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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Away We Go… Part II

In the days before we left, I had been busy in my little workshop in the basement. I fully admit that I’m a serial “Do it Your Self”-er and I had been cranking at full steam to get this particular project done in time for our trip.

Last Christmas, I had picked him up a little wooden Space Shuttle with magnetic boosters that clicked satisfyingly onto its bottom. From an aesthetic point of view, it’s quite nice and even came with a little truck you could use to pick up the boosters once they fell away after launch. From an accuracy point of view, it was totally wrong.

Guess what side Short Stack saw it from?

The first thing I was requested to correct was the obviously missing, orange, external fuel tank. I could see how that would bug him. It is, after all the largest part of the entire Shuttle Launch Vehicle. With the use of a very fat dowel, a belt sander, some screws for the magnets to stick to and some orange paint, he was in business. Then he started to notice other things.

“These boosters are very short, Daddy. Do you see how long they are in the picture? Mine are too short. Can you make me some that are longer and have a point on the top? Mine just are round, and that’s not the way they are supposed to be, see?” He held them about three inches from my face to make sure that I couldn’t possibly miss this undeniable fact. Instinctively, I pulled my head back so as to avoid any unintentional eye injuries. That, and my focal length isn’t what it used to be.

“Ah, Oh yes. I see what you mean.” Here, most normal folks might try and beg off and get the child to enjoy what they have, but I have an Achilles’ heal that gets me every time. I LOVE to build stuff… and Short Stack knows it. “Well, is that how you ask?”

“Puh.LEEEZE!?” The giant grin and toothy, “EEEEEEZE” part was all I needed. Back to the basement!

A little while later, things were looking better. The boosters were the right shape and size, the orange tank looked solid and correct and… “Daddy, look. This Shuttle is kind of flat on its nose. It should be rounded. And why doesn’t it have a vertical stabilizer?” As the son of an airplane nut, Short Stack has some vocabulary that falls outside of the normal four year old demographic, Vertical Stabilizer being a good example. What can I say? He makes me proud. He was also, again, correct. This was going to take some heavy thinking on my part.

Altering the little wooden Shuttle that he had was out of the question. It would have simply been too much to change. Nope. It was time to do my favorite thing and make it from scratch. In the end, it wasn’t as hard to make as I though and I was happily vindicated in my obsessive hoarding of every scrap of wood that I make as I work on our house. The wings are a piece of cedar shingle. The body is made from a bit of pine. The engine bump-outs and the much needed vertical stabilizer were fashioned from bits of ash and the rocket nozzles, from some old Chinese takeout chopsticks. Some grey, while and black paint, and it was ready for the finishing touches. These, I am most proud of.

As a trained artist, I have done a lot of detailed, fine work. I’ve painted carefully and skillfully at times and know what my limitations are. Replicating the miniature flags, NASA shield, escape hatch and cockpit windows… was beyond them. It was time to cheat a little.

For those of you who made plastic models as a kid, remember water slide decals? They came on a tiny sheet of paper and needed to be carefully cut out one by one. To shaky kid fingers, they were always a trial and knowing that they were also irreplaceable made it worse. After cutting them out, you needed to soak them in water for thirty seconds. What’s happening in that time is you are loosening the printed decal part from the paper backing. Once its time is up, you take them out and slide them onto the model. As a child, I remember stressing over the process and wondering why they couldn’t just make them peel and stick. The reason is, because the water slide ones look so much better! The awesome news is, you can now buy the blank paper and print your own, which is exactly what I did. With a little Google-fu, I managed to find some images of Space Shuttle decal sheets, pick the parts I needed, get it to scale for the model I made, print them out and attach them. A topcoat of spray poly over the whole thing seals them in for good and voila!

Naturally, I decided to make it Discovery.

I had finished it the day before with not a little stress. As I’ve said before, I seem to, regrettably, be at my most creative and focused when under the gun, time wise. I had presented it to Short Stack while the fumes were still detectible and he was instantly launching it into orbit from the living room couch. The Christmas Shuttle, with all its wrong glory was relegated to standby status and waits for less picky imaginations to take it on adventures. Oh well. There’s always Lulu Belle.

Now, as we arrived at our departure gate and claimed our spot, I reached into Short Stack’s backpack and pulled it out. Happily and with out a though, he established a launch site next to the huge picture windows in the departure lounge and, to the enjoyment of several onlooking adults, picked up where he left off back at home.

“10, 9, 8,… Ignition sequence start. 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. LIFTOFF of the Space Shuttle Discovery! Flying into space and missions beyond!” All of this is said with gusto, focus and most of all, sincerity. With his nose almost pressed to the external tank, the Portland Airport had its first Shuttle launch, Short Stack in command.

I had another surprise for him. Something I had managed to keep to my self until now. The something special I had snuck out of his room the night before.

“Hey, Short Stack. Look what I brought.” I dug into the bag again and he dutifully scooted away from his discarded solid rocket boosters to peer over my arm in an effort to see.

“Is it a rocket?” This is his de facto question for any surprise you have.

“Nope, but you can’t have a rocket with out one.” That got his interest! With a little flourish, I pulled out a single, old school LEGO astronaut and flag and handed them to my son. These particular pieces had actually been mine when I was a kid. Now, they were his.

Short Stack smiled.

I smiled.

Then he looked again. “Where are the rest of them?”

Ugh. Kids.

What he was referring to were the red, blue, yellow and black colored astronauts which I had not collected that evening and who now remained back home on his dresser. I figured that keeping track of all of them on the trip would be a nightmare and had opted for only the white suited one since he looked the most like a real astronaut.

“I just brought him. I though that would be enough.” I have to confess, I was a little taken aback by his reaction. Here, I had brought something special, something unexpected and personally important to me and my son was simply asking for more. I tried not to overtly show my disapproval and started to formulate a mini lecture in my head about being thankful and not always wanting. Just then, I was hit with that pure, laser like kid logic that can make you completely regret whatever you’re thinking.

“But he has no friends. He’ll get lonely.”

Short Stack: +1
Dad: 0

After taking a couple of seconds to think the worst of my self, I did my best to come up with an answer to satisfy my kind, sensitive kid whom I obviously didn’t give enough credit. Thank God they can’t hear you think.

“No he won’t, Buddy! He’ll be with us… We’ll be his friends.”

In a moment of guilt fueled inspiration, I decided to make the little LEGO man fully a part of our mission. To do that though, he needed to be more than just “LEGO guy.” He needed a name.

“Let’s call him… Neil.”

Short Stack’s nose crinkled up, squashing many of his abundant freckles in the process as a bemused smile spread across his face. “Neil? That’s a funny name!”

“Not really.” I assured, “Lots of people are named Neil. And one Neil is a very famous Neil. Do you know why?” A shake of my son’s head gave me the chance to play up the drama of the moment. “He… was the first astronaut to walk on the moon!”

That was all it took. Short Stack immediately picked him up and started telling me the adventures that Neil was off to. In no time at all, he had Neil walking on the moon again, riding on rockets and floating in space. Neil and he were inseparable and the little LEGO man was once again finding himself the central figure in the playful imaginings of a child.

For Neil, unnamed until now, it had been a long wait.

New dad, old friend, only brother

A quick entry for now. I’ll expand on it later tomorrow, but I wanted to seed it today.

As of 1:17 PM EST, my good-as-blood brother, The Doctor is a father for the first time. His Daughter and wife are doing very well and I got a great phone call from him today around five-ish with all the details (weight, height, etc).

As I said, I’ll expand on my thoughts tomorrow morning, over coffee. I just couldn’t let the day slip away with out saying “Welcome” to her and wishing the happy parents all our love.

We can’t wait to see her!

[following text added the next day]

The Doctor and I have been fast friends since the third and fourth grade. I’m actually one year his senior but he’s always been about a grade level ahead of me so it somehow works out. Both of us are only children and for what ever the reasons were for a eight and nine year old, became each others de-facto brothers. In fact, we often have referred to each other as “My brother”. The only real thing that kept us from spending just about every waking moment playing together was the fact that we lived on opposite ends of town with the added bonus that I live in the valley and he live on top of Mt. Everest. Actually, it’s called Chapman Hill, but to a non-driving nine year old, it was much the same. In both cases, Sherpa are involved. Just that in my case, the Sherpa are my parents.

When ever possible, were are at one of our houses together and having a blast. Being “only-ies”, we were used to self entertainment and more than once, what ever parents were around would feel compelled to come and check on us, since they hadn’t actually heard either one of us say or do anything for the last hour. What they usually found was both of us engrossed in our own individual project. Usually something like painting a lead figurine or working on a model or playing on the computer. We’d both be off in our own world and having a great time, but totally independent of the other. Our folks used to find that fairly amusing.

That’s not to say that we didn’t like collaborating. Far from it. To give you an idea of how close we were as kids and how strong our friend ship was and still is, I will give you an example so bold that it will make some of you go “Wow!”. Other’s might not get the significance, but I can’t help that.

We pooled our Legos together in one pile.

We both had a lot of Legos, but together we ruled the Lego universe. For those who don’t see what that means, I’ll just say this; once you put your Legos in with someone else’s, there is NO hope of figuring out who’s is who’s. AND WE WOULD DO JUST ABOUT ANYTHING TO GET MORE LEGOS!

That’s the kind of friendship we have.

Well, we grew up, went to schools, got married and moved away. The Doctor went off to Cornell and then to Dartmouth, got his Royal Smartypants certificate and now he studies how to save the world from infectious diseases. I went off to my own college experience, got my Fairly Smartypants certificate and tried to save the world from Third Graders. We stay in touch mainly through email but try to get together a few times a year.

So now, he has a baby girl. It’s amazing to think back to those days of playing GI Joe’s out in the woods and building secret Lego bases in the couch cushions and to now think about our growing families. Action Girl and I have two and now The Doctor has one as well.

The fun part will be when we can finally get together and all our kids can play with one another. Our daughters are only 6 weeks apart and Short Stack can lead the bunch on adventures in the yard. It’s going to be great. The thing that I really hope for is a comment that The Doctor made last year about maybe finding work here and moving to the area. I know it’s a huge long shot that he could find something in his field here, but the thought of having my best friend and brother living across town, not to mention our kids knowing each other well, is just too good not to wish for.

Who knows… maybe some new infectious disease research center will sprout up down town. I can only imagine the uproar over that! However, you can bet that I’d be the one standing opposite the protesters, cheering on cholera!

Welcome the the world little kiddo. You haven’t met me yet, but you have an uncle who will do anything for you.

Now where’s that box of kazoos and the drum set I’ve been saving for her?

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