Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Living and the Dead

I have oftentimes wondered if I am already dead. Perhaps I died many years ago and everything since is merely the frantic imaginings of a dying mind trying to finish the story, or perhaps I’m at a pit stop in purgatory where I get a glimpse of what my life might have been.

When did I die? There’s really no telling. It could have happened in the blink of an eye, as they say, and I just stubbornly continued on with a life that was no longer real. Parts of the story I crafted for myself would make sense: I married one of the only boys I knew as a child, the kid who lived down the street from me. My son is the sort of child I believe my father was, and my daughter is the kind of person I would aspire to be. But then there are all the other things I could never dream up that have entered my story. And yet I dream things all the time that shock or frighten me, things I didn’t even know my subconscious was capable of inventing.

I didn’t have a particularly dangerous childhood. Swimming in a lake with minimal supervision, walking the streets of my town after dark by myself, dancing with an umbrella outside in a thunderstorm. These weren’t uncommon activities when I was young, though not many kids would get away with this sort of behavior today.

When I was about seven years old, my mom called me into the kitchen. “We have to drive up to the Dells because Joe’s car is broken down and he needs a ride home.” Joe was a young man who worked at the same place as my father and was friends with my parents. (Points to my mom for not leaving the seven-year old home alone, right?)

I climbed into the backseat of the car, leaving the front passenger seat free for Joe. “Come sit up here by me,” my mom instructed.

“Why? Why can’t I sit in the back?”

My mom misheard or misunderstood what I was asking. “I’ll tell you when we get there,” was her answer.

I climbed into the front seat and buckled my seat belt. Nowadays kids that age shouldn’t be in the front seat and would probably still be in a booster in the back, but at least I had my seat belt on. We were oblivious to the fact that what we were doing would be considered dangerous by someone.

I sat in the front seat and pondered what her secret was. She’d tell me why I couldn’t sit in the back when we got there. I couldn’t think of a single reason why the backseat was off limits and if it was why she couldn’t tell me now. I sneaked a peek into the backseat but it looked like it always did.

Thirty minutes later we pulled up to the gas station where Joe was waiting for us. I hopped out to give him the front seat and climbed into the back and immediately said to my mom, “Okay, tell me now. Why couldn’t I sit in the backseat?”

“I just wanted your company up front for the drive here,” my mom answered.

“But why was that a secret?” I asked. “Why couldn’t you tell me that until we got here?”

My mom laughed. “No. That’s not what I meant. I just meant that I’d tell you when we got to our destination so that you could get into the backseat.”

That thirty-minute suspense-filled ride with the flop of an ending is one of those curious inconsequential memories that have stuck with me. We all made it to the Dells and home safely. But the perils of children in front seats have now become ingrained in me as it has with most mothers. And this is one instance in my childhood when I remember very specifically that I was doing something that would now be considered “wrong”. It is certainly possible that I could have died that day. But any ride in a car is potentially deadly. That’s just the heartbreaking truth of the world we live and die in.

Joe’s car was repaired and he was back on the road within days. Later that summer he was driving with his girlfriend when she decided she wanted to recline the seat to take a nap. He turned around to move his bow and arrow off the backseat, taking his eyes off the road and inadvertently drifting across the center line into oncoming traffic. He was killed immediately. Sometimes I think of him still living his life in his last moment, images of him getting married and having children flashing through his mind, getting to finish the happy life that he had only just started. Or maybe he is parked in purgatory and allowed to view his story to see how it would all turn out. Then again, maybe he’s still living his life for real because my story is the dream and I was killed in the car that day before we ever picked him up. His accident was just a chapter in the fictional life lived only in my mind.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Odd Jobs

I order almost everything online. From a trampoline to strappy heels to zombie bowling, I can find anything I could possibly want without leaving my home. So I get very excited when I see the UPS truck turn onto my street. But often the truck will turn into a driveway a few houses away from mine, because the day’s shipment is for them and not me. “Darn,” I think to myself. “Foreskin again.”

You see, my neighbor has a job in which he has foreskin delivered to his house. If you ever get a skin graft, ask where the skin is coming from. It might not be where you expect. He assists in the operating room for the procedures, helping the doctors with the skin that he has sold them. One time he had a little old lady on the operating table moments before her skin graft, and she lifted her head and asked him, “Where does this skin come from?” “It’s human foreskin,” he told her honestly. A week later he was back at the same hospital assisting in an additional procedure on the same lady. Once again she asked where it was from and he repeated his answer. This time she had a follow up question for him. “Is it your foreskin?” she asked him.

It is not.

My neighbor has had his fair share of odd jobs. When he was younger he had work doing experiments on mice. He told us about this job one evening while we were having drinks in my kitchen with his wife. My cat was acting peculiar near the couch, and I said it was just a year ago that we had a mouse come inside and the cat tortured it until I threw them out. “That reminds me of a job I once had killing mice,” he recalled. “First we would hold them between the shoulders,” he said as he put his hand on the spot between his wife’s shoulder blades. She shrugged him off, exclaiming, “Don’t use me as your example!”

“I would put a little cotton ball inside a thimble and then put in a drop of ether,” he explained. “It had to be just the right amount to get them asleep but not kill them. If it was too much you would have to do some chest compressions to revive it for the experiment. I never lost a mouse!” he boasted. He never lost a mouse because he had to keep them alive until the second step in the experiment, when he would stick a needle into the mouse’s heart and withdraw all the blood from the mouse’s body.

We’ve all had our share of odd jobs, haven’t we? My husband has held more jobs than anyone I know. He was a UPS loader, UPS driver (probably for foreskin and he never even knew it!), pizza chef, ski lift operator, encyclopedia salesman, scissors assembler, forklift operator for a veggie canning factory, battery stuffer, ice deliveryman, and corn detassler, among others. Most of those jobs were all in one summer.

I’ve had a few odd jobs, mostly from temporary work. One of the strangest was being squished with four ladies into one office above a German restaurant. Each of us had a desk against one of the walls. I was hired to help process hundreds and hundreds of orders for Hummel figurines. The orders had been taken by telephone and mail by the other ladies who sat in that office. I had to go through boxes of these hand-written paper orders that were many months old and input them into the computer. As you may have guessed, there was a bit of a delay between the original order and when the customer actually got their porcelain statue of a baby in a rain barrel having a bath.

The women who worked there were a diverse lot, but always friendly and entertaining. I was not asked to answer the phone at all even though there was one on my desk. One day the 80-something who worked there complained how one of the other women never picked up the phone when her line was busy. I told my sister about my job and how I didn’t want to get stuck talking to any of these people and she said, “Just answer the phone and say the name of the business and then, ‘Can you please hold?’ They’ll say yes and you can then put them on hold until your coworker gets off the phone.”

So I decided to try it. The next day I answered the phone and after stating the name of the company I said, “Can you please hold?”

“No!” came the voice of an angry man on the other end of the line.

After that call I learned that I didn’t need to ask them if I could put them on hold. I would just say “Please hold” and transfer them immediately. Still, they could manage to get a few swear words in at me before I was able to press the Hold button.

The worker they had shipping out the Hummel figurines for those that had been ordered and arrived at the shop was not exactly the strongest link in this chain of orders and deliveries. He was a gang banger named Steven with a tattoo of “Blvd” (the name of his gang) on his hand below his thumb and pointer finger. He was always very nice to us, though, and I appreciated knowing someone in the ’hood in case I ever got into trouble on the mean streets. Even though he didn’t show up to work regularly, he was kind and polite and would take our lunch orders and then go down into the kitchen to bring us up our salads chilled from the fridge and plates of piping hot French fries. (No one ever partook of the free schnitzel or spatzel or sauerbraten or pork knuckles, even though we were all German.)

Not only did this company take orders for expensive yet worthless knickknacks, they also sold them in a tiny upstairs shop next to the office and overflow restaurant seating. A woman and her daughter ran the sales counter and were in charge of those of us in the office. The woman liked to talk about how she was once a model and how she was English, though I could detect no accent that anyone would ever mistake for even a British colonist. Her daughter was the reason she had the job, for the daughter was living with the owner of the restaurant. She was a young, beautiful blonde who drove a red convertible and had a monthly thousand-dollar clothing allowance from her grandparents. She would breeze in for a half an hour, chat with the ladies, and then talk on the phone with her friends, organizing their next activity, which often involved boating on the lake or shooting guns at the range. She was not married to the owner, but she had changed her name from Sheila to the feminine form of his name. (Hint: there is a famous Julie Andrews movie with the same names.)

One day when we were all in the office working away (or gossiping about the owners and the 80-something’s recent ex-husband, who had been revealed to be quite the philanderer), the little gift shop was robbed. An expensive Disney animation cel of Mickey Mouse was stolen right off the wall. The English ex-model saw a young woman grab it off the hook and sprint down the stairs and out onto the mean streets of the city with her pricey new work of art. The police were called, but I don’t believe they ever found Mickey Mouse. For all I know it ended up in a lab with a thimbleful of ether pressed to its twitchy little nose.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A Bully with a Good Heart

Even though school rules forbid gum, Daniel was chewing his gum loudly, snapping and cracking it, blowing huge bubbles that covered the lower half of his face. He had me up against the brick wall on the playground, his arms caging me in on each side, but he was smiling as he talked to me. He had some of the most beautiful blue eyes I’d ever seen, light and airy, like your favorite pair of faded denim blue jeans.

“Hey, do you like Brian?” he asked, pushing his gum to the side of his mouth with his tongue as he leaned in toward my head that was already pinned to the red bricks.

“Yeah,” I answered as passively as I could, trying to contain my excitement. Brian was the most popular guy in fourth grade. He had longer hair that he flicked to the side with a toss of his head as he strode down the hall and slipped curse words into everyday conversation. He was everything a nine year old aspired to be.

“Well, he really likes you, too,” Daniel assured me. As one of Brian’s best friends, I trusted him to know. “Do you want to go out with him?”

“Okay.” Or, as I was screaming in my head, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

As someone who had not yet had any experience in the dating world, I couldn’t believe my luck. My heart soared. I felt as if I had lifted off my feet and was floating above all the boring kids on the playground who Brian didn’t like, all the Nobodys with whom Daniel wasn’t having a life-changing conversation. I was Somebody in this world that revolved around Grand Avenue Elementary. I was going with Brian.

That lasted about ten more seconds.

Daniel dropped his hands and ran off around the corner of the playground to where Brian was playing basketball with the other cool boys, screaming as he ran, “Brian! You’re going out with Kelly Kizer!” This was followed by a torrent of laughter from Daniel, who had just pulled one over on his friend by tricking him into dating me.

I was mortified. I already knew that my thick, dinner-plate-sized glasses and inability to feather my hair did not make me the most popular girl in school, but I hadn’t considered myself to be so low in the pecking order that I would be considered the most embarrassing person a guy could date. I had friends. I was even friends with kids who were friends with Brian. I wasn’t one of the kids who went to special-ed classes; I wasn’t one of the poor kids who were made fun of for being dirty; and I wasn’t one of the overweight kids who were called tub-a-lards. But apparently I had my own category of awfulness that would make a cool guy cringe if he were declared to be “going with me.”

Fortunately Brian was so cool that all he had to do was say to Daniel, “No, I’m not, you dick,” and that was that. We were already broken up.

Daniel excelled at being a bully and getting into trouble. The principal and Daniel were so well associated that Daniel would shout out “Hey, Mr. Williams, how’s it hanging?” as he passed him in the hall as if it were a scene from a John Hughes movie.

In the sixth grade, our math teacher, Mrs. Schwartz, tried numerous methods for getting Daniel to behave. One day she placed a chair at the front of the classroom facing the rest of the students and had Daniel sit there until he could get the goofiness out of his system. I was ready to see Daniel burst into tears, just as all his other classmates who had been relentlessly picked on by him were probably itching to see as well. He sat there with his head down for a while, looking up on occasion, and the rest of us were instructed to go back to our multiplication worksheets. Then we heard a noise coming from the front of the classroom: a gush of air, a treble in the throat. Was this it? We looked up to see Daniel peering through his bangs, snickering as he watched the class. One of his friends began to giggle as well. Daniel lifted his head higher and looked around at all the faces, laughing outright at his awkward situation, and we all began to laugh too. It was contagious. Soon even Mrs. Schwartz was laughing, and to quiet the classroom back down she dismissed Daniel back to his seat.

This “punishment” may not have been the success she had been hoping for, but it was legions better than the week before when she had shouted at Daniel, “If you can’t be serious, then you should just leave.” At which point he had stood up from his desk, walked out of the classroom, and exited out the door into the parking lot.

Daniel was both a bully and the class clown. Even though he could be a total “dick,” as Brian would say, it was hard to hate him because he was as funny as he was cruel. Plus you aren’t allowed to openly hate popular kids. When I was young we didn’t call kids like Daniel “bullies,” we called them cool. Because that’s how kids who can manipulate to get whatever they want appear to other kids. But I knew Daniel fairly well, and despite the fact that he could be a combative asshole, I also knew he had a good heart.

My older sister and Daniel’s older sister were friends, so I had known Daniel longer than most kids. One of the first memories I have of him is a kind one. I was quite young, maybe only four or five, and I was graduating from my swimming class. On the last day the other beginner swimmers and I were all taken to the deep end where we were instructed to jump off the diving board and into the water. We were all a bit terrified to be in the big kids’ territory. I remember getting out of the shallow end and walking in a line to the deep end, past the bleachers where my sister and mom sat as they waited for my class to end and my sister’s class to start. They and everyone else on the bleachers would be watching me to see if I would be able to do the big jump. When it was my turn, I got up on the diving board and walked out to the end and looked down. There in the water was my swim teacher with the life preserver floating beside her. As small as I was, it looked like she was at least one of my body lengths below me. But I didn’t hesitate. I just stepped off the board and into the water.

I had been so excited that I forgot to plug my nose, and the water gushed up, burning my nose and filling my throat. I surfaced, coughing and gagging, as my teacher offered me the life preserver and floated me toward the wall. But I also heard cheering. I squinted and looked toward the stands where two kids were shouting and clapping for my accomplishment. As I got out of the water I asked my sister, “Who is that?” and she told me that Daniel and his sister had been watching my big jump.

Daniel was not fundamentally or inherently flawed. Like all kids who act up, there were reasons for what he did. Because our sisters were close, I knew things about Daniel that the other kids at school maybe never did. Daniel’s mother was mentally ill. She was institutionalized for a long time and his father was busy running a few local businesses, so Daniel and his sister were mostly raised by his grandparents.

Knowing all this about Daniel should have made me more accepting of his behavior, but when you’re a kid all you care about is whether or not someone is a jerk to you. He fell into drugs at a young age but turned it around just as young. As early as his high school years, he found the military and then found God. I remember championing his work to one of my teachers, trying to help him get a better grade on a beautiful world map he had made for a social studies final project. I wanted Daniel to be happy and succeed in life. If happiness is being married with two kids, working as a computer software engineer, and always having a smile on your face, then I think he has succeeded.

Friday, May 10, 2013

40 Things To Do Before I'm 40

About a year ago a friend of mine posted a list on Facebook of 40 things she wanted to accomplish before she was 40. I thought it was a fabulous idea. I was born the same year as she was and I was also facing the big milestone birthday in just about a year and a half. So on December 30, 2011, I finalized my list and shared it as a public declaration that this would be my goal.

Yesterday, on May 9, 2013, the last day of my 39th year, I completed the list. I didn’t complete it perfectly, but I did, somehow, manage to finish it. There were a couple substitutions I had to make, for example, Tour the Taliesin (Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio near where I grew up that I’d somehow never been to) had to be replaced when I realized the tours closed for the year and wouldn’t reopen by my birthday. But for the most part the list is as it was when I made it.

And now – to the list…

Kelly’s 40 by 40 List

To be finished by May 10, 2013



1.        Finish my book 8/9/12 – This was the sequel to my first novel, The Gathering Storm. I thought this would be one of the most difficult to accomplish, but Storm Damage was finished far ahead of the deadline. I have also just started writing the third book.

2.       Fly somewhere Florida with the family 3/27/13 – We flew to Atlanta and then on to Fort Lauderdale, then drove to Key West. So my previous blog post about flying can be amended a bit.


3.       Run a mile without stopping on St. George Island 4/11/12 – I have a high resting heart rate (90 bpm) and a very low blood pressure (80/50) and therefore when I do aerobic exercise I often feel like I’m going to pass out. I continue to run a mile about once a week, even though I get no joy out of it. I even bought a treadmill. But I’m still glad I did it.

4.      Give blood with (name deleted) 1/19/12 – This did not go well. It deserves its own blog post. Look for it in the future. Again, glad I did it though.

5.       Try 10 new restaurants

                                I.            Backstreet Café with (name deleted) 1/13/12

                             II.            Andrew’s with (name deleted) 1/20/12

                           III.            Comet Café with (name deleted) 2/3/12

                           IV.            Golden Mast with (name deleted) 2/4/12

                             V.            Kil@wat with (name deleted) 3/10/12

                           VI.            Loaf and Jug with (name deleted) 3/15/12

                        VII.            Papa Joe’s with (name deleted) 4/9/12

                      VIII.            Blue Parrot with (name deleted) 4/11/12

                           IX.            Giordano’s with (name deleted) 4/13/12

                             X.            La Fuente with the family 5/19/12

This was just a great excuse to try new restaurants with friends. I could have said 20 or 30 new restaurants, because I probably went to that many. I deleted everyone’s name from all these activities since I didn’t ask their permission to post about them, but another great thing about this list was getting to do so many fun activities with friends.

6.      Go out dancing at Victor’s in Milwaukee with 6 other couples 9/1/12

7.       Start a fire without using a lighter/matches with steel wool and a battery 5/8/13 – This is the one I thought was going to stop the list dead in its tracks. I had tried sitting in the sun with different lenses (it looks so easy in the movies with a magnifying glass) but it was frustrating and not at all fun. Two days before my birthday I decided to Google “How to start a fire without matches” and up came a video of a man using steel wool and a 9-volt battery. It looked so easy watching him. I made my box of kindling and sat on my wooden deck and ripped up an SOS pad into pieces and then touched the 9V battery to it and – whoosh! Up it went in flames. I took a picture for documentation, dropped the box and ran for water. It was frighteningly easy but also a lot of fun.

8.      Watch the movie Harvey with my husband. “You got the screwiest uncle that ever stuck his puss inside our nuthouse.” 1/20/12 – If you haven’t seen this movie, you should.

9.      Do an obstacle course Dirty Girl Mud Run with 5 other girls. 8/19/12 Again, the running part of it sucked, but the obstacles were a blast.

10.    Bike a Lake Country trail with the family 4/29/12

11.     Take the kids to a new national park Congaree National Park in SC 11/18/12 and Dry Tortugas in FL 3/31/13
Congaree National Park
Dry Tortugas National Park

12.    Catch a fish at Merton Millpond with (name deleted) 5/9/13 – I caught 2 catfish in less than an hour, and we threw them back.  Probably shouldn’t have left this till the last day but had to rely on the kindness of others. And when I was done with this, I was DONE!

13.    Break 50 for 9 holes in golf at Ironwood Golf Course, May 2012 – This should have been a bucket list item because it was too difficult to achieve in one season. I did, but it was a scramble with a girlfriend, and they said it counted so here it is.

14.    Read the complete sonnets of Shakespeare completed 3/9/12

15.    Shoot a gun with (name deleted) 6/6/12 – Guns scare me but I ended up surprising myself and really enjoying it. I don’t feel like shooting anything living, but I would be glad to do target practice on a regular basis.


16.    Find a new food to love Brussels sprouts at The Purple Pig with girlfriends in Chicago 10/13/12

17.    Gamble at Potawatomi with friends 2/9/13 – I learned how to play roulette from a pro and then I won some money on the slots.

18.    Play Frisbee golf at Sussex Disc Golf with my kids 8/28/12 – We bought the discs and have been back since then.


19.    Invest in another piece of art at Mount Mary art fair, painting by Richard Collopy, bought with Lucy 9/9/12

20.   Read T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland 1/11/13

21.    Write Jeremy a poem It was a haiku/Because I am so lazy/But now I am through 1/11/13

22.   Tour a Brewery Sprecher Brewery with the family 1/26/13 – Hard Root Beer? Yum!

23.   Submit a crossword to the New York Times 1/19/2013 – This was my 3rd submission ever, and I haven’t heard back yet.

24.   Observe five new things in the sky Comet Panstarrs, Sun in H-alpha light, Zubenelgenubi & Zubeneschamali, Nebulae M8 and M20, Globular cluster M22, various nights 2012 & 2013 – I didn’t keep a log of these and there are probably more – some with binoculars, telescope, my eyes alone, etc.

25.   Float down the Wisconsin River with my mom and sister and kids 7/20/12

26.   Get a pedicure with Lucy at Kirsten’s in Hartland 6/12/12

27.   Find a favorite red wine Folk Machine Pinot Noir at Hinterland with friends (also a new restaurant for me) 10/26/12


28.   Visit the St. Joan of Arc Chapel with a friend and kids 8/3/12 – I’ve always wanted to touch the stone that Joan of Arc is supposed to have touched that is cooler than the surrounding building (it was disassembled and brought to Marquette campus and reassembled). Now I have.


29.   Send a message in a bottle at St. George Island 4/11/12 – I put the message in a wine bottle after a fun night and threw it in the sea. The next morning I found it on the beach. My friend then threw it farther in and we never saw it again.

30.   Fly on the trapeze at TSNY Chicago 8/12/12 – If I had to pick one thing that I enjoyed the most, it would probably be this. Although I wouldn’t have told you that for the first week afterward because I hurt so bad from bruises and sore muscles. See my blog post on the trapeze for more.

31.    Take Kaden to a Brewers game vs. Pittsburgh – Brewers win 12-8, went with 5 other families 9/2/12

32.   Keep a journal of 40 by 40 list, also started blog 5/23/12 (yes, this one!)

33.   Tour Pabst Mansion with the family 4/29/12 – Because of the time period, it was great research for my historical novels.

34.   Hike a new section of the Ice Age Trail Monches Segment with the family 4/28/13


35.   Take a trip with friends St. George Island with friends 4/6/12-4/13/12 – Hands down the most relaxing vacation I’ve ever had. Dolphins swam outside our house every day, and circled us on our wave runners. Paradise.


36.   Contribute to Daisy in Samoa 11/2/12 – She lives in Samoa and works in textiles. She has already paid back half the loan I made to her. I will reinvest the loan in a new person once it is paid off.

37.   Send out query letters for A Different Sky early April 2013 – This is one of those things that if I didn’t put it on the list I might not have done it, and it’s too important for me to sit around and do nothing on. Still waiting…

38.   Create my own signature cocktail Kelly’s Cotton Candy = 1 can 7Up, 2 shots cherry noir Grey Goose, hunk of cotton candy, stir and add ice. With (name deleted) 1/12/13 – It’s like a kiddie cocktail but not for the kiddies.

39.   Sing karaoke Goodbye Earl with girlfriends at On the Rocks 4/13/13

40.  Knit a scarf Pretty & pink for Lucy’s American Girl doll 4/21/13


Will I make a list of 50x50? Well, probably not, but I will keep a bucket list. I already have a couple things on the list. See a tornado has always been on the top of that list, but it’s not something that can be forced into a certain time period. Having a list of things I’ve always wanted to do has simply given me an excuse to push myself and to get others to rally behind me in helping me achieve my goals. I had 33 different names of people who helped me along the way, and for many of the activities, my friends are what made them fun. Karaoke by myself? No thanks. But karaoke with friends belting out one of the best songs about strong girlfriends ever written? Thank you very much!

And with that … Happy 40th Birthday to me!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A Nightmare on Maple Street

The sequel to A Nightmare on Elm Street was released on November 1, 1985, and I looked forward to it with all the excitement that most kids looked forward to getting their braces off. The original Nightmare on Elm Street had been my favorite movie for some time, and I had recorded it off HBO onto a Beta tape so I could watch it whenever I wanted to.

Our little town had a one-screen movie theater that was getting the film, so I arranged to have my friends all come to my house on a Friday after school to watch the original movie, and then we would have pizza and walk to the Bonham Theater for the big event.

I had only been in 7th grade a couple months. The start of middle school was a big deal, as we went from having the same classmates we’d had for the last seven years of our life to having five schools combined into one bubbling pubescent stew. I was still trying to make new friends, which was not easy when I wore glasses so big and thick they probably would have qualified as bullet-proof.

Something you don’t realize at that age is that everyone else is trying just as hard to fit in. So all the girls accepted my invitation and the six of us hoisted our backpacks onto our shoulders and started the walk from the middle school on Maple Street to my house, which was about a 100-yard dash from door to door.

We showed up at my house and immediately started watching the movie, shrieking and laughing at every scary part. Some of them knew it as well as I did, and so we sang along with the creepy song: “One, two, Freddie’s coming for you. Three, four, better lock your door,” and so on. It was a real bonding moment and for a while I thought maybe I had found my tribe. Until the worst big sister in the world ruined it: mine.

My sister was four years older and a junior in high school. She had her own insecurities that apparently could be eased by having a bunch of 12-year-old girls hang on her every word. My mom served pizza for dinner, and my friends, sister, and I all crowded around the table to eat.

My friends were starry-eyed over having this older girl in their presence and my sister played to her audience by entertaining them with caustic remarks. Whatever my friends thought up to talk about, my sister could turn it around as an insult to me. It was A Nightmare on Maple Street.

As my girlfriends at the dinner table chatted, somehow discussion turned to bras, as is not terribly uncommon for a group of girls just entering middle school. As soon as I took my turn to make a comment, my sister immediately piped up that I didn’t even need to wear a bra. “Look at her!” my sister encouraged, and so of course they did. One of my sister’s favorite pastimes was to insult my looks, and the insult that gave her the most pleasure-for-my-pain ratio was calling me flat-chested. Of course I was, but then again I was a 78-pound 12 year old who could become airborne in a stiff breeze. My friends laughed, not just politely, but heartily. People find comfort in discovering that the butt of jokes for the evening is going to be someone other than themselves, and their response encouraged her to keep going. After another piece of pizza and some further attacks on my hair and glasses, I excused myself to go use the bathroom.

I knew my sister was still searching for any opportunity to make fun of me and bolster her new reputation as the cool older sister, so I made sure I washed my hands before I left the bathroom.

Sure enough, when I came back to the table one of my friends asked, “Did you pee on yourself?” When I left they table they had started to talk about the group sports physicals they had to take at the beginning of the school year, so, momentarily confused, I answered, “I wasn’t even there.” They all laughed and then my sister explained, “We decided you must have peed on yourself that you had to wash your hands. I never wash my hands after I pee,” she added, as if it was the most ridiculous thing a person could do. “Do you?” she asked, looking around the group, challenging them to admit they were as nerdy as I was. They all agreed with her. “No, we never wash our hands either!”

I knew, of course, that my sister had been listening intently for a reason to shoot another arrow at me. If I hadn’t washed my hands she would have said how disgusting I was and then had everyone else in the group agree with her, and washing your hands after using the bathroom would have been an activity they participated in religously. She was a relentless bully who was impossible to avoid except by putting actual physical distance between us (and not just a wall that separated the bathroom from the dining room). I was relieved when it was time to escape to the movie theater and watch other people be tortured for a while.

My sister was mean and violent toward me from about the time I was old enough to recognize it until she moved out of the house. But it’s normal for siblings to fight, and ironically she peppered my life with so many unpleasant exchanges that the few times she actually was kind to me are the ones that stick out most in my memory. Her moments of kindness were so extraordinarily rare that they are more easily recalled than the daily hostility. Yet neither have I forgotten the time she chased me around the house and out into the yard while wielding a knife.

Were my friends awful to me? Yes. But then most 12-year-old girls are fairly awful in general. The middle school and high school years are an age of insecurity when it felt safer to go along with the loudest voice and to solidify yourself as “part of the crowd” by singling out those who were not. Nearly everyone participated in the type of behavior seen around my dining room table. Nearly everyone….

I remember being put in the same situation at my friend’s house. My friend was arguing with her older sister about something I’ve long forgotten. We took refuge in her bedroom while my friend continued to complain about her sister. I just listened and nodded, because I could relate to her situation.

After it seemed safe to come out, we decided to make Rice Krispie treats so we went into the kitchen where we encountered her sister again. She picked up the disagreement they had been having before, and when my friend reached to get something in the cupboard, the sister looked at me and made a face behind my friend’s back, looking for a reaction or smile that indicated I agreed with her. I kept my face as cool as stone. The older sister, not getting the validation and feedback she was hoping for, made one more comment and then left us alone.

I felt bad for acting what I considered to be unfriendly toward the older sister, but my loyalty was with my friend. A friend who would, as it turned out, seek the approval of my older sister by joining in the laughter at the dinner table before our movie.

It’s a hard lesson to teach your kids, to show your friends loyalty and kindness even if you aren’t assured of theirs in return. You don’t want to raise a bully, or even someone who is a silent bystander, but neither do you want a doormat. When I was young I thought that if I gave someone my loyalty, I would get it in return. If I trusted someone and told them my secrets, I thought they would be honest and confide in me as well. I thought that if I gave love I would get love back in equal measures. But the world almost never works that way. Even as adults, we still must risk getting hurt in order to make a connection with people. Sometimes we succeed, and sometimes we find ourselves the only kid at the table without pee on our hands.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Murder in a Small Town

Tuesday, September 16, 1986, was just another school day for most of us kids. We lived in a small community of 5,000 people and nothing much ever happened here. Oh, sure, there was the occasional escaped elephant from the circus or tragic incident on the river, highway, or farm fields that hemmed us in, but for the most part the days all tumbled one after another in a monotonous fashion.

That was, until my friend received a message at the middle school near the end of the day that Tuesday, instructing her not to go home.

“Why can’t you go home?” we asked her.

“Because there’s a crime scene next door.”

My friend lived in a duplex just a couple blocks west of the middle school, and as soon as the last bell rang for the day we took off for her house.

We had to skirt a growing number of cars parked on neighboring streets, crime scene tape, and groups of people standing around staring, yet we were able to maneuver close enough until we were standing directly across the road from the scene of the crime.

My friend lived in the right side of the duplex and a pair of garages sat side-by-side in the middle of the building. On the left side’s driveway was a pick-up truck with the tailgate hanging open. And there, on the ground behind the truck and right in full view of us, was a white sheet draped over what could only be a body.

A police car and another truck were parked at the curb inside the crime scene tape. The rest of the police cars were not a part of the crime scene but a part of the investigation.

No one in the crowd really knew what was going on, but we all had guesses. The most logical conclusion in my mind was that the person under the white tarp had been shot by the police officer. But what happened that the police officer had needed to shoot him? My 13-year-old mind surveyed the area for clues. The open gate on the pickup seemed to say that there was something in the back that was important. Drugs, perhaps? And maybe when the man realized that he had been caught with an illegal substance he put up a fight or brandished a weapon, and therefore the officer shot in self defense.

In a logical world, this might have been how it went. Yet as we soon found out, it was decidedly more disturbing than that.

My friend’s next-door neighbor, shot dead in his driveway, had indeed had drugs in his truck. But that was about as accurate as my sleuthing got.

Just two days earlier, on September 14, 1986, President Reagan addressed the nation in a speech that would become famous as his “Just Say No” war on drugs. His anti-drug message hit home with many people, one of whom was an off-balance police officer.

Two days later, as the officer was on duty in our small town, he got a call about a man who had been seen with marijuana in the back of his truck. A citizen had seen this man harvesting marijuana in a local park. A warden for the DNR who was in the area was also notified and followed the man in his truck back to his home, next door to where my friend lived. The warden parked his truck at the curb and waited for the officer to arrive.

When the police officer arrived, he asked the suspect to step out of his truck. The police report states that a brief struggle ensued but the officer and warden managed to subdue the man. He was placed facedown onto the driveway with his hands handcuffed behind his back. The suspect was frightened by the officer’s aggressiveness, so the warden kindly told him, “I’ll make sure no one hurts you.”

The warden checked the back of the truck for marijuana and then asked the officer for evidence bags. The officer said they wouldn’t be necessary. Standing over the man with both hands on his gun, the officer then proceeded to unload two rounds from his service revolver into the back of the man’s head as he lay face down on the ground.

The warden, fearing for his life, asked if the officer was going to shoot him, too. He replied that he was not. The officer then put his weapon away and took off the dead man’s handcuffs. The warden retreated to his truck, placed his own gun on his lap for protection, and radioed for help.

The officer had a history of psychosis and had gone off his medication days earlier. When the officer’s home was later searched, they found a large amount of Reagan paraphernalia, such as bumper stickers, buttons, posters, and even letters that he had written to Ron and Nancy. The officer was convicted and sentenced to life in a mental institution.

I didn’t know the depth of the tragedy that day as I stood in the late summer sunshine. Even as the man’s body lay yards from me, I still believed that death was something that happened to other people and for logical reasons. But after that day some of our town’s innocence was lost, and perhaps some of my own.


(*Endnote: I have to believe that those involved in this day have seen their name connected to this tragic event more than they wish. Therefore I have decided to leave out any identifying names because the last thing they need is another rehashing of this murder the next time they Google their name or the name of their loved one. One curious note, however, is that all three men’s first names were John.)