Tuesday, August 23, 2011

It's not that you can't go home again; it's just that you shouldn't. Often.

As readers of this blog may well know, I recently spent several days in my hometown, ostensibly to help out after my dad had surgery. In addition to my adventures bat-hunting, here are some highlights of my time at home:

But with oxycodone
Being a hobo ROCKS
  • My parents' sheltie, Jack, brings a bottle of pills out to my dad in his recliner every morning. He's like a pharmaceutical St. Bernard.
  • My sister's consistent state of nomadism has led to various rooms in my parents' house being designated for storage of her belongings and furniture "until" she gets her own place/ gets settled in said place/ finds a new place etc. Hence my brother's old room being referred to as the "Hobo Room."
  • My parents do not recycle. I was kind of shocked at how much this bothered me. Granted, I do live in Ithaca, NY, a place so crunchy it practically snaps, crackles and pops when you enter the city limits. But I found myself cringing as I put cardboard boxes into their trashcan. (Confession: we're fairly rabid recyclers at home as much to save money on garbage tags as to save the environment.)
  • I learned the true origin of my childhood nickname, and it wasn't all cute & fuzzy bunnies.
  • I was reminded of my family's deepest, darkest, most horrible secret:  (are you ready?)  We are related to Dick Cheney. Yup. Ol' Uncle Darth Cheney.
    Who invited this D-bag to the family reunion?
    My paternal great-grandmother was named Josephine Cheney; our family genealogist, Aunt Marnie, has confirmed that she and the Dark One were cousins or some such garbage. Go ahead. Shudder and shake your head like you just did a shot of Nyquil. You may want to do an actual shot of Nyquil to help you process this information or at least numb yourself. I know I did. We have decided to deal with this ugly fact by quoting a wall plaque I gave my mother one Christmas:  "If you can't be a good example, you'll just have to serve as a horrible warning."
  • Leaving my mother's house can easily turn into her version of a "Favorite Things" episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show.
    She will literally turn the house upside down to find things for you to take away with you. As she was rooting through the kitchen cupboards, I kept hearing in my head, "And YOU get a package of lemon jello!" "EVERYONE GETS A CAN OF GREEN BEANS!" "Would you like this dress that I bought that doesn't really fit me?" "DO YOU NEED WASHCLOTHS?" "Would you ever wear those fringed moccasins that you had in eighth grade again? THEY'RE IN MY CLOSET IF YOU WANT THEM." (Note: it just occurred to me that this may be a deliberate effort on her part to cut down on the piles of stuff that have driven us to name rooms in her house after homeless people. It may be some kind of hoarder preventative mechanism.)
Now, imagine the opposite of this.
I also went out one night with some girlfriends. I met my friend Aimee of Raimen Pride out at the one bar in our hometown besides the American Legion. It's a little one-room place with maybe five barstools. She was getting her ear talked off by the owner, who thought for some reason that it was acceptable and a good idea to tell her just exactly how he ripped off customers by charging more for drinks than they're worth. This fine gentleman greeted me and asked me what I wanted. I was honest.
I shouldn't have been.
I asked for a martini.
"A what? Honey, what the hell is that?"
I'm pretty sure my face went blank. "Oh, never mind, I'll just have a beer."
"Nah, we're gonna figger this on out! Jolene, get the book!"
The Book. What have I wrought?
Jolene opened "the book" and began reading, "2 1/2 ounces of gin..."
"Oh, hey, could I make that vodka, please?" I interrupted. Got a scowl from Jolene for 'fancyifying' things up even further.
"... 2 1/2 ounces of vodka, 1/4 ounce of vermouth- do we even got vermouth?? Yeah? Okay, if you say so."
Jolene began assembling the ingredients for my drink, and BarKeep told me, "Now it says here to add cocktail olives or a lemon twist. Well, honey, I ain't got no olives, so you'll have to make do with the lemon."
"Not a problem."
"No, Jolene, don't use the plastic cups! Get out the martini glass!"
Just add dust!
The martini glass.
"It's back there behind the bottles. The nice one."
The single martini glass in this establishment was so dusty that Jolene had to give it a vigorous scrubbing, thus sending my eagerness to taste this drink concoction right out the effin' window. Barkeep was going on about seeing people in the movies using a cocktail shaker with the ice then straining it into the glass, but karaoke had started by this point and drowned out his philosophical musings. Aimee named my drink a "Steuben-tini" after our home county of Steuben. I switched to vodka tonics after my one Steubentini. I think Barkeep & Jolene were relieved to return The Glass to its place of safety and honor.

The bar had an overly aggressively fruity air-freshener in the ladies' room, so much so that Aimee came out of the bathroom at one point and said, "I felt like I was peeing in a giant cantaloupe."

One of the girls' boyfriends picked us up and gave us a ride to the next town over where we proceeded to do shots. Now, maybe I hang out with a harder element, but in my corner of the world when someone refers to "shots" it means a small glass of either tequila or whiskey or possibly a speedbump (jager and red bull). In the Southern Tier, however, "shots" means wee fun-sized cups of fruity alcohol-infused mixed drinks. And are apparently the cue for the person designated in charge of the music to play some dreadful vocoded dance song whose lyrics, to the best of my deciphering ability, are "shots, shots, shots, shots, shots." Repeated. Repeatedly.

Must be the "before" pic
So thus concludes my adventures in Steuben County for this summer. In spite of my whining, I did enjoy it. After the bat-adventures died down, I got some rest and relaxation; sat out in the sun and swam in the pool, took long peaceful walks, read books, slept well, wrote a little, got treated to a long-overdue haircut (at a salon where Bill Pullman got a haircut- they still have a little baggie of his hair!), and was able to play the good kid by doing some of the cooking and cleaning and giving my mom a temporary break.

But I must admit, I've been dying for a real martini since I got back.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Hamchunkles? In which I have an identity crisis.

I may have to rename this blog.

Ham Chuck's the one on the right.
I just found out from a good friend of my father's that my dad's nickname for me, Hamchuck, is actually taken from the movie The Green Berets. (My dad has confirmed this.) There is a character named "Ham Chuck," (or in some places, "Ham Chunk") a Vietnamese orphan who is taken under the wing of one of the main characters. His journey is not exactly a laugh riot: During this period, Petersen befriends a young native boy named Ham Chuck, a war orphan who has no family other than his dog and the soldiers at the basecamp. As the battle rages, the dog is killed and the boy tearfully buries his faithful companion. Symbolically, the boy uses the stick he had used to dig the dog's grave as the tombstone. As the soldiers rush to their defensive positions, the stick is knocked away, leaving an unmarked grave.

Babies LOVE strung-out Diana Ross.
Jumpin' hot cats in a bamboo steamer! THAT's where my childhood nickname is from? A war orphan whose only family is his dog, who is also killed? Criminey, that's dark. I guess it fits in with other aspects of my childhood: my mom told me that my very first movie, when I was only an infant, was Lady Sings the Blues.

So I've spent all morning trying to figure out if my namesake was Ham Chuck or Ham Chunk. I kinda like Ham CHUNK better, because I instantly had this vision of a combination of the forlorn Vietnamese orphan and the chubby kid from The Goonies. Maybe Ham Chunk would do the Prosciutto Waddle instead of the Truffle Shuffle?

PS- In a Google search for images of Ham Chuck, I found this brother-in-arms:

Someday, perhaps, we shall meet.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

I have given a name to my pain, and it is Batman.

I'm home at my parents' house this week, helping out as my dad recovers from surgery.
It's only been one night & it's already been a ride from hell. Allow me to explain.

My dad lost a leg in a brutal ambush in Vietnam. Almost all of his SEAL platoon was killed in the attack. My dad's left leg was blown off and his right was so badly burned that they weren't sure they would even be able to save that one. Nearly forty years of one leg taking the burden for two had bowed his leg and destroyed his knee. He went to his doctor for a knee surgery, but the doctor wouldn't do it because the leg was so badly scarred and still full of shrapnel. At which point my dad announced to his family that he wouldn't rest until he found someone who would do the surgery, which incited fears of him going to some quack south of the border who replaces kneecaps with avocado pits or whatnot.

But he found a very legit and highly recommended orthopedic surgeon at the Syracuse VA Hospital to do his surgery. He passed all the vascular tests and it was scheduled. (A main worry had been that he would throw a clot and stroke, due to possible vascular damage to the leg.)

My sister and I talked and divided up the family duty: she got pre-op and I got post-op. Kate went to the hospital with them, waited around with my mom and shuttled her between the hospital and the hotel where she was staying. I elected to drive them home after he was discharged and stay at their house for a couple of days to help out. I think she got the easy end of the bargain.

Yesterday morning, Brett drove me up to Syracuse and dropped me off at the hospital where I met up with my mom and my very agitated dad. He'd spent nine days in a hospital with excellent surgical, physical therapy and nursing care, but which was not exactly a paragon of cleanliness and hospitality. He'd shared a room with 2 other guys, shielded by a curtain that didn't completely block out the fluorescent light from the hallway. My dad is not a patient man to begin with; his hospital stay had frayed his nerves. He was rather brusque and curt as we loaded him into the car and began the three-hour drive home. It was a beautiful day and the scenery and the calmness my mom and I were struggling to project started to calm him down.

We got him home, settled him in a chair to nap, and I went out to get groceries to make dinner. I put the rosemary chicken with roasted vegetables in the oven and went out to the porch room to chat with my folks. Wasn't there but five minutes when my dad muttered, "Was that a big bat that just flew by?"
"Yep. SH!T!"

My mother, who is terrified of bats, ran outside with their dog, Jack. I had to do recon. I went into the basement and checked around, no sign of him there, but while I was there, I spotted my old hockey stick and grabbed it. Upstairs, the first floor rooms were deemed clear. My mother shouted from the sidewalk out front, "Get the tennis racket in your father's closet!"  In my father's closet, all I could find was a ping pong paddle. I ran back out with it. "THIS is what you call a tennis racket?"

"It worked before!"
Oh hell.

While I was in there, looking at the ping pong paddle in my hand, I scanned the room and deemed it clear, so I closed the door and moved on.

The room I was staying in, my sister's former room, was clear, so I shut that door.

Bathroom, clear.

Office, clear.

Which left my brother's old room (known as the "Hobo Room" because my mom was storing stuff in piles and heaps in there) and the third floor attic loft, my former bedroom and now my brother's room. I peeked into the Hobo Room and saw an enormous black bat circling the ceiling fan. Kevin had been in bed, taking a nap, just a few feet below the bat.

I quietly called out, "Kevin?"

He said, "Kerry! I'm scared!"

"I know. You listen to me, okay? Slide out of bed to the floor and crawl over to the door. Close it when you're out. Okay?"


He ran past where I was crouched in the hall and shut himself up safely in the bathroom.

(Disclaimer: I was not aware that my brother is the assigned bat-slayer in my parents' house and has regularly dispatched several bats. Needless to say, I was ticked to find out that he abandoned me and left me the job.)

I ran back down to my dad and told him I had the bat secured in the Hobo Room.
"Okay, good," he nodded. "Now take these toy butterfly nets and catch it."


"Turn off the ceiling fan, sit on the bed, wait it for it to come to you, and catch it in the net."

Excuse me. I did not sign up for this.

But I had to, because my dad had just gotten out of the hospital, he still has the stitches in his knee and was weak from the travel.

I put my hair up under a baseball hat and went upstairs.

I just could not bring myself to sit on the bed and wait for the bat to come within two feet of me. I tried. I managed to get the fan turned off. I've since requested a pith helmet and full-length safari jumpsuit for future endeavors as I feel if I had the proper uniform and equipment, I might have been more successful. In past bat operations, I've been more than willing to wield a large stick and help smack it along its way outside. (My crowning glory was a line drive hit to a bat with my mom's ceiling fan duster, in my underwear, without my glasses or contacts, at about 4am. Knocked that sucker right out the door onto the porch.)

As it stands, my dad had to come upstairs and sequester himself to take care of the situation. And it turns out, he wasn't able to catch the beast in the toy butterfly net, nor shoo it out the open window. He knocked it out of the air with one of his crutches and killed it. I was summoned (with gloves) to come dispose of the body.

An enormous glass of wine was required after this.

It's only day one. By day five, I may be crouched in the bottom of a closet, muttering inanities to myself in a language I created that only I know.

I'll keep you all updated.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Calling all campers ...

So I'm doing Camp NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) to have the inspiration to perhaps finally finish this damned novel I've been writing. It's got me thinking about camp.

I've only ever been to swim training camp. When I was little, I was terrified my parents would send me to the Young People's Day Camps that were advertised on TV. (Although I grew up in what is commonly referred to as the Southern Tier of NY- the yellow part on the map, we received two channels out of New York city, which exposed us country kids to all kinds of local ads really only meant for the five boroughs.)

Maybe my fear of "camps" had something to do with my early interest and terror of the Holocaust and the meaning that the word "camps" meant in that context.

I'm not sure where or how (or frankly, why) I learned about the Holocaust so early.  I have a suspicion I saw something on television and it required an explanation. I think it honestly was just too horrific a thing for a kid to be able to completely comprehend all at once, which was why I was so fascinated by it and always searching for more information about that horrible time in history. I remember reading the Diary of Anne Frank very early on, maybe when I was eight or nine years old. Something about that little girl who had to hide with her family from "the bad people" really struck me, in ways that proved none too healthy later on.

Years ago, I finally confessed to my mother that for a very long time, I thought the Jehovah's Witnesses were modern-day Nazis. (No offense meant to any Witness readers of this blog- we're an equal opportunity offender here at Hamchuckles.)  Let me explain.

My mom stayed home with us until I was about 15. Which meant when I wasn't in school, she was home with us, usually doing housework in between watching snippets of soap operas or Sesame Street. The phone would ring- my mother would answer it and I would hear a conversation similar to this:

Jehovahs? No shit!
MOM: Hi, Carol. How are you?  What? Here? They just left your house? Then there isn't much time! Thanks, gotta go!

My mother would hang up the phone, grab my baby sister and take my hand and drag us into the basement where we would crouch on the cellar steps. "But what about Kevin?" I would pipe up. My brother was upstairs, taking a nap.
"Shh! They'll hear you!"
And then, the knock at the door. I held my breath. Katie gurgled and start making her chirpy baby noises. My mother covered her mouth with her hand in an effort to silence her. The television was still on in the living room, but it was too late to go turn it off.

Another knock.

My heart beat so fast I could feel it in my ears. It was clear to me- we had to stay perfectly quiet or the "bad people" would come get us. After what seemed like hours, my mother would finally deem it safe for us to emerge from the cellar steps. She would follow protocol and get on the phone with the next neighbor to warn them of their arrival.

One time I was bold enough to run to the front door to try catch a glimpse of them. I saw no jackbooted, swastika-wearing, goosestepping storm troopers, only a handful of couples in ill-fitting suits and off-brand Laura Ashley dresses (with their hair inevitably french-braided) climbing into a slightly rusty windowless van.

While unknowingly scaring the crackers out of me, my mother's secretive technique had a hidden benefit of bolstering my little fantasy life and way of coping with historical facts that were just too horrible to reconcile with life as I knew it. Every time the "bad people" went away from our house empty-handed, it was a win for the "good people." I imagined myself there with Anne Frank, but in my version, the "bad people" gave up and went away forever, and the Franks, Van Daans and Mr. Dussel were able to come out of hiding and live normal, long lives. I've read that it's a common coping mechanism to want to rewrite history with a happy ending: Anne Frank escapes to America, the Titanic avoids the iceberg, no one goes to work at the Trade Center that day.

Of course, my mother had no idea I had been going through my own personal Nazi occupation until I told her many, many years later. She just shook her head and tried to figure out how she'd ended up with such a whacked-out kid.

Anyone going door-to-door still elicits my suspicion and a knot of fear in the pit of my stomach. Whether it's kids selling candy or evangelicals looking for a moment of my time for Christ, my first instinct is to gather up my loved ones and head for the staircase. I suppose it's good training for the Zombie Apocalypse.