(Bob Dylan reference)
(This was first written 08/06/08, and titled Memories of Dying. I did not publish it at the time, because it was not completed and because, ultimately, it would be a tender subject. This is Part 1.)
I have come close enough to dying on several occasions. I assume that we all have. I do not remember coming anywhere near death as a child. I do not remember funerals, I do not remember loved ones passing away. I was lucky that way, or shielded, perhaps.
I remember my beloved dog being run over by a garbage truck, and before you sic PETA on me, this was back in the day when a boy and his dog could and would wander the hills and roads, eating crabapples and chasing possums, (okay, you do not chase possums, you observe them, and yes I know it’s really opossums, but what a stupid word) and doing the things that a boy and his dog do together. Somehow, she was down on the long road beneath the crabapple trees and the possum litter, on her own when she was struck.
I was 10, I think. I saw the puppies from her belly trying to live, nearly fully grown, and remember my dad saving a few of them, as awful a task as that must have been, as I stood beside him bawling.
We carried my dog home, too, and I buried her properly with all of the emotion and ceremony and pomp deserving of a 21-gun salute. I loved that dog. And her death was my first remembered experience with death, and there would not be another for many years.
For weeks, I would go outside when I heard the garbage truck coming and I would throw rocks at it. This is the truth. My mom had to shut that behavior down once my accuracy improved and they started complaining.
Some of this is because my grandparents, with one exception, died before I was born or while I was too young to remember them, although I retain a penchant for rocking in chairs that they say I gathered from my mom’s dad. I don’t know about that, but I like to think that it is true.
Why? I suppose because I like the idea of legacy, that I am a product of my parents and my grandparents, particularly, in this case, that I am the legacy of a grandfather I never got to know.
Of course, as an aside, I could point to all of the cancer in my antecedents and wonder if they passed it on to me, but that is not what this is about.
When I was in high school, a friend of mine killed himself. It seems he was not just the most beautiful young man among my friends, but also gay. I did not know this. I am not sure he did. I think it hit him in the face like a cream pie one day or night, after which he apparently decided that he couldn’t live with it. It was a sad day, a sad week, to be sure, but I was young, we were young, and the rest of us donned our strange ties and uncomfortable jackets and hard leather unworn shoes and did our best to honor him, and then went about our usual business.
A friend of my younger brother’s hanged himself right around the same time. He was all of 15 years old, but had been caught peeping in on women too many times, and so used his own ties to make a noose and relieve the world of one more Peeping Tom, one more potential sexual offender.
Maybe potential is the wrong word. I suppose he was a sexual offender. The operative word is was. My brother was 15 years old. He was devastated. The parents of the young man offered my brother his ties, the ones not used to hang himself, and he took them. What could he do? He was not worldly in the ways of death. It seemed an honor, it seemed as if they were tokens of fondness from the parents. He took them. I think he even wore one or two over time. What could he do?
When I was 18, I drove a 1962 CountrySedan, a Ford station wagon. I painted it with a paintbrush, and the result was that it looked like it was made of wood. If you are thinking that I am old enough to drive a 1962 CountrySedan when it is fairly new, you are wrong. I was six years old when they rolled that model off the assembly line, and by the time I owned it, if I remember correctly, it cost me approximately $50.
But it had features. I installed an 8-track player. And it had a hole in the floorboard in front of the backseat, which could be handy from time to time when losing contraband was vital to survival. Perhaps freedom is the better word. I am just saying.
And, it got me around. Three-speed on the column, a real hotrod.
It is true that it had an alignment problem, so that when I got the speed up to about 55mph (probably its top-end) it would get so loud that you could not hear the tape player, even at top volume. But we lived slower in those days. At least I did.
I smoked, but I did not drink especially. More times than I can remember, four of us would sit in that station wagon and take all night to down a six-pack of beer between us. And there was no real argument about who got the last two. We simply didn’t drink.
But we smoked.
And I worked at a construction company, courtesy of my dad, where I was too young to work, but got in anyway. And one time when we had a site to travel to, we decided to use my station wagon.
Nearly all of my compadres were sailors working for extra money, by the way. I was the baby. I did have to beat up an old Chief who resented my long hair…and I did…I kicked his a**. But we got along, the rest of us, really well. In fact, he and I got along after that episode.
Maybe he never showed up again. I am not clear on that anymore. But I sympathize with him now.
And there was a guy who was an ex-convict, recently released from prison, who was just amazing with a chain saw. I did not want to ask him why he had been in prison or what was in his freezer. He was too quiet to answer me, anyway.
Today I would be afraid of at least half ot those guys, but back then, I was one of the crew.
We loaded my wagon with tools, chain saws, brush hogs, machetes, the whole nine yards, everything you need to clear out an area so that people can come in and build new homes and apartments where trees and bushes used to live. We were, in fact, destructors, rather than constructors.
And then six guys piled in and we took off. I pulled out of the grass and dropped down into the street and drove on out to the stop sign and stopped, and then headed up to the interstate and the toll booth.
And another old sailor decided to race me in his Rambler, and I, of course, took him on, all 55 mph of racing machine I was driving, wooden hood and all :).
The problem, as I would later learn, was that when I dropped down off the curb with all of that weight, all of those people, all of those tools, I snapped my brake line. And when I squeezed my brakes at that stop sign, that was where the last of my brake fluid ended up on the street.
As the toll booth approached and the car at the booth I was aligned with seemed to be in park, I decided the race was over and tapped my brakes to slow down, only to discover that the pedal went to the floor. I tried the clutch, I tried the brake again, thinking I should not have been, um, smoking…and nothing worked…The car would not slow down.
AFTER the fact I would be advised that I should have down-shifted. Easy for them to say. I was hurtling headlong into a car at a complete standstill, while the sailor next to me seemed adamant that he would not lose this race!
Finally, he chickened out, slowed down, but it was late. I swerved over into his open lane, directly in front of him, sideswiped the booth to the right, but barely, got through, and cruised to a stop on the shoulder next to an off ramp probably two miles later.
Back then, virtually everyone I knew had never even heard of NASCAR, but these guys, these sailors, they all drove hot cars and followed it. And one of them said to me, as we laid in the grass getting our act together, that he had never seen anyone drive like that in his life.
When the State Policeman showed up, he was in good humor. He had already figured out that brakes were the problem and found it all fairly funny. He said the guy in the toll booth to my right, the one I sideswiped, was taking the rest of the day off. He laughed about that.
Said the guy was as white as a ghost.
That is when we found it funny, too. That guy was inside a concrete booth and we scared the heck out of him in my old CountrySedan as we whizzed through. Scared him enough that he needed the rest of the day off, while we were waiting now for a ride to the job.
That, as I recall, was my first real brush with death. And, after the fact, it was funny.
I did not stop driving. I did not stop living. I did not stop working at that company, although I don’t remember anyone ever wanting to ride with me again :). I kept on. I was young and it was funny and it was dangerous, and I moved on and clearly didn’t forget it, or you wouldn’t be reading about it now, but I did not let it bother me.
It was a brush. That was all. Time to move on. Really, a time to celebrate. And we did, truth be known. We laughed, lying there in the grass, and the couple of guys who were bleeding, even they were laughing, one struck by flying tools, the other sticking his head out the window as we went through the toll booth, for some reason, and lucky even to have a head.
We laughed. We talked. We relived it. And we moved on.
What else can you do? We held it in our hands, we looked at it, and we laughed at it and we moved on. Like playing with Rubik’s Cube: you deal with it and you twist it and you turn it and you try to make sense of it, you try to solve it, and you either get it or you don’t, but you move on.