Archive for September, 2011

Empty Sky

Posted: September 11, 2011 by Bill Gauthier in Memoir, Music, Politics, Radio, TV
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Into the Fire

The sky was falling and streaked with blood
I heard you calling me then you disappeared into the dust
Up the stairs, into the fire
Up the stairs, into the fire
I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher
Somewhere up the stairs into the fire

I wasn’t there. I didn’t know anybody who was there.

But I was there. I saw it all.

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was supposed to wake up at 4 AM. This was nothing new, I’d been doing so for close to a year now. It was my intention to be a writer and, while I was a stay-at-home dad, I found out that childcare was very busy work and writing didn’t figure into it at all. So I trained myself to get up before everyone else. This morning, for some reason, that didn’t work out. I woke up closer to six, made myself a cup of tea (I didn’t drink coffee), and shambled into my office. My life in 2001 wasn’t great, although the day before had been pretty good.

September 10th. Mondays were my wife’s day off (she’s my ex-wife now) from the veterinary clinic where she worked and we’d had a decent day. Our minivan, a Dodge Caravan that I loathed, needed some work and the dealership gave us a rental for free. The fact that my wife’s grandmother worked at the dealership probably helped that. It was a Dodge Stratus that we got, which we both fell in love with. Within a year, we’d trade the minivan for a Stratus, and within two years, I’d get one of my own. That Monday, we went to the Silver City Galleria in Taunton in the morning, in the afternoon I had an appointment with my gastroenterologist. I sat in the waiting room with a copy of the novel I was reading, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. I had a colostomy bag that we were preparing to remove. Some weird guy kept coming into the small waiting room (now my doctor is in a big building, back then, it was a small building) and I kept imagining the guy was going to begin shooting people, or blow himself up.

Calm yourself, I thought. It’s just you’re overactive imagination again.

Shit like that happens, I argued.

I saw my doctor with no issues. Things like people walking into a waiting room with guns blazing or with a bomb strapped to them really happened, but not today.

So Tuesday morning, the good day was still in my head. Things were troubled, though. I had the surgery coming up in November, and the three-bedroom apartment that was owned by my wife’s distant family had been sold. The new landlord wanted us out but what could two people in their early-twenties, with little money and a three-year-old find easily? Luckily, the week before, we’d found a shitty little one-bedroom that we could use for a two-bedroom, and the landlord seemed willing to rent to us. Still, the stress it was causing, as well as the overall unhappiness I was feeling in the marriage. My writing career was nearly non-existent, with only two small publications under my belt. Unhappiness, overall, but there was still some happiness. My ex and I still had good days, my two best friends and I were working on a comic book together, and I had my daughter.

I sipped my tea, put the cup down, and checked my e-mail, maybe went on the web. I really can’t remember. I began writing at 6:30. I read what I’d written on the novel I was working from two days before. Six pages. I made small changes, a word here, a sentence there. The novel was about a slave family and their former owners, and was to span from the 1860s, when a slave escapes due to an uprising on the plantation and the dark deal he makes to a mysterious stranger, to the present, following the two families and the supernatural curse they both share. I was nothing if not ambitious. I began writing fresh copy. Back then, 2,000 words–or ten pages–were what I strived for in a session. On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I got 800. Four pages. And those came with difficulty. I averaged about 1,000 words per hour, so two hours took me to my goal. On this day, it took me just over an hour to get four bloody pages, and I remember not being happy with them. Who knew why?

Eventually, my wife got up and so did my daughter. The day was to look like this: My wife was going to take the rental car back to the dealership and pick up the minivan. Before heading there, she was going to drop by my parents’ apartment house, start the laundry we had, and then bring the car in. On the way back, she was going to go back to the laundry, switch it from washer to dryer, and then come home. I’d take her to work for around noon and come back home with my daughter. Around five o’clock, Courtney and I would go to my parents until it was time for my wife to get out of work. We’d go pick her up and go back home. I’d be in bed around nine or so, ready to get up at four the next morning.

That was how it was supposed to go.

As my wife was getting ready, we had The Today Show on. I brought the trash outside to the curb. The sky was blue and there wasn’t a cloud to be seen. A plane flew overhead and I looked up, smiling. I can’t get away from the New Bedford Regional Airport. I grew up near it, and ten years ago, I lived right on one of the flight paths. This single engine plane flew overhead and I thought, Someday I’ll have to go on one of those. I’d never flown, but on the beautiful late-summer morning, it seemed like something to put on the top of my To Do List.

Back inside, eating my morning cereal, I was watching Today with Katie Couric and Matt Lauer. They had their outside shots of the crowd outside and I thought, Damn, I have to go back to New York. I hadn’t been since I saw The Late Show with David Letterman in August 1995 and it was high time for a return. I took out the schedule I’d printed from the bus station I worked at on weekends. I decided that I would mention it to my two best friends, Toby and Jorj, when they came over to work on our comic book that Friday.

My wife and daughter left and I shut off the TV, and went back into the office. I was surfing the web and not paying attention to much. Time passed. At around nine o’clock, the backdoor opened and I jumped, not expecting my wife to back already.

“Oh my god,” she said. “You’re not watching the news?!”

“No,” I said. That was ridiculous. She knew that the TV stayed off when I was alone. The internet had become my drug of choice.

“The radio said that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center!”

I stood up and came out of my room. “What? The World Trade Center? In New York?”

“Yeah,” she said, rushing into the living room.

“Where’s Courtney?” I asked, close behind.

“In the car,” she said. “I still have to bring the car back, but when we got back into the car after starting the laundry, the radio said a plane crashed into the World Trade Center. I had to see it.”

She turned the TV back onto Today and I saw the Twin Towers, both of them ablaze, one with a giant plume of fire coming off it.

“It looks like they’re both on fire,” I said. I’d been thinking that a small plane, like the one I saw just an hour before, with a really inept pilot had made a major blunder. Earlier that summer, a paraglider had attempted to fly over the Statue of Liberty but had become stuck on the torch.

“Maybe the fire jumped from one building to the other,” she said.

“That’s impossible,” I said. “Those towers look close on TV but they’re pretty far apart.”

What neither of us had noticed in the few seconds that it took for us to have that dialogue after she turned on the TV was that no one was talking on the television.

Matt Lauer fixed that. “Um…uh…it appears a…second plane has just crashed into the World Trade Center.”

We looked at each other.

Things were different.

The Rising

Can’t see nothin’ in front of me
Can’t see nothin’ coming up behind
I make my way through this darkness
I can’t feel nothin’ but these chains that bind me
Lost track of how far I’ve gone
How far I’ve gone, how high I’ve climbed
On my back’s this sixty pound stone
On my shoulder’s a half-mile of line

Come on up for the rising
Com on up, lay your hands in mine
Come on up for the rising
Come on up for the rising tonight

She went back out with Courtney to finish the errands, radio on. I sat down. I watched. At some point they came home. I watched. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. You know what happened, you were there, too.

As the events unfolded, and one horror became another, I watched TV, mesmerized. What was there to say? I didn’t know anyone in New York back then. No one I knew was supposed to be flying anywhere from Boston or anywhere else. I knew no one in Washington D.C. back then. All I could do was watch. I’ll never forget the wide New York streets filled with firefighters walking toward the Twin Towers, and not long afterward, the first tower’s collapse. Soon, they went back to that street, and it was vacant but for the dust and the reporter (I feel like it was Anne Curry, but I might be wrong), and a few firefighters stumbling back, blood trickling down their faces, looking lost, vacant. I’ll never forget when the first tower fell, the way Matt Lauer interrupted a conversation he was having with Tom Brokaw to report that it appeared a piece of one of the towers had just fallen off. Even as it was happening, it seemed inconceivable that the entire building would come down.

I distinctly thought of people hiding in the bushes, waiting for unsuspecting passersby such as myself, my wife, my daughter, to come out and shoot us, or cut our throats.

I wish I could say I was surprised by the attacks, but I’d been hearing and reading reports all summer of Osama Bin Laden’s threats toward the United States. People seemed to think he was serious. On CNN, not two weeks or so before, I’d seen a special on the Taliban and Al Qaida, and I worried.

Nah, I thought. They’ll never get to us. They’ll never cause harm. Our government will be on top of it.

They’d tried before, though, right? Back in 1993. I remembered the people leaving the World Trade Center with their little soot mustaches after they’d blown up a van in the in parking garage.

But I knew, the law of averages dictated that sooner or later one of Them–the Outsider, the Enemy, the Ones Who Hated Us–would launch an attack and succeed. One needn’t be a rocket scientist to know that. Shit, one only had to pick up some of the Tom Clancy brick-turds to see that he thought it was plausible, and considering I learned how to operate a Russian submarine thanks to the 100 or so pages of The Hunt for Red October I could get through, that meant something. So how come our government wasn’t ready? It wasn’t like Oklahoma City where there was that “homegrown terrorist” who could possibly fly under the radar. This was from outside. Was it because George W. Bush had been in office for nine months and had taken several vacations already? Was it that the FBI, CIA, Clarice Starling, the JLA, JSA, and the Avengers weren’t talking to one another? What? How?

But it happened. The two planes into the Twin Towers. The plane into the Pentagon. The Towers destroyed. Fuckin’ destroyed. And the people. I remember watching the 9/11 Jumpers (as they have become known as) as they decided (some say, which I tend to agree with for most of the people) that they would not be taken, that they would go themselves. One last Fuck You to the People Who Did This. There was also the plane down in the field in Pennsylvania, reportedly passengers who decided to thwart the terrorists themselves, “Let’s roll.”

The horrors. I cried many times that day. At one point, Courtney asked, “Daddy, why are you crying?”

“Because some bad men did some terrible things,” I told her.

She didn’t understand. I looked into her deep, brown eyes, at her chubby little cheeks. She was so smart. So beautiful. How could I explain this to a three-year-old? How did I explain it to her as she got older? Why did I need to? Because. The world had changed. We had changed.

At least for that day.

Empty Sky

I woke up this morning
I could barely breathe
Just an empty impression
On the bed where you used to sleep
I want a kiss from your lips
I want an eye for an eye
I woke up this morning to an empty sky

That afternoon I checked the mail. In the front hall was an envelope without a stamp from the Bristol County Sherriff’s Department. It was an eviction notice. We realized why the new landlord hadn’t cashed the last few rent payments. The motherfucker. I wish my ex and I had had enough brains back then to cancel those uncashed checks. The fucker would’ve deserved that. But the letter seemed rather insignificant compared to the events that had transpired that morning. After all, we were safe. Our friends were safe.

Courtney and I went to my parents with the radio on. We watched the news at my parents. At eight, I picked up my wife and went home. I watched more. My wife and Courtney went to bed. I stayed up watching the news. How could I sleep when there might be more of Them out there? I heard silence outside. The planes going and leaving the New Bedford Regional Airport, a place my father used to bring me with a bag from the nearby McDonald’s to watch planes take off and land, were grounded.

I turned off the TV and went to bed at one o’clock that night.

The days and weeks following are a blur of the surreal and the tragic.. On September 12th, I remember seeing on the TV something going down in Boston at the Prudential Center and the Westin Hotel and watching it. What I didn’t know then was that I may have caught a glimpse of my future-wife in the crowd. Pamela worked at Copley Place in Boston and was on lunch when the buildings were evacuated. Of course, it was nothing. Same thing happened on a train. I eventually finished American Gods and began the second collaboration of Stephen King and Peter Straub, Black House, which came out days after the terrorist attacks. I soon hit my own corridor of death during this period as people I knew lost grandparents and parents. I had surgery in November. One of my best friends disappeared as he married a woman who hated me and didn’t want him doing anything with anyone. There was good, though, too. My best friend met his future wife.

Time passed.

Ten years passed. A lot has happened to me. I went back to college, my writing career truly began, my marriage dissolved, I fell in love and fell out of it, I met Pamela and fell in love (this time for good) and moved to Boston until the economy dived and she lost her job. I began working at a school, first as a sub, then as a teaching assistant, and finally as a teacher. A lot has happened to this country. Bush used 9/11 as an excuse to wage war on a country that had no ties to the tragedy. We found ourselves embroiled in two wars, siphoning out money at a ridiculous rate and he was re-elected to do more damage that even the smarter, wiser new President is having a difficult time fixing. Our economy nosedived. A lot has happened to this world. Many countries that were allies fell to the wayside between 2003 and 2009, some still haven’t answered our calls. War has torn up the Middle East and terms like sleeper cells, Al Queda, and many others have become part of the world’s lexicon.

You know, you’ve been there. In light of what went down in New York and D.C. that day, it seems ridiculous recounting what I went through as I’ve struggled through this memoir.

Why does it matter what you were doing? I think. You were at home with a three-year-old, you were safe.

But I didn’t know that. On that day, no one knew that. As far as anyone was concerned, there were more and varied attacks looming. My job as a writer is to capture a moment and relate it. To tell the truth. That’s what I’ve done. As the 10th anniversary of that tragic day has arrived, I don’t see what the problem is in talking about it, in relating where we were. The documentaries fascinate me. I sit in tears watching them, not wanting to continue, unable to turn away. Some of the stories I’ve heard are burned into my gray matter just as the events of that day are. I’m fascinated by it, I’m horrified by it, I’m saddened by it.

But in the midst of all that tragedy, I’m inspired by the stories of the people who survived, by the people who helped them and died helping others, and by the people who faced courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable horror.

They rose up and survived. And if they can beat that, then we can beat anything.

Epilogue

On September 13th, 2001, around seven o’clock, I heard the familiar buzz outside. My heartbeat quickened. A sound I’d heard all my life except for the previous two days seemed alien, menacing. I went to the window. A twin engine plane flew in toward New Bedford Regional Airport.

Tears came to my eyes. I smiled.

The sky was empty no more.

***

Lyrics to “Into the Fire”, “The Rising”, and “Empty Sky” written by Bruce Springsteen and appear on The Rising (Columbia, 2002).

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Fred Rogers, known to the world as Mr. Rogers.

K. Wilson, author of the blog teachingthekids, commented on my recent post about teachers from pop culture that had an effect on me and noted that Mr. Rogers was the first teacher for many youngsters because he influenced her “in the 70’s.” Fred Rogers was absolutely an important part of my early childhood.

I was one of those kids who hated kids shows because I felt they pandered. I loved The Muppet Show because it wasn’t really for kids, but hated Sesame Street, for instance. However, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was one of those kids shows that I loved. Yeah, I went through a phase at around six or so where I was too big to watch it, but here’s how I know what he did mattered:

It was 2005, somewhere between May and July, and things had been a little bleak. I’d been separated from my soon-to-be-ex-wife (we finalized our divorce in September 2005) and was working at a local bookstore, which I would’ve loved had they paid me what I deserved, treated me the way I deserved, and otherwise didn’t have their heads up their asses (not all of them, just those who were in charge). I sat down to eat my lunch around 11:30/noon, and I only had twenty cable channels. My choices were game shows, talk shows, or PBS. One PBS channel was running Sesame Street. Blech. Another was running Teletubbies. Barf! The last had on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I decided to leave it on. I quickly realized that I remembered the episode from my childhood. I sat watching this show that I hadn’t seen in twenty years, mesmerized. At the end, Mr. Rogers looked into the camera and said in that way he had, “Just remember that you are special. That there’s no one else in this world like you, and that you are important.”

I can’t explain it. I begin weeping.

Lots of stand-up comedians and people who are too cool for school have made jokes that Mr. Rogers was probably a pervert, or some sort of strange dude because of his show. That’s an easy, cynical kind of joke to make in a world where teachers marry students, priests rape their choirboys, and you never know who’s lurking on the playground, the schoolyard, or anywhere else children may congregate.

I have no patience for jokes like that about Fred Rogers. This man was the Real Deal. He understood the power television had and insisted on doing his best to teach children what he could. He understood that by the 1970s, many parents were using the glass teat as a means for babysitting, and that the networks were making tons o’ dough from selling violence, stupidity, and bastardized entertainment to children. Fred Rogers wanted to do something different. He wanted there to be a place for children to go where a human adult could teach them, to build their confidence, and to give to them the sort of love that many children needed. Yeah, he had puppets, but unlike Jim Henson’s beautifully constructed and performed Muppets that lived on a special street in some city, even the dullest child knew that residents of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe were simple hand puppets that were terribly performed.

I can’t believe that I forgot about Mr. Rogers, a man whom I love dearly and wish that I could have met to say, “Thank you, Mr. Rogers. You believed in me, and I thank you for it.”

I got home about half an hour ago, my clothes damp with sweat. I wish I could say I just came back from working out, from performing with my rock band, or even that I just got back from a stand-up comedy gig, with those bright, hot lights, the grateful audience, and the rest of those clichés. But I didn’t. I got home from work. I am a teacher.

Yes, that's my teacher look.

I call teaching The Day Job because I’ve been a writer longer than I’ve been a teacher, and I’ve wanted to write for a helluva lot longer than I’ve wanted to teach. As a matter of fact, if I can tell you the truth (and what’s the purpose of writing if I can’t tell you the truth?), I’ve never necessarily wanted to be a teacher. I fell into it nearly by accident. The good news is that I enjoy teaching nearly as much as I enjoy writing, and while I’m certainly not paid what I believe teachers should be paid, it has paid me a lot more than writing has, and it is fulfilling. If I look back though, it shouldn’t be a surprise to me that I teach. As a matter of fact, I think it was more of a surprise to those who know me that it took as long as it did for me to become a teacher. Since it’s the time of year when the kiddies (and many others) are returning to school, I figured, let’s look at some of the teachers from the movies and TV shows that I watched growing up. This isn’t going to be a definitive list of teachers from the media, I’ll let some other list making website deal with that, but I will talk about the ones I think have an effect on me.

I was in my teens when I was flipping through the channels one day and happened on The Dead Poets Society (1989). The movie got a lot of buzz when it came out and I love Robin Williams, but I hadn’t seen it. Part of it was that I was young when it came out (11/12) and part was that my mother’s co-worker had been dragged to see it by his wife and had reported that it was boring, so my mother didn’t want to watch it. I’d wanted to watch it when it came to cable but just never had until the afternoon, I believe I was 16 or 17, that I was flipping through the channels and there it was, just beginning. I loved it. The piece of the movie I remember the best from that first viewing, and the thing I carry with me in the back of my mind in my Badass Book of Teaching is when Robin Williams instructs the students to tear out pages from the textbook. The tight-ass prep school boys have trouble believing that they’re to follow him at first, but eventually do so in a scene that is both beautiful and inspiring.

There’s nothing really beautiful about Carl Reiner’s Summer School (1987) except for Courtney Thorne Smith, but when I saw it at the age of 10 or 11, I loved it. The thing I remember from that, that I still kind of carry with me now, is that Mark Harmon’s Mr. Shoop is lax, miserable, but treats the students as people. He is the typical 1980s hero in that he has a very I-Don’t-Give-a-Fuck attitude about him but he reaches the students. It may not be by accepted (and these days, he’d be fired without a second thought), but he reaches them and the class mostly succeeds. The other thing that stuck with me, but that has nothing to do with teaching, are the boys who love horror movies, Dave and Chainsaw. The viewing of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in class, as well as the gory horror-movie-type prank (check out about halfway down the page) that the kids play on a substitute after Shoop’s fired, I think helped guide me into my love of horror movies (though the date of the movie’s release, July 1987, leads me to believe that I’d already seen the three A Nightmare on Elm Street movies that had been released by then).

Oh, how this scene had an effect on me.

Mr. Miyagi from 1984’s The Karate Kid wasn’t the typical teacher, yet he was a teacher that I could dig. I was probably about eight when I first saw The Karate Kid on HBO or Cinemax, and it was a story that I loved. Though my days of being bullied were to begin in the following years, I already felt like an outsider and the story of Daniel LaRusso’s warm welcome to Cailfornia from New Jersey struck home. Plus, he learned to kick ass, which seemed really cool. But as cool as Daniel seemed to me at eight, nine, and ten (when The Karate Kid Part II came out), Mr. Miyagi was the coolest person in the movie. Wise and comical, blue collar and elitist, difficult taskmaster and best friend, Mr. Miyagi was the friend all boys wanted back then. A father figure who wasn’t your father and who could teach you to defend yourself, but would still play jokes on you. Forget that he’s an Asian stereotype, Pat Morita brought a pathos to Miyagi that Jackie Chan did not in the boring, lame 2010 remake. Mr. Miyagi wasn’t a schoolteacher, but he was one of the best teachers of my childhood and there have been moments in my 5-year-old career that have definitely been influenced by him.

None of MY teachers did this for me.

And that was one of the problems with the 1980s. The punk rock, MTV movement had seeped into the popular culture so much that everyone sort of became the anti-hero, even teachers. Many of them were mean to the kids, or clueless, and being a little boy in the 80s meant I missed some of the good teachers, such as Mr. Hand, played by the venerable Ray Walston, in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a movie I only saw for the first time in the last few years. Most of the teachers in the John Hughes movies, especially The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off were shown as boring, mean, and inept. Of course you had Morgan Freeman taking on a tough, inner-city school in Lean On Me, or James Belushi doing an action movie version of same in The Principal. I recently saw Teachers with Nick Nolte and while he proved to be a caring, even good, teacher at the end, he was pretty much the anti-hero teacher, which is why Mr. Miyagi and the last few important teachers of my childhood in Pop Culture 101 were so important.

Indiana Jones was a hero to me, and probably every other boy born in the 1970s and early 1980s. And the strangest thing about him, to the seven-year-old Billy who first saw him, was that he was a teacher. At seven, you pretty much believe that your teachers live at school, or something like that. To think that they have lives, that they go grocery shopping or have spouses and children of their own is ridiculous. They can’t because they’re your teacher, damnit! And yet, here was a guy who not only was so cool that the girls painted I love you on they eyelids, but he went around, collecting treasures, fighting bad guys, and otherwise being a badass. And he taught you something, too! I don’t know how many fights I got out of by running like Indiana Jones does at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Oh, and there’s the whole Nazi and Biblical history thing, too.

"I strongly urge you to turn in your homework, or I'll kick your ass."

Ben “Obi-Wan” Kenobi, played by Sir Alec Guinness was probably the first onscreen teacher I saw that had me listening. He taught Luke some valuable lessons like, “Your eyes can deceive you, don’t trust them,” and outcooled Han Solo with, “Who is more foolish: the fool or the one who follows him?” Of course the most important piece of advice from the first Star Wars was “Use the Force.” Yoda also taught about the Force. Never had a green puppet (not even Kermit the Frog) taught me so much at that age. What the hell was the Force? Yeah, yeah, a mystical field that surrounds all life because midichlorians and whatever. It’s magic. Or, as I saw it growing up, it’s the inner power we all have that gives us faith in ourselves. There is nothing more important than faith in yourself. Go back, read that sentence again. I’ll wait.

Teachers should have patience. Some have to deal with two generations of whiners.

Done? Good, let’s continue.

Faith in yourself gives you the ability to make the first step toward whatever goal or dream you wish to achieve. It also happens to be the most important thing that a teacher can pass along to a student.

There are so many other teachers in movies, on TV, and in books, plays, songs, etc. that I haven’t even come close to mentioning. I chose mainly to focus on the teachers I watched in the first dozen or so years of my life, and I’m sure I’m missing some, but those were, for me, the ones that seemed to leave a lasting impression. The only one I’d like to add, from my early twenties, is Richard Dreyfuss’s Academy Award-nominated performance in Mr. Holland’s Opus, which is a bit schmaltzy at times, but is still a movie that I enjoyed quite a bit when I first saw it. He wasn’t a part of my childhood, but I’ve thought about that movie a few times since I began teaching back in the fall of 2007.

"We're going to need a bigger band."

In the end, all the teachers listed above were rule-breakers and taught their students how to fend for themselves, with love, with compassion, and with knowledge. We could all use a little of that in our lives, and we should do our best to use those traits, as well.

***

So, do you think I missed a teacher? Is there a pop culture teacher who deeply affected you? Let’s discuss it!