Saturday, April 30, 2011

Where's Your Husband?

The sweat rolled off my brow as I struck my shovel into the rocky ground and threw out a spadeful of dirt. For 30 minutes Cecila, David and myself had been digging a hole in a front yard into which we would soon drop a tree, which was sitting a few feet away, its root system wrapped within an earthen ball confined in a burlap bag.

The city's "green department" had dropped the free tree off onto the homeowner's property two weeks earlier. Five days ago a city crew had marked the exact spot where the balled tree would be planted by spraying a circle onto the homeowner's lawn with white paint.

This was a Saturday morning volunteer effort for the three of us diggers. We were tree huggers, do-gooders, giving back to our community.

It was time to roll the tree into the hole and cut away the wire holding its burlapped root ball together. The homeowner's door opened and a woman came out.

"Hey, thanks for coming, it's so nice that you're here to put the tree in," she said as she walked up to us. I thought maybe she might offer us green-earth do-gooders who couldn't figure out anything better to do on a Saturday morning some ice-tea or water, and I was thirsty.

"Lissen, we were thinking and we decided we don't want the tree after all. I'm sorry, but we've just changed our minds."

Dave spoke up, because he's the city employee. "Okay, ma'am, we can just pick the tree up on Monday."

The hole we'd spent thirty minutes digging was between us and the homeowner. I turned my back on her and leaned on my shovel.

"Oh thanks." She went back inside her house and closed the door.

I turned to Dave and said, "He didn't even have the balls to come out and tell us; he sent his wife out instead." Cecila laughed knowingly.

We filled the hole back in, placed the scalped turf back on top and left. I made sure that every toaster-sized rock we'd laboriously dug out of that hole made it back in there.

I think Republicans live in that nice house on the southeast corner of Hillwood Avenue and Brook Drive in Falls Church. They coulda told us little folks to stop before we had finished digging that hole.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Laughing Man

I just finished reading The Laughing Man by J.D. Salinger for about the seventh time in my life. It's in Nine Stories.

Many short stories come close to it in impact but none can claim primacy. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce is compelling, with its alternate, mind-bending ending. The Lottery by Shirley Jackson is excellent, an uncomfortable depiction of you and me. The Lady, or the Tiger by Frank Stockton is tantalizing, with its portrayal of power colliding with an irreconcilable conflict.

The Laughing Man can be read over and over with no diminishment of its heart-wrenching effect. Chief, Mary Hudson and the boy Comanches, all of them are headily won over in their playground on the upper East side by the burgeoning love between a man and a woman.

When that love is extinguished, for whatever timeless reason, a heart-wrenching, indeed numbing, feeling of the loss of love oppresses the reader. Where does Chief go from here, and why did he let her go?

It’s a beautifully written story. The story is told from the vantage point of a nine-year old member of the Comanche Club, a group of schoolboys who are picked up after school every day by Chief, a New York University Law School Student, in his dilapidated school bus.

Chief takes care of the boys til dinnertime, by splitting the larger club into the Braves and the Warriors. He fills their time with baseball or football games in Central Park or, if it’s raining, trips through the New York City museums.

How would these kids otherwise ever roam those halls? During down times, and as a reward, he swings around in his broken-down driver's chair and tells them, in hair-raising installments, The Laughing Man story.

Chief is a wicked story-teller, and his account of the escapades of the Laughing Man traces a parallel tale about love through the short story. His face horribly disfigured in a childhood incident, the Laughing Man wanders through the heartless wilderness communing with exotic wild creatures, the beasts being the only ones who can bear to look upon him as he truly is.

Laughing Man foils the evil plots of bandits and villains and promotes goodness throughout the land. Chief is from Staten Island; do you know that's where I grew up?

"Once [Chief] started narrating, our interest never flagged. ‘The Laughing Man’ was just the right story for a Comanche. It may even have had classic dimensions. It was a story that tended to sprawl all over the place, and yet it remained essentially portable. You could always take it home with you and reflect on it while sitting, say, in the outgoing water in the bathtub."

When you were a kid, did you ever watch the water whirl out of the bathtub as the hot water got tepid? Did you ever buy those 25c turtles at the dime store; I'll bet they resided in your bathroom before they expired.

When the Chief’s love interest shows up, the beautiful and ebullient Wesley graduate Mary Hudson, the young captain of the Warriors’ team is shocked at the transformation that occurs in the normally self-assured and naturally graceful club director.

"The Chief was very nervous. He didn’t just fail to contribute any talk of his own; he could hardly listen to any of hers. The gearshift knob came off in his hand [as he drove the bus with amateur-like lurches], I remember."

When the captain gets smitten by Mary because she smiles at him as he tries to keep her off his team, he acts as any boy would to hide his embarrassment. "For poise, I picked up a stone and threw it at a tree."

Mary turns out to be a naturally gifted ball player and quickly earns a permanent spot in the Warriors outfield. The boys view her as a sort of auxiliary club member whenever she comes on their outings, and her presence, indeed her participation, is accepted and not resented by the boys (after all, she is a girl).

But Indian summer gives way to winter and cold winds blow in. The boys notice Mary’s absence, as well as the effect it has on Chief.

The captain of the Warriors spots her watching their baseball game from a bench a hundred yards away, and points her out to Chief. He goes to talk to her.

Mary walks back with him, but it is the end. "They didn’t talk as they walked, or look at each other."

Have you ever been there? Man or woman, oh yeah.

Mary declines the captain’s entreaties for her to take the field and sits on a bench, lighting a cigarette and crossing her legs instead. The young boy tries to alleviate the tension by buffoonery.

"I tossed my first-baseman’s mitt up in the air and tried to have it land on my head, but it fell in a mud puddle. I wiped it off on my trousers and asked Mary Hudson if she wanted to come up to my house for dinner sometime. I told her the Chief came up a lot. ‘Leave me alone,’ she said. 'Just leave me alone.'"

This is a dagger in your heart, right?

The boy captain "had no idea what was going on between the Chief and Mary Hudson, but nonetheless, I couldn’t have been more certain that Mary Hudson had permanently dropped out of the Comanche lineup." Shortly thereafter she ran off, crying.

"The Chief didn’t go after her. He just stood watching her disappear."

A man. Then, as was his custom after games, he directed the boys into the bus to hear another installment of The Laughing Man.

Within five minutes, he had irrevocably killed off the Laughing Man. The youngest Comanche burst into tears, and no one told him to shut up.

The captain’s knees were shaking as the bus took him home. There, his teeth chattering uncontrollably, he was told to go straight to bed.

I read this story to my 12-year old charges in my cabin when I was 16. They were economically depressed kids from Harlem attending the Lawrenceville Preparatory School Camp in the summer of 1968 in New Jersey, thanks to dedicated donations from the school's collection at the non-denominational mandatory Sunday chapel.

I love this heartbreaking love story. It’s a masterpiece.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter thoughts

I'm just back from attending my first Easter Sunday service since I was a boy. My sister says that if you're returning to the church after a long absence, and hence are unfamiliar with its rituals, you shouldn't start with an Easter service, the superbowl of the Christian year as she puts it.

There's some validity to that, but I wanted to attend today because my congregation was saying a special prayer for my Uncle Harry, who passed away ten days ago, and I wanted to be there for that. He was the very last of his generation, the greatest generation, still with us, having been preceded by my father, Uncle Bill, mother, Aunt Dare, Uncle Bob, Aunt Johnnie and Aunt Betty.

I miss them all. My father was put ashore on Okinawa on Easter Sunday in 1945, a Marine combatant in the last land battle in WW2 that claimed 50,000 American casualties.

Other than that, and the fact that at least one Easter Sunday fell on my birthday, Easter hadn't held much attraction for me until recently when I started attending church again after many years. This morning I internally said my final goodbyes to my Uncle Harry and all of his generation, reflected upon the resurrection and listened closely to the sermon, which prominently featured Mary Magdalene's experience at Christ's tomb as revealed in John's gospel.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Miracle Cure?

The doc stuck the long syringe into my ankle and asked, "How'ya doin'?" He had prepared the injection site with a cold spray on the surface. "Okay," I said, "except I shouldn'ta been watching that needle go in." It was nauseating to watch the depth of the insertion.

"So are you okay?" he asked. "Oh yeah," I said, feeling like I was going to throw up.

A cortisone shot, a steroid, had just just been injected deeply into my pesky left ankle, which had hurt for a year and a half and had curtailed, or, actually, eliminated my running. If this miracle shot of cortisone into the trouble zone didn't take, I had ankle surgery upcoming on my schedule.

I heaved off the examining table and stood up. The pain of the last year and a half was instantly gone.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Trevor's doin' okay

I've spoken before about Trevor, my man in my hometown, the homeless guy who hangs out on a busy street corner and accepts donations from passing motorists. He doesn't solicit money, that would be panhandling and illegal, he merely takes what is offered to him.

His spot isn't far from the W&OD Trail where I often run, so I stop and speak with him occasionally when I'm out for a jog. He calls me "Lawyer."

He knows my car and we wave at each other whenever I drive by, which is often enough. Usually I give him two dollar coins when I see him.

All homeless people have a story, and often it is an interesting one, if not always fully coherent or believable. Trevor is doing well, and here is a recent picture of him.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Life in the District

Sometimes I'll exit the subway on my way to work and, as today, walk to work past the Central Union Mission, a homeless shelter. This morning I was leaving my morning coffee shop (not a Starbucks-type shop for sure) when I noticed an elderly African-American with a cane leaning over on the sidewalk.

I watched him closely as I passed by because I thought he might be sick. No, he was bent over emptying the contents from a small glass container of whiskey into an opened bottle of an energy drink that he'd placed on the sidewalk.

I felt so bad for this defeated man, and our system. A moment later I heard the breaking of glass and I saw that the homeless man had surreptitiously broken the whiskey flask under the iron grating of a small sidewalk sapling that will someday grow into a mature shade tree along that street.

By then I imagine this human being, whatever his lonely story, will be gone thanks to this great society's lack of an encompassing social safety net. Perhaps we'll all be departed by then as well, not having taken care of each other or our environment along the way.

Friday, April 15, 2011

And The Last Shall Be First

Everyone on board ducked instinctively as the plane roared in at rooftop level, so close that the shipboard gunners could see the facial features of the Japanese pilot as he tried to maneuver his disintegrating, burning aircraft into the ship’s superstructure. The plane narrowly missed and cartwheeled into the sea on the other side of the light cruiser Vincennes, throwing up a terrific geyser of water.

Another Japanese plane hurtled towards the ship as Marine and Navy personnel brought their guns to bear on it, while behind it two more Japanese planes streaked in low off the horizon. In 1945 my Uncle Harry, the officer in command of the Vincennes’ Marine-manned anti-aircraft batteries, received the bronze star for his resolute actions on this day of hellish combat filled with swarming enemy encounters similar to this. (Right: Me and my Uncle Harry, on the right, in 2010.)

Admiral Halsey’s Fast Carrier Attack Group had just conducted a devastating carrier-based bombing raid against Japan, and Uncle Harry’s light cruiser and another one were left behind by the departing task force to defend a damaged aircraft carrier as it limped away from the Japanese mainland at a speed of only a few knots an hour. All the subsequent day the lonely trio of ships fended off numerous enemy attacks before the Americans got safely out of range of Japanese land-based planes.

Uncle Harry passed away last night at age 87, the last of the many World War II veterans that I used to know. His daughter, my cousin, and her family were with him at the end just before he joined the rest of his family and his brothers in arms, to live on forever in our memory.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Run in the Park

Cherry Blossom time in the District is such a beautiful time of the year. The cold, bitter winter is over and spring is breaking out all over in a soft splash of pinks, whites and reds.

I have gotten up to running four times a week, four miles each time. Late last month I ran through the tiny Japanese-American Memorial Park in the District because it is always so striking this time of the year.

The park, a beautifully compact memorial to the rugged American spirit of the wrongly interred Japanese-Americans living on the west coast at the outbreak of WW2, is a hushed, haunting yet uplifting space, where two intertwined cranes, bound by barbed wire, struggle to break free from their imprisonment. The names of the various internment camps created in the nation's interior, interspersed with inspirational slogans, line the walls.

Enjoy. I certainly enjoyed the run.