Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Memories, the sequal

Speaking of memories, I'm still sifting through all the writings Bern found in a drawer that I haven't looked at for 25 years or more.

I found a three-act play called "Reindeer Fair".. . A neat title but some of the pages are missing, though that doesn't matter much since I don't think it would be any more intelligible with all the pages there. I actually remember writing it, thinking it was so avantgard (not in my spell check, but you can sound it out) so post-modern, so existential, so 'absurdist'. It didn't age well. But it is absurd if not absurdist.

Then I found a little Xeroxed (though it may have actually been mimeographed!) booklet called "Offerings 71"--a student publication of writings from the members of Harvard Divinity School. I had two pieces of short fiction in it. "Glad for Gladys" was the first. And then there was this one:


I had hundreds--two shoe boxes full. One shoebox said NUNN-BRUSH on the end. The other said BOSTONIAN. They both said 9 1/2 C on the end, which, though I never thought of it then, must have been my father's shoe size. Not all my little men were soldiers, though most were. I had a few baseball players on little platforms with names on them: Granny Hamner, I remember, and Billy Pierce, and Ray Boone with his glove hand high above his head. And there were bright colored cowboys and brighter colored Indians. A knight or two, with their legs spread for either some sex act or for horses that I didn't have. I didn't have horses for my knights, but I had a statue of George Washington that I found in a cereal box I thought was going to have a little race car in it.

But most were soldiers in various positions of war: throwing grenades, crawling under non-existent bob-wire, shooting from their knee, marching, things like that. They were mostly hard plastic that felt good to bite and so many of my men had at least an arm missing, or a foot, long chewed up and spit out, or else swallowed to keep peas and carrots company in my stomach. My toy soldiers were an all-alone-time toy. I shared them with no one--except my mother. I guess I didn't trust anyone else to know about them, but I would talk about them with my mother for hours it seemed, though I'm sure, looking back, it was only a few minutes each time.

She even remembered their names. I had named them from a box of books I found in the attic. From this perspective in time, I realize they must have been her college books. So their names were Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Will Durant, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Dickens, Shelly and Keats, names like that.

My soldiers never played soldier. I didn't play war much with them because somebody had to die and when they died, I'd have to go to the attic and find and new name for them. That was a lot of trouble and I'd sometimes forget the new name and wouldn't know who I was playing with--so, anyway, war was out.

Sometimes I'd take a piece of clay and shape it like a tiny football and divide my men and play a game of football with them. Clay, if touched with the tip of the tongue, will stick to plastic toy soldiers, just as if they were carrying it and running for a touchdown. Those who were throwing grenades were quarterbacks since they looked as if they could easily be throwing a football instead. Those who were marching were ends because they looked like they were about to break into a Z-out pattern. And those who were crawling under imaginary bob wire could just as easily be trying to crawl under guards and tackles and get the halfback. After every game, I'd talk to my mother--sort of a post-game wrap-up--and tell her what had happened. Slashing Sam Johnson was the leading rusher and Bullet Lord Byron was close behind. She seemed interested in their rivalry, but her favorite was Spinoza. Benedict Spinoza, as they say in the game, 'did it all'. He was quarterback, fullback and middle linebacker. He was the most charismatic of all my men since he stood nearly a sixteenth of an inch taller than any and was carrying a short machine gun--a pose that reminded one of strength, character and leadership. He was made of metal instead of plastic. Instead of being olive green, his uniform was painted brown and his soldier helmet was black. He just stood out.

After a long game on a raining afternoon, she'd ask me, "How did Benny do?" and I would tell her about her hero. Sometimes I even exaggerated--told her he caught a pass when it was really Thomas More. Or I'd make up an interception that belonged instead to George Eliot. But it made her smile to hear of Spinoza's feats, so I didn't thing it mattered to lie a little.

And because she liked him, I liked Benny too. I would carry him around in my pocket and more than once he went through the washing machine so the barrel of his machine gun broke off and the flesh colored paint on his face got chipped off. Once, I remember, I thought he was gone forever. He wasn't in my pocket when I got home from playing tag with Herbie Lowman and Billy Michaels. I finally got up the nerve to tell my mother and then burst into tears, thinking she would be angry that I lost her favorite. But the next day he was on my dresser and she claimed no knowledge of how he got there though I heard my father ask her why Mrs. Lowman had seen her in the vacant lot on her hands and knees. My mother said, 'Shhh!', which she said a lot when she wanted to wait until they were in bed at night to talk about something. I could hear them whispering through the wall and many was the night that their soft music put me to sleep.

But the whole point to all this is that when I got the call to come home from college and they told me what had happened, I just had to be alone, away from all the neighbors and relatives downstairs. Before I knew it, I was up in the little attic, sitting on the floor in the dark. I moved to lay down and my hand touched a shoe box. I turned on the 40 watt light and sat for a long time, taking each man out and looking at him, trying to remember his name, trying to remember something we had done together.

Suddenly, paint-chipped but still strong, Benny was in my hand. I didn't remember a lot after that, but I know when my cousin Lizzy embraced me after the funeral, she felt something in my shirt pocket and it was Spinoza. I suppose I had somehow thought he would want to say good-bye too. And I guess he did, in his own way. I wonder if she ever thought of him after I quit playing with them, if she ever explained why she was in the vacant on all fours, if my father understood, if they shared that in their whispers?

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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.