POST-OP WEEK 66
week of May 3
There was a man who lived across the street from us in my old neighborhood, growing up, who had a son with Down Syndrome. In my child mind he was a really old guy, but he could’ve only been in his forties. You’d see him walking together from time to time, down the block one way on the sidewalk, then back down the other and back into his house. There wasn’t a wife.
My mom would tell me that it was unusual for a Down Syndrome baby to live that long, that it was odd to see his son that old. I always tried to imagine what happened, what got them to this place in their lives. The man and his wife have one child who ends up having such dramatic condition. He’s expected to die and, instead, his wife does and he’s left alone to raise his son alone. Movie of the Week stuff.
The rumor on my block was that if you went up to his door and rang the bell, the man would come out and give you a piece of candy. And not just on Halloween; anytime of the year, June 23rd, May 9th, whenever you’d be brave enough to walk all the way up his front walk and ring the bell, you’d get a treat. You didn’t even have to say anything, it was an understanding he had with the neighborhood. Kids swore they did it and lived to tell the tale.
I thought about going up there for a very long time. My mom didn’t want me to. I don’t think she ever said, flat out, don’t go up there. So of course, I wanted to. So one day I got up the courage; I made it up his front walk, up to the door, and pushed the doorbell button. I could hear the muffled ding-dong and after a few seconds the inside wooden door opened. The old man appeared and motioned for me to come inside. I pulled open the outside screen and went inside. I stood just inside his stuffy dark house as he handed me a piece of candy. It was okay candy, one of those tightly wrapped Brach’s kind. I took it down to the sidewalk and opened it and ate it.
POST-OP WEEK 67
week of May 10
My oldest sister was a secretary after high school and secretarial school. She worked at Sunbeam, so she got us Sunbeam stuff for cost: hairdryers and cool, drink blenders. She worked at Sinclair, too, the petroleum company so she got us Sinclair stuff: inflatable dinosaurs (their “mascot/ad icon” was a green brontosaurus!) and the coolest transistor radio shaped like a gas station pump. I used to love that thing, took it all over the place, listening to WLS…
I also had a Man From U.N.C.L.E. transistor radio shaped like a pen— a pretty fat pen. The antenna pulled out of the bottom, I think, and you plugged an earphone into it somewhere. I used to listen to the radio on my Man From U.N.C.L.E. pen in my room, in the dark, as I fell asleep at night.
My mom and aunt Natasha liked to knit. At least through a good portion of my childhood, they’d be sitting in the living room and all you’d hear was the clickity-click of their knitting needles. They’d make hats (the Mike Nesmith kind, with the buttons!) and scarves and vests. And they’d make afghans— big, gaudy blankets to keep your bottom half, your legs, warm while you sat and watched TV on cold, winter nights. Or just fold up and lay on the corner of your couch and never, ever use.
They made tons of stuff. Eventually they ran out of reasons to make them. Although, if you really wanted a purple and black afghan to go with your newly custom-painted bedroom (which, I did, once— I’ll tell you why later.) they’d jump on it right away and whip you out one in a day or two.
They did make one or two nice things. One was this huge, knarled bed spread for the bottom of my older sister’s bed. My mom knitted it with these extra-giant needles she had to buy specifically to make it. She made it with big, thick yarn and the effect was a sort of rolling, lumpy landscape of texture sprawled across the bed. I always thought it was cool.
The other thing my mom made was a “baby” blanket. It was a kit that you could buy, with the yarn and instructions for animal patterns and some crochet hooks. It wasn’t really anything unique; I’ve seen blankets like it around. But this was the one my mom made. It was mostly yellow, small squares with odd versions of animals in the middle— like a rabbit, jagged around the edges or a bear.
My mom made it for her first-born grandchild. That was the idea anyway, that was the plan. I guess she made it in the 60s, mid-1970, and stored it away. My older sister knew about her plan. I didn’t until the baby shower she threw at her house for my wife and me with all my female relatives circled around from my side of the family— and me, of course, sitting next to my wife, pregnant out to “there.” We had gone through all the regular gifts: baby bags, stroller, carseat— they had gone all-out for us (and our unborn baby).
Then, at the very, the very last present, my older sister brings out this old box and we open it up to reveal the blanket. Everyone stops, in a hush, and she explains that mom made it for the first-born grandchild. Then everyone starts to cry, my sister first. See— it was fall of 1990, my oldest sister had been married since about 1969 or 70. But they had decided not to have kids. My next oldest sister had been married almost as long, since 1971 or so. Twenty years had gone by and she hadn’t had any either.
The blanket was older than that, mom probably made when one or both of them were just married, thinking there’d be a grandchild right around the corner. But mom died 8 years later. And here it was 11 years after THAT.
But the black sheep of my family (that’d be me) finally came through with a kid. The one who’d “never amount to anything” had a normal life: a wife, a kid, a house, and a job. So we got the ceremonial blanket. After my daughter was born, we did the photo op with her lying on it. Then photos of every one of my next three kids after that.
POST-OP WEEK 68
week of May 17
There’s a law in Wisconsin that says it’s okay for an under-aged kid to be in a bar if they’re accompanied by a parent or guardian. At least there was. So one night, my mom and aunt Natasha took my little sister to the dance club we hung out at in Wisconsin— the Macumba Club. They felt sorry for her, I guess, because my two cousins and I would go out at night and leave her alone at the house. So, hey, let’s take her to the bar!
I was 18, maybe 19, I’m thinking, so my little sister would’ve been 13 or 14, just starting high school. I had been in a lot of bars by the time I was 14, but I don’t know how many she got dragged to. But here she was— Mom and my aunt found a table and sat, drinks in front of them, not knowing what to do or where to look. They looked really out of place. The music was always loud, some kind of disco, it was the 70s… But the club was clean. People were smoking in there, it was okay back then, but you couldn’t really smell it because there was a huge waterfall at one end of the club that, I think, filtered the smoke out? Something did, the place smelled like an indoor swimming pool.
My little sister sat with them for a while until a guy asked her to dance. They let her go, too, this 13-year-old dancing with some 18, 20 year old, probably an Army guy on leave from Ft. McCoy, the training camp down I-90.
I don’t know if my little sister ever went back. I don’t remember anyone taking her to the club again. Maybe that was her one, under-aged Cinderella night.
Somewhere during high school, my parents let me paint my bedroom— purple and black. It wasn’t really a Goth thing; it was more a 70s, Yes thing (like the mystic, keyboard-heavy rock band that was popular then). It was actually a lavender, really, not a plum. And it wasn’t one wall purple another wall black kind of deal; I did a swirl of sorts that started in the middle of the ceiling that twisted across and down the walls. It wasn’t an even line for some reason; I made it a wiggly, ribbon-y kind of effect.
Then, if that wasn’t enough, on one wall I painted a mural. A road, a two-lane highway going off into the horizon and a lavender mountain, telephone poles along side. A full moon half seen and rising behind it.
Cool or what?
POST-OP WEEK 69
week of May 24
Jim was my best friend for a very long time. We started hanging out, playing together far before I have any actual memory of it. He lived on the far end of the next block from me, near the Chinese restaurant on the border between our suburb and the next suburb over. He’s six weeks older than me.
The story as told to me: Jim’s mom “befriended” my mom when we were both starting kindergarten. My mom just gave birth to my little sister, so Jim’s mom offered to give me rides to school. I always picture us riding in the back of his mom’s car, across the big bench seat, but I don’t know if that’s really true, it’s just the image I’ve created.
We were fast friends, Jim and I, best friends. He was maybe my only friend. I didn’t have a group of guys I hung out with. I didn’t have a girlfriend in sixth grade. I had Jim. There were acquaintances, kids I talked to in school, Cub Scouts, that kind of thing. But Jim was the only one I’d call a friend.
My first clear memory was probably fourth grade. I’m sure we hung out before that; the grade school we went to was so small, there was only one of every class, so we’d’ve gone through all the other grades together, too. By fourth grade I can remember making everything we owned into spaceships— pencils, erasers, whatever. We’d take those wedgy, pink erasers and draw windows and thrusters on them and call them hovercrafts. I used to bring in pencils with my dad’s factory’s name on them to give out to all the kids and this other kid, Joe-something I think, would bring in 7-Up pencil clips for us (his dad was a distributor or something and he’d hand out these metal clips that slid onto a pencil, with a circular tab sort of thing on them (like ballpoint pens have) that had a 7-up logo on it). Of course, if you had two or three, your pencil could be— a spaceship!
Jim had two older sisters that had already moved out of the house by the time I started hanging around, so he was essentially an only child. His parents were older than mine. They lived in a small house, tight hallways with small bedrooms. Jim’s room, I remember, was like a monk’s quarters, I always thought, sparse. A bed and a dresser on hardwood floors. Honestly, I don’t remember much more than that.
And he never had much “stuff” either. Like: while I had seven, ten, or more G.I. Joes with lots of guns and outfits for them, I think Jim only had one— and a knockoff Canadian Mountie. He used to make his own accessories; he’d make hand grenades, for instance, by wrapping a half of a Q-Tip with masking tape.
Jim and I used to hang out after school and on weekends. We invented games. We invented one called “Tape Hockey,” though we’d pronounce as one word it: “Tapocky.” It was pretty much Jim and me, sitting on the floor in his small basement hitting a half-roll of masking tape back and forth, trying to get it in a goal area laid out on the floor. Jim would use a whiffle bat and I would use a paint stick wrapped with a towel held in place with this colorful PVC (electrical) tape my dad gave me. We’d sit there for hours knocking this roll of tape back and forth with a whack and a thump and a whack and a thump. It was right under the living room of his house, too, where his mom and dad would be watching television. I don’t know how they put up with it, but they never made us stop.
We threw Frisbees and played catch in my front yard. We’d stand several front yards away from each other, three, four houses apart, and throw a hardball back and forth for hours. It might’ve been the closest I ever got to being a jock… We broke the neighbor’s window in their front screen door, once. And one time I threw a high pop-up to Jim and he missed it, hitting him in the front tooth. We rushed him back to his house on the next block and they took him to the dentist. The tooth was wiggly, I remember, but didn’t fall out. It was one of those cases where all they did was leave it alone, or pack it with ice or something and it firmed back up.
Jim’s mom and dad and uncle had a photography business for a while. The uncle would shoot the pictures, Jim’s dad would do the darkroom work and his mom would do the business stuff. That’s why they had a darkroom in the basement— a small room that shut off completely from light with a sink at one end that opened to the outside through a small slot. This enabled whoever was making the prints on one side, in the dark, to pass the photo paper to another guy on the other side when it was okay to expose the prints to light. There was a sink on that side, too, a deep one with a shallower basin/tray sort of deal.
We’d play in that sink/basin/tray area. We made boats that could sail along ‘til they went “over the waterfall into the lake.” Or we’d make submarines out of walnut shells. (I think this one might’ve been Jim’s idea to start with) We’d open a walnut, carefully, in two pieces and take out the meaty part. Then we’d glue the two halves back together. We’d glue three toothpicks to one half of the nut (the “bottom” half) like a tri-pod and poke a hole into the back. When we’d float these in the deep, sink part they’d bob at the surface for a bit, until they’d start to fill with water through the hole. That would make them submerge, little by little, until finally they’d reach the bottom of the sink, and a soft landing on their tri-pod legs.
We’d tip a couple of puffy chairs onto their backs and get into them, pretending we were astronauts strapped into our space capsule, ready for takeoff. We’d pretend the ceiling in Jim’s basement had lights and screens on it, and a window to see where our rocket ship was headed. (I swear I could see them.) Jim’s dad gave him a control panel from something at the bottling plant where he worked, a broken one, so we’d have some switches to flip and knobs to turn. We’d spend hours flying to far-off planets…
On Sundays, sometimes, I’d come over and we’d sit in front of his TV and watch the Oakland Raiders play football. We liked the Oakland Raiders for some reason, not the Bears. I knew all the team’s members, quarterback, linemen, the kicker. Daryle Lamonica, George Blanda, Ken Stabler, Fred Biletnikoff. Jim’s mom made frozen pizza for us and we’d eat it on TV trays in his living room.
We were both a couple of dorks. But we were thick as thieves.
Our parents let us venture out on our bikes around town, even though the first time we left the two block area of our houses, we got hopelessly lost. My old home town is a spaghetti bowl, the streets twist and wind around. There are only two straight streets and they run through the center of town parallel to the railroad tracks. So we got lost only a couple blocks from my house. I’m not sure how we figured out how to get home, but after that we carried a map!
After we’d mastered our own town, we’d venture out to the suburbs on either side, riding our bikes mainly to hobby shops. We’d get Army men sometimes and tanks, or model rockets. We’d go through phases. We had our rocketry phase, building ever more elaborate models and shooting them off in the empty fields nearby.
The HO scale Army men came on these little plastic sticks or “trees” where the injection mold makers shot the hot plastic to make the men. Once you twisted all the men off so you could play with them, you had all these little tress lying around. We found that if you lit one end on fire the hot plastic would drip down in flames and melt anything it landed on. We tried it on ants, the tiny red kind. Just once, until, I think, Jim’s mom made us stop.
We had our airplane phase: paper and balsa. The paper planes got bigger and more elaborate, too, when my dad brought home these GIANT pads of paper he’d get from a vendor. They were supposed to be used on top of your desk, as what they used to call a “blotter.” But we’d make planes that were one big wing, then hang grappling hooks on the back and cutting teeth (the metal band on Saran-Wrap) in the front: Battle Planes! We’d set them on fire and throw them out of the bathroom window onto the driveway. We made these skinny, skinny planes and glued pins to the front of them, occasionally having dart-throwing fights in my living room.
We’d modify the balsa planes, too. Jim made a “bomb” out of balsa with a wire sticking out of it that he put into the rubberband that you’d wind up to make the propeller go. As the plane went up into the air and the rubberband unwound, it would loosen its grip on the wire, eventually dropping it (hopefully when the plane was up real high).
In seventh grade we had crushes on girls together. I liked a girl named Janet in my English class. I never did anything about it, never told her how I felt. I just thought she was cute from four desks away. Jim had a crush on some girl, too, I don’t remember her name. We’d talk about them on the way home from school, sometimes.
Sometimes we’d spy on the cheerleaders when they did their routines. They’d be practicing their cheers in the a field in the park and we’d sneak up behind a tree or lie down like soldiers creeping up on the enemy on our bellies on a grassy knoll. Again, we wouldn’t do anything, we’d just watch them for a while and move on.
I remember once we were walking to Jim’s house from school after a big snowfall. There were a couple of routes we could’ve taken but we chose to go through a big open field. We made a little snowball and started rolling it. We rolled it along, bigger and bigger, until it was too big to roll any more, almost as tall as we were. Then we made another one, rolling, pushing until it was too big, too. Then another. And another until the open field was pocked with these chunks of snow, some snowballs, some just snow wheels. Suddenly we could hear Jim’s mom standing at one end barking at us! We had been at it so long, hours, maybe, she finally came looking for us.
Jim came up to our summerhouse in Wisconsin once or twice when we were kids. I never thought he was comfortable around open water and he was very white. He’d take his shirt off to get in the water and his “farmer tan” made him look, from a distance, like he was wearing a Caucasian-colored t-shirt.
Somewhere in his early teens, Jim started getting interested in flying. Real flying, like in planes. He took flying lessons and got his pilot’s license. We kind of saw each other in high school, I’d give him rides to school. But, I guess we started drifting apart. After graduation, he went away to an aeronautical college while I was going to commuter colleges at home. After two years, he transferred back to a school here when I went away, downstate. He was an air traffic controller and a flight instructor. He offered to teach me how to fly but it was too much responsibility for me, just the thought of it scared me, way too much of a chance of me crashing the thing, I thought. He taught my brother-in-law how to fly, though. They got along famously while I completely lost touch with him.
His mom invited me to his wedding. My seat was at a table way in the back. During the toast a guy I’d never seen before got up and said a few words about how he’d known Jim “forever” at least six or seven years! He and his wife have a couple kids and he’s the CEO of some flying safety bureau thingy now. He’s highly Googlable. He’s on TV once in a while. (I can stalk, too) When that plane landed safely in the Hudson, they came to Jim for a statement. He’s always smiling in his pictures on Google, giving away awards to flight safety employees or it’s a headshot that goes with his monthly safety memo.
I haven’t spoken to him since his wedding, or email. My brother-in-law keeps in touch, I think they get together whenever he’s in town.
POST-OP WEEK 70
week of May 31
I don’t know how it started and I don’t know how many times she did this, but my mom brought warm, White Castle hamburgers to me for lunch sometimes at school. I’d come out when the lunch bell rang to my locker and you could smell them through the closed locker door. I’d open it and there’d be a bag of White Castle burgers, still steamy.
[It’s not actually that unusual these days: parents do it at my kids’ grade school on a consistent basis. If you happen to be at their school’s office on a school day around lunchtime, you’ll see moms dropping off bags from Burger King or McDonald’s. But, back then, nobody got that kind of treatment… except me.]
I’m trying to think if it might’ve been when she forgot, or just didn’t make, a regular lunch for me and so she ran out, last minute to get something. Or was it a treat? It was during sixth grade, I’m pretty sure, so maybe it had something to do with the fact that I stopped going through the cafeteria line. It stopped by seventh grade.
Whenever I’d have White Castle the kids in the lunchroom would be all over me, asking for one, please, please! She always gave me a couple more than I could eat so I could give them away. (I don’t believe I ever sold them.)
diary continues June 2010...