.01 – Aladdin

After Montessori kindergarten, I was homeschooled until college. Not for any religious or crazy reason like a belief in the Mother Dinosaur or something. My mom had a Master’s in English and had taught at the University of Cincinnati, so she thought that schools were too focused on enforcing conformity. You know that The Simpsons episode where Lisa refuses to dissect a worm and Ms. Hoover reaches under her desk to press an “independent thought alarm”? That’s about how my mom viewed schools, and, with her experience, I guess she figured that she could do better. 

Homeschool

books in black wooden book shelf showing all the materials we had to read.
Alexandria was jealous.

I remember playing with a lot of learning toys, and we didn’t have a TV. My parents must have put a lot of their disposable income into educational materials. We had those plastic blocks to teach math, fish and pet birds (which I think were supposed to teach us about the life cycle but really taught us how funny it is to watch your parents try to catch birds), and books everywhere on every topic: biology, history, writing, reading,—everything. There was no escape from learning, no escape from the house besides our own imagination.

Maybe that’s why the field trips were the best part. Sometimes we would gather with other homeschoolers to take tours of factories and places that required a large group. Once, we went to the factory in Ada, Ohio where they make the NFL footballs. Heat and noise, people looking down all day. It seemed hard. Like an overinflated football. At least some of the workers seemed proud and showed off when we came around through. After each tour, we would have some time to play. We realized that on the first “five more minutes” we had about an hour. Then each cry cut the time in half until the final order to load up came.

Other field trips were just mom taking us to the Cincinnati zoo or the Children’s Museum. We could watch the monkeys for hours or skip them and go to the avian house, which my dad seemed to love. At the museum we could spend all the time at an exhibit that we wanted, until we understood it or were tired. Sometimes groups of school kids would briefly, frantically swarm around us like a cloud of anxious flies and then be gone. But I would be lost, exploring something new.

Independent Thought

I remember once a teacher had come to pull back to their group a kid who was enraptured by the same exhibit I was looking at. My stomach dropped, and I wanted to say “He can stay with us!” but even I knew that wasn’t a possibility. I always felt sorry for school kids. They all had to do the same thing at the same time; it must have been difficult to explore their own interests even if they were out of the house.

gray scale photo analogue of old 90s era television with rabbit ears.
What is this strange box?

I spent a lot of time as a homeschooled kid—you guessed it—at home. And until I was around the high-school age, I could finish my school work in only a few hours. That left lots of time for Legos while I waited for the school kids to get home. We had a house in the middle of the street so all the kids would migrate there.

Our neighbor, an older man named Rodger with a pristine, luscious lawn in which he took great pride, would look with disgust at our yard. You couldn’t call our yard a lawn because it was just mangy patches of grass, the dust in between strewn with toys from past battles. At some point the school kids we were playing with would all rush home for Power Rangers (which my brother and I never understood, since we didn’t have a TV) and then return to play outside where we lived in games of imagination.

As it got dark in the summer, the streetlight in front of our house would flicker on. Now the other kids’ parents would migrate to our house. Drawn to the light like bugs, and, ostensibly, by the responsibility of parenthood, they really just wanted to talk. We knew that we still had a few hours left to play even after the light came on. The parents would sit and chat on the porch smoking as we tried to catch fireflies or played freeze tag while the swarming of bugs around the streetlight grew larger. The “five more minutes” rule applied here too. Then everyone would go along slowly home, leaving us to our world of imagination.

Smoke

If  my mom ran out of cigarettes during the day, we would hop in the old Volvo and go to the drive through; to this day I love Snoopy Pops. My brother, Gabe, and I each got to choose an ice cream and my mom got smokes. Often, mom would sit at the end of the night having one last cigarette on the top porch step after everyone had drifted home, and I would sit with her like a grown up and talk. Maybe we would talk about neighbors, or she would teach me something. I would smell the smoke as we talked. Sharp, acrid love. And I cherished those talks so much that the slightest tang of cigarette in the air still brings me to a happy place. It does.

But it shouldn’t. One afternoon my grandmother appeared with a large suitcase. There are flashes that I remember very clearly, like a mental Polaroid. My grandmother driving my brother and I to the hospital. Click. Getting out of the car, and the sun being far too bright on the blacktop. Click. Standing in the door of a small hospital room. Click. My mom in the bed, the doctor at the foot of the bed, my dad sitting beside my mom, holding her hand and choking back tears. Click. Being told in the hallway that everything would be ok. Click. Grandma was going to watch us for a week. 

“A whole new world”

Old 90s era color tv
Aladdin is on next!!

That next week my dad went to work, came and checked on us, and lived at the hospital. A few days later he delivered something we had never dreamed of: a huge full color TV. Escape was something we hadn’t had, but there it was: a glowing window away from everything. We couldn’t really understand what was happening to our mom. But grandma was spoiling us and we had a TV, so things seemed ok. We were young enough that we did not question our good fortune.

That’s when we found our favorite show, our Power Rangers: Aladdin. The syndicated version of Aladdin ran between 1994-95 and Gabe and I were religious fans. It came on at two o’clock. If we were lucky we’d get Pinky and the Brain, Darkwing Duck, and Animaniacs before and after, but we never missed Aladdin. We never missed a chance to be in that world of sultans and adventure. We never missed a chance to escape.

After a week, the grandmas switched. Our grandma on my father’s side, the first to visit, was southern spoiling. That meant fresh biscuits with chicken’n’dumplin’s, home fried chicken, and a diet so high in candy that it’s a wonder we didn’t get diabetes right then. Her style was soft home comforts and lots of food. Switching grandmas was like going from Georgia to New York. Our grandmother from my moms side had a pack-a-day voice and dry martini humor. Mary Poppins left and Joe arrived. Joe took us places we weren’t allowed to go and bought me an enamel pin of a hand giving the finger. She took us trash-picking and to the flea market. Joe was out in the world. Their styles were different but with either grandma we were having fun. 

Chemo Day!

Things changed a lot when mom came home. She was preceded by an extremely fluffy, green La-Z-Boy recliner that only she ever sat in. She got to watch whatever she wanted, though she let us have some time around Aladdin, and she almost never got up. Most of the time she slept, in fact, and my brother and I still had no idea what exactly was happening. Before my dad would come home from work, she would call him with very specific food orders and that was the only thing she could eat. I remember having a lot of bean burritos myself, and mom most often got a seven layer. Now she won’t go near them. Those things in your early life stick with you: cigarette smoke and Taco Bell.

Pretty soon we started going to a special type of doctor’s office where they hung a bag of fluid and let it drip into her arm. Eventually, they explained that this was chemotherapy and it was going to help our mom. The nurses were all nice to my brother and I. They would slip us candy in the waiting room, and, if there was an empty chemo room, they would let us go in and watch the violent cartoons we weren’t allowed to view at home. The doctors’ office became another place where we could go away from the world. We didn’t know what the chemicals were doing to her, we only knew that the nurses were so nice and the TV let us escape. So we didn’t know what we were doing when we would look up at our mom and ask with smiling faces, “Is it chemo day?!”

Read the entire collection of stories at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08NTWQXV5.

1 – The Lane

gravel rocks of the type that are used for country roads and lanes.
Gravel you learned to walk on barefoot.

The lane curved back a half mile from the main road and was lined with short stories and the kind of bushy blue pines that blot out anything beyond them. The previous owners, wanting their privacy, had planted the trees along the property line as well as at the end of the gravely road. That day the real estate agent was positively beaming; my parents had not been easy customers. As a matter of fact, they had spent months looking for a house away from the road with an outbuilding. They also wanted a creek and some woods so my brother and I could play; they had harried her for months. For her, this property wasn’t even gold; it was diamonds. 

It was thirty acres of land. Bordered on the far right by train tracks paralleled by a large creek and narrowing to a diamond with the widest part at the front and the sides slowly closing in to a point far back in the woods (that’s where you’ll hear the short story : “Flashback“). A smaller creek cut across the land, bisecting civilization from the woods. Around the house, ten acres gleamed like a golf course with gardens, a gazebo, and a bird sanctuary.  

The Buildings

There were three outbuildings. Looking back from the house, they were, from left to right: a sizable shed, maybe thirty by ninety feet; a very large pole barn in the middle big enough to store multiple pieces of farm equipment; and a workshop where the current seller was rehabbing a 1967 Chevy Camaro. I would have given my soul for it. We eventually turned half of it in to a horse stall in the story “Pick-Me-Up.”

The house was a three-bedroom with an office, though half of the downstairs was configured in an open floor plan that joined the kitchen, dining room, and living room together, making it appear much larger. The master suite was down a hall on the same floor next to the office and a guest bathroom. The upstairs was divided into thirds with a large central room dominated by an oversized dormer window and a bathroom to the rear. The two remaining bedrooms came off the central room. With Each taking up another third of the floor and ornamented with smaller dormers. If this property hadn’t satisfied us, I think the agent would have dropped us as clients. But we all fell in love with it, except for my six year old brother who stubbornly maintained that it “sucked.”

The Closing

The owners were selling this Garden of Eden because Navstar laid off the husband. Meanwhile the wife seemed to work at keeping the house and land up. He refused to get a lower paying job or one with lower seniority for months. They had no choice but to put the house on the market. Even though I was only ten at the time, I had mixed feelings about their plight. That land was my dream playground, but I didn’t like the idea of taking something that someone else loved.

On a bright summer day perfect for playing, right before the final signing of the papers, the owner offered us ten thousand dollars cash to just walk away. Though my father refused, my stomach turned; even I could see their desperation. I would think back to that day sometimes. But I was always overwhelmed by the smell of the dirt and the grass and the leaves and the wind.    

Read the entire collection of stories at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08NTWQXV5.

2 – The Donkey

I was standing in the bed of a short story in itself, a 1993 model Ford Ranger, robin’s egg blue with a stripe of silver down the side; my father had refused to buy the ‘67 Chevey Camaro from the previous owners of the house. I was armed. Armed with a real stiff-rope lasso and a little practice. I had the lasso out because we were after our escaped donkey, Shrek. I wasn’t especially talented with a lasso or really even qualified to operate it. Still, my padrino, my Mexican godfather, had given it to me along with a few lessons.

That man was a story. He had come across the Rio Grande after growing up on a ranch, taught himself English, and built a construction company. He would let you pick a foot, then start running.  When you were about thirty or forty yards away, he would lasso that foot out from under you. The man was a master. He had taught me the basics and given me a few exercises to practice. Now I was trying to apply some of them.  

The Escapee

That summer afternoon, the our story was precarious; we were desperate because the donkey had come loose. The donkey we had only gotten to keep the horse company. My father had misnamed the donkey Shrek. He somehow thought that the sidekick donkey named Donkey, in the movie Shrek, was named Shrek. We still don’t understand his logic. Anyhow, Shrek had made it through our shoddily constructed fence (two wires that intermittently pulsed a low electric current) and he wasn’t going back. 

A donkey in a field
The Donkey, Shrek

The whole issue may have been partially my fault, in a way. You see, I started my lassoing exercises on stumps and sticks in the yard. But in my zeal to learn a new skill and impress my padrino, I strained my relationship with Shrek by using him as more challenging practice. It was vigorous exercise for us both and probably something PETA would condemn. I couldn’t practice on the horse, Sweetie, because, as a retired race horse, I worried that a successful lasso of her would end with a Mel Brooks-style scene of me being dragged through the mud. So I settled for Shrek. Whether my practice sessions were the determining factor in Shrek’s escape attempt will, however, remain uncertain. 

Tactical Solutions

Initially, we tried on foot. First, there were attempts to trick Shrek back into his pen with sweet treats. Then, there were increasingly frustrated attempts to corral him back into his enclosure. When my father became fed up, we attempted scare tactics which involved our dog, Joey. Also unsuccessful. Having spent a half hour sprinting after a quadruped designed to run faster than any human, my stout father came down with the final plan, which is how I ended up standing unsecured in the back of a pickup going from zero to thirty with one hand on the cab and one holding my rope. 

For a while, it seemed as though this retrospectively insane idea might have worked. The low summer leaves of the untrimmed trees scratched my face as I focused on the donkey. The plan was for my father to pull alongside Shrek giving me a chance to lasso the little beast. But Shrek had been lassoed before, and that wasn’t a story he planned to repeat. He soon came up with a plan of his own: he would run directly at a tree or the chicken coop, slow down to allow us to think that we were catching up, and then break quickly to either side as my father crushed the truck breaks, forcing me to grab the lip of the small back window to avoid being pitched over the cab.

The Capture

This cycle continued for what felt like an hour, broken up by my father occasionally pounding on the truck roof and yelling “branch!” when something large enough to knock me off the truck approached as we drove down the various forested paths, though the adrenaline of being repeatedly almost thrown from a truck may have affected my perception of time. 

The end came suddenly and with no help from me. Hemmed in by trees on each side of a narrow path, Shrek’s flight turned to fight as he lashed out with his hind legs at the truck’s bumper. His sheer gall seemed to incense my father, who gunned the engine. I grabed for the truck’s window as I was jerked backwards. I felt the truck bump the donkey, and glanced a shocked face that realized shit just got real. Shrek took the next turn and bolted for his pen. He remained there voluntarily and permanently even if the fence was broken or down. For my part, I returned to practicing my lasso skills on stumps and sticks, and some equilibrium was gained.

Read the entire collection of stories at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08NTWQXV5.