Sunday, April 29, 2007

On the Road: Driving Man, part 1

I sat in the drivers' waiting area, duffel bag on the floor beside me, waiting for my Driver/Trainer to arrive. All I had was a name on a piece of paper: "Thomas Martinez (non-smoking)." Other that that, I had no idea what to expect.

There was an image in my head of spending these next four weeks on the road with the lead singer of Los Lobos, probably because our instructor for my 18 weeks of truck driving school had looked like him. Al Munoz was a New York Puerto Rican who had ended up in Phoenix teaching guys like me how to drive trucks because driving trucks for 25 years had left him medically incapable of doing much else.

Seemed all of the instructors had been "rode hard and put away wet" as they said; they all had gum or suckers on hand because they were all trying to quit smoking. A few were diabetic, and one -- the "old guy" -- who looked like he was at least in his late 70's, based on his decrepit appearance and obvious medical frailties, shocked us all by telling us he was only 58. "Bennies did this to me!" he would crow.

But in the middle of my pondering, a squat, white guy with a Marine corps "bottle cap" style BDU cap came out and called my name. "You got your gear?" he growled. I nodded. "Come on, then."

We went out to his truck, and stashed my duffel in a big compartment under the lower bunk. "I've gotta get some paperwork and crap. There's a spray bottle and rag in there, so just clean up the truck while I'm doing that. This is your home for the next month, so get used to cleaning up after yourself."

He strode off back toward the terminal, and left me there holding the spray bottle. I suppose I could have gotten upset about it and made a big fuss, but judging by his hat and the USMC seal in the corner of the window, I guessed what he was up to, so I cleaned the hell out of that truck.

He came back after nearly an hour, surveyed the truck, nodded at me with approval, and climbed aboard.

-------------------------

I woke up slowly, tempted to let the motion of the truck rock me back to sleep, but I sensed it was probably more appropriate to get up at this point. I pulled on my jeans, rolled up my sleeping bag, and slipped into the passenger seat. It was a glorious morning, heading west toward Barstow, California; the desert scrub spreading in every direction, the sky stretching and arching its back like a cat, on tip-toes at the horizon, so pale a shade of blue that it was almost black again.

"This is why I wanted to do this," I said, indicating the landscape. I had told him all about England; the long nights and days stuck on the watch floor, the dreary days and nights spent huddled in our little house, hoping we would be able to handle the bills another month on a junior enlisted-man's salary. And how, after 9/11, I was thinking of going back to it. Probably would, if this job didn't work out.

"You're doing fine," he would lie. He kept telling me the mistakes I made were small. "It's a 'forgiveable' mistake, as long as it can be repaired and no one was hurt," he would say. But more and more I was starting to dread being on the road in a truck by myself. The things that had gone wrong -- leaving the paperwork with the wrong trailer at the swap-yard in Calexico; getting lost in Los Angeles; climbing Mt. Shasta during a blizzard.

And worse, I still couldn't handle backing the truck. I had passed the test to gain my Commercial Driver's License (CDL), but I could tell it was close. I couldn't see the tires in the mirror at night; couldn't hook up a trailer by myself; and certainly couldn't back up to a loading dock. What good was a driver if all he could handle was the "driving" part?

It was hard for me to gauge how well I was actually doing, though. Tom had purposely created a lot of pressure on me during all of those situations, trying to see how I would handle it. He'd kept us on the road without stopping for the first two days straight, waiting to see when I would ask to eat or shower or go to the bathroom. I spent those two days wondering when this crazy ex-Marine would ever stop to eat, shower, or use the bathroom! Fortunately, the truck needed to eat every 600 miles or so, so I had a daily opportunity to "perform my necessary".

But we still hadn't eaten. When he finally told me to pull off, we stopped at an adobe house on the main drag of some dusty, shit-splat town in southern California. He told me I was in for a treat; REAL Mexican food. So we went in, where the menu was painted on the white-washed wall in big red letters. Words I kind of recognized, like "asada" and "cabra" next to words I didn't, like "leng├╝eta" and "cordero". I was leaning towards some kind of pie ("conserv├│ en vinagre pies"), but Tom suggested I just go with a burrito con cabra asada, and back on the road we went.

He wrapped himself up in his bunk, and watched a couple of movies while I pressed on toward Sacramento. I munched on the massive -- and delicious -- burrito as I drove, half watching the road, half glancing at the reflection of the movie in my side window.

Until something began to murmur down below.

I don't know if it was some foreign spice, the quality of meat, or simply the stress and strain of the road, but my system was suddenly quite upset about something. I tried to get Tom's attention, but he was snoring loudly in the back, and couldn't hear me. We were on a stretch of road with no lights, no shoulder, and little to no hope of a rest stop.

The murmur intensified over the course of 50 miles, becoming more urgent with each mile marker. And, suddenly, we came to the Interstate! I-5, northbound, and the first thing I saw was a sign for a rest stop: 30 miles. I had already lasted one hour, and I was damned if I wasn't going to make it 30 minutes more! I set my teeth, and kept taking deep breaths. It seemed that all of that "training" I had done on mid watches in the Air Force, competing with the other guys to see who could hold the most coffee for the longest time, were about to pay off.

Tom woke about three miles from our destination, and I told him we were taking a little break. "That's cool, I was going to switch with you sometime, anyway. This'll work."

The rest stop was packed. Trucks lined the exit ramp, and there were no open spaces anywhere. I cruised through, barely able to control the lower half of my body, riding the clutch in anticipation.

Then I saw a spot: just to the right of a car-carrier that had gone in crooked and left himself hanging out an extra six feet or so. I carefully maneuvered so that I would not scrape Tom's truck on that hanging corner, and was about to breathe a deep sigh of anticipated relief... when our trailer caught on the guy to the left of us.

Tom and I leapt from the cab to see how bad it was. The other driver was out there, too; fortunately, he wasn't causing a big fuss, yet. Tom left me there, apologizing, while he straightened out and parked. Then I couldn't wait any more, and I sprinted to the bank of toilets.

The driver of the other truck determined that we hadn't done any real damage to him. I bent one of the door hinges on the trailer, but had really done more damage to my own trailer... and no one really cares much about trailers, outside of the dispatch office. So, Tom and I eased back onto the road, my forgiveable mistake hanging between us. I was embarrassed, but also frightened. How could I possibly handle this job if I couldn't even get to a bathroom without causing an accident?

Tom didn't say anything for a while. He just let me stew for a few miles, and then said, "You know, you could have just stopped, put on your hazards, and hung your ass out the door anywhere along the last hundred miles." I must have looked shocked, because he laughed.

"Why not? The Swift drivers do that all the time."

Saturday, April 28, 2007

"I Love You Anyway"

Originally posted Saturday, April 28, 2007 (and he still does this as of 2010!! Just not as violently.)

I've got this kid... let's call him "Thor", because he often uses his head as a hammer... who seems determined to put up a fight, no matter what. He's getting better, now that he has passed out of that 3-to-5-year-old phase that all boys seem to go through -- you know, the one where God sends Gabriel to ask you to keep it down -- but he still likes to show his gums every now and then, and really resist something. He used to do it with meals, refusing to eat for hours, and howling about how hungry he was at bedtime. Until recently, he was very consistent about revolting at cleaning-up time, to the point that we took away ALL of the toys for a week.

But through it all, we gritted our teeth, and did our duty as parents. We argued, fought, and regretfully followed through on even the most dire of threats (such as the Week Without Toys), making sure to stress the point throughout: you will do your part in this house. Heck, even I eventually learned that lesson, with Kate's patient help.

And at night, when we were all exhausted and ready to chuck each other out the windows, we would tuck him in, sweating from conflict and hoarse from shouting down toddler arguments, and tell him, "I love you."

Most people don't think about this, but "love" is one of those English words that works as more than one Part of Speech. It is a noun, of course, as in "You are my love" or "our love burns hotter than fire". It is also a verb, as in "I will love you forever", or "I don't love you any more" (two phrases that are often spoken by the same mouth to the same audience, with a noticeable lack of "forever" in between).

Loving your child is not optional, though; it's like driving without insurance. You must love the child, or there are terrible consequences in your future. But like the insurance analogy, you have to choose it. Whether you go with Gecko Love, or Good Hands, it is always a conscious decision to love, in the end.

Love, after all, is an Action Verb.

The reason so many marriages fail is because the participants tend to believe that the wedding is the prize, and that once you have it, you can put it in your living room and let it entertain you. Then, when it turns out to require effort, like most action verbs, they feel disappointed, and want to trade it in on more dating, and then... well, it's a big relationship tar-baby at that point.

But, I digress... while tucking him in, we would tell the boy, "I love you", and he would usually say, with all of the hatred a young child can muster, "Well I don't love you!!" We talked about ways to handle that, ignoring it at first, and then growing more concerned when he kept it up. We didn't want to make yet another battle out of it, and we certainly didn't want to force him to say "I love you" back to us, especially if he was angry about it. Rounds of therapy lie down THAT path, young padawan.

So we took to giving him the subject answer: "I love you, anyway."

This drove him up the wall. He hated that answer. The first few times we tried this strategy, he flew into a screaming rage, bellowing, "Well, I DON'T love YOU!!!" He was punished for yelling, and tucked back into bed, and told (as calmly as possible), "It doesn't matter if you love me or not; I love you, anyway."

Perhaps you've heard of those people who respond to angry drivers and their fingers with a cheerful "Have a nice day!" or "God Bless you, too!" Those people describe the feeling they get from that as being both rebellious and provocative (because it throws off the angry person at the other end) and very fulfilling (because you aren't the one committing an angry or hateful act). That was how it felt to us; like we were waving and smiling at a fuming jerk in a souped up Civic, speeding on his way to a date with the speed trap up the road.

But as satisfying as that is, and as right as it felt not to force the issue, there remained a sense that we weren't getting through to him. At the end of the day, he wasn't a rude stranger on the road; he was our son. And he was using our own affection against us. We decided that he knew it was a weapon, and he was simply going to keep using it on us until he got tired of it. The only reasonable way to get him to stop was to outlast him.

So, I've gotten used to the routine. We tuck them in, and give them all hugs and kisses; and when we tell them we love them, he scowls and says, "I don't love you." We give our reply, and go upstairs. Tonight, I was especially braced for it, since I had cut short whatever game they were playing and did a forced march through the house to gather all of the Legos (tm) they had strewn about. (Don't start me on the dangers of Lego-mining.) With mommy out of town, daddy is the least popular substitute sheriff ever.

I got medicine for the sick ones, and water for all; I tucked in special blankets and buddies, adjusted the bedtime electrical devices -- lights, off; fan and de-humidifier, on -- and gave the round of hugs. I got to his bed, and had to tell him to calm down, lie still. I hugged him, and told him I loved him, and he said, "I love you, too, daddy."

"Well, I love you any...way..." I looked down at him, and he was grinning at me like a loon.

"I knew you were going to say that," he said.

I left it at that.

Friday, April 20, 2007

A Friend Indeed

Sonny sits by his window and thinks to himself,
How it's strange that some rooms are like cages,
Sonny's yearbook from high school is down from its shelf,
And he idly thumbs through the pages...

Ann lay on her back and let her mind wander. It was the only part of her that could. For ten years, she had lain in pretty much the same spot on pretty much the same bed, watching basketball or movies with her mother, unable to move under her own power or tend to herself.

She fought hard in the first years, when they still weren't sure what it was that was destroying her body; fought against the fog that would creep in with the medication. She fought to stay in the room in the house with her mother. Peggy was a retired school teacher, and while it wasn't easy to cover Ann's medical expenses on a teacher's pension, they at least owned the house. They got by. Ann and Peggy used to sit and talk about that; how grateful they were to just get by. There wasn't much need for talking any more, though.

Ann had stopped fighting the fog so much. She had a really bad spell in 1999, when she was already five years along. They had learned the name of the disease in 1994, so even though she had been growing more unstable on her feet for years before that, she counted 1994 as the year she "got" sick. And five years on, the fog had come for her. It had pressed inward until there was no way to avoid it.

It wasn't so bad. In fact, it made things easier. She could hear voices in that fog; familiar voices, whispering things to her. At first, she thought it meant she was dying. She thought she was hearing the dead, and that they were calling for her to come into the fog and become one of them. To leave her mother behind in the old house draped with long strands of memory.

But the voices didn't come from the dead. She recognized the voices of her friends from school; the ones who used to gather in her living room after choir practice, back when she was only "tired". Back when she believed she only needed to eat more and she would "snap out of it". They had been an odd bunch. No one would have figured them for close friends; the goofball boys with their disregard for appearance, the girls with their varied approaches to propriety. All of them with different backgrounds, similar influences, random permutations, bringing about wonderful combinations of viewpoints and outlooks.

They would go rent videos, arguing over what to get for hours, debating the merits of film vs. "flick", and then spend most of the night talking, videos unwatched, discussing God, reality, music and politics; exchanging dreams and tales of other friends who were just as odd like currency at an airport kiosk. They were all people who had never had a Group to belong to, and were as surprised to discover themselves in a group as they were eager to discover who else was in it.

Some of the talk grew heated; some of the more casual members slipped away, but no one was driven off. Through the fog, Ann could follow them if she wanted to, and see where they ended up. Sometimes she watched what they were doing. A few, though, burned brighter than the others. They were the ones who had given her the most to think about over the years.

Three of them had nearly shared a birthday. Born within 24 hours of each other, sharing the date with Shakespeare, Orbison, and Nabokov, there was a bond there which they treated lightly, but it held them, nonetheless. When she could find no one else in the fog, she could find the two of them.

One was a boy from overseas. He had grown up in Africa and Europe, and behaved in ways that were purposefully foreign. He had been the Atheist of the group; the nihilist who believed in Devil's Advocacy above all else. His arguments for cold logic and reason were always betrayed by the passion with which he argued, though, and when she sought him out in the fog, it was his heart that drew her to him.

A second boy, as native an Arizonan as Ann herself, had worked hard to be as surprising as the first. He was loud, brash, and full of ideas that would spill out and break apart on contact with the world. He had learned to temper his volume over the years, but it was still the sound of him that led her through the fog sometimes, seeming to shout while the other voices were hushed, beating a drum and secretly weeping that no one was listening.

The others were more distant, but no less important to her. Sweet Lorelai, who played piano and had no idea how much the others had loved her. Shy Sherry, who tried to pretend they didn't really know her, afraid they would drive her off if they did, and never understanding that they never would. David, who came and went like a cat, caring for them, but not belonging to them. Ron, whose gentleness could shame them all into behaving better when nothing else could.

She followed them all, listening and watching, tuning in for the important moments. A marriage here, a new child there; things she would never have on her own, she shared with her friends. And somehow, without words to express it, they knew. She could hear them whisper her name when they felt joy: "Ann, I hope you can feel this, too."

They often felt pity for her, but she avoided that. When they thought of her, and their minds turned to what she would have been without the disease, she fled back through the fog and stayed in her shell on the bed in that room. She fought harder against the self-pity than she had against the fog. There was no need to dwell on her intentions; her plans to do social work, and to volunteer to hold the crack babies in the orphan's ward. No need to grieve for the lost husband and children she had dreamt of. What was the point of that?

She knew better than to start asking that question. "What is the point?" someone would ask on those nights in the living room, and the debate would rage until dawn. They never found an answer they could put into words. They could never even agree that there was an answer. So when the fog left her lying starkly open on the bed, staring at the face of God in the stucco pattern on the ceiling, she would ride the question - "What is the point?" - like a cresting wave, and let the foam of the old conversations and the arguing voices of her friends carry her down the other side.

There was wisdom there, she knew. It was ancient and new; both Real and Ideal. It was the Tao; it was salvation. Everything that their group had been, that was life. There was no point to their spontaneous chatter in the wee hours, but it was thrilling and vibrant. Sometimes they had learned things, most times they didn't. Either way, it was life, and life needs no point. Life moves, even when your body can't, and only a fool throws what little they have away.

So Ann lay in the bed on her 35th birthday, and let her mind wander to those who loved her across years; she loved them back, and held on, knowing that whatever the reasons were, they didn't matter.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Upstairs

The boy was nearly five when an invader arrived in his house. His aunt had taken him to see a new science fiction movie as an early birthday present, and then they had gone to the hospital to see his new baby sister. He barely noticed her, because they had also given him a golden robot action figure, which he found far more interesting.

His parents kept the baby in their big upstairs room until she was big enough to move into his cozy downstairs room with him. He didn’t mind sharing, but Dad decided to add a new Master Bedroom to the house. The boy left the smaller downstairs room to little sister, and moved Upstairs.

Upstairs was enormous, especially to one whose age hadn’t quite reached double digits yet. He quickly filled it with his action figures: army men with unlikely weapons systems, aliens and monsters, wilderness sets with boat-planes, tractors, safari jeeps, park rangers, an ambulance with a driver… and of course, that first golden robot. He built (and destroyed) cities, towns, space stations, airports, bases, and battle cruisers every day. He constantly terraformed his little world, barely noticed the world outside his window. There wasn’t much to look at out there, admittedly.

The house was built from the desert up by the boy’s father. It sat back from a washboard road in an un-incorporated part of the county, a good 20 miles northwest of the outer reaches of the state capital. The Upstairs window looked due North over the shingled roof of the patio/sunroom below, and across several acres of citrus orchard. Further away – only a few miles, though it seemed further to the boy – were the “mountains”. They were sad, scorched hills that signaled the edge of the known world to a small child busy with a world of his own. They were hardly worth thinking about.

He was perfectly happy with this arrangement. He went to public school, where he enjoyed his classes and got along well enough, and he attended church with his family on Sundays. He put the minimum expected effort into his school work, hardly noticing that all the other kids lived close enough to each other to have a social life. Perhaps he was aware that he was the outsider in every group. It never bothered him; he was just as happy not sharing his world with them.

He did his best to please everyone at his church, too. They were part of a tiny congregation whose “youth group” most years consisted of him, his sister, their cousin, and the pastor’s kids. He enjoyed the stories, but the lessons usually involved something about resisting all of the sin and corruption in the World, or earning the Great Reward of Everlasting Life. It seemed to him that his own little world of Upstairs was the best place for him to hide out and wait with his burgeoning population of plastic folk for his own Great Reward, whatever that might mean.

One afternoon, his father came up to the room Upstairs, and sat on the window seat. The window seat was really a lid to a built-in chest that ran the length of the window. All of the toys fit nicely into it on those occasions when his mother insisted that he tidy the big room. The rest of the time, it was a secret, underground base filled with row upon row of armed action figures. As his father’s weight settled, causing that lid to creak, the boy thought he heard the toy soldiers readying their weapons to fend off an invader that had settled above them.

“You know I think you’re a great kid, right?” his father said. The boy shrugged modestly, and nodded. “We’re really proud of you; but you’re getting older, now. You may want to think about starting to out-grow playing with do… er, with your ‘guys’.”

The boy felt a dull shock creep through his stomach. In all his imaginary tales of invasion or destruction, he had never envisioned a real end to his world. “My what?” he gasped.

“I know there’s not a lot else for you to do, living out here. We try to keep you safe, but I know you probably miss having friends nearby. I know you read a lot, and draw. But your mother and I were thinking you might want to start taking some music lessons, and maybe start getting rid of some of the dolls…”

“They aren’t dolls!” the boy said. He didn’t shout, but his fists were clenched, and so were his teeth. “They are my friends!”

His dad colored, and then dropped his gaze, not quite believing the reaction he had provoked. “Well, just start thinking about it,” he murmured. He looked back out the window for a moment. “They won’t be much use to you out there, you know,” he said, hooking a thumb toward the weary, sun-blasted hills. “I just hope that when you try to make real friends, they won’t laugh at you; you really don’t want to be a teenaged boy who plays with dolls.”

With that, his father retreated down the stairs.

“They aren’t ‘dolls’, Dad,” the boy called after him. He sat on the top step, heart thudding, terrified of pending loss, but uncertain when it would come. How do you protect yourself from those who think they are helping you? As he sat fuming with his back to the room, he heard a small creak from the lid of the window seat.

---------------------------------------------------

Originally, the south wall of the room had been a big, open balcony window looking down the vaulted ceiling into the living room. After moving the boy up there, however, it had become clear that something needed to be done about the arrangement. Not only had the boy taken to dropping things over the wall (strictly accidentally, of course), but it was too hard to get him to settle down and go to sleep when they had company over. The boy was never stealthy enough to stifle his giggles when dad and uncle Frank started telling their mildly rude jokes, and one night he had let out a horrified scream after uncle Doug – a recently returned Vietnam veteran – told the story of an Army Ranger he knew who had crashed his helicopter, knocked out his left eye, and hiked back to U.S. lines; loose eye pinned to his eyelid with his infantry badge.

His father built a “lodge-style” ceiling over the living room, and turned the former balcony into a wall-length set of three bookcases. The right hand set of shelves was hinged, and the whole case swung into the newly created attic. It was a real-live, honest-to-goodness secret passage.

Even if it didn’t really go anywhere, the boy loved it. He managed to keep it secret long enough to baffle his visiting cousin at Hide-and-Seek, until his sister blabbed. Then it became a shared refuge; a part of their games, and part of his little world. The bookshelves served as rebel enclaves, Imperial lairs, and mountain redoubts. His men, as he thought of them, had quartered there through many a siege campaign.

Now, as he lay on his bed considering his father’s words, the boy contemplated the secret passage in a different light. He had never really noticed how old he was getting. He had no real desire to grow up, other than a vague urge to learn how to drive. It had certainly never occurred to him that adulthood could sneak up on one; that one day you were the center of your own, isolated realm, and the next you had to start thinking about The End. He wasn’t even all that certain what else he was expected to do. Most of his life had been spent in this room, bringing these plastic toys to life.

He lay on his back, holding his current favorite – a tough looking, heroic figure decked out with winter parka and ice planet survival gear. He stared glumly at the false door, wondering vaguely if some unexplored bit of Narnia lay behind it. Perhaps there would be a safe haven in there for his collection of soon-to-be refugees.

“What’re ya gonna do, kid?” his snow soldier asked him. The boy shrugged. “Well, I know what I need to do. We’ve gotta get a signal out.” The boy blinked. He’d role-played imaginary conversations with these toys for so long, it came naturally. But suddenly, he wasn’t 100% sure the voice had come from within his own head.

He regarded the toy in his hand; there was something odd about the way it felt. It was somehow more delicate and vital than plastic. It wasn’t moving, but it felt like it could. Holding it was like holding one of the puppies his dog had given birth to the winter before, when it was still exhausted from birth and lay trembling. He put the toy down on his night stand, leaning it against his clock radio. He wiped his hand absently on his sheet, and curled up on his side, staring at the still figure until he fell asleep.

His dreams were odd that night. Small, but adult voices swirled around his head, and at the foot of his bed. His floor teemed with activity as inventories were taken and repairs were made. He had played out mobilization scenarios a thousand times while awake, but in the dreams it felt larger. It was more active with everything moving at once. It felt more animated. More urgent. He couldn’t see what it was, but there was some crisis going on; there was some pending doom. The details were dream-sketchy and answers dream-elusive.

In the morning, when he got up and headed for the stairs, a movement caught the corner of his eye. He looked out at the yard, expecting to see the cat stalking a bird or rabbit in the small garden. He felt something under his hand as he leaned over to peer through the window; he had rested it on his soldier. He – it – was propped in the corner of the window sill, right where a small flap of screen had popped loose from its frame.

His mother’s voice calling up the stairs startled him: “Are you awake, yet?” He glanced over at the clock radio, and realized he had overslept, and his alarm hadn’t gone off. Something was wrong with the thing… but instead of investigating, he tossed the little man onto the bed, and dashed down to breakfast.

“Were you feeling alright last night?” his mother greeted him.

“I’m fine. My alarm just didn’t go off.”

“Well, I’m not surprised you overslept,” she said. “You came down to our room at about eleven. The front of your shirt was all wet, like you had been drooling – you must have left your retainer in – and you were acting so funny! You told us you were out in the sandbox playing with your men!” She laughed the way mothers do when their child has done something they find both naughty and charming. “We checked the doors, though, and they were all locked.”

The boy didn’t know why, but he was deeply shaken by the revelation of his nocturnal adventure. He couldn’t reach the locks on the doors, so he probably hadn’t gone outside. (He managed not to dwell on the ripped corner of the screen.) But he had never been a sleepwalker, either.

When he went back Upstairs to dress, he slipped that soldier into his pocket. He felt a twinge of guilt – it would be hot in there, wearing that blue parka – but he didn’t want the little man left to his own devices all day. The boy spent most of that day poking at the shape in his jeans, willing it to move, or make some noise of protest. The soldier kept his cool somehow, in spite of this.

Arriving home after school, the boy headed straight for the sandbox. He and his sister had both stopped playing in it long ago. It was one of the cat’s favorite places. He got a stick, and poked at a few patches that looked like they had been recently excavated. He ignored a few unsavory objects, unsure what he was searching for until he unearthed something a bit more solid: a nine-volt battery, and a small, plastic radar dish on a wheeled base. The radar had come with his ice planet play set; the battery was the kind that belonged in his clock radio.

His blood ran cold as he pulled a small, man-shaped figure out of the sand. He knew this was wrong. Not only had he never left any of his toys outside overnight before, he never buried any of the action figures in the sand for fear that he might lose one. He only made one dollar a week in allowance, and each of them cost an astronomical $3.65. They were far too precious to risk destroying or losing.

He gathered the toys up, and shakily took them up to his bathroom. He carefully cleaned off all of the sand, and then lined up the soldier from his pocket, the man he had rescued from the sand, and a few other likely suspects along the window sill.

“Alright, you guys,” he said sternly. “What’s going on here?” They all stared back into the room vacantly; he didn’t know if he was glad or disappointed by that. “I’m not your enemy, you know,” he told them. “Neither is dad, really.”

He sat back and stared hard at them for a long time. He looked back over at the clock radio; it seemed to be working again, and he suspected that if he checked, there would be a fresh battery in it, just like the one he found outside.

“I think…” he said slowly, “I think time might be our little world’s only enemy.”

And he sat down on the edge of the bed to think some more.

When his father came upstairs to say goodnight, he looked around the unusually clean room. Lifting the lid on the window seat, he nodded satisfactorily.

“I notice you boxed up your men,” he told the boy. “If you think you’re done playing with them, you know your cousin would love to have them. They’re coming out to visit this weekend.”

“I’ll think about it, dad,” the boy murmured, as his father headed back downstairs.

He rolled over in his bed so that he could see out the window. He watched the stars appear one by one as the last of the sun disappeared. He watched the winking lights of distant airplanes moving across the sky, and he thought about the people on board; each with their own life, each having turned gradually into an adult, much to the shock of their inner child.

He watched one light in particular, which was low and moving fast… moving faster than it should have been. They lived under the approach path of the air force base a few miles up the road, so he knew what fighters looked like. But even fighters moved in straight lines. This light was dashing back and forth, and making crazy arcs across his field of vision. It stopped abruptly, and hung in the sky just above the mountains, as if marking a boundary line of some kind before zooming straight at his window.


With a faint but distinct “whoosh”, the light buzzed over the roof of the house. The boy was out of bed and down the stairs before he quite knew he was going. He rushed into his parents’ room, and to his father’s side of the bed.

“Dad!” he whisper-shouted, “Something just flew right over the house! Come see it! It might come back!”

His father bolted upright in bed, and switched on his lamp. The boy grabbed his hand, pulling and hissing, “C’mon, Dad!”

“What’s the matter with you?” his father snapped. “You know the jets fly over here all the time.”

The boy chattered a quick description of what he had seen. It couldn’t be anything else; it had to be some kind of ship! Dad had to listen!

“It’s probably just a headlight, or a reflector from the main road! I thought you were starting to outgrow this stuff!”

The boy stopped, stunned. His father went on, more gently, “Look, I know it’s hard on you, but you have to let go of your little world. You can’t come in here every night acting goofy and giving us some crazy story. Go back to bed, now.”

The boy started back down the hall, and could hear his father say to his mother, “I’ll pack it all away in the morning.”

Dejected, the boy made his way up the stairs. He didn’t register the blue glow until he was already at the top, and he could see small figures in silhouette balanced on the open lid of the window seat. They were pulling on shoe-lace ropes, hauling boxes and equipment from the depths of their secret underground base. It was an evacuation in progress. Behind them, in the window, the blue glow came from an energy field on the underside of what appeared to be a hovering tractor-trailer.

All work stopped when they noticed the boy at the top of the stairs, and they stood and regarded each other for a few moments. A familiar figure pulled himself up over the lip of the chest, shouting at the workers to keep moving, and then he spotted the boy.

“C’mon, kid, give us a hand, wouldja? You don’t want us to go to your cousin, either, do you? Have you seen what the kid does to lizards when he catches them?” He gave an exaggerated shudder; a tiny bit of vaudeville on his window seat stage.

The boy just stared in shock for another moment, but the image of his cousin torturing his friends broke him out of the paralysis.

“You don’t have to go, you know. We could hide you in there,” he said, gesturing back toward the secret passage. The little general just shook his plastic head, and the boy knew he was right. You can’t hide from the inevitable. A world has to be inhabited to stay alive and vital, and it was time for the boy to start bringing a bigger, dirtier world to life.

“Let me help you,” he said, finally, and began lifting boxes into the back of the hovering transport vessel outside his window.

---------------------------------------

In the morning, the boy’s father rose early to get ready for work. He went up to check on the boy, and found him asleep on the window seat. The window was open, the screen down, and several boxes of toys were lined up on the porch roof outside the Upstairs window. He hefted the boy, who was becoming too big for his father to lift, and tucked him into his bed. He took the boxes in off the roof - failing to notice that they were too small and light to possibly hold all of the boy’s things - and put them in the secret attic, behind the Christmas tree and the other boxes of old junk they couldn’t bring themselves to get rid of.

When he moved the last box, he found one remaining figure: the golden robot. Setting it on the headboard, the father left his son Upstairs, in a room that continued to grow smaller.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

The Jarhead Who Laughed

It is one of the fundamental Things About Me: I am not comfortable until I have caused you to laugh.

It doesn't have to be much. Of course, if I had my way, every bon mot would bring laughter. Every wisecrack would prompt a shared grin. Each pun would be a serve which would lead us through the Volley of the Shadow of Wit. But I will settle for a mercy chuckle, or a groan and an eyeroll; even the grimaced recognition of a misfired punchline will make us "friends". It is the connection of minds that I crave.

And so when I met Steve, the Marine, I knew I faced a formidable challenge.

Steve was the original Robo-Grunt. He moved with a purpose, or not at all. Every turn he made was a right angle. He sat at attention with his Korean dictionary aligned in the upper right corner of his desk, and his pencils -- all freshly sharpened with the points to the right -- resting in a row on the left.
He was crisp, he was sharp, and he wasted no movement.

I didn't stress about it at first. I don't need immediate gratification; I don't need constant adoration. I waited for my opportunities, and took them as they came.

There were three Marines in that class; the other two were easy prey. Marines are generally smart people, and coming fresh from boot camp, they have egos the size of Chesty Puller's medal rack (that's big, kids). They don't expect much from non-Marines, especially not from slacker Airmen like myself. So all I had to do was a little self-parody to knock off the first; referring to myself as a "wingnut" did the trick. The second, a Filipino lad, took a little more effort. I asked him very seriously for the Tagalog word for "penis", and when he told me it was "penis" -- Tagalog borrows many English words -- I made a big show of writing it down.

"Did I spell that right?" I asked, showing him the name of the insufferable Army private who sat next to him. Two down.

But Steve was tough. He rarely spoke, and when he did, he sounded like he was quoting regs. "What did you have for breakfast, Steve?" Dave might ask. Dave was one of the three Dave Williams' in Alpha Company (one of the two real ones, in fact), and he happened to be our class section leader. So, of course, Steve called him "sir".

"Sir, eggs scrambled; juice, apple, 8 oz.; toast, qty. 2, no butter," Steve might reply to the breakfast question. Ask him how he slept, he would tell you the time of onset of R.E.M. sleep, and report any incidents such as head-calls. Very perfunct.

With so little to work with, I got a little desperate. It had been several weeks, and much drama had unfolded. Our little section was growing more friendly, but I just couldn't read that damned Jarhead! I simply HAD to get him to let his guard down. It was the one obstacle to my total sense of "belonging" there. My usual smart-aleck remarks and puns in class were no good. Steve ignored them, and the teachers didn't speak English well enough to get them. God forbid that they hear me and ask me to explain a joke.

Korean humor does not allow for the kinds of jokes I tell. Take the assignment to translate a joke; should be right up my alley? I tried one from my second grade joke books: Q: How do you catch a squirrel? A: Climb up a tree and act like a nut! (rimshot) It would help if they had a word for "nut", or "squirrel". My joke translated as "How do you capture tree rats? Climb a tree and act like a crazy person." It was much funnier trying to get a Korean to say "squirrel".

"Soo-kah-lo-lo. Ser-ko-laller. Sok-ho-lillah." Never mind. Steve sat staring straight ahead throughout the episode.

I tried all kinds of subtle tricks; I tried stupid stunts. One day we were sitting in a line: me, Angie, Steve, and Dave. Angie blew a bubble with an illegal piece of gum while the teachers were in the hall between class periods, and I shot it with a rubber band, and crowed "Fire in the Hole!" Gum shrapnel flew everywhere, and the rubber band landed on the desk in front of Dave. Dave shook his head in bewilderment and said, "I don't even want to know what you are thinking." Angie demanded a new piece of gum. It was, in a word hilarious, and the class lost it.

Steve had festive little pink balls strewn across his immaculate uniform and festooning his bristly crew cut. This HAD to be it! I expected something, even if it wasn't humor; maybe rage, maybe ire. Anything to make him bend! His only reaction was to blandly brush his desk clear. I felt hopeless. I was ready to give up, and concede that I would never see into the soul of this fellow human being. It was, for me, a bitter kind of defeat.

But then my day arrived in the person of Mr. Minh.

Mr. Minh was a very special teacher. He was ancient in a way that only a Korean man can be ancient. He had a steel wool mop of hair, and a tweed jacket with leather patches at the elbows. He stood a stooped 4' 11", at most, and he was the only teacher to level with us when we asked insensitive, "ugly American" sorts of questions. Like the day he was asked if Korean people really eat dogs; while the other teachers blustered and denied it as slander, Mr. Minh simply shut the door (after checking to make sure the hallway was free of eavesdroppers) and said to us, "Look; Yerrow dog, most tender..."

Mr. Minh was to join our teaching team. He had belonged to another class on the first floor, and he was going to need help moving his things up one flight of stairs. His "things" included a 1950's era, powder blue metal desk. It must have weighed as much as a city bus. But what is the point of having stupid, young men around if you can't get them to volunteer to move a 2-ton desk up a flight of stairs?

So, a bunch of us went down: me, Dave, Steve, the other real Dave, and Harris (a female soldier wanting to put us to shame). Together we hefted the behemoth, and trundled it to the stairwell. We somehow managed to work it through the door, and up to the first landing, but we had to lift it about four feet up to work around the turn. Daves were on the bottom, Steve and Harris were above, and I was guiding the side. It went well, until somehow the thing began to tilt; in slow motion, I watched as the desktop loomed, pressing me closer to the concrete block wall of the stairwell. When I realized that it was about to press my head into the wall... no, through the wall... I said something. Unfortunately, they didn't hear me, so I made more noise.

I do not recall what noise I made, but I imagine that it was the sound of an animal that the Korean people would have no problem eating. Steve looked around the corner of the desk to see what was the matter, and saw me being ground into USAF grade A dork flour. "Stop!" he bellowed, and the others stopped moving.

And then the corners of his mouth quirked up, and he uttered two sharp, "Heh"s.

Everyone heard it, too. They all knew about my quest, of course. It's not like it was a secret. I think there was even a pool going on when/whether it would ever happen. Steve's double "heh" surely cost someone a six-pack of crappy beer. But at the time, no one said anything about it. They shifted the desk, removed the danger to my cranium, and finished the task at hand.

Once we were back in the room, there was no time to comment. Mr. Park was in full lecture mode, acting as though five sweaty young students had not just barged into the room. We tucked right into the lesson. It wasn't until break time that it was mentioned at all, and it was Steve who had something to say.

"Sir," he said, turning to Dave, "I apologize for my loss of bearing."

Dave looked over at me and asked, "Are you alright?"

I was a little dazed, frankly, but as I told him then: It was worth it!