Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Birth of Cool

My kid brother Grant has always been my hero. Strange that I would look up to someone younger than me but that’s always been the case. Grant never got in trouble. Never induced a behind closed door, two hour lecture from my mother because he forgot to carry water for the horses or snuck the car out on a Saturday night without asking to cruise 82nd with girls. Grant’s grades never dipped below red warning lines, he had solid and dependable friends, and was quick with a hammer or shovel or pitchfork or whatever the job needed, and he did it with a smile. As a boy he was neither spanked with a hand or lashed by a belt, and learned from an early age to keep his mouth shut. Talking back landed you in hot water in our house. Grant knew better to remain silent and appear a fool than to open his mouth and remove all doubt.
I was just the opposite. Yet standing on the side now watching him all my life, I’ve studied my younger brother closer than any other human being I’ve ever met.
Grant was a basketball prodigy: a State Champion, KATU Athlete of the Month, Oregon Single A Player of the Year. I remember watching him as a 3rd grader in his first eligible year of pee-wee league. His games were always on Saturday mornings in the Estacada gym and mom would drive us to in the family station wagon for moral support. Four eight minute running quarters, no pressing in the backcourt, Grant would come out with his bright red moppy hair and little white chicken legs popping out of those 80’s short-shorts and just bring down the house, dribbling behind his back, through his legs, hanging in the air through the lane, causing a gasp in the crowd. Most of the other boys in the league just wanted to make sure their shoe laces were tied or their jerseys not on backward, but Grant was scoring 20 a game. Afterward we would drive home along the forest lined highway and no one would say anything to me. I was stuck playing behind a coach’s kid whose dad made sure his son played every minute and took all the big shots. Compared to my younger brother, I seemed like a dud, one of those ACME bombs in Road Runner cartoons that falls hard to the ground but wouldn’t go off. It was my mom who detonated it though, asking with baited breath, “Grant, how does it feel out there on the court, running past all those other boys as if that ball were on a string connected to your hand. You must feel like the king of the world?”
But Grant remained silent, unaffected by the praise. Week after week my mother would ask him again and again, finally once saying, “But aren’t you afraid of those giant boys, swatting at you like branches of a tree as you fly to the basket?”
Grant only spoke once. I remember it clear as day from the backseat.
“No, mom,” he grinned coolly, “Those big guys are afraid of me.”
Grant’s basketball prowess made me work harder than anything I’d ever tried. Ball handling drills on the cement basement floor. Summer Hoops Camps. Monday night open gyms. Year after year. Drill after drill. So by the time I dressed down for varsity as a sophomore, I felt my first taste of sibling vindication. But it was always based on fear. I knew that whatever I did, it would never compare to my younger brother. He was the one with real talent, the one people would drive miles just to watch play. It burned inside me, living in his shadow, not because I was jealous, or thought I wouldn’t become something more than Grant Hartenstein’s brother. In fact, it was the opposite. It was a fear I would never become anything at all. That I would grow up and live forever in that small town, living my small life, living forever with the hope that someday I would get out and start my real life, that I would see the world, afraid it would never come true.
Growing up in the 80’s in rural Colton or “Cow-Town” as we called it then, was at times akin to growing up stuck in the hairiest armpit of the dark side of the moon. Culturally, it was a wasteland: Boys strutted in their acid washed Levis with back pocket chew rings and faded lettermen jackets, driving souped-up Mustangs and Cameros or their dad’s trucks with the gun racks and 8-tracks, sipping Big Gulps and hanging out blasting Billy’s Idol and Squire at the Y-Drive in neighboring town Molalla with its Buckaroo Rodeo and White Stallion Tavern. They shotgunned Bud in a can and took dips of Copenhagen and Skoal they’d drip-spit slowly into Coca-Cola bottles while trying to make wrestling weight in the back row of Mr. Sullivan’s typing class as he droned on and on about tracking Bigfoot or just to piss off health teacher Ms. Vuckavitch, who creeped out the girls with the way she would stare at them breathing slightly through her mouth. Young girls wore riding boots, “crap-kickers,” they’d call them proudly, with their boyfriend’s green and gold football jersey tucked neatly into their skin tight Jordace jeans. They proudly wore scrunchies, banana clips, and colorful feathered earrings dangling down while shaking their butts around in an aerosol mist of big bangs and hairspray you didn’t want to get close to with a Bic lighter. Mullets were popping up: short on top, party out the back. Muscle shirts and Guns N Roses. Jocks in neon spandex shorts and dweebs taking apart Rubic’s Cubes next to floppy disks and paddles for Pong and Atari. Fluorescent Miami Vice T-shirts beneath suit coats and Top Gun bomber jackets with the patches of faraway airports stitched to the sleeves. Everyone thinking they were the coolest person in the room, trying to fast dance to Foreigner’s Juke Box Hero and Kenny Loggin’s Danger Zone after the Homecoming game against the Scio Loggers and waiting for Lionel Richie’s Say you, Say me or Phil Collin’s Against All Odds to end the night slow dancing, moving our feet in a circle six inches away from partners we hoped would let us drive up Goat Mountain and park beneath the Douglas Firs to see and feel and know what second and third base was really like.
Into this vortex my Cow-town classmates were all thrown kicking and screaming.
“When I get outta here I’m going to buy a Kawasaki 800."
“When I get outta here I’m going to paint the town red. You know they’ve got line dancing in Oregon City on Friday nights.”
“Me? I’m never getting outta here. I’m going to settle right behind my parent’s house. You too Brian, our kids will play little league together and we’ll raise horses and fish on the Clackamas. What do you think?”
“Yeah, man. The 90’s are going to rock!”
These were the words of classmates and old girlfriends and boys I knew since the first day I walked into school.
Some tried to be different, tried to find an identity that was not crushed in the mills pulling green chain or punching a card at the cannery sorting yellow zucchini and green beans.
These were the oddballs, the misfits, the scourers of thrift stores for trench coats and mismatched socks, broken jewelry and knock-off polyester. The small minority of classmates who abhorred phrases like “Gag me with a spoon” and “Don’t have a cow, man” and instead opted for the ache of Morrisey lyrics and the melancholy wailings of Echo and the Bunnyman and Orchestral Movements in the Dark.
Oh, believe me, it was dark alright, and like the Apostle Paul laments, I was the chiefest among sinners.
It was about this time I began listening to jazz. It started as a way to combat the creepy balance of hearing Girlfriend in a coma in one ear and Like a Virgin in the other. I didn’t know anything about the genre at first. I had played clarinet in middle school, a hand-me-down from my woodwind defeated stage bound sister Lisa, and knew vaguely of Bennie Goodman’s existence, but that was it. So when I found The Birth of Cool by Miles Davis in a Value Village cassette bin and popped it into my tape deck, I didn’t know what to expect. I remember putting on oversized headphones and closing my eyes and having my world redefined. Sonorous off beat notes. Baffling riffs. Long sustained tremors of unnatural sound. I was keenly aware that this music was not written just for me, that it was not meant to save me or redefine my life, but that I had stumbled upon it, and now there was no turning back. It changed me. It made me believe that no matter what happened, good or bad, that there was another plateau that existed one could obtain and reach. From Miles Davis I reached out and found Count Basie’s Jumpin’ At The Woodside and Lester Leaps In which lead me to Big Bands like Artie Shaw’s Begin the Beguine and Glen Miller’s In The Mood which pushed me to more experimental sounds like Thelonious Monk’s Straight, No Chaser and Epistrophy and other artists like Django Reinhart and Charlie Christian, Charles Mingus and Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker and my absolute favorite John Coltrane, whose Spirituality off Giant Steps still to this day rattles around in my head on a loop.
But it was Miles Davis who was first.
For the next few years of high school, as Grant and I battled under the backyard hoop, throwing elbows and body checking each other in games of one-on-one, The Birth of Cool was always playing. I would be upstairs in my room with eyes closed humming along and suddenly hear the ball slamming against the backboard attached to the garage. Grant was in the driveway shooting three pointers, and I would grab my shoes and before I knew it we’d be halfway into a game battling for brotherly supremacy.
The bruises and bloody lips and knee burns paid off.
The summer before my senior year I was selected to play on an East/West All-Star Team that would travel to Asia to play basketball the following year after I graduated. I was full of excitement. I entered my senior year full of anticipation. Grant, as a freshman, played alongside me on varsity. The year went well, we made the play-offs, but were crushed in our final game, my worst outing of the season. I remember standing in the locker room after the defeat, my high school career over, a pitiful performance that felt like someone had ripped open my heart. Grant was standing next to me and I whispered that I felt like I was going to cry.
It was something I would never say to another human being, something only one brother could whisper to another.
Grant, the ninth grader, took me hard by the arm and squeezed. “Don’t!” he said sternly under his breath. “If you cry, I’ll kick your butt.”
That was all it took. The whole ride back on the team bus from Philomath I listened to Davis on my walkman and stared out the window into the dark wheat fields that passed by. This wouldn’t be my last game after all. I was going to Asia. I would play in the Philippines and Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. There was another plain of existence. I was alright. I would survive.
Miles Davis was also playing three years later when Grant won the State Championship. The Colton Boys Team traveled to Pendleton and their games were played on the radio. I listened in my little college apartment each night on a small transistor plugged into the wall, pacing the room, punching pillows, kicking the walls and screaming with each missed shot or triumphant assist. After each game I would play another Davis soundtrack to calm myself down. By then I had moved on to Kind of Blue, Bitches Brew, and Sketches of Spain, amazing soundtracks of depth and intelligence. On the night of the championship game, Colton was down by one point when Grant was fouled with no time left on the clock. He calmly went to the line and sank two free-throws to win the game. Cool under pressure. The crowd erupted. Just like that little Estacada gym. As for me, I ran out across the dark George Fox campus screaming too, punching trees, waking up neighbors, honking my car horn, going crazy. Grant had done what I couldn’t. Yet there was no animosity. It was one of the happiest nights of my life.
The next night was Sunday and I drove back to Colton to see him. Mom was in the kitchen wearily washing dishes. We talked a spell. She looked exhausted from the ups and downs of three straight games, but her eyes were elated. Full of joy. I could almost feel the pride oozing out of her. I found Grant upstairs.
I knocked. I had never really knocked on Grant’s bedroom door before, but this time I did. I found him at his desk, sitting very quietly under a small reading lamp doing math homework. I wanted to pick him up off the ground. I wanted to cheer and scream for him, but instead found myself only in whispers. Grant said he couldn’t believe how quiet the Colton farm was. That he’d never really heard the stillness before. Three days of radio and newspaper interviews, cheerleaders and fans, faces howling in victory, and now this, the absolute vacuous silence of the Colton night. Where did it go? It was all over, wasn't it?
We sat there together and wondered what would happen when we got out of Colton and the future became real.
Years later Grant would talk to me about how deeply he was praying that night he won a State Championship. How only his relationship with God allowed him to have success as an athlete. In fact, over the years I’ve heard him say that many times and believe it completely. It’s funny now, almost twenty years later standing in the backyard of his Newberg house, tossing a football back and forth and wrestling with his boys while a couple of steaks slowly sizzle on the grill, that I still look at my younger brother as my hero. It was me that had the bigger life, for sure. I’ve slept on the Great Wall of China. I’ve crossed Russia by train and been stranded in Siberia. I’ve island hoped through the Pacific and jumped freight trains like a hobo through Oregon and Washington. I even represented our country on a basketball team throughout Asia. I’ll stack my adventures and life up against anybody. Yet, it’s still my kid brother I go to for advice, still think of him as the wise one, the best man I know.
I watch him from the rock wall beside the swingset in the corner of his backyard. Shaved head bald, the pounds starting to pack on a little, he closes the grill and smiles, waves at me to go deep, hitting me with a perfect nerfball spiral as he plops down in an easy chair by his wife Christi.
I smile too. It's a good view from this plateau. I'm Grant Hartenstein’s big brother. How cool is that.

1 comment:

  1. That was an awesome read. Awesome. I wish I had an ounce of your ability to put emotion onto paper. Loved the Colton Days flashback...

    I can absolutely related to the quietness of growing up Colton. For me, that moment came after one of Colton's best died in a car accident. It was so quiet. So cold. So void - of everything. All of it... Odd, I remember specific conversations and finally having some break through smiles and laughs with Grant after that time...

    You know, there wasn't a soul in that gym at State who doubted Grant was going to drain both those foul shots....

    Great read, man. Thanks. Back to my Rebel Yell...