Do, do, do, do, do remember me.

I sat in the audience in the school gymnasium with all the other parents, eagerly waiting to watch my eldest child, Short Stack, take the stage with his class. It was the spring concert and my little boy was about to do what he loves: preform. I wouldn’t say that he’s really a show off, but he does loves the chance to do what he can do for an audience, especially if he’s worked hard at it. Especially, if he can sneak in a little flourish here and there.

Okay, maybe he is a bit of a show off. It’s always a good show with Short Stack

Lulu Belle, his younger sister sat as patiently as a five year old could in my lap. I didn’t admonish her incessant wiggling because I understood what she was going through. If Short Stack’s love for performing was likened to the fire of a lamp, hers is a volcano lighting up the sky. For her, kindergarten doesn’t start until next fall, and she understands that her time to be in the lime light will come, but in the mean time, the pressure she must have to exert on her impulse to run up, front and center, must be like the pressure behind the little Dutch boy’s dyke.

Wiggle, wiggle.

Short Stack had been practicing with his class for some time and he hand given my wife a sneak peek performance a few days before in our living room, but I sadly have to admit that I was distracted with any number of household duties at the time and had listened with only half a ear from the kitchen. I registered his little voice singing in the background, but the lyrics had drifted through my head and directly out the window before I had a chance to gather them up and file them away. I was eager to hear them again with all my attention focused on him. All I could remember was that he had told me the first song would be, “Rocky Mountain High.” In my mind, a vision of John Denver, crooning and strumming, leapt to the fore. What could be cuter than kids singing John Denver?

I don’t know either.

What I do know is that it didn’t turn out to be John Denver.

As his diminutive class took their postitions on the risers at the front of the stage, the music director gathered together their attention such that any one can, and set the pitch. Then they began to sing.

Rocky mountain, rocky mountain, rocky mountain high.

When you’re on that rocky mountain, hang your head and cry.

Do, do, do, do, do remember me. Do, do, do, do, do remember me.

Sunny valley, sunny valley, sunny valley low.

When you’re in that sunny valley, sing it soft and slow.

Do, do, do, do, do remember me. Do, do, do, do, do remember me.

Stormy ocean, stormy ocean, stormy ocean wide.

When you’re on that stormy ocean there’s no place to hide.

Do, do, do, do, do remember me. Do, do, do, do, do remember me.

It is obviously a very old song and each verse came with hand gestures to hammer the points home. The crying on the rocky mountain was traced with a finger from their eyes, down their little, round cheeks and in the sunny valley, heads were hung and they sag to their feet. The literal choking point for me was on the stormy ocean, though. As this group of six and seven year olds sang of the horrors of being caught in a violent storm at sea, they covered their faces, fingers up, palms pressed against their eyes. My vision got a little blurry at this point, so I’m a touch vague on any further visuals I might have missed.

I’m an overly empathetic person at heart, and I know this well. For whatever reason, it’s always been a tendency of mine to dive into the history of things and imagine the situation of those who set that particular bit of the past into motion. When I walk through an old house, I inevitably wind up noticing some small detail, a decorative bit of molding or the head of a square cut nail, and I wonder who put it there. What did they look like? Was it the homeowner? Who struck that nail struck home? It can instantly transport me back to a time a hundred or more years ago and I feel like a ghost, watching silently and undetected over the shoulder of a hunched figure, dutifully working away to complete whatever project it might have been. I don’t know why, but it’s what my mind tends to default to. Add to that my love of history and a possibly unhealthy obsession with trying to do things the old way my self, and it all equals to me sort of living in the past quite a good deal of the time. I quite like it there, even if it seems to unexpectedly smack me in the face with melancholy every once in a while. It can be powerful stuff.

Two more songs were sung by his class, though I can’t remember just now what they were. That first one had deeply taken root and held my mind fast. I enthusiastically applauded with the other parents and welcomed Short Stack to the empty seat I had saved for him next to me and we watched the rest of the performance as the other grades cycled though, each with three songs of their own. It was an enjoyable time and the children all looked justifiably proud. We were all proud, parents and children, alike.

That song though…

Over the next few days, I caught myself humming it as I bustled about doing various chores and even singing it outright as I made dinner. This never failed to catch the attention of Short Stack and he would remark on it. Not in an accusatory way, but more in the astonishment that he could have taught me a song that so struck me.

“Dad.” A big smile crosses his face. “what song are you singing?”

About a week later, I found my self in the unusual situation of having some time to burn in town, and today I had planned for it. There is a very venerable cemetery here in Portland, which contains all that remains of many of the founding families from the settlement era of our coastline, and that was where I headed. There are Longfellows buried here. Those Longfellows. There are innumerable captains, and of not just sailing vessles of trade, but captains of warships and crew members too. Their stories are caved in slate, quarried hundreds of years ago and patiently hand lettered and inscribed with their names and duties. There are a lot of stories in there. Every stone stands as a monument to another story. Knowing them is the hard part.

Some years ago, I had discovered head stones bearing the same surname as my own, and I had made it a point to do some care for them. I plant flowers in the fall so that they may bloom in the spring. I make note of any deterioration and do what I can to mitigate it. Today, I had brought a pair of hand shears to clear the grass that grew tall against the faces and backs of the grey stones.

Snip, snip.

As I knelt, back hunched to the sun, I grabbed the grass in tufts and carefully cut it away in long strokes. Without warning, the song came back to my lips in a hum.

“Do, do, do, do, do remember me.”

Glancing around to make sure I was alone with my ancient company, I decided that singing was better. What, after all, could be a more fitting song? So, I sang, quietly of course, but still, it felt good to say the words, if not a trifle sad as well. To be fair, I don’t remember these people. I’m not even sure if they are relatives or not. I do know that my kin came from this general area, but on the coast, there was always a lot of migration of people and whole families.

They might not be any relation at all.

Honestly though, I don’t care. They are family to me.

Here, laying in this ground before me, is all that remains of some who had climbed mountains, crossed valleys and, since one is a sea captain, even ridden on oceans packed high with angry, white toped waves. They had all left family either though immigration or mortality and due to the confines of the era, had to rely on memory alone to visit them again. No photographs. No telephone calls. No quick visits from a hundred miles away. Choices were more permanent back then, much like the slate they used to mark the passing of soul.

Who knows how long these particular stones have stood unattended? A hundred years or more of grass grown high and unkempt seems likely and I can’t help but think about that as I clear away the weeds and timothy. Who held onto the tops of these stones when they were first planted so that they may refresh the memories of those now buried beneath them? They too are long gone now

I’ll remember them now, to the extent that I can. Keeping the plots clean and kept is a duty I happily take on and my children, always looking to be a help to daddy, happily join in with the quick and easy task when they join me.

Finished with both the song and my clipping, I look down with a smile at the neat job the shears had done. In a sea of overgrown grass, it stands out as an island of order and I feel proud. I wonder who these possible family elders of mine were and what they looked like. What did they talk about? Whom did they enjoy to speak with? A favorite food, a often told joke or even, were they happy with their lives? Some hundreds of years later, who can say? What I can do is remember to remember them. I’ll stop by when I can and neaten things up, plant more flowers and show my kids, again, where the stones stand in the crowded jumble of lost memories and relatives that reside there, faces grey and hard in the summer sun.

Here, there are stories to be found. All we need to do is look for them and then, if the story is discovered, share it. Tell your children and their children. Write it down and show anyone with an interest. Let it live on past your own memory so that we all have a chance to remember.

Do, do, do, do remember me.

Drag races and thermoses.

Deep in the back of my fuzzy, aging memory, I can still conjure up the surroundings of the school bus line as we waited semi-patiently in front of Saint Joseph’s primary school. The line up spot was at the side of the building in the nearly totally neglected basketball court, with a massive wing of the red brick school reaching out and around us like an arm, keeping us corralled. When I picture myself there, two things jump out in my mind. The first is the utterly massive maple tree that stood over us at the edge of the sidewalk with its muscular branches holding out uncountable, wide leaves that blotted out the afternoon sun and, in the spring, showering us with tons of seed gladdened propellers. I have no idea how many times we scooped them into piles and threw double fistfuls of them back into the air for the simple joy of watching them spin back to earth and, if lucky, getting stuck in the hair and down the collars of fellow classmates. Good times.

The other piece of that halcyon memory comes with color, texture and sound. The brightly illustrated and rattling metal lunchboxes that were clung to, sat on, banged around and generally abused, but loved dearly. They were a statement of whom we all individually were and we guarded them as a miniature outpost of our personal territory. That, and we didn’t want another kid stuffing them full of maple seeds when we weren’t looking.

The beginning of a new school year always began with the long dreaded afternoon dedicated to acquiring the new year’s supplies. An empty, cold, melamine desk and chair was calling us back and it was time to buy all the binders, pencils, erasers and crayons with which to cram them full. There was not a lot of room for individuality in these choices. Pencils were all pretty much yellow. Pens were blue. Those little essay booklets that looked as if they were made from itty bitty Holstein cow hides were all identical too, at least until you started coloring in the white bits, which obviously, you were bound to do. Leaving them white was just un-kiddish. Even the backpacks of the 70’s were mostly devoid of any kind of cool print or deviation of design, it was going to be simply be a matter of picking a color and writing your name on the inside cover. That was about it.

The lunchbox though… that was a different story all together.

Picking a lunchbox took time. There were a lot of angles that needed careful consideration and above all, and to the exclusion of any other concerns, it had to be picked by you. Never, EVER by your parents. The crushing shame that could result in that going wrong could prove fatal. You can be embarrassed to death, you know. All children know that.

It wasn’t the parent’s fault, naturally. Well, I mean it would be. It’s just that they couldn’t understand. They are grownups, after all.

Lunchboxes, as I think back, were really the first inroad of commercialism in the schools. It was the only place we could flout our allegiance to a favorite TV show, type of sport, movie, hobby or interest. I suppose that printed t-shits were another viable front for this sort of commercial intrusion into the world of academia, but back then, t-shirts were still mostly blank or sported simple designs like a rainbow across the chest or a star or something. Not much in the way of advertising. That, and in my case, due to the strict dress code at my little Catholic school, wearing a t-shirt to school was simply never an option for us. You might as well have tried to show up just in your underpants and tube socks. The reception you would have gotten from the Sisters and lay-faculty would have been much the same.

For us, it was all about the lunchboxes.

At the time we were making these earth shattering, deliberative, lunchbox-ly decisions our choices were seriously limited, and it made for some interesting choices. Lunchboxes back then were metal. All of them were metal. There wasn’t a plastic box to be seen anywhere. They were rugged, didn’t crack and if need be, could be used offensively as well as defensively in the blink of an eye. They were always at hand, ready for use and up to the punishment they took. An unusual and amusing aspect of these painted and embossed lunch carriers was that often, the images that adorned them were just so… random. You never knew what they were going to plaster on those things. It was one of the great side effects of adults having absolutely no clue what kids actually like. They tried everything. Naturally, there were the predictable choices with images of television shows plastered all over their metal sides. The Star Trek boxes, The 6 Million Dollar Man and Space: 1999 all come to mind as well as many movies of the era.

Still, there was a danger here in picking out the obvious cool ones when making your fall selection. Everybody liked Star Wars, or at least, anyone who mattered. Picking the box with the giant X-Wing fighter on it felt good, but could easily make you just one of the five other kids in the classroom with the exact same one, and that would never ever do. It showed poor planning and invited mockery, especially if you all ate at the same table at lunch. That’s where the random, genre based designs came in.

Back before they made it law that any thing that could at some point come in contact with child’s line of sight be covered with Disney and Pixar characters, there were the wild groping’s of lunchbox designers everywhere trying to figure out what might possibly appeal to children and were copyright free. Airplanes! Kids like airplanes, right? Let’s put a bunch of F-4 Phantoms on a Lunchbox. Hmmmm. Oh! How about Horses? Girls love horses. We could give it a vague Little House on the Prairie look, but with more horses!

In my case, it was the drag racers that got me in second grade. I likely spotted it at the five and dime and that was it: I wanted drag racers. I’m betting that this had to have confused my mother a bit. I have no idea what compelled me in this choice. My dad wasn’t a motor head, I had never been to a drag race, let alone any other kind of car based event in my life and I knew exactly none of the famous drivers. It just looked… cool, I guess.

Believe it or not, back in the day, toys didn’t have to have movie advertisements plastered all over them to look cool.

So, the trusty Drag Racer lunchbox joined in the miniature conga line of used, loved and abused food carrying devices that saw me nourished all those years at my little elementary school. They did their duty and then, with each new selection made in the following fall, the veteran would disappear into the basement or, if badly scrunched, into the waste bin, to be forgotten. As an adult, I knew that there were still a few of these kicking around at my folk’s house, hiding behind layers of cobwebs on high shelves in the darker corners of the cellar, but honestly, gave them little thought, until…

“I’ve had it with these things!” This was my remark to my wife one cool, September morning. In my hand was the leaking, sweating, heavily dented and chipped drink container that was supposed to go into my son’s backpack. Its thin, stainless steel walls were already sweating profusely due to the cold milk I had poured in a few minutes ago and, though I was sure I had put the cap on tightly, it had already leaked in the soft sided lunch (I can’t even call it a box. It’s a bag with a zipper) container, its crevices eagerly syphoning off the spilled liquid into every crack and corner to curdle and stink.

She looked up with that, “What now?” gaze I seem to get an awful lot of these days.

“You know what I want to get for the kids? A real lunch box with a real thermos. Remember those? Ours didn’t do this! They didn’t sweat because they were insulated. They kept the drink actually cold until lunch. They didn’t spill everywhere.” I put on my best look of high confidence and resolution.  “I’m going to fix this today.”

Guess what they don’t make any more? Can you guess? Not lunchboxes. The novelty lunchbox market has actually seen a bit of a resurgence, believe it or not. What they don’t have… are THERMOSES!

Seriously.

When you bought a lunchbox, it came with a matching thermos. Always! It was a given. But now, your only thermos option seems to be buying a leaky, sweaty, non-dishwasher safe number like my kids have OR to cruse Amazon for a bullet proof, top of the line model that costs as much as a new smart phone. Anyone who has seen how fast children can loose even the most glaringly obvious items, (kids can misplace their pants in a snow storm if you let them) will know better than to hand over a $32.00 milk container and hope to ever see it again. There had to be a better solution.

Time to call Mom.

Mom always knows.

Ring, ring…

Ring, ring…

“Hi, Mom. Do you think you might still have any of my old lunchboxes in the basement? You do! Could you do me a favor? Can you see if any of them still have a thermos in them? Thanks, Mom!”

Moms are the best!

As it turned out, there were three still living quietly unused lives down there, just waiting for a chance to see a peanut butter and honey sandwich and some carrot sticks again. With one, we hit the jackpot. On the outside, were the still crisply painted details of the drag strip, tires smoking as they spun at the green light. On the inside, its matching thermos! I was almost as gleeful at seeing this as my son, who looked on with a sort of awe. He knows nothing of drag racing, but he knows cool when he sees it.

Good boy.

The lunchbox its self was in rather tough shape and since we each had doubts whether it could survive another tour or duty, he elected to use is old, soft sided bag to transport his lunch in stead. The thermos though, fit nicely. After a good wash, I filled it with milk for the first time in well over thirty years, screwed on the lids and sent it off to school. The dragsters looked awesome. My boy looked proud and he informed me that he would point out to his teacher that this was his DAD’S and he had had it when he was a KID! Now that I think of it, that thermos is most probably older than his teacher.

Whoa.

As things turned out, my perfect solution turned out to be much like most of my “perfect solutions.” Short Stack came home with a report that, guess what, the thermos leaked. Milk had oozed into the cracks of his lunchbox yet again and I needed to do some scrubbing and cleaning before it could be put back into service. I think he could see that I was disappointed with the report.

“Rats. I was really hoping that would take care of it. Well, I guess that its just gotten too old to hold a tight seal anymore. We can use your old one, I guess.”

“No, Dad. I think I’d like to use your old one still.” He looked thoughtful and I realized that he was trying to formulate a good reason why he should continue to court sour smelling disaster on a daily basis. “After all, my other one leaks and the milk is always warm by lunch. This way, what doesn’t leak will at least taste good and cold!”

So, that’s our solution. This school morning, I filled up my old drag racer thermos, capping it and then, stuck it in a plastic bag as an added precaution. I slip it in the lunch bag and point out to my son which way it’s pointing and remind him to keep it upright. Then… it hit me. A flash of an image of milk smearing the inside of a metal lunchbox. MY lunchbox. The more I thought about it, the more solid the memory became.

These things leaked.

Ooooooh right.

Later, as I watched my boy happily walk through the school door with the rest of his lined up class, I hoped he’d remember to keep it tilted upright and prevent another dairy swamp from forming in his bag. He might. Or he might not.

After all, he’s a kid and mostly I’ll be happy if he remembers to come home with his shoes on. Remembering the thermos is asking for a heck of a lot. At least it will look neat and, what ever’s left in that race car decorated cylinder will be cold to drink.

That’s at least half a solution, I suppose.

Inanity Verbatim

“He seems to have a problem with remembering and memorizing.”

These are the words that made my parents twitch and fight to stifle an explosion of, “Are you joking?!?”

I was not, to put it delicately, a stellar student. I did fairly well in first and second grade but other than a bizarre hiccup where I made honor roll one year in Junior High, I spend the vast majority of my time in school just trying to play catch-up in the hopes of pulling those C’s and D’s that had appeared on my progress reports up to some more respectable C’s and a few B’s. It wasn’t easy for me, but not because I found the work impossible, but totally uninteresting.

I should clarify here that I LOVE learning. It’ one of my favorite things to do, and when I have a few precious moments to my self, you are more than likely to find me with a book on First World War Artillery pieces, manuals on how to get more out of your table saw or reading up on the best ways to set up an office server with the new operating system that came out last week. I just love knowing… stuff.

The problem is that I love knowing stuff that I feel is important to me and if what a teacher was talking about fell outside that ring, well… in my head, they tended to sound like the adults on the Charlie Brown TV specials.

Teacher: “Wa-waaawa wa-wa-wa waaaaaaaah. Did you understand?”
Me: “Ummmm. Yes?”

Toss in a hearing condition I’ve had all my life and I was pretty much doomed from the get go. What drove my poor parents and the few observant teachers I had batty was that I could dive into something with no academic merit whatever and it would stick to my frontal lobe like warm gum on a sneaker sole. Let me demonstrate.

Mousebatfolicle-Goosecreature-Ampizantz-Bong-Whappcapplet-Looseliver-Vendetta and Prang.

You have to take my word on it, but I just typed that from memory. I may have gotten the spelling wrong here and there but otherwise, I do believe it’s correct. What is it? Easy. It’s the name of a marketing company used in a Monty Python skit. I’ll spare you the details since nothing clears a room faster than a careful recounting or reenacting of a Python skit, but trust me, it’s in there. Not only have I not seen that skit for easily fifteen years, but the name is mentioned only once during the entire thing.

Once!

And yet, it is seared into my brain cells. I couldn’t forget it if I wanted to… which, I must confess, I don’t.

This might sound like fun, but I have the overwhelming feeling that mental garbage like this is the reason that I can’t ever seem to remember to get my car registered on time or when my wife is scheduled to work tomorrow or when in God’s name is my anniversary!

I find it annoying.
Those around me, I believe, have been plotting electroshock treatment.

It’s an interesting way to go through life, to say the least. There are perks. I tend to be the one who people call with nagging trivia questions that are driving them nuts. It can also at times give me the illusion of being smarter than I feel I actually am. Not bad, really. Where it never stood me well, was school. The rigid set-up, the chapters to read, the homework never quite completed and the utter and total lack of classes on Monty Python, made my education mostly an arduous torture. I can clearly remember counting the number on months I had left of my educational experience… when I was in ninth grade. I can actually remember that! See?! But ask me anything about the three years of Latin class and all you’re getting is, “Gallia est in Europa”

The weird thing is, I love history. I love language. I love… well… learning! Just not learning “The System’s” way. This is where my kiddos come in; Short Stack, at the moment, Lulu Belle, possibly later.

They say that the apple doesn’t land far from the tree sometimes and with him… boy! Do they ever have that old chestnut right. Sometimes with pride, sometimes with worry, I see myself reflected in his little three year old actions and ideas. He can’t remember to wash his hands after I’ve drilled him about nine hundred and thirty four times about this, BUT he can remember that there used to be a plant in the window at a friends house. A house we haven’t visited in easily a year. When we went over last week, what were the first words out of his mouth?

“Where’s the plant?”

It wasn’t a big plant. It wasn’t the only plant.

It was the MISSING plant!

+4 points for observation skills, I suppose.

Ok, ok. So the kid’s good at noticing things, (with the obvious exception of his younger sister whom he mows down with startling regularity as he careens around the house like a bat on fire) but that’s just being visually observant. Right?

How about this one:

Mercury
Venus
Earth
Mars
Asteroid Belt

Ceres
Pallas
Vesta
And a bunch of other stuff.

Jupiter
Saturn
Uranus
Neptune
Don’t forget about Pluto
Eris
And a bunch of other stuff…

Not only can he run through this list like it’s nothing, but he can quiz you on what color the various planets are, if they have rings and which ones have moons. He can also tell you them out of order and which ones are next to which. How? Because of this…

Essentially, this is simply the School House Rock of my children’s generation. Think about it. Remove the folksy guitar chords and soft lyrical voices of the seventies, substitute with amps, electric instruments and vocals by They Might Be Giants, and you’ve got it! Learning never looked so fun!

I don’t know what it is about music and cartoons that makes stuff like this stick, but it works! To this day, I can securely say that the only reason I know the preamble to the U.S. Constitution is because of Saturday morning TV. Now, with kids of my own, we don’t have a TV and don’t plan to get one any time soon. School House Rock is still available on DVD or the Internet, but lets be honest, we watch it mostly out of my own need for nostalgia. I subject my children to it from time to time but when it’s done, Short Stack wants me to pop in the “Science is Real” DVD and watch John and John sing about meteorites, the scientific method or how cells grow. You might suggest that it doesn’t mean much to him beyond the fun video and songs, but I’ve already been commissioned by him to construct his own solar system in his bed room and he gleefully points out the different things that are made of cells as we walk to the store. He gets it.

So, why can’t he remember to wash his hands!?!?

Some day, shockingly soon, it will be time for Short Stack to begin his school career and I for one am truly apprehensive. He’s not so good at focusing, following directions isn’t his strong suit and he’s prone to periods of gazing off into space, lost in a world of his own making. Getting good marks is going to be a challenge… unless that is, it’s what he wants to do. For me, it’s like looking into a time machine, except this time around I have red hair and freckles.

It’s going to be interesting. In the mean time, I just hope they come out with a really jazzy way of remembering times tables and parts of speech. If they don’t, I’m just popping in disk one of the complete Monty Python collection. It might not get him a job, but he’ll be able to quite British comedy at length.

In my book, that’s an accomplishment I can be proud of.

That, and I’ll finally have someone to do the Dead Parrot Sketch with.

Resume or Résumé

Some of you who have been kind enough to come back here from time to time and see what scribblings I’ve put down may have noticed a glacial like slowdown in my writing. Believe me, if you haven’t noticed it, I sure as heck have… and it’s driving me nuts.

It’s not that I haven’t been on the computer. Quite the contrary. I’ve been on it a lot. Too much, to be honest. You see, I’ve been at school.

T’was the day before Christmas, and all through the house,
You could see me grin foolishly, as if I were soused.
The children were nestled, all snug in their beds,
While the bank check I held, meant I was not in the red.

Sorry, I’ll stop there…

You see, I sold my business that I started ten years ago and decided to get back into education. This meant going back to school for a while and I wasn’t sure how I was going to pull that off. Then, a little ad caught my eye offering on-line fully accredited undergraduate classes. Living on an island as I do and being the primary care giver to our two little knee biters (Don’t scoff. I’ve been bitten by both of them now), this solution seemed to be the perfect fit for my needs.

And… it is.

Let me first say that if you ever encounter someone who tells you that online classes are a snap/joke/not real, you have my permission to laugh in their face and then possibly clear a nostril on their shoes, all in my name. These things have been kicking my butt, but in a good way. I’m doing well in them but… man!.. When was the last time you had to read a four-hundred page textbook in three weeks and write up a pile of papers on it as you go? I don’t know how you’d fair, but my brain is feeling mighty squishy these days. I also encountered something unexpected. The first twinges of carpal tunnel. As you might imagine, I’m being seriously careful about that. The reading, the writing and the further reading is numbing, but it is percolating through. Ten years since I left the teaching profession for a life in the business world, I’ve actually managed to resurrect the brain-meats that can not only understand edu-babble but actually converse in it. The rule of thumb is that if you can say something in a sentence of simple English, than you need to be able to say it in two paragraphs of edu-speak. Frighteningly enough, I seem to have retained the ability to do just that. It makes me feel like a need a shower after writing a paper in it though. Ick.

So, that’s where I’ve been. I’ve knocked down four of my required six classes that I need to change my education certificate from art to general education: kindergarten through eighth. I’m almost there now.

With some luck, I’ll find a job teaching this fall.

With a lot of luck, I’ll get my wish and will be teaching Kindergarten or first grade. Here’s hoping.

So now, I have to do something that I haven’t done in a long, LONG time. I have to write a résumé. It’s going to be both humbling and surreal. I’m used to interviewing, not being interviewed. Well, I did sign up for this, so I’d better suck it up and get typing.

In the mean time, I’ll try to keep up my writing here, but please forgive me if things get a little thin here over the summer. I have a lot more to tell and you can bet that if I do get to teach, I’ll be writing about that! The good news is, if I do get a job in the schools, I’ll get my commute back and that means I’ll regain my favorite writing time as I sit on the ferry to the mainland.

In the interim, here’s something to laugh at…

Oh, Sugarbunnies!

I had almost completed my first week of kindergarten at St. Joseph’s Catholic school and I had a question for my Mother.

“Mom. I head some words at school and wondered if they were bad. Can I tell you what they were?”

My mother put down what she was doing and looked at me. “Yes, you can tell me the words you heard at school. It’s alright.”

With permission granted, I happily ran through an extensive and well rounded list of epithets and interjections that one would normally associate with bars and pool halls rather than Mrs. Jobin’s AM kindergarten class. As my mother sucked in a long breath, he eyebrows rose up her forehead as if she was inflating. “Yes,” she added as evenly as she could, “those are bad words.”

I was thrilled to have my assumptions affirmed and before the special moment was lost, asked, “Does Dad know any worse ones?”

“No. Your father doesn’t use that kind of language.” Was the reply. Happy for what I had but wishing I had found more, I left the kitchen and headed out into my five year old world to hunt down what ever knowledge I could find. After all, I had some swear words in my quiver now!

swearing

The best part of this conversation to me wasn’t the fact that I had been sent to a religious school and immediately discovered the world of blue language, but rather my mother’s response to if Dad hand any other gems that I might not yet know about. My Father, though a good and kind man, was also a platoon sergeant and must have been at the nexus of foul language for much of the time he was in uniform. Oh, if I had only known.

My Kindergarten discoveries were not however, my first dip into the swearing pool. The very first cuss word to escape my little mouth was a time honored favorite. It rhymes with “fit.” I don’t recall what made me say it, but I’ve been told about the conversation that occurred after I said it. Dad looked up and my Mother and simply uttered, “He didn’t learn it from me!” Dad had worked very, very hard at cleaning up what he said at home since when he was at the barracks, swearing was a necessary part of every sentence. You didn’t ask some one to pass the salt. You asked then to pass the fu**ing salt. You didn’t get into the jeep, but rather got into the godd**n jeep. Not using the swear word would have been like serving a burger with out the ketchup. He lived in fear of sitting down to dinner with his wife, child or in-laws of and asking for the “d**n gravy.”

No, my initial venture into the world of expletives came, much to her embarrassment, from my very straight laced Mom. The fecal swear was perhaps her one real vice. It was not used loosely about the house but came out only in once geographical local, and from this it derived it’s nickname. We referred to it as “the kitchen word” and when you heard it, you knew that things were not going well in there. Often, it was used following the sound of pots and pans hitting the floor.

My Mother has never been the swearing type and her mother, famously in family lore, once castigated her for using “Bull Tickies” when something didn’t work right. She glared at her adult daughter and replied sharply, “That’s pretty close to something I don’t like!” Grandma was hardly unfamiliar with swearing in the house she grew up in and reportedly, when he Father let loose with his ultimate, “God D*mn it all to Hell”, you knew that he had reached the end of whatever rope he was currently hanging from. To this day, that particular sentence still carried weight within the family.

Having apparently taken her Mother’s admonishment to heart, my Mom came up with her own fill-in swear. One that could never be tisked at by Gramma: Sugarbunnies.

This wasn’t the family’s first foray into renaming dirty words. For what ever reason, my Grandmother, the same one who wasn’t fond of “Bull Tickies” decided that she needed to come up with something else to call poop. For some strange reason, she settled on “Bunkie.”

I have no idea why.

What it meant though was that I grew up surrounded by an extensive family of aunts, uncles and cosigns who all used the word, “bunkie” to describe a bowel movement. It was normal to hear and for one of my more rambunctious cosigns, served as his vehicle for his first full on tirade. Confronted one day by our Grandfather and having been told by him in no uncertain terms that things were not, in fact, going to go the way he was demanding, the young and aggrieved party squared his jaw and told Gramp, “Your name is Bunkie and you live on Bunkie Street!”

This, naturally lead to peels of laughter. Not what he was hoping for. Later that week, my parents made a fake street sign reading, “Bunkie Street,” placed it at the end of their road and took a photo to give as a gift to my Grandparents. It was well received.

I have worked hard at keeping my own language in a realm that would keep both my Mother and Grandmother happy with me and for the most part, I succeed. I do slip from time to time, but it’s fairly rare. I never thought of my lack of swearing as terribly noticeable, and as it turned out, it isn’t… until I swear.

The time that struck this home to me was back in college. My roommate at the time was of the “thick” variety and had a habit of doing knuckleheaded things. Sometimes to me, sometimes to others. He wasn’t bad, just numb. One night, I had come home to find that he had ruined some of my things though his all to often, careless behavior. I had liked these things he had ruined and was justifiably mad. I had also had a really rotten day. Apparently, the other folks on the hall were so caught off guard by my litany of swearing and vitriol that one of them was dispatched to find my roommate and instruct him that he was not to come home that night, lest he loose a major body part or several quarts of blood. Now, I’m not the violent type and I truly doubt that many would find me imposing but these fellows whom I lived with were so caught off guard by the nice, quiet guy letting loose with his best profanity that they the consensus was that I had snapped. From this episode, I learned that swearing needs to be used carefully. Measure it out and place it well and your point will carry that much more weight. Just don’t do it when Gandma is within earshot.

Working by my self for years made keeping my language clean pretty easy for me. Action Girl has had a rougher time. She works as a sea captain, longshoreman and is a card carrying Teamster. The vocabulary of a sailor is a colorful thing and it has taken a good deal of effort, discipline and glares from me over the dinner table, lest Short Stack catch on, to keep her more dynamic speech in check. She works hard at it and I’ve become an excellent covert glarer.

My Mom also has worked hard to overwrite “the kitchen word” with “Sugarbunnies” and she has pretty much succeeded. It tumbles off her tongue without a thought and now, Short Stack has picked up on it. He thinks it’s hilarious. As she stands in the counter making a meal, she drops a fork to the floor and utters an exasperated sigh. Short Stack is making a pass thought the kitchen at the time with his toy dump truck and stops to examine the fork and the situation. He looks up at his Grandmother and in true Short Stack fashion, asks a question.

“Gramma. Why did you not say ‘Sugarbunnies’?”

With a little luck, he should be swear free until Kindergarten. Then all bets are off.

Seasonal Geography

Behind the school sat the parking lot. Though not terribly large, it was big enough to afford a spot for all the teacher’s cars as well as the massive Catholic Church that backed up to the opposing side of the flat, paved playground. Naturally, the school had a proper playground as well, a chain link fence enclosing a sandy patch of ground, keeping wayward first graders from drifting off into traffic or worse, the carefully manicured garden that belonged to the adjoining nunnery.

The black top was truly the place of big kids. Four square and dodge ball commanded large swaths of pavement, as did noisy games of kickball. Sun faded, red rubber balls flew around like demented bees, rebounding with a satisfying “THOING” as they ricocheted off the back of an unsuspecting head. Scraped knees and hands were part of the bargain and though tears were no doubt shed at such moments, it didn’t keep us from getting right back out there and tempting fate just as soon as the gravel was plucked from wounds and Band-Aids were attached. I can remember with vivid clarity the spot near the school building where workmen had needed to fix some subterranean pipe or some such thing. When their work was finished, the pavement was patched and it’s darker surface was dubbed “the lava pit”. Naturally, it wasn’t a pit at all. It was perfectly flat with hardly a bump of transition from the old black top to the new but we all avoided it and the threat that was often offered up by one kid to another was that he would be dumped in the lava. I’m sure its long since cooled and faded to match the surrounding area.

Though I’m hard pressed to remember any particular moment or game I spent on that huge paved lot, I happily recall what it spawned come the first snowfall. There was only one direction to plow the snow when they needed to clean up after a storm and that made for a truly monstrous snow bank. By mid winter, it loomed not only far over our heads, but over our minds as well. The anticipation of the fun to be had during recess pried more attention from us than the lessons of the day and we bolted for it as soon as we cleared the doors of the school.

I can still hear the shrieking and squealing from kids as they scrambled up the sides of the snow pile only to be shoved back down its slopes, stand up and again and mount a “Once more into the breach” attack on those school mates who held the high ground. As dozens and dozens of my schoolmates scurried over and around the mountain of snow, others busily turned it into swiss cheese. Tunneling through snow banks comes naturally to kids and though the going was slow due to lack of proper tunneling gear, the drive that pressed us on was all consuming. Chains of kids would work doggedly in the snow mines, digging their way to glory. It was like something out of “The Great Escape”.

Naturally, the teachers on recess duty were less than inclined to let their students entomb themselves in a collapsed snow cave. For some odd reason, they had less then one hundred percent confidence in the engineering skills of fourth graders, and so technically, tunneling was forbidden. The way we figured it, if the teachers didn’t know about it, then it was “technically” fair game. We dug like wombats.

I never did see any of our extensive excavations collapse, thank God. If one did, I’m sure that we would have never been able to dig out the victim in time. When you’re nine though, it all seems worth it. One particular memory does come back to me of my time spent on the white mountain. I’m looking up the hill of heavily trodden snow and above me is a classmate, on his belly and busily digging like a mole, mittenfulls of loosened ice and snow are being flung back past his feet and our of the deepening hole. Only his boots are still in the sun. Just over the spot where his head would be on the above is another kid, madly jumping in place, trying for all he’s worth to collapse his friend’s project.

Kids are helpful like that.

snow-cave

As the winter wore on, the pile would grow, new tunnels would be dug and then filled in as fresh plowings were added. One thing we did notice with a sort of head cocked curiosity was how over a period of weeks, tunnels which we had excavated round and perfect, slowly turned into ovals as the ceilings drooped. Eventually, they would become impassable, flattened by the tons of snow over head and too flattened for the smallest spelunker to wiggle through and frankly too creepy to venture into anyway.

By the end of the winter season, the snow had transformed from the white, soft stuff of December to the dirty brown ice chunks of March. The pile was abandoned by all but the most desperate and we amused ourselves by tormenting each other with the cold hardened rubber kickballs and lava pits. It was never cold enough to freeze the lava pit.

The bell would ring and we’d head inside. Coats were hung in the massive cloak closets and mittens set out in haphazard rows on the steam radiators, humidifying the classroom as they dried.

Years after I graduated, a young cousin of mine attended my Alma matter. I was asking him about the happenings there and making a mental list of the things that had remained the same and those that had changed. When I mentioned the snow bank, he replied matter of factly that they weren’t allowed to play on that. Though horrified at the notion, I wasn’t overly surprised. We’ve worked hard to make the lives of our children as safe as we can and to that effort, we have sacrificed a lot of the best parts of play. When I thought about it, I could immediately see why the snow bank had been designated a no man’s land. The games of King of the Mountain with all its forceful shoving and kicking as sappers gleefully undermined the very ground the roughhousers were trying to hold. It was only a matter of time before calamity hit.

Still, I felt sorry for the kids who came after me. I picture them huddled in bunches on the ice covered parking lot in the afternoon sun, looking with longing at the virginal white peaks of snow piled to the height of a two storey house. A wintertime playground that might as well be on the moon. What a loss. Still, I’m glad for the memory and gladder that none of my friends disappeared into the depths we plumbed. There might have been a few scrapes and black eyes from overly excited mountain kings but all in all, I’d say those were worth it. Being a kid can be dangerous sometimes, but the memory of my afternoons spent on out seasonal mountain were worth the peril.

Outside, It’s snowing to beat the band right now. Tomorrow the snow banks will be impressive. I wonder how my digging skills have held up over the years? Only one way to find out!

The Tone in Dresden, Part II

So, that was the extent of the cultural diversity in this little corner of the former East German Republic. One half Danish. It was an eye opening experience for both parties and the first time I ever really considered the “Great American Melting Pot” that was so enthusiastically explained to us when were kids. I finally got it. The day went by pleasantly if not cluelessly for me. The summit of my embarrassment came when I had the pleasure of visiting a first grade class. The students were happy, orderly and charming. The thing that stood out to me was the inescapable fact that this bunch of six year olds spoke far more English than I did German. I had willingly tossed my self into a place where I was woefully inept at communicating with the locals in their own tongue and I was really starting to feel like a bozo for my lack of prowess.

Over the next few days, Mountain Man introduced me to his friend Carla, the art teaching English teacher. We three hit it off wonderfully and we decided that a road tip was in order. There was a school vacation coming up at the end of the week and the decision was made that we should go and visit Carla’s hometown, Dresden. I have to admit, I didn’t know what to expect. As a student of history, my mental images of Dresden were of after the bombing in 1945. Slaughter House Five, essentially. I knew historical Dresden, but not what was there now. I was in for a real treat.

The night before we departed, we headed out to Carla’s house for dinner and a tour of her village. The house was an amazing site all on its own. Standing at something like five stories high, it was 90% roof and all thatch. The whole structure reminded me more of an enormous hay bale rather than a home. This was a typical farm house for the region and traditional in every way. It was also beautiful and like something out of a storybook. Carla welcomed us in and gave the grand tour. The family lived on the first floor only. Traditionally, there would have been a place for the larger live stock right in the middle of the house. The winds that blow down out of Siberia are cold and the flat terrain does little to impede them. A nice warm cow in the house throws a lot of heat… and other stuff, but most importantly, heat.


(not Carla’s house, but a dead ringer for it. Picture from here)

Carla had built a barn out back and the cow had been replaced with a wood stove. Smart girl. The house was very nice and she showed us with pride all the things that she and her family had made from scratch, including the couch, necessitated by life lived under the DDR. You never tried to buy something that you could make or trade for. Chances are, even if you had the cash, what ever you wanted wasn’t available anyway. The whole house was a lesson in ingenuity. The massive multiple attics were filled with non-perishable foods, old luggage and, to quote Carla, “giant spiders”. I refrained from a detailed inspection.

On one shelf back in the main house, something caught my eye. It was a little ceramic statue of the, “Hear, see and speak no evil” monkeys. I had noticed the figurines in the place Mountain Man was staying at as well and remarked on them. “Oh,” replied Carla. “You’ll see those a lot. It goes back to the DDR times. They were to remind you to be careful about what you said or did. You never knew who was listening. The Stasi had informants everywhere. We used them as little reminders to watch what we said out loud and to whom.” That was a sobering thought. Freedom of expression was still something very new here in the eastern part of reunified Germany. It would be a while before people stopped looking over their shoulders before they spoke.

The next morning, we were off to Dresden. We packed into Carla’s little BMW and zipped off across the frosty fields. The coffee steamed up the windows as the radio burbled away in Polish. “That’s the thing about America,” said Carla. “All you hear on the radio is English. Here in Germany, I grew up listening to so many other languages that they all stuck to one degree or another.” She was correct, regarding the place where I grew up, anyway. The closest I ever got to a foreign language was listening to the little, old French Canadian ladies chat at the super market or the Latin in church. Either way, hardly something to learn a language from. She had grown up listening to Polish, Czech, Russian and in secret, English via Radio Free Europe. Language was part of her life and I told her how right she was in the only language I had. She followed this up with a joke.

“What do you call someone who can speak three languages?”
“Trilingual”, I replied.
“What do you call someone who can speak two languages?”
“Bilingual.”
“That’s right! How about one language?”
“Ummm. Monolingual?” I groped.
“No. American!”

Rueful laughter and knowing looks ricocheted around the car as we sped along. Again, she was right, of course.

Only kilometers out side the city limits, traffic slowed down to a crawl. There was some unseen issue ahead and the cars on the motorway started to bunch up and we realized that we would be here for a while. The chatted and solved the worlds problems and at a walking pace edged forward. After a while a large truck came into view at the side of the road. At first we thought that they were perhaps the reason for the bad traffic. As we got closer we realized that, no, it wasn’t their fault. They had merely pulled out of the line of inching cars and parked for a moment. The reason was immediately obvious. There, next to the truck stood the drive and his co-pilot, their backs to the road and hands down in front of them. A geyser of steam billowed up from the cold ground where they were relieving themselves of that morning’s coffee. Carla blushed and made a comment about how crass the situation was. Mountain Man and I mostly felt badly for them. We were in the middle of farm country and you would have had to hike away from the road and over the horizon to pee in private. Feeling a bit roguish, Mountain Man leaned over and tapped the center of the steering wheel, sending a friendly, “Beep Beep!” out to the two truckers. Carla just about melted under the dash. In unison, the two men looked over their right shoulders, smiled and waved with their free hand. We waved back enthusiastically. If Carla had had a periscope, she would have been driving with its aide. Run silent, run deep.

A half an hour or so later, we finally picked up speed and made it to the edge of the city of Dresden. It had been a longer trip than we expected but we had enjoyed the trip. Now it was time to find a place to stay and get something to eat. That, and it was also almost time for me to understand just how badly I wanted to speak another language. We were meeting a friend of Carla’s in Dresden and as a group of four, I would be the only one who didn’t know what everyone was talking about all the time or accidentally ordering the side of squid eyeballs when all I wanted was a salad. Aah, to be American.

Next installment of the Tone, later. Stay tuned!

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