Friday, July 24, 2015

Miccosukee Moon


         When Danny Sylvester lay bleeding out in the rust-red dust of that Miccosukee trailer park, we have no way of knowing whether or not he was aware of the twenty-seven million dollars Uncle Walter had in mind to leave him in his will. None of the rest of us had any inkling that Uncle Walter had that kind of money, but he had taken the boy, the foreman's son, under his dubious wing years earlier, so maybe Danny knew. Nor can we imagine what Mr Sylvester thought about handing his son over to an eccentric old bachelor farmer who'd had no experience raising anything but eyebrows until he started growing watermelons on the Florida Panhandle in the late Fifties. Walter sent Danny to school, took him along on annual voyages to Europe and the world beyond aboard the Cunard line, showered him with expensive gifts and generally treated him as the son he'd never had; or so we'd like to think. What darker impulses and stifled yearnings may have motivated this lonely soul I can't say, but he had a dozen nieces and nephews whom he hardly knew.

   Danny was about my brother's age and we'd see him and some of the kids from the other farm families when we took the Silver Meteor down to Thomasville to spend Christmas at our Grandmother's place nearby. There were often presents under the tree for these kids, too, and one year – I might have been eight years old – I grabbed at a pair of shiny, chrome six-shooters with pearly, plastic handles, holstered on a Naugahyde cartridge belt and hanging like an ornament from a low bough of the massive tree. I was sure they were for me and I'd been craving them ever since I peeked in through the living-room doors well before dawn. Uncle Walter quickly intervened; setting down a tumbler of breakfast bourbon, he handed the cap-guns off to Danny and a box-set of The Jungle Books to me. And that might have been the last time I saw or gave much thought to Danny Sylvester until the night I heard he'd been killed.

   Whatever effect Walter's attentions and influence may have had on Danny over the years, they didn't prevent him from marrying, and it was for the purpose of collecting his wife from the arms of another man that he set out for the trailer park that fateful night. I picture him in his kitchen, drinking, enraged, stumbling about in search of his pistol, about to go off half-cocked. Was Uncle Walter there with him, trying to talk Danny down? Did he reach for the car keys or the gun in a futile attempt to stop this madness before things went too far? In the event, they arrived together and I imagine poor Uncle Walter grasping at Danny's arm or shirttails, beseeching him to stop as he broke free and ran up the cinder-block stoop to hammer sobs and threats out into the sticky night upon the rusty, metal door. We've all seen the movie; this can't end well. A man came to the door, I've heard; there was a fight down in the scabrous yard and Danny was shot to death in the desiccated dirt beneath the Spanish moss. I'd like to think he died in Walter's arms, the same embrace my uncle might have spent so many years yearning to enfold his Danny in.

   The last time I saw Uncle Walter – indeed, one of the few times I'd ever seen him - was at my wedding. Why he decided to come all the way to Maine for this event, to celebrate the marriage of a nephew he'd never known,  might have had more to do with saying goodbye to my mother and aunt, his two half sisters, at what he knew to be the last leg of his life than any fondness for me. He gave us a curious little enameled wire candle holder as a wedding present, a sort of crown of thorns; he gave me a Norelco shaver as a groom's gift. We knew nothing of his fortune on that day. Some years later, a few weeks after Mom had said he'd died, someone dressed in Jackass pants, clutching a cocktail, approached me at some event and shrieked, “ Was that your Grandfather who just left all that money to that school?”

   “My uncle,” I muttered, brushing flecks of crabmeat spittle and endive from my shirtfront. “ What money? What school?” And that's the first I'd heard of it. In fact, the patrons and alumni of Westminster School knew all about Uncle Walter's generous endowment before anyone in the family even knew he'd died. He might have left us each a million dollars and still been able to leave the single greatest gift in history to a private, secondary school. A school, it turned out, he'd spent only one year at, a post-graduate year, no less, in 1935. Bereft of Danny Sylvester and not wanting to corrupt his extended family with an embarrassment of riches, some have speculated that Walter left his fortune to this place with the understanding that buildings and arenas might be built to bear his name, a legacy he craved but could not achieve in the shadow of his powerful father, a politician and statesman, a man of consequence. Many months later, my brother, who was Uncle Walter's godson, received a check from the estate for the improbable sum of two hundred and fifty dollars; his assessment may be closer to the mark. It is my brother's contention that it was during that glorious Spring of 1935 that our Uncle Walter, however fleetingly, discovered and acted upon his stifled sexuality.

   Whatever the case, he must have been unrivaled in the world of watermelons.


Wednesday, July 8, 2015



         Of course it fell to me to be the scaredy-cat. When it comes to the sort of inspired diversion and questionable judgment that helped fend off the ennui of endless summers, I'll admit it; I was a follower, not a leader. Absconding with some besotted grandee's Lincoln for an adolescent joy-ride, burgling the local country-store for warm Schlitz and Fluff or pulling traps and poaching chicken-lobsters never really seemed like a smart move at the time, and the frisson of danger and jeopardy inherent in these bright ideas left me more nauseous than exhilarated. Blowing urinals off the wall with M-80's at Camp was certainly a thrill – more for the mystery of the homespun engineering, in my case, than any pleasure or satisfaction in wanton destruction - but Russian roulette, clutching simmering fireworks or igniting anything more substantial than a pile of driftwood in a sand-pit on the beach never appealed.

   If an often cautious and somewhat less enthusiastic follower, I went along in any case, as the scorn of my peers seemed a greater retribution than any consequence my nascent imagination could convey. Before we had access to cars or boats - or soft and summery, nut-brown girls to impress - there were thrills, for some, afforded by such double-dares as shoplifting, choking on gin and purloined Pall Malls or running away from home. I was a timid and remorseful thief, pocketing the occasional lurid comic-book or Chunky while some accomplished peculator distracted the harried clerk with inquiries about  Prince Albert in a can. I gagged on smoldering corn silk, regurgitated strange brews concocted from abandoned cocktails in bottles of O-So-Grape and dutifully followed my brother or cousin as we snuck away at dusk with bandanas strung on sticks, stuffed with powdered KoolAid, band-aids and stale bread, stifling the urge to ask when we'd turn home.

    Richard had the first car, the first boat and enough charisma to convince us that it would be a great idea to head out to Seguin and spend the night swilling a wine-jug full of plundered spirits, carelessly blended, in the old Coast Guard boat-house at the foot of the island's rickety, rope and plank gantry that spanned the deep abyss between the shore and the lighthouse high above. We loaded sleeping bags, an enameled, dented pot and potato chips up under the nose of the Kaiulani and headed east in the growing dusk, around the Point and into the rising, wet chop of the open ocean.  After a while, when the mainland had diminished in scale so that the lights coming on along the shore seemed no larger than the emerging stars above, Richard pulled alongside a buoy and called for us to help him haul. I'd heard you could be shot on sight for this and scanned the empty horizons before halfheartedly joining in. An hour or so later we cut the engine and rode the swells silently in to the island's tiny harbor.

    By the time we'd gathered wood, built a small fire in the rocks and drowned the lobsters in a pot of tepid seawater, we'd managed to choke back nearly half the bilious jug and it was only a matter of another hour or so, during which someone upended the fetid gurry atop the sleeping bags, before Richard suggested we climb the terrifying catwalk in order to party with the Coast Guard. Even a bellyful of bad booze couldn't convince me that this was a good idea, but I stumbled out and brought up the rear, afraid to go, reluctant to stay behind. The span was made of rope and planks, laced along braided, wire cable and looked more like something out of Lost Horizon than anything you'd expect to find within the purview of the Coast Guard. My buzz was dead within a dozen yards, and watching John and Richard swaying, giggling and dropping occasionally to the rickety slats ahead did little by way of encouragement. At some point, clutching the rope railing with both hands, inching along above the pine-tops, it made no sense to turn back, and, forging reluctantly ahead, I reached the summit at last only to be caught in the tight embrace of a livid petty-officer and escorted, bodily, to the concrete bunker at the base of the flagpole. There I found Richard and John, slathered in lobster goo, engaged in a futile effort to convince our hosts of their sobriety while rolling about in mirthful hilarity beneath the Stars and Stripes.

     And there we sat for the rest of the night under the watchful glare of a guardsman who might have been in bed himself had we not shown up. Forbidden to move a muscle until we could prove to him an ability to negotiate even the flagstone walkway to the bridge, one or another of us would, at random intervals, rise up and make an earnest effort at this fiction, only to trip on something real or imagined and go down like a sack of rocks before so much as a word could be uttered. It was Richard, of course, who finally pulled it off at dawn and led the way back down. Abandoning the jug, the putrid sleeping bags and the nasty slick of shell bits, feelers and tomalley on the boat house floor, we climbed aboard the boat at first light and were tucked abed, sober, exhausted and none the wiser before the sun had risen above Seguin.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Round Trip Ticket


    My first real brush with the concept of the transmigration of souls came one evening in May, four hundred miles from Moose Jaw, four hundred from Duluth, and not too far from where my Grandfather's dreams of solvency were scattered as chaff before the winds of the great Canadian prairie. He'd come out to raise a little wheat for the dough-boys and lived in a rude, plank shack the size of your bathroom while waiting for the Trans-Canadian railroad to swing by and make him rich. Jack's failure as a farmer is relentlessly, painstakingly detailed in the nearly daily letters he wrote his fiance, Grace, in Duluth and the railroad missed him by a hundred miles.

   We were there, stretching out our sleeping bags in the grassy culvert that separated the highway from the tracks, after a long and numbing drive through Saskatchewan during which the only event of note was the transit of the sun from an exhausting, steady glare before my eyes to the lowering, red glow in the rear view mirror. The only distraction was my mental image of a gaunt young man in overalls and chaps and the realization of how little this place had changed in the six decades since Grandaddy had thrown in the towel. 

   “ It's after six.” I said, swatting at the mosquitoes that had begun to mass around us.“ There won't be any more trains tonight. We'll be fine here.” Nina reached out and grabbed my flailing hand. “Don't do that!” She said. “Don't kill the mosquitoes! My Perfect Master teaches that if you kill a creature you may return in your next life as that creature.” Too late. I looked at the macerated smudge of insect in my palm; I thought of all the mosquitoes my Grandfather might have swatted: the midges, gnats and biting flies he'd curried off his lame, exhausted horse and the dying oxen borrowed from a neighbor. Indeed, we were heading for the coast of Maine, where I now pictured generations of swarming cousins, aunts and uncles in an endless cycle of metempsychotic, fly-swatting ancestry stretching back for millennia and as far into the future as good breeding would allow. My mother had always warned me not to kill a spider lest it rain – and to this day I consider the forecast before doing so – but she'd not said much about the spiritual predilections of lovely girls in peasant blouses, and, although I'd suspected Nina's were a potent cocktail of third-eyes and chakras liberally seasoned with random bits of the Hindu, the Buddhist, and the Zoroastrian, this was the first instance in our two months together that had given me serious pause. As Nina assumed her padmasana, intoning her personal mantra within a cloud of ravenous mozzies, I zipped myself into the bag, gradually slid to the bottom of the culvert and slept the sleep of the dead.

   At three o'clock the world exploded as an endless string of boxcars hurtled past and I found myself naked and de-bagged, kneeling on the gravel berm, shrieking in sympathetic harmony with my arms wrapped round my ears. How I got there was a mystery; my soul –  my whole corpuscular self – may have just as reasonably migrated toward that hurtling train as away from it. Without so much as a bend in the tracks or the slightest of hummocks between Banff and Montreal, the engineer hadn't applied the brakes since Regina and it was only through the Grace of God, Rajneesh or Ram Dass that the two of us survived.

   Scatterings of wee red squirrels and chipmunks have been darting, lemming-like, across the roads up here of late. They blow over the blacktop like leaves, darting about in a frozen pose of indecision just ahead of the oncoming cars. I only see them for an instant, as the dogs do, gnashing and foaming at the windows in furious cacophony as I wrest the wheel about in risky bits of over-compensation. Sometimes I see them in the rear-view, visibly stunned for a moment before continuing their joyful scamper to the other side. Sometimes I don't. The dogs know little of reincarnation, I suspect, and would likely disagree, but Nina would know that there are worse things to return as than the chipmunk.