It’s an evening winding down in Nashville as my father cycles on a road near our home. Sitting behind him in a seat strapped to the frame of his bicycle, my 5 year old self has a view of everything to the left and to the right and also a fantastic panorama of the back of Dad’s head. His neck, while vital to the goings-on of his existence, does not keep my attention for long, so really there’s little point in thinking about it further other than to establish that I can’t see where I’m going. Not that it matters to me, I’m a kid, but the ability to see where you’re going is helpful in predicting what comes next. When all you can see is out the side, things have a way of surprising you.
Not that it takes much to surprise me now, I’m only 29.
Returning to the road in Nashville, watching out the sides, my father and I pass a construction site. Parked on the site are large construction machines. Excavators. Backhoes. Bulldozers. Their ilk. We slow to a stop for a better look at the silent monsters. We’re alone. No workers or anyone else is there but us. The emptiness of the area makes our presence feel uninvited. Even our gaze is a breach of the solemn quiet.
There’s an alluring coolness in recounting events for others, a desire to appear suave that almost demands I describe this memory as if my father and I were philosophers of the world bearing witness to its wonders in contemplative silence. However if you’ve spent any time around a child you’ll know there’s no such thing as contemplative silence, unless one of you is unconscious.
Likely maintaining a healthy jabber to rival a political pundit vamping for time, I recall being concerned about the usage of these construction machines. Specifically, I wanted to know if, when the workers operated the equipment, did they cry? As in, did they sit there sobbing while pulling the levers, pushing the buttons and steering– okay I don’t know how construction vehicles work, let’s move on.
Ridiculous as it may seem, I have this memory firmly planted and when I see cycling and my mind wanders, I return to this evening in Nashville and this particular chance at enlightenment not because I need to know if construction workers cry but because there’s an arresting appearance to a construction site shut down for the day. The machines, whose noise and great ruckus cause children to cry, are turned off with the keys locked away. However, there remains a threatening menace to the machines, despite what we know in our heads (they’re turned off), that makes us, or at least me, wary of going near one even as an adult. It’s as if at any moment they could come roaring back to life. Roaring to life and out to get. Out to get us.
Deep down, I just know that backhoe wants to eat me.
There’s a science museum in Nashville that has a different name now than from when I was an avid attendee, a change I’m guessing brought on by rigorous experimentation or a wealthy donor or a seance or– okay I don’t know how non-profits work either. Let’s keep moving. Look out the side.
The museum had special exhibits every once in a while that featured animatronic dinosaurs (they moved about), which I enjoyed, and a giant shark sculpture, which I did not enjoy. I don’t know if the two things were part of the same exhibit, I mostly mention the dinosaurs here to let you know, dear reader, that I was not afraid of them nor was I all that afraid years later when I saw Jurassic Park on VHS in the basement of our house on the hill in West Virginia with my cousin Lydia. When the words “Formatted to fit your TV” appeared on-screen, I questioned whether this might make it scarier, like maybe they added extra stuff, but Lydia assured me this would not be the case. She was right. But even without moving like the dinosaur animatronics, the museum’s giant shark was freaky.
Thinking on it more, I realize describing it as a “giant” shark may be inaccurate. It was probably a realistic model of a shark but I remember being afraid to look at it, like if I stared at it too long it would roar to life and eat me.
Being eaten by large beasts is one of my top four fears. Other fears include freezing my fingers off and falling down the Grand Canyon.
Another place Young Tuck avidly, if very infrequently (Hi parents), attended was the children’s entertainment wonderland known as Chuck E. Cheese. At the time, the place consisted of two sections, the arcade games and the requisite pizza eating area. In the pizza room there was a stage with a curtain. On a repeating loop, the curtain would rise and animatronic, anthropomorphic characters would sing and play music for the crowd. The Beatles this was not, but when you’re a child anything involving pizza must be good. Not fully understanding how the robotic, rodent-based critters worked, the periods when the show was not operating offered an exciting opportunity. For as little effort as a flapping of the curtain open, one could catch a glimpse of Chuck E. Cheese and the Gang turned off. Off! Pretty wild, right? Let me describe it in my spooky voice. Feel free to imagine your own.
In the darkness of the stage, the still creatures wait in uncanny silence. Like the construction machines, these beasts too have a quiet menace.
Unlike the construction machines or even the dinosaurs, the Chuck E. Cheese animatronics have a humanoid shape. They have eyes and smiles and stand upright on two legs, just like we do. When the machines wave goodbye, the urge to wave back is stronger than you’d think. Peering behind the curtain, observing Chuck’s friends in their powered-down state, that’s as close as I’ve come to witnessing death.
A college buddy of mine described going to Detroit like this, he said, “We drove a long time and when we got to Detroit we saw a dead body on the interstate.” Having been to Detroit myself, let me assure you that the dead body on the interstate is not a permanent exhibit.
But I’m the curious sort so I had questions for my friend about the dead body and his reaction to it. He wasn’t bothered by it. I’ve never seen a dead body in real life and I have no plans to break this trend. Not that it’s hard for me to avoid seeing dead bodies, my line of work doesn’t generally throw dead bodies my way, but I find it odd that I haven’t had this unfortunate experience yet. None of the funerals I’ve attended have been open casket, nor have I toured a morgue or any other repository for the deceased. The closest thing to a dead body I’ve seen has been a mummy in a museum, but let’s be clear, mummies don’t count. They barely look human anymore. Nobody would ever think a mummy could come back to life. That’s preposterous.
Just kidding. Once I went to an ancient Egyptian exhibit of sorts at an art museum and it freaked me out, but that’s another story.
We still lived in Nashville when my Grammy died. Her funeral service in the church is fairly unmemorable to me because I was quite young and inspirational words came from Mr. Rogers and Reading Rainbow, not from a guy in a robe behind a pulpit. During the service, being quite bored and not really understanding what was going on, I remember looking around to see where Grammy’s body was at. I knew she had died and that meant she wouldn’t be able to talk or make Eggo waffles for me again, but I kept thinking she was supposed to be here in the church. After all, what is the point of the funeral if she’s not there to experience it. The pulpit and altar of this church was a large wooden structure, at least it was large in my eyes, and so I hypothesized that her body must be inside it. Soon, I thought, they would roll her out and we would say good-bye. This never happened, and if I attended her grave-side ceremony, I don’t remember it.
When my father naps he gets this peaceful yet serious expression on his face. When I encounter my father at rest, and it’s not often anymore, I get the ticklish thought that he would make a stately dead body. Having no life experience with a corpse, I don’t know if every deceased individual possesses a noble bearing, or if it’s just the lucky few who happen to be good at gentle frowning. Sometimes I grow afraid that my father has in fact expired during his nap, so I’ll make a noise to rouse him. He’s not a heavy sleeper. Usually all it takes is a loud footfall or shuffling of things to get Dad to make a noise or other action that says “Not today.”
I don’t know what arrangements my father has made for his funeral. I don’t even know if he’s thought about it yet. Knowing the frustrating kindness within him, it wouldn’t surprise me if he donated his body to Science. When my spirit has flown (not to Detroit), I’d like my body to be donated to Creative Writing, but I might be lying. I believe donating one’s organs is a good thing. Harvest me world, I won’t be there to experience it.
Speaking of harvesting, it’s not entirely true that I’ve never seen a dead body. During the fifth grade, as part of a special group of students, I got to tour a nearby medical lab. One stop on the tour involved holding fake internal organs made of plastic. Another stop involved looking at real internal organs made of people. The counter-top in this room was at the height of my head, and on it, a human brain. Someone’s mind made gray flesh just sitting right there in front of me. Even in the 5th grade, I knew when to recognize a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. When our guide and the teacher were both distracted, I touched it. I touched the brain.
It was firm. And cold. No jiggle.
Reveling in my discovery, and fearful of getting caught, I stood still, hands at my side with my eyes pointed upward and a gentle frown on my face. Nothing to see here, just a philosopher of the world learning in quiet contemplation.
A philosopher who’s also discreetly wiping a little brain off his finger.