Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Helping Hands

I like to walk.  It helps me in many ways, both physically and emotionally.  It gives me an opportunity to be calm and to think.  There are three places I like to walk.  One is through the prairies preserve by my house, although I don’t walk there when the sun is beating down because there is little foliage to shade you; one is along the river branch near my house, because it is very lush, and the other is in the historic district of the town I live in. That is actually my favorite place to walk because when I do that I can go by the little cottage that was our first house when I was a kid.

Our town is a college town and my old house is now the campus radio station.  It sits next door to the president’s mansion, and across the street from some dorms and many beautiful Victorian houses. It also sits overlooking the football stadium, which was not there when I was a kid.  When I lived here in 1968 we were surrounded by open meadows. When I was in bed at night I could see past the Burger King, one of the originals, and out for miles and miles.

I was nearly six when I first lived here, and this town had maybe 5,000 to 6,000 people depending on the student population.  When I moved back here about 17 years ago, it had grown to a city with 130,000 people, and is now currently pushing 150,000.  What is nice about this place is that despite the mammoth growth we have undergone, we have been able to preserve our downtown so that, despite that there are a lot more upscale stores and restaurants, it still pretty much looks like it did when I lived here when I was a kid.

One day as I was walking around the historic district looking at the big, old houses -- the “painted ladies” as my mother called them -- I walked by the school where my older sister, Melissa, and I went.  As I passed by, I thought of a funny story that I remembered.

I was in kindergarten when I lived in this town first.  As such, my mother always walked me to school, and Melissa, who I was very attached to, always walked me home.  Melissa is almost two years older than me so she didn’t like that. It infringed on her freedom to be with her friends and do the things she wanted to do.  Melissa was a clever girl.  She worked hard to make sure I had friends near our house, and to convince my mother that I would be perfectly fine walking the not even six blocks home from school.  After accomplishing this, with some difficulty, she was allowed to go to the candy store after school with her friends, and leave me to get home on my own.

I developed close friendships with two kids, Jill and Mike.  We walked home together every day. Jill lived about halfway home in one of the big houses.  Mike lived in an apartment above the hardware store alone with his mother.  My mother would wait in the front yard of our house until I got there. 

The three of us had a lot “play dates” at Jill’s house because she had a big yard and a wishing well that we liked.  We also played at my house because we could run in the fields behind the president’s house.  We never played at Mike’s place though he suggested it all the time.  I once asked my mother why we never went to Mike’s to play.  She just said, “Mike lives in a small apartment and it is right downtown.  His mother is also very busy.  She has a lot of callers.”  I didn’t know what she meant by that until I was much older and started to understand those kinds of things.

One Wednesday after school I couldn’t find either Mike or Jill.  I went looking for Melissa and couldn’t find her either.  She had already gone off to the candy store. There was a boy named Denny that was on the playground and he said, “I’ll walk home with you, Tommy.” I didn’t know Denny all that well, and didn't particularly care for him. He was a little, tow-headed, rat-faced kid who talked rapidly about stuff that didn't always make any sense. Nevertheless, I figured it was better to walk home with Denny than walking home alone. 

On the way home Denny started telling me stories about his brother who was in Viet Nam. He told me that he was prisoner of war, which could have been quite possibly true in those days.  Then he started telling me some really preposterous stories about how his brother was strapped to a pole and about to be run through with thrown spears, and about how the Viet Cong were out looking for children so they could put them in cages.  In retrospect I think that Denny maybe shouldn’t have ever seen Doctor Doolittle, or Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang, which were both popular movies then.

It doesn’t matter.  All I know is that at that time Denny scared the hell out of me.  When we got to his house he pointed at an airplane and said “There’s some Viet Cong now. You better get home quick.”  I didn’t know what to do.  I started running home.  Every time I saw another plane, I hid behind a tree or under a bush.  Finally, I got so panicked I did what my mom had always told me to do if I thought I was in danger. I ran to a house with the Helping Hands in the window.

I hammered on the door and rang the bell.  A woman answered and asked, “Hello, young man. What can I do for you?”  I don’t exactly remember what I said to her, but I think a close approximation was, “Get the hell out of my way woman! I am being chased by the Viet Cong!”  Probably, what I actually said was something closer to this: “Arrrrrrgh!”   I then dove behind her sofa and curled into a ball, and refused to come out.

She was a nice woman and talked to me and tried to use cookies to coax me.  She finally got me to tell her my name and where I lived.  Suddenly my mother was there, looking over the couch and saying, “Tommy, you have to come out. It’s safe.”   I still refused. I did not want to put my family at risk.

At one point my mother saw Melissa walking home from the candy store and she went on the porch to flag her in.  Melissa asked about what was going on. My mother told her, and she calmly said, “I can get him out.”

She came into the house and crawled to where I was.  She just said, “Tommy, Denny is a liar. Don’t listen to Denny.  It’s safe.  I just bought some pixy stix and I got you a Popeye pez dispenser. You can’t have them unless you come out and go home.” My sister has always known my weak spots and how to influence me.  At that time in my life I trusted her more than any adult, so I came out from behind the sofa.

After that she and I walked home, while my mother stayed behind to talk with the nice Helping Hands lady.  I started to cry at one point.  She said “What’s the matter?  I replied “I’m in trouble, aren’t I?  Mom and Dad are going to be mad at me.”  She didn’t even skip a beat. She just reached out, and softly pushed me in the head. “No. Not this time.  They’ll talk at you but you’re not in trouble.  It’s going to be OK, Tommy.”

Melissa was right.  All my dad did was come and talk to me, especially about the proper times when to utilize Helping Hands, and then he left me alone on my bed to deal with my growing embarrassment.   Later on, Melissa came to my room and asked me if I wanted to go up to the attic. “Maybe it will make you feel better if we work.”

Our attic was a wonderful place with lights and windows, and mattresses all over the place where we could jump and play.  Melissa and I went up there all the time and did just that. It was our secret spot.  It is the place where we worked and Melissa gave me the greatest gift I have ever received.  One even better than a Popeye pez dispenser

Because she knew I wanted it so bad, Melissa almost daily used took me up to the attic with a bunch of books and then letter by letter, word by word, and sentence by sentence, she taught me how to read. For that I will always eternally grateful.  It changed my world.  Reading and writing became the passion of my life.  That night we read Sam, the Mouse and Joe, the Bear, which I loved and it did make me feel better.

Melissa has always been a caregiver, a teacher, and a person with Helping Hands. She’s a wonderful wife and mother, and someone who I never stopped being attached to. We have always been great friends and I am thankful for that too.  She has always been the person who has rescued me in my life when I needed it most.  Aside from my wife and children, she is one who I turn to when I need comfort or solace.  

She is the first person I called when I found out I had another thing that was going to change my world. She was wonderful to me as always, and made me feel a lot better about what I would be facing. She gave me kind of a spiritual pez dispenser.

I guess Helping Hands aren’t always displayed on windows.  Sometimes they just walk among us.