Grounded

Grounded is a memoir told through a series of vignettes about being "brought down to earth."

I have included here a sampling of some of some of my most vivid boyhood memories written in the voice of the boy who experienced them.

I plan to animate some of these soon.

I'd like to think I was mostly a good boy, but, unlike George Washington, it seems that I chopped down the cherry tree and then lied about it afterward.

Maybe this is why I am not the president.

 


 

Smoking

My dad used to keep his cigarettes on top of his dresser.  When I was seven, I grabbed a few Marlboros from the pack, took a book of matches from the kitchen and brought them with me to school.  After school, Jeff Bergman and I crouched down behind a wall in front of an apartment building complex on Woodman Ave. and lit up.

 That evening, my Dad confronted me.

“Did you take some cigarettes from my dresser?”

 I can’t remember if I even tried to lie – but it didn’t matter.

“If you want to smoke, you don’t have to steal my cigarettes, just ask. We can smoke together.  You want to smoke with me?”

“OK.”

“Show me how you smoke.”

He lit the match, I took the cigarette, put it between my lips... and blew.

Nothin' to it. Smooth and easy. Cool.

"That’s how you smoke?"

"Yeah."

“No, that’s not how you do it.  You don’t blow out - you need to suck in - deep -  like this.” Wwwhhhhhhh. “Then blow out” - Whhhoooooo “Here - you try it - now suck good and hard.”

That was my first lesson in what it really means to get grounded.

My Dad quit smoking after that.

 


 

Daredevil

When I was seven, the teenagers that lived in the house behind mine used to climb up on the back wall and smoke cigarettes. You couldn’t see them back there from our house because the garage in my yard blocked the view. A small concrete area behind the garage was our secret zone of destruction. Back there, we’d crash my Evel Kneival motorcycle toy into the block wall, salt snails and pluck the wings off of flies that we had trapped by dropping jars over piles my dog Happy’s fresh crap. We’d gawk at the dismembered flies buzzing around in circles and then take WD-40 and a match and torch them. Next to the zone was a little yellow playhouse. We graffitied up the side wall with words like  s-h-e-t and b-i-c-h
One day, me and Jeff Bergman went back to our zone and there were the smoking kids up on the wall, throwing their butts down in our yard.

They picked on us and told us to get lost.

For revenge, we climbed up on the wall when they weren’t around and threw burning dixie cups into their yard. I hopped over and dropped a match into the lawnmower’s gas tank.

It blew up and I almost died.

Just kidding.

But it did catch on fire.

We ran to the house and told my older sister, Shari. She came running and got Happy’s bowl of water and put out the fire.

She told my parents.

I got grounded and couldn’t leave my room for two weeks except for going to school. It was during Evel Kneival’s jump over Snake River Canyon.

I was the only kid in the entire world to miss the jump. By the time I was released from jail, they weren’t even showing it on TV any more. I never saw it until youtube.

My parents made me go to the neighbor's house and tell them what I did. We had to buy the lawnmower. My Uncle Danny, the engineer, fixed it up.

A few years later, me and David Salamone took off the engine and made a go-cart. The first time I rode the go-cart, I fell off.  It ran over me and I got a hairline fracture in my ankle.

When I was seven, a five year old girl who lived six blocks away reached over the stove to get her vitamins. Her favorite dress, the one with the happy face, caught on fire.

She got burned really bad and almost died.

Not kidding.

They had to peel skin from her legs to graft the burns over her chest and neck.

Twenty years later, I married her.

I don't know why she paid the price for my childhood crimes of grafitti, torching flies, and blowing up lawnmowers.

Sometimes, when I see people staring at her scar, I feel like it is mine.

 

 


 

Grandparents

I was lucky enough to know all of my grandparents.


Papa Murray smoked a cigar and had a limp arm from getting shot in World War I while fighting for the Germans. He came into Amercica on a row boat from Canada. He died of a sudden heart attack when I was 7. I remember that my dad started to cry as we were driving out of the cemetery after the funeral. He said though his tears “So that’s that, we’ll never see him again” – My mom said something to him and he bit his lip and stopped crying. At my Uncle Sy’s house after, I sat on the floor of his bedroom watching All in the Family while the adults were in the other room, my grandmother, sitting on the floor. Archie Bunker was making jokes about a dead guy. It was very weird that he could joke about it on TV when everybody was so sad. It was gray in the house but outside, the sun was shining bright and the birds in the yard were chirping.

Mama Grace made cucumber salad. She got pancreatic cancer when I was 9. When she couldn’t take care of herself any more, she moved in with us and slept in the extra bed from the corner set in my room. She snored every night and there was nothing I could do about it.  My parents took her to the hospital when she got too sick to stay with us. My favorite TV show at the time was Consumer Buyline with David Horowitz. David Horowitz would put an elephant on a waterbed to see if it would break and other stuff like that. I sent away for tickets to be in the studio audience with my family. Mama Grace died on the day we were supposed to go. We never went to see David Horowitz.

Mama Cookie got her nickname because my sister started calling her Mama and she didn’t like the name Clara. She was soft and warm and made us chocolate milk from a messy can of Hershey’s syrup in the door of the refrigerator.

Papa Joe was my favorite. His birthday was July 11th and my birthday was July 19th. His father died when he was a little boy so he had to be the man of the family. He would put rocks in socks to fight the bullies on the streets of New York. He said that Mama Cookie’s father was a horse thief, but I don’t know if that’s true. He wore a gold ring with a star ruby. You could actually see the star in the ruby, like a twinkle in somebody’s eye. At restaurants, I would order the same meal as Papa Joe even if we were sitting on the other side of the table. When I was grounded for burning up the lawnmower, we went to Papa Joe’s house, where I had to stay in his bedroom and not talk to anybody. He came into the room to talk to me. He was disappointed in me. He didn’t get angry in a mean way – or maybe a little mean – but I knew that he loved me. He told me that what I did was wrong and I felt sorry. Papa Joe used to have a glass of scotch on the rocks. He let me taste it. It was strong stuff. One day, walking home from Roxbury Park, he farted out loud. He didn’t look at me, just kept looking straight ahead. I didn’t say anything, but I knew it was him.  A few months before my bar mitzvah, Papa Joe fell and broke his leg because he was weak from two different kinds of medicine that he shouldn’t have taken together. The doctor made a mistake. One morning, while he was in the hospital recovering and I was getting ready for school, we got a phone call. My mom said to my dad “the doctor said he’s taken a turn for the worst.”  Her voice was shaky and she looked white.  Walking home from school that day, I saw my Uncle Danny’s car in our driveway. I got nervous and started to walk quickly, then run towards the house. As I got close, somebody came out of the door with a sad face to meet me. I knew. I threw myself onto the grass and tore and clawed and dug into the earth a hole to China – or as deep - in my heart. Sometimes I still try to scrape the mud out from my fingernails.

 

 


 

Jim

David and I met Jim when we were around 11. He was like 20 or 21. He lived one block over from us on Crewe St. (right across the street from Scatman Crothers who always waved at us through the sunroof of his Lincoln and gave us Cracker Jacks on Halloween). Jim’s garage was like a motorcycle shop. One day, while gawking at all the bike parts and gear, Jim came out to the garage and invited us in. He showed us his bikes and we watched him take them apart and put them back together.

He invited us to his room in the back of the house and taught us how to smoke weed from a glass bong.

I remember going home all light headed and wondering if my parents could tell.

One day, Jim asked if I wanted to go for a ride on the back of his motorcycle. I climbed on and he told me to hold on to him.

He rolled out of the driveway, opened up the throttle and tore out of there going 0 to 80 in a few seconds.  I held on for life and nearly shit my pants.

When he pulled back up to the house, I slid off of the bike, legs of jelly, cursing him, crumbling onto the curb.

I heard that Jim died about 10 years ago.

Good.

Rot in hell, Jim.

 

 


 

Walnuts

A short time afterward, my parents sold our house. They said we were moving so my sisters and I wouldn't have to get bussed to a school downtown. (Those were the days of integration.) I wondered if it was really because of Jim and the weed.

On moving day, my mom left a bunch of boxes in our backyard for Goodwill.  They were full of the stuff we wouldn’t be taking with us to the new house. While my mom was out, David and I found a set of old dishes in one of the boxes. We took turns sailing them one by one over the fence towards the huge old walnut tree in the backyard of the house next door.  The sound of a plate shattering against the trunk of that old tree felt very satisfying.

When the neighbor saw all of the broken dishes in her yard, she told my Mom.

We said we didn’t do it.

We had to clean up the pieces anyway.

I remember smashing the walnuts that fell into our yard from that tree with a hammer. They were fun to smash, but I never liked the taste of them.

The old walnut trees in the valley don’t produce nuts any more.

Maybe that was the last year.

 

 

 


 

Trumpet

I started playing the trumpet when I was in fourth grade. I had a knack for it and was always first chair. When I was in 8th grade, the high school marching band came to perform for our school. Dean Frantzen, the lead trumpet player came out in front of the band and played a screaming solo down on his knees. I decided right then that that was gonna be me. The next year, Dean had graduated, I joined the band and went through band boot camp in the scorching summer sun under the command of the fat and charismatic band leader, Mr. Jackson. I battled for first chair with a senior named Dave. When we played at Disneyland it was my turn to run in front for my solo as we marched down Main Street. People said we were good enough for the Rose Parade.

Then Mr. Jackson got arrested for child molesting. They tried to replace him with a lady who got tore to pieces by the students in the band.  The other kids at school started calling us "band fags". The band fell apart and I hung up the horn along with the dream of glory, blaring on my knees.

Mr. Jackson was acquitted. He had been accused by the religious fanatic aunt of the tuba player who had seen him slap her nephew on the ass - like if he was a football coach.

Some time after the trial, I got a call.

I put on my black suit and rode in a different tuba player’s VW Bus with a few other band fags downtown. We met up with Mr. Jackson and walked slowly through the streets of Chinatown behind the hearse, playing lamentations in a Chinese funeral parade.