I had always been curious about Mr. Crump ever since he bought that old trailer and had it moved down to Frenchman’s Creek, just outside of town. If I remember right, Mrs. Hewlie was the one who found him the property. She thought of herself as a real estate broker, though I didn’t know anything else she sold to anyone since Mr. Crump bought those five acres with the palm tree. That was one of the neat things about it, and I guess why I’d always assumed Mr. Crump was just a little out there. Which to me meant interesting, and Murphys had a great vacuum in the Interesting Souls department. Behind Mr. Crump’s mobile home, which was up on blocks, loomed a single Washingtonian palm with its slender trunk taller than a telephone pole, topped with stunted fronds sitting up there just like a little fan. We didn’t have any other palms in this area; it was hardly the desert or the tropics. Being in the foothills of the Sierras we basically had live oaks and manzanita, scrubby bushes with waxy bark whose oil you could smell in the summertime heat. And nearby were the giant redwoods, the really fat ones, which everyone visited. But this one palm tree that you could see down the road leading to Mr. Crump’s house, swaying lofty in the breeze, was like a single pillar of its own special community.
I knew pretty much everyone I saw daily, and we all waved when I pedaled past them during my paper route like we were great old friends. But frankly I knew and liked the dogs around town far better. At least I seemed to understand them more. In fact, one of my most distinguished accomplishments was imitating barks. I was best at German Shepherds, a skill I learned from our family dog Bridget years before she had to be put to sleep. But I’ve had some pretty extensive conversations with Mrs. Meyerhoff’s beagle and the librarian’s fox terrier, Susan B., among my customers pets.
Mr. Crump’s mailbox was one in a cluster of six of my regular deliveries. This morning, having stuffed the morning’s Record and Bee in both the Wyzanskis’ and Ragsdales’ mailboxes, I felt this really bizarre kind of from-the-gut impulse to deliver Mr. Crump’s Union Democrat in person. I bicycled down his unpaved path till I rounded the bend and saw the top of my favorite palm tree, then the mobile home. Out front was his sorry excuse of a car, a rusted aquamarine ’78 Nova that needed almost everything but could still get him around locally, and a small fenced pen with three little animals. I’d heard he raised pigs or something, but these didn’t look anything like pigs. More like puppies of some kind of exotic breed I didn’t recognize, though they didn’t bark. But they sure came as close to me as the fence would let them. Being the helpful kid I am, I let them indulge in a sniffing feast until I heard what sounded like a crash coming from inside.
I ran to the front door, knocked once or twice out of politeness and poked my head inside, where I heard a loud groan and then saw Mr. Crump on the floor, fallen and gasping for breath. Wheezing was more like it. He was like a skinny fish out of water, flailing helplessly. I tossed the paper on a chair and quickly dropped to my knees to see how I could help.
“What is it, Mr. Crump? Chest pains? Is it your heart?”
He was gasping frantically now and making sounds I couldn’t figure out, but he was shaking his head No and trying to point at something. Now I was getting scared, not as scared as it looked like he was getting, but I didn’t know what to do. His eyes were staring at something, looking powerfully like a trapped squirrel, but I couldn’t figure out what he was trying to say to me. I’d learned CPR and could do the Heimlich, I learned all that in school, but they seemed really useless in this situation. It was clear he could barely breathe but he was trying to get me to see Telephone. That’s what he was pointing at, and feeling pretty dumb I grabbed it and dialed 911. As I got an operator, I could almost hear Mr. Crump whisper “Thanks,” but he was spasming badly and the wheezing was getting worse. My mind raced through everything I had learned about doing mouth-to-mouth, and all I know was I kept reassuring him that everything would be okay. Which I didn’t really know was true. Until finally we could hear a siren in the distance, and that made me feel I wasn’t just being an out-and-out liar.
In retrospect, all I remember after that was an incredible blur of frantic activity. The paramedics somehow got him onto a gurney and into their ambulance, where they put an oxygen mask over his mouth and nose.
“Can I come with you?” I asked Tommy Barrett, one of the paramedics I knew through my father. But it probably was an irrelevant question because through all the frenzied actions Mr. Crump never once let go of my hand, the knuckles of which were already turning white. Tommy nodded and I felt like family, or what I imagined a real family member would feel, as the ambulance backed onto the main road and took off. We picked up speed, all sirens blaring louder than anything, and headed down the two-lane highway, nearly sideswiping a car of startled tourists. They were ambling along doing the Mother Lode trail, which was supposed to be all peaceful serenity like a time gone by. But we were on a frantic mission, rushing like crazy till we reached Angels Camp and the brand new Mark Twain Hospital.
“Made it!” I breathlessly and stupidly pointed out to Mr. Crump as the paramedics helped transfer him to the hospital’s gurney. An attendant in scrubs gently unlocked each of Mr. Crump’s tight-fisted fingers from around my hand that had long since gone numb, and told me where I could wait while they treated his asthma attack. It was only then that I had a clue as to what was happening to him.
I sat turning pages in the waiting room, but I was as little interested in Wall Street as I was in better gardens or kitchen improvements. At least the latter two had pictures, though I can’t say anything registered in my brain. Finally a nurse poked his head in the door and said, “You can go in now.”
Mr. Crump was all wired up to oxygen tanks with plastic tubes in his nose, and he looked at least twenty years older than back at his home. His brown eyes peered out over sagging circles, and his wrinkled brow looked liked he might be facing the end. I didn’t know exactly what his age was. I figured somewhere in his sixties because it seemed like he was retired and I think that’s when you did that, but he looked pale and weak as if the living flame inside him was burning awfully low. He didn’t have much meat on his bones, and the scraggly hair he had on his head needed a combing. And, of course, I’d never seen him in hospital pajamas, which aren’t exactly flattering. He made a little smile and wiggled two fingers in an attempt to wave as I came into the room, but it seemed to take all the strength out of him just to do those two simple things. I pulled a chair up to his bed and he held my hand for awhile, as if he were my grandfather. I think he dozed a little. Then a nurse brought him some broth and lime jello, and in not too long he seemed to be getting back to himself again.
He started talking, first in little phrases with gasps between them, then whole chunks of thoughts at a time. Before long I began to realize he was telling me his life story.
“Mr. Crump, maybe you should save your breath.”
“Why? I’ve been holed up in that place too long. No other people. Big mistake for a teacher. Got to talk. It’s part of my nature.”
He told me about his life teaching high school biology in a part of New York City called the Bronx. He said he could have taught college if he wanted to, but he liked to grab young minds while he could still help shape them. College kids thought they knew it all and were tougher nuts to crack. Not his cup of tea.
Between short pauses of sipping oxygen he talked about a stint in the Army, back in the early ‘50s before he settled into teaching, and that got him on the subject of Vietnam Vets a generation later. I was totally captivated. He was such a born story-teller and spoke with this amazing honesty you don’t often hear from grownups.
“So I’m watching these Vets fighting the Administration over Agent Orange” and he gasped a little for air “getting little payoffs in some cases, maybe not a lot but something. But, see” and here he wheezed “I was in the Forgotten War. Ever heard of the Korean War?” A smirk crawled over his face. “Bet you couldn’t tell me a damn thing about it.”
He was right. I couldn’t, but I was ready to hear everything Mr. Crump wanted me to know about it. He was like a teacher’s teacher because, even as weak as he was, there was more than a ghost of something full of fire in him, and I could only imagine in his heyday he must’ve been dynamite.
“Were you wounded?”
“Not in battle.” Wheeze. “But I was handling a lot of asbestos. We didn’t know how lethal it was, especially for smokers, and I was a two-pack-a-day moron in those days. That’s where it started, these lungs of mine. So I decided to take on the Veterans Administration. Single-handedly. Didn’t have any lawyers working for me. Couldn’t afford to.” Couple of gasps. “But after four-teen years of hard work I won.” Slight coughing spasm, but it passed and he sipped some oxygen. “Well, I guess ‘winning’ is a relative matter.”
And he started telling me about his settlement, which allowed him to leave the city and move to California“Every teacher’s dream, though most New Yorkers won’t admit it”and buy his mobile home with the palm tree. Suddenly he glanced out the window and looked alarmed.
“Jeremy, does your father know where you are?”
My heart started racing. It was dark outside, and I hadn’t given a moment’s thought to calling home. I jumped up as he gave me permission to leave with a gesture of his hand, and rushed out of the room in search of a public telephone. I ran into the nurse I had seen earlier and he gave me directions, adding at the end: “But let me warn you”
I didn’t have time. I dashed down the hall, made a left at the elevators, and abruptly found myself surrounded by a small crowd that was obviously not from the hospital.
“Are you Jeremy McGinnis?” a barrage of voices bombarded me at once, and suddenly flash bulbs on cameras I hadn’t seen went off all around me. People were handing me business cards, and saying things like “I’m from the Calaveras Enterprise” and some other papers and a radio station. My head was spinning and I figured there was some kind of crazy mistake, but I had to get to the phone. When I got through, Dad was more relieved than angry. Almost understanding. However, he told me to let Mr. Crump get his rest and not exhaust him, and for once in his life he probably had given me good advice.
The next morning I awoke to a nightmare. On the front page of the Union Democrat was a color photo of me with my blue eyes staring like a demon and my chin looking sinister with straggly hairs appearing that might actually form a beard someday. Next to it was a story about how I had saved Mr. Crump’s life by using the CPR I had learned in school and a lot more bull. I tossed the paper on the table and rummaged through the cupboards for something to supplement the granola bar I was calling breakfast. Dad came in to refill his coffee and beamed like an idiot from ear to ear when he saw me.
“I’m mightily impressed.”
“It’s all a bunch of lies.”
“Will you sit down? Breakfast is healthiest when it’s eaten sitting down.”
He knew exactly how to go for the jugular right off. “I’m still looking for what I’m going to eat, do you mind?” I shut the cupboard and tried the refrigerator. Some leftover KFC and half a side of baked beans caught my eye.
“There’s an old bit of wisdom, boy, says it doesn’t matter what they write about you long as they spell your name right.”
“But his heart didn’t stop.” I snatched my food and sat at the table.
“How do you know that?”
“Because the paramedics told me. And I didn’t give him artificial respiration.”
“You could have. You were certified.”
“But I didn’t.”
“Doesn’t matter. You’re a hero.”
“All I did is pick up the stupid phone.”
“You got yourself noticed, boy. That’s what you did, and that’s what matters in this world. It’s good to recognize at a tender age the press can be a powerful ally.”
That did it. I shoved the half-gnawed chicken leg in the remains of the cold beans, grabbed another granola bar and headed for the door tossing one last dagger behind me. “You didn’t seem to feel that way when Mom died.”
I stormed out the back door. For a moment I waited to hear if he was going to respond, but there was silence. Then I heard him mutter, “That’s a disgusting breakfast.”
The day only got worse from there. Everyone on the school bus was talking about the article and hassling me, some in a rather less than friendly way. I couldn’t wait to get to the Bret Harte parking lot, but it was even worse at school. Kids who normally wouldn’t talk to me, like Alicia Brainard, ganged up around me in the corridor outside my homeroom and wouldn’t let me through until I actually autographed their copies of the Union Democrat. Were they crazy about those staring eyes, as if I were a rock star? After the first two signatures I started writing any names I could think of: Elvis, Leonardo, Einstein. The bell finally rang and I elbowed my way into the classroom, hoping for some room to breathe. But as soon as I got inside I saw the words chalked in rainbow colors two feet high on the blackboard: “JEREMYOUR HERO!” Miss Nolan, who is not a soul you want to see first thing in the morning, started applauding like a cheerleader and the whole class jumped to its feet to join her. I wanted to vomit.
"The Extraordinary Pupfish
of Calaveras County"
A novel composed of two coming-of-age stories told in the first person, an unwilling 15-year-old hero and an obstinate 65-year-old widow, who grapple with the hypocrisies of a twisted world. Written by an award-winning playwright and screenwriter, who worked with homeless youth in Hollywood for twenty-five years.
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shipping and handling.
by Joel Schwartz
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