Monday, August 13, 2018

Snapshot #2

Otherwood is a fantasy, a ghost story, an adventure set in a fictional version of the wooded area where I grew up. None of the events in the book *actually* happened in real life, but the story is constructed from bits and pieces of memory. Here is one such recollection.

At age seventeen I was living in a three bedroom rambler with my parents and six siblings ranging in age from fifteen down to five. Privacy was at a premium, so I spent a lot of time out in the woods behind our house. Sometimes I would climb into the crotch of a big elm tree—up high where there were no mosquitoes—and read a book. Other times I would wander through the woods I knew so well, following the many twisted trails, dreaming of a future when I would have my own apartment.

One day I was tramping through a seldom-visited boggy area, and came upon a heart-stopping scene: several items of apparel laid out on a mossy hillock, carefully arranged to mimic the shape of the person who had worn them. The clothes looked as if they had belonged to a little girl: a T-shirt, a pair of pink shorts, underpants, and socks. No shoes.

I stared at those clothes with a rapidly growing sense of unease. I walked in a circle around them, then a bigger circle, half expecting to find a body, but found nothing. Fearing the worst, I ran home and called the police. 

The officer who arrived an hour later was a large, soft-featured young man who looked as if he had not been a cop long. I sensed that he was excited—this could be his first big case! A possible abduction, maybe even a murder!

I led the cop out into the woods. Several of the little kids in the neighborhood saw us, so of course they followed. It was me in front, the cop a few paces behind me, and about fifty feet behind him a train of curious five-year-olds.

To get to the clothing, we had to navigate a boggy area chest-high with nettles and swarming with mosquitoes. The cop outweighed me by a hundred pounds, and his feet sank into the soft, peaty ground. I could hear the sucking sound as he took each step, and some muttered curses. 

We arrived at the scene. The cop stood staring, waving away the cloud of mosquitoes, no doubt imaging things even more horrific than those I had been imagining. The train of little kids, led by Jimmy, my youngest brother, caught up with us. 

The cop asked them if they knew whose clothes those were.

Jimmy said, “Those are Wendy’s.”*

“Who is Wendy?” the cop and I both asked.

“She lives in the corner house,” Jimmy said.

“Where is this Wendy now?” the cop asked.

“I think she went home,” said one of the other kids.

“Then why are her clothes here?” asked the cop.

“She took them off in Jackie’s yard and went home, so we brought them here.”

“Why?” I asked. I was horribly embarrassed.

“We were playing,” Jimmy said, as if that explained everything.

The cop asked a few more questions, but clarity was never achieved. Some weird five-year-old logic was operating—a game in which the rules changed every two minutes. The policeman gathered up the clothing and we headed back. On the way, the cop sank knee deep into a sinkhole, pitched forward into a stand of nettles, and lost a shoe. He had to reach elbow-deep into the peaty muck to retrieve it, then put his foot back into the muddy shoe.

He was not happy about the way his big case had developed. 

I’m not sure what happened next—I went home. I imagine the cop found out where Wendy lived, returned the clothing to her parents, and ascertained that the girl was okay. 

Later, I quizzed Jimmy on what had happened, but never could quite figure out why Wendy had taken off her clothes, or why the other kids had carried her outfit deep into the boggy part of the woods and laid them out so precisely. The more he told me the less sense it made. I decided it was one more unsolved mystery I would have to live with.

End of story? Not quite. Two months later I was driving down Cedar Lake Road a little too fast, heard the whoop of a siren, and saw flashing red lights in my rearview. I pulled over and rolled down my window. The cop got out of his car and—guess who?

He told me I had been traveling at forty-six miles per hour in a thirty-five zone. I handed him my license. He looked at it, looked at me, and scowled.

He said, “I know you, don’t I?” He peered at me closely. “I’ve had some trouble with you before.”

From his furrowed brow I could tell he didn’t remember our encounter. I reminded him of our walk in the woods.

His expression cleared. I thought for a moment that he would laugh and let me off with a warning, but there was no laughing. He gave me a ticket. Pretty sure he was still mad about the shoe.

*Not her real name.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018


I think about my childhood a lot. It’s the curse of the kidlit author, because no matter if we’re writing fantasy, historical fiction, nonfiction, or any other sort of book intended for younger audiences, we are always mining our early years, if not for events and characters, then for perspective.

My memories, of course, are colored by the intervening years. There are the exaggerations I have come to believe, dreams conflated with reality, simplifications and embellishments, and the blatant lies I choose to tell myself. But mostly they are true.

For example, one day in the late sixties (I think I was about fifteen), my father, Tuck, arrived home after a long day at work. As was often the case, one of us seven kids—probably Bob—had left his bike in the middle of the driveway, preventing Tuck from pulling into his usual parking space.

Tuck got out of his pickup truck, picked up the bike, and threw it up on the roof of the garage. He got back in his truck, parked it, and never said a word to any of us about the bike.

Three days later, the bike was still up there.

“Dad,” I asked, “aren’t you going to get the bike off the garage?”

“No,” he said. “It remains as a monument to my stupidity.”

The next morning when I got up the bike was back in the garage.

With Tuck and Elaine, 1972
It was typical that Tuck never said anything to Bob—no yelling, chiding, or extracted promises. There was little scolding in our household. The bike on the garage roof was sufficient. Most of us kids were perfectly capable of climbing up there and bringing the bike down. But we didn’t, for the same reason Tuck left it up there.

Around that same time that I took up cigarette smoking. I kept it from my parents. Although I’m sure they could smell it on me, they never said anything. I would buy a pack of Camels for thirty-five cents from the vending machine at the bowling alley, and hide them on top of a rafter in the garage where no one would ever think to look.

One day Tuck was in the garage looking for something. He came back in the house and tossed me the pack of Camels. “You left these in the garage,” he said.

That was my smoking lecture.

A few years ago, Joel Shoemaker was writing a book about my books, and he interviewed my sister Amy by email, asking her about her memories of our childhood. He asked what our parents had done to “rein (Pete) in, or give him advice.”

Amy replied, “The question made me laugh. I read it to my mom and she laughed too. She said, ‘Advice? I don’t think any of you got advice!’”