Category

Fading memories

Reminiscing

I have nearly 3,000 songs on my iPod, and the Little River Band’s Reminiscing shuffled into rotation today for the first time in over a year. It was oddly suspicious timing considering where I am on my life journey because music carries such strong memories for me.

Hearing this song took me back to my ninth grade Homecoming Dance in 1978, where I spent the evening dancing with a petite brunette, a seventh grader, I had taken as my date.

We had such crushes on each other and hung out together nearly every school day in the fall of that year. There were no real dates. No movies. Just talking at lunch and sometimes after school.

The innocence of the times made the Homecoming Dance a magical place for an awkward ninth grade boy and a girl at her junior high school dance. We danced all evening, doe-eyed and love-struck, sticking together on the song breaks while we drank punch.

Ten o’ clock came too quickly. The music stopped, and the dance was over. The dancers filed out of the gym and to the front of the school where everyone waited in line, while, one-by-one, parents pulled up to take their children home. My mom arrived in the family station wagon, and we climbed into the back seat.  We held hands as we rode silently to her house. I caught mom glancing in the rear-view mirror from time to time.

We never kissed. I was too nervous.

The holiday break came soon after and we didn’t see each other for two weeks. When we returned to school, it just wasn’t the same. The Homecoming Dance became our only evening together, and this one song captured a memory of a moment in time better than any picture ever would.

I think memories are much better than pictures.

While over time our memories may fade, they become what we need them to be and not always a crystal-clear or true snapshot of what once happened. I sometimes believe this is better when it comes to matters of our heart. The reality of the truth is often too painful for us to relive. We need these softened memories to allow us to reminisce and dream about what could be again. Too much clarity prevents us from even trying.

Here’s to you, my dear friend, wherever you are. If you remember this one night so long ago, I hope you have good memories, too. I think of you every time I hear this song, and it reminds me of sweetness and innocence, now forever lost.

 


Reminiscing was originally written December 16, 2010.

Photo Credit::2-2005 White Picket Fences 064 by chatwithGod

The Legacy of Unlikely Heroes (Part 1)

Spider-Man vs Beer BellyI can tell you from experience what it’s like to hang by a thread.

The clothesline pole looked like a giant letter “T.”  It had four eyebolts bored through the crossbar, two on each side of the post, to which each of the clotheslines was attached. The rounded eyes of the blots faced toward the workshop, while the threaded-ends stuck through the back of the pole and were held in place with a nut. Four rope clotheslines stretched from a t-shaped pole at the edge of the back porch, across the small back yard, to a board on the outside wall of my dad’s workshop.

I would stand on my toes at the edge of the porch, carefully grab the crossbar in the narrow spaces between the eyebolts, and swing myself into the yard. I repeated this action many times daily to experience the thrill of flying for the half-a-second it took me to get to the ground from the porch two-feet above. I had jumped from the edge of the porch before, but the sensation of thrusting from the crossbar was much more exciting and gave me an extra quarter-second in the air.

Such death-defying displays of courage were the cause of many of my childhood injuries; sprained ankles from poor landings and cuts on my hands and wrists from grabbing the pole too closely to bolts. There were few scares, though, that topped the ten minutes I hung suspended in the air by the threads of my watch band.

After I had taken the garbage out one summer morning, I ran back to the porch, quickly grabbed the crossbar, and launched into my first swing of the day. Much to my surprise, I never hit the ground. Instead, my watchband had somehow slipped over the threaded, protruding-end of an eyebolt and twisted so that it was wrapped around the threads twice. If you had seen me from a distance, it might have looked to you as if my right wrist was bolted to the crossbar. With my fingers sticking upward, my feet dangling two feet off the ground and inches from the edge of the porch, I am sure it was the sight to see.

My body weight made it impossible to release the buckle on the band, or to untwist the band with my left hand. I was too far from the edge of the porch to swing back so that my toes could touch and take enough weight off my watchband to allow me to free myself.  Dad was working that day, and I was too embarrassed to call for my mom knowing how she always found so much humor in these situations that her laughter would have prevented her from helping me before I lost the circulation to my hand.

I was contemplating the next day’s newspaper headline: “Boy hung by watchband. Loses hand,” when I heard the neighbor’s screen door squeak. I saw Dan come out of the house and into his back yard.

Dan was probably 20, about ten years older than I was at the time, and lived next door with his grandparents. His large pot belly, acne-scarred face, and biker-like dress made him look considerably older. The only hint to his real age was the exceptionally well-drawn superhero characters that he painted on the ever-present white t-shirts he wore under his sleeveless denim vest.

As he walked into the yard, Dan saw me hanging from the crossbar. He walked over to the fence and asked what I was doing.  I acted as nonchalantly as I could, considering my fingers were turning purple, but I finally explained my predicament and asked for his help. He laughed, and after what seemed like hours of making fun of me, he agreed to help me down.

It took Dan a long time to walk the twenty-five feet from his backyard, through the alley, and into my backyard to release me from this awkward, self-inflicted crucifixion of sorts. I am sure he took baby-steps once he was out of my sight. He might have even stopped for a while to smell the flowers along the way; that’s just how Dan rolled.

When he finally arrived, he lifted me just enough to take the weight off the watch band, and I was able to free myself. I thanked him for helping me get down; he smiled and went home without another word. For a brief moment in the life of a little boy, Dan was a hero, not unlike the comic book heroes he drew on his t-shirts. Learning about his life struggles as an adult, helping me off the clothesline pole may have been the only time Dan felt like he was anyone’s hero.

I am sure he would have said he was an unlikely hero because he just happened to be in the right place, at the right time.  To me, that sounds like the best definition of a real hero.

______

Photo Credit::Spider-Man vs Beer Belly by Niccolò Caranti

Listening for silent screamers

For most of my childhood we lived in an old two-story house that my dad spent weekends and evenings remodeling. It seemed like the tallest house on the block, although I think it was an illusion based on pale-yellow color of the siding. The color made the house stand out among the one-story houses on each side, and the few other two-story houses on the block that had either brick or brick-patterned asphalt siding.

A large porch stretched the width of the front of the house and was inviting with an old, comfortable, glider that once belonged to my grandparents. My dad’s workshop sat on the edge of the back yard between two rustic carports, and a dog-pen that never held a dog.

The house was narrow, probably not more than 25-feet wide. The yard existed only in the front and the back of the house, though a fence ran along the property line on all four sides. If I were to face the front of the house I could clearly see that it sat to the right of the lot, just enough, for the narrow concrete walkway to go down the left side and make it easy for someone to get from the front yard to the back yard. Wasted space to be sure since few ever made such a trip. Those who knew us came directly to the kitchen door in the back.

The interior floor plan mirrored the exterior layout, with the three rooms on the main floor—living room, dining room, and kitchen—sitting to the right of the house. From the small front entry, stairs led to the second floor, and to right of the stairs a small hallway came to a dead end at one of our two bathrooms. Upstairs were four small bedrooms and a wide hallway that was still covered in grey, wool carpet that was printed with dark, red floral pattern and was likely put down when the house was originally built.

I think it would have been a creepy place to live for most any child. For me, and my overactive imagination, there were times the house could be downright frightening. It probably didn’t help matters much that I had overheard my mom tell someone that one of the previous owners had died, or was murdered, in the house. True or not, this prompted me to sleep with my bed facing the door and the hall light on so I could get a few seconds jump on any apparition that had me in its sights.

Though I never saw a ghost, there was one night that stands out in my memory as one the most frightening times of my childhood.

I woke up to find the hall light off that night, which meant that mom and dad had gone to bed. The house was really dark and quiet. I began to hear the stairs creak as if someone were slowly walking up and trying not to make noise. I broke out in sweat and started yelling for my dad, but nothing came out of my mouth. There was no sound at all. The harder I tried to scream, the more panicked I became; I was certain someone, or something, was coming for me and no one could hear my cries for help.

I’m not sure what happened next. I suspect I had a panic attack and I passed out because I don’t remember anything more from that night. Obviously, whatever was on the stairs, or that my imagination had put on the stairs, did not pull me away into the darkness that night.

My dad didn’t come to my rescue either; he hadn’t heard my silent screams.

I think it was this experience, along with losing my hearing, which has helped me to be more aware of the silent screams of others. Through body language and intuition, I can usually pick up when something’s wrong in someone’s life. I don’t often know the cause of their screams, but I can almost always “hear” them screaming.

It’s hard to explain how I know they’re crying out. I just seem to know. And I want to do something to help them.

I fall short in my ability to help those people whose silent screams I do hear. I have a tendency to smother them because I want to help them avoid that frightening helplessness that comes from being a silent screamer. As much as I may want to help, or as much as I may try, some are not ready to accept help; others need to move through the experiences on their own to gain the greatest life value.

I am learning that I cannot help everyone, but knowing this won’t stop me from trying. So, I want them to know this:

I hear you and I am here for you.

Whenever you’re ready.

“I had a tank of tropical fish. Someone turned up the tank heater and they all boiled. I woke up on a Friday morning and went to feed them, and there they were. All my beautiful fish floating on top. Most of them split into, others with their eyes hanging out. It looked like violence. But it was such a quiet night. And I remember wishing I had the kind of ears that could hear fish screams, because they looked as if they had suffered, and I wanted so badly to save them.

And that Sunday in church, I heard that Christ had told his apostles to be fishers of men. And from then on, I looked upon all the people in the church as fish. I was young, so I saw them as beautiful tropical fish, and so I knew they were all quiet screamers. The church was so quiet. I thought everyone was boiling, and I wanted the kind of ears that could hear what they were screaming about, ‘cause I wanted to save them.

As I got older, the people lost the look of tropical fish. They became catfish to me – just overdressed scavengers. So I drowned out whatever I might be able to hear, and made my world my tank, so hot that I almost split. And so now I am back listening, listening for the screams of angels.”

~ Mark Dolson, a character from the play, Mass Appeal

Be more happier

He showed up the door of the room on my third day in the hospital during the summer of 1971. He came by, he said, because had heard me cry-out the night before and wanted to make sure I was okay. We were both on the rehabilitation floor of the hospital; I was being fitted for a bent-knee brace and learning to walk on crutches as part of my treatment for hip dysplasia.

His first name was Dempsey, but I never caught his last name. He was ten-years-old, although much smaller in stature that I was at eight-years-old; the top of this head barely rose above the handle of my door. He had impressive cowlick above his left eye that caused his short-cropped blonde hair to stick straight out in the front. He seemed to vibrate with the energy of boy who had caffeine coursing through his veins rather than blood.

I told him that was upset the night before because two male orderlies woke me from a sound sleep and carted me down to the basement of the hospital for tests and measurements. The kindly, older woman nurse who had been taking care of me was not around. She explained everything; the guys explained nothing. I was so afraid because I didn’t know what was happening.

After hearing my story, he smiled and bounced into the room. He spent the next hour with me watching me draw and telling me how hospitals actually worked. He told me about hospital shifts, the grumpy nurse to avoid after lunch, who to ask for ice cream and get it every time, and what “physical therapy” really meant. Dempsey was hospital pro. He had already been there two weeks learning how to use the hooks that he called his new “hands.”

“He is a Thalidomide baby,” my mother told me when I asked about him as a teenager.

Thalidomide was a drug marketed as an over-the-counter sedative but was often used by pregnant women in the 1950’s and early 1960’s to treat morning sickness. Many women who used the drug found unfortunately discovered that their newborns suffered from limb deformities, including shortened or missing arms, among other more life-threatening and debilitating deformities.

Dempsey was missing his arms from the elbow down as I recall, but I don’t believe he had other challenges; at least none that were visible, or none that kept him from doing the things he wanted to do for those ten-days we spent in the hospital together. By the time I met him, he had mastered the large movements with his new “hands,” but still could not hold a pencil or spoon, let alone use one. Until he could write his name and feed himself, he couldn’t go home.

He did not seem to be in much of a hurry to do either.

Our daily routine at the hospital was similar. The nurses would wake us at 7:00 AM for breakfast and the orderlies would show up about 9:00 to take us to physical therapy. Physical therapy was a couple of hours, and we were back to our rooms in time for lunch. Our afternoons were “free,” if you could call them that. It only meant that we weren’t scheduled for any tests or therapy, and could spend that time doing whatever we wanted in our rooms, or in sometimes the out in the hallway. Dinner was about 5:30 and the hospital’s only visiting hours were from 6:00 to 8:00 PM. Lights were out at 10:00 PM for us.

My parents and grandparents visited every evening, and I talked to them at least once each afternoon on the telephone. My favorite aunt even sent me a care package or two from Kentucky to help me pass the time. Dempsey’s mom visited him a few times while I was there, but I don’t remember other visitors or care packages for him. I wondered why his mom did not come every night and why he didn’t have a dad who visited, too, but I never asked him. He didn’t seem to mind not having many visitors.

Dempsey and I became fast friends. We did everything together including, afternoon races down the hallway in wheel chairs (that grumpy nurse was always yelling at us), coordinating Jell-O®-slurping contests with the other kids on our floor at lunch, and making happy drawings for the terminal kids on the floor below. Of course, Dempsey could not draw or color because of he had not mastered the fine-motor skills with his hooks. Instead, he told us what to draw, or how to make our pictures, “be more happier” looking.

By my eighth day in the hospital, I had received the bent-knee brace and mastered the art of walking up and down stairs on crutches. Two days later, I said goodbye to the nurses and raced Dempsey one last time in the wheelchairs to the finish line where we met that grumpy nurse who somehow managed a smile.

Dempsey walked us to the elevator and said, “Be more happier! You get to go home today.”

I was sad to leave him.

That was the last time I saw Dempsey, but he has never been far from my mind. Throughout my childhood, I thought of him every time I faced a physical or mental challenge I wasn’t sure I could overcome, when I played basketball, and when I ran track.  As an adult, he comes to mind whenever I’m feeling sorry for myself, when I’m do something unexpected for someone that brings a smile to their face, and of course, whenever I slurp Jell-O®.

Dempsey taught me that life’s adversities could be easily overcome with a change of attitude and perspective.  He showed me that it was okay to take on the grumpy in the name of a little fun and that it is much better to help other people “be more happier” than it is to wallow in my own self-pity.

Having a handicap is a life challenge, but being handicapped is merely a state of mind.

Thank you, Dempsey. You made a difference. Wherever you are, I thought you would like to know that I’m still trying to follow your lead.

_____

Photo credit: Pubescent Boy in the Light by Lynne’s Lens

The scent of gardenia

The gardenia outside of my office is beginning to bloom.

My grandmother loved gardenias and even wore gardenia perfume. Whenever I catch the scent of flower I’m reminded of her.

I think she planned it that way.

Fear of falling

Missouri River Rail BridgeWhen I was seven, my granddad had a mild heart attack. As part of his rehabilitation, his doctor suggested that he walk a couple of miles, several times a week.  He liked those walks, and occasionally he would ask me to tag along. I enjoyed those times with him. He was a great storyteller and always had something to say to keep me entertained.

The walks were long and meandering for a seven-year-old.  Sometimes we walked for blocks in one direction. Other times, we seemed to change direction at every corner.  There were times when he got bored with the city blocks, and we would find ourselves walking on the railroad tracks near the house. I think he liked the track walks the best because his stories were imaginative and exciting.

On one of our railroad track walks, we decided to cross the Kanawha River on the train bridge. As we got to the bridge and the land began to fall away, I noticed that I could see the river through the cross ties. I hesitated, but he kept walking. He didn’t know I had fallen behind and I wanted to catch up desperately so that I was not alone on that section of the bridge.

I took a few more quick steps, hopping over a several more ties until everywhere I looked I could see water. I froze.

Although the space between the cross ties was only a few inches wide I could see the trestle, then the river below. I was terrified of falling into the river.

It was an irrational fear. I knew that I was too big to fall through the spaces of the cross ties, but my fear kept me from moving forward just the same.

My granddad was about fifty feet ahead when he realized what was happening. He called my name, told me to look at him–not my feet or the water–then walk straight ahead. After what seemed like an eternity, I worked up enough courage to start the walk out to him.  I didn’t have a choice. I was too far out on the bridge, and I could see the water between the cross ties behind me, too. No one was waiting behind.

He kept talking to me as I walked slowly toward him. When I finally stood beside him, I was relieved. Even though I could still see the river through the ties and trestle, he made me feel safe.

He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I know that was scary for you. There are going to be many times in life when you’re going to be so afraid of something you won’t know what to do. When this happens to you, I want you to remember what you did today. Look straight ahead, keep your head held high, and start moving forward. If you can do this, you’ll always be fine, just as you are now.”

Throughout my life, every time I’ve found myself afraid of falling or failing in life, I think of my granddad. Then I hold my head high, look straight ahead, and start moving forward.

And I’ve always been fine.

Photo Credit::Missouri River Rail Bridge by BlackburnPhoto

 

A summer of superheroes

The summer between my fourth and fifth grade was unbearably hot, but it did not prevent my friends and me from playing together outside. We welcomed the freedom summer brought to our lives and were outside from morning to night, often taking a break from our activities to sit under the tree we had just climbed, or to chase the ever-present lightning bugs at dusk in the in hopes of capturing enough in a jar to light the way home. We were prone to occasional role-playing, engaging in a game of “Army” or “Cowboys and Indians.” This particular summer brought on a new game, though. It was the summer of the superheroes.

Superfriends, a Saturday morning cartoon about a team of superheroes, had launched the fall before, and my friends and I were hooked on the idea of having some special power and secret identity behind which we could hide. While we had read the comic books, the cartoon brought the characters to life for us. It also didn’t hurt that the Superfriends had a couple of kids and a dog as sidekicks. It gave us hope, I suppose, that we could do something extraordinary with our lives.

We didn’t confine ourselves just to the superheroes that appeared in the cartoon. That summer we became any superhero we chose. Sometimes I was Thor, other times I was the Flash. Once in a while, I became Captain America or Aquaman. Everyone had his favorite superhero, but no one ever really wanted to be the Batman.

“He’s useless as a superhero,” my friends would say. “He doesn’t have any super powers at all! Sure, he has gadgets, but he can still die from being shot or from falling off a building. Who wants to be a superhero that can die? Who wants to be a superhero that’s SO normal?! He’s not even a superhero, you know? He’s just a man!”

Occasionally a new kid would join us and be such a Batman fanatic that he would suffer the barbs and crazy talk to assume the role. Unfortunately, the Batman was always the first one “killed” by whichever arch nemesis we were fighting that day. He was first to die because he was human and the most vulnerable of us all, but mostly, we just needed to make that point. I always felt a little sorry for the Batman and that new kid whose faith in the character couldn’t be swayed by the thought of an early death.

Although I secretly wanted to be the Batman, I didn’t have the conviction of character, or frankly, the desire to endure the taunts of choosing to be him that summer. The Batman died at least 100 times that summer. He kept coming back. Not once did I take on the role.

As an adult, I know that we each selected characters to be that summer to provide a needed distraction from our own shortcomings and fears. We were on the verge of our teenage years but still wanted to hold on to our childhood belief that we could be someone—anyone–powerful and important, but not who we really were that summer. I know now that I wanted to be Thor because he was strong and in control, neither of which I could quite manage as one of the smallest of my friends. The Flash appealed to me because he was very fast and I was not fast at all. Aquaman controlled the water, and then the water controlled me. Captain America was my favorite because Steve Rogers, his alter ego, was a sickly young man who became a perfect human specimen with the help of an experimental serum. I longed for an experimental serum of my own.

Of all the characters we played that summer,  I think I learned the most from Batman; the superhero that no one aspired to be. You see, the Batman was just a regular guy trying to make a difference. There’s nothing easy about being a superhero.  But, the man who was most vulnerable even with all of his wits and gadgets working for him, and the occasional kid who took on the role, taught me this. Superheroes can come from all walks of life, and we should never be afraid to do the right thing even when some early death, speaking metaphorically, is sure to result from our actions.

Today, I am no longer sickly or afraid of water. At 6′ 3″, I’m bigger than most of my friends, but I know now that I will never really be in control of things.  I’ve even come to grips with the fact that super human speed exceeds my physical ability. Though it has taken me a long time to understand and accept it, I also know this: I can be a “hero” to someone just by being a regular guy who tries to make a difference. This is what I strive to do every day.

So, yeah, I can finally admit it. I’m the Batman.

I hope you are, too.

 

Inspired in part by Five for Fighting’s “Superman.

 

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