1967/68 Fiddlin’ On (Under)The Roof

When quizzed about my initial interest in comics my autopilot response is “Detective Comics issue 327 featuring The Mystery of the Menacing Mask ”, the Batman story by Carmine Infantino and Gardener Fox that introduced “The New Look” and saved the title from cancellation. In reality, interest in mysterious avengers was kindled five years earlier with The Mask of Zorro, Disney’s 1958 black-and-white retelling of the Zorro (Spanish for the word “fox”), sword wielding crusader righting wrongs and fighting oppression in the Spanish California of the late 1700’s. I loved the mask, I loved the swordplay, I loved the horses – but what really intrigued me were the secret rooms and passages which served as an 18th century version of the Batcave. These areas were accessed through a hidden door in his chambers where the foppish Don Diego changed into his mask, cape, and black garb before descending a stair to the cave where he stabled his black stallion, Toronado, and riding off into the night.

For days afterward all I could think about were those secret rooms and passages. On the surface the allure was the basic “ooo-wee-ooh-ooo” factor that comes with every unusual element in a mystery, but there was also a hint of empowerment offered long before that term became trendy. There were so many times when navigating through a screamingly bi-polar household made clearing a minefield seem like a parlor game, which made the ability to move around unnoticed, or just hiding an option to explore in every one of the eight homes we occupied between my cinematic epiphany and our final move to Sterling – options that included locations such as:

  • The laundry chute in the rambling ranch house in Little Shasta Valley.
  • A tunnel dug in a lot next to our duplex on Garfield Street in Anchorage.
  • Stairs to the cellar in the hall closet of our Barbara Drive home in Spenard.

…but it wasn’t until our travels finally rolled to a stop in Sterling that I unexpectedly found a true, functional, secret passage. While our home with attached garage looked like it had been plucked from an Anchorage subdivision, it was in reality a small homesteader’s shack repeatedly modified; the changes hidden by clapboard siding nailed around the exterior. All those changes left odd spaces and loose boards that that offered ample opportunity for further modification, but it wasn’t until I moved into the attic loft Dad and I built in 1966 that I was able to take advantage of the situation.

My loft was essentially a wooden box sandwiched between the top of the original cabin(s) and the overall roof. For the first year or so I was too scared to explore the space around my room as I was convinced aliens would use it as a base for their conquest of the Last Frontier, but I eventually gained enough nerve to explore the rest of the attic. Whenever possible I was scrambling over the gritty surface texture of the original shingles, and testing my luck by carefully making my way from ceiling-joist to ceiling-joist, ever mindful that a mere one half inch of fragile sheetrock separated me from the rooms below.

My survey of the entire attic took about a week, and during those explorations I found my secret passage. A plywood panel at the junction of the house and garage yielded a space which was easy to hammer and pry-bar, allowing access to the area above the rafters in the garage – and while it was unfinished, the sheets of plywood and old double mattress stored up there provided me with (at last!) a secret hideaway. More importantly, I was now provided with an unobserved entry/exit way from my room through the attic(s) to a stack of discarded cable spools, crates and stepladders piled rafter-high in the garage. Unfortunately by the time I’d gotten everything set up there wasn’t much of a need for a secret exit. I still wasn’t completely comfortable with hitchhiking so any activity worthy of the consequences of a foiled sneak-out would have to be within walking distance, and there were only two of those: the annual spaghetti feed and the Halloween party held at Sterling Elementary, but by the time they came around it was too cold and dark to warrant the risk.

It was a quite a different situation the following spring. Life had finally become tolerable after surviving the beat-downs, family crises, and a wicked case of mononucleosis that plagued most of my freshman year, but I’d reached a weekend where it was all but impossible to cope with the boredom of a slow Saturday afternoon at the homestead. It was also one of the last “buddy” episodes involving my friend Wayne as we had both traveled far enough on our respective paths to have little in common. Where we had once shared interests in music, hobbies, and television, we now had just one connection, i.e. girls, as in Playboy Playmate pinups and the party jokes printed on the non-Playmate side, so it had been a bit of a surprise when he showed up early that afternoon, when his new thug-friends were otherwise occupied, so we spent an hour or two listening to music:

  • “The Mighty Quinn” by the Manfred Mann
  • “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding
  • “Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)” by John Fred and his Playboy Band

It was thoughts of the aforementioned pinups brought on by the name of that last vocal group that got us surreptitiously making our way out of the loft and into the attic proper where I kept my “library”. The climb up to my loft had become quite a challenge for mom, but she still made random visits and I didn’t want to risk discovery of any imagery of the female form, much less any of the less-than-fully-clothed variety. There was also the lurking menace of my three little sisters, Flora, Fauna, and Merriweather. With both Mom and Dad gone for the day their chief entertainment revolved about tormenting us, and the risk of one of them popping up through the hatch unannounced and spotting our contraband was as much a concern as a mom-visit, but the fortuitous appearance of a rather ragged cow moose in the front yard drew their attention away long enough for us to A) make a quick trip to my girlie-magazine stash in the attic and B) a equally quick move through the missing plywood panel and eventual access to the aforementioned secret hideaway above the rafters in the garage.

We had just started our formal debate on the merits of the curriculum vita of Nancy Harwood (Miss February) as opposed tp that of Gale Olson (Miss March) when the ear-piercing screams of Flora, Fauna, and Merriweather echoing like bloodhounds in pursuit of a fox broke out from the garage below us.

(Why were they screaming? There were always screaming. They would ring the downstairs landing to the loft access and keen for hours. It was like the albino zombies in The Omega Man chanting “I’m telling Mom” instead of “Neville! Ne-e-ville”.)

 The moose had left the front yard all too quickly, and upon returning to the ladder-in-a-closet entry to my attic loft they were all-too-briefly puzzled by our disappearance before fanning out to search the house and garage. Wayne and I did our best to remain hidden and silent but between the relentless searching of the three little girls and the finite interior space of our home, we were discovered within minutes.

I don’t know if it was the hypnotic effect of tthe sight of two brunette beauties au naturel, the soporific effect of the late spring sun heating up the space directly under the garage roof (or more likely) the mortal fear of my Mom’s Celtic wrath – at that point I stopped thinking rationally. Somehow I became convinced that our best course of action would be to dash back through the connected attics into my loft bedroom and then somehow convince my sisters – and by extension mom – that we’d never left my room, so after a brief side trip to stash the pinups I sped over the old rooftops, across the rafters, and through the back entrance to my loft with Wayne closely following behind me. Unfortunately, the requisite hop from rafter to rafter over sheetrock wasn’t quite as automatic with my friend, and as I hit the door a muffled crump caused me to spin around just in time to see sunlight erupt through the attic darkness around Wayne’s lower body.

He’d stepped through the sheetrock ceiling.

I scuttled downstairs to the dining area to meet with the never-to-be-forgotten sight of my friend dangling by his armpits between two rafters while his feet and legs bicycled in mid-air. I worked as quickly as possible to get him down and the worst of the debris cleaned up, but before I knew it almost an hour had passed, and even worse, mom’s station wagon was pulling into the driveway. In a colossal feat of legerdemain I managed to get Wayne out the door just as Mom was coming in, but the lady had a gift for noticing detail that would put and eagle (or Joe Friday) to shame and I I was sure she hadn’t missed a thing as she watched him walking briskly toward the highway and a thumbed-ride home.

I braced for the worst. My parents had only recently and reluctantly abandoned percussive discipline with me, but the poor grades I’d earned during the previous nine week grading period had already brought on severe restrictions of entertainment and social life, and I couldn’t think of how it could be made worse.  What really scared me though was Mom’s silence; after I took the bullet for Wayne and told her that it had been me who’d fallen through the roof, she just sent me to my loft and waited in the now-drafty dining area to confer with my dad when he came home. Listening to dad fix the ceiling was much like the unnerving swish/thud of the guillotine that French aristocracy had to endure while waiting for the world’s shortest haircut, but eventually it grew quiet and I was summoned to Mom and Dad’s bedroom for sentencing.

The first item of business was that despite my protestations, Mom knew that Wayne had been the ceiling-busting culprit instead of me. She’d made that determination based on:

  • My little sisters’ testimony.
  • My well-known lack of sufficient upper-body strength needed to suspend myself in the rafters for forty-five minutes.
  • My (almost) clean trousers as opposed to Wayne’s denim jeans covered with white chalk from the sheetrock he’d stepped through…

I waited for the ax to fall…but it never did. With a slight smile she made the comment that while I wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer I was loyal, and with the uptick in my GPA when report cards were issued the following week, even that first observation was moot. Thrilled with the stay of execution I continued to keep my grades up for the rest of the school year, but the improved GPA wasn’t the only change to stay in effect: the “percussive discipline” never came back, and from that point forward Mom started to deal with me as a person rather than a Neanderthal, taking time to talk with me rather than at me.

It was kind of nice, and for the first time in my life I stopped looking for an easy escape route whenever Mom started a conversation…

1963: Slushers

To many people, eight is the age when a child assumes accountability for his actions, but experience has shown me that number is an average, as I have seen children of six with wisdom beyond their years, and adults in their mid-thirties that have all the maturity and good sense of a toddler. In my case it was when I reached my tenth birthday that I made a firm connection between my actions, intents, and consequences. It was also when I learned about fear. Mind you, life with a severely bi-polar parent made for scary experiences throughout my entire life to that point, but events during fourth grade taught me the meaning of capital-F Fear. If nothing else, the change from Little Shasta School to Woodland Park Elementary was unsettling whereas in the first six months I experienced:

  • My first after-school fight.
  • My first fracture (multiple bones broken in my right foot from a sledding accident).
  • My first experience with city traffic and near-accidents.

Education in fear continued even after school let out for the summer as we witnessed a total solar eclipse during a weekend getaway to Palmer, and my grandparents had a near miss with the Reaper when they drove up the ALCAN for an extended visit. However, none of these teeth-chattering experiences could compare to the terror with which I struggled during our week-long excursion to Valdez when I was convinced beyond all doubt that the mountains were going to fall on us.

The trip had started out uneventfully, but when we stopped enroute at the Matanuska Glacier I finally understood how totally isolated we were from the Lower 48. I had slept  through most of our migration north from California, and other than a few side trips, we never left Anchorage, so most of my knowledge of the Last Frontier came from glimpses of the Chugach Mountains to the east, and the Kenai Peninsula across Turnagain Arm to west. What little I knew about the rest of the state came from school assignments and events of our first Fur Rendezvous the preceding winter, but at that particular rest stop I was gob-smacked by the huge river of ice every bit as impressive as the mountains that bracketed either side.

The glacier was impressive, but it didn’t spook me as badly as it did my youngest sister, Merriweather, who took one look and ran back to the car screaming, “I DON’T WANNA LOOK AT ANY SLUSHER!”, a comment that mystified us all until we figured out that in her mangled four-year-old vocabulary, “slusher” equaled “glacier.” As far as I was concerned the only problem was the complete absence of any sign of a hobby shop to support my recently-acquired  plastic-model addiction that would put a junkie to shame.

After a very brief look at the glacier I hopped back into the car to drink the last of my orange soda. Unfortunately, I was unable to drink it all before we hit the road again, and when Dad asked for “just a sip” I knew it would be gone. When he handed back the bottle it took all of my nascent stoicism to hold back the tears. For once Mom responded to my distress and took my father to task with, “No wonder you have a pain in your gut1 – look at the way you put your groceries away.”

I cringed.

Dad wasn’t physically abusive with any of us and would usually go into passive/aggressive mode when arguing with Mom, but one thing you never did was mess with, or argue with him about food or drink. Expecting a full-on fist fight I grabbed a pillow for protection, but was surprised when instead of going ballistic he verbally lashed out:

“Not only do I have a pain in my gut – I have a pain in my butt from traveling with people like you!”

Knowing my mother’s mercurial temperament, I pulled the pillow tighter and mentally gave a salute to the suicidal bravery in that remark but was surprised when the Mom-bomb didn’t detonate. She sat stone-faced while several miles of pavement ran by, then unexpectedly broke out into a chuckle and commended Dad for his witty retort. Exhausted by our miraculous escape from disaster, I shoved my former armor-pillow against the side of the interior and closed my eyes in my now-routine effort to sleep away the miles.

Heavy fog interfered with my first glimpse of Valdez the next morning, and as I made my way to the small cluster of buildings that passed as downtown, the vista didn’t seem that much different from what I was used to back in Anchorage. After being chased out of a small shop for reading (but not buying) comics, I found that the fog had burned off, and that’s when Fear grabbed my ten-year old heart and gave it a squeeze.

It was the mountains – they were so damn high (did I mention that Woodland Park was also where I first learned to swear?) and much, much higher than the Chugach range overlooking Anchorage. I’d heard snarky stories about Native kids on their first trip to Anchorage who would cower in the street for fear that the tall buildings would fall on them, and while the mountains surrounding the fjord were also part of the Chugach range they loomed over the town so terrifyingly close that  I knew exactly how those kids from the Bush felt. I promptly fled to the motel  where the security of four walls and a ceiling more than made up for the lack of television.

The next day we did a little exploring with the emphasis on “little.” In 1963 the town of Valdez was made up of buildings clustered around the Richardson Highway where it entered the valley along the Lowe River between MT Francis and the run-off from Valdez Glacier. The town hadn’t always been there – when the area boomed with the Klondike gold rush and the development of the Kennecott copper mine most people settled along the north side of the fjord. The center of the population moved east with the construction of the Richardson Highway, and when we drove out to what was called the Old Town, there wasn’t much other than gravel roads, tumble-down buildings, and a bridge. Little did we know that in nine months’ time a tsunami generated by the Good Friday earthquake would level the new town that we were now visiting in 1963, and it would be rebuilt as the New/Old Town on the site of the original settlement. 

Upon returning to our lodging I made another trip to the shop I’d been chased out of the day before, where my presence was more graciously tolerated after I bought a small plastic model kit of a B-172. We left for home the next morning, which meant that for once I was awake for just about the entire trip, and by the time we passed Copper Center and entered the Copper River Basin, the scary mountains were well behind us. We continued north on the Richardson Highway until turning left onto the Glen Highway at Glenallen3, then continued on to Anchorage a little over three hours to the west.

That we had actually walked the ground in Valdez made its destruction that much more horrifying when the tsunami leveled it the following March. The town was often in the news during the construction of the Trans-Alaska pipeline – which also figured prominently in contingency planning when I was stationed at FT Richardson in the early 1980’s. The closest connection I had with Valdez after that was when I accompanied my older son Conrad to an environmental camp on the south side of Katchemak Bay in 1989 – as we were crossing back to Homer the first fingers of the oil sheen from the wreck of the SS EXXON VALDEZ were just entering the bay.

…and now there are only two situations when I am prompted to think of Valdez:

  • Any time I see a mountain range I instinctively compare them to those oh-so-tall mountains that I was sure would fall over on me.
  • Whenever I work on a model kit I think of that little B-17 model and those ridiculous rivets.

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Notes

  1. Though I never saw an official diagnosis, my dad suffered from what he assumed was an ulcer and was constantly self-medicating with buttermilk and TUMS. Like most ‘60s dads he worried about his work situation and bills, but he also struggled with the fact that his children had a better standard of living than he did during the Depression.
  2. It was a small-scale model – possibly 1/200, but even as a ten-year-old I was skeptical of the rivet-head detailing on the wing. They were prominent enough to make a “zip” sound when a fingernail was drawn across like a comb…which meant that they would have been an inch or two in height if enlarged to actual size.
  3. I’ve been through that area several times, but my only lengthy visit was in the summer of 1970 when I went to Boy’s State at the boarding school at Copper Center. I’m still convinced that if you stood in the middle of Glenallen and looked off in the distance, all you could see would be the back of your own head. As wretched as the move to the Kenai Peninsula was the next year, I really did dodge a bullet with the move as Dad had also considered bidding on a job in even-more-isolated Glenallen.

2021: Generation Gap

As a kid I thought God was a schizophrenic being who toggled between New Testament (Friendly) and Old Testament (Scary) versions. With all His talk about love and forgiveness I really liked New Testament God but Old Testament God literally scared the hell out of me, as in Deuteronomy 5:9 when he says “(I) am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation…” That sounded nothing like the heaven I aspired to and uncomfortably close to life at home with a mom that remembered every real or imagined transgression with crystal clarity…for several decades as it turned out. However, that memory for error wasn’t the only aspect of my family’s genetic heritage that seemed never-ending: personality traits and practices have been repeating through 3rd and 4th generations, no more so than in the case of “mailing off for stuff”

The First Generation: Entertainment for my dad centered on the occasional movie and (more often) radio programs. In a case of life imitating art my dad’s childhood existence centered on a ring much like the decoder ring featured in the classic holiday film A Christmas Story. Dad’s Depression childhood was spent on a ranch in Southeast Idaho which meant money was so tight that Ovaltine was considered a rare luxury so he had to wait much longer than Ralphie did in the aforementioned film.

I think it arrived just as he was leaving for boot camp.

Second Generation: I had a similar experience with plastic army men advertised on the back of comic books, specifically a set comprised of competing yellow and blue armies from the Roman Empire.  Unlike Dad, I had to contend with a visual hook rather than an aural one and the stunning illustration penned by comic stalwart Russ Heath was like crack for a fifth grader. I did a little better than dad as far as fulfillment goes – delivery was promised in “six to eight weeks” but when you tacked on the extra time required for any parcel or letter heading to Alaska I was fortunate indeed that the fratricidal legionnaires got to me before high-school graduation.

My son Conrad had the typical Third Generation experience in that his Holy Grail was not doomed to a lengthy post-office delivery but was offered as a prize in a school fund raising project to be delivered when the campaign was concluded and all the money turned in. The object in question was a wind-up flying bird featured prominently in the prize catalog and annotated with the warning that it was “Not sold in any stores” which made the situation that much more desperate. Unfortunately the threshold for awards in that catalog was so inflated that the sales required for the award for one of those birds could equip Sterling Elementary with its own aircraft carrier so that particular wind-up flying bird never came in for a landing at our house.

…and now we’re at the Fourth Generation and my grandson Jayden. Like most seven-year-olds he is fascinated by cars, with an eclectic taste that runs from Lamborghini to Tesla. He plays with them often, conducting road rallies on every flat surface in the house, so it was inevitable that one of his cars would get trod on and broken. The Bauling Lane axiom “Papa can fix anything!” was immediately put to the test but for once it didn’t hold so like everyone else in COVID-beset America I ordered a replacement on-line. I didn’t think much of the action until I found Jayden sitting on the front porch ten minutes later waiting for the Amazon delivery man and his new “Lammorgeenie!”

…which leads me to wonder what the next development will be. No doubt Jayden’s son will be frustrated that it takes more than three minutes for the replicator to make that decoder ring he just ordered.

2021: Storm Warning

Clarksville is located in the No Parking /Tow Zone of Tornado Alley so warning sirens and verbal warnings echoing from downtown loudspeakers are no surprise on a stormy April evening. It’s an unnerving sound much like the albino plague victims in The Omega Man chanting “Nevvillle” as they ring around Charlton Heston’s apartment building and as it drifts with the wind it puts all of us on edge.It bothered my grandson Jayden more than anyone else last night: he will be eight in June and he’s starting to notice details in life that up to this point in life he had been oblivious to. He was also just coming off the medication he takes to combat the severe attention deficit/hyperactivity he battles daily so his reaction was even more pronounced.

He bounced around our bedroom, stopping by the open window screen at each lap to listen to those spectral voices warn everyone to “seek shelter now”. At first he would only stop for clarification or explanation of terms used in the warnings, but on the third stop he decided to take a more proactive stance. He has a marginally-functional smart-phone handed down to him after an upgrade and while it doesn’t work as a phone he can use it for games and camera work. He loves taking pictures and making videos but this time he put his phone to a more altruistic use.

He decided to broadcast his own warning announcements:

  • “Dere’s a reawwy bad storm coming everybody!”
  • “Everybody better get a good pwace to hide!”
  • “It’s reawwy scary so be careful of any tornadoes next to your house”

He’d  record his messages in as loud a voice as he could muster, then hold the phone up to the screen and play them back with the volume turned up as high as it could go. His expression was stern as a only a second grader can achieve but at the same time I couldn’t help but smile at the speech impediment that is endearing even as it fades.

… but something else added to my grin: even while totally terrified he was doing his best to protect his family, friends and neighbors, showing a level of transpersonal commitment rare in someone so young. I was also thankful that  he had a support system in depth, that in his time of fear he had parents and grandparents to reassure him.

It made the stormy night not so scary, even with the sirens and loudspeakers.

1966: Ban The (F)Bomb

“I know what everyone was saying but none of them knew what was really going on. Mother needed help around the house and it just made sense to bring the three little girls with me. Calling a simple vacation a separation and then jumping from there to “Dave and June are heading for a divorce?” That’s people for you, always making a mountains out of molehills. The girls and I were just taking a vacation. Not a separation – just a simple vacation!”

Hmmm.  A three-month vacation with just the three younger sisters with just a single postcard and one phone call for the entire time?  I was having a hard time squaring that line with Dad sleeping on the living room couch most of the previous summer and dinner-time tension was just as hard to slice as the liver1 we regularly had to gag down.

Yeeeaaah…a vacation. Right.

Irony aside it was still a heartwarming surprise when Mom and the little girls returned home shortly before Christmas, followed by an even bigger surprise when Dad didn’t resume sleeping on the couch. I loved my little sisters and it was so nice having them home that I blew off basketball practice to spend that first weekend listening to their stories and looking at photos of grandparents, cousins, and former classmates from Bell Hill Elementary. On the other hand I had nothing really new to welcome them home with other than my abysmal showing at basketball or the fact that my attic loft bedroom had finally been finished2. I was surprised to find that meager offering to be just the ticket as my three little sisters immediately demanded a tour of my new digs.

Unfortunately an 8’X12’ plywood shell heated to a marginally habitable degree held little interest for the older two, and within minutes it was just me and my youngest sister Merriweather, which was OK by me as she was my favorite. As the second of five children and the only son, I had awaited each subsequent birth with fervent prayers for a brother, but when I learned that there would be two Y chromosomes involved in the final addition to our family I resolutely declared that gender aside, I was going his final sibling to “teach her how to play ‘boy’ stuff!”

…and that’s exactly what happened. I don’t know if it was the fact that our birthdays were three days apart, our first names started with the same letter, or just her cuteness quotient factored into the seven years between out ages: Merriweather and I were inseparable. When she moved from toddler to kid her innate talent for gymnastics combined with the vast difference in size and strength made for an act that would have fit right in on The Ed Sullivan Show or The Hollywood Palace.

Our carefully rehearsed routine of carefully orchestrated stunts included;

  • Picking her up by her head…while keeping her weight supported by her concealed grip on my wrists.
  • Walking on her stomach…which entailed a rather theatrical hop while all my weight was supported by my other non-hopping foot.
  • Climbing me like a mountain …which was exactly what it appeared to be.

The loft tour quickly transitioned into talking about our favorite songs and TV shows like The Monkees and Space Ghost interspersed with the occasional kid-centric observation from the California trip. It didn’t really matter – she was my beloved baby sister and I would have been delighted to listen to any topic as she chattered on and on, curled up in the quilt at the end of my bunk. However after the third comment on the raging Davy Jones vs. Mickey Dolenz debate I started to zone out in favor of the latest issue of Mad magazine and I didn’t immediately pick up on the long pause …but I most definitely caught the first word as she resumed her commentary.

“F*ck!”

It was one of the earliest times I can remember that Fate dragged the great cosmic tone arm across the 33 1/3 rpm album of my life. The abruptness of the utterance stunned me into a prolonged silence broken by my trademark witty response (“URK!”) squeezed out as my normal anxiety became even more uncomfortable. A quick check of Merriweather’s open expression revealed that she really didn’t understand the gravity of what she’d just uttered – so in a ploy to buy time I armed her with a sheet of paper and my treasured turquoise Flair pen to distract her while I desperately came up with a plan.

…only to be further distressed when Mom unexpectedy called up the ladder “Hey kids is everything going OK up there?” which was almost immediately followed by a second utterance of bombshell from my little sister.

“F*ck!”

I slipped into hyperational thought: “Hey – its 1966 and we’re well past getting uptight about body stuff. Besides Mom’s a registered nurse and hip to the ways of the world. She’ll see right away that this is something Merriweather picked up during the trip and…”

Then reality set in and I thought back to catching hell for:

  • Failing to keep Fauna from running her arm through the wringer of a derelict washing machine sitting along the south pasture fence line while I was digging postholes along the north pasture fence line.
  • Driving my father back into a pack-a-day habit through my callous decision earlier in the year to buy a pair of Beatle boots for school wear.
  • Allowing my drawing skill to ‘distress” a classmate into  liberating (for himself) arithmetic homework answers from the teacher’s manual. 

Mom’s third and even more strident inquiry up the ladder jolted me out of my reverie into reality and a “Yep – I’m a dead man”. Knowing that further delay would just add velocity to the inevitable percussive counseling I called down the ladder to Mom and as euphemistically as possible reported on Merriweather’s expanded vocabulary.

…and then a miracle happened. It may have been that the lack of visual contact between the bottom of the ladder and the loft buffered the shock but instead of going ballistic Mom went into a very articulate but symbolic definition of the word. Rather than dismissing it as “dirty” she explained that it was a coarse expression for what was otherwise a beautiful, reaffirming act between two loving people. Merriweather seemed to follow the general concept but her attention started to drift when Mom side-stepped into a more esoteric seed/earth/plant analogy.

 At first all I could think was “Who are you and what have you done with my Mom?” but then I could see that her measured response simultaneously fulfilled Merriweathers’s curiosity and neatly excised the reactive curiosity an angrier response would have triggered as in “If Mom’s that worked up it must be something cool!”…then with perfect timing Dad’s voice rang out with a summons for a late breakfast and any remaining tension was dispelled in the general stampede towards the table.

Nothing was said during the meal, but then again you never let anything as minor as the spoken word get between you and a Dad-breakfast of eggs, bacon, biscuits and pancakes. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop during the following week, but during the following month I pieced together enough otherwise random off-hand comments to see that the trip south had been an eye-opener for Mom regarding some of her extended family, and that she’d immediately concluded that Merriweather had picked up the term during their trip to California. With the exception of a dried-out turquoise Flair pen, I’d gotten out of the incident unscathed.

Unscathed but not unaffected. I don’t know if it was fallout from the move down to the Peninsula in the summer of 1964 or my mom’s admitted discomfort with dealing with teenagers, but the two of us had been mixing like oil and water for the last couple of years. Watching her tackle such a difficult subject with such grace added a new dimension to her personality which in turn provided some hope for an eventual thaw in our icy relationship.

As the years went by, there was another smaller side benefit for me. When people talk about life in the Sixties what they usually mean is the latter-half of the decade on up to about 1972. Mad Men aside, the first part of that decade was not much different from the Eisenhower era immediately preceding, but little did I know that as a thirteen year old I was standing on the edge of a cultural tsunami that would upend society’s norms for just about everything connected to sex including That Word. Where it had once been unmentionable to 90% of society its use became widespread enough to be the subject of a best-selling comedy album/routine3. Where its use had once been limited to the locker room, oil field or army barracks, it became the “universal adjective” 4 used by people in all walks of life

…but whenever I heard the word all I could think about was Merriweather’s confused reactions to Mom’s “seed” analogy5 and I’d bust up laughing….

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Notes

  1. Serving liver for dinner was the meanest culinary trick ever; a bait switch of the worst kind as it smelled as savory as a regular steak but had all the mouth-watering taste associated with licking a flashlight battery.
  • More accurately unfinished. My father was plagued with personality quirk that kept him from completing every project I ever saw him start. To this day 54 years later the last four feet of my room remains unpaneled and the four outbuildings he built on the homestead continue to stand unfinished in some way or another. 
  • George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t say on Television” from the 1972 album Class Clown. Also used extensively in multiple albums by L.A. based “hard comedy” duo Cheech & Chong.
  • As in “close the f*cking door and sit down at the f*cking table. It’s f*cking cold in here!” as heard in the mess tent at the Clear Creek Forward Operating Base during JRX BRIM FROST 1981.
  • “…wait, is there supposed to be dirt down there?”

1969/2020 “Bah, Humbug!”

(This is one of two Christmas-themed stories I re-run every year. This time around it’s a little different in that I’m not nearly the Scrooge I’ve been in years past, I don’t know if it’s my age or a reaction to the insanity that has been 2020 but I’ve found myself really enjoying the tree, the cars, the scriptures and the music.)

Have I already mentioned that I hate Christmas?

My enmity to this time of year has little to do with the actual day but rather the personal history that surrounds it. Name a personal disaster or heartbreak in my life and odds are the event happened either in December or within 2 weeks north or south of that month. I’m not going to produce an itemized list but if you really want to know why I dread the twelfth month of the year, and why I am miserable to live with during that time send a private message. If I get enough a large enough response I’ll elaborate a bit and then you’ll know why my dear sweetheart deserves a six-figure cash bonus, the Victoria Cross and immediate translation for simply enduring my presence during the holidays, much less talk or interact with me in any way.

Christmas wasn’t always miserable for me. There have also been some very happy times associated with the holidays, but they are totally overwhelmed by the number and intensity of the negative stuff. That contrast is no doubt fuel for the fire as well; I’m like the hungry homeless man with his nose pressed against the window of a four-star restaurant tormented by the sights and smells of food he can only imagine.

Even when thinking back as objectively as possible I cannot understand how I survived some of those times.  However those Yule seasons that seemed to be even more Yuseless than usual also happened to be times when I was blessed with an “adjunct angel” an individual whose words and deeds were vitally important to my continued mental health ( at one time to my life)– yet probably had no clue of the service they rendered.

There have been many such individuals ranging from a college instructor whose timely letter of praise and understanding drew the venom out of a heartless betrayal in a rebound relationship following the most crushing break-up of my life to a flight school buddy that refused to shun me when my medical disqualification made me invisible to the rest of my classmates (maybe they though vision problems were contagious). However, one of the most heart-warming may have not been a person at work – but rather circumstances; what we call “tender mercies”

.  It was Christmas Eve 1969; my sister Holly and I were up in my attic bedroom listening to some distinctly un-holiday rock music on my stereo and commiserating about how there was no “joyeux” in the “noel” when you weren’t a little kid. There was a lull in the music as the changer dropped another LP onto the turntable – and that’s when we heard the footsteps. Yes, footsteps on the roof just 10 inches on the other side of the ceiling of my attic bedroom.

We couldn’t tell exactly what kind of footsteps they were – there was a chinook (mid-winter warm front passage) going on which always brought on a chorus of humming, whining and moaning as the wind ran past the T.V. aerials, their supporting masts and guy-wires. It didn’t matter though – we looked at each other in wide-eyed shock, then Holly shot down the ladder to her bedroom while I shut off the light and dove under my covers.

There were no hoof-sprints or skid marks on the roof the next morning – but there was also very little snow after the warm winds of a Chinook.

 Had our cats running around the attic?

Had my dad on the roof adjusting the living room TV antenna?

 Did a sleigh park on our roof that night?

I don’t know the answer to any of those questions, just like I don’t know why selected friends over the years have chosen this time of year to perform life-changing acts of kindness for me.  While footsteps-on-the-rooftop didn’t have the heavy emotional weight of some of the other incidents I’ve shared, the event did have a life-changing, softening effect on my personality at a time when as a sixteen year old I was making important choices about where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do with my life. The timing was perfect.

…and as I was thinking about this post it came to me that timing has also been very effective with this whole holiday curse mindset. It’s cleverly turned my expectations about what should be a happy time into a subtle but non-stop attack on my faith.  I’m just very fortunate that at the same time those little attendant holiday miracles have been just as clever and even more effective in bolstering my faith.

Merry Christmas!

2020: Early Morning Ritual

4:00 AM

It was a whisper so quiet I almost missed it for the hum of the ceiling fan and the wind in the trees outside our bedroom window.

“Papa, I want to be down here with you and Nana” –  followed almost instantly with, “Can I use your tablet?” signaled the arrival of my grandson Jayden. I mumbled the usual assent mixed with admonitions about excess noise then drifted into my never-ending quest for more sleep.

Microseconds later a strident BEEP-BOOP-BEEP-BRRRRRT!! startles me into an (almost) sitting position while simultaneously triggering a semi-intelligible URK!1 The wee little voice with the endearing lisp calls out in the dark, “Torry Papa. I will turn it down,”  and instantly dispels my expected growly response and I roll back over to drift off as well as I can with patterns of light from the aforementioned tablet dancing across our ceiling.

“VROOOOMMMMM”

I stagger-stumble out of bed, visions of out-of-control vehicles heading for our front porch filling my imagination only to find my grandson with my tablet in hand, transfixed and terrified by his grandfather-turned-grizzly-bear careening around the bedroom floor and bouncing off bedroom walls while his grandmother struggles with the polyethylene clasp of her CPAP mask in an effort to sit up as well.

“JAYDEN!”

“Sorry Papa. Sorry Nana”.

At this point the tablet is turned off and put away before I once again embark on my fitful journey to Slumberland, but just as Little Nemo takes my ticket…

BA-THUMP…THUMP! BA-THUMP…THUMP!

“Hey Papa! I can jump reawy high! Watch me!”

My inner Cro-Magnon starts a growl rumbling deep in my chest but chokes it off when I note the time on my phone AND the growing light of dawn through the curtained window. I take comfort in the fact that if nothing else Jayden’s early morning calisthenics do not include PLFs2 off the dresser or a dive, tuck and roll over the bed with the two of us curled up comfortably and still sleeping…but mostly the knowledge that his predawn antics are a small price to pay for sharing this time in his life.

I’ve lived almost ten times as long as Jayden has and in all those years I’ve treasured my steadily evolving caretaking role as elder brother, uncle, father, and grandfather. I was never the type of dad who lived and longed for the day he would become an empty nester and the departure of each child was a little death for me. I suspect it will be the same when Jayden and his parents finally get a place of their own, but for now I will keep my tablet charged up and tuck the covers a little tighter when I turn in at night.

_______________________________________________________________________

Notes

1.  Which in my mind is perfectly understandable as “ See here young man what is this untimely commotion?”

2. Parachute landing fall.

Before you start…

sean's comic…let me warn you that you’ll never guess which Traveller supplement this illustration appeared in or which unpublished Metagaming project it was intended to be used in (but was subsequently “eighty-sixed” when Howard  left the company.) I wasn’t art for the program book of some convention that named me as Artist Guest of Honor and it wasn’t a self-promotional portfolio piece I came up with during a slow week…because it’s NOT my work .

It was drawn by my son Sean during a middle school art class.

Proper dad-ship rests on the idea that a father does everything in his power to launch his kids successfully in life and Sean when started high school he was manifesting all the skills and knowledge necessary for a creative career not just equal to but surpassing mine. I’m not kidding – his drawing skills at sixteen were better than mine were at thirty, but when he started college he knew that as much as he loved art he needed an income more stable than art could provide. After spending twenty-five years watching me battle with the vagaries of a freelancer’s life he chose the path that I often wish I’d taken and kept creativity as an avocation instead of a vocation, a hobby to help alleviate stress rather than creating it.

…and he still manages to routinely add to an already impressive body of work.

Parley LaMoine Howell (1933-2020)

1980

“That’s some book-case you’re making David”

 “Thanks”

 “Are you sure you don’t want to add another support on the front:

 “Yes Dad”

(tap/tap/tap)

“You may want to consider adding that support to the front. Conrad is starting to walk, and he may grab onto it and – “

A reply of ultimate snarkiness was on the tip of my tongue but as luck would have it my Beautiful Saxon Princess chose that moment to step in and inform us the coals were just right for barbecue and took her father by the arm to start grilling. I shot a dark look at my father-in-law’s receding form: It was bad enough that in two days I’d be facing a medical board ruling my flight status without getting a critique on every second nail I drove into MY bookshelf…but then he was a civilian paper shuffler and hadn’t a clue about my situation, or ( I suspected) a care.

1991

David, are you sure you don’t want to go with us?’

“Yes, I’m sure”

(pause)

“ Did I tell you that we got a new engine for the boat and new upholstery for the seats?

 “Yes”          

 “Did you see the forecast? It’s going to be perfect weather”

 “I know”

(pause)

“ David are you sure –“ at which point my Beautiful Saxon Princess (well aware of the signs of an impending eruption of Mount David) stepped in with a Bundt cake to distract her father from his efforts to persuade me to join in a water-skiing expedition that afternoon.

I sat back and reached for an unbroken pencil and fresh sheet of paper. He didn’t have a clue – I was hanging on by my fingertips to an MFA program with an open hostility towards middle-aged professionals who also happened to hold reserve commissions in the military. My young family thought of the trip to my in-laws as a vacation but I definitely needed time to work on a research paper on Tlingit raven rattles, a topic that was both politically correct enough to get me through the semester as well as obscure enough to discourage thorough examination.

1997

“David, are you sure you want to measure out the stud lines from that wall”

 “Yes Dad”

(hammer/hammer/hammer)

“David, don’t you think we should measure out from this end”

 “No Dad. Measuring from this end puts most of them under floor joists”

(hammer/hammer/hammer)

“David are you – “ at which point Fate in the shape of My Beautiful Saxon Princess intervened with a tray of sandwiches and drinks prompting me to drop the hammer that I’d been gripping hard enough to emboss fingerprints.

2020

Parley LaMoine Howell passed away a few days ago, joining his wife and sweetheart Velma who’d made her own exit from the earthly stage a little over a year ago. Despite the Huntsville (AL) venue we were able to participate in the funeral via a Facebook Live broadcast (take that mean old Mister Coronavirus) and as we sat in the studio listening to the services several conclusions came to mind:

  • This guy was the bomb! He started college at Gonzaga University on a basketball scholarship, was a pivotal designer for the Lunar Rover used in Apollo program and in three different states was a major factor in the growth and leadership of our faith.
  • This guy was good. In the forty-two years I’d been married to his eldest daughter I’d never once seen him lose his temper or speak sharply to anyone in general but to me in particular when I was acting like a fourth-point-of-contact. He was sincerely Christ-like, and I had no doubt that if he was handed a glass of buttermilk it would revert back to grade A whole milk just because of his proximity.
  • I had sadly misinterpreted his intent those times he had been so insistent. What he’d really been saying in 1980 was “I know your medical grounding is difficult to deal with but you’re still valuable to me”. In 1991 he was saying the same thing about the challenges for graduate school I was facing, and in 1997 he just wanted to make sure our home was snug and well built.

…and lastly:

  • If I was ever going to be serious about weight loss we had to come up with a different way to defuse interpersonal conflict.

1984: Skye Boat Song Promotion

SkyeBoatSongPromo1984

Other than knowing how to sling an airbrush and wield a marker I was totally clueless at the outset of my freelance career. As I’ve written earlier my parents were not overly enthusiastic about my career choices and until my second year of college the only bona-fide artist I knew was Peninsula pioneer and Renaissance man Cotton Moore…and it didn’t get much better when I finally started studying art in college as practicalities of an designer’s life were glossed over in favor of draftsmanship and technique.

Somewhere along the line I discovered CA (Communications Arts) magazine and learned about promotions and hustling up work…which immediately started the internal Stukas tearing up my innards. Along with all sorts of naturopathic remedies I had been spoon-fed in my youth with the idea that you “didn’t shoot off your mouth about yourself”, that hard-work and professional results were the best advertisement ever and in the initial stage of my illustration career that proved to be a sound plan.

…then came the evening in late 1984 when I looked at our snug little home, my sleeping children, the moths flying out of our checkbook and realized that at my current income we’d soon be getting our mail at nsmCardboard Box 5, Under The Overpass at Exit 272 , Utah 77340

My first step was to increase my efforts showing my portfolio locally, but I also went back to CA (then subsequently Step By Step and How-To magazines ) and started researching the idea of promotional mailers. As I was living in the creative wilderness of the Intermountain West a decade before computer aided design (with printers and scanners) the process of designing/printing/distributing promotional mailers was extremely labor-intensive but I managed to churn out some nice work which in turn brought in new clients and an increase in assignments. .

Skye Boat Song was the first promotional image I sent out – the image was inspired by Gordon Dickson’s classic military science fiction novel Tactics of Mistake while the title was a pun playing off the title of one of the first bagpipe tunes I ever learned. The type was all set by hand using Letraset press-type and pairing with the image involved more work with a PS 79 Proportional Scale than should be allowed by law. As photographic prints they were a little pricey to print up, but I sent 25 out in December of 1984 followed an equal amount a month later. As a promotional mailer it wasn’t too terribly successful, but it did startle an existing client into formalizing our relationship and feeding me a LOT more work, so it definitely was one for the win column.