Saturday, November 20, 2010

Stealth Snow

It wasn't unexpected, mind you. All week the weatherfolk have been warning that a winter snow was heading our way, but we saw no signs of it. I actually went for a jog late yesterday afternoon wearing a vest and a tee shirt. Last night, before I went to bed, I went outside to gaze at a clear sky full of stars. A few clouds lay low on the horizon but there was not a hint of preciptation. Awoke this morning to a mostly blue sky and a mostly white landscape. The snow elves came in the middle of the night and laid down an inch or two. It's early this year. It's unusual for us to have measurable snow before the leaves have fallen. As the snow melted this morning, it revealed the colors of autumn instead of the black branches of winter.

I'm trying to convince myself to suit up and get out in it, but truth be told, I'm not a winter sports kind of gal. I'm more of a sit by the fire with a cup of cocoa and a good book kind of gal. I have a new reading chair next to the new woodstove, there are a couple of unread books on the side table, the kettle's hot and the house is ultra-cozy. It will be hard to summon the ambition to leave all this and go hiking in the wet and cold, but I'll manage to get out of the house sometime today.

The "new" reading chair is actually Aunt Mag's old chair. I think it dates to the 30s or 40s. Aunt Mag was my great aunt and I never knew her. She was my mother's mother's sister and my mother adored her. Mag had "the fever" as a young child and it affected her brain; she never progressed intellectually after that point. I think she was one of the few adults who ever took time to play with my mother when she was a child. The adults in my mother's life were engaged in a daily struggle for survival and didn't have much time for play. Even if they did, there was a much clearer line between adult and child back then and playing with children was not considered suitable behavior. Expectations for Mag were different. No-one thought twice about her pulling out her box of junk jewelry (her "bobs") and playing dress up with the little girls. Despite her disability, she was also expected to be able to sew and cook and keep house. I have a quilt that she pieced by hand in the 'drunken path' pattern, tiny squares in curving lines blocked on white muslin that probably came from flour sacks. She had mad skills, no doubt. Her housewifery was far superior to mine.

I'm not sure how or when mom got the chair, but she had it for many years. It's a sweet little upholstered rocker, kind of blocky, vaguely colonial,the only heirloom furniture in our family. Greg took it home after mom died, but he and his wife are remodeling and no longer have room for it, so I paid to have it shipped across the country. Any antique dealer would tell me that it's not "worth" what I paid for the shipping, but to me, it's priceless. It's certainly well-traveled.

Darkness is gathering outside. I better head out before it snows again. At least this time, I see it coming.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

And Now For Something Completely Different

After all the heavy posts of the last week, it's time to take a walk on the far side:

This is an actual mug shot of a guy who was busted for a "one man crime spree" in Southeast Portland. He was arraigned on charges of assault, menacing, harassment and criminal mischief. All he needs is a "Got Meth?" tee shirt.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Last Time I Saw L.E.

The last time I saw L.E., he was strapped to stretcher and was being loaded into the back of an ambulance. I must have been 7 or 8 at the time. He had shown up again after many years absence. We were sitting in the kitchen when something – happened. I’ve blocked exactly what it was, I can’t picture it, but I remember looking at him and knowing that something was very, very wrong. Later, I learned that he was going into a seizure, but all I knew at that moment was primal fear. My mother shouted at me to go out into the yard. She didn’t have to ask twice.

Someone (who could it have been, I wonder) called the neighbors to summon a nurse who happened to be visiting. I remember watching this grown woman running clumsily up the driveway. She disappeared into the house and I didn’t follow. Not long after, the ambulance arrived and the EMTs hustled inside. By then, everybody in the neighborhood was out in the street, watching, whispering. I was hiding in the bushes next to our driveway, simultaneously terrified and mortified. After what seemed like an eternity, the EMTs came out, carrying L.E. on a stretcher. He was not five feet from me as they loaded him into the back. He saw me cowering under the bush. Our eyes met. He smiled. I can’t remember if I smiled back.

That was the last time I ever saw him. His daughters eventually took responsibility for his care and got him hooked up with the V.A. He finally received disability benefits sometime in the 70s, 30 years after receiving the wound that changed his life.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Violence

Writing about L.E. reminded me that one of my earliest conscious memories is of a horrific fight he had with my father.

It's taken me a long time to acknowledge that I was a frequent victim of violence as a child. I've spent most of my life repudiating that label; I am not now, nor have I ever been, anyone's fucking victim. When you grow up in an atmosphere of unpredictable violence, adopting the label of "victim" is like posting a target on your back. You might as well ask to get your ass kicked. To this day, if I feel like I'm under attack, be it physically, verbally or psychologically, I don't back down; I instinctively strike back before I even realize what I'm doing. Back me into a corner and I lash out like a wild animal. It's a survival instinct at its most primal.

Dad and L.E.'s fight is one of the earliest incidents for which I retain a vivid, concrete memory. They had history, those two. Both were deeply scarred by childhood poverty and a violent mother. I don't know what her story was, but I know she beat my father frequently and without mercy. Both brothers were traumatized by the war. My father exhibited all the classic symptoms of PTSD and L.E. clearly suffered from traumatic brain injury. Back then, such damage was considered shameful, something to be hidden and denied. Despite their wounds, they banged around together a fair bit after the war, hitching through the south and the west engaging in petty and perhaps not so petty crime. They were very close at one time, but by the time I came on the scene, there was bad blood between them. There had been some kind of trouble with L.E.'s infamous wife. I say 'infamous' because hers was one of those names you couldn't mention without people exchanging looks. L.E. was the darling of his mother and five sisters and they never considered L.E.'s wife to be good enough for him. There were vague references to Indian blood, hints about promiscuity. Who knows what the real story was? I never met the woman. I know this: in the last months of his life, when he was in a confessional mood, my father told me that L.E., their sisters and their mother all believed that he had slept with L.E.'s wife. There was an incident; he was hazy on the details. Perhaps they were found together? I don't know. He swore to God that it it was all a big misunderstanding. I didn't believe him, but I told him I did.

Perhaps he sought absolution; as if it were mine to grant.

So, I wasn't five yet; I may not have been four. We were still living in the house on 5th Street, we hadn't moved to Williams Street yet. I was in the living room with my brother and mother (who may or may not have been holding a baby.) It was late afternoon and I was watching Hobo Kelly on TV. She had an afternoon TV show and I can still remember the theme song: "H O B O / K E double L Y / Hobo Kelly / sure n' begoran it's I!" Every day Hobo Kelly put on her giant magic glasses, gazed out into TV land and found the good children. She would say, "I see Timmy, I see Cathy, I see David..." Perhaps their parents sent their names in to the TV show, but I didn't know that. I thought that, if I believed in the magic hard enough, some day she would call my name. So, I was sitting in the middle of the living room, believing as hard as I could, when there was a loud noise at the screen door. I looked up and saw Uncle L.E. crashing though the screen. He was hollering incomprehensibly. Mom jumped up out of the chair, grabbed my brother and I and hustled us down the hall. About then, my dad appeared. I think he must have been sleeping in the back bedroom. He might have been sleeping off a graveyard shift, or he may have been napping. He was a champion napper, my dad, he could sleep anywhere, any time, a trick he learned in the war.

There was a cacophony of shouting, crashes and thuds behind us. Mom pushed us into the bedroom and slammed the door. I heard pounding, pounding, and louds voices. The door sprang open and L.E. was in the room, hollering. Mom was screaming at him and pushing us into the closet. Then L.E. wasn't in the room; maybe dad pulled him out, I don't know. Mom kneeled down and said, "stay here. Don't worry, just stay here," and closed the closet door. My brother and I cowered in the dark, on the floor, listening to the shouts and thuds. We waited. The noise moved outside, got fainter and stopped. We waited. Finally, my mom opened the closet door and we tumbled out into her arms. We were laughing and crying at the same time, giddy with relief. I remember repeating over and over again "I was so scared mama! I was so scared!" She sat with us on the bed for a long time. She probably sang to us. She often sang to comfort us when we were very little. Dad came in, breathing heavily. He said "don't worry, he's gone," or something like that. I can't remember exactly; like I said, I wasn't five. I may not have been four.

That's my earliest memory of the violence. It's not my last.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Watch Your Back, Jack

My dad enlisted in the Navy on his 17th birthday. He ran away from home at age 14, lied about his age and signed up for the Marines, but his mama tracked him down and dragged him home by the ear. He was terrified that the war would be over before he had a chance to get his licks in. As it turned out, he got plenty of licks in; he was one of the first men to land at Okinawa and spent 82 days under fire. He saw some shit, I tell you. But, that's not the story I'm telling today.

My dad's brother L.E. was a bonafide war hero, awarded the Silver Star for actions in the line of duty on the day the USS Franklin was shot out from under him. He used to say that he went swimming that day. Sometime after that incident, he received a serious head wound which resulted in what we now know as traumatic brain injury. He returned from the war suffering from grand mal seizures and a serious lack of impulse control, particularly when he was drinking. He drank alot. But, that's not the story I'm telling today, either.

After my dad completed basic training, he boarded a troop train headed for Treasure Island, where he was to embark for the Pacific Theater. The train stopped over at Chicago's Union Station, which must have been an awe-inspiring sight to a 17 year old boy who had never been out of Alabama. As he and the other recruits struggled to keep up with their platoon leader while gawking at the grandeur, my dad heard his name broadcast over the public address system: "Private Elbert Eugene Smith, please come to the information desk. Private Elbert Eugene Smith, please come to the information desk." My dad couldn't believe it; here he was, a teenage kid from Alabama, being publicly paged in Union Station. He ran up to his platoon leader and said "that's me! That's me! They're calling me! I have to go to the Information Desk!" The platoon leader was skeptical but finally relented. "OK kid, but be back here in 10 minutes or I'll hunt you down myself." Dad took off like greased lightning, running through the vaulted corridors until he found the information desk. Leaning on the counter, flirting with the female announcer, handsome, cocky, his hat tilted over one eye, there was L.E.

Dad couldn't believe it; how had L.E. known he was there? Turns out L.E. had just gotten off the phone with their sister in Anniston, who told him that dad was passing through Union Station that day. L.E. took a chance, had him paged, and the rest is history.

They could only talk for a second before dad had to get back to his squad, but he always remembered, and often repeated, the last thing L.E. said to him: "Be careful out there kid; they're shooting live bullets." With that, L.E. gave him one of those utterly confident American GI smiles and walked off into the crowd. Dad didn't see him again until after the war. L.E. was not the same man after his injury so, for all intents and purposes, that was the last time my dad really saw him.

My pathetic problems at work pale in comparison to what these men saw and suffered, but I thought of this story today when I got mowed down by management. If I could speak to my colleagues at the Art Farm, I'd tell them what L.E. told my dad: "Be careful out there, kids; they're shooting live bullets."