Marathon 65

Sometimes through life this runner stumbled. While there was never any first place, crossing the line signifying 65 eventually became a major goal.

On some plane, I should grumble about not living in opulence and swaddled by elegance. People who do are part of my circle. Cosseted as such, some still haven’t found satisfaction. Deep or otherwise. Indeed, you can have plentitude and realize it means little.

In lieu of close family, I’m lucky to have a network of trustworthy and understanding contemporaries. Can’t buy those.

About the first, it can’t be helped. Most of my family has expired. At least nearly all the generation that raised me as well as most of the cohort with whom I came along. The latter’s successors and inheritors? We’ve become further strangers through divergence. We’ve each gone our own ways.

Distance. The price of different pursuits.

If there is a sad part, it’s having few with whom to reminisce. Listeners who know the figures in the stories being revived. If there’s a sadder part, it’s providing substantial background of the characters to unfamiliar ears before proceeding with the stories. Of course, it’s a tossup whether saddest part is lacking an audience or knowing fate will eventually push me to the farthest periphery until I too am veiled among the shadows of being forgotten.

As it will us all.

It’s not tragic. It will happen to all reading Marathon 65. Sooner than any of us will ever know or wish to acknowledge that the last person who’ll have actual memories of us will also pass into the beyond. Then we’ll only exist for periods afterwards in the “distant third person.” Passed down tales of spirits whose once ever having been are gradually related through invention or speculation until becoming nebulous.

Let’s all hope that’s a long way off yet.

I didn’t spend this March examining my life. I preferred reviving those who’d run the race. Most completed the course. More than a few stumbled, yes, but never rose again. Or if they regained their feet and pace, fell later for good too early. Relatives and acquaintances who didn’t get out of their teens, 20s, or live onto their middle 30s, 50s, and barely into 60.

That’s presumptuous, no? Calculating how long someone deceased should’ve lived. As if we have the power.

Marathon 65 will not be a recitation of those who slipped the coil “too early.” Besides, no way I can improve on that Jim Carroll Band tune, People Who Died.

Instead, just a couple interludes from life must suffice. Most of the road was smooth, though there were potholes on stretches where one least expected them.

Had two sets of male cousins born in the 1940s. A pair from paternal and maternal sides each.

The first two, Frank Jr. and Richard, were sired by the uncle I wrote about in Uprooted. Frank. In a family that adhered to primogeniture he was my father’s elder brother. Unlike his four younger brothers, Frank was exempted from World War II. His ticket out came from toiling in an essential war industry. Doubtlessly having one child before the outbreak of hostilities further excluded him. Producing a spare a few years later could only have cemented his “indispensability.”

The second two were sons of a maternal aunt. Vernon and Barry. Who their fathers were or may’ve been remained an unspoken topic. Just know both sons carried their mother’s maiden name as surnames.

My paternal grandfather worked for the railroad. He also inherited 40 South Carolina farm acres. That acreage near the Atlantic Coast had been issued to former slaves made freedmen after the Civil War. Less than a year ago, our family started a process to sell the land. It has lain fallow for decades. And none of my cousins is big on “going back to the land.” Unless that plot sits in a swank part of Charleston. I think I’m the only one of us raised in the North who actually stepped foot on that loam.

Returning to names, the significance of them, in 2013 while packing up and settling matters in New York before relocating to Las Vegas, I uncovered tax records, the deed, and survey maps to our South Carolina property. After Frank’s death my father, the next oldest, the old weal fell to him. In the end, a surviving brother, Sonny, the family’s youngest, took possession.

Perusing all the paper one fact became clear – some great-great-great grandfather had modified our family surname. Not too abruptly. Just enough to distinguish former chattel from free beings.

Must I really explain how much I admire this gesture?

As father and his brothers aged, their visits “home” became rarer. As rare as speaking of their rural upbringings in the Deep South during the Roaring 20s and the Depression.

Their distance from the past sat in powerful contrast to mother’s family. Those on the maternal side frequently visited relatives who didn’t make black Americans’ Great Migration north. Among mother’s people, although the long gone may’ve been long absent few had been dismissed. Listening to maternal living family members one might’ve expected the deceased subjects to enter the premises and add their takes to the conversations.

Supernatural, perhaps. Accepted, certainly.

Mother’s family made its existence in one of the state’s cotton growing regions. Their forebearers hadn’t benefited from Reconstruction. They performed stoop labor on another’s cotton acreage as sharecroppers. And yes, everything you may’ve heard about arduous conditions and unscrupulous business practices were true.

My maternal grandfather’s death at an early age from overwork finally drove them out of the fields. First to Columbia then to New York. If my grandmother Alice hadn’t any backbone, my mother, her brothers and sisters may’ve remained shackled to agrarian work. Seeing a household headed by my a woman, the landowner mistakenly thought he had an opportunity to exploit them further. He mistook Alice’s being female for being weak.

Both maternal and paternal sides of my family agreed on this: there’s only so much shit you should swallow to make a buck. If making a dollar costs your dignity, leave that money on the table.

Occasionally I travel through Phoenix or Yuma at opportune times. While behind the wheel, I see farm laborers in the Arizona fields harvesting winter produce. I’m reminded theirs is the sort of stoop labor which once sustained my mother’s family. Knowing this, knowing most Americans have zero idea how fruits and vegetables fill our plates, also knowing the same boneheads are likeliest to disparage the hands keeping them fed and fat, I never waste a chance to right misperceptions about immigrants, legal and otherwise. After all, were such tasks left to landed Americans, there’d be far less obesity throughout our country today. Immigrants keep us pudgy and porky by doing our heavy lifting.

Misplaced during the relocation from New York to Las Vegas a United Farm Workers button from the 70s. Also misplaced my copy of The Grapes of Wrath.

Vernon and Barry were the sons of Alice’s younger sister. While only a several years separated them from Frank Jr. and Richard, these were urgent years. All four came along during the draft era.

My paternal cousins were born in 1940 and 1943; the maternal set in ’45 and ’47.

Had their numbers ever come up in the draft, surely the first pair of siblings would’ve missed serving in Vietnam. Or at least the worst of the conflict. Frank hedged bets. He financed their college educations. Better known as deferments. The kind that kept them out of the pool. Indeed, these were fortunate sons. Again, referring to Uprooted, not only did Frank’s essential war work keep him safely stateside but it also enabled him to begin dabbling in investments.

The maternal cousins had nowhere near that backing. When their draft numbers came up, they went. Neither had a sugar daddy. They had to obey Uncle Sugar. Strangely, none of us ever asked them their views of army service; and learning of deployment to Vietnam, also never asked their thoughts on the cause which may’ve maimed or killed them.

On either family side, there weren’t any radicalized relatives. At least not during the Sixties. And should any have developed later, theirs was a very mild radicalism.

Like our elders who’d served in World War II, Vernon and Barry understood that being better accepted by mainstream society needed irrefutable demonstrations of loyalty and obedience. The sort of traits which undercut belief in being unworthy of full entry into society.

Vietnam. If the first set of cousins ever mentioned it, they clearly must’ve from remove. At most maybe the Southeast Asian conflict was one of those halfhearted intellectual exercises sprinkled through with strenuously inoffensive talking points. The only kind available to privileged noncombatants.

If the timeline is correctly aligned, the pair above drove a Mustang and Corvette while the less fortunate sons soldiered through Tet. Yes. Both had overlapping deployments “in country” at that time. Even if the most indifferent observer tried remaining impervious to its importance, the 1968 Tet Offensive startled and shook American confidence in “winning” Vietnam.

The second set of cousins’ return to “the world” was one of those rare occasions when father and his brothers dropped their usual reserve. Through life, these men had become contained, not straitened, not stoic but at times nearly laconic. Frank, the brother who missed fighting in World War II, had probably always been the quintets’ loud and effusive member.

In seeing family after so long after so much, the new soldiers graced us wearing A-1 dress uniforms. Those cats looked sharp. So sharp the soldiers who’d served earlier actually revealed more of their own service deeds than the usual innocuous “craps games” and “dances” fed us children curious about our fathers’ wartimes.

Service badges spackled the Vietnam warriors’ coats. Details aren’t culled from memories but off photos taken with family during a particular sometime in late 1968. During that party, a lot of pictures were taken then distributed to every relative alive.

From Kodak Instamatics, not Polaroid Land Cameras. Just in case any reader wondered.

Father and his fellow veteran brothers, as well as other family members who’d served in North Africa and Europe, formed an inquisitive and rapt audience. They asked soldiers questions indecipherable to civilians. But if countenances were properly read, then at that very moment one might’ve perceived Vietnam had stopped being a cakewalk and had become an axe throwing contest.

The one thing I explicitly remember? Both of my Vietnam cousins advising me, “If you do ever go in, go in as an officer.”

Frank, Frank Jr., and Richard stood off to the side. They stood almost on the periphery. Other than well wishes, this trio contributed nothing.

Once the second set of cousins’ enlistments concluded – amazingly neither’s combat tours resulted in any wounds (physically at least) – “real life” began making up for previous disparities.

From all initial appearances, the cousins spared Vietnam enjoyed the expected advantages. Jobs on executive tracks. The right kind of women as wives. Starter homes that ought of led to pleasure domes in our neck of suburban splendor.

No. Richard went headfirst into the era’s counterculture. This deviation angered his father to no end. He’d likely hoped for a Ralph Bunche. Rather, he got an H. Rap Brown wannabe. Drugs were a huge part of the younger son’s derailment. He’d waste the 1970s and 80s as someone volleying between rehab and barely avoiding serious time in the clink only to his father’s efforts.

Once caught Richard skeezing in his family’s basement. The works from which he injected his poison was one of the more malevolent devices I’ve ever seen. A look passed between us. Not of trust. More like complicity. I told no one then. Submerged an incident witnessed in my teens until my early 50s. Only told mother then. By that time, we were our immediate family’s last Mohicans. Auguries concerning her were becoming clearer. Twelve years ago, her days were becoming precious. We discussed what we could bear.

She lamented Richard’s tragedy. The “spare,” he’d been Frank’s favorite. I thought if it that obvious maybe the “heir” aware of his lower standing in his father’s esteem. A good enough reason as any not to push oneself.

Mother imagined how far men in her family might’ve gone if they’d had the slightest amount of what life had presented either nephew. But her father, brothers, uncles, male cousins, were unfortunate sons.

Frank Jr.’s career stalled. In Japan, he might’ve become a “salaryman.” Forget “oomph!” He lacked drive. He’d become dull. Probably feeling married to an anchor, his wife cast him adrift. Of this couple, she possessed the spark. Free of him, she excelled as a professional.

Now in her 80s she still excels.

Neither Frank Jr. nor Richard survived the 1990s. The younger succumbed in his late 40s, his brother fell for good shortly before his 60th year. They epitomized the observation “Potential is unrealized talent.”

Conversely, the two cousins who started life “behind,” had fought in an unpopular war, whose Vietnam veterans’ backgrounds might’ve burdened them in the pejorative, found succor in suburbia. Barry retired as a career civil servant; Vernon entered private enterprise. But the older man maintained a military connection. In the army reserves. He achieved a colonelcy.

Too bad Vernon never advised me “If you go in and stay in, be an officer.”

Into his late seventies, each man lived solidly middle-class lives. So, in both respects they would’ve seen and regarded themselves as unremarkable. Whole new generations are rising now who see such lives as miraculous as well as unattainable.

Following my father, his brothers, others in that broad embrace of World War II veterans who proved themselves worthy of being rightly acknowledged as full-fledged Americans, both of those cousins were generous, mild-mannered men with seemingly infinite patience. They laughed easily. They lived as simply as possible. Thus, happily. To the hilt they enjoyed everyday pleasures. These were the kind of men who tortured themselves before finally getting riled.

Probably those attributes got them ahead farther than anyone would’ve expected at their nascence.

Let me conclude Marathon 65 with a vignette from my own start. Mother was sparing when it came to telling stories of me during my infancy or as a toddler. Who knows? Maybe there were only a few worthwhile remembering.

The one I enjoyed best dealt with us in our first several summers. Say, from 1959-62.

In August, and it was always August, Metropolitan New York habitually sweltered. For stretches of long days, the three H’s would smother residents. Hazy. Hot. Humid. A good turn of phrase might be “wringing steaming moisture out of the air.”

On summers’ more brutal days, after feeding father early dinners, mother would gather baby necessities in a bag. She’d then tote it and me down to a bus stop. Among the routes served were two – an express and a local – which threaded Quarropas to the Woodlawn subway station in the Bronx. We’d always ride the local, never the express.

Our purpose was never to catch an elevated into Manhattan. Our purpose was finding some respite from the close quarters our home became in August when thermometer and humidity raced to see which could climb higher.

The buses were air conditioned. We’d take at least two roundtrips on a single fare. Hitting every stop as the local did, repeating short miles between Quarropas and the Bronx could last hours. We left in the latest portions of afternoons. We often returned at dusk.

Father was usually asleep by then. He needed to start cracking by 4 a.m. to clock in for his assembly-line shift. By our return I too had given over to Nod.

Naturally I don’t recall any of these trips. But I am grateful today mother transformed mundane travel – what’s more mundane than riding a bus? – into excursions that cooled and further bonded us.

Bus rides to and from the Bronx. What an introduction to suburban splendor.