An Ending


The names were typed in a list, on a sheet of paper hung on a bulletin board in the hallway that lead into the offices. I don’t remember who told us about it, that the news was out. It’d been anticipated for weeks. Rumors about impending layoffs, and how many would be impacted. I just remember standing there, looking for my name. I figured I’d put in more than two years now, and that I’d be just on the edge if they took the ten percent that’d be about forty of the four hundred Conrad had estimated the totality of the union membership consisted of.

After weeks of speculation, the announcement came on a Thursday afternoon. It turned out that Conrad was right, it was a ten percent reduction in the work force. His estimate of four hundred was pretty accurate as the actual number was 412, meaning that there were forty one names on the list. The list was sorted by seniority, defined by start date, which was a column after name, sorted in descending order. I was number 37, with my   start date of 8/5/77 a week after number 41, “Platt, George 7/29/77.” If I’d started a week earlier, I’d still have a job.

It was 2:30 in the afternoon. After I found my name, I read the paragraph above the list. It was written in a bunch of legalize, and included an effective date of 10/31/ 79, the current date, four days before my twenty first birthday. I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned around to see my foreman, Mike.

“Sorry, Dave. I was really hoping you wouldn’t get cut. You got any questions?”

“Today’s my last day?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“So I got about an hour left.”

“Yeah,” he said, “they say it works better that way.  No confusion about when the layoff starts. Better to make a clean cut of things – at least that’s the theory.”

I walked back to my department and took my working spot alongside Lew Reed. “Are you okay?” he asked. Word was already out.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said

Conrad and Jack and Jeff spent the better part of the remaining hour trying to buck me up, telling me that I’d be able to sleep in late in the morning, and that once I got signed up for my unemployment checks I’d be okay, and that I’d be free to go hunting every day.  Conrad said they’d probably be calling me back in about three months. I smiled and said that’s all true, and that I’ll be thinking of them when I roll over in bed and go back to sleep tomorrow morning.

I couldn’t tell them what I was really thinking. I couldn’t tell them that I knew with certainty I’d never enter the window factory again. I couldn’t tell them what they meant to me, and that without my job to go to, without them, the days were going to be as long and empty and lonely as the nights. I was trying hard to commit their faces to memory, etch them in my mind, knowing that I’d never see them again.

Lew, forty five years old and baby-faced, rolly-poly with a soft middle, in his olive green work shirt and trousers and that ridiculous fishing cap covering his bald head. Conrad with his snow white hair and goatee. Jack, burly and broad shouldered in his flannel even at sixty, his beard equal parts dark gray and white.  Jeff, my age, with his thick brown hair cut like a salad bowl had been placed on his head.

The last hour went by quick and easy, with nobody doing much work. Roger and Louie came in and joined the festivities, telling stories and ripping on each other like only a bunch of guys who’d spent the week days of the last two years together could. They had enough material on me and my antics to fill more time than we had to kill.

Then 3:30 came and we all walked out together, like we did every day, punching the time clock on our way out the doors of the loading dock to the parking lot.  I remember saying good bye to the guys, and waving to Wayne Cooper, an acquaintance from another department. I looked around and I realized that this, the factory and the guys I worked with, would continue, would still be here, only  with somebody else doing my job, snapping together the aluminum frames.  Who I could only guess.  I just knew it wouldn’t be me anymore.  Whoever it was going to be, I hoped they’d appreciate it as much as, until that moment, I’d taken it for granted, and that they’d listen and maybe even smile when the guys told stories about the goofy twenty year old kid who used to jump up on the tables and caw like a crow.

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Sixty


How does it feel to be sixty years old?

Not so great.  To quote the late, great Leonard Cohen, “I ache in the places where I used  to play.”

Physically, I’m worn down and wiped out, and carry the greenish bruises on various parts of my body from falls I’ve taken.  My eye to hand coordination and my sense of balance have degraded to the point that simple things, like, hanging insulation in my work shop to typing this piece, have become difficult.  My vision becomes blurred and cross-eyed as my eyes grow tired, and my voice has grown weak to the point that too often I’m drowned out when I try to communicate.

Every day I’m witnessing new levels of ugliness that I’ve never seen before in this great country that I love so much. The places, the people, and the values that’ve been so important to me have faded and worn away, and I feel alone.  These dark days of violence and selfishness, cowardice and unfounded fear, prejudice and hatred, have turned victims of horrible violence into vile foreigners to be feared instead of embraced, to be met with a closed fist instead of open arms. It’s a place I don’t recognize anymore, where a charlatan and liar has taken control of our collective psyche and divided us with language and actions so despicable and outrageous that every day achieves a new low, and we become more numbed and anesthetized than the day before. I don’t recognize these soulless zombies walking the countryside, and in the empty and expressionless glances they shoot at me, it’s obvious that they sure don’t recognize me.  I’ve become a relic, a stranger in a strange land, a solitary time traveler, from out of a dark and forgotten past.

And then, just when it seems that things couldn’t get any grimmer, or darker, a number on a calendar becomes a representative for today, my 60th birthday, and I find myself surrounded by family.  Empty shadows and silence are replaced by warmth and laughter, and I and my faith are restored.

My daughter recently became engaged, and her fiancé is with her as she visits this weekend. The more I get to know Zach, the more I appreciate what a kind, generous, and decent guy he is. It’s amazing to see my daughter in love, and the fact that she’s found the perfect match restores the faith I’ve lost in myself, and in the world where I live. It’s the simple fact that in a world so ugly and divided that love not only still exists, but that it is still the most powerful force in the universe

So how does it feel to be sixty years old?

It feels damned good.

Chaos and FrozenYogurt


It seems unlikely at best. That is the understatement of all time.

The butterfly effect (the scenario associated with chaos theory, not the bad Ashton Kutcher movie that came out a few years ago) speculates that a single flap of the wings of a butterfly can set off a series of events that can culminate in a tsunami occurring on the other side of the world. The universe, according to chaos theory, operates on the randomness of events put into motion by other seemingly random events, and the present is constantly creating and modifying the future.

I just finished eating a bowl of frozen yogurt. Consider all the things that had to happen since the dawn of time to bring me to this moment, at this time, in this place.  Somebody had to invent the bowl. Somebody had to make the bowl I ate the frozen yogurt out of. Someone had to invent yogurt. Someone had to come up with the idea of freezing yogurt.  And so on, and so on; billions and billions of things had to happen.

Consider this: My folks had to meet and procreate in order for me to even be here. My mom and dad met at a New Year ’s Eve dance, about ten years before I was born. What if some strange guy named Frank Furter hadn’t been standing behind the front door right when the guy who played organ in the band tripped over the threshold on his way in? Well, if Mr. Furter hadn’t been there to break his fall, the organ player would have hit his head against the corner of the wall, splitting it open and causing him to be rushed to the hospital, causing the band to cancel its gig. My Mom and Dad would have never met, going their separate ways with their friends, to separate other dances, and I wouldn’t be here some seventy years later to eat my frozen yogurt.

When I write, I try to tap into this energy. I’m always asking myself, where am I, and how did I get here?

In November of 1979, a 19 year old woman and a 21 year old boy were living in different states, eastern Michigan and northwestern Wisconsin,about 600 miles apart. To the best of their knowledge, their paths had never crossed. Unlikely, indeed.

Then, on a Monday night in January of1980, only two months later, their journeys brought them both to Gateway Technical College, in Kenosha, in southeastern Wisconsin, to a classroom where a class in Computer Programming in FORTRAN IV was being held. She had green eyes that glowed deeper than any he’d ever seen before.  They soon found that they had classes together four nights a week, Monday thru Wednesday and Friday. They spoke their first words to each other (her: “Hi, Dave,” him “Hi.”) on the Wednesday of the second week.

Literally thousands of things had to occur in those prior two months to bring them together. But this was no little butterfly flapping its wings.  This was a freight train powered by a hurricane, and it’d been thundering down the tracks since the dawn of time until it reached its destination, its destiny.

It took until Friday, Mach 28th, 1980, for him to finally ask her out, and on Wednesday, August 15th, 2018, they celebrated their 37th wedding anniversary.

Now, my writer questions:  Where am I? Answer – I’m in Heaven

Q: How did I get here? A: I’ve always been here

Fourth of July


In what seems like another lifetime ago, I was a senior manager of I.T. for a Fortune 500 company.  In the late nineties, I hired an independent consultant named Boris who had only recently come to the United States. He did a fine job for us, and I hired him for other projects and when those were completed I recommended him to other I.T. Managers for other projects.  This went on until a couple of years ago, when he finally was hired as a full-time employee.

One summer day I stopped by his desk and looked at the new photos he’d posted on the walls of his cubicle. There, staring back at me, were the smiling images of him, his wife, and his two young sons, proudly waving little American flags and wearing the same dark blue t-shirts with the flag embroidered on them. It was the Fourth of July, and they were all beaming, a beautiful young family, proud to be Americans.

When he came to this country, in the early nineties, he had nothing.  The only work he could find was for a janitorial service, far beneath his skill set and intelligence.  Boris had studied Computer Science before emigrating.  He was also a chess master, one of those guys you hear about or see on television, able to defeat as many as six simultaneous opponents.  He may have been, in terms of education and intelligence, the most over qualified janitor in Chicago, but he never complained.  He was excited to be an American, and grateful for each opportunity that presented itself, more through his hard work than any stroke of good fortune.

Boris now lives in an upscale suburb.  His wife, who came to America with Boris, has been an executive for a privately held company for some time now.   They put their oldest son through Harvard, and I think their second son is about to finish high school. The last time I talked to Boris, I know they were considering Harvard for him, too.

Somewhere along the line, Boris became a citizen and, much to my chagrin, a hard line Republican.  We don’t see eye to eye on many things politically, but we both respect and appreciate each other’s love of our county.

Boris and his family are a true American success story. It’s a story of how hope and hard work and decentness were rewarded with opportunity, and it’s only one out of millions of such stories that could only be told in this great country.  There have never been better citizens than those who came to this country from elsewhere, those we welcomed from terrible circumstance with open arms.

Now our arms are closed and we are disgustingly taking children away from parents. This “crisis” at our southern border is a completely false narrative drummed up for political purposes.  The facts are that crossings at the Mexico border are at their lowest levels in recent history, and have, in fact, been decreasing steadily every year since peaking in the year 2000. The policies enforced by the previous two administrations were largely working.

But that doesn’t seem to matter. In order to energize his base and distract the rest of us from his legal problems, the president and his Attorney General have ripped thousands of children away from their families. We’ve all seen the disgusting footage on television. And please, let’s not get into the argument about who came her legally or illegally  – from those asylum seekers who’ve traveled hundreds of inhospitable miles to those simply seeking work and lodging, nothing can justify separating children from parents.

I keep thinking back to those photographs of Boris and his then very young family with their little American flags, and how much they love their country, and I can’t help but wonder, how will these children separated from their parents look at us ten, fifteen, or twenty years down the line? What kind of primal hatred will infest them and fester in their souls?

It is love and its ability to overcome hatred that’s made us great before, and will eventually make us great again. We must, and we will, rise up and reject such inhuman acts. We are still a decent and loving people, and we still see ourselves reflected in the eyes of the victims of these atrocities.

The president keeps saying that you can’t have a country without borders, and that we need to build a wall. But for more than two hundred forty years now we’ve managed without walls. We’ve not only had a country, we’ve had the greatest country in the history of the world, made great by the blood, sweat and tears of people and their children who came here from all over the world, and by the open arms and un-walled hearts of enough people to welcome them.

Home is Where the Artist


Some of you, maybe even one of you, may have noticed a dearth of drivel adding up to a paltry and pitiful product of posts made to this site in recent months. You may have wondered why (although you most probably didn’t) the drop-off in both quantity and quality. Despite some answers and rationalizations I had on the ready, if I ever were to be honest with myself, I know that I, for one, was certainly wondering why.

It occurred to me that when I gave my stock answer, that I’d just finished writing my second novel (coincidentally titled I Don’t Know Why) and needed to take some time away from writing after spending so much time on it, it didn’t ring true.  The truth is that I had no new ideas and that, for the first time, writing had become an unpleasant chore for me.  Even worse, I felt that I hadn’t grown, hadn’t improved over the stuff I was writing nine or ten years ago. I felt, after finally finishing what was a fairly ambitious work in I Don’t Know Why, the short stuff I wrote for this site and others seemed tedious and repetitive, and I was showing no growth as an artist.

That’s right, I said it, the “a” word. I’ll admit it – I aspire to be recognized as an artist. Pretentious, yes. Overly ambitious – you bet.  Out of my league – most probably.

But to me, whether I’m capable of artistry or not, it makes no sense to aspire to mediocrity. Better to aim too high than shoot too low.

It’s certainly how I approached both of my novels.  In both Ojibway Valley and I Don’ Know Why, I wanted to write about what I feel are important topics.  In Ojibway Valley, I wanted to write about how the past shapes the present, and loss, how the decisions we make when dealing with it change the world in ways we are not even aware of.  In I Don’t Know Why, I wanted to write about how trauma and isolation can drive an individual to their breaking point, and how love and truth can bring one back. I wanted to write about things like life and death, truth and betrayal. You know, serious stuff.

Additionally, I had specific “technical” themes I challenged myself with.  In Ojibway Valley, these included conveying my own romantic relationship with a real place and trying to make the reader feel the same way about my fictional landscape, and I wanted to tell the stories (because there are more than one) in a non-linear format and tie them together in the end. In I Don’t Know Why, I wanted to write a stronger narrative that unfolds in a shorter period of time than the 120 years or so Ojibway Valley covered (I succeeded in that I Don’t Know Why covers roughly ten years – I’d like someday to write a novel that takes place in a single afternoon or over a single night, but I’m not there yet). I also wanted to play with telling the story from the point of view of an unreliable narrator

Whether and to what degree I succeeded or failed at all this is up to the readers to decide (I know how I feel). And I know that for Ojibway Valley, readers has been a low number. I also know that nobody believes me when I say that I’m okay with that.  Given my diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease, Ojibway Valley was the book I had to write, that I had to complete and publish, if for no other reason than for my children to better know me, to know what laid in my heart and mind and soul. At this stage of my life, money isn’t the motivator – I spent an entire career chasing that, now it’s time to chase other, more elusive things.

Not that more money and readers would be a bad thing.  I did spend a year kind of half-assed trying to sell Ojibway Valley, but my heart really wasn’t in it – I just wanted to write the next one and move on.  During that year I started the first draft of I Don’t Know Why, and settled probably too easily on self-publishing Ojibway Valley.

So what is it that left such a sour taste in my mouth that I found myself first putting off writing and then avoiding it all together?

Could it be my health?  A reoccurrence of the heart problems I had a couple of years ago, or the advancement of Parkinson’s?  Well, let’s take a look at that:

How am I doing?

Overall, I’m doing exceptionally well.

First, my heart – it’s been over two years since I had triple bypass surgery, and I’m doing so well that most days I forget it ever happened.  I recently saw my weight dip below 200 pounds (199.6 for one time only, since then I’ve been stuck between 202 and 203!) for the first time in at least twenty five years. I still work out at the hospital every day, and I’m confident that as long as I continue to exercise and watch what I eat and take my prescribed dosage of Lipitor every day, my cholesterol levels should remain where they’ve been at for over a year now, which is about half of what they were before the surgery.

Now, P.D. –  It’s been twelve years since my diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, and I’m doing better and taking less carbidopa / levodopa, the primary medications used in fighting Parkinson’s’, than I have in years. Thanks to the right mixture of pills and exercise and deep-brain stimulation, the balance issues I suffered last summer are pretty much non-existent.

Every day, I wake up prepared for a fight with P.D.  Lately, I feel so good that it feels like I’m landing almost all of my punches, and that I’m kicking Parkinson’s ass. But while I might be connecting with right uppercuts and haymaker left hooks to Parkinson’s head, almost undetected are the subtle but powerful body shots PD is still hitting me in the ribs with, and when I look at things honestly, I realize the scorecard still has PD. in the lead. PD is a plodder, a bulldozer, able to bob and weave his way in and take the most vicious blows to the head without so much as a stagger, while working tirelessly on my rib cage and abdomen, knocking breath after breath out of me. There will be no quick T.K.O. of Parkinson’s, but at least I’m still in the ring.

I still get exhausted after taking my meds, and take an afternoon nap every day, and sometimes an additional late morning nap, too.  My salivary glands have kicked into a permanent setting of hyper overdrive, resulting in a wet and thick mouth that makes speaking coherently more often than not difficult in the day time and for a flood of drool on my pillow at night time.

My sense of balance is much better than a year ago, but I still have the occasional stumble if not out and out fall. It’s certainly manageable. What is becoming increasingly frustrating is the erosion of my hand to eye coordination.  While I have to admit that when it comes to physical grace, nobody has ever compared me to a Nureyev or Baryshnikov, at least I used to be able to do simple tasks at a normal speed. Now, for example, when checking out at the grocery store, it takes me so long to put my bank card back in my wallet that the high school kid doing the bagging has started his graduate studies. It can be frustrating as hell to try and tie a fishing hook or to simply untangle the wires of my headphones. The worst is trying to open the clear plastic bags in the produce section of the grocery store. I know, everybody occasionally struggles with the two sides of clear plastic that are so thin and bound so tightly together as to make it easier to break into Fort Knox than separate, but most people don’t spend fifteen hapless minutes trying to open one bag until finally some good Samaritan steps in and quickly snaps the bags open for me. I may not be a fading southern belle, but I find myself like Blanche Dubois depending more and more upon the kindness of strangers.

I’m also prone to frequent and sudden drowsiness. This has led to my wife doing most of the driving, and as a rule, I don’t drive if the trip is longer than a half hour. This makes getting up to my cabin in northwest Wisconsin, more than 300 miles from home, an exercise in logistics and planning if I want to spend some alone time up there.  This week, for example, I took the bus from Kenosha to O’Hare and flew the short (the bus ride to the airport took longer than the time we were in the air) and cheap one-way ticket flight to Eau Claire, where my son Nicholas lives.  Nick then drove me the hour (made two hours by unexpected road closings) trip north to our cabin, where he dropped me off.  Today, my sister, who has a cabin of her own a couple of hundred yards or so away from mine, arrived from her home in Oshkosh, where she will take me next Thursday, so my wife has a shorter trip to pick me up and  take me back home to Pleasant Prairie (south of Kenosha).  So in a week and half, I will have traveled by bus, airplane, and three different cars into Illinois and all around the State of Wisconsin, just to get a few days use out of our property.  It truly takes a village.

But these are still, in the grand scheme of things, pretty minor complaints. The big thing to take away from this is that with the weight loss and exercise, overall, I feel really good.

So what was it that put myself into such a funk about writing?

Well, I think one thing was sheer boredom and laziness. I think I’d become bored with writing because I’ve been doing it for long enough now that I wasn’t pushing myself anymore. I’d developed a lot of bad habits, and instead of trying to break them, I found myself leaning on them, using these same old tricks to whip through whatever I was working on.  The result was an increasing mediocrity and repetitiveness in my writing, especially the essays I wrote for the site 2ndfirstlook.com. Anytime I contributed one of my lists (“Favorite one hit wonders,” for example) I was clearly just going through the motions and repeating a formula that was already tired the first time I trotted it out a couple of years ago.

Whatever it was, it had to stop.  Paradoxically, I think the fact that I was feeling so well worked against me as a writer. It seems that denial isn’t just a one-time thing you go through with Parkinson’s, and while it might be better than its twin sister obsession, denying the truth can be just as dangerous as obsessing over it all the time. Writing had become, with the constant typos and misinterpretations of the signals my brain was sending to my fingers, an annoying reminder that I hadn’t knocked out PD yet. I didn’t want to think about these things, they didn’t fit with the narrative I was trying to sell myself on, that I was losing weight and regaining strength and rolling the clock back decades. I chose to ignore things like the fatigue I still suffered from and avoid things that would remind me of my condition and deny those things I couldn’t avoid.  For example, if I was really turning the clock back, I wouldn’t require a nap every day.

Eventually, though, and only recently, the need to express myself has seemingly returned, and I’ve found myself returning to writing and rediscovering my love for it.

Since Nick dropped me off up here almost a week ago, I’ve been at my north woods cabin, not quite alone as my sister is up at her neighboring cabin. A tornado came through in mid-May, right between our two cabins, amazingly not touching either one but knocking down an extraordinary number of trees on my 47 acre property, many over the trails we use to get around the woods on.  So about a week after the storm I bought a new chain saw and have been, when up here, trying to clear the trails. I’d been making good progress when Friday afternoon, as I neared the far edge of the property, I found two immense trees that had fallen smack dab over the trail. I started cutting the first one, when during a momentary lapse of attention I badly buried the blade of my new saw deep in the center of the tree, unable to move it in either direction. I should have known better, that both sides were supporting weight and that  I couldn’t cut straight thru without it binding on me, but hey, it happens. I could absolve myself of that sin. What was more neglectful was how unprepared I was for the situation.  Sure, I had a mallet and a couple of small wedges, but it quickly became obvious that they were woefully not up to this job. Then I remembered that back at my cabin I had my old chainsaw that I hadn’t started in months.  So I hopped on my ATV and went back and got my old saw, with the intent of using it to cut out my new saw. Just in case I couldn’t get the old one started, I looked for more wedges, but the closest I could find was an old wood chisel. Grabbing it and my old saw I returned to the scene of the crime. First, I tried the old saw. Much to my surprise, she started right off, but the chain was worn so bad that it got about halfway through the log before I finally gave up on it. I then sat myself down and went to work with the mallet and the chisel.

The sunny afternoon sky was soon consumed by gray clouds, and sure enough, it wasn’t long before it started raining.  I continued chiseling, and listened to the soft symphony of the rain in the woods, a sound I’ve loved since I was a kid.  It occurred to me as I sat there, chiseling away, how much I was enjoying myself.  You’d think that with the saw stuck and the rain falling down I’d be miserable, but I wasn’t. I knew that eventually I’d get my new saw out of that tree, and in the meantime I’d just celebrate how good I felt, and how blessed I was  to have my hands occupied by the work I was doing, giving a reason to be out there, in the middle of the woods in the soft summer rain.

After working on it for about an hour, I was finally able to yank the new saw out. Figuring that in the process of yanking it out I’d undoubtedly flooded my saw, I packed everything up. I was soaking wet from the combination of sweat and rain, and dirty, my hands and shirt and jeans covered in wet sawdust that clung to skin and clothing. I stood there for a second before starting the ATV.  The rain had stopped and bright summer sunlight streamed through the leaves and onto my face. The woods were lush and green and alive, and I felt good, I felt like for a moment at least I was part of it all.

I strapped all of my gear to the ATV and drove out of the woods.  Somewhere along the trail back, a familiar refrain that I hadn’t heard for a while popped into my head:

I have to write about this.

 

Inside and Outside the Comfort Zone


On Monday, 12-12-2016, I tried to set aside my inherent stage fright and, as an old boss of mine frequently coached me to, step out of my “comfort zone.” It was with his voice in my ear that I took the stage at Kenosha Fusion as a storyteller in the OLIO storytelling collective.

The OLIO storytelling collective is a bunch of people who enjoy storytelling.  Some are writers, some are actors or performers, but all enjoy telling stories. The stories can be about anything, can be old folk tales re-told verbatim or with a twist, can be autobiographical or completely fictional.  The only rule is that you try to conform to a maximum length (which I exceeded in my “performance.” Oh, well.) and adhere to a “theme” if it is a themed show.  The theme for the most recent show was Christmas, so I told a much abbreviated version of “A Greaser Christmas.” (about 17% of the events and people described in my story really happened.)

The setting for the OLIO collective shows is a wonderfully intimate venue known as Kenosha Fusion. It hosts everything from musicians to comedians to puppeteers to actors to art shows to open mics to … well, just about any kind of live performance. It seats about 50 to 75 people, has an excellent sound system and a fully stocked bar. It’s a great showcase for local talent of all kinds.

 

Fusion-Paul2.jpg

I was reluctant to “perform” because of my chronic stage fright and the inconsistent quality of my voice. Thanks to my case of Parkinson’s disease, my voice is often times garbled and soft, and I tend to stutter.  But lately, for some reason, it’s been pretty good, good enough for me not to worry too much about it. As for the stage fright, I wasn’t as confident. I practiced my story for a couple of weeks before, getting it down from twenty three minutes(the unabridged version, which I posted here a couple of weeks ago) to about twelve minutes. I had to cut a lot of the best parts out, which shook my confidence a bit, but finally, in the day or two before the event, I became comfortable with what was left

The night of the event came. I was first on the bill, and I arrived at Kenosha Fusion early to stake out the performance area first. There was a podium I could hide behind (and post a one page outline of my story – it’s supposed to be memorized and not read, but I think the outline was okay, as it was just a list of the sections of my story in case I completely blanked out.) I was comfortable enough with the venue, now all I had to do was wait for my name to be called and do the damn thing.

It was cold out and a Monday night, so there wasn’t exactly a line at the door. They kept the doors open a little bit later than planned, so a few more people straggled in, making it a decent sized crowd. It helped that many of them were friends and family, but I was still a little bit nervous as my name was finally introduced and I walked up to the podium.

I was afraid my voice was too soft, and I nervously got through the first minute or so, when the moment of truth arrived – the first laugh my story was supposed to get. I delivered the “punch line” and got a good, healthy chuckle, and it was smooth sailing from that point on.  Sure, there are a few times where I stuttered and the words got garbled, but I know for a fact that was due to the Parkinson’s and not nerves, as I couldn’t have felt more comfortable.

It turned out to be a lot of fun. Whether I’ll do it again will depend largely on how my Parkinson’s develops, how it affects my voice  and balance (believe it or not, having a podium to stand behind and lean upon was big, because I knew I could grab on to something if I felt myself starting to fall! One less thing to worry about!), but for now I can confidently say that for a few moments on a cold December night, I stepped out of my comfort zone and lived to tell about it.

A Greaser Christmas


(This is the unabridged version of the story I told last Monday at the Olio Storytelling event at Kenosha Fusion. I dd the math and about 17% of this really happened.)

In December of 1972, I was a freshman in a high school in a small town in southeastern Wisconsin.  I was born in 1958, at the height of the post-world war two baby boom. There must have been a whole lot of procreating going on at that time, because fourteen years later the small town high school was bursting at its seams.  The school became so overcrowded that fall that they had to rent out some classrooms in the church across the street.

The school cafeteria was modern and clean, brightly lit by the daylight that streamed in through windows high upon the walls. It had long tables with attached benches. After the last lunch period was over, a custodian would fold the tables up into compartments on the wall, where they’d rest until late morning the following day, when they’d be unfolded in advance of the first lunch hour.  Each table sat about twenty kids, ten on each side, and there were about fourteen tables. As nice as they were, there still weren’t enough of them to seat the expanded student body, so they knocked out a wall on the north end and expanded the cafeteria enough to fit in about six old black tables to handle the overflow.  There weren’t even any chairs, you’d just stand there at the table and lift forks full of Spanish rice or soy casserole to your mouth. This overflow area became home to the misfits and oddballs who didn’t fit in with enough kids to get a seat at one of the nice, fold down tables. Needless to say, that included me.

It’d be difficult to believe looking at me now, but at the time I was small. Ridiculously small. I was the smallest kid in my class, possibly the smallest class in the entire high school. I was short and scrawny. I was five foot two and weighed 95 pounds sopping wet.

There was one part of my anatomy that was disproportionately large, and no, unfortunately, it wasn’t that – rather, it was my mouth.  I had a big mouth that I’d shoot off with little regard for consequence.  I was a smart ass, my big mouth writing checks that my tiny body couldn’t cash, constantly getting me in trouble that I had no business getting into.

So I ended up with three other oddball freshmen who were also exiled to the chair-less tables at the new end of the cafeteria.  There were also about a dozen or so upper class men, juniors and seniors, who also occupied this space. They were what at the time was commonly referred to as “greasers,” the thugs and hoods, the bad asses and tough guys, the bullies who are a part of every public high school.

The leaders of the greasers were three older guys – the Kowalski  brothers, Earl, Butch, and Alfred Lord.  Alfred Lord Kowalski was the sensitive, cultured one of the three – he’d recently mastered the art of using silverware. Nobody knows how many years the Kowalski brothers had been pursuing that elusive high school diploma, but rumor had it that Earl, who was the oldest and the alpha dog of the pack, had recently acquired his AARP card.  To say they were scary looking would be an understatement. They wore black leather jackets and had tattoos on their arms. In 1972, tattoos hadn’t become fashionable yet – unlike now days, when everybody’s little brother and sister has a dozen or so. In 1972, only legitimate bad asses like the Kowalski brohers had tattoos.  They also had scars on their faces and they occasionally walked upright.  They had a una-brow – you know, one uninterrupted eyebrow over both eyes – only in this case, it was one eyebrow shared between the three of them, covering all six of their eyes. It started over Earl’s left eye and then his right and then it would leave Earl’s face and dangle in midair until it connected to Butch’s face and covered his eyes and then suspended in the air it’d connect to Alfred Lord’s face and cover his eyes.

Most of the time, the greasers left us alone, immersed as they’d get in their philosophical conversations, debating, for example, whether fire good or fire bad. I was learning to keep my big mouth shut, and we gave the greasers their space and they gave us ours.

Except for that day in December.  Me and the other three oddball freshmen were standing in a row on the same side of our chair-less table, me on the left end, the other three to my right, eating our lunch when all of the sudden we noticed that our table was surrounded by greasers, standing silently in uncomfortably close proximity. It felt suffocating, claustrophobic. We could feel their warm mouth breathing on the back of our necks.  Then the Kowalski brothers emerged.  Butch stood next to the kid on the far right, Freshman Number One, and Alfred Lord was standing next to me.  I turned and tried to walk away, when Alfred Lord stopped me.  “Where do you think you’re going?” he asked.

“Me? Oh, I’m sorry, I have to leave.  I have an appointment with my podiatrist.”

“You ain’t going nowhere,” Alfred Lord Kowalksy said.

“Hey, Butch,” Earl said.  “You know what?”

“What?” Butch replied.  Butch was the dimmest of the three, his vocabulary limited to mono syllabic grunts.

“It just don’t feel like Christmas this year, does it.”

“No,” Butch grunted.

“I’ve been trying to figure out why it don’t feel like Christmas, and I think I finally got it, I think I finally figured out why it don’t feel like Christmas,” Earl said.

“Why?” Butch replied.

“It don’t feel like Christmas cause we ain’t had us any of them Christmas songs.  Ain’t nothing get you in the Christmas spirit like some of that there Christmas music.”

“Music good,” Butch stated.

“We’re gonna change that right now.  We’re going to have us some Christmas music so’s we all get into the Christmas spirit.”  With that Earl approached Freshman Number One, standing on the far right of the four of us.  Earl grabbed Freshman Number One by the shoulders and said “kid, get up on the table and sing us a Christmas song.”

“Oh, golly, gee, I don’t think so,” Freshman Number One replied, “I’m kind of shy, kind of …”

“Kid,” Earl scowled, “I don’t think you understand.  I ain’t asking you if you wanna sing us a Christmas song. I’m telling you. Now get up on that table and sing us a Christmas song, or we’re going to kick your ass”

Now, let’s pause for a moment and reflect on the phrase, “kick your ass.”  If only it were that simple.  Sure, it might involve pointy-toed boots, and if they really got good leg speed into it, a kick in the ass might hurt for three hours, four hours top.  But the expression was never meant to be taken literally.  No, if I intend to “kick your ass,” I intend to beat the humanity out of you, until your last frayed nerve ending is screaming in pain, and you are a mere hollowed out shell of yourself, and then, when there is nothing left of you but a quivering pad of gelatinous goo spilled on the floor, then, maybe then, I might add in a swift and hard kick at your posterior just to serve as an exclamation point, but that’s not really necessary.

So Freshman Number One, his options made clear by Earl, responded the only way he could.  “Oh, golly gee whiz there, Earl, I’m really uncomfortable in such demonstrative displays.  Could you find someone else?  Could you?”

At that point the greasers converged on Freshman Number One and beat the daylights out of him until he was left there in a crumpled heap on the floor, oozing blood and tears and other bodily fluids, all draining out of him and beginning to pool right there on the cafeteria floor. And Freshman Number One lay there in a crumpled heap, and he was bruised and battered and broken and bent and bloodied.

Then Earl moved on to Freshman Number Two, and said “Kid, either you get up on this table and sing us a Christmas song, or we’re gonna kick your ass.”

To which Freshman Number Two replied, “I wish I could, but I’m afraid that my religion strictly prohibits such enthusiastic displays of enthusiasm as singing Christmas songs, so I just can’t.”

And the greasers converged on Freshman Number Two and beat the living crap out of him until he was left lying there on the floor, just a crusty and lifeless spoonful of unrecognizable goo.  The greasers lifted him off the floor and threw him on top of the crumpled heap that used to be Freshman Number One, and now the crumpled heap was two freshmen deep, causing their bones to lock together in impossible and painful angles, and Freshman Number Two was oozing blood and tears and other bodily fluids, all draining out of him and intermingling with Freshman Number One’s blood and tears and pooling right there on the cafeteria floor. And Freshman Number Two was bruised and battered and broken and bent.

At the table, there were only two freshmen left, Freshman Number Three and myself. Earl approached Freshman Number Three and said, “Kid, either you get up on this table and sing us a Christmas song, or we’re gonna kick your ass.”

Freshman Number Three, of course, responded with, “I’m sorry, Earl, but I’m getting a scratchy throat and have a hoarse voice, and I think I’ve got a fever, so could we take a rain check?  Maybe sometime next week?  A rain check?”

At which point the greasers descended upon Freshman Number Three and just destroyed him, as he disappeared beneath them and when the savagery was over the greasers backed off to reveal about 150 broken pieces of Freshman Number Three scattered on the floor, and then a greaser emerged from the crowd with a shovel in his hand, where he got a shovel in the middle of the cafeteria, I have no idea, but he scooped up all the pieces of Freshman Number Three and dumped them on top of the crumpled heap, and now the crumped heap was three freshmen deep, and, since I was only five foot two inches tall, the crumpled heap was now nearly as tall as me, making it even more intimidating a sight than it already was. And Freshman Number Three was oozing blood and tears that intermingled with the blood and tears of the other freshmen and drained into a pool right there on the cafeteria floor.  And Freshman Number Three was bruised and battered and broken and bent.

Now there was only one Freshman left standing, all five foot two, ninety five pounds of me.  As Earl approached me, I felt my heart pounding so hard I thought it was going to leap right out of my chest.  Then Earl was there, right next to me, and he started, “Kid, either you get up …”

And he stopped.

In mid sentence, Earl Kowalski stopped.

The reason he stopped, was, when he looked up at me, I wasn’t there.

I was gone.

I was already up on that table, halfway through the first verse of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”

Now, you have to understand that in December of 1972, the television airwaves were dominated by the cheesiest and schmaltziest of all forms of entertainment, the celebrity Christmas special.  They were these awful variety  shows, and for some reason, the Las Vegas style entertainer was popular at the time, with stars like Dean Martin, Tony Orlando, Wane Newton and Sammy Davis Junior all over emoting and swinging through lip synced renditions of the most horribly clichéd pop standards.  It was all awful, and as I didn’t exactly have an active social calendar at the time, I watched them all and studied their acts.

Now, on the table performing for the greasers, I found all the time I’d invested watching those shows was informing my performance of Rudolph.  I started it out as a slow and soulful ballad and then, halfway through, kicked the tempo up into gear until it was a swinging and rollicking production number, accented by my finger snapping and the random “heys” and “babys” I punctuated each line with.

I looked down at my audience, the dozen or so greasers that had surrounded our table, and they were all silent and still, mouths gaping open, looks of utter confusion and bewilderment on their faces.  Even Earl Kowalski was stunned, and it became clear to me that they had no idea how to react. They knew only one thing, how to kick ass. They had never estimated that any kid would have low enough self-esteem to get up on that table and humiliate himself rather than take his ass-kicking.  This plus the fact that I seemed to be enjoying myself really blew their mildly developed minds.

I finished singing Rudolph to no reaction, just stunned greaser silence. I’d done my song, but nobody knew what to do next.  We were in unchartered waters. It occurred to me that as long as I remained up on that table, it meant that the greasers weren’t kicking my ass, so I plowed forward with the rest of the show.  I decided to throw in a little joke next – playing the part of Rudolph, I said, “I just flew in from the north pole, and boy, are my antlers tired!”  Still, no reaction – just stony, or maybe stoner, silence.

I looked at the clock on the wall, and there were still a few minutes left, so I kicked into my second song, “Jingle Bells,” really rocking it, making it swing, baby!  Still only slack-jawed silence from my audience.  So I launched my rendition of “Deck the Halls,” fa-la-lalling with all my heart, when, in the midst of a fa-la –la, the school bell sounded.

The end of lunch hour!  Saved by the bell!

I announced, “Sorry, folks, that’s all the time we have.  Thank you, and good night, ladies and gentlemen.  I’m here all week. Good night, and drive safely.”

The greasers were still standing there, stunned, as I jumped off the table, into the perimeter of the circle of greasers that sill stood unmoving, surrounding the table.  I confidently tapped the one in front of me on the shoulder and boldly said, “Excuse me, please.”

Much to my surprise, the greasers parted as if I were Charlton Heston and they were the Red Sea.  And I walked, no, I strutted out, past the greasers, past the hideous specter and painful moans of the crumpled heap, past the now coagulated and hardened pool on the cafeteria floor, as if I were walking out on a red carpet.  And I exited the cafeteria and walked into the afternoon, intact and unscathed from my encounter with the still discombobulated greasers.

The next day, I entered the cafeteria, feeling good about myself and the performance I’d given the day before. I walked past our table, and there was no sign of either the bloody pool or the crumpled heap or, for that matter, the other three freshmen, who I could only assume were in a hospital somewhere in different degrees of traction.

Then I saw the Kowalski brothers approaching, and for a split second, my heartbeat accelerated, but only for a second. I suddenly realized that I wasn’t afraid of them anymore.  Sure, they could kick my ass, but so what? I had two older brothers, so it wasn’t like I’d never had my ass kicked before. You get over an ass-kicking pretty quick, but one thing I’ll never get over, one thing the greasers could never take away from me was the fact that the day before I’d gotten up on that table and rocked the joint.  I gave it everything I had, and I was swinging, baby!  And no Kowalski or any greaser could ever take that away from me. So at the sight of them approaching, I kept walking.  I will not back down.

Then they were there, right in front of me, when Earl says, “Hey, kid …”

I braced myself for the pending ass-kicking.

“Kid,” Earl continued, “I just wanted to tell you, how much I enjoyed your show yesterday.”

Stunned, I replied, “Thank you, Earl.”

Then Butch added, “Show, good!”

“Thanks, Butch.”

Even Alfred Lord Kowalski, normally the quiet one of the three brothers, chimed in. “Dude,”, he said, “I thought you had a real stage presence, although some of your material lacked a cohesive core.”

“Thanks, I think, Alfred Lord,” I said.  They liked me!  They really liked me!

“Kid,” Earl started, “your show was so good, that I think everybody in this school ought to have a chance to see it.”

“Why, thanks,” I replied.  “That’s the nicest thing anybody’s ever said to me.”  And it really was the nicest thing anybody had ever said to me.  The fact that it came from Earl Kowalski of all people made it all the more meaningful. This was turning out better than I could have ever imagined.

I closed my eyes, basking in the moment, feeling the adoration and adulation of the Kowalski brothers wash over me, and I felt my feet leave the ground, and I was floating, and with my eyes shut I could see in a future T.V. Guide, the Bob Hope Christmas Special, the Bing Crosby Christmas Special, and now, the Dave Gourdoux Christmas Special, with guest Star Ricardo Montalban, and …

Suddenly I felt some unidentified force grab my arms and lift them above my head and I opened my eyes only to realize that I wasn’t floating after all, and that Alfred Lord Kowalski had a hold of my legs and Butch had hold of my arms, and they were carrying me, through the cafeteria exit to the hallway beyond, where all the other greasers were waiting for us.  Then they lifted all 95 pounds of me above their heads and they were passing me along, like I was body surfing in a mosh pit, and I could see in front of me, on the other side of the hallway, the big rectangular doors that opened to the gymnasium.  As they passed me closer to the gym door, I could see, high above it, a hook that protruded from the wall.  And they lifted me up as high as they could until my belt loop in the back snagged and caught on that hook, and there they left me, dangling helplessly by my belt loop high above the hallway below.

Earl Kowalski looked up at me and said, “Kid, it looks like you’re gonna be up there for a while, so, if I were you, I’d start singing now.”  The Kowalski brothers and all the greasers had a good laugh at my expense as they entered the cafeteria, leaving me alone in the hallway, dangling up above the gym door.  Then, looking the other way down the hallway, I could see the horde of kids headed for lunch hour, and I knew Earl was right about one thing.  Since you had to pass that gym door in order to get to the cafeteria, every kid in the school would get a chance to see my show.

I decided to open with my brand new arrangement of “Silver Bells” …

Tuesday Morning


Last year, on Easter Sunday of 2015, my wife took me to the emergency room after I experienced pains in my chest and left arm. They ran a bunch of preliminary tests and everything looked fine, but the doctor admitted me anyway until I could undergo a stress test, which he ordered for me to take Monday morning.

To make a long story short, the stress test almost killed me, and I ended up in Intensive Care for a couple of hours. Finally, after running more tests, they were able to determine that three of the arteries to my heart were badly constricted, with one at 99% blocked. They scheduled me for triple bypass surgery early Tuesday morning, and they closely monitored me all that night.

Monday evening, my wife sat with me in my room. I don’t remember much about what we talked about, other than telling each other how lucky we were to have caught this in the nick of time and how much better I’d feel after it was all over and my recovery was complete. Finally, sometime around ten o’clock, we realized how exhausted we both were and what a long day Tuesday promised to be, so she went home to try and get a few hours of sleep while I’d try to do the same in my hospital bed.

An hour or two later I woke up from dozing and saw the empty chair where she’d been sitting all evening. Only it wasn’t the chair I saw, rather, it was our bed at home, and I saw my side empty and my wife sleeping alone, and it hit me: there was a chance, if things didn’t go well during the operation or in the immediate days of recovery afterwards, that I’d already spent my last night sleeping in bed with my arm wrapped around her. For the first time since my hour or two stay in Intensive Care, the gravity of what I was going through and the permanence of death really hit me.  It wasn’t her eyes or her face or her skin or her voice that I thought of.  It wasn’t the laughs or the secrets we’ve shared. It wasn’t the deep friendship and comradery we’ve spent a lifetime forging.  It wasn’t any one of the million waking real world things I love about her.

It was instead the sleep we share every night, our bodies pressed against each other, the rising and falling of her breath, and the rhythm of our hearts beating together in perfect time. I laid there the rest of the night, awake, hoping and praying I’d wake up from my operation on Tuesday morning so I could go back home and once again fall into sleep and into the dream that my love for her has been all these years.

This Monday, August 15th, will be our thirty fifth wedding anniversary and I want to tell you, thank you, Deb, thank you for the dreaming.  After we have our little anniversary dinner and evening, we’ll go to bed and sleep and dream together, just like we have almost every night for the past thirty five years, and when the August early morning light of Tuesday morning illuminates our bed, we’ll wake up together, too. I now know that, regardless of what happens or whatever distances are placed between us, in the night, when you close your eyes, and in the morning, when you open them, I’ll always be with you and you with me.

Windows


From July of 1977 to November of 1979, I worked at the Norco Windows factory in the tiny town of Hawkins, Wisconsin. It was a big operation at the time. There had to be at least 400 people who worked there, more than the entire population of 338 who called the town of Hawkins home.

I was eighteen years old when I started and twenty one when I left. For most of the time I worked there, my job was to snap together the insulated aluminum spacers into rectangular frames that were the starting point in the process of the creation of double insulated windows.

The frames I snapped together were insulated with silicate by Lew, my work partner, who had two square, three gallon jugs that he’d fill with silicate and then place into a metallic frame someone had designed.  They were positioned in the frame cocked at an angle, with the bottom seam of the jug held together with a strip of rubber with holes punched in it.  The rubber holes were slits just big enough for Lew to insert the aluminum spacers into.  There were about ten holes in each jug, and Lew would insert the spacers into the holes and gravity would force the silica into the spacers. The apparatus that Lew used to fill the spacers was ingenious in its design, as right after Lew would insert the 20th spacer, the first one would be filled, and he’d remove the twenty spacers in the same order he’d inserted them. There were no expensive electronics or hydraulics involved, just a frame someone had welded together, two square three gallon jugs, two rubber strips with holes punched in them, and the endless force of gravity. I imagine that now, forty years later, the whole process has been re-engineered, and that both Lew’s job and mine have long ago been automated.

Which makes me thankful that I got to Norco when I did, else I probably would have missed out on ever meeting Lew, one of the nicest and simplest and sweetest men to ever walk the earth.

Lew was a funny-looking guy, short and squat, with soft features and a baby face that contradicted the fact that he was forty five years old.  His skin was blotchy and hung loosely on his frame. Like a lot of the older guys who worked there at the time, he wore a dark green buttoned up work shirt over a white t-shirt and olive green work slacks every day. He wore a fading and floppy yellow fishing cap over his bald head. He was a confirmed bachelor, and still lived at home with his folks.

We’d stand there, side by side, him on his little spacer filling platform and me next to him, snapping spacers together, for the better part of eight hours a day.  We’d make small talk, talking about the Packers and the Brewers and the Bucks. We shared a passion for sports, although I quickly learned that Lew didn’t think like others. His brain worked in bizarre but pleasant ways.  One day we were talking about the packers and discussing the weekly injury report when I said that one of the players was listed as “probable, meaning that he’ll probably play.”

“That’s not what probable means,” he replied.  When I pressed him on it, he said that “it means he’ll probably play or he probably won’t.”

He never said anything negative about anyone, and more often than not, his face expressed a goofy looking toothy grin.

There were things about him that just didn’t make any sense.  For example, when I asked him what his favorite move was, he answered “Under the Yum Yum Tree, with Jack Lemmon.”  It was always “with Jack Lemmon,” and when I asked him what it was he liked so much about the movie, he’d smile that big goofy grin and reply, “Oh, no, you’re not going to get me like that.” I never had a clue what that meant, or why, in the two plus years I worked with him, every time the subject of movies came up, he’d mention “Under the Yum Yum Tree with Jack Lemmon,” but never give any context as to why.

He was proud of the small town he’d lived in with his parents his entire life, and worked at softball tournaments and parades and fireworks, always volunteering to work the concession stands or to stay behind afterwards and sweep up the town hall or turn off the lights and close up the ball park.  Although he never served in the military, he was none the less proudly patriotic of his country.

One non-descript afternoon we were working in silence when I looked over at Lew. All of the sudden a look of panic overcame his face. He set the handful of spacers he held in his hands down and stepped off of his platform.

“Lew,” I started, “is everything okay?”

He gave no indication of having heard me as he stepped away from the corner where he and I worked and out the big doorway of our department into the larger factory.  My curiosity aroused, I followed silently a few feet behind him. He had the same panicked expression in his eyes and on his face, as he walked, swiftly and purposefully, as if some voice in his head was ordering him where to go.  He got all the way to the other side of the factory, to the big warehouse where they stored hundreds of stacks of windows.  I was still about ten feet behind him when he finally stopped, in the middle of the cavernous building. I ducked behind a palette of wooden sashes so he couldn’t see me, but I could see him. He just stopped and looked around and the dread left his face and he was back from wherever he’d gone to, and he walked, silently and casually, back to our station.  He stepped back on the platform and grabbed the spacers he’d set down and inserted them into the rubber slits.

“Lew, are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” he grinned.

“What was that all about?” I asked.

“What?”

“You just got up and walked to the other end of the factory,” I said.

He just laughed and asked what was I talking about. It became evident very quickly that he had no memory of the incident, even though I saw it, I knew that it’d happened, even though it had been only a couple of minutes earlier. It remains one of the strangest things I’ve ever witnessed.

All I ever knew about his home life were the occasional random and incoherent nuggets. As far as I could tell, he’d always lived at home with his parents and had never been on his own.  His father was such a Green Bay Packers fan that, when his only child was born in 1933, he named him after Verne Lewellyn, a Packers great from the 1920s.

As far as I knew, there’d never been any great romance or tragic love of his life. If there had been, it didn’t seem to have had any lasting effect, as he was almost always happy and cheerful.

I got the impression that after living with his parents his entire life, now that they were older, roles had reversed and he was taking care of them.  This lead to one of the rare instances of frustration he shared with me.

It was our first day back to work after the Christmas holiday when I asked him how his holiday was.

“Terrible, just terrible,” he said, making no attempt to hide he disgust in his voice.  He went onto tell me how he’d gotten his mother a microwave oven. It was 1978 and microwaves were not only new technology, but they were expensive, too.  His mom, for reasons that eluded Lew, didn’t like the gift, and returned it.

“Maybe she thought you’d spent too much,” I offered as an explanation.  Lew just shrugged his shoulders in disgust, and then muttered something about her saying she was too old to learn new tricks.

Now, almost forty years later, whenever I think about Lew, I think about time, too, about both a snapshot into the past and all the time that’s passed since. I wonder if he’s still alive, and I do the math, and calculate that he’d be in his mid-eighties by now.  I think about aluminum spacers and rubber slits and gravity, and I think about microwave ovens, but mostly I think of a floppy yellow fishing cap and the strange episode I witnessed when something took control of Lew.   I still don’t know what it was that drove him to the far end of the factory, what it was that momentarily gripped him with fear and panic. Maybe in that moment, Lew walked through a wrinkle in time into the not too distant future and saw a world that no longer has neither the time nor a place for such a pure and lovely small town soul, as beautiful and simple as a floppy yellow fishing cap.

Over the Road


My father was born on June 28th, 1926, in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, only a week after the summer solstice, in the longest days of the year, when the sun doesn’t set until close to ten o’clock P.M.  Maybe that had something to do with his deliberate nature.  I choose the word deliberate rather than methodical, because methodical implies a certain precision, an attention to detail, that was never a part of my dad. Dad just never seemed to be in a hurry, that’s all.

For the last thirty to thirty five years of his working life, my dad was an “over the road” truck driver, which has to be the worst job description ever. What other kind of truck drivers are there? “Under the road?” An “over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house” truck driver? Calling somebody an “over the road truck driver” is like calling someone an “in an office accountant” or a “through the sky” jet pilot.  So to clarify, my dad drove the big rigs, eighteen wheelers, semi-trucks, over the long haul.

For most of those thirty-odd years, he drove by night, the last sixteen years from the Central Wisconsin terminal in Milwaukee to various Midwest destinations, from Saint Paul to various locations in Indiana and Ohio.  He’d leave on a Monday night, return home on Wednesday morning, and sleep the day away behind closed shades and a shut bedroom door.  At 5:30, one of us would gently wake him for supper, which was eaten in the presence of Walter Cronkite on a little portable black and white television. At some point while the meal was still being consumed, the phone would ring and my dad would turn the volume of the television down before he’d pick up the receiver and say, “French Embassy, DeGaulle speaking.”  The CW dispatcher was on the other end, calling to tell him where he was driving to that night, and what time he had to leave.  Then, after we finished supper, he’d go back to bed for a couple of hours before getting up and going to work. For a while, when I was in junior high or so, I’d always walk him to the door, and see him off, saying in an overly slow and melodramatically sad voice, “Bye, dear old dad. Hate to see you go.”

“Hate to go,” he’d reply in his own fake voice, always forcing a sniffle to heighten the melodrama.  It was just a stupid little thing the two of us did, and we both got a kick out of it, although even then I recognized that there was an element of truth to it. On some level, I really did hate to see him go.

Looking back on it now, I’m aware of what I had no clue of while I was growing up:  that it had to be an incredibly difficult life, and how strange it had to be for all of those years for my dad to be more familiar with the lonely landscape of the night, of the glow of headlights that would illuminate the dashed lines that his big rig would consume and swallow, than the brightly lit daylight that the drawn shades on his bedroom and motel windows strained to keep out.  So much for being born a week after the summer solstice.

It’s a testament to the strength of my mom and dad and their marriage that they raised four children (that they somehow found the time to conceive four children is impressive enough) and provided a stable and healthy and happy environment.  And to be clear, that was mostly thanks to my mom.  She always put her children first, and always made sure that my dad stayed involved in our lives. These were no minor accomplishments, especially when compared to the train wrecks that most other families of “over the road” drivers became.  My mom and dad were married for more than forty years, until mom’s death in 1994.  There were no periods of my dad being kicked out of the house, or moving in with a younger woman, or my mom taking him back, or step or half brothers and sisters. These things were the messy norm in most of the families of my dad’s co-workers.

The soundtrack to almost all of my memories of my mom and dad together is the music of their laughter. Both had finely tuned and complimentary senses of humor and a deep appreciation of the absurd. They both had the ability to get on each other’s last nerve, and both could be compelled to exercise this talent from time to time, but these times were rare. Most of the time, they set an extraordinary example of the way a couple should treat one another – with simple and sincere respect.

Dad died in August of 2011, nearly five years ago now. We were, at the time of his death, very close, just like we’d always been.  I’d started writing a couple of years previously, and I had the opportunity to share with him an essay I  wrote describing what he meant to me (read it here:  https://djgourdoux.com/2011/06/18/dad/) .  He liked it, telling me it was “excellent.”  It was an opportunity I didn’t have with my Mom and especially my oldest brother, Mike, who died without my being able to tell how much I looked up to and loved him. I miss all three of them.

I’m not big on religion, and I don’t put too much stock in an afterlife, in either a Heaven or a Hell.  I think we live on in the traces we leave on the landscape through the work we busy our hands and minds with and the love we feel with our hearts and souls.  These things change the world in minute but profound and permanent ways, and connections between our existence and the waking and working world are maintained long after we’re forgotten, like the impressions of eighteen wheels left in the asphalt of an interstate highway on a warm and black summer night.