d given his secretary/lover. Everyone in the park seemed to be divorced and smoked too much, and most of them also drank too much and did too many drugs. I was happy to once again dedicate my days to crafts and my evenings to Spanish. We’d had it out, and had decided it was a seven-year-itch. She’d been tired of seven years in the mountains, I was tired of seven years in the flatlands.
I’d always wanted to move back, the sooner the better, but she announced one day we’d leave in 2017, after she retired from teaching. This was 20+ years longer than I’d intended, and even though our town was pleasant, secure, we had friendly neighbors and room enough to raise a garden, the prospect of staying there while our home in the mountains rotted away bothered me severely.
Robin had been hit by another driver. He had some whiplash, which made it difficult for him to work, but had been going to a chiropractor and feeling better.
His boys were preparing to go with my mother on a trip across Europe and Russia. She’d won a “Teacher of the World” contest and decided to take the boys with her. Genny and Sam were in better spirits. They’d gotten together to see off the threesome, and all had a great time with Sam and his new boyfriend. Laura was eagerly anticipating her baby girl.
We’d finished most of our remodeling, I thought. We had ceiling fans and a pool to jump in when it got so hot our hair started to melt. There was a fallen-down, overgrown fence in the backyard which made the poison ivy under it difficult to pull up, but I finally bit the bullet and spent a full day pulling the fence and all the ivy out, then took an extremely hot shower and scrubbed hard, which was reasonably effective.
I’d enrolled in Alamance Community College taking Spanish at night, and we gave a party at the end of the quarter. There were 29 folks there, speaking Spanish, German, Chinese, Pakistani and English. There was no trouble with languages. Someone always knew another one.
What Does a Kid Need?
A discussion developed in the robin over what children needed. I felt, as always, that children need food, love, shelter and an occasional hot bath. Running water, electricity, these are nice but lack of television doesn’t evidence abuse or neglect. I found it ridiculous to say that a child “needed” to have brand-name jeans and cable TV and Nintendo. Still do.
By the end of July the world travelers returned, with tales from Amsterdam, France, Germany, Poland, Russia. Rob and Anne picked them up in Maryland but their transmission gave out. Genny had found a new job and her friends at the Church Center gave her parties and lunches and pound cakes and gifts and flowers all week. She then left for San Francisco to sing at a wedding and was met by her ex, Suzuki. They had a long discussion over coffee. Sam’s Rock and Roar Dinosaur album and book had come out. He and Barry (his new squeeze) visited Boone and he autographed copies at Cheap Joe’s downtown. Cheap Joe ran Boone Drug and had been great friends with my father for years. Joe had gotten in trouble in high school for “borrowing” a couple scarecrow-type hillbilly dolls from a bench outside a business called Mystery Hill and setting them up on a bridge overlooking the Blue Ridge Parkway with whiskey bottles in their hands. He later became an artist and started Cheap Joe’s Art Supplies online, which did very well.
Laura obnoxiously pointed out that caring for her newborn son (NOT a daughter!!!) was more difficult than caring for my poor flea-bitten dog. I hadn’t contended otherwise, but gave it a pass, as she had a six-week-old baby boy to deal with, NOT named Mary Catherine, born on the Fourth of July. In the way that some discussions become contentious when you leave the room, however, the next time the robin came around there was a long debate as to what constituted child abuse, and whether running water or its lack was acceptable. It came down to whether a totally theoretical child, of MINE, would be abused, or not, by the mere fact that it lived in the earth lodge, which hadn’t been finished anyway, and which I hadn’t intended NOT to have running water to start with.
I’d related an idea of printing a book about making a book, starting with nothing–to start with a pair of hands, dig ore, smelt type, use sharp rocks to cut trees, pound them to pulp, make paper, to start with nothing and make a book. The cotton, glue, dyes for the cover would be grown and processed, and the whole process would be photographed, using chemicals which would have to be refined and formulated and cameras to be made. It was nothing more than a dream, but it kicked up a storm of abusive, way over the top replies as if I fully intended to raise my kids in an outhouse. All I’d said was that LOVE was more important than interactive toys, and told of when I received a second-hand repainted bicycle for Christmas and was thrilled with it. Again I received contentious replies, still arrogantly debating whether I should have children. I ended up seriously pissed over the implications of something I hadn’t said, and for the next year the round robin was acrimonious. The parents among us weighed in, the urban dwellers weighed in, and without intending anything of the sort I was defending the right of a hypothetical parent to raise hypothetical children in a hypothetical rural house which didn’t, hypothetically, have running water.
It was a stupid, ignorant debate, but a mark of the fall of 1994, when the last of a long series of outer planets was passing through Scorpio in a truly remarkable series which had lasted over forty years. The outer planets, from Jupiter onwards, spend at least a year in each astrological sign. Saturn spends two and a half years, Uranus seven, Neptune fourteen and Pluto, because of an eccentric orbit, anywhere from fourteen to thirty. It wouldn’t be unusual for a couple of planets to line up, but from late 1953 until the end of the twentieth century there were only a few brief periods with no outer planet in Scorpio. From October of 1953 until the end of the ‘60s there only were 38 days in 1956, 50 in 1957. In the 70s there were 3 years, from October of ’71 to November of ’74, and four months in 1975, then it went twenty more years. Everyone experienced this exceptionally long span. For Americans it’d started with the senate hearings of the Scorpio Joe McCarthy and continued through the Cold War, Vietnam, Watergate, the fall of the Soviet Union. Six of the next seven presidents served six years or less, three of them were shot or shot at. Scorpio been had affecting things for a very long time, and by 1994 most people were harried, worn out, paranoid. The fear of nuclear annihilation was fading, but 40+ years had taken its toll on the psyche, and delusions were accepted as fact, discussed on talk shows, prosecuted in court. Bus drivers were Satan worshippers who were eating babies! It was “proved” through “repressed memories”!
Before the trailer park I’d worked part-time constructing storage buildings for a fellow whose daughter ran a health food store. It was easy, fun, outside work. Storage buildings was don’t need to meet code. We built them well, but didn’t worry about covering wiring or roofs withstanding a hurricane, we only had to put them on a trailer and set them on blocks in someone’s yard. Afterwards I worked managing his daughter’s health food store when she was out of town, which was frequently. It was a wonderful job. I learned a great deal about herbs, vitamins, supplements, health foods. It was eye-opening to read about prescriptions and their side effects, and to watch people ignore recommendations. They’d ask about a specific health issue, listen and nod, buy a few pills and change nothing. One person in fifty might make an effort. It’s a pleasure to teach them but they’re few and far between.
I wasn’t happy at home, and got close to a co-worker, a cute girl of seventeen who was also vegetarian. I was 24 years older, and nothing happened, but her moon was in Gemini. I saw possibilities; one never knows where life might lead. She went to Michio Kushi’s macrobiotic cooking school in Massachusetts that fall, and wrote me regularly. Her name, like many influential women in my life, was Elizabeth.
Delores was also a co-worker. We shared a tiny checkout booth with cash registers on both sides and were within a foot of each other for hours at a time. When you’re physically that close to someone you can’t help but get to know them well. We flirted some, and compared notes.
She was a Jehovah’s Witness. I’d always thought Jehovah’s Witnesses a little weird. They’d had crazy ideas about the end of the world in 1984, and when it didn’t happen I tormented them with questions when they came to the door, friendly enough but designed to make them squirm. When we worked side-by-side I found that, yeah, it was a little strange, but religion isn’t logical, rational, sensible or reasonable. It’s always mystical, fantastical, eerie, weird. People buy into religion according to their comfort level, but live their lives and deal with practical things regardless of creed. They have domestic disputes and carnal desires and cars that need alternators and nephews getting into trouble. Delores had started attending the temple when she met her first husband. He later bought a Harley, took up with a biker chick and they divorced. She met her next husband Marty through the temple, but he only showed up a few days a year.
Marlene, who ran the health food store when she wasn’t on vacations, also held a fringe religion. She identified as Christian but observed a Saturday sabbath and most Jewish dietary restrictions and holy days. I loved the business and did it well, but Marlene had a suspicious nature and trouble relating to men. She had no sex life that I knew of, male or female, and often wore her father’s cast-off clothes–so much so that I asked Dolores if she even owned women’s clothes. Marlene always said it was to save money, which seemed a poor reason, but she was almost pathological about money. She was the cheapest woman I knew, though her family was comfortable. She wasn’t particularly interested in her health nor that of her customers. Though she avoided pork, she stuffed herself with fast-food burgers when nobody was looking.
Perri and I went to a Halloween party at a friend of Cindy’s. Dave was a painter of custom motorcycles; it was a wild bunch. We were dressed as twin bearded ladies, with identical shirts and skirts. She’d put on a fake beard and I put on lipstick. At the party a girl said to me, “I’ve never kissed another woman before”, and I said, “I haven’t either”. She kissed me.
Not just a peck. We were both surprised by how suddenly passionate this silly kiss was. My wife wasn’t happy and neither was her boyfriend. It was a symptom of something deeper.
Because I was working that Christmas, I had to hire a fellow to watch the tree lot three days a week, so we didn’t make much profit. Afterwards we went to the mountains. My mother had hired a carpenter to fix the kitchen floor, and he was available over Christmas week, so he tore out the floor while she left to spend the holidays with Laura and Tom. Perri and I arrived, dog in tow, and left Ringo with the dogs at the farm house while we visited Perri’s parents. Anne came to feed the dogs, walked into the kitchen and stepped right through the floor. Ringo heard the commotion and came to investigate. She grabbed him and climbed out, unhurt except for some nasty bruises.
My father’s holiday letter talked about changing himself. He found it difficult but gratifying and said he, like the rest of humanity, lived within illusions dictated by environment, that many thought patterns were knee-jerk responses to stimuli. He said the sight of Newt Gingrich on TV caused great squirts of bile to flood his intestines, but the Dalai Lama soothed him. He wanted Newt Gingrich to meet the Dalai Lama, and hoped that Newt didn’t pee on his leg.
Perri was happy 1994 was over. Hillcrest school, which had been built in 1930 and had no air conditioning, had moved to a new building over Christmas break. She was thrilled with the new school and happy to be without one of her most troublesome kids, who’d been placed in an institution. Robin had received a new computer from Santa, a Macintosh Performa 360CD, but by exploring the hard drive and clicking on everything had installed so many programs that he had very little memory left, and a week later had to use a word processor to contribute to the holiday robin. Anne and the boys sent a page each and Noelle, the youngest, a picture of a bird. For New Years Robin had taken up Tai Chi and loved it. He was now working days in the barber shop with our father and nights in a restaurant, where he shared a bottle of champagne with Kim Basinger. “The Winter People” was shooting down the road, in fact part was shot in our friend Cindy’s old cabin. Kim had come to Stonewall’s restaurant. He was her waiter. At the end of the night she’d left a little champagne in the bottle, which he polished off.
Robin also had a troubled relationship with our father. When I was old enough to stay out late enough to avoid him, my brother was next in line for his drunken dinner table assaults. My youngest brother and the three sisters skated through, safe in their little world while my father spewed bile in the kitchen. My brother said that he’d changed a lot and that he hadn’t seen him drunk in years. I wasn’t so sure. I’d also worked with him. He was easy to work with. The ugliness came at night.
Genny’s 33rd birthday came at the end of January, and she was in high spirits. Sam and Barry had just returned from a whirlwind tour of Italy and Switzerland, and Sam used up all his adjectives describing it.
Tom had a new job in February, football coach at Wofford College, and he and Laura moved to Spartanburg, SC. I was rewiring my parents‘ house. A fellow who had driven into their front yard one night was doing a lot of work on it as well. The farmhouse was on a popular back road to Blowing Rock, where the bars were, and Dave had crashed into the briars. He was a carpenter seeking work and a place to stay. My father let him work on the house in exchange for free rent on the trailer which had replaced Kevin and Fran’s down the road.
That we had the same name was an irritation. I’d hear my father praising Dave and realize it was him, not me. He’d dismiss what I’d done, crediting my work to others who’d done a small portion. Jeff had worked on the greenhouse, but he’d put in 3 hours to my 60. He’d say Uncle Lewis put in the bathroom, not him and me. The rock wall I’d taken all summer to build in the front yard was a “repair”. When I painted the roof he never bought the last gallon of paint and it became something I “hadn’t finished”, which Dave replaced. Dave deserved the praise my father repeatedly gave him, but it irritated me greatly when I’d hear him talking about what Dave had done and realize it wasn’t me, and that Dave had exchanged labor for rent, while my free labor from the goodness of my heart was being ignored. My brother’s next letter dealt with this. It was difficult for us to finish things, because our father, he noticed, would start things but abandon them, and if we continued he’d tear them down to make “improvements” which never happened. It was difficult for either of us to take pride in our accomplishments, because we got no credit and they didn’t stay finished anyway.
I rewired the house as a Christmas present that year, because it needed it, and saw my Skilsaw on the back porch. I hadn’t seen it in over a year. It had my name ground into the handle, in letters an inch high and a quarter-inch deep. He’d stolen it.
Genny was scouting for a new job and enjoyed being single. Sam had moved in with Barry on Staten Island while his old boyfriend Rob lived with David in Manhattan. They were still friendly. That they didn’t live together made it easier on both. Rob was working with Broadway singers and Sam had quit piano playing in smoky bars, freelancing as a “party pianist”. Laura was getting accustomed to her toddler taking his first steps. She loved her new neighborhood, and though she didn’t like local schools it was hardly a concern while Austin was under a year old.
I was less satisfied, and expressed my frustrations. I was making little more than minimum wage at the health food store. Marlene was far more interested in money than in health, and was paranoid as well. When we’d run the rental yard in Hollywood we’d figure a loss of 3 to 4 percent due to bad checks and the like was normal. If losing more than that, your policies were probably ioo loose, if less you’d miss a lot of business. When selling Christmas trees we were even less concerned, taking checks without much bother; none of the trees would be worth 10¢ on on December 26th. Marlene took two forms of ID and called the bank on every check. She got only one bad check that I ever knew about, for about $15, and put sticky notes on the back door, the desk, the cash drawer and the bathroom mirror warning us about Cherry Smith. She was one of the first businesses to have a credit card verification machine and wouldn’t take cards if it was down. She’d tail her customers, and recommend way more than they needed. She’d mark the price up 400 or 500% on products recommended for serious illnesses such as cancer, on the theory that cancer patients were going to spend it on medicine anyway. There was a monthly newsletter from an association whose sales started on the first of the month, but she wouldn’t pass out the newsletters for at least a week. When they were gone, a week or so later, she’d immediately pull off the sale tags. Items on sale were marked with a dot of a certain color. Most would go on sale once or twice a year, yet many of the bottles had over half-a-dozen dots, making them over five years old. Some food was so old it had changed color, but she wouldn’t throw it out. I’d set the old stuff in the back room, where she said she was going to send it back, but three days later it’d be on the shelf again. The ketchup was particularly nasty. The first half-inch was a black crust, the rest a pale orange. I saw it back on the shelf and decided I was tossing it and anything else that was that bad. Over the next couple of weeks I got rid of a dozen or two superannuated jars of sauces and was fired. I didn’t care. I was disgusted. The health food store went downhill, Marlene’s father died a short while later and Delores bought it for next to nothing. She threw out over half the stock.
I was tired of the town, too. I didn’t want to be in the flatlands, and had only come down because Perri had planned to take a job in the mountains at the first opportunity. The opportunity hadn’t come and Perri wasn’t pursuing it. I found it a flat, hot, preachy little town, where great philosophical discussions bogged down in creationism vs. evolution and whether Satan’s influence would strengthen as the millennium approached. I didn’t like the yard decorations. Cement chickens. Plywood butts tending flowers. I didn’t want to raise a family there, not that it looked like we would. I didn’t care about local history or local politics. It wasn’t a good place to sell crafts, and I didn’t like the earth lodge being abandoned and the trees badly tended.
Perri didn’t see it that way. She had a good job, friends, and had already decided a lot of things with or without my input. She’d been dealing with disruptive children that nobody else could handle and for nine years had been making them do what no one else could. All day it was her way, not their way. It didn’t matter what they wanted, they did what she told them to.
It was her job, and she brought the attitude home. She told me what we were going to do, where we were going to go, what I was going to wear. I tried to make decisions or talk over plans but was summarily slapped down. My kaleidoscope sales were doing OK, but when I ordered supplies she wrote the checks.
We decided that I’d take over half the finances. I’d handle the house payment and she’d take the rest. I did what I said, sold enough scopes to make the payment, ordered supplies and had about fifty dollars left. I thought we’d have a nice night out to celebrate. I cleaned up, dressed up and planned to take her to her favorite restaurant.
Things Blow Up
She came home and I was in a great mood, the first time in quite awhile. I greeted her at the door, spiffed up and ready to go.
It was not to be. She immediately grilled me and discovered I’d deposited the $800 into the wrong account of our two at the bank. She said I couldn’t handle money and took the rest. She then told me she’d been to her favorite restaurant at lunch, she didn’t like the way I was dressed and that she and her friend had other plans anyway. I went from feeling terrific to terrible in five minutes. I stayed home and cleaned up around the house.
She came home and started again. It was unbelievable that I’d put money in the wrong account. This kaleidoscope thing wasn’t a business, it was a hobby. I couldn’t take care of business, I couldn’t handle money. She didn’t want to hear about the mountains anymore, either. I was abusing her when I talked about moving. We’d move in 2017, when she retired, and I wouldn’t mention it anymore. And how were we ever going to have kids, if I couldn’t handle money? She was already taking care of a child. Me.
I shut up for a week or so. She wrote the check to order supplies, but she wrote it on a credit card, which bounced. It was the second time she’d bounced a check to that supplier. I got a money order and she said she’d mail it. She didn’t. I brought it up, she blew it off. She didn’t want to hear about it any more. And I should get a vasectomy. And she didn’t want anything to do my family.
Well, that finally, finally did it. I’d had it. I was re-folding the laundry–she didn’t like the way I’d folded it–and I completely exploded. I screamed and screamed and threw laundry around–I knew if I touched anything else I’d break it–and screamed some more and some more, that she was NOT going to talk about my family that way and she WASN’T going to tell me I couldn’t handle money and she WAS going to pay for the supplies and we WERE going back to the mountains and my scopes were NOT a hobby. I kept screaming and throwing laundry and finally stormed out of the house.
In my socks. In the snow.
I didn’t know where to go. It was February, 1996. It was cold. It was snowing. I was in a T-shirt and socks. I walked a half-mile down the road, stopped and looked at the tiny snowflakes swirling and sparkling in the air. I turned around and came back.
Everything was quiet. She’d put away the laundry, and was making dinner.
Dinner was excellent. Potatoes with rosemary. Spinach with spicy tofu and sesame seeds. Mixed veggies, lightly fried. We didn’t talk much.
I was calm, but I knew I’d lost my sanity. I was croaking like a frog. I couldn’t speak. My head throbbed; I was certain I’d blown a blood vessel on the left side of my forehead. I wasn’t angry. I couldn’t be. If I started getting worked up my head throbbed even more. It was painful enough keeping calm.
I didn’t go to our bed that night. Somewhere, sometime, I’d read that you shouldn’t go to bed angry. What a crock. All that means is that whoever is the most tired gives up so they can sleep. It was the first time I’d slept on the couch.
When we got up the next morning, things were better, sort of. I’d obviously frightened her. She was sweet to me. I couldn’t talk. I had a headache.
Things weren’t the same. I’d settled down, but I was unbalanced, and knew it. We had our second wedding anniversary a few days later–the 29th of February, so we had actually been married eight years–and Perri’d started making plans to move back to the mountains. She’d renewed her job application–she hadn’t heard back because the application had to be renewed every six months, but she hadn’t renewed it in ten years. She was trying–but I was crying.
There was something wrong with me. I kept my temper down because I had to. If I got agitated my head would throb. I worked in my shop, made scopes–but suddenly, for no reason, would burst into tears in the middle of the afternoon, great heaving sobs that drained my energy and left me a wreck for the 20 minutes–then I’d get back to work.
I drank too much. I hadn’t drunk anything until evening for years, except on Saturdays, and I’d always go a couple days a week without drinking–but now I’d take a tug off the liquor bottle in the afternoon, to calm down and take the edge off my despair. I’d met a woman, Teresa, who’d admired my kaleidoscopes and was learning how to make them. She’d cut glass pieces, I’d buy them from her and take her crafts along when I’d sell. For awhile I was in a band with her husband, but she and he were breaking up. I’d call her and we’d talk and cry for hours. I’d also been making kaleidoscope kits for my old girlfriend Beth, who’d written me occasionally for years. She wanted to sell kits, so I put together parts and instructions and sent them to Arizona. I’d gotten a PO box down the street to use for business, but now it became the address I’d use to write her. I knew she’d been crazy too, many years before, and desperately needed someone who could relate. We’d now known each other for 20 years, which seemed incredible. I’d send off kits and a letter, she’d send a check and a letter. I’d saved our correspondence for years, but had burned it all a year before and now only had one remaining letter from earlier times, which had escaped by hiding in a book. It was written not long after she’d married the guitar player, and was full of references to how she’d wanted to be with me but couldn’t, that she’d married Luke because she had to, she was trying to fly but her wings were clipped, she was the temple prostitute in a past life who was now tethered to the ground, the domestic Goddess. I was her Wizard, but Oh, the Karma which befalls the Wise One–and signed “Love & Light, Beth”.
And my heart had been tethered to hers in some way, all those years, through all those letters. Her son had told me “I love you, Dave Austin” when he was four. He grew up, she had two daughters with the guy in the shiny suit and wrote me heart-wrenching letters for seventeen more years, eleven married and six divorced.
I tried hard not to write every day. She’d had a boyfriend for a year, but called me in the middle of the day when he wasn’t there and my wife was working. I told her what a mess I was, how hopelessly crazy, how I knew she’d been there, knew how I felt. It was a comfort to talk. I’d lay in the middle of the floor and cry.
I needed to get away for awhile and a friend suggested I drive with him out West. John was an older fellow who knew me from the health food store. He worked with stained glass and I’d shown him how to make kaleidoscopes. He wanted to leave his wife, and I wanted to make a business trip out of state. I made a dozen Kallistoscopes and we left on April 17th. Two days later in Eagle Pass, Texas, I sold my first large stereoscope, which gave me enough to help with the gas and support myself. On the 21st we arrived in Tucson and at 7 am I first saw Liz, as she was now calling herself. She’d broken up with her boyfriend when she knew I was coming, and she let me stay at her place. After a month I wrote a letter to include in the robin:
Hi Sam!
And everyone else on down the line, since I want this letter included in the robin and my address right now is sort of uncertain–
I left Swepsonville on Apr. 17th, which makes it one month today–I’ve been staying in Tucson with an old and loyal friend, Liz, I knew I needed to see her because a couple months ago I lost my mind and I knew she’d been there before and I’ve known and trusted her for twenty years.
I left not knowing exactly what I was doing; I badly wanted to take a trip to the West again because I’d been 8 years away, and also I wanted to try selling kaleidoscopes on my own. I knew Liz knew the market in Tucson and I also knew I badly needed to hear her perspective on life, so I came to Tucson first. I didn’t expect to be staying here more than several days; I knew she had a boyfriend and a life. However she broke up with him the same day I left so when I came we had more time to talk than I’d anticipated. We really had some seriously unfinished business to talk through anyway because we are old lovers and I never really wanted to give her up but she ran off and got married, and that’s really why I spent the next six years or so thumbing around the country, because I never really wanted to marry anyone else. She was married for eleven years and got divorced 5 months after I got married. If I’d have seen her 5 months earlier I doubt if I’d have gotten married–but anyway for the next 8 years we stayed in touch and she wrote me several honest & painful letters about what all she had felt and done and what she was up to and in general they really tore at my heart because I never really and truly forgot about her.
Anyway a couple months ago me & Perri had another big fight over money & finally decided I would make the house payment and use the rest for supplies for kaleidoscopes, etc. I fulfilled my end of the bargain when I went out selling when I made $800, made the house payment and had $250 left for supplies & a little extra I figured we could go out to dinner on that night etc. & I was feeling really good when Perri walked in.
Well, she told me I’d put the house payment in the wrong one of the 2 accounts we had with NationsBank & I obviously couldn’t handle money & she’d have to make my order for me & I’d have to hand over the money & she didn’t want to go out to dinner because she’d already gone out to that restaurant for lunch & so she took my money & went out to dinner with her friends.
It happened so fast I didn’t know what hit me. I’d had a great day & done everything right and inside of 5 minutes she had trashed my day, insulted me, robbed me and split. I felt like I’d been mugged.
To add to the insult she didn’t get the order in for a couple weeks while I ran out of supplies to finish anything, meanwhile still riding me about the next month’s house payment. When she did put in the order she sent a check drawn on a credit card which didn’t have enough to cover it which blew another week as well as boogering up my account with Delphi Glass for the 2nd time. Then when I came to her with my concern she told me she’d take care of it after the weekend, but by the next Tuesday or Wednesday she hadn’t done it & I mentioned it again & she sort of casually said, “I have more things to think about than you”, and blew it off, then started ragging me about how I’d folded the laundry. Well that was a long ways from the only reason for what happened next but it was one straw too many for me. I started screaming at her at the top of my lungs and kept it up for probably five solid minutes and throwing laundry around and completely lost my mind. I said I was not one of her 9-year-old brats and she had better learn to respect me as a man and my family was just as good as hers (an old, old fight) and she did not have the exclusive right to decide for us if we were going to have children or not without consulting her husband, and she knew I hated the flatlands but she had kept me there for ten years anyway, and on & on. I’m sure I was purple I was so mad and I’m sure I popped a blood vessel because for weeks I got pounding headaches whenever I got worked up. I left & walked down the road & back for 20 mins. or so & when I got back had her write out a check then & there for an order & send it off & then a weird kind of calm settled over me–but I knew I was mentally unbalanced. I had completely lost my equilibrium and was totally out of touch with my emotions and I knew it. I was a wreck. It was a nervous breakdown. I started crying every morning and writing long letters, mostly to Liz because I knew very well she’d been there and could understand better than anyone about going thru that sort of thing. I knew I had to see her & planned this trip partly for business, true, but also to be able to see her, because I knew I’d never really be able to get myself straightened out again otherwise & she was the one person I knew that I trusted and felt could help.
So I’ve been here for awhile longer than I’d planned but I’m getting a lot of kaleidoscopes made up & making a few contacts & feeling a whole lot better. I don’t know what I’m going to do from here but I’ll get around to some more states pretty soon & probably pick up my car in Colorado & get back to NC before too long. I don’t much know what the future might be but I do know that I’m glad I came. You can go on & on about counseling, etc. but everyone needs to do what they think is best and I think I have done what is best for me for the time being and thus for everyone because I wouldn’t be any good for anyone the way I was. I feel like I have rediscovered something about myself I’d been out of touch with for a long time.
Much Love–Dave
P.S. Someone else needs to make the copies this time! DJA~
I had too much faith in my lady love. When I’d arrived, she’d been suspicious and cool, which seemed odd–the woman who’d been signing every letter with “Love” or some variation–never “sincerely” or “best wishes”–for seventeen years. We got along, but she seemed to want me to prove something, which was simply strange.
I found out much more about her. She’d been married at 20, had a son and left her first husband. She told me he’d forged a sword and to make it magical needed a ritual sacrifice. She’d run from him and I’d met her. She’d made a business arrangement with Luke under the apple tree–this is what she’d called it, had always called it, what they’d agreed to. He’d raise her son if she’d have his kids. Her son, 4 years old, had hated this choice–”NO!”, he said, “ANYBODY but HIM! George! David! Anyone but LUKE!!!”–but marry they did, moved out West and sent me a Polaroid shot of the cutest, happiest baby girl I’d ever seen. Four years later they had another daughter, one she didn’t want. They’d been thinking of splitting up, but he got a vasectomy and they stayed together for a few more years. He started fooling around and they had an incredibly bitter divorce. I arrived eight years later, but they were still furious with each other. He’d remarried, changed his name and tried to reverse his vasectomy. None of it worked–they didn’t have kids, he left her and changed back his name. Liz remained single and bitter, drank too much and kept the girls on weekends.
I’d been trying to sell scopes and rings in Tucson, but it was the end of the season and Liz wanted me to get away more anyway. She’d been introducing me and sometimes fixing me up with her friends. I took a sales trip with a fellow she knew. We were away for a week, camping out and visiting interesting little towns. I sold enough to pay for the trip but little else. A few days later I took a bus to California and met up with John, whose prospect wasn’t working out either. I visited a couple friends, whose romantic lives were also in turmoil; there was something in the air that spring–and John insisted I drive his car back while he flew home to his wife. That was fine with me, and I picked up my stuff in Tucson a few days after my 43rd birthday.
While I was gone all hell had broken loose. I’d gotten along with the son, who was now in his twenties, and the older daughter, who was 17, but the younger one, age 13, had been a challenge. I’d babysat with her the weekend before I’d left for California, when Liz was out of town. The daughter stole some pot from her mother’s purse, which I didn’t know about, and when Liz grilled her she said I’d been peeping, as a distraction. I was out of state, an easy target, and the daughter didn’t want me there anyway. When I rolled back into Tucson Liz was furious, but it was clear to me it wasn’t working out anyway, so I packed my stuff and left without a fuss.
I continued on to Colorado. I’d planned to fix up the 1962 Falcon which I’d given to Monk many years before. His father had made it into a sort of pickup and driven it for a few years. He now offered it back if I wanted it. Since I had a car, though, I didn’t immediately need it. I visited for a week, staying mostly with Monk’s mother. I’d say Monk had gone downhill in the intervening seven years, but he’d already been at the bottom. He was still married to Carissa, though they’d separated a few times. Still lived in a little apartment on the wrong side of the tracks, still dealt drugs and used cars. Carissa was a masseuse. She claimed that she wasn’t screwing the customers, though everyone knew she was. I took her to appointments. When we were alone she was all over me, and suggested we get a room. She was good looking, luscious actually, and I was sorta-kinda single, but she was still my best friend’s wife. I didn’t want to go there. I told her I needed my money for the trip home, which was true.
I spent the night at Monk’s apartment, Some friends had brought over crack. I traded them a few silver rings and shared it with Monk and Carissa. I’ve never cared for crack. It’s mediciney, not very pleasant and doesn’t last long. Carissa wanted more, and more.Didn’t want to give up the crack pipe. In the morning Monk offered me a place on the couch to stay as long as I wanted, but I left.The next few days I visited with his family while a car appearing to be an undercover narc incompetently followed me around. I sold a couple scopes and had money to get home, but there were be a couple small scopes missing. Monk later confessed that he and Carissa had taken them to get more crack.
Three years later Carissa was arrested for trying to hire someone to kill Monk. She needn’t have bothered. He died a year afterwards.
I spent the next week moseying, toured my old hangouts, took a drive to Boulder, saw the house we’d lived in when I was a toddler. It seemed incredibly tiny. I went to Central City, explored the mountains, then at night started for Kansas (the best time to drive across Kansas). I stopped in Topeka, spent some hours in Kansas City and went to St. Louis, where I spent most of the day. It’s lovely in the springtime, hell in summer. I then drove to my cousin’s house in Knoxville, spent the night, and on to my parents’ house in Boone, where I stayed the weekend. I arrived back in Swepsonville on Perri’s birthday, hoping to surprise her, but she wasn’t there, having gone to Florida to visit her sister. She’d changed the locks. I broke a small window and crawled in.
Things Settle Down
I went about my business. I returned the car to John, who’d reconciled with his wife. I rode my moped and got a job landscaping with Delores’ husband Marty. Perri came back a few days later. It took awhile, but we worked things out.
There’d been a real turning point for me that spring. I was living with Liz and once in awhile calling back to Perri, mostly yelling. I’d told her I wanted a divorce, and we’d decided who’d get what. I was still furious, even though Liz was proving to be less than trustworthy, clean and reverent. I’d found Liz would tell a tall tale if it got her what she wanted, but Perri never would. Perri called me one day nearly in tears and asked for my permission to buy a lawnmower with the credit card we’d decided was mine.
It was the first time she’d ever asked my permission.
I found it touching, and her simple and heartfelt honesty a sharp contrast to the woman I was with. A few days later it was my birthday and we talked until the battery on the phone went dead. It wasn’t a reconciliation, but it went a long way.
I signed up for Spanish classes at night school and volunteered at the Catholic church to teach English to recent immigrants a couple nights a week. I joined the chess club. She found a job teaching the profoundly retarded rather than the emotionally disturbed. The change was wonderful; she’d often say she felt she’d been dying in the old job, that it was draining her, wrecking her physical and mental health. Taking care of children, some of whom couldn’t talk, some in diapers at age 10, all needing gentle loving care, brought out a tenderness in her which she’d lost.
There was a lot of stuff to move around. Before I’d made my Quest to the West, we’d made plans to move back to the mountains. We’d moved stuff to the attic, on the bus, in the earth lodge, a tent, a back shed and at my parents’ house. There was stuff in our Subaru, under the carport, in the Studebaker. Perri’d also moved all her stuff from school, which was stored in the tool shed and the attic.
Robin had also been having domestic difficulties. Anne had a trust fund, and spent it on things she wanted while Robin worked. She did little but talk on the phone and drink Coke. Robin announced one day he wasn’t going to both work and clean the house. She said she wouldn’t either, and for twelve years the dishes stayed in the sink, the clothes stayed on the floor. They went out to eat. Grant, Jordan and Noelle visited their friends’ houses. Their friends didn’t visit them.
They decided to make a new start, and hired Perri and I to clean house in summer 1996. We started in the corners of each room and pushed everything into the hallway. By nightfall it was so crammed we couldn’t see over the pile, and had to go room to room through the windows. We threw out well over a hundred bags of trash. My brother paid us a hundred dollars, and as part of the deal we also kept $138 we’d found in loose change.
There’d been a hurricane that summer, and though it did little damage to our house Marty and I had plenty of work and plenty of firewood. We worked together until Christmas, mowing lawns, trimming trees, doing construction and working on cars. Perri acquired a Volvo, and felt very much the professional.
After Christmas I reconnected with John, my partner on the Quest to the West, and we built storage sheds as well as kaleidoscopes together. He’d seen the sheds I’d made with Marlene’s father and decided we could do it too. Some months later I got a job supervising a crew of Mexican immigrants in a print shop in Durham, 12 hours on the night shift, 4 days one week and 3 days the next. It was the first job where I spoke Spanish full-time, and I was not only the supervisor but something of a god both to my crew and to upper management, as nobody would get anything done if I didn’t interpret. It was a temporary job, though, which under the rules of the time could be forever temporary, and was physically demanding. Needlessly so. We were supposed to stay on our feet for the entire twelve hours. All chairs had been banned from the floor. It was a great opportunity to socialize after work with Mexicans, though, and at 7 in the morning we’d buy a case of beer. When you work from 7 pm to 7 am, seven in the morning is after work. I still made kaleidoscopes and storage buildings on my days off.
After six months I’d had enough and found a better job, closer to home, supervising a Spanish-speaking crew in a print shop, though this print shop printed fabric. It was slower paced and far more pleasant, but after two months I was laid off. I then found a job in a plant which glued huge rolls of paper. I was part-time safety inspector and part-time Spanish supervisor, though I only had one fellow to supervise.
Ringo and I daily walked around the property, picking flowers. One day Ringo found a HUGE caterpillar who’d eaten ALL the leaves off one of my baby pecans. It was as big as my thumb. We named it Swepsonzilla. It was a Hickory Horned Devil, which becomes a Royal moth. That spring, we saw Hootie and the Blowfish with our friend Lori and her temporary boyfriend. Lori had married a prisoner she’d met as a prison counselor, but while he was locked up was going with a fellow named John. It was a Lori Story. Lori always did the strange and dramatic and wrong. She was nearly 30, but for awhile had a boyfriend who was sixteen. John wanted to stay with her, but they split up because she was married.
We spent a week in Florida that spring, and when we came back Perri got a bus license and became a driver for a multiple-handicapped children’s camp for the rest of that summer. We took one other quick trip to the beach, staying in a condo on Oak Island as a promotion. When Thanksgiving came we visited Perri’s parents in their new house in Athens, Alabama, then came home and sold trees.
The Volvo heater core had sprung a leak, and I had to tear out the entire dashboard to repair it. About six months later, a woman pulled in front of Perri and it was totaled. We refinanced the house yet again in the springtime, and pulled out enough extra to buy a four-year-old Toyota truck, basic but well-maintained.
When Lori’s husband Michael got out of prison in the spring of 1998 we went to the beach for a quick weekend. Lori’s parents had a beach cottage, and while there we took photos pretending we were in the movie Maximum Overdrive, shot in the area, which my father’d been in. Perri played Stephen King being cussed out by the ATM, I played my father the bridgemaster and Michael his stupid sidekick. We played cards with the cards from my wallet. We found a slice of watermelon in the market and used camera angles to make it look like a truckload, and Lori was an excellent stand-in for Marla Maples as she got creamed by the watermelon. Ringo was conscripted to be the goblin on the front of the diesel rig, for which we’d substituted our little pickup. A napkin became a waiter’s pointy hat at the diner, and various items were flung into the air and shot from strange angles. Great fun!
That summer Perri and her mother took a trip to Florida together, without the rest of the family. Her mother had never stopped at South of the Border, on I-95 at the South Carolina line, which she thought tacky, but they had a great time.
Teresa, who’d been my employee, had left her husband and moved to Idaho with a new husband. I’d traded a nice stereo Kallistoscope to her for a silver flute, but she had a piano that needed a home, and I traded her the flute back for the piano, which was sitting in my workshop when my sister Laura expressed her desire for a piano that September. We traded the piano for Laura’s flute!
We sold trees again, but my heart wasn’t in it. After nearly twenty years of selling, I’d made enough to make the house payment, which for me was a mark of achievement. My father’s response was to joke that that we needed to “renegotiate our agreement”, since I was making too much money.
It wasn’t really a joke. I didn’t trust him. I loaded a couple dozen trees on my pickup for a few years but otherwise abandoned the enterprise and never did business with him again.
I may have been recovered, domestically, but Robin was warring with his wife, and Fran, who for her work had gone to Panama with the kids while her husband Rob remained in Montgomery, was having an increasingly hard time handling Sarah, brain damaged, obstinate, ten years old and quite strong. She had a Panamanian maid, but as she was the only one who spoke Spanish and only there for a few minutes morning and night, everyone expected her to air all their complaints at that time. Genny had moved from New York to the trailer at Snag End, and Sam was in rural New Jersey, having left not only Manhattan but Staten Island.
We’d been much better, but I still wanted the children we hadn’t had, nine years into our marriage. That summer I was skimming through the paper and saw the list in the paper of all the babies born locally that week–and all of them, a dozen or more, had parents younger than we were. Later that day, Perri knew something was wrong, and I showed her the column. I was sobbing. I knew that if we didn’t have children, we were going to break up. She’d avoided the issue for fourteen years, taking birth control pills, getting an abortion eight years before, scheduling her fertile days, trying to talk me into a vasectomy, even talking about getting her tubes tied, but this, for me, was the end.
The Porno Biz
A new job. I’d been hired by a woman named Sheila to start a Spanish department at Adam & Eve, the sex toy and porno-by-mail company.
Before I was out of training Sheila was gone. Her daughter had been a casualty in an office war, and Sheila quit. I’d been introduced to all the departments–the folks who wrote the catalog, the website geeks, customer service–but on the second day of the second week of my three-week training the black girl teaching the class came in looking white–and announced that the entire customer service department had been fired. From now on, everyone would “multi-task”. In 1998 nobody had discovered how many tasks one person could simultaneously do wrong. Instead of just doing one job at a time, we’d do everything, all the time–phone orders, ten-key mail order entry, customer service over the phone, through the mail, etc. etc. etc. I was also expected to do all this in Spanish as well as English. The elimination of the customer service department was part of this “transition”, and since Sheila had also resigned, the Spanish department–her baby–was in limbo. Everyone outside of customer contact wanted my help, but I was supposed to be “multi-tasking”. If I wasn’t answering phones in Spanish, I was doing it in English. Beside the phone was a big stack of little cards marked to receive or not receive a catalog, or not marked at all, in which case we sent another card. When the cards ran out, we had stacks of letters with ads torn out of magazines. These contained checks, or didn’t, or credit card numbers, or didn’t, or cash, for which we’d send back a check with a note that said we didn’t take cash. If these were finished we had stacks of mail with customer service questions. We’d work on these piles of paper until the next call came, which we were supposed to answer in 3 seconds. I had all the foreign language items as well–not only Spanish. We had a girl who spoke French–coincidentally, we shared the same birthday, and she was the only other vegetarian. I kept a big stack of phrasebooks on my desk in Spanish, French, German, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, even Russian and Tagalog. Most of the foreign correspondence wasn’t complicated–we didn’t send anything outside of the United States and Canada, so the bulk of my notes said “sorry, we don’t ship to (Italy, the Philippines, Brazil). My biggest problem was the Spanish speaking customer who had a question about an item. We didn’t have access to the website (tell me about it!) so everyone but me transferred these calls to the warehouse. Since nobody in the warehouse spoke Spanish and there was no way to see an item online, I placed the customer on hold and ran to the warehouse. Several times a day I was taking care of a customer service problem when I “should have been on the phones”.
It quickly became obvious to me that multi-tasking was multi-screwing-up. I told management I needed a certain amount of time to devote to Spanish, nothing else, and if I had to punch that damned calculator all day I was going to kick it through the window. I got an hour at the end of the day for Spanish. There was no Spanish keyboard available, so I brought in an old portable 1930s Spanish-language typewriter and typed short descriptions of several items and made a 2-page Xerox copy list, which saved me literally hours on the phone and quintupled our Spanish sales.
Perri’d become pregnant, finally, in September of 1998. We had a scare in October. I’d given blood, and it had been rejected. Perri opened the letter, and it said I needed to get tested for AIDS.
Well, it scared the crap out of both of us, naturally. Fifteen years together, she finally gets pregnant and now she needs to know if I have AIDS, if she has AIDS, if the baby has AIDS. I had to take several expensive tests before I found out that I had indeed had an immune deficiency illness, many years earlier, described as a “cousin” to AIDS–probably babesiosis. It sounds like an addiction to babes, but it’s tick-borne. When I’d filled out the questionnaire to give blood it’d asked my medical history for the previous ten years. I’d had a case of the flu which recurred and never really went away, but that had been more than ten years before. I spent a lot of money on prescriptions, which did almost nothing, and finally tried large quantities of herbal extracts and remedies, which worked. Nevertheless, the antibodies were still there, fourteen or fifteen years later. I was told I could give blood in the future if I let this be known, but I never will again. It was expensive, scary and I wasn’t treated fairly.
In 1999, after the new year, John and I started building a workshop so that the baby could have the spare bedroom. We fixed up the house yet again. Perri wanted central air conditioning so we sprang for that as well. John had wanted to put in the labor on the workshop for free, as a gift to us, but after a fight with his wife we gave him $700. He soon left his wife, again and for good.
Perri was overjoyed to be pregnant and preparing for the baby, but when I described her joy in the robin Laura took offense to a particular phrase, that men liked to be a knight in shining armor for a fair maiden. This struck me as particularly silly, because she’d married a football coach, and who in modern times is more the knight in shining armor than a football coach? For whatever reason, she wasn’t interested in scrawny, bespectacled accountants.
There’d been an ad about that time for MasterCard or Visa, showing what “one strong woman” could do–the idea was that she could fix up her house, but how? By hiring twelve strong guys. The commercial didn’t show “one strong man” hiring twelve women to do the plumbing and masonry and drywall, it would’ve been ludicrous. Fire departments anywhere, affirmative action or no, are 99% men. Construction is over 90% men. Thus shall it always be.
It bothers me when the Air Force or Army or Navy or Marines put women in combat, not because women can’t do the job, because for the most part they can. Once a woman is captured, however, she can be raped and violated and used as a sex slave, which will be repeated 67 times a day on the news all day long for twelve days, and then 600 strong males–knights in shining armor–will get their nuts shot off saving the fair maid. None of the armed services would send in 600 women to save a man. Brave knights save fair young maidens from dragons, because that’s what brave knights do. Brave young maidens will never save fair knights. They save babies, not knights. To say anything else is a line of crap. Spout it for a hundred years and it’s still crap. When the shooting starts, knights do the fighting, just like in fairy tales, and maidens hide with babies in the caves. That’s the power of myth. They’re fated, and inevitable. The Knight in Shining Armor saves the Fair Maid, the Princess kisses the Toad, Beauty saves the Beast and the Wicked Witch is carried off in a tornado. One can kick and scream and say “NO!!! My life is NOT that way!!!”, but sooner or later one looks around and realizes one has indeed been the Wizard, or the Dragon, or the Fair Maid, or the Ugly Duckling or the Wicked Stepmother. It’s too bad this is only seen in the rear-view mirror. It’d save a lot of kicking and screaming.
When my marriage was out of balance and not like the myth it was supposed to be, I had to leave on a Stalwart Quest. I didn’t know The Answer, but I’d been getting letters for twenty years from an alternate myth in a parallel universe–for if we’re not caught up in one myth, we’re caught in another. In this other world I was the Powerful Wizard, not the Obstinate Child. I didn’t see that in her myth she was the Temple Prostitute, which she had clearly and honestly told me, but I didn’t believe. I’d still get occasional letters, and she’d apologized for the scene when I left Tucson, but now I had a Fair Maiden and a Babe On the Way. Now, as the bearer of the Mighty Sword of Truth, I had to tell her the rest of her Myth–that the Truth was that she truly became the Prostitute she’d claimed to be when she married not the Wizard she loved, but the Turd in a Shiny Suit who offered her a Business Deal. There’s only one word for a Business Deal involving Sex, topped with any amount of Frosting, and Wizards have More Important Things To Do than consort with Prostitutes. I don’t remember which myth that is, but it’s one of the classics. You can look it up.
The spring went by quickly and the baby came late. On May 7th, a week after he was due, we checked into the Women’s Hospital in Greensboro, and though the delivery had already been planned for that afternoon, Perri had gone into labor the same morning. At 6:54 pm we welcomed Edward Zephram Austin. Taurus sun, Aquarius moon, Scorpio rising.
The Babe
The name was something new. For years Perri and I had thought that Mercer Calvin would be a good name. I’d always thought the Mercer an elegant little car, and Calvin was her maiden name. As the time approached, though, she felt the name was from her past, not something she wanted to use. She wanted Theo Mercer, but I didn’t. I liked the initials MCA, but didn’t care for TMA. Initials weren’t something my parents thought about much; mine are DJA, which seemed okay, but then came RAA, SMA, FEA, GMA and LAA. Robin didn’t care for RAA, Sam saw his name scrambled, Fran’s brought her embarrassment when she went to Spain with her initials embossed on a giant handbag, because FEA means “ugly girl” in Spanish.
I thought one common name and one more unusual would go together nicely. Edward was her father’s name, and Ned mine, and as Ned is a common nickname for Edward, we chose it. That left a middle name. Some weeks before he was born we were watching a Star Trek movie and learned that Zefram Cochrane was the inventor of warp drive. We had our middle name, and the initials EZA. An added allure is that a few years from now the inventor of warp drive will be named after our son, not vice versa!
We’d thought a choice of nicknames would be nice, but Edward was a serious baby and nothing else fit. He wasn’t an Eddie or Ed or Ned or Ted or Audie. Occasionally we’d call him EZ, but mostly he was simply Edward.
Everyone sent their congratulations. Several people came to visit the hospital–Randy, Pat, their kids Carly and Leah, Lori and my brother Robin’s family. Perri and Anne had had a game going for years. Anne hated Joe Camel, the cigarette mascot, and Perri’d hide a Joe Camel cup-holder in her house when we’d visit. She’d send the kids looking for it and return it on her next visit. Joe appeared all over. When Robin and Anne moved into a new house Joe was waiting, courtesy of their realtor, and when Anne had a temporary job Perri had a friend mail him to her, in a stranger’s handwriting and with a different return address. It didn’t matter, Anne knew what was inside, and sent it to Perri without opening it!
When Anne arrived, I was holding a fake bundle with Joe Camel in Edward’s place, but she rushed right past it. She didn’t look at the baby, she wanted to see Perri!
Perri’s life was now all about diapers and breastfeeding and lack of sleep. We’d bought a WebTV unit shortly before he was born and she started an email list and sent out “Edward Updates”. Cindy, her friend of over 20 years, had her first baby, a girl, 3 weeks later. She and Ally lived about a half-hour away and visited often, sharing toys, clothes etc.
We’d moved our bedroom from one side of the house to the other during the initial renovation. Now we made my workroom a nursery and moved my glass and tools into the newly built workshop out back.
Edward initially had gray eyes, but within a couple weeks they were brown. This followed the family pattern; all of his cousins, both on Perri’s side and on mine, had brown eyes. I was the oldest of three boys, followed by three girls, and all the children in my siblings’ families as well were boys followed by girls. My brother had two boys, then a girl; my first sister two boys, then two girls, and my youngest sister two boys. This also applied to the cousins on my mother’s side of the family; of the four, one cousin had two boys, another, one girl, and a third, two boys. None of the brothers, for two generations, had an older sister, and none of the sisters a younger brother.
Edward as a baby was a prize. He was quiet, and studious, and loved bananas. Perri tried to teach him sign language, which she’d studied and used as a teacher, and eventually he picked up a few hand signs, but he had his own. “More” wasn’t his two little fists touched together, it was a hearty slap on his high-chair table.
When Edward had been born I’d bought a box of cigars. When I’d been a child, even well into my twenties, almost all men passed out cigars when a baby was born. I found it difficult to give them away. I bought a few chocolate and bubble-gum cigars to mix in with them, and went through about five times as many candy and gum cigars as I did real ones. I didn’t pass out the last cigar for almost a year.
Edward was a cheerful baby, despite his serious countenance. When something surprised him he’d cackle almost uncontrollably. When he was 2 or 3 months old he had a little round-bottomed bird with a bell inside that tinkled and righted itself when pushed over; I showed it to him when we were lounging on the bed. He laughed all afternoon.
He was always strong. When first born he arched his back and held his head up, and he never cared much to crawl, preferring from an early age to grab things and try to stand. Our house has two wide archways , between the living room and the parlor, where we put hooks to either side and hung a bouncy chair, which he loved. He’d walk until the chair pulled him back & spun him around, then bounce and walk some more. I’d sit in the recliner next to him and play the banjo. He loved it. I won a small banjo-type ukulele in a costume contest at work, gave it to him and he’d play along with me. He had a large futon in one corner of his room and lots of toys, but his favorite was a nubby foam ball. When he was four months old, I asked him if he wanted it and he said, very clearly, “ball”–his first word. When he was old enough to have a set schedule I’d play songs for him at bedtime, not only on the banjo but also the guitar. I’d initially found the guitar too intimidating. I’d broken or badly cut every finger on my left hand at some point. My thumb, pinky and index fingers lacked flexibility. When someone would show me guitar chords I’d be stymied, but once I learned banjo chords I picked up a guitar for $17 when Sears closed down its catalog warehouse in Greensboro and learned to fudge a few chords. I bought a book with a couple hundred classic American songs and learned quite a few, though playing many chords in a non-standard way. I wasn’t great, but that wasn’t the point. I’d play a few songs, strum a bit in minor keys and Edward would be fast asleep.
In the fall Perri’s sister Glee and her new-ish boyfriend David came up from the coast to escape the approaching Hurricane Floyd and stay with us for a few days. Perri sent an email to the rest of the family:
Glenda and David were united in Holy Matrimony on Friday, September 17, 1999. The double ring candlelight veranda wedding (on our front porch) took place at 9:20 pm. Dave Austin officiated. Edward Austin and Perri Austin, the bride’s nephew and sister, respectively, were witnesses for the happy couple. Perri also served as ring bearer, photographer and caterer.
The bride wore a lovely shade of blue jean. The groom was attired in jeans of blue. We all wore blue jeans, except for Edward, as Glee and David had not come prepared for a wedding, but for an evacuation.
An intimate surprise reception followed. A small cake of white trimmed in blue and purple was adorned with the couple’s names and a ribbon (I ran to the store, bought a small cake and had their names put on it while they were out buying rings, so it was a surprise). The gala affair was made more festive by the party poppers (confetti). Gifts included a phone card and wedding album (they had been using a phone card while staying here, so I thought it a good idea to get them another one, so that they would have enough minutes to contact family. Also I didn’t want to get them anything “house-like” as a gift, as they are not in a situation in which they need “stuff”. I took pictures, had them developed the next day, then put them in a little photo album).
After a two night honeymoon in Swepsonville, the couple safely returned to their home in Newport, NC.
It was the first time Edward put his signature on anything. He was four months old, so I helped him hold the pencil, but it still came out a scrawl.
Perri continued the “Edward Updates” on WebTV. I ordered a new, internet capable computer through work at $25 per paycheck for 2 years–an Apple. It arrived–the G3 unit, keyboard, mouse–and no monitor. The very same day, the G4 was introduced–so I called them up, said I couldn’t use a computer without a monitor and, by the way, we didn’t want the G3 now–so as it turned out, we bought the first really modern computer, on its first day.
My wife was nevertheless concerned about viruses, so for the next year or two we continued with WebTV for the internet, though according to a calculation I’d made based on a list of viruses known to infect Windows vs. those for Macs, if a virus were to infect a Windows machine once a week, a Mac would catch one every forty years.
We have a video of Edward unwrapping a gift at his first Christmas. He tore the bow off, played with it, tore away the paper and played with it awhile, opened the box and played with the box top, took out the tissue paper and played with that, then pulled out the present and threw it to the side. He also got a toy that you’d put balls on top and bop them down through a series of inclined planes, then they’d pop out at the bottom. This would delight him for hours.
The Millennium
As the end of 1999 approached, everyone’s mind was on the next millennium, which had recently been christened Y2K. Computer people were going nuts, psychic hot lines burning up, millennial doomsday survivalists laying in supplies of wheat and beans and ammunition and everyone, everywhere, preparing for a huge party. Perri and I had a supply of wheat and beans and such which my co-traveler friend John had given us–he’d been a Mormon and had packed a year’s supply of food in his basement but had hardly used any of it, in fifteen or twenty years. He gave it to us, along with a kitchen-sized flour mill. We had three five-gallon drinking water jugs and a water filter, and the extent of our further Y2K preparation was to buy a fourth jug.
When the millennium came it was low-key for us. We had a seven-month-old baby boy, so we bought a few party hats and a bottle of champagne. When the millennium rolled around we lit off a few firecrackers I’d illegally imported from South Carolina, popped open the champagne and all had a little, even Edward who had a drop I gave him on the end of my finger, then things continued they way they always had. The world was still there the next day, and we had five extra gallons of water.
At work things were again in crisis. I’d been doing well, but all I was getting was grief. After the first year I was ready to quit, loaded up all my stuff (except for a few clippings and such I left on my desk to look like I was still there), took my vacation time, all my sick days and prepared to walk in the next day and quit–but Allah be praised, Hilda, the main source of my problems, had been fired, along with her troublemaker friend Barbara, who’d been stealing from the company even as she tried to get me fired (she spoke Spanish, but so poorly that she caused more problems than she solved). I decided to give it another shot.
A year went by, and I thought things were going along okay, when my “team captain” Heidi, out of the clear blue, announced that she didn’t care what schedule I’d worked out with management, I could “multitask” with everyone else or punch out and go home without pay. I went to her supervisor and told him I’d been doing a good job for the company, handling a lot of work that nobody else could and getting very little in the way of either compensation or respect. I told him that whenever I took a customer service call in English which had been transferred to me from some other associate who spoke English it would tie up the Spanish line for 20 minutes and I’d have six Spanish calls in a row asking why they’d been on hold. I told him that Spanish was customer service and I didn’t intend to tie up my line with customer service calls that a dozen other associates could handle, and that I did intend to punch out and go home, that I had vacation time coming and I was going to take it, right then, and decide whether I wanted to come back or not.
Well, Heidi’s ultimatum had worked–on her. While I was on vacation I received the single snottiest, bitchiest, pettiest, most infantile, unprofessional email I’ve ever received from anyone, anytime, anywhere. I forwarded it to several choice people, and that was the end of her. Dearest Heidi, I hope you are multi-tasking in hell, groveling and licking the puke off the floor.
When I came back, I was given a raise and made head of the Spanish department (which consisted of one guy, me). I was given the option to set up my schedule the way I saw fit and no customer service calls in English. Since I didn’t spend time on problems which other associates could handle, I made more sales, a lot more money and was way more happy.
I bought a 1982 Honda for $300 and put another $1100 into repairs; I figured it was a good deal, as I now had a Honda with new tires, brakes, etc. for $1400. About six months later, a woman hit me and her insurance gave me $750. I fixed it for $65 and drove it for another year, then sold it for $600. A year and a half’s transportation for $115.
We told the family that Edward was a whiz on the computer; we had to watch him or he’d whiz on it. He’d also figured out particle physics–he could spread particles all over the house! He was an airplane pilot–the bouncy chair had given way to an airplane swing in the archway–and while he piloted his plane he’d play on the ukulele while I strummed the banjo or guitar. As for reading, he’d pick up books, flip through them and babble on with great expression, though it was difficult to tell what language he was speaking. We called him “Mister Boom-Boom”, because he’d say “boom-boom-boom-boom” as he crawled all over the house.
On his birthday we gave him one special present–a box of cereal which had been sold for a short time called Millennios, which we’d stuffed with mementos of his first year–a time capsule, to be opened when he was ten.
No hurricanes came through that year, but summertime was stormy. In 1996 Hurricane Fran had ripped off our back storm door, a single 3’x6’ piece of tempered glass. I’d put it back and in 1999 Hurricane Floyd ripped it off again, laying it down in the back yard. That summer I was mowing and a wayward pebble did it in.
There was a tornado which passed through one morning when I was on the way to work, an unusual one which hugged the ground horizontally rather than forming a vertical cone. I saw it coming while pumping gas; I thought I’d finish and mosey on inside but it came on way too fast. I ran towards the low cement-block building, and by the time I got inside the rain was blowing sideways and the power was out. The wind came from the back and blew so hard the doors on the front were sucked wide open. Outside the side windows, all was a nasty gray with particles flying through it, very dark. It looked like the static on a TV screen but much darker. The girl behind the counter screamed and hit the floor while I and another customer looked at each other in astonishment.
When the tornado had passed we couldn’t leave the parking lot; there were trees across the road to either side and the power line was down. We waited for a few guys to show up and help us move the trees. The freeway was closed, and I went on the back road for three or four miles, stopping and waiting for help whenever another tree was across the road. Finally it was just me, one old farmer, and a huge oak tree, and I decided to see if the freeway was clear. It was, but blocked behind me, so I cruised on the empty freeway the rest of the way to work. My three-mile detour had taken me an extra hour, but it made little difference. The power was out and pretty soon the phone lines too, so we all went home. I spent the rest of the day cutting and loading firewood.
The pickup was a tight fit for Perri and I with Edward’s car seat in the middle; it was a manual transmission but when I shifted gears I had to go from first to third to fifth. We put a car carrier in the bed of the truck for our stuff when we’d go up the mountain to Thanksgiving or Christmas. It was now clear that my father would sabotage any decent profit I would’ve made selling trees, but I loaded up my pickup and sold a couple dozen out of stubbornness. This continued as a personal goal until I’d sold trees for twenty-five years, then I packed it in.
The new millennium arrived for real, some would say, on January 1, 2001, though the big parties and the doomsday predictions were over and the bags of beans everyone had packed away were a joke. The Y2K bug had been a mosquito. I was making more kaleidoscopes now that I had a dedicated workshop. I’d come home from work, put in an hour or two and Edward wouldn’t know the difference. When Papa arrived home, of course, no more work would get done that day.
One of the fellows at work had a son a few months older than Edward, and we started hanging out together. Like most couples with kids our age, they were younger, but most couples our age had teens or older, and we didn’t have as much to talk about. When your kids are in diapers and theirs are driving there just aren’t as many stories to swap. I’d thought Steve & Kim to be good friends, and we’d see them a couple times a week. Their son was bigger, though, and not well disciplined. Steve had been in the same department as me but had gotten a job “upstairs”. He soon started sending an email list under the persona of a perverted, angry, profane clown named Rimme. These were somewhat funny but sarcastic, offensive and generally disgusting. They got longer and angrier; it became clear Rimme the Clown was taking up more than Steve’s break time and he was fired. It became a downward spiral for Steve as he got and lost one crummy job after another. I still considered him a friend and tried to help him out, letting him borrow my car, giving him our extra refrigerator, but as his personality deteriorated we didn’t want his kids hanging out with ours that often and began turning down some of his invitations. We’d see them once a week, but maybe not twice. One day we’d been out of town for the weekend and when we returned there was a long, extremely ugly, absolutely disgusting rant on our answering machine, calling us fat country fucks and a dozen other things. We let Randy, our mutual friend, listen to the tape and told him Steve would never, ever, ever be allowed in our house again. Steve thought it would be no big deal, and Kim called wanting to patch things up, but Perri told her there was no way possible as long as she was married to Steve. They divorced, but she moved to Florida and we lost touch.
We had another friend Steve from work, however. Second Steve encouraged me to play the guitar, and I got to be reasonably good. He joined the Navy after hearing my stories, and afterwards moved to New York City, where first Steve was living. I saw they were facebook friends, but later they weren’t, which was no surprise. I didn’t ask what happened. Didn’t need to.
Edward was a toddler now, getting into things. We had cement steps leading to the back door, with a railing made of 1” galvanized pipe. Edward took to swinging on this pipe, and seeing as how it was cement on one side and a 4’ drop on the other I reluctantly fenced the gap and wrecked one of his favorite swings. He also had a habit of running out the back door to the old shed and climbing a rickety ladder I’d leaned up against it to access a wood rack. I fenced in a good-sized area of the backyard and connected it to my workshop so that he couldn’t get out, and he had a huge playground where we kept a picnic table and enough distractions for him to keep himself occupied while I worked.
I stayed at Adam & Eve until the spring. I’d been promised a transfer at that time, but when it didn’t come through I used up all the flyers I’d laboriously Xeroxed, trashed the special customer lists I’d made, took my stuff and quit. They had to hire 4 people to do my job.
I started with a company 3 miles from home, Always Vinyl, and loved it. I rode around town, made estimates, drew plans for vinyl porches, railings, fences and decks. The pay was almost as good and I was five minutes from home instead of half an hour. If I wanted to come home for lunch, I did. I learned AutoCAD (computer assisted design), construction techniques for vinyl and building to code. It was a small company, there were 3 of us in the office and 3 or 4 more in a warehouse across town. I’d run around with a tape measure, punch the information into the computer and come up with a materials list, a plan and a price. I’d leave at 5:30 and be home by 5:35.
April Fool!
Well, when things change, they change fast. On April Fool’s Day, at 11:28 on a Sunday morning, there was a light fog. I needed to return some movies to the video store. I debated taking Edward, but decided it’d be a hassle strapping him in. Some few dozen yards down the road there was a traffic light, which I stopped for, and when it turned green I headed across, eastbound. BAM!!!
A northbound truckload of inebriated Mexicans found my truck with theirs. They slammed into my right rear so hard it spun the truck completely around, knocking off the wheel and scattering parts all over the road. I came to rest in the left lane on the other side of the intersection, having completed an entire 360º spin. Nobody was seriously hurt in either vehicle, but I was more hurt than any of them. When the truck hit I held onto the steering wheel as I was slammed into the car seat on the passenger side, pulling the muscles in my right shoulder and aggravating an old injury to my neck, then when the truck spun around and abruptly stopped my left shoulder slammed into the cab stanchion, damaging it as well.
The insurance company lost on that one. The driver was picked up for drunk driving and on his release immediately split for Mexico, never to be seen again. He’d been on the road exactly two days. The insurance company wanted to settle with me for $5000, but I contacted a lawyer and got twice that.
For a couple weeks I couldn’t even turn over in bed without severe pain–when both shoulders and your neck are out you’re pretty near helpless–but I did put on a neck brace and go to work, though I was fairly worthless for anything but AutoCAD and typing, but it only lasted a couple more weeks, because the company went under.
I automatically received unemployment, but I couldn’t have worked if I’d wanted to. With my settlement we had enough to live on and buy another car. We looked around and found for sale the prettiest, cleanest car I’d ever seen outside of the showroom floor, parked by the side of the road. It was a 1989 Cadillac Brougham d’Elegance. What the French had to do with it I don’t know, because the stickum on the window said it was “Made in Texas by Texans”. It had only 77,000 miles–almost exclusively highway miles. The previous owner, who’d passed away a few months before, had not allowed any smoking, eating or drinking in the car. The mechanic gave it an absolute thumbs-up. We’d had him check out another car, newer and a thousand dollars cheaper, but he said that while the other was a fine car, if we didn’t buy the Cadillac he’d buy it himself. It had a small V8 engine–an Oldsmobile 307–and was slightly underpowered but got about 25 miles per gallon on the highway, with regular gas. I used the absolutely pristine second set of gold-plated keys–issued with the vehicle and never used–to drive it home. Two days later Perri and Edward drove it to Alabama for a visit, and for the next six weeks I had peace and quiet while they visited her parents in their new house.
Genny welcomed a baby as well. Tristan’s one month anniversary was also his cousin’s 17th birthday, and my father’s 76th.
I was on unemployment for 8 months. The settlement for the wreck helped out, and I’d made kaleidoscopes in my workshop, but most of all I was thrilled with the opportunity to hang out in the backyard with my boy, cutting, foiling and burnishing glass pieces, swinging him in his airplane, watching him play in the grass. It was a marvelous time, never to be recovered. He had preferences; like any two-year-old, including me, he had a favorite hat–a yellow hard hat just like his hero Bob the Builder. Of all the cartoons, Bob the Builder was best. It was true that Bob didn’t pay a lot of attention to safety, hanging off the side of cement trucks and such when they drove to the mayor’s house, but he had a wonderful attitude–”Can we do it? Yes, we can!”–in comparison to Dragon Tales, with one dragon always afraid of everything. The message a toddler got wasn’t that there was no reason to be scared, but that even a huge dragon would whine when any stupid thing happened. Teletubbies were simply puerile, and Barney didn’t know the lyrics. It was especially grating to hear Barney-addicted toddlers disputing their parents’ versions of well-known songs, claiming that Barney didn’t sing it that way and implying that their parents didn’t know better. Caillou was a whiny little four-year-old going on two. There were other good cartoons–Oswald the Octopus, Jay Jay the Jet Plane, Franklin the Turtle, but Bob was best, and far and away our favorite. Edward walked around in his hard hat, pockets full of tools, and knew if we asked “Can we fix it?” the answer was “Yes we can”! Perri got a part time job straightening out computer problems for the school while I stayed behind with the boy. It was an idyllic time I’d eagerly anticipated for over 20 years.
I’d been pissed at the smug, self-satisfied statements of parents who had children at a younger age, as though it took wisdom and dedication to make a baby, and highly annoyed at parents who’d say, loudly, that children were a pain in the ass, or they had no intention of having any more, or that I’d hate when they were teenagers, or a dozen other things. I’d spent a very long time matching stories of what someone’s kids did with stories of what someone else’s kids did, feeling empty and alone. Now my boy was walking and breathing and I treasured every second. He didn’t misbehave, much, and I hated to paddle him, only did once or twice and never again, never wanted to, never needed to. I’d tuck him into bed and scare away the monsters with monster spray, which was sold in the grocery aisle as air freshener. There was a crew widening the road in front of our house and we spent many days watching the big yellow machines move dirt. We took photos by the pound and videos by the mile and read books about fairies and princes and went to the zoo and the aquarium and visited with all our relatives and friends and showed everyone what a fine young fellow he was.
That Day
The summer passed, and I recovered slowly. I mostly puttered in my workshop, cutting glass and trying not to lift anything heavier than Edward. One day after Perri and I had been up late, going over old photos, I went to my workshop and turned on the TV. There was a building on fire, and a few seconds later, an airplane hit the building beside it. Perri was walking out the door, and I called to her as she headed towards the car. Some of the photos we’d been sorting not ten hours before had been of ourselves, posed together on the top of that very building.
I spent the rest of the day in my workshop, Edward playing contentedly on the floor and the TV tuned to PBS. The kiddie shows played all day. I didn’t change the channel. I was exceedingly grateful they didn’t show endless news, remembering when I was young and Kennedy was shot and there was nothing else on for days. Edward was too young to have known the difference but certainly would have known his papa was distracted and anxious. It was worse for my brother. Six months before, he’d left his life in Manhattan, where he’d lived for 20 years, and one of his regular gigs was playing piano in the restaurant at the top of the towers. He had a great many friends who were now dust.
And Life Goes On
I had a large pile of small glass pieces I’d accumulated and decided to use all these scraps in a special edition line-up that year. When the Christmas season came I had 50 exceptionally beautiful scopes that sold like crazy. It was good, because I’d been low on money; unemployment and insurance payouts run slim after eight months. We still had a good Christmas. We didn’t need to hide anything, just turned the pictures on the boxes to the wall. When Edward’s pedal-power excavator and the other presents showed up on Christmas he didn’t notice that the boxes were gone. It was the last Christmas we could get away with that.
After the new year, I got two jobs in two days. Wrangler Jeanswear had shifted its production to Latin America. They laid off 3000 people and hired one–me, because I spoke Spanish. I also got a job two nights a week with Alamance Community College, teaching English to workers who only knew Spanish. I was to begin both jobs the first week of January, but there was a record 3-foot snowfall that weekend so I started with Wrangler the next Monday morning and ACC Tuesday night.
The round robin arrived. Robin was concerned about Lizard People taking over the government, Genny’s son Tristan turned one, Sam got a digital camera and Laura was happy not to have to move again, just yet.
Perri had taken up pottery, a special sort called Maya Ortiz, and was making beautiful pieces. I ran electricity to the bus so she could have her own workshop. But as for me, my truck died, then my dog died.
My truck, a 1972 Ford pickup I’d bought the year before, blew its engine a few miles from home. I bought a 1994 Chevy pickup from Perri’s Maya Ortiz pottery instructor which had originally been sold in Panama and was exempt from emission equipment; a big sticker under the hood said so.
Ringo had been in failing health and died on Easter morning, March 31, 2002. He’d lived 11-1/2 years exactly, as he’d been born on Halloween, 1990. Perri wanted to tell Edward he’d died, but he was such a little guy. I told him the Easter bunny needed a helper, and we decided Ringo could go with him. I didn’t see the point in introducing the little fellow to tragedy before he’d turned three, and I think it was best. There was no bringing back the dog, so he might as well have been helping the Easter bunny. I buried Ringo in the early morning in one of his favorite quilts, in the side yard where we’d buried Daphne in one of her favorite quilts thirteen years before. It was the best end I could give him. He was just a dog, but damn, it hurt.
Anne’s health continued to be a problem. She was on dialysis. Robin had a vending machine business that wasn’t doing so well, largely because Anne couldn’t help, and there was drama in the barber shop. Genny was enjoying her blue-eyed boy and taking classes for a teaching certificate but wondering about her second marriage. Sam loved rural New Jersey. Our parents visited, his high school English teacher in tow, and they’d taken a helicopter ride around Manhattan, which he highly recommended, calling it depressing but exhilarating–depressing to fly by Ground Zero, exhilarating to see all the activity going on at the site. Laura and Tom were settling into the football season in Trion, Georgia and enjoying the enthusiastic following for high-school football there, though annoyed that their house in Cumming hadn’t sold.
Edward was three now, with energy to burn and a three-year-old’s sense of humor. We were proud of his use of meter, rhyme and metaphor when he recited his poem:
Edward’s eyes are brown, Papa’s eyes are blue
Mama’s eyes are brown, Like brown poo-poo.
He had a yellow bouncy ball with a handle and bounced all over the house. Perri had set up “school” for him in the school bus along with her potting supplies. I was still sore on wet, cold days, but there hadn’t been many of them until September, when I pulled out my hoodies. I’d had neck pain since the 70s, but not so much before my April Fool’s Day wreck. Now not only my neck but my shoulders hurt. Left side one day, right another. I’d been in good shape after working the rental yard in West Hollywood, and better shape when I got out of the Navy. For awhile I could hold my breath and do 60 push-ups, perch on my arms and catch my breath, do 60 more, catch my breath and do 60 more, then 60 more, as long as I wanted. I did over a thousand once, just to prove I could.
Now, I couldn’t do half a dozen. My shoulders weren’t up to it. I’d also been sitting at a desk for years, and weighed over 200 pounds. I wanted to be under 200 for New Year’s 2000, and for one brief shining moment I was, weighing in at 198 on the millennium. I did it the next year, and the next, but it was getting tougher.
Robin had checked into a hospital for chest pains, but he was all right. He used a CPAP machine at night, and Anne was still on dialysis. Genny split from her second husband Seth, and she sounded unbalanced. We all planned a show for our parents’ 50th anniversary in October, Sam playing the piano and everyone singing songs from our Hollywood days. Laura had received her teaching certificate from the state of Georgia, after a convoluted now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t bureaucratic snafu.
Perri had a surprise for me in October. Edward had drawn a turtle family for Mama. This turtle is Papa, he said, this one’s Mama, this one is Edward and this one is my baby sister. She asked him and he was quite sure, this was his baby sister. There were glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling in Edward’s room, and three in our bedroom–two large ones for Mama and Papa, and a small one for Edward. I came home one night shortly afterwards and when I hopped into bed there were two small stars on the ceiling! Edward had been right!
Work was going well. I got a $1000 per year raise, but of the four companies I’d represented, one had gone bankrupt and we’d cut loose another, so I was only handling two.
The anniversary weekend was a great success; we rehearsed beforehand and put on a good show. There was a minor dust-up when Fran wanted to bring Sarah along and announced that Sarah would be singing, loudly and off-key, no matter if she were in the program or in the back of the church. Sam and I both responded that there was no point in putting on a show if we knew beforehand it was going to be crap. There was a lot of guilt-tripping thrown around, but Sam and I said absolutely not. Sarah played in another room while the program went on and was content. It was the first time all six of us had sung together in thirty years. A couple of times there’d been five of us, but not six. Edward was on stage with us, and loved it.
There was only one person missing, Ned’s sister Daisy. Her husband Alf, the uncle who drove us in antique cars when we were kids, had passed away that morning. Nobody at the celebration was told until it was over. Sam had come from New Jersey for the event, but his partner Barry stayed behind, and Barry’s father died the next morning.
The show was wonderful, though.
Edward was big enough to trick-or-treat. Perri’d joined a group of mothers with toddlers called Time Out Playgroup and they had embroidered T-shirts. All the kids went trick-or-treat together; Edward liked dressing up in costume and going out with his little friends, but when it was time to go to a stranger’s door we practically had to push him. Once the candy dropped into his plastic pumpkin, though, he was transformed. He was on a mission. He ran to the other houses! We had to wait for the other kids!
My Sister’s Ride, again
The robin for the rest of that year was taken up with a discussion of sister Laura’s ride of nearly forty years before–the physics involved, the plan, even which sister was involved. Rob had remembered it as Genny’s ride, but Laura confirmed it was indeed her who flew through the air and landed in the bunny poo. Sam didn’t remember boosting anyone onto the rope from the stairway, and Genny accused Rob and I of deliberately trying to harm our little sisters.
It was a baseless accusation, and we were quite hurt. My sister had turned an exuberant childhood experiment into a burning, blinding example of brotherly betrayal. We’d told our little sister to hang on, as she’d done hundreds of times before, and it seemed that a younger sister who’d shown no predilection to let go of a rope she’d been told not to let go of, wouldn’t, and would return safe and sound to the arms of her brothers after a thrilling and memorable ride. It had a scientific value too–we’d be able to see if it was possible to ride the rope to the garage roof. That our plan on second thought may have been more dangerous than it was on first thought was not surprising, as all of us were kids. The discussion continued for months, with several of us sending pictures and diagrams and models and analyzing distances and the heights of the tree, picnic table and garage roof. Genny continued spewing vitriol, telling of plans she had for a “Penis Park” where people could stroll and see all the hateful and horrible things MEN were responsible for throughout history, and arrogantly accusing Robin and I of deliberately attempting to kill our little sisters. Shame on you, I told her. We had the judgment of children, because we were, and children don’t have good judgment. If she didn’t trust her adult brothers, that was her problem, and I thought her “therapist”–whom I was certain had pumped her full of this crap–should be imprisoned for malpractice. I asked her what “hidden agenda” the “therapist” had, reminding her that if her problems went away the “therapist” would lose money while Genny drove away her family, spouse, everyone who loved her, and became a fearful, whimpering, poverty-stricken Dobby the elf-slave.
We were comfortable that winter. There’d been an ice storm in December which knocked out the power for a few days, though with a woodstove for heat, cooking, hot water and a couple lanterns to read by we were well set. There was plenty of firewood around the county too, free for the taking. Santa brought Edward a big wooden train table, which he loved. We quickly learned the best policy was to hot-glue the track to the table. Perri got materials to make scrapbooks from one of the mothers in the playgroup, and I got a scanner for photos, several books and a full set of twelve harmonicas from Sam, one for every key.
2003 started, remarkably enough, on January 1st. At Greenwich midnight, 7pm local time, we shot off the illegal fireworks I’d brought back from Tennessee, shouted “Happy New Year” and Edward went to bed. We stayed up ‘til midnight and had a glass of champagne. We knew by now that we’d have a baby girl in May or June, and had settled on the name Clara.
At work I’d won hockey tickets to the Carolina Hurricanes. Edward had a blast, and brought home a souvenir hockey stick. One gal won tickets to the rodeo, though she had no interest in seeing it. She was told they were given randomly, like a drug test, and asked if she could take a drug test instead!
We walled off the breakfast bar and added shelves and a pantry to the kitchen, then added a lovely folding glass door. When starting work we found under the 1970s paneling and 1940s wallpaper the same lovely heart pine that was in the bathroom, which we then sanded and varnished. Perri painted a “rug” on the floor with flowers, vines and a checkerboard pattern. We walled off half the back porch to enlarge the den and put a doorway through, added a window and painted it in colors Edward chose–red, orange and yellow. We added a “padded cell” playroom closet with rugs on the wall, then went to the nursery and painted birds and bugs and flowers on its walls. It was getting expensive. I told Perri we weren’t going to put in one more dime, and finished it by using all the scraps. The last day, while we were talking on the phone to Cindy, the space shuttle Challenger broke up.
Perri’s mother came to visit in May. Clara Kate (Clara Kallista) was expected on May 24th but actually arrived at 2:36 am on June 11th, 2003. She was born in our nursery, in a pool of warm water, attended by a midwife and her assistant. We went to bed, Clara Kate in her cradle, Perri’s mother on the futon in the living room. About 6 am, Edward ran into our room and excitedly announced to us that he had a baby sister! Perri’s mother left a couple days later, my mother came that weekend and we had 40 or 50 other visitors.
I took a couple weeks off from Wrangler to enjoy my baby girl, making kaleidoscopes to supply a couple galleries I’d been neglecting since I’d taken on two jobs. Clara Kallista (Kallista is Greek for “most beautiful”, and we also call our scopes Kallistoscopes), or Clara Kate, was a happy and exuberant baby. Her brother, now 4, was thrilled pushing her stroller and stayed nearby most of the day. The play group had a wide range of activities, and the kids visited farms, went swimming, rode the carousel, visited the zoo. A wonderful summer.
The stand for Edward’s cradle was rickety and broken, so we suspended it instead by chains from the ceiling next to Mama’s side of the bed, which worked better anyway. A little push would gently rock the cradle, for a much longer time. We took walks to the corner store a mile away, Clara Kate in the stroller and Edward walking, riding, holding his sister. We’d identify the trees on one side of the street going there and on the other side coming back. There’d been a general store halfway to the corner, but it’d been taken over by a fellow named Ron who worked on TVs. Perri and I had bought TVs from him and had him work on a couple, one a 1952 model. He puttered around and replaced a few parts but never got it working and I took it back 2 years later. A few weeks afterward I drove by and the whole place was gone. The building didn’t exist, nor any of the hundreds of TVs in it. I didn’t know he’d died. I knew vaguely that he’d had health problems but he was only 60. His wife had asked TV places in the area but none wanted the stock, and she didn’t think to simply put a sign out front. I’d at least have taken out the tubes; perhaps I’d have taken over the shop and sold antiques and crafts–but in the blink of an eye it disappeared. They bulldozed it, had a bonfire. A hundred years of history, gone.
There is a piece of Swepsonville’s history in our backyard. According to an old fellow there was a ball field there. There certainly used to be something, because there’s a long line of bricks just under the dirt on a ridge which angles across the back field, cutting back at a right angle, terminating in a hump which was particularly hard to mow until I dug up a brick corner post which had been grown over. The rickety shed in the back also had an unusual design, 8’x16’ with a door, open window and a roof with an eight foot overhang. There was a long water pipe going to it. A concession stand? At least one major league ballplayer came from Swepsonville–Dusty Cooke, born in 1907, who played for three major league teams between 1930 and 1938–the Yankees, the Red Sox and the Reds, and then managed the Phillies in 1948. Did he play in my back yard? Probably.
Swepsonville was a mill town. The mill burned down in the 1880s and again in the 1890s, but was rebuilt both times. In 1989, the abandoned mill burned again. Fire trucks from all the surrounding counties came, the twelve-alarm fire was seen from the freeway three miles away and made the national news.
The round robin next arrived with news that Anne’s grandfather had passed away. Her father had died in a car wreck when she was a toddler and she’d been raised by her grandparents. It was the start of a long string for Robin’s family. Her mother, who’d outlived her stepfather as well, passed away that summer, but I’m getting ahead of my story.
Sam was doing well in New Jersey, working for a health foods distributor and playing piano gigs. Genny had separated from her second husband and had her hands full with her toddler. Laura and Tom’s high-school band had come dragging in after half-time at a game and Laura related why. One of the kids in the minibus had farted, and the smell was so horrible that another kid threw up. The smell caused two more kids to throw up, and one of them was a girl with a medical problem which made it impossible to stop throwing up without special medication. The bus pulled off the road and four more kids got sick. Three police cars, two fire trucks and an ambulance arrived. The girl with the medical problem was taken to the hospital. The chaperones weren’t happy to be stuck cleaning up so much puke, but got really angry later when they learned the police, who were trying hard not to laugh, had put a copy of the report in a special scrapbook of “funniest police reports”. The kid who’d farted was claiming it until the police arrived, then he denied it. He became a minor celebrity in school, and though the local papers didn’t run the story, the papers in the rest of the state did.
Edward was in biddy league soccer that year, which was a hoot. The four-year-olds would chase and kick the ball with only a vague notion of what to do with it. The coaches finished every play with a pep talk ending “WHERE’S THE GOAL?”, and they’d shout and point “THAT WAY!”.
We went to Alabama for Thanksgiving. Since her parents had moved there, where her father had grown up, Thanksgiving had become very big indeed. Edward’s cousin Luke had been born with blue eyes–the first of the Calvin grandchildren with blue eyes, and the first born after the millennium. This now meant that of the seventeen grandchildren born to Perri’s parents or mine before the millennium, all were brown-eyed. All the rest, born afterwards, had blue or hazel eyes. There’s another coincidence. Among our kids and all their cousins there’s never been a boy-girl-boy or girl-boy-girl. If the sex of the children changed it stayed that way. On my side it’s more pronounced; I’m the oldest of three brothers, followed by three sisters. Among the children of the six of us, there are no boys with an older sister and no girls with a younger brother. My cousins on my mother’s side follow the same pattern; my uncle’s daughters both had two boys and my aunt’s daughter one girl.
So we went to Alabama for Thanksgiving, and Edward surprised everyone. When there were 30 or 40 of us gathered in a circle, someone asked who wanted to give the blessing, and Edward, 4 years old, announced, “I can do that!” He proceeded to take charge, telling everyone to bow their heads and say “Amen” when he was finished–and then said, “God is great, god is good, and we thank him for our food. By his hands we all are fed, thank him for our daily bread”. It was exceptionally well done, amazed everyone and was short. There was nothing to be said after that but “Amen”, and everyone filled their plates. Perri and I were left stunned and immensely proud.
Santa, 2003
Mams and Daddio came for Clara’s first Christmas. It was her turn to play with the bows and simple toys while her brother got a telescope, a science kit and Legos. Clara and Edward posed for a lovely Christmas session at the store and later with Santa and Mrs. Claus. It was a cold, snowy Christmas but everyone was safe and warm.
We’d bought a time-share the previous summer and now owned the last week of April at Massanutten Mountain in Virginia. When we went to visit our daughter was not quite one. It was the week before “prime time”, less crowded and more fun. We were offered a discount card on activities if we listened to a sales pitch, and while the salesman was explaining the wonderful new features, Clara Kate took her first steps! She strolled the 3 or 4 steps from Mama’s chair to Papa’s, and from there the sales pitch fell on deaf ears; we couldn’t have cared less, and he blew it by not making a big deal–”Oh, how sweet! Now let me show you…”. We spent a lovely week in the water park, swimming pool, hot tub, sauna, jacuzzi, steam room. We took classes in glass etching, tie-dying T shirts, we played mini golf, ping pong, we walked the nature trails, rode the ski lift and simply watched cable TV. I brought my banjo and a clarinet I’d picked up for a dollar at the school sale and serenaded the geese and ducks from the balcony.
When Clara Kate arrived we’d decided it’d be nice to have a deck. We went to the lumberyard, chose a plan and built it with far sturdier materials and extra supports. We added a gate, so the little ones could play without wandering, and a 75’ clothesline. I had jury duty when we were finishing up. We put a guy away for 20 years, for pedophilia. I came back after my long weekend and put a second coat of stain on the deck. It’s surprising how often one will take part in a life-changing event, then do mundane, ordinary things.

Mams and Daddio came for Edward’s fifth birthday and stayed the week. We bought a Jump-o-line blow-up trampoline, and all the mothers from playgroup came together at the park down the road. The kids had a wonderful time. I bounced a bit with Clara, but her main activity was walking, between Mama, Papa, Edward, and slamming full-tilt into the side of the Jump-o-line. Later that week we had a picnic at Mackintosh Lake, where everyone rode paddle boats. One of the mothers, a gal from Switzerland, brought along a unicycle and several juggling items. I’d had unicycles in California, but through the years they’d been given away or sold, so it had been 20 years since I’d ridden one. I did all right, and juggled reasonably well, but not both together. She and her husband eventually joined the Cirque de Soleil, and I resolved to get another unicycle.
Edward’s friend Reade had a birthday that August, and we went to the Burlington Indians baseball game. Edward had been to a Greensboro Bats game and Carolina Hurricanes hockey, but this was a first for Clara. The kids ran on the field and met the mascots, and Edward was thrilled to win five “Billy Bucks” in a contest.
Later that summer we went camping with another playgroup family and took a hike on Hanging Rock. Edward walked the whole way, and found a red lizard; Clara Kate rode in a backpack and was tuckered out before we made the top. There were shallow caves to explore and trees to climb, and at the summit Clara Kate was wide awake again to view over 100 miles of mountains. Playgroup also visited the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, which had drums to bang on, xylophones, elaborate mechanical toys, gardens, animals, bug and science exhibits. Two weeks later it was the Burlington city park, where they rode trains, cars, the carousel and played on the playground while the adults made lunch in the gazebo.
After summer it was time for soccer league again, and Edward as before was #4. Clara came to watch her brother and explore the surroundings with Kelly Ann and Rebekah, the younger sisters to Edward’s friend Reade. In October everyone went to the Lazy 5 Ranch in Mooresville, an exotic animal park with over 750 animals from six continents, and everyone took a horse cart and fed the animals over the side.
I lost my job at Wrangler that September. I’d been managing fewer contractors as the work migrated from Latin America to China, and since I didn’t speak Chinese, that was that. I left with a pretty good severance package plus unemployment, and medical & dental for the rest of the year. I was happy with Wrangler even though I’d been let go. Many companies try to make it difficult on employees, hoping they’ll quit, saving a few bucks but building animosity. This is a mistake. I still like Wrangler and buy their products, because they treated me fairly, but I was once again out of a job while my child was a toddler. It’s a wonderful thing to spend time with your little one, but it’s nicer to have money than not. Once more I made up large numbers of kaleidoscopes and flutes in the workshop while my son and daughter played in the fenced-in yard or on our new deck. On rainy days I’d cut and foil glass with PBS on the TV or tapes of Bob the Builder or Veggie Tales. I like Veggie Tales, though sometimes the Christian message is heavy-handed and the story lines strained. Banishment to the Isle of Perpetual Tickling isn’t execution.
We went to Alabama for Thanksgiving again. I faxed in my unemployment papers for 2 weeks and half thought about moving, as the terrain is more mountainous in the area, but the local job market wasn’t very robust. Daddio was hard of hearing and some thought he was losing his sharpness, but I thought he was mellowing and thinking for himself. He was voting for Kerry instead of Bush, though most of his relatives were old-line Alabama conservative. One of my brothers-in-law brought up the election and all I said was that Bush deserted his post in time of war but Kerry didn’t. Daddio agreed.
We’d been down there just a few days and got a phone call. Robin’s wife Anne was getting a kidney transplant. They’d been talking about it for some years and some in the family wanted her son Grant to donate a kidney. I told him not to. It would be a great physical limitation on him for the rest of his life, and I knew she hadn’t been taking care of herself. She’d never stopped drinking caffeinated soda pop, she’d merely changed the brand. Robin had once been drinking a glass of water, Anne took a sip and asked him what it was. She didn’t recognize the taste of water! She got very little exercise, and I knew she wouldn’t last without some changes, even with a new kidney. The question became moot, however, when they found a donor kidney.
She didn’t make it. She died in the hospital, the day before Thanksgiving. We were in Alabama and couldn’t make the funeral, but went to a memorial on her 48th birthday a couple weeks later. An old-timey mountain music band played and a good time was had by all, considering the circumstances.
Christmas was a bit slim but the kids were little, and thrilled with what they got. Edward was too perceptive for us to leave boxes in plain sight so the gifts stayed stashed until they went under the tree. I’d sold at least a few Christmas trees every year for twenty-five years, but this year hung it up.
It was a fun New Year’s; again at Greenwich midnight we shot off fireworks and yelled “Happy New Year!” and got them in bed at 7 pm. The next morning I was building a fire and got a call–Robin’s younger son Jordan was dead.
Well, I dropped everything and went to the mountains to be with my brother. He’d now lost his wife’s grandfather, her mother, his wife and his son in the space of just over a year. He was distraught, of course, but handled it well.
Jordan was 20. At a college New Year’s party, he had too much fun, fell to sleep on the porch and froze to death. He was the latest in what had been a rough run for the Watauga High class of 2000. He had lost ten friends, one also named Jordan. When I was driving up the mountain I saw a spot where several memorials had been set up for Jordan. The other Jordan.
I stayed with my brother four days, and finished off the bottle of Lagavulin, my favorite 16-year-old single malt Islay Scotch whisky, of which I drink perhaps a bottle in two or three years. We also shared a bottle of rum and some beers with his friends and a long string of young women who came to the door crying. When I was sure he was in good hands I went back to my own wife and family, still out of work but in a happier household.
Creepy Jack
I continued to sell kaleidoscopes, and in March found a customer service job for AT&T cell phones. It was a long drive but I enjoyed the work–at first. AT&T was a great company, and had I been hired a month earlier I’d have been direct hire, but procedures had changed and for 90 days I was a temp.
Towards the end of the 90 days, AT&T cellular was bought by Cingular, and they hired me on temp for another 90 days, even as others were hired direct. The job quickly went from one I enjoyed to one I hated with a passion. AT&T had perks and benefits and a number of policies which made it easy to satisfy the customers. They had a lot of business customers, and tried to keep them happy. With AT&T, we came to work in blue jeans and everyone got a free phone at the end of training, with a free limited plan, which we could expand any way we wanted at discounted rates. We had access to every cell phone website in the world and were encouraged to learn about all the companies, their technologies, band widths, service plans etc. and find out how they differed from AT&T domestically and internationally. When a customer had a problem we could wipe out $500 on our own authority. If they had a plan they liked they could keep it, whether it was currently offered or hadn’t been for years. If anyone wanted to quit the company, we made it as easy as we could and told them to come back when they got tired of the other guys. Many did.
With Cingular’s orange creep “Jack” on the wall, our blue jeans were out, though the customers wouldn’t have known if we’d been our underwear. Jeans were made a special treat, Fridays only, to associates who had the best numbers on a long list of “goals”, which kept going up. Cingular’s tag line was “raising the bar”, and everyone had to be “better”, every week. There were daily emails with daily changes. Someone was clearly obsessed with wardrobes; several times a week there were updates on which sandals, shirts, pants, skirts, jewelry, hairstyles, etc. were “appropriate” I had to buy several pairs of pants for this creepy job when I had dozens of perfectly good jeans from my days at Wrangler, in a rainbow of colors, tucked away unused. There were no rewards for meeting the numbers, you just got to keep your job another week, and as I was on my second 90 days as a temp while everyone else around me was a direct hire, my restrictions were particularly onerous. I couldn’t request a day off. If I were more than 15 minutes late I’d be fired. I couldn’t buy a phone for 6 months, since I’d been 3 months a temp for AT&T and 3 more for Cingular, though everyone else already had one. The employee plan for Cingular phones was worthless anyway. Employees BOUGHT the cheapest model USED phone and got a local plan, with twenty minutes a month. There were no upgrades, either to the phone or the plan. Since local calls didn’t include my home a few miles away, I made long-distance calls home from the pay phone in the break room at exorbitant rates.
Customers were treated the same. A Cingular customer had “roll-over” minutes, but after a couple months they’d disappear. If you decided to change your plan in any way whatsoever, that initiated a new two-year contract, and if you cancelled before the end it was an additional $175 per phone. We had a lot of customers who’d had two Cingular phones for two years and decided to move on, then found that since they’d added time or took off texting a week after sign up, they’d only fulfilled a year and 51 weeks of their “new contract”, and now owed $350 for disconnect–something I couldn’t change, as we could only wipe out $250, even if it was only a day early. This led to a lot of demands to speak to supervisors, who would tell us to “take charge of the call” and send us back to the upset customer, who would then be stratospherically pissed. We’d argue for another ten minutes, then try to get a different supervisor on the line, again.
Tech was handled the same way. AT&T had staff members in the building who could handle almost any problem, but Cingular had a call center in Washington State where the tech people came on line ten minutes later, told us to tell the customers to do the same five things we’d already told them to do and hang up. We’d call tech support again, wait again, plead with them again to please take care of this customer’s problem, again, which occasionally they’d do. We had no access to the internet, either, except the same Cingular site available to customers. When Katrina hit I talked with reps from other cell companies, and they were obviously more relaxed and had far more information available than we did. I resolved to find a job, any job, with one of them. Or anyone else.
I was nearing the end of my 6 months as a temp–by which time I was one of 2 from a class of 60–and nobody could call me at all, for any reason. My wife wanted to tell me my father was in the hospital, called Cingular in Greensboro but got Washington State, who absolutely would not transfer the call at all. My father got heart surgery. I asked for half the next Friday off to see him before visiting hours were over and was denied in a particularly nasty way, which meant that instead of driving an extra 20 miles after work I had to drive 60 miles on Saturday. I was certain I was going to quit, but the absolute final straw came when we were again refinancing the house and I needed verification of employment. Nobody gave me a number to call, for three days. I continued asking, and the supervisor, full of attitude, finally gave me a website address where I was to go and pay $12. They’d tell the bank I worked there–a week later.
I then received a call, from the clear blue sky, from Rent-A-Center, where I’d completely forgotten that I’d applied several months before–and got a job, starting the next Monday. I told Cingular nothing. I didn’t show up on Monday, called an hour late and said I wouldn’t be coming in, ever!
Rent-A-Center wasn’t a great job, but compared to Cingular it was heaven. I worked over 50 hours a week and only had one day off at a time. We worked late Saturday, took Sunday off and came in early on Monday. My other day off was supposed to be Tuesday, but they had all kinds of excuses why I was “supposed” to work that day as well. Fortunately I’d told them before I started that my wife worked that day and we didn’t allow babysitters. It didn’t stop them from telling me I needed to come in, but I never did.
There were three stores in the area, the first managed by a fellow who didn’t care about the ten rules posted on the wall. I realized one day he’d made me break all ten of them on the same day, and the next time I was out of town I called the district manager, who transferred me that afternoon. I worked at a second store for the rest of the week, then at the store I’d preferred anyway. It was run by a young guy, and despite the long hours was a fun place. It wasn’t boring–we’d drive trucks all over and pick up items from out of town, sometimes 100 miles away. We’d pick up and deliver living room sets, bedroom sets, refrigerators, washers, dryers, stereos, computers and most of all the gigantic, immensely heavy television sets which everyone wanted before the hang-on-the-wall type was invented, and nobody wanted afterwards. We’d haul these boulders up and down several flights of steps or into trailers where we had to remove the doors and people would pay more each week to watch the big TV in the den than they did on food. Theoretically the TV would be paid off after a certain amount of time, but this often stretched out for additional months or even years and in the end cost 2 or 3 times what they’d have paid in a store. This was a different class of people, with their own way of thinking. I could understand renting a refrigerator or washing machine; these appliances weren’t just conveniences. It was also understandable when folks would only be in town for a few months, had friends visiting or a business need. What wasn’t sensible were the large numbers of people who made very little but spent half their paycheck at Rent-A-Center, when they could have bought everything outright from Goodwill. The huge TVs weren’t available, but even a fairly large TV at Goodwill would have been $35 or so and saved them literally thousands of dollars. It’d also save aggravation, because when they missed a payment we’d pick everything up again until they made back payments and late fees. One fellow with a club close by decided to pay daily, rather than by the week or month, and every time he missed a day it’d be another $10 late fee. After a year or so he decided to trade his TV in, and by the time he owned the obsolete behemoth he’d paid over $12,000 for something that by then sold for $200.
The saddest part of the job was seeing how these people, who had little, spent the rest of their money. Everyone put cigarettes and beer on top of their list, followed by fast food. Most of their trailers and apartments were crammed with KFC buckets, pizza boxes and cockroaches. One customer’s walls were covered with congregations of cockroaches a foot square, in the middle of the day. It stunk so bad that if I’d gone in I’d have puked. My co-worker and I had to remove the trailer door to get the refrigerator in, then he had to install it while I waited outside. I saw the manager of this store a few years later, and he said it’d been like working for Satan. I had to agree. I left after two years, but occasionally I’d drop by to see how things were going. I’d still recognize the customers, but none of the staff.
Robin was having a tough time getting over the loss of his wife and son, but in July I called back to talk with the family of my old friend Monk’s sisters, as I did from time to time. They told me that their sister Luanne had also lost her husband, in April. I told Luanne to call Robin, and they talked for hours. They’d been sweethearts in the second grade, but had been out of touch for 30 years. Luanne had been married for 28 of those years, Robin for 25. I’d known Luanne’s husband rather well, but Robin had never met him, nor her his wife Anne. Luanne soon came to North Carolina. They stayed together, answered sympathy cards, settled estates, fixed up houses and got everything going smoothly.
Genny increasingly seemed mentally ill. She saw stalkers everywhere. She’d been living in a trailer up the road and talked about people walking across the roof. She flipped out when neighbors recognized her. She moved into the upper floor of our parents’ house, then repeatedly insisted that one night someone had come into the house, hung around in the front hallway for forty-five minutes and left. When I analyzed the story, her only evidence was that her dog, dreaming, had made a “wff” sound a few times outside the door she was cowering behind. She insisted Tristan had mental illness, allergies, on and on. He was running wild, not eating well at all, and my feeling was that Genny caused most of his problems through her timidity, fear, and violently hateful attitudes towards men.
Sam moved to Roanoke that summer. He and Barry had taken a trip through Virginia while visiting Asheville, and had decided to take a side visit to Harrisonburg, where Rob and Sam had visited some years before but Rob had spent the whole time grumbling. He and Barry loved the area and found a house near downtown, built in 1915 and recently renovated.
Tom had taken a coaching job with a high school in Kentucky, but Laura didn’t like it and yearned to return to Georgia. I didn’t go with Perri and the kids to Alabama for Thanksgiving that year, since I’d just taken the Rent-A-Center job, but they had a great time and were home for Christmas.
Robin got a job teaching skiing at a local resort, which was interesting because he hadn’t known how to ski, but he stayed one lesson ahead of the class and everything worked out. Sam and Genny both had problems at work in the first half of 2006. Sam and Barry were both eventually hired at Verizon in Roanoke, and Genny was on unemployment. She was fighting her ex-husband for custody of her son, who was still screaming, breaking things, violent, disrespectful. wild.
That spring I bought a Geo Metro from a fellow at work. I gave him $100,  put about $300 more into it, and got 40 miles a gallon. My 1972 Ford truck still sat in the side yard.
We went camping with a family from playgroup who’d by now become good friends, Keith, Tami, and their kids Jacob and Andrew. While we were cutting watermelon, Edward stated that he was six, wasn’t a baby anymore and should learn how to use a knife. It was true. I showed him how.
Professional Astrologer
I gave an astrology talk that summer at a local bookstore. There’d been an astrology class offered through Appalachian in 1974, but ten people had to sign up and only six showed. We had a long discussion, however, and I talked for a long time afterwards with a pretty gal named Sally. She and I occasionally telephoned each other, but I hadn’t heard from her for several years when she found the number to my parents’ house, they gave her mine, and we started visiting again. Her sister Nancy now lived close by and was involved in a group which met once a month at a bookstore. She invited me to speak and I prepared a talk called “Patterns of Compatibility”, which dealt with the geometrical relationships between astrology, architecture and such things as how honeybees build their hives and why the bubbles in a glass of beer form into triangles and hexagons. The talk was a huge hit, and I stayed at Nancy’s house while we talked way into the night. I called in sick at work–which was the only way to get any time off at Rent-A-Center, except to call in dead–and one of the things I mentioned to Nancy was that I was supposed to pay for a mattress we’d picked up from a woman’s house. The woman had rented a mattress, we went to get it and her mother told us which one. She was wrong. It was a muddy night, and we’d gotten a couple droplets of mud on it. The woman wanted a new mattress.
Nancy had been a corporate lawyer for Philip Morris, and helped me write a letter explaining that I’d been informed by a responsible adult on the premises which mattress to pick up, that we’d attempted to call the shop but they hadn’t answered the phone and since the woman’s mother was acting as proxy and we acted in good faith, were not responsible for her error and weren’t obliged to pay. I became a hero at work and the district manager, a big guy who liked to bully people, was demoted and transferred to a much smaller market many states removed.
In the summer I got another call from someone I hadn’t talked to in may years. Tom had kept in touch with Jake and Jody, but had pretty much disappeared from our lives when we left Snag End. One day Tom got in touch through email and Facebook. Tom told me Jake had committed suicide some years before, but had no details. Fran also lost a family member. Sarah, the twin who had been born brain damaged, had finally been put into a home. She’d been left briefly while the tub was filling and had turned off the cold. The hot water was of sterilizing temperature, she was badly scalded, went to the hospital for a month and on August first, died. She was eighteen. Another memorial, five in three years. It wasn’t the last.
There’d always been a quickie market on the corner a mile away, but this summer a Dollar General went in across the back field. At first Perri and I wondered if we should move, seeing commercialization coming so close, but it proved a wonderful convenience as we could walk to pick up groceries and sundry items several times a week.
Sundry is an interesting word. It’s not often spoken, but used to be painted on signs everywhere, usually in the plural. When I was a kid I thought that sundries were various fruits which had been dried in the sun–raisins, prunes, apricots and such. My mother as a teenager had seen “sundries” advertised but never knew what they were. She and her brother went into a store and asked to buy some sundries. They found out.
I’d heard a story from the fellow who sold me my Model A truck, in California. He said it was one of three on the West Coast, and that one more had been destroyed in a flood. It had an extended chassis and had been one of four custom-built in 1931 for the Helms Bakery in Long Beach. It had the same wheelbase as a Double-A truck but was not a Double-A. Many years later a friend at work told me he’d seen a story on cable TV about a fellow in Germany who owned a similar truck, which he’d purchased in California. The German said there’d been only four in the world, and that one had been destroyed in a hurricane, one had gone to Canada and disappeared and one had gone to North Carolina and disappeared. I tried to find the show he’d seen, but had no luck.
I told this story to a co-worker at my new job, he researched it on the internet and told me almost the same thing–that there’d been four trucks, one had been wrecked, one went to Canada and disappeared, one went to North Carolina and disappeared, and one went to Germany. I tried to find this information myself, but wasn’t an internet geek. There the story remains.
My father was fading fast that winter. He was on oxygen and acting bizarrely from time to time, though usually coherent and in good spirits. He was receiving hospice care, and I’d hung a TV from the ceiling above his bed where he’d watch all day with the volume turned up. The greenhouse I’d worked so long and hard on, which he’d never allowed me to properly finish, had rotted under soggy sheets of plastic and had been torn down, but a contractor had built a small one right outside his window. He only puttered around in it a few times, as it was a major effort, but Robin planted a bunch of vegetables in the dead of winter. Hardly any of them would make it to spring but it cheered my father to know something was growing.
Sam and Barry were settled into their new house and new jobs, but Laura and Tom were in their third house in under a year. They were back in Georgia, and had a large backyard which faded into the woods. They saw turkeys and deer and a feral cat which begged at the door but never came in. Tom had been selected as coach at the Georgia All-Star football game, a great honor, even though his team that year had a less than stellar record of 4 wins and 7 losses.
I’d traded the old banjo that Sam had used in the movie “Mountain Born” to Robin that Christmas for a kid-size violin. The bow was worn out, but we purchased a kit and re-strung it. It turned out well, and we gave it to Edward. Perri had also given me a tiny violin ornament to hang on the tree. Edward had a magic set from Santa, and that afternoon took the ornament and said, “Hey, Papa! Watch this!”. He put it in a box, covered it, waved his wand and pulled out a full-size violin!
We had other projects. We took apart an old wheelbarrow and saved the tub to build a flying machine. It’s not finished yet.
Clara Kate was proving a chatterbox, sociable and thoughtful even at 3. She got down my mug one morning, filled it with water and brought it to me, not because I’d asked but because she thought I’d looked thirsty.
I was still working at Rent-A-Center, but getting tired of it. I’d broken a bone three times–a toe in 2005 when a washer fell on it, a thumb in 2006 when a heavy shelf fell and in 2007 a pin which I’d been complaining about for months popped out as I was climbing on the lift gate of a truck, causing me to fall and crack an elbow and rib. I was on light duty the next week when a phone call came and my wife told me to come home right now, but wouldn’t say why. My father had passed away. It was February 10th, 2007.
We went to Boone the next day and spent a week. We finished the bottle of Lagavulin I’d bought 2 years earlier after the death of my nephew. Rob and Luanne took care of many details. Luanne’s father had passed away the previous Thanksgiving and between them they’d dealt with nine recent deaths. They organized the sympathy cards and made sure everyone in the family had a chance to read them.
We learned details about our father’s life and times we hadn’t known before. A cousin mentioned that when my father had been reported missing in action in Germany he visited my grandfather, then in his 70s. She was shocked at how feeble and old he seemed. He was getting around with a cane, his voice was quavery and he seemed at death’s door. A month later news came that Ned had been liberated, the cane disappeared, he had a spring in his step and all was right with the world!
It was difficult for me to sort out my emotions. I could charitably say that my father had been a mixed bag, but the truth was I’d been furious at him far, far more often than I’d ever had thoughts of love. I’d try to think nice things but there wasn’t a lot there.
I thought of the funny things. When we’d gone to Texas he went to the radio station and made commercials about Booger the dog–half Great Dane and half wolf or something, he said–who was always out for a walk when anyone asked to see him. He said that we were small tree farmers–four feet tall with boots on. We sold those trees like wildfire. I remembered that we’d gone so many places and done so many things–we’d played in a band in Hollywood, ran a rental equipment business where I learned to use, repair, maintain every tool and machine imaginable, plus gained the confidence that whatever the job I could handle it, whether sanding a floor, pouring cement, maintaining a jack hammer, sharpening a chain saw. We’d learned how to trim trees, grow a garden, buy and sell in the stock market, install a toilet, patch a roof.
Still, the overwhelming feeling when I’d try to think these good thoughts was the torpedo to the gut just when I thought things were going well. I knew that no matter what, I wouldn’t be able to relax and enjoy my accomplishments or the fruits of my labor. I’d gotten along with him in the last twenty years better than I had before, but only because I’d utterly stopped believing in him and didn’t get involved when he’d try to lasso me into another project. He’d recently wanted to graft and grow Japanese maples; I watched how he did it but never intended to get into the business. I couldn’t trust him. I knew that, somehow, he’d wreck it. He’d disrupt my plan, tear something down, steal it, block it, neglect it, leave it in the rain, let it break, give it away–and I wouldn’t get credit. He’d corral me into a project, get me started, then when I’d feel like I was accomplishing something he’d find a way to make it come to nothing. I’d be left with ashes in my mouth. When I painted the roof, he never bought the last gallon–something I knew better than to do myself–and made a joke of “the ‘T’ house of the August moon”. When I put in a nice reflecting pond under the willow tree with a couple lawn chairs and a table, a pleasant spot to relax and have tea, he tore it down and threw together a cement-block-and-plastic monstrosity the very next day, claiming that the water flow to the half-acre pond in the meadow would be obstructed, though my kiddie-pool-sized pond obstructed nothing. He destroyed it because it was something I’d made which was beautiful. That was the end of it. I tried to say I loved him and missed him, but it left me with a sick feeling in my belly. It wasn’t true. What I felt, truly felt, was relief. I was happy he was gone.
At the end of 2006 Monk and Luanne’s father Edwin died, and at the beginning of 2007 my father died. My family wasn’t greatly disrupted because my father left everything to my mother, and though our middle sister raised a stink it was for now resolved without a war. It was different with Monk’s family, and my brother was involved because he was living with Luanne. There was a trust set up to administer much of the property when her father Ed died, but there were many complications, not the least because their mother had dementia. The family split into factions. Monk had died eight years before, but much of his estate had not been resolved, as it was largely tied up in used cars of uncertain title which had been acquired years before at police auctions. Some of the titles had been cleared, some hadn’t, and many ended up in the hands of his father when Monk repeatedly went to the nuthouse or into the Krishnas. These in turn had been “sold” to one of the sisters when their father was applying for food stamps and couldn’t keep them as his property. A further trust had been challenged by the eldest surviving son, who’d been married three or four times and whose mother Marion lived with him. I tried as best I could to stay neutral, which was a lost cause. I was a bit more sympathetic to the eldest surviving son than Luanne. He’d worked with his father on several ventures and had little to show for it, though how much was attributable to his father and how much to his own spending habits was debatable. The youngest son, who’d also been in the nuthouse a few times, made a few dollars by selling parts from the 200 or 300 cars, which weren’t his, but neither was it clear for a time whose they were, though two were technically mine. The court awarded all the cars to the third sister, and she sold them all. The resulting fight inclined her for a time to the eldest brother’s point of view, and the eldest sister was also on his side for awhile. Luanne and Rob cleaned out the house their father had lived in and found junk packed to the ceiling in every room. I’d been in there many years before, the only guy from outside of family he’d ever let into the house. In cleaning it they discovered many of their things hidden away. Silverware of theirs, still packed in its box. Christmas presents from other members of the family for their kids, still wrapped. It seemed Ed stole whatever he wanted from the family, whether he could use it or not. It didn’t surprise me much. My father did the same.
Edwin had received 100% disability after World War II. This was a Catch-22. If he ever workedhe’d lose his disability pay, and if he lost it he’d have a devil of a time getting it back again if he tried to work but couldn’t. Ed was wounded when his ship was sunk in the Pacific. He floated for days in a raft and many years later had an operation which removed a vertebra in his back. He was continually inventing things and starting businesses, but his suspicious nature limited their success.
The eldest brother started filing court cases and all the rest of the family had to show up in court for one thing after another, over 20 times in the next couple years. When he lost every case and every appeal he packed up his girlfriend and mother, moved to Florida and started over.
Like so many times, including in my own family when Robin’s wife died, lawyers got more than anyone else. People who work in professions where trust and integrity are important are often the ones who abuse it the most.
Home School
We officially set up a home school, Austinwood School, when Edward was six. I taught the kids history and Spanish in the morning before work, and Perri taught them math and English in the afternoons. I’d taped an instructional soap opera called “Destinos” which went through 52 episodes of Raquel searching out members of a family who, since the Spanish civil war, had scattered to Mexico, Spain, Argentina, Puerto Rico and the United States. After 20 minutes of story there was a question-and-answer session. They soaked it up.
After we returned from the mountains I found a job which was supposed to be full-time selling ad space for the weekly paper, the Alamance News. In practice the job was considerably less, as I spent my day looking for businesses that might want to advertise, writing them down and bringing them back for an OK before making a pitch. It would’ve worked fine if my boss had looked over the list and crossed off a few, but he’d approve at most one in three. Since he’d spend most of his time hanging out at the courthouse, I wouldn’t see him for a week, sometimes two. I’d bring longer lists, he’d OK fewer prospects. I tried not to go back to the same businesses until at least a month had passed, but I couldn’t. Pretty soon I’d go back every third week and hang out for a half-hour just for something to do. I should have been checking on twenty or thirty a day, but only had fifty a week. I worked four months, bringing in a smaller and smaller paycheck, until one day I hadn’t seen him in three weeks, gave him a list of over 300 businesses and he okayed 26. I’d signed a non-compete agreement, meaning I wasn’t supposed to work for any other papers in the area for at least a year afterwards, but I wrote a letter “to whom it may concern” stating that the agreement was for me to have a full-time job, that I hadn’t been allowed to do it and I considered the agreement null and void. I applied to a few other jobs in the area and made crafts again, while my wife fixed computer problems part-time for the school.
Our roof started leaking and I didn’t have money to fix it, but was painting all the cracks with several gallons of black mammy, hoping to get through another couple winters, when a fellow drove up and offered to put a roof on my house if I’d give him the 1972 Ford truck now sitting in my side yard with a blown engine. I instantly agreed, and bought some roofing shingles and a few supplies on credit. I’d been ready to sell the truck for a few hundred dollars, but got a new roof instead, plus several hundred extra shingles. He’d over-estimated the shingles by about a third, but I didn’t care.
While job-hunting I’d heard good things had developed at the company I’d worked for six years earlier–Adam & Eve–and applied. I was greeted warmly, with the easiest job interview I’d ever had–”this is just a formality, we really want you back”. I joined a training class that was already underway.
It was partly desperation–our mortgage was two months behind, our credit cards maxed–but it truly was a different environment than the one I’d left, at least initially. I enjoyed being back. I knew quite a few faces from before and they were happy to see me. There was a real Spanish department, 24/7, and we had a real Spanish catalog, not just Xeroxed sheets. The internet had been completely unavailable to us before, but now we could take a look when necessary, eliminating the need to regularly run to the warehouse.
The Scouts
2008 was the year Edward officially became a Boy Scout. He was too young by a year, but to form a full troop he became a boy scout at 9 instead of 10. This was appropriate, as he’d also unofficially joined the Cub Scouts a year early, attending Tiger Cubs at 4. He’d been a Wolf and Bear and Webelos, took part in the activities and had a wonderful time. The scouts met in the same building as Time Out Playgroup. I’d missed most of the Cub Scout activities due to the insane number of hours required by Rent-A-Center, where the only guaranteed day off was Sunday. When I worked with the local paper I had plenty of time for Cub Scouts, but when I went back to Adam & Eve my schedule again limited my evenings, though I had every other weekend off and went to some of the campouts. It was a good troop; Troop 40, which by coincidence had been my troop number as a kid. I’d been disappointed with our troop, but Edward’s had something going on every week and many weekends. They built catapults, had boat races, were in the Pinewood Derby, where Edward nearly every year won Most Original or the like and finally won for fastest car, an actual trophy for an actual accomplishment. I never won a trophy, and was really happy that he’d won in a competition. He would have gone to the regionals but was visiting his cousins in Alabama. He’d done well as a scout, earning dozens of merit badges, pins and belt loops.
I was in a bowling league once. The first year they  passed out a great many trophies, about 3/4 of which went to the same 5 or 6 people, who were first in one category or another. None to me, who’d been second in several. It made no sense to me–why give 3 or 4 trophies to the same guy and ignore 2nd or 3rd place in anything? The following year I won first place in a couple categories but they passed out cash prizes instead. I won about $80, but I’d have preferred a trophy. Any trophy. My wife has one for “most improved swimmer”. She places little value on it but I’d love to have my name on it. I don’t know if a kid can avoid receiving a trophy now, it’s not like when I was growing up, but a trophy for something is better than nothing. I received a couple pins from Junior Achievement, one for perfect attendance and one for $100 in sales. I was the only kid to receive two, but pins aren’t trophies.
The Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts were good for him, but the program got bogged down in church politics in late 2008 and the troop disbanded. We tried to find a suitable one nearby but couldn’t. It was a shame too, because that winter Edward and Clara Kate were trying to retrieve something from a neighbor’s pool, the ice on the surface cracked and Clara Kate went through. Edward saved her life. I wanted to send the story to Boy’s Life for inclusion in a comic-strip treatment of scout heroism they do each month, but to be in Boy’s Life he had to be a scout, and through no fault of his own he wasn’t, they wouldn’t have printed it and he wouldn’t have gotten the award. He couldn’t even subscribe.
Then again, scouting was losing some of its luster. The other troop in town was connected to one of the most evangelically poisoned churches around, and while faith has always been a part of the Boy Scouts, professing a faith to a rigid, scary, dictatorial branch of Bible thumpers who won’t shut up is way worse than belonging to nothing. The other possibility was a troop about 15 miles away, a very good troop but too far to drive.
When Robin would go to Colorado, he’d leave his car for me to drive, because he didn’t want his daughter driving it. Noelle was hard on cars. In the winter of 2008 he left it with me while Perri and the kids were in Alabama–they went for Thanksgiving and returned before Christmas–but towards the middle of December Noelle’s car gave out and Robin let her take the Nissan. I’d been brewing beer and had saved several bottles I’d promised to give him when he came back, which I sent with Noelle in the trunk of the car. She put the 6-pack of 22-ounce bottles in her fridge, but Genny saw them and, since Noelle was under 21, made a fuss. Noelle put the bottles in the trunk of her non-functional car, and on a warm day they exploded–which wouldn’t have happened had they stayed in the fridge. The result was a huge smelly mess in Noelle’s car and no beer for my brother.
2009 started out cold, and there was enough snow to make bricks by packing it in a cooler and building a kid-sized igloo. A couple years before we’d built an igloo out of the ice in the pool; this year the pool ice was thick enough to walk on, and we have several pictures of me and the kids “walking on water”.
In the spring of that year our Mennonite group decided to plant a community garden on our extra lot. We tilled a wide area and planted tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, lettuce, beets, corn.
My mother and I had discussed, later in the year, our plans for the property. I mentioned a dream I’d had for ages, of setting up a Mountain Mechanical Museum, maybe on the hill in back of the farm. I didn’t know. My plans were vague and I hadn’t mentioned them, because I knew I couldn’t rely on support from my father; even had he told me to start building I’d never get the front door open before he’d find a reason to tear it down. When I mentioned the idea to my mother, she said the house would be a good place for it, and I had a place to park my modest dream.
Then my sister heard about it. I was particularly annoyed at Christmastime. Genny had a habit of periodically writing everyone asking for money for home improvements, and I’d beg off, knowing that 1) I didn’t have the money, 2) had already done more than my share, 3) the money would go into a black hole anyway. This year she sent an email, saying she’d decided what our mother’s Christmas present should be and asking for donations, stating “if everyone kicked in $35, we could all buy her (specific nice thing for $200) instead of (all the crap you all were planning to give her), but if any of you don’t contribute it’ll be $40 for each of the rest of us”. It was guilt tripping and blackmail. $35 was no big deal to her, but to be fair, if my mother got a $200 gift, didn’t my wife deserve one too? My mother-in-law? Father? Father-in-law? My kids? She was single, lived at home, paid no rent, water, power or babysitting. I had bills and a mortgage. I’d been thoroughly broke and months in debt when I’d started back at Adam & Eve, part-time, four months before, with a family to support. What she’d suggested would not only have superseded and belittled the present we’d already bought, but also blown a huge hole in Santa’s budget. Even more galling, to me, was that while my sister was laying a guilt trip on us, her son Tristan, all by himself, had more toys and more expensive toys than both of my kids put together. I kept my mouth shut, and gave everyone the presents we’d already bought.
We left a few days early for our week in Massanutten that spring and went to Washington, DC to see my sister and her new boyfriend Ray, stopping first to see the battlefield at Fredricksburg. It was the most moving part of our trip, and I wrote a particularly heartfelt letter on Memorial Day:
I know memorial day is a day to hang around in your underwear and drink beer, and it’s sort of a downer to mention it, but I just saw the story of Eddie Hart on UNC-TV; he was killed in action in Germany on the same day Roosevelt died, and I didn’t realize until tonight that he was in the same battalion as my father–the 83rd, although it would be a big surprise if they ever met, as my father was in Company B and Eddie was in Company G, and my father was captured in November of ’44 while most of the action covered in the story takes place some months later. In any case I visited Fredericksburg a month ago, and it was an almost surreal experience–you climb the hill where the fighting took place, and there are the graves of over 15,000 soldiers,
over 12,000 unknown. The graves of the known have a round-top tombstone, but the unknown have a little granite marker about 6″ square with a number on it–and often another number underneath. It looks as if about half the graves have a name on them, until you start looking at the little markers, and some of them have a number on top and no number underneath–one guy buried there. Go along the rows, though, and you start seeing 2 and 3 underneath the number–2 guys, or 3, buried there. Go a little further to where the fighting got more intense and you see 4 and 5 and 7. Finally at the top of the hill the markers say 9 or 11 or 15, and you’re standing on a spot where fifteen guys are buried, nobody knows who, and likely none of them lived half as long as I have now. The next day we went to Washington DC; in the morning we saw the Bureau of Engraving and watched millions of dollars being printed right before our eyes, then went to see the memorials and waited to meet my sister, she works in DC. They have a wall at the WWII memorial with a star on it for every soldier lost in the war, and believe me there are lots of little gold stars. After that we went to the Vietnam memorial; at first I thought I’d read through all the names until I came to Dave Tiffany–I’ve mentioned him before, he was my friend and was in the Memorial Day issue of Life magazine, 40 years ago today; he’d moved away to California the year before and I didn’t know he’d joined the army (though I knew he’d planned to) and when I was thumbing through the magazine came across his picture–David Lewis Tiffany, 19, Riverside, California. He had just turned 19, not more than one or two weeks before, and now he was in Life magazine, in the One Week’s Toll of the Dead in Vietnam, Memorial Day issue. I had a general idea of the sector in which I’d find him, but it soon became clear I’d spend the rest of the day looking if I did it that way so I went over to the registry and looked him up–he was on something like the 28th panel, 12th line from the top, and I had to jump to touch his name.
We had a really good vacation; I hadn’t had 2 weeks off in 5 years or more, and even though I was getting over the swine flu enjoyed myself thoroughly, swimming every day, playing my banjo on the porch–and I’m damned glad I’m here today and not some marker in a field somewhere with “USN” on it.

We continued on from Fredericksburg to a motel outside DC and in the morning took the Metro; it was early and not everything was open, but after breakfast we went to the Bureau of Engraving and took a very enjoyable tour watching them print money, and the kids got shredded cash souvenirs. We had an hour to explore before we were to meet up with my sister and went to the Holocaust museum, but decided the kids were too young for it. We talked briefly with a very pleasant guard, who later that year was shot and killed buy some crazy fanatic. I was sorry to hear of his tragic and unnecessary end. What was accomplished? Nothing.
We went by the Washington Monument and took silly pictures of me wearing it as a hat and Edward holding it in his hand, then met up with my sister at the World War II memorial. We should have coordinated a little better, because the memorial is huge, there were thousands of people there and it took a long time to find each other; we had a cellphone but the battery’d run out. I then went to the Vietnam memorial to find my friend Dave Tiffany’s name, but it was a long walk to the memorial and Perri and the kids decided to hang out. At first I simply looked over the names but very quickly knew it would take hours that way, and went to the flip chart guide to find out which slab and row he was on. I found him, and had to jump to touch his name.
I went back to the Lincoln Memorial and the reflective pool and looked around again in the crowds for Perri, the kids, my sister and finally found them, then we all went to lunch at a lovely little deli just down the street from where my sister worked at the Justice Department. After lunch we went to the Smithsonian Institution, where we once again got lost among the miles of exhibits and multitudes of people. I got separated from the rest at The Hope Diamond, but we’d all agreed on a meeting place and shortly moved to the park, where we had a snack and watched a fellow try to set up a pigeon trap using a box, pencil and string, which didn’t work. Edward in particular was tickled with the absurdity of the contraption, baited with a french fry. I’d been sick with the flu for several days before we’d left and had no stamina; I dozed off in the afternoon sun while the others got acquainted with my sister and her new boyfriend Ray. We went to a movie, which I mostly slept through, then had dinner and rode the Metro back to the motel.  In the morning we headed to our condo in Massanutten. They’d made improvements–they always seemed to be improving something–and we had a fun week.
One of the things the resort does every year or two is to invite us to what amounts to a sales pitch, sometimes over a special weekend later in the year and sometimes at the beginning of our stay, and for listening we get a lot of free coupons to various activities. We went to the water park and took classes in glass etching and beading and played some mini-golf and went to a couple of restaurants and did a lot of hanging out in the condo overlooking the golf course and watching cable TV. Clara Kate and Edward loved the cartoon network. One night a fellow put on a show for the kids. He held the Guinness Book World Record for blowing up balloons in a certain time, which he’d trade off with a clown in Germany. He invited Edward on stage to help him with a trick and Clara Kate told a joke in front of 200 or 300 people–”What do you call a fly without wings? A walk!”. He gave her a balloon dog with a leash and Edward got a balloon hat.
A day or two after returning from Massanutten, Perri and the kids left for Alabama. They stayed through the month of May, and had originally planned to be back by my birthday in June but stayed a couple extra weeks and spent both Edward’s birthday, May 7th, and Clara Kate’s, June 11th, in Alabama while I enjoyed peace and quiet. I’d bought a scooter the previous Christmas just to have a means of transportation if the Cadillac broke down, because I didn’t want to be stranded while the rest of the family was 1000 miles away.
While we were traveling I read over a letter my mother had sent, which I thought unfairly attacked me. Genny had been asserting “I wanted everything”, based on my father’s worthless promises. I’d indeed been promised plenty, but it meant nothing, and I only desired a fair distribution, whatever that may have been.
She’d also written a book, which I hadn’t seen but mother hated. I read it over, because Genny thought I’d be the most objective. I probably was, but I didn’t like it either. It was essentially two books, one reviewing her romance and breakup with Suzuki, which was thoughtful and well-written, though I thought she should have stayed with him. The other started out funny, but brought up the same old crap. Our father was a monster, our mother a monster, her two oldest brothers, monsters, all served up with sour spleen and monster sauce. I’d thought she was over it, but it was an endless tape loop from her years of “therapy”, stirring and bubbling. It bothered me. It had to stop.
When she’d split from her second husband Seth she decided the trailer was unsafe. Alone at night, she’d see stalkers everywhere. She told wild, insane stories about people walking across her roof. Her son was totally out of control and she didn’t discipline him. He ate nothing but crap, and her and his stuff now so filled the two large bedrooms upstairs that they weren’t used. The junk had taken over the living room, the computer room, part of the main bedroom and was starting to invade my mother’s study. The back door was blocked with piles of her stuff. When Perri and I stopped by after Massanutten we saw to it that a small TV was installed in Tristan’s room so he had no reason to lounge in the living room, and all his stuff went back in his room. We took all the junk from the back porch, the living room, the study and the computer room and made her either haul it upstairs or throw it away, set up a yard sale for the nicer items and made the study into a music room, with a piano, a comfy couch and pictures of the grandkids on the wall. My father had canned a huge amount of food as well, and Perri and I filled the trunk of our car.
The round robin was lost that year, and lost again. In December of 2008 I started it once more, revising its confused order to the more logical youngest to oldest. I began by recounting Thanksgiving 2008. While Perri was in Alabama, Genny and I finally took my father’s ashes to the top of the mountain. We’d delayed so everyone could get together to make the hike, but it had been nearly two years. I finally made the decision to make the hike myself, and Genny came along, which was a mistake. When we got to the hilltop, instead of a nice ceremony and a few words, Genny called everyone she could reach from her cell phone to find out if they wanted some of the ashes. Nobody did, but she insisted we save some back for the two siblings she’d failed to reach. I thought it ridiculous, as they hadn’t expressed a wish for any such thing, but we sprinkled most of the ashes and trudged back down with a few still in the box. She planted a tree with some of them on the mountain, flushed a few down the toilet in accordance with a wish he’d expressed, and the rest sat on a shelf until I scattered them in a field.
Once again Genny wanted to buy mother a Christmas present that she’d decided on, each of us to pitch in. I’d had enough. I exploded in the Christmas round-robin. I felt I’d been insulted, belittled, joked about and accused of motives I didn’t have, and stated that I would have no part of, and resented, having my Christmas list hijacked. I further said I was tired of hearing how greedy I was, that I’d been promised plenty, but that we all knew that my father’s promises, any of them, would disappear in a flash and he’d look at you as if you were insane for believing them, that we’d all lived with the premise that a promise was never, ever, ever a promise, no matter if it had been reiterated forty times for forty years, and that this was a sick, sick way to live.
People are entitled to believe in promises. They adjust their lives and actions based on promises, and if a promise is broken that is, and should be, considered a sin. It’s a reasonable human expectation. A promise is a promise. The entire structure of civilization is founded on the notion that people will keep promises. It’s the breaking of a promise which is a sin, not the trusting in a promise.
We grew up with a different dictum, that a promise can be broken at any time, for any reason, and never means a goddamned thing.
When there’s no expectation that a promise will be fulfilled, there’s no promise which can’t be superseded, at any time, and nobody knows what to expect, nobody knows what they’ll get, everyone wants everything but expects nothing. Everyone throws a thousand pieces of spaghetti against the wall, hoping that someday one or two will stick. I said I had no interest in surfing into a guilt trip so that Genny could steal the credit for everyone’s love of mother on the cheap. I said I wanted to fix up the old home place, too, but not to pay someone else money I didn’t have. I’d already put my sweat and labor in countless improvements without any pay or acknowledgement whatsoever. I reviewed all the events of my life, starting at age 7, of how my father beat me and whipped me luntil he drew blood for no good reason and how when I’d tried to be even-tempered and pleasant he’d pick at me and pick and pick and pick while I was at the dinner table, while I tried to be nice, and he’d insult and accuse until he found a soft spot and I’d explode, and it was all a sick game, I might as well have been a trained seal. It was sadistic, disgusting, and even then he wouldn’t let up, and I’d stare at the flecks in the linoleum floor and feel like hell.
I recounted how I’d worked at Pete’s Rental in Hollywood 7 days a week, 10 hours a day, for months without a day off, driving an hour there and an hour back, and how I’d wanted to buy a car after my Falcon had been wrecked, found a ’59 Chevy sedan delivery I really liked, bought it, came to work one day and he had sold my car–forged my signature and sold it. Which wasn’t even the only time–he sold a Studebaker truck I was buying, after I’d put a deposit on it but had yet to straighten out the title. He stole my toolbox from the cab of my 40-year-old truck before I started on a 2000-mile journey, and I limped along with nothing but a vise grips and a screwdriver. I mentioned when I joined the Navy how he took all the stuff I’d carefully packed away and tossed it in the rain, wrecking a beautiful antique radio among other things. How I’d been promised 50% of the tree business but ended up with less than minimum wage and nothing when he’d sold it. How Perri and I built the earth lodge, working for over two years and using thousands of dollars of our own money, then receiving a “symbolic” gift of a light bulb for Christmas, only to be told a month later that the earth lodge would be torn down. How after 20 years of selling trees, with my mythical 50% ownership regularly receding or disappearing, I’d managed to make enough one Christmas–and by the way so did he–that my half of the profits, which he shared–had finally been enough to make my house payment, and though he hadn’t worked the trees for years he then remarked that I was making “too much money” and that we’d have to “renegotiate our agreement”. After recounting the 48 intervening years of this shit, I noted that my sister, at the tender age of 46 living in her mother’s house on her mother’s dime, was the one calling me greedy and amoral, while telling all of us what she thought we should pay for a Christmas present she had chosen.
The robin went to my youngest sister, who sent a chatty note, then up the line to Genny. My mother decided she needed to reply, and said she basically agreed with what I’d said, but it sat for six months waiting on Genny.
Genny and I took a trip together to Chicago that April and patched up most of our differences. She had friends in Chicago, a lesbian couple who had a very nice place in the middle of town. Her friend’s partner was a transplant surgeon and they did very well. They’d adopted a baby boy and Sarah stayed with him while Daniela worked. Sarah gave her two-year-old car to Genny, and Genny bought tickets to Chicago and invited me along. We stayed a few days, had a lovely time and drove back.
We talked there and back, and by North Carolina were getting along pretty well. I did, however, come away with a couple realizations, in that when she’d come from many years in New York she’d been paranoid about things which were simply part of small town rural life. A fellow in a black pickup came by as she walked down the road and asked a question which revealed that he knew who she was, and she flipped out. She found a beer can and cigarette butts in the yard, and flipped out. A critter had walked across the roof, and she flipped out. Her dog made a few “wffs” while dreaming, and she flipped out.
That said, we were both in a better mood. The only flare-up we had in Chicago was when the four of us went to a restaurant around the corner, run by a small vegetarian religious group. Daniela and Sarah were talking about intrusive people, and I made a comment that my sister-in-law Anne had been intrusive, which seemed obvious. Genny said she wasn’t. I said she certainly was, at which point Genny remarked that she was dead. I said just because she was dead didn’t mean she hadn’t been intrusive. When Anne came to visit she’d rummage through our underwear drawer, and you don’t get more intrusive than that. I didn’t mean anything negative by it. Anne was intensely curious, and I didn’t hold bad feelings about her personality quirk. It could be convenient, or a pain. She’d spent her life on the phone. When we had news she’d broadcast it, but it annoyed us when she’d call, we’d finish, call another family member and their line would already be busy–with Anne telling them our news. Perri loved the show “Mystery”, which played Thursdays at 8pm. For years, she told Anne to call at any other time–but no matter, she’d start watching, Anne would call. She’d share updates about Fran’s first husband Kevin until one day I said the only news I wanted to hear about Kevin was that he was dead. It was a game. Nobody would tell her a juicy tidbit, and we’d see how long we could keep it secret. It had been the same with my father. Tell him a secret, it wouldn’t last the hour. Her son Jordan was particularly good at not revealing anything. He’d be on the phone with a friend, say “Oh really? Wow!” and so forth. As soon as he hung up she’d be on him like a tick, peppering him for details. Jordan would say, “he’s having peas for dinner”, or the like. We always felt she’d be good as a private eye but missed her calling. Intrusive, yes. Hateful, no.
Anyway we left Chicago and shared the driving. By the side of the road in a rough-looking steel town was a fellow who looked like a laid-off steelworker selling roses. I bought 3 from him–one for Genny, one for Perri and one for mother. She dropped me off at my house, I gave her some boy clothes and a spare soy milk maker.
Perri and I had learned how to save money. Perri had learned to cook vegetarian, which can be cheap or expensive, but what makes it cheap is a large array of kitchen gadgets. We had a mill and a breadmaker, so as to grind our own wheat and make bread for about 15¢ a loaf. A soymilk maker makes nut or grain-type milks for about 25¢ a gallon. A water filter ($40 for a new filter every few years) assures spring-water quality almost for free, and a distiller I picked up for $50 made distilled water (or spirits). We even got a soda maker, and using only healthy ingredients it was a dime a quart. As an experiment, we added up how little we could spend to make a nutritious meal for four, and spent $3.
I picked up the robin on a visit to the mountains that summer, where it had languished for six months, and sent it to Fran and Ray, where sat for two more. Things had settled down since the death of her daughter and the subsequent breakup of her marriage to her second husband Rob. Rob had always seemed a decent guy, but far too distracted–largely due to dealing with Sarah. He was a thoroughly nice guy, but absolutely overwhelmed by everyday life. Sarah was big and strong but had the mind of a toddler. Fran went to work and Rob minded the kids, but the house was a wreck, and he completely blew the most minor of tasks. He overdrafted the bank account regularly. His car was impounded five times within a month because he failed to renew the registration. Even re-stringing a guitar seemed to be beyond him. After Sarah was gone there was little reason for them to stay together, and Rob went away to live with his parents at fifty. He got a job as a security guard and his parents arranged for a divorce lawyer while Fran sent along $100 a week. Soon enough they divorced.
By the time my letter of December reached Sam it was October, and its 35 stationery-sized pages had assumed mythic proportions. Sam jumped in. He was on unemployment, fighting termination from Verizon–they eventually settled with a nice fat check–but had discovered one of the nicer challenges that I’d known about unemployment–unstructured leisure, which is not at all what one thinks it will be when one wishes for more free time. One can turn to philosophy on an unstructured afternoon. He and Barry had set themselves up with a low overhead when moving to Roanoke, and now he found he could get along fine on a lower income as well, though the need to live frugally was a constraint.
My mother’s reply to my letter had mentioned that my father’s plans and promises were simply dreams, and his own plans never got anywhere either, because when a small project was mentioned he’d have bigger plans. She’d mention painting the bathroom and he’d talk about adding two more rooms. He was going to build three A-frame cabins on various parts of the property; he cut the lumber and left it out to season–and rot. She brought up the Browning quote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp…”, but said it would’ve been better if he’d reached for something he could grasp. It seemed to me to be a useless sentiment, too–if one can’t grasp what one is reaching for, what’s the point in reaching?
But reach he did, and completed very little. Small improvements were postponed because BIG improvements were planned–and so neither small improvement nor big transformation happened, and often small and adequate was torn down and undermined in favor of–nothing. Castles in the air and clouds.
On receipt of my letter Sam recalled a business proposal our father had given him to take some Christmas wreaths that the Coffeys, sharecroppers for my uncle, were making. Sam could go to New York florists for orders. Nobody asked what the wreaths would cost to produce or ship, what the mark-up would be, what price the market would bear, how many wreaths the Coffeys could make and how quickly, when they’d have them ready–but Sam in his spare time was supposed to make presentations to merchants he didn’t know on behalf of vendors he also didn’t know based on information he didn’t have. Which is, of course, the reason for writing things down. Drawing up an agreement brings up all the reasons a bad idea is a bad idea, and gives everyone involved in a good idea a clear understanding of what is expected of them and what they’ll receive. Sam was accused of being “too selfish to help the less fortunate”.
They had a confrontation shortly afterwards. Genny, after moving to New York, had brought along some tapes called “A Course In Miracles”. Unfortunately Genny didn’t have a VCR, an expensive novelty at the time, and she wanted to watch them on Sam’s VCR–but there were sixteen or twenty hours of Miracles and Sam was too busy to watch the tapes, which he found insipid anyway. Genny complained that she couldn’t get Sam to watch the tapes with her, and our father called long-distance to tell Sam he was “selfish”–for not watching several hours of tapes which he didn’t want to watch and didn’t have the time for. This was the umpteenth time, and the last, my father had accused him of being “selfish”, because Sam told him that unless he could respect what he chose to do with his time, his space and his life, he could get the hell out of all three. That was the end of the accusations about Sam being “selfish”.
The robin then passed to Robin, who was doing better. He and Luanne had been together for three years, sometimes in Colorado, sometimes in North Carolina, sometimes somewhere else, sometimes separated by distance. They both had houses they’d inherited, fixed up and rented, which provided a certain amount of income and freedom. Robin was barbering and riding a bicycle to work. He also had some words about Our Father, who Wert in the Kitchen, Twelve Pack as his Bane. After I’d more or less disappeared from the dinner table, spending all my time at Monk’s house, it was left to him to hang around the kitchen when father was on his eleventh beer, putting up with the put-downs while Sam and the girls played in the other room. It was almost a duty to him; he’d hang around and say nothing while father ran out of ammo and was reduced to asking, “What’s wrong with you, Rob?”, over and over. There was no answer, because it was the wrong question. The question had always been, What’s wrong with you, Ned? He’d either sit and pick at someone or stew until he got a good head of steam. It was one or the other. He was funny, and generous, and lovable to his friends, but to his kids he was mean, dishonest, unreliable, violent. He made unlimited promises to his kids, selectively forgetting them before they left his mouth. None of the siblings were as involved in his plans and promises as I was, but all learned how to be better parents, by being exactly who he was not.
Rob’s parenting style was gentle guidance and honest respect. His wife Anne, though they had issues as spouses, gave them liberal indulgence and watchful supervision. They were rarely spanked, as they felt a parent’s superior strength should be used to help, not enforce conformity to a parent’s preferences There’s a risk, though. When children have a choice, their choices can, in fact, kill them. Jordan lost ten of his friends and his mother in the five years before he died, which seemed an extraordinary number for a small-town kid who hadn’t yet turned 21, and because of that he valued friendships a great deal. All his friends were his best friends. He took recreational drugs on New Year’s Eve, slept on the porch that cold night and froze to death before anyone noticed where he was.
The Glory of Sight
In November 2009 I noticed one evening a small spot to the right of my right eye’s field of vision had disappeared. I didn’t think much about it. About four or five years previously I’d stepped on a rake and, like everyone’s seen in five hundred cartoons, was whacked across my face with the handle–but the rake wasn’t sitting tines-up, it was tines-down. Instead of the fulcrum forming a first-class lever, this formed a third-class lever. My foot went through the yoke, and the rake when it flew up had triple or quadruple the force. I was staggered, and I thought for a second I’d pass out. For two or three days there was a shadow in that eye, but it went away and the eye doctor thought it OK. For the next few years I’d occasionally see a bit of shadow if I was tired or sleepy, but with rest it’d be fine. On this evening, though, the spot didn’t go away, and a day or two later the bottom of my field of view was strange and discolored. my eye doctor told me to go immediately to the hospital. By the time I got there more than half my field of view was compromised, and I was scheduled for surgery the following Monday.
I was suddenly glad I was a veteran! I’d rarely mentioned it since I’d left the Navy 35 years before. Through the 70s, 80s and 90s it wasn’t something one mentioned. People had mixed feelings about the military. Only since the attacks of 9/11 had people started appreciating veterans; usually they were neutral at best. It felt strange to receive discounts and hear people thank me for my service on Veteran’s Day, not that I’d done more than float around the Pacific on Uncle Sam’s boat. I’d always felt obliged to say I was a Vietnam-era veteran and not a Vietnam veteran, meaning I was in the Navy when the guys were coming home and not going over, trying to establish that I wasn’t as crazy as “real” Vietnam veterans.
Monday morning at 6 am Perri drove me to the hospital. My field of view was now reduced to one little pizza slice in the upper left corner; everything else was a vague grey shadow even in bright light, like looking at a faded, underexposed black and white photo in a dark room. They took me to the operating room, put me out and I went home that afternoon with an eye protector and a bottle full of narcotics. They’d stabbed me in the eye and tack-welded my retina with a freeze wand, then told me to lie on the couch on my right side for a week. My eye looked like a little bloody red ball of Play-Doh. I went back after the week and the eye checked out OK, but I still had to lie on my side and couldn’t travel to the mountains or ride on a plane–nothing that involved a change in air pressure. I had a gas bubble in my eye, which would absorb in a month or so. Perri brought me books-on-tape from the library; I couldn’t do much else but listen. Reading was out, TV was painful, I couldn’t lift anything over five pounds or even strain on the pot very hard. All I could do was lie on the couch, listen to the radio or a tape, eat something mushy and pop another pill.
We had a bunch of folks over for Thanksgiving weekend. Genny nearly ruined it for mother, telling her they’d have to go back to the mountains in two hours to mind Genny’s dog. We put our foot down and told her she was staying the weekend and if Genny needed a dog-sitter she could damned well find one on her own. They stayed for three days. It was a real family gathering. Genny and Tristan only showed for a few minutes, but my niece Noelle, her brother Grant and his fiance came by, as well as my cousin Carol, who lived a few miles down the road. Carol had a horse from the time she was little, and the horse had died the year before, but she had a half-interest in another horse. Her mother, also named Carol, had been incoherent for some time and in a rest home where our uncle Pete visited every day, but she was too confused to travel.
I was glad I’d floated on that government boat more than 30 years earlier. A detached retina would’ve set me back $12,000, but I didn’t pay a nickel, just a few dollars for narcotics. “Don’t say I never gave you anything” is used when one has been given something of questionable value, and until then summed up my feelings towards the Navy. I’d joined for all the right reasons–I was patriotic, cared about my country, wanted to do my part and needed the work. It was at the tail end of the “Vietnam era”, though, and honestly, the Navy didn’t need me. The war had ended, there were clearly twice as many guys in the military as necessary and I was greatly distressed by the vast waste of time, talent and especially money that I saw. When I was told to throw away a $1200 guage which I could’ve fixed in half an hour for less than a dollar, I was done. I took the most efficient way out, which amounted to getting in trouble for one penny-ante thing after another. Because my discharge was under honorable conditions I collected unemployment for a year and went to school on the GI Bill for two, figured I was even and didn’t think about it again until 35 years and one defective eyeball later.
I went back to work after Thanksgiving. It surprised me that driving wasn’t a problem but that looking at a computer screen was. The gas bubble in my right eye jumped around like a flea on a griddle and I wore dark glasses for some time. Christmas was skimpy that year, but Our Apple G4 was still working fine, but after ten years there were so many things it couldn’t do it was like driving a Model T on the freeway. Some friends gave us a newer computer, I sold a few kaleidoscopes and a girl in Japan I’d known from almost my first day on the internet sent me $100. I sent her back a very nice kaleidoscope.
To list all the places my kaleidoscopes have been takes awhile. They’ve gone to several states in the USA, to Canada, Costa Rica, Argentina, Spain, Chile, England, Australia, Japan, Germany, Finland; other crafts of mine are in Africa and Russia and above the Arctic Circle. Those are the ones I know about.
The robin was captured by Laura after the new year and stayed in Georgia until May. She’d been laid off from middle school and hired by her old boss to teach English as a Second Language at the elementary school. She loved the classes but hated her new principal, whom she assessed as a “racist jerk”. A side effect of her frustration was a spectacular garden, which she’d tended so as to work off her annoyance. Her kids were well and Austin was ready for a driver’s license, which he was excited about and his parents weren’t.
The big event that spring was the marriage of Robin’s son Grant to his girlfriend Joie. I presided at the wedding. As a minister, I have a pretty good track record. As far as I know, all my marriages–the earliest in 1975–are still going strong, excepting one at which the couple didn’t have a marriage license. I presided at the vows, but they didn’t want the “piece of paper”.
It was wonderful. Grant and Joie were married under an apple tree in full bloom. The band included a stand-up bass player from Grant’s band plus his father Robin on violin, sister Noelle on guitar, me on banjo and my mother and three sisters singing. After a couple of songs I accompanied my my daughter on guitar while she sang “A, You’re Adorable”, which stole the show. I went to work but got off early and went back to the party, where my son found a Carolina chameleon, which he kept as a pet and named Shim, because we weren’t sure whether it was a boy or a girl.
On my birthday that year I was doing a little maintenance on my car. I had the day off and had been getting phone calls all day. About 7 pm I got a call from Laura. I thought she’d wish me a happy birthday, but Tom had died! He’d been jogging, sat down in the locker room and fell over. He was always a big guy, but seemed to be in good shape, though his diet could have been better. He’d been born on Valentine’s Day in 1952–the day before my childhood best friend Monk. Monk had died at 48, Tom at 58.
I went to Georgia the next morning and stayed until Monday. It was amazing how many people came to the funeral and memorial. Friends and family arrived from Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia, the states where he’d coached, and the entire Armuchee Indians high school football team showed up in their uniforms.
My brother had a tree fall on his house that spring, and the quote to fix it was several thousand dollars. I looked, decided it wasn’t that bad, and told him I’d give him my shingles at cost if he didn’t mind the color, which was close but a bit lighter. I had a large pile of high-quality shingles left over after my roof replacement 3 years before, and was eager to get rid of them. He agreed. There was some minor structural work, but not near so much as it had appeared, and we did it in the space of a long weekend. I’d quite overloaded our Expedition taking shingles up the mountain; I drove 50 mph in the right lane for most of the distance, but it got hairy at times. When I was finished I left him a few extra squares and he gave me a few yard implements, including a lawnmower and the unicycle I’d tried to talk him out of a year or two before.
Perri and I had long been a part of a group which met on Thursday nights. Some were friends from our now-defunct playgroup. It was more of a meeting than a church. While the kids played we had free-ranging discussions, basically but not exclusively Mennonite. I was familiar with a tangentially-related Quaker group particularly insistent on being called the Society of Friends rather than the Religious Society of Friends, as they maintain Quaker thought is a belief, not a religion. One of the central Mennonite themes is to help others, and we’d often gone with others to feed the homeless or fix up a house. I had a storage shed in my backyard on which I’d replaced the roof and patched it several times. The recurring problem was because the roof was too flat and wouldn’t drain. It was again leaking badly after a hard winter, and one of the group suggested that could be a project for the Greensboro Mennonite church. Over the space of a long weekend we all emptied the shed, tore off the roof, put on a new, sturdy, gabled roof, shored up the masonry walls, shingled it, painted it and did some yardwork. The church took care of the expense except for the shingles, of which I still had several.
When we were done it was painted a cheery white and yellow with a sandy beige roof, but there was more to do. I left the fellow who’d done most of the planning–a contractor in “real life”–with a nice kaleidoscope and started on the other projects. My workshop hadn’t been painted, and I gave it two coats of white with a brown trim. I’d had a carport beside the tool shed which the winter had not been kind to, which I pulled down and rebuilt. Just as I was finishing the rebuild my ladder collapsed and I cracked a rib. I was getting up and Perri called me from the kitchen. The power to half the house had gone out.
It wasn’t a great surprise. Our house had been wired in 1940, 70 years before. Some additional wiring had been added in the 1970s, but the original remained. Part of it, somewhere, had failed, and we ran extension cords from one half of the house to the other. We’d already invited a friend for Thanksgiving, and had to step over extension cords but it came off OK. Perri talked with her sister, and she and her husband John decided to come up from Florida to rewire our house. He was an electrical contractor and brought along his tools.
For the next month the six of us lived with all our furniture piled into the center of each room. We laid out pads in the basement crawl space and pulled up the flooring in the attic. December came in cold, enough that even with a space heater the electrical tape didn’t stick, something new for John from Florida, who only wore shorts. He thought it defective, but when I warmed it up it was fine.
Electricity is hard for most to understand. It’s invisible, almost magical. It’s a little like plumbing, but not really. What it’s more like is the high-pressure steam used to power ships in the Navy. Superheated steam, at 600 or 1200 pounds per square inch, has to flow through insulated pipes, and leaks are not only a nuisance, but dangerous.
Electricity, however, doesn’t flow inside a wire but on its surface. The larger the surface area, the more it’ll carry. For most household wiring bell wire is used; it’s sturdy, withstands heat and won’t flex with the current. Household current naturally has a vibration, a . Just like a guitar string vibrates when plucked, an electrical wire vibrates. In the USA this is 60 cycles per second. This produces a specific note–a low “B” hum–which can be heard if the current is strong or the sound amplified. This vibrational flexing also leads to metal fatigue, which in household appliance cords is alleviated by bunching several small wires together. When wire is heated and cooled enough, though, smaller wires fail, which leads to faster and greater failure in the rest. The spot of maximum fatigue is next to the plug or at the point where the cord enters the appliance, which is why appliance cords have “boots” on either end. The greater the number of smaller wires in a cord, the greater the amount of current it can carry relative to its size, but also the greater heat buildup where the current meets an obstruction such as a smaller cord or a defective connection. The insulation around a cord also acts as a heat sink. A spliced area should have just as much or more tape or other insulation as was there was originally; a splice should be wider than the cord, not narrower, and splices in house wiring should be made within a junction box so as to isolate and dissipate heat.
In 1940, house wiring was rudimentary. There’d been a light and a socket in each room but not much else. In our house there’d been two circuits, one for the kitchen and one for the rest of the house, and a single telephone, centrally located. None of the wiring had a ground, and switches were installed with scant regard to which side was hot and which neutral. The wires were copper coated with tin, which seemed a good idea as it made soldering connections easy, but a problem developed with screw-tightened outlets and sockets. With repeated heating and cooling, tin became tin oxide, and far less conductive. With the natural 60-cycle vibration inherent in alternating current, the connections loosened ever so slightly and the gradually worsening conditions led to greater heat buildup than the sockets were designed for.
Most splices in non-load-bearing wires are now connected using screw-on nuts instead of soldering, as the nuts not only guarantee a large surface area for connection but also provide separation between splices and a heat sink around each. There’s nothing wrong with other types of splices if they’re done correctly, but one can’t see inside a connection to know it’s done right.
In house wiring in the United States there are two wires providing power to the main box, coded red and black. Either is connected to a neutral, coded white. Hook up red and black and you get 240 volts, which is used for stoves, hot water heaters, clothes dryers and large air conditioners. Hook red or black to white and it’s 120 volts. Regular circuits in a household are hooked to a circuit breaker with a red or black wire to the outside and a neutral bar in the center, which is a grounding connection. Electricity comes through the hot side, the smaller tang on a polarized plug, and returns through the neutral, which is larger to assure a more certain connection. The operation of appliances is generally the same no matter which way the hot and neutral are connected, but if a switch cuts the neutral rather than the hot, the hot wire will be hot even if the switch is off. Anyone working on the wiring can still receive a nasty shock.
If there’s a separate grounding post, this will be the longest of the three, so as to make certain the ground is the first to connect and the last to disconnect should the plug loosen. The ground, which is really a spare for the neutral, can be attached to metal plumbing pipes, a stake driven deep into the ground or to the same center bar as the neutral in the main box.
The need for a grounding wire wasn’t well established until well into the 1950s. At first, grounding outlets were only required if outlets were located within 8 feet of water pipes, for reasons that became clear to me and my friends when we’d touch my refrigerator handle and the water faucet at the same time. A few years later grounding was required in kitchens, bathrooms and outside outlets, and an adaptor was available that converted a 3-prong grounding plug into a 2-prong plug with a green wire or tab to connect to the screw holding the faceplate of the outlet, which only grounded the connection if the outlet box was metal and connected to a metal conduit. Sometimes it was, sometimes not. In most wiring from the 1930s and 1940s the wiring was woven fabric treated with a rodent repellent, so that even with an adaptor connected there was no ground. It wasn’t until the 1970s that grounding receptacles became standard throughout a house, along with polarized plugs for double-insulated items–i.e., items with a non-conductive plastic casing, rather than metal. Even so, grounding adaptors were still available, and widely misused, until the 1990s.
As we started exploring the guts of the house, I with my cracked rib doing very little, we found something strange. The house had supposedly been built in 1940, but the bathtub was dated 1941. I’d also noticed the southeastern half of the house had a far better foundation than the northwestern. When Edward and John started replacing wiring, it was routed oddly. The circuits and breaker box installed in the 1970s were logical, but in the original wiring, one circuit went to the refrigerator and, originally, a well pump under the house, while the other passed over the kitchen, went to a ceiling light and outlets in the parlor, the living room and porch light, then underneath into the crawl space, from whence the two bedrooms and bathroom were hooked up before once again going overhead to the kitchen ceiling. It seemed the house must have been built in stages, the kitchen, parlor and living room finished first and the rest added later at considerably less expense.
The wiring from the 70s also had problems. The interior fusebox remained and a breaker box added outside. Because copper was getting more expensive, the contacts on the 70s breaker box were aluminum–again, something which seemed okay at the time. Aluminum was much lighter and cheaper than copper, and had been used for many years in high-tension wires. There were certain things about aluminum, though, which proved unsuitable for house wiring.
Without special connectors, aluminum wires pit and oxidize, leading to greater resistance, greater heat and a greater chance of fire. It was abandoned for house wiring, but for years was still used in circuit boxes. A special paste was spread on the contacts, but the paste wouldn’t last forever. The contacts corroded and breakers failed. This process accelerated when the breaker box was in the weather, but it was safer there when the breakers failed. The corroded tangs in my breaker box were useless. Over several years the extra tangs were filled up, and full-size breakers replaced with skinny ones which fit two in the same space but generated more heat, corroding faster. By 2010 there were no fresh tangs left, and though the wiring failure wasn’t in the circuit box, the box needed replacing.
John, with Edward as apprentice, pulled out all the wiring. Edward climbed under the house, passed tools, pulled wires, installed junction boxes and learned a great deal about electricity, more than I’d remembered myself. I’d taken a course on the GI Bill which qualified me as a Class B Electrician, a category which had later been eliminated. In the intervening years there’d been several amendments to code and new types of equipment which John knew well. He did it right, putting in a whole-house emergency breaker outside and installing an enormous new breaker box on the back porch, with copper contacts throughout and twenty-five separate circuits, one for every room and every appliance. We replaced every receptacle, switch and socket. After working under the house and in the house we went to the attic, whose floor I’d pieced together from plywood scraps. We piled everything to one side, took up the floor, replaced the wiring, piled the stuff to the other side and replaced all the nails with screws, which electricians prefer. We put a few lights and receptacles in the attic and reorganized the storage. At Christmastime we were still cramped, but most of the work was done. I gave John and Joy my most elaborate stereo Kallistoscope, and a day or two later they were on the road. We spent the next few days cleaning and organizing and by New Year’s were comfortable in our newly rewired home. It had taken over a month and several thousand dollars, which we’d again put on credit cards, but was worth it.
Winter 2011 was a cold one and it snowed several times but we had plenty of wood. Sam had found a better job closer to home. Fran was divorcing her second husband and arranging to revoke her first husband’s rights as heir of record, as she hadn’t seen him in years and he hadn’t paid child support. She’d had to contact him when Sarah died and was surprised he was still alive. Robin and Luanne had fixed up her Colorado house, returned with her departed husband’s jewelry supplies and were making earrings and necklaces by the truckload. They’d taken a jaunt to Florida, spent time at the beach and came back to care for Robin’s house in Boone. It had been used as an upstairs/downstairs apartment for years, which had been grandfathered into the town ordinance, but the city lost the list of exceptions and tried to fine them several thousand dollars. After a thorough search the letter appeared.
Perri and the kids went to Alabama in April to help her mother recover from knee surgery, and they returned in June. They had yearly tests to take. Home schoolers have to meet standards and in North Carolina are tested once a year by assessors. Perri knew one in Winston-Salem whohad two daughters Clara Kate’s age, and we went for the day. We toured an interesting excavation outside Salem. Bethabara was a farming community settled by Moravians in the 1750s, with the intention of moving everything to what later became Salem. Most of the buildings were dismantled and moved in the 1760s, leaving only foundations. They were forgotten for two hundred years, until a farmer plowed up several piles of rocks. The records of the abandoned settlement still existed, though nobody had known where it had been, so all of the buildings were identified and tagged with little plaques. Some of it has been reconstructed, and people dressed in period clothes explained it all. Very interesting.
Genny’s son Tristan also took his tests that day, and met us at Bethabara. While the others took a tour, I stayed behind with him learning some tunes on a penny whistle I’d bought at the little museum. Tristan and I explored. There was a large barn filled with tools of the period and on the grounds was a reproduction of a palisade fort constructed for defense during the French and Indian War, enclosing an acre or two of the gray stone foundations. Some were for single men, some for women, some for families, there were communal kitchens and the like, with vegetable and medicinal herb gardens to the side. In the center was a bell, rung for various activities. Tristan was relatively well-behaved, a welcome improvement.
Perri’s birthday was shortly afterwards, and the kids and I made her a puzzle ring. It’d been awhile since I’d made jewelry, but Perri wanted a new ring. I showed Edward and Clara Kate how it was done and let them do much of the work. After that there was a crafts fair in the mountains. Robin and Luanne had signed us up, but when we got there the “crafts fair” was advertised as a “big yard sale”. After two hours it was clear we weren’t going to sell much, so we left and played guitars all night, making up drinking songs and planning a tour of Australia, an Astro*Carto*Graphy “hot spot” for Robin and I.
Robin’s son Grant had a small house down the road and was expanding it to three or four times its size. In the new living room was a picture window with a 2’x 6’ opening overhead. He commissioned me to make a stained glass window, the largest piece I’d ever tried.
I decided to make it in 3 panels. In Grant’s yard there was a geodesic dome used as a studio, and I made a stylized dome for the center panel, with Grant and his wife Joie smiling within. To one side was a day scene in springtime, to the other a night scene in winter. It took a lot of planning and sketching and time, and though I had stained glass on hand it wasn’t nearly enough. For the springtime there was a big sunburst in the corner. By chance, I’d dropped something on a light blue panel I was planning to use and shattered it, but the cracks fanning out from the middle made a perfect start for the sun’s rays fanning out across the sky. The rest of the sky was taken up with clouds and progressively darker blues, while the mountains and trees below were done in greens, with a pond and creek in aqua winding through. The nighttime side featured a sky in progressively darker shades of purple, with the moon and several stars done in a striated clear glass. The mountains were angular and the trees rounded in the springtime, the reverse in the winter, with angular, conical, snow capped trees and round mountains, an icy pond fed by a frozen brook between them. The dome was yellow and orange near the sun, fading into deep brown shadows. Grant installed it reversed from the direction I’d intended, with the sun and springtime to the right and the winter to the left, matching the location of his house. It looked great.
Clara Kate had acquired a new pet over the summer, a box turtle she named Michell, for whom we built an enclosed area with a small pond and plenty of shade. Perri read up on box turtles and decided to build him a spot across the yard, a bit more in the sun and out of the flood plain (such as there was), next to the glass shack. We now had four pets–a parakeet couple named Millie and Dixie, a turtle and Edward’s Carolina chameleon Shim. For some years we’d also kept two of our neighbor’s dogs, which I didn’t mind as she tended them, though they’d periodically escape, showing up tired and hungry in the evening. Towards the end of summer only one came back, and as one of her other dogs had died she took the remaining dog to her pen and we were out of the dog business. It may have led to a larger number of deer checking out our garden in the middle of the night, but the dogs never scared off that many. A fairly good deterrent seemed to be to periodically sprinkle cayenne pepper over everything, and pee along the perimeter late at night.
Laura was doing well. It’d been over a year since Tom had died and she was moving on. She was pursuing a master’s degree with the intention of teaching technology to grades k-12. Her two boys were in high school, and both in band camp for the summer. They were checking out colleges, one of which was Berea College in Kentucky. I knew Berea, and loved it. All the students receive a full scholarship, but all need to demonstrate financial need. They could go there if Laura was poor enough, which was iffy.
I don’t mind the family leaving for six weeks or so once or twice a year. The kids visit their cousins and Perri helps her parents, who are getting older–her mother in 2009 was 79 and father 81–while I hang out in the house and leave my clothes on the floor if I feel like it.
Men are fundamentally different from women in this. No matter how much women think men could or should care about certain things, they have other interests. Women do more housework because they want a clean house. Men don’t care so much.
Women may see this lack of interest in the condition of the home as something deliberate on a man’s part, but that’s a mistake. Men like other things. Sometimes men’s interests may seem childish, but it’s entirely wrong to think a man is a child. He may put up with being treated as one and even appreciate it occasionally, but he’s not a child and sooner or later will not consent, at which point a woman will learn to respect him as a man, or lose him.
In the summer of 2009 we were invited to a condo in Myrtle Beach for the weekend, and Robin, Luanne, her daughter and granddaughter came along. We had a place to stay at the resort as long as we attended a sales pitch, and they got a motel a few miles away. We had a great time. The resort had plenty of amenities–a pool, tennis courts, etc., but the main attraction of course was the beach. Our friends Randy and Pat had gone to a promotional weekend and purchased two weeks. They traded out their weeks nearly every year and went all over the country, but we’d been happy with our relatively unpopular week at Massanutten and had never exchanged. Massanutten was close to home, and uncrowded in our “off” week. We once visited Mount Vernon, where George Washington lived, and had been in the midst of thousands of jostling tourists while trying to get a glimpse or feel of what it must have been like in Washington’s day, which was impossible. At Massanutten in the “premium”–and far more expensive–weeks, there were three or four times as many people, which complicated everything. Other attractions were also less crowded in April, the staff less overworked, in a better mood and more willing to help. The same went for Myrtle Beach in the summertime–we had a great time at the condo feeding swans, playing guitars and going to the beach, but far less fun going to town, jostling in the crowds. We contemplated buying a week at the beach but decided against it. We returned to Swepsonville well relaxed and my brother and his people went back to the mountains to fix up his house.
Robin & Luanne did a lot of fighting with lawyers. A local judge, who’d seemed to my mother to have been one of the good guys, had instead proven to be in cahoots with a couple shady lawyers who’d raided the trust fund Anne’s grandparents had set up for the grandkids, treating it as a personal piggybank. Robin had his run-ins with the law–he counted a total of 9 times he’d been in jail for one minor thing or another–but that didn’t mean he was hopeless in legal matters.
That fall several Mennonites went for a campout at Hanging Rock. We split up during the day but came together for a large communal dinner. Afterwards we sat around the campfire and played guitars. One couple–Jeff and Clare–was very interesting. Jeff knew some riffs and shuffles I was unfamiliar with, and Clare’s father, like mine, had been in television when she was a kid. We chatted around the fire as it burned to embers.
The next morn was Sunday, and the group assembled for a service, with guitars and clarinets and drums and horns, but as we started the park ranger told us not to play, which was something new, as they’d done it for some years without a fuss. Keith and Tammy thought it was probably the ranger’s preference rather than a camp rule. I didn’t care. Sunday service never appealed to me anyway. We all sat around instead and discussed our lives, which was more interesting. Several of the folks had been missionaries in various parts of the world, and many had grown up in faraway places. One family was from Ethiopia, and several had recently returned from Morocco, Egypt, China, Peru.
Another Marriage
In 2010 Frances and Ray had been together for more than a year, and now that both were divorced were free to marry. The ceremony was in a ballroom in Asheville with dining and dancing afterwards. Perri and I came the day before and toured the Biltmore House  with the kids. Biltmore is essentially a castle, built by George Vanderbilt just before the 20th century. He’d toured the castles of Europe and wanted to build something magnificent in America. In the 1890s he built his own railroad to haul in marble and lumber. It was a working farm as well as a residence for George, his wife and child and whatever visitors came to stay, of which there were many. There was a bowling alley, a swimming pool, a workout gym, changing rooms and servants’ quarters by the dozen. He was progressive for the time, seeing to it that the staff was well provided for. There were vineyards for wine and acreage for vegetables and fruit trees and game for hunting. Dinners were always sumptuous and almost entirely supplied from the grounds, which were developed by Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed Central Park. The mansion has remained in the Vanderbilt family and was a private residence until the 1950s, when it was opened to the public as a sort of museum. After the tour we moved on to a display of Tiffany stained glass at one of the galleries in the village.
Louis Comfort Tiffany invented copper foiling. Before his time glass pieces were surrounded with a lead channel, the lead soldered at the seams and filled with grout. The Tiffany technique made for much more slender and elegant channeling around the stained glass and correspondingly a much greater transmission of light. It was a superior lamp shade, and Tiffany set up a studio in New York City, where he sold them for what would amount to a year’s pay for most people. He based most of his designs on nature–leaves and flowers and branches–and made lampshades both for kerosene lanterns, which were still widely used, and for electric lamps, which were relatively new.
After the Tiffany exhibit we stopped at the blacksmith shop, and he put on quite a show. He began by playing a tune on the anvil with his hammer–the first “heavy metal music”, he said. He proceeded to show how to fire up a coke fire. Coal, when partially burned, turns to coke, which produces a hot fire without smoke or fumes. He heated a steel bar, cranking a hand-powered fan to add heat and pouring water around the edges, which sounds counter-intuitive, but above 1500ºF water breaks into its components, hydrogen and oxygen, producing an even hotter fire. When his rod was heated to a bright yellow he banged it into a leaf shape on the anvil, adding small pieces, shaping the leaf’s veins and details. He then cut it from the rod by beating it over a sharp edge, heated the stem, beat it slender and added a curve to make it into a fob for a keychain. A very interesting  and informative presentation, after which I asked him a few questions. He’d grown up a few miles away in Tennessee, and had been a blacksmith all his life, making his first leaf when he was 15. He never wore gloves–he said when you don’t wear gloves your hands make their own gloves–and had been working at the Biltmore, demonstrating blacksmithing, maintaining the estate, for fourteen years. I showed him my puzzle rings.
Perri and I stopped for a picnic in the park before going to the local Aldi’s grocery and the Goodwill. Aldi is a German chain which operates in the most minimal way possible and offers great prices; I needed a pair of pantsl because I’d mistakenly packed my son’s pants for the ceremony instead of mine. The Goodwill in Asheville was a good one; we got several very nice shirts, a set of ruby-glass goblets and gave $1 for a jigsaw puzzle we’d seen selling at the Biltmore that afternoon for $12. The ruby goblets were particularly a prize; I’ve always picked up colored glassware to use around the house, with the intention of using any broken glass in my kaleidoscopes. There’s plenty of green, brown, blue and yellow available, but red glass is expensive and rare. “Red” glassware is usually a thin film coating over clear, useless for kaleidoscopes, as the coating flakes off and sticks to the inside of the color wheel.
About Television
We went back to the Holiday Inn to make a few sandwiches for dinner and watch television. Since the kids were born we haven’t had cable TV, so television’s something of a treat for them, though when I was in my 20s we didn’t have a television in the house at all. No computer or internet, either, so it’s not the same for them, as they see a fair number of shows over the air, pulled up on the internet or on DVD, plus movies and games.  From late 1973 to about 1985 I didn’t watch television, and feel it was a great advantage. I learned many skills I wouldn’t have bothered with had I been sitting in front of the boob tube. Instead of watching Laverne & Shirley, I was making ever more elaborate puzzle rings from silver and gold. I learned to sew, to make bamboo flutes, wooden toys. I made metal sculptures with an acetylene torch, learned how to throw pots, paint signs. The only disadvantage was that when I heard a joke, it’d almost certainly have been told on Saturday Night Live or Happy Days or Saved by the Bell, and what I found fresh and funny and new would’ve been heard by others several times before. My cultural references stopped. When everyone was breathless over Who Shot JR, I didn’t have any idea who JR was and when my friends said “Dyn-O-Mite!” I had no clue why. I made things and read books, I didn’t watch shows. Working at the school I cleaned up and on my lunch hour read kids’ books. When I sold ski tickets I read a book a day. In the afternoons I’d bang out rings, sew hats, play harmonica. I’d read a book while lying in bed instead of watching Jay Leno.
We’re not anti-technology. I think it was great for me not to have a TV all those years, but we have one now, in our bedroom with an over-the-air antenna. In the living room we have one hooked up to a DVD, VCR and Netflix, and the kids have devices to play games. They can use them whenever they’ve done their schoolwork and chores, but we have control.
Edward has an X-box, which I had to take apart a couple times to open the DVD drawer. I finally removed the entire plastic case. The warranty is, of course, voided, but since when is a warranty worth the hassle? On most fairly cheap items the “shipping and handling” charge is equal to the original price! This is no warranty at all, and should be clearly stated on the package. Harry Truman once proposed a law that whoever manufactured a product would be required to provide replacement parts for 25 years. I have hundreds of VCR tapes which I have no intention of trashing, but they’re only playable on VCRs, which are less and less available. I pick them up for $5 or $10 at the thrift store, but if one craps out it can’t be fixed. I once picked up a fancy VCR which originally sold for a thousand dollars and was worthy of the price–case of cast aluminum, solid steel parts–but was made before remote controls, so it sold for $1. I used it for years but when a minor part wore out it was unavailable at any price, and a VCR which had given good service for fifteen years was a piece of junk for want of a $2 part. By then a new VCR sold for $25, but it was plastic. It wouldn’t last a fifth as long.
It’s a mixed bag. Had Harry Truman had his way, no new VCRs would’ve been available at $25, but parts for quality VCRs would have kept most out of the landfill. Electronic products have a short life, but why is debatable; many are simply obsolete. At the school sale there were entire pallets stacked with computers, shrink-wrapped, 6 feet high, for a dollar. No takers. Huge, heavy, fancy rear-projection TVs which sold for thousands were five years later selling for $100, and cell phones more than a few years old are worth nothing at all. Twenty-five years is too long to be practical, but five or ten would be nice.
I propose a similar law. No crazy screws. All products should be serviceable with regular tools. I like puttering with old mechanical things, and they don’t have screws with a triangle on top. I’m glad to see them in demand, too. Typewriters I picked up for $5 years ago are being refurbished and sold for hundreds. Old box cameras I paid 59¢ for as a child are $50 and up. Antique sewing machines I’d buy for $20 sell for hundreds. Old toasters, coffee pots, fans, clocks, movie projectors, adding machines sit in the corner of my attic. My wife isn’t always happy, but love me, love my junk.
Fran’s letter was written on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. She and Ray had just returned from a lovely honeymoon in Jamaica and she was the happiest she’d been in years. Ray had found a job after almost a year, and she’d put the chaos behind her. Her oldest son, his wife and daughter lived close by, her daughter not many miles away and her second son was doing well in school. Sam was happy with his new job, for an accounting firm, but Barry was dealing with Verizon termination #2, but with Sam’s income, the second job loss didn’t hurt so much. Robin held the robin until November, which was National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, a challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in a month, and in 30 days he had a first draft. Not necessarily a good novel, he pointed out, and described his as “horrendous”, involving telepathic mind-controlling space aliens and too many plot twists to follow. Luanne had discovered ultra-couponing, and they’d seen a candy display at the pharmacy with candy at 99¢, buy one, get one free.  In addition, there were 50¢ coupons on each package, so after the coupons, they were–free!  He bought them all–a dozen bars or so–for a few cents in sales tax.
I continued my memoirs and decided I’d be all scribbled out at 1000 pages.  I typed 130 pages and took it to the mountains at Thanksgiving.  My sister’d also been writing a book, a new version, balanced, fair, well written. She related a hilarious tale from the first grade. Seeing that her friends with bag lunches could trade sandwiches and desserts, she decided she wanted a bag lunch as well.  It became a test of her mother’s love. Mother failed miserably. Instead of making a sandwich, she had Genny make her own sandwich.  Strike one.  She packed an apple for dessert, worthless for a trade.  Strike two.  Finally, she packed it in a grocery bag instead of a lunch-sized bag.  Strike three, her mother didn’t love her! She was so overcome by emotion she sat under a pine tree, cried and was late for school.  When she arrived the teacher saw she was upset, but instead of telling the teacher that her mother didn’t love her and her lunch bag was too big, she said three boys had chased her.
Well, the principal was called – a huge man – and vowed to “get to the bottom of this.”  Genny couldn’t identify any of the mythical bullies, since there weren’t any, and it was resolved with Genny promising to identify the bullies and praying to God not to tell Santa Claus what a bad girl she’d been, lying about her lunch.
We all read to each other, and mother cleared up a few details I’d scrambled.  It was interesting to hear the same incidents from three perspectives, and the unfamiliar details in the lives of other family members. My project was a retelling of my life, a time-lime, with detours for philosophy, the outline rudimentary. At eleven I’d started a diary, and I maintained a journal or record until my late twenties. I stopped because they didn’t seem to do me much good. Page after page of failed romances, I felt like hell.  It didn’t occur to me that the hell was a psychological tape loop installed by the manufacturer, that there wasn’t a plan my father wouldn’t overturn, that any business, project dream or romance would end with a torpedo to the gut.  It surprised me that writing memoirs worked so strongly on my emotions. Scribbling on paper reminded me of the endless treacheries, guilt mongering, worthless promises forgotten before they were made. My own lack of willingness to forgive.
It’s popular to state one should forgive whether another deserves it or not. It didn’t work for me. He’d aced me out of every family activity; I was in none of the plays–Life with Father, A Christmas Carol, Peter Pan–in which everyone else participated. I didn’t go to school with any of my siblings. I was in none of the movies, commercials. I was eighteen before I took part in a family production, the band, and at the pinnacle of our success my father slapped away my first fan. He gutted me, for no reason other than I was liked.
I’m better than he was. I respect my kids. I don’t hurt them, steal their things, feed them rancid and insulting “insights” dressed up as psychology. I treat them right, don’t tear them down, don’t give their things away, sell them without consent, belittle their accomplishments. If I make a promise I try to keep it. A couple years ago I was given a van and thought about selling my Cadillac, which I’d promised to Edward. I saw that he’d be hurt if I sold it, and didn’t. That was the right thing. It made me feel good. Pretending a forgiveness that I didn’t feel, didn’t.  Truth counts. I count. I have integrity. I believe in myself, my essential honesty. That means something. It’s important. Powerful.
I can forgive my father for stealing my tools, wrecking my pond, keeping more than his half of profits, breaking promises. What I won’t forgive is intangible. The contention that others should be forgiven for one’s own comfort–well meaning and truthful as it is for many–is to me the same oppressive crap I was forced into agreeing with when I’d signed up for algebra instead of wood shop.  What is liberating to me isn’t forgiving someone who doesn’t deserve it. I did that for years. I made excuses. My father was a prisoner. His father was a tyrant. Etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. and etc. I forgave him and forgave again, again, again. Still felt like crap.  The truth was, I did forgive him, for everything except that which he took which had no value to him, to anyone but me. My glory.
I won’t pretend to give it a pass. Forgiveness, like respect, is earned. Whatever there is of karma or limbo or heaven and hell or purgatory or repentance, that is for his soul, not mine. I have no guilt for what I don’t feel. He never made things right. That’s the truth, and it gives me peace. The universe can forgive him. It’s not my responsibility. When the fires of hell burn out, he’ll be forgiven.
Back to the Future, or something like it
Christmas came on December 25th, surprising no one. We didn’t have a lot of money, for the fifth or sixth year in a row, but money is the least of considerations at Christmastime. We spent $100 or so at thrift stores and discount outlets, and made several of our presents for each other. Edward made a cute pillow with a funny face, long arms and legs for Clara Kate. Perri made multi-color monkey pillows for the kids which wrapped around their necks. I’d planned to make hats, but the others had tied up the sewing machine for so long and I didn’t have the time. The weather was mild, the house peaceful and warm.
On the final day of 2011 I’d scribbled one thousand pages of  this narrative on twelve legal pads, and after four years and uncounted retellings and rereadings of favorite episodes as bedtime stories, countless questions to my parents, siblings, cousins, friends as to what happened that time so many years ago, and who was there, can you get in touch with them, how did it happen, was that before or after the other thing? At the end of all that, in the hours before the New Year, for no reason other than a thousand pages seemed a good place to stop, I wrote–