Chapter 1: Gifts
My grandfather had what Christians call "gifts of the spirit." Grandpa Evans was a serious man, devout in his religious beliefs and conservative in dress and speech. Still, at least to me, there was a discernible energy in his presence. Many said that he could, at times, work miracles. As a child I witnessed some of those miracles. None, perhaps, was more evident than the one I saw after my brother Van was electrocuted.
I was nine years old. It was the same year our family moved to Utah, leaving behind the beautiful, palm-tree-lined streets of Arcadia, California, a suburb to the east of Pasadena.
Arcadia lived up to its name. It was a childhood Eden, lush and innocent, the kind of place where a child should grow up. Peacocks freely roamed our neighborhood, as did we children. It's no wonder "Arcadia" pops up frequently in my books.
Things were good for our family there. My father was the administrator of a large chain of convalescent hospitals and my mother never worried about money in those days, except that we might have too much and that it might spoil us. I remember once asking my mother if we were rich.
"We're rich because we have the gospel," she replied.
"But are we rich?" I asked, hoping for a better answer. She frowned and turned away.
We had a large two-story house with a heated swimming pool, surrounded by a brick terrace and ornamental kumquat trees and a water fountain with a Greek-style statue. My father drove a brand new Buick Riviera. We had a pet capuchin monkey named Tony that could chirp happily like a bird and bite like a vampire. We went on frequent family outings, often to Long Beach or Disneyland or whatever particular amusement my mother and father conceived of for the weekend.
In spite of our money, my mother, as thrifty as she was pious, sewed many of our clothes. For one of our family outings she made us matching pink-and-olive shirts, which to my teenage brothers' and sister's horror, we wore in public. It was Mom's way of keeping track of all eight of us. We looked as wholesome as a sixties Tide commercial. As a kid I thought all this was great. But this was in the tie-dye and bell-bottom culture of the sixties, and to this day I'm surprised that my teenage sister, Heidi, ever came out of the house.
I was the seventh of eight children in a Mormon family, the sixth of seven boys. I suppose ours was typical of large family culture; a pecking order existed, easily understood by even the youngest of us: big fish eat smaller fish. My parents told me that my first uttered sentence was, "Help, Mom, Dad. Help." This came at just two years of age, as my older brothers hung me over the stair railing by my feet.
My older brothers spent much of their time devising tortures for us younger ones. One Christmas, one of us kids received a large cloth tube made for crawling through. The older brothers threw it into the swimming pool, then made us younger children swim through it. Their idea of fun was to close off the ends of the tube, forcing us to hold our breaths and swim back and forth until we looked really desperate. Only then would they open one of the ends.
When my second-oldest brother, Scott, bought his first motorcycle, influenced by the antics of Evel Knievel, he immediately began to jump it. First he jumped small wooden ramps, then dirt hills. Then he jumped us. I remember lying on my back and watching the motorcycle sail over me. His best was sixteen feet and three brothers.
I'm not sure why we never defied the brothers. Perhaps we realized that resistance was futile. With a family as large as ours, unless we were bleeding, an appeal to our mother was nothing more than a guarantee for future retaliation from our older brothers. More likely we were just fools. The older brothers were cool and we wanted to be part of their world. If lying beneath a flying motorcycle was what it took, so be it. It's a wonder that any of us younger children survived childhood.
Just two months before my fourteenth birthday my father lost his job and, with promise of employment, we sold our home and migrated to the warmer and more prosperous climate of southern California.
The Christmas Box
In the spring of 1969 my father lost his job. Slowly our Camelot crumbled. My father sent re#233;sume#233;s out by the ream, but without success. With a family as large as ours to provide for, things quickly turned desperate. When, after nearly a year of unemployment, he was finally offered a job at Idaho State University, in Pocatello, he took the position. Packing up the Buick, he drove to Idaho with Heidi and Mark, while my mother and the rest of us stayed behind in California to sell the house.
Though we missed our father, we were glad that Mark was gone. Mark was the third son and our most feared tormentor. He used more imagination in devising our tortures. One of his originals was to come upon us as we slept, slip an empty plastic milk jug over our hand, then tickle our face. He would also sit on our chest (this was torture enough, we thought), then pour honey on our face and call the dog.
It should be noted here that later in life Mark became my intellectual hero. He speaks seven languages and helped engender my love for literature, convincing me to read dead authors with just three words, "Chicks dig Shakespeare."
At this time my oldest brother, Dave Jr., now the man of the house, convened a family council. We younger children respected Dave. First, he was six feet tall, which was about a mile taller than the rest of us. Second, he had little interest in torturing us. He was old by our standards, seventeen, and he had discovered girls and the Doors and had better things to do with his time than waste it with the affairs of children.
Dave had taken an empty pickle jar and told us that we needed to fill it with money so that our mother could afford the gas to drive to Idaho to see our father. Everything we could earn was to go into that jar. Dave worked tirelessly, mowing lawns and doing odd jobs for neighbors. At a time when he might have been using his money for dating, all of his earnings went into the jar. I was not so noble. I remember raking leaves at a neighbor's home and receiving thirty-five cents for an hour of work. When I got home, I wrestled with sacrificing my precious coins to the jar. Nobility lost. I never put the money into the jar. In truth my offering was never even missed, but I had not done my part, and even though I was only eight at the time, I still feel shame when I think of it.
When the house finally sold, my parents decided that a small town like Pocatello would not afford their children the opportunities they should have in life. My father quit his job and we moved together to Salt Lake City to live in the dilapidated house my mother's mother had left vacant by her death.
In truth, the pea green wood-shingled structure was anything but vacant. It was rat infested from its peeling tile floors to its mildewed ceilings. At night Van and I, lying shoulder to shoulder in the same bed, would pull the covers over our heads and listen to the rats scurrying beneath and above us. The movie Willard was big at that time, a peculiar horror film about a boy whose best friend was a rat, the leader of a pack of rats that went around eating everyone who was mean to the kid.
Though Van and I were too young to see such a movie, our older brothers had seen it and regurgitated it to us in all its gory detail. Then, reveling in our terror, they garnished their telling with scenes from George Orwell's 1984, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and any other literature that evoked flesh-eating mammals.
Van and I were mortally afraid of rats. I remember one night lying awake in bed for hours, trapped beneath the sheets by fear. I desperately needed to use the bathroom, but didn't dare leave the bed as I was certain that the moment I touched my foot to the cold tile floor, I would be set upon by piranhalike rodents intent on stripping the flesh from the bones of small boys. I don't recall the outcome of that night, though I'm sure it wasn't pretty.
We had left Los Angeles during the height of social upheaval -- when the L.A. Times headlined violent anti-Vietnam War demonstrations and university riots, LSD injected into milk cartons and razor blades found in Halloween candy. "The world has turned wicked," my mother told us. "These are the last days." Even at the age of eight, I remember that there were things we were to fear.
We children believed that Utah was to be a haven of sorts. A land of milk and congeniality, where everyone was kind and neighbors waved to one another from across the street. We couldn't have been more mistaken. We had moved into one of Salt Lake's inner-city neighborhoods, just a few blocks from the pawnshops and beer joints of State Street. My first weeks in Utah I learned that my hair and my pants were too short. I learned to fight and the meaning of several four-letter words I had never even heard before.
I remember one of our first Saturday mornings in Utah. My mother drove us down to see the kids' movie at the Avalon theater, a mile from our home. The Avalon still exists, though it now shows only old black-and-white films for a dollar and hosts the Amazing Maxwell the Hypnotist on weekends.
As the three of us -- my brother Van (who was two years my senior but not much bigger than I), my little brother Barry and myself -- walked out of the movie, we were followed by a group of children. One of the older boys had picked the three of us from the crowd and had announced that he was going to beat us up. I suppose the children thought it at least as good a show as the movie, as a large group had congregated to watch. The boy, a Hispanic kid a head taller than I, stood in front of us, taunting us with his fists and calling us chickens, while we stood against the cinder-block wall of the theater, outnumbered and frightened.
Finally, deciding a good beating would be less painful than the humiliation, I told the boy that I would fight him. Tucking my thumbs in my clenched fists I began weaving and bobbing, mimicking what I had seen boxers do on TV. Though fighting was part of the routine at home, we did not really punch. We wrestled and twisted and pinched and choked, but for all the torture doled out by the brothers, punching took something malicious that we did not possess.
Being defended by his little brother was too much for Van. Before a single punch was thrown, he pushed me aside, then commenced to beat the stuffing from the boy. Van did not stop, even when the bully, bloodied and crying on the ground, pleaded for mercy and then for his mother. I remember feeling a great deal of satisfaction as the children the bully had gathered to witness our demise now laughed at him.
When our mother arrived a few minutes later in our green, wood-paneled Chrysler station wagon, not one of us told her about the incident. I suppose we were pro-tecting her. In all my years in California I had seen only one fight, and it was pretty much by mutual consent of its participants. I decided then that Utah was not civilized, and I suppose that that particular neighborhood still isn't.
Still, those days were not without joy. The old house stood at the end of a dead end street and had several acres of wooded land and a large creek that ran through it. It was ideal for a family of boys. We had BB-gun fights (though we younger siblings were mostly just used as targets for the older brothers, as we ran from tree to tree while they shot at us) and we navigated the creek that ran alongside the house, looking for gold. At one point the creek ran into a bramble thicket that we could not penetrate until we built a wood-plank raft that rested on top of tire inner tubes. Lewis and Clark could not have felt a greater thrill of adventure as we launched our craft upstream and floated to uncharted areas, wondering if we'd return alive. We did not find gold but we encountered some furry, muskratlike mammal, and that was just as good.
We caught grasshoppers and spiders, tried them for being ugly and executed them. We dropped ants into fields of ant lion pits, watching with fascination as the lions would suddenly emerge to drag their prey below. Once we had a water snake harvest and filled a gallon ice cream bucket with snakes, which, to my mother's horror, we forgot to tell her we had left in the pantry.
In addition to the four-bedroom house where we lived, there were numerous antiquated structures begging to be explored, for they were locked and had not been entered for years. These included a potato cellar, a chicken run, a toolshed filled with mysterious ancient rusted artifacts and an old green house with a thousand broken panes of glass. It was our duty, as boys, to seek out and destroy every pane that had somehow survived time.
And there were trees to be climbed. Willow, maple, sugar maple, weeping willow and tree of heaven. When we were hungry there were apple trees -- Jonathan and red Delicious, plum trees and Bartlett pear and at least one black walnut. We would fill our pockets with walnuts, then carry them to the concrete sidewalk and break them open with hammers, prying the soft, white meat from the wrinkled shells. We would eat them until they gave us canker sores.
Though we climbed every tree big enough to hold us, our favorite was the giant, thick-stumped box elder that towered above the irrigation ditch in the front of our yard. The tree was far too wide to climb without a ladder, so we gathered pieces of wood and rusted nails from the shed and pounded steps into the tree until we were able to scale its heights. The brothers had tied a rope to it, with a pulley fastened to bicycle handlebars, so that we could ride down it, screaming across the yard.
One quiet Saturday afternoon Van and I decided to climb the tree. It was just the two of us that day, as our older brothers had all gone to Bear Lake in northern Utah, to work with my father, who, in spite of his master's degree, had gone back to his earlier profession as a building contractor.
As Van climbed above me, a loud buzz suddenly split the air.
There are moments of our lives that are burned in the most precise detail into the flesh of our memory. This is one such moment for me. I was still clutching to our makeshift ladder when Van fell past me, his face inches from mine, his eyes bulging from their sockets like a cartoon caricature. He fell about sixteen feet to the dirt and root-laced ground below, landing with a loud thud. Seeing his lifeless body sprawled out below me, I shimmied down from the tree, then ran to the house, screaming all the way for my mother.
My mother emerged to see her child lying motionless on the ground, his eyes closed, his skin black. With me crouching beside her, she knelt down and gently shook him as she called his name. To my relief, Van's eyes suddenly flitted, then slowly opened. He began to moan. "Is it true?" he asked. "Am I really dead?"
By nightfall, I learned what had happened to my brother. Van had started to slip and, reaching out for a branch, had grabbed instead on to a nine-thousand-volt power line that the tree had grown around.
I remember looking at my brother's hand. The electricity had burned through his flesh, leaving the power line's imprint deeply melted into his fingers, erasing his fingerprints, as it passed through his body and blew out the soles of his shoes.
The doctor told us that an electric shock of that magnitude would almost certainly kill someone -- especially a child. He believed that my brother had been dead and that, fortuitously, the long fall to the ground had started his heart again, like CPR. This was purely conjecture on his part, for electricity is a peculiar thing and what might kill one person won't kill another. I am told that's why death row inmates are shocked three times in electric chairs. Still, the chance of surviving such a shock is pretty slim.
My grandfather came to see us the next day. After talking to Van for a while he examined his deeply burnt and blistered hand, then anointed my brother's head with a few drops of olive oil. Then he laid his own hands on my brother's head and blessed him, so that he would be healed without mark or scar. Several weeks later, when the doctor unwound the bandage, the hand was perfect. Even the fingerprints were back. "There's a force at work here I don't understand," the doctor said to my mother.
I don't think my mother was all that surprised.
Copyright © 2001 by Richard Paul Evans