Monday, February 25, 2013

The Deuce and A Half – Part III

There is another day at Uncle Caskie’s etched in my mind, another day of Dad drinking, another day in which somehow we all made it home alive. This day was different from the day of the deuce and a half; for one thing my trip home was with Dad and not with Mom – it was Dad and brother Bill and me; Mom and brother Jim made it home on their own – I don’t know how, I don’t know when. I don’t know if they arrived before we did or after. What I do remember is the terror of my trip and the look on that woman’s face in the car next to ours on Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase, Maryland – that woman in the front passenger’s seat sitting beside her husband…there were kids in the back of her car…I can’t see the kids, I can’t see the husband, but I see the wife and mother and the fear.

I don’t know how many car accidents my father was in but there are two I remember – I was in one of the accidents and Bill was in the other. My accident happened one night on East-West Highway in Bethesda, Maryland. Dad was driving, there was a friend of his in the front seat; I was in the back seat with another of his friends. I can’t imagine why I was out with Dad at night. I remember the car was going fast, I recall asking him to please slow down, then I remember the man in the back saying, “Bob, Lou (my family uses my middle name “Louis” so I was known as Lou when growing up) wants you to slow down.”

Of course Dad did not slow down, not even when we approached the intersection of East-West Highway and Wisconsin Avenue – we plowed into the back of a car. As far as I can remember no one was hurt – amazing. I don’t remember how I finally got home that night; I do remember it was cold – I was cold standing by the side of the road.

About two years ago my boss and I drove to Bethesda from Richmond to visit a client whose office was around this intersection, the old landmarks were gone - the Hot Shoppes, Gifford’s Ice Cream, the movie theater – but the intersection was still there. I thought about the wreck, I thought about that night; of course I kept it to myself.

The wreck Billy was in was more serious. It was my birthday, friends were over, it was party time. Dad was actually home that day. We needed ice cream – Dad said he’d go get it and that he’d take Billy with him. The grocery store was ten minutes away – he didn’t come home that day, I didn’t see him that night. He took Billy and picked up Uncle Cleve and who knows who else and went to the horse races in West Virginia. After the races Cleve was driving home and wrecked the car – maybe this time being drunk saved my Dad’s life, I don’t know. Undoubtedly Billy was the only sober person in the car – it didn’t matter who was driving, every adult in that car was responsible – they could have killed my brother. My Dad, as Mom told the story, was knocked unconscious in the wreck; my brother flew from the backseat to the front seat but escaped serious injury. 

I remember coming downstairs the following morning to see my father sitting at the head of our dining room table with a face stitched up like Frankenstein’s monster. So much for ice cream.

We used to have a green Ford station wagon. Once when Mom was in the hospital for her heart condition Dad had it painted black. I still recall Mom’s words when she first saw the new paint job, “Looks like a hearse.” She had to be wondering whether the hearse would be carrying her boys.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Deuce and A Half – Part II

I don’t know really anything about how my parents met or about their early days, months, and years together – I was told that Dad was working at a gas station that Mom took her car to, that’s all I know. When Dad wasn’t drinking he had an outgoing and attractive personality, since my parents had little in common other than not knowing their fathers it was a case of opposites attract, beyond that I’ll not speculate, at least not in writing.

Mom used to talk about the farms of Illinois and that is why I like to think that the first time she headed out to Loudon County, VA to visit Uncle Caskie that it was something she was looking forward to – even though the rolling hills of Northern Virginia were not the flat prairie lands of Illinois, in the late 1940s and early 1950s there were farms in the area and I like to think that she enjoyed the countryside. As far as I can tell she only returned to Illinois once after I was born, she and Dad took me and we visited her friends (I don’t know if there was family still living in Illinois at the time); I was too young to remember anything of the trip.

Once a couple from Illinois visited us in Maryland, friends of Mom’s from college; they cut short their visit due to Dad’s drinking; I still remember waking up one morning and looking for them and Mom telling me that they had to leave because of Dad.

When did Dad first get drunk on a visit with Mom to Caskie’s? Was it the first time? The second time? The third time? Whenever it was you can bet that all future trips to my uncle’s were never the same, you can bet that there was always the fear of Dad’s drinking to the point of not being able to drive, you can bet there was fear for the safety of her children and herself.

I have two memories of Dad’s drinking at Uncle Caskie’s – both are clouded in mists, but both have clearly defined moments. The first memory has us walking down Uncle Caskie’s long driveway, past the country store, down a country road. It is Mom and Bill and me – I don’t know if Jimmy had been born yet; Jimmy is in the second memory, but that comes later.

It’s summer and it’s hot, it gets hot and humid in Virginia if you haven’t heard. We walk down the rural road until we get to a main road, then we walk along the shoulder, a mother and two little boys. We’re walking because Dad is too drunk to drive, at least he is too drunk to drive with my Mom’s little boys in the car – so she’s walking – that’s my Mom, she’ll do what she needs to do and I guess if we have to walk from Virginia across Chain Bridge to Maryland that that’s what we’ll do. Her Daddy was killed in an automobile accident, she isn’t going to have her boys killed the same way…she’ll walk, we’ll walk.

After we’ve walked a good way a big Army truck pulls up in front of us and a couple of soldiers get out and come up to us. The truck is what is known as a Deuce and a half, it’s called that because it weighs 2 ½ tons. As an adult in the Army I’d have many rides in Deuce and a halfs but this was my very first ride in one because when the soldiers asked Mom if she needed a ride she said “yes”. I still recall being boosted up in the back of the truck with the benches lined with soldiers – maybe that early memory influenced my decision to join the Army as opposed to the Navy?

I don’t remember how we finally got home but I remember those soldiers and that truck; I imagine we took a cab at some point but I really can’t remember.  

You see as a child I was always excited about going to Uncle Caskie’s, I loved my cousins and I wanted to be with them, but my excitement was not my mother’s excitement. What to me was akin to a trip to Disney Land was a venture of foreboding for my mother – I know that dread for I lived that dread with my Dad in my early life, I knew that dread later as an adult with Dad (though not to the same degree as when I was a child); I can only imagine how Mom must have felt when she prepared for a daytrip to Uncle Caskie’s. Would there be another ride in a Deuce and a half? When would the drinking start? How would she and her boys get home?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Deuce and A Half – Part I

My Mom, Alice Frances Grover, was born in Carbondale, IL. Her parents split up at some early point in her life, she lived with her grandparents, her father was killed driving across an intersection, her mother died of cancer shortly after I was born (I have no memory of her), and her grandmother and her great Aunt Martha were key figures in her life; Aunt Martha was her surviving family member up until the time of my Mom’s death – Aunt Martha survived her by about four years.

During WWII Mom moved from Illinois to Washington, D.C. where she worked for the Federal government transcribing communications from combat zones. I don’t know whether Aunt Martha already lived in D.C. or not but at some point she moved from the Midwest to Washington City and taught school – many of my Mom’s people were involved in education. Mom herself had a teaching degree from Illinois Normal, what is today Illinois State University. After the war Mom taught, met Dad, had me and stopped teaching – I’m not sure just when she stopped teaching. After my parents split up, just after I started the fifth grade, Mom went back to teaching for a year or two, then gave it up for good and worked for a business operation until her death in 1968 – I’ve already outlived her some 45 years years, that’s a funny feeling – I’m 25 years older than my mother when she died..

My Dad was born in Nelson County, Virginia, that’s between Charlottesville and Lynchburg and if you’ve ever seen the Walton’s television show then you’ve some idea of what Nelson County was like for that is where Earl Hammer is from. When Dad was 4 years old his father died of pneumonia, leaving a 32 year-old wife and 9 kids ages 0 - 17; the 0 is because Grandmother was pregnant with Aunt Christine who was born about a month after her husband died . At some point after her husband's death Dad's mother moved to Northern Virginia where she had family.

When Dad was an adolescent he went to D.C. to live with an older sister and her husband, my Aunt Jean and Uncle Lee. I don’t know how old he was, but I do know that he attended Gordon Junior High and Western High School in Northwest D.C. I recall him telling me he had a paper route during those years. During WWII, at 17 years old, he enlisted in the Navy and was involved in the invasion of North Africa – I understand he was wounded, sent back to the States, and that’s all I know about his military service. (I also went to Western High School and I enlisted in the Army shortly after turning 17).

What Dad didn’t tell me, what I can only conjecture, is when he became an alcoholic – was it before, during, or after the Navy? I wonder if he would have taken that first drink if he had known the sorrow it would bring?     

Monday, February 18, 2013

To Write Or Not To Write?

I enjoyed writing my recent posts about Cousin Wilson, it was a delight to see him and meet his wife Sharon, and my memories of the Great Hog Pen Shootout and my other visits to Uncle Caskie’s truly are among the fondest memories of my childhood. I didn’t have much of a sense of family when growing up and the sense I did have primarily came from Uncle Caskie’s family on my Dad’s side and my great-great Aunt Martha on my Mom’s side.

Yet, as I reflect on my family’s daytrips to Uncle Caskie’s I have to acknowledge the fact that my child’s perspective was not my mother’s perspective. While my mother did not ever share her thoughts about these visits with me, I can imagine how she must have approached them; at first there was likely anticipation of the best kind, then there must have been fear mixed with hope, then there was likely just raw fear.

When I began my blogs I determined not to use them cathartically, there is too much of that in our society. We may not confess our sins and fears to God anymore but since we have an innate need to confess them and obtain absolution from someone, and to cast our burdens on someone, we now have Oprah and Doctor Phil and other high priestesses and priests along with Facebook and Twitter. The National Enquirer has incarnated itself in America.

This is where the dilemma of whether to write or not to write arises, on the one hand I think I should write about my Mom and Dad and these trips to Uncle Caskie’s, on the other hand I don’t want my motivation to be cathartic; yet if I do write it will most certainly be cathartic – it cannot help itself – writing does that.

There is another aspect to the dilemma and that is family, while I don’t know if any family members read my blogs, the reason Wilson and I reconnected is that his sister-in-law read a piece on my old website about Uncle Caskie – so I know that if I write about my mother’s perspective on these visits that there is the possibility that family members will at some point read what I write and misconstrue what I write and possibly take outright offense.

However, looking at things from my mother’s point-of-view is a reminder to me that children and young people usually have no idea of the big picture, and that as adults we often fail to appreciate the fact that our own view of life can be pretty limited – I think this is a useful exercise in writing; cathartic? No doubt; but hopefully helpful to others and a reminder to us all that we all need redemption.

Another reason to write is that the first time I saw terror on another person’s face was as a child returning from Uncle Caskie’s – how many years has it been since then, maybe fifty? Fifty years have passed and I still see the face of that wife and mother on Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase, MD; but I am getting ahead of myself.

I’ve got to ask you to indulge me as I cover some more preliminaries: I have always loved my Dad, I’m sure that’s true. I’ve been angry with him, I’ve disappointed him, he’s disappointed me, I’ve feared him, he has embarrassed me, I’ve embarrassed him, he has messed up and I’ve messed up – I’d say my Dad and I are about even in terms of bad decisions. My Dad taught me a great work ethic, he taught me some other things I’ve tried to forget, but the work ethic has been a great inheritance. I’ve taught people some things I hope they’ll forget – so again I think Dad and I are even.

The neat thing about Dad and me is that during his last few years we had a decent relationship, far better than I could have imagined it at one point in life. The other neat thing is that Dad came to know Jesus during his last months – it was a miracle in many ways.

But now back to Uncle Caskie’s…

To be continued…

Monday, February 11, 2013

George Will

George was back in the States in December and January, he comes back every six months or so; I guess it’s got to do with travel visas. He calls when he’s back and we talk, though he mostly talks and I mostly listen. That’s okay though, well usually it’s okay; anyway since he is my elder I generally go along with the program. We’ve known each other since the fall of 1966, he’s about 75 years old now; the last time I saw him was around 1976 – I wonder what he looks like?

He isn’t into email so the only time we communicate is when he’s back home and calls me; I wish he did use email so we could have a context for discussion.

As I may have mentioned in a previous post I’ve prayed for him and his children, Debbie and Art, ever since I’ve known George, that’s a lot of years. It’s kind of nice to have a history of praying for someone, I can’t explain it but I do recommend it – it’s like they are sewn into the fabric of your heart.

I know that a time will come when there will be no more phone calls, after all we’re aren’t getting any younger. I hope someone lets me know when George dies – it would be nice to know. When we both get to Heaven I hope to learn about his pilgrimage on this earth because he doesn’t give me many details in our conversations – he tends to be on the preachy side, but again, he’s older than I am so I try to go along with the program.

George sure loves Jesus; that’s a program I can definitely participate in.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Great Hog Pen Shootout: Part III

The picture is etched in my mind, Wilson and I in the hog pen, huddled up next to the fence in the mud, the hogs looking at us as invaders; outside Billy and Jimmy firing projectiles at us, keeping our heads down. We had used up most of our ammunition, just a few rocks and marbles in our pockets and soon they were gone; Jimmy and Billy, however, had an inexhaustible supply of rocks from the ground around them. The hogs did not appear disposed to help us, in fact, it was only a matter of time before they began eviction proceedings, what to do?

Hogs on one side, rocks coming at us from the other side – things didn’t look good. There was only one thing left to do, drawing on old WWI movies, such as Sergeant York with Gary Cooper, we decided to fix bayonets and go “over the top”. So with a whoop and a holler worthy of the 11th Virginia Infantry at Gettysburg (where are our great grandfather was captured) we jumped over the hog-pen fence and charged Jimmy and Billy. When they saw us running straight at them through a hail of rocks (a bit dramatic don’t you think?) they figured they were dealing with crazy boys and took off for the house to seek the protection of adults – I guess the house was the Biblical equivalent of a City of Refuge.

The field of battle was ours. Soon we coaxed them out of the house and resumed a day of play and adventure outdoors – we let bygones by bygones not wanting to squander the remains of the day dwelling on past offenses.

I’d rather have a memory of that hog pen, hunkered down in there with my cousin Wilson, than a memory of glitz and glitter at some amusement park – though I do have a few amusement park memories. I’d rather have made the acquaintance of those hogs than of Mickey Mouse, and I’d have rather been shot at by my brother Billy and cousin Jimmy than been eating cotton candy standing in line waiting for a ride in a crowd of people I didn’t know.

While I wouldn’t endorse sling shots today, I do endorse hog pens as a place of adventure. My grandsons visit and they stay indoors. The last three places we’ve lived have had “woods” around them, real honest to goodness woods; trees to climb, creeks to explore, deep mysteries to penetrate…and they want to stay indoors. What’s with that? Adventure awaits outside and they want to play a video game?

You can’t buy a Great Hog Pen Shootout, as a matter of fact you can’t buy anything that really matters.