Category Archives: Memoir

Growing up. Getting out. Getting rid of stuff.

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My Family of Imeldas

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“I once had a friend put my shoe over his nose to see how long he could keep it there. He spent the evening in the E.R.”

When I first read in the Bible that the Apostle Paul compared people in the church to parts of the body – like the eye or the head – my first thought was “Please Lord, don’t let me be a foot.”

The foot is definitely one of the “unpresentable parts” of the body and, in the Most Unappealing Body Part category, consistently ranks in the top three year after year.  I am of the firm belief that feet need to be covered at all times and because of that,  I am suggesting here that all people everywhere, and especially men, need to start wearing burkas on their feet.   Feet are necessary, I get that, but they are an evil body part that lurks (like my great Uncle Lyman), sweating and molding and fungusing , waiting to jump out at you (like the Black Death) as soon as the Hello Kitty socks are removed.     They are constantly in some stage of  cracking, blistering, callousing or peeling, and, one or two of the nails are always in danger of falling off or getting bent back and they are always in a constant state of unwellness and in need of being rubbed.  I’m saying all this because I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about this post.  I, more than most, am all for covering feet in shoes, but really, family, why do we need so many stinkin’ pairs?!?

When I was young I only had one pair of shoes at any given time (yes, I actually did have to walk to school in the snow, barefoot, uphill both ways with barbed wire wrapped around my feet to keep from slipping).   I’m sure, given my preferences, I would have liked to have less than five pairs of boots and more than one pair of shoes, but  I lived in Ketchikan and really didn’t have much of a choice in the matter.  No one did.   Shoes stores sold two types of shoes.  The ones that got you beat up and the ones that got you less beat up.   There was no Nike back in the day. There were Buster Browns (aka, Zach Brown Busters your head open),  Keds (only your little sister wore Keds) and P.F. Flyers (aka get your Face Punched shoes).  In order to preserve your good looks there was only one shoe anyone could wear and that shoe was made by Converse.

The good thing about Chuck Taylors is that you got punched less when you wore them.  The bad thing about them was that they left nothing to the imagination (like Speedos on a fat guy) when it came to the size of your feet.  Since my legs were long I used to sit on the bus with my feet sticking into the aisle and on one of the daily punch fests (also known as the bus ride to school) I went from thinking my Chuck’s were pretty awesome to realizing that I had a horrendous birth defect – my feet.  They were freakishly huge in comparison to the rest of my body.  I didn’t realize until later in life that my head was way too big for my body, too, but at that moment the meat slabs attached to my ankles took all my attention and looked like something out of a science fiction movie. I fought the urge to say “I am not an animal, I am a human being!”  I glanced around the bus and was sure that everyone was looking at my monstrosities.  In actuality, I’m sure everyone (but that one guy who shaved at the age of 10 – he was too busy combing his mustache with that little comb that I wanted so badly), was looking at their own feet and feeling the same way.  Maybe that’s why bell bottoms were so popular because they hid teenage feet so well.  If someone had only invented bell bottoms for my face then my life would have been complete.

Chuck Taylor may have been a wife-beating, beer-swilling redneck from the south, but we didn’t care because if you didn’t wear Chuck Taylors you wore nothing at all.  They came in any color and style you desired – as long as the color you desired was black and the style you wanted was high or low top. The squeak they produced was deafening (current iterations of the shoes have an added material, similar to micronized talc, which makes them not only quieter, but as slick as bbs on a hot skillet covered in grease with a goose around).  Back then though they had enough traction to pop your ankle out of its socket and leave it behind you on the court if you cut too hard, especially so, if you wiped them on a wet towel before you hit the court (which we all did).  It got so squeaky at times that it sounded like a gym full of really aggressive and testosterone-addled crickets attacking a flock of defenseless mice.  Depending upon how much our coach (my dad) had to drink the night before, we sometimes had to practice in our socks to keep him from ripping his ears off and throwing them at us.

My kids wear Chucks, but they are not their father’s canvas Converse.   Chucks now come in hundreds of colors and styles – they have to since there are close to five hundred different brands of sneakers alone to compete with.  Diversify or die is the shoe mantra and my kids have drunk this Koolaid in spades. They have more shoes than monkeys have butts and the majority of them come from the evil four letter word shoe company.

My friend, Steven, calls Nike “Satan’s shoe company,” but to my kids, who have worshiped at the altar of Nike more than once, they are almost the only thing (aside from the occasional foray into Chuckdom) they’ll attach to their stinky feet.  That swoosh means more to them than a bag of diamonds and if you stuck that swoosh on two dead squirrels you found on the road my kids would say “Awesome!,” slip those suckers on and head over to their friend’s house to show them off.  I personally don’t get it and think Nike is the Bernie Madoff of the shoe market.  I mean how can any company, in good conscience, charge so much for something that weighs so little?  I have paid less per ounce for Wagu beef and in my opinion if you buy a pair of shoes for $200 they should weigh roughly the same as a bowling ball.

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Bought these beauties for a quarter at a yard sale.

My wife doesn’t have a shoe problem.  She has more than two pairs, but just barely.  She is like the anti-Imelda and tends to wear her shoes until a little hole appears on the front of the shoe from where her big toenail presses into it day after day, year after year.  She doesn’t throw her shoes away until her entire toe pops in and out through the opening at every step (I married the most frugal woman in the world.  Hurray for me and too bad for all you suckers who married someone else).  During our first five years of marriage she wore the same pair of Birkenstocks until those shoes and her feet were one.  They were so comfortable because the fibers of the shoes had woven themselves into her flesh until the shoes and her feet were no longer separate entities.  The shoes had become a parasite (“PAIRasite”) that lived off of her feet.  It took special surgery to remove them and we had to drown the shoes in the river to keep them from seeking her at night like the severed hand from so many campfire ghost stories.

Apart from my wife, it has often felt like I live with four little Imeldas.

NB: Imelda Marcos was the wife of (now dead) Ferdinand Marcos, the dictator of the Philippines. When they were deposed they found her collection of 3000 shoes.  It’s my own personal belief that Imelda had exceptionally ugly feet and that Fernando kept purchasing shoes for her to keep them covered up.  Do a Google search of Imelda’s shoes and you will notice that not one of her 3000 pairs were open toed.

I write this sitting in my 25 year old Nevados sandals (I got them on sale for $8.99) so take what I’m saying with a grain of salt, but I would never dream of getting rid of a pair of shoes unless they are completely unusable.  My old shoes get relegated to the closet, to the back porch, to the mud room, but they never get thrown away until the funnel web spiders have set up shop in them and the empty carcasses of long dead moths are strewn all around.  Only at that point do I exercise my charitable duty and bring them to Goodwill.

Until then, any shoe is a good shoe.  My mind doesn’t really work right at any time, but especially when it comes to shoes.  It starts to play tricks on me the moment I try to Goodwill a perfectly good pair of “work” shoes.  The term “work shoes” has become a euphemism for any pair of shoes that I might put on to do any kind of work that doesn’t involve a computer.  It’s odd, but when work does actually occur it is way too much of a hassle for me to change into my work shoes.

I am a very careful painter after all and there is no need to take the time to change.  On the first careful stroke, I inevitably have splattered my good shoes and the next day I am forced to buy a pair of  “I told you so” shoes.

My old, good shoes are now my new paint shoes and my old paint shoes get moved to the back door to be used as mud shoes.  The mud shoes get sent to the barn to be used as clean out the barn shoes and the new paint shoes get put in the closet for the next time I paint.  I’ll be too lazy to change into either the new paint shoes or the new mud shoes or the new barn shoes when needed and the vicious cycle will be repeated ad infinitum, until the Lord comes and brings me and all my shoes up to heaven.

My shoes are not me and I was able to actually get rid of three pairs of perfectly “good” shoes today.

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Punctuation and Other Necessary Evils

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“Punctuation is the Devil’s workshop!”

Kelly is my editor-in-chief, but I’m beginning to get a little hacked off at how much she laughs at my grammar.  I think I can string a sentence together just fine, but my lack of putting the little marks in between words and making some letters bigger than others (like at the beginning of a sentence) apparently isn’t my strongest attribute and it gives her such a charge that it’s becoming more than a little annoying.   I keep telling her that I don’t really need the running commentary and that she should just edit in silence like a good little editor.

She’ll be quiet for a while, but then her shoulders start to shake, she snickers and then her outburst wakes the dog.

“John, Greenland is not a continent!”

“Uhhh, it used to be?”

“John, do you really think you should capitalize firetruck?  How about yellow?  How about tire?”

“Uhhh, yes.  You always capitalize proper names.”

“John, why would someone name their child ‘Tire’?”

‘Uhhh, well, Michael Jackson might.”

“And why did you put a comma here?!”

“Uhhh, because it separates the prepositional phrase?”  I get desperate sometimes and start throwing out terms that have no actual meaning to me, but that I’ve heard her use in “that” tone as she edits my writing.

“Nope.  Wrong Again!”  Then she breaks into a fit of laughter that rivals what she goes through whenever I hurt myself in a really bad way.

I stubbed my little toe so badly one time that it disappeared inside my foot like a turtle hiding in its shell – the doctor had to use an extractor to get it back to its original position, like pulling a cork out of a bottle.   As I held my foot and hopped up and down and screamed in agony I looked to the wife of my youth for comfort and solace.  I was hoping she would help me to a chair and get me some ice.  She was in no shape to help because she was completely immobilized, and not because she had fainted at the sight of the blood that had sprayed all over the wall.  No, she was immobilized because she had collapsed into a fit of laughter so pronounced that her face was red and tears were rolling down her cheeks.  She lay there, laughing in silent agony, not wanting to hurt my feelings by actually laughing out loud, but unable to control her mirth at my misfortune.   As soon as our eyes met, she lost it even further and burst out laughing so loudly that all the dogs in the neighborhood began barking.

One would think that turn-about would be fair play so I tried this once when she hurt herself in a similar fashion, but I was instantly frozen in place (my guffaw dying on my lips) by the icy daggers that she fired from her bloodshot eyes.  It was like that scene in Star Wars where Darth Vadar makes that guy choke on his own spit without really touching him and then says, “I find your lack of faith disturbing.”  Except she said,  “I will kill you and no one will find your body for a month and by then I’ll be in Mexico drinking beer on the beach.” (Well, it was something close to that.)  She even sounded like James Earl Jones for a split second and I found that I couldn’t breath until she released her grip on me and I collapsed back onto the couch and spilled my beer ( which she then made me clean up).

I guess I’m just tired of bowing down to the conventions of grammar and I’m not going to take it any more.  I feel that things like punctuation and other grammatical nuances should be beaten into submission and do what I want for a change.  I’m tired of being held to such a strict law in my writing (can I get an “Amen!” from the congregation?).  The English language is supposed to be fluid and changing – like the wind, and, come to think of it,  maybe I’m just a ground breaker.  Maybe in the future people will use commas in all the places, I, choose, to, use, commas.  I’m tired of fighting with punctuation and I would give up on it entirely if I weren’t so stinkin’ afraid of my wife.

i guess, until that day happens, I can rest, in the knowledge, that IT makes my wifes’ day when I Punctuate. so Badly: .,; (have fun deciphering that one honey);”

A kid with rocks in his pockets and other fighting vehicles.

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Someone once asked me if I rocked?  And I said
“Yes, all the time.”

As a kid my life consisted mainly of throwing rocks, hitting rocks and looking for rocks to throw and hit.  I was essentially an only child with simple needs.  I’m still not sure when my fascination with rocks began or how it grew, but I hunted for good rocks everywhere I went and more often than not my pockets would be filled with really cool and useful rocks by the time I got home from my day’s wanderings.   If anyone saw me I’m sure I looked very much like a lonely, depressed boy with very few friends because my head was always down as I looked for something shiny and round to bring home.

Ketchikan is situated at the base of a mountain and receives an annual rainfall of around 200 inches of precipitation.   A continuous sheet of rain falls from March until September – when it stops for a day’s respite and then turns to a continuous sheet of snow which falls until the end of February.  The perpetual rain washed the topsoil away years ago leaving a lumpy surface of gray rocks that tumbled down creek beds and washouts, exposing new layers of igneous intrusive every few weeks.   A different boy on a different continent may have collected plants (we had skunk cabbage and pine trees) or insects (we had mosquitoes).  I guess I loved rocks because that’s all I had to love.

I couldn’t classify rocks into their scientific categories, but I knew which ones felt good in my hand and I spent hours throwing the best ones at things or hitting them with a special rock bat I had made by sanding down one side until it was smooth and flat.  Even at 50 I can skip a rock pretty well and hit what I’m aiming in two or three tries and I can still throw a flat rock high in the air so that it spins exactly into the water making that schmucking  sound when it hits.

I guess I have been throwing rocks my entire life. I threw rocks at signs, at telephone poles, at other rocks, at birds and squirrels, cats and dogs, at windows and even at cars once or twice (don’t tell my mom).  I once hit a dog on the bohunkus while she was in the throws of, umm, making puppies with another dog, and the results were, umm, well rather unusual and shocking to a nine year old. I can tell you I never did it again.

So, when I felt a sharp sting on the back of my leg and turned in time to see a kid, whom I had never seen before, bending down to pick up another rock to throw at me, I wondered what in the heck was he was thinking.  He must have been one of the kids who lived on the Coast Guard base and new to town.

A calmness swept over me and a smile passed my lips.  I was in my element – a rock fight.   It was as if my entire life up to that point had been in preparation for this exact moment.  I patted my pockets;  I was loaded with ammunition.  I was like a nine year old Bradley Fighting Vehicle and I pulled my baseball cap down over my eyes and prepared for battle.

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I searched for MY stone, a perfect stone I had found months before, but could never find the right target to pitch it at.  It was just the right weight and jagged in all the right places, with a nice curve that fit my index finger like a glove (a leather glove that had been left out in the rain and then baked in the oven).  Like David must have done, I gauged the distance with a practiced eye, felt the heft of the stone in my hand and tested the wind without knowing I was doing it.  I ran a few steps and crow- hopped a little, pulling my arm back as I ran and hurled the stone with a wiry arm, swift and high into the air. The kid never really stood a chance.  The thick chunk of shale traced a perfect arc in the sky and though he tried to run, the rock homed in like a patriot missile.  He turned at the last minute, a look on his face like he knew he was about to breathe his last.

I still remember the thunk (like a fist punching a bag of wet cement) as the projectile lodged into his crew cut.  He stared at me in disbelief and awe, as if he secretly wished he could have done the same thing to me.  He gingerly reached up and touched the spot and when his hand came away bloody, all admiration and composure left in an instant and he went from being “that” kid to being “that” kid who was now screaming bloody murder.

“I’m telling my mom!” he shrieked as he began staggering home, his pudgy hand pressed to his head.

That’s all it took for all heck to break loose in my own head.  I was off.  There was nothing that struck greater fear in my heart than for someone to tell his mom, for in my day moms wielded absolute power and handed out swift retribution.   He had started it, but when there was blood and stitches it never mattered who started it,  there was always swift justice to the one who had finished it – especially when  a rock was used to complete the task (even though it was an acceptable piece of weaponry in my world, rocks were strictly verboten in all worlds adult).

I had no idea who the kid was or where he came from.  He certainly didn’t go to my school, so I knew that if I vacated the premises there would be little chance of being caught, so vacate I did. For all I knew, the kid died from blood loss on the way home because I never saw him again.

Maybe it’s time to get rid of my rock collection, for my rocks are not me.

“There’s no crying in baseball!”

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“When I was eleven I pitched a shutout against the Yankees and lived to tell about it.”

When I was ten years old I cried all the way home from the Little League ball park.  It was my first game as a pitcher and I had been shelled by the Yanks and I was in shock.  I can’t remember the final score, but it had definitely been a loss and a big one at that.  I was hooked during the first inning having retired a total of zero batters.   Zilch.  Nada.  No one.  And to top it off a kid named Benji Tavares, a kid that picked on me constantly, replaced me in relief.

I held myself together through the rest of the game, but as soon as I collapsed into the back seat of our Jeep Wagoneer the snot and tears came unabated.  I swore I would never, ever, play baseball again.  I was supposed to be the phenom, the best to ever have played.  I had been a bat boy, a ball boy, I had worn the uniform since I was five, I had practiced hard, and here I was, at ten and my career was over.  I even thought about switching to soccer (well, not really – I didn’t even know what soccer was at that time and even though I was desperate, I would not have been THAT desperate).

NB: Soccer was tried in Ketchikan my 8th grade year.  The new teacher from California tried to introduce this “world” sport to us and after about  sixty seconds of him yelling at us to stay in position, it quickly turned into a classic game of smear the  “guy with the ball” (that’s not actually what we called it, but political correctness will not permit me to use the term Q***r) and we never got to play it again.

After that first game my ego had taken a line shot to the nuggets and I laid in the back seat with my stomach aching,  wondering how I was going to ever face the world again.  I wanted nothing more than to kick my uniform down the stairs, eat a bowl of Captain Crunch and sit on my beanbag in my dark closet (Yes, I actually did this.  It’s quite comforting really).   For a full year I burned with self loathing and hatred towards the Yankees – the team that saw fit to make a mockery of what was supposed to be my coming out as the next Nolan Ryan.  Revenge, as they say, would be sweet.

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When summer rolled around to my second year of Little League I  had grown from a flaccid boy of 4’8″ to a flaccid boy of  5’1″ and those 5 inches seemed  to make all the difference in my little world.   When I took the mound against the hated “Yanks” that first game, I was no longer the kid crying in the back seat. I was the phenom,  oozing in unknown confidence, and I was in top form because I had practiced every single day for six months straight.   What I learned from that game has stuck with me my entire life (even though I have tried to beat it out with a shovel).  That day I realized that I truly WAS as awesome as I thought I was.

“First Game I Won Ever (Yanks).”  That’s how I inscribed the ball on the wall plaque that I made my dad. A picture of myself with my beaming, bug-eyed face floating behind five balls, from my five wins that year, pasted below it.

NB: When I see pictures of myself at that age, I am always surprised that my mother didn’t smother me in my sleep or make me wear a paper bag over my head.  It wasn’t until later in life did I understand why people screamed and ran away from us whenever we went out as a family.

The Tongass Traders went undefeated and won the championship that year.  I still have the newspaper articles that my mom cut out and dutifully underlined every instance of my name being mentioned (who really wanted to read that other stuff about other kids anyway and this saved me from having to search the article for mentions of ME).  She was an ardent fan and the strongest (at least when it came to love for her kids), yet meekest woman I have ever known.

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In retrospect, I should have given that first game plaque to her because she probably had more to do with my wins that year than my dad (a wave of guilt just washed over me as I wrote that last sentence).  My baseball relationship with her probably illustrates more than anything  exactly what was wrong with my dad and explains why everyone who ever met my mother considered her a saint.

Dude (Yes, everyone really called her Dude though her name was Gertrude.  Ask Kelly sometime about having to call her future mother-in-law “Dude.”) was 37 when she had me and I’m sure she had no idea after pushing out her 12 pound son that eleven years later, at the age of 48, she would have to kneel behind home plate and catch his pitches because her husband demanded that she do it.

“Dude! Get out there and catch John.  He needs to practice!”

He always used the term “catch John” as if I was running away from him and mom needed to chase after me to drag me home.  Come to think of it, he used to use the same basic words with our errant dog too.  “Catch Dusty!” he would scream as the dog sprinted his way out the open door to freedom.  I’m sure there is some Freudian meaning behind this which I’m not smart enough to unwind.

I can still hear her exasperated, feeble attempts at non-compliance, but my dad was such a force of nature that no one ever really said no to him.  It breaks my heart that it seemed so normal to me at the time to have my overweight mother, a woman with knees so bad that she had a hard time getting out of a chair,  kneel down behind the plate and dig my errant pitches out of the dirt and that my dad wanted me to throw fast ball after fast ball at her so that I would be really, really good at something so meaningless (In truth, I never really threw as hard as I could.  I was an idiot, but not completely heartless).

She was a woman who was afraid of the water and couldn’t swim, was a timid driver, slaved for my father and me, and was a pack animal who carried our coats and hats when we got too warm and our packages when our arms got too tired.  Yet, because of her great love for her family  (or maybe Stockholm syndrome) she seemed to not mind any of it (even catching).  “Greater love hath no mother than this.” In short, she was a saint and we were, well, let’s just say less than saints.  God has a special place in heaven reserved just for her.

It’s interesting to me that so many of my best games were against the Yanks and almost all of the balls I pulled out of the storage box were in some way related to that team.  I went on to play baseball through junior high and high school, Babe Ruth, Senior League and American Legion.  I played in Ketchikan, Anchorage, Fall River Mills, Redding, and Lewiston and in many other towns both far and away.  I even played a bit of small time college ball.  I played close to fifteen years total, and never, in any of the years after that 2nd year of Little League did I ever put the name of the pitcher I hit a home-run off of  on the ball, but my hatred of that team ran so deep that it seemed fitting to forever brand those two guys for no other reason than that they played for the Yankees.

NB:  If you are wondering if anything good ever came of my time on the mound,  I would say yes.  God used my time in baseball to open my eyes to Him – but that’s another story.

This box of balls has been with me for almost 40 years and now it’s time to let them go.  These baseballs are not me.  Christian and Allison have taken a few.  I asked Wesley if he wanted any and he replied in a text “I do not.”  and Molly just wrinkled her nose and said something like “Eww.”  The rest of them are going to the dog… literally.

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