Wednesday, December 13, 2006

You bug me baby

I often try to explain to people about my mother’s inability to let anything go, and how that even though her children are all grown and by and large into middle age, she is incapable of treating any of them as though they are any older than14. So I usually fall back on this story to demonstrate my point.

This story starts back in 1967. My older brother was in the full flush of a newly minted drivers license and pride of ownership in his first car. The car in question was a rather scabrous, gold, 1957 VW, but for John no more beautiful car could have existed.

It was one of those beautiful summer days that only exist in the recollection of childhood and my brother was performing one of his least favorite duties. Watching my brother and me. Aiding and abetting him in this was his best friend Pat, who was also drunk on ownership and driving privileges. They were having one of those teenage bragging contest that runs on excessive testosterone and the topic of course was who was the better driver. The discussion managed to move from an ad hoc pop quiz from the Vermont State Drivers Manual, to their innermost familiarity with their respective vehicles. While Pat was explaining the exquisite oneness he had achieved with his Rambler Ambassador, John was countering with the intuitive, nay spiritual understanding of every rattle, creak and flatulent backfire emanating from his Bug. This heady braggadocio only ended with my brother making the fateful statement, “Oh yeah, well I know my car so well that I could drive it blindfolded!” Pat seized this flung gauntlet, and at an age where word is close to action, John, Pat, my brother Mike and I as well as 3 of Pat’s brothers were packed into the Volkswagon and almost before we knew it were maneuvering our way out to the back field.

The property that my parents bought in 1960 was an acre of land, complete with a house, carriage barn, well house, wood shed and privy. All of the structures took up about 1/3 of the property and the rest was a field at the back of the property. Running along one side of the property was a thick patch of raspberries and milkweed and on the other side a hedgerow of trees at the center of which was an enormous and ancient oak. The field itself had been innocent of anything other than tall grass and wildflowers until John bought his car, and then for a short while, until John got his license, it had been the home and driving track for the VW. There was by then a well worn, roughly oval track out in the field that bore witness to John’s experiments in mastering the art of driving so it was on that familiar route that the Bug bounced past the barn and the outhouse and the old man’s garden to its appointment with fate.

Once the car was positioned at the head of the field, John was blindfolded and after a certain amount of argument over whether he could actually see or not, John put the car in gear and we, acting as navigators, all began to shout instructions as to whether he should be turning left or right or going straight. John actually made it about ¾ of the way around the field before the shouted directions and the distinction between left and right got blurred and the VW sailed slowly and with as much majesty as an ancient VW beetle could manage, into the oak tree amidst a frantic chorus of stop, stop. Now admittedly we were only doing between 5 and 10 mph, but it made an impressive crunching noise and jolted us all in good shape. We piled out in a wild state of excitement to survey the damage, John certain that he had totaled the car. Actually, it came out of it’s confrontation with the tree in pretty good shape, except that the front bumper was bent in the middle and almost touching the body of the car. For those unfamiliar with the old style bug, the bumpers were set out away from the body of the car by a good few inches. The bumper which was ordinarily one smooth curve, now described 2 arcs joined in the middle like a child’s drawing of a bird in flight. All we could think of was what would happen when our parents got home, in particular the manner in which indiscriminate justice would be dealt out by the old man. Action was called for and if the Pelletier boys were anything, it was resourceful.

Now, among the many hats my father had worn in the work world before he finally found the rut he was to occupy for so many years working in facilities at the local college, he had worked as a steeplejack. Luckily for us, my father is one of those men who are incapable of throwing anything away.
Therefore, neatly coiled in the carriage barn was the steeplejack tackle my dad had used while working at a job that required climbing telephone poles, trees and from what I can gather anything else that was vertical. What was best about this was the rope that he had used, which was very, very long and about 3 inches in diameter. We went up to the barn and dragged the rope back down to the scene of the crime and proceeded to wrap one end around the tree, which had a diameter, that if it had been cut down, you probably could have parked the car on. The other end was tied around the center of the bumper. Very slowly, and with lots of yelling and wild hand signals, John began backing the car up. After a lot of “just a little more, no, no, NO, STOP, the bumper was finally bent back into shape, the only evidence left, a small dimple about the size of a dime in the center. It was in a much more sober frame of mind John drove the car back up to the front yard and parking the car in front of the house. We then waited for my parents to come home. I don’t remember John even having to threaten us with painful retribution. I think we all realized that if the old man ever found out about this it would not have turned out pretty for anyone involved. The parents eventually made it home and as far as we could tell my father, who for a man who rarely drew a sober breath was incredibly observant, never noticed it. And that was about it. It was a rare moment of solidarity between my older brother and I, who generally were always on the look out for any excuse to rat one another out. If for no other reason than this unspoken truce this incident would have stood out in my memory.

Now, flash forward 30 years. I had gone up for one of my rare visits to my parents and as it turned out both of my brothers visited that day as well. We sat in the living room and as the conversation turned, we boys began remembering all the things we had done that we had somehow never got caught at. Among the stories were tales of bad teenage behavior with cars and John remembered about the VW. Between the three of us we started piecing the story together and my father who has grown a lot more easy going, was laughing like anything about it. My mother on the other hand just started to purse her lips. Mom is one of those people that the angrier they get the smaller their mouth gets. By the time we had about done with our story, Mom’s mouth had entirely disappeared and she had gone bright red.

“You God damned kids!” she finally yelled, and proceeded to harangue us with what would have happened if she had only found out at the time. This only got us laughing harder, which only seemed to make the old lady angrier, and go into greater detail about how she would have made our father beat the 3 of us to death, which only made us laugh harder making her angrier. It was as though we had done this 30 minutes, not 30 years before. If she could have she would have sent her 3, now middle aged sons, to their rooms. This is my mother all over. She has nursed every offence against her to her bosom like a sick kitten. I think that she was most vexed because she had been deprived of 30 years of dragging this crime against parental authority out to beat us with whenever the mood moved her. As you can gather, our mother is difficult, and over the years we all have finally gotten to the point of just rolling our eyes and saying “She means well.” Though that will be a terrible thing to have on her headstone. I think for our part, this childhood memory has become even funnier, because there is the event itself, which is a sterling example of youthful stupidity, then the long overdue aftermath that gives us yet one more example to exhibit when trying to explain our mother to others. It’s also a good prod if we are feeling mischievous, and want to get the old girl going! Now if we could just remember some of the other things we got up to…..