Turning Error Into Art

Hawker Hurricane
The Art of War?

When I was a young child, I used too much glue whenever I put together a model airplane. I could see the fine details—the erect plastic nipples on each tab A, the receptive bellybuttons on each slot B, the ridges, the cutouts and the seams—but I couldn’t manage the combination of patience and coordination required to apply just enough pressure to the tube to release a tiny droplet of epoxy. Instead, I squeezed too hard, and clear sap leaked all over the wing, jammed up the landing gear and blurred the pilot’s windshield.

It’s not easy to wipe glue off plastic. Paper towels are useless—they tear and shred, and leave unattractive tatters of themselves behind—and cotton cloths aren’t much better. The glue thickens as it breathes, so you have to wipe fast, although even with a rapid swiping motion you can never get to all of it before scar tissue forms on the fuselage. Still, I tried my best to make my models neat and clean.

I used paper towels on the B-52, and cotton cloths on the Hawker Hurricane; and then, out of frustration with the inevitable, smeared deviation from exactitude—and out of respect for the Spitfire’s legend—I tossed the towels and cloths and I developed my own method for turning error into art.

I unscrewed the cap of the next soft-metal tube, pinched its bottom end, then rolled my thumb and index finger along its body, from foot to nozzle, over and over again, until all of the tube’s transparent blood oozed, seeped, ran and coated the model’s surface. Next, with the tip of one finger, I pressed, pulled and drew the thickening glue into a level sheen, as if I were painting the airplane without a brush. When I got it all as smooth and even as I could, I used an artisan’s razor to etch a few signature details. A bolt of zigzag lightning on the nose, the rough outline of a seductive lady under the window, my initials on the tail.

These lines that I drew folded in on themselves, changed course by force of gravity, and all but disappeared as the glue congealed like tired lava and then dried and flaked like a bad skin condition; but I knew what I’d meant to say by slicing them there.

My friends and brothers laughed at the results of my experiments. Back then I could not absorb ridicule any better than glue, so I gave up building the machines of war. I threw away the B-52, the Hurricane and the Spitfire; and in a fit of passive, inward temper, I declared that I’d hated airplanes all along and that I much preferred the force of nature to the power of weapons.

And yet, you cannot stop a spy from guarding secrets, nor keep a determined athlete from his sport, and so I soon replaced my glue-and-plastic art form with another exercise, this next adventure more forgiving of a young boy’s errant glance toward what delights him. I took up digging for Saturday-morning worms to use as lure for mindless catfish fed and swimming in the lake that lies below the highest hill in Bronwell Corners. I traveled muddy paths through wooded marsh at sunrise, filled my lungs with the erotic aroma of rotting vegetation, spied the flick and swoosh of rabbits darting through the reeds, nicked my fingertip on the sharp point of a fishhook, sucked the blood and cast the line.

I sat down beneath a canopy of maple leaves, listened to proud cardinals singing, and felt the summertime shadows run through me. I stared beyond the grassy bank, slipped off my shoes and socks, pushed my legs forward and let them dangle over the edge. My toes touched and then broke the lake’s cool surface. I shivered as the red cedar water tickled my ankles. I closed my eyes and imagined that a raft made of tree limbs and thick vines floated just a few hundred feet from where I rested.

A tall man dressed in a burlap toga, and wearing a straw hat on his head, rowed the raft. He smiled at me. His teeth were white and his eyes were yellow. When he’d moved the raft nearer to the shoreline, the man threw me one end of a vine.

“Tie me up, boy,” he hollered. “I have something to say to you.”

I stood up, grabbed the strong, green rope and tethered it to the tree trunk behind me. I tugged hard at the vine, letting the slack fall in circles at my feet, until the raft floated close enough to the bank that the man could jump ashore.

“You fishing or dreaming, son?” he asked.

“A little of both, I guess. It’s better than building model airplanes.”

“That’s why I’m here, boy,” he said.

I think my expression told him that I felt puzzled, because the tall man shook with a round belly laugh and then went on to explain what he meant.

“Was it the glue or the ridicule that drove you to dangle your feet in red cedar water?”

“I never really liked airplanes.”

“But you enjoy the aroma of rotting vegetation, and the flick and swoosh of rabbits reminds you that you can run like a frightened beast. That’s right, isn’t it? Flick and swoosh is what you called it, no?”

With that the man again began to laugh. This time he laughed so long and hard that he seemed to lose his wind. I watched as he chuckled and snickered, giggled and groaned, sniggered and roared, before he fell to the ground in front of me and rolled side to side, all the while holding on to his middle.

“I won’t ask you why you’re laughing at me,” I said.

I glared at the tall man and I waited. Eventually, he lay still and seemed to regain his composure. He looked at me through watered eyes and winked.

“I know that,” he said. “I know you won’t ask. You won’t even ask me who I am. I’m a little bit of God and a little bit of Jim the slave. I’m the poet you think you are today, and the craftsman you might not become tomorrow.”

“I don’t want to become you,” I said.

“Of course not. Not now that you see that my hat is made of straw and my toga isn’t seamless silk. You thought I’d be sporting a black beret and quoting windbag Whitman, didn’t you?”

“I told you, Mister, I don’t want to become you. I never wanted to become you. I don’t even want to know who you are.”

“I’m a bad-boy poet, son, and I work hard to earn a living. Sometimes I squeeze too much glue along the seams, but I’m too smart and too foolish to take up fishing. If you want to hitch a ride on the raft, then you must leave the windblown, black-beret attitude behind you. You’re too young to sound like a prophet and too old for plastic-model tantrums. And scar tissue, son, scar tissue is part of surgery, so get used to it,” he said.

“I don’t understand you,” I said.

“I think you’ll want to pull in your line now, then tomorrow return to etching zigzag lightning on the nose and a seductive lady or two under the window. There’s not much meat on even a well-fed catfish.”

And then the tall man left me sitting there alone.

Written in February 2000

A Shared Christmas Meal

Red-brick "Cottage"
Not A Cottage, Not A Home

In a long ago time and a faraway place, as we try in vain to measure what seems real, I knew a sad boy named Jimmy. I knew him when he was maybe twelve years old. And I, at twice his age back then, thought I was a wise adult.

Jimmy felt sad because he had no home to visit on Christmas Day. He lived inside a small blue room; along a shadowed, narrow hallway; inside a red-brick building that the county authorities called a cottage. But Jimmy and I knew that his room was a cell within an institution, a place designed to house and care for children whose parents had disappeared.

Each December staff members of this institution tried as best they might to contact children’s families and make arrangements for holiday visits. Most times these efforts met with success. Someone, anyone really, would lend an embrace in the spirit of the season. A relative, or a friend of a relative, or even a relative stranger with the sense to understand that an open door was a gift that a lonely child needed.

But no one opened a door for Jimmy that year. Jimmy’s voice sounded too loud when he interrupted a conversation.  Jimmy’s stare burned resentment into the flesh of those who looked at him. Jimmy’s nostrils flared with contempt when someone said hello to him. Jimmy’s muscles tightened with tension if another person dared to touch him.

Jimmy wasn’t cute or pretty in the eyes of most who met him. He frowned when addressed by another child. He slammed his feet when he walked, as if to punish the ground that refused to support the weight he carried. He threw tantrums and slammed his fists against the walls that held him back.

Jimmy fast became an outsider, even to other outsiders.

Instead of an ordinary school, Jimmy attended a Psychiatric Institute for academic classes and therapy sessions. Each morning, Monday through Friday, as the fifteen other children who lived near him, but not close to him inside his “cottage,” walked to street-corner bus stops to wait for their rides, Jimmy remained behind. He peeked around the edge of a curtain and looked at the wakening sky, until everyone else had left. He wanted no one to see him board the foreshortened yellow bus that picked him up and drove him to the center of a hollow city.

I tried too hard to befriend Jimmy, although I thought I was doing otherwise. I believed that I could somehow fill an empty space so wide and deep, a space that I now understand as the nagging ache a child feels when he wants to smile or cry.

“Good morning, Jimmy.”

“Leave me alone.”

“I tried. They wouldn’t let you go home to my apartment. I’m not married. I’m an employee here.”

“They ain’t reasons.”

“I know.”

“You don’t”

“I can’t.”

On the morning of December the twenty-fifth of that distant year, Jimmy’s anger grew more desperate. He watched his cottage neighbors leave the place they all were forced to call home. Name them orphans if you’re willing to admit that no politically correct attempt to alter reality can change the nature behind a name. Jimmy watched them as they marched down the narrow corridor, then gathered together inside the cavern called a living room to meet kind faces and hear soft voices whispering Merry Christmas wishes.

“Come here, child. Come with me today. And who’s that hiding there in the corner?”

“He’s Jimmy. Jimmy don’t like Christmas.”

“That can’t be true. Merry Christmas, Jimmy.”

“Go away, lady.”

And when the last kind face had disappeared into the holiday breeze that blew beyond those red-brick walls, when the last soft voice became smaller than a forlorn echo, Jimmy and I prepared to share a meal.

The kitchen space was all stainless steel. Large cabinets held gallon cans of spaghetti sauce that tasted like ketchup, fruit that swam in syrup, and vegetables that surrendered their colors for sake of preservation. The refrigerator, large enough to serve as a butcher’s locker, contained eggs by the gross, lard by the pound, bacon by the slab, and milk by the jug.

So I’d earlier that week shopped for kinder food at the local grocery store. Jimmy refused my invitation to join me. I wasn’t his father or his older brother, that much I understood.

We baked a Cornish hen; dressed it up to look like a turkey for two; stuffed it with rice and berries. Mashed potatoes, whipped together with heavy cream, topped with a lake of yellow butter. Homemade bread and jam. Root beer soda poured over crushed ice. No vegetables to ruin a child’s appetite.

The dining room. Four great tables, bolted to the tile floor. Four squeaking metal chairs arranged around each table. Shelving along one wall, piles of folded clothing sitting there, each item labeled with an orphan’s name. High ceiling. The glare of fluorescent lighting. Dusty plastic draperies pulled closed against the windows.

I spread a cotton cloth atop a fold-out wooden table that I’d brought from my apartment in the city. A centerpiece candle, shaped like a snowman. Sprigs of pine. Holly leaves. Silent Night drifting from the speakers of a radio.

We sat. Jimmy stared. I guess I prayed in my own way.

A tear ran down Jimmy’s cheek, a tear he couldn’t wipe away.

“Don’t want nothing.”

“Please, please, Jimmy, eat with me.”

“I ain’t hungry.”

“I know. I understand.”

“You don’t.”

“I can’t.”

I followed Jimmy as he walked back to his cell. He wouldn’t let me pull the blankets close. He turned his face toward the wall.

I sat awhile beside his bed, and then I left him there till morning.

And so is this the end of a sad Christmas story? It seemed so way back then.

But no, it’s not, because such stories never end. Today, this Christmas, I can wonder what became of Jimmy, and believe that he wonders in turn about what became of me. I can hope that Jimmy found an open door.

Jimmy, young boy, you did want something; the tear that ran down your cheek that evening told me what you wanted, told me what then I could not give to you.

Although we human beings try in vain to measure time and place, time and place cannot be measured. The Christmas meal we shared that night, and all it meant, still lives within the two of us.

Merry Christmas, Jimmy. Merry Christmas to the both of us.