Way Back Phone Call

(Written February 12, 2005) Over a year ago I got a Christmas card from a guy I’ve known for an awful long time, with a simple “give me a call sometime” message scribbled in it. I kept intending to do so all year, and this year I got another card from him with a similar message. I had never gotten around to sending him a card either year, so it was definitely on me.

“Tom” is one of only two people alive today who I can claim to have known for over 50 years (the other is my mother). I grew up in rural Maryland in an old house surrounded by fields, a stream, woods on all sides, and many animals. My father disappeared before I was born, and my early years were spent with my mother and her parents. I was a wild little nature kid, digging in the stream, building “forts” in the woods and harassing the ducks/chickens/dogs/cats/etc. I think there were only a very few times I even met another kid my own age until First Grade - up till then I played by myself and knew mostly only my immediate family.

First Grade was both a scary and exciting adventure, and “Tom” lived close enough that we were at the same school bus stop. Somehow, from his infinitely lofty and cool Third Grade pinnacle he deigned to show my beneath-contempt First Grade self the ropes of riding the bus, finding my Home Room, and so on - and become my first “friend”.

Being one of the few kids who was within walking distance, we hung out a lot together. My mother married again when I was 12 and we moved to the City (Arlington), but I still spent many weekends with my grandmother at the old Home Place, and with Tom. Although that was not the name I usually called him by.

As young guys often do, we had nicknames for each other. Ours were based on the frequent musical expressions of various body parts: he was “Snot Blossom” and I became “Fart Blossom”. A great deal of our time was spent roaming the woods and playing at being “woodsmen”. We spent a lot of time sharpening knives and axes, and discussing the finer points of filing and setting the teeth on a crosscut saw (chainsaws may have existed then, but if so, they were not a part of our world). Back then I cut up whole oak trees for firewood with nothing more than a 5 ft long crosscut saw, an axe, and a bow saw.

He and I have always been rather different in most things. I was a pretty hyper kid, always ready to dive into this adventure or that, while SB had a much more placid sort of personality. Which is not to say he could not be determined, but be preferred to move slowly and not rush into things.

When I got my first *transistor* radio (a magical device - it had 2 or 3 real transistors in it, and it actually ran on batteries!) - a large beige plastic thing - it was almost continually glued to my ear and tuned to the local Top 40 AM station (FM was unknown). SB held such “music” beneath contempt, as his own leanings were towards classical music. He had a guitar and taught himself to play. By the time we were leaving our teens he could do magic with his playing - not that I related to the music (Bach’s Sonata Whatever), but I could tell that he was good at what he was doing. And when he would pick out something more familiar to me, like “Greensleeves” - it was stunning.

I spent a lot of time at SB’s house, and his parents were friendly. His father was a can-do kind of guy - a carpenter by trade, but skilled at most anything he put his mind to. Outwardly gruff, he often needed a shave and wore t-shirts with holes that let his belly show. If he needed the use of the house’s single bathroom and it was occupied, the warning was to clear out soon, or he would “crap in your lap”. Most of his home time was spent puttering in the garage or basement. He had bought a sawmill, cut the trees and built their house when he was younger, all the time working a full time job. When I knew him he was often tinkering with his collection of Indian motorcycles, fixing the well pump, or making another batch of dandelion or pineapple wine. The wine was stored in the basement in barrels, where SB’s mother often went for refills. He made the wine, she drank it. Of course, so did SB and I. The levels were not closely monitored and we’d stick a hose in the barrel and suck down a good glow.

We also would go up the road a way to visit his great aunt and uncle. Both were pretty hard scrabble country folks. If we came in unannounced his great aunt (a tiny, bent little old woman) would sometimes be scrambling to hide the corncob pipe she had been smoking. One vivid memory we both still have was when I went to church on Easter with his family (one of the rare times I’ve been to church, and I can’t recall why I went then). He and I were riding in the back seat, and his GA was sitting in the front seat. Like I said, she was a really short bent little woman, and the window sill was above her head. She also dipped snuff. At one point she tried to hawk a tobacco juice louie out the window, but couldn’t get it high enough. There was this blob, slowly oozing down the inside of the door. He and I were sitting in the back seat nudging each other and pointing at it, in that fascinated, grossed out way that kids can have.

He had an old civil war musket, and we would load that thing up with black powder, stuff in newspaper wadding, then put whatever we could find in for a projectile - marbles, bolts, you name it. The hammer never hit the cap squarely, so you might cock and pull the trigger 5 or 6 times before it fired - which it did only after you finally gave up expecting it to. We also improvised with iron pipe and black powder to make crude guns that would shoot marbles and stuff. Somehow we never did ourselves serious injury. Kids today (and their parents) would probably go to jail for the kind of stuff we thought nothing of.

The liquor store was a half mile walk along the rail road tracks, and his mother would regularly send him/us up for a resupply. Being a rural place and all, “Mel” (of Mel’s Liquors) knew us and would sell us anything we wanted (to take back to his mother, of course). Of course we often bought more than got delivered on the other end.

When SB became old enough to get his license, he would take me riding on one of the Indian motorcycles. We rode many miles over all the back roads (well, the only roads, Interstates were still just an idea). Got chased by an awful lot of dogs. And many of those were mean old country dogs that would like nothing better than to put your ass on the pavement. It became my job to ride shotgun with an ammonia-water pistol. That backed them off pretty quick.

SB, being two years old than I, joined the Marines while I was still in high school. He loved boot camp, but became totally disgusted with the tedium and monotony of military life after that. If it had all been as challenging as boot camp he would probably have done OK. But all the make-work/KP/inspection stuff was too much for him. After going AWOL a bunch of times and getting into lots of trouble they finally bounced him back out.
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By the time I was in the Army and Viet Nam, he was up in the Pacific Northwest, or Alaska (I forget which - he spent time both places) being a lumberjack. He definitely fit the image, and has ever since. Large barrel chest, dark bushy beard - kind of a Grizzly Adams looking character.

He got on this big thing about simplifying life. He gave up motorcycles, gave away his guitar, narrowed it down to simple stuff. He always has loved old time ways of doing things. At various times he became an expert in such esoteric topics as calculating the measurements to make a sun dial accurate at a given latitude, trebuchet geometry, and a wide variety of slings (of the David and Goliath variety) - I still have one he gave me sitting around somewhere. Maybe 10 years ago a very nice Atlatl he had made showed up in the mail. I tried it, but could never get very good at it. If you wonder what an atlatl is, check out: http://www.atlatl.com/

Back when I was first starting in my community college engineering courses, I paid him a visit. I had just gotten one of the latest TI Programmable calculators (closest thing to a computer back then), and was proudly showing him all its features. He sort of sat there with a ‘whatever’ expression and waited for me to finish. Then he said, “let me show you My computer” - and pulls out an Abaqus! He was every bit as delighted in showing me how you manipulated the beads to do a calculation as I had been with my fancy electronic toy.

One of the great ironies to me was that this wild and wooly outdoors guy came back from his western adventures and moved into an apartment in Baltimore! I would never have figured him for an apartment, but I guess it was part of simplifying things. He eventually married a lady from Chile, and then finally bought a house. They’ve probably been married 25 or 30 years now, and seem to be doing very well, although they do look a bit incongruous together - she is tiny and petite and he is a big grizzly bear. He finally, after many “career” changes, ended up in surveying, and he even went so far as to learn how to use a programmable calculator. But that was pretty much the limit.

I paid him a visit when I was in his area maybe 5 or 7 years ago. His father was still alive, and living about a block away in a very quiet neighborhood. His father had always been kind of wheezy with respiratory problems, and then he was on an oxygen bottle he carried with him. Still puttering and lively though. He had a golf cart that he used to get around the neighborhood. It had one of those slow-moving vehicle placards and a sign that read “Yaba Daba Doo!” in big letters on the back!

SB showed me his latest interest - a little black-smithing furnace (wood fired, with bellows of course - nothing modern like gas!), anvil and hammers etc., and stuff he had hammered out.

So when I called him a few days ago, it was a typical guy conversation:

“Yo Snot Blossom”

“Hey Fart Blossom - good to hear from you - how the hell you doing?”

And so on. We talked about a lot and nothing. He had just turned 60. His father died last year at the age of 93. He was still making routine trips to Chile to see the inlaws. I know he and his mother-in-law used to have a good time sipping whisky together - I forgot to ask him if she was still around. He was starting to think about retiring. And he announced he had finally gotten a motorcycle again.

It took him a long time to find something suitable. He had absolutely no interest in any modern motorcycles (”they all got friggin computer chips in them - how ridiculous can you get”). He finally found an Italian reproduction of a British Royal Enfield 500cc single that had hardly changed in 50 years. That suited him just fine - he had always liked the “big thumpers” (single cylinder motorcycles).

We’re not exactly what you would call close, but there is a lot of value in that kind of history - so I know we’ll stay in touch, even if it is on a kind of casual basis. Who knows, maybe this year I’ll even get around to sending him a Christmas card.

 

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