Sunday, May 27, 2012

That Damn War!

Hi Guys:

Dad (a.k.a. Chubby Chatterbox) is still on vacation but he wrote this before he and Mom left for Turkey. He asked me to post this for him.

I remember Dad pounding his fists on the kitchen table so hard that his coffee mug tipped over. I watched as he did nothing to clean up the coffee spreading over the table and dripping to the floor. “Damn!”

I’d never known Dad to swear.

He pounded his fists on the table a few more times. “That damn war!” My blood froze to hear the rage in his voice.

It was a Saturday morning in October, 1966, the one and only time I ever saw my Dad lose his temper. His flash of rage was short-lived, quickly turning to sorrow. He swiped his eyes with the back of his hands and dropped his head into his hands, mumbling under his breath over and over, “That damn war…”

Darwin Thomas, one of five children living next door, was the older brother of Andy, two years younger than me but one of the kids I regularly chummed around with. One of Andy’s sisters had knocked on our door to tell us the news: Darwin was dead, killed when his aircraft received a direct hit and disintegrated in a fireball over a secluded jungle in North Vietnam.

At thirteen, Darwin was nine years older than me and one of the oldest kids on the block when his family moved to Briarwood Drive. Darwin and Dad were kindred spirits when it came to airplanes. Dad had caught the flying bug at eighteen when stationed on Guam during the war, and he and Darwin spent hours locked in conversation about planes and the history of aviation. I was too young to remember, but I can imagine Darwin building model airplanes and bringing them over to show Dad. I doubt anyone was surprised when Darwin set his sights on becoming a pilot.

My memories of Darwin are few; he looked like one of the handsome faces on television and reminded me of David and Ricky Nelson from Ozzie and Harriet. I can remember Darwin knocking on our door and asking if he could borrow two slices of bread to make a sandwich before going to work. I must have been around ten at the time. I fetched a kitchen chair and stood on it to reach the freezer section of our fridge. I pulled out a loaf of frozen bread and brought it to him. He smiled at me and said, “Do you have any that isn’t frozen? I want to eat this…now.”

In fact we didn’t. He didn’t want toast and there was no way to defrost the bread in an era before microwaves. I shook my head and he said, “Thanks anyway,” ruffling my hair before heading home.

If I had the ability to choose, I’d pick a better moment than this to remember, but it’s one of the few I have of him. I’d rather remember feeling sorrow for Darwin, but in all honesty I can’t. “Dead” was an abstraction, just a word shouted out during games of Cowboys and Indians or Cops and Robbers. I’d seen people killed on film but they often showed up later in other movies. Besides Darwin, I didn’t know anyone who’d really died.

What I do remember are hot summer nights with Darwin watching over me and my older brother David when Mom and Dad went out for a night on the town. At first, David bristled at the idea of having a baby sitter, but he’d shrug it off when Darwin nudged him out of our stifling house to lob baseballs at him in the backyard. I can still hear the rhythmic sound of the ball smacking their mitts. After awhile, David stopped complaining when Darwin came over.

When it got too dark to toss around the baseball, Darwin would pull open the shoeshine kit he’d brought. While the TV blared, he’d sit on the couch and polish his black leather oxfords, over and over. Sometimes he’d spit on them and rub the black leather with a cloth. It seemed to me like a waste of time since his shoes never had any scuff marks and were already shiny enough to see your face in. I learned later that they were part of his Naval dress uniform.

Most of us were in middle school when Darwin graduated from San Jose State, the first on our block to attend college. He entered the Navy as an ensign. Darwin was shipped off to Corpus Christi, Texas, where he earned the wings he proudly showed off when he came home on leave.

This all happened while the evening news was becoming saturated with images of Vietnam. That damn war was absorbing more and more of the nightly news. We’d finally traded in our black and white Zenith for a new TV, one capable of showing us the glorious colors of Bonanza and Gunsmoke, but when I close my eyes and think back to that time it’s the green Vietnamese jungles that color my thoughts. I didn’t know what was going on over there, but it didn’t look like a place I wanted to be. When the Naval officers knocked on the Thomas’ door to deliver the tragic news, that damn war reached through the TV screen to strike at everyone on Briarwood Drive, not that I understood it at the time.

I think Andy, the youngest member of the Thomas family, was hit hardest by Darwin’s death. Darwin had sent Andy a picture of himself in the cockpit of his fighter, an A-1H Skyraider, according to Andy, who shared his older brother’s passion for flying. In it, Darwin poses on the USS Oriskany looking as invincible as Superman defending the American way. With a determined gaze he flashes an assertive “thumbs up.”

Unfortunately, he wasn’t invincible; he was dead within weeks of the picture being taken. I recently came upon that picture while surfing the net. Andy, who I learned had never given up hope that Darwin would one day come home, must have posted the photo. It was like seeing a ghost. Darwin had always seemed old to me, but the serviceman in the photo was painfully young, confident, handsome and brimming with life.

When I look at that picture of a man I hardly knew my thoughts and emotions are muddled, but if I look long enough they slip into a curious order. First, I share my father’s rage at the destruction of such promise. I feel proud that Darwin lived next to us as if, somehow, I’m made better by living close to someone capable of making such a sacrifice. And finally, when I look at that picture, I’m a little kid again, watching TV in my underwear on a hot summer night while Darwin rises over us like a sentinel, polishing his shoes until they are reflective as mirrors. And I recall how safe I felt knowing he was there, as I feel safe now, knowing that young men like Darwin Joel Thomas are always there to keep us safe.

When I climb into my bed at night and snuggle beside my wife, I remember Darwin and those like him in my prayers, those who forfeited the chance to have all that I have, and whose unrecovered bones still deserve the warmth, love and gratitude of our remembrance.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Vacation: The Road To Adventure

It seems that TV shows go on hiatus earlier than ever these days, and in the past few weeks several of my favorites have concluded for the summer. I mentioned this to Mrs. C. and she reminded me that Chubby Chatterbox was doing the same thing since we were flying off to Turkey. The hope that my favorite TV programs will return is matched by my hope that you, my fellow Chubby Chasers, will flock back when we return. If Istanbul and the rest of Turkey live up to our expectations, I promise to reward you with some interesting tales. And if Turkey doesn’t live up to our expectations, the stories will be even better.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post that I thought would be appropriate for Memorial Day, and my son CJ has promised to post it for me. It’s called That Damn War! and it’s a true story about the one and only time I ever heard my father swear. I’ve also included seven links to my favorite posts that I think you might enjoy while I’m gone. These are personal favorites and not those that have received the most comments.

Well, I guess that’s everything for now. Time to go help Mrs. Chatterbox fill the suitcases. She’s an Army brat and lives to pack, but I can at least toss my toothbrush in a suitcase.

Seven Favorite Posts

Gentlemen’s Club

Bugs and Bistros

What Is The CIA Really Hiding?

High Tech

Stand All Ye Faithful

Near Death By Chocolate

A Killer Case of the Hickeys

I hear camels spit; well, so do I. See you all in three weeks.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Dreaded Physical

Submitted to Dude Write.

Health maintenance wasn’t an expression heard much around my house while I was growing up. If you fell and your arm or leg was bent the wrong way, it was okay to go to the doctor. Otherwise, buck up and don’t be a crybaby. Today we’re encouraged to see our doctors often, at my age (fifty-nine) once a year. I’m not fond of the humiliation that goes with a routine physical and don’t get them as regularly as I should. I would probably avoid them completely but doctors get you all hopped up on prescription drugs and then cut you off if you don’t pay them a visit every few months.

Confession: I like my doctor, which helps considering the up close and personal things he does to me, but an appointment with him renders me so uptight that if I had a chunk of carbon up my ass I could squeeze it into a diamond by the time the physical was over.

Last week before my physical, the doctor’s assistant came into the windowless room where I was being held hostage. She asked a bunch of questions and took my blood pressure. She ordered me onto the scale and I climbed onto the platform and closed my eyes.

Mind you, I’ve done everything I can think of to weigh as little as possible, except follow a healthy diet and exercise. I read somewhere that Charles Lindbergh trimmed the edges off his map to cut down on weight for his transatlantic crossing; in this vein, I’m wearing shorts ( even though it’s raining outside) no underwear, no shoes or sox, my pockets have been emptied of my wallet, change, car keys and breath mints, and I’ve slipped off my watch and wedding band. The metal bar on the scale rattles and clinks as she pushes it around, back and forth, until finally she scribbles something onto my chart.

“Remove all of your clothing and put this on. Leave it open in the back,” she said, handing me a paper gown before stepping out of the room. “The doctor will be with you shortly.”

Her instructions about leaving it open in the back proved unnecessary. The gown might have closed around a jockey or one of those female Chinese gymnasts, but the only way it would close around my behemoth backside would be by taping more of them together. My bare feet dangled in the air while I sat on the examining table, dressed in a backless paper dress with tissue paper sticking to my sweaty ass. As I waited, I wondered if doctors hired cute assistants for the sole purpose of making guys like me feel self-conscious.

I’d been ordered not to eat anything because they wanted a sample of fasting blood, even though they couldn’t get me in to see the doctor until just before noon. I was hungry and grumpy enough to bite someone. I was kept waiting so long that I started salivating over the jar of rectal cream on the counter near the sink. Used for prostate exams, it was starting to look like vanilla pudding.

The doctor finally arrived and we shook hands. Lucky for me, his hands were warm. “So what brings you in today?” he asked.

I tried to sound as gruff as I could, sitting on a table in a paper gown with my ass hanging out. “I got a call from you refusing to renew my prescriptions unless I came in.”

He checked his chart. “It’s been three years since you’ve been in to see us. That’s too long between checkups for a man your age.”

I’d prepared a glib comment to explain my weight gain, but he surprised me by saying, “I see you weigh the same as you did at your last physical.”

I was surprised. This wasn’t going to be as bad as I’d thought.

“Before we get to the physical, is anything bothering you that we should talk about?”

“Well, I have this raisin-sized white mark on my forehead.”

He pulled out a magnifying glass and examined it. “Does it hurt?”

“No, but I’m worried it’s that disease that started on Michael Jackson’s penis, spread to his face and turned him white.”

“It’s nothing to worry about. Just a harmless discoloration. But speaking of your penis, lie back and let me take a look at yours.”

Just like that; I’m getting groped like I’m in Cell Block C! Bad enough but he wanted to chat while he fondled my skin pickle and squeezed my man berries. “Are you sexually active?” he asked.

“Not at this moment.”


“Seriously? I like to think the answer is yes, but I guess it depends on who you ask. Mrs. Chatterbox might give you a different answer.”

“I’m putting down a yes,” he said. He tested my reflexes with a rubber hammer and tickled the bottoms of my feet, and just when I was starting to relax, and unclench, he told me to stand up, lean against the examination table and bend over. As I complied, I heard latex gloves being snapped on and the lid being twisted off the vanilla pudding jar.

Before I could think of a quick quip, I felt a finger cruising up the onramp to my prostate. “Are you taking your Glimepiride and Allopurinol?” he asked, perhaps trying to make me forget that his finger was swimming up my butt like a seal looking for a salmon dinner. He was referring to two of the numerous medications I take, but at the moment they sounded like those ill-tempered dinosaurs chasing everyone around Jurassic Park. I managed a nod.

He finished up. “Lose some weight and watch your blood sugar,” he said. “And we’ll see you here next year. I’m sending you to the lab so they can take blood and urine samples.”

My stomach growled. Before he left I had one last question. “Doctor?”


“Does the cream in that jar taste like vanilla pudding?”

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Mother's Day and Spanish Coffee

I have no idea where I’m taking my eighty-seven year old mother for Mother’s Day this year. Last year was taxing, to say the least. When it comes to eating food she hasn't prepared, Mom is as cautious as Howard Hughes. She doesn’t like breakfast. Or lunch. Or dinner unless it’s a slice of meat between two pieces of bread. She hates sauces or condiments, preferring cold meat served the “natural way.” When she says this I imagine meat brought down by a pack of hyenas on the Serengeti, clad in fur, twitching and covered in flies.

Last year Mrs. Chatterbox and I came up with a great idea. The only thing Mom loves more than coffee is coffee with booze in it. We have a restaurant in Portland that specializes in Spanish coffee. Here, baristas with fingers longer than Edward Scissorhands put on quite a show. They’re dressed in black and circle the restaurant like matadors while creating the concoction for which the restaurant is justly famous.

First, a cart with mysterious ingredients capable of giving an alchemist a wet dream is wheeled to your table. The barista opens a book of matches, removes a match and lights it, all with one hand. With the other, he mixes a wonderful blend of liqueurs in a brandy snifter, using the lit match to ignite the mixture. He then raises a pot of Spanish coffee as high as he can (which is pretty high) and pours a cascade of coffee into the snifter, which he delivers with a flourish. I don’t generally like coffee drinks but this one is good enough to trade your mother for, especially if your mother is as unpleasant as mine. So last Mother’s Day we took her to this restaurant. Mom was seated with her back to the room, and even before her fanny touched the chair she barked at the hostess, “Bring me a cup of coffee.”

The lovely young lady smiled at her, passed out menus and said, “Your server will be here in a moment to take your order.”

When she disappeared I said, “Mom, don’t ask me why, but please don’t order a cup of coffee.”

She glowered at me, “Why not?”

“I told you not to ask. Just trust me.”

Aside from Spanish coffee, this restaurant is renowned for its steaks and seafood, so of course Mom ordered a chicken breast. She told the server, “I want it natural. Don’t let the cook do anything to it. No fancy spices or sauces, or I’ll send it back.”

“It comes with Spanish rice or rosemary potatoes,” said the server.

“Bring me a baked potato. Nothing on it. I’ll add my own salt and pepper.”

Mrs. Chatterbox and I ordered our meals and the server disappeared. Good thing Mom was such an enthusiastic talker (I had to pick it up someplace) because it seemed our surprise was going down the toilet: the restaurant was packed with moms being treated to Spanish coffee, including the one at the booth directly behind us. Mom blithely chatted away about an unpleasant incident in a restaurant that occurred before I was born. She didn’t notice the coffee version of Cirque du Soleil taking place right behind her. For the next forty minutes we ate our meal (except for Mom who complained that her chicken and potato were dry and flavorless) and I pretended to hang on Mom’s every word to keep her from turning her head and witnessing everyone else in the room being served Spanish coffee.

When our plates were cleared away Mom announced she was ready to leave.

“We have a Mother’s Day surprise for you,” I said when the server arrived to ask if we wanted dessert. “My mother will have a Spanish coffee.”

“Very good sir,” he said to me.

I’ll admit that Mom appeared fascinated by his skill and dexterity; she even managed a brittle smile when the steaming snifter of Spanish delight was placed in front of her. “I’ve never seen anything like that,” she said, when he’d gone. “Have you?”

Since everyone in the room had ordered the same thing, I wanted to say something snarky like, “Actually, I’ve seen it thirty times—TODAY! But I held my tongue.

Mom sipped the coffee. “Ooch…too hot. It burned my tongue. Now I won’t be able to taste for a week.”

That was the one and only sip of Spanish coffee she took, and she still blames me for that time we took her to that dreadful restaurant where they served coffee so hot it blistered her tongue. That old saying is certainly true: No good deed goes unpunished.

Happy Mother’s Day

Friday, May 11, 2012

Portrait Of An A*#hole

I saw someone familiar in the obituaries today. It took me a while to place the face but it finally came to me. Years ago she came regularly into the jewelry store I managed at the local mall. She never bought anything, but she was a pleasant widow and I’d clean her jewelry. I’ve always been chatty and let it slip that, in addition to managing the store, I was an artist and my work could be seen around town.

One Saturday afternoon in 1989 she came into the store and said, “I was downtown yesterday at the Oregon Biennial. I saw your work.”

My illustrations were beginning to show up in local newspapers and magazines and people often told me they’d seen my work when I suspected they hadn’t. Usually when people claimed to have seen my art they said something nice. This lady did not say anything nice, and it was unlikely she’d seen my work at the Oregon Biennial because I hadn’t submitted anything.

“You’re an artist, aren’t you?” she asked. “Didn’t you tell me you painted?”

“Yes, I am.” I answered.

She scowled her disapproval at me.

“What did you think of the show?” I asked. “Did you see anything interesting?”

“Most of the work was too modern, but your picture was...quite revealing!”

The way she glared made me feel uncomfortable. I decided to dash to the art museum and check out what was hanging with my name on it.

The Oregon Biennial was an artsy-fartsy juried show designed to showcase intellectual experimentation every two years. The art selected didn’t reflect mainstream taste. One didn’t find well-staged landscapes and penetrating portraits. I wandered through the various rooms, one devoted to minimalism and another to nihilism; there was a room of non-objective paintings and another filled with constructivist sculpture that looked like kindergarten blocks. One by one I eliminated the rooms until I came to the last. I peeked inside and knew the instant I laid eyes on it that I’d found what I was looking for hanging on the far wall.

I approached cautiously, as if the picture were on loan from Chernobyl. Several art enthusiasts shushed me when I moaned, “Please dear God; don’t let it be this one!”

I approached a life-size charcoal drawing of a man vaguely resembling me. The figure was nude and drawn from behind, presenting his backside to the world. His head was tucked between his legs and he was leering at the viewer—a self-portrait…of the artist’s asshole. A nearby placard gave the artist’s name: Stephen Hayes.

I had no right to be enraged, but I was. If this artist had been standing beside his picture I’d have kicked him in the pucker chute he’d drawn so well. I felt like I’d been robbed of my dignity, along with my name. With several different ways to spell “Stephen,” why couldn’t this guy have spelled his name differently? In addition to feeling angry, I burned with shame because another Stephen Hayes was having the artistic success that so far had eluded me. I took this as a wake-up call that I’d better get moving before yet another Stephen Hayes crawled out of the woodwork. I was the one who needed a swift kick in the butt.

Eventually, I quit retail and launched my career as a professional illustrator. I did moderately well for myself, as did the other Stephen Hayes whose reputation as a figurative painter continued to grow. One day I received an invitation to join the faculty of one of the most prestigious art schools in the Northwest. I suspected they’d sent the invitation to the wrong guy, which is what I told the hiring committee during my interview. They thought I was quirky and wanted more money. My reluctance to sign a contract goaded them into wanting me even more. They raised their offer and wouldn’t take no for an answer. I finally accepted. For eight years my fellow faculty members believed I was the other Stephen Hayes.

Not bad for an asshole.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Virgin Mary and the NBA

Disclaimer: At the end of this post I’m going to reveal something about a beloved sculpture that might alter the way you look at it. If you’re disappointed when magicians reveal their secrets, consider reading no further.


Michelangelo’s Pietà, carved in 1499 when the sculptor was only twenty-five, is one of the most famous and beloved sculptures in the world. Many of us have seen it on display in Saint Peters in Rome. Millions more have seen plaster and plastic versions of it, photos printed on Christmas and Easter cards, puzzles, and even gold-plated charms on bracelets. Like the Mona Lisa, our familiarity with this sculpture now prevents us from seeing it for the miracle it truly is. Recently, a version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream sold for just under 120 million dollars. The Scream, whether we like it or not, is one of the most famous works of art in the world. But was it worth the price?

Michelangelo’s work, even his failures, are far greater than anything Munch created, but modern society is far more willing to shell out big bucks for works by tormented souls like Van Gogh, Jackson Pollock, and Edvard Munch. Yet few artists were tormented by their work more than Michelangelo, who once wrote a sonnet claiming that he might have been happy if art hadn’t ruined him.

A bit of background. During the Renaissance, successful artists were treated the way NBA players are treated today—as celebrities. In Florence, buzz was building over Michelangelo’s work. When he arrived in Rome a dying cardinal commissioned him to carve a marble sculpture for Saint Peter’s Basilica, a pietà—a representation of the dead Jesus held in the arms of his grieving Mother. The only instructions given were that the sculpture should be finer than anything being produced at that time in Rome and that it should make viewers weep. Michelangelo worked quickly, but the cardinal died before the statue was completed. Although he had no authorization to place his sculpture inside the Basilica, Michelangelo hired a family of brawny stonecutters to move the statue in the dead of night. The stonecutters refused money when they saw the sculpture, claiming they would receive payment in Heaven.

The next day Michelangelo wandered into Saint Peters to see how his sculpture was being received. A group of art connoisseurs surrounded his Pietà; they were speculating on who could have carved such an extraordinary statue. The names of various sculptors were bandied about; Michelangelo’s name was not among them. That night, Michelangelo returned with candles, hammer and chisel. On the sash between the Virgin’s breasts he carved these words: Michelangelo Buonarroti, a Florentine, made this. Never again would he need to sign his work.

Michelangelo reached the remarkable age of eighty-nine, slam-dunking the world with a body of masterpieces that has never been equaled. But this youthful work has tugged at heartstrings for centuries, and rightfully so because something amazing is happening.

First a fact: men are generally larger and heavier than women, so a composition showing the body of a thirty-three year old man lying across the lap of a normal sized woman is going to look unsightly, clumsy, awkward. Medieval artists relished this affront to beauty. They emphasized the ungainliness of Mary struggling to keep the body sprawled across her lap from sliding to the floor like a lead petticoat. But Michelangelo’s Mary is not shown as a normal mother of a crucified adult male; Her face is that of a teenager, as if Her purity and innocence have kept Her from aging, as if the realization of God’s will has shielded Her from emotion. And yet—here’s where the magic comes in—this young girl effortlessly supports the dead man on Her lap, as if He weighed less than a deflated basketball. In anticipation of the Resurrection and Ascension, Jesus weighs nothing at all.

How does Michelangelo achieve this miracle? He was reported to have made hundreds of drawing to achieve this effect but burned them all when the sculpture was completed, as was his custom. The faces of Mary and Jesus are depicted close together. Both are of normal size. But to support Jesus’ body Michelangelo has distorted human anatomy. Beneath the marble drapes, Mary has legs that would be the envy of any professional basketball player, legs that could catapult their owner twenty feet into the air. In fact, the bottom half of Mary’s body is so disproportionately large that if She were to stand She’d be between seven and eight feet tall.

Such was Michelangelo’s mastery at the age of twenty-five that we simply don’t notice the effortless manner in which Mary supports her Son. Take a close look at the slack muscles, the veins on Jesus’ limp arms and wrists; mastery of anatomy such as this, registered in stone, has rarely been equaled. Through this miracle in marble we bear witness to the recreation of a biblical event, a whisper in stone that answers prophesy by shouting our humanity and our faith: Thy will be done.

No work of art is worth 120 million dollars, but Michelangelo's Pietà comes close.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Inside The Box

Conclusion of The Mystery Box

The box had occupied space in our garage for as long as I could remember, and even though it was off-limits I’d allowed Ricky Delgado, my best friend, to talk me into opening it. My heart sank when I didn’t see a Japanese flag or a chunk of scorched scrap from a kamikaze. Only boring papers and old photographs, just what Dad had said was inside. Black and white snapshots of a remarkably young Dad in his Navy uniform, hamming it up with buddies on shore leave, downing drinks in exotic looking bars. It’s hard to accept that your parents had lives before you came along, but here was proof.

Ricky looked disappointed as he went through a stack of papers. He unfolded a document. “No war souvenirs. What a waste of t—wait a minute.”

I was pissed at Ricky for once more leading me astray. “What did you find, a letter proving my dad was a spy?”

“No, but this is interesting.”


“A marriage certificate.”

“You found my parents’ marriage certificate?”

“Uh, not exactly. Say, what year did your folks get married?”

I wasn’t sure, and did the math. I knew Mom and Dad had been married just over a year when my brother was born and he was now fourteen, so they were married in 1949.

Ricky handed me the document.

It had a spy-like quality to it; important and official. Engraved across the top it read: Certificate of Marriage. I didn’t see what Ricky had found so intriguing.

“Check out the date,” he said.

I found it—June 12, 1947. Then came the bombshell. I recognized Mom’s maiden name, but the other name wasn’t Dad’s. “I don’t understand,” I said, unaware that I was speaking.

“What don’t you understand,” Ricky asked. “Your mother was married to someone else before she married your Dad. Maybe your asshole brother isn’t really your brother. You look like your Dad, except he isn’t short and fat, but David doesn’t look like anyone in your family. Maybe the reason he acts so much older than us is because he is.”

I’d spent my entire life in my older brother’s shadow, tangling with him, being annoyed by him, yet it made my head spin to think he might not really be my brother.

The garage door rattled as it was pulled open. David stood in the driveway. He was about to say something snarky, as he usually did when he encountered me and Ricky, but his lips pressed tightly together as he looked at the open plywood box and the pictures and papers in our hands.

“You’re in big trouble,” he said. “It takes a lot to make Dad mad, but he’s gonna blow a gasket when he finds out about this.”

I handed him the marriage certificate.

He studied it for a minute and then turned to Ricky. “Beat it! I want to talk to my brother.”

“Maybe he isn’t your brother.”

David took two menacing steps toward Ricky and my best friend turned and fled through the open garage door. When Rick had gone, I looked at my brother and said, “Well?”

“Well what?” he answered.

“Are you my brother? According to this paper, Mom was married to someone before Dad. Is this guy named on the license your real Dad?”


“But the name on the paper…”

“This just means that Mom was married to someone else before she met Dad. The marriage was annulled. Do you know what that means?”

I shook my head.

“It means it didn’t count. Like it never existed.”

“How long have you known about this?”

“Long enough. I opened the box and saw this certificate years ago. Mom and Dad’s marriage certificate is in the metal box in the hall closet, along with our birth certificates. This isn’t anything for you to worry about.”

“So we really are brothers?”

“Of course, you little moron. Believe me, sometimes I wish we weren’t but there isn’t anything I can do about it.” He reached down and picked up the screwdriver. “Let’s put this box back together before Mom or Dad find out about this and both of us get grounded for life.”

I gathered up the screws and handed them to David, one at a time. When the last one was securely in place I looked up at him and said, “I’m glad.”

“Glad about what?”

“I’m glad we’re really brothers.”

“You’re such a little goon,” he said, but there wasn’t any sting to it. He helped me move the box back to its spot beside Dad’s workbench before he went inside.

I stared at the box and wondered if there were other family secrets I didn’t know about. Twenty years would pass before I’d discover the answer was yes. For the next few years I’d spend each Christmas reflecting on the plywood box beneath our stout tree, remembering when it only held the harmless products of my imagination.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Mystery Box

The box looked like it had been constructed in a hurry, even to my twelve year old eyes, It was rough and unpolished and made of cheap plywood, six panels forming a twenty-four inch cube. Little care had gone into the construction; the sides had been roughly screwed together and there were no hinges or latches to indicate an opening. Nothing was written on it and there was no way to glimpse inside without tearing it apart.

When I was growing up, the box collected dust in our garage. Its only official purpose was to serve as a pedestal for the short and stout Christmas trees that my parents preferred. In December the wooden box was lugged from the garage, brushed off and gussied up with a white sheet; only then could our tree be positioned on it. Over the years, the plywood cube came to smell like Christmas.

The box had unofficial functions; sometimes it served as a pedestal for neighborhood kids to stand on when we played “statue.” Or it would end up as the cornerstone for the forts we built from stacking stuff in our garage. Whenever I asked my parents what was inside it, the answer was inevitably the same: “Nothing important.”

I was a persistent pest. “C’mon, Dad, tell me; where did the box come from?”

Dad finally ‘fessed up. He ran a hand through his creosote hair. “I made it”

“What’s inside, Dad? C’mon, tell me…”

At first I didn’t think he was going to answer, but he said, “Inside are papers and photographs.”

“Anything from the war?”

“A few things.”

When I asked about “the war,” I meant World War II. The Korean War should have been fresher in everyone’s minds, but the Koreans and Chinese never captured my imagination like the Nazis. Defamed in film and vilified on many a TV program, they were deliciously evil, and as a small kid I relished being terrified by them. David, my grumpy older brother, liked to taunt me with the fact that they never actually caught Hitler. He swore the Nazi leader escaped to somewhere in South America, then fled to California where he was hiding out as a school janitor. Because of my brother, I always kept a wary eye on mustachioed Mr. Mestemacher as he shuffled along our school’s corridors with his push broom in hand.

“What kind of war stuff, Dad?” I knew he’d served in the Pacific, had joined the Navy at eighteen and had been shipped off to Guam. “Is there a Japanese flag in there? A chunk of airplane from a kamikaze?”

“Nothing like that.”

His reluctance to talk about the box only stoked my imagination. With pretend X-ray vision I conjured weapons of war, pirate’s booty and, on more than one occasion, fragments of a radioactive element from the home planet I shared with Superman—Kryptonite. The mysterious box was the depository where I stored my fantasies and heart’s desires.

One day I was hanging out in our garage with my best friend Ricky Delgado. His attention settled on the dusty box. We’d talked about it before. “I think it’s time to see what’s inside,” he said.

“Dad says it’s full of papers and old pictures.”

“And you believed him?”

“Of course.” I’d never known Dad to lie.

Ricky let out a long, “Hmmmmm…”

“Hmmm, what?” I replied.

“It’s just that he went to a lot of trouble building a wooden box just to store crummy papers and pictures in. He could have stored those in a shoe or cigar box.”

That was certainly true.

“Why don’t we grab a screwdriver and peek inside?”

I shook my head. “I’ll catch hell if we get caught.”

“Why? Did your parents tell you not to open it?”

“No, but I really don’t think we should—”

“You got a screwdriver around here?” Ricky asked, his eyes darting over to Dad’s workbench.

I picked up a screwdriver, and wavered before opening the box. I couldn’t count all the times I’d gotten into trouble because of Ricky Delgado, but after so much imagining I was suddenly busting to peek inside.

The screws didn’t come out easily and my shirt was damp and sticking to me by the time I removed one of the plywood panels and caught a glimpse of what was really inside. A seismic event was about to take place, a discovery that would shake my world nearly as much as when I learned the truth about Santa Claus.

(To be Continued…)

Friday, May 4, 2012

Where's Davy?

I’ll be the first one to admit I’m not up on the zeitgeist, particularly when it comes to music. I’m still stuck in the sixties and seventies, and it’s music from this era playing in the background as I write this. But I’ve recently noticed something peculiar going on. We baby boomers have become accustomed to corporations using our generation’s anthems to sell their products, like Ford cashing in on the Rolling Stones’ Start Me Up, or Beatles songs used to sell diapers at Target. But I’m referring to something far more sinister.

Back in 1973, Billy Joel produced the song that would become his hallmark—Piano Man. I can’t analyze music the way I can art so I can’t tell you if Piano Man is a good song or not, I just know I’ve been moved by it since the first time I heard Billy pound those piano keys.

And the waitress is practicing politics
As the businessman slowly gets stoned
Yes, they're sharing a drink they call loneliness
But it's better than drinkin' alone

Still gets to me, but I’m a sentimental softy and unapologetic about it. So here’s my problem. As you might imagine, I know all the lyrics to this song, and several months ago when it aired on my RAV’s radio as I drove to my morning swim, I noticed something missing in the song. Surely it was my involvement with driving that caused me to miss one of my favorite passages, but a few days later there it was again, Piano Man blaring from my car radio. I tuned in closely for my favorite part, and again it was missing:

Now Paul is a real estate novelist
Who never had time for a wife
And he's talkin' with Davy, who's still in the Navy
And probably will be for life

Davy, who’s still in the Navy and probably will be for life, was conspicuously missing. Where had he gone? I’ve always sympathized with Davy. In my mind he never matures into a Dave or David, probably enlisted in the Navy when he was eighteen and now, like an institutionalized inmate, is terrified of release.

I realize that songs, like movies on TV, are often shortened and I don’t expect to hear the long version of ballads like Don McLean’s American Pie, but Piano Man isn’t a particularly long song. I mentioned this to Mrs. Chatterbox, who’s much more into the zeitgeist than I am, and at first she didn’t believe me when I said Davy was MIA.

But several days ago she came home from work and said, “Piano Man came on the air while I was driving home. I listened closely, and you’re right. No Davy!”

I was shocked. I’m not told very often that I’m right. But she did confirm my suspicions that Davy had disappeared. Was Davy a casualty of our wars to provide Homeland security? Were the lyrics considered anti-Navy, and thereby anti-military and unpatriotic? Is Davy no longer sitting at the bar listening to the Piano Man on your radio?

Davy—where are you?

Is Davy still hanging around your radio? Check for me the next time you hear Piano Man.