Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Missing Karl

My brother Karl would have turned fifty-seven this month.  It's been almost six years since he left us, not too long after his birthday.  I had gone to Montgomery that afternoon to rent chairs for Fawn's outdoor wedding.  Funny how you never forget details like that when something traumatic, life-changing happens.  We got back to the church and found a note taped to the door.   I was to call home immediately.  There had been an accident. 

No one was more laid back than my brother.  One time he went into a burning barn to retrieve a bike that he'd stored there, a gift for his son's birthday.  It was a crazy thing to do, especially considering that the barn was full of explosives. I asked him afterwards if he had considered the possibility of the building exploding with him still in it.  He just kinda shrugged it off, even when I probed him about the risks that came with his job.   Karl had always loved fireworks, he and my brother Rex were always setting off the small stuff when they were kids.  So when he was all grown up and the chance came around to make the big stuff, he didn't even hesitate.  And doing the big shows, well, for him that was just icing on the cake.

Speaking of cake, the only time I remember being really angry with Karl involved one that I had made from scratch.  I had turned it upside down on a tray and covered the entire thing with a thick layer of frosting.  But a few hours later I found my lovely concoction drastically changed.  Someone had run their fingers around the edges, eating every bit of frosting off the sides.   It took no time at all to find out who had gotten into it, Karl.  I think it was my youngest sister Beth who squealed. I was livid.  So angry in fact that I wrote a note to my brother and propped it up by the cake. I need to insert a bit about my family here.  We were the God-fearing, church-going, no drinking, no smoking,  no cursing or bad talking Marvin family.  Therefore,  some of the language I used so shocked my brothers and sisters, that even today, decades later, the story still comes up at family gatherings.

The last time I was with Karl on his birthday.  This was his 49th.   

But Karl was so likable that no one could ever stay mad at him for long.  And he was kind.  The Allegany would sometimes overflow its banks and empty into the Mill Pond.  One particular summer the river had overflowed more than usual and deposited hundreds of good-sized carp into the marsh.  As the water receded, the fish found themselves trapped in just a few inches of water.  Karl gathered up some buckets and sloshing through several inches of muck spent hours filling them with the fish and hauling them back to the river.  It wasn't until his memorial service, however, that I heard the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey would say.  I had spoken and ended with the account of Karl hauling all those carp back to the river in a couple of  buckets when his friend Mike took the podium, looked at me and said, "And did you know that after he got tired of carrying pails, he got a twenty-two and shot the rest of them in the head?"  Nope, I didn't know that.  But I'm pretty sure that he was simply putting them out of their misery.  

Along with his big heart, he also had a good-sized stomach.  He enjoyed frog legs and didn't mind hunting the things and cutting off their appendages for a lip-smacking meal.  One time, however, he wasn't able to perform the amputations until later,  so he took them home and threw them into the bathtub.  They were obviously feeling pretty feisty, because when my sister-in-law went in to use the john, a stretch of green suddenly lunged from the tub and flew into her lap.  My parents had been invited to dinner that night, totally unaware that on the other side of the wall was a bathtub full of amphibians having an evening swim.  But even if they'd known, something tells me they wouldn't have been all that surprised.

Karl knew how to make an adventure out of about anything.  My sister Dawn tells a story about when our cousin Paul was up from North Carolina, the three of them went driving the back roads in Karl's bronco.  The frogs were out that night, so every time Karl would see one in the headlights, he'd brake while Paul jumped out to grab it,  then would stuff it in the glove compartment.  The car was soon filled with the sound of an amphibious chorus coming out of the dashboard.  And no, there were no frog legs on the menu that night.  Karl let them go after the concert. 

Karl would have rather been outside than anywhere else.  He'd thought of going into conservation, working in the park service.  He never got there, but he could name and tell you about most any plant.  And the trees, he especially loved the trees.  We had a line of tall pines that ran along the canal next to our home.  As soon as his legs were long enough, he started climbing those pine, all the way to the top.  At first it scared me, I was the oldest, probably the most protective.  But over time I began to relax, realizing that he wasn't going to fall.  He was at home up there.

I was the oldest, therefore the Protector. Karl is at the center.

Material things meant little to Karl.  His clothes were usually mismatched, and even when he dressed up for church or a special occasion, he usually looked a bit rumpled. His house was always in need of repair, and it seemed that his vehicles were often on the verge of breaking down. But on the other hand, he was always available whenever someone else had a need.  After my mom's cancer had progressed, he called Alabama asking if I needed money to get home.  And as Dad got older, Karl was always the one to stop by and see if he needed help with anything.   Then after dad was gone and my sister Beth took over the house, Karl was the one she called on if she had a question or problem.  He'd always be there.  That's just who he was.

The worst dream I ever had involved Karl when we were both young.  A large machine had dug a large, very deep hole down the street in a neighbor's yard, tied him up and placed him there, teetering on the edge.  It frightened me so badly that I remember getting up in the night and peeking into his bedroom to make sure he was still there.  For nights afterwards I dreaded going to bed because that dream played over and over again in my mind.   Finally I went to my mother and asked her if I would ever be able to forget the horrible nightmare. She shook her head.  Probably not, she said.  But the day would come, she assured me, when it wouldn't bother me anymore.   And she was right.   Though I never forgot the dream, the fear of losing my brother Karl eventually went away.

I thought about that dream many times over the years, wondering why it affected me so profoundly when I was young.   I know now that  I was grappling with the reality of death, understanding for the first time that it could take away those I love.  But when word came that this same brother was teetering, not on the edge of a hole as in my dream, but on the brink of eternity,  I wasn't afraid for him.  I knew where he was going, that he had prepared for this day a long time ago. When the paramedics arrived, though covered with burns from the explosion, Karl was still conscious and insisted that they take care of his young coworker Andy first.  "Don't worry about me," he said.  "I'm ready." 

I won't say I don't miss him, I do.  In fact, it seems the more time that passes, greater the longing to see him again. I wish I could be with him one more time. If that were granted me,  I would sit at the piano,  him standing behind me and Beth would join us.  And we would sing, praying that time would show us favor and stop for awhile.  But on this side of eternity, unfortunately, there are clocks with hands that move all too quickly, and with that come the inevitable goodbyes.   But he can't leave without one more song, one that we always sing when we're together and it seems especially appropriate now.  The harmony is pure as Karl's wonderful baritone carries the tenor while Beth covers the alto and I take the melody. "Some glad morning when this life is o'er," we sing, "I'll fly away.  To a home on God's celestial shore, I'll fly away.  I'll fly away, oh glory, I'll fly away.  When I die, hallelujah, by and by, I'll fly away." And as we repeat the chorus I hear only the two parts and know he is gone.  

Karl two years before the accident, the last picture I ever took of him.    

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Cockroach Cookies

There are only a few shows that I record, a couple for Larry and a couple for me.  But there's one that I set for the both of us, "Hoarders."   That's because we are intrigued by these people who live lives  so foreign to our own, surrounded by such a mountain of stuff that they can't use their kitchens or sit on their furniture or even sleep in their own beds.

We were a family of seven, so naturally there was a bit of clutter in our home.  It didn't seem to bother my mother much, but that didn't deter from her insistence on having a clean house.  She liked a freshly-scrubbed floor and would get down on her hands and knees to make sure it was done right.  Sparkling windows were important as well, she'd have us wipe them down with newspapers to get rid of the streaks after they'd been sprayed with ammonia water.   As for the bedding, our sheets were washed regularly and hung outside, even in the winter.  After she had taken them down off the line,  I remember her holding them up to her nose and then to mine, wanting me to take in the wonderful fragrance of the outdoors.  Smells were important too, and I don't remember our home ever being filled with anything but pleasant aromas.

That's why I found one particular episode especially disturbing.  The house was not only piled with junk, it was filthy beyond belief.  I don't get it. People living with the smell of animal poop and urine in their noses is bad enough, but the worst, most offensive part was the bugs, specifically the roaches. Everywhere.  In fact, when the pest control guys came, they said they had never seen anything like it, estimating not just thousands but possibly millions in that home.  The vermin were on and in everything, even the refrigerator and freezer were full of them.  As for getting a good night's sleep, forget it.  The son complained he couldn't get one because the things would crawl all over him during the night.

I didn't know what a roach was until I went to college.  I think I read that they can be found anywhere in the world except for Antarctica but I had never seen one up close and personal until I lived in a college dorm in South Carolina.  My roomies and I were the closest to the trash shoot that ran from the third floor down to the first, and for some reason those nasty little critters weren't content to stay there.  They decided it was much more fun to hang out in room 216.  They would go scurrying across the floor when the light was turned on, hide in our drawers and drop out of our shoes.  I emptied what was left in a coke bottle one night and a drowned roach went down the sink with the contents.  I almost gagged at the thought that just moments before I had considered swigging down those last few gulps of soda.  One night I was lying in one of the lower bunks and suddenly had the uncomfortable feeling of being watched.  I lifted my head and found myself looking into the face of a large roach sitting on my pillow, its little antennae twitching malevolently.   I had had it!  I got up, turned on the light and proceeded to move all my bedding to the top of the three-tiered bunk where I slept for the rest of the year.

I don't have a clue as to why the school's so-called exterminator could not eliminate our roach problem.  Supposedly he tried, or so they said, but nothing worked.  One night we were so fed up that the four of us armed ourselves with every aerosol can we could find, including our spray deodorants, and went after the varmints.  We took out every drawer, went into every closet, pulled everything off every shelf and started shooting.  It felt good to be on the offensive for a change, we had killed dozens of the enemy that night. But we also knew what we were up against, that for every roach down there were dozens in hiding just waiting for us to leave or to turn off the lights.  And then it would be party time all over again.

It would be a lot of years before I went to war with the roaches again.  This time I would be living in La Ceiba, Honduras where I was sometimes seeing cucarachas the size of army tanks.  I didn't know what to do.  "Make cockroach cookies," I was told by another missionary.  "It works every time."  She gave me the recipe listing a few common kitchen ingredients along with the killer.  Boric acid.  "Mix well and then form into small patties," it said.  Well, that was easy enough.  I then proceeded to place the sweet delectables in every little hidden space I could find all through the house.  And it wasn't long before I realized that it had indeed worked, the enemy troops were slowly disappearing. 

During our first furlough I was speaking at a small rural church one Sunday morning while Larry spoke in another.  I happened to mention the bug problem I'd had and being taught how to make the cockroach cookies.  Larry later joined us for a potluck at the church where I had spoken when a gentleman sitting across the table from him cleared his throat, leaned forward and asked in all seriousness, "So what do they taste like?"  "What do what taste like?"  The man looked a bit uncomfortable.  "The cookies, the cockroach cookies.  Your wife said that she makes cockroach cookies.  I was just wondering what they taste like?"  And then it dawned on my husband  that the poor guy thought that I was adding them to my cookie batter like I would chocolate chips!  "What exactly did you say?" he asked me later.  I shrugged.  I had spoken on numerous occasions before that and often mentioned making cockroach cookies.  I just figured everyone knew what I was talking about.  Maybe they hadn't after all.  No wonder we had received such great financial support.  People thought we poor missionaries had resorted to eating bugs.  Ah well, whatever worked!