1952, Television Repair, and Whitehawk
When I was a kid, not everyone had a television set, and a computer was the experimental stuff of legends. People still sent and received telegraphs and were still delighted to answer the telephone blindly. We certainly didn’t have all four in our pockets, like I’ve been seeing it in the ARG, in one of the many lives I have lived there. I’ve spent so much time strapped into the machine I can’t rightly tell what’s actually happened, or when.
Time is funny now.
The ARG, incidentally, is the Alternate Reality Generator, my greatest and most horrible accomplishment, the device that showed me the future and took it from me in the same stitch of time, but I’m getting ahead of myself now. It happens more than I would like, with all that funny stuff going on with the time and so on.
Those of us who had a television set were proud of it. Owning a TV was a status symbol. You could often tell if a family was doing well based upon the set they’d chosen, and if it were kept in good repair. We, the Penrod family, couldn’t afford one ourselves until I was just over ten years old, and Lonnie had already left home and joined the service.
And a color TV set?
Color television might as well have been Sasquatch, or a naked lady to me at that time. I had heard they were out there, but wasn’t altogether sure if I would ever lay eyes on one.
Because of the prestige surrounding televisions, people took pride in their sets. Admiral, Emerson, General Electric; but brand name wasn’t all too important. If you even had one, you got to be part of that exclusive crowd and enjoy home entertainment that paled everything before. People with only a radio were suddenly entertaining guests less and less, and instead were hoping to be invited over for a program and a highball with whoever had the newest set.
We saved for years. My parents did, anyway. Dad wasn’t the type to admit the radio was yesterday’s news, or even allow us to admit it. He also wasn’t one to enjoy the comforts of another man’s home if he couldn’t provide the same comforts; we received few invitations for dinners with neighbors, and accepted fewer still.
All things the same, I felt my parents were good folks.
My brother though, he couldn’t wait to get out, but Dad was never on me the way he was Lonnie. I don’t know if it was because I was the baby, or if it was simply due to my health issues. Maybe Father had just softened a little as he got older, and farther away from all the killing and the war, or so he’d have you believe. He had lost some of that piss and vinegar he spurted in his youth.
Incidentally, one of the other expressions my dad used all the time was “bottle of piss.” As in, “Lonnie ain’t worth a bottle of piss.” He rarely said this about me, at least not within earshot, but it still came out in conversation near daily.
Here lies old Gus, he wasn’t worth a bottle of piss, I hope his insurance was paid, and so on.
Either way, Dad was good to me most of the time, and we only bought the television because I wanted one so badly. Dad had refused Mother and Lonnie’s numerous requests to get one. But he coddled me, and we started saving … they did.
The whole concept befuddled and amazed me. I was fascinated. The first time I saw one up close, I was in a department store with my mother, and I was dumbstruck, wondering how I had managed to live my whole life without one.
I begged for one that day, but my parents said that a television was a big purchase and not something that you should put on credit.
My father even added, as if this would vanquish my desires any better, that “No one was dumb enough to go charging a TV.”
He actually named a few classes of people who were—based upon their skin color alone—stupid and lazy, but still smarter than I was for asking about credit. Truth is, more than a few people had been dumb enough to buy a television set on credit, but Dad had lost that option through his excessive drinking and subsequent, yet totally unrelated—if you were to hear him tell it—layoff from the office supply store he’d worked at since the Second World War.
It was his boss’s fault. He, of course, wasn’t worth a bottle of piss, either.
Dad’s new job as a small-time factory floor grunt didn’t give us as much to save as selling office furniture had, but we eventually brought home a brand new, premium quality tube.
So, if you can now understand how big a deal the actual television set was when I was a kid, you should also understand that the TV repairman, the guy who could get a busted one up and running again, was a local celebrity to the community he served. While usually he could fix all kinds of gadgets, people only gave a damn if he could fix their TVs. The one who could do that was an icon for my generation.
When you saw that van round the corner and the driver step out, kids would stop their rope skipping, sidewalk chalking, pogo-sticking, or cops and robbers-ing, and gather around. He offered a friendly smile and proudly opened the rear doors to reveal the myriad tools and gizmos. He might as well have been the President of the United States. His celebrity mystique was transcendent of age, social class, and race. Anyone with a TV was happy when the repairman arrived. Until they got the bill, that is.
Lord knows a lot of families couldn’t afford the bill. We certainly couldn’t. It had taken us almost three years to save up for the initial purchase, and we hadn’t gotten the warranty, because it cost extra, so when the set would falter and become an ongoing investment, like a crummy old car, we went without for a while. Here lies what used to be a TV.
My dad always fancied himself a handyman and would do anything to save a dime, so he’d try to tinker with the knobs in the back, and he’d always let me watch. I even got to help out from time to time when his hands were too big and clumsy for the knobs, nooks, and crannies. At first, it was just little tasks like adjusting the vertical hold. My hands were so much steadier than his were, from the drinking. He said he wanted me to learn and that he could do better as a judge viewing from the other side and yelling “Whoa” at precisely the right moment.
When I had last done that job (the whoa-ing), he insisted that I didn’t do it well, and that was why he hadn’t corrected the rolling picture. It certainly wasn’t the fault of his shaking fingers, which he didn’t have to add. Once he realized I knew it was the booze, he didn’t even pretend any longer, he just told me to “Get off my ass and do something.”
I don’t know why he began to trust me with such an expensive appliance. I guess that maybe he had seen my potential over the years, as we had repaired one household item or another.
I also guessed that he was having trouble finding that place between where he no longer shook and where he could still stand. This window was growing slimmer by the night. When he did find his groove, Dad was very handy, and I was very involved. That was our way of bonding, tinkering and fixing stuff. He taught me well.
One day the TV quit altogether. Mom called the repairman for an estimate, but the service fee was outside of our budget. Dad scolded her and raised his voice for her even having called. Here lies my sweet escape.
I hated when they fought. Mom always cried and Dad always shouted, and then he retreated to his garage to smoke cigars. Sometimes I would follow him out there. We would tinker with the car or fix this thing or that one, which wasn’t in good repair at the moment, but this time I stayed with Mom. I knew that she had only called the repairman because of me.
Though I was trying to comfort her, she kept apologizing, saying that we would save the money to get the TV fixed “real soon.” I had heard that “real soon” bit before, but I didn’t mind pretending to believe her, if it would make her happy. I told her not to worry, and that I didn’t mind if it took a whole year. Part of me already suspected that that might be the case, anyhow.
I honestly thought I didn’t care, and that I would wait patiently for them to summon the wonderful entity that was a television repairman. I thought I would be as patient as I was when waiting for the tube in the first place.
I took long walks through town until eventually finding a small strip mall with a bookstore and an appliance shop. I started to wake up earlier and skip breakfast, swiping a piece of fruit from the bowl on the counter instead, so that I could get there sooner. The shopping center was set up like a horseshoe with parking in the middle. There were over a dozen shops and stores total, but I only cared about two…one, really. I sat in the bookstore, at a little table by the window, day after day. The next store down was a TV and appliance repair shop. They shared an inside corner of the horseshoe, giving me a view to their storefront, where there was a multitude of television sets displayed, running all day. A gigantic man in coveralls would arrive early and turn them all on.
I would watch the programs playing on the many different displays, and imagine that I was in my own home, with Mom in the kitchen baking this or that, and Dad in the living room with me, filling up the ashtrays with his Lucky Strikes, and filling up the house with his booming, yet elusive laughter.
No one shouted in these little movies in my head. Everyone was happy and they didn’t draw any fire from Dad. Mom was making popcorn, or scooping ice cream, or popping the top on an ice-cold bottle of Coca-Cola.
If there is one thing I miss more than humanity, or my poor dead dog, Elvis, it is the burning, gasping first drink of a Coke. “Ahhhhhh,” every time. But now there are no people to make the stuff, so there is no Coke. Here lies fizzy soda.
Eventually I fixed my bike by repairing the bearings, packing them with fresh grease, something I had seen Dad do once. I have always been good with machines. I only repaired the bike so I could have more time to spend at the strip mall, and because Mother had told me not to miss breakfast anymore. She gave her various reasons, none of which was that she couldn’t stand to spend the morning alone with my father, but I suspected that that leviathan was just below the surface. Here lies their marriage. Check’s in the mail.
I lived in my own private world in that bookstore, which was, I suppose, the intended outcome when the owner created the establishment, but I wasn’t following the rules. I didn’t ever pick up a copy they were selling, I just sat there and made up my own stories to go along with the images on the screens. I filled in the voices with words of my own, and everyone was happy and no one died, not even Old Gus. I invented my own reality, just like I would eventually do for so many years in this bunker. Just like I have been doing my whole life.
This went on for a few weeks before the shop owner gave me the boot, as grown-ups are wont to do. “Whaddya doin’ here, kid? You ain’t buyin’. You ain’t even readin’. Why don’t you go on, get outta here and go play baseball or somethin’?” he asked. This was his pseudo-concerned way of ushering me away from the building. Here lies my hideout.
I didn’t have the courage to tell him why I was there, that I couldn’t afford to get my TV set repaired, let alone buy a book. He wouldn’t have cared one way or the other.
I was devastated, embarrassed. The road was a blur beneath me as my angry little legs churned me home early that sweltering summer day.
Mother pressed until I finally broke free with what had happened. I had done so well, not to mention it to that point, here lies my big secret, to just let the world run its course and not to burden my mother; not to send her heedlessly into confrontation with my already strained father.
I knew what he would say: The car needed repairs, the water tank, the furnace—where were we supposed to get money for all that? He would have been right. With all that going on, why would we bother Dad for something as trivial and non-essential as a TV?
“Besides,” he’d just ask, “Doesn’t the radio work just fine? We have survived our whole lives without a TV, why do we need one now?” That was roughly the same logic he had used on me a month before about my bike. “Why can’t you be like other kids and go play baseball?” he’d said.
Grownups used baseball to push kids out the door too often, in my opinion.
I made her swear not to bother Dad. She said she promised, but I knew she was going to bring it up in casual conversation—as if there really ever was such a thing with my father. She would try to backpedal when he got mad, but she couldn’t unshoot the gun. He would throw out his phrases like, “You’re sorry as the day is long” (this is a worse insult in Alaska than nearly anywhere else, due largely in part to the tilt of the Earth’s axis), and undoubtedly her breath would start to hitch in her throat.
It started raining that night. One of those hot, static filled summer squalls in South Florida that rattles everything and causes white branches to stitch across the obsidian sky looking for boats and trees and people to char.
That’s one way to do it.
The deluge hit just as the fight inside started. The noise might’ve sheltered me from the brunt of their squabble, obscuring their exact words, but also it punctuated the shouting. I didn’t need any details anyway, I knew what was happening. The occasional high screech of Mom’s objections, the slam-bang-rattle of the door to the garage. I would have loved to be in there with those tools, fixing something within my control in the only way I knew how.
Here lies my youth; it wasn’t all too great anyhow.
But I couldn’t go in there now, not with him having retreated into there to smoke and drink to oblivion. Besides, the only thing more incessant than the drips from my roof was the drips from my own eyes, covering my glasses and effectively blinding me. I curled up and listened to the rain. I still hear it today. I’ve heard it every day for the last forty years or so.
Tick, tick, tick.
The rain was my watch that night and it told me all I needed to know about time. That it was forever.
The next day. I couldn’t look at my mom. I felt guilty for getting her into a jamb.... At the same time, I was incredibly angry that she hadn’t listened to me, that she had betrayed my trust in telling her about the bookstore and the appliance shop.
Here lies my trust in my mom; I wish I still had her, though, after the bomb.
Why hadn’t she listened to me? I warned her that Dad would blow up. She could have just kept her mouth shut and we could have all enjoyed breakfast that morning. Instead, I tore through a platter of pancakes and bacon, which she had bought at the market with me the day before. The bacon, along with hamburger meat according to the sign outside the door, was on sale, twenty percent off, so she had money left over, and had bought me a Coca-Cola to enjoy on the way home.
My father, who was drinking black coffee instead of eating, a telltale sign of a rough night, was reading the morning paper with a Lucky Strike. I bet he felt like hell. Served him right. On those days when he smoked at the breakfast table, we all knew to keep a lid on. No one wanted to pull the thorn from the lion’s paw. So it goes.
I didn’t even get a second helping of Mom’s flapjacks. I didn’t mean to go back to the TV repair shop. I just got on my bike and pedaled to go as far from home as I could and my bike took me there. I followed a van as it left the repair shop. I watched the driver, the giant in coveralls, load up a big console TV in the back and I followed him as he pulled away. The console he loaded into the repair van was the same model as my broken one. I pretended it was my own, imagined that he was me.
How much fun would that be? To take a busted old tube and breathe new life into it. Like God. He turned a pile of dust into a man and a rib into a woman, then made them inherently horrible creatures, so that they could destroy the planet for the rest of eternity. Adam and Eve were proof that God was fallible. Humans were his only imperfect creation. So be it.
Here lies paradise, it was short lived. Milton said it best.
Nonetheless, I thought fixing TVs all day and bringing families together so effectively and effortlessly would be a good way to earn a buck. The TV repairman was an angel of mercy who prevented husbands from yelling at wives, and children from bothering parents. I would certainly welcome the TV repairman to offer this distraction in my own home. But, for now, I was following him to someone else’s.
He must’ve seen me back there, following him to his various stops and eventually back to the appliance shop: Whitehawk TV and Appliance. The driver may have thought nothing of it when I first got behind him and tailed him to pick up another busted set from a frumpy housewife in a blue dress. But, after the second or third stop, I think he may have even slowed his pace a little so that I could keep up without too tough a struggle. He probably didn’t want a wimpy four-eyed boy having an asthma fit on account of chasing him for too long.
Here lies some puny twerp. He suffocated for no reason. That’s one way to do it.
Whatever the reasons, he took a leisurely pace back to the shop, allowing me to keep him in sight. He wanted to meet me, to help me, I think, though he’d never admit to it, not in all the years we rode together. I would eventually know him as Mr. Whitehawk, or Big Jim, and he was not one to wax sentimental, or at least not to cop to it once he had. In any case, I knew he had taken me under his wing when I saw those brake lights fire up as he drove the deserted stretch of highway back towards my side of town. He wanted me to catch up.
I’m still not sure if I wish he’d kept driving.
“Come on in, kid,” he said as if we’d know each other for some period of time greater than not at all. I didn’t even know his name, though I could’ve figured it out if I’d only read the name above the door. “Go on and sit down. Once you get cooled off a bit, you’re gonna help out around here, y’undastand?”
“Yes, sir,” I barely creaked. After he lugged the giant television console out of his van, the Zenith like mine, and onto a dolly, he greeted me with a dewy wet, ice-cold bottle of Coca-Cola and clinked the neck of his own against mine. Maybe he does know me, after all, I thought. In retrospect, I am sure he had seen me time and time again, trailing my fingers along his nice painted display window, mesmerized by the assortment of television sets arranged in there. An unwatched television is such a lonesome thing to me. To have all that within you to share, and to die alone without anyone to notice. I think of a great composer growing old in a hospital or asylum with a roommate who is either deaf or deplores music in general. The composer only wants to play, but dies instead with a great symphony, which he cannot share, stuck inside.
Big Jim had no doubt washed away hundreds, if not thousands, of my smudges, the greasy streaks I had left etched into the glass. I know this because everything was always so clean. He wanted to showcase his televisions behind crystal clear windows. The prices he’d painted on the glass were always sensible, and the numbers were placed high enough that even the tallest of men wouldn’t have to duck to see the set he wanted. Big Jim was great at marketing, and such. That’s why he was Big Jim.
He would also never admit to cleaning off my paw prints on the glass. He denied any and all things sappy, unless they were told by his daughter, but I wouldn’t meet her for a while. I cleaned my fair share of smudges off that glass over the years as well, but on that first day, I did mostly gophering. I got to see the inside of the shop, and while my role was restricted to the “hand me that” and “hold this” capacity, my mind was alive with wonder, and I devoured everything he said … and what he didn’t.
“This one is toast,” he said, referring to the beefy Zenith he’d wheeled in on the dolly. “Sometimes I can salvage parts, but this one is mostly scrap. Whattaya gonna do? I usually offer to take the dead ones back to the shop for them, to keep the tubes out of the dump.”
Incidentally, that was the first time I heard Jim say, “Whattaya gonna do?,” which was the stupid thing he said when something stopped working, or was irreparable, or died.
I was daydreaming about scavenging parts from the TV and using them to refurbish my own. I thought of it as grave robbing for some reason. I even imagined a little headstone. It said this:
Here’s what’s left of Cathode Ray,
They gutted him so now he won’t play.
Whattaya gonna do?
Emblazoned on his coveralls, over his heart, was his first name, Jim. A permanent press glue patch with the company name, and what I would eventually learn was Jim’s last name, was melted onto the other side of his chest.
Whitehawk TV and Appliance, it said.
The workshop was a museum: a curio cabinet filled with all forms of gadgetry and doohickey. In one milk crate was an assortment of pressurized glass tubes. There were resistors and capacitors scattered all about the table nearest me, some of them swollen from the unchecked current. Others still had burst, spilling their black wonder goop out onto the solder and circuitry below. They were dead.
Another table supported a weathered old cardboard box, which was filled with gleaming, shiny, iridescent bulbs. The bulbs were long and silver colored, except on the ends where some had taken on the tint of soot and char. They were unmistakable as bulbs, but I knew somehow that they weren’t the kind you plugged into an overhead fixture.
“You still with me, kid?” Jim asked.
I heard myself saying in a fog, still not quite answering Jim, that this was the same model TV I had at home, and that mine was busted, too. My insurance hadn’t been paid, because of the warranty, and so on.
Jim said he wasn’t surprised at that. “Keeps me in business, it does,” he said next.
I liked him immediately, for reasons I can’t identify. I just felt comfortable. Perhaps it was that he had bribed me with a Coca-Cola instead of flapjacks and discount bacon, but I didn’t want to go home. Even though Jim kept talking, asking for this or that thing, and it sounded like I was answering his questions correctly, the whole conversation seemed as though it was happening to someone else. Somewhere else, maybe. It was taking place in a stitch of the blanket of time which had already been woven, and even though my body was traveling the thread along with Jim, and making small talk, I was clearly looking to some other thread, or a stitch in time when I had repaired my television set with the innards of these husks that Jim left lying around in his TV cemetery.
My eyes next examined the peg-boarded tools, noticing how much more organized and neat they were than my father’s at home. And why wouldn’t they be? These were the tools of a professional, ours at home were hobby helpers: implements of a couple tinkering fellas with no real clear idea what was next, or before. Jim’s pair of needle-nosed pliers had been places, done things, seen the world, or at least a good piece of Dade County. These pliers had lived a life.
Dad’s pliers, in contrast, had seen the inside of a Sears department store and the rusted spring on the throttle return of our beat-up old push mower, which eventually died anyhow—here lies a Craftsman mower, the price and the grass could’ve both been cut lower. Lonnie took a scolding for killing the mower during one of the last conversations they had had before he left for Korea. Which, incidentally, was pronounced “Coe-Rhea” in my house. They, the rusted needle-nosed, had finished their trivial life, pulling an occasional errant nail from the whitewall tires of my dad’s Plymouth, and now they rust, in an equally rusty steel toolbox handed down by my Grandpa Charles. He’s dead now, too. Here lies a true hero. His check had been mailed on time.
Our tools were of no consequence. Incidentally, we did get a new lawnmower after that, but I almost killed it, too.
A sportscaster’s voice rose to my cloudy ears eventually, and I heard him shouting from a small brown Bush radio with three cream-colored knobs, in the corner. He spoke enthusiastically, something about a double play, something a short, asthmatic kid with glasses couldn’t care less about. Jim seemed to care, though.
He nudged my shoulder and said, “Whaddyaknow? Kid’s got a helluvan arm don’t he?”
I just looked at him.
I didn’t know anything, but his stare told me that I was supposed to know something: I was a twelve-year-old boy. I was supposed to have an opinion about this stuff, that look said.
I knew I was. My brother was an All American, but instead I heard myself say, “Actually, I don’t really like baseball.”
“So whaddya do then? For fun?”
“I like to fix stuff. You know, like take stuff apart and then put it back together. One time I took my dad’s lawnmower apart.”
“I’m sure that made him happy.”
“Well, probably not, but I guess I never told him. I put it all back before he got home.”
“It still runs, you say?”
“Oh, yeah. Yes sir, I mean. It works great. I cleaned it all out and made sure I didn’t get any dirt in there, put in new oil and everything.”
“Well, I’ll be. Why did you take it apart in the first place?”
“On account of the marble.”
“I don’t follow,” he said. I wasn’t sure I did either at that point.
“I wanted to see if the gas tank opening was the same size as my jumbo marble.”
“And,” he said.
“It wasn’t. Quite a bit bigger actually. Since I had to get the marble out of the gas tank, I figured I’d just go ahead and take the whole engine apart while I was at it.”
“Why’d you figure on that?”
“It was early. And I had to get the marble out anyway.”
“So you did. I don’t blame you for not telling your dad,” he said, and we both smiled. It was good to have someone to laugh with. Wasn’t a great deal of laughter going on at my house around that time. Here lies a happy home, my father is mad at my mother, but if we had a TV set, at least we’d ignore each other.
The announcer trapped within the Bush radio was evidently standing on his feet with excitement over some catch, and shouting for us to do the same.
“Gee, Mr. Whitehawk, why don’t you just watch the game on the TV, on account of you having so many of them and all?”
“Stuff rots your brain, kid. I prefer the radio. Every time a TV is on somewhere, there’s a knucklehead staring at it instead of getting his work done.”
“I don’t understand. If you hate TV so much, why do you do what you do? I love TV, that’s why I was following you.”
“TV is fine and dandy, I just believe ‘all things in moderation’ is a good piece of advice. Bedsides, even the best TV can’t show me the game like it really is. The picture I see of the game in my mind, when they describe it, is more vivid and spectacular than anything you will ever experience on a screen. My imagination is better than my eyes, any day. Maybe one day I will teach you a thing or two about that, but in the meantime, hand me those needle nosed.”
Now that I think about it, that might have been the most, if not the only, poignant words he ever spoke to me. And then it was over. Here lies a sappy moment.
Sappy or not, that was the statement that stuck with me throughout, and in fact led me to create a wonderfully horrible machine. More on that later.
I left with him shortly after, watched him lock up. He told me, as I was mounting my steel-pedaled steed, to be there at 7:30 the next morning, and I was. And so began my summer job fixing TVs, forever. Here lies anything else I would have become, anyway, it wouldn’t have been as much fun, and so on.
Each day was a new adventure. We got to go into people’s homes and Jim would diagnose their problems. I got to listen as his silver tongue basted them, slathering them up with buttery words before he delivered the bad news of the financial implications of a burned resistor, or a leaky vacuum tube. I didn’t pay too much attention to that aspect of the job, sales was never my forte. I was more interested in what was busted under the hood. Though I wasn’t actually helping, he made me feel a-part-of, which is important for a young kid. Sometimes women with children of their own would ask about me. Sometimes the women had no children and seemed to wish me gone.
“Who’s your new partner, Big Jim?” they would ask, or something close to that, anyway. Years play devious tricks on memory.
What is a memory anyway? If I am only able to perceive time now, in the moment, or stitch of time I am in, how do I perceive the past and future?
“Work release program from Dade Correctional,” he’d say. That much I do remember because he said it invariably, followed by, “I picked him up for cheap labor and to help him reintegrate into civilized life.”
The wives and mothers always laughed and sometimes offered me lemonade or a Coca-Cola. Then the ladies would ask if I wanted to join their Johnny or Suzy in the back yard for a swing or another kid’s game. If they were childless or barren or empty-nesters they would simply offer me hard candy and ask if I wanted to help them piece together a jigsaw puzzle or help them find their cat, and so on, but I stayed my post. I had no interest in playing with children or being coddled by women with no children of their own to spoil. I suppose that was always the case, but I considered it the death of my childhood. Here lies Little Arthur.
There was no need to play chutes and ladders or climb a tree when there were mysteries deep within the wooden console of the JVC, or Westinghouse, or, if they were well to do, sometimes even a DuMont RA-119 Royal Sovereign, my dream TV.
I was more than just wrapped, I was raptured.
When Jim couldn’t fix the TV on the spot, that meant that it needed extensive work or a part ordered, so we would load it up into the repair van and take it back to the shop. Those were the days I liked the best. No doting homemakers concerned that I wasn’t getting enough sun for a boy my age, no staring ten year olds wondering why I wasn’t made to go into the yard like they had been, just the sounds of a baseball game on the radio and Jim asking for a tool or another. Those were the days I learned something, because instead of Big Jim buttering up the client, he was talking about the repair work. I soaked it all in like sandstone in the Mojave.
Big Jim and I got to a place where less was said and more was known. At first, he named a tool or a part that he needed, and then pointed to it, and I would bring it. A few weeks later, he just named it, and I fetched. By the middle of summer, I was standing there with it before he could say a word. That was about the time he let me start fiddling around inside the console. Never on a “big fix,” not yet, but he would sit back and go get himself a Coca-Cola, grabbing one for me as well, and let me feel like I was doing something under there. I caught him checking my work the first few times; everything was in order when he did.
My life was joyous again, the way a child’s life should be; I didn’t even notice that I no longer had a TV at home, because I was never there. I ate breakfast, told my mother I would be out all day, she gave me a sandwich or sometimes a Tupperware of leftovers, and I made it home for dinner. We sat around the radio for a few minutes each night, and I tried not to offer up too much in the way of talk, because I had come to appreciate the times that my parents were silent.
There are two kinds of silent parents. The kind that want to shout at one another, but are being civil, and the kind that has nothing to say to one another just then. I preferred the latter, but would take either, if it meant that there would be no shouting.
In retrospect, I might have found it odd that they never asked me about my day. One day at the end of summer, after I had been working with Big Jim for a few months, he stopped me on my way out and asked that I stick around while he closed up. I had been on plenty of ride-alongs and had done plenty of shop work with him, but I hadn’t stayed late yet. He told me to bring my bike into the garage and load it into the van, that he would drive me home since it would be dark soon.
I was nervous at first, wanted to tell him that I had ridden home in the dark before, but I could tell that he was not about to budge. He was more stoic than normal that evening. I kept wondering if I had done something wrong. I didn’t know what to expect. It was terrifying to think about losing my escape route, to think that he was going to take me home and tell me to stay there tomorrow, too. I couldn’t fathom not being able to help out around the shop. It had only been part of my life for a single summer, but I was sure that it was something I couldn’t live without. A single summer can be a lifetime for a boy, and your adult life will be recalled and measured by those summer flings with this thing or that. Be it baseball, or girls, or television repair, or catching crawfish in a creek by your house, you will always remember it as The Summer of Crawdads, or whatever.
“Am I in trouble, Mr. Whitehawk?” I finally asked.
“No, not at all,” he said and then paused, perhaps inferring what was going on in my head right then, chuckled and said, “Lord, no, nothing is wrong. I’ve got a surprise for you, is all.” And that’s all he’d say. I didn’t prod too much.
The horizon devoured the sinking sun behind us, the orange yellow orb a shrinking crest like the ridge on a Spanish warrior’s helmet. I remember that sunset so clearly for some reason. I took a moment to calculate how long the 12 hours of darkness would take, where I would be when the sun crested the ocean next. I still haven’t figured out why.
The ride home in the van that night seemed to take longer than it had on my bicycle so many nights before. Nerves, I guess; I was trying to figure out what could possibly be waiting for me at home.
The sign advertising Tonawanda Lane, my street, glistened in the headlights of the repair van as we rounded the block and approached my driveway. The living room was dark. It often was of late, since the TV had broken.
Dad would have been in the garage, I thought, tinkering with something inconsequential in order to provide a backdrop to his drinking. Meanwhile, Mom, I supposed, would have been in the kitchen preparing some meal or another in an attempt to bring us together in a forced act of contrition. The argument about money had hung in the air since the Zenith console had gone dim. The tension in our home was like a stress fracture on the heel of a homeless man’s foot. It would never get better if he didn’t take a few days or weeks to rest, but being homeless doesn’t afford a man much time to rest, I supposed, so instead the broken degenerate would have a perpetual sore spot.
“Are you coming inside?” I asked, waiting for the answer I already knew.
“Of course I’m coming in! Whatd’ya think I was gonna do?”
“Well, I will need to tell my mom,” I said, the lump of fear in my throat so swollen that the words barely escaped. I swallowed my pound of sand, a Sahara in my gullet, as I reached for the door handle. I was sure he’d heard the swallow.
“GLUMP!” it had said.
I hadn’t told my mother where I had been going all this time. When she had asked, I had made up this story or another and told her tall tales that sounded like normal kid stuff. I was getting ready to see my intricate menagerie of lies—the library Tuesdays, the park Wednesday, just following the railroad tracks up and back on Thursdays, anything but the truth—come crumbling down around me when Big Jim walked in the door. I desperately wanted to avoid the subject of television altogether, this was sure to be another stormy summer night in our house once Mr. Whitehawk pulled away. What had once been a stress fracture on the heel of a foot was about to become an amputated limb, potentially infected and gangrenous.
At this point the thudding of my heart was echoing through my asthmatic, concave, little-bird chest and was reverberating off the steel walls of the van, filling the cab. I was sure that Big Jim could hear that, too, and I realized I was still just sitting there encased in granite like someone who had stolen a kiss from Medusa.
Mr. Whitehawk looked through me with a steely gaze, I could feel it more than see it, in the dark of the vehicle, and said, “Don’t worry so much, kid, I have already spoken with your father and mother and they are expecting us…both of us. I figured it’s time you stopped lying about working for me.”
I was a dead man. A dead boy, really. Here lies Art.
Betrayal. Confusion. Relief. I could have murdered him, if I weren’t an eighty pound, out-of-breath midget and he weren’t a two-hundred-pound six-foot giant, that is, so I tried to kill him with my glare. That’s one way to do it.
It didn’t take.
Besides, no matter how much I hated him for whatever hot water he’d gotten me into, I needed him… and I was dying to know what the surprise was.
I took a hard pull off my inhaler, absently pushed my glasses, which had slid down my sweaty face during my elongated stare into Jim’s stone eyes, back atop the bridge of my nose with my thumb and vacated the van.
August 28th, 1952. My thirteenth birthday. I had forgotten my own birthday… here lies my childish wonderment. I’d never even told Mr. Whitehawk my birthday. It was one of the elements I liked most about our relationship: We didn’t talk about me. But that was all about to change; indeed, it had already started. My mother had been sure to pass along certain information about me to Big Jim in their soon-to-be-discovered nightly conversations. These debriefings would happen each evening when I mounted my steel steed and pedaled home from Coral Gables. While I was pedaling fiercely and inventing an alternate universe, including the detailed fable to tell my mother as to where I had been, Jim was telling her the damned truth. All the lies, fear, and worry, and she had known the whole time. Dad, too.
Dad, who was much more prone to be sentimental than was Jim Whitehawk, would later tell me that that was the summer I became a man and the beginning of my taking charge and taking care of him. That conversation would be much later, just before his death and long after Mother’s.
Come to think of it, Dad was only sentimental after he quit the booze, and Jim Whitehawk, only on the rare occasions that he would knock a few back. That was not the limit of their disparity, either. The only thing they had in common after all those years, was that they both knew me pretty darn well.
“Surprise!” they all shouted at once when I walked in the door. The lights erupted from the bulbs to accompany the sound, though my mother was glowing the brightest. Her eyes were blisters of pride, seeing me come in wearing the blue work shirt Big Jim had gotten me, replete with patches and embroidery, and complete with my name. In all my anxiety, I hadn’t remembered to discard the shirt into my knapsack, as I had done each night previous. The damned thing stunk to high heaven. The jig was up anyhow.
For a kid’s surprise birthday party, it was a motley turnout: my mom, dad, a TV repair man, and me. I guess you could call me an apprentice at that point. I couldn’t think of anyone else I would’ve liked to have seen there, except Lonnie. But he was away at war with Korea, fighting the Communists and showing Dad once and for all what he was made of. Dad, whose only real credit had been not getting killed by way of pretending to be already dead, had talked about himself, the things he had done, and the medals he had earned, but rarely mentioned Lonnie anymore.
My family and Big Jim were a bustle around me with smiles and shaking hands. They all seemed to be comfortable with one another, which made me even less comfortable than I could have thought possible just moments before in the repair van. That’s when it caught my eye, the spot I had been trying not to look at for months. The broken foot that won’t heal because you keep walking on it, the inflamed taste bud that you can’t resist chewing, biting it between your large front teeth until your mouth waters and you can’t take it any longer, the busted Zenith television that you look at hoping it will be aglow. It still wasn’t.
But, there was something special that night. There was a big red bow. The bow sat atop a small box, which I knew held a smooth metallic transistor and was way too expensive for Mom and Dad to afford.
My folks were humiliated and, somehow, still happy. I saw it in their eyes when I finally broke my silence and screamed while running over to the television set and the transistor. I didn’t know what that look meant at first, but now I can understand how it had hurt them, how they had swallowed pride when Mr. Whitehawk had gone out of his way to deliver me happiness, to give me what they could only fight about.
My dad was humbled. He didn’t react with rudeness or scorn. In fact, he and Jim became friendly over the years, but as a parent myself, or at least someone who used to be, I can place myself in his shoes, walk the mile he walked that night, and it hurts. But there was a definite upshot for Dad. While he was humbled by Mr. Whitehawk’s generosity, his pride soared when he got to see me use that gift.
Almost two months I shadowed Big Jim before I got to do my first solo repair, and on my own console. I took the set apart deftly, pretending that it wasn’t just my parents and Big Jim watching, but instead an audience of important celebrities and government officials, each taking note on how well I was doing, and at such a young age.
It took me longer than it would have Jim, but not much. He supervised from afar, and not in any capacity to belittle my first solo job. He was only there if I needed him, but it turned out that I hadn’t. He, instead, ate my birthday dinner with my folks, on the aluminum TV trays that the salesman had thrown in with the original purchase of our Zenith console, and watched quietly my progress. It was beef stroganoff, my favorite, but I could only nibble a few bites before my excitement took over and I was swept away in the idea of repairing the Zenith. I was too focused to really enjoy the egg noodles and ground hamburger, to enjoy anything other than the work laid out before me, and the reward which was to follow.
Their booming voices and laughter were a backdrop to my real party: the hum and ticking as the television’s transistors filled with electrical current and prepared to spark to life in a Frankensteinian manner. The Zenith snapped awake and my heart came to life, the sight of the cathode ray tube slowly starting to glow again was the lightning bolt needed.
Before my parents and Jim had finished their snifters of brandy—Mom and Jim having only the one while Dad polished off the bottle then a six-pack of Stag—Perry Como had joined my party in the living room. His tie was knotted tight, his suit jacket hung like taffy in the most elegant way. And his voice, softer than butter as he serenaded my thirteenth birthday. That is what I remember most about that party, that day: my mother, melting like the butter that was Perry’s voice and my dad snapping a finger to the tune. Even Mr. Whitehawk had a little head nod going on; it must’ve been the brandy.
I’ve now reached and passed dozens or more of my birthdays, or so my fragmented concept of time has led me to believe, and none have been so memorable as that one. I like to think that this night had become my true birthday, and that I had finally become me in those few hours of harmony with my three closest friends. The only other birthday worth remembering is the day my daughter was born, but now time is getting funny again, and I’m in the wrong spot.