I had to stay a few more days and get a more tests for head injuries, but I had fun because the recovery room had a big color television and I could watch Popeye and Friends and the SuperFriends on Saturday morning. We only had a small black and white television at home, and the Lady of the Lake’s common room had a large color television that mesmerized me. I saw PopEye pop open a can of spinach and gulp it down, and I listened to the music build tempo as PopEye’s arms grew more muscular and he grew stronger and could finally beat Brutus. And I saw Batman and Robin teach a magic trick that made you appear as strong as a super hero, and Aquaman teach how to magically push a glass through a table using misdirection; at that time, Super Friends broke the fourth wall of theater and spoke to kids and taught them magic tricks. But, my most interesting memory was playing with other kids in with the toys piled across from the giant TV, not just because it was the first time I had been around other kids, but also because many of the toys were advertised on the giant television and I blurred what was real and what wasn’t. I imagined I, too, could do whatever anyone on TV did. But, that feeling may have just been a head injury.
I stayed at the hospital a few days for tests that came back negative, and I wore a bandage around my head that had to be changed daily, and when they changed it on my final day one of the nurses brought in two mirrors so I could see the back of my head. I was bald now, but they said my hair would grow back soon. I strained to see the back of my head, only just realizing how two mirrors worked like magic so that I could see behind myself, but even then I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. PawPaw exclaimed that I had 82 stitches! I must be the bravest lil’ fisherman alive! I’m sure I agreed, especially because I was feeling like a superhero.
I know now that he exaggerated, most doctors put about 3-4 stitches per inch of cut, so I probably only had 20 to 30 stitches, about the number of raised bumps I can still count, from where the skin had been pulled tightly and had healed thickly, but for some reason PawPaw said 82 and that’s the number I’d use when we finally returned home and I talked about my adventure. And, he had to explain to me that Our Lady of the Lake didn’t really have a lake, so we couldn’t go fishing there, but he’d take me when we got home. MawMaw was waiting when we arrived, and she had cookies and milk waiting for both of us, of course. She was much more gentle with her shugga’ for a few weeks, until my hair started to grow back, and then we went back to life as usual, and I felt like the bravest lil’ fisherman alive, happy, still climbing trees, and knowing PawPaw would always be there to catch me or help with a gentle nudge.
Some time later, when I had most of my hair back, I was sittting in the living room, which was also where I slept at night, with Craig, Linda, PawPaw, and MawMaw. Craig and Linda Black had moved back in after Linda had a baby, and the baby was in PawPaw’s second bedroom. Our living room was small, but the doorway was open to the dining room and kitchen and felt larger. We sat around snacking on cookies and watching cartoons: I had become fascinated with Popeye looking so much like PawPaw. Our TV was a small black and white set with manual controls and bunny rabbit antenna; Craig and PawPaw always joked that we lived in a Black and White household, and though I never understood their joke I laughed along with them and munched my cookies. A commercial came on, and I saw Stretch Armstrong advertised again, just like I had on the big color television in the hospital, and I exclaimed that was it! That was what I wanted! Stretch Armstrong had just been released as a new toy and was advertised on Saturday morning cartoons as the next greatest thing on Earth, a rubber toy filled with viscoelastic goo that you could stretch and pull but would always return back to normal. Kids on the commercial stretched him across their chest, like an exercise band, and some of the kids also had Evil Stretch, a black guy on PawPaw’s TV but a green goblin on color TV. I had to have one. PawPaw, laughed and said “We’ll see, Lil’ Buddy,” and took advantage of the commercial to get up and get a bottle of milk from the kitchen, and soon I heard my dad’s voice booming.
It’s an unmistakable voice, deep and resonating and authoritative, the bass tones reverberating through walls that blocked lesser voices. I couldn’t hear PawPaw, but I had no doubt who was visiting and got up and walked into the kitchen with a partially eaten cookie.
PawPaw was standing in the doorway and my dad was in the carport, holding a large brown paper bag with fancy rope handles, the kind you may get when you buy something from an expensive store. He held the bag nonchalantly, but his eyes were intense and focused and his jaw was held tightly, and he towered over PawPaw. Now in the kitchen, I could hear both of them.
“No, Ed,” PawPaw said. “Not t’day. Next week.”
My dad bellowed something about fuck the rules, he’s Jason’s father and he wanted to give him something. He poked his finger down at PawPaw’s chest to emphasize what he said.
“No, Ed,” PawPaw replied. “Please go. Come back next week.”
My dad saw me and said, “Hey, Justin! I mean Jason, godamnit! I brought you something!”
I was excited! My dad had picked me up before, and always had gifts for me. He showed love by giving gifts, like his father had bought him a new cars every time he wrecked one and took him on elk hunting trips to the mountains around Boulder and Flagstaff. Sometimes, my dad took me and Kieth to see Big Daddy, and Big Daddy had given me things, too, like a new, fancy fishing rod with reals and gears and convoluted things that didn’t really work in PawPaw’s tiny pond, but was fun to play with and expensive enough that Craig and his friends would inspect it and admire the quality and tell me how lucky I was.
I was anxious to see what my dad had brought me in the fancy paper bag.
He held up the bag and tried to step through the doorway, but PawPaw moved sideways and blocked him.
“Please, Ed, not today.”
My dad’s voice rose and he looked down at PawPaw angrily and thumped his finger against PawPaw’s chest and reiterated that he was my father and I was his son and he was going to give me something and no one would stop him. Craig, Linda, and MawMaw must have heard, and they came into the kitchen and stood beside PawPaw, between my dad and me. Voices raised, and everyone was speaking loudly and I can’t recall what was said, but I can remember the scene. It was somewhat comical, a huge loud man towering over a room full of tiny people.
My dad’s not that big, only 6’1,” and at the time he was thinner than I’d know him later, perhaps only 190 pounds, but the Whites and Blacks were small and thin, and from my perspective my dad towered over them.
Linda was barely taller than Wendy or Debbie, and though Craig was almost as tall as my dad, he was skinny, like a twig, and calm and mellow. He was an artist with big, bushy hair and a scruffy beard, exactly like a popular painter on public television, Bob Ross. PawPaw was Popeye, and Craig was Bob Ross. PawPaw had welcomed him into our household when their baby was born. He wasn’t saying much and was probably high, self admittedly, and he was standing beside Linda as she looked up at my dad and told him in no uncertain terms to leave; I remember that vividly, and 40 years later Craig and I would agree about that evening. Linda was unabashed in her words and actions ever since having a baby, and wanted a calm household. Even my dad was shocked by her ferocity, and he responded by thumping his finger into her chest, and that’s when PawPaw had had enough and stepped forward and shouted for the first and only time I ever heard him shout in anger, and he told my dad to leave.
My dad bellowed an obscenity and shoved PawPaw, and Linda pounced on my dad and began clawing at him. He shoved her away, and PawPaw stepped in again and my dad flung him aside. Craig silently moved in front of my dad and stood there, and MawMaw stood by his side, and not even my dad would shove her. Instead, he plowed between them and grabbed my arm so hard I yelled in surprise, and then PawPaw really stepped into action and hurled himself forward and everyone piled on top of my dad and tried yanking his arm off of me. He knocked them aside with his other hand and its brown paper bag. MawMaw and Linda grabbed my free arm and tried to pull me away from my dad, and he pulled back, and I stretched out like Stretch Armstrong. Everyone was shouting, including me, and through the din we heard Craig and Linda’s baby cry from the back bedroom crib. That sobered everyone, and Linda rushed back and Craig followed, my dad collected his senses and stood silently, and MawMaw bent down and inspected a scratch on my arm that was bleeding. PawPaw stood straight, breathing heavily, and waited patiently to act again.
My dad looked at me and said, “Jason. Son. I brought you something. Do you want it?”
Of course I said yes. I forgot about my bleeding cut and looked at the bag. PawPaw looked at me and then at my dad, and told my dad he could speak with me for five minutes in the carport, and then he had to go and could see me next week. That seemed fair, and my dad held my hand and walked me out the doorway and into the carport. MawMaw came out with a bandaid and put it on my scratch, and said she’d be back with cookies. My dad and I stood beside PawPaw’s Ford and I pointed out the blood stains on the floorboard we couldn’t get out, and at my arm’s bandaide, and said I was the bravest fisherman on Earth. My dad agreed, and we chatted and listened to the crickets chirp and my dad rubbed my stubbly head and told me he loved me and had something for me in the bag. In all the excitement about impending cookies, I had almost forgotten about the bag.
“I think this is what you wanted,” he said, sheepishly. He reached in the fancy bag and pulled out a new Stretch Armstrong, still in its box.
Well, technically, it was Evil Stretch. The black guy on PawPaw’s TV. But, in person, Evil Stretch was green, like I had seen at Our Lady of the Lake, and he had pointy ears and fangs and was even better than the white stretch with blonde hair. I was happy, and opened the box and tried to stretch Evil Stretch but couldn’t. My dad laughed and said I wasn’t big enough, but I would be, and one day I’d be as big and strong as him and maybe even Big Daddy. I was fascinated by that idea, to be so big that everyone talked about you like you were a superhero, and for the next five minutes I rambled on about intergalactic battles between Stretch and Evil Stretch and how I’d practice stretching so I could grow big and strong, too.
The carport door opened and MawMaw stepped outside with cookies. She gave me one and handed a few to my dad, to go. She stood there, waiting, and PawPaw stood in the doorway. My dad told me he loved me, and I said I loved him, too, and he said he’d see me next week and we’d go see Big Daddy and Mamma Jean, and I thought that sounded fun. He left, and I went back inside and showed off my band aide and practiced stretching Evil Stretch. Cartoons were over, and everyone was watching something on the small black and white TV that I can’t recall.
Late that night, after everyone had gone to bed and PawPaw was preparing the living room sofa for me to sleep, I sat on the kitchen table and played with Stretch. I wasn’t strong enough to stretch him, no matter how much I had practiced that day, and I had grown bored with my new toy; the thirty second commercial for Stretch Armstrong accurately showed kids having fun for 30 seconds, about as long as you can have fun with a soft rubber toy that you can’t budge. I told him so. “You’re useless!” I said. “I wish I didn’t have you!” I bellowed. On a whim, I picked up one of PawPaw’s flathead screwdrivers from the kitchen table – he always had tools lying around – and held it like a knife and pointed it at Stretch. I told him to be quiet. In my mind, he wasn’t, so I told him again and held the knife like I had seen Big Daddy hold knives, rotated sideways to penetrate between ribs, lacerating lungs or piercing a heart and causing someone to bleed to death rapidly, not straight up and down and bounching off the rib cage and causing a meer flesh wound. Stretch ignored me and said something, and I shoved the knife into his ribs and quickly removed it, satisfied that I had pierced his heart, as evidenced by him bleeding a clear, viscous goo through the small hole.
He began to deflate, and I came to my senses and realized I had broken Stretch and regretted what I had done. I tried shoving the goo back inside, like the doctors had done to me, and even took off my band aide and tried to patch the hole in his ribs, but every time I tried to move him more goo oozed out his wound.
I began crying, and PawPaw came into the kitchen and saw what had happened. He told me not to worry, I could never do anything wrong, and we’d try to fix Stretch Armstrong like the doctors had fixed me. I didn’t correct him that it was Evil Stretch. Perhaps I was embarassed that I had broken my new toy, or perhaps I was somehow realizing that good and evil aren’t black and white, even then grasping for a metaphor to use years later when writing a book. Or maybe I just trusted PawPaw to make things right. That’s not probably not exactly what I felt or thought, but it’s part of the image I’ve created for myself, and likely a close approximation of the emotions I felt, my first feelings of shame and being forgiven because I was unable to do wrong, and I was being guided away from ignorance by being shown a path towards better feelings. Puck put my story into action.
We tried using super glue to patch the hole, but it didn’t stick. We put him in the freezer because of something about viscoelastic goo slowing down and thickening when cold, and that worked until he warmed up again, and then the goo oozed and he became more and more deflated. Finally, after two days, PawPaw and I agreed that we had done all we could, and that was good enough, and we decided to give Stretch a proper funeral. We said a few words on his behalf, saying what a good Stretch he had been and not Evil at all, wrapped him in the fancy paper bag, and dropped him into the trash can beside the cricket cage, and then went fishing with the cane poles, not Big Daddy’s fancy rod and reel that was gathering dust in a pile of tools beside the cricket cage.
A year later, as the court records show, Judge Lottingger reversed the deceased judge’s opinion and transferred physical custody of me to Wendy. During the time I lived with MawMaw and PawPaw, no one seemed concerned what I thought, which seems odd if the point of custody trials is to act in the child’s best interest.
Coincidentally, that same year, Seattle juvenile court judge David Soukup felt he had insufficient information to make a life-changing decision for a 3-year-old girl who had suffered from child abuse. He realized that children needed unbiased people who knew them and their unique situations to speak up for their best interests in court. In 1977, he founded the national Court Approved Special Advocate program that trained and oversaw volunteer CASA’s who could dedicate time with kids in the foster system, their parents, and their caregivers. Because they are volunteers, they can remain unbiased and uninfluenced by external pressures. A CASA’s report becomes a permanent part of court records and is used to support a judge’s decision, similar to predicate court cases but more personalized to the child’s welfare. Few judges or juries know all the facts, and my experience with Judge Lottingger and in reviewing Chief Justice Warren’s decisions, that’s true at all levels of government. Sometimes, it take digging through many court records to piece together all the facts, and by then it’s usually too late to do anything about it. Decades later, when I’d serve fourteen years as a CASA, I’d ensure I met all of the adults and would spend years getting to know each child and try to write my court reports from the child’s perspective.
Had I had a CASA in the 70’s and they had visited me at PawPaw’s, I’m sure I would have taken them fishing and taught them how to hook a cricket, or walked them to the convenience store to climb a tree and buy milk and cookies from an attendant who always recognized me when I wasn’t disguised as an old man, and the CASA would have added that to my court records. They may have mentioned me using a screwdriver as a knife and looking away silently when asked what I did with my parents each month. I may have even told them what I knew about Hoffa and Kennedy; I was a talkative kid. But, CASA’s didn’t exist yet, and no one asked me what I thought. And though PawPaw probably knew me better than anyone else, he wasn’t able to speak on my behalf because of his bias. But, Judge Lottingger did include PawPaw’s opinion in a way that summarized the first few years of my life concisely and accurately: Ed White loved me as a son.
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