Thursday, December 18, 2014
Okay, so I do recall a few things. I remember when I sliced my pointer finger open with a pocket knife while I attempted to whittle a Scottish terrier out of a bar of soap. I remember wiping out on the jagged asphalt during the go-cart races. And I remember, after a fundraiser, Scout Leader Barnes slipping on icy steps and gashing the left side of his face on the frozen top layer of snow. Perhaps the only achievement badges I earned were those that represented bodily harm: the bloody finger, the brush-burned torso, and the horrified eyes. Wait! I was victorious in the DuBoistown-Nisbet Cub Scout checker tournament; my opponent still owed me two king pieces when I jumped his final pawn. THAT is my sole fond memory of "obeying the law of the pack," as the motto goes.
I don't know, exactly, why I wasn't hyped to be a Cub Scout. I was somewhat of an outdoorsman in my youth—I enjoyed hiking in the Appalachians behind my boyhood home, and fishing the local streams with my grandfather, and camping in the Tiagahton Forest with my buddies. I suppose I was adverse to the structure. Also, come to think of it, our troupe's meetings were exclusively indoors. We learned to pitch a tent while cooped-up in the local fire hall basement, next to the boiler room. Ah, the great underground, block-windowed, asbestos-tiled, indoors!
I also hated the fucking stupid yellow scarf.
My inner adventurer perked when our fearless leader (he wasn't really fearless—I think he was a claims adjuster, or something) Scout Master Barnes, announced a three day, two night sojourn to Camp Karoondinha. Camp Karoondinha is "The Land of Shining Waters," nestled in the foothills of Mifflinburg, PA. Finally, the pack was leaving the fire hall basement and heading into the great outdoors. I gathered a weekend's worth of my most outdoor-sy possessions: compass, map of the Appalachians, and Swiss army knife (I WISHED it was one with the spoon), and loading them into the plastic duffel bag I got free with a specific number of Kellogg’s proofs of purchase. Next thing I know, the pack is unloading Scout Leader Barnes' minivan and gathering amongst a thick canopy of lush deciduous trees. The untainted breeze wafted the pure scent of pine into our nostrils, which had, after so many troupe meetings, sucked in more dust and mold spores than the EPA would deem suitable.
Hawks cawing and circling above, the snap of a distant branch that was likely caused by an unseen whitetail deer, the startling menace of an 18-wheeler's horn reverberating from the major interstate not far from camp…we were finally outside.
Yes, we were now in the heart of God’s country. But a true survivalist would’ve scoffed at the conveniences: pre-pitched tents, a modern bathroom, a ranger’s office with electricity, etc. Bear Grylls would’ve likened it to a penthouse on Fifth Avenue, albeit one with raccoon scat dotting the woodland floor.
The first half-day of camp was comprised of relatively standard camping fare for the pre-adolescent uninitiated: unrolling sleeping backs, cooking a sausage and grit dinner over the pre-built fire pit, and generally running amuck without regard for the true beauty of the natural habitat in which we were immersed. Before long, night had fallen and the pack had gathered in a circle around the fire pit under the bulbous radiant moon.
Duh, of course we did. The cliché is realized.
To further the cliché the fireside chats quickly became a carousal of ghost stories. One camper after another told the scary story his grandfather told him the Halloween prior, or he'd heard on the playground, or at a sleepover, or whatnot. But a kid rarely possesses the narration skills to truly spook an audience, even when said audience is a bunch of pubescent sons of sub-suburban soccer moms. After the umpteenth telling of the ol' "hook hanging from the car door" urban legend the troupe leader cleared his throat, which snagged his pack's attention. "Quiet kids," he said. "Enough silly stories. I need to tell you something that may save your life this weekend…Hey, stop making fart sounds and pay attention, Biff. You all need listen up or you may DIE." The fire roared and the moon flickered when he said "die." (Not really, but I'd add those effects if I were directing the movie version). "Not long ago, a small plane crashed deep in the woods not far from this campsite. The pilot, who was alone on the flight, survived. But his arm was trapped underneath a crushed part of the cockpit. He screamed and yelled for help, but no one came. Fearing he would die, and understanding that his only chance at survival was to escape the wreckage, he pulled out the axe he'd kept in the cockpit and chopped off the arm that was trapped. He had freed himself. Days later, a search party found the downed plane. They also found the pilot's severed arm and a trail of dried blood leading into the woods. The pilot, however, was never seen again. Legend has it that he still lurks about these very woods at night, still carrying his ax, and seeking someone with an arm that might fit onto his own mutilated shoulder. And when he finds that perfect arm he's going to chop it off and replace the one he had to leave behind in the plane crash. Camp Karoondinha is full of campers this weekend. I'm sure the, ah, bloody stump pilot will be out looking for a match. I wouldn't go out wandering in the woods if I were you. You might just come back to camp with a BLOODY STUMP YOURSELF. (The fire would rage again).
With the benefit of both hindsight and maturity, I should've recognized this grisly story as impromptu bullshit fear-mongering designed to simply scare curious or mischievous campers into not straying into the woods and facing threats much more likely than ax-wielding ghosts— like black bears and the distinct prospects of getting lost in the vast Pennsylvania woodlands. The should-have-been-obvious reasons for disbelief are aplenty. First of all, I imagined the pilot as a burly lumberjack-type. Thus, Scout Leader Barnes himself owned the only appendage suitable to compliment the pilot's size requirements. How laughable would a barrel-chested brute look if he had one strapping arm, and another befitting a squirrelly 9-year-old? Furthermore, the dismembered pilot would've needed to survive the blood loss, and somehow manage in the unforgiving woods for several years armed with only an ax—and perhaps a little Cub Scout know-how. Never mind that he apparently decided to nest with the wildlife like the Unabomber, rather than hike to the nearest highway and seek a ride to the ER. Lastly, why would Scout Leader Barnes allow us to stay a weekend at Camp Karoondinha when he knew a rural Jack the Ripper was roaming about? The woodlands were London alleys, and we were prostitutes.
Despite the overlooked surefire signs that the scout leader’s story was nothing but B horror movie fodder, we naïve Cub Scouts immediately thought of ourselves as targets. After storytelling time concluded with the collective pants-pissing of about two dozen scouts, we finished our S’mores with chattering teeth, doused our fire, and schlepped to our tents. Yep, we were sitting ducks; it was just a matter of who “got the ax.”
Todd, my tent-mate, and I spent the first night in our sleeping bags assuring ourselves ad nauseam that our arms would remain intact with our torsos for the duration of the trip. We had some cause for hope. Most significantly, the law of probability dictated that neither of US would LIKELY be the pilot’s victim—someone, perhaps, but neither of us. But if either of us were chosen to be sampled, so to speak, surely we would notice the pilot approaching long before he could pounce. I felt strongly about my changes of outrunning a one-armed man hauling a cumbersome ax. Besides, if Todd and I were to stand back-to-back all weekend—think Forrest Gump and Bubba in the jungles of Vietnam—our surveillance would gain us the advantage. Those thoughts were comforting enough to allow us to begin to drift into slumber…until Todd brought up a good point, “What if he sneaks into our tent while we’re sleeping?” Oh shit!
I spent the next hours of the slog to sunrise either tossing and turning, or in a half-sleep state in which gruesome images appeared and vanished in my reeling mind like a flickering fever dream. But I was rattled back to reality when a shrill scream—that of a boy—blitzed the pre-dawn air. I sprang up in my bed Jack-In-The-Box style, eyes bulging, but recoiled just as quickly under the feeble security of my thin tattered sheets. I was too scared to ask Todd's opinion of what the scream meant. I didn't need to, actually. The pilot was trying on a brand new arm.
The next morning began as inauspiciously as the previous night had ended. After exchanging a few silent hours of petrified glances with Todd amid the muted glow of an early morning sun, Scout Leader Barnes rang the breakfast bell. What we happened upon along the short trek to the fire pit confirmed, or, re-confirmed, what me and Todd had already concluded. The flap to Biff's tent was wide open. His bed had been stripped and the bags and toiletries that normally accompanied occupancy were missing. We surveyed the other scouts lingering about the plates of scrambled eggs and sausages on the picnic table—Biff was gone!
My nerves instantly ran amuck upon this realization. Biff and I were never friends. In fact, I didn’t even know him particularly well. But now, poor Biff was dead. Murdered by a bloodthirsty ghost! His parents must be crushed. Scout Leader Barnes was just sitting on a rock, munching on greasy bacon. He seemed quite collected…eerily collected.
How can he hide his shock? Why aren’t we piling back in his minivan and scurrying home? Wait. Where are the police? Where are the investigators collecting evidence and writing down quotes? Crap! The Cub Scouts of America are sweeping the tragedy under the rug! Scout Master Barnes must've yanked the bloody sheets off Biff's bed to hide the fact that his friggin' arm was chopped off. Biff's camping gear was removed to erase any traces of his existence. His name surely has been erased from Camp Karoondinha's attendance records. Why? Is this a calculated effort by the Cub Scouts of America to protect a wholesome image? Did they honestly not foresee this tragedy, the ghost story come to life, and now feel the irrepressible need to avert the headline "Scout Master's Tongue in Granny Knots as Camper Slaughtered?" Either way, does the Cub Scouts of America think tank presume that Biff's fellow scouts would simply forget he was a part of the pack?
The remainder of the day consisted of standard camping and/or Cub Scout stuff, less the permeating immense fear that I may be violently murdered under the cloak of night in the vacuum of the Central Pennsylvania wilderness, and the nefarious Fraternal Order of the Cub Scouts of America would wipe away all traces of my untimely demise and order Scout Master Barnes to simply tell my parents “I’m sorry Mr. and Mrs. Bower, but Matt went down to the creek to skip rocks, and never came back. Damn, this is always the hardest part of the job.”
Beyond earshot of the scout master—preferably behind a tree or the outhouse—pack members exchanged whispers concerning the events of the preceding night. Everyone had heard Biff scream. Everyone had noticed Biff’s absence. Everyone took note of the mysterious state of Biff’s tent. And everyone was convinced that he was a goner.
I handled a potentially deadly weapon for the first time that afternoon. A ranger employed by the camp (read: lackey ordered by the Fraternal Order of the Cub Scouts of America) gave a crash course on proper use of a bow and arrow, and instructed me to take aim at a hail bale 50 feet away. I placed the tip of my left sneaker at the white chalk line in the grass, and raised the bow. I somehow mustered the strength in my scrawny upper body to gradually pull the string back while the arrow’s shaft was clenched between my fingers. The tension in the string was quickly draining the energy from my quivering arm. I squinted and measured the target straight ahead. In my mind, the hail bail was the psychotic pilot, sharpening his ax. He didn’t know I was there. He didn’t know I had him in my crosshairs. In that moment, I felt completely in control. The tension in the string and the ache in my biceps and shoulder assured me the arrow possessed sufficient potential energy to split a man’s eyebrows from across a field. I whimpered slightly when the ache became a throb. The pilot heard me and peered up; the sparks jumping from the grindstone framed his sneer. His eyes said “Look. Fresh meat.” I released the tension. My thoughts were on the tip of the arrow as it careened mercilessly toward its target. The pilot’s maddened eyes trailed the arrow as it whooshed three feet above his head. Then he turned back to me, grinned, and the spinning grindstone stopped. The blade was sharp enough now. And I was meat, indeed.
I awoke Sunday morning—the final day of camp—accompanied by a sense of relief. I hadn't been slaughtered overnight. Neither had Todd. Moreover, no midnight screams had awakened us.
The pact gathered for a final hearty breakfast prepared by Scout Master Barnes over the open fire. Nothing else seemed amiss. No tents were suddenly and mysteriously empty. No one was unaccounted for. My fellow scouts certainly seemed more carefree than the prior morning. Todd was back to his sophomoric quips, and others were playfully tussling. I sensed that everyone was thankful that today we'd return to the safe doldrums of a retreat to the proverbial grit. I know I was. But that didn't mean I was prepared to allow Scout Master Barnes to escape the veiling of Biff's terrible fate without a suitable explanation.
While our leader sat beside the withering fire and munched on a piece of toast, I gradually and deliberately approached him within his peripheral view. I was hoping he'd peer up and ask me what was on my mind before I'd have to tap him on the shoulder and initiate an extremely uncomfortable conversation. Frankly, I think he did notice me slowly approaching—fidgeting hands behind my back—but he refused to acknowledge me until the lingering awkwardness of a silent looming nine-year-old forced him to speak. “Hi Matt,” he said. “Ready to go home?”
“Yes,” I answered. I stared at his bobbing moustache as he chewed his bacon. “I’m ready.”
“Did you have fun?”
“Will you come back again with the pack next year?”
I didn’t respond at first. Instead, I stared at my feet. “Scout Master Barnes? I have a question. What happened to…” I could hear food squishing between his teeth. “What happened to Biff? Is he dead?”
Scout Master Barnes’ eyes widened, and a grin overcame his face. “Why? Do you think his arm was chopped off?”
My heart didn’t skip a beat. Nor did it quicken. But I’m pretty sure it turned white and coughed air bubbles into my veins.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Hah. Biff didn’t get his arm chopped off, son. No, no. But it’s not much better. He tried going into the bathroom in the dark and his dang wiener got caught in his zipper. That’s the scream you heard. Shook him up but good.” By this time, several members of the pack had gathered nearby.
“His poor mom had to come and pick him up before you guys woke up. Biff’s fine. He’ll just have an ice pack on his crotch for few days.” Scout Master Barnes erupted into an obscene belly laugh...the dick. “You guys thought the pilot got him, didn’t you. That’s rich! Time to gather your gear boys. The minivan leaves soon.”
I still love the outdoors, much more than any moldy basement. And, yes, I have zero fond memories of my days as a Cub Scout, bar the checkers tournament. But I did learn one thing while camping—always take your flashlight to the pisser.
Sunday, December 14, 2014
Herb is the longtime owner of The Jolly Miser tavern, a favorite haunt of local boozehounds and dead beats. He's seen some wild things between happy hour and last call, but nothing quite like this. "Our kitchen is open until 11pm daily, and we serve grain in many forms: sandwiches, bread bowls…ah…double decker sandwiches. Even though I handle bread daily, this has shaken me to the core. Maybe it foretells something big…like, triple decker sandwich big"
What exactly that is remains to be seen. However, Herb isn't the only one who regards the phenomena as something more significant than a garden variety optical illusion obviously caused by the street light directly about the illegally placed Nativity scene. When Herb blabbed his discovery at the Basketful Bakery nearby, news quickly wafted downwind to the editor of the Bentleyville Bi-Weekly. The front page story was delivered to doorsteps the next morning, and word spread globally very slowly via Myspace posts and AOL chatrooms. Two weeks later, bread lovers, wheat aficionados, and desperate patients with incurable grain deficiencies have flocked to Bentleyville by the loaf-ful.
A tent shantytown has sprung up about Nativity scene. Those who stand on the exact spot where Herb discovered the mysterious image—again, only when the street light is on—also claim to see the slice of toast. However, disagreement abounds over what the slice signifies. Some think it spells doom, exemplified by makeshift signs; one reads "The Yeast Shall Rise Again" while another proclaims "Repent. The Second Crumbing Is Nigh." Oh, and "Schwebel 3:16." Others who have traveled are stricken with gluten allergies and believe that touching the blow mold on Virgin Mary's plastic bosom—where the image appears—will help their bowels simmer down. Still, other visitors just plain-old love toast. "I fucking love toast," says Tabitha Whitman, a claims adjuster from Paducah, TN, who loves toast.
Businesses in the area also welcome the population surge. "I don't know how long this thing will last, but I've never made so much money from so many disillusioned scatterbrains in my life," said a local petty thief who simply steals wallets from the back pockets of those who stand in muted admiration of the easily explainable spectacle.
Despite the surge of attention that has befallen Herb Rosenhauer since the fateful day his eyes "accidentlly happened upon" on Mother Mary's chest, he strives to remain grounded. "I don't know what this whole toast thing means. But I do know that the Jets should be favorites to win the Super Bowl in 2016."
Update: Proof of a higher flour? Since publication of this piece, a report from Alabama tells of an English muffin spotted in a bust of Elvis, and another from Brazil claims a Toaster Strudel suddenly appeared in a framed velvet Jesus.
Tuesday, December 2, 2014
Imagine periodically checking on the erecting of a skyscraper or sports arena of a simpler, but no less impressive, design.
The finished project was pristine. The web looked like those in the Audubon Field Guide to Spiders that I often borrowed from my elementary school's library. The angles all matched and the octagons got gradually smaller at the same ratio going from the outside of the web into the tiny dot in the center -- inside of which I envisioned an infinite amount of progressively smaller octagons not decipherable to the human eye. The craftsman of the web herself (I imagine the spider as feminine, like when a woman who poisons her husband is nicknamed a "black widow") was already large insofar as North American spiders go. Sometimes she spread her legs out, in four pairs, and rested in the middle of the web. This exaggerated her physical prowess, like a wary puffer fish. Perhaps she was basking in the glow of the porch light, or relaxing in the fruits of her labor. But most times she was curled-up inside the slightly rusted lip about the crown of the porch light. The lip was her home.
Despite its elegance, the web's primary function was to be a death trap. No one lives in their death trap.
Cobwebs sag about the overhead joists in my basement like individual ghost towns begging to be unceremoniously razed by a swipe of my corn cob broom. But the porch light spiderweb inhabited prime real estate and was occupied month-after-month by both its creator and mummified nocturnal insects of a varied sort. I wondered, had the weaver been clever enough to build her masterpiece beside the porch light? Or did the spider think to herself "Ok. Enough climbing. Let's just spin this damn thing here. It's as good a place as any, I suppose?" Either way, she was the sole customer inside a self-restocking 24/7 buffet. Some nights I watched four or five moths struggle hopelessly for freedom, all at once. The unwitting captives eventually went limp either from fatigue or a merciless fang bite into the thorax. The spider couldn't paralyze her bounty fast enough. While lesser spiders -- those relishing a life of solitude underneath my couch or enjoying sky box views of the daily spectacle of this blog's author struggling to force-feed his squirming son yogurt every morning -- were devoured weekly by a Bissell handheld vacuum. But the architect of the porch light web flourished. Be it dumb luck or crafty real estate forecasting, she certainly flourished. And she grew.
By mid-October, the spider was a gargoyle, safeguarding the front entrance. Visitors were aghast. A home inspector visited our home for a drive-by appraisal. While evaluating the front porch, her commentary was as follows, "The brick looks good and the mortar isn't crumbing. That's good. You porch lights appear to be in fine condi…Holy Shit! Look at that spider!" A few weeks earlier two delinquents climbed onto our back deck. Luckily I noticed the disturbance and chased them away. However, I believe the would-be crooks decided to seek entry into our home via the much-less-manageable deck entrance because of the looming monstrosity out front.
December is upon us and the spider is gone now. The web remains, but its creator is likely a victim of this autumn's sequel to last February's polar vortex. (Polar Vortex II: Further Down the Vortex) She's not curled-up in the lip of the porch light's crown. I checked. She's just flat-out gone. Perhaps she crawled into a toasty little hole in the dirt to hibernate. Do spiders hibernate? She likely became frozen, fell to the welcome mat below, and was either trampled or blown off the stoop where she'll decompose and help fertilize the grass. Her web, now a cobweb like those in the basement rafters, is lonely. A few unwrapped half-decayed bugs remain entangled, as do several pieces of dead brown leaves. The web, now, remains as merely a relic of the summer of '14, like the chipped seashells gathered one foggy morning on the beach to be later tossed into the kitchen trash can when the nostalgia is gone (or when the shells are deemed too unclean to keep in the junk drawer with the collection of half-drained AA batteries and the two keys to unknown latches – maybe someday we'll figure out where they go.)
Unchecked nostalgia anchors one to the fantasy of the past. Abandon nostalgia. The spider is gone.
Thursday, November 20, 2014
Hey Mrs. Clause, tell your hubby that Billy wants an induced nuclear fission hand blaster this Christmas
Friday, November 14, 2014
I'm Henry the Eight, I am. Henry the Eight I am, I am. Almost there, baby. Almost there. I got married to the widow next door. Come on. So close. She's been married seven times before. Who's the man? Sisyphus is the man. And everyone was a Henry. Henry. Fuck yeah! She wouldn't have a Willy or a Sam. Nor a Sam, you naysaying sons-a-bitches! I'm her eighth old man. I'm SISYPHUS. Sisyphus the boulder-roller-to-the-TOP-of-the-mountain I am. Sisyphus the boulder-roller….OH CRAP! CRAP! CRAP! CRAP! CRAP!
That's it. I'm done. I'm completely, totally friggin' done. I've said it before but I really mean it this time. I really do. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me seven million, three hundred forty two thousand, eight hundred and two times, shame on me. But that's it. Who has two thumbs and won't be taken for a sucker anymore. This guy. Wait dummy. Point your thumbs at yourself. That's right. THIS GUY. You hear me down there. Huh? Don't let the boulder roll over your ass on the way down.
Thinking about it now, I feel like I've wasted a big chunk of my life with this boulder rolling stuff. Maybe the damn thing slipping out of my hands for the seven million, three hundred forty two thousand, eight hundred and second time was the best thing to ever happen to me. Maybe I needed to get to this point to realize the boulder just isn't destined to see the top. Finally, I feel like I got some perspective. Come to think of it, I don't even know what I'd do if I ever made it to the top. What's the end game? No clue. Pat myself on the shoulder and hike all the way back down to the valley to see the old lady and bambino I guess. Maybe check to see if my bowling team still needs a forth guy.
I'm better than this. Any schmuck can roll a boulder. I've been a cog too long. I might as well have been flipping a burger that never cooks, or fetching shopping carts in a parking lot that never ends. I know I'm capable of so much more. Back when I was just another neighborhood kid flicking pebbles for kicks they told me I could do anything one day, if I put my mind to it. Next thing I know my booze-fueled teenage rock flinging years are behind me and I wake up with this shitty boulder rolling gig. Every day, nine to five, plus the occasional weekend shift. Punch in…roll…chase…roll…punch out. If only I knew back then...
Christ. Look at me now. What do I got to show for it all? Huh? A chronic backache and a Wikipedia page.
It's time Sisyphus pulls up his sandal straps and gets crackin' on a brand new career…a brand new life…a brand new exciting and uncharted future where anything is possible. Duff's Technical Institute, here I come.
Friday, October 31, 2014
No, wait. I got a better idea. Tear-up my begonias with your stupid Razor scooters some more. Go ahead. Climb the fence and piss on the glazed ball in my Baroque garden. Be my guest. Hey, come back here and throw stones at the white-crowned sparrows on my bird feeder. I dare you. But be warned, this neighbor just took a tour of the brass-knuckle factory, and he stopped in the gift shop on the way out.
Dammit-all, there hasn't been a single beautiful day in this neighborhood since the blasted Great Recession ended and you little pecker-heads showed up. They've all been shitty. It's been one shitty day in the neighborhood after another. Where are your parents, anyway? I bet I know. They're probably stoned on non-medicinal marijuana, slobbering over their framed velvet Elvis artwork, and grazing on Cheese Curls like bovines. No, don't bother getting off the futon; your government cheese is in the mail. Well, not since Mr. McFeely got laid-off. The glory days are dead. The abandoned Crayon factory is full of winos and squatters. The Sunshine Playground looks it belongs in a real estate listing in Chernobyl. Betty Aberlin's Theater, a long-time sanctuary of fife and drum performances when this town was swingin', is a stash house now.
This neighborhood sucks.