The Luckiest Unlucky Man Alive: Chapter 1
I Can't Believe This Is Happening to Me... It's Just Too Stupid!
"I can't believe this is happening to me!" The thought blasted through my brain, accompanied by a series of images of my nine-year-old life.
I was watching a slide show in my mind of me and my little friends, of me and my family, of me in grade school. I knew I was dying, and this was what happens just before you go, these pictures of people and events. I didn't know it would look like a slide show.
Then, WHAM, it hit me. I clearly saw the front page of the New York Times and the headline that screamed out to all of metropolitan New York and New Jersey --- "Goss Boy Drowns in Sink"
It was just too stupid. My family would be embarrassed. It would be the ultimate humiliation. How could they explain? What would they say? And people would laugh, I knew they would. I was drowning in a sink! I'd be dead soon, and people would laugh at the ridiculousness of it all.
You're probably wondering how anybody could drown in a sink. For me, it was easier than you'd imagine. Out of the necessity that comes from raising six kids under one roof, my dad had put in a second toilet and sink off the kitchen. It was in a closet that was so small a full size sink would never have fit --- or if it had, a person couldn't be in the room with it. So Dad installed a tiny little sink, a lot like those in dental offices, only with faucets.
This particular day I had come home from school for lunch and gone to wash up. After washing my hands, I decided to wet down my hair and slick it back like Dad's or maybe Elvis Presley's. There were, after all, several of my friends and family waiting for me in the next room and I figured they'd be impressed. I filled the itsy bitsy sink with water and stuck my head in to wet my hair. Instantly, the faucets reached forward and clamped themselves to the back of my head, successfully trapping my face under the deadly pool of water. I felt it happen and knew that tidy hair wasn't worth this. I jerked my head back. No luck. The faucets tightened on my swelling skull as if they were possessed with some demon determined to rid the world of young William A. Goss. I tried to twist my head but it was hopelessly locked and wouldn't turn in either direction. The seconds ticked by. I kicked the wall behind me, trying to get my mother's attention. I made gurgling noises that would have been screams except for the fact that my face was immersed under water.
Unaware of what was happening to me, no one came to my rescue. But what would they have done if they had? I thought I could save myself by pulling out the rubber sink stopper. Again, no luck. My head was too big and the basin too small. There was simply no way I could get my hands around my face to unplug the lifesaving stopper and drain the water. Neither could I move my face down enough to pull it out with my teeth. That's when I knew I was going to die. There was nothing I could do to save myself and no one was going to save me. The slide show started as my brain depleted of oxygen and I began to give up the struggle to regain the breathing world.
Innocuous little pictures clicked on and off in my mind. There were about fifteen of them. And then that dreadful headline, that clearly readable front page article that told the world of my stupid death. It was more than a proud nine year old could stand. In a final burst of strength and resolve I threw my head backward as hard as I could.
I crashed into the wall behind me nearly knocking a hole in the wall and rendering me practically unconscious. My lip was bleeding profusely --- I had bitten through it, and there was a trickle of blood in my boyishly blond wet hair. The faucets had torn at me, trying to thwart my escape. Still, they had the worst of it. Those faucets were bent and bent good. Dad had to replace them.
Anyway, there I was, bleeding and hurting. The crashing noise of my escape brought my mother and friends rushing in. "What in the world have you done?" she asked. I was gagging and started to cry, then thought better of it and stopped the tears before my friends noticed. She cleaned me up, fed me lunch and sent me back to school with the others. The entire adventure --- drowning, slide show, lunch and all, took less than an hour. That was my first near death experience.
Later, I found out that everyone had heard me in the lavatory, banging around and making noise. They thought I was intentionally making animal sounds to amuse them. Brother Larry, sister Peggy, and neighbor Chris McHugh, or "Cubie" as we called him, were all having a grand time laughing at my foolishness. Stupid noises like that were not uncommon out of my mouth. I was lucky that day, but then again, I was damn unlucky as well, all things considered. It was to be a trend in my life.
Like Dad always says, "Billy could fall into a pile of cow manure and find a diamond buried in the tread of one of his sneakers when he finally climbed out." Eugene Joseph Goss is the deep thinker in the family, making us kids think too. He's also very physical. Dad and I sparred together from the time I was old enough to put on the tiny leather boxing gloves he had bought for me and my brothers. Later, he would box me wearing the fencing mask that I had worn briefly on the school fencing team so he wouldn't have to go to work with a black eye. "Don't ever be a bully," he'd say, "But if you're sure somebody's going to hit you --- hit him first." A firm disciplinarian and loving father, he toughened me at an early age, much like his dad, a powerfully built stonecutter and sculptor of cathedral angels, had toughened him.
When my father's little sister died of pneumonia, he witnessed his normally stoic parents grieve for months. He watched my grandfather in their tiny backyard, carve an eight-foot angel from a giant piece of limestone he had painstakingly selected for her tombstone. Her death and its effect on my grandparents gave my dad an early insight into a hard world. He grew up "Down Neck," a distinctive part of Newark, New Jersey, known for its ethnic diversity, where nothing came easy and success was hard to find.
My mother, on the other hand, had decidedly more white collar upbringing. Barbara T. Dacey Goss, while undoubtedly as strong, intelligent and charismatic a character as my Dad, has a much more powerful sense of the "here and now." There's always been a lot of adventure and curiosity about her. I think of her as an "optimizer." She taught us to always find a way to extract the very most from any situation. There are no strangers in my mother's world. None. Zero. Before she can finish a cup of coffee at a gathering of strangers she will know everyone in the room. And discover some familial link with each of them, even if it goes all the way back to Lucy. Oh, not our Aunt Lucy, but the Neanderthal Lucy whose three million year old remains were discovered by famed anthropologist Donald Johanson on the plains of Africa.
Mother's middle name is Tennyson, which I thought would have been difficult to handle for a girl growing up. Nana, her mom, never missed an opportunity to proclaim herself and my mother the namesakes of Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson. Although the famous poet laureate of "The Charge of the Light Brigade" was once believed to be a great, great uncle on my mother's side, I've always identified with William Shakespeare, who was born and died on my birthday, April twenty-third.
Nana had a profound effect upon my life in a very obtuse way. I was naturally left-handed and she insisted that I learn to eat and write with my right hand, saying I'd smear the wet ink and bump elbows at the dinner table if I did these things "lefty." But she didn't give a hoot which hand I used for throwing or which foot I used for kicking. So, athletically, I stayed a "lefty." Nana never let up until I had successfully switched over to her school (or hand) of thought. Psychologists now discourage this sort of thing. My wife, with a background in education, believes that irreparable damage was done to my child psyche. I, however, think it forced me to use both sides of my brain more. It made my brain ambidextrous. Even my SAT scores were very evenly balanced between verbal and math. I owe Nana a debt of gratitude for her strong encouragement in making my left and right lobes work extra hard at getting along with each other at a critical juncture in my early childhood development.
My mother's dad, Charles Dacey, or "Pop" as we kids called him, had flown JN-4 Jennys in World War I. He was an artist, a musician, a fine woodworker and an all around handyman. The paintings and furniture he created now grace all his grandchildren's homes. Both Pop and Nana graduated from college, he with a master's degree from Rutgers. They were unusually well educated for a couple of people born in the 19th century. Pop, a Newark high school teacher, had a great sense of humor. He was fond of telling me, "Billy, money isn't everything, but it's a reasonable facsimile."
Every summer he and Nana would have my parents and us six Gosslings up to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, for a couple of weeks. There they had put together a prefabricated cottage that the forever innovative Pop had built in their garage in New Jersey. They flatbed-trucked it up to the Cape and placed on a wooded lot they had purchased for two hundred dollars. I asked Pop once how he managed to do so much. "Nana and I took advantage of everything cultural," he said, "and we weren't afraid to take chances. I decided years ago that I would accomplish something, anything, no matter how small or large, each and every day. I built the Cape house while the two fellows next door listened to Red Sox games." With the impeccable timing and smiling eyes he was so famous for, he'd conclude with "...they're both dead now...."
After Pop graduated aviation ground school in 1917 at Princeton University, the U.S. Army Signal Corps (there was no U.S. Air Force back then) transferred him to Love Field, in Dallas. When he was in his eighties, Pop gave me his leather flying vest --- from one aviator to another --- to commemorate my having soloed a military training plane like he had 62 years earlier. The vest carries the faded signatures of all his long-dead pilot buddies. One was his best friend, a man whose body Pop had to return to Massachusetts in a pine box after a spin demonstration had gone fatally awry. In 1918, pilots hadn't yet figured out how to recover airplanes from a spin, pulling the stick back instead of pushing it forward to break the stall. Hell, Orville had only met Wilbur at Kitty Hawk just fifteen years earlier. No doubt about it, Pop had piloted planes before most of the world even knew planes existed. To me, he was absolutely amazing.
"Billy," Pop said, holding out the vest as if it were a precious and fragile newborn child, "I want you to have this." I could feel the tears welling up behind my eyes as I accepted his gift. I breathed in the fine, sweet leather smell as I clutched this special prize, and read and reread every one of the 75-year-old messages scrawled on its back by his long gone comrades.
Our family was blessed with two parents, who, no matter how hard things got, were committed to keeping their marriage together. Barbara and Eugene Goss set a powerful example of marital commitment. I came to understand how a two parent family provides a sense of security and stability that is very difficult to achieve in a single parent home. Lauren Bacall, whose father abandoned her as a small girl, once said, "No matter how much my mother loved me...no matter how often she told me I was talented, beautiful, good...one parent can't make up for the one that walked out, no matter how lousy he might have been."
I owe my self-esteem and respect towards women to the devotion I witnessed daily between my mother and my father. Even when they were yelling at each other, which was often, I always knew their love for one another would keep them together. That was a comforting thought. It was remarkable how, with all the years of yelling at one another, I never heard them utter a vulgarity or use words to demean or hurt. Bad language was not permitted in our home. Loud language yes, bad language, no.
A friend once commented to me, "Bill, your parents must really love each other."
"Why's that?" I asked my buddy.
"Well, if they weren't passionately in love with each other, they certainly would have divorced by now. . . .!"
Research has indicated that marriages like that of my parents, one with lots of arguing and disagreeing, aren't destined to the divorce trash heap as it was once thought. Instead often they're the ones most likely to last a lifetime. My mother was never afraid to speak out in our household. She was confident that my father's respect for her and for women in general was so ingrained that he would never physically lash out at her. Sexual equality reigned in their marriage and set the standard for my brothers and sisters to follow.
Being the fourth of six children, I shared a room with my two older brothers. At least I did until they couldn't stand my snakes anymore. At one time I had over a hundred snakes of various shapes and sizes. My brothers were always complaining that the snakes smelled bad and took up too much space. Their complaints were not well founded as I saw it. I kept the snakes clean and everyone knew our room was THE best zoo in town.
My sisters were always involved in the recapture of snakes that escaped in the house, unbeknownst to my parents. Greta caught one with a laundry basket, Jackie caught one with a canister vacuum cleaner, and my favorite sister, Meem, well she just wasn't a very big fan of having loose snakes in the house.
I had box turtles, too, and I used to watch them mate as they crawled across the bedroom floor. A small boy can learn a lot by watching animals have sex. There were assorted other creatures that moved in and out of my life and our household --- as large as raccoons and opossums, as smelly as skunks, as unpopular as bats. All were at one time or another caged in my room or in the back yard.
We all worked hard doing something, anything, to make spending money, and when I wasn't working at the Arboretum (for the magnificent sum of $1.25 an hour) I was up on a mountain ridge behind our house in South Mountain Reservation with my friends, Rat, Cubie and Gureenie. When we weren't catching snakes, we'd lay on our stomachs in the sweet smelling grass and watch magnificent hawks soar along under the clouds. Because it, like me, was a rare bird, the goshawk was always my favorite. As a whole, we were mesmerized by all birds of prey, envying their power, freedom and spectacular vision. We wanted to fly like them, with them. So we'd watch the soaring raptors and dream of flight and catch as many earthbound snakes as we could, which was plenty.
When we weren't hunting for serpents, we would often trap raccoons, possums, skunks and other wild animals with Havahart live animal traps, which caught them unharmed. We'd keep them for a few days in a big cage I had built behind our little garage before letting them go. Except for the big striped skunks which we had to release immediately -- although we could not resist chasing them through our neighbors' yards. Just to see where they would go, and it was usually under a neighbor's porch. Routinely these skunks would do what skunks do best --- to annoying young boys that is --- stink up both us and the backyards of our kindly neighbors. Rat, Cubie, Gureenie and I weren't always that popular with the surrounding households, but the neighbors held their tongues --- and their noses --- and never complained.
Sometimes, I'd wander deep into the woods alone, on a serpent hunt, in pursuit of the legendary pilot black snake. (It eventually was caught by Rat on his back doorstep and was almost seven feet long). On these snake hunts, I would crawl deep into the underbrush usually emerging with a harmless milksnake or garter snake and not a deadly timber rattlesnake or copperhead. Days later I would be covered head to toe with a deep raw rash from poison ivy. It would sometimes seal my eyes and mouth tightly shut and my mother would feed me through a straw. It hurt terribly to open my mouth or move my face. My sisters loved it because it was the only time that they could shut me up. It was great sport for my brother Larry, who would go to school with the sole intention of collecting the funniest new jokes from his friends. Then he would run home to tell them to me, one after another, hoping to watch me crack a smile. It was brutal. My skin would split open across my cheeks and at the corners of my mouth when the jokes became just too funny not to laugh.
Moments later, my mother would hear me screaming in pain. After blasting Larry, she'd hold me as the clear, oily smelling lymph dripped from the cracks in my face which she dabbed with Clorox bleach to dry out. Boy, oh boy, it stung, but it sure did help. For me, while growing up, the expression "he cracked a smile" had special meaning. Hell, poison ivy covered my face during most of my preteen class photos. I was a mess.
Late one evening a scream pierced the night. One of my sisters had awaken to find a black bat orbiting above her bed. Dad, a semi-pro baseball pitcher with a pretty good strike-out record, nailed that bat with his first pitch of a balled-up wet towel. Against all my humanitarian, or maybe batitarian pleas, he flushed the live bat down the only toilet we had at the time. While the church down the street had bats in the belfry, we had bats stuck in toilets and heads stuck in sinks. That was the Goss household in a nutshell.
My brothers and I, with the exception of our differing opinions about the snakes, normally got along fine. I even thought I had converted them to my herpetological way of thinking a time or two. I wouldn't have minded sharing that room indefinitely, but Larry and my big brother Bob (six feet-two, 250 pounds worth of big) moved out soon after all the baby snakes got loose. The cages were designed for big snakes, not little ones. So when the tiny babies were live-born, well, they just instinctively slithered away through the large screen mesh. After that, my brothers settled themselves into tiny alcoves in the attic. My snake collection just kept getting bigger.
One afternoon I came home to find my brothers and sisters in tears. The same boy I had taken the school bus with that morning had come home that afternoon and shot himself in the head. That suicide across the street brought a reality check to our neighborhood and especially to our home. It was my first major lesson that not everything is as it appears. Sometimes beneath the seemingly benign surface, deadly dynamics might be taking place. I learned that everybody needs a close friend and a reliable shoulder to cry on before the insidious, deeply hidden anguish of depression becomes intolerable. Since then, I've read that teenagers taking their own lives is reaching epidemic proportions. Peer intervention can be incredibly helpful, but most kids haven't been educated to recognize the signs of an impending suicide. We hadn't been.
I did all the normal things that a guy did back then in high school. Normal for a jock, that is. I wrestled, played football, tried to get past first base with the girls, the usual stuff.
One day "Jungle James" Mardis, Steve Kauffman and I borrowed some cheerleader costumes from the girls' locker room and put them on. It was a pretty ugly fit with our big backs and all. Anyway, we had a soccer player, a football player and a wrestler run out on the Millburn High School football field trying to teach the real cheerleaders a thing or two about conducting a cheer. Derry Riddle was the captain of the cheerleaders at the time and she joined right in. It ended with Steve Kauffman, who looks like actor Patrick Swayze, walking the length of the football field while standing on his hands. People walking by thought he really was a female cheerleader. We saw them stop, their jaws hitting the pavement, while this long haired "girl" cheerleader walked all around the field on "her" hands, as casually as if walking upright. It was a riot!
Steve and I became very close friends at Millburn High when we realized we shared dual passions, girls and animals. Steve was the first person I ever knew who had a pet ferret. Named Athena, he would take her swimming with him. Being from Short Hills, the rich side of town, he could afford to support a large menagerie of exotic snakes and lizards, unlike the backyard variety of which I was familiar.
Steve was the only one of my friends who had a swimming pool behind his parent's house, and there were always high school beauties in bikinis sunning themselves by it. As you can imagine, I loved spending time at his house.
Our family has never had that strong metropolitan New York accent like the more urban areas associated with certain "exits" of the New Jersey Turnpike, once made famous by a "Saturday Night Live" spoof:
"Heh, you from Joyszee???"
"Yeah, I'm from Joyszee!!!"
One of my good friends, Marian Falla, a bubbly, fun loving girl, had that "Joyszee" accent. For a few years, my brothers, my friends and I worked for her Dad, Emil parking cars in the Bronx Terminal Market. On weekends it served as the overflow parking for Yankee Stadium during the big Giant and Yankee games. In our spare time we became expert marksmen with our slingshots, shooting enormous rats under the parked fruit and vegetable trucks. Anyhow, his daughter Marian and I became great buddies, and we were constantly playing pranks on each other.
One cold winter day at Millburn High School, Marian intentionally slammed into me while I was digging something out of my locker. Then, imitating a nosy busybody, which came naturally to Marian, she exclaimed, "Now Beeelleee, what do you have in this lawka that you hafta act so secret about?" With that, she stuck her head in my locker and started nosing around.
I figured one good shove deserved another. "Marian, you want to see inside my locker, well go ahead." I pushed her head deeper into the locker.
The next thing I heard was, "BEEELLEE, help!"
"What do you mean, help? Marian, pull your fool head out of my locker, so I can get to class."
"What do you mean you caaan't?" I echoed.
"Beeellee, I'm sereeous. What I mean when I say I caaan't is just that, I caaan't. My head is stuck in here!"
I looked over her shoulder, over the big, furry, full length raccoon coat she was wearing. The forward coat hook was jammed deep inside her nose and the side hook was latched onto her ear. She wasn't going anywhere anytime soon.
"Marian, I'm gonna teach you once and for all not to be such a busybody," I said, laughing gleefully.
Moving to the nearest classroom, I stuck my head inside and interrupted the teacher. "Excuse me," I said politely. "There's a bear with its head stuck in a garbage can out here in the hallway!" The statement seemed too ludicrous to make up, so the entire class poured into the hall to surround this unidentified creature who was covered with a thick brown coat of hair.
"This is like Yellowstone National Park," somebody yelled.
"I needed a laugh," said the teacher.
Maid Marian, as she was known, was a girl not amused. I could tell I needed to spring this trap and spring it fast. In a few minutes, I had found the school janitor, insisting he bring his longest screwdriver with him. Over her shoulder he leaned, and finally out popped Marian's head with that coat hook still in her nose. The applause was overwhelming.
A couple of weeks after the "bear" incident, and not without profuse apologies and bootlicking, Marian agreed to go to the movies with me. When I went to pick her up, her little brother, Brian, met me at the door with a dead squirrel to feed my seven-foot Haitian boa constrictor, Jacque. Little Brian could always be relied on as a source for fresh snake food. Everyone thought I spelled my snake's name JOCK, but I would correct them --- after all, "Jacque" was a boa from French Haiti.
We now had to stop back at my house to drop off the dead squirrel. Maid Marian insisted that she hold Jacque before we go -- in spite of my repeated warnings that Jacque had just had a large meal a few days before and shouldn't be jostled. Marian wouldn't take no for an answer. She took off her coat and reached roughly inside the cage and pulled out the large, thick snake.
"Gently, Marian, not so rough. Jacque's still digesting last week's meal. He shouldn't be jostled." My warnings went unheeded.
Marian was wearing a fairly low cut, loose fitting blouse that accentuated her well-endowed figure. She whipped that big snake around her neck like it was made of feathers and mockingly commented, "How do you like my boa?"
Well, by that point Jacque had had enough of the rough treatment. He dropped his long tail down the top of Marian's blouse. The look on her face changed swiftly from one of surprise to disbelief and then dismay as this disgusting sound and smell started emanating from the top of her blouse. Sure enough, what I was afraid might happen, had just happened. Inside Marian's bra, nestled between her ample breasts, now rested a load --- a big, big load --- of incredibly wet and stinky Haitian boa constrictor shit.
Maid Marian, suitably humbled by the plethora of early warnings given her and totally unable to wash off the stench, called it a night. I went to the movies anyway, with my buddy Boobus. He didn't smell like snake shit.
Back in the early seventies, a lot of girls thought it was sexy for a guy to have long hair. That seemed as good a reason as any for me not to cut mine. It was straight and got real light in the summer. I guess I looked like a real hippie-dippy character, even if I was pure jock through and through. I loved it. My dad called me "The Blonde Apache" and my family voted me "Most Likely to be Disciplined." My friends called me Wild Willy, which was a reasonable nickname compared to some of the ones my friends got saddled with, like Rat (which was short for "Rattacrackus"), Stench ala Foof, Boobus, Cubie, Chelsea, Freebs, Jungle James, Wildman Crowley, Bloomer, Gureenie, Bad Bob, Stiff, The Grimmer, Fuzz, Dan "The Man," Grazzoo, Moe, Killer and the infamous Duvalle, to name more than a few.
My parents didn't like the long hair, but they didn't complain too much. Maybe the financial concerns of a future with six kids in college at nearly the same time was more cause for worry than the length of my hair. My father, making light of his apparent inability to not procreate unless the Church loosened its position on contraception, would often say aloud to the Pope, "You got me into this mess, now you get me out of it!" Maybe, thinking back, the combination of snakes and hair and the general recklessness of youth had made them believe I was just plain crazy. They seemed to think the best thing to do was to let me find my own way through life. So I grew my hair and took care of my snakes and lived in relative peace for several years after my first near-death experience.
The future would bring several more near death experiences. Although it's a funny thing --- when it's happening to you as a boy, you don't always know how serious it is. That's especially true when no one points it out to you. Since the time when I was drowning in the sink, I've never paid much attention to those knocks on death's door. I've always just gone on to the next thing.
Like the time I was bicycling real hard to football practice. I was the starting middle linebacker. Trying to make up the time, I peddled hard and fast down Wyoming Avenue, sucking in air as hard as I could. A fleck of yellow and black caught my eye just before I sucked it down my throat. I had half swallowed a yellow jacket wasp...alive! Trapped and angry, the little bastard stung me repeatedly on the tongue and in the windpipe. The buzzing sensation in my throat threw me into a violent coughing fit and I was finally able to cough up the little yellow demon and shoot it out of my mouth like an FA-18 Hornet being catapulted from the deck of an aircraft carrier.
An acrid taste rose in my mouth as I watched the damn thing fly away and I started to feel faint. My throat and tongue were swelling up fast, real fast, and starting to choke me. By the time I finally got to practice, I fell off my bicycle at the feet of two of my coaches, Frank Close and Matt Sellito. "Where da hell, you been, Goss?" Coach Sellito barked. "This ain't no girl scout singalong you're late for."
I was nearly unconscious and could hardly speak. "I swallowed a yellow jacket on the way here." I struggled with the words. "I'm sorry, I'm late."
Coaches Close and Sellito looked at me, and then at each other, mystified. After all their years of coaching they thought that they had heard it all. Finally a red-faced Sellito stammered, "Well, suit up or shower up, Goss, and make it snappy!" Don't ask me how, but I suited up. Every breath came hard at practice that day, and I remember tasting the poison from the stings for hours afterward, but somehow I made it through that day's practice. Goss kids did what they were told, and they didn't complain about it.
That winter, my luck came through again. I had an ancient Italian Lambretta motorscooter that I had bought for $35. It was not a pleasant way to travel in a blizzard. Fortunately, Smokin' Joe McMurray spotted me. I got in his car and we headed off to school again. The snow was blinding, but we were young, unafraid and just plain stupid. As his Volkswagen slid off the road, I saw the concrete embankment step out in front of us, stopping us instantly. My head went through his windshield, shattering glass everywhere. The next thing I saw were exploding stars, like a fireworks display, a classic sign of concussion.
I'm not sure how we got the car out, or how we got to school, but we did. By this time, I had learned that unless you're dead, you keep moving forward. I took the SAT college entrance exam that day, with a bloody bandage wrapped around my swollen skull. Surprisingly, I did well, considering the rather distracting headache.
The following summer, my buddies and I spent a lot of time on weekends at an old abandoned and totally trashed hotel, the Cedar Lake Lodge. It was in rural Blairstown, New Jersey, near the Delaware Water Gap, on ten acres of land surrounded by swamps and deep forests and across the street from the world's largest pet cemetery. Cubie and Duvalle McHugh's parents had been renting the place for years as a rustic and inexpensive retreat out in the woods. I'm forever indebted to them for taking me on so many trips there with their huge family. Every summer, we had a blast at that decrepit old lodge. Cubie's dad had a great sense of humor. We boys loved to play pranks on him to try to get him upset, which was practically impossible.
One day we had some particularly good luck at fooling Mr. McHugh. I was fourteen years old, and Mr. McHugh had just watched me slide off the side of a canoe that his son Cubie was paddling out into the center of the lake. As he watched me swim very quietly towards him, he suddenly saw me reach up and snatch two enormous non-poisonous water snakes off a log between us. Climbing out of the lake towards him, I held the two wild snakes above my head as they viciously bit into both my bloodied hands and arms --- and they looked all the world like deadly cottonmouth water moccasins to poor Mr. McHugh.
When I saw the worried look on his face, I knew I had him. I fell to my side jerking like I had been envenomed and was in my final death throes. When Cubie and I started laughing, he wasn't amused. Imagine the lawsuit he must have envisioned while he imagined I was dying --- that is until he remembered I was a Goss. We couldn't afford to hire a lawyer.
Cubie's dad got even with us the next morning. He took us to a tiny backwoods Catholic church where he sat his sons, Marty, Cubie, Duvalle, and me in the front pew directly under the lectern. Now this wasn't a nice thing to do to the priest conducting services because it is physically impossible to expect boys who are best friends to sit together in church quietly. Of course Mr. McHugh knew that. Although we had a torturous case of the giggles we were somehow surviving, even after a serious look of admonishment from Papa McHugh. Suddenly a long, loud "PEEEEEEPP!!!" came from beneath the seat of his ten year old son Marty. It echoed loudly against the walls and stained glass windows of the church. Everyone in that tiny church heard little Marty's fart break the moist still air. That was far too much for us boys to endure. We burst into loud laughter, drawing tears as we unsuccessfully tried to restrain our outburst. We all knew we were going to be in really big trouble for this grotesque church indiscretion. But we could not stop laughing. Mr. McHugh stared icily ahead like he didn't know us. The priest, trying to complete what I'm sure went on record as the most disrupted church sermon of all time, grew very redfaced. I'll never forget how he finished his sermon that morning --- "Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord. In the name of the Father, the Son and WILL YOU BOYS SHUT THE HELL UP, Amen." We froze in terror. After church, Mr. McHugh gave us his hardest look. Then he burst out laughing. Thank God he had a great sense of humor. I sure hope God has a good sense of humor. I'm in one helluva lot of trouble if he doesn't.
Eventually, the McHughs let us boys assume the payment and the responsibilities for the lease of the collapsing Cedar Lake Lodge, or "The Hotel" as it was commonly referred. It was owned by some guy in Europe who was supposedly on his deathbed. We persuaded him to lower the annual rent to the mighty sum of $100 a year. At age sixteen we were natural born salesmen.
The Hotel had been a cathouse and speakeasy during prohibition and had long since been condemned. We started calling The Hotel and its lakefront acreage "The Lake," and it was the perfect weekend retreat for ten testosterone-laden high school jocks who were best buddies. We named ourselves "The Gabers," derived from a famous old golfer named Gay Brewer. Whenever we wanted to make reference to drinking beer in front of Coach Boomer Beck, we'd simply refer to Gay Brewer. Which we slurred into Gabe...er. Simple huh? Simply stupid. We became the Gabers.
We were invincible, crazy, and stupid, and yet we were model high school boys --- good students and great athletes --- the kind you'd want your daughter to date. We used The Lake to test ourselves, our emerging manhood, and the world. But for the most part, we were polite and friendly. The Gabers did all the crazy things you might expect teenage boys to do and some crazier things you wouldn't. It's amazing that any of us survived.
Besides having "Sparkies," a tiny backwoods tavern nearby, The Lake had some amenities, like a double deck gazebo at the water's edge. We'd climb to the top of it with our girlfriends, dive off and swim to the other side to "show" them the waterfall. Cubie was the New Jersey State Champion pole vaulter, so we built a pole vault pit where he could practice with another pole vaulter, the inimitable Rat O'Neil. Rat wasn't so good at it, but he tried real hard. Under Rat's school yearbook photograph, Gureenie got the editor to place the caption "State Champion Pole Catcher." It really tortured Rat, but it was his own damn fault. He used to brag, "Hell, nobody, and I mean nobody, catches a pole better than me!"
Cubie's family (he had seven brothers and sisters) were devout Catholics, like most of the other neighborhood families, and even better athletes. Our two large, outgoing families were virtual institutions in Millburn. We were particularly well-known for the parties we threw when our parents went out of town. Luckily, our kindly neighbors were tolerant of a lot of noise.
Cubie, his brothers Tommy, Duvalle, Marty and I used to climb up into the attic of that big old hotel and harass all the sleeping bats. We'd cover ourselves with old bed sheets so that any rabid bats would have a harder time effectively biting us. Then we'd beat old box spring mattresses with sticks till our ears and the super sensitive high frequency ears of the rudely awakened bats were ringing. The bats would peel off the eaves and emerge from cracks in the chimney filling the air as we squealed in delight at creating so much havoc. It would have been a pretty eerie sight for a stranger to step into -- five sheet covered figures dancing around in a dark attic full of black bats exploding out of every crevice, nook and cranny. It looked to all the world like the haunted hotel that it was reputed to be.
Although I never encountered any spooks there, the other Gabers claimed they did. Very late one night while they were all asleep by the big stone fireplace, they heard the piano playing in the bar. They jumped up and ran into the darkened, trash laden room to find nothing. They went back to bed only to hear the piano keys being banged again, this time with the sounds of all the doors in the place violently opening and closing. Terrified, they ran out dragging their sleeping bags behind them, leaving Rat alone in that place. He was still sound asleep. The following morning, Rat awoke, alone. With bleary eyes, he wandered outside and found the other eight guys in their bags on the back lawn.
"Rat, we thought you were a gonner!" Fuzz and Bloomer exclaimed in unison.
"What the hell are you guys talking about?" Rat queried.
After Killer and Grimmer laid out the details of how they let him sleep all night alone with the spooks, or boogeyman, the Jersey Devil or whatever the hell it was that scared them half to death, Rat just shook his head. "All for one and one for all, I guess doesn't include Rat," he said dejectedly over his shoulder as he waddled painfully away from the men. He had just completed his morning constitutional and trailed a long piece of toilet paper from the bottom of his hip boot waders.
"Do you think we pissed Rat off?" Chelsea asked somewhat quizzically.
Wild Man Crowley responded sardonically, "That little son of a bitch doesn't get pissed, he gets even."
The men collectively shuddered at the possibility. Then they rolled over and fell immediately back into a deep sleep.
You know, as much as we male-types like to think of ourselves as complex, the truth is that humorist Dave Barry was right when he wrote, "Men Just Want To Watch Stuff Go 'BANG'." But he failed to mention how competitive it is to make the BIGGEST bang. I guess over the long run, I got to the very top of the Gabers pecking order in regards to Barry's unerringly accurate "BANG" theory of manhood. I dynamited in underground mines, built and rebuilt tremendously powerful underwater explosives. I even ended up with a qualification to drop small nuclear depth bombs (small being categorized as the size of those developed during WWII) on Soviet submarines if the need arose. However, as teenagers, Rat was the Big Bang Kahuna. Without question, in the technical and abstract world of physics, analytical chemistry and high yield explosives, Rat was King.
When Rat wasn't trying to impress us by letting his pet tarantula "Igor" crawl in and out of his mouth, he would be concocting a new explosive chemical compound. But, on this day Rat was lecturing us on the trials and tribulations of wade fishing at The Lake. As usual, it was annoying. He was annoying.
It began with Rat proudly demonstrating the latest in wade fishing techniques wearing his new (and totally unnecessary) hip boots. Fuzz, faking interest, slipped up behind him and dropped a smoke bomb down the back of those brand spanking new waist high rubber boots. Clueless as to what Fuzz had just done, Rat continued his lecture on wade fishing while Fuzz slinked back to the shoreline. We sat dumbfounded, trying not to laugh. After a full minute, we became completely convinced the smoke bomb's fuse had gone out. We were severely disappointed.
Suddenly there was a tremendously powerful but muffled "WHUMP" and massive amounts of smoke started to pour out of the top of Rat's shoulder harnessed hip boots. Rat turned around and looked at us in horrified amazement, completely convinced that God had suddenly decided to spontaneously combust someone, and that someone was he.
Standing fifteen feet away, the Gabers laughed until we cried. A horrified Rat finally dove underwater to cure his case of hot foot and leg and body. The poor lost soul...we actually had to explain the prank to him --- a most unusual circumstance for Rat, a master prankster and the true genius of mischief.
Later that day, we innocently put a large can of baked beans in the campfire to warm up. We neglected to open the can. Rat laughed to himself. If teenage boys could have masters' degrees in neglect, Dr. Rattacrackus (a title bestowed upon him that night) most certainly earned his doctorate. To Dr. Rat, it was going to be an evening of E=MC2 at our expense.
After the ensuing explosion blasted hot baked beans all over our faces, mingling second degree burns with our postpubescent zits, I noticed a faraway look on Rat's face. As he stared into what was once a campfire, burning logs now scattered about like sperm around an egg, his zombie-like look turned into a twisted smile of euphoria. I had seen this look before. It was Rat's catatonic look of revenge. What might happen next was only limited by Rat's seemingly limitless imagination. Maybe Rat wasn't the Devil himself, but he was certainly one of Satan's best little helpers.
We rebuilt the fire, and no one noticed when Rat disappeared. It was several minutes before Grimmer asked, "Where's Rat?"
At that precise moment, Rat suddenly reappeared at the campfire's edge, and in one fluid motion, slipped a Coleman gas bottle into the raging fire, wreaking vengeance upon us all. The Gabers stared as one, momentarily frozen in fear. We watched flames gently licking the outer casing of the full butane tank that the little bastard had put into the fire. Then, as one, we streaked away from the oncoming blast. I heard Rat's demented, demonic cry... "Come back, you cowards! Don't you guys like the smell of fear?"
From behind a monstrous oak tree, I peered out to see Dr. Rattacrackus casually stirring the flaming logs with the toe of his destroyed hip boots. Dr. Rat was not only pissed, but mentally deranged as well. After what seemed like an eternity, he turned from the fire and started walking, then trotting, from ground zero. What impeccable timing he had. As he started bee-lining from the fire, the Gabers yelled in unison, "Run, Rat, Run!" sounding like a rodentian title to an Updike novel. As I pictured pieces of Rat all over the forest floor, I tried to imagine how I would explain Rat's demise to his mother, a highly excitable woman.
Sensing our urgency (and thus, his victory) and realizing the time for games was over, Rat started picking up the pace. As he streaked by us all, "KAABOOOM" the campfire exploded with a blinding white light. It had the force of a small thermonuclear explosion, engulfing the entire double deck gazebo and our summertime sleeping quarters in a giant fireball. With the sound of a hissing cobra, the steel propane cylinder chased Rat across the ground and between the trees like a cruise missile on auto kill. Moments later, there was only the darkness of the night, and the acrid smell of smoldering sleeping bags burning our nostrils. In the distant woods we heard the cry, not of Satan himself, but certainly one of his very best little helpers.
At "The Lake" we took other unbelievable risks with our lives and limbs. We were classic examples of youth's reckless "nothing can happen to me" attitude. You can imagine how we looked, climbing naked up a great tall tree at the water's edge to dive into the shallows below. Tree diving, like everything else we did, was a challenge, a test of our abilities and courage. Each of us would climb higher than the one before until at last I found myself perched precariously in the top of the tree, inching my way over the water on a dangerously thin and wholly uncertain limb. When I was as high over the lake as I dared go, I felt my heart quicken in anticipation of the downward plunge. The branch bent under my weight as I approached its end and then threw me off as handily as the flick of a cow's tail scatters flies. I hit the water with a whoop and came up triumphant, after pulling my head up from the muddy bottom. I was sure this was how my life would be --- filled with fun and adventure, danger and excitement --- and sometimes mud. I was right.
One Saturday evening, patrons at the grand opening of The Millburn Diner became victims of a drive-by mooning at the hands, or should I say hams, of "The Men" led by Dr. Rattacrackus. I was in the lead car, the one that got away. The police caught them and dragged their big behinds in. The local judge, realizing that the success of the Millburn High School track team was now in his hands, declared that the butts in question were all of minor vintage. He tore up the citation that had been issued. Later, Rat wrote to me describing how his citation read. He wrote, "Wild Willy, I was given a moving violation for 'Hamming in a No Ham Zone'." Rat evoked a lot of emotions from the Gabers and me, but sympathy was not one of them.
On the way up to The Lake, a few miles away, was a seedy-looking bar stuck back in the woods. Outside the bar was parked an old beat up 1965 Volvo 122S "Amazon," just like the one I had bought for $80. Only mine was an ugly piss-green color with the driver side door smashed in. It's hard to believe Volvo would give a car model the name "Amazon," but they did. Each time we passed the bar, the car was there, always parked in the same place under the trees, looking to all the world as if it had been abandoned. One night I decided it was time to relieve that old Amazon of its back bumper. My car didn't have one, you see, and it was obvious to me, at least after a bottle of MAD DOG 20/20, that whoever owned this one had no use for it.
I'm sure you understand it isn't my nature to steal things. Drinking alcohol while despondent over my girl friend, who was in Africa for the summer, had made me pretty friggin' stupid that night. Dan The Man ("The" being his middle name) and Gureenie dropped me off near the bar and took off. The plan was to swing by to pick me up in a few minutes. As quietly as possible, except for my drunken whistling, I began to work at removing the prized bumper. I was well into my task when I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
"Don't move or I'll blow your head off!" The voice was deep, its tone agitated. A chill went coursing through my body and shocked my senses like an ice water injection. I stopped the whistling. I was now completely sober. Again my brain raced ahead, projecting the outcome of this encounter. I was going to die; or, if I didn't die I'd be caught stealing. That was worse, I decided as my body broke out in a cold sweat that soaked my clothes. I could not embarrass my family by getting caught. Headlines again --- "Goss Boy Arrested For Stealing Bumper," or maybe even "Goss Boy Shot While Stealing Bumper." It was too stupid. Much, much too stupid. And worse, it was thoroughly dishonorable.
With one fluid motion, I rose from my crouched position, bringing up my arm and knocking the shotgun out of the man's hands. In two bounds, I cleared a barbed wire fence and landed deep in the briar bushes and mud of a large, totally dark and unfamiliar swamp. I tore through the mud and underbrush and it tore through me. After what seemed like an eternity of crawling through the swamp, I neared the road. I thought I must be losing a pint of blood a minute to the mosquitoes that covered me, but I had no desire to make any noise by swatting them.
"Bless me Father for I have sinned." These words went through my head over and over again as I went to the famous last --- but best --- resort of people in serious trouble --- prayer. "Lord, I know I'm a sinner, but you made me, so you already know that. Help me...PLEEAASE!!
With that, I heard the familiar sound of Rat's beaten up, red Sunbeam Alpine convertible on its way back to pick me up. Rat always referred to it as "his spaceship from the planet Gwwaareeno." He sometimes put on the elaborate Martian costume of his infamous alter-ego "Gordaan" and drove all over town providing free entertainment. I leaped out onto the highway and jumped into that beautiful old rust bucket. "Go! Go! Go!" I shouted to Dan The Man, who was driving.
"What da hell did you do?" Dan The Man asked. "You're covered with mud and bleeding all over da place."
The briars had destroyed me. My clothes were nearly torn off and my entire body was scratched and bleeding. I was covered from head to toe with mosquito bites. "That damn car belongs to some crazy mountain man with a shotgun," was all I could breathe out.
"Sure it does," Gureenie said, laughing.
"Yeah, you butthole," Dan The Man added, "You chickened out, didn't you? We knew you didn't have da nerve."
It took a few miles before I relaxed. After the terror of the moment had passed, Gureenie and Dan The Man started to believe my wild story. Gureenie said he would liked to have seen me clear the barbed wire fence, and if I could do that, why hadn't I been a track star. We decided Coach Boomer Beck should carry a shotgun as an incentive.
It was just after midnight when I turned around and saw the Volvo Amazon from the bar, pacing us about three car lengths back, running without its headlights on. "Holy shit, he's following us!"
Dan The Man's face turned white in the moonlight as he sped up. "Try to lose him, Dan," I said, my voice frantic. "Remember you're 'The Man'." After twenty minutes of Le Mans-like driving around hairpin turns cutting through the heavily wooded mountain pass, the animal driving the Amazon continually pulled alongside us. Still sans headlights, he rested a double barrel shotgun through his open passenger side window into the astonished face of Dan The Man and shouted for us to pull over "...before I blow your friggin' brains all over the place!!!" Dan followed the directions I shouted into his left ear and veered down a newly paved road. It worked! The Amazon missed our turn initially and blasted past us.
Instantly Gureenie screamed, "Not this way, Dan, no, no, no! Willy you big butthole!"
It was too late. The road quickly narrowed into a dead end forcing us to a terrifyingly sudden stop right in the middle of a remote, moonlit corn field. It had been a wild ride --- but now it was over.
"This is it," I thought as the speeding Amazon, fishtailed directly in front of us, across the narrow road and blocked our escape.
Shotgun first, the bare-chested, heavily muscled and profusely sweating man got out of his car. We were all too scared to run, although we wanted to. Anyway, he would have shot us in the back with no questions asked. He was that enraged, and he had every right to be.
Shaking violently, the man rested his gun's double-barrel on the bridge of my nose. I stared down the two giant black holes like they were binoculars peering into my eternity. He exploded like an enraged demon, "Get out of the car!"
"Hey, he didn't mean anything, Sir," Gureenie spoke out in my defense.
"Shut up!" the maniac screamed. His voice was out of control, his demeanor coldly determined. "Get out of the car!" I did as I was told, slowly and carefully climbing out of the back of the tiny red convertible.
"On your belly, Boy!"
"No, Sir," I said. Where did those words come from? Was I crazy, too? The man had a gun precariously perched on the bridge of my nose and he was absolutely out of his mind with anger. What were the odds I was going to survive this? No, he was going to kill me.
Again, he screamed. "Get down on your belly, Boy!"
An ugly pig squealing scene from the movie Deliverance raced through my brain. "No, Sir," I said again. The man was a hair trigger's twitch from blowing my face off. I had decided if I was going to die, it wouldn't be on my belly like one of my snakes. "You'll have to shoot me standing up if you're going to shoot me." I was determined not to let this guy have his way with me. The mosquitoes already had.
I'd like to tell you word for word what happened next, but I can't. I just started talking and talking and talking. An hour later I had talked my way right out of it. I wish I could remember today what I said that night. Gureenie and Dan The Man said I smoothed things over with that guy like homemade ice cream on a hot day. For that they were grateful --- very grateful. All I know is that the man didn't shoot me, and he could have. He didn't turn me in, and he should have. I swear I'm one lucky unlucky son of a gun, there's just no denying it.
End of Chapter One