Kamis, 27 Oktober 2011

Danger Doctor Smith


The Space Race of the early 1960s superseded young boys’ worship of westerns. Davy Crockett was ousted from our pantheon of heroism by America’s First Man in Space, Alan Shepherd and TV executives cancelled THE RIFLEMAN for MY FAVORITE MARTIAN. Cowboy hats, vests, guns, and holsters were retired to the closet next to toy boats and teddy bears in favor of model rockets and ray guns. At night my old brother and I lifted our eyes to the sky in hopes of being kidnapped to Mars. One way or the other we were going to the stars.

Enthused by President’s Kennedy’s vow to reach the moon, we pleaded with my parents for astronaut costumes for Halloween and my father came through with two gleaming space suits complete with a visored helmet. 

“My sons the astronauts.” My father was an electrical engineer. He believed in science.

“Better if one of them was a priest.” My mother’s heaven was reached by good deeds and daily prayers.

Her wish for a holy avocation was not a destiny to be decided by ‘one potato-two potato’ and only a miracle would grant us a seat on an Apollo mission. My brother and I had bad eyes, but we could pretend in our costumes. I held out my hands for the big box.

“Not until Halloween.” My father was a man for whom everything had a place and time. “Until then you’re Catholic schoolboys and I expected to see some hard work in math, because astronauts don’t count on their fingers.”

“Yes, sir.” My father expected complete obedience from his sons and throughout that week we received gold stars on homework and tests. 

Halloween afternoon the principal held a school assembly to warn her students about the dangers of Satan and razor blades in apples. 

“I have a metal detector, so we're safe,” Chuckie Manzi whispered in my ear. My next-door neighbor was the class clown and Mother Superior glared a warning in our direction.

“Keep it down, Mr. Manzi.” She was capable of ruining Christmas and we obeyed her edict with contrite expressions of our faces. She had her students well-trained.

The bell rang at 2:30 and the gathered classes stayed in their seats, until Sister Mary Josef clapped her hands twice. We stood in unison and marched from school silent as Trappist monks. Once our feet hit the parking lot, we ran screaming to the waiting school buses like convicts breaking for the wire.

Our yellow school bus seemed slower than usual on its route from Our Lady of the Foothills on the yellow school bus. It stopped before our house and we raced across the lawn to the garage. The front door was for guests, not family. My brother reached our bedroom first and tore off his school uniform. The large boxes with the costumes were identical, but Frank examined each box, as if one might be better that the other. 

“Pick one. They’re the same.” We had fought hundreds of times like Cain and Abel over books, toys, and cakes. My father bought us gifts in twos. My brother wrote his name on his things. Mine were unmarked. 

“Nothing is the same.” My mother had pretended that we were identical twins in our infancy. “Something is always better.”

“Not if they’re the same.” I sat on my bed and put my schoolbooks on the desk at the end of my bed. Tomorrow was All-Saint’s Day. Morning classes were cancelled for a Mass. The nuns loved marching the sixteen classes from 1st to 8th Grades to church.

“This one is better.” Frank picked one package and gave me the other with a slight scratch on the box. His fingers carefully opened his. He liked repacking   presents to pretend they were new.

I tore my apart and shook out the metallic uniform. It smelled of Cape Canaveral. 

My brother put TELSTAR by the Ventures on the stereo and dressed in the costume with all the dignity available in his eleven year-old body.

“I feel different.”

“You’ve never been in a space suit before.” The material scratched my skin and I looked for the zipper. There was none. “Houston to Apollo 13. We have a problem.”

“Astronaut have a hose.” He reminded me of the TV images of the astronaut walking along the gantry to the space capsule.

“I’m not wearing a hose.” Ours was green and way to long to drag around the neighborhood trick or treating.

“Then we’ll have to hold it. I bet Alan Shepherd held it.”

“He was only in space for fifteen minutes.” I had watched the launch at school. The nuns had us pray for him. I said mine to the stars. There was no God in the cosmos for a non-believer. 

“Fifteen minutes is a long time in space or else if you have to pee. No water or milk at dinner.” My brother had a good mind for planning. We were going dry.

Dusk was shifting to night and we left our bedroom with paper bags to carry our candy loot. 

“Just a second.” I sneaked into my parents’ bedroom and lifted sunglasses from my father’s dresser. They fit under the helmet and I checked myself in the mirror.

“You sure that’s a good idea?” My brother was better at following rules than me.

“They look cool.” Astronauts wore sunglasses. Steve McQueen too.

“Better not break them.”

“I won’t.” I hid them inside my costume and went down to the kitchen.

My mother made sandwiches for dinner.

“I’m not wasting a good meal on you. You’re candy crazy.” She said with a smile looking at my older brother and me. She had dressed us as twins the first six years of our lives. My father cut our hair short to make us look more alike. In the astronaut costumes we must have been identical. Her kiss was filled with the love, but my mother had had six kids.

She loved us all.

My father came home from work and took photos of us.

A little after Six o’Clock we walked out the front door and he counted down from ten. 

“Ignition. Blast off.” He loved the idea of going to space. My mother held his hand and told us to be careful. 

“Yes, ma’am.” We were good boys, but what she really meant was ‘don’t get in trouble’ and trouble on Halloween was revenge for no treats. Smashing pumpkins, throwing eggs, and spraying were a town tradition. Dirty tricks were saved for worst of the worst and our neighborhood had none of those.

My father led my younger brothers and sisters toward Hilltop Street. We were heading in the opposite direction. 

My best friend was waiting on the lawn.

His father owned a dry cleaner and had a tailor fashioned a Martian suit for his only son. Chuckie Manzi had painted his skin green and two silver-foil antennas rose from his hair. He pointed a ray-gun at us and said, “Take me to your leader.”

“We have no leader.” I wasn’t giving up President Kennedy to any fake alien.

“Then take me ‘trick or treating’”

Across the street Mrs. Sartini was greeting the first band of kids. The three of us stared at her outline in the doorway. Her full body was a mystery to us. The girls in our class were stick figures or balloons. I had dreamed about her on several occasions. They were not dreams to tell in confession.

“Mrs. Sartini is the last stop.” My brother was the boss. He was a year older than Chuckie and me.

We hit neighborhood for Milky Ways, Baby Ruths, licorice sticks, pumpkin kernels, Junior Mints, and Charleston Chews. A lot of kids were sitting on the curbs eating their take. We were a little older and knew that time was of the essence. Doors were shut by 8. We didn’t have a minute to waste.

“What about the sunglasses?”

For a second I thought I had lost them. They were trapped by the waistband.  I put them on and said to Chuckie, “Now I’m protected from your death ray.” I had seen INVASION FROM MARS ten times. The Martians’ main weapon vaporized soldiers into carbon.

“It’s your funeral.” Chuckie put away his ray-gun. He needed his hands to carry his candy. 

We were coming to the end of our journey and my brother, Chuckie, and I walked up the driveway to Mr. Sartini’s house. He drove truck for Arnold’s Bakery. His wife put out cake instead of candy. She looked like Sophia Loren and even astronauts liked her.

The moon had set behind the trees and the night was pitch black with my visor down over the sunglasses. We climbed the brick stairs to the front door. There was no metal railing. My brother rang the doorbell. Mrs. Sartini acted scared by our costumes. She thought we were space men. 

“No, we’re astronauts.” My brother protested thinking that she was serious.“Not me, I’m a Martian.” Chuckie pulled out his ray-gun. His bag of candy spilled over onto the steps.

“That’s why I’m wearing sunglasses. To protect me from his death ray.” I lifted my visor. Even Alan Shepherd couldn’t eat turn plastic.

Mrs Sartini offered a selection of cakes topped with icing. I chose orange spice. Chuckie and my older brother opted for chocolate cake. We thanked her with filled mouths and I shut my visor. 

Chuckie bent over to gather up his candy. My bumping into his hip was hard enough to knock me off balance and I toppled from the steps. My free-fall lasted the blink of an eye, but my re-entry was marred by scrapping my little finger against the rough brick wall before thumping onto the lawn. 

“Are you all right?” Mrs. Sartini looked at my fingertip. Blood was throbbing from a long cut. She bent over and I could see the top of her breasts. They were white as milk.

“I’m okay.” My knees had been bloodied often, butI was more concerned with my father’s sunglasses. They weren’t in my helmet. 

“Here they are.” My brother held them in his hand. They were intact.

“Thanks for the cake, Mrs. Sartini.” I got to my feet and sucked on the blood. “I’m so sorry.” Her hand was soft and warm on mine. I was in heaven.

“I’ll feel much better with another slice of cake.” My dreams had been nothing like this.

“Anything for an astronaut.” Mrs. Sardini gave me a whole orange spice cake and kissed me on the cheek.

My older brother led me across the lawn to our house. 

“Someone got hit with a stun gun.” Chuckie was wishing he had fallen off the stairs. He had a thing for Mrs. Sartini. Every man in the neighborhood felt the same way.

“I’m shaking it off.” A trace of her lingered on my skin. She smelled like fresh bread.

We entered our house by the garage. My mother would have killed me, if I used the front door and got blood on the living room rug. It was for looking at not walking on.

“What did you do to yourself?” She asked in the kitchen. My mother was always saying that we weren’t sick unless there was blood. My hand was drenched red. She hated seeing us hurt.

My brother explained the accident without mentioning the sunglasses. My mother admonished my dangerous behavior. She had six kids. We were always in jeopardy. A band-aid stemmed the blood and my mother send me to bed without a bite of the orange cake or candy. Sweets were bad for a cut not to mention my teeth.

My father came into my bedroom a little later with cake and a glass of milk.

“I heard about your adventure.” He wasn’t mad at me.

“I fell to earth.” I put down my book. It was THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW.

“I hope you learned your lesson.” He held up his sunglasses. 

“Yes.” I was ready for a long lecture, but my father put the cake and milk on the night table and said, “Never wear sunglasses at night.”

“I won’t.” How he knew about the glasses was beyond me. My brother was no snitch.

“Especially if you’re wearing a visor.”

“Yes, sir.” I was getting off easy and remembered his advice for years to come. 

Not 100%, for I have worn sunglasses at night whenever I couldn’t find my regular glasses. If I forget his words, the jagged scar on my little finger reminds me of that fall from grace, but that for a young boy the kiss of an older was better than going to the stars.

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