Category Archives: Greatest Generation

The Dog Days of Winter

I awoke at four a.m. on a snowy February morning dreaming of and missing my parents, while thinking about the Dog Days of summer. If I could explain the workings of the subconscious mind I would do so as I accepted the Nobel Prize for science, but I do not have a clue, only appreciation. Many problems are solved, jangling nerves and emotions soothed by our never off-line mind, courtesy of nature’s sleep mode.

I drifted off the night before knowing I would shovel snow in the morning. Now awake, I struggled to retain my dream before it disappeared amongst bothersome conscious thoughts of the day to come. I pulled on long johns, wool socks and tossed my jeans over a shoulder, then cranked up the thermostat as I shuffled through our dark, Victorian home to the kitchen. Radiators steaming, coffee pot perking, I propped open the back door and released our Sheltie, Sammy. Paws crunching on the white blanketed deck, he scampered to and fro before doing his duty and scrambling back inside for breakfast, gobbling his grub with the intensity of a starving man.

Ah, Dog Days, I thought, my dream rushing to the fore. With a jolt from a stiff cup of Joe, I flipped my mind and laptop on and Googled Dog Days. Beginning with Wikipedia, I switched back and forth between blank mind and snow-white document screen, tracking ever lengthening threads of information and thoughts sparked by my subconscious wanderings.

The Romans, I learned, called the Dog Days of summer “dies caniculares and associated the hot weather with the star Sirius…the ‘Dog Star’ because it is the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major (Large Dog).” On our modern calendar the “Dog Days of summer” follow the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and run from July through August in the Northern Hemisphere and January through February in the Southern. Unaware of the original meaning of the phrase, many of us associate Dog Days with the lethargy of domesticated dogs during these blistering months. But, unlike the Romans, we do not sacrifice any of our furry friends in hopes of abating the heat; instead, we retreat to air conditioned rooms or lay in the shade with our pets and take a nap.

Mmmmm, I thought, giving Sammy a pat on the head and with my brain, computer and radiators humming scrolled down the screen, continuing to alternately read and write.

It seems that in the 19th century, Dog Days were thought of as an evil time when, according to John Brady in his book Clavis Calenderia (circa 1813), “the Sea boiled, the Wine turned sour, Dogs grew mean, and all other creatures became languid: causing to man…burning fevers, hysterics and phrenises.”  Although not written in reference to the Dog Days, Noel Coward’s lyric “only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun” is the 20th century take on the sultry days of summer. As for 2013, in our anxiety riddled society, the Dog Days are a time to wax on climate change and our impending doom.

This prompted thoughts about my melancholy dream of my parents. Jumping down the screen, the text reminded me that we live in an equally halved world above and below the equator. So, conversely, when the Southern Hemisphere is lolling through their Dog Days, the Northern is experiencing the shortest day of the year around December 20th.

Now, there is no corresponding popular phrase to capture the two months which follow, but they are associated with the winter blues. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine “some people experience a serious mood change during the winter months, when there is less natural sunlight. This is called seasonal affective disorder (SAD)…and is a type of depression.”

Of course, I thought to myself in the now cozy kitchen, most of us do not go mad in July or August or plunge into a clinical depression in January and February. But as a writer with a vivid imagination capable of conjuring calamities provoked by the slightest of pretenses, it is reassuring to know that they may be due to nothing more than the tilt of the earth.

“You’re just out of sorts,” my mother used to say, “get busy and it will go away.”

And there it was.

I stopped typing, gratefully punched the “saved” button and refilled my coffee cup. I stared out the window, the weak winter sun sparkling off the crystallized earth.

My parents both passed a few years apart at the end of January, their funerals held on harsh, unforgiving days like the one yawning before me.

My father, a decorated combat GI in WWII, received a full honor guard, a line of gray-haired veterans standing at attention, freezing rain soaking their uniforms and streaming down weathered faces.  I have no idea how long they waited in the drizzle before we arrived, but they were ramrod straight and ready for their fallen comrade. It was one of the most moving and reaffirming moments of a depressing day.

Although 82, my mother died unexpectedly. She was in the hospital for minor surgery and choked to death the night before while eating. A classically trained pianist and soprano, her once perfect posture was destroyed by osteoporosis, her internal organs collapsing on one another, and she could not muster enough wind to clear her throat. A nurse discovered her when she came in to pick up the dinner tray.

I spoke to Mom earlier in the day, never thinking it could be our last conversation.

I heard my wife, Yolanda, stirring upstairs and I made another pot of coffee. Sammy, hunger satiated, stretched out near a radiator, sound asleep, his world a place of perfect contentment.

I switched off the laptop, slipped on my jeans, laced up my boots, donned a wool cap, leather coat and gloves and shoveled snow.

It was time to get busy.

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Filed under 21st Century America, Dog Days, Family, February 2013, Greatest Generation, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), Winter Blues, World War II

9/11 at 11

We go from here.

When I was growing up my father said this to me when I did something that threw me off stride in my march to adulthood.  No choir boy, I heard it often.

I’m grateful to have been raised by parents born in the 1920’s. Mom and Dad weathered the Great Depression and WWII. “Potato pancakes” was a staple at their supper tables. Mom was a survivor of polio, Dad, bloody combat.  When he was nineteen his platoon was decimated in the Battle of the Bulge, seven soldiers alive at the end, five walking, they carried the other two to a field hospital.  The platoon was filled with replacements and Dad and the others followed Patton across Europe to victory.

We go from here.

My parents experienced suffering in a way few from succeeding American generations have. But that suffering provided a sense of proportion to their daily lives. Far too often now, Americans, as individuals and a country, invoke the term “crisis” to describe things that I’m certain my folks would view as challenges, but not crises.

9/11 was different.

I asked Mom if it was worse than Pearl Harbor.

“Yes,” she said, voice cracking.

I called Dad.  Only months from death, three packs a day of Lucky Strikes taking their toll, he struggled to breathe and his short-term memory was shot. But he understood what happened on 9/11.

“We’ll beat ’em,” he whispered.

We go from here.

A few weeks after 9/11 I drove to West Lafayette, Indiana with three buddies from high school to watch the Illinois-Purdue football game.  I don’t remember who won. I recall a small plane approaching the stadium, a wind-whipped advertising banner in tow. Everyone’s attention went from the game on the field to the plane in the sky.  I realized I’d never hear the approach of an airplane or gaze at its flight path in the same way again.

Ten years passed.

The fall of 2011 I was at the Illinois home game against South Dakota State with a friend I’ve made since 9/11. Two trumpeters played taps and there was a moment of silence. Throughout the game uniformed service men and women, Illinois alums, talked and waved from the big screen on the stadium scoreboard, some holding babies, others taped from overseas posts.

The next morning, the tenth anniversary, I stretched in front of the TV, preparing to run three miles on a quiet Sunday morning.  Relatives of people who were killed on 9/11 read names of victims, ending with their loved one and a brief remembrance of what they meant to them. Tears welled in my eyes.

I ran.

Along the way I waved to friends, neighbors and a local cop on patrol.  I thought of the last decade, years 9/11 victims and their families lost. With rare exception, my wife, Yolanda, and I put our children to bed every night and awoke with them each morning.  We went to piano recitals, soccer games, swim meets, first communions, birthday parties, and high school graduations. Our daughter, Anissa, blossomed into a woman. Our son, Michael, survived a horrific auto accident. The paramedics told us there was a ten percent chance someone survived such a crash in one piece. Our son walked away and, two years later, off to college.  Both my parents died.

I finished my run strong, racing up the final hill to our house.  I snatched a cold bottle of water from the fridge and wandered into the TV room where Yolanda was watching the 9/11 memorials.  Paul Simon sang “Sound of Silence.”

When he finished, Yolanda told me that earlier that day a suicide bomber injured seventy-seven American service men and women at a base in Afghanistan. Five Afghani civilians, including a three-year old girl, were killed.

It’s Sunday, September 9th, 2012, and I open the Champaign News-Gazette to articles about memorial plans for the eleventh anniversary. At the bottom of page one is the headline “On average, U.S. has lost a soldier each day in 2012.” One of the latest casualties was Pfc. Shane W. Cantu, twenty, one year younger than Michael. Cantu was, according to his buddies, a lot like my son, a gregarious guy who lit up every room he entered. Cantu was ten years old on 9/11. In the story, a military historian says Afghanistan has become the “’Who Cares?’ war.”

Ten years, now eleven.

We go from here.

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Filed under 21st Century America, 9/11, Citizen Soldiers, Family, Friends, Greatest Generation, Illinois Football, Newspaper, Running, September 2012, Small town America, World War II

Trophy for a Life Well-Lived

A friend took his nine and seven year old grandsons to the cemetery of their family farm one late summer day. He pointed to where his wife, mother, father, grandparents and generations of relatives were buried. Modest Midwesterners, most graves were marked by clean rectangular stones.

Most.

Over a great-great-grandfather’s grave a marble column with a bowl balanced on top towered, casting a long shadow.

Fresh from their trophy-filled awards banquet for baseball the boys gazed up at the monument.

“Grandpa,” the youngest said, pointing, “what’d he do to win a trophy like that?”

Monuments to self are nothing new. The Great Pyramid of Giza, the above-ground tombs called “cities of the dead” in New Orleans and my friend’s great-great-grandfather’s tower reflect a yearning for recognition even in death. Like a cemetery, the Pyramid of Giza and the New Orleans vaults provide space and recognition for family as well. In New Orleans, once a family member has been dead two years their body can be placed in a bag and laid to one side of the vault, the coffin destroyed, making way for the next relative’s casket.

Of course, not all monuments are constructed after death as a final acknowledgement. Some spring from the egotism of the living. See everything Trump.

Others are less tangible, but more substantive, the sum of a life well-lived. A loving family, friends, a successful career or business which benefits the individual and others, a passion for life, these are the truly lasting monuments we build.

But most of us do not consider our legacy as we traipse through life. We do our best to do the right thing, to care for others and ourselves. We view actions which make things easier for all as fulfilling the social contract necessary for civilization. We do not seek recognition or an “Atta boy.” Not out of modesty, but because we are doing what is expected.

My father was a decorated combat vet of WWII. Yet he and his buddies rarely discussed, let alone boasted, of their service.

“Just about everybody served,” he said. “Whether they were in the military or not, most folks pitched in. How you gonna brag about doin’ something everybody’s doin’?”

Such reticence may be why, in death, some individuals or their family, feel the need to mark graves with a distinctive memorial as a final honor.

On Memorial Day weekend I try to watch a movie like “Sergeant York,” “Saving Private Ryan,” or “Flags of our Fathers.” This year David Lean’s Academy Award winning “The Bridge on the River Kwai” was on Turner Classic Movies.

Starring William Holden and Alec Guinness, the movie is memorable for many reasons, not the least the tune “Colonel Bogey” which the British prisoners whistle as they enter the POW camp.

Guinness’ character, Colonel Nicholson, dominates, however. His metamorphosis from a British soldier’s soldier, staunchly defending his officers against performing manual labor per the Geneva Convention then ordering them to do so as they construct a bridge “better than the Japanese can build themselves,” drives the film. Nicholson goes from determined adversary to collaborating with the enemy, not understanding his error until the end.

Yet it is a scene from the night before Nicholson’s self-realization that sticks with me. He stands on the completed bridge talking to the shamed Japanese POW camp commander, Colonel Saito. Nicholson won a war of wills with Saito and effectively runs the camp. At this point, though, Nicholson is reflective, not imperious.

“But there are times,” he says to Saito, “when you suddenly realize you’re nearer the end than the beginning. You wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything. Or if it made any difference at all really…particularly in comparison with other men’s careers. I don’t know whether that kind of thinking is very healthy, but I must admit I’ve had some thoughts along those lines from time to time. But tonight…tonight!”

Nicholson gazes across the rushing river at the setting sun. The next day the monument to self on which he proudly stands is destroyed.

Such is the ultimate fate of all man-made monuments.

I will be cremated, ashes scattered. But I have no quarrel with those who give themselves a final “Atta boy” with a towering monument.

Perhaps a life well-lived deserves a “trophy like that.”

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Filed under 21st Century America, Alec Guiness, Baby Boomers, Cemetaries, Citizen Soldiers, David Lean, Donald Trump, Family, Friends, Greatest Generation, June 2012, Legacy, Small town America, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Pyramid of Giza, The Movies, Tombstones, William Holden, World War II, WWII America

Memorial Day Reflection: Was the Greatest Generation Beat?

From my article “Was the Greatest Generation’beat’?” published in the Sunday, May 27, 2012  Commentary Section of the Champaign News-Gazette.

The movie version of Jack Kerouac’s novel “On the Road” debuted last week. As is sometimes the case when adapting a book, the movie is a disappointment. In part, from what I have culled from reviews, because it focuses on the Beats hard partying, jazz loving, sexually open ways. But being “beat” was not simply a lifestyle. It was a perspective. As the movie synopsis puts it, a generational search for “It.”

The original Beats, like Kerouac, Allan Ginsberg, William Burroughs and John Clellon Holmes, were born in the 1920’s, grew up during the Great Depression and came of age with WWII. So did my late parents, Jim and Betty Pemberton, a middle class couple who settled in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois and raised five children. Despite the different ways of life, my folks and the Beats were part of what Tom Brokaw hailed as the “Greatest Generation.”  While Brokaw’s label reflects their accomplishments, it does not capture their soul.

For me, that soul was “Beat.”

In two essays John Clellon Holmes identified common threads he believed ran through his contemporaries. While admitting that “any attempt to label an entire generation is unrewarding” Holmes nevertheless believes these Americans seem “to possess a uniform, general quality which demands an adjective.”  The term “beat” Holmes says “implies the feeling of having been used, of being raw” of being “undramatically pushed up against the wall of oneself” someone who “goes for broke and wagers the sum of his resources on a single number; and the young generation has done that continually from early youth.”

For this generation, Holmes states “how to live seems to them much more crucial than why.”

Reasonable, considering the Beat Generation was the first in American history to face a combination of three sobering facts. They grew up in a world where an inexplicable “crash” of a market in New York destroyed economic well-being. They matured when a seemingly insulated America was attacked from overseas. Then faced the realization the world could be eviscerated by a single bomb, the way of life they saved destroyed by their own inventiveness.

It resulted, says Holmes, in the “stirrings of a quest” for the “hipster” on the left and the “young Republican” on the right, each of whom “have had enough of homelessness, valuelessness, faithlessness.”

The search for “It.”

It was this alienation that produced the Beats. While much is made of the bohemian aspects of the Beats, if they were so outside the mainstream what to make of the popularity of Kerouac’s On the Road, Ginsberg’s Howl, and Burroughs Naked Lunch?  Their success illustrates the link between the “hipster” and the “young Republican.”

Like their fellow Beats, my mother and father searched for the “how” of living.  My father was a fair-haired boy who lived on the family farm with his maternal grandmother while his widowed mother, Alta, earned a degree as a nurse. They moved from this relative security to Bloomington-Normal where Alta found work and “Jimmy” went through high school with two front teeth missing. He enlisted in the Army at eighteen.

“At least the Army fixed my teeth,” Dad said.  “That and the GI Bill were about the only good thing they did for me.”

He was shipped overseas after D-Day, survived the Battle of the Bulge (of his platoon of forty men, seven walked away), charged across Europe with Patton, liberated a concentration camp and survived the European campaign only to be informed he was headed to the Pacific. In August of 1945, Dad read in the papers that the dropping of two “atom” bombs and the threat of a Russian invasion convinced the Japanese to accept unconditional surrender.

“We were thrilled; thousands of GI’s would’ve been killed invading Japan.”

Months later he stepped off the train in Blomington greeted by silence, unable to notify his mother of his return. It is safe to say twenty-one year old Staff Sergeant James Roland Pemberton was “beat.”

“After the war,” he said, “I never had any urge to live anywhere but Bloomington-Normal.  Never thought twice about it.  I swore I’d never be cold or wet or hungry again.  I just wanted to live my life.  After everything that happened, I figured it was all gravy.”

My mother, Betty, lived with her parents, three sisters, aunt and grandmother along with borders, in a rambling house. She remembered her mother, Dorothy, scurrying to the kitchen while her grandmother visited with gypsies on the front porch. The gypsies pitched knick-knacks while their children sneaked around back to steal. But the kids were met by a broom-swinging Dorothy, shooing them away.

Mom suffered from any number of childhood illnesses, brown eyes encased in fragile wire-rimmed glasses. Yet she earned a full-ride music scholarship to Illinois Wesleyan, graduating despite her old-world father’s skepticism. She met and married my father, survived polio, mothered five children, and stayed at home.

“Not because I had to, but because I wanted to.  It was a joy to have my own home, just my husband, my children, and me.”

My parents longing for security was shared. As Kerouac writes in his first novel, The Town and the City, young people were in a state of flux which “no one could see…yet everyone was in it…grown fantastic and homeless in war, and strangely haunted now.” For some, life became a search for “kicks…wandering ‘beat’…in search of some other job or benefactor or ‘loot’ or ‘gold’.”

The search for “It.”

It is this dislocation, weary and bitter even in victory, which is often overlooked when people think of post-WWII America. Of how each soldier was affected by the war, how their death or return impacted family, lovers, friends and society. The reality of the homecoming did not match the “we’re all in this together” motif many associate with WWII America. For most, like my father, there were no parades or kisses on Times Square. The return of several million men proved as problematical to the many Americans who never left as it did for those coming home.

In his book Citizen Soldiers historian Stephen Ambrose quotes my father recalling a moment at the end of the war. It reflects the relief millions must have felt:

“The night of May 8, 1945 I was looking down from our cabin on the mountain at the Inn River Valley in Austria.  It was black.  And then the lights inInnsbruckwent on.  If you have not lived in darkness for months, shielding even a match light deep in a foxhole, you can’t imagine the feeling.”

My father was twenty.

I think the perspectives of Kerouac and my parents spoke for many young people who, having weathered the Depression and the war, were just glad to be alive. They arrived at this conclusion not at middle age, when the realization we have lived the better part of our days hits home, but in their twenties. Imagine being that young and feeling grateful to be alive and free, a circumstance most generations of twenty-something’s in this country take for granted.  Yet these young people were emotionally and physically spent. Some, like my father and mother, searched for “It” by attempting to create a safe, orderly existence of predictable days where they might “never be cold or wet or hungry again,” content to “have my own home.” Even those like Kerouac, who sought the “how” of life outside the safety of hearth and home, ached for a sense of security.

As Holmes noted:

“Everyone who has lived through a war, any sort of war, knows that beat means not so much weariness, as rawness of nerves; not so much being “filled up to here,” as being emptied out.  It describes a state of mind from which all unessentials have been stripped, leaving it receptive to everything around it, but impatient with trivial obstructions. To be beat is to be at the bottom of your personality, to be looking up…”

Kerouac, the “hipster,” and my father, the “young Republican,” and the millions in between, embarked on their individual journeys because they realized that escaping economic catastrophe and the absence of war was not enough.

But the question of what to do next, “how” to move forward and make the most of the gift bestowed upon them – life – was still to be answered. Connected by a confluence of historical events, they began a “quest” for “It.” Some went on the road, others never ventured far from home. As a whole they were the “Greatest.”

But that is so because a part of each of them was “Beat.”  

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Filed under Allan Ginsburg, Citizen Soldiers, Family, Greatest Generation, Howl, Institutions, John Burroughs, John Clellon Holmes, Kerouac, May 2012, Naked Lunch, On the Road, Road Trips, Stephen Ambrose, The Beats, The Movies, The Town and the City, World War II, WWII America

Paint it Black

Excerpt from Transcendental Basketball Blues

“Really a classic case, she is…uh—”

“Mary Lou, Doc…”

Sam and Mary Lou were sitting in Dr. Thaddeus Musselman’s office two years earlier when the beefy, red faced psychiatrist diagnosed her paranoid schizophrenic.

“Yes, of course, Mary Lou,” Musselman said from a cushioned leather chair perched behind a polished oak desk, “quite fascinating, from a clinical point-of-view, if you know what I mean.”

“Sure, we get it, but can you help?” Sam said, sucking a Lucky.

“Well, there are drugs, like Haldol, the one we have her on now, and individual therapy sessions…”

“You’re going to drug her, then talk to her? That works?”

“Well, Mr. Henderson, not exactly like that. It’s more complicated. Cognitive behavioral therapy…uh, uh… than drugging and talking, as you put it…you see…”

Sam and Mary Lou stared across the shiny divide, in straight back hardwood chairs. Sam, legs crossed, squinting through the smoke, nodding. Mary Lou, hands in gray skirted lap, knees together, eyes darting from Sam to the doctor. Not speaking. Feeling like people who described near death experiences, soul hovering above, seeing all, but unable to engage in the human activity below as Dr. Musselman explained the progression of the “disease.”

Mary Lou recalled the intent look on Sam’s face as he tried to follow the doctor’s lead, to get what he believed to be the best treatment. She empathized with Sam’s struggle to reconcile the rational to the emotional, to accept her missing-in-action status, to not “take the illness, personally, Sam,” as Dr. Musselman put it.

“I’m not taking the illness personally, Doc,” Sam said, leaning forward, eyes meeting Musselman’s. “No more than I did Kraut bullets. But the holes they tore into my buddies, I took that personal. I don’t blame the illness, Doc.  But I sure as hell blame it for what it’s doin’ to my wife, to our marriage, to our family. I damn sure take that personal.  Let’s cut the clinical point of view crap, Doc.  Can you help Mary Lou or not?”

Musselman, face pale, nodded.  “Yeah, Mr. Henderson, I think I can.”

“Here’s your tea, dear.”

Grandma Henderson touched Mary Lou’s shoulder.

Mary Lou flinched and the oak rocker creaked to a halt.

She had been home a week and began every morning with a hot cup of tea laced with honey and cream, settling into the padded rocker in front of the crackling fireplace, hair in a bun, face bereft of makeup.

“Thank you, Etta,” she said, taking the steaming cup in trembling hands.

Mary Lou gazed out the front window where a November blanket of snow and ice made the dormant grass crunch under foot, the entire land frigid, the temperature never edging above freezing. A pang of guilt struck her at the sight of the lumps and bumps of dead flowers in her garden. She had neglected it the last few years, doing less and less each spring and summer until the wildflowers and weeds overwhelmed the colorful carpet of perennials, the sole nursery plants left, three bare rose bushes, their stakes like crucifixes.

“Farmer’s Almanac says we’re in for a long, cold winter,” Etta said, tucking in the quilt that covered Mary Lou’s legs.

Muted by the Haldol, but mind clearer than it had been in weeks, Mary Lou snuggled deep into the quilt, alternately drumming her fingers and sipping the tea, her emotions as flat as the Midwestern landscape.

Mary Lou stared into the flames, thinking of her father, Wally.  There was a man who built a good fire. Always kept one going in the pot belly stove of his general store.

 

“Tell me about Wally. Wally Weller, right?” Musselman had said at a session, yellow legal pad propped in his lap.

“Yes…what do you want to know?” Mary Lou said, stretched out on a cushy leather couch, Musselman within her peripheral vision.

“Let’s start with how you remember him? What’s he look like in your mind?”

“Well, I guess when I think of him it’s as a younger man.  Black hair, clean shaven, cigarette dangling from his lip.”

“What was he like?”

“Busy.  Daddy was always busy.  Always at the store.  Owned a general mercantile a few blocks from our home. Seemed like he lived there.  Have to girls. Not really selllin’ merchandise as much as I’m sellin’ myself.  No Wally, no sales.”

“Hard worker, then?”

“I suppose.”

Musselman shifted in his seat.

“A religious man?”

“Daddy?” Mary Lou said with a laugh. “Not any you’d recognize.  He did believe in God, but more for practical reasons than from any kind of faith.  Sure as hell can’t hurt, he’d crack.”

“Any one memory stand out?”

“I remember I always hugged him,” Mary Lou said, folding and unfolding her hands. “I don’t remember him ever hugging me or Momma or Sara. We always had to hug him.”

Musselman’s pen scratched the pad.

“Anything else? Any specific memories.”

“Gosh, I don’t know. It’s been so many years.”

“Try.”

“Well, I guess the spring concert my senior year of high school.  I was featured on piano.  I remember stepping into the spotlight. The house lights were down, so I could not make anyone out, just heard the applause.  I played exceptionally well.  A Mozart waltz.  When I finished and stood to take a bow, the lights came up.  There, in the front row, clapping like crazy were Momma, Sara and my Aunt Thelma, Momma’s sister. But no Daddy.  He didn’t make it.”

“Why?”

“At the store.  No Wally, no sales.

Musselman cleared his throat.

“Any other memories?”

“I remember when he was dying,” Mary Lou said, squirming on the couch. “He wasn’t old, fifty-five.  Just at the end of the war. I thought it odd, someone as busy as Daddy, dying just as the world was experiencing a rebirth. It was the cigarettes. Emphysema. The lack of oxygen affected his memory.”

“Did you talk before he died?”

“Not really. I know he worried about me. Momma told me.  He never understood my need to play music. Didn’t understand what purpose it served.  He only let me go to college because I received a scholarship.  He wouldn’t have paid for it…saw no reason.”

“Anything else?”

“Yes,” Mary Lou said, wiping a tear.  “I remember one of the last times I saw him.  He was sitting with Momma.  I gave him a hug and a kiss and scampered away, off somewhere… But I remember as I reached the door hearing him say to Momma: Who is that girl?

“How old were you when your father died?”

“Nineteen.  Momma died six years later. Polio. Shriveled away in an iron lung.”

 

“Mary Lou, it’s noon. Why don’t you have lunch in here with me?” Etta called from the kitchen.

The two women sat facing each other across the forest green table, Etta posture perfect, Mary Lou slumped. They ate grilled cheese sandwiches, tomato soup with Saltines and drank cold milk in silence. The Paul Harvey Show crackled from the AM radio on top of the fridge. The commodities report followed with that day’s prices of corn and beans.

“Bumper crop,” Etta said. “Low prices. What’s a farmer to do?”

“Not farm,” Mary Lou said.

Etta laughed. Mary Lou straightened up and loosed a weak grin.

“Amen, to that, Mary Lou.  Amen, to that.”

Finished, Etta cleared the table and Mary Lou, exhausted, retreated to the rocker and fell asleep.

 

A whoosh of cold air, the slam-bam of the back door, and the high-pitched voices of Becky and Maggie, home from school, rang through the house. The seven hours of their school day had slipped by like a single breath. The girls’ cheeks were rosy and chilled as they kissed her. Their fresh auburn hair, their skin soothing to the touch, their inexplicable, naïve, and infectious happiness pulled Mary Lou out of the chair and into the kitchen.

“C’mon, Mom, let’s bake with Grandma.”

Maggie scaled the side of a long-legged stool and took charge.

“Chocolate chip, Mom. That’s what I was thinking of all day in school. Warm, chocolate chip cookies right out of the oven.”

“Hmph,” Becky said. “That explains why you spend so much time in the corner of Mrs. Harper’s room. Thinkin’ ‘bout cookies instead of your work.”

“Tattletale. Miss Becky the goody-two-shoes of Washington Street School. You—”

“Maggie,” Mary Lou said, “you’ve never been in trouble at school. Goodness gracious, what’s gotten into you?”

Maggie bent her head to the floor, wringing her hands as Becky gaped at Mary Lou then Etta.

Etta knelt, opened a cupboard door, and hauled out two mixing bowls.

“Maggie, you and your mother can discuss your behavior when your Dad comes home. Becky, you take care of yourself and let your parents take care of Maggie.”

“But they’re not. They’re not taking care of any—”

“That’s enough now, Becky,” Etta said, eyes lowered as she lifted an electric mixer from a cabinet. “Let’s bake cookies.”

Becky stomped on the floor, walked to the avocado green refrigerator, and got eggs, milk, and butter. Her sister’s back turned, Maggie put her thumbs in her ears, waggled her fingers, and stuck out her tongue .

“Maggie,” Etta said, “get down off your throne and get the wooden spoons out of the drawer.”

Mary Lou wheeled around on the white linoleum, lost in her own kitchen.

“Here, dear,” Etta said as she touched Mary Lou’s elbow, handed over a bag of chocolate chips, and guided her to the counter. “You make these better than I do. I’ll preheat the oven. If you don’t mind, I think I’ll have a cup of coffee and let you and the girls make cookies. Is that OK?”

“I’m not sure I remember…”

“You will, Mary Lou. All the batches of chocolate chip cookies you’ve baked? You could do it in your sleep.”

“I feel as if I am. I don’t know…”

“C’mon, Mom,” Maggie said and tugged her away from Etta, who twisted a black knob on the oven to 350 degrees, poured a cup of coffee, and sat at the kitchen table with a Good Housekeeping magazine.

Butter, eggs, vanilla, flour, salt, brown sugar, sugar, and baking powder were arrayed on the tiled countertop. Mary Lou stared at the assortment, hands trembling as she reached for the stick of butter, picking at the edges of the wrapper, struggling to loosen the corners.

“Let me crack the eggs,” Maggie said, scooting the stool up to the edge of the counter, balancing on skinny knees next to Mary Lou, tiny freckled hands steady, as she snatched an egg from the cardboard carton and rapped it on the beveled edge of the mixing bowl.

Mary Lou twitched at the sharp click.

“Look, Mom, clean break,” Maggie said, eyes shining.

“Yes,” Mary Lou said, forcing a smile, letting Maggie crack another egg while she added butter, brown sugar, white sugar and vanilla, then beat the mixture with a wooden spoon, gauging the increments more from instinct than memory. She looked across the counter where Becky poured the flour, salt, and baking powder, measuring before dumping them in a smaller bowl, sifting them together.

“Can I use the electric beaters to mix everything, Mom?” Becky asked.

“No, me, me!” Maggie shouted.

Mary Lou beat the eggs, butter, and vanilla, trying to remember how she had determined the portions a moment before, then, seeing the sugar and flour, her mind returned to her father’s store and the shelves with kitchen staples. Wally used a long wooden stick with a short hook to retrieve items from the top—“Can a corn”—he hollered, five pound bags of flour and sugar toppling into his big, soft hands like a pop fly in baseball settling into an infielder’s glove.

“Mom?” Becky said.

Mary Lou kept mixing.

“Maggie, you cracked the eggs,” Etta said as she rose from the table and walked to the counter. “Let Becky mix, you can dump in the chocolate chips.”

Mary Lou felt her father’s touch on her elbow.

“See, you remember. I knew you would.”

“Yes, of course, I remember,” she said, pleased because her father never touched her.  She turned to smile and welcome his approval, but Etta stood by her, not Wally. Mary Lou stopped mixing and gazed down at the bowl, lips pursed, eyes vacant.

“I think I’d like to go back… to the fire,” she said.

“OK, Mommy,” Maggie said. Still crouched on her knees, Maggie hugged Mary Lou about the neck and kissed her cheek, then busied herself with opening the chocolate chip bag. “We’ll bring you cookies when they’re baked.”

Becky shook her head, seized the bowl from Mary Lou, dumped the contents into her own, plugged in the electric mixer and punched the button. “Yeah, thanks Mom,” she shouted, beaters whirring.

Mary Lou averted Becky’s gaze, stumbled back a step, and wiped her hands on a towel.

“Just for awhile, girls, just for awhile…I’ll be back,” Mary Lou said, then turned and scurried to the rocker, swirled the quilt over her shoulders, hands and legs shaking as she drummed her fingers on its solid oak arms, the twilight shadows of November creeping across the snow-covered lawn, the fire popping and snapping, thoughts once again drifting to the past, to her father—

“Hi, Mom.”

 

Mary Lou jerked up to see Jack.

“Looks like your fire needs help.” He snatched a couple of logs from the wood bin and set them on the smoldering embers.

“Oh my. I drifted off. What time is it?”

“’Round six o’clock. I just got home from basketball practice.”

“Is your father home?”

“In the kitchen. He said I could come in and wake you. It’s almost supper time.”

“Where are the girls? Have they finished the cookies?”

“Yep, I grabbed a couple when I came in. Don’t tell them, but they’re good. Grandma must’ve helped.”

“Actually, I did,” Mary Lou said, straightening up. “Don’t spoil your supper.”

“You must be feeling better. You sound like a mom again.”

“Again? I didn’t realize I had stopped being a mom, Jack.”

Jack frowned as he turned his back to Mary Lou, grabbed an iron poker and jabbed at the logs, poking and prodding them until flames flickered along the base of the stack then leapt to the top. He grabbed a few smaller pieces of kindling and propped them on end across the bigger logs. The hearth glowed.

Mary Lou stared at her son kneeling on the red brick. Taller than Wally, just as lean, hair not black but brown and just as thick and unruly. The muscles in his straight, broad back undulated beneath a red and black flannel shirt as he stirred the embers, the heat in the room rising as the flames brightened.

“I’m sorry, Jack.”

“It’s not your fault,” Jack said into the fire. “You can’t apologize for something you can’t control. It just pisses me off, you know…the way things are.”

Jack rose, placed the poker in its holder and sat down on the floor to the right of Mary Lou, his legs bent, forearms resting on bony knees, long, lean fingers dangling.

“Not bad, if I say so myself,” he said examining the fire. “Better, huh?”

Mary Lou reached out, hand no longer trembling, and stroked her son’s hair. The giggling voices of Maggie and Becky floated down from upstairs. She could hear Sam and Etta talking, Sam telling a story that made his mother laugh.

“Much better. You build a good fire, Jack. You build a good fire.”

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Filed under 1970's, Family, February 2012, Greatest Generation, In the moment, Mental Illness, Rolling Stones, Schizophrenia, Small town America, Transcendental Basketball Blues

Life During Wartime

Excerpt from “Transcendental Basketball Blues”  

          Jack opened the back door, wiped the gray, slushy snow off his shoes, patted Basker, and hung up his coat. It was 6:30 a.m. the morning of the Super Sectional. Sam sat slumped at the knife-scarred kitchen table, cigarette smoke drifting up from Jack’s grade school clay ashtray, a pile of bills on the left, checkbook in front of him, stack of envelopes to the right. Jack watched his father’s familiar routine as he examined a bill, took a drag from the Lucky, and, if he could pay it, wrote out a check and slipped it in an envelope. If he did not have the money, he slid the bill to the side and scratched a note to call the company or person he owed to tell them he would pay them next month.

Jack knew medical insurance did not cover mental illness, but at seventeen did not understand the ramifications. His father not telling him about the second mortgage on the house to keep the cash flow steady, and even then, not able to keep up with the bills. Many of the people the Hendersons owed were local, which in one way was a blessing. They knew Sam and worked with him on payments. But it was humiliating for Sam to have to ask, and small town gossip hurt.

“Hear about Sam Henderson? Judy down at the electric company told me he was late on the bill…again,” leaving Sam to wonder who knew what about his finances.

They had dropped their membership at the country club the previous year, attending the New Year’s party as guests. He did not have time for golf anymore, Sam told his friends. He had not bought a new suit or sport coat in three years, nor had he purchased anything for Mary Lou, reserving the money exclusively for the kids’ clothes. The Caprice needed tires, the house a new roof, and Becky braces. But after paying the mortgage, utilities, and buying food, it seemed all the cash went to doctors, the hospital, or the pharmacy, with nothing left at the end of the month but more unpaid bills and mounting debts.

Seeing Jack, Sam glanced at one more bill, this one to Musselman, and thinking about the doctor’s latest advice and the catastrophe in the kitchen a few hours earlier, he scribbled a note and tossed it to the side.

Musselman could wait a month.

Jack shuffled in and sat across from Sam who, like Jack, wore the same clothes he had on the night before. Sam took a sip from a cold cup of black coffee.

“How’s Mom?” Jack said, looking at the stack of bills.

Sam set down the coffee cup, slipped off his bifocals and rubbed his eyes with both hands, the right one wrapped in white gauze.

“Not good. They’ve got her drugged and in restraints. But she’s safe. Not a danger to herself or anyone else.”

“Sorry I left the house last night, Dad. I should’ve stayed with Grandma and the girls.”

“Yeah, probably,” Sam said, sliding his glasses on. “But I can’t blame you for wanting to get the hell out of here. I’m sorry you and the girls had to go through that. And you told Grandma where you were. How’s Luke? Don’t see him once college starts.”

“He’s good. Wrestling season’s about over.”

“You guys drink some beers?”

“Yeah, more than I should’ve. Didn’t sleep much.”

“Did the boys come over?”

“No,” Jack said, thinking of how he and Luke sat in silence watching TV, taking turns grabbing Old Milwaukee long necks from the fridge. “Luke was gonna call ’em, but I told him not to. Not like there’s anything new to tell ’em. Mom’s in the mental hospital. They know why. Might as well let the guys get their rest. Jones and his buddies kicked our asses last summer in the Y-league after we’d been partyin’ the night before. No need to repeat that.”

Sam drank his coffee, lifting it with his left hand.

“How’s your hand?”

“Ah, its fine. Got nicked when I grabbed the knife.”

“Dad,” Jack said, leaning forward, “how’d you know?”

“Know what?”

“How’d you know she was gonna stab you? Wrappin’ your hand in the towel like that. How’d you know?”

“Didn’t. Just thought I better be prepared if she did.”

“I’ve never seen her so crazy. Never thought she’d try to hurt any of us. I mean, I knew it was possible…but I didn’t think she’d actually…”

“Don’t beat yourself up, Jack. Why should you think your mother’d try to stab me?”

“You did.”

Sam set the coffee down and stared into its blackness.

“Well, it isn’t because I’m smarter than you, Jack. And I’m not proud of the fact that I sometimes think the worst of people. It’s just that I’ve seen things most folks haven’t…because of the war…I know what people are capable of when they’ve been pushed too far. Seen how quick civilized people turn into animals when they’ve seen enough horror. Seen people kill for a few bucks… for food… for water.”

Sam slipped the Lucky from the ashtray and took a drag.

“Hell, one night me and Ollie were waiting for a transport train in a small town in France. We’d dropped off a POW at a detention center nearby. Had to point our rifles at a dozen Frenchmen—people we GI’s liberated from the goddamn Nazi’s for chrissakes—who surrounded us at the station ‘cause they were starving. They were gonna steal the K-rations from our packs. Kill us if they had to. For the food. They’d been through too much, Jack. Been pushed too far. You could see it in their eyes…I saw that same look in your mom last night. The illness has pushed her too far. She’s been through too much…just like those folks in France during the war.”

“But, this thing with Mom, I mean, well, hell, Dad…at least the war ended.”

“The war ended.” Sam nodded, bloodshot eyes gazing into the coffee. “The war ended.”

He tamped the Lucky out and picked up a bill with his bandaged hand. This one he would pay.

“Better go shower and get ready for school, son,” he said, looking up and cracking a small smile. “Somebody said something about a big game tonight. Onward and upward, buddy.” He opened the checkbook and clicked his pen. “Onward and upward.”

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Filed under 1970's, Family, February 2012, Greatest Generation, High School, HIgh School Basketball, Mental Illness, Schizophrenia, Small town America, Talking Heads, World War II

Always a Parent

My wife, Yolanda, and I were settled in the for the evening when the mother of a friend of mine called and began to leave a message on the answering machine.

“Have you seen my son?” she said.

Yolanda picked up the phone.

“No,” Yolanda said, after a pause, “we haven’t today. But Mike’s going out to supper with him tomorrow. I’m sure everything’s OK. He probably had a meeting.”

Having heard this conversation before, I turned my attention back to the laptop and my writing, typing with a new-found urgency.

“No, no,” Yolanda said, “you’re right to call us. You can always call us… He’s not picking up at his house? Mmm. Well, I’m sure everything is fine. He’s probably just running late.”

After more back and forth, Yolanda said goodbye.  I kept my head down, determined to finish the paragraph I’d begun before the phone rang. I felt Yolanda’s stare.

“OK, OK,” I said, hitting the “save” button and rising off the couch, “I’ll go check on him.”

I drove over to my friend’s house, peaked in the front window and saw him talking on the phone. As I walked through the front door he glanced at his watch and said to the person on the other end of the line: “Oh, oh, I’m a half-hour late to see mother.”

As he wound up the call a young woman, another friend, strode into the house, pointed at my buddy and said: “You need to call your mother.”

Those of you who read this blog on a regular basis know that I’m 50, not 15, and may be wondering why a friend’s mother is calling my house looking for him.  No, I’m not hanging out with teenagers. Actually, the mother in question is 101 and her son is 71. And, no, he’s not a “Momma’s boy” who never cut the apron strings. He is a successful businessman and the father of three grown children. He is also a loyal son, who stops by his mom’s house every evening.  As for her, she may be 101, but her memory is sharp.  So, like most moms, when one of her children is not where she thought they would be and she cannot contact them, she worries.

It reminds me of when my grandmother moved into my father’s home. Dad was in his 70′, Grandma in her 90’s. He’d grumble about her keeping tabs on him and she’d complain about his coming and going without necessarily telling her every time.

“Jeez,” he’d say with a shake of his head and a smile, “I survived the Depression, combat in WWII, helped raise 5 kids, ran a successful business and managed a multi-million dollar budget as chairman of the county board and my mother tells me to be careful how much I’m betting on poker games at the VFW.”

“Well, Dad,” I’d counter, in my thirties with a wife, two kids and ten years into a successful career of my own, “you’re always tellin’ me to deposit money from each paycheck into a rainy day fund.”

Once a parent, always a parent.

Which brings me to our own kids, specifically our son, Michael, who turns 21 soon. Michael is a wonderful guy. Like all kids he’s hit a few bumps along the road to adulthood, but his accomplishments far exceed any mishaps. He was a dedicated and talented high school swimmer, played drums in the band and was a top student. He is also a hard worker, laboring two summers in Illinois cornfields, another operating a press punching out aluminum can lids at a steamy local factory and now as part of the building and grounds crew at the college he attends.  Michael also earned a scholarship to spend a semester abroad in Taiwan where he took classes in Mandarin.  Above all this, Michael is a considerate and empathetic young man.

Am I bragging on my kid in honor of his 21st birthday? Yep, but also to make a point.

Our son has grown up. He’s a man. I recognize this. But I will always carry memories of the little boy who followed me around with his Playskool lawn mower as I cut the grass.

“Maybe,” I said to him recently as we discussed his taking his motorcycle into a shop for repair and to question a warranty, “your Uncle Luke should go with you. He knows a lot about bikes.”

Visions of my boy walking into a garage in another town where a slick talking sales rep and a less than honest mechanic lay in wait to point out the fine print where Michael’s repairs were not covered and sticking him with a huge bill flooded my mind.

“Pops,” he said.

“You don’t know how these guys can be son…”

“Pops…”

“Some of these guys. Let me tell you…”

“Pops, I’ve got this. Don’t worry.”

There was something in his tone of voice, not irritated, not disrespectful, but confident and calm, that made me take a deep breath and step back.

“OK,” I said.

I changed the subject even as my mind wandered to possible ill-fated scenarios regarding Michael and the repair bill.

Always a parent.

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Filed under Family, Friends, Greatest Generation, October 2011