Remembering Third-Person Pete

(Trigger Warning: Suicide)

I had just completed  the necessary intake proceedings to begin  my third inpatient treatment for alcohol and drug addiction. 

Mark, the intake counselor at the place, was leading me up the stairs to what was to be my room for the foreseeable future.

“Pete doesn’t wash dishes!  Pete doesn’t do kitchens!” someone yelled  from what I could only guess must have been the kitchen area.

Great,” I mumbled, as I dragged my duffle bag up the last few steps.

“Don’t worry about him,” Mark said, looking back toward me as we walked down the hall.  “He’s harmless.”

I nodded in reply to his reassurance as we arrived at my room.

“Pete will scrub toilets!” the voice from down stairs continued, becoming louder. 

“Pete will shovel shit,”  he continued, having reached the top of the stairs. 

“Pete will do anything but work in the kitchen!” he finished just in time to reach the doorway of my new residence.

“What’s up, Mark?” Pete asked, half out of breath from the combination of scaling steps and reading the riot act to some poor soul downstairs.

“Hey, Pete, this is your new roommate,” Mark said.

Pete raised an eye brow, shrugged his shoulders, and slid between us to enter our room.

“Welcome to rehab, this place sucks,” he said, flopping onto his bed.

I looked at Pete, gave the room a quick look, and turned to glare at Mark.

Mark smiled.  “You’ll get used to it.  Welcome.  If you need anything, I’m around,” he said as he turned and walked back down the hall.

Great,” I mumbled as I entered our room.

Inpatient treatment isn’t so bad once a person comes to grips with the reality of it all. 

Leaving one’s life for 21 or 28 days, or for what would turn out to be almost 150 days in my case, is tough.  It’s a tall order to leave one’s life, no matter what that life is like, and by the time one agrees to inpatient treatment, life’s usually fairly crappy.  Leaving what one is used to, good or bad, is a shock to the system.  Completing a four or five day detox stay prior to that doesn’t seem to make things any easier.  It never did in my case, anyway.

This was to be my first experience in a residential inpatient setting, after having been a guest at two medically-based settings before hand.  The hospital-based treatment was just that.  It felt, looked and smelled like a hospital.  There was an around-the-clock staffed nurse, and they did their own medically-supervised detox on site.  They also offered outpatient services, like groups and individual counseling.  I entered detox there once again prior to moving on to the center to become Pete’s roommate.

“Why are you here?” Pete asked, arms folded behind his head and feet crossed on his twin bed.

“What do you mean?”  I asked as I bent down to unzip the duffle bag that lay on my new bed.

“You know. Drugs? Alcohol?”

“Both. You?”  I started to unpack.

“Pete’s here to make Mommy happy,” he said, with no hint of sarcasm.

“Good for you,” I said, continuing to unpack my stuff.

Pete sat up on his bed.  “You don’t believe me.  It’s the truth.”

“Look, I just want to unpack.  That’s great that you love your mom,” I said, not really interested in the banter.

“Actually, I was committed, by my mom,” Pete shared, laying down again on his bed.

I stopped putting my clothes in the little chest by my bed.  “So, you don’t love your mom?”

Pete started laughing. “You’re going to do alright here,” he said, rolling over to face the wall.  “Wake me up at five, it’s pizza night.”

Great,” I mumbled, as I finished putting away my clothes.

Five minutes to dinner…

I woke Pete so he wouldn’t miss pizza, and we talked some more after he introduced me to the other people at the center.  As one might guess, the twelve of us represented quite a sample of age groups, professions, drugs-of-choice, and back stories. As they say, addiction doesn’t discriminate.

As time wore on, through days filled with groups and counseling sessions, urine tests and Twelve Step meetings, I got to know Pete a little more. 

After all, we were roommates, and, often purely due to familiarity and shared space, roommates tend to talk.  They talk when they wake, they talk before lights-out, they talk whenever.  I was always a little put off by his habit of referring to himself by name, but it just became a part of who Pete was.

Before arriving at rehab, Pete spent some time in what used to be called a psych ward, or what is known more today as a “secured behavioral health unit,” at a local hospital.  It was indeed true, that his mother had called emergency services, which set the whole process in motion.

Pete really only shared snap shots, a flash in group, a flash in the kitchen, a flash outside while shooting baskets, a flash before lights-out, and usually the story was told within the third-person framework, never in any order.

Pete was a 28 year old single male at the time.  He had moved back home to live with his mother in his childhood home after losing his apartment, after losing his girlfriend, after losing his job, after losing control of his alcohol use.  Pete’s father had passed away several months before it all happened, which may, or may not have been the catalyst for the chain of events that led him to treatment.

Pete never spoke of his mother negatively, but he never really spoke of her positively, either.  In fact, he spoke of her as if he had to, as if she were mentioned only because she was a necessary part of the tiny bits of the story he did share. The only time I remember him mentioning his father was to say that he had died.

The best I’d ever able to put things together concerning how he had gotten to rehab via the psych ward, Pete had been literally out of his mind on alcohol and whatever else when he engaged in what became a heated argument with his mother, the subject of which he never mentioned.  After the argument escalated and spiraled out of control, Pete threatened to hang himself in the garage, going so far as to fashion a noose out of an old swing set chain.  Police arrived, an ambulance arrived, his mother cried, and they took him away because he was deemed a danger to himself and everyone else.

“My counselor’s full of shit and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

“I’m out of this damn place,” Pete said one afternoon, busting into the room after slamming the door open against the wall. 

“What happened?” I asked him.

Pete sat on his chair with a thud and threw his assignment folder at his night stand, knocking over the lamp that had been, up to that point, standing there peacefully.

“What’s going on?”

“That bitch doesn’t think I’m taking responsibility for my actions.  I’m here, ain’t I?” he said, opening his arms and gesturing to our room.  “This is bullshit.”

Pete leaned forward off the chair and crawled to his bed, reaching under it for his bags.

I closed the book I had been reading and sat up on my bed.

“What are you doing?” I asked.  “You’re not going to leave.”

“The hell I’m not,” he replied.  “Pete’s had enough of this shit.”

“What did she say?”

“She said the same shit they said at the nut farm.  She said the same thing my mother said.  Bullshit.  All of it,” Pete said, dragging his bags from under the bed.

“You can’t go, I don’t want another roommate.  It’s taken me two weeks to get used to you,” I said, mixing humor with honesty.

“Look,” I said, “You can’t leave.  Just do what you have to do.”

Pete stood up and walked over to the lamp that was laying on the floor.  He picked it up, popped the dent out of the shade, and returned it to its place on the night stand.

“I don’t want to do what I have to do.  I don’t want to talk about it.  I don’t,” he said, collecting the sheets of paper that had scattered from his assignment folder when they collided with the lamp.

“Why not?” I asked, an answer I had been curious about for the entire two weeks I had been there.

“I just don’t.  Pete don’t.  Both of us, none of us.  I want to stop drinking.  I’ll do that.  They can kiss my ass about the rest of it,” he said, extending a middle finger in the general direction of the office area of the center.

I thought about it for a while, staring at the floor, as Pete continued to salute the counseling wing.

The autobiography is a staple of many an inpatient treatment center. 

It’s basically a rite of passage, an initiation, if you will.  One writes, as much as they choose, information about their family, their friends, their use and their part in it.  Then, they read, or present, it to the group. Some of them are really long, and some are fairly short, but length isn’t always a good indicator of quality.

Some people use their autobiographies to cast blame on others and other’s roles in why their lives are a mess.  Others use it as an opportunity to impress other residents by recalling some of their more outlandish and excessive history, including consumption, outlaw behavior and sexual exploits.  But in my experience, most autobiographies are just that; they are highlight stories of people’s lives.  For whatever  reason, Pete didn’t want to share much, if anything, about his life.

“Just do it, Pete,” I said, after weighing the pros and cons of the autobiography question.

“Hell no,” he said.

“Just skim it.  Don’t tell your deepest, darkest-“

“Stop it,” Pete warned, pointing at me.  “It’s not going to happen. You write your shit.  Tell them everything if you want to.  I don’t need to tell them anything.”

“I’ll do mine,” I told him.

“Yeah?  Well, Mister ‘I’ve been to treatment more than once,’ you know how to do it, don’t you?  At least you should, anyway, right?  What good did it ever do you?  We’re in the same fucking place, if you haven’t noticed,” Pete snapped, again throwing his folder, this time the folder and its contents coming to rest safely on his desk.

“You won’t leave.  They’ll take you back to the nut farm,”  I said as I left the room.

“Nut farm, Pete ain’t going back to no nut farm, and Pete ain’t writing his autobiography,  neither!” Pete yelled as I walked down the hall. He continued as I walked down the stairs.

Great,” escaped a familiar mumble as I headed toward the group room.

A week later, after much begging and pleading from staff and peers, and after what could be interpreted as an ultimatum from his counselor, Pete was finally scheduled to give his autobiography one morning during group time.

We were all interested in hearing what Pete had made such a fuss about the entire time he’d been at the center. We had all shared at least some of the less than flattering events in our lives, and we, or at least I, wondered what could be that bad or sad or scary. He didn’t even want to talk about talking about it.

Then it happened. He took out handwritten papers from his folder and read.  And he read.  And read.  And then he read some more, without feeling and without hesitation.

As he read, the random fragments Pete had released at different times during treatment came together to make a clear picture, all in a third-person format, as if he were reading a story about someone else.

“And when Pete was seven,” he read. “Then, when Pete was around twelve,” he would continue. And on it went.

When he finished, we sat silently around our circle in the little room.

Most of us stared either at the floor or shifted our focus from the counselor back to Pete. No one knew if they should, or how they would, break the silence that filled the room after Pete finished his autobiography.

“Be careful what you wish for,” Pete said, placing his papers back in the sleeve and closing the folder.

After what felt like hours of silence again after Pete’s comment, the counselor finally spoke.

“Pete,” she said, adjusting herself in her chair, “I admire the strength and courage it took you to share your story. However, it needs to be done in the first person. We can’t heal if we can’t own our lives.”

“Fuck you,” Pete said quietly, staring at nothing.  Pete stood up slowly and said, “I quit.”

Pete left the circle, opened the door, left the room and closed the door behind him.

What happened next, really, was a misdirected, all-out attack on that counselor by most of the participants of our group that day.

There were a lot of things we didn’t understand about Pete, at least until that 30 minutes in group, and for her to seemingly condemn him after forcing him to be vulnerable, was unacceptable at the time.  We didn’t understand why the third-person thing was such a big deal. Third-person, sixth-person, whatever. He told his story, all of it. The abuse, the trauma, the fear, the significance of the garage, the chain, the stool, everything. Then she just shit on him, or so we thought.

We made our way up to the room after our collective bashing of the counselor had concluded, and after her futile attempts to explain therapeutic protocol to a bunch of addicts who weren’t ready to hear it, only to find that Pete had already left. We couldn’t have been in there ten minutes after he left group, and he was gone.

I tried calling Pete at the number he gave me when I had phone time, the number apparently to his mom’s house.  All I ever got was an answering machine with a woman’s voice, and I never even learned what Pete’s mother’s name was.

I left a few messages, saying something like, “Hey, it’s your roommate. Call me back to let me know you’re alright.” I never heard back.  Other guys had tried to call, too.  Nothing.

A week or two after Pete left, I moved on at the center, from inpatient to more of what they used to call a “half-way house” setting. During that time, there were more opportunities to leave the center to do things.  It was a transitional period where people can do things like, look for work, attend outside meetings, and gain overnight passes, all with the safety net of returning to the center.

One afternoon, as I returned to the center, I was told by the lady at the desk that I was supposed to see my counselor after I checked back in.

On my way back to the offices, I heard chatter, sniffles and sobs from the Commons area of the center. I turned around and walked toward the sounds, more interested in them, rather than whatever my counselor wanted.

As I reached the Commons, there were people standing in a close group. 

“Pete’s dead,” said one of the other residents. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” is all I can remember saying. “It’s okay.”  It wasn’t okay.

I didn’t attend the visitation, because I didn’t know anyone.

I didn’t know his mother or any of his family or friends.  All I knew was that Pete’s mother was alive. That was it. I knew nothing about his family, his ex-girlfriend, his friends, or whether he even had any.

I do remember attending the funeral. The church itself was a beautiful place. The service was quiet and almost surreal. Afterward, I met Pete’s mother. She was gracious and even a little upbeat, which was the thing I remember most about that day. I’ve always guessed that either she was still in shock over her unfathomable loss, or it hadn’t all begun to sink in at that time.  I can still remember her face after all this time.  I remember her kind eyes and smile.  I remember her hand on my forearm, as if I were the one who needed comforting.  Her son had just died a sad, tragic death, and somehow she had the strength and grace to comfort someone she didn’t even know.  I could never quite wrap my head around that.

Not long after Pete’s funeral, I learned  that the reason I never received a return phone call was because no one was there. Pete’s mom had taken a trip to visit family, believing that her son was safe in a treatment center.

Pete didn’t answer the phone because he didn’t return to his mother’s house until the day he died.

After he left the center, he talked his ex-girlfriend into staying at her place in a sort of reconciliation attempt. It didn’t last long.

In the end, Pete couldn’t outrun his past, a past that included repeated childhood trauma and abuse at the hands of people who were supposed to protect and care for him. To get some relief, he turned to what was familiar, and starting drinking again.  Not long after, he engaged in an argument with his girlfriend. The argument spiraled out of control at whatever point things spiral out of control, and he left.

Not long after that argument, Pete returned to the garage of his childhood home. He grabbed the swing set chain he had been abused with as a child, secured one end to an overhead rafter, placed the other end around his neck, and stepped off the stool he was often punished on as a child. 

Later that afternoon, his girlfriend found him.

Sometimes, there is no good end to a story. 

Sometimes, obstacles are too much for the hero of a story to overcome.  Unaddressed trauma, in Pete’s story, was that obstacle. 

I believe that Pete tried everything he could to deal with his trauma the best way he knew how, even going so far as to use third-person narration in his own life. It’s not uncommon for victims of abuse to try to separate themselves from those events in a variety of healthy and unhealthy ways, in order to best cope with, and to try to make sense of events that are often impossible to make sense of. Maybe that was Pete’s way of trying to protect himself from that pain, and maybe we could have done a better job of trying to understand it.

All too often, those who suffer abuse are victimized twice. 

Once by their abuser, and then again by stigma and ignorance, or by family members or friends who don’t believe them (or want to keep the abuse quiet), and by the fear, guilt and shame the person who was victimized often carry with them.

Pete’s fight ended nearly thirty years ago, as I write this. Yet, he is a kind of consistent companion as I walk along my path. I’ve come to realize that there are some things there will never be a good enough answer for, and this will always be one of those things.

In memory of my old roommate, “Pete.”

Glove Day, Oscar’s gift, and the Si Johnson Special

The Si Johnson Special

I paced the driveway outside the house on Eighth Street, not knowing whether to start off without Dad, or to continue to wait for him.  It was like Christmas morning in May.  I couldn’t stop pacing, as if doing so would somehow speed things up.  I looked at the front door for any sign of movement in between glances down the street to try to estimate the time it would take for a grown man and an adrenaline-fueled ten year old to walk the six or seven blocks down to the hardware store.

This day was special.  This day was baseball glove day.  Glove day is generational and ceremonial.  It is celebration and reckoning.  Generational, in that often a father’s father had also once participated in glove day, and someday the son will get to share glove day with his own son.  Ceremonial, as when the first ball hits the glove for the first time, and celebration comes with that first opportunity to play catch with Dad using the new glove. The reckoning portion would come soon enough.

After standing out in the driveway for what was a childhood eternity, I heard the familiar sound of the screech of the old screen door. I abandoned my time estimation experiment and turned around to see Dad standing at the top of the steps, smiling. 

“Ready?”  Darn right.

Dad quickly and flawlessly covered the reckoning portion of glove day as we walked down the main street in town. 

A new glove was an investment, and for our family at the time, it was quite an investment.  It was something to take care of and look out for, and if I did those two things, I would have that glove for a long time.  I should be careful not to leave it anywhere, and to always double check before leaving a game or practice.

Dad’s talk turned out to be necessary.  A few years prior to glove day I was playing out in the yard with Dad’s circa 1954 baseball glove, and I left it out in the rain.  It rained and rained for two whole days, and the glove wasn’t discovered until several days after that, lying in a corner of the back yard.

The glove Dad had used for decades in all kinds of baseball and softball games had been destroyed by carelessness.  I don’t remember him being mad about it.  Disappointed?  Sure, but not mad.  There was a lesson to be learned in it all I guess, and apparently that glove was the price of the lesson. 

Although it had long ago left for old sports equipment heaven, I remember that glove fondly. For me was like trying to catch a ball with a garbage can lid, but Dad worked that old thing like a magician.  It was an old “two-hander,” where there was no real fold or crease in the glove for easy open and closing. No, with that glove, there was a timing and finesse that involved a three step process:  Aim glove at ball, ball hits glove, cover ball with throwing hand.  Funny thing is, I had thought quite a bit about using that glove for baseball, until it succumbed to the devastating combination of Mother Nature and an absent-minded ten year old. Rest easy, leather trash can lid…

I took three steps for every one step Dad took on our walk to the hardware store that day.

I was trying to set a pace, my impatience and excitement clearly getting the best of me.  It was always fascinating to me that Dad could cover so much ground with each effortless step, and on that day I was glad he could.  I always wondered if his unearthly ability to cover ground like that was one of the many reasons for his nickname, Moose.

When we finally arrived at Si Johnson’s hardware store on the end of main street,  I could hardly wait to get inside.  That little store had everything, or it seemed to, anyway.  The glass store front gave a glimpse of the wide array of items one could get with just one stop.  Kitchen knives and toasters, nuts and bolts, toys and candy bars, masking tape and paint were some of the things that would sometimes be in the window. 

“Ready?” Darn right.

When Dad opened the door, the bell above it  jingled to signal our arrival.  As we stepped inside the store, the first thing I saw was our neighbor, Oscar Torpen.  Oscar and his wife, Miriam, lived two houses down from our house.  Back then, everybody knew everybody in our little town, that’s just the way it was. Oscar had worked at Si Johnson’s for as long as I could remember.  It seems like we were always running down there, or to one of the other hardware/everything else stores in town.  Oscar was always one to meet you with a smile, and always seemed to take a genuine interest in people, whether down at the store or in the neighborhood.

We walked down the main aisle to meet Oscar at the register as he and my Dad exchanged greetings and the object of our mission that day.  I don’t remember exactly what was said during that conversation some forty years ago, but I remember Oscar showing the way through the aisles of the store while I followed him, and while Dad followed me.  Navigating what was to be the last corner on our journey through the store, we passed an end cap full of canning supplies when Oscar stepped to the side and raised his arm to what was the sporting goods portion of the of that particular aisle.  And there it was.  In the midst of a few softballs and baseballs, a frisbee or two, pairs of long, white tube socks with bright stripes in a variety of colors, and cans of tennis balls, sat the glove.

I could hear angels. Heaven’s light shined on that glove from the moment I saw it.  That was the one, never mind that it was the only one in the entire store.  That one glove was the perfect glove.

I stood there not knowing exactly what to do, while Dad and Oscar continued to talk about whatever they were talking about.  Oscar asked me if I saw anything I liked, in the way that a kindly, gentle older man would point out the obvious by using humor. 

“Well, try it out,” he said.

I’ll never forget the moment I reached onto the shelf and carefully lifted the glove off of its perch on the display.  Finger hole, soft leather, cross stitch weave. The scent of the leather. It wasn’t too big, and it wasn’t too small.  Out of all the gloves made on a given day and shipped around the world, different sizes and shapes, different colors and stitches, somehow the perfect glove had made it to the store on the end of main street in my hometown.

I remember looking up to Dad and showing him the glove.  He smiled and did whatever it is that us dads do to make sure a child’s glove fits half way decent.  I have found that I also have learned to do whatever that is over the years, first with my son, and now with the grandkids.  You know, turn it over, pinch and push it, bend it, punch it a few times, flip it back over again, ask them to try to squeeze it closed, turn it over again, and so on.  During that day’s exercise, it seems that Dad and Oscar had reached the same conclusion: the glove passed the test.

“Sure this is the one?” Dad asked, following up Oscar’s humorous take on that particular glove being the only one in stock.  

As we followed Oscar back to the register, he grabbed something off one of the shelves along the way.  When we arrived at the register, he said, “What you have there is the Si Johnson special, and with the Si Johnson special, you need something to take care of it, to keep it new.”

“Saddle soap,” he said, reaching up to give Dad the round metal container.  “Your dad will have to show you how to use that stuff.”

Dad and Oscar continued to talk as I stared in wonder at the new piece of leather artistry covering my left hand.  Dad then opened his wallet and took out what seemed to be an awful lot of money and handed it to Oscar.  With a few clicks and the opening and closing of a cash drawer, it was done.

“One more thing,” Oscar said, reaching to the back table again.  He turned back with his hand closed. 

“Open your glove,” lowering his hand to the glove.  He placed whatever was in his hand in the glove and carefully shut it.

“Now, that’s from me.  Don’t open your glove until you get home, can you do that?  Then you and your dad share it while you break in that glove.”

“Thanks, Oscar!” I remember saying, and we left the little store on the end of main street.

I held that glove closed, with the help of Dad’s watchful eye, until we got home. I ran the last few blocks as fast as I could, then I turned and waited for Dad.  Breathing heavy, and bent down with my arm outstretched as to show Dad the glove was still closed, he finally reached the yard and stood in front of me.

Opening the glove, we found that Oscar had placed one pack of spearmint gum safely in the webbing. 

Dad smiled as he picked up the pack from my new glove.  He carefully unwrapped it and pulled out two sticks, one for each of us.

“Ready?”  Darn right.

As with many days from my childhood, I had no idea at the time the impact this would have on my life, even decades later. Memories of grass and dirt, dugouts and bleachers, bats and gloves. A brand new ball. Rivalries. Teammates. People and places, snapshots in time.

For whatever it’s worth, I still have the old glove and the memories that radiate from it. It has spent a lot of its most recent years in an old duffle bag, until recently. It’s worn and it could use a few new laces and a good oiling. I think I’ll take the time to do that this weekend, after a trip to the hardware store for some saddle soap and a pack of spearmint gum.

Darn right.

The Beauty of War, Barber Chairs, and Missing Buster

I remember riding my old bike down the main street sidewalk as fast as my legs could pedal.  My Little League baseball glove was swinging back and forth from the handlebar in rhythm with my pedaling like the pendulum on a clock.  Tick, tock, tick, tock. Down the curb, up the block, swerve to miss the couple leaving the bakery. The air hitting my face made my eyes water, but I couldn’t slow down.  I had been playing ball at the park and completely forgot about it.  I hoped I could make it there on time.

I finally approached my destination out of breath, my legs and lungs burning.  I snuck a look at the upcoming windows to see if the place was still open, then I slammed on my brake, finally there.  I didn’t have time to come to a stop before I abandoned the bicycle, my feet hit the sidewalk and I ran for the steps of the glass store front.  As I heard the falling bike scrape the sidewalk behind me, I bound up the steps to the giant wood framed glass door and gave it a good push.  The door didn’t budge.  As I looked up from the step, I saw a hand grab the sign on the other side of the glass, which by then was eye level and two inches from my nose, and flip it from “open” to “closed.”  There I stood trying to catch my breath, staring at the sign.

As I took a step back on the stoop, feeling defeated, sweaty and staring at the red letters through the glass, the hand that still held the sign then flipped it back over from closed to open.  Still gasping, I looked up from the sign to see what had become a familiar smile. 

As he unlocked the door and opened it, I blurted out something like, “I need a haircut, Buster!” Still smiling, he welcomed me in and assured me he had time for just one more.

**

To walk into Buster’s barbershop was quite a treat.  I’d been there many times with Dad, but this was my first solo cut, and I was excited.  Thick woodwork, a floor with just enough creakiness in it to make it cool, and mirror for miles on each side wall. There was always this special scent about the place that was a mixture of talc and aftershave.  It wasn’t overpowering; in fact, I remember it being perfect.  Like if I could pick out one kind of cologne, after shave, air freshener and fabric softener for the rest of my life, it would be that scent.  Often, an old television set on a stand would be on by the front door.  Along one side wall sat a few coffee tables full of magazines divided by a mix of chairs and benches that faced the barber chairs.  To top it all off, there were the old-style barber chairs.

This particular shop had two chairs, although the one closest to the window was the only chair I ever remember being in use.  The other was for over flow, I think, when the place was full, as it often was. Both of these chairs were porcelain, metal and leather works of art.  White and leather chairs designed and crafted, most likely, by God himself.  These chairs were the most comfortable chairs in the history of the planet, as far as I was concerned.  Head rest, foot rest, arm rest, hydraulic lift.  Swivel.  Style and grace. The perfect chair.

I remember asking Buster that day about the Marine flag that hung on the wall near the back of the shop.  He told me that he had joined during wartime, maybe 1942 or 1943.  Although I assumed when I was young that he was a G.I. Joe-type soldier, I never asked him what he did during the war, and he never really offered that information.  As his scissors clicked away and hair fell around my shoulders and down the apron, he shared about his service in the most unique way.  As he spoke, I was taken on a world tour, first to basic training and then on to the South Pacific.   He talked of the people and the beauty of the places and the traveling to and from as it were a wonderful thing to have been able to do.  He recalled how different it was half way around the world in climate and sights and sounds.  He described trees in colors and shapes and textures.  Experiences with the food and drink, even candies.  Islands, rocks and sands of a million different colors. Bodies of water hundreds of feet deep so crystal clear one could see bottom. Most striking, still today, was that he painted such a rich, beautiful picture of his experience, without complaint.  Wartime in the South Pacific.  Beautiful.  And while I realize the possibility that he could have been talking heaven instead of hell for the sake of the kid in his chair, I think there was much more to Buster, and to his barber shop.  

I’m positive there are a lot of people, spanning quite a few generations in my hometown, who have a story or memory of the little barbershop in the middle of main street.  Dads took sons there, and sons grew up to take their sons. I guess it would be that way with any place that was open for almost 60 years. 

Buster’s shop served as a melting pot in our community, as much of a melting pot as one can have in a Wisconsin town of under 2,000 people, anyway.  And it was authentic.  Genuine.  A stop at the barber shop at any time would offer a good sample of the people who made up the community.  The banker would sit next to the farmer, who sat next to the business owner, who sat next to the truck driver.  The doctor’s kid sat next to the factory worker’s kid as they waited for their turn in the most awesome chairs in the history of sitting.

The door would be open on most nice weather days, and people walking by would exchange greetings with people inside, Buster being usually the first to wave or smile. 

There was always chatter, at the very least.  No one ever seemed to sit silently there. Over the years I learned that no topic was off limits. Everything from the weather to the Cold War.  From taxes to religion to politics to popular TV shows and movies.  All sorts of sports were discussed.  From time to time, rumors and gossip were explored.  Fishing and hunting stories got bigger as the years went by.  From the neighborhood to the continents, I would bet it was all placed on the agenda of the day for discussion at one time or another.

But the magic of the barbershop was that while there were at times passionate discussions and debates, they never fell into arguments.  I don’t remember name calling at the barbershop.  I don’t remember seeing or hearing about anyone ever storming out of there.  People with completely different views and backgrounds poured each other cups of coffee from the pot on the counter.  The mayor held the door open for the out of town stranger. I don’t remember anyone telling someone else to shut up or anything of the sort. I think Buster was a kind of gentle tie breaker sometimes when two or more were discussing taxes or fishing or foreign policy. It was a job he did well… and often, always in a way that was fair and where both sides felt like they had gained something.  In the end, there was a respect and a common drive to reach an understanding, and not to win an argument or to prove someone else wrong.  After all, back then the farmer needed the banker, who needed the business owner, who needed the truck driver.  We were all connected. We were all “we,” and it was a neat time to be we.

**

Many years have passed since that particular time of my youth.  Although Buster passed away a few years ago and the barbershop as I knew it back then is now a memory, I keep the place and the echoes of the stories and lessons from there.  In a world that often seems to be train wreck after train wreck, I miss being met at the giant door with a smile and a friendly greeting. I miss the subtle creaking of the old floor as I walked across it on the way to sit in the most amazing chairs ever crafted. I miss the positivity in the gentle old Marine who spoke of the wonderful beauty in things, rather than the ugliness, and who always seemed to have time for just one more. I miss the welcoming, unforgettably perfect smell of the after shave and talc.  I miss witnessing the process of difficult problems being solved, and not being made worse.  I miss the sound of one person talking at a time, and not so much everyone demanding to be heard at once.  Buster and his barber shop left a deep and lasting impression on me, and I often think about how neat it would be if that old sign could flip just one more time.

In memory of Leland “Buster” Chase

Standing on the Shoulders of the Littlest Giant

It seemed as though he had been on the edge of that board forever. During that forever, he had changed from shivering to vibrating and his lips had turned the shade of purple that we had all become accustomed to seeing during that change. The breeze that day was cool, and considering his lack of any body fat of any kind, it may as well have been January. During the occasional day like that at the pool, sometimes the rest of us would offer up our towels for him to use as blankets so he could warm up and so his lips could inevitably return to their natural color. But this day was different. This was a day of reckoning….that is, as much as a ten year old boy would probably dream there was to reckon.

He stood there looking down at the water, which was exactly one meter below the toes he had curled over the edge of the big, old diving board. It just looks so much higher the first time you get up there and stand on the edge. Surrounding the water he was staring into was six or seven of the older kids who had been treading water since before he had inched his way out to the end of the board, and who were patiently trying to reassure him that, despite being terrified and half frozen, he was about to do the single greatest thing in his life thus far. And those of us who had already leapt from the death-defying one meter mountain top knew exactly the pure joy that awaited our friend whenever he finally got tired of vibrating.

Years ago, the swimming pool in town was the place to be on a summer day, any summer day, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. There was a time when a kid would actually have to plan to get there early to claim a spot big enough for a beach towel on the huge cement landscape that surrounded that beautiful, crystal clear oasis. And the sounds… The radio that sat in the check in/lifeguard/clothes storage booth window that could be heard across the lake in town as it played one of the local radio stations during open hours. The smacking sound a lifeguard’s flip flops would make as they walked on the cement. The old diving board could be heard clear on the other side of town, too, with its familiar, “ka-klunk, ka-klunk,” which signaled that another kid had just been launched into the air and would soon be splashing down in ten feet of perfect, chemically-balanced paradise. The pool was an ideal, coconut oil-scented melting pot of sorts, and it was a daily fifty cent adventure we were always excited to take at that age. Big kids, little kids, young adults, old adults, boys and girls, and with each neighborhood in town represented and recognized. This melting pot was pretty efficiently managed by sun glasses-wearing, whistle string-spinning, sun screen-nosed lifeguards. They were, more often than not, pretty lenient with most of our adventures, and usually pretty forgiving of our pranks.

Back on the board, lips ever purple and his whole being still vibrating, our friend was listening to one of the bigger kids who was in the circle of water treaders. He was trying to convince our friend how safe it actually was to step off the board and toward the water, surrounded by strong swimmers who cared about him, as well as the handful of others of us who were either standing on the pool’s edge or resting on the side in the water. His toes relaxed and his arms came unwrapped. Then, in a flash, his arms jerked back up around each other and his toes re-curled around the edge of the board. This went on for what seemed like days, and I am sure it seemed a lot longer than that for our friend.

Our friend was smaller than most of us were at the time, and I guess it had always been that way. Smart, funny as the day was long, and adventurous as any of us were, even at the age when it seemed we were always exploring something. But he always had the heart of a lion. He always pushed through things that could have been made more difficult due to his size, things that the rest of us made look easy or took for granted. I guess the board thing was no exception.

But he had passed his test, along with the rest of us. The test, which consisted of swimming across the pool and back without touching the bottom and then treading water for a minute, was easy for him. He swam effortlessly and could hold his breath like no one else I’d ever seen, which was weird considering he was asthmatic. In fact, I’m sure that he took the test more than once, while helping and guiding other aspiring big kids to achieve their own utopias. Almost every little kid dreamed of a few seconds of weightlessness thanks to the spring of the board, and the following entry into the world below the water’s surface. We idolized the big kids and their flips and spins and defiance of gravity. This is why we took the test, after all, so we could leave the shallow water behind and plant our flags on the diving board like big kids. It was our destiny, and it was Destiny Day.

“What if I don’t come up?,” I remember him asking.

“That’s not possible, I bet your head won’t even get wet,” one of the big kids replied, still calmly and patiently treading water with the others, while the rest of us continued to watch on around him. All this after what seemed like three or four days of watching our frozen friend ever so slightly bob up and down on the end of the board while fighting off a rare case of mid-July hypothermia.

A line had begun to form behind our friend by the steps of the board by this time, but no one said anything or acted like they were in much of a hurry. In fact, it seemed that at that time, the only thing the entire pool was interested in was whether or not another little kid would graduate to big kid status. The excitement was genuine due to the fact that if it were to happen, it would surely be a case of one of the smaller little kids becoming what would have been the littlest big kid in the history of the whole diving board area.

And then it happened. For those who were at the pool that day all those years ago, they will probably tell you that it happened in slow motion. First, the unfolding of the arms and the one after another uncurling of toes. A slight bend the knees. A deep breath, deep enough where he could have spent three hours at the bottom of the pool and still not run out of air. Purple lips pressed tightly together, and for a second or two, the vibrating and teeth chattering stopped. Pause, and then he did it. He stepped off the board.

He hung in the air for what seemed like a lifetime. All of the big kids in the circle reached up in unison like some precursor to synchronized swimming. As our friend fell closer to the water, they were reaching up to the sky to meet him. He finally splashed down and things sped back up to real time. As I remember, his head barely went under water and then he popped immediately back up to the surface, both under his own half-frozen, destiny-driven, adrenaline-fueled power and from help with the big kids who were making sure he was safe, just as they had promised they would.

As the last water drops returned to the pool from the splash heard ’round the world, a chorus of whistling, clapping and cheering broke out at the pool, only to be drowned out by our friend’s flopping and splashing wildly as the big kids , still surrounding him, tried help him stay afloat in the middle of the deep end of the pool. Why all the distress after such an amazing accomplishment? He was trying to swim as fast as he could to the ladder so he could get out of the pool…….So he could do it all again.

***************

A thousand lifetimes and millions of miles have passed since the day that Arni Anderson made his jump. I could have shared instead the story of how he contracted chicken pox and I didn’t, and went through it smiling the whole way. Or when one of the bigger kids in the old neighborhood helped him ride the big red two-wheeled bike that all the other little kids were scared of. Or the day he climbed the huge pine tree across the street from my house until he was so high we could hardly see him.

Issac Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The idea that we are farther along because of those who have come before us goes back to the time when people first recorded history. Those who made an impact on us in some way, although they are no longer here, can also serve as the shoulders we stand on.

I could have also shared a long story of his passing at such an early age, and how the town literally shut down the day of his funeral. School was closed and businesses stopped. His church was packed full, shoulder to shoulder, front to back. Upstairs, downstairs, hallways, stairways, aisles. Or that his friends and the community as a whole was rocked by his loss, for sure, but that we will never know the depths of loss his family felt. Or that no one really knew at that point how to move on. We just did. Sadly, that was more years ago than I care to remember but his memory always remains close within me.

Sometimes I go through the park when I’m back home to visit. I’ll stop by the pool and watch for a minute or two. It never takes long to be transported back to the old sounds and smells, and to the day that some forty years earlier, the littlest giant let me begin to stand on his shoulders.

In memory of a dear childhood friend,

Arnold “Arni” Anderson