Posted by cliffparnell (#71) 660 days ago (Editorial)
by Cliff Parnell
…I recall with great clarity the Blizzard of '78. I was fourteen, full of the hopes and dreams of youth, and eagerly anticipating the lifetime of experiences that I sensed was waiting for me, patiently yet ambiguously, in the lifetime that awaited me. I was young, yes, but I was also immature and inexperienced, in an innocent and underdeveloped sort of way.
As the snow fell, inexorably and incessantly, seemingly with no end, I rose from my bed, like Phoenix from the ashes of Arizona, and wiped the dried saliva from the crusty edges of my mouth. My dog, Blizzard, lay at my feet, his cold, motionless body rigid yet lifelike, like a Republican. The pungent smell of a hearty breakfast wafted up the stairs from the kitchen, where Mom hovered by the stove, singing TV themes and college fight songs, as she did every day during my youth.
Dad was gone by then, of course, which made me very sad. I thought of him often, his absence a constant, palpable ache, like a recurrent blow to the head with a flat piece of wood. Mom would do her best to comfort me, with a reassuring, “Don’t worry, son. First shift gets out at 3.”
I dressed quickly, yet smartly: lambs wool sweater, slim-fit jeans, chenille scarf with embroidered accents. There was much to be done…
…In those days, the milkman would leave his bottles in a metal box by our front door. I remember how the snow would pile up on top of that box, little by little, until it formed a pyramid like those of ancient Egypt, only much smaller. By the time he came back out of the house, the milk would be frozen into large ice shapes made of milk, formed in the shape of a bottle. As I waited by the door, I would once again regret not putting on my shoes, or a woolen hat, before his truck pulled up.
As the emerging sun began to melt my brother Tom, Mom would pack me a lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches, tossed salad with a zesty vinaigrette, and fruit punch, and I would head off to the neighbor’s yard to shovel off Mr. Hannity. Later, when the sun had begun its steady descent behind the munitions factory, I would head for home, satisfied that I had put in an honest day, but keenly aware that I could not feel my face.
By then, Dad was home, and the house was filled with the familiar smells of oak, cheese, currants, freshly-cut grass, Pine-Sol, whipping cream, hand lotion, scabs, mushrooms, and milk. Mom looked lovely in her clothes, and Tom was leaning against a wall. A feeling of warmth, of security and comfort, washed over me, as I ran to the bathroom…
…When I was seventeen, my family drove cross-country in a station wagon. It was myself, my Mom, my Dad, my brother Tom, and my sister (I believe her name was Mary). It was fun, mostly, but there were also alternating periods of boredom, frustration, fear, uncertainty, nausea, awkwardness, self-doubt, self-loathing, loathing, paranoia, more awkwardness, and then fear again. Dad drove the car, and Mom sat next to him in the front seat. Dad was a good driver, in both forward and reverse gears. He made good use of his side-view mirrors, even the one on the passenger side, which I have always thought is a grossly underutilized driving aid. He was also a strict proponent of the “10 o’clock and 2 o’clock” rule, which to this day I still try to follow, at those exact times every day. Tom, Mary and I sat in the back seat. We put our luggage in the “way-back,” as we called it, although, regrettably, we also put some of our luggage on the roof.
We saw many interesting things along the way, and stopped the car to look at several of them. My favorites were the Golden Gate Bridge, and trees. Tom’s favorites were gas stations with clean bathrooms. Dad swore at us a lot, and Mom did not seem to enjoy the trip much at all, and when we finally arrived back home, Dad got his own house. We lived mostly with Mom from then on, although we visited Dad every other weekend and every third Tuesday. Mom developed a moderate drinking problem, and twice was arrested for calling Dad’s girlfriend too many times in the same night. Tom started speaking again after several months.
I don’t really know what became of Mary…
…When I was five, the doctors told my mother that I was somewhat tall for my age. Mom took the news well, I remember thinking at the time, and she never let it affect my upbringing…
…As a sophomore in college, I experimented, as did many of my peers, with mind-altering chemicals which we, in our youthful frivolity, had hoped would alter the normal state of our minds. At the small, Midwestern military cooking school that my high school guidance counselor, Suzanne Somers, had strongly recommended (she had read a favorable article about it in the U.S. News and World Report), we did not have access to all of the popular drugs then in vogue at the more urbane private schools attended by what my mother liked to refer to as “the kids who are much smarter than you.” Instead, we dabbled in some of the lesser known and therefore more readily available substances, which we found we could “score” with little fear of reprisal from the nuns who patrolled the hallways of our dorms. I remember one “trip,” as we liked to call these adventures, when I ate two and a half shiitake mushrooms and cannonballed half a glass of saline solution. I swore off all forms of fungus and contact lens cleaners that night, as I kneeled before the “Porcelain Princess”, who, I can assure you, did not appreciate me vomiting all over her…
…At the age of seven, I asked my mother if I could take figure-skating lessons. She was very supportive, but my father, in a fit of rage, insisted on equestrian…
…My father’s older brother, Gerald, fancied himself something of an inventor, although to my knowledge he never had anything patented. He specialized in kitchen gadgets and general household time-savers, with an emphasis on food preparation. One of his favorites, which he gave us every year as a Christmas gift, even after my mother asked him to stop, was a gadget designed to remove the little stickers from fruit without breaking the skin of the fruit. For example, this gadget (I don’t think he ever gave it a name, which I suspect hurt its marketability), would, at least in theory, peel the sticker off of a peach without tearing or ripping the skin of the peach. Similarly, it would have, if it had ever been perfected, taken the sticker off of a tomato, again without tearing the skin of the tomato, which, in fairness to Gerald, is very thin and tears easily…
…I am told that I was named after my maternal grandfather, Herbert Scott “Randy” Farnsworth, whom everybody in the family called “Steve,” and whose friends all called “Todd.” I have vivid memories of him visiting us on holidays and regaling us with war stories at the dinner table. It didn’t matter to us that none of the stories were true; we weren’t really listening. He was a cruel, thoughtless man who never liked children, and who admittedly preferred the company of railroad men and dance hall girls. We called him “Grandpoppy,” and made a game of tying his shoelaces together as he dozed in our living room. Grandpoppy hated us, and tried to kill us on several occasions…
…One hot summer’s day, in the autumn of my sixteenth year, my father announced that it was time for him to teach my brother Tom and me to fire a gun. It was, he told us as he hung his apron on the hook by the stove, a “rite of passage into manhood.” Dad did not own his own gun, and in fact had never fired one before. He took us out back, and taught us to hold our hands in such a way as to resemble a pistol, with our thumbs raised and our index fingers extended toward our target, which was in fact a souvenir dish Mom had bought at the gift shop at Knott’s Berry Farm. It took some time for us to obtain the proper firing sound, which Dad insisted was more of a “bang” than a “pop.” Tom caught on faster than I, but then he always had a greater aptitude for things of a military nature (more on that later). The souvenir plate from Knott’s Berry Farm, fortunately, emerged unscathed…
…My first girlfriend, or the person to whom I liked to refer as my girlfriend, was a shy and exceptionally slow-witted girl who sat next to me in eighth-grade spelling class. Her name was Mary Tyler Moore, and she had auburn hair, pale blue eyes, and webbed fingers. She also was missing part of the lobe on her left ear, had an extra toe on each foot, and could not pronounce words with a double “L” in them. She was allergic to latex, and therefore had much difficulty blowing up balloons. She ate raw lentils for lunch everyday, and voided every forty-five minutes. She lived in a second-floor apartment above the laundromat owned by her father, where she worked every day after school, making change. Her bedroom was decorated with posters of popular singers and movie actors of the day, although it was difficult to make out their faces, as she kept her curtains drawn most nights…
…I studied diligently in college, and upon graduation commenced a thorough employment search. My first job was in the plus-sized ladies delicates department at J.C. Penney…
…My Aunt Flora (my mother’s younger sister) was in the publishing business. In those days, the publisher filled many roles: publisher, editor, copy editor, writer, reporter, writer-reporter, printer, assistant editor, co-editor, co-publisher, engineer, conductor, male nurse, and assistant to the printer. Although she loved to write, and was an excellent typist, she eventually was forced to limit her publication to an annual edition, which deprived her loyal readers of exposure to her vast talents, but which also managed to create a sense of anticipation and an acutely heightened interest among those loyal readers, whose anticipation and heightened interest were duly rewarded when they finally received their annual edition of Aunt Flora’s publication each year.
It seems, in my memory, that the publication would arrive by mail around the holidays, and would be accompanied by a brief missive, wishing her readers a happy holiday and a healthy new year. The missive would be adorned with a colorful yet secular rendering of a holiday scene, and my mother would place it on the mantel, where it would remain until she later took it down.
The publication itself would be filled with short stories and humorous anecdotes, primarily about herself and her children, which typically would fill sixty or seventy pages, and which we never seemed able to finish before my father threw it out…
…I regret that I did not get to know my father as well as I would have liked. He died at the age of fifty-eight, an age which at the time seemed to me much too young for someone who would not get to live any longer. We hadn’t seen much of each other in the last few years of his life, my mother having insisted on a strict enforcement of the visitation schedule arranged by the lawyers, and Dad (to my considerable bewilderment) never having raised the point that my brother Tom and I were by then well into our thirties.
After my parents’ divorce, my father seemed, by all appearances, to have lived a lonesome, cheerless life of transiency. For the first few years, Tom would receive the occasional postcard from various dismal-sounding locales: St. Maarten, St. Bart, St. Croix, Las Vegas, Florida, Europe. Tom would sometimes let me look at the cards, and Mom would lovingly support my theory that mine were most likely lost in the post: “Yeah, I’m sure that’s it, Clifford.”
For my twenty-first birthday, Tom received a money order for one hundred dollars, and an autographed picture of my Dad with Walter Mondale, which appeared to have been taken on board a motor yacht off the southern coast of France. I tried to make out the inscription, but Tom stepped on my neck before I could wrestle it from his grip…
…I believe I may have mentioned that my brother Tom enjoyed a pronounced advantage over me when it came to things of a military nature. Accordingly, he was eager to serve our nation when Saddam Hussein invaded Canada in 1991. Since he was medically ineligible to enlist (he was born without any knuckles on his left hand), he chose instead to serve, as many patriots have in our nation’s history, in the clandestine world of “propaganda.” With so many years having passed (he had sworn me to secrecy at the time), I feel comfortable in assuming that I breach no obligation of homeland security when I now disclose Tom’s true role in what has since come to be known as the “Golf War.”
Although it was never publicized in the mainstream media at the time, Saddam Hussein was, in fact, an avid golfer. He played to a two-handicap, had a deadly accurate short game, but tended to push his long irons to the right whenever he over-swung. Tom’s role, in the plan brilliantly devised by his friend, mentor, and co-worker at the Gap, Bob Newhart, (a plan at once devious in its subtlety and beguiling in its futility), was to surreptitiously replace Saddam’s favorite brand of golf tee with a remarkably accurate counterfeit, ingeniously inscribed with a variety of subliminally morale-deflating messages: “Keep your left elbow bent through your backswing,” “Lift your head at impact,” “Swing harder, Saddam, much harder” and “Go back to Iran, Saddam, you’re not welcome here in Canada.”
My brother never spoke much about his role in the War, but it is said that General Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr., to this day, secretly credits Tom and his friend, Bob Newhart, for saving North America from the invading Huns. And it was no coincidence, I’m sure, that Saddam failed in his repeated attempts to qualify for the PGA Tour…
…My first foray into the merciless world of politics came in 1994, when I ran unsuccessfully for the congressional seat then held by Newt Gingrich, in Georgia’s sixth district. I had never been to Georgia before, and in retrospect that may have damaged my chances, but I was ambitious and passionate, and somewhat injudicious. Gingrich was a formidable opponent, and seemed well-versed in the law and in all things related to laws and documents and other official things.
He was, however, also a shrewd and calculating foe who would stop at nothing to protect his place in the imperial monarchy established so long ago by our founding fathers. He will deny it to this day, of course, if he is ever asked, but I am resolute in my conviction that he stole from me the idea of the “Contract for America.” He modified it, perhaps, enough to distinguish it, in form as well as substance, from my version, but there is no mistaking its fundamental origins. I had given mine a more populist title: “A List Of Things Which I Would Like To Do If I Am Elected And Which I Am Sure The People Would Like As Well,” but the basic idea was the same, or at least similar. Its underlying principle was the elimination of all taxes, and the institution in their place of a fee to be charged for the use of all public restrooms: $5,000.00 to check your make-up or hair, $10,000.00 for number one, $15,000.00 for number two, and $30,000.00 to rendezvous with a British pop singer or Republican senator.
Gingrich scoffed at my proposals, when I reached over the security ropes at a campaign rally and tossed my papers at him. In the general election, I lost badly, a result more directly related, I maintain, to the fact that my name had systematically been erased from every ballot than to the numerous restraining orders that prevented me from coming within a half-mile of any polling place…
…At an early age, I realized that I had a deeply-rooted and intractable aversion to canned vegetables…
…When my mother died, after a long and painful battle with chronic acid reflux (which she managed to overcome only after a succession of surreptitious trips to Juarez, Mexico for unorthodox treatment by a dyslexic Franciscan monk named Hervé Villechaize) followed by a shorter, but no less life-threatening bout with malaria (which she contracted during an ill-advised trip to the Belgian Congo with her book club), and then a brief attack of whooping cough, and successive dalliances with the Spanish flu, tuberculosis, scurvy, the grippe, cholera, and polio (she ultimately succumbed to a stray unexploded firework shell at the Fourth of July celebration on Coney Island), my brother Tom and I bore our grief in starkly contrasting manifestations. I was dumbstruck, and could not leave the house for hours. Tom was, as always, the valiant one; he handled all of the legal matters involved in settling her estate: arranging for the sale of the family homestead, opening the necessary bank accounts into which he deposited all of the proceeds from the liquidation of her assets (thoughtfully sparing me the details of that dreadful process, including the name of the bank, and the country to which he diverted all of the life insurance proceeds), and, finally, arranging for my institutionalization…
…My brother Tom had, at the relatively advanced age of thirty-eight, taken a wife, as well as two young children, from an unattended minivan in a Taco Bell parking lot, and moved to Springfield. Knowing that there were several cities of that name, I eventually narrowed it down to either Missouri or Illinois. I worried, initially, that these developments would have a chilling effect on our fraternal bond, and I made a determined, if somewhat obsessive, effort to maintain a relationship, or at least a correspondence, with my sibling. I received little help in this regard from our mother, who, by then, had suffered an early onset of dementia, which had considerably impaired her short-term memory and cognitive abilities. She also had obtained an unpublished telephone number.
Tom’s wife was a shrewish woman, with closely-set eyes, bowed legs, and poor penmanship, prone to extended periods of debilitating depression and occasional episodes of adult language and intense violence. Her name was Nora, or perhaps Cynthia. Tom had met her at a self-improvement seminar at the Holiday Inn by the airport, a three-hour program featuring Tony Robbins, Tony Danza, Tony Bennett, Carol Burnett, Tim Conway and Lyle Waggoner. The details of her past were then, and yet remain, quite sketchy: brief stints with the Navy Seals and the CIA, a profitable but ill-fated run on Wall Street, followed by three to five years in federal detention.
After a mysterious two- or three-year gap wherein she appeared to fall off the proverbial grid, she resurfaced in Vegas doing three sold-out shows a night at the Flamingo. When she ensnared my brother Tom, she was working as a fold-out bed at the 34th street Y, and moonlighting as Bob Saget in the off-off-Broadway production of “Full House- The Musical: C.J. Takes a Lover.” There were, as I mentioned, two children, who, at the ages of 9 and 11, respectively, had yet to master the art of polite conversation, or eating with utensils. Nonetheless, my brother Tom was irreversibly smitten…
…My occasional flirtations with various organized religions have been well-documented, most notably in the psychiatric profile filed by my brother Tom in conjunction with his application to have me committed, against my considerable will, to a purported mental health facility run most inhospitably by a wholly-owned subsidiary of the National Rifle Association…
…I don’t remember 2003…
… The genesis of Merv Griffin’s ill-feelings toward me appears to be an interview I gave to Mike Douglas shortly after my first novel, Gone With The Wind, was picked up by Warner Brothers for production as a major motion picture starring Henry Winkler as Rhett Butler and Joey Heatherton as Eleanor Roosevelt. Merv, it seems, took umbrage at the fact that I had ignored his advice to cast his friend Connie Stevens in the role of Angie Dickinson. He would send me the most vile, obscene and hateful (albeit very well-written) e-mail messages, which I immediately turned over to Al Gore for prosecution. I am told that the investigation remains on-going…
…In my later years, when I was considerably older than I once had been, I developed a penchant for, or more accurately, a deviant obsession, bordering on the psychotic, with all things related to Mary Kay Cosmetics. I could say that it derived from a boyhood memory of my mother, or some similar nostalgic pleasure, but simply put, I liked the way they made me smell...
…In the winter of 1997, I was vacationing as usual in a quaint, secluded village three kilometers southeast of Trenton, New Jersey. My oceanfront villa looked out on the mountainous plains of the Serengeti. My Sherpa for this particular adventure was a delightful Puerto Rican lady with a very Hispanic-sounding name. She spoke an exotic, intoxicating language which I eventually identified as Spanish. She would come to my room each day, and diligently attend to her duties. When she had finished, she would wheel her cart silently down the hall to the next room. I will never forget her, although at the moment I cannot recall her name or her face or anything else about her.
After breakfast one day, I decided to spend some time relaxing in a chaise lounge in the shade of the maintenance shed, next to the parking lot. So I filled a large plastic bag with things I thought I might need: a chaise lounge, sunscreen, napkins, bug spray, a fur-lined parka (it being the winter of 1997), and raisins. I had just opened the latest issue of “Guns and Ammo” when I was approached by a young boy toting an aluminum baseball bat. He had forgotten to wear a belt that day, and his pants had slipped down to a point much lower than where I like to wear my slacks, and his baseball cap was askew. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, he struck me several times about the head with his bat (which, I can assure you, I was not expecting), and I quickly lost consciousness.
When I awoke, he was gone, as were my chaise lounge, my fur-lined parka, and my slacks. Fortuitously, he had left behind the raisins…
...I have fond memories of the Hurricane of ’38. My grandmother (before she died) would take us down to Fenwick every Tuesday and Friday to greet the sailors as they returned from their journeys through the Great Lakes. We would wave to Miss Hepburn as we walked through her backyard and picked flowers. She would yell something we could not quite hear, and then my grandmother would call her a funny name. The men folk in town are lined up at her backdoor, Grandma would always say. Apparently, everyone loved her.
In the summer of ’38, I was bathing in the salt pond with my sister (we were both in high school by then, so it was perfectly acceptable), when the big storm hit. I remember people running, and saying things, and there was a great deal of complaining. My sister and I grabbed our clothes and ran for cover in Miss Hepburn’s kitchen. She was a gracious host, I thought, but my sister (I believe her name was Betty) did not appreciate the salty language. When she pushed us back out the kitchen door, I thanked her, and Betty promised to come back with a gun of her own.
The last I saw of Miss Hepburn before the storm turned her house into a big pile of junk, she was perched high atop Spencer Tracy, way up on the widow’s walk, shaking her fist at nature’s fury with one hand and pulling Mr. Tracy’s hair with the other. I stole a car and drove to Middletown to wait out the storm. Grandma left town shortly thereafter, and was not seen around these parts for three to five years.
I don’t really know what became of Betty...
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cliff Parnell has written several book reports about American presidents and famous explorers. He has posted numerous comments on websites that do not require you to give your real name. He enjoys scrapbooking, power walking, radio-controlled helicopters, and e-mailing. His favorite TV shows are “Live with Regis and Kelly,” “That’s So Raven,” and “Nancy Grace.” His favorite books are TV Guide, and anything and everything by Mitch Albom. He lives in Michigan with two people who help him with his daily hygiene.
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