Sep 1, 2014

Cousin Buster: Growing Up a Stranger

When I was a kid, I wasn't close to most of my cousins.  They were mostly teenagers or grownups, like my Cousin Joe (who I saw naked when I was 7).  Or little kids, like my Cousin Tracy (born when I was 12).

Cousin George was just my age, but he lived in South Carolina, so I only saw him twice.

Next closest was Cousin Tony, who everyone called Buster, about a year older than me.  He lived in a trailer on my Grandpa Prater's farm in Garrett, Indiana.

His Dad was a grizzly-voiced Southerner named J. Wood, who played cowboy songs on his guitar and found dire threats everywhere:

1. Be careful eating fish, 'cause if you accidentally swallow a bone, you'll die.
2. Don't touch that castoff couch, 'cause the stuffing is poison, and you'll die.
3. Don't go near the peat bog, 'cause there are toads and poisonous snakes, and you'll die.

His Mom, my Aunt Mavis, had a huge repertoire of stories about ghosts, like her grandmother's tale of the Naked Ghost at the Crossroads.  Plus poltergeists, mysterious disappearances, and UFOs, probably the beginning of my interest in the paranormal that culminated with my date with actor Richard Dreyfuss in 1987.

And she made the world's best pancakes.

For the first 5 years of my life, Buster and I were raised together.  There are photos of us as toddlers, playing with blocks, spinning a world globe, hugging in Sunday suits with little bow ties.

Then my parents and I moved to Wisconsin, and then Illinois, and returned only for brief visits in December and July.

But for the next 8 years, during those visits, I always wanted to stay overnight in the trailer in the dark woods, where Buster and I could read Casper comic books, play with G.I. Joes,  listen to cowboy songs, and fall asleep side by side in his narrow bed while Aunt Mavis told us ghost stories. Some of my first glimpses of homoerotic desire.

But one summer we visited my Kentucky Kinfolk instead of Indiana, and that Christmas we stayed home for some reason, so I didn't see Buster for 1 1/2 years, until the summer after eighth grade.

His comic books and G.I. Joes were gone, sold at a yard sale.  Cowboy songs and ghost stories were for "dorks."  He liked hunting, fishing, working on cars, and talking about girls.

I gamely agreed to go fishing with him, but my eyes glazed over in the discussions of cars and girls.  And his eyes glazed over when I talked about escaping to Saudi Arabia with my boyfriend Dan.

When we visited that Christmas, Buster was off with his grandparents, and I didn't see him again until the summer after ninth grade.  We sat in the living room with glasses of soda, and I talked about our new house and the prospect of high school, and he talked about getting his driver's license and the cute girls who hung out at the Blue Moon Drive In.

"I have a date later," he said.  "To go miniature golfing.  She could get a girl for you, and we could double."

I had a boyfriend!  I didn't want to date girls!  "Um...thanks, but I don't think we have time."

"Go ahead!" My Mom exclaimed.  "It will do you good to meet some girls."

So I went miniature golfing with Cousin Buster and two girls.

During high school, my visits to Indiana became sporadic.  I was old enough to stay home alone, and often I had other things to do, like the church conference in Switzerland, or a part-time job at the Carousel Snack Bar.

When we visited in 1978, the summer after high school, we spent an hour or so at the trailer in the dark woods.  Buster was still asleep, but he came out in his pajama bottoms, bleary-eyed, to say "Hi."

"I hear you're going to college," he said.

"Yeah.  Augustana, right in Rock Island."

"Four more years of school!  I couldn't stand it!  I hated school, except gym and auto shop."

"I hated auto shop! I have no idea what goes on under a car hood."

We stared at each other awkwardly.  ", do you have a girlfriend yet?"

The question made me angry.  It reminded me of the "What girl do you like" chants of the adults.    "No. I've never had a girlfriend," I said with cool precision, "And I don't want one."

He stared.  "Yeah, I like playing the field, too.  A new honey every night -- nothing wrong with that."

I never saw Buster again.

I heard about him from my parents: working at the auto garage, moving into his own place, buying a house, collecting vintage cars, going hunting and fishing, getting girlfriends -- "a new honey every night" -- but never marrying.

He died a couple of years ago.

I didn't go to his funeral.  It was too late -- he was a stranger.

See also: The Naked Ghost at the Crossroads; and Uncle Edd's Gun.