(This is an open letter of apology to Todd Fredell. Todd, I don’t even know where you might be or if I’ve even apologized to you about this before or not. Something flashed in my mind about The Innocence Mission’s first album the other day and I knew I had to put this down in print, even if you may never read it. If you do, let me know, eh?)---------------------- * ----- * ----- * --------------------
(And, naturally, part of this is meant to be an apology to Bonnie. There’s nothing new here that you don’t know, but it still grieves me to know that I caused you pain and I wasn’t the man I thought I was. I’ve worked ever since to become that man, though.)
Somewhere back in 1989 or so my then-soon-to-be-ex decided she’d rather live with her girlfriend than live with me. (Silly me had believed all of that “’til death do you part” stuff. Her orientation changed and I was left on the outside with nowhere to go.) I ended up deciding to move back to my folk’s place to re-group and moved all of my stuff back to Maryland over four weekends.
On the last weekend I had to make the drive down to DC, back to Connecticut and then one last trip back to DC. On the way backup to the house in Woodstock, Connecticut (up in the NW corner of Connecticut) I hit a small patch of ice going around a curve about 5 miles away from the house. My less-than-a-year-old car fishtailed right, left and then right again. I slid sideways into a yard and into a 100+-year-old oak tree.
I knew something was wrong when my tape of Marshal Crenshaw’s first album stopped playing. A few seconds later I realized that I’d taken out the driver’s side window with my head, I had glass in my hair, and I was bleeding slightly.
The guy who owned the house had been working in the yard and saw the whole thing. He ran up to the car and checked to see if I was okay. I was, I said. He didn’t look so sure and suggested that I go into the house and clean myself up a bit. I walked in and scared his wife half to death (tall, longhaired guy walks in alone with glass in his hair and blood speckling his face. She probably had Charlie Manson flashbacks going on when she saw me walking in).
I cleaned myself up, got all of the glass out of my hair and mouth and washed the small amounts of blood from my face. The guy who owned the house called an ambulance, who, in turn, called the cops. After checking me over the paramedics decided to strap me to a board and take me to the local hospital so a doctor could check me over. As I was being wheeled out the cop added insult to injury by placing a speeding ticket on my chest. He apologized, although I don’t think I accepted graciously.
I remember telling the person in the back of the ambulance with me that it was just my luck to have stayed awake for all of it. It would have been far better, in my mind, to wake up in the hospital and been spared all of the extra awake time trying to figure out what the hell I was going to do from there.
(I was actually pretty lucky. The car hit the tree in the car frame between the car door and the wheel well. A few inches to the right and it would have blown out the tire and wrapped the car around the tree; a few inches to the left and my leg and ankle probably would have been crushed. )
(Later that day I saw the tree that I’d hit. While it had totaled the car, the tree had made it through without a scratch. It takes more than some stupid horseless carriage to make a dent in a 100-year-old oak tree.)
Friends came to get me, I went out to the house to get the rest of my stuff, saw my soon-to-be-ex there who was very caught up in starting her new life. (When I told her what had happened she actually said, “What do you expect me to do?”) I spent the better part of a week with the friends sinking into depression. When the insurance adjustor finally got back with me, I learned they would only cover a small amount of the remaining cost of the car. I was stunned.
I got back to Maryland on a Greyhound bus and kept sinking lower and lower. My marriage was all but over, I had no job, no prospects for one, no place to live and next to no friends living in the area anymore.
(Sysma was the one exception and continually proved to be one of the finest people I’ve ever known. We started a weekly board games night during which he endured my cynicism and pain with style and grace. Thanks, David.)
One weekend I went to the beach with a group of people. I know I drank way too much (rare, for me) and was probably more obnoxious than I usually was with “safe” strangers (friends of friends) at that point in my life. Late in the day Miriam, my closest friend of those that I knew there, asked me how I was doing. “I’m okay,” I said. “No you’re not,” she replied.
Of course, it took me quite a while to realize she was right.
I had been working with in a mentally retarded group home in Connecticut before I left and decided to look around for a similar job in Maryland. I found one at a “school” in the same town my folks lived in. It was a place called “The Hope Center,” which I quickly renamed “The Hopeless Center.” (That’s a separate blog unto itself) Suffice it to say I had made a pact with myself: the day one of these young adult aged “students” crapped in his pants and I had to clean it up, I walked. That day came, I got the assistant director to help me and then I took the next day off to weigh my options. While writing it down in a letter to a friend I realized I’d been given one of those rare, clear Signs from God and I typed up a letter of resignation that day.
A few weeks later I ended up working at a Kemp Mill Records in Georgetown as a manager trainee. I liked the idea of working in a music store until my first day there. The manager who was training me took me into the back of the store and showed me shelves of CDs. “Here’s where we keep our extra product,” she explained. I knew immediately I was in the wrong place.
While there, however, I met Seren who was also working at the store. She kept telling me that I needed d to meet her mother. We had a lot in common and would really like each other. ‘Yeah,’ I thought. ‘Sure. Just what I need. Another relationship. Heck no.’
Seren and I worked several midnight shifts together and I started driving her home. No big deal: I had no life and driving this young kid home was the Nice Thing to Do. (Otherwise, it was a bus ride to the subway and a call home to have her mother wake up and pick her up at the other end of the subway line)
Eventually Bonnie and I met, quite by accident. I had taken Seren home one afternoon when her mother was supposed to be gone for the weekend, only to find her mother. When I first saw her, she was standing in the living room in front of the door. She was wearing a button-down shirt and sweatpants and had a then-three year old John holding on to her leg.
Much later I learned she had pulled her shoulder out of it’s socket while on the Blue Ridge Parkway and had spent the previous night in the Emergency Room of a hospital with doctors trying to get her shoulder back in place with John alone in the waiting room. The doctors had released her with serious pain meds on the condition that she drive down the road to the hotel where they’d booked her a room. She agreed, left the hospital and then drove the 4 hours or so home to Rockville. When I saw her she was well under the spell of the serious pain meds and trying hard to hold onto her sweatpants, which John, with his grip on them around her leg, was slowly pulling down.
All I saw was a brilliant yellow light surrounding her. I’d never seen an aura coming from someone before and it humbled me. Unconsciously, I looked down at the ground. Bonnie saw that as being very gallant and was impressed.
Bonnie and I finally decided to go out together a few weeks and another story later. I showed up one night after work with plans to go walking around the monuments in downtown DC. Instead, we spent the night together and I didn’t leave for several weeks (until my grandfather died).
Todd Fredell had been my best friend for most of my high school years. We’d drifted apart since he had moved out to Seattle and I’d gotten married and moved to Connecticut. (I’d asked him to be my best man but he declined saying he didn’t believe in marriage) We’d gone through a lot with each other and I wanted to talk with him. Todd was living in Seattle working for some software company writing programs (duh) but that was about all I knew about his situation. (See another post moving to Seattle Todd story elsewhere in this blog.)
Todd had bought a house in Seattle and was sharing it with our mutual friend (actually, Todd’s long-time friend who I knew through Todd), Ian. During the conversation, Todd told me about a big party they were going to be having in a few weeks. They’d become part of a yearly ritual party held over the weekend in the logged mountains about an hour or so outside of Seattle. The idea was to have everyone make as much homebrew as possible and then cart it and all of your camping gear up to this mountain spot with a wide creek running through it. Oh, and someone would also bring a generator to power the electric guitars for when the bands played on the makeshift stage.
It was called “The Mung Fest” after the word they used to describe the trub left at the bottom of a bottle of homebrew.
“You should come,” Todd suggested.
Right. Depressed, poor and clear across the country. Nice idea, though.
“Well, I really think you should come. Would you come if we fly you out here?”
So, I left Bonnie for the second night of our relationship and flew to Seattle.
Todd and Ian met me at the airport and it was great. One of the best things about talking with Todd after he moved across the country was always that whenever we spoke it was as if no time had elapsed since the last time we’d spoken. The bond between us was still there just as it always had been and it seemed like we’d just picked up the conversation where we’d left off. Ian was much the same way, never letting too much get in the way of friendship.
At Todd’s house there was an added surprise: Ian’s parents were staying there for the night. We had all been together in Ian’s (parent’s) house several times in DC, but here everyone was transplanted clear across the country years later, doing it all again.
The days leading up to The Mung Fest were fun. Todd was working during the days writing code (for the borg) and Ian was working installing solar panels on houses. I had my days to myself and spent them walking around Seattle. One day I collected a bunch of postcards and wrote all of them to Bonnie in different locations (atop the Space Needle, at the Marketspace area, around local shops) in one continuous letter spread over the cards.
It was a great time. I had time to relax, explore and be by myself during the days and with great, old friends during the evening.
It was in the last day or so before The Mung Fest that something changed in me. I still don’t know exactly what it was other than to say I became an absolute asshat. Looking back on it I think I was reacting to all of the heavy emotional changes I’d been going through since February and was overwhelmed by the notion that I was meeting new people who had no idea who I was. I could, in essence, become anyone I wanted to be. (Yes, I know I was with two of my oldest friends and to that extent this makes very little sense, but I think it’s how my twisted mind was working at the time) I was being introduced to the roommates of Todd and Ian’s girlfriends and somewhere I thought I could be anyone with them that I wanted to be. I hadn’t left Bonnie with the idea of having a fling, but the possibility was starting to form in my mind.
The night before we left for The Mung Fest, Todd told me he had been seeing a woman and was in the process of breaking up with her. He had already started to develop a relationship with another woman. Both of them were going to be at The Mung Fest and he wanted me to know about the relationships. I made some nasty mention that I might make a play for girl #2. Todd, shocked, asked me not to. (This really was so completely not like me. It still amazes me to this day)
Trucks, vans and cars were packed with camping gear, electric guitars and homebrew and a caravan set off for a secret location in a stretch of the logged mountains outside of Seattle owned by some paper company.
The site was even more beautiful than I’d imagined it would be.
We set about unloading the trucks, vans and cars while other people were setting up the stage and others still were setting up the annual Mung Fest Sweat Lodge. I was pulling amps and speakers out of a covered pick up truck and hauling them to the stage area. Finally, there were two things I was trying to pull out – a foam camping bedroll was underneath a big speaker in the back of the covered truck bed. I pulled on the foam bedroll and nothing happened. I pulled again and still nothing happened. Not about to be defeated by a piece of foam I pulled a third time and it gave way as if the speaker wasn’t even there.
The corner of the foam bedroll went straight into my eye, scratching the cornea pretty badly.
I was in considerable pain but there wasn’t much anyone could do. I think someone got me some aspirin but it didn’t help much.
That night was Friday night. I drank a few beers, listened to some music and worried about my eye hurting so much. Todd convinced me to see how it felt in the morning and I managed to fall asleep around the huge fire they had going by the stage.
In the morning, my eye was actually worse. Someone with some basic nursing training looked at me and thought the best thing to do was to immobilize my eye as much as possible. She bandaged my eye and suggested that I try to not move it at all. She was worried that too much movement might damage it further. Taking me down the mountain to a hospital wasn’t something she wanted to risk at the moment – the ride down would be bumpy and could cause additional problems with my eye.
I had never realized how much my eyes move. Since every movement of my eye caused me great pain, I learned quickly. Even moving my head was causing my eyes to move – and if my one eye moved, the other one would try to follow under the bandage. That would lead to a sensation not unlike someone taking a knife blade to the surface of my eyeball. We decided that what I really needed was a second bandage for the good eye. Being completely blind would cut down on the eye movement far more than I was able to do on my own.
Being blind was, naturally, something very new to me. I was completely helpless, couldn’t go anywhere or do anything without someone to guide me. I was seated with a group of strangers who had some sort of breakfast pastry that they’d brought with them. Tasting something while blind was new to me as well. It could have been the mountain setting, it could have been the sensory deprivation, and it could have just been baked by a really good baker, but I remember it tasting incredible.
At one point during that day someone saw me and referred to me as “The Sacrifice of The Mung Fest.” Someone had to get injured at each Mung Fest, he explained. That one person would take on the injuries of the group as a whole. I was, apparently, that person for that year.
I played up my officially designated title as much as I could. I was amidst an ever-increasing number of strangers all of whom were a bit taken aback by someone apparently voluntarily blinded for the weekend. In my best Immodest Christ-like manner I told any and all that I had taken on their injuries for the weekend and that they should go off and enjoy themselves without fear of getting hurt.
When I was younger I had (I hope and pray I still don’t have it – or at least don’t have it so severely) a rare talent for making a complete ass out of myself. The desperate urge for attention and recognition, especially from a group of strangers was pretty strong, and I don’t know exactly why. I certainly played it up for all it was worth that day.
That night was The Big Party. Of the people in attendance there were enough members of enough different bands that there were bands scheduled to play throughout much of the night. My eye (and my pompous attitude) had worn me out. I wasn’t going to be able to do anything. Someone finally offered to let me use their tent on the far side of the creek. I got my backpack and they led me across a small bridge on the roadway to their tent.
Once inside and in a sleeping bag I was tired but very much awake. I searched my backpack and found my walkman and a pre-release demo tape of the first album from a new band from Hershey, PA called “The Innocence Mission.”
Oh, I am lining up my heroes
like the paper dolls
and I find they need a wall behind them
to lean on
No, they can’t stand up
by themselves at all
Well, I guess it’s time to grow up
- Karen Peris “Paper Dolls” from “The Innocence Mission”
There’s always been something almost magical about The Innocence Mission’s first album for me. I had found it in a box of pre-release demos at Kemp Mill and had picked it up on a hunch. I listened to it on the way home to Bonnie that night and made her listen to it (in that Rockville basement) when I got there. Karen Peris’ voice is beautiful and the guitars and bass compliment rather than compete. Peris’ lyrics are, at times, deeply spiritual and at others, personal and almost humorous. Lying on my back in a tent in the logged mountains of Washington State, blinded, with a wild party going on just across the creek, it was a spiritual experience just to listen to their music.
Now, if I had been smart, I would have listened to the tape and realized that, in many ways, God was giving me another clear and direct message. If I’d been smart I would have realized that by being blinded I had not only been stopped from potentially doing something stupid, but I’d also been given the chance to experience t rue humility and the kindness and generosity of strangers. If I’d been smart…
(Years before I was working completely out of my element doing maintenance at a school for the deaf in Connecticut. On my first day, I was told to assist a woman named Jamie with a project she was working on. Jamie explained it all to me and I either didn’t understand part of it or, more likely, I was trying to suggest a different way of doing it without having any real understanding of the processes involved. Finally, she looked at me with a combination of disgust and frustration and said: “Don’t you have any common sense?” I like to think I’ve gotten better, but Bonnie still uses the line on a fairly regular basis)
In the morning I awoke and my eye felt better. I took the bandages off and was able to see clearly and move my eyes around without too much pain. I got up and started walking around the camp area. I quickly learned two things: (a) I was one of the very few there without a hangover and (b) just about everybody knew me, but I had never seen any of them before in my life.
Someone pulled out a guitar and a knife and played a jackknife slide version of “Amazing Grace.” It was haunting, even in the new light of the day.
“That’s your religion for the day,” he said when he finished.
At pack up time it was decided that I should ride down the mountain with the woman with the nursing training. She had a truck with good shocks and could provide the safest ride for my eye. (I wonder if Todd was just trying to get rid of me?) I protested to Todd saying that I could tell we wouldn’t get along and that riding with her wasn’t going to change that. “How can you tell?” Todd asked. Citing my Mystical Perceptions I impatiently told him I Just Knew. Yeah, well, I was just being blindly full of myself and by the time we were partway down the mountain we were engaged in an interesting conversation about our different lives that carried us all the way to Seattle.
I ended up wearing a patch over my eye for part of that day and for the next several days. It hadn’t completely healed, but it working on it.
As for Todd, we talked a few times in the year afterward, I think, but I think things were a bit different. I think I’d managed to annoy and disgust him enough over that week and he was glad to see me leave. He had moved to the Puget Sound with the new girlfriend. She had started a used bookstore and he was fixing computers for people. He was happy where he was and didn’t envision moving back to Seattle anytime soon. (Ian, it turned out, was still living in the Seattle house [the one with the hand-printed sign on the door that read “The Universe is already at Absolute Zero. There’s no point in trying to make it colder by running the air conditioner and leaving the door open”] with Romany, his girlfriend from DC.)
Todd was more than just a friend; he was the single most important influence on my life outside of my family when I was 18. Without realizing it, Todd helped to rescue me from a bland suburban existence and played a big part in me becoming who I am. I grew up in the DC suburbs in Maryland and would have likely been trapped there for years due to my own inertia had it not been for spending every available weekend at his house in upper NW, DC. He turned me on to great music, to interesting people and places; he helped to open the doors of perception on my little suburban mind. Todd was more than a refuge and a friend; he was a brother.
I was pompous, full of my self, incredibly obnoxious and wouldn’t see him for weeks when I got involved with a woman, but he still he remained my friend. I can’t say now what I ever gave him in return, save for pain and annoyance from the damaged part of my psyche when he and Ian flew me out to be with them.
So, Todd, if you ever read this, I’m sorry. You were a great person, a true friend and someone I miss having in my life. I hope all is well with you, wherever you are.
(And, to Bonn, who knows all of this already, thanks for your understanding and forgiveess. I suppose it was one of those big instances where my angels interceded. You’ve done more to heal my head and heart than I can ever repay. I love you.)