Wednesday, November 23, 2005


In Which There Are Leaders and There Are Followers...

[UPDATED!! Brief editorial note: My first post suffered from premature cliffhanger. I've added quite a bit more to this entry. Still a cliffhanger, but now it'll take you longer to get there.

And I'm not going anywhere this Thanksgiving, so those of you--the three of you--who check in over the holiday won't have to suffer through too many dots of ellipsis]

Heavens, it's a neutron-bomb kind of day here in the office, 24 scant hours before Thanksgiving. Which is really odd because we're supposed to ship the current issue by the end of business today and most of the people who make that happen are just gone, off to celebrate how thankful they are not to be at work, I guess.

Meanwhile, I appear to be the ranking officer on deck, so I'm signing off on stuff I have never seen before and have no business signing off on, but there you are. It's actually kind of fun right now, pretending I'm in charge of the magazine. But I know the novelty will wear off fast this afternoon, as the deadline bells begin to toll and people start battering down my door like Noah's neighbors when the rain really started falling.

It's weird to feel like you're in charge of something when you're not supposed to be. I've met more than my share of people who don't feel that way, of course. In their minds, they're the boss and it's only fitting that they run things, even if--often, especially if--they happen to be singularly unqualified for the task at hand. These people like to think of themselves as natural leaders, but often, all they really have is an overdeveloped sense of entitlement.

I'm not exactly a follower, but I'm definitely no natural leader. I'm more one of those "oh-all-right-I'll-do-it" people. If no one else is going to step into the breach, if it appears that it's not going to get done unless I do it, then fine, fine! I'll do it. A reluctant leader, that's me, I guess.

Although I couldn't have articulated it in just that way, I've known this about myself for some time, going back, in fact, to Thanksgiving 1976, when my mom injured herself and my brother and I--10 and 8 years old respectively--were suddenly in charge.

Going into that week, we knew it was going to be an odd Thanksgiving anyway. My father had been working up in Maine for several months now and this was the first Thanksgiving ever that he wouldn't be home. The plant he was working on as a welding engineer was going through a shutdown--a common procedure to check the integrity of whatever system you happen to be constructing or refitting. This shutdown was scheduled to happen over the holiday weekend and my dad was the foreman on the job so he had to be there. In truth, he wanted to be there. Shutdowns were extremely lucrative because it meant automatic overtime, and holiday overtime at that. Plus since a plant loses money every minute a vital system is offline, you could often earn a bonus if you got the system back up and running ahead of schedule. In short, my father had a chance to earn in one weekend what he generally made in one month, and we needed the money. We were disappointed he wouldn't be coming home, but we also knew why, and we understood that he would be home at Christmas, just a month away.

And it wasn't like we didn't have plenty of work to keep us busy. Winter comes early to New Hampshire and with my father away there were lots of chores we needed to finish before things really got cold. Chief among these was the cutting and stacking of a mountain of firewood in our backyard.

Ever since the energy crisis a few years earlier, my family had come to rely more and more on the fireplace and our old Franklin stove for heat. Having both of these in the house saved us a bundle on heating bills. We had cut several truckloads of wood throughout the fall and normally it was my dad who would cut the wood to stove length while my brother and I carted and stacked it neatly in the woodshed behind the house.

This year, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, my mom was running the chainsaw, something she had never done before, although my dad had shown her exactly how to prime and start our old McCulloch saw. If she was nervous about using the things, she never let on, just yanked on the pull start, got it roaring, and waded into the length of logs jumbled into the pile in our yard.

Getting in the wood was typically a daylong job, even with my father around to run the saw, so we didn't waste any time. My mother, who was then in her early 30s, was in good shape, but she wasn't used to the punishing work of holding a buzzing 20-pound piece of metal at arm's length as it sawed through the wood. I have a chainsaw of my own now, a much lighter model than the one we had back then, and I can barely cut more than a few trees' worth of wood at a time without stopping to rest. It's not the arms that hurt, you understand. Holding a heavy weight above your waist like that puts enormous strain on your back.

By noon, my mom was feeling the effects of her labor. When she stopped at lunch, I could see her trying to stretch her aching back out. But this was no time to rest. A big storm was coming in that night and we needed to get the rest of the wood undercover before Mother Nature did the job for us (and let me tell you, few jobs are more miserable than prying apart and trying to cut frozen, snow-encrusted firewood). We ate our lunch--sandwiches and a Thermos of soup--standing up, finishing as quickly as we could. Then my mom hefted the saw again and continued cutting.

By 3 o'clock, the mountain of uncut logs was replaced by an even more impressive mound of stove-lengths that my brother and I were ferrying into the woodshed as fast as we would. As soon as my mom got the chainsaw put away, she came back to help us, squatting down and loading her arms with 30 or 40 pounds of wood, then standing and running her load into the shed. By 4, when the first heavy flakes of snow started to fall, we were almost finished. We carried an armload each to the shed and that was that.

By the time we had draped our sodden jackets and hats and gloves over the drying hooks we had near the Franklin stove, it was full dark. My brother stoked the fires with our newly cut wood and I watched the growing storm out the picture window of the family room until around 5, when we moved into supper time mode. We each had our chores: my brother poured the drinks and sometimes made a salad while I cleared the dining room table and set it.

Except, as we were scurrying between the kitchen and the dining room to perform these tasks, we realized something was missing.

Namely, my mother.

Who was usually at the stove at such moments, making our supper. Instead, the kitchen was quiet and empty.

It was my brother who went into my parents' bedroom and found my mom flat on the bed, still wearing her snowpants and sodden winter hat.

"Help me up," she told my brother. "I can barely move."

Readers who have learned of my own spinal travails will realize instantly that between her chainsaw exertions and her squatting and carrying of heavy firewood, my mom had done something serious to her back. Her mid-back was a pulsing red zone of pain. But that wasn't the biggest problem, as my brother discovered as soon as he got my mom into a seated position on the bed. The biggest problem was that she couldn't feel her legs.

Psychologists say it's always a profound moment when a child realizes that a parent is not perfect, is only human. Take out "profound" and put in "petrifying" and you'd have a pretty accurate assessment of my reaction when I turned and saw my mom crawling into the dining room. My brother was too small to support her and she literally could not walk. She tried to support herself on one of the dining room chair, use it as a walker to get herself into the kitchen. But when that didn't work and she collapsed to the floor again, I was as scared as I'd ever been in my life.

It didn't help that, even at 8, my young mind was all too aware of how isolated we were. My father was hundreds of miles away in Maine. Our nearest relatives were down in Boston, two hours by car in good weather, and it was already snowing enough outside that roads would soon be closed. The two families with whom we were closest in our town were gone for the entire week, off to visit their own extended families for the holiday.

We lived on an isolated country road in the middle of rural New Hampshire. The nearest hospital--and the nearest ambulance--was more than 20 miles away. Our nearest neighbors, the Balboni family, were a mile distant, down past where our lonely country lane turned to dirt, and up a long hill. All of a sudden, I felt awfully alone.

Standing there in the dining room, staring helplessly at my mother as she lay on the floor, I shifted me gaze to my big brother. Clearly it was time for someone to take charge of the situation, and I stared at him imploringly, hoping he would know what to do.

My brother looked back at me.

And then collapsed to the floor next to my mother and started bawling.

I don't know why, but I was an odd kid when it came to crying. When I was about 5 and our cat Stanley was run over in the street right in front of me (by a man in a green Volkswagen Beetle, New Hampshire license plate number IN-60. He never even stopped or slowed his car down. Just kept going. But if he thinks I wouldn't recognize him today, he's wrong, the son of a bitch), I was shocked and sad, but I never cried for our kitty.

I cried when I got hurt and I sometimes cried during certain TV shows (I'll never forget this movie on PBS about a little boy who spent the show searching for his lost dog, only to find him at the end--and realize that he was sitting on a bench next to a blind man who had obviously taken him in. The boy hugged his dog good-bye and walked away. And when I realized he was going to let his beloved dog stay with the blind guy, I bawled like a baby. I'm sniffly right now).

But one thing I never ever did was cry when my brother was crying. It's hard to explain, and I'm sure it's tied up in some kind of sibling rivalry thing, but if we both got in trouble and got spanked or had some privilege taken away from us, and if that caused my brother to start blubbering, that very act seemed to cause me to go the other way. I think I saw it as salvaging some kind of dignity out of the situation. Sure, it sucked to be punished, but if I wasn't crying when my big, tough brother was, well, that was a victory, wasn't it?

Anyway, seeing my brother break down over the fact that my mom was really hurt--lying on the floor with a sprung back, unable to walk--had the same effect. Let me be clear on this point: I was scared shitless. But I wasn't going to blubber.

Also, I had watched Emergency on TV. We didn't have paramedics where we lived, but maybe it was time to call Rampart General.

I knelt by my mom. "I'll call the ambulance," I said, not really knowing how to do that in those pre-911 days, but figuring I could look up the number for the hospital in Manchester in the phone book.

"No!" my mom cried. "I don't need an ambulance." I didn't know this then, but apparently we had lousy health insurance and my mom thought we'd have to pay out of our own pockets for the 40-mile round-trip of the ambulance. Grown-ups can be so stupid, huh?

She turned to my weepy brother and told him to find the bottle of Anacin in the bathroom.

"Let's call Mrs. Balboni!" I said as my brother stumbled out of the dining room. The Balbonis were our nearest neighbors, who lived about a mile down our little country road. "She can give us a ride to the hospital."

My mom tried to get back up, but she had absolutely no motive power below the waist and her legs crumpled from under her. "All right," she nodded.

I ran to the kitchen and climbed up on the counter, where I could reach the wall-mounted phone. Mom called the number out to me and I dialed.

The line was busy.

I felt my heart sink. I remembered Mrs. Balboni telling my mom how she always took the phone off the hook at dinner time and when she went to bed, so she wouldn't be disturbed by anything, including, evidently, an emergency telephone call.

I hung up and thought for a moment. Then I looked at the thatch of papers taped to the wall near the phone. On one of them was the number for the apartment my father shared with some guys up in Maine. I had never made a long-distance call before, but it seemed easy enough to do: Just dial a few extra numbers, right?

After what seemed like an eternity of rotary clicking and the sounds of distant connections being made, the phone finally rang and some gruff fellow--not my father--answered. I'm sure I had an urgent tone in my voice when I asked to speak to him.

"Son, he ain't here," the man answered, his voice softening somewhat. "They're going on shutdown end of the week and he's at the plant. Are you in trouble?"

I explained the situation and the man--somebody my father had worked with for years, it turned out--went from gruff to solicitous in about four seconds.

"Hell's bells!" he cried. "Well, don't you worry. I'll get word to him at the plant and tell him to call right home. Might take a little bit, but you hang in there, son." I didn't know what my father could do, so far away, but I was relieved that someone was getting word to him.

I hung up and came back to the dining room as my mom was swallowing down some aspirin with a glass of water my brother had brought her. I told her what I'd done and expected to be yelled at for it. It was a cardinal rule in the house that we NEVER called my father at work. He was a busy man and didn't have time to come in off a work site and take a personal phone call. The fact that his roommate was going to reach him on our behalf didn't seem to matter in my mind.

But when I told my mom, she only nodded acceptingly and that frightened me more than the prospect of being yelled at.

In the mean time, we couldn't just sit here. The snow storm that had begun gently enough a few hours earlier had blown into a regular gale. If we didn't get on the road and get my mom to a doctor fast, we'd have to wait til the next day, when the plows came through.

I told Mom that the Balbonis' line was busy. "Someone could walk up there and get them," I hazarded, looking at my brother.

It was only a mile away. But being 8 and 10 years, my brother and I both had a natural fear of the dark--and it was certainly dark outside now. To get to the Balbonis' one of us would have to walk a mile down our lonely country lane, a bumpy, partially paved surface cut through a tangle of forest that looked mysterious and evil this time of year, with gnarled old trees looming like hunched giants over the road, their bare branches swinging above like skeletal hands, waiting to snatch up an unsuspecting kid.

And at the end of the forest, the road ran over an old bridge that spanned a brook. In the summer, we loved fishing under that bridge, because there was wide concrete strip under there that made it easy to walk on. It also seemed like the perfect place for someone--a bad guy, a kidnapper, a troll--to hang out in the dark and wait for said unsuspecting kid to come along. Once you got over the bridge (assuming you actually made it, of course), the paved road turned to a potholed dirt lane and a few hundred yard beyond that was the dirt driveway that wound up a bleak bare hill to the Balboni house.

It was only a mile away. The other three seasons of the year, in daylight, it only took a few minutes for my brother and me to ride our bikes that distance, and we often did, hanging out with the Balboni girls, who were about our age, and who had a pool besides, a real draw for us, seeing as my brother and I had accidentally set fire to our own pool and destroyed it (a long story, that).

It was only a mile away, but on that dark November night, as far as my brother was concerned, the Balbonis might as well have lived on the moon.

"I'm not going out there!" my brother cried. "NO WAY!" I sure he meant this to sound resolute, but he just sounded shaky. We both feared the dark, I won't lie to you. But my brother was absolutely terrified of it. Terrified. Still is.

"It's okay," my mom said, lying back on the dining room floor. "Wait til they've had their dinner and try calling again."

I called the Balbonis about seven times over the next 15 minutes. The line was still busy. I looked outside. Our driveway was already covered with snow and no plow had come down our road yet (they rarely did til the day after a storm anyway).

And as I stared out the window, I started talking to myself, psyching myself up. I knew the way to the Balboni house like the back of my hand. In fact, I knew a shortcut, too: through the woods along the brook and up to the bridge, then across the bridge and up the back of the hill to their house. I could do it. I could do it.

I grabbed my not-yet-dry winter clothes from their hooks near the stove and put them on. Then I went to the garage and found my father's giant flashlight.

"I'm going!" I yelled from our breezeway, and before I could hear my mom yell at me to stop, I bounded out the door and into the snow…

Nooooooo....! A cliffhanger again! ::bangs head on cluttered desk::
No, not a cliffhanger, it's a holiday weekend. :)
Ooh, yay. More. ::claps hands: Still though, bad MM! ;)

Holy crap.

I think this is the first time I'm greatful for living in an area that does not snow and has houses not more than 10 feet away from your own. o_o

Holy crap.
Oh you just are nice about this...
And I'm number 5 to read this during the holiday :-)
Well in Australia we don't have Thanksgiving, so I'm extra keen to read the next installment MM!
Happy Thanksgiving to everyone at the Magazine Mansion! In an odd way, you've become a part of people's lives, so I wouldn't be surprised if there were a lot of good wishes going your way this holiday.

The internet is so weird. In some ways, we can know more about the people we don't know than we do about the people we do know. If you know what I mean.

Thank you for sharing with us, and enjoy your vacation!
Happy Thanksgiving, indeed! Our Thanksgiving (Canada) was last month, so I too will make up one of the three to be checking in this weekend. ;) Looking forward to the next installment! (you don't end up down in Florida, do you?)

Have you sold the movie rights yet?

I mean, your pre-teen life alone has 45 volumes with like 232 chapthers each.

Its more interesting than Harry Porter and his "Whatever you can think of adventure".

We need book rights and movie rights. Are there still radio rights in this world?

Happy Turkey Day.
(The avian not the country)
If that isn't feeling the fear and doing it anyway, I don't know what is.

You were one brave kid.

It has become crystal clear why your brother gives you so much shit.

Must finish story.....

What comes next......

Happy Thanksgiving MM, Brownie, Thomas and HLS. We'll be waiting for the next installment over our turkey and stuffing.
Oh my GOD. And you were 8?? [your stories are so good, btw, that the boyfriend, whom I haven't seen in a month until a couple hrs ago, is sitting in the other room waiting patiently for me to finish.]
I don't celebrate Thanksgiving!

*anguished scream*

And I had one of those moments this past weekend MM... While I've known for a while my parents aren't perfect, it still kinda blows your mind to come home to see your mom loaded up on an ambulance because she might have broken her back.

Verily, it sucketh.
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