Thursday, June 29, 2006

THE SCENT OF VANILLA - Part Three

I was such a wimp.
As before, start from the beginning before reading this section. Thanks.

THE SCENT OF VANILLA - PART THREE

Saturday morning arrived.

Much too early.

Everyone had talked about the previous evening's events well into the night and after finding another six pack of dad-beer, I learned the deep, personal meaning of the words "first hangover", with incredible insight. Breakfast was a Snickers bar which after downing I made very serious plans to sleep a few more hours when suddenly, Rick came back into the tent. Jumping upon his bunk and he loudly proclaimed, "The time is nigh, there is diabolical adventure awaiting us, my young charge!"

I simply groaned in protest, hoping he would simply shut up. His flair for the dramatic was wearing thin.

"You will arise from the ashes of experience like the Phoenix. There are mysteries to share and secrets to create. I am going to show you something today very few lads of your few years have witnessed," he continued.

Again, I said nothing, certain that he had finished the rest of the demon Budweiser and hoped he would re-create right before my aching eyes Ray Milland's performance in "The Lost Weekend."


The passing out cold part.

"I will give you one hour to bathe your putrid smelling flesh and get dressed in anything except a Boy Scout uniform, and to meet me at the rifle range. And oh yes, bring your hiking boots. You are about to follow the yellow brick road to Oz. We are crossing over to the promised land. I am going to reveal to you the secret trail to Camp Buckthorn!" The last few words were spoken inches from my face in a tone of hushed reverence. Knowing the full impact this would have on me, he leaped up and flung open our tent flaps, laughing wildly as he headed for the shower room.

I rose from my bunk on one elbow and grinned as if I been handed the keys to a brand new 1969 Mustang Convertible. Camp Buckthorn. The magic in that name echoed in my surprisingly clearing head. Camp Buckthorn. Twenty-six miles away if you traveled the winding mountain roads which lead to its closely guarded gates. Camp Buckthorn. The existence of a secret trail to its outlying environs had been speculated on for many years, which would reduce the traveling distance to only two miles. Camp Buckthorn. The closest camp in the area where it was well renown to inhabit that creature which held much interest, yet a great deal of mystery to me; girls.

As I made my way to the showers, I resolved to speak frankly with my parents next weekend and confess my old transgressions. I further resolved to create new ones just two miles away.

The trail, as revealed to me by Rick, was located near our camp lake and beyond the rifle range by several hundred yards. If one were not actually looking closely, it would be very easy to miss. The entire hike lasted only about forty-fivw minutes, but as we rounded the last switchback and our eyes rested on the roof tops of the Buckthorn cabins, I knew I was a world away from where our journey had begun.

I could hear voices and laughter wafting through the trees, many of which were immediately identifiable as belonging to females. My heart was pounding in my throat as Rick and I sauntered closer. I attempted to appear as if I had been a longtime Buckthorn resident, but as we encountered the first group of girls, it was quite obvious that we were outsiders. Maybe it our hiking boots or dashing good looks. Maybe it was because we did not appear to belong at a church camp.

A friendly, yet cautious woman who may have been twenty years old, came up to Rick and asked, "May I help you, gentlemen?"

"Oh God," I thought, "we were no more than ten steps into this foreign land and we have been identified as enemy agents!"

My worldly friend, however, in his usual confident tone, simply smiled and answered, "Why yes, we're looking for Vickie Rogers. Could you tell her that Rick is here and if she has a moment, we would like to talk to her."

"Sure, just wait here."

As the young woman left us standing near the group of young girls with whom she had previously been speaking and laughing, I turned to him and asked, "Vickie, who in the hell is Vickie?"

"Shut up, Terry. She's a girl I go to school with and I knew she was going to be here today. And if you are lucky, her cousin is here to meet you too."

Little did I know that Rick had planned this rendezvous for several weeks, and that part of the plan included me meeting Vickie's younger cousin.

Several minutes later an attractive blonde seventeen year old girl, accompanied by a shorter brunette walked towards us.

"Rick, you made it!" she called out.

For the next half hour Rick and Vickie talked between themselves, exchanging stories of the still early summer and the previous school year. I smiled at her cousin, and even may have said hello, I'm not sure, but I couldn't keep my eyes off of her.

Finally, I officially broke our silence, "My. Name. Is. Terry," I stuttered, as I extended my hand.

She returned the handshake and said, "Hi, my name is Donna."

Donna. This incredibly striking beauty had a name. Donna. She stood as high as my chin and had straight dark brown hair that reached her tiny waist. Her large brown eyes shimmered in the pine filtered sunlight and her hand was as soft as velvet. Donna. Her smile was not forced, nor nervous, but was proffered for me without hesitation.

Miss January immediately vanished from my mind forever.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

THE SCENT OF VANILLA - Part Two

I really advise reading each section of the story in order. I have changed the names of the characters, slightly, in the event they do not want their names found here via a Google search. This section is a bit long, but I wanted to keep the narrative somewhat cohesive.
THE SCENT OF VANILLA - PART TWO
The staff always arrived one week early to prepare the grounds for the city boy onslaught. I was to be in charge of the nature lodge, which meant that I had the dubious honor of de-winterizing a 50 by 25 foot log cabin filled with the ancient and moth eaten tanned hides of dead animals which lined the walls and high peaked ceiling. It always seemed interesting to me that here, in the nature lodge, a building dedicated to teaching young impressionable minds the importance of respecting wild living creatures, at a Boy Scout camp, an organization whose major emphasis was the incorporation of a wilderness program for city and suburban trapped boys, hung the stuffed and mounted trophies of large, vanishing critters.
On one wall one could gaze up at the decaying hides of a large grizzly bear and buffalo, on another the mounted head of a huge bull moose, and in one more corner, perched on a Manzanita branch, with wings spread and beak frozen open as if giving a warning to all that passed, rested the most beautiful American Bald Eagle to be seen anywhere. It was a shame that none of these species could be found, or were ever known to exist, in the woods that was now their permanent residence.

There were numerous animal cages and terrariums of various sizes to clean and refurbish awaiting the small animals and lizards that would soon be captured by the over zealous pre-teen boys arriving in seven days. I set up my own weather station which I had brought with me from home, the product of a recent science fair project. With the addition of a few other displays on soil conservation and wild edible plants, several colorful charts of birds, trees and star maps, the room eventually took on the ambitious feel of a mini-natural history museum. Once satisfied everything looked right and exciting I buckled down to study the subject for I was to expound on the entire summer. For, with the exception of what little I learned about clouds while playing with the weather station, (the one my father actually built) I knew precious little about nature. If the truth were known, I couldn't tell a Steller's Jay from a Mountain Chickadee. But by the time the first campfire smoke stained face looked up to me and inquired about finding the North Star I had learned a great deal. Fortunately, I kept up my studies the entire summer and will attest to the fact that by the closing of the summer camp session my knowledge was considerable. Sometimes I wish I could go back in time and provide the early summer campers the same in-depth program that the later campers received.

Despite our assigned duties and responsibilities, our primary concern and top priority was the creation of our staff quarters. The staff was assigned one of about fourteen "camp sites," (actually just relatively flat areas spread about the hillsides among the trees), but was special due to the site's access to electricity. Our housing consisted of twelve family style, canvas tents erected on eight-foot square wooden platforms, placed in three rows of four. The most desirable tent locations were along the back row next to tall shady pines. In the middle of the day these tents were quite comfortable and cool. The other tents, however, were placed in the open away, from even a single leaf's shade, and were infamous for melting candles and warping record albums. Of course, newer staff members were assigned tents along "Oven Alley."

Two staff members were assigned to each tent and each was allowed two electrical outlets. With the addition of multiple extension cords, one could set up a fan, a small stereo, a hot plate and a lamp. If you were truly destined for ultimate coolness, you would install a ultra-violet "black light" to illuminate one of several fluorescent wall posters. With a little effort and imagination, a tent could reflect the personality of its inhabitants. Or perhaps one’s desired personality.

The staff area was roped off from the prying eyes and annoying commotion of younger, and certainly unwanted passersby. A rustic, ranch-like entry gate was erected from pine logs replete with a swinging hand carved wooden sign which read, "Resurrection City," in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King's Poor People's Campaign encampment on Washington D.C. the previous summer.

The final touch to Resurrection City was the installation of "Radio B.S." Radio B.S. was comprised of a speaker positioned in each tent and wired from the best stereo set owned by Keith Baxter, a bespectacled, skinny, nose picking, junior staff member. Keith later was to grow up to be a successful radio personality in the San Francisco Bay area, playing jazz and blues. But as the official announcer of Radio BS, his choice of music left a great deal to be desired.

Keith had brought a whole collection of 60's bubble gum music like The Archies and Bobby Sherman. One evening his albums mysteriously vanished to be replaced with The Rolling Stones, The Doors and Cream. After some covert negotiations, Keith played an entire summer of Jim Morrison only after his good copy of "Sugar, Sugar" was returned unscratched.

Each morning "Reveille" was followed by the increasingly mellow voice of the now cool Keith Baxter. "Rise and shine, children of God, it is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Rise and shine, greet the new day with a smile, and how would you like your powdered eggs this morning?" Suddenly, the sweet sounds of Mick and the boys would belt out "Honky Tonk Women".

The camp itself was actually quite impressive. We had an Olympic size pool in which you could swim a mile and receive a real cool patch to sew on your trunks if you did eighty-eight laps without resting. There was a small lake for boating and fishing, complete with a lodge to store canoes and other aquatic paraphernalia which we delightfully christened "The Oar House". Two large fire ring amphitheaters, large enough to seat the entire camp and special guests lay at opposite ends of the camp. Various simple wood frame "lodges" were scattered among the trees and were utilized as program centers or would house The Trading Post.

The Trading Post was probably the most important building to these youngsters. At the trading post, campers purchased necessary craft supplies, whittling knives and other important Scout paraphernalia. More importantly however, a city kid could find refuge in this wilderness in the form of an overly syruped Pepsi and a tasty Butterfinger. Since, as a camper you had to do your own cooking, I am certain to which, if the trading post had not been available, many of them would have suffered severe malnutrition.

All of this was spread over several square miles of incredibly beautiful wilderness. I often marveled as to the ability of these woods to maintain a primeval pristine quality after this annual assault. Yet each time I returned, the trees, the speckled granite rocks and the deep carpet of pine needles appeared as fresh as it did before the first eleven year old hatchet wielding boy on a quest for virgin fire wood ever approached this place.

Truly, one of the things I have learned about nature is its resiliency. Looking at the marvelous patterns set into the face of a weathered granite cliff or the ability of a fire scarred Jeffery Pine to prosper and grow stronger provided me on more than one occasion reflections of the insignificance of my day to day problems and crises. If something as simple as that rock face can only look more interesting and incredibly, more wondrously beautiful as time and the elements pound against it, I am sure I can survive this traffic jam, tax audit and quarrel with the wife.

The entire week was full of hauling tents, camp stoves and other outdoor living equipment up and down rugged hills and through the trees. But, finally, as Friday evening of this preparatory week approached, the camp director, a tall Mormon with a hearty laugh and sense of fun, announced to his very tired staff that the camp was ready to receive campers. The rest of the evening and Saturday would be our own.

Now this proclamation was not one to take lightly. I savored each word as he spoke. My imagination took flight at the idea that we as a collective group would have almost thirty-six hours of relatively unsupervised time on our hands - for there were only five adult staff members and over twenty junior members. The odds were in our favor that we could engage in some sort of mischief without fear of discovery by anyone over the age of 25. The other factor, which we took into consideration, was that of the five senior staff members present, two of them were between the age of 18 and 20 years old. This fantastic situation could not have been better planned for a group of boys just beginning to experience wet dreams and old, worn out Playboy magazines. The fruits of our week long labor would no doubt be harvested this weekend. Unfortunately, our plans would not pan out as expected but reap rewards which would be collected much later that summer.

As we left the meeting, Rick pulled me aside and told me to get my swim trunks and to meet him at the Oar House in fifteen minutes. The hour was late but there was at least a good hour of daylight left, so I was instructed not to waste a single second. Not having a clue as to what he had in mind I followed orders and found him a few minutes later at the lake placing two canoes into the water. Rick, being on the aquatic staff had access to all sorts of boats and other water toys.

I grabbed a paddle, took one of the canoes and paddled out to the middle of the lake to a buoy which he had indicated was to be our rendezvous point. Rick soon joined me and without a word took hold of the small buoy and began to pull the anchor rope into his canoe. I could barely make out a small white shape coming to the surface.

With one final tug the anchored ice chest was brought into his canoe. Unsealing its tightly secured lid he revealed his precious secret booty.

There, still floating in ice and muddy lake water was an untouched six-pack of Budweiser. "Bud" the beer of my father, and a drink which I still had yet to acquire a taste suddenly took on aspects of Solomon's Gold and magical nectar in my mind. Thinking that now was as good a time as any to begin training my palate, I gratefully accepted his offer of a cool one.

The first beer is always the best one and the most quickly consumed. This I had learned from keen observation in the presence of my carpenter father at the end of a hot summer day on a construction site. But the second beer is the one to savor and truly enjoy.

We were alone on the lake, the sound of crickets and bullfrogs starting to wander in amongst the soft rippling sound of water being pulled with each paddle stroke. The aluminum canoe acted as a resonator for the gentle lapping of water against its sides. We spoke quietly but not often, and though our canoes drifted apart, our voices magically carried across the surface of the lake. We spoke of hoped-for girl friends at home, of school beginning in fall, (perhaps already realizing the shortness of this summer), and we began to talk about our lack of experiences and how we must alter that sad fact.

Before long but well into nightfall we met once again near the ice chest marker buoy which he had carefully replaced. The beer was now working on our minds as we drifted onto more serious topics, no doubt sounding extremely wise and precise.

Rick said, "You know if the war is still on in two years, I am outta' here. I am not going to fight in that stupid, wicked place."

"You’d go to Canada?" I asked.

"Bet your ass. There's just too much I want to do in this life before I have to exit the world," he proclaimed.

I thought for a moment and realized that there were a million things I still wanted to do before I died. But dying seemed such a remote concept. I had never let my mind wander in that direction before.

Rick continued, " ... and the bitch of it all is that we will probably get blown up by the damn Russians before we reach 19."

Rick took obvious pleasure in cursing out loud, away from the ears of parents and/or other authority figures. I joined in his pleasure, but did not have his expertise in the skill.

"Why would the damn Russians want to bomb us?" I offered, "I see no reason why anyone would want to invade this country. If you ask me, we will probably blow ourselves up and we will glow in the dark for a thousand years and the Russians will simply wait till then and walk in and set up shop without a single shot. Rick, its nothing but a waiting game, who is going to kill themselves first. If it's not the bomb, it will be the pollution. If it's not the pollution, it will be some drug crazed maniac dumping acid in our water. If not that, it will simply be our inability to get along. God, I do not want to die and don't plan on anyone else deciding that fact for me."

By now we were well into our third beer, laying back in our separate canoes staring into the full star lit moonless night. Rick raised up with his hands on the gunnels, smiled and said, "you know, there is hope for you yet. I predict a future member of the Students for a Democratic Society is now being formed among these pines," and began to laugh.

I was surprised by my seemingly radical stance, which I had suddenly taken. But I told myself, well, what's fair is fair and anybody can figure that out. We were silent once again as our mortality began to drift into our minds. I finally asked, "What do you want to do before you die?"

Rick thought for just a few seconds and answered, "Have an orgasm with someone else present, learn to appreciate the taste of scotch, fall in love with a European woman, watch the sunrise over a Scottish lake, visit Lenin's tomb, see Morrison in concert and climb Whitney from the west side. How about you, my man?"

My answer came slowly, for this was a very important question I thought, as if an incorrect one might be placed on my permanent school record to haunt me forever. The sex part was easy. Certainly loosing one's virginity was high on the yet-to-do list. I had little desire to drink scotch and I would have rather met John Lennon than see Lenin's rotting corpse. It suddenly occurred to me that it would be best to rectify really bad past sins before having to deal with the possibility of a vengeful, memory-like-an-elephant, permanent-record-reading God.

"I would apologize to my parents," I finally said.

"For what?"

"For lying to them when they should have known the truth."

"About what?!"

"For simply lying to them for things I did and either blamed others or not having a reasonable answer for events. Your parents don't lie to you, but to stay out of trouble you lie to them and then you feel like crap for a while because they probably really know the truth and just deal with it."

Rick knew the sincerity in my voice, "Well kids are supposed to lie and get caught so that you learn not to lie when you are older. It's just the way it works. OK, now what else would you do?"

"That's easy, fall in love with a tall blonde that looks like Miss January" I answered instantly.

At that precise moment in time, God, or the Air Force, was no doubt listening in. The crickets were the first to grow silent, and the frogs soon followed. As the realization settled in that it was suddenly very quiet my eyes were snapped onto a reddish, purple glow in the northwestern sky. The light seemed to fill the western portion of the camp as the glow moved towards and over us. Trailing behind the pulsating orb was an apparently twenty mile yellow tail. This large mass was followed by a half dozen smaller but similarly streaking red-purple forms. Time froze until the objects passed overhead leaving their shape and color etched into the upper atmosphere and our retinas.

Rick and I looked at each other and thought it was either aliens or the apocalypse, in any case our only words, in unison, were "Oh Shit!"

As we scrambled to bring the canoes to the shore I was certain that I would never to have the opportunity to explain all of my sins to my parents and that I would no doubt pass through this world without having experienced all of its earthly pleasures.

We quickly jogged back to our tents finding the rest of the staff huddled around a radio, listening for a news report of the certain end of the world. About twenty minutes later we discovered that Vandenburg Air Force Base had aborted a missile launch gone awry. The pieces of the rocket had re-entered the atmosphere causing a fantastic display for Southern California residents. It seems that God and the President of the United States had given me a reprieve and another chance to redeem my short, but obviously wicked past.

THE SCENT OF VANILLA - Part One

What follows is the first installment of perhaps a 4-6 part story that I wrote a bazillion years ago. I've edited it a bit, but have not taken the time to rewrite any major portions. I will post the first two sections today and then look over the next portions in a week or so, or sooner, we'll see.

It's somewhat of a "what I did last summer" story, but it all happened almost 40 years ago. All of the events are true and the dialogues are somewhat accurate...at least in spirit, filtered through the gentle sieve of time and sweet memory.

THE SCENT OF VANILLA - Part 1

It was the summer of 1969 and the summer of my fifteenth year. It was the summer during which I never felt so grown-up and realized before it was over that I would never feel so young. It was the summer during which I learned about the true nature of man and the possible nature of God. It was the summer that I saw the face of hate, of fear and of pure love. It was the summer of 1969 during which I and my world changed forever.

Each summer since the age of 12 years, I would embark upon a pilgrimage to Camp Emerson, a boy scout camp nestled in a primeval forest high in the San Jacinto Wilderness. The San Jacinto Mountains are located directly east of Palm Springs, California. This small range is unique to Southern California, for it most closely resembles the magnificent Sierra Nevada Mountains much further north. On the eastern portion of the range is an impenetrable face of jagged, geologically newborn granite. Towards the west, the mountains slope more gently into verdant meadows and valleys that eventually lead to the temperate plains of Riverside and beyond. The mountains exist as a kind of Sierra mountain range in miniature. John Muir once said that the San Jacinto Mountains were Southern California's own "Range of Light". When looking up into the crags and sheer faces of the many granite spires that surrounded the valley, in which the camp was sequestered, the comparisons to Yosemite come quite readily.

Camp Emerson was the only large summer camp for the Riverside County Boy Scout council, and had the proud tradition of being the oldest youth camp in the western states. A bronze plaque on one of the walls of the main assembly room proudly proclaimed this honor, which went largely unnoticed by everyone except the oak tree faced permanent caretaker, preferring the title "ranger", who made his home on the camp grounds. Each of the younger staff members secretly wondered if he was one of the founders of the camp in the early 1920's. On several occasions he had been mistaken for Old Mr. Emerson himself, whose picture rested on the mantle of the cave-like fireplace in the main assembly hall.

Two summers prior I had been hired as a camp counselor. At the age of thirteen, I was to be the youngest staff member ever in recent memory. But now, at the advanced age of fifteen, and a survivor of two summers, I had the distinction of being one of a very special group of veteran staff members. To an eleven year old Boy Scout, away from home for the first time, I appeared to be a hardened, well-tested and experienced mountain man. I knew that this year would be special. This would be a glorious summer.

My best friend, Rick Palmer, was sixteen and was privileged with his own wheels. At camp. God, what debauchery we would engage in I dreamed. Rick had been my roommate the previous year and we found we had many things in common; a dark, twisted sense of humor, a penchant for satirizing the Boy Scout fundamentals and a fondness of perusing the pirated copy of his father's Kama Sutra, the Hindu Book of Love and Sex. I distinctly remember, after trying to imagine that people might actually attain those pretzel-like positions while in bed, that there was a very good possibility his parents had indeed attempted more than a few of them. His parents, although a handsome couple, just could not be pictured writhing in ecstasy and abandon, making gravity-defying love in order to be closer to Shiva.

Parents were never thought of having sex. Regardless of the fact that our presence on this planet depended on it, each of us were certain that the only reason mom and dad screwed was to propagate the species. Sex for pleasure was no doubt reserved only for young childless couples according to our reckoning.

Playboy magazines were forbidden in camp. Despite that seemingly ridiculous rule, crates of them were smuggled in. Hoarding, but dividing the voluminous quantity seemed to be the best tactic in the face of surprise inspections conducted by the adult staff. Hidden copies would often be discovered and the offending scout would suffer the disciplinary action of listening to endless rhetoric relating to the evils of sexual fantasy by older men whose imaginations had left them many years ago. I always wondered what happened to those confiscated magazines. Surely, they were promptly destroyed to prevent further mental contamination.

Second offenses resulted in a phone call to one's parents and this seemed to be a rather effective deterrent. This was especially true if your mother was informed of your fall from grace. It is my belief that moms were mostly concerned with the realization that their sons were somehow no longer the adoring boy-child they knew but were being transformed into pubic-hair sprouting, gas-belching, girl-humping, uncivilized young men. In other words, reflections of the men they married.

Dads on the other hand seemed to understand the fascination that these books of wonders held for us. Questions regarding the exploitation of women had yet to be thought of, but good 'ole pop could be depended upon to remember what it was like to be a young teenaged boy. Our loss of innocence was an event that many fathers awaited anxiously. It was as if this turning point would create an unspoken stronger bond between sons and fathers.

With the caches of contraband safely ferreted away, more pressing duties were placed before us. We had a camp to prepare with very little time in which to complete the transformation. It seemed that it was forbidden that we would leave creek beds untouched, there were bridges to be built. Forget about sleeping on the ground, there were wooden platforms and large tents to erect. There were fire rings to construct and firewood to be gathered into large stacks.

What was once a quiet, pristine forest needed to become a bustling, organized and tamed compound readied and prepared as a place to teach young boys in the true ways of the wilderness.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

A Red Cape

I was a sick kid. A relatively minor birth defect went undiagnosed for years until it required major surgery at age 10. But until then, every couple of months I would collapse or become bedridden until the astronomically high fevers, delirium, abdominal pain and severe nausea passed. Books, comics and the gray-blue glow of a tiny screen wrapped in a monstrous wooden cabinet became my frequent companions. It was during these down times that I became a devotee of Superman.

How I wished, with all of my heart and soul to be him. Like so many other tykes, a bath towel tied around my neck served as the beginning and end of my costume, but that was when I was needing to fly or save the world. My younger brother, Jim wore glasses and for that I was a bit jealous because the key costume piece to become Clark Kent required the donning of spectacles. After feigning blindness, my wise mother provided me with lens-less frames. Suddenly my eyesight improved to the point of x-ray vision. But it wasn’t until my 7th year on this planet under the yellow sun did I acquire an honest-to-goodness Superman outfit.

On Halloween of 1961, Mom presented me with the costume of my true identity. A pair of old pajamas dyed blue in the washing machine, a length of red ribbon appliqu├ęd into a rough “S”, an old sheet sewn and properly dyed to serve as a cape and a pair of red socks was all that was needed for me to become the real and only Superman. To me, it was an exact replica of what George Reeves wore on TV and what I saw on the pages of Action Comics. In the back of my mind, the costume was the only missing piece and it was certainly only a matter of time before super powers would manifest inside me.

On Wednesday, November 1, 1961 I rose early from bed and donned my costume again, this time under my school clothes. With perceptible confidence, I strode about the playground, fearing no one and keeping an eye out for others who may require my assistance in their time of need. But nothing much happened and after school, feeling somewhat depressed that a peaceful day had passed; I joined my brother, Jim, for the short walk home. Before we reached our front door I stopped him and drew him aside.

Looking all around, I opened my shirt and showed him that he was safe from harm, because I was wearing the costume. He looked at my S-adorned chest and said, “Terry, why are you wearing that?” For a moment I was surprised that he failed to recognize the significance to what he was bearing witness. But gathering my thoughts, I said in my most sympathetic tone, “I am wearing it…just in case…” with the hope that those words would explain all. He merely shook his head and went inside for our afternoon snack.

At some point, Jim must have failed to keep my secret identity to himself. After the third day of my wearing of the costume, Mom came to my room before I said my bedtime prayers. “Honey, I need to wash your Superman outfit now…we need to save it for next year, okay?” she offered. Reluctantly and embarrassed, I removed the costume from under my cowboy pajamas and handed them over.

“Mom, I really want to be Superman someday,” I explained. She asked if it was because Superman could fly. I shook my head, because I understood that flying was probably not going to be an option any time soon. She asked me why then it was important to be Superman.

“Because he helps people and always does the right thing, and he doesn’t worry about who knows about it.” I explained further, “he often does it in secret…he stops the bad guys, he doesn’t get hurt and then flies away before anyone gives him money or a parade because he knows that he’s done a good job and that’s all he needs.”

I imagined she smiled, because my face was turned towards the floor, again embarrassed at my obviously childish beliefs. She then said something that I wouldn’t comprehend for a few more years, “Sweetheart, you don’t need a cape to do that.”

With a kiss she tucked me in and switched off my Roy Rogers bedside lamp and said what she always said before sleep arrived, “Sweet dreams and may God rest on your pillow.”

That night I dreamed of flying, righting a wrong, stopping bullets and dashing away before the reporters showed up.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Holocaust Memories

My wife's father, Henry (Henrich) lost his first family, a wife and son, at Dachau. Although not officially classified as a death camp, per se, the few stories he told of it certainly do not diminish the horrors there. His identification tattoo is visible in many snap shots made of him when Susan, my wife, was a young woman.

An innkeeper by trade, he owned and operated a relatively successful roadside inn and restaurant near the Czech, German and Polish borders before the war. After the invasion of Poland, Nazis forced Henry and his family, like so many others, to the Warsaw Ghetto. He recalled that many of life's basic necessities were in short supply in the ghetto and that cloth, fresh produce, meat, shoes and butter were just a few of the things that were held to be very precious and incredibly hard to obtain.

At some point in time, a pair of good shoes was traded with a German guard for a large block of butter. For some reason or another, the shoes were not needed by any of his family members and the butter would not only be appreciated, savored but divided up and used to trade for other things as well. Bartering was the primary method of goods exchange since cash was virtually useless in the ghetto.

When the family brought the delicacy home, they quickly discovered that what appeared to be a solid block was actually a small pasteboard box covered with a thin layer of butter. They were devastated at the deception and had no recourse but to accept the cruel trick and carry on. He bitterly recalled this specific instance because it was then, I believe, that he abandoned all hope and his faith. It seemed that he had lost everything at that point and could not envision any chance of survival. Ironically, he was one of only a few of his family (brothers, cousins, etc.) that did survive the war.

After being liberated by Allied forces, he met Susan's mother, Hilda, who had lost her husband in the war. Her husband was a German soldier, killed in battle on the Russian front, well before the end of the war. She had a young son, Peter, who recalls a few details about meeting American soldiers, some of them from a black regiment. He had never seen a person of color before that time and innocently thought that the dark color was some sort of military camouflage which could be washed or rubbed off. The African-American soldiers politely obliged the child's curiosity until they demonstrated the color's permanence and he realized his misunderstanding. He recalls being delighted as this discovery as he thought being dark would be an advantage for hiding in the night from the German enemy.

Another of Peter's interesting memories was of the time the Americans gave him a chocolate bar which through sign language and the GI's pigeon-German he came to understand was a special treat. Since he had never seen a wrapped candy bar before he began to eat the bar, wrapper and all. The Americans gently teased him and laughed which greatly embarrassed him. His feelings of shame are still vividly recalled.

Hilda converted to Judaism (she was raised a Lutheran) and married Henry who raised Peter as his own. In 1953, they were able to immigrate to Cleveland, where Susan was conceived and born.

Susan recalls being raised in a home that contained an amalgam of cultures, Jewish and Christian, German and Mid-West American, sometimes celebrating holidays for both faiths and eating foods from both parts of the world. Her maternal grandmother, solid German stock fresh from the old country, helped to raise her when she was an infant. This naturally resulted in the infant Susan speaking German before learning English some time later.

Even today, we celebrate a secular Christmas (from my side of the equation) and a couple of Jewish holidays and practices; the lighting of Yahrziet candles, for instance. Though she is a self-described non-observant Jew, her Jewish-ness is always there, like a soft hum or an underscored chorus. In turn, there is a deep appreciation for things Jewish. Yiddish is spoken with an American twang and latkes are sometimes served with salsa.

Last fall, we traveled to Washington, DC for work and like any well-planed boondoggle, were able to tack on a few personal days to the trip. With much anticipation we took this opportunity to visit the Holocaust Museum and spent most of the day there. "Visit" isn't the right word. "Pilgrimage" I think is more appropriate. Among other things, we wanted to list Susan's father in their survivor registry.

So many emotional moments occurred during the visit but most significant was when we examined the Warsaw Ghetto exhibit. The exhibit featured various striking photographs and artifacts including a section of cobblestone street that was traversed to access the exhibit. The stones were from one of the main thoroughfares in the Ghetto. As we read the sign telling about the stones, Susan crouched down, gently touched the stones and said very quietly, "Daddy walked on these..." and softly wept. I joined in her tears and answered, "He very likely did, sweetheart."

The heartache and grief that is experienced when one considers the Holocaust extends to much more than just the camps. The effect on Henry was profound as he began to drink more and more with each passing day. Henry and Hilda were separated many times as Susan was growing up. His relationship with Peter and Susan was always strained, never satisfying.

The tears that fell on those smooth stones were for the pain felt by her father as well for lost parts of her childhood when his actions and words reflected the devastation and hopelessness that perhaps never went away completely and certainly was never fully healed.

Henry died about 20 years ago with Hilda following soon thereafter. Susan's understanding of her father, of what he was and what he was not, has improved since then though she freely admits that she could only begin to grasp the even the most basic aspects and effects the Holocaust had on him and in a real sense had and has on her.