Every Good Story Begins in New Jersey

I was six-weeks old when my family picked-up and moved from the “The Lone Star State” to New Jersey.  My Dad had gotten transferred there for work.  A chemical engineer graduate, he worked in the chemical business selling methanol all over the world.  All anyone needs to know, who isn’t familiar with methanol, or ethanol, its fraternal twin, is these two chemicals are like the Ginger to crude oil’s Fred Astaire. When the oil business was booming, so were they. My dad was in the right place at the right time.

Another story that my mother never fails to remind me of (usually when I’m being a pain in the ass) is our first visit with my new pediatrician in New Jersey, Dr. Ketcher. In her words, “Dr. Ketcher picked you up and turned you around in his arms to face me. Holding you up close for me to see, he said, ‘See that chin right there? This is going to be one. stubborn. kid. I hope you’re ready.’” This story is always accompanied by a little “tee hee hee” from the corner of my mother’s mouth, like the cat that swallowed the canary. Forget about reading palms. Apparently the chin is the biggest predictor of a person’s life. Sooo….Dr. Ketcher wasn’t wrong….

Here’s your free gift for playing today: The secret sauce to life is sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. Before I could walk or talk, usually two prerequisites necessary for mining new friendships, I had a friend.  As soon as she was born anyway, which was four months after me. Our mothers, new neighborhood friends, threw us in the playpen together and called it a day. Heather and I didn’t have any choice but to be friends, and as it turned out, this was very fortuitous. Just like going to sleep and waking up the next day, or eating three squares, or brushing your teeth, hanging out with Heather was just another thing I did.

Wake up. Check.

Eat cereal. Check.

Watch Bugs Bunny. Check.

Bike to Heather’s house. Check.

Hang out with Heather. Check.

Bike home. Check.

Eat dinner. Check.

Brush teeth. Check.

Go to bed. Check.

Rinse.

Repeat.

Heather and I were like “Mutt and Jeff,” the old comic strip that describes its main characters as “two mismatched tinhorns” who were inseparable.  At first, as our personalities were still baking inside us, we happily watched Bugs Bunny together and toured the neighborhood on our bikes like a dynamic duo looking for accomplices, testing the limits and boundaries of both our parents and the world. We were like the “Brangelina” of the seventies (except we were kids, not married, and both girls). If branding were a thing back then, they would have called us “Heathifer.” I can hear it now: “There goes Heathifer again, Honey. Watch out when you back out of the driveway so you don’t hit them.”

Heather’s family had a dog, and a cat, and her older sister had a pony in the backyard, and eventually a horse as well. In the summers they lived on their sailboat at the Jersey shore. In short, this family was very interesting. We spent a lot of time at Heather’s house as a result. I loved investigating everything there which included petting their dog a lot, and petting the cat for a little bit, until she got sick of it and bailed, like cats do. Heather, not really understanding the allure of her pets, went along with it nonetheless. Their pony, Freckles, was off limits, as he couldn’t be trusted to be as nice to us as the dog or the cat. Of course, telling a kid that something is off limits is like handing them a map straight to the hidden treasure on the island. Heather didn’t think this was a good idea, not because her mom told us not to, but because ponies were dirty and stinky, surrounded by shit, and known to bruise small children on a whim. She hung in the back on this one and let me go first.

Smart girl.

The first obstacle to this exploration was the hotwire fence that surrounded Freckles and separated his untrustworthiness from the rest of the neighborhood. I might have been stroppy, but I wasn’t completely reckless when I was breaking the rules. Hearing the steady click, click, click of electricity flowing to the fence, I tested the waters by picking up a long blade of grass to touch the top strand of wire instead of using my hand. You don’t need to be Mr. Wizard to know what happened next. The shock of electricity sent me flying backwards onto my ass, more out of sheer surprise than anything else. My knees were knocking when I stood up. After that, I tried to make friends with Freckles by feeding him treats through the fence, but I can tell you I was more scared forevermore of hitting that fence accidentally than I was of Freckles potentially removing any of my fingers.

By this time our personalities were mostly baked and coming out of the oven. This is when the daily negotiations between Heathifer began. We agreed unanimously on riding bikes and politicking throughout the neighborhood with the other girls our age, but after that, we checked the score to see whose turn it was to decide what we were doing next. If we had played with the animals, or in the dirt, it meant that it was Heather’s turn to pick. This usually meant we were either going to be latch-hooking the latest installment of wall art that resembled a rug, or we were going to play “Ladies of the Day.” Heather loved latch hooking so much that she earned the nickname “Heather the Happy Hooker.” We both knew what this meant, even as kids, (to this day, I don’t who is responsible for imparting this worldly nugget), and snickered with our moms like we were all in on some private joke.

“Ladies of the Day” meant putting on dresses and wearing the only pair of shoes you owned for church on Sundays. Carrying purses, with a tube of our mom’s lipstick inside, along with a couple of tissues, was also non-negotiable. “Ladies,” according to Heather, drank tea out of fine-china teacups with saucers, and ate lunch on a likewise matching plate. My mother was so thrilled with this new development that, unprompted, she pulled out her collection of silver whenever our house hosted this event. She supported this activity wholeheartedly, and fanned the flames as much as she could, in the hopes it would catch and stick. I would like to point out this was the first time in my life I felt like an imposter. Walking down the street to Heather’s house, dressed like a “lady,”(because ladies didn’t ride bikes, especially not in dresses), I prayed I wouldn’t see anyone I knew, or more importantly, no one would see me, disguised as some weird stranger, pretending to be someone I wasn’t. I didn’t resent Heather at all for any of this. Negotiation is an important aspect of friendship and learning what you don’t like can be just as valuable information as learning what it is you do. I think it’s fair to say that Heather confirmed her suspicion that ponies were dirty and stinky, surrounded by shit, and completely untrustworthy, but not before she submitted to riding one or two at my insistence. To this day, Heather is much more of a lady than I am, always has been, and I’m still the one more likely to touch the hotwire with a blade of grass.

Our house in New Jersey backed up to a golf course, which had its perks, as well as its drawbacks.  For me, I had instant clientele for the lemonade stand I set up in the summers right on the edge of where our property ended and the golf course began. I tried peddling the golf balls that had been hit into our yard or neighboring yards as well, but they were a much harder sell. I think that had more to do with the golfers’ egos than anything else, because the balls were a good deal. I can only guess they didn’t want any reminders about the bad shots they had taken, and out of sympathy to their fellow competitors, felt it would be poor taste to purchase someone else’s bad shot too. Every now and then I got the odd golfer who recognized his own ball and wanted it back, free of charge, to which I replied, “Sorry, finders, keepers.” Seriously, who doesn’t know that possession is nine-tenths of the law??? I was a hard ass, even back then.

Tigger, our three-legged black Labrador, also made good use of the golf course, picking up golfers’ balls on the course while they were in play. This always ignited a shit show of screaming profanities, clubs being thrown, and men chasing a three-legged dog, either on their own two legs or in their golf cart. I pretended I didn’t know whose dog that was as I was confident this would be a biz kill. Tigger thought this was a great game, darting around them, making big sweeping loops, and when she finally tired of their antics, she simply left, their ball still firmly entrenched in her jaws (it’s almost as if my first business partner was a dog). Being that she was three-legged, she was easily recognizable, but none of the golfers knew where she lived, and the neighbors never ratted her out. I’m going to guess it was at times like these the golfers wished their carts didn’t have a governor installed. Today, if that was the case, they’d have probably flipped themselves over in their hot canine pursuit, severed an arm, and we would have been sued to the gills and left penniless.

All because of a three-legged dog.

When the golf course wasn’t so convenient was when a ball went through a back window of any one of the houses that lined the perimeter. One time, a ball hit our next-door neighbor in the forehead while he was riding his lawnmower cutting his grass. Mr. Poulson and his wife, Barbara, were my favorite neighbors in the entire neighborhood. They were both retired, they’re own kids adults themselves and long gone. I remember them most for always inviting me into their house for fun-size Snickers bars “they bought just for me.” I know now this was a little white lie. They loved Snickers as much as I did. The difference was, they made sure and set aside a few for me at all times, just in case I came around, which I did a lot. They were right on the way to Heather’s house, after all. John and Barbara Poulson were the definition, and manifestation, of love. (I think it’s likely my affinity towards senior citizens is due to them).

Seeing John, with a perfectly round, scarlet sphere on his forehead, like Mars on fire, bleeding profusely, was terrifying. My dad happened to be pulling in the driveway from work at the same time, and everything else that happened after that was a bit of a blur (at least to me, anyway). My mom came running out of the house with a wet washcloth to wipe away the blood and dirt. Barbara ran out of their house, consoling her husband, not sure what else to do. The golfer stood there with his hands in his pockets, his face white as a ghost with fear. There was some discussion as to whether John should go to the ER. In the end, he decided he was going to be fine, so he didn’t. That’s how we did things back then. The golfer apologized and everyone went their separate ways. Nowadays, the golfer would be penniless and John and Barbara would have lived somewhere besides New Jersey in a much bigger house. After that, John always wore a construction hardhat when he mowed his lawn, and I chalked Tigger’s thievery up to karmic retribution.

So just like my two, current personal advisors—the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other—the dynamics of our next-door neighbors was very similar. Obviously, the Poulson’s were the angelic ones. Goodness oozed out of their pores without even trying. It’s just who they were. However, on the other side of our house was another older couple I’ll fictitiously call “The Fausts.” (You can read into that choice as much as you want, or just consider it a happy accident). I don’t know if they had any kids. We never got that far. First, their property was completely fenced in, the only property with this distinction, and for the sole purpose of not keeping anything specific in, but of keeping everyone and everything else out. Even if we were both in our yards at the same time, they were hard pressed to acknowledge us with even so much as a grunt in place of a greeting. Every now and then, if I was by myself, they might smile a little and offer me a flower from their garden. I accepted this gift the same way a dog accepts a rotten piece of meat—can’t say no, but wonder when the inevitable backlash is bound to show up.

Well, it didn’t take very long as it turns out. One day my brother was raking leaves in our yard, and rested the rake on their fence during this chore. Mr. Faust promptly stomped over and flicked the handle off of the fence and said sternly,“This is our fence, not yours, and your rake does not belong on it. Next time, I will take it from you. This is your only warning. Do you understand?” This was not an idle threat. My brother, Rick, had already lost a few footballs, soccer balls, and whiffle balls, that happened to land in their yard, to this douche bag. He sure was hopping mad when the rake incident happened, because he knew this was no bluff, and that he didn’t have a rebuttal that would stand up to the douche-baggery this guy was spewing. I really liked my older brother as a kid (still do), so now I was pissed too. Deep down, I knew it along. This was proof the flowers were just a cheap distraction to all this asinine tomfoolery!

I decided to take matters into my own hands. With the help of a friend, who I shall leave unnamed, I decided I would get the Fausts’ back by stealing their stupid lawn art statues, which was the only thing of value I could get my hands on. I needed a partner because these stupid things weighed more than I did and I needed an additional pair of hands and muscle to get them over their stupid, fucking fence. (I know, I sound like I’m five. I wasn’t. I was at least seven or eight). One was a rabbit, one was a gnome, and I’ve blocked out what the last one was. We did it at dusk, and once we had managed to get them over the fence, we rolled them under our makeshift treehouse where piles of leaves tended to settle and covered them with said leaves. (“House” is a little misleading. It consisted of a floor made of a few 2”x6” boards, nailed together between two thick limbs. I’m not complaining, it was awesome.). I told no one about my plan for retribution, except for my partner of course, who also told no one.

Well, the next day the police showed up. I saw the car parked in their driveway (the only visitor I ever saw them have in eleven years). I immediately got weak at the knees and sick to my stomach, but my lips were sealed. I kept my ear to the ground that day to try and suss out the situation, but nothing was said.  Then, the following day, my mom mentioned to me that the Fausts’ lawn statues had been stolen, the police were investigating, and asked if I might know anything about it. Nope, sure didn’t. That same night, I rolled all three of those statues back over their stupid, fucking fence all by myself. Adrenaline is a wonderful thing, especially when it is fueled by pure fear. After that, there were no more flowers offered randomly, but that was the least of my concerns. I thought I could get carted off to jail at any moment. You can be sure that if Google existed back then, I’d sure as shit have googled everything I could to find out how the law worked for kid thieves. That, and what juvie was like. Google would have come in handy to ask all the embarrassing questions I was too scared to ask my parents.

The summer after we moved to Texas, Heather’s family invited me to spend the summer with them at the shore, living on their sailboat. It was Heathifer, reunited, once again. There were three kids in Heather’s family, and her parents were very involved in the youth sailing program offered at the shore as a result. This is where the kids learned how to sail every summer, graduating to bigger sailboats every year, and earning the right to sail competitively at local regattas. The plan was for Heather and I to participate in the sailing program together. Her family owned a small, wooden boat called a Diamond that every one of their kids had learned to sail on, and now it was Heather’s turn. The name of the Diamond was “The Wet and Wild.” I’m just going to leave that right there for a second while whoever is reading this quits choking on their lunch. Yes, a kid’s boat was named the “The Wet and Wild.” (I still want to know which of Heather’s parental units is responsible for christening the boat with this name). Of course, I only find the humor in this now. Back then it had no connotations other than those relating to boats and things to do with the water.

Heather was the Captain and I was her first mate. How this translated was that I started each day by scrubbing the bird shit off the top of the boat, and the thick film of algae off the bottom, while Heather ate an egg sandwich and pointed out where I had missed a spot. (The last part of that sentence is a lie). It was one thing to learn how to be in synch with a sneaky Shetland pony, and another to learn how to be in synch with another kid, moving at speed across the water, in a boat constructed solely of wooden parts. I learned quickly when Captain Heather yelled “TACK!” that I had better crouch down very low, very quickly, lest my head get whacked by the boom. For all intense purposes, the boom is a giant 4×4, swung with great velocity, created by the wind caught in the sail that attaches to it. Just basic, elementary wind-power physics in action. I would like to be able to say this only happened once or twice (getting whacked in the head), but that would be a little bit of a white lie. Sometimes it takes (me) several knocks upside the head to learn a lesson. In all honesty, I think it was when I got hit with the boom on Heather’s parents’ boat, which was essentially three times the size of our little Diamond, that really drove home the importance of what “TACK!” meant. That one almost knocked me clear into the water, but I got away with just a little egg on my head and a lesson well (l)earned.

Heather and I slept in the cabin at the bow of the boat (I sound like a seasoned sailor, don’t I?), which was a big deal because this is where her parents usually slept. It was the poshest sleeping digs of the entire boat. Heather’s dad only spent weekends at the shore, so we did some shifting around then, but the set-up was usually Heather and I in front and Heather’s mom and brother on a bench on either side of the cockpit, respectively. We would shower and use the bathroom inside the Clubhouse where their boat was docked, where they also threw great parties throughout the summer. Just like our old neighborhood, we could get around everywhere on foot (or bike, we just didn’t have any down there). Sometimes, if the opportunity presented itself, we could cheat and catch a ride in someone’s Boston Whaler to get where we were going.

It was a great summer to say the least. Once again, we had a lot of freedom, only being kids, just like in my old neighborhood, where Heather still lived during the school year. I had my first summer romance that summer, including kissing my first boy. (They were one and the same. My dance card was not full and there was no one else waiting in line.) When my parents came to the shore to collect me at the end of the summer, much to my chagrin, they happened to meet this boy right before he was getting ready to head home on his bike. We were headed out too, to dinner, and it didn’t take long for us to catch up to him on his bike.  Being a 13-year old boy, he couldn’t help but show off when he realized we were right behind him and he pedaled faster and faster, crouching down lower and lower over the handlebars….that is, until he wiped out in the most epic of fashions. I’m talking road rash everywhere and a bent frame on his bicycle. I did feel sorry for him as my mom hopped out of the car to help him up and offer him a ride home (which he declined), but I was just as embarrassed for myself as I was for him. That’s some kind of weird empathy, right?

It took a while to adjust to sleeping on land after sleeping on the boat all summer. Talk about sea legs. I get it! In my estimation, your body gets so used to moving on the water, that it comes to expect it. When it’s missing, it’s like your body artificially manufactures that which it had become accustomed to. It took a little while to shake it off and transition for yet another school year in Texas. Little did I know that would be my last hoorah in New Jersey and the end of Heathifer. Adolescence is hard enough without the addition of 1500 miles between it. We had a great run though. Heather and I still have a good laugh now and then about when we were kids. And she kept her sea legs! Just the other day she finished third in her race at a regatta. She added that there were only a total of three boats racing, but she didn’t need to say that. Heather is out there, showing up, sticking her neck out and doing it, and that automatically makes her a winner in my book. She will always be the best Captain I ever had.

 

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