Tuesday, December 28, 2010


Pardon me if this is not as well constructed, as coherent, as my regular posts.

Begin here: Bill's was the house where I didn't have to knock. And, if he wasn't home, I'd come in, sit at the kitchen table and talk to his mother instead. At some point, I started calling his folks "Mom" and "Dad" as a joke, because I was over there so often, but, after awhile, I just called them that because it felt comfortable and right. He did the same with my folks. Bill was family.

My dad was the assistant manager at the mine. Bill's dad worked on the trains that moved the ore. Now, on one level, this meant that my dad was an MIT graduate and I'm not sure his dad finished high school, but that had no real significance. None of us ever thought like that, and shame on us if we had.

No, the significance of that was that his dad was a shift worker and mine worked 8-to-5, which, in turn, meant that his family ate dinner at 5 o'clock and mine ate at 6:30.

For a pair of hollow-legged junior high kids, that meant, if we played our cards right, we could eat at Bill's house and then walk over to my house and have dinner again. It worked pretty well until our mothers began comparing notes.

Bill and I were best friends, but we weren't inseparable. It wasn't that kind of friendship. It was more than that.

Looking back, I'm not sure what we had in common except that we liked each other. I think that's what made our friendship so solid. There were no reasons why we were so close. We simply wanted to be friends. There was never anyone in my life I liked as much as I liked Bill, and there was never anyone who had my back the way he did. He was Sundance to my Butch.

Bill was in chorus, he played trumpet in the band and, after I'd graduated and left town, he played in a rock band with my little brother. I was a guitarslinger in college and played in an Irish band later, but it was all for show. Music never rose to the level of importance in my life that it did in Bill's.

But I enjoyed singing and Bill and I sang, mostly walking home from town in the dark, from streetlamp to streetlamp under the overhanging maples. We sang Irish folk songs like "Courting in the Kitchen" and especially "The Rocky Road to Dublin," since each verse of the latter can be done in one breath if you are very careful and walk at the right pace. And we sang, "When I Woke Up This Morning (You Were On My Mind)" and other pop tunes.

People along our route knew when we were going by, but they didn't seem to mind. I guess we didn't sound so bad.

Bill wasn't into the bar scene and very rarely came to the bar in town, despite the fact that it was the only place open after six o'clock and was a hangout even for those under the 18 drinking age. I was down there a lot, but not with Bill. I never nagged him about it. It wasn't his deal. I don't think we ever got drunk together, either. And that was okay. Bill wasn't into it.

When we first started hanging out together, we'd go out in the woods and shoot BB guns, but we outgrew that soon enough and began to center our lives around the pool table in my basement. I don't know how many games of pool we shot -- eight ball and rotation and Kelly and straight pool and such -- but we got pretty good at it. We also got pretty good at hashing out the world's problems as we shot.

At his house, we listened to the stereo. We knew all of Bill Cosby's routines by heart, and spun Herb Alpert's records until they nearly wore out. Bill's older sister ignored us, which is what older sisters do, and I think his younger sister had a crush on me for about an hour and a half. Long enough to accidentally bounce a rock off my head and embarrass herself to pieces. She was awfully cute, but also awfully young, and eventually married the little brother of a friend. Nice pair of kids and I think they're still together. Hope so.

Bill's dad lay on the couch after dinner and we left him alone. He worked hard and deserved his own time, and he wasn't much of a conversationalist to begin with. Didn't effect the way I felt about him, or the way he felt about me, as it turned out.

Once there was a forest fire along the railroad tracks, caused by a broken spark arrestor that had spewed sparks into the woods for a couple of miles. I was just 16, but Bill wasn't, yet, so I got to leave school to go help fight the fire. We filled our Indian tanks and climbed up on the locomotive to be taken from the crossroads down to the scene of the fire, and Bill's dad was on the crew that took us there. He didn't say anything to me, but he gave me a quick wink and a grin. He was proud of me for being there, and I was proud of his approval.

A couple of years later, I was home for Easter and walked over to Bill's house. He wasn't there, but his mother told me he'd gone downtown to find his little sister. I was walking in that direction when the forest ranger swung by in his pickup and said, "Peterson! Get in!" There was a fire, and he was empowered to impress anyone over 16 to help put it out.

I climbed in the back and we drove another half mile before we came across Bill, his little sister and her boyfriend. "Gebo! Get in!" the Ranger barked at Bill, then looked at the boyfriend. "Iaquinta, how old are you?" But he wasn't old enough to be impressed, and was left behind. I shouted to Mary Faith to call my folks and let them know where I was headed.

Bill and I spent about six hours on that fire and it was a great benefit. We weren't all that useful as firefighters, but it gave us an opportunity to be together and talk.

A year or so later, I saw him again. He was a pallbearer at my little brother's funeral. He was incredibly uncomfortable, so deep in his own pain that he could barely deal with the notion of having to play a public role in a very difficult moment for our entire town. I have nothing to say about that, except that there are debts that cannot be repaid.I already respected him. I already loved him. This just reminded me of why.

My next substantial time with Bill, after Tony's death, was at a bar in town with him, and my then-wife, and the Kyer sisters and a husband and a boyfriend of theirs. It was one of the best nights of drinking and talking I've ever experienced. Cathy and Cheryl were girls that every guy in high school had a crush on, but this was 10 years later and we could relax. For one thing, besides being incredibly cute, they were our buddies. For another, they'd chosen really good guys.It was a terrific night of nostalgia and philosophy and good vibes. If you asked me to freeze my life in a 12-hour period to be relived endlessly, that might well be the moment.

What I remember was that we began to talk about Tony, and about another departed friend, Jim Terry, a classmate of mine. We talked about Tony and Jim for a few minutes, and then one of the Kyer sisters stopped us. I don't remember which of them it was. "I can't talk about this anymore," she said. We were such close friends that there were things we all understood that were too painful to pursue.And yet we were such close friends that we could talk until we reached that critical point. And, at this moment, that was where we were.

I saw Bill again at a kind of homecoming that we have, given that our community is too small to try to rally individual classes for reunions. It was a fine conversation, with Bill and our friend Crandall, whose story is worth a whole other post. At that moment, we were three friends and it was worth anything in the world to be there then.

Shortly thereafter, my mother admitted that maintaining a large house designed for nine people was ineffective for one person and finally sold out. I went up to help with clearing out the old family home, after half a century.

It was my last moment in Star Lake as a resident, and so, as was only right, when we were done, I went to see Bill.  I gave him the eight-ball from that pool table over which we'd spent so many hours. We misted up, we hugged. We sat and talked for awhile.

But we knew that I was leaving town. This was it.I gave him one last hug and then drove out of town.

That was five years ago. This year, on Christmas day, Bill had a stroke. And then he died.

I love Bill Gebo. I always will. He is the best friend I have ever had, and there is nothing more to be said.

I know what it means to lose a brother, and Bill was as close to Tony as I was.

And so it is appropriate for me to say that I have now, once more, lost a brother.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas 1952
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by His Old Man
(see below)

Monday, December 20, 2010

 So long, Sid and Alma
(This column originally ran in the Press-Republican of Plattsburgh, NY, in December, 1988)

I guess I won't be hearing from Alma and Sid this year.

They've sent a card every Christmas since 1974, usually early in the season. Alma doesn't procrastinate. Their card was always one of the first to arrive.

It was never a fancy card, never sentimental or religious, usually one of those whimsical cards with Santa sunbathing by a swimming pool or the reindeer pulling his golf cart or something of the sort.

And there was never a message, just their names, in what I assumed was Alma's handwriting. For years, it was "Sid and Alma and the kids," then it was "Sid and Alma." The last couple of years, it was "Alma and Sid." A little palace revolution, perhaps.

If you're waiting for some tearjerking tale about two lonely recluses with terminal diseases, spending their last pittances to mail out holiday greetings, forget it. And I don't have a fascinating, touching story to tell of how Sid and Alma acted as parents to me at a time when I really needed an anchor in this ol' world.

Fact is, I haven't got the faintest idea of who these people are.

All I know is that, a few weeks after we moved to Colorado Springs in 1974, we got the first card, postmarked Livonia, Mich. We racked our brains, trying to think of old business contacts, friends of our parents, parents of our friends.

The only guy I knew with that last name had done time in Joliet and was wanted by the Army for desertion, and I didn't think he'd be dumb enough to change his first name and then let everyone know where he was living. Anyway, if he sent whimsical cards, it would be Santa stealing a Mercedes or something, not sunning himself by the pool.

We asked a guy with my name if they were maybe friends of his, but he didn't know any Sid and Alma, either. We let it drop.

The next year, we got another card, and we wondered if maybe we should send them a note and let them know that they apparently had the wrong Petersons and might want to check on their friends. But, we figured, the right Petersons would probably send them a card or give them a call or drop them a line sometime and  then they would know.

Apparently not. The cards kept coming.

We continued to think that maybe we ought to set them straight, but by then the thing had begun to take on a bizarre fascination. How long would they continue to pump out the Christmas cards without any response?

Indefinitely, I guess. Last Christmas, my mail was still eligible for forwarding from Colorado Springs, since I had been here just a shade under six months. Sure enough, Alma and Sid's card came through, with a notation from the Postal Service suggesting I advise my correspondents of my correct address.

I didn't, of course. We had decided a long time ago that it would be cheating to encourage them in their spendthrift ways.

But I would like to be a fly on the wall in Livonia, Mich., when this year's card comes back to them, and Sid asks Alma, "Who the heck are the Petersons, anyway?"

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Speaker and the Demagogue
Were walking near the reef;
They wept like anything to see
So many on relief:
"If they would only go away,"
They said, "t’would cure our grief!"

"If tax breaks for the upper class
Could last beyond this year,
Do you suppose," the Speaker said,
"These poor would disappear?"
"I’m certain," said the Demagogue,
And shed a bitter tear.

"It seems a shame," the Speaker said,
"To play them such a trick,
After we've led them on so far,
With promises so slick!"
The Demagogue said nothing but
"Their health care makes me sick!"

"I weep for them," the Speaker said:
"I deeply sympathize."
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

"O Listeners," said the Demagogue,
"You've had a pleasant run!
Shall you be tuning in again?'
But answer came there none--
And this was scarcely odd, because
They'd eaten every one.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Vaska has arrived

Tolstoy is acknowledged to have used Davydov, the romantic partisan cavalryman and poet, as a model for the character of Nicholai Rostov's brother-in-arms Vaska Denisov, but it's obvious he took at least part of the name from the Cossack cavalry commander Orlov-Denisov, who was both more prominent and more conventional than Davydov.

The fellow on the left was a Don Cossack, the one on the right, though he rode with Cossacks, was apparently not ethnically one himself. The one in the middle is proving to be a perfect little Tatar, and that's what I was hoping for. The character in "War and Peace" for whom he is named is a sidekick in the got-your-back sense of the Sundance Kid rather than in the whatever-you-say-boss sense of Sancho Panza.

Vaska flew into Burlington Thursday night, just in time for a holiday photo promotion Saturday to support the dog park that he won't be allowed to visit until after his next round of puppy shots on the 28th. Meanwhile, we're taking walks at another, less potentially infectious, park to try to work off some of the energy of this little fellow.

The first night, he slept fairly well, but that was apparently the result of a long day of airplanes and airports coming up from Orlando. Friday night, he regaled the house all night long with rousing choruses of the dog folksong, "I Do Not Wish To Be In This Crate." And the house next door as well, apparently, since on Saturday the neighbor commented, across the fence and two driveways that separate us, that he had figured I had a new puppy after hearing the commotion the night before. Yes, in winter with all windows closed.

And Saturday's holiday shoot was a pretty good demonstration of why we should all be happy that human babies are not terribly mobile, because a nine-week-old puppy is very much a baby and we ended up with a great many out-of-focus shots of a 19-pound puppy running around pulling up the fluffy cotton floor spread, attacking the decorative stuffed animals and attempting to undecorate the tree, before we finally got a few of him sitting still without a restraining hand in the shot.

On the other hand, he is wonderfully social and was pleased to greet everyone at the store, and I have no doubt that he will be very nice to walk down the street with.

Assuming he eventually comes to realize the difference between a leashed dog and a roped calf.