In keeping with this month's blog theme of "When I Grow Up," I am posting an excerpt from my novel-in-progress, tentatively entitled With Fitzgerald In Limbo:
Slowly, and to my great solace, the world I had known receded before me. As it left my view, I was struck by how warped and maimed it had become at the hands of the vicious, the unscrupulous and the selfish, who, like worms on the unprotected orchard’s apples, swarmed everywhere and defiled the beauty they ate. Still, it was a majestic orb–breathtaking in scope, more exquisite and virtuous than any man who had trod upon it.
I waited, with a patience and serenity I had never known, for what was to come. Several days passed, or only minutes; I could not tell. Time, in this new place, was not subject to earth’s demarcations of it. Place also had new parameters...or, more accurately, no parameters. I was everywhere and nowhere at once.
I heard music, faintly playing in the distance somewhere. I recognized Satie's Gymnpodie No. 1. The sounds came and went, one sweeter and more touching than the next.
Then, as the shadows of another world appeared on a vermillion horizon, I heard Honegger’s “Summer Pastorale.” I had listened to it many times in my previous existence, but never had the chords and melody so seered my being. It was like hearing a musical masterpiece for the first time.
As the shadows took recognizable forms, the music changed. I heard jazz and 1960s pop. I heard Stan Getz’s “Moonlight In Vermont,” from my mother’s favorite album, one which she played over and over in our childhood home. Memories of 1966 accompanied the music, and, gradually, images from that era took shape. In this netherworld, music was, somehow, elemental. It was the aural backdrop for all who passed through and tried to make meaning of what they were seeing. One got the feeling that, in order to understand the times, one had to listen to the supplications and pleadings of others expressed in the music they chose to play. This was my first post-mortem insight–we communicate the deepest part of ourselves when we implore others to listen to the music that touches us.
I got the sense that I was traveling through time to a place that, for a good portion of my adult life, I had longed to reclaim–the place where I grew up. Middle America in the middle of the 1960s was clinging desperately to its righteousness and gullibility. Vietnam was across the world and beyond our consciousness. Sure Dallas left us bloody, but the truth of it had not yet interred our innocence. The summer of love was a year away, and the guns of hate were easy to ignore. The land was still rich, and the waters ran pure. The air was clogged only in far-off metropolises. I had returned to the place I loved.
The emotional and physical pain of middle age faded. My back straightened, and the air flowed easily through my heart and lungs. My spirit climbed out of the black hole into which it had descended. Replacing it was a long-lost friend, one whose presence overwhelmed me. Something akin to infinite possibility. The startling, comforting awareness that visits us at some point when we are young. When hope is the pulse that keeps the heart alive, and expectation makes the next moment worth living.
Suddenly, I found myself sitting in the rickety bleachers of an old ballfield, watching a kids baseball game on a warm, serene summer evening. I sat unnoticed at the far end of the right-field benches, removed from the other 30 or so spectators. Only one person was in my general seating area, a short man hunched over, cupping a cigarette in his hand and sipping from a flask.
His side profile was familiar, but I could not readily identify him. He stood out because his attire was inappropriate for the weather and the era. He was dressed in a three-piece suit, its style popular in the 1920s, worn and tattered by age now, as if he had been wearing it for 40 years.
The field was half-encircled by a low, crumbling wire fence, beyond which was a farmer’s pasture and a few cows drinking idly from a small pond. A large yellow moon hung low over the fence, and twilight was near. The field, poorly lit by solitary lights atop old telephone poles, was, at first, just a dusty haze.
When I looked more closely, I recognized the red and gray of my grade-school team’s uniforms. A ground ball was batted towards Our Lady of Assumption’s shortstop. The graceful movements of the fielder, as he reached for the ball with the back-handed side of his glove, were as comforting and routine as they had been 40 years before. It was Danny Miller, as sure-handed and strong-armed as any 14-year-old shortstop I had ever seen. He caught the ball on a short-hop and, as he whipped it over to first, I glanced at the center fielder as the full realization of what I was witnessing overcame me. The center fielder, knowing that Danny was going to make the play, was already halfway to the dugout. It was me, or a skinnier, shorter, more freckle-faced version of me. Just minutes, or what only seemed like minutes, after I had died, I was watching my old OLA team playing a baseball game somewhere in the afterlife.
For a moment I thought I was dreaming, and I stood to cheer Danny’s play to convince myself it was real.
“Atta way, Danny,” I shouted. No one looked my way.
I shouted encouragement at Danny, best friend, world-class smartass, and lifelong womanizer, and the others, childhood friends all.
To Dennis “Rocky” Guy, wild man, prodigious sleeper, troublemaker, adopted brother, “Getta hit, Rocky.”
To Coby Goldkamp, no-hit, no-field slug, but best party-thrower and everyone’s pal, “Cobo...take one...take two...”. It was an old refrain, exhorting him to take pitches rather than swing and strike out.
“Shut up. They can’t hear you,” spoke Mr. Roaring Twenties.
I looked at him, saw that he was drunk, and ignored him. Who was he to tell me to shut up? He was a pathetic sot who was trying to appear dapper and distinguished despite his own awareness of hopeless addiction to drink.
I knew this about the man, even though I had just met him. I found that, in this netherworld, I had powers of intuition and awareness of things beyond what I had possessed in the temporal world.
He was right, though, they could not hear me. None of my old friends took notice of me, even though I nearly shouted at them. Even my younger self ignored me. When I saw myself trotting in from center field, all I could muster was a loud, “Hey!” I was so overwhelmed to see myself that I was rendered speechless.
There I was, Conlan Timothy Reese, Jr., 15 years old, lithe and graceful, glorying in the day, oblivious to the dour future, doing what I had loved most–playing baseball on a warm summer evening, surrounded by those for whom I had always kept a soft spot in my heart, making memories I would cherish all my life. I wanted to scream in his ear, “Savor it. Notice what’s around you and drink it in. It will be gone in an instant.” Just then, young-and-alive me seemed to glance at middle-aged dead me, or maybe I just imagined that he did.
I looked to my left and saw my mother sitting near the far dugout. She was 35 and in the prime of her life. Her hair, dark brown then, flowed to her shoulders. She wore a white, cotton summer blouse and pink shorts. She sat with her arms folded over her knees and watched her eldest boy with quiet pride.
Closer to me was a group of teenage girls, hair aglow and carefully primped into flips, the style of the day. They wore cut-off cotton blouses and denim shorts. They were various shades of tan and scarlet from exposure to the June midwestern sun. They giggled and swayed as they gossiped and joked. They were there to be close to the boys, their OLA classmates and romantic interests, for one last summer.
There was Marsha Bergenson, brunette and dark-skinned, quick-witted and irreverent, girlish and impudent at once. Her clear, bronze face and dark eyes attracted every boy in the eighth grade. She was Danny’s long-suffering girlfriend, but every other guy on the team secretly coveted her.
There was Dorothy Grinmaur, homely and studious, shy and pleasant and a straight arrow. She was every girl’s best friend. She listened to their boyfriend problems and longed for one of her own.
There was Debbie DeNoyes, tall, red-headed and buxom. She was cursed and blessed by having the biggest breasts of any girl in the school. The guys noticed her only for that trait. The girls admired her for trying to hide the trait and not using it to attract the guys. She had grown quiet and withdrawn in puberty, knowing that the opposite sex wanted her to show her attributes, and the same sex wanted her to hide her attributes.
In the middle of the group was my boyhood love–Collayne “Laynie” Ferrell . I stared in awe as she brushed the flowing blonde hair from her face, and stretched her tapered, tanned legs across the wooden planks. Forty years after the fact I was still in love with her. I had loved her all my life and now, still, after life.
Without looking at me, Mr. Roaring Twenties spoke up. ‘Tell me what this means to you,” he mumbled in a drunken slur.
Still mesmerized by the sight of Laynie, I paid no heed to his question.
He repeated the same words in a louder, somewhat agitated tone. Rather than answer him, I pondered the enormity of the question and the relative hideousness of its source. Why was this overdressed, ill-mannered lush asking me about the scene playing out in front of us? Why was he interrupting what, for me, was such a rapturous and stunning moment?
They say that in the afterlife we’ll get the answers to all our questions, and they’re right. But some answers come more quickly than others. Some answers come from within; some answers do not. The hardest truths take the longest, and we need guidance from our fellow netherworld travelers to find them. I answered my own unspoken questions about Mr. Roaring Twenties with a perceptiveness that had eluded me in the previous life. We had things in common. We were here to learn from one another. He was my companion on this strange journey.
Leave it to the gods, I thought, to give me this broken-down drunk as my tour guide in limbo. They were probably the same gods who had chosen my wives and my profession for me.
Before I could answer Mr. Roaring Twenties, he leaned over on his side and vomited. He waved me away, as if to decline my help which I had not offered to give. In a moment he was passed out. He lay there, prone and soiled, for minutes or days. Time, because of its indeterminance, became irrelevant.
Meanwhile, the scene I was witnessing slowly faded from view. I scrambled from my seat to try to get a closer look before Laynie, Marsha, Coby, Danny, Rocky, my mother and the others vanished. As I grasped the wire fence separating me from the field, they were gone. What came into view was my boyhood home.
All my adult life, whenever engulfed by anxiety and anarchy (in other words, whenever I was not asleep or dying), I had returned, in my mind, to the placidity of my boyhood home. It seemed the only place where I knew, or had known, refuge and solace. I’m sure there were other satisfactory places and times to grow up, but I knew none other than my own.
My parents built the home in the late 1950s in the farthest reaches of St. Louis County that, at the time, was a semi-rural, semi-suburban shangri-la where a kid could roam the countryside, and parents felt safe letting them. Our hamlet was called Mattese, named for a German immigrant farmer who first happened upon the land in the 1830s, and I came to think of it as a human sanctuary, poised between the annoying buzz of the city, 25 miles to the northeast, and the baroque wilderness of south-central Missouri, just a few hillsides beyond. Farmland bordered us to the south and west. Country-clapboard houses, interspersed with brick ranches and subdivision frames, lay in the valleys and atop the ridges to the north and east. It was a time and place pre-dating the side-by-side construction of homes in massive developments of suburban sprawl, and it post-dated the small country village by only a generation.
In the middle of it all was our home away from home–the place where we kids spent most of our days--the OLA parish grounds–surrounded by woods and streams and valleys and farmlands and the occasional block of residences. Our home was a short walk south and west of the parish grounds, across Villa Ridge Road to Ambs Road, and it sat on a small rise which afforded us nearly unimpeded views of the horizon in all directions.
The Ambs house came into view gradually, out of a fog. As the haze lifted, I stood at the foot of the long, winding, stone-covered driveway. The driveway sloped uphill, alongside green bushes and a solitary oak tree, and rose to a two-acre plateau, about 50 feet above Ambs Road, the small, semi-rural lane which bordered the property.
The home itself was made of red brick and ivory frame, and stretched lengthwise 35 yards, east to west. It housed all of ten of us–parents, grandparents, siblings, and me--comfortably, and what contentment it did not provide the bucolic setting did.
Our backyard ran all the way to Valmeier Lane, an acre and a half to the south, where the Hausketters and the Raulfens lived. To the west was the Crinnion farm which sat in a valley burned burgundy and sapphire at sunset. Our driveway gently sloped away from the house to Ambs Road. Over the hill to the north of Ambs was an open field, beyond which civilization intruded in the form of a subdivision under construction; empty shells of wooden, duplicate frame houses were like so many brutal armies pillaging the virginal landscape. As was happening all over America at the time, the future was overrunning the past. Bulldozing our heritage and paving over what was once sacred and innocent is a trait peculiar to Americans. There was money to be made in raping Mattese’s earth, so the armies marched on.
A hundred yards east of our home lived Old Man Speth, through whose vineyards and farmland we scampered to and from the school grounds. His place bordered Villa Ridge Road, and across the road was the school property–schoolhouse, ballfield, rectory, cemetery (the old Germans buried their own), and church. North and east of the school was a large valley; the valley contained several brick residences, the original post-World War II parish settlement built with loans to GIs home from Europe and the Pacific. It was called OLA Valley, and the Guys lived there, and the Millers and the Goldkamps lived in large homes just to the north of OLA Valley. Circling OLA Valley were railroad tracks, and on quiet summer nights the lonely wail of passing trains could be hear all over the parish.
The entire parish encompassed five square miles, and when I was a kid I walked every inch of it. I knew every creek and cave. I knew what was beyond all the dead-end lanes. I knew the short cuts and the paths through the woods, and so did my friends. We knew whose properties contained old, abandoned cars in which we could make out. We knew the best places to sneak a smoke. We knew the best fields for pick-up games. We made the most of every summer, especially the last one.
Now, as I stood at the foot of my old driveway, it seemed, at once, unimaginable and perfectly natural that I had returned to the womb of the Ambs house. For forty years I had wandered the earth as a lost child in a barbarous world, trying to make my way back home. I knew, though, that this was just a waystation in the afterlife. I was here to learn something, and then move on to some other destination. I deserved to be here, yet I did not belong. I was able to observe the past, but not directly participate in it.
Causes Tim Fleming Supports
The advancement of awareness of authentic American history.