The Death Thing

As part of this last miserable 16-18 months, I include brother Dan’s stroke.  This happened just a month ago, out of the blue, as strokes do, I guess.  He is the baby-bro of the four of us, just 47 years old, 14 years younger than I, born in 1960, completely Californian born and raised.


I was going into one of those horrible meetings we have and my stupid cell phone rang and it was brother Dan to tell me that he wouldn’t be going down to San Diego as previously planned and wouldn’t be able to pick up the car that Carol’s mom was giving Carol, and oh by the way, I am in the hospital.  The connection wasn’t good, and there was noise all around from students going this way and that, and he didn’t want to talk about it.  So all I could gather was something significant had happened.

And I had to go to this meeting and so I called Carol and asked if she could find out what happened and went into the meeting, and later learned that brother Dan had been transferred to the down town hospital because they thought maybe he had a stroke and he was in for at least 24 hours of observation.  Well, it was a stroke as observation proved.  Funny, when he spoke with me right after he went to the hospital he was pretty clear but by the next day his language capacity had pretty much gone and the right side of his face, while not paralyzed exactly, was sagging.

This pretty much took the wind out of my sails and threw me for a loop.  I mean not like the loop he was thrown for of course, but my own particular loop.  Deep down we are tied I think to certain people around us.  Attached.  And what happens to them happens to us.  Not in the same way of course, but significantly.  My energy, after the first week or so of high anxiety, began to go in a way that I call depression.  I would wake up and feel overcome by the weight of the day ahead of me.  I still feel that way actually.

For me his condition reverberates most deeply with my death thing.  I have had a death thing long time.  I remember talking with my girl friend in college about it, saying I thought about death every day, and she looked at me kind of funny because she said she hardly ever thought about it.  But I think about it every day.  Call it a morbid fascination.  Maybe terror or just plain horror.  I just don’t get it.  The death thing I mean.

Or maybe consciously I think about death and deep down unconsciously I am really thinking about something else.  In any case, how a person feels or doesn’t feel about death is purely a psychological matter particular to the individual.  Maybe deep down I am feeling some sort of loss, deep, and as inexplicable as death itself.  Or maybe it’s that I use my brain all the time and death is just plain irrational.  It makes no sense at all—to be and then not to be.  I just don’t get it.  So the death thing is the fly in the ointment of trying to make sense of things using the brain. The brain just can’t explain it.


That’s a picture of brother Dan that he sent along via email to the brothers as a way of saying, hey, I am getting better and doing a-ok.

Nor did he bowl.

After WB’s funeral ceremony in Escondido, Carol and I went to the mortuary to collect his ashes.


They were in a pretty big little wooden box.  It felt funny driving around with his ashes.  But that was my job.  He had asked before his death that he be taken back to the little ARP church in Ora, SC, and I said that I would do it.  Joan had asked too.  It never crossed my mind not to do what he wanted.  In my imagination, that’s where he belonged back with his mother and father and the little daughter he had but who lived less than two weeks.


As hard as it was on me and Steve too to leave SC, the only place we had known at that point, and felt comfortable knowing, I think it must have been harder on WB to leave that area and his family behind.  WB didn’t develop any real connections to anybody outside family.  There was his wife, of course, and the boys.  And beyond that his brothers and sisters back in South Carolina and that was just about it.

 He didn’t drink so he didn’t hang out at bars jawing with his co-workers.  He wasn’t really into sports.  So he didn’t go to football or baseball games.  Nor did he bowl or go to auto races or golf. Nor did he play pool or any manner of board games. He had fellow bricklayers that he would mention from time to time and he knew some of the brick mason tenders.  But I can’t say that he made any friends in California.

Well, there was one guy that he seems to have done a few things with or maybe a few things for.  This guy was as crazy as a loon and in fact ended up in the mental hospital.  Jack Sickler, I think his name was.  I remember that he and WB staked out Jack’s house I think because Jack thought that his wife was unfaithful.  And I do believe Jack talked about killing his wife and himself at different points.  Maybe they were friends since WB was loony too.  But I think it more likely that WB sort of looked after Jack and tried to keep him out of trouble, though he wasn’t much good at it.

WB was not social really or a scintillating conversationalist.  Even later on when he visited the homes of his children he would say a few things and then go to sleep in the chair he was sitting in or maybe disappear off into one of the bedrooms and go to sleep.

I had occasion, when I was a brick mason tender, to observe him interacting with his peers at lunch break.  They would go sit in some unfinished house to get out of the sun.  They would sit on the concrete or pull up a can of some kind. WB would sit sort of off from the rest.  And mostly they weren’t talking at all.  But then WB would say something like, do you remember that job where we had blah, blah, blah and when was that exactly?  And then if any of the other guys had been on that job they would set to figuring out when that job was.  And then WB would say, and wasn’t so and so on that job.  And if anybody had been on that job too, they would set to trying to remember if so and so had been on that job or not.  And then somebody would say that no so and so had not been on that job but he had been on this other job over blah, blah, blah, and WB would wonder when that job had been, and they would set to remembering when that job had been.

And it would go on like that for the whole half hour, if they talked about anything at all. Those were some of the damndest conversations I ever heard.

That’s WB in the picture mixing up adobe for the blocks for his masterpiece, the adobe house on Delridge.

Property Line–Blockhouse

I don’t have a good visual memory.  I know people who can actually see memories from way back propertylinewith considerable accuracy.  I can’t.  So I have been hoping to find more pictures of the property back in South Carolina, the one with the block house on it.  Here’s one of the better ones I have found so far.

We are sitting on the property line between our place and Grandma’s place.  If you squint a little into the sun there you can make out the side of Grandma’s house.  So that’s how close we were to her place.  Not all that far across a field of low lying weeds.  I don’t ever remember anything being grown on purpose in that field, just naturally occurring weeds.

As you can see—a little bit—a line of trees ran along the property line, and not that far on to the left and back from the property line a little was the well.  That’s where we got our water. The earth around that that well was always a bit muddy.  I used to walk in that mud barefoot because I liked the feeling of it.  There must have been a leak somewhere.

The one of us to the left is brother, Steve, and the little guy, seated on the block, is brother, Dave.  He looks at least a year old, maybe 18 months.  So the picture must have been taken in 53 or 54.  We are barefoot per usual.  A pair of shoes is a terrible thing to waste.

I am there but completely blocked out.

Looks as if we are doing some pretend thing, maybe we are pretending to camp out.  Though I don’t know why we would be doing that.  But behind there—it looks as if we have constructed a tent and inside the tent appears to be a broken down palette of the kind used to carry brick and block about.  Seems as if where ever we lived one or more of those things could be found lying about or leaning up against a wall.

Somewhere right along there, more to our right, I think was a good sized persimmon tree.  I ate some of those once that were a little on the green side and got a stomach ache out of it.

The Block House

Here I am again—I was going to say—looking pretty country.  But I don’t see anything here to scporchsignify country.  I do know, though, the picture was taken of the porch of the house in South Carolina, the one the old man built out of block and that had four rooms but no bathroom.  Note the brickwork.  That was his doing, but so were those steps to the porch: four blocks just plopped next to each other.  The old man suffered from a slight attention to detail problem.  I remember those block now that I see them.  They used to wobble when you stepped up to the porch.

The lawn clearly is in need of a mowing.  Ha. Ha.  Nobody had lawns back there and certainly nobody bothered to mow them.  Mostly people had dirt yards; sometimes they would sweep the dirt yards to get the dirt off.  Ha. Ha.  Those weeds are just whatever stuff grew in front of the house.

I am wearing shoes so it probably isn’t summer, but I am wearing shorts though so maybe it is.  I am wearing one of my trusty t-shirts, and I didn’t wear much of anything when it was hot summer.  So maybe it wasn’t summer. But maybe they had been dressed up for the photo session.  So I guess I don’t know what time of year it was, except that it probably wasn’t winter.

I don’t know what that thing is off to my right on the porch.  It looks like a fish, but what’s a fish doing on the porch.  We didn’t eat fish; the old man didn’t like to pick out the bones.  He did say, though, they had fish fries when he was a kid.  Folks would gather by some lake, they would pull a truck up next to the lake and use it to power a live cable they would throw into the lake to electrocute the fish. They would just come bobbing up and all you had to do was collect them.

I could be five or six in that picture.  I don’t know, but if you ask me I look pretty boney.  Back then though I was always boney.  But maybe this was during my sickly period when I was sick all the time with strep throat before I had my tonsils out.


I look sort of pensive.  I wonder what I was thinking about.  Maybe my head was completely empty or maybe I was thinking about eating dinner, or what the hell I was doing sitting there.  I have been told I was a thoughtful child and very curious.  So maybe I am thinking, why am I here, what’s going to happen, what’s the point in all of this, why have I been put on this earth and is there a purpose.

The usual stuff.

Aunt Kitty–Late Edwardian

This here is Aunt Kitty.  I don’t know her last name, but she was the sister of Joan’s, my mother’s, auntkittymother.  So her maiden name must have been Barrett, the same as her sister’s.  But she was married at least twice and I have no idea what her last husband’s name was.

She is like a little time machine back to the era of the Late Edwardians, over there in England.  She had her heyday around the time of WWI.  She was the tutor for the children—or so the story goes—of Count Zeppelin, the guy responsible for the Zeppelin, over in Germany.  He told her a war was coming, so she got out of Germany and went back to England.  From there, she immigrated with her sister to Canada.

She ended up with her second husband in San Diego.  He was an alcoholic.  He had a house, but he didn’t work.  He mostly lay around drunk.  She had to make ends meet.  She sold eggs and kept goats and they sold the goat milk.  Also they were on relief.  She took in Joan and Aunt Betty after their mother died of breast cancer, the so-called father, Kaller, being pretty long out of the picture.

Joan went to Grossmont High School, so this picture was probably taken somewhere out in East County, the boondocks as it was called back then, near El Cajon.

That’s about all I know about Aunt Kitty.  I saw another picture of her somewhere and she has a big wart on her nose, and I thought she looked like a witch.  I don’t know when I saw this picture.

She died a few months before I was born.  So in addition to her normal depression, Joan was depressed by Aunt Kitty’s death about the time I came into the world.  I would say I sucked in depression with my mother’s milk, but Joan’s breasts “caked,” so I wasn’t breast fed much.

And, oh, that dog lying over there in the right side of the picture–that was Joan’s dog, according to Joan, and it’s name was Teddy.  My brothers and I had for years to suffer with another dog named
Teddy.  Joan named it and I don’t think we knew it was an incarnation of the Teddy lying in this picture.

Little Skipper

Here I am again, looking pretty country, seated on the steps of the porch of my grandma’s house.  The galoot to my right figures in my earliest memory.  I am down on the floor on my belly and I am looking at my little potty chair and I am pissed because somebody else is using it.  The person skipperusing it is was the galoot sitting next to me in that picture.  He was not supposed to be using my potty.  After all it was mine.  Also he upset the height hierarchy.  I was the first born and taller than my little brother who must have been two or three at the time of this picture.  But the galoot, who was less than a year older than yours truly, had a number of inches on me and quite a few pounds.

The big galoot was my Aunt’s son, the son of the sister of my mother.  He was Aunt Betty’s son and for some unknown and ungodly reason she had name him “Skipper.”  That’s how I always knew him and that’s what he was always called.  I don’t think it was a nick name.  I don’t know what my Aunt was thinking about when she named him but I doubt she was thinking too clearly.

She had fallen for this military guy, and just before he headed out during WWII to the South Pacific, they went to Tijuana and got married.  I doubt my Aunt was into premarital sex, so I guess they had the time in between getting married and his heading out to sea to get Aunt Betty pregnant.  Well, she bore the child and decided to go back with him to her husband’s ken in Arkansas, his having not yet returned from the war.  But when she got there, she found they didn’t know who the hell she was because her so-called husband was already married and had not communicated to his family—through he had written otherwise to Aunt Betty—anything about her existence.

Talk about your embarrassing moments.  And they were not welcoming in the least either and sent her packing.

So she went back to California, and when the old man drug me and my mother back South, she stayed there for a number of years.  But I think it was probably pretty hard being a single mother back then or any time for that matter, and she must have gotten lonely—though she and my mother hated each other—so she came back to South Carolina and got a job up in Greensville as a telephone operator.  And while she was looking for work and getting a little money together we took in Skipper.  He was with us a number of months I think, and returned for extended stays on other occasions.

But after a while, Aunt Betty went back to California to San Diego to be with her father who was dying at the time.  I don’t know why she wanted to go back to see that asshole; but maybe she hoped to inherit his trailer, that he was living in at the time, and get her hands on whatever valuables he had stashed away.  After he died, she stayed in San Diego.

After we moved back there ourselves, we were told, after the fact, that one reason we had moved was so that my mother, who hated her sister, could be near her sister in her time of need since Skipper who suffered some sort of hormonal abnormality and grew to over six feet before he was 12 had developed cancer.

Landless Whites

Walker Evans took the pictures for James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Families.  Note that word “tenant.”  Interestingly in that regard many of the pictures in the Library of Congress of the rural south during the Great Depression are characterized as depictions of “landless whites.”  I don’t recollect having seen pictures captioned “landless blacks.”  I don’t think one had tograndpaporch characterized blacks as landless; that was assumed.  But “landless whites” were a particular social category, particular enough that the phrase could be used as a tool to sort through the thousands of pictures of the rural poor taken by people like Evans, Marion Post Wilcott, and Dorothea Lange.

My Grandfather, William Berner Tingle, was for a considerable while landless. My father, William Berner Tingle, Jr., remembered having moving from house to house at least half a dozen times in his childhood.  By the 20’s the family fortunes had decayed almost completely.  Land can be divided up only so many times between all those sons, and by the time my Grandfather came along there wasn’t any left.

I don’t know for sure that he was a tenant farmer or sharecropper.  I expect he was.  But as far as I can tell, he was also an odd jobber.  So if he rented, I am not sure that he planted crops for much other than his own consumption and to sell to get some cash money for things like sugar, coffee, and clothes. Some of the Tingles seem to have had an entrepreneurial streak, and somewhere along the line Grandpa Tingle acquired a mobile saw mill.

He would scope out the territory and go up to the landowners who had a good stand of pine and say he would cut them down and sell them for a percentage.  He kept himself and a crew of four to six men busy for years with that saw mill.  That’s how he acquired the money to buy a few acres in Ora, South Carolina.  He was no longer landless, and on that land he built from wood he had cut the house he sits in front of in this picture.

He was a man known in that small community to have a one hell of a temper.  Part of that may be genetic; many members of the line have a tendency to fly off the handle.  But I think too he was in chronic pain.  He had asthma as the result, some believe, of having a tractor buck up on him and crush his chest.  Also he had hemorrhoids of a near Olympian variety.  The story goes that to be able to sit in his car he stretched across the metal frame of the driver’s seat a tractor inner tube with a hole cut in the middle large enough to accommodate the hemorrhoids.

He died pretty young in his early 50’s I think of a heart attack that occurred, according to some reports, in the middle of a raging fit about the price of sugar.  He smoked.  If you look closely at the picture, you can see a cigarette between the fingers of his left hand.  He also drank.  My father reports that he was sent not infrequently to the local store to buy a bottle of Old Crow.  The bottle was then usually secreted in the hollow of tree stump, hidden out of sight but of ready access.

Cats and Goats

My brothers—mostly my brothers—and I had to clean out our mother’s house so we could sell it.  As the family historian, or the one interested in such things, or with the time to do it, I took charge of house1947a couple of boxes of pictures and documents that our mother kept in a cedar chest, and a few days back I pulled out one of the boxes and started going through it.

 That was a mistake.  I am never in a good mood and doing that, looking at pictures of a bunch of dead people from long ago, didn’t help my mood any.  But I found this picture and I think at some level I have been thinking around and about it since I first saw it. But I don’t know what I am thinking about exactly and whatever it is seems pretty confused and full of conflict.

That’s a picture of the first house we lived in when the old man took us back to South Carolina after WWII to grow cotton.  I think the house had electricity but it didn’t have running water or in door bathing and toilet facilities.  I appear to be looking at or for something in the grass.  Off to my right is a cat high tailing it out of the area.  A shovel leans up against the wall, and the screen on the door to the porch is a particularly thick and rusty kind of screen that’s hard to describe but you would know it if you have seen it.  Whenever I have seen it I have wanted to touch it.  It has that effect.

I don’t remember the day of course or the house.  I wish I remembered the cat.  But I do recognize the kid.  That’s me, OK.  I know that.  But I have a difficult time making the connection between me, as I sit here at a computer looking out the window at the California mountains about 58 years later, and that kid.  But I do feel a sort of personal, though generic, attachment.

I say generic because in general I like little kids about that age.  Whenever I bump into a little kids about that age I say hello, or sometimes, if I am wearing it, I take off my hat so they can see part of my head come off.  Usually, they don’t mind.  My conversations with these little kids are pretty brief, and I almost always find them satisfying.  I can’t say much passes between us, but enough I expect. What’s there to say but hello and then goodbye?  That’s probably the most basic and fundamental conversation anyway, hello and then goodbye.  That sort of wraps it up, I think.

I am glad the cat is in the picture.  I must have disturbed it—the way it is high tailing it out of there—just moments before the picture was taken.  When I first saw the picture I thought it was a little weird-assed goat with a long tail sticking up, but that didn’t make any sense; then I saw that what appeared one of the ears of the goat was in fact the right front leg of the cat.

I like animals too and I try to communicate with them whenever possible.  While I am very fond of cats, it would have been cool if the cat had been a goat.  I know we kept goats now and then.  Goats are an under-rated animal, pretty interesting, and even a little intelligent, I think.  Not like sheep or your basic fleshy fat cow.  They have a dull and dead look in their eyes.  But a goat will recognize the person who feeds it.  Cows—they don’t give a damn who you are.  They just want to be fed.

A Real Piece of Work

My brothers and I over the years took to calling the old lady—after we had recounted some new horror story—“a real piece of work.”  This phrase means something precise to me in my mind at least, but I am not quite sure how to translate into other words.  I think it means something like what people mean when they say of somebody, “he is just impossible.”

 lipsI am not sure what that means either; for certainly to be impossible a person must first be possible.  But whatever it means, my brothers and I didn’t take to calling the old lady that until later in life and we had managed to emerge a little from her emotional strangle hold.  We had achieved a sort of distance which allowed us to express a very, very grudging respect for her abilities to make us (and herself) incredibly miserable.  I think that’s implied in “a real piece of work,” a grudging, very grudging respect.

If this applied to the old lady, it also applied to her sister, Aunt Susan, who was also a real piece of work although apparently crafted by a different craftsperson.  While the old lady was Miss Goody-Goody Two Shoes (whatever that means), oh so prim and proper with her lips that touch liquor will never touch mine holier than thou attitude, Aunt Susan was sort of large and blousy, if that’s a word, gregarious, not above hinting at cleavage and certainly not afraid of a drink.

 So we have Saint Old Lady and Sinner Sue; at least that’s how our mother tried to make Susan feel.  Susan for her part had grown up belittling Saint Old Lady and continued to do so making remarks especially about her attire and her weight.  Although for many years, the Saint had all the leverage since she had a god fear husband and god fearing children, and my Aunt didn’t have anybody after her son, Skipper, died at the age of 13 or so of bone cancer.

And before that her career with men had been, for women of her generation, a bit of a walk on the wild side.  During the war, she met a man, had intercourse with him unmarried, became pregnant, and waited while he went off to the war after they had married in TJ.  She waited and waited; the child came along and still no husband.  Plus, the letters had stopped coming.  She got herself together somehow and went back to Arkansas where his family was only to find out he was already married.  There stood his wife right there on the porch, with one child standing beside her, and another in the oven.  And basically they just laughed at her and told her to get lost.

So Aunt Susan was a single mother.  I expect there have always been lots and lots of single mothers either de jure or de facto.  But she was one before single mothers became a topic of conversation.  And somewhere along there she had an affair with a married man, no less.  I met him once.  I got a call from Aunt Susan to come have a drink with her at a bar over in Lemon Grove.  I guess she had come back to visit her old stomping grounds and she cottoned to me because I had spent time with her dead son.

And this guy comes in—the adulterer, I mean—and I don’t know what I expected—but he is pretty tall, sort of stooped over, nothing to speak of really, and wearing one of those god awful polyester suits fashionable at the time.  The affair—that was long over—but they had remained friends.  So I finished my drink and after a bit I left.

Crap Shoot

I always forget which one it is, but in meiosis or maybe its mitosis the sperm and the egg get together and sort of swap half of their genetic material with each other, and the genetic material insomniathat comes out of this random swapping is you, the individual.  This damn exchange is pretty much a crap shoot, but that’s where you come from.  And there’s no doubt about it but this swap pretty much determines who you are going to be, like a woman or a man, or a black person or a white person, or somebody who lives in India or in the United States.

Somebody quoted Henry James as saying we go through life wrapped in an envelope of contingency.  Bullshit.  We are the envelope.  Consciousness is just the lie we tell ourselves to convince ourselves we are in control; really consciousness is just along for the ride.

My brothers and I for example are all white men.  We all have penises that denote us as men, and we are all damn white.  One look at one of us and you say, Hey, that’s one white guy. Some people say white people are really pink people, and maybe that’s true, but those parts of me not usually exposed to the sun are pretty damn white.

I am probably the whitest of the lot being the most fair.  I do not tan.  I burn.  I am like 80% Anglo-Saxon with some Irish thrown in there, though as far as I know they are probably related to the Anglo-Saxons too.   I might be more Saxon than Anglo because—though this is pretty speculative—some people in Denmark have names that sound a lot like Tingle.

 My brothers are Anglo-Saxon too of course and as I said pretty white.  If the four of us were in the same room, though, I am not sure if people who didn’t know us would know we were related or not.  I look in the face like the old-lady; and my youngest brother, brother #3, looks like me, so he looks like my mother too.  Brothers #1 and #2 look a bit more like the old man.  They both have dark hair; while I and Brother #3 have lighter hair.  Mine was red, though I like to say auburn, and his had a lot of red in it and was sandy.

 I can’t quite tell where we got our bodies from.  My body is a dead ringer for the old man’s.  I have chicken or tooth pick like legs; my upper body sits on those and is more slight in the bone structure than not.  The old man got a gut after 50 or so and so have we all.  If I gain weight it goes straight to the gut; the same for brothers #1 and 3.  Brother # 2’s weight spreads out a bit more and doesn’t stick out like he had swallowed a cannon ball like mine does.  We all stand within an inch or so of six feet either way.  So we might be called big guys, though I have never thought of myself as a big guy.

As I said, the genetics thing is a crap shoot.  But people who look at us a while all say we look alike “through the eyes.”