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To Be a Pirate
I was too old to play kick-the-can anymore so I was just standing there watching when Jimmy T. came running in from behind our house. He kicked the can as hard as he could. It flew up toward me and the ragged part of the lid caught my left eye. It tore it halfway out of the socket. There was a lot of bleeding and crying and when it was all over at St. Joseph's Hospital I had lost my left eye forever.
The worst part was that I was going to our junior college in the fall so I could be a Kansas State Highway Patrolman like my dad. He was the best state trooper in Kansas and from the time I could talk and think I wanted to be one like him. He had talked to me over and over about what it meant to be a man of the law on the roads and highways of Kansas. I played with his badge and wore one of his old dark-blue uniform hats in the shape of a Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman's and put handcuffs on my sister and my friends a lot.
My favorite main dream was the Trooper Dream. I could close my eyes anywhere anytime and bring it up across my mind like a biology slide at school. Usually I was chasing somebody in my trooper car at full Code 3 with the siren blasting and red light flashing. Sometimes there would be an armed gang to apprehend single-handedly. Or an escaped convict with a hostage, a bank robber who really wanted to go straight, a beautiful girl who had lost her way to find the sick father she had not seen since she was a little girl. Occasionally I was wounded but never more than a flesh wound and it always ended happily and heroically for me, the Trooper.
My sister Meg was there at the hospital with Dad right after they brought me in. She cried. She always cried when things went wrong. Dad told me almost right away I couldn't be a state trooper anymore. "It takes two eyes to do that, son," is the way he put it when I asked him. He was tall and handsome and had a deep voice like he was talking into a water glass. "It takes two eyes to do that, son."
I didn't even know how to dream about being anything else.
Until my glass eye came I wore a black leather patch over the empty left eye socket. Everybody said it made me look like a pirate, but I figured I just looked like a sixteen-and-a-half-year-old guy without a left eye.
The first thing I thought about doing after I got out of St. Joseph's Hospital was to find Jimmy T. and kill him. I'd get the same tin can and take that lid and maybe slit his throat or cut an ear off, if nothing else. The problem with that was, he came to see me at the hospital and he cried and said he was sorry and wished he could give me his left eye to replace mine.
The second thing I thought about was killing myself. Not with the tin can but maybe by lying down in front of the 1:22 Santa Fe doodle bug, our only passenger train. I thought about it so much it caused bad dreams. Once I was lying on the tracks naked and the doodle bug came down the track but, lo and behold, head cheerleader and Miss Posture Perfect Lisa Andrews was the engineer. Instead of running over me she just laughed at me and my various bodily parts. I got up and ran before the train got there but I couldn't get away. It kept coming and she kept laughing until I woke up.
The worst dream was when the train ran over me like it was supposed to but it cut off only my head. My body from the neck down ran off but my head stayed there next to the track, saying, "All aboard for Wichita! All aboard for Wichita!" Both of the dreams pretty well did away with my desire to kill myself.
So I went on to junior college and decided to make The Thunderbird my life's work. The Thunderbird was Thunderbird Motor Coaches, the wonderful bus company that went through town. I needed two eyes to be a bus driver but I figured one was fine for working as a ticket agent at the bus depot. One of my dad's best friends was a Thunderbird driver and Dad took me to coffee with him a lot at the depot cafe. I liked the people there and the smell and the sound of the buses. I would also get a pass so I could go free anywhere Thunderbird went anytime I wanted to.
The only problem, it turned out, was Thunderbird. They wouldn't hire me. Junior Dillard was the depot manager. He never looked at me and said, "You've only got one eye, so please go away." I'm sure that was it, though. I had spent the two years in junior college hanging around the bus depot at night and on weekends and Junior Dillard knew it. He knew the night agent, a nice man named Molina, had taught me how to read schedules and make out baggage checks and tickets. Making out a ticket is not as easy as it sounds. You have to do a coupon for each change of bus, and going from here to Baltimore, Maryland, say, means six separate coupons. The first one to Wichita and then another to Kansas City and one each from there to St. Louis, to Indianapolis, Indiana, to Washington, D.C., and finally, to Baltimore. Knowing the best route is one of the many jobs of the ticket agent.
Junior Dillard. What kind of name was Junior Dillard for a Thunderbird bus depot manager to have, anyhow?
I felt like I used to feel when I was playing ball. Our high school was Carrie Nation Memorial High School in honor of the no-drinking lady who went around Kansas busting up saloons with a hatchet. Our nickname was The Hatchets. The Carrie Nation Hatchets. The coach said go up there to the plate and hit it out of here like Stan the Man Musial. I'd go up there and swing as hard as I could but it hardly ever went out of here. I was fine in the field - second base, mostly - but when the pitcher curved me I swung and I usually missed.
I felt like somebody was curving my life.
That's when I decided to be a pirate. I knew very little about pirates. Only that there were good ones and bad ones. The bad kind stuck knives in their mouths and boarded helpless ships and hurt helpless people. The good kind were those in an operalike thing called The Pirates of Penzance the junior college chorus put on once. The pirates sang and laughed and acted more like Robin Hoods than real pirates. Those were my kind. I would not hurt anyone.
It was a crazy thing to think about in the year 1949. But I could not think of anything else right then.
The most important thing was that one eye was all I would need and I could even put the black patch back on. I hated the glass eye. They didn't get the shade of brown right so it was lighter than the brown in my real right one. Also, it didn't move like the real right one. It was like having a dead marble up there for everybody to stare at.
* * *
There was no way to be a pirate in Kansas. There were a couple or so lakes around and the Arkansas River was there but they just wouldn't work. I went to the library and looked at the Rand McNally Road Atlas and decided the best place that was closest would be down at the end of Texas. They had an ocean down there called the Gulf of Mexico that would be fine. The librarian said there had definitely been pirates in a place called Galveston.
"What did the pirates do there?" I asked.
"Mostly killed people and stole things that didn't belong to them," she said.
"Didn't they kill only evil people and give what they stole to the poor?"
"Only in the movies," she said.
What did she know?
First I had to get some money for the trip to Texas and a little extra to live on while I got started as a pirate. I checked the train because I wasn't about to give any of my money to Junior Dillard. I could catch the 1:22 Santa Fe doodle bug to Newton, change to the Texas Chief streamliner and go right on down to Galveston. The fare was $15.75.
So I took a job with the county road department for forty-six dollars a week. A deputy sheriff who was a friend of Dad's made sure I got it. I didn't have to pay to sleep or eat at home so I figured I should have enough saved up in seven months to head out. Seven months from then would take it to April.
April Fool, Galveston, Texas! Here I come in seven months! I hated the road job at first. They put me in a blacktop crew. Every morning at 6:45 four of us and a truck with a tank of hot asphalt went out and sprayed county roads. That stuff got into my hair and nose and ears and every evening I came home looking like I'd been swimming in a Arkansas River of tar. I even had to take out the glass eye every night and scrub it down in the bathroom sink with Lux.
After six weeks of that I was switched to a mowing crew and that was much better, because driving a tractor with a mower on it or even out there tossing a hand sickle at the thick and tall weeds wasn't as awful and messy as that black stuff.
My mother would have been happy for me and my clothes if she had been around then. She died when I was twelve years old. She woke up one morning with a terrible pain in her stomach and the doctor came and looked at her. He said it was probably just bad indigestion or an ulcer at worst. But it did not get better, and four days later her fever shot up and Dad picked her up in his arms and took her to the hospital in his state police car, Code 3, with the red light flashing and the siren wailing. They said her fever was almost to 107 by the next morning and she died just before lunch. She had a burst appendix and Dad said that if the doctor had called it right the first day and taken her to the hospital she would not have died. I don't think he ever said anything to the doctor about it, though. I would have. Meg, my sister, who is two years older than me, cried for eight straight days after Momma died. It was a scary, awful cry that sounded more like a dog or a coyote than an older sister.
I cried the first night and the afternoon after the funeral at the Methodist church and again six weeks later when I woke up in the morning with a sore throat and realized Momma wouldn't be there to look down it, give me some hot saltwater to gargle, and call the school and tell them I wasn't coming today.
My momma loved me very much and I would do anything to keep that love. She and Dad met when she was working as a clerk in Justice of the Peace Wilbert's office in Emporia and Dad was a new young trooper. Dad said he knew from the first moment he saw her that she was going to be able to twist him in knots and untie him and twist him again and again and again forevermore. Forevermore just didn't turn out to be very long. For me either.
It's hard not to wonder if I would have turned out differently if she had not died when I was twelve. And what if Junior Dillard had hired me at The Thunderbird? What if I hadn't gone out to watch them play kick- the-can?
Questions like that can drive you crazy.
Excerpted from Kick the Can by Jim Lehrer. Copyright © 1988 by Jim Lehrer. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.