Payment due on the Fourth of July

Yogi hates the Fourth of July. Now, don’t judge! He’s not unpatriotic, he’s an all American dog… he just hates fireworks. And since people in Bonita are always looking for an excuse to shoot fireworks I suppose I can safely add New Years, Christmas, Easter, your mom’s birthday and National Cheetos Appreciation Day to his list as well.

Unlike some dogs, he doesn’t appear to be afraid of fireworks, they just seem to make him angry. So on these special days, but particularly the 4th and for about a week leading up to the 4th, he spends most of the evening running laps around the house from window to window, across the couch, over and on top of my face and stomach and then out into the yard through the ever thickening smoke and then back again, looking for whoever is responsible for ruining his evening. I don’t personally participate in setting off fireworks anymore… but I think he suspects that somehow I may have had something to do with the creation of this custom in our city. He might be right.

As kids growing up in Bonita we had access to maybe three firecrackers each. So if all 20 of us got together, the thrill would only last for a few seconds. Occasionally, somebody would produce one of the legendary and deadly Cherry Bombs or M-80’s. Just before they would light one they would always announce, “This is like a quarter stick of dynamite!” After it went off and your ears quit ringing, firecrackers (and everything else for that matter) would never sound the same. This is where the story gets a little dicey, because after witnessing a couple of these mini explosions, my friend Steve and I were convinced that we could improve on the M-80 design. After all, we were almost 12 years old, and would build it in secret without the permission or the knowledge of our parents, so what could possibly go wrong?

For the sake of everyone who would rather not blow them self up like an idiot I will not divulge the details of our creation and will also add… DON’T DO ANYTHING LIKE THIS EVER! IT’S STUPID AND INCREDIBLY DANGEROUS! But when the 4th of July finally rolled around that hot summer, Steve and I took our newly designed M-8000, which was the same size as a box of kitchen matches, down the railroad tracks, across the trestle to the old railroad yard. Ironically it is the same exact place that the city, under direction of the MAYOR (me) and City Council, currently sets off its annual fireworks! Coincidence? Maybe…

After we set the M-8000 carefully on the railroad track we finally became a bit apprehensive about lighting the half-inch long fuse. So after a long volley of “You light it!” “NO, YOU light it!” we set up two sparklers so that they would have to burn down before lighting the fuse. We lit the sparklers, ran like hell to a place about a hundred yards away, laid down on the tracks and waited.

Minutes ticked by. “Man! Sparklers burn really slow!” I said as I let my forehead rest on the railroad tie. Steve rose up a bit and squinted. “It’s just getting to the fuse!” We covered our ears and grimaced as the sparkling stopped. Nothing. We waited. Finally we both stood up, staring into the blackness. Steve whispered to me. “I don’t think that….” and then a blinding flash of light and an earth shattering BOOM! Suddenly we were sitting back on the ground again covered in gravel and dirt. My ears were ringing and I could barely see as I brushed the dirt off. Then I turned to Steve. “HOLY MOLY that was…. Steve… STEVE!” Steve had noticed all the lights coming on in the Liles Hotel and was already making his way over the river and trestle towards home. Then I heard voices from across the tracks. “Time to go!” I said out loud and off I ran never to dabble in the idiotic art of amateur fireworks design again.

So this 4th of July, I suspect you will find my wife and I sitting in our safe, comfortable lawn chairs at beautiful Riverside Park watching the City’s spectacular fireworks show go off behind the very same Liles Hotel. Then, I will go home, stretch out on the couch and let our dog Yogi trample me for hours… fair payment due for a past indiscretion.

For Whites Only

“For whites only.” I stood there and looked at the faded, crude, handwritten sign above the algae covered drinking fountain. As I looked around, the fountain didn’t really look out of place in the Fort Myers auto parts store in the 1960’s. Everything there was dirty, old and outdated. But that sign… I didn’t understand it.

As I watched the scenery go by on the long ride home back to Bonita with my father, I had a lot of questions. “What’s the difference what color you are when it comes to drinking out of a fountain? I saw the guys that worked at that place… what’s makes them think they’re so special?” My dad just kept his eyes on the road in front of him. “That’s just the way some people think and I suppose it’s their fountain.” I stuck my hand out the window and felt the warm summer air go by. “Well… it’s not right. I’ll sure never drink out of it!” My dad looked over at me. “Yeah? Well, I guess it just depends on how thirsty you are.”

Although my father was born and raised in the south, I can never remember him saying or doing anything particularly prejudiced. He basically put all people into two categories… people who owed him money (not good) and people who paid him money (good). So, my sister, brother and I grew up relatively free of any parental pressure to be prejudice. I don’t think this was an intentional lesson… it was more of a collateral one.

Decades later, prior to my son Nick getting his first tattoo, he asked me what I thought. I shrugged, “It’s up to you son, but people are going to judge you for what you look like, not for who you really are.” Nicks eyebrow rose, “But that’s not right Dad… that’s prejudice!” I nodded, “Yep… that’s prejudice, but generally, that’s what people do. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just telling you that when people don’t really know you, they instinctively fill in the blanks themselves.” Nick shook his head. “Well, that’s the problem of the people doing the judging, not the guy with the tattoo!” Then my eyebrows rose, “Yeah? Well… I guess that depends on how badly you want a job!”

My twin sons’ disdain for prejudice was first brought to my attention at a third grade parent teacher conference. The teacher was in near hysterics for what seemed like a solid ten minutes explaining how she was having such a hard time getting my sons to pay attention. “I’ll be talking right to them telling them what they have to do and right while I’m talking to them… THEY JUST START DRAWING PICTURES!” Both of her elbows dropped to the table and she cradled her head in her hands. “I mean… do you have this problem with them at home too?” I blinked my eyes a couple of times, shook my head and then said. “Uhhh… I’m sorry. What were you saying?” True story.

Anyway, once she calmed down, she told me that “on the plus side” when it came to who they made friends or socialized with Nick and Neil were oblivious to ethnicity or any of the usual learned social or economic prejudices that can begin manifesting themselves in elementary school. This was good news for two reasons… my kids were obviously socially well adjusted and relatively free of a problem that has plagued the human race for millennia and… I had just been handed an opportunity to get the heck out of that meeting! I slammed my hands on the table, smiled and stood up abruptly. “Well that’s FANTASTIC!” The teacher’s mouth was hanging open as I grabbed her hand and shook it. “Thank you so much for calling me with this great news!” As I turned and headed out of the door I called over my shoulder. “Come on boys… say goodbye to your teacher!”…. “Boys?… Boys?… BOYS!”

Standard Oil

At the Northwest corner of Terry Street and Old 41 is a building that used to be a Standard Oil gas station. It was my and my buddy’s favorite place to hang out after elementary school. We would each scrape up enough money to buy an ice cold coke and a package of peanuts, then sit together on the raised concrete stoop in front of the station and watch the world drift by while we goofed on each other, laughed and prepared ourselves for home. We just thought we were having fun, but our experiences there changed who we would become… in ways we could never imagine.

It was the fall of 63 and as I plopped down next to my friends it seemed like just another typical day after school. I ripped a corner off a package of peanuts, dumped a dose of salty deliciousness into my mouth and closed my eyes as I quickly crunched them up, chasing them down with the ice-cold tangy sweetness of a King Sized Coke. I swallowed, savoring the fizzy combination of flavors. “Ahhhhh…” I said looking over at my buddy Paul Fisher. As usual, he had immediately gulped down half of his coke, tore open his bag of peanuts and haphazardly poured them into the bottle, like he was loading a BB gun. I shook my head and wrinkled up my nose. “Man… are you strange!” Billy, sitting on the other side of him agreed. “Yeah, what the heck’s wrong with you Fisher?” Paul put his thumb over the end of the bottle, frowned and began shaking it vigorously. “Shut up!” Paul said without looking up. He held on tight as the coke went through a controlled explosion, spewing some of the soda and peanuts all over him. As soon as it stopped fizzing he tilted the bottle up, poured whatever the heck it had become into his mouth and then chewed calmly while he sat there staring straight ahead. “You guys just don’t know what’s good.”

Although the station was owned and operated by Mack Alverez, a fellow named Ted seemed to be there all the time. He occasionally pumped gas for people, but we couldn’t tell if he actually worked there. He mostly sat around telling bad jokes and attempting to freak us out by saying weird stuff.

This particular day, Ted, who was the oldest looking person I had ever seen, hobbled over and then just stood there hunched over looking down at us. We all stopped talking and stared at him. He had about three teeth, so it was always difficult to tell if he was grinning or sneering. (I think he was sneering this time.) As he looked back and forth at us, his freaky little fishing hat pulled too far forward on his head, he pulled out a tiny little pocket knife, opened it and made what were evidently meant to be threatening gestures at us. Then he turned towards me. “You want me to slice your tongue and run your leg through it?” Because he wore old bent up wire rimmed glasses that were about an inch thick and you couldn’t see his eyes, I really wasn’t all that sure he was talking to me, so I swallowed my last sip of soda and pointed my thumb at my chest. “What…You mean me?” He made a little lunge towards me and swiped the 2″ long blade in the air. “YEAH, I mean you!” I stared at him for a moment with a puzzled look on my face then shook my head. “Nope!” Then I turned towards Billy and casually motioned towards him with my empty bottle. “But I bet Billy would like that!” “WHAT???” yelled Billy, immediately jumping up. Paul started to laugh, which would have been fine except he had a mouth full of his special snack mixture and as Ted began making his way towards Billy a stream of coke and peanuts suddenly began “fire hosing” out of his nose.

Apparently, this took the old man by surprise, because he began stumbling backwards… A look of horror on his face that even his hat, glasses and lack of discernible teeth, couldn’t hide. Neither Paul nor Billy got to see Teds reaction, because Billy was already half way home and Paul was in a panic… frantically trying to dislodge the jet propelled peanuts that had lodged themselves in his nose.

I don’t doubt that Paul and Billy remember this story differently, but Paul has had sinus and migraine problems his entire adult life. I’m betting they are peanut related.

Sixteen Crayons

Out of paper!  I got up from my desk and snagged a brand new legal pad from the storage closet.  As I fanned through the crisp new leaves, I was struck by the familiar smell of fresh ink and paper.  I smiled.  The first day of school! The beginning of another school year meant new things.   New paper, new pencils, a notebook, clothes… Everything was different, even me.  I was taller, skinnier, my ears were bigger and my hair shorter.

Fourth grade was Mrs. O’Conner’s class at Bonita Springs Elementary.  She was tough I heard… so I wanted to be ready.  My Mom had taken me to the department store and I had filled the required supply list enthusiastically… except for the crayons.  A box of 16 is what was “required,” but then there on the shelf was the new “Crayola” box of 64… with a built in sharpener!  Being a budding artist, I saw no point in limiting myself to 16 colors, but my mother said Ms. O’Conner had other ideas and she placed the puny box in the cart.  As I rode home, sulking next to my mom, I tried to think of a reason that someone would even create a rule that limits how many crayons you could have.  I finally blurted out.  “I just don’t get it…Are you sure it’s a rule?  I mean, it sounds like a suggestion, because why would she make it a rule?  Does she think having too many colors will confuse kids?  Shouldn’t we be able to color whatever color we want?”  My mom rolled her eyes. “Look, I don’t know why it’s a rule… it’s just a rule, OK?” I looked out the window with my arms crossed, watching the water filled ditch next to the Tamiami Trail go by.  I mumbled.  “Well it’s a pretty stupid rule.”  My mom just stared straight ahead and drove a little faster.  Apparently I would have to argue my case to the teacher.

The next morning I was on my way to school, with a new “crew cut”, complete with a single butch-waxed tuft of hair on my otherwise barren head, a huge brand new pair of dark blue jeans that “had room enough for me to grow into” (they fit great now!) and my new school supplies, including 16 stupid crayons.  On the bus, as we were all comparing our supplies and I was taking a ribbing for my disproportionate head to ear ratio, I noticed that one of the boys had the 64 pack of Crayons.  “Arrrgh!” I yelled grabbing at the hair on top of my head that I still don’t have.  “You can’t have those!  You’re supposed to get the 16 pack Joey!” Joey shrugged as he put them away.  “They’re just crayons man.” I looked at him like he had two heads.  “What? You don’t care?”  “Nope.” said Joey casually shrugging.  I sized Joey up for a second and then instinct kicked in and I became… my father!   “Okay Joey.  But, how do you feel about… IRON MAN!”  And I pulled out a brand new comic book from my note book.  “Whoa!” said every boy on the bus.  (I’d seen my dad “horse trade” in the store hundreds of times.) I dangled the comic by one corner.  “Joey, I’ll trade you this comic book and my box of crayons for your box of crayons.” Joey jumped at the deal, which made us both happy.   Now all I had to do was to convince Mrs. O’Connor.

For days I waited for my opportunity to argue for “crayon freedom” and then finally as she was slowly circling the room inspecting our work, Mrs. O’Connor stopped at my desk.  I kept coloring, looking down, my giant box of Crayons sticking out like a sore thumb on the top of my desk.  “Nice job Benny.” she said.  (Wow, I’m in the clear!) I thought and then she tapped gently on the crayon box.  “Are these the Crayons you traded with Joey for?” I turned slowly and glared at Joey who was slouched in his chair, his face red as a beet.

Although my interpretation of Mrs. O’Conner’s “guidelines” had been correct, Joey’s parents apparently didn’t attach the same value to “Iron Man” as their son.  So, I ended up with a dog-eared comic and a box of 14 blunt and broken crayons.  My parents weren’t exactly happy, but they must have had some appreciation for my impassioned argument, because I finally got a brand new box of 64 crayons.

Sweet Crayon Freedom!

Mr. Taylor’s Unremarkable Resurrection

I was at the Bonita Springs YMCA yesterday, thinking about how different it was growing up in the “old days”.  As kids, it wasn’t uncommon for us to play outside without any adults around the entire day.  The only thing that could bring me inside was the faint sound of my mothers voice in the dusk calling me to dinner.   Well… except that one time. Continue reading