Category Archives: Culture

Songs of My Life: In My Room


songsofmylifeDave and I met Grandma after we moved in with the Beckmans. Obviously not our grandma but nor was she John and Jim’s grandma on Uncle Jack’s side. Mary Welch was a friend of Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack’s after they got married. Living in an apartment next door to John and Mary Welch they became good friends. John Welch was postmaster of Deerfield and Mary Welch worked at Lighting Products, a company on the outskirts of Waukegan that made lighting fixtures. They did not have children of their own. After John Welch passed away of a heart attack, Mary Welch adopted John and Jim as grandchildren. The Beckmans, in return, adopted her as Grandma.

When I first met Grandma she reminded me of Etta, a great aunt that lived with Grandma & Grandpa on my Dad’s side. But this Grandma was actually the complete opposite. Etta was a sister of my grandma or grandpa. She lived with them but we never actually interacted with her. She was an older and scarier version of my Grandma. John and Jim’s Grandma was very nice, wonderful, lovely, beautiful. I don’t remember exactly when I met her but she would occasionally come over for dinner, especially holidays. She was also John and Jim’s babysitter. Dave and I no longer needed a babysitter. She wasn’t so much a babysitter for John and Jim as she would play a referee.

Within the first week, Dave and I learned that besides cutting the lawn at Aunt Joyce and Uncle’s house, we also would cut Grandma’s lawn. The real trick was getting the Beckman’s lawnmower over to Grandma’s – she didn’t own one. Since they only had one car, one of us would go with Uncle Jack the evening before and drop the lawnmower off in her garage. There was plenty of room in the garage. Grandma didn’t own a car either.

John, Jim and Aunt Joyce showed Dave and I the path to ride our bikes to Grandma’s. From Wilmot road, we would cut through Woodland Elementary (Dave and Jim’s school), to Greenwood, to Broadway to Somerset to Prairie, which was just fields at the time, to Hazel to Forest which sloped downward, to Walnut to Chestnut, crossing at the light on Deerfield Road to Grandma’s house on the southeast corner. There were other ways to get there but they would be the wrong way. We would try these ‘other ways’ as the four of us would sometimes race to get there.

The general rule with mowing was everyone did a bag. Mowing a lawn without collecting the grass was considered uncouth. My Dad never collected the grass. This same process was followed both at home and at Grandma’s. The process of cutting the lawn at Grandma’s was pretty much the same – we would park our bikes on her driveway and knock on her backdoor to say we were there to cut her lawn. One of us would start, by the time we had each done a bag full, Grandma would have come out with a soda for each of us. Many times her lawn would only take a bag each. Aunt Joyce would weed or plant flowers depending on the season, or talk with Grandma about Lighting Products. Aunt Joyce used to work there with Grandma.

I loved talking Grandma about plants and she was a great listener. She had a flower garden on the east part of her property that we would walk together pointing out how the various plants were doing. Plants were something Grandma and I could bond over. Every holiday she would send the most beautiful flower arrangements from the Deerfield Blossom Shop. We would be eager to show her interesting flowers the Blossom Shop would use in her arrangements when she would come over for the holidays.

One of my worse memory after moving in the Beckmans occurred during one our lawn cutting sessions. There were two parkways we would need to cut, one on Chestnut and one on Deerfield Road. The one on Deerfield Road was tricky. Besides the big oak or walnut there, Deerfield was a busy road and it was a little nerve racking cutting that first strip right next to the road. The other issue with that parkway was the water pipe that stuck up by the sidewalk near the driveway and the tree. You had to be careful mowing around it because it stuck up pretty high but not as high as the picture to the right. Unfortunately, during one of my earlier times mowing at Grandma’s around the water pipe, there was a loud thud. The lawnmower, while still running, rattled like crazy and sounded terrible. I had hit the water pipe with the lawnmower. So I turned it off and got Aunt Joyce.

Uncle Jack stopped by Grandma’s on the way home from work to check out the lawnmower. I started it up and as soon as he heard the engine’s mangled growl and saw it vibrate. “Turn it off!” he yelled. He was pissed.

“Didn’t you see that pipe there?” he yelled.

“Yes,” I stammered. ” I was trying to get close.”

“God Dammit,” he said – one of his favorite curses I would learn.

It was the first time I saw Uncle Jack get angry at me. Needless to say, it would not be the last. Grandma knew I was scared. She could have predicted Uncle Jack’s reaction. Apparently, I had broken a ‘Lawn Boy’, which was a very expensive lawn mower. I didn’t know there were even different types of lawn mowers at the time.

The Lawn Boy was brought into the shop but there was no fixing it. I had broken the drive shaft. The whole lawnmower would have to be replaced. A few weeks later when Grandma was ‘babysitting’ us, she talked to me about the Uncle Jack and the Lawn Boy. She told me to give Uncle Jack time. Everyone knows it was an accident. Once there was a new lawnmower everything will be in the past. Just be careful around that water pipe. I was pretty sure there wouldn’t be a next time.

Within a few weeks with the new lawnmower, we were cutting the grass at Grandma’s again. With the bag rotations, I ended up doing the parkway with the water pipe. Everyone knew the care I had taken around the water pipe by the long grass I left around the pipe. In the months and years later. There would be comments about being careful and not to break the lawnmower. The sting of the comments faded and eventually turned into jokes. Which I would eventually accept. Cutting the grass at Grandma’s once again became a family activity. And we would take our turns cutting the grass and sitting with Grandma on the stoop, drinking our sodas.

In the winter after a snow storm, we would be driven over to shovel her driveway and sidewalks, mainly so Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack could pull their car into her driveway. Grandma very generous, slipping each of us a few dollars that we would refuse. Then she would force the money into our hands with instructions not to tell Aunt Joyce or Uncle Jack.

That Christmas Dave and I learned just how generous Grandma could be. Underneath the tree that morning were two stereos, one for each bedroom. We were excited to receive such extravagant gifts. These were clearly marked ‘from Grandma’. Each stereo came with 8-track player – the latest in audio quality. So each of us received an 8-track tape. When I was writing this story I ask Dave, Jim and John if they remember what 8-tape they received. None of them could remember. I could never forget, I received The Beach Boy’s ‘Endless Summer’.

As excited as we were to receive the stereos, we were not allowed to start the process of setting up them up since church was merely three hours away and we had to get ready. So Dave and I explored all the contents of the box the stereo came in. On the way to and from church, I read the pamphlet that accompanied our stereo so I would be prepared to set it up when we got home.

We picked up Grandma from her church, she was a devout Catholic and went to Holy Cross in Deerfield off Waukegan Road. We were Lutheran and went to Zion Lutheran Church on Deerfield Road. Holy Cross was on the way home for us. This was a pretty normal routinee for the holidays – picking Grandma up on the way home to spend time and share a holiday meal. This year, we boys, thanked her profusely for the new stereos. And when we got home, we piled out of the car, we ran to our bedrooms to change and began setting up our stereos to show them off to her. Dave and I needed shelves to put our speakers on since there was nowhere else in our room to put them. For the time being, we propped them up on each of our beds. Grandma came to each room and properly admired the gifts she had given us. So John and Jim had the radio playing our of theirs. It would be a number of months before I realized Dave and I needed to connect the power cord to the radio antenna ground post to get FM stations so Dave and I did could not get the FM radio to work that morning. So instead of the radio, we soon had ‘Surfin’ Safari’ playing from the speakers. Soon a ‘stereo war’ broke out as Dave and I challenged Jim and John. Grandma stood in the hallway cringing and Aunt Joyce came down laughing as we tried to out do each other. Uncle Jack yelled at us to turn them down and warned of future infractions.

Later that afternoon after Christmas dinner, Grandma’s generosity continued as she presented us with another gift, a gift certificate for Deerfield Record Shop so we could get another 8-track, an album or more 45’s. Unfortunately, Grandma, with Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack did not know what they had released in me with this introduction to the world of music. It would turn out to be a lifetime interest, collecting, social connections and, for a little while, a career that revolved around music. While we were already buying 45’s, 8-tracks brought me a long way to my future obsession.

At the time, 8-track tapes offered a higher quality for music and the convenience to allow people to bring their music with them for the first time. 8-Tracks were originally developed Ampex Magnetic Tape Company, Lear Jet Company and RCA Records but embraced by Ford Motors in the Fall of 1965. Ford started offering 8-track stereo in all their cars. It knocked out the original 4-track tape, though they were only available in California. By the time we had received our stereos from Grandma, 8-Tracks were their peak. While cassette tapes were already available for recording purposes, they were deemed inferior to 8-tapes due to their low fidelity.

The technology of 8-tracks were great. OK, not really. First there was the annoying ‘click-CLUNK’ when the player switched from one program to the next. A program was collection of songs on the album. There were 4 programs per 8-track and two tracks for each song (left and right) which is why they were called ‘8-tracks’. Typically two programs would make up one side of an album. As we got more 8-tracks, we would learn that sometimes to avoid long periods of silence at the end of program, the record company would split the song over two programs. So in the middle of the song it would fade out, click to the next program and fade back in. That was annoying.

‘Endless Summer’ introduced me to not only The Beach Boys but to fandom. A few weeks later I would declare myself a Beach Boys fan. Endless Summer was originally released June of ’74. It was a brilliant move on Micheal Love’s part. ‘Endless Summer’ spent almost 3 years on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart. But it was not only MY introduction to The Beach Boys, but also for millions of young people who had not heard of them since their fade from the music scene which began in 1967. The ‘Endless Summer’ double album greatest hits was a perfect 8-track that hid the fading problems of 8-track tapes during the height of their popularity. It was a perfect album to take advantage of 8-track’s portability.

‘Endless Summer’ set a pattern on how I would listen to music in the coming years. My sister Hope taught me how to shuffle and bridge cards. So I would perfect my shuffling  technique while playing solitaire. So as our 8-track collect would grow or the occasional stack of 45’s, I would listen to music. Eventually, vinyl records become my primary media format for my listening/solitaire sessions.

The Beach Boys were my first band – Alan Jardine, Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson and Micheal Love. For a young boy they were like my first girlfriend. I loved anything they did. They opened my eyes to the world around me. They changed how I looked at myself and others. And yes, they would eventually disappoint me. But that was years away and I had a lot to learn. I was an eager student.

‘Endless Summer’ was soon joined with another Beach Boys collection – ‘Spirit of America‘, another double album greatest hits, though more secondary hits. It was from their illustrated portraits on ‘Endless Summer’ that I decided I wanted to grow a beard. They were my first representation of ‘cool’ in band form. The Beatles were right there too but their Red and Blue Greatest Hits were still another year away for Dave and I.

I remember watching an awards show one evening and the nominees were ‘The Beatles’, ‘The Rolling Stones’, ‘The Beach Boys’ and ‘The Kinks’. I was actually surprised that The Beach Boys didn’t win – surely The Beatles were not better than The Beach Boys! It showed how biased and how nieve I was about music. I would learn alot in the years to come. But in the beginning of 1976, The Beach Boys ruled my ears.

Even as I became a Beach Boys fan it was always about their music. I didn’t read much about them. I didn’t really care what they looked like (except most of them had beards). I didn’t know their historical place as a Rock ‘n’ Roll archetype. I enjoyed their music. The more I heard – the more I wanted to hear. I learned their names and understood Brian Wilson was the band’s leader. That summer they released ’15 Big Ones’ and the Chuck Berry cover ‘Rock and Roll Music’ was a huge hit for them.

In 1976 ‘Happy Days‘ was near the top ten for TV shows, making it to #1 the following year. Their theme song,  “Happy Days” written by Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox, was released as a single that year peaking at #5. Another notable oldie released that year was The Beatles’ “Got To Get You Into My Life.” This was The Beatles first single since they broke up 6 years earlier. It was released to promote their ‘Rock and Roll Music‘ compilation. So The Beach Boys were not the only ones riding a wave of nostalgia that year. There was a lot of nostalgia that year as we celebrated the Bicentennial that year.

Today when you think about ‘comeback bands’ – bands that had drifted into obscurity only to reclaim their relevancy – people typically think of Aerosmith and Heart. While The Beach Boys didn’t reclaim their full relevancy, they did become standard fare for the next 20 years for the Summer Concert scene. While this would be a huge success for any band, you have to know that The Beach Boys were once as popular as The Beatles – until the ‘Smile’ album.

While The Beach Boys started out Brian Wilson’s vocal instruments of surf music, it was soon apparent he wasn’t just any songwriter. Brian Wilson was gifted. Sure he cranked out songs about something The Beach Boys never did – surf (with the exception of Dennis Wilson) and the California culture – at a three album a year pace! But by their ninth album, ‘Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!)‘ (which spawned ‘Help Me, Rhonda‘ and ‘California Girls‘) the music industry was well aware of Brian’s talent. So when he wanted to do something ‘different’ the studio gave him their full support.

The album was ‘Pet Sounds‘. It was a complete departure for The Beach Boys. It was Brian Wilson exploring his ‘In-My-Room’ type music while the rest of the band was on tour. Brian was no longer touring with the band so he could focus on songwriting.  The album was recorded mostly with studio musicians (know as The Wrecking Crew) with The Beach Boys filling in their vocals when they returned. The album wasn’t well received by the critics or the public. It was a songwriter’s album. In England, however, it was in the top ten for six months. The Beatles and The Who were blown away by what Brian had done. Now – the album is legendary. Some say it inspired The Beatles to make Sgt. Peppers. What it did do is change how artists and the public look at the album format.

Sadly Brian Wilson’s accomplishments would also become The Beach Boys’ albatross. With the late success of ‘Pet Sounds’, Brian would begin their next project – ‘Smile‘. Brian ‘locked’ himself in the studio for over a year (02/17/66 – 05/18/67) working on ‘Smile’; missing the original January release date. One single was released as a teaser – ‘Good Vibrations‘. It was The Beach Boys’ first single to sell a million copies. Anticipation for ‘Smile’ was huge. But the pressure proved to be too much for Brian. The project was eventually scrapped. And when The Beatles released Sgt. Peppers, it would be the nail in ‘Smiles’ coffin – almost. Smile was officially released 44 years later. The stories of Brian’s depression and instability in though following years would be on par with Bill Murray but without any of Bill Murray’s charm and playfulness.

Now The Beach Boys would begin to fail. ‘Smile’ turned into ‘Smiley Smile‘. For four years The Beach Boys albums would fail to chart better then their predecessor, each album peaking lower and lower. Their comeback album ‘Surf’s Up‘ stopped the descent but barely cracked the top 30. But The Beach Boys would return. And while that request would not come from their wives, it did come from Jerry Garcia.

After a classic 3-hour Grateful Dead concert at the Fillmore East in April 1971, The Beach Boys joined The Dead on stage for 7 songs. This was awkward transition from The Dead to the washed up Beach Boys but by the end of their set the crowd was going wild for their familiar California sound. After this impromptu performance, The Beach Boys go off to Holland to record ‘Holland‘ (which doesn’t do great) but ‘the cool kids’ (ie – Dead Heads) begin to think The Beach Boys are cool. A few years of VW buses crisscrossing the American concert scenes and The Dead Heads giving high praise to The Beach Boys (and I’m sure a few other things) a buzz begins (as one would expect).

So sometimes a band has a member that plays the villain. With The Beach Boys this was Micheal Love, Brian Wilson’s cousin. Michael did not like the direction Brian had taken the band with ‘Pet Sounds’. While Michael Love was a key contributor of The Beach Boys’ lyrics, he was not the creative genius Brian was. Michael was more like his Uncle Murray (the Wilson brother’s dad) when it came to business. Michael smelled the buzz during the tour for ‘Holland’ and recorded ‘The Beach Boys In Concert‘ which actually charted better than ‘Surf’s Up’. And it was Micheal Love that put together the ‘Endless Summer’ collection. I thank him for that business intuition. ‘Endless Summer’ introduced me and millions of others to more than just The Beach Boys, for me, ‘Endless Summer’ introduced me to music at a different level.

‘Endless Summer’ was a great collection of Beach Boys hits. Michael Love had alternated between upbeats songs with slow songs on each side, or program in 8-track tape terms. All those great Summer songs made me long to see the west coast. But it was ‘In My Room’ that captured my new sanctuary, a 10 x 10 room that Dave and I shared. With Brian Wilson’s vocal arrangements, ‘In My Room’ it would transport me to another quiet room where palm trees stood outside instead a Russian Olive. A room that was just outside sunshine, the beach and the possibilities of love.

I bought “The Smile Session” in 2011 to see what Brian was actually planning with ‘Smile’. (Brian Wilson actually release his version of ‘Smile’ as “Brian Wilson Presents Smile“, which I also bought.) For Christmas in 2015, I had “The Pet Sounds Sessions” on my Christmas List which Josh got me. It was great insight to those recording sessions.

Let me pause to explain how I listen to my music now, since I no longer have a 8-track stereo next to me in my bedroom. Over the years of constantly buying new albums, currently in the compact disc format, I have developed a process on how I listen to my new music. In full disclosure, checking my Amazon account, I purchase about 20-25 albums a year. Until my kids came along I would first listen to a new album when I had time to sit down and focus on the album. I would follow along with anything that came the album – liner notes, lyrics, etc. I used to say I would get over 50% of my enjoyment from that first listening session.

Until one evening in the basement our home, with a flashing overhead light caused me to take my headphones off. Desi was informing/yelling at me that our infant son Nate was crying. He had woken Desi up and she had to work early following morning. I was on dad duty – fail! So the process evolved to my first listens being relegated to the car, typically on the way to work. After this initial listening, I would record them to a cassette and listen to them on my commute to work. Once I got a CD playing for the car I would not need that extra step. After the ‘Nate incident’, the initial listening session got pushed to my daily commute, not nearly as satisfying. After a week of listening during my commute, the album is moved to wait until it is rotated into the CD player I typically have playing on the weekend. From there they get incorporated into my entire cd collection.

I went through my listening process because of this – this year for my birthday, Desi gave me ‘Made In California‘ a 6-disc Beach Boys box set for. When I started writing this story in the beginning of April, there 6 discs were waiting their turn for my daily commute.  As I finish this story the last discs are playing on the home stereo system. So dear reader, call it coincidence, cosmic energy, destiny or the hand of God, I thought I would share this bit of serendipity with you.

So to finish this story, 12 year old me, soon to be 13, did not know who The Beach Boys were when I began listening to ‘Endless Summer’. Thus began this journey of musical knowledge. Not just on discovering The Beach Boys but how music would soon encompass my life. But in the early moments, as I sat on my bed playing solitaire, the ‘Endless Summer’ 8-track would click along next to me allowing me to follow Brian Wilson’s muse through his music. Contrary to the lyrics of ‘In My Room’, I did not “lock out all my worries and my fears”, I was actually locking them in. I was working through my real worries and fears, and I had lot of them. In the darkness ‘My Room’ (actually our room),  I would ‘lie awake’ and cry and sigh and pray. And despite my brother being 3 feet away, I was alone in these thoughts. And I was afraid. My yesterday was not a laughing matter. But with Brian Wilson’s help, the Beckmans and Mary Welch – Grandma – I learned not to be afraid – ‘In My Room’ or anywhere else.

There’s a world where I can go and tell my secrets to
In my room, in my room
In this world I lock out all my worries and my fears
In my room, in my room

Do my dreaming and my scheming
Lie awake and pray
Do my crying and my sighing
Laugh at yesterday

Now it’s dark and I’m alone
But I won’t be afraid
In my room, in my room
In my room, in my room
In my room, in my room

Songs of My Life: Rocky

songsofmylife“Rocky” caught me quite unexpectedly. I remember all of us – which now consisted of Aunt Joyce, Uncle Jack, my cousins John and Jim, and my brother Dave – we were on our way home from somewhere in the middle of the Fall of ’75. This particular ride home I had luckily drawn a window seat. Since it was dark out and I couldn’t read, which was how I normally spent my time in the car. I leaned my head against the cool glass listening to the radio.

The bouncy melody caught my attention and the lyrics caught my ear:

Alone until my eighteenth year
We met four springs ago
She was shy and had a fear
Of things she did not know
But we got it on together
In such a super way
We held each other close at night
And traded dreams each day

And she said, “Rocky, I’ve never been in love before
Don’t know if I can do it
But if you let me lean on you
Take my hand, I might get through it” (through it)
I said, “Baby, oh sweet baby
It’s love that sets us free
And God knows if the world should end
Your love is safe with me”

It was a love song. I wasn’t aware of how cheesy the lyrics were and I was interested in how they ‘got it on together in such a super way’ – well, after all, I was in 7th grade now:

We found an old gray house
And you would not believe the way
We worked at night to fix it up
Took classes in the day
Paintin’ walls and sippin’ wine
Sleepin’ on the floor
With so much love for just two
Soon we found there’d be one more

And she said, “Rocky, I’ve never had a baby before
Don’t know if I can do it
But if you let me lean on you
Take my hand, I might get through it” (through it)
I said, “Baby, oh sweet baby
it’s love that sets us free
And God knows if the world should end
Your love is safe with me”

Well, this was sounding like a typical love song. The fact that they had a Gray House like I did caught my ear but my interest was beginning to wane:

We had lots of problems then but
We had lots of fun
Like the crazy party
When our baby girl turned one
I was proud and satisfied
Life had so much to give
‘Till the day they told me
That she didn’t have long to live

She said, “Rocky, I’ve never had to die before
Don’t know if I can do it…”

That hit me. I had just been introduced to my first tragedy song. OK, not my first one, there was Terry Jack’s” Seasons In The Sun”  but this one caught me by surprise. I couldn’t cry – everyone was in the car, but a tear escaped anyways as the lyrics finished:

Now it’s back to two again
The little girl and I
Who looks so much like her sweet mother
Sometimes it makes me cry
I sleep alone at nights again
I walk alone each day
And sometimes when I’m about to give in
I hear her sweet voice say, to me

“Rocky, you know you’ve been alone before
You know that you can do it
But if you’d like to lean on me
Take my hand, I’ll help you through it” (through it)
I said, “Baby, oh sweet baby
It’s love that sets us free
And I told you when the world would end
Your love was safe with me”

She said, “Rocky, you know you’ve been alone before
You know that you can do it
But if you’d like to lean on me…

The story/the song – haunted me for days.  While I still remembered tragic song ‘Seasons In The Sun’, now I was on the other side of my own tragedy. These characters were now much more believable and so much more personal.

One of the things I would struggle with in grieving over my parents, after moving in with Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack, was the reality of it all. There would be mornings I would wake up, realize I was in our new bedroom at Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack’s house. Dave’s bed would be three feet from mine. And in that realization would also come another wave that my parents were dead. My grief was reset and the pain of this new reality would again take root.

My only experience with death before this had been when Skipper, our family collie, had to be put down. Skipper was laid in the outside stairwell after he broke his leg. I remember spending the morning with him crying knowing my Dad would come home and take him away. And when Dad came home from work, he loaded Skipper into the station wagon. Dad left with Skipper and came home without him. Skipper was dead, I don’t remember burying him – he just wasn’t home anymore.

I didn’t know how death worked. Mom and Dad were in heaven, right? That’s what everyone said. I would see them again when I went to heaven – when I died. We all died. Everyone dies. No one lives forever. Someday – I would die. When would that be? How would I die? Would it hurt? How long did I have? If I could die, so could my brothers and sisters. I didn’t know if I could go through what I’ve gone through these last 9 months again. I would not want to experience that pain again. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t.

Before my parents died I had been reading read ghost stories, and I still did. I ached to see my parents again – even as spirits. For months and years, I would lie in bed in the dark. After Dave and I would spend some nights talking until Aunt Joyce would open the door and tell us, “no more talking”. It was in this dark quiet I would explore what death was to me. My thoughts would chase me into the dark corners of my mind. In these nights I would reach out to Mom – mentally, or maybe it spiritually – it was all just in my head. I would lie in bed and think – thinking, reaching – for some kind of sensation, looking for some response that wasn’t of my own making. I would concentrate harder and harder; reaching further and further. My tears would stream down the corners of my eyes onto my pillow as I waited for a response, something — anything. And as my overtures drifted away unanswered into those dark corners, I would fill in what I wanted to hear…

“I will always be with you, Johnny.”

But even as I invoked those words I knew it was a lie to fill in the void. I just could no longer stand the emptiness. I didn’t understand, why would she not respond? What stronger bond was there than a mother and her child? But she didn’t answer. Was there no spiritual world? Was I really never going to see her again? The questions would start there, run to the empty edges of my mind and spill into my emptiness. I questioned everything because the world I thought I understood was now gone. I would go through life day by day as a kid growing up. But in the darkness of my room, where I could hide my tears, I would continue to ‘reach out’ only to find isolation in a void, even as my brother slept 3 feet away. As this void gained substance I realized it would hold the weight of my questions. I realized I was not going to hear from Mom, or Dad, and further questions would drift unanswered. And I stopped reaching out.

From this void, this blankness, I built a foundation. I separated life from living. Over time I found that I was going through Life. And in going through Life, I was, in fact, living but Life had lost a lot of its warmth. Grief’s oldest cliche’s turned out to be true – ‘Time heals all wounds’ and ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’.

By the time I had gotten to High School I had again caught up to my peers and then some. As a teenager I knew most adults didn’t get It, that is – Life, but I also included my peers. It seemed no one understood that Life was a facade. That there was nothing lied beyond what we saw – we are alive and then we died. Heaven was a story you told children and scared adults to ease the pain of those who were left behind. But now I knew, there was nothing after you died.

My questioning of everything allowed me to stand on my void with what I thought was true knowledge. While my peers who fought the status quo of living, I had unlocked what Life really was – or so I thought. The trick to being invincible was letting others think you were vulnerable. The invincible teenager – the ultimate cliche. I lived in the moment. My future expectations would be nullified. The logical result would be to end the charade of living but my pain was still too fresh. The longing for my brothers and sisters was still too strong; and I could never cause them this much pain again. Suicidal thoughts would echo for years. Slowly they would get trampled to murmurs by the constant stepping through of Life and relearning how to live.

And while this new enlightenment seemed bleak, there was comfort in understanding. I had matured well beyond my years. This knowledge gave me confidence. In this understanding I saw things differently, better than most adults – again, so I thought. And while these questions built me up, I shriveled from death and its ultimate coming. I knew how far death could change one’s life without actually ending it. I understood it was just the beginning of a long and possibly overwhelming process. Death would forever have my respect and, unfortunately, my heart.

I learned to ‘play the game’. I did not cause problems. I would not be a burden to others. Knowing there was nothing while others believed there was something (void vs. heaven) allowed me patience for my grief to subside, to be comfortable with my new being. But despite going to church, and even starting confirmation classes at Zion Lutheran Church, it would be many years before I understood how Faith worked.

John and I took confirmation classes together at their church – our church. When Dave and I moved in with Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack, it was natural that Dave and I paired off with John and Jim since we each had a cousin that was the same age. However, while John and I went to the same confirmation class, I was signed up to attend Wilmot Jr. High that Fall while John was going to Deer Path Middle School in Lake Forest. John had trouble with reading and math and Deer Path could help him get the classes that Wilmot Jr. High did not provide. So we went to separate schools. Dave and Jim, however, went to Woodland Elementary just a few blocks away.

As in any family siblings fight. As Dave and I were integrated into the Beckmans we did more things together. I was great when we played tag, or they when they taught us ‘Kick the Can’, or fished down by the lake. But there would be times we did not get along.

One of my first fights with John turned into a real fight with punching and wrestling – just like Dave and I used to do. (But strangely, or rather, understandably, Dave and I no longer fought anymore.) I don’t remember what is was about but it started in the house and I chased John out to the front lawn.

I knew John and Jim had fought because I had seen them. I chased John through the front door and pushed him as he gained speed across the yard. I had learned from my fights with Dave that if I didn’t get them down early I would never be able to catch them because of my weight. Down he went and I was on top of him punching him in the arms. As with Dave it never seemed right to punch someone in the face.

John was a lot stronger than Dave so he was able to throw me off of him. And in the midst of tears and punches John yelled at me, “You’re lucky you have somewhere to live.”

Which I responded with “At least I go to a normal school.”

We had both shocked each other in what we had said. Later that afternoon Aunt Joyce had reprimanded me for calling John out on going to Deer Path. I complained he started (typically not a good response since adults don’t care who started a fight).  I had apparently undone alot of work Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack had done to get John the help he needed by pointing out the stigma that came with going to a different school from the other kids in the neighborhood.

Yea – it was a crappy thing I did but so was what he had said. Yes – two wrongs don’t make a right – and you can’t take back what is said. Two years later it was a mute point as John and I both went to Deerfield High School together. But what really happened that day was John and I became brothers. We learned our boundaries and what we were each capable of. Were we inseparable? no. But we both enjoyed going to the Chicago Plant Show in the spring, going to the Botanical Gardens or the new cactus shop that had opened up in the Commons in downtown Deerfield that next summer. And we always had, and still have, fishing.

We – Dave, Jim, John and I became ‘The Boys’. We were introduced as individuals but we were collectively referred to as ‘The Boys’.  John and I tended to  be more plants and animals. John more into animals and I more into plants, particularly cacti. Dave and Jim tended to be more on the mechanical side with snowmobiles and cars. And there was stamp collecting, beer can (and pop can) collecting, and family vacations, and swimming, and watching our favorite TV shows, or listening to our favorite 45’s.

We did a lot of living together. And while I would lie in the dark contemplating Life with its dark edges and its various drop-offs – I was still living. And with my new brothers I walked through each day, living a little more. And as I figured out Life,  the Past was being put into the void. Never being forgotten but supporting the weight of my being – and understanding who I was.

Later I realized this was a good thing – I was beginning to forget; so I guess that’s also a bad thing. Life was moving on. The tidal waves that had swept away my previous life were now just memories; strong and life changing but only memories. My dead parents were being left to the darkness of my late night thoughts and wet pillows. All the lives touched by that tidal February night had changed. The Zilligen children tumbled behind in the wake. Sometimes we couldn’t breath. Sometimes we were dead weight. But learned to keep up with the lives were surrounded by. And in my trip, within one of my efforts to the surface to take another breath, I found two more arms pulling me along and I found I had gained two more brothers. I had lost a part a brother and some of my sisters. Tidal waves of life are always destructive. I learned that death was striking, up close it was it was way more devastating and unlike anything I had imagined. But while it was not insurmountable, only time could calculate the loss and the lessons learned. ‘Rocky pushed me down the real path of death, not the flowery archangels of death, but its cold reality. Now I understood. “Now it’s back to two again.” Dave and I against this new life. Thank God we had to live Life. The pain did subside. And we awoke in arms of a new family.

Living & Dying in Nevis, MN (Uncle Ray Stories)

It was great being with Aunt Bernice and her family for Uncle Ray’s memorial. Patti and Matt shared their feelings and stories about Uncle Ray, as did Pastor Paul Bowles. The weather was spectacular, being in the low to midsixties all weekend. The forecasted rain kept moving out until it disappeared from the weekend so there was nothing to distract us from our prayers at the cemetery on a beautiful, if cloudy, Fall afternoon.

After dinner at the Nevis hot-spot Iron Horse, we went to the cabin Jim & Patti and Guy & Matt had for the weekend for a campfire. As we found our way down the stairs to the lakeshore, we were greeted by a huge beautiful full moon reflecting off the water. Jim & Guy already had a bright fire going. As the various Brumm cousins joined around the fire, we ate ‘smores and started sharing stories about Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray. I think one of the great traits of our families is the laughter in the midst of our sorrow. To smile is to remember the person we loved as we knew them and to forget the pain of our loss. This is what John Mellencamp called “between a laugh and a tear.” And we spent hours there that night.

Earlier that morning during Uncle Ray’s memorial service, Pastor Paul, shared one of Uncle Ray’s quotes, which I had never heard before. When Uncle Ray was going to tell someone an awkward truth – he would start with, “You may not like what I tell you, but you’ll get used to it.”

If you meet Pastor Paul, you would quickly notice he is bald. A conscience decision based on his balding scalp. When Pastor Paul visited Uncle Ray in the Fargo hospital and Uncle Ray saw this “haircut,” he said, “I like your head.” When Pastor questioned him about the odd comment, Uncle Ray said, “My head is full of bump’s and dents, its not round and smooth like yours.

Inspecting Uncle Ray’s head, Pastor confirmed it did indeed include a couple of bumps and a noticeable ‘dent.’ The ‘dent’, Uncle Ray explained, occurred when he was in the Navy stationed in Japan. He was assigned to dismantling the country’s weapons factories. For some unremembered reason, Uncle Ray was chasing down a fellow bluejacket. Just as Uncle Ray thought he had his quarry pinned down in a dead end, the fellow sailor grabbed, of all things, a banana stalk. He escaped by knocking Uncle Ray unconscious with his ruthless banana stalk. Pastor Paul said Uncle Ray laughed long and hard from his hospital bed telling that story!

During his eulogy, Matt told about how is his Grandpa, again while in Japan, would make a little extra money by playing cards. Each week he would send Aunt Bernice some of his winnings to put away for their dream home – which ended up being their house in on Wolf Road in Wheeling, IL. Matt lamented maybe he should had Grandpa teach him how to play cards rather then how to fish.

One thing Patti said her Dad got right from the very beginning – was to agree with her Mom. Part of being a great father, is teaching your kids. Patti shared how her Dad taught all her sisters how to fish and how to garden. Her dad’s gardening lessons consisted of learning which plants are supposed to be in the garden versus the ones that were not. They got a lot of practice getting rid of the ones that were not supposed to be there. Most people call it weeding. Her sisters preferred his fishing lessons.

There was a great friendship between Uncle Ray and his brother-in-law, Uncle Donny. Uncle Ray shared some of his land with Uncle Donny. But like typical guys, they were competitive. I remembered they had an annual Onion Bet. Whoever grew the biggest onion got $5. I remember walking into Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray’s home and making my way to their back family room. When he wasn’t in his garden or playing with his bees, Uncle Ray could be found sitting in his chair watching TV. There I would see in a red stretched nylon bag, a large onion with a folded $5 bill hanging above his head. And then there were winters when I made my way to their back room but there would be no onion hanging above his head. I think those winters Uncle Ray’s wallet was about $5 lighter.

My cousin Penny told us how her Dad, Uncle Donny, would bring her and her brothers and sisters to their garden at Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray’s. He would teach them how to dig up potatoes without spearing them with a pitchfork. They would dig up potatoes and put them in their wicker baskets. Her dad would pick out the biggest potatoes and put them to one side. When it came time to bring the baskets to car, her dad would cover the top of each basket with the biggest potatoes he set had aside. As Uncle Donny hoisted their baskets into their station wagon, Uncle Ray would come out to inspect their bounty. Uncle Donny was nonchalant as Uncle Ray would marvel at the huge potatoes they were bring home. As he closed the gate of the station wagon, Uncle Donny would ask, “You still planting those little potatoes, Ray?”

One of the great traditions of the Brumm Family is the Brumm Family Picnic. Held on a Sunday on a weekend between end of July to the middle of August at various Lake County Forest Preserves, or in more recent years, various suburban Park Districts. All the Brumm families would come out. The women would talk, the children would explore, and the men would play pinochle. And there was always softball and volleyball games to be played. Those picnics are some of my fondest childhood memories.

As the troops would gather, there were always spontaneous greetings between Brumms in the parking lot as chairs, and coolers and baskets of goodies got carried to the shelter. At an early picnic in Daniel Wright Woods, Little Jimmy Beckman was getting something from their station wagon and ran into Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray. Both of them were laden with coolers, baskets and chairs. Uncle Ray was never afraid to give a quick Life Lesson.

“Hi there, Jimmy” called Aunt Bernice.

“Hi, Aunt Bernice,” said Jimmy. “Hi, Uncle Ray.”

“Hi, Jimmy,” said Uncle Ray as he put down the folding chairs and the cooler he was carrying. “How’s it going?” as he stuck out his hand.

Pausing not expecting to be so formally greeted, Jimmy shook Uncle Ray’s hand.

“No, no, no – that’s not how you shake someone’s hand,” he reprimanded. “You want to give a firm grip like this,” and he shook Jimmy’s hand demonstrated how a man shakes hands – with a firm grip, powerful but not hurtful.

Jimmy returned Uncle Ray’s grip with all the muscle he could muster. “There you go,” praised Uncle Ray. “Next time that’s the kind of shake I want from you.”

Uncle Ray smiled and picked up his folding chairs and the cooler and made his way to the Pinochle game. Jimmy continued his way to the station wagon. To this day, he remembers that parking lot greeting, instilling how to shake hands, a lesson he would pass on to his own son, Chris.

Nevis, Minnesota was not just a retirement destination for Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray. It was their vacation spot. Apparently a friend of Uncle Ray’s suggested the In We Go resort a few years earlier. In We Go became a vacation spot for Uncle Ray and Uncle Donny’s families since the early seventies. And yes, after many summer weeks over many years, Nevis would be Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray’s destination for retirement. But there were still many stories before they actually moved up there.

In We Go is one of many summer resorts in the area. It is on the Eighth Crow Wing Lake which is part of a chain of eleven Crow Wing Lakes. My cousin Scott, one of Uncle Donny’s kids, told me they started going to In We Go in 1974 and his family, and his brothers sisters’ families continue to go there to this day.

Needless to say, there are many stories around vacationing up North at In We Go. Apparently, one time, Uncle Donny and Uncle Ray put snakes in my Dad’s and Jim Clark’s – my cousin Patti’s husband – tackle boxes. So when my Dad and Jim motored out to where they were going to fish that morning they found more then just hooks and bobbers in their tackle boxes.

Uncle Ray’s nephews, having learned from the best, eventually started pulling pranks on their Uncles. One morning Uncle Ray took his boat out to his favorite fishing hole. As he got ready to drop the anchor he found water coming into the boat – someone had pulled his boat plug. Knowing a moving boat would not sink, he headed back to the dock. As he got close to the dock, there hanging from a rope was his boat plug. Uncle Ray knew Danny, Kevin and Scott were the likely culprits.

So when Uncle Ray saw the three of them head across the lake to a hill they liked to explore, he saw his chance to even the score. The nephews’ boat had a bigger motor so Uncle Ray could not out run them. As he came around the bend he saw their boat beached below the hill. As he came up along side of it he could hear them making their way down the hill to the boat. They must have spotted him as he came to shore. Whooping it up like rejects from Lord of the Flies, they raced to meet Uncle Ray but they were a little too late.

Exacting his revenge he pushed away from their boat, Uncle Ray heading out to open water. The nephews knew they could catch up to Uncle Ray and pushing their boat back into the water they started their motor to chase him down. And just as their boat took off – their motor died.

Uncle Ray turned his boat around and when he got close he held up his hand and yelled, “You guys need this?” In his hand he held their boat’s fuel line. After a few victory laps around their boat he headed back to the cabins. Ten minutes later he returned to find them rowing their way across the lake. Coming up besides their boat he handed over their missing fuel line and a warning – don’t mess with your Uncle Ray or pay the price.

Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray moved to Nevis to retire planning on spending their last years together on Far North Drive in a house on the lake. Aunt Bev and Uncle Dick had the house right next them. One thing that caused a little confusion at Uncle Ray’s Memorial was a picture of him feeding a chipmunk. It was well known that Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray held no fondness for chipmunks.

Turns out that was not always the case. When they first moved in Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray enjoyed the little scamperings of their new neighbors – thus the picture. But when Uncle Ray went to plant his garden, his little neighbors would eat his seeds almost as soon as he planted them. After fences and other barriers failed, Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray became a little less neighborly to their striped furry friends. It seemed no matter how many they killed there were always more to dig up their garden. Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray took to keeping a BB rifle at the backdoor. And the back porch became a Chipmunk Shooting Gallery.

Uncle Ray’s nephew Kevin suggested an ingenious way of killing alot of chipmunks – a bucket trap. You fill a 5 gallon bucket with a couple gallons of water, pour a thin layer of sunflower seeds on top and sprinkle sunflowers seeds down a ramp that goes from the top of the bucket to the ground. With Uncle Ray’s first trapping he had over twenty dead chipmunks. His garden sighed with relief.

Once when Scott and Uncle Ray were walking down to the Uncle Ray’s pier to check out Scott’s new fishing pole, a chipmunk ran in front of them. Scott and Uncle Ray stopped mid-step. The chipmunk froze – that was his last mistake. With a flick of his wrist, Scott whacked the chipmunk on the head with his new pole. The whack caused the chipmunk to fall into a series of unhealthy tourette tics. Excited about Scott’s skill on his impulsive whack, Uncle Ray said, “Hit ‘im again, hit ‘im again!”

While the Chipmunk War waged at Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray’s, Aunt Bev and Uncle Dick were sympathizers. So battles could only be fought while Aunt Bev and Uncle Dick were not in Nevis.

But it wasn’t just chipmunks that Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray battled in their gardens and at the birdfeeders. Uncle Ray’s nephew Lee shared his story about the week spent at Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray’s. One bright afternoon Aunt Bernice, Uncle Ray and Lee sat down to a simple lunch of sandwiches.

Midway through lunch, Aunt Bernice yell, “Ray, he’s back!”

Lee looked over to Uncle Ray who, without a word, placed his sandwich on his plate, wiped his mouth with his napkin and pushed himself away from the table. Getting up he made his way the gun rack and grabbed his 22. Chewing the bite of his sandwich, he slip out the back door.

The midst of the silence between Aunt Bernice and Lee was shattered. BAM! BAM! Aunt Bernice waited as she watched the back door. Uncle Ray returned dropping the rifle back on the rack. He walked over the sink and washed his hands. Lee watched as he walked over to his chair, pulled it out, sat down and picked up his sandwich.

“Did you get him?” Aunt Bernice asked

“Yep,” replied Uncle Ray. “I tossed him over in compost.” And lunch continued.

One spring a beaver was damning up Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray’s bay. Whenever they would go out fishing in their pontoon boat, they would tear the beaver’s lodge apart as much as they could. But just as quickly as they would dismantle the construction, the beaver would rebuild it and then some.

One afternoon as they came back from fishing they were working on the beaver’s lodge deconstruction. A DNR officer came up to see what they were doing. They complained about the beaver trying to close down their little bay. Uncle Ray said what he’d really like to do is shoot the damned vermin.

The DNR officer asked, “What would you use to shoot him?”

“I’ve got my 22 sittin’ in the back room,” Uncle Ray explained.

“Well, I’d rather you didn’t do that,” the officer said. “Do you have a shotgun? I’d hate for you to miss!”

Any one who knows Aunt Bernice knows she loves her birds. And anyone that comes around their bay window in the family room is treated to spectacle avian fare. But whoa be to the vermin that that messes with Aunt Bernice’s feeders. Another reason for the BB gun at the backdoor.

One late summer afternoon a deer wandered into Aunt Bernice’s feeder to take advantage of her generosity. Aunt Bernice may have been in her eighties at the time but she was a damn good shot. So when she spotted the deer rooting into her feeders from the kitchen, she was through the backdoor like white smoke with her BB gun in tow.

As soon as she fired, she knew her mistake. She hadn’t grabbed the BB gun after all, she had grabbed the 22. That explained the stronger kickback. And why the deer was now lying on the ground. She went over to the deer and kicked one of its legs. Nope – right in the head she got it. This doe was dead.

Aunt Bernice ran inside to get Uncle Ray. Following Aunt Bernice came Uncle Ray saying, “So what do you have to show me?” as she led him to the doe.

“Bernice! What did you do?” was all Uncle Ray could say.

Using the ‘1, 2, 3 – Pull’ method, Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray managed to get the big doe into the woods past notice. With a rake Aunt Bernice gave the doe the best burial she could without digging a hole, covering the deer with as much leaves as she could scrap together. Back at the feeders, she raked away any of the hair that her avian friends might see. It was a year before either one of them said a word.

Uncle Ray was pretty handy around the house but not always outside, except with his garden. His In-Laws started coming up in the Fall to celebrate their birthdays. One weekend Uncle Ray’s project was to take down a tree in the backyard between the house and the garage.

His sister-in-laws were out pan fishing in the bay down by their pier – Aunt Judy, Aunt Delores  and Aunt Joyce. Since the fish weren’t biting on account of Uncle Ray’s chainsaw the three of them sat and watched.

Uncle Ray stopped cutting, set the chainsaw down. With a thick rope tied around the tree he pulled the truck up until it was pointing away from the tree. Inside he went to get Aunt Bernice. He was explaining that he wanted her to drive the truck while he was cutting he rest of the tree trunk to pull it between the house and the garage.

“Oh, I don’t know Ray,” Aunt Bernice said.

“Just hit the gas when I yell,” he said and motioned Aunt Bernice to get in the truck by handing her his keys.

“Hey Ray,” called up Aunt Delores from the boat in the bay, “Is that rope long enough?”

“Yea, yea, the rope is just fine,” he brushed off their skepticism.

Up from the bay came Aunt Judy’s laugh – which was cut off with Uncle Ray’s chainsaw. The chainsaw’s whine got higher as Uncle Ray made his way through the tree’s trunk.

“OK Bernice!” Uncle Ray yelled as he really let the tree have it.

The truck engine revved and its tires lost it grip. All could tell the tree was losing the battle as the chainsaw quieted to the cracking of wood. And like a tilted ballerina, the tree turned toward the truck and make its grand decline.

No, the rope wasn’t quite long enough after all and grabbed the bed of the truck with its out stretched branches. There was an audible gasp from the bay that sounded strangely like “I told you so”. Along with that was Uncle Ray pivoting back and forth muttering “damn, damn, damn, damn, damn, damn”.

The truck was actually OK, the branches weren’t big enough to do any real damage. The same could not be said of the northeast corner of the roof of the garage. A bigger branch must have taken out the corner. But that was something Uncle Ray could fix. Roaring the chainsaw back to life Uncle Ray cleared the bigger branches around the garage. Then he disappeared into the garage, probably still muttering to himself.

Out he came with a ladder and a toolbox. Setting up the ladder he got to fixing that corner of the garage. With a couple of trips to his workshop, running a cord for his saw, he had removed the broken boards and replaced them with fresh cut wood and nails. Tiding up the shingles back into place, the whole project took less then an hour.

The fact the truck was OK was everything. If he neighbors would have come home and seen his truck banged up and the corner of the garage busted up, Uncle Ray would never hear the end of it. Now he could tell them what happened on his terms – and maybe leave out the part about the garage getting hit.

As I said, a number of years ago Uncle Ray’s in-laws started coming up the Nevis in the Fall, sometime around Aunt Bernice birthday in September. There was too much snow around Uncle Ray’s in November. As the routine got established, once in awhile the Aunt and Uncles would bring some of the nieces and nephews. There was always laughter and stories and, of course, long hours of Nickel Nickel (a card game that appears to have no limit on how many can play). After dinner the table would be cleared of the evening meal. Then the bags and pouches and purses were brought out. There was always the bravado on who was going down that night or glories of past games were remembered. And into the wee hours of the evening –  10:00pm, sometimes even 11:00pm, the rounds of Nickel Nickel would be played. But eventually their laughter would subside and the cards were put away. The washed dished would be put away. Their tired eyes would find soft pillows only to returned the next morning to meet for breakfast.

One weekend Uncle Ray mentioned Potato Gleaning. For the next five years Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray showed their brothers and sisters how to potato glean. Its not that potato gleaning is hard, but when an activity enters into the Brumm family vernacular, all the competitive heads start to leer about.

At this point there were not as many brothers, sisters, brother-in-laws and sister-in-laws coming up to Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray’s. They met in the afternoon to plan how they were going to glean potatoes from the recently harvested fields. Uncle Wayne and his pickup truck led the way as the Illinois plated cars made their way from the gravel road to the bouncy field road. Far enough away from the other ‘gleaners’ Aunt Bernice and Uncle’s family parked their cars and gathered around Uncle Wayne’s pickup truck.

Uncle Wayne had parked his truck on the edge of the field as it became base for their bags of potatoes. Each of the Aunts and Uncles were gathering potatoes for themselves and their children’s families. Weeks later after parental visits their grown children would give a paper bag filled with spuds.

“But!” Uncle Wayne instructed, “we don’t want any little ones. Only get good sized ones like this.” As he held up a potato as big as his hand.

As the afternoon wore on, Uncle Wayne’s pickup truck would fill with paper sacks of potatoes. There isn’t Brumm Brother that does like to take charge of a situation. So there isn’t a Brumm Sister that doesn’t like to give them a little grief. One of the sisters – Aunt Joyce, Aunt Elaine or Aunt Judy – thought the ‘Potato Inspector’ need a few potatoes to inspect. So the lined up the smallest potatoes they could find on Uncle Wayne’s tailgate.

“Wayne!” Aunt Joyce yelled, “How are these?”

As Uncle Wayne walked around the bed of his truck, he saw all the small potatoes lined up and a line of Brumm Sisters giggling like school girls.

“Nope!” and in a single sweep of his arm out into the fields the potatoes flew.

They weren’t giggling so much as he started going through the papers sacks and pitched the smallest one he saw back. “Too small”, “nope”, “you’ve got to be kidding”, plop, plop, plop in the field behind him. Over the next several days and weeks Brumm families brought back paper sacks of potatoes for their families. They can thank Uncle Wayne for the quality control from the potato fields near Nevis Minnesota.

My fondest memory of Uncle Ray did not happen in Nevis, Minnesota. In fact, it happened when I was twelve years old and Uncle Ray was almost Fifty. It wasn’t really a ‘fondest memory’ but rather a powerful memory. It was the months Uncle Ray played my father, and Aunt Bernice my mother, to my brothers and sisters in the months after our parents died. Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray lived with us Sunday to Friday in those months. Aunt Bernice would see us off to school and would be home when we came back from school. She would make our meals and check to see that we were doing our homework. When Uncle Ray was done with work, he would come ‘home’ to our house. They brought stability to our upside down world.

Though Uncle Ray was usually gone in the morning when we got up, sometimes I would catch him sitting at the table eating breakfast. While everything about them being in our house was strange, he would let Dave and I sit next to him while we watched TV.

I didn’t really know Uncle Ray that well before then, their kids – Vicki, Patti and Pam – were all much older then we were. So when they were staying with us it was awkward for the more then obvious reasons. One of the first nights Uncle Ray would come ‘home’, he warned us to behave or we would receive a whisker burn. Dave, being the curious eleven year he was, stepped up to ask what a whisker burn was. Uncle Ray was happy to show him. Grabbing Dave’s head with his strong hands, Uncle Ray bent over his face in want looked like the beginning of a kiss. But soon they were cheek to cheek and Uncle Ray was rubbing his 5 O’Clock shadow on Dave’s soft young skin. Dave struggled to get away but he couldn’t. It was hard to hear Dave’s yells over Uncle Ray’s laughter. After a few moments Dave was released and he hand went up to his bright red cheek.

“That is a whisker burn,” Uncle Ray announced.

From that day – and in the days, the weeks, the months, the years and the decades that followed – whenever Dave and I would meet Uncle Ray we would rub the outside our fingers across his jaw to test the strength of his whiskers. It became our own special greeting. So when we went to their house for Zilligen Christmas; or when they would come over to Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack’s house to teach us out to fish and filet our catch; when we would meet at the Brumm Picnic – after a handshake and a hand on his shoulder, we would test his whiskers.

When Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray moved up to Nevis, MN I did not know the significance that quaint northern town held for them. I did not know the stories it held for them. They had moved to in an area they had their fondest vacation memories. And while they left their family, there ended up being visits from the Brumms throughout the year but mostly in the summer – particularly Aunt Cookie and Uncle Don’s family and Aunt Bev and Uncle Dick’s family, which now included my sister Hope and her family.

It would be great to say they lived happily ever after but in 2006 they lost their daughter Pam to ovarian cancer. While her only son Matt was already on his own, Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray tried hard to fill his loss as any grandparents would. But it wasn’t the first time they had wrapped their hearts around a child who had lost his parent.

Too many years later, I finally introduced my children to Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray. Meeting Lee in at Devil’s Tower during our trip to Mount Rushmore, we stopped in on Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray in Nevis on our way home to Chicago. They may have been in their eighties then but they were very busy with their church and their friends.

Aunt Bernice greeted us at their kitchen door and I introduced her to Nate, Noah and Naomi. She had lunch ready for us even though we told her not to bother. Desi and Aunt Bernice talked as my kids nervously talked to Aunt Bernice. I asked where Uncle Ray was and she said he was “out sitting the family room.”

I turned from the kitchen and made my way to find the family. Greeted by a large bay window I saw Aunt Bernice had her collection of birdfeeders arranged just like she did in their house in Wheeling, now complete with a backdrop of the lake. I found Uncle Ray sitting in his chair watching TV. I reached out with my right hand and rubbed the back of my fingers across his cheek. And he turned with a glint in his eye and a smile of recognition.

And that is the moment I will keep in my heart – the smile from a father that shined for his family and beyond to others. So they would know Home; so they could find their way and find their own light. Whether is was to their families, to themselves, or to Nevis, Minnesota where a great man once lived.

Songs of My Life: Listen To What The Man Said

songsofmylifeMoving in with Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack was horrible – which had nothing to do with them. It was the circumstances of WHY we had to move. In fact, with the hindsight of forty years, it was probably the best thing that could have happened to eleven and twelve year old orphaned boys.

That weekend Uncle Jack had borrowed a pickup truck to move all Dave and mine’s worldly possessions to their house. What I didn’t realize, as the truck rolled passed Deerfield’s Mitchell Pool that Friday evening, was how much of a role that community pool would play in my healing process.

John & Jim are my cousins so it wasn’t like I didn’t know them. But living with someone is very different then just seeing them at family get-togethers. Our move had caused a kink in John and Jim’s living arrangements – they had just gotten their own rooms and now they had to go back to being in the same room. Dave and mine bedroom was tight with just two feet between our beds, four feet from the foot of the beds to the closets and just a foot between our dresser and my bed. Needless to say, we didn’t spend alot of time in our bedroom.

One of the first things we did as members of the Beckman family was to get our pool passes. Because Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack lived outside of the Village of Deerfield, the pool passes were more expensive. Dave and I never had a pool pass before. I remember once going to the Des Plaines Public pool and seeing so many people there. It was a little unnerving so I wasn’t sure how this whole Pool Pass thing was going to work out. John and Jim told me their pool was great and they loved hanging out there. So we were all hauled off to the community center in downtown Deerfield. We each dutifully for our picture which would eventually end up in a hard plastic laminated card that we would pin to our beach towels.

The next thing we needed were goggles. Lee used to have a face mask that I rarely got to use. Goggles were small plastic lens that replaced a face mask at pools. The few times I had been in a pool, opening your eyes underwater was a challenge we would issue to each other. The downside of winning that challenge was the chlorine would would turn your eyes redder and redder with each glimpse. Goggles solved this and, as it turned out, were pretty normal at public pools.  In fact, tinted and colored lens turned them into fashion statements.

John, Jim and Aunt Joyce took Dave and I for our first swim. We dutifully showed our new pool passes to the high school or college girl behind the open window. She returned the favor by counting us with her clicker. John and Jim took us through the mens locker room. Despite the signs, we didn’t take a ‘nude shower’ but the life guard manning the locker room made sure we showered enough to get our hair wet before we met Aunt Joyce outside by the pool.

It was a bright warm June day as Dave and I were led to the lounge chairs in the northwest corner of the fenced in pool area. We each picked a lounger with our towels while Jim threw his towel on one and ran to the pool – only to be called back by Aunt Joyce.

“Suntan lotion?” she questioned already knowing the answer. Dutifully we all formed a line behind John, applying what we could to ourselves and helping each other. Once we were properly covered we were allowed to escape into the pool.

In June of 1975 I was close to 200 pounds. I was never comfortable in a swimming suit  but once I got in the water I was part fish. As a dinosaur enthusiast, I thought, like a brontosaurus, spending a lot of time in the water would help support my weight, and it did. I felt much more comfortable hiding in the water so others could not see my flabby body.

Mitchell Pool became a sanctuary for me. Once I was in the water I was very comfortable – swimming anywhere and everywhere. Dave, Jim, John and I would goof around playing Marco Polo, diving for things on the bottom of the pool and spend the entire afternoon swimming and playing around in the water – you know, being kids. Sometimes we would even go back after supper and stay until closing. By August it would start to get dark by 8:30 and the pool was lit with plate sized lights that we could explore with our goggles.

There was one thing the kids at Mitchel Pool had to deal with, as did most kids of public pools – the Adult Swim. Every hour, for 10 minutes, they would have Adult Swim. This meant the life guards would blow their whistles and anyone 17 or younger would have to leave. This left the entire pool to the two or three adults who occasionally felt obligated to swim a lap or two. Us kids would wander back to our saved loungers, dry off and wait out the 10 minutes. I always had a book I was reading so I would pick that up and read through Adult Swim. That summer I was beginning to shift from my ghost stories to science fiction, specifically Ray Bradbury. Sometimes when the life guards would whistle Adult Swim was over, I would be too engrossed in a story to leave it and sometimes read straight through that swimming session.

That summer I learned that I loved the water. But not just the water, but the entire atmosphere at Mitchel Pool. When I wasn’t swimming along the bottom looking for things with the clarity my goggles offered me; I would be reading one of my books on the yellow loungers; or maybe just hanging on the side of the pool – taking in the great sunshine like one of my cactus – except without all the water. I remember the warm afternoon summer sun heating the concrete to near painful levels.

Most days Aunt Joyce would drop us off after lunch and then pick us up sometime after the pool closed for an hour for dinner; or Uncle Jack would pick us up on his way home from work. We’d come home, eat and sometimes go right back to the pool. I remember a number of times after the pool would close for dinner we would start walking home bare footed trying to avoid rocks and pebbles on the sidewalk. Once in while we would see the family station wagon coming down Wilmot road from the house and turn around to pick us up. And as Aunt Joyce pulled up, we would never miss the chance to put our thumbs out like we were hitchhiking – because we were cool that way.

Mitchell was my home away from home (which was away from my last home). Reconignizing the lifeguards that would change from year to year. Trying to get through the shower area without taking the nude shower. The fenced in yard herded the yellow plastic webbed loungers that were scattered on the that concrete, claimed with towels, bags and mothers. Spending carefree days swimming, reading and just hanging out. Trying to sneak glimpses at the pretty girls in their bathing suits, or watch the life guards in their chairs who were watching me. Watching the bravado play out with the kids in line for the high dive. And alot of time listening to radio they played in the pool area.

The radio was rigged to play through probably the worse set of speakers I ever heard. Back then WLS was king of the AM station in Chicago. The life guards would tune in WLS on their radio in their office. While the signal may have come in crystal clear in the office, by the time it got to the megaphone speakers placed around the pool area, it sounded more like it had been funneled through a kazoo rather then the current electronic wizardry available in 1975. But after a few hours you got used to the wax paper rattle and you could actually make out the music that was being played.

This was way before walkmans and VCR’s. This was the land of Hi-Fi and Polaroids. This was an old man looking back and remembering his carefree childhood days – before his responsibilities, before jobs, before girls, before commitments and obligations. As a kid, I was at a point I just wanted to ‘be’, to exist – to be happy – and to forget. That summer, the past winter seemed like a lifetime away but the reality was as bright as the summer sun. During my time at the pool when my mind would wander, it would many times wander to the darker corners of my mind and I didn’t like that. There was a twisting and trapping feeling I was trying to avoid. The Summer of ’75 at Mitchel Pool offered me the brightness, the sunshine, a childhood and, dare I say – the happiness I was so desperate to find.

With my family we listened to music sporadically – in the car, the occasional ’45 sessions’ or through the clock radio. But this was the first time I experienced being someplace where the radio played continuously for 6 hours or more. I would hear songs over and over. And I would get happy when a favorite song would come on; and found I had a lot of favorite songs.

I would be hanging on the side of the pool just listening to the DJ’s on WLS as they introduced the next summer hit. I would sing along to the sad story of the girl and her dead pony when Michael Murphy sang “Wildfire”; or fantasy with thoughts of being in love with Pilot’s “Magic”; trying to imagine what it would be like to have a girl fighting for my attention like the guy in Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together”, the heartbreaking loss if someone played B-17 during Olivia Newton John’s “Please, Mr. Please” hit; the strength I felt from Glen Campbell as he taught me to smile through the pain in “Rhinestone Cowboy”; and whenever I heard “The Hustle,” I wondered how the hell K-Tel could sell one album with 20 hits for only $4.99! plus shipping and handling.

One of those stand out songs for me was Wings, “Listen To What The Man Said”.” I didn’t know who the Wings were but I might have been able to pick Paul McCartney out of a lineup if I was forced to back then. From the lively guitar strumming and the alto sax solo that would cut through even those horrible pool speakers the intro would start my foot tapping. If it was the sax solo that told me the song was coming, the lyrics “Soldier boy kisses his girl, leaves behind a tragic world” locked me into the next three minutes. It was a great song but not only because it was part of those great summer memories at Mitchel Pool. Dave, Jim, John and I spent hundreds of hours over the next couple of summers there.

Dave and I got a big upgrade in our lifestyle moving in with The Beckmans. The Beckmans had a lake right behind them, a big backyard and a chicken. It turned out Jim and John had hatched chicks and Fluffy was the result of one of those chicks. Fluffy was kept away from the house with a small pen by the garden. Dave and I soon learned how to feed and water Fluffy. How to let him out in the morning (which would be mostly me, when I remembered) and locked him up at night. We soon learned it was a test of manhood to have Fluffy chase you but that took time for me. Only Jim was master of that chase. So when Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack had guests over there would be an eventual race between Jim and Fluffy with Jim always winning. The race was always offered to the guest or their children but very few accepted the challenge. And after the race John would pick Fluffy up and drop him back into his pen.

The lake was another rest spot. After moving in, Dave and I were soon equipped with our own fishing poles and tackle boxes. John and Jim showed us how to dig for worms in the garden and fish in the small bay behind the house. I have spent weeks, if not months, sitting on those railroad ties, legs dangling over the water and pole out laying next to me. Uncle Ray would come over and give a few fishing lessons – and lures. He taught me how to fishing with plastic worms for bass. Uncle Jack taught us how to filet but Uncle Ray taught us how to skin a bullhead for our rare fish fries. John and I fished the most – passing summer mornings quietly together down by the lake.

The first summer we were there the Lake Eleanor Association was having the lake dredged. It wasn’t long before the bulky derelict floating platformed made its way into our small little bay. We would wave to the dirty hairy guy working the dredger. He would wave back and slowly work his way toward our bay swinging his extension out in front of his rig. It was like watching floating construction with only one truck. After awhile we got bored and just started fishing but fishing wasn’t any good when the dredger was nearby. When he was deep into our bay, we wouldn’t even bother to fish. And within a couple of days he would be gone and in another part of the lake so we could fish again.

Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack also had a canoe. John and I would go canoeing and find our friend The Dredger. We would wave ‘Hello’ and we would paddle around him. We would head out to the island in the middle of the lake to explore. But since the island was only 30 or so foot circle, there wasn’t much to explore once you looked behind the few trees and bushes there.

I remember one time fishing on the island by myself. I was using a plastic worm setup just as Uncle Ray had taught me. Off in the distance was a Mallard duck. As he swam toward me I practiced my casting by seeing how close I could get to the duck. A few weeks earlier I had actually hit the duck freaking it out and sent it swimming, then flying, away. So this time I was more careful.

I was actually impressing myself on my control of my Zebco spincast. In another year or so I would graduate to a spinning reel. I found if I cast in front of the duck he would come towards my worm. So I would lead the duck towards me to see how close I could get him to me. That was a mistake. At one point I cast too close and Mr. Mallard swam toward my worm and diving for it! Well, he got it – or rather I got him. In my fear of hooking him, I jerked the worm away only to hook him in the chest. He started squawking (quacking with fear) and swam away from me. I started reeling him in so I could unhook him. On the other side I wasn’t sure how I was going to deal with a flapping duck when I finally got him in. And he was strong.

The harder I tried to reeling him the stronger he seemed to get. For every yard I would reel him in my drag would peel out two more yards. I realized I wouldn’t be able to deal with Mr. Mallard if I actually got him to shore. I was also afraid he might pull all my line out and then what? And the awful noise he was making…

So I grab the 8 pound line and broke it. Squawking and thrashing he swam a good distance but he was too tired to fly. He floated for a bit and then took off flying a short distance only to land near the far shore. Crap. In our struggle I could see my worm firmly planted in his chest. I felt terrible so and didn’t feel like fishing anymore. So I got back into the canoe to paddle back to the house.

John and I would also canoe around the lake but it wasn’t a ‘swimming’ lake. Dave and I were told it was too dirty to swim in so John and I were surprised on one of our canoeing trips on the far side of the lake when we found some kids swimming in the lake – they must not have gotten the memo. As we paddled pass them, one of them swam over and tipped us over! We got a little freaked. It was one thing to get wet in your swimming suits but quite another to be tipped over fully dressed – well, shorts and t-shirts. After that we kept our canoe trips away from the far side of the lake, away from people who would actually swim in the lake. The lake water must cause mental lapses. We kept our swimming at Mitchel Pool.

I continued my stamp collecting which was going full tilt with the Bicentennial coming the following year. We got swept up in the beer can collecting craze that was going on in the seventies. Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack indulged us taking us to dumps (literally), Beer Can Conventions in local hotels and strangers houses and the liquor store in Lakehurst that stocked to take advantage of this fad. We would have to get full cans from the liquor store. So when guests arrived to the house, we would offer them a beer so the emptied can could be added to one of the three collections. We each had a collection – except me – I had to be different so I collected pop cans. Maybe not as cool but it was the beginning of me rebelling – at little of a rebellion as it was.

I would also start collecting records. I know Hope and Lee had gotten 45’s before, at least I think they did, but I had never actually owned any myself. This was how I was introduced to Lenny’s shop – the Deerfield Record Store. Record collecting would prove to be  a life long passion.

Many Sundays after church we would stop at Deerbrook Mall, an indoor/outdoor mall on the corner of Waukegan and Lake-Cook Roads. Back then the mall was anchored by Turn Style and Montgomery Ward department stores. We almost never ventured into the outdoor part to the north. Aunt Joyce would typically show at Turn Style so we would go to the indoor mall through Turn Style entrance.

Turn Style Ad

The mall was decorated with dark brown stone  with various copper fountain areas. Someone in the late sixties must have decided copper was the sculptures newest media – all the malls were using it. The mall had maybe thirty stores including Baskin Robbins, Musicland and Waldenbooks. I would begin my record collecting with purchases from Musicland and my friend Jeff Raveria would eventually work at Waldenbooks where I would officially buy my first hard cover copy of a Stephen King book.

Being in 7th grade I had been getting pretty good at the impulse begging for trinkets when at the store. So that late morning as we wandered around Turn Style waiting for Aunt Joyce to get her purchases together. We learned John and Jim begged liked any kid their age. Dave and I, however, stood around like friends accompanying their friend’s family on a shopping trip. These were not our parents so we have no legitimate reason to beg for gifts or trinkets. Yet we stood on the sidelines hoping that maybe we could be included since we now lived with them. So it was ‘wishes come true’ when Aunt Joyce relented and said we could get something as long as it was under a dollar – and Dave and I were included.

I went back to the music department and got Wing’s “Listen to What the Man Said.” It would be my first 45. Now I could listen to Paul McCartney and drift back to those afternoons at Mitchell Pool any time I wanted. Back to the pool where I felt comfortable. Where I could play with my brother and my cousins. Spend time reading my books. Enjoying the bright summer days.

I thought it would be great to collect all these songs and be able to play them whenever I wanted. And I did. In the years we would have a stereo in our room and in our many trips to Deerfield Record Shop we would purchase the top 45 – based on the WLS survey chart Lenny had available at his store.

Dave and I marked all our 45’s with Aunt Joyce’s Dymo labeler. We used our three letter initials – ‘DBZ’ or ‘JMZ’. John and Jim couldn’t because theirs were both the same – ‘JLB’. At one point Dave and I went in together, 50¢ each. Those 45’s were marked with ‘DJ’ (yea, we thought it was cool but it was actually only cute then realized it was dorky). I still have most of those 45’s and most of their labels are still attached.

So when school started that Fall, I was the new kid. Something I slowly got over – among other things. But in that process not being ‘the new kid’, I would go downstairs to Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack’s basement , which was now our basement, and setup the portable record player we had. Using the record player’s 45 adapter, I could play “Listen To What The Man Said” and be transported to a summer afternoon a few months earlier. The single speaker on the record player reminded me of the terrible bullhorn speakers at the pool. And as the soldier boy kissed his girl, I left behind my tragic world and found myself in the warm sun at Mitchell pool. I would be years until I would fall in love, or what I thought was love but that alto sax spun me back to those carefree days of my first summer in my new home with my new family.

Songs of My Life: Killer Queen

songsofmylifeIt was a beautiful afternoon day in the middle of May 1975. The sun was stretching the days as long as it could for us, shining brilliantly onto our house as it settled to the West of our neighborhood. The Elms were drinking up as much as of that afternoon sun as they could. So were the Maples but they were constantly throwing their helicopters down for us to play with. It was the last thing the trees had to do to get our street ready for the summer.

At this time of year the sun was high enough to trick you into being late for supper. I was riding around the neighbor on my green 3-speed Huffy bike. I was taking this long afternoon to enjoy this explosion of spring. I was also testing the highest speed of my Huffy and my cornering ability. As I came up to an intersection, I would extend my foot just like a motorcyclist, to keep the bike from grounding onto the pavement. OK, it wasn’t really that close; and it was much more impressive in my own mind. After a number of these challenging corners around our neighborhood, I began meandered my way back toward our house.

From 3rd Avenue to Prairie Avenue, which paralleled Rose where we lived, I was almost home – scrapping my shoe again on the pavement as I made the turn onto Prairie. As I pedaled down Prairie, I looked to my left to a driveway because of a song I recognized. Someone was working on their car and had put a radio out on the driveway. A young man laid on his back reaching underneath the car. The singer on the radio was just getting to my favorite part of the song:

Drop of a hat she’s a Zilligen
Playful as a pussy cat

And that was what drew me to the song. I thought it was so cool that a band would use our last name in a song. I had pointed this out to my friends, they said the singer wasn’t saying ‘Zilligen‘ – that wouldn’t even make sense. But they couldn’t come up with a better answer so I insisted he was singing ‘Zilligen‘.

This wasn’t the first time I misheard the lyrics of a song. When I was a kid, as opposed to being a full twelve years old at this time, I remember a hymn my friends and I sang as “Bringing in the cheese” – instead of “bringing in the sheaves. I didn’t know it was actually wrong for months.

I’m sure mishearing song lyrics go back to ministerial times. As a kid, when you sang with all your favorite songs, it was easy to make that fateful slip into the ‘mis-heard’ lyric. And once there it was only a matter of time until your best friend or sibling caught you and humiliated you.

Sometimes you could convert your friends. My brother-in-law Phil substitutes ‘squirrels’ for ‘girls’ – and it works with many songs. The Motley Crue song – “Squirrels, Squirrels, Squirrel” started it and, for Phil impromptu karaoke sessions, the girls have been squirrels ever since. Phil has also been caught “Running With A Level” (with apologies to David Lee Roth and the Devil). Now I can’t help picturing three squirrels rocking out as Vince Neil ushers them in.

Of course there are other classic  misheard lyrics. I remember in High School when AC/DC, in an effort to buy time as they replaced for the dead lead singer Bon Scott, they released an old import “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap”. While everyone knew the name of the song for some reason everyone was singing “dirty deed, thunder chief”.

Though my favorite misheard lyric was in college with my friends Laura and Rusty. During an evening of drinking in Rusty and Stu’s room,  Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’ came on the radio. And while most of us were talking, apparently Laura was getting into the song and singing along when Rusty yelled, “What did you say?”

Now with all our attention on her, Laura repeated the lyrics she was singing – “Scuse me while I kiss this guy!” which drew a roar of laughter. First –  it was funny, second, we were drinking. It took Laura a long time to live that down. Then again, she’s blonde so ~ you know…

Turns out, Laura’s not alone. ‘Purple Haze’ holds the distinction of being the most mis-heard lyric – according for various website I found. So why do we think Jimi Hendrix would ‘kiss a guy’? Do we think Jimi was years ahead of his times and saw the gay movement before all of us? His guitar playing was certainly years – decades – ahead.

Do those of us who hear ‘kiss this guy’ have gay tendencies? Or do we just hear what we hear without thinking what the meaning of the lyrics are? nothing more, nothing less. When others repeat them it just reinforces what we hear – whether it just simple misunderstanding or done for humor.

With the internet now lyrics are just a ‘Google-away’ for any phone; or for an app for that matter. The question is if we want to ask. Are we confident in our listening ablities? Do we really care? Does it matter? I guess it goes back to motivation. My case the misheard lyric of Queen’s ‘Killer Queen’ reinforced my love for my family’s name and how it represented me socially – from a 12 year old’s perspective.

So riding my bike down Prairie Avenue I felt re-energized from my ‘celebrity song’, I took a slight detour home by continuing down Prairie Avenue to see if my friend Jon was home or if anyone was hanging out at the West Elementary School playground. Jon wasn’t out and no one was at West playground that I could hang with so I continued home so I wouldn’t be late for Aunt Bernice’s supper.

Ah – the celebrity of being a ‘Zilligen’. I always enjoyed our last name. Visually the rhythmic mirroring of the ‘I’ double ‘L’ ‘I’ makes it appealing and fun to spell although the ‘E’ would always throw people off, particularly on the pronunciation. People would use a soft ‘G’ instead of the hard ‘G’.

And then there’s the ‘Z’ – there aren’t many cooler letters then a ‘Z’. It ways made it easier in gym class to figure out where you were supposed to line up – I was always at the end line. Rarely did I ever have to go into the second letter to see which ‘Z’ came next. But there were those rare occasions that I would run into a Zimmerman and they would claim the last spot – dammit. I always took a little pride in being last.

I remember seeing my Grandpa Zilligen’s stationary when he worked at a construction company. Seeing ‘George Zilligen’ across the top was impressive. I thought he was famous. I felt a connection to him, and to all of us, just by seeing our name on the stationary. It was very official looking and I was filled with pride. I was a Zilligen.

gilligenislandwebThere was one draw back, mainly because of growing up in the late sixties/early seventies – ‘Gilligan’s Island‘. The spellings are very similar. Outside the ‘G’ and ‘A’ it was great to see on TV while I was learning to write my own name. While it was a fun show and we watch it all the time after school, it was easy for kids to mock you. That being said, it didn’t take too long to get used to it.

I’m sure all my brothers and sisters got the same treatment as me – the  “hey Gilligan!” from their friends. One problem I had that they didn’t, because of my weight, was being called ‘Skipper’. Fat jokes were always harder to ‘let go’ but like anything else – over time – you did.

godzilla-1954Another cool association we had was Godzilla. We used to go to all the Godzilla movies at the drive-in down the road. Planet of the Apes movies were also included in our SciFi movie adventures. For the record, my parents weren’t completely warped. They also took us to all the classic Disney cartoons and the Dean Jones, Fred MacMurray Disney movies, as well as Jerry Lewis. But Godzilla was ours.

More than a couple of friends would call me ‘Godzillagen’. And when they teased me about my weight as Godzilla, it didn’t seem as bad. There was nothing wrong being associated with a 400 foot monster that breathed fire and destroyed entire cities. Thus began a lifelong love of Godzilla and all giant monsters – probably most inspired by “Destroy All Monsters“. This was Jurassic Park years before it was a gleam in Spielberg’s eye.

Zilligen was a cool name but we really didn’t know much about where it came from. As kids all we really knew was that we were German. And since Mom was also German, that pretty much made us 100% German, except that some great aunt or someone was supposed to have been Irish or Scottish, which would have come from Grandma Zilligen’s side – or so I remembered.

A quick check on some ancestry websites shows that Zilligen is not a popular name. According to a number of websites we are ranked 119,644th for most popular surname. I guess that comes with the territory when you start with a ‘Z’. Most website have nothing about ‘Zilligen’. Ancestry.com has a little over 200 records on us – which isn’t much.

Dave did purchase the Zilligen Coat of Arms which came with a history of our family name. Below is a scan of what he got, interesting but a bit non-descript. Maybe someday we can do a Google search on images and see where this actually comes from:zilligen_coat_of_arms

This is what he got on the history of our family name:

The German surname Zilligen is patronymic origin, being one of those names based on the first name of the father. In this instance, the name can be traced to the popular medieval Christian name Zyriak, and the surname came to denote ‘a son of Zyriak’. Zyriak was a very popular choice amongst parents for their children in medieval times, in the days before the spread of Christianity and saints’ names began to enjoy considerable vogue. Zyriak was an Old Germanic patronym and it evoked images of the military battles and victories in the Crusades. The Crusades were a series of wars organized by European Christians from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries, in order to rid the Holy Land from Islam. Many renowned Crusaders named Zyriak distinguished themselves in battle and were awarded for their military prowess. Thus in order to keep the spirit of the Crusades alive, parents named their sons after these famous warriors. In the rural parts of Germany this personal name took the form of Zyriakus and the surname which evolved from it was Zillacker. Surnames were becoming commonplace in medieval Germany as documents were being charted to chronicle the growth and decline of populations. The modern structured system of hereditary surnames had not yet evolved, therefore people adapted their surnames from the first name of their fathers. The first recorded instance of the name occurs in the ‘Freiburger Urkundenbuch’; one Conrad dictus Zillige is registered as living in Freiburg in 1284.

BLAZON OF ARMS: Quarterly, first and fourth argent a chevron gules between three escallops of the same; second and third argent a horse salient sable, bridled and saddled gules, the third reversed

CREST: The bust of a man vested argent with a headband twisted gules and argent.

ORIGIN: Germany

 I’m not sure how accurate this is but it does sound plausible. ‘Conrad dictus Zillige’ sounds like something from a Monty Python movie:

Despite ‘Conrad dictus’, growing up with ‘Zilligen’ as a last name was great. But clearly Freddie Mercury from Queen was not singing about us in their first hit ‘Killer Queen’. The correct lyric was:

Drop of a hat she’s as willing as
Playful as a pussy cat
Then momentarily out of action
Temporarily out of gas
To absolutely drive you wild, wild..

The ‘she’s as willing as’ sounded an awful lot like Zilligen. But I’m sure I’m not the only who misheard those lyrics though I am probably the only one that put as ‘Zilligen’.

Riding my bike around that beautiful spring afternoon allowed me to forget a bit of my recent past. I wasn’t as proud of my name these days. In fact, I didn’t like how it stood out either. I was feeling it was a bit tainted now. But time would heal the pain and pride would return. Because one thing about us Zilligens, we are more than just survivors, we would go beyond – beyond just living, beyond just surviving. We are strong and we are bound – to our families, to our loves and to our futures. And THAT is something to be proud of.

I just didn’t know this as I rode my bike home. And that brilliant sun was still shining on me. And as the shadows threatened to cover the rest of the asphalt of West Elementary’s play area, I steered my bike onto Rose Avenue, now only a couple of houses from home. Just in time for supper.

Songs of My Life: Chevy Van

songsofmylife

When I was in fourth grade, I met a couple of my friends in the library. Walking up to the table, they were quietly giggling like something funny had just happened.

Steve tapped Rod on the arm, looked at me and said, “Hey Zilligen, put your stuff down.” Rod and Steve were old friends of my mine all the way back to kindergarten.

“Go to the dictionary and look up ‘intercourse'”, he said. And they both giggled again.

I was a little skeptical but looking at the dictionary displayed in the center of the library I think I was safe from them pulling anything on me. I dropped my books on the table and made my way to dictionary’s podium. Rod and Steve leaned over the backs of their chairs as they watched me flipped the massive book’s pages.

I always hated the idea of using the dictionary to spell words. If you don’t know how to spell the word, how were you supposed to look it up?

‘Intercourse’ was pretty straight forward but I didn’t understand why Rod and Steve were so interested in this word. As I flipped through the ‘I’s, careful not to rip the dictionary’s thin paper, I found inch worm, “those are cool”, I thought. Instructible appeared, still carefully turning the large pages. Interject – oops, too far… Intercentral and the facing page read intercrystalline.

Running my finger down the page, intercompare, intercomparison, intercondenser, interconfessional, interconnect, darn, bottom of the page. Next column  – intercounty, intercouple, ah – ‘intercourse’. My finger followed to the definition:

“the sexual activity in which the male’s penis enters the female’s vagina.”

My eyes got big and then I heard the snickers and muffled laughs from Rod and Steve. They knew I had found the definition from my expression. The librarian at her desk gave Rod and Steve a pair of knitted eyebrows to ‘hush’ them – so she didn’t see me turning red with embarrassment. And I quickly flipped a hundred pages on top of the dirty word (I knew what ‘penis’ was but wasn’t sure about ‘vagina’ but I had a pretty good idea) and joined the librarian in keeping Rod and Steve quiet.

And that is how I found out about sex until my education continued our first sex ed class in 5th grade. And Randy Paluca’s dirty pictures that he showed me in his basement before that class started.

A couple of years later, as a sixth grader, I was in the back seat of my Aunt Elaine’s car when she stopped at her Arlington Heights apartment on a cold March day. She had forgotten something and just needed to run in to get it. She left Dave and I, and possibly Lee – I don’t remember – in her car with the radio on. And that is when I first heard “Chevy Van”.

With the rhythmic strumming of a twelve string acoustic guitar and fuzzy Hammond keyboard  I remember Sammy Johns singing:

‘Cause like a princess she was layin’ there
Moonlight dancin’ off her hair
She woke up and took me by the hand
We made love in my Chevy van
And that’s all right with me

It was the first time I remember hearing ‘made love’ and understanding it as sex in a song. It was such a sexual song with “like a princess she was layin’ there”, “the moonlight dancin’ off her hair” and the Chevy Van driver ‘being taken by the hand’.

Our family had the first mini van ever made, a VW bus. It was a practical vehicle to haul 5 growing kids. Our Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray had a VW Camper which was similar but the back of the bus had a stove, table and cabinets. Volkswagen made practical vehicles.

The Chevy Van in this song wasn’t practical. It was bigger than our VW Bus. A VW Bus was built for passengers. A Chevy Van was for the driver. There were no windows in a Chevy Van because a Chevy Van was about privacy (outside of a small circular tinted window in the back). No one knew what happened in the back of a Chevy Van – but now Sammy Johns had given me some new ideas.

If the Volkswagen Bus was practical, the conversion van was any but. As the muscle cars got tamed via the EPA’s horsepower-robbing emission standards, gearheads turned to customizing their vans to show off their creativity. In the early seventies it was about adding wall to ceiling carpeting in your van. But as the seventies continue the vans continued to convert to more outlandish customizations – and conversion vans were born.

But before the craziness of the conversion vans, just the wall-to-wall carpeting and privacy was enough for a young man. Add a young princess you have hip sex pit that awaken urges in millions of young men – which is what Chevy Van did, and I was one of them. OK, I was a little ahead of myself – without a driver’s license or a girl but the pieces were starting to fall into place.

‘Chevy Van’ had the perfect balance of erotica and wholesomeness. While it was years before I would have sex, the open carefree encounter offered in ‘Chevy Van’ was quite alluring to a boy walking the bridge to manhood.

It also had the ‘cool’ that I was just beginning to understand. Cool is an attribute that both sexes wanted. Mostly masculine, Cool embodies independence and leadership with a hint of narcissism. Cool is social, popular, wanted. Sex is cool. The Chevy Van driver was cool. I pictured him with long hair and a beard, a guitar leaning against the front seat. It was my first encounter on how a guy would “get a girl”.

Obviously cool is a matter of perspective. In sixth grade I was just forming that perspective. This was years before Fonzy’s thumbs up and his drawn out “Aaaaa!” Cool was not yet in my daily vocabulary. While Fonzy defined Cool for late 70’s tv audiences on ‘Happy Days’, everyone has their own definition of what cool is. As ‘Happy Days’ popularity waned, ‘The Fonz’ became a parody of cool. Of course shark jumping stripped away Fonz’s coolest, but his sex appeal kept him in the game. Sex, from the view of the loser in the eternal battle to procreate, would always make the winner in that evolutionary struggle – cool.

I’d like to say I was above the hormonal trappings of the typical teenage boy but I wasn’t. I pictured the girl in Chevy Van will long blonde hair. Her face was probably a face I had seen in my dad’s Playboy and OUI magazines I found in the garage at our gray house. She had a light colored, low cut, thin shirt with a narrow vest over it. Her well worn cutoffs had the pockets hanging out front atop her long tan legs. Her thin leather bandanna did a poor job keep her long blonde hair out of her face. And that’s when the moonlight dances off her hair.

As a blooming adolescent, I had no idea how complicated sex was. The first step was making sure everything work. Erections were no problem – except the lack of control.  That would get fixed in time but with age then the opposite problem. Masturbation, though a few years away, was a no-brainer. The real problem was finding the girl.

I was always very shy and being fat did not help my self esteem. When I lost the weight in eighth grade you would think it would have boosted my confidence with girls but it didn’t. In high school I only had one girlfriend but in college I learned girls were not another species and made my first girl friends (as opposed to girlfriends).

I had friends that were girls in high school but I was never at the same level as they were in college. I always put them above me. If a girl was nice to me, I’d start thinking she ‘liked’ liked me.  I remember when I worked at Frank’s Nursery and Crafts, there was an attractive woman (‘woman’ because she must have been at least 21 years old) named Sharon that ran the Crafts Department.

I had come into work after purchasing Bob Seger’s album “Against the Wind”. I was always very proud of my album purchases and I would show them off to anyone that was interested. That evening, she was one of the managers scheduled to close the store. Sharon came into the office and saw the Bob Seger album and in her best Marilyn Monroe, she said, “boy, I’d sure love to listen to this.”

I turned red and replied, “Sure.”

And in the following weeks, whenever I asked her if she was done with the album, she would thank me again for letting her listen to it and flashed her eyelashes to me. The album loan turned permanent when I re-bought Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind”a few weeks so I could avoid confronting her.

I had learned a couple valuable lessons. Beautiful people live by different rules then us – ‘us’ being the non-beautiful people. Years later a friend of mine from work, Glenn Becker, and myself, would come up with the “Beautiful People Theory”. The basic premise was that Attractive People had an easier life. They were more popular, more desirable, and didn’t have to try as hard to get the things they wanted in life – like Bob Seger albums.

Glenn and I realized the The Beautiful People Theory worked on many levels. Some people took full advantage of their looks. Some people let other people looks take control of them (as in my case). Some people would have to fight against their advantage. ‘The smart beautiful women’, or guy, that would have fight not to be dismissed because of their attractiveness. This was more of a problem for women then men. We realized the most dangerous women were the smart attractive ones that would take advantage of their sexual wiles. And of course it was a two way street – the stupid guys that would let them.

Sex is a huge motivator in life. Such a motivator can be a beast that challenges who we really are. Philosophers struggle with the nature of sex – is it the animal instincts of mating or the highest level of bonding. I believe the answer is it is both. Which led me to the conclusion that sex is about compromise.

Sex is what separates friendship from marriage – emotionally, not legally. It is what separates and yet binds the sexes. It is what transverses the gulf between the sexes. How many comedians do their entire show on the differences between men and women? Yet it is often the beginning core of marriage.

There are two sides to sex – the instinctual/animalistic side and the love/bonding side. I believe these two sides are inseparable. The first side is about pleasure, gratification, release, dominance, submission and compatibility. The second side is about intimacy, giving, comfort, equality, exploration, satisfaction and love. One is short term, the other is long term – I’m talking about the relationship, not the actual act.

As we begin to turn into young adults and our hormones are kicking in, our interest in sex increases. We start looking at people we want to have sex with – based on just their looks. This is the beginning of the Beautiful People Theory. Boys start doing stupid things for attractive girls. Girls return the favor for attractive boys but they have to be more subdued because, due to social protocols, they are not supposed to take the initiative. (I’m glad to see this trend changing in our culture.)

But as animal instincts grow the sex drive becomes more hyper. Boy and girls do more stupid things, and take bigger risks. At the same time the mind continues to expand and mature and the other side of sex begins to push back. For me it was about bonding, a long term relationship, a marriage. So when that view of the relationship faded so did that side of sex – leaving just the animal instincts. So for me, without the lure of a long term relationship, the picture would continue to fade further and a breakup would ensue.

My specific girlfriends have their own songs and Desi her own. While sex was always a ‘goal’ it was also a test of compatibility. I would like to said I had ‘matured’ beyond my animal instincts but that was certainly not true. I think Desi would agree it was a source of our worse fights and I would take the blame for those. On the other side, it a binding part of our marriage.

But forty years earlier sex was just a concept for a twelve year old thinking dirty thoughts to a lusty song. This twelve year old was riding shotgun with Sammy John as we drove down through town until we found her. I stood behind them as they continued down the road. After the first chorus Sammy pulled the van under a tree and it was instantly night time. I moved so Sammy and the hitchhiker could spreadout in the back of his Chevy Van. I watched as they laid down and started kissing. And just as Sammy made his move to second base…

“Sorry about that.”

Aunt Elaine announced as she opened the door to the car. She snapped me out of the van and away from the Sammy and his princess getting busy. Aunt Elaine never saw the red face of this twelve year old in her backseat. And she certainly would never know why I was so red.

And in the weeks, months and years that followed, it would be me taking the princess to the back of my Chevy Van. And I would let the song finish with just me and my princess – as the moonlight danced til it faded to sleep.

Songs of My Life: (Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song

songsofmylifeB.J. Thomas’ (Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song was a perfect introduction to life without our parents. B.J.’s chorus of the repeated “While I miss my baby” ached of the loss of my mom. It would be years until I learned about the 5 stages of grieving and nine years before I took ‘Death and Dying’ at Carthage College. And while B.J. Thomas’ ‘Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song’ went #1 on Billboards Pop and Country charts (but only #2 on the WLS charts I would begin collecting in couple of years), it was my first steps in my grieving process.

We spent a week at Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack”s after my parents died (or after  ‘the accident’ as some of my brothers and sisters would refer to their murder/suicide). The process of carrying on was hard but had to be started. The plan was that Aunt Bernice, Mom’s oldest sister (Mom was one of 13 children), and Uncle Ray would stay at our house during the week so we continue to go to school. On the weekends, we would stay with different aunt and uncles families; understandably .

One of my first fears was how to tell people my parents had died without crying. I soon realized I didn’t have to, most of the people I knew were already aware of my situation. I remember my first morning back at school, we were waiting at the door of West Elementary to get in on a cold Monday morning in February 1975.

The sixth graders would wait at the main north door that sat atop a dozen or so concrete steps surrounded with iron hand rails and another set of rails up the center of the stairs. If you were early, you got to be in the coveted alcove right by the door, while the other poor saps would have to wait on the unprotected stone stairs below in the cold. If you had buddy up top, you could probably get invited into the alcove.

A friend of mine saw me and gave me the ‘nod’ – the invite – to the alcove. There a good chance I would have gotten to the nod because my friend, but more likely it was because it was my first day back at school since my parents had died. In kids terms, I had celebrity status – at least for today. Making my way through the lower grade saps and Fifth graders I realized – again – how easy it was to forget my parents had died and I how I could play like any other sixth graders without dead parents.

After my Mom’s funeral, the family went to Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray’s house for lunch. Us kids were playing tag in the driveway – just like regular kids. And I remember thinking, “what am I doing? I can’t be playing. My parents are dead.” But we did play. And I would go in and out of these ‘reality checks’ and sometimes I would complete stop what I’m doing with this realization. Thankfully over time these ‘reality checks’ happened less and less.

So when I got up to the alcove I found there was a patch of ice that the guys were playing with. ‘Playing with’ consisted of pushing each other on a three foot patch of ice. We all took turns trying to stand on it while everyone else tried to pushed you off – a makeshift version of ‘King of the Mountain’, or ‘Ice’, in this case. Unfortunately it wasn’t long before I successfully removed Bill Erickson from the patch of ice. Unfortunate because when I ‘removed’ him, he ended up falling and hitting his head on the iron hand rail. We all gasped as his head literally rung the railing – it obviously hurt. I reached out to see if he was OK but Bill held his head and he was fighting hard not to cry. He looked at me and said:

“Too bad what happened to your old lady.”

And that phrase has haunted me for thirty nine years. He had disarmed me completely. I didn’t have a response. Bill wasn’t a good friend, I had never been over to his house but we would play at recess and hang out at school together. It must have really hurt, I told myself. Nobody said anything. I realized everyone knew. Everyone knew my parents had died. Everyone left the patch of ice alone after that. It was now tainted – like me. And we all stood in silence together at what Bill said until the class bell called us in.

When I got to class Mr. Krenek started the morning that he had an announcement. I paled with fear thinking his announcement was about me. That he was going to announced I had returned after burying my parents. He would express how sorry he, and the entire class, was for my loss – but – welcome back.

But the announcement wasn’t about me. Another classmate’s family, I don’t remember her name, had been involved with a private plane crash. One of her family members had died and our classmate had broken her arm and lost an eye. She would be coming back to class in a few days. I looked at her empty desk two seats ahead of me and one row to my right.

The morning when she returned to class, I stared like all the other kids in class. It was clear she had been in a accident.  Her eye was patched with scratches peeking out from the gauze that wrapped her head. Her left arm was in a full cast up to her armpit. She made her way to her sit and opened her desk with her free hand to put her sack lunch in.

I tried to imagine going through a plane crash. The terrifying moments before the crash, the chaos, the rescue. The discovery of finding out your brother, sister or mom or dad was dead. I had just lost my parents but physically I was OK. It was so different from what I had gone through last week. My tragedy was basically hidden. She would have to literately wear hers the rest of her life.

Eventually I learned the old proverb – “I cried because I had no shoes, Until I saw a man who had no feet.” And while it may have been obvious I was the ‘man with no feet’, it was just as obvious she was a ‘woman with no feet’. I found our situations fantastic – not in a good way but in a unbelievable way. I would ‘run the numbers’ and re-examine the odds of our tragedies occurring within a week of each others for the rest of my life.

One important realization as I began this new life without my parents, I was not alone in this, others had their own tragedies. She had no way of knowing how intertwined our situations would be in my mind because I never talked to her. She would never know how much I thought of her situation and how much that helped me with mine. I sometimes wondered if she thought about me and my situation. Would she want to have traded places with me – like I wanted to trade places with her? (And at the time I would have gladly traded places with her; but would that really have been any better?) Sometimes I would think about this at recess. I always got the sense our classmates paired us together. We now were both ‘tainted’. But I still never talked to her. Over time I would realize the fantasy of trading places was not worth the time it took to render them. But render them I would – over the next several years but I never forgot the girl from the plane crash.

Mr. Kreneck, was always my favorite teacher. He would be the teacher I measure all my other teachers to. Of course, it helped to have a personal tragedy to make that connection. I would never say I was a  teacher’s pet – but if I were, I would have already on my way before my parents died.  I first met Mr. Krenek when I was in 5th grade in Ms. Hoag’s class. It turned out Ms. Hoag and Mr. Kreneck were friends and they had their classes work on a project together once a year. I don’t know if the other two 5th and 6th grade classes did but I was happy to be in Ms. Hoag’s 5th grade class and now Mr. Krenek’s class for 6th grade.

A month or so after my parents died I remember Mr. Kreneck pulled me into the storage room just down the hall from our classroom to talk to me. I had always been a ‘A’ student, school was easy for me. But after my parents’ deaths I had apparently checked out. Mr. Kreneck told me I couldn’t give up. My grades had disappeared, I was in a academic freefall.

And then Mr. Kreneck played a ‘card’ only a few people would ever played on me. He said, “Your mother would not want to you give up like this.” And he was right. I remember leaning against the steel shelving units crying. I remember looking out the window through the shelving unit to the asphalted playground and feeling how I still didn’t want to disappoint Mom, even though she wasn’t here anymore. I can’t say I turned it around and got back to my ‘A’s but Mr. Kreneck didn’t talk to me about my grades again. No teacher did – until I got to high school but I could no longer blame my bad grades on my parents.

Another thing I remember Mr. Kreneck for was stamp collecting. He collected foreign stamps, specifically but not exclusively, Czech stamps. Which made sense since he was Czechoslovakian. Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack introduced me to stamp collecting. My cousins John and Jim already collected stamps; more John then Jim. Soon I had my own book and quickly graduated from used stamps to mint stamps. John also collected ‘First Day Covers‘ which were only issued in the post office the stamp was assigned to, then they were released to the rest of the post offices. I couldn’t afford the First Day Covers John got with the fancy envelopes but I could get the new commemorative stamp the day they got released to everyone else.

In April of 1975 the US release the Mariner 10 stamp. This was the first time I was going to be able to buy a stamp the day if came out. It was also a chance to officially accept my teacher’s pet title. So that bright Friday morning, I rode my bike to the post office, purchased 2 Mariner 10 stamps (totaling 20¢) and proudly delivered one of them to Mr. Kreneck – and without being late to his class. It turned out stamp collecting was a great distraction for me.

These days, when we returned to school, Aunt Bernice would be home cooking our meals, doing our dishes and washing our clothes. Uncle Ray would come from work to our house. They would stay with us for the week and then go back to their house on the weekends. It was weird at first but everything was weird now. Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray played the role of mom and dad. Aunt Bernice would cook dinner and make lunches – if we didn’t get them at school, which we mostly did. Uncle Ray would watch TV with us and tease us.

I remember Uncle Ray caught Dave or I picking our noses and Uncle Ray would go on and on about how we looked just like a gorilla he saw at the zoo the other day. Uncle Ray would go on and on about how the gorilla had his finger “waaaayyy up there!” and then grunt like a gorilla, “Ooo ooo ooo.”  Dave and I would get embarrassed or laugh at the other depending on who was Uncle Ray’s ‘gorilla’ that evening. It was a different parenting style and it was fun.

I remember when he would come ‘home’ from work he would threaten us with whisker burns – the act of rubbing his four o’clock shadow against our young smooth cheeks. Dave and I would rub his cheeks and feel his rough bristles and feign shock at the torture his whisker burn would give. Eventually our new ritual would distill into us rubbing his cheek and suggesting he needs a shave. And we would all laugh and giggle.

And for years afterwards when I would see Uncle Ray, I would rub his cheek with tops of my fingers and he would smile, point and me and laugh in his own version of Barney Rubble. Even after not seeing him for 15 years when Desi and I brought our kids to visit them in Nevis, MN on the way back from our South Dakota with Lee. At one point in our visit I came up besides Uncle Ray. I rubbed his cheek and his eyes got wide, he pointed at me and smile, “awwwww, heeya, ya ya ya”

Looking back at those months, outside of my talking to Mr. Kreneck, I never talked to an adult about my parents – not that I remember. I find it interesting that nowadays, if kids bully, or get bullied, or surf porn, or watch horror movies – they are sent to talk to a ‘professional’ but not back then. ‘Back then’, I guess, they waited for something to go wrong. Apparently nothing went wrong with any of us.

During the weekends we would be shipped out to different aunts and uncles. We rarely went altogether to one aunt and uncles, five kids was alot to absorb for one family, even for just a weekend. It was these car rides that I would occasionally catch B.J. Thomas’ “Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song”. Once I caught Aunt Judy changing the radio station when it started but most of the aunts and uncles were not paying attention to the songs on the radio. Or maybe they thought BJ’s melancholiness was just what we needed, or at least what I needed. I was nice to hear there were others that were as sad as I was.

And sometimes on these trips back and forth to our home, if I was lucky enough to have the window seat, I would lean my head against the cold window and listen to B.J. Thomas sing how right it was to feel so sad. And if it was dark, I would even let a tear roll down my round cheek. Because that’s what I wanted – “A real hurtin’ song about a love that’s gone wrong, ‘Cause I don’t wanna cry all alone.”

Years later when Uncle Jack and I were alone in the car he told me about those weekends from his perspective. Jack and I didn’t have many trips just to ourselves. Now I wish we had more of them, or at least more them that I remember. This particular trip was to Downers Grove and we were on Route 53. It was when he briefly worked for the Village of Downers Grove.

He told me about how all the aunt and uncles would gather at Aunt Nancy and Uncle Wayne’s basement to figure out what to do with my brothers and sisters and I. Over the course of 2 or 3 months they made their plans. Hope was to go with Aunt Bev and Uncle Dick. Their daughter Tami was around Hope’s age. Lee was to go with Aunt Sandy and Uncle Claude.

Jack said, “We tried to get all three of you boys but everyone thought that would be too much for us.” So Dave and I went to Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack’s. Dawn ended up going to Aunt Betty and Uncle Richards but it was close between them and Aunt Nancy and Uncle Wayne. Aunt Betty and Uncle Richard’s daughter Judy was a year older then Dawn, while Aunt Nancy and Uncle Wayne’s daughter Sue was a little younger then Dawn. As Jack put it, “While we were trying to decide who Dawn should go with, until Betty announced, ‘that’s it – Dawn’s coming with us.’ And no one was going to tell Betty ‘no’. Suffice to say, there are other ‘songs’ that go with Dawn’s life with Aunt Betty and Uncle Richard.

Dawn told me the families we went to on those weekends trips, as we finished the school year, were the families we were eventually ended up. Since it was unclear where she was going she was still switching between Aunt Betty and Uncle Richard’s and Aunt Nancy and Uncle Wayne’s well into May. Since it had been decided that Dave and I would be with Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack, I don’t remember the weekends we visited them – except a trip to Randhurst Mall to visit a their favorite stamp store.

I do remember a few of these transitional weekends. I do remember we spent a weekend at Aunt Delores and Uncle Larry’s. I think it was Lee, Dave and I. Like us, Aunt Delores and Uncle Larry’s family also had five kids – Debbie, Ken, Jeff, Roger and Rick. I remember Uncle Larry showing us how he stripped wooden furniture and Jeff showing us their Homing Pigeons. I think that was the first time I remember having been to a Catholic church.

We must have spent a couple of weekends at Aunt Judy and Uncle Fred’s because there were two specific incidents I remember there. First was Aunt Judy taking us to see Animal House. Because it was rated ‘R’ the kid behind the glass selling tickets asked if Aunt Judy was our mom. It was the first time we had to explain to a stranger that we didn’t have parents anymore. In hindsight, Aunt Judy should have just said ‘yes’ or ‘I’m their legal guardian’ but we all heard the question and we all looked at Aunt Judy for the answer – which was ‘no’. So only those over 17 could have gone in – which was none of us. If it hadn’t been such an awkward moment for all of us, maybe we could figured out a way to get tickets. After all, it would have been my first rated ‘R’ movie.

The other incident was when Dave fell down and hurt his hip. We had been sledding down the snowy slopes that surrounded a pond behind Aunt Judy and Uncle Fred’s house. I had already gone inside when Dave slipped on the ice and fell directly on his hip. Typical Dave – if anyone would hurt himself it would be him. He was the one who jumped out the second story window onto the driveway to get away from Hope. And he was the one that took ‘the-bike-that-was-too-big-for-him’ and wiped out leaving him unconscious and carried home by some neighbor kids. But this was the first time he hurt himself without Mom and Dad around.

I don’t think Aunt Judy was in the house when Dave got hurt. What I do remember was Lee and I in Aunt Judy and Uncle Fred’s basement as Dave laid in one of the bedrooms upstairs screaming in pain. But not just screaming, it was almost a shriek. And it went on for what seemed like hours. But it wasn’t just a scream of physical pain but one of emotion. “I – Want – My – Mother!” he screamed. I think Dave’s physical pain allowed him to release the emotional pain of his loss. And while Lee and I acutely understood this loss, helping him was beyond us. Dave’s emotional cries echoed our own loss but we were helpless on his physical pain – so we just looked at each other and the basement ceiling. Neither of us did anything to help Dave or comfort him. Dave had taken over our own pains of a anguish vocally. But as he continued his hour (and more) of screaming I wanted him to stop. He had spent my pain and even though my heart still throbbed, I had to learn this new reality. Neither Lee or I reached out to Dave. I told myself it was because I didn’t want to cry myself; and besides, what could I do? Dave was crying about a  real hurtin’ song and that we had been done wrong. But Lee and I let him cry all alone.

At some point our cousin Fred came down and said something like “Man, he’s must really be hurt.” I think Fred came down partially to see how Lee and I were, and partially to see if we could help Dave. But we did nothing; nothing but relate to his loss.

And that was the problem, no one knew what do – except the practical things. Our aunts and uncles were finding us homes. And as we would find out, they went beyond opening their homes. They opened their hearts and their own families to us – some with more success then others.

It is when I look back I can see how high we’ve climbed, or rather how far we’ve dug out, and yes – realized how how high we all had climbed. We had no perspective for where our now individual paths would take us. Those months after the ‘accident’ were filled with uncertainty. We didn’t know what our aunts and uncles were planning for our futures. We were getting through day by day, week by week. And by the time we starting hitting month by month, our lives together as a family were coming to an end. The plans on where we where going to live were being finalized. The plans of an Estate Sale were made and the house and furniture was sold. Our family would no longer live in the Gray House in Des Plains. And in other houses, room was being made in four different homes with four different families for our eventual arrivals.

I remember Dave getting angry at Aunt Bernice one afternoon after school for not letting him go over to a friends house because she didn’t know he was. Aunt Bernice really didn’t know any of our friends. On the other side, Dave’s ‘friend’ was not one of Mom’s favorite for him. I always wondered how Aunt Bernice knew Dave’s friend well enough to say ‘no’. With Mom no longer in our lives Mom would need to work though our new families. And they follow her wishes as best as they could – again, some with more success then others.

So after the Estate Sale and after the school year, our new families came, one by one, to move us to our new homes. I do not remember Hope, Lee or Dawn leaving. I only remember Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack, and John and Jim, arriving with a borrowed pickup truck to move our beds and the last of our possessions. I remember standing with them on our drive way as we said goodbye to the Wests, the family that lived in our basement apartment. The tailgate of the truck laid open for Dave, Jim, John and I to climb in for the ride home – our new home.

Little Debbie West jump on the gate and announced, “I want to be a Zilligen!” Little Debbie wanted to join in the adventure our move, or more likely, just the ride in the back of the pickup truck. Mr. West picked her up so we could climb into the back of the pickup. With our elbows hung out the back of the pickup truck,  we waved goodbye to the Wests with our other hands. Dave and I waved goodbye to our house, our neighborhood and goodbye to our old life. All I could think of, as Uncle Jack steered the truck over turned over the curbs of our driveway and pulled down Rose Avenue, were little Debbie West’s words – “I want to be a Zilligen!” And the the irony, because at that moment, the last thing I wanted to be – was a Zilligen. And from the cab of the pickup truck I swear I heard BJ Thomas start singing ‘Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song.’

Songs of My Life: All for the Love of a Girl

songsofmylifeTo say the morning after my parents died was the worse moment in my life would be glaringly obvious. I had woken up earlier that morning on a hide-a-bed and my Aunt Mary Ann and Uncle Ed arguing. Well, not really arguing, Aunt Mary Ann couldn’t believe what had happened and Uncle Ed was telling her it did – “I saw the blood,” I remember him saying. The kitchen light was on and Dave, Lee and I were on the hide-a-bed in the living room next to me. It was still dark outside.

I woke up later and it seemed like everyone else was already up. That never happens, I was always the first one up in our house. But we weren’t in our house, we were in Aunt Mary Ann and Uncle Ed’s apartment. The TV was on but no one paying attention to it. In fact, no one was talking at all, the TV was just filling in the sound as a strange compensation for last night’s devastation.

There was a knock on the door and Aunt Mary Ann opened it. It was our Aunt Joyce. They hugged and cried. We cried again too. I remember the awful faces we made last night. Those awful faces people make when it twists up in gut wrenching pain and tears. After a while Aunt Joyce pulled away. It was always great when Mom would take us to go to Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack’s. John and Jim always had the good toys. Unfortunately that how kids measure families – if they’ve got ‘the good toys’ or not. Mom would take us over there and Dave and I would play with John and Jim while Mom and Aunt Joyce would sit in the kitchen and drank their coffee. Aunt Joyce was always really nice. But not this morning, she had the same awful face we all did.

At some point, we were told to get our things together but we only had our coats. We had only been coming to Jeffery’s birthday party and he was only four. Since even Dawn was nine, we were really just coming over for cake and ice cream – Jeffery was too young to consider any of us would actually play with him. And it was just our family. No other cousins or aunts and uncles, just the Zilligens. The only things we had to get was our coats and hats – and gloves if we remembered them. It was February after all.

Dressed up to the walk to Aunt Joyce’s station wagon we waited in the hall. Aunt Joyce and Aunt Mary Ann hugged again and cried. We stood like zombies looking at the stairs leading the half floor up to the outside door. That is where it happened. The dim light in the hallway paled compared to the light outside, even though it was cloudy. Aunt Mary Ann and Uncle Ed’s apartment was the first one on the basement floor so it was just us and the stairs but it like the long dim hallway of some government building. I remember looking down that hall and thinking, “I don’t want to walk there.” I don’t know if all five us were staring at those stairs like I was but that was where it happened. That was the last place I saw my mom alive

I don’t think Aunt Joyce knew the situation we were literally facing as she shuffled us to the stairs, like a hen with her chicks. I don’t think she knew at the top of those stairs her sister laid the night before. I don’t think she knew when Dave and I came in from playing in the snow just before we were leaving Jeffery’s party, her sister was laying on the floor with Lee holding her head up. And that Dave and I had to step over her to get back into Aunt Mary Ann and Uncle Ed’s apartment. Eventually, Hope and Aunt Mary Ann got Lee to leave Mom and come into the apartment as well. None of us wanted to climb those stairs because of what had happened last night. But Aunt Joyce didn’t know that so she nudged her little chicks up the stairs and out to in the snowy February parking lot.

I remember looking down at the carpeting where my mom had laid but I didn’t see any blood. But she didn’t die actually there, she had died at the hospital Aunt Mary Ann said. I looked at the other side of the landing, my dad’s glasses were no longer there – like they were last night.

I remember telling someone about how my parents died years later and telling them as I walked out that apartment that morning, as bad as that was, it was never going to get any worse. I understood that people in abusive situations have it harder because their situations are unending. But that was years later and as I write this, and relive this, I’ll admit that morning – was pretty fucking bad. Five newly minted orphans walking through where their mother laid dying not even twelve hours earlier.

I mark this as the lowest point in my life. It’s all up from here, right? But it sucked that now I knew the way to ‘here’ – my lowest point. ‘Here’, I would learn, was a room painted with tears and walls that were icy and black. I know there were walls because I found corners to wallow in. I could not tell if there was a floor or I couldn’t stand because my legs were too shaky to support me here. There was no ceiling, just blackness above you. You never flew, you could only fall – flailing for an unreachable edge or slope. I would also learn, now that I had found my way here, it would a place I would visit and dream about in the days, weeks and years to come. And over this time I would create well-worn paths and setup new and different paths to – ‘here’. Gratefully it is true what they say – time heals all wounds but the paths always remain. And while you end up just using the paths less and less – ‘here’ had become my Saudade.

Many years later, with the children my mom would never know, I had finally started reading the Narnia series to them. Lee had recommended the series when I was in college but I never took the time to actually read them. Now I used the excuse to of  ‘reading to the kids’ to read them for myself. As I started the series for the first time with Nate, it was in the first book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, that I came across the following verse:

“I hope no one who reads this book has been quite as miserable as Susan and Lucy were that night; but if you have been – if you’ve been up all night and cried till you have no more tears left in you – you will know that there comes in the end a sort of quietness. You feel as if nothing is ever going to happen again.”
C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

I had to stop reading to Nate and hid my silent tears from him. He was probably 7 or 8 at the time. I was barely able to read the words aloud. C.S. Lewis had captured the night my parents died. The only clarification I would add would be – it’s not that nothing would ever happen again, it was that nothing of significance would ever happen again. How could it?

The ride to Aunt Joyce’s house was as quiet at Aunt Mary Ann and Uncle Ed’s apartment. I don’t remember the radio being on or anyone saying anything. The sound of the tires on the road did nothing to distract us. I’ve never asked Aunt Joyce about that trip. What was she thinking that morning? The tears had been shed, our backs hurt from sobbing but the morning had come anyway. And in the midst this quietest I’m sure we all had the same thought – so now what do we do?

We stayed with Aunt Joyce, Uncle Jack and John and Jim for a week. In that week my mom’s wake and funeral were arranged. I’m assuming someone went to our Gray house and got us more clothes to wear. We were there for half a week when I realized we were missing school. I guess your parents dying was an acceptable reason not to be in school.

I don’t remember too much about our day to day activities. I wasn’t involved with the arrangements for the wake and funeral arrangement, I don’t know if any of us were. I don’t remember leaving Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack’s house anytime during that week except for the wake and the funeral. One thing I do remember was discovering their Hi-Fi and their collection of records. Among those records was Johnny Horton’s Greatest Hits. The song I recognized was ‘Sink the Bismarck’. I didn’t know who Johnny Horton was but I like his first name. Mom called me Johnny – well, she used to.

We watched Family Classics on Channel Nine. I watched for the monster movies but they never really played any ‘monster movies’, the closest I could get was ‘War of the World’ or ‘Mysterious Island’. I remember watching the 1960 movie ‘Sink the Bismarck’ about the Allies mission to sink a Nazi battleship called The Bismarck. And one of my favorite parts was the song (that ironically, is not in the movie).

I played Johnny Horton’s Greatest Hits to hear ‘Sink the Bismarck’ but discovered a bunch of other songs to distract me – “North to Alaska”, “Johnny Reb”, “When Its Springtime in Alaska”, “The Battle of New Orleans” and “Johnny Freedom”. Johnny Horton apparently enjoyed ‘Johnny’ as the characters of his songs, and that suited me just fine. Many of his songs were patriotic and uplifting. But the song that captured my melancholy was “All for the Love of a Girl.”

When I started writing these ‘Songs of My Life’ stories, this was the song I was dreading – and looking forward – to the most. It is the song that defines why I value music so much although I would never say “All for the Love of a Girl” defines me as a person, I find it much too sad. I learned that the lyrics of a song are left to the interpretation of the listener and we fill in our own meaning based on our circumstances, beliefs and values. And in that process, I believe, we gain a better understanding of who we are ourselves, how we see specific situations and circumstances. This song led me to that realization. And though it is about a man being in love, I used it to heal my heart during a tragic period in my life.

That Friday night, February 7, 1975, Mom took us to my cousin Jeffery’s birthday which was at Aunt Mary Ann’s and Uncle Ed’s – Jeffery’s grandparents. It had only been us at Jeffery’s party. Jeffery’s mom, my cousin Lynn, was not there (that’s a story unto itself). I think Aunt Mary Ann was hoping to distract Mom from her pending divorce from Dad. When it was time to leave, Dave and I asked Mom if we could go out and play in the snow fort we had seen when we had walked into the building and she let us go. While we were playing we heard what we thought were firecrackers. Dave was a few yards closer to the apartment building, so he went in and I followed him to the door a few moments later.

When I opened the door I saw Mom lying on the ground as Lee held her head. I saw Hope and Aunt Mary Ann yelling for me to get into the apartment as Dave was just ducking passed them into the door. I was really confused on what was happening. I stepped over Mom and looked to my left and saw Dad’s glasses lying on the ground. I was always amazed how I knew they were Dad’s glasses. As out of place as they were, I knew they were his. I ran down the stairs and back into Aunt Mary and Uncle Ed’s apartment. Dave and Dawn were as confused as I was. Eventually, Lee too came into the apartment and Aunt Mary Ann closed the door.

From here things get a little blurry – the police were called and I remember standing in Jeffery’s room without the lights on. Dawn and Jeffery were in the room with me. Jeffery was saying “the woo-woo’s are coming, the woo-woo’s are coming,” pointing to the red and blue lights that were spinning around his walls and ceilings from the police lights flashing outside. Dawn was crying and telling him “yes, the woo woo’s are coming.” At some point, I was back in the living room and there were 2-4 cops in there talking to each other and Aunt Mary, Uncle Ed, Hope and Lee. At some point I was told Dad was dead, he had shot himself – suicide. For years I always pictured him shooting himself in his blue station wagon which I envisioned was in the apartment’s parking lot. My scene was always more dramatic – the cops were walking to the station wagon with guns drawn and as they approached, a flash of light in the front seat and blood would splatter on the driver’s side window. But Lee told me,  many years later, he shot mom three times but, not being prepared for the recoil, the second shot went into the ceiling before he shot Mom a second time. The fourth shot was to his head. We couldn’t see him laying in the second-floor hallway when we came in from the ground level.

As I heard Hope and/or Lee told the story that night, they (Mom, Hope, Lee and Dawn) were walking with Mom up the stairs to leave the apartment building. Dave and I were already outside playing in the snow. Dad was waiting for Mom on the second floor at the top of the stairs (it was only a two-floor apartment building). Dad said, “Goodbye, Virginia” and shot Mom three times. He apparently threw his glasses down the stairs and stepped away and shot himself in the head.

Aunt Mary went with my Mom to the hospital and left us with Uncle Ed and the cops. We were crying when we heard Dad was dead. The police finished up their reports but there really anything else for them to do. This tragedy was not going beyond our family so the police work would be minimum. But there was still one more scene that had to be played out.

By the time Aunt Mary Ann came back the cops were gone, at least they were no longer in the apartment and their flashing lights outside were turned off. When she opened her door the five of us gathered around her. She had been crying and wore that God-awful face. I remember Hope asking, “Is she…, is she….?” but she couldn’t actually say the words. Despite not actually asking the question, Aunt Mary Ann answered her anyways by shaking her head yes. Mom had died.

I would say at this point the room started spinning. But it wasn’t just a feeling, the room was literally spinning. It was spinning because I was falling to the ground and that was what I was seeing. I think that’s why I have always thought of that moment as a free-fall. A cold icy fall into nothing – I would later understand it as an abyss.

When the new round of tears had subsided, I would find I had I landed in C.S. Lewis’ quietness. The tears had been shed, the reality faced, the pain was large and twisted, a lump in my throat kept my breath away and my back hurt from the heavy sobs. And yes – then – it was very, very quiet.

That was the story I had just lived through that led me to Johnny Horton the following evening. The Johnny Horton song, “All for the Love of a Girl,” had sad lyrics and Johnny Horton’s voice sounded heartbreaking to me. It was a perfect match for my pain. The song starts out:

Well today I’m so weary, today I’m so blue
Sad and broken hearted and it’s all because of you
Life was so sweet dear, life was a song
Now you’ve gone and left me, oh where do I belong

I was certainly sad and broken hearted. ‘All because of you’ pointed to Dad and what he had done. ‘You’ve gone and left me’ was Mom, but obviously not by her choice. And that left ‘where do I belong’ staring me in the face; that ominous ‘now what?’ The song then goes into the chorus:

And it’s all for the love of a dear little girl
All for the love that sets your heart in a whirl
I’m a man who’d give his life and the joys of this world
All for the love of a girl

I know it is my interpretation is different from the song’s intent. This tragic event was all due to Dad’s love for Mom, as I interpreted Johnny Horton’s lyrics. “I’m a man who’d give his life and the joys of this world. All for the love of a girl” That is how I saw this tragedy – it was the only way I could see this. Weeks and months and years later, when the pain was bubbling over on how selfish my father had been, and the circumstance we found ourselves in, I would find comfort in ‘all for the love of a girl.’

Some people have wondered how I could not hate my father for what he had done. I can honestly say ‘hate’ never really entered my thought process – outside of hating the situation that I, and my brothers and sisters, now found ourselves in, but there was never specific hate for my father. There were so many other things I was going through and would go through, over the months and years ahead.

And Mom would become my angel, my sense of purity. The song plays her as a girl – young and innocent. While the physical and emotional loss of her was the most painful part, over time I realized what I really lost from her was her strength, which I know she had; that and her independence. She was the victim and she would never recover from that state. My twelve-year-old perspective of her was frozen. I would never again see her flaws. I could not get angry with her or see how stupid she was. I could never see if she was petty or arrogant. This just enhanced her purity, but over time it made her less real – and that was the real tragedy – the lost of reality. Mom became this vision of goodness and innocence.

Keep in mind, she was twisted into a twelve-year-old’s mind, who was laying on the floor next to a Hi-Fi, trying to make sense of his last 24 hours. Dad was also wrapped up there as well. The word “Disbelief”‘ spun in wide elliptical orbits. And “It’s Not Real” bounced with an erratic rhythm. And “It’s A Dream” swung in and out of view.  Unfortunately, it was not a dream and was very much real. And “Why?” I still struggle for that answer.

Over the week we stayed with Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack I would continue to listen to Johnny Horton’s Greatest Hits side two. We went to Mom’s wake but only Hope and Lee went to Dad’s. Somewhere within the adult decision hierarchy of my Mom’s family, it was deemed that Dave, Dawn and I were too young to go to Dad’s wake. Mom’s wake was held at Oehler funeral home north of downtown Des Plaines where we lived.

The wake was a surreal affair and what I remember most was Mom not looking right in her coffin. I would learn many years later the process and the role of the mortician. Well, who ever was Mom’s mortician did not do a good job, she didn’t look like Mom. Her cheeks were too puffy and her makeup didn’t look right. This just added to the surreal event and added to my denial of what had happened. Despite Mom not looking right, the wake offered closure. I wished I would have had that with Dad. Years later I would ‘see’ Dad in a crowd of people but after many years of these ‘glimpses’, I realized I was seeing someone that looked like Dad, specifically the picture of Dad from my parent’s bedroom. I always wonder if I had these ‘glimpses’ due to my lack of closure with Dad’s death.

There were alot of people at my Mom’s wake. I recognized aunts, uncles and cousins and the occasional church members from Messiah Lutheran. I remember a couple of my friends from school coming to Mom’s wake. At some point, we went down to the basement of the funeral home and of course like typical kids, they wanted to know what happened so I told them. It wasn’t a secret. They asked why my dad would do that and my only answer was “because he didn’t want to get a divorce”.

The next morning was Mom’s funeral. It was held at our church Messiah Lutheran in Park Ridge where my parents had been custodians and weekly we attended church and Sunday School. I don’t remember actually going to the church, but I remember it being very crowded when we got there. As the service started, my brothers and sisters were led to the front pews that had been reserved for us. I remember seeing my sixth-grade teacher Mr. Kreneck and my fifth-grade teacher Ms. Hoag singing to the opening hymn as we walked in. A coffin was centered at the front of the church – Mom’s coffin. The service had begun and again the surrealism of our situation cast the front of the church in a washed out, dreamlike state, like poorly developed film. So many times I had wandered in that sanctuary – up by the altar and the pulpit. But today I sat in the front row looking up at Pastor Keays with Mom’s coffin to his right.

Of course, we were crying as he talked about everything Mom and Dad had done around the church. Though honestly, I can’t say I remember him actually talking about Dad. At some point in his sermon he brought up the flowers Mom would plant around the church sidewalks and that we would always remember her by the flowers she planted. It was at this moment our crying turned to weeping and we had to be escorted out of the service.

Many times I would go with Mom to pick up the annuals she would plant at church. While Mom picked out her flats of annuals for that year’s plantings, I would wander into the greenhouses to where the cactuses were until it was time to go. The station wagon or the VW bus would smell like fresh dirt and marigolds if that’s what she was planting. I remember her picking out alyssum, ageratum and pansies too. We would go to church and mom would spend the afternoon planting. And now Pastor Keays was using that memory of mine to memorialize Mom – and that brought a watershed of pain and again renewed my loss.

We ended up in a limousine that followed the hearse to the cemetery. I remember thinking – the first time I get to ride in a limousine wasn’t my prom, wasn’t my wedding or even a trip to the airport – it was to the cemetery to bury Mom. But again, kids like shiny things and I forgot the purpose of our trip. Soon Dave and I began exploring the expanse of the limo’s backseat and discovering this new found luxury. It was crazy but I didn’t even know where Mom was going to be buried, I had heard Memory Garden but I had no clue to where that was.

The limo took us from Messiah to Memory Gardens, which turned out to be in Arlington Heights. A seven mile trip with a mile worth of cars following us. Despite the sun, as we stood by the open grave and it was cold – it was still February. Mom’s coffin was brought over from the hearse and laid in front of us. Pastor Keays said more words that make us cry. But the crying got worse when he stopped and the coffin was lowered into the ground. This horrible trip that started with a walk up a short flight of stairs was beginning to end. We cried and we stood looking down at a box that held Mom. At some point, we were pushed back into the limo or one of the aunt or uncle’s cars. And Mom was gone.

We had lunch at Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray’s house. Their small house was crowded and eventually us kids, at least Dave, Dawn and I, escaped to play in the driveway – despite the cold. Again, in the midst of a game of tag, I was shaken with the realization that we’re playing at our Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray’s house after we just buried our mother. My father was also dead. It wasn’t right. We should never play again. We should never laugh again. The world should stop. But it didn’t – and neither did we.

We spent the rest of the week at Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack’s house. There was now nothing to do – except figuring out what to with five new orphans. I spent more time laying on the floor next to the Hi-Fi listening to Johnny Horton. It had been a horrible week – in fact, the worst of my life. I had now established a new low point, firmly marked. A place I could feel sorry for myself. Decorated with tears and sporting the latest in morbid realities. I knew the way to ‘here’ and I now had a song to accompany me. It explained everything because it really was – all for the love of a girl.

 

Songs of My Life: The Streak

songsofmylifeThe seventies were crazy times. Like the self-indulgent children of the 50’s, the children of 70’s were just as self-indulgent. But while the 50’s children were reprimanded by strict parents, the 70’s children enjoyed the freedom their parents were denied. The children were free and loose – as expressed in the Hippie movement at the time. While these 50’s children, now adults, expressed their indulgences through material possesions, the children of the 70’s turned and rejected material things – this, apparently, sometimes included their clothes.

Streaking had actually been going on for years – in fact, hundreds of years. Historically, the first streaker could have been one of our Founding Fathers – John Adams. Rumors have it that as a student he streaked across the Harvard campus. It was documented that George William Crump in 1804 streaked cross Washington and Lee University. More recently, Dartmouth College had a long history of streaking across the Green. In fact, it was already a tradition at many college campuses by the mid sixties.

So by 1974 the trend was spilling off the campus and getting noticed by the media. How could it not? Naked teenagers running through neighborhoods, on to fields during sporting events, through school campuses – what had started out as college dares was turning into a national phenomenon.

Check out this Chicago news story about a streaker that went through a Northwestern classroom:

As the media took notice, Ray Stevens took advantage of this growing fad and scored a hit with his novelty song “The Streak“. Ray Steven’s song tells of his wife’s three hapless run-in’s with a streaker. Ray Steven’s was not a One Hit Wonder though, he had already score a #1 hit with “Everything Is Beautiful” so he was no stranger to the music industry. Ray knew just what was he was doing when he recorded “The Streak.”

At eleven years old, I had not seen an actual streaker but I was definitely keeping my eyes open as I rode my bike around our new house in Des Plaines, ‘The Gray House’, as we called it. We loved ‘catching’ The Streak on the radio, it was our first time hearing novelty song on the radio. This was followed in the fall with another novelty song by Cheech and Chong – their first hit single “Earache My Eye“. These were audio gems we would catch on the radio. When one came on, you would run though the house yelling “It’s on! It’s on!” And whoever was within earshot would listen and laugh at the crazy adventures of The Streaker or the father and son wake-up call.

But unfortunately my family was not immune to the craziness of the seventies, it had infected our family as well. In a way, I guess, our family’s ‘craziness’ was caused that search for freedom the Hippies craved – Mom wanted freedom from Dad in the form of a divorce. The Hippies movement that were turning over that ‘Father Knows Best’ perspective, was also turning over in our family.

And to say I didn’t see it coming would not all together be accurate, but I wasn’t expecting it either. I guess no kid ever ‘expects’ their parents to get a divorce. On the other side, I think think any kid could somewhat ‘justify’ their parents getting a divorce or at least to themselves. Mom and Dad fought – but didn’t all parents? But children live in a self-centered world. A marriage could be falling apart and we will idly sit and watch the Partridge Family – and I did. If the fighting got too loud I would turn the volume up. For example, I didn’t know Dad had left us for two weeks when we lived in the Red House. I didn’t know things had gotten so bad at home that we had Peanut Butter sandwiches for a week while he was gone. Maybe it was because I actually liked Peanut Butter Sandwiches so I didn’t remember this as a bad thing. And to be fair, while I remember Mom and Dad fighting it wasn’t constantly. Maybe they hid their fights or maybe I tuned them out or maybe I just don’t remember. But apparently their problems were irreconcilable.

One of my strongest memories, and what shook me awake to the situation at hand, was Dad bringing me into the den the summer of ’74 and having a ‘serious conversation’ with me. Now just because your parent tells you they want to have a serious conversation, doesn’t mean its actually something that’s really that serious – like sex or drugs. You never know if its actually a serious conversation or something they just think they need to talk to you about. This actually was a serious conversation.

Dad explained that he and Mom were not getting along and he wanted to know who I would want to live with. Holy crap! he was asking me to choose between him and Mom! I didn’t answer – I couldn’t answer. He said he didn’t need to know right then but I suspect he knew the answer because I couldn’t hold back the tears that had welled up in my eyes and fell down my checks. I didn’t want to choose – but if he had forced me to answer I would have chosen Mom. But I didn’t tell him that. It was then that I realized how serious the situation at home had become.

So when I came home from school that October afternoon and Mom said we needed to pack of clothes and things for the weekend, I was numb to the situation at hand. Dawn, Dave and I went upstairs, and Dave and I went to our room and silently packed clothes, a couple of books and a few toys into a paper bag. Eventually we heard Lee in his room putting his stuff together as well.

We were already downstairs and packed when Hope came home. When Mom told her, she screamed at Mom that she didn’t understand and she’s didn’t want to leave. “I don’t know why my parents just can’t get along!” – words we all wanted to say but Hope actually said them. Mom ignored her outburst but the truth cut into me, and I suspect the others too.

We piled into the VW bus and silently drove south. Mom had the radio on but the Cubs were finished for the year so there wasn’t a game on. And had we known that Watergate hearings were going to mess up our Saturday morning cartoons, we would have noted they were starting this week too.

As Mom drove I recognized we were going to Park Rigde and when she turned down Potter I figured we were going to Aunt Betty and Uncle Richard’s. Mom didn’t say a word she just drove. Eventually she turned down their street and pulled into their driveway. Normally when we came we usually parked in the street behind their cars but there didn’t appear to be anyone here so Mom pulled all the way to their garage.

Mom got out of the bus and went to the door. She opened the screen door and dug in her purse. Finally she found a key and opened the backdoor. This was weird. It wasn’t unusual for us to go to the back door, but it was unusual for Mom to have a key to their house. This was just making a weird situation weirder. Soon Mom she had the door open and motioned us to come in. “Bring your things,” she said.

In we walked into the Aunt Betty and Uncle Richard’s kitchen. “Put your things in the living room for now,” Mom said “until we figure out where everyone is sleeping.” So we went to the living room up and dropped our bags on the floor. There was no one home.

Five blank faces looked at Mom as she explained that Aunt Betty, Uncle Richard, Brian, Keith and Judy were gone for the weekend and they were letting us use their house. We were staying here until Sunday. She explained we were hiding from Dad and we had to follow a few basic rules: we could not go outside, we could not turn on the lights or TV’s and all the curtains had to remain drawn.

That early fall evening the shadows of the houses stretched across the street and darkened Aunt Betty and Uncle Richard’s house. We had been to their house many times but never like this. It felt strange. The house was familiar but we weren’t supposed to be here – not now. The normally warm house felt odd and uncomfortable. Like a shirt whose collar was caught but you couldn’t fix it.

Actually none of this felt right. The silence permeated this normally familiar home. Us kids playing quietly – yea, that was unusual too. The tension was stretched tight between the walls and I didn’t know if it broke if it would pull the walls in on us or blow them apart. So when the living room light clicked on all the oxygen left the room. Mom ran in from the kitchen. “It turned on by itself, ” someone said.

“They have it on a timer, ” Mom said quietly and turned back to her hot dogs in the kitchen that she was making for supper. Mom may not have heard it but I could hear five hearts ease down from their reckless pace. And the oxygen levels returned to normal.

We ate our hot dogs at the Stein’s kitchen table. The formalities of grace abandoned, we focused on finishing our quiet meal as fast we could. With just the crunching of potato chips and polite requests for more Hi-C or chips we finished our meal. Dave and I were exploring Brian, Keith and Judy’s stash of games and toys in their basement. That’s when the phone rang.

“Don’t answer it!” Mom said.

Once again this showed how tense our situation was. None of us kids were going to answer a phone in somebody else’s house. What was more worrisome was Mom’s reaction to this. Everyone froze as the phone continued to ring. Dave and I came up from the basement. Three, four, five, six, seven. I’m sure all of us were wondering how many times the caller was going to let it ring – it eventually stopped.

“OK,” Mom started, “No one answers the phone. Only a few people know we are here and if they want to call us, they will let the phone ring three times, then call back and let it ring two times, and then its OK to pick it up.” Our strange weekend just got turned up a notch.

You have to remember this was 1974, before cordless phones and Caller ID. This was before you could actually buy your own phone – phones could only be rented from AT&T. Touch tone phones were available – for a monthly fee. And the only way to know who was calling was to pickup the phone.

Mom had called someone when we arrived but she had called from the kitchen when we were all in the living room or putting our stuff away. Was it Aunt Betty? Aunt Joyce? Pastor? All likely choices. Dad? Very doubtful.

The rooms were getting dark and the only light we had was the light on the timer in the living room. It seemed the darker it got outside, the closer together we were drawn on the inside. Moths to a flame?

It was only 7:30 and I was already getting tired for reading. Despite my new interest in ghost stories,  I was over half way done with my latest ghost story book, The Thing at the Foot of the Bed by Maria Leach and I hadn’t brought another book. Ever since I couldn’t stay up to finish a scary movie about creatures living in a chimney, I’ve been reading ghost stories instead of my plant books. Or maybe it was when I heard the psycho stories from that kid at Girl Scout camp.

OK, let me explain. A few summers ago, Mom was Hope or Dawn’s Den Mother when they went to Girl Scout Camp – which was just a Day Camp at the Des Plaines River Forest Preserve. Lee, Dave and I also went to Girl Scout Camp and were assigned to a den made up of all the guys who’s moms were Den Mothers. Actually, it was baby sitting.

There was this one kid who kept telling us psycho stories. Stories about psycho’s who would cut off babysitter’s legs or dismembered siblings and spouses. They always started out the same – a warning over the radio of a psycho escaping a prison or mental hospital and eventually dismembering everyone in the house or apartment or car – except the ‘lone survivor’. These stories awakened a morbid curious in me which lead me to my interest in horror movies. Then ago, it could have been my collection of Monster models I had been building since first grade. But this weekend I was scratching that itch with a book full of ghost stories.

By 8:00 someone or all of us must have complained enough that Mom announced we should go to bed. After various rounds of fruitless negotiations, I found myself laying in my cousin Brian or Keith’s bed staring at the ceiling – a strange ceiling filled with strange shadows from the street light outside. This completed the strangest that had pounced on us when we first came home from school and curled uncomfortably around us all evening. I felt like I was being punished and sent to bed early. It wasn’t fair because we hadn’t done anything wrong. Yet I understood we had to hide from Dad. Actually, no – I didn’t understand why we had to hide from Dad. To be honest, I didn’t really understand what was going on; all of this was uncomfortable and all of it was strange.

Mom and Dad were getting a divorce which meant Dad was not going to be living with us anymore. From what I understood from TV and what kids talked about, that meant sometimes you would go over to Dad’s house or wherever he was living but just for visits. So then I started wondering where Dad would live. The TV show Odd Couple was about divorced husbands and they lived in apartments. Maybe Dad was going to get an apartment. And when we had ‘a visit’, Mom and Dad could just switch places. Mom could go to his apartment and Dad could live in our house for the weekend. Maybe Dad could get a little house like the one we used to rent to people – but maybe a lot nicer. Or even better, maybe we could ask the West’s, the people who live in the basement apartment of our Gray house, to live somewhere else and Dad could live there,  that would be perfect! The more I thought about it, the better I liked it. But when I thought about from Mom’s perspective, and figured she may not be too keen on that idea.

I started running through different scenarios, what if there was something at school, would Dad come? So would getting a divorce mean Mom and Dad would get along better? Would we go to church together? Would Dad come with to the Brumm picnic? Could we go to Dad’s softball games? Did Dad even play softball anymore? Why are we hiding from him? Is Mom teaching him ‘a lesson’? Why is she so mad at him? What did he do? Why doesn’t he just apologize? Why is this happening? I don’t want to be here – I want to go home – to my own bed, my own ceiling and my own shadows. I don’t like any of this. This is scaring me – scaring me way more then my ghost stories. I don’t want them to get a divorce, I want things to be the way they used to be. I want to play with my dinosaurs and watch my cactuses and ants. I want to watch TV with Dave and Lee and have Mom come in and change the channel to the Cubs game when someone got a hit while she was listening to it in the kitchen. I want Dad to come home from work and kiss Mom and yell for us for supper. I want my friends to come to my birthday party and Mom and Dad to drive us all to the theater to watch the latest Godzilla movie. And come home to have cake and ice cream. I want everything to be GOOD and everyone to get along. Why couldn’t they just get along? But the strange shadows on the ceiling were silent, and I realized even my own thoughts were becoming strange to me.

 I heard a click and the light from under the bedroom door was gone. The timer on the light must have clicked off. I heard Mom walking around downstairs and the front door jiggle – she must be checking the locks. Eventually I heard her climb the stairs as she went to bed in Aunt Betty and Uncle Richard’s bedroom. And the strange house just got darker – and stranger. I hated all the questions that kept popping up in my head. I didn’t like being scared. But not like a spooky ‘being scared’ – scared about what was going on. Uncomfortable. Strange. Not fitting. Itchy. Scared. Then finally – sleep. No more questions.

The next morning it was still strange but I always like the mornings better. Dave was already out of bed and Mom and Dawn were also up. I found Dave downstairs in the basement. He had discovered our cousins’ 45 collection and was playing “The Streak.” The interjection of humor was exactly what we needed to help offset this weekend. We joined in when Ray Steven’s yell to his wife, “Don’t look, Ethel!” only to be warned by Mom we needed to be quiet. When the 45 ended and then the best part came – we could just play it again. And once again Dave and I were laughing as Ray Stevens’ warned Ethel over and over again not to look.

Eventually we moved to different 45’s and then started digging through the Stein’s games and pulled out Trouble to play. Typically I could usually beat Dave at most games but not this morning. The Pop-o-Matic was definite popping his way. And while I would usually beat Dave, believe it or not, I wasn’t always the most gracious loser. In turn, this made Dave less then humble when he won – which he eventually did.

While Dave and I got along pretty well, it wasn’t hard to get mad at him. He knew which buttons of mine to push and I, well, I would typically just punched him. Or shoved him, or pushed him. The problem was even though we were only a year apart, I had Dave by 80 pounds or so. And believe me, Dave didn’t weight thirty pounds. So he would typically taunt me from afar – and that was his mistake this morning.

While he was standing over me doing his stupid winning dance, I grabbed his foot and pushed into the couch. At the same time Mom was yelling in her loudest whisper, “I told you two to be quiet!”

Dave hit the arm of the couch and landed on the seat cushions. Dave and I both heard a muffed ‘crunch’.  I had thrown the ‘listened-to’ 45’s on the couch and Dave had fallen on them (yes – with my help). As Dave rolled off the couch to see what had ‘crunched’, there laid the 45’s we had listened to – luckily they were all OK, with one exception – “The Streak”.

“You pushed me!” Dave blamed.

“What is going on down there?” Mom whispered, as loud as she could.

And I had no response. And the brief normalcy Dave and I had evaporated. My first thought was to hid it – which I may have tried at home. But Dave would never had let me get away with it at home or here. I quickly realized how bad my situation was. We, OK – I mean ‘I’ – broke Brian or Keith or Judy’s 45 and I would have to tell Mom.

I walked to the stairs and held up the 45 to Mom, “Dave and I were wrestling and he fell on the 45 and broke one,” I said. I tried to put as much blame on Dave as possible.

“You pushed me!” Dave started.

“Quiet! you two,” Mom cut off. “You are going to have to buy them a new one.” And then she turned back to the kitchen.

Normally I would have happy getting off without any punishment, but I could tell from Mom’s face the broken 45 was not her biggest concern. And that sunk me back to our situation and our imprisonment. What had started out as a somewhat normal or even fun morning had reverted back to this weekend’s somber theme.

Mom didn’t really make breakfast, we just ate cereal to quiet clicking of spoons and bowls and the occasional “pass the milk, please” or “can I have the Fruit Loops, please.” Mom got a couple of phone calls via the ‘secret code’ and made a couple herself. We all played games and read our books or played with our toys to pass the morning. Lunch passed like breakfast and as we got to the longest part of our stay – the afternoon.

The sense of prison was there – not that I had any real sense of what a prison was like. Actually, confinement would be a better word. While it was cloudy the sun was bright and that only heighten the sadness of our confinement. I wondered if our guinea pigs felt like this? But they wouldn’t be hiding from their dads. They wouldn’t understand the complexity of divorce or how a marriage dissolves into games and moves. Or in our case – lack of moves.

At some point in the afternoon the phone rang but only once. At this point we knew the code – three rings, then two rings, or it just rang seven or eight or nine times until it stopped. One ring was strange. It rang again, this time twice. I had been upstairs in Brian and Keith’s bedroom and had come out to look at the ringing phone – which really didn’t make any sense. From the stairs I saw Mom standing in the living room with her arm out to keep anyone from answering the phone. No one was moving toward the phone. We were all too scared. Again, that didn’t make sense, it was just a phone.

The phone began ringing again – one — two — three, and then stopped. The silence followed. I didn’t understand why I was scared. The phone just started ringing again – one — two — three — four — five — six — seven — eight, and then it stopped. Dad’s trying to find us. Apparently he knows there’s a code to answer the phone. Who else has he been calling? Has he come by the Stein’s house? The phone had been quiet for 3 or 4 minutes when it started ringing again – one — two, and then it stopped. More ringing – one — two, now more stopping. Two more rings, more silence, then five or six rings. We were all staring at that stupid phone.

Dad was trying to find us. We knew it was Dad.

But why shouldn’t he find us?

– Because Mom didn’t want him to.

Why?

– Because we were hiding from him.

Why were we hiding from him?

– Because they are getting a divorce.

So?

– So what?

Why are we hiding from him?

And its because I couldn’t answer that question that I was scared. Actually I was scare because I wouldn’t ask the next question. I couldn’t ask the next question.

What would he do if he found us?

That is the question I couldn’t ask and never asked until I wrote it. Dad was Dad. There was no fear with him outside of a spanking, and those had ended years ago. But there was one time we woke up to find the kitchen door window covered with cardboard and Mom wearing a bandage. I asked what happened to her arm and she said she cut it cleaning up the glass. When I asked more questions I was told to leave the subject alone.

Actually the real question was – what would he do if he found Mom?

I would learn a phase years from now – ‘there’s a thin line between love and hate.’ I think Mom had crossed that line a while ago. And whatever was happening this weekend – I think that Mom thinks it will now put Dad on the other side of that line as well. Divorce papers? Restraining order? I didn’t know what going on at the time and being trapped at Aunt Betty and Uncle Richard’s and watching a phone ring off as Dad tried different codes to try to find us was way outside my norm. So if we were supposed to be hiding, at that moment, why did I feel so exposed? What if he guessed the code?

Eventually the phone stopped ringing and with the new silence we could tell Dad had stopped trying – for now. He tried again later in the afternoon but his guesses were way off. And the only way Mom would have answered is if he guessed the code the first time. Dad’s attempts left the afternoon like yesterday – strange, apprehensive and scarey. We again retreated to our books and games. The bright light from the thin clouds deepened my sense of being a prisoner. And while we had now spent twenty four hours in Aunt Betty and Uncle Richard’s house, we still felt like strangers. Mom received and made a couple more calls; and Dad didn’t try to call anymore.

The evening passed like yesterday did – unwanted and slow. I finished “The Thing at the Foot of the Bed.” And we all played some more games but, frankly, we were getting tired of being cooped-up. We went to bed early again but glad to know this would be our last night. I was amazed how tired I was of being bored and that played out on the strange Ceiling Shadows games again that night. My mind again spun through what Mom and Dad being divorced meant to us kids – actually, specifically me.

It was going to be different, and yet it wasn’t. I didn’t usually see Dad before school because he left so early. He usually didn’t get home until supper time and then he, or sometimes Mom, worked at church cleaning stuff, setting this or that up or fixing things. When he was home we mostly watched TV. Lately I would ‘play’ with my cactuses (actually sit and watch them while they sat in pots on the front porch), or collect ants for my ant farm; or play with some of my new friends. But I really didn’t do much with Dad.

So their divorce wasn’t really going to change what I did too much, I didn’t think. I figured I, actually we, would have to visit him at his apartment like the guys in Odd Couple. I guess that would be like going to Grandma and Grandpa’s – Brumm or Zilligen’s. I think I could deal with that. Maybe this won’t be too bad – and that’s what I kept telling myself as I fell asleep.

I’d like to say we got up the next morning, got in our VW bus and went to church (which was pretty close to Aunt Betty and Uncle Richard’s house), met Dad and everything was fine. Or something more dramatic for you the reader – as Mom backed out of the driveway, we found Dad sleeping in his station wagon outside Aunt Betty and Uncle Richard’s house and there was car chase through Park Ridge until the police pulled Dad over and we got away. But the reality is I don’t remember what happened. I think we got our stuff together, got into the VW bus and drove home. Lee said he remember the house being completely dark when we came home so that would have meant we spent all of Sunday and Aunt Betty and Uncle Richard’s. And Dad wasn’t there. And life went on.

To this day I don’t actually know why we were hiding from Dad. I’ve always assumed he was being served either divorce papers or a restraining order. I don’t remember Dad being around that Fall and Winter. We did have a few visitations – he took us to a movie, ‘The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams‘ but I remember the movie more then the actual visit.

I remember he also took us to Grandma Brumm which I thought was weird. Weird because because she was Mom’s mom (not really but I didn’t know that at the time) and secondly because we had lunch there. Grandma and Grandpa Brumm had a tiny house. An upstairs I had never been in and main floor that was consisted of living room, a tiny room to the east where they used to put their Christmas tree. There was a tiny kitchen to the north of the living room with a table for two and a bed to the west of the kitchen. On our visit with Dad, a table had been setup in the living room and we had lunch. The room was so small you could not get around the table when everyone was sitting down. We rarely ate meals at Grandma’s.

After that lunch Dad stopped at Aunt Bernice and Uncle Ray’s. We pulled into the driveway, Dad got out to see if they were home but they weren’t. Why we stopped there I don’t know. Again, Aunt Bernice was Mom’s sister so why were we stopping there at all?

Those were the only two visits I remember. I don’t remember any interactions between Mom and Dad during either of those visits.  I think Mom just stayed in the bedroom when Dad picked us up.

Fall turned to Winter and like the temperatures outside, Mom and Dad’s relationship began to freeze. Actually, freeze wouldn’t be the right word because a relationship is based on interactions and those were being minimized. Us kids would go between a somewhat normal week at school and then to the occasional awkward visits with Dad – a reminder that things were changing. A new reality was emerging.

As Christmas came more realities emerged. Wrapping paper was replaced by newspaper – a sign that money was tight. There was no Christmas Eve trip to Grandma Brumm. Santa had replaced Jesus for all of us.  (This is not to imply that Jesus wasn’t part of our Christmas. We always went to church and Sunday School each week and also Advent and Lenten services. This Christmas we no longer had to play the ‘Santa Game’ for Dawn’s sake.)

And while the divorce had been public knowledge for a while, the realities and the mechanics were now beginning to be felt. Dad’s small role in our day to day lives was getting smaller. The skin on this new life was very thin and very sensitive. And while I could still go to school and play, I kept the divorce packed away and left at home. But on Dad’s visits, I would have to strip out of my old life and bare this new skin.

We all, I think, felt exposed, Mom and Dad included. And at those moments I would have liked to run away but only in my old comfortable skin. But this new skin was here to stay, until that one got peeled away too – a few weeks later.

Songs of My Life: Seasons In The Sun

songsofmylifeTerry Jack’s “Seasons in The Sun” ended up defining my generation’s ‘One Hit Wonder’. Released in December of ’73, it went number one in March of ’74 and remained in the top 40 through Memorial Day weekend that year. So it always felt like a summer song to me. It was also my first Teenage Tragedy song.

What many people don’t realize it that ‘Seasons In The Sun‘ was a cover of a French single from ’61 that was covered in English by the Kingston Trio in ’63 before Terry Jacks, a Canadian,  covered it in ’73. Jacks was drawn to the song when a friend of his friend developed leukemia. Originally presented to the Beach Boys, who Terry Jacks knew, but after some initial work he ended up recording it himself.

‘Seasons In The Sun’ will always be a summer song to me. As it did every year, the 74’s winter gave way to its spring and we could once again play outside on our big side yard at our Gray House. It was sitting outside with that Spring Sun shining that I remember the doom and gloom of ‘Seasons In The Sun’. Typically we had a volleyball court setup our side yard. The jungle gym and tether ball were on the other side. Once spring dried enough we would be back on our big expanse of grass and Dad would eventually put the volleyball net back up. It was in the midst of sunshine and a warming breeze where I remember listening to ‘Seasons In The Sun’ for the first time.

Even at eleven years old, the irony was not lost on me – the warm spring days with its promises of Life conflicted with with a song about someone dying.  From the song’s beginning fuzzed up guitar melody, to the catchy chorus, to the angelic background vocals – this was a beautifully sad song. But at eleven years old, thoughts of dying were still fantastic. A concept I related to as well as could imagine living in the year 2525. I was finishing Fifth grade, my first year at West Elementary. The art of dying was something your pets did, not something you did yourself.

Skipper was our family’s first dog, a collie – as in the Lassie kind of dog. From a small child’s perspective he was a large long hair friend with four legs, a bushy tail, a pointy snout and ears that us kids would take turns trying to make them longer then they were. He had been my hairy older brother. One morning back in our Red House, I woke up, went outside only to find Skipper lying at the bottom of the concrete stairs that led to the laundry room. When I told Mom, she explained that he had fallen down the stair inside and broken his leg. Dad had laid him at the bottom of the stairs outside.

It was bright hot sunny morning and the sun reflected green off the flies that would gather around Skippers eyes. I remembered the dried tears on my cheeks and the tightness in my throat whenever I looked at skipper. Because Mom had also told me, that when Dad came home from work, he was going to bring Skipper to the vet to be put down. I don’t remember where my brothers or sisters were, I only remember my arm aching from swiping the flies away from Skipper’s eyes. I don’t know how long I stayed with Skipper that morning or when Dad came home that evening. There are no memories of tearful goodbyes as Dad carried Skipper to the back the the car. I only remember Skipper was no more. And then after Skipper there was Buffy; and then there was Jamie. (Full disclosure – we only had Buffy for a couple of years. Buffy had a bladder problem so she became someone else’s problem.)

Putting down Skipper down was a crack in my perfect world. So when Terry lamented his dying in ‘Seasons In the Sun’ this eleven year old understood where he was coming from – I had lost a dog, a brother. I wasn’t living in some TV show, I was dealing with the realities of life.

I would some times fantasize about my death and my funeral. Mom and Dad would finally give me the attention due me, instead of wasting attention on my brothers and sisters. Like the scene in ‘A Christmas Story’ when Ralphie comes home blind.

My old friends from Devonshire school, and my new friends from West would both come to my funeral. And they were fight over who was my best friend and who I played with more. And the cute girl in the back of the class would admit she kinda liked me.

And my brothers and sisters would feel terrible on how they treated me and actually admit I was a great kid. Hope would put one of my old plastic dinosaur in my coffin. Lee would add my beatup Monster magazine that mom had gotten me in. Dave and Dawn would fight over which cactus to put in by me and end up each picking their favorites.

My parents would be crying and blaming themselves. They would said they were too hard on me and that they should have gotten me that bike I wanted, or that dinosaur model, or not make me go to church all the time, or they would not have fought so much. If I could have survived, they would promise never to fight again. That’s how I imagined my final scene in ‘Seasons In The Sun’.

Kids are so self-centered. Wanting to be the ‘best’ friend or trying to get sympathy from family members – but that’s a kid’s world. It was normal to think we weren’t being treated fairly in a family where we competed with each other for attention, love and material things. The fantasy death, in my mind, was a way to get attention from my parents and ‘extract’ sympathy from my siblings.

But I wasn’t always innocent myself; of course not. Kids see the world from self-centering glasses. I remember one Easter we were hunting for Easter Eggs inside in our Red House Easter morning. As with any family, the advantage always goes to the older kids. So Hope and Lee were really cleaning up on finding the eggs that year. And I’ll have you know, I wasn’t doing too bad myself. Dave, on the other hand, wasn’t doing well at all and started crying.

There tends to be an age growing up when you know what to do but you simply can’t do it as well as the older kids. Dawn wasn’t old enough yet to really care that she wasn’t getting as many eggs. She was happy with the 3 or 4 eggs she had been given. Dave was next to me, crying to anyone that would listen (i.e. Mom and Dad) that Hope, Lee and I were “getting all the eggs!” Dad came over to console him. He knelt down and spoke quietly in his ear.

At the beginning of the hunt, Mom and Dad had announced there was one special egg that was worth a dollar to whoever found it. They didn’t say what it looked like but that we would know it was the special egg when we found it. Dad was telling Dave where the special egg was – upstairs in the kitchen and taped to the underside of the bench where us kids sat at for our meals.

As I was running up the stairs I could already hear Dave crying. His cries turned to shrieks when he got to top and saw me pulling the egg from the hiding place. Dad appeared next to Dave with a look that said – well, let’s just say I hadn’t learned those words yet.

Dave and I fought a lot growing up but we got along much more then we fought. Hope and Lee were two and three years older then me and Dawn was almost three years younger then me. Dave and I were only a year a part – like Hope and Lee – but both being boys, it was bound to come to blows at some point in our playing. When it came to fighting, I remembered what Grandma Zilligen said said, “we would just let the boys fight it out in the farmyard.” But then again – Grandma was a nut job. Honestly, though, we, all played together much more then any of us fought.

<insert cranky grandpa voice> “When I was a kid” </cranky grandpa voice>, it was OK to leave your twelve year old home alone to watch your six, eight and nine year old. The eleven didn’t need to be watched either, but was willing to help the twelve year old. It was OK to leave the kids in the car when you ran into the store. We also played outside at night. And left home alone all evening. It was fun to be left alone. It was the those rare occasions when all five of us played together for an entire evening.

One thing we did together was played games – boardgames, though it was hard to find games you could play with more then four people. I think Mom and Dad indulged us with games – most likely because we could occupy ourselves and when our friends came over. They also make great Christmas presents for the entire family.

We had a lot of games, shelves full. I remember lots of them and more as I looked them up: Don’t Spill the Beans (an old game that’s being updated and still being sold today), Masterpiece (I definitely appreciated this one more after going to the Chicago Art Institute), Pivot Pool (for those us who only had bumper pool), Battleships (great two player game that has become a classic), Battling Tops (an all-time classic and one of my favorites), Stay Alive (almost forgot about this one), Happiness (from hippies that thought up flower-power), Life (another classic but it took a long time to play), Aggravation (the old game I could never remember how to play), Toss Across (since we couldn’t play Jarts inside), Sorry (your standard game for when your friends came over), Crossfire (I loved the guns but we would eventually lose all the steel balls), Operation (I didn’t know this was actually a game, mainly because the batteries were always dead ), Ten Commandments (our friends would always stare at us when we brought this one out – we couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t play this), Landslide (I still think of this one when someone mentions ‘electoral votes’), Gunfight At OK Corral (like Crossfire but you just had to get the other guys gunfighter while you were shooting steel balls), Mystery Date (I only played this once because Hope made me), Gnip Gnop (stupidly simply game but fun – I called in it ‘ga-nip, ga-nop’ but I’m guessing its just ‘nip-nop’), Rebound (another game with steel balls, what a great invention those steel balls were!), Headache (Evil Sorry with the Pop-O-Matic), Clue (didn’t really like this one at first because there was too much thinking), Barnabas Collins (any game with skeletons was always cool), Trouble (basically just Sorry with the Pop-O-Matic), Hang On Harvey (I swear Mom and Dad would buy us any game, and we would play it), Uncle Wiggily (an older game we would play with our friends), Which Witch (since we didn’t have Mouse Trap, this game had the most things to assembly and after a hour of setting up you didn’t want to play anymore), Don’t Break the Ice (kinda like Operation – you didn’t know it was a game, you just played with it), Stratego (my first strategy game), Chinese Checkers (all us kids played this – because we all could at the same time), Kerplunk (a classic ‘Jenga’ time though I wonder why they didn’t use steel balls in this game, just regular ol’ marbles), Cootie (don’t think I ever played this, just made as many Cooties bugs as we had pieces for), Criss-Cross (Lee always had the timing down – to knock over your…yep, steel ball) and Hands Down (because plastic hands were so much better then real hands).

But typically when Mom and Dad left us alone, at some point in the evening, we would play ‘House’. Everyone played ‘House’ but everyone played differently. In our version, Hope played mommy and Lee play daddy (though I never really thought he took his role as seriously as Hope did – I suspect he was figuring out its wasn’t cool to play ‘House’. Girls could get away with it for a lot longer). Dave was typical a dog and Dawn was typically a cat. I played the role of a beast of burden – a horse, an elephant, a rhino, a tiger, anything Hope could ride around the living room. As Dave got older he too played a rideable animal.

We would play in the living room of our Red House. Hope would take turns playing with the dog and cat and taking turns riding her pet rhinoceros. Lee would also take his turns and eventually end up on the couch directing the animals on how to play. Or sometimes he was the guest to visit the ‘house’. This went on until the dog and cat stopped staying in the ‘house’ or the elephant or horse got tired of being ridden and went downstairs to watch TV.

Sometime in the early seventies, Mom and Dad started attending a New Year’s Eve party. This meant not only would be be home by ourselves, we could also stay up until Midnight! This is also when Hope taught us to play ‘Sardines‘. We played lots of group games outside but there was not a lot of games you could play inside. Sardines was perfect for kids that had to stay inside – at night.

First, you turn all the lights in the house off. Next, the person that is ‘it’ hides somewhere in the darkened house while everyone else closes their eyes and counts. We’d have to watch Dave, he was known not close his eyes sometimes. Then, everyone would hunt for the missing person (I guess you could call them the ‘sardine’). Once you found the sardine, you became one yourself and you had to squeeze into their hiding place with them. The trick was to do this without tipping off the others who are still looking for the sardine. We loved playing this game and while we would trying to play whenever we could, it became a tradition to play it on New Years Eve.

The last time we played Sardines was New Years Eve 1974/75. And while we were now in the Gray House and there were more places to hide, we were no longer the same kids were when our Sardines tradition had started. Hope was a freshman in high school, Lee would graduate from junior high that spring and Dave, Dawn and I went to West Elementary.

The bigger change was Mom and Dad were no longer together and in the process of getting divorce. Despite the upheaval, or maybe because of it, Mom went out New Years Eve. I don’t know if Mom needed the time away from us or she was just letting us hold on to our Sardine tradition a little longer, but for one last time, we had the house to ourselves on New Years Eve.

We no longer played ‘House’ but we did play Sardines. Our last New Years Eve wasn’t the same, it had a different vibe. I don’t know if we had started early or if it was the stress the pending divorce and we lost interest, or more likely, we were just not into Sardines as much we had been. Actually, it was Hope who wanted to stop playing. She had heard that WLS radio did a countdown of the top 89 songs for the year. So sometime after 11:00 the lights came back and we turned on the TV. I was curious about this countdown so I went with Hope and Lee to listen to Hope’s radio, or we tuned the kitchen clock radio to WLS and listened as they counted through the last of the 89 songs for 1974. Midnight came and we celebrated a new year – 1975.

And we celebrated a new number one song. It was Terry Jack’s “Seasons In The Sun”. Listening to the song in the kitchen New Years Eve was so different. On one hand, it reminded me the warm spring days seven or eight months earlier. On the other side, the melancholy fit much better on that cold January night. Terry Jack’s lamenting snuggled nicely with our parent’s pending divorce. But none of us could have suspected that five weeks later, the seasons in our own sun were about to end.