Thursday, November 1, 2012

End of Days

The heat of summer was gone. It slipped away without much fanfare or notice. It drifted off sandy beaches and gravel-dirt ball diamonds without so much as a word. It stopped burning my face and neck. It even left pool decks and sidewalks behind. It was gone all right, just like that - another wrinkle in time, another wrinkle in the mirror.

Summer had slipped into fall almost overnight, and now fall is hanging by a thread. It is the end of days for me. Days I’ll never get back. Days when I became a kid again, a 12-year-old, to be exact, the best age there is in a life full of ages. An age unaffected by real life, draped in innocence and ignorance, maybe with a ding or two in the armor, but innocent nonetheless.

It took me 35-years to make the journey. Thirty-five years filled with good and bad, highs and the lows. All of that is behind me now. None of it matters. No award, no achievement, no death of a parent, nor loss of a job could make any difference.

It was a summer I know I’ll never get back, but it also was a summer I’ll never forget. A 90-day journey carved out of red clay infields, dandelion pastures and bubblegum-stained benches. A journey taken on base path roads with sunburned noses, bloody knees and dirt-filled socks.

I had a dozen kids take the journey with me. They had no idea I was really one of them; they just called me "Coach." My son was one of them too. He turned 12 in February, but he'd been growing like a weed since his birthday, three inches in 90 days, in fact. His voice had dropped an octave or two as well, and his body was starting to sprout muscles where kid parts once stood. This was it for him, his last, first chance at being a kid. It would be gone for him as well once the summer was over, and now he’ll have to wait, just like I did, for his second chance.

Maybe he’ll never get a second chance. Maybe this was the last chance for both of us. I think about that all the time. I was lucky enough to have a son who loves the same things as me. I could just as easily have missed out on my second childhood had that not have been the case. I might have cruised straight into middle age without one solitary thought about what I was missing, and that would have been a shame. 

I never would have felt the aches and pains of my 47-year-old body dissolve into dust with every cleat I put in the dirt. I wouldn’t have discovered my aching right arm suddenly becoming strong again as I reached back into time and space, gripping down hard on the laces of 1977, before slinging a fastball into 2012.

Age melted away like blacktop chewing gum every time the ball left my hand. I was transported back to a time when girls didn’t matter, I had no bills, my bicycle was my best friend and my heroes came in packs of 2.5” x 3.5” cardboard rectangles.

Baseball this summer, was, in a word, medicinal.

I was smart enough to put my real life on hold for 90-days. I tried hard to soak it all in as I trudged my way through a Michigan summer heat wave watching my team snaring liners and cracking out hits along the way.

My team loved to play and they were good. We played nearly 50 games this season, and we always had fun, even when we didn’t. It was magical and amazing. Time seemed to stand still as it zipped below our feet.

Before we knew it, it was over. Nothing ever ends the way it should, but on a ball diamond in Cooperstown, N.Y. during the second week of August, our season did. It was the perfect place for an imperfect ending. With one swing of the bat, the birthplace of baseball turned into a graveyard for lost youth as my childhood came crashing down. My son’s landed right along with it.

Neither one of us knew it at the time, but the moment his arm reared back and got ready to fire one, last, fateful fastball, we both would step into adulthood. Him for the first time, me, for the last.

The ball spun into a blur as he snapped it hard off his fingertips toward the plate. This was it, do or die for him ... for me ... for the team. It was a scoreless tie at the end of the game - a full-blown pitching duel in our biggest tournament of the year. If we lost, we were done. The boys in the dugout across the field looked no different than us. They were kids from Jersey, but they were carbon copies of my boys in the field - a bunch of nervous 12-year-olds on the verge of elimination.

The batter, who was littler than most and looked plenty scared, swung as hard as he could at the incoming pitch. He connected. The sound of the rawhide baseball hitting the sweetspot was unmistakable. The trajectory of a ball well hit was equally unmistakeable. I didn't have to watch, didn't really want to in fact, but still, I did. I watched the entire flight of the ball, tracing its arc against the blue August sky until it disappeared over the centerfield fence.

My son looked at me as the batter circled the bases. There were no tears in his eyes. He was just mad.

I knew right then and there it was over - over for him, and over for me. My son was no longer a kid - a kid would have cried, but he didn’t. 

I did.

My son will go on to play baseball at a higher level now, I'm sure of that. But girls soon will make a difference in his life, cars will be more important than bikes, and his cardboard heroes will most likely fade away in some shoebox in a closet. Maybe someday he’ll pull them out again and give them a look, relive the old days, just like I did this summer, maybe not. Who knows, maybe someday, he’ll even have his picture on one.

But me? I am done.

My arm is aching again and the wrinkles in the mirror have returned. My summer is done. My childhood is over once more  ... this time forever.

It is the end of days. 

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Summer of Blowin' Shit Up! (part 1)

Hot fun in the summertime!

My father spent most of my childhood making poor decisions when it came to textbook parenting, but the worst of those decisions had to be the day he came home from work beaming from ear to ear, with a five-gallon drum of pure, black gunpowder in his mitts.

His plan, which seemed brilliant at the time, not only to him, but also his three young sons, was to save oodles of money every Fourth of July by making his very own homemade fireworks.

I guess the countless strings of 200-count firecrackers he'd light with the ever-present Pall Mall dangling from his mouth, and toss in the yard, the trashcan, or out the car window (or wherever he felt needed the snap, crackle and pop of an instant pyrotechnics display) wasn’t enough to satiate his destructive desire. Apparently, the only way to truly fulfill his lust for high explosives was to create his own.

He never really told me or my brothers where he got the gunpowder, or for that matter, the large coil of what must have been about 100-feet of fuse and a huge bag full of thick cardboard tubes about the size of toilet paper rolls. He only told us that if ever caught any of us messing with any of it, he would “break off every one of our Goddamned fingers!”

My brothers and I had heard that threat from our father about a million times before, and yet, there we stood in the doorway of the garage, all ten digits in tact – not a one of them broken or missing as we gazed with lustful eyes at the bucket of mayhem my father was trying to put up out of our reach.

Why my dad thought a 6-foot shelf above the toolbox was “safely out of reach” from three young, limber lads like his sons was anybody’s guess, so the very next morning, when he was safely away at work, the three of us ambled into the garage to begin exploring our good fortune.

“Go get the stepladder so I can get this stuff down.” I told my brother Lance.

Within minutes, we’d worked out a very intricate assembly line from the garage floor to the shelf of high explosives. First, I handed the bag of cardboard tubes and the coiled fuse to Lance, who then handed it to my youngest brother Duke, who began to systematically sort out the tubes by size on my dad’s work bench. The five-gallon drum of gunpowder presented a bit more of a problem because it was quite heavy.

“I can’t get this thing down Lance – what are we gonna do?”

My brother Lance, although three years younger, was far more brilliant than I was, especially when it pertained to anything horrifically stupid or potentially life threatening.

“I think we’re going to have to be patient.” He said. Which seemed like a pretty cool-headed thing for 10-year-old to say.

“We gotta let the old man make the first move.” He continued. “Dad knows were dying to get into that stuff, so we gotta trick him and make him think we don’t care. Sooner or later he’s gonna bring that drum of gunpowder down off that shelf, and he ain’t gonna want to put it back up there over and over again.”

Lance smiled. I smiled too.

He was right. We couldn’t do anything until our old man made the first move. He’d know for sure we were messing with his gunpowder if we dipped into it before he did. We had to let him have his fun first, maybe take the level of the gunpowder down an inch or two before we started screwing around with it.

As luck would have it, we didn’t have to wait long. That afternoon, the old man got home from work about two hours earlier than normal. His eagerness to start blowing up everything in site was so strong he’d skipped his usual routine of stopping at the bar after work until it was time for dinner.

This surprised all of us, but mostly my mother, who was none too pleased to see his rusty old Cadillac pulling in the driveway at 4 o’clock. She didn’t mind his forays at the bar after work because she didn’t mind anything that kept him out of the house. But she didn’t have to worry, at least not this day, because my old man headed straight for the garage when he got home. He didn’t even stop in the house to grab a beer or use the bathroom; he just parked his car in the driveway and raced into the garage with a focused gleam in his eye that can only be described as maniacal.

My brothers and I quietly followed. He didn’t seem to mind as long as we kept our mouths shut and stayed out of his way. Once inside the garage, he pulled off his necktie and threw it on the floor. Then he rolled up his sleeves and got to work.

I looked over at Lance and nodded. He looked back at me and winked. We both knew why we were there - it was a recon mission and nothing more. We needed to take mental notes as our old man toiled with the step-by-step process of making high explosives. My brother Duke took it one step further - he’d brought a note pad and a pencil in case our mental notes failed.

We knew from previous experience that our father wasn’t exactly the type to do anything by the book, so we had to be sharp and only focus on the steps that might actually produce a positive result.

The first thing we noted was it was probably in our old man’s best interest, and ours, that maybe he should think about taking the fully-lit Pall Mall out of his mouth before he started playing around with a 5-gallon drum of black gun powder. Since I was his oldest son, it was always my job to try and talk some common sense into him.

“Hey Dad, you think maybe you should put out your cigarette? … you know, just in case Mom walks out here or something.” (I wasn’t stupid. I knew he’d be pissed off at me if I pointed out something that obvious, so I used the threat of my mother laying into him as my safety net).

My dad glared at me, but didn’t say a word. Instead, he slowly took the Pall Mall from between his lips and flicked it on the garage floor before turning back to his task at hand. First, he pulled down the bag of coiled fuse and cardboard tubes and poured them all helter skelter on his workbench. The scattered tubes made my brother Duke cringe. All his hard sorting work had been laid to waste in a matter of a few careless seconds. The 5-gallon drum of gunpowder proved a bigger challenge. The old man grunted and groaned as he pulled it off the shelf, being careful not to spill any of it as he tried to get it down.

It was then that I looked down at his still smoldering Pall Mall on the floor of the garage and suddenly I pictured a cartoon scene where my old man would tip the drum and spill a trail of gunpowder all over the floor. His not-quite-dead cigarette would ignite the trail of gunpowder until it reached the 5-gallon drum still in his hands and then … KABOOM!! After the explosion we’d all be standing in the burned out frame of what used to be our garage, with our faces charred and black and our hair smoking.

Funny as it seemed in my head, I knew reality may not be as kind, so as my dad struggled with the drum of gunpowder, I casually walked over to his Pall Mall and smooshed it into the floor with my shoe, just to be safe.

Before long, he had wrestled his black bounty off the shelf and onto the picnic table in the middle of the garage. Now it was time to get down to business. Like magic, the old man produced a pair of wire snips seemingly out of nowhere. With incredible precision and seamless effort, the likes we’d never seen from him before, he quickly snipped off a three inch fuse for his first homemade explosive.

Next, he took a small awl from his toolbox and punched a neat, little hole in one of the cardboard tubes where he placed the fuse. He then took a block of wax and walked out of the garage away from the gunpowder. He pulled out his lighter and carefully melted a small bit of the wax onto the hole in the tube where he'd inserted the fuse. My brothers and I both noted that this step was very important, because if done out of sequence, or in the proximity of any stray gunpowder, the consequences might cost us a finger or two.

My old man then reached into the bucket of gunpowder and produced a scooper and a funnel. "How clever." I thought to myself as I watched him proceed to fill the open end of the cardboard tube (the tubes came with one closed end) with the gunpowder. He added a little at a time, making sure to pack it in nice and tight with his finger. This, we figured, was another very important step, one that guaranteed he could get as much gunpowder into the tube as possible to create a more dynamic explosion. When my old man seemed satisfied that he had crammed enough gunpowder into the tube, he placed a cardboard plug in the open end and smacked it into place with a rubber mallet.


Over the years we’d seen the old man blow up all kinds of firecrackers and even fireworks, but we’d never seen him look as proud as he did at that moment. I think his eyes even began to tear up as he gazed at his creation. He called it his "M1000" which I guess was about right since it was roughly 20 times the size of the M80’s he routinely brought home from work.

The only thing left to do now was try it out. He shoved his way past the three of us and walked into the back yard. Deep down we knew the reason our dad didn’t mind us watching him make the explosive in the garage was because he wanted an audience around when he was ready to blow something up, and we were always more than eager to watch our old man destroy things - intentional or not.

The old man scanned the back yard looking for the perfect place to detonate homemade explosive #0001, as he pulled a fresh Pall Mall out of the pack of smokes he kept in the breast pocket of his work shirt and lit it up.

As potential detonation sites went, our backyard didn’t offer much aside from our above-ground swimming pool, a swing set and a sand box. We knew, or at least we hoped, that these things were off limits, but you never knew with my dad. He went crazy one year at my grandpa’s house with a bag full of M80’s on the Fourth of July - pretty much made a 72-hole golf course out of Grandpa’s property that day. Nothing was off limits. He was throwing them everywhere - the fruit orchard, Grandpa's pond, even Grandpa's swimming pool. My grandpa got super pissed at my dad that day, but not as pissed as my mom would be if the old man blew up our swing set!

My brothers and I quietly trailed behind him as he looked for the perfect spot. We got a little nervous when he paused near the swing set, but he kept moving further out into the yard until he neared our property line.

We weren’t sure what the attraction was where he stopped because there was nothing there except a stand of old maple and pear trees. Slowly, he wheeled around to see where we were. The old man had a glint in his eye when he turned to find us - a madness really, the kind of look that let us know it was about to be "show time." He motioned for us to back up, which we did, but not much. Then he pulled the toilet paper-sized tube of homemade dynamite from his front pants pocket and placed it in the crotch of an old pear tree.

I looked at Lance, puzzled. He shrugged his shoulders, equally puzzled.

“What is he doing?” I asked him under my breath.

“I guess he’s going to try to blow up that tree.” Lance answered.

“That branch is a foot in diameter. " I said. "There’s no way in hell he'll be able to …”

Before I could finish my sentence, the old man lit the fuse on his cardboard bomb and hustled away from the tree in our direction. His run from a pending explosion was almost as enjoyable to watch as the explosion itself. It was truly his, and his alone. A strange gait that was half squat, half shuffle, always executed with his head sunk deep into his shoulders and a shit-eatin’ grin on his face. Sometimes he'd put his hands over his ears - sometimes he wouldn't.

Like a countdown to a rocket launch, we waited with equal parts excitement and anticipation. Within seconds, the fuse disappeared into the cardboard tube, and for one brief moment we thought it was a dud, but then a brilliant flash enveloped the back yard, followed a second later by the loudest sound I’d ever heard in my short life. In that moment of brevity my brothers and I were rendered blind, deaf and dumb. Soon, our sight would be restored by normal light levels. Our hearing also returned, albeit, accompanied by a permanent ringing ... but none of us could speak. We just stood there with our jaws hanging open until the silence was broken by the sound of my mother’s voice screaming from the kitchen.


There was no hiding from this one. The smell of sulfur hung heavy in the air as we waited for the smoke to clear. My mother was now standing in the yard with us demanding answers from the old man, but he looked at her as if he was just as surprised as she was by the recent string of events in our back yard. Our father was the worst liar in the world, or at least in the family. My mom turned to her three sons looking for an explanation. That proved equally useless. We just stood there shrugging our shoulders as if we had no clue why we suddenly found ourselves partially deaf.

When the smoke in the back yard finally cleared, it was hard not to notice that a giant pear tree limb, oddly enough, about a foot in diameter, lay fatally wounded about 20-feet from its original location. My mother caught site of the dismembered tree, and smoke once again reappeared, only this time it was rolling out from underneath her collar.

“Goddammit Tom, what the hell did you do you?”

“What?" My dad said defensively. "That tree was dead anyhow.”

I looked over at the fallen limb. It was still nice and green where it had been ripped from the rest of the tree by my dad's M1000 - ripe pears dangled from its branches. I’m not sure what my dad’s definition of dead was, but it must have differed from the conventional one. Either way,one thing was certain, that tree was well on its way to being dead now, and my old man was too if he walked anywhere near my mother!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Vapor Trails

Vapor trails frame my childhood home. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

I slept in my childhood home last night. I stopped there to catch a wink on my way back to Michigan from Cleveland. The house was dark and mostly empty when I arrived. No brothers or sister to be found. My mom had been gone nearly two years now. The only one left in the house was my dad, snoring loudly in his bedroom down the hall.

He told me he’d probably be in bed by the time I got there. He was right. I didn’t mind, I knew I’d be having breakfast with him at the local diner in the morning. His snoring didn’t bother me either. In fact, I kind of liked it. It was as soothing to me as the soft rumble of warm air being pushed out of the old furnace vent by the bedroom door.

The heat was a nice relief in the middle of a cold winter night. My old man kept the house a lot warmer than my mother did, that’s for sure. When we were kids, my younger brother used to joke that we could rent out our living room as a meat locker. He wasn’t far from the truth. My mother, who was in a perpetual state of menopause, kept the thermostat in our house routinely set somewhere between 58 and 60 degrees. Some days, if the light was just right, you could actually see your breath.

I chuckled at the thought as I took off my coat and threw it on the extra bed in what used to be the bedroom I shared with my brothers. My sister Dina had the other room to herself - puberty and gender pretty much guaranteed that arrangement, but I didn’t mind being crammed into a room with my brothers. We got along well because we all were equal parts mischievous and smart-ass

I pulled on my sweats and gazed around the room. It had changed quite a bit since the days when three adolescent boys occupied it. Gone were the posters of baseball players and rock bands. Much classier works of art had replaced them, all put there by my mother when she redecorated the room upon our departure. The bunk beds were gone too. In their place were two newer beds, both covered with fancy quilts and a menagerie of goofy country-crafty teddy bears. Hardly the teen-angst get-up my brothers and I had created, but still, the room felt pretty much the same.

The view out the picture window was just as I remembered. Facing north toward Lake Erie, the lights of the lime plant in Huron still shone as brightly through the crisp winter air as they did when I was a little boy and I was certain they were the lights at the North Pole.

The attic door in the corner of the room hadn't changed much either. It was still just as spooky as ever. So spooky that throughout my childhood, I made it a point to jam the end of my bed up against that door so it couldn’t be opened. When we were little kids, my mother informed us that a man had died on the roof while helping build the house back in 1926. To a kid that could mean only one thing – the man’s ghost was still in the house, more specifically, the attic! This meant there was no way in hell any of us kids were going to sleep at night unless the door to the attic was properly barricaded. Even now, as a 46-year-old grown man, that door was still giving me the willies.

My mom also put a bookcase in the room to try and make it look a tad more intellectual than it’s previous appearance. I’m not sure if a collection of books by Erma Bombeck and Dave Berry really did the trick, but it was a nice effort. More impressive to me was the fact that she had moved her album collection off the living room floor and into the bottom two shelves of the bookcase. The collection was nowhere near as massive as it had been in its heyday when it once threatened to take over the entire downstairs. My brother Lance, a professional musician, had sifted through and taken a fair amount of the collection, as had the rest of us, but it still was fairly large. It was nice that the albums were there, but somehow they seemed as out of place in the room as the kitschy teddy bears staring up at me from the bed.

It wasn’t all that late considering when I usually go to sleep, but I still crawled into bed – a much warmer, cozier bed than I ever remembered sleeping in before. Lights of passing cars crawled across the bedroom walls, just as they did when I was a kid. The sound of trucks downshifting on the Turnpike groaned in the distance. The furnace kicked on and off at perfect intervals and before long, I was sound asleep.

Crazy dreams of days past soon began to invade my slumber. Childhood dreams.

My body was lithe and my blonde hair flowed. I wore no eyeglasses, nor a shirt. My teeth were white and I was happy. I could run fast. Sometimes I could even fly. I was nice – a champion of all causes. Girlfriends from long ago began paying me visits. Not just one, but several, both real and imagined, until it became a full-blown lovers-of-the-past reunion. I even had dreams where I was talking about the dream I had just had while I was dreaming it - like a subconscious infinity mirror.

I was in houses I’d never been, meeting people I’d never met. One of my old college girlfriends introduced me to her husband. He was really short with a scarred face, and when I went to shake his hand, he extended a deformed, fleshy lobster claw in my direction, which I gladly shook. She had her hands full with three young kids, the youngest a two-year-old with curly blonde hair and a full set of grown up teeth speaking like a college professor, but wearing diapers.

Soon my dream shifted gears, now I was driving my car far out on a causeway in the middle of some lake, maybe Lake Erie. There was a bridge well off in the distance, but the road to the bridge was partially submerged in the water. Still, I pressed on. The wind picked up and began driving large waves over the road. I’d had this dream several times before, but not since my childhood. Now water was crashing into the side of my car, over the roof even. The car left the road and began to float, then sink. The clouds were incredible above me, a fiery mix of red and orange. I wasn’t scared, not even a little.

The next stop was a golf course that doesn’t exist. An impossibly difficult course I’d only ever played in my sleep. Three holes were all I’d ever gotten in, and tonight was no different. I played like a PGA pro for those three holes, but then, as always, the jig was up. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t tee off on the fourth hole. Suddenly doorframes were in my way and I couldn't get the ball to stop falling off the tee. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t complete my swing or even tee up the ball. Every golfer I know has this dream.

Next, I was back in school. My wife was there with me. It was the first time we’d met. She thought I was cute. I thought she was cute. It was strange because we were in middle school, but we were in our 20’s and we were way bigger and smarter than everyone else in the class, even the teachers. It was near the end of the school year and it was warm, so we skipped class and ran across the school lawn to a cemetery across the street, smiling and laughing the whole way. I felt no pain. My skin felt warm in the sun. I was young and carefree. I had no kids. I had no future. I had no past...

I woke up.

It was 7:30. My dad was already gone. I called him to see if he wanted to get some breakfast before I hit the road. He told me he was already waiting for me at the Main Street Café uptown. I made my bed, put the kitschy teddy bears back in their place and then got dressed.

My dreams stuck with me as I brushed a night’s worth of wool off my teeth and took a piss. Dreams always stick with me hard in the early morning – good or bad. When I was a kid I thought dreams were a glimpse into heaven. It was the unknown. A chance to visit places I’ve never been – a chance to do things I’ve never done, or could even do. I always liked dreams, even the ones that wake me up at 4 am in a cold sweat just as I’m about to get shot or stabbed. I feel alive when I’m dreaming. I like not having control of what’s going on. But these days I don’t sleep like I once did and my dreams aren’t what the used to be - except for last night, in my childhood home, when they were as clear and magical as ever.

I finished packing my things and headed outside. The sky was getting lighter, but the sun had yet to rise. Last night a million stars had occupied the space above our house. This morning, vapor trails crisscrossed that same space in an amazing pattern of man-made technological beauty. It dawned on me that a century ago, people weren’t lucky enough to see vapor trails in the morning light before they drifted off in the wind.

As I got in the car and drove uptown to meet my dad, my dreams became vapor trails too.