Billy Barker was a hapless child. Everybody knows one. Everybody grew up with one. He’s the kid whose head is misshapen, whose ears are too large, whose eyes are too wide and set too far apart; is homely, ugly and in general a nuisance to have around because he is so clumsy, obnoxious, pitiful and bereft of any redeeming grace. He’s the kid whose alcoholic father beats unmercifully and for little reason; who has unexplained bruises, blacked eyes and broken bones; whose mother, though she can’t protect him, dotes endlessly on him; who grows up so confused, angry and hateful that he becomes a rapist or a serial killer or worse, an abusive alcoholic father and husband like his father. Billy Barker was just such a hapless little boy. Today, if he’s alive, he’s probably married to a loud, spiteful and overbearing woman or, he’s in prison, which for the hapless Billy Barker all amounts to about the same thing.
Now then, I’m no handsome piece of sculpture and neither is my little brother, Howard, but compared to Billy, we were works of art, skill, perfection and polish. Billy couldn’t spit straight if you slapped him; couldn’t walk without tripping, couldn’t run without stumbling and couldn’t fall in line if you pushed him. Hapless Billy Barker was a disaster looking for some place to go to pieces, in pieces. God, you just hated to see a guy like that coming, when you were a kid. It meant playtime was over. It meant that whatever you had in mind with which to entertain yourself might just as well have turned to shit. Billy couldn’t have fun if you forced it on him with an axe and a stove poker.
To hear my little brother tell it, he was the good son. It’s not true of course but then Howard always did have a convenient memory. The truth is, I was the good son. Howard wasn’t the prodigal- no- he was the brave, the fearless son. I have never known my brother to be afraid of anyone or anything. If there was some mischief lounging about he was sure to be the in middle of it up to his neck. Our parents were loving, but strict country folks who had definite ideas about what constituted fun for their children and especially their mischievous little boys. Not that they wanted to spoil our fun; fun was good, fun was great but their idea of fun included safety. Howard, on the other hand thought that anything safe was the equivalent of church services and I hate to admit it this late in life but he was right. According to my brother, fun almost always had to be dangerous or close enough to it so that you got singed; so that you could actually smell the sulphur and molten sin and iniquity from the great roaring fires of hell and still make home in time to wash your hands for dinner. And he always had a good argument for it. Five minutes of listening to my younger brother patiently explain why we should risk life, limb, injury and a spanking in order to have fun and I was sold on whatever it was that he was selling- if only to me.
“Far out! Now, which way is it?” I would exclaim and off we would go.
That guy got me into more trouble when we were kids but he will deny all of it.
“There’s no crime if there’s no proof!” He likes to say and I guess he’s right.
In the front yard of our house on the Beach Loop Road stood five or six large Cedar trees. When I say large, I mean they were probably twelve to fifteen feet tall. Not huge by any standard, especially when you consider that we had fir trees on the property that probably stood as tall as one hundred feet or more and we climbed every one of them. That is to say, I climbed them only after my brother told me how thrilling it was to cling for dear life at the very tiptop, swaying perilously back in forth in the wild wind as it blew in off the sea. Not the least bit dangerous, according to him.
“Just don’t fall.” He soberly advised. “Or let go.” He added as an afterthought.
I don’t know what possessed him to do it, even after all I have told you but, Howard found that if he climbed to the top of the Cedar trees in the front yard and lay horizontally across the boughs, he could roll and grab his way all the way down the drooping limbs to the ground, where he would land softly in several decades of perfumed Cedar pin loam. You could, he insisted, even coax a bounce or two from the feathery peat if you just grabbed a little less and rolled and fell a little faster.
“Far out! Now, which way is it?” And off we went.
Moms in the mid-sixties largely stayed at home and raised children while dads went off to work. In between raising children and keeping house the moms would often visit each other and commiserate over their working husbands, their kids and their homes. On that particular day, Mrs. Barker, the hapless Billy and his two sisters came for a visit. No doubt Mrs. Barker wanted to complain about Mr. Barker, the abusive drunk and child beater, drink a cup of coffee with my mom and slough the hapless Billy onto my brother and me. Our hearts sank when we saw the car pull into the driveway. Billy Barker had come to visit. Playtime was over.
Billy dutifully followed his mother and sisters into the house but in no time was shooed out by his mother with an instruction-
“Go outside and play with the boys.”
He ran out the front door, fell down the steps and tripped twice loping like a gut shot mule across the yard.
“Whatcha doing?” He called up the tree, as all of hell opened up and yawned before him.
I looked over at my brother from the top of my tree to where he sat in the top of his. I wasn’t about to explain it; it wasn’t my idea. Howard called back down.
“We’re falling out of the trees.” He answered.
“You’re what?” Billy called back up, bewildered.
“We’re falling out of the trees.” Howard patiently explained. “Watch, it’s fun!”
And with that, my little brother lay over and expertly roll grabbed his way to the ground where he landed with a giggle in the spongy loam.
Billy was so happy he nearly peed himself.
“Hey, wow!” He wailed. “Wait for me!”
He fell twice trying to shinny up the nearest tree but finally managed to get to the top. Meanwhile, we had roll grabbed our way down at least twice apiece, howling with glee all the while.
“My turn, my turn!” Billy exclaimed. “Watch me!” He squealed.
For those of you who are parents, the phrase ‘watch me’ from a child will generally command your attention. How much attention you pay is contingent upon the urgency and vicinity of the voice. It’s simple, really… (u / v) • (dh) = x. Urgency divided by vicinity multiplied by distance and/or height, equals injury… For Billy, as I am sure Mrs. Barker quickly calculated, it meant that he was about to die!
Mrs. Barker heard her son yell, ‘Watch me!’ But she didn’t get outside fast enough.
Billy, balanced precariously on the upper most branches of his Cedar tree, stood straight as a soldier, put his hands out in front of him and then, pretty as a diver perched on the jagged rocks of the Acapulco cliffs, launched himself into space. His mother nearly fainted but screamed instead.
To his credit, the hapless Billy Barker had perfect form. His feet were together; his legs were straight, his toes pointed, his hands clasped neatly at his side. It was probably the only moment in his life when the hapless Billy Barker was actually graceful: a sight of unparalleled poise and beauty- all the way to the ground. And naturally, he missed the soft loam at the bottom.
Billy landed on his head on the hard clay with a disturbing hollow thud. He lay there in a disheveled heap like a wet piece of crumpled newsprint. He didn’t move, and if he was breathing, it wasn’t obvious. Mrs. Barker ran, tripped, stumbled and fell the length of the yard getting to him. It was becoming obvious where Billy got his co-ordination. She scooped him up like a rag doll and anxiously searched him for injuries. All he had to show for his flight was a knot the size of a goose egg on his forehead. Billy couldn’t even kill himself without screwing it up.
Meanwhile, up in the trees, Howard and I were laughing our little asses off. That was the funniest damn thing we had ever seen. At least, it was funny until Mrs. Barker turned her attentions back to the trees.
“What in the hell do you think you’re doing?” She screeched.
We weren’t too worried. Mrs. Barker wasn’t going to climb up the tree after us and even if she could, we would simply roll grab our way down and scuttle out of reach. Something we were reasonably sure Mrs. Barker couldn’t do, since she had run, tripped, stumbled and fell the length of the yard in the moments before. We couldn’t have been safer if we were miles away! Until, mom came out on the porch. Mom was a church going woman so, she didn’t swear- she didn’t have to. She didn’t yell and she didn’t have to climb the trees to get at us.
In a low, calm, terse voice she called out, “You boys come down out of there.”
Playtime was over thanks to Billy’s graceful but ill-timed swan dive: because Billy didn’t understand that although x always equals injury, the severity of x is predicated on vertical versus horizontal times gravity. (v • g) = x > ( h • g) = x. Vertical times gravity equals injury is greater than horizontal times gravity equals injury.
I don’t recall if we got punished for Billy’s spectacular failure at Bernoulli’s theory of flight. I rather think we didn’t, but then I think I am the good son, too. I don’t recall seeing much of the Barkers after that. I don’t know if it had anything to do with the Cedar trees or not.