Sippican Cottage

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Traditional, Now

Do Flowers Grow On Pork Chop Hill?

He gazes out of the photo, mute, enigmatic, not quite smiling, and speaks to me across the decades.

When I was a little boy, amusements were few and far between. Television was still in black and white for us, and after the reruns of Gilligan’s Island and The Three Stooges, not much was on the idiot box, as my father called it.

I remember my father and me trying to watch a hockey game broadcast from the west coast featuring the California Golden Seals, who were setting a new low in sports sumptuary and getting pasted by our mighty Boston Bruins — Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito and Pie McKenzie and… well, I can still recite all their names down to the most obscure, even Garnet (Ace to his friends)Bailey. On a thirteen inch black and white TV with rabbit ears. We might as well have used the Etch-a-Sketch.

Eisenhower’s X-Box, the Etch-a-Sketch was.

And so it always seemed a real treat when we could wheedle our mother to drag out the elegant but battered silverware box, left from some set our family never owned, filled with the family photographs. The pictures were mostly black and white too, the current cutting edge of photography being Polaroid’s prehistoric b&w instant photos. They’d come out of the camera, and you’d count to a now forgotten tempo, and pray, and pull off the cover paper to expose the image and stop the developer, and smear your clothes, and hope the picture was vaguely done.

We’d see the usual babies on the shag carpet, buns up; confirmation and communion suits that fit like either a tent or a rubber glove, never any degree in between; little girls in their Easter jumpers and patent leather shoes, with their mothers wearing a hat, a real hat, ready for church. Father, grim, unsmiling in his workday suit, a little shiny at the elbows and knees.

Those photos were only the littlest bit interesting after a while, because they were for the most part, well — us. The exotic ones were always deeper in the pile, instantly recognizable as special by that magnificent sepia tone that photos used to have, and spalling and cracking like a fresco in damp cathedral.

There they’d be, the southern Italian or Irish immigrant faces, looking stoically at the camera, surrounded by extended family on a stoop in Cambridge or Dorchester or Roxbury Massachusetts, or perhaps Antigonish, Nova Scotia. They had their hard lives written all over their faces. But always calm looking. Serene, really; not introspective or egoist. And they looked into the lens in a way that we never do. Not at it, but through it.

Our parents would strain to remember all the names, and who did what and from where, and why and when. And I figure, with the small wisdom that I’ve accumulated with age, that when we pestered them too much about someone obscure, they made stuff up.

And then his face would turn up. Handsome, mysterious, forever young. Forte.

Who’s that?

That’s my brother Bobby, my mother would answer. And that was that.

I was young, and still in the thrall of my parents, and sensed it. Here is a place you do not go.

The years passed, and the TV was in color, and my wrists and ankles began to show from my hand-me-down cousins’ clothes. And the box came out less often. But when it did, the tantalizing face, handsomer than all the others, undiminished by time or care, resplendent in a uniform, always caught your eye. He died before I was born I learned, by osmosis I think, I don’t remember ever having the nerve to ask, and I’m sure it wasn’t offered.

In Korea.

And the earth spun, and the seasons changed, and then I was a man.

One day, my mother came to me. She had a picture. it had lain stored and untouched for fifty years, coiled, and she couldn’t unroll it without destroying it. We slowly, ever so carefully unrolled it, the flecks of black and white popping off, as I stared at the faces. Hundreds and hundreds of faces. Five rows, stretching right off the page, four feet long, all in identical infantry uniforms, except the six cooks dressed all in white. C Company 506- Infantry, 101st Airborne Division. Camp Breckinridge, KY. December 27, 1952.

And there was only four ways to stand out in that mob of faces. The cooks, of course. One man in the hundreds wears an officer’s hat, and looks ten minutes older than the rest. One man is holding drumsticks over a military style snare drum. And in the very center, in the very front, one man holds the company colors on a lance. Two crossed muskets, a Capital “C” and a “506.”

And he has the face that speaks to me.

Now when I was in college, on a lark, my friends and I went skydiving. We trained all day in a sweltering hangar in upstate New York amongst the farms. They strapped army surplus gear on us, hung us on straps depending from the hangar roof, and shook us around violently by our heels until we demonstrated that we could unbuckle our main chute from the straps on our shoulders, then pull the cord on our belly chute. Fun.

We climbed resolutely into a DeHavilland Beaver, which now seems to me an odd name for a plane, and knelt in rows in the fuselage. A few long minutes later we launched ourselves, some with difficulty, out the open hole in the side and into a whirlwind far over the patchwork quilt of the fields. A tether pulled our chute for us, and we drifted down and found a place with a liquor license.

I called my father, and told him what I had done. Expecting praise, I guess, or some such. And he called me, gently, the fool I was.

I protested: but you were in a bomber plane. They must have made you jump. And he told me, son, if that plane was on fire, filled to the brim with rabid rats, and piloted by a dead man, I’d still take my chances in the plane. And to jump from a perfectly good one, he said, is foolish. Click.

My father was in the Army Air Force. Ball gunner, hanging in a plastic bubble under a B-24J, Les Miserables, over the Pacific. Air Medal. Distinguished Flying Cross. After I pestered him enough, he once told me a sort of a story about the war. He reeled off the names, Tarawa. Pelelau, Kwajalein, Tinian. He mentioned, in an offhand way, that after some island had been bombed flat, they later landed on it. It looked like the island had been picked up ten feet, he said, then dropped. His CO told them that some planes were coming. On these planes were some people. They were coming from somewhere. They were going somewhere else. When the planes landed, my father and his compatriots were instructed not to talk to these men, or even about them; and if he said so much as hello to one of them, or said “boo” about them to anyone else, he would spend the remainder of the war in a military prison, incommunicado. My father lost his desire, if he had had any, to speak about those men. He surmised some of them later flew a plane named the Enola Gay.

My father seldom talked much about being in the military.

And my mother never talked about the brother in the photographs.

Now the picture, the coiled picture, was ruined. But then, we don’t watch black and white TV any more, do we? My mother took that picture, and a bankroll, and had a necromancer or an alchemist or something at a digital photography studio restore it, perfectly, and make copies for all of us nephews. Mine hangs today over my kitchen table.

He watches over me.

I was forty years old. My mother told me, Uncle Bobby hated his real name.

His real name?

Francis, she said.

My middle name is Francis. I never knew.

Unfrozen Caveman Sippican

Ladies and gentlemen of the Intertunnel, I’m just a caveman writer. I fell on some ice and later got thawed out by some of your scientists. Your world frightens and confuses me! Sometimes the blogposts on your websites make me want to get out of my van and run off into the hills, like in Maine, or wherever. Sometimes when I get an enthusiastic message in my comments, I wonder: “Did little demons get inside and type it?” I don’t know! My primitive mind can’t grasp these concepts.

But there is one thing I do know – I should get paid to write this twaddle. Thank you.

Gettin’ Older Now

I’m not in a nursing home eating a puzzle in the common room yet, or anything, but I’m long since past giving two craps about staying current with music. I’m deeply suspicious about anyone over thirty that pays attention to such things. Have your turn and then move on in all things.

I like young people and forgive all their enthusiasms for things dopey. It’s their turn to be dopes. We got our chance to be dopes when we were younger, and if we squandered ours it’s our own faults. No use going to house parties in your mini-van. Lots of teachers are becoming creepy in this respect, too. You’re not my teenager’s pals, pal.

So I will refrain from mentioning I’ve lived through a close approximation of this look and sound at least twice already. If those cute youngsters want to look like the last two on the left in a Lynyrd Skynrd photograph, god bless’em. They can stay on my lawn as long as they want if they sing and play and have fun like that.

Das Is Culch

“What? What did you say?”

I felt like someone a few minutes after a punch in the face. The sting’s gone out of it, but you’re dizzy, like, or something. Everything’s blurry around the periphery; you’re looking through a kind of tunnel at one thing or another, but each standing in a line, a sequence. It doesn’t knit itself into a whole for you. Was this fellow speaking German to me? I speak German. That doesn’t mean anything.

Dad’s dead, in some strange place among strange men. He wasn’t even here when he died. The timber and the blueberries and every other damn thing they did to keep body and soul together around here played out and dad breathed his last on a rusty boat dragging what-all to god-knows-where. They sewed him in his canvas bag and slipped him in the ocean like a card trick.

I never understood that whole wake thing until now. Your loved one made up by some insane hairdresser and laid out like a buffet of sorrows in the parlor. People who hated the stiff, dropping by to make sure he’s dead and to say what a lovely specimen he always was, the words turning to ashes in their mouths to save your ears the trouble. You just stand there bewildered. A month later you’d take your own life or join the circus or weep while watching What’s My Line. You’re just numb when it’s fresh in your memory. Human nature comes with its own novocaine, but those teeth are coming out. Hard. It’s an odd and disturbing tug at the point of attack; the ache comes later. But at least now I see why you want to see the husk a last time. I’m not sure if you pinch the corpse or yourself to gauge who’s alive and who’s not.

Well I was at the point where you can’t help yourself; you probe the hole over and over with your tongue where the molar came out, each time only half-believing it’s gone, wondering if you’d have taken better care of it maybe it’d still be there. It doesn’t hurt, really; it’s tender and offers a sort of mute reproach when you touch it. So here I am, up from Boston, the closest civilization, but not close at all, and I have questions no man alive can answer for me.

“I say dat’s ‘is culch.”

I could hear the French in it now. Not like France French. I’ve met Algerians and Vietnamese and people from the Caribbean and when they speak French it sounds like Paris. This fellow is Canadian French. His accent sounds like a wild animal passing a poorly-digested hiker out in the woods. He is, like everything here in Northern Maine, barbarous.

“He says that’s his culch. Your father’s culch.”

The French fellow slunk back into the rude sort-of dormitory we were in, and this other voice presented himself. He was tall and rangy and a little dirty; compared to the little bearded homonculus prone to the German-sounding French grunting, he looked and spoke like a Roman senator. He was as self-possessed as the other fellow was chary. No one introduces themselves here, I notice. They seem to know what everyone’s about, without asking, and speak to you as necessary and no more. If they don’t know you, you don’t belong here, and it’s but a moment’s work for them to figure out what your story is. Who else would hover at a dead man’s empty bed in a lumber camp?

“What language is that? What does that mean?”

There was that languid pose all these men have around here. There’s a blank look you can’t make out any emotion in. You start to imagine all sorts of thoughts that it might signify, because it’s so blank, and lasts for so much longer than polite society would allow, it might mean anything. He might think you a fool or a king. Or maybe’s he’s not thinking about you at all. Dad was like that, what little I knew of him. Impenetrable.

“It’s not any sort of language a man would know unless he needed to know it. It’s his stuff. Stuff a man keeps ’cause he can’t bear to part with it, but knowing in his heart it’s worthless. He can’t leave it out and about or it would be thrown away in the trash by anybody else. So he puts it in a little spot near the midden he sleeps in, and no one touches it, and pretends not to notice it, neither.”

And there was a fly tied for a fish that would never see it; a compass without a needle; a few dog-eared books too tired for the library; not much really — a few bits of broken this with a missing that. And a wedding ring with no finger in it and a picture of me.

Same Sh*t. Different Day

Show business is telling the same joke every night and managing to make it sound like the first time every time. Show business people rarely understand this, and often get pissy about the public expressing the desire for them to stick to their knitting. Winston Churchill was a better showman than the showmen were.

The Unusual Flavor Is Imparted By Accidentally Sucking On The Paper Bag You’re Drinking It Out Of. Duh

This may come as a shock to some of you, but James Mason might not have actually enjoyed Thunderbird wine. As a matter of fact, I’m beginning to suspect that many celebrities are occasionally lending their charisma to sell products and services that aren’t very good, and that they don’t really like or use. I have nothing to base this supposition on, of course; call it a hunch. Maybe Jamie Lee Curtis really can’t poop without constantly eating yogurt that’s been left on the windowsill in the sun too long on purpose, and desires to report this, in confidence, of course, to a couple of other ladies gone a bit long in the tooth and sitting on her couch.

As I said, it’s just a hunch I have. The only thing I know for certain is I don’t want to visit the bathroom right after any of the girls, and I don’t won’t to go on a bender with James Mason.

Month: May 2010

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