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I Fish! Dr. Marvin, I Fish! I’m a Fisherman!

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The boy in the boat

A little bead of wetness clung to the end of my dad’s nose like a drip of golden honey – only it wasn’t honey.   Light refracted through it giving it the look of a droopy diamond as we sat under the canopy of our Glasply in the bitter cold sunlight and watched the end of our poles drag herring through the black water out by the old Ketchikan pulp mill.

I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.  The tension was killing me.  It felt like the time I watched my great aunt Hazel smoke a cigarette down to the filter without flicking the ash.  No matter how many times she brought the gasper to her lips, completely covering the filter with old woman lipstick, the ash valiantly held forth.  When she finally flicked the ash into the tray and blew the last remnants from her lungs, I breathed a second-hand-smoke sigh of relief.

Fishing for King Salmon has been described as hours and hours of boredom interspersed with moments of sheer terror, but I think this is a gross overstatement.  It wasn’t as if we were harpooning whales from a kayak.   We put little fish onto a little hook to catch bigger fish.  I guess if our big fish got eaten by a bigger fish, like, say a Killer Whale, that would be terrifying, but sitting in a boat, eating Snack Pack pudding and Zots and reeling in a fish now and then wasn’t terrifying – it was actually, a little slice of heaven.

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Dick and Peggy and bait

My sister, Betty, hated fishing almost as as much as I loved it.    The problem with fishing was that it required her to spend hour after hour with my dad in a small boat.  It’s also a lot more fun if you actually catch fish, and, no matter how much she tried, my sister couldn’t catch fish.  I  would reel in three fish from the starboard side of the boat and dad would make us switch sides.  Then I would catch two from the port side and we would switch back.  Then we would switch poles and switch lures, but none of it helped.   If Ketchikan had had a county fair, I would have come home with ten goldfish and she would have had a bag of wax lips.   As I got older I realized there were other reasons Betty dutifully sat on her side of the boat catching nothing: chocolate bars.  The little bar of Hershey goodness was enough to keep her coming –  that is, until she realized she could stay home, with a good book, and eat the bars in complete comfort.

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Mom and Dad and BIL Pat

My mom, on the other hand, liked to go fishing, but I never once saw her reel in a fish.  She hooked hundreds, but as soon as dad realized that she had a fish on he would take the rod from her.  Exasperated, once again, she would say, “Earl!” and then go back and make sure Betty had enough chocolate bars.   It seemed her only jobs aboard the boat was to hold the pole until dad took it away from her, dole out chocolate and hold my belt loop when I needed to pee over the edge of the boat.

“Dad,”  I said after watching the drip roll back and forth with the rise and fall of the boat for what seemed like hours.  “You’ve got a drip of snot on your nose.”  I reached my finger up to my nose to show him where.   In an instant his tongue came out and the drip vanished like a chameleon catching a fly.  In that moment I felt my personal space bubble expand to exclude hugs from my dad and I also felt the urgent need to wash my mouth out with soap.

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Dad and his best friend Clarence

The Clearwater River is about as far away from Ketchikan as it is from New York City, but as I sat in the cold metal drift boat hooking plugs to snap swivels and arranging my gear for the day, I had a strange feeling like I had done it my entire life.  I blew on my fingers to get my 50 year old circulation going, but I felt 12 again.

I moved to Idaho when I was in my third year of college and never had the desire to fish.   I went once with my roommate and that evening he went on and on about the 13 inch trout he had caught that day.  After about ten minutes of his diatribe, I told him that in Alaska we used fish like the one he caught for bait.  I’m sure it was a nice fish, as far as trout fishing goes, but I could not see the enjoyment in reeling in a fish the size of a woman’s slipper.

Little did I know that only an hour away flowed a river of milk and honey, bursting to the banks with fish – real fish.  Fish that a man could be proud of.  Fish that broke the water when you hooked them and danced and flailed in the air trying to spit your hook.  Fish that battled you and fought you and tired you and tested you and needed to be knocked out with a stick when you got them in the boat so they wouldn’t damage anything.  Fish that bled on you and that you had to strain to hold as someone took your picture.  These were fish you hung on the wall.

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Freaking wild Steelhead!

It only took 30 years for me to discover it, but less than an hour to fall in love.  The Clearwater isn’t a misnomer.  It’s big and wide and clear as air.  It’s old and thinning in places where you need to lift your feet and hold your breath as you float over it so you don’t scrape the bottom, but deep and dark in other places with channels and holes that hide big fish that strike out of anger instead of hunger.  Angry fish, who knew?

“Keep your tip up!  Don’t loose it!  Let it run!  Check your drag!  Don’t give it slack!”   Every new fisherman gets on the job training.  I knew these words by heart and smiled warmly when I heard them.  When your body reacts independently of your mind and heart you have become, if not an expert, at least very comfortable and in tune with what you’re doing.  I hadn’t caught and landed a really big fish in 30 years, but holding the pole as the fish tried to rip it from my fingers felt natural and homey like wearing an old baseball glove or a favorite hat.  I felt relaxed and in charge.  The fish didn’t stand a chance.

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Dave’s lunker.

Catch and release is like dating in highschool.  You chase, you catch, you have a short relationship, then you release.    The hook fell out as the Steelhead flailed in the net.  I reached carefully in and grasped the fish by the tail and throat and lifted it up for its photographic debut.  He smiled and I smiled.   He was beautiful and bright, a wide band of color running down both flanks.  I knelt by the stern and carefully lowered him into the water to let the oxygen flow through his gills and bring him out of his stupor.  After a few moments of lolling from side to side his wits came to him and he fought out of my grasp, powering back into the depths.

The yuppie with the Spey Rod and the Orvis fly vest looked on with disdain as Dave and I thrashed around in the drift boat like a couple of school kids, hollering and high fiving like we had just won the lottery, which in a way, I felt  like I had.  I knew in that moment that I would be buying walnuts for Dream Crusher at Costco (you’ll have to ask her about this) and getting a boat.

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Man, I was unattractive, but boy could I catch fish. Dream Crusher and me before we were married. She only agreed to marry me AFTER I caught these beauties.

When the poles were once again dancing above the water,  Dave touched his nose and nodded in a way that confirmed, without actually saying anything, that I had a bit of snot dew clinging to the end of my nose.  Without thinking, my tongue shot out and firmly lodged into the corner of my mouth as I searched my pockets for a Kleenex.  I blew my nose and as I put the tissue away I thought to myself that maybe I was not my father’s son after all.

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The Clearwater and Dave.

 

Four Days Shy of 67 Mother’s Days

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January 31, 1926 – May 7, 2014

Her children rise and call her blessed.

My mom passed away just four days shy of her 67th Mother’s Day.  She was 88 and she was a saint.  If you have read any of my stories about my dad, you will know that no truer words were ever spoken.

It might seem odd, but I like to read obituaries.  They are sobering and give one perspective on how tenuous life really is.  Rarely are they ever completely truthful or give the entire story about what kind of person the deceased really was.  In every obituary the deceased family member was loved by everyone, loved life, always had a ready smile and never got angry.  Invariably, the person will be missed by every single person who knew him or her.   It’s just what you do when you remember someone.  You accentuate the best and forget the rest.  It’s a delicate balance and absolutely to be expected.   However, there is no delicate balance with my mom.  This is the honest truth – she was a saint.

She lived the last years of her life in a community of retired people (the last eight years in a nursing home) and outlived most of them.  Few of her friends are left to remember her.  But, her kids remember.

I would like you to meet my mom.

Gertrude Lorraine Bentley was born in 1926.  I don’t know much about her life because she never really talked about it, and I never asked, but what I’ve pieced together is that she was born into a migrant farm family that moved west during the Depression.  They were a family of dusty, fruit-pickers out of The Grapes of Wrath.  Her home life wasn’t ideal: her father drank and her mother slept at a friend’s house because of it.

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Mom and Dad and my brother Dick

Mom was a teenager when she and Dad met.   They were polar opposites and  I can only assume that he swept her off her feet with his enormous personality.  He must have seemed like the brass ring in an otherwise mundane merry-go-round. By the time I heard the stories of my dad getting into knife fights and brawls at bars with his then pregnant wife (my mother) in the fray, I couldn’t imagine it.  This woman with graying hair, who loved nothing more than to sit and read James Herriot novels and drink coffee or play endless games of cribbage with her son, didn’t seem capable of wanting to smoke cigarettes, while sitting in a bar watching her husband fight.  All I can imagine is that he must have seemed like an amusement ride compared to the life she previously led.  She must have seemed like a breath of fresh air to my dad.

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Mom and me.

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Mom, with her mom, and my sibling before I was born

I met her when she was 38.  I had just been born and from everything I pieced together later in life, I was a huge accident.  But in her mind, I was not a mistake.  She told me one time that even though Dad was really, really mad about her being pregnant (why he would be mad when he had a part in the process is beyond me) her arms ached to hold me.  It truly is all any child can ask of a mother – to be loved so much that her arms ached if you weren’t in them.

I remember bits and pieces of my childhood.  I remember helping her make cookies.  I remember Swedish pancakes with powdered sugar and lemon juice squeezed out of a plastic lemon.  I remember one-eyed Egyptian eggs.  I remember sitting with her in a rocker.  I remember the squeaky sound of her cleaning our huge picture windows and walking up and down Madison Avenue with her lifting my arm up so I wouldn’t trip going over the curb.  I can only see dimly the moments of her caring for my needs, but I am left with a vivid and overwhelming sense, like a technicolor hand-crocheted afghan, of how much she liked me.

Most kids know that their parents love them.  It is an entirely different thing to know that your parents like you.  I know that my mom liked me.  This is especially telling because in my mind I wasn’t a particularly likeable kid.  What an amazing thing for me to come home from school knowing that even though I may have had a really, really bad day, there was someone at home who couldn’t wait to see me and actually liked being around me.  She was my refuge and there is no greater blessing than that for a kid.

There are life lessons to be learned from my mother if we are wise enough to listen.  She never read any books on how to raise children.  She was permissive in her parenting, she never physically disciplined me, she was a good cook, but still allowed me to eat all the things that weren’t good for me, and she was virtually incapable of helping me or my siblings get through those awkward years where you don’t know why your feet are suddenly huge or why funny bumps are breaking out all over your face.  But, the one thing she was capable of doing she did in spades – she loved us.  Her love seemed to erase all the things she wasn’t able to do otherwise and it had a profound impact on all of us.  Her children have risen up because of it and called her blessed.

I never heard a single complaint about having to take care of any of us, and, in all my years, I never heard her say a harsh thing about me or any of my siblings.  She just didn’t have it in her.  She built up her children and never tore them down. She worked tirelessly to make sure we were well fed and clothed and had what we needed.

Mom was happy being at home.  Dad wasn’t.  He always wanted to be doing something.  She wasn’t particularly fond of going places, but she went.  If we picnicked, she packed, cooked and cleaned up when we got home.  If we fished, she processed the fish.  If we clammed, she cleaned them all.  If we crabbed, she cooked them.  She held our coats when we got hot and our shopping bags if we didn’t want carry them. There were times she was so overloaded that she looked like a Sherpa going up Mount Everest.  She bandaged my cuts and washed my wounds. She watched over the treasures that I found on the beach so no one would take them.  I took great advantage of her kindness, but that was Mom.  She gave and gave, but never required anything in return.  She was a saint.

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Yes, that’s a football. Yes, I did share my sister’s room for years.

She spent her entire life putting her children first.  Her arms ached to hold me as a baby, but her arms ached to hold all her kids.  All of her children have the same sense of kindness and affection towards her that was gained when she rocked us to sleep as children or read to us when she put us to bed.  She wasn’t the smartest or the prettiest (though she was both smart and pretty), but she loved us unconditionally.  This love kept me from doing some really stupid things as I grew up.  In my world, the worst thing I could do was hurt my mom and the first thought that came into my head when I was tempted to do something stupid was, how will this make mom feel?  I feared disobeying my dad.  I felt self-loathing when I did something to hurt my mom.

She only raised her hand against me one time.  I don’t remember the exact circumstance, but to have done something bad enough to bring her to violence against one of her children, it must have been something really, really irritating.  She swatted me on my fully clothed back end as I ran by her and I cried.  It did not hurt even a single bit, but knowing that I had done something to her that made her get angry at me was enough to break me down.  In my world it was a turning point and it never happened again.

Some might say that she was living vicariously through her children and I wouldn’t be surprised if she was (living with Earl made us all want to live a different life somehow), but mostly she wanted to see her children happy.  She didn’t have much power because of my dad, but what power she did have – the power to love us – she used to great advantage in our lives.

There are turning points in a family’s history that mark a drastic change in that family.  Mom was that turning point in our family. In fact, because of her, our family tree grew an entirely new branch.   Most of my dad’s relatives were cut from a different mold and, how do I say this delicately, a bit rougher around the edges.  Had we been left alone with Dad, or Dad and the kind of woman that notoriously marry men like my dad, I know things probably would have turned out markedly different in all of our lives – think orange jumpsuits and not being able to vote.  Mom saved us in so many ways.

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Allison helping grandma

When I got married and had kids of my own I realized exactly how difficult it is to be kind and patient all the time (let me say impossible) and I always marveled at how easy my mother made it seem.  All my kids got to know their Grandma Dudie, but my boys got to know her the best.  She would sit for hours with them playing checkers or cards or listening to them tell stories or reading them books.   I could only take a few minutes of any of this, but she was content to just sit and be with them.  My girls didn’t get as many quality years with her before Alzheimer’s took her mind, but she loved them like she loved me even in her affliction.  I know her arms ached for them, too.

As we all got older, the times together as a family became less frequent, but when we were together Mom was still the buffer.  Dad would be unreasonable and demanding and she would deal with him and then come back to the game we were playing at the dining room table.  I can still see her in my mind laughing uncontrollably over some silly inside joke.  It was a constant goal to get mom going and when she did, we all laughed until we couldn’t breathe.  These were the best of times and the worst of times.

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Wesley getting some alone time with his Grandma Dudie

Even as Alzheimer’s took her mind from her, she was still sweet and she was still the buffer that kept us from the full force of Dad.  She wasn’t quite as sweet to him as she used to be and was finally able to stand up for herself (we were all secretly a bit happy about this) as the filters dropped from her mind.  But to her kids, she was still the same.  Even though she forgot things and asked the same questions over and over, her love for us still shone in her eyes and to the very end she was still one of the nicest people any of us had ever known.

Goodbye was always hard on Mom

Goodbye was always hard on Mom (and Christian always got teary)

Dad died three years ago and there was a huge sigh of relief from his kids.  I know that’s a terrible thing to say, but he was a trial and when Mom went to the nursing home eight years ago, the buffer was gone and we got the unfiltered, crack cocaine version of Dad.  Alzheimer’s is a terrible thing. It was made even more terrible for us because it took the parent that we all wanted to have around longer and sidestepped the one that made life difficult. The one who wanted nothing more than to sit and enjoy her children was taken away far too early.

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Still beautiful

It’s sad, but there it is.  Now she has passed.  As we drove to be with her during her last moments I wondered what one was supposed to do when sitting with a dying parent.  I now have a role model to emulate. My sister Betty was by her side and did the most beautiful thing.  She sat next to her, held her hand and talked about what a great mother she was and spoke the names of her kids and grandkids as she breathed her last.  What was most important to my mom in life was whispered in her ear at her death.  I am thankful that she was my mom and sad that her life is over, but at the same time I am happy and relieved for her to finally be free.  Her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are her legacy.  Well done, Mom.

 

The Deep Things of Dog

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Sweet, stinky cheese, dog.

In our 25 years of marriage, my wife and I have brought into our home a total of three dogs, two cats, five bunnies, one bird, twelve chickens, hundreds of insects, dozens of fish, and none of them could ever be considered even remotely attached to my wife (except for the praying mantis that landed on her pregnant belly and wouldn’t let go).  She has this anti-animal thing going on that manifests itself in a mutual animosity.  She barely tolerates our pets and they avoid her like she’s a corpse.

Her aversion has a specific, genetic component, just like blonde hair and blue eyes.  She was born into it.  I know this because I have it on good authority that her mother used to “accidentally” let the new dog out of the house without telling anyone, in hopes that it would R-U-N-N-O-F-T.  D.C. has never just let an animal free to wander the barren land, but she has made it very clear when her tolerance for a specific animal has run its course.

I, on the other hand, grew up with parents that loved dogs and I knew that my own family would one day have a dog.  But, before you start thinking that my kids and I are shoe-ins for the SPCA caring members of the year award, I need to confess that only four of the animals ever stuck… and those just barely.  The countless others were either carted off to “the farm,” given away to unsuspecting friends, sold on Craigslist, let loose or left in the freezer to die (the insects, not the cats).

It turns out that the reason I loved animals growing up is because I never had to actually deal with the animals, other than show them the occasional attention.  My parents fed, housed, walked, washed, cleaned, doctored and scooped.  They did everything nasty and I got all the good parts.

Fast forward to me being a parent and the poo was on the other foot, so to speak. I had to do it all.  Since D.C. hated animals and made it perfectly clear that she would have nothing to do with any animal that I brought into the house, the nastiness was left up to me to take care of.  Anyone who knows me knows that I hate nastiness.

I blame the kids.  It always started with an oath,  a promise made in all sincerity.  “We solemnly swear to feed and clean up after the X” (insert animal type here).   All I can say is that I must have had Alzheimer’s from a very early age because my short term memory is only filled with good animal memories and kept promises and I am, somehow, always surprised at how quickly the shine wears off of a new pet.  At the end of two months I usually had to step in with my Hazmat suit and pressure washer just to free the animal from its tightly packed excrement apartment.  This usually led to the animal living out the rest of its life on the “farm.”

Lather, rinse, repeat.

There are currently 108 official reasons why X animal didn’t get proper care, but that number is added to daily.  Mostly, I stand in awe at the length to which my kids would go in order to not have to care for an animal.  It would have been easier and quicker just to feed the stupid pet.  I’m also an enabler which doesn’t help.   There are self help groups I should be attending.

Since it turned out that we weren’t really pet people, the continuous circulation of animals through the house always seemed to baffle Dream Crusher.  In fact, the origination of my wife’s nickname came about because of her innate ability to cut off at the pass any request to bring an animal into the home.  The first word out of her mouth when the kids got that look in their eyes and asked for, say, a rat or a snake, was always “no.” The first word out of my mouth was always “sure.”  The NEXT words out of my wife’s mouth can’t be printed here.

I’m not saying that she wasn’t always right.  She was spot on about why we shouldn’t have had that particular type of animal in the house, or about the kids not taking care of X animal, and that I would eventually end up doing the dirty work myself.  She was always right.  It’s those darn puppy eyes that get me every time (the kids’ I mean).  I just have a really hard time saying no.

I may have never said no, but I wasn’t the kind of husband that would add another member to his household without first discussing it with his better half.   D.C. and I always discussed her minuses and my pluses before I brought our “next trip to the farm” home.  I credit her levelheadedness with keeping a good many bad ideas out of the house – like the de-scented skunk.

“Honey, the kids really want a dog.”  I brought this up at breakfast.

“No.”  She said this without looking up from her book.

“I think it would be good for them.  It would teach some responsibility. Besides, I had a dog growing up.”

“No.”

“Honey, think how fun it would be.  Think how much they would love a dog.”

“You’re crazy.  Why would we need another pet?”  She had set her book down by this point and was staring me directly in the eyes.  “We have four kids, for goodness sake!”

“It would be great.”

“No way.  Not a chance.”

“Please.”

“We already tried a dog.”

“But, that was a stupid dog.  This would be a better dog.”

(Our first dog Abby had to go for a long visit to the farm.  In hindsight the kids were way too young for an aggressive, but really cute lab/hyena cross that left me bleeding on so many occasions that I seriously got lightheaded from blood loss. When the boys and I and D.C. drove off, leaving Abby at the friends who had agreed to take her, the kids never noticed that she was missing until a week later.  It hadn’t really occured to them that they no longer had to hold their toys and food above their heads and sprint from room to room or stand on a chair when the dog was around, but Kelly and I noticed a change right away.  It was like we had been miraculously cured of leprosy and life seemed fluffy and smooth once again.)

“No way.  No more dogs.”

“Okay. Fine.” I sulked and continued eating my Cornflakes.

The next day I brought home Annie.

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Annie, whom one of the kids wanted to name Darth Vader,  grew up to be a 90 pound Yellow Lab, but when I picked her up from the breeder she was the cutest, fluffiest, ball of yellow excitement on the planet.  She was perfect, all paws and pudge, with a ridge of hair that rain down her nose like a long cowlick.  I wanted to name her “Ridgy.”  NB: The one concession was that D.C. got to name the dog.  Annie was her choice.

When I got home, the boys, who were always up for an experiment, immediately cornered Clark, our tabby, and introduced him to Annie.  The result was spectacular in the minds of the kids and less than stellar for the animals.  The cat was incensed. The dog was wounded.  It was the beginning of a great, long lasting friendship.

Copy of annie louis sitting

D.C. was less than happy with me and never really warmed up to Annie.  At first, when she had that new puppy smell (like freshly washed leather shoes),  I would put her in D.C.’s lap and she tolerated her just fine, but when she started to get into the teenage years (Annie, not D.C.) and lost the cuteness and started secreting that stinky, oily liquid that coats the fur of all Labs, any hint of emotional attachment flamed into resentment almost overnight.

She really was stinky.  We could have attached an oil rig to that dog and lived off  the oil she produced.  It got so bad that the spot on the linoleum near the backdoor where she slept turned from a bright white to a burnt orange and no amount of scrubbing would remove the stain.

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But it’s not like we could bathe her.  She was 90 pounds and had rancid fur that, like Gore-Tex, had been specifically engineered to repel water.  Not bathing was fine with Annie because she hated water.  It seemed ridiculous to me that an animal so well suited to the water hated getting wet.  It was a bad combination of weight, stink and aversion.  In the end we tied her up in the backyard and hosed off the big chunks and called it good.

As Annie got older it became apparent that we might have bitten off more than we were willing to swallow.  Not only did this 90 pound sweet beast of a dog emanate an awful stench that kept us from snuggling with her, her own fur didn’t want to be attached to her either.  The sheer amount of rancid hair she sloughed off on a weekly basis was overwhelming.  It got so bad that the floor in our basement looked like it had a layer of fog on it, only it wasn’t fog, it was fur.  As you walked through the “fog” it would swirl and tumble around you like weeds tumbling along the desert.

Dogs need to come with warning labels because within the first year of her life we discovered that she had magical intestines, but not magical in a good way.  Annie was a veritable poop factory.  She could eat and excrete like no dog I have ever met.  If we fed her a cup of dog food, three cups of NOT dog food would come shooting out the other end.  She averaged a three to one ratio her entire life.

No matter what she ate it came out three times as big at the other end and what she ate was the stuff of legend.  Her appetite knew no limit.  It was like the voice in her head never spoke up and said, “Okay.  Step away from the bowl.  You are at capacity.”  She red-lined her intestinal system way too often.

It was her propensity to eat that caused D.C. to reach out and touch Annie, on purpose, for the first and only time and did she ever touch her.  It was Annie’s first Thanksgiving and, wanting to participate in the festivities, she quietly pulled the turkey carcass out of the garbage and proceeded to drag it and fling it around the kitchen and dining room like it was a play toy.

There were turkey parts stuck to the ceiling, the wall, and we even found pieces years later when we moved the piano.  It was at that very moment when D.C. touched Annie.  There was so much touching going on at that point that I had to rescue the petrified animal by letting her escape out the back door.  Annie was so afraid of Turkey after that incident that we had to switch her from turkey to lamb flavored dog food to keep her from losing weight.

Her eating had nearly killed her a number of times, so I wasn’t too surprised to find her at the back door a few years later dreadfully ill.  I was sure that she had eaten poison and realized that her gluttony might have finally done her in.   I felt awful for her and when I opened the back door her head hung low and she barely made it to her bed before she flopped down, with a sigh, and lay deathly still.  Her stomach was distended and tight like she was in the throws of labor and drool was forming at her lips.  Rat poison was what I suspected.  I put a bowl of water next to her and left her for the night, fully expecting to have to bury her the next day.

I was awakened by Christian in the early hours of the morning.

“Um, Dad, Annie threw up.”

I was still groggy.   “Can you deal with it son?”

“Um, I think you should come see this.  I don’t think I can do it.”  I was fully awake now and quickly pulled on my pants and made my way downstairs expecting the worst.  What met me wasn’t a dead dog; it was the largest vomit pile I have ever encountered.  It was as big around as a garbage can lid and a full three inches thick.  It was like an enormous oatmeal raisin cookie.  I looked over at Annie.  She thumped her tail cheerfully against the wall obviously proud of the gift she had deposited onto our new carpet.

It is completely accurate to say that the pile in front of me was like an oatmeal raisin cookie because it was nothing but a huge pile of bile and horse feed.  The stupid animal had gotten into the molasses and oats that we fed the horses and had gorged herself to the edge of the abyss.  I had to use the snow shovel to scrape the epic vomit pile off the carpet.

I think this is the only picture of her wet.  I think I threw her in.

I think this is the only picture of her wet. I had to throw her in.

The Christmas Tree From the Bad Place Part Fin

img086I come by my issues legitimately.

The first Christmas DC and I enjoyed together was nothing but sweetness… except for the Christmas tree  (this yuletide thorn has festered just under the skin from the first Christmas to the last).  God had just brought us through a very difficult health issue and we had our new son, Wesley, to enjoy.  I was overwhelmed by the Lord’s kindness and was feeling well enough to get our tree.  I bought a very respectable fir of some kind, brought it home and dragged it through the doorway.  That’s when our tree issues began.

“Which corner do you want to put it in?” I innocently asked.

“I don’t want it in the corner, I want it in front of the window,” she responded. I laughed a superior little snort of a laugh.

“We can’t put it in front of the window.  It HAS to go in a corner.”  I pointed to the corner that I thought would work well.   “That corner is perfect.”  I started dragging it to the spot.

“It has to go in the corner,”  I grunted as I leaned it against the wall.  I turned to her.  It was a teachable moment.  “If you don’t put it in the corner you won’t have anywhere to tie the strings.”

“Umm.  What strings?” she asked.

I rolled my eyes.  “The strings that you have to tie around the trunk to keep it upright.  Without strings it will fall over.”

She picked up the newly purchased tree stand and pointed at it with just a hint of annoyance.  “Let me introduce you to the tree stand…  John, this is the tree stand.   Tree stand, this is my stupid husband.  They call it a STAND for a reason!”  She ran her hand underneath the words “tree stand” like Carol Merill on Let’s Make a Deal.

I was so completely exasperated with “this woman that Thou hast given me”  (a woman who obviously knew nothing of trees or stands) that I wrenched the stand from her hands, tore it open, slammed it on to the bottom of the tree and set the entire thing upright.

“Make yourself useful and hold the tree for a second.”  It was not the kindest way to speak to the mother of my child.  I crawled underneath the tree while she held it.  I tightened the screws with a smug superiority like I was just about to prove to her and to the entire world that tree stands are a farce.

“Okay, now let go and watch what happens,” I said with as much practiced patience as I could muster.  I braced myself to be crushed by the weight of the tree, but nothing happened.

“I said to let go.”  She knelt down from across the room so she could see me under the tree and waved at me.

I reached up surreptitiously and pushed on the trunk.  It swayed a little, then firmly twanged back into place.   I shook it like I was killing a chicken.   I was dumfounded.  It didn’t fall over.  The world as I had known it my entire life shifted on its axis.  Everyone knows that you have to secure your Christmas tree to the wall.

In case you were wondering, I still look exactly like this only flabbier.

Why I was decorating the tree in my underwear is still a mystery to me.  Also, in case you were wondering, I still look exactly like this only flabbier.

Growing up our trees were never plastic, but they were always fake.  Dad loved big, bulky, bulbous trees that looked like they were frozen in time, mid-explosion by high speed photography and that kind of tree wasn’t to be had in our forest – or anywhere on the planet – so Earl improvised.

Using an electric drill and a generous pocketful of screws and twine, Dad would combine the best parts of two or three trees into one.  He would chainsaw one side of the donor tree, press it against the trunk of the regular tree and then bind them together with the twine and a few carefully placed screws.  If there were any bare spots left, holes would be drilled and extra branches would be “grafted” in and then tied to the upper branch with green yarn to keep it from sagging like old skin.

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After everything was in place and the trunk had been braced with 2x4s, Dad would pound two 16 penny nails into the wall, bend them over a bit and then lash the tree to them.  It always felt a bit dangerous to me, like the tree would somehow break its bonds and hunt me while I was sleeping, chanting, “I am not an animal, I am a human being!”

To say that Earl was not a perfectionist is a bit of an understatement.  He was the original Mr. 90 percent and “good enough” was his go-to phrase.  He used to tell the story of cutting stringers for the stairs he was building in our new house.  Every night he would try and fail and then bring the scraps out into the yard and burn them so no one could see his mistakes.  He was not a perfectionist, but he was way too proud to let people see his imperfection.  I think that’s the reason we covered every inch of our tree with garland and tinsel so no one could tell what he had done.

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But the tinsel and garland was no ordinary Mylar affair.  When I was young, tinsel and garland were made from glorious strands of pure molten lead.  Feathery strands of glittery lead that had the heft of a fishing weight and the aerodynamics of a jelly fish.  I was always encouraged to lay them on a few strands at a time, but could never manage it.  The real fun was to wad it up in a ball, throw it as high as you could to bounce it off the ceiling and watch it separate like a bottle rocket and fall in heavy clumps all over the branches.  They were supposed to look like icicles, but they looked more like moldy birds’ nests.  The gray lead marks were still on the ceiling when we moved.

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The lights on our tree were huge and bright and had reflectors behind them that cast a beam of light that would blind you if you stared at them too long.  You had to look at our tree out of the corner of your eye, like you would a solar eclipse, so you wouldn’t burn your retina.  Dad had to use the gas generator to power it because the rest of the lights in the house would dim every time the tree was plugged in and he was afraid it would start a fire.

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And, it was glorious.  It was like Las Vegas had come to visit for a few weeks.  Sure, the lead caused profound hearing loss and I had to compensate for the blindness in my left eye, but our tree was big and hideous and unlike any tree in the neighborhood.  It fit our family perfectly.

The Christmas Tree From the Bad Place Part 2

There was no snow this year in Bethlehem.

There was no snow this year in Bethlehem.

“Do not wrestle with the Baby Jesus!”

I’m not exactly sure when I realized that my kids had completely missed the meaning of Christmas, but I had an inkling that it had happened as I watched all four of them wrestling on the floor.  It was like the quarterback had dropped the ball – only it wasn’t a ball – it was the baby Jesus they were scrumming over.  It was a melee of screaming, crying, writhing humanity as they battled for the glory to be the one to put the Prince of Peace, the Wonderful Counselor, the baby with the upturned arms onto the waiting bed of ceramic hay.

I did what all good parents do: I took the baby away from them and gave it to the one who cried the loudest.  Molly got to do it.  It wasn’t that she deserved it, quite the opposite, but if she hadn’t been chosen she would have pitched a royal tsunami and to be perfectly honest, I was still a bit afraid of her at that time.  To keep the festive dog-pile from happening again, I wrote her name on the creche box and then explained to “all the dear children in thy tender care” that every year from now on we would each take turns putting the Savior of the World onto the manger.

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The decking of the halls always begins with the placing of the creche.  A pad of cotton is placed upon the piano top because everyone knows that it was snowy when Jesus was born.  I then put together the lean-to that Mary sits under and place it on the cotton pad.  Each child in turn then gets to choose and place each figure on the “snow.”  It goes round and round until the “Child of the Year” gets to place baby Jesus on the “hay.”

It used to be a sweet and touching tradition, but in recent years it has turned somewhat preposterous.   It seems that the ox and the ass are prone to wander into the manger where they try to eat the scarf off Mary’s head and the three wise men huddle in the corner, either throwing dice or trying to decide on which play to run next.  Joseph, stuck on the outside of the shelter and far away from his wife and son, looks disinterestedly at the camel like he wonders why it only has one hump.  Mary alone sits calmly amidst all the chaos and along with the cow, serenely looks at her baby as he lays on the manger with no blanket covering him even though the ground is covered in snow.

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Dream Crusher loves Christmas like no other holiday and wades into the fray with her ruler, slapping hands away from the scene with the practiced rhythm of one who would have been a good nun.  She quickly restores order and peace is to be had once again in Bethlehem.

There is Christmas music and it’s not tedious, but rather nice and soothing for the first few minutes.  The boxes are brought up from the storage room and D.C. takes out all the things she wants displayed this year and the kids get their ornaments out and ready to place on the tree.  Every year we give each of the kids an ornament and at this point in our lives we are awash in festive tree adornments.

When the kids were little they were always excited to decorate the tree, each placing their ornaments as high as they could reach.  When they were finished, the tree looked very bottom heavy, but it was beautiful and in their eyes it sparkled magically.  The next morning the kids would come downstairs to look at the tree and see once again where they had placed each ornament, but disappointment would quickly set in because in the middle of the night the Ornament Fairy had come and moved them uniformly around the entire tree.

“Mother! Why did you move our ornaments?!” they would whine in unison.

“Well, you didn’t put them in the right spots.  The Ornament Angel made everything perfect.  Doesn’t it look better?”

The tree from the bad place looked unlit even with every single strand of lights we owned draped loosely around it.  It was like a black hole from which light could not escape.  I am convinced that the National Weather Service noticed a distinct change in the ebb and flow of the tides because of the gravitational pull from our tree.   It took me over an hour to sling the lights around and over its carcass, but still I was forced to head to the store for more lights and even then it cast but a faint glow in the gloom of night.

This giant sequoia also ate ornaments for lunch.  There was such a gaping maw of greenery that once you put an ornament on a branch there was a chance that you would never see it again.  The Ornament Fairy didn’t stand a chance.  There were just too many bare spots and not enough ornaments to move them to.  D.C. was so distraught that she almost allowed me to put tinsel on the thing, which we all know is the cardinal sin of tree trimming.

When it was finally done everyone stood back and took a good hard look at it, but aside from the obvious bare and dark spots there was something terribly wrong.  The darn thing looked crooked.  I climbed underneath and undid the screws while the kids pushed and pulled on it, but no matter what we did it still listed to one side, like a ship taking on water.  There was nothing to do about it, but enjoy it as it was.  Not only was the tree big, it also rode the short yellow bus.

Everything was fine until we were about a week away from Christmas.  We were coping and had adjusted our routine to living with a tree.  We took turns using the one chair in the living room you could get to without crawling under the branches.  We watered it on the hour every hour for 18 hours a day because Dream Crusher demanded that it be hydrated.  She did not want this tree to dry out and spontaneously combust and blow the doors off of the house.  I think the thing actually put down tap roots and grew a few inches when it lived with us.

Moses prophesied ten plagues that would descend upon Egypt.  We experienced three of the ten, four if you include spiders.  There was so much entomological activity taking place within our tree that we were afraid the EPA would find out and declare our tree a wetland and never let us remove it.  The cobwebs hung from the chimney with care and spiders skittered around the ceiling like something out of a Steven King novel.

The gnats were so thick that a black plume arose from the tree if you brushed against it.  I got so used to swallowing the occasional gnat that I actually gained an appreciation for their taste.  The locusts didn’t swarm, but their smaller cousin, the cricket, made its presence known every hour of every day.  It got so bad that we almost killed an unblemished lamb and smeared its blood on our doorpost just to protect our firstborn.

On the second day of treemas my true love gave to me: a phone call telling me that the tree had fallen over.  I was at work, but she just wanted to let me know that water was everywhere and that she hoped the presents weren’t ruined.  There was a thick hint of sarcasm as she told me she “just wanted to let me know.”

I raced home and was able to get the tree upright and lashed to one of the ceiling beams.  That tree was going nowhere.  We filled the stand with water, but it was so dry that tree drank faster than we could keep up.  I must have put two gallons in it before I realized that the stand had cracked when the tree fell over and all of the water had spilled all over the presents again.

I may have said a bad word.

I won’t go into the gory details, but I bought a new stand, unlashed the tree and with the help of my son, a pair of 2x4s and some back strength, we lifted the tree high enough to allow Allison to crawl under and arm wrestle a new, industrial-sized stand to the bottom of it.  By this point I hated this tree more than D.C.  It was possessed.

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Christmas finally arrived.  We all crowded around the outside walls and the girls passed out the presents. As usual, there were way too many and the kids each piled them like a fortress.  We always open our presents one at a time (D.C. says it’s to make the day last) and as we went from child to child opening presents one thing became apparent.  The wrapping paper was sticking to everything.   It was like static electricity on a balloon only it wasn’t static – it was pitch. Everything underneath the radius of the branches was covered in it. The judicious watering had cause the thing to “bleed” like a stuck pig.  There were little ant hills of pitch, built drip by drip, rising from the floor like mini stalagmites.

I was done.  Christmas was dead to me and while the kids opened their presents in the dining room, I took what ornaments I could find off the tree and chainsawed the thing into tiny pieces and dragged them to the backyard.

Pitch burns really, really well.

This year’s tree.

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The Christmas Tree From the Bad Place Part 1

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We are not the Charlie Brown type

The Dream Crusher and I have been married for close to 25 years and in that time we have had our fair share of disagreements.  I hesitate to call them arguments because we’ve never really had a true “argument.”  Oh sure I’ve made her cry a few times, but it’s nothing to the overwhelming number of times she has made me cry.  If she weren’t so darn stoic I’m confident my antics would bring her to tears more often. But as it is, she usually laughs in the face of my “fury” and ends up spooning cold water onto my petty grievances and because of that (and because I’m really, really afraid of her), we get along as well as a Rabbit and an Eeyore can be expected to get along… except at Christmas

As I’ve gotten older this season of good cheer, Spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future, Black Fridays and Kings named Wenceslas just seem to irritate me more and more. When I was little Christmas was a magical time of throwing up on Christmas eve, sleepless nights,  mounds of presents and heaps of food (including one shriveled orange and six hazelnuts in the toe of my stocking so that mom could feel good about the rest of the stocking being filled with candy).  I relished calling my friends to gloat over the new Fat Track I got and to make fun of the new underwear they got.  There was always deep snow and a roaring fire and the afterglow of a binge belly filled to make up for the emptiness of the night before.

Then came adulthood and responsibility and the never ending tundra of whiteness that the singer is always dreaming about on Christmas, but doesn’t have to shovel.  It isn’t always a powdery snow that sheds so easily off the backs of excited travelers as they enter the house in their Norwegian sweaters and balaclavas.  Sometimes, most times, it’s slush and it always melts to dull brownness.  Too much money is spent on too few kids, but  everyone seems so happy because of it.  But then the GI Joe action figures are inadvertently called “dolls” by my wife and the boys refuse to play with them and the dream of my sons having the exact same magical “Kung Fu, action- gripped” childhood that I had also melts into dull browness.

It is the season where someone is always getting their wings or telling George Bailey that she’ll love him ‘til the day she dies or wondering why they have to have so many kids (in that moment I am on George’s side).   There is the ever present  BB gun with a compass in the stock and the Bumpasses’ dogs and shooting your eye out and someone is always getting their tongue stuck to a flag poles and no one ever knows where Flick is.

Cindy Lou Who is always cute (though she now plays in a punk rock band) and the Grinch’s heart is in a perpetual state of growth because Christmas isn’t about the presents, it’s about friends.  There is always a kid in the street ready to get the biggest goose in the world from the butcher shop down the street and Tiny Tim is always tiny and he always lives, but there is no mention of that other thing, the X of the season.

Washed up and drug addicted singers are constantly singing of the baby Jesus or new shoes or wanting Santa Baby to give them something expensive and Michael Jackson is always freaked out because his mom is making out with Santa next to the Christmas tree (wrap your head around that one and see if it doesn’t explain a lot of things).

The avalanche of Christmastide is continual and relentless from the day the month chimes November and doesn’t stop until I get to the point where I wish Jesus had never been born and then I realize that this season has nothing to do with Jesus and I swear that next year I  will donate all the money I would have spent on Christmas to an orphanage in Bangladesh and then I have a hot buttered rum and things somehow get better.

And there is always the ever present Christmas tree.  Some of our biggest disagreements have had to do with the Christmas tree.  The “issue” rears its ugly head the moment we all pile into the car and head out to wrangle us a Christmas tree.  For some reason, every year, Dream Crusher has this idea that our Christmas tree needs to be the size of a small topiary – just tall enough so that we can smile for the camera as we put the angel on top without standing on a chair.

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Her husband and children, who are thankfully made of sterner, Irish stock, have dreams of vast vistas of Christmas trees that need extension ladders in order to put the angel on the peak.  Since we are legion we get our way.  In Dream Crusher’s mind she’s trying to keep the leg lamp out of the window, except that our lamp is a Christmas tree with a trunk the size of an East German woman’s thigh – a thigh so massive that it needs to be tied to the beams in the living room to keep it upright.

Last year’s Christmas tree was a definite low water mark in our marriage and almost caused the cancellation of Christmas in the O’Bryan household.  Weeks before we were to get our evergreen object of worship, Dream Crusher began her annual campaign for a slightly smaller tree.  But all I heard when she brought up the Christmas tree was something on the order of blah, blah, blah tiny tree, blah, blah, blah microscopic tree.  I’m sure she had her reasons for not wanting a big tree, but I had a hard time hearing myself think with all that yakking going on.

When the time came to finally get the tree and we were pounding holes in the snow with our feet out on the tree ranch, I realized that this was one dream that wasn’t going to be crushed for we had inadvertently stumbled onto the secret steroid tree farm where all the trees were the size of Redwoods.  Kelly begged us to turn around and allow her to buy one from the tree lot.  I was having none of it.  We were on an adventure.  We were making memories.  You don’t get memories from a stinking tree lot! Besides, for some strange reason, in that expanse of sky, all of the trees looked amazingly reasonably sized.

The kids and I picked out a remarkable tree that like King Saul, stood head and shoulders above all the others.  I plopped onto my back and shimmied under the tree to get at the trunk with the saw.

“John?” D.C. asked in a quavering voice.  “Are you sure this is the tree we want? I can’t see your feet.”

It was too late.  The proverbial axe was already laid against the trunk and i was already on my back sawing like a madman.  There was a loud crack like a howitzer had gone off next to my head and the tree started to tilt.

I yelled “Timber!” but I was so muffled by the branches that I knew no one could hear me and I prayed they would run in the right direction.  When the tree crashed to the ground I felt like I had received an answer to the age old question of whether a tree makes a sound in the forest if no one is there to hear it.

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It took a good thirty minutes to drag the beast to our Subaru and then another ten to wrestle it onto the roof.  The entire body of the car sagged and moaned as the tree engulfed our tiny red Forester.  I climbed through the back and rolled down all the windows so I could lace the rope through the interior because roof rack was completely hidden and useless.  There was a small group of children that I heard ask their parents why they weren’t getting a man-sized tree like our family had.  I felt an immense sense of pride when I eased the car slowly out of the ranch, like I had just killed and skinned a moose and was bringing it home for the family to feed on all winter.  Subaru even used the picture of our tree topped Forester to demonstrate how awesome Subaru owners are (true story).

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When we got home I had everyone stand back while I cut the cords holding the tree to the car.  They loosed with a twang like a baby grand piano wire snapping.  The tree leapt from the roof like a freed criminal and took out a rose bush and a gutter downspout before it rolled to a stop next to the front porch.

Undaunted, I trimmed the excess branches off the trunk so I could attach the plastic tree stand.  It should have concerned me when I counted the tree rings and it turned out to be older than I was, but manliness is blind, and with the help of my chainsaw and some judicious trimming I was able to finally sledgehammer the stand to the end of the trunk.  The kids quickly tightened the “thumb screws”  as I leaned against it.

Everyone helped push and pull the baby Sequoia through the front door.  Everyone, that is, but Kelly. She was still lobbying (translated as beseeching ) me to take the vile creature away from her house and return it for a full refund, minus shipping and handling of course.  On we went (ignoring her pleas), sounding like a rowing crew manning the oars, chanting “pull, pull, pull.”  With each chant the tree inched closer to its final resting place, taking molding and paint along with it until with a loud whoosh the branches, trunk and all were lying on its side in the living room.

We don’t have a huge living room; it’s good sized and has vaulted ceilings, but when we wrestled the tree into a vertical position and I had tied her off on one of the overhead beams it filled the entire room – and I mean completely filled.  It was so big around that we literally could not see each other if we were standing on opposite ends of the room.  It was like a bottle brush and our living room was the bottle.

“There,” I said, as nonchalantly as possible as I stood wedged between the branches and the wall.  “Fit’s perfectly.”

Dream Crusher fought her way out of the living room like a small jungle explorer, turned and said, “Yep.  Fits just like a glove.” and then she was gone.

The look in the kids’ eyes was one of awe, sheer awe, like the entire real forest had come to our house for a sleepover.

I climbed under the tree to see if could maybe push it closer to the window in order to give us more room. It didn’t budge, but the blind did fall off the casing. Ignoring the house as if fell around my ears I pulled with the strength of Samson after his hair was cut, but my hands gave way and slipped off the trunk.  Blood flowed freely, but I couldn’t feel it because my hands were frozen.  Even though the house was set to a balmy 68 degrees, the inside of the tree it was freezing.  The stupid thing had its own micro-climate and fog was washing over me from above as the tree warmed from the outside in.

I called for my loppers and when they were firmly duct taped to my frozen hands I began working my way up the back of the tree, cutting every branch as close as I could to bare wood without losing all of the green. With one half of the tree gone it snuggled up nicely against the window.  From the living room side it was beautiful.  However, from the window side it looked like it had been dragged behind the car all the way from the tree farm.

I sat in the couch and marveled at this beauty that God had created.  Pitch and needles and discarded branches were everywhere and the living room looked like a Picasso painting, but we had our tree – the state record for that year I think.

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How a Group of 8th Graders Killed Dracula

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Wax lips, Pixie Stix & Zots

Even though my daughters stand over 5’9”  they have both been Chunky Little Princesses more than once in their lives.  They really had no choice in the matter.  If they wanted the candy – they had to put on the snow suit.  I don’t know whose idea it was to celebrate Halloween on the last day in October, but in the northern climes hypothermia sets in pretty quickly when you dress up as Michael Phelps and we tend to see more werewolves and Sasquatches than cheerleaders and belly dancers on All Hallows Eve.

Halloween always began with pleadings and tears and ended with our kids begging us not have to wear coats or snow suits with their costumes.  But there was no way on this frozen planet that we were going to let the girls traipse through the streets in nothing but a Little Mermaid costume in the middle of winter begging for candy door to door.  So every Halloween, starting when they were old enough to have an opinion,  we would put them in their snow suits and then pour them, kicking and screaming, into their Littlest Princess dresses, instantly transforming them from cute little Disney princesses into Japanese nuclear accident versions that might date Ultraman.

People would open the door and my girls would yell trick-or-treat and the people would look at them and say, “Oh, what cute little sumo wrestlers.”  The girls would quickly say “princesses!” and then turn their sour faces to Kelly and me as if to say, “I told you so,” and then try to stomp in exasperation, but not be able to because they couldn’t lift their legs high enough in their snow boots.

My boys fared no better when it came to Halloween.  For three years in a row Kelly dressed them in the cutest little clown outfits you have ever seen (outfits big enough to fit over winter coats mind you), with little clown hats and little red noses.  Of course, she had made these costumes and love, love, loved to see the boys all dressed up.  She might even have pinched their cheeks more than once.

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This mockery of all that is decent came to an early demise the moment Wesley, who was just at the age of cognitive reasoning, saw his best friend dressed as an Army man.  Christian was too busy stuffing M&Ms and Tootsie Rolls into his face as fast as he could to care, but the indignation that lit Wesley’s face when he realized exactly what his mother had been putting him through all these years could have been cut with a Ka-Bar fighting knife.   The rest of the evening he was the spitting image of the clown from IT.

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The next year when she tried coax him into the clown costume, no amount of money or promises of a new puppy could get him into the clown spirit.  He dug his heels in and flatly refused, going boneless as she tried to force his body into the suit. I finally had to step in with the camo face paint and a black headband to make things right.

I used to love Halloween when I was a kid and considered it the third high holy day of the year, with Christmas and my own birthday being the first and second.  There was some debate amongst my friends as to whether Easter should be considered the third of the trivium, but only amongst those who got presents on Easter and weren’t required to eat a hard boiled egg (my mom used all kinds of tactics to get rid of the six dozen she had made and hid for me) each time you wanted to have a piece of candy.

Since my mom was an excellent seamstress she always made my costumes and they were always amazingly awesome and authentic.   Being from Alaska, I’m not sure I should have liked getting dressed up so much, but I loved it and especially the accolades I received from my mom when I put her costumes on.  Oh vanity, vanity.  You played me false.

One special year she made me a cape out of black velvet and red silk (so my skin wouldn’t chafe) and bought me a pair of black knit pants.  It was a phenomenal  costume and made me feel more like Dracula probably than Dracula himself.  I ran around the house, raising myself high on my toes and stretching my arms out like a gangly, oversized, slightly flaccid bat and then pretended to pounce on the unsuspecting living, making them the unsuspecting living dead.  I slunk around with the cape pulled up to my eyes and darted furtively from corner to corner looking for my next victim.  This is normal imagination for a boy of six.  I was 13.

My mother was too busy pretending to be scared of her little “Dracula” to stop long enough to consider that maybe my actions weren’t appropriate for a boy my age.  Why she didn’t slap me upside the head and give me the what-for is beyond me, but since she made the costume, I’m sure she didn’t want to see it go to waste.

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Had my dad seen me he would have gone into an apoplectic fit, with the vein in his eye bursting again, giving him that deranged and demented look like the time my sister had used her curling iron to give my hair some bounce.  “You look like a girl for God’s sake!” he bellowed as he made me wash out my greasy locks (I think I only showered once a week back then).  I’m sure he would have been beside himself if he had seen me, but he was either at work or at one of the many different lodges (Moose, Elks, Masonic) or starting a fight with someone.

By the time it was dark I was dressed for action.   My face was a pasty, powdery white, a slightly whiter shade than normal and I had lipstick blood dripping from both corners of my mouth.   My hair was slicked back revealing a hairline that most adult men would have hidden underneath a comb-over and when the plastic vampire teeth were inserted, I was the spitting image of a 13 year old trying to pretend he was Dracula.  Awesome or awful is probably a matter of opinion, but in my mind I was pretty awesome.

 “Just one more house” had been my mantra with Butchie, my best friend at the time, all evening.  We had been out for three hours and he had been pushing to head home for the last 30 minutes. But the lure of free candy and the mystery of what I would get next drove me on with a passion that only candy or caffeine can cause.  Oh, that I would have listened to him, because that was the night fate decided that is was time for him and me to meet.

The take, up until the blue house, had been magnificent.  I had already thrown the apples and popcorn balls deep into the woods (my dad wouldn’t have let me eat them anyway because the apples always had razor blades in them and all popcorn balls had been laced with dope by the hippies), but my bag was still crammed full with countless gigantic, medium and small sized candy bars and the sheer number of wax lips and wax straws I had in the bag would keep me busy for weeks.   The sorting that evening was going to be epic.

I can remember with absolute clarity walking through the gate of the white picket fence and the feel of the wood on my knuckles as I knocked on the door of the blue house.  It slid open silently; the soft yellow glow of shaded lamps and muffled chatter met me as it did.

It’s cliché to say that time seemed to slow down, but time seemed to slow down.  It was like a small hole in the continuum of my happiness had been sliced open and my soul was slowly being sucked out of it.  My voice sounded odd and distant and slow and vaguely not mine,  like I was shouting through a pool of thick molasses as I delivered my standard line of “trick-or-treat” in my best Transylvanian accent.  The word “treat” trailed away as if my lungs had just collapsed and didn’t have enough air to finish the word.

I stood, naked to the world, so to speak, as  I realized that the room was full of my 8th grade classmates having an actual party.  Every single one of their eyes locked onto mine and the room became still and silent.  I realized in that moment that not one of them had a costume on, but I did.  I knew without having to be told that they were “in” and I was the teenager, three years away from driving, five years away from being an adult, standing in the doorway dressed in a Dracula costume that my mom had made.

It was like the dawn of morning had found Dracula standing in a field and he and I were shriveling into dust and being blown away on the wind.  The punch to my heart was palpable.   I was drowning in an unfamiliar sea and had to run, but couldn’t.  I was frozen.   I saw the shock on their faces and then the joy, as if their lives had somehow just been made complete.  The room erupted like a giant burp of laughter being belched simultaneously from every gaping mouth.

Mercifully, the hole in the time continuum chose to snap shut at that moment and my legs instantly came to life on their own.   I bolted from the house (leaving Butchie to his own fate) with the roar of their laughter pulsating into the darkness as I ran.

As I sat on the beanbag in my closet late that night with waxed lips firmly clenched between my teeth, a candy bar in one hand, and a cherry Zot nestled into my cheek, I wondered if it was all worth it.  I smiled a little and thought that it probably was, but I made a mental note to stay away from the blue house next year.