Sunday, November 12, 2006

Band Aids (Chapter 13)

One drink is just right,
two are too many,
three too few
     — Spanish saying


The summer after church camp found eighth grade no better than seventh, although as I grew older my ability to stay safely away from home increased. It was becoming easier and easier to have legitimate reasons to not be home, I tool advantage of as many of these as I could. Eddie was coming home drunk more and more frequently and his violent outbursts likewise increased, too. The percentages were making the safe bet simply to stay away.

I joined a local community band that during the summer was routinely hired by city fire departments to march in parades all across the state. You had to be fourteen to march with them, though I actually began practicing with them at thirteen but had a birthday before the next summer parade season. Actually, a girl I knew and had fooled around with introduced me to the band, as she was a year older than me and had been with them the previous summer.

We’d met at a party that I threw at Bushie’s house during the winter after eighth grade began. I don’t remember there being any particular occasion other than to create an opportunity for my friends and me to interact with girls, an ever-increasing preoccupation. I decided to have it at my grandmother’s house because, besides being an ideal location, it was safer than in Eddie’s house since I didn’t want to expose potential girlfriends to him or scare them off if Eddie turned violent while they were there.

My grandfather, along with my real father and his two brothers, actually built the house that Bushie still lived in and made an ideal place for a party. It was a large, stone home with a two-car garage. The basement was as big as the ground floor, and contained, in addition to the garage, six separate rooms. There was a coal cellar, a laundry room, a furnace room, a storage room, a room where Bushie kept nothing but plants and a large rec. room, complete with a large stone fireplace. Oh, and there were closets and a bathroom, too. It could easily have been fixed up to be separate living quarters as long as you didn’t mind the smell of oil in the winter.

Maybe three-dozen friends showed up, along with Jill Metz, the older sister of Ellen, a girl in my class. We had punch my grandmother made, A-Treat sodas, along with a spread of snacks I put together with mother’s help. Bushie was there to act as chaperone, but she stayed upstairs the entire time and never once checked in on us.

Left to our own devices, we started a fire in the fireplace and played music on my portable record player. We tried to get some dancing going but that didn’t really work out. A friend of mine started snooping around and discovered a case of Heineken in the garage. I’d never actually seen my grandmother drink, so I didn’t really know who it belonged to. In any event, we opened a few of the bottles and poured the beer into the paper punch cups so even if Bushie did come downstairs, she wouldn’t be able to tell. I knew at some point I’d get caught because the bottles in the returnable case would be empty, but I figured I could either blame someone else or suck it up and take my punishment. My grandmother was a very forgiving person and as long as I could keep her from telling my mother I figured I’d be okay. Plus, in the back of mind I kept replaying what had happened the last time I had beer with girls around and decided whatever my ultimate punishment might be would be worth it.

None of us had much experience with any kind of booze and so we all felt some effects from the beer pretty quickly. I didn’t really like the taste of the Heineken, especially compared to the Yuengling, but it was still better than near beer. Somebody suggested post office and that started things going. There were several mostly empty closets in my grandmother’s basement and they turned out to be ideal for a lively game of post office. Several people paired off and we didn’t see them for the rest of the night. The rest of us just sat around and talked and drank in front of the fire. I got talking to Ellen’s sister Jill, who it turned out was just one year older than all of us. I was having a hard time trying not to stare at her very large chest. She had enormous breasts for a ninth grader, especially compared to Kathy’s, the only other pair I had any intimate knowledge of. Jill also played in the band so I’d seen her before, but we didn’t really have any mutual friends. At the age we were then, people in different grades rarely mixed.

She must have noticed me staring at one point, and asked if she could have some more beer. I told her I’d have to get another bottle, and she got up to follow me into the garage. I bent down to grab another Heineken and when I turned around and stood, Jill moved in and kissed me on the lips, throwing her arms around me. She jabbed her tongue into my mouth and we made out like that until we heard the door to the garage begin to creak open. We jumped apart just in time to see Ellen come through the door holding another boy’s hand. The two sisters looked at one another knowingly, and Jill and I exited the garage.

As we got back to the main room, she pulled me aside and into the plant room, where the closet door stood open. She peered inside and grabbed my hand to draw me into the empty closet. I shut the door behind me and we started making out. I’m not sure how long we were in there but it must have been close to an hour. Like Kathy, she also liked having her neck kissed so I decided I needed to remember that trick. I feeling a little bit more confident than the last time I was in a similar situation and I at least managed to keep from shaking. I also figured I had nothing to lose since Jill had pulled me in here and so I reached out to touch her breast. When that was met with no resistance, I put my other hand under her shirt and then under her bra. She unbuttoned her shirt to give me a clear shot and then unsnapped her bra in the front. I grabbed both of her breasts gently at first and then more firmly. They felt different than Kathy’s. They were much larger, of course, but they were also spongier, they would push out from the sides whenever my hands squeezed them. And Jill’s skin was oilier and not quite as smooth. It was also rougher, like goose bumps.

She pushed my head down toward her breasts and I thought I knew what she wanted. I kissed each breast and tasted the nipples like I’d seen in my stepfather’s porno magazines. It felt good and Jill seemed to like it, too. Eventually, we heard noises outside the closet and she buttoned herself back up before rejoining the group back by the fireplace. Jill and I talked on the phone after that and told one another we were going steady but in an age before either of us could drive, we never really spent any time together except for band practice every Tuesday night. Jill invited me to join the Wyomissing Band as a way for us to see each other at least once a week. So that was the only place we’d get a chance to see one another outside of school. It was also the only place we found where we could make out during breaks. It didn’t last very long and we broke up after only a couple of months, but I got the band in the settlement, so to speak. I had invited some of my own friends to band practice so when we stopped seeing each other, Jill stopped coming to band practice, but I kept going every week for the next five years, until I graduated from high school and joined the Army band.

Shortly after we emerged from the closet, parents started arriving to pick up their teenagers, and my grandmother came downstairs to greet them. She helped me clean up after everyone had left and Eddie picked me up shortly after that. He’d had a few drinks in him, but seemed in relatively good spirits. He never said too much to Bushie, probably because she was the mother of my father, and Eddie was a very jealous person. But he was never really mean to her either. She did, after all, allow him to have most weekends alone with my mother and that must have counted for something, even to Eddie’s warped reasoning.

Less than two blocks from Bushie’s house, at the bottom of a hill across from a creek at the entrance to the town of Mohnton was the Pennwyn Club, one of the few suburban bars Eddie liked to frequent. He generally seemed to prefer the city bars, but the Pennwyn Club was his kind of place. It was a key club, meaning you had to be a member just to get in the place. To become a member, someone had to sponsor you, I think, and one of our neighbors had showed Eddie the place right after we’d moved to Shillington.

Key clubs also had an annual fee, but once you were a member, the cost was much cheaper than other bars, both the booze and food. And best of all, key clubs could stay open around the clock, twenty-four hours a day. They were a throwback and no longer legal, but the ones that existed before the law changed — like the Pennwyn Club — were grandfathered in and could continue to exist as before. This meant they were the only places where alcohol could be served legally after 2:00 a.m. and before the bars opened again the next day. There were hardly any of them left, unfortunately, but Eddie belonged to both of the ones I knew about, the other one being in Reading.

Eddie pulled into the Pennwyn Club unexpectedly, saying he needed to talk to someone there. Not one to contradict him, I followed him into the bar. Inside there were few people there, surprising for a Saturday night, but this was Mohnton after all, not exactly a bustling metropolis. Eddie told me to grab a seat and we went to the bar and talked to a man I didn’t know behind the bar. After a few minutes he returned with a beer for himself and Coke for me.

“Drink that up.” Eddie told me. “Then chew this gum.” He laughed, throwing a stick on the table. “We don’t want you mother to know you’ve been drinking.” My head snapped up at his words, trying to look as innocent as possible. “Don’t worry.” He told me with a grin. “I won’t tell her.” I don’t know how he knew, but in retrospect I suppose a thirteen-year old with a buzz would have been pretty obvious to a man with Eddie’s experience with drinking.

It was confounding that he could be such a monster one moment and than such a seemingly good person the next. But it was in these moments I knew that there was a decent man lurking inside Eddie. That knowledge has made it difficult for me throughout the years to view anyone in narrow black and white terms. No one, it seems to me, is all good or all evil. No matter how terrible a person seems, there is invariably a good side in there, no matter how well hidden. And likewise, no one is all good, either. And while that’s made it hard for me to be taken in by a con man or fooled by a charlatan, it’s also made it difficult for me to open myself up to unconditional love. It took me a long time to reach a point where I could do that.

One of the first truly good people I met was actually the director of the Wyomissing Band, the man who Jill introduced me to when she invited me to join the band with her. Adam Weaver was a Vice-President of the local bank and worked at the same place as one of my great-uncles, Uncle Leon. When I first met Adam, he must have been in his fifties, but that’s just a guess. He had a full head of grey hair from the time we met. One of his daughters was in the class ahead of mine, but she was out of my league and a very popular girl in our school. Adam’s wife also worked in the cafeteria at the high school so I saw her nearly every day. And perhaps most surprisingly, he was the next-door neighbor of Frank, one of my best friends and one of my adopted families. We didn’t figure all that out at first, but gradually over time. One of my friends who also came to be involved with the band was Phil, a drummer, and the three of us started to traveling to parades together. Adam was one of those people who really came alive around young people, and could do so in the time before an older man palling around with teenagers too young to drive would give anyone pause. It was totally innocent and enriching for all of us. For my part, I loved knowing there was a man so utterly normal, decent and kind that it honestly gave me hope for a future of my own some day. Adam’s optimism, his outlook on life and his success in virtually everything he undertook was like a beacon to me. He was someone I could look up to, almost like a hero, but more down to earth and approachable. Adam was good for me and, according to him, Phil, me and our other friends who we eventually brought to the band, kept him feeling young and made him enjoy life just that much more. It was utterly healthy on both sides and one of the highlights of that time in my life.

The summer parade season became yet another way to escape the confines of my home life, and was something we looked forward to each spring. I don’t know if they still do it like they used to, or if it was something unique to Pennsylvania and nearby or not. It certainly seems strange now by today’s standards of entertainment. But there were a lot of small, isolated towns dotting the landscape around eastern Pennsylvania. All of the fire departments in these towns were made up almost entirely of volunteers. They were like clubs. Kids in our town started hanging around the fire station from an early age and then worked their way up to being part of the firemen. It wasn’t for me, but understood the appeal. They were big, close-knit extended families that provided a service to the community as a bonus.

Any time one of these firefighter units got a new piece of equipment, an engine, a hook and ladder or whatever, they’d throw a big party for the town and the centerpiece was always a parade. Local bands would march in them, local businesses would sponsor floats and other fire departments would shine up their own engines and wear their dress uniforms to march down the street in the parade. Prizes would be awarded to the fire brigade putting on the most impressive display in the parade. They were highly competitive affairs with big trophies for the winners to display in glass cases in the fire station. To these volunteer firemen, there could be no higher honor than winning one of these trophies and they went all out in pursuit of that goal. One way they could seem more impressive was to march by the review stand to the music of their own marching band. And that’s where we came in. Fire companies would pay us to march with them in these parades. The pay wasn’t great. Split by how many of there were marching we’d get only about 8-10 dollars for a parade. But it was never about the money. After the parade there would almost always be a big community fair, block party or something like that. Even at fourteen, in our uniforms we could usually manage to get one of the commemorative mugs that were big collectible items. People had huge collections of these mugs. They were usually just glass mugs with a logo for the town’s fire department along with the date of the parade. But to us they were like gold, because the other thing they were good for was all the beer you could drink. We could be drinking alongside policemen and they never looked at us twice. Everybody knew our band uniforms and figured we were all adult, I guess.

Within this insulated world, we were marching band geek stars. There were also prizes for the bands and we won them. A lot. We probably won something like nine out of every ten parades we marched in. The other bands were high school bands, sometimes junior high. On the other hand, the majority of our band was made up of adults of all ages right up to a few retired guys in their seventies. Most of these guys had been doing this for years. We could belt out a tune with such force that we stopped people in their tracks. We had a couple of specific marches we played just for the review stand, like March Concerto Grosso, which blew the roof off, march-wise. That’s why fire companies were falling over themselves to hire us, because we really did help them look even better. And boy was it fun. We were treated like adults for the most part and were let into the adult world for a few hours each weekend. Adam, for his part, would never buy us the mugs, but he did look the other way once we got them. I think he figured as long as he wasn’t the one corrupting us, then who was he to rain on our parade. Until we were sixteen and could drive ourselves, we usually drove with him to the parades. Adam was truly one of the good people I’ve met who had no agenda and was decent and kind. We still exchange Christmas cards, and though he’s lost his wife and now lives alone, he’s never lost that optimism and positive outlook that made him so different from any other person I knew when we first met around 1973. It was a perhaps lifesaving lesson for me to learn that there was more than one way to live. And I was also able to quickly see that alcohol, which before this time had only the capacity to destroy, also had the power to enhance life and make it just a little bit sweeter. It was not the beer itself that was bad, but in whose hands it was that made all the difference.

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