Castle MemoriesScott Rubel
People feel sorry for me when they learn my uncle made me sleep in a refrigerator box when I was a young boy. But it wasn’t bad. Okay, so the refrigerator my uncle slept in was a lot nicer than mine, but that’s the way it is when you live in a citrus packing house. The grownups get the better refrigerators. I had it good. That box of mine was certainly bigger than some of my friends’ bedrooms. Plus, how many kids have an airtight room that can be turned down to 28 degrees? Not many, I reckon.
In those days all four citrus refrigerators in the packing house (known then as the Tin Palace) were furnished with big old horse hair mattresses which were occupied most nights. Some people were there on short visits, others to pay rent, and some were there to help out with hauling rocks and mixing the cement for what we could tell was going to be Something Big.
When you’re ten years old, “all your life” sure sounds like a long time, even if you are doing Something Big. That’s how long my Uncle Michael always told me it would take to build the Castle: All Our Lives. Of course I believed him, but he was a good cook and never made me go to bed before he did, so I knew I was blessed in certain ways. There was enthusiasm and too much breakfast every day, so I stuck around. I know many Glendoran readers contributed their time and backs and laughter back then, and I can speak for my Uncle Michael and say he still appreciates each of you. If it weren’t for all you did during the last 40 years or so, he’d still be struggling with the fourth floor. And because I’d probably be there also, wishing we could make the next story a little shorter than the last, I appreciate all your energies as well.
Of course I’m not a writer and can’t think of how to condense my teenage years at the Castle into an article. There certainly are plenty of memories, many of which I don’t even have anymore. There are highlights, too. I saw my first stripper dance when I was ten years old. Maybe that’s something to talk about. I may be the youngest kid to have Sally Rand dance at his birthday party. Honestly I don’t know how it all came about, except that she was my grandmother’s good friend. There she was in all her ostrich-fan glory kicking up her legs, singing happy birthday to me at the end of my first decade. Heck, she was a star, sort of like Marilyn Monroe. Made me feel like J.F.K., except she was 65 and I was ten. There I was sitting on the Oriental Carpet with a few friends, awestruck quiet for the first time in six years. We were all wearing masks (my birthday happens to fall on Halowe’en) but under those masks every one of us had our mouths hanging open. When Mrs. Rand finally came down off the back of that flatbed truck I was so traumatized I could barely look at Lauren, the one girl I had invited over to anything, ever. Sure it was a unique experience, one that most kids won’t have, but I advise normal birthday parties. It took a while for Lauren to speak to me at school again. And another thing: don’t birth your kids on Halowe’en.
There weren’t too many places you could be in Glendora that were as much fun as the Pharm. Everyone there had the gift of hoaxing. It may have been the atmosphere. I don’t know, but, aside from Michael, there wasn’t one serious person working at the place. Because of this I developed at an early age the art of keeping a straight face. You learn to do this Straight Face stuff when you never know yourself if you’re in the middle of playing a trick on someone. Those of you who wonder if conspiracies really happen: you’re probably part of it. Don’t crack a smile.
“Just keep a Straight Face, okay?
You may give someone else away.”
Our Motto. Building Inspectors may have been the most fun to fool, right up there after Each Other and pizza delivery boys in the night. We had one inspector convinced that the whole Castle was being constructed with sand and just a smidgen of cement. Michael and the rest of us were all up on the scaffolding when the inspector marched in like he had a mission and started digging at the mortar between the stones with his pocket knife. He sure looked confounded by something. We were keeping a Straight Face because we had already caught on that Douglas Weekly, the guy on the ground operating the mixer, had the Inspector Going.
“Do you realize what Mixture your man out there is using?” asked the inspector.
“He’s just doing what I told him to do,” replied Michael with his keen sense of never saying more than he has to.
“Are you telling me you instructed your worker to mix twenty shovels of sand with a quarter shovel of cement?” The inspector was dumfounded, and this would have been a good time to Break Out Laughing, but we kept a Straight Face instead.
Michael replied, “You know we’re short on funds. Sand and Rocks are free, but cement is Something Else again don't you know.” We were standing on the third story of one of the towers, allegedly made of almost nothing but sand, and the inspector was looking Ashen. “And besides, we’re only going up another three or four floors, so there’s nothing to worry about.”
It turns out that the inspector was on a surprise visit and the quick-thinking Douglas had allowed him to look on as he shoveled sand into the spinning mixer. Then, with a demeanor that spoke of his reverence for the Dearness of Cement, Douglas scooped up a sovel-full of cement and carefully shook off first half, then another quarter of the precious powder back into the sack. After carefully whisking off a little more with his hand, he balanced the shovel and carefully weighed the portion in his mind. Taking one more pinch out with his thumb and finger and sprinkling it back into the sack, he finally threw the remainder of the scoop into the mixer and began to add water.
After watching him add water for a few seconds, the inspector asked Douglas, “Is that all the cement you intend to put in that mixer?”
“That’s all I’m Allowed to Add, sir. Instructions from Mr. Rubel.”
“But how does this structure stay afloat?”
“I just work here, sir.”
Of course this hoax is one of hundreds of thousands and, like most of them, ended with a Big Laugh all around over a pot of tea and maybe a steak or two, and avocados.
All these childhood experiences are special, of course, and I could go on and on until I can’t anymore. The most precious memory is the Daily Stuff.
We had a routine that some people found Spartan while others took to with relish. We got up early and ate and Ate. My Uncle Michael would already be cooking Oatmeal, Boiled Cabbage, Steak, soft boiled Eggs, Toast, butter, honey from our own hives and more Oatmeal until we would hold out our plates and beg like that orphan in the Dickens story: “Please sir, may I stop?” This was how Michael made sure we were all Nourished for a Day of whatever the Castle asked of us. We always knew, no matter how much grunting and lifting there was, Michael would keep us giggling too. He has that gift with people, and that’s what made the Castle go Up.
With castle building you learn you can take things One Day at a Time. That’s the only way to reach the top without blueprints. Mixing concrete, picking up river rock in the fields, irrigating the orange groves and scavenging building materials from the Old Shacks and barns as the groves gave way to housing; that was mostly honest work that kept me and a few other guys Off the Streets. I’ll always have my Uncle Michael to thank for whatever Trouble I missed out on. There would always be a few afternoons a week when we could all take a refreshing break and we’d pile into the Willy’s Jeep and go up to the reservoir and Michael and we and all the dogs would take a swim and eat oranges. Skinny Dipping, we called it, quaintly. There would be nights of Huge Fires and guitars and Singing the old songs. There would always be a fantastic dinner of Steak and boiled Cabbage and Oatmeal at the end of a long day, and man were we hungry. You could count on visits from one after another revered Glendora Old-Timer. Michael considered each one of these men a dad as well as a Friend. These were mostly practical guys who had shaped or influenced the town in their days. They would come by to drink a Pot of Tea and shake their heads and tell us we had something Wrong with us and tell racy 50-year-old jokes and donate another piece of Old Farm Equipment to the cause of the Castle.
Each night I’d go back to my refrigerator box and throw my Filthy Clothes in a pile on Pancho Villa’s saddle at the foot of my bed. Nothing would keep me awake. Not my cement-cracked hands. Not the creosote burning my arms. Not the 38 clocks ticking and chiming and cuckooing all over the packing house. Not my grandmother’s Antique Doll Collection, all sitting around on the Steamer Trunks and staring at me the Live-Long Night. At times there was the sound of laughter or music, somehow left over from some party years ago. “Hearing things,” I’d say to myself, and drift off to sleep. Not even That.
How can I end this vignette? It’s odd to feel that I grew up in the Old West. I’m only 42. I’m a Lucky Soul. People laugh at Hillary Clinton’s idea that it “takes a whole village to Raise a Kid,” but I believe her. I feel lucky to have been raised by the village that was Glendora. As a boy I could depend on any Adult I knew. I’m lucky to have been raised by my Funny Family, watched over by Michael, and to have so many Living Heroes during my childhood: the old-timers who were there when we all needed them.
I’m lucky I had the Castle to be a teenager at. Because of that, I can still giggle.
About kids. Kids need Heroes. Kids need belonging. Kids need work. (Okay, so, since I got asked to write this I get to have a Moral, Okay?)
Originally published in Glendoran Magazine in 1999, then later in David Traversi's book, One Man's Dream.
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