19 January 2015


Did you ever meet that kid that we called “Camphor”? He was a quiet kid. Short and quiet, as I recall. I have no idea how he got the name “Camphor,” but that's what we called him. I never asked, and now I kind of wish I had.

Camphor used to walk up and down the main street of town, stopping and looking into the shop windows. He would spend the longest time looking into windows that you just wouldn't think could hold the attention of a thirteen year-old boy, but there you have it. He would stop in front of the hardware store, and look at a window display of chicken wire and galvanized washtubs – all the while moving his thin little lips with no sound coming out. I've seen lots of folks do that, of course, but never in the places that little Camphor would do it.

This was Dubuque, mind you. Dubuque in the hey-day. Or do you call it “hayday”? I was never sure if it was one word, two words, or a hyphenated word. Anyhow, it was Dubuque when Dubuque was more than just a place on the river. Camphor would sometimes stop outside the big hotel (you know the one I'm talking about – if you know Dubuque, that is) and wait for someone to come out. It looked as though he was expecting a celebrity to come strolling out of the lobby, and I think one time I even saw him holding a pad of paper and a chewed-off pencil, looking for all the world like he was going to ask someone for an autograph. This might have been, as you know Dubuque was a hopping place for all sorts of big-city performers who might have driven up from Davenport or over from Chicago just to do a show or maybe to get away from the big city.

I don't think he ever got any autographs, as best as I can figure.

Camphor, he came down with a disease when he was just what nowadays they call middle school age. It was some kind of odd disease where he started hearing loud explosions all the time. It started with him sitting bolt upright in the middle of class, and clapping his hands to his ears. At first the teachers thought he was being disruptive, but after the doctors in Iowa City told his mom and dad what was going on, folks got used to it. The loud noises started keeping him up at night, though, and by the time he was fifteen he was missing from school almost every day. Sometimes we'd see him around town, small and quiet, and looking a little flinchy and sad.

You would be too, I suppose.

Camphor's dad died out on the river the next year, and his mom went away. No one asked where. Camphor went to go live in what I suppose today you would call a “group home,” but then was just some kind of a place for unfortunate folks to live. It was run by the Church, I think. Who knows? I once saw what I thought was a nun there, so I'm just taking a guess. Anyhow, that's where Camphor went. We saw less and less of him, and eventually he just seemed to disappear. I only hope the same could be said for the explosions in his head.

I'd like to be able to say that I saw him years later, but I never did. No one ever did, as far as I can tell. He just became one of those people you only think about when you see something that you haven't seen for a long time – or when you hear an explosion in your head that no one else can hear.

And God forbid you end up hearing the explosions that no one else can hear.

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