Once again, for the record, I am old.
How old am I?
I’m old enough to remember a world without the internet, without cell phones, without personal computers, without ATMs, without cable or satellite T.V., without e-mail, without Facebook, without microwave ovens. I’m old enough to remember full service gas stations, locally owned grocery stores, rotary phones, barber shops, and one income families. School was filled with mimeographed worksheets, film strips, and cartons of chocolate milk. I’m old enough to remember McDonald’s before the Big Mac, when all you could get was a hamburger or a cheeseburger. I’m old enough to remember when we got our first color television. I’m old enough to remember watching The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show.
I grew up in a small town in southeastern Wisconsin, my family having moved there from northwestern Wisconsin when I was three and a half years old, in 1962. It was a time when most households had one wage earner, and the moms, like my mom, typically stayed at home. What seems so amazing about it now, looking at the way things are today, is back then blue collar, middle class working men earned enough to provide good lives for their families. There were, on the block surrounding the middle of Yorkville Avenue, three men, including my dad, who drove trucks of one kind or another, and they lived side by side with a school superintendent, the owner of the town’s grocery store, the town dentist and the town doctor, a pharmacist, an airport mechanic, an insurance salesman, and a bookkeeper. They all lived in modest but comfortable 1960s era ranch homes.
My dad was an over the road driver, a Teamster, driving eighteen wheelers to various places in Ohio and Indiana, driving by night, home and sleeping in his own bed behind shaded windows that blocked out the daylight every other day, days that we’d only see him at the supper table. On weekends he’d get an extra day, the one day of the week he was able to spend the entire day with us.
How old am I?
I’m old enough that when I was eleven years old, jelly filled bismarks at the local bakery sold for eight cents apiece. Eight cents. I can’t think of anything you can get for eight cents these days. I remember too that a bottle of Coke out of the soda machine outside the gas station downtown cost fifteen cents. So for a quarter, you could get a delicious jelly filled bismark and a bottle of Coke, which at the time sounded like just about the most perfect meal I could dream of. Or, if you were returning from the barber shop with fifty cents in change, like I was one early summer Saturday morning when I was eleven, you could stop and buy six jelly filled bismarks, one for every member of my family.
Did I mention that I loved jelly filled bismarks?
We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were living in a Norman Rockwell painting. We played basketball games in our driveway, football and baseball games in our back yards. We shot BB guns and played hide and seek and war in the small woods behind the houses on the other side of the street from us. In the winter we built snow forts and played duck, duck, goose. On warm summer nights kids from the entire neighborhood would be outside until well after dark, playing kick-the-can, our laughter echoing on the warm night breeze. We mowed lawns and shoveled snow, we walked to and home from school. We hunted for sasquatches and ghosts and evidence of UFO landings. We watched black and white television, mostly westerns and war shows. We were, within the confines of our small town, isolated and shielded from the outside world, the world we saw on television news reports, the world of assassinations and riots and cities burning and body bags. None of that seemed real, none of that could reach into our little village.
Then death came to town.
I was eight years old and it was summer when a new family moved into the house at the southern end of the other side of the street. They had two boys, Joey, who was my age, and his younger brother Jerry, two years younger. We’d just met when they came over to play with me in the sandbox my dad had made. We played for hours under a beautiful blue summer sky, lost in the discovery of new friends and new neighbors. Then it was time for them to go home and something strange happened, something that to this day has never left me. We got to the edge of my front yard, and Joey and Jerry, ages eight and six, stopped, held hands, and very slowly and formally looked both ways before crossing Yorkville Avenue to get to their side of the street. This struck me as very peculiar, as Yorkville Avenue was about as quiet a street as you’ll find, especially during the mid summer week days when all the men were off to work.
I don’t recall who told me, but a few days later I learned that not long before moving to Yorkville Avenue, on the street where they used to live, their older sister had been killed, hit by a car as she ran across the street. Now it made sense – the two brothers holding hands, looking up and down a quiet empty street, small under the vast and enormous midday sky. Death was real to Joey and Jerry, and it was suddenly real to me, personified by the empty presence, by the absence, of the sister I had never seen or met.
This was about the time I became so terrified of the concept of death that I tried to avoid saying or even thinking the words “dead” or “death”. I was old enough to know that everyone dies, that death is inevitable, but now, besides the nightmarish horror stories my brother told me about dead women with rotting flesh existing and occasionally coming back to life in our shared closet, as real and frightening as those stories were they were never as real as the empty space that stood beside the two small brothers holding hands in front of Yorkville Avenue. That empty space didn’t give me nightmares the way the stories my brother told me did, but it haunted my waking hours, resulting not so much in fear as in the overwhelming weight of sadness the image of the boys represented for me even at that young age, the same sadness I feel when my memory conjures up the image now, over forty years later.
Now, at age fifty five, I’m old enough to know that the real world is never far away. I’ve lived through the death of three family members, including my mom and dad. Not a day goes by without me thinking about them. I still don’t understand death, and I never will. It still terrifies me.
One of the earliest dreams I had that I still remember came to me when I was about six years old. In my dream, for some reason, I was going to Heaven. Heaven, it turns out, was a small, fluffy white cloud, with an American flag sticking out of it. That was it. I remember waking up and being disappointed that that was all there was.
I was too young to realize that it was just a dream, and that in reality, in my small home town with my family all around me, with nothing to do all day but to run and play and imagine, and with eight cent jelly-filled bismarks and fifteen cent cokes, I was already in Heaven.