Where I’ve Lived
It’s like with that poem, “The Handout” we all believe there is some key to life’s mystery just beyond our grasp. We’d like to believe this truth is universal, applicable to everyone equally, but maybe it isn’t. Perhaps each of us has our own secret theater in our imagination showing films we create especially to fit only us.
The Movie Version
In the movie version of my life
everything beneath the surface
makes sense. A porn star plays
my wife, and, oh yes, my black
and white Mustang is fiery red.
And while we might not share the same movies, we do all have a need for them, no matter what form they take. And the sharing of them? Ah, the sharing of them…
At the Poetry Reading
This is a poem I wrote, have written? No wrote
about a time when my car and I were stuck in
an automatic car wash—the kind where you
drive in between rails and a huge upside down
metal horseshoe with rotating shower heads
passes back and forth around your car. Well,
here’s how it goes. This is the start. Ready?
“My soul felt grimy that dusty afternoon.” No,
make it “that dusty summer afternoon,” “grimy
as the rocker panels of my 1997 convertible
coupe. I inserted quarters, thirty-two of them
and drove along the designated tracks when…”
Excuse me, whoever has a cell phone that’s
ringing, I wonder if you’d turn it off? Thank you.
Where was I?…Hmmm? No, could that be my
cell phone? How embarrassing. Hold that car-
wash image and we’ll get to the suds in just
a minute. …You know, it might be just as quick
to answer this, I can’t seem to turn the thing off.
“Hello?” It’s my wife. “No, listen, I can’t talk now.
I’m in the middle of a poetry reading. I’ll call
you back.Yes, I love you too.” OK, where were
Again? What does that woman want? Just a
second please. Think suds. Suds, suds, suds.
Com’on, everybody, “suds, suds, suds.” Very
nice.“I am reading a poem at a poetry reading
Yes now.”…Ha, ha, can’t live with them, can’t
live without them. I mean cell phones, of course,
not women. “Suddenly I was blinded in a vortex
of cotton foam, a blizzard of white gobs that
wouldn’t stop…” …Oh, for godsake, I can’t take
this? …“What, what, what?…I’m on stage right
this minute. No, it’s the one about the car wash.
Well, I like the stupid repetition,…it’s…cathartic.
No, I don’t know. Now good-bye.” She’s asking
about a Beatle’s song. …OK…Let’s finish, shall
we? “Suds, suds, suds. Suds, suds, suds. All
you need are suds, all you need are suds. All
you need are suds,suds, suds are all you need.”
Join in with me, OK?: “Suds, suds, suds. Suds,
suds, suds.All you need are suds. All you need
are suds. All you need are suds, suds, suds
are all you need. All you need are suds (all
together now). All you need are suds (every-
body). All you need are suds, suds, suds are
all you need.”
Where I’ve Lived
On the occasion of my daughter’s moving back to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she was born, I got to thinking about places where I’d lived. I don’t mean physically as much as imaginatively and emotionally.
As a small child in Chicago my favorite room, especially on rainy days, was the attic in my parents’ brown-brick bungalow (at 5923 North Hermitage—the word “hermitage” itself, meaning residence). There were low, slanted rafters and, on the floor, planking that reached almost to the sides of the room…but not quite. Amidst the cardboard boxes and makeshift racks for hanging clothes stored in plastic bags, I’d play with my set of wooden blocks. There were actually three sets of various sizes that once belonged to my older brother and sister. I’d build forts and highways or roofless castles with secret rooms. The “soldiers” and toy cars I had were equally unmatched proportionately. A figure might be four inches tall and a “Matchbox” auto less that one inch long—but it didn’t matter. Sometimes in the summer I’d take the cars and soldiers to play outside in the jungle of my mother’s rose garden—she didn’t seem to care. But the best place was under the dangling light bulb in the attic on a rainy afternoon where no one saw or could disturb my own little world.
I didn’t have a room of my own until my sister went off to college. Mostly I slept on the other side of the attic—the finished side—with my brother. Years later I took over the TV room downstairs; he had moved to my college-bound sister’s room next door. I didn’t want a bed to mess up the arrangement of my room—which I fancied to be like the library of a world explorer’s club—so I continued to sleep upstairs, but now with my father in my brother’s old bed. My father slept up in the attic because he didn’t want to disturb my mother. He’d paint pictures in the basement until late at night and turn in after she was asleep. He also liked to listen to the radio before drifting off, leaving it on all night. I don’t think she particularity appreciated that. I know I didn’t.
Meanwhile, back at the explorer’s club library (I had some cheap prints of old maps on the wall) I nailed up a dartboard I had purchased with my allowance. It really looked great and my brother, Ed, and I envisioned playing a nightly game of darts whenever he took a break from his law school studies. I’ll never forget how upset I was when a stray dart stuck in the knotty pine wall the first time after missing the target. I thought, “Well maybe I can fill the hole and stain it and no one will know the difference.” About three weeks later there were at least 2,000 holes in the wall, in the upholstered chair under the dartboard, in my dresser next to it, even in the frame of an old mirror I had on top of the dresser. The room was a dart-disaster.
But here’s the best part. My brother, at times, could be somewhat mean-spirited in word and deed. He liked to spoil a birthday by telling me beforehand what my parents had bought me as a surprise, or he’d say things like, “Dad loves me, he hates you.” Well one day he made me very angry about something. I was fuming in my room wildly throwing darts when I noticed that I could unscrew the metal tip from the front of the plastic dart.
A few seconds later I burst into his room, slamming the door open against the wall. He was seated in an overstuffed easy chair, smoking a pipe, and had a board balanced across the arms of the chair with all his law books and papers on it. I appeared in the door frame, like Anthony Perkins in Psycho, but instead of a knife I had a handful of darts.
“I’ve had it with you!” I screamed and began hurling them one by one at him. The first one missed but he knocked over his big ashtray trying to duck. Then he lunged up from the chair and board, books and papers filled the air.
A dart bounced off his forehead. He stopped, not comprehending what was going on, so I quickly sent two or three more at the same bull’s-eye. He reached over and picked up a pointless dart and started laughing. I would have too, but I was already halfway out the door.
Later I took the dartboard down and hung a huge floor-to-ceiling, 45-star American flag over the dart-cratered wall.
* * *
Ten years later I found myself in Vietnam. Not that I didn’t live in apartments, dorms and barracks between my childhood and being in the war. But the truth is, I didn’t really. Oh, my body was there, but I myself lived in the books I read and the books I imagined writing.
The First Medical Battalion Headquarters and I had arrived in Vietnam in full battle gear on military planes leaving Fort Riley, Kansas in the middle of the night. After being stationed about twenty miles north of Saigon for five months, three of us who were tired of living in tents that were hot, smelly and blew over in the rain decided to pool our money, buy lumber and build a house. We thought that if we were going to do this we needed to have it finished before the monsoon season began. None of us knew anything about building, but remember I had my experience with blocks as a child up in the attic. I drew up a rough plan, we borrowed an Army truck and driver and after a half hour of searching through nearby small villages, bought a bunch of lumber. It cost us about 120 bucks each.
We’ve all heard stories of barn raisings. You get food and beer, invite the neighbors and, after a half-day or so of good-natured work, there is your completed structure. We bought a keg of beer from the officer’s mess, bribed the cooks to prepare a feast of pizza and deep-fried cheese, passed the word, and, sure enough, everyone came. I should explain in fairness to those attending that day that Bill Ross was a big talker and Martin Sweeney, my other partner, a big drinker. Everyone came. Everyone ate and drank and had a good time sitting on the lumber. Then everyone left. We rested up for three weeks after that fiasco until I couldn’t stand hearing Ross’s stories over and over again so I decided to start building myself. I don’t know if we bought bad lumber or if it got harder sitting on the ground, but it was like rock. I had to use a chainsaw to cut it and a baby sledgehammer to drive nails through it.
This was an unlikely design for the jungle—about 12 feet wide and 30 feet long. The roof was like an “A” frame except there were five-foot high side walls over which the roof hung about 3 feet. The tops of these walls were two-foot high screen the full length of the building. Though you couldn’t see out because of the overhang, the rain wouldn’t blow in. The front third was our lounge area and the back two-thirds, where we had our three cots.
After a week, I, with a little help from Sweeney and a little less from Ross, had the frame completed. We were just in the process of starting to nail corrugated aluminum sheets over the roof structure when we got the news. The battalion commander wanted the construction stopped because (remember we were in the middle of a w.a.r.) it might be “unsafe.”
The Corps of Engineers were called in and it was decided that it was, not only safe, but over-built and would “withstand just about anything.” So we completed the building and moved in. I had finally realized my childhood dream of living in a house, which I had designed and built myself.
Sweeney was a psychologist. After a few beers he often would say with a smirk in his quasi-professional tone, “There are only two kinds of people, the `livers’ and the `non-livers.’” By this I suppose he meant there are those who enjoy themselves and make the best of a situation—like building a house in the jungle—and the “non-livers”—people who go through life following orders like zombies and living in tents. But we were a medical unit in the middle of Vietnam. Everyday people were literally “non-livers.” They were the wounded and dying or those who came to us already dead to be sent home. No, there were only “the living” and “the dead” and as I stood in the doorway of our metal covered framed house and watched torrential rains sweeps across the fields, I thanked God I was still among the living.