My dad and his father slapped together a few boards and called it a cabin on the island where I spent my childhood summers. Actually it wasn’t even much of an island considering it was landlocked most of the year. Only a few weeks each winter when the deluge came did it pretend to float.
Supposedly it is 65.5 miles from our Seattle digs to the glorified shack. Funny how that calculation lingers in my head after all these years. I can still hear my dad say, “Won’t be long now kids…it’s exactly one hour door-to-door.” As I grew up and was able to test his theory personally, I found that 65.5 miles put me in a neighborhood that I wasn’t familiar with, and certainly not at anyone’s door I cared to visit. Had the earth shifted or had my father played tricks on us all of those years?
There are two seasons in the Northwest…one for road construction and one for rain. Each summer it seemed that we reluctantly entered the former, detouring away from main highways through the strawberry fields where I’d occasionally pick and fill a flat for cash. We snaked around tired farm plots that my ancestors had toiled in. They were hardy Norwegians who left their homes perched high above the fjords, hopping boats to America. Few could speak English and some never learned, but they stuck together, clutching their tendency to be dark with one another.
The street leading to our cabin is narrow and makes sharp unexpected turns. Toward the end of the road the pavement seems to drop off and the trees vanish, giving way to an expansive view of the sea below.
Pulling into the driveway my parents would remain in the car, surveying the damage of our place after another brutal winter. Rarely did I participate in this overall evaluation, having by this point dashed to the seawall.
The place needed airing. There was a musty smell, and the unforgettable odor of a dead animal or two decaying under the house. All doors would be opened and the heavy woolen drapes pulled to the side shedding light on family heirlooms. My mother would take a wet sponge to the walls, and remove dead insects and cobwebs from windowsills. Dad would unlock the shed holding bikes, poles, tackle boxes, and an old fashion washing machine that catapulted across the carport with each spin cycle.
My Dad would then maneuver the rusty push mower out of the hut. The sound of blades clipping across the cement driveway drove sparrows from their nests, dive bombing us like enemy fighter jets. Although my father has a gentle nature, he can be skittish under attack. He would curse the sparrows and with a quick swipe of the broom, send the nests exploding onto the pavement. The hose in place, water turned full throttle, we’d spray the remains of egg yolks, feathers, and tangled twigs into the tall grass. As kids do…we soon forgot the carnage.
It would take a day or so to assemble the “Barnacle Butts.” We were a young band of hooligans given free reign each summer to roam and pirate the waterfront.
The fact that organizers of the Barnacle Butts, Bud and Lowell Larson, lived on the island year round and were older than the rest of us automatically made them our leaders.
Bud and Lowell never had much supervision. Their mother, a widow, seemed overwhelmed with their propensity to hunt, fish, and maim. Ever since her husband died, Mama Larson had that bewildered look, like she was searching for a piece of her life after a tornado had cut a swath through it. A sweet woman, she watched anxiously as her sons pulled the wings off flies, or wedged a firecracker down a trout’s mouth to free a hook. If they weren’t Super gluing a live animal to a two-by-four, they were shooting something out of a tree with a .22 rifle. Unable to discipline them with any sort of authority, she would duck back into the kitchen out of harms way, and hope that the ensuing years would bring the miracle of acceptable behavior.
One summer Bud and Lowell took a job at the local cannery. Instead of joining the rest of the Barnacle Butts for long days of debauchery, they’d hitch a ride each morning to the factory. Knowing the boys as we did, it was hard to comprehend who might have hired them. We saw them leave for the interview, all cleaned up and hair combed, but there was just something about them that spelled trouble. Turns out my instincts were right because from their first day on the job those fools tossed live critters and shit into the food processor. They started small…beetles, slugs, a mouse, then a squirrel, but there was one day that a flock of seagulls collided with a passing truck…right in front of the packing plant. Supposedly Bud and Lowell picked them up, still flapping Morris code distress signals, and flung the poor birds head first shredding them into cans of creamed corn.
In ’68, when their lottery numbers came up for the draft, everyone was certain the Larson boys would take Viet Nam by storm, just like they’d done with the island. But that’s not what happened. Two years later, Lowell limped home full of shrapnel and a piece of his brain missing. The following year Bud returned with his legs shot off.
My dad calls them lucky bastards. It obviously wasn’t their turn to die, he said. You see…my dad is scared of dying. He has this reoccurring dream that someone is going to lock him in the trunk of a car. I tell him, “Dad, don’t dwell on it. It’ll happen… if you keep talking about it.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” he said, and proceeded to tell me the story of Connie Howard, a real local head-turner who he’d known in college. She married a wealthy guy by the name of Dean Dawson. Of all the luck, Dapper Dean, as he was known on campus, died of some rare heart condition… on their honeymoon no less. Poor girl was never right after that. A daredevil with a death wish is what dad called her. One day she’d be hang gliding in gale force winds, and the next, hiking a glacier barefoot. They’d pry her off some treacherous peak and have to amputate a half dozen toes, but it was like she didn’t care. Eventually Connie took up sky diving without a parachute… and that pretty much curtailed her trailblazing.
When Bud and Lowell came home from the war they didn’t have a whole lot to say. Lowell sat on the porch rocking in an old wooden swing, and eventually Bud joined him in a wheelchair.
In the beginning there were plenty of visitors, all the Barnacle Butts made an appearance, but as the months passed and other soldiers came home in various degrees of subtraction, the visits became fewer, eventually coming to a stop. Mama Larson knew the boys weren’t right, but what could she do?
Sometimes I would stop by and sit with them on the porch. Occasionally I’d read to them. On one of my last visits Bud felt like talking instead. “Remember when?”…“How about the time…?” He dragged me through every memory of the Barnacle Butts, and somewhat reluctantly I entertained his dreams to live in the past. Lowell giggled, because that’s about all he could do at that point.
“Bud,” I said, “do you remember the time we played flashlight tag and I hid in the hold of Earl Pratt’s boat?”
Bud looked perplexed, drew a frown, it didn’t register.
“Come on…You gotta remember. You counted to a hundred. I jumped aboard while it sat on the mud flat at low tide and managed to squeeze into the crawl space straddling Earl’s anchor. I closed the door and the damn thing locked. I screamed all night as the tide floated her out to sea but the wind was blowing off shore and my voice faded on the horizon. The next morning you swam out to Earl’s boat and found me. Remember? If you hadn’t… I’d probably be dead.”
Bud didn’t remember. My dad of course said it just wasn’t my turn to go, but then he scolded me for picking a hiding place in a damn boat…and wasn’t that little anchor box just like a car trunk, and what in blue blazes was I thinking closing the door like that?
In time Bud taught himself to drive using one hand on the wheel and a cane to work the pedals. Lowell wasn’t mentally fit to operate a motor vehicle but that didn’t stop him. For years the two men would spot each other on one of those two-lane country roads and instead of waving like normal folk, the brothers would aim their cars head on, and floor it. They’d plow into each other like in a county fair demolition derby, laughing as if auditioning for the funny farm while pulling their bloodied bodies from the wreckage.
I don’t know why all this is coming out now. I guess I miss the freedom of those summers, even though the Barnacle Butts were for the most part, aimless derelicts. In our defense we never knew what was waiting for us off that island. We’d been taught that world events happened elsewhere…too far away for us to worry about.
Bud and Lowell are gone now. It finally was their turn. Mama Larson said she heard gunshots but assumed the boys were shooting robins out of her cherry trees. Later that day when she went out on the porch to see if they wanted some lunch she saw them slumped over, a puddle of blood drying in the sun beneath them. Police said that Bud must have fired the gun at Lowell, and then shot himself. A note left behind was signed by both.
Sometimes all the hints are there but you keep distracting yourself from the obvious because let’s face it, awful as it may sound, it’s tiring keeping someone on the planet when everything about them, subtle or otherwise longs to leave.
I got the news today and drove to the island. After all these years the place hasn’t changed. There is the familiar sight of seasoned fisherman dragging wooden boats to shore with the day’s catch on ice. A few buoys lay stranded on the coastline waiting for the current to change carrying them seaward to once again dance with whitecaps. Hovering offshore, a small sea lion watches, his shiny black head bobbing along the surface while the gulls gather. I watch them circle and caw like they did when I was a child, as if my appearance triggered in their memories the disruption we annually inflicted.
Although this landscape still signifies the innocence of my youth, the island has become a small world, one that I’ve outgrown. A fleeting moment that came to pass and is forever gone.
They say you can never go back. If that’s true, I can only hope that Bud and Lowell found some peace from our days gone by before that reality set in.
This is what I’m thinking about today….This, and the fact I’ve never touched a can of cream corn since those two Barnacle Butt chieftains took creative liberties with the shredder.