By Rhonda Humble
I miss the old days when it was okay to be an eccentric character. We seem to have lost something in our hodge-podge of politically correct earth tones.
My dad was an inveterate putterer. He came back from World War II’s Battle of Bougainville restless and melancholy. I grew up listening to Johnny Cash’s Ballad of Ira Hayes.
These days dad would have undergone counseling, but back then it was the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality that ruled.
Family members said dad had “gone native” while spending three years in the jungle, but I loved the moody man who dived under the bed at loud noises and booby-trapped the doors to keep out intruders.
I guess by most accounts my childhood was dysfunctional. Dad couldn’t hold a job for long, and mom took in ironings from the “rich people” to make ends meet, but to me it was an idyllic time.
I didn’t realize until later we were poor and from the wrong side of the tracks.
I asked my brother once if he thought the neighborhood where we grew up was bad, and he just smiled and said “it wasn’t the best.”
When I drove through the area most recently, it reminded me more of a third world country with the graffiti, half-destroyed homes and empty buildings.
Just down the street, near where I used to walk to Mark Twain Elementary – it burned down years ago – is a monument to a young girl who’s decapitated body was found in a wooded area across from what was the neighborhood grocery.
The block where I grew up has been bulldozed, and although a nearby area is undergoing a revitalization, many of the homes still standing are fortified with wrought iron, tall fences and mean dogs.
That much hasn’t changed.
There were then, and are now, a lot of good people in that area. T
hankfully they were tolerant of eccentric families like mine.
Across the street from where I lived was a dump. It was always smoldering, and I remember walking through the trash, picking out the good stuff and taking it back to my dad’s garage to build something.
My bike came out of that dump. Dad pounded the fenders straight and painted it white.
My swing set came from there too. It was a myriad of colors, with a swing made from tire tread and a rope trapeze with a pipe for the bar. The pole at one end shared duties with the clothes line.
I’m sure there’s an ordinance against that now, but back then the neighborhood kids loved it.
Lots of good things came from that dump.
I had a go-kart built from wood scraps with rope steering, lawnmower tires and a tractor seat. I would race down the 59th Street hill – unless a wheel fell off.
Dad loved to retrieve electric motors from the dump. He’d take them apart, trying to make them work.
If they wouldn’t run, he’d take out the insides, and I think that’s where his collection of ball bearings came from. Those were fun.
We’d take the garden hose, double it and clamp it together and then drape it over the workbench and snake it around the garage.
We’d use the ball bearings – steel balls of various sizes – and “race” them down the hose, betting on who would win.
Dad didn’t much like “big shots.” I think big shots were his version of “the man” who was always out to thwart any ideas he might have to get ahead.
I guess he influenced my thinking quite a bit. He always told colorful stories about “the man” getting his comeuppance.
A favorite story was about the “big shot” scientists who said it was scientifically impossible for the bumble bee to fly because the body was bigger than its wings and wouldn’t lift the weight.
Then dad would grin, “but that bumble bee is still flying,” he’d say.
“Would you rather be a fat-bottomed bee sitting on a tall flower or a big shot on a lawn with a bag of manure?”
I don’t know if there is any truth to that story, but it made an impression on me.
All the big shots in the world can’t keep a determined bumble bee down.