S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “A Christmas Story,” Park tells of his first road trip with Ned Gumbo and spending Christmas with the Gumbos.
My buddy Ned Gumbo called the other day, and this being the holiday season we reminisced about our first road trip together. It was Christmas of 1967, over fifty years ago. Ned’s an orphan and his origins are shrouded in mystery. To those of us who know him it’s easy to imagine some mongrel sailor impregnating a bar maid, then dumping the result on a waterfront doorstep. Gumbo went through a series of orphanages thereafter, with four different families fostering him before his eighth birthday.
In each instance (to hear him tell it) he was quickly returned as a “demon seed.” Family number five was Lon and Martha Gumbo, who for some reason adopted him. God knows what they were thinking: I’ve seen pictures of the young Ned and he looks like a feral monkey. The family lived in northern California and after he’d terrorized county after county up there the Gumbos exiled him to Burlingame to live with friends. He was a teenager by then and thrived in the scurrilous Bay Area culture.
Canby introduced me to him in the Spring of ’67, and we spent stretches of the next three years “living together” (i.e. he’d lock me out of his gardener’s cottage at night and I’d break in to crash on the couch anyway). When the holiday season rolled around that year I’d just returned to Burlingame after three months in the Mt. Baker National Forest. I had two thousand in cash and rapidly spent it on a delirious drug and alcohol binge that left me alone in a wino hotel room on Christmas Eve. Ned showed up unexpectedly around noon, insisted I accompany him to see his parents. He couched it as a thoughtful gesture on his part, but we both knew I’d move into the cottage as soon as he left.
So a road trip was fine with me: it made no difference where I woke and it might be nice to experience a family Christmas, even if it was the Gumbos. I’d never met Ned’s parents but knew they owned a general store in a little town called Clipper Mills, wherever the hell that is. (Somewhere north and east of the Bay Area: I was forty before I paid much attention to where I was going.)
Ned and I were still tentative with each other then, but like me he was a storyteller so I’d heard plenty about his folks. Fanciful tales of a doddering old couple he’d been using and abusing since they brought him home. He blamed his conduct (if pressed) on his contentious relationship with Lon, even as the old man’s wrath seemed reasonable under the circumstances.
But I was still unprepared for what followed. Ned took a circuitous route on the drive up, stopping at numerous dingy bars along the way. I’d been on such an abusive bender and suffered so many of the “leaking blood” episodes I chronicled in my last column (“Red Rover”), that I stuck to pot. I was pleasantly stoned when we finally pulled into the Gumbo’s driveway at midnight. There was a colorful wreath on the front door, snowflakes drifting through the headlights and Christmas carols on the radio … it was a perfect yuletide scene.
Well, at least until the front door swung open. Out strode a tall, glowering, white-haired guy with a cigarette. He took one last drag, stubbed it beneath his shoe. Gestured for Ned to roll down his window.
When he did the old man shook his fist at him. “What are you doing here, boy?” he spat. “Come to ruin my Christmas!?”
Just like that the battle was joined. “Fuck you, Lon!” yelled Ned.
He jumped out of the car, met his father in the middle of the driveway and began trading punches with him; long, wild haymakers (many of which missed badly) as they slipped and slid in the snow. I was stunned: I’d been raised in a WASP household so gentile my parents never raised their voices to each other, much less struck us.
Suddenly there was a loud knock on the window beside me. I jerked upright, banged my head on the ceiling of the cab. Spun around to find an old woman peering in. Where the hell’d she come from? I wondered. I reached over and rolled down the window.
“Hi!” she said. “You must be a friend of Ned’s.”
“Eh, yeah,” I replied. “I’m Wilson. Wilson High.”
“Well, Merry Christmas, Wilson,” she said. “I’m Martha, Ned’s mother.”
She slid a plate through the window. “Christmas cookie?” she asked.
Ned and his father had fallen to the ground by then, and the old man had him in a stranglehold. I glanced from them, to the grinning Martha, and back again.
Seems there was something to Ned’s fanciful tales after all.
“Don’t mind if I do, Martha,” I sighed, reaching over to select one of the sugar cookies. “And Merry Christmas to you, too.”
So began my Clipper Mills holiday. (Or, as I liked to call it later, Gumbo 101.) There’s a diagnosis for guys like Ned, something called “Reactive Detachment Disorder,” where an adopted child is more interested in manipulating than relating. It’s supposed to come from early need deprivation, etc., but whatever the source … Gumbo made the most of it. He’d just been discharged from the army, for instance, because of ongoing “acid flashbacks.”
Except he’d never taken LSD then; it was all an act. I knew three guys who’d tried similar stunts, and they ended up in the rice paddies. Ned? He deceived the army’s army of shrinks without breaking a sweat.
You couldn’t walk a block with the guy without an adventure breaking out. How many people do you meet like that in this world? Canby introduced us because he thought we were both characters, but I only experimented with life: Ned tore it a new asshole. Years later, when I was in the mental wards, he’d come to visit and I’d think, Shit! What am I doing here! This is the crazy guy!
At the time, though, I was still trying to decide whether he had a conscience. I saw little evidence of it on that Clipper Mills visit but there were (to be generous) extenuating circumstances. Lon and Martha, perhaps like adoptive parents everywhere, seemed determined to believe their choice had been a good one, even as their boy undermined their hopes every time.
Take Christmas morning, for instance: we all pretended the previous evening’s fracas hadn’t occurred. We had a quiet pancake breakfast, then sat around the tree to exchange gifts. Ned had me open mine first, a bottle of Ripple wine. (It didn’t seem like much, but back then I’d go years between Christmas gifts, so I was suitably grateful.) Next up was Lon. He was from Texas and loved the Dallas Cowboys as much as he hated the Forty Niners, so Ned gave him a box of Niners’ memorabilia. The old man removed the items one at a time (ashtrays, calendars, caps, etc., all of them used), gave them a cursory glance before flinging them into the fireplace. On the bottom of the box, separately wrapped, were Ned’s Army discharge papers. He’d had them framed and scribbled “Tough luck, dad!” across the bottom (Lon was hoping he’d be sent to Vietnam).
The old guy cursed, tossed that in the fireplace, too. Handed Ned his gift, a pair of ugly, checkered cowboy shirts. They wouldn’t have fit Gumbo when he was twelve, so he quickly slipped one on. It was so small he could only snap the top two buttons.
“Oh, look at that big ugly beer gut,” said his mother over and over again, even as she polished off a half quart herself.
I would have been speechless earlier, but—like most Bay Area guys—I adapted quickly to weirdness. There seemed to be a kind of lunatic rhythm to the Gumbo household and, inasmuch as they ignored me, anyway, I had plenty of time to observe it. As the morning wore on Ned became increasingly kind and solicitous to his father, which would have seemed insincere even if he weren’t wearing that ridiculous shirt. Obviously he was up to something, and he wasn’t fooling Lon.
“What’re you schemin’ at, boy?” he muttered.
Ned would respond with a cherubic grin and a sweet tone and, transparent as it was, you could see it wearing his father down … this was the compliant, loving son he’d always dreamt of. It seemed the Gumbos owned local farm property and Ned wanted to visit it. He worked the old man for hours, and by noon we were seated in a Dodge Power Wagon.
With Ned behind the wheel, no less … he’d even conned his father into letting him drive. As we reversed onto the street, with me in the back and Lon in the passenger seat, he put his hand on Ned’s shoulder.
“Now remember, son,” he said, “you promised to drive reeeal slow and careful in the woods.”
“Oh sure, dad,” said Gumbo, then winked at me in the rearview mirror.
I slid a seat belt across my waist, cinched it tight. If I’d had a crash helmet I would have put that on, too, because I knew what was coming even if Lon didn’t. Soon we were speeding through a snowy forest, bouncing over ruts and hydroplaning on the slick ice (years later Ned would go through the windshield of that same Power Wagon when he hit a stump at high speed. Anyone else would have been decapitated … he suffered a slash on his cheek).
The old man finally gave up on wrestling the wheel away, slipped into a Redd Foxx routine instead: “Oh my God!” he gasped, clutching at his chest. “I’m having a heart attack, son, this feels like the big one!”
He could have fooled me (particularly under the circumstances, as I was hanging on for dear life back there), but Ned? He turned on the radio. Clicked around until he found Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and started singing along.
Fortunately we’d stopped at the family store on the way, and Ned had swiped us a pint of tequila. I’d gone a day without drinking for the first time in months so figured I was due, sneaking sips when centrifugal force allowed.
That afternoon in the woods, as a gentle snow began to fall, I pulled the bottle of Ripple from my jacket, cheered Lon on as he and his son met in the ankle-deep torrent of fish, water and mud, trying to decapitate each other with shovels.
After a wild half hour we lurched up to the property. I’d never heard Ned mention it before, and as his father (miraculously recovered) jumped out and strode ahead of us he told me why: “It’s the fish pond!” he spat. “Lon ruined the farm with his fuckin’ fish pond!”
I’ve read that OCD characters have a knob in their hypothalamus, and if that’s so Ned’s is the size of a softball: he was one of those control freaks who—even as he careened through life like a bowling pin—wanted everything “just so.” (The most annoying mental illness to me.) It’s the only explanation for why, on a fifty-acre property with a series of dilapidated buildings and fences, you’d even notice a 10 x 10 fishpond in the corner. It was an eyesore, sure, but so was the rest of the place.
Still Ned grumbled all the way to the pond, slugging hard on the tequila bottle. When we arrived Lon was breaking up a thin sheet of ice on the surface. He handed each of us a shovel.
“Time to earn your keep, boys,” he said. “Been a lot of moisture this winter and we gotta shore up the sides.”
I went to work where the slope looked muddiest, but when I turned back Ned hadn’t moved.
“Come on, son,” grunted Lon. “We need your help here.”
“You know,” said Ned, “wouldn’t it be better to just bring the ’dozer down, reinforce it that way?”
“Oh hell no!” spat Lon. “We can fix ’er fine with the shovels. That’s a lot of noise and trouble for nothin’, boy. Plus I’ll never trust you in a vehicle again!”
Uh huh. They began their dueling roosters routine, but by then it was obvious Lon would cave, that his son wore him down the same as he did everybody. I was relieved when he finally handed Ned the ’dozer key.
At least until Gumbo slipped me another wink on his way to the shed. Oh shit, I thought, what now? Lon and I kept shoveling and when he heard the diesel engine turn over he sighed.
“Ned promised to drive ’er careful,” he said.
I would have laughed if it weren’t for the way I was raised. I offered a weak smile instead.
“Yep,” said Lon. “He knows how much this pond means to me.”
That was the death knell right there. I stepped back a few paces and lit a cigarette. Watched as Ned crested the small hill in front of the pond and paused the ’dozer so its shovel was two feet off the ground.
“That’s right,” yelled Lon. “Leave ’er right there, son, and I’ll take over.”
Ned laughed and waved his arms in the air. “Screw that, dad!” he screamed. “I’ve always hated this pond, and now it’s history!”
“NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” screamed the old man, as Ned threw the bulldozer into gear, started down the hill with the shovel lowered and slammed into the pond. The swollen barrier caved instantly and out slid a torrent of water and fish.
It was, oddly enough, the most outrageous thing I’d ever seen Gumbo do.
Little did I know that he’d pour a whole bottle of Novocain into my ear later that week (while I was overdosed on acid), or that a few months after that he’d wreck my partnership with Lonesome Louie and, the following Christmas, send me down a steep San Francisco hill in a shopping cart. Which led to me trying to stab him with a butcher knife.
Even more absurd? A half century later we’re thick as thieves, a couple alkie outliers who survived their own war.
That afternoon in the woods, though, as a gentle snow began to fall, I pulled the bottle of Ripple from my jacket, cheered Lon on as he and his son met in the ankle-deep torrent of fish, water and mud, trying to decapitate each other with shovels.
It was a Gumbo family Christmas.