Forward: From time to time, I will be sharing, as I have in the past, my attempts at creative writing. It may be a synopsis for a screenplay, like “Black Lagoon” my independent remake of the 1954 film, “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”, the beginning of a fiction piece, like “Safari” or a fiction work, like this particular piece that I present to you today.
I’m not pressured by some publisher’s deadline or promise of future payment for an award winning novel. I write because I love to write. I also have stated many times in the past that writing is therapy for me, and can be therapy for you. Try writing.
I hope and believe that those of you that keep coming back to my website, will continue to enjoy and appreciate my writing. So far in the past year, there have been almost 100,000 page hits from people from all over the world.
Thanks to those of you that have sent small gifts of appreciation to help support my writing efforts. Now here’s the first chapter of “Summer”, a fiction story.
Chapter One – Welcome Home
As we made a right turn into the long driveway, I noticed that the Lilac bushes were now much taller, thicker, like tall bushy Lilac trees. Our windows were rolled down, allowing the warm summer breeze and the almost intoxicating essence of Lilac flowers to waft through my Uncle’s old Ford.
The driveway leading up to the old Gulbransen family farm was about a half of a mile long. Along the left side of the driveway stood the mature Lilac tree/bushes, and on the right side of the road was a huge field of tall corn, not yet ready for harvesting, and the utility electric/phone line poles standing at attention along side the driveway leading up to the farm.
Yes, the corn was still there, different year, different crop obviously. The corn seemed like an unending green & gold carpet, stretching across the thirty acres or so. I have seen that field barren before, I thought to myself, and I’ll see it void of crop again, sooner than later.
Besides that thirty acres of corn to the right of the driveway, the farm included a total of 560 acres, two hundred and ninety acres of thick woods with an occasional clearing, and the rest in various crops and grazing land for the 50+ dairy cows.
Some of my most cherished memories as a young child was spending summers at the farm, as my parents would go off to some distant foreign land as pre-hippie, medical missionary types. I guess they felt that it was more of an education, and safer for me, if they left me with Aunt Mary and Uncle Bjorn instead of having to worry about the Lions and Tigers having me for lunch. After all, my father grew up on the family farm as well.
I was three, that first summer as a farm boy. Grandma Gulbransen, actually my great-grandmother, was still alive, 90 years old. She loved to play hide the thimble with us. I loved my Uncle Bjorn, Aunt Mary, and my cousins. Believe it or not, I loved the farm as well. I loved the work as well as the play time. At three years old it was all fun and games. What chores I did have was simple things like helping Aunt Mary and my cousins collect the fresh eggs from the coop every day.
One of my first lessons in professional egg collecting, was NOT to put a tiny pullet egg in your right front pocket of your jeans, and then push against the kitchen door with same right front pocket because it took both hands and all your strength to carry that huge basket of eggs.
Of course I broke that little egg inside my pocket AND dropped the basket of eggs. I cried. Everyone else who was in the kitchen that day laughed with sympathy. Awwwww, poor baby, it’s okay, we will find another one just like it tomorrow, (which we did).
I had two cousins to play and grow up with at first. Eric, at four years old was a year older than I was that first summer. Brandt, Eric’s brother, was just a few weeks younger than I was. All three of us grew up like brothers, chasing the chickens around, playing Cowboys & Indians, building hay bale forts in the loft area of the barn. Frog collecting, squirrel hunting, fishing, life was great.
With every summer there, as we got older, our participation in the farming activities grew as playtime shrunk. Milking the cow’s, feeding the hogs, planting and harvesting crops, which meant when we were old enough, (I was eleven) we actually drove the tractors.
Pulling up to the house, Uncle Bjorn said, “Home again, home again, Jiggety-Jig-Jig”, as Aunt Mary came down the back porch steps from the kitchen. I was twenty now, a young man, as I opened the car door, “Auntie, it’s so good to see you, so good to smell your apple pie too, (kitchen window was open) hahahaha”.
As I chuckled, greeting her with a warm hug, I remembered that bantam egg in my pants pocket, “Is it too late to collect the eggs?”. “I saved a pullet egg for you today” she said.
This was the summer of 1964. Three years earlier, my parents had perished in a small plane crash somewhere in the Amazon jungle. I very well could have been on that plane, since I spent my high school years and the summers with my parents when I turned thirteen.
I guess they figured I was old enough to face the dangers and harsh conditions in the jungle. Ha! That last year before their accident, the home we lived in actually had a small air conditioner sticking through a window, donated by some church group in Wisconsin.
Fortunately or unfortunately, I was not on that plane that day. The loss of my parents almost seemed like too much to handle. I had just had my 17th birthday. Soon after their accident, I joined the Army, was quickly dispatched to Vietnam, and almost as quickly, lost my right leg below the knee.
In the jungles of Vietnam, the duties and the constant danger and craziness helped me try to forget certain things, while struggling to remember the things we are supposed to remember. You pull the trigger, kill another human being, and you really don’t think of that first 12 point Buck you shot during deer season with Uncle Bjorn and the boys.
I was eight years old when I actually shot my first deer. The season before, I missed. There’s good reason why I eventually learned how to hunt deer with a bow. If you miss with the first arrow, with a little luck, the deer will just stand there in an unaware silence, for a second or two, looking around, snorting. An arrow doesn’t go “bang”, it whispers silently, with a “swish”, as you send the second arrow, in my case, in the general direction of the same deer, and miss again.
With a deer rifle, a microsecond after you squeeze that trigger, either the deer is still standing there, dead and not knowing it, and then drops to the ground, or you blink an eye, and it’s gone, never to be seen again, that day anyway. The deer ran off, but you hit it with a lucky fatal shot. It’s just living and running around long enough to bleed out, so you have to follow the trail of blood until you find it.
I was seventeen when I killed my first human being. In my first firefight, we were on what was called, a “Blackjack Mission”, I shot this young Vietcong, and he stood there for a second, like a deer, slowly closed his eyes, and then dropped dead in his tracks.
Yes, this Vietcong freedom fighter, no older than I was, possibly younger, was close enough for me to see the whites of his eyes. He looked at me for a second, slowly closed his brown eyes, and simply dropped dead, two full seconds after I saw my bullet pierce his temple above his right eyebrow. I somehow unemotionally killed five more of the enemy that day. We lost two soldiers, with one wounded. The body count on the other side was over forty.
Superior weapons? Maybe. Superior training? Another maybe. All I know is that I was still alive, physically at least. I felt like a zombie on our way back to camp. I honestly didn’t feel a thing until later that evening. That night, we all sat around, drank some beer, ate our “Ham & Motherfxxxxxx” and smoked some Cambodian Red. That’s when all the emotions of the day hit me.
Death, the smell of battle, the fear, the rawness of emotion, and the shittiest C-Ration Ham & Lima beans you’ve ever eaten. No tears, but I did cry, laugh too, but mostly dry-cried. You can’t explain the feeling. It’s definitely something that you don’t expect or even think you can handle. You act a little crazy like your buddies. But later on, if you can’t forget, recognize and accept it for what it is, then it really does drive you a little crazy over time.
I knew that my cousin Brandt, the younger one, was somewhere back east in college, in upstate New York, Syracuse I think, and Eric was stationed in Germany, working as a flight mechanic on C-130 Hercules Cargo Planes. Lucky dude, no…..Smart dude. He joined the Air Force and with his mechanical skills, asked for, and was sent to Europe instead of Nam. Me? Still slightly unhinged from my parents death, I said send me to the jungle, so they did.
So here we are, approaching the house. The Gulbransen farm was typical, with a long driveway that we had to clear in the wintertime. Five generations had grown up here, including my father Bjarne, his three brothers including Uncle Bjorn. I had never met the two older brothers, Uncle Anders was the oldest and died in WWI, and Uncle Leif died in a factory accident during WWII.
Before my father and his brothers came along, there were my Grandfather Einar Gulbransen, and his father, my great-grandfather, Kristopher Gulbransen and his father, my great-great-great-grandfather, Agnarr Gulbransen.
Quite a history. I always thought that Agnarr was a cool Viking name and wondered if there was any truth to the old family stories of being descended from Viking royalty.
As we approach, the old two-story farmhouse is on the right side, as the driveway made a complete circle or oval really, you first passed the new outhouse, then a row of sheds, then the chicken coop, then the grain silos, then the old red barn, then the vine-covered windmill, more sheds, larger ones, for the large equipment and tractors, then back around to the driveway again.
In the center of this large oval was my favorite tree, a really old, really large Oak tree with a small tree fort (it wasn’t called a tree house until Cousin Susie took it over when she was around ten or so). In spite of some damage over the years from random tornadoes, this majestic old tree and “Tree Fort” had been the scene of many pirate ship battles, Indian assaults, and visitors from Mars when we were kids.
The best part was the huge rope swing/escape rope that was still hanging there, although it appeared to have a new tire attached. As we were finishing up our greetings, I noticed out of my combat trained corner of my eye, that someone had been slowly walking up to us from the area of the old oak tree, rope and tire still swaying back and forth.
“Susie, come say hello to your cousin Palmer”, Aunt Mary exclaimed. Susie, now almost 16 years old, came walking up to us with a huge grin. “Gosh, little lady, you’re all grown up”, I said with an innocent smile. “The last time I saw you….I think you were ten? Do you remember me?” As we hugged, Susie said, “Of course I remember you, stupid”.
Farm girls, we have all heard the stories AND the jokes. Susie now was this beautiful, innocent, young woman, and I used to change her diapers! About five foot tall, not fat, not skinny, Susie was endowed with this gorgeous long red hair which that afternoon, was tied in a loose ponytail.
With that cute little nose that she always had, and the strikingly cute freckles that I always loved, the major difference in the older Susie, and the younger version that I remembered, was that she wasn’t a child anymore, and it was also obvious to me in that she was NOT wearing a bra but certainly needed one.
Needless to say, I purposely had to pretend like her breasts didn’t exist (she’s little Susie I tried to remind myself, PLUS, she’s my cousin). “Come in the house, dinner is actually ready”, Auntie said. Great timing for Uncle Bjorn and I, the trip from the airport was three hours, and both of us were hungry.
Best food in the whole wide world. Homegrown everything. It was Sunday, and my homecoming was a special occasion, so my Aunt had prepared a fantastic meal. Baked chicken, mashed potatoes mixed with mashed sweet potatoes with insanely buttery butter (my favorite) chicken gravy with the giblets, corn bread muffins, and baby sweet peas & carrots.
“How was your flight” Aunt Mary asked as she was loading up my plate with more mashed potatoes. As I answered her, I also looked around the kitchen, remembering the food fights when my cousins and I were little tykes.
“Actually not to bad, except my right leg keep itching, but there’s nothing there to scratch”, I chuckled. Susie looked at me a little strange, it was obvious that she was not yet aware of my missing “ghost” leg. My artificial lower leg attached to my knee-stump, with a real shoe, fooled a lot of people.
Especially one time in a bar fight, when in a split second, I pulled off my right leg, hopped on my good left foot, and knocked out this obnoxious asshole with the shoe end of my artificial leg. I warned the dude that I was going to “place” my “right” foot on the “left” side of his head. Everyone cheered when I put my leg back on, and continued playing darts.
I instantly recognized the old Ford when my Uncle pulled up to the curb at the airport today. I remember the smell as soon as I got in the car. Smelled that way forever. Uncle Bjorn’s 1949 Ford amazingly, was still running, and still smelling like a farm, with some old broken egg shells, and a little chicken shit thrown in for the full effect.
“Yes. I am constantly reminding your Uncle to roll up the windows when he parks it, I can’t begin to tell you how many dozens of eggs I’ve retrieved over the years”. Aunt Mary drove a brand new Ford Station Wagon, the one with the fake wood on the sides and tailgate. That was their Sunday-Go-To-Meeting vehicle and it was kept showroom spotless.
Throughout dinner, we talked about so many things. I asked how the boys were doing. We reminisced about Mom and Dad, their unfortunate accident, and how dedicated they were to helping the suffering unfortunates around the world, the children’s hospital in Africa they founded, and their most recent accomplishments in the jungles of Brazil.
I shared a few of my jungle stories, like the time in Africa (I was about 15), I was chased by, and playfully grappled with a young chimpanzee. I did NOT share any of my jungle stories from Vietnam, except for how a Bouncing Betty failed to bounce and took my right foot off. The doctors decided to amputate six inches below the knee.
We laughed about the time I broke the tiny little pullet egg in my right front pocket of my pants. Uncle Bjorn recalled that first deer that I killed. Susie remembered the time she covered me up with fall leaves, and never came back, joke was on me. She was supposed to bring a few of her girl friends by the leafy hiding place so I could scare them, and she forgot about me. Susie and her two girlfriends that were visiting, ended up in the house playing with their dolls.
After about 15 minutes of total patience, stillness and silence, I burst out of the leafy dungeon to scare the crap out of Eric and a couple of ducks and a chicken who happen to be passing by.
It was good to be back to what I always considered my first home as I was growing up. Wintertime was always strange for me. Every winter, Mom & Dad would be back from their work, and we were a family once again. Not that I didn’t like living in Southern California, I liked San Diego, their home base, but it just never seemed like home to me like the old family farm here in Minnesota.
I did spend one winter at the farm. That was all it took for me to be convinced that a place without snow was the only place to be in the wintertime. I helped Susie clear the table and wash dishes after our fantastic dinner. Uncle Bjorn was finishing the final chores for the day, and Aunt Mary was in the living room watching television, and knitting someone a scarf or pair of socks.
As we were doing the dishes, me washing, Susie drying, what started out as slightly uncomfortable “talk about the weather” stuff between Susie and I, turned into a genuine, thoughtful conversation. We talked about school, her schooling and desires, and my potential plans for college.
We talked about some real serious shit as well. I opened up a little about war, and Vietnam. She shared her desire to enter the medical field someday. Any boyfriends yet? No. She wasn’t interested in the typical farmer boys, and secretly, I was relieved.
She shared how when she was a little girl, my father would pick her up and say “How’s my little nurse Susie doing?” My mother couldn’t have any more children after I came along, and had their been another child after me, I would have had a little sister for sure, a sister just like Susie.
As we stood there at the kitchen sink, busy with the pots and pans, our conversation became more and more interesting, as I mostly listened to her, and quietly appreciated how mature she was for a teenager. Innocently, I ignored the few times that we bumped into each other, or when our fingers accidentally touched as I handed her a plate or glass to dry. Not so innocently I guess, was my wonderment at what a beautiful young woman she had become.
There was a slight hint of an essence about her. Not a perfume, but something more delicate and natural, like the soft summer air with a slight hit of Lilac and Strawberry. The kitchen windows were still open. I’m surprised I didn’t smell the pigs, the cow shit, and the rest of the farm as well at that moment. Those smells were there as well.
No, that slight hint of Lilac and Strawberry was from Susie, for sure (her facial soap?). I had to mentally pinch myself and blink away the thoughts of a different kind of facial. Overall, it was a healthy conversation for the both of us.
She shared that even though most of the time when we both were younger, she thought I was a jerk and somewhat clumsy, she missed me after I turned thirteen and started spending summers with my parents, where ever they happened to be.
She asked if I had a “Jane” to my “Tarzan” down in Brazil? No, not really, I had one in the Congo I said, “but all she wanted to do was eat my banana”, (tongue in cheek here), but I did develop some good friendships there, especially in and around the main village where we lived. I told her I had always appreciated her as a little sister, and loved it when we did spend time together. After all, I was there when she was born. She really was like a little sister to me.
I bragged that we all took turns changing her diaper. I certainly learned how to draw straws and flip coins when it came to diaper changing time. Susie laughed, “See, I told you……What a big jerk you were, all three of you”. The five year difference in our age was much more visible when she was just a baby. By the time she was five, I was ten, and mostly picked on her like her older brothers did.
We never bullied her though, and sometimes we allowed her practical jokes to get the best of us. By the time I was thirteen or so, just like her two brothers, I was very protective of Susie and owned the role of loving brother/cousin that I always was. No one dared pick on Susie Gulbransen when her brothers and I were around.
Dishes finished, not quite sunset yet, Susie and I decided to walk down by the barn, where we heard Uncle Bjorn banging on something.
Chapter Two – Aunt Mary’s Apple Pie, Ed Sullivan, and “Spanking the Monkey”
Uncle Bjorn was repairing something on a disc harrow as we entered the secondary equipment shed. Not really a “Shed”, this was a separate building attached to the north side of the main barn, about the size of a tennis court, two story, and used to store plows and other pieces of equipment. In the old days, prior to motorized tractors, this building used to be home for the work horses and all the tack (bridle type stuff).
There still were four stalls left intact in the rear of the building. Three horses. Suzie’s Palomino, one of Uncle Bjorn’s old work horses “Bob”, and Auntie Mary’s horse “Delilah”, which I remember riding when I was a child. Amazing that these two old horses were still alive.
There was a huge horizontal sliding door which connected to the northeast side of the main barn. The second floor was still being used as an extension of the main Barn’s hayloft. When we were kids, we built forts throughout the hayloft.
As Susie and I walked up, Uncle Bjorn saw us coming and said, “Susie, hand me that spanner coupling by the toolbox, if you would, please”. Uncle Bjorn was the only uncle I ever had, since Uncle Anders and Uncle Leif had died before I was born. Dad was two years younger than his brother Bjorn.
They were close growing up, as brothers should be, but my father had a rare opportunity to go to college on a scholarship, so he took it. So while Uncle Bjorn pretty much ran the farm after he graduated from High School, Dad went to school, i.e., left the farm that is, and continued through with his education until he had his PhD.
Even just before they died, Mom & Dad never stopped with their pursuit of education, as they both were working on postdoctoral studies. I handed him the tool saying, “It sure is great seeing you all again. While I’m here, I intend to help around the farm as much as I can”. “I surely intend for you to help us get in this first crop. We start tomorrow with the Soybeans in the lower forty”. Uncle Bjorn was referring to the forty acres over by the creek.
“How long are you staying Cuz”, Susie asked. “Not sure at all at this moment, certainly long enough to help bring the spring harvest in, maybe a little longer”. The three of us continued to banter back and forth for another couple of minutes. “Okay, we are finished with that one”, Uncle Bjorn said as he stood up from a kneeling position, “Anybody ready for another slice of Apple pie?”.
As he stood up, I could see that somehow Uncle Bjorn had really either shrunk over the years, or in fact I had grown. Gray hair and facial stubble, more wrinkles than I recall, with bright blue Norwegian eyes, Uncle Bjorn had aged, but hadn’t gained or lost any weight since the last time I saw him.
He was still wearing the same size XLT “Farmer John” type of overalls. These particular overalls were fairly new , probably got them for Christmas. The top pockets were just as full of stuff as I remember, including a carpenter’s pencil, one of those large flat ones, a few of those fuzzy pipe cleaners, a tire pressure gauge, and the same pipe he had been smoking for 40 years. Some things never change.
The three of us headed towards the house. It was cute to see Susie and her father arm in arm as we walked along. As we sat there at the kitchen table eating our apple pie, I couldn’t help noticing the fact that the kitchen was like a time capsule, just opened, revealing memories and reminding me of just how unchanged parts of my life remained.
There was a new GE electric stove and oven, which was now the primary one, sitting next to the all too familiar, ancient wood-burning combo oven and stove top. We called it the corncob stove. My memory of it was of a much larger appliance, but it had shrunk like everything else around the farm.
I can remember having to fill up the buckets with corncobs. Three buckets were still in their place behind that old stove/oven. For any of you old enough to remember, and grew up on a farm, you’ll remember that corncobs were very efficient as a fuel, burning slowly, turning into very hot charcoal-like briquettes. The oven section was large enough for a good sized turkey, and Aunt Mary still used it to bake her famous apple pie.
“I like the new wallpaper”, I said, taking a swallow of milk. The wall paper and the linoleum floor was the only thing, besides the new GE range/oven, that was new and different about the kitchen from when I was a small tyke. “Yes, thanks to Susie, it’s all her idea, I like the colors in the new wallpaper, you did a great job sweetie”, Uncle Bjorn said.
Aunt Mary walked in from the family room, “Ed Sullivan is starting in a few minutes”. This was a major family habit on Sunday nights, the Ed Sullivan Show. When we were little kids, back in the fifties, Sunday night was a special night. In our time zone (central), the show came on at 7:00 PM. An hour long, it was one of those kinds of shows that appealed to all ages.
My favorite act on the Ed Sullivan Show, or at least the most memorable for me however, was whenever “Zippy the Chimp” was a guest. Zippy got his big break on TV by stealing a cherry from Buffalo Bob’s drink during an appearance on the famous “Howdy Doody Show”. That earned Zippy a five-year contract.
Of course, you can’t talk about the Ed Sullivan Show without mentioning my other favorite, and to this day, I believe the greatest guest of all time, Elvis Presley. Name says it all. His 2nd appearance, on October 28th, 1956, was simply electrifying. I don’t know where I was for his first appearance, I just remember his second one when the TV camera zoomed in so you couldn’t see him shimmy with his legs.
It was now 1970, and tonight’s main act for the evening was George Carlin, whom I consider to this day to be the “Pope” of stand-up comedy. Appearing just before George, was Mr. Jiggs, the smoking, skating chimp. I guess that’s why I got up to take my empty pie plate into the kitchen.
George was a riot. In between laughing hysterically, I mentioned, “Hahahahaha…..I could do that”, as Uncle Bjorn got up from his easy chair, “Well, goodnight, tomorrow’s going to be a busy day, in the morning you can tell the cow’s a joke or two”, he said, yawning, shaking my hand……big hug, “So glad you are here”, and then he walked up the stairs to go to bed.
Minutes later, Aunt Mary got up. We embraced, and said goodnight. Susie and I sat there on the couch watching the news, or should I say barely paying attention to the “noise” as we talked for what seemed hours and hours. She was curious about my experience in Vietnam, and I opened up to her just a little, sparing her the really gruesome shit.
Susie was sitting there facing me on the sofa with her legs folded under her Indian style, clutching a throw pillow to her chest. She is soooooo beautiful, I thought to myself, as we talked. Susie was soft spoken, responding to my war stories with genuine curiosity and empathy.
We also talked about old memories of when we were younger, when her brothers Eric and Brandt were around, and the mischief us boys would get in to. “I remember how you guys looked out for me”, she said. I thought to myself, “I remember changing your diaper, little girl, oh Lord, how you have grown”.
She knew. She had to know, the effect she was having on me as we talked that night. At one point, I had to rearrange my penis in my pants. You know, when you have a woodie that is bulging in your pants in a difficult, exposing way, and you cough, squirming, distracting her for a moment by pointing at the TV, pretending that your pants are pinching you as you make what you know is NOT a subtle adjustment with your dick sticking halfway out of your tighty-whiteys.
Her smile confirmed that she knew exactly what I was suffering from, and how I was trying, politely, to remedy the problem. “Are you gonna be OK, Tommy?”. Too much apple pie I said. She saved the day when she went into the kitchen for a glass of water. I quickly finished rearranging myself, and sat their for a minute or two thinking, it’s time to go to bed.
As she came walking back into the family room, I stood up and stretched, “Wow! Can you believe we have been talking for two hours?”. She sensed that I was wanting to call it an evening, and while hugging each other she said slyly, “Pleasant dreams Tommy, see you at breakfast. I laid fresh towels and a washcloth out on your bed for you earlier today, “oh….(as she hesitated slightly)……there’s a box of Kleenex on your nightstand”.
A warm, delicate kiss on my cheek, and she was gone, walking up the stairs. All of the bedrooms in this old house were on the second floor. I stood there for a minute after she was gone, wondering if there was any Vaseline in the bathroom medicine cabinet.
I really didn’t know how to assess the evening. I couldn’t help it, I was still aroused, and planned to relieve myself, i.e., “Spank the Monkey” when I laid down for the night. Why did Susie mention the Kleenex? No thoughts beyond that, after all, we WERE related.
Chapter Three – Dodging bullets, leaping over tall buildings in a single bound, the real horrors of battle, versus playing “Soldiers” in the hayloft
The room of my summer life had not changed. Another wonderful time capsule. As children, This room was the private enclave of the “Three Musketeers”, the “Soldiers of Fortune”, the Superheroes or whatever else we were into at the time.
On the second floor, at the southwest corner of the house, at the end of the great hallway that now had shrunken to about half it’s size it seemed, no one dared, especially girls, encroach upon our kingdom. A good sized room, with two windows, a small pot-belly heater with stove pipe going up to and through the ceiling, and two buckets of corn cobs in the corner.
Our room had two sets of bunk beds, two dressers and three large trunks, i.e., toy boxes or “treasure chests” when we were playing pirates, but really just what we used to store all our toys and stuff.
As children, one set of bunks was occupied by my cousin Eric, on the top bunk, and Brandt, on the lower bunk. I occupied the lower bunk of the other set of beds across the room. The empty, top bunk was for guests, like whenever our cousin Mikey or someone else was visiting. In the middle of the floor remained this huge, really old, really heavy rug.
Why do I remember the rug? I remember the rough feeling of wool against your bare skin, the colors, and above all else, I remember the up close, musty rug smell, from being rolled up in it. I remember that if someone rolls you up in this old rug as a prank, (I chuckled), you ARE NOT escaping, not matter how hard you fight and squirm.
Thankfully, as kids we realized that if our victim was yelling out a rug-muffled scream, “I can’t breathe!!”, we were smart enough to unroll him. I was “rolled up” at least three different times in my childhood, never escaped, not even.
Memories aside, tonight, my first night home, I was more tired than I thought I was. By the time I finished in the bathroom, took my clothes off, and laid down, I was in La-La land. I was asleep when my head hit the pillow, fitful, disturbed sleep that it was.
“Incoming! Take cover!”, someone yelled. Bullets flying everywhere. With earplugs in my ears, the sound was almost like angry bees, with guns. Mix that humming chatter sound in with muffled, yet deafening explosions all around you, as you huddled in a foxhole like retreat under a fallen tree.
Dreams are weird sometimes. Intermittently combine THAT dream sequence with scenes of playing war in the barn’s hayloft when we were kids, “You’re dead, Eric, I just got you with a hand grenade”. I had just lobbed a rotten egg in his direction, and in my dream sequence, I saw it break in slow motion on a hay bale next to him.
In my recurring dream, and in reality, I was in a raw untouched jungle. There were hundreds of various species of flora and fauna. Where we were at that moment had not been touched by the MACV’s jungle clearing project. The giant bulldozers with “Rome Plows” had yet to be deployed here, and our Air Force and Army helicopters had yet to spray herbicides and drop fire bombs.
The fallen tree that myself and a few buddies had dug under already had the remnant remains of an older previous shelter, more than likely from when the French were battling the Vietnamese people. “Medic!”…..Someone was in trouble….”INCOMING!”….I sat up in bed, awakened by the violence of the immediate war in my dreams.
Today we call it PTSD. Wide awake now, my woodie had shriveled into a faint little memory, with a small glob of unused Vaseline, now mostly a gooey liquid, in my right hand. I grabbed a Kleenex tissue, wiped my hand, and walked over to the window and stood there for a minute.
Looking at the slight break of dawn to the east, mentally still getting a grip on where I was, a couple more deep breaths, OK, I’m alive, and this is my bedroom, not the fallen tree makeshift foxhole/fort somewhere in the middle of a virgin Vietnamese jungle.
It was 5:00 AM. Uncle Bjorn was already up, sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee. As I sat down with my coffee, Uncle Bjorn said, “Heard a yell-out a while ago, was that you?”. I acknowledged and apologized, “I hope I didn’t wake you or anyone else up, Uncle Bjorn, I forgot to take my meds last night”. “You’re OK I hope. No worries, your Aunt Mary could sleep through a tornado, and I was already up”. Of course I knew that, since I had noticed the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee had pretty much filled the house from the moment I woke up.
We talked for a few more minutes, discussing the days plan. Uncle Bjorn stood up. “You’ll be OK. Your parents would be proud, I’m proud of you”, as he headed out the door, saying, “Let the cow’s out to pasture and I’ll meet you over by the tractor shed, I’ll have a 1240 hooked up and ready for you”. Uncle Bjorn was referring to the John Deere Four-Row planter, used for planting primarily soybeans and corn. I would be pulling that behind a tractor for the next couple of days.
Uncle Bjorn would be pulling a second one just like it, thirty feet in front of me and four rows over to my right. No need to show me, I had done this many times in the late spring of my youth, as had my cousins.
Susie walked in the kitchen as I was rinsing out my coffee mug. “Mom will have breakfast ready at 9”, she said, as she came over to me in her flannel nightgown and gave me a peck on the cheek. With a concerned look on her face, she asked, “You OK?”. She probably heard me yell out during my sleep.
“I’m sorry if I woke you up, yeah, I’ll be fine, just a bad dream”, I said as I gave her a hug, and walked out the kitchen door. “Have a great morning Cuz”. “You too, Susie have a great day at school”, I waved, as the screen door was closing behind me.
Weekdays, her school bus stopped at the end of the driveway at 6:50 AM, plus or minus 5 minutes. Susie was a senior this year. Her High School, Anoka Senior High, was about 25 miles away, and where my her two brothers graduated as well. Susie was a smart girl all the way through her schooling years with nothing but straight A’s since the first grade. She was excited to be close to graduation. She was looking forward to something in the medical field, perhaps a nurse.
I was home schooled since the beginning of time. Mom gave me a Certificate of Completion (through 12 grades), when I turned 15. We were in the Amazon at the time. No homecoming football games, no field trips, no Senior Prom, no typical kinds of things that you do in school as you are growing up.
Back to the mornings duties. Like at most dairy farms, the cow’s were the first to get attention in the morning, which was to say, all one did for the cows in the early morning was to unlatch the back gate behind the barn and swing it fully open. The cow’s knew where to go, as they slowly walked out and headed for the pasture, which was through two more gates that you had to walk to. If you walked at a brisk pace, you would arrive at the next gate before the cows did.
Wonderful smell I thought as I walked in front of the cows. Sort of a grassy, cloverly kind of smell with a slight hint of cowpie. I thought to myself, sounds like a wine enthusiast describing a fine French Bordeaux, I laughed as an old memory came back to me.
The cow shit you could wash off. The smell stayed. This was the same pasture where as kids, we pretended to be Superheroes, “Leaping over tall buildings in a single bound”……actually we were running and “leaping” only five or six feet at a time, either landing, or not landing, on either a soft, fresh cowpie, or an old hardened one.
Superhero or not, it was basically considered to be a great boyhood competitive skill at the time, trying to avoid landing on the fresher cowpies and getting a shoe full of cowshit, which was not easy to get rid of. The winner was the dude who walked away with the least shit on his tennis shoes.
Once in the while our competitive nature’s turned the corner just a little in that we went from being Superheroes, trying to save the world, into tag team wrestling, that is, tag team with only three of us, flipping each other around in the occasional fresh piles of cow shit.
The old face-smushing tactic. For me, It happened once when I was about eight, and a few more times as we got older. The first time was the worse. Eric who started life larger than me, fatter really, smushed my face into a really fresh, just dropped pile of cow shit. I returned the favor more than a couple of times as we grew up. Brandt got it from both of us several times each. It got old, was no longer as funny as before, so we eventually stopped doing it, around 12 years old.
Back at the tractor shed, with both planters hooked up, Uncle Bjorn had already filled up the tractor’s water coolers. Each tractor had a small Coleman Water Cooler on the back, which was filled with surprisingly cold well water. Even on a hot summer day, the water, drawn from a deep underground spring, stayed cool up until mid-day.
Aunt Mary brought us sandwich bags with fruit to keep us going until breakfast. An apple, two plums, and a banana. The planting in the lower forty was a three day job for one person. With two of us working it, we would cut a whole day off the time that it normally take Uncle Bjorn by himself, whether planting corn or soybeans.
The crops were switched between three main plots of clear acreage every season. Last year the lower forty as we called it, was planted with Sweet Corn, my favorite. Corn so sweet and tender, you could as we often did, eat it raw right off the cob.
For you city slickers, Sweet Corn is the stuff that grows on a cob on a stalk, covered with green leaves, and eventually comes to you in a can. You know, that yellow vegetable that your mother serves you with your meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Breakfast was good, but brief, and then back to the field. We were finished with all of the day’s work by 6 o’clock in the evening.
Chapter Four – “The Drive-in Theater and Snack Bar”
“Petter (Peter) Mortensen has a tractor for sale that I’ve been meaning to look at, come with me if you want to”, Uncle Bjorn said. “Sure, that would be great, it’s been a few years since I’ve seen Peter, (referring to Petter’s son). “Peter died four years ago, Tommy, in a car accident. “Whoa, that’s too bad, what happened”, I asked.
Uncle Bjorn replied, “Remember your friend Robbie? He was driving. He’s been in a wheel chair ever since, and Peter? Peter died instantly”. “Crap, I’m so sorry to hear that, this is the first time hearing that…..I feel sad”, I responded. Uncle Bjorn turned towards me and said, “Yes, it was not a pretty scene, They say that he didn’t feel a thing”. Took his head clean off, instantly”. Aunt Mary added, “Just awful, just awful”.
On the way to the Petter Mortensen farm, (there were three other Mortensen brother’s farms, close together), I thought of the fun we had as kids. Living in a farming community was so different than how kids grow up today. When I grew up, there was no distinction, at least where I lived, as far as racism and bigotry. I’m guessing now, but I am close to the truth when I say that our community, and every community near us, had less than one percent Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians.
By time I was in the 6th grade, there was only one family farm that was owned and run by people of color, the Williams family. Reggie, short for Reginald which he hated to be called, was the same age as myself and most of our group of kids that played and hung out together in the summers.
Really, I only saw Reggie about 25% of the time in the summer, when we did things as a group, like when we played baseball. I always asked him, “How you been Reggie”, and he always answered with one word, “Benworkinhard”.
During that same era, the city kids were already formed into their own racially divided groups, and the white kids were split into two primary groups, the “Greasers” and the “Jocks”. My city cousins were already using the “N” word, and were quite bigoted.
We arrived at the Mortensen farm. Uncle Bjorn pulled up to one of the separate equipment sheds. Inside was three tractors, all John Deere “Petter how have you been”, “Just fine, my arthritis is giving me reminders of how old I am, here’s that tractor we talked about”. A 1958 John Deere 820, not that old really, looked like it was new. “Just replaced the clutch a few months ago”.
The 1958 JD was parked next to a brand spanking new 1967 John Deere model 4020, the reason Petter was selling the 1958 JD model 820. I happened to notice over in the corner, some sort of vehicle sitting under a dirty, birdshit and feather covered car cover of some sort. I kept my mouth shut while Mr. Mortensen and my Uncle were discussing the tractor.
I finally asked, “What’s under the wrap over in the corner, Mr. Mortensen?”. “Oh, that’s Peter’s Corvette”. “Do you mind if I take a look”, I asked out of pure curiosity. “Well, it’s been under that cover ever since Peter died, sure go ahead”.
Sitting next to it, was a 55′ Chevy that I was quite familiar with, as the father and son team of Peter and Petter had bought that car from my parents when I was younger, just before my teenaged years. “I see you still have the old 55′, I’m glad, I commented as I started rolling the cover back on the vette.
This end of the building was a tribute or monument to my friend Peter. The work benches, the mechanic’s tool boxes, the car lift. Everything about this part of the garage was untouched. Petter walked up and helped me unroll the cover hiding the corvette.
“This has been unseen since the funeral three years ago, thought we were going to sell it immediately after my Peter died, decided to keep it for a while”. I could see that he was starting to get a little choked up. “You’re the first to see it”, Mr. Mortensen said, as he put the car cover on a a nearby work table. “Peter bought this a week before he was killed……you can look, I think it only has 53 miles on it”.
Sure enough, the speedometer indicated 63 miles. Except for being dusty dirty, this 1958 Chevy Corvette appeared to look like new. Black, with white coves and red interior. Absolutely any young man’s dream, for sure, myself included. Peter’s father had put the vehicle up on wooden blocks, removing and carefully storing the wheels and tires, deflating them slightly, even coating the rubber with some sort of protectant.
All the chrome had a greasy substance on it to protect it from corrosion. It was a convertible with a hardtop, so since it was sealed up, basically the interior was clean, and still had a little bit of that new car smell. The engine compartment also was pretty clean except for a thick layer of dust. “Really nice car, Mr. Mortensen, I’m really sorry Peter’s not here with us to take me for a ride”. “He is here, Tommy, trust me I feel his presence in here all the time”.
As Petter said that, he turned to my Uncle, “Well, Bjorn, come on up to the house and we’ll write up a bill of sale and have a cold one”. I soooooo wanted to ask Mr. Mortensen if Peter’s Corvette was for sale, but decided to keep my mouth shut.
I kept my mouth shut the entire time we sat in the Mortensen kitchen, as I listened to them talking about other things, the upcoming church social and 4th of July Celebration. Well, not the entire time. Mr. Mortensen asked me about my leg, mentioned my parents, and how he loved them both. Petter Mortensen was one year older than my father, and two years older than Uncle Bjorn.
These three dudes truly were the Three Musketeers growing up, although as it started to get dark, listening to their stories, one would think that they were the inspiration for The Three Stooges. “Sell you the 55 if your interested, Mr. Mortensen offered as Uncle Bjorn and I were walking out the back porch door, “500 bucks and it’s yours”. No hesitation on my part, “I’ll take it”. I needed a car.
I really wanted the Corvette, but I kept my mouth shut on that one, thinking, “tonight’s not the right time to ask”. The following day, Aunt Mary brought us back over to the Mortensen’s in the morning. Uncle Bjorn drove the tractor home, and I drove the 1955 Chevrolet 2-door post, Candy Apple Red, fuel-injected 409 with wheelie bars on the back. A nice hot rod, not the Corvette, but still nice. Better for showing up at the drive-in than in Aunt Mary’s station wagon.
Speaking of drive-in movies, if you didn’t live in the big city, the only thing you had for social activity was the dance socials that the church put on every now and then, and the drive-in movie theater on Highway 65. At 75 cents per person to get in, and $1.50 for a hot-dog, french-fries and fountain drink, it was what you did if you were a teenager, or older, on a Friday and Saturday night.
Of course if your friends in the trunk were quiet enough (and ticket dude didn’t ask you to open your trunk), three or four of you got in for free and had to buy the driver’s refreshments at the snack stand. In the last few summers for me, it was a whirlwind of dating frenzy at the drive-in. There was Meredith, there was Cindy, Janice, Judy, and Carol, Louise, Tara, and Martha.
In the High School years, it was sort of a socially competitive sport to see who was with who on a Friday and Saturday night at the drive-in. The same movie played over and over again throughout most of the summer, changing maybe once in August. For the most part, a good portion of the crowd had no idea what the movie was all about, even after seeing it five times.
It was one huge tailgater’s party as well. Everyone partying, drinking their beer and whiskey, smoking their cigarettes like movie stars on the TV commercials (there was a little weed as well), the roaming from car to car to check out the babe’s, (or the dudes). The serious couples hiding behind steamed up windows, the dudes either trying to get to first base, or hitting a home run.
You could tell sometimes, if you were walking up to the snack stand and you happen to walk by some steamed-up old Chevy, rockin’ and creakin’ back and forth. Usually, you knew who’s car it was. If it was someone you knew, sometimes for the hell of it, we would jump on the front bumper and jump up and down giving the occupants a real ride.
The snack bar was sort of a gathering place. In front was a small playground for the little kids, with a slide, a swing set, and a teeter-totter. Young parents with small children would drop their little tykes off at the playground as soon as they pulled in to the drive-in, give them money for snacks, and probably tell them not to leave the playground, “Mommy and Daddy will drive by and pick you up when the movie is over”.
If you were one of those teens that gained entry via the trunk of a friends automobile, you usually watched the movie from the playground cause your driver and usually one more dude in the back seat, were steaming up the windows with their dates. This happened a lot if you were younger than drivers license eligible, but your friend’s older brother was the designated driver for that particular evening.
When you are twelve, the playground is cool, you mix right in with the six to ten year old group of abandoned tykes. When you are fourteen, you still are forced to hang out at the snack bar area with it’s playground, but you end up walking around for an hour or so, giggling at all the steamed up windows, flirting at the small groups of young teen girls, who are also walking around during the movie. Sometimes jumping on a bumper if Ed’s older brothers Pontiac wasn’t rockin’ enough.
Yes, that old Drive-In over on Highway 65 was much better entertainment than sitting in a regular city theater.
To be continued………
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