Totaling a Car at Age 11–To Get OUT of Trouble

On a beautiful May Saturday afternoon when I was 11, I was in trouble. Saying I was “in trouble” was like describing me as being “in shirt and pants” or “in America.” Given my ways and, especially, my mouth, my trouble could have arrived for a number of reasons—talking back to parents or teachers, not doing homework, doing homework in such a half-assed way that it was more disrespectful than not doing it at all, trying to learn about girls by eavesdropping on the party line we shared with the family up the street.

Here, the author realizes most of his audience has no idea what he’s talking about. In the 1960s and 70s, when I was a boy, telephones plugged into walls and stayed there, instead of being left in coffee shops. In order to save a dollar a month, one could have a “party line,” which meant you shared a phone line with someone else—calls to you only rang in your house, but if you picked up your phone very, very carefully when the other party was having a conversation, you could listen in. The Boy family up the street had three daughters within my age range, and I regularly surveilled their calls, hoping to discover the secret of how to get girls to like me. Strangely, none of the Boy girls ever said anything like, “You know, I’d really like Keith if only he’d wear lime-green socks” or “Keith would be really cute if he bought his lunch in the cafeteria instead of bringing a bag lunch” or “I’d be kissing Keith all the time if he spoke French.” It didn’t work, and when I got caught I would be “in trouble.”

Anyway, I was wearing the glow of trouble at 11, and I wanted to find some way to extinguish that light. It would not have occurred to me to stop doing the things I knew my parents thought wrong—instead, I hoped to perform a selfless and noble deed to make them forget what I was really like. This act would need to benefit my parents, be fairly easy to accomplish and be kind of fun. I recognize this sounds more like a lark than contrition, but that’s the kind of theologian I was.

We lived on a short dead-end street, what would be called a cul-de-sac if I’d learned French so girls would kiss me all the time, maybe even in that tongue. Each side of Beard’s Landing had five houses, with a turn-around circle at the end. Five Beard’s Landing, our house, was on a slight hill, so our two-car garage was level outside the door with a 50-foot slope going down to the street. We’d lived there four years, and I felt at one with it. I knew the basement crawl space by the washer and dryer, the two rooms over the garage we rented to college students, my parents’ bedroom window, out which I could climb onto the family-room roof when no one was home, and the garage, with its chest freezer and a collection ski equipment kept in its rafters. At 11, I was the expert on all things Five Beard’s Landing.

My parents and my little sister had walked up to the end of our street to watch a soccer game going on at the high-school field. A friend’s child may have been playing, spring fever may have bitten them or they may simply have wanted to get away from the cloud of trouble that was me. For whatever reason, they were gone and wouldn’t be back for at least half an hour. It was time for my lazy better angels to get to work.

I thought first of cleaning the kitchen, emptying the dishwasher, filling it with the lunch dishes, and wiping down the stove. These would have been good acts, except for one thing: these were my assigned chores, which I routinely needed to be reminded/hounded to do, and for which I was paid 50 cents per week, enough in those ancient days to buy a comic book and a couple candy bars. Since Saturday was allowance day, and my mother would make me do this work to get my money, I couldn’t see how this would move me out of trouble. I needed something bigger, and for which I was not already expected to do. I walked out to the yard, where the lawn needed mowing, another part of the Dickensian work scheme my parents had devised, although for this I got an additional twenty-five cents if I raked up the trimmings well. My parents and I had long philosophical/philological/linguistic discussions about the meaning of “well-raked,” so I couldn’t score points by, again, doing what I was supposed to do.

From the yard, I saw my father’s Oldsmobile parked in the garage. Although I’d washed it before, it had escaped any chore list. Giving my dad a clean car wouldn’t take long, would be relatively fun on this 70-degree day and would help lift my shroud of trouble. The only problem was the car’s placement. It is impossible to wash a large car in a single bay in a garage.

Thanks to my ill-spent youth and a natural gift for sneakiness, I knew where my parents kept the car keys, and had started up each of the cars over the winter, so they’d be warm when my parents got in. Neither of those facts required sneakiness, of course, which came from my experiences, while my dad was at work and my mom was napping, in putting her car in gear and backing it out of the garage so I could practice putting it back. In and out her Chevy would go, while she slept blissfully 50 feet away. So far I hadn’t been caught, and I didn’t want to demonstrate my delinquent skills while performing an act of charity, so I got the keys, started my dad’s car and didn’t put it in reverse, didn’t back up 10 yards onto the flat section of the driveway and didn’t turn off the car. I came up with a different scheme; stupider and more potentially disastrous, but definitely different.

Given what I’m about to tell you, you’re going to find this next statement hard to believe—although I long ago gave up my membership, I once belonged to Mensa, the so-called organization for geniuses. I love words, but my brain’s true gift is for math and science. Really. And yet . . . I shifted the car into neutral, got out and went to the front of the Oldsmobile and started pushing, figuring once I got it out of the garage, I’d use my weight to stop it from rolling, then get back in and put the car in park. It doesn’t take a genius—certified or not—to realize the energy required to start movement of a couple tons of Oldsmobile on wheels cannot be stopped by a scrawny 11-year-old. Let me describe my experiment:

I tried a nonchalant push, the kind I might use to shove my sister to the ground, but the Olds would not budge, so I faced the engine compartment and tried pushing with all 85 pounds of me. Still nothing. Finally, I braced my sneakers against the rear wall of the garage and used all my might. Success! For now. The Olds started rolling very slowly, and I continued pushing, not wanting the initial energy to dissipate before it got out the door. Once I’d accomplished that, and the car was on the flattened top of the drive, the part before it angled down onto Beards Landing, I casually moved my fingers onto the grill, assuming its lack of speed would make stopping it a breeze. The breeze became a hurricane, since my fingertips had no effect on the car’s inertia. Inexorably it rolled. I tried grabbing the bumper. It rolled. I ran to the driver’s door, hoping to jump in and slam on the brakes, but I arrived just as the rear wheels had reached the downward portion. The damned ghost car went from two miles per hour to eight per hour, which is plenty fast for a car rolling into, then across, Beard’s Landing and coming to a loud and sudden stop at the wooden light pole across the street, the trunk a horizontal V filled by pole. As a coup de grace, the force of the car hitting the pole caused the street light to fall off its moorings and completely smash the Oldsmobile’s front window.

As I stood, useless hands by my scrawny side, at the top of our driveway and beheld the damage I’d wrought, my first thought was to make myself a victim of a pitiless circumstantial chain. How could I illustrate my lack of agency, my complete lack of culpability given these facts: I’d used car keys I shouldn’t have, I’d moved a car I shouldn’t have, and the car was now totaled and blocking the nonexistent traffic on Beard’s Landing? Even using my most manipulative and irresponsible Mensan powers, I couldn’t come up with an explanation that didn’t lead back to me and didn’t push me further into trouble. Unless I crawled into the wreckage and ruptured my own spleen, waiting for my still body to be found, my parents would be suspicious.

I briefly considered running away, but only a fool would become a fugitive on allowance day, and I assumed my parents would be suspicious if I walked up to the soccer game with a clothes-filled rucksack over my back and asked to be paid my weekly wages, especially if I pocketed the money and walked toward the highway and a life as a hobo. It wouldn’t work.

Lacking all hope, I wept. I wept because of my predicament. I wept in sorrow at my own tears, overcome with sympathy for the poor innocent boy I was. Then I laughed, realizing my solution. I wept again, not wanting to lose the flow of tears as I ran up the street, snot bubbles popping as my shirt got soaked. By the time I found my family in the game crowd, strangers were either giving me wide berth or offering to guide me, such a complete mess was I.

“Mommy!” I cried. “Daddy! Something’s wrong with the car and it rolled across the street! I tried to wash it, but it wouldn’t stop! I was just trying to help! I wanted you to be proud of me! Not ashamed of me!”

Like fishing, the secret to catching parents using guilt as bait is not to pull on the line until you’re sure they’re hooked. I fought off my urge to smile, as they processed the bushel of information I’d just tossed them. Then, like a preserver thrown to a drowning boy, I heard the words I needed to hear, heard my mother mutter the phrase that signaled I wouldn’t be punished hard.

“Well,” she said, throwing her arms around her weeping young son, “at least you weren’t hurt.”

The Hermit with the Pastor’s Heart (or How I Managed to Avoid Death, Make Some Jokes and Maybe Help a Veteran a Little Bit)

Well, I’m not dead.

That sentence is such a great start it deserves its own paragraph. In fact, it deserves to be said again.

Well, I’m not dead.

After I posted yesterday’s column, a car pulled into the cutout in front of the Tiny White Box around 3. Since he’d first called at 8, I’d kind of expected Adam by noon at the latest, but if he was here to kill me I couldn’t really be angry I’d been given a few extra hours. If I’d known he was really going to come, perhaps bearing weapons and bad intentions, I would have used those extra hours for more than hanging out with Sam (is a dog), reading and eating lunch. I was stuck choosing between thanking Adam for postponing my murder, berating him for being tardy or improvising.

“Hi,” said a bearded guy who got out of the passenger door. “I’m Adam.”

In his late 30s, Adam looked tired maybe, but not like he’d been near a corpse recently. Also, he didn’t appear to have a weapon at his midsection or a killer blind rat-dog secreted on him.

“I’m Keith.” Looking at the frost-tinged windshield, I asked, “Is that your buddy in there? Does he want to get out?”

“No. That’s my lady.”

Unless this car was imported from Bermuda with the steering on the left-hand side, like a VW Bug I’d bought off a driver while hitchhiking back in the 70’s, the “lady” was alive. She got out, a nice-looking woman in her 30’s and, to my quick inspection at least, had no black eyes or bandages, no recent wounds at all.

“Hi,” she said, looking a little embarrassed, “I’m Madeline, but please call me Maddy.”

My detective-novel brain was in overdrive trying to process all this information. The corpse lives! And talks! With a smile on her face! While the murderer shuffles his feet and apologizes for being late.

(Director’s Note: The film Keith has being acting in his head all day is genre-wrong, wrong, wrong. This is no mano-a-mano battle for Keith’s life, the desperate criminal bound for the border. Instead, Keith must now be the gracious host with a touch of profane mysticism. Luckily, Keith is a good improviser.)

We went into the bunkhouse and we talked. Maddy left after a few minutes, to sit in her car and smoke. Sam (is a dog) left shortly after, joined Maddy in the car without smoking himself. Or cigarettes.

Adam’s story, the details of which are private, was like lots of men I’ve known. Hell, except for Adam having been deployed three times and injured by an IED, his story is within hailing distance of half the Liberty House residents I’d known and very similar to mine.

Drugs? Check.

Alcohol? Check.

Feelings of worthlessness? Check.

Suicidal thoughts? Check.

Suicidal actions? Check.

Now, Adam wanted help, but mainly he wanted someone to understand, someone to identify with, someone to be a goddamned friend.

I made him laugh about his shame at crying, asking him if he was ashamed of peeing or blowing his nose. Tears are just another juice that needs to get out of the body. Would he feel more a man if he never urinated? His laughter felt real, unforced, not that high-up-in-the-throat maniacal laugh we get before we explode. He seemed calmer.

We talked about French onion soup, which I hardly order in restaurants. They make it too too salty. (Quick sidebar: T-Bones and the Copper Door Restaurants in Southern New Hampshire are a safe place to order excellent onion soup.) We talked about roasting buffalo bones, scooping out the marrow and making soup. We talked about a chambered bullet and a desire to point it at your head and pull the trigger. Adam talked about cartoons, and I rtold my fear his dog was Taz from Bugs Bunny. We didn’t talk about why he didn’t bring his dog. That’s an oversight that bothers me now. We talked about drinking and about alcoholism.

We went outside to smoke. Maddy and Sam joined us and we went back in the bunkhouse. I made clear I’m not a therapist, not a counselor, that I don’t have any letters after my name. I’m just a guy, a nobody who’s made it through that long dark night of the soul, at least for now. I asked Adam if we could have lunch Wednesday on my way down to Manchester, and got his commitment to still be alive at noon when I come to pick him up. I made him laugh. I hate to eat alone, and didn’t want to drag his corpse to a restaurant. We hugged.

Maddy said something that brought embarassment, and I’m ashamed to repeat it.

“You lied just a minute ago. You said you were a nobody. You’re somebody very special.”

They left. Sam and I turned off the stove and the lights in the bunkhouse and locked the door.

It had been a clean, well-lighted place to reach out the hand of brotherhood.

 

(Readers may want to view yesterday’s column “Today is Not a Good Day to Die,” for the beginning of this tale.)

Today is Not a Good Day to Die—Waiting for a Murderer (or a really sad man)(or no one at all)

I don’t often write these things in real time, but today I must. It’s 10:08 am, Monday, January 8, I’m sitting inside the Warriors@45North bunkhouse, a space I’ve never been in alone. After talking with Doc and Chief this morning, I came in here, started the fire and now I wait. For what? I don’t know.

For whom? Adam Davis, I think the man said his name was when he called two hours ago. He was semi-frantic, saying he was in Colebrook, needed to talk with someone, and wanted to know if he could stop by. He just needed a friend. Living a hermit’s life, but having a pastoral heart, I said, “Sure. Come on by!” I mean, what the hell? I’ve been in a space where I don’t want to be alone, couldn’t stand to be alone. Then . . .

“I don’t want to go on hurting my lady.”

Domestic abuse, I assumed, and started to put together a plan as I had my first lukewarm cup of coffee. I prefer it that way. Really.

Then, the phone rang again. Adam. His friend needed directions to 45North. The friend who was apparently going to drop him off. The friend who was dropping him off so he could be with me, a friend he’s never met.

“Go North on 3 until you see Young’s Store on the right. Then look for the Lake Francis State Park sign . . .”

Back to thinking. First, I’ll need to ask if he has a weapon. If so, I’ll ask him to leave it outside. Then, we’ll talk things through.

The phone rang again.

“Hi, this is Adam. Do you mind if I bring my dog?”

What the hell, was my first thought. I was planning on some Hemingwayesque encounter—two men, frozen Great North Woods, one a desperado—and he was asking for permission to bring a dog.

“Does he get along with other dogs?” I asked, thinking of Sam (is a dog).

“He’s blind and small.”

Not really an answer.

“Yeah, but does he get along with other dogs?”

“Usually. He’s blind as a bat though.

Now I pictured an angry tiny Taz, barking and spitting piss and vinegar, trying to attack Sam if only he could find him. Sam (is a dog) is a nice dog, but he’s an oversized medium dog, and could likely tear apart the rabid squirrel in my mind.

“Sure. Bring him along.”

“Thanks. Last night I did something I’m ashamed of.”

“Well,” I said, “we’ll talk about that when you get here.”

“Thanks. Thanks a lot.”

Using my gift of pretending I’m gifted, I went back to my encounter with The Stranger with the Gun, the Murdered Girlfriend and the Blind Dog, perhaps the worst thriller title ever.

I’ll ask him to disarm himself willingly. If he won’t, I’ll improvise.

I’ll offer him coffee. If he doesn’t want any, I’ll improvise.

I’ll ask him to tell me a bit about himself. He will. If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s getting distraught people to talk.

I’ll guide the conversation to last night, praying he terrorized his “lady” by throwing dishes and bottles, then storming out.

Not bloody likely.

I’ll guide the conversation to last night, praying he only hit her once.

Possibly answered prayer I pray.

If he beat her to a pulp or killed her, I’ll pray for her. Then for him. Then for me.

I’ll ask how he wants to turn himself in. If he says he doesn’t want to, I’ll improvise.

If he says he plans to escape to Canada, I’ll ask for as many details as I can, before letting him know I’ll be contacting the police right away.

If he demands my Jeep, I’ll give it to him. If he demands cash, I’ve got about $15. I’ll give it to him. If he wants me to join him, I’ll refuse. If he threatens me with the gun he denied having, I’ll improvise. If he runs outside for the gun, brings it back in, I’ll improvise.

If he shoots me, I’ll bleed. And maybe die. End of improvisation.

But what about the little dog? Would a violent criminal bound for a life on the run bring a blind dog with him? Maybe he’s improvising. The man, I mean. I don’t think a dog can improvise, even though playing a blind dog wouldn’t be such a stretch. Still, dog actors aren’t known for elasticity in their performances, but for their resoluteness.

Funny, that while I’m writing what may be close to my last words, I can’t stop but be a smart-ass. I don’t want a gravestone particularly, and I don’t want “Smart-Ass to the End” engraved on it, but that might be a good t-shirt slogan for my funeral.

Back to the present.

Although the heat has been on for almost an hour now, it’s still cold inside the bunkhouse. The Tiny White Box is warmer, and homier than this room, but I don’t want Adam Davis and his Amazing Blind Yipster there. A thought strikes: the box is right next to here—Adam and his friend will make some kind of noise, and even a blind dog finds a bark now and then. Sam and I are going back inside the box. Now.

11:09 am

Sam and I are back in the box. Coffee is brewing, and Tonio K.’s Yugoslavia is on the box—“Student Interview (with the third richest man in the world)” right now. God, I love Tonio and his music.

Still no Adam. Could’ve gotten lost. Could’ve gotten cold feet. Could’ve gotten arrested. Now that it’s been more than an hour I’ve been contemplating my imminent death, I’m feeling much better. If Adam comes and pistol-whips me or shoots me, I may feel differently. If I die, I guess I’ll feel nothing at all.

Knowing I may have minutes or years left to live, I’m wondering about “pistol-whipping” and what that phrase actually means. Does the whipper hold the barrel of the pistol, turning the weapon’s handle into a hammerhead? I mean, holding the stock and whipping someone with the barrel would be like slapping a man with a kosher hot dog—more embarrassing than threatening. It’s good to be back to full smart-ass, knowing even at the moment of my imagined death, smart-ass never left me.

The title of this column, “Today is Not a Good Day to Die,” is a callback more than 10 years ago, to the day I got sober, even though I didn’t know it. My journal entry that day:

May 21, 2007

 

When I got out of bed this morning, I had a plan.  Not a perfect plan.  Not a foolproof plan.  Hell, my plan could have snapped apart like a small tree branch trying to support a bear cub across a swollen May river.  Still, it was a plan.

 

I was going to take a bus to Dartmouth College, start heading south on the Appalachian Trail and not stop until Georgia.  With just dried fruit and oatmeal to sustain me, I would walk the bottom four-fifths of the AT in two pairs of sneakers and a pair of sandals.

 

Every plan has loose ends, space for contingencies, room left to breathe in the design.  In an excellent plan, the paragraph above would present the final problem:  How will I equip myself for this three- or four-month journey?  The perfect plan would include the application of a credit card or cash to expenses at an outdoor apparel shop.  A good plan would answer the question in a thornier manner, involving difficult budget decisions and a willingness to compromise on any given food’s flavor for calories.  

 

Now that we’ve covered what that second paragraph would be in a perfect and a good plan, let me now share with you what living on oatmeal and ending up walking a hundred miles barefoot is in a truly fucked-up, horrible, wretched plan–it is the heart, the clockwork, the settled part of a doomed plan.  That was my plan.

 

I was going to walk away from everything I’ve known, take on a fake identity, a “trail name,” and, eventually, kill myself out on the trail, thereby saving my three beautiful daughters from the shame of being related to a suicide.  Instead, they would have been related to one of the disappeared.  That was my plan.

 

Instead of following out one of the stupidest plans I could have come up with, I checked into a VA hospital for treatment for my depression.  I had tentatively called my trail journal, “Tomorrow is a Good Day to Die:  the last days of a suicide.”  I’ll now have to come up with a new title, something with a similar pizazz and, dare I say, optimism. 

Now it’s early 2018. I await my murderer—or a sad man who wants to cry before I convince him to turn himself in. Or a no-show. Regardless, I’ve sat with my death for an hour, a death I neither summoned nor desired. If I were starting a new trail journal, I think I’d title it: “The Future is a Big Place—and it needs my smartassery!”

Afterward: It’s now 12:50 pm and Sam (is a dog) and I need to drive to Treats and Teasures, the convenience and gift shop that has great Wi-Fi. Adam Davis, or whatever his name really is or was, never showed. At least not yet. I suspect he won’t come at all, which makes me sad, if I could have helped him, or glad, if he were going to kill me. Either way, I’m posting this. If anything happens, I’ll improvise.

If this turns out really horribly, I’ve loved my life, especially the parts with my daughters, and I’ll miss it. I’ve already published my funeral desires.

President Trump, Please Cease and Desist

President Trump is my president. Did I vote for him? No. Do I think he is a wise man? No. Do I trust his judgment? No. Still, I am a small-d democrat, and I have respect for the will of the people even when I think the people have chosen unwisely. Some of my conservative friends questioned Barack Obama’s legitimacy—electorally as well as biologically—and I pushed back hard at them, I feel comfortable now disagreeing with my liberal friends about Donald Trump. He is the president, therefore he is my president.

I mentioned small-d democracy above; I’m also a Constitutionalist. I believe the United States Constitution, while far from holy writ, is the highest and best example of how human beings should live in relation to each other and to their joint government. The Bill of Rights—the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution for my foreign readers—lays out a compact or agreement between the government and we the governed. Included in there are the right to keep and bear arms, the right not to incriminate ourselves, the right to assemble peaceably, the right to worship or not worship as we see fit, and the right of free speech. It’s that last I’d like to call upon for the rest of this column.

I think President Bush was a mush-minded chowderhead for toppling Sadam Hussein based on imaginary weapons of mass destruction.

Protected by the First Amendment.

President Clinton was a narcissistic and selfish liar who wasted tremendous political capital for the sake of sexual/emotional gratification.

Protected by the First Amendment.

President Obama threw a diaper into an already poisoned punchbowl when he declared a “red line” in Syria then failed to act.

Protected by the First Amendment.

With each passing day, President Trump feels more like an autocrat who dreams of dictatorship than like the leader of a free country. My final straw? His cease-and-desist letter a few days ago, demanding a halt in publication of a sleazy tell-all book. Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, of which I’ve read only the first two-hundred pages, is a novelistic hatchet job on Donald Trump. Imagine if Sherman McCoy from Bonfire of the Vanities had somehow been elected president—he would show more self-awareness than Wolff’s Trump. It is an ugly picture, and I have to question how Wolff managed to get all this background. Even more, I have to question how it is that Wolff was apparently offered a backstage pass to the shenanigans. When I’m done reading it, I doubt I’ll ever pick it up again. Still . . . Protected by the First Amendment.

For the President of the United States to demand the suppression of a book that provides no threat to national security, offers no classified information and doesn’t call for the violent overthrow of the government is a travesty. The book says ugly things about Donald Trump. Clinton Cash said ugly things about Hillary and Bill Clinton. The new biography of Jann Wenner says ugly things about him. Saying ugly things about people is protected under the First Amendment. If I’m attacked this way, either orally or in print, I have two possible responsible choices. I can take the high road, ignoring the attack and demonstrating through my deeds and words the attack was groundless or I can choose to address each of the ugly things, providing evidence they are not true. What I, as an American, must not do is try to prevent the publication of such attacks. I have to protect my enemy’s right to free speech as much as my friend’s.

Before I take a cold compress and lie down to later write silly stuff, I want to address a defense offered by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the president’s press secretary, that somehow the president has a right to suppress the book because it attacks President Trump’s family. (It’s not germane to my argument, but I do relish the irony of President Trump feeling his family should be off limits after suggesting Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination and mocking the physical appearance of Heidi Cruz.) I believe Eric, Don, and Ivanka Trump are all adults and all surrogates for the President, and therefore fair game in any political expose. Again, I’ve only read the first hundred pages, but so far Tiffany Trump, daughter of Donald Trump and Marla Maples, who has stayed out of the political eye, has not been mentioned at all, nor has Baron Trump, the president’s young son. Yes, Melania Trump has been presented as devastated at having to be First Lady, but that role is a public one, and, in my lifetime I have to go back to Pat Nixon to see any First Lady who hasn’t been treated as a political figure.

President Trump has likely doubled, tripled or quadrupled the sales of Wolff’s tawdry and gossipy book. If that last sentence is hyperbolic, let me restate it in personal terms. I’ve never bought this kind of trash before, whether written by Kitty Kelley about the Reagans or other two-bit hustlers about other presidents. All it took to get my wallet open, though, was the President of the United States trying to prevent its publication. After all, it’s protected by the First Amendment.

A Beautiful Blizzard—And I’m Stuck Eating Pizza in Manchester

This isn’t what I signed up for when Sam (is a dog) and I moved to the Tiny White Box in August. Even in those balmy late-summer days, one of the real reasons for choosing Pittsburg, NH, was anticipating high winds, blowing snow and sub-subzero temperatures. Today, Pittsburg has them. And I don’t.

This New Year’s Week began with sickness—I slept most of New Year’s Day, with congestion, coughing, achiness, etc., and had to cancel a meeting in Colebrook with my friend, Ted. Tuesday, I got out of bed feeling 70% better—until the phone rang. It was my friend, Jennifer, who had just gotten a New Year’s greeting from her employer—To save money, we’re contracting out your job. Please leave immediately. Don’t pass go. You can collect your last paycheck at the allotted time. While Jennifer and I aren’t close close, I’ve always seen myself as a kind of mentor to her—she’s creative and nutty, so that’s not as far-fetched as it seems. When I heard her crying and screaming about what had happened, I asked her if she wanted me to drive down to Concord to be with her. She said, yes, please, so Sam and I took about five minutes to pack and jumped into the Jeep. That was Tuesday, 10 am.

Now, about the Jeep. It’s a 2000 Cherokee Sport I bought two years ago at auction. It hasn’t been a money pit, but it’s old enough that “normal wear and tear” is the equivalent of “time to buy a new one.” Given a Pittsburg temperature of -10, it’s only right the Jeep’s heater motor would buy the farm as we were leaving, meaning Sam and I had four hours in a vehicle with only gravity-feed heating. I know the old adage, instead of complaining about the cold, imagine the man who has no Jeep. Still. I called down to our Manchester mechanic and arranged for him to put in a new motor Wednesday morning, before we drove north. This was by Tuesday, 5 pm.

I went to Jennifer’s apartment at 6:30 or so, and offered what comfort I could, and encouraging her to see the silver lining. When Sam and I left by 8, Jennifer was thinking about the future instead of focusing on the wrong she was done. I don’t know if I get any credit for this, but at least I don’t think I did any harm.

We spent Tuesday night at my daughter, Becca’s, and got up early Wednesday, intending to get the motor replaced, come back to load the Jeep, and be on our way. Good intentions. The motor took an hour and a couple hundred bucks, and we got back to Becca’s at 11, only to discover I’d left the apartment key inside. Behind a locked door. Along with my computer. With Becca working at UNH. Forty-five minutes away.

Instead of calling Jennifer, weeping with frustration, I called Becca, who said she’d be home around 5:30. I offered to make her a quick dinner before Sam and I finally left for the Tiny White Box. We now had a free day in Manchester, so I bought wild rice, mushrooms and greens for dinner, and spent most of the afternoon with daughter Libby. I then went to a Starbucks to kill time until Becca got home.

When Becca came in, she said she needed to go to the gym before dinner, and since wild rice takes an hour or so to cook, it became clear Sam and I wouldn’t be on the road until 9 pm at the earliest, with a blizzard scheduled for the next day—today. I contacted my friend, Doc, up in Pittsburg, who said he’d check on the Tiny White Box when I told him Sam and I wouldn’t be back before Friday afternoon.

Which brings me to now. Sam, is sleeping on a bed in Becca’s living room, I’m stuffed with too much pizza—hamburg and anchovy, if you’re interested—and a beautiful blizzard rages outside. We plan to leave Manchester tomorrow  by mid-morning, but since we hadn’t planned anything bigger than a walk Tuesday morning, I think it’s clea our plans are simply God’s punchlines.

Before Video Killed Me—A 1970’s Radio Star

May 1979 was a long time ago. More than 38 years ago, in fact. I was still in the Army, although I’d come back from Germany to finish the last 14 months of a four-year enlistment with duty at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. I’d started off as a print journalist in the Army, writing an unfunny humor column and long feature stories, mainly because my interests veered away from the Five W’s and H of hard news (Who, what, when, where, why and, if possible, how) and more toward the illustrative anecdote and the quirky quote.

(Here, I’d like to disabuse the reader of the notion I haven’t progressed as a writer from the age of 20. Now, the anecdotes I use are not chosen for any higher purpose than because I want to write about them. There’s no illustrating going on behind the scenes. Instead, I’m like an artist who’d once shown the ability to create a picture reminiscent of, say, a bowl of fruit, but who now just loves to smear paint on a canvas, hoping something interesting will appear.)

After something terrible happened to me in November, 1978, and I was still stationed Germany, I discovered I couldn’t write non-fiction anymore, or at least couldn’t write with the verve and energy I’d shown before. Being a non-writing newspaper reporter didn’t seem like a winning proposition, so I got temporary duty cleaning out a just-past World-War-II-era military chapel. There, I pilfered a box of “combat New Testaments” with a message from President Roosevelt, a box I sold to a book dealer in Boston for a tidy sum five years later. But, as always, I digress.

I’d been a temporary chaplain’s assistant for six months when I got orders sending me to Leonard Wood, about a hundred miles south of St. Louis and in the Ozark Mountains. The base newspaper at Leonard Wood didn’t know they were getting a reporter who didn’t write anything but poetry and fiction, neither genre particularly useful in covering, say, the transition to power of a new base commander. I was lucky, though, to discover my first day there a tiny recording booth with an even smaller soldier inside it. Ernie was a short-timer, who had only 27 days left until discharge, and his job was to read five minutes of “news” about Fort Leonard Wood into a microphone attached to a reel-to-reel tape recorder. (I told you this was a long time ago.) I use the quotation marks around news because Ernie’s “show” (there I go again) was a matter of reading announcements like “The Fort Leonard Wood Chapter of Toastmasters International will have its regular Tuesday meeting tomorrow, Tuesday, at Godfather’s Pizza on Perimeter Road. That’s Tuesday at noon at Godfather’s for Toastmasters.” The information in each announcement was repeated at least twice, because Ernie’s “Fort Leonard Wood Today” was a morning drive-time staple of both the local AM radio stations, KJPW and KFBD. Folks somehow involved with the base couldn’t be expected to listen to every word, and needed to be alerted to each subject a couple times.

Ernie would spend his mornings shooting the breeze with his civilian supervisor, Ken Clayton, and constructing his script, which varied little each day, then tape the five-minute show twice, once for each station, and leave the base around 3 pm to drop off the tapes, careful to pick that morning’s used show, so the tape could be magnetically erased to be used the next day. All in all, Ernie had a pretty sweet gig, and I set about to inherit it.

Before I’d given up writing, I’d been nominated for some awards in Europe, which says as much about the paucity of writing ability in an all-volunteer peacetime army as it does about my gifts. Still, awards, even unawarded awards, look impressive on paper, and Jeff, the base newspaper editor, had nothing but paper to examine before I arrived. He was a gung-ho E-5 (a Spec Five, the pay equivalent of a sergeant) and I was an E-5 as well, although lacking any desire to read the base paper, much less transform it into an award winner. As a non-writing reporter, the equivalent of a broken-armed pitcher, I just wanted to play out my contract and move on with life. Ernie’s job, open in less than a month, seemed like a perfect pasture for me. Jeff, whose wife was a reporter as well, had different ideas. He tried to convince me we could do great things together. I said I preferred solitary mediocrity. He told me I could choose my beat. I said I’d never liked Kerouac, so I’d Lawrence Ferlingetti. He asked me what I was talking about. I told him all I wanted to do was radio, that I’d listened to radio since I was a kid, and that Ernie’s job was the perfect entrée into the field.

“Radio,” he said. “Radio’s dying. Why would you want to go into radio when you can be a newspaper reporter?”

(I told you this was a long time ago.)

“I like radio,” I said firmly, “because radio is what I like.”

Unable to respond to such iron-clad logic, Jeff released me from the newspaper, and I became, for my last 14 months in the Army, the voice of “Fort Leonard Wood Today.” Because Jeff had let me go, I did him a favor shortly before I was discharged, and managed to write one piece, submitted to Army Times and printed there. Somehow it was a feather in his cap to have my byline in the Army’s paper of record. I told you I could only write fiction, and that’s what this story was, really. It was an over-the-top glowing description of the college classes available on base—all by Drury College, which may be defunct now. In a classic bit of irony, I began the story with hyper-hyperbole: “Fort Leonard Wood, although lacking Socrates, Plato or a non-PX marketplace, is known locally as the ‘Athens of the Ozarks.’”

If I’d been on radio, I would have laughed out loud, but writing kept my face straight.

 

If I Should Die Before I Wake

Regular readers of this column are probably tired of hearing about Durham, New Hampshire, a small but not miniscule town that happens to house the University of New Hampshire, a medium-sized state school with a national reputation in a few research areas. Durham is my hometown, it’s where I’m from and where my mother is from. It is no Grover’s Corners, no Lake Wobegone, no Spoon River—although it does have the advantage of existing, and as Saint Anselm taught us more than a little while ago, existence is a greatness-making property. I agree with Anselm when it comes to geography; not so much when applied to “that than which nothing greater can be imagined”—i.e., The Big Joker in the Sky.

I refer to Durham because it’s where I formed my values, where I became an earlier but not completely absorbed part of me. Since I’m adopted, some psychologists might say I may have attachment issues, anxiety about having objects yanked away like a nipple out of a yawling infant or, in my case, not having been breast-fed, a bottle’s nipple. I don’t see it, but I also can’t see a smudge of chocolate on the left side of my chin. (Wipe it off, would you? Thanks.) I’ve spent enough time with psychologists to find most of their theories about me as interesting as tarot readers, though not as exotically dressed.

As it happened, Durham was less than 10 miles from Pease Air Force Base, from where planes took off all day and all night. I don’t know whether I was told Pease’s mission, whether I imagined it, or whether it’s even true, but I believed each of those planes had an atomic bomb in its belly to be flown over Russia. The pilot would wait to see if orders came to open up the undercarriage and end the world. If not, the plane would return to Pease, get gassed up and be flown back by another pilot who’d await orders. In my mind, the same pattern was being followed by Soviet flights over the United States. Lying in bed at night, I’d hear the gentle rumble of the jets and wonder whether I’d get out of my morning’s spelling test by getting incinerated by a Russian atomic bomb dr. I also remember picturing the American and Soviet pilots’ paths crossing each other twice, first as they flew to wait for the end of the world, then as they flew home knowing they were safe for one more day. On their way to bring about nuclear Armageddon, I pictured them waving their fists at each other as they passed, but giving gentle, happy nods on their way back.

I’m too young to have been taught civil defense practices in schools—climbing under desks, avoiding looking at the flash, not grabbing a classmate’s breast in a final flawed attempt to avoid dying a virgin. (That last was not in the curriculum, but must have been on every 13-year-old boy’s mind.) My childhood had no training to avoid death in a nuclear holocaust; instead, I had a silent acceptance that eventually it would come, our luck would run out of gas and we’d all fry together, leaving just cockroaches behind.

Going to sleep to the hum of a nuclear holocaust might not seem all that comforting, but for some reason it was. I’d drift off, knowing everything could disappear before I opened my eyes. Although I stopped saying bedtime prayers when I was five or so, the theological seed of destruction had been firmly planted and taken root:

“Now, I lay me down to sleep.

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

If I should die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

If He can find it in the ashes.