On Patience

Yeah, I grew up a hood and probably still am one, although classifications of that sort rarely mean squat to me nowadays. What’s important is that like most hoods, I never saw any difference between causal and acausal connections. As Oscar Wilde, patron saint of all truly committed hoods put it, “Even things that are true can be proved.” Synchronicity? Possibly. Cause-and-effect? Less likely. Hoods rarely even give lip service to determinism and are most apt to remember Isaac Newton solely for his cool hair. Oh, I suppose there could be a third option: pure chance, but no hood worth his salt would even consider that for a fleeting moment.

Can the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas? To the steadfast practicing hood, such a question is laughable. As a rule, hoods believe in not believing, but I doubt a single hood in the world would ever answer that question in the negative. I certainly wouldn’t. In any event, it sure as hell can’t be pure chance that chaos theory and the Age of Aquarius arose simultaneously. If you don’t keep pace with mathematics or astrology yourself, I suppose I should mention that 1969 is the annus mirabilis. But then, if you were a hood too, you would already know that even if you got the date wrong. Hoods themselves don’t enumerate very well and merely feel their numbers, so don’t be dejected if you fell into that camp.

That a hood repetitively invokes first-person-singular ad boredom is not a calumny but rather a point of honor. Indeed, when two hoods finally get around to an intimate tête-à-tête by the chalky gray chain link fence surrounding the perimeter of the school yard, it’s like counting coup to see who spits out the most I’s. The subject matters of course, even if verb and object both take a back seat. So, you won’t be surprised when I mention that I don’t mind a little flapping and I don’t even remonstrate against the wings. But a butterfly? No way. Let’s change it to the elm bark beetle. Seriously. As a hood, I’ve always been dead serious if you haven’t figured that out yet.

So, when I was kid growing up in a town not far from Beaver’s Mayfield, my turf was enveloped by a canopy of elm trees. Standing in front of Knapp Street and looking westward toward the Jiffy Lunch was precisely like peering down a tunnel; sunlight rarely poked through the leafy boughs to the asphalt. In my hometown of those days and before, one never really left the womb embraced by elms like that. That’ll be important in just a moment in case you’re drumming your fingers incessantly right now waiting for me to get on with the story.

But slow down a moment and ponder this: I waved my tiny pink hands at Nikita Khrushchev being paraded down Ash Avenue in a black Chrysler far larger than any five-year-old like me could ever imagine, just one block from home. Barely lit in the dark shadows of that elm cover, I’m sure he was envious of the trees even if it gave all the American Secret Service men guarding him the fidgets. The antiseptic open air is far safer for those sorts of forays, but that was before the grassy knoll of Dallas several years later. In those earlier days, neither Russia nor America understood what hoods were all about and rather precociously I did. The die was cast immediately after seeing Nikita’s grinning face.

It became very clear to me then: life is nothing but a game. And a game is supposed to be fun. I've done my darnedest to keep it that way for some sixty years now.

To get what follows, you need to recall that there were two junior highs in those days. West Junior High, my alma mater, sat in the University area. Central Junior High lay “downtown” with all of those Petula Clark connotations. Even the hoods of West feared Central, and that included my best friend Tommy who actually owned a switchblade in eighth grade. He also had the courage to gator on the waxed basketball court turned into a dance floor during the annual spring hop, and thus get peremptorily ejected from the festivities. Now that I think of it, though, Tommy probably wasn’t the most intrepid of hoods, for I was always the one who had to buy the girlie magazines for him, he being far too shy to select one from the exceedingly splintery and dangerous-to-the-fingernails wooden rack of Abe Mezvinsky’s grocery not far from the Spud-Nut shop. The latter is where all the cops took breaks and they knew Tommy from day one. Despite Tommy appearing tough to a lanky and scrawny me, let’s not forget he was murdered in Los Angeles the very first day he moved there right after high school. State lines are often no respecter of hoods, but in my case coming northward things worked out rather pleasantly. By the way, there are no elms in Los Angeles. We all watched Dragnet in those days and knew these things.

So anyway, Central is where the fiercest hoods hung out or so we thought. But more importantly, that was the school populated by the cutest girls, if you discount Itchy Archer for the moment. Not only that, but rumor commonly had it they were well reputed to be possessed of relaxed moral standards. As near as I can remember, unfortunately, no star-crossed pair ever came together crosstown. The word miscegenation could have easily applied to a West/Central relationship. So, I waited out my three years of junior high, expecting broader vistas later. Even by that time, age 14, I had it figured out that the most accomplished hoods were as patient as those clip-clopping mules commemorated so vividly in Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite. I was determined to be the kingpin hood, to stand out from the crowd, so despite an incessant inferno in the trousers, I was willing to put up with the postponement. Actually, a passion-to-be, sine die, has hectored me every since.

Are you still with me? The point is, the elm trees of my town were entirely egalitarian. They enfolded Knapp Street as it carried me to West each school day, but equally they pointed the path down Grand Avenue (which most people simply saw as Highway 69 getting you out of town fast) to Central Junior High.

The two schools funneled together into high school, the elms chipping in to bring the rival factions together now with minimal fist fights. It was a summit of the hoods that year, the end of incest if you want to think of it that way. Sheel-Teat, Fake-Nose, Whitey, Dugg Bedd, Admiral Andy, Van O, Armpit, Tiny, and of course yours truly came together as a homogenous gang of hoods like no other. D’Artagnan all over again. Naturally, the new environment and mixed blood meant a fresh take on romance, which some of the hoods just listed partook of. For example, elsewhere I've related the tale of Armpit blowing
out the stitches of his hernia surgery when Betsy visited him in the hospital.

But I did mention how patient I could be in a worthy cause, so I sat this year out? Well, actually there were two girls unafraid of this hood which always sort of boggled me. How about that Nita asking me to the Christmas Formal right in front of everyone in sophomore Algebra? Now that took guts, given that Mr. Jeppsen had just delivered a stern warning in class concerning the continual vandalism in the boy’s lavatory, as he and everyone else in class turned and stared at me. Daggers from eyes? Hell no, those were scimitars! Anyway, since I was still in a holding pattern, I declined Nita’s invitation, claiming falsely I was booked the night of the Formal to go see professional wrestling at Veteran’s Auditorium in Des Moines. A serious hood never flees from prevarication. All these years later, I sort of regret that decision. I guess I just couldn’t understand a girl like her being drawn to a hood. It sort of makes you think of the last stanza of The Ballad of Reading Gaol, doesn’t it?

I said two, and the second girl was the scarier since I did the inviting. I still don’t know what got into me, for as I intimated earlier, I was supposed to be waiting out romance until the elms had completed their cycle. Call it a hiccup or better, think of it this way. Have you ever witnessed what appears to be a perfectly sound garden hose lying in the sun but under pressure, the water turned on but the nozzle at the end shut off, then a bubble of vinyl protrudes from its vitiated side like a petrochemical goiter? I suppose a veterinarian would call it a prolapsed something-or-other. Or if that’s too icky for you, just think of what I’m talking about as passion herniated, for that’s really what it was.

I mean, Gloria was the most beautiful carrot-top in the world, petite and always laughing. I would like to think there isn’t a hood anywhere who wouldn’t succumb to her charms. Even then I recognized her as the Circe of American History class, she sitting in front of me as she did the following year too, and yet I asked her to a Saturday matinee date to see the musical George M at C. Y. Stevens auditorium on the campus of Iowa State. Yeah, it was fun and she flashed her white teeth a lot, but almost immediately after the tap-dancing concluded I realized my feelings were premature. I told you, this was a blip and I was ashamed I didn’t stick to my principles. It’s pretty rare for a hood to confess weakness, but that’s what it was.

Okay, you’ve been a very good egg waiting for the story to begin, and it can now. But there are always prerequisites in life, and it’s important you understand why the elms matter so much when describing a hood finding romance. This is it.

In short, the elm bark beetle came to my hometown around that time.

Get it?

By 1969, the magnificent canopies over Knapp Street and Grand Avenue were withering. Talk about the cruel light of day, there wasn’t a single hood in our gang who didn’t feel naked. Van O and I, being the most sensitive ones of the group, knew that it was all different now. He and I spent hours each day after school spitting tobacco juice at flies and that sort of thing brings people closer together, words ceasing to be so important. Just so you know, Van O left for San Francisco not long afterward to sell oranges from a barrow on the street. Dutch elm disease is a brutal malady.

Imagine if you can, a teenage hood obeying a self-imposed vow of chastity right in the midst of a hormone glut, yet pleading for a sign. And that sign came: can the bite of an elm bark beetle in Iowa set off a tornado in Minnesota? You betcha, I quickly learned to say!

Sophomore year wound to an end, summer loomed ahead and best of all, I finally had a propitious foretoken staring me in the face. I was off to spend an entire three months living on the western end of Lake Tetonka, with only occasional annoying inspections from parents on the weekends. I guess I forgot to mention them before, but only an ersatz hood would do so more than once or twice. The important thing to know is that I met Christy. She was bronzed with pure blonde hair, and always wore a skimpy bikini. Her old man was a pain in the ass, but then again as a traveler in women’s lingerie and such for department stores, it meant Christy always had the pick of delightfully alluring garments. Needless to say, she had a figure well-suited to such drapery; I’m told that the French misuse the interjection Oh là là, unlike us more sophisticated Americans.

When I wasn’t looking, the Age of Aquarius kicked in. (You didn’t think I had forgotten that, did you?)

So visualize if you can, non-stop warm summer days spending hours with a girl who was so easy on the eyes, always smiling, unafraid of conversing without uttering a single word and who responded with equally admiring glances. Yeah, we were both really shy. To break the ice we would pedal clunky bicycles sporting balloon tires on the surrounding gravel county roads which ceased to be dusty old wagon trails, becoming instead bejeweled pathways leading straight to Nirvana. And then there was the constant swimming together in the lake, always a stimulation. Epidermis and hoods go together like tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. Hell, we would even walk the seven miles (one way) to Elysian under an unrelenting sun to get a stick of licorice but more just to be next to each other. We didn’t care that at the end of the day we felt like the Cornish hens turning on the spit in Nusbaum’s Market longer than that town had been incorporated. Each other’s sweat never bothered us.

But...and this is a big but...the seat of my emotions was still shackled. The Romans thought it might be the heart, but Harvey spoiled all that in the 1600’s. Surely the real answer must be Dionysian, but wherever, the chains were still there and some ephemeral Houdini was whispering in my left ear. (You know, “right for spite, left for love.”) I guess I knew the timing was close and the Age was here. But ever the doubting Thomas, I needed another omen to tell me this truly was the moment.

Two enormous elm trees grew on the shore of Tetonka right in front of our cabin. From the dining room picture window you could look out to the lake straight between them, which created a magnificent framing effect. It was almost like one of those gag optical illusions in a carnival Fun House. For although the elms framed the beautiful expanse of a very real lake with its wooded shore opposite some two miles away, it always seemed to me as if someone had hung a gigantic J. M. W. Turner watercolor right outside the picture window.

Sure we had elms, which seemed the most natural thing in the world to me. But, and this is the important point, no one else did. You see, the beetle had presciently followed me northward to Minnesota but knew who I belonged to. There were perhaps a dozen other cabins on our end of the lake with nary an elm to be found. Our elms were entirely healthy, but just recently a third one further down the line, even beyond Christy’s place had finally given up the ghost. It really was a patriarch of trees but just couldn’t fight back the infestation any longer and so dropped its leaves and turned sickly gray. If a tree could catch seborrhea, this was the one with its bark peeling off in long desiccated strips, littering the base.

In those days, about the only prophylaxis was to remove and burn infected trees just so the elm bark beetle wouldn’t spread. The neighbors banded together, had the tree chopped down, dragged the huge remnants to the vacant lot at the end of the private drive and set light to the pyre, for such it was.

On this warm summer night smack dab in the middle of the Age, Christy and I sauntered down to the bonfire. Apart from the orange flames erupting out of the enormous slices of trunks as big around as fifty-five gallon drums, it was dark and I still remember seeing Polaris. We were alone.

With very little prologue, our lips met and we embraced. It was at that moment I figured it all out, turned my back on determinism, let Aquarius lead me by the hand, and finally understood consciously the real value of waiting if it means being the best at something. It really was love that Christy and I felt, even though most people would snicker at the idea. It was love simply because it launched us from a very special time in 1969 to somewhere that couldn’t have existed otherwise: the present.

So anyway, the shackles were finally off this hood. And the signs I had so desperately craved earlier shrieked at me now. The fire had escaped my nether regions to ignite that once stately elm which gave its life for me and burned a long, long time.

And I was facing north.

Next installment: Born to Be Wild

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