Thursday, November 19, 2009

Model Behavior

My mom is selling her house. She and dad bought it in 1961, and began raising five, then six kids in it. I was two years old when we arrived; I never knew any other home. She lived there for 48 years.

My lasting contribution to the home was a big orange stain of modeling paint, spilled into the carpet while finishing a race car model in my room. It was the kind of day-glo orange a nine-year-old kid would pick out. I dabbed some of it up with a rag, then gave up and left the rest to dry. I never told anyone about it, and it became a permanent part of the house.

My favorite models were the Revells. A latticework frame held tiny, intricate pieces I'd break off and use to assemble an AMC Gremlin Funny Car or P-51 Mustang Fighter Plane. My most ambitious project was a complete Saturn V rocket with an Apollo module on top, that opened to reveal the Lunar Landing Module. I built this while NASA was building the real one. I learned a lot about rockets and modeling glue.

I followed every tidbit about the Apollo missions. I flew my LEM in front of the television as Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. Even as a kid I was amazed that someone had the foresight to install a camera on the landing module, and I was baffled that, for all the required breakthroughs in technology, the historic video was broadcast upside down.

I learned that Moon was the maiden name of Buzz Aldrin's mother. I didn't know she had committed suicide only a year before his historic flight, because they didn't tell kids that.

I wanted to be an astronaut. I was told I didn't have a chance because, at age 13 and only 130 pounds, I was already 6' 2", too tall to fit a jet or rocket. I was also very interested in gymnastics—especially the parallel bars—but again, I was too tall, they said. I also considered being a forest ranger, because I heard they gave you a truck, a radio and a cabin, and left you alone all winter. That sounded good, and you could be as tall as you pleased. But I was told that nobody from Nebraska would get into forestry school.

So I majored in philosophy, until one of my professors jumped out a 13th-story window. I switched to psychology, a department that had no height restrictions and was in a lower building.

While I was in college, 6' 2" gymnast Bart Conner won a gold medal on the parallel bars in the Olympics. He was in one of my classes.

That same year, 6' 2" astronaut Jim Weatherbee piloted the space shuttle Columbia, eventually becoming the first astronaut to command five flights.

When someone buys my mom's house, I bet first thing they will do is tear up that spoiled carpet. Of course no one will ever forget the Apollo astronauts. But what will be lost is the legacy of one boy who dreamed of becoming one of them them, but whose only mark in space exploration was an orange stain.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Bang Up Job

They call it The Peanut.

But it's a peanut that's 230 feet wide and 90 feet across. By my calculations it would make 37,000 jars of peanut butter, except that everybody has driven all over it and it is made of concrete.

Technically, the Peanut is a roundabout, in a round-about sort of  way, because it isn't round. It sits at the intersection of North 50th Street and Seward. And Country Club Avenue. And North Saddle Creek Road. And Happy Hollow Boulevard. Amid eight weaving, intersecting lanes, it is an octopus of befuddlement. With the addition of those little triangular traffic islands, there are a total of fifteen ways in and out of The Peanut. It was designed to simplify a difficult intersection.

The Peanut was initially covered in cinderblock, later replaced by grass in a beautification project. Because so few people can navigate its zig-zaggy bends, the grass has mostly been run over.

Behind a big white commercial van, I began to enter The Peanut. But the van stopped in front of me. Halfway in, I had barely started my turn when I saw his backup lights come on. He wouldn't.

The two horn buttons on my old Honda Accord are each about the size of a quarter. Banging on the center of the steering wheel doesn't do anything but deploy the airbag. The horn buttons are hard to find when you're driving straight. When you're turning, honking becomes a game of Whac-A-Mole.

My horn never did make a noise. His big truck had a backup beeper, but it barely got out one beep before he T-boned my door. Mr. Van Man took off, and I took chase. My first thought: "Your fat-ass van got nuthin' on my Honda." I was almost disappointed when he pulled over in a parking lot. We got out and expressed our mutual opinions of each other's driving.

He accused me of following too closely, which on any given day could be true, but I reminded him I was sideways. When another driver pulled up and offered that he saw the whole thing, Whitey Van Man got nicer. After promising to take care of things, he took off again, leaving only his first name and a cell number, which of course he is no longer answering. So the cost of my car repair will now include a couple of police citations.

The other culprit we don't know is Who Designed The Peanut. I have orated on the need for a big plaque honoring the designer of The Peanut, so we can refer to it by its more proper name, like The Bilbo Bongwater Roundabout Debacle, or The Horatio Huey Hootenanny — Huey Hooey for short. Instead of cursing it generically, I'd like a more personal touch.

A few days later, after no response from Boobus Van Hittenrun, I staked out The Peanut to see if he might drive by again. There I sat, dark glasses and everything, scrutinizing every car. People avoid you when you just sit in your car in an empty parking lot. It's fun.

Navigating the serpentine legume, one out of every three cars bounced over a curb, one hundred percent of those cars had drivers who were on the phone, each one exclaiming "Shit!" amid their blandulous blather about what's for dinner.

The Peanut would be a metaphor for life, except life doesn't have someone to blame for it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

In The Bag

I would get home, peel out of my Halloween costume and toss it aside. I'd lean up against the heavy wooden door of my closet, and peer into my bag of loot.

Gripping the paper bag by the string handles, I opened it wide and put my face inside, taking a long, deep sniff. The smell of Halloween.

My mother didn't stock a lot of candy around the house. She wasn't particularly opposed to it, but with six kids it was barely worth the bother. The first of us who got wind of it would eat it all and hide the evidence. I didn't much like red licorice, but I'd eat it anyway just out of principle, because I knew my siblings would do the same.

Mom wasn't against candy. If I bought it myself, she figured I was entitled to it. After school I'd head to Bob's Kwik-Shop with my friend Harold, where we'd blow all the money in our pockets on candy bars: big fat chewy ones, sometimes three or four. Usually I'd get a few standards—Snickers, Nestle's Crunch, Mr. Goodbar, Reese's (there were no "Pieces" back then, and the chocolate/peanut butter pie was noticeably bigger)—and then branch out, try something new. The Cherry Mash looked pretty good, and I remember it being the most disgusting thing I ever put in my mouth, after goat cheese.

I'm not that picky. In fact, I consider myself a food slut. To this day, goat cheese is the only food that I have physically wiped off my tongue.

Tootsie Rolls took a little thinking. A popular commercial of the day featured a wise owl extolling the virtues of licking your way to the chewy center. I began to feel guilty about crushing the Tootsie Pop between my molars, and always tried to suck my way into it. Leave it to me to create rules about candy. Perhaps once or twice I actually licked to the middle, only to discover a slobbery Tootsie Roll inside, which I could have just chosen in the first place.

We'd go back to Harold's, because both his parents worked and we had the house to ourselves. We'd eat all our candy while listening to his Man of La Mancha soundtrack or some other show tunes on his record player. At the time, that seemed perfectly normal.

So after a few long, exultant breaths, I'd pull my face out of the trick-or-treat bag and dump thine holy contents onto the carpet. There were always a few eyebrow-raising standouts: Scored a Salted Nut Roll. A whole, regular-sized Hershey bar. Who were these people? What do they do for a living, that they can give this stuff away to strangers? I wanted to join their family.

There were the obvious turds in the punch bowl. The apple: I appreciate what you're trying to say, but keep your Lefty politics off my Halloween. Do you think I'm dressing up in disguise and shaking down my neighbors with threat of tricks because I want to do the right thing? Necco Wafers: near as I can tell, it's candy made from colored baking powder. You'd only give this to kids you hate, so I see I have enemies. A religious tract: it's inevitable that someone takes the chance, hoping some eight-year-old kid will stop in the middle of his Pixie Stix and say, "I have emptiness in my heart, and I'm asking Jesus to come in." I was church-raised, but if I had emptiness in my heart and I was facing a tiny Jesus cartoon book and a King Size Kit Kat, I know what I'd reach for to fill it.

The sorting begins. The "individual size" candy bars go in the keeper pile, even though to me the big Hershey bar was individual-sized. Today, Halloween candy bars are about the size of a thumbnail, and they're called "Party Size," which I might understand if it were made of Ecstasy. But for a candy bar, it's the equivalent of a birthday cupcake.

Tootsie Rolls, chocolate bars, Kisses, candy corn: into the keeper pile.

Out: Circus Peanuts, those spongy tan things that don't taste like a circus or a peanut. The hard, no-label candy wrapped in orange and brown wrapper. Peppermints. Candy necklaces. All these go into a separate "Out" bag.

For popcorn balls, I couldn't resist taking a bite, surprised every time that the colorful sphere was a sticky, gummy ball of stale Karo Corn Syrup. Toss the rest into the Out bag.

About then, my mom would walk in. "It would be nice if you would share with your brothers and sisters," she'd say. "You're the only one young enough to trick-or-treat."

"I know, Mom, I was already going to," I'd say as I handed her the bag.