Wings, boats, & asses

Before the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News gussied itself up over the last thirty years, my brother and I would play in its small-craft building, which today would look like a warehouse, were it still around.  Not like a big-box store made to look like a warehouse: it was a real, un-air-conditioned, sheet-metal-sided, concrete-floor warehouse.

We’d climb on old gondolas and tugs and dugout canoes illuminated only by a translucent, fiberglass ceiling. We could see the pine needles and dirt accumulating in rows along the corrugated roof from inside the building.  We played underneath a white, fallow field blessed by inattention and sunlight.

A sign in the aisles said not to climb on the boats, sure, but no one was ever in the room with us: no docent, guard, member, or guest.  Only birds.

The building’s doors stayed open.  The prefabricated construction invited nests.  The birds’ sudden flights drew our attention.  The room echoed with their pipes and amplified their wings. Beneath them, my brother and I were like Mole and Water Rat; each boat seemed headed for adventure.

From adulthood, I see the glory and the dream the birds and we shared. Like Thomas Cole, I look back and paint a guardian angel in each boat. The whole, eclectic fleet we played in could have been headed for the Gates of Dawn.

And now?  Is there such a room? I’ve spent my life nesting or looking for places to nest.  My mud and pine needles protrude out of the walls of professions and spill out of a church community.  I fly to my small library with bookmarks of straw.  Like the birds, I utilize; I don’t use things as they seem intended.

Yea, the sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O LORD of hosts, my King, and my God.  [Psalm 84:3]

I feel myself circling, or I feel myself building.  (It’s never all circling or all building, though, but it’s primarily one or the other; it’s a season of one or the other.) I’ve been circling for years now, looking for your altars, O Lord.  It has been a beautiful search, and I am grateful for the wings.

Most of the time, though, I think I’m just looking for Little Portly.  Trying to keep a kid in line at school or helping him learn past participles.  Saul looking for his father’s asses.  Could be.  Could be each of us is looking for his father’s asses.

[There are no birds in the new, 17,500-square-feet International Small Craft Center.  You can see the boats we played in, but you may not touch.  I should complain.  If you exhibit part of my childhood, at least make it interactive.]

William at forty

On my first visit home after William died, a storm shook brittle branches and brown needles from my parents’ longleaf pines for my father to pick up and rake. My father’s ’68 Continental, no longer subject to falling branches thanks to a tree removal he had ordered, was still in the driveway with one side of its black convertible top still sagging. But the feeling about the large, old subdivision lot was different, and after the storm I walked the place to look closer. Songbirds chirped with impunity and thought nothing of hopping on the grass. My shoes sank into the sandy, Tidewater soil beneath the lawn, now undermined by moles. And, for the first time in sixteen years (as far back as my memory served), there were cats.

My parents’ place was full of life that day; nature’s balance seemed restored; the great ring was somehow destroyed in the mountain where it was forged long ago by some immortal hand or eye. In short, there was a general sense of ruin.

For most of my childhood, our home had been the center of a vast empire. In contrast, my parents’ place that day had the feeling of an outpost of some lesser empire, or the feeling maybe of an overlooked parcel between two small, competing empires, the ground between the two clay feet in the great king’s dream.

I wonder if William’s dreams ever sent him to the astrologers, or if he fretted much over succession. He had ruled our neighborhood with an iron paw, but the compromises of his declining years and his Prince Hal-like ambivalence toward his subjects – chiefly my parents, my two siblings and me – must have brought succession to mind on bright, fall afternoons he spent dozing in the warm hammock he created out of my father’s ragtop. The cat, though, generally kept his own counsel, and he always had a healthy sense of what was beyond his grasp.

“Where’s Billy?” my brother’s friend asked my brother Ford, who, like my sister and me, was home from college the Christmas following my walk.

“‘Billy?'” Ford repeated, raising his eyes momentarily from the TV. “He would have scratched out your eyes for that.”

“Okay. Where’s ‘William’?”

Ford fingered the remote. “He caught a cold, so my father had him destroyed.”

The vet told my parents it was leukemia, and certainly my father wasn’t going to pour hundreds of dollars into propping up the house’s rival alpha male in a losing battle against cancer. Besides, we all had seen the signs during recent summers home: the dusty, gray-brown coat replacing the sharp, gray stripes of his youth; the battle scars after difficult nights fighting a new, young male down the street; the bitter bites he would give guests (like Ford’s friend) who wanted to rub him but who always rubbed him the wrong way. The end was near, and the sickness probably wasn’t a pretext, in fairness to my father.

I was eight when William was born the biggest and liveliest of a large litter produced by our neighbor’s Siamese cat and “a traveling man,” as a deed my father later drew up at his law office put it. William spent his first night with us running around inside Molly’s box spring, bringing to life her six-year-old fears of monsters and causing her to cede the cat to me the next morning. William, of course, never acknowledged the deed or any indicia of ownership. In a single day, though, my sister had given him the benefit of a suitable name – William Thomas – though her subsequent relationship with the cat led her to refer to him only as “the Devil.”

[picture of William]By his third year, William was carousing every night, and the vet bills led my parents to have him neutered when I was about thirteen and had just begun my paper route. From then on it wasn’t about the sex but about the territory, and I still heard William far away from home on those dark mornings at this dawn of his empire. I would be about to throw a folded newspaper at a stoop when I would make out a gray shape or perhaps his sharp, yellow eyes, and William would start those long, guttural moans that frequently precede catfights. He was on the stoop, demanding that the cat that he knew to be inside come out and fight. This happened on three different mornings at three different homes on my route. Why we didn’t get more calls from the neighbors I don’t know. I guess they knew who ran our place.

William had Odysseus-like craft to complement his large size, and he frequently had recourse to both his size and craft while hunting. William was the largest half-Siamese imaginable – his small Siamese pinhead only accentuated his size – but he would somehow seem small just before he turned the tables on his favorite victim, the catbird. He would emerge wide-eyed from underneath a parked car, crawling tentatively until this show of weakness attracted a catbird. At the lowest point in the bird’s trajectory, the cat would flip himself on his back, grab the bird around the neck with a paw, and bounce the bird’s head on the pavement. Then he would lunge at the neck of his stunned prey. After sharing the carcass with his protégé, a younger, full Siamese with the ignoble name “Duppy” who lived next door, William would drag it into my parents’ shrubbery, which he stocked year-round with a wide variety of bird and rodent carcasses. It was always gratifying to watch a real professional.

When the kids next door first introduced us to Duppy, we figured he would quickly go the way of our catbirds.  But William stared at the month-old kitten for a minute or two, and then began to bathe him with his sandpaper tongue.  It was Elijah throwing his mantle on Elisha, who was to be prophet in his place.

But if William ever harbored hopes that Duppy would succeed him, they sank quickly. William was a realist and a keen judge of talent. He must have remembered the day Duppy, under William’s tutelage, caught his first bird. Duppy trotted proudly from the woods bordering our lot with a bluebird in his mouth, but then he stopped and coughed. The bluebird found some wiggle room and flew out of his mouth. Duppy just stood there, coughing up blue feathers, and I never saw him hunt much after that. Duppy was like a son to William, and I’m not sure how William coped with his disappointment over how Duppy turned out.

Except for Duppy, William let no cats near our place. A large tabby lived two doors down, and infrequently he would lose his bearings and stumble into the heart of William’s realm. I would hear Thomas (the cat went by William’s middle name) give the cat fight moans for about ten minutes as I watched William and him slowly circle each other beneath my bedroom window in the predawn light. William would finally cut to the chase, his voice about two octaves lower than Thomas’s, and the rout was on. Thomas wouldn’t be back for at least a year.

William died at sixteen years of age, and he would have been forty years old this coming week. I suspect that my father and sister aren’t aware of the anniversary, and I will call them in time for them to celebrate it in their own ways.

My parents still live at our childhood home, and my wife and I visit two or three times a year. Not much has changed in the twenty-four years since that first walk around the lot following William’s death. A few more pines have succumbed to lightning and hurricanes. Birds, raccoons, dogs, and moles still punch in and punch out. But everything there just reminds me of when the yard carried a real distinction, when all of nature seemed to bend around where I grew up.

Unless and until

Or, Just because you fall off a cliff doesn’t mean you don’t have some hard choices to make

The coyote looks down. There’s nothing beneath him but the warm tones of the desert far below the top of the mesa he neglected to keep underfoot. He realizes he’s going to fall. He holds up a sign to us, or he unfolds a well-used parasol. Maybe he waves good-bye. At all events, he falls.

My eight-year-old son and I have watched this Looney Toones gag over and over on DVD together, and we laugh every time. I always thought we were both laughing at the foolish coyote because he carelessly steps (or rockets or bicycles) over the mesa’s edge. But it turns out Warren has been laughing because the foolish coyote foolishly looks down. Now I understand my son better.

I discovered Warren’s point of view last night, halfway through Warren’s bedtime routine. Warren’s routine includes our adaptation of the coyote gag. Warren’s stuffed snake loses control of his tail and it becomes a helicopter blade. The snake screams as he takes off from the bed, but things get worse for him: his tail sputters and droops when it runs out of gas. The snake looks Warren in the face, the snake’s eyes bigger than usual, if that is possible. “Oh, no,” he says, softly; then he falls.

Warren laughed, as always, but last night he was not completely satisfied.

“Pause the game. Next time, have the snake look down before he falls.”

Huh? Oh.

The difference between the truths we extrapolate from the coyote’s fall is precisely the difference between Warren and me. Examine the competing laws, stated succinctly here.

My Law: The coyote won’t fall until he looks down.

Warren’s Law: The coyote won’t fall unless he looks down.

Get the distinction? I understand that the gag works because the coyote will fall. Warren, on the other hand, sees the possibilities.

It comes down to the difference between unless and until.

Until is a preposition, inexorable as its object. Prepositions let you know things about the world, things you have to know to get along. Your job is to adjust, to understand your limitations, and to show as much individuality as conformity will permit. Your medicine fell under the table. You’re driving on the wrong side of the road. You came after your sister. That remark was over the top, Warren.

Unless is a conjunction, a grammatical contrivance evincing a far different human impulse than a preposition. Conjunctions put pieces of life together, and you have a lot of latitude there. Stick an “and” in for an “or,” and maybe you have two cookies instead of one. (Warren, in fact, often holds up his index finger and says, with a slow detective-like voice, “Unless…”) Life is not preset. Just because you fall off a cliff doesn’t mean you don’t have some hard choices to make.

Until has its soft side, too, when it also serves as a conjunction. I can relate to until’s ambivalence. After all, many of my fixed stances have fallen before Warren’s conjunctive assault. Here’s a discussion we had two weeks ago:

W: [Holding up two of my screwdrivers.] If you were going to give me one of your screwdrivers, would you give me the big one or the small one?

P: Warren, I’m not giving you any of my screwdrivers.

W: I know…

P: You may use my screwdrivers, but they remain mine.

W: I know, but if you were going to give me one, I think I know which one you would give me.

P: Okay, which one?

W: The small one. [Grins.]

A week later, it was his screwdriver.

I hasten to add that I’m not the only authority figure bending. When Warren was about five, he discovered prayer. He applied it by his bed each month on the night before his children’s church program held its drawing. He won the drawing and took home nice toys four months in a row as children more needy than he looked on.

Warren got so confident of his hotline to God that he tried to whip up a little unscheduled vacation for us that winter. One morning when I woke him up for school, Warren closed his eyes and mumbled for a moment, then gave me a knowing grin and rolled up the window shade. He was surprised not to see two feet of snow.

I thought Warren was in for a crisis of faith that morning. Instead, he took the bungled snowstorm in stride and walked down to breakfast. But he doesn’t pray much anymore, as far as I know.

Sometimes I wonder how Warren can have lived on this planet for eight years without assimilating more of the rules required for life down here. Victoria and I struggle to make sure Warren is aware of some certainties, expectations, and conditions precedent. But our work doesn’t often seem to have much effect. Maybe Warren showed up on the planet just yesterday, after all. How long have any of us been here?

Or maybe Warren never got here, and never will. Unless he looks down.