POST-OP WEEKS 118 & 119
My cousin Steve is a couple of years older than me. He’s my dad’s older brother Al’s son. He was named after my dad. (I got named after my mom’s brother, Walter, because my dad didn’t like the idea of having a “junior” around.) Everyone, of course, called my cousin Stevie.
Uncle Al was some kind of black sheep of his family because he was the artistic one. His parents sent him to the School of the Art Institute. He graduated (or dropped out, I don’t remember) and became a commercial artist. We visited his small, storefront studio space once, I thought it was on Harrison street downtown. I remember it was a dirty part of town (though being from my whitebread suburb, anything was the dirty part of town.) He was drawing something when we got there--- a Wrigley Gum ad. I had fun playing in the front part of the old store, the raised up part with the floor to ceiling windows where a display would’ve been when it was still a store.
His wife’s name was Ann, too. (Lots of Ann’s in the family--- including my wife. Hmm.) He had a son named Richard who was older than Stevie by a couple of years. Richard told me once when we were much older that his dad always took him the art institute to look at the paintings, get him interested in artistic things but he always liked mechanical, scientific, business-y sorts of stuff. I told him we should’ve done a “cousin exchange program” and switched places somehow.
Richard’s kids ended up the artists. They got jobs at animation production houses. You can see their names in the special effects section of movie credits if you stay in the theater that long.
Al was a heavy drinker and eventually died from it. His wife is still alive.
We used to go over to Uncle Al’s house every once in a while and they’d come over to ours. The one time I can remember going there, we ended up with this velour-covered footstool Al had in his house. I, for some reason, really liked it. It was soft and I draped myself over it and tilted around on its legs, leaning it back on two, then one, then dropping it down to the floor again. It was like this teeny, tiny chair. As we were leaving after one particular visit, Uncle Al says: “Take it.”
“No, we couldn’t,” my mom protested.
“Go ahead, take it.”
“No, really, we couldn’t.”
“You can have it. It’s yours.”
Eventually, we lost and took it home. It’s still in my sister’s house, I’m pretty sure. I continued to like it. I never fell out of “like” with it. I used to lean on it and watch TV, stuff like that.
Now, when they’d come over to our house, it was a little different. Stevie and I would play up in my room or in the basement and after he’d leave I’d SWEAR one of my toys would be missing! I had this cool miniature Winchester rifle that shot caps (and I think maybe little bullets?) and one time after Stevie left, it was gone. I told my parents and they said it was probably somewhere, look around. But I never found it again.
As time went on, Stevie “wasn’t quite right.” I always heard it had something to do with him getting into drugs but I never looked into it. I don’t know if he spent any time in a hospital, but I know he had a prescription for tranquilizers of some kind because he became easily agitated. He spent some time with us one summer in Wisconsin and he was like a little kid, always getting into trouble. He’d repeat phrases he liked over and over: “I’m high as a kite. I’m a Jedi Knight!” or lyrics from Supertramp songs: “It’s a miracle. It’s logical, respectable…”
Sometimes he’d forget to take his meds and he’d getting really jumpy, then to make up for it, he’d take a double dose and sleep for a day. They let him drive, for some reason; he still had his license. He’d go out and rear-end someone because he was looking out the window instead of at the road.
But Richard and Stevie weren’t Al’s first, apparently.
Al was married to a woman named Josephine in the late 1930s/early 40s. They called her Josie. I interviewed one of my aunts a while ago and she told me Josie “ran with a wild crowd.” She was out with friends when they had a serious car accident. A few of them were hurt, including Josie but Josie refused to get any medical help. Every time the insurance man came by the house to check on her, my aunt said, Josie hid from him. (Who knows why) So… even though she probably had internal injuries, she got pregnant and gave birth to a 4-pound baby they named John Alexander Michka in May of 1941. They called him Johnny. She had trouble with the birth and the baby had to be kept at the hospital in an incubator until he made it to 5 pounds.
Josie was too sick to care for the baby when he did come home so my aunt and her mother, grandma Michka, came over to help out. My aunt thought Josie was “just being lazy” because she wouldn’t care for Johnny. At some point Josie had a “big argument” with Al and left him with the baby. Then, in late November, Josie died from her injuries. The funeral was Dec 1st, 7 days before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. So, faced with the prospect of raising a child on his own or giving him up, he did the latter and gave him to my aunt to raise. My aunt formally adopted Johnny after that, I don’t know if she was married at the time.
My aunt always talked about “Johnny.” I have vague memories of Johnny, a Fonzie kind of guy, smoking, but I don’t know if that was possible and maybe I’m making that up. See, Johnny died in the 50s. I couldn’t tell you the year. (I’m looking into it because now I’m curious) My oldest sister used to hang out with him, I think, but he would’ve been 4 or 5 years older than she was. So he’d have been 16 or so years older than me. I have memories--- that I must’ve made up ---of him listening to a song called “Transfusion” by Nervous Norvis that I liked--- I think we still have it on 78 somewhere! It was about a guy who drove fast and crashed, so he needed a transfusion: “Transfusion… Transfusion… I’m never, ever, ever gonna speed again… Shoot the juice to me Bruce!” You can hear it once in a while on Dr. Demento.
[I have a feeling I heard the song because my older sisters played it. Johnny would’ve been gone well before I was born.]
As I remember it, Johnny was in the Army when he died but not in combat. He was hit by a truck while he was crossing the street. I always thought it was during Viet Nam but then I’ve heard it might’ve been Korea. Either way, it was more of a traffic accident than anything else.
There are pictures of Johnny in many Michka places. Actually it’s the same picture, his Army portrait that they do, the soft focus shot staring off into the future. We had one in our little portrait gallery in the upstairs hallway, my sister’s got a 5x7 in her house right now.
His name was John Alexander Michka which was really, really weird because that’s exactly what we named our son Jack, middle name and all. But WE DIDN’T KNOW!!! Seriously, I got a weird shiver when my sister told us Johnny’s middle name one Easter at her house when Jack was 4 or 5.
Anyway, Johnny was my aunt’s nephew and her son, too--- it was another one of those “adopt–a-relative” occurrences that my family was so fond of. They’re regular things for us.
P. S. I’ve since emailed my sister to get more details on Johnny, his life and death. Even though he was 4 years or so older than my older sister, they’d hang out in Wisconsin. Johnny took my sisters swimming “behind the airport” (which meant down on the other side of French Island from his house. There was a small airport there (though they land jets) and they must’ve gone swimming around the landing light towers that’re in the water leading up to the runway). She said he was 18, so that would’ve been 1959.
She told me, too, that Johnny was killed by a truck on a dirt road. He was in Korea, I think, obviously after the fighting. He told his mom (my aunt) that he “owed some people money” and that he was “going around, trying to pay them off” when she got the news that he had been hit by the truck. Hm.
POST-OP WEEKS 120 - 122
When my sister and my brother-in-law were both about 23 when they got married; they’re six weeks apart in age, how cute. They met their freshman year of college, I think, sophomore maybe, dated through school, and were engaged for a year before the Big Day. Neither of them dated too many other people before this.
The way I heard it, after she graduated, my sister looked for a job for a little while, couldn’t find anything, then went to work at The Shop, my dad’s factory. I don’t know if she planned to only stay there temporarily or she knew this was going to be “it” but she stayed there 25 or 30 years--- until there was no business left.
Their wedding was in Jan., a month, I think, after my brother-in-law graduated. My sister had been out of college a semester or two. She wore this huge velvet dress with dangly beads sewn to the front of it in a V pattern. My mom sewed it by hand. It was a big deal because my older sister eloped, so this was like the first family wedding.
They went on a honeymoon right after that. Actually, they came home to our house on their wedding NIGHT, then to the airport the next day, I think. After the honeymoon, my brother-in-law moved into our house, into my sister’s old bedroom--- which was really a den, off the living room, on the first floor. (In a normal house it would’ve been a den. In our cramped three-bedroom, it was the fourth bedroom.) They lived there just over a year.
[The living arrangement was weird, really… My older sister had already moved out, 2 years or so earlier. My parents gave her big bedroom to my little sister. I was still in my 6X9 jail cell of a room. And sister #2 was in the den. If there was any justice, you’d think you’d want to stick the married couple in the upstairs, bigger bedroom, get them out of the way, give them a little privacy, put the little 4 year old in the 6X9 (and give the boy (who, maybe doesn’t need so much privacy) the den. But it didn’t work that way.]
So: we’d be in the living room, watching TV or something, the late night news. And the newlyweds would be getting ready for bed. It was a foldout couch, too, that they slept on. Door open, arranging the sheets, both of them in their PJs.
They really liked folk songs--- Peter, Paul and Mary mostly. My sister never cared for the Beatles much; she was a Beach Boys fan. On long car trips they’d sing to each other, harmonizing to Puff, the Magic Dragon or Where Have All The Flowers Gone? “Old Stewball was a raaaaace horrrrrse and I wish he were miiiiiine…” That sort of thing.
I don’t believe Don and Marilyn ever actively looked for a house of their own. I can’t say that I remember them looking at real estate or touring houses, having my parents help them find a place of their own. (Maybe, who knows.) After a year, the house next door was about to go on the market. It never made it. The lady who lived there (I want to say, Mrs. Peplow?) was leaving to go to an assisted living place (back then: Old Folks Home) and her kids wanted to sell. As happens quite often in my hometown, I found out later, it never got listed. There was never a sign on the front lawn or an ad in the paper. They just heard about it and made them an offer.
I used to go in the house when Mrs. Peplow lived there. She was a nice enough old lady, round, waddled a bit when she walked. But she could walk, no wheelchair, she was still getting out to shop. I’d help bring her groceries into her tiny kitchen. The rest of the house was filled with stacks of newspapers and boxes. I remember going upstairs once, but I can’t remember why. It was dark and stuffy.
Mrs. Peplow let us plant vegetables in her garden so long as we watered it and took care of it. We planted lettuce and radishes and a few other things. I don’t remember her asking for any. I’m sure my mom offered.
So my sister and brother-in-law bought the house and moved in. Right next door, maybe fifteen feet away. (I always said: my sister didn’t want to “cut the cord” just stretch it across the driveway.) My mom helped them decorate; I remember them staying up late one night while my mom showed them how to wallpaper their dining room. They bought a lot of dark wood furniture and moved that in, too.
It was like we had two houses, them at our house, us at theirs. Borrowing stuff. We had a key to their place and they had a key to ours. We wore a bare spot in their grass from all the back and forth. This went on pretty freely until one day my sister got mad and complained to my mom that they didn’t have any privacy. I’m not sure how much she should’ve expected, living next door to her family, but up until then I didn’t think they minded. My brother-in-law drank with my dad at our kitchen table. My friends drank beer with my brother-in-law in his garage. So, we cooled it for a while, gave them some time to themselves.
One Saturday I walked over to their house and in through their basement door to get something or other. I just happened to walk in ten or fifteen seconds after my sister had nicked off a piece of her thumb with the table saw because she held onto a board as it went through the blade. She was holding her thumb with her other hand over the sink, afraid to open it for fear of what she’d find. She wasn’t yelling or crying or passing out so I figured it couldn’t have been too bad but I said something like: “Are you okay?” anyway. My brother-in-law was down there, too, rushing around, not knowing what to do. He came up to me, very pissed for some reason, and said: “I’m gonna punch you in the fucking head!” It was weird, but I looked at him for a second, calmly, and asked: “Why?” And he stormed away.
They had the coolest old greenhouse, very quaint, that jutted out the back of their house, half in the basement and half, all-glass above ground. They never grew anything in it; they stored stuff there. So when it collapsed (one of their cats was right on the peak, where the two angles met as the whole top of it fell straight down with a crash. A second later, the cat came flying straight out like a shot.), they knocked it down and put up a huge cinder block patio with wood and wrought iron benches that hung over the sides of it.
Sometimes my brother-in-law would work on his ’64 Corvette in the garage. It had a hood scoop and side pipes. He raced it--- drag racing first, then this kind of pylons-in-a-parking-lot sort of racing against the clock. It was a heated garage, so he could be there year-round but in the warm months he was outside banging on metal. One time when he had finished for the night, he cranked the car up and revved the engine a few times as he was backing it down the driveway. It was loud, even with the mufflers in the side pipes.
His next-door neighbor on the other side was a guy named Bob, the son of the florist across the street who was running the business at the time. Bob’s house was two feet from Don’s driveway, his bedroom window on that side. From Bob’s darken window, he yelled, “Hey! It’s 10:30!” Bob got up early, after all, to bring flowers to the neighborhood; he needed his sleep. For Bob, this is a tad late to be revving the ‘Vette. My brother-in-law, always the diplomat, yells back: “No shit!”
After my dad died in ’97 and they finally sold The Shop, my brother-in-law convinced my sister to move out of the only house they ever owned until then. They moved an hour or so north next to the Wisconsin border.
I bumped into an old acquaintance from my hometown the other day at a wake for the husband of one of my wife’s acting friends. I wouldn’t call him a friend, exactly. I talked to him once or twice in my life. He went to my old church.
He was a child star, for a while. He was in a late-60s/early-70s hippie-kind of feel-good sort of movie. I saw back then. If I’m not mistaken, it was a semi-famous book, maybe? It had to do with some children (really?), orphans, I thought, kids nobody wanted who were on a ranch of some sort and some bad guys were threatening a bunch of horses and the kids wanted to save them, etc etc etc.
My acquaintance played one of the kids. The one who wet the bed, I think. I’m not sure how many lines of dialogue he had, but this made him a minor celebrity in my hometown. I’m not sure what he did before this, but afterward he was a hometown hero.
It was 1971. He was 14 years old. (I Googled him) He did an episode of Marcus Welby a year later, a TV movie sometime after that, and then a small part in a Steve McQueen movie when he was 21. IMDB says he’s my age.
His dad was one of two funeral home directors in town. Their place was on the busy street on the border of town, with their house in the back! We went to a Lutheran church one suburb over and so did his family, I guess. I can remember one Christmas variety show or some such, he performed in a skit where they sang The 12 Days of Christmas.
What I remember of him was his wacky rendition of 12 Days of Christmas that had ‘em rollin’ in the aisles at the Lutheran church. Then whispers of: “he was in a movie. We actually went to see it.”
When I spent any time with him, it was because he was friends with theater kids I hung out with. I went to his house once, in the back of the funeral home.
After a while I knew him as the guy who directed the amateur theater productions in town. They actually had a nice space, with a stage, right in the center of town, in the town hall, on the second floor. I’d go see them do Godspell: “day by daaaaayy!” Or Funny Happened on the Way to the Forum. Mostly it was locals, housewives who wanted to get out of the house once a week for rehearsals, then go out for drinks. But my theater friends would be there, too.
I hadn’t seen him in a really long time and then there he was at my wife’s friend’s husband’s wake. He was talking to someone a few aisles over and he looked over at without saying anything. So much for class reunions!
I don’t know if I was jealous of him when we were younger. Maybe. He was in that movie, oddly enough, with Bill Mumy--- the kid from Lost in Space. I was jealous of Bill Mumy. I couldn’t tell you, though, if I was jealous of him because he was a famous actor or because he got to be in space, wearing silvery suits and talking to robots.
Honestly, I’m guessing it was the space thing.
Okay, I might’ve been a tad jealous of all the attention my acquaintance got for being on stage. Yeah, could’ve been.