Saturday, May 5, 2007

Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Good. (Albany with Emily).

I can’t remember the first time I ever heard the Grateful Dead but I probably wasn’t that impressed. Maybe the song Truckin’ was played on the radio when I was very young, but if it was it never registered with me and the first time I can remember actively sitting down to listen to the band was somewhere around ninth-grade, which would have made me fourteen. A friend of mine had scored this amazing record collection from a guy who was going to medical school, a collection which included records by Traffic and Big Brother and the Holding Company. One of these albums was The Dead’s Steal Your Face, and I remember being not very impressed and slightly bored with it. At the time, my sister was bringing home new music from England and I was enamored by the Clash and XTC along with the testosterone-conjuring thump of Led Zeppelin and The Who. If a song was going to be ten minutes long, it had to be angsty, like Zeppelin’s Dazed and Confused, and the Dead just seemed too damned relaxed. The lead guitarist, Jerry Garcia, rarely used distortion on his guitar, in fact he played cleanly and melodically, and the songs were about an imaginary American landscape, part Grant Wood, part William S. Burroughs. At the time, Whole Lotta Love was what I was more readily able to relate to.

This feeling stayed with me through high school and into college. My first year at college I met people who were into the Dead full bore. Still, for me, my feelings about the band stayed the same. Here we would listen to bootleg tapes, and I was always annoyed by the tinny quality of the recording and the incessant ringing of the ride-cymbal heard above all the other instruments. I was also gaining contempt from Deadheads who could name obscure set-lists from fifteen years ago and who snuffed my one single Dead album, the very un-cool Grateful Dead’s Greatest Hits.

After returning from Africa after six months, where I gratefully embraced reggae, I went to see the Dead for the first time. After that, the fringe skeptic in me evaporated. To be truthful, and this is going to sound typically male at best and chauvinistically piggish at worst, I was charmed by the thousands of free and happy young women present at the show. Young women, smiling at me—for whatever reason, and running into old friends and feeling a community spirit in the summer heat had me hooked. Plus I was starting to get into the music. I had the rollicking neo-blues number US Blues in my head for about a week:

I’m Uncle Sam
That’s who I am
Been hidin’ out
In a rock-and roll band

Its little phrases like this that got me deeper into the music. Soon I became one of those guys who played tapes for neophytes and sniffed with contempt at people with common official releases from the band. Well, maybe I wasn’t that bad, but I did get pretty serious about it.

[I just want to take a second and say something about the Grateful Dead and drugs. I believe some people might automatically associate the two, and with good reason, that was a large part of the culture. It was a part of the Dead culture which did damage to the band on an individual and community level. The scene outside a Dead show could be fun, but it could also attract a lot of shady characters, and this always caused problems for the band. Not all Dead fans used drugs however. I know one person, Emily knows him too, who went to several of the Dead’s highly regarded concerts for years and has never used a drug in his life. He still remains a fan to this day.]

So Emily and I arranged to go see a show together with her friends Jessica and Neil in Albany New York. I was entangled in an ill-fated relationship at the time, and had to petition a long time in advance for the opportunity to go, but my girlfriend was friends with Emily which gave enough reason for me to break away. Trust was always a problem in that short-lived affair. Turns-out it wasn’t me who needed to be mistrusted.

So I arrived in Albany, and I can’t remember exactly how I felt, but I imagine that I felt like I always do when starting a pleasure trip, elated! I met Emily in Stanford Connecticut, that’s where you were living Emily, right? I was introduced to Neil and Jessica that night and after talking to them I realized that they were big fans, but not elite about it. I’m refraining from using the term Deadhead, I can’t really explain why, I think its because Deadhead is a term used by people mainly who aren’t fans or a way to identify people who are fans right away, like: “He’s a real Deadhead.” After that first recognition, the term doesn’t get used as much.

We left the next morning and drove up to Albany in Neil’s car. I remember one trip I took to see the Dead in Hampton Virginia in which I went with possibly the most uptight people in or outside of the Dead community I have ever met. I made the unforgivable faux pas of considering what the Dead might play and what I might like to hear, and the driver, a pre-med student, sarcastically claimed that he wanted to hear an hour version of Dark Star, the Dead’s most notorious jam. It felt very oppressive. We roomed with a taper (a person who was given special permission to tape the concert) and he personally accosted me because he didn’t know me. The people I did know vouched for me, but I always felt relegated to pariah status.

Absolutely the opposite with Jessica and Neil. One of our first conversations was about the music and what we might hear at the show. Neil had been to over a hundred shows, but he didn’t wear this on his sleeve, and he patiently listened and commented on what might be a possible choice on the set list and what was unlikely. I wondered if they might play a song called Black Peter. Neal thought about it and said, yea, they might play that one.

We stayed at a motel outside of town. I can’t remember a thing about it except that they brought me hot tea when I ordered tea in the diner. I had forgotten that I wasn’t in the South anymore where you get iced-tea in the same circumstance. We spent very little time at the motel, a local bar becoming our point of recreation when we weren’t at the concert, and the community feeling came back in the middle of downtown Albany where we would walk from the bar to the arena and back.

I remember one such walk being interrupted by a very strange sight. Two Deadheads (I know, I used the word) were having a loud argument over the sanitation of their van and a dog that was owned by one of them. The dog apparently wasn’t van-broken and the argument was looking like it might escalate into violence. It was strange to hear two quasi-hippies yelling at each other. “Well, man, you’re dog is totally bumming me out!” “yea, well, you’re feet aren’t smelling a lot better man!” Stuff like that.

The bar where we took up residence was a local taproom, a blue-collar watering-hole, and the locals looked bemused and tolerant of all this hippydom. They must have realized the cash that this three-night event was generating. Rolling Rock beer was phenomenally cheap, and I remember drinking pitchers of it and being quite happy by the end of the first night. Albany, out of any place I ever saw the Dead except possibly Maine, was the most friendly to the concert goers. Part of the reason the Dead were able to play in the brand new Knickerbocker Arena was that the mayor of Albany was a long standing Deadhead himself. He’s in good company. Al and Tipper Gore, Bill Walton (NBA), Phil Jackson (former Bull’s coach) and Patrick Leahy (Senator from Vermont) all profess to being fans. It’s rumored that Ann Coulter is a fan as well but I’d prefer to keep that a rumor.

One of the things I always forget about when I go to concerts, although not so much any more, is how much beer you drink. This creates a nice buzz, but it also creates a need to relieve yourself every three and a half minutes. At the little bar-away-from-home, the line to the men’s room was always long. The afternoon before the second night, the line was even longer, and it got passed back that there was a biker holding things up with a lengthy stay on the men’s room’s only dubious fixture. The line started moving again when the patrons started to use the sink, and by the time I got into the little closet-like space the Biker was directing guys to the sink and stating “You’ll have to go in there man, I’m all tangled up in blue here.” It was the most appropriate use of a Dylan lyric I had ever heard.

The actually concerts were hazy, but I remember hearing good versions of many favorites. Emily, Jessica, Neil and I all whooped when Jerry Garcia yelled “I wish I was a headlight, on a north bound train!” We zoned out during Space, an often boring exercise in experimental noodling that actually served a purpose. Back in the 60s, psychedelic drugs were part of the Dead experiment, in fact the Dead was the house band for the Acid-tests in San Francisco, so the mind-melting theme now translated into these long sound-scapes. After they were finished they would usually start a rollicking jam or a hyper-melodic song like The Wheel. I read once where the second set of a Dead show was supposed to act as a practice in deconstruction, where the normal form of music would break down, and then reform as something new toward the end. The listener’s consciousness was supposed to do the same, and possibly it did, but cheap beer wasn’t aiding me in any way with the experience. I suppose you needed something more intense for that.

But the music and the fans and the days spent in Albany with the patient Neil and Jessica were great. By the end of the second night, coming out of Space the Dead started playing a slow number that I was slow to recognize. I noticed Neil pointing at me and then giving me the thumbs up. I realized he was mouthing the words “Black Peter!” They were playing song we had talked about in the car.

There is no question that the Grateful Dead holds as much importance for me today as it did then. I could go into a long description about what the band means to me, but I’ll spare the world of that. Emily and I had a great time that weekend, and she provided me refuge from a confused time when I thought I was something that I wasn’t, in love. I was able to, in Albany, break away from constricting ties both in my personal life and in my previous conception of other Dead fans. This show was a ray of hope, and I’m glad I enjoyed it with Emily.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Ian and Emily Go to Albany

When I was in high school, I didn’t like the Grateful Dead. Or at least I didn’t think I did. I didn’t really know that much about them, but was too wrapped up in all the punk and new age music I’d discovered during the year my family live in England to find out, and I thought they were old, passé. Hippies and acid rock were dumb, obviously so not cool as I so obviously was, sporting my wrap-around sunglasses and black mini-dresses with day-glo orange belts, while dancing the pogo to Devo.

Then, I went off to college and announced to one of my hall mates in my dorm my first year of college that I didn't like the Dead, and she did what many a Deadhead has been known to do when someone makes such a pronouncement. One evening, we were hanging out in her room, and she just put American Beauty on the stereo.

“This is really good,” I said. “Who is it?”

She just smiled a knowing smile and said, “The Grateful Dead.”

I was hooked. I never became what anyone would call a real Deadhead – stoned or tripping all the time, dropping out of life to “tour” the country with them, growing dreadlocks on my head and legs – but I did become a “fringe Deadhead.” I loved to see them live and preferred tapes of their shows over studio albums. And somehow, I always seemed to end up with housemates who were Deadheads or fringe Deadheads as well.

Unbeknownst to me, while I was making my way through college and trying to make it in the “real world” afterwards, a period in which pretending I had no family was de rigueur (well, except when my father came to visit with a bottle of gin and would take a select group of friends and me out to dinner), Ian was busy going off to boarding school, then to his first year of college, and then to South Africa for a while. Finally out from under the wings of his opinionated and influential older sisters, he was making his own musical discoveries. One of these was the Grateful Dead. When he came back to live in this country, he and I started going to shows together when we could (not easy to do when he was living in places like NC and OR, and I was in CT).

The best of these, we both agree, was Albany, New York. At that time, I was living with three other young women, which meant, of course, I was also living with their boyfriends. My housemate Jessica’s boyfriend was a decided Deadhead of the always-dressed-in-blue-jeans-and-tie-dyed-t-shirt variety. Jess was a fringe Deadhead like me, and the three of us caught quite a few shows together. We suggested Ian come up to Connecticut and then ride up to Albany with us for two nights’ of shows. Ian readily dropped everything – even abandoning the clingy, demanding girlfriend he had at the time, which was no easy feat, for the weekend – to come join us.

This was the first time any of us had ever been to Albany, and we all decided it was a really cool city, and not only because it was inundated with Deadheads. It had a distinct industrial downtown area where we immediately found a dive bar, straight out of a Richard Russo novel, that sold extremely cheap pitchers of beer and $1 cheese burgers during its happy hour. This was to be our “hangout” for the next two days when we weren’t actually in the coliseum.

The only problem with this bar was that the line for the women’s room, as is typical, guaranteed about a twenty-minute wait. Since Jessica and I were both drinking beer, it wasn’t long before we needed a women’s room with a two-minute wait, tops. We decided to turn the men’s room into just that, since its line was nonexistent. One “townie,” who was obviously not amused that all these out-of-towners had taken over his bar began pounding on the door. He was even less amused when he discovered it was two women who were making him wait. His anger found its scapegoat in the two men who were sitting at the table to which these women returned. I’m pretty sure that the only reason Ian and Neal didn’t end up having to defend the honor of their women was that there were two of them and only one of him (and also probably – although I don’t remember this, but it could easily have been the case – because Neal was such a happy-go-lucky type, he very well might have just smiled at the guy and said something like, “Don’t sweat it, man. It’s not worth it).

I have to admit I have no idea what was on the song list for either night’s show. I know we were diligently keeping those lists, though. I can also guarantee that Jessica and I (because we always did) engaged in the sacrilegious act of becoming bored when” Space” and “Drums” went on too long. I love percussion, but for some reason, I could never get into these long interludes (probably because I wasn’t busy tonguing tabs of acid before the show).

The ride home in the middle of the night after the second show turned out to be a bit of an adventure. Neal was the designated driver of Jessica’s little Toyota (God knows why. I’m sure he’d probably drunk the most). At some point, he realized we were running out of gas. I can promise you that the stretch from Albany, NY down to Southwestern Connecticut is not the sort of stretch that has 24-hour multi-service rest stops. It’s the sort of stretch that reminds you of nights around a campfire telling stories about The Hook and the mysterious young female hitchhiker who leaves her sweater in your car, and whose parents inform you she's been dead for ten years when you go to return it. Neal remained extremely philosophical and calm, as did Ian, but I – and I know it will be a stretch for you to imagine this is what I would do, but do – began freaking out, imagining ourselves stranded in the middle of nowhere, unable to reach anyone (this was in the days when only very rich people had what were referred to as “car phones”), and my losing my job when I didn’t show up at work the next afternoon at 1:00, which was when I was expected to be there. Jessica (she had the enviable ability to sleep anywhere, anytime), who had been sleeping, woke up and fed off my panic.

Just as Neal was saying he thought we could maybe go another forty miles or so, we saw a cop car sitting on the side of the highway. He pulled up behind it, which I’m sure surprised the hell out of the two cops sitting in the cruiser. One of them walked back to our car, and Neal explained that we were about to run out of gas. This first cop wasn’t very helpful, basically indicating we were S.O.L. Then he asked his partner who did happen to know of a 24-hour place that was within our 40-mile parameter. To this day, I’m surprised we weren’t all hauled to the county jail, as I’m sure after being at that show we reeked of alcohol and pot smoke, despite the fact we hadn’t had anything to drink for hours. Instead, they let us go on our merry way to find the gas station, and we did. The rest of the ride home was uneventful, but somehow, that last little bit of excitement seemed to help cement in all our memories the fact that this had been the best road trip we’d ever taken and the two best shows we’d ever seen.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The H-boys

The H-boys.

When I was in the fifth grade, for some reason, the school I attended had an influx of new students. A great deal of them ended up in our class, and as the year got under way the new kids integrated into the class with seemingly very little effort. I remember there being about six new boys that joined us as our teachers reiterated multiplication tables and bible stories (this was a Lutheran day school). Recess was dominated by the equalizing game of kickball where kids in striped shirts and jeans with the brand name of Toughskins punted an over-inflated red rubber ball over (and at) each other.

Of all of the new kids in the fifth grade the smallest was a boy named D. He was unfortunately about the size of a third-grader, although I don’t remember his size being much of issue as we became acquainted with our new classmates. He had a standard issue bowl-cut which didn’t necessarily set him apart from the crowd, and large round glasses which gave him an owl-like appearance. He seemed shy, but once he got to talking he could be very funny, and he seemed comfortable with his size and his new environment. The girls, habitually nurturing, took him under their wings.

D. had two younger brothers, twins, who were in the third grade. They were equally small, although one was a little bigger than the other (they weren’t identical). Their names were E. and M. They all had a quality of innocence about them, they seemed placid and harmless. They were kind of like characters from Sesame Street, happy, smart, and fun to be with.

The first thing I can remember about D. was the way we became friends. I wonder if George Lucas knows how many kids bonded over the love of his movie Star Wars. The movie came out the summer before fifth grade, and all I know is that I had seen it around eleven times and still didn’t know what the plot was about. I knew Hans Solo was cool, R2D2 was funny, and Princess Lea created a new and slightly uncomfortable feeling within me. Anything about Star Wars captured my attention like mica to a novice gold-miner.

So when D. came to school with several hundred Star Wars trading cards whatever was being taught in class that day was forgotten. I ended up striking a deal with him, and the next day I brought him cash for the entire collection. I think I paid the astronomical price of ten dollars for the cards, which was about a month of saved allowances. The grin on D’s face when he got the money looked just a little out of character, and for an instant I caught a flash of something that was a little unsettling, but we became friends and sometimes I acted as arbitrator when a bigger kid decided to take out his sugar-jones on D.

We moved to England the following year, and when we returned it was time to start the seventh grade. D happened to be going to the same school as me and it turned out that we had three classes together. This is the time when I believe we really became friends. Before long we were sleeping over at each other’s houses and D’s mom, Mrs. H. had successfully recruited me to join D’s Boy Scout troop.
The H’s house was a marvel compared to our antique-riddled farmhouse. Everything was modern (the H’s had designed it themselves, both were engineers) and there were three stories of balconies, vaulted ceilings, decks, game-rooms that included an Apple II computer, TV viewing areas, and workshops. The most attractive part about their house (not including their older sister) was a lake out back, with a canoe and a kayak.

When I started going over to the H’s house I began to really get a sense of what diabolical boys these guys were. When we were kids, if you had another kid over for the first time it was sort of a ritual to give him a show and tell of all the cool things you owned. For me it was model airplanes that I had glued together sans directions and National Lampoon magazines. But when I went to D’s room for the first time he showed me a disturbingly large amount of fireworks. Endless amounts of bottle-rockets, back-cat fire crackers and, the most powerful firework out there, the notorious M-80. It looked like a scaled-down stick of dynamite. In fact, D claimed its power was equal to a fourth of a stick of dynamite. When he described these things to you he would sort of squint and grin and give a nervous laugh. All of this was slightly unnerving. This is how he got around fire and explosives. Later, in high school, you would go to his room and he would display fire-arms, switch-blades and one very dangerous and ominous looking hand-grenade.

I had him over to my house one weekend, and we had just invented a game where we took old tennis rackets and soaked a tennis ball in gas, lit it, and knocked it around until it went out. D suggested that we make a bonfire. I tried to divert his attention to another subject, but he started looking for a suitable area and I, being the eternal sheep, gave way and joined the search. We decided on a sunken area of the yard where an out- building had once been, and started finding combustible material. We found the perfect fuel in the form of some old shingles that had recently come off our house during a re-shingling. These shingles were covered with an adhesive similar to tar which made them quite flammable, and soon we had a fire that was threatening the garage and causing me to panic acutely.

I rushed about fifty yards over to the outside faucet and started filling one of those aluminum wash basins with water to put the fire out. As I carried the basin toward the fire and saw it flaring up, it appeared to me that D was just gazing at the fire, seemingly fascinated. By the time I got to the fire, the basin was noticeable lighter. Years of being left outside had caused the tub to rust, creating a hole and allowing all of my water to escape. I ran into the garage to try to find another container, and by now I was on the verge of hysteria, because I could really get the mental image of my parents coming home from work to find their property looking like Dresden circa 1944. I probably started vocalizing my distress by this time, and as I arrived back at the fire, trying to remember how to call the police department, I realized that D had put the fire out somehow, using a couple of trash can lids. This guy knew what he was doing.

D would come to school with fascinating news such as, “we found a network of caves by our house,” or “we built a rope-swing that lets you jump into the lake from about thirty feet in the air. This would lure you to their house the following weekend. The cave, which was possibly an abandoned Beaver den, was barely large enough for one person to fit in. We were smoking by then, and D claimed that the only place it was safe to smoke without getting discovered was the cave. We lit up, and soon were completely without oxygen, making a mad scramble backwards to escape the gas-chamber like hole. D would be outside (he never smoked) waiting, with his maniacal grin.

The rope-swing was another matter. It was awesome to behold, but there was one catch. To swing off of it you had to climb a ladder that was perched precariously on a muddy bank. Then you had to reach up from the top rung of the ladder while someone hurled the bar of the swing at you, and if you grabbed it you would be automatically committed to the process, with no time to back out. Any hesitation could be fatal. If you didn’t like the idea of letting go once you were over the lake, your fate had only one conclusion, to be slammed into the tree which contained the rope. So getting up the nerve just to mount the ladder was about an hour process. The H-boys always made their brother M go first, as their tester. He was a very good natured kid, but when you arrived at the H’s house he would be the one who was scrapped, bruised and bloodied.

I survived the rope-swing, but one poor kid who was a little short lost his balance and fell off the ladder, sliding down the bank and into the lake only to be stopped by a stump. He was okay, for the most part, but I didn’t see him around the H’s house very much after that.

As for me, I got it on the bob-sled run. The H’s had one of those sleds that look like a snow-mobile without the motor, and one year after an ice-storm they created a sled run down the back of their lake’s dam which included a high jump and then a circuitous route through a bramble orchard. The weather had warmed up considerably, and for some reason I had decided to wear shorts. When I hit the jump, made out of a plywood board and some cinderblocks, I managed to turn myself sideways and parallel to the ground and, after landing hard, I slid the rest of the route on my exposed side collecting briars and scrapes that wouldn’t heal for a month. This, right before a camping trip with the scouts. I had never seen D laugh so hard.

I went over to the H’s once and they had created a similar run for their mopeds. I declined the privilege of attempting this form of suicide.

The H’s are all grown and married now, and for being the smallest kid in the fifth grade, D grew up to be bigger than me—his mother was always force feeding him vitamins. I doubt that they create rope-swings anymore, but I still imagine that they, at least D, can still get that diabolical look on his face from time to time.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The H(ellion) Boys -- Emily

When I was in first grade, Diane H was the only kid in the class who was skinnier than I was and almost as short. She shared her Fritos (a forbidden food in our household, where my health- conscious mother ruled Cabinetland) with me at lunch, and she would talk to me. Thus, I being the discerning and complicated person most six-year-olds are, she was my friend. One day, she brought something very exciting for Show and Tell: her twin baby brothers, who were pushed into the classroom in this amazing double stroller, something almost more intriguing than the babies themselves.

Diane moved away after first grade, and I didn’t think much of her until she showed up at my junior high school (her family had moved back). She was one of only five people I’d known from elementary school who ended up at my junior high, but we were in junior high, where it was mandatory to pretend you’d never laid eyes on someone who’d been your friend in first grade. Thus, having become an even more discerning and complicated person, she was no longer my friend.

But, then, she ended up at the same high school with me (even weirder than ending up in the same junior high. She and I were the only two in our class who had attended all three schools). These years probably being the ones when I was at my most discerning and complicated, we became friends again. The fact that we were both short, quiet, blonde girls whom teachers often confused might also have had something to do with it. It’s hard not to be friends with the person people keep referring to by your name. I couldn’t fool the boys, though. All my crushes knew exactly which one was Diane, since their crushes were all focused on her, while they ignored me, she being the prettier, less awkward one.

Little did I know that while Diane and I were busy engaging in this on-again/off-again relationship, her twin baby brothers were growing, and they had another brother David. David was in Ian’s class back at the elementary school (a Lutheran school associated with a Lutheran church called St. John’s). The twins were still a bit young, but that would soon change. Also back at that elementary school were two other kids Susan and Michael, who were fellow faculty brats with Ian and me. Their father taught German at the college where our father taught history. Michael and Ian had been pretty much inseparable from the day they met. Now they had this third new kid to make their twosome into a threesome.

Talk about the quintessential darling little boy. David H. was as tow-headed as they come. He was tiny, much smaller than Ian and Michael, and he wore large plastic frame glasses that always seemed to be falling off his nose. He had a very squeaky little voice that was often hard to hear when large groups of kids were gathered together. Now talk about looks being deceiving, but I’ll get to that shortly.

I soon discovered Susan and Diane knew each other from St. John’s church, which both their families attended, and pretty soon the three of us were hanging out together, despite the fact Susan was two years younger and would never attend the same schools we did. The fact that their sisters all hung out together made it easier for Michael, Ian, and David to do so, and this was when I finally got to know Diane’s little brothers. All three of them really were little, tiny, in fact, although Mark was more a normal-sized boy than his (obviously fraternal) twin brother Eric. Eric’s hair was darker than David’s, though, and he didn’t wear glasses.

The H. children were all brilliant. Their mother was either the first woman, or one of the first women to graduate from Duke University’s engineering school. She in no way resembled the other mothers of that era. She worked as an engineer, her home was no spotlessly clean, and she was not the sort who brought homemade goodies to school on a regular basis. She was tough, smart, witty, and fun to hang out with, and I thought she hung the moon. Diane, on the other hand, was one of the most feminine girls you could ever meet. She was the one baking cookies, sewing, meticulously applying makeup, neatly wearing the preppy styles of the day – everything matching. She loved to laugh, but you’d never catch her laughing too loud, nor would you ever catch her talking loudly (sins which I committed on a regular basis). Most of the time, she barely spoke above a whisper. She was a studious girl who never got into trouble and didn’t do anything to draw attention to herself.

She didn’t seem to be related to her mother, and she most certainly didn’t seem to be related to her brothers, whom I soon discovered were all putting their high I.Q.s together in what seemed to be a race to destroy the planet. Their chosen means of doing so revolved around an inferno theme.

In those days, fireworks were illegal in North Carolina. In order to get anything more bang-worthy than a sparkler, one had to cross the border into South Carolina. The H. boys could have put Lucky Luciano to shame with their network of runners willing to hustle down there and bring them back their contraband. Most of us Tarheel kids had a few bottle rockets in little lunch bags we’d proudly show off to people who’d promise not to snitch on us, everyone being sure we’d end up in jail if caught with such goods. The H. boys, on the other hand, had whole shopping bags full of things I’m sure no one had ever seen outside of China.

At some point, I began to wonder how Diane managed to survive in that family. Her mother wasn’t one to really care too much about exactly where her children were when they weren’t bugging her, and her father wasn’t around much. This gave the boys plenty of opportunities to torment their sister. I wasn’t used to reckoning with such brothers. I had this sweet younger brother who would build forts or invent games and then come find me, all excited, so he could share them with me. Diane’s brothers were the types who’d tell her they’d found a cool cave deep in the woods, then lead her into those woods just as it was getting dark, grab all the flashlights, and race out, leaving her stranded. I was terrified to follow them anywhere.

One night, my parents were out of town, and I decided to have a party. Since Susan and Diane were both coming to my party, I told them to bring their brothers along. This way, Ian would have some friends to hang out with, too. This was the night I finally caught a glimpse of the terror Ian must have endured on a regular basis hanging out with those boys, despite the fact he’d never said a word about it to me.

My friends and I were all hanging out in the living room, listening to music on my parents’ stereo and trying to impress members of the opposite sex. Ian and his gang were hanging out outside somewhere. The phone rang. I knew it had to be my parents, so I raced upstairs, closing doors behind me to answer the phone, hoping they wouldn’t be able to hear the noise indicating their living room was full of teenagers.

I talked to both of them, told them Susan and Diane were over, and all seemed fine until they wanted to speak to Ian. Ian? I suddenly realized I had no idea where he was. It was too early on a Friday night for him to be in bed. I stumbled for a moment and then told them Susan and Diane had brought their brothers, and the boys were outside somewhere. I wasn’t sure where. As I said it, I looked out the window to see a trashcan in the middle of our backyard, flames leaping from its depths, as the figures of pre-teenaged and teenaged boys scattered. What the hell? I don’t know how I managed not to drop the phone, convinced as I was that the headlines in the next day’s papers would read “Explosion at Teen Party Burns Down House, Killing All.” I fumbled through some more lies with my parents and finally managed to get them off the phone.

By the time I’d raced back downstairs and out the door, “the boys” had managed to get the fire under control. Although I felt like screaming my head off at them, I was a teenager and knew that wouldn’t be cool. So, I did the “cool” thing. I calmly asked them if everyone was all right and got a few gruff “yeses” in return that satisfied me. To this day, I haven’t a clue what they were doing, and I’m amazed we all survived.

Even more amazing is that all those boys survived not only that night but many others like it and managed to make it into adulthood. Tiny little David and Eric both grew to be over six feet tall. I haven’t seen any of them in years, but they all got married and had children of their own. I wonder what their kids’ fireworks collections look like.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Here's to Henry

Emily, I am still trying to find a picture of Henry. I know I have one around, and as soon as I find it, I will add it to the post.

It is interesting that I should be starting this post about a notorious family dog while the Westminster Dog Show is going on in the next room (On TV, not in my actual living room). Right now they are cheering the winners of the working group. My current, not-very-notorious-dog is disinterestedly curled up on his wolf blanket, oblivious to these dogs prancing by on the floor of Madison Square Garden.

I haven’t seen a basset hound yet, I don’t know what group they would fall under, the unbelievably-long-eared group, the jowly group, the drooly group, the short-legged-squat-body group; I’m not sure. The breed makes me think of that song we used to sing as kids, “Do your ears hang low, do they wobble to and fro, can you tie ‘em in a knot can you tie ‘em in a bow.” I think they should play this song as the champion basset makes his run around the floor. It’s also interesting to think that this revered venue, where Patrick Ewing used to roam, can inspire cheers for something as oddly shaped as a basset hound. One thing is for sure, the only basset hound I ever knew well would have probably bitten someone’s ankle before making it to the grooming stand.

Emily wanted a basset hound. She thought they were cute, and they were, I suppose, with droopy eyes, and ears longer than the wingspan of a California condor. They had great floppy jowls, and loose, pliable skin--as if someone had tried to make a dog suit after ten gin-and-tonics. They waddled when they walked. They seemed sweet, sort of a smaller version of the bloodhounds we would see sleeping on the porch on the set of Hee Haw. German Shepherds were the dangerous dogs of the day, and the most notorious of all dogs was the Doberman Pincer. We had never heard of a Pit Bull back then. Basset hounds fell under the category of innocuous conversation pieces.

He may have been a birthday present for Emily, and I’m sure she will be better at describing why we ended up with the dog, but when I was about ten or eleven—the same era as the tombstone I believe—we got Henry, the basset hound. We went way out to an area outside of Winston-Salem called Pfafftown to pick him out. I want to say we found out about the puppies from the newspaper but I’m not sure on that one either. When we got there, we were greeted by a large woman in a tank-top with the vernacular habits of that part of the North Carolina piedmont. It seems to me that her jaw was working on some gum, but who knows, there’s a good chance it was tobacco. Was it a trailer Emily? At her feet was a full grown basset barking in the deep tones of a walrus. There was a little growling going on too. “That’s Mama.” said the tank-top lady.

Emily made a remark about how loose the skin on the dog was and the lady, as if to show us an advantage of that loose skin, grabbed two handfuls off the dogs back and lifted her up. The dog looked uncomfortable but resigned, like a long-eared duffel bag. Then she carried it out to the deck and closed the glass sliding door, where the dog continued to stomp around and howl.

We were introduced to the puppies next, and if the adult basset registers high on the cute scale, the puppies break the scale into pieces. Completely droopy and miniature, the pups climbed and yipped around, and Emily’s intoxication by cuteness was damn near palpable by that time. She was around thirteen, and any trip into her room was met with dozens of button-eyes staring in every direction from stuffed frogs, bears, pigs, rabbits and her favorite, I assume she still has it, a panda named Pandy. Now, her stuffed animals were about to be trumped by a living, moving thing. How she made the decision to pick Henry, I can’t tell you. Maybe her post will tell of the signs that told her he was the one.

Okay, now, for some reason I’m getting the idea that Daddy walked out of that trailer, or house or whatever, with dog pee on his pant’s leg. Is this right Emily? It is possible that the poetic license gene is taking over at this moment and I am subconsciously inventing that fact in order to provide foreshadowing for upcoming events. Although I don’t actually remember it happening, I seem to remember it being talked about whenever we revisit this episode.

Emily decided to name the dog Henry, and my Dad allowed this only under the stipulation that he was to be named Henry Plantagenet after Henry the Eighth. We were always naming our animals using weird historical context. We had a dog name Chung Lung who was named after an obscure Chinese Emperor. My mother wanted to give one of our cats the very unPC name of Confederate because she was grey. The majority won out on that one, and although her official name remained Confederate, everyone called her Boo Boo. We had an old cat that I barely remember named Solomon as well. Before I was born, my parents had two dachshunds, one while my dad was working on a PHD in history named Phud and another who was unceremoniously named Kraut.

Henry’s puppyhood seemed to be uneventful from what I remember. Friends marveled at his ears and his waddling ability. You could pick him up fairly easily, but not by the skin. I have to admit that I tried this, and it was met with a dramatic yelping. We spent a lot of time testing the threshold of this strange dog, and looking back now I imagine that we were quite cruel at times. Henry would eat anything, which is not a good trait for a dog with curious and bored children around. We enjoyed watching him working his jaws over on a super-chewy Swedish Fish candy. He was extremely covetous, so getting him to snatch up a lemon slice by acting like you were going to grab it provoked remarkably distorted puckering on a face already humorous to view. The thing was, although we knew the taste of the lemon was unpleasant for him, he always grabbed it again, never letting us take it from him.

He, like many dogs, loved to play tag. Our house was built so you could run a circuitous route around the downstairs, and we would get him to chase us around and around endlessly. Every part of that route was carpeted except the kitchen, so when we reached the kitchen, our Keds kept us balanced, but Henry’s unclipped toenails and padded feet would lose traction and send him flailing into the stove. The sound of the dog hitting the oven door and then scrambling back onto his feet to continue the chase is still with me, and, like the lemon, Henry would never relent, tenacious to the end.

One Easter, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say the Easter of 1978, I came home from school to find a ruckus going on over Henry. I couldn’t quite tell what was going on at first, but finally found out that Henry had eaten all of the Austrian Easter Eggs. What the hell is an Austrian Easter Egg, you might be asking. An Austrian Easter Egg, or these particular Austrian Easter Eggs, were intricately decorated confectionaries shaped to look like Faberge Eggs. They were wrapped in crinkly plastic and my mother had been putting them out as decoration for Easter for longer than I could remember. At times we dreamed of eating them (they were made of hardened sugar and about the size of an ostrich egg) but we knew that, by this time, they were inedible. Henry, unfortunately, did not know this.

He had made his way up the dining room table by jumping on a chair, and I can picture him standing on top of the table devouring what he could of the stale sugar, crystals glued to his slobbering jowls. I suppose, with all of our candy +dog=humor experiments we had turned Henry into one of us, a sugar addict.

Henry’s behavior took a turn for the worse as he got older. Admittedly, our treatment of him didn’t help matters—we once put him in a sleeping bag at the top of the stairs—but I also speculate that the growling, stomping, howling beast (his mother) at the feet of the tank-top lady was an indication of the breeding of this particular bloodline. His most infuriating behavioral problem was to grab something that could be enormously harmful to him, say a steak knife, and proceed to sit under the dining room table, which had become his own personal lair, and guard it like the dragon guarding the gold in Beowulf.

When he would do this, someone would suggest to someone else that that someone should go get the knife away from Henry. The second someone would refuse bluntly and say “are you crazy.” Then the dilemma would be whether to let Henry stab himself in the neck, or risk getting your arm taken off by a badger-like basset in order to save Henry from himself. We never thought to distract him with something else. As we got near, he would start a low growl, and as we approached he would give us a warning bark, loud and unflinching. Any closer, and he would grab up the harmful item to let us know that he wasn’t budging.

It was a stand-off like this one that led to the beginning of the end of our ownership of Henry. Upstairs in my room, I heard another commotion coming from downstairs and, by this time, had become used to it usually having to do with Henry. I came downstairs and saw an unfazed Henry under the dining room table and the rest of my family gathered around in the TV room. I seem to remember exclamations about the dog and some soothing words from my mother. I again tried to discern what was going on. I finally succeeded. Henry had bitten my sister Lindsay.

We tried to give Henry away after that. We passed him on to an unsuspecting couple, and the next day, as we were lamenting the loss of the dog, we saw the car of the couple coming back up the driveway. Henry was coming back. He had bitten the husband.

Soon the entire family moved to England for the year. We left Henry in the care of my Aunt, who ended up passing him on, like a foster child, to someone else. His offence? He bit my uncle.

I’m fairly certain of Henry’s fate, but I don’t like to think of it. It is difficult to think that this angry, stubborn dog had to go the way of so many other disobedient canines, who never make it to the accolades of Westminster. I feel bad for Emily too. She’s never once complained that the hopes she had for her little long-eared companion ended so badly, and I worried that in choosing this topic, I might be bringing up some buried regrets in her. But we laugh a great deal when we talk about Henry, and Emily is nothing if not resilient. I’ll just end this post with the image of Henry, sitting for eternity under a dining room table, growling at God.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Henry -- Emily

When I was in sixth grade, I got it into my head that I wanted a basset hound. Down at the end of the dirt road where Ian and I liked to go exploring lived a family that had two basset hounds named Snoopy and Pepper. These were two of the sweetest and most docile pets, who’d lie around on the grass or mope around a little with their noses and ears to the ground, and I just loved the way they occasionally ran around on their wrinkled, short little legs. That year, I also met a basset hound who would escape from wherever he lived and come hang out on the playground at my school. Examining his collar, I noted one day that “Henry” was written on it in black magic marker. Not being one of the most original children, I decided when I got my basset hound, his name would be Henry.

I have no idea how I managed to convince my parents that I should have my very own dog, and that this dog should be a basset hound. We had never before bought an animal. Our pets had all been acquired either through friends whose cat had had yet another litter of kittens, friends who’d been given a dog they didn’t want, or the pound. All I know is that one day early that summer, we piled into the car with my father to go look at the litter of puppies. This was when we encountered one of the biggest and meanest basset hounds I’d ever seen (of course, I’d really only seen the three, I think, up until that point, but still): Henry’s mother. “Bitch” was an appropriate word for her. My father always said that should have been a warning to us, their dragging this growling and snarling animal into another room, so we could examine the puppies in the basket, and I could choose the one I wanted, but how were we to know that these adorable little puppies, waddling around and stepping on their ears, might inherit that nasty temper?

I picked out my Henry, the one that most resembled Pepper from down the street, with a few brown freckles on his white snout and a black back, and then we left with the promise he would be mine in just a few short weeks, once he’d been weaned from Demon Mama. Meanwhile, I prepared myself to be the best little caretaker that dog could ever want. I’d eavesdropped enough on adult conversation to know that all fathers’ (including my own) big joke about children having pets of their own was that the parents still did all the work. Nobody was going to be able to say that about me. This dog was going to be my responsibility, and he would be the model of obedience, as well as my best friend.

And I was a very good caretaker (even earning my father’s praise for my attentiveness to my duties). Once he arrived home, I set up his basket for him, carefully arranging old blankets and sheets in it, fed him his puppy chow, and took on with a vengeance the tough task of housebreaking him. In those days, when corporal punishment was still an accepted tool for raising children, let alone dogs, this meant swatting the poor little puppy with a rolled up newspaper every time he “had an accident” in the kitchen or on the front porch, the only two places he was allowed to be until he’d mastered the art of doing his business outside. Luckily, he seemed to get through this phase fairly quickly, as it broke my heart to have to use that newspaper. One could argue that this sort of “training” is what ruined Henry, and I might be tempted to agree, except all our other puppies throughout my childhood and teen years were all trained in exactly the same manner, and they all grew up to be sweet, happy dogs.

Henry was most definitely a case of Saddam-Hussein-like nature ruling over nurture. Despite all the love and attention I lavished on him that summer, it didn’t take too long for us to realize he was anything but sweet, cuddly, and docile. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a dog that didn’t get into more trouble than he did. He loved getting into the garbage so much, and it was so impossible to keep him out of it, that we got into the habit of putting the kitchen garbage pail up on top of the counters, not the most sanitary of practices, but better than having garbage strewn all over the kitchen floor.

Around the time we got Henry, Ian and I had begun to grow tired of our explorations on top of the garage roof, a relatively small building detached from the house. We’d graduated, much to my parents’ horror, to the roof of the house. The windows off of Ian’s bedroom led to the roof of the front porch, and we found we could easily detach the screens, climb out, wander around on it, and then boost ourselves up onto the main roof. Because my parents were horrified by this new game of ours, we’d gotten into the habit of only doing it when they weren’t home, which meant we were often racing back through windows when we spotted a car turning in at the top of the driveway, forgetting to replace the screens. And, of course, being kids, we didn’t always remember to shut the windows, either.

One day, we four kids had all been out together, and when Forsyth turned the car into the driveway, we noticed something walking around up on the porch roof. Closer inspection revealed that it was Henry. By now, we were all somewhat afraid of him, even I (who still adored him. After all, he was mine, and I wasn’t going to abandon him just because he was a little hot-headed). That sweet, sad, basset hound exterior was just a disguise for an evil entity. Even when we were trying to keep him from harming himself, he’d turn into Kujo. He once got hold of a bottle cap, but when Lindsay, afraid he might cut his tongue, tried to get it away from him, he chased her across the kitchen, and she had to resort to jumping up on the kitchen table to get away from him. Normally, one expects such stories to be told about truly fierce-looking dogs, dobermans, say. Imagine the humiliation of having to tell people we were all terrorized by a basset hound. I have forgotten how we finally managed to get him off the roof; probably it involved luring him with some sort of food, but we might have been better off just leaving him out there.

Forsyth was convinced Henry especially had it in for her, and I’m not inclined to disagree. For instance, we had these lovely shellacked sugar Easter eggs that had been made by a friend of my parents for each of us three girls at some point (obviously when we were extremely young, and Ian had not yet arrived on the scene). Each one had an opening at the end, covered with plastic, and when you looked inside, there was a little scene of bunnies and chicks. We’d set these decorations out in the middle of the dining room table, and that Easter Henry climbed up on the table and proceeded to eat all of Forsyth’s egg and to just sort of nibble at Lindsay’s and mine. It was no consolation to Forsyth that ours had also both been ruined. After all, hers was gone.

When Henry was two years old, my mother finally decided he was just too much. She wanted to find another home for him, one where he could maybe get the sort of attention our busy family had never really been able to give him. I was heartbroken. Despite all his faults, I still loved the dog. I finally gave in, though, when we found a family that had raised basset hounds and was looking for a stud for their female. The sad day arrived, and I couldn’t bare it, and told my mother to have them come pick him up while I was at school. I said my goodbyes that morning, expecting never to see him again.

When I got home from school the next day, there he was! It turned out he had spent all his time in his new home chasing and scaring the dog that was meant to be his mate, and his new family had decided they didn’t want him. My mother still remembers both the vindictive look in his face as she saw him staring at her through the window of their car the day they drove him up the driveway as well as the look of utter triumph as she spied him staring through the window, as they drove back down the driveway to deliver the dog they couldn’t wait to return. Had we been so stupid as to think we could get rid of him that easily?

Henry’s days were numbered, though. We moved to England not too long after that, and we couldn’t take him with us. He roomed with my aunt and uncle, but when he bit my uncle, they finally decided they’d had enough of him. We were told, my parents protecting us from death and destruction as they always did, that he’d gone off to live on a farm with a pack of basset hounds, where he was very happy. I imagine that pack of basset hounds was somewhere in doggy hell, where Henry’s tail become pointed, little horns grew on either side of his ears, and he learned to spit fire from the rooftops of houses.

Thursday, January 18, 2007