Ten days after high school graduation, I left the very middle-class Detroit suburb for Army basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Following my return in 1968 to attend Michigan, I left the Wolverine State for the Golden State’s far more pleasant climes.
A few times, I flew back to visit with my family. And while there, on a few occasions I’d engage my sister in a conversation about our next door neighbors, the Wagner’s. Karl was a carpenter, worked in the construction trades building homes through the area. He and Catherine had three kids; two daughters. The oldest girl, Sandra, was two years younger than was I and, for a while, was among one of my sister’s best friends. The next oldest daughter, Lois, was my youngest sister’s best friend, for a while. And for a while, as Sandra began to blossom in puberty, I felt incredibly drawn to her. Juvenile hormones, steadily growing for more than a decade, eventually burst their binding chains with intensity. It’s how all life is.
I recall one summer evening in particular. For whatever reason, my parents were out of the house and both my sisters were in their upstairs bedroom. How it happened that I nudged Sandra aside, or how I coaxed her into our finished basement . . . Nearly five decades later, it’s all a blur. I wanted to . . . what? I had a vague notion. But I was young; thirteen, maybe fourteen. I had no experience. I had no moxie. I had no moves. All I had was expanding desire. What I recall is that I’ve little doubt that Sandra might have gone along with whatever I had in mind. I felt alive. Sandra was alive. I could see it in her eyes, the way she coyly looked at me, and in her smile.
I knew I wanted to kiss her, and touch her. I felt that she felt that she wanted me to as well. But then, all of a sudden I heard my sister’s voice, “Ed, what are you doing down there?”
“Nothing . . .” And that’s as close as I got to Sandra. Ever.
Except for my interest in Sandra, everything was “for a while.” That while changed dramatically when Catherine died from cancer. Sandra would have been around thirteen. Ostensibly to help out, Felicia, Karl’s fully-grown second or third cousin took up residence in the house. And Karl began drinking, and, on more than one instance, one or more of his carpenter buddies would join him, and on more than one occasion the pal would stay the night.
Winter in Michigan is the entirety of the time when the weather is miserable. It doesn’t have to be snow driven. The ground doesn’t have to be blanketed white, for it to be winter. Winter frequently lasts from some time in early November into the second or third week of April, when the air is damp, cold . . . ugly, and the ground cracks underfoot in a sort of permafrost, or is squishy, soggy from a partial melt.
The calendar said “spring,” but the weather was still that winter when I saw Sandra slowly making her way home from school. Her head was down. Her books were tight to her chest.
“Hi! Mind if I walk with you?”
Sandra, if she issued any reply, I don’t remember what it was. What I recall with extraordinary clarity was that Sandra seemed dead; a walking, lifeless zombie. There was nothing in her walk, nothing in her voice, and a gray emptiness in her eyes that sadly mirrored the season.
“Ed, I’m surprised you didn’t know about Karl,” my sister chided me, as if I was supposed to know, as if either our mom or dad would have brought me into the circle, as if during one of our California-to-Michigan phone conversations the topic of Karl Wagner would have come up.
Before the family fled from Michigan to Texas, there were strong rumors — supposedly backed by sufficient evidence that would have warranted police investigation — that Karl had been engaged in a protracted sexual relationship with Felicia, and that perhaps Felicia had brought Sandra into the sport. (Lesbian, heterosexual, incest . . . no one knows for certain. The move out of state truncated the inquiry that would have been more conclusive. But the sudden change in the daughter’s personalities definitely pointed to something vile.) Regardless how deprecating it all was, my sister told me that, just prior to the family’s move, Sandra confided to her — under the most grave promise that my sister keep the secret — that, more than just a few times, a few of Karl’s friends, after some drinking, had had sex with her.
“I thought there was something, I suspected something like that,” was my reply to my sister. “But how the hell could a father . . .? Do that, let any of that happen, to a daughter?”
Karl’s story, and why we better think it over.
Karl was one of the first and one of the few to survive the D-Day assault on Normandy. After the beachhead had been established, he was reassigned to an infantry unit that pushed through France, en route to Germany. During one of the winter months in late’44, his company had seen some but not a lot of action. What Karl experienced was long days and long weeks of cold and very little sleep. German units and patrols either were everywhere, or were believed to be. It was especially bad during the bitter morning mists of vague shadows that could be the enemy, or a quivering bush, or a feral dog. Regardless what it was, a wrong guess could be instantly deadly — or worse; a slow, agonizing wound that ended in slow, agonizing death or ghastly mutilation. You don’t rest easy when a cracking twig was portentous of fates you fought as much as you did the Germans to keep from your eyes.