Some recollections just take you by surprise. You ask yourself: Now where did that come from? Why am I thinking about that? This week, doing this writing with you, I returned in memory to: first baby, that summer on the construction crew, a tenth-grade English teacher.
Vivid memories, all three, all with elements of surprise. I want to capture them. Maybe they’re worth sharing. Because they’re kind of unrelated, I can write about these in any order. I can worry about order later on. But I’ve got a plan now. What got me thinking about these three memories–is so stupid. Ridiculous. Every night in bed when I shut the light off, I move around, position my body for its comfort position, reach up to shut the light off and say, “Ahhh, my bed named Fred.” Pretty stupid. I said that all the time to my son, our second born child, when he was little. “Do you want to go to your bed named Fred?” It was a rhyme, it was word play. A silly thing. I think he kind of liked it. A few nights ago when I said that and turned off the light, I thought: Fred. I have known some Freds. One Fred takes me to first baby. Another Fred to the construction crew. The third Fred all the way back to high school, an eccentric teacher.
Low stakes here. I’m remembering, capturing people, places, times. What happened. And also why it mattered. Have a look. Then you do it. Enjoy the memory capture. Take a few days to do this writing. That’s what I did.
I. First surprise.
The woman in the next bed kept calling to her husband, “Fred! Oh, Fred!”
And Fred said, “Okay, honey. Try to breathe now. Short breaths. Like this. Remember?” He pursed his lips and demonstrated.
I looked at my wife, she looked at me. She and Fred’s wife were in the on-deck circle, in one of the labor rooms at Beaumont Hospital, just down the hall from the delivery room. Fred’s wife was approaching the ninth inning, dealing with some major contractions.
II. Second surprise
The first summer I worked on the construction crew, my foreman’s name was Fred. He was a big guy, a Ukrainian. “The Ukrainians,” he would say, “are a proud people.” Fred wore bib overalls and a billcap. He kept a pencil in one bib pocket, a pack of Kools in the other. In moments of stress he tweezed a cigarette out of the pack with thumb and forefinger, lit it, and complained about his ulcer. He never ate lunch. He was a Vietnam vet and bragged once in a while about shooting men over there. In another life, one in which there had been no war and no draft, he probably would have gone to college and become an engineer.
“The first lesson on this job,” he said, “is don’t get killed by the crane.”
III Third Surprise
You had to wonder if Fred got anything out of The Great Gatsby. This was 10th grade English at Freeland High School. This was Fred Conway, a kid everyone made fun of, a kid who was brutally picked on and mocked by guys (of course it was guys) for talking slow, for not being very smart. Today boys like Fred, when they’ve had enough abuse, bring a gun to school and go all Colombine. But there was kind of a serenity about Fred. He would look on, nod his head, and smile. In Miss Erdmann’s class he sat in the back of the room, over by the window.