Monday, June 22, 2015

Poppy and The Coachlight Summer (I Like Turtles)

Whenever I go into the basement of my current apartment complex it immediately reminds me of my father. The combination of the cool dampness, mold and moth balls (I suspect) takes me back to Coachlight Village in East Hartford CT in the early 80's. My father was a Superintendent there for a year or so and my brother Geoff and I spent a large part of that summer there with him. We often followed "Poppy" into the basement of Coachlight to do repairs or check on things, etc., and the scent was the same familiar Potpourri I smell so often of late when I go downstairs.

That summer in East Hartford lasted less than sixty days in all reality but at the time it felt like a decade. There wasn't a day I recollect that was less than 80 degrees-the air always saturated and sticky-and for a pre-teen boy and his brother in a habitat surrounded by woods, streams, swamps and a swimming pool nestled at the far end of the complex, it was Heaven carved into the Earth. One of the first memories I have at Coachlight was standing outside the front of the complex with Geoff and waiting for the traffic on busy Burnside Ave to relent so we could scurry across and grab a soda and a snack at the corner market. A dollar bill-a-piece from the old man in those days guaranteed a can of Soda and a big bag of chips or if the mood was right, maybe a Chocodile. That particular day I only remember the soda I purchased, a Mello Yello, and how it tasted like liquid gold and sunshine in a can, while in truth was just the 94% sugar and myriad of chemicals infused with bubbles. Bubbles were always cool when you were a kid. Hell, bubbles will always be cool.

The average day of the "Coachlight Summer" consisted of many of the usual activities you'd expect young kids to occupy themselves with-running, jumping, falling, swinging, fighting, yelling, swimming, overeating and annoying the opposite sex-but there were numerous more specific and vivid memories I have about my summer there, most significantly, "The Snapper." Some Snapping Turtles grow to be huge as fuck, as round as a kids bicycle tire and thicker than a couch cushion, but then you have the colossal Jurassic beast that my old man pulled out of the stream that ran behind Coachlight that year. From as early as I can remember I was obsessed with aquatic critters like fish, frogs and eels but it was always the turtle that owned the top spot. On numerous occasions my father, Geoff and I would traverse thickly wooded areas, swarming with zombie skeeters draining a pint an hour from each of us, looking for turtles- but not just any variety. My father instilled in us from a very early age that the only turtle worth catching was the Snapping Turtle. A creature so angry, so vile and so focused on the goal of tearing large hunks of your flesh off with it's steel trap jaws that only clinically insane humans-or the recently sober, aka Poppy-would ever attempt to go near them. Having surveyed the bordering lands of Coachlight frequently, Poppy was certain there was a monstrous Snapping Turtle somewhere in the streams that wound their muddy fingers around them so on one muggy summer morning we made our way in search.

As the trek began, the three of us worked our way through the dense overgrowth-with a few of the curious neighborhood kids in tow-looking for the Moby Dick of Snappers. Poppy, shirtless and looking like a young Paul Newman, muttered to himself like a deranged Captain Ahab. He sped through the vegetation like a Spider Monkey, pulling at small trees and hopping over rotted logs with ease, his motley crew right at his heels. In the distance there was a clearing and the stream that ran through the area spilled out into a swampy pool, littered with dead trees, rock and thick black mud. Poppy slowed to a crawl and slid his arm out to the side, motioning for us stay quiet and still. I widened my eyes and scanned the area he was looking towards, my heart beginning to race as the anticipation built. Poppy made his way down the soggy bank and into the fringes of the swampy mud hole gently and then he froze, and that's when I saw it. It's head was just slightly above the waterline and you could see the outline of its massive shell breaking through behind it. Poppy started to flank it from the right and as he did I gestured to the others that I saw something...and then the bomb went off. Collectively, my brother, myself and the kids tagging along saw the giant in the mud and at that same moment my father lunged at it. As is necessary with such a vicious, evil beast, Poppy grabbed it by it's gator-like tail and pulled it from the mud, making a sound resembling a Fat Kid with a lisp drinking a Fribble without a straw. The monster came out, thrashing and snapping violently, and Poppy made sure to keep it far away from his exposed chest and ever-present cut-off denim shorts. The gang of us erupted in screams and cheers and tried to make our way closer as Poppy climbed up the bank towards us with the Snapper dangling in the air, looking like a Stegosaurus that had been pancaked.

The next few minutes were spent in a daze of adolescent bewilderment as all of us watched my old man carry that Mack Truck tire-sized snarling death chomper through the woods and into the parking lot of Coachlight to "show it off" to whomever might be around. Being summertime, and likely due to the insane screaming coming from the woods, there were a number of people around when we made our way out of the woods. The obligatory "oohs and aahs" circled the crowd and at one point I swear I heard a portly woman say "Kinda looks like my Earl, acts like him too," but I can't be totally sure. My old man plopped the beast down onto some grass near the parking lot and the Snapper whipped it's deadly jaws around left and right trying to latch onto the Hippie fuck that had just forcibly removed him from his mud sauna. Every kid in the area loved this more at that moment than all the Soda, Cake, Baseball Cards and TV shows in the world combined. Poppy grabbed a stick and, careful to not be any more dickish than he already had been, moved it towards the Snappers mouth and the gargantuan critter chomped down on it like a Crocodile clamping down on a Hambone. Crack! The stick went as it split immediately in half from the sheer force of it's jaws. All of us erupted in a chorus of crazed approval. Somewhere around this time a woman, or a man, or maybe me or it could have been Poppy himself (some of this has been embellished slightly for dramatic effect, as any proper childhood memory should be) mentioned that "The turtle probably isn't having as much fun as we are," and the mood turned from excessive, crazed jubilation to that moment when Kathie Lee Gifford mentioned she was going to sing a song on the show with Regis. 

I don't remember the trip back to set the turtle free as clearly as I do the search, discovery and catch but I know the big fella was released safely, because whether it was a fishing trip or one of the aforementioned Turtle expedition, Poppy, Geoff and I were always careful to not harm the creatures we sought. The thing with Poppy, and his two kids, is that we were "hunters" only in the sense that we loved the chase-the notion that there were critters, big, small, odd looking, curious, sometimes dangerous creatures that lurked in the woods and waters around us and that we needed to find them. We had to locate them and then snatch them from the safe confines of their native habitat, if only for a moment, as if to say "See! Abare's are the Alpha males of this dominion! Ahahaha!" yet then we always let them go, unharmed. So in reality, all we really did was just annoy some animals because we were egotists and not getting laid. OK, yes I know my brother was too young to be getting laid in 1981-82ish but I was gaining favor with several of the area chickies, namely one Rona McLeod which, although I never even brushed against her I think I told some friends at camp that we "did it." Truth be told I looked like Ronald McDonald if he had anorexia in the early 80's but that fact did nothing to dissuade me from hitting on every female in the entire complex. By hitting on I mean creep staring and demonstrating my standing broad jump in my way too tight Bradlees shorts. 

The Snapping Turtle Adventure with Poppy was the signature event of the Coachlight Summer, but there were many more...Coachlight was the place that I first discovered my old man's obsession with Beefsteak Rye Bread and Pepper. It was usually Tuna that he'd pile onto the seeded Rye (or sometimes unseeded), with hardly a drop of mayo in it, and then cover the entire surface with Black Pepper. No chips, no accouterments on the sandwich, just Tuna from the can, a shot of mayo and a monsoon of Pepper on the Beefteak Rye. To this day when I see those red or blue bags I think of him and his odd culinary choices. Coachlight Village was also where I found out my father was an amazing sketch artist. He could draw people and places with charcoal pencils as good as any I have ever seen since. On one particular occasion my brother and I were making paper airplanes in his apartment and I decided that I was going to make a Super-Sized version out of the more dense and thick sketch-pad paper. It was a great fucking airplane, you better believe it (another skill taught to me by my dad-killer paper airplanes)! The fact that it was created on the flip side of a beautiful sketch of Elvis he had done was entirely accidental but when he found out, let's just say I would have rather snuggled up with the death chomper in the swamp than Poppy at that moment. My old man was never a spanker or hitter, but when that voice elevated and the anger came out I used to clench my butt cheeks together and just shiver like a shaved chipmunk in the Frozen Foods section of Big Y. The hour or so that would follow was terrifying and sad but then in a blink, and as if nothing had happened at all, my old man would come home with 3 Entennmans cakes and just plop them down on the table and say "OK, we are going to each eat our own whole cake and whoever finishes the most is the King! Then we are gonna go fishing!" Was it Dr. Spock, Dr. Phil or any Doctor approved? Probably not and who gives a fuck, Poppy ruled and he kept us alive that whole summer pretty much :)

Fathers Day is a hard day for me for a variety of reasons. Certainly the loss of my dad is the primary reason, but learning that I couldn't (naturally) have my own kids several years back was a very difficult thing to endure. I have also had kids in my life from various relationships and they are no longer present, so collectively these factors make it a depressing moment each year. However, there's a woman in my life who couldn't be any more open minded to any and all scenarios regarding children (and who has the most loving and motherly demeanor of anyone who doesn't already have kids I have ever known) and I have so many memories of my father that I can call upon that are hysterical, poignant and beautiful that I don't let the sadness consume me. I also know a lot of great fathers, like my brother Geoff and his wonderful three kids that I grow closer to every day, and I treasure the moments with them and watching Geoff create his own magical memories for his children right before my eyes. It wouldn't be fair to not mention my ever-present mom Mary either, because even though moms have their own day, she, like so many others, did the majority of raising her kids. On thing I loved about Poppy and Momma was that although they had divorced when I was a toddler, as I grew to an adolescent and beyond and they found themselves in shared space for family gatherings, etc., they were always a total riot together. The comic interplay, the timing and the riffing back and forth was perfection. They were two souls-born of their own respective damaged worlds-that still had an affinity for one another even though the butterflies had gone. My old man took years to finally get sober and at some point, after 9 smashed cars, a handful of bar floozies and an ever changing career path, even the most smitten and empathetic of women are going to be able to resist the Poppy charm. Watching the two of them recount some of these and other stories was a treat to behold, no doubt. 

I wish my father's life didn't begin and end with the pain, suffering and tumult that it did but I have come to accept it even as my heart will always carry that burden for him. Considering some of his life experiences, many of which were of no fault of his own at least early on, it's miraculous the guy was able to relate to people so well, even attempt to raise kids and make just about anyone piss their pants laughing. He was also a great mentor and teacher and was highly respected in AA as a sponsor, leader and friend. He built relationships, businesses and friendships that didn't always last forever but while they were breathing life they thrived as no others. Everyone wanted to be friends with Poppy, even though he regularly admitted he was an "asshole". He was flawed, he was cocky, he had mild OCD, he had more gas than a Blue Whale, he had an afro like no white man should (for awhile) and he made a shitload of bad choices in his life. He left this world with no more than a few bucks to his name and sliding down a black hole that had taken him years to pull himself out of, and he died alone.

The last few months of my fathers life are always going to haunt me and like so many of us do when someone dies before their time I lay blame on myself and second guess and over think and allow anxiety and depression to swallow me whole sometimes. But at the end of the day, my father, Peter Henry Abare, lived a very full life that affected, benefited, inspired and at times disappointed a lot of people. He cut his own path, which was often jagged and full of terrors, but it was his path. If you knew my father you know that in the end there was nothing myself or anyone could do to influence his choices and actions, really, but sometimes it's hard to fully embrace that and just let the happy or comic or endearing moments be the ones that win the day, but I am trying, and I will continue to. The last thing my old man would want is me, or anyone, being unable to let go of the sadness instead of recalling the joy. 

The "Coachlight Summer" was but a small part of my childhood, but it had an indelible impact on me and is a time I think about often. One day you're an 11-12 year old child chugging through the woods looking for monstrous, snapping beasts and the next you're a mid forties year old man wondering why 77% of your body randomly aches for no fucking reason. I still love turtles and "hunt" for Snappers, every chance I get. I have rescued some from highways, pulled others out of mud puddles, chased other's across golf courses (out of the way of drunken, angry golfers in carts) and seen dozens of them since that summer, but none of them have come ckilose to the size (as I remember it) or the excitement of the "Poppy Snapper". It's one of those childhood memories that will continue to deepen, intensify, expand and grow more colorful as time goes on. I am sure by the time my brothers boys are my age they will tell stories of their uncle/dad sharing a story of some guy named "Poppy" wrestling a T Rex in a Tar Pit. 

Poppy would love that.


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