Within Close Range: Mr. Hastings

I don’t like science.

But I like Mr. Hastings, my 8th grade science teacher.

A tall, unlikely comrade with his horn-rimmed glasses, bow tie, and barely there, gray hair; with his starched, white, short-sleeved shirt – which never varies – but for the cardigan he wears when a chill is in the air.

Schooling restless, new teens hovering absent-mindedly over Bunsen burners and long braids, sharp scalpels, squeamish lab partners, and former frogs, must have its days.

Especially with the likes of me, barely squeaking out an apathetic C.

Yet Mr. Hastings rarely raises his voice. Rocking the cinder block walls with his frustration only once. Maybe twice.

Still I keep myself invisible behind students and books and beakers. Slipping in and out of class. Answering questions only when asked. Until I see some things on the science teacher’s desk.

Sitting on an old newspaper, near little, brown bottles, some brushes, and neatly folded rags, sit several pieces of small-scale dollhouse furniture, which somehow this giant-of-a-man created with his two giant hands, and a crippled right arm due to Polio.

Even though my female peers are now more interested in boys than theirs, there is little else that I adore more than my dollhouse.

Earned, gifted, and more than occasionally lifted from my Dad’s loose change I amass what cash I can to fill my two bedroom, one bath, pale yellow Colonial, with its newly shingled roof of hand-cut, balsa wood. (Jim’s community service for repeated dollhouse abuses.)

I inch my way closer to the old newspaper, longing to get a closer look at the tiny treasures which I normally have to view behind a locked, glass, display cabinet, guarded by a grumpy, old man, mistrustful of all youth.

Mr. Hastings notices. And there we begin – girl to man – sharing a common devotion.

Lifting a teeny-tiny chessboard into the palm of his illogically enormous hand, this towering 8th grade science-teacher-of-a-man describes with great care how he cut and varnished each itsy-bitsy square.

And I listen.

Ignited by his dedication.

Astonished by each delicate piece of miniature perfection.

I still don’t like science.

But I’ll always like Mr. Hastings, with his perfect bow tie, his pressed short-sleeved shirt and barely there, gray hair, and his remarkably gifted hands.

Within Close Range: Mr. Dieden

I hate P.E. and the sight of green once again spreading across the corner of Artesian Park across from school each spring.

The southeast corner, to be exact, where I suffer through the tortures of Physical Education with activities such as catching a first softball… with my nose… and the annually humiliating 400 yard dash, a quarter mile of side cramps and red-faced misery.

Nauseous and breathless.

Always one of the last to stumble over the finish line.

Destined, in Mr. Dieden’s eyes, to be stuck at the bottom of life’s climbing rope forever.

“Walk it off!” he likes to holler unsympathetically to us stragglers, scattered and collapsing at the side of the coned-in track, circling the corner patch of park grass.

Mr. Dieden, with his crisp, white, short-sleeved shirt and shiny, bald head.

Mr. Dieden, with an ever-present whistle around his neck and clipboard in hand.

Who makes me write: “I will never say ‘Shut Up’ in Mr. Dieden’s 6th period gym class again.”

1,973 times. (One sentence for each year.)

Didn’t even get the “up” out before his voice echoes off the old gymnasium walls, “Miss Celano. I’ll see you after class.”

Like he’s been waiting for it. Hoping for it.

Never a word to Jeff, on the other side of the net, about his “gold bricks and rich brats” remark.

Within Close Range: Megan’s 1959 Split-level Ranch

In Megan’s bedroom, half a flight up the 1959 Split-level Ranch with pink brick and putty colored paint, I fidget with a funky, multi-colored fiber optic lamp, while she plays records and introduces me to jazz, and we wait for her parents to leave and best friends to descend upon the many leveled house. 

We use the un-parented hours to nurture this hand-picked clan, filled with constantly morphing personalities birthed from overactive glands and imaginations, and recently recognized skills as poets, actors and musicians; as Pig Out Queens and Homecoming Queens, Make Out Queens and Dancing Queens. 

Never enough crowns for all those Queens. Never enough time to be all the things, but always enough room on the dance floor. Though all signs point to clumsy and shy, my pelvic-thrusting friends are determined to try to make me Hustle and shake my groove thing in the ground-level living room of metallic gold and green.

Sweating and spinning and dipping. Air Band greats ever in the making. Drinking and joking and choking with laughter. Using voices and faces to find inner traces of people and places. Writing truly foul lyrics to sweet Christmas carols – using every nasty word we can muster to repulse and to fluster.

Years of piano lessons color the scene, mixing Joplin, Pachelbel and Winston into the frenetic hours of being girls, and being teens. Ceasing only long enough to ransack the family’s world of snacks in the very lowest level of Megan’s Split-level Ranch. Like chubby, pubescent picnic-bound ants.

A fairytale kingdom of infinite munchies. Tupperware and tins and tightly sealed snacks of caramels and pretzels and cookies – wafers and Fudge Stripes, shortbreads and sugar. Enough to make teens, with all their snacking needs, merry and me, ecstatic, for all the food my Mom’s cupboards have never seen.

Megan’s kitchen is where I first try it, but Mom refuses to buy it, so I look for this Chef Boyardee diet on other kitchen shelves. I like my SpaghettiOs straight from the can, finding the same comfort in it as in my friendships and the many hours spent at the 1959 Split-level Ranch, being terribly saucy, truly effortless, full of crap, and distinctly gratifying.

Within Close Range – Best Friends

We try to light it squatting beneath an old, planked bridge.
Like naughty, little trolls.
Laughing and cursing the unrelenting wind and an almost empty box of matches.
Coughing. Giggling. Coughing.
Startled by the snap of a twig.
Whispering and waiting for something in particular.
Not caring about anything in particular.
Until the tiny roach sticks to my mouth and I wince.
Pulling the burning paper from my lower lip.
Betsy laughs.
Which makes me laugh.
Even though it hurts like hell and my lip is already blistered,
making me to worry about how I’m going to explain the burn to Mom and Dad –
who notice every pimple.
But then I stop caring.
Content to be beside my friend.
Standing firm against the bitter lake winds.
Feeling happy just to be,
we walk beside the tiny creek.
Sudden cravings hasten our final footsteps.
Down the deserted road of my secluded neighborhood.
Stepping over acorns and twigs fallen from late October trees.
Side by side.
Stoned.
Smiling in the comfortable silence of a very, best friend.

Within Close Range – Bullies

Being the furthest away, I’m the first to be picked up by the bus in the morning.

Following the same logic, I’m also the first one dropped off after school.

This means that every, single kid on our route has to sit on the bus an extra forty minutes each afternoon.

Just for me.

Full of hormones and blind hatred, the kids in last few rows of the long, yellow bus make their displeasure over my arrival well-known almost daily.

Moaning and groaning as soon as I appear, making me nervously skitter to a seat near friendlier faces and the exit.

The hardcore insults come later, cloaked in the anonymity of the rumbling and motion of the bus.

“Fucking Loser.”

“Rich Bitch.”

“Father Fucker.”

Deaf to what he hears, the bus driver just goes where he’s told.

In the opposite direction of where every kid on the bus – except me – lives.

United by the same neighborhood, my after-school assailants snarl and nip at the back of my neck like chained dogs, piercing my thin skin.

It’s us versus them in every nasty word. But the “them” they think I am is absolutely absurd.

When their rabid, back row words have more than their usual bite, I step from the bus and veer off the road, searching for a way to shake their words in the thick, dim patches of unpeopled forest.

I disappear among the yellow and ember-colored autumn leaves which cap the many trees of Shoreacres, before the heavy freeze steals the color from the land.

Until the sound of my breathing, the movement of the clouds, and the wildlife going about their business, gives me the inclination to go about my own.

And to replenish my soul with the comforts of home.

Within Close Range: Shoreacres

Everyone we know is growing up across the street, around the corner, or the next block over from each other. Daily building a collective experience which connects friends, parents of friends, neighbors and neighborhoods.

Where we live, nothing and no one we know is a couple blocks over, or right around the corner.

Edged with acres of Oak and Maple, Birchwood and Beechwood rooted at the edge of the bluff, our quiet road hides a scattering of courtly houses where forests make good fences and privately schooled children are seldom seen.

And never heard.

A lovely, but lonely, dead end road that winds a mile past manicured grass and unflappably white, club buildings; where quiet, unflappably, white club members and their very quiet staff, raise their heads at our regular din.

We’ve shaken up Shoreacres in seven different ways. A constant breach in its buttoned-up ways.

Directly to our east, rolling onto the beach at the bottom of the bluff eighty feet below, is Lake Michigan.

Dark and deep. Dependably cold and unfriendly.

Built at the turn of the century beside this vast and often brutal body of water, Naval Station Great Lakes, a recruit training camp, sits on over 1,500 acres due north. We can see its harbor from our backyard.

Right next door to this is North Chicago – whose ambitious name reflects more ambitious days, before the lifeblood of the city fed on the flesh of young sailors far from home.

Sailors, sex, booze and Abbott Labs.

That’s North Chicago, just to our north.

To the south, in between us and everyone we know, is Arden Shore, a longstanding fixture in helping troubled kids amid troubled homes.

Here and there, we’ll meet a stray wandering away from its classrooms and confines. Drifting along the edge of the waves, on the ever-shifting sand, or beneath the trees, wandering through the dark and the green and the silence.

We’ll smile and wave and he’ll smile back – kind of – then disappear behind sunken shoulders.

Back into the woods.

And his troubled thoughts.

And us to our troublemaking.

Past Arden Shore, stand two large, lakeside estates of meatpacking magnates and old money, and privileged lives – one defunct, the other very much alive.

Just south of here is where the village streets begin; where lives criss-cross and meet at corners.

And nearness compels strangers to become neighbors.

But north of here is where we live.

Along a lonely, lovely, dead-end road. Among the quiet privileged. Where forests make good fences.

Within Close Range: Betsy’s Dad’s Den

Each time I lit the candle, a rich, earthy fragrance brought forward hazy memories, vague images which came briefly into view and then vanished amid so many forgotten days. 

I’d light the candle and back they’d come.

Out of focus, but strong.

One day, with the faint but familiar fragrance still in the air, still teasing my middle-aged mind, I reached for the smoky-colored glass containing the candle and turned it over, hoping the label would reveal something – anything, that might re-animate these mislaid memories.

And there it was, my answer. Pipe tobacco.

Almost immediately, a clear vision from those indistinct days came to me; a beautiful memory of Mr. Gould’s den, tucked in the corner of the Gould’s grey-green, two chimney Colonial, which sat a short block from the edge of Lake Michigan.

You could find it by heading straight east down Scranton Avenue, the main street of Lake Bluff’s hardly-a-downtown business district.

The old house sat in a quiet spot amid tree-filled lots and winding ravines and looked as if it had been there almost as long as the venerable trees which towered over it.

Stepping into the Gould’s house was like stepping out from the Way Back Machine with Mr. Peabody. Everything from its old plaster and uneven, wood floors, to its cozy nooks and small, sunlit rooms filled with old things, incited my imagination.

And the kitchen – old bricks and beams – will always smell of fresh-baked bread. 

Betsy and I would cut thick slices off a golden brown loaf cooling on the tall counter and sink our teeth into the still warm, chewy insides that hinted of honey and butter and left our fingers powdered with flour, and my stomach hungry for more.

With the final crusts of bread stuffed into our mouths, we’d climb the steep, narrow, crooked flight of stairs to Betsy’s room, straight ahead. 

Two rooms, really. One being her bedroom, the other a small, summer sleeping porch with northwest walls of old, paned windows; where generations of restless sleepers sought lake breezes during the dependably hot and humid Midwest summer nights. 

Cots and cotton nightgowns. 

Late summer sun and the strident thrum of crickets. 

An old Victrola winding down a ragtime tune – tinny, scratchy and lazy to finish.

Another time still haunted the corners of this room. 

Before the piles of fabric, patterns and sewing stuff cluttered the small, bright space at the corner of the Gould’s old Colonial near the lake, where we’d spread out across Betsy’s high bed and talk dreamily about our four favorite men: John, Paul, George and Ringo. Spinning their albums until daylight left and my ride home appeared at the front door.

The rest of the upstairs was a mystery to me, being two-thirds occupied by teen brothers, whose rare appearances and even rarer visits to Betsy’s room usually lasted briefly and annoyed her thoroughly.

It simply scared the shit out of me.

On occasion, when Betsy sought out her dad during my visits, we’d wander back down the creaky, old stairs, through the dark front entry hall (which no one ever seemed to enter through) to the one and only place I ever recall encountering Betsy’s dad.

His den.

With a timid rap on the solid, old door, we’d hear his gentle voice give permission to enter this space, his special place.

His sanctuary.

And it was here, as the door opened and I entered behind my best friend, that the smell of sweet and spicy, earthy and smoky, became an inexorable part of me.

As did Mr. Gould, ever at his desk. Smoking his pipe. Sweatered like the perfect professor.

Ever engaging his hands and his mind.

Creating. 

Drawing. 

Building dreams.

And ships in bottles.

Magnificent, masted vessels of extraordinary detail. Masterfully constructed. Delicately painted and meticulously engineered within ridiculously constrained glass confines.

When finished, each ship would join the miniature armada that floated on a sea of books on wooden shelves, near paneled walls and paned windows with mustard drapes and a glass-topped coffee table filled with shells and sticky sand from innumerable spilled milks.

Like the room above, the windows of Betsy’s dad’s den overlooked Scranton Avenue.

Each night (Betsy would tell me), without fail, her dad would close those long, mustard-colored curtains and sit at his desk to busy his hands and block out the world.

Yet each and every time a car drove past, she found it most mysterious that her dad would draw the drapes back – just enough to watch the car pass – and then close them again and return to his task.

And his deliciously fragrant pipe.

And his secret snacks – Pepsi and Fritos – hidden beneath his desk.

And there he’d stay, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, making beautiful things for make-believe worlds.

I could have sat in there for hours exploring the books, the shelves, the bottles, and the mind of a quiet, creative man. All of which, as a child, were out of reach.

Yet now reach out to me. 

Calling me back to the old, two-chimney, grey-green, Colonial on Scranton Avenue.

To Betsy’s dad’s den.

To his ships and his pipe and the sweet aroma.

To fresh baked bread.

And lazy afternoons.

With best friends.