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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Class of 1991 Willard High 20-year Reunion

Part 2

Beth Moore Siegfried has been a champion of not only showing up at the reunions, but driving in from Colorado and then being vocally emphatic about how great it is to be here to see everyone. Upon seeing her, one may have a hard time distinguishing Beth’s road delirium from certain aspects of her personality, which has always contained a dash of Pollyanna heroically staring down a motorized army out of The Road Warrior. Ten years ago, as if to prove that it is possible to be high on hardship, she busted out the 15-hour drive immediately after her dog died. This time, she brought her husband, plus renewed zeal about her job as an EMT. Even more refreshing and remarkable, Beth seemed to be cussing freely and casually.

Maybe it says something weird about me, that I considered Beth’s swearing to be a good sign, almost a positive indicator of mental health. I mean, some people just swear meaninglessly, and some others avoid it scrupulously; this doesn’t always carry great meaning. While I was an early adopter of profanity, Beth kept a tidy vocabulary all through school—one that surely made her grandmother proud just as it contributed to her anachronistic, Little-House flair. Whatever changed, I like to see it as an indicator of modernity, even if only to “do as the Romans do.” One thing I know now that I did not know then (although it was always on display): the way one speaks is the greatest factor in how one is judged.

An openness to cussing facilitated a major topic of conversation with Beth, in which I was forced to set her straight about how mean I was to her, at least in grades 4-6. Whether through resiliency or blindness, she claimed to think I was always nice to her. She was just being ridiculously generous, as per her personality. As per mine, I had to be brutally honest, saying, “No I wasn’t, Beth, I was pretty much an asshole.” To illustrate, I retold a story I’d already told once that day, to get at the characters of both Beth and Chris Delozier.

“Don’t you remember the reading contest in 6th Grade, Beth? We had Mrs. Blaze, and every time you finished a book report, you got another footprint on the wall. You had footprints halfway around the room, after diligently turning in a report every week. No one else was even close. Then about a week before the end of the contest, Chris and I hatched a plan: “WE GOTTA BEAT BETH.” We each had some Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books, and we checked some out of the library. We just read one adventure out of each book, which probably took ten minutes each, and then wrote half-ass reports on them. We turned them all in at the very end, with just enough to win, so you came in third.” Just as in 6th grade, Beth took it in stride. We probably rubbed her face in it and teased her about it; she probably included us in her prayers that night.

I mean, it’s not like we burned her house down or dumped pig’s blood on her, but it was bad enough that Beth comes to mind during the Kevin Bacon part of Flatliners (warning: this movie is not as good as you remember it). The only other stuff I remember doing to Beth is writing “minus 0, you bedwetter” on one of her papers, and participating in some vague, peabrained consensus of disapproval—of which I’m sure there were many, but Beth’s raw deal was more raw than most.

Luckily, by the time high school rolled around, my burgeoning conscience—perhaps acne-activated— forced me to realign with underdogs everywhere. Beth was shuffled into a category of near-benevolent neutrality with a touch of guilt, but I still doubt I was ever noticeably nice to her. She was playing the long game, though. Having finally arrived at an (arguably) adult point of view, I now say if I were the teacher, I’d strive to crush the scheme of young Woody and Delozier. The shitasses!

Most people seemed to be enjoying the bios—if not their own, then other people’s. Travis Miller was sitting by Barry Henderson. Not only was it nostalgic to see such a classic pairing of school buddies, but they were tickled to the max (bonus ‘90s lingo) over the bio for Jeff Davidson. He’d always reminded me of Barney Rubble, and I’m pretty sure that cat was out of the bag before graduation, but I don’t think he really appreciated my jest. Travis did, though. I think that’s the sort of thing you might as well just roll with. Just be the best reincarnation of Barney Rubble you can be. Similar to how I will soon have to come to grips with baldness, and either join Hair Club for Men or just shave my damn head so I can really own it.

I spoke to Julie Douglas’s boyfriend about some common employers, and that was my best claim to meeting someone new. Other than that, I mainly failed to mix at the mixer. I think it was a common problem, as ancient boundaries still divided some from others. Later I would feel socially puny for having zero knowledge about Travis Shearmeyer, the most rock-n-roll guy in the room. At least I learned to ID him when he stood for his award.

The awards ballots came in and my wife helped me tally them. She is good at such rapid tasks, so it went pretty quick. The only bump came when two gals turned in their ballots halfway through the tally, giving Heather a momentary meltdown where she cried out, “What? No, fuck it, it’s too late!” This made me laugh, but some heads turned. I went ahead and counted them, but they made no difference in the winners, which were:

Least changed--Shawn Freeman, Scott Gayer
Most changed--Matt Farmer
Least disappointing--Eric “Juice” Poland
Most rock-n-roll--Travis Shearmeyer
Feel-good champion--Tony Gray
Most surprising absence—Chris Hampton

There were quizzical looks over categories such as “least disappointing,” if only because it implied that there might also be a “most disappointing.” Brad Jones voted a straight “Juice” ticket. Tony announced the winners, and reveled in his new title. At the last moment I added the write-in category “Couples Tanning,” and awarded it to Tony and Stacy Gray. This joke amused Stacy at the table, but she was already sick of it by the time I announced it over the mic—valuable lesson about the half-life of jokes. Some other people laughed. Unfortunately, I soon found out that the Gayers were probably more deserving of the award. Sorry, Gayers. Your rich, Ricardo Montalban tans will have to be their own reward.

At some point I realized there weren’t many pictures being taken. Fortunately, a personably tipsy Amy Robinson was given a camera and a mandate to snap photos, assuring a supply of images for later Facebooking. Thanks, Amy!

As the evening rolled on, drunkenness made for not only red faces, but Red Rogue appreciation. Adam Wade came over from the bar area and gave us a second wind, conversationally. He gave Brad and me a big compliment, something like, “Out of everybody here, I’m most curious to know what YOU TWO have been up to!” Brad immediately lanced the boil of our pride by joking, “We’re lovers!” Adam had built up a head of nostalgic steam about our comics, so I was either “least disappointing” when I reported that I still draw comics, or “most disappointing” when I had to admit that most of our creative efforts wallow in relative obscurity. Still, for 20 minutes or so, we were rising American geniuses to Adam. Ah, the power of liquor.

Over at the bar area, I saw Chris Hill, Bobby Tate, and Mark Herman. I talked to Chris for a while. I’d heard he’d been to prison, but I didn’t really know. I didn’t bring it up, and he didn’t either. We had a rather disjointed conversation about tigers hunting and killing people. He was kind of wired and intense, but did nothing worthy of incarceration. Brad talked to Bobby about skateboarding, because that’s what happens when you used to skateboard. Apparently, there are many sizes of boards to discuss. I also know that the wheels are called “trucks.”

At some point, Delozier, mid-conversation, asked me about the kind of pen he used to love writing with. “FLAIR,” I said, “which I think you only liked because you loved the wrestler Ric Flair,” and he laughed his wacky infectious laugh. Doz used to eat and breathe pro wrestling. Whatever else we talked about, it was enough to give my wife a new zest for Delozier tales. Her favorite is how he would say “WHAAAAT?” loudly and harshly from his room if his dad or sister called to him for any reason, as if they were violating his only demand. Later, Brad and I told some powerful Doz stories, and we looked him up in a tenth grade yearbook where he was wearing sunglasses, looking like a Miami Vice or CHiPs drug-runner when some of us still looked like children. He always had advanced comedic abilities, as well as the power to crush you both physically and psychically. Brad used to take beatings when Doz and Jason Craig teamed up in neighborhood play. I’d been on the shit-end of that stick a few times myself—once literally, when, in the middle of what I thought was a water-balloon fight, I turned my head into Jason smashing a huge handful of fresh cow shit into my face, filling all the space between my glasses and my eyes. Knowing that Chris was staying with Tony and Stacy, we wondered later if he was pushing Stacy’s buttons over at their house. I imagined him wearing a bathrobe and sunglasses while raiding their fridge.

We sat by Dr. Shawn Freeman, discussing the pantheon of coaches: legends of Grasdorf, Berry, and Gould. Brad retold the tale of Rueben Berry crushing our spirits when he took one of our comics away from some dolt who was reading it in the weight room, then threw it in the trash and said it was garbage. Grasdorf was huge, like a giant in a Ren & Stimpy cartoon, and his paleolithic tactics made kids quiver. Most vividly, Shawn did some lively and outstanding imitations of Mr. Gould—grading Jimmy Poindexter’s tests dramatically in front of everyone, drawing crazy maps on the board, flipping off Coach Davis through the air vent in his classroom door. I believe if Willard were expanded to fill America, Shawn could easily take his one-man Gould show on the road, as Hal Holbrook did with Mark Twain.

Quite a few people were disappearing as the time approached when we had to clear out. Brad pointed out that Mike West had a bad-ass comprehensive Memories Book, and lo, it was so. It was almost a Memories Encyclopedia. Mike could take that thing on a Martha Stewart show and be like, “Martha, get your weakling Memories Book out of my face. This is what a real Memories Book looks like!” Such a tome proves without a doubt that Mike is the once and future Class President. He can’t escape his destiny, as long as that book exists. It turned out that he had Brad & Chad items that we haven’t seen in years. I wonder if he has my lost birth certificate in there.

As if Mike’s archive wasn’t enough, Jennifer Elbert had a milk crate full of yearbooks. She appeared to have a complete K-12 Willarko set, which I had never seen in one place before. If I remember right, Heather and I started pawing through them without permission, to behold their wonders. I had fun breaking it to Jennifer that, despite her “real” bio arriving in time for the booklet, she still made a cameo appearance in the entry I wrote for Jason Kelly, where he played Frankenberry and she played Booberry in a stage play. She made a priceless “what is wrong with you?” face, while also playing along enough to be a good sport. From that point on, if I had to indicate Jennifer in conversation with my wife, we just used her Monsters Cereal moniker. Jennifer is, I still believe, the right choice to play Booberry. She was my first-grade crush, and first grade was probably when I really wanted that cereal. Scandalous! As for Jason Kelly being Frankenberry, well, the man’s a genius in any role.

As if to mastermind an awkward moment while pretending not to, Melanie Gugel put me on the spot by asking, with a nod to my wife, “Chad, maybe I shouldn’t ask in front of your wife, but did you have a crush on Melissa Fielder?” This did catch me off guard, but more because Melanie spoke to me than for any potential marital friction. Little did she know that Heather and I scout crushes for each other, both celebrity and non (celebrities are easier, since you can clip-n-save their pictures). This arose from the Melissa Fielder bio: “Dang, she was cute.” I think I said something slick like, “Um, yeah, I guess.” The bio, in turn, arose from a basic physical truth, but also from the fact that I knew nothing else about the girl, ever. She was not in my karass, so her cuteness was all I could think of. I also vaguely remember overhearing her, maybe senior year, saying in a gossip circle, “Chad Woody—didn’t he used to be smart?” Maybe I’d just completed a very stupid act. It’s also very possible that I’ve been in a “Flowers for Algernon” IQ decline for about 22 years now.

Mostly, though, Melanie’s question somehow illuminates the instinctive intractability that dwells in the sub-rational space between we two ex-Pioneers. Whatever it is, it is deep and it is murky and it is everlasting, like one of those peat bogs where they find mummified ancients. But it also has a distant, faintly numinous soundtrack by some version of The Alan Parsons Project.

Finally the cash bar was shuttered and the party was over, at least for the sensible people. Somewhere else, the drinkers were rallying to some new frontier. We drove back to my house and looked at some yearbook pictures, trying to figure out how much we’d forgotten. All I know is, nothing beats that shot of Mike Schultz gleefully preparing a raw chicken in home ec.

Next—the Picnic! Who will show up? Whose kids will be the spazziest? Why is Tony so upset by abundant beans? Find out in Episode 3: The Third Part.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

It's Me, Playing the Saxophone

On the wall of Hoover Music in downtown Springfield, there is a spectacularly ham-handed, doofussy, forever unfinished mural that should make you laugh. Any time I'm there with my wife, she laughs and says, "There's Chad Woody playing a saxophone."

Before music lessons/ After music lessons
I mean, it's the right size and approximate build. Otherwise, it doesn't look like me, and yet for some reason it demands to be equated with me. Maybe I looked like that when my drawing skills were that weak. Oh well. Maybe he looks the way I feel. (Idiotic.)

Friday, August 12, 2011

Class of 1991 Willard High 20-year Reunion


Every ten years, I get roped into auxiliary duty on the Class Reunion crew. This never fails to puzzle, since my Tiger Pride is a muscle that has never been used, but then, it’s hard to say No to Tony Gray. Tony operates as some sort of central cog in the Willard social machine. He knows everybody, and lives to rile it up. While Mike West is the Class President and only student council member still on duty, Tony is sort of an honorary chieftain. If Willard were a desert province in the Congo, Tony would be the local warlord. Therefore, if you want to stage a reunion, you need access to Tony’s Facebook account.

Once we decided on a time and a place, recruiting came next. Twenty years out of high school, you have to decide if your curiosity about your classmates is greater than your apathy, your residual resentment, or your habitual inertia. The rise of Facebook made it easy to reach more people than ten years earlier, but we were having a tough time getting attendance up to the desired level. Scott Gayer became the catering lieutenant, and 75 people was what we needed to fill the bill and break even. We set up a Facebook Group and a Paypal account. The price was 20 bucks per person, which was a good deal considering that 20 bucks had been the price a decade earlier, and we were doing more this time. Still, this seemed a sticking point for some people. Being a table full of guys, we gave ourselves free rein to be dicks about stuff at the meetings. I said something like, “If somebody can’t afford $20 at this point, they have bigger worries than this reunion, like survival, so forget it.” As usual, Tony had the best quote when it came to people who kept asking how much it would be if they just came to the daytime picnic rather than the evening mixer: “That depends--if you’re just trying to get out of the 20 bucks, then it’s 20 bucks.” After assorted profanity, we finally decided that bringing food to the picnic would be admission enough.

We didn’t really know what we were doing in the party-throwing department, so Tony sent Stephanie Long a cussing text to come over and help us. This was nice because, as he pointed out, Stephanie likes to keep things G-rated. She had decorated the previous reunion, as well as making up some activities. But we were out of luck; she was busy to the max and would be lucky even to attend. Thus began a tradition of us beating our heads on the table each meeting, wondering why we could push none of this off on a female classmate. Eventually we did get some essential help from Tamara Botsford and Julie Douglas, but this did not diminish the moaning and groaning over our AWOL student council gals.

My wife’s excitement for my class reunion was growing with each day, as it drew close enough for her to plan things like what we would wear, what food to take, and which hat might best protect my baldness. Also, my friend Brad Jones was coming from Chicago and staying at our house, so we made sleepover jokes, decorating the door to the guest room with a Star Wars poster and a sign that said “Brad’s Room.” She also kept telling me how much fun it would be for Brad and I to sleep together, slumber-party style. It also might have been another in a long line of her “you are secretly gay with your friends” jokes, which need their own brand-name at this point, and say more about her deviance than mine.

We’d also entered a new phase of history, where Heather (my wife) was now decidedly pro-reunion. She’d had her 20th reunion a year before, shifting her out of a longstanding stance of “I’m so over those people from high school. They all stayed in Billings and just bumble around in their chump galoshes. (my paraphrase)” I remember this because she used to emphasize it hard enough that I felt self-conscious talking to Tony or Brad or anybody from Willard. I told her of my basically positive experience at my 10th reunion, but she still kind of dumped attitude on it—UNTIL, she found herself roped into an effort to reunite her Billings class. Theirs was only a group of maybe 40 people, so you’d think that would be an easy group to gang. Nope, they had the same problems we’ve always had—no one can agree on where to have it, how much to spend, etc. In the end, she had fun. Then I found the tables had turned, and she was gushing reunion love while I was like, “yeah, I guess I gotta go.” 

Just three days before the date, I realized that Jana Long, a classmate I sometimes see at work, was not on the Facebook list. Jana is very old-school—maybe not quite a Jamestown Pilgrim or even Amish, but easily Eisenhower-Administration old-school. It is not shocking that Facebook might not reach her, because she quite literally sews her own clothes. I point this out mainly for the eye-opening, character-building light it sheds on her character, though I’m aware that sewing one’s own clothes is macroeconomically uncool unless you’re selling it on Etsy. Anyway, Jana will have the last laugh when China finally stops sending us cheap textiles by the cubic acre. Though I never really knew her, I felt this momentary protective, instinctive agape, like “oh no, we can’t leave her out!” I took a note about it over to the sewing-shop lady who knows Jana. She said that Jana did know about it, and planned on going with Carlyn Jarvis. BUT, she said Jana was scared that she wouldn’t know how to talk to anyone, and might cry if Carlyn left her alone while talking to other people. I found this a bit of a shock. Then, as if to illustrate to us all the old-school world Jana lives in, the lady, Lucinda, who once taught at our grade school, said, “You know, Jana is so bashful.” I almost went back in time when I heard the word “bashful.”

I tried giving Lucinda some of my “reunion theory” to pass along to Jana, built on my memories of the one ten years earlier: That those who attend will tend to be level and amiable so there's little to fear; that the real outliers—the very successful and the truly defeated—probably won’t be there because they aren’t so compatible with such a relatively mundane event; most importantly,  the passing decades have a way of making us more different in looks and experiences but essentially the same in context—we all get squeezed through most of the same Play-Doh Fun Factory templates over time: school, work, taxes, kids, bills, yardwork, etc. I told her in less fanciful terms, but she agreed and said she had really encouraged Jana to go.

If nothing else, someone needed to warn Jana about Lady Gaga.

I was set to pick up Brad from the bus station on the eve of the reunion, but after various delays, it was well after midnight. Some guy had collapsed on his bus and had to be picked up by paramedics near Rolla. Luckily, there had been a nurse on the bus; unfortunately, she’d used her heroic nurse cred as leverage to use the bus bathroom as her personal smoker’s lounge. It would all be worth it when my wife became the second person to tell him he could have flown into Branson cheaper than riding the bus. As a bonus, we saw a man in a stupor splayed out on a bench on west Kearney. Whatever sort of intoxicant he’d taken on, his end result was something near the exact opposite of “the quickening” from The Highlander.

Finally, we arrived at the mixer. Right from the start, Mike West and Scott Gayer began building up the “bio scare,” in which they seemed worried about the blowback that was sure to come when certain people read the bios I wrote for them. Worried for me, that is. I had worries about a couple of those. I was thinking Melissa Richter might be displeased to learn of her numerous sex changes, but for some reason Mike and Scott seemed to think Stacy Kuhn was the one I should fear. I was like, “What did I write again?” All I could remember was an over-the-top jibe about her abandoning her student council office’s LIFE-LONG duties, but they were so worked up that I started to worry. Also, my image of Stacy Kuhn as a sweetheart-type was now in doubt.

I had some Senior Video DVDs to deliver. Only two, to Michelle Cathey Maggard and Amy Robinson Balog. I handed them off and failed in my usual way to strike up any conversation, but I didn’t get slapped or anything. So far, so good.

Right off the bat I was failing to introduce my wife to anyone, because I can only hold one thing in my brain at a time. Brad even warned me that Heather wanted to be introduced and I wasn’t doing it, but still I forgot every time. It’s what you call social retardation, or interpersonal Down’s—not to be confused with any medically recognized thing. Well, it was just my own shortcoming. Heather is actually my only credential that matters.

Brad had a different problem. He couldn’t recognize many people. He knew Tony and Chris Delozier; after that, it got tougher. He picked it up after a while, but even after I told him some, he’d do double takes: “That’s LeAnn Helton,” I’d say. “Really?” he’d say, concentrating. I was thinking Brad drank too much booze after he quit being straightedge in college.

I also told Brad to keep an eye on Jana Long to make sure she was having fun. I know we saw her talking like a champ to Jennifer Elbert and someone else. She was upright, mobile, and smiling. If she claims she had no fun, then she’s being a false and tricksy Hobbit. We saw you having fun, Jana. Don’t deny it.

Now imagine there’s an asterisk between every paragraph here, and every asterisk refers to the same footnote: Eric “Juice” Poland is bigger than life. The all-new, all-daring Juice has his own gravitational pull. We just can’t get over his majestic enormity. Plus, as if Texas were some scaled-up other dimension, he’s accompanied by a perfect fit of a wife, on the exact same scale.   They are careful not to crush mortals, fortunately. Maybe this is the secret behind Eric’s desire for Texas to secede—we’re just too tiny to be taken seriously as countrymen.

Tony was getting his wisecracks in order, and his wife Stacy already seemed somewhat over it. She had a flask full of something to help dull the pain of fending off so many Willard grads. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if she is pleased or not by Tony being a loose cannon. They also brought Chris Delozier. Maybe those two have been revved up all day. I know they played golf already, and had a pool party where Tony got thrown—phone included—into the pool by Bobby Tate.

Aaron Goddard appeared up with his wife Linda, which is awesome because it is hard to get them both in the same public appearance. Linda said she was my biggest fan, which may be true because they have more of my original drawings than anyone else, besides me. Unless each time they buy one, they throw the old one away to make room for a freshy. I was supposed to draw Linda’s family crest on a napkin, but I failed. Aaron was one of a few people with a sibling my sister’s age, a group that just had their 25th reunion. My sister said that one of her classmates had a sex change and was at the reunion with another classmate as a mate. I keep forgetting which sex was the “before” and which the “after.” Aaron didn’t know, either.

While eating dinner, I got Matt Farmer to retell a classic story from Springfield PD adventures. I always forget the zestiest details, but in a nutshell: A domestic disturbance call takes them to the home of septuagenarian Ruby, whose 30-something boyfriend, Dakota, yelled and threw a plate of peanut-butter-and-jelly “sammiches” at her. The plate broke the big picture window in the front wall; ruckus achieved, but not alleviated. Parts of “sammiches” were still stuck to the curtains. They had to take him downtown. Something else happened later where Dakota got mad because Ruby kept smoking even though she was on oxygen, so he slapped her, maybe because she was on fire. One more ride in the cruiser. Request the whole tale from Officer Farmer if you run into him.

After the story, he and his wife Autumn—whose name I just looked up because for some reason I was remembering her as a “Zelda,” which seemed unlikely—said TV’s “Cops” was in Springfield right then. They said it would be good because they were riding with some officer who was nuttier and bigger than life. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Tall Bike Wins Hearts and Minds

My wife's cousin made a tall bike. He brought it over for a tall bike conquering session. I put my gloves on for crash protection, and to complete my construction-worker look.

The special features of the tall bike: original paint from two lesser bikes, hard seat, lack of brakes, no way to get on (anti-theft feature).

It's not too hard. Once you get on, it's just another bike, though wobblier in turning, and scary at the moment of stopping. Push your shoe on the rear wheel to brake. Popping a wheelie, intentional or not, forces a quick dismount.

As it turns out, riding the tall bike is an instant win. Just two extra vertical feet under the seat make for a big change in both perspective and public opinion. Never have I seen the denizens of my neighborhood warm up to anything so quickly. In fact, the normal bristles of apathy and faint defensiveness characteristic to the locals fell away, revealing lots of waves, smiles, finger points, and, "Hey Honey"s. Kids stopped in their tracks and yelled, "awesome bike!" Shirtless porch folk migrated to the curb to take pictures. Aggressive motorists let off their accelerators for a muffler-easing moment.

If not for the legal risk, you could easily charge people around here a buck at a time to try the tall bike. But what would keep them from riding it away, to Kansas and beyond?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Old Man Ritter vs. Wildlife

A walk at Ritter Springs Park will never be the same now that we’ve met “Old Man Ritter.” My wife saw him first. He sat on his golf-cart-like mower with a little canopy over the seat, looking at the lake in the middle of the park. I assumed he was just enjoying a quiet moment on a break from mowing, which seemed fresh around much of the park.

We came down the gravel road, and I stepped over a fat caterpillar the size of my ring finger. I stopped to take a picture of it, thus activating the old groundskeeper. Possibly to seem more official, he started his mower and drove it the 40 feet it took to reach us. I imagined him pulling up and parking right on the worm, but he stopped beside the road and stepped up, saying, “What is it?”

superstar larva

“Oh, just a big caterpillar,” I said.

“You should pick her up.” I sensed him thinking that I was too squeamish to touch it, but I got my picture and then picked it up, setting it off the road on the other side. “That’s a big one,” he said. Then our grand tour of the lake ecosystem began. He pointed out lots of turtles and carp, most of the time making yardstick hands to show their size, and guessing their weight. He had been watching one turtle in particular, when we walked up. I think it was a snapping turtle, but he also kept mentioning “soft shells.” This one was about 30 pounds, and had been burrowing into the opposite shore. He pointed out maybe halfway across the lake to a turtle floating near the surface. “See that old guy there? Man, he’s slick!”

Apparently, burrowing turtles are key to the power struggle between man and nature in Ritter Springs. He took us on a little tour of the banks, which were lumpy and collapsed. He said the turtles kept destroying the banks, which were once straight and generally a couple of feet above the water. “I used to drive my Grasshopper (the covered mower) all along this bank, but now I can’t get over it.” He walked us along a finger of land that was pretty dramatically eroding. He also said there was a muskrat that had just moved in to the area, and that the water was higher now since they adjusted the dam to raise it. He pointed out a hole which he said was an air hole going down to a turtle den like a chimney, so they could breathe better.

As we turned back, he saw some kind of shadow and kept looking for what made it. Then his stories started getting crazier, and he started sounding more like a turtle-obsessed version of Bill Murray in “Caddyshack.” He said the biggest snapper in the lake (50 pounds? I forget what he said) was real ornery, and it charged up out of the water at him when he was trimming on the other side of the lake. “I just spanked him with my weed-eater, I spanked him real good till he gave up and turned around.” Then I think he said he grabbed it by the tail and flipped it into the lake.

Pointing to some other distant point, he said, “When they dug in a water line over there, they went down about 8 feet with a bucket about as big as two pickup trucks, and when they lifted that bucket, there was more turtles and turtle eggs in there than you ever saw—it was just all turtles and eggs, so we dumped it out over there on the bank and just (lowering his arm in a crushing motion) mashed them all up.”

He also said something about geese, and he was trying to kill the muskrat—“That’s all we need around here, a muskrat”— and a story about kids at the day camp feeding bread to a turtle that came right up to them. My wife later pointed out that this story didn’t jive with his tales of battling the aggressive snappers, but maybe he meant the soft-shells.

“What do they do at the camp?” I asked.

“Oh, they fish, they cook out, they play games, all kinds of stuff. Their parents pay about 80 bucks a week for the camp. I just love all them kids.” Then he said the kids play over by the bridge, and he saw some copperheads over there under it, so he took rocks up on the bridge and threw them down to kill those copperheads. While I’m sure copperheads have appeared in the park, his tales seemed taller by the minute. I don’t think they gather by the water, and I doubted he could hit them and kill them with rocks dropped from the bridge. But anything is possible, for Old Man Ritter.

On the rail of the bridge
After our 10-minute tour, we parted ways. He got back on his Grasshopper and drove away. I immediately started calling him “Old Man Ritter.” We agreed that he was like an anti-park-ranger whose mission was not only mowing, but protecting the park from as much wildlife as possible.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Great Moments in Rock 'n' Roll

The cartoonist Joel Orff drew a years-running strip titled "Great Moments in Rock 'n' Roll," in which he drew short true stories submitted by whoever sent them in. Once I finally sent one in, I learned how fun it is to tell someone else what to draw. I know I sent him some details about the looks of the people involved, but I was still impressed with how closely it ran to my recollections. Joel Orff, you rock!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Class-Reunion Simulator Poem

Written a few years ago, this poem is deliberately vague in its avoidance of real-life people. Still, it seems almost uncannily close to home, in the wake of my 20-year high-school reunion. Note the usual veneer of foolishness crassly striving to camouflage blunt tragedy.

Childhood Friends

In the seasonal wash of “where are they now,”
heads are balding, cars evolving, babies
crawling stairs and chewing whole new foods

in a horror show of developmental antics; men
are fixing meals and cars and prices, women
changing jobs and diapers and husbands.

Weathery time scribbles on their faces
until every hat and belt and lipstick gives up
in disgust, saying you, my friend, are old:

getting soft, going gray, plumping out.
Men are growing tits while here and there
a woman loses one or two to cancer,

and bad as that is, it’s better than losing
the whole woman. There’s quite an array
of humans in play: some squiggle and yawn

through decades of furious fade; some scrimp
and save at the foot of a Matterhorn
of material want; some give out without

much fuss. One is dragged by her long hair
caveman-style down to the redneck depths
of an apple-orchard love; one is marching

in a slow parade of pets and ornaments;
another has given up on the past but still
hasn’t left its dark arcade of longing.

My first-grade crush is at this very moment
cleaning teeth and hoping the boy saying “AHH”
is not looking down her shirt or up her faint

librarian’s mustache, hoping for a sunny
weekend, hoping that I never think of her again.
There are others—they are everywhere,

and how soon they all go pear-shaped,
how quickly out to pasture, and by “they”
I mean “we,” and by “we” I mean “I,”

because I spend most of my time thinking
about myself and how far I have NOT gone:
how the girl in the passing car sees me

and thinks what I thought twenty years ago
when seeing one like me: nothing much.
I’d like to have more to report, folks:

to the genuine hippie princess I’d lie
about living in a hut behind a wildlife
sanctuary, how occasional giraffe heads          
interrupt the sunsets; to the sagging
prom queen, maybe how I tattooed
this beautiful art-nouveau swirl on the hip

of a lingerie model. Oh, the lies
we could trade if I saw them all again,
their astonishing picnic of unfamiliar heads,

their zoo of improper bodies... if you could
corral them all, these men and women
you only ever knew as children, I know

you’d find an overwhelming belief in kids,
a few unhesitant certifiers of UFOs,
and a surprising number of them dead.