Tags: 1970s, my childhood
I got out the Turtle Wax to get nostalgic about the past. Summer–I remember the summer of 1976.
Maybe this is my “Sandlot” moment. Maybe not. However, fifth and sixth grade are always a magical time in a young boy’s life.
My first crush, Donna Bilyeu. My foray into a life of crime as a street urchin. My first development of social interaction. How did these events shape me, and make the person I am today?
Although I was raised in the country, for two years we lived “in town.” The differences were vast.
This is the mid-seventies, living in a city in the St Louis Metro East area. Cars, traffic, hustle, bustle, people, activity–all of these things were a whirlwind that I, an introverted innocent country lad, adapted to easily.
I had a specific memory that I wanted to write about, but others are coming to mind. I’ve talked about my life of crime already. This is more about school.
Our school had a playground in front, asphalt, and fenced in to keep us from going out into the busy street. The back was a very large playground. Half was asphalt and half was dirt, but during the previous summer the back was asphalted also. I guess it makes it better to play softball on?
There were two sixth grade classes because this was a big school. Two male teachers, Mr Dresch and Mr Goldsmith. I had heard all kinds of scary things about Mr Goldsmith, and didn’t want to be in his class.
So of course I was. Before school started, the room assignments were posted. Man, why did I have all the shitty luck?
As it turns out, Mr Goldsmith was a pretty cool teacher. He was smart, he was funny, and he knew how to communicate with us hooligans. Although…
One day for PE we are out on the asphalt playing softball. The large class is divided into two teams, and positions were random. On this occasion, I was catcher. I think Goldsmith assigned me this position so I would have some practice throwing and catching, because I was not athletically inclined in the strictest sense of the word. Or any sense, really. Goldsmith was pitching.
I’m doing the usual amount of fumbling around that looks like an uncomfortable montage, but for the most part I catch the ball and more or less return it. Here’s the windup, here’s the pitch–strike two!
I caught the softball in my throat.
Yeah, not in my nuts, which would have been funnier. So sorry to disappoint you assholes.
Was my windpipe crushed? It hurt like a sonofabitch. Was that a fastball? A fastball with a softball intended for grade school kids? I was having trouble breathing. Was I injured, or just hyperventilating? It was about 35 years ago so I don’t remember what Mr Goldsmith said to me, but the essence of it was, “Man up. Get back in there and catch.”
Contrast that with how we coddle and pussify our kids today.
The year before that, in fifth grade, I had to deal with a couple of bullies. Why do they always seem to want to pick on me? Did I seem that soft? Was I an easy target? A pushover?
The first kid I remember his name. Wayne Welch. He had dark hair in a crew cut, and a square face. And he always smelled like pee. He tried to hassle me a few times, and I didn’t respond correctly, so eventually it just led to him calling me names and occasionally trying to check me in hallway.
Of course, I had 30 pounds on him, and he usually bounced off ridiculously.
The other kid I don’t remember his name. Let’s call him Stevie. When I was in fifth grade, he was in sixth. I never saw him much, except out on the playground during recess, which is really just an exercise in anarchy with a time limit. He tried to bully me on the playground, and I was timid, so I put up with it.
Ever notice how most bullies aren’t really good at bullying?
I don’t know why–maybe I talked to an older kid and he told me to stand up for myself, and said it in such a way as to be convincing–but one day on the playground, he made his usual advance, expecting a retreat from me.
Instead, I pushed him back. He pushed me back.
I don’t think I was fat–let’s call it Husky, like the jeans I wore. Stevie was a few inches taller but possibly weighed less–he was very skinny.
He pushed me back, and I punched him.
He had a look of complete shock on his face, like he had just woken up and I was standing over him. I punched him a few more times, and he may have swung wildly at me. But he was retreating in a circle.
Like a car accident, a crowd gathered around us. The 200 year-old black woman that was the playground monitor was off somewhere else and couldn’t see this far.
But as quickly as it had started, it was over. Stevie gave; he capitulated. He tried to save face—what else are you gonna do?–by saying that he has asthma and was having trouble breathing, and it was making him dizzy. His nosebleed, too, was a side effect of this condition, and not the result of any punches I might have landed.
Which I kind of believe. I think I was going for body punches. The face never occurred to me.
Afterward we talked, and he tried to get chummy with me. I didn’t understand much of what was going on. The whole episode seemed strange to me. But he was respectful if not friendly after that. I never had a problem with Wayne Welch after that either.
But why in God’s name would someone that is a skinny, frail, asthmatic bleeder try to take on the role of a bully?
I got into two other fights that I remember. One was epic. The other one, not so much.
Behind the school, behind the playground and past the gravel alley, was the graveyard. This was the standard meeting place for fights after school. And we never went deep into the graveyard either–it was always right at the corner right at the entrance.
I ended up fighting someone there, someone I didn’t know. It had to be an older kid, most likely a seventh grader. Those seventh graders were all hardcore, tough as nails. Bikers. Gangbangers. JDs. That stands for juvenile delinquents.
Whatever happened, I got my ass kicked. I was hurt, bruised, probably had a bloody nose, and my hands hurt from fighting back. It happened quick and it was over, and I was left alone to get on my bike and ride home. Man, I hope Dad wasn’t home.
But he was. From a block away as I rode up, I could see him out by the car doing some kind of Dad thing. Shit, what was my story? A fight? I didn’t want to get in trouble for fighting, even though nothing ever led me to believe that I would be, except that it should be the natural order of things. I fell of my bike. That’s it.
But the emotions from the fight welled up inside me and before I pulled into the driveway I was crying.
Dad didn’t buy the falling off the bike story. He also knew that I wasn’t crying a few seconds ago. He was able to put it together that I had been in a fight. I wasn’t in trouble, but I would be if I kept crying. Go get cleaned up.
That was the end of that.
How long can a fight go on? Most fights rarely last more than a minute or two, except in the movies.
I had a wide variety of friends and friends of friends that I hung out with, and also friends that were not part of my regular group of friends. One of those was Mark Walker. He was a small, perpetually swarthy looking kid with thin lips, greasy hair, and a wild look in his eyes.
We used to play together on occasion, and hang out sometimes. I never noticed it, but he never wanted to come around when I was hanging out with my other friends, Randy and Jay.
I don’t know how it happened, but one day during the summer we were in the back grassy lot of the Lutheran school that was about a hundred feet from our house. The whole gang was there–a lot of people that I knew and some that I didn’t. Mark and his older brother came around. There was some interaction, some tension, some drama–
And ultimately it was decided that the solution would be had if Mark and I fought.
It took us a while to get started. I didn’t really want to, and he didn’t want to get within my reach because I was bigger than him. Eventually we started to brawl, and we fell into an odd pattern: He would rush me, throw a bunch of wild punches that landed about 17% of the time, and then I would take one swing, right as his head, and knock him back, knock him down.
He would get up and rush me again, and I would punch him once and knock him down. Repeat.
This went on for what seemed like hours. But really–and as I said most fights are over in less than a minute–this went on for a good twenty minutes.
Eventually it was over, and Mark and his brother left. They were on our turf, after all. The Lutheran Church was ours.
That historic fight lived on in our memories, and I guess I earned some street cred from the guys. They never talked about it around me, though.
But after that, Mark and I were never friends again. I don’t know what the external causes were, but I felt like I was being made to choose between “the gang”–and him.
Tags: 1970s, hometown, houses, my childhood
It appears quite often in my dreams. It’s a part of who I am, and how I was made. I don’t get the occasion to drive by it very often…which is good. It’s different now. Someone else owns it. It’s belonged to someone else longer–I have to admit–than it ever was mine. Still, I drive by and see it, and I feel like I’ve been betrayed by a lover. It was mine, dammit! It…it was mine…
All in the space of three seconds that it took me to drive by my childhood home, I had those thoughts, while taking in the details. The barn is gone now. It was a shiny kit barn that my dad had built, and I remember I helped, as a preteen. Maybe that explains why it didn’t make it through the years. It started to lean, then lean more, like a horse on its reins, leaning away from its owner and trying to break free, and follow the wind.
Curiously, the pony shed still stands. A mere six foot on each side forming a cube, with posts as a frame and rusted tin sheet metal covering it. It peeked from the tall weeds to tell me it was still there, and it remembers.
The garage is gone, replaced by another. The ghost of the old one is still there, and I can see its image shimmering in the light and shadow of the new one. Ha–“new one.” This one has been here for twenty years or more now. But the old one was there longer, and maintains a lasting legacy in the collective memory of the land. It was a simple structure, with a regular garage door in the front and a people door on the side. For a long while it housed Dad’s antique car, until the collector in him forced it out to make room for excessive miscellany. The car moved first to the side of the garage, then to the barn. When we first moved there, the outhouse still stood. I was young, and don’t remember its random disappearance into the ether. Eventually, Dad put up a large pole, and we had a streetlight in our yard.
Directly behind the house was the wash house. I don’t know what its original purpose was, or why it was called that. I remember it was filled with all random collectible stuff. One summer my friends and I “cleaned it up”–and tossed most of the stuff into the garage. Not in any order, not stacked neatly, and not taking care of fragile items. Children are one of the single most destructive forces in the universe.
But it was cleaned out, and now we had a club house. Even my parents could use it now as well, and saw how it had a purpose. We had two deep freezers in it, to store random sides of beef and also the catch from my brother’s hunting and fishing expeditions. There was also a wood-burning stove, and a chimney. In the winter, it was a cozy, rustic place to be.
The wash house was directly behind the main house, and there was only three feet between them. There had been more, but Dad had added a room on to the house. A room and a back porch. Why is this so familiar to me still? I can feel myself walking through their bedroom to the back door, and going onto the porch.
Just beyond the porch was the cistern. We had a cistern and well, and so I know the difference. The well was full of…well…well-water. Water from under the ground. The cistern collected run-off from the gutters and downspouts in a complex and ultimately unreliable system. We used the water from the cistern to feed the animals: the ponies, when we had them, and generally a variety of dogs.
The well was not deep, but deeper than the cistern. Both were four or five feet in diameter and brick-lined, going down into the abyss of the earth–perhaps twenty feet. Water from the well was pumped into the house into the basement, and thence to our water system. We had a twenty-gallon tank, I reckon, and when we used down to a certain level, it would automatically pump.
Of course, the well collected run-off from the rain also, just not intentionally. But somehow it got in there…and when it first went in, I guess dripping or pouring in from the top, it would stir the water up, along with the mud at the bottom.
So you didn’t want to run too much water when it was raining, or the water would come through the faucets muddy. To this day, I’m automatically leery of turning on a faucet when there is a storm.
This was in the basement, and the basement was small. It was about one-fourth the size of the house. Dad cleaned it up really well and there was nothing down there but the furnace and the water pump, and his wine that he made. He wanted me to play down there.
Ha! Not on your life! It was clean, and fairly well lit, but the light would shimmer in time with activity from the floor above. And it smelled like dirt. Fresh dirt. Like a grave. It smelled that way because the brick walls of the basement had openings that went under the rest of the house. It was essentially a crawlspace…into the deepest, darkest, scariest part of a 150 year old house. No, I did not want to take the rickety, creaky, narrow and steep steps that were almost a ladder down to the basement to play.
The house was old, and you could tell from the layout. On the main floor were three big rooms and a bathroom, and the stairs going up. Seventeen steps to go up–the ceilings on the main floor were ten or eleven feet high. When we first moved in, Mom and Dad had the upstairs, and my sister as an infant slept up there. Carl and I shared a room in the downstairs.
Then the remodel came. We actually moved out–moved to a town closer to the city–while work was being done. Dad hired a local handyman to do much of it. But he built the room addition himself. I think that came first. That became their bedroom. It was off the back of the house, from the kitchen, and looked completely out of place on this majestic brick building.
The room that had been mine and my brother’s became the bathroom and laundry room. Where the bathroom had been became a hallway–which I imagine was it’s original purpose. By this time my brother had moved out, and the upstairs was mine and my sister’s…
Except I don’t believe she ever slept up there. It was one big room, with the stairs on one end, and window, and a window on the other. Eventually he did build a wall with a doorway, but I never got a door. Unfinished projects are the story of my life.
As in a typical story and a half house, the walls were slanted. On the side they went up about three and half feet, then turned inward at a sharp 45 degree angle, and then flattened out in the middle for about four feet of ceiling space, not much more than seven feet. On either side of the room were the doors–those dreaded doors–that led to the attic crawl space and have contributed to most of the nightmares I’ve experienced in my life. I always kept heavy furniture of some kind against them. Always.
The walls were a slatted wood covering, and until we moved in had never been painted. The original wood, from a hundred and fifty years ago, with square-cut nails in it. And the wood was so hard–cured, I suppose–that we could barely drive a nail in it. I surely could not put a tack in it, to put posters up. I had to use tape. Lots of tape.
The window by the stairs held the air conditioner. I usually set a fan on a chair to blow it into my room. The window in my room overlooked the driveway and the well and the big pecan tree.
That tree is now gone.
It must have been at least a hundred years old. Maybe older, with all it had experienced. Often, my friends and I would open the window and shoot at birds and squirrels in that tree with my pellet gun. Early on, Dad had made a tire swing and hung it there. It was a fixture for 20 years, long after we stopped swinging on it.
That window was above the side door to the house, and the only one we used. There was a front door. No one used the front door. In the typical German style of that era, the front door was tall *and* there was a transom. It matched the front windows of the house, also very tall.
The house was very solid. Brick, through and through. The walls on the main floor were a little over a foot thick–three or four layers of brick. I do recall staying upstairs in my room during a tornado. That house is not coming down.
And as it was solid, and my parents’ room was an addition, I could actually play my stereo pretty loud before they would even hear it in their room. As an older teen, I could more or less come and go as I wanted, and they rarely knew. It was a comfortable, cozy home. With the kitchen remodeled with the latest style and technology from the 1970s, we had the perfect eclectic mix of modern and antique.
The shape of a home…plays a part in the shaping of a family.
And so it is, and so it was. We moved out in 1984. I don’t know if it was because I had flunked out of college–I’m sure it played a part. Mom and Dad might have been on the verge of a divorce. If we wanted to stay, she would move back to the city. I remember her asking if I had to live here or could I live in town.
I didn’t realize the serious implications that it held…but I knew something was up. I said, “I can go anywhere.”
And we did.
We moved. We moved to town. Moved to the suburbs. First we moved to a big townhouse while they looked for houses, then they bought a house, and we moved there. And that’s the house I have now.
But a part of me has never left my house in the country. I never felt a closer connection to the earth than I did there. And that’s an odd thing to feel and I don’t know why I feel it. But the ground was near to me. The dirt was alive and made itself known to me there.
Here, I feel like I rest atop the asphalt.
And my spirit, when I sleep, travels back there. It’s not about my childhood, not always. Just my connection to the gestalt that formed the maps in my mind. How I think, how I act and react, how I feel…
I can trace back to there, the home of my spirit.
Tags: 1980s, cars, hometown, my childhood
I actually had three first cars, so it’s hard to remember which was the "first" first. My parents had lots of cars sitting around–none of them on blocks, oddly enough. My first three were the 70 GMC pickup, the 74 Ford Galaxy, and the 73 Ford Maverick.
But the first one that was mine-mine, my dad got for me. It was the Maverick. It was two-tone: sky blue on top, and rust below the trim line. Dad bought it from an old man down the road that was a friend of his, old man Heberer. He wanted to give it to Dad for free, but dad gave him a hundred dollars for it, out of friendship.
It was a three on the tree–a three speed manual with the shifter on the column, with a 250 straight-six engine. It had a vinyl interior, of course. It was a two-door with a bench seat, so the whole bench-back leaned forward to get in the backseat.
It was my first car that was mine, so I wanted to customize it, and fix it up. The dream of the car was much more shiny and sparkly than the reality of the car. I bought bucket seats from some dude I knew at school. They were dirty and a little torn, but they were in better shape than the bench was.
After that Dad found me a floor shifter kit. It was used, so it looked like someone handed me a piece of rusted metallic intestines. My friend’s dad put it in for me. Of course, it wasn’t made for that car, so it didn’t line up correctly. Instead, it did this:
A three speed shift pattern is an H. With the shift kit, it translated differently on the floor. It was…distorted. It was a tall, skinny H. Reverse has the shifter knob all the way up to the dash, grazing the left knob on the AM/FM in-dash stereo.
For first gear, simply drop the shifter straight back, and it traveled in a wide arc almost all the way to the floor, or the hump. It stopped near the driver’s side seat belt buckle. If it weren’t for the bucket seats, you couldn’t shift into first.
Now for second. Pull it straight up, and somewhere in the middle of the path–near your knee–push it an inch to your right, and continue to raise it. Second gear has the knob grazing the stereo knob on the right, the one for tuning in stations.
For third gear, just drop it straight down, where it stops near the passenger seat belt buckle. Shifting through the gears was much like operating a rowing machine, and anytime I happened to experience some traffic I got a real workout, similar to being on a rowing machine.
I had my first experience being stranded with a break down in that car. It was on a very hot day in July or August, back in 81 or 82. I got on the highway and drove to the mall, 20 miles away. On the way back, I was only a few minutes out when the car mysteriously died on me.
I say "Mysteriously" because I was 17 and didn’t know jack shit about cars. It had something to do with the engine, I know that. I pulled over, popped the hood, and looked at, wondering what the hell I was looking at and what the hell I was going to do.
Lordy, it was hot. It was really hot. This was 1982, so it was before Al Gore invented Global Warming, yet it was close to 100 degrees that day.
I stood there waiting and hoping for a car to give me a ride. I wasn’t ready to walk, not yet. After about twenty minutes, a car pull over.
I wish I could say that the person who pulled over was a hot chick and this was the beginning of a Penthouse Forum letter, but it wasn’t. It was a guy, a middle aged guy.
Luckily, this wasn’t the start of some other kind of letter, either. The man was a project manager at Chrysler–from the Chrysler plant in the St Louis area, in Fenton. He was on his way to a family reunion in Kentucky, or something like that. And–what he was driving was the very First Chrysler Lazer off the assembly line.
Back in 82, this thing was modern. It was cool as hell, very sleek. He showed it off to me briefly before we got in. I wasn’t a prospective sale; he just wanted to brag about his baby. This was one of the first talking cars: the origination off the ol’ "The door is ajar" thing.
He gave me a ride to an exit of my choosing. In retrospect, I should have chosen a different exit. But since I was new to driving, I didn’t get the distortion of space-time between driving distance and walking distance. I was picked up near the 14 mile marker, heading west. I should have had him let me off at exit 41, which would have put me a few hundred yards from the truck stop that my brother worked.
Instead I did the very brilliant thing of having him drop me at the 27 marker, which is the New Baden exit.
It’s the New Baden exit, but New Baden isn’t right there at the exit. There, in a heatwave the likes of which we would not see again until Al Gore sets the planet on fire, I walked a good three or four miles. I walked the distance to town. I continued, and walked all the way through town. Then, once I was on the other side of town, I continued to walk towards the tracks, and near there was a house that belonged to a friend of my dad’s.
They took my pathetic ass in, and from there I was able to get some water, cool off, and finally get a ride. The guy towed my car–and charged my dad. What are friends for? It ended up just needing a thermostat. I didn’t do the work; I didn’t know anything about it. It just magically came back to me fixed, and I have no idea how that happened. I just continued to drive it.
One day–sometime after that–I started having the oddest problem with the car. Whenever I would give it some gas and try to take off, it would start to go, but then it would suddenly slow down, almost like it wasn’t getting any gas.
We looked a couple of different possibilities, Dad and I did. Finally he decided that it must be the fuel filter or something like that. We trace the line from the gas tank to the fuel filter, but we never made it to the filter. The gas line came from the gas tank and went under the trunk. It was pinched between the leaf spring and the rusted body of the trunk that the leaf spring had broken through. The forward momentum of acceleration pushes the back end of the car down and pinches the rusted opening against the line and cut off the fuel. Well, at least we know what the problem is.
Now, how to fix it?
This is what we did: We jacked up the back of the car, pried the leaf spring back through the hole where it belonged, and then got a piece of wood and put it between the hole and the spring, and the got the drill and some screws, and screwed the piece of wood to the floor of the trunk, and put some screws from the spring into the wood, to hold it all together. It worked for as long as we had the car, until we finally sold it at an auction for 225 dollars.
We actually made money on it.
Tags: 2000s, funerals, mom, my childhood
I think my attitude towards my birthday is best described in this one word:
I’d really like to feel bitter and cynical about growing old, but I can’t muster that emotion. Don’t get me wrong: growing old and dying scares the living piss out me. But I feel pretty good. And today–today is just another day. And age–age is just a number. That determines whether or not you can be
arrested for statutory.
I may, in fact, feel better about my birthday this year than I have in some years; despite the impending divorce and all the signs and portents of looming tragedy, I feel pretty good. I’m happy, I’m in love, I’m in fair health,
and I feel I have a direction to go creatively. Not bad.
Even though my mom died last week.
Okay, not really “last week,” but three years ago last week. It occurred to me around Valentine’s Day that I wasn’t really sure of the date. In fact, a few months after she passed I wasn’t sure. All I know is that it was between my dad’s birthday (the 6th) and mine (the 20th.)
I still remember the events leading up to her death fairly well: the sickness, the relapse, the operations, the return to the hospital. Talking with my brother and learning things about my family that I had never known. The nightly visits, going to see my dad and take him something to eat–otherwise he wouldn’t. He stayed, dutifully, by her side.
And then she was going to come home for in home hospice care. I was there at the house, waiting for them to come home to help set everything up, when we got the call. . .
And then the funeral, if you can call it that. My mom was unapologetically a heathen, and there was no service, no body to view (cremated), and I even missed the scattering of the ashes, because my brother called me while I was at work–when I couldn’t leave–to tell me they were going to scatter them in the bayou near the casino.
I was left with a horrible, aching gap, a supreme lack of closure. Later I had the chance to. . .get over it. Of course, the burning pain I feel in my chest right now reminds me that I’m not over it, not really.
I’m a little surprised at how much I still miss her, especially in view of the fact that we weren’t very close. Her choice or mine? I don’t know. She was a little distant and hard to get close to.
Detroit has met my father, and things I am “just like him.”
But she has never met my mother, so she wouldn’t know. . .but I have alot of her in me. Mom was a reader. Voracious. Me too. I think she wanted to be
a writer when she was younger, but never pursued it. Work and family took too much time–
She worked hard at work, but found it easy to not do to much around the house. Housekeeping was that thing that other people do. She never communicated much, but when she did, she meant it. I guess that
part isn’t so much like me. She had opinions–about life, the universe, and everything. God, the heavens, the afterlife. Strongly held opinions, I found out, but she had the quiet wisdom to not share them with people she knew wouldn’t understand.
Mostly, she was quiet, and kept to herself. I didn’t know what “introvert” meant as a child.
So. . .I don’t know the exact date. I’m sure I could look it up, but I don’t want to. Like the day my granddaughter died: I think I know the exact date, but don’t want to give it too much. I know approximately when it is, because we spent our wedding anniversary in a funeral home. Life, that’s the important part. I don’t want to celebrate or remember the day they died.
I catch myself doing something my mom used to do, which I never understood as a child, but now I do. We would be driving together, or she
would be puttering around the kitchen, or whatever. But she would be quiet, lost in thought, with a smile on her face. She was completely gone, in her head. Her imagination was in control, and there was no telling what was going one. You may as well have hung a sign on her that said, “Be Right Back.”
I do that. I do that alot. Even just briefly, I can completely leave. I can’t explain where I’ve been. I can’t describe what I was thinking, I can’t remember what I was feeling.
But it was good.