Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Axman Cometh


When I was growing up the prevailing wisdom about kids was that they should be seen and not heard. As ludicrous as it sounds, many parents back then were taught from generations before them not to say anything to their children that might lift their self-confidence because it could go to their heads.

Children back then weren’t seen as little people with feelings and emotions and ideas of their own. They were simply an addition to the family, good for chores until they proved their worth. Then at some point, the girls were good for caring for elderly parents. That and getting married and having children and starting the cycle all over again.

In my case, it was a typical German Catholic rural farming family thinking. Pathetic!

So we never talked about feelings, emotions or any kind of oral history. They never spoke. I never asked.

Such a shame.

So I never captured my stepfather’s tales of being a railroad station manager at the turn of the century in the Nebraska Territory when Indians still roamed the west and outlaws were a constant threat. Or riding the rails between Seattle and Vancouver during the great depression. Hanging bootleg whiskey bottles out the train windows on strings so the border inspectors wouldn’t find them. Working for the post office for 30 years and being retired for 33 years. Losing his daughter when she was 22, his wife when she was 50, his son when he was 45, and finding someone else when he was in his 80s (my Mother).

Or recorded tales of my mother growing up on a farm with seven siblings. Being smacked across the floor by her mother when she mentioned that the cat had just given birth to kittens.

First working as a maid to those rich people on Summit Avenue. ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ Saint Paul style. Then as a short order cook in the First National Bank Building in downtown St. Paul. Working for that nice ‘Jewish couple’ who took good care of their employees.

Or meeting my stepfather Erwin in her 70’s for companionship because she was afraid to admit maybe, just maybe, it might have been love she was feeling after all those years.

No reference or memory of my Father so I have nothing to hold on to or remember about the man who brought me into the world. Other than the fact that he smoked, liked to drink and died at age 48 of a massive heartache in some flea-bitten hotel in Montana. The story goes that he was on his way back to Minnesota, with Christmas presents, for the first time in four years after leaving us.

Fortunately that ‘don’t ask – don’t tell’ frame of mind pretty well dissipated by the time it was our turn to be parents. We were smarter with my wife’s parents. Fortunately we did video tape them and have captured at least an hour and a half of their memories while both were still cognizant of their surroundings and their past life.

I guess I should have asked: At what point in your life do memories become more important than dreams? Or could you have both?

I guess I saw my own role as father a little differently. Even though I wasn’t smart enough to deliberately build memories with my kids, it just happened somehow. I was lucky.

Many Saturday mornings found us all up at about the same time. They had the routine down pad.

“What are you doing?” They’d ask.
“Got work to do.” I’d reply.
“Can we come along?” They’d ask, already knowing the answer.
And with that, we were off to breakfast and an assortment of tasks, projects and or just plain screwing around.

First stop was always some cheap diner in town. My kids like to brag that they’ve been to every cheap diner in St. Paul. (unless it’s been torn down by now.) Always a treat as much for the clientele watching as for the mediocre food.

Our Favorites:
Day by Day CafĂ©  (wait staff was heavily tattooed and most were in recovery)
Mickey’s Diner  (once saw a guy there in a buffalo headdress and full regalia-so?)
Uptowner  (locals from downtown; a very diverse and eclectic crowd)
Cossettas  (Italians from the neighborhood and tourists from downtown)

After breakfast there might be work projects for the business or properties. ($10.00 an hour isn’t bad for a grade schooler plus lunch thrown in)

But the highlight of the day was always: The Ax Man.

The last stop on our all day Saturday jaunts was always The Ax Man Surplus Store on University Avenue. That shop had more assorted crap you never knew you needed than any other junk store in the Twin Cities. Fifty cents each was their limit and that was always enough back then to fill their small shopping carts.

From nuts and bolts to assorted tools, Chinese knockoffs filled a lot of the bins. From old incubators to newer oscillators to an ancient iron lung. The store had it all. Most of it totally worthless unless you’re in grade school or middle school. Then the place was a treasure trove of wonders for any imaginative kid.

Back then half a buck used to be able to buy a handful of junk that my kids desperately wanted if only for the moment. Brennan and Charlotte will now probably cost me at least a dollar plus each for the same results.

But even before the Ax Man comes into play for the grandkids, we’ve been collecting lots of prints of the kids growing up along with VHS and DVD remembrances.

I want to start my own traditions with Brennan and Charlotte here and the twins and Maya when we’re out in Colorado. Silly, sometimes stupid, sometimes meaningless antics or forages into experiences they might otherwise never have. I have no idea what is going to stick in their little heads but if I throw enough experiences at them something will form a lasting memory without my even knowing it.

And the grandchildren will remember us. It’s called full tilt digital and we intend to capture as many memories as we can. There have already been bazillion digital images
and YouTube videos. Then (hopefully my own comic strips and stories from ‘Sweetpea and the Gang’ for them to hold on to as a memory of Papa and Nana.

There will be trips to Palm Springs and other points West. Of course, we’ll include Colorado, Minnesota and in the future, traveling abroad. Maybe we’ll explore the back roads of America and do our own Jack Kerouac thing; my little Easy Riders and me.

And in the end, we’ll leave them with a legacy in print, pixels, bytes and, oh yeah, gray matter too.