The Dog Days Are Over
I’ve been accused more than once of lacking a sense of nostalgia. Having been recently reunited with my old teddy bear, I now have evidence to support disagreeing. But I can see where people would get that impression: I don’t keep old photos, I don’t upload anything but videos of dry ice shenanigans to facebook, and when I hang out with my oldest friends we don’t talk about the old days much. The truth is, I often think about the past; maybe I don’t keep reminders around because I remember much of it.
But then there’s this blog. Better to record than forget, right?
Trick of it is, it’s hard to know what to record. See, I suffer from a particular form of narcissism that manifests a singular symptom: if I don’t know a fact about someone, I assume whatever would apply to me. If I don’t know your age, you’re probably 28. If I read an androgynous name in the paper, like Terry or Pat, I assume it’s a dude. All while I’ve suffered this disease, I’ve believed the rest of the world had pretty sweet childhoods, too.
Some reading this blog might get the impression I had a troubled childhood. That’s true to a point–the family was always a tad on-the-rocks, and I’ve always been a bit of a basket case–but most of it was, as I said, pretty sweet. It’s time to correct the mistaken. I dedicate the rest of this post to my misspent youth.
I enjoyed the best opportunities as a child. I grew up in a quiet neighborhood in a modest house on quiet little Greenwood Drive, with a big, towering, flourishing tree in the front yard and a backyard with more trees of all shapes and a hill for sledding and a deck where I could lord over the domain. There were other kids in the neighborhood. Jearl lived next door for many years, Jenny and Kevin’s backyard touched mine, my sweetheart Holly Bradley lived up on Jenny’s cul de sac, and the other Holly and Roger lived next door to her. We were never wealthy enough to afford expensive diversions, and I was the youngest and most easily-forgotten of three kids, so I was encouraged to escape and play outside as long as there was daylight. This was in the days before cell phones, before electronic tethers maintained the umbilical between parent and child, and oh, it was glorious.
I made the most of my freedom. Play was deliverance, a spiritual experience, a chance to revel in the majesty of being a kid, carefree and burden-free and only slightly terrified by it all. Then I met Kelly, who had a trampoline and a swimming pool, and the fun really multiplied.
Even during the school year there was plenty of time for shenanigans. After second grade I stopped doing homework, reasoning that I’d score plenty well enough on the tests to move on to the next grade. Why sweat the small stuff when there was playing to do?
Reminds me of a guy I knew in law school who once lamented that his girlfriend’s dachshund was too calculating a beast for his liking. On rainy days the hound would shit on the carpet rather than go outside, knowing that whatever punishment came his way wouldn’t be as bad as braving the storm.
In the dog’s defense, I’d imagine it’s awfully unpleasant to feel your dangly bits dragging through wet grass. Commence stories!
THE THINKING ROCK
I was boasting about my memory earlier, but even now plenty of things are fading. Back in elementary school my mom worked as a night nurse in the psych ward. I think she had weird days off, too–maybe Thursdays? Fridays? Was it a psych ward? Maybe, maybe.
Some days, when she had a little more time than others, my mom would pick me up from school and we’d go adventuring. ‘Splorin’. My little hometown, Dale City, has always been under construction. Those days after school my mom and I would drive through and investigate all the new subdivisions, or she’d show me the old neighborhoods where she and my dad first lived when my brother was just born, or we’d pick a road and drive to its limit to see what was at the end. Exploration, just for the hell of it.
My vanity makes me wonder: What, you didn’t do that with yours? Full credit to my mother for encouraging a sense of wonder and possibility in me way early. All we needed were pith helmets. I have a niece, and she reads books about a pig named Olivia who exclaims, “Make every day extraordinary!” I’d never heard of Olivia until my niece came along, but I didn’t need to because I had my mom: she showed me that adventure, the opportunity to experience something extraordinary, was everywhere, sometimes even in our front yard.
Our front walkway to our house back then had an L-bend to it. It left the house directly for a few steps, then made a tidy right turn towards the driveway. There was a tree a few yards off the corner of the walk covering the top of the hill that filled most of the front yard.
Well, one day, maybe I’m five, or six, or whatever, my mom, always with an eye for aesthetics, stands on the front porch, surveys the yard, and makes a declaration: We need a rock for beneath the tree. The next time she picked me up from school she brought the truck. Rock hunting time.
Sometimes when people say “truck” they mean “Ford Explorer” or “Jeep” or something else that’s not a truck at all. This, friends, was a truck, a no-AC, radio-only, crank-the-window-down-by-hand Chevy S10 Pickup. The engine ran on fury and vinegar. It couldn’t be killed by mortals. Call it vehicular seppuku at the end–the old truck impaled itself on its own piston rod when my brother red-lined the engine racing a Cadillac up Prince William Parkway. Joe told my Dad, “I really smoked that Caddy.” My dad asked Joe, “Which one of you drove away?” A fitting epitaph for a mighty truck.
I tell you about the truck because you deserve a good story and the the hunt for the rock was actually pretty easy. There was a subdivision breaking ground not far from our neighborhood, and we could see fantastic rocks scattered all over from the road. The construction workers told me we could pick whichever rock we wanted; my mom’s a charmer. We settled on a trapezoidal rock, as big as a laundry basket, with a flat top. I set my shoulder to the rock, groaned, strained, struggled, and moved it a millimeter. My mom’s new construction buddy gave it a bear hug, lifted it straight, and threw it in the back of the truck. Didn’t even bother to stretch.
We took that rock home and put it under the tree and my mom was right. The rock was a perfect fit, and we were glad to have it. I forget it’s weird to be thankful towards a rock, but I have to remember that you probably didn’t have a rock as awesome as mine in front of your house.
After a few seasons of acclimating to the wind and rain the rock must’ve started feeling welcome, because it began peeking out of its shell. The side facing the house weathered in a humanly fashion. With the sun in the right position the shadows would trace a nose, two eyes, and a smiling mouth along the side. The face looked old, which made sense because I suspect the rock was very old too, and that was comforting to me for some reason. We welcomed the old man in the rock to our front yard.
The rock, I should mention, performed its duties admirably. Maybe based on my early experiences adventuring with my mom, I’ve made a study later in life of suburban planning and subdivision aesthetics. (For those keeping score at home, that sentence counts as three red flags: one mama’s boy and a double nerd.) I’m forever struck by how plain most yards are these days, so cultivated and so boring. Flat expanses of grass and the occasional juvenile tree. I think almost all of them could use a rock, if only to break up the monotony of grass. Rocks are zen to a certain degree in the way they defy questions–What’s a rock supposed do? It does. But I’ll have to cut around it and some grass won’t get clipped all the time! So?
Let’s not overlook that the rock gave my family a place to sit out front. Think: Especially in the suburbs, how many people put furniture in front of their houses? All the white people I know hang out in their back yards if they ever see the sun at all. This is a great shame, if only because back yards tend to be fenced in and private. I’m forever amazed at how we can live so close to each other and yet know so little about one another. Sitting on the thinking rock at least had a feeling of community. It was a shared space–perched atop a hill to see up and down the street and to be seen by the passing cars and neighbors headed to work.
The older and busier I get, the more I wish I was sitting on the thinking rock, enjoying the world as it passed for a minute. An open door is an invitation. It was always there, ready for an ass to plop down and contemplate the world beneath a tree. A few years ago I passed by the old house, and I was sad to see the rock was gone. So was the tree.
My brother Joe has always been into electronics. When we were kids my dad ran a computer repair company, so we always had plenty of spare parts to tinker with. We also had a modem and Internet access well before anyone else in the neighborhood knew what that even meant. Combine the two and you have a tinkerer with a wealth of information at his disposal, for better or worse.
One useful application: Back in high school Joe needed a TI-85 graphing calculator. By the time I graduated to the algebraic ranks the TI-85 had been replaced by the more sophisticated TI-83+, complete with a data access port and cable that could be used to transfer programs between computers and other calculators. (I still recall fondly the days I spent in the back of Mrs. Pitt’s biology class, failing the course but beating the shit out of Alex at Tetris on our calculators.) But when Joe was in high school that was still a few years away.
Not to be daunted, Joe found some schematics online for a TI-85-to-IDE interface card that would let him load Tetris onto his calculator without having to program it line by line. He raided my dad’s workshop for a few electrical scraps, some cardboard, and a soldering iron, and within a few days he’d managed to build that interface. He’s handy that way.
I often wonder if my parents ever saw Joe and I coming. Put another way: I wonder if they ever had a sense of where our bizarre adventures would lead us. Because if they were smart they would have pulled the plug on the modem right then and there and sent us outside to play. Instead, buoyed by his recent success in Internet-based engineering, Joe went looking for another project. And he found the schematics to build potato guns.
A potato gun, like any other gun, is an elegantly simple device: it’s a tube designed to direct an explosion. Traditional firearms do this with metal barrels, gunpowder, and bullets. Our potato guns used PVC pipe, a gas grill striker, AquaNet hairspray, and potatoes. And while a traditional firearm at least requires you to be 18 to purchase, there were no prohibitions on sales of potato gun components to minors. It didn’t take long for Joe to realize that primitive artillery was within his grasp.
Now, to my parents’ credit, they realized that it was wiser to legalize and regulate potato gun technology in our household rather than to ban it outright. At some point Joe and I would have scraped together enough change to clandestinely purchase the materials on our own and subsequently blow off our hands on accident, and my parents knew this, so instead my Dad funded and oversaw the manufacturing process. I suspect he was at least a little proud of us, even if he knew in the back of his mind that normal children don’t make explosive weapons at home.
To everyone’s surprise, the first prototype worked and worked well. But that makes sense, as there’s not much that can go wrong with a potato gun. You fire one much like an old Civil War cannon–ram the potato down the barrel, unscrew the cap to the firing chamber, spray four seconds’ worth of AquaNet in, screw the cap back on, and you’re ready to fire. The firing chamber cap also housed the striking mechanism, a grill striker shoved through a hole in the PVC cap and sealed with epoxy. Once the cap was in place, all you had to do was aim and hit the striker.
I don’t come from a gun-owning family. I didn’t see a real gun fired until I was in my 20’s. So the first time firing a potato gun shocked the crap out of me. You’re familiar with Newton’s third law, right? That for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction? You don’t know physics until you’ve seen a potato move. A bullet removed from its cartridge doesn’t weigh more than an ounce or two. A potato, on the other hand, could easily weigh a pound or more. So when that heavy potato is propelled out of a potato gun that same amount of force has to be distributed back across the gun itself, making the whole damn apparatus recoil like a kicking mule. And the sound! It was like thunder rending the heavens. For added effect a cone of red and orange flame spewed out of the barrel right behind the potato. The potato remnants, when we found them, had passed through a chain link fence and been sliced into diamond shapes.
The test fire prompted a new rule: no potato gunnery without adult supervision. To ensure compliance my parents kept the firing caps in their control, effectively disabling the weapons (eventually I also built one, with a slightly more advanced piezo-electric sparker rather than the less reliable flint-and-steel one Joe used in his). From that point on, after each round of target practice, we had to make sure we washed the cap and replaced it in my parents’ closet before they got home.
I ended up hanging onto those guns for a surprisingly long time. It wasn’t until I was in college that I eventually traded them to Steve for a LaVar Arrington jersey. I think he got the better end of the deal there, both because the Redskins cut LaVar the next year, and because the jersey wasn’t actually his–it had been left behind when his roommate was hauled away by the sheriff for armed robbery. But that’s an entirely different story.