Family and/or Autobiography

The Battle At Fort Mike

When my older sister, Gina, became a high school junior, the house suddenly got very loud. It was time for her to declare her independence from everyone and everything, and that, apparently, cannot be accomplished with an inside voice.

She yelled early and often in a shrill, tenacious soprano that burrowed directly into my head at the left temple and ricocheted off the interior of my skull. (Once a noise like that gets inside your cranium, by the way, it’s very difficult to get it out. On quiet nights I can still hear a faint, echoing “IT’S NOT FAIR!” circa. 1981.) If Gina was the only one making unpleasantly loud noises it wouldn’t have been so bad; unfortunately she inspired similarly loud noises from my parents.

When those three voices filled the house in a hollering harmony, all I wished to do was go elsewhere.

That was when I began to take an interest in the woods.

Continue reading “The Battle At Fort Mike”

Family and/or Autobiography

Red Squirrel’s Indian Summer (The Final Chapter)

This is the third and final chapter in my autobiographical Indian Guides Saga. If you’re reading this before reading the other two parts, you’re doing it wrong.

Start here.

When you’re done with that, then read this.

There you go! Now you’re ready to read what’s below. Enjoy!

***

Red SquirrelDad and I led the procession of cars through a winding tangle of suburban back roads. To an observer, the scene might have had the slow, solemn look of a funeral procession.

But one’s perception is not always the reality. That was especially true in this case.

After what felt like forever, we pulled into a parking lot and glided into a “visitor” space.

“We’re here.” Dad declared as he waited for his ancient Oldsmobile to sputter to a halt. His car had this habit of gasping and wheezing for a few seconds after the key was yanked from the ignition.

The Olds let out one last apologetic, wispy fart before finally falling silent.

“There we are. Let’s go.”

Newer and far less idiosyncratic cars pulled up alongside us. Eager fathers and sons soon assembled in a tight knot, brimming with happy anticipation. They all wore brown leather vests and yellow headbands – the official uniform of the Indian Guides – and awaited instructions from their tribal chief, Tall Oak.

Tall Oak was Dad’s Indian Guides name.

It was time for Dad to give a speech. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.

Dad loved to talk. He talked even when he didn’t have anything to say – and he frequently didn’t have anything to say. So I figured he would savor his time in the spotlight and ramble on for a while.

But lately Dad had been making a habit out of defying expectations. What followed was the shorted speech he had ever given in his entire life.

“Who wants cupcakes?”

In response, everyone screamed like a banshee.

“I thought so,” he replied.

Without another word, he turned toward the factory, its smokestacks scarring the azure sky with streaks of grey. That ugliness was offset, however, with the unmistakable, intoxicating scent of warm chocolate cake. The tribe had journeyed to Wayne, NJ, to behold the wonders of the Drakes Cake factory and we were getting a contact sugar high right there in the parking lot.

This field trip was a bit unusual for a typical Indian Guides outing. Our weekly meetings were supposed to embrace nature or Native American culture. A lesson in snack cake manufacturing didn’t easily fit into this rubric. This fact was not lost on the other fathers.

“Hey, chief!” one shouted to be heard above the squealing kids. “Which Indian tribe made Ring Dings again?”

The other fathers laughed, but none more so than Chief Tall Oak. “Oh, this trip is about Indians,” Dad insisted. “You’ll see!”

A cheery, red-cheeked man greeted us at the door. He was as wide as he was tall. Clearly a bottomless box of Devil Dogs was part of his employee benefits package. “C’mon in, young braves!” he chortled. “Lemme show ya around!”

After donning goggles and hairnets, we tromped though the factory. It was a magical, sugary place and we saw it all: machines squishing and kneading, rolling and baking; icing oozing out in long brown sheets smothering the fist-sized cakes under a coating so sticky and sweet it made my teeth hurt just to watch it happen.

Then we were off to the packaging department where machines plopped cupcakes onto cardboard sleeves, zipped them up in clear plastic, and dumped them into boxes. The rhythm of these machines was lightning quick and deeply satisfying. Their perfect, precise movements filled me with a sense of inner peace.

When I grow up I want to work in a factory, I thought.

“And that concludes the tour!” the chubby, chipper Drakes Cakes guy said. “Be sure to come again!”

He made a shooing gesture toward the factory exit that felt a little too eager to be sincere.

“Hmm…” He tapped a beefy contemplative finger against his beefy triple chin. “No, no, that isn’t the right thing to do,” he began. “Where are my manners? I can’t let you leave yet.”

He paused significantly.

“I can’t let you leave without TAKING A FEW SAMPLES!”

In response, we went nuts.

As if by magic, trays of Drakes Cakes appeared before us. Funny Bones! Ring Dings! Coffee Cake Juniors! Yankee Doodles! They were all there! We shoveled them into our gaping maws as if were in a competition.

The Drakes Cake Guy beamed. He lived for moments like these. Once the initial gorging began to slow down a little, he called for our attention once again. “Do you boys like baseball?” he asked.

I did not like baseball. I didn’t any sport really. But I sensed that a response in the affirmative would result in more free stuff. So, with my cheeks packed with about a dozen Yodels, I screamed a muffled “YEAH!” that sounded a lot more like a “BWUUUUH!”

“Oh, that’s good to hear!” he replied with evident relief. “Baseball is as American as Yankee Doodles! And did you know that in specially marked boxes of Drakes snack cakes, we are giving away baseball cards?”

This question was apparently rhetorical for he didn’t bother to wait for a reply.

“And because you young braves were all such wonderful guests, I HAVE SOME BASEBALL CARDS FOR YOU!”

Again, we went nuts. He Frisbee-tossed each of us a cellophane-wrapped package of six cards. Even though I knew almost none of the players I ripped open the package like everyone else. I gazed upon the unrecognizable faces and scanned their incomprehensible stats.

Dad leaned over my shoulder. “Who do you got in there, Red Squirrel?” (My Indian Guides name was Red Squirrel.) Dad pulled a card out of my small stack. “Can I see this one for a minute?”

Chief Tall Oak turned to the tribe. “Can I have everyone’s attention? I need your attention!” Dad held my baseball card above his head for everyone to see. “Bo Diaz! Catcher!” he announced. “For the Cleveland Indians!”

Every adult in the room brayed with laughter.

“I told you this trip was about Indians!”

The rest of Tall Oak’s tenure followed a similar pattern. Dad organized a trip to a place he thought we’d enjoy, and, as a running joke, he’d conjure up a silly, tenuous link to Native American culture.

“The French gave America this statue, you know,” he said as the tribe peered through the portholes in Lady Liberty’s crown. “And the French fought in the French and Indian War. The French and Indians both lost.”

On another outing, Dad offered up this tidbit: “Europeans got this island from the Indians for $23 worth of goods.” He eyed the tribe’s lunch check. “But these days $23 can’t even get us all fed in Chinatown.”

As so it went. We bowled. We rode horses. We ate ice cream. We had fun. The year was, without exception, a complete and unqualified success.

But the end of the Indian Guides season was coming. Tall Oak’s leadership skills had surpassed my wildest expectations, but I knew he wouldn’t be able to get me out of marching in the Memorial Day Parade.

That parade was the bane of our existence. Dad and I had bad feet. We were not built for marching. When we tried to march on behalf of the Indian Guides the previous year, we were forced to ditch the tribe around the halfway point. We couldn’t hope to do that again this year. Tall Oak was the chief and I was the chief’s son. He and I had to lead the tribe for the duration of the march. It was the price one had to pay for being the boss.

And so I stood in the Grand Union parking lot, the parade staging area, waiting for this hellish experience to begin. The morning was unusually chilly with a mist in the air that promised rain. I hadn’t marched a single step, yet my feet already ached inside my orthopedic shoes.

I tried to distract myself by watching the grannies in the quilting bee attempt to wrap their wares in saran wrap. It was a quixotic endeavor if there ever was one — and I would’ve found it amusing if my mind wasn’t preoccupied with another, troubling thought:

Where’s Dad?

He had left the tribe 20 minutes earlier in search of a men’s room. I was used to Dad’s slowness, but this was particularly slow. I saw stirrings of activity in the distance. The police cars that led the parade began to whoop. Members of the Ramapo High School marching band straightened their tall hats, wet their reeds and wriggled into their sousaphones. The parade was beginning and Dad was MIA.

Just as my anxiety began to reach its apex, I heard a very familiar sound:

Wheep!

It was Dad’s unmistakable whistle. I spun on my heel and found him about 50 yards away hobbling toward me. But Dad, for once, was impatient with his own slowness and waved me over.

“What?” I asked.

“Get the guys. I got us a float.”

“A float? You mean like a parade float?”

“Yes. Go get ‘em.”

My foot pain vanished as I scampered toward the tribe to deliver the good news.

In the midst of all this giddy excitement, my mind soon filled with questions. How did Dad get us a ride on a parade float? Did money exchange hands? Was the driver an old chum from high school? Did Tall Oak masquerade as Bo Diaz from the Cleveland Indians?

I still don’t know the answers to these questions – and, to be honest, I kind of like not knowing. Sometimes an Indian chief needs to possess an air of mystery; it is what transforms a great leader into a legendary one.

The grateful braves piled onto the back of the truck and found it fully stocked with bags of candy. It was a dream come true. Not only were we getting a free ride, we were candy throwers! Memorial Day Parade MVPs!

The police cars whooped a second time and we were soon on our way, our feet happily dangling from the flatbed’s tailgate.

“Are we gonna sign up for Indian Guides next year?” I asked Dad.

He shook his head. “You’ll be too old next year.”

The disappointment crashed over me like a wave.

“But don’t worry, boy,” he added. “We’ll find something else. There’s always something else.”

And so we rolled on. After about a mile, I noticed a boy seated on the curb beside his dad. What drew my attention to him was that the boy was wearing a Cub Scout uniform. I surmised that he was a marcher who was unable to make it to the end of the parade route.

Maybe I was projecting, but in that moment I thought I could see his frustration, his exhaustion, his humiliation in watching the rest of the marchers leave him behind.

In solidarity, I chucked an especially large handful of candy in his direction. It was my way of saying Don’t let this get to you, kid. Next year you might be on top of the world.

But deep down I didn’t really believe it. To go from a curb to a parade float in the space of one year required the invaluable leadership of a Tall Oak.

And Tall Oaks are rare leaders indeed.

So I threw the kid another handful of candy, as a kind of consolation prize, and continued to wave to the cheering crowd.