Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Circus Without Elephants--Chapter Six



TEN YEARS LATER WE’D become the parents of six children--five boys and a girl--and it was assumed by those who knew us only in passing that we were militant Catholics, when in fact we were simply prolific Presbyterians.

Once in awhile I thought back to those childhood dreams Rob and I had entertained as youngsters, those wholly unrealistic images of ourselves as adults. For a short while Rob imagined he’d be a railroad engineer, and later, with a dawning love of the outdoors, a forest ranger.

I entertained no such lofty ideals. I saw myself as a bride. As though being a bride was a permanent state of affairs, as though brideship was a condition that lasted through maturity and on into senility. How else can one explain a vision that never carried me beyond a few golden moments of twirling before a mirror in a silken wedding gown, radiant to the point of luminescence, and on to a dizzying, forever-float down a church aisle with everyone looking and gasping? Oh, what a fairy vision of a bride I’d conjured up, what a back-lit center of attention I imagined I’d be!

That walk was obviously meant to last forever. Certainly no competing image ever arose to explain what I might be doing after the bride bit.

It was all so ironic.

By 1962, surrounded by half a dozen children in all stages from pupa to butterfly, I was thinking back on how the dream had gone astray: after all my girlish fantasies about a wedding as opulent as a coronation, I’d settled for Spartan vows and no real wedding at all. And having given no thought whatever to children, I was now the mother of six--and I swear they snuck up on me, one by one, when I wasn’t looking.

Along with everything else, the humor in our lives had taken a twist. The funny things that once happened to us when it was just Rob and me squaring off against the world, had now become the craziness created by the two of us pitted against a defiant army we’d created ourselves from scratch—-a phalanx of children that surrounded us on all sides.

We’d moved, of course. No army could possibly be garreted in such tiny quarters as that first house in the San Fernando Valley. Together, Rob and I chose to locate miles away in cooler Orange County, though I maintain he deliberately cultivated a twenty-eight-mile commute to his legal work in Long Beach, a distance which struck him as a bare-minimum separation from the confusion he left each morning. Sometimes he said, only half in jest, “This place is like a circus without the elephants.”

In North Tustin, California, we built a modest house on a half acre of land that backed up to an orange grove. Our children loved the new location; they had endless space for their endless projects, and even better, they could roam unfettered through the grove and stage little wars and bomb each other with oranges.

By 1962 our oldest, Bobby, was eleven and a half, and our youngest, Kirk, only two, and we’d learned what every parent of more than one discovers sooner or later--no matter how painstakingly you work at molding your kids, they will turn out different than you planned, and in fact no two will be remotely alike, and if you don’t believe that’s possible in a nice, consistent, even-tempered environment, just study a few snowflakes.

WE’D KNOWN FROM THE start that Bobby was the stubborn one. Long-faced and quietly intense, he was a skinny child who said frequently, “I don’t want to do what everyone else has done. I want to be different.” From his earliest years he was propelled by an inner force that drove him—-not to play like other children, God forbid--but to re-make, improve, or otherwise conquer his childhood toys. He didn’t play with his train set. He built a virtual train switching yard that crept across the cement and devoured our patio.

Sometimes as he worked, he wheezed. But obstinate beyond reason, he said, “It’s not asthma. I’m not sick.” I was always arguing with him. “Bobby, stop fixing your train set and come to dinner.” He came when he felt like it.

Bobby wasn’t the one getting raised, I was. In his own dogged way, he trained me to equal him in stubbornness. The problem was, I kept imagining myself as the boss who ought to be making the decisions . . . whereas he saw himself as a youthful Alexander the Great who couldn’t be conquered. We lived our lives in a clash of images.

Soon Rob and I discovered he had dreams, but what we didn’t know at first was their width and breadth . . . that an eleven-year-old could think of himself in global terms, that he could vow privately to create a competition-size environment deep in the ground. And then actually do it.

Bobby confided his plans one morning at breakfast. “Dad, I’m going to dig the world’s biggest underground fort.” He said it just like that. No buildup. No explanation. No preparatory speeches.

Rob looked up from his puffed wheat. “How will you know it’s the world’s biggest, Bobby?” Rob was trying to be serious, but of course he wasn’t, how could he be? Bobby was just a child, and even to me this was idle conversation.

Bobby’s long face changed subtly, took on greater eagerness, more resolve. His voice conveyed his certainty. “I’ll just know, Dad. I will.” And I swear, we almost believed him.

And so began The Year of the Underground Fort.

BOBBY DIDN’T WASTE any time. Unlike other eleven-year-olds who begin a project after breakfast and abandon it by supper, Bobby recruited his brothers with an intensity that would have made the Marines proud. He did, indeed, intend to dig for himself and his siblings a noteworthy underground fort, and to that end he conscripted his next-oldest brother, Chris, and then our third son, Eric. By noon, the three of them were hard at work.

I heard them through the kitchen window. The far side of the yard became a noisy, industrial place.

But two shoveling brothers didn’t live up to Bobby’s expectations. “You’ve got to dig faster!” he cried, inciting them to greater effort. Willing to tunnel at a fiendish pace himself, he was dismayed to find that his brothers worked at something less than the speed of a steam shovel.

Clearly, help was needed. As only Bobby could do, he brought in friends, expanding his sphere of influence outward block by block, like a creeping flood, until every neighborhood child with access to a shovel had convened in our backyard. I watched and was mostly amused.

For days, then weeks, our yard was never quiet. The clanking of shovels and the shrill sounds of youthful voices dominated our half acre until our backyard was like an over-subscribed union job, with half the workers bent to the task and the other half leaning on their shovels.

Day after day Bobby led the charge, shoveling furiously one minute, exhorting his youthful minions the next.

Meanwhile, the mounds of dirt grew, and so, presumably, did the underground fort. I never saw it up close until the project was nearly at an end (when Chris, cheerfully but insistently, led me down into the bowels of the earth), but I did see that Bobby had hardened into steel; I could feel his willpower all the way to the kitchen. It hardly seemed possible that such a young boy could keep such tight control over what was basically an unmanageable company of slackers.

And then two things happened. Bobby’s friends, and soon even his brothers, grew weary of being the indentured servants of a relentless taskmaster. “I can’t dig anymore,” said Chris one day, walking toward the house. “I’m tired.”

I happened to be watching through the kitchen window and wondered how Bobby would handle the loss of his best worker—-Chris the faithful, Chris the determined shoveler.

For seconds Bobby stared in horror, and then he ran after his brother. “You can’t be tired!” he howled. “You’re not tired, Chris, you know you’re not. You want this fort a lot, you want it as much as I do.”

Chris gave him a glance and kept walking.

Giving up on mind control, Bobby did a quick, dancing sidestep, trying to cut off his brother’s escape.

Chris wouldn’t be stopped. He just moved deftly around his older brother and continued toward the house.

Bobby followed, desperation on his long face. “Please, Chris, come back. I need you. I can’t do it without you. Everyone needs you. Please.”

At last Chris paused and simply looked at him.

With a glint in his eyes, Bobby pulled out his trump card. Like a gambler, he slapped it on the table. “Chris, if you keep digging, I’ll . . . I’ll give you my marbles. All of them. Even the aggies.” Anxiously he waited to see if Chris would succumb to this, the ultimate bribe.

“The aggies?” Chris stopped to consider, letting the silence grow, thinking hard about Bobby’s offer. Finally he raised his eyes and said with his own fierce determination, “All right, Bobby. I’ll do it. But don’t yell at me anymore, okay? I don’t like being yelled at.”

“You’ll dig?” said Bobby.

“For awhile.” With slow steps Chris turned back toward the fort. Halfway across the yard he called out, “You don’t have to give me your aggies, Bobby.”

The second happening was bigger, much harder to solve. Bobby’s asthma, which he’d had since early childhood, flared up and became so severe that at night we could hear the sounds of his wheezing in the hall outside his room. Still he said stubbornly, “The fort’s not hurting me. Don’t you think I’d know if it was?”

Rob and I finally recognized the truth---that the spores, molds, and fungus inherent in all soil were making him worse. The fort had to go.

But it took both of us and the advice from a doctor and our combined willpowers to bring Bobby to a halt. And even then we might not have succeeded, had Rob not taken an extraordinary step: one night, by the light of the moon, he went outside with a shovel and for hours he relentlessly restored the earth to Bobby’s underground fort.

BOBBY GAVE UP WITH resignation, even grace. And that was only the beginning of his trauma.

Because his asthma was now so severe, Rob and I were forced to consider our last resort--a home for asthmatic children, an institution in Denver where the minimum stay was two years.

Telling Bobby he had to leave all of us, his brothers, his parents, his grandparents, for two years was one of the hardest things we ever did. And harder still when he didn’t argue. As he would do in later years, Bobby fought back when a fight was possible, and when it wasn’t, he just coped.

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