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Monday, November 20, 2017

Helter Skelter


"Charlie's got a long reach, man."

That's a line from the movie "Helter Skelter", the account of the Manson Family murders and the prosecution of those who carried them out, including Charles Miles Manson, who died today. The person who said it was explaining his reticence to say anything about Manson, even though he was locked up by that time.

He still had a long reach.

Culturally, that has also proven to be true .I first heard that name when I was a little kid, when the older neighbor kid told me all about it. (This is also how I learned about the Vietnam War.) I remember "Barracuda", by Heart, was playing on the radio when he told me about it.

When his death sentence was converted to a life sentence by the Supreme Court, the closure was ripped away for a terrified nation. To put in context the fear and dread that everyone felt, consider that Manson was responsible for more deaths on US soil than was the Soviet Union. The exposure to uncertainty, about a matter which had already been so painfully adjudicated, was just not fair.

By that time, though, America had grown used to just not fair. A president had been murdered, and then his brother, literally wiping out the icons of our last idealistic era. Our disillusionment, the fading of our nation's colors, would go on long after Manson - the war spilled on endlessly, amidst Watergate and inflation and energy crises.

In commuting Manson's capital punishment, essentially undoing the hard work of prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi (who played himself in the movie), the Supreme Court cheated us all. The very system that was supposed to be our final backstop somehow opened up a hole for a ball of evil to roll through. To add insult to injury, taxpayers had to foot the bill to keep Manson alive for five decades.

This, the penalty for a dozen lives, brutal killings that put the whole country in shock. The American people rightly felt like they were the ones who had been sentenced. The last chapter of that penny dreadful has finally been written, but by now, not many people really notice. We are numb.

In 2016, there were 40,200 traffic fatalities in the United States. There were around 64,000 fatal opioid overdoses. And there were more than 10,000 firearm fatalities. 114,000 deaths combined - not the work of a madman on a hippie ranch in sunny Southern California. These are matters that could be managed, regulated, legislated, controlled, but they aren't. Not well enough, obviously.

A maniac in Vegas gunned down a whole concert full of people; we went on with our day. Bodies are falling all around us. We've lost half a million people in the last five years due to just those three categories I mentioned. It's just not fair. And we just don't care.

I have to care. My best friend died of an overdose in 2016. Throw him on the statistical pile if you want to, I can't do that. Now consider how many people die of heart attacks, who die of cancer, who die in accidents. It all changed over time with context, it did, I'm telling you...

Charlie's got a long reach.

pH 11.2o.17

***

Monday, November 6, 2017

VRROOOMM, VVRRROOOOMMM


The Time:  Late Spring, 1987.
The Place: Kalamazoo, Michigan

I am 19 years old, and already on my third car. 

The first one was great, "Christine", a 1972 Plymouth Fury III, a gold two-door with a black vinyl roof. It was probably 14 feet long and weighed a couple of tons. It took a tremendous beating from me; the strain was beyond its capacity.

The second car was okay. I thought I was buying a Pioneer car stereo with Clarion door speakers for $125... That's what the ad said. The mint-green '68 Chevy Biscayne sedan just came with it is all. It had a 250 c.i.d. inline 6-cylinder engine,  and worse yet, a 3-speed manual transmission with a column shifter (my first stick-shift). Bigger and slower than Christine, it was still a fun car, until the frame broke six months after I got it.

Then came The Car, the greatest car I've ever owned or will ever own, to my mind. It was a 1974 Pontiac Formula Firebird. Not the "Flaming Chicken" Trans Am, the Formula, with the double hood scoop. Under that hood was a small block 400 V8 with headers. It didn't just sound fast - it was really fast. It came with McPherson struts and sticky Goodyear Eagle GT tires, so it could handle the fast.

Which brings us to late Spring, 1987. I was a college man, yet I still maintained some interest in my little brother, who was just 12 years old then. It was a beautiful day outside when the circumstances found us both bored and at home at the same time.

"Hey," I said with the kind of cool casualness that only Big Brothers can possess. "You wanna drive my car?"

***

The first Hot Wheels car I got for my nephew Charlie was, I believe, the purple 1971 Dodge Challenger. I picked it up for him while shopping not long after Christmas. Part of an unofficial "caught you being good" campaign that I was running. He was on the computer when I dropped it on the table by his mouse-hand.

"That's for you," I said. Without reaching for it at all, he stared at it for a few seconds, then resumed play. Not unlike Charlie. A couple of days later, while at the store, I got him a second one, a 1969 Dodge Charger, blue and silver.

"That's for you," I said. "You ever gonna open the other one?" As his Mom and I watched, he got the small packages torn open. Charlie carefully turned the Charger around and over in his soft, boneless hands.

"You can tell they're not cheap," he said, studying the tiny replica of such a fearsome, legendary Detroit machine.

***

Even with the seat pulled all the way forward, my kid brother could barely see over the long, midnight-blue double-barrelled hood of the Formula Firebird.

"Okay," I said. "Start the engine." He hesitated with a slightly uncertain look.

"Turn the key," I said.

***

I found myself visiting the toy aisle at just about every store I went into. That's the nice thing about Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars. They're small, they're unbreakable, they are in fact cheap, and the retailers love all those qualities about the product as much as the customers do, maybe more.

Hot Wheels in particular is very good about making actual cars that were on the road, as opposed to fanciful dune buggies, stuff like that. So I was able to show Charlie the different evolutions that took place in Michigan's great automotive history. The way the Mustang and the Corvette became what they are today.

Due to the company's licensing agreements with the automakers themselves, you'll find that many of the cars are even coated with factory code sparkle-metallic paint.

So I got pretty excited when I found The Car hanging from a hook at the store. My car. Not the "Flaming Chicken" Trans Am. The Formula Firebird.

"Here," I said as I gave it to Charlie, with the kind of casual coolness that only Uncles can possess. "I actually owned that one."

***

The Pontiac's fire-breathing engine rumbled to life at the twitch of the boy's fingertips. He had ridden in the car before, knew it was more powerful than other cars - not just because of its menacing looks.

"Poke the gas pedal with your foot," I told him. He pushed earnestly on the brake pedal. "The other pedal. Just jab it once, don't stomp it down." He stomped it. The engine raced up fast, which scared him, and he got off it.

"Okay, good." I said. "That's how it responds. We're just going to the end of the street and bringing it back up. You won't need to hit the gas much."

He nodded... He was never much scared of anything, now that I think about it.

"Put your foot on the brake," I instructed, "and hold it there." He did. As the Thrush glasspacks burbled away, I pushed the button on the console shifter, and clunked the lever into 'D'.

***

Charlie didn't really play with the Hot Wheels cars in the traditional sense, he never set them up into demolition derbies, or raced them down the tracks that he already had to do that with. He just liked to display them, as if they were tiny models, which I guess they are.

The collection grew to a pretty good size, nearly a hundred cars at the end, and he had them positioned (as if at a miniature car dealership) on a big, tall desk in front of the wall-to-wall windows on the front porch that offered a panoramic view of the front yard.

***

My plan was to keep my hand on the shifter, which could be slapped into Neutral easily enough. We might get loud, I figured, but we would not go tearing off willy-nilly down the idyllic cul-de-sac where we grew up.

The kid, strangling the leather-wrapped steering wheel with both hands, took his foot off the brake pedal and the Formula immediately began to move.

"Give it a little gas," I said as it gained momentum, "not a lot." Then I bumped it into Neutral just before he mashed on the pedal, like I knew he would. The engine roared up and rapped down. I advised him to barely touch it, and he got the hang of it.

We worked our way through the turn at the end of the cul-de-sac, as my brother's young brain grew new dendrites and created new mapping skills, developed motor functions, everything.

Once we got it pointed due north, and we had some straight away to work with, I made the decision:

"Okay, buddy," I said. "Punch it!"

***

After my nephew Charlie died, there was a slight rush to get a lot of his things out of the house. The desk, which was blocking the view of the area of the yard where the accident happened, had to go.

And so did the Hot Wheels cars. Charlie had a lot of friends, and the collection was divided up among them. The only two that didn't go were new ones, still in the package, that I had purchased but had not yet given to him. One, a red Ford truck, went to his little sister (his dad's daughter).

The other was another '71 Challenger, just like very first one he ever got, only in Royal maroon and black... Yeah, that one's mine.

***

"HOW COULD YOU BE SO IRRESPONSIBLE!" My Mom wanted to know. "He could've been killed! You could've been killed! Anybody could've been killed!"

"Nobody got killed," I pointed out in my defense. "All we did was go up and down Robin Lane. No big deal." But it was a big deal to her - she wanted to throw me out the house for it. I think my Dad persuaded her that boys do crazy, stupid shit like that all the time, because she didn't stay mad at either one of us for very long.

And it was a big deal to my little brother. The power and violence of internal combustion. The sulfur stench of burning gasoline. The thick white smoke, the hideous screaming of rubber tearing against asphalt. The blood sinking back in your veins as the leather seat pushes on your head and shoulders. The involuntary trembling that all those horses put you through...

For both of us, it was worth the trouble.

***

Boys will be boys, that's what they say. And if they are lucky, despite themselves, they grow up to be men. Every childhood is a gauntlet of risk. Nobody knows that better than we, my brother and I.

We knew it pretty well then. We know it a whole lot better now.

pH 11.o6.17


Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Speaking of Sports

First of November, Twenty-Seventeen. Eleven One, ah yes. The cold brings out the competitor in all of us. Just ask the white tail deer as the peak of rut coincides with the transition from archery to firearm hunting seasons. Or the mallards as they fight for the last spot of open water on an icy pond.

The start of this month also marks the perfect confluence of professional sports. The World Series is reaching it's zenith. Football is steaming along, albeit through rolling waters. Basketball has gotten it's feet wet. And, on a binary sports planet somewhere in the universe, it is hockey season.

My nephew, Charlie, would be a 9th grader this year. High school...That's hard to fathom. Even though he would be bigger, like these neighborhood kids have gotten, a freshman is truly a small fry in the world.

But my first year at venerable Loy Norrix High School (Go, Knights!), I thought I was the toughest thing standing upright. That is how the kid would feel now if he could only be among us... It's hard to reconcile, both in the Now and in the Then, the way a 9th grader feels as opposed to what a 9th grader is.

I can't see myself ever having thought about it that way under any better circumstances. But that is how it would be for him, the way it is for everyone else.

By that age, I had played Little League baseball and was in a bowling league. I couldn't ice skate, but we played full contact street hockey in the winter in my neighborhood, every bit as brutal as the tackle football games we engaged in, and way more so than Gorilla Basketball in the driveway.

So we were sporty kids, sure, a whole neighborhood full of us. A generation later, Charlie was no different. He was a participant in hometown hero Derek Jeter's baseball camp in his last two years of life. He, too, had a bowling trophy, and a golf trophy to boot. He played soccer. He was trained in judo. He scored touchdowns.

Many people will tell you that the first twelve years are the best ones, anyway. After that, you have to start dealing with your looks, your clothes, acne, the school dance. Through all of that you have to focus on grades, and exams, so you can get to college. Then it becomes about money - a job, taxes - so you can get a car - insurance, registration - and on you tumble down the road. Until you don't.

Or until one day, you look up, and you're singing Amazing Grace at your 12-year old nephew's funeral. And helping your sister survive an awful despair against which all are powerless when it finally gets to them (then on they tumble, too).

Some things, you can't outscore, or outrun, or hide from in the woods. Some things, even this time of year, you can't fight back.

pH 11.o1.17

***

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Hollows Eve


What's to - hang on. (Hey, what's today's date, is this the 26th? Hah? Technically, the 27th... Okay, great.)

Alright. Upon sunrise of the morrow, there will be scantily four days until Halloween, a popular holiday in America and around the world. The prospect of receiving free candy has, apparently, universal appeal.

By now, you know what this is about, so I won't bother beating you over the head with stories of Trick-or-Treat Past. I won't festoon cyberspace with tales of the price that must be paid to get that candy, the horrors that have to be endured.

It's too late for that. That was last year. And last year my sister's house was done up in the spirit of the Season of the Witch. Enough young socialists-in-training showed up to make it all worthwhile - the Jacks O'Lantern, the scary music, the blood-soaked ax buried in the block of wood, the anti-dental goodies...

It went over. Sure it did. Fright Night. But none of those young socialists-in-training was Charlie.

This year could be the same, if she felt like it, but four days out, not a sign of the holiday is evident. No knives or candles have invaded the pristine bodies of pumpkins, spilling their guts and carving crude faces out of their agony.

There are no clattering glow-in-the-dark plastic skeletons. No dangling rubber bats. No fake spiderwebs. No spooky music or creepy lights. All that stuff remains in the basement.

There isn't even any candy in the cupboards this week, and there normally is, year round.

Tomorrow will come and go, and nothing will get done about this, and then it will be three days away from Halloween. The house will be no closer to where it should be to properly honor the dark hours of the event.

But at least tomorrow will have come and gone.

pH 1o.27.17

***


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Illucid Dreaming


Lucid Dreaming. Heard of it? It's the idea that one can control one's dreams if one can simply become aware (lucid) of the fact that one is in a dream state, and not bound by the laws of reality. This is how a mundane dream about digging potatoes can suddenly turn into a Flying Cowboy dream - and boy howdy, let me tell you, it doesn't get any better'n that.

The key to becoming lucid in a dream state, I have read, is not dissimilar to what Carlos Castaneda wrote about (except that his "dreams" were hallucinations brought on by the ingestion of psychedelic plant matter). Castaneda's moment of control came when he believed he had seen a monster out of the corner of his eye.

His first instinct was to flee, but he forced himself to focus on the monster, which turned out to be a shrub. He insisted to himself that he must stare at the thing, must ascertain its identity, must figure it out... And the shrub became as fascinating as the monster was terrifying.

Anyway, they (the supposed experts) say that one way to attain lucidity in a dream is to think about your hands as you are falling asleep. Hold them in front of your eyes as your lids slide closed, and say out loud to yourself, "Look at your hands... Look at your hands..." Kind of like counting sheep but with a way different purpose.

Then, if a particular dream becomes too vexing (like the one where I can't get a ride to someplace, so I start walking, and it starts raining but it isn't rain falling from the sky, only tiny lizards that wriggle and squirm into the gutters after bouncing rudely on the ground), you just... look at your hands. Once you have accomplished that monumental subconscious task, you become aware - Hey, I Did It! After that, like I said, Flying Cowboy.

Look at your hands. Look at your hands. Look at your hands.

Yeah, look at them. They're scarred, skinned, singed, scraped. Once described by my dear mother as "piano hands", they now look like undercooked pork chops with fingers. The knuckles have been calcified into cornices. Look at them. They've been crippled, crushed, crimped into crab claws. The calluses have no nerve endings under them anymore. Look at them. Look at what's left of them.

I used to tease Charlie about his soft, boneless hands (that's what I called them). I used to tell him they would someday find his body in the desert next to the jug of water that he was unable to open. He found a way to be indignant and still get a laugh out of it at the same time. The horrible fact is that my nephew never got the chance to turn his hands into anything like mine.

Look at them.

I've been using them while I still can, because life is not a dream; I still have to fix the car when it breaks. I still have to build shelving units to hold all the tools I use to build shelving units. Still have to get in a kitchen and work with them every night. Still have to type.

I find woodworking to be beneficial - not to my hands but to my mind, which is far more fitful in its waking state than it could ever be in the respite of REM sleep. Building things is a good way to kill the time when you'd much rather be killing something else.

When the project is complete, I have transformed a few bucks' worth of lumber into a table, or a shelf, or a nightstand, or a ladder. Something I can use, that I can trust, that I can rely on, because I know how it was made, what materials went into it. I don't have to feel too terrible about the working conditions of the poor guy who had to perform all that labor. And that which occupies my hands also occupies my mind (math, mostly).

That which I cannot grasp with my hands or my mind rests none too lightly on my shoulders. But I can't make a dream better by saying, "Look at your shoulders." They are broad and strong, the basis of many a bill of lading. They are tired and sore from the weight of angels and devils sitting on them. Angels and devils, saying, "Look at your hands."

Look at them.

Trying to pick up the thing they dropped, one priceless, shattered piece at a time.

Bleeding as the shards sink into the skin.

Breaking as the weight becomes too heavy to carry anymore.

Feeling along the floorboards hoping to find anything that might help.

Pushing back against my eyes as if to keep the pressure from bursting out through them.

Balling into stony fists as I lose control of, not a dream, but my nightmare, the one I go to sleep to get away from every night. Go on...

Look at them.

***

pH 1o.17.17



Tuesday, October 3, 2017

So Fast


See, the thing about Charlie is that he can never be made to fit the profile of a "teenager". He was only a couple of months into his 12th year. His choice of games, downloads and videos that he made himself were evidence enough of that... He was still just a little guy.

Even (or especially) his handwriting bore that out. He never learned cursive, let's just leave it at that. His Mom just came across a pile of Charlie's missives. Among them were his persistent and devoted free advertisements for (as in, on behalf of) Jimmy John's Subs.

There is a location within walking distance of the house, so it was kind of something he grew up with, and even the interiors of his Mom's car were plastered with their stickers: Subs So Fast You'll Freak. And there among the sheaf of papers she found were several of his own offerings to the world of restaurant marketing, in his pencil-printed child's scribe:

Subs So Fast You'll Freak.

Subs So Fast, You'll Freak.

Subs So Fast You Will Freak.

He wanted everyone to know. And to Charlie, the only thing better than walking down to Jimmy John's, or driving through at Jimmy John's, was having Jimmy John's delivered. My sister and her son would spend more than a fair amount of time in front of the computer screen, surveying the menu, deciding what to order. They would then place The Call.

Once the preliminary task was completed, they would start counting the minutes.

Considering the fact that a vehicle with no coolant in its system could motor up to her house (and back) with no problem, it never took the driver longer than maybe seven or eight minutes to make the trip. Charlie was always duly impressed, and he was happy to know that the driver got to keep the tip money that he got for being so freaking fast.

On one occasion, I was in the back part of the house, and heard them going through the ordering process, crafting it, in accordance with the menu and money aspects that they had already figured out beforehand. As I heard his Mom concluding the purchase order, I quietly exited through the back door.

I snuck down the walkway between the house and the garage, keeping the window air conditioner in between me and their view of the outside world - but they were watching the clock. For all they knew, I was still in the kitchen.  It was a mild, pleasant afternoon, and the AC was not running, so I could hear what they were saying inside.

I heard Charlie, barely a minute after the phone call had concluded: "I wonder how long it will take them to get here?" That's when I stepped right up to the front door and knocked on it loudly.

The door opened, and Charlie's face went through a three-part morph, each expression more pronounced than the one before it. Frame One: He really thinks it's freaking Jimmy John's. Frame Two: It's only Uncle Paul, who clearly thinks this is funny. Frame Three... It's not funny.

Except that it was. That was the kind of thing that Charlie really liked. Goofy stuff. Silly stuff. Playful stuff. Kid stuff.

He was still a puppy.

Well, puppies don't always make it. They get hit in the road sometimes, or they get sick, or a bigger dog gets to them, or... And it's always sad. But that doesn't mean they didn't enjoy their run, the entirety of it. Oh, they did. Bounding along, never knowing, every day, through life.

Life so fast, you'll freak.

pH 1o.o3.17

***

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Benedictions for a Peninsula


It is here. No, not football season. That is well underway. The monster. It's here. It's eating Florida alive.

Charlie absolutely loved Florida. His big sister lives there, and he visited her often, with his last trip (by himself, big boy!) coming just a couple of months before he left us.

He got to go to a something like a zoo, where people can interact with wild animals. The pictures of young Charlie Wolf cuddling with wolf pups remain at once adorable and heartbreaking.

How he would chafe at returning to dreary, boring Michigan, the other peninsula, same as it has ever been, the place where not much excitement comes barreling into your existence.

By the end of the day, that wildlife zoo will be gone, just like Charlie, swept away in a disaster. The difference is we can see Irma coming. We can prepare for the shock and the sorrow, and stare in astonished horror into the uncaring eye of the approaching hurricane.

Florida faces this storm with the prayers and benedictions of an entire world behind them, and not much else. But, after the worst has passed, Uncle Sam will be there to lift them up, hold them in his arms, and try his best to make them whole.

That is truly the least an uncle can do.

pH 9.1o.17

***

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Fall


The heat finally broke. It's almost as if the moon wiped it clean off the face of the sun during the eclipse. All week it was brutal and muggy, and now, cool as one of the cucumbers we've been pulling out of the garden.

It's almost over - we'll harvest the food, turn the Earth, and wait for the rain to become snow the way caterpillars morph into butterflies - or like a negative of that.

This is not to be confused with the Farmer's Almanac, though. For my nephew Charlie, this was a bittersweet time of year. He chafed at the thought of going back to school, spending his time parked in the classroom instead of doing (as one of his teachers put it) pretty much whatever it was he wanted to do.

I was not the kind of uncle to let it slip his mind, either. "Sixteen," I would say to him on a random sunny day.

"Sixteen what?"

"Sixteen days left until the First Day of School!" Followed by his groans. Charlie loved to groan... It runs in the family.

The good part, though, was the new school clothes. Both my sister and Charlie's Dad had keen ideas about how a boy should be dressed for school. They weren't necessarily on the same page (or even looking at the same catalog), but that provided him with a broad fashion spectrum from which to choose, and Charlie liked that, too.

But soon enough the leaves would turn and then drop, and the bicycle would be put in the shed in exchange for the sled, and the rake swapped out with the snow shovel. Those fancy new duds would be buried, first under a coat, then under a hat and scarf, and finally disappear beneath an outright snow suit.

This is
the way the world turned for Charlie and his Mom. And for me, the not-silent observer.


And then, one day, the world just... Stopped.

These last few summer days will run out like beads off the end of a string. The school buses will still rumble by the house. The impending season, this time before us, is sometimes called Autumn. But we know it as the fall.

pH 8.22.17

***



Saturday, July 29, 2017

Back in Time


Well, we got through it; three days have passed since 26th July, the darkest square on my calendar. Last Wednesday marked twain years since our extended family flock lost its second-youngest lamb.

As I mentioned to my brother, quite a while ago now, go back in time to that terrible night. After all the neighbors and the cops and the medics and the chaplain and Charlie had gone away, he and I stood in the driveway and looked ahead at a long road that disappeared into murky blackness.

Didn't know how long it was. Didn't know where it would take us. But we were on it, all right, going full-tilt boogie with no headlights, no GPS, no speedometer, no seatbelts.

Now, quite the opposite. We rolled through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. We fear no evil. The road hasn't ended yet... I suspect our muscle-car era vehicles will break down before it ever does. Whatever.

We can look back now, in the light of day, and see the route we traveled. Some rough terrain, to be sure.

***

But nobody can live that way forever.

***

Although it takes quite a bit of (s)training, we've got to do it. We Hellers have got to stop ticking the time away from Charlie's tragic death as the starting point, as the Big Bang to our universe.

What we have become is who we are, yep, I get that. Still, we didn't teleport here. Nobody beamed us up.

It's both effortless, and not - letting your mind return to those easier, less painful times. Forgetting what you know. It is both helpful, and not. I don't just mean this thing. I mean everything, everyone.

Charlie's passing on July 26th, 2015 and all that has followed was our family's private 9/11. September 11th, 2001 was America's 9/11. Lost are the loved ones.

As described here, we have been engaged in a personal conflict ever since 7/26. America has been engaged in a global conflict since 9/11. What was lost cannot be found.

The road is closed.

But remember what it was like on September 10th of that year? It was a really nice day. Kids were settling into their school routines. The summer warmth had slacked off but the leaves were nowhere near turning color.

The night was capped off by Monday Night Football. It was Ed McCaffrey's last game. The Denver Broncos' wide receiver broke his leg. Falling asleep on pain killers that night, he probably figured his life had changed forever.

The next morning, it all came crashing down, out of a clear blue sky.

That is not where America's road began. But we treated it that way, and now look where we are: Billions of miles away from where we were, no end in sight (unless you mean that cliff up ahead).

***

That's not gonna to happen to us, Charlie. I will not remember you merely as my nephew who died, but as that spirited little boy who lived for 12 years, who made my sister happier than anything else in her life ever had.

That doesn't go away, kid... Not on my watch.

pH 7.29.17

***

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