Train Yard Trifecta

There are some who speak of another reality, a presence more real, but veiled, just beyond our reach. Sometimes one might catch a fleeting glimpse of it for it then to disappear when focused on too closely.

I grew up in the Midwest, in a small town on the prairie with grain elevators and harsh winters. I recall reading a Sherlock Holmes story where he and Watson ride a train through the countryside and observe an isolated farm in the distance. They discussed whether it is a place of idyllic, pastoral tranquility or a site of beastial depravity.

The upper mid-west is the part of the country Ed Gein called home. You may not have heard of him but the movies “Psycho” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and others were loosely based on his sordid exploits. He and his lampshades made from human skin would barely make the news nowadays but at that time his story was chilling.

The annual lottery in my town consisted of predicting the exact date and time the derelict car, which had been towed out onto the frozen lake for this purpose, would fall through the ice from the spring thaw. (Neil Gaiman capitalizes on this ritual to great macabre effect in “American Gods”)

In my seventh year we moved to this little town into a rented house a block from my Dad’s business located at the train yard. There was nothing to do and complete freedom with which to do it except I was told that under no circumstances should I ever go to the train yard. It was dangerous. Strange, leering men came from there to peer through our kitchen window. It was no place for little boys.

However, there was still mischief to be found for one so inclined. My new neighbor Tom, about my age, was one who people would probably describe as ‘accident prone’. Tom took it upon himself to show me around.

One summer day Tom and I made our way to the roof of a local florist’s shop, closed for the day. Tom said it would be a great adventure to walk out onto the roof of the attached greenhouse. Being seven I didn’t know much about the stress factors of various building materials. But common sense told me it was not a good idea. I expressed this sentiment to no effect. Momentarily distracted, when I looked Tom had vanished. The crash and scream and jagged hole in the glass roof told the tale. Tom made his bloody escape and survived that encounter with reality. Later, we suffered tense questioning from our parents as to the how’s and whys of his accident.

Another day with Tom I became very anxious at our surroundings. Pointing, he said what a wonderful hiding place this pile of abandoned refrigerators was. I admit they were the perfect hiding place for little boys, never, ever to be found. These were the great old refrigerators with secure latches designed to keep milk and unsuspecting boys from escaping. And they had hardy, rubber seals to keep dangerous oxygen from seeping into them. Piled randomly atop one another I never knew when one might topple down and crush me. But that is not all.

I looked around and realized I had hit the trifecta. These refrigerators, this paradise of danger, were located at the train yard not fifty yards from my father’s office. And who should then walk around to our side of his building but he who had the power of life and death over me, my father. Luckily, he was talking with an employee as he pointed to the ground by the building. I was not seen. I had mere moments to find safe haven.

I dearly wanted to hide but not in the refrigerators. Better to be invisible. I found the words to tell Tom we needed to head home right now. And this time he listened. We escaped the forbidden zone and I never returned.

Later that year we moved across town and I only heard about Tom again when someone mentioned he was killed after veering his bike into the busy street that ran in front of his house.

How do two person’s paths cross with such radically different outcomes? I was blessed with a much longer life, family and success. Was he blessed somehow too?

What threshold did he want to cross? What door that was no door did he seek to open? What walled garden did he wish to step into? Did he know something beyond explanation? Was he a holy fool or merely clueless?

Did he find a way to slip behind that elusive veil?

A Merry Christmas letter from my long lost Uncle Andrew Bankwhippe

In the spirit of a very merry Christmas I am going to re-create a commemorative annual Christmas letter from my imaginary Uncle Andrew from sunny El Dorado, Argentina, circa 1991.

Dear Everyone,

Every Xmas I love curling up before the fire with a warm snifter of twelve-year-old Dr. Pepper and writing to you.

There is a new fad for people with too much time on their hands. Out of body experiences are all the rage here. How can you buy a drink like that? Again, my son Charles is ahead of the pack.  He has out of mind experiences daily without even concentrating.

The twins, Gub and Bug had a birthday this year and Matilda redecorated the tyke’s room featuring her specially designed wall paper with our favorite Rorschack figures in pastel pink and blue. I couldn’t resist getting them a matching pair of rocking sphinxes from our Xmas catalogue (5% off).

There is still time to take advantage of my clearance on “WHO COULD REFUSE?” generic gifts. They are the perfect solution for the listless shopper. Perfect for those bland people cluttering up your life, these gifts are not offensive, expensive or personal. Stock up today! One price fits all!

All the pre-occ with saving time can have tragic results when taken to extremes. When daylight savings time (DLST) was started in El Dorado, a friend of mine went to absurd lengths. If you don’t think DLST is absurd try milking 130 cranky Holsteins an hour before they’ve had coffee. But I digress.

My friend Nick was so impressed with DLST that he began squirreling away a few extra minutes every day. On good days he would save as much as five minutes and then go back for seconds.

Nick kept this to himself of course. But co-workers noticed that he was timorous and always on a short fuse. The timbre of his voice was thin and he developed a nervous tic. He insisted that it was temporary, that he was having the time of his life. He would smile privately. No one could help him. Who had the time?

Then the inevitable happened. Nick accrued nearly a week of time and he planned to spend it as if there were no tomorrow. Now was his time to fly. You guessed it. While attempting to decipher a train time-table, his ticker quit.

Though Nick’s time never came, his heirs took all that  he had saved and split it six ways from Sunday.

We all know that times are hard for many people at year’s end. And we cannot forget that we can contribute greatly to those less fortunate than ourselves. I mean of course, the humorless. Next time a humorless person approaches you for help, give him a big smile and hearty hand shake. You could change a life. Help the humorless. Use the patented “Bankwhippe Hand Buzzer (TM)” at only $9.95 (US) exclusively from me. (Not found in stores! Do not accept substitutions! Buy Bankwhippe!)

Happy Holidays!

Uncle Andrew

Of Water Skis and Mangroves

You know how when you take on a task the more you practice the better you get? And as you gain proficiency you tend to push the envelope to keep it from getting boring? This is how babies become figure skaters and so on.

Sometime after graduating from college I took up water skiing for a brief time. A friend of mine, Bill, had a boat and we both had an embarrassing amount of free time to spend while we awaited for our ship to arrive.

I had tried water skiing in Minnesota, land of 10,000 choppy lakes with little success. But in Florida, a calm and lazy river flowed through Tampa making a perfect environment for skiing. Of course, the enhancement of never knowing if an alligator was going to bite off your leg whilst awaiting the boat made it all the more exciting. This was long before wearing a helmet was standard practice.

As I gained proficiency, merely skiing behind the boat in a safe, predictable wake became a little tedious. Night time skiing on the river was tried. Night time skiing outside the wake was attempted with mixed results. Nothing like getting knocked into the water by a branch or a log and then waiting for the boat to find you while checking to see if you have all your body parts intact. Ahh, the echoing sound of a bull alligator grunting from an indeterminate location!

No one I knew ever got attacked by an alligator but everyone knew the potential. Generally, the speed one traveled on skis kept that worry at bay. But treading water in the dark for several minutes made for some tense moments. Who would find me first, the boat or the gator?

I moved from two skis to one fairly quickly. The final hurdle was to complete a 180 degree turn on one ski. That would have been a major accomplishment. Getting past the apex of the turn was beyond me.

I can only attribute it to pilot error that Bill made his U-turn in a narrow part of the river. All I could do was hang on and complete the turn. When I wiped out that should have been it. But I was traveling so fast I couldn’t get into the water to save my life. I skipped across the surface doing what probably looked to be a Wiley Coyote impression as I hurtled toward the bank and the stand of mangrove trees growing there.

I’m told a team of alligators lunged toward me like defenders of a penalty kick in a soccer match but I was too preoccupied to see it. Unfortunately the trees were my only net.

I stopped abruptly and hung in the branches of a tree for several seconds while I became aware of my surroundings. I still had my eyesight and my manhood. I wasn’t in severe pain. I was alive. All my limbs seemed intact.

I extricated myself from the tree branches, lowered myself gingerly to the ground and picked my way carefully back to the water. While swimming back to the boat I heard a round of applause rise from some nearby houses.

I was done for that day.

However few days later I made a fateful decision. I think I was still shaken by my close encounter with the mangrove. I wasn’t feeling well but I let myself be cajoled into going skiing again. You know, get back on the horse after it throws you and all that.

This time, the strain of the rope, the angle of the fall…  Apparently, what was a hairline crack became a full blown fracture. My elbow separated from the rest of my arm and came to rest elsewhere. This time, swimming back to the boat drew no applause. I had to be lifted into the boat as my left arm was useless.

The doctor in the ER informed me he needed to operate. Following the advice I had always heard I told him I wanted a second opinion. I thought it was merely dislocated and I wasn’t going to be taken advantage of. His honest attempt at containing a smile convinced me that he probably knew what he was talking about. He said he would find another doctor to weigh in but I told him it wouldn’t be necessary after all. He did a good job reconstructing my elbow.

I recovered fully but somehow have never again had occasion, or desire to put on skis of any kind. Oh well.

Theremin Dreams

I played the Theremin the other day. This was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Not only is the Theremin a wonderfully mysterious instrument and the source of many eerie Sci-fi movie sound tracks but playing music is something I have struggled with most of my life.

Formal music lessons have eluded me. They are something that many take for granted. My parents encouraged me to take piano lessons. But having witnessed the drama of my brother’s poor results it seemed like I would be signing up for a self-propelled torture machine.

Ironically, when left to myself I would play on the piano making dramatic sounds and arpeggios to create musical rain storms, or this effect or that. But that wasn’t music. Music has rules. There are acceptable forms to follow. One cannot merely play on an instrument; one must learn how to play. I could have been the next Errol Garner had I only stuck with it.

Where I got all these restrictions from I have no idea but you can guess from reading that I missed the rock and roll revolution. By the time Captain Beefheart came out with “Trout Mask Replica” and the liner notes proudly declared none of the band personnel knew how to play instruments, I was a lost cause.

When I was in fourth grade the Middle School band leader, in search of fresh blood, told me I had the perfect hands to play the cello. Little did I know that one needs instruction to play the cello. Lots of people have hands, few play the cello. After several weeks of sitting in rehearsals and getting dirty looks from my mentor because I seemed not to be using my prodigious natural talents to keep up with the other students it occurred to me that perhaps cello was not my instrument. I could carry the cello but I could not carry a tune on it.

I then convinced my Dad to buy me a drum set which we set up in the basement and there it sat gathering dust. It just didn’t sound the same when I played as the drummer did, any drummer did on a record. One huge barrier was I couldn’t stand to hear myself practice.

I signed up for lessons in learning to play the fiddle and after one lesson my teacher moved to Ireland. Was I that bad? Yes.

I got a guitar and painstakingly learned several melodies. Then one day someone asked me about chords. I figured I would get to those other strings once I had the melody down. Chords eluded me. Lead guitarists didn’t need to bother about chords, why should I?

My favorite guitarists were not only the standard favorites. I loved Frank Zappa, Jorma Kaukonen from the Jefferson Airplane and later Hot Tuna, eventually Django Reinhardt. All were amazing. All knew chords.

So the other day I had a chance to play the Theremin for the first time. I really let loose on it. What a blast. The storekeeper, wanting to sell it to me did not discourage me. And the greatest thing about it was no one could say I was playing it wrong. Badly maybe, but not wrong.

And there were no chords to worry about.


I heard my friend Duane was ill and I gave him a call. He told me the doctors removed a lesion from his hand that was diagnosed as malignant melanoma. He was thankful they got it all. He wanted to keep his hand and they let him. He would be back to work in a few days.

Two weeks later I read he had died. Things change fast.

That shock and emptiness approaches how it felt the morning of 9/11/2001. I was preparing my kids for school and the voice on the radio said “a plane flew into one of the Twin Towers”. I thought ‘what a dope.’

A plane. Not a 747. A plane. Saying “a plane” suggests a Cessna, a single engine, two seater flown by some hot dogger out of his depth. A foolish accident, not a jet filled with hundreds of gallons of fuel.

The magnitude of what happened kept growing. In the car we heard more fragmented details that compounded the horror but added little to our understanding. I escorted my son to his classroom where his teacher Mr. Molina had the TV tuned to the breaking news. There I saw the first video of the towers collapsing. I will never un-see those images.

I needed a change of scene and took the kids up the coast to Santa Barbara that weekend where we discovered a whimsical park with a labyrinthine playground reportedly designed by children with lots of hiding places, switchbacks, ladders, bridges… It was the perfect place to play ‘hide and seek’ and distract myself from the state of the world. The kids could hide from me, secure in the knowledge that my lurking pursuit was benign. I was hiding too.

When they were little, I used to push them on the swings. You can really work up a sweat keeping two insatiable kids going. I turned it into a game where I would tell them as I pushed them “Go away!” And on their return “I said ‘go away.’ You bother me.” The absurdity of this struck them as completely hilarious and of course, they would keep coming back for more. It was quite a work out and it felt good to laugh.

One day, a little kid I didn’t know asked me to push him on the swing too. I guessed he heard our infectious laughter and wanted to join in. I thought he wanted me to help him get started, so I pushed him a few times to get him going. But he put no effort into it himself. He just kept asking me to push him more.

I was happy to help but wanted to keep pushing my kids. I didn’t know this kid. Resisting the urge to lecture him on the virtues of self-reliance and the evils of Socialism I pushed him again and again. But I told him he needed to participate, that to keep going he needed to put effort into it too. I gave him one more good push and then returned to my kids and the game of pushing them away and their relentless return.

The kid never did try. His swing came to a rest and after a while of just sitting there, he went away.  He frustrated me. I didn’t know him. I had no relationship with him. Because of that I couldn’t tell him “Go away, you bother me.” He might have taken it wrong.

I think now that I was wrong in my assessment of this strange little boy. He didn’t want to swing. I think he wanted someone to push him on the swing, like no one ever did.