My Heros Have Always Been Cowboys

Times were hard for me back when Bob Dylan once sang, ‘ you’re all alone and you’re out on your own like a rolling stone’….I was in Cincinnati working in a small factory for minimum wage and lucky to get that. I was looking at life and almost terrified of the future. When a man, or perhaps a woman, is young a year seems like a life time. Anyone over thirty is ancient history and should be praised for living so long.  Living in the YMCA downtown Cincy my only advantage was my Pennsylvania driver’s license, that stub of an IBM card printed with graphite instead of ink.  Take a razor and gently scrape away the graphite and use a number four pencil to change that last digit of the year of my birth.  Viola, I was twenty two, drinking age for all that it was worth.  I could buy real beer not that 3.2 crap.  When you’re new in town friends are difficult to make.  I mean, where do you go who do you meet.  I could take a hike toward the University of Cincinnati and find some beer bar and dance hall that catered to students, that was good for a night of dancing with the coeds but none of them were going to ask you back to their dorm.  I couldn’t afford a television set, things cost too much back then.  No, I was just breaking even at my rate of pay and no promise of milk and honey in the future.

 

But I did by chance meet the old man of the “Y”, well as far as I knew he might have been a hundred or thirty five for all I knew.  He lived in the “Y” for many years as far as I could find out.  The staff called him the Old Timer.  As such, he never seemed to have much money on him and always trying to mooch off the others, new strangers were his targets.  I guess he figured I had more money than sense.  He guessed wrong for a man can part with what he doesn’t have.  I think I said that right.  But I could buy a couple of cans of Colt 45 malt liquor every Saturday and I didn’t mind sharing.  So I’d go to his room and we would talk.  Actually he did most of the talking.  Loquacious is what it’s called and he was very.  I think though his world was more dream that reality.  Still, it was worth the can of malt liquor just to hear him talk.  I remember the first time he circumlocuted his way through that vast mine of memories.  The nuggets he pulled out were huge and sparkled like gold in the noonday sun to a youth of little experience.

 

“Bill, my heroes have always been cowboys.  I remember as a young kid going down to the Bijou and handing over my nikel to the woman in the cage in front of the theater just so I could see Tom Mix on that big silver screen.  Hoot Gibson and Ken Maynard were larger than any men I ever knew.”  His face would brighten some as his eyes became slightly moist.  “You know they never drew down on a man first and never shot a man in the back.  No sir, never.  They were true to the code of the cowboy.  Yes sir re bob.”  Then he’d take another sip from the can, pause in thought for a moment, then look far off into the distance, far beyond the walls of his room, perhaps as far away as Hollywood.  “My how them fellas could ride and shoot.  All real good shots too.  You got to time it just right when you shoot from the saddle.  I just knew that was the life for me.  A man’s word is his honor, Bill, don’t you forget that.”  I said I wouldn’t, yes, I would be truthful.  I thought he was an old fool.  Never saw him go off to work or do much of anything.  Just a old man down on his luck.  He’d been kicked out of the television room and I can guess why.  The set would only show two channels and most people wanted to watch sitcoms or cop shows.  The few times that anyone was foolish enough to turn on a western that old man would be talking over the volume.  He’d be expounding about everything western, from horses to bunkhouses.  Might as well turn the set off.

 

Another sip and more reflections.  I listened.  For a couple of hours I was halfway entertained.  The only other thing I could do was to walk about the city for a couple of hours wishing I had friends and a nice place to live and a girlfriend.  At least I could sit and drink a little, smoke my cigarettes and hope the old timer had something interesting to say.  “Now we lived in New Jersey in Camden.  Never saw a horse in my life until I left home and headed west.  No sir, weren’t no horses in that city.  It was the Depression, Bill, when I left home.  My father was out of work and my mother had to take in washing and ironing just to get by.  Me and my brother, John, well, there just wasn’t any work for us.  So we left.  I quit school like my older brother cause I knew my mother was working herself to death trying to make ends meet.  You got to do what’s right in life, Bill.  Come hell or high water, you got to do what’s right.”  His voice trailed off, almost as if he was watching the past on those big screen eyes of his.  Another sip, man he had it down pat, how to milk the liquid out of a can of beer, make it last for hours.  He wasn’t as successful with his money.  Don’t know where he got that little pittance of his.  I only know there was too much month left after he paid for his room and weekly meal ticket.  The only life he seemed to have was his memories.  But I was young and callow and absorbed in my own lack of success.

 

“I rode the rails then.  Rode them all over this country.  Sometimes the bulls would get you and you might do a month on the farm.  Then out you go, run out of town and not even a nickel in your pocket.  I wanted work, but nobody was hiring.  Even in Montana and Wyoming, there I thought I could get work as a cowboy, you know.  They all laughed at me, call me a goll dern tenderfoot.  Well, that’s part of the code, telling the truth.  I was a tenderfoot.  What did I know about riding a horse?”  He took another sip and settled into that stare of his.  It always left me hanging until he would start again.  Perhaps he was teaching me a little bit about patience.  How to let a man tell his life’s story with out interruption.  “Never speak ill of any man, even if you’ve got a grudge.  Go walk in his boots first.  Yes sir, you’ve got to be gentle and kind to women and children and animals.  Especially animals cause they cant speak for themselves.  No sir, never harm anyone or anything less’n you have to.  You know, protect yourself. It’s the Cowboy Code, Bill, and a darn good one.  Yes, a darn good one.”  His voice trailed off again into that stare of his.  Another sip and some more thought.  You know, I made it to Los Angeles in ’36, Hollywood is near by there.  I tried to get work in the studios.  I though I could be a cowboy or a stunt man or extra.  They all just laughed at me.  Sent me packing.  I’d sneak onto those sets, find the ones where they was doing a western, you know.  Eventually they got so used to seeing me that I became one of the prop men.  Me, in Hollywood.”  He showed that sense of surprise at that thought.  His eyes moisten slightly and he held his head a little higher.  “All I did was stand around and move props when they told me.  Couldn’t do nothing else.  They wouldn’t even let me be an extra, said I had to join a union for that.  We didn’t make much, a dollar a day and that’s more than the extras could do seeing as how their work wasn’t steady.  It was the depression, you know.  I was grateful for any work.”

 

Another sip and another thought appeared on his brow.  “The war came, Bill.  Being patriotic is a cowboy’s duty, so I went down to enlist.  The gave me all sorts of tests and then said they couldn’t use me.  Imagine that, Bill.  They said they couldn’t use me.  Well the pay got better for us set workers and I use to volunteer at those canteens for the service men.  And every year I’d go down and try to enlist.  But is was always the same answer.  We don’t need you.  We don’t need you.”  Another stare into the wall, then another sip and another thought.  “Anyway, I got hurt in an accident on one of the sound stages, couldn’t work no more.  They pensioned me off, said they couldn’t use me anymore.  Just like that, they couldn’t use me any more.”  I could hear the pain in his voice.  I could not understand it then as I do now.  Most of his life had been full of pain.  Yet his cowboy code bade him to bear it without complaint.  It became just another sip.  Months later I’d be in the service, seems they needed me.

Dance With Me

Fall is a glorious time in the wine country just as it is in New England. The end of August starts the harvesting of rich ripe grape clusters and continues through the beginning of September while the work of crushing and fermenting is usually complete by mid October.  Then the wine has been put to a long eighteen months rest in new oak barrels. By the end of October the fall celebrations are under way and autos full of people are flocking to the highways watching the leave first turn varying shades of yellow then red and finally that dark brown that marks the end of their yearly lives. Later when soft rains of Thanksgiving fall they will be disked into the ground and provide the nutrients for the vines.  This work is done each year around the world, from France, Italy, Germany, and many other countries on the European continent to America, Canada, and Mexico on the North American continent to India.  It is an age old practice from the time man first harvested grapes and made wine.

 

Michael and Paula had invited me to their vacation home in the wine country, a modest bungalow that had belonged to his parents, a wedding gift for the couple.  The last of the turning leaf army had straggled back to congested cities and suburban tracts of ticky-tacky yet the leaves still retained the last vestiges of color as if they had waited on my approval.  I approved most gratefully and thanked them for their patience.   The dark grey stone gave the house a sense of age and presence, a lesson of endurance for the younger stucco that sometimes crowded the hillsides.  Michael’s great grandfather had built that house before the turn of the last century, the tremors that so delight the inhabitants in the coastal cities had failed to even move it out of square.  Most of the original land tract had been sold to a couple of grape growers but Paul had one or two acres left on which he tended the few apple and plum trees clustered around the house.  One sprawling oak dominated the property, it was planted in 1895, not long after the house was built.  The gravel lane from the main road was half hidden and one had to traverse a little more than a mile up that path to the top of the hill.  I remember the first time I was on that crest, the view was impressive as fog press the colors into grey wisps and flowed like the sea across row after row of vines.  It was a million dollar view that I hoped would never be disturbed.

 

Sam, golden retriever greeted my car with an air of authority and waited until I opened the door to give me close inspection.  Michael followed behind and gave the command, “Sam, sit!”  Which he did as a good and obedient dog should.  “I have to watch Sam, he likes to jump up on strangers.  Never could break him of that habit, don’t know where he picked it up.”  “Maybe from Paula” I said.  We both chuckled at the thought.  And on cue, Paula came running out of the house and leaped into my arms with a welcoming, “Hello, stranger.”  Michael and I both looked at each other.  I put her back on her feet and she led the way to the door.  Michael had my overnight case in his hand while Sam brought up the rear.  “It’s a stunning time of year, thank you two for having me.”  Paula spoke in the quiet but assertive manner of hers, “We love it here when we can get away.  And you know we love having you stay with us.”  We walked through the door and Michael took me to my room, a cozy little place just large enough for a regular bed, a wash stand and a small dresser.  The view out the window more than made up for it’s lack of size.

 

In what used to be called a common room and not is today’s open concept, we sat and sipped a glass of white wine.  Two of the old growers always gave Michael and Paula a couple cases of their yearly vintages as a gesture of good will.  The couple snuggled on the couch while I reposed in the wingback.  Paula knew I had a preference for the old wingback style and had added this one to their decor, ridding themselves of that hideous barrel type one considered chic decades ago.  Their style of living here, away from the pretence of the city, was one of old comforts and ease of life.  As Paula once explained, “In the city we need to keep some pretence of current style because of our work.  But we never feel as ease there.  Here, we can let down our hair and be horribly middle class.”  Michael cut in, “Time is measured in seasons here and moves slowly, in tune with nature.  I feel relaxed, I can think about life.  But you’re a writer, you know all about that.”  I envied them, not because they had this getaway but because they had each other.

 

A few years ago I first met Michael at a party, one of those affairs where the hostess needed an extra man and I was pressed into service at the last minute.  Dora was member of a class who collect literary agents, owners of art galleries, and so forth.  A regular socialite with a dubious day job.  She chaired or sat on various committees of good works and social agenda.  So when the writer she invited had to cancel at the last minute, my name was suggested and I was immediately whisked into service to round out the usual cadre of artists, writers, and musicians.  The average upper class individual, or at least those middle class individuals with newly acquired money, love to think that we are extremely interesting and profound.  I’ve never met one of us who were.  But it meant a good mean, good champagne, good wine, and if I was lucky, good single malt.  After the usual grazing of the herd on canapes and champagne we were ushered into the dining room and took our assigned seats.  I was sandwiched between a woman who was a member of the local school board and a man who was a legal counsel for a for one of Dora’s charities.  Michael sat across from me, hemmed in by an outspoken woman performance artist on one side and a well known but, in my opinion, mediocre musician.  I remember being asked to pontificate on a number of idiotic ideas and like a fool I addressed that idiocy as it should have been addressed.  Needless to say I was not employed by the hostess in any capacity in the future.  Several times I caught Michael looking very amused at my comments and once I detected that he actually had great difficulty suppressing laughter at one rejoinder I issued point blank at that local school board member.  I think I called her lack of intelligence on issues of education a crime against humanity.  The lawyer next to me had actually given a hearty chuckle.

 

After the ordeal of dinner was over I had been standing in the corner doing my best wall flower imitation when Michael walked up and said,”Follow me, old man, you look in need of a serious drink.”  I’m not sure if my age was showing that night but I had at least ten years on him.  He led me into what I concluded was the library, for it actually contained a few volumes artfully arranged on built in shelves.  But I would lay odds no one ever opened them. It was apparent he knew his way around the very large house for he went to the right cabinet and pulled out two short glasses and a bottle of Glenlivet.  “Ice or a splash of water?” was all he said.  “Water, thanks.” was my reply.  “Sit down, let’s have a decent conversation.”  I was a little stunned by that remark.  “What’s on your mind?”  “You gave such a splendid performance back there at dinner, I’m sure Dora will hear of it.”  “Ah, is that Ms Worthington’s name?  You must be on intimate terms with her.”  “Oh, by the way, my name is Michael Banks, pardon my manners.  I know her husband, John.  I’m in his law firm as a junior partner.  By the way, I thought the lawyer joke rather funny.”  “Thanks, er.. Michael, if I may call you by your first name.”  “Oh please do, I don’t stand on ceremony.  I’m only here as a favor to John.”  “Mr Worthington?”  We had another single malt and parted our ways for the evening.  I skipped out knowing Ms Worthington would never call upon me again.

 

Michael called me the next Wednesday, would I care to have dinner with him on Friday at Le Bistro?  My first instinct was to turn him down.  I have little in common with lawyers and certainly junior partners with a national reputation are beyond my perceived worthiness.  But I was curious as to why someone like him would wish me for a dinner companion.  I had no money or social position, so the reason intrigued me, I accepted.  “I’ll meet you in the bar.  Just give them your name and a libation will be waiting for you.”  Apparently he knew of my reduced circumstances.  I had a small pension, so I turned to writing thinking I might actually earn a few dollars each month.  The operative word is few, by the way.  And he had the courtesy to suggest a good restaurant that was past it’s incrowd prime but still offered excellent meals at a decent price.  I was at the restaurant at five past the hour for I did not want to appear too desperate not inconvenience him by being fashionably late.  I shouldn’t have worried, he was fifteen minutes late and most apologetic for his tardiness.  His mother had taught him good manners, that was a mark in his favor.  The decor was understated in accord with the idea that the parton should be delighted with the food and not the embellishments of the room.  I was half way through the standard serving of a very nice but not well know white burgundy, a village Meursault of good vintage.  My enjoyment of the wine was evident when he came in.  He asked me what I was drinking and I told him.  “Ah yes, a very good wine, excellent value.  It has nice legs, a hint of floral notes, a touch of citrus, and acid enough for the long haul.  How did you come to chose that one?”  Michael was a man who knew his wines well.  So my credentials were offered by way of a few past wine experiences and we felt an immediate bond.  We went in to dinner and got down to cases.  I need not bore you with the menu and wine list, let’s just say it was a very good meal, the finest I have had in the last five years.

 

“You’ve guessed I have an ulterior motive in asking you to dinner.”  “Well, yes, I am hardly in your social crowd and the thought did occur to me.”  “Let me put you at ease.  Dore is not the reason you are here although she is very put out by you.  She was trying to convert that ignorant Ms Meacham to her cause.  You’ve set Dora’s plans back by a month.  But to continue, I became aware that you are the father of Ms Rebecca Lynn, are you not?”  “Yes, but what does my daughter have to do with all this?”  “Simple, your daughter is a member of a dance group run by Paula Johnson.”  “Yes, go on, how does this affect me?”  “Since I do not know either woemn and would like an introduction to Paula Johnson I thought perhaps you might arrange with your daughter to introduce me to Ms Johnson.  I’m afraid that if I tried to do it myself I would be looked upon in a most unfavorable light.”  “You mean something akin to a stage door johnny?”  “Yes, yes, that’s what I thought.  And while tonight’s dinner was an obvious bribe, please don’t get me wrong.  I rather like you, you have that odd sense of humor.  You have wit and intellect.  I think you might like to see me in a more relaxed setting with a few of my more modest friends.  We all aren’t society hounds.”  “So why this woman and wouldn’t it be more direct to intrude upon her at some social bash or something?”  “Paula is too busy for such trash as Dora and her friends.  And Paula is a bit of a recluse, likes to guard her privacy, hates society parties.  I mean, I’ve tried, but no gambit seems to get past her defenses.  Look, this is not a case of unrequited love or anything like that.”  “Well, I’ll broach the subject with my daughter.  I can’t say how much influence Rebecca has since she is a substitute for the regular dance cast.  But tell me, if you wouldn’t mind, just what attracts you to Paula?  What do you see in that woman?”  “I suppose I could say that I see the grace and style of the world at dance in her movements and that her smile was line the sun shining just for me.  The fact is, I saw an interview of her last year and she touched my heart.  There is something that rings true in her, reverberates in my soul, if you understand my meaning.  I think, given a chance, we might find a way to make our burden’s less odious.  But until I do meet her and have some time spent talking with her I doubt I shall ever know.”  “Then I will enlist my daughter’s aid to get your foot in the door, so to speak.  After that is shall be up to you to make your plea.”  “Thanks so much, Bill.  You don’t mind my calling you Bill, do you?”  “Only my friends have that right, Mike, and I think you just may qualify on that point.  I shall talk with my daughter and see what can be done.”  Well, you should have seen the grin on Mike’s face.  Like a little child with a lollipop in hand.  He ordered some port and a plate of Stilton, walnuts, and gravenstein apple slices.

 

So the following week I talked with my daughter.  We met at the theater during rehearsal.  When a break came for the company we huddled in the front row seats and I outlined my dilemma.  I had a friend, Michael, who would appreciate a private audience with Paula as I tried to so delicately put it.  We did not notice Paula as she stood just behind us but out of our of direct sight.  I heard Paula’s voice in that quiet assertive way ask me who did I think I was to come here to her theater and try to monopolize one of her girls?  Rebecca turned around and said, “I’m sorry madame, this is my father and he had some important information for me.”  “Oh!  I though he  was hear to play cupid.  I have been listening.  Am I to be the target of one of his arrows?”  By now I was very red faced and was stammering what poor apology I could muster.  “Oh, please don’t go on like that, Mr Lynn.  Now tell me more about this secret admirer.” The stage manager called “Time, Places.” But Paula held up her hand while the company dithered a bit on the floor.  I tried to be succinct in my message, it took about five minutes.  “I can’t be sure but my opinion is that he is interested in you as an individual.  Call it a simpatico attraction, if you will”  “Interesting.” was all she said.  “Stay here for a moment or two.  Rebecca, time to join the rest.”  Then she quickly glided over to a man standing by the person I thought was the stage manager.  I saw him disappear for a few minutes and then return to the foot lights.  He came down to the row where I was sitting and handed me an envelope.  “Madame says to give you this.”  Turning, he took two steps and leaped upon the stage.  I had just spoken to one of the principle male leads.  I looked into the envelope and saw a pair of tickets for Saturday’s premier and an invitation to the backstage reception after the performance.

 

I made a point of phoning Michael and telling him I had to see him at once.  I wouldn’t say one way or another, but I told him that if necessary I would stop by his offices if he deemed me presentable.  “Of course, old man, do come on by.”  When I stepped out of the elevator there was a young man waiting for me.  Since I did not look like the client type he came over immediately and said, “Mr Banks is waiting for you.  I’ll show you in.”  Mike rose from his chair when I came in, he was wearing that grin of anticipation as I approached his desk.  Sit down Bill, please.”  “Sit yourself down first, you might faint.”  I handed the envelope to him as he sat back in his seat.  He took the tickets out slowly and seemed quite amazed.  “No one has been able to get tickets for me to this event, not fifth row center, no one!”  Then he saw the cards for the reception.  His shoulders collapsed and his head sloped forward in thought.  A few seconds later he looked at me and said,”How on earth did you ever do it, Bill?”  ” I think Paula wants to meet you.” was all I could say.  I think you can guess the rest of the story.  My daughter finally obtained her dream and became a regular member of the dance troupe.  She will, of course, never be another Paula but I hear she has a junior law partner interested in her.  I am still writing and trying to sell short stories to whoever will publish them.  And I have a book started, one I think just might see the light of day.  Dora has forgiven me, she wants me to use my supposed influence to get Paula into that society social circle of hers.  But I demuir, claiming that I am just an acquaintance and have no powers of friendship.  I also never review this secret hideaway to anyone.  It’s more than a secret, its a good way of life.  Life and love are too precious to waste on superficial people.

 

Dance with me.  I want to be your partner, can’t you see.  The music is just starting, night is calling, and I am falling.  Orleans

Operator

Everyone has a picture of what they believe their life will be like.  Some are so sure that they have this movie script complete with technicolor.  But that time between teenage adolescent and adulthood is a slipper slope and some find to going difficult.  to say there is often confusion in the minds of these young individuals is to issue a broad understatement.  When I was in the service my speciality was communications and I had my fingers in a lot of pies.  I dealt in a black market, but I took payment only in favors, never money.  Money is too easy to trace and I was no fool.  an article fifteen is not the same as a military court marshal conviction and ten years in Leavenworth.  Besides, favors are a lot harder to trace and easier to cover.  The service is a harsh teacher of life and successful attitudes.  Either one performs or one doesn’t and in Vietnam that difference could prove deadly.  So I traded favors.  I also formed a network of favor traders.  I mean, maybe someone wants a 45 caliber sidearm he normally wouldn’t be issued.  Well, what do you have to trade for it?  Maybe you can’t directly trade but maybe you know one or two others who can assist you in this trading business.  You know, this is how economics works, the whole present value thing reduced to what do you have to trade and what is it worth?  Bartter operates on the idea that everyone has something to trade and wants something in return.

 

Now this kid came to me because he had heard that I could arrange things.  He seemed to be a good kid, unassuming and somewhat truthful.  Well, you’d be surprised how truthful people can get when they want something and you press them hard enough.  I deal in black market favors, you know, I don’t have time for clowns and idiots nor do I want to spend ten years in Leavenworth.  And true enough, given a little time I could usually find a way to satisfy all parties.  I didn’t deal with officers for the simple reason that they couldn’t be trusted.  They were two faced sons of bitches and I did them no favors.  An officer and a gentleman my ass.  But sergeants were different.  I knew how to get around inspectors when it came to imports and exports.  You just had to have something to trade.  Back to the kid.  He was a driver in transportation, a PFC driving a two and a half ton straight truck between the big bases.  He was in a jam because, as he put it, he wanted to make sure that his girl knew he wanted to marry her when he got back.  You know how that goes, you’re gone and the girl thinks you have access to harems and somehow you are going to forget all about her.  Hey, it’s a legitimate concern and this kid wants to make sure that she is tying the yellow ribbon around his tree and not some other guy’s.  So he wants a phone call or as many as he can get, back to the states.  He didn’t know it, but he had something to sell.   The only guys who had direct line back to the states were the SAC people.  One didn’t believe that the SAC people were on any of our bases, but they were.  sure, the B-52s were out of Japan, Okinawa, and guam, but the older B-47s were SAC and the Australian Air Force.  They called them Canberra bombers but these were the older Boeing made bombers.  The question was, what did the SAC telephone operators want?  Well, maybe a few cases of beer would do the trick, so I sent the kid to enquire since he wanted the telephone calls.  Well, he came back crest fallen.  They wanted a couple of quarts of Jack Daniels.  Not that hard to come by if one knew where to look.  What did a supply sergeant for the officers club need?  He wanted to send a bunch of souvenirs back to his brother in the states.  But all shipments were to be searched for drugs and AK-47, while not exactly drugs were automatic weapons.  Okay, the MATS guys had the C-140s, what would they take to slip a couple of crates aboard their aircraft?  They flew out of Cam Ram Bay and they wanted better quarters.  Would they settle for their own clubhouse?  Yes they would.  Wow, this is getting very complicated.  Let’s see, who would build the clubhouse?  Ah. Seabees, of course.  What would they want in return?  a couple of cases of Jim Beam.  where do we get the supplies for the building.  Ah, Army Corp of Engineers.  What did they want?  They wanted a walk-in cooler and quite a number of cases of beer.  Uh, no can do.  But how about a couple of refrigerators and say twenty cases of beer?  Done deal.  You see, barter is about locating the various wants and needs so that they can be exchanged.

 

Now one of the advantages of being in communications is that quite a bit of “intelligence” moved through our hands.  I knew where to locate a couple of refrigerators that had been destined for officers clubs.  Those brass hats would never miss them, just send more next time.  Besides, it was easy to duplicate request and get extra in country.  And as I suggested to my boy in transportation, why not use that five fingered discount to supply the SAC operators?  It was easy enough to sent some messages to the right people to have him assigned to pick up goods at certain warehouses.  I mean, I was developing a license to steel here.  Eventually the favors get done because people have the ability to fudge one way or the other.  You see, it is really just a matter of keeping track of the favors owed and delivered.  As for the kid who just had to talk to his girlfriend back home, that went on for several months.  He kept that spark of romance alive while he served his time.  In the meantime he became one of my trusted transport workers.  You know, with a little bit of ingenuity one can transport a B-52 under the nose of any MP, or officer, for that matter.  The MPs are a little smarter in my book.  He was a hard worker and I do believe that we own him more favors than he collected.  But he was a gracious individual and declined more than he needed for his own use.  I mean, that is the meaning of teamwork, seeing that people feel they have a stake in the system and that the systems gives them their due.  Why generals find that so hard to understand is beyond me.  So this kid, name was Eddie, by the way.  Kind of figures it should be Eddie, you know.  He was a good guy, a stand up kind of guy.  Put one of his buddies into the program.  That is enough to renew your faith in human nature.  Yes, many of our deals came to pass and those that didn’t, no hard feelings.  But as I said, the minute you turn it into a cash operation you leave a trail and hard feelings.  So when it came my turn to rotate to the states I left my operations to a couple of gentlemen who promptly went to a cash and carry system.  Last I heard, they were doing ten years in Kansas.  Yeah, they tried to implicate me but there was only their word.  No Office of special Investigations would bother me when there was no evidence to tie me to anything.  A favor is quid pro quo, but greed knows no such bounds.  It’s your word of honor the way cash never can be.  A man’s honor determines his character, cash has no honor or character.

One Toke Over The Line

When Colorado passed the Marijuana Initiative  I couldn’t help thinking about the “old days”.  By that I mean the mid to late sixties of my impressionable years of youth.  The Baby Boomers were the last generation to have to face a military draft.  So many of us were shuffled through the military as callow youths and two or three years later we emerge, on average, no worse for wear.  True a few died, many more were wounded to some degree, and then there were the walking wounded.  Those are the ones who came back with the problematic conditions of being unable to adjust to the realities of life.  I am not sure has this comes about.  For every middle class kid who goes off to serve his country there are several working class kids who do the same.  Some of us, like myself, come back with a lot of built up anger inside.  Call it the accumulation of mistreatments we collect every day for two or three years.  Or perhaps it’s just the fact that we don’t deal with stupidity well.  Others see things that cause them to retreat from life.  One way to deal with that harsh reality of war, severe wounds, mangled dead bodies, and the loss of your buddies to escape into that blurred world of drugs.  I must admit that I had a serious problem in tech school.  I go addicted to tranquilizers, pain killers, and muscle relaxants.  For a couple of months drugs own my mind before a doctor made me go cold turkey.  For others, things like boredom, pressure from superiors, the general treatment received in service life, all these were excuse enough to try a little pot.  You see, beer wasn’t that easy to get as an enlisted man and hard alcohol damn near impossible unless you new an NCO who would buy it for you.  Besides, the beer was a joke, all the government would sell was 3.2 and you’ll piss it away long before you get enough of a buzz to make much difference.  On the other hand, there were half a dozen dealers in your company and the supply of pot seemed almost endless.  They tell me it was good stuff, too, like Hanoi Red, and Thai stick (combined with opium), and some good Cambodian weed.  the names were colorful and I have forgotten most of them.  But drugs weren’t to my liking.

 

On the other hand, some of the grunts I worked with thought nothing of toking once, twice, maybe three times a day.  I was not in a combat unit.  My group was communications and we laid the telephone cables, placed the poles, strung the wire, did the repair, all that stuff that rarely gets you killed.  Yeah, we had a casualty at least once a month because someone got careless or was in the wrong place when the rocket landed, but we were not the hero types.  Some of us, when our hitch was done went to work for the phone company.  That is where I met Bob Day.  He was hired a year before me because he was a draftee, two years active and one reserve.  I was a full three year man, regular Army.  There was a guy from combat engineers working on the crew, another who had seen all his service in Germany, lucky dog, Louis Diaz, ex door gunner, Gene, three year Navy man on a submarine, and an ex marine, saw action in the DMZ.  The other members were older and may have had their draft time and may have not, didn’t really matter.  I think there were two guys our age whose draft numbers were high and never got called.  Out of all of these guys, Bob was the most personable, that popular type in high school.  I would bet he never really had much in the way of any real achievements in life but he was popular.  Good with the jokes, seemingly even tempered, you know the type.  He probably would have made foreman in three to five years if he had had any ambition.  From what I could tell, you made foreman for one of three reasons: you were popular with men on the crew, you had some arcane technical knowledge, or at least they thought you did (one of the foremen was suppose to be a wiz at using a piece of equipment in trouble shooting but I never saw him use that equipment effectively, always some reason why the machine failed), or you were good buddies wit the second line manager.  On occasion the company would screw up and actually promote on real merit.  Yeah, I though Bob was on the track for promotion.  Now me, well, I’ve never been popular, can’t play the kiss kiss game, and don’t have some great and glorious technical knowledge.  If I got any special favors they would be few and far in between.

 

I talked with Bob on occasion, he seemed to be a nice guy.  He never saw combat, had been a desk jockey in supply.  I suppose that is where he acquired his pot habit.  I mean, this was not the recreational use stuff promoted by pot smokers in Colorado.  He had no war wounds for which he needed pot as his painkiller of choice.  He just had a habit that he indulged several times a day.  For him it was at least one a day while at work and if Red was around, Dave Mueller, then why not another hit?  Dave was another one of those popular types and eventually they were both put on the same crew doing important but minimum work.  About a year later I remember chancing upon Bob near the end of the day.  He needed help with a particular operation and since I was the closest one I was elected.  As we worked together he started telling about his marriage and how hi wife was leaving him.  He was a bit depressed over the fact that she was moving about two hundred miles to a different city and taking their little girl with her.   Well, one of my rolls is father confessor and since I was more stranger than friend he chose to confide in me.  It is almost a fact that we will tell strangers far more of our troubles than our friends since we don’t care what strangers think of us.  I could tell Bob was having his problems.  I don’t care what potheads tell you, it affects their work, I’ve seen it too many times to farr that that nonsense.  Bob had been making mistakes and finally I just shooed him on back to the garage while I finished up.  The next morning he came up to me and was thanking me for helping him.  He seemed to be a little worried that I might tell the rest of the crew.  So I reassured him that, hey, no problem, we all have one of those days.  but a couple of months later it was obvious that he was having one, then two, then three of those days too many.  And one day he had an accident, broke his arm.  I didn’t see Bob for about six weeks.  Then one day he showed back up for work.  I don’t think the time off had done much for him as he looked a little haggard.

 

A month after that I chanced to work with Bob on a job.  We got along okay, I’ve had better partners and I’ve had worse.  “My wife obtained a restraint order against me, said I was a bad influence on my daughter.”  “Really, why is that?”  “She thinks I smoke too much pot.  She says it’s not good for ‘her’ daughter to seen me smoking pot.  Like the kid can really tell the difference between my joint and the cigarettes I smoke.”  “You’d be surprised, Bob, kids notice far more than we think.  They may not be sophisticated but they ain’t dumb.  Know what i mean?”  He thought about that for a couple of minutes as we worked side by side.  “Maybe you’re right.  Yeah, maybe yo’re right.”  We stopped for lunch an hour later and I could tell that Bob still had a lot on his mind.  It was as if he was trying to come to some understanding, some decision.  Just before we buttoned the work up for the day he told me.  “I think I’m going to change, at least cut down on my pot.  You know?  Got to see my little girl again.”  I didn’t work with Bob or even speak with him again for another two months.  I had to stop by his job site to let him know I would be working in the same cable, a sort of courtesy call.  We passed the time of day for a few minutes, then he told me, “It’s really hard to stop.  I’ve tried and tried, but I just can’t do it.  I just can’t….you understand, don’t you?”  “Yeah, I understand.  Like trying to quite smoking.  You know, I quit smoking before I went in the Army but every think the drill sergeant said ,’smoke em if you got em.’ well, I just had to start up again.  You know?”  “Yeah, thanks, I know, yeah, ah…, yeah, you’re right.”

 

I wish I had a better something better to offer Bob right then.  He needed more than I could give him, he needed what he could give himself and yet wouldn’t.  I never saw Bob after that.  He had gotten a transfer to some remote corner of the state.  I heard indirectly that he had acquires one girl friend after another and had almost lost his job.  I lost contact with most of those guys I worked with when I went inside, started working in the electronics side of the phone company.  That was a whole nother world, as they say.  Most of the linemen and cable splicers as well as the installers were laid off and went to work for contract companies.  No union so you had to hustle if you wanted work.  I doubt Bob would have made the transition, he was always one toke over the line.

She’s Gone

I’ve never been a catholic priest or minister or any type of clergy, but I must have one of those faces to whom so many individuals seek to confess their “sins” or problems. Almost without fail if I am sitting in a bar or pub someone will come up to me and start talking. The next thing I know is I am their father confessor and they are pouring out their hearts to me and almost asking for absolution. If there was good money to be made I swear I would put a confessional in several bars around this town and make a very good living listening to people and taking donations for the poor box, namely my own.  Needless to say I do not spent much time in bars or pubs as the price of refreshment is about four times what I would like to pay.  There are times when I do seek a bit of human companionship, or at least the close contact of a crowd of people.  Usually I prefer a couple slices of pizza and one or two half price beers on a Friday or Saturday night before heading home for the weekend.

 

About two months ago I had worked that Saturday, over ten hours extra of overtime, so I came home and changed my clothes.  Then a short walk to the sports bar for a few slices of pizza and a pitcher of beer.  I had barely made it in time from happy hour, not that I couldn’t had afforded to pay full price but it’s the principle that counts.  Lucky for me there were no games scheduled that night so the usually loud mouth crowd was elsewhere.  The waitress came over with my pizza just as I finished my first mug.  Just as I was about to take a bite of my first slice a man I judged to be about thirty sat down in the chair on the opposite side of my table.  His mug was half full an his eyes looked a bit watery and bloodshot.  I suspect he had been drinking earlier in the day and was still at it.  It was obvious what he was going to say, they all have that lost little lamb face, baa, baa, baa.  At first I ignored him, which is means they take that as a challenge.  I took a couple of bites from my first slice, I was hungry and was thinking about ordering another couple of slices if these didn’t do the trick.  The day had been cold and rain soaked so I looked forward to clearing my mind.  there was an old movie on the big screen and I would have liked to watch it.

 

He looked at me for a few minutes and then hung his head as if to give me time to finish that first slice before he launched into his story.  True to his look, as soon as that first piece had be eaten he began.  I really didn’t want to be bothered but I knew it was impossible to ignore him or get rid of him with out creating a scene.  So I took a couple of sips of beer and looked into his eyes.  “She’s gone, man.  My baby’s gone.  You know?”  “That’s really tough, sorry to hear that.”  I started to pick up the other slice and he continued.  “I just came home one day and she was gone.  She’s gone, gone.”  Hey, damn it, I’m hungry, so I took a couple more bites with out looking at him.  But he was not to be discouraged.  They never are.  “I mean, I don’t know why.  She’s just gone.”  A couple more sips of beer and then another bite of pizza.  “Hey man, can you tell me why?”  “I wouldn’t know why.  I don’t know who she is and she is to you.”  Well, not the most tactful thing to say but in his state tact has no currency.  I knew he was now going to tell me the love story of his life.  Hell, I might have to order another pitcher just to get through this story.  “Oh, but it’s not like that, you know?  I mean she and I were madly in love, you know?”  No, I don’t know.  She’s gone for two hundred, Alex.  The clue is anything.  I’d pay the devil to replace her, Alex.

 

Yeah, the man is hurting inside and the alcohol isn’t killing the pain of rejection.  So he continued this story of love and happiness.  It’s always the same, you know.  Life is beautiful and then suddenly, without a clue, life is shit.  I mean, this guy had it bad.  I mean the torch he was carrying was far larger than a blow torch.  Man, this was statue of liberty size.  “I worked so damn hard to give her everything, man.  I put in the extra overtime, you know?”  Now I am not going to tell this guy that perhaps his absence was a possible contributing factor, not in his condition.  Might as well as throw a match on a pile of oil soaked rags.  “You know, we used to come here every Saturday night just to have some pizza and a pitcher of beer,  Every Saturday, you know?  You don’t think she got tired of that, do you?”  Well, yes, there is a strong possibility that she might have wanted some seafood and a glass of white wine.  what do I know, I never met your girlfriend.  Okay, so I am feeling a little hostile and I need to collect myself.  I get up and excuse myself, “Got to piss, you know.” and head for the men’s room.  some cold water splashed upon my face and I am ready for another hour of his miserable life.

I sat back down and notice that his glass is full and my pitcher is lighter.  so I fill my mug up and now the pitcher is empty.  The waitress takes both the empty plate and the empty pitcher away.  The beer is starting to mellow me and I am feeling a bit more disposed to my guest or my jailer, I’m not sure which.  So I listen to this litany of perfect love and companionship.  Yes, he sacrificed for her and where was she now, now that he needed her?  I know the color of her hair, the color of her eyes, the softness of her lips.  Hell, I even know the brand of tampon she uses.  I think I need more beer, so I signal to the waitress for another pitcher.  she brings on in a few minutes as I listen to what their favorite sang was.  “We’ve only just begun by the Carpenters.  That was our song.  OH, Oh, and she loved Bon Jovi.  Yeah, and that Boston thing, eh … oh yes, More Than A Feeling.”  The waitress returns with a full pitcher and I start to pay.  “Later, later.” is all she says and walks back to the bar.  Now he is starting to describe their love life in detail, so much more than I want to know.  I really don’t do pornographic confessions well.  So I must put my hand up in front of his face.  “Stop, I don’t really want to hear about your love making.  Okay, that is inappropriate.  If you need to tel someone, tell your doctor.”  That stuns him for a moment.  “Oh, yeah, right, sorry, er I guess I should do that.”

 

It must be going on eleven pm and his speech is a little slurred.  So I start in, “You are going to learn how to live without her, you know?  You can’t go on this way.  She’s gone for good and is never coming back.  You got to pull yourself together and find another woman.  Man, the world is full of them.  Just look on any corner.  So forget her, learn to live without her.  But another toothbrush and put it tin the holder if you must, but forget her.”  Well, he is in agreement and he isn’t, you know what I mean.  Unrequited love is the pits and innocent bystanders suffer because of it.  By this time I’m trying to give him absolution.  It’s okay to forget about her, god is surely please when you do, almano dominae, all you drunks get off my lawn.  Meanwhile he’s drunk most of my beer and has his head on the table, starting to snore.  So I get up and head over to the bar to pay my bill.  The owner is a good man, he runs a clean place.  “what do I owe you?”  “Forget it, I owe you.  Next time you come in it’s on the house.”  “What about what’s his name over there?”  “I called his brother, he’ll be here soon enough and take care of him.  thank you for listening to him, you did me a service.”  “I guess, it’s not easy listening to these guys.”  “By the way, my wife and I have a bet on you.”  “Yeah, what’s the bet?”  “She says you’re some kind of therapist.”  “She loses.  I work outside construction for the phone company. ”  “But there’s more to you, the way you talked to that man.  I think you have training.”  “Well, if you must know, I also have a degree in psychology.”  “Ah, I thought there was something else.  good night and come back soon.  Remember, we owe you one.”

 

I’d Really Love To See You Tonight

Some call it unrequited love while others unfinished business and still others claim it’s about closure, I’m sure these three assertions are correct, but then I wonder.  What we share so closely with another seldom fits so neatly in a pigeonhole.  There is a sloppiness about life that makes its summation difficult, defies that final analysis so many authorities speak of as being so final.  If life has taught me one thing it is that love may die but feelings remain.  The attraction that brings us together can also tear us apart, as strange as that may seem.  Yet, that final analysis never explains the attraction that remains.  I think that what we see in others is what we can see in ourselves and this mirror of our desires becomes a talisman in our lives.  We are drawn to it even if we disbelieve.  So was the case on my friend Connor, so named not of the author, McCauley Conner, but for the baseball player and actor, Chuck Connors.  True, no one names a child Connors, the plural is just not done.  But his mother loved Chuck Connors, the actor.  Of course if it weren’t for an injury, Mr Connors would have remained a baseball player of average standing.  As an actor he had the broad shoulders and chiseled good looks that make a few women swoon.  As an actor, his range was a bit limited.  Chuck Connors and Academy Award were exclusive entities.

 

A boy named Connor would not have your average John or Bill or Tom’s life.  We would sooner see a Connor as class valedictorian than someone named Harry.  With this in mind, Connor pursed the nubile Dakota.  Any woman named Dakota must be special as an ordinary Jane or Mary or Linda just won’t do.  This need for uncommon given names seems to me to be superfluous, a waste of expectations on the part of those without such theatractical names.  But all names have destinies and most certainly did Connor.  And if that destiny is to go a little farther than the average is have a family name to match.  Alas, Connor was doomed on that score since his family name was James.  True, there was a sort of ring to it but nothing exciting or forceful.  It was an ambivalent name and his personality seemed to grow into that mold.  Connor was hesitant towards risk though when he did risk he tended to go all in.  Often this risk resulted in loss.  But rather than learn to moderate his behavior and build upon his successes he would lead with his heart and suffer the disappointments.

 

Connor had gotten through school and finally university, his successful classes outweighing those less than successful ones.  And he found his niche in life after a couple of fitful starts writing copy for the marketing department in a medium sized advertising agency.  And true to form, occasionally he has a successful idea but mostly failures.  Perhaps his saving grace was that when his ideas were good, they were very good and made the agency a lot of money.  If one were playing the percentages, on average, Connor was a winner.  One of his winning ideas was used by the Navy for recruiting.  One of his failures was for a Japanese electronics company: “From those wonderful people who gave you Pearl Harbor.”  Even few baseball sluggers ever come close to a 400 bating average.  This time, he had a really brilliant idea for the advertising campaign for a woman’s hand and body lotion.  This would set an industry standard for hand and body lotions for some time to come.  So to celebrate the brilliant idea a good number of the people who worked on that particular campaign headed to the usual club to party away in the glory of their supreme success and come in late the next morning.

 

Connor called to invite me to this display of Caesar accepting the laurel crown and the spot chosen was apt.  It was the 52 Club, so named after that joke of a card game called 52 pickup.  I am not against such places as this but I have little use of them.  The idea that one may find true love in these meat markets is a bit far fetched, even by Hollywood standards.  I’m a Bill, a John, a Tom, an ordinary solid everyday guy with a job as a consulting engineer.  All very drab and boring for most people as a life goes, and I have a steady girlfriend whom I suppose I will marry in a couple of years, assuming we don’t fall out.  But loyalty compels and I have know connor through these many years.  Besides, I am happy that he has had a great success for he has a habit of wallowing in his failures and when he does he makes for rather morose company.  So when I arrive and give my name, for it is “invitation only” that this place exists and makes it appear exclusive as does the “entry fee”, the party is underway.  Connor is holding court as he is a very funny man at times like these, particularly when he has been hoisting a few rounds.  He might have made a good stand up comedian if he had the right temperament.  Of course the women here are all very pretty, plain and ugly need not apply.  their reason for attendance is simple, about a quarter of the men who pay the dues have six figure incomes.

 

I have always been amazed by the first names oby which so many of these women have been christen.  There are no Janes, no Marys, no Bettys.  There are Jasmines, Veronicas, Martinas, Elkies, and the occasional Svetlana.  And yes, tonight there is a Dakota.  A femme fatal in training.  So far I have been “felt up” by five women and one man.  As I said, I really don’t enjoy these places.  the music is too loud and too modern, the ambient noise level makes shouting normal conversation, and the booze makes inhibitions drop like lead balloons.  I suppose I would be enjoying myself more if I were in the market of bringing home a filet mignon for the evening.  So by the time that midnight is approaching I am ready to head out the door and crawl into my own bed, alone.  I have to work tomorrow on a large building project.  But I notice that Connor has grown a little quiet.  A raven haired woman has his attention and the two of them are engaged in intimate discussion, comparing the differences between the male and female iguana, perhaps.  I siddle and wrythe my way over to Connor to wish him well on his big project and thank him for the evening.  “Matt, meet Dakota!  She is an amazing woman! (Hell, here everyone is amazing, even me.)  She’s a stage actress in the theater over on Market.  I can’t believe we have so much in common.  (I’ll be polite and not say what I’m thinking.)  Hey, call me tomorrow, maybe we can get together for lunch.”  “Okay connon, I will.  Nice to meet you, Dakota.”  She nods to me in a non committal way, I have been acknowledged and may now move away.

 

Their courtship was not overly quick, I think it took about three months for them to get around to tying the knot.  I was there at the wedding, a lavish but spartan affair.  By that I mean the accoutrements were lavish but the guests were sparse.  The few, the proud, the single.  Not one married couple was invited.  Then off to the Bahamas for a week or two.  During the couple’s courtship I was made aware of the extent of Dakota’s personality and career prospects.  She was a stunning looking woman, about five eight or nine to connor’s five ten.  In heels she always looked taller.  I had never seen her in a conservative outfit, almost every thing she wore was either arty or provocative, even to “grubby” wear.  Dakota was an aspiring actress of sorts and the best that she could manage was as understudy for a few supporting character roles in mediocre plays.  She was also ten years younger that Connor, something that delighted him and like a fools, made mention too often.  The both tried too hard.  She wanted the fame of being an actress almost desperately and didn’t seem to understand that few are gifted with enough natural talent to walk into instant stardom.  She was pretty, she had that slender body most men adore and most women hate.  But her personality had not the maturity to make success by habit, by regular hard work and by determination.  In many ways she was like Connor.  Initially hesitant to risk but once she made her decision she was all in.  Frankly, I was of the opinion, unsupported as that was. that she was tired of hustling to pay the rent and that this marriage was for convenience, not true love.  Connor’s part was not too far off that mark.  I knew he was tired of living alone and his past failures with women weighed heavily in his decision to marry an all too willing partner.  They were fools on the same ship.  I kept my feeling to myself but I gave them a year, two as a generous outset.

 

They surprised me, for they kept the marriage going for nearly three years before it sunk on the rocks of disharmony.  During this period the economic conditions for my work had changed and I was compelled to spend more time working on consulting work in other states and even a few foreign countries.  the original company I worked for had been acquired and then that one was acquired until I was working for a large consulting concern.  My old apartment felt more like a hotel room during a vacation.  Of course my romance had suffered to the point of extinction.  But I had kept in touch with Connor, his wife tended to avoid me, and a few of his old friends.  It was through them I heard of the arguments, sometimes violent, but usually no decision.  Connor had complained that he had no good ideas, the well was dry and he might lose his job.  Dakota complained that getting acting parts, even walk ons was getting harder.  Both were unhappy in their careers and in their marriage.  So they parted, not on the harshest of terms but not exactly friends, either.  For as much as they had grown out of love, they had also grown up.  Connor did lose his position at the ad agency while Dakota managed to finally obtain a character roll in a decent play that would run two years.  I think that gave her the confidence in herself and life in general.  She even helped Connor get back on his feet.  This time Connor took his first measured risk.  I heard he had studied and planned the opportunity to open his own agency, he specialized in theatrical advertising.  It was no longer a hit or miss employment of his talent, he had learned to value patience and planning.  True to form, some of his advertising attempts were very strong, very well received, but he has far fewer failures.

 

Meanwhile, I had tired of living out of a suitcase and came back to start my own business.  I was a professional engineer now, complete with seal.  So I started selling my services to remodeling contractors, small businesses, apartment and home owners.  It’s not a six figured salary but I have enough.  And I have a good relationship, we shall be married in June.  Yesterday I received an invitation from Dakota.  Just out of the blue and complete unexpected.  I was invited to the premier opening of a new play in the best theater in the city.  So I went with Mary, my intended, to the reception after the play.  I must say that Dakota had put on a very good performance, she being the lead.  I think both the script and the director made a great difference in opening her formally hidden talents to the public.  But back stage where the celebrations were happening I was stunned to find Connor standing very close to Dakota and she smiling at him, introducing him to the cast members, the director, and the playwright.  They had become friends, close friends.  I pulled him aside for a minute and had to ask if they were back together, perhaps about to be married.  Connor looked at me for a few seconds.  “No, we aren’t stupid.  We can’t go back to that state again.  We have learned the value of our friendship and living together would just get in the way.”  I was stunned.

Sweet Blindness

Her father called her Prudence but friends knew her as Pru. She was the daughter of a Pentecostal Baptist minister and was know for the very conservative clothing she wore in school. But looks are deceiving and Pru was not to be judged by her cover nor by her “official” behavior. I had a few classes with Pru and I must confess, she seldom looked my way. Tall, thin, with high cheekbones that gave her face a definite heart shape, and a mane of black hair held back with a broad white ribbon, that is the image she portrayed. Most of us would guess she was meant to be a minister’s wife by age twenty one. the man would be of her father’s choosing, of course.  The Reverend Mr Black was well deserving of his name, for the man was tall and wiry with the same full head of black hair and very piercing gray eyes.  I never saw him in any suit but black, as if life was a continuous funeral.  Pru had her mother’s eyes, a kind of light blue like the early morning sky, still pale and just waking up.  Mrs Black, I never knew her given name as Pru always called her Momma and her father always referred to her as Mother, was of middling height and a little more full in both body and face yet she had not succumb to that middle age expanse of skin and weight most mothers of teenage girls acquire as their submission to retirement from child rearing.

 

Fate, or chance, depending on whether one is religious, took part in my affairs during my senior year.  Pru was failing geometry and she needed a math class for graduation.  I was a wiz at it and was not adverse to being her tutor.  So the math teacher introduced us and made out a schedule for our tutor sessions in the last hour of classes for the day.  You might remember, the one devoted to clubs or study hall.  It took me a couple of weeks but I helped her understand not only geometry but how to learn it, how to think through the problems.  Now at first Pru was quiet and reserved, but I, being as I like to think, a natural clown, had caused her to let down some of those defenses and she became quite charming in manner.  She too, had a sense of outrageous humor that had been suppressed by her father’s religious view of the world.  I can still remember to this day the grin on her face as she cracked her first pun, oh what a shameful expression.  Oh, there was no thought of romance, not that I wasn’t willing, but because she never regarded me as anything other than a casual friend.

 

I was invited one night, a Tuesday because that was the one night that Pru’s father wasn’t at the church with some committee or bible study group or other such work.  The Rev Black wanted to meet the boy who had guided his daughter through the educational sea to safe harbor, as he put it.  I did not make a good impression, to say the least.  Oh, I looked clean cut, my parents wouldn’t let me do the long hair (at least I didn’t have to get those horrid crew cuts), and my dress was not the most preppy by any means.  No, there were three things that happened that night.  First, I knew little about the bible.  My parents were Methodists and the new Methodist church didn’t go in for bible study as a rule.  Rev Black saw that as a sin against god and told me as much.  The second event is that I cracked a few jokes and Rev Black though such levity was frivolous to good living and belief in god.  And the third event was that Pru forgot herself and actually made a pun, most unintentional, but its presence did not please her father.  After diner there was the formal dismissal of thank you for your help and nice to meet you, but no please come and see us again sometime.  I got the hint, not that I am all that socially adept.

 

The next time I saw Pru, it was Friday.  Her mother had called the school to report, not excuse, mind you, that Prudence was ill and would return that Friday.  All that Friday she avoided my glances and didn’t wish to acknowledge my presence, I was a stranger.  So when study hall came I cornered her in the hall just outside the door.  “Pru, what’s wrong?  Did I do something wrong, something to hurt you?”  “No, nothing.  You did nothing.” And then Pru turned and went to her assigned seat.  She kept up the pretence for two weeks and then finally came to me during the lunch period.  “Let’s go outside an talk for a few minutes.”  Pru led the way and I followed meekly, I mean she seemed so serious.  We sat on one of the bleacher seats and she began by putting her finger to her lips when I attempted to speak.  “You’ve opened up a world to me, not a very big world, but big enough to make me think.  My father was furious with my behavior that night at dinner.  It was the first time we ever had humor in the house.  By the way, He thinks you are possessed by the devil.”  I laughed at that thought.  I am not very religious and was in my own rebellion against the religious authority my parents sometimes tried to exercise on me.  Pru continues in that quiet voice of hers: “Father spent a lot of time trying to exercise that “devil inspired” humor from me and it took two days.  I eventually had to go along with him and go through all the confessing and acts of atonement and believing and, well, it was a “Come to Jesus” moment.  Not that I have changed or accepted what he wills for me.”  I was kind of stunned that a father would do that.  I mean I knew some girls whose fathers were strict and some whose fathers really didn’t give a shit.  Bu I never knew one who would stoop to that depth of dominance.  I mean, from early childhood on I had been beaten by my father a few times and really didn’t like being around him.  But to me her house was like a prison.

 

We sat and talked about other things for a few minutes and then she stood up.  “Mike, maybe we can talk a little over the next few months until graduation.  I’d like that.”  “Pru, just tell me where and when, I’ll be there.”  I felt a slight bond between us.  I found out later that children who are beaten by either the hand or the brow seem to be attracted to others of similar circumstance.  Others may not understand but I always though of it as our own red badge of courage.  The next few months until summer arrived and signaled the end of innocent childhood Pru and I did talk a dozen times or so.  Mostly for the reassurance, I think, but also for some new perspectives on the world.  That fall I left for college, a small liberal arts school that my parents could afford and that would accept my poor grades.  I occasionally wrote to Pru by way of a mutual friend or she would never have received my letters.  Back then, legal age was twenty one and colleges exercised parental control over the undergrads.  Most underage drinking went on in the fraternities and I was never considered for membership.  I had to sneak my beer and alcohol by other means and make sure it was kept well hidden in my dorm room.  We had our monthly inspections for clean bodies and clean minds.  Even Playboy was forbidden lest we forget the reason for marriage and especially sex under the sanctity of holy wedlock.

 

By my third year my mutual friend began to report those chances in Pru that were causing concern not only in her family but in my friends minds.  Not soon into my first year of college pru had found the taste of cheap wine intoxicating.  And that taste kept growing as long as she was kept in her prison.  By the middle of the third year her father had arranged her marriage to a young minister a year out of seminary.  There was to be a June wedding.  I use the past tense because there would be no wedding, not then and not to him.  Pru was becoming an alcoholic and in that May had run away with a man who drank heavily as well.  They eloped and spent half a dozen unhappy years together.  Maybe it was the need to take that bad tasting medicine for a long time that made the difference.  I caught up with her ten year later.  she was sober, clean as AA says.  Pru worked in a Goodwill store in the very town I had settled seven years before.  My first job and I was still single, still living a bachelor’s life.  The booze has changed her, given her added age to her face.  But her thinness persisted, still very trim in her late thirties.  Pru’s voice had gained a little of the gravel that sometimes afflicts alcoholics, but her eyes were clear and for the first time I saw them dance.  She was another woman, no longer the old Pru I knew.  I took her out to dinner and we sat and talked for a few hours.  She was now full of laughter with that sense of irony that only strong conflict can bring out.  “I never knew what life could be, never knew there was anything more to life that total devotion to some god.”  “Did you lose your faith” I enquired?  “No, I gained it back, I took it back from my father.  It now belongs to me.”  I saw a bit of defiance in her eyes and that telltale firmness in her chin.  “How are your parents?”  “I don’t know.  We’ve never spoken and I’ve never been back.  I am dead to my father and that’s enough for me.”  “Do you have a love interest these days?”  “There is one man, a good man, a kind man.  We see each other and talk over lunch.  Sometimes we go to the movies.  I think he want’s to ask me but he’s not sure yet.  We both need time.  You know, love take time and I can wait.”  “Sounds like sweet blindness.”  Pru just laughed at the reference.