Chapter 2

“Maria is eighteen, she can decide for herself.” Vasili was angry that his father could not see it.
“She is still my daughter, and she will remain in Circ until she is married. Then she can do what her husband wants to do,” Mikhal said with finality.
“I will watch over her as well as any husband. I am her brother. She will find a good husband in America, and will have a better life there than she will find here.”
“And what is wrong with this life?” Mikhal asked indignantly.
“We barely have enough to eat. The Kovalyaks and Tomkivs have lost children because they could not feed them. We only eat bread on Sundays, and not many of them. I am tired of eating potatoes every day.
“The Hungarians tax us for more than we can afford, and put us in prison when we cannot pay.
“I have heard about the mills that make steel. They will take any workers, and I must make money to help our family. Maria can work in the clothing factory. We will send money back to you.”
“I told you, I have been there Vasili—”
Vasili cut him off, “Yes! I have heard this too many times.”
“It is the truth, and it will be the same for you. I dug coal for them and got sick from the mines. I came back as soon as I could with some extra money.”
“Where has that gotten you now?” sneered Vasili.
Ignoring his son’s bitter answer, Mikhal asked, “And what about the army? The Hungarians will be through here soon, looking for you and your friends. They will not give you a passport when you owe them three years’ service.”
“I owe them nothing!” shouted Vasili. “I do not need a passport if I stay away from the police at the train stations. When we get over the border, it will no longer matter.”
Mikhal asked, “And where will you get the money to travel, are you a Magyar now? Do you have secret money I cannot see?”
“Yes, I have been putting money aside every time I work on the Baron’s land. I have enough for both of us now.”
“It does not matter. I forbid it.”
Vasili turned and walked slowly to the door.
He turned and gave Mikhal a threatening gaze. “I am going, and I will take Maria with me. I have promised her that I would not leave without her.”
“Then do not leave.”
Vasili threw the door open and strode from the house, angry but more certain than ever that he was right. Maria met him a few feet from the front door.
“What did he say?” she asked, hopeful that this time her father would relent.
“It is always the same. “I was there, I know better than you!’” Vasily’s mocking tone was biting.
“Please do not do that Vasili!” Maria pleaded. “He means well but I think he does not realize that you are a man now and you can decide these things.”
“I may have to go alone. I do not know how to change his mind.”
“Let me try. Perhaps you are too much like him, and you two can never agree.”
“Fine, but this is the last chance. I am leaving for Munich next week. I want you to see America, but I will go alone if I have to.”
The next morning, after Maria had fed the pigs and chickens and let the sheep and cows out to pasture, she found Mikhal near the house, repairing the fencing.
As she approached, Mikhal, knowing why she wanted to see him, said, “You can stop right there and go back to the house. I have not changed my mind since yesterday.”
“I know, but did you not meet Mother there in America? Why can I not have the same chance?”
“Your mother and I knew each other from here. It was easy. You will know only Vasili. Do you think that a rich American is just going to come along for a poor Rusyn factory girl, marry you and take you to his giant house in the city?” Mikhal reproached Maria, but his voice was gentle.
Maria began to cry, quietly at first, but then sobbed uncontrollably, her shoulders shaking and her face red and wet with tears.
“I-am-tired of being-hungry. I want-to live-” she could barely whisper the words, yet they were a stinging rebuke to Mikhal. His Anna had died only last year, and he remembered how they had fallen in love in America, and how she had secretly sacrificed her own life so that he and the children could live.
He stood from the fencepost and stretched out his arms to her, taking her in an embrace.
“Do not cry, little one. Maybe Vasili can take care of you.”
She pulled slightly away, wiped her face with her sleeve, and smiled broadly, her eyes focused on Mikhal and full of love and happiness.
“Thank you Father. Thank you. You will be proud of me. You will be happy that you allowed me to go!”
Maria ran and gave Vasili the good news.
“I do not know how you did it, but I am proud of you.
“Next week we leave this Hungarian hole and we start off for America!”

In the morning, Vasili sought out the friend he knew would help him. He saw Alexey opening the gate to let the cows to pasture.
Alexey Borovsky was one of Vasili’s best and most trusted friends. They had known each other as long as they could remember. With Nicolos Petrovich, they were always together, and always getting into some kind of trouble. The babushkas all knew them and scolded them every time they crossed their paths.
“Nicolos Petrovich,” they would shout, “I see you behind the shed. If I catch you I will give you the switch to your behind!”
Of course, they could never catch the three young men, but the laughter would echo off the houses as they ran for the hills.
Vasili, Alexey, and Nicolos were inseparable. They had stayed together, learned to hunt together, and at times argued when they went after the same girl.
Alexey had helped several other men escape to Poland so they could journey to America.
Most of them, like Mikhal, had returned of course, having made money, but having paid the price with their health. Most of the men ended up in the coal mines, or in the steel mills. In any case, they were the bottom of the rung, and were given the worst and dirtiest jobs. But they needed to make money and come back home so they could feed their families. Very few of them intended to stay. It was extremely difficult to get an entire family out of Hungary without passports. And the Hungarians would never give a passport to a family with a man of military age.
But Alexey was the kind of person that knew how to get things done. He knew the right people to talk to, and had spoken before about getting fake passports that would be good enough to get Vasili out of the country.
“Do you not have chores, my friend,” inquired Alexey when he saw Vasili waiting by the fence.
“Are you going to stand there like a frozen hen or do you want something?”
“I need a favor,” said Vasili.
“Of course you do! And I am the man to grant you that favor, eh?”
“This time it is a big favor.”
“Bigger than showing you how to be a good farmer?” joked Alexey.
“I was a good farmer when you were still wetting your diapers.”
Both laughed, but then Vasili’s face took on a very serious look.
“What is it, my friend, what troubles you so much?”
“My father has finally given me permission to take Maria and go to America.”
“And why is that so bad? You have been trying for two years with your father.”
“Because you know I cannot get a passport, not a legal one anyway.”
“Ahh, so now I see why you need me now.” Alexey said with a large grin. “The problem is that no one is making the passports anymore. The Hungarians found out about Janos in Lubotin. He has disappeared and everyone is afraid now.”
“Even so, we need to leave as soon as we can, before they come for me, and before my father changes his mind.”
“Hah! I understand. As a matter of fact, I have decided to also leave. I will not join the Hungarian army. Besides, I know you need the help.”
“What I need is to get past the police guarding the train station.”
It was only a matter of two miles to the Polish border. Once in Poland, nobody cared about the Hungarian passports, and they would be free to head to Bremen, where most of the ships were docked that would take them to America. But the Hungarians were watching the trains and the border carefully. They knew that the Rusyns would rather flee than serve their three years, even though it was considered the patriotic thing to do.
“We can handle it. I am the sneakiest man in the Carpathians! My friend Petra is the conductor on the train that comes by in two days.”
“I need more time than that!” Vasili exclaimed.
“It is either that or you swim the Poprad. After this trip, my friend will not be on that train again until next month.”
“Fine then. When does the train come through?”
“The day after tomorrow at 10:30. The train only stops for 10 minutes and we have to get on from the other side so the police do not see us.”
“But what about tickets?”
“Do not trouble yourself about tickets. Petra collects the tickets, and he knows me. I’ve ridden that train many times for free.
“Meet me here at 10:15.”
“Thank you.” The simple statement was all that was required between friends.

The Gray Wolf of Carpathia

Chapter 1

The impenetrable Carpathian night consumed the day as Vasili lay shivering in the trench they had scraped out of the ice and snow—so frozen that it was nearly as hard as the rock below it. The army had issued him the wool clothing that barely kept out the cold. Humans were not meant to live in these conditions, but what choice did he have?

The screams of the wounded from the day’s battle echoed down the canyons until stifled by the gray wolves. It chilled Vasili as it did the other men to hear the final cries in the dark, knowing that any one of them could be next. Tomorrow they would see the streams of red, frozen so fast that they never soaked into the snow. The bright red ice would remind him that his time was soon. And when it came it would not be peaceful.

If they were attacked, he would never be able to fire a shot. Everything on his Steyr Monnlicher M1895 was frozen. It took him five minutes to defrost the gun enough to allow the bolt to operate and the trigger to move. Far too late as the flashing bayonets would come over the lip of his hole.

They could never surrender. Vasili knew what it meant to be captured by the Russians. The Russians hated the Hungarians, the Germans, and the Austrians. But they had a particular hatred for the Rusyns because of the Rusyns’ stubborn attempts at separation from Russian influence.

“Vasili, you dog! Wake up before I shoot you!” Vasili knew enough Hungarian to understand the sergeant’s order, and he was smart enough to know what happened to those who did not obey.

“I am awake. What is it?”

“We are hitting the Russian bastards now. Get up and get ready!”

The fear rose to a peak in Vasili as he heard the charge of the Tsarist army echoing through the hills.

“Vasili! Wake up, Vasili! You are screaming again in your sleep!”

“I am sorry Marja, I cannot help myself.”

“I know Vasili. Is it the war?”

“It does not matter. It is just a nightmare.”

“But why will you not tell me about it?”

“Just go back to sleep. I am fine.”

In the morning, Vasili sat at the small kitchen table, his palms pressing into his eyes, his fingers gripping his blonde-hair.

“Is it the headaches again?” asked Marja as she hugged him around his shoulders. In the two years since Vasili had returned, he had been plagued by these awful headaches and nightmares from which he awoke screaming in terror.

“Yes, of course,” replied Vasili. “They never stop.”

Marja’s hand inadvertently went to pat Vasili’s back, making him pull away from her and flash his angry blue eyes back at her.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I did not mean to touch there. It was an accident,” Marja apologized.

“I have told you,” Vasili spat out, “you do not touch there, ever.”

The scar on his back was a constant reminder of the scar on his soul. It was the scar that meant he could never be forgiven—not by the priest, not by God, and not by himself.

“Father Durisin keeps asking why you do not go to mass.” It was Sunday, and Marja was carefully changing the subject and trying delicately to prod Vasili to go to church with her.

“That is not Father’s business,” growled Vasili. “That is my business.”

The Byzantine religion was deeply rooted in all Rusyns. It was not just an obligation, it was a way of life, and it permeated everything a good Rusyn did.

Marja turned to finishing the breakfast dishes without another word. She knew better than to push Vasili too hard. There was a space within him that Marja could not fill. God could not fill. It was his alone to bear. They had known each other since childhood in Circ. They had spent many hours walking the mountain paths into the beautiful Carpathians. Marja often wondered why her father left in the first place. The farming work was hard but peaceful. They were far enough from the Hungarians that they rarely came around to torment them. There had been animosity between the Hungarians and Rusyns for longer than anyone could remember, and they had been subjects of the Hungarian Empire for a thousand years, but Franz Joseph was especially determined to eliminate their language and their culture, turning them into Hungarians.

“You go alone. I have nothing to say to God today.”

“Please, it is your soul I pray for.”

“My soul is black, and I will be in Hell.”

“I just want you to—”

“Enough!” Vasili was shouting now. This weekly conversation had taken place since he returned from the war that had taken his humanity and his soul. Every time they had this conversation, Vasili would stare at the wall, his thoughts kept securely to himself, reminding him of how this journey started.

Vasili had been a farmer like his ancestors for as many generations as the family could remember. They had just enough land to feed themselves and had lived in the same log home built by his grandfather. Their two oxen helped with the plowing, the one cow gave them milk, the six sheep gave them wool, and the two pigs would give them pork.

His village sat at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains. The people of his village had no time to stare off at the mountains to appreciate the beauty and majesty. But Vasili knew those mountains. His father Mikhal had taken him hunting there since he was a small boy.

There were many rumors of a great country called America where many of their friends had gone. They knew only that the streets were gold, and a man could do whatever he wanted to do, and be whatever he wanted to be. When Vasili dreamed, he dreamed of such a place. Tall mountains, wheatfields as far as the eye could see, and cities, where so many people lived that they had to live in tall brick buildings. Often, his father would smack him in the back of the head when he caught young Vasili dreaming of that land.

His father would scold, “Vasili, do not dream of what you cannot have.”

“You and Mother were married there, why can we not return?”

“To that place, never,” Mikhal spat the words. “We could not stand the smell. The factories were the only places for people like us. I have told you this many times. All those people living on top of one another. The smoke and soot, we could never breathe properly. This is where we belong. This is our land.”

“It will never be our land so long as the Hungarians can come and take it. They have taken almost everything from us to pay for that Emperor to live in gold palaces. One of these days, we will not be able to pay the taxes, and they will take our land like the Kovalchiks.”

“No, one day we will have our own land. We will not live under the boot of the Magyars forever.”

“I will be long dead before that day comes, so why should I wait?”

When I’m 65

I turned 65 this year. I’ve actually lived through eight decades, from the 50s to the 2020s. But this is not about how my brain thinks I’m 21, or how 65 is the new 45, or how I can now get injured while sleeping.

This is about my first encounter with a Medicare checkup. Believe me, I get why they do what they do. I fully understand the ravages of dementia in older adults. But this is about how one can nearly blow something so easy simply because it’s so easy; and right there is why it can easily be a problem.

For one’s first Medicare checkup they need a baseline, so they do a hearing test and a vision test which are pretty standard, and all one has to do is listen and look. But then comes the cunningly devised memory test.

“I’m going to give you three words; I’ll ask you to repeat them, then in a little bit I’ll ask you to tell me what they are,” said the nurse.

“No problem,” I said in the “I’m confident because my brain is young” voice, nearly missing the first word because I was talking to myself.

“The three words are: ‘nation,’ ‘lake,’ and ‘finger.'” “Nation, lake, and finger,” I repeated. Now, in my head, I am repeating the words over and over and over because the last thing I need to do is blow such and easy test. I know my brain thinks these words are probably the least important thing it needs to remember today or ever, and it wants to place them in the “Who gives a crap” file. But no, I will not allow that to happen, so I begin the memorization by rote technique, repeating them in my head over and over and over.

“Ok brain, you got this,” as I await her request for the words, so I can spout them off like I can give out my name. But then something happens that completely jars me from my musing. The nurse says, “Here’s a piece of paper, I want you to draw a clock face, complete with all of the numbers, then I’m going to give you a time and I want you to draw the hands in the proper positions.”

“Holy…what? Did I hear her correctly? Nation, lake, finger, nation, lake, finger. Did she say a clock face with numbers? Nation, lake, finger. Now I have two completely useless things to remember.” As I draw a circle on the paper, my brain is now nearly in crisis mode. “When was the last time I had to draw clock hands to indicate the correct time? Wait, is it little hand hour, big hand minutes, or big hand hour, little hand minutes? Ummm, nation, lake, … Nation, lake, finger, phew. Nearly lost it there.

“OK, 12, 1, 2, nation, lake, finger, make sure the three is in the right position. I’m making this way harder than it needs to be. Yeah, but boy could you blow this and really look bad. Nation, …, lake, finger, 10, 11. There.”

“Ron, I want you to indicate 10 after 11.”

“Who the hell tells the time like that anymore? Why not 11:10? Cripes. So, small hand 10, big hand 11. No wait, it’s not 10:11, it’s 11:10. OK little hand 11, is that right? Yeah, that’s right, big hand 10.” I am satisfied that it is correct and hand her the paper.

“What was the first word? Don’t dwell on this or you’ll forget the other words. Nation, yeah, nation.”

Finally, the moment arises and I speak with the gravitas of a Shakespearean actor, “Nation, lake, finger!” Ok, that’s a bit hyperbolic, but then so is this entire story.

I passed the test, but wait, did I mention the shots? To start the appointment Carolyn and I had to get pneumonia vaccines. This is a vaccine only given at age 65 or above. There it is. So while we were there we figured why not get the flu vaccine at the same time? I know it’s dead viruses meant to active one’s immune system, so why not?

Why do people think these give them the flu? Simple. Your body thinks you are getting the flu, and it reacts appropriately. So my body now thinks it is simultaneously being attacked by the flu and pneumonia, and is reacting appropriately and without regard for my plans for today. You can draw you’re own conclusions.

I’m done being 65 for the time being, so I’m going to have some warm milk and a nap.

Spaced in Time

The fairies were dancing while the flowers sang the tune.

The inter-dimensional membrane was broken through at last.

The floor was on the ceiling while the ceiling yelled for mercy, but the door was always open and the fireplace did roar.

The pumpkins were all lined up and the butterflies were hungry, but the bees made nothing but trouble for the trees and all their friends.

The wind just kept blowing, and I thought I’d seen enough, but the stream was flowing past me and I didn’t want to miss the show.

While the clouds kept hiding the sunlight, the fish began to shout obscenities to the memory of the fire that killed them all.

I never drank from a silver cup so who will fill it with the wine that it deserves, to toast the toast that we deserve?

To frame our lives in the window panes and hang them on the walls. What button do I push to end this nightmare?

The walls are staying where they have always been. It’s the floor that I don’t trust. The table told me stories, and the chair and I believed every word.

When the ink dries on this contract, I suspect that it will turn to dust and blow away in that damned wind that never stops.

If I yell any louder I’m sure I’ll wake the bell, and we all know what happens next. I would have too.

A Word on the Awkward Years

My Junior High years (at that time, we had no kindergarten, only 1-6, 7-9, and 10-12) were not particularly distinguished in many ways. I made decent grades, made the honor roll, that sort of thing. But you know the good things we do are usually mundane and uninteresting. So…

In ninth grade, we had an art teacher named Mr. Snyder. He really was a nice guy, but he had this obsession with art (I know, obviously) and would force us to attempt art techniques that were way over our heads, and way past my interest, like wood block engraving and printing. Seriously? The only good thing was that there was a girls’ gym class at that time and the art classroom was on the side of the building overlooking the football field. I got busted every time for staring out the window.

So amid all of the attempts to make us the next generation Florentine artists, John and I had a contest. The contest was to see who could torment Mr. Snyder the most and get the most swats from his wooden pointer. Corporal punishment was quite encouraged at that time. The idea was to aggravate him to the point that he would call you up in front of the class, bend you over and give you two or three good swats to the backside. The only really bad hits were when he would miss and hit your calf muscles. No question, I asked for every one of those welts. The worst came when he asked me if I wanted backhand or forehand. I considered the offer, and being over-confident in my cleverness, thought that no one could have a backhand as powerful as a forehand shot with its extended backswing. I should have realized he had that smug little smirk on his face for a reason as I requested the backhand shot. It turned out that he was some kind of amateur tennis star. If you ever get that offer, think about why you got that offer before you decide on which to take. He gladly informed me of his status, after giving it his best shot, with a grin like the Grinch after he stole all of the Christmas gifts and decorations from the Whos.

The only time I got a serious paddling was from the principal, Mr. Ermelick. I was in the 8th grade and we had a band party. A kid brought in a baby aspirin bottle of liquor. Three of us were walking down the hall and he asked if we wanted to try it. Sure, why not? I barely got it to my lips when he ripped it out of my hands, and I do not believe I actually got a taste. A certain nerdy kid (that ended up being a General in the army, go figure) spied us doing it and for some reason ratted us out. Three swats with the paddle and a call to the parents. I am not sure which hurt more. Ok, the wooden paddle with the holes drilled through to reduce wind resistance definitely hurt more.

In Seventh Grade we had Miss Williams for English. She was tough as nails and was well known for teaching sentence diagramming. That was one of the most hated exercises of any class, in any grade, anywhere. But it was the best method for learning the parts of speech, their correct use, and their correct positioning in sentences. By the Ninth Grade, she picked a bunch of us for her creative writing class. It was an unstructured class meant to bring out our creativity by not repressing it with a lot of rules and strict classroom rigidity. For many of the assignments we were permitted to go anywhere on the school grounds we wanted to, and usually worked in teams. John and I positioned ourselves at the base of the back staircase. Subtlety is not a characteristic of 14-year-olds. Come on, I was in Ninth Grade. It worked pretty well until one of the teachers caught on, and berated us until we left. At least we didn’t get in any trouble. Even with our immaturity, the class actually did achieve its purpose. As a group, we produced some decent poetry, stories, and even put on a play written by one of the students. In all, it opened our minds to creativity. Miss Williams, wherever she is, should be proud of her accomplishments, only outdone by my high school English teacher, my nemesis, my mentor, and the only reason I am still writing sentences for a living. I will talk about her at another time.

A Poet’s Day

Today is the kind of day of which poets write. The sky is a deep azure blue without a hint of an atmospheric perturbation. The sun is the only thing in the sky, a welcome visitor to the morning coolness. The warmth washes over me as a slight breeze tickles my skin with coolness. I am glad to be alive to witness such a perfect day. I am glad to be able to enjoy this moment and each moment that passes, without regret for the past or worry for the future. It reminds me that I am alive right now.

The last one mile

Carolyn and I walked the path of the Pickett-Trimble-Pettigrew Charge of July 3, 1863 in Gettysburg. The path is about one mile of open farmland. There are a few swales where a man could find some respite if he were to lay down. Otherwise, there is a clear view of Little Round Top, from which Union artillery pounded the Confederate flanks, and straight ahead where the artillery belched fire and death right at them. And behind the low stone wall, men in blue with their heads down and their muskets primed, waited for the order to come up and fire into the faces of the butternut-uniformed men. I can feel it here, as I cross the Emmitsburg Road. I can feel that this land, this very piece of ground on which I stand, was trodden and bloodied, and horrors I cannot imagine took place here where now I walk in peace on this sunny Spring day. I cross the Angle, where the Virginians broke through, where General Armistead met his fate with his sword held high and his hat on the tip, shouting “on you Virginians!”

I walk to the cannons silently keeping vigil where the air turned pink from the point-blank double-cannister fire. I feel it here, too, the memories of those who came here in war and bloodlust, and never left this field. As I return on the path of the defeated army, back to West Confederate Avenue, I feel the bewilderment of those survivors who could still walk, not understanding how General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, the invincible army, could have suffered this devastating defeat. I can almost hear General Lee, his hat in hand, peering at his men, saying, “It is all my fault.” I must respect the men who could have born such horrors and kept marching forward as hundreds fell around them in gruesome deaths. And finally I hear General Pickett, after General Lee told him to rally his division for defense from a counterattack, saying, “Sir, I have no division.”

Red Dog Days III

undefinedYes, we actually had those types of desks from the 1930s in our classrooms. Inkwell and all. I can’t discuss my early years without mentioning a few of my teachers. In second grade I had Miss Edgar, the quintessential leftover Victorian Era schoolmarm. She was second in age only to God. Her doctor was an paleontologist. Very old and very wrinkled. Her hair was dyed jet black, she had on copious amounts of blue eyeshadow, her cheeks looked like the rosy cheeks of a clown doll, her lips were fire-engine red, and, I am not lying, she had a silver incisor. I think she put her makeup on with a cement trowel. She hated boys. I don’t know why, but she hated boys. Unfortunately for me, I happen to be a boy. She loved the girls. She treated them with all the deference her shriveled heart could muster. My cousin Kathy was two years older than me, and they had a mutual love. But my friend John and I got paddled every other day. I remember well a rainy day recess. We couldn’t go out to the playground, but Miss Edgar allowed us to go out on the front porch of the school. The front porch was maybe 12 feet by 30 feet. A wide set of about six steps led up to the neo-classical porch with large columns on either side. Of course we got rowdy and two kids starting playing keepaway with my baseball cap. One of them tossed it and it landed on the first step down from the porch. The first step. So my right foot went on the first step as I bent down and retrieved my cap. I would guess within 30 seconds Miss DeGeorge appeared, throwing open the outer doors of the school, grabbing me by the arm, and paddling me all the way down the 30 foot entrance hallway, turning left, and all the way down the final 30 feet to her room. And of course yelling, “I told you not to go off the porch” fifty or so times. Not too traumatizing for a seven-year-old.

In third grade it was Mrs. McClellan. I can see her face plain as day. Older, rather plain, with the shorter permanent hairdo popular in the early 60s. The only problem with her was that she was a germophobe. Back then we used handkerchiefs. Granted, I wouldn’t be too fond of it now, but that is what everyone did. You kept a handkerchief in your back pocket. Well she caught me using it. She grabbed me by the arm, marched me down to the boys room, threw open the door, went to a toilet stall and forced me to flush the handkerchief down the toilet. Well, that’s not too traumatizing for an eight-year-old.

At least my first, fourth, and fifth grade teachers were rather normal. Mrs. Kline, Mrs. Laurman, and Mrs. Bedogne. In sixth grade we had someone that I swear looked like Granny Clampett. She had gray hair and kept it in a tight bun like a pioneer woman and wore those little round-framed metallic glasses popular in the 1920s. Mrs. McDowell was only there for about the three months or so of sixth grade, but in that short time she managed to make my life miserable.

I have decided to leave out the details of the sixth grade episode because it would come off as mean-spirited. The meditation must be doing me some good. Mrs. McDowell left suddenly and without an explanation. (Nothing to do with me, by the way)

After that we got our first male teacher, whose name escapes me. I’m guessing he was in the first wave of men to figure out that going to school for teaching gave them a deferment from the draft, the late 1960s being the height of the slaughter of the Vietnam War. I don’t begrudge anyone the opportunity to have avoided being cannon fodder for an ill-advised war. But there was an entire generation of male teaches who could have cared less about teaching or kids and only saw it as an opportunity to stay out of the Army. He would take us down to the TV room once a week to watch the Mr. Alder’s Science show on WQED, the first public broadcast station in the U.S. We would go in, watch the achingly boring show, and return to our class. We got nothing out of it, and I found it to be worthless. One day I couldn’t take it anymore, so I wrote up a petition to the teacher demanding that we stop watching it. At lunch, I took it around to the entire class and they all signed it. I placed it on the teacher’s desk. When he returned to the classroom, he sat down, picked up the petition, read each word, and looked over the signatures while peering menacingly over the top of the paper. Then he stood up, slowly eyed the entire class, and demanded to know who signed the petition. My friends John and Larry and I were the only ones to put up our hands. This was an early lesson in what it takes to intimidate a crowd.

We were punished by remaining in the room while the rest of the class went to watch Mr. Boring’s science show, and we had to write some science paper thing, I don’t remember what. But in my eyes, I won. I didn’t have to watch Mr. Alder’s Science show, and the trauma began to subside!

Note: I have changed the names of any teacher of whom I speak ill.

End of Part III

Red Dog Days II

Our neighborhood was built on what was an apple orchard; the beautiful farmhouse still stands at the bottom of the hill. And somehow, parallel to the Poltergeist story, my parents managed to build directly on top of a giant wolf spider nest. Look them up, they are nasty beasts as big as a tarantula. I’ll get to that later. My mother told the story of the first summer after we first moved into the house, it was late in the evening and all of the windows were open (no, there was no such thing as whole-house air conditioning, or room air-conditioning). They kept hearing scratching noises and could not figure out where the sound was coming from. Finally, they realized that the sound was on the screens, and found that all of the living room screens were covered in these giant spiders. I don’t mean “oh that’s a big spider at 2 inches,” I mean these were giant spiders at about 5 inches. Hundreds of them. No wonder my mother was always afraid of spiders.That all happened when I was only two years old—too young to know the difference.

Now I fast forward to when I was 10 or 11 years old and my dad told me to cut the grass. We didn’t have a shed or garage, but there was a small “room” under the back porch that led into the cellar. That is where we kept the gasoline for the mowers. I innocently went down the steps, opened the door, and reached down and lifted the gas can. Fast as can be, out ran this five-inch spider right at me. This thing was a monster, and I wanted none of it. Probably because I was screaming like my hair was on fire, my father and mother came running to my aid. Of course, when my mother saw the object of my terror, she wanted none of it either. My father, being a father, grabbed the old coal shovel we kept in the same little room. A coal shovel is a square, short-handled shovel designed, as you may have guessed, for shoveling coal. The blade of the shovel is about 20 inches by 20 inches and weighs a ton. My father scooped up that nightmare of an arachnid and tossed it into the grass, whereupon he began beating it with the shovel. As he lifted the shovel between each pounding, the evil creature would take off like somebody tapped it on the shoulder. This went on for probably three or four minutes until my father, not one to be intimidated by the toughness of the creature, threw it onto the brick sidewalk and gave it one last pound. That ended what I believe may have been the last life and perhaps the end of a species of spider.

undefinedI went through about the next 30 years truly believing that we had discovered some sort of Eastern tarantula. I was so convinced that out of curiosity (and before the internet), I contacted a professor at the University of Arizona to ask about the spider, and how a tarantula had come to be in Pennsylvania. Helpful as all intellectually-superior professors tend to be, he mockingly told me that there have never been tarantulas in Pennsylvania. And that was the end of that conversation. It took me another 10 years before I found a site to which people could submit photos and have the site owner identify the spider. And there it was, plain as day, the giant wolf spider.

Because the land was newly developed, we tended to host quite a few nasty beasts. I can remember laying in the grass on my stomach when a little piece of earth lifted up and out came a large trapdoor spider. We also had a lot of black widow spiders hanging around all of the leftover lumber piles from home construction. In the hedges of the cemetery next door lived quite a variety of spiders and other various harmless critters. The thing was, the outside of the hedges presented a nearly impenetrable barrier, but the inside was practically hollow with the branches creating archways and vaulted ceilings. Remember, I was a kid, so the “vaulted” ceilings were really only a couple of feet high. But we had a fort that was not in view of any adult, and especially John, who you may remember liked to eat children. The hedges ran for a good 50 feet and provided endless fantastical stories. Now and then we had to wrangle a snake out of there, and I’m not sure why I wasn’t more scared of the copperheads (we knew full well they were venomous), but a good forked branch always did the job and none of us ever got bit.

The great thing was that most everybody moved in at almost the same time, and all the parents were about the same age. I swear they coordinated the timing of their kids’ births because every set of kids was around three years apart, and every set had enough kids to play with that we rarely had to jump age groups. Each age group had enough kids to play baseball (OK, not 18 kids at once). Remember, this was the end of the Baby Boom age. I rather like being a Boomer. It reminds me of ballistic missile submarines.

End of Part II

Red Dog Days I

Suddenly and without warning, I am old. And I’m starting to feel like it. I get out of bed with aches and pains that I didn’t have when I went to bed.When I realize how much time has gone by in my life, it makes me want to reminisce, although very often it makes me melancholy to do so, because the only way I can go back is in my head and on these pages.

When I was a kid, we left the house in the morning and came back for lunch, dinner, and when it got dark. A cliché by now I know, but that was the reality. Other than those three times, we were expected to be gone, out of the house, and out of our mothers’ hair. They had adult things to do and we had kid things to do. It was just the natural order of the universe. The only time I stayed in the house was on selected Saturday afternoons, starting at 3:00 p.m., when the original Chiller Theater was on. It was non-negotiable. Black and white movies on a black and white television. This was where I learned about Godzilla, The Monster from the Black Lagoon, Them, The Thing, and one of my obsessions, Molepeople.

I don’t want you to think that my parents didn’t care about me. There were certain restrictions regarding my outdoor adventures. We were not allowed behind the bible, the large stone and concrete bible monument at the edge of the cemetery we lived next to. It was (technically) cemetery property, but practically it was an adventure park that was fueled at least by the fact that it was forbidden; also because John, the cemetery caretaker in his red pickup truck, liked to eat children who wandered onto cemetery property. He was fast, but he wasn’t kid fast.While John couldn’t catch us, I’m afraid that karma could, and did.

One sunny October day the bunch of us went back there to play. We were dressed, luckily, in long-sleeve sweatshirts and jeans. We got behind the bible and I sat down on the ground and kept hearing a loud buzzing sound. I had sat my ass down directly on top of a hornets’ nest. All of the hornets were home because it was swarming season. They were not a bit happy about being disturbed and rose up in a huge cloud of buzzing anger. You have never seen a group of eight-year-olds run so fast in your life. The great part was that the chubbiest, slowest kid in the group was a blur as he passed us up like we were chained to a fence and he was on fire. When I got home I had hundreds of hornets hanging all over my sweatshirt. I’d only been stung a few times in the neck. My mother, assuming that they were all either dead or worn out, began swatting at them with the dish towel she was carrying. They were not in fact dead but very much alive and now really really angry. They swarmed all around and I think I took a few more shots to my head. Finally they dissipated and I was left with welts and one sweet bunch of explaining to do.

Another forbidden zone was about a mile away down a large hill, and through a bit of woods. That was the old brick garbage incinerator (still there, by the way). Now there was a target that was tempting beyond imagination. An abandoned structure. Kids. They just go together. My mother always told me to stay away from there; that bums lived there. That of course was the type of scare tactic used by mothers since forever, but she might as well have said that little kitties lived there and we should go pet them. We wandered around the area quite a bit, off and on, and of course the anticipation was much greater than the reality. Until one day we ran across a fresh campfire with used tin cans strewn about. That sprint was not quite equal to the sprint away from the hornets’ nest, but it may have set a new one-mile record.

Then there was THE CLIFFS. It was an old rock quarry and the approach from our houses was on the bottom side of it. Looking up was like staring at the peak of Everest from a base camp. And for us, “because it is there” was a good enough reason to climb. Plus, at the top was all of the abandoned quarry equipment, including stone cutting saws and other industrial equipment. Or as we knew it, Paradise. We normally climbed up and down without a problem, but one day I climbed onto a ledge about halfway up and realized that I had no way up and no way down. Ricky had to go run home (mile or so away) and get some rope and help. They lowered a bullrope to me and I climbed up to the top. No harm, no foul.

Down in the backyard of one of my friends was a fence that ran the length of the neighborhood. On the other side lay adventure. The other side was a couple of acres owned by one of the original residents of Carroll Township. I don’t think any of the residents ever came down to the bottom of their property. Part of it was pretty much an open field, but there was a circle of very tall pines surrounding a beautiful, grassy patch. Once inside the pines, no one would ever see you. On another area stood three weather-worn, dilapidated, and collapsing one-room houses in a row. We understood that these were servants’ quarters. By the condition of them I would guess 50 years or more had passed since they were used. Someone had to look inside. The floorboards were broken and fallen in. I have no idea how many animals had used them for a home, or how many were actually home at the time. No, we were too pumped with adrenaline to care. The greatest find of all was a WWI gas mask and some sort of flag. I didn’t recognize the flag, and to this day I cannot remember what it looked like. We grabbed our treasure and ran for the fence, climbed over and ran to my friends’ house. There we began to examine the trove with which we had absconded when their mother appeared and demanded to know where we had obtained our artifacts. We could hardly contain our excitement as we described the houses and their contents and how we made it in and out and back over the fence and the entire discussion came to an abrupt halt when she held out her hand and said “You are not allowed in there. Ronnie I will be telling your mother what you did.” With that, the historical, museum-quality artifacts were lost to history, and we were given our due, which was far less pleasant than the consequences of climbing around dilapidated houses could have been.

Our roads were made of red dog and were unnamed. There was “our road,” the “first road,” and the “second road.” Red dog came from scrapped mountains of coal that were unusable due to the mixture of stone, sulfur, and other impurities with the coal. The heat generated within those mountains caused the coal to ignite and bake the stone so that it turned various shades of red and even orange. The roads were hell to ride a bike on, so you had to be an expert rider. The stones had sharp edges like flint, and if you fell, you hoped your mother had plenty of iodine and Bandaids because there would be blood. Once a year the township oiled the roads to keep the dust down. That was a most glorious day of the year! Of course it meant that we couldn’t walk or ride our bikes on the road for a week or so, but we got to play in the oil. In spite of our mothers’ best efforts, we always ended up with oil on our shoes, which of course we then tracked right across the linoleum floor that they just waxed. We enjoyed ourselves making dams to hold back the running oil, then throwing various objects into the lakes of death. It was the early 1960s—we were easily entertained.

Our toys were simple, yet in some cases, deadly. I had a mortar that was a three inch diameter tube, tripod-mounted, and about two feet long. It had a metal plate in the tube that was attached to a large diameter sprint. The spring was compressed with a cocking device on the side of the tube, readying the mortar with a hair trigger. When anything went down that tube and hit the metal plate, it immediately came back out at about 200 feet per second. Heaven help the twerp that had his or her face over that tube. The mortar came equipped with plastic shells, but they were definitely not exciting enough. No, we used dirt bombs–basically a fist-sized lump of hardened clay in somewhat of a spherical shape. That mortar threw the dirt bombs in a long parabolic arc, landing about 100 feet from the mortar and exploding in a spray of shrapnel and dust. Perfect.

We also had the early versions of Estes rockets. Always fun, and always dangerous. The engines came with a fuse that had to be lit with a match. No electronics to keep you at a safe distance from the hurling missile. The process was 1. lay on the ground on your stomach near the launch pad, 2. light a match and hold it to the one inch long fuse, 3. wait for the familiar hiss, and 4. roll away as fast as possible. We never had a casualty, except for the rockets, which occasionally went up and apparently ended up in Oz.

Winters were great in the early 60s. Road cleaning equipment was scarce and tire technology as well as automobile technology were relatively primitive. The cars had rear, one-wheel drive, which meant if you slipped, you were done. Limited slip didn’t arrive for a few more years. At any rate, that all meant that when it snowed, nobody went anywhere. That absence of traffic meant that the roads were open game for sled riding. Because we lived on a hill, the roads were perfect and we took full advantage of them. Well, until the road crews did show up with a plow and ashes. They didn’t use salt to clear the roads. They just put ashes on top of the snow to give you some traction. Obviously those ashes (I believe it was potash left over from coke burning) were the enemy of sled runners. When we would hear the truck coming we would load up on snowballs and pelt the hell out of that truck. We also did some serious sled riding in the cemetery. It had a seriously steep road on which we would build yankee bumps to launch us on the way down the hill. It was a perfect place except when our old nemesis John would show up to clear the roads. Needless to say, he was not a fan of our using the cemetery for our own purposes. But he still never caught us.

End of Part I