My parents loved lingering at thrift sales and looking through tables full of other people’s junk. When Mom got too sick to join Dad on these adventures, he rarely left the house except for church and the grocery store. Since Mom went to the nursing home, Dad has been able to do the kind of junk shopping he likes.
One Saturday morning I visit Dad, and he’s got piles of men’s white briefs on his kitchen table. He tells me he’s been to his neighbor’s thrift sale and bought 28 pairs of “undershorts” for $5. Pete died a few weeks ago, and his children held a sale at his house the last few days. I’m sure my dad took many trips around the corner: the first day to see what treasures were displayed in Pete’s driveway and to catch up with Pete’s kids, and then subsequent days to see how much their prices came down.
My parents have been in this neighborhood since 1953. Now that Pete’s dead, my dad is one of the last remaining original neighbors.
One summer afternoon when I was four, Pete carried me home in his arms. Mom and Dad were gone, and my sister, Geralynn—a few months away from starting high school—must have been in charge of my brother, David, and me. We weren’t supposed to leave the yard. Forty years later, David tells me, “It was a day sort of like today: just perfect weather.” Of course we weren’t going to stay in the yard. I often rode on the handlebars of his bike or Geralynn’s, even though Mom told me not to. Their bikes were a his and hers version of the same model—David’s was mustard brown with a high, straight “boy bar” connecting seat to handle bars and Ger’s was turquoise with a low “sissy bar”—both with banana seats, tall chrome backrests, and high “monkey” handle bars. I don’t remember, but I’m guessing there were Old Maid cards clothes-pinned to the spokes of one or the other’s bike that day. I know for sure they were there when I inherited Geralynn’s bike a year or two later, after I finally learned to ride.
At four years old I’m sure I couldn’t verbalize what the world looked like from the handlebars of an older sibling’s bike, but I knew it was a taste of what was to come: freedom to ride away from home and the possibility to just keep pedaling and see where it would take you. Perhaps any kid’s fantasy about adulthood begins on a bike.
I don’t remember the accident. I’m guessing I wiggled at the exact moment that David made a turn into the alley by Pete’s driveway. His wheel twisted sharply, I slid off the handlebars, and my bare foot thrust into the spokes of his spinning front wheel. We both tumbled to the ground. I have some shadow memory of lying in the alley and screaming. Pete swooped me up and carried me all the way home, blood dripping off my foot. My next memory is sitting on the edge of the bathtub and David coaxing me to dip my bloody foot into the cool water. I’m sure it wasn’t more than a scrape, though I was limping when Mom and Dad got home hours later. Did Pete tell them what happened? Loose lips sink ships, he would have learned in WWII.
Now David says that he himself told Mom and Dad as soon as they got home. “Lying about it would have made it worse,” he tells me. I love that my older brother was this honorable, even as a pre-teen. He was grounded for a week, he says, which felt like a life sentence. It was summer. He was eleven. I never knew if my parents thanked Pete for carrying me home.
Today my dad has 28 pairs of Pete’s underwear on his kitchen table. The circle of life, I won’t joke to Dad.
“You have to bleach them,” I say, like the germaphobe I am.
“Why? They’re clean. They were Pete’s.”
I look more carefully. Some are brand new, but others are stained on the front flap.
“Dad,” I say. “I can’t believe you’re going to wear a dead guy’s underwear.” I laugh and laugh.
“Pete’s,” he says again, as if that’s all the explanation I should need. “Why are you making fun of me? You shop at Saver’s.” He’s being defensive. I’ve hurt his feelings.
“I never buy used underwear,” I say. “I have some standards.”
I’ve been forced to look at white briefs my whole life. My dad slept in only his underwear—even during Wisconsin winters—and he walked around the house in them each morning and after each nighttime bath. Same for my two older brothers. It was not uncommon for all three guys in our house to lounge around in what I learned to call “whitey tighties” in high school.
“Just make sure you wash them,” I say. “Just to be safe.”
Dad says to me, “They all fit but two pairs. So I gave those to Justin next door.”
“No!” I say it a little too forcefully. Dad stares at me. I’ve hurt his feelings again.
“What? He’ll wear them.”
I can’t imagine that my dad’s 40-something neighbor, a corrections officer at the local prison, would embrace anybody’s pre-owned whitey-tighties. Especially a dead guy’s. I’m sure he was sweet to my dad and accepted them. I would bet all of my own underwear that Justin’s wife threw away Pete’s undershorts.
Often when neighbors die, I discover from their obituaries they were so much more than the folks I thought I knew. Pete’s obituary featured something that always draws me in: young and old photographs of the deceased. I think of them as ”before” and “after.”
“Before:” Pete as a beautiful boy in his pilot’s white silk scarf and bombardier’s hat with goggles atop his head. He flew a B-17, the “Flying Fortress,” and was shot down over France. On July 8, 1943, his mother received the news in a War Department telegraph, and for eight weeks she waited for more information about her missing-in-action son. As the mother of a soldier, I cannot fathom what those 56 days were like for her. Finally another telegram arrived: “Am pleased to inform you your son returned to duty September 7.” Pete was awarded an Air Medal for “courage, skill, and coolness in the line of duty,” and a few weeks later he telephoned his mom but could not mention his whereabouts for two months.
- Pete in 1942 or 1943
“After” photo: Pete as the old man I knew, one who worked as a rural letter carrier and raised two children with his wife and tended his garden and drove his motor-scooter to the tavern for happy hour. Every time I saw him after my bike accident in 1972, I thought, “That’s the guy who carried me home.” I didn’t pay attention to anything else about him.
Now I know Pete’s given name was Myron, and he was a war hero. He wore white briefs like my dad.