From my sketchbook

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7-22-2011 grieving for Norway

As an American with proud Norwegian roots! My heart goes out to Norway and her people in this time of tragedy!

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Small stones– My grandfather

My grandfather was a respected Doctor in the Washington D.C. Area. He was the kind of man that could look at you for a moment and tell you what was wrong when no one else knew the answer. He was an inventor and a pilot, a tinkerer, and creative thinker…but to me, he was just “Pop Pop”. He was the head of our family. I respected him, feared him, and loved him. He was not a big man….but he had a presence that was palpable. He carried himself in some way that made you notice him and seek him out for answers. He dressed everyday for respect; Black slacks, a collard shirt that buttoned or zipped up the front, or a tie if he wore a jacket. He always carried a handkerchief in a pocket along with a pocket watch on a silver chain clipped to his belt. He wore Black leather dress shoes with a rubber sole. He was always clean shaven except for an infrequent slight mustache that gave him an Erol Flynn air when he chose to wear it. He commanded the respect of older days. To me he was a combination of John Wayne and Santa Clause. With Pop Pop around anything was possible….he made magic happen…
I always knew when he was near….the smell of his pipe gave him away. To this day, if I smell a pipe with Borkum Riff or Captain Black tobacco I instinctively look for him. I love that smell. He died in 2001 at the age of 80.

A few months later as my mother and I were cleaning out his house and going through his things my mother called to me from another room…Arnie, come here she said in a hushed voice.
As I found her in the closet of a room off of the basement she stood there clutching. Something
In her arms. Look, she said: and she handed me a can of Borkum Riff tobacco…open it she said.
I twisted the lid off and the sweet aroma of Pop Pops tobacco filled the small room…look inside my mother said and smiled at me….nesting in the pile of shredded tobacco was my grandfathers favorite pipe. I smiled at my mother and started to cry…..something so simple, like a tap on the shoulder….my grandfather’s pipe….I sat down with that can with his pipe in it and cried for an hour. I guess I had been looking through my grandfather’s things for something without knowing what I was really looking for….until I found it….some piece of my grandfather that meant something to me that I could keep. His pipe. It rests in a special place in a cabinet in my house. I look at it often. If I open the cabinet the pipe aroma still lingers and makes me smile….Pop Pop.

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STANDING by Arnie Slater

I was sitting at the dining room table early on a Friday morning; sipping my second cup of get up and go. My eyes had cleared of their morning fog. The long walk from the bedroom, to the bathroom, to the kitchen and the coffee pot, and finally; the table which seemed like miles, was long forgotten. It was as if the mug of steaming brown water that my hands rested on for support provided the anti-freeze and lubricant necessary for sufficient bodily function. The gears of my brain had begun to click, at first creaking in protest. Another sip of coffee and the sparks flew; the battery of my brain took the charge; and the whole thing hummed in unison.
Body and soul were idling now. I sat quietly sifting through my thoughts. I took another sip of coffee. My house mate lumbered in following the same muddy road I had, trudging down the hall, around the corner, past the table, and straight on until the kitchen. “Coffee” was the only comment she muttered in passing.
I thought to myself as I watched her about how easily we get caught up in mediocre ritual addictions like coffee and cigarettes. We don’t even call them addictions, they are just routine. Her name was Henny. She was about twenty years older than I. We shared a house with three other people of various ages and backgrounds. Henny and I were usually the first ones up.

She sat down at the table with her coffee. I took a sip of mine. Henny followed suite and lit her first morning cigarette. Her engine shuddered in protest at the jump start but settled into idle anyway.
Sitting there sipping coffee, watching the smoke from Henny’s cigarette like the exhaust trail left behind as I coasted through cold memories. I suddenly ran into one and was stopped short: A memory of many other mornings similar to this one. It was a different house, a different kitchen, a different person there across from me, but the setting was the same: The smell of fresh coffee, the warmth of the morning sun on my face through the window, and the smell of someone’s morning cigarette.
Its odd to me that the smoke of a cigarette: dark, oily, and deceptive, could stir up the warm, comfortable, and optimistic memories of my childhood. Such is the fickle nature of remembrance.

I recall sitting in my neighbor’s house just like this early one morning. In those days the difference between my home and their’s was indiscernible. My small family of three and the brood of seven people, five cats, and a dog that were collectively known as: The Kelley’s fused together to become one. So it was that quite often I could be found seated at their breakfast or dinner table and anytime, In fact, it was not unusual to find me curled up in some chair; or the floor for that matter, asleep whenever things got too quiet.
Things were not often quiet at the Kelley house except in the morning. In that house, no one except Mr. and Mrs. Kelley got up before noon on the weekends. Even their youngest: Danny, who was closest to my age would not stir when I woke up ready to play at seven or eight. I would crawl out of my bed; which was wherever Danny and I had passed out while playing the night before. Danny was a night owl in those days, I was not. Danny would play until I lost consciousness. Then, when there was no one to play with he would settle down somewhere nearby. So, in the morning, I was left to my own devices until Danny woke up.
Usually Mrs. Kelley would set an assortment of cereals, milk, and juice on the kitchen table. With so many people running on different schedules in one house, this was as close as you could get to a sit down breakfast. Ala-carte was the general rule. Now, the Kelley’s are what some people might call: “down-to earth”. Definitely a no frills family. You might even mistakenly call them :”backwoods types”, “the salt of the earth”. This is not meant to imply that they were uneducated. On the contrary, all of them are extremely bright to say the least. They were not overly concerned with outward appearances. I can recall however, some very interesting dinner table conversations covering a wide range topics: from philosophy to theology and ranging in languages from French, to German, and possibly Gaelic! In one day at the Kelley’s house you could learn a lot about a lot of things. All you had to do was ask! But, be prepared for a wide range of answers! In the morning however, it was quiet. Mr.and Mrs. Kelley could be found in the kitchen: drinking their coffee, smoking their cigarettes, talking and reading the paper.
Mrs. Kelley would always have some cheerful greeting when I came in: “Good Morning Arnie, Daniel won’t be up for awhile I suppose. Would you like: toast, juice, coffee?…Have a seat.” Mr. Kelley on the other hand, was rather reserved. He would look up from his paper and eye me from across the table. This was something which terrified me in those days. He would say, in a voice that sounded like the roll of distant thunder, or the voice of God:

“Good morning Mr. Slater” Mr. Kelley inspired awe in me. To me he was all knowing, almost omnipotent. He was an engineer for the Navy. At the time all that meant to me was that he was really smart. That scared me. Mr. Kelley built things. He could build ANYTHING! Automobiles, computers, household appliances…whatever you needed; he could build it. It might not be pretty, or look brand new, but it would work!
I never knew how old he was. His grey hair and hard features made him look much older. I found out later that Lucky Strikes weren’t so lucky and that the Marlboro Man had a serious flaw. Mr. Kelley had survived the Second World War only to be injured at home while installing a T.V. antennae for his mother. Apparently, he fell off the roof of the house and broke his heal. It never healed correctly so he would use crutches for most of the rest of his life.
None of that mattered to me then; not at the age of five or six. I was born with Cerebral Palsy. Not even that mattered to me. You don’t need to walk to play at five! I was happy on my hands and knees playing in curbside rivers after a good spring rain, scrambling through the warm fields of green summer grass that made up the yard of each neighboring house in the neighborhood, tunneling through everyone’s mountains of leaves in the fall, and getting “sleigh” rides from everyone in the winter. I had lots of friends too. Despite my situation, I made friends easily I think mostly because I was not afraid to just say: “Hi!” I think also, I was everyone’s favorite excuse for rolling on the ground and going home filthy! It didn’t matter that I was different, no one seemed to mind.
There came a time however, when my world began to change. There was talk around the house and around the neighborhood that I was going to learn to walk. At the time, you might as well have told me that I was going to fly! It just didn’t register until the day I was fitted for a pair of crutches.

They were different from Mr. Kelley’s. Mine had padded, reinforced, metal rings that fit tightly around my arms with Velcro straps that wrapped around to close me in…Trapped! Mr. Kelley’s arm bands were “U” shaped with no straps. This made them less confining, but it also made them easier to drop. This is not such a problem for an adult; but for a child who is totally dependant; dropping a crutch is like losing a leg! The results can be disastrous! The straps on my crutches were a precaution against this problem. However, there are two sides to every story. These prosthetic metal contraptions became like some bionic mutations of my body. At first I was really excited even while I was standing still. I wobbled back and forth like some newborn fawn. The shock came when I tried to move and use my new found “legs”: One step, my arms went forward planting the foot of each crutch firmly on the ground. Unfortunately, my legs did not know what to do. My arms pushed forward like a steam engine. My legs stayed rooted to the spot like a tree trunk. The result was a kamikaze dive, face first toward the ground. Reflex kicked in. My arms wanted to reach out in front of me. I couldn’t , suddenly, I realized that I was strapped in. I could not let go of the crutches to stop my fall! In a split second I thought: “Mommy! This is going to hurt!”—THUNK! I landed on the ground face down, spread eagle like Bambi on the ice. This wasn’t ice however, this was the cement of the front walk of my house. My head hurt, my chin and my nose were scraped and bruised, not to mention my pride. I decided then and there, that I was happier on the ground. I didn’t have so far to fall that way. Yes sir!, those crutches were bad news. No more of that for me! Who needs to walk anyway?
I can’t remember how much time passed before I used my crutches again at home. I had to use them at school…but, I had teachers, and therapists there to help if I needed it. At home- even though I was never really left alone…I felt that I was more or less on my own. My neighborhood represented “The Real World to me. I guess, this is because at home I was not surrounded by other disabled children like I was at school. If I fell on my face in the neighborhood–in the real world–someone might laugh. Honestly, that didn’t happen very often…but, I knew that it could and I worried that it might happen. I do recall screaming in terror at the very suggestion of strapping my crutches on at home. I wouldn’t go near them for fear of being forced into the act. They were kept in the hall closet after I got home from school. Out of sight, out of mind for a long time.
Mr. Kelley, in the meantime, made a special point I think, of coming around our house often. He would corner me with questions like: “Where are your crutches today young man?” or, “it’s a nice day for a walk…it gets easier after awhile you know. Why don’t we go for a little walk sometime?” Needless to say, it was very intimidating. I am sure now, that it was meant to be!

Here is a man that I respected and feared ASKING me, not TELLING me to do something. I didn’t think Mr. Kelley had to ask anybody anything. I felt very foolish and insignificant. I was afraid to say yes, and embarrassed to say no. I was honored that this man, that I thought was as close to God as you could get would even notice me. But, the fear of scraping my nose on the ground and displaying my inept ability to function on my crutches was still stronger than my urge to walk. Walking was hard, and it hurt, so I sheepishly invented opaque excuses, and hurried off to make myself busy with nothing.
I’m not sure who thought of the idea, but telling me I can’t do something seems to be the best way to make sure that I try to do it. Mr. Kelley challenged me. He said he had heard that I was getting pretty good with my crutches at school.
“I never see you use them around here!” He said:…“I don’t believe you! I’ll bet I’m faster than you, and I’m an old man! Let’s have a race sometime. Whenever you’re ready Mr. Slater, then we’ll see!”
Every time he saw me he was sure to ask about our “race”. If I was in the front yard as he came out of his house next door, he would wave and yell across the yard: “How are you today?…How about that race?” and he grinned from ear to ear. Pretty soon the immediate neighborhood had heard about Mr. Kelly’s “race”, and they joined in on the coaxing: “When is this race Arn?” “I’ll bring a camera!” Everyone had something to say on the subject.
Then one spring afternoon as The Kelley’s and the Slater’s were all gathered at the front step of the Kelley house. I received the last taunt.: “Aah- you’ll never do it.” Mr. Kelley said. It would be an unfair race anyway! Wouldn’t be right for an old man to beat a kid like that.” and he waved it off like a pesky Nat.

That was all it took: “Never DO IT!?” I’d show them! I scrambled across the yard, into the house, into the closet where those contraptions sat. After a few minutes, I had strapped them on and forced myself from the floor into a standing position. I was too angry and too excited to consider the fact that this was the first time I had gotten myself into my crutches and off the floor without help. I stopped for a minute to steady myself at the door, and I stepped out of the house and down the front step to the surprised cheers of my collective family waiting at the Kelley’s front door. The excitement and adrenaline built up in my stomach and worked its way through my body to burst through the smile on my face! I started to laugh. The laughing made me shake and I was afraid it might throw me off balance, so I hid my face by concentrating on my feet: Right, Left, Right, Left…My arms and legs worked in staggered unison. I was going as fast as I could! I just wanted to get there! To the Kelley’s front step, down my driveway, up the hill, along the sidewalk towards the Kelley’s driveway. When I looked up. I almost ran into Mr. Kelley, who had started down his driveway in my direction…Everyone cheered. Mr. Kelley was smiling…
After that, Mr. Kelley and I would periodically “race” between my doorstep and his. I wasn’t frightened of my crutches anymore. In fact, I was proud of them. This was something that he and I shared in common; our crutches. That I had anything in common with him was special to me. It was a revelation that I carry somewhere deep inside me to this day. Whenever I have doubts. I think: What would Mr. Kelley say?
Through the course of daily our existence memories like this get put on the back shelves of our mind. They are all but forgotten until something disturbs the dust and forces us to slip into the library halls in each of us to take inventory.
In April of 1988. Mr. Kelley died after a long battle with emphysema. Mrs. Kelley called the house that evening. As luck would have it, I picked up the phone–. She said that she wanted us to know that Mr. Kelley was gone. I was stunned! I didn’t know what to say. I think I said: “I’m sorry” but Mrs. Kelley continued. She said she thought that Mr. Kelley might appreciate it if my brother Michael and I were pallbearers. I was stunned and honored.
At the funeral, as I carried the small, tan, and highly polished coffin down the isle to the alter of the church with my brothers: Michael, James, and Daniel at my side. I was struck with awe at the ironic position I was now in. One of the men that I honored most lay in the box that I now helped carry to God. The man that gave me the courage to stand and try was now asking me a favor: stand for him. No one would have minded if I had sat down quietly in a pew after we had let the coffin rest. I did not, I could not…I didn’t need to. I knew he was watching…and smiling.

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Did you ever have a day…

Have you ever had a day where you are bombarded by random thoughts that stir up memories from the past? It happened to me just the other day. In the middle of dictating a test to a bunch of students I was struck with an image from a long time ago…

It was a frigid Christmas Eve evening; dark and cold. I was young,maybe five or six. My family had gone out somewhere together to pass the evening before Christmas. We were on our way home and I remember laying down in the back of my grandfather’s big, beautiful, black, Buick Riviera. It had black leather interior. It was HUGE! I was not, so it was easy for me to stretch and look out of the car door window and up at the cold night sky as the bright full moon seemed to be following me home…on a cold Christmas Eve…The black leather of the seat under my head was cold. I could see my breath in the air by the moonlight in the car before the heat from the heat vents reached the backseat. I just lay there watching the moon chase me in my “Pop,Pop’s” car on A cold Christmas Eve…and I fell asleep.

Now I have no idea why that image would pop into my head in the middle of a test in April almost forty years later…but there it was. the image is so strong that it has not left me yet…So I had to write it down…I could probably draw the image of the moon floating by the car door window…Do you think it’s possible to capture the warmth within that frigid evening? The contrasts it presents is an interesting thought! shoot! I can almost smell my grandfathers pipe too!

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Slatersrant page

This is the begining of my new blog where I post my writings,rantings and thoughts! and hopefully you will post your rants about my writings! Good or bad- but, please- be constructive in any criticisms…not destructive.

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