Country Cousins And The Townboy

the-ridge-edit

THEY WERE DIZYGOTIC OR FRATERNAL TWINS. They were my cousins, just three months older than me. But to a sheltered townboy like myself, they were giants. Their names were Bob and Kenan. It seemed to me their names were always said together, and it was always Bob and Kenan, never Kenan and Bob, although I am not sure who was born first, and had always figured Bob and Kenan just sounded better and rolled easier off the tongue than Kenan and Bob. Together their names rolled off my tongue as if they were a single ent ity like peanut butter and jelly, cops and robbers, life and death. Not that they were ever anything close to being identicals—they weren’t, but brothers they were, and brothers they are. Uncle Robert was my grandfather’s brother, Uncle Robert their father. I think this made them my second cousins, as they were easily understood as my mother’s first cousins although she obviously was much older than them. I never could keep all that “once removed” second, third, and fourth cousin stuff straight in my head, so I prefer to leave that to the genealogy purists. Bob and Kenan did have a sister, Robin, a couple of years older and another named Ethel, closer to my Aunt Maude’s age, who is my mother’s youngest sister, twelve years her junior, and nine years my senior, but I barely knew the rather smart and attractive Ethel (as I recall) or the eldest, a half-brother whose name I cannot remember, although it might be Conrad, yes, I think his name was Conrad. Second cousins or not, I admired Bob and Kenan as entities of strength and daring, replete with skills and aptitudes I’d never have, and I still admire them, but growing up, things were sometimes a bit awesome and sometimes a bit awkward.

Bob, Kenan and I were all in the fifth grade. Over some standard dinner fare none of us kids particularly liked (probably tuna casserole) it was announced that I would be going out to the Ridge to tutor my twin cousins in fifth grade studies as they had been having a bit of trouble in school lately. Things were always being announced in my family. It wasn’t like the idea had been floated, all of the ramifications thoroughly discussed, and I had actually agreed to tutor my country cousins. No. That didn’t happen in my family. Never. We never had family discussions. We had commandments from on high. While I knew what a tutor was, someone like Mary Poppins or Buffy and Jody’s Mister French I surmised, I hardly felt qualified to teach my cousins anything about reading, writing, or arithmetic that they hadn’t been taught in class. It doesn’t did compute with me. I did nothing but sit cutup in class, and exercise due diligence on the paperwork, but I never cracked a book. I carried books home, for a decade I carried a stack of books home, always intending to study, but I never did. I wanted to study, but I always found other things better to do, or my mother found worse things for me to do, but studying never quite made it into actual practice. Toting books apparently was all for show, for the lesser kids, perhaps; as if to show them this was how one did it, how one made straight A’s, how one beat the system, the curve, the report card blues, but unlike Honest Abe I never cracked a school book at home.

virginia_northmaryl

Current Events 1965-66

Life, as in a work of fiction, contains truths and untruths. Strange how that works, but in storytelling, it’s all about the imaginative ride.

  • A B-52 bomber collides with a KC-135 Stratotanker over Spain, dropping three 70-kiloton hydrogen bombs near the town of Palomares, and one into the sea, in the 1966 Palomares B-52 crash….
  • The Texas Western Miners defeat the Kentucky Wildcats with five African-American starters, ushering in desegregation in athletic recruiting….
  • An intra-party military coup in Syria replaces the previous government of Amin al-Hafiz by one led by Salah Jadid. The Ba’ath Party takes power…
  • The U.S. announces it will substantially increase the number of its troops in Vietnam. Demonstrations are held across the United States against the Vietnam War….
  • Northeast Blackout of 1965: Several U.S. states (VT, NH, MA, CT, RI, NY and portions of NJ) and parts of Canada are hit by a series of blackouts lasting up to 13½ hours…
  • Surveyor 1 lands in Oceanus Procellarum on the Moon, becoming the first U.S. spacecraft to soft-land on another world…
  • Musician John Lennon of the Beatles in 1966 said in an interview with Maureen Cleave that Christianity was in decline and that the Beatles had become more popular than Jesus Christ…

I mean seriously, my own siblings were struggling scholastically, some of them severely, and no one had insinuated me or anyone else into a tutoring session with them. Why then thrust me upon Bob and Kenan? What sort of dubious plot was this? Had they asked their parents to seek me out? That seemed unlikely. We were boys. Southern boys. Or at least they were. I was still swimming among the shark infested waters of competing ideas, and I wasn’t quite sure who I was at this point. To my young but active mind this entire operation seemed like something from a spy novel, a genre that didn’t particularly interest me, unless one considered the exploits of Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Nigger Jim a major source of childhood espionage, technique, and strategy, not a far-fetched idea now that I think about it again. I was quite certain that upon arriving at the cinder block Woodward house stuck back in a couple of acres of clearing nearly a half mile or so into the thick woods off State Highway 99 commonly called Ridge Road in this part of the county that I could only anticipate excruciating self-consciousness leading straight to the typical dead end boredom I felt most of the time outside my personal fiefdom of adventure books and the oft-remarked wonderful wide world of sports I had entered.

Sure, I had earned straight A’s on every single report card I’d ever brought home since stepping into a classroom, and while Bob and Kenan were in the same grade as I was, they were in the other fifth grade teacher’s class, not Mrs. Barwick’s advanced class where I was such a dallier that my desk was pulled out of the familiar rows and pushed up against the teacher’s desk as an outward sign of both my brilliance and my penchant for overzealous argument. In a phrase, I was teacher’s pet. Neither proud nor ashamed. It was just my small town reality. I came by it naturally. My mother had graduated high school in the same town a year early, and my pops was an eighth grade grease monkey dropout from the rural region of the state. Both were brilliant in their own fashion, but both were too much at war with the other to understand or even question why they were still together in the first place. Divorce was rare in that time and that place, but it wasn’t unheard of. Six kids to house, cloth, and feed tends to set the trap on both predator and prey I suppose.

Frankly, I never asked who had engineered this diabolical plan to further distance me from a pair of cousins with whom I could only wish I had more in common. I knew had I asked, no straight answer would find my ears. Grownups had been talking, and of course, they always knew best, and questioning authority was not merely frowned upon, it didn’t survive the first round. Cousins Bob and Kenan were much bigger than me. How would this look? How would this make me feel? Much worse was how would it make them feel? We may have been young, but we knew the score that would find its way to the school playground. This task was short on details but long on snares and nothing any of us wanted to admit we wanted to happen. All any of us really knew was that this scene was going to take some finessing, and we each probably guessed that we would be the one doing most of the finessing. From my perspective, he twins would not be pushovers.

Only three months older they were already inches taller and pounds more robust than this townboy&#151thanks to the powers of genetics, and any kid worth his squabble knew what the advantage meant if wires ever got crossed (even if nobody got licked or even threw a punch). Just to be clear, Uncle Robert stood about 6’2″ and Aunt Ruth was damn near six foot tall herself. My own precious gift of chromosomes were bestowed by a Mother who stood a mere 5’3″ tall and my Pops straightened up to a short 5’9″ on a good day. I knew I’d have to up my game a tad. This was some serious horse muck I was stepping into, forget mud piuddles, stinky, slimy horse muck. That was how I related to this serious breech of elementary school social order or so I was thinking, and thinking, and thinking…

It was decided, again from on high, that I would spend an hour a week in the books with Bob and Kenan. There was never any word from on high whether there would be compensation for this tutoring. They were family, after all. As I had already proven myself as a strong independent creative type in school, in my breakout year for Ossie Pack’s Cardinals in Little League and having even showed my stuff at the Webelos Cub Scout level, having authored and performed a leading role in a play performed before the entire Pack 219 crowd, it was presumed I had the chops to map out a lesson itinerary in cooperation with my cousins. So, we were all three being thrown into the icy waters of peer embarrassment without a lifejacket, so to speak. The play? The Founding Of Plymouth Rock, of course, and of in a keen sense of where the true power resided I played the Narrator as I was not about to sweet talk a fellow scout dressed as a girl named Priscilla Mullins. You see, my version of Plymouth Rock and the Massachusetts colony was less about the new world and mostly about the romance of bashful Myles Standish, Captain John Alden and pretty Priscilla Mullins, and I probably got most of my research from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1858 poem The Courtship of Miles Standish right out of the set of Encyclopedias my mother had picked up somewhere. They were great books with all black leather covers with no discernable text written on the outside of the volumes themselves, just the individual embossed letters of the alphabet indicating which book one might find “United States Naval Warships” inside, for instance, even though the set had been published nearly twenty years prior to us coming to own them, so in many instances they were quite outdated, but I read them as a child like gospel.

Ten year old Webelos Cubs are meant to learn nothing if not the quiet baptism and unfurled flag of patriotism, being just at the beginning stages, or at least that was the case in the good old days, and I commit this thought to my narrative without a hint of sarcasm but instead from an increasing sorrow for what may have been beginning to happen to my country tis of thee in the very same days and weeks in which I was participating in the awkward tutorship of what appeared to be my two underachieving shotgun-toting ten year old cousins from The Ridge.

Speak your mind, Pilgrim...

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October 2017
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