Please join me as I travel yet again to my childhood. While this story is true, I’ve changed the names to protect the innocent. And to prevent any possible legal ramifications. Of course, at least in the case of my neighbors, I’ve forgotten their real names. Besides, I think they’re dead. But, they really did hate us.
The names of “Buttons” and “Duke” are real, though. They’re dogs so it’s not likely they’re going to sue me. Plus, like I said, they’re dogs. As this took place in 1972, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that they are also dead. Unless they’re zombie dogs. Then, we’re all in trouble.....
I watched my neighbor, George Spinelli, emerge from the brand new tent he had put up in his backyard. Checking that the six guide ropes were in place, he gave one a tug just to be certain. Satisfied all was secure, he tromped towards his porch.
Standing on the other side of bushes planted to separate our two yards, I called over, “What’s with the tent, Mr. Spinelli?”
He looked annoyed that I could be so dense. “I thought I’d air out our tent before Mrs. Spinelli and I leave for vacation tomorrow.”
I leaned over, trying to get a peek inside. “Where to?”
“Acadia National Park in Maine.” He tapped his forehead. “Most people will be gone, today being the 4th of July and all. But, Marge and I will have the park pretty much to ourselves.”
Seeing I had no clue what he was talking about, he explained, “Most people spent the past few days up there celebrating the holiday while we were here.”
My mouth formed a silent, “Oh.”
Mr. Spinelli was an okay guy. Both he and his wife pretty much kept to themselves, but who could blame them? After all, they lived next door to a family with five kids and a dog.
Most of the time, George puttered about in plaid Bermuda shorts, white tank top, and Towne Faire sandals with black socks. The only time we heard him say anything-besides complain about us-was when he found a Japanese beetle in his hydrangeas.
Marge rarely ventured outside. Content to remain glued to her soap operas, the only time we saw her was after dark when she and George took their dog for a walk.
Buttons was another story. Combining high-pitched yipping with a screw you disposition, she was the most obnoxious wiener dog I had ever seen. If evil walked on four legs and crapped on sidewalks, Buttons was it.
Determined to preserve the pristine nature of his lawn, George always hooked her to a chain whenever he worked outside. Even though restricted to her property, that didn’t prevent the hateful Buttons from snarling viciously at us whenever we were outside.
The problem was that we had to keep our own dog, a female German Shepherd inexplicably named Duke, on a leash when she was outside. The fact that Duke was three times her size and could swallow her like a milkbone never seemed to bother Buttons. We always marveled that her bravado was equaled only by her apparent stupidity.
My father loved the name Duke and called each dog we ever had by that name. We actually owned several Dukes who, strangely, never died of old age. Rather, they were all eventually driven in the dark of night to New York State.
To hear our father tell it, New York was this wonderful doggie Xanadu with countless treats, dozens of fire hydrants, and all the butts a dog would care to sniff.
It wasn’t until we got older that we realized that Dad really loved dogs. Until he didn’t love dogs. Then, he loved dogs again. Soon after that, we’d get another Duke.
We did have a cat named Peaches once, but I don’t remember her very well. My mother’s favorite, my father hated her.
“I don’t trust anything that craps in a box under the stairs,” he complained before she mysteriously disappeared.
Well, back to the story...
I watched my father stick his head in the storage area beneath the porch. With a cry of triumph, he withdrew a metal gas can from behind a tangle of fishing line. Shaking to check if there was fuel in it, he joined me at the bushes.
“Hey, whatcha got there, George?”
Mr. Spinelli, who cared for my old man about as much as mealy bugs on his marigolds, sighed. “It’s the new Coleman tent Marge and I bought last night.”
“So, whatcha gonna do? Camp in the backyard?”
“No, as I was telling your son, we’re going up to Maine tomorrow for a few days.”
“Wow, couldn’t get a hotel room, huh?”
“Actually, we like to camp. It’s peaceful.”
“No TV, no air conditioning, no refrigerator, no thank you,” he chuckled. “Good luck with THAT, George.”
Mr. Spinelli answered as he pulled his back door open, “See you in a few days.”
I looked at my only manhood role model. “I don’t think he likes you, Dad.”
My father shook his head. “Screw ‘im. Imagine that. Living in the woods just for the hell of it.”
“I don’t know, sounds like fun.”
“Don’t sound like fun to me. He’s a friggin' idiot. Hey,” he jiggled the can, “you want to give me a hand?”
“Sure. Doing what?”
“Lighting the grill, of course.”
Almost on cue, I heard my mother shout from an upstairs window, “Malcolm! Not again with the gas...!”
Annoyed, he searched in vain for my mother’s face. “Charcoal lighter is crap!” he shouted. “May as well piss on the coals!”
“Well, remember what happened to your eyebrows on Memorial Day!”
“It was windy that day!”
Stepping to our little hibachi, my father formed a small charcoal briquettes pyramid. Reaching into his back pocket, he pulled forth a section of the newspaper he had kept when he left the bathroom. Crumpling it, he wedged it beneath the pile.
He upended the can and doused the charcoal with a liberal amount of gasoline. What wasn’t soaked up by the black cubes formed into a rainbow puddle at the bottom of the grill. Fumes drifted upward in a shimmering haze.
My father stuck his head into the vapors and sniffed. Unsatisfied, he dumped the rest of the can into the grill.
“That’ll do it.” He said as he dug into his pants for his lighter. “Stand back.”
With no small amount of alarm, I watched the fumes spread outward, inching toward our picnic table. As my father placed his Zippo at the base of the coals, I hoped he knew what he was doing.
Just to be safe, I inched away.
He strummed his thumb on the balky lighter’s wheel and bent to ignite the mound of charcoal. Cursing under his breath, he adjusted the pile and gripped the Zippo tightly with two hands. He pushed down again and tried to coax something more than a tiny spark from the little metal case.
“C’mon, c’mon, you motherless c-”
A fireball rose above the grill and formed into a little mushroom cloud. An intense orange flare boiled up into the sky, shrouded by an acrid black cloud. Set aflame, the briquettes turned cherry red almost instantly.
As tongues of flame leapt into the sky, my father stood triumphantly on the other side of the grill. He was covered in soot and his eyebrows once more were gone, but a smug smile crossed his face.
“Now that,” he proudly said, “is a fire.”
To be continued.....
Next: Elvis Presley, Donny Osmond, and Uncle Jim
To be continued.....
Next: Elvis Presley, Donny Osmond, and Uncle Jim