Tuesday, September 4, 2012

We're going to hell in a hand-basket

Every boy's favorite movie has got to be Stand By Me, Steven King's paean to the awkward years of growing up. Growing up implies a slow process of maturing, but there is always a seminal moment when it strikes us that something has changed. The change is forever and there is no going back.

I suppose that we don't fully understand the change that comes over us at that critical age. And our conversation is an odd mixture of profanity, humor, and budding philosophy. It is only years later, as an adult, that the change make sense.

Memories are rare. There are simply too many people and too many events to remember it all. We have to be selective in what we choose to remember. In the movie, Stephen King's omniscient Writer, speaks:  "It happens sometimes. Friends come in and out of our lives, like busboys in a restaurant."

My growing up summer was long ago, but I can remember some of the details like it was yesterday. That summer's popular TV show for boys was Daniel Boone, starring Fess Parker as Daniel and Ed Ames as Mingo, his Indian companion. Boone and Mingo were blood brothers, having partaken of the ritual of cutting their forearms and mixing blood. My friend and I became spit-brothers. Not brave enough to cut ourselves with a knife, we still mixed a little saliva and achieved a similar, though less painful result. Funny, I can remember what Fess Parker and Ed Ames look like, I can't remember my friend's face or even his name. 

I was in sixth or seventh grade. My family was then living in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. My father went to the Army's War College, a kind of graduate school to the Army Command and Staff School at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, where we had been a couple of years prior. I was the middle child of five, I had four sisters who made my life miserable. Why not, we had nothing in common. In the two years we lived at Carlisle, my mother would give birth at some point to a sixth and final child, a brother. Too little, too late to make a difference in my isolated personality.

We lived along a street with a row of houses that are common to the military, two story red brick, all alike. In front of our house and all the houses were young sycamore trees. I remember them because the limbs were springy like a trampoline. Everyone in the neighborhood climbed the trees, and most fell from the tree at least once. Middle age is a time of dares. The big dare was to see who could climb the highest in the tree without falling. I remember climbing to the top and flipping upside down to get my toes just a bit higher than anyone else. I don't remember now why I thought that suspending myself upside down was an advantage. But then, not everything we did then made sense.

My strangest memory is what the mother of my closest friend said. I don't remember much of my friend now even though we built tree forts and rafts together, and, like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, we were often to be found in the woods on adventure. In time, he became like one of those many busboys in a restaurant a distant figure.

But his mother said something one day that has stuck with me ever since.

It was a normal day. It must have been summer for it was the middle of the day and we were not in school. The two of us, my friend and I, were going in and out of the house, annoying everyone with our rowdy behavior. Then, on one of the trips in or out, it matters not which direction, we ran into his mother who was standing at the door. She was tall and had brown hair. She wore Capri slacks and a white blouse with the sleeves cut off. Her brown hair was short. I remember her as a sort of Jackie Kennedy look alike, but who knows how accurate that is. She might have been carrying in the groceries, but I don't remember. All I remember is that she had the air of one who was busy.

She was like all mothers and fathers of that era. They lived in a parallel universe. We kids had little interaction with them, only at breakfast and dinner would we sit down together and exchange forced pleasantries.

What I do remember is that she said to the two of us something that was strange at the time. "We're going to hell in a handcart, and I am pushing the cart." There was no context, no reason to make the remark that I can remember. Perhaps, I had said to her, "How are you doing Mrs. SoAndSo?" And, this was her way of being flip. The world stopped for a moment as I processed this strange comment, and then it went on its way.

The phrase has taken firm root and like an oak tree stood the test of time. I can't be sure of the exact words, for the colloquialism should be, "Going to hell in a hand-basket." This is generally translated to mean, things are slowly coming apart at the seams. This might describe the mess we kids were creating, but, I remember her phrase slightly differently, and that she assured me that it was she who was one driving.

That, I think, is why the phrase has stuck in my mind. It was different. It was my first inkling of an existentialist philosophy. No matter where life takes you, be in charge.

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