The 4th of July

This is part 2 of a series. It can stand on it’s own or you can honor me by checking out yesterday’s post

Railroad Ave

My home town was incorporated in 1853 but the area was first settled in 1651. The building that is now the Town Hall has an enormous carved granite plaque on its walls dedicated to its founding fathers. My family is represented by 4 brave men, 3 of which died in the Civil War. Equally represented on the wall are the Smith’s (not their real names).

My family was always a presence in town, the Smith’s spread out all over Metropolitan Boston as aggressively as they proliferated in town. It was only inevitable that the two families would one day merge.

In the late 1940’s my Grandparents on my father’s side, along with a few cousins all moved to an uninhabited stretch of land along the abandoned Railroad tracks behind the Fire Station. It was an undesirable lot of land in many ways. On either side of the tracks was wetland that was prone to flooding every Spring. The ground was soft and needed to be fortified to build on. The insects were abominable in the summer. The Fire whistle on the nearby station was devastatingly loud. But the prospect of one family owning a whole street was attractive. Despite the family legacy of my family in town, we weren’t a family of wealth or influence. We were poor. 4 modest dwellings soon went up as 3 cousins I barely knew, and my Grandparents set up residence.

Railroad Avenue was born.

By the time I was born in 1965 my Grandparents had long since moved to the other side of town. Grandpa was forced into early retirement, sick with Emphysema from a lifetime of smoking cigarettes. He wasn’t able to afford the maintenance of a house. Ellie, my father’s youngest sister moved with them and assumed the role of caretaker. Her other sister Margie took over the house with her new husband, my uncle John and would have 6 children. My father had moved out when he joined the Army in 1960.

My parents purchased a home barely 2 miles from Railroad Ave in 1964. Dad was an Oil Burner repair man/Oil delivery driver for a fuel company that coincidentally marked the entrance to Railroad Ave. He would work there until it closed in 1970. Until that point, my earliest memories consisted of my mom and I meeting him after work and walking down Railroad Ave where we would hang out with my cousins. It was a happy time for me, my earliest memories are of playing with my youngest cousin Mike, who was my age. Learning to ride a bike on the puddle-ridden dirt road of Railroad Ave remains one of my happiest moments. The many cheers of the large group of beloved family members still echo in my head. This would be indicative of most warm summer days of my childhood. Until July 4th, 1974 when it all came crashing down.

July 4th was a standing holiday on Railroad Ave. Despite being avid campers in the summer we were always there. Family and friends showed up with coolers of beer, armloads of food and enough fireworks to level the town. For nine-year old me, it was the best day of the year. We ran around like heathens, played wiffleball and watched the legendary horseshoe tournament that almost always came down to my dad and one of my older cousins.

On this particular 4th of July the horseshoe tournament was interrupted by my uncle John, who came tearing out of the house yelling for my father. When he located him, he pushed my dad and began screaming about how my dad “stole it.” When pressed for details and a rational explanation he continued to attempt to fight my father, who fended him off admirably. A shouting match ensued, sides were taken and the day was inexplicably ruined for all. Once it was determined that my drunk Uncle was not to be calmed down by anyone, I was grabbed by the arm and we quickly left. I had absolutely no idea what had happened but what I did know was that it wasn’t good.

I certainly didn’t know that it would be the most formative moment of my childhood.

Ellie

We weren’t close. I’m sad to admit it. But she’s family.

My father has 2 sisters, Margie and Ellie. Margie had 6 kids and survived an abusive sonofabitch of a husband. He died and she met a man who would make up for all of the abuse and more. Sonny. He did everything right by her until he died ten years ago. Margie recently became unable to care for herself and she was forced to move to a nursing home.

Ellie was a far less accomplished woman. To be honest, she led a unaccomplished life. Born with Epilepsy she, by all accounts, used her illness as a crutch. She barely graduated from High School. She never worked a day in her life. She lived with my Grandfather and cared for him (he was sick with Emphysema from my earliest memory) until his death in 1983.

I worked at the local Supermarket through High School. Ellie and my grandfather lived on “the Pond”, a section of town named after an actual Pond, Martin’s Pond, a huge area of town notorious for lower income but hearty families. Many of my friends lived there, “Ponderonians” as it were. My kind of people. The entrance to “the Pond” was a street off of the main road that started as a long and steep hill. Ellie and Gramps lived on the very bottom where it flattened out. Gramps had a view of the water on one end of the house and the street on the other. Confined to an oxygen tank, he inexplicably chose the street view and sat in the window year round. He was notorious for his omnipresent face in the window. Ellie’s notoriety was to be seen slowly plugging up the hill with her obvious (and unexplained) limp as she pulled her makeshift shopping cart with her. She spoke and dressed poorly. She was the focus of a good bit of mockery among my Supermarket colleagues. Kids can be cruel and it wasn’t until they learned that she was my Aunt that they let up a bit, in my presence at least.I’d like to think that I wasn’t ashamed of her but I think I was. In the back of my head, however, I always reminded myself that she was family and you never turn your back on family.

It was easy to underestimate Ellie. She was an unremarkable person. My father didn’t care for her, his own sister. He had no respect for her. He thought that she could have done so much more and he believed that she hid behind her illness. According to my cousin Mike, who I am the closest to, her Epilepsy wasn’t a constant nuisance to her, her episodes were few and far between and there was no reason she couldn’t have worked, or volunteered or done something other than sit and watch soap opera’s.

I lost touch with her for a lot of years. We reconnected a little last year at the Nursing home. She ended up in the same facility as Margie. Margie is lucid and strong, Ellie has dementia. Catching up was not to be with her, she was on a loop in which she asked me the same questions every ten minutes. She was cheerful at least.

My relationship with Ellie wasn’t complex. But it has been a secret source of shame for me for many years. I could have been nicer to her, I could have kept touch with her. She was always nice to me.

It’s too late now. She and Margie contracted the CoronaVirus last week along with 59 other patients in the home. Margie is hanging on.

Ellie died yesterday.

Second chance

“You’re full of yourself”.
That one hit hard.
She didn’t mean it in a hurtful way.
She was trying to help
with my next girl.
The next girl…
who will that be
when I still want that one?
I made some mistakes.
I pushed.
I was excited.
I felt emotions long lost.
Ones that I hadn’t felt in a long time.
That I never thought I’d feel again.
affection…
intimacy…
connection

long lost and thought dead
bubbling to the surface

I didn’t know at the time
it was the wine

how did I not see it?
She told me at the beginning
Not ready
Not looking
I need time

But through
and over the walls…
we connected
I saw the real you
and I liked it

but I didn’t show you the real me

I’m not insecure
I lack experience
I don’t have it all together
still picking up the pieces
I’m not full of myself
It’s a shield
a costume
flowing cape optional
my message to the world
that I’m still standing
shoulders back
chest out
not out of pride
or hubris
or arrogance

but to anticipate the next blow

how do I show you the real me?
get a second chance
at a first impression?

not full of myself
but full of life
hope
yearning
desire
gratitude
faith

and regrets

I failed to show you the real me


Routine speed trap

This is part of an ongoing series called Graveyard Shift. It can be read alone or you can roll back in my archives and start from the beginning.

August,28, 2005
A young and idealistic “Officer Jimmy”, as he was then known had been stationed at his favorite speed trap, the intersection of 2nd and main. It was at the bottom of a hill and cars came down it way too fast. This particular intersection was home to a very busy crosswalk and Jimmy, as every other cop in town was concerned about someone getting hit by a speeder. A lot of stops were made there out of a regard for safety and of course revenue generation and many tickets were issued. Officer Jimmy wasn’t big on tickets, he was more about keeping people safe. He believed that “Protect and Serve” was a lost notion, that cops now were all about busting heads and acting tough. Not him. He would never be like that. He always tried to live by his father’s famous mantra, “Always be nice. Until it’s time not to.” He had heard it so many times he might as well have had it tattooed on his forehead. It was his go-to first reaction in almost all situations and it had served him well.

Until that night.

Jimmy had been sitting in his car getting caught up on some reports when he spotted the headlights come over the hill. He immediately saw that the driver was operating erratically and speeding. He put his report book on the passenger seat and studied the vehicle’s approach to the intersection. He watched as the car screeched to a stop well over the line. Jimmy waited until the car crossed the intersection, pulled out behind him and hit the siren and lights. The driver pulled over immediately and Jimmy could see him fumbling in the glove box. He approached the car from the drivers side and pointed his flashlight at the driver. A clearly disoriented and intoxicated young man squinted back at him. His pupils were dilated and when he spoke all doubt about his condition was removed.
“Good evening Officer.” His voice was slurred.
“Good evening. License and Registration please.” The young man handed them through the open window. Jimmy reviewed them quickly, put them in his breast pocket and ordered him out of the car. The young man complied. He was wobbly as he stood up and he reeked of alcohol.
“Been drinking tonight?” Jimmy asked him.
“Yessir.” The young man replied. “Do I get points for honesty?”
“You do, but you lose points for driving shitfaced at 11:30 on a Tuesday night.”
“I’m sorry, Sir.”
“Sir?, I’m not a sir. It’s Officer McInerney. And I’m not sure ‘Sorry’ cuts it when we’re talking about public safety.”
The young man bowed his head sheepishly.
Officer McInerney gave him a thorough sobriety test which the young man summarily failed. He knew it. He put out his hands and waited for the handcuffs. Jimmy had another idea.
“This your correct address?” He was holding the young man’s license.
“Yes.”
“That’s two blocks from here. I’m going to follow you home. You’re going to go in your house and you are going to stay there. And you will think twice before doing this again. Got it?”
“Yes, Officer.” The young man was clearly relieved and elated.
“Get in and go. Slowly”, Jimmy instructed.
The young man got in before Jimmy could change his mind. As promised he drove home. Slowly. Jimmy followed him home and watched the young man park his car, get out and walk to the front door. He waved to Jimmy, showed his keys in his hand and went inside. Goodnight Henry James Douglas. He felt pretty good about how he had handled the situation.

Later that night his quiet shift was interrupted by dispatch ordering all available units to a vehicular crash across town. He could already hear the Fire Department and EMT’s sirens en route to the scene. As he threw his Crown Vic into gear and headed out he heard over the radio, “Multiple injuries, possible fatality.”
When Officer McInerney arrived on the scene his stomach momentarily sunk. The two vehicles had collided head on. There was glass and debris everywhere. EMT’S and Firefighters scrambled as they attended to the victims. He immediately recognized one of the vehicles. His heart almost stopped.
He looked around and there was a bloodied Henry James Douglas being pushed into the back of a cruiser, handcuffed. As his head was ducked into the cruiser Henry turned to look at him. They made eye contact. Jimmy momentarily fought off the sinking feeling in his stomach as he rushed to assist the first responders with the accident scene.
This is not going to end well…

Lessons unlearned

I came home today to be greeted by the sounds of Circular Saws and Hammers. The Contractors are finally finishing work on our Farmer’s Porch that they started in October. On the way into the house I paused to watch in fascination as they measured, cut and nailed with such precision and skill. And, as often happens, I triggered myself. Again.

I can’t hear a saw, a hammer or a drill without thinking about how much I didn’t learn from my father despite the many offers and opportunities. My dad was beyond handy, he could do almost anything with his hands. My earliest memories were of my dad rebuilding our house as we lived in it. He would work from 5 AM to 6 PM or later, slam down a quick dinner and then go to work until at least 10. The saw and hammer were sounds I knew at a very early age.

As I got older Dad tried to enlist my assistance, not because he necessarily needed help but instead to teach me. I was eager to help him but not very interested in learning anything new. This was odd for me because I was an eager student in every other aspect of life. I would pull nails from a pile he created, I could swing a hammer fairly well but offers of learning to measure, use woodworking tools and such were dropped due to lack of interest. Even offers of car maintenance were met with tepid enthusiasm despite our shared love of everything to do with cars.

One incident really stands out in my mind. One evening when I was in my late teens Dad offered to show me how to change the oil on my car. He had it already in the garage, the drive up lifts set up and all. The house phone rang (cell phones weren’t invented yet) and it was my girlfriend (she was goddamn gorgeous if that is relevant at all here) and she was imploring me to come over her house. I told her I was doing something with my Dad that was important and she insisted that it was very important. I had to make a decision and I can honestly say that I made the wrong one. I blew off my Dad.

The look of disappointment on his face was tangible. In my feeble defense, I really thought my girlfriend needed me. That almost helped me pull out of the garage feeling good about myself. Almost.

I arrived at my girlfriend’s house 20 minutes later and knocked on her door. She yelled for me to come up. I went upstairs, asking as I climbed the steps if she was ok, still very curious as to what the emergency was. As I entered her room and saw her lying there buck naked with a rose between her teeth I knew that I had been suckered. It was merely a sexual emergency. I somehow managed to get through it but soon after I began to feel bad.

I apologized profusely to my Dad the next day. He was curt and brief with me. He wasn’t mad, he was disappointed and that was always so much worse. He told me that he had offered to show me something for the last time. It was a pivotal moment in my relationship with my father and one of many regrets that I have from my childhood with regards to my dad. If I could talk to him for only five minutes it would be a priority in the conversation. He was such a hard-working and self-taught man. I admired him so. I take some comfort in many other things that I did learn from him that have made me the person I am but there is still a lot of regret.

Sorry Dad, how’s it go…If I knew now what I didn’t know then?

Missed opportunities

 I posted recently about my 35th High School Reunion. It was a honest piece in which I spoke directly to the healing that I have experienced in the years since I graduated.

I spent a lot of years blaming others for my own lack of visibility and satisfaction. Consequently, I developed an aversion to all things HS related, in particular Reunions. Fortunately, I grew up and eventually I went to a couple. What I came up with is that it was as much my fault as anyone else. That realization led to growth. So in my post I was honest to myself and issued a statement to my classmates. It was fairly well received on WP. But WP wasn’t the desired audience. As supportive as the community was, I felt that my former classmates needed to hear it. So I posted the link to the FB page of my HS class. I was nervous. I felt like I was in HS again, so afraid of being judged or ostracized by my classmates. But I knew that it didn’t matter in the big picture what they thought of me. I had put that monkey behind me. And I was further fortified by the possibility that I wouldn’t even be alive for the next one. I hit the “share” button. There was no turning back.

The response was amazing.

People that I thought never even knew my name responded. Friends who I had lost touch with for years told me how proud they were to be my friend. Comment after comment posted about how well I captured the experience of High School. Of how they could relate. Of how they remembered me. One of my classmates went so far as to say that my prose had inspired him to attend the next one.I received multiple FB inbox messages telling me how much my post meant to them. Friend requests followed. My blog received a record 151 views in one day. I was deeply humbled.

 I am a guy who walked out of  The Breakfast Club saying “I call Bullshit”. I never believed that the scars caused by the cliques of HS could be overcome by one 8 hour session of detention. When RUSH released the song Subdivisions,I immediately adopted it as the story of my High School experience.To say that I was jaded is an understatement.  

I carried this resentment for too many years. It was uncomfortable, cumbersome and it went on for too long. Based on the feedback, and in some cases support, of my classmates I now know that I had it all wrong. So many years living in my own head.

Sunday I am driving to MA to have lunch with a guy I went to HS with. He was the most recent of FB inbox messages related to my FB posting. He really wants to get together and get to know each other. Here’s the kicker. I never knew him in HS as a friend. I actually thought he disliked me. Apparently I was wrong. I look forward to making a new friend, even if it’s an old one I wasn’t aware of. 

So many missed opportunities. I wonder how many I can recover before it’s too late.

The Reunion

When the 5th Reunion invite arrived I immediately discarded it. Likewise with the 10th. I wasn’t ready. The scars were still fresh and sore to the touch. When I opened my mailbox to see the invitation to the 15th, I decided I would go.

I arrived, with my wife of three years on my arm and a bad attitude. I had caustically joked to her in the elevator that “the same people that didn’t talk to me in HS can have the luxury of not talking to me tonight.” I left that night not knowing if I was right or wrong, her father had a heart attack and we hurriedly left after only an hour.

I skipped the 20th. And the 25th. I was too busy, too tired, too fat, too poor, too unsuccessful…let’s face it…too full of excuses. I just wasn’t in a good place. I wasn’t prepared to talk to people about my life because I felt like a failure. I had visions of regaling people with details of my remarkably mediocre life and then sit in the corner and drink until it was time to slip out the door.

I went to the 30th with a slightly better attitude. I reconnected with a few old friends and made small talk with quite a few people. But I confirmed that I was still largely a Ghost. The people that didn’t talk to me in HS didn’t talk to me then, my caustic joke  of 15 years before had proved correct. It would later occurr to me that I didn’t talk to them 30 years ago either. It was a sobering, powerful lesson. You get what you put into things. I decided that I hated reunions and would likely not attend another.

My terribly negative, yet persistent view of Reunions had clearly stemmed from my HS experience, or lack of therein. I left HS unfulfilled and unhappy. I had few friends, few prospects, and few memories. I tried too hard to fit in. When I failed to, I drew within. I walked the halls looking at my feet instead of making eye contact. I worked a lot. I dropped out of clubs and quit teams when I got the slightest bit of grief from classmates. I ran Cross-Country because it was a solitary sport.  For years to come I blamed others for my lack of fulfillment because I wasn’t yet mature or aware enough to put the blame squarely where it belonged, on myself.

It was liberating to stop casting blame. Reviewing my High School years with a clear, honest eye, I realized that it was mostly a giant missed opportunity. A regrettable one at that.

When I received the invitation to the 35th Reunion I immediately decided that I would go. It was time to cast the monkey off of my back once and for all.

When I arrived at “The Shoe”, the place was full. I took a deep breath and walked in. I wasn’t concerned with “measuring up” against others, and I was genuinely interested in the lives of my peers without the burden of jealousy or envy. Fully prepared to say, if asked:

“Hi, I’m Bill. You probably don’t remember me. I was the color of the walls in HS. I went on to have a unremarkable career and a failed marriage. I’m on Disability. I lost almost everything to End Stage Renal Disease and I may not be alive for the next one of these. But I have 4 amazing children that I live for.
It’s goddamn good to see you though. Hey, where are you going?!?!?!?!?”

I never had to say that. Here is what happened instead.

Everyone looked great. Everyone was happy. Drinks flowed and conversation roared. The people that I recognized, I talked to.  I had a few conversations with people that I didn’t know so well. I saw most of the people that I had hoped to and definitely missed opportunities to chat with some that, after 35 years, were still strangers to me. I mused to myself, as I sat in the corner nursing a beer, the old proverb “A stranger is a friend you haven’t yet made.” As true as it was, it was a bit late for that with most in the room. I needed to be OK with that.

I left early. I didn’t feel well and was struggling with light-headedness and headaches all night. But I’m glad that I attended. For so many years I actually thought that I was the only one who had struggled in HS. That everyone else loved High School and would all grow to be happy, well-adjusted adults but me. It was when I realized that life maybe didn’t turn out for them as planned, that they maybe struggled in HS, and life after as well, that I finally gave myself a break. Life doesn’t always turn out the way you planned. All I can say is, I struggled for years to find myself, until I realized I was me all along.

It was great to see everyone. I wish I knew you all better. I wish I had made more memories to laugh and reminisce about. Alas, as the saying goes…there is no second chance to make a first impression.