Monday, March 14, 2016

Mens Hats Were Forbidden Until The End

My late grandparents house, now owned by their eldest son/my Ugly American uber alles uncle, lies along a colonial extension of North Platte across the interstate from the main body of town tucked between the rivers.  It has an elaborately finished basement that was complete with bar before granpa tired of my mother, aunts, uncles, and then older cousins siphoning liquor for themselves.  Though there are still remnants of that bar to this day so far as I know. A bottle of Seagram's gin and another of triple sec from the Kennedy administration or before; with the labeling near-identical to today's.  The South Platte river runs half a mile from the house, and I'm told that sealing the basement from water that was neither quite Platte or aquifer was a great expense. But hold it did, even against the fiercest summer storms. There had been a pool table until we grandkids stole all of the balls.  After that it was made a bench where Grandpa would complete 5000 piece puzzles in a matter of days; hacking at them for three hours at a time or more. In the rear of the basement were the laundry machines, accessorized by a chute from the main four that my four-year-old self had gotten stuck in trying to slide through. Next to that was grandpa's workshop, including a plastic sign business that he ran on the side. Next to this an ancient dead pinball machine that was gotten rid of at some point in the 90's; and next to that a fridge that held 30-packs of Beast Ice that would last for years, doled out in servings of precisely one to relatives of the senior generation when I came to visit. When I took to pilfering six at a time for myself as a teen this went completely unnoticed so far as I know. Granpa preferred bourbon, keeping up a homewrecker-per-week pace into his seventies, mixed with a flat 7-Up that no hell-fearing child dare touch.

The backyard was a full acre. It was the edge of town as I said and the neighbors always kept a horse or two. There were gophers, moles, discarded rattlesnake skins.  My grandparents kept several rows of corn and sold some too. There were many planted and eaten by my own hands and those of all the rest of us as well.  Also potatoes, always planted on Good Friday by old world Catholic custom though of course the date varies by weeks from year to year and the frontier between winter and spring in Nebraska is more arbitrary still. Still it worked. The potato crop always came through.  I remember it being unfailingly rawly cold for these Good Friday plantings and the strange appropriateness of this keeping me in the faith for longer than reason otherwise would have.

The front porch is about ten feet above ground; (as is the main floor, which became a sore problem when my grandparents became to ill to properly walk) The prevailing sound here in all seasons is that of interstate traffic and prairie wind blended as one. The sights are that of the trees that mark the property front, the hulking beast of a mailbox next to the slots for the World-Herald & Telegraph, the neighbors horses, sometimes towing a hobby wagon along the semi-rural street, the half-visible interstate with the trees of river and town beyond, to the east the hotel & gas station towers for the I-80/Jeffers Street exchange ramps, to the south the hydro plant and the rim of the valley, the short rolling grass hills that extend from this comparative hive of humanity for longer than most nations go. In the warm season Satanically large spiders where you reach uncarefully and cottonwood seeds from the river dancing about most anywhere you look. Grasshoppers as big as a grown hand, the singing barbs on their legs large enough to draw blood.  What you sense above all else on this porch is the smell of the Plains; earth and pollinating grass, wet grass, baking grass dying of thirst.

When there was a tornado warning it was the standard policy of all family branches to drive across town to the grandparents mechabasement. If worse came to worse there would be something like food in the fridge and a radio telling us of the outside world. Grandpa's electric would hold for as long as there was any electricity in the town at all. My first tornado memory that sticks is from 1986 when I was four. It was aunt someone-or-another's birthday and the extended family was in Grandma's living room watching Ghostbusters on VHS. They of course had already a lifetime of tornado memories. The great Omaha tornado, the one that had zipped up 72nd street like a lost outstater looking for Wendy's and was the nation's most expensive natural disaster until hurricane Andrew, was only a decade past; and that in turn was only eight years past when my grandparents had white-flighted the family out of Omaha into the west. Anyhow on this day in 86 my grandfather Knew that this summer storm was especially wicked. So he went out to that porch to watch the western sky and I, a big boy now, went out to join him. And it was here that I learned to Know the signs that he Knew; the smell of ozone, the strange cinematic clarity of the air, a sudden absurd iciness to the June wind, the subtle drug high of dropping barometer, the animal body sense that Something Is About To Happen.  I learned all of this on that afternoon and every tornado since has in many ways been the same experience repeated.

As I stood out there with Grandpa my mother said something or another about finding this adorable. I'm sure it was.  I was in fact a cute motherfucker when I was little. It was a few years later when I was still quite a young child that I realized that this was in fact a futile gesture on my Grandpa's part. He wasn't going to shoot the tornado or warn it against trespassing. I realized that it was actually an empty show of masculine protection, that all such gestures or nearly all were empty shows. I at least had been four years old and wired to emulate adult behaviors. My grandfather had no such excuse and now I faced the problem at nine or so of growing up in western Nebraska fully aware that the very idea of Strong Protective Manhood was a God damn fraud with all these affectedly gruff hambones about me.

Nothing came of that tornado. Or actually it may have hit a ranch somewhere to the southwest and killed some bulls. Town remained safe. We retreated to that basement for half an hour or so and my mother passed around her rum to fellow adults; that cough-syrup Captain Morgan shit that she drinks to this day; and that was all there was to it.

My uncle Dave inherited the house as I've said before.  He and my Aunt Gail keep house terribly, dirty clothes and dishes scattered about the place, my grandparents crucifixes and Marion pictures replaced by angry eagles superimposed on flags and related army shit, the magnificent garden left fallow for dogs as overweight as my uncle to flop around in. There was a family fourth of July in the backyard a couple of years ago.  My uncle had forbidden anyone from a family branch not his own from entering the house but I went in to use the bathroom anyway. "And you're here because?" he asked me, pure sarcastic anger. Asking me to state my business in the house where I'd slept in a cradle, where my single mother went to when we needed shelter and knew we would have it, with the dining table I'd help to set, the carpets I'd help to vacuum, and the grandparents I had help to tend to as they very slowly died. I looked my uncle in the eye and it was the only time in my adult life that I wanted to hit another person. As it was I told him I was going to take a piss and walked right past him.

I've only ever been able to think of two motives for getting rich. One is to travel ceaselessly until whenever I drop. The other is to be rooted in home. To one day own this house for myself. to have the prairie smell and the wind and a small plot of earth to touch and to farm and to be of. Leave me heedlessly barefoot in the sharp summer grass with the snakes hiding somewhere and I could be happy at seventy. Yet then again it is past. I have willingly made my life elsewhere and what after all could any white person on these Plains really know about loss of history or home?

I happened to be home a week before my Grandpa died of cancer, and Grandma also on her way out from the Alzheimer's that would take her six months later. My Grandpa's pain and humiliation at a ruined body had led him to scream in rage whenever he woke up and learned that the last drift wasn't It. He spoke frankly of his anger at God to the nun who brought his communion every day and this was unthinkable five years before. Grandpa was the Pope. On one afternoon I returned Grandma from a doctor's appointment and led her into his dying room.  He was facing away from her towards the wall; not by choice but because he had lost the strength to turn himself and screamed in pain whenever someone else tried to turn him. Grandma said some half-sensical nicities to him and then left. Leaving Grandpa to scream "Oh God why can't I move just enough to see my wife?  Shirley, Shirley, I love you."  Grandma kept moving oblivious to this. Sixty years of love and nearly a hundred in-laws and descendants had done them nothing to protect them from facing death with no company except their own broken selves.     

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