Inside and Outside the Comfort Zone


On Monday, 12-12-2016, I tried to set aside my inherent stage fright and, as an old boss of mine frequently coached me to, step out of my “comfort zone.” It was with his voice in my ear that I took the stage at Kenosha Fusion as a storyteller in the OLIO storytelling collective.

The OLIO storytelling collective is a bunch of people who enjoy storytelling.  Some are writers, some are actors or performers, but all enjoy telling stories. The stories can be about anything, can be old folk tales re-told verbatim or with a twist, can be autobiographical or completely fictional.  The only rule is that you try to conform to a maximum length (which I exceeded in my “performance.” Oh, well.) and adhere to a “theme” if it is a themed show.  The theme for the most recent show was Christmas, so I told a much abbreviated version of “A Greaser Christmas.” (about 17% of the events and people described in my story really happened.)

The setting for the OLIO collective shows is a wonderfully intimate venue known as Kenosha Fusion. It hosts everything from musicians to comedians to puppeteers to actors to art shows to open mics to … well, just about any kind of live performance. It seats about 50 to 75 people, has an excellent sound system and a fully stocked bar. It’s a great showcase for local talent of all kinds.

 

Fusion-Paul2.jpg

I was reluctant to “perform” because of my chronic stage fright and the inconsistent quality of my voice. Thanks to my case of Parkinson’s disease, my voice is often times garbled and soft, and I tend to stutter.  But lately, for some reason, it’s been pretty good, good enough for me not to worry too much about it. As for the stage fright, I wasn’t as confident. I practiced my story for a couple of weeks before, getting it down from twenty three minutes(the unabridged version, which I posted here a couple of weeks ago) to about twelve minutes. I had to cut a lot of the best parts out, which shook my confidence a bit, but finally, in the day or two before the event, I became comfortable with what was left

The night of the event came. I was first on the bill, and I arrived at Kenosha Fusion early to stake out the performance area first. There was a podium I could hide behind (and post a one page outline of my story – it’s supposed to be memorized and not read, but I think the outline was okay, as it was just a list of the sections of my story in case I completely blanked out.) I was comfortable enough with the venue, now all I had to do was wait for my name to be called and do the damn thing.

It was cold out and a Monday night, so there wasn’t exactly a line at the door. They kept the doors open a little bit later than planned, so a few more people straggled in, making it a decent sized crowd. It helped that many of them were friends and family, but I was still a little bit nervous as my name was finally introduced and I walked up to the podium.

I was afraid my voice was too soft, and I nervously got through the first minute or so, when the moment of truth arrived – the first laugh my story was supposed to get. I delivered the “punch line” and got a good, healthy chuckle, and it was smooth sailing from that point on.  Sure, there are a few times where I stuttered and the words got garbled, but I know for a fact that was due to the Parkinson’s and not nerves, as I couldn’t have felt more comfortable.

It turned out to be a lot of fun. Whether I’ll do it again will depend largely on how my Parkinson’s develops, how it affects my voice  and balance (believe it or not, having a podium to stand behind and lean upon was big, because I knew I could grab on to something if I felt myself starting to fall! One less thing to worry about!), but for now I can confidently say that for a few moments on a cold December night, I stepped out of my comfort zone and lived to tell about it.

A Greaser Christmas


(This is the unabridged version of the story I told last Monday at the Olio Storytelling event at Kenosha Fusion. I dd the math and about 17% of this really happened.)

In December of 1972, I was a freshman in a high school in a small town in southeastern Wisconsin.  I was born in 1958, at the height of the post-world war two baby boom. There must have been a whole lot of procreating going on at that time, because fourteen years later the small town high school was bursting at its seams.  The school became so overcrowded that fall that they had to rent out some classrooms in the church across the street.

The school cafeteria was modern and clean, brightly lit by the daylight that streamed in through windows high upon the walls. It had long tables with attached benches. After the last lunch period was over, a custodian would fold the tables up into compartments on the wall, where they’d rest until late morning the following day, when they’d be unfolded in advance of the first lunch hour.  Each table sat about twenty kids, ten on each side, and there were about fourteen tables. As nice as they were, there still weren’t enough of them to seat the expanded student body, so they knocked out a wall on the north end and expanded the cafeteria enough to fit in about six old black tables to handle the overflow.  There weren’t even any chairs, you’d just stand there at the table and lift forks full of Spanish rice or soy casserole to your mouth. This overflow area became home to the misfits and oddballs who didn’t fit in with enough kids to get a seat at one of the nice, fold down tables. Needless to say, that included me.

It’d be difficult to believe looking at me now, but at the time I was small. Ridiculously small. I was the smallest kid in my class, possibly the smallest class in the entire high school. I was short and scrawny. I was five foot two and weighed 95 pounds sopping wet.

There was one part of my anatomy that was disproportionately large, and no, unfortunately, it wasn’t that – rather, it was my mouth.  I had a big mouth that I’d shoot off with little regard for consequence.  I was a smart ass, my big mouth writing checks that my tiny body couldn’t cash, constantly getting me in trouble that I had no business getting into.

So I ended up with three other oddball freshmen who were also exiled to the chair-less tables at the new end of the cafeteria.  There were also about a dozen or so upper class men, juniors and seniors, who also occupied this space. They were what at the time was commonly referred to as “greasers,” the thugs and hoods, the bad asses and tough guys, the bullies who are a part of every public high school.

The leaders of the greasers were three older guys – the Kowalski  brothers, Earl, Butch, and Alfred Lord.  Alfred Lord Kowalski was the sensitive, cultured one of the three – he’d recently mastered the art of using silverware. Nobody knows how many years the Kowalski brothers had been pursuing that elusive high school diploma, but rumor had it that Earl, who was the oldest and the alpha dog of the pack, had recently acquired his AARP card.  To say they were scary looking would be an understatement. They wore black leather jackets and had tattoos on their arms. In 1972, tattoos hadn’t become fashionable yet – unlike now days, when everybody’s little brother and sister has a dozen or so. In 1972, only legitimate bad asses like the Kowalski brohers had tattoos.  They also had scars on their faces and they occasionally walked upright.  They had a una-brow – you know, one uninterrupted eyebrow over both eyes – only in this case, it was one eyebrow shared between the three of them, covering all six of their eyes. It started over Earl’s left eye and then his right and then it would leave Earl’s face and dangle in midair until it connected to Butch’s face and covered his eyes and then suspended in the air it’d connect to Alfred Lord’s face and cover his eyes.

Most of the time, the greasers left us alone, immersed as they’d get in their philosophical conversations, debating, for example, whether fire good or fire bad. I was learning to keep my big mouth shut, and we gave the greasers their space and they gave us ours.

Except for that day in December.  Me and the other three oddball freshmen were standing in a row on the same side of our chair-less table, me on the left end, the other three to my right, eating our lunch when all of the sudden we noticed that our table was surrounded by greasers, standing silently in uncomfortably close proximity. It felt suffocating, claustrophobic. We could feel their warm mouth breathing on the back of our necks.  Then the Kowalski brothers emerged.  Butch stood next to the kid on the far right, Freshman Number One, and Alfred Lord was standing next to me.  I turned and tried to walk away, when Alfred Lord stopped me.  “Where do you think you’re going?” he asked.

“Me? Oh, I’m sorry, I have to leave.  I have an appointment with my podiatrist.”

“You ain’t going nowhere,” Alfred Lord Kowalksy said.

“Hey, Butch,” Earl said.  “You know what?”

“What?” Butch replied.  Butch was the dimmest of the three, his vocabulary limited to mono syllabic grunts.

“It just don’t feel like Christmas this year, does it.”

“No,” Butch grunted.

“I’ve been trying to figure out why it don’t feel like Christmas, and I think I finally got it, I think I finally figured out why it don’t feel like Christmas,” Earl said.

“Why?” Butch replied.

“It don’t feel like Christmas cause we ain’t had us any of them Christmas songs.  Ain’t nothing get you in the Christmas spirit like some of that there Christmas music.”

“Music good,” Butch stated.

“We’re gonna change that right now.  We’re going to have us some Christmas music so’s we all get into the Christmas spirit.”  With that Earl approached Freshman Number One, standing on the far right of the four of us.  Earl grabbed Freshman Number One by the shoulders and said “kid, get up on the table and sing us a Christmas song.”

“Oh, golly, gee, I don’t think so,” Freshman Number One replied, “I’m kind of shy, kind of …”

“Kid,” Earl scowled, “I don’t think you understand.  I ain’t asking you if you wanna sing us a Christmas song. I’m telling you. Now get up on that table and sing us a Christmas song, or we’re going to kick your ass”

Now, let’s pause for a moment and reflect on the phrase, “kick your ass.”  If only it were that simple.  Sure, it might involve pointy-toed boots, and if they really got good leg speed into it, a kick in the ass might hurt for three hours, four hours top.  But the expression was never meant to be taken literally.  No, if I intend to “kick your ass,” I intend to beat the humanity out of you, until your last frayed nerve ending is screaming in pain, and you are a mere hollowed out shell of yourself, and then, when there is nothing left of you but a quivering pad of gelatinous goo spilled on the floor, then, maybe then, I might add in a swift and hard kick at your posterior just to serve as an exclamation point, but that’s not really necessary.

So Freshman Number One, his options made clear by Earl, responded the only way he could.  “Oh, golly gee whiz there, Earl, I’m really uncomfortable in such demonstrative displays.  Could you find someone else?  Could you?”

At that point the greasers converged on Freshman Number One and beat the daylights out of him until he was left there in a crumpled heap on the floor, oozing blood and tears and other bodily fluids, all draining out of him and beginning to pool right there on the cafeteria floor. And Freshman Number One lay there in a crumpled heap, and he was bruised and battered and broken and bent and bloodied.

Then Earl moved on to Freshman Number Two, and said “Kid, either you get up on this table and sing us a Christmas song, or we’re gonna kick your ass.”

To which Freshman Number Two replied, “I wish I could, but I’m afraid that my religion strictly prohibits such enthusiastic displays of enthusiasm as singing Christmas songs, so I just can’t.”

And the greasers converged on Freshman Number Two and beat the living crap out of him until he was left lying there on the floor, just a crusty and lifeless spoonful of unrecognizable goo.  The greasers lifted him off the floor and threw him on top of the crumpled heap that used to be Freshman Number One, and now the crumpled heap was two freshmen deep, causing their bones to lock together in impossible and painful angles, and Freshman Number Two was oozing blood and tears and other bodily fluids, all draining out of him and intermingling with Freshman Number One’s blood and tears and pooling right there on the cafeteria floor. And Freshman Number Two was bruised and battered and broken and bent.

At the table, there were only two freshmen left, Freshman Number Three and myself. Earl approached Freshman Number Three and said, “Kid, either you get up on this table and sing us a Christmas song, or we’re gonna kick your ass.”

Freshman Number Three, of course, responded with, “I’m sorry, Earl, but I’m getting a scratchy throat and have a hoarse voice, and I think I’ve got a fever, so could we take a rain check?  Maybe sometime next week?  A rain check?”

At which point the greasers descended upon Freshman Number Three and just destroyed him, as he disappeared beneath them and when the savagery was over the greasers backed off to reveal about 150 broken pieces of Freshman Number Three scattered on the floor, and then a greaser emerged from the crowd with a shovel in his hand, where he got a shovel in the middle of the cafeteria, I have no idea, but he scooped up all the pieces of Freshman Number Three and dumped them on top of the crumpled heap, and now the crumped heap was three freshmen deep, and, since I was only five foot two inches tall, the crumpled heap was now nearly as tall as me, making it even more intimidating a sight than it already was. And Freshman Number Three was oozing blood and tears that intermingled with the blood and tears of the other freshmen and drained into a pool right there on the cafeteria floor.  And Freshman Number Three was bruised and battered and broken and bent.

Now there was only one Freshman left standing, all five foot two, ninety five pounds of me.  As Earl approached me, I felt my heart pounding so hard I thought it was going to leap right out of my chest.  Then Earl was there, right next to me, and he started, “Kid, either you get up …”

And he stopped.

In mid sentence, Earl Kowalski stopped.

The reason he stopped, was, when he looked up at me, I wasn’t there.

I was gone.

I was already up on that table, halfway through the first verse of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”

Now, you have to understand that in December of 1972, the television airwaves were dominated by the cheesiest and schmaltziest of all forms of entertainment, the celebrity Christmas special.  They were these awful variety  shows, and for some reason, the Las Vegas style entertainer was popular at the time, with stars like Dean Martin, Tony Orlando, Wane Newton and Sammy Davis Junior all over emoting and swinging through lip synced renditions of the most horribly clichéd pop standards.  It was all awful, and as I didn’t exactly have an active social calendar at the time, I watched them all and studied their acts.

Now, on the table performing for the greasers, I found all the time I’d invested watching those shows was informing my performance of Rudolph.  I started it out as a slow and soulful ballad and then, halfway through, kicked the tempo up into gear until it was a swinging and rollicking production number, accented by my finger snapping and the random “heys” and “babys” I punctuated each line with.

I looked down at my audience, the dozen or so greasers that had surrounded our table, and they were all silent and still, mouths gaping open, looks of utter confusion and bewilderment on their faces.  Even Earl Kowalski was stunned, and it became clear to me that they had no idea how to react. They knew only one thing, how to kick ass. They had never estimated that any kid would have low enough self-esteem to get up on that table and humiliate himself rather than take his ass-kicking.  This plus the fact that I seemed to be enjoying myself really blew their mildly developed minds.

I finished singing Rudolph to no reaction, just stunned greaser silence. I’d done my song, but nobody knew what to do next.  We were in unchartered waters. It occurred to me that as long as I remained up on that table, it meant that the greasers weren’t kicking my ass, so I plowed forward with the rest of the show.  I decided to throw in a little joke next – playing the part of Rudolph, I said, “I just flew in from the north pole, and boy, are my antlers tired!”  Still, no reaction – just stony, or maybe stoner, silence.

I looked at the clock on the wall, and there were still a few minutes left, so I kicked into my second song, “Jingle Bells,” really rocking it, making it swing, baby!  Still only slack-jawed silence from my audience.  So I launched my rendition of “Deck the Halls,” fa-la-lalling with all my heart, when, in the midst of a fa-la –la, the school bell sounded.

The end of lunch hour!  Saved by the bell!

I announced, “Sorry, folks, that’s all the time we have.  Thank you, and good night, ladies and gentlemen.  I’m here all week. Good night, and drive safely.”

The greasers were still standing there, stunned, as I jumped off the table, into the perimeter of the circle of greasers that sill stood unmoving, surrounding the table.  I confidently tapped the one in front of me on the shoulder and boldly said, “Excuse me, please.”

Much to my surprise, the greasers parted as if I were Charlton Heston and they were the Red Sea.  And I walked, no, I strutted out, past the greasers, past the hideous specter and painful moans of the crumpled heap, past the now coagulated and hardened pool on the cafeteria floor, as if I were walking out on a red carpet.  And I exited the cafeteria and walked into the afternoon, intact and unscathed from my encounter with the still discombobulated greasers.

The next day, I entered the cafeteria, feeling good about myself and the performance I’d given the day before. I walked past our table, and there was no sign of either the bloody pool or the crumpled heap or, for that matter, the other three freshmen, who I could only assume were in a hospital somewhere in different degrees of traction.

Then I saw the Kowalski brothers approaching, and for a split second, my heartbeat accelerated, but only for a second. I suddenly realized that I wasn’t afraid of them anymore.  Sure, they could kick my ass, but so what? I had two older brothers, so it wasn’t like I’d never had my ass kicked before. You get over an ass-kicking pretty quick, but one thing I’ll never get over, one thing the greasers could never take away from me was the fact that the day before I’d gotten up on that table and rocked the joint.  I gave it everything I had, and I was swinging, baby!  And no Kowalski or any greaser could ever take that away from me. So at the sight of them approaching, I kept walking.  I will not back down.

Then they were there, right in front of me, when Earl says, “Hey, kid …”

I braced myself for the pending ass-kicking.

“Kid,” Earl continued, “I just wanted to tell you, how much I enjoyed your show yesterday.”

Stunned, I replied, “Thank you, Earl.”

Then Butch added, “Show, good!”

“Thanks, Butch.”

Even Alfred Lord Kowalski, normally the quiet one of the three brothers, chimed in. “Dude,”, he said, “I thought you had a real stage presence, although some of your material lacked a cohesive core.”

“Thanks, I think, Alfred Lord,” I said.  They liked me!  They really liked me!

“Kid,” Earl started, “your show was so good, that I think everybody in this school ought to have a chance to see it.”

“Why, thanks,” I replied.  “That’s the nicest thing anybody’s ever said to me.”  And it really was the nicest thing anybody had ever said to me.  The fact that it came from Earl Kowalski of all people made it all the more meaningful. This was turning out better than I could have ever imagined.

I closed my eyes, basking in the moment, feeling the adoration and adulation of the Kowalski brothers wash over me, and I felt my feet leave the ground, and I was floating, and with my eyes shut I could see in a future T.V. Guide, the Bob Hope Christmas Special, the Bing Crosby Christmas Special, and now, the Dave Gourdoux Christmas Special, with guest Star Ricardo Montalban, and …

Suddenly I felt some unidentified force grab my arms and lift them above my head and I opened my eyes only to realize that I wasn’t floating after all, and that Alfred Lord Kowalski had a hold of my legs and Butch had hold of my arms, and they were carrying me, through the cafeteria exit to the hallway beyond, where all the other greasers were waiting for us.  Then they lifted all 95 pounds of me above their heads and they were passing me along, like I was body surfing in a mosh pit, and I could see in front of me, on the other side of the hallway, the big rectangular doors that opened to the gymnasium.  As they passed me closer to the gym door, I could see, high above it, a hook that protruded from the wall.  And they lifted me up as high as they could until my belt loop in the back snagged and caught on that hook, and there they left me, dangling helplessly by my belt loop high above the hallway below.

Earl Kowalski looked up at me and said, “Kid, it looks like you’re gonna be up there for a while, so, if I were you, I’d start singing now.”  The Kowalski brothers and all the greasers had a good laugh at my expense as they entered the cafeteria, leaving me alone in the hallway, dangling up above the gym door.  Then, looking the other way down the hallway, I could see the horde of kids headed for lunch hour, and I knew Earl was right about one thing.  Since you had to pass that gym door in order to get to the cafeteria, every kid in the school would get a chance to see my show.

I decided to open with my brand new arrangement of “Silver Bells” …

Tuesday Morning


Last year, on Easter Sunday of 2015, my wife took me to the emergency room after I experienced pains in my chest and left arm. They ran a bunch of preliminary tests and everything looked fine, but the doctor admitted me anyway until I could undergo a stress test, which he ordered for me to take Monday morning.

To make a long story short, the stress test almost killed me, and I ended up in Intensive Care for a couple of hours. Finally, after running more tests, they were able to determine that three of the arteries to my heart were badly constricted, with one at 99% blocked. They scheduled me for triple bypass surgery early Tuesday morning, and they closely monitored me all that night.

Monday evening, my wife sat with me in my room. I don’t remember much about what we talked about, other than telling each other how lucky we were to have caught this in the nick of time and how much better I’d feel after it was all over and my recovery was complete. Finally, sometime around ten o’clock, we realized how exhausted we both were and what a long day Tuesday promised to be, so she went home to try and get a few hours of sleep while I’d try to do the same in my hospital bed.

An hour or two later I woke up from dozing and saw the empty chair where she’d been sitting all evening. Only it wasn’t the chair I saw, rather, it was our bed at home, and I saw my side empty and my wife sleeping alone, and it hit me: there was a chance, if things didn’t go well during the operation or in the immediate days of recovery afterwards, that I’d already spent my last night sleeping in bed with my arm wrapped around her. For the first time since my hour or two stay in Intensive Care, the gravity of what I was going through and the permanence of death really hit me.  It wasn’t her eyes or her face or her skin or her voice that I thought of.  It wasn’t the laughs or the secrets we’ve shared. It wasn’t the deep friendship and comradery we’ve spent a lifetime forging.  It wasn’t any one of the million waking real world things I love about her.

It was instead the sleep we share every night, our bodies pressed against each other, the rising and falling of her breath, and the rhythm of our hearts beating together in perfect time. I laid there the rest of the night, awake, hoping and praying I’d wake up from my operation on Tuesday morning so I could go back home and once again fall into sleep and into the dream that my love for her has been all these years.

This Monday, August 15th, will be our thirty fifth wedding anniversary and I want to tell you, thank you, Deb, thank you for the dreaming.  After we have our little anniversary dinner and evening, we’ll go to bed and sleep and dream together, just like we have almost every night for the past thirty five years, and when the August early morning light of Tuesday morning illuminates our bed, we’ll wake up together, too. I now know that, regardless of what happens or whatever distances are placed between us, in the night, when you close your eyes, and in the morning, when you open them, I’ll always be with you and you with me.

Windows


From July of 1977 to November of 1979, I worked at the Norco Windows factory in the tiny town of Hawkins, Wisconsin. It was a big operation at the time. There had to be at least 400 people who worked there, more than the entire population of 338 who called the town of Hawkins home.

I was eighteen years old when I started and twenty one when I left. For most of the time I worked there, my job was to snap together the insulated aluminum spacers into rectangular frames that were the starting point in the process of the creation of double insulated windows.

The frames I snapped together were insulated with silicate by Lew, my work partner, who had two square, three gallon jugs that he’d fill with silicate and then place into a metallic frame someone had designed.  They were positioned in the frame cocked at an angle, with the bottom seam of the jug held together with a strip of rubber with holes punched in it.  The rubber holes were slits just big enough for Lew to insert the aluminum spacers into.  There were about ten holes in each jug, and Lew would insert the spacers into the holes and gravity would force the silica into the spacers. The apparatus that Lew used to fill the spacers was ingenious in its design, as right after Lew would insert the 20th spacer, the first one would be filled, and he’d remove the twenty spacers in the same order he’d inserted them. There were no expensive electronics or hydraulics involved, just a frame someone had welded together, two square three gallon jugs, two rubber strips with holes punched in them, and the endless force of gravity. I imagine that now, forty years later, the whole process has been re-engineered, and that both Lew’s job and mine have long ago been automated.

Which makes me thankful that I got to Norco when I did, else I probably would have missed out on ever meeting Lew, one of the nicest and simplest and sweetest men to ever walk the earth.

Lew was a funny-looking guy, short and squat, with soft features and a baby face that contradicted the fact that he was forty five years old.  His skin was blotchy and hung loosely on his frame. Like a lot of the older guys who worked there at the time, he wore a dark green buttoned up work shirt over a white t-shirt and olive green work slacks every day. He wore a fading and floppy yellow fishing cap over his bald head. He was a confirmed bachelor, and still lived at home with his folks.

We’d stand there, side by side, him on his little spacer filling platform and me next to him, snapping spacers together, for the better part of eight hours a day.  We’d make small talk, talking about the Packers and the Brewers and the Bucks. We shared a passion for sports, although I quickly learned that Lew didn’t think like others. His brain worked in bizarre but pleasant ways.  One day we were talking about the packers and discussing the weekly injury report when I said that one of the players was listed as “probable, meaning that he’ll probably play.”

“That’s not what probable means,” he replied.  When I pressed him on it, he said that “it means he’ll probably play or he probably won’t.”

He never said anything negative about anyone, and more often than not, his face expressed a goofy looking toothy grin.

There were things about him that just didn’t make any sense.  For example, when I asked him what his favorite move was, he answered “Under the Yum Yum Tree, with Jack Lemmon.”  It was always “with Jack Lemmon,” and when I asked him what it was he liked so much about the movie, he’d smile that big goofy grin and reply, “Oh, no, you’re not going to get me like that.” I never had a clue what that meant, or why, in the two plus years I worked with him, every time the subject of movies came up, he’d mention “Under the Yum Yum Tree with Jack Lemmon,” but never give any context as to why.

He was proud of the small town he’d lived in with his parents his entire life, and worked at softball tournaments and parades and fireworks, always volunteering to work the concession stands or to stay behind afterwards and sweep up the town hall or turn off the lights and close up the ball park.  Although he never served in the military, he was none the less proudly patriotic of his country.

One non-descript afternoon we were working in silence when I looked over at Lew. All of the sudden a look of panic overcame his face. He set the handful of spacers he held in his hands down and stepped off of his platform.

“Lew,” I started, “is everything okay?”

He gave no indication of having heard me as he stepped away from the corner where he and I worked and out the big doorway of our department into the larger factory.  My curiosity aroused, I followed silently a few feet behind him. He had the same panicked expression in his eyes and on his face, as he walked, swiftly and purposefully, as if some voice in his head was ordering him where to go.  He got all the way to the other side of the factory, to the big warehouse where they stored hundreds of stacks of windows.  I was still about ten feet behind him when he finally stopped, in the middle of the cavernous building. I ducked behind a palette of wooden sashes so he couldn’t see me, but I could see him. He just stopped and looked around and the dread left his face and he was back from wherever he’d gone to, and he walked, silently and casually, back to our station.  He stepped back on the platform and grabbed the spacers he’d set down and inserted them into the rubber slits.

“Lew, are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” he grinned.

“What was that all about?” I asked.

“What?”

“You just got up and walked to the other end of the factory,” I said.

He just laughed and asked what was I talking about. It became evident very quickly that he had no memory of the incident, even though I saw it, I knew that it’d happened, even though it had been only a couple of minutes earlier. It remains one of the strangest things I’ve ever witnessed.

All I ever knew about his home life were the occasional random and incoherent nuggets. As far as I could tell, he’d always lived at home with his parents and had never been on his own.  His father was such a Green Bay Packers fan that, when his only child was born in 1933, he named him after Verne Lewellyn, a Packers great from the 1920s.

As far as I knew, there’d never been any great romance or tragic love of his life. If there had been, it didn’t seem to have had any lasting effect, as he was almost always happy and cheerful.

I got the impression that after living with his parents his entire life, now that they were older, roles had reversed and he was taking care of them.  This lead to one of the rare instances of frustration he shared with me.

It was our first day back to work after the Christmas holiday when I asked him how his holiday was.

“Terrible, just terrible,” he said, making no attempt to hide he disgust in his voice.  He went onto tell me how he’d gotten his mother a microwave oven. It was 1978 and microwaves were not only new technology, but they were expensive, too.  His mom, for reasons that eluded Lew, didn’t like the gift, and returned it.

“Maybe she thought you’d spent too much,” I offered as an explanation.  Lew just shrugged his shoulders in disgust, and then muttered something about her saying she was too old to learn new tricks.

Now, almost forty years later, whenever I think about Lew, I think about time, too, about both a snapshot into the past and all the time that’s passed since. I wonder if he’s still alive, and I do the math, and calculate that he’d be in his mid-eighties by now.  I think about aluminum spacers and rubber slits and gravity, and I think about microwave ovens, but mostly I think of a floppy yellow fishing cap and the strange episode I witnessed when something took control of Lew.   I still don’t know what it was that drove him to the far end of the factory, what it was that momentarily gripped him with fear and panic. Maybe in that moment, Lew walked through a wrinkle in time into the not too distant future and saw a world that no longer has neither the time nor a place for such a pure and lovely small town soul, as beautiful and simple as a floppy yellow fishing cap.

Over the Road


My father was born on June 28th, 1926, in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, only a week after the summer solstice, in the longest days of the year, when the sun doesn’t set until close to ten o’clock P.M.  Maybe that had something to do with his deliberate nature.  I choose the word deliberate rather than methodical, because methodical implies a certain precision, an attention to detail, that was never a part of my dad. Dad just never seemed to be in a hurry, that’s all.

For the last thirty to thirty five years of his working life, my dad was an “over the road” truck driver, which has to be the worst job description ever. What other kind of truck drivers are there? “Under the road?” An “over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house” truck driver? Calling somebody an “over the road truck driver” is like calling someone an “in an office accountant” or a “through the sky” jet pilot.  So to clarify, my dad drove the big rigs, eighteen wheelers, semi-trucks, over the long haul.

For most of those thirty-odd years, he drove by night, the last sixteen years from the Central Wisconsin terminal in Milwaukee to various Midwest destinations, from Saint Paul to various locations in Indiana and Ohio.  He’d leave on a Monday night, return home on Wednesday morning, and sleep the day away behind closed shades and a shut bedroom door.  At 5:30, one of us would gently wake him for supper, which was eaten in the presence of Walter Cronkite on a little portable black and white television. At some point while the meal was still being consumed, the phone would ring and my dad would turn the volume of the television down before he’d pick up the receiver and say, “French Embassy, DeGaulle speaking.”  The CW dispatcher was on the other end, calling to tell him where he was driving to that night, and what time he had to leave.  Then, after we finished supper, he’d go back to bed for a couple of hours before getting up and going to work. For a while, when I was in junior high or so, I’d always walk him to the door, and see him off, saying in an overly slow and melodramatically sad voice, “Bye, dear old dad. Hate to see you go.”

“Hate to go,” he’d reply in his own fake voice, always forcing a sniffle to heighten the melodrama.  It was just a stupid little thing the two of us did, and we both got a kick out of it, although even then I recognized that there was an element of truth to it. On some level, I really did hate to see him go.

Looking back on it now, I’m aware of what I had no clue of while I was growing up:  that it had to be an incredibly difficult life, and how strange it had to be for all of those years for my dad to be more familiar with the lonely landscape of the night, of the glow of headlights that would illuminate the dashed lines that his big rig would consume and swallow, than the brightly lit daylight that the drawn shades on his bedroom and motel windows strained to keep out.  So much for being born a week after the summer solstice.

It’s a testament to the strength of my mom and dad and their marriage that they raised four children (that they somehow found the time to conceive four children is impressive enough) and provided a stable and healthy and happy environment.  And to be clear, that was mostly thanks to my mom.  She always put her children first, and always made sure that my dad stayed involved in our lives. These were no minor accomplishments, especially when compared to the train wrecks that most other families of “over the road” drivers became.  My mom and dad were married for more than forty years, until mom’s death in 1994.  There were no periods of my dad being kicked out of the house, or moving in with a younger woman, or my mom taking him back, or step or half brothers and sisters. These things were the messy norm in most of the families of my dad’s co-workers.

The soundtrack to almost all of my memories of my mom and dad together is the music of their laughter. Both had finely tuned and complimentary senses of humor and a deep appreciation of the absurd. They both had the ability to get on each other’s last nerve, and both could be compelled to exercise this talent from time to time, but these times were rare. Most of the time, they set an extraordinary example of the way a couple should treat one another – with simple and sincere respect.

Dad died in August of 2011, nearly five years ago now. We were, at the time of his death, very close, just like we’d always been.  I’d started writing a couple of years previously, and I had the opportunity to share with him an essay I  wrote describing what he meant to me (read it here:  https://djgourdoux.com/2011/06/18/dad/) .  He liked it, telling me it was “excellent.”  It was an opportunity I didn’t have with my Mom and especially my oldest brother, Mike, who died without my being able to tell how much I looked up to and loved him. I miss all three of them.

I’m not big on religion, and I don’t put too much stock in an afterlife, in either a Heaven or a Hell.  I think we live on in the traces we leave on the landscape through the work we busy our hands and minds with and the love we feel with our hearts and souls.  These things change the world in minute but profound and permanent ways, and connections between our existence and the waking and working world are maintained long after we’re forgotten, like the impressions of eighteen wheels left in the asphalt of an interstate highway on a warm and black summer night.

Nick


Nick1

Twenty seven years ago today, on a warm and sunny day, my wife called me at work and told me to get my ass home.  She was about to have a baby, our second.  A few hours later, around six o’clock PM if I remember correctly, Nicholas was born. From that point on, the world would be a better place.

Nick was born with a twinkle that has never left his dark eyes, like two stars that glow and shine in defiance of the otherwise black and empty void.  When he smiles, those stars ignite and light up the entire universe. From the beginning, he inherited the warmth and likeability that made my father, Nick’s grandfather, so unique.

From the beginning, he also had to endure the burden of being the most like his old man. It was bad enough that he had to look like me, even worse was that he seemed to think like me, sharing the same interest in sports and music, and the same sense of humor. I always felt proud when people would point to him and say, “He’s just like you.”  So proud that I bought into it, that I believed it.

It turns out that I was wrong.

nick3

Nick is better than me.

It’s taken some time, too long, really, for me to see this.  It should have been obvious.  But that’s me – I can be slow and dimwitted. For too long, because Nick was “just like me,” I projected my own insecurities and weaknesses onto him, bluntly pointing out “mistakes” he was making.  I thought I was questioning decisions he’d made, but it’s really not a question when you insist that you already know the answer. I regret my judgmental nature, and recognize that however much he is or isn’t like me, the journey he is on is his own, and only he alone can chart his course into the great unknown.

Now Nick is a full grown man, and on this, his twenty seventh birthday, I want to celebrate how much he isn’t like me, and how proud he makes me, and how much I love him.

nick2

 

The Temple of Air


One of my favorite books is The Temple of Air, a collection of interwoven short stories by the Chicago writer, Patricia Ann McNair.  The book continues to have an impact on me because of its profoundly rich and deep sense of place.  I’m finding that as I grow older my relationship to places, whether it’s where I come from, where I am, or where I might be going, is for some reason becoming more and more important to me. The stories in The Temple of Air all take place in the fictional and isolated small town of New Hope, Illinois, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the town I grew up in, Union Grove, Wisconsin

But it’s not the greatness of the book or Ms. McNair’s evocative prose or the nuanced and substantive characters she draws that has me thinking about her book tonight, although that’s where these things normally end up. Instead it is quite literally that last word in her title.

Air.

This is where things get a little bit weird, and where I’m going to reveal what a real flake I am.  But I swear, this is true and real, even though I know I can’t adequately describe it, and I have no idea what if anything it means.

About a year ago, I had triple bypass heart surgery.  Although I was 99% blocked in one artery, and about 90% in a couple of others, it’d be disingenuous to call it a near-death experience. But while it may not have been in the room with me, I think it’s safe to say that death was in the neighborhood, and was on his way, in his big, blue 1969 Impala, stuck at a light with his left turn signal on, waiting for the arrow to turn green.  He was close enough for me to feel his presence more acutely than at any other time in my life.  Fortunately, everything went well, and now the old ticker is just plugging along, and having missed his exit, ol’ death is back on the outbound interstate.

But here’s the weird part, and I swear it’s true.  Ever since the operation, I’ve had brief moments, about two or three times a month, where I feel the air in a way I’ve never felt it before. Usually it happens when I step outside. I feel its coldness or warmth, I smell it, I taste it, just like everybody does, just like I always have, only stronger and deeper. It becomes overpowering.

But it’s more than that. It’s very strange. When these moments occur, they establish a connection to something and sometime in my past.  Most of the time I can’t name when or where it is, but I get the sense that it’s connecting me to some point in the past, usually in my childhood, unlocking  a  brief moment where the air felt exactly like it does at that precise time in the present. Usually the flashbacks triggered in these moments are vague and shapeless, and impossible to make out the connection, but I feel it, and I know it’s just beyond my grasp.  A couple of times, they’ve been vivid enough to present to me, like a movie playing in my head, complete scenes.

The most vivid of these flashbacks occurred just a couple of days ago, on a warm March day when I stepped outside to let the dogs out.

Suddenly I saw myself, six or seven years old, on the front porch of our house in Union Grove, on a warm spring day. And I more than just saw myself, I saw the world, through my young child eyes and body, and everything felt different, except for the air, the air felt the same, it was my portal into the past. And I walked through the screen door into the living room of my childhood down the hallway into the bedroom my brother Don and I shared.  Don wasn’t there, our bunk beds along the near wall were empty. The plastic model of the Japanese Zero plane that Don had assembled hung from the light shade, suspended by a thread tied to its front and back that was looped over the shade. It was late afternoon, the pre-dusk shadows advancing across the room.  My little bones ached, so I lay down on the bottom bunk and stared at the mattress springs of the top bunk above me.

And then I was back, fifty years later, in the present.

The title and final story in The Temple of Air is about an adolescent girl who is painfully neglected by her divorced and hopelessly shallow parents, and how she is finally able, for at least a brief moment, to literally rise above her circumstance.  I was lucky enough to have no such hardships.  My childhood was nothing if not idyllic. It never occurred to me that there were other people who suffered tremendous pain and anguish. I took my good fortune for granted, and thought no more about it than I thought about the air I breathed.

Tonight I’m thinking that when my last story is told, when air is no longer available to me, I’ll kneel before  the aggregate of all the air I ever breathed in, and I’ll rise above but not too high, tethered to this world like a model airplane suspended from a ceiling light.

 

Guitar Hero


I’ve got  a Gibson without a case / but I can’t get that even tanned look on my face / Ill-fitting clothes, I just blend in the crowd / Fingers so clumsy, voice too loud

– Pete Townshend

When I was thirteen years old, after flirting with AM top 40 radio for a few years, I fell deeply in love with “hard” rock.  There was no such thing as “classic” rock at the time, because it was 1972 and rock was still in its infancy, and there was no nostalgic sentimentality attached to it by desperate middle aged, pear-shaped men hanging on to their youth by a strand of their combed-over hair.  That would all come later. In 1972, “hard” rock was still a young man’s domain, a ‘teenage wasteland,” its soundtrack the album orientated, FM radio music dominated by the churning chords and screaming riffs of electric guitars.

I was physically small and socially inept, painfully shy around girls. Every day I’d wake up in the early morning darkness of my room and wait for the ass-kicking that puberty would subject my ego to.  I remember being disappointed when my voice began to crackle and pop before the long awaited appearance of peach fuzz on my chin and my gonads.

It was a confusing time, as my older brother Don, who’d been my roommate for as long as I could remember, got married and moved out of the house.  He gave me, as a parting gift, probably the best and most used gift I’ve ever received: a poster of Raquel Welch from the movie One Million Years B.C. that would hang on my bedroom door for about the next three years. Needless to say, the poster turned out to be much preferred to the presence of my brother.

It was a lonely time, a time when the persistent perception of myself as a misfit was proven to be true.  Friends who were more socially adept were suddenly unavailable, spending time at parties and high school dances that I didn’t give even the first thought to attending.

A significant amount of time was spent in my room, listening to music, spent in my mind, in my fantasies – and it wasn’t just Raquel, either. In my fantasy world, I was strong and confident and funny, and as my album collection grew, so too did my Rock and Roll fantasy grow.

Where do you get those blue, blue jeans / Faded, patched secret so tight? /  Where do you get that walk oh, so lean? /  Your shirt and your shoes just right

 I developed secret crushes on countless girls, all beautiful, all popular, even though I was acutely aware that I had no chance with none of them.  No chance now, that is, none until I learn to play … electric guitar.

I became obsessed with the electric guitar. I’d listen for hours to the licks and riffs laid down by Hendrix, Clapton, and Page. I became a fan of David Gilmour’s sound and Pete Townshend’s stage theatrics.  I studied the photos in the album liners, how each player held their guitar, strapped low and loose, and the intensity that oozed out of their pores whenever they played a hot solo.  I remember watching the documentary Monterrey Pop, about the 1967 Monterrey pop festival. The Who closed out their set with “My Generation,” ending it with Townshend destroying his guitar in what was the perfect articulation of the rage and frustration I felt constantly churning in my belly.  It was possibly the coolest thing I’d ever seen, and I set my sights on getting a guitar and learning to play it, not smash it (for now).

So  I bugged my mom to buy me a guitar, and then I bugged her some more.  When that didn’t work, I tried a different strategy:  I bugged her some more.  Finally, she broke down and bought me a cheap, little acoustic guitar.  It wasn’t the Fender Esquire I’d been hoping for, but it was a start. I took it and a short instructional book my mom had also bought me into the darkness of my room, determined not to come out until I was legitimately bona-fided.

               But I’m one
               I am one
               and I can see
               that this is me 
               and I will be 
               you’ll all see 
               I’m the one

 By now you probably know how this story ends, as it’s been told a thousand times before:  young misfit picks up a guitar, learns a few chords, and before you know it, he is transformed, a star is born, and neither his life nor the world are ever the same again. Well, that’s how it was supposed to end.

In reality, the ending to the story is a little bit different. I didn’t quite uncover the musical genius that was hiding deep inside of myself. Instead, I confirmed what my Mom already knew and validated her worst fears – the simple and sad fact that I had no intrinsic musical ability at all.  None. Zippo.

Stubby, little and inflexible fingers combined with laziness and a short attention span are not the ingredients for mastery of anything, let alone a musical instrument.  I remember the book first trying to cover a few simple chords, but that soon grew boring and struck me as the sort of thing a rhythm guitar player would need to know.  Screw that, it was lead or nothing for me, so I “taught” myself a couple of simple, one-string melodies and solos, slowly plinking them out as the fingers on my left hand moved from fret to fret, becoming unjustifiably impressed with myself when, for example, I stumbled upon what I took to be the melody for the old folk song, “Little Brown Jug.”

My enthusiasm for playing was exponentially greater than any propensity I had.  I say “propensity” rather than talent due to the rules of mathematics, as using the word “talent” would have resulted in a divide by zero error.  I remember sitting in our living room, torturing my mom with my playing, when I asked her, “What should I play next?”

“How about ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’?”

Impressed, I replied, “I didn’t know you were familiar with the Led Zeppelin song.”

“Led Zeppelin has a song called that?” she asked.

“Yeah, it’s on Houses of the Holy,” I replied.

“Oh,” she said, “I was just saying that you should play over the hills and far away.  Far, far away.”

“Very funny,” I said.

About this time I started babysitting on Sunday nights for a family that lived on the street, about three doors down, the Poisls.  One night, after the kids had fallen asleep, I called home and asked my little sister to bring over my guitar, so I could practice. There, in the quiet of the Poisl’s living room, I plunked away for about an hour when Mr. and Mrs. Poisl came home.  Mrs. Poisl enthusiastically reacted to the sight of me with my guitar.

“Do you play?” she asked. It was obvious that she loved music.

“Yeah, I get by,” I replied.

She pulled up a chair across from where I sat with my guitar, and with a big and happy anticipatory grin on her face, said “play something.”

“Okay,” I said, and delved right into my one string translation of “Little Brown Jug.”  As I slowly plinked and plunked away, I looked up in time to see the last glimmer of light fade from her face, as her smile transformed into the same pained expression I recognized from my mom’s face when she heard the same rendition of the folk classic. I stopped playing and said, “well, it’s getting ….”

“Late,” she said, finishing my sentence before adding, “Excuse me.”  Then she was up and out of the room, leaving Mr. Poisl to pay me and see me off.  After he shut the front door behind me, I thought I could hear, buried in the night mix with the crickets, the muffled sound of laughter from inside the Poisl’s house, but I couldn’t be sure.

One evening, about a week later, shortly after supper, my guitar and I were in the living room when I decided it was time to return to my bedroom. As I approached the hallway, my trusty guitar in my right hand, my oldest brother Mike, emerged from the bathroom.  We met in the hallway, which was a bit too narrow for Mike, me and my guitar, and as we bumped shoulders, Mike gave me an innocent brotherly push. I lost my balance and my guitar ended up pinned against the wall as my right elbow pierced the guitar’s top board, leaving a big hole in it.

“You broke my guitar!” I protested.

Mike mumbled something in return and left the room.  I couldn’t tell what it was he said, but it clearly didn’t include the words “I’m sorry.”

Devastated, I stepped into the kitchen, where my mom was doing the dishes.  “Look,” I said, “Look what Mike did to my guitar.”

She barely looked up from the sink, and glancing at the smashed guitar, said, “Oh, well.”

“’Oh, well?’  That’s it? You’re not going to yell at Mike?”

“These things happen sometimes,” she said, returning to her dishes.

Perplexed, I said, “If I didn’t know better, I might think you’re glad Mike broke my guitar.”

She remained silent, her hands in the sink and her head down, hiding what I could swear was a smile

 

 

 

Best Friends and the Notorious Doctor X.


The first best friend I ever made was in the third grade, a kid named Ryan Michaels. I’d made friends before, playground or at school friends, but never close enough to have them over to my house or to go to their houses. Ryan was a goofy little kid, skinny and pale with thick rimmed glasses that never seemed to sit straight on his nose. In school, he was quiet and reserved.  His clothes were always worn and dirty, with holes worn through the knees of his jeans. Ryan had already been to my house a few times and met most of my family by the time I went to his house for the first time.

dr x

The notorious Doctor X

Ryan lived in an older part of town, in a big, two story house. It was one of the oldest houses in the neighborhood, with white paint that was peeling under its peaked eaves and window panes. The gravel driveway came in off of the street and turned left into the parking lot of a big church that stood next door. It was an early autumn afternoon, warm and overcast. Ryan invited me in, and he poured me a glass of milk as I surveyed the surroundings. Unlike the house I lived in, which was a new 60s style ranch, built just three years earlier, Ryan’s house was older and bigger, with cracks in the plaster and late afternoon shadows that cast a dim heaviness to the daylight that streamed through the windows.  His dad was home, a big and unshaven man with a big belly that stretched the white t-shirt he was wearing. He walked into the kitchen, crumpling an empty can of Old Milwaukee and throwing it in the trash can before opening the fridge and grabbing another, while Ryan and I stood at the counter, drinking our milk. I remember he looked at us, and didn’t say anything before exiting the kitchen. Then Ryan and I were going outside to play again, only this time we were going  out the backdoor. On the way out, we passed through a small room with a couch and a black and white television that was broadcasting “All Star Wrestling” on the Milwaukee UHF station, channel 18. Ryan’s dad was sitting back on the couch, sipping his Old Milwaukee and watching the same show that my older brothers and I watched from time to time, with wrestlers like Da Crusher and Doctor X. We’d watch and laugh at how fake it was and at the people in the audience, a disproportionate number of whom seemed to be elderly women, who thought it was real.

We went back outside and ended up in the turn-around driveway in front of the big old house, playing with matchbox or hot-wheels cars in the gravel. It must have rained sometime in the days before because puddles filled in the potholes in the driveway.

“Yeah, just a few weeks ago, me and my little sister had to get our stomachs pumped,” Ryan said, matter-of-factly.

“You had to get your stomachs pumped?” I’d never heard of such a thing. It sounded painful.

“Yeah,” he said, “we were playing house, and we drank some puddle water.”

“Why would you drink puddle water?” I asked.

“We were pretending it was beer,” he said.

. . .

Not long after that day, Ryan and I began to drift apart. I guess it’s like that when you’re small and you’re learning how to get along with people, when you don’t know yourself let alone anyone else well enough to know if you have anything in common. It’s pot luck, pure random chance that determines who your friends will be.  More than anything it’s location, as kids from the same neighborhood, the same block, are more likely to discover each other and remain at least geographically close enough to maintain contact. Ryan and I were from different neighborhoods and lived vastly different lives.

That day in his driveway would turn out to be the only time I “went over” to Ryan’s house.  After that day, I am left with only three more vivid memories of Ryan Michaels.

The first was a couple of weeks later, on Halloween. Our teacher, Miss Hoppi, was an elderly substitute who’d been hired for the year to take the place of our assigned teacher, Mrs. Smart, who’d been recently diagnosed with cancer (she would, in fact, die about a year later, after we’d gone on to the fourth grade). Anyway, after our long awaited Halloween party, Ryan and I and a couple of other guys were standing in the hallway talking. I, apparently already the critic, was complaining about the lameness of Miss Hoppi’s party, when Ryan let me have it.

“What are you talking about?” he demanded, his voice getting louder. “It was fun. You just don’t like Miss Hoppi, that’s all.”

. .  .

The second memory occurred about two years later, when we were in the fifth grade.  Ryan and I had already drifted apart, and were in separate classrooms, so we didn’t see each other much.  We’d always say hi when we passed each other in the hallways, so it wasn’t like we were mortal enemies or anything.

One day, while getting ready to go to lunch, my classroom and Ryan’s found ourselves in the hallway at the same time, when I came upon Ryan, who was quite animated in telling a couple of other kids about how he and his dad had gone to an all-star wresting show in Milwaukee the night before. He was showing off the event’s program, which included autographed photos of all the stars, including Ryan’s favorite, the masked Dr. X.

“Ryan,” I said, “don’t you know that’s all fake?”

“It is not!” he said.

“But it is.” I felt embarrassed for my former best friend.

“No, it’s not!  My dad says so. He told me!” he said, getting louder and more animated .

“But it’s fake,” I insisted.

“Shut up!” He was screaming now, and crying.  “Shut up!” he continued, long after I had done so, screaming louder and crying harder each time.

. . .

The final memory I have of Ryan Michaels was in June of 1977, about a year after we graduated from Union Grove High School.  It was a rainy Saturday afternoon. I was in town, driving west on Highway 11, about four blocks east of Main Street, Highway 45, when I saw Ryan, alone, dressed in his white Navy uniform, walking,  headed east, soaked through to the bone, with a big grin on his face, raising a Budweiser to his mouth, laughing at something unknown.

I remember thinking to myself that he looked like a ghost.

. . .

Sometime, a year or two later, I can’t remember exactly when or how, I learned that Ryan was dead. I think it was a car accident, but now I’m not sure.  It’s been more than thirty five years and my memory isn’t what is used to be.

But the image of Ryan walking down Highway 11 in the rain in his Navy whites is as vivid as those of the other ghosts that haunt my memories. It’s as if they’d all occurred just yesterday, which, I guess, they really did.

Maturation


There’s no denying it, I was a weird kid.  I always knew that about myself, but as I grew into adolescence, the middle school years, it started to bother me. I wasted a lot of time trying to figure out why, going as far back as I could remember, that I always had the feeling that everybody else knew something that I didn’t, that they’d been privy to a secret that forever eluded me.

Looking back on it now, it’s obvious. Because of where my birthday, November 4th, fell in relation to the cut-off date for determining when a kid would start school (at the time, November 30th), I was nearly a year younger than most of my classmates, and younger than all but one kid in my class.  This might not sound like a big deal, but when you’re in seventh or eighth grade, a year can make a big difference. The maturation process for boys, both physically and emotionally, is hyper-accelerated in those years. It was like a gun was fired and the race began, everybody sprinting out of the blocks, while I lagged behind, clueless, wondering who’d been shot.

Physically I was always one of the smallest kids in my class.  I remember in tenth grade, I was five foot two and weighed 94 pounds, lighter than all but two in my phy-ed class. Football was not an option. I did okay in little league baseball, but that was because it used a different cutoff date than the public school system used, so when I was twelve, I was playing with other kids who were a year behind me in school but the same age during the baseball season.  You’d think that it would have occurred to me that this was the root of my problems, that the reason I played baseball so well was because, unlike school, I was with kids my own age. But that lightbulb never went on, even in the endless hours I spent trying to figure out why I didn’t fit in with my classmates.

My immaturity wasn’t limited to physical realms. I was emotionally immature as well, manifesting itself in behavior that ran from extremes of manic inappropriateness to near catatonic states of sullen brooding. All the standardized tests showed that I was well above average in intelligence, yet I was a terrible student, plagued by a short attention span that had I been born ten or twenty years later with would have likely led to chemical treatment.

I had two older brothers, six and four years ahead of me, who when I was growing up never seemed to have any problem fitting in.  I always looked up to them, and silently wondered why they were okay and I was such a mess.

At some point I became an unabashed sports fanatic, following the NFL and Major League Baseball and the NBA religiously. I loved playing them all in backyard or driveway games in the neighborhood.  My two best friends at the time were also classmates, Danny M, who was a truly gifted athlete, and Joey H., who was blessed with the gift of being movie-star handsome.

In sixth grade, we all tried out for the basketball team. Try outs were after school and finished on a Friday right before my birthday with a big scrimmage game.  I remember I didn’t play well in the scrimmage, so I wasn’t surprised on Monday morning when they posted the names of who’d made the team that Danny and Joey’s names were listed but mine was not.

But here’s the thing – after that disappointment, in a rare display of maturity, I started working my ass off, practicing my ball handling and shooting every night in my driveway, putting in literally hundreds of hours, so that the following year when try-outs came around, I was ready and confident. When they ended, on my birthday, the Friday night after the big scrimmage in which I scored eight points on four for five shooting and grabbed a couple of rebounds, I went home certain I’d made the team.  At home there was birthday cake and the gift of a brand new Spalding basketball waiting for me. And Danny and Joey came over and we all knew that the three of us had all made the team.

Late the following Monday morning, between second and third periods, and we’re all crowded around the bulletin board reading the sheet of paper with the typed names of who’d made the team. I quickly find Danny and Joey’s names. Soon the crowd disburses but I’m still there, looking for my name until I finally accept that it’s not there. When I do, I start crying. I try to stop myself but I can’t, and I’m late for the beginning of my next class, Science, my eyes red and puffy as I make my way to my seat.

Danny and Joey spend the rest of the day telling me how unfair it is, how I should have made the team, but, as sincere as I know they are, it doesn’t help.  I go home and shut myself in my room and brood, finally venturing out just before supper time. As I walk down the dark hallway I can hear my oldest brother, who for some unremembered reason I was fighting and not on speaking terms with at the time, in the living room, talking to my mom, when I heard him say:

“There’s no way Joey’s better than Dave.  No way.”

I stopped and quietly went back to my room. For some reason it felt important not to reveal that I’d heard what he said. I think it was because if he didn’t know I was listening, then he wasn’t saying it for my benefit, just to make me feel better. He’d really meant it, and that meant everything to me.