June 23, 2008

Threads of Yesterday

Early into Kindergarten I was taken to the doctor and given an emergency examination. My parents had an urgency which, at the age of five, I had never sensed before. Our family physician wrote a prescription and sent us home. I remember thinking nothing of it until I was spoon fed this foul mixture and I gagged before swallowing it. Also, my folks woke me in the middle of the night to give me this same elixir once more.

Youth and the fog of memory cloud one’s perspective and make the image in the rear view mirror of the mind a bit fuzzy. I needed the medicine, yet I wasn’t sick. Back in 1968, things were a lot different than they are today. I didn’t even have pediatrician. But, the fact remains that something happened to give my parents and the doctor a scare.

A young girl in my class died of viral meningitis.

She passed away at the age of five, and it troubles me that I do not remember her name or even her face. Perhaps as I write this, there's mother and a father who pause each day to recall her laugh, gaze at her photo, and shed a tear forty years later. By now they are elderly, perhaps they are grandparents; yet, how could they forget her?

My life and that of the little girl crossed at one point. Though the thread was thin which connected us, there was indeed a portion of the fabric of space-time where we shared a common patch of Earth and we were steered along a congruent path toward maturation.

To a greater degree, her parents towed the same line, and they stood at the edge of that plane of existence which I shared with their daughter. Is a tiny ripple of one youthful life so great as to cause a wave of emotion vibrant enough to continue to intrigue a grown man?

Four decades have passed and I still think about my classmate. She has the effect of keeping me focused as my life is supposed to have significance. I will explain.

My cynicism has caused to me to question my life’s purpose. I’ve derailed the concepts of destiny and fate having any sort of influence over me. Yet, I am able to connect the dots from many events throughout my past which, when held up to the light, spin a story of divine guidance which can not be ignored.

The players who’ve accompanied me on my journey thus far, including, family, friends, teachers, co-workers, and some victims I’ve encountered during my years in law enforcement, have all contributed bits and snippets of truth and awareness which only occurs to me when I cast off the cloak of skepticism and become open to the charms of serendipity.

I want to recollect this fated young girl back in elementary school. I can still see where she sat in class and the back of her head. With her brown hair clasped together to form pig tails, she sat upright in those first days of school and listened Mrs. Sisti teach us the ABCs. Is it fair that I made it this far in life and not she? What does it mean when a young person dies? How do I validate my additional forty years of breathing in exchange for being lucky enough to not get sick?

My conscience is not equipped to deal with transience, the algebra of survival, and cosmic disproportion. For this reason, I am compelled to assess my endurance, to make good on an unearthed vow evoked by my introspection and unadulterated scrutiny of what I deem to be providence. Why do I live? How am I so fortunate; and what is the toll for continuing along this thoroughfare, this life?

For the sake of so many before me, and including this girl of whom I write, I will endeavor to be a good person. My goal shall be to contribute something to the rest of us. Each day, I give a bit more, I think, as I follow a new string I've discovered with my eyes wide open and my mind cleared of wretched disbelief.

My children have passed the young girl in age; and, hopefully I will never mourn, God forbid, in the same manner as her parents do to this day. This girl, this fleeting life, still teaches; though her responsibility was never to die; but to grow.

There is a photograph buried in an archive of snapshots and Polaroids at my dad’s house. Captured on paper in one of these collections is an image of me in Kindergarten. I remember when this class portrait was taken; and, the young girl was not there that day. Her mom and dad no longer took her to school by then; and, she never hanged her finger paintings in the hallway with the rest of us for Open School Night.

I intend to dig that picture out of the drawer my father keeps his memories in. The will is there, but not the effort. Perhaps I will find it one day when I sit back and consider my life and how I got here. Sometimes, whenever I recall everyone I knew over the years, a little girl nudges me and reminds me that she was alive and that she mattered in this world. Her parents should know that a new filament has been cast across the dimensions between life and death, and their child continues to weave herself into the cloth of someone else’s being. I shall secure this lifeline offered me by my classmate and keep myself grounded with the concept that I will justify my existence and fulfill my obligations.

Many years ago, a mom and dad lost their daughter. This man, a boy in her Kindergarten class, will never forget her.

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June 13, 2008

Hold Your Nose: Here's An Old Short Story

Dear Readers,
Sometimes I am proud of my writing. Other times I cringe when I post something, unsure of how it will be received. This time out, however, I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that all of you will be appalled at what I offer here. This is a short story I wrote circa 1985, back in my very early twenties. This is the point in most writers’ lives when they are so confident that they believe that anything they produce in the form of the written word is simply wonderful and cannot be criticized. I remember working on this piece and thinking I was clever.

Two days ago, I found this story in an old notebook, read it again, and had the same reaction one has when they find a dead rat in their garbage can. With all of that said, I feel I have enough equity built up with my audience that even if I toss a stink bomb at them every once in a while some of them might actually return after the smoke clears and I hang out a few air fresheners in the form of decent posts. So now, without any further ado, here’s the dead rat I created back when I was a mere lad of just past legal drinking age.

-Mr. Grudge

The Concrete That Binds
Or: Tip-Toe through the Rip-Tide
(Copyright 1985 M.J. Kannengieser)

Alger’s murder was, of course, inevitable, and yet sickening to the many who knew him. There are some who did celebrate; but, most accepted the idea that it wasn’t his fault. Oh, Alger presented himself as a pillar of the community having finished a mail order course to become a fully certified Notary Public (though the authority vested in him made him drunk with power).

Never the less, nobody questioned why a sixteen year old high-schooler would have met with such a gruesome end.

Some would have guessed that he was shot. Former parents of his (Alger was passed from foster family to foster family, until he was ultimately taken into the care of a family of ferrets), were hell bent on seeking vengeance on him and would storm into Alger’s room at night and riddle the place with gun fire.

All of this started when Alger was small, perhaps two years old, and as a result he never learned to walk as he was constantly pressing his body against the floor and scurrying about to dodge the bullets (hence, how he met the ferrets).

Alger’s many parents were not overreacting, though they completely misunderstood poor Alger. You see, he was never given proper religious instruction; and, he merely saw murder and extortion as a means of getting close to those he loved, and not as mortal sin. Quite frankly, he thought they should simply drop the matter and get over it already.

Fortunately, Alger was never charged with any homicide, thanks to his high school principal (a closet pedophile), who graciously took the rap for him in exchange for Alger’s Polaroid’s (Oh, how Alger loved to spy!).

They way Alger died was officially a mystery until the medical examiner was able to chisel his way through to his body.

Alger had been scampering along the sidewalk one day (about ankle high) along with the ferrets when he plunged into a plot of wet cement. This particular concrete was the quick drying variety and he was became stuck right away. Certainly, the ferrets were unable to drag him out, so the plopped a straw into his mouth (the only visible part of his body) and continued to feed him Cool Whip and pistachio nuts (Alger’s favorite).

Eventually, Alger’s tremendous weight gain required a larger cement block. A local, shady contractor obliged the ferret’s appeal for help; but the ferrets, being nasty little rodents, had no money. When the contractor, eyeing Mrs. Ferret, suggested that there were “other ways” they could “pay” him, they flew into a rage, attacked the contractor, and gnawed his heels out. Fearing for his life, the contractor fled, tippy-toed, back to his office. There he enlisted the aid of his very large sons to exact his revenge on the ferrets by hurling Alger into the ocean.

Later that evening when the tide went out, the ferrets ran to the shore and found Alger in the shallow water blowing S.O.S. bubbles through his straw. As the ferrets struggled futilely to drag Alger out of the surf, Alger gave up, and he offered his last breath by whistling “Shave and a Haircut”.

The ferrets called the police who immediately tossed them into a sack and took them to the dog pound. There, they were placed into a cage with a large, German Shepard and eaten.

Eventually, Alger’s body was discovered again after several bathers at the beach dived into the surf and then floated lifelessly to the surface. This caused a spectacular news event and a police investigation.

A local contractor won the bid to haul out the concrete block which was killing off beach goers. In front of scores of news cameras, he hobbled directly to the spot near underwater slab of cement. A reporter became suspicious.

But how did you know to look there?” he asked. All the contractor could do was stammer aloud and teeter-totter back and forth on his tip-toes.

At the police station, the contractor admitted to dumping the cement there after cops threatened to prosecute him under the a sub-section of federal RICO statutes, which, in a nutshell states “Anyone in the construction industry has be guilty of something” The contractor turned state’s evidence against his sons and then entered the Federal Witness Protection Program, where he was fitted with artificial heels so he wouldn’t stick out in a crowd when he walked.

The Medical Examiner was allowed to chisel into the cement block after paying $100 to Local 306 Jack Hammer Operators Union, for a temporary union card that gave him permission to do so without fear of having his knee caps broken.

They found Alger at the center of the slab, clutching what at first glimpse, they thought was a suicide note. A specialist (actually a janitor at the morgue, the Medical Examiner forgot his glasses) determined it was in fact a Polaroid of the contractor and Mrs. Ferret in bed together the night before his heels were chewed off. Go figure.

For Alger, an epitaph:

For Ferrets of Love
And contractors of doom
To whom insoles mean embarrassing gloom
For him, Alger never did walk
Entombed in sidewalk, the world did gawk
At the bottom of the sea,
Among raw sewage and waste
With a few final bubbles, the end did haste

The End

Okay Readers, I won't blame you if you run away and don't come back. But, please, please don't go! I'll make it up to you. I promise!

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June 3, 2008

City Boy, Country Man

So, how was your trip?

I’ve been hearing that a lot since I returned from my business trip to Nashville, Tennessee. I’d like to think that my co-workers missed my company and were glad to see me back; but, judging from the amount of work on my desk, and from the deluge of telephone calls for administrative support I’ve answered, it appears that I was missed for other reasons. My trip went well, but it was no vacation, and it is great to be home.

Of course, no business trip would be complete without some sight seeing. The hotel and convention center where we stayed is less than one half mile from The Grand Ole Opry. The original site for the Opry was Ryman Auditorium, also located in Nashville. Sometime in the 1970’s the Opry moved to its current location and the show is as popular as ever. My point here is not to talk about the history of the radio program, or the many legendary performers who graced the stages of both the present day Opry House or the Ryman Auditorium. I’d like to make it clear that for one night, for a few blessed hours, I felt truly American.

Country music is alien to many New Yorker’s ears; and, attempts to bring country music to the Big Apple and to Long Island have either failed or been poorly received. There were "fad" cowboy bars in the 1980’s with folks riding mechanical bulls and wearing cowboy hats; but, those venues have fallen by the wayside. My place of birth, my home town, was never a bastion for die-hard country music fans.

Allow me to clarify by saying that you’ll find few people in my neck of the woods to besmirch country music. And, you’d be surprised to discover that Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings are respected names in many northern households. Yet, most country music stars are not part of the culture, and are not easily recognized by typical Long Islanders.

The Grand Ole Opry show I attended included a performance by a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. I’m ashamed to admit that I never heard of Little Jimmy Dickens, and I vaguely remember the TV show “Hee Haw” from the 1970’s which he appeared on several times. Another singer, Jean Shepard, sang and told jokes and was well received; yet I couldn’t pick her out of a line-up. Jean Shepard has been singing since the 1950’s and is one of country music’s legendary stars.

How is it that I’ve missed so much in my own country’s culture? As a kid growing up on the south shore of Long Island, much of what I listened to was British music. My generation was weaned on Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes, and the list goes on. These bands are so ingrained in the culture of white, suburban kids from my youth and geographical area, that the fact that they are English musicians has long since been erased from the collective zeitgeist of my peers. These rock bands provided music to get drunk by, pick up girls, race cars, and skip school. Jimmy Page inspired generations of kids to become guitar heroes, just like him. Albums produced by our English "cousins" across the pond marked periods of my life when I first discovered girls, got my driver’s license, graduated high school, and fell in love.

The rest of my fellow citizens had different experiences while absorbing native music and sharing an indigenous musical genre. The songs they listened to reflected growing up on this continent, telling a native story, and they nurtured home grown legends. My visit to the Opry proved that to me; and, I felt as though I’d found the key to a vault filled with treasure, and that the key was in my hip pocket all along.

I have no regrets about my love of British rock; and, I wouldn’t trade my childhood for anything. However, I have the time now to listen with an open mind and a new appreciation for my fellow Americans as they sing about life, love, happiness, tragedy, and about America herself. To the Grand Ole Opry, thanks for bringing me home.

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