Midwest 1940 Versus A New York Minute

Okay, I’ll play! Write about your childhood growing up as a boy on a farm in the American Midwest in the 40s. A sibling has polio. You’re allergic to bees. Your father is a closeted homosexual and having an affair with the mayor. First person, but I’ll leave the tense to you. You have to be 13 or younger. Your pride and joy is the new jackknife you received for your last birthday.

And you can’t spell British. hahahaha Too much? ~ Teri

I traveled so far from that place; so far from that time. I never thought I’d come back … part of me didn’t think it was possible. If the distance was something I could traverse then the time wasn’t going to be, because that place – that farm – surely that only existed in that one time period, buried now under the softening blanket of history. But here I am, stood surrounded by father’s legacy; a legacy that had little hold over me when I lived there, in New York City, indulging in my big city living as my father called it.

The farm house hasn’t weathered well, and the tree that used to drop apples like afterthoughts of summer on the ground, that’s just so much dead-wood. My mother’s been long in the ground, and to look at this place – the time that’s settled into it and prepared for the dilapidation which now surely calls for the slate to be wiped clean – I wonder how the old man survived here for as long as he did. Stubbornness, I guess … something I’ll always associate with the cantankerous bastard, but which I now know has bedded down into me as deep as the arthritis that stiffens my gait as I step onto the porch. Time falls from me like autumn leaves, I gaze through the flick-book motion of images as I am peeled back to the sapling I was in those years. It opens like a jack knife – sharp and full of potential. That jack knife – I still have my suspicions about where it ended up, and know that were this one of those detective stories it might be a vital clue.

I was a strong kid, raised on buttermilk, good meat, and vegetables; and raised from good stock. My mother from Dutch farmers that settled mainly in upstate New York, back when it was New Amsterdam; and my father, a stereotypical mick, from the proud Dublin Irish, who’d worked in construction until that dried up, and then turned his hand to anything that came along … a jack of all trades. My father found himself as a farm hand on my grandfather’s farm, and pretty soon, as he would have it, in his crude manner, he was plowing more than the fields.

After he made an honest woman of Anika, Tom McGinty, by that point a pretty experienced farmer in his own right wanted more for himself than to be just a laborer … he wanted to be a landowner and to run his own farm. With a regular wage and a steadier life than he had ever had, he’d managed to save up quite a bit. Missouri offered him a new start – a place to raise his family. A place where he was away from those who knew too much about him. He fooled himself into thinking he was running towards, not away, from something. People seemed to like him and he made friends easily, and he thought it was all because he had left his history behind. Live long enough in a place though and whoever you were starts to echo through whoever you think you are; and live there for a while and you gather a new history up. He was a secretive man, but he was not a good liar, and had little talent for concealment, but who knows these things about their father? Who would understand them to be true unless they discovered something; unless they saw the truth with their own eyes?

I was not a stupid child; I just wasn’t looking for anything strange or hidden in anyone. I still am like that – I take someone at face value when I first meet them, and unless they do something to radically alter my perception that doesn’t change. A tad naive? Maybe, but also the source of my faith and the source of my strength. A trusting person – I’ve been called that; a trusting child … that label was affixed early on. It seemed to me that the label said for people to treat me with kid gloves. That mollycoddling worked to shield me from a lot of things; worked to make me totally unprepared.

I ran through those fields out there, Jeremy clanking after me in the calipers, always trying to win the race, though the polio was never going to let him run the course we all wished for him. I feel the stiffness loosen a little at the memory, and sitting down I wonder, what would it have been like if he had lived. What would it have been like if that day had never happened?

Now I carry my epipen with me everywhere, but back then? No, back then things were decidedly different. A bee sting now, while serious for me, ranks as something of a minor inconvenience compared to how it used to be. That day is the most vivid memory I have – there is more clarity to those events than my first kiss, and sorry to say it, more than my wedding day. It shaped everything that came after; cast a shadow through the years so dark none of us could ever see the others clearly ever again.

It started off pretty ordinary … just like any other Saturday. Wake up, eat eggs and bacon, sop up the grease with the thick doorsteps of bread my mother would cut, and then go outside to burn off all the excess energy we had that would distract us from the chores we had to do. My father thought this freedom our mother allowed us was unnecessary but the few times he had prevented us from running free in this manner had led to trouble later in the day when our restlessness led to inattention and mistakes that caused loss or damage to property or produce. The farm ran a profit, which in our tiny rural community was no mean feat, but not enough of a margin was there that we could afford to waste things. So, in the end my father let us off for an hour or so to “have our fun”.

We normally played on our own property – it was big enough, but if we wanted to climb trees, and being your typical boys we sometimes did, we would cross over onto the neighboring property, that of Mayor Franklin Veldt, an unpleasant man and worse neighbor, who if he ever caught us would drag us back to our mother and spend a good twenty minutes haranguing her about how unhealthy it was to let children do as they pleased. My mother and he had a distinct dislike of the man which I noticed, even as a child, unaware as I was of such things.

So, this day, Jeremy actually got a head start on me, and I was, for once following him. We were playing hide and seek for a while , and after running around I was a little pooped, so I had lain on my back and dozed a little. When I woke I noticed he wasn’t there – at first I thought our game of hide and seek had started again, but a thorough exploration of our farm revealed no brother. I knew he had to be on Mayor Veldt’s property.

I ran through the trees, ran deep into the woods, and still I didn’t find him. Ho had he got so far into the woods in such a short time? I couldn’t say. When I finally tracked him down he had somehow gotten higher than either of us had ever climbed, and he was in one of the trees which me and him had marked as a challenge for a future date because as well as being taller than most of the other trees it was not one we reckoned on as being easy to climb. Despite that, there he was, way above me. I called to him and he didn’t seem to hear me, so I shouted as loud as I could. It wasn’t a good idea because this time he heard me, but I had surprised him, and when I saw him slip my heart was in my mouth. When I saw him slip, what I didn’t see was the hive he had dislodged with his foot. I thought the crack I heard was a branch my brother had hold of, or had as a foothold … I didn’t realize it was the hive landing in the arms of a couple of branches very close to me and splitting. How I could mistake a noise that loud for a breaking branch I can’t fathom now, but that is how I recall it being.

I don’t remember the first sting. I don’t remember the last sting. I don’t remember all of those in-between. Most of what I know of what happened next was told to me by a variety of people throughout the years. Certain images that I have burned into my mind’s eye were branded there in those few moments I snatched as I rapidly sank into a state of complete shock. My brother never talked about it and died before I could pry it out of him. My father I would never have been able to ask.

My brother was younger than me, but would have been taller than me if the polio hadn’t intervened. He’d been a weak and sickly child who no one expected to last as long as he did – I think it’s fair to say that he wasn’t in the best of health that day either. That makes it even more remarkable what he did. That day was already strange – he seemed blessed that day with a speed and strength that he never usually possessed. I don’t know how fast he got down from that tree; I don’t know how he picked me up, and I especially cannot think with how he carried me to Mayor Veldt’s house.

He hammered on the door but he got no response, and he knew how desperate the situation was because I had been stung worse than I ever had been before. When he got no answer he went to the window closest by and peered in to see if he could see anyone. The scream which he let out was enough to drag me up from the depths of my shock and to that same window. What we both saw through that pane of glass is not something that anyone ever wants to see their father doing, and it is not something that can ever easily be forgotten. I am sure what my father saw when he turned to identify who had screamed was not something he ever wanted to see either. My father and the Mayor dressed quickly and came outside. My brother had barely got the question concerning what they were doing out of his mouth before my father started beating him – a beating so severe that it had to be a contributing factor when polio came back to finish Jeremy off. I only escaped the same fate because I was in such a bad way.

I don’t know if my mother ever knew about my father’s proclivities. My brother’s state was explained as the result of falling from the tree the bee-hive had been in. I was asked about my jack knife, that possession everyone knew I always had on me – they used it to cut the clothes away from my swelling body. I believe Veldt pocketed it, but if I had reported that theft I don’t think I would have been able to hold back on the other truths about him I wished to shared. Did he keep it and wonder whether the danger of us telling the truth was as dangerous as that knife, and that the only way to deal with it was to keep it close? Keep it closed. Or was it just put in a drawer and forgotten, remembered only by me, when I reached for it, thinking to do something, then getting lost in the pain of a memory I wished would just stay buried? It was a loss for me, but I hoped it was a burden for him; one that grew heavier over time.

Mayor Veldt was cast as the savior of the day. Our freedom increased from that day on, but we never crossed onto the Veldt Farm again. We never talked about that day, but I am sure it loomed as large in my brother’s and father’s lives as it did in mine. It started the drive in me to move away; it started that distance entering in.

Now, would it be such a big deal? Here, in this place? Maybe. Change is slow to arrive here. I took enough of this place with me to New York to make it slow to arrive in me. I am more open-minded than I was, but I realize, sat here on this porch, this haunted porch on this run down farm, in the shadow of this dead tree, that there are some thoughts I am not ready to have about my father. I don’t know if he and the Mayor carried on with their affair – I didn’t want to know then, and I still don’t. I have a way to deal with bee stings, but I don’t thing anything as simple as an Epipen will ever be designed that can deal with the drama of being human.

I will walk away from this farm. I will leave the Midwest and I will not return to Missouri again. The last thought I will expend on this place, and you can believe me or not, will be when I notice the money from the sale of this place go into my bank account, and the anchor of 1940 will lift. At that point I will be free of the ghosts, able to step out into the world I want to live in, where I can live in a New York Minute, be anonymous, and have no truck with history

 

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