POST-OP WEEK 97
Week of December 6
From the Land of Sky Blue Waters
My dad’s little sister’s name is [I’ll call her: Aunt X]. Aunt X married young, divorced. Got married again, I think, then divorced again. She got married again, this time to a round, jolly guy named [I’ll call him: Uncle X]. Uncle X was round and jolly pretty much because he drank. Beer mostly, sometimes with shots of whiskey. Uncle X worked at my dad’s factory, everyone did at one point or the other, it was a force to be reckoned with, there as no escaping it really.
As I remember the story, Uncle X used to drive up to a place, an island, actually, on a lake outside a town called [I’ll call it: X-ville] a couple of hours across the border in Wisconsin and go fishing. It was desolate there, only a few houses and sand. Uncle X liked the place so much he packed his stuff and Aunt X and moved there.
My mom and Aunt X got pregnant around the same time. There are stories about the two of them pregnant together up in X-ville one summer. I was born in September of that year, while Aunt X gave birth to her daughter [I’ll call her: Cousin X] about three months later, at the beginning of December.
We’ve got snapshots and 8mm movies of the two of us on their scrubby lawn outside their house, playing in a blow-up pool--- me happy, Cousin X crying because I hit her.
Uncle X went up to X-ville to build houses! I don’t know if he knew anything about building houses BEFORE he went up there, but that’s what he decided to do. He’d get a loan, buy a plot of land, and start assembling a house. He did this over and over. He owned all sorts of little pieces of the island. It wasn’t one of those ferryboat kind of islands, you get there by car, but it’s still surrounded by water.
So we’d go up there every summer: my mom, my little sister and me. My dad drove us up, in my mom’s car. And then left us there. I’m not sure where my other two sisters were, they’re 10 and 12 years older than me, so they stayed home. But my dad dumped us up there. And took the Amtrak home. We left around the time school let out and came back just in time to start again. It was like an exile for kids. I mean, it was fun, I guess, hanging out on an island all summer, running around with frogs and fish and only two TV channels… But I wouldn’t see my school friends or the neighbors or my best friend for three months. We belonged to the local private swimming pool back home after waiting on a list for years and then rarely went. I’d come back and my house would look new, fuzzy almost, brighter, “Hey, I remember we had one of those.”
“Hey, my room!”
At first we’d stay at Aunt X’s house. It was up on a hill. A really hot, sunny hill. And for some reason, Aunt X didn’t have air conditioning. My two cousins lived in that house: Cousin X (almost my age) and her brother [I’ll call him: Cousin X, Jr. because he was named after his father]. Cousin X, Jr. was two years younger than Cousin X.
So, from early May to late August it was my little sister, my two cousins, and me, thick as thieves, running amok. I’d stay in Cousin X, Jr’s room, in his extra bed. Things would work out for a month or so. We’d sit, each on a bed, some days, tossing a baseball back and forth to each other, seeing how many tosses we could make before we dropped one, trying to set a world record (without the Guinness people there to officiate). Inevitably, we’d get on each other’s nerves and have a blow up.
They had two TV channels back then--- CBS and NBC: I think it was channel 8 and 13. The CBS channel played the ABC Sunday Night Movie the following Saturday night. As time went on, they added NBC and PBS. Even later, cable came to the island and HBO. We tried it one year, then never again. Premium HBO movie came in scrambled; you could either have a clear picture with no sound or good sound but a squiggly, unwatchable picture. We happened to have two TVs there so I hooked them both to the cable box, tuned the larger, color set to get a clear picture and put the smaller, B&W set next to it tuned so you could hear the sound. Instant free premium cable! Okay, maybe not so instant, but I had a lot of time on my hands all summer.
My aunt and uncle owned lots of land on the Island, it was like their own little Monopoly Game--- a piece of land here, another one here, with a house on it, pay me rent! So it wasn’t such a weird thing that they owned a small, two-bedroom cottage down at the lake. It had a front yard right on the water: house, 12 feet of grass, 10 feet of beach, then water. They rented it to people: nurses, students, whoever. Some days my mom and aunt would walk us all down the hill, across the road, down another hill, across another road and through the yard of their cottage to the beach.
We’d bob around in the lake for hours while the two women talked: “Hey ma! Lookit me!” Look ma! Look!” They liked each other, Aunt X and my mom; they had a history that went back to WWII. My mom married my dad when she was 17 and then he went off in the Army soon after that. Mom stayed on the home front, working in a car factory, turned bomber plant, making B29 engines with Aunt X. So it had been 20 years or so.
POST-OP WEEK 98
Week of December 13
After a day at the beach, we’d climb back up the hills to the hot house on the hill and our mom’s would tell us to strip off our sandy suits at the back laundry room door so we wouldn’t track it through the house. Following orders, we’d strip, then march through the kitchen and the hallway, through the dining room around the corner, naked, to our rooms where our dry clothes were. We made up a song, too, to sing during our nude march: (set to the tune of the Funny Company theme (a cartoon at the time), it went: “The Naked Colony! That you can join for free! Just take off your clothes and join the Naked Colony!” Or something like that…)
Eventually, I don’t know why, my mom and dad bought the waterfront cottage from my aunt and uncle. The way I remember it, they needed some money so they sold it to us, cheap. So now when my dad dumped us for the summer, he dumped us at our own summer cottage. So now, between our cottage and Aunt X’s house on the hill, we had two houses. Wherever we were, we’d call the other house “The Other House.” “I left my suit at The Other House” that sort of thing.
In fact, we only had one phone number. We had a phone in our cottage, down by the lake but it was an extension of Aunt X’s phone, it had the same number, it rang in both places. That way my aunt could get her calls even if she was down visiting us, which she pretty much always was.
We had a lot of fun times in that house, a lot of them had alcohol involved: family parties, Fourth of July fireworks… My parents had a drunken sing-a-long one night when I was a month and a half from my 11th birthday. I tape-recorded it. Some of it, anyway. We had this big-ass reel-to-reel Rosscorder 2000 tape-recorded and I used to record everything. TV show theme songs. Phone calls. Me, pretending to be an astronaut on Mars. And the last forty-five minutes or so of a drunken party my parents had one July night when I was a kid. My mom and dad, my aunt and uncle, my uncle’s sister and her husband, and a friend--- sitting around the kitchen table singing college fight songs, old favorites, On Top Of Ol’ Smokey, Russian folk songs, anything they could think of. With Uncle X banging a big Russian drum.
About a year or so ago I found the tape I made that night, made it work on the old tape player, and digitized it. Shit-faced adults singing at the top of their lungs while my cousins, my sister, and I wandered around, unsupervised. My little sister, who’s about five at the time, gets up at one point in front of them to recite the preamble to the constitution (something she learned by “osmosis” while I was learning it for school).
The most telling part of the tape is at the end. It’s time to go and everyone slowly says their goodbyes and leaves--- except my dad, who’s passed out at the kitchen table and my mom who’s washing the dishes. The kids are still wandering around, Cousin X, Jr singing some awful, repetitive song--- it’s almost midnight, we’re still awake ---and I’m making fun of my drunken dad. Mercilessly doing a comic play-by-play like I’m a sportscaster and he’s a prizefighter down for the count. “The party’s over,” I keep saying, “but he doesn’t know it.” My mom’s making excuses for him: “he’s had too much to drink.” Stuff like that. Cousin X is laughing and laughing.
It sounds like someone else comes into the house, into the kitchen, because I say something about another fighter. I keep at it, jabbing, joking, Cousin X keeps laughing. The other guy, it sounds like my brother-in-law (only my sister’s fiancée at the time) tells me to shut up: “Shut up, will ya.” He says. He sounds drunk, too. I don’t know where he’s been all this time. (I seem to remember we had some kind of camper on the side of the house for a while, a pop-up kind of deal, we used as a sort of spare room. He and my sister were engaged or going steady for a couple of years by then, so maybe he was out there, drinking and doing whatever.) I ignore the fact that he told me to shut up and keep picking on them.
These were my male role models.
POST-OP WEEK 99
Week of December 20
We’d play bank robbers, my sister, my cousins, and me, with toy guns and a brown paper bag filled with all our play money: pink Monopoly money mixed with white Game of Life Art Linkletter money. We’d bug our moms to take us into town to the K-Mart to see if any new Hot Wheel cars came in. Or to the Dairy Queen. We’d take our bikes to the grocery store four blocks away to buy comic books--- Spiderman, Fantastic Four, or The Avengers. That’s the first place I ever shoplifted anything, a girlie magazine, but only because the owner’d never let me buy it. It was also the last place, too, because I never shoplifted again. Really...
My cousins were like my second brother and sister; the four of us were inseparable.
There was the summer my cousin from Seattle came to visit. He was a couple years older than me and he’d terrorize me. Blew up or burned a great deal of my toys. Threw firecrackers at me when no one was watching. He’s he one who showed me how to tie an M-80 to a rock, light it and throw it in the water at the local quarry. It’d sink, then explode under water because it had a water-proof fuse. You’d see a brief concussion, smoke would bubble up to the surface, then fish would go belly-up around it. Nice.
Cousin X, Jr. and I buzzed around the lake in our fishing boats, like bugs, spinning in circles and racing at full speed next to each other in formation. We’d take the pontoon boat out, get it going real fast, and jump off. We went through our poker phase, most likely before our barhopping phase--- sitting at the kitchen table ‘til all hours playing penny-ante poker (this was before poker was a televised “sport”).
We were playing poker the night some of Cousin X Jr.’s friends came by asking him to come over and make pipe bombs with them. One summer a couple of the kids, including my cousin, sometimes, made pipe bombs just to blow them off. It was the thing to do. It wasn’t a terrorist thing, they didn’t plant the bombs at abortion clinics, they just liked to blow things up. This particular night they were blowing some off; we could hear them. They came by to get my cousin and we talked him out of it. We told him to stay and finish playing poker. They couldn’t change his mind, so he stayed with us the rest of the night.
The next morning we found out right after they left our house, they went back to a kid’s garage a block or so away. They had closed off a pipe at one end and packed it with black powder but decided the pipe was too big. So they turned it over and tamped out all the powder, or so they thought. One kid held the pipe down while another one started working at it with a hacksaw.
You can guess what happened next--- a spark from the saw set off the powder that was left in the end of the pipe. The explosion blew off the right-hand middle, ring, and pinky fingers of my cousin’s good friend [I’ll call him: Friend 1], the kid with the saw. The kid holding the pipe down got shrapnel in his stomach. The way the story goes: Friend 1 ran screaming across the street, back to his house, missing three fingers and bleeding profusely. They rushed him to the hospital where he spent several days; he had an index finger left on his right hand, and a thumb. Eventually they couldn’t save those and he was left with only a stub. I don’t know what happened to the other kid but he didn’t die… Cousin, Jr. said later that if we hadn’t talked him out of going that night he would’ve been the one with the saw--- that’s was his job when they made pipe bombs.
This was the same summer that Cousin, Jr.’s other friend, Friend 2, jumped off his grandparent’s dock head first into too-shallow water and onto a rock, jamming his neck. They thought, at first, he was going to be paralyzed but wasn’t. He spent several weeks in traction instead.
A couple of summers my dad bought a boatload of fireworks for Fourth of July and we’d spend hours blowing them off. They weren’t exactly illegal up there or it could’ve had something to do with the fact that there was only one cop on the island and he spent a lot of time in taverns. So we shot bottle rockets and skyrockets off the beach out, onto the lake… We blow up army men with Black Cat firecrackers. It was a never-ending explo-do-fest.
Sometimes we got really creative. We took an M-80 one time and encased it in an inch or two of leftover epoxy resin at the bottom of a paper cup. When the epoxy cured, we peeled the cup away to reveal a clear plastic cupcake-looking puck with a fuse sticking out of the top. Someone with a clear head suggested putting it in something instead of just setting it on a tree stump and lighting it. We set it in the middle of the beach--- one kid lit it, another kid dropped a minnow bucket on top of it: BLAMMM! The hardened epoxy resin acted like a grenade, sending chunks of plastic into the sides of the bucket, denting it all around and blowing a hole through one side.
POST-OP WEEK 100
Week of December 27
I guess my aunt and uncle got along for a while. By the time Cousin X got into her teen years, he had left the family, run off, they used to call it. Abandoned them. Whatever you want to call it, he went down to Florida on a “vacation” on his own. I thought he had a sister down there, but ended up driving down to Florida withOUT his wife and two kids. He came back from that vacation, jazzed about moving but then up and left Wisconsin for sunny climes for good, without his family. Aunt X tried to find him but this was way before the Internet and it was hard. If anything, his kids missed him, and although she tried, my aunt never got back in touch with him. Uncle X’s sister, apparently knew where he was and how to contact him, but she wasn’t talkin’. It was only rumors: Uncle X married another woman (without formally divorcing Aunt X!); she was a Native American. He had a kid or two with her, a son he named Cousin X, Jr.--- the exact same name as my cousin. Then my aunt got word that, in the 1980s, he had died.
In between point A and point B was a fun, little rollercoaster ride…
He’d drink. They’d argue. Cousin X would make dinner for the family at 13 because dad was too drunk to. My aunt worked at the Osco drugstore downtown to help with money during the winter when Uncle X couldn’t build houses. If she was five minutes late coming home, they’d have a fight because he’d accuse her of cheating on him in that five minutes. Sometimes during the building months, Aunt X would end up nailing drywall or whatever because Uncle X was too drunk to. Rumor had it that if you opened a house he built to do some remodeling, you’d find tons of empty beer cans stuffed down in the foundation. Cousin X went after Cousin X, Jr. with a kitchen knife once (or maybe it was a pair of scissors) in a fit of rage.
Uncle X liked fishing, a lot of people on the island did, too. Actually, I think he liked drinking while standing near water. He taught me not to wash my hands after I dug the nightcrawlers out of their tub we kept in the crawlspace under our house. Even though it was temping, and my mom would want me to wash my hands, if I did, everything I touched: line, hook, bait, everything would “smell” or “taste” or whatever like soap to the fish, so I’d never catch anything. And he was right.
My dad and uncle took the kids out on the lake to fish. Their favorite spot was a waterfall kind of place: with a concrete wall where excess water could spill over from the lake into the surrounding waterways when it got too high. There were also two spaces where there wasn’t any wall so the water continuously gushed through there. That’s where we’d fish. It was a natural feeding ground for all levels of the food chain. When we were little the dad’s would spend a lot of time un-snagging our lines from rocks and sticks and trees overhead.
After her dad left, Cousin X was born again for a while, I think it lasted a summer. She’d go to a church and carry a copy of The Way, a soft cover version of the New Testament. (She used to tell me that the Allman Brothers song “One Way Out” that was popular at the time, was about accepting Jesus and going to heaven.) I hung out with her Jesus freak friends a little bit, nothing serious. We were at her church one Sunday when we found three kittens playing out front. We thought they were abandoned and we were going to take them home but their owners lived next door. They let us have them anyway. They were a brother and two sisters. We named them Harvey, Sam (for Samantha), and Shorty (because she had a little stub of a tail).
Uncle X left Aunt X in some pretty nasty financial straits. There were half-finished houses and undeveloped properties just hanging in limbo while the bank was knocking at the door, wanting their mortgage money on everything. Aunt X didn’t want to declare bankruptcy, for some reason, pride or something, so she got people to finish houses that could be finished and sold everything else off. The plan was to get out of all that debt, then move her family back to Chicago. That was the plan. That was so much the plan that Cousin X came to live with us so she could start her sophomore year at a new school and wouldn’t be transferring in the middle. It was odd, I guess, having a relative at the same school with me (my siblings are so spread out, agewise, it never happened to me), but I kinda liked it. We’d hang out. She joined Russian Club. Of course, by the end of that first semester, my aunt changed her mind and decided to stay put so my cousin moved back.
Aunt X filed some kind of court papers to get a one-sided divorce from a guy who vanished without a trail. She was alone for a couple of years, I guess, when she met this guy [I’ll call him: This Guy]. This Guy was a widower; he lived on the island, just up the road with his only child, a son. A big guy with a bullet-round head, This Guy worked for one of the local unions, teamsters, I don’t know, but he was on permanent disability. He was in a car accident and, to save his life, they had to fuse a couple of the vertebrae in his neck together so he couldn’t turn his head much. He could see straight ahead, but if he wanted to see anything on either side, he’d twist his shoulders. His job was to “do things” for the union, deliver picket signs if someone was striking, stuff like that. So he spent a lot of time in bars, chatting people up.
His son was a jumpy little kid, not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree.
This Guy would sit next to my dad at the edge of the beach, drinking beer, watching us buzz around in our boats. He’d tsk and tell dad: boy, that looks kinda dangerous, don’t you think? The kid’ll get hurt doin’ that sort of thing. He’d do the same thing when we’d blow stuff up with fireworks. This Guy didn’t last long, a year or two. I swear I heard they broke it off because he wanted to have sex and Aunt X didn’t.
I was still going up to the family house in X-ville for the summer through high school. I can remember pining over my steady girlfriend one summer when my parents made me come up there instead of being with her. I can remember taking a summer school class in 6th or 7th grade--- nothing mandatory, it was a rocketry class: a bunch of nerds building and launching rockets in empty fields, then running after them when the parachutes deployed and they drifted back to the ground. (So I must’ve stayed home at least a little while one summer.)
I was still going up to X-ville in the summer after my disastrous freshman year at college. I turned 18 that September (I was always young for my class), so by summer I could go up there and go to bars--- the drinking age was 18 back then and X-ville had the most bars, lounges, taverns, or restaurants that served liquor per capita than any other large U.S. city. They had a strip, a one-way street, like in American Graffiti, where most of the bars were, people continually hopping from one to the other. It was 3rd street and cars would cruise down slowly, checking everyone else out. At the end of the strip, you’d make a left turn across to 4th street--- a one-way street the other way and cruise back. The bars weren’t as good on 4th street, so you quickly got back on 3rd.
We kind of spilt up at this point. Cousin X, Jr. was on his own, with friends, I guess. And my little sister was 13, so Cousin X and I hit the bars. Dance clubs, really. It was the 70s, pretty much the peak of disco. So we’d go to dance clubs. You’d order a drink, sure. But I don’t remember getting so wasted that I fell down or went home with a strange woman. We’d went to one place so much, we were regulars. We’d hang with the other regulars. I was the Big City Guy, from Chicago, so I had all the coolest suburban clothes and the platform shoes and the jewelry!
We’d dance and talk; we had a little group. Army guys on leave from the base just down the interstate would show up for a good time in their civvies. You could always tell they were Army guys because of their short hair. Cousin X was my Wingman, she’d help out with girls and I’d jump in to pull her onto the dance floor, if she was with a guy she wanted to lose. She’d give me the “look” and I’d swoop in. We’d close the club and then maybe go somewhere else, somebody’s house sometimes, a party. We’d get home at 4 or so. Our parents never gave us a hard time. (We were legal, and in college)
One time my cousin and I got home at 10:30 in the morning. My mom and aunt weren’t worried, they told us when we rolled up in our clothes we had on the night before: Aunt X thought Cousin X slept at our house downstairs and my mom thought I had slept upstairs at Aunt X’s.
diary continues in January, 2011...