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Friday, May 11, 2012

Smashy Smashy, the early years

I have been in the smashing business for many years now. It’s in my blood. My father was a demolitions expert working nomadicaly throughout his career, going wherever things needed blowing up. The career was chosen with the knowledge that his father, my grandfather, had been killed attempting to diffuse a landmine. My father was a small, wiry man who was difficult to know well. At times he told stories but they were brief, and somewhat abstract, concentrated more on an idea than an event. When he listened his tendency was to look at the speaker’s face, unintentionally triggering brevity.
His face was characteristically flexed into a strange smile, raising his cheek bones, thinning his eyes and stretching the skin under his chin. His eyes disappeared into his face when he smiled with enthusiasm or focused intently.
I met this face infrequently in my youth because of his constant travels, but I distinctly recall the face of my father, as it appeared to me as a child. It looked much different to me as I became a man; less stoic and increasingly fragile. His face had always looked over aged and troubled, with the smile and without the eyes. Many times in my youth I remember asking my grandmother where my father was, getting a collage of answers, but when I asked why he was there it was always the same thing: : “He smashing sump-thin.” Grandma was short on speeches and long on caring.
One thing I do remember about the glimpses I did get of my father throughout the years was the deterioration of his body. This process was hard to miss, as pieces of him were physically disappearing. I remember being very young when I first noticed his left ear. I noticed it because only its lower half was still on his head.
Another moment stays with me because of the self doubt it initially induced and the subsequent confidence it inspired. A few years later when my father was visiting us I was old enough to be greeted with a handshake. The right hand was offered which I found awkward, being left handed and knowing I shared this trait with my father. While my father had been away, all of that time, I reveled in anything that tied me to him, things that let me know I was his son. I loved it when my Grandma told me I reminded her of him and she had told me many times, with a negative inflection, that we were both left handed. This was bad because it aligned me with the demons.
Gran believes in the bible, primarily its physicality. She knows, without question, that the bible is a thick, old book. These two adjectives applied to this particular noun command respect that Gran felt was beyond skepticism. She also believed in religion, well religion of sorts. Gran never read too much, never wrote too much, and although I lived with her for the first 14 years of my life not once could I describe her as over thinking a situation. She went by impulse and memory and she was old, sturdy and certainly wise in a distinct sort of way. A pillar of the church, no, check that; a window, a stained glass type of window that illuminated beautifully, with inconsistent translucence. Every Sunday, for years: she had attended service, but had no prearranged seat, socially she belonged to a closed circle, and wore her best, and was securely recognized as an entrenched elder of the church-going community. All this granted, she could tell you nothing of the bible, beyond cliche basics. She knew that the Universe was created in a very short amount of time, that Jesus was the son of God, that Noah built an arc, and that Adam and Eve had once occupied Eden. But if you asked her why they were cast out of Eden she would lightly reply that Eve “wrecked things.” She once surprised me with the confession that Eve was her favourite biblical person.
Gran was light on specific knowledge of her religion in every form. She had no working knowledge of the history of the church, or the development of the religion. She had no critical understanding of the legacy of the church left by the paradoxical trail of scandal and charity, war and restoration, teaching and obscuring, and therefore no opinion about any of these topics. There was no specific theological learning in her that would allow her to debate the merits of her religion over another. With an intuitive consistency, she knew this type of thing, verbal jostling about creation and existence and morality, to be the ultimate stupidity. Attendance at church was an appropriate topic of discussion for ‘civilized’ people, but the actual essence of divinity, well that wasn’t the type of thing good folks discussed, that was the type of things good folks lived.
There was one tangible facet of Gran’s faith that touched our lives regularly: demons. Our house, that is the house my Gran and I lived in, came to be in a state of disrepair. My father, as I have mentioned, was an infrequent guest in the house, and Gran’s was gone before my time. Things needed fixing, but no one was there to do the job properly. So things got worn down and eventually broken. The roof leaked, beams rotted, floors leaned, cupboards creaked, wallpaper peeled, paint faded, floorboards trembled and the basement was a space beyond punishment. These deterioration gave voice to the house. Walking anywhere in the house started a trio of squawking floorboards, wobbling furniture and clinking of decorative glassware. In defiance of the dissolving backdrop, Gran loved tea cups and glass figurines. She loved setting things out. Another tenant of her wisdom, why have something you love hidden? Have it out so you and everyone else can see. Years of church bizaring, gift shopping and flea marketing had created a clutter Gran considered cozy and never thought to adjust. The excess combined with the tremors created steady breakage. This led to odd dramatizations of Gran’s sadness, which was always fleeting, yet expressed intensely through the bunching of skin and narrowing of eyes. The only time she physically reminded me of my father was when she paused to take in the pieces of a piece. Those intense stares brimmed with tears were the few times I saw Gran’s vulnerability. At a certain age I became aware of a reverence or respect for the demons that has never fully escaped me.
Beyond breakage Demons could possess the weak minded or evil-hearted. Since she had noticed it Gran had tried to train the left handedness out of me. Many nights were spent copying out passages from the bible using my right hand. “Two birds, one stone” she would counsel. I was still young enough to wonder why anyone would want to kill a bird, let alone two, with a stone. One night when I was defiantly challenging the established routine Gran ensured the failure of her methodology with a passing comment of nostalgia. “You quell that temper before you start to mind me of your father, my son. That boy never did learn to use his right hand.” Like a burr I clung to anything of my father’s, and when I learned that we shared this trait I vowed to never favor my right, to be like him, and my penmanship ceased to improve. There were summer nights spent playing catch with friends when I consciously enjoyed favoring my left hand, enjoying the physicality of the shared dexterity between my father and I.
But again, when we met that night he offered his right hand. I awkwardly grabbed at his mirrored appendage, disillusioned that this connection I had watched into the glove so many times had been shattered in a simple gesture. We half held hands for just a moment, quickly releasing the tentative, unrehearsed clasp and my eyes moved to the corner of the carpet laid in the entrance way.
It wasn’t until we sat for dinner that I could clearly see his left hand. There were only two fingers, his ring and index, remaining on his left hand. The palm was left unmarred, and the other two fingers were simply missing. The way his hand appeared they could have been lopped off clean with a knife. The disfigurement was a result of the raw force of destruction along with some dense rock which had taken off the pair and crushed them into oblivion.
I was a bold child, being the man of my house, and although I respected my father to the point of fear, my curiosity bested my impulse to remain in a state of embarrassing ignorance. “Father, where are your fingers?” My head became very warm as I voiced the question. Blood swirling around my brain was vigorously attempting to decode my actions. My face turned pink.
My father looked surprised after hearing the question. I remember momentarily making out his eyes. He quickly regained his trenchant smile and I noticed he had missing teeth for the first time. He answered me with an abrupt poignancy that was common in his speech: “They were blown off son, dynamite’ rocks, just a scratch.”
I was still quite young at this time, 10 to 12 years old. I had heard of dynamite, but what I could feel was missing parts. I examined my fully intact hand with some awe for the first time in my life. “Did it hurt, Father?” Many times in my youth my capricious energies earned me floggings from Grandma. The woman was sturdy in her age and could create genuine terror with a belt strap. I feel bad using the word terror, although it is accurate. Still, the beatings were always earned and somehow the compassion in her methodology remained obvious. My point is the pain. This was the pain I knew, along with the scrapes and bruises that accompany any lively boyhood. I eagerly waited for my Father to speak to me.
“Strange thing son. My fingers were blown clean off, the rest of my hand’s fine for the most part. But it didn’t really hurt, happened too quick.” He paused here for a moment and winked at me with his invisible eyes. I was very excited. I could tell he was preparing to tell me a story. It seemed like he liked me. But that’s trivial…
“Felt strange. Part of me gone, right? Just disappeared like a magic trick, you’ve seen magic tricks, haven’t you boy?” I nodded. One year the school had brought in a magician who swallowed a sword.
“Yeah, just Abracadabra, kaboom, and then gone. So I look at my hand, suddenly two fingers short. You know what? I could hardly believe it, I’m not sure I did. Fingers don’t just go missing.” He looked right at me while saying this. I felt an uncertain pressure, not sure what to believe. Did he have those fingers somewhere?
“Naturally, reacting to fingers that look to be missing, but don’t feel to be missing’ I make a fist, or I try to make a fist. Know what? Made a fist. Swear to Christ I made one. Sorry Mum, but Christ it was strange. Felt all of my fingers close together, each one pressing against the other, even the ones that were gone.” The last sentence was spoken slowly in the deep, slow tone of a believable ghost story.
“Well, I was surprised. I didn’t know what to think. I opened my hand wanting to test it out again and felt each finger open and extend.” Slowly, in front of my wondrous face, he extended two fingers where four had been. He was being theatrical, and I was enjoying the show. “I hadn’t even thought of that before I felt it happen. A fist is all I could think of for some reason. Strange considering I spend my life blowing things up. Anyhow…Well then I really took a good look at my hand, only saw two fingers and two messy looking holes. So, I tried wiggling them.” Again he demonstrated the actions of his words, somehow squinting through the motion of his fingers at me. “And I’ll be damned if I didn’t feel all them fingers I was born with wiggling away. Strange thing too boy, and this is the honest truth, I can still feel them from time to time.” I stared at him in amazement. I wondered where he had the other fingers hidden.
Perhaps because of the missing fingers, or perhaps because of the stories he told, that visit sticks out, still quite vividly, prominent in my memory.
Later on that night I asked him where he had been and why he’d been there.
“On the side of a mountain. A mountainside with too much snow. So much snow in fact, some of them prognosticators figured an avalanche was inevitable. Inevitable means it’s a gonna happen no matter who says what. Something had to be done before nature went and did it herself. Do you know what an avalanche is, boy?” My father had no clue as to the parameters of my knowledge. I knew what an avalanche was and nodded. “Sent a couple of us up this mountain to see what. They gave us snowshoes cause the stuff was waist deep, kept us afloat, but big awkward things to walk in.
“Do you know how you set off dynamite on the side of a mountain boy? We couldn’t walk out and set it off ourselves. We were trying to trigger an avalanche.” He told me about water and wind proofing wicks, and about throwing dynamite sticks end over end into the steeps beside him, about weighting the sticks to make sure they sunk into the snow and the tense silence in the moments between the dynamite hitting the snow and the actual explosion. He told me about the deafened noise of detonation in the silence and the snow.
“The snow starts slowly. Seems lazy. Don’t wanna move. But once it moves, once it goes boy, well it’s a chain reaction. Everything starts moving and you better be near a tree, something to hold onto. You never know what could slide down. I tell you though, being at the top, looking down on all that chaos you started, well it makes you feel pretty good, like you could move mountains.” My father laughed at his own allusion and his eyes were gone. I tried my hardest to acutely imagine all that he had said. That’s one of the last times I remember seeing him.
I surprise myself with the detail of my account. It is amazing what you remember. But enough of the slide show, I am in the smashing business because it is in me. Now, you must allow me to show you around Smashy Smashy Inc., my pride and joy. Perhaps later I’ll tell you more about myself. I’ll expect you to have some questions for me when the tour is over.

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