August 21, 2008
The snow was piling up outside, a white blanket six inches thick and gleaming in the moonlight, reflected up through Darla’s bedroom window. I had just finished reading a story to the girls from Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad Treasury about sledding down a steep hill. Toad, the pessimist, is leery of such a dangerous undertaking, but the eternally optimistic Frog assures him they will be safe and have lots of fun.
Flying down the hill they hit a bump and Frog falls off. Toad keeps talking as if Frog were still on the sled, but a passing crow tells him he’s talking to himself. Toad looks back at the empty sled, freaks out and quickly crashes into a snow bank. Later, he tells Frog winter is fun, but staying in bed is much better. Safer too.
“I like that one, but it makes me cold,” says Emma, hugging her shoulders. “Can you tell us a Florida story?”
“Yeah, a Florida story!” Darla says, scrunching down under the covers.
So I begin as I always do.
“When I was a boy our summer afternoons were marked by the prickly, sudden gray rush of thunderstorms that often came on so quickly, your Uncle Glen and I and the other neighborhood children could see the rain moving toward us up the street as we stood in the sunshine holding footballs, frisbees, rocks.”
“Storms aren’t prickly, Daddy, they’re wet,” says Darla.
“Why were you in the street holding rocks? You weren’t going to throw them at cars, were you?” asks Emma.
This is part of the ritual, because she knows perfectly well that’s what we did. It’s another of my cautionary tales — what not to do with rocks.
“True,” I say, “Daddy and Uncle Glen threw rocks at cars, but it was very foolish and dangerous. Never do that.”
There are similar themes that involve playing with matches, climbing on the roof of the house, lying in the street at night, burning plastic Army men in the bathroom, stuffing the cat in a suitcase and sending her tumbling down the stairs — always what not to do when unsupervised.
Most of my stories are teasing glimpses into my childhood in Florida and summers in Cooperstown, and I can’t help thinking lately how they share the same sense of ancient decay in their respective downtowns, Cooperstown on a much smaller scale, of course, but with a much deeper history than St. Petersburg.
My childhood, I readily admit, was nothing spectacular: we lived in neither poverty nor luxury, suffered no real tragedies, never went hungry, and owned suitable clothing, though rarely stylish. I will also admit that I’m no great storyteller, but Darla and Emma can’t seem to get enough of the glimpses. They must get the same rush as I do when I remember those days: a strange exhilaration mixed with an underlying sense of danger and calamity, like a dark ride at a carnival.
The stories begin simply enough — the girls even have names for some of them: “Tell us about Granddad’s Golden Twister and the Beach Fort!” Darla shouts.
Emma laughs and says, “It’s the Gold Duster, not Golden Twister!”
“Ah yes, that’s a good one,” I interrupt before they can argue about the title. “Granddad once had a gold Plymouth Duster. I can still see the little tornado decal on the side of the car by the gas cap. Your Uncle Glen and I thought it was the coolest car on the road. Granddad played a Gerry Mulligan jazz tape — an eight track, which is another story altogether — over and over all the way to the beach. We hated it, but he said ‘I’m trying to teach you guys there’s more to music than the rock and roll you listen to.’ He stopped the tape once and said, ‘It’s a funny word, but say it with me: JAZZ’. We felt ridiculous repeating it, but that’s how Granddad was sometimes.”
“The swords, Daddy, don’t forget the swords!”
“I’ll get to that, Darla, don’t worry.”
I tell them that alternate Saturdays in summer our father would pick us up in the gold Plymouth and drive us over the causeway to the beach, past palmetto and scrub pine, past blinding white sand to the state park with the old Spanish fort. He would set up the hibachi for hot dogs and pop open a beer while Glen and I played Conquistador with driftwood swords and palm frond shields, hunting among the dunes for imaginary Indians and hauling them to the fort. In the dusky afternoon sun he drove us home to our mother, (“We rode in the car with no seat belts on, can you believe it, girls? Talk about risky!”) and later at night we would fall asleep between hot sheets to the sound of cicadas buzzing in the palm trees outside. I tell the girls that by the end of the summer we were bronzed, hardened, white-haired creatures.
“You turned into animals?” says Darla.
“He means their hair got lightened by the sun and their skin got real tan. And Dad, sunburns are bad for your skin,” Emma says. “And the commercials always say never drink and drive.”
Emma is the cautious one, the one who most favors me.
“You’re right, drinking and driving are a bad mix. Times were different and people took more chances than they do today. We’ve learned some things since then.” I don’t believe this entirely; actually, I think the opposite is true, that many people haven’t learned anything from past mistakes, don’t pay much attention to history beyond the previous decade, if even that.
“Did Grandma ride with you in the Golden Twister?” Darla asks.
Emma shakes her head, rolls her eyes and mouths Gold Duster.
“No, she never did. But Granddad brought a friend with him once. She was very nice, with long dark hair. I liked her right away. She went to the beach with us a lot that summer. She listened to jazz and enjoyed all kinds of music — just like you two.”
Darla smiles and asks if the friend was an Indian maiden we caught at the beach. Emma looks serious, and I know I’ve gone too far with this one, given much more of a glimpse than I meant to. Even though Emma knows about divorce (one of our neighbors is divorced, so are two of her school friends’ parents, and she knows Grandma and Granddad Simpson were divorced when I was nine) I realize I’ve crossed the line from nostalgic family mythology into my own deeper memories — confusing for the girls. I can imagine radio legend Paul Harvey saying “Now you don’t want to know . . . the REST of the story.” Not all is sweetness and light.
“Did you like her better than Grandma?” Emma asks. Darla’s eyes widen at the question.
“No. She was different, that’s all.”
I leave it there. I don’t tell them that I eventually grew to love Kate, the woman who would be my father’s second wife even though Glen told me not to. He was angry and sad back then, but he’s since worked through it. My brother and I were once close, but in our adult lives we’ve drifted. He’s busy traveling the world as an undersea archaeologist, and our relationship is reduced to the occasional post card and phone call.
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