Vaughn would grin like Alice’s Cheshire Cat. It was his way of saying, “So what do you think about that? Aren’t I so funny?” Even if his silly pun was ‘kind of stupid’, that ear to ear grin was endearing. We spoke to Vaughn the weekend before his death and I found this joke surprisingly funny and as characteristic delivered flawlessly, he did tell jokes well.
You have these three guys playing golf. They’re ready to tee-off on a par three with a water hazard before the green. The first guy is Moses who skirts his ball low towards the hazard but the waters part just in the nick-of-time and the ball rolls up on the green. The second guy says, “Nice drive Moses.” To which Moses replies, “Thank you Jesus.” Now Jesus takes aim, sizing up his shot, pushing his hair out of his eyes and swings. It was a prodigious drive but still not enough to clear the water. Miraculously, though the ball strikes the surface but it just skips repeatedly until it is resting a few feet from the hole. The third guy seems like he has too much on his mind and has limited time and hurriedly whacks the ball in the general direction of the hole. His ball plops into the water and sinks. Moments later a kingfisher swoops in, retrieves his ball, carries it over to hole and drops it squarely in.
Jesus looks at the guy and say’s great shot dad.
Rest assured that Vaughn was smiling when he finished that joke. Yes, Vaughn I smiled too. Thank you for making your couch available so often. Thank you for helping me with my math homework and driving me on my paper route. But mostly thank you for being my older brother, someone who was my hero and role model for the honorable way you did everything you did. Thank you for making me smile.
Vaughn helped people with their taxes. He seemed to enjoy the nuisances of tax laws, relish in his ability to help people, and savor the once a year opportunity to help Art. In the winter of 1985, on Fox Street, I was staying with Vaughn and working as the computer guy for an environmental company in Portland. Vaughn had a PC with tax software on it that he used for his clients. I discovered a floppy disk a technician had left at my office with numerous obscurely named files on it. It didn’t seem right to test out the programs at work so I waited until I got home. I inserted the disk into Vaughn’s computer and began to experiment with the files. They turned out to be a series of low level diagnostic tools. I eventually clicked on a file named simple wf.exe. Moments later, I turned white and my stomach dropped to my ankles as I realized I was formatting Vaughn’s hard drive, destroying all of Vaughn’s client records.
Later that evening Vaughn came home. You might think he’d be angry, he wasn’t. You might think he would call me stupid, he never would do that. Vaughn always encouraged me. He always tried bolstered my self-esteem. Instead, he said it was no big deal. He had a backup. I know it was still a big deal; he just kept it to himself.
He played the guitar (when I was 4, with a speech impediment, I called the guitar a zumzum). He played Jimmy Crack Corn. Thinking now of the lyrics I wonder if Vaughn would choose to teach me something else?
In deference to Nancy, I will say Vaughn ‘played’ the piano, he wrote, maybe memorized is more accurate, a half dozen very catchy tunes. From time to time a melody of his will creep from my subconscious and I will hum the tune for a spell.
He took a classical music appreciation class, which was something perhaps not really in his wheelhouse, but I know he enjoyed it. After this class, we would listen to some classical music and he was able to distinguish many distinct instruments. This was my introduction to classical music, a genre I still listen to today.
Picture an idyllic Foster Pond, with its glass like reflection of pines at the far end of the lake. Picture Vaughn, without a tinge of grey in his newly forming beard and me paddling with my big brother in an aluminum canoe that unwelcomely clanked every time a careless paddle hit its side.
Oh! to be sure, Vaughn was not a Cagey Fisherman but:
His scraggily beard and plaid shirt did dress him the fashion.
And his knowing banter of experience, real or imagined, did pretend him to boast.
As many casts we did make, time and time from the boat, to catch our quietly querulous foe.
Until the one cast of mine, the rod did wrench, only to plummet into the perilous depth.
Without malice, without thought, the young boy launched himself aloft.
To dive, dive deeply to retrieve the rod.
With rod in hand, pleased as could be, the young boy surfaced,
To see, Vaughn with white knuckles gripping the gunwales of the canoe,
And hear the fading echoes of Vaughn’s battle resounding from the nearby hill.
Words of wisdom from a Cagey Fisherman, “We could have planned that better.”
We all know that the fastest car in the world is your Brother’s red hot Ford Mustang circa 1975 (okay it was probably tan and it was a Maverick not a Mustang). But it must have been able to go 200 miles an hour, right? And the coolest ride ever was cruising along in his tangerine colored MG at a breakneck speed that I am sure mom would not have approved of.
I told Vaughn once, that Georgie Lackey said, that at night it was possible to drive from Bridgton to Portland in under 20 minutes. I said I didn’t believe him. Vaughn knowingly assured me that was entirely possible to drive from Bridgton to Portland in less than 20 minutes, really Vaughn?
He even owned a motorcycle. He took me for rides on it. One day, I burned my calf on the muffler when I got off. I kept it to myself because I didn’t want mom to make him stop giving me rides.
He loved cars with standard transmissions. He loved the added connection with driving you get when shifting. He bought a new car, and had owned it for a while before he had a chance to give me a ride. We were cruising along ‘some street’ in Bridgton when he exclaimed in surprise, “This is an automatic.” He had wanted a standard and just now realized that it wasn’t. He contentedly kept the car for many years.
With the VW bug loaded with provisions, we drove to Sebago Lake State Park, and located our campsite. Admittedly, it was not quite the setting I had pictured, large campers flanked us and a Winnebago took point in our platoon like formation of campsites. Vaughn pulled out this army issued piece of canvas cloth, someone in procurement called a tent. He stuck up two poles and a ‘ridge’ beam, each of which looked like it came out of dad’s barn. He pounded four stakes, like daggers into hard packed ground, but like the heart of a vampire the ground would not yield and one of the stakes barely penetrated the ground. Later that night, the rains came, the lighting flashed, the thunder roared, and the winds came to blow our tent down. Vaughn was up and wide awake as if conditioned by hundreds of military drills, he dashed out of the tent, telling me to stay. In the unrelenting down-pour, he hurried about the tent, suddenly, louder than the thunder itself, he shrieked, but continued like MacGyver on TV, to contrive some mechanism involving rope, fender, and tree in order to support the tent and keep me, at least, dry under its shelter. He shouted above the rain that he’d sleep the rest of the night in the car. I remember hearing the door to the VW slam, and then just the rain.
The morning came, cool puddles were everywhere, and everything was soaked but me. I peered into the bug Vaughn’s stubbly face looked strange as it was torqued at a weird angle to the right. He was partly on his side, kind of curled into a fetal position with his right knee wedge between the black knob shifter and dash, and his left hip jammed under the steering column. VW Bugs were not meant for sleeping. I rapped on the glass.
His eyes opened quickly, but his movements were subdued, tentative, as he experimentally uncoiled himself and got out the bug. I noticed that he limped, he had his foot wrapped. During the storm, in his barefooted rush to secure the tent for me, he had stepped on that stake. He had wrapped his foot in an extra sock or two, but that didn’t seem to help much. He opened the trunk and reached for the styrofoam cooler lifting the cooler asking me what kind of eggs I wanted.
The styrofoam handle broke, the cooler fell back into the trunk and he paused for a time. The morning’s gentle breeze stopped blowing, the chickadees on their branches stopped singing their happy song… Finally, he spoke, “I think we will have scrambled.” We left for home shortly after breakfast.
It took Vaughn to illuminate Art’s dark side. As hard it is to believe, Art has one. On a gloriously brilliant winter’s day with the sun splashing off the icy snow, Vaughn sat with Art looking over Art’s 197? tax forms. Never before or since, have I heard Art lightly chided and restrained, by one of his little brother’s, but on that day, deliberating over tax exemptions, I heard Art be disallowed. Vaughn was never angry although Art seemed—‘frustrated’. As Vaughn would matter-of-factly but authoritatively state, over and over again, “No you can’t do that, or that won’t work either”.
Vaughn shared his homes with me, putting himself out and cramping his style. First was 12 Elm, the first place we called home. I struggled with homework and Vaughn was patient in helping me with math. He made it fun. His sense of humor reached kids and was sometimes sophisticated enough for a more mature audience, other times—not so much.
My first summer out of college I took a job for a landscaper/septic company and stayed with Vaughn in Yarmouth, mom and dad must have been so proud. Vaughn was always quick to lend a hand and he allowed me to stay with him. He placed only one stipulation on me. If I spent a good deal of the day, ankle deep repairing a leach field then upon entering the apartment, and closing the door I had to strip naked and put all my dirty clothes into a garbage bag, shower, and then wash everything!
Yarmouth was the first place I encountered the dark brown leather couch (DBLC). I slept on this couch in Yarmouth, I found myself on the DBLC in Windham off route 35. And though I didn’t sleep on the DBLC on Fox street in Portland, it was still there for our use. This couch was part of many of Vaughn’s homes and Vaughn would offer his couch to me making many of his homes, my home too.
Just two doors up the hill from post office, in a old grey farmhouse who’s farming days were in the distant past was a new crop of children growing between its wooden walls. This crop was shielded from the elements by sturdy walls of wood but mortared by the love of family. The house had peculiarities, idiosyncrasies in fact, that breathed life on cold winter days when the furnace belched to life and the pipes clanked the welcoming sound of warmth as the heat spread through its arteries and veins. Outside her resolute walls, the deadening claws of winter scratched, but to those within, the only evidence of the fight was the ice that thickly frosted the windows like cataracts on the eyes of a great, grey old lady. The walls along the staircase leading to the bedrooms curiously bulged through the wallpaper and a shameless older sister insisted, to her younger brother, that they were bulging bones of a corpse. The expansive basement floor was dry dirt that was easily stirred when traversed and the single lightbulb did nothing to illuminate the foreboding dark recesses.
Kids are a mixture unwitting fears and unrelenting curiosity. So despite their fears, they explored.
Far from the dangling light,
The heart of the house does beat.
It roars to life with fire and heat,
Too warm the house at our feet.
Behind the furnace against the far wall, were two large trunks, one black one brown, they would have fun to climb into and play except they were filled with junk. What was junk at eight years of age, are treasures to a 50 year old’s memory. Inside these trunks was a bounty of books that smelled of ages of wisdom, including an Atlas that actually described the central part of Africa as ‘Unknown’. Imagine its worth today. There were numerous fragile pictures of people, dressed proudly and proper from the past. And still more things packed both chests full of the ‘unknown’ that somehow cataloged the history of forgotten people from the same place that we called home.
On the opposite side of the basement from the rickety stairs, was the door leading to the ‘root cellar’. This root cellar, was separated from the furnace by a large heavy door, inside that room, it was always colder. So cold that on a winter’s day you might still see your breath. This place, like a mausoleum, had a large box taller than two coffins but not quite as long. A kid would have to jump up and rest his chest on the side to reach into cold sand and dig to find the carrots and potatoes his mother requested for dinner.
As the kids grew and change this basement blossomed too. A thick layer of cement was placed to cover the dirt floor, decreasing the already low clearance of the ceiling. Sheetrock was added between the darkly aged timbers that like a skeleton supported the house above. And long fluorescent tubes of light chased away all the dark recesses.
Some battles took place on fields of courage in far distant lands, but other battles, no less noteworthy to our family, took place in the tiny town of Bridgton Maine in our house at 12 Elm. People are more than an accumulation of their chemical components, 12 Elm is more than the sum of its nails and wood.
Our family would never buy a new ping pong table if dad could take a 4x8 sheet of plywood and extend it in four directions to make an official sized ping pong table. And dad could. The first thing to emphasize about ping pong, at 12 Elm Street, is that a 5 foot tall, 12 year old, has a large advantage over his much taller brother, when playing ping pong in a room with a ceiling so low. I don’t know where Vaughn learned to play ping pong. But I do know that I first played with him. The selective memory from my youth leads me to believe I may have never lost. But being a parent now, responsible for my own 14 year old, I know that all my early victories may have spoken less of my own competence and more to the low hanging ceiling and a brother for whom just playing the game was more important than the outcome.
Ping pong is a game of repetition. Ping pong is a game that could almost played in your sleep. Generally, the ball bounces predictably; making the same crisp clanking sound against the table that is commonly followed by a thwack, as if spanked, by the paddle, except when you played Vaughn. Vaughn’s game was not a traditional power game of slams, it was a game of spins. His spins might send me diving under the table in an attempt to catch up to a ball that changed direction the moment it hit the table. Isn’t life a series of repetitive days until something comes along to spin us around. Staying ready to handle these spins, and remembering Vaughn’s ready smile each time his spin was successful, reminds me that the surprises life offers may just as likely lead to happiness as they do sadness.