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Peanut Butter & Jelly… and Astro Boy!

 By: Josh Vandegrift

From my earliest childhood memory, I vividly recall eating a Fudgesicle on a rocking horse while watching an episode of “Astro Boy” on our black and white television set. Broadcast on Saturday mornings, this cartoon series aired in the United States approximately one year after my birth (9/62) and ran for approximately 24 months, give or take a few weeks. Aside from becoming a vintage tour de force in Anime history, the premiere of Astro Boy established a timeline for me to hang my hat upon whilst reflecting on my years as a toddler. But more significantly, it prompted the birth of my first conscience memory as a human being:

I can’t say how many episodes of Astro Boy I had under my bib before I could identify with this cartoon character. But what I do remember is testing the spring loaded limits of my “Wonder Horse Deluxe,” while keeping perfect time to my favorite superhero’s theme song. It was in that moment when an overwhelming sense of pride came over me as I realized the following epiphany:

I have what it takes to become Astro Boy!

Independently and down deep in my two-year-old spirit, I knew that I was born with an inherent desire to do the right thing, and that I was capable of honor, courage and selfless heroism!  Equipped with my trusty steed and my new found confidence- I set my sights to save the world from iniquity- but my mom bought me a goldfish instead… and we named him Peanut Butter.

I am the oldest son of 5 children, but I place second in line to the birth of my sister. Her position in the pecking order is only secured by a scant 11 months. That’s right… for one month out of each year- my sister and I share the same birth age. For me to try and rationalize the logistics my folks had to undergo to perform this feat, would be an exercise in reckless abandonment. For those prospective parents who would even consider this as an option, I think I’ve earned the right to advise against it.

Growing up, Tracy always seemed to wear the clothes in our playpen- while I resented having to wear a diaper. On the flip side of that coin, she never really got to experience a whole lot of “me” time after I came along. It was no secret that she too harbored some resentment- so my mom bought her a goldfish as well … and we named her Jelly- prompting my second conscience memory as a human being:

Situated on top of mom’s piano, Peanut Butter and Jelly seemed content with the aquarium they inhabited for several months. Although they appeared identical to me in every way, I don’t remember ever questioning my mother how she knew that my fish was a boy, and Tracy’s was a girl. I also respected my big sisters discernment when it came to telling the difference between our two goldfish… but in her assessment, Peanut Butter was the substandard one. It always seemed to be “Jelly”- who beat her beloved to the surface come feeding time. It was “Jelly”- who was in the forefront, while Peanut Butter cowered behind the synthetic eel grass. And on one drizzly autumn day in1965, it was Tracy- who pronounced “dead”: the fish floating belly up on the water’s surface… and without skipping a beat; it was also Tracy, who determined that it was “Jelly”- who survived.

Of course I was distraught over the whole ordeal. Mom tried her best to distract me with ceremonial words of comfort, while we stood huddled around the porcelain vessel ordained to catapult the remains of my goldfish through a network of sewer lines, promising a “burial at sea” conclusion. But it wasn’t a sense of closure that I was looking for… I wanted to get even. I started questioning the integrity of my big sister. As the root of bitterness took hold in my toddler heart, the spirit of Astro Boy took a backseat. I began to brood over the legitimacy of Tracy’s survivorship claims. I remembered the times prior to the demise of “Peanut Butter,” how she spoke with authority when distinguishing between our two goldfish. But if ever the fish she embraced as her own displeased her by using the fish bowl as a toilet bowl- she would then vacillate on her assertion, and insist the yucky culprit was my fish instead. But it was ultimately her obstinate post mortem pronouncement- with nary a glance- that really opened my eyes to her flesh, and justified retaliation in my (now) three-year-old temporal mind…

During these formidable years, we lived in a sleepy borough in south Jersey. Our home occupied a corner lot at the far end of a subdivision. Across the street there was a deciduous forest that concealed a seasonal creek. With overnight drizzle heralding in the onset of fall, any pavement adjacent to this forest accepted cast off leaves indiscriminately, creating an abstract mosaic of autumn colors- in contrast to the gray skies and wet asphalt used to affix the masterpiece in place. From our utility room window, I assessed the weather conditions on that day (of mourning) from the top of a bench seat, and dressed myself accordingly. With flush cheeks and my heart racing, I contemplated my next move. Slipping on my Ked sneakers and black rubber galoshes, I donned my yellow rain jacket and fastened the individual silver latches one-by-one. I knew my window of opportunity would be limited, and at anytime my plot could be foiled. But I had already devised a cover story, in case my plan was thwarted…
In order to give myself unrestricted egress to the outside, I pre-opened the backdoor located in the utility room off the side yard. Dressed in my rain gear, I proceeded back through the house stopping short of the wall that separated the living room from the dining room. From this vantage point I could see Jelly in the aquarium, seemingly unfazed by the recent loss of her soul-mate. As soon as I was satisfied the coast was clear, I found the fish net and climbed on top of the piano stool to get to the aquarium. With one expert scoop, I surprised myself by catching Jelly on the first try. Securing the flopping fish in one hand, I eased back down the bench supporting myself with the other and headed nonchalantly back through the utility room and out the open door, undetected.

Wearing just a tee shirt under the flimsy lining of my rain coat- insulation against the brisk autumn air was minimal at best. The cool damp grass brushing against my sockless ankles exasperated the prickly chills already running down the length of my back. Just on the other side of the street, I could hear water rushing out of the culvert that supplied the creek running through the forest lot. Looking both ways, I crossed the road and stopped in the middle. Just another few feet and I could put Jelly in the creek to live out the rest of her life, enjoying her new found freedom… but that wasn’t my intention. Finding a spot on the road free of leaves, I placed the goldfish neatly on the asphalt, its gills still rhythmically gasping for air.

“I hope it gets run over by a truck” Was exactly what I was thinking…

Back inside I stripped off my rain gear, and sat down in the living room in silence. I tried to pass the time by playing with my Lincoln Logs. I don’t recall where anybody was, or how much time had past… prior to hearing the low rumble of a big diesel motor off in the distance. I knew instantly that the truck lumbering down the street was predestined to snuff out my sister’s goldfish. As the vehicle approached our intersection, the percussion resonating from the exhaust was almost loud enough to drown out the sound of my own beating heart, if it were at all possible. As the truck drove by, the whole house shook to the point where the windows began to rattle- is how I remember it. At any moment someone in our house would surely come down to see what the commotion was all about…and without a doubt, discover the empty fish tank- but no one did.

I heard the airbrakes hiss as the truck came to a stop, idling just outside our home. In one fleeting moment, I feared the driver would surely be at the front door with a squished goldfish in hand- asking if I knew anything about it? …I wasn’t going to answer the door.

I then heard the behemoth proceed to toggle through gears as it strained to pick-up speed. I breathed a sigh of relief as the sound of the diesel grew faint, continuing on its way… and then came utter silence. With a lump in my throat, I got my rain gear back on and returned to the scene of the crime. With all the fall debris on the road, I didn’t notice any evidence that would lead one to suspect that a homicide had just taken place. With the absence of confirmation, I walked along the shoulder of the road with my eyes fixed on the center, and began to play out a “Finding Nemo” scenario in my head hoping it would ease my conscience: Perhaps after I left, Jelly flopped her way into the drainage ditch, and at this very moment on a journey downstream making new friends along the way… But my conscience convicted me that it was more likely that any evidence of the crime was probably stuck to the tire of an 18 wheeler, heading for Atlantic City…And that’s when I saw it:

At first glance, I mused that I was looking at a flattened piece of orange clay, stamped with a pronounced “Z” through the middle of it. But upon closer inspection, I was struck with the irony of the moment: This wasn’t something made by the hands of a kid using a Play-Doh Fun Factory…this imprint was formed by the tread of some truck driver’s- tire brand of choice- and that orange piece of clay was in fact the remains- and what was left of- a goldfish named Jelly.

Standing in the rain in the middle of the road, the gravity of my premeditated murder hit me like a ton of bricks. I began to sob uncontrollably, and ran towards the house- knowing I would find comfort in the arms of my forgiving mother…and then I stopped in my tracks when I realized the wickedness of what I had just done was unforgivable… an overwhelming sense of dread consumed my spirit. I tried my best to compose myself, and slithered in the back door. Just as I turned the corner to the living-room, I saw my mom’s expression looking at the empty aquarium bewildered. And before she realized I was even there, I glanced at my sister- whose expression could only be described as one of contempt… and then Tracy sensed my presence, and she shrilled:

“WHAT DID YOU DO TO MY GOLDFISH??!!!”

I looked at her, then I looked at mom, and the tears welled up, with the water-works cued- and between the sobs, I remembered my cover story and I cried out:

“I JUST WANTED IT TO GO BACK TO HER MOMMY”

And despite the fact that the screen play had not even been written yet, I proceeded to tell my mother the “Finding Nemo” version of my story…and all was forgiven… but I never forgot.

I don’t profess to have the best memory in the world, but when I do recall something, I take notice. In my humble opinion, it is the Lord who reveals to us the truth of our flesh. In retrospect;  my memories as a two year-old, comparing myself to Astro Boy may come across as a narcissistic superiority complex, but I know now what I inherently knew then: in Christ, all things are possible. And there is nothing wrong with nurturing the Astro boy in our children, as long as it’s put into perspective as to where the power lies.

From my memories as a three year-old, I’ve gleaned how important it is to probe my children about their motives. The expression “they didn’t know better” doesn’t exist in my home once they’ve reached the hardened age of two years-old.  As a toddler, I learned from the “Nemo” excuse that I could manipulate my mother through lies and deceit using the sympathy card, and played it well throughout my adolescence (without turning into Ted Bundy). But it was to my detriment, because the burden of sin is a heavy yoke to bear… and I don’t want my kids to have to carry that same burden through life, if I can help it- so I do what I can to encourage them to come clean at all costs. While under my roof, their transgressions are covered by me. And they know by now that if they do something wrong, and tell me about it- it’s a slap on the wrist. But if they try to cover it up? May God have mercy on their souls…

“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)

  After accepting the gift of salvation in 1982, Joshua Vandegrift wondered the wilderness for 16 years while he vacillated on the unconditional terms of surrendering his will. Upon allegiance with the author of his life, Josh was liberated from the bitter ranks of slighted victims and has since become a dignity shedding professional- profoundly trained in the art of swallowing his pride. In addition to raising two teen-aged boys, the Lord has bestowed upon him a ministry of compassion- as well as a love for the great outdoors.

 

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