Winter Camping


(A short fiction I’ve been noodling around with)

I woke up in the dark coughing, my eyes and throat burning, the blue tarp I’d fallen asleep under having caved in over the bottom half of my sleeping bag. It felt heavy, and I knew instantly what’d happened, where I’d screwed up, and that I had to get out right now.

I pulled my legs up and rolled out of my sleeping bag. I tried to open my eyes, but the best I could manage was narrow slits that presented, out of focus and dim, what I’d already smelled:  thick and cascading smoke. I could hear the wind howling and snow pelting the other side of the tarp. I couldn’t see but I remembered that the opening to my little lean-to was to my right.  I pulled my feet up and swept my hand across to where the opening should have been, where there should have been air, but there was only snow.

It was obvious now, and I felt embarrassed that it hadn’t occurred to me before, that the lean-to I’d fashioned with the tarp wouldn’t be able to bear the weight of the heavy snow coming down that I’d blissfully fallen asleep under.  Not only did it collapse the tarp, but as the drifts accumulated outside it had sealed most of the opening I’d used to vent my campfire.  Had I slept for another five minutes, I’d be dead, choked by smoke and buried by snow.  As it was I couldn’t stop coughing, and I couldn’t open my eyes, but none of that mattered.  I had to get out.

I reached out and grabbed for my boots, from next to the fire, where I remembered I’d set them to dry.  I held them in my left hand and sat up and with my right hand reached for and found the tarp, and followed it until I got to its edge, where the tarp met the snow. My eyes still burned, my vision reduced to a thick and indistinguishable blur. I rolled over, my boots in my hand, and tried to pull the tarp up and roll my body underneath it. All I could feel was the snow against my long underwear and the black hoody I had on over my thermal under shirt.  It was cold and wet.

I rolled out into the snow, outside of the tarp now, in the snow, lying on my side.  I pulled myself up onto my two feet just as the mouthful of the clean and cold air I breathed in met the thick smoke that filled my lungs, and I started coughing again.  I couldn’t stop, and I couldn’t breathe, and I became dizzy and light headed and collapsed into the snow.  I laid there until I stopped coughing, until I could breathe again, taking in only shallow gasps of air, my throat burning every time I inhaled.

I finally sat up and tried to open my eyes. They burned, too, and I still couldn’t’ open them any more than a narrow slit, for more than a couple of seconds, after which they’d start burning again and I’d have to close them.  For the brief period of time I could leave them open, through the narrow slits, I couldn’t really see anything, nothing would come in focus, just the blurred white of the ground and the blurred black vertical columns of what I assumed were trees. I slipped my boots on and struggled to my  feet.

I could smell the smoky remains of my campfire, and I knew they were coming from under the collapsed tarp, and I knew my lean-to opened to the east, so I was standing on the east side of the tarp. I turned in the direction the smell of the fire was coming from, and I knew I was facing west. I knew that home, my dad’s farm, was about a mile west through the woods from where I’d camped.  I also knew that once I started west, I’d be walking into the wind and I’d quickly lose the smell of the fire, the only compass I had.  Unable to see, all I’d have to go by was the wind pelting me in the face, and I really didn’t know if it was blowing straight from the west or if it was coming in from the northwest.  It wouldn’t take much to make me drift off track, because the woods were big and swampy. I tried to open my eyes again but they weren’t getting any better, and if anything burned more that the last time I tried. I stood there in the dark, in my thermal shirt and long johns, wet, blind and cold, the snow at my feet getting deeper. A sense of panic started to settle in, a sense that I might die.

Nobody knew I was out here, and I cursed myself for being arrogant enough to think this whole winter camping thing was a good idea. My dad was always reminding me that I was just a kid, just fourteen years old, and that I was “Getting too big for my britches.” But I’d spent many nights sleeping in the woods, and it was one of the things I loved most in the world. The stillness, the purity of the air, the rhythm of crickets, the night sky that would fill up with a million stars, all within my reach, the silver moonlight.  I’d slept out in the woods dozens of times before, always alone, but never in the winter. I knew from the summer and autumn nights I’d sampled that being out in the woods at 2:30, 3:30, or 4:30 A.M. was a completely different experience, that everything looked, smelled and felt different, and I was eager to discover what new worlds winter would bring to the woods in the deep heart of the night.

I started to move, took a step in the direction I’d convinced myself was west, when I heard, in front of me and to the left, the sound of something in the woods, something alive. I stopped and listened and soon I heard it again. It was the sound of a snort, and then I could hear the sound of a hoof pounding the frozen ground, and before I even opened my eyes I knew it was a deer.  I opened my eyes and everything was still a blur, but at the center of the blur I could make out something dark and wet, shimmering in my blurred view.  I blinked my eyes open again and this time I could see the outline of a deer, a doe, against a solid white background. The white background went up above the deer, it was elevated, and I knew it was Musselman’s Ridge.  I adjusted the direction I was facing so I’d be walking directly in a line to where I’d seen the deer. A soon as I took my first step, I heard her snort again, and I heard a branch break as she ran away.

It didn’t take me long, walking with my eyes closed, to reach the steep incline that marled the bottom of Musselman’s Ridge. I tried ascending the angle, but with my eyesight blinded it was difficult, as the side of the ridge was thick with trees and underbrush. I tried to open my eyes, but they still burned. I knew that there was a fire lane cut through the woods that traversed Musselman’s Ridge at a point where the incline was less severe. I was completely disoriented, though, and had no idea where I was in relation to the fire road, and was convinced I didn’t have time to look for it.

As I stumbled trying to get up the hill, colliding with trees and brush, I found at my feet a thick stick, about four feet long.  I picked it up and used it like a blind man uses a cane, swinging it in front of me to find where my next step would fall, then planting it firmly on the ground to help me maintain my balance.  I was creeping along when I swung my stick in front of me only to hear the sound and feel the vibration of it hitting what may as well been a solid wall of trees and brush.  I opened my eyes and I could make out enough detail to tell that I had stumbled smack dab into a thicket, dark and steep and impenetrable. I held my eyes open long enough to look around, and off to my right, I could make out the blur of movement, silent, like a ghost floating on the frozen landscape. I was able to get my eyes open wide enough and long enough to recognize a deer, the same doe I’d seen before, about thirty yards to my right, ascending the ridge without a sound, when I realized it was walking the fire road, the path that would lead me to safety.

I stumbled my way out of the thicket and made it to the fire road.  It was still snowing, but not as hard, and the doe’s tracks were still readable.  I walked up the incline with my walking stick in hand, every now and then opening my eyes and looking down to make sure I was still on the fire road,  still  following the doe’s tracks, until near the top of the ridge where the tracks  veered off  of the path to the right, to the north. I stayed on the fire road.

I made it to the top of Musselman’s Ridge, where the fire road takes a sharp turn to the north and runs for a while along the top of the ridge before turning west again and descending the ridge where the woods grow bigger.  It was the point I knew I’d have to leave the fire road to walk the last stretch home.

At the top of the ridge, the wind slowed down for a moment and the snow stopped. I tried to open my eyes and I was able to widen them enough to see clearly the familiar landmarks of the vista I’d looked out on hundreds of times before. They were all simultaneously familiar and new, the dark woods that abruptly stopped on the flat edge of our cornfield, white and flat and bright, the stems of its cut stalks buried beneath the snow. I saw the fence line that marked the other end of the field, and I could make out the gate that opened into our yard, where our house stood, strong and silent and dark in the night, gray smoke billowing out of the chimney and up into the night sky until it vanished, giving way to millions of stars that hung low against the black ceiling of the night sky. And I could see, off to my right,  the fire lane where it briefly exited the woods before reentering them at the far corner of our cornfield, and standing there, in the fire lane, I could see the doe I’d been following,  made tiny by the distance between us.  She was standing there, looking back at me, and I could clearly see, even though it was too far away, her dark and moist eye, locked in with my eyes, before she turned and stepped into the woods.

Able to see and breathe, my survival now rested on one thing:  staying warm long enough to make it down the ridge, across the cornfield and into the house. My hands were like clubs, I could barely move them, the fingers on my right hand somehow shaped to wrap around and clasp my walking stick.  My face felt swollen, cracked around my cheekbones. My throat was dry and scratchy, and every muscle in my body ached, cold and rigid. The snow had stopped but the wind persisted, blowing raw and cold in my face as I started out down the ridge. I started out slowly, maintaining my balance, taking big steps in the deep snow, when, about halfway down, my right foot caught a stray and dead vine buried beneath the snow and I fell, hard on my side, cushioned by snow, and I slid down the ridge, small twigs of dead underbrush scratching and cutting my face, ripping a hole in the thigh of my long underwear.  I slid down until I was twenty feet from the bottom, coming to rest when my rear end harmlessly met he trunk of an oak tree. I collected myself and took a quick inventory of my scrapes and scratches, then I got up.  I’d lost my walking stick somewhere in the fall. I managed to keep my balance and made it to the bottom of the ridge, where just a narrow stretch of woods heavy with undergrowth separated me from the cornfield.  I walked on, shielded by the trees from the full brunt of the wind.

Then I was out of the woods, into the cornfield, face first against the howling wind.  It blew steady and strong, skimming the top of the snow off of the field and hurling it into my face.  It thundered like a freight train in my ears. Gusts blew so hard as to literally knock me over three times.  Each time I’d struggle to stand back up, my legs cold and raw and stiff and heavy.  It took every ounce of strength I had left just to lift them high enough to keep moving forward.

Eventually, I made it across the field and, just after I passed through the opened gate into our yard, I collapsed in the snow, no more than ten yards from the house. I was unable to move, frozen, as I stared at the house, at the upstairs window to my room, then I started to see things, some real, some not, spinning around in the wind.  I saw the weather vane on the barn, I saw my Science teacher, Mr. Morgan, I saw the blue tarp I’d made my lean-to out of, I saw the doe and her shiny dark eyes. And then I saw my dad.

He was shaking me awake, his hand on my shoulder, saying “Bill, Bill.” The sound of morning songbirds became clear. I opened my eyes and could see bright sunlight streaming through my windows, and I could see my dad, bent over my bed, his face inches from mine.

“Come on, Bill,” he said, “you’ve got to get up. The service starts in about an hour.  Aunt Mary’s made us a big breakfast.”

I could smell the bacon frying, and I could sense that the house was full of unfamiliar people, of guests who’d spent the night.

“Okay,” I mumbled.

“Get yourself in the shower,” he said as he headed for my door. He was holding the door, about to close it behind him.

“Dad?” I said.  He stopped and stood in my doorway.

“Yeah?”

“I already miss her,” I said. It surprised me, because I hadn’t even been thinking about her.

“I know,” he said.  “Me, too. “ He stood there for a minute, neither one of us knowing what to say, when I threw my legs over the side of my bed and sat up.

“Okay, I’m up,” I said. Dad smiled and left, closing my door behind him. Something lying on the table at my bedside caught my eye. I picked it up and looked at it.  It was a photograph, the last photograph, of my mom and dad and I, sitting with her in her hospital bed, all three of us smiling.  Mom’s smile was a little weaker, but her eyes, dark and moist and penetrating, were alive, shimmering and shining.

Heroes


Late last year, I was selected to the Board of Directors of Society’s Assets, a company that was formed in 1974 in Racine, Wisconsin by and for people with disabilities. The mission of Society’s Assets is “to ensure the rights of all persons with disabilities to live and function as independently as possible in the community of their choice, through supporting individual’s efforts to achieve control over their lives and become integrated into community life.”  They are governed and operated by a board and staff comprised of a majority of people with disabilities.

I attended a couple of hours long orientation session for myself and the other new board members late last year. It was very interesting and filled in several gaps in my knowledge about the company.  I met the management team and was very impressed with their levels of expertise, their ability to clearly articulate the company’s mission, and mostly with the passion they displayed for their work and their clients.

Then I received in the mail an invitation to a reception to honor the organization’s award winning aides. I figured an award ceremony in one of the company’s conference rooms might be a good opportunity to fill in any blanks I may have still had in my understanding of what this organization is all about. Never mind that I didn’t know a soul there – I put aside my inherent social awkwardness and shy nature and sucked it up for a couple of hours.

And am I glad I did. The people I met were all friendly and personable, unpretentious and real.  They made me feel instantly comfortable as I sat with them, the only male in a room full of women, and I  helped myself to cake and snacks.  During our conversations I learned several important facts about the awards that were being presented, that they were granted by an independent, state wide organization, The Wisconsin Long Term Care Workforce Alliance.  In other words, these were much more than employee recognition awards – these awards are given to caregivers from any organization who went above and beyond in meeting the needs of people of all ages with disabilities.  The  Alliance has been giving these awards since 2005, and every year Society’s Assets has had at least one winner (out of only four state-wide winners).  In fact, as I sat there, I met the first two winners, from 2005 and 2006 – how cool is that?

The time for the awards presentation came and we moved to another room, the board room, where this year, with two new award categories having been added, four of the six awards went to caregivers from Society’s Assets. As each award was presented, part of the story behind the nominations was read, and I got an idea for just how special these people and this organization are.  As I listened to the stories of personal sacrifice, energy and enthusiasm, passion and commitment,  I thought of the recent passing of the great rock and roll icon David Bowie and my favorite Bowie song, “Heroes,” and it occurred to me that’s what each of these and the countless other caregivers out there truly are.  Whether it’s running a simple errand or providing intimate personal care, helping those who need help the most and preserving their sense of dignity and self-worth strikes me as the noblest of gestures.

We find ourselves in the beginning of an election year, with the television and radio constantly telling us how divided we’ve become, and how great the distance and irreconcilable the differences between us are. But in the unconditional love and respect they display for their fellow human beings, caregivers shatter these divisions and instead celebrate the core humanity that we all share. They demonstrate through their actions that we’re all in this thing together, and I can’t think of anything more inspirational or heroic.

While I’m still learning exactly what my role as a board member is, I look forward to humbly serving these great people and their indomitable spirit in any way I can.

 

 

Hands Up


Here’s a quick, random and hopefully helpful note to anyone who has Parkinson’s disease.  It’s probably painfully obvious, but trust me, it’s important.

If you’re walking, whether just from the parking lot to the store or taking a long walk through the park, if it’s wintertime and cold out, wear gloves on your hand.  If it is warm enough not to wear gloves, then it is warm enough to keep your hands out of your pockets. Never walk with your hands in your pockets.

Reasons are twofold:  first, arm swing, whatever arm swing you have left, is a very important component to maintaining balance while walking.  Hands in your pockets restrict arm swing and  increase the likelihood of falling.

Second, if you do fall (and trust me again, if you  have Parkinson’s and haven’t fallen yet, you will), having your hands free increases your odds of getting them up and in front of you in time to brace your fall.  You simply can’t rely upon the reflexes you’ve trusted all your life to be fast enough anymore, and without your hands to protect you, a harmless fall can turn deadly.

Winter here in the cold states is particularly risky, as all it takes is one small patch of ice hidden from view to tip you over.  Having your hands in front of you could make the difference between a laughable anecdote becoming a serious injury.

Guitar Hero


I’ve got  a Gibson without a case / but I can’t get that even tanned look on my face / Ill-fitting clothes, I just blend in the crowd / Fingers so clumsy, voice too loud

– Pete Townshend

When I was thirteen years old, after flirting with AM top 40 radio for a few years, I fell deeply in love with “hard” rock.  There was no such thing as “classic” rock at the time, because it was 1972 and rock was still in its infancy, and there was no nostalgic sentimentality attached to it by desperate middle aged, pear-shaped men hanging on to their youth by a strand of their combed-over hair.  That would all come later. In 1972, “hard” rock was still a young man’s domain, a ‘teenage wasteland,” its soundtrack the album orientated, FM radio music dominated by the churning chords and screaming riffs of electric guitars.

I was physically small and socially inept, painfully shy around girls. Every day I’d wake up in the early morning darkness of my room and wait for the ass-kicking that puberty would subject my ego to.  I remember being disappointed when my voice began to crackle and pop before the long awaited appearance of peach fuzz on my chin and my gonads.

It was a confusing time, as my older brother Don, who’d been my roommate for as long as I could remember, got married and moved out of the house.  He gave me, as a parting gift, probably the best and most used gift I’ve ever received: a poster of Raquel Welch from the movie One Million Years B.C. that would hang on my bedroom door for about the next three years. Needless to say, the poster turned out to be much preferred to the presence of my brother.

It was a lonely time, a time when the persistent perception of myself as a misfit was proven to be true.  Friends who were more socially adept were suddenly unavailable, spending time at parties and high school dances that I didn’t give even the first thought to attending.

A significant amount of time was spent in my room, listening to music, spent in my mind, in my fantasies – and it wasn’t just Raquel, either. In my fantasy world, I was strong and confident and funny, and as my album collection grew, so too did my Rock and Roll fantasy grow.

Where do you get those blue, blue jeans / Faded, patched secret so tight? /  Where do you get that walk oh, so lean? /  Your shirt and your shoes just right

 I developed secret crushes on countless girls, all beautiful, all popular, even though I was acutely aware that I had no chance with none of them.  No chance now, that is, none until I learn to play … electric guitar.

I became obsessed with the electric guitar. I’d listen for hours to the licks and riffs laid down by Hendrix, Clapton, and Page. I became a fan of David Gilmour’s sound and Pete Townshend’s stage theatrics.  I studied the photos in the album liners, how each player held their guitar, strapped low and loose, and the intensity that oozed out of their pores whenever they played a hot solo.  I remember watching the documentary Monterrey Pop, about the 1967 Monterrey pop festival. The Who closed out their set with “My Generation,” ending it with Townshend destroying his guitar in what was the perfect articulation of the rage and frustration I felt constantly churning in my belly.  It was possibly the coolest thing I’d ever seen, and I set my sights on getting a guitar and learning to play it, not smash it (for now).

So  I bugged my mom to buy me a guitar, and then I bugged her some more.  When that didn’t work, I tried a different strategy:  I bugged her some more.  Finally, she broke down and bought me a cheap, little acoustic guitar.  It wasn’t the Fender Esquire I’d been hoping for, but it was a start. I took it and a short instructional book my mom had also bought me into the darkness of my room, determined not to come out until I was legitimately bona-fided.

               But I’m one
               I am one
               and I can see
               that this is me 
               and I will be 
               you’ll all see 
               I’m the one

 By now you probably know how this story ends, as it’s been told a thousand times before:  young misfit picks up a guitar, learns a few chords, and before you know it, he is transformed, a star is born, and neither his life nor the world are ever the same again. Well, that’s how it was supposed to end.

In reality, the ending to the story is a little bit different. I didn’t quite uncover the musical genius that was hiding deep inside of myself. Instead, I confirmed what my Mom already knew and validated her worst fears – the simple and sad fact that I had no intrinsic musical ability at all.  None. Zippo.

Stubby, little and inflexible fingers combined with laziness and a short attention span are not the ingredients for mastery of anything, let alone a musical instrument.  I remember the book first trying to cover a few simple chords, but that soon grew boring and struck me as the sort of thing a rhythm guitar player would need to know.  Screw that, it was lead or nothing for me, so I “taught” myself a couple of simple, one-string melodies and solos, slowly plinking them out as the fingers on my left hand moved from fret to fret, becoming unjustifiably impressed with myself when, for example, I stumbled upon what I took to be the melody for the old folk song, “Little Brown Jug.”

My enthusiasm for playing was exponentially greater than any propensity I had.  I say “propensity” rather than talent due to the rules of mathematics, as using the word “talent” would have resulted in a divide by zero error.  I remember sitting in our living room, torturing my mom with my playing, when I asked her, “What should I play next?”

“How about ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’?”

Impressed, I replied, “I didn’t know you were familiar with the Led Zeppelin song.”

“Led Zeppelin has a song called that?” she asked.

“Yeah, it’s on Houses of the Holy,” I replied.

“Oh,” she said, “I was just saying that you should play over the hills and far away.  Far, far away.”

“Very funny,” I said.

About this time I started babysitting on Sunday nights for a family that lived on the street, about three doors down, the Poisls.  One night, after the kids had fallen asleep, I called home and asked my little sister to bring over my guitar, so I could practice. There, in the quiet of the Poisl’s living room, I plunked away for about an hour when Mr. and Mrs. Poisl came home.  Mrs. Poisl enthusiastically reacted to the sight of me with my guitar.

“Do you play?” she asked. It was obvious that she loved music.

“Yeah, I get by,” I replied.

She pulled up a chair across from where I sat with my guitar, and with a big and happy anticipatory grin on her face, said “play something.”

“Okay,” I said, and delved right into my one string translation of “Little Brown Jug.”  As I slowly plinked and plunked away, I looked up in time to see the last glimmer of light fade from her face, as her smile transformed into the same pained expression I recognized from my mom’s face when she heard the same rendition of the folk classic. I stopped playing and said, “well, it’s getting ….”

“Late,” she said, finishing my sentence before adding, “Excuse me.”  Then she was up and out of the room, leaving Mr. Poisl to pay me and see me off.  After he shut the front door behind me, I thought I could hear, buried in the night mix with the crickets, the muffled sound of laughter from inside the Poisl’s house, but I couldn’t be sure.

One evening, about a week later, shortly after supper, my guitar and I were in the living room when I decided it was time to return to my bedroom. As I approached the hallway, my trusty guitar in my right hand, my oldest brother Mike, emerged from the bathroom.  We met in the hallway, which was a bit too narrow for Mike, me and my guitar, and as we bumped shoulders, Mike gave me an innocent brotherly push. I lost my balance and my guitar ended up pinned against the wall as my right elbow pierced the guitar’s top board, leaving a big hole in it.

“You broke my guitar!” I protested.

Mike mumbled something in return and left the room.  I couldn’t tell what it was he said, but it clearly didn’t include the words “I’m sorry.”

Devastated, I stepped into the kitchen, where my mom was doing the dishes.  “Look,” I said, “Look what Mike did to my guitar.”

She barely looked up from the sink, and glancing at the smashed guitar, said, “Oh, well.”

“’Oh, well?’  That’s it? You’re not going to yell at Mike?”

“These things happen sometimes,” she said, returning to her dishes.

Perplexed, I said, “If I didn’t know better, I might think you’re glad Mike broke my guitar.”

She remained silent, her hands in the sink and her head down, hiding what I could swear was a smile