A quiet Memorial Day, staying resolutely at home, me and a can of split pea soup. Split pea soup—good color for a hermit’s contemplation. Loaded with crackers, eased down the throat with ice water (because too hot),
Enough. Time to lick my wounds. Why I screwed up so badly this month (at the housewarming and elsewhere), why I can’t seem to attract anything but trouble or trivia in my private sector.
I think it’s a sorry cross between Sir Galahad and Harry Houdini, a syndrome that affects all the male members of my family. I’m not the first to make a fool of myself in public, how even my most immediate ancestors aren’t too swift about staying out of this kind of trouble. Ray should never have dared me. Makes people in my family react in a strange way. Probably somebody way-back-when dared one of my relatives to get on—well, not the Mayflower, but some tugboat or freighter shortly thereafter. Dared, and a warped sense of gallantry—does it every time.
The summer Steve came home from college and got a job in a foundry. Making some outrageous hourly wage that made Dad vaguely uncomfortable.
Salt tablets by the bottle. Oh, and oil by the case-load. Steve’s ’58 Pontiac—the stick shift I turned into a bucking bronco in our driveway trying to learn how—well, just to get it to move smoothly five feet. In any gear, in any direction.
That car ate oil. Burned oil. Spit oil. The next Fall, when he finally abandoned it alongside a freeway, the most valuable thing about it was the half case of motor oil still in the trunk.
And, what else? Being seemingly permanently glossy-sweaty, rank-smelling and exhausted June, July and August, this was the year Stephen woke up to his accident-prone proclivity when playing Sir Galahad. Some street corner with a stop sign, and there were these three girls waiting to cross? Well, fine, precision instrument that it was, pump-and-goose brakes, jitterbug clutch, the Pontiac would roll forward across the crosswalk. So old Stevie Boy throws it in reverse, lurches gallantly backwards—BANG! right into the car waiting behind him.
Wished I’d been there with a camera. Wished I’d seen what kind of girls could distract my brother this much.
But this clearly indicates the precedent for making romantic fools of ourselves, a tradition in my family.
Which brings us to the slide. Like that long-ago summer (1937), one of my mother’s favorite prove-you-an-idiot stories. On her honeymoon, tagalongs with Aunt Irma and Uncle Jim (also recently married). Tenting. Bathing clothes all wet, left behind at the campsite.
The four on a side trip, a fifty-mile junket to the shore of Lake Erie. And there’s a big slide there in the water. No bathing suits, remember?
Dad’s bound-to-blazes he’s gonna go down that slide anyway.
Mom and Irma wading along the shore. Two “older women, nattily attired” strolling down the beach. White-haired, genteel, sweet old ladies.
Uncle Jimmy probably still sitting behind the wheel of his car, avoiding sunlight or nature or anything that might cause him to enjoy himself.
Out of the back seat of the car comes my father wrapped in—truly—nothing but a “buffalo blanket”. Clutching the blanket, up the ladder of the giant slide he goes.
“Go back!” my mother’s yelling.
“Go back!” Aunt Irma’s yelling at him, too.
“Oh, come on! You can do it, young man!” The two old ladies egging him on. Who didn’t know about the wet swimming trunks still hanging on the line fifty miles back at the campsite. Who didn’t know my father.
Top of the slide, Dad, smiling, waiting—a dramatic pause worthy of some brash Houdini imitator.
“No!” my mother yells. “Don’t you dare!”
“Oh no, William—please!” cries Aunt Irma. She grew up with him, she should know he’d do it all the more because of her protest.
“Come on—don’t be afraid,” the old ladies call up to him.
One, two, three—off goes the blanket. For one shining moment in the sun, Dad naked, smiling, before—swoosh! —Down he goes into chilly Lake Erie.
According to my mother, the two saintly ladies shrieked and ran—but I can’t picture this. I do believe Mom and Aunt Irma hurried on down the beach in any opposite direction, disappeared as fast as they could, pretending not to know him.
Proof I come from a line of clowns and stupid-stunt men. That I should know better than ever never to take a dare. But how can you fight genetics?