Photos Do Not Bend

You never know what’s going to set off a memory and today’s path down things best left forgotten comes from a photo mailer. You’ve seen them. They are those moderately rigid cardboard envelopes you mail photos in; the ones that say, misleadingly “Photos – Do Not Bend!”

But they DO bend and therein lies today’s memory…

When I was in Air Force boot camp, our dormitory was a self-contained mini-prison. Sleeping quarters were divided into two wings, each with two rows of bunks with a locker beside it to store our gear. Each dorm also had a full bathroom, with enough facilities for 50 guys to use at the same time during morning dress and showers.

Our drill instructor–we called him our Technical Instructor or “TI”–also had a large office, complete with a cot for him to sleep in, which he only did for the first few weeks until he was sure no one was going to go Private Pyle on the Flight and start popping caps in folks.

At the very end of the dorm hallway was our “Day Room.” It was so called because it was the only room with windows low enough to see through and twice each day we gathered there for a group meeting in the morning and mail call in the evening. There were no chairs; we sat on the floor, most of us cross-legged. On one wall near the front was a door leading to another dormitory containing our “Brother Flight.” They were called that because they came to Basic a couple of weeks after us and technically we were supposed to help teach them how to survive. Other than one or two short trips over to show them how to iron T-shirts or to bang garbage cans to wake them up, we had little do to with them on a regular basis.

Evening mail call was a special time because for the first few weeks we weren’t allowed to call or write home. We couldn’t eat candy or drink soda either, so the mail brought an opportunity for something special…or so we thought. Anyone who received a package from home was forced to open it in front of everyone and pray to GOD that it didn’t contain anything contraband…which was pretty much anything good!

I remember one poor recruit we called Barney. Unlike most of us, Barney was at least in his late twenties when he enlisted. If memory serves, he had no marketable skills and after barely scraping by, he decided to join the Air Force in hopes of giving his wife and his only daughter at the time, the opportunity at a better life. But Barney’s wife and friends did him wrong. During our third week, I guess his wife and friends decided he might be lonely, so they thought it would be funny to send him an inflatable sex doll. When he opened the box and started unpacking his “gift,” it was as if Christmas had come early for our TI, who reveled in embarrassing his recruits any chance he got.  Barney never lived it down.

Military food has gotten a bad rap through the years, no doubt due to the MREs, Meals Ready to Eat. They are those freeze-dried, super-preserved meals that have been vacuum-packed for field readiness. With the exception of the chocolate bars, just about everything else in an MRE is about what you’d expect from something that was once cooked, then dried beyond recognition and/or powdered for easy storage and transport. However, the food served in mess halls (or the “Cafeteria” as we called them in the Air Force) was not bad.

Unfortunately, in Basic Training you have neither the time, nor the inclination to sit and enjoy your hot-meal, so everything is gulped down with nary a chance to think about how it tasted. Which means, by week three of Boot Camp, most of us were dreaming about fast food and sweet deserts.

But short of a sex-doll, there weren’t many things worse to receive in the mail from home, than a Care Package full of food. If you were unfortunate enough to get food in the mail, you had three choices:

A. Share it with everyone. The problem was that there was never enough to share with 49 other boys, leaving you with either Options B or C.

B. Eat it all by yourself right there, right then while everyone stared

OR

C) Throw it away without touching it

The smart ones simply threw it away, but the first couple of recruits actually tried to eat a full load of brownies and ended up sick and humiliated.

All things considered, the best thing to receive in the mail was a letter. It was simple; it was fairly private, and it was usually safe from prying eyes, though not always.

Our TI had this little game he liked to play where he would sit in the front of the room and after calling your name because you’d received a letter, he’d try and fling the letter sideways like a flying disc, across the floor and under the door separating our Day Room from our Brother Flight’s Day Room. If he was successful, he thought it was hilarious (and quite frankly so did we as long it wasn’t OUR letter being launched). If the letter didn’t make it, you got to pick up your letter and immediately read it. If it did make it through, you had to wait until you had some free time to go over and beg them to return the letter.

Besides letters, some recruits also received mail packaged in our good friend the Photo Mailer. The very one that says, “Photos-Do Not Bend,” to which our TI always replied, “Oh, but they do…” as he proceeded to bend and crease them to his heart’s desire. Once mangled, the poor kid who received it had to then open the mailer and show everyone whatever pictures he’d been sent of Mom, his girlfriend, whomever; and of course this opened him up to all sorts of derision from both our TI and from the other recruits.

After one or two letters, I think most guys wrote home and asked them to stop sending things because after a while, mail call petered out, which was just fine with me since I never received anything anyway.

So that’s today’s memory brought on by a quick trip to my kitchen where I have a stack of photo mailers sitting on the counter. I’ll get them out at some point, but right now I’m enjoying just looking at the envelopes and remembering Basic Training and the Day Room.

The Joys of Butter and Crackers in 1978

I have a very strong “emotional brain”; that memory-jogging sensation you get from smells, which I’ve always thought was odd considering my penchant for sinus infections. I also put on weight like a sumo wrestler on a fast-food diet and so for the past few years, I have practiced–with varying levels of success–not eating lunch. Overall, it works. I’ve managed to lose, and keep off, about 5-7 pounds simply by skipping a meal. And no, it never gets easier.

By around 4pm, however, my will power has crumbled and though I tell myself I’m only going to the kitchen to refill my water glass, inevitably I end up with a snack. Having three kids, whatever snack I end up with is usually less about cravings and more about efficiency; what can I grab quickly and quietly before anyone else in the house hears me and comes down to the kitchen to stand and stare. Because I don’t eat during the day, having breakfast before the kids are usually up, I cherish the moments when I do eat and the last thing I want is to share–no, belay that, the LAST thing I want is to be judged for grabbing an Oreo by a 13-year-old.

The other day, as I came down for my usual “glass of water” I grabbed the pack of Saltines and went to make an old standby, “Saltines with Peanut Butter and Raisins” when, as I grabbed the jar of peanut butter, I found it nearly empty. Time being of the essence, I didn’t feel like scraping out the nearly empty jar with a silicone spatula, my usual cheap-skate dad-move, and then losing precious seconds getting another jar and having to remove the safety seal. So, instead, I quickly popped off the top of the butter dish and, using a Saltine, sliced off a slab of butter and stuck it in my mouth as I headed for the stairs.

I was immediately taken back to 1978. I was five. My parents had divorced the year earlier and since my dad, who we lived with, didn’t exactly cook, we were having dinner at a local favorite restaurant, LUMS. I knew nothing of LUMS’ history then, established in Florida initially as a hot dog shack specializing in beer-grilled dawgs. All I knew of LUMS was that they had the best hamburgers and fries; the burgers served up on thick buns that had been buttered and left to sizzle until golden brown on the grill.

But even before the hamburger came, there were packs of crackers and little foil-sealed packages of butter in plastic-wicker containers on each table, presumably as snacks while you waited. And I can remember opening those plastic cracker packages, usually with my teeth because I couldn’t quite tear them with my little pudgy fingers, and spreading some of the room-temperature butter (or Marjorine more likely) on the cracker and sticking in my mouth. Oh, the sweetness of those green-labeled Keebler Club  Crackers combined with the saltiness of the butter–heaven!

I processed all of this in a micro-second as I took the first step up the stairs, heading back to my office. But then I stopped, turned back, grabbed a paper towel and a butter knife, and made myself just a few more. Along with my glass of water, of course. It also occurred to me that, by eating nearly a third of a stick of butter, I completely negated my afternoon of fasting, but some things are worth it. Not the butter and crackers I had that day in my own house, but the memory of the butter and crackers I shared as a 5-year-old boy with my brother and my dad.

As I consider it now, it feels like it was probably one of the last, truly good memories we all shared together before the life we knew it changed completely and before “things” began the slow, inexorable slide to complete shit. And I realize that it was one of the few times I can remember living in the moment. Truly enjoying an experience while it was happening without worrying about next week, or tomorrow, or even five minutes from now. That person packed up and left a long time ago, but I liked him a lot.

The Power of Persuasion (or maybe we’ll just call it a big, fat, lie!)

The English language has a good many words all basically meaning “tricked.”

On the spectrum from “benign tomfoolery” to “wilful deception” we have: deceived, fooled, misled, duped, hoodwinked, bamboozled, and my personal favorite, brainwashed.

We have all been tricked at one time or another by friends, co-workers, even family. But where do you draw the line? What is too far? When does messing with someone cross over from “we’re just having some fun with you” to “they’ll never even know what happened”?

When you knowingly misrepresent the facts to someone to convince them of something, and you have no intention of ever telling them the truth, that is called brainwashing and arguably, parents are the worst offenders. If you don’t believe me, think back to a time when you were trying to teach your infant to eat semi-solid food. Who among us hasn’t bait-and-switched creamed peas for apple sauce, or told your child those bland fruit bites were a new type of Cheerios?

Is it ethically wrong to trick kids into eating something they think is something else? Apparently not according to the 43 million search results for the phrase, “tricking kids into eating.”

But there again, where do you draw the line? Is it OK to do this with a baby, but not with a child that is 6, 8, or even 12? Well, right or wrong, it happens all the time and I’ll never forget the LAST time it happened to me.

meat cooking in a pan
Hmmm, steak!

It tasted strange. I remember that. Some of the other details may be fuzzy, but I definitely remember it tasting strange.

As regular readers know, my step-mom (Dad’s Wife #2) raised me the majority of my life. We don’t talk very much now, but that’s a different story for a different day. She was/is only 20 years older than me and I was 6 when she married my father, who was 18 years older than her.

Right after they got married in ’79, we moved to Montgomery, AL temporarily. Things were different for the year and a half we lived in Montgomery and, looking back, I suspect my dad was more miserable than the rest of us. I had no friends. Me and my brother started a new school. Everything changed in an instant. But kids are adaptable and at my young age, I made friends quickly and when I didn’t have someone to play with, I had my bicycle. Life wasn’t terrible. But dad was definitely a country boy, used to space and quiet-time. And in Montgomery, he had neither.

We lived in a sprawling, generic housing complex in a smallish house with little more than a 1/4 of an acre lot. At the time, step-mom wasn’t working, so her full-time job was keeping up the house during the day and cooking the meals at night. My brother and I were fairly self-sufficient, so we weren’t overly needy.

Without a garden for my dad to care for at home like he had back in Mobile, step-mom did her best to cook things that he liked. That meant vegetables; LOTS of vegetables. In fact, I remember many dinners without a protein, something I am loathe to do now, particularly with three growing kids at home.

To say our dinners were not what you saw advertised on television in the 70s and 80s, where the whole family sits down to a home-cooked meal consisting of a starch, a vegetable, and a protein, is an understatement. I can count on one hand how many times I ever had a friend over for a sleepover or to have dinner, and our diet was a big part of that. No kid wants to have the “weird family” label slapped on them at school. And so, instead of talking about my day at the dinner table, or cutting jokes with a friend, I ate my boiled squash quietly and concentrated on not gagging it up all over the table.

Dad loved his vegetables and he never met a part of a chicken that he hadn’t eaten more than once; neck, gizzards, heart, liver. Growing up in the hills of North Carolina, the youngest of 6 siblings, beggars couldn’t be choosers.

But even as an adult, liver was one of his favorites. And not just chicken livers either, but beef livers too. From a taste and texture standpoint, the two couldn’t be more different. While chicken livers are small and chunky, like the pre-chopped stew meat you get  wrapped in sterile plastic and styrofoam at the supermarket, beef liver is long and flat, almost like a butterflied chicken breast. However, that is the only thing beef liver and chicken breasts have in common.

Dad liked his liver fried. Step-mom would first marinate it for several hours in milk to try and draw out some of the gamey-ness, a technique I’m not entirely convinced worked. But when it came time to cook it, for chicken liver it was a basic breading (flour, salt, and pepper)–not too much, don’t want to mask the flavor of the liver with too much breading. For beef liver, it was liver and onions all the way. Little to no breading, sauteed in oil and covered in onions.  Both were served with a side of ketchup.

In my boyhood opinion, the only meal worse than liver was a meal of liver with a side of squash–an opinion I hold to this day.

But most evenings, either I or my brother would ask that second most reviled question, after “Are we there yet?” that being, “What’s for dinner?”  But on liver day, you didn’t have to ask. You’d either seen it marinating in the refrigerator beforehand, all dark and quivery in its bath of stark white dairy, or you’d immediately smell it the moment it hit the hot, oily, cast-iron skillet.

6:35 pm.

On this particular day, I had been out playing and came in, as usual, around dark-thirty right as step-mom was starting dinner. I hadn’t yet become her “little kitchen helper,” so I breezed through the kitchen and headed to my room after she answered my query with, “steak.”

A half-hour later, dinner was called and I, along with my brother and dad, tucked ourselves in around the cheap table, awaiting step-mom to bring everything over from the kitchen.

Cooked liver has a particular smell, and while I had vaguely smelled what was cooking while in my room, I’d gone nose-blind by this point so I was going purely on sight now. Step-mom placed the mashed potatoes and green beans on the table, followed by the “steak.”

In the short time step-mom had been part of our family, I couldn’t ever remember her cooking steak. Truthfully, I’m not sure I’d ever had steak at that point, so when the plate full of small, round cubes of steak were placed on the table, I gave it little more than a curious look.

The blessing said and the plates passed, I began to eat. But something was off. Not being a steak connoisseur, I couldn’t put my finger on what was strange, but it definitely tasted “off.” It had a vaguely familiar off-ness that I couldn’t quite place, so I asked again, “What is this?” Step-mom replied, “It’s steak. Eat up.”

By now you know where this is going. But, I won’t lie and say that I saw through the deception immediately, because I didn’t. Even though my brain assured me step-mom said it was steak, and even though at that point in my life I’d never known my parents to openly lie to me, I knew something wasn’t right. I didn’t like this “steak.” I thought then and there that I was not a “steak fan.”

But, I finished my plate because that was what you did. Not like today where kids can leave food on their plate and we’re all like, “That’s OK; just eat what you like.” No, we had to clean our plate and so I did.

It was not until the end of the meal, as I was asking to be excused that step-mom said, “Did you like dinner?” Me, being a generally polite child said, “Yes, it was good.” Even though it wasn’t.

That’s when she sprung on me, “Well, it wasn’t steak. It was liver and you loved it! That just proves that you only don’t like liver because you think you shouldn’t.” Having been programmed by mom #1 not to talk back, and because I already knew from watching my brother interact with step-mom, that my dad would brook no disrespect towards his new bride, I said nothing.

Today

For years step-mom would retell this story as proof of her superior parenting and it was many years before I pulled together enough gumption to tell her, “No, I didn’t like it. Whatever I thought it was, I knew it didn’t taste like steak. I only ate it because I had to and I only told you I liked it because I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”

We agreed to disagree. Either way, I will never forget that night; not because I ate all my liver thinking it was something else. No, I’ll never forget that night because it was a revelation that parents aren’t perfect. They too, lie. They too will do whatever necessary to maintain that hallowed alpha status in the home.

Still, I think about that night anytime I’m facing a decision where my will conflicts with my kids’. I weigh the gravity of telling them the truth versus giving them some watered-down version of the truth that makes me feel better for denying them something they want. Most of the time, certainly with important things, I think I make the right decision; the moral decision.

But who knows what’s going on in their heads. Maybe they too will have a “liver dinner” situation that forever stains our relationship. I’m endlessly fascinated by the thought of how our micro-experiences color our own relationships and decisions later, and how that snowballs generation after generation.

I wonder what made step-mom think it was cool to fool a kid like that? Maybe she too had to go get a small branch from a tree; a branch her daddy told her he was going to whip her with, but then didn’t, like my dad did my brother.

I guess we’ll never know. I’m not sure I want to either. Some things are just best left unsaid and unknown.

And hey, since we’re talking about food, one of my favorite topics, remind me to tell you the story about shrimp eyeballs! That’s a good one!

 

 

 

Can’t Blame My Mom For This One


I have an unnatural aversion to old people. I know a lot of people shy away from old people out of some desire not to interact with the inevitable, but mine is really more of an aversion I think, than just a simple “ick” influence. And I think I know where it started…

When I was young, my brother and I would spend a couple of weeks each summer with my grandparents in North Carolina. This was back when the airline industry was revered and you got those cool little gold “Delta” wings when you flew. We were only like, 6 and 9 years old then (I was 6) and we flew by ourselves. The crew always made sure we were safely tucked on board and they walked us off the plane upon arrival into the waiting arms of my grandparents. The funny thing was, once there, we didn’t do a whole lot with my grandparents and because of that, I gravitated to my grandfather’s sister, Aunt Marjorie.

She was old back then even. But she lived in the house with my grandparents and pretty much acted like the maid, butler and all-around babysitter. I loved her like…well, like nobody really. I slept in her room in a twin bed on the other side of the nightstand from her and at the crack of dawn, we’d both get up and start making breakfast. I can still smell the frying bacon and taste the cool, graininess of the homemade apple sauce that she’d bring up from the bare-earth basement.

But once breakfast was done and the house chores were finished, often Aunt Marjorie and I would go for a drive. In her younger years, she worked at the Biltmore House and we would often drive around the estate and she’d rattle off how she used to do so and so there, and over there she took care of this or that. We’d also usually drive parallel to the French Broad River—a deep, fast river that runs from North Carolina to Tennessee and that I simply loved.

On rare occasions, we would stop by one of the many volunteer stations where my Aunt worked and one day we went to an old folks’ home. We didn’t stay long, but I remember walking in with her and being told to “stand right there” while she dropped off some covered dish or something. She turned to speak to someone and, like all little boys, I had to look around and see what was going on. There were old people everywhere, which was fine…I was OK. But then, this old lady about ten feet away, sitting in a chair, beckoned to me and said, “Come here. Come here little boy.” Now, being used to doing what adults told me, I obeyed. I walked over to her, a bit stiffly and she reached out and with preternatural strength, wrapped me in a sinewy, old-lady bear hug and began to squeeze the ever-lovin’ life outta me!

I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t call out. After what seemed like ages, finally someone noticed what was going on and a bunch of them came running over and had to literally pry the old lady off of me.

I was scared…shaken, and apparently never the same again. Today, I like old people from a distance. And I like old people in general, but there comes a point at which I go from looking at them as just older versions of myself, and start seeing them as these not-quite-human “things” that I’d just as soon avoid. And this is bad because CareerMom’s grandmother has recently taken a turn for the worse and has been here visiting. We’ve done a couple of big family get-togethers and while everyone else is gathered around her trying to make the most of her remaining time, I have to literally force myself to even go into the room—and it shames me. I pray she hasn’t noticed with everyone else gathered around. To cover myself, I follow the kids around, pretending to be watching them, when really, I’m avoiding.

I know…one day it’ll be me in that chair and I’ll wish I could reach out and squeeze my grandkids. I pray I’m still lucid enough to show some restraint.