The Talented Mr. Abercrombie: Tales of the Boy Jamie

Oh, see, now you’re thinking that I’m going to write another clever treatise about my father, but no.  In honor of his 54th birthday, I am going to attempt to capture the spirit of the other James R. Abercrombie–the guy three boys call ‘Dad’, one baby girl calls ‘Papa’, and one hot babe of a wife calls ‘Jame’.  To those of you who think you know Jamie, let me tell you, you only know the adult version.  I’m here to shed some light on the youthful Jamie.  And I’ll try to spare him any embarrassment in the process.  Maybe.

My grandmother once remarked that my brother Jamie was born old.  This could not be more accurate.  Jamie is the oldest child in our family, which probably does not surprise many of you given his hardworking nature, his decisiveness, and his level of responsible behavior.  He exhibited those virtues as a child, also.  But what you don’t know about Jamie is that, as a child, he was ruled by his sister Becky, 16 months his junior.  She could talk Jamie into nearly anything, but she was careful to limit his conduct to things that would ultimately be to her future benefit. 

Take the first incident with the matches.  Long before I, Jamie’s youngest sister by four years, was cognizant of that special relationship between my two sibs, Becky proffered a rather dangerous dare to Jamie involving the lighting of matches.  Becky talked Jamie into lighting matches in the room that was, at that time, our dining area, but what later became known as the back porch.  The back porch was a little square room surrounded with windows, many windows adorned with fluttering, frilly curtains.  Matches were lit, curtains caught fire, and Jamie—though later to prove his über intelligence through his academic achievements—decided that the most resourceful way to suppress the fire was to spray the flaming curtains with Lysol. 

This story had a happy ending; I just don’t know what it was.  Obviously our house did not burn down, but the incident with the matches—and the second incident to follow involving Jamie lighting matches in the woods in front of our house—provided Becky with enough leverage to get just about anything she wanted.  How do I know this?  Because she blackmailed me on any number of occasions.  Masterful manipulator that she was (is?), she had Jamie and me right in the palm of her hand.  While most boys Jamie’s age sought out boys of similar age with whom to toss the football, play catch, shoot hoops, and conduct games of torture, Jamie had a built-in playmate in Becky.  As for me?  I was the pitiful recipient of their cruelty and subsequent source of amusement when it was too cold for them to go outside to play.

But in the end, one can only take so much Becky, so, as a respite from her antics, Jamie would often escape to the safety of his room.  One of my most indelible memories of Jamie as a boy involved those little green army men that boys in the 1960s played with.  Understand that this was the Vietnam era, and those of us who remember that time will recall that video footage of the war as it was happening was taped and later broadcast on the nightly news.  An historic first.  Parents at that time never felt the need to filter whatever was on TV for their wide-eyed children, so at least for me, I thought war was perpetual.  I think Jamie did, too.

As a result, Jamie learned to stage epic battles using those little green army men.  Meanwhile, Becky and I were in our room performing beauty pageants with our Barbie dolls—forgive me, with my Barbie dolls (hers remained upon the shelf with the protective wrap still around their heads—mine had the toes chewed off, had chopped off hair from when Becky played beauty shop, and were always naked).  In the safety of his room, Jamie would have carefully researched the most famous battles of World War II and would accurately re-enact these clashes on his bedroom floor.  We never actually witnessed these battles; instead, we heard them.  Jamie had a unique talent for making bombing noises—a sound that I could not hope to reproduce no matter how hard I tried.  Ask him today to make the war sounds.  You, too, will be impressed.

Decades before the sagas of Bella and Edward, Jamie harbored a fascination with vampires.  On any given Friday or Saturday night, after growing tired of his war games, he would painstakingly remain awake so that he could stay up and watch Weirdo—a late-night offering that showed old horror movies—in the hope that some Mystery Science Theater-ish Dracula movie would be featured.  His enchantment with the dark side was so real to him that he took to hanging garlic around his neck, sleeping with a crucifix, and asking my dad if we had any hawthorn branches that he could use to make a stake.  Apparently, the danger of a vampire attacking him in the middle of the night was imminent, and he wanted to be safe.  He was nothing if not well prepared.

In addition to his partiality to vampires, Jamie loved space.  Becoming an astronaut was just about every boy’s fantasy in the 1960s, and this boy was no different.  Perhaps it was the Tang he drank or those chocolate space food sticks he downed, but Jamie was NASA ready.  And when I say ‘ready’, I mean husky-sized Star Trek Captain Kirk pajamas and all. 

Vampires and Apollo 11 fell by the wayside when Jamie started playing Little League baseball.  I cannot remember Jamie ever having played any position other than catcher, but he undoubtedly could have been a more versatile player, given the right circumstances.  He was a ‘Cub’, and twice weekly, my parents kept vigil from the bleachers at the Linesville Little League while Becky and I wore a path back and forth to the concession stand.  Jamie’s goal–the goal of every Linesville Little Leaguer–was to shatter the front window of the Dairy Isle (a parking lot away from the outfield fence) with a game-winning homerun.  I don’t know if he ever reached his goal; I was too busy stuffing my pie hole with Jolly Ranchers.

Back at home, the obsession with baseball continued.  Adjacent to our property was a large field owned by our uncle.  This field was perfect for baseball, and throughout the summer, the neighborhood boys and my sister Becky would assemble on non-Little League nights for a marathon game.  With the exception of Becky, no other girls in the ‘hood were interested in baseball except for me, and because I lacked my sister’s substantial skill on the diamond, Jamie magnanimously made me the behind the plate umpire.  I really had no idea what an umpire was to do during a baseball game, not really paying attention to Sheena calling the game at the Little League field, but Jamie assured me that it was the most important job in a baseball game, more important than that of the pitcher.  All I had to do was stand behind the catcher for the entire game, or until I got tired of being bitten by mosquitos.

Jamie’s athleticism, combined with his inordinate ability to memorize just about anything, was impressive enough that my parents bought him a subscription to Sports Illustrated.  Jamie devoured the statistics, facts, minutiae, and trivia about every player in the major leagues.  While some men of his generation proudly show off their boyhood collection of Playboy magazines, Jamie would be proud to show off his rather impressive collection of Sports Illustrated.  I’m convinced his wife would be even more elated to toss the entire collection in the dumpster behind the Yarn Barn.

I experienced a couple of firsts with Jamie.  He took me to see Star Wars when it first came out (I think I fell asleep), and one night in 1975 we both stayed up to see the debut of Saturday Night Live—John Belushi played Captain Kirk in a Star Trek parody, and we both laughed so hard we nearly puked.  Also, for the very first time, we gave back to Becky all that she had given to us when she introduced us to her new boyfriend.  In a lovesick burst of heartfelt sincerity, she had foolishly revealed to both Jamie and me that the new guy in her life raised rabbits, as in bunny rabbits.  Upon meeting Randy for the first time, Jamie and I welcomed him by doing the bunny hop.  That was the last time she ever brought a new boyfriend home to meet us.

So you see, there is much about young Jamie that you never knew.  He’s certainly not one to talk much about himself, or brag about his accomplishments, unless they involve his wife or his sons.  Lucky for me I have all the crayons in my box to color a picture of this husky-then-not-so-husky-explosion-sound making, space loving, vampire fearing, Little League catching, Sports Illustrated memorizing guy!  Happy birthday, Jamie!  

Now don’t be hatin’ on me for telling all your secrets.



My Dad and Billy Graham: Some material may not be suitable for all family members. Reader discretion advised

Just as Christ turned the other cheek and forgave sinners, I’d like to think that when Billy Graham enters the gates of Heaven, he’ll look for my dad.

To say that my dad was a contrarian is like saying that the Pope is from Argentina.  The principal JRA, known as “Mr. A.” to the high school students he shepherded was an avuncular figure, a hand on a shoulder, an understanding adult in an otherwise tumultuous environment.  The real JRA, the one we called “Dad”, took sarcasm and cynicism to a whole new level.  And was kind of hilarious in the process.  Most of the time.

My dad was an equal opportunity critic.  I don’t apologize for this particular attribute of his—it was what it was.  Any man, woman, or child who happened to irritate him was fodder for his misanthropy.  He would find one particular aspect of a person—be it one’s countenance, social class, suspect parentage, or peculiarity—and run with it.  Usually he had names for people that somehow related to one or more of the aforementioned characteristics, like his college acquaintance Jim Balog.  Jim Balog, apparently, ate like a pig; ergo, the name ‘Jim Balog’ was synonymous with having bad table manners.  If, at the dinner table, we failed to hold our knife correctly or forgot to place our napkin on our lap properly, we were compared to the ill-mannered Jim Balog.  That was just the way my dad was with people for whom he had any degree of disdain.

Take my father’s relationship with Billy Graham.  Today when we think of Billy Graham, we place him in the same category as Mother Teresa.  Billy Graham represents the best of Christianity, and he is revered and honored, just as he should be. In the 1960s and 1970s, Billy Graham was often featured on television preaching to his enraptured followers in packed revivals, delivering the Gospel to stadiums full of Christians eager to hear his interpretation of the Word.  His popularity among believers was and remains steadfast.  Few would dispute his ability to incite a crowd of the faithful to rise to their feet in adoration.  Who among us could find fault with that?

Who indeed.

Before I describe my father’s rather merciless and prejudicial one sided affiliation with BG, understand that JRA was a devout Believer; however, his attendance at Sunday services—any Sunday services—were non-existent.  He blamed his failure to attend Church on his upbringing.  It seems as if his parents’ lives revolved around the Church, and, being a contrarian, little Raymond had to be dragged there each week under extreme duress.  Once he became an adult, he claimed that he attended Church while he was riding his tractor plowing a field to prepare it for a crop he would plant but never harvest.  Though he wasn’t technically a farmer, he loved driving his tractor, and he loved plowing, so if riding on his tractor plowing the crap out of a field was his Church, far be it for us to keep him from his worship.

Dad worked long hours as a high school principal, and he faithfully attended every basketball game, every baseball game, every band concert (such as they were), and chaperoned every dance and prom.  Since he so faithfully attended each school activity , maybe he felt the need to faithfully attend church simply more time spent away from his tractor, I don’t know.  I do know that when he finally came home each evening, he was tired, he wanted to relax, and he wanted to watch his programs.

It was a Thursday night after my dad had enjoyed a few pulls from a recently purchased fifth of Seagram’s 7 (only top shelf for the Old Boy), that the unspeakable occurred.  All week my dad looked forward to Thursday night so he could watch Ironside starring Raymond Burr. After a hard day of herding adolescents, Dad just wanted some Burr.

That night, though, Billy Graham’s ability to draw faithful viewers trumped Burr.

Upon hearing the words, “Tonight’s episode of Ironside will be pre-empted so that we may bring you this special program” followed by the text “The Billy Graham Crusade” crawling across the screen, my dad lost his shit.  He called Billy Graham names I’m not going to print here out of respect for my dad and for Mr. Graham. With a furious energy that belied his inebriated status, he began scrambling in the junk drawer, found the phone book, and surprisingly was able to locate the long distance number to Erie, Pennsylvania’s NBC affiliate WICU Channel 12.  Making long distant phone calls in those days was an expense usually reserved for Grandma in Florida, but Dad considered the station’s preemption of Ironside such an egregious breach of contract between him and Channel 12 it wouldn’t have mattered if the station had been located in Bangladesh, he was going to let them have it.  We could only hear his side of the conversation, of course, and it went something like this:

“Why is it that every g*d-damn time I want to sit down and watch a show you have to interrupt my program with that insufferable preacher?”

“Of course I believe in God!”

“Well just because I can’t stand his ingratiating preaching does not mean that I’m not a good Christian!”

“How dare you ask me if I go to church!  That’s none of your g*d-damn business!”

“No. I. Have. Not. Been. Drinking!”

“My name?”

I cannot recall just how many Billy Graham crusades I had to suffer through—not necessarily because I disliked altar calls or group hymns, but because we knew Dad would come unglued and it would be up to us to put Humpty back together again.  What we wouldn’t have given for cable TV, a DVD player, or even the Internet to placate him, but that technology was a few years down the road.

In later years, my dad’s relationship with Billy Graham softened somewhat, and a kind of one-sided rapprochement occurred. He actually began to enjoy the man’s quiet and dignified approach to the Gospel and revered his message once Mr. Graham’s esteem and popularity had evolved to such a degree that his telecasts never again encroached upon Dad’s nighttime television lineup.

Just as Christ turned the other cheek and forgave sinners, I’d like to think that when Billy Graham enters the gates of Heaven, he’ll look for my dad.  Hopefully he’ll be able to find him.

On the Beach

When you’re little, you think that every aspect of your life is normal because you don’t really have a grasp of what others may have, what they have encountered, or what they must endure.  Whatever it is that you’re experiencing as a child is what every child your age is experiencing, and your expectations of that normalcy remain until you grow up, move away, and realize that those experiences were special.  My life has been like that.  Looking back, I realize that my childhood was unique in so many ways both good and bad, but blissfully, I mostly remember the best.  Without a doubt, my brother and sister would agree with me that the most enduring experience we had in our youth was our daily summertime ritual of going to the beach.  Because, after all, didn’t everybody grow up with a beach?

This wasn’t exactly “our” beach, and we did not live within walking distance of it.  Nor was it a proper beach—it was neither an ocean nor a shore—but to us, in our naiveté, it was a paradise like no other.  Geographically, Pymatuning Lake (or as my dad called it, the “Swamp”) is a large reservoir straddling the Pennsylvania-Ohio border between the two Pennsylvania towns of Linesville and Jamestown on the east, and the Ohio burg of Andover on the west.  My father, 45 years my senior (more later about the advantages of having an elderly father), remembers that during the Great Depression, his father found work helping to dig out Pymatuning, created by damming the Shenango River to the south.  I could wax historic here about the rich history of the building of Pymatuning, the spooky myths involving entire farms being submerged under water, and the scary number of men who died whilst digging out the mud hole (no, no, my grandfather survived), but those facts are not germane to my epistle.  My fascination with the beach is.

The Saturday of Memorial Day weekend began each summer of beachiness.  The beach did not open properly until 11 am daily, so our mornings—from 7 am until 10:50 am–were spent getting ready for the beach.  This involved packing lunches—either peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or chip-chop ham sandwiches with mustard—a bag of Wise potato chips, and a large thermos full of Kool-Aid mixed with lemonade (such a creative mum!).  If we had them, a box of Ho-ho’s were thrown in.  We then retrieved from the clothesline our beach blanket and our crusty beach towels, which, I am almost but not quite ashamed to say, were, along with our bathing suits, our hair, and ourselves, never, ever washed during the summer, only hung on the line once we got home in the late afternoon.  Towels, blanket, and bathing suits, not us.

Becky and I were nearly apoplectic waiting for Mum to get herself ready so that we could leave; Jamie less so.  Those were the days of Little League baseball where, on a game day, coaches forbade their players from engaging in rigorous activities like swimming, and my brother, being the rule follower that he is, honored his coach’s demands.  After all, it’s common knowledge that Little League baseball requires an inordinate amount of vigor and stamina from the average eight year old boy.  Come to think of it, he probably should have taken a nap, too.

It seemed to take years for my Mum to get ready.  Her toilette involved both hair and makeup; my mother did not discriminate when it came to glamor.  Then she would wiggle into her bikini and preen in front of the full length mirror making sure that no stretch marks were visible.  Once satisfied with her little sassy self, she would slip on a matching cover-up and an equally sassy pair of sandals.  Yes, my Mum was a little hottie in a bikini back in the day—again, wasn’t everybody’s Mum? 

You may be wondering why she bothered to do her hair when she was going to be sitting on a beach and occasionally entering the water to cool off, but let me tell you, Susan’s hair did not get wet.  Ever.  Her weekly trips to Jean’s Beauty salon were the only opportunity for those tresses to be washed, set, and coiffed, and woe to the child daft enough to splash around Susan while she was taking a dip…up to her shoulders.  Like her daughter in later years, my mum had no problem yelling at other people’s kids.

Finally, finally, it was time to go!  We were always the first to arrive at the beach; only the lifeguards beat us to the punch.  My mum barely had time to put the car into park before my sister and I barreled out and ran barefooted (another shameful secret of my childhood:  we did not wear shoes all summer) full speed from the gravel parking lot into the water, leaving my mum and brother to haul all of our stuff to our spot.  My mum did not worry about me and my ability to handle myself in eight feet of muddy water.  I don’t remember learning how to swim, so I can only imagine that when I was a baby, Susan tossed me into the deep end and hoped for the best.  Lucky for me, I didn’t disappoint.  

We swam, we dove, we turned front somersaults and back somersaults.  We played tag, we poured mud from the silty bottom into our hair pretending we had beehive hairdos, and played endless games of Marco Polio—apparently we were more familiar with childhood diseases than with early explorers.  We engaged in all of these water activities without the added benefit of any manner of flotation device.  Flotation devices were listed as number three on the beach’s ‘strictly forbidden’ list, and to this day, I have no idea why.  This prohibition of anything floaty was such a mainstay of the rules of the beach that we seasoned swimmers often laid in wait to watch some poor unfortunate about to break the rules.  We cackled in delight whenever a child—most likely some wayward youngster from Pittsburgh, slathered head to toe in Coppertone lotion and unschooled in the rules of the beach–gleefully pounced into the water with his little animal-shaped floaty only to draw the shrill trill of the lifeguard’s whistle.  Oh, the shame he must have endured having to plod back to his parents’ blanket and surrender his little seahorse.  We delighted in our first taste of schadenfreude.

About every hour or so, the lifeguards would call a ‘safety break’, a time when all swimmers had to get out of the water so that the lifeguards could either take a swim and cool off or get out of the sun for a time.  Safety breaks lasted no longer than 15 minutes, and at about minute 13, we were at the shoreline poised like runners at the start awaiting the signal that the safety break was over.  Oh, some kids were still stuck on line at the concession stand, waiting for their giant pixie stix and their sno-cones, and some kids were stupid enough to have eaten their lunch during the safety break (and not before) and were forced by their mothers to wait a half hour before getting back into the water.  But man, once that whistle blew, we nearly killed one another to be the first one into the water, and to this day, there might still be a body or two lying at bottom of the swimming area. 

Five o’clock was our time to leave the beach.  The sun would begin to wane, and it would begin to get chilly.  Good mother that she was, though, nearly every trip home involved Susan making a detour to the Dairy Isle for ice cream, as if we hadn’t ingested enough sugary junk for the day.  Once we were finally home, bathing suits, bearing the fishiness of the lake mixed with the smell of gasoline from the boats anchored near the swimming area were returned to the clothesline along with our towels and the blanket.  My sister and I would attempt to comb out our fishy smelling hair, but eventually we gave up.  After all, we would be repeating the day’s adventure in a few short hours, and who cared about combed hair anyway? 

If you were to ask me today if I prefer to swim in a chlorinated pool or a in a lake, I would choose the latter.  And if you were to ask me to recall my favorite smell it would be—yep—that fishy-gasoline-y lake smell.  Go figure.  That mud hole of a lake has provided me with so many memories—too many to recall in one entry.  Prepare yourselves for more tales from Pymatuning.


We’re Five Again

I spent Saturday moving the twins back home from their esteemed university.  Babies’ daddy had to, just had to travel out of town for business that day, so it fell to me to schlep up to said university and pack it up and tear it down, ala Jackson Browne (“The Load-Out”, circa 1977).  The girls chose not to room together, mores the pity, and though they were in the same hole of a dorm, they were on different floors.  Husband’s last words to me that morning were, “It won’t be that bad.  The roommates have already moved out, and the girls told me they’ve thrown out a ton of stuff already.”  I would soon discover that somebody had been lying.  The liars (who shall remain nameless) later revealed to me that this was a lie told with love so that I might be spared the desolation of a depressing drive from Indy to West Lafayette.  Bless their little hearts.

Needless to say, I was dreading the redding (‘redding=Pittsburghese).

Don’t get me wrong, I was excited that the twins would be home for the summer, but I was not looking forward to the understandably unpleasant task at hand.  Regretfully, the twins did not inherit their parents’ genetic propensity for structure, order, or neatness.  It seems as if hoarding–as in TLC and A&E reality show hoarding– might be in their future, minus the cats.  The Old Man and I are neat freaks, plain and simple.  The twins?  Quite the opposite.

I arrive at the Purdue campus that afternoon and text Thing One to let her know that I’m within spitting distance. She tells me she’s at lunch, but her room is open so “Just go on in and get started.”  Started?  Started.  As in, “Begin to eliminate all detritus and pack up all belongings.”  Upon entering her dorm room, my fears (and the aforementioned lie) were confirmed.  She hadn’t done a damn thing.  Her room, even without her roommate and her load of crap, was a 19th century rookery.  Any minute I expected to see Oliver Twist emerge from under the bed with a possum and a nest of mice.  Remarking to daughter one later about her obvious lack of housekeeping prowess and her rather urgent need to acquire such skills before moving into her sorority house in the fall, she responded with, “We’ll have maids.”

Dear God.  Let her marry a man with a trust fund.

So while I’m shoveling equal amounts of crap into garbage bags and clothes into duffel bags, Thing Two, sleepy-eyed, bed headed, and, I suspect, hungover, shuffles into her sister’s room and says, “Wow.  At least I don’t have as much stuff.”  The best news I had heard so far, so it emboldened me somewhat.  I left Thing One’s room and followed sister up one floor to her room.  Unfortunately, her assessment on the crap-o-meter was quite distorted.  The crap was just packed in more tightly.

When will I learn?

Well, as long as I was there, I decided to fill up the garbage bag I was still holding from the first room with the trash from room two.  Once full and painfully knotted, I gave this bulging repository of crap to my daughter to take to the Dumpster, then proceeded to sort through clothes, shoes, clothes, books, clothes, pictures, clothes, notebooks, clothes, grooming products, clothes, makeup, and clothes.  Daughter two was taking her time getting back from the Dumpster, but about 30 minutes later she arrived back in her room holding an open can of Pringles under one arm and texting someone who must have been involved with national security because what else could have been more important than helping me get that room cleared out?

At this point, I was thinking that it was going to take an act of Congress to empty both rooms, squeeze the girls’ insane amount of clothes and all their other stuff into the car, and render both rooms hygienically adjusted well enough to pass the eagle eyes and noses of each of the girls’ Resident Assistants.  Daughter number one, with her glacier-like speed, was “sorting” clothes with one hand and texting with the other; daughter number two was texting with both hands and using the toes on her left foot to pick up panties and deposit them into a clothes basket.  Meanwhile, I’m sweating so much I can taste it, and my shirt and shorts are sticking to me in places I can’t talk about.  The dust and dirt involved in moving all of that stuff was killing my eyes, making me sneeze, and I was just in an altogether wretched state.

Alas, my little princesses looked as cool and beautiful as ever.

Finally, after daughter two and I successfully carried a broken futon out to the Dumpster (not ‘in’ the Dumpster, so we had to walk away rather quickly), pitched a microwave that probably should have been donated to the microbiology department,  and relieved daughter one from the arduous task of using a dustpan to retrieve her ID from under the dresser, we were ready to shove the last of the mess into the Towne and Country and start home.  And no one was leaving in a body bag.  I call that a successful day.

On the way back to Indy, both girls told me how much they were looking forward to coming home to live in a clean house, take showers that were always hot, and allow me to take care of them.  Ah, that kind of made the day’s experience all worth it, don’t you think?  It’s now day three, and I think I only have about ten more loads of laundry to do, but it is nice to be five of us again.