Songs of Innocence & Experience

TWO TALES OF AMERICAN BOYHOOD... 

 Songs of Innocence and Experience 
 
by   LAIKA PUPKINO
 
STORY #1: Growing up a scrawny bookish a klutz can be rather awkward when your Dad is a macho Hollywood stuntman...
 
 
 SWIMMING LESSONS
 
 
 
.
My father always scared the hell out of me. Well maybe not from the time I was a little baby, but at least from the time when I was five years old and he told me, "Son, I'm gonna teach you how to swim..."
 
Then he threw me into the deep end of our pool with a shout of, "NOW SWIM!"
 
It was just like that scene from The Graduate, except it was so sudden and unexpected. One moment I was lying there dreamily on the edge of the pool, watching the sunlight dance on the surface of the water, half listening to what I assumed was some vague plan to maybe enroll me in swimming lessons, and the next second I was in over my head!
 
He swore to my mom that he had stood by, keeping an eye on me the whole while. But then how---unless he'd gone inside and made himself one---did he come to be clutching one of his infamous venison sandwiches, that he hadn't had before?
 
He was grinning through his raggedy beard as I lay on the the slick tile deck, gasping and coughing up water. I'd managed to get out of the pool somehow, and he leaned down and clapped me on the back, grunting around a mouthful of sourdough roll and deer guts, "Ya see? There's nothin' to it!"
 
Pop was a stuntman for the movies. He provided for us very well, but was gone for long periods at a stretch, working on "spaghetti westerns" and the like. He would return with these exotic presents for me, such as an authentic World War II SS dagger, which I could conceive of absolutely no use for...
 
I think he was concerned over the fact that I was in effect being raised by my mom, the maid and my two sisters, this scrawny 4-eyed bookworm of a kid whose hobbies and interests he did not understand; and so he tried to cram a whole years worth of masculine role-modeling into the short spells that he was around; 'whupping my ass' at one on one basketball in front of the garage, until it dawned on him just how bored and uncomfortable I was, how I had suddenly become more clumsy than usual, and he would sigh, "Alright, Son. I'll let you go back to your chemistry set..."
 
The one sport I finally did take a fancy to was skateboarding, something I'd taken up during one of his absences. I got the thing for my 13 th birthday in 1969 (it was nothing like these high tech boards they make today, just an oval of wood on four cheap rollerskate wheels, with a bright red racing stripe running down it...) and spent the whole summer learning to ride it. I thought I'd gotten pretty adept at it.
 
But in August my dad came back from a shoot down in Mexico, and---having never ridden one before---got on my board and in a few minutes was hotdogging up & down the steep part of the driveway. By suppertime he was doing handstands and flips and grinds on it- things that are a normal part of a skater's repetoire now, but back then were absolutely undreamed of! It made me feel like here was one more way I didn't measure up...
 
Then in September he got hurt, doing a simple bit for a commercial, and he was laid up for half a year. Shattered his knee. He "promoted" me to acting Man of The Family, doing fix-it stuff while he instructed, running errands for him. We talked while he recuperated in front of the TV, about everything from God to politics to women. He told me that it was never his intention to intimidate me, only to toughen me up, to inculcate a type of daring in me that he saw now I would never had. But he admitted he was coming to appreciate the abilities I did have, things I was much better at than he would ever be. It was good to hear this. For the first time I began to relax around him. To trust him.
 
He came to watch me in a debate at school. I'm sure he would have preferred to see me winning a victory on the football field, in wrestling or track, but he made a great show of his pride in me, cheering like an idiot, drumming on the back of the folding chair in front of him with his cane, and glaring back in defiance at the more decorous spectators. I was mortified for about the first ten seconds of his display, until all at once I saw what a lot of stuffed shirts most of these other parents were compared to him---all these studio publicists and accountants---and the sort of drab, conformist (but secretly cutthroat) values they were trying to pass on to their kids. All the garbage that I'd been spared by having this big uncouth fun-loving Oakie daredevil for a dad. It occurred to me that if anyone here should be ashamed of his parents, it wasn't me...
 
On the way home he said that I must've gotten my brains from Mom, because he sure couldn't have constructed an argument like that. And he said he hadn't agreed with the stand I had taken on the war, but he could respect my views, and it was important to have an independent mind about things. He pointed out that it was quite possible for both the U.S. government and the Communists to be behaving wrongly in Vietnam- that both might be committing villiany. And from that point on, though I did my bit for the peace movement, I had little tolerance for those who made heroes out of Che or Ho Chi Minh.
 
It was just after my 14th birthday. His knee was pretty well mended, and his workouts included leg presses and sit-ups again after a year of just using the barbells and those plastic squeezer things with the fat black springs inside...
 
One day after school I was out front doing tricks on my skateboard. He came out, had a can of Tab in his hand, and said, "Let's go for a little drive in the mountains."
 
It sounded fun. The way he drove that Corvette of his was the next best thing to being in an airplane. I really didn't think anything of it when he told me to bring the skateboard. We headed up Highway 2 into Angeles Forest. Tore up that steep, winding highway all the way to Wrightwood, bought us each a soda and headed back...
 
He shifted into fourth and got us up to about 60. Had my skateboard upside down on his lap and was absent-mindedly spinning the wheels with his free hand. On the right was the face of the mountain, shorn off here and there in ruddy brown ellipses where the highway cut through the terrain. To the left the ground dropped away steeply, and you could see the tops of the pine trees.
 
He was talking to me and yet to himself. As I recall I was thinking about something else, about some girl from school, or wishing he would put on a rock and roll station instead of this hillbilly crap---while he muttered things like, "I really love this car, cost me a bundle. And maybe we shoulda took the pickup for this, but I got ev'ry confidence in ya..."
 
As we hit a particularly twisty stretch of the highway he said, in what was suddenly an alarmingly familiar tone of voice, "Son, it's time you learned how to drive a car..."
 
He threw his door open, jammed the skateboard down onto the road with his palm, vaulted gracefully out onto it, and slamming the door hollared, "NOW DRIVE!"
 
 
 
 

STORY #2: In the tradition of The Flying Babalooskis, a short tale about a boy with gigantic aspirations...

 

 DANNY ROBINSON'S TREEHOUSE
 
 
Danny Robinson had a treehouse in his backyard. His father had built it for him when he was
eight---a third of a lifetime ago---and he'd spent a lot of time up there, doing all the things kids usually do up in treehouses...
 
The big platform seven feet up had always seemed like enough to Danny, until he caught a
re-release of the Disney film Swiss Family Robinson down at the Millennium 12 and it was revealed to him what a treehouse should be: Stairways leading up from room to room, real doors and windows, bamboo plumbing, beds with big brass frames, harpsichords and grandfather's clocks, secret escape hatches; and of course all sorts of armaments for defense. The fact that he had the same last name as the shipwreck survivors in the film was an unmistakeable omen- he was destined to create such an architectural masterpiece.
 
The tree had three good solid branchings up above the one where the H-shaped platform was wedged. Each of them could bear the weight of an entire additional room, transforming this simple structure into a grand four story aerie! Danny was surprised his dad hadn't thought of this.
It was June, the whole of the Summer vacation stretching out ahead of him, and young Mr. Robinson had great plans for the big oak tree.
 
His father would have been happy to help, but he was away on business in Timbuktoo, Africa
(incredibly, there actually was such a place!) and wouldn't be home for another month. His mother seemed very negative about the whole enterprise, expressing doubts about his various improvements to his arboreal fortress, but she wasn't yet forbidding him to do any of them...
 
He enlisted the help of his five best friends, who formed the social core of his patrol in Boy Scouts of America troop #4270. They raided the gravel alleys for miles around, for 2x4's, cinderblocks, and an old wooden ladder with two wooden rungs, which they repaired.
 
He got Joey Brownmiller to donate his sister's $400 Sears & Roebuck two-story Victorian playhouse, and he convinced Joey to feign ignorance about what had happened to it; to suggest that it had been stolen by those ferret-faced scavangers from those shack-like houses down by the tracks,
who were always driving up and down the alleys in their junky old trucks poking through people's trash cans, driving off with the leaf blower you'd left unattended for a few minutes...
 
When they hoisted it up with a rope and set it down on the original level's flooring all of Danny's friends figured that this was the crowning touch. But he had just begun to build. He spent long nights in front of his t.v. set, making up lists of the tools and supplies they would need, paying little attention to Quantum Leap and Alien Nation as he drew and redrew his floor plans and sketches.
 
Joey's mom was driving down the block two days later when she caught sight of their playhouse, sitting up in the Robinson's tree, swallowed up by scrap lumber, its shingled flanks painted over in ugly camoflage hues. That night, Joey heard his parents talking out in the living room-
 
"The nerve of that Robinson kid! I don't like him at all, Frank. He's like a Svengali or something ........ Remember when he got little Oswald Zengler to try and fly in those stupid cardboard wings he built? The poor kid almost broke his neck!"
 
Danny kept erasing the woman's messages---each angrier than the last---from his mother's answering machine, until Mrs. Brownmiller figured she was being deliberately snubbed by Mrs. Robinson, and that Danny's mom must be just as nervy and weird and manipulative as her kid was. Joey's sister Christina was fourteen now, and had outgrown the damned thing anyway, but Joey was forbidden to have anything to do with Danny henceforth.
 
Too bad, because a husky kid like Joey could have helped them requisition C DECK- a fire escape landing from a condemned and demolished hotel that it took four of them half of one Wednesday to lug home on a pair of wagons. Getting it up there was a problem that Danny hadn't fully worked out yet.
 
Danny's mom warned him that the people next door were complaining, saying that what had been a big beautiful tree no longer resembled a tree so much as a towering junk yard. He reasoned with her, "Aw, they're just mad 'cause they don't have a nice tree like us, just those puny little things tied to stakes so they don't blow over."
 
"Well maybe they are, but still you'd better take some of that stuff down. It is pretty unsightly."
 
The boy stared at her in disbelief. Unsightly? How could she say such a thing? Were they even talking about the same structure? His treehouse was nothing short of MAJESTIC, anyone could
see that!
 
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Traitors and naysayers were everywhere. Not only was his mom endlessly warning him that he was overdoing it, but now Billy Daley was voicing his misgivings, "Somehow I don't think your tree is going to support that fire escape along with everything else that's up there."
 
"What?" laughed Danny, "There's nothing wrong with this tree. It's an oak tree, the strongest wood there is! We still got to put in the elevator, the suspension bridge over to my window, and Tommy Johnson's old porch swing, if we can get ahold of that..."
 
"Yeah I know, that's cool. But I was just thinking that maybe you should put some 4x4's under some of these branches for some extra support," Billy said.
 
"No way! Then it wouldn't be a tree house. A tree house sits in a tree! Don't you get it? You start putting up poles and stuff and it isn't a tree house, just some dumb tower thing with a tree in the middle of it. The Robinson family had a tree house!"
 
Danny was shouting. He kind of scared Billy when he got like this. Billy thought it would be best to change the subject, "Hey, do you want to go to the show this afternoon?"
 
"Sure, great! We can get some more ideas for the project."
 
"Well no, I meant something else. We seen that movie three times already."
 
"But this is the last day it's showing. I need to see how they made those catapults for the coconut bombs."
 
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Walking home from the theater Billy and Danny speculated that people with Robinson in their name shouldn't travel. Robinson Crusoe ........ Robinson Crusoe on Mars ........ The Swiss Family Robinson ......... the Robinson family from Lost In Space...
 
Or then again, maybe they should. Castaways didn't have their mothers carping at them all the time. Danny kidded his friend that he would take as many ocean voyages as he could in his life---in winter, in the smallest, least seaworthy vessels he could book passage on---so that he could wind up shipwrecked and build the fortress of their dreams, unhampered by the constraints of "civilization", this culture that seemed to reward timidity and mediocrity and to fear greatness.
 
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By dousing its rust-corroded bolts with quantities of WD-40, Billy and he were able to dismantle the fire escape landing and hoist it up in sections, where it was reassembled.
 
Toward evening, after his friends had gone home, Danny found a somewhat buckled ham radio mast that had been tossed out behind the house four down from his, and dragged it home. Lashed to the highest serviceable portion of the tree's trunk, it would stick up above the highest branches, where a sort of crows nest could be built- maybe one inch plywood with a little camp stool on it.
 
Standing up onto A DECK, he was able to heft the thing up by himself, hand over hand, shoving it up into the branches with the base wedged against the playhouse. This would do for now. He climbed down, and sat at the picnic table on the patio admiring his handiwork...
 
Twilight was fading. Red aircraft warning lights were flashing atop the old Veteran's Hospital eight blocks away. He watched the western sky fade from pink to lavender to indigo, admiring how the leaves and branches of his tree were silhouetted crisply against the last of the sunset.
 
It was then that he noted, with some alarm, that some of the branches which had once forked upward were now sticking almost straight out under their burden. The floors of C DECK was slanting now, and would have to be adjusted. Reluctantly he admitted that Billy Daley had been right, and that it was time to start shoring the whole thing up somehow.
 
But God damn it, there was something impure, something compromised about doing that to a treehouse! Although if somehow the reinforcements were concealed inside the tree....
 
The porch light came on.
 
Ah there you are, said his mom, and called him to dinner.
 
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A little after midnight he was laying in bed, thinking about the long steel rods that lay in bundles out where they were building the new freeway ........... could they be pounded into the tree somehow to strengthen it?
 
Suddenly from the backyard came a crack like a gigantic bullwhip being snapped, followed by a prolonged and dreadful crashing of steel and lumber! Leaping from his bed, he ran to the window
and snapped the shade open...
 
Yep. Where the oak tree had been was a large mound of foilage and junk, from which jutted
the remains of the trunk, tapering up to a point on one side like a crude spear.
 
Danny's mom rushed in and enfolded him in her arms, babbling, bouncing back and forth between extreme anger and being stupendously relieved that this hadn't happened when he was up in the tree or under it. Totally irrational...
 
"You see? You see what happens? Anything can happen when you- I mean my God! It could have landed on someone! The car! The whole side of the house! Or lightning could have- I mean really,  with all that metal! Promise me, okay? That you'll ......... This goes to show that you're not as smart as you think you are, you see that now? Oh that poor tree!"
 
"Sure mom. I'm okay, really, I promise," he said, unsure of just what he was promising. Safety probably. Never run with a thermometer in your mouth. She hugged him tightly, he hugged her back...
 
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Eventually she calmed down and left.
 
And then the disgust set in. All that work, all those grand ideas down the drain! It had been brilliant, magnificent, but he had hardly even gotten the chance to set foot in it. To play army like they had planned, able to defend it against an entire neighborhood's worth of attackers.
 
Danny knew he wouldn't be getting to sleep anytime soon, so he turned on his little t.v. set with the sound down low. On the Sci Fi Channel was a really old movie, BATTLE BENEATH THE OCEAN FLOOR, which was about the Chinese communists coming over here in these monstrous digging machines---their whole front ends like giant spinning drill bits---tunnelling clear under the Pacific to pop up and invade our west coast cities, pouring forth like ants. It was a very dumb movie, but there was something about the sight of all those troops, marching and bivouacking miles underground...
 
"My God!" cried Danny as he bolted upright in bed, his brain awhirl.
 
Of course, an underground fort! Starting at the little screen hatch that led under his own house, branching out...
 
With the right equipment there would be virtually no limit to what you could do, where you could go. Build a whole freakin' underground city! Much of the ruined treehouse could be used for the shorings they would need for some of the tunnels.
 
His mom would have a fit over what she would see as the extreme peril of such an undertaking,
but then she wouldn't have to see it, and what she didn't know about wouldn't upset her.
Unlike the treehouse this had the potential for being an entirely secret project!
 
Danny went over to his desk, switched on the little gooseneck lamp, and began drawing up a list of things they would need...
 

 

Great Stories!

Enjoyed these a lot. The payoff of that first story is set up beautifully, and Danny Robinson's character is sketched very effectively in the second.

Eric

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