Tiny Pieces of Childhood

I stood in the childhood driveway of my best friend’s house and simply marveled at what was before me. This is how a pirate must feel after digging up a lifetime accumulation of treasure, long left in its chest and now excavated in preparation of a well deserved retirement. I don’t know for sure, but it felt like my eyes might actually be twinkling. It was that kind of a moment.

“Wow” was the best I could pull off.

The Doctor smiled on and basked in the glow of a happy friend.

“Enjoy!”

The happy moment I now lived had begun decades ago, but its fruition had only been set into motion two years before…

It had been a beautiful summer day as Action Girl and I drove along the winding roads of New Hampshire, Short Stack snoozing heavily behind us, strapped into his car seat. The trees were deep green and broad leafed and overhung the rural roads with muscular ancient branches, turning our drive into an undulating and twisting tunnel, dappled with the light of the sun. Being native to this part of the country, my wife and I have an abiding love of it and miss it quite a bit. It’s the type of place where we feel instantly connected with the land. I love where we live now, but being “back home” makes me nostalgic and drunk with memories.

Lost in my own private thoughts, Action Girl jolted me back to the moment at hand by reminding me that I was under the gun, so to speak, and totally unprepared. We were almost to the place where my all-but-blood brother would soon be married. The Doctor and I have been best friends since the third grade and this being his wedding, I was the best man, and as such, I was going to have to speak publicly about him at length during the reception.

Naturally, I had done nothing in preparation for this moment.

That’s how I roll.

Since it seems to be a spouse’s job to try and save their significant other from making a total bumbling ass out of themselves, she decided to see if she could help me overt a verbal train wreck that was looking all the more likely as the miles ticked off and we got closer to our destination.

“Okay.” Action Girl pulled out an old scrap of paper and pen from the car console. ”Give me some facts about your friendship”

As I ticked off various points, thoughts and entertaining moments from our long friendship together, Action Girl scribbled them down in the form of a bullet list. I’m pretty good at talking off the top of my head and rather than reading from a scrip, a good list like the one being compiled would be just what was needed. Most of the items I recounted barely got a response from her, until one in particular made her stop writing and look up at me.

“Really? Wow! That’s the one. Talk about that, for sure.”

We pulled into the parking lot and roused a sleeping Short Stack from the comfort of his seat and strapping him to my wife’s back, headed down the beautiful carriage road that lead to the idyllic, garden setting of the wedding.

The choice of venue was beautiful, as was the bride and the ceremony as well. Things went off mostly as planned and I got to spend a wonderfully surprising amount of time with The Doctor just prior to and after the nuptials. It was a perfect day.

We sat back to enjoy our after “I Do” meal and after a fashion, staff appeared dutifully filling our empty champagne glasses, Action Girl gave me a gentle prod.
“Now’s probably good.” A smile and then, I’m fairly sure, a silent prayer that I wouldn’t make an ass out of my self.

Show time!

I’m not a bashful or reserved person when it comes to the public, which can surprise some people since I’m not normally interested in being in the thick of what ever is going on. I’m a periphery sort of guy and prefer to watch than direct. When I get to talk, however, it can be hard to get me to shut up again and go back to listening. My dear wife has pointed this out roughly fifty-two thousand four hundred and sixty five times. With a reassuring gulp of beer, I stood up to address the crowd of friends and family.

I don’t recall a lot of the specifics that I spoke about, drink in hand and mind wandering. I can recall the smiles and various heads bobbing in agreement as I described my extra-familial little brother and I took that to be a good sign that I was neither boring nor off track. I forged ahead.

“I could tell you that The Doctor and I have been close and constant friends for years, but that’s really a cliché that we’ve all heard before at occasions such as this. What I want is to give you an idea of just how deep our loyalty to each other goes.” I scanned the crowd of wedding guests and took in a vista of scientists, engineers and other proud nerds. They would understand.

“I’ll just say this: We pooled our Legos.

Gasps and murmurs bubbled up from the guest tables. Perfect! I had read my crowd correctly.

Legos, for those of you who somehow do not know, are those little, multi-colored, interlocking bricks that have become the ultimate prized item for any geeky child and the ultimate bane of their parent’s. Filling the categories of being tiny, easily lost, both painful and likely to be stepped on and, oh yes, unimaginably expensive, amassing a good Lego collection can take a lot of convincing on a kid’s part. In the end however, they are totally worth the work.

When The Doctor and I first began our friendship, we were only half way through grade school and our own individual caches of plastic mini-bricks were modest, but adequate. As I look back, now as an adult, I marvel at how much of their discretionary income my parent’s spent to feed their son’s Lego habit. Legos have always been pricy and for the money spent, you didn’t get a lot in the way of pieces. It’s a testament of their devotion to a happy child that I had what I did. They didn’t have a lot of money, but I did have a nice little bucket of Legos to play with.

Then, The Doctor started to come over to play.

The two of us spent innumerable hours on our hands and knees, driving our creations across floors in both his house and mine. So, many, in fact, that I can, to this day, clearly remember the pattern and texture of all the rugs throughout each of our homes. Whole days may have passed when neither of us were more than a foot and a half off the ground. T was what we did. Eventually, as the years passed and our friendship came to be an obvious rock of permanence in our lives, we dared to do something that only people who were close as brothers would ever consider.

Through years worth of birthdays and Christmases, each of our collections was something to be proud of. They were impressive in terms of both diversity and scale. Together though, it would be something of childhood legend: A resource that would enable a Lego builder to construct just about anything. Possibly two of anything!

And so, we did it.

One day, into the hopper they all went and from this mountain of plastic, we extracted the materials for one wondrous project after another… for years. Just about every weekend, we built together and creating a cornucopia of beweaponed space ship fleets and mighty fortresses to do battle with. Then we’d break them down and start again. It was wonderful.

As time moved along, Legos, like so many focuses of childhood, moved to the back burner and then off the stove completely. Eventually, our huge collection of plastic bricks was packed away and forgotten all together. We had moved on.

Then, the day of my friend’s wedding came. After I had wrapped up my soliloquy with the necessary champagne toast to the bride and groom, the cake had been cut and eaten and things calmed down to chatting and strolling, I couldn’t help by find The Doctor and ask.

“Hey, what ever happened to all those Legos?”

He grimaced a bit as he thought about where they could have gone.

“Eesh. I think they went to my cousin. You can ask her if you want. She should be at table four. I doubt she has them any more though.”

It was worth a shot. I looked over at my little boy playing in the grass with an adoring wedding guest and guessed that someday, he too might get the Lego Fever. When I found the cousin, the outlook got worse.

“Oh, wow. My mom never hangs on to anything like that and I haven’t seen those Legos in ages. I’ll ask though, if you want?”

Over the years I have learned that in situations like this, you say, “Yes” to questions like this. You’ll regret it later for sure if you don’t and I wasn’t going to regret not trying this time around. I didn’t expect anything to come of it, but hey, why not?

Two years later on a visit back to my hometown, I was reaping the benefit of my inquiries.

“Are you sure? Don’t you want to hang on to at least some?”

The Doctor just smiled back and shook his head. There they all were. A huge box, filled to overflowing was in my arms and I honestly wondered how I was going to get it in the car. I’d find a way though!

The pile has now been passed on and happily, is in the very capable hands of one Short Stack and is appreciated just as much by him as it was by us. It has in fact, become part of my life again as well. After Lulu Belle is put to bed, teeth have been brushed and jimmies put on, it’s time to break out the Lego box.

I’ve built him a new one just for this purpose and it is the size of his mattress and just barely clears the bed frame. Inside are thousands of little pieces of memories of a happy childhood from long ago as well as the fuel for one being woven today. Just about every night, the two of us play and build and as I lay on my side on his bedroom floor, I can just about see the world through the eyes I once did. The Doctor might not be here to build and play with me anymore, but Short Stack makes a great playmate. I hope that he thinks his dad does too.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there are some space ships that I need to get back to constructing. You see, we have a launch schedule to keep…

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And Then There Were None.

Harry Patch has died.

He was born in 1898, trained as a plumber at age fifteen, was conscripted into the army of Great Britain in 1916 and was the last living combatant of the First World War. There are three other men still alive who served, but Harry was the last who actually fought. A soldier who, on the day of his nineteenth birthday, entered the trenches for the first time to experience something that no one alive today can fully understand. It’s not possible that we could.

He had a good idea of what lay ahead of him. Not only did he have an older brother who had already been wounded in the conflict that would reshape much of Europe and lay the groundwork for yet another, far bloodier war, but also, this was not 1914 anymore either. By 1917 when he had completed his training, citizens of all nations understood the meat grinder that they were throwing their teenagers and young fathers into. By then, the enthusiasm for glory was diminishing daily. It was understood by all except the embroiled governments that there was no real glory to be had but rather, death, dismemberment, mental anguish that would last a lifetime, reducing men to shadows of their former selves. The wide eyed, naivety and excitement that so commonly clouds the minds of otherwise sensible individuals had been mostly scoured away in the mud of no-man’s land and blood of millions of young men.

Harry was trained as machine gunner, an invention that was used to such effect in those years it became the signature weapon of the Great War. The device, invented years before the outbreak of war, was perfected in this conflict and refined to a point where even for the next generation, designs were near duplicates and carried once again to the fields of France to fight in the war after “The War to End All Wars.”

Machine guns were feared by all on both sides and as such, were prime targets to be taken out as quickly as possible. This was to be the fate of the gun crew Harry was attached to. As they lay in the slime of Passchendaele, a shell exploded over the team. Three, out of the five man team were blown apart. Harry suffered a wound from the flying shrapnel but lived. With a visit from a battlefield medic, a run on a stretcher to an aid station and then to the rear and out of France, he made it back to the Isle of Wight where he would convalesce. Later, still in England, as he drilled on a rifle range, preparing to return to the front, he would receive the news that the Armistice was signed.

stretcher

The war was over. The lives of over eight and a half million soldiers had been lost. Over twenty one million had been wounded. Far more had wounds that did not show outwardly. It took Harry over eighty years before he could bring himself to talk about it. In 2007, he found the strength to return to the fields of Flanders and see the land again where so many men were unlucky enough to not be wounded like himself, but instead mingled with the soil, unseen even to this day.

That one battle alone consumed over 850,000 men.

One battle.

I am a student of history. I have a thirst to know and find awe and respect in the items that have been carried and cared for by those who have held these things; who have lived or just as often, not lived through the fires of past conflict. I am not alone.

Collectors of history cover the globe and the hunt for the right helmet, the correct rifle or the authentic letter spurs on a lively commerce. What worries me is the disconnect that can occur with these items and the stories that refuse to cling to them. An object can’t tell you the story of it’s owner and with the death of those who knew, we loose that human element, and it is a loss. The bayonet that is snapped up at an antiques show that might have ruined the life of a family a century ago. The canteen for sale that once was filled but never drank from. The extra overcoat that was ordered but shipped back unworn. We can’t forget where these things come from or whom they might have touched. We should, however, care for them since we can no longer care for their one time owners. They are not ours, however. We are only stewards and need to teach why there are items of humanity. Why they are special.

In 1914, the European youth were electrified with the promise and thrill of war. There had been a long wait between conflicts and the populace had forgotten that glory was a lie. It wasn’t glorious. It was riding into the jaws of Death and hoping to be the survivor, even as your friends die all around you. The elders of state ordered them to go and they did their duty.

Lions led by Asses.

We can debate the argument if the Great War was inevitable or avoidable. We can question who actually started it and where the fault lies.We can point fingers at incompetent commanders and mourn those who died due to the idiocy of suicidal orders handed out with no care or strategy. What we cannot do, should never do, is think for a moment that the Great War was that. Great. It was a charnel house. We should never for a moment confuse that with glory.

Good night to you Harry Patch, you and all those who saw the war of 1914-1918 with their own eyes. There are yet three more who were there, but you were the last to raise arms against an enemy you barely knew.

The fields are quiet now except for the sounds of traffic and tractors. The memories you shared are written in the annals of history.

May we never forget the price we as men paid to hear them.

“I met someone from the German side, and we both shared the same opinion: We fought, we finished, and we were friends. It wasn’t worth it.”

~Harry Patch

HarryPatch

How Much to Get Drown and Shot? Part III

As it turned out, we had a while to wait once we get the to the rafts. The big black masses sat in the grass like rubbery, inflated whale carcasses and we, playing that part of lazy and opportunistic seagulls, lazed all over them in the sun. It was just too inviting in the cool morning air not to stretch out on their black and rapidly warming cadavers. Finally, once some unknown criteria was met, (perhaps the river was deemed wet and hungry enough to be fed stupid Americans) we were told to listen up as someone I gauged to be far to young to be in command, stood up on a nearby humpback and gave us our last, “this is how not to die” talk. He was obviously knowledgeable about his topic and his painfully groomed, nature-boy look gave his words gravitas, at least among those who weren’t snickering at him. Again, I remember nothing of the talk. You can blame it on the river water that later clogged those synapses, if you like.

As different groups grabbed various rafts and headed for the water, my brain momentarily switched back to Dad control and, drawing on many years of reflexively trying to snag the front car on every rollercoaster I’d ever ridden, I impulsively took a front row position in my own raft. I rationalized this to my Mom’s side by hypothesizing that when we hit the whitewater bow first, I would not have to worry about loosing my front teeth on the helmet in front of me. I tried not to think about the rocks and their role in the fun-to-be.

The river was looking downright placid where we put in and fairly shallow as well. Looking down through the crystal clear and heartstoppingly cold water, I could clearly see softball sized rocks rolling by on the riverbed not far below me. It was shallow enough to stand up and fairly quiet, but the river was wide here. That changed ahead. That’s a lot of river to squeeze down. Things would change soon.

Behind me, The Doctor was paddling away and as I glanced around I spotted Ioseph and Mountain Man happily chatting as they dutifully drove us on down the river. It had been a long time since I had seen them together in a raft together and Mountain Man, for one, looked far more relaxed this time.

Our previous raft adventure had been years and years prior and the boats were far less rugged. And smaller. Much, much smaller. That time, My Father, Ioseph, Mountain Man and I had gotten it into our heads to go and visit a lighthouse on a nearby island. The Doctor had been absent, and as has been the case in previous adventures, when one of the “Group of Four” was missing, my Dad happily filled the spot. The island in question wasn’t more than a quarter mile off shore and was famous for being covered in the most luscious blueberries and raspberries. They grew so plentifully, that they stained the rocks as they fell from the bushes.

Armed with Ziploc bags for the berries, two inflatable rafts of the department store variety, life jackets, paddles and at least three brain cells, we cast off from shore and rowed like heck for deep water. I was in the raft with my Dad and when we were roughly half way there, my Dad happened to look back to check on the second boat. He immediately burst into poorly stifled laughter. Glancing up from my furious water pummeling, I could scarcely manage the same. The other raft was bobbing along after us but the occupants made for quite a picture. Ioseph, roughly the size and shape of a bear had just about bent the raft in half as Mountain Man, tall, thin, lanky Mountain Man perched on the bow like a worried pirate’s monkey. The look on his face said it all and as far as I can recall, it’s the only time I’ve ever seen him afraid for his life. Ohhh, for a waterproof camera!

This time, things looked downright orderly. We had a huge boat, filled with behelmeted, smiling fools, our life jackets were actually being worn and I’m guessing that the dozen or so of us had nearly ten brain cells that functioned! We were set!

The tempo of the river started to get faster and we needed to paddle less and less to make headway and more and more just to go in the desired direction. Mostly submerged rocks made the water start to froth here and there and then, I saw it. The first waterfall.

As waterfalls go, it wasn’t something terribly spectacular. You’ve no doubt driven by more menacing ones with out noticing them at all. If you brought a date out to see it, you’d never hear the end of it. It was perhaps seven feet high, but lest me tell you this: When you’re actually ON the water, that’s a mean looking seven feet. My face froze in that “I’mhavingfunohmyGOD!” grimace as the water that had previously been under my bit of raft dropped away. As the whole thing started to nose over the edge with me as the hood ornament, all I could hear was the rush of falling water and from behind me, The Doctor yell, “YAY! WE’RE DOOOOMED!”

I didn’t even register the full body smack of the freezing cold water. Adrenalin is simply amazing stuff.

-Later, Parte the IV!

Cookies in the Freezer

I was always a little confused by what exactly a Girl Scout was. As a youngster, I remember seeing the cluster of girls in their green and brown uniforms with their various ranks displayed as quarter sized badges sewn onto a sash that was worn like an earthy version of those seen at a beauty pageant. Rather than reading, “Miss Russet Potato”, or some other title, the little dots showed the trials and tribulations that the wearer had undertaken and mastered.

This was a foreign world to me. Not only did I have no sister to demystify the organization for me, but I was never part of the male version either. Boy Scouts, though they undoubtedly did neat stuff, had one major flaw as I saw it. They still had to follow directions given to them by adults. Though I was hardly what you would have called a rebellious child, I was happiest when doing what ever I wanted to do. I would put my head down and get through the things that were expected of me, but when it came to unstructured time which I had control of, there was just no way in hell that I was going to put it in the hands of more people who would be telling me what to do, where to do it and how it was to be done.

The funny thing is that I always had a mild fascination with the “Scouts”, be they the boy or girl variety. The friend who I have been closest with my whole life, The Doctor, eventually attained the rank of Eagle Scout and many, many weekends I was left on my own while he want off with his troop to camp in the woods, paint park benches or… do what ever else Boy Scouts do. I believe there was some sort of a “Jamboree” thrown in there somewhere. I have no idea what that was about.

As far as our friendship was concerned, he left the “Scouting” stuff at the door when he came over to play and we never really talked about it. The only time I actually saw him in his uniform was during his Eagle Scout indoctrination ceremony and I think it was odd for both of us. It was held in a church hall, long after he, himself had left organized faith far behind on his personal road. There were, naturally, big American flags hanging up, just at the time he was starting to seriously question what our country was doing in the world and it involved jumping over symbolic sticks… which both of us found mildly humorous. I still have no idea what the sticks were about.

Now, lest I offend, let me say that I do not in any way look down upon those who choose the Scouting life. In many ways I was jealous that it just didn’t seem to fit with me. I love camping. I like doing projects. I LOVE riflery, which you can, if I’m not mistaken, get a merit badge in. I would have lived at the rifle range. For some reason though, I instantly chafed at the idea.

I think it was the neckerchiefs.

cub-scout-fred

If the Boy Scouts confused me, the Girl Scouts baffled me. I had a lot of friends in the neighborhood and we all lived on the edge of some serious forestland. We all lived in those woods and the girls whom I spent many a long day playing with were of the rough and tumble sort. Tom Boys, to be succinct. They were right there with us, scraping their arms on branches, skinning their knees and peeing in the bushes. These girls were FUN! When I looked at the groups of Girl Scouts patiently waiting for their den mothers to direct them to what ever fun that awaited them, I couldn’t help raising an eyebrow at their neatly pressed blouses, perfect and jaunty barrettes and those brown knee skirts.

SKIRTS?

To my mind, skirts were reserved for things like school and church. The girls I knew never opted for skirts and why would they? They offer poor protection form thorns and rocks and then there’s the whole tree climbing issue. The Girl Scouts uniforms were all done in dark green and tan, giving the illusion that they could step into the jungle and take on the Vietcong, but really… it was like having an camouflage bathing suit. What’s the point? Then there were the merit badges.

I knew that the girls didn’t get to do the same stuff that the boys did. A topic that is still to this day, a point of some grievance by Action Girl. She was cast out of her brother’s Cub Scout den when she started to have too much fun doing all the projects that the boys were doing. When offered the trade to Brownies (the Girl Scout starter rank) she balked. Sewing and singing just didn’t stack up well against setting things on fire and using hatchets. She will forever be a disgruntled Boy Scout wannabe.

The Girl Scouts do, naturally, have on major feather in their barrettes, however.

The cookies!

For those who live beyond the borders of the United State, I hope, with heart felt sincerity, that whatever country you live in has an equivalent to a Girl Scout Thin Mint.

thin-mints

Every year, Girl Scouts in the thousands pour out of meeting lodges and church basements and hit the pavement, going door to door in their neighborhoods with long sign up sheets and catalogs showcasing various cookies that can be ordered from Girl Scouts of America. It’s a fundraiser for the organization and one that I believe, will never leave the G.S. of A. short of funds. The cookies offered are not available in stores anywhere to my knowledge and even if there were an equivalent, it just wouldn’t be the same. The beauty of Girl Scout cookies is that the ordering happens months before the cookies actually arrive. Just long enough for you to have totally forgotten that you put your name down for an obscene quantity of sugar and chocolate covered snacks. They are divine. They are to be savored. They have just arrived!

A hand made sign on a lamp post down by the store gave notice that the cookies were on their way and would be arriving on Saturday and I mad darn sure that I would be around. As I say, there are many different cookies that the Girl Scouts sell and many of them are very, very tasty. It doesn’t matter though. I just want the Thin Mints.

A mint flavored chocolate wafer covered in more chocolate and bundled in a sleeve and two sleeves to a box, I wait for them with anticipation every year. I thought that they were perfection in a cookie until my Wife showed me the error of my ways. There was, in fact, a way to make them even better. They need to be kept in the freezer. Oh, ho ho ho. I’m in heaven. As I write, there are two boxes in the freezer, one having been mildly pillaged and two more in the deep freeze in the basement. I’m hoping that I’ll manage to forget all about them until mid summer, but that’s a long shot. I can hear them calling to me just now.

So, I still don’t understand the draw of the Scouting life and though I know that the Girl Scouts have beefed up the types of merit badges they offer to include more outdoorsy kind of activities in the hopes of appearing less… 1950’s, I’m still clueless as to what their goals really are, but that’s ok. They just need to keep me in Thin Mints and I’ll keep handing over the contents of my wallet to the nice young girls on the front step in the brown and green uniforms. At least I think they were Girl Scouts.

If Lulu Belle ever decides to join their ranks, I am truly doomed. Doomed and in a sugar coma… So I guess I won’t know about it, at any rate. And now… If you’ll excuse me, I feel a freezer raid coming on.

Company in Bed

Short Stack is in tough shape at the moment, but on the mend. He’ll be fine thanks to the miracle of modern medicine and unlike parents of just a few decades back, we have no life altering concerns about our son’s current health. He has pneumonia, though not a very severe case. What the illness has done has turned our normally lone wolf-ish, self entertaining kiddo into a baby lemur who just wants you to be with him. Preferably within reach. Very preferably, actually in his tiny grasp.

Last Friday night was not fun for anyone involved. Somehow, and I still don’t know how, Lulu Belle managed to sleep through the entire ordeal of a three year old coughing, vomiting and yelling, “I don’t like this! I don’t like this!” at the top of his lungs.

None of us, naturally, liked this.

sick_kid

It was his first real illness since a bout of croup when he was just a miniature version of himself and thankfully, he doesn’t recall that experience, though we certainly do. After his second round of coughing, then vomiting and then crying, which kicked off the coughing again, things finally settled down and with a freshly made bed and his third set of Pj’s he was succumbing to exhaustion. So were Action Girl and myself. It was three in the morning and we were officially running on our personal reserve batteries. To say that Short Stack was in a fragile state of mind is an epic understatement. Everything was making him cry, which led to the progression of coughing and barfing. We were ready to do what ever made him happy. What he wanted more than anything was not to be alone. Not for one second.

So, with a good deal of leg and arm folding, I managed to fulfill his request and joined him in his bed. His bed, by the way, is built for a toddler and uses a crib mattress.

toddler-bed

Throw in the pile of pillows needed to keep him elevated, a half dozen necessary stuffed animals and a full headboard and footboard and there was not much room left for dad. As I crunched my frame into the corner and he nestled into my arms, I remembered doing just this same thing on the far roomier couch when he was maybe four months old. He had a cold and needed to sleep sitting up so he could breath. It was scarier back then, not only because it was our first time as parents but also because he was so small. I did, however recall having a heck of a lot more leg room. This time, he was bigger, wigglier and due to his low grade fever and fleece pajamas, was like cuddling a coal stove. A wonderful, soft coal stove that you’d die to protect, but a sweat factory, none the less.

As I lay there listening to his breathing get regular and deep, I closed my eyes and was transported to the various times my parents had held me while I stretched out, limp and exhausted after a night of some illness or other and realized now, just how hard it was to live through as the concerned parent. From my memory as the sick child, I also remembered not wanting to be alone either.

My folk’s room wasn’t more than a step away from my own, but when I was sick and didn’t dare move, it seemed like they might as well have been on the moon. I can still pull up the feeling of being alone in the dark while Mom and Dad were just over there, snug in the same big bed, sound asleep. I craved that company and though Mom or Dad would always cuddle with me after stories, my bed was too small for two and not conducive to sleeping with a parent hogging up the majority of the mattress space. As a kid, it always felt like an injustice that I was solo each night while they had each other. No number of plush, foam filled animal friends seemed to fill that void. That and the unmistakable fact that the skeletons in my closet were just waiting for me to nod off before leaping out and devouring me. That most defiantly didn’t help.

One day, in a non-ill state of mind, I hit upon the solution. It was perfect! I could have my own bed AND someone to share it with me. It was fool proof! That night, I brought up the idea to my Father. “What we need,” I said triumphantly, “are bunk beds! That way, you can sleep here with me and we’d each have all the room we need!” To a five year old, this was a breakthrough of logic. Dad was always telling me to stop wiggling when I was supposed to be falling asleep and I always felt crunched between him, the wall and the stuffed animals.

The animals, by the way, were there to keep the skeletons at bay. I figured if magical monsters could get me in the night, then my plush friends might just as logically rise up to be my personal army. That’s why I liked the stuffed seals and the alligator. Those things could BITE!

In the end, I think it worked out for me. I’m still here, aren’t I?

As I recall, Dad mumbled something about Mom being lonely and how that wasn’t fair, but to be honest, it didn’t seem fair the other way either. I thought briefly about a triple bunk but doubted that one could clear the ceiling. Someone was bound to be left alone. I just didn’t see why it had to be me.

I out grew it, naturally, but was glad on the day I no longer slept alone. Granted, the space is nice to have and I do tend to loose the blanket war from time to time, but I do understand where Short Stack is coming from. It’s no fun to be alone in the night, even if Mom and Dad aren’t far away at all. Throw in being sick, and it’s enough to make a three year old cry. Which leads to coughing and other things at times. As I said, he’s on the mend and we’re happy to see him more like him self but he still doesn’t want to be left in his room come lights out time. He remembers having me to cuddle up to that night and he wants it again. I can’t blame him. We’ve talked about how that was a special thing and how it can’t happen every night, and that’s true. It is special. I’ll remember it for the rest of my life. I didn’t get to sleep much while shoehorned into a bed made for a child and holding on to my little boy, but that’s not the point. I can sleep later. I’m just glad that I had the chance to make him feel safe when everything he thought he understood went out the window.

With two kids, I’m pretty sure we’ll be doing this again some day. If either of them comes up with my bunk bed idea, I’m going to have a heck of a time talking my way out of that one.

“But Dad, you can sleep with me in my room and Mom can stay with Lulu Belle! It’s perfect!”

“Ummm, yah. Well… You see, Short Stack…”

Flame On!

As we stood at the base of the tree, I was taken by three facts. First, that it was a very, very tall, and old white pine. Second, that it stood at the edge of a forest that pretty much turned into most of western New Hampshire. Third, that branch that the lit sparkler that had been accidentally thrown into was starting to smolder.

My friends offered verbal assistance.

“Um… Crap!”

One of them in particular, my friend Ioseph, did a helpless little dance under his tree bound, burning magnesium stick and attempted to complete an intelligible sentence in an effort to coax it down.

Oddly enough, none of this required the application of alcohol or other foreign substances. Heck no. This was par for the course. After all, Ioseph Fork Beard was there!

I have a group of friends who have been part of my life for very much of it. We all live in various places now and though none of us are more than a state or so apart, adult life has made visits infrequent. I miss them terribly some times, but for the safety of our various families and others who might be passing by at the time, it’s probably a good thing.

The Doctor was the first of my life long pals. He and I grew up at each other’s houses and I consider him my brother. On at least one occasion, I can recall giving both my and his Mom a Mother’s Day card. We both had keys to both houses and used them often. We’re that close.

The second member of the group was met for the first time when The Doctor and I attended a summer computer camp. It was some time in the 80’s and we, as aspiring nerds, decided to spend part of our vacation in a college basement staring at black and green monitors, coding in BASIC. It was there that we met another aspiring geek, the very young, Mountain Man. Well, to be fair, we were all young.

Mountain Man attended a different school than we did and so, after camp was over, we lost touch with him for a while. We would meet again, later in high school, but when we did, it was with the adoption of the fourth member of our circle. Enter, Ioseph, Fork Beard.

In high school, he had no beard to fork, but he didn’t need one to stand out, either. Ioseph does not blend into a crowd well. Perhaps he would have a shot at it if the people in the crowd were all tall, flaming red heads and bear like. Otherwise, you’re going to see him first.

Ioseph Fork Beard was an large, awkward transplant to the region and seemed to be a bit lost in the massive high school-factory that we all attended. One of us introduced him to the group and pretty much immediately, he was in. Ioseph had a few big things going for him. Firstly, he was immediately likable. You couldn’t possibly help liking him. It’s a super power of his. Secondly, he was the first of us to have his own wheels. While some of us had access to a family car, Ioseph had his very own. It was a white, Ford Escort and he could take it out when ever he wanted. That was some serious freedom. Thirdly, and most importantly, he was up for it, whatever “it” happened to be. If you came up with a crazy, half baked plan and brought it before the group, he would bake the other half and was on for the ride. Some might think that this was his way to gain popularity and access with a tight knit bunch of friends, but you would be utterly wrong. He just wants to try anything that sounds like fun. I’m fairly certain that if a government agent came to his door and told him that they wanted Ioseph to travel to the rebel infested mountains of Wehateyoustan and make a drop to the spy hiding there, his bags would be packed before the pitch was finished. Personal safety is not so important to him if it sounds like the peril will lead to a once in a lifetime experience. He’s always up for peril!

The other thing about Ioseph that you need to know is his head stone. He has one. We got it for him as a gift. Actually, it was The Doctor who got it for him since he had a gift certificate from the local monument company (don’t ask). It’s not very big and fits better on the edge of a desk than it would in the grass of a quiet cemetery, but it’s the thought that counts. The inscription reads:

Ioseph, Fork Beard
Consumed by a fire
“Oops”

This might seem a tad… harsh, but it was actually well received with a lot of vigorous head nodding from all those present. Ioseph has a well known and amazing ability to get in unusual, and often flammable, predicaments. To make matters even more interesting, he hasn’t limited himself to just one of the four basic elements when it come to destruction, but for this chapter, lets just focus on fire.

There was a story about an errantly aimed roman candle and a cut and dried out corn field. There was the time he decided to sterilize the lab desk in high school with alcohol from the Bunsen burner… and light it. (Please picture here, liquid fire dripping off the desk edges and onto the floor before the pie sized eyes of the science teacher.) Then, there was the sparkler, thirty feet up in a bone dry tree on the edge of the forest.

That, in a FEMA report, is Iopseph. I’m pretty sure that the only thing that keeps him out of federal prison is his super power of likability. He honestly does none of this stuff with the slightest bit of malice. It’s always with the most wide eyed innocence that he gets in these predicaments and at this point in our friendship, the utterance of the word “oops” from his lips will send us all leaping for the nearest window. With Ioseph around, life is ANYTHING but boring.

The four of us stood there in my back yard, all focusing our minds on putting out the tiny fire that we could see flickering amongst the needles on the branch tip. Ioseph continued his dance. “I’msorry! I’msorry! I’msorry! I’msorry!” It was a catchy little tune, really. I was seriously regretting pulling out the long forgotten box of sparklers that I had found in the closet. I was regretting even more the idea of tossing them, lit, into the air. To be fair, it was I who had done it first. Its long, shooting star-like contrail arching through the darkness and into the yard. Arching, I should add, into the MIDDLE of the back yard. You know… AWAY from the trees. Someone else tried it and then Ioseph did. His first toss put it directly onto the ancient pine tree at the edge of the property.

We were way too far away to get the hose to it, but that didn’t stop me from trying once the flames became visible. I hauled it’s reluctant coils through the flower beds, flattening the ones unfortunate enough to be in the way. With the water on full blast and my thumb held like a vice over the opening, the spray of water was short easily by twenty feet. We watched. The tiny flames got smaller, smaller and mercifully, went out. None of us took our eyes off the spot until every last red ember cooled and disappeared. I’m pretty sure you could hear our collective sigh of relief in Vermont.

Sparkler time was over for the night.

Oddly enough, Ioseph doesn’t work with fire for a living. You can tell, because the greater Boston area where he lives hasn’t been consumed in a mushroom cloud. We don’t see him often enough these days and I miss his dangerous company. I’ll see if I can get him to come up for a visit before the summer is over.

I might, however, wait until we’ve had a good soaking rain before I make the offer, though.

The Blue Lady, Epilogue

Now, for those you who don’t know, The Doctor is my oldest and closest friend. He’s a year younger than I am and exactly 426.8% smarter. The why our friendship worked out over the years was…

I come up with brilliant plan.
The Doctor figures out how to make it happen.

This brilliant plan came about a few years after my cruise on the Norway. I had told him all the stories, possibly multiple times and he agreed that the best possible plan would be to go together. THAT would be fantastic!

So, I left it to his huge brain to figure out the way to our dream vacation and I couldn’t have entrusted it to any better grey matter. In short order, the collusion had begun and the mechanism of our master plan was in motion. Independently, we waited for the appropriate moment with out respective parents. We talked about how great the cruise was. I simply had to keep it fresh in the family memory while The Doctor related my vacation tales with has much enthusiasm over his own dinner table.

Then, well… “Lie” is such an ugly word. I prefer to think of it as “seeding”.

One day, I related to my folks that It looked like The Doctor’s parents were planning a cruise on the Norway! Naturally, my friend was at his house saying the exact same thing about us.

Then the hook.

“Wouldn’t it be great to make the trip with them? You guys could do grownup stuff and I’d get to travel with my best friend!”

Amazingly enough, not only did this work, but it worked almost immediately! The enthusiasm that both sets of parents exhibited quickly quelled any residual guilt and things looked good. The only hiccup that was encountered was the airline to be used to get to Miami. Our fathers looked at different criteria and it led to a little discomfort in the beginning. I remember that the cheapest alternative was Eastern Airlines but their safety record at the time was one of the lower ones in the industry. After a little polite bickering between fathers, we elected to book our flights separately. After all, We were going to the same place. There would be plenty of time to spend together, later on the ship.

Our cabins weren’t very far apart but that wasn’t the point. As far as The Doctor and I were concerned, those were for sleeping in only. We had adventuring to do. This was the part that I dreamed about. I got to show my best friend the ropes on the ship. Where everything was, how to get from point A to point B with out being seen and where hang out and just watch. I’m thinking of the pool viewing room here.

Oddly enough, I have fewer memories of this trip on the Norway than I do of the first one. I remember that Zane, our young waiter from the first time, was on another ship. I can recall that we drank indecent amounts of Coke and that at least 50% of our time at sea, the two of us had the racquetball court signed out. Both of us got really quite good at it on that trip. Even though the memories of the trip have blurred and faded over time I can assure you that we had a fantastic time. We always do when we’re together. We could be running, playing, reading, planning, traveling or even working. As long as we were doing it together, we seem to enjoy the time immeasurably. That’s the kind of friend he is to me. That’s why I call him my brother.

I won’t delve too deep into this time spent on board. We did a lot of the same things I did alone, the first time. It was just better with a buddy. It all ended far too soon and we had to pack our bags, too full of baubles and souvenir t-shirts, and leave them out in the hall the night before departure for the baggage handlers to remove and get ready for transfer to the dock. We kept our secret of how we got our folks to take this trip, thinking that it would be better to let a few years pass before we reveled how our two families managed to go to the same place at the same time. We figured a decade might be long enough.

Many, many years later, I meet a fellow who was seeing a young lady who just happened to be a member of the family who owned Norwegian Cruise Lines. I enthusiastically told him about my time on the Norway and he sort of grimaced. He had been on the ship in the last few years and he had said that she was looking a little rough. I hoped that it meant that she would be getting a refit soon but I was worried. The Norway was an throwback ship even in the days when I had ridden her. Her name even gave it away. She was the S/S Norway, in a day where almost every other ship was the M/S Whatever. The “M/S” stands for “motor ship”, meaning that it runs of diesel motors. Very modern and efficient motors. The “S/S” stands for “steam ship”, meaning that she has boilers and turns the shafts with turbines. A design that came about over a hundred years ago. Hers was a highly refined steam engine system, to be sure, but it was an anachronism in this age.

Her other flaw for modern cursing was one of design. She had originally been built as the S/S France and had sailed on her maiden voyage in 1962. She was meant for transatlantic trips and therefore, built for speed and comfort. As inexpensive jet travel took over the duties of ships, she was mothballed and then later sold to Norwegian Cruise Lines. NCL had her refitted for duties in the Caribbean but after fifteen years or so, she had a hard time competing with the newer, albeit smaller, ships built specifically for warm water vacations. It was simply not what she was designed for. She wasn’t profitable enough.

Then, one day while in port during a refit, disaster struck. A boiler explosion in the engine room and ten crew members died. All work ceased and after damage assessment, the decision was made that she was too costly to repair. There was some interest in her from new buyers and one individual did buy her and renamed her the “Blue Lady”. Naturally, there were high flying plans and naturally, they all fell through. The should have talked to The Doctor, first. As it was, she was finally sold for scrap.

The end of the S/S Norway isn’t really so sad, if you think about it. She did wind up in a breakers yard, getting cut up and melted down but let’s be honest with ourselves. This is a ship. A beautiful one to be sure, but a ship none the less. What other possible end could she meet? So many other great and beautiful liners have sailed the seas and met far worse fates with hideous loss of life. She was never carved up and refitted as a troop ship later to be used as target practice after the war. She was never torpedoed to the bottom of the ocean or ran into a mine field. No Iceberg ever claimed her or fires swept her deck, causing her to roll belly up, still tied up to her berth. No. She passed with as much dignity as a cruise ship could have. Though she never attained the rarified status of the few ships that we choose to preserve, that is a very elite and tiny bunch and one should not expect immortality for an object designed for hard work.

Besides, she did her job. I have only the fondest memories of traveling in her beautiful hull. I can see the decks when I close my eyes and recall watching the soda in my glass move ever so slightly as the Captain announced that we were plowing through eighteen foot seas. She was a beautiful ship and the glass boxes that have taken her place on the waters look like cheap tarts compared to her elegance. She was a lady whose silhouette will be missed across the oceans but, damn, she still makes me smile when I think of her.

I’m not sure… but I think The Doctor and my secret might have actually out lived the ship its self.

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