Thursday, July 14, 2022
“Mom, can I have the keys to the car?” Elsie’s yell reverberated around the house.
I glanced over at Elspeth’s mother, my daughter-in-law Janine. “She’s driving?”
Janine simply rolled her eyes. “Yeah, she’s driving me crazy!” We were standing in her kitchen, with me leaning against the counter watching as she rolled out a pie crust. Every once in a while, I would try to sneak a little cherry pie filling, but she would wave her rolling pin at me and shoo me away. “And you’re not helping me either!”
Elsie and her thirteen-year-old sister, Gwynneth, came bounding into the kitchen. “Mom, did you hear me? I need the car keys.”
Janine looked at her eldest daughter in a very unsympathetic way. “Since when do you get to drive by yourself? You only have a learner’s permit…”
Elsie, all of sixteen and full of teenage angst, simply rolled her eyes. “Mom, I know how to drive!” she whined.
“…And you know you have to have someone with you until you get your license.”
“I can go with her!” piped up Gwynnie.
“Someone with a license,” finished Janine.
“Mom!” complained my granddaughter. I just smiled at her mother. I love my grandkids dearly, but the girls were a handful. “Well, you can go.”
Janine groaned. “I’m busy. I’m cooking.”
“But Mom, I have to go!” The whining was getting overwhelming.
Janine wasn’t buying any of it. “Uh, huh. I’m making pies for your cheerleading bake sale, so I suppose I can always throw them away…”
I gave a horrified look at this - Janine makes a mean pie! - but Elsie immediately protested that she needed her mother to do both. Janine simply shrugged and gave a look of total disinterest.
“I can go with the girls,” I interjected. They all looked at me. “Hey, I’ve still got my license.”
“Yes!” cried Elsie. She ran off to her bedroom.
“Shotgun!” screamed Gwynnie. She took off to her bedroom. “Shotgun!”
Janine gave an exasperated sigh and shook her head over at me. “You are too good with those two.”
I just laughed. “I’m the grandpa. My job is to be easy. Load ‘em up on sugar and give ‘em back to the owners, remember,” I said, reminding her of one of Marilyn’s and my favorite sayings about our grandchildren. The other, ‘Grandchildren are a grandparent’s revenge,’ was equally appropriate. “When do we need to be home by?” I asked.
She glanced at the clock over the stove. “If you are back by five, Parker will be home by then, and we can have dinner by six.”
I nodded. I had already seen her putting some chicken parts in a marinade. My son, Parker, was currently working a day shift at the power plant. After twenty years as a nuclear power plant operator in the Navy, he had taken retirement and was now a nuclear power plant operator at the Ginna plant outside of Rochester.
“I’d better get ready myself.” Upstairs I could hear the girls rampaging through the bathroom.
Janine simply snorted. “Sucker!”
I headed down the basement stairs to the small apartment I lived in. I changed into a clean shirt and put a pair of socks on before slipping into my loafers. Then I grabbed my cane and a windbreaker, pulled my fedora on, and climbed back up the stairs. The girls were already out the door and waiting for me impatiently. As soon as they saw me, they scrambled into the driver and passenger seats. I simply shook my head and walked up to where Gwynnie was sitting in the front passenger seat. I stood at the door and pointedly hooked my thumb towards the back seat.
Gwynnie opened the door and whined. “I called shotgun!”
“If I am the adult licensed driver, I have to be up here.” I stepped back to let her out.
She climbed out with undisguised ill grace. “This is so not fair!” I just shooed her towards the rear and climbed into the front seat.
Elsie laughed. “I know where I’m sitting, anyway!” She already had the key in the ignition.
Gwynnie made an unprintable comment, although she did have the good grace to look at me guiltily afterwards. I decided to let it slide. I focused on being the responsible adult, and made sure both girls were buckled in. “So, what’s the plan?”
“We’re going to the mall!” Elsie moved to turn the key in the ignition, and I stopped her.
“Hold it. More detail. How are you getting there? What roads? Where are you going to park?” I peppered her with a few more questions related to the drive over.
Elsie gave a very exasperated sigh and answered before I would allow her to continue, even though her kid sister kept urging her to ‘Go!’ After a minute, I relented and allowed her to go, although I insisted we go by a slightly different route. I wanted her to practice a little more before she took me out on the highway. It wasn’t that she was a bad driver. She was a fairly typical sixteen-year-old female driver, otherwise known as an accident in the making. More than once she and Gwynnie got so wrapped up in their conversation I had to rap my cane against the dashboard to get her to pay attention.
I hadn’t expected my life to end up this way. Marilyn and I had our own home, and our oldest girl, Alison, had lived with us. Then, two years ago, Marilyn had dropped dead of a heart attack. She was only 66 at the time, but she always swore she would outlive me. I had known better; she never took decent care of herself, and was far too heavy, heavier even than me, and I’m not small. Worse was last year, when Alison died of congestive heart failure. Both Marilyn and I had been expecting this. Alison had Williams Syndrome, and in addition to the mild retardation (which was why she lived with us still) she also had the typical heart problems involved. The average Williams Syndrome patient dies of heart disease in their fifties, but Alison was only 42.
There’s a difference between the expectation and the reality. I no longer wanted to live in the house. Parker and Janine offered to set up an apartment in their basement, so I put the house on the market and took the first offer. It wasn’t much, but it paid off the home equity loan and credit cards. I cut up my credit cards, pocketed a little cash, and moved in with the kids. I mostly kept to myself. I’m a bit of a loner by nature. I kept out of the way and tried to be useful.
Money was okay, at least for the moment. I still had the car, but at 67 I almost never drive. Between Social Security and my 401(k) and an IRA, I get by easily enough, at least as long as I can live with the kids and eat with them. I can’t complain anyway. We are fourteen years into the Great Recession, and I am damn glad Parker has a decent good-paying job.
Not much has changed in the years since the bottom fell out in 2008. Unemployment is stuck at around 15%, banks still won’t loan money, companies still send jobs to China, and the politicians still lie about how this is the greatest country in the world.
They can’t export nuclear power plants, so Parker is probably secure. Our youngest daughter, Maggie, and her husband, Jackson, both emigrated to Canada to work for the Chinese company that bought General Electric. She used to work in Schenectady, but when that was shut down, they transferred her to a plant in Montreal. I stay with them for a few weeks during the summer. Montreal is a very nice and cosmopolitan city, clean and modern, much nicer than most American cities these days.
At least New York is still American. The US is still fifty states, but for the last few years Montana, Idaho, and both the Dakotas have declared ‘independence’. You can still travel there, but the militias are running loose, and blacks and Hispanics take their lives in their hands crossing the state lines. The President and the Congress dither and nothing gets done, and after the 2020 election, the Montana congressman never even bothered to show up in Washington to be sworn in. The border states next to Mexico aren’t much worse, what with martial law and the ongoing drug war between the U.S. and the cartels which bought Mexico.
Probably the most independent state is California, now going by the old ‘Republic of California’ name, although not too many people pay attention to that. When the Tea Party took control of things in 2020, they immediately shut down half the government, including the departments of Education, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Health and Social Services. Oh, the departments are still there, but with a budget of $0, they had to lay off every single employee, and then they refused to approve any candidates for the Secretary positions. California, faced with the loss of half of its school funding, half of its highway funds, and worst of all, all Medicaid and Medicare, revolted. They finally got their own act together, raised their taxes, and began printing their own money! You can’t use it anywhere outside of California, but China recently began buying bonds denominated in ‘Golden Bears’, as they call their currency. Washington protested, but China flipped them the finger.
My father was part of the ‘Greatest Generation’ and I am glad he never lived to see the mess us Baby Boomers made of things. Of course, I won’t be around to see much more, anyway. Alzheimer’s runs in the family, and if I make it past seventy knowing my own name, I’ll probably be lucky. With any luck, I’ll have enough cash the kids can put me in a home. Or maybe I’ll just take a long walk off a short pier and get it out of the way first. I saw how Dad went out, and none of us want to linger like that.
At the mall, the girls scampered out and headed inside. I made sure to lock the car and followed them in slowly. They didn’t need me following them around. I kept them in view as they found some friends (they must have texted each other and set up a meeting) and did some window shopping. I was totally forgotten by them. I eyed the girls splitting apart and settling in with their own friends. I had a cell phone in my pocket, not one of the fancy gizmos they had, but it could still send out a message. When it got time to head home for dinner, I’d track them down.
I wandered through the mall, glancing in windows. I always liked looking in the Frederick’s of Hollywood and Victoria’s Secret windows, even though that part of my life is over. Marilyn had thought it childish of me, but she also would always wear whatever I picked up for her. I continued onwards, eventually stopping in an antiques store. Nobody was going to wait on an old fart like me, and I wasn’t looking for any help. Glancing out the store window, I could see both my granddaughters moving through the mall with their little posses, totally oblivious to where I was.
The owner of the store came up to me, some sort of Indian or Sikh or Turk or something. He had a turban on his head anyway, even though the rest of his clothing was Western. “See anything you like?” he asked.
I just shook my head and smiled. Tilting my head towards the interior of the mall, I just replied “Just my granddaughters.” I pointed them out to him.
“Very lovely young ladies.” he agreed. They were, too. Elsie is the spitting image of her mother, a busty little blonde. Gwynnie is taller, still almost coltish, and will probably be slimmer.
I picked up a small brass oil lamp. Glancing back at the girls, I said, “You know, youth is wasted on the young. I wish I were a teenager again.”
A strange pressure began building in my chest as I finished the sentence. I dropped my cane as the pain built, and my breath became short. I might not have to worry about Alzheimer’s after all…
Tuesday, November 5, 1968
“Carl, it’s time to wake up!”
I was having the damnedest dream. I could hear my mother calling for me to wake up, but she had been dead for six years. I dozed on and a few minutes later she called for me again. I rolled over and tried to burrow back into the covers, but the bed was oddly-sized and didn’t seem right.
“CARLING PARKER BUCKMAN, IT’S TIME TO GET OUT OF BED!”
I groaned and sat up, my eyes still shut, and ran my hands over my face. That didn’t feel right, either.
“Man, she used all three names. You’re in trouble now!” said my brother.
But that wasn’t right. I hadn’t seen my brother since we had buried our mother six years ago. He hadn’t even come to Marilyn’s or Alison’s funerals. And as I ran my hands over my face, I realized I was clean shaven, no morning stubble. I continued moving my hands around my head and discovered hair up on top. I lost my hair a long, long time ago.
I opened my eyes and looked around. My kid brother, Hamilton, was sitting on the end of his bed smirking at me. “You better get up or Mom’s going to be angry!” But he wasn’t my brother. My brother is two years younger than me, so he was 65. This Hamilton was younger, a lot younger, pre-teen younger, a little kid. And what were we doing in our old bedroom, in our house in Lutherville? I hadn’t lived there in fifty years. I moved out when I was seventeen. I looked around in confusion. It was our old bedroom, our first bedroom, upstairs across the hall from our parents, before we moved to the garage when it was remodeled.
“Carl, are you up yet!” sounded from down the hall.
“I’m up, I’m up!” I replied.
Hamilton kept smirking as he started getting dressed. He normally was the slow one. I got out of bed and opened my side of the closet - yeah, there was my robe hanging on the hook on the left side. I put my robe on and stumbled down the hallway to the bathroom. Suzie’s bedroom door was closed but I could hear her getting up. I slipped into the hall bathroom before anybody saw me.
Hamilton and I didn’t have any mirrors in our room. The bathroom mirror showed the face of me in my early teens, and I had a strange haunted look to my eyes. What was going on? The last thing I remembered was being in a Middle Eastern antique shop at the mall and thinking I was having a heart attack. Had I died? Was this heaven or hell? I remembered the store owner’s name was Selim al A-Din al-Kassim, and I was holding a lamp. Al A-Din’s lamp? Aladdin’s Lamp? I had wished to be a teen again. Was that possible?
“Mom, Carl’s hogging the bathroom!” yelled Suzie from the other side of the door.
I muttered under my breath. “Give me a minute!” I replied.
“Mom!” I ignored her and pissed and brushed my teeth. When I was growing up you took a shower before going to bed, not in the morning. I opened the door and she brushed past me, pushing at me from behind to move me along. I ignored this, too. When I was growing up, I thought Suzie was a major league pain in the ass, but it wasn’t until I had daughters of my own that I realized that all female offspring fall into that category. Male offspring, too, for that matter.
Shaking the cobwebs from my head, I went back to the bedroom I shared with my brother and dressed. Briefs and undershirt, jeans, flannel shirt, socks, and sneakers. I went down the stairs and found everyone already in the dining room. Well, my father had already left for work, so it was just Mom, Hamilton, and Suzie.
Hamilton and Suzie had already dug into their cereal. Mom looked over at me and smiled. “Morning, sleepyhead. How’s it feel to be a teenager?”
“Happy birthday! You’re a teenager today, remember?”
“Uh, yeah, thirteen,” I said stupidly. Suzie ignored me, and Hamilton just rolled his eyes. He was still ten and wouldn’t become eleven for another couple of months. So, I was thirteen. That made today the fifth of November 1968. Jesus H. Christ, it was the Sixties? What was going on?
My thoughts were interrupted by a nudge at my knees. I looked down and saw Daisy pushing against me. I didn’t think twice but reached down and scratched her head. She gave a happy bark and lay down under the table at my feet. Maybe the Sixties wouldn’t be so bad. My favorite dog was alive and well!
Mom had to remind me to eat. I used my toes to rub Daisy’s stomach, which she enjoyed. Daisy was about two at the time, a curious result of an afternoon’s dalliance between a golden retriever and a beagle, the end result of which was the size and shape of a beagle, but with the coloring and beautiful coat of a golden retriever. She was one of the best dogs I’ve ever owned, with a happy disposition, little barking, and never biting. She didn’t need a leash when we went outside and never left the property without one of us with her. The only flaw anybody could figure out with her was that she wouldn’t chase the rabbits away from Mom’s garden. Daisy couldn’t care less. Dad used to say they could come up and play pinochle on her snout and she wouldn’t do anything. This bothered my mother, since the rabbits loved to eat her petunias. The rest of us thought this was hilarious.
It’s funny, though, how a dog picks its master. Daisy was the family pet, but she had immediately picked me as her master. After I went to college, her new boss became Suzie, completely skipping past Hamilton. She would live another 12 or 13 years, dying of natural causes after Suzie went off to college. She was a good dog and lived a good, long life.
I had finished my cereal and Mom had to remind me to get up. “Carl, what is with you this morning? You’re going to be late for school!”
Oh, shit! School! At thirteen I would have been attending Towsontown Junior High, off York Road. I was in the eighth grade and took the school bus. Hamilton and Suzie walked up the hill about a third of a mile to Hampton Elementary. He was in the sixth grade and she was in second grade. Supposedly he watched out for her, but the reality was that he couldn’t care less, and she simply followed him there and back. I always suspected that if a van pulled up alongside them and masked men jumped out and abducted Suzie, Hamilton not only wouldn’t do anything, he wouldn’t tell anybody until somebody asked him what happened to her.
I took my dishes to the kitchen and went to the living room closet and pulled out my pea jacket. I was headed out the door when Mom stopped me. “Your books?” She was pointing at my knapsack of books and I grabbed it. Daisy was waiting at the door and followed me out. Mom was muttering in the background, “If his head wasn’t screwed on, he’d leave that behind, too.”
The bus stop was just on the other side of the road. We lived on the corner of Ridgefield Road and Felton Circle. I had plenty of time to get to the bus stop. Daisy and I crossed the road and Daisy sat down at my feet. Katie Lowenthal came up to us and bent down, holding her hand out to Daisy. “Hello, Daisy!” Daisy woofed and raised her paw, shaking hands, which caused Katie to giggle. Most of the other kids greeted Daisy this way, too. Daisy didn’t know many tricks, but she liked this one and she was a good-spirited dog. Everybody knew and liked Daisy.
I glanced up the street to see a big yellow school bus heading our way slowly. “Okay, Daisy, time to go home.” I pointed at our house and she took off, to bark at the front door. Mom let her back in with a wave to me. A few minutes later the bus lumbered up and I climbed on board.
There was a seriously restricted seating arrangement on the school bus. Seventh graders sat near the front, where they were near the driver and the big kids couldn’t pick on them. The big kids, mainly the ninth graders, with a smattering of large and ‘cool’ eighth graders sat in the rear, where they lorded over the lesser beings in front of them. The eighth graders were stuck in the middle to fend for themselves. I usually sat inboard next to Katie Lowenthal and across from Ray Shorn and Betty Lewis. I looked around, remembering classmates from days long gone and trying to figure out where my classes were. Or had been. This was too fucking weird.
I was so wrapped up in trying to figure out my past that I failed to notice when the bus stopped at the next stop. There was the usual fussing as the alpha males got on first. At this stop, simply by happenstance, it was mostly ninth graders and jocks. It was a mouthy crew that got on board.
The first three down the aisle were Jerry Strutter and his twin brother Tim, and their buddy Bob Tewkes, a trio of bullies who liked to boss around the younger kids. I remember how all three got the shit kicked out of them when they graduated to Towson High and got to meet some older kids who were nowhere near as impressed as any of us. Jerry smiled as he saw me and said, “Where’s our money?”
What the hell was he talking about? I glanced over at Ray and Betty in confusion, but they just had scared looks on their faces. I turned back in time to hear Jerry laugh. “No money?” The next thing I knew his right fist was rushing at my face.
I jerked my head back, but not in time to completely avoid getting smacked in the face. By the time I shook it off, Jerry had stepped past me, and his brother was moving forward, laughing, and saying, “My turn!”
What the fuck? The hell with this shit! I jumped up from my seat and pushed Tim hard, in the chest, knocking him into Bob, and the pair of them fell backwards, setting off a chain reaction of dominoes. I then turned around, and before Jerry could react, I tackled him from behind. No way was I putting up with this crap again. With him yelling, I rode him down to the floor of the bus.
“Get the fuck off me, you little faggot!” Jerry was roaring and cussing up a storm, but he couldn’t do much else. He had already started to peel off his jacket and it was now tying him up like a straitjacket. I tried a rabbit punch in the kidneys, but he was too padded there and all I got was some more yelling and struggling. I decided I would have better luck smacking his head. I reached up and tried to shove his head at the floor, but the angle was all wrong, and he was struggling to get loose.
Down at my feet, towards the front of the bus, Tim and Bob were getting untangled. Tim started towards me with murder in his eyes, but as soon as he got closer, I lashed out and kicked him in the chest as hard as I could. He and Bob collapsed backwards again, and it was like dominoes all over again. By now the screaming of the little kids and the calls of “Fight! Fight!” were deafening.
Jerry and I had shifted slightly on the grimy floor of the school bus. Now I tried slamming his face forward and connected with one of the supports for a bus seat. There was a satisfying crunch and Jerry let out a scream of pain, followed by more demands to let him up. “I’LL KILL YOU! I’LL KILL YOU!”
Fuck that shit! I started slamming his face into the support again, and the results were most gratifying. Jerry began screaming more and threatening less, and after three or four more slams, was just crying and bleeding. Suddenly I was grabbed from behind and pulled up and away. The bus driver had finally managed to work his way through the scrum of bodies and grabbed me from behind. My final look at Jerry showed blood and teeth on the floor of the bus, and he was crying.
“Out! Get out!” ordered the driver. Half the bus had already gotten off and were milling around outside the bus, on somebody’s lawn, and everybody was staring at me with sick faces. Very few of them had ever seen much violence before. At 67, I had seen my share already, even if I was only 13 now.
It wasn’t over yet. Waiting outside were Tim and Bob, working themselves up to avenge Jerry. They waited a minute until I was off, screwing up their courage, I suppose, and then came for me. It was Tim who came in first. “You faggot, I’m going to kill you!” Unfortunately for Tim, he had never learned how to fight, and being big isn’t enough. He simply rushed at me and tried to grab me, a loser’s game for me if I let him. At the last moment, I sidestepped his rush and then pushed him from behind into the bus. He slammed into the bus and sagged against it.
I had a moment, while he was stunned, and Bob was startled, to even the odds. Bob had been running up behind Tim, so I stepped closer and slightly sideways. I kicked out as hard as I could at the side of his knees. My timing was off slightly, and I missed the outside of his left knee but kicked him hard on the inside of his right knee. You could hear the cartilage tearing and bone snapping. Three-hundred-pound professional football players end up retiring from injuries like that, so it was no surprise when Bob collapsed screaming to the ground.
Tim decided on a final try for me, but he was still slow and stupid. After another mad rush towards me, I slammed him into the bus, and then pulled him back and slammed his head into the bus another couple of times. When I pulled him back the last time, his eyes were fluttering, and I threw him backwards to fall to the ground.
I was suddenly exhausted, as the adrenaline began flushing out of my system. I sagged back against the bus, breathing heavily. I remembered this day from my first go around. My thirteenth birthday had been the worst day of my life.
You see, the thing to know about me was that I was a little guy, very little, one of the smallest in the school. I was certainly the smallest guy in the eighth grade, and last year, in the seventh grade, was the smallest kid in the entire school, even smaller than all the seventh-grade girls. Being small in junior high school simply made you a target. Even after I hit my growth spurt in the ninth grade, I was still beanpole skinny and a target. It wasn’t until I got out of high school that I was mentally mature enough that I was no longer a target. So, for the rest of my junior and senior high school time, I was a victim, a target, and school was a prison more than anything else for me. I’ve heard it said that you don’t graduate high school, you survive it. Certainly, it was that way for me.
The first time around, all three boys had punched my face as they passed me in the bus. I just sat there and took it and cried. Later, after I got to school, some of the girls on the bus complained to the Vice-Principal, so I got called down to the office for that. The bus driver reported that he hadn’t seen anything happen, so that was the end of that. My parents were notified, and they just gave me a ration of shit about ‘standing up for myself’ and ‘being a man’ but, of course, fighting was not allowed.
I just leaned against the side of the bus, my mind going a million miles an hour in every direction. Tim was sleeping on the ground, Bob was still screaming and clasping his ruined knee, and Jerry was still bleeding on the bus. Then it got even more interesting. A police car showed up followed closely by an ambulance. I remembered that school buses at the time carried some kind of CB radio. The driver must have called it in. Now he came off the bus and pointed the cops to me. I guess he never saw the fight outside the bus, although how he missed hearing me slam Tim’s head into the bus was beyond me.
The police came up to me and one of them was already reaching for his handcuffs. I stepped away from the side of the bus and held my hands out to them. I was cuffed in front of my body and loaded into the back of the patrol car. A few minutes later, after calling in another unit and another couple of ambulances, we pulled out. I leaned back against the side of the car to get some rest. This was going to be a very long day.
It was only about a ten-minute ride to the police station. Lutherville is on York Road north of the Beltway, Towson is on York Road south of the Beltway, and Towson is the county seat and headquarters of the Baltimore County Police. I was quickly brought inside to a fairly clean central area with a big counter and pushed onto a bench against the wall. I was sitting next to another guy, early twenties, kind of scruffy looking, but hey, we were in a jail, also sitting there with his hands cuffed. I nodded at him but otherwise kept my mouth shut.
He nodded back. “They run out of the FBI Top 10 and had to bring you in?”
I laughed at this. I looked like exactly what I was, a slightly rumpled school kid from a rich, white neighborhood. “Yeah, they found out I’m the guy who actually shot JFK. What’s your story?”
“I got picked up for boosting a liquor store, but I didn’t do it. They got the wrong guy,” he asserted. I just nodded in understanding. “You?”
“Some kids on the school bus decided they wanted my lunch money.”
He stared at me for a moment. “You’re shitting me. So why are you here and not them?”
“They’re in the hospital.”
He gave me a look of respect, which made me wonder about my standards in my new life; I was getting approval from criminals. I just gave an embarrassed shrug. Any further discussion was ended when a uniformed cop came up and took my new friend by the arm and took him away. After another couple of minutes, a different cop came for me. I was led down a series of hallways towards what looked like an interrogation room of some sorts. I glanced in and then asked if I could use the bathroom first. The police officer led me to a bathroom and followed me in. Thank God, the cuffs were in the front. I was able to fumble my zipper down and use the urinal. I don’t pee easily when being watched, but I ran the Fibonacci Series in my head until I relaxed and did my business. I zipped up and was led out. I glanced at my reflection in the mirror. I had a nice shiner starting. A minute later I was in the interrogation room.
“Who do you want me to call?” he asked, pulling out a small notebook and a pen.
“What, you mean my parents?” I asked.
He nodded. “Yeah.”
I gave a wry shrug at this. “Well, they’re both at work right now.” I gave it a thought. “Listen, I don’t know the number, but my father works here in town at Harry T. Campbell’s. He’s an engineer. His name is Charles Buckman. I don’t know the number, but they must be in the phone book. When you get him, you’d better tell him to bring a lawyer. I have a funny feeling this is going to be a hairball.”
The police officer gave me a funny look at this. “And your mom?”
“Why don’t you ask me that if you can’t reach my father. I think you’ll find him more… rational, let’s say.”
He just grunted at that and left the room. I had a chance to look around the room. Very stark and utilitarian, lowest-bidder government work. A metal table, bolted to the floor. Four metal chairs, bolted to the floor. A mirror along the side, probably one-way glass. No carpet. Plain sheetrock walls, painted institutional gray. Single door, steel, small window with the heavy glass and metal mesh, locked.
I sat down on one of the chairs and considered my predicament. In a lot of ways, despite my surroundings, I wasn’t doing badly. Yes, I was cuffed in a jail, but I hadn’t been booked, fingerprinted, photographed, or otherwise processed through the system, and the reality of it was that I probably wouldn’t be. Unlike my new friend out in the lobby, I had been involved in a schoolboy fight on a school bus. Okay, yes, I had put all three of them into the hospital, but the bottom line was that this was a fight on a school bus.
I reflected a moment on the fight itself. How had I beaten up three older bullies so badly, when at the time, the original time around, I would have been so much dead meat? It was purely a matter of surprise and circumstance. They had figured that the three of them could cower a little kid, but I wasn’t thinking like a little kid, but like a fully-grown man who wasn’t going to put up with their shit. When I fought back it was like the mouse spitting back at the cat. They were stunned. The last time I was in a fight had been when I was 17 and working at Pot Springs Pizza, and a punk kid wanted to prove he was a tough guy. He shoved me from behind and I swung around and backhanded him across the face. He was so stunned that somebody fought back it was easy for me to hustle him out of the shop.
Mind you, it usually still works out badly for the mouse. The only reason I managed to win was that I managed to fight in a restricted space, where I could handle them one at a time. The bus aisle was the first place, with two boys tied up and falling all over everybody while I concentrated on Jerry. Later, outside, I had my back to the bus, eliminating 180 degrees of vulnerability, and still managed to get the two boys to attack me individually. If we had all been outside, on a field, with no place to hide, and all three had attacked me at the same time, I would have been the one in the hospital.
So, what was going to happen now? They hadn’t started processing me through the system, so it was much more likely they were going to send me home with my parents. The cops and the courts are not how you want to handle schoolboy fights. But was that actually what I wanted? It is certainly what I would have wanted back the first time around. I would have been terrified; hell, I would have shit my pants being on a bench next to an armed robber! Now, at 67, I was nowhere near as impressed as they wanted me to be, even if I was 13 on the outside.
There were several tactics the police could use to get me out of their hair. They could threaten me and/or my parents. They could knock me around and show me how tough they were. Never mind the nonsense about how that was illegal. It was 1968. The Escobedo decision was only four years old and the Miranda ruling was only two years old and I was underage in any case. The cops could do any damn thing they wanted to a criminal and realistically get away with it.
Still, that wasn’t going to happen. After the war, when the highway system was being developed and it became possible to move out of the cities, Baltimore developed a large network of suburbs just like every other city in America. This was where the rich white people moved to get away from the niggers. Don’t blame me if you don’t like the language. This was 1968, not 2022, and this was south of the Mason-Dixon line and that was how people talked. So, my parents moved to the new suburbs, and the richest and whitest suburb in the state was Towson. There was no way I was going to end up in the basement getting the rubber hose treatment.
I was in the interrogation room for over an hour-and-a-half when the door was opened, and two large men stepped in. The first man in was a big man, tall and stocky, dressed in a suit, and his hair was gray, and his face was red. The second man was similar, only a bit shorter, and his face was a normal color.
I stood up and turned towards the red-faced man. “Hi, Dad.”
“WHAT THE HELL HAVE YOU DONE NOW?” he roared.
“Well, so much for ‘innocent until proven guilty’,” I commented. I turned towards the other man as my father fumed and seemed to get redder. “Hi, I’m Carl Buckman. Who are you?” I held out my right hand to shake his, but of course the left came with it since they were cuffed together.
The other man quickly came around to stand between me and my father. He stared at the cuffs for a moment before shaking my hand awkwardly. “I’m John Steiner. I’m a lawyer.”
“I asked what the hell you have done!” yelled my father again.
“Why don’t we sit down so I can tell you?” I answered calmly.
The lawyer pushed my father towards a chair opposite mine. “Charlie, sit down so we can figure this out.”
“I want to know…”
“Charlie, sit down and shut up,” replied Steiner.
My father sat down with no small amount if ill grace and stared at me. In a low and dangerous voice, he said, “This had better be good.”
“I will tell you everything in just a moment, Dad. Just believe me when I tell you that I am not the bad guy here. Please, just believe me. First I need to ask Mister Steiner a question.”
Dad looked like he was about to explode, but the lawyer grabbed his arm and kept him under control. He sat down next to my father and looked at me. “Yes?”
“Mister Steiner, I presume you are my father’s attorney.”
“Yes, I have been for several years. Why?”
“The question is, are you now my attorney or are you his?”
Steiner sat back in his chair and eyed me curiously. Dad just looked confused and was on the verge of some more yelling when Steiner leaned forward and held his hand up. “Hold it, Charlie, this is good.” He turned back to me. “I will be your attorney.”
“Even though he is paying you?” I pressed.
He glanced at my father and then turned back to me. “Even though.”
“And if his wishes were different than mine?”
My father was staring at the pair of us like we were speaking in Martian. “What in the world are you two…”
Steiner simply held his hand up to silence my father. “I know where this is going.” He turned back to me. “If there was that much of a difference of opinion I would arrange for a new lawyer for you. Is that satisfactory?”
“Yes, sir, thank you very much.” I stood and reached across the table and offered my hand again. “Like I said earlier, my name is Carl Buckman.”
He shook my hand much more firmly. “I’m John Steiner and I’m your lawyer. You want to tell us what you’re doing here?”
“Yes, sir, I would very much like to do that.”
The sense of rationality in the room had grown by several orders of magnitude. Even my father seemed calmer now. In a much more reasonable tone, he repeated himself. “This still had better be good.”
“That all depends on your definition of good.” I told them everything, about how the three boys had decided to begin ganging up on the kids on the bus, taking lunch money, and how they had told me they were going to charge me five bucks a week. This had been announced on the bus yesterday afternoon on the ride back from school. Then I described the fight. Dad’s a pretty tough guy himself, but it’s mostly his size and looks. He might look like a stevedore, but he’s actually a design engineer. Dad blanched when I described what I thought were the final results. “Jerry has got to have a busted nose, some busted teeth, and probably a broken jaw. Tim was just knocked out, a concussion, I guess, and Bob’s knee is totally shattered. I would bet all three are staying in the hospital for a few days.”
“Jesus Christ!” Dad said. He was finally looking at me with a mixture of horror and respect, the lawyer, too.
Steiner asked, “Have you told this to the police?”
“They never asked. I’ve been sitting here for the last couple of hours waiting for you. Besides, I’m not talking to them without a lawyer. Miranda v. Arizona comes to mind.”
Both men stared at me for a second, and then Steiner stood up and pounded on the locked door. It opened a few seconds later and he spoke quietly to whoever was on the other side. He then came back and sat down at the table. “Okay, a detective will be in shortly. I want you to tell him everything you just told us. We’ll get out of here afterwards. I can’t imagine they’ll charge you with much more than a misdemeanor. Fighting on a bus or something.”
“Mister Steiner, I have no intention of agreeing to anything of the sort. I’m the victim here, not them. They attacked me, not the other way around,” I replied.
This sort of disagreement was what my father used to call ‘back talk’, ‘lip’, or ‘sass’, and you could see his face clouding up again. At home, he’d have started swinging at me by now. Mr. Steiner just nodded in understanding and motioned for Dad to keep calm. “Let’s talk to the detective first. I won’t agree to anything without discussing it with you first.”
After another minute, the door opened up and another man in a suit, smaller and thinner, with a noticeable bald spot even though he was still in his thirties, came in. He was carrying a legal pad and a pen and a manila folder. He looked at us and tossed his things to the table. “Hello. My name’s Robert Ritchie and I’m a detective.” He waggled a finger at the two men, pointing in turn at them. “Mister Buckman?”
“This is Charles Buckman, and I’m John Steiner, Mister Buckman’s attorney,” answered Mr. Steiner.
Detective Ritchie shook their hands before turning to face me. “And you must be Carl. Can I call you Carl?” he asked, a big friendly smile on his face. Yeah, we were all buddies. He was my friend. He would remove my cuffs and send me home to my loving parents. I would leave the horrible police station. And to do this, I only needed to make a little confession. Kidnapping the Lindbergh baby came to mind as the little confession.
“Sure thing, Bob, you bet,” I answered happily.
Ritchie started at this and stared at me. Smiling to himself, he shook his head. “Okay, I deserved that, I suppose. Let’s sit down and get this over with.”
“Yes, sir,” I replied, much more politely.
“Can we do something about the handcuffs?” asked Steiner.
“I suppose, but these are some pretty serious charges,” replied Ritchie. It was like watching poker players raise and fold on their hands.
“There’s three of us. I think we can take him if we need to,” was the dry response.
Ritchie shrugged and removed my cuffs. I guess this gave him some form of card for later in the game. He put the cuffs and keys in his pocket and picked up his pad and pen. He turned to me and said, “So, tell me your side of it.”
I glanced over at Steiner, who nodded silently, and told my story again, just like I had before. He made several notes, most specifically when I mentioned names. At the end he commented, “That’s not precisely the story I got.”
It was important that I stay in control as much as possible. Before my lawyer could respond, I said, “I imagine not, but who would you have heard differently from? The other three are all in the emergency room. No way have you talked to them yet. Who’s left? The bus driver?”
Ritchie gave me a very sharp look at this. “According to the driver, you attacked all three boys on the bus, and then attacked the two he rescued when you got outside.”
I snorted in derision. “He rescued them? That’s rich. Let me guess, he stated he saw the whole thing, right?”
“Yes, he did.”
My father was keeping quiet, which was good. He simply couldn’t understand what had happened to his nerdy little asshole son. More importantly, the lawyer was keeping silent. He could always step in and claim I was being coerced or stupid if something came up that was bad, but in the meantime, if I was asking questions, the detective might just screw up himself. I was taking control of the interview session.
“You may consider that report as fine a work of fiction as anything Hemingway or Faulkner ever wrote. It has just about as much relation to the truth. The driver was sitting in his seat, facing forward, looking through the windshield when this all started. The only place he could have seen anything from was standing in the aisle, but that is where all the kids getting on the bus were, so he wasn’t there. He was sitting, face forward. When he heard the fight start, he would have turned around, but there were at least a dozen kids between us and him. He never saw anything.”
“Uh, huh.” Ritchie wasn’t letting me know what he was thinking. He would have been a good poker player.
“Then later, after he threw my last two attackers off the bus - the phrase he used was ‘get the fuck out of here’ - he was kneeling on the floor trying to see to Jerry. He was three feet below any windows on the bus, which are six feet off the ground in any case, so how did he see me attack the other two? He didn’t know anything about what happened until after the police and ambulance arrived and he came down off the bus.” I continued.
“So why did he say different?” he asked.
“Well, what was he going to say? That he had no idea what was happening and couldn’t keep control of the kids on his bus? How long would he stay employed after that? I would bet that he’s not actually a school employee and protected by a union, but a part-time employee of the contracting company that operates the busses.” On the first go around, the same driver had reported that nothing at all had occurred, despite what some of the passengers had said.
“Interesting thought.” He was very noncommittal to my statement.
“Have you interviewed any of the other witnesses? Any of the other students on the bus?”
“Who should I interview?”
“I saw you writing their names down.” I read off the list that he had written. “They were right beside me on the bus. They saw the attack this morning and they heard the threats and extortion yesterday afternoon.”
“That’s an awful lot of time to take these statements. Why should I do anything with this other than let you go on a misdemeanor disturbing-the-peace complaint?” I looked at him curiously and he continued. “Let’s be realistic here. This is never going to trial. You four boys got into a beef and the bus driver decided to cover his butt. You are going to take the misdemeanor and go home.”
“Because I want those three arrested on at least four felony counts.” I answered calmly.
The room exploded, with all three men exclaiming the ridiculousness of this. I just sat there with a calm look until they quieted down, and then held my hand up for silence. The detective simply shook his head at me. “Felonies? Never going to happen. This is never going anywhere near a court.”
“You’re right, this is never going to go to court, but I have a problem now because of this, and the only way my problem gets solved is with your help.”
“You have a problem?”
I nodded. “A big one. As it stands, I have been arrested and hauled away in handcuffs, and the bus driver has formally accused me of attacking three kids on the school bus. At the bare minimum, I’m barred from riding the bus, and much more likely, I’m expelled from school. Right now, as we speak, Towsontown Junior High is getting ready to burn me at the stake.”
It was obvious that the adults in the room had never thought of this. My father, in particular, had a worried look on his face. “I know this isn’t going to court. However, if the three boys are formally arrested and charged with felonies, the school will have to allow me to stay in school, especially since no charges have been formally filed against me yet. A detective trumps a bus driver any day of the week.” Maybe I could play to his vanity a touch. “I don’t care if they plead it down to attempted jaywalking. It will keep me on the bus and going to school, with no record.”
“Interesting. You’ve given this some thought.” Unspoken was ‘A lot more thought than a 13-year-old kid should be having!’ “What felonies did you have in mind?”
He wouldn’t have asked me this if he wasn’t thinking of going along. “Just the obvious ones. Assault. Conspiracy to commit assault. Attempted extortion. Conspiracy to commit extortion. I bet there’re a few others you can think up. Maybe something gang-related.” We didn’t have any criminal gangs in Towson that I had ever heard of, but I was being ambitious.
He shook his head with a certain degree of incredulity. “I’ve got to tell you; this is the craziest stuff I have run across in a long time.”
“But certainly, it is the right thing to do,” interjected Steiner. He had been following along closely and was nodding and making other motions to push the detective along.
“And I do this how?”
“Everybody is at school now, probably at lunch. You go over there, right now, and get those three kids to come to the office. Ask them what happened. Ask them if they heard the threats yesterday. They have no reason to lie to you. If they back me up, you tell the Principal. If they don’t back me up, you throw my sorry butt in jail. I’ll be safer there than at home with him.” I pointed at my father as I said this.
“Like you would not believe,” Dad said drily.
“Just do it right now. It will be the most fun those guys have had this year! I’ll hang around here until you get back. You can do it in an hour,” I pushed.
He gave an exasperated look at me, but then he stood up. “My captain will never believe me when I tell him about this. I’ll be back.” He left the room.
Once he had left, Dad looked at me. “Where do you get off talking to the police like that?”
“Charlie, it’s okay, he did okay,” said Steiner.
“Dad, I was neither rude nor loud nor coarse. If anything, I was the voice of reason.”
“Carl, I don’t know what you plan on doing someday, but if you ever get a law degree, look me up.” Steiner gave me a very approving look.
I smiled at him and nodded my thanks. “Thank you. Now we come to part two. I couldn’t say this in front of the detective, so we have to plan this out.”
“Plan what out? What’s part two?”
“That would be the lawsuit we bring against the three of them and their parents.”
“What?” My father had jumped out of his chair and was staring at me.
Steiner was calmer. “A lawsuit? On what basis?”
“A civil suit based on the assault and extortion, my severe emotional disability, the slanders they have been speaking - I don’t know and I don’t care. You’re the lawyer. You can figure it out.”
Steiner just shook his head. “This will never go to trial. It’s ridiculous. You destroyed those boys.”
“Yes, I did. They are all going to be hospitalized, and the bills are going to be horrendous. If we don’t sue them, they will sue us.” My father got a very worried look on his face at hearing this. He really hadn’t thought this through.
“They can sue regardless,” said Steiner.
“I know, but it won’t matter. They get charged with felonies, they plead them down to something minor and do no time in jail, but the plea is prima facie evidence of wrongdoing. The standard of proof in civil court is lower than in criminal court. I don’t need anything more. Meanwhile, I will have no criminal arrest record and they will have been expelled from school. We win so fast your head will spin.”
“We win in ten years. They will drag this out forever.”
I smiled. “Stop thinking like a lawyer for a second and think like a parent. They don’t want to drag this out. They want it to go away! Sue them for a quarter million apiece.”
“A quarter of a million dollars? Are you crazy?”
“Too low? Half a million?” Steiner sputtered and I just grinned. “I don’t care if you ask for their first-born male children. You offer to settle for ten grand each. They’ll cave in a heartbeat. You take a third. It will be the easiest and quickest ten grand you will ever earn.”
Dad was beside himself, sputtering indignantly. “This is the craziest thing I have ever heard of. Nobody is suing anybody!”
Steiner, on the other hand, slowly smiled and nodded. He grinned at my father and said, “No, this makes perfect sense. It’s brilliant.”
“This is crazy.”
“Crazy like a fox, maybe. Look at it. It keeps him in school, it keeps them from suing you for damages, and it maybe nets us all some cash. What kind of a cut do you want?” he asked.
“Jack, I’ll punch you instead of him.”
Steiner laughed. “You do that. I’m hiring him as my attorney.” He pointed at me. “We won’t be able to sue until after they have been arrested and charged and agree to the plea. They might have an attorney who can figure this out as well.”
“Fine by me,” I said. “We’ll know in a week’s time or so. Even if they do figure it out and try to fight it in criminal court, their lawyer will bankrupt them trying to fight something the district attorney will be begging with them to plead out on. They will have to settle. My immediate worry is getting back to school. Dollars to doughnuts, by the time we get home, they will have called Mom and told her.”
“Jesus H. Christ!” commented Dad.
“Sorry about that, Dad.” I just gave him a sympathetic look. There was a reason I had told the cops to call him rather than Mom. She could be a bit extreme at times. His look back at me was not a happy one.
It was closer to an hour-and-a-half before Detective Ritchie returned, time in which Steiner and I spent plotting strategy. Ritchie’s return was almost anticlimactic. “You are free to go,” he announced, coming in the door.
“The charges?” asked Steiner.
“And the school? What did the witnesses say?” I asked.
“The witnesses back you up a hundred percent. The school is your problem. I told the Principal, but I don’t think he cares. You’ve been expelled.”
I looked over at Steiner. “Let me handle this. You’ll be back before the end of the week. Let’s go,” he said confidently.
We all trooped out, though I made sure I shook the detective’s hand. “Thank you very much, Mister Ritchie. I know you went out of your way and I appreciate it quite a lot. You didn’t have to help me, and it means a lot to me. Thank you.”
Most cops don’t get thanked by the guys they interrogated. He gave me a shocked look and mumbled out a ‘thank you’ before sending us away.
I followed my father out of the station to his car and climbed into the passenger seat after he unlocked the door. He was quiet the entire walk, and stayed quiet as he started the car, but then he turned the key off again and twisted to look at me. “What is with you? You backtalk to a police officer? You make deals with a lawyer? You fight on the bus? It’s like I don’t know you anymore.”
I just looked out the windshield. “I’m the same guy, Dad. Maybe this is what happens when you treat me like a grownup and not like a kid.”
“What, you’re thirteen now and don’t think you need to do what you’re told anymore?”
I turned to face him and took a deep breath. “No, Dad, I’m thirteen now and decided I wasn’t going to be pushed around by bullies anymore. If people want to deal with me, they can deal with me like an adult. Life is too short otherwise.”
“An adult? This is how you act like an adult?”
“Yes, father, it is. Tell me, how have I not been acting like an adult? If a gang of three men decided to punch you in the face, would you have just sat there and let them? Or would you have fought back? Come on, Dad, you were in the Navy during the war, what would you have done?” Before he could make a response, I pressed on. “Go ask Mr. Steiner if I was acting like a kid or an adult today? I was respectful and asked intelligent questions and we worked together to make an effective plan to keep me in school and protect you and Mom from lawsuits. Are those the actions of a child or an adult?”
Dad continued to stare at me. “The only time I was anything less than courteous with the detective was when he condescendingly treated me like a child at the start. Once I called him on that, we got along fine. Even better, he came into the room planning on offering me an out as long as I pled guilty to something minor. I managed to get out of there with no charges and no guilty plea. Is that childlike? Or did you really want me to break down and cry and piss my pants? Hell, Dad, the only one in that room who was treating me like a kid was you!” I was immediately sorry I said this since up until now I hadn’t cursed once.
My father just stared at me for a moment and then shook his head in disbelief. My use of the word ‘hell’ was ignored. “Huh. Now what?”
I grinned. “Now we go home. I missed lunch today. Maybe I can grab a cookie or two.”
He glanced at his watch. “Your mother is probably home by now. This is not going to be fun.”
“She’s probably already heard from the school,” I agreed.
We were both right. Mom’s car was in the driveway when we got home. Ham and Suzie weren’t home yet, but I saw my knapsack with my books on the couch. Somebody on the bus must have brought it home, so now Mom knew everything. “Carl? Is that you? I want you up here now!” She was calling me from their bedroom, across the hall from my bedroom. There was no way to avoid her. I followed Dad up the stairs to the bedroom.
Mom looked furious. Normally she’s a very attractive woman - Dad snagged a real looker - but not this afternoon. She started right in on me. “What did you do? Katie Lowenthal brought your bookbag home and told me you beat up three boys on the bus and the police arrested you, and then the school called. You’ve been expelled! What have you done now?” She was at full volume during all of this, and her face looked pinched and ugly.
I turned my head to my father. “You know; you guys really have to work on this ‘presumption of innocence’ thing.”
I turned my head back towards Mom just in time to see her hand come swinging at my face. She clocked me a good one, staggering me back a step. “Don’t you dare give me any lip!”
I stepped back forward to my original place and rubbed my jaw. “Good one, Mom. We’ll get to that in a bit. Why don’t we all sit down?”
Mom moved to slap me again, but Dad simply said, “Shirley, no.” and she stopped.
My parents managed to cram in a regular-size bed, a desk and office chair, and a recliner into their bedroom. I plopped down into the recliner and Dad sat at his desk. Mom had no choice but to sit on the bed. “Okay, here goes,” I said.
I gave her the full story, including what happened at the jail. I did leave out my meeting the armed robber. That would have been just one item too much for her. By the end of the tale she was somewhat mollified, but still angry with me. “You shouldn’t have fought those boys. You know better than to fight.”
She was starting to piss me off, but I tried to keep it out of my voice. “What, Mom? What should I have done? Tell someone? Who? The bus driver? The bus driver lied to the cops just to keep his job. You think he was going to do anything? Who am I going to tell at the school? The Principal? You think he’s going to assign somebody to walk me to class every day and protect me?”
From the look on her face, this is precisely what I should have done. Still I pushed her. “Maybe I should have told you and Dad? Oh, that’s right, I did that already, last year. You told me to be a man and stand up for myself. Guess what, I did just that and now you’re unhappy with me. Make up your mind, Mom.”
“How dare you speak to me like that?” She looked over at my father, expecting him to start beating the crap out of me, which is what he would have done any day prior to this. Instead he just sat there and looked at her. “Are you going to let your son backtalk to me like that?”
“Shirley, stop it.”
“Mom, define backtalk. Is it saying anything under the sun that you and Dad don’t agree with? You might as well just shoot me now, because there are lots of things in the world we don’t agree on,” I replied, which was probably not a good thing to do.
Dad turned his head to me. “Don’t push your luck.”
“Yeah.” I rubbed my face wearily. It had been a long day, and the time with my parents was the worst of it. “Is there anything else?”
Mom stared at the both of us. She had no idea what was happening, but it was definitely not going according to her righteously indignant plan. “That’s it? You’re not punishing him for this?”
“Punishing him for what? For defending himself? For getting out of jail? For protecting us from a lawsuit? What’s he done?” Dad asked. Score one for Dad. If they began arguing between themselves, I could escape.
I stood up and moved over to the door. “Two last things I have to say.” They stopped their bickering and looked over at me. “First, don’t ever hit me again.” They stared at me like I was speaking in tongues. “I just got in a fight and went to jail because three kids decided to hit me. I won’t stand for that ever again. If you want to punish me for something, fine. Ground me, take away the house key, take away my possessions, throw me out of the house - I don’t care, I just don’t care, but never hit me again.”
They didn’t say anything to this. I guess they were too stunned. “Second, I just want you to think about something. If I ever have children, and I ever find out they’ve been arrested, I pray to God that the first thing I would say to them is ‘Are you all right?’ and not ‘What have you done now?’ I just want you to think about that.” I left the room and went across the hall to my room.
I went over to my room and crawled onto my bed, rearranging the pillow to sit upright against the wall. I was no longer hungry, just tired. It had been a long day and dealing with my parents simply made it more tiring. Ham and Suzie came home a few minutes later. Ham came upstairs and dropped his shit off and then left without paying any attention to me. I mean every word of it when I say that he was self-centered to the point of near psychopathic proportions.
I was forced to give my parents a lot of thought and reflect on what they had been before and what they were now. It was a very complicated subject. Charles and Shirley Buckman were good people. They were the rock-solid upper-middle-class foundation of this country. They worked hard, went to church, paid their taxes, voted, and gave to charities. By any stretch of the imagination, they were people you would want living next door.
However - they were lousy parents. Don’t get me wrong on this. It’s not like we were chained in the basement, eating gruel and being whipped. We weren’t. By most standards we were raised well. By any objective standard we all turned out okay, with three white collar jobs, college educations (mostly), grandchildren, and nobody ever getting into trouble (until this morning.) Further, kids don’t come with an instruction book, and they never really got lessons.
But it was not enjoyable growing up in that house the first time and I was seriously wondering if I could do it again. My father could be very abusive. His view of child rearing involved using a carrot and stick approach, but the carrot was a few tiny slivers of orange shaving and the stick was a half-inch thick oak pledge paddle from his college days. If anything, and I do mean anything, was not perfect, Ham and I would get hit with it. Further, since we were supposed to always exhibit proper behavior, whatever that was, and since you do not reward correct actions, only above-average actions, if we behaved properly, there was no notice taken. If we behaved, nobody would ever say how good we were, but if we were bad, we would get beaten with a stick.
In some ways, my mother was worse. She didn’t hit as much, preferring to wait until Dad got home, but she could be very cold. She fully bought into the idea that good behavior was expected, and therefore not to be rewarded, and that bad behavior should be punished severely. Further, her job was to mold us, especially me, as the oldest, into a proper adult. Being loving did not enter the equation but teaching and training us did.
Once, when I was five or so, I made a birthday card for her birthday. On the front side, it said “I love you!” Then, when you opened it, it said, “I love you too!” “I love you two!” and “I love you to!” I thought I was being clever, and proudly gave this to her. The average mother would probably hug and kiss her child for this. My mother used this as a chance to correct my spelling and teach me proper word usage. I never made a mistake in using those words again, but I never made her another card, either.
As the oldest child, I got the brunt of this. Hamilton, two years younger, got some, but he wasn’t the first-born male child and wasn’t as important and they didn’t hide this fact, which must have done wonders for his self-esteem. Suzie, on the other hand, was a girl and the youngest child, and they made no bones about the fact that she was the favorite. You would think that I would have been jealous about that, but actually not. Suzie was a good kid, and even though she knew she had her father wrapped around her little finger, she didn’t rub it in our faces. She was also six years younger than me, so we didn’t have all that much in common. We never went to school together, for instance. Later, whenever she managed to get something really outrageous (an all-expenses-paid trip to New Orleans, for example) I simply smiled and considered her a really sharp operator.
By the time I was a teenager, it was obvious that my future position in life was to be Charlie Buckman’s clone, only better. Like my father I would go to a good school and become a scientist or engineer. This is about the only part of the plan that happened. The rest was a disaster. I was to go to an Ivy League school like Dad, but four years and not the two that he did. I would get a graduate degree, which he never did, and be a professional (letters after the name), which he never did. I would marry properly, another WASP, also a college-trained professional, and we would have 2.3 children. We would live in the suburbs, only a nicer and more expensive neighborhood, have a bigger house than my parents, and I would work for a large conglomerate. We would be good Republicans and pass on these values to future generations of Republican Ivy League WASPs.
Inasmuch as almost none of this was to occur, my parents made no attempt to hide their disappointment in me. Even though by almost any rational standard I led a good and happy and well-off life, until the day they died they made no bones about the fact that I had let them down. There was a very good reason that I went to school three hundred miles away and never moved back and rarely visited.
Part of the day’s discussion with them was an effort to put them on notice that my life was to be lived on my terms, not theirs. I was not naïve enough to think that today would make that much of an impression. I knew that before too long Dad, and especially Mom, would begin molding me back to the path of righteousness. The first time around I had usually acquiesced unhappily for a time until something would go wrong and cause me to explode in juvenile anger. This time I would have to be different, and they would have to be taught that if I was to be a part of their lives after I was seventeen, it would be their expectations which would change, not mine.
One of the curious events that had transpired was when I told them never to hit me again. You might not believe that would happen, but on the first go-around, it happened when I was only a year older. My mother had decided I needed to be slapped, probably for backtalk or some damn thing, and I had instinctively brought my arm up to block her. She was so startled she had stared at me for a second, and then swung at me again. By then I was already in too deep, so I blocked her again. She put her arm down and promised to tell my father, at which point I had told her to do what she thought best, but they couldn’t hit me anymore. They didn’t hit me anymore, either.
I don’t mean to say that when my parents were home we were cowering in the basement hiding from them. It really wasn’t like that. The best comparison I can make is with other families. I’ve seen normal families. Mom or Dad get home from work or the store or wherever, and the kids show up to say hello and see what they brought back or whatever. We didn’t. We avoided them lest they figure out what we’d done wrong that day and hit us. It was over quickly, but it was never a good thing to be called up to see them. There was never any praise, only punishment. No carrot, only stick.
I skipped dinner that night, which was very unusual. You ate what Mom put on the table, when she put it on the table. There were no substitutions and no delays. If you didn’t like it, which could happen, you ate it anyway, since the other choice was a beating with the oak paddle. If the meal was toxic radioactive sludge, you ate it. If you didn’t eat it and survived the beating and still wouldn’t eat it, you didn’t get fed until the next day. Surprisingly, my parents let me skip out, even after I told them I would eat something later.
I stayed in my room, thinking about what I was doing and how I would survive the next few years, until Hamilton came upstairs to bed. We had a small room but had managed to cram in two twin-size beds and a dresser. By then my stomach was growling and I went downstairs to the kitchen. Everyone else had gone to bed, so I scrounged up a can of soup and opened it and poured it into a pan and set it on the stove.
Mom must have heard me stirring about, because she came downstairs. She found me stirring the soup over the flame and surprised me further by taking a bowl out of the overhead cabinet. “Thank you,” I said.
She looked at me without speaking as I finished stirring my soup. I poured it into the bowl and sat down at the kitchen table to eat. Finally, as she realized I wasn’t going to be the one to speak, she said, “I’m sorry I yelled at you this afternoon about the fighting. I know it wasn’t your fault.”
“Thank you.” Better to keep my words brief and to the point. Obviously, she was the one who wanted to speak.
She gave me a strange look. “You’re different somehow. You’re acting…different.”
I set my spoon down and looked at her. “You always tell me to grow up and act my age, but now that I do, you don’t like it. You need to make up your mind, mother.”
Her face clouded up at this. Before this afternoon, I am sure I would have been smacked. Now she controlled herself. “You can’t speak that way to your mother.”
“Mom, I am speaking to you like an adult. You want me to act like an adult. You have said this more than once. If you want me to act like a little kid, just let me know. I have to tell you, it’s awfully confusing.” She just sat there, flummoxed, not knowing what to say to me. My words were making perfect sense, but just weren’t registering. I pushed a little harder. “Mom, I’ll make you a deal. You want me to act like an adult? Fine, I’ll do just that. You just have to treat me like an adult.”
“But you’re not an adult, you’re only a child!” she protested, probably louder than she wanted.
I simply shrugged. “Okay, it’s up to you. I am the one acting like an adult at the moment. I’ll keep acting like a grown-up, but don’t be surprised when I let you know I think you’re letting me down.”
She just stared at me and then stood up and went back upstairs. I might as well have been speaking in Chinese for her understanding. I cleaned up and put the dishes in the dishwasher, and then headed upstairs and went to bed.
The next morning, I woke up at my normal time, even though I wasn’t going to school. I went down to breakfast, which is basically cereal and juice, and got some Frosted Flakes and OJ. Hamilton ignored me as always, but Suzie noticed my eye. “What happened to you?”
“I got a black eye?”
“I got punched in the eye.” I grinned at her and jumped up from the kitchen table. I balled my hands up into fists and waved them around wildly. “How would you like to be a Black-Eyed Suzie?”
In case you didn’t know, the Maryland state flower is the Black-Eyed Susan, which sounds a lot more exotic than it really is. It’s just a daisy with a brown center instead of the normal yellow. It’s a common wildflower all over Maryland. Ever since she’s been old enough to understand, the entire family has been teasing Suzie about giving her black eyes and making her the state flower.
Suzie giggled and squealed and ran back up the stairs. “Mom! Carl’s going to make me a black-eyed Suzie!”
I laughed and sat back down to finish my breakfast. A minute later Suzie reappeared and stuck her tongue out at me. I stuck mine out at her, and this was how Mom found us when she came in, sticking our tongues out and making funny faces at each other.
“This is acting like an adult?” she asked me.
I smirked and then made a pointing gesture at Mom to Suzie. She giggled and nodded, and we both turned our faces to Mom and stuck out our tongues. It was too ridiculous. Mom just laughed and then stuck out her tongue back at us, before telling us to finish breakfast. Suzie and Hamilton got bundled out the door to school. Mom went back upstairs to get dressed for work. She worked part-time in ladies’ lingerie at Hutzlers, a Baltimore department store. She had started part-time once Suzie started school, and as we got older, she began working more hours, and eventually becoming full time and moving into management. By the time I got out of college, she had become the head of telecommunications for the company, which was an amazing thing, considering she only had a high school diploma. She stayed with them until retiring, just before the company folded and was sold.
I stayed downstairs and found my bookbag in the living room. Mom went off to work and I pulled everything out of the knapsack and spread it around. Wow! I didn’t remember being this sloppy!
El Camino Real, the Spanish book. Five years of Spanish and all I ever learned was ‘Mas cervezas, por favor!’ An algebra book. General science. Nothing on English or Social Studies, so I must have left that in my locker. A three-ring binder with all sorts of handouts and crap falling out of it. Thank God, I found a copy of my schedule, because after fifty years, I didn’t have a clue where I was supposed to be or who the teachers were.
I lived in a rich suburb in a rich county, and the public school system reflected this. It was your typical big suburban school system. When I got to Towson High it was about 2,200 kids in the top three grades. My graduating class was about 650. You could study almost anything. It was really first rate. It was a massive change when Marilyn and I lived north of the Catskills and raised children. When Alison and Parker graduated together, their class was 29 kids.
Because the school was so big, every seventh grader at Towsontown took a standardized test, a sort of junior SAT test. On the basis of this single test, the remainder of your academic life was laid out in precision detail. The next five years were preordained and attempting to vary your destiny was considered both futile and somewhat subversive.
The top ten percent of all students were the elite, the college prep group. These would become the future masters of the universe. They were destined to go to private four-year colleges, to become doctors and lawyers and scientists and engineers. They would become the future leaders of America. They were in accelerated classes. While others were taking 8th grade math, they were taking algebra. They were at least one year ahead of the others in taking biology, chemistry, and physics. They took AP advanced classes for college credit. Ten percent of 650 students worked out to roughly two classes of about 30+ students each, and for five years we moved in lockstep together, marching towards the future. I, of course, was a member of this exalted group, based on my phenomenal ability at taking standardized tests, and in no way due to my horrendously average grades.
Along the way, we were encouraged to mate and breed with other members of the top ten percent, to produce the next generation of elites. If necessary, because of the excess of teenage hormones, it was deemed acceptable to mate with members of a lower class, but breeding was certainly to be avoided, lest we waste our precious seed and eggs with subhumans. The overall theory was to allow the elites to sow their wild seeds with the lesser breeds, but to make sure they married within their class.
The next lower class was the normal kids, who made up about eighty percent of the school. These children had been tested and found wanting in the lottery of life. They would generally go to college, but it would be a public school, or even a community college. These unfortunates were often graced by the elites with being allowed to date and mate, but it was well known that these could only be temporary and physical affairs. After all, we, the elites, were all going to very expensive colleges on scholarships, and the lesser types would not be able to follow.
At the lowest level was the bottom ten percent, those assigned to Vo-Tech, or vocational technical training. They were considered almost a different species, and only spent a few hours every day at school before being shipped off campus to some form of job training. Such shipments were rumored to be made in off-duty County Police transport buses, which was considered a good idea, since it would acclimate these knuckle-draggers to a frequent mode of future transportation after graduation. If they didn’t end up going to jail and not passing Go, most would end up in the Army. This group invariably smoked, sported tattoos, grew mustaches (women, too!), and rode motorcycles. They would have frightened Marlon Brando in The Wild One. Nobody had anything to do with these examples of pond scum unless they needed drugs. Since there was a lot of drug activity in the Sixties and Seventies, a lot of people knew these guys.
Because of my amazing standardized test scores, I was assigned to the college prep crew, and my mother never let me forget it. As I mentioned, her duty was to make sure I fulfilled my academic destiny and my grades were never good enough. She was the sort who could complain ‘Carling, you only got straight A’s. You have the potential for so much more!’ and mean every word. If I had graduated as valedictorian, it would probably not have been sufficient. My rebellion was to not give two shits, and I was a B- student at best. B- among the college prep kids, anyway. This would have still been considered an A student among the normal kids. Worse, I often dated the normal kids, and even had friends among the dregs of humanity, the Vo-Tech crowd. I was smart enough, at least, to hide the last fact from my parents.
I picked up my algebra book and glanced at my homework sheet to see where in the book we were. I found my place easily enough and reviewed the chapter, but decided I needed to catch up, so I started at the beginning of the book. After a couple of hours, I had finished the book. This brought up a new dilemma. I had already gone through this shit the first time around - would I be able to survive doing it a second time without going batty? I glanced through the rest of my books and confirmed my fears.
I stood up and stretched and went to the kitchen and made myself a ham and cheese sandwich. I was hemmed in by the fact that in the here and now, I needed to graduate high school, graduate college, and get at least one graduate degree to make something of myself. It didn’t matter that I had already gotten an associate’s, two bachelors’, and a master’s degree the first time around. That didn’t count.
When I got out of high school in ’73 I had gone to Rensselaer, RPI, for a bachelor’s in chemistry. Immediately after graduating in ’77, I had gone to night school and gotten an MBA. Then, ten years later, in a new job, I had gone back to school for an associate’s and then a bachelor’s in computer science. If I was to repeat the sequence, I would go nuts.
But I could make some changes. As I thought about it, I started to get a wacky kind of idea. Way back when, in ’78 the first time around, I had toyed with the idea of switching majors to become a chemical engineer. I have always been comfortable in an industrial setting and working in engineering-related fields, probably thanks to my dad being an engineer. When I mentioned this to him, he just nodded and had a chemical engineer he knew talk to me. We all had a very pleasant dinner and discussion, and at the end I realized that I was a much better chemist than I was an engineer. I stayed a chemist and compensated by specializing in industrial chemistry. Any chemist can make drugs in the lab - I could make them by the ton in a factory! I spent the better part of ten years doing this.
But it was only after several years that I realized that I was a much better mathematician than I was a chemist! By the time I got through with my degrees I had certainly had enough math classes. Quantum mechanics is nothing but another semester of calculus. I picked up operations research and linear algebra getting the MBA, and so forth. By the time I got the degrees in computer science, I had the equivalent of at least a bachelor’s or a master’s.
There used to be a television show called Numbers, about a math professor who had a brother who was an FBI agent. Every week he would come up with some strange aspect of set theory or number theory or information science to figure out who the killers were. In a hundred people, I would have been the only one who could not only understand what he was talking about but could also figure out the shortcuts and discrepancies the show had to take.
My first foray into this had been at RPI. Everybody in the school had to take three semesters of calculus (the place is nerd heaven) plus either a semester of differential equations or a semester of computer programming. I had suffered enough with calculus, so I took computer programming. Even though I was stoned and drunk about ninety percent of the semester, I still managed a solid B in the class. I even considered getting into programming, but no, I was a chemist; I put that silly thought out of my mind. The funniest part was that when I was a senior and needed an elective, I took differential equations on a lark and got another solid B, again half-baked the entire semester. A math degree, especially considering that I remembered most of my math, would be a breeze. I was going to have to give this some serious thought.
I reviewed the rest of my books. English 8 was simplistic bullshit. It didn’t get interesting until senior high. The same was true of Social Studies, which didn’t break down into history until then. You would get a year of American History and then a year of World History, and then a year of whatever subjects were trendy. In the eighth grade we took General Science, not taking anything specialized until Biology in the ninth grade, a year before the rest of the kids in the school. This wasn’t all that bad, however. Our Science teacher was Mr. Rodriguez. A generation later he would be considered Hispanic or Latino; in 1968 he was known as the ‘little spic.’ I didn’t much care. That ‘little spic’ was the reason I became a chemist. He was a damn good teacher!
I was still reviewing things when Mom got home from Hutzlers. She gave me a curious look when she saw me studying, but her only comment was that I damn well better be right about getting back into school. I just smiled and nodded. When Suzie and Ham got home, he just ignored me. Suzie teased me about my black eye, and I offered to give her one. She just giggled and ran off to Mom. Ten seconds later I heard a loud “Carling! Will you knock it off?”
I just yelled back, “Yes, Mom.” I didn’t mean it. There had to be some way to have some more fun with this.
Dad got home about half past five. He just told me that he had a phone call from Steiner. We had an appointment at school at nine the next morning, and supposedly everything was worked out. Dad was doubtful; he had a hearty mistrust of all lawyers. I remember dating a girl in high school who had gone on to become a lawyer. Years later Mom asked if I remembered her. When I said I did, she mentioned that she had become a lawyer, and had married another lawyer, and that they now had two kids. Dad promptly quipped, “Oh my God, now they’re breeding!”
Dinner would be in half an hour. I found Suzie watching TV in the family room. I sat down on the ratty old couch we had down there. “Want to play a joke on Mom?” I asked.
Suzie giggled and nodded. In many ways, she was the most normal of us. She grew up to become a nurse, married a divorced cop with two boys, and had another two boys with him. They did very well together. Her biggest problem when she was growing up was her teenage years. She was a real pain in the tail, to the point I nicknamed her the Ice Queen Bitch From Hell. My parents used to say that she had ‘growing pains.’ I took this to mean the normal adolescent issues, which seemed to me to be wholly inadequate to describe her, but this was their clever little euphemism for real physical pains. She had terrible PMS and menstrual cramping, which made her miserable for almost two weeks of every month. It was so bad that her gynecologist put her on the Pill to control her cycle, which worked wonders for her, though it totally freaked out our father.
“Do you have a watercolor paint set?” I thought I had seen her painting with it the other day. She nodded, and I told her to go bring it down to the laundry room. She scampered off.
She was back a couple of minutes later, acting all sneaky and surreptitious. “Okay, what are we going to do?”
I opened the kit and grinned. “We’re going to give you a black eye!”
I took a brush and wet it at the laundry room sink, and then used it to wet the black watercolor pigment. I then had her stand still and close her eyes. I only did her right eye, to match mine, even though she wanted both done. We got finished just as Mom called us to supper.
“Okay. You need to wait here. Wait until I get upstairs to the table, and then you come in last. And don’t touch it. Don’t scratch your eye or get your eye wet or the paint will run.”
“Maybe I can go to school like this tomorrow!” she said excitedly.
I had to smile at that. “Yeah, I bet Mom would love that idea. You should make sure to ask her. Now wait until Mom calls you.”
I headed upstairs to find the other three already seated. I immediately sat down in my normal seat to the right of Dad and next to Hamilton. Dad sat at the head of the table and Mom at the other end. Suzie’s normal place was opposite Ham and me.
“Suzie! We’re waiting for you!” called out Mom.
I endeavored mightily to keep a straight face. Suzie bounded up the stairs and into the dining room. “Sorry I’m late.” She had an enormous grin on her face as she sat down at the table.
Mom stared at her with a mixture of awe and horror. “Oh my God!” Dad took the opposite tack, simply breaking down into raucous laughter. I had to hide my face behind my hands and bite my napkin to keep from joining him.
“Carling made me a Black-Eyed Suzie after all!” she announced, which totally set my father off. He was laughing so hard he was crying, and even Mom was smiling through her disapproving looks.
“Hey, you should have taken me seriously this morning,” I said, breaking down and laughing. Even Hamilton had started to laugh by now, not so much at Suzie as at my parents’ reactions.
“I wanted him to do both eyes,” said Suzie.
“You’d look like a raccoon then,” I replied.
“Cool! Mom, can I go to school tomorrow like this?”
Dad laughed some more, and Mom simply repeated, “Oh my God!” She began wagging a finger at me and smiling. “I’ll get you back for this one! I assume it comes off, or I really will get you back.”
“It was watercolor. It will come off in the bathtub tonight.” I grinned. “I debated making camouflage paint like they use in the army, but I figured I didn’t have the time.”
“You can’t do that,” said Ham scornfully.
“Of course, I can. Do you have any idea what that stuff even is? It’s nothing but lipstick with brown and green instead of the red. Stick it in a green plastic container and it’s no longer Sunset Kiss but Macho Manly. I figured I could grind up a charcoal briquette and mix it with a little Vaseline and do it. Kind of greasy, though, and I didn’t have time to experiment.” He looked disdainful, but I ignored him.
Dad settled down enough to start serving dinner, although every time he looked at my sister he would chuckle. I was sentenced to cleaning up after dinner, while Mom took Suzie to the bathroom to wash up. There were to be no black eyes at school the next day, or at least none that didn’t belong to me.
I set the alarm clock for an hour early the next morning, which made it my normal time to get up as an adult. Back when I was a kid the first time, I was a very late riser, but after forty years working I tended to get up by seven or earlier, even on my days off.
When the alarm went off the next morning, Hamilton grumbled and bitched he was going to tell Mom. I ignored him and pulled on some gym shorts and a t-shirt and sneakers. I also grabbed a sweatshirt. It was November after all. I quietly went down the stairs and out the back door.
This was going to be a major change in my overall life plan. It was one thing to accelerate my schooling. I was a nerd before and would be a nerd again. Previously, however, I was a couch potato, and it showed. I was skinny and weak for many years, but as I grew older, I started putting on a couple of pounds a year like clockwork. For many years I was simply filling out to a normal size. Then I started getting fuller, becoming plump, chubby, a few pounds’ overweight, fluffy - fat. By the time I was in my late fifties I was a good fifty pounds too heavy. Clothing wouldn’t fit, my health went downhill, and it exacerbated the normal problems you get with aging.
I didn’t plan on being a jock, but I did plan to get in better shape and stay there. I also planned to learn some self-defense techniques. Nobody knew better than me that the fight on the school bus was a real anomaly. I won by surprise and aggression, not by skill. One thing I damn sure wouldn’t do again was smoke. I had spent half my life smoking cigars and cigarettes, and it’s just not good for you. As much as I liked it, and don’t ever think smokers don’t enjoy it, it’s terrible for your health. After I quit I put on 30 pounds immediately and was still healthier being fat than I was when I smoked.
I had no hopes of becoming a jock. I was always going to be too slim and wiry for that. I could, however, build up my stamina and some muscle. It was going to have to be a long-term commitment. I knew enough about human nature to know that if I got in the habit now, it would be a lot easier to continue. It’s incredibly easier to keep the weight off in the beginning than to try to lose it later.
Life was simple. I decided to run around the block. I alternated jogging and walking for a half hour. I didn’t do much, maybe a mile and a half or two miles total, which isn’t much more than an average walking speed. I made a couple of laps around the block, which was big, and on the second I added another block in as well. I was sweating by the time I got back to the house and let myself in.
“What in the world are you doing?” asked my father. Normally he would have been off to work, but today he was reading the paper and drinking coffee.
“Getting in shape.”
“What, so you can get in fights again?”
I grinned. “No, so I can run away!” He just snorted at that and I went upstairs and took a shower. I made it quick, since it’s the only bathroom the three of us kids could use. Hamilton was waiting outside the door when I got out, a towel wrapped around my waist.
Hamilton brushed past me into the bathroom. Suzie opened the door to her bedroom and looked out into the hall, to see me standing there with a towel around my waist. “Gross!” she shrieked and slammed the door shut. I laughed and went to my bedroom to dress. I had grossed out my baby sister and it wasn’t even breakfast time. My day was complete! Everything else was going to be like ice cream on top of the pie!
At 8:30, Dad and I drove over to the school. Steiner wanted us to meet him in the parking lot. We found a space in the visitor’s lot. Since none of the kids had cars, none of the spaces were filled by student cars. We got out and waited for the lawyer to show up, which he did about five minutes later. He got out carrying a briefcase. His only instructions were for me to keep my mouth shut at all times, and for Dad not to lose his temper. I smiled at this, but Dad glared at me and I promptly found it a good time to look at something else - anything else!