Friday, April 21, 2006

Sometimes Even Saints Are Sinners: Part II

When I got back to school the following Monday, the math teacher pulled me aside and asked me if I had spiked the punch saying so and so (one of the underclassmen that I had driven to make the punch) had told him after the play that we had spiked the punch. I couldn't believe that the moron had actually gone out and told a teacher immediately after the play was over. The word was out and I knew there was going to be hell to pay.

All through the morning classrooms were humming with rumors. All the teachers and non-involved students were sure that only the three kids that actually spiked the punch would be punished. After all, there were perhaps thirty people out of the fifty people in high school who were involved in one way or another and the principle wouldn't suspend 60% of the entire high school. But as Student Council president, I had to deal with our principal Smiling Bob as I called him, more than I cared for. He too, was a recent transplant from a large suburban school and new nothing about what a small school was like. He played by the books. I had no doubt that he would suspend the entire school if that were what it would take.

All afternoon, names came over the intercom and told to report to the principals office. My name came soon enough and he ushered me into his office and asked me to tell him what I knew to which I casually replied, "Know about what?"

"You know what I mean," Smiling Bob told me smiling.

"No I don't," I replied.

"Who spiked the punch," he asked?

"The punch was spiked," I inquired back?

This went back and forth awhile before he finally cut to the chase. He told me that so and so had told him everything and he knew that I had seen them spike the punch. He said that he furthermore had examined several copies of the taped performance and knew exactly who drank the punch and who didn't. He told me again that he wanted me to confirm all these details so that justice could be served.

I told him again that I didn't know that the punch had been spiked and that if it were, why didn't Mrs. Catholic Teacher confiscate it after her taste test and even if I had known, I wasn't going to rat on my friends. I would know them a lot longer than I would him. I said, furthermore, I'm glad that I didn't drink the punch if it was spiked as you no doubt know from examining the tape and if he didn't mind, I need to get back to class.

Towards the end of the day, the intercom once again buzzed and a list of about thirty names was read over the intercom and told to meet in the gym. 60% of the school rose up out of their desks and did as they were told. A smiling Smiling Bob was standing front center of the bleachers and I knew the verdict was in. Without missing a beat or losing his smile, he read the sentences. The three who spiked the punch got three days in the "hole" to be served during school. The hole was actually a closet near the front entrance of the school with a padlock on the door where bad students served their suspensions. Those that drank the punch and whom he witness drinking on the tape, would get one day suspensions to be served on Saturday, and finally, those that knew about the spiked punch, didn't drink any and didn't tell anybody, I was the only one on that list, got two days of suspension that I could serve on Saturday and if I came in an hour earlier and stayed an hour later, would count as both days. We were dismissed.

I took it all in stride. That Saturday I made sure I got extra shitty while feeding the hogs and didn't bother to change out of my chore boots or into school clothes. I drove the farm truck into school and walked into the classroom grinning ear-to-ear and smelling like something long ago had crawled into a hole and died. Smiling Bob was there reading his paper and pointed towards a chair before going back to his paper. I sat down and a few seconds later saw that smile briefly falter before he looked up at me with a puzzled look on his face. It was only then that he shook his head, straightened out his smile and went back to reading the paper. Soon the other students arrived and another teacher who must have been on Smiling Bob's "You've been bad list," showed up to replace him and to watch over us. The sat near the windows and I sat as far away as possible. Everyone took my rebellion fairly well and one of my fellow suspended students even gave me a stack of comic books to read. We served our time; I served my extra hour and went home to a nice hot shower.

Funny thing, most people don't remember me being involved at all. I was too good of a kid to have done something like that. Fortunately, it was that saintly belief that got me out of more than one scrape during my school years. Heck, I even use it to my advantage these days.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Sometimes Even Saints Are Sinners: Part I

You, Valedictorian of your class, winner of the prestigious Bernie Saggau Award, Student Council President, member of the National Honor Society, Spanish Club, Quiz Bowl Team, Drama Club, Pep Band, Concert Band and numerous other organizations, are being suspended anyway just for spite. Or at least that is how I imagined "Smiling" Bob said it. In the end, I was suspended for two days my senior year in high school.

Let me first set the scene for you. It was my senior year in high school and being the only senior having a role in the school murder mystery play, I was asked to drive a few underclassmen to one of their houses to make some punch for the third scene. I looked incredulously at the teacher, two years removed from a private Catholic all girls school to this public institution of red necks and farm boys, at what she was asking or rather trusting us to do. She didn't seem to catch my look and so I agreed and off we went. About two minutes later, we pulled up to the house and the under classmen went inside to make the punch. I stood outside admiring the night sky and shooting the breeze with a friend of mine who happened to walk by on the way to the play. After about ten minutes, I began to wonder what was taking so long and looked inside just in time to see the last of a couple liquor bottles being filled up with water and stowed underneath the bar so that father wouldn't suspect anything later. Mrs. Private Catholic teacher was in for a surprise that had been no surprise to me.

As we drove back to the school hurriedly because the play should have already started, I had to roll down the windows of the car because the punch reeked strongly of alcohol. We pulled into the parking lot and quickly made our way to the door at the back of the gymnasium near the state where Mrs. Private Catholic teacher greeted us.

"Did you spike the punch she asked?"

"No," the underclassmen answered while I suddenly realized that their jig was up.

"Let me taste it," she said. We poured her a glass, she sipped some and said, "This tastes awful, what did you put in it?"

"We put in several different kinds of Kool-Aid."

"Well alright. You're late so put it on the table and get to your places."

And with that, we were in. Whispers were quickly passed and soon, everybody knew about the punch, except for maybe the audience and the teachers directing the play. During my first scene as I was out on the stage, I noticed about one hundred camcorders focused on us and knew that this secret was bound to get out. We were playing with fire. I vowed to not drink any of it hoping that I would be absolved from the scandal that was sure to arise.

Because my duties were light between the second and third scene because I didn't have to do a costume change, I was in charge of carrying the punch bowl out to the table for the final party scene. As I walked back to where we had left it, I found a half empty punch bowl and one very tanked Waif Girl whose only scene was in the final third act. She slurred the words as she told me how good the punch was as I took what was left onto the darkened stage and took my place. Lights, camera, action.

The lights came on and we went through our lines but everyone, especially the underclassmen were eying the bowl while I was eying the videos being recorded. The script had my love interest offering me a drink and was supposed to be me taking a drink and offering everyone to help themselves. But no sooner had she handed me the first glass than everyone else on stage pounced on the bowl and started chugging punch left and right. I hoisted my in a cheer and instead of drinking it, lost my self in some adlibbed conversation with another actor and then set it up on the mantel. The play ended minutes later with a very empty punch bowl and twenty or so actors with some warm bellies from two or three shots of hard alcohol now sitting in their stomachs. Yes sir, the cast party later was pretty interesting.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Immigration and What It Means To Be American According To Ted

I've been reading up on Teddy Roosevelt and what he had to say about immigration and the use of hyphenated national origins. What I read, I have agree with 100%. Here are some nuggets from some of his speeches and letters:

"Let us say to the immigrant not that we hope he will learn English, but that he has got to learn it. Let the immigrant who does not learn it go back. He has got to consider the interest of the United States or he should not stay here. He must be made to see that his opportunities in this country depend upon his knowing English and observing American standards. The employer cannot be permitted to regard him only as an industrial asset."

"We must in every way possible encourage the immigrant to rise, help him up, give him a chance to help himself. If we try to carry him he may well prove not well worth carrying. We must in turn insist upon his showing the same standard of fealty to this country and to join with us in raising the level of our common American citizenship."

"The effort to keep our citizenship divided against itself, by the use of the hyphen and along the lines of national origin is certain to a breed of spirit of bitterness and prejudice and dislike between great bodies of our citizens. If some citizens band together as German-Americans or Irish-Americans, then after a while others are certain to band together as English-Americans or Scandinavian-Americans, and every such banding together, every attempt to make for political purposes a German-American alliance or a Scandinavian-American alliance, means down at the bottom an effort against the interest of straight-out American citizenship, an effort to bring into our nation the bitter Old World rivalries amd jealousies and hatreds."

"In the first place we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here does in good faith become an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with every one else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed or birthplace or origin. But this is predicated upon the man’s becoming in very fact an American and nothing but an American. If he tries to keep segregated with men of his own origin and separated from the rest of America, then he isn't doing his part as an American."

"We have room for but one flag, the American flag, and this excludes the red flag which symbolizes all wars against liberty and civilization just as much as it excludes any foreign flag of a nation to which we are hostile. We have room for but one language here and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, and American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house; and we have room for but one soul [sic] loyalty, and that is loyalty to the American people."

Thursday, April 13, 2006

The Day Ted Found His Bark

For years, I thought my dog Ted was a mute. Other than the occasional whine of eagerness, I never heard him issue a single bark. I had learned to accept it until the day he proved me wrong.

It was our ritual to go for a walk in the evenings. We would walk a couple miles down the gravel roads in our area and then back for a total of four miles. It was a way to unwind in the evening and converse as a family. Of course, Ted was always invited on these walks and raring' to go. On one particular evening, Ted had been inside the house on his rug instead of outside and saw us getting ready for the walk. So he got up and stood by the door waiting to leave with us. When I was ready, I walked over to the door and asked:

Me: Do you want to go for a walk?

Ted: Whine.

Me: Are you sure?

Ted: Louder whine.

Me: Are you really, really sure?

Ted: A much more urgent whine with tail beginning to really knock on the closet door.

Me: I can't hear you!

Ted: Extremely urgent whine with a look in his eyes as if he was about ready to pee on the floor. His tail was about ready to knock the closet door off the hinges.

Me: Tell me that you want to go for a walk!

Ted: Bark!

At this point, we were both shocked. After three quarters of his life had already passed him by, he finally had barked. Ted had this bewildered look on his face as if to say, "what the f@$k just came out of my mouth?" I probably shared the same look. We paused for a second and I repeated the question and he barked again. I repeated and soon his barks were a continuous stream, so loud that I had to open the door lest I lose my hearing permanently.

From that day on, he barked more frequently and without as much goading as the day he learned to bark. He never did bark out of alarm, like when someone pulled in our drive and the other dogs barked, or barked out of anger. For Ted, he barked only out of joy. I think this is why people were always surprised when they got out of their car and for the first time met Ted. He wouldn't growl or bark like other dogs and instead just trot up to them, punch his nose into their crotch and sniff. More than one salesmen thought this was a warning shot across their bow and got right back into their cars. Some dogs bark their warning; my dog sniffed and got the point across. I guess he saved his bark for special occasions.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

I Take It You Don't Go To Church Much.

No shit, there I was... or that is how a river runner says every good story begins that way. But in this case, I mean it literally. I was ankle deep in our hog pens mucking them out one spring Saturday after a long winter. During the summer, hogs sleep on concrete to help stay cooler but in the winter we toss straw in their pens for bedding. Unfortunately, when it is cold, they tend to excrete in their bedding instead of going outside as normal, and I can't say that I blame them. But it does mean that there is quite the mess to clean up come spring.

So I was working away with the shovel and pitchfork, mucking out the pens when a shiny black Lincoln Towncar pulled down our drive and upon seeing me, continued out to the hog barns. Doors opening, a family of four hopped out, a husband figure in a suit, a wife figure in a 'purty' dress and two younguns' all spiffed out in the Sunday finest. There was a black book in the husband's hand and I knew instantly they were Jehovah's Witnesses.

I was due for a good blow (break), so I climbed over the fence and after carefully wiping the shit off one of my hands onto a clean spot of my bib overalls and holding onto the pitch fork very American Gothic like with the other, shook hands all around. After shaking my hand, they stepped back a few respectful paces, glanced around and near as I can call, the conversation went like this:

Jehovah: Are your folks home.

Me: No

Jehovah: I take it you don't go to church much.

Me: I think you have about ten seconds before I kill you with this pitchfork.

Their eyes all got considerably wider and they promptly got back in their car and high tailed it out of there. They didn't even offer me some of their literature! I don't know where their assumption that I didn't go to church came from but I suddenly wasn't in the mood to talk with them any longer. It wasn't even a question but just a statement! If I hadn't been a churchgoer at the time and believed that killing was a sin, even the killing of Jehovah Witnesses, I possibly would have stuck them just a little with the pitchfork just to make them jump. But I was a good Christian and just watched them fly up the driveway in a cloud of dust.

To this day, I don't think they have ever come back to the farm or any of their kind. I'm sure we are on their "heathen" list or at least written off as beyond saving. But they have found me across the nation wherever I have lived elsewhere. Sometimes when I am in the mood or in need of a blow, I'll get into a debate about whether or not they are sure that they are one of the 144,000 anointed ones who are getting into heaven and if so, how do they know. But most days, I just tell them I am a heathen or not interested and they go away. I leave the pitchfork propped up next to the door out of sight. Just in case.

Monday, April 10, 2006

The Death of Ted

I drove down the long driveway and pulled into my customary spot underneath the large elm tree on the west side of the house. Ted was lying in the grass which was unusual. He normally would run out to greet me as I was coming down the driveway but today he just laid there in the sun dappled shade. As I got out of the car and approached, he remained unmoving with no sign of life, causing my heart to skip a step. When I reached him, knelt down and called his name, he feebly wagged his tail and turned his eyes in my direction. I knelt there scratching Ted behind the ears, allowing my eyes to drift down his body and I could see a large shaved area on his abdomen where all his golden reddish fur had been removed down to the skin. A large scar that had been sutured shut now stretched across the area. My parents hadn't said anything about Ted undergoing any kind of surgery so I figured it must have been some sort of accident that had just happened. I continued to stoke his head for a few minutes and then went inside the house.

Mom was at the kitchen sink when I walked in and from the look of inquiry on my face, went directly into an explanation without waiting. The years of arthritis medicine had taken their toll on Ted's internal organs and they were failing. Ted was dying. I asked how long but she didn't know. Ted had undergone exploratory surgery yesterday where he had been diagnosed and as long as he wasn't in too much pain, my parents decided to care for him until he died. They hadn't wanted to put him to sleep at the vets office and had wanted to give me a chance to say goodbye. That spring morning had been such a beautiful one that my mom had moved him outside to lay underneath the large elm tree where Ted could keep an eye on everything. She thought he would be happy there and I agreed.

Ted had shown up about seven years ago near my grandfather's farm thin and starving and after searching for an owner, we had adopted him, brought him home with us, where we nursed him back into health. A couple years later, Ted started getting lame in the rear hip and we decided to take him into the veterinarian to see what was wrong. After some tests and putting two and two together, we were able to piece together some of Ted's history. He probably was meant to be a hunting dog since he was a Golden Retriever/Yellow Labrador mix but as we already had found out, was gun shy. The owner had probably beat him in an attempt to train him but it hadn't worked. No longer interested in him, they had tried to scare him into running off but he had kept coming back and so they had shot him, hitting him in the rear hip. By the time Ted arrived in our possession, his physical wounds had healed but he had a lot of emotional ones. He would cower whenever a hand was raised even if it were just to scratch behind his ears. With time and patience, Ted would grow to trust us and this would fade with the years. Ted never liked to be out of site of everyone, something that never did fade away and loud noised would always scare him, but at long as we were close by he would remain, albeit with a "I'm miserable" look in his eyes.

But at the age of three, the old buck shot wounds were started to cause arthritis in his hip leaving Ted in constant pain. The doctor had said there was nothing that he could do with an operation but that he had an experimental drug used to eliminate the symptoms of arthritis in race horses that we could give him in the form of an injection once a month. We did and it worked. After the shot, Ted would be unshackled from his pain and he could be an active dog again until the pain started creeping in again towards the end of the month. He seemed to sense that the shots were taking away the pain because he never objected when the time came to administer the medicine. That same medicine that gave him four more years of a pain free life, had also taken its toll on Ted's body and now he was dying.

As I walked outside to go help my dad out in the fields with the spring tillage, I sat down beside Ted, put his head in my lap and spent awhile talking to him and stroking his head. Planting season was fast approaching and every minute counted but something inside me felt that I needed to tell Ted what was on my mind. I thanked him for all the good memories that we had together over the years and told him I was sorry that things had to end this way. As I talked to him, I could see his eyes looking into mine and that old fire in them was still burning. I told him goodbye and that I would spend the entire evening with him when I got done working in the fields. A half hour after arriving home, I drove off again towards the fields leaving Ted lying in the green grass in the shade of the large elm tree.

Barely another half hour would pass, when I heard my mom's voice over the CB radio saying that Ted had died. I continued working the fields in silence letting the memories flow as freely as the tears. Instead of my life, it was Ted's life flashing before my eyes and I watched his movie being played in my mind. Both my father and I worked until well after dark, neither of us wanting to go back to the farm and face the reality. When I finally came home, I fueled up the tractor and put it away in the shed where I noticed a tarp wrapped object resting in the other tractor with a scoop on the front. It had been raised up off the ground to keep other animals away and I knew that Ted's body was beneath the tarp. I told Ted happy hunting and that I would see him in the morning.

By dawns early light, Ted was buried beneath the outreached limbs an old oak tree fifty yards from the house. It is a peaceful spot unadorned by anything and covered only by the hardy prairie grasses that grow there beneath the shade. I still visit his grave now and then when I visit my parents to talk to him but mostly I just live with his memories inside me. He was a dog huge in heart and taught me that it is possible to love again even after experiencing so much hurt. I will always be glad that he could hang onto life so that I had a chance to tell him goodbye.

Thanks for the memories Ted.

Monday, April 3, 2006

The Married Household Shift

After I moved out of the dorms of college and into an apartment that I shared with my younger brother and one of his friends, I was suddenly in the household furnishings market. Fortunately, I had enough time to visit auctions enough to buy some of the necessities like pots, pans, dishes and a few basics of furniture before moving day came. That day, we fit what would be our entire household into the back of my father's truck and later liberally scattered it around the open spaces of the apartment.

The living room consisted of cinder blocks and one x twelve pine boards crafted into an entertainment center, one upholstered chair that sported a tire mark from where the spare tire rubbed during the journey up, a cigarette scarred coffee table and an old couch that I had from my dorm days and had purchased off a frat house for five bucks. It had once been a hide-a-bed but had long ago been disemboweled of its guts and replaced with plywood. The rest of the household furniture went downhill from there.

Over the years, we replaced some of the furniture as opportunities arose. The old couch was cut up and tossed out the window to make room for the new (used) eight dollar couch that we bought from a trailer moving sale. The cinder blocks and pine boards were converted into bookshelves for a bedroom, replaced by one of those cheapo entertainment kits that start sagging and warping almost before all the screws are turned into place.

After college, I hung onto some of the better pieces of furniture for a while having exhausted all my funds on my education and having little for upgrading the house. But gradually I crawled out of my education induced poverty and started replacing some of the furniture here and there with newer (still used) stuff. I was happy with what I had. It was paid for and if you spilled your beer on it, heck that was all right by me. Then I got married.

Because I married someone from the Philippines who was working in England, some time off for her was necessary to get all the visa stuff processed. I was making decent money at the time and she was stressed out from working in a country with nationalized health care which seems more like barely controlled chaos so I told her just to take off a year and enjoy life for awhile. Catch your breath, regain your sanity, were a couple things that I told her but I can never remember ever telling her to complete replace my life one item at a time.

Those first few months were mostly just a rearrangement of my furniture as it got shifted around, some stuff packed away and other stuff reappearing. But after she got her driver's license, something else started happening. I would be sitting on the couch looking around the house and see something that I was sure wasn’t mine. Worse, I started missing things that were mine but were no longer anywhere to be found. Eventually during a spring-cleaning as I was doing my part out in the garage, I discovered the truth. My stuff was slowly being placed into boxes and stacked neatly in a corner. This was the beginning of the end and I knew it.

I have no idea where the cinder blocks or white pine boards ended up. The eighty dollar couch sold for ten bucks after my wife convinced me to put an add in the paper. In fact, as I look around the house, almost nothing I possess now comes from the era of my college days. The one lone survivor is the formica kitchen table with the tubular metal chairs. Even the table is constantly covered in table clothes as to hide the shame and the chairs are always tucked underneath. The only reason it hasn’t not gone the way of those furniture before it is because I keep promising my wife that I will build her a table one of these days. Although other things keep out ranking it in priority and the issue hasn’t been pressed, I’m kind of glad. It is the last thing of mine pre-marriage and a reminder of the days before my wife came to rule the roost.