Sunday, September 7, 2014

Singed Wings (a "Guest Entry")

The following account was written by my mother, Ruth Kurtz, at the time, for a college journal when she was in college, likely in the early '50's, though taking place in the 30's. A friend of mine alerted me to its existence recently. I had never seen it before. It is a true story, and I think it deserves a larger audience.

Singed Wings

Since the time when my mother would arouse me for my 2 a.m. feeding, I have always been lured by a fascination for night life. Perhaps it is the bright lights--a sort of moth-to-candle type of attraction; perhaps it is the half-feeling of festivity in the air; perhaps it is merely the fact that humanity looks better by lamplight.

At any rate it was that appetite for night life that prompted an older and a younger sister and me to crawl into the car with my father one Saturday night. His destination was only a few hundred yards away, the corner garage, where he was going for gasoline, but that garage constituted the center of Park View's night life; so we loved to go there.

When one traveled by car from my home to this particular garage, there was hardly time to shift into high gear before he was there, but the rubber finger of darkness had erased enough of the familiar features of the place that its charm was in no way lessened.

On the particular Saturday night of which I speak we coasted into the magic pool of light that encircled the front of the building, and, as always, the odor of gasoline, new tires, and grease met us intoxicatingly. Entranced, we rolled down the windows and hung out our smudgy little faces. (Our mother never bathed us until the very last thing Saturday night because we always got dirty again unless we were taken directly from tub to bed.) We waited while my father got out.

Suddenly something was not as it should be. The car had moved! In fact, it was still moving. We did not realize that my father had parked, without pulling the brake, against the car ahead of us, and that car now, within its own rights, was leaving. All we knew was that with uncanny certainty we were moving forward.

My older sister was in the front seat, and she, with amazing foresight, promptly scrambled out, slamming the door behind her. My younger sister and I were in the back seat, and, with the departure of Mary, the burden of the enterprise rested on me. Edith was petrified with terror. To move from that moving death trap cumbered by her was an obvious impossibility. To leave without her would be murderous; so I stayed.

One thing that I had learned during the seven or eight years of my life served me in good stead at this moment. I knew how to drive a car. All you had to do was to keep from running into the other cars on the road and you were all right. That should not be hard. I leaned across the back of the front seat and seized the wheel.

My last glimpse of Mary showed her by the gasoline pumps holding her ears to shut out the inevitable crash with which runaway cars always terminate their short careers. Then with a hearselike lurch, our old Peerless swayed out into the road and was off.

I wanted to hold my ears too, but that would never do. There was an immense curve just ahead. Somehow we made it and continued on. I wondered for a second why I couldn't see the road. It was terrifically dark. The only time I was absolutely certain whether or not we were on the road at all was when another car shot by, with a superior flirt of its headlights.

After a time I remembered that people usually drove cars from the front seat; so I slowly wormed my way over the back into the place behind the wheel.

Edith was sniffling in the back seat. I wished she would stop it. I wanted to do the same thing, but we both couldn't; so I tried to act brave.

"What are we going to do?" she whimpered, between sniffs.

"Don't be afraid. They'll come after us." I lied. I knew they couldn't come after us. Whoever heard of a man catching a runaway car? I envisioned us driving to our grandmother's place. How surprised she would be to see us. It never occurred to me to wonder how we would ever cover those 200 miles to her home. We never had any trouble finding the way before. Why should we now?

"Nobody's coming yet," quavered Edith, kneeling on the seat, her face pressed against the back window. I looked around for one hopeful moment and turned back just in time to wrench the wheel and prevent us from clipping off a brick post and mowing down a length of hedge in front of someone's house. I guessed I'd better watch where I was going. We labored up out of the ditch and continued on to Grandmother's. I didn't dare take my eyes from the road, but I'm sure we were going a hot seven or eight miles an hour.

"I sorta believe someone's coming, " Edith remarked damply from the back seat. The next minute the door was jerked open and a man took the wheel from my willing hands. I noticed, as he turned the car around, that we had already gone almost half through Park View.

Some remark that the garageman made to me as we drove back put the notion into my head that what I had done wasn't the dumbest trick I had ever performed. Maybe my father would even think I was smart.

He and Mary were waiting when we got back, and as he talked a minute to the garageman, I thought I saw a flicker of pride in his eye. He crawled into the car and started for home while I waited smugly for him to say something.

He said, "Why didn't you pull the brake?"

Friday, September 5, 2014

Helpfully Yours

Last evening Todd emerged from the school with his backpack, lunchbox and an unwieldy expanse of poster-board.
"I've got to make a poster about my favorite tree." he said when we got home, looking for a place to put it.
"Today?" I said. "Is it due tomorrow?"
"I guess." he said, with an air of phlegmatic fatalism.
"Do you have other homework?" I asked.
"Yes." he said.
"Do you have a favorite tree?" I asked.
"Uhm....." he said.

This was code language for "no". It took me all of 2 seconds to decode it.

"We" would have to develop a love for a tree. Quickly.

A cursory scan of his instruction sheet indicated that this tree had to be a particular tree, not just a certain type of tree. We couldn't, say, decide weeping willows were his favorite tree. It would have to be a particular weeping willow.

"Dogwoods are nice." I said helpfully.
"Mmm..." He seemed uninspired. "What about maples?" he suggested.

We have two maples. They are basically saplings. The one we planted last year. It is still tied to a stick to keep it going in the way it should go. The other is in a pot waiting for some other trees to be felled to make room for it. It looks a little unhealthy probably because I let it get too dry this summer.

Neither one really has the characteristics of a "Favorite Tree."

"Maples...? I said dubiously. "Think about dogwoods, Todd." I encouraged. "They have such pretty flowers  in the Spring!" I said brightly. "And in the fall they turn nice and red."

He considered this.
I could see love growing in his eyes.

"I know which one!" he said suddenly, with a delightful burst of affection. "The one at the end of the lane! Come on!"

It's a quarter of a mile to the end of the lane. He had chosen roughly the farthest tree we own.

At least it wasn't a maple.
He burst out the door and headed up through the woods on Becky's pink bike.
"I don't want to get ticks." I called after him. "I'll take the lane."

We arrived at the end of the lane and surveyed his tree.

It was a nice tree.
It had lovely red berries on it already, but the leaves were still green. The leaves were kind of mottled, it seemed, the closer you got to them. I climbed up on the bank upon which it grew to select a few specimens. The red berries would be a nice touch on the poster. I was glad there were berries. Maples don't have berries. This was a good choice on his part. He watched me contentedly from astride his bike.

Something stung my foot. I looked down. I had stepped in fire ants. Ouch.


Off he took triumphantly on his bike. I followed at my own pace, bearing dogwood specimens and stinging feet. Or foot.

"I have to draw a picture of it." he said, back in the livingroom. The blank piece of poster-board lay on our living room floor, dominating the diminutive space.

"Are you sure??" I said. His drawing skills are not notable.
"She SAID!" he said emphatically.
"I don't see it on the paper." I responded.
"Miss Karen SAID we have to draw a picture of it!"

"It says here you are to have PICTURES of all these things....not the real thing." I said uncertainly, reading over the list....leaves, twigs, cones, flowers. Oh well. We had actual twigs. They were going on there. They would add dimension.

I googled "dogwood". And clicked on "images for dogwood".

"Come here, Todd", I said. "Which pictures do you like? I pointed out some I thought would be nice.

He chose some pictures and we printed them off. Beautiful pictures. This was definitely the right tree for him to love. He had chosen well.

I loosely arranged the things we had so far on the poster-board.

I looked at his paper. "You are suppose to include the circumference of your tree," I said. "You'll have to measure it." Todd sagged. "I don't feel like going out to the end of the lane again." he moaned.

"Why don't you choose the dogwood at the edge of the yard?" said Becky, helpfully.

"Which one?" he asked dubiously.

"The one by the dog house!" she enthused. She liked this tree. She liked to climb it. He did too, actually.
Todd switched favorite trees and off they went with my sewing tape to measure it. 16 and a 1/2 inches.

I pondered whether it mattered that the twigs we had were no longer from his favorite tree.

Todd was reading his paper. "I'm suppose to do this all by myself." he observed.

"By yourself??" I asked. I took the paper and started reading..

"Your poster will be graded on these things", I read near the bottom  "....Neatness....Did you do it yourself without your parent's help?..."

Help. What is help exactly?
 I mean, really...

"Okay" I said. "You'll have to do it yourself." I backed away from the poster.

"There's a whole list of questions." I said. "Maybe you want to type the answers to them? Make sure you type the answers in complete sentences."

He knew nearly nothing about typing, but I figured typing would add some novelty to the project that might save him from despair as well as contribute to the "neatness" stipulation.

I retreated to my bedroom to sew.

Pretty much every time I started in on a seam and the sound of my sewing machine filled in the air, I could hear him calling "MOM!" beyond  the roar of it.

"Just wait till I get to the end of my seam!" I would holler back, pedal to the metal.

The end of my seam would come and I would rise from my sewing and go see what he wanted.

I only answered questions. Answering questions is not help. I didn't touch anything. Sometimes I did offer useful information. And then I went back to my bedroom and my sewing.

"You need an apostrophe there." I said, pointing to the apostrophe on the keyboard. But I did not push the apostrophe key.

"Is that a complete sentence? You want to write your information in complete sentences," I reminded. "'A tree' is not a complete sentence."

I did not, however, type the complete sentence.

Eventually it was his bedtime. He typed on. The questions were not all answered.
"You have just one more," I said. He was dragging ever so slightly.

He laboriously hunted and pecked.

And then he printed it off. Ctrl "P". He knew how to do that. I didn't even have to offer any useful information.

"How do you want to put it on your poster?" I asked.
He stretched a length of doublestick tape on the back of his first picture and positioned it on the poster.

"Is it straight?" I asked as unhelpfully as possible.
"Yep" he said recklessly, pulling out another length of tape.
"How are you going to attach the twigs? I asked. "Maybe you could staple them on?"

I held the twigs but he did the stapling. It was clearly a two-man job.

We stood back and surveyed the poster.
"Are you sure you had to draw a picture of the tree?" I asked presently.
"I don't know." he said limply. His eyes were starting to glaze over. "I should have done my other homework first..."

His other homework! "Just go to bed.". I said. "You can do it in the morning."

In the morning he did his other homework.

"If your teacher said you have to draw a picture of your tree you had better draw one." I said.

I decided he would probably have better results drawing from a photo rather than drawing from the tree itself. I found the camera, and an SD card. Then I ventured out in the morning sunlight and snapped a picture of his favorite tree, feeling very grateful that I didn't have to sojourn to the end of the lane to do so.

I loaded it onto the computer. "Here." I ordered "Get a piece of paper and a pencil and come copy it."

I left to comb Becky's hair. No helping. It was nearly time to leave.

When I met up with him again the tree was drawn and he was commencing to cut it out with a scissors.

"You drew that??" I said. It looked surprisingly like The Tree.
"I helped a little with the leaves." said Tyler.
"He was suppose to do it without help!" I wailed. It was time to go out the door.
"He never let go of the pencil." Tyler soothed.

Todd was plastering "his" picture to the poster.

"Do you want to straighten it up a little maybe?" I said hastily.
"Nope!" he said. "That's the way I want it." He looked at it proudly.
"Okay! Come on!"
We were almost late.

I herded the natives out the door.

Becky offered to carry his poster and held it before her as grandly as if she were bearing the King's train. It was deposited safely behind the back seat and off we went to pick up their cousins and then on to school

We were done, for better or for worse.
He was done, rather.

We pulled into their cousins' drive and loaded them up.
Do you have your poster, Chris?" asked Todd.
"No," said Chris, nonchalantly. "I left my poster in your vehicle."
Todd searched in the back and pulled out Chris' blank poster.

"It doesn't matter. Just put it back," said Chris, "It's not due till next Thursday."