Friday, May 9, 2008

The East Hill Kids Cemetery Club

Deer, raccoons, and even turkeys, misled into Ithaca by the three gorges which converge at the head of Cayuga Lake, sometimes wander the streets like Cornell and Ithaca College freshmen just off the bus from New York City. Or like me, had I not hidden inside about as soon as I arrived as a half wild boy striaght from Lake Bonaparte and the village of Natural Bridge, where the back yards are a sand pine wilderness.
For at least a year after we moved, the only place in Ithaca that I felt comfortable was in the bath tub at Edgewood Place. I spent more time there each day than kids now days spend watching television. I suppose it put me in mind of Lake Bonaparte, where I had been allowed to swim most of every day during the summer we lingered up north while our move to Ithaca was delayed because of my untimely arrival in the garden. As far as anybody knew, I had not even lived in a house or among people before I had been brought home by the Warren's dog.

I was excused from attending school in Ithaca, not on account of my physical differentness, or because of my reluctance to leave the bath tub, but because I didn't speak a word. Even though I sometimes stared into books for long periods, like a cat at a mouse hole, it was not clear that I could be taught to read.
In fact, even though I do learn, in my slow and unsure way, it really never has been possible to deliberately teach me.

I responded to most instruction by banging my head on the floor. They put Daddy Ernie's old college football helmet on me and I would allow that, but it only allowed me to keep on beating my head on the floor. These episodes usually ended with me being put into the bath tub. Now days I might be called autistic, but "retarded" was the word I heard whispered, and I was retarded for sure, but what got most attention, was the mystery of my origins and the anomolies of my physiology - particularly my often lower than normal body temperature, slow heart-beat, and interrupted breathing.

Mama Dot was always bundling me up because I was cold to the touch, but the breathing thing didn't cause all that much concern until Davey came into the bathroom one day to use the toilet while I was in the tub.
l was lying on the bottom and looking up through six inches of occasional practice of mine which required that I hyperventilate and then fully exhale, so that I didn't float. That might not make other people feel snug, exactly, but I was like the bug in a rug. I was only dimly aware of anything when on the bottom of the tub, and would not remember the particular day now, but when Davey was done on the toilet, he came and stood over me for a while to see if I would come up.
I was well enough aware of him through the thick lens of water, and a little annoyed, so I looked through him.
After another few minutes, he got my tooth brush and dropped into the tub. It just brushed the side of my face, and slid off.
But I didn't react, so Davey went and told his mother.
Mama Dot rushed upstairs and pulled me out, spluttering in protest.
She bundled me in towels, and later took me to Doctor Macaully, a stout smoker who recommended plenty of exercise and fresh air .

Brothers Herb and Davey had bicycles, but my attenuated legs made a bike out of the question, so, to get me out of the house, I was given roller skates.
The skates were just the right thing for me then, but at first I would only use them inside. That was hard on the floors and also on my own body because I banged into everything, so From then on, I was made to wear the tantrum helmet for general protection most all the time that I wasn't in the tub , and I was forbidden to skate indoors, except on the rugs or in the play room with rubber bands on the wheels.
The security of the football helmet and my mastery of the skates finally got me to go out on among the houses, and to stay for hours.
On the half circle of Edgewood Place drive, my step brothers and the neighborhood boys played polo riding their bicycles and using broken mallets from the Cornell Polo barns.
On skates, I was more manuverable than the boys on bikes, and I learned to improve my chances of scoring even more by going out of bounds, hiding in the privet hedge, and butting bikes.
It was in the heat of those competitions that I also learned to speak..... or at least to swear, My first words - "sit ou fucko." ( shit you fucker ) were adopted vrebatim by the other boys, and used long after I moved on to stronger stuff and better diction.
Off skates, but still wearing the old leather helmet, I began to go behind the house where I cut saplings for bows and arrows and into the gorge itself, where I built many a dam that went out in the next rain storm.
Later I was allowed to join in the football games on the American Legion lawn where I performed better than average, being the only boy in a helmet and always unafraid to get banged around, or dog-piled five boys deep. Also, I was able to scramble over, or even to be more or less hurled over, a pile up of boys at the goal line.
From there. it was across the gorge to to join in the war games and other boyhood flirtations with death, in that ideal theatre, the East Hill Cemetery.
On a series of easily excavated natural terraces of glacial till, it has many wooded nooks and borders, a miniature gorge running through it, and,
on a rise at dead center, where there is a pair of civil war cannons in front of a ten foot pedestal which in those days supported a life-sized, green brass Civil War soldier holding a real musket, much like the famlily relic which had come with us from Natural Bridge.
The rugged slopes made the cemetery a fine e place for sledding - all the more exciting because of the death threatening tombstones - and it was the perfect set for our war games, sometimes waged with squirt guns, sometimes with bee bee guns, and often including that Warren family civil war relic musket smuggled from the master bedroom closet and fired with a wad of caps under the hammer to match the fire power of the cannons, into the mouths of which we dropped firecrackers Lee Klair brought home from his family's church expeditions through the South..

The few neighbors never complained about the small wars going on in the cemetery, and It seemed like nobody was ever there but us kids, occasional night visitors who left their underwear behind, Veterans on flag day, and the dead, who are always with us.
The mysteries of the dead, were the basis of the East Hill Kids Cemetery Club - the morbid brain child of Davey's school chum David Merkie. David Merkie's own interest in death might have been festered by what appeared to be his affliction with what is now known as Rapid Early Aging Disease....but it could not have been exactly that, because he reappeared in Ithaca after many years absence, and not only was he not dead, but he didn't look any older than he did back in cemetery days.

The East Hill Kids Cemetery Club didn't have meetings and it didn't have any activities other than the war games and the cultivation of superstitions, such as the one that if you saw your name on a tombstone, you were doomed to die - as if we were not all doomed to die. The club's only mission was the infliction of horror, and its only rites were those of initiation and exclusion .
The basic rite of exclusion was a walk through the mausoleum rows during which the would-be member was lead close by one of those turf-roofed cripts which had an uncapped vent pipe at the top.
If one of us was up there and hollered down the vent, his voice would be distorted and multiplied by echos to sound like the ravings of the undead. if you knew it was Davey or Merkie hollering down the vent pipe, it was still good for some adrenal amusement, but if you didn't know, you did not stick around.
It didn't work on me.
For one thing, I recognized the voice of Merkie, and besides, I was not afraid of the dead.
I don't know if maybe my brother Davey actually wanted me in the club on the family plan or something, but David Merkie did not, so when the walk-by didn't drive me off, he put up another obstacle. I think it was his own on-the-spot improvisation.
He said that if I wanted to join, I had to go into one of the mausoleums by myself at midnight and bring out a dead man's finger bone to prove it.
One of the mausoleum doors had been jimmied at some point and was then locked only by a chain which allowed you to open the door wide enough that if you threw in a match, which Merkie did for me, you could see the coffins in their cubbies. One of the coffin lids had been pried off. I saw that by the match light, and I can see it now. The chain was loose enough that one of us kids could still worm into there.

It may not have been actually midnight, but when the whole family at Edgewood Place was asleep, I put on my helmet, took a flashlight from the kitchen, then went out and across the invisible gorge to the cemetery.
I never switched the flash light on. Maybe I would have been frightened if I had. I could see well enough outside anyway, and I had the fresh memory of what I had seen by the flaring of the flare of David Merkie's match.
I slipped in and made way remembered my way to the open coffin, reached in and pulled out what might have been at first most of a skeletel finger, but which by the time I got back to the house, and put it in the bathroom sink, was one small bone quite loose inside a gold ring which was set with a ruby.
I stared at it there in the sink for a long time, then I wrapped the ring and bone in some toilet paper, put them back into my pocket, and lay down in the dry tub with my clothes on to sleep.
I was still awake when Davey came into the bathroom the next morning.
After he had peed and splashed his face, I handed him the toilet paper wad with the ring and bone in it.
He unwadded the paper........ Jeepers Creepers! Jeepers Creepers, he kept saying. Jeepers Creepers.
He pushed the ring back at me, wadded the bone back up in the toilet paper, and dropped it into the toilet, which he had neglected to flush. He flushed it. Jeepers creepers. I think he still uses that antique expression.
He didn't say anything else, but he brought me out when the boys came by after school on the way to the cemetery.

I showed the ruby ring, and after a few seconds ..... without a Jeepers or a creepers...... David Merkie snatched tit out of my hand.

He said that without the bone, it was no good for proof that I had gone into the cript at midnight. And besides, it was bad luck to have a dead man's ring.
I think he was impressed anyway. I was for sure weirder than even David Merkie. That displeased him I guess, but They let me tag along as usual.
On our way across the Stewart Avenue bridge, David Merkie made a show of throwing the ring off, but I'm pretty sure it was just a stone or a coin he threw. Even if it was the ring, he or one of us could have gone down there anytime and retrieved it. We often waded around under the bridge to pick up the pennies and dimes students threw off there for luck.

As it happens, there really was bad luck for the cemetery club, which rappidly declined after that, partly because of me, I guess, but anyhow, time rapidly did its work on us. Lee Klair died in a an accident on one of the church trips, actually in Death Valley California, and the others moved on to Junior High school and girls. Not me. Girls never cared for me like some women did later, and I myself never thought much about girls until after my late weaning.

I was the only remaining kid in the cememtery club....though not the only one to tell the tale. Davey fictionalized it , leaving me out of the story entirely, putting himself in the mausoleum at midnight. He published it in the free weekly Grapevine newspaper back in the seventies, as a result of which someone cut the chain on the mausoleum and removed the remaining bones. The police were called, and the mausoleum was permanently sealed, so that I was never able to retrieve some books I had been keeping in there at the time.

I had lived in the cemetery for a while before that.
The little gorge in the center of the cemetery - much like the main three in Ithaca, but on a raccoon scale - opens in a high falls behind the mausoleums, with a little coon trail entering above the falls. Back in there are several over- hanging slate ledges under which the snakes winter and one of which was high and dry enough that I could sit back under it. I kept it dug back some and made an inconspicuous little wall in front of it. There I often sat, thrilled to be alive. That was before I actually lived there.

When I came down to Ithaca after my year in Florida and my round-about trip back to the North, I went straight to the little cemetery gorge.
I put my hen Miss Kitty down to drink from the trickle at the bottom of the little gorge, and I began to pull up stones to improve the old shelter, which didn't seem to have been desecrated by kids or used by the coons.
The improved shelter was made all the neater by me using several fragments of broken tomb stones which had tumbled, or been artlessly discarded into the gully,
One of the stones I found was a piece about a foot square, but not actually so square so you would think that it was anything but natural, except that there was this letter B. on it.
I didn'[t use it in the construction, but I put it inside. I decided the B was for Bonaparte And I decided that Bonaparte was my middle name, and the stone could be my tomb stone. Not that I want a tomb, but I will always be ready to die.
But Jesus Creeping Christ, don't go looking for my tomb stone! I took it with me when I moved on, and I may take it with me when I die. Maybe I will take it to the bottom of Lake Bonaparte.
Also, don't go looking for the brass soldier and the musket. The musket was stolen years ago.
Later, someone climbed up and put a dixie cup in his one of his hands, and that lasted for quite a while, then someone, probably someone with a pick-up truck, pulled the soldier off the pedestal and dragged it around the cemetery a bit. Maybe it was some kind of stupid protest. Now there is a little pyramid of three cannon balls on the pedestal. Probably bowling balls.
And I don't know where the brass soldier is now. Maybe in the mausoleum. R.I.P. Sit Ou Fucko. People are weird.

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