Cousins

Cousin Byron 2

Byron 2

As an adult I lost contact with Byron, just seeing him once when my brother got married in the late 1980s. In general, he only held itinerant jobs and never got a steady career off the ground. Similar to my cousin Jimmy, the only thing he seemed to succeed at was failure. Truthfully speaking, I never really knew what he ever did for a living. He did get married and had stepchildren, but seemed to drift in and out of a serious depressive disorder that did not contribute to the overall stability of his life.

In about 2005 he called me to let me know that his depression had relapsed which explained why he had not returned any personal phone calls for the past two years. Apparently his wife could not even stimulate enough interest for him to return calls from friends who only wanted to go fishing. The point of the call was to let me know that he was on a new series of anti-depressant medications that seemed to be lifting him out of that twenty-four month funk. He also wanted me to be sure to know that he was OK and if I had happened to call him in that period of time, he was simply trying to catch up on the vacuum this non-interactive time lag had created in his social life.

That part I could certainly understand. Even without being depressed I have a peculiarly bad habit of avoiding phone calls, but my aversion is career related and due to the fact that the telephone is the worst enemy of the physician’s privacy and peace of mind.

This was different however; as endogenous depression is a serious medical disorder that can truly incapacitate or destroy a person’s ability to lead any kind of normal life, much less sometimes even preserve the will to live.

Both sides of my family have been victimized by this disorder, including my great grandfather and “Aunt” Margaret; both of whom committed suicide; while Aunt Kay, as well as Cousins Jimmy and Byron, were just left withering on the vine of wasted lives because of its devastating effects.

No one knows the biochemistry of depression and most treatments never really seem to offer a resurrection of one’s real persona or even a permanent cure.

However the part I could not understand about Byron was his allusion in another phone call, just after his father had died, that all his problems stemmed from the fact that my brother and me made him play The Poot Catcher when we were children. I was shocked to think that for decades Byron felt as though his psyche had suffered irreparable damage by being forced into that particular role or that this thought was forever smoldering in his subconscious like a small lump of burning coal.

I thought, “OK Byron, when in doubt, always lay the blame on some scapegoat for your own shortcomings in life. No, it couldn’t have been more the case that the rod was spared and the child was spoiled.” Conversely for him, it was by not sparing the hot-rod, which ended up being his spoiler. But instead feeling a bit of compassion for his immediate grief and also not wanting to suggest it was because his father had bought off his childhood with material goods, what I said instead was:

  • Don’t be ridiculous. That was only a child’s game, and it seemed to me we were just having fun.

Although he undoubtedly thought that an overdose of human methane was the culprit for his mood disorder, I was more of the opinion that as children, we all probably had shit for brains anyway.I was forced to hang up on him because the conversation had become too obliquely absurd to continue; and never heard from him again.

 

Potiac GTO

 

(Byron’s first toy: The GM Pontiac GTO)

 

She’s got a competition clutch with four on the floor.

And she purrs like a kitten when the lake pipes roar.

And if that ain’t enough to make you flip your lid

There’s one more thing, I go the pink slip daddy.

And comin’ off the line when the light turns green,

You know she blows ‘em outta the water like you never seen.

I get pushed out of shape, and it’s hard to steer

When I hit rubber in all four gears.

She’ my little deuce coop

You don’t know what I got.

(Little Deuce Coop: The Beach Boys)

 

 

Photo source www.canadiandriver.com/news/02images/60_gto.jpg

Cousins 6: Byron

Cousins 6: Byron

What are little boys made of?

Frogs and snails, and puppy dog tails.

Sugar and spice, and all things nice.

That’s what little girls are made of.

(Nursery Rhyme)

 

My cousin Byron Cooper V…… carried my mother’s maiden name as his middle name, a fact I was always jealous about, in part because of my mother constantly brainwashing us into believing that her side of the family was superior in some way. I do not have a clue as to where the name Byron came from, and neither did he.

He was about one year younger than I was but was bigger, taller, and blonde with features resembling a cross between Nick Nolte and John Elway. For most of his childhood he wore his hair in a military crew cut style, which has already been alluded to as acceptable coif in Virginia where he was born and raised, but not at all acceptable in New York where I lived.

I really liked him, always looking forward to visits back and forth, which usually took place in the summer, the single exception being mother’s penchant to persistent, pernicious nagging over the first few days into the visit.

  • Why don’t you get your hair cut like Byron? He looks so handsome. Why don’t you and your brother do your hair like his?

Sure. While you’re at it at then why don’t you just stick a knife through your social life and then go off to join a leper colony.

My brother, Byron, and me, always got along famously despite the fact that his social milieu and culture was very different from ours. None of this is to imply in any way that he was a model citizen. Byron’s only problem was that he was spoiled by my Uncle Oak’s generosity having been given too many things, too soon; most of which he never had to work for. Byron was also doing a few things that eventually paved the way for his pioneering entrance into military school, such as flunking courses in school, hanging out with girls, drinking booze and hot-rod car drag racing.

But when we were younger, we had great times together.

One of Byron’s more memorable antics occurred when we came home from a romp in the woods, after walking through a field of tall Rye grass, we then found ourselves covered with hundreds of little ticks. Aunt Polly called them “seed ticks” but they probably were what are now commonly known as deer ticks. Byron decided on his own that he would kill any residual insects by dousing himself in Carbona Cleaning Fluid whose chemical base is carbon tetra-chloride, which besides applying liberally to his arms and legs; he also applied in equal generosity to the skin on his groin and testicles. After this adventure in self-medication, he was one chemical peeled little hombre, lucky not to have burned all the skin off his nuts, but equally fortunate in not having created a new asshole for himself in the process.

The preadolescent three of us had created a fantasy world of alter ego characters.

My brother was MacIntime Scotland, a curmudgeonly old coot who liked to play the bagpipes. I was Detective Logdog, a bespectacled intellect of the Sherlock Holmes or Professor Peabody ilk, while Byron was The Poot Catcher, a person basically assigned as a manservant to do the bidding of Mr. Scotland. I could also occasionally play one additional character, known as The Next Door Neighbor, and who essentially functioned as an intermediary straight man or even as an arbitrator when the three other characters were out of control. If a fight broke out, the Next Door Neighbor would have to show up and fix it.

These characters evolved from a game we used to play when all three of us slept in the front bedroom of our summer cottage. When we were forced to go to bed it was rare that we were able to fall promptly to sleep making it inevitable that one boy or the other would try to impress the rest with a loud burp or fart. At the sound of any loud fart, MacIntime would jump up and say:

  • Peeuie stink. Who did that? Who is ruining my sleep?

To which everyone would say:

  • Not me.

At this point Detective Log Dog would sniff the air and point in someone’s direction saying, “He did it.” He would then proceed to order the Poot Catcher to snatch the fart out of the atmosphere by waving around something akin to an imaginary butterfly net and once safely secured, and then give the offender a fine. That was unless the Log Dog didn’t ever call any farts on himself while sneakily shifting the blame to another culprit, in which case he was subjected to a pillow pounding,

The Poot Catcher would bounce up and down on the bed swishing his imaginary net back and forth, which if nothing else helped to disperse the offensive odor around the room until the next eruptions came forth.

Then before we went to sleep our finale would be a great rendition of an originally composed MacIntime Scotland song, with two boys singing the verses as the other one droned in the background making acappella bagpipe sounds. If, however a fight broke out about whose turn it was to do the background droning, the next Door Neighbor would have to intervene, as he occasionally had to do when we all fought over who got the first “glug glub” bubble sounds that came out of the top of new full glass milk bottles, or who got the unseeded top half of the English muffin at breakfast time. Life was very complicated indeed.

It was amazing how long we could entertain ourselves at this silly little poot catching contest while our mothers would periodically shout from the other room:

  • You boys stop giggling, shouting and jumping on those beds in there and go to sleep.

The only mistake we ever made was to let Byron’s sister Shirley in on the game, thinking she might enjoy the fun as much as we did. She kept complaining that she was being left out of the laughter, because she had to sleep in a separate room so one day we invited her into our den to join our charades.

Unfortunately it turned out to be a harsh lesson in gender differences, gender preferences for fun, and gender etiquette when Shirley became so offended by the scenario that she ratted us out to our mothers behind our backs, without us knowing about it.

  • Momma, do you know what those boys really do in that room all night. All they do is smell each other’s farts and then laugh and giggle about it. It’s disgusting.

One night out of the blue when we were into our high revelry, our mothers called us out of the front room without further warning and ordered two of us to get on our knees, to bend over on the couch, then told the third boy to go sniff the other two boy’s butt holes.

  • Shirley told us that all you boys do in there at night is smell each other’s farts, so now we want to see how you actually do it.

Shirley just sat on the couch, arms crossed with a smug smirky little smile pasted on her face; waiting to watch the spectacle.

We repaid her by sticking her with the nickname “Cootie Bug,” left her alone to pursue her dolls and doilies and hardly ever spoke to her again unless it was an absolute necessity.Although in some ways Shirley was considerably ahead of herself in trying to teach us a lesson about a man’s manners in mixed company, to which some adult men I know as yet do not subscribe, it all seemed to prove that once again the Southern side of the clan was automatically on a genetic basis divided equally between profligate sons and prudish daughters.

We were ordered to stop the notorious “vulgar” game but the nicknames we had created for ourselves stuck with us for as long a time as also did our mistrustful future avoidance of Cousin Shirley.

SHirley, Byron ,Alan

 

Byron, Larry and Me; with Shirley holding my sister 8/56

Uncle Oakley

Uncle Oakley

 

 

Johnny is a joker (he’s a bird)

A very funny joker (he’s a bird)

But when he jokes my honey (he’s a dog)

His jokin’ ain’t so funny (what a dog)

Johnny is a joker that’s a tryin’ to steal my baby (he’s a bird dog)

Hey bird dog, keep away from my quail.

Hey bird dog, you’re on the wrong trail.

Bird dog, you better find a chicken little of your own.

(The Everly Brothers)

 

 

My mother’s sister Pauline was also addicted to weekly hair frying rituals at the beauty shop, consequently suffering the same chronic results wreaked on my mother’s follicles. At some ill-defined point in their lives, with the single exception of a considerable weight differential, they began to look like the fried-hair twins.

Pauline, or Polly, who lived in Richmond, Virginia, was married to a man named Oakley Oran. He was born in West Virginia and had become a Pharmacist. Oakley had moved to Virginia, but in his heart and soul was still a good old West Virginia boy, while in his yet bigger heart and soul, was a good old true blue son of the South. I never knew why none of the adults ever called him Oakley or Oak but always referred to him rather as ‘Vaughan’, which in fact was his last name.

He met Polly at the same military base where my parents met and because they double dated the sisters, my father and Vaughan became good friends. This kinship was helped considerably by the fact that the two men shared the same passion for the game of golf that they could enjoy while the women stayed home and gossiped.

When I was a child I could not pronounce his name after which my adulterated moniker, “Uncle Oaps,” then became an identity that stuck to him for the rest of his life. The adults called him Vaughan and the children called him “Oaps.” Oak and Polly eventually had two children, Shirley and Byron.

Oakley was one of the most naturally funny men I have ever met and I always eagerly anticipated our annual visits to see him. He saw humor in everything, joked constantly and hardly ever lost his temper, which was in sharp contrast to his puritanically humorless wife. He had a passion for hunting and fishing, owned and trained his own bird dogs, as well as a thirty-six foot cabin cruiser, which he kept at a dock in Norfolk. Also being a great history buff, he specialized in the history of the Civil War, or at least his version of it, with his favorite General being P.G.T. Beauregard.

Beauregard was the man who had helped defend Richmond in the early days of the contest and when he spoke of him, Oakley would drag out the pronunciation of the name, which resulted in a lengthy drawling:

  • The great General Pee Tee Gee Beau—Ree—Guard.

Whenever we visited in Richmond, Uncle Oak would take Byron, me and my brother down to the boat for a weekend of fishing. These trips were my first ever bachelor adventures which allowed the three of us to delight in leaving our mothers behind along with their numerous house rules and my cousin Shirley with her numerous dolls and her all too numerous Cootie bugs.

Oakley too, was one of those die hard southerners who believed the South would have been a lot better off without the North and still regretted the tragic loss of the Civil War. On the hundred mile trip down to the boat from Richmond to Norfolk we would get a running commentary about the battles or battlefields of Virginia always with just a little pinch of Southern bias thrown in for good measure along with a few good curses about’ them damn Yankees.’ He did say, however, that my brother and I were an exception to that rule because we were only “half Yankees.”

The fishing trips were great, including the added feature of simply loitering around the docks along with other ‘boat people’, then to live and sleep on the boat. The atmosphere was peacefully laid back with the best part being that we did not have to be neat, we did not have to take baths, and we did not have to follow the ordinary and every day rules of maternally expected behavior. In fact Oakley said that if anyone had ever wanted to spend a weekend on the boat, he had better expect everyone else who came with him to be on the best of “fartin’ terms.”

For us, we were just little boys being big men doing big men’s stuff.

However there was a small price to pay for it every now and then. For example if we asked for pancakes, Uncle Oak would just drop the entire batch of batter into the frying pan, literally making one giant cake, which he then hacked into four pieces before he served it. Flipping this giant wad of batter always presented a problem, which usually made the concoction come out like it had been thrown around the room or scraped off the floor. Dismissively ignoring any and all complaints, the chef said we were lucky to have anything to eat at all, and who cared what it looked like because it still tasted like it should.

Then every morning as we set off in search of fish, Oakley would sit in the flying bridge atop his yacht, and every time as we put out to sea while simply being happy to be away from the grinding drudge of the pharmacy, without fail would then turn around, look down on the deck below to bark out:

  • Well boys. I wonder what the poor people are doin’ today.

We would then spend the day on long excursions cruising around the Chesapeake Bay in search of fish. Although I do not remember ever being too successful at it, the day would frequently be punctuated with screams of “Birds, birds” or “Blues, blues” or “Fish, fish,” coming from the top deck as Ahab Vaughan plied the waves chasing both real and imaginary pelagic species while periodically making us set out our trolling lines in areas he thought to be promising. Most of the time; however we never even caught a single fish.

On occasion he would change tactics for a try at catching a Cobia near a partially sunk wreck that the Air Force was using for bombing and strafing practice. As he pulled the boat near the wreck, he would always tell us about what a great fighting fish the Cobia was or about the proverbial big one that got away when no one else was there as an eye witness. While he put the boat near the wreck to idle the engine, he would direct us to be on the lookout for Air Force fighter jets. If we then saw anything potentially menacing, we would shout out so he could properly ‘skedaddle’ while always being cajoled not to ever tell our mothers we were fishing in restricted military live fire zones.

On any particularly bad fishing day, we would reel in the lines and motor over to the Maryland side of the Chesapeake to get some fresh crabs at a local dockside restaurant. Because he craved fresh Maryland crabs, and no matter that it took the entire day to get there and back, the culinary reward usually made up for the lack of a fresh catch making it well worth the time.

While cruising back to the dock late in the day he would never fail to look at the flagpole to predictably announce cocktail hour by asking the pre-prompted query:

  • Hey boys. The sun is just going down over the yardarm. And you know what that means
  • Yes sir, Captain Oak. It must be time to splice the main brace. How many fingers of rum should we pour?
  • Make it bourbon today, boys. Some good old fashioned Tennessee bourbon whiskey. Have a shot yourselves and grow some hair on your balls.

Since we were away from our mothers, we could regress to levels of vulgarity that would ordinarily be punished at home. We took particular delight in trying to make loud farts, because we knew that every time he heard one, Uncle Oak would shout out: ”Twenty-twenty. English Bummy,” which would make all of us laugh hysterically at its absurd predictability.

He explained that he had learned this phrase in the war from the British soldiers and that it was applied as the appropriate response one man makes to another when the latter creates an absolutely perfect noise with his flapping butt cheeks: A twenty-twenty perfect fart.

Addressing another vulgar habit we had of peeing outside or peeing overboard, Oak never tired of telling us the potential hazard of exposing ourselves in public by repeatedly recounting one of his favorite jokes. His method of scolding was infinitely more entertaining than what we would potentially get at home.

  • Boys, did I ever tell you about the man who had to pee while he was driving down the highway so he pulled over to a roadside billboard and tryin’ to hide what he was doing, stuck his tally-whacker through a hole in the sign. A Hobo, sleeping on the other side of the sign was shocked awake by the shower and screamed, “Snake. Snake;” just before he jumped up and whacked the man’s pud with a baseball bat. “Hit him again. Hit him again” the peeing man said. “I think he just bit me.”

Wherever we went or whatever we did, Oakley was enormously generous about buying us things. This was particularly true when we visited his Pharmacy, which was the old-fashioned style drug store that stocked toys, nick-knacks, and model airplanes; while also featuring a soda fountain with a short order hamburger grill. We would load up on Cokes and burgers, and then head out the door carrying a new model to build while he yelled out after us from behind the pharmacy window:

  • I don’t know why I let y’all boys come in here anyway. Y’all eat faster than Grant went though Richmond, then all you do is pluck me like a goose and watch my feathers fly.

He always said it with a big grin on his face as we happily scampered, guilt free, to the car with the loot. I never did go bird hunting with him, because I was too young, but did come to learn a lot from him about dogs and how to love and care for animals. He usually had at least two bird dogs at any one time, which he kept in pens behind his house. He trained them, exercised them, loved them to death such that by osmosis that I came to learn something about the fine art and sport of bird hunting.

These dogs fall into the three categories of Pointer, Setter, or Retriever obviously being named after the job they perform in the field. Most people forget that thousands of years of breeding and training are the result of what one sees in the modern day finished product known as the “show-dog,” but not that the original purpose of the dog breeding exercise was to put the animals through a beauty contest to win medals, but was rather intended to actually expedite and to assist human survival.

More importantly is the fact that the dogs are bred to do these jobs and solely exist for the days they can get out into the field and work. At one time Oakley had a beautiful setter named Bonnie, a sweet, gentle animal, and a real favorite who broke his heart when she died. He was so fond of her he had her portrait done which he hung it over his fireplace mantle: a painting that was a far more palatably genteel living room decoration than was the roving, judgmental, and all seeing eyes of the spy-cam portrait of my father’s sister Rose.

There was only one dog he ever really gave up on; a pointer named Lucky. Excessive in-breeding made the dog un-trainable, uncontrollable, and refractory to education to the point that Oakley eventually had to give him away. Every time Oak would go in the back of the house to hose down Lucky’s pen he would predictably carbon copy state:

  • That Lucky dog is just plain crazy. All he’s good for is eatin’ and poopin’. And I ain’t never seen a damn dog like him that ever’ damn day of his life can eat a quart then poop a peck.

He kept his bird rifles around the house, was a great advocate of gun care, gun safety and wild life conservation, never killing a bird he did not clean or dress out in the field, and then bring home to eat. Of course, Aunt Polly would certainly rather fry a chicken than to bake wild Quail which subsequently subjected everyone to the risk of losing a filling or cracking a tooth on a crunchy bite of buck shot left inside the bird.  She also deplored the gamy rangy taste of the birds and the fact that by the time one was actually cooked it was nothing but skin and bones.

Nevertheless Uncle Oakley loved to take his hunting expeditions to the great conclusive finish line of the stove-pot, the oven and then to the dining room table. 

One Sunday afternoon when he’d had perhaps one too many Wild Turkey Bourbons and fell asleep by himself in front of the T.V.; his war instincts got the better of him when they unexpectedly took over in a reflexive knee jerk reaction. My Aunt and cousins were out of the house while Oakley had fallen asleep in the den in his favorite easy chair.

He was startled by a commotion in the fireplace that awakened him to the noise of the window blinds being rattled and shaken by some unseen entity. Thinking he was under assault by a robber, or an enemy Japanese platoon or some other unknown alien force, he jumped up, quick-loaded a shotgun, then peppered his den with two blasts of buckshot.

Polly came home to see the mess in the foxhole along with Oakley running around the house swatting at something with a broom.

It seems that a squirrel had come down the chimney and tried to escape through a shut window while the old soldier was off dreaming of some battle. Then because it had taken a trifle too long time to shake off the reverie and become re-oriented to reality, his instincts simply dictated that he should blast the squeaking little furry enemy into oblivion.

After that the gun racks were removed from the den and the weapons were put a little further out of immediate reach.

Later in life he developed atrial fibrillation that required a cardiac pacemaker implant. But he was a terrible patient and never had the device checked to even assess if it had any current left in it, much less to know if it was even working properly. Nor would he take blood thinners to treat the same heart rhythm problem and to abort the same risk of stroke that had killed my paternal grandfather.  In not liking the idea of the concurrent risk of bleeding associated with the drugs while similar to the ladies under the dryer at the hair salon, he probably suffered from the syndrome of knowing just enough to qualify him as really knowing a bit too little.

The first sign of trouble came when he was in his early eighties. While playing golf with his son in law, Bob he suddenly began to behave in a relatively nonspecific, but at the same time a very peculiar manner. Bob told him he was acting funny and when he asked him if anything was wrong, Oakley turned to Bob and said:

  • Where are my car keys?
  • Bob asked why he needed them in the middle of a round of golf, at which point Oakley apparently having thought he found them, held up an invisible set of keys in front of his face, then started shaking his hand up and down while repeating over and over and over again:
  • Jingle, jingle, jingle. Jingle, jingle, jingle.

Bob took him off the course, but he refused hospital care. After several hours the little brain clot that had caused his echolalia broke up and Oakley was miraculously back to normal again.

Not too long after that, again while playing golf with my father in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, my father watched him go up to the Seventeenth tee only to fall down several times on his left side as he tried to lean over to get the ball teed up. He stood up three times, bent over three times and fell down three times because he had partially lost motor strength in his left side. He was in the midst of having a transient or warning stroke but by ignoring the whole episode, and fighting through it or more likely just ignoring the paralysis, he was still determined to play on. Taking it a few minutes for him to realize something was drastically wrong with his brother in law, my father said Oak just kept flopping down like a wounded bird

Being a man who usually suffers from terminal constipation, my father rushed Oakley back to their motel, stating that he was so frightened by the incident he had crapped his pants while driving them back together in the golf cart. Then when he finally did get Oakley situated in bed, he said that he was going to call the ambulance.

Once again Oakley steadfastly refused hospitalization, asked for a large glass of Wild Turkey Bourbon, drank it, went to sleep, and woke up the next day fully recovered ready to play golf again. He eventually capitulated by agreeing to take blood thinners, after which time the stuttering stroke syndrome was successfully arrested.

One night when he mistakenly telephoned my house looking for my parents, I asked him how it felt to be the world’s best golfer. Wanting to know what I meant by that, I replied that he had played two all time record low-scoring rounds of golf. He said:

  • What exactly is that supposed to mean?

I said:

  • Well, the first round you managed to play with only one stroke, but the next day you bettered that score by playing it with no strokes at all.

It was probably the only time in my life I ever had the opportunity to joke him before he joked me.

At exactly the time of this writing, I received a phone call from my cousin Byron to let me know his father had just passed away. Apparently Oakley had developed a rapidly progressive lung tumor, which literally killed him in a matter of weeks. At the end game, being the man’s man that he always had been, he reluctantly agreed to take just enough morphine to dull the terminal pain; but not enough to put him to sleep.  He was eighty-nine years old.

uncle oak

 

 “I wonder what the poor people are doing today.” 

(Uncle Oakley: Every kid should know one)

 

 

Cousin X: Skippy (1950s-60s)

 

Cousin X: Skippy 

I referred to Skippy, whose real name was Robert, as being my cousin, despite the fact that we not really related to each other. But since both his father and mother respectively became Godparents to my brother and sister, and because Skippy’s mother, Margaret was my mother’s best friend, I guess that made it close enough to be real family.

None of this was my idea in the first place, but rather a relationship my parents had invented before I was born, probably because Skippy’s father and my father were World War II buddies, which was good enough to make them blood brothers connected to the same umbilical cord. Anyone who knows the real truth about it is either now dead or senile, and even though I repeatedly questioned its fallacy, I never got a straight answer. The truth became a rhetorical question.

Skippy got his nickname because his parents had saved money for him in a Skippy Peanut Butter jar, meaning there was nothing either Protestant or Italian about his moniker but was rather just an inside joke between his parents. Even if they had intimately reminisced about peanut butter and jelly having had something to do with the night of his conception, they always held that card close to the vest. Then again that was how it was with the spate of babies born after the veterans came home from the war. The men were horny, the women were sex starved and the country was making up for a great deal of lost time and many lost lives.

I couldn’t say Robert when I was a toddler so it came out instead as “Burr.” He couldn’t say Alan, so his interpretation came out as “Ado.” Neither of us could say hello either with that word then coming out as “Ho.” We greeted each other for our entire lives with:

  • “Ho Burr” and “Ho Ado.”

Skippy was a free spirit who was born to run.

He could not conform at all to norms or normal behavior and was always in trouble for something. Or in finding any excuse to go to extremes not to help around the house or to study, made him the complete antithesis of Little Jimmy

He also had asthma, which may have evoked excessively effusive parental sympathy for him as a child, and was a disability that laid the enabling groundwork for the numerous excuses that forgave any aberrant behavior. Sucking up to that big nipple then, Skippy really knew how to play the sick or sickly card. For example, it was oddly peculiar how the “grass pollen” inducing asthma always became worse on the day it was time to cut the lawn, such that his father, Nick, usually ended up behind the lawn mower.

What his parents didn’t know was that Skippy also knew how to self-induce wheezing, one day not only confirming that fact, but also giving me a private demonstration by sticking his finger down his trachea

It was ghastly. First he turned blue, then he couldn’t breathe, then his mother became frantic after the pseudo-alarm bells went off. 

This enabled behavior was similar to that of a drug addicted; hepatitis-C positive patient I once knew who also had advanced coronary disease, all facts that he used to repeatedly call 911 with a pseudo-complaint of chest pain. Then he would embellish the scene by running into the dense woods behind his house and flop down until he was finally ferreted out then dragged into the Emergency Room where he got the intravenous narcotics and sedatives he was craving in the first place. After falling for this one a few times the ambulance drivers refused to chase him into the woods anymore, called him out with bullhorns and told him if he wanted a ride he would have to show himself. 

One day when he did not want to go to school, Skippy woke up, dissolved some chocolate in his mouth, ran into the bathroom while his father was shaving and pretended to violently throw up old digested blood into the toilet. It might have worked except for the fact that his father happened to have a nose that could easily detect the smell of Hershey’s chocolate, at which point Skippy was loaded into the car and personally hand delivered to the school. 

When my father put braces on him, he progressively and systematically ripped little parts of them off his teeth, and then later never wore his retainer.

He did not take well to tooth pain, so my father eventually had to give up on manufacturing a straight smile and handed him over to another dentist out of pure frustration. Skippy could have cared less about having crooked fangs, so he simply took the second set of braces off too. 

His parents sent him to parochial school where he managed to get expelled from The Arch Bishop Stepinac High school for flushing cherry bombs down the toilets that blew up the pipes halfway down the interior walls. 

He was always on the wrong side of the authorities, but his saving grace was his absolutely wonderful personality. He was always happy, cheerful, funny, and seductive in a natural way that disarmingly put everyone around him at ease by making them laugh. You could not get mad at him, or if you did, you could not stay mad at him for long because he fixed everything by joking you to death. 

He also had a wild imagination and lived completely in a fantasy world, which made the time that I spent with him both highly enjoyable as well as fantastically unpredictable. Because we lived about an hour car ride apart, when we did get together it was usually for the entire day.

Sometimes I would be greeted with a long staged puppet show, or sometimes an afternoon of artfully contrived games, but whatever the case I knew I would never be bored.

On one visit to my house our mothers gave us two or three dollars, told us to walk to the store to get some Popsicles, Fudgesicles, and Creamsicles, then to bring them straight home. They were ten or twenty cents each.

It was a ferociously hot day and both mothers were looking forward to a nice cool treat that everyone could share. On the way to the store, Skippy explained that there was no reason to get twenty items when we could get two or three hundred items of penny candy for the money; as well as touting the logic that the ice cream would melt by the time we got home, thus rather easily convincing my brother and myself to indulge in the candy scenario.

However, he next proceeded to extend the logic one step further by persuading us that because we were specifically defying our mother’s instructions, we should sit and eat all the candy before we got home; tell our mothers the ice cream melted, ask for more money and then go back to the store again. We then proceeded to eat one hundred penny candies each while sitting on a hill by a highway watching the traffic go by.

Three green-gilled little boys without the ice cream in tow or anything else to show for it either arrived home late to face the wrath of two overheated mothers who had also been expecting a cool treat for themselves and our sisters. They also did not buy into the fabricated story; which broke down miserably after triple and separate interrogations.

We were all punished for being selfish and although I shamefully took it all to heart it just typically rolled off Skippy’s back like beaded water off the feathers of a duck.

His hardheaded and occasionally impractical side was demonstrated on the day that my cousin Byron, my brother, Skippy and I went for a hike in the woods behind our house.

We had stepped into a nest of yellow jackets that swarmed up to give us all numerous nasty bee stings, forcing us to run as fast as we could out of the woods and down the hill behind the house seeking the safety of our basement. The only problem was that after reconnoitering Skippy was nowhere to be seen.

His mother was beside herself with concern that he may have had an allergic reaction to the bees envisioning him dying a lonesome death under the tree canopies in terminal bronchospasm, just gasping away blue faced into eternity.

Of course none of us faint hearted boys who had escaped the swarm and abandoned him wanted to go back to see what had happened. But then about ten minutes later Skippy sauntered in.

As a result of the stings his face was blown up to twice its normal size making his eyes into little slits. When things settled down and he was asked why he didn’t run away with us, he said he had heard on TV that if a person remains perfectly quiet or doesn’t move the bees will not bite you and will leave you alone. He thought if he did that they would be going after us instead, making it so much for that theory as well being even on the score of our individual or collective self-sacrifice and guilt.

One day when I was about twelve when we visited his house in Scarsdale, Skippy told my brother and me that the entire day would be devoted to a fabulous pirate treasure hunt.

He had drawn a map, with a long laid out trail culminating in an X, and told us to “follow the leader.” Because he possessed the paper scroll and we were on his home territory there was no choice but to obey, so we then spent the entire day following the map’s instructions, tromping around Scarsdale making all of Skippy’s social stops, lighting a campfire in the woods, fighting each other with our plastic swords, walking the plank, and swash buckling our way through a typical afternoon’s pirate adventure.

All day long he kept telling us how great the treasure was going to be having led us to believe there was something valuable he wanted to share with his loyally faithful pirate crew. He had carefully built the anticipation to a great crescendo, but as the day wore on, the map seemed to be bringing us closer and closer to our starting point, where in fact the final stop was full circle back to his house. We then climbed the attic stairs where the map had finally directed us to a loose floorboard painted with a red X which when pried loose revealed a small wooden pirate’s treasure chest.

By this time my brother and I were climbing over each other to see what was in it as we breathlessly waited while Skippy opened the box to give us our reward. He said:

Go ahead. Take it. The treasure is all yours.

Nestled inside the box, neatly wrapped in purple velvet cloth were two small golden cylinders that my brother and I couldn’t wait to unwrap. However when we picked them up for closer inspection the dismal discovery was two partially desiccated dog turds that he had sprayed with gold paint. It was a veritable fortune in Fool’s Gold.   

If we had real swords we might have killed him on the spot, but because we were laughing so hard at the absurdity, it was impossible to really feel very murderous.

All in all it was a good lesson about the rewards that sometimes go with blind devotion or unquestioned faith. When I told my mother the story she said to go re-read the story of the Pied Piper; but only after I washed my hands.

At the end of every rainbow there is a pot of gold.

 

And if you believe that one I recently heard about an antique bridge in Brooklyn that was just posted for auction at Sotheby’s. Bidding opens later today.

 

Rainbow

 

 

Joke them if they can’t take a fuck

(Robin Williams)

Cousins 2: Little Jimmy (1960s)

 

The Paradigm

For most of my peri-pubertal years Little Jimmy was the bane of my existence. My uncle’s stage name was Jimmy Carr, so I thought if young Jim, who was never referred to as ‘Junior’ anyway should ever became a criminal, he could just call himself Little Jimmy “Side Cars.”

Little Jimmy was the model son my father never had. He learned how to play golf, was a talented musician who eventually played clarinet with the Orlando Symphony Orchestra. And although I was offered the opportunity to play both clarinet and piano, either I did not have the time, the interest or the talent to get any good at either instrument. It was probably just lack of inspirational passion that led me to never practice, although regrettably today I wish I had. The same thing held true for golf.

But Little Jimmy always practiced music, Little Jimmy always helped his father around the house, and Little Jimmy learned to love golf.

To hear my father say it, he practically begged to have more chores. Little Jimmy always volunteered: to go up on ladders, to wash windows, to wash the car, to cut the lawn and to rake the leaves, to go out of his way to visit poor lonely Grandma, to help her around her house, ad infinitum and ad nauseam. There was not single thing he could not do or a single spectacular feat I would not hear about.

It was many a terrifying Saturday when my father would come home from playing golf with Big Jimmy and launch into the standard soliloquy:

  • I stopped by Jim’s house on the way home and do you two boys know what Little Jimmy is doing right now while you are watching television?
  • Probably painting the house, tarring the driveway and busy making a hole in one. Right Dad?

Besides schmoozing Grandma, Little Jimmy had a knack for ingratiating himself to anyone else who could do something for him. He was always kissing up to Uncle Eddy, so that he would be sure to go on a fresh-water lake fishing trip or perhaps get a rare penny out of his coin collection.

Uncle Ed knew that I liked to fish too, but I was only invited once. Aunt Rose waved good buy at the door; calling out to remind me I should not forget to help Uncle Eddy “oar the boat” so he wouldn’t be too tired when he came home. But the word in the family rumor mill was that since my family had a summer home and I could fish there all the time, I did not need to go with Uncle Ed. Little Jimmy was perpetually portrayed as being deprived in comparison to the privileged Hamptonite cousins.

Poor Little Jimmy; if it wasn’t for Uncle Eddy rescuing him from his domineering father I shudder to think that he might not actually have had any childhood at all.

I do not believe my father thought he was doing harm by comparing his children in a negative way to our cousin. He was only trying to be inspirational in a most unenlightened way; however I do not recommend this technique to be on the top ten list of “How to be a good parent.”

It never made me feel insecure because I cannot remember if I hated the clarinet or the yard work more, the sum total of which only served to make me resent my cousin instead.

After I became successful in my own career as Little Jimmy progressively hit the skids, becoming unemployed and then homeless, I turned to my father one day and said,

  • Gee dad; I wonder what Little Jimmy is doing right now.

It went right over his head as he started to fill me in on the latest details, usually about how he was doing some menial work as a hospital aid or hovering over some dying family member in the hidden agenda guise of helping them out during their terminal infirmity. Eventually Little Jimmy disappeared altogether as even his own sister lost track of his whereabouts.

My father had simply failed to recognize three things: that Jimmy’s father was the organ grinder, that Little Jimmy was the monkey, and that Little Jimmy would have been homeless many years earlier if he had not been a very good little monkey indeed.

Little Jimmy

 (My brother, myself and Little Jimmy )

 

Around, and around the Mulberry bush

The Monkey chased the Weasel

That’s the way the money goes

“Pop” goes the Weasel

(Nursery Rhyme)

 

 

 

Cousins 1

Cousins 1 

Aunt Rose and Uncle Ed had two children, Linda and Rosemary. Linda was about two years older than I was, a different gender with an altogether separate agenda; so I never really bonded with her. Uncle Jim and Aunt Kay had two children, Laura and Jimmy, otherwise wise known as “Little Jimmy.” Laura was Linda’s age, so naturally the two of them usually aggregated and then segregated themselves from the other children. Laura had a great sense of humor, being very sarcastic in a jocular way that made her fun. Linda, on the other hand, was a straight laced, humorless clone of her mother.

“Rosemary” must have been a matronymic derivative combining both her mother and the Virgin mother’s names. Perhaps this binary legacy was too much to live up to, as she reflected neither persona; usually being relatively non-verbal, sullen and withdrawn. She was about four years younger than Linda and never seemed to be included in the older sister’s holiday activities. She ate almost nothing at any of the family gatherings. But I was too naïve to ask her if it was because she was equally nauseated as I was by this Holy Day of Obligation, or if it was because there was something else going on in her life.

Because the children were consigned to their own table in the kitchen to keep them ferreted away from the adults; Rose would periodically come in from the dining room to check on, to coddle and to perseverate as she prodded her daughter. She called her “Poodgie”

  • What’s the matter Poodgie. Aren’t you hungry? Don’t you want to eat some of this nice food? Grandma made it just for you. It’s your favorite. Raviolis. You know you love raviolis. Come on, Poodgie. Eat. Eat. You’ll feel better. Eat. Eat. If you don’t eat you’ll just waste away.

No wonder she never ate. Rosemary would just sit with her arms crossed, frowning, pouting, and then eventually escaped to her room. She was not in any way emaciated, so I knew she had to be eating something, somewhere, at some point in time; but there also was little doubt that some hidden social or eating disorder was still darkly lurking; secreted somewhere in the background. In retrospect I occasionally wonder what may have gone on behind closed doors to possibly make Rosemary the way she was, while heavily discounting in my own mind that it was anything but fawning, coddling and gentle prodding. Although it then became another one of those predictable annual discussions for everyone to ask ‘what’s the matter with Rosemary?’ everyone then just went about the usual business of Christmas leaving the question of “what’s the matter with Rosemary or why she never ate dinner?” to go perpetually unanswered.

One particularity vivid holiday memory occurred when Laura and Linda were excitedly squealing about getting some 45-speed recordings of a new musical phenomenon named Elvis Presley, then playing them repetitiously in the bedroom. At first I thought they were crazy because the music was so strange, but that opinion quickly reversed as I too soon embraced the new musical ideology of Rock and Roll.

Meanwhile, although Uncle Jimmy was a wholesale dealer for Columbia records, and could have supplied me with plenty of free vinyls over the years, he somehow never seemed to have any of the good contemporary Rock performers.  He would periodically show up at our house to give my parents piles of LP albums with a big red ink “DEMONSTRATION: Not for Sale” stamped on the front or the back.

None of them were recognizable as famous contemporary artists or headlining songs but instead was just all the junk that could not be sold anywhere, as they moldered away in his dead inventory pile. When he needed some room for more junk, he just “generously” purged the trunk of his car in our driveway. My father said it was a thoughtful gesture whereas my mother suggested it was an oblique insulting innuendo about our lack of sophisticated musical taste.

For example although I never did get any of Bob Dylan’s albums, I still have a copy of the ever-popular and ever generic, so-not Tito Puente,  bottom of the five thousand hit parade album: “The Calypso Carnival.”

 

Calypso Carnival

 

Cause it’s the chicken gumbo

And the Okra water

Makes you do the things you out to

(Calypso aphrodisiac song)