By Dick Cummins
Dick Cummins is a frequent contributor to this blog. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he is working on a memoir. This is the first installment of a three-part excerpt.
“No costumes” he said, waving away the idea with a swipe of his hand.
“I’d consider trading for letting you get him that BB gun he’s been fussing about,” my mother tried. “Although you know I think it’s a terribly dangerous toy.”
“It’s not a toy—it’s responsibility. All boys his age should have an air rifle. No costumes.”
“But this is living history Russell, a one-hundred-year cultural event. Our centennial committee has been working on it for months. Don’t you want your son exposed to culture?”
“Culture,” he snuffed, turning away.
“Please don’t be so stubborn dear, just say you’ll think about it—for him—for me, please?”
And because my mother rarely took no for an answer, except about his church attendance and her request that he not start eating until she finished her graceful graces, a compromise was struck.
In the photo I’m wearing a kid’s cowboy hat and Hopalong Cassidy vest, the belt of a holstered cap pistol holding up my pants. My father is dressed like a prospector—a forty-niner for the parade. Somewhere my mother found a floppy Stetson and pinned up the front brim flat against the crown. Then from a costume shop she rented a Jiminy Cricket-looking waist coat, too small, my father’s big hands pouring out of the sleeves awkwardly. Her finishing touch was knotting a handkerchief around his neck and tucking his pants down into the tops of some oversized boots from a thrift shop—her vision of a sourdough; her perfect costume, his perfect attitude.
It was in my mother’s artistic nature to imagine perfect costumes and read her Jane Austen and George Elliot novels after supper—or fairy tales to me sitting on her lap. She’d been the editor of her high school literary magazine my uncle told me, until my grandfather fell off a roof and she had to quit school to help support the family.
Smoking his Bull Durham cigarettes, my father read with us in the evenings too, military histories or biographies mostly and the books of Ernie Pyle—no romantic Victorian fiction on his stack of books. It wasn’t long before I grew out of the Mother Westwind and Merry Little Breezes fairy tales my mother read aloud and wheedled her into reading my father’s Here Is Your War and Brave Men, explaining words like reconnoiter and reconnaissance as she went. In the first grade this caused Mrs. Romans to ask where I’d learned to talk like an adult and my mother told her that the blame rested entirely with Ernie Pyle. Blame for playground cussing on the other hand, rested squarely on my father’s profane career in the military.
Better than going to the movies, once a week my father drove me around the bay to Fort Ord for the NCO Club’s Friday Night Fights. I didn’t watch the boxing much but loved playing behind the bleachers, listening to hoots and cheers and the round bells clanging, swinging upside down by my knees from the parallel bars. I loved the sweetly sour smell of old sweat and the stained canvas mats and the leather of the heavy bags. But the best part was driving back in the dark, because sometimes my father would sit me on his lap so I could steer our little Crosley wagon while he worked the pedals, an adventure that was never to be mentioned at home.
It was unusually foggy in Monterey that summer, in fact forty-four straight days of it The Herald said. The Point Lobos fog horn lowed softly day and night and tossing a tennis ball against the garage door it was hard to tell morning from evening, our red geraniums burning the air around them in the gray light.
The centennial parade would start in Pacific Grove on Lighthouse Avenue my mother said, pass along the screech and clangor of cannery row, then wind down along the abandoned railroad tracks past the breakwater, by Fisherman’s Wharf and the Customs House and end up in the high school football stadium. We were assigned to one of the “forty-niner” floats and I sat with my legs dangling off of a straw bale, my father kneeling over a papier-mache stream, holding a gold pan low, head down, chin tucked in hopes of avoiding recognition. Parade watchers lined both sides of Lighthouse Avenue, waving as we passed Fremont Appliance, the first store in Monterey to carry television sets.
Every Tuesday evening we’d go down to the store and stand with a small crowd on the sidewalk outside and watch the flickering sets though the store window. My father would lift me onto his shoulder sometimes, nodding if someone asked about his “grandson,” never explaining that he was 48 years old when I was born, it being none of their business.
The best TV set was a Halo-of-Light Sylvania and I loved The Lone Ranger that started with the William Tell Overture and every episode ending with the Masked Man’s “Hi-yo Silver away!” buzzing down from a raspy speaker nailed on the roof, too high to be reached.
Monterey was a working town then, quaint and gentrified came later.
The centennial pageant was in the evening after the big parade, a full moon rising over the eucalyptus trees around the high school stadium. There were sombreros tossed on the trimmed grass and everyone danced around them, except my sourdough father, it being a spectacle too far for a man who’d been in the death business most of his life and with a bad heart now.
I myself whirled and stamped to the ‘dah-dah, dah-dah, dah-dah’ of the Mexican Hat Dance blaring over the PA, all energy and enthusiasm, modeling the other fandangos in their Spanish-themed costumes, my mother smiling and snapping photos from the bleachers with her Box Brownie. When it was over we headed out through the stadium gate, my mother following along behind, a night-blooming cactus, tracking the moon of her family.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it Russell?” she asked on the way home, but my father sat smoking and noncommittal, later taking a heart pill, his tolerance for my mother’s cultural enthusiasm and my almost six-year-old exuberance, pretty much at the end of its rope.
This series of childhood memories was inspired when Dick read someone else’s childhood memories. Have you experienced similar connections with authors?