Archive for September, 2014


He died.  He wasn’t supposed to do that.  I had counted on his being there, an ever-living part of a painful past, stopping time at the place where I quit and everything else kept right on going.  He had become a great man in his scruffy little backwater town, a veteran, wounded, leg amputated below the knee.  His hand had been mangled as an aircraft tractor’s wheel dipped into an open man-hole and slid off the carrier deck into a quiet harbor mooring.  Other than a mighty splash, there was no drama involved.  At 2AM an officer had wanted a bar of soap and ordered a Seaman to go get it.  James Taylor, the nearest swabbie available, shook off sleep, snapped a crisp salute, and took off across the carrier deck.  He might have walked or even run, since “the God damn son-of-a-bitch was so hot to hit the shower,” he groused, but the farm-boy in him sent him scrambling onto the nearest tractor, the quickest way to get him back to his bunk where he intended to finish a dream that had been “gettin’ right juicy.”

He reached for the tractor’s light switch, but the moon was near full and “mightily” pretty, so he didn’t bother with lights.  He and the tractor headed out, taking a short cut to the supply bay.  He might have seen and avoided the circular void, plainly outlined in the moonlight, had he been paying attention to the surface ahead, but the silvery orb was full and had a ring around it.  Must be gonna’ rain, he mused.  The diesel engine was warming to the task and picked up rpms as he fiddled with fuel feed.

Then all Hell broke loose.  The machine flipped, and he was under it, sliding along the stippled decking.  His leg was gone, but that didn’t yet register.  Lady Luck hadn’t completely abandoned him though.  As the big machine tipped, rolled, hesitated like Wylie Coyote, then dropped into the drink, it left him behind, bleeding, screaming, and yes, howling into the moon-lit night.  The watch, mercifully alert, sounded the alarm, and James Charles Taylor began the living of a whole new existence.

Fifty-eight years later, the crowds that attended the funeral home viewing came for any number of reasons.  Many assumed him to be a war hero, a wounded veteran.  Veteran he was, but not actually a hero, more a victim of a soap shortage in naval officers’ quarters.  If he could claim fame at all, it would be due to the wound to his hand.  His pinky finger disappeared in the kerfuffle, and the entire top of his left hand was scraped away, tendons and all.  The surgeons at Portsmouth Naval Hospital saw him as an opportunity to attempt a hypothetical procedure that was benefiting from much speculation but lacking demonstrated proof.

Their theory postulated that specific tissue could be induced to change to a different type if placed in operation actually performing its newly assigned task.  The doctors harvested strips of skin and connected them to the attachment points from the three remaining knuckle bones to the corresponding three wrist bones.  The surgical team exchanged satisfied glances over their white masks, breathed deeply, rolled tight shoulders, and resumed.  The arrangement looked promising but needed a living lid.  So the bare newly revised tendon array took up residence under a layer of belly fat and skin, where it was sewn in place and remained for many months while the covered strips of skin were duped into becoming tendons.  In Jim’s words: “It was a god-damned fucking nuisance walking around with your god-damned fucking hand sewn into your god-damned son of a bitchin’ stomach.”  But finally fingers began to twitch, then waggle.  When the hand was at last cut free, taking reallocated belly fat and skin with it, the fingers slowly began to articulate with purpose.  Jim had become a heroic guinea pig to a select group of US Navy surgeons, and many other people, military and civilian alike, benefited from his painful experience.

Discharged from the Navy as certifiably disabled, he snapped up a plum position as clerk in his home town’s state liquor store, where as a life-long teetotaler, he was an ideal candidate and served capably until retirement.  James had no scholarly ambitions, and didn’t share his dad’s idyllic dream of tilling the Taylor Family Farm.

Although officially disabled, he continued to be an able deer and squirrel hunter, scrambling up and down rough mountain terrain, his left stump patched with moleskin, cushioned in a wool stocking, and seemingly wedded to his prosthesis.  Even with the prosthetic leg standing in the corner of the bedroom, he could get around single-footed with equal agility as many a man on two.  Seven live births indeed attest to multiple varieties of prowess.

Jim Taylor was definitely a man’s man.  He was born a natural storyteller, but it was in the Navy that he learned to cuss.  After his accident with its ensuing physical and psychological trauma, he patently perfected the art of embellishing his dissemination of oral expression to near Tourette’s level.  His family and friends tried to get him to clean up his speech, but his colorful vocabulary didn’t trouble customers stopping by the liquor store for a pint.  He had his faults, but people are forgiving, and he was a man who was easy to like, cut of sturdy simple cloth.  Men of Jim Taylor’s ilk seldom ever die alone.

Having eventually sired seven children under wedlock and contributed to rumors of others about whom legitimacy is not discussed, he enjoyed dandling a passel of grandbabies on whichever knee was working best on any given day.  Sons and daughters, along with assorted grown grandchildren themselves working on the next generation of Taylors, showed up to keep the old man company during his last days.  During the weeks before he gave it up, his nursing home room became a temporary happy hospice, while hundreds of family and town folk meandered in and out, paying their respects and exchanging “dad stories.”

As Jim’s ex-wife, twice subsequently re-married and correspondingly divorced, I have plenty of “ex-stories”.  I had never thought of Jim Taylor as a great man, veteran or not.  To me he was the husband who seemed determined to spoil my romantic dream of life in a peaceful green mountain hollow, part of a loving extended family, wholesome community, and freedom to make an authentic life.  I adored the farm, the people, the animals, the machines, and the march of the seasons.  Always the writer, I waxed poetic about autumn color and sprouting crocus.

While we were still figuring out the mechanics of sex, things went as well as can be expected when neither party understood the concept of distaff orgasm.  Indeed, I had borne three healthy babes before accidentally experiencing that ultimate mind/body experience, by myself.  Though well endowed, Jim didn’t know how to maximize his assets.  In his defense, I was embarrassed about sex in general.  I lied to my in-laws, insisting that nothing untoward had happened between Jim and me.  It wasn’t until I was six months along that I finally admitted that a little something just might indeed have taken place.

Most problematical, Jim had developed a mean streak.  If I was winning at a card game, he would turn the table over.  Though he never struck me, he routinely strapped Dale, our eldest, with his belt.  The end he chose to use depended on the level of his rage.  Too often the buckle end won out.  In the early spring he would turn the cattle in to graze in our yard creating an ankle-deep muddy mire.  I complained effectively enough that he put up an electric fence around our house to keep cows off the porches and walkways to the barn lot.  When the children went out to play, they faced electrified barbed wire.  When I tried to warn Dale about the hot fence, Jim shut me up and watched while he waited for him to touch it.  Then he enjoyed a great belly-laugh at Dale’s expense.

Eventually I realized I must do something.  It was time to get a job.  The night before I was to go to Parkersburg and be tested for IQ and job aptitudes, Jim stayed awake the entire night.  Every time I would fall asleep, he would kick me out of bed onto the floor.  Too stubborn to let him win, I showed up for testing right on schedule. Sleepless, but grimly determined, I managed a high mechanical aptitude score, harbinger of my future career in engineering.

Surprisingly, in spite of this abuse, I didn’t flee the hollow until I had to.  Our third child, a son I named Lane Byron, was six weeks old when the casing on our water well gave out.  Our tap water was tainted with dirt, grass and no doubt dung from the cattle grazing above the well head.  Water that I sent to be tested came back as “not potable.”  I showed Jim the result of the test and begged for bottled water.  His response:  “The God damned fuckin’ little son-of-a-bitch can drink it if I can.”  The next day I took the children and left__at long last.  A local garment factory hired me to sew darts in ladies blouses.  Lane was only two months old then, and I ran home during lunch every day to nurse him.

What surprised me when I got the call that announced Jim’s passing was that I felt no satisfaction at having out-lived him.  What came back to me clear as sieved honey was the sweet quiet times we had shared before he was maimed and began what was to be a radical disintegration of personality.  I had so deeply appreciated his gentle honest persona after a miserable year of putting up with arrogant Carnegie Tech engineering freshmen.  Their idea of conversation was comparing the relative merits of each other’s slide rules.  “Longest” won every time.  I had discovered the advantage of using a round rule, a device that speeds calculation since each step need not be re-set before performing the next one, but they laughed at my silly round rule.  It was a phallic issue.  I lost.  No wonder Jim, a handsome, sweet, down-to-earth sailor boy, looked good to me that golden summer of 1957.

When after his accident he proposed by air mail, I accepted.  How could I actually grieve a divorced and adversarial husband after all those many years?  I don’t know the answer, but as soon as I learned that my first love had passed from my world, all I could remember was how one summer I met a boy, and began to learn what love might really be about.  It was Jim who died, but I too, watched the lively images of our days flowing past, remembrance of all the happy times forgotten.  Following that last agonal breath, I pictured Jim striding purposefully on two good legs down his own tunnel of light muttering, “Well, I’ll be God damned and go to Hell__’er, make that Heaven”!

  • *  *  *  Epilogue

This effort led me to examine others whom I had determined to forever resent.  They too had sometimes been kind.  The meanness that had scarred their lives, and then touched mine, had legitimate causation.  They, too, had suffered and unintentionally passed it on.  I spent many quiet hours remembering Jim back when we had actually loved each other.  That felt like forgiveness.  I tried the same process with respect to my despised Uncle Wesson.  Even he had sometimes tried to be a friend to the scrawny girl who had appeared in his once sovereign bailiwick, competing for dear Aunt Judy’s attention.  Even my parents, much maligned during all those hours of analysis, looked pretty good when their strengths were addressed.

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