Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Sweaty T-shirts

Hot and humid days in Pennsylvania can suck. I don’t think I minded them until I was old enough to start sweating without running around. I remember wearing cheesy travel t-shirts when this was starting to occur.

My uncle would have barbeques in the early evening, which was much too early to be having them for summer. It’s still as hot at 5pm as it was at 2pm and you never have much of an appetite when you’re sweating. The back of your t-shirt would stick to your wet neck. The sun would beat down on the river in the valley and make the air muggy and thick. All I wanted to do was sit and drink water.

My uncle had a neighbor, an old man who was older than my grandparents. He was lithe and spry but couldn’t hear much of anything. His wife had passed away years before. My first memories of him are when my uncle would drive my siblings, his dog, and me over to the old man’s property in his Kubota Mule. I never saw the old man when we drove by but his property was always there. The house looked as skeletal as the barn that sat with just a few tools and a tractor inside. The old man kept his property neat and clean. The dying, rusting and moaning, old cars sat in the back in orderly rows.

My uncle was friends with the old man and would invite him over for hot and muggy barbeques that my family also attended. He’d eat a hot dog, some Middleswarth chips, and drink some IBC Cream Soda, maybe half a can.

There are magical events: these are the things that we know we’re supposed to feel a reverence for; Christmas, extra-inning home runs in October, and the birth of a new relative. They’re times you sit and try to drink life in because you want to remember everything. They’re the times where life overloads you and you want time to process the living that’s streaming past you. These events are probably not as special as we think. Everyone experiences common events, even if we experience them differently.

The old man would drive different vehicles over to my uncle’s house. When I say that my uncle was a neighbor with the old man, I mean that their property touched, not that their houses were near. One time the old man drove an old ice cream cart over. The vehicle had two wheels in the front and one in the back. It had a little fridge in the front that could be covered with a wooden door. The driver sat in the back on an uncomfortable looking seat. The vehicle looked more like an old lawn mower than an ice cream cart. The old man was quite proud that he had gotten the old thing working. If the cart was a taxpayer, it was more than old enough for Social Security.

The old man was an avid hiker and at one barbeque he invited me on a hike over a mountain and through a nearby valley that was planned for that weekend. We were inside my uncle’s house so it must have been raining. It would have smelled like dirt and lamination, if I remember correctly. It was a break from the hot and humid weather but still warm enough to sweat in a washed and worn t-shirt. The hike sounded fun so I said that I would go. A few days later we had to cancel because of the weather. I never got around to making up the hike with him. Looking back on it, I figured that we both struggled with our own immanence. He seemed to be stuck in his house of bones, surrounded by the cars gored by rust, and I was stuck in my sweaty t-shirts, clinging to my body and away from the unknown. Or, at least, that's what I thought.

Sometime later I rode over in my uncle’s Kubota Mule over to visit the old man. My grandfather was driving. This was the first time I ever saw the old man on his property. He was standing at the top of a hill that stood behind his house. From there you could see the river valley to the south and the Appalachian Plateau to the north. At the top of the hill I saw that the man was hitting golf balls. It seemed odd, with the dead, empty house staring at me, that this man was doing something unrelated to his past. He whacked golf balls into his grassy field to the west. He stopped to rest when we pulled up by him. I don’t think I’ve seen the old man since then. He may have died a few years ago.

This is the difference between magical events and magical people. This is the difference between clingy, sweaty, t-shirts and hitting golf balls while surrounded by your dying past. The past really does, after all, die after a time. You just have to ride it out like an old ice cream cart.


  1. I grew up in Northern Central PA, what is it about BBQ Middlesworth chips that make you want to eat a whole bag while you tell yourself these don't taste very good!

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