my boy turned nine at the end of april. for a few months leading up to the big event, he had been sort of sideways intimating that he might feel ready to graduate from scooter to skateboard sometime in the near future. his sartorial style tends toward skater chic, and i’ve got a problem with cowboys who are all hat and no cattle, so for his birthday i went to the local skate shop and set him up with a pretty sharp board.
i don’t know if he immediately liked the idea that i had forced his hand to skate, exactly, but he definitely liked the idea that i thought he was ready.
so, for the weeks between his birthday and Mothers Day, we had been regular visitors to a great parking lot up the road, the Shriners’ headquarters. it’s where we put our time in learning to ride the bike, and then later mastering the razor scooter. the asphalt is new and there are few devastating obstacles. more importantly, there is hardly ever anyone else around. this is very important to my son. he’s a self-conscious kid. he doesn’t like for people to see him doing anything he’s not totally proficient at. as a result, he rarely practices anything.
he doesn’t seem particularly coordinated. he’s not a klutz or awkward in any significant way. he’s probably about as coordinated as the other kids in his third grade class, but he’s as tall as many fifth graders. he simply has more material to keep in line with a normally-developing central nervous system; he’s got the legs of an ostrich, feet like snowboards and his father’s orangutan arms. i imagine the more sporty kids in his class would more closely resemble my son if they had to catch and run and kick while holding jai alai rackets in their hands perched atop drywall stilts screwed into manhole covers.
i’m by no means using this as an excuse for his slow approach to skating.
as i watch a few aborted takeoffs in the Shriner’s parking lot, it’s fairly clear what the major obstacle is: Fear. and the Fear is making him tense up, which if i know anything about sports in general and board sports in particular, i know that being tense prohibits success.
so on the day before Mothers Day, i’m standing in the baking sun, watching my boy kick three times, lift the rear foot, only stick the heel onto a rail, then leap off in a contorted ragdoll accompanied by his vilest nine-year-old curses... but in my mind, i am face down in a chute in a cave somewhere deep under the surface of kentucky. that’s about as specific as i can be with my geography at the moment, because i am following Tab. we took some tiny back roads out of danville. we cut across some pastures and a corn field on foot. then we jumped into a sinkhole. and now, after about an hour of scrambling and scurrying, we are crawling uphill through a tube barely big enough for our bodies. we have been for about fifteen minutes. it hasn’t once crossed my mind that i don’t know how much longer i will be doing this. water, cold cave water, is coursing down from the direction we are heading. i am soaked and wearing cotton. (this was a while back, before we had even heard of gore-tex.) all i can see is the soles of Tab’s tennis shoes ahead of me in the warm white glow of my carbide lamp. i don’t know where i am. i don’t know where i am going. but i am not the least bit worried. everything is fine. Tab is ahead of me.
Tab is the Treasurer for the Bluegrass Grotto of the Kentucky Speleological Society. he is also the Treasurer for the fraternity for which i am serving as President. that he is entrusted with bookkeeping of any sort i find endlessly amusing. by popular agreement, Tab is the smartest person anyone has ever met by virtue of the fact that i have lived with him on two separate occasions--once as a freshman by pure dumb beautiful cosmic luck, and again as a senior by choice-- i know that Tab is also one of the most scatterbrained individuals on the planet. the first day i met him, at the beginning of freshman orientation, his mother pulled me aside and asked me, “ i know it’s a lot to ask, and it may seem odd, but could you make sure that Tab eats occasionally? he gets distracted easily and forgets sometimes... like, maybe for days...”
this is Tab in front of me. the guy who started taking physics and chemistry at Centre College his junior year in high school. the guy who built a computer before personal computers had entered the public’s imagination, mostly so that he could write software for mapping caves. the guy who could identify pharmaceuticals for you from the Physicians Desk Reference; tell you the effects, duration, contraindications and what could or should not be combined with it.
this is Tab in front of me. the guy i’ve been down countless holes with. the guy who knows the temperature of cave water (52F), how long it takes while submerged to the chin in that water before hypothermia sets in, and within a minute or two how long he reckons it will take us to get across a cave pond up to our chins.
this is Tab in front of me. the guy who introduced me to Laurie Anderson and William S Burroughs even though i was the sophisticated city punk and he had grown up in the styx of boyle county, kentucky, the only son of an interior decorator and a general contractor.
this is Tab in front of me. the guy who set up a sham company when he was thirteen so that he could order restricted chemicals for his extracurricular experiments. the guy who blew up the family garage during one of those experiments (which may have precipitated his premature matriculation at centre college). who made wine out of grape juice and proprietary secrets in a retrofitted topload freezer with grow-lights on the lid, but who was always too impatient to allow the vintage to age sufficiently, so was constantly breaking out another bottle of “port” for our oenophillic consideration.
this is Tab in front of me. the guy with access to the big white buick, in which we made trips to the Kentucky Theatre in lexington equal in number to the number of John Waters films (plus a few midnight screenings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” done to the hilt. this guy WAS Rocky, bleach blonde hair, pecs, white briefs and all).
this was Tab in front of me. the guy who led by example. i fancied myself a freak when i arrived at Centre College for freshman orientation in 1984. i had been to punk shows. i sported bronze spiky hair and relied heavily on plaid shirts. i knew every word to The Clash’s triple record “Sandinista”, my bible. in retrospect, i was well within the first standard deviation of the times.
Tab was well out in front of me. i knew the guy was a certifiable freak from the first introductory phone call. he told me about his gem and mineral collection in rapturous tones. he told me about his team’s success at HIGH-Q, the statewide high school brainiac competition... GEEEK. when the talk got around to music, i liked that the B-52s were followed by Talking Heads, both outliers at the time. our Venn Diagrams had some overlap, at least. still, throughout the conversation, his diction was too precise, peculiar, despite the central kentucky accent. i suspected he was gay, which i knew that, in theory, i was supposed to be tolerant of, as a radical punkrocker and all.
i don’t know that Tab had any strong role models, at least not any that were half the freak he was. he stood out in rural boyle county. he was supernaturally smart, with passions that ran to the uncommon, and from an early age he knew he was a sexual minority. danville, and centre college in particular, has a reputation for being a liberal bastion in the heart of a reliably red state. that said, however, homosexuality in the mid 80’s was still kept way on the down low. i don’t remember encountering a single openly gay person at the school or in the community. there were gay couples, just as in any place in the country, but these arrangements were never spoken about. and in this environment, somehow Tab had emerged confident and unapologetic.
i think it was the second night of freshman orientation. i had been traipsing campus, drinking too much and chasing tail, which was the preferred method with which freshmen oriented themselves in those days. i steered myself back to my dorm room, bleary and whupped. before i could get my key out, i could tell there were people partying in my room. i opened the door to find a room full of 18 year old townie girls. girls sat on every available surface, smoking and drinking, their attention riveted to my roommate, who leaned against the radiator, a Tall 120 cigarette cocked cabaret-style in his right hand, a hair brush like a microphone in his left. framed by our window, he wore only his wire rim spectacles, a pair of tighty whities and white tube socks. he was lip-synching to cyndi lauper’s “She Bop”. it took him a moment to realize i was there. he stopped his performance, lifted the needle off of the record and said, “uh, some friends dropped by. hope you don’t mind. we can clear out if you want.”
all i could do was start clapping. the assembled throng joined in. Tab took a bow.
i’m not sure, but i think i was applauding any number of things. the performance, first and foremost. exquisite. the obvious adoration he commanded from his coven. the sheer audacity of his entertaining style. all of it. but, later i realized i was probably most compelled to salute Tab’s utter comfort in being himself. he was his own man, and his words and actions would reflect that man, however ridiculous. i myself had nothing like that confidence. i hid behind conventions and fads, not the least of which was nonconformity. thankfully, being comfortable in your own skin is a trait that can be modeled. it can be learned. over the years, though a poor student, i managed to learn it from Tab.
so these are my ruminations as i watch my son try, abort and fail on the day before Mothers Day. he is becoming increasingly frustrated. if it had been up to him, we wouldn’t even have left the house today. he would have preferred to stay inside in his underwear, role playing the day away. that’s kind of the thing he likes best. imagining himself as fantastical creatures, doing battle with the creatures i construct--even when we’re at the pool, where the creatures of course take on nautical, aquatic characteristics.
so i’m thinking about Tab, wondering if maybe i’m forcing my son to be something he’s not. i would be awfully proud if Roscoe turned out to be like Tab, after all, i remind myself. maybe we should set a kill switch for this session, i think.
but then i remember where i was when i started reminiscing about Tab. that chute, crawling up an icy underground creek.
Tab is putting some distance between us, i can tell. i can hear him. but his soles are no longer in my headlight. that’s typical; he has more spelunking experience, he’s smaller and stronger than me and he has good reason to believe that this chute will empty out into a great room of remarkable size, i.e. he is in hot pursuit of a first visit.
i’m making my way, handhold by handhold, reminiscent of the low crawl i detested in the army. clawing and scooching. clawing and scooching.
until i’m no longer going forward. i’m stuck.
it’s my hips. they are wedged.
no worries. i have been stuck before.
a little wriggle this way. a little grunting tug that way. nothing.
no worries. i’ve had to do a few extra wriggles before. maybe not in conditions as restricted and claustrophobic as this, but...
then it hits. the panic ramps up from my bowels until it has swollen in my chest and cut off the air to my brain. i am fucking stuck. oh fuck. stuck stuck stuck stuck. a moment later i am thrashing mindlessly. my hands are tearing at loose wet gravel. my head is bouncing off the ceiling and my chin off the floor. my legs are flailing, and i’m rocking my chest like a walrus possessed.
and now i am screaming. what, i don’t know. most likely a string of curse words. but eventually the squealing animal sounds coming out of the depths of my panicking soul resolve themselves into a chant:
“Tab! Tab! Tab! Tab!...”
eventually i can hear his voice. now at least my chances of dying alone in this hole are somewhat reduced. this gives me some solace.
from way up ahead, i canhear him ask, “why. in. THE. hell. are you making all that racket?”
now i’m a little embarrassed.
“i’m stuck. like, really stuck. REALLY!”
like i had a choice.
a while later i can hear Tab approaching. he apparently hadn’t made it to the mouth of the chute yet. i can tell because his lamp is approaching behind his feet. he is backing down the tube.
his shoes stop a few inches from my face.
“now what’s the problem?”
“i’m stuck. i can’t go up. i can’t go down. i can’t go forward or backward. i’m just fucking stuck.”
“where are you stuck?”
“right here, man! your feet are at my face...”
“no, dumbass. i can see that. what part of you is stuck?”
“my hips. they’re pinned off the ground.”
“your hips?” he asks in a measured, doctorly tone.
“yes. my fucking hips!”
“well, robb, “ he says, calmly, “your shoulders made it through. your shoulders are wider than your hips.”
precisely true or not, his words are like pixie dust. my body goes, “huh.” the panic recedes as quickly as it had mounted me.
my hips drop like rose petals in an august breeze.
“hey. thanks,” i say.
Tab replies, “now, come on. it’s not much farther.” and he’s gone, and i scurry after.
now my boy is lobbying for a water break. “one more across the lot,” i counter. “you’re so close,” i lie.
he scowls and looks for relief from the heavens, but he complies. as he kicks off i rush at him, screaming, “YOU’RE A TEEPEE! YOU’RE A WIGWAM! YOU’RE A TEEPEE YOU’RE A WIGWAM! YOU’RE A TEEPEE YOU’RE A WIGWAM!”.
he leaps from his board, astonished and maybe a little concerned.
“what?? what are you saying?”
“YOU’RE A TEEPEE! YOU’RE A WIGWAM!”
“well, at least i’m not insane!”
“you’re two tents!” (apologies to mel brooks)
he just stares at me. he doesn’t get it.
“you. are. two tents. TOO TENSE!”
his eyes brighten when he gets it.
“oh i get it. too tense... dad, that’s awful,” he says. but he’s smiling.
we get hydrated and shoot the shit. when we head back out, he’s noticeably looser. for brief downhill moments, he looks to the manner born. natural. at ease. like he belongs on the deck. like he’s comfortable.
i think to tell Tab about the session tonight. i’m overdue in calling him. his partner, a guy i never met who had moved in with him about six months ago, had died around my son’s birthday. i don’t know the circumstances, and i feel awful for taking so long to offer my condolences.
but it wasn’t meant to be.
next day, at the tail end of Mothers Day, i learned that Tab had not shown up for brunch with Margaret, his beloved mom. when she couldn’t reach him by phone, she went to his house on the kentucky river and found him dead in his bed.
(later i would learn that complications brought on by diabetes, high blood pressure and the drugs he used to treat them had conspired to trigger a heart attack. Tab had just turned 46.)
the funeral was in danville, of course. it was heartening to hear friends from all his different periods of life telling stories on Tab. and it was remarkable how consistent the stories were with the Tab i had known my entire adult life.
not another like him, by general consensus. he didn’t just march to a different drummer, he had his own parade. and, god, what fun it was to march in it with him.
when the proceedings wound down, i got my shit together enough to go talk to his mom. she had Tab at a young age. they both dyed their hair blonde and stayed tanned. they could almost pass for brother and sister.
i kept it together pretty well. managed to offer my condolences and say my piece; which is that i was privileged to meet Tab when i did, that his confidence and self-acceptance had been an inspiration to me, that i owed him much on this walk through life.
margaret thanked me and we caught up a little bit. she asked how old Roscoe was now. she knew we were in louisville after a spell in brooklyn.
then she asked me, “does he look a lot like you?”
it seemed a bit odd, and it took me a second, but i realized she was asking about Roscoe.
“yeah,” i grinned, “he does. but thankfully he got a little prettiness from his mother’s side.”
“yes. Tab told me he was your spitting image.”
that was pretty much a fatal blow to my “keeping-it-together” ruse. i could feel a horrible crying jag coming on. fast. i thanked her, hugged her, told her i’d hold her in my heart and got the hell out before that heart burst all over the floor of the Stith Funeral Home.