I grew up in the church–or rather I grew up in a church. No, my parents weren’t a pair evangelical ministers–they were a pair of…other “colorful” nicknames throughout the years. I grew up in a church because my dad stumbled upon one for sale in rural town he’d driven through on his travels working for the state of Indiana. Unlike a normal person who would have just started a secret second family in this ideal isolated hamlet, he actually relocated my mom, two sisters and me to live there–after a bit of weekend remodeling.

I barely remember our previous house as little more than blurry snapshots in my head, taken by a one-year-old with a penchant for sneaking sips of grandma’s beer. But I do remember going to the new house on weekends to “assist” my dad and grandfather, and to marvel at the open space of the house and yard. Having been a church, the house was wide open with few internal walls. My folks worked with my grandfather, a carpenter (like Jesus Christ – coincidence?) on creating a blueprint for the new house which cut the house up into the usual rooms you’d expect.

My parents didn’t love my two older sisters enough to build them separate bedrooms. But they loved me enough to give me not only my own room, but a sort of custom upper bunk bed situation where my bed was attached to the wall and rested on my dresser, leaving a secret passage way behind it. A wide ladder was the way up to my loft bed, and thick rope with huge knot hung just at the end near the ladder. It was fun to swing on until pendulous gravity began helping it burrow up my bum. But it looked cool as hell and was the envy of any friend I had who ever saw it–all two of them (one was imaginary, but that still counts.)

Some weekends the renovation was a true family affair. In addition to my dad and Grandpa (his dad), my Pap (mom’s dad) would come down to help. I remember him digging a huge hole on the side of the house–for plumbing or something. When it was done he asked me if I wanted to get into the freshly dug hole and play. As soon as I was deep into the wet earth he told me he was doing to fill the hole back in. I couldn’t prove it in court, but the bury-me-alive part was heavily implied. When some adult finally came to the aid of my cries for help I was retrieved from the cavern and placed safely above ground. I’ll never forget how hard he laughed while I was terrorized, thinking he was going to let me die in that hole. (I’m sure the hole wasn’t as big as I remember; hopefully neither was my Pap’s bloodlust!)

Once we were settled into our new abode my sisters would seek constant revenge against me out of their jealousy. One of the rooms carefully designed was a huge walk-in closet in our entry way. It housed my dad’s suits and served as general storage for miscellaneous junk–and me. When my existence was deemed “a problem”–as it was from time to time by my sisters (one in particular, but there’s no need to name names), I was tied to a chair with fashionable belts from my mom’s terry cloth closet and force-fed ketchup sandwiches. But the joke was on them: a) I had learned to crave adventure–and kidnapping–from a couple of bionic friends and three little girls who went to the police academy, b) I looked amazing in terry cloth, and c) I LOVED ketchup sandwiches!

Other times when they’d set up their shared bedroom as a general store and play “town”, I was only invited at the very end–though I’d been begging to be included since set-up. “Ronnie, do you want to play?” they’d finally ask me enthusiastically. “Yes!” I’d eagerly reply, jumping to me feet ready to dig in knee deep into “town”. “Ok. We’re cleaning up the town.” The joke was back on me. My role in “town” was never more than “streets and sanitation,” and it only worked on me every single time.

Any city family who relocates to the country gets a puppy (who may or may not turn out to be a furry despot.) When it came to household status I wasn’t even a close third compared to our family’s beloved “wonder dog” Buster–who was without dispute lord and master when Dad was traveling as he did back then. In my father’s absence, Buster ran our household with an anything-you-treasure-should-have-my-teeth-marks-in-it attitude. Not unlike like my sisters, Buster liked–needed–to be center of attention. If someone brought a baby into the house, he’d take something from the diaper bag out of jealousy and chew it to a nub in his dark lair under my parents bed.

Sometimes, he’d somehow take something off the counter–mostly Tupperware–and retreat to his bed-framed cavern to decimate it. A simple command from my father would have gotten him to relinquish whatever he’d taken, but in his absence if there was any chance of getting it back with minimal damage, speed and Kraft singles were the answer. A slice of American cheese could sometimes be used in a primitive bartering system the rest of us were reduced to practicing. There were times during the complicated negotiation between my sister and I and Buster when his monotonous and unending growl would increase in volume and ferocity, depending on how close our hands were to whatever treasure he held in his death grip. To add insult to injury (which was inevitable if Dad was out of town) Buster would sometimes throw his paw into the object just to hold it steadier, his brown eyes never leaving us. He had swagger, no doubt about it.

Sometimes after particularly long negotiations we’d get sloppy, and Buster might release the Tupperware only to replace it with my index finger–which would have been too close during the cheese-offering/goods exchange. Gulping the cheese wasn’t enough for him. He liked bargaining chips. And my index finger played tightly gripped hostage more times than Flo told Mel to “kiss her grits.” It was in situations like this when I’d yell “GO GET MORE CHEESE” that more times than not my sister slump back empty-handed. “We’re out of cheese,” she’d shrug. I logged almost more hours on my parents’ cold tile floor than I ever did swaddled in terry cloth in the walk in closet. And it was a far second choice.

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(Buster romping in the foreground completely ignoring my sisters and me. Oh, wait, I’m ignoring them too, so it’s okay. I think I was about to throw gravel in the faces for pay back for my bit part in “town”.)

And what the hell is going on with my wagon? Why aren’t I in it and being pulled around like a little prince by his two older huskier sisters?

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