Beyond The Pale

I don’t know why I remember.

I don’t know why I remember my parents arguing over Mark Hamill’s role in Star Wars. We were sitting in the living room at the Crottinger house, and it must have been just after we moved there because I remember this as the first time I was allowed to watch Episode IV: A New Hope. Colors brighten in my memory, and in this, the tan carpet is closer to radioactive than to the muted, unstainable brown that it actually was. It was probably that first winter we lived there. I remember the fire going in the Buck Stove. This wasn’t a fireplace. It was a freestanding stove, and where fireplaces dump a lot of the heat of the fire out this chimney, this stove, even with a moderate fire in it, would force us to dump most of its heat out of the windows to the living room. We were the only house on the block with the windows open and a foot of snow on the ground. I would run over and stand as close as I could, feeling the heat seep into my clothes and muscle until I’d be dancing around like a toddler doing the pee pee dance. Eventually, Dad would tell me to knock it off and go sit back down. Then I would run over to the blue-gray, corduroy couch and flop down on it superman style, yelling in pain and writhing from side to side as the super-heated fabric of my jeans pressed against the backs of my thighs. I still have this image of me flopping around like a fish, but I remember it from the outside, so maybe my brother was there beside me, flopping right along.

“I think they got a new actor to play in the later movies,” my dad said as Luke’s X-wing flew out of the base on Yavin IV to attack the Death Star.

“Who, Luke?” My mom asked.

“Yeah, doesn’t he look different in this movie from the others?”

They paused and watched the fight, as one after another of the X-Wing fighters either got blown up or peeled off of the approach to the exhaust vent cum self destruct bulls-eye. After a few minutes, just after the fat guy decided that he’d rather crash into the death star than eject, even though his guns were already not working, mom said, “He looks different, but I don’t think that it’s a different actor.”

Dad grunted, and that was the end of it.

I had no opinion on the matter, as I was busy at that moment trying to rap myself with an afghan so that I could sit on top of the stove without getting burned. It didn’t work.

September 2, 2011 Posted by | Childhood, Science Fiction, The Making of a Story -- Exercises, Writing | Leave a comment

From the Dark, Forward, Prologue

I’m starting a new blog series, which for the time being I’m going to call Letters from the Dark, though that title’s a little passé, so I’ll try to come up with something else as I see exactly where this is going. Letters from the Dark will be loosely associated with my series On Childhood, as it must be, treating as it does of events in the same life and, sometimes, of the same periods of time. I’m presenting it as a different series because of the different nature of the subject matter. The theme is much darker here, more oppressive, less laced with nostalgia and more with melancholy, treating with a decade long struggle that I suspect some would call depression, though I’m both hesitant to self-diagnose and wary of the term “depression” because the mental images that it conjures are not, in my mind one-to-one correlations with what I have experienced. I believe something else was going on.

Before I start, I have one major decision to make about this series of remembrances. During my life, especially in the years between 1997 and 2007, I have not always behaved like the person that I believed myself to be, or to phrase it differently, the person that I aspire to be. If materialists are right, and we are nothing more than the results of our actions, regardless of design or intention, then what I have hoped to be has nothing to do with what I have done. All that matters is the results of my actions, some of which have turned out well despite evil intentions while others that were well intended have had negative results. On the other hand, if I’m to assume a providential, theological view of events, then many of my actions that came to good end have actually been evil, and many events that brought about unwelcomed results have been, from the long view, virtuous.

All of this is, however, irrelevant from the perspective of a writer trying to make himself understood. Many of the events of my late adolescence and early adulthood are known only to myself and one of two other people. Some of those actions I would prefer to hide from everyone, other from only a few people. When I come to points in the forthcoming narrative where these events have bearing on why I felt, thought, did, or said what I felt, thought, did, or said, I will be presented with a whole new set of decisions about what to keep back in the spirit of self-preservation and what to expose, regardless of the costs in terms of my pride.

At that point, I suspect that my decisions about what to keep close and what to expose to the world will have less to do with my own feelings on the subject than they will consideration of my wife and parents, both of whom still insist on viewing me as a good person. Most of my life is fully known to my wife, but that does not mean that she is comfortable having what is, after a manner, her dirty laundry exposed to the world for stain study and crotch sniffing. Maybe we should have kept different hampers for all this time, but that’s a slippery slope that leads to different bank accounts, beds, and lives. My parents, on the other hand, only know of my inner monologue from guess-work and supposition, if that. We’ve certainly never talked about it, and I don’t think that we will. Do I have the right to destroy their image of me when I know they follow my writings? I think only when it’s necessary to tell the story.

Some readers may find the subject matter of all posts in this series disturbing. Of you are one of those readers, allow me to point out that I am still here. If this simple fact is not enough to calm you, allow me to encourage you to search for more edifying reading material and skip over any posts that start with the words “from the dark.”

Enough of this.

Begin.

Prologue

The red and blue alternating lights feel like lasers, scarring the backs of my eye sockets while the super-compressed blood pumping into my brain but, like the dead sea, finding no exit, swells the goose egg on my forehead. Walking across the road, I look down to see thirty feet of rubber skid reflecting up the light of the ambulance and police cars. Shattered plastic and bits of chrome trim are scattered about everywhere. I bend over to pick up a fragment of taillight, turn it over in my hands, rub my fingers over the pyramidical triangles of its inner surface. All is chaos. All is the beating of my heart. All is silence.

Now would be a good time to pass out.

I look around for a good place, and seeing a nice bit of ditch with little in the way of smashed car detritus in it, I stagger over and make a Victorian show of fainting delicately into the long grass. In a week I’ll be excessively proud of the spider-web cracks that my forehead put into the window of the Cadillac when our stopped car was hit from behind at fifty miles an hour, but for now I’ll lie here and stare at the stars, think about tonight, think about dying. I find myself humming, start to doze off. Could have been killed. That would have been nice.

My feint at fainting must not have been well executed because someone walks up to me and says my name calmly, Chris Hines, I think. It was his mother’s car that we were riding in, chasing my parents on their balloon ride, when we were hit. Chris and I are the best of friends. Next summer he’ll be involved in a snipe hunting prank, and in my rage, I’ll stab him in the stomach with a sharp stick. He’ll be hurt, but not injured; the only injury will be to our friendship, which will never be quite the same, no matter how hard we try.“The EMTs want to talk to you,” he says.

“Ok.” I sit up. “I’ll be there in a second.”

Sitting in the back of the ambulance, I hate the noise, I hate the bright. The EMT is nice, professional. “I just want to ask you some questions,” he says, “just to make sure that bump you got on the head isn’t anything big.”

I nod.

“What’s your address?”

“Eleven thousand, two hundred Crottinger Road,” or something like that.

“How old are you?”

“Ten.”

“What’s your phone number?”

“I don’t know.” He tilts his head, concerned. “I’m not concussed though. We just moved there last week. Ask my parents, they’ll tell you.”

He says he thinks I’m fine. I could have told him that. I wonder if he’s going to tell me to stay off of that bump for a couple of days. If he does, I guess I’ll just walk on my feet like I usually do. Pity, foreheads sure are useful as third feet.

“Can I have some Advil?”

He gives me some, and I tell him I’ll be lying in the ditch if he needs me. That gets me a interested look. I like lying on the ground. It’s a good place to think, to remember. On the way over, I suck the candy off of the Advil and then spit it out. I flop back down and start trying to capture that one, briefest instant when the truck barreling up behind us smashed the trunk up into the back seat. What, besides the smash of my head on the windshield did I feel?

Not a thing.

November 25, 2009 Posted by | Childhood, From the Dark | 2 Comments

On Childhood, The News

My parents, Baby Boomers by birth if not inclination, tried to raise my siblings and me in a manner that would keep us from becoming part of the next Television Generation. As a result, our television viewing was restricted, though not as much as I might now wish. We didn’t generally watch commercial television, and when we did, Dad would either mute the commercials or turn the TV off entirely. What’s more, our viewing options were severely reduced by the prohibition of any programs or movies that contained foul language, depictions of adultery, or short skirts.

There was one type of TV, however, that we were always allowed to watch, news programs. I sometimes feel as if I’ve lived all the important historical moments of my life through the lens of the television. My first public memory is of watching the news the day of the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion (My earliest private memory won’t be discussed, but it involves either being told by one neighbor that the doctor said she was pregnant and would have the baby when she turned 20, and I was the father, or reneging on my side of a certain “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” arrangement after the other party had already filled her side of the bargain. I don’t remember which happened first), and from then on, my childhood and adolescence through the present is sprinkled with those moments that I will one day describe as the defining historical moments of my life. Each of these moments is remembered through the static of a television set.

I remember staring with trepidation at the television as the results of the 1992 Presidential elections came in. And after my parents sent me to bed before all the results were in, my conservative programming in came in, and I lay for hours—so it seemed—staring at the ceiling and wondering if I was going to grow up before the rapture happened, as Clinton’s election clearly foretold the coming of the apocalypse. Of course, in the times since, I’ve realized that every age is the End of Ages, that the end of the world awaits each of us after our last breath, that the second coming is the first second after death. But I didn’t get that from my parents’ theology, or from the television. In fact, I think my dad stumbled upon it about the same time I did.

I remember watching the news on June 12th, 1994 as we received live coverage of the police chasing a white Ford Bronco down the highway, and as I was homeschooled, and my mom tended to spend her afternoons working at the church or driving around in her maroon Aerostar, conducting worship songs with both hands and driving into ditches, I spend numerous hours during the next several months watching the live videos of OJ Simpson’s trial for the murders of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman. They were fairly boring, but I couldn’t stop watching them, so after I finished my math, I would put a cassette tape that I had made of Star Wars IV: A New Hope, and listen to the movie over the monotony of the trial, only pausing it when new evidence would be presented.

There were other events: floods, hurricanes, the Oklahoma City Bombing, Columbine. They roll on in my mind, one after the other like a series of movie listings on a marquee.

My junior year at Central Bible College, I was taking some theology class at the earliest possible time, 7:50. This meant that I spent most of my time in that class taking copious amounts of note, not because I found the material all that interesting—the only thing interesting about that class was the professor’s style sense, Indiana Jones meets Minivan. On a certain morning, the professor walked into the classroom with his fedora gripped tightly in white-knuckled hands. He said that something terrible was happening in New York, that we needed to cancel class for the day. He said a prayer and told us to plant ourselves in front of the nearest CNN or Fox News enabled television that we could find. I met my girlfriend of the time, some of you know her, at Zee’s Student Union, and we stood hand in hand and watched LIVE as the second plane flew into the already burning towers.

The next day, as we were driving past the Get and Go by the highway, I told her that I was probably going to join the military and go fight in Afghanistan because I was already sure that we were going to war. She sincerely hoped not. I didn’t realize it at the time, but part of what I was saying was that I was sick of watching history happen on television, that I wanted to be a part of it.

It took six years, but I eventually got around to joining, and I’m here, fighting in Afghanistan, seeing things first hand. But being a part of events is different from watching them on the News, and in the way that you might think. It’s not all horrible, there’s just no perspective. If I want to have any kind of perspective on what is going on the world, I still have to go to the places that I’ve gone my whole life, the TV or Internet. Those are the things that give us the illusion of perspective.

What dawned on me this morning was that while there is really no escaping our television-filtered view of the world, we need to remember that the historical perspective that television gives us is an illusion. That’s all it is. We can’t really see beyond our actions of today, and we can’t understand an event as it happens. It takes time to gain perspective, and while the news might give us facts, the analysis that they offer is dubious at best. Still, I suppose it’s better that whoever the new Jerry Springer might be.

November 8, 2009 Posted by | Army, Childhood, Christianity, Church | 4 Comments

On Childhood, Effyouseekay, Rabbit Turds

I don’t generally try to post more than once every couple of days because I think that flooding a site with new information won’t actually make more people read it, it will just cause some of the stories or date to get lost among the press. However, I’m getting ready to be gone for a month or more, and I’ve had time to write lately, so I guess it can’t hurt to break that rule for once.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately, and because of the writing, I’ve been thinking about writing. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the work of the great essayists like Twain (Clemens), White, and Sedaris, and I can’t help but wonder what it takes to turn the everyday experiences of a lifetime into the kind of prose that people will not only take the time to read, but will pay for the privilege of doing so.

I recognize that I have three major strikes against me from the outset. First, I’m not that good at relating conversations or making up conversations when I can’t think of what was actually said. My gift seems to be in the narrative, my weakness the dialogue. Second, I don’t party much, and I don’t generally hang out with those who do. I spend most of my free time at home with Andrea, either just hanging out with her or trying to study, to continue to be a scholar after having left—losing my way from—the academy. When I do go to a party, I generally leave before the craziness starts, and though I’m not at all against the drinking of alcohol, when I do drink, I never drink enough to make my own craziness. Finally, people who don’t have long term value to me often seem to have no value at all. That is, when I make friends, I make them for life, and if I don’t think that I’m going to make a true, long-lasting friendship with a person, I generally won’t go out of my way to spend time with him or her. It feels like taking time away from relationships that are meant to endure in order to nurture the temporary. What I forget, or rather, what I have to work to remind myself, is that the only way one will have weird or interesting experiences to draw upon is to have a wealth of experience to find that weirdness in.

Most of my stories come from the great friendships of my childhood, and thus far, each friendship has been worth exactly one story. Does this mean that there was really only one good story to tell about each of my friends? Of course not. Just sitting here, I remember that sometime I need to write about the Erwins, who I’ve written about before, and the time that they came to stay with us and we stole dozens of railroad spikes and taped money to the tracks. Another time they cut down an acre of their neighbor farmer’s corn, and yet another time all the kids at the church got into a massive apple throwing war with Timothy and a couple of other kids who were cornered up in the apple tree by the old building at NWAG. No, it doesn’t mean that each friend was worth only one story (for the value of a friendship isn’t in what you can write about it anyway); what it means is that I have yet to adequately mine my childhood for all of the tales that it can give me, probably because most of them appear to my mind devoid of context, just remnants that I can’t place, interesting, but useless without a frame of reference to hand them on. In this way, they seem useless at first.

However, what I’ve found is that when I start to tell myself the story, I find a context within it that makes it worth telling.

Here’s an example. I started with two images, one of a kid flicking me off when I was living at the Waller’s house, and another of piling up little pyramids of grass-clipping-balls at the apartment in Delaware where we lived while we waited for the Crottinger Road house to be completed. The following is what I ended up with:

We sold the house on Seabright long before the house on Crottinger was done. In fact, it might have been before the house on Crottinger was even started.

For a while we lived in the Waller’s basement, and my memories of that place amount to snapshots in a shoebox: a trampoline, a big golden retriever who might or might not have worn a collar with the name Toby etched into it; a ball-bearing drop game built into the wall, fascinating because of the faintly frightening dragon and sorcery images in its background; Cody’s fantastic Lego collection, which I would eventually buy parts of because he seemed to outgrow toys before I did; and the neighbor boy with whom we didn’t get along.

Those weeks that we stayed at the Waller’s house feel like a Childhood coming of age story, but I only remember one specific incident from that time. Cody and I had been arguing with the neighbor boy. I’m going to call him Ryan, though I think that Ryan was actually my neighbor at Seabright, who I got along with very well. The argument had been about one of the many nonsensical things that kids and nations are constantly at war about, the use of the trampoline, the ownership of a flat football, right of way through a third neighbor’s yard. Cody and I seem to have won the argument because Ryan turned and walked away in a huff. We were standing in Cody’s back yard, and as Ryan stomped through the grass into his own sovereign territory, he crossed his arms behind his back and covertly extended the middle finger of his left hand into the air while gripping his left wrist with his right hand.

Cody was livid. “Wow,” he whispered. “That’s really bad. If he was closer, I’d knock him out with this football.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. My only clue that something untoward was taking place was the covert nature of the gesture.

“He flicked us off, didn’t you see?”

“Yeah, I saw it, but what does flicking us off mean.” I drew out the last word to show how utterly opaque the topic was in my mind.

Cody stopped tossing the football into the air and looked at me, trying to decide if I was planning on getting him into trouble for referencing a forbidden word. Finally, “it means the ‘F’ word.”

“Oh.” I nodded sagely and picked up the ball where Cody had dropped it. We started walking toward his house. My mom always used an expression, clear as mud, and that’s where I was at that point.

Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. “What’s the ‘F’ word?”

Incredulously, “well, I’m not going to say it.”

“You could spell it. Whisper it in my ear.”

Cody glanced around for parental eaves droppers and gestured with a finger for me to bring my head closer to his. When I was close enough, he cupped his hand over my ear, and I could feel the hot-sticky-wetness of his breath on my face and neck. He said the letters quickly, in a whisper, so they came out as a word of their own, Effuseekay, and he stepped back and stared bug eyed at me, incredulous at his own gall.

“Promise you won’t tell anyone it was me who told you.”

I promised.

Not long later, it could have been only days or maybe a couple of weeks, Dad found an apartment in Delaware that we could live in while he finished building the Crottinger house. It was a dumpy, brown, one story apartment in a row of apartments that sat at the top of an extremely steep hill over Route 42. If the back screen door was functional when we moved in, it certainly wasn’t when we left. My main source of entertainment at this time was watching the maintenance man mow the hill, him constantly throwing his weight uphill to keep the mower in balance, me constantly hoping he would eventually fail and have to bail out as the mower went tumbling down into the fence that lined the highway.

When the mower wasn’t around, my brother, sister, and I would all roll down the hill again and again, trying to keep as straight as possible so that we could maintain the necessary momentum to beat everyone else at crashing into the fence. While we lived at there, we always had people every Sunday, so that they could enjoy rolling down the hill with us. Everyone wanted to roll down that hill.

On the way back up to the apartment, we would gather up these little grass balls that were all over the place and make little ziggurats out of them, a childhood insurgence of man’s ever-present need to give order to the universe.

One evening, I heard Dad saying that the backyard was full of Rabbit turds.

“Where?” I asked. “I haven’t seen any poo in the back yard.”

Dad took me out back and showed me some small, circular balls of wadded up grass. “These,” he pointed, “are Rabbit turds.”

Chagrined, I told him that I had thought they were just balls of grass clippings: “I make pyramids out of them all the time.”

He glanced up at me from where he was squatting over a row of the turds, paused for a second, and then started laughing. “No wonder you always stink,” he croaked out between guffaws.

I’ve told people that story a lot of times. What I’ve never told anyone is that I kept on making those pyramids until we moved out of that apartment and into the house on Crottinger Rd.

September 9, 2009 Posted by | Childhood, Writing | 3 Comments

On Childhood, Mud, Cathedrals

From the time that we moved to the house on Crottinger to the time that I finally got around to leaving for college, I lived a good portion of my life outside. As I’ve mentioned before, I would spend hour upon hour traipsing around in the woods, imagining that I was some kind of pioneer, a shepherd of the forest. These times formed a large part of who I would eventually become, and it is probably because of these that one of my great improbable post-retirement career ideas has been doing some time as a forest ranger.

The parents at NWAG seemed to have some kind of “getting the kids out of our hair” scheme that involved passing us around on Sunday afternoons, giving parents a break and allowing kids the opportunity to try to ruin their clothes before the evening service. My parents didn’t really seem to be in on the scheme though because out of six Sundays, I’d guess that I went over to a friend’s house once, just hung out with the family once, and had friends over four times. Not a fair trade for my parents, especially since my brother and sister pretty much worked on the same schedule that I did, so it was unusual for my parents to get an afternoon with less than three kids. Usually there were more rather than fewer kids to keep track of.

These Sunday afternoon excursions were fairly eclectic in terms of who the participants were. It wasn’t uncommon for me to invite over a kid who I had just met, or a kid with whom I had been at odds for most of my childhood. Also, younger siblings of my friends were fair game. Older kids were always too busy to come over.

One Sunday afternoon in the early spring, I invited Josh Web, the youngest of the Web boys, over for the afternoon, and after we had the every-Sunday meal of Spaghetti that was traditional in my family, we set off into the farmer’s freshly tilled field next door to show him this cool little creek-fort that Derek Bergemann and I had found. The weather had finally warmed up to the lower 60s, and the spring rains had started, though it wasn’t raining that day, so of course I loaned him a pair of shorts and a T-shirt—seeing as the low 60s is perfect for that kind of clothing.

We never made it because Josh lost a boot in the mud, and I fell on my butt trying to pull first him then the boot out of the mire, and before long we were throwing great piles of mud at each other and had made mud-coneheads for ourselves and caked up mud all over our bodies so that you couldn’t see our clothes or skin at all. We thought this was high comedy, so we set out for the house to show my dad.

Anyone who has ever played in the mud as a kid knows where this one is headed. About half way back to the house, the mud started to dry on our skin and pull at the hair on our arms, legs, and, worst of all, necks. By the time we rounded the corner of Taylor and came into view of the house, we were walking like zombies and almost crying with every step that we took. Dad was outside chopping wood, and he later told me that when he first saw us come staggering around the bend, he thought that two naked little black kids were walking down the road.

Even through the torture of pulled out neck hairs and, we were having a good time because the mud was actually keeping us warm—until we wanted to get cleaned off.

Dad wouldn’t let us in the house.

Instead of letting us cook off all of the mud and ruin the drainage in the house, as had been my plan, Dad said we would have to hose off outside. I’d been through this ordeal before, so I immediately panicked and started clawing at the now dry plaster coating my body. This worked exactly none. Dad got out the hose and started spraying us while we danced around and whooped and hollered and ran away, pulling at our shirts to keep them from touching our skin and screeching whenever the water found the backs of our knees or our butt cracks. Then, when I wouldn’t hold still, Dad grabbed me by the neck and hosed off my conehead and sprayed water down my back. While he did the same to Josh, I took off my clothes, other than undies, and left them in a pile. While Josh discarded his clothes, I got the worst, coldest part of the hosing while dad laughed at me and said he hoped it taught me a lesson.

Still, when it was over, we got hot showers and mom made us hot chocolate while we sat on top of the Buck stove in the living room trying to get as warm as possible without burning ourselves.

That farmer’s field to the Northwest of the house always has cold memories for me, probably because I was fairly well banned from going near it during the summer due to an unfortunate accident involving a “controlled burn” and the near destruction of the entire soybean crop, but that’s another story. During the winter, when there wasn’t anything for me to destroy, and the farmer wasn’t so vigilant, the field was fair game.

The winter before the naked black kid incident, Derek Bergemann and I had been chasing the creek through the woods, trying to map every inch of its trek and hoping that if we followed it long enough, we would end up having a path to Industrial Parkway—and thereby the Village Mart, with all the glory of its meatball sandwiches and chocolate milk—that didn’t involve my typical M.O. of either walking five miles on the road or getting hopelessly lost in the woods, when we saw the dried up, almost hidden, erosionary evidence of a tributary creek feeding into our own. Well, this couldn’t be passed up, and after several false starts and much wetness of boots, we found that the forest behind the farmer’s field we were skirting wasn’t a forest at all but a narrow strip of trees and drainage full of robins, squirrels, crawdads, mice, and thorn bushes.

As we were on a hero-quest to follow creeks wherever they might lead, skirting the thorns was simply not to be done, so we sucked it up and went knee high in the only part of the creek that still had water to get under the thorns. What we found under the biggest thicket, one that had looked impenetrable from all other routes but the creek, was a cathedral of thorns with all of the grandeur and interesting play of light that this entailed. It was partially hollowed out by a lay where a deer had been seeking shelter during the hunting season. Around that was a huge body of dried out thorns in turn surrounded by the outer layer of living thicket.

The thicket was growing on the side of a hill, but one curiously shaped not like the typical parabola of a dune, but more along the lines of a bell-curve bordering on the creek, providing natural protection from wind on one side and from invasion on the other.

Our journey was clearly at an end.

The rest of that day was spent clearing the ground of thorns, which were carefully preserved in a pile off to the less fortified side of the thicket, and breaking off branches enough to raise the roof to the point where we could stand without stooping. We also used sticks to open two passages in the thicket, a grand entrance for when we wanted to come back, and an escape route for if the farmer ever caught us out there. We were at this for hours until I heard the shrill whistle that my dad used to let me know that it was time to get home.

That night I obtained a promise from Dad that Derek and I could go winter camping out there when the snow came, as long as we avoided getting caught by the farmer. Derek and I spent Sundays for a month developing the aesthetic of the spot, with my dedicating at least two hours every afternoon to perfecting it, and then the snow came.

The weather that winter was prodigious. And the night we chose, a couple weeks after Christmas, turned out to be one of the coldest of the winter, though for once it wasn’t snowing. The actual low was 12 degrees Fahrenheit that night, and it is anyone’s guess what the wind chill might have been. About four we set off with our paraffin logs and our magnesium matches (we wanted to avoid using real matches on this one, though I think we eventually gave up that idea and just one of those long handled candle lighters that I had ganked from the kitchen), a pack of hotdogs, a dome tent, and two winter sleeping bags a piece. It was a serious project dragging my heavy loaded sled through the woods, and we eventually gave up and carried it out to the field to sneak up on the site that way.

By five o’clock, we had the fire going and the hotdogs cooking.

By five thirty, with the sun setting, we had eaten and were starting to get bored and cold.

By six, we were dead asleep in the tent.

At seven, I was awakened by the sound of someone doing that whisper-shout that men sometimes do on camping trips when they are trying to scare skunks away from the cooler at night without waking up their kids, who will promptly get themselves sprayed. The tent started shaking, lights flashing. The farmer had caught us.

Groggy and cozy warm, I didn’t care at this point, but I braved the cold and sat up to open the tent window. Briefly blinded by the light of a flashlight, it took me a minute to realize that it wasn’t the farmer, but my dad, who had found us.

“You guys alright?”

“Huh? Yeah, we’re great. What are you doing out here in the middle of the night?”

“It isn’t even eight o’clock yet. You guys want to come in?” He hadn’t figured we would make it until sundown, and when we didn’t come back, he came looking for us. We didn’t want to come in though. We were way too cozy in our sleeping bags for going anywhere.

About ten, I woke up because the fire had gotten big, and I saw dad sitting by it.

By eleven, the fired had died back down and dad was gone, along with our leftover hotdogs.

The next morning we packed up and dragged the stuff back to the house where we dedicated the day to Hot Chocolate and Super Metroid.

As far as I remember, Derek and I never went back to that fort together. It had served its purpose.

September 2, 2009 Posted by | Camping, Childhood, Church | 4 Comments

On Childhood, Gravity, Matt Noel

Life as a child in a small community of children is something akin to life in a medieval court. Alliances are constantly formed and dissolved, wars are started based on nothing more than property-rights issues (usually apple-trees or girls—the first being something truly of value, the second being something that we imagine as an investment for whenever our pituitary gland kicks in with the good dope), and various petty lords and ladies hold court with their vassals orbiting them the way that Phobos and Deimos orbit our resident war-god.

I always had a skewed view of the Northwest Assembly of God children’s court because I never saw the larger elements vying for my fellows’ attention throughout the week. Whereas many of the other children lived multivalent poly discursive lives of home, school, recreation, and church, all were one and the same for me. For this reason, and because of my father’s status at the church (Speaking of Dad’s office, Eli Beachy once asked if he could go into God’s office), Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights, I was lord of all I surveyed.

But to make that statement is to oversimplify. Within the gravitational equation of a child’s inverse square law, having a clear talent, self-assurance, extra year of growth, or alternate set of plumbing implements ads subjective weight of mass to any revolving body. Thus, though lord of the hallways, I was in thrall to Israel because of the excellent climbing trees at his house and his genius invention of The Boys from Bim Bom Bay, I was in thrall to Rachel because she was painfully pretty and her mother was the meanest woman in the world, I was in thrall to Chris because he owned every video game every to claw its way out of China, and I was in thrall to the Erwins—Matt and Paul—because they owned chickens and knew what disgusting motions the “French Love” actually consisted of.

I had a certain weight of my own, however. I owned a go-cart, had a kicking trampoline and the skills to do flips on it, possessed the second largest Lego collection at NWAG (damn you Jody!), and wasn’t afraid to throw captured frogs off of my treehouse with nothing between them and a much more objective kind of gravity than a Dixie cup and Walmart bag. Into my gravity well sometimes fell the people listed above, though less and less frequently as we got older and the pull of outside influences gave them near terminal velocity away from not only me but from the church (specifically NWAG, not the upper-case-body-of-Christ-Church). There were others, however, who held little or no hold over me, who fell easily into my sphere of influence, Adam Daugherty, Matt Noel, Jason Hibbert.

Of course, I’m over simplifying again, for all massive bodies (those containing any amount of mass, up to and including, I believe 10-37 plank lengths, not huge) interact upon one another, and Jason introduced me to Music, piercings, angst, and I wasted more time in adolescence pining after Adam’s sister than I should have.

But I always felt sorry for Matt Noel. For one thing, I didn’t like going over to his house because his parents were frugal enough to make everyone use the same bathwater, and his little brother always got to go before me, and he farted a lot. So I avoided Matt’s house like the plague. This meant that our gravitas was automatically skewed in my favor. What’s more, I just had this way of getting Matt hurt whenever he came to hang out with me.

My go-cart had a 5.5 Horsepower Smith and Wesson lawnmower engine in it. This was a replacement. I don’t remember what the original engine was, but I blew it up pretty promptly after purchasing the machine. I don’t remember how fast that go-cart would go, but to a ten year old, it seemed pretty fast. After much experimenting, I figured that if I rode it with the petal all the way down about half the way to the railroad tracks at the top of the hill by my house, basically exactly where Robinson’s Honey farm is currently located, and hit the break as hard as I could while cranking the wheel hard to the right, I could perform a very Steve McQueenish sliding about face and carve a black axis on the grey chip and tar that Newton would be proud to include in one of his diagrams.

One gray Sunday afternoon, I got it into my head that Matt needed to experience this volte face in order to really appreciate the NASCAR qualities of my machine, so we set off for the railroad tracks at top speed.

What I failed to take into account was that the laws of gravity, with sufficient force, could be counteracted by the laws of inertia, and the extra weight in the go-cart did not hold us to the asphalt, but rather propelled us away from it. Thus, I have a slight gap in my memory that ends with my lying on the ground, with the go-cart balanced on its side, wheels still spinning, my leg trapped underneath. Matt, well, he starts in the ditch but quickly regains himself and starts limping off down the road toward my house.

“Hey!” I yell. “Come lift this thing off of me.”

He looks back, snot nosed, a nice raspberry on one elbow, shakes his head and keeps walking. Some lying might be in order here.

“Matt,” I yell again. “If this thing falls on me, it will kill me.” Not true. I know it. He knows it.

He keeps walking.

I reach up and hit the kill switch on the engine, then I use my free foot to kick the go-cart back over on its wheels (in retrospect, I’m lucky this didn’t break my ankle), get up, pick some pebbles out of the holes in my legs and arms, push the go-cart to the side of the road, and set about getting the thing running again. By the time I get it running, Matt is half-way to the house, and I pull drive up to get him.

“Want a ride?” He looks at me like I’m an idiot, still crying.

“I’ll walk.”

“Oh, come on. That was awesome. Someday I’ll write a blog about this.” I might be paraphrasing here.

Matt is never riding with me again.

Fortunately, however, the creek is flooded, and we don’t need the go-cart to keep us busy because we have something thousands of times better—doors. I go ask dad if he cares if we destroy the doors that he took out of the barn at the church in Marysville that closed down recently. He says that they aren’t any good anyway, so go we can go ahead. I toss the first one, the oak one, into the creek and it is immediately caught by the current and jerked out of my grasp. It is simply too heavy to manage. We have better luck with the other one though because it is one of the hollow-cored jobs that run about sixty bucks at lowes. I get a running start, Matt throws the door onto the surface of the raging creek (probably a good ten feet across, up from its normal ten inches), and I dive onto it, slide off the other side, and face-plant into the weeds. I maintain my composure, however, and grab a passing branch with one hand, and shove my arm through the knob-hole in the door with the other. Matt dives in after me.

It took probably about two hours for the door to get so waterlogged that it wouldn’t float any longer. During that time, we took three or four trips down the creek, ruined all our clothes (which I did all the time anyway), and used the door and the rope hanging from my tree house—which was right over the creek—to make the door into a kind of surfboard.

I got in trouble for letting the doors float into and dam up the neighbor’s portion of the creek.

Matt got pneumonia.

As we grew older, the various forces in the aether pulled us until the inverse square laws of life turned friends into old-friends into acquaintances until one day in college, I found Matt  sitting across from me in my dorm room. He looked tired.

“Last month.” He told me. “I was driving down West Broad in Columbus when a drunk ran across the street in front of me. There was another car in the lane to my right, blocking my vision. That car hit the brakes and missed the guy. I never even saw him. Tore him in half.”

He rubbed the bridge of his nose. Suddenly I understood why he looked tired, why he looked like he couldn’t stand to close his eyes at night.

“That does something to you, you know?”

I haven’t seen Matt since that night.

I got Matt hurt a lot when we were kids. Life hurt him more in a single, random moment than he could have imagined or expected. We really aren’t like planets. We’re more like comets. For a while, maybe, our orbits appear to really revolve around each other, but the gravity pulling us away from each other is stronger than the bonds holding us together, and the forces of all the other people pulling at us pull away little parts, chips of iron and ice, flesh and soul. Those pieces of flesh that we lose, they grow back. The pieces of soul, well, I can only hope pain makes our hearts grow deep. Sometimes, we leave those pieces with each other cherished too closely, sometimes our encounters are too intense, too violent, and those pieces of are torn away to go flying off into the void, leaving us nothing but sleepless nights and memories of the times when our deepest wounds were in our flesh, or maybe in our lungs, but never quite reached to our deepest parts.

August 10, 2009 Posted by | Childhood, Church | 6 Comments

On Childhood: Gothard and Burning Down a House

I’m sitting here at the Starbucks in Dublin where Israel works when he isn’t on tour with Disciple, feeling seriously cracked out because I don’t drink coffee on the regular anymore, and I just had a Venti drip with two shots of espresso. Egad, I have the shakes. It’s nice to be home.

Last week I said that this week I was going to try to write about what it was like for me to be homeschooled, and I’m going to, but as I’ve spent the week trying to conceptualize a coherent way of discussing it, I’ve found that it is harder to get my brain around than I thought, especially since there is so much that I could say about it, and I can’t begin to hope to hit on everything in 1250 or so words (my self-imposed word limit), so if what I have to say feels squashed or rushed, that’s because it is, and I tangent really badly, but I think that anecdotes do a better job of explaining what a person’s childhood was really like than a formal essay ever could anyway.

In a previous essay, I talked about how my dad would read to us every night before we went to bed. In a big way, this was just an extension of the school day. The primary curriculum around which my parents developed their pedagogical schema came from Bill Gothard’s Institute on Basic Life Principles, which I always hated because he had some really ridiculous views of what godliness meant, specifically his hatred for the drums and dating. What I never realized at the time was that once you got past the moronic aspects of his theology, which my parents never really emphasized much anyway (though they seemed to consider getting retarded about courtship for a while), his actual program was ingenious.

The basic program was six years long, and the whole thing was written at a high school level, so that from the first day of kindergarten or first-grade (grade levels were always a little fuzzy), kids were working on high-school level stuff. The whole family would work through the material together, with new kids jumping in wherever everyone else was whenever they got old enough to start. The first time through, kids were expected to just understand whatever they understood, though there were age-specific activities included in the supplemental material. When the whole six year cycle ended, you were supposed to go back to book one and start over. The second time through, there were higher level activities to do, and kids were expected to achieve a higher level understanding of the information that they had already been exposed to in the previous cycle. Everything was cumulative because the program was cyclical, so those kids who jumped in later in the cycle (in this case, Chris and Jaimie) could treat the point at which they started as the end point on their second time through the program.

My parents weren’t strict adherents to the program. Very little of the secondary curriculum and almost none of the tertiary material that they used came from the Institute on Basic Life Principles. Math was always Saxon, which I think most Christian schools used at the time, and I remember seeing a fair amount of Abeka books around the house, though I can’t remember what the subjects were.

The typical day started around nine o’clock, though it seems like that time wasn’t exactly hard and fast. My favorite example of how relaxed things were, while still requiring that we get school done comes from when I was about 14 or 15 years old, and the Erwin boys had helped me find a copy of the Anarchists’ Cookbook on the Internet (which, by the way, I eventually got in a lot of trouble with because there was a chapter on how to commit credit card fraud, and when my dad found it, he didn’t think my claim that it was purely academic would be very convincing to the FBI. I can’t imagine the trouble I’d have gotten in if I hadn’t edited out all the swearing in the first hour I had the document). My favorite chapter had two recipes for napalm. I couldn’t use the best one because even though I had access to plenty of frozen orange juice concentrate, I didn’t have any good way to get a hold of black powder. Matt told me that Walmart sold it, but I couldn’t think of a way to get my mom to buy me any. The second recipe, which wasn’t nearly as good, was easy though. All that it required was gasoline and Styrofoam. I got up early one morning and used my mom’s good chili pot (which she finally replaced a couple of years ago) and filled it half-way full with gasoline, then I took all of the packaging from our computer and dissolved it in the gas until I had a mass roughly equivalent to unhardened toffee. This was supposed to be Napalm, though having seen videos of Napalm being used, I’m pretty sure the consistency was wrong.

At some point during the process, Chris, who was always a morning person, woke up and came sauntering into the kitchen where I was cooking up my concoction on the stove. When it was finished, we realized that Mom probably wasn’t going to feel too magnanimous about me having a pot of Gasoline on her stove, and the gas smell was pretty strong, so we opened all the doors in the house and went out back to decide what to do with the stuff.

It is amazing the magnetism that we felt toward Jaimie’s five-by-five play log-cabin in the back yard.

We knew it was a bad idea, but the Imp of the Perverse had its hooks deep in us by this point, and the state of mom’s chili pot had me figuring that I was in for a painful death anyway, so we did the natural thing and went out back to smear our napalm on the back of the roof and a couple of logs we pulled off of the log pile the cabin stood next to.

Styrofoam mixed with Gasoline burns like a tire. About fifteen minutes later, when mom came looking for us to start school, there were pillars of black smoke billowing off of the back of the cabin, though the wood itself hadn’t even started on fire yet. Chris was rolling a big log around on the ground, trying to put it out, and I was hitting it with a long stick, trying not to let the log pile catch on fire. Dad had about ten cords of wood in that pile, close to two winter’s worth, and we knew it was all over if it caught. Mom stepped out onto the deck, planted her feet firmly with her hands on her hips.

“David!” She hollered.

Chris and I stood up from where we were bent over and faced her. I felt pretty conspicuous because I had a huge burning glob of “Napalm” dripping off the end of the stick, and we were both back-dropped by the pillar of black smoke.

“Yeah?”

“What are you doing?”

Chris and I just looked at each other. How do you respond to a question like that? There was no lying about it. The ruined pot, which Chris and I would rehabilitate on the sly that afternoon, was lying a foot away from me with gasoline running out of it to leave a big dead spot in the grass, and all the other condemnatory evidence surrounded the scene of the crime, so I decided to suck it up and face my doom.

“What’s it look like?” I hollered back. “We’re burning down Jaimie’s house with Napalm.”

Her response, “Oh. Well put it out and finish later. It’s time for school.”

March 22, 2009 Posted by | Childhood | 7 Comments

On Childhood: Family Reading and Forts

Last week, an old friend asked me to write to her and tell her what my childhood was like. When I started thinking about what to write, I realized that she was asking me to do something that I can’t do in just one email, so I decided that I’d make my first project on Beyond the Pale (Is that name a keeper?) be a series On Childhood. I hope you enjoy.

Dad read to us every night when I was growing up. I don’t know when it started exactly; I assume it must have started in the nursery, with picture books and Dr. Suess or Psalty the Singing Songbook, but my first real memory of our reading times is at the house on Crottinger, so I must have already been about 10 years old. Part of the Royal Ranger’s curriculum was family devotions. The church gave everyone a daily devotional called Keys for Kids, from Children’s Bible Hour, and if we could say that we had read the devotions as a family for three or five days between Royal Ranger meetings, then we got different amounts of points, which, compounded with attendance, memorization (“Ready, ready for anything, ready to work, play, serve, obey, worship, live, etcetera.”), and advancement points, could add up to some mystical number over the course of the year to make you eligible to receive the coveted Ranger of the Year award. Of course, I wanted to be Ranger of the Year, and Dad was the pastor, which meant we had to show solidarity with what the Commanders were trying to do, so Dad started reading Keys for Kids to us.

One night, after we had finished devotions and prayed, Dad pulled out a new book that he had just bought that afternoon, and he wanted to read to us. It was about a young boy named Scarboy who takes his brother and runs away from the Enchanted City where everything is done backwards, people live in the night and sleep during the day (“morning morning, see you in the night)”. Scarboy runs away because his mother has died, and all orphans belong to the Enchanter, who uses them for slave labor. He flees to a Great Park, where me meets all kinds of people who teach him that humans aren’t supposed to sleep in the day and work in the night and that the enchanter isn’t the rightful ruler of the Enchanted City, that he a usurper, and there is a king who lives in hiding and will come back one day to set the city free of the Enchanter and set all things to right. They teach him that for now the king lives in the forest, rescuing people from the enchanter, but only those who believe will see him. Tales of the Kingdom fascinated me, and it started a love for reading together as a family that would never really end for me. Even now, when Andrea and I live in a place that doesn’t have a dish washer, I will wash the dishes while she sits and reads to me.

Chris, Jaimie and I were all hooked, but especially me, probably because I was a little older, and Dad had a tendency to read books with fantasy elements, which were always my favorites. From Tales of the Kingdom, and Tales of the Resistance, we went to The Chronicles of Narnia, Summer of Little Rain, a book whose title I can’t remember about a boy who escapes from being held captive by Native Americans, My Side of the Mountain, The Little Princess, and many, many more. Often, Dad would try to make what he was reading to us match up with what we were doing at the time. For instance, one summer we were going to visit Mom’s parents in Tyler, Texas, and we stopped by in Branson, Missouri to see the Shepherd of the Hills outdoor drama. Dad bought a copy of the book that it was based on, and when we got home, that was the next book that he read to us. On another vacation, we went to the grand canyon, and Dad read Marquerite Henry’s Brighty of the Grand Canyon, which was extra exciting since we were camping in a national forest at the time, where there weren’t any actual campsites or bathrooms, but there were plenty of mountain lions making noise and scaring mom.

As we got older, Dad did less and less of the actual reading, and we did more and more of it, but Dad was always my favorite because he was a much smoother reader than any of us were. I can still hear Dad chanting “Ohm phah bah, ohm phah bah, ohm phah bah, din,” when the Naysayers were chasing Scarboy and Little Child on the way to Great Park.

We grew up, and so did the material we read. But there were some places that he just wouldn’t go. When we were reading C. S. Lewis’ space trilogy, and we finished Perelandra, Dad refused to read That Hideous Strength. He said that it was too scary. I assured him that we wouldn’t get scared, that we wanted to hear the rest of the story. He told me that if I wanted to get the rest of the story, I’d have to read it for myself. He said he wasn’t worried about me getting scared. He was the one that would be too scared.

One of the classics, a book that we would come back to time and again, whether Dad was rereading it , I was reading it to myself, or we were watching one of the several movie versions that we had, was the always-famous, The Secret Garden. The solitude of the characters reminded me of my own solitude, even though when I was alone, it was for different reasons than they were. I loved to be in the woods, especially building various types of fort (I literally always had Poison Ivy), so it didn’t take much effort for Michelle Robinson, the girl who lived in the big blue house behind ours, to convince me to redirect the fort building tendency toward a more aesthetic scheme when she invoked The Secret Garden.

Michelle had found an oak tree that in the woods that was significantly bigger than all the others ones in the forest. If you had asked me then, I might have made up some story about how that tree was probably one of the last survivors from the primeval forest that would have been there before Europeans and their lumber mills came sweeping through. Of course, whatever story I came up with would have been patently false, but from a ten-year-old point of view, it wouldn’t have been that unreasonable. The tree was certainly older than any other tree in the forest and must have been the first to sprout whenever this forest had been allowed to spread itself back over the farmland. It was so big that with our fingertips touching and our arms spread wide, faces pressed flat against the trunk, Michelle and I were nowhere near reaching all the way around it.

We chose a circle at the base of the tree that was about 15 feet across, made up by a rough circle of smaller tress, and we started working by marking off the walls of our garden with branches. In our thinking, an unbroken ring of sticks marking off our territory was just as good as an eight foot brick wall in terms of moral strength, we knew that we didn’t have to worry about anyone besides our younger siblings crossing that wall, and death threats took care of them for the most part. It was winter, so there wasn’t a lot of green growth on the ground, but what there was, we protected. We carefully excavated all of the twigs and rotting leaves from around the plants, careful to disturb nothing that was living, though I would occasionally try eating a leaf if I thought it looked like something I had seen in a survival handbook. During the course of the clearing, we accidentally uprooted more than a few plants, and we were always terribly upset whenever this happened because we weren’t sure if that was going to be the plant that would have ended up being the cornerstone for our whole aesthetic. Only when we had cleared all of the fallen debris from the circle so that we had a pristine ring of nothing but plants and bare dirt did we deliberately pull any plants.

Before we would remove each plant, we would carefully examine it from different perspectives and in light of everything else that was going on in our little fort, and if we felt that it added to the appeal of the garden, we would keep it and put rocks or sticks around it to indicate pathways and flowerbeds in the garden. There was a fallen tree rotting not too far from our fort, so we would pull out big handfuls of its guts to use for mulch around the particularly aristocratic looking weeds. We found an old log and stood it on end by the base of the big Oak, and we stood three or four little statues on it. We had found them out in the dangerous part of the woods where the person who owned the property before Michelle’s dad had dumped all of his garbage, and we thought that they, along with some strategically positioned bits of broken blue glass, really added to the effect. We literally spent hundreds of hours at the base of that tree during that fall and early winter, and it was heartbreaking when the snow finally came a buried it.

The work of making the space was much more gratifying than inhabiting it, so eventually we would abandon that fort in favor of another one, and we would go through various iterations of the secret garden fort theme throughout the years before Michelle’s parents divorced and she moved away. Each fort got its own name: the war fort, the creek fort, the tree house, the cliff, the briar, the crawlspace, the fort under the stairs (when we abandoned that one, I broke light bulbs in the area you had to crawl into to get there, thus preserving our fort forever from anyone who might want to defile it), but that first one, it was the prototype, the shrine, our secret garden.

March 2, 2009 Posted by | Childhood | , , , | 4 Comments