I was straddling puberty in the summer of 1993. I went with my best friend Luke Hemphill and his family to Wing Point Country Club. His dad was a member there. The pool was brimming with activity when we arrived. Kids could barely wait to jump into the pool and moms could barely wait to lie in the sun and forget about their children.
A lifeguard sat on high, watching, keeping the order. Every now and again they’d blow their whistle and wag their finger at someone who was not obeying the rules.
When it came time to leave we went to the men’s locker room to wash the chlorine off our skin. The men’s locker room was filled with all sorts of oddities we, as young boys, found fascinating. Combs soaked in blue barbicide, talcum powder, and aftershave that could wilt your nose hairs with one whiff.
“Dad’s waiting for us in the van,” Luke announced.
I turned off the shower head, wrapped a towel around my waist and sauntered into the locker room. Luke and his brothers, Wes and Tim, were gathered around the bench, bashfully changing under their towels. I jumped up on the bench, pulled off my towel, and wrapped it around my neck like a cape.
“Batman without no clothes!” I shouted, then jumped off the bench.
Luke and his brothers laughed until they were red in the face. They’d never seen such audacity. They were good Christian boys, all of them home schooled, sheltered from the world.
I still shake my head when I think this. I have many regrets. This is one of them. I regret that I used such terrible grammar. Why I didn’t say ‘Batman without clothes’ or ‘Batman with no clothes’ I’ll never know.
Now we’re older. We’re men. We have families of our own. Luke has three impressionable children. Two boys and a girl. His boys, Levi and Ben, are complete opposites. Ben is 4 years old. He’s reserved and quiet, and very attached to his blanket, doesn’t go anywhere without it. Levi is 6. He’s loud and expressive, and has no problem speaking his mind. What they have in common is they both love hearing the stories of our youth. A few I’m surprised Luke has told them, given that they have a PG-13 rating.
One of their favorite stories was when I tumbled into the water at Cannon Beach, Oregon. I was a bit accident prone when I was young. One moment we were walking, talking about girls, the next I was in water. I came out, sopping wet, and cried “That was my last clean pair of underwear!”
Levi loved this story so much he wrote a series of short stories based on it. Each ended with me ruining my last clean pair underwear.
Their other favorite story is Batman without no clothes. Ben especially.
It’s flattering to know I’ve brought laughter to two generations Hemphill’s. One day Luke sent me a video of Levi and Ben saying, “Batman without no clothes!” It was cute and harmless until Halloween night 2015. I was with my wife. We were trick-or-treating on Carol Street with our daughters when I received this text message from Luke:
“While I was giving some candy to some tween girls at the front door they looked behind me and started giggling. Ben, who had just got out of the bath, was standing at the top of the stairs with his towel on. And then he opened it wide and said, ‘Batman without no clothes!’”
We, as adults, thought the story was harmless. Never did we think it would lead a young boy to become the world’s youngest exhibitionist. Only now do we realize the story of Batman without no clothes should have stayed in the men’s locker room.
Kids. They’re like the NSA. Always listening, always watching—especially when you’re unaware. Do they remember the pearls of wisdom you so graciously cast to them? No. What they remember are things you wish they’d forget.
We didn’t have a lot of extravagant family vacations growing up. My mom stayed at home, while my Dad went to work. Mom would take odd jobs here and there to help bring in supplemental income, but we didn’t have a large surplus for frivolities. Usually our vacations consisted of places within driving distance. Places like the SeaTac airport where we’d spend hours riding the tram and watching planes gallop down the runway. This was back before security was tighter than the eye of a needle.
While we lived on a shoe string budget my parents still provided some great adventures. One of our greatest ones was that of the Steam Boat Twinkie, an inflatable yellow raft barely big enough for two full-grown adults, let alone one full-grown adult and his two unsuspecting children. Dad had found it on sale at the Pay & Pack hardware store, a business that has long since gone the way of the Dodo.
Our merry adventure began at Steamboat Lake, just east of the Cascade Mountains in Washington. In the middle of the lake was a Pygmy Island. I asked Dad if we could paddle out to it. He said “sure,” then went back to furiously pumping up yellow Twinkie with the bicycle pump he’d brought. Mom unfolded her puke colored lawn chair. She set it next to the lake, sat down and burrowed into her book.
I asked her if she was going to go with us.
“No, but I’ll sit here and wave to you from shore,” she said, without looking up from her book.
At last the hour had come, Dad declared. He hoisted the raft above his head and marched it down to shore. It made a wet plopping noise as it landed on the water. He held it steady for us while we climbed in before he got in. Using the plastic paddle Dad pushed us away from shore.
We glided out onto the water and set a course for Pygmy Island. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, nor a tear in the eye, when we left. There were nothing but smiles and the feeling that all was right in the world, if only for a brief tender moment. Mom gave us a warm wave and smile before nestling back into her book.
Dad started a slow steady rhythm with the paddle. Droplets of water hit the sides of the raft and occasionally my bare legs. I tried to adjust, which made the boat rock back and forth. Dad told me to keep still, something I was never good at as a boy. I was always fidgeting.
“But you keep dripping water on me,” I whined.
“I don’t care. Sit still,” he barked.
As we approached the island Dad looked for a safe place to land. It was surrounded by jagged rocks. We sat for a bit enjoying the bucolic view. It was tranquil. Serene. The smell of fresh air. The sound of nature…and bubbles. Dad glanced over the side of our ship. A steady stream of bubbles was erupting from our back-side.
Dad began swinging the paddle side to side like a samurai sword. Water flew about us.
“I’m getting wet,” I complained. Water crept over the stern of our vessel and went down the back of my pants. I shot up out of my seat. “My bottom’s soggy!”
“Sit down,” Dad yelled, quickly pushing me down.
My sister Rose didn’t appear too concerned. She sat with a blank expression in the bow of the farting Twinkie while I kept standing up and Dad kept pushing me down, a game of whack-a-mole on the high seas.
Out of nowhere the sky turned black. We all looked up. The sky opened up and sheets of water began to fall down on us. There was no way my Dad could swim to shore with one child on each arm. He had no other choice but to paddle to shore like a mad dog.
By the time we reached shore the raft was nearly deflated, our cockpit was filled with water, and no one was smiling. Mom waded out into the water to help bring us in.
While mom helped pack us into the car Dad strangled the air out of Steam Boat Twinkie with his cold, shaking, blistered hands.
The ride home was a long wet one. Not much was said. Mom would snicker every once in a while. Dad would shake his head, still steamed. As I gazed out the window of the car I wondered what other families vacations were like. Did anyone ever get that Disney ideal, or does this same crazy Griswold family vacation shit happen to every family?
They say he who finds a wife finds great gain. I say he who finds a wife with a daughter finds even greater gain. He also finds privacy to be scarce. While I enjoyed my past life as a bachelor I wouldn’t trade it for what I have now. I relish being a husband and father. Lola, my 8 year old dahjah, brings much joy and entertainment into my life. She’s witty like her mother, but has a loud personality, and a deep sultry voice. She’s also a quick learner. Usually it takes a while for a child to learn the concept of knocking. Unless you put them on an accelerated learning path.
It was a typical week night in the Axelrod household. Around the time when we all start getting ready for bed. I turned on the shower head. It hissed to life. Steam began to billow up to the bathroom ceiling. I de-robed and threw back the shower curtain, about to step into a warm cascading waterfall to wash away the remains of the day, when I realized I left my toiletry bag in the bedroom. I don’t like starting my nightly routine without having everything I need first.
The towel was hanging from its hook. My better judgment said “hey, maybe you should put on a towel first. You are completely naked after all.” Whereas the fly by the seat of your pants part of me said, “Pants? Who need em?”
I agreed with my latter half. It would only take 5 seconds. With that I brushed aside my better judgment and flew without any pants into the bedroom to retrieve my toiletry bag. I was about three-quarters of the way to my work bag when I noticed the bedroom door was cracked. Odd. I could have sworn I shut it before going into the bathroom. I should probably close it before someone comes in.
No sooner did I have the thought when a little pair of feet came racing through the hallway toward the door. I saw the window from the corner of my eye, wondering if I had time to jump through it. There was also the bed behind me. I could have time to roll my up in the blankets like a burrito, or cover my nakedness with my wife’s teddy bear, Rufus.
They say in life threatening situations there are two responses that are triggered. Fight or flight. There’s also a third response, to freeze.
When Lola burst through the door we looked at it each other in wide eyed, wide mouth horror. I never wanted it to be this way. I wanted the first man she saw naked to be her husband on her wedding night. We both screamed while I dove into a crouching tiger, hidden penis stance.
She ran back to her room.
“I have to go?” She frantically told her father who she had been talking to on FaceTime.
“I have a lot of homework to do, and I still have to shower and brush my teeth,” she said then abruptly hung up on him.
My heart was pounding I figured the first thing I should probably do is tell her mother what happened. She may be concerned. I grabbed the towel off the hook in the bathroom, wrapping it around my waist, wishing I had done so in the first place. My wife was in the kitchen cleaning up.
“Honey, you may need to go talk to Lola,” I told her.
“Why, what happened?” She sounded concerned.
When I told her what happened she couldn’t stop laughing. Not the reaction I was expecting.
When we went to Lola’s bedroom to console her we found her hiding under her purple blanket, where she stayed for the remainder of the night. No amount of soothing would bring her out.
In the morning as I was getting Lola’s snacks packed for school I felt anxious. Finally her door opened. She staggered out looking like a purple ghost. I tried to console her, telling her it was ok, that these things happen. She was still too embarrassed to look at me.
At school she kissed her mom goodbye. Instead of hugging me goodbye, as she normally does, she shook my hand and said, “Nice to meet you,” as if I was a stranger she was meeting for the first time. Then she stepped out of the car and hurried into the school yard.
Usually it takes a while for a child to learn the concept of knocking. Unless they walk in and see you naked.
Cars swerved out of the way of an unforeseen object in the middle of the road on Temple street. At first glance it looked like a piece of trash. Until I saw it moving. In the middle of the two lanes was a pigeon glued to the cement, either unsure of what to do, or unable to move. I wasn’t sure which. Cars plunged ahead. Behind us other drivers became increasingly agitated seeing that the light was green, and the line was hardly moving. Horns blared. Engine hopped into overdrive as they barreled through the signal.
From the library parking lot I strained my eyes, trying to see. Nothing. Maybe it flew away. Maybe someone picked it up out of the street. Or maybe it was in between the teeth of someone’s car grill. It was just a bird, yet I felt torn. I fidgeted with the library books in my hand that needed to be returned. It was out there somewhere. Suffering. Alone. What could I do? It was gone.
After returning my books, and picking up the book I had on hold, I found myself standing in the parking lot, staring out into the street. The wind had picked up. The sky was ashy. The weather in Los Angeles never seems to fit the season. There on the other side of the street it sat underneath the crosswalk signal, as if it was planning on crossing the street once the light changed. My fingers rapped the spine of my book, caught in decision paralysis. It was just a bird.
I stood there on the other side of the crosswalk, looking down on the pigeon. It cocked its head and looked up at me. There appeared to be nothing wrong with it until it tried to fly away. It flapped fitfully, its wings scrapping the pavement, flailing like a spinning top going out of control, unable to understand why it couldn’t fly anymore. The sight was horrifying.
“It’s ok, be calm,” I said as I gently approached. I removed my jacket and wrapped it into my arms. Its entire body was trembling. I carried it away from the noisy city street to a patch of dead grass, the best place I could find.
We sat there for a while. I stroked its head with my thumb. This seemed to calm it. I’m sure it was covered in germs. Compassion seemed to trump that fact. When it began writhing I wished I had a gun. The painful truth about life is living things suffer, and often we are voyeurs. There was a heap of asphalt chunks behind me. As I got up to go grab one the pigeon tumbled out of my jacket and got tangled in a web of weeds. I looked at the bird then the slab of asphalt in my hand. I could picture it in my head. All I had to do was hold the pigeon down, crush its head with one swift brutal motion, and all its suffering would cease. I held it down and poised the rock. I looked into its eyes. It could be over in a second. That’s all it would take…
I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it. So I did what I’ve done on many occasions, at dinner tables, in the car, in the privacy of my own home or head, I prayed. I prayed for death to come quickly. Within one minute the pigeon went into convulsions. With a final lurch it fell onto its side. I laid my hand on the bird. I could still feel its warmth, its heart beat.
In an instant clouds came into its eyes. I felt again to find a heartbeat. It was gone. Snap. Just like that.
“Rest now, little soul,” I said. As I picked it up to lay it back down on the bed of grass a fly landed on it. I shooed it away in disgust. “You couldn’t wait one minute?” I asked, incredulous.
I felt slightly numb as I walked back to my car.
I scrubbed my hands with soap like a surgeon in the library bathroom. It was a bird, I kept thinking. It was just a bird.
In my mind I kept seeing it there in the middle of the road as I drove away.
“Death is the ultimate equalizer,” a friend once told me. The chilling reality hit me. One day Death is going to come for me like it did for that bird. In fact it’s already on its way, like a train, far off in the distance. Am I ready? Am I prepared?
My mind went to a dark place. I saw those who didn’t stop stopped, who didn’t care. I saw faces long forgotten of people who I saw who needed help, who I pretended to not see because I feared rejection, or didn’t know what to do, or thought were trying to scam me. How could I feel compassion for a bird, and at times feel nothing for my fellow man?
I once believed that the world was a cruel place. Now I realize it is what we make it. We have the ability to change it. For better or for worse.
When I came out of the ether, I found myself somewhere on Sunset blvd, waiting at a red light. On the sidewalk I saw two pigeons doing their mating dance, the male trying to woo the female who was pecking the ground. That must hurt their heads, I thought. Around them were people waiting for the bus to come. I smiled. The clouds were gone. The sun was out. It warmed my face. I became acutely aware of the fragility of life at that moment, and I resolved to do what I could to make the world a “for better” place.
I would have felt more comfortable in a dress. I’m fidgeting with my hospital gown as a technician is explaining to me that once they feed me to MRI I must lie as still as possible. I cannot talk. I cannot move. I cannot even wiggle my toes while I’m in the gullet of this machine. She hands me candy corn orange earplugs. As the foam expands everything becomes muted. Joelle, her assistant, ties me up like Hoodini to make sure I don’t move during the procedure.
“This will take about 20 minutes.” I look down the gullet of the MRI, my head the only thing not tied down.
“I can’t move a muscle for 20 minutes?”
She nods. “Especially your toes. Don’t wiggle those. Otherwise we’ll have to start all over.” She begins to walk away. “Just try to meditate, or go back to sleep.”
It’s probably best if I don’t sleep. I talk in my sleep. And it’s not as if I say funny cute gibberish. One time I sat up in bed, turned to my novia and said “I really didn’t mean to kill all those people,” after which I giggled and flopped back down on my pillow.
A voice like that of a submarine captain called out above the hush. “Ok, we’re going to begin. Keep very still. No talking, and do not wiggle your toes.”
I closed my eyes and began to breathe in through my nose, and out through my mouth, while thinking, “Woosah.”
The machine began with a soft hum, no louder than an electric toothbrush. It cycled through varying sounds and shudders.
Every few minutes the technician would tell me, “You’re doing great. Keep very still. Here we go.” Each time the hum grew louder. Random itches would spring up all over my body, but I couldn’t move. It is beyond maddening to be unable to satisfy an itch. Also I kept having to clear my throat. I tried to do this in between the cycles so I wouldn’t have to start over.
“Ok, try not to clear your throat.” I’m trying not to lose my mind from all the places I desperately want to itch. Especially the tip of my nose.
“Alright, last one.”
The last cycle sounded like a prehistoric wood pecker hammering the hull of an empty battleship. I was trying to keep myself calm by doing meditative breathing, while saying to myself “Woosah.” My body had been transformed into a marsh. My legs were tingling—woosah—my legs felt like they were in an oven—woosah—my eggs like they were being hard boiled—woo—hot!”
“Ok, we’re all done,” the tech said. Only we weren’t. It was only the first of two MRI’s I was to have. The next stop was the specialty department where I would have contrast dye injected into my left hip joint. All because of a mountain biking accident several years ago.
A gruff nurse entered. She walked and talked like John Wayne, and she had the bedside manner of a butcher. “Alright,” she said, standing there with a wheelchair.
It’s a quick jaunt to the Specialty department. She parked me in the middle of the room, and abandoned me there. Two men were prepping. They acted as if I wasn’t there. I saw an operating table with a step ladder next to it. I certainly wouldn’t have minded some guidance instead of having to operate on assumptions. I shrugged and climbed the ladder, and sat down on the operating table. Seconds later a physician with angular eyebrows appeared wearing something reminiscent of a rubber apron. Immediately I thought of the movie Hostel. I was hoping there wouldn’t be anything reminiscent of the Human Centipede during this visit. If there was my next greatest hope was that I’d be the head and not the tail.
The physician explained to me that he was going to insert a needle into my hip joint and fill it with contrast dye. While he was explaining another physician inserted arm holders into the operating table to constrict any moment. About the only thing I could move this time were my toes. I saw the needle that was to be used. Now normally I’m not afraid of needles. In fact I’ve always prided myself for that. It makes me feel manly to face them without fear. And I like to tell any man who tells me he has a fear of needles about my lack of fear in order to prove to him that I am the bigger man. However when I saw the 6 inch formidable needle he was going to drill down into my hip joint I whimpered like a dog.
“We’re going to need you to pull down your boxers.” I began breathing in preparation. A surgical tech covered my privates with a cloth. “I’m going to give you a Brazillian,” he said. With a pair of hair clippers he cleared away the area, then left to go do something else, leaving me with a pile of hair on my thigh. He must have gone to get a vacuum, or a dust pan, I thought. Nope. He appeared a few seconds later with a community of contrast vials, which he offered to the primary physician like a waiter presenting a bottle of fine wine to a patron. The physician looked down his nose, as each vial was presented to him. Once he was satisfied it was correct he gored it with the needle. Each time he pulled out the needle a jet stream of contrast solution would shoot over me. I was waiting for one of them to spit in my face.
There was the cool of rubbing alcohol on my hip. It smelled of low shelf liquor.
“You’re going to feel a slight prick.” He inserted a needle before he finished speaking. “This is a little local anesthetic.” And it spread quickly. At first there was warmth, then a tingle, then nothing. Two more shots were delivered. Each time he drilled down deeper. Each time I could feel the needle reach slightly past the point of the numbness. I gripped the operating table, trying not to squirm like a fish.
The surgical tech adjusted the X-ray above me. On my left there was a mammoth monitor.
“Is that my hip?”
“Oh fun. I get to watch.” I don’t know why I said that. Probably because I was nervous. Yes, how fun indeed to be impaled with a needle half the size of a ruler.
The physician drilled the needle down into my pelvis. He practically leaned on the needle. Though I was mostly numb I could feel his body weight, and the trembling of his hands. On the monitor I watched as the needle inched closer to my hip joint. I gripped the operating table for dear life, breathing in and out until I was light headed and my face was buzzing like a bee hive. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the needle had popped out of my backside. My forehead was damp with sweat. I felt somewhat relieved when I saw the tip of the needle enter my hip joint.
“Almost there,” he said.
“It’s already there,” I said.
“Just about there.” He moved the needle back and forth repeatedly. I was breathing loudly by this point. “You’re going to feel a little full for the next couple of days.” A dark outline began to trace my hip joint. “Ok, you can pull your pants back up,” he told me. John Waynett appeared out of nowhere and began to give me help I didn’t need. I’ve but I’ve been pulling my own pants up for the last two and a half decades, woman. Her lack of finesse caused my penis to spring out from underneath the cloth. It made an audible clap as it smacked her wrist. She yanked up on my boxers, strangling my penis with my waistband and giving me a slight wedgie. And then she vanished. It was as it she had only come to take my dignity, not take me back to Radiology.
I dusted off the pile of hair still on my leg. When I lowered myself down from the operating table I forgot my hip was still numb, and practically fell into the wheelchair. I had barely gotten settle into the wheelchair before it started moving back to Radiology for another 20 minutes of no moving, no talking, or toe wiggling.
Joelle was kind enough to tell me how to get the hell out of Radiology. I walked back to my car like a pirate with a peg leg. I had to use both hands to move my dead appendage as I got into my car. I paused, realizing I had to use my other leg to release the emergency brake. Rather than get out of the car, I crossed my legs to press down on the emergency brake, both releasing the emergency brake, and sandwiching my man grapes at the same time.
I felt rather silly as I limped into the office.
“What happened?” The ladies asked, looking concerned. The sympathy was nice. The limp was not. Especially once my leg woke up.
“I feel like a gimp,” I complained.
One of my co-workers quickly corrected me. “That’s not a gimp man. That’s called swagger.”
Well. At least I only paid $250 for my swagger. Seems pretty reasonable.
It started out small. That’s how these things begin. No addiction starts out full-blown. It’s a ladder. Soon you need to climb higher to feel the same rush you felt initially.
I remember the first time I held it in my hands. It was as if I was possessed. Just the smell of it aroused me. I held it up and gazed at its beauty, admiring its shape, and color, before sliding the head of the match along the side of the strike anywhere box. There was a poof then a hiss. A plume of smoke wafted up into my nasal cavity, bringing a slight sting to my sinuses and a watering of my eyes. I beheld what was before me, bewitched.
It was intoxicating. It was hypnotizing. It was fire. It was my first love.
At first I was content with lighting matches. I would gleefully watch the flame do the mambo on the tip of the toothpick thin stick, and the white gold colored teardrop inchworm down to my fingertips before blowing it out.
Next I’d plug up the sink and pour rubbing alcohol in the sink and set fire to it, and watch the mini lake of sulfur burn. Soon the thrill was gone, and I went in search of a bigger rush. I didn’t have to look for long. In fact I hardly had to look at all because It found me when one day a friend told me that if you combine fire with an aerosol can you can make a flame thrower…or a bomb if the flame happens to get sucked into the can, but the chances of that happening were minuscule.
There was a moment of hesitation as my forefinger hovered over the trigger of the can of my mother’s hairspray she used to tease her hair. In my other hand I held a lit match with a pair of tweezers. Even though my frontal lobes had not yet fully developed I wasn’t a Neanderthal. Some precautions had been taken. I was in the bathroom. At least if it became bomb it would be contained, although I would have to explain to my family why the bathroom had been converted into an outhouse if things went south.
A foot long flame erupted from the nozzle head.
“Whoa!” I paused and perked up my ears to see if my mother had heard me. I opened the bathroom door and heard only the distant chatter of her keyboard in her upstairs office.
From the corner of my eye I spied a spider. My eyes narrowed to slits. Spiders and I have history. Dark history. I loathe the furry little molesters. Ceiling corner creepers.
Growing up we’d often find spiders in our house. It’s what happens when you live in the woods. One time I was lying in my bed late at night listening to Lights Out with Delilah on 92.5 FM, dreaming of the day when I would fall in love when a spider fell from the ceiling onto my face. I shot out of bed, flipped on the light, and pancaked that sucker with a sneaker within five seconds flat.
As I was saying, from the corner of my eye I spied a spider. I turned to the spider. I could see the flame reflecting in its beady black eyes. I stifled a sinister snicker. The spider shifted uncomfortably, unaware of what was about to happen. I pulled the trigger. A foot long flame shot forth from the nozzle head. “You fiend!” I yelled as the spider burst into flames, and squealed before dropping like a meteorite into the bathtub. From then on this became my preferred method of killing spiders.
One day my friend, Carl from Captain Wilkes Elementary School, came over to play. I suggested we go play in the woods, and beat bushes with sticks. I decided to bring all the makings for a bonfire, minus the wood. I figured that would be easy enough to find since it was everywhere. Carl didn’t have much to say as I wrapped rocks in paper, lit them on fire and threw them randomly into the woods while I saying, “I’m Mario!”
We stumbled upon the remains of what was once a towering cedar tree. The stump was approximately ten feet high by four feet wide. It had huckleberry hair, crooked eyes, and a gaping mouth which may have been a wild animal’s home at one time. It looked like some ancient pagan god, begging to be fed.
Together Carl and I stuffed its mouth with the funny pages, and lit them on fire. We watched it burn. It slowly started to catch fire. I fed it some more, and the fire grew in girth. I looked at Carl who had this look on his face I’ve seen on an animal’s face right before they’re about to be brained by a car bumper or roller pinned by a tire.
“I think I hear my mom calling,” Carl said.
“Dude, your house is like a mile away,” I said as Carl tripped on vines, brambles, and fern’s in his haste.
I shrugged and returned to feeding the pagan god, Humpty Stumpy. I sat on my haunches in reverence, watching the flames rise higher, until Humpty Stumpy had become a pillar of fire. That’s when it hit. The Fear. I looked above me and saw that the fire was spreading to the surrounding branches. I didn’t know what to do so I hurried back to the house, figuring if I couldn’t see the problem it didn’t exist. My father was in the process of dividing a felled tree in preparation for the coming winter.
“What’s up buddy?” He asked. He smelled of woodchips, sweat, and chainsaw fuel.
“Nothing.” I could hear a crackle and pop in the yonder. We stared at each other for a moment. It’s funny how when you’ve done something terrible you feel like the whole world knows what you just did. The weight of guilt can be smothering. “What’s that sound?” I asked nervously, secretly wishing to be found out so I could be saved.
“Probably pine cones.”
“Pine cones?” This bewildered me.
“The summer heat can sometimes cause their nuts pop.” For most of my childhood I had been playing under pine trees that were busting their nuts in summer heat. Horrible.
In the distance came the howling of a siren. Each second it was getting louder until it was practically in our backyard. These are the final moments of my life, I thought as I stood there overcome with dread, watching the fire truck roll down the next-door neighbor’s gravel road. A neighbor had seen the woods were on fire, and called the fire department in a panic. I ran to my room to find my fig leaf, you know because avoidance solves everything.
When the firemen came to our door I caved. I tearfully confessed to my mother I was the one responsible for setting our woods on fire.
“They’re going to take you to jail,” my sister told me with much regret.
“Mother, don’t let them take me,” I pleaded. “I’m too young to go to jail,” I bawled.
I was informed that the fire chief wanted to have a word with me. I expected to see him standing there, waiting for me, brandished fire ax, ready to split my head like a log.
I went to face my fate. I walked outside and approached the fire chief. I squinted as I looked up at him with my tear stained eyes. I cringed when he opened his mouth, but instead of barking at me he let me off with a warning, told me not to do it again, and if I did then there would be consequences.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
He gave me a lighthearted smile and turned to walk back to the fire truck. Maybe he had a son about my age back home. Or maybe he was a reformed pyromaniac. Or maybe he understood that we all make mistakes and need a little grace from time to time.
The first few years of my life feel like a fog without any sort of clear timeline. Much of it seems like tiny Polaroid pictures. Like the time my sister told me a mud puddle was really chocolate milk and I believed her. Or the time when I gave my cat a haircut, or when I poked her in the anus because I thought it was some sort of button and I wondered what would happen if I pressed it. Then there were the times I’d sneak shots out of the bottle of Pepto-Bismol from my parent’s medicine cabinet. Or the time another kid and I at Camelot Elementary, or Camel Snot as we called it, thought it would be fun to fire our shoes into the air to see how high we could kick them. When I came back in to class and the teacher saw me standing there with a shoe on one foot and a dirty baggy sock on the other she asked me where my other shoe was. I told her it was on the roof of the school. The janitor had to be called to fetch it. When he came back down with my shoe he gave it to me and said through gritted teeth, “Keep it on your foot where it belongs.”
Over the years I’ve been able to fill in the gaps. Something I didn’t remember was how my father and I used to wrestle. My mother told me when I was young the first thing my father would do every night when he got home from work was wrestle with me. One night he didn’t get home until long after I was in bed. I remember opening my eyes and seeing my father’s silhouette sitting on the side of my bed. The silhouette asked me if I wanted to wrestle.
Once I became a teenager my mother warned my father that I was getting too big for wrestling. By the age of seventeen I had become a beautiful 170lb 6’ tall butterfly. I was no longer that little boy he used to wrestle with. I had become a man. I had lost my innocence and learned about things like wedgies.
For those of you who don’t know what a wedgie is allow me to take your innocence.
Wikipedia defines a wedgie as when “a person’s nether underwear or other garments are wedged between the buttocks.“
High school was a time of great tension. You had to be on guard at all times. You didn’t know where or when someone was going to give you a wedgie or pants you. For those who don’t know what getting pantsed is, it’s when someone yanks down your pants, leaving you there standing in your underwear.
The last time this happened to me I was in a van with a bunch of people from my church youth group. Someone asked me to adjust the volume on the television in the van. When I got up to adjust the volume knob someone yanked down my pants. Usually people laugh when this happens. No one was laughing. Everyone went silent. I had decided to go commando on that particular day. I pulled my pants back up, rather embarrassed.
Finally one of the girls said, “Nice tan.”
Before I came along my father had never heard of a wedgie. It soon became common place during our wrestling matches. One day we were wrestling in the living room.
He danced around the room while saying “Float like a butterfly! Sting like a bee!”
Mother was busy in the kitchen preparing dinner, keeping a disapproving eye on us.
“Robert, he’s getting too big for that. You’re going to get hurt,” my mother warned him. He disregarded her, as men usually do when women tell them what to do.
(It seems like mothers are always trying to spoil your fun, like it’s their job. They don’t want you to do anything that involves any sort of risk. And it seems no sooner than when they say “Don’t do that. You’re going to hurt yourself,” and we tell them “Trust me. I know what I’m doing,” then BLAM! We end up hurting ourselves, and then we have to hear them say “I told you so.”)
We both danced around the room like boxers often do before they clobber each other’s faces. I tap danced, ran in place, did jumping jacks, all while feigning punches.
“You want some of this?”
“Yeah, but put the sauce on the side.”
“I hope you left room in your stomach because I’m going to ram my fist into it!”
Neither of us really knew how to box or wrestle so we looked like a couple of spaz’s.
I went to jab my father in the ribs. He deflected by raising his left knee. The knuckles in my right hand all popped at once.
“Yeeeeow,” I hollered. He laughed and asked me how that felt.
I tackled him and we went into the clinch, and then I put him in a headlock, digging my bicep into his neck. With Jack be nimble and quick speed and I grabbed the back of my father’s fruit of the looms and yanked them up almost to his shoulder blades, nearly ripping the band clean off. My father danced on his tip toes and howled a High C. He tried desperately to free himself. He clawed around to find my waistband. He accidentally stepped on my foot, and when I tried to take it back I lost half my sock and my balance. We tumbled backward toward the couch. I still had my father in a headlock and inadvertently used his head as a battering ram against the wall, while I landed safely on the couch cushions.
For a while my father lay there like a dead accordion, his head resting against the wall, his severed underwear hanging out of the back of his sweat pants while he breathed heavily.
“Robert, I told you,” my mother said.
“Yes, dear,” my father said with winded voice. “We’re done wrestling.” Shortly thereafter his tattered fruit of the looms became a dust rag and our days of wrestling became a thing of that past.