I remember going to my first garage sale down in Houston, Texas at the beginning of the decade of the Seventies. A sign had been posted on a telephone pole and it happened to be in walking distance of my house. The house was a rental that happened to be directly across the street from the house I had been born into some fifteen years earlier.
It was a modest middle-class street in North-west Houston in a neighborhood called Oak Forest. Nearby were some railroad tracks I liked to spend time walking up and down due to the slow freights and the abundance of bush alongside the right-of-way. There was also a nearby trestle where a young man could practice his balance and develop his nerve.
The neighbors along the street were all the same ones that had been there when I was in diapers. I had my own room in that birth house and it was facing the street. I remember watching slats of light crawl the darkened walls at night in predictable permutations every time a car turned onto Nina Lee Lane. There was a problem with this house however and it became evident shortly after I was born.
Most nights, as soon as I had drifted off the sleep, tired from batting the stuffed plastic birds that hung over my crib or pulling tufts of kapok out of my little pillow, I was treated to a horrific dream. The scene was always the same. I was out in the street in front of the house but in this dream I was older and dressed in shorts and a tee-shirt rather than the breech-clout of infancy.
It was always early evening and the waning light of the hot sun was quite adequate to illuminate the surroundings, which were perfect in every detail as to being accurate depictions of the real houses and trees on that street. Presently, a white sedan would turn left onto our street. It proceeded slowly and as soon as my eyes sought to see through the glare of the windshield, it began to accelerate steadily.
For an eternally recurring split-second I would wonder why and I would strive in vain to see who. This questioning collapsed under the weight of imminent physical danger as the automobile bore down on my running figure, attempting to get out of its path. The curbs were low and tapered, the lawns flat and empty and the only thing that offered any real protection were the few larger sized trees growing on some of the properties.
I was pursued onto the sidewalk and dodged back in a reverse diagonal. Looking over my shoulder in disbelief, I saw the car was now speeding from the opposite direction and gaining. This repeated until I invariably woke up screaming at the top of my lungs. This brought my mother and a few moments respite. As I lay in the darkness awake, I again watched the lights made by cars turning onto the street streaming through the Venetian blinds.
Always the same scenario played out, if I slept. My dream self was never hit by the dream vehicle but it was always there behind me and gaining on me. Over time, I tried thousands of maneuvers to dodge it. As I got older, I had the feeling that perhaps it was someone else that had once slept in that room, who's terror I was experiencing. We moved to the country when I reached three years old and I never had the dream again.
Looking across the street to that first house as a fifteen year old made me wonder if the dream scene belonged to that house and not to me. There were no other guys my age on that street and over the next two or three years these older boys were all drafted and sent to Vietnam. My dad was mostly out of town in those days with one of his associates and he used to phone at weird hours from strange places with instructions for my mother to bury his hashish paraphernalia in the back yard as a visit by the police might be imminent.
The associate was a cheerful man about my father’s age and I had met him on several occasions. I used to watch them playing cribbage and making some kind of project with sheaves of different paper, bottles of different inks and a variety of typewriters. I’ll call him Sparky, for such was his nature. I found him to be possessed of interesting stories and a variety of knowledge in matters such as gemstones, counterfeit oil paintings, locks, safes, papers, inks, night fishing, firearms and explosives of various kinds.
He liked my company but my father seemed annoyed and I had the distinct feeling that I was only tolerated around the late night kitchen table sessions because Sparky enjoyed showing off his expertise and my father needed Sparky’s help. I heard he had a daughter and wife but I never met them. Perhaps he desired a son and I was a good stand-in while he and my father worked on their project. It was understood not to ask about what he was doing but Sparky couldn’t help himself in speaking openly of how he was doing it.
I was saving my money from my work at Mexican restaurant to buy a 90cc Yamaha motorcycle. My best friend had one and had taught me to ride. My father and mother had forbidden me to see this friend, stating that he was a bad influence. He lived alone with his dad, had a girlfriend, self esteem and constantly encouraged me to break free from the prison of my circumstances. I told my parents that I would see my friend away from home, if he was not welcome in ours. I had another friend, a Chicano who was Catholic and his name was trotted out as a nice boy for me to have over.
One day as I returned home from school, I saw a truck and trailer in the driveway. There stood Sparky grinning from ear to ear while my dad was undoing some straps on a brand new lime green Kawasaki street legal dirt bike. It was a 250cc and tricked out with everything essential to make a Comanche warrior proud.
They wheeled the machine onto the driveway and Sparky clapped me on the shoulder heartily and said, “How do you like this, Mikey? Ain’t she sweet? It’s yours, man.”
He handed me the keys and told me to go for a spin. My dad stood alongside and said nothing. I asked Sparky where it had come from as I knew that it was an expensive item and I doubted that either of those two gentlemen would have sprung for it from their own pockets.
“I boosted it for you last week, Mikey. From way across town. I tried her out and she tears ass in a boogie-woogie manner.”
My heart sank into a rising wave of long suppressed anger and came to rest on a reef of disappointment. Disbelief and a desire to hop the next freight out of Houston animated my response.
“What about the serial number?” I asked him hoping to show my grasp of the finer details of larceny.
I was already seeing movies in my head of some poor angry bastard who like myself in the same situation would have gone hunting for some Cherokee retribution.
“Shit, Mikey I already ground it off and I can stamp you a brand new one on the frame if it would make you feel better.”
“What about the poor dude who owned the bike?” I asked picturing myself in his sad, angry boots.
Sparky looked at me like I was a three-legged dog, snorted and said, “Mikey, fuck the poor dude who owned the bike. OK? What about you?”
Sparky looked at my dad, who rolled his eyes in an “I told you so” manner.
“Well, kid. What’s it gonna be?” Sparky asked in a tone that carried less varnish than usual.
“Thank you for thinking of me Sparky but I ain’t taking it. I’m planning to buy my own.”
“Son-of-a-bitch! Well, I for one will ride the daylights out of this baby so she won’t go to waste. I’m sorry you feel like you do,” he said as they began loading it back up under the watchful gaze of nosy neighbors.
A few weeks later, I came home to find a nice Raleigh ten-speed bike in the garage. My dad said that it was a gift from Sparky and that he had bought it at a garage sale. He swore it was legit and therefore I was to keep it so as not to offend my father’s partner. I had my doubts but I only saw Sparky once more before he went to jail. I remember him showing me a clump of different gemstones that he carried individually wrapped in toilet paper. He laid them bare in my hand and told me their names and explained the differences in color, quality and cut. He said that everyone should carry some sewn into their clothes, just in case.
On one of his visits home, my father recounted the arrest and subsequent incarceration of his partner into Leavenworth Kansas’ Maximum Security Federal Penitentiary. Evidently, it wasn’t his first time in the joint. My father had been held for seventy-two hours and released without being charged from a location several states away. He shipped home a new expensive malamute puppy and when he returned, he had the wife and daughter of his unlucky compadre in tow.
I was ordered to vacate my bedroom and was moved to a borrowed army cot in the living room. The fat middle-aged woman and her daughter of about a dozen years whom I had never seen before unpacked their battered suitcases and settled in that afternoon. Their accents were strange and I guessed them to be from the Mid-west. My dad told me he had made a reciprocal oath with Sparky to look after each others families, if one of them got burned.
I was given Sparky’s mailing address at the prison and we corresponded. He taught me via correspondence how to draw up Astrological Birth Charts and to use an ephemeris. Skills he had learned from a cell mate. I accidentally learned from his daughter that Sparky and his wife were more than thieves of physical objects such as gems, cash or vehicles.
One night, after the lights were out and I had finally managed to get to sleep, I was awakened by the girl when she crawled into my bed. She was maybe two years older than my baby sister. I scolded her in hushed tones for waking me up on a school night. She looked genuinely saddened and hurt by this reaction and I softened my tone. I thought maybe she was scared or missing her dad and I asked her about that. She said she just wanted to sleep with me. This annoyed me after having given up my bedroom in the first place, to now have my army cot invaded. I sent her away to her room.
For several nights after that I was awakened repeatedly in the dead of night by this poor thing kissing my sleeping form. It started to give me the creeps. I told her for the sake of my own peace that she could sleep beside me for awhile, thinking that it was justifiable insecurity at work and being no stranger to that, I was empathetic. It didn’t have the desired effect.
She told me that she wanted to have sex with me and for us to be lovers. Her words were well beyond the normal vocabulary of her years. Astonished, but not admitting that I myself was yet a virgin, I questioned her in such a way as to ascertain if she actually knew what she was talking about from experience or from books and hearsay.
She proceeded to describe a world that wouldn’t have been much far-fetched say, in decadent Ancient Rome, Greece or Persia but was sub-human in my personal view. As she spoke, it was crystal clear from her demeanor that she had been groomed to her life from very early childhood onward and had, as yet, no inkling that there was anything even remotely wrong with it.
I quickly adopted her nonchalance to hide my own shock, anger, sorrow and disgust. I reckoned that she would be in for some very hard times in her future when the pendulum’s swing brought the balance of the Law into the chaos of her family’s life. Though her innocence had been robbed by her own parents, she remained as yet absolutely innocent of that fact. I did not deem it appropriate at that time to be the bringer of light and subsequently cause the emotional fires that were sure to erupt afterwards. I used my own version of Boy Scout diplomacy to send her back to her bed without trampling her feelings.
She told my dad and her mother of my ultimate rejection of her favors and I was laughed at by him, considered mean by the little gal and considered retarded by her vampiric mother. Thereafter I was treated by my dad as a side show freak. The girl told one of the neighborhood children that we were lovers and that gal never did look at me the same way after that. I ceased corresponding with the man in prison and eventually the twin tornadoes moved away into the melting pot that is America. Five years later, I was confronted by the fact that my own father was a secret member of the same tribe as that girl’s parents.
It was during that chaotic time back on my home street that I went to my first garage sale, mentioned above. I only bought two items. One was a worn blue cloth bound Dr. Seuss book entitled Thidwick The Big Hearted Moose and the other was an eight pound hickory-handled sledge hammer. I think the whole shebang cost me two dollars. I read the book over many times and still have it today.
It tells the tale of a kindhearted moose that allows a bingle-bug to hitch-hike on his antlers as the herd migrated to their feeding grounds. This act of kindness was followed by several others and over time the guests begin to invite every creature they encountered to join their party on the moose’s head. Things reached a critical mass when the herd began to swim across a lake.
The guests protested that they did not swim and therefore it wasn’t right for Thidwick to carry them into harms way, after all, he was their host. Thidwick obeyed their protestations and sadly watched his herd stroke for the distant shore where the grass was fat. At this juncture, a hunting party began firing at Thidwick who discovered he was too burdened to make an escape. His passengers began to curse him.
Just when it looked like curtains, something quite natural and thus seemingly magical happened. Thidwick instinctively tossed his head back and forth vigorously and shed both antlers along with the freeloaders. That enabled him to quickly swim the lake and join his fellows. The squatters on his horns were shown in the last picture panel of the book adorning the wall of a Harvard man’s trophy room, above the fireplace, all stuffed, right down to the bingle-bug.
It is much more than a children’s story and I still take tutelage from that book down till today. In fact, every time I doubt the veracity of its truths, I am repeatedly shown that it is indeed an accurate depiction of immutable facts. Many readers enjoyed The Tao of Poo but I believe I was the first to see and realize The Kybalion of Seuss.
That Texas garage sale afternoon, I hauled a railroad tie from the tracks nearby and collected a bucket of rusty spikes. I installed the tie in my back yard by scratching out a little trench to keep it from jumping. There, in the spiritual company of the men like my Swedish grandfather who shoveled coal on ships, laid tracks across prairies and plowed fields; I hammered spikes and sang up the old songs. There was no one around to roll their eyes or laugh at me. I watched the boys coming home crippled and addicted, hammered a little harder and took to smoking Bull Durham. The endorphins released by the exercise were a balm. I wasn’t conscious just then of what I was building. I just knew I had to get it done.
Recently, I engaged in about ten weeks of farm labor. I saved all the loot up and decided to get a wood stove with those proceeds. After settling on a certain stove, I set about to educate myself on the different kinds of wood. This soon proved to elicit the same types of input one receives from people at large when undertaking anything new to oneself. All manner of advice rains down be it sought or be it inflicted.
In these circumstances it is well to make note of all advice and then step back and see which bits are the same for each giver. Set those aside and then examine those that differ. That shortens the field of research that must be done in order to identify facts from personal preferences and biases. In fairly short order I came to the conclusion that although there were other fine woods available to me, I would prefer to start my wood stove life as a burner of fir.
This process was repeated again with the manner of obtaining the wood. I could invest in a trailer and a chainsaw, learn how to use the chainsaw and learn where and when it was legal to harvest firewood or I could purchase it from a woodman. I collected names of the latter from many people and made notes of all the different pricing schemes and delivery styles. I talked with a German friend who educated me on the traditional dimensions and pricing of loads of firewood. I soon learned that the stacked wood rarely measured up to these dimensions and thus it was important to be able to estimate right from the time the truck pulled up to deliver your load.
I made my decision and phoned my chosen man. He arrived at my place two days later with an alleged two cords worth of dry half-round fir blocks all cut to my specified length. Prior to coming over, he had phoned to ask if I would prefer the blocks be quartered as his men were having trouble lifting them. Sensing an increase of price in return for this luxury, I declined his offer and said I wanted the practice of splitting them myself.
I went to the hardware store with a friend and purchased a nice Mexican made eight and a half pound maul. I set up the chopping block I had requested of the woodman. It was a good sized bottom portion of the single dead standing fir he had harvested from Fountain Ridge. I counted the rings and came up with a tally in excess of 120. As I counted them in the July sun, I noticed that there were some exceptionally dry years and some that were exceedingly wet. I doubted if human activities had anything to do with these grand cycles so eloquently recorded in the wood.
As I began the big chore of chopping, people passed by to look and offer advice. Again I took it all in and set aside those tips that were common to all. I learned that the knots should be placed on the underside and that the first strokes should be aimed just on either side of these particularly tough portions that ran across the grain of the desired split. I was taught by my own body that the steel head did all the work required and that the handle was merely a means to direct its kinetic force with accuracy.
Now, some few weeks after the seven long days of daily toil that saw the job completed, my sore lower back has taught me that the blocks were too big for me to safely lift onto the chopping block without damage to my vertebrae and connective tissues. In future I shall have the blocks quartered if they are of a similar circumference to this first batch.
I was telling this to a man I know who is in his ninth decade and he told me about splitting an average of twenty cords per winter on the Saskatchewan prairies. My own back pain faded away in his smile and I realized that added to the other variables by which we perceive that which is immutable; the degree and polarity of anything can make us feel better or worse but cannot change what underlies.
I recalled those hot afternoons forty-five years ago down in Texas hammering spikes into a creosoted cross-tie. I find the same peace through exhaustion now as I did then. There is a lot wrong with the world and it seems to be caught in an eddy of drug-induced indifference like trash swirling around a bridge piling.
Some of the uppermost sections of this venerable fir tree had a deep widdershins twist, I discovered. They were a special challenge to anyone wishing to split them into usable chunks for the fire grate. They whispered to me of windy evenings that wound up the tenderest part of the tall trunk by pushing on the lateral branches with a persistence found only in nature. Each required at least three accurate heavy blows to accomplish an unwinding of the springy twisted fibers. Their strength and tenacity was markedly superior to the straight pieces from the bottom.
I gazed up at a tall live spruce in view of my work space and noticed that there were several branches near the flexible top that rather than drooping like their lower fellows, actually sprang upward against gravity by virtue of the twist inculcated into them by the punishing winds and snow. Some formed semi-circles against the cobalt sky and once in a while a bird would perch in this frame as if to offer a well set up photograph as a reward to anyone with eyes to see the lesson.
I chopped and stacked for a week, sweating buckets of salt water. Part of me realized I was fueling up an invisible engine that would run on a spirit track I had built as a boy. Childhoods are not meant to be perpetual as popular media cunningly portrays in order to sell more cheap toys and sidetrack yet another generation. However, the fact is that far too many of them, childhoods that is, all over this world and in all periods of history are amputated with less regard than one has for swatting a horsefly.
They don’t cease to be, for wisdom teaches us that you cannot take away from or add to what already is. All there is, is all there is, was or will be. So, somewhere out there, perhaps in the space that used to be occupied by my big fir tree, runs a slow moving freight. The boxcars are clean and the doors are open. The ladders are made of polished hickory and are easily scaled. Like a recurring dream, the train is always moving away from harm regardless of where one boards it.
It is full of childhoods of every description and as they naturally ripen, they each arrive at exactly the place where they precociously jumped on board. There, while their friends watch from the slow rolling platform, they surrender their cocoons within the dignity of a voluntary ceremony. You know, the way primitive people used to do. On that ground, they cast off their antlers and disperse their parasites. And then, to paraphrase T. E. Lawrence:
“And then the little things creep out
to patch themselves hovels
in the marred shadow of those gifts.”
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.