Freeing the voices in my head

Posts tagged ‘Past’

High Peaks Summer

We ate our way up the mountain. Grabbed what we could as we walked and crammed it into our mouths. We didn’t worry about rinsing off any dirt, bird poop, or germs; it had rained last night and the sun hadn’t yet burned off the morning dew. The lush purple goodies were ripe and sweet and irresistible.
Fourteen girls, the current residents of Cabins Six and Seven, on the last summer of childhood before high school, make up, cars and boys, no, we didn’t care. We were still invincible, still innocent, and we were conquering the world. Or least some of it.
Echo Camp for Girls on Raquette Lake in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York offered a full summer program. Six weeks of swimming, boating, archery, horseback riding, hiking and camping. Arts and crafts, talent shows, and for the older girls, a dance night with the boys from the camp across the lake.
So many choices, so much to do and see and learn, every day structured except for Sundays and yet we didn’t feel restricted or restrained. Our parents paid for all of it, but we could choose; not interested in learning how to survive when your canoe capsizes, well then, use that extra hour to go down to the stables for more time with your favorite horse.
I had made a choice that summer, that last summer, to miss the final dance and go on the week long hiking trip. I wasn’t interested in the boys from the other camp because I had a boyfriend at home. We had shared our first kiss on the last day of eighth grade, the last day of junior high. I was true blue to him, so I chose to climb mountains.
Not just any mountains; these were the Adirondacks and we were climbing five of the highest peaks in the state. We would join an exclusive group of adults who had hiked up these mountains. It was a big deal back then to be part of the High Peak Club.
We started the journey by crossing the broad expanse of Raquette Lake in the camp’s two big motorboats. At the public dock, we piled into three canoes. Our lone camp counselor was Patty from Cabin Six, my counselor and at eighteen, four years older than us and our hero and mentor. We paddled our way to the first stop, put on our backpacks and hoisted upside down canoes on our shoulders to hike into the deep forest.
We dumped everything at the campsite near the first mountain and Patty led us up the trailhead. It was our first challenge – hike the smallest of the High Peaks before we ran out of energy and sunlight. We almost made it.
We reached the summit of Phelps Mountain and marveled at the gorgeous view, nibbled gorp (trail mix), and signed our names in the hiker’s book. Patty found it in a small wooden box nailed to a tree. The little notebook was filled with signatures and had room for many more. Phelps wasn’t a popular hike for day-trippers – it wasn’t steep, but the trail was a find-your-own-way-up once you reached the midway point. Day hikers wanted easily marked and cleared trails. Intrepid adventurers, like us, just scrambled through brush, scraggly trees and around boulders until we reached the top.
After signing my name, I glanced at the opposite page. A familiar name caught my eyes. “Hey, I know this boy! He’s one of Sean’s friends.” I probably blushed saying my steady’s name; Love was brand-new for me and one of the few things I was shy about learning.
Patty leaned over and pointed out the group name at the top. “Boy Scouts. They were here last week.” I smiled, feeling a warm connection to this boy I barely knew, we had climbed the same mountain, this Randy Eldred and I, what a coincidence.
The beginning glory of the sunset spread out before us, so close and breath-taking, was our nudge to return to camp. We scampered down the mountain, laughing and screaming, mere steps ahead of the dark, and landed in breathless heaps at the bottom of the trail. Patty grinned at us, a serene goddess of fitness, barely sweating, and sweetly said, “Time to make camp.”
We groaned and stumbled forward to pitch tents, build a fire and cook over it, but a glorious smell hit us when we entered our clearing. A cheerful fire blazed in the pit, the tents were pitched and an actual dinner had been set up on picnic tables. Patty informed us that this was our first reward. There would be different ones each time we conquered a high peak.
“But how?” someone asked. Our counselor pointed at the line of trees. “There’s a road and public campground right over there. The Skipper sent the kitchen staff here to set us up for the first night. After this, though, we’ll be on our own, so enjoy it!”
The next day, and for the rest of the week, we shouldered our canoes and packs, trekking through dense forest and tiny creeks, to reach open water. It was always a relief to get in the canoe and glide across a lake to the next mountain. Paddling was easier than walking, at least for the first hour or so.
We followed a stream up Mount Marcy, the tallest peak in New York. It wasn’t the toughest mountain and it took forever to reach the summit. Once there, we received our geography and history lesson. The owner of Echo Camp, the Skipper, made sure her girls learned about the land. Marcy was a long boring hike, made fun only because Patty let us play in the stream. That became a tiny trickle near the summit and disappeared into the bare ground. Patty pointed to the spot and proclaimed, “Girls, this is where the mighty Mohawk River begins.” She turned us around. “And from here, you can see across five different states.”
I was impressed, but too tired to hang onto the feeling. This tallest peak was, for me, a disappointment and all I could think about was that long boring hike back down to camp. Lonnie, my best buddy that summer, suddenly said, “Well, I don’t know about five states, but I do see thunderclouds.” We all turned the other way and squealed at the black masses of clouds heading toward us. Patty shouted, “Go, follow the creek, but do NOT walk in it. Go, girls, fast as you can!”
Some of us had grown up in this area, played with family at Lake George, camped here before, but others were city girls and didn’t understand. I grabbed Lonnie’s hand and hurried her along. My New York City girlfriend gasped, “The stream is easier to run through.”
“No! If it starts to rain, it’ll flood and be too fast, too dangerous,” I said.
She stared at me and the ankle-deep creek. “Trust me. We have to get down before it overflows.” I lost track of the group, tugging Lonnie along with me, crashing into boulders and trees, frantically praying the storm would pass us by or hold off for just one hour.
Thunder rolled and rumbled. From one step to the next, it was suddenly very dark. Another slam of sound from the clouds and the rain hit. It slashed down through the trees with enough force to drench us in minutes. Lonnie started crying. I held onto her and remembered my woods-lore: keep the creek on my left and keep moving downstream. The sight of flashlights and the sounds of voices shouting for us almost made me join Lonnie in crying.
We had made it and were greeted by two park rangers. The girls didn’t know it then, but Patty’s route was being watched, we weren’t really as “on our own” as she made us believe. The rangers led us back to camp and showed us how keep a fire burning in a downpour (tucked halfway under a roof made of green pine branches). It got smoky under there, but it warmed us. They stayed for dinner, flirting with Patty among giggling girls. We were no longer cold, wet and scared. We had conquered another High Peak, so where was our reward?
We received it the next morning. Instead of breaking camp, we hiked to a road and climbed into a bus. Our ride took us to Wright Mountain. It was a pretty hike, with no surprises. The best part was the bus ride back and forth, giving us a chance to rest our legs and arms.
We canoed across Lake Placid the next day, easing up to a scrap of land at the base of Whiteface Mountain. We faced a wall of dirt, rocks and scrawny trees jutting out from the cliff. It wasn’t a sheer cliff and it wasn’t a rock cliff, but it wasn’t a normal hike, either. We would be doing actual climbing, like scrambling out of a ravine or climbing a tree that happened to be growing alongside a hill of dirt. But that wasn’t just a hill, that was a mountain and it would take hours to claw our way to the top.
Patty gave us a choice: We could get in the canoes and paddle to the other side of Whiteface and the easy trail or we could conquer this Peak from here, taking the expert way up. I wonder now if when our parents signed all those forms that they were told exactly what their daughters would face that summer?
We climbed. The dirt was firm enough to hold us and soft enough to shove fingers and feet into with the help of tree roots and rocks. We paused on ledges and turned to gaze out at the beautiful lake far below. We pretended to be mountain goats and jumped to the next ledge before sticking our hands into holes and climbing again.
The last few feet of the climb was the real challenge. There the cliff was sheer and hauling our tired bodies up to the overhang took everything we had. I scrabbled my fingers over the lip and found a surprise. There was soft grass under my hands. I scooted up the rest of the way and rolled onto freshly mowed turf, a manicured and maintained lawn. We all reached the top, helping each other over that cliff edge.  Our group stood up and broke into gales of laughter at the sight before us.
Tourists. Families in clean t-shirts, shorts and flip-flops, drinking soda from cans and staring at fifteen muddy, bedraggled apparitions who had just appeared out of nowhere. Civilization in the form of a gift shop and ski lodge, the parking lot full of cars, the chair ski lift giving summer visitors rides here on the summit of Whiteface Mountain.
Our reward was a picnic lunch catered by Echo Camp’s kitchen staff and a ride down the mountain in another bus, sneering at the hikers walking the easy trail up the mountain that was next to the road. We did have to hike around the base of Whiteface to reach our canoes, but we were full of energy again because we had climbed a CLIFF!
It rained all night and cleared up in time for our hike up Mount Algonquin. The second tallest peak in the park was a beautiful trek with a delightful perk. This was our last mountain, our last day, and it was the best one of all.
On either side of the trail, in full rich ripe glory, we saw blueberries. The trees were few, the bushes were all. There would be no wandering off the trail here; the entire mountain was covered in blueberry bushes. We swiped handfuls of them in passing, the plump berries bursting with sweet juice, filling more than our tummies. Sun-warmed berries, chirping birds and a bright blue sky. We were young, strong, healthy, and we had done more in one week than most people achieve in a lifetime.
This was Summer.
My last perfect summer, it turned out. The summer I strive to remember when I feel I can’t cope with one more day of adult life. I did something that summer, something no one else in my family could lay claim to: I climbed five of the High Peaks of the Adirondacks. The chubby, half-blind, asthmatic child had been strong and brave, helpful and knowledgeable.
I sometimes wish I could freeze Time to that moment, that Summer, when the filthy, wet, muddy and tired girls of Cabins Six and Seven stepped off the boats and returned to Echo Camp to the cheers and hugs of the younger kids. We felt like conquering heroes, we WERE heroes, and it was glorious! 😀

 

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A Sailor’s Wife Is Me, Yo-Ho!

When my love graduated from Maritime College, we set a date to be married in October of 1979.  It was my favorite month: my birthday month, crisp Autumn days, and Halloween — my favorite holiday, so it seemed fitting to add a wedding in there.  Since he graduated in May and was immediately headed to a ship on the Great Lakes, it was left to me to do all the stuff involving the wedding.  He would be home in September, in time to help with final details and bring a good amount of money to pay the bills.

I was working at the local mall and used my laughable paycheck for small items.  We weren’t planning a big wedding; just a few friends and family members.  Our guest list was about 25 people long.  I went to a local stationary slash art supply store and discovered I had to order at least 100 invitations.  Plain, cream-colored with pretty calligraphy and no extra fancy stuff; okay, fine, order ’em so they’ll get here in time to be given out or mailed out.

A small bridal shop just down the road was next.  Nothing fancy, the owner was the only employee, and I was left to browse the racks of dresses on my own.  I fell in love with the first one in my size that I tried on.  It was soft, flowing, with no itchy lace and, best of all, was only $250 dollars!  I put down a deposit and happily went off to work.

July rolled around and nothing else was done because of busy days at work and, well, I had lots of time still for flowers, a restaurant, a cake, finding a church or maybe just a justice of the peace…then, my mother and sisters hit town.  “Do you have the rings yet?”  Um, no, I don’t have that kind of money, but Randy will and we’ll go pick something out when he gets home.  “What church are you using?”  No idea, we aren’t into religion, and neither are you, Mom!  “Where’s the reception going to be?”  Um…and the questions kept coming.  But what sent Mom and older sister into tizzies was The Dress.

“You already got The Dress?  The FIRST Dress you tried on?  Did you try on any others?  Oh, no, this won’t do.  We have to go, now!”

Sigh…

We descended on the little shop and my domineering mother took over.  While I rolled my eyes and mouthed apologies to the shop owner, Mom and Big Sis attacked the dress racks.  The first ten gowns were piled into my arms and I was shoved into the fitting room.  Gack, lace, ruffles, bustles, a gazillion pearl buttons no bigger than a pinhead, mile long trains — they apparently forgot how clumsy I am — and prices I expected to see on new cars, not a dress I was only gonna wear once!  Thank god we were the only customers but I still refused to leave the dressing room in those “things.”  I let the enemy peek in, gratified to see their faces scrunch up in dismay at the sight of me in their choices.

I didn’t even try on the next ten dresses.  The owner, bless her, had taken pity on me and brought me MY Dress.  I slipped it on, she zipped it up, and pulled aside the curtain with a smile.  It fit perfectly, it flowed, it soothed my crumpled ego…and it made Big Sis smile while bringing Mom to tears.  Hey, I know what looks good on me!  Mom paid  it off and got me a pair of matching shoes and a veil.  Whew, done and no one got pissed off!

Smooth sailing for three more months?  Nope.  Randy came home, early, really early, in July, with only one paycheck and a tale that should have sent me running far away.  He was off watch, sleeping in his rack (bed) one night as the Captain navigated the ship across Lake Superior.  He woke up when his rack tilted 180 degrees and dumped him on the floor.  Yeah, the ship was tilting that far because the Captain had run it aground.  Brand new Third Mate Eldred made it to the bridge and was the one who finally got the ship free.  Then he packed his duffel and quit, unwilling to work on a vessel where he had more experience navigating the ship than the Captain did!

Well, he returned home to wedding chaos.  The guest list had jumped to 125 people, thanks, Mom, not.  I bought a generic package of somewhat sorta matching invitations at the local mall.  My soon-to-be mother-in-law offered to bake the wedding cake.  Randy and I picked out our rings; just two plain wedding bands but mine had to be sized down and would be ready in a week or so.  My bridesmaid and maid of honor had two dresses that matched my wedding gown in style, so no one had to buy a dress they’d never wear again.  Randy’s littlest sister was our flower girl and his mom sewed her a pretty little dress that matched.  (That lady had seven kids and little money; baking from scratch and sewing clothes was second nature to her!  Besides, she wanted to help and my mother wasn’t giving an inch!)

Progress was being made, so, of course, we had to have another crisis.  From the moment he got home, Randy was calling around to shipping companies, calling the job list offered by the college, calling, calling everyone he knew to get a new job.  And, yes!  A company wanted him!  But, no!  They wanted him for a four month cruise and he had to be on board the ship by the end of AUGUST!  Well, shit!  We had to make a choice: postpone the wedding until December or January (ugh, my two least favorite months, along with February) or move the wedding up to early August.

We set the date: August 3rd.  Bless our families and friends; they rallied forth, they called in favors, they helped us make it happen.  My parents reserved the banquet room of a lovely Italian restaurant.  They were friends with the owners and got a good discount.  Getting my bouquet and the other flowers is a blur — my mom took me somewhere and the florist came up with the design.  All I was asked to do was pick my favorite flowers and colors: irises and roses, purple, blue, and green.

As for the church… We drove by a little church a lot.  It was one of the oldest churches in town, barely more than a chapel, but it was cute and although we’d never gone to a service there, we liked it.  With time restraints pushing us, we stopped in and convinced the pastor to marry us there.  Randy’s sister was hoping to pursue a career in photography and we contracted her to take photos of our day.  The only tux we needed was Randy’s; the other guys all had gray suits in the same style.

On the morning of our afternoon wedding, Big Sis woke up with an abscessed tooth.  It was a Friday and Mom called her dentist friend from when we were kids and our family lived three houses down from him (his office was in his home).  He would see her, if we could get her there immediately.  Panic, though, because who could take M.L. to the dentist?  Everyone was busy, busy, busy!  Except for…the bride.

Yeah, well, I had nothing to do until a half hour before the wedding.  My dress was simple, my hair would just be loose and flowing, the way I liked it, I was showered, shaved, and bored with sitting in a corner watching my drama queen family freak out over tiny details.  So I took Big Sis to the dentist.  I sat in the waiting room with my book, perfectly calm and content, and laughed out loud when I overheard this:

Dr. Glenn: “Well, what a way to start your big day, eh?  Don’t worry, we’ll get you fixed up in no time and you’ll be a smiling bride.”

Grunts from Big Sis.

Dr. Glenn: “Oh, you aren’t the bride?”

More grunts.

“Really?”  And sweet ol’ Dr. Glenn actually stepped into the waiting room and stared at me.  I smiled and waved.  “Well, aren’t you nervous at all?”

Me:  “Nope.  I’m just happy this day is here.”

In fact, I didn’t get nervous until everyone had dashed off to the church and I put on The Dress.  My dad was the only one left at the apartment — he was the manager of a car dealership and was driving me to the church in a dealer’s demo car, a brand new Lincoln!

After all the agonizing over music, and the lovely gift of our talented friend Holly playing the organ and singing, I don’t remember any of the music.  Randy says all he remembers is his knees shaking and his dad holding him up (or keeping him from running away).

It was a wonderful day, pulled together in a few wild weeks because of so many people.  And it set the course for much of our life together — adventures done on the fly, on impulse, with pieces of what was needed appearing at the last minute.   There have been storms and calm waters, floods (for real!) and dry stretches, but we keep going, sailing along and hoping we won’t sink.

We just celebrated our 33rd anniversary.  If I had known a sailor’s wife must brave Life’s storms alone for months, would I have married my Merchant Marine?  I like to think so, because, yes, when he gets home, everything is worth it.  🙂

Loving A Man In Uniform

I married a Merchant Marine.  They are the sailors on merchant vessels  – tankers, freighters, dredges, cruise ships (not the “public crew,” the real crew; yeah, cruise ships have two crews – they’re nothing like the “Love Boat” TV show.), fishing vessels – they aren’t military, but they do go through basic training and such.  They are also the unsung heroes in wartime.  A lot of merchant marines died in WWII, but not many people know that.

And, yes, some of them wear uniforms, not too fancy or distinguished, just enough to help the public understand these men (and some women) have a specific job or career.  Hubby had to wear uniforms at SUNY Maritime College and for some of the shipping companies he worked for.  Mmm, dress whites – definitely sexy, so fitted, so neat, so authoritative (is that even a word?).  In the early years, he wore khakis (blah) or blacks (yum).  No insignia or badges, but just enough of a “look” to give people pause.

When he’d step off a plane, heading for baggage claim, and walk toward me, I could see people moving aside for him.  Of course, part of that is his walk; he walks with presence, like a leader.  He’s an officer, worked his way up from Third Mate to Master (Captain for landlubbers).  Many merchant sailors have that presence; one of my favorite memories is going to a game at Shea Stadium surrounded by six buff cadets, all on the soccer team, solid, strong, handsome, dressed in everyday clothing, but no one – and this is the heart of New York City (ok, sorta south of it, but still…), no one messed with us.

Hubby’s graduating class got to have their Winter Ball on the top floor of the World Trade Center.  The restaurant would be opening soon (this was 1978) and the guys from Maritime were a dry run for the staff.  It was gorgeous, fun, amazing – we could look out over the whole city…We had a blast.

When the planes hit those Towers, we were heartbroken and so furious.  Not only for all those murdered people, but for the destruction of a place that had given us a beautiful memory.  In the days that followed 9/11, we felt helpless, too.  Our oldest son was in Army boot camp at Fort Knox, under lockdown, possibly being primed to finish his tank training and go to war or strike back or whatever the President decided to do.  We didn’t know, parents received no info.  God, that was frightening, not knowing what was going to happen to our son.

My husband was on his three months off.  Merchant schedules can be weird.  His was three months on ship, one to three months home (the home part changed on the whim of the shipping industry).  He got on the phone to his company, requesting to be sent on whatever mission the tankers were doing regarding the disaster.  Understand this: merchant vessels, for the most part, are unarmed.  If there’s a weapon onboard, it is locked in the Captain’s safe and only the Captain has access or training to use it.

His company ran tankers: oil, crude, and dry cargo, too, of grain, wheat, etc.  The Middle East was and is NOT a safe place to visit for any reason, and hubby’s company was having trouble finding volunteers to crew the ships heading into that region.  They were part of the President’s Humanitarian mission: sending grain tankers to Afghanistan, Pakistan, those areas.  (We later found out that air-dropped food from the USA was left to rot because it was from us infidels.  sigh…but they apparently didn’t turn up their noses at grain brought by sea.)

So, off hubby goes to take a grain tanker to Afghanistan.  I got to stay home and worry about TWO of my menfolk.  Oh, joy…NOT!  But you man up and smile through the tears and insist you are proud of them and, and well, yeah, out in public, I was fine.  In the dark, alone, ah, well, they finally came home safe, thank god.

It’s what you do when you love a person in the military or the merchant marines.  You buck up, you present calm and hope and love, and you rarely ever indulge in any negative emotion, because what your loved one is going through is worse.  You quietly ignore rages and silences, offer hugs or private space, you dance around certain topics, and never ask “How was your day at the office, dear?” because that’s such a ridiculous question for these particular people.

They are different, changed.  Our normal everyday woes and lives are so meaningless compared to what they are doing.  Come on, really, is your day at an office so bad compared to someone who is facing Death every minute?  In our marriage, the main problem for me is that hubby IS a Master, a Captain, has been since he was thirty.  And he forgets that I am NOT a deckie or swabbie.  He’s used to giving orders without explanation and expects to be obeyed without question.  There’s a rough edge to him, and I have to grit my teeth and try to remember for both of us that I’m his wife, not his crew.  Chin up, mouth shut, smile, woman, smile!

This is long (for a blog, I guess), but I want to leave you with a funny story.  When Hubby took that tanker to Afghanistan, he was told (and told me to reassure me) that he would have a military escort of two or three destroyers.  What he didn’t tell me, until after he was home, was that the destroyers were needed elsewhere.  That’s right, dangerous waters, dangerous political climate, danger all around, and no escort.

Tankers are way too big to go into port or dock.  They sit at anchor a few miles out and other boats come to them to offload cargo.  Want a point of reference?  Rent the movie “Periscope Down” (I think that’s the title) with Kelsey Grammar as a submarine captain.  At one point in the movie, they hide the sub under a super-tanker.  The tanker in the movie was the sister ship of my hubby’s tanker.  Yep, big, REALLY BIG!  I think the call sign was BFV Alaska.  I don’t know what the letters really stand for; the guys translate the letters as “Big Fucking Vessel.”

So, no escort, but the Afghanis did send hubby some soldiers to guard his ship.  Six big brawny soldiers in uniform with rifles to guard the hatches because the crews on the small boats that were offloading the grain were not to enter the tanker for any reason, not even to use the head.  They could sit on deck for breaks and meals, but not enter the interior of the tanker.  Capt’n Eldred greeted them, but wasn’t very reassured when he discovered that, yes, the soldiers had rifles, however, they only had ONE BULLET.  Oy.

The laborers from the small boats did, indeed, have lunch on the deck of the tanker.  They built a bonfire, hauled some goats up, and proceeded to butcher and cook their lunch.  (Eww!)  Now, oops, they needed salt.  Capt’n Eldred said nope, none to spare, but, ah, maybe one of the other ships had some.  You see, we Americans weren’t the only ones trying to help.  Other countries were in on the Humanitarian effort.  The laborers putted over to a Greek vessel to ask for salt.  Unfortunately, no on spoke Greek and the Greeks didn’t speak, um, whatever.  And none of the Afghani laborers spoke English.

Via hand signals and nods, they finally received a bag of white grainy stuff from the Greeks.  They ate.  Shortly after that, they groaned and moaned, and since they couldn’t use the heads (bathrooms) on the tanker, they pooped on the deck or over the side (dangerous, easier to just poop on the deck.).

During the messy chaos, Capt’n Eldred finally got them off his ship, job finished, cargo gone, and his unhappy crew scrubbed the deck.  Hubby radioed the Greek ship.  He asked the Captain what happened.  Turns out, the Greek cook thought the laborers wanted laundry detergent and gave them a sack of powdered detergent.  Not salt, and no one thought to check if it was salt.

Yes, it’s funny, it’s also sad.  The language barrier made things crazy.  We think we’ve advanced so far, but we haven’t.  We’re still killing each other for stupid reasons.  We’re still putting our loved ones in danger.  Hug each other now, because the world is not a safe place.  Never has been, never will be, and if you believe differently, I hope you’re right and weird shit never happens to you and yours.

Ah, but we work through it, right?  Chin up, friends, and SMILE!  Because, hell, if we can’t laugh, then we really ARE in trouble!  🙂

Honor Guard

In 1943, 1944, 1945, the world was struggling through a Second World War.  My dad enlisted and at some point before he was sent to the Pacific Arena, he was honored with his first award.  He was one of the Top Ten Marksmen in the nation.  Cool, huh?  He was a Marine and reached the rank of Sergeant.  But he really wanted to be a pilot and fly a jet.  He couldn’t because he didn’t have 20/20 vision.  Ah, the irony – good enough to shoot anything on the ground, but not good enough to fly.

He was sent to a tiny island in the Pacific.  The trip over there involved being on a troop carrier.  Hundreds of Marines – the toughest bad asses ever – crammed together with Navy sailors.  Grunts and grounders, rookies really, with no idea what was about to hit them.  The sailors knew; they’d been out there, they had survived a few hits.

During the passage, the ship came under fire.  Being a troop carrier, they didn’t have the option of fighting back.  They had to run the gauntlet, let the better armed and fortified ships do battle.  Imagine the bowels of that ship, hundreds of young men (my dad barely out of his teens) crammed into crew quarters built for a handful; many of them had never been near the ocean and most of them were seasick.  There weren’t enough life jackets for all of them, and the Marines were under orders to keep their gear with them.

My dad asked a sailor what they should do if the ship got hit and started to sink.  He had to look up to ask  – that sailor was over six feet tall, built like a battleship, and seasoned; he had cold seawater for blood.  The guy shrugged and glanced at the heavy pack my dad was clutching.  “Ship sinks, you’ll sink.  Better ‘n burning.”

Ouch.  But I’ve lived with a Merchant Marine for 30 years, I know that tone my father heard in that sailor’s voice, I know what he meant – the ocean is a bitch, but she’ll kill you faster and less painfully than any human.  But for my dad, first time on the ocean, far away from home, that was a wake up call: Death’s right here, boy, stay alert!

They survived without taking any hits or damage and made it to the island.  It wasn’t a combat post, really, just a supply base with a few jets and jeeps, Quonset huts, those few hundred men – carved out in the middle of that island with a dirt road – trail, really – leading to a tiny village near the shoreline.  My dad had made a few friends.  His best friend was a pilot.  The day Mike took him up in a jet for a flyover…ah, my dad’s face lit up at a memory he cherished so that he couldn’t find words to describe it.

Dad often got the job of taking a jeep to the village to check for supplies dropped on the beach or to pick up fresh fish and local produce – the Marines couldn’t befriend the islanders, but they didn’t want to alienate them entirely.  One day, he was on his way back to base, fighting to keep the jeep straight on that muddy rutted track, when something  he didn’t remember what  ran across the road.  He jerked the wheel, the jeep hit something and went flying.  Dad remembers it flipped and he woke up beside it in the ditch.

As his blurred vision cleared, he saw something that made his blood freeze and his heart stutter.  He was surrounded by six Japanese soldiers, all of them staring silently at the unarmed Marine lying on the ground.  Dad slowly got to his feet, fighting off the vertigo, urging his body to stand tall and proud, stoic in the face of Death.

And then, something miraculous happened.  All six soldiers politely dropped their weapons at his feet, raised their hands, and surrendered to my dad.  No one spoke – why bother?  He didn’t speak Japanese and they didn’t speak English.  Dad picked up their weapons and glanced at his overturned jeep.  As one, the soldiers went to it and heaved it upright.  They stood in the road and waited while Dad got in and prayed the vehicle would start.  When it did (thank god for good old fashioned solid manufacturing!), he drove up onto the road to his waiting prisoners.  They marched back to base – six men ahead of the barely mobile jeep and its barely conscious driver.

Dad thought they surrendered because they were tired and hungry and scared.  Maybe they were deserters.  They were in ragged mismatched uniforms, muddy, far too thin, and young, so heartbreaking young.  He never found out what happened to them.  The MPs and his CO took over the second sentries spotted his little parade.  By the time Dad was out of the medic’s hands, the Japanese boys were gone.

These are the only war stories my dad ever told us.  I don’t know if he ever saw real combat; maybe I was deemed too young to hear the other stories – the ones that weren’t funny or weird.  I wonder about that because there was a hint of something, a brief sentence overheard…

“He stepped off the ramp and just sank.  We couldn’t help him; we were dying.”  What ramp?  Where?  My immediate thought brings heartrending images:  men in those boats, trying to hit the beach at Normandy and some of them drowning before they make it ashore because of their heavy gear, and others being shot in the water while struggling to swim…My dad barely able to watch that beach sequence in “Saving Private Ryan,” the tears running silently down his cheeks…Where WAS my dad?  What else did he see and do?  He never said.

Ask any WWII vet and they say, “It was the worst time of my life…and the best.”

I salute you all and thank you.  May we always remember and honor you, our guardians of freedom.  Semper fi!

 

The Buzz-Buzz Monster

“Here it comes again!”  “Outta my way!”  Shrieking, jumping, laughing… My little sister and I clambered up to the top of the couch.  From there, we plotted out separate routes across the living room.  Pixie claimed the easy road; down to the arm of the couch, across the side table to the back of the big armchair and then jump onto the dining room table.  I was more daring.  If I timed it right, I could jump down to the middle of the living room floor, run to the stairs and perch on the table sitting on the stairway landing.  Risky, but the monster might go after Pix and give me time to escape.

“Buzz, buzz!”

“Aarrgghhh!”  The monster had a long reach; if we slipped, he’d get us!  Pix took her chance and I jumped.  Strong arms grabbed me, “Buzz, buzz!” And the tickling commenced.  I rolled in Daddy’s arms, laughing and kicking.  Pix jumped on his back, trying to help me, but Daddies aren’t ticklish, especially when they are Buzz Buzz Monsters.

Her little legs pummeled his sides.  “Horsie! Horsie!  Gi-pa!”  And the game changed.  With a rear and a whinny, the Gi-pa took off across the living room, Pixie shrieking with joy, her hands fisted in his thick black hair.  I sat up, trying to catch my breath and waited for my turn.

Every family, I hope, has games.  Silly fun games.  I’m pretty sure Jim Carrey (in “Liar, Liar”, I think was the movie’s name) does not have the exclusive rights to “The Claw!”  Hey, my daddy was “The Claw” before the actor was born!  Daddy was the big sneaky shark before anyone ever heard of “Jaws!”  He would swim underwater to us and one hand would rise up.  He would corner us in the shallow end of the pool, hands crooked, reaching for us, and ominously announce, “It’s The Claw!  The Claw!” in a twisted accent.  If caught, more tickling…  I learned how to swim just to escape into the deep end.

That was a rule.  “The Claw” couldn’t get you if you were on dry land or in the deep end of the pool.  Same with the Buzz Buzz Monster – it couldn’t climb on the furniture to get us, but if we touched the floor, we were fair game.  We didn’t play these games with Mom.  I don’t remember a single tickle session with my mom.  She did come outside and push me nice and high on my swing, though.

Maybe they were Daddy games because he was home.  We were “latch-key” kids long before the phrase was coined.  We’d walk home from school or the bus stop, enter the unlocked house, and do whatever.  Our older brother and older sister were supposed to be our baby-sitters, but, honestly?  Between the time we left school until my Dad got home from work, we were out in the neighborhood playing.

Dad had the typical 8 to 5 job; Mom, as a Registered Nurse, tried to work only the 7am to 3pm shift so she could be home with us in the afternoon, but she sometimes worked doubles or she’d be sleeping because she had to work 3pm to 11pm or 11pm to 7am.  If she was home, sleeping or not, we’d grab our bikes and take off.  We didn’t want to bother her – that woke up a whole different kind of monster.

But once she left for work and Daddy was in charge, ah, the games commenced.  Did she know we climbed all over the furniture?  Did she find out Daddy let us sit in his big chair with him to watch “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits” late at night?  Did she ever come outside and catch fireflies with us?  She did love to swim and I remember playing “The Claw” with her in the pool.  Mom made a good “Claw.”  She had long slender fingers and could cackle like a witch.

I have my dad’s hands – small with short chubby fingers.  But my fingers have Mom’s agility.  I played a variation of “The Claw” with my kids when they were little.  “The Spider” would creep across the table toward their highchair, creeping, “legs” extending up and out, wriggling forward…ooo, the suspense, the wide-eyed happy fear as “The Spider” advanced.  And then…Pounce!  Tickle, tickle!  If my baby swatted at it, “The Spider” would dash away.  If my child landed a hit, my hand would flop over, palm up, the “legs” curled in defeat.  Ah, but maybe the monster was just playing dead.  Maybe, if you poke it with your baby spoon (never your soft meaty little finger, oh no!), it will move and jump at you again!  Cats love “The Spider” game, too!

My husband makes an awesome “Claw.”  He has big strong hands with long slender fingers.  Back when we were first “going steady” in high school, I taught him how to swim properly.  Oh, he knew the basics from swimming in the river or streams, but he had few opportunities to swim in a real pool.  I took him to our housing development’s pool or up to Saratoga Springs Park – for a dollar, you could spend all day at the two big pools there, swimming and diving.  I taught that boy the crawl, the backstroke, the side stroke, taught him proper form for a simple racing dive, beat him in lap races the length of the pool…then he went to SUNY Maritime College.  My aspiring sailor came home, challenged me to a race, and was halfway across the pool before I’d hit the water!  College had taught him better than I and I stood in the shallow end, watching a man shoot through the water with clean strokes from powerful arms and efficient kicks from those nicely muscled legs.  Then, he disappeared in the deep end…moments later, something grabbed my legs.  “The Claw” broke the surface and, well, that game didn’t end in a tickle session!  Maritime instructors taught him how to hold his breath for a long time, too.  I hope I’m the one who taught him how to kiss like that!  😀

I also introduced my love to “Scrabble,” gin rummy and poker.  Just a few games later, he was winning every time.  Hard to win against a guy with genius IQ once he learns something!  I took him horseback riding.  I had years of training and experience; he settled in the saddle, picked up the reins, tucked his feet in the stirrups – heels down, toes out – and, yeah, a natural, no more lessons required.  He had the “seat” and the “soft” hands, and horses responded beautifully for him.

Men and games.  Kids and games.  Family games are necessary, made up games are the best.  Imperfect and dysfunctional as my birth family was, we had some fun times.  I worry that I’m the only one who remembers, that I’m the Keeper of the Good Memories.  They’re gone now, those two beautiful, talented walking wrecks of people, but, sometimes, I miss them.  My brother battles intense pain and struggles with a mind fogged by powerful pain-killer drugs.  My older sister is lost to us, buried in mental illness.  My little sister, Pixie to my Trixie (Daddy’s nicknames for us), is raising her family, working, living through the grief of having her oldest son die at the age of twenty.  So I frantically type, attempting to organize the memories and get the family stories out of my own failing brain.

Don’t be my mom; go catch some fireflies with your kids or point out the stars in the sky.  Better yet, let your children climb on the furniture while you, the Buzz Buzz Monster, crawl on the floor below.  Make the good memories now and they’ll help you fight off the Dark.

Grandpa’s Wheelchair Game

“…As those caissons go rolling along.”

I was sitting on Grandpa’s lap and turned my head to ask, “Grandpa, what’s a caisson?”

We had rolled down the hall from the living room and across the tiny kitchen.  Grandpa stopped his wheelchair precisely at the back door.  He was in the middle of his grand flourish, swiveling to face Grandma as the song ended.  Grandma glanced at us, her mouth crunched up like she’d just bitten into a lemon.  Ut-oh.  I leaned back against Grandpa’s chest and stared down at my knees, dangling between the stumps of Grandpa’s legs.  He chuckled and we took off again, but he did sing a different song.

“Roll me over in the clover!  Roll me over and do it again!”

“Harry!”  The shout from the kitchen made him laugh.  I had no idea why.

I don’t remember how old I was, had to be between the ages of  six and nine because we moved to the house in Schenectady, NY when I was five and lived six houses down from my father’s parents.  Our house was in the middle of the block, theirs was at the end of the block – a red brick one-story two bedroom with a tiny bath and kitchen but a huge attic and basement.  At some point before my eleventh birthday, both of them had died and we moved to Clifton Park.

They were both really old by the time we moved to the house on Myron Street in Schenectady.  Mom and Dad married after college, a few years after WWII, and didn’t have my brother until 1951.  I missed out on getting to visit my grandpa’s high class Italian restaurant in the city, when they lived in a huge Victorian home off of Route 7.  (That house is still there, hidden behind massive trees.  Last I heard, it was an Assisted Living Home for the elderly.)  I do have a very nebulous memory of sitting at the counter of Grandpa’s diner.  That was located on Erie Boulevard, near the train station.  There’s a faded photograph of me with a soda fountain coca-cola glass that’s so tall it’s as high as the top of my head, but, sorry, the printer’s dead so I can’t scan in pictures.

Grandma and Grandpa were excellent cooks.  They were from the Old Country.  No one’s alive now who remembers exactly when they came over from Italy (someday, I’ll look it up, but the urge to write their stories down has hit, so I’ll do it later), but they embraced the American Dream at full throttle.  They learned English, struggling to remove as much “wop” accent as they could.  They worked hard and fulfilled the dream of owning their own businesses.  Yes, plural.  They had the fancy restaurant, the diner, and, later, when I was little, Grandma’s secondhand store, Treasures & Trash.  That was on Erie Boulevard, too, not far from the big General Electric plant where my daddy worked as an ad writer.

Grandma’s store was crammed full of tables covered in glassware.  Display cases full of jewelry formed an aisle to the back wall where huge pieces of furniture gathered dust.  The best jewelry, the antiques, the real stuff, sat in a display case in my grandparents’ house.  You’d walk in the front door and the first thing you’d see (and make sure you didn’t bump into) was that glass case full of sparkling diamond rings and thick fancy bracelets and necklaces.  We weren’t allowed to open that case or touch anything, but we could look, and we did.  My sisters and I would drool over those pretty baubles, picking out our favorites.  Shortly after Grandpa died, Grandma did open the display case and told us to pick out our favorite piece of jewelry.

My sisters chose big, bold pieces.  I had my eyes on a ring no one else wanted.  “That’s so plain and small, and it’s not real gold,” my older sister sneered.

Grandma smiled and explained, “Yes, it is.  It’s white gold and those two rectangular gems are black sapphires.  The diamond is a half carat, pure and clean.  You have a good eye, Eileen.”  She handed my choice to me and I slipped it onto my ring finger.  It was too loose for my ten year old finger, but it was beautiful.  The diamond sat clutched in six prongs above a delicate filigree cage of tiny vines.  On either side of it, sat the two black sapphires, so dark a blue they did look black until the light hit them and a blue glow woke within.  Grandma wrote down our choices on a piece of paper, put the jewelry back and tucked the paper in a corner of the case.  “When I die, make sure your father gives you these.  This is your inheritance.  Don’t let her steal them from you.”

Yeah, Grandma A and my mom hated each other.  Dad was Gram’s late-in-life baby and her only son.  He was a mama’s boy, a rotund little kid, spoiled by his mother and two older sisters.  He did rebel, finally, and at eighteen, joined the Marines and was sent into the Pacific Arena to fight during World War II.  When he returned, he was a lean and handsome man who immediately dashed off to college to avoid being dumped into the family business.  He had absolutely no interest in working in or owning a restaurant.  He wanted to be a writer and an actor.  Then, he got married.

Married to a woman his mother didn’t approve of, a flighty, vain, wanna-be actress, a woman three years older than him who was also the daughter of the black sheep in her family.  The only thing Grandma could like about Mom was that she was full-blooded Italian and could cook.  Of course, Mom wasn’t as good a cook as a Grandma – no way was she going to leave a pot of spaghetti sauce on the back burner at a low simmer for days, tossing in the dinner leftovers from the week.  Nope, my mom was a modern woman, with a job, and she enjoyed the convenience of canned tomatoes and sauce.  I never had the heart to tell my mother that Grandma’s Sunday sauce was heavenly compared to hers, thick, rich, full of bits of mystery meats and veggies.

Grandpa was retired by then, probably because of the ice skating accident that took his second leg.  It got infected, developed gangrene, and was amputated at the knee.  No one ever revealed how he lost his first leg.  From Grandma’s reaction to any talk, or songs, from the war, we kids suspected he lost it back then.  Damn, how I wish someone had told us more about them – I don’t even know if Grandpa was in WWI!  The contradiction here was their extreme reaction to their son joining the Marines.  They were completely against it.  If Grandpa was in the first world war, wouldn’t he be proud of his son enlisting in the second one?  Ah, there’s a small mystery we’ll never solve.

The tidbits of stories have been in my family for years.  Helen B. was a young Polish girl who wanted to escape to America (ironic how Grandma was Polish, but wanted her children to marry full-blooded Italians.  Maybe that was to please Grandpa.).  She was in love with Captain Francisco and after one more trip, he would have enough money to take her with him across the ocean.  Her beau never returned from the sea.  As she approached the age of spinsterhood, another man limped into her life.

Harry A. was from a successful Italian family.  Their restaurant was the star of the town.  But Harry wanted more – he dreamed of owning his own business in America.  Was it a marriage of convenience?  Did he marry Helen to help her or to appease his family by being wed before he left them?  I don’t know.  They were cordial to each other, and Grandma took excellent care of him, but they didn’t act like they loved each other.

I remember seeing pictures of Grandpa standing on one leg in the dining room of his restaurant, balanced on two canes, but my memories begin with him in the wheelchair.  Did my older brother and sister ever play the wheelchair game with him?  I know my little sister did.  We’d fight over who would get to ride first.  I was eighteen months older, so I always won.  Christine was lighter and it was better for her to be second – Grandpa would be getting tired by then.

It was wonderful to sit straight down in the middle of Grandpa’s lap and hang on for dear life to the armrests.  I’d wrap my legs around the leg supports he didn’t need, not the least bit squeamish about being tucked between his stumps.  It never occurred to us to think of him as handicapped; he was just Grandpa.  He had strong thighs and they would help keep me from sliding off his lap.

That was important.  He’d dip his head down to whisper, “Ready, ma bella?”  All I could do was nod, for we’d be off!  He’d push away from the front door, his strong arms and hands propelling us down the hallway at top speed.  His chest would thrum as he bellowed out a song.  To the back door, pivot, and race away again.  Three turns each, and then he would have to rest quietly in the living room with Grandma fussing over him.  She would shoo Christine and me up to the attic, where we could play dress up in all her vintage gowns and jump around on a huge old bed…but that’s a story for another day.

Oh, and he never answered my question.  I had to ask it again one day when I heard my father singing the same song.  “Daddy, what’s a caisson?”

It was an ammunition wagon used in World War I.  Maybe Grandpa really was in that war…

The Muck Inside

First, my apologies.  This will not be a funny or happy blog, and if you are a depressive with suicidal tendencies, be aware that this may be a trigger post for you.

I get so angry at people who judge suicides.  “Oh, how cowardly!”  “Damn, how selfish!”  “How could he do that?  What the hell was he thinking?”

Whoa, wait.  I’m a depressive with suicidal tendencies.  Fortunately, I’m also a dysfunctional depressive – when in an episode, I have no energy to get out of bed, so I have no energy to carry out my suicide plan.  So, I’m here and safe.  And yes, I have a suicide plan.  It’s been worked on and honed to perfection from the age of fourteen.  That’s clue one:  If a depressed person actually has thought out a suicide plan, get them help immediately.

“Oh, but she’s just looking for attention.”  Nope, clue number two:  If a depressive is talking the “I hate my life, I want to die” talk, don’t ignore it, brush them off, or storm about being angry with them.  Get them help immediately.

You ignore us or get angry with us because you are afraid.  You don’t know how to stop us or help, and, the biggie, you are afraid of any talk of Death, so, you react.  Don’t.  Just do your best to get us some help.

Because, you see, we aren’t being selfish or cowardly.  Inside the mind of a depressive, we really do believe you would be better off without us, that we are worthless and therefore, shouldn’t be alive.  Getting angry at us just proves to us that you want us gone.  Since Life is already too horrible, we seek Death.  In our minds, it’s the only way to escape the horror and remove our disgusting presence from your life.  We really are thinking of how our death will benefit you.

That how twisted and crazed we are inside.

In here, the voices of horror are quite often loud and they never shut up.  They tell us how terrible we are all the time and we can’t hear you over those voices.  Every outer influence from bullying to denting your car to breaking a glass is more proof of our uselessness and the voices scream louder.

The expectations of you and the rest of society are too much for us.  We try , try, and fail, again and again.  We’ll never be good enough and you’ll be better off without us.  So, down go the pills, or the knife, or, POP, off goes the gun.

It isn’t easy to put a knife to your arm and start slicing it open.  It fucking hurts.  A lot.  A depressive has to be really done with the mental pain to withstand that physical pain.  Doesn’t sound like a coward to me.

Selfish?  No, to us, you already hate us every time you criticize us or get angry with us.  There are no lines of “I’m just telling you for your own good; I still love you.”  We aren’t hearing that.  We can’t.  The voices are screaming too loud.  So, since we hurt you so much, we’ll just go away.

I’ll always regret not being more aware for my loved one.  He didn’t reach out, didn’t speak of it, he just spiraled down, and I didn’t even catch the signs.  He drank too much, fought too much, argued all the time, decided we hated him…  If only I had visited his home more often, sat down and really talked to him, told him I knew where his mind was…  If only.

So, don’t blame yourself.  There’s really not much you can do, except try to see the signs.  I saw them and didn’t act on them because I was too deep in my own murk.  If another depressive missed all that, then you can’t be expected to see it.  If you’re lucky, your loved one will toss out a hint or two.  Don’t ignore those clues.  Go get help.

It will be five years tomorrow; I love you, C, and still miss you.

Thank you for reading.  Now, go, hug each other, but most of all:  Listen, listen to each other without reacting.  You might be surprised by what you actually hear when you really listen.