Monday, May 7, 2012

#24 - When the Saints Come Marching In, Part 2

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  The church bus sat there at the end of the gravel driveway, the split doors spread wide and waiting for us to climb the three steps up into the inner madness of the Jesus transport.

  My sister gave me a look (“Why do you always have to do really dumb-ass things that confirm your geekiness in front of my friends?”) and then she stomped up those stairs and immediately slipped into a seat containing two of said cool friends, both of them consoling her and patting her arms, murmuring that stupid brothers were the bane of civilization.

  The bus driver glared at me impatiently as I hesitated at the door, not bothering to hide his dissatisfaction that yet another worthless urchin was holding up the child-gathering process and it would therefore be that much longer before he could dump us off at Bible School and then go drink whiskey behind the Ladies Auxiliary Memorial Fountain.

  I gulped and somehow managed to send the correct neural signal to my legs, convincing my lower limbs that we had a mission to accomplish, however unsavory the task might be. I trotted up the steps and turned to look down the length of the bus, searching for either an empty seat or one that held occupants who had their own social issues and would welcome me in kindred spirit.

  There was not such a seat to be found.

  So I worked my way down the aisle until I found a possible place of refuge, a seat containing a young girl sporting a smock that had apparently been made out of a tablecloth manufactured somewhere around 1947. I smiled at her hopefully. She glanced at me briefly and then turned to study something nonexistent outside her window. This was not an outright refusal, so I quietly sat down beside her. The alcoholic bus driver ground the gears for a bit until he found a promising one, and the bus eventually rumbled down the hill.

  Then the singing began.

  At first, I wasn’t quite sure of what I was hearing. After all, it was a bus full of supposedly-Christian but still rowdy youth, and there’s always screeching in such circumstances. There are hundreds of conversations about this and that going on, creating a lot of white noise that can generally be ignored. But then the vocals and the lyrics became clear. Several people somewhere on the bus were tauntingly singing the same worship-based ditty that had inspired me to become Isadora Duncan whilst standing in the driveway of a country farmhouse.

  I tried to ignore it initially, but you can only pretend for so long. Then my seat companion, she of the tablecloth modification, muttered quietly “Don’t pay any attention to them.”

  I smiled at my seatmate, she continued to study things out the window, and the bus rolled on.

  Of course, the teasing didn’t end with our drop-off outside the doors of the church. The doors of the bus had barely opened before the hooligans had raced to join up with the like-minded miscreants from the other collection vehicles, and I knew from the giggling and finger-pointing that this was not going to be a stellar day for me.

  And it wasn’t. I couldn’t go fifteen minutes without some fool reminding me, with comments in the classroom and taunts on the playground, that I had done an incredibly girly thing and that my manhood was not only in question but it was firmly decided that I was a fag and that there was nothing but brimstone and some displeasing business about eternal flames in my future.

  Good times, right? And I was maybe twelve years old.

  But some growth came out of the experience. For one, it was the trigger point for me to begin questioning the concept of organized religion. How could people claim to love God and then be so cruel? Why was there so much hatred for people who were different? And that hatred seemed to be fortified by the fact that as long as you claimed to love Jesus, you could do whatever the hell you wanted to do to demonize people that you didn’t understand.

  Heavy thoughts when you’re not even a teenager, fumbling through life in a state that didn’t yet allow progressive coffee shops where you could show up and release some of your anxiety through non-rhyming spoken-word poetry.

  And the more serious aftermath of my exuberant pirouetting on a gravel driveway and the subsequent scarlet letter attached to my un-muscled breast? I decided to confront my Granny, and inform her that I had no plans to attend any further sessions of Vacation Bible School, come what may.

  She was stunned, of course. I didn’t really tell her the true detail of what had transpired, only that I was having an issue with what was being taught and how it seemed that there was something missing in the whole situation. In a desperate attempt to seal the deal, because I knew I was in clearly uncharted waters and there would be unknown repercussions, I promised to read The Bible every night and try to learn on my own.

  Granny, completely flummoxed by this turn of events (Who challenges the concept of Vacation Bible School, especially in right-wing Oklahoma?), decided to see how things would play out. But I damn sure better read that Bible, or somebody was gonna get a whippin.

  So I did. From Page 1, struggling through all that Old Testament mess about the begatting and the apparent belief that lots of people in the olden days lived for several hundred years. (Why are people not living that long now?) And the increasingly complicated part where it becomes clear that women should be subservient to men, that any variance from doctrine means that people who don’t conform to such should be destroyed, and some random crap about the wearing of multi-fibered clothing means you are a sinner that can never be redeemed.

  Really? Again with the mention of being twelve years old at the time.

  To be fair, the New Testament was a bit more encouraging. You know, the part where Jesus actually shows up and starts sending emails to the faithful. You really should love one another, bottom line. Don’t be so quick to judge. Try to understand what everyone is going through, and then do what you can to make life better for all people on the planet. And hey, people in glass houses…

  I’m guessing certain Republicans, with their insistence on destroying that which they don’t understand, never got to this part of the scripture. Maybe they have an outdated version of the Bible and forgot to turn on the “automatic updates” feature in their software.

  I liked this concept of Jesus, I really did. I still had lots of questions, mainly about why all these other people who were clearly not Jesus were allowed to speak for him, especially when you get to that Revelations business that nobody truly understands, despite occasional self-imposed prophets who are firmly convinced that God wanted to destroy America with Hurricane Katrina because gay men dared to wear leather outfits in New Orleans.

  I was befuddled, especially since the rumors of me being gay were actually true. I hadn’t told a soul at that point, but I knew it. Despite the people who scream “It’s a choice!”, it’s not. It just is.

  Yet I didn’t share any of this with Granny. I simply explained that I was learning a lot with my daily Bible reading. Good stuff to ponder, sure was enjoying it, so glad you gave me this opportunity to approach scripture on my own.

  Granny, of course, had other thoughts on the matter. Always mindful of her social position in the small town where she lived, she strove to counteract the fact that her grandson was not attending the requisite summer Bible Camp. (The horror!) She arranged for the daughter and son of a prominent local banker to spend some time with myself and my sister at her house, just to prove that we were dependable Christian offspring.

  Granny went all out with this event, going so far as to create a dessert concoction that consisted of multiple layers of cherry and lemon gelatin, an extraordinary thing of great beauty for the time. The daughter of the banker, I believe her name was Cathy, joined me on a side porch of Granny’s abode, where the two of us could consume the sugar-based treat whilst out of range of our chaperones.

  Cathy, slurping discreetly on the vibrant stripes of nectar: “So, you’ve stopped going to Vacation Bible School?”

  Me, having no idea where this is going: “Well, yes.  I was having a hard time with… well…”

  Cathy: “I wasn’t singing on the bus that day. I would never do that.”

  And thus the pendulum swung back. It’s not the people of strong faith who are the issue. It’s the weak people who subvert faith because they think it makes them strong. Slight grammatical variance, but a world of difference.

  Cathy and I finished our dessert and just sat there for a bit, silently watching a small group of birds in a nearby tree, as they happily hopped around on branches and had no concept of being judged…

Sunday, August 8, 2010

#23 - When the Saints Come Marching In, Part 1

  Mid 70’s. My sister and I have been bundled up once again and shipped off to Granny’s for our yearly stint at Vacation Bible School every June. I had mixed feelings about these little sojourns. Staying with Granny and Peepaw for a week or so was always interesting, albeit a bit more structured than I cared for. True, there was lots of down time, as happens when you are in a strongly Christian household and many otherwise harmless activities are verboten.

  On the flip side, none of our friends were anywhere around, as not only did Mom’s parents live in another town, they lived way on the outskirts of said town, a land of farms, cows, and questionable rural vehicles that surely couldn’t be passing any type of legal inspection. There were very few people our age to be found. Which meant that, if we were going to get into any entertaining trouble, we would have to do it on our own, without any encouragement or dares from companions. This lowered the relative value of any mischief.

  And I wasn’t really troubled about going to “school” in the summer, an activity that most of my friends would rather die than do. I was a rather scholarly child, much to the befuddlement and wonder of most of my older relatives, as they had simply endured the 12-year learning process and then proceeded directly to the making of babies.

  Someone who actually enjoyed school was an anomaly, and I was regarded with suspicion from an early age. (I’m sure that my true parental line was questioned in gossipy whispers at family reunions. I’m equally sure that my general tendency to remain quiet and just observe my surroundings also led to speculation, as the rest of the clan greatly enjoyed hollering and running about and throwing things.)

  Of course, this wasn’t “real” school, per se, more like an abridged travel film concerning the plight of your soul. With juice and cookies served as refreshments in between rounds of begatting and people turning into pillars of table condiments. But they did have instructional materials, with grim drawings of unfortunate people who made bad choices, and occasional verbal pop quizzes, which pleased me. Tests were exciting challenges that I looked forward to with a relish most of the planet did not share.

  So really, I didn’t mind the concept of attending Vacation Bible School each June. In fact, the concept alone, wherein I was encouraged to study, something I would have done anyway, was just dandy with me. No, the trouble reared its head when it came to some of the “classmates” who had been shoved into the VBS classroom along with me, kicking and screaming the entire way.

  These people were some of the most disrespectful, intolerant, downright mean little urchins to ever be handed a juice box in the name of the Lord. And that was on a good day.

  They came back every year, these fallen angels who clearly had not gleaned any redemptive or moral bits of wisdom that would keep them on the path of righteousness. They weren’t even aware that there was a path, let alone that they should be following it due to some elusive promise of a vague door prize at the end.

  I don’t know why those heathens even bothered to get on the blessed red-and-white church bus that would scour the countryside every morning, collecting young souls for fellowship and rhyming games involving apostle names. It clearly wasn’t something that they did voluntarily. Perhaps anxious parents and concerned police authorities had formed some type of tribunal, deeming that the county would be safer if the little miscreants were held in religious captivity rather than allowed to go on exploratory, unsupervised missions to seedier parts of town.

  Whatever the case, there they where on the bus and in the stifling classrooms with me (it seems that Jesus may have had some financial issues at the time, and it was determined that the offspring of parishioners would not notice if it was 90 degrees inside the baking brick buildings). The heathens would sit in their chairs, exposed skin sticking to the warm plastic, and their blackened hearts pumping deviltry through their veins, causing the tiny evildoers to wreak havoc near and far.

  I found their behavior appalling, of course, operating under the strongly-held principle that, when one found oneself in a scholastic environment, either by choice or court-ordered edict, that one should simply sit there and absorb the knowledge, not moving a muscle for fear of missing something of great mental betterment.

  In my book, one did not sniff glue and then giggle at the printed names on crayons. One did not find it amusing to pour apple juice into the wrinkled and stained brown sacks containing classmates’ primitive country lunches. And by no means should one mutter disparaging words under one’s breath so that all but the tall people could hear, comparing the Bible-quoting teachers with their unfortunate Puritan hair to a female dog in heat. It was complete misbehaved madness, and I was in utter shock at the incivility of it all.

  Things got even worse when we were periodically released to run amok on the playground. One otherwise fine afternoon, as I balanced precariously on an upper rung of the jungle gym, pretending to be Shazam, inspired by a cartoon infatuation at the time, I had the displeasure of noticing that several of the demon boys had chosen some metal real estate just below me.

  Instinct told me to simply leap from atop the structure, even if bones snapped, and then race to some form of safety near the gaggle of adult women who were supposed to be keeping us alive but were really only interested in the latest pregnancies occurring in the small town. Yet I stayed put, and learned some startling things that kept me awake for many nights afterwards.

  For starters, I learned that there were apparently at least thirty current slang words for a woman’s vagina. To be fair, it took me a bit to figure this out, initially thinking that the demon boys were discussing games of some type. (A rousing round of “squat tag” certainly sounded promising, not having played that one before, until I surmised that one must be naked in order to achieve the desired results in this activity.) Once I got the startling picture of the true subject matter, I tried to discreetly climb higher on the jungle gym, praying that a tornado would whisk me away, back to Virgin, Kansas.

  The Toto Express did not arrive, so I was left to survive as best I could as more information flowed. It seems that every one of the boys had done at least five acts of colorful abandonment with or near willing and appreciative females, despite the limiting factors that they were only ten years old and, as best I could tell, all of the available females in the region had deemed boys “gross”. Except for the teachers. No reports had yet been received concerning their thoughts on the matter.

  Oh, and when these boys weren’t entertaining half the populace with their amazing exploits and supposedly record-shattering endowments, they liked to steal things. From anywhere, apparently, but Wal-Mart and K-Mart seemed to provide the best opportunities, although Otasco was in the running as well. From what I could hear, these boys had stockpiles of treasure that would make Leona Helmsley weep.

  Luckily, the bell rang just then, and I was able to fling myself to the ground and rush toward the school building without giving off too much of a pansy essence. Sadly, that aroma would find me within minutes, clinging to me in death grip.

  You see, the nameless administrators of this particular Vacation Bible School had planned the classes more from a “capacity” rather than a “conforming” perspective. This meant that we had several younger tykes in our room, and the frazzled teachers had to construct religion-based activities that would hopefully appeal to a wide range.

  Next up on the agenda? An interpretive dance combined with a lilting little ditty name-checking several books in the Bible. The steps were very intricate, evidence of some spinster obviously having far too much time on her hands, and it took a great deal of time for the dance participants to get things right.

  And those participants, of course, did not include the heathen children, who opted to remain in their seats and shoot spit wads at the slower occupants in the room. I, however, upholding the truth that attentiveness in the classroom was sacred, joined the pageant, a Redwood amongst many uncoordinated saplings. As a reward, once the session finally ended, I was graced with glowing praise from the teachers, impressed as they were with my mastery and skill.

  Returning to my seat, the rude comments from the heathens made it well-known that my efforts had marked me for questionable sexuality and disgrace. I vowed never to dance again, at least not with an unappreciated audience.

  This vow lasted roughly twelve hours.

  Next morning, my sister and I trotted out of Granny’s house and down to the end of the driveway, were we would await the red-and-white bus of salvation. Since Granny frowned upon tidiness when it came to the Lord, we were always shoved out of the house well before the expected pick-up time. This meant that we had to entertain ourselves until the bus crested the nearby hill.

  Out of sheer boredom, I began humming the ditty from the previous afternoon’s disgrace as I picked up a stick and drew pictures in the white dust of the driveway. My sister, out of her own boredom and being unfamiliar with the tune as she had been relegated to an alternate VBS classroom, inquired on the nature of my musicality. Thusly, I began singing the song in its entirety, assuming that we had plenty of time for a floor show.

  Within seconds, my body began to uncontrollably accompany my vocals with physicality, performing the routine with skill and refinement. Within minutes, I had gone completely overboard, accenting all the moves with overly dramatic flourishes and bellowing like a stuck pig.

  Suddenly, the mighty blare of a horn filled the country air.

  I whirled around in shock. There was the VBS bus, filled to the brim with every single person going to the church, because we were one of the last stops. And right in the midst of the sea of jaw-dropped astonishment, there were the members of the Heathen Demon Boys Brigade, their dirty faces shoved up against the glass of the bus windows, delight filling their eyes at the humiliation countdown that had just begun.

  The bus ground to a halt right before me, a billow of dust coating my sweating body as the doors were folded open…

Click Here to Read the Next Entry in This Series.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

#22 - Run-Around, Part 2

So there I was, glaring at Haggatha, and Haggatha was glaring at me. This was getting us nowhere, but it was very soothing to release hate vibes in her direction. She was a horrible, cruel woman, and I wanted her off the face of the planet. This did not immediately happen.

I feebly tried to take a stand. “I don’t think you set this machine up right. I want to take the test again on a different machine.” Then I stood up, and tried to channel Sally Field in “Norma Rae”.

She was not impressed. “You can want all you want. Not gonna get you anywhere. You failed the test. You can’t take the test again until you’ve had an eye exam. Now, you’re wasting my time, and you need to leave.” Then she turned and went through another door. I’m assuming it was a locker room where she keeps her soul.

I stood there for another minute or two. Was this really happening? How could she get away with acting like that? Why wasn’t I getting to triumph like Sally Field did when she stood up to the big guys, with all my peeps shutting off their machines and rallying around me?

I glanced at my peeps. They were all avoiding eye contact, and pretending to carefully study the next question on their monitors. Not getting any help from those slackers. I guess they didn’t see the movie.

Sighing, I made my way out of the testing room. Once in the outer waiting area, where there were still hundreds of people standing in line or filling out forms, I felt another rush of “power to the people” surge through me. I cleared my throat and announced to the room at large: “Don’t get in Haggatha’s line! She will NOT help you. Save yourselves!”

Crickets chirped.

Okay, then. Not getting any support here, either. I banged through the front doors and out into the parking lot. I worked my way across the asphalt, carefully avoiding the shifty people who were still standing around and looking suspect. (Really, WHAT are those guys waiting for? This is obviously a poor part of town. If you want a handout, shouldn’t you try to panhandle in a place where people have money? Like Connecticut?)

I finally get to my car, and discover an amazingly-large dollop of bird poo on my front windshield. Great. Like I need something else to devaluate my existence. I find a Whataburger napkin in the glove box and whack the clod off the glass. I’m seriously not having a good time, and could give Sylvia Plath a run for her money on downbeat poems.

I get home, and immediately dig out all my insurance crap. Since my vision has been crystal clear until about two hours ago, I don’t have any eye doctor lined up. I don’t even know what type of optometrist to look for, since the news of my blindness is still fresh. I pick a random name out of the approved list and make a call.

Receptionist Person: “Thank you for calling the Happy Eyes clinic. Can I help you?”

Me: “Yes, I need to set up an eye exam. Apparently I lost my vision today.”

RP: “Excuse me, what was that?”

Me: “I’m sorry. I’m a little frustrated. I went to renew my driver’s license today, and I somehow failed the vision test. Until that moment, I had 20/20 vision.”

Slight pause, then RP: “Did you take your test in Irving?”

Me, somewhat startled: “Why, yes I did. On Sixth Street. How did you know?”

RP: “We know lots of things. You’ll need the Haggatha exam. Can you be here tomorrow morning at 9?”

Totally flummoxed, and feeling slightly surreal: “Um, okay. Yes, I can do that.”

RP: “See you then! Have a great evening.”


Did that just happen?

The next morning, I traipse into the Happy Eyes clinic. I fill out the appropriate paperwork, and then sit around and wait forever until it’s my turn. I’ve never understood this disparity between what I consider to be an “appointment time” and how care providers define the term. I think it should be the exact moment when you will be ready for me to “step through the door on the right”, not the general day that you might be able to fit me in. Maybe some day the medical personnel and the time-keepers of the world will get together and come up with a better plan.

Anyway, it’s finally my turn and I go through that door. The doctor starts doing her thing, shoving instruments in my eye and running tests. It doesn’t take long before she reaches a conclusion. “There’s nothing wrong with your eyes.”

“I know this. I can spot a Taco Bell from 3 miles away. But they won’t let me get a driver’s license until I’m wearing glasses and can pass the vision test.”

She frowns. “I can’t even write you a prescription, you don’t need one.”

I slightly panic. “No, don’t say that, you don’t understand. I must get this driver’s license. It’s become a personal mission.”

She sighs. “Well, I suppose I could give you a little bump in your left eye. You might have a little trouble with that one in about twenty years.”

I relax. “Please do. And thank you.”

We finish things up, and a bit later I’m marching to the eyeglass place that just “happens” to be next door (LOVE that arrangement), clutching my sacred slip of paper. These folks do THEIR thing, and in a few hours I am sporting a pair of designer-knockoff eye-ware. I jump in my car and head to the decrepit building on Sixth Street, ready for a showdown with Haggatha.

Imagine my devastation when I learn that she’s not even working today. See, that’s how it always goes with me. I feed my hatred, stoking the fires of resentment and plotting my enemy’s destruction, and then they call in sick. I never get the revenge or validation that I need. This is why I’m bitter.

Anyway, the new lady pulls up my records to see what needs to be done. “Oh, it looks like you need to re-take the vision test. Did you get the glasses?”

I bite my tongue very hard, as I glare at her through the lenses that are clearly sitting on my nose. “Yes, m’am, I did.”

“Okay, then. Please step to the back and we’ll fix you up.”

Once more through the door.

I zip through the test with no problem. In fact, I’m kind of disappointed when we run out of lines to read. As a special flourish, I even tell her what the tiny copyright date says in the lower right corner.

She doesn’t care. “Let’s see. We’ve got that out of the way, so now you just need to take the driving test. Please take a seat and someone will be right with you.”

I do so. Once again, “right with you” has a different meaning for these people, but eventually someone does show. A tiny woman clatters out of the soul-locker and clears her throat. “Mr. LaGoose?” (People never even TRY to say my name right, got over it years ago.”

I stand up. “That’s me.” I smile broadly like we’re best friends.

I guess she’s not looking for new acquaintances, and she’s all business. “Pull your car up to the first slot on the side of the building.” Then she turns and vanishes back into the soul-locker. Well, then.

I traipse outside, climb in my car, maneuver to the designated slot, making sure that I am precisely parked in the exact very center of this slot, and then sit there with the engine idling.

Three hours later, Tiny finally appears around the corner of the building. To my surprise, she marches past me and stands next to the second slot. What’s up with that? I get out of my car and turn in her direction. “Did I misunderstand something?”

“Yes, I told you to park in the second slot. You’ll need to back up.”

Oh God, here we go again with someone who just wants to make things more difficult for no reason. Haggatha might have called in sick but she sent a replacement. I don’t even bother to argue and get back in my car. I very carefully ease backwards, because even though killing her could prove enjoyable, it just might affect my score.

She finally opens the passenger door, and she lets out a small squeak of surprise when the automatic seat-belt thing slides down and around the window frame, allowing her access. (Make note that this car had those things, it will prove critical in a bit.) She hops in, the automatic upper belt slides back up, and she secures the lower belt. “Exit the parking lot.”

I put the car in gear and head toward the nearest exit.

“Not that one. The one on the right.”

“But you didn’t-”

“Yes, I did. The one on the right.”

I grit my teeth. Great. She’s one of those people who has conversations in her head, only shares part of it with you, yet still expects you to get all the details. I pull out of the parking lot and we’re on our way.

At first, things go okay. She has me change lanes and turn corners and such, ticking things off her checklist as we go. But then she apparently gets bored with this and starts messing around with my car. First, she leans over and pulls up one side of the floor mat. (What the hell?) I guess she didn’t find anything of interest, because she soon lets the mat flop back down

Me, stupidly: “Can I help you find something?”

“You need to keep your eyes on the road. You’re in control of a moving vehicle.”

I grimace and get my four eyes back where they belong. But she distracts me again. Now she’s actually digging in between the passenger seat and the center console. (Is there gold down there?) After several moments of struggle, she pulls out a discarded straw wrapper and holds it up. “This is littering.”

In my own CAR? What is wrong with her? “Uh…”

Then she actually opens my glove box, throws the wrapper in there, and slams the little door shut. (Well, thank God, because I didn’t know how much longer I could last, knowing that tube of paper was on the loose.) I decide to just ignore the whole thing.

She finally looks out the window, after quite some time of not paying any attention to what I’m doing, despite this being a driver’s test and all. She doesn’t like what she sees. “What are we doing this far down the street?”

Excuse me? Aren’t you the one giving the directions? “Um, you haven’t said to turn yet.”

She lets out an exasperated sigh. “I told you we were just going around the block.”

No, you didn’t. You‘ve said more about the contents of my car than where we might be headed. “Which way would you like me to turn?”

“To the right. And keep turning right. That’s how you go around the block.”

My spleen ruptures on its own. I just want this hateful woman out of my car before one of us ends up dead. “Okay, I’ll just keep turning right.” Unless I see a cliff. Then I’m driving right over it.

Eventually, we get back to the decrepit building. She directs me off to one side, where there are some orange plastic cones spaced about. “Time to parallel park,” she announces.

Oh. Forgot about that. I’m NOT good at this. I decide to negotiate. “How is my score so far? Can I skip this and still pass?”

She looks at me in horror. “Why would you want to skip this?”

Because I hate you. “I always have trouble. I’ll probably fail this part anyway. Just being honest.”

She glares at me for a few more minutes, then sighs and reviews her clipboard. “You’ll pass by one point if you don’t parallel park.” It clearly pained her to say these words.

My heart surges. “Great. I’ll take it.”

“Then we’re done. I’ll turn in your paperwork and you can get your license.” She hurriedly gathers her things, ready to exit this evil vehicle of trash and sin where people don’t finish things. She throws open the door and starts to leap out.

The automatic seat belt whips into downward action. She’s already got her head out the door, so it catches her by surprise. No real damage, but in the midst of her sudden flailing about, the strap tangles in her hair and we learn that she’s wearing a wig, which is now half hanging off of her head. She disengages the seat belt from the runner, hurls it to the passenger floorboard, leaps out of the car, slams the door, and marches toward the building, her hair still jacked.

I smile for the first time in two days.


#21 - Run-Around, Part 1

While I’m generally one of those people who gets things done when they need to get done, I have certain fail-blog areas that have caused me considerable pain in the past. There’s just some psychological mis-wiring in my brain that keeps me from doing some things in a timely manner.

For instance, I cannot stand to renew my driver’s license. Especially back in the day, when you had to physically report to a run-down building on an obscure street in order to take care of this. There was just something about the whole experience that made my skin crawl. (Modern times are a little less traumatic, what with that online renewal business and all, but still.)

So, with that bit of necessary background detail out of the way, let’s travel back to yet another moment of angst and humiliation in my life. It’s the early 90’s, and I’ve just moved from Tulsa to Dallas for the THIRD time. (Long story.) And, of course, such an interstate move dictates that you have to get a fresh driver’s license at some point. This horrifying eventuality had me crying at night, alone in my cold and basically empty apartment. (Those were definitely leaner times.)

Now, there’s some type of grace period before you have to get the new license. I didn’t really care about that part. All I knew is that my Oklahoma license still had plenty of quality time left on it, and I was going to milk it for all it was worth. If, by chance, there happened to be an official inquiry into my law-violating tardiness, I had several standby falsehoods prepared, most of them involving puppies and/or my humanitarian efforts in a vague foreign country.

To be fair, I didn’t seriously intend to wait until the last possible minute. A few weeks before the impending Armageddon deadline, I actually called and spoke with someone in the decrepit building concerning what I actually had to do. Because I was coming from another state, especially a questionable one like Oklahoma, whose statehood has always been considered a blasphemous act if you ask any Texan, I would have to take the vision test and the written test.

“No driving test?”

“As long as your Oklahoma license is still valid, no. If it expires, yes.”

I glanced down at my license, doing the math. I had 10 days. Surely, this was doable. “Um, do I need to study the book for the written? Do you know if the laws are that different?”

There’s a moment of silence on her end, as she bites down on what she would really like to say to me, then: “I would suggest that you read the book. I’m sure there are some differences.” Her tone indicates that these differences are most likely major. After all, this is Texas, where we do everything right. Who knows what the laws might be in Oklahoma, what with the hillbillies and the tractors and all. Do they even HAVE a driver’s manual?

“Okay, where can I get this book?”

She doesn’t even try to hide her impatience at this point. I’m boring, a bit simple, and she has other things to do. “You can drop by and pick one up.” (Oh GOD no.) “Or I can mail you one.” (Hurray!) “But it will take a few days.” Translation: I will actually have to take your address and shove something in an envelope, and that depresses me.

I don’t care. I hate that building and I’ve never even been IN it. “Please mail. Please. And your dress is really pretty today.”

She sighs, gets my information, then slams the phone down.

A week later, not just a few days, the booklet arrives. (Well, THERE’S something we do a littler faster and better in Oklahoma. I guess we aren’t distracted by all the tall buildings and foo-foo restuarants they have down here.) I rip open the package and start reading.

Hmm. She lied. The rules are basically the same. Yes, there are a few differences, like how one is expected to behave when approaching exit ramps on highways. (And that mess is worth an entirely new blog post.) Oh, and every photo in the book seems to include a cow for some reason. Not sure about that. But in the end, I shouldn’t have a problem with this.

What I DO have a problem with is actually getting my ass to the decrepit building. As the days until the deadline dwindle away, I keep coming up with excuses. (Clean the apartment! Wash my car! Bowling!) As expected, I wait until the very last day and then I have no choice.

Wiping tears from my eyes, I turn into the neglected parking lot that is overgrown with weeds and those suspicious people who stand around and don’t seem to have a purpose in life, other than to serve as the “before” photo in laundry detergent ads. (I’ve never understood why the D.O.T. offices have to be so trashy. Maybe they’re nice and clean in other places, but they suck around here. Is it a rule of some kind?)

I park as far away as possible, because I don’t want repulsive people fingering my car, and then march to the door of the building. Throwing said door open, my senses are hit by a wave of unwashed beastliness billowing toward me. Yep, this must be the place. I step inside, while my eyes refocus after the bright, innocent sunshine outside.

There’s got to be at least 200 people in this room. Granted, some of them are sitting at little desks that dot the perimeter, but most of them are packed into several lines leading up to windows behind which government workers are doing things which apparently cause them to not smile. No one in line is smiling, either. This is a dark, dark place.

I sigh, calculate which line seems to have the best combination of fewer people and signs of intelligence, and take my place. Immediately, three babies start crying. No one does anything about it. At all. For a long time.

Hours later, I get to the window, and I am non-greeted by a woman who will soon become the focus of every ounce of hatred I have in my body. I politely explain that I need to renew my license. Could she assist me with that?

She just looks at me, debating on whether or not she even has the strength to respond. Finally: “Where’s your form?”

“My form? I don’t have one. Shouldn’t I be getting that from you?”

She sighs with such force that the lady behind me stumbles. “No. You’re supposed to get the form from that BOX over there and have it filled out before you ever get in line. Can’t you read?”

Wow. This little witch is bubbling over with attitude. I glance in the direction she is pointing with her bad-nail-job finger. Granted, there’s a tray on a table off to one side. And it appears that there are forms in it. But no indication what the tray or the forms are all about. I point this out to Haggatha.

“If you would just READ the sign, you would know what to do.”

I’m not letting her get away with trying to make me look stupid. “But I don’t SEE a sign to READ. Where is this sign?”

Hag slams down her pen, reaches up to whip her little window to the side, and leans out. (What, is she going to take me down for arguing?) She points again with more force, using all of her arm and most of her upper body. “THAT SIGN RIGHT-”

We both see what’s happened at the same time. There’s a piece of poster board lying face down, covered in hundreds of scuffy footprints. I can’t help but smile. “Oh, THAT sign. The one that NOBODY can read?”

The snake-woman just glares at me as she recoils into her nest, slamming the window shut. “Yes, THAT sign. Get the form and fill it out. Next!”

As the woman who was behind me in line breaks into tears, I snatch up one of the forms, then look around for one of the little desks that might be empty. Of course they’re all full. Filled with people, I might add, who aren’t filling anything out. Just sitting there. Fine. I end up using the back wall as my desk.

Once I’ve scribbled in all the details, with penmanship that looks like I’m a psycho-killer, I turn around and head back to Haggatha’s window.

She stops me before I can even open my mouth. “NO! Oh no you don’t. You get back in line just like everybody else.”

“But I’ve already BEEN in line and-”

“Get BACK in line. Do you want the license or not?”

I stand there for a second. Is this real? Then a frazzled-looking man beside me whispers: “She made me do it, too. She don’t play.”

I consider just getting in another line. Then I realize that the other lines are all much longer, probably because people have been fleeing Haggatha’s line in total fear. No prob. I can deal with her again. I walk to the end of the line and assume the position.

Eventually, I’m face-to-face with Medusa once more. She snatches my form away, studies it briefly, then barks: “Go through the door on the right for the tests.” I head toward what I hope is the correct door (still no signs, people, what’s up with the signage?). As I open it, I hear Haggatha saying “Letha, take the window. I got this.”

She’s got this? What the hell does that mean? Is she going to give me the tests, hoping that I fail so she can have the satisfaction? Damn, she’s a bitter woman.

And yep, I round the corner and there she is, standing next to a primitive (by today’s standards) computer. “Sit here.” I do. Then she punches something on the keyboard, and we get a display reading “The Texas Department of Transportation Welcomes You!”, which is a total lie, considering the devil spawn breathing on the side of my neck. “Get started, you have 30 minutes.”

And then she just stands there, watching me.

I take a deep breath and start punching in answers, hoping she’ll just go away. She doesn’t. There are 20 other people in the room, also taking the driver’s test, but she couldn’t care less about them. Cheat away. She’s only got stink eyes for me.

Despite the pressure, I only miss one question. (And yes, there were at least two pictures that included cows, if you’re keeping score.) This thrills me, and I try to think of the most enjoyable way to rub this in Haggatha’s face. But my victory is short-lived.

“Vision test. Follow me.” And she marches off.

We go to another part of the room, where we have more ancient equipment lined along a wall. These look like giant viewfinders from back in the day, those things you held up to your eyes and then clicked through boring, tiny photos. I take a seat in front of one of them.

Haggatha flips a switch, and the machine comes to life. “Look in there and read me the letters.” I start to lean my head down. “Wait, hang on.” She starts fiddling with some dials on the side of the machine. “Now do it.”

I peek inside. It’s an eye chart. And instantly, I know something is not right. It’s that first row with a single letter that is usually an “E”. But it’s already fuzzy. I’d never worn glasses in my life up to that point, perfect vision. I pull back and look at her. “It’s an ‘E’, but I don’t think this thing is set right.”

She just scoffs. “I know what I’m doing. Do YOU work here? No. Finish the test.”

I lean back in. The second row is difficult, I’m guessing on half of the letters. By the third row, I can’t tell what anything is, just blurry spots. I look at her again. “I’m telling you, this is not right. I can’t see anything.”

She smiles for the first time. “Then I guess you need glasses. And until you get them and can pass this vision test, you can’t have a license. And look here, your Oklahoma license expires at the end of the day. Which means you’ll also have to take the physical driving test if you want a Texas license. Hmmm.”

I am furious at this point, convince that she’s jacked the test. “I want to talk to somebody in charge.”

She keeps smiling. “I’M in charge. This is my office. And I need you to leave now. You can go out that door over there. Or can you see that far?”

Hoo boy. This game was ON.


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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

#20 - Alone Again, Naturally - Part II

Continued from Previous Post:

So anyway, I managed to survive my first attempt at emancipation relatively unscathed. I’m sure there was punishment of some kind, since there was always an intricate system of checks and balances in my childhood, especially when Dad was around. Any time you stepped out of line, regardless of the severity of the actual violation or the degree of covert stealth, you wuz gonna get your ass whupped, at the very least.

But I don’t recall the specific retribution for my aborted freedom flight. It had to have been something, but it must not have been very creative or interesting and the memory is long gone. What DOES stick in my mind, however, was the shocking realization that I did not, in fact, know everything there was to know, such as how to successfully flee the county when you are only six years old.

This was devastating to my previous perception of my place in society, as well as my overall world view of how things worked. I clearly had missed a memo or two somewhere. It was time for me to hit the books and revisit my exit strategy before formalizing my next field operation.

This took a couple of years. Granted, there were other things of great interest that kept me distracted at the time, so I wasn’t completely focused on my intention to realign Western civilization. After all, I had to learn how to ride that stupid bike that almost killed me later in life. There was the intriguing discovery that one could give dimes to a man driving a noisy truck and you would be rewarded with fancy popsicles.

And there was the little girl who lived across the street. She was also on a learning curve about the world, developing her budding personality by engaging in activities she found pleasing in some way. One of these hobbies involved her running up and down the sidewalk in front of her house, wearing nothing but panties and a smile.

I found this quite fascinating. She seemed to be having so much fun doing it, laughing and skipping, that I was slightly jealous as well. But not jealous enough to actually join her, I don’t think. I vaguely recall an underwear incident of my own around the time, but the details are sketchy and I’m not sure if Little Miss Frilly Panties was involved or not. (This is the type of research topic you only surface with your parents after everyone has had a nice shot of tequila, because the whole thing could backfire in a ricochet of shame.)

Anyway, the liberated lass across the street is one of my first memories of a true “free spirit”. She was certainly very much ahead of her time. This was years before the act of streaking became something of a national pastime, with people baring all during social gatherings, usually in support of murky but progressive political agendas. I just thought she was really neat. I had no idea if the sudden disposal of her clothing meant she had joined the National Organization for Women, or if she had no intention of giving up her last name when she married.

At some point, I was no longer allowed to play with her anymore, so the assumption is that something untoward took place, something that changed the adult commentary from “Isn’t she cute!” to “Do NOT go across the street or I will bust your ass!” Perhaps Frilly just fell into the wrong crowd, maybe some older girls who would skateboard topless and did not intend to shave their armpits when they reached puberty.

I don’t know. And then another something transpired which rendered the fate of Frilly, as well as that whole neighborhood (the scene of my first attempt to appear on the back of a milk carton), a moot point.

We moved. Packed everything up in the house and headed from urban Tulsa to beyond-suburban Broken Arrow. Way out in the country where paved roads were considered somewhat uppity. There were certainly no sidewalks for hippies-in-training to cavort upon while wearing nothing but a bandana made out of hemp.

And it was at this second house where things transpired to remind me that I apparently dreamed of a life on the road. Me and you and a dog named Boo, travelin and livin off the land. All that mess. (Funny how I can remember the lyrics to 40-year-old songs yet I have no idea where the key is for the shed in the backyard.)

But just like my first burst of anarchy, wherein something motivated me to run past vicious poodles while clutching a tiny suitcase, I really don’t remember what prompted me to flee. I’m sure I had my reasons. Children don’t spurn the family nest without some irksome motivator. Why trade a life of relative security and free food for a transient existence living in boxes under a freeway overpass? Something was in my craw, I just don’t know what it was.

But I do remember the day of my departure. I was either 8 or 9 at the time. Keep that in mind as you continue with this tawdry tale.

I came home from school, filled to the brim with whatever angst was driving my decisions, fully intent on my mission. My little sister was off doing some boring thing that little sisters do. In fact, she may have even been in daycare.

All I know is that she wasn’t there at the moment, which was fine by me. She’d always been a little shifty since she tried to steal my place as next in line for the throne, back when I made my first break on Sixth Street. It didn’t matter that she was only three years old at the time. Her tender age did not excuse her actions, and I don’t forget things.

Anyway, alone in the house, I marched into my parents’ bedroom in search of a pen and paper. (See, right there is probably one of my points of dissatisfaction at the time. I apparently didn’t have implements of communication in my own room. Who knows what OTHER madness was going on in that house. Clearly, I was justified in my rebellion.)

So I approach the desk on one wall of my parents’ private chambers. It’s a very nice desk, solid wood and all that, very tasteful. (Even then I was a budding gay boy who appreciated the finer things in life. It’s just in the blood, know what I’m sayin?) I whip out a sheet of paper, grab a ball-point pen, and proceed to scratch out my Declaration of Intolerance.

Who knows what I scribbled. I’m sure I listed all of my grievances, with annotations and footnotes, and possibly even attached a full appendix with multiple references to precedent-setting court cases of yore. (Did I mention that I was an absurdly over-achieving child, intently focused on the cryptic bylaws of proper English? Sadly, there’s been a lot of alcohol consumption since those heightened days of scholastic glory, and I can no longer identify a dangling participle when I see one. The luster is gone.)

Anyway, at the tail end of my diatribe against the inhumanity of it all, I remember signing my name with extremely-anguished force, cutting through the thin sheet of paper and actually etching my name into the surface of the exquisite desk. Sort of like those romantic scratches you see on trees, where “Bill hearts Debi”, but without any devotional love and certainly without any intention of sanctifying a relationship.

But I did pause when I peeled the paper off the desk, and realized that I had somehow managed a memorial to my displeasure with current circumstances. Hmm. Oh well, no need to worry, I was headed out on the midnight train to Georgia, and none of this mattered.

I then raced back to my own room, gathered up the necessary possessions for my hopefully extended and final trip abroad, threw them in a satchel of some kind, and prepared to Exit Left. I proceeded to the back of the house, choosing to depart via the sliding glass doors onto our patio, waving a final farewell to all that I knew.

Once outside, I glanced around me for a bit, sighing, somewhat wistful but trying to strengthen my resolve, marched about ten paces to the left, then squatted down and hurled myself into the overly-large doghouse that was the legal residence of the current family pet, a basset hound.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I had made my great escape by not even leaving the actual homestead property, and choosing instead to share rent and utilities with a salivating mutt that was dumber than a rock.

It was not one of my finer decision-making moments.

In any case, there I was, crouched in a canine domicile , already losing sensation in my legs, but still fully convinced that my actions would somehow inspire my parents to dispense with what I perceived to be heinous acts of utter outrage. Surely, in their anguish, they would toss aside the shackles and promise me complete and total freedom for years to come.

Well. Do you know what it’s like to be curled up in a doghouse, waiting for your parents to come home and un-enslave you? It’s not pretty. And it’s certainly boring. I was most assuredly over it when Dudley, the simple but sweet basset hound, unleashed his fifteenth cascade of slobber directly into my contorted face.

Yet I persevered. My sanity was in question, but then again, that has always been the case.

Eventually, Mom arrived home from work. I heard the car pull in the driveway, and I jerked awake. As Mom exited the car, I could tell that she was talking to my little sister, so she had apparently picked her up from daycare, or wherever it is that they keep younger siblings who covet the title of next-in-line with blatant ambition.) I patiently waited, giving Mom time to mosey through the house, become concerned that I wasn’t responding to her calls, and then discover my letter of angst and displeasure.

Next thing I knew, Mom and sister were back out in the driveway, piling into the car and heading off for parts unknown. What was this? Where could they be going?

I shoved Dudley the dog to the side, which was a bit of a challenge since we had the same body weight. (Basset hounds are some heavy-ass dogs, just thought I’d mention that.) I cautiously eased myself out of the doghouse, checking in all directions in case there were some type of renegade-child law enforcement officers hanging about.

The coast was clear.

So then I scoured the surrounding neighborhood. As noted, we were out in the country, where the homes had some seriously-large lots. It was still a subdivision, but everybody had at least an acre to claim. Which meant that I could easily track the progress of Mom in her search mobile.

She was going from house to house, inquiring if anyone had seen me.

Oh no. It’s one thing to send up a red flag that you’re really not happy. It’s quite another thing to realize that the sending might be causing somebody pain. Especially your mother. I was a very bad child. No wonder they didn’t allow me to have my own pen and paper.

I crawled back into the doghouse. Dudley crawled back in with me. Since he was my only friend at that specific point in time, I asked him if I was doing the right thing. And he just looked at me with the unquestioning love that dogs have. Well, his slobbery expression said, I don‘t even have indoor plumbing and I‘M happy. Why aren’t YOU?

And I couldn’t answer that. I didn’t even know HOW to answer that. I just….wasn’t.

A bit later, I heard Mom pull back into the drive. She and little sister clamored out of the car, preparing to do nothing more than head back in the house. Then just before they entered the garage and the subsequent inner door, I heard Mom ask my sister to go check the doghouse.

I bristled. Holy cow. She’d figured it out, even though she didn’t even quite realize it. But this is what Mom’s do, yes?

My sister, not really impressed with her current assignment, took her slow-ass time wandering toward my hiding place. She eventually got there, with me having nowhere to run, peered in, and then squealed at Mom, hoping that she would win some type of prize.

Mom made a sound that stayed with me for a very long time.

I looked at faithful Dudley, with his confused but devoted face. “I’ve got to go, boy. I’ll bring you a treat. Thanks for the coffee.”

Then I crawled out of, and back in to, the doghouse.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

#19 - Alone Again, Naturally - Part I

Two time periods, very early 70’s, perhaps 1971, and then a few years later.

Two separate attempts to make my break for freedom, forceful acts of will in honor of that long-standing tradition: The child who runs away from home to escape what he perceives as the unbearable daily torture of parents who just don’t understand.

Sadly, both of these renegade moments occurred when I was less than 10 years old, automatically dooming my efforts at independence and emancipation. I was always doing things much earlier than I should. This was my fate as a freakishly intelligent child who at the same time had no common sense whatsoever.

The first little adventure went something like this…

We were still living at the house on Sixth Street, in Tulsa, so I was of first-grade age or less. (We moved before second grade.) This means that my parents were still together, so the troubling “divorce experience” had not yet begun. Therefore, I’m not really sure what my problem was, but I did indeed have some type of issue with my treatment in that household.

Now, if you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you’re aware that my father and I did not get along in any way, at all. There are innumerable incidents I can point to and say “right there, THAT’S what I’m talking about, he mad me crazy when he did that”. But in my mind, as I write this, I’m not making a connection between any of those particular moments and my first decision to run for the border.

I don’t know what it was.

The only tenuous memory that is slightly attached to this same time-frame is that my mother had recently experienced a very severe sunburn. She spent several days lying on a leather couch in the den, moaning quietly, her only solace being the pain-easing sensation of the chilled cowhide courtesy of the air-conditioning unit in the window directly above her.

I’m sure her skin condition was not the source of my agitated need to flee for parts unknown. (After all, even though I was a moody child with validation issues, I could understand acts of nature.) It’s just one of those hybrid memories still clicking around in my head: the first time I ran away, the house on Sixth Street, Mommy looking like a boiled lobster and none of us allowed to touch her without serious consequences.

In any case, somewhere around that time, I came to a decision about my legal connection with this family. It was time for me to seek opportunities over the horizon, make my own way, fend for myself. I remember marching into the kitchen, where Mom and Dad were both in the same room, (indicating that they were on speaking terms at the time, something that was already unusual), and announcing that I had every intention of running away and that the train would be leaving the station tonight.

They both looked at me, Dad with his typical expression that the thorn in his side would simply NOT go away, and Mom with her expression that “here is another challenge to overcome with love.” Completely different parenting skills. Guess who I liked better?

To my startled astonishment, they both looked at each other, their eyes carrying on a brief but mystifying conversation, and then turned to me and said: “Great. We’ll help you pack.”

What the hell?

I’m not really sure WHAT reaction I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t THAT. After all, my itinerary was already murky, as I hadn’t planned much beyond “I want to run away”.

I’m sure part of me was hoping that my announcement would cause a momentous change in parenting techniques, with both of them vowing to do whatever it took to keep me in the fold. Perhaps happy birds would start chirping and sunlight would break through the sad clouds. (Of course, this would mean we had to keep Mom away from the windows, but I digress.)

This did not happen. Instead, they were encouraging my quest for freedom by offering to help me with my travel preparations, ensuring that I had an adequate supply of underwear and whatnot. In fact, Daddy raced off and returned with a cute little blue suitcase wherein I could tote my worldly possessions.

This was SO not what I pictured in my head. Where was the ticker tape parade begging my to stay with a suddenly-loving family? Why was I not being proffered a renegotiated contract that I could review with my lawyers?

Instead, we packed my little suitcase, with Mom ensuring that I had a toothbrush and toothpaste, and Dad ensuring that I took all the annoying toys that he hated stepping on during his march to the garage where he would do Man Things for hours and avoid the rest of the family.

Then they led me to the backdoor of the house, with Daddy throwing open said portal and then stepping out of the way. Both of them were beaming with encouraging smiles as they gently pushed me forward. “Have fun!”

I traipsed down the three concrete steps into the yard, turning back to confirm that I was fully understanding how this was developing. They really wanted me to go?

They both waved happily. Bon voyage!

Great. I really had to go through with this.

So I turned back around and raced across the grass to the back gate. (I had barely taken two cautious steps when I heard the back door slam and the lock being turned with a little bit more jubilation than was required in this situation.) The deal was done.

I unhitched the gate, and stepped into the alley. Now, alleys can be great and wonderful things, especially when it’s daylight and you’re a 6-year-old. Lots of things to discover and explore. But at night? Not so much. And especially when it’s a night where your parents appear to be quite enthusiastic about your decision to relocate.

I stood in the middle of the alley for some time, glancing left and right. I really didn’t know which way to go. Neither option held much appeal, as my surveillance revealed that it was incredibly dark and murky in both directions. I could be instantly killed in any number of ways, regardless of my decision.

Something told me to head to the left, towards the east. There were no logical theorems behind this decision, other than the realization that I can’t actually be running away if I don’t, in fact, run. So I headed east.

Slowly, at first. My pace picked up a bit as the neighboring dogs realized that there was a potential intruder. These beasts came racing to their respective back fences, baying like Satan himself had just ascended from the bowels of the earth. I really did not care for this part. I increased my speed to escape the hounds of hell.

Miraculously, I made it to the end of the block without being ripped to shreds. (Let’s not discuss the fact that some of these evil canines were probably poodles that couldn’t effectively damage a falling leaf. I was six years old with a tendency for slight exaggeration. Sue me.)

I paused before actually crossing the street. Not sure why. Maybe it was the fact that the alleyways, at least at the point where they intersected actual streets, had light poles illuminating the area. Suddenly, everybody could see exactly what I was doing.

This was disconcerting. Part of it was the fact that my actions were now visible to the viewing public, or at least bored citizens tromping around the area for no apparent reason. But mostly, my hesitation was due to the fact that, when you have the freedom to run anywhere that you want, where, exactly, do you run TO?

I really hadn’t done enough research on this particular aspect of my joining the Underground Railroad. Poor planning. This always causes complications.

So I decided to keep running in a straight line. Keep following this same alley until I eventually ran across a family that just happened to be looking for a dissatisfied youngster seeking better opportunities. Sounded good to me.

I dashed across the street and entered the next segment of the alley. This was really foreign territory for me. I knew most of the intricacies of my own alley, but this was a new world. On top of that, once you got away from the cross street, there were no handy lights to guide you on your mission. So I decided to just run like the wind until I got to the distant light at the next cross street.

This was a very serious error in judgment.

So I’m racing along, breathing quite heavily, unable to see a single thing that might appear in the dim path before me, and just trusting that my forward momentum is all I need to survive the ordeal.

Suddenly, one foot comes down at a slightly odd angle, with my toes mashed upward at a very unpromising degree. Before I can fully decipher this change in terrain, my other foot slams hard against an apparent boulder in the middle of the alley. Due to whatever physical laws, my tiny body is now airborne, roughly parallel to the ground.

I crash to the earth with bone-rattling surprise, all of the air forced out of my lungs with a frightening oomph, my cute little suitcase clipping me on the head as it sails forward to parts unknown.

I finally skid to a halt, my face mashed in unfamiliar dirt. It feels like the entire front of my body has been scraped clean of any flesh.

And I burst into tears.

A few minutes later, I realize that my waterworks are not solving anything. I wipe my face with my shirt sleeve and struggle to a sitting position, sniffling. I look around, and can barely make out my suitcase just ahead. It has popped open, and my man panties are peppering the alley way, absurd little flowers in the darkness.


I struggle to my feet and start shoving my personal items back in the suitcase, my tears dotting the contents as I do so. Once everything is secure, I hoist my traveling companion and look back west, toward home. Pondering.

My run for freedom has lasted exactly 17 minutes. And now I’m done. My parents knew exactly what they were doing in helping me out the door, realizing I wouldn’t get far. In fact, it wouldn’t have surprised me if THEY were the ones responsible for the strategically-placed boulder. Parents will do anything to win the battle. They might have even paid the poodles to be especially snarly tonight.

Time for Plan B. Perhaps another round at the bargaining table? Not sure. For all I knew, my parents may have already replaced me with a more complacent child that didn’t have such grandiose expectations of the world. A na├»ve little Stepford son that would clean his room and not question authority.

In any case, I’m sure my sister had been doing a dance of royal ascension from the first second of my departure, thrilled at her rise in status. She would probably just turn the TV up when my pitiful knock came at the back door. I would now be facing two unimpressed monarchs and a potential conniving usurper to the throne.

I sighed and headed back down the alley.

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Thursday, February 4, 2010

#18 - George of the Jungle

Mid 1970’s. Same relative time-frame as the previous Memory Remix post, wherein I bared my budding manhood to the world and was immediately punished with a vindictive and impromptu gymnastics routine. Mom and Sharon were still dragging us to the evil skating rink on a fairly regular basis, but I think the tromps to the bowling alley had died off.

(At least for now. Mom would soon meet the man who would eventually become our step dad, and he loved to bowl, among other things. There’s at least 150 blog posts with that whole mess. Every day was a surprise with him. You never knew.)

Anyway, it’s definitely summer, because we were spending tons of time outside, running the neighborhood and not necessarily LOOKING for trouble, but we certainly answered the door if trouble should knock. You know how it was with boys that age, 10 or 11 years old, back in a time when we didn’t have all the electronic babysitters that kids have these days. You made your own fun. You took dirt and nothingness, applied a little bit of creativity, and you made it interesting.

The neighborhood we lived in was still very much under construction. Houses were constantly springing up all around us. But we were still out in the country, away from city life, long before anyone had to really worry about people taking things that were lying around and didn’t belong to them. So the home-building crews would just leave their stuff at the jobsites at the end of the work day.

Three seconds after the crews disappeared down the dusty road, us boys would invade the jobsites looking for treasure.

Not that we were ever going to take anything. (Okay, there was one wild boy in the gang that would have stolen anything that wasn’t nailed down, but he knew that the rest of us weren’t keen on the thievery concept, so he refrained. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, there was a time when even criminals were decent. Progress isn’t always a good thing, right?)

So there we’d be, running through the shells of houses, picking up interesting power tools and pretending like we knew exactly how to use them. Or trying to figure out what each of the rooms would actually be once they had real walls. Sounds simple, but it was much more interesting than playing in your own yard where you already knew how everything worked and there was that constant threat of your embarrassing sister wandering up and trying to join in.

Eventually, we would grow tired of running and screaming through the 2x4 studs and calling each other douche-bags. (We had no idea what that really was, but it sounded deliciously dirty and therefore fully qualified as an insult.)

Usually, our decision to vacate the house would be exacerbated by someone tripping over something and skidding across the rough concrete of the newborn slab foundation, leaving behind a trail of skin. You couldn’t cry when this happened, of course, because that’s what babies did. But the non-skinned boys would always discreetly agree that it was time to exit so that any shame for the victim was avoided. Concrete hurt, and we all knew that. Time to go, and don’t look at the one boy barely holding back tears. The oath of random brothers in play.

Once outside, we would then head for the holy grail of the construction site: the huge pile of gravel that was somewhere on the property. This sounds mundane, but great things could be done with this innocent pile of rock. We had no idea why mounds of gravel were necessary (we didn’t build the damn houses, we just played there) but we were quite appreciative when the gravel would appear.

Because then we could play King of the Hill.

And actually, this is a rather vicious and wearying game. One boy stands on top of the hill, and everybody else tries to run up the hill and knock the first guy off the hill so that he tumbles down in defeat. The knocker then becomes the new King. Rinse and repeat until it was dinner time.

And really, this game was kind of a drag if you weren’t the current king. The guy on top could see you coming, while the guys on the bottom had to race up a very unstable slope and swat at you. The Top Guy could very easily step out of the way and send you hurtling down the other side. If he was a particularly vicious and unkind ruler, he could trip you at the summit so that your Plummet of Defeat also involved some painful acrobatic tumbling.

Somewhat primitive, yes, but this is just what boys do. They try to one-up each other through physical tests of strength, or at least physical efforts of tripping. It was just the rule. You had to constantly strive to show that you were better, even if you weren’t really interested in showing that. Everything was a contest. Which leads to the focal point of this story.

It all started with a bicycle.

Bicycles were cool. You simply had to have one if you wanted any kind of street rep. There was no discussion on the matter. If you did not have a bicycle, your rank in society was in question, at the very least, and you might even be subject to merciless torment, depending on the budding testosterone levels and the heat of the day.

I did happen to have a bicycle, which gave me a leg up, but it was a very questionable example of a bicycle. I’m not even sure how I came into possession of this thing, but it had been clearly modified over the years. Things were just not right about it. You couldn’t put your finger on it, but some critical wow factor was simply amiss with that contraption.

And it had a banana seat.

Now, I wasn’t schooled in the mechanical history of bicycles, but I knew enough to realize that they didn’t always have banana seats. I’m not sure if they ever SHOULD have had banana seats, those elongated, slightly-phallic things that could probably seat three separate individuals if everyone positioned themselves just right. I’m sure they were a fad at one point, but that era had faded into the dust by the time I assumed ownership of this vehicle.

So I was cool, but only on a conditional basis. To seal the deal, I had to prove that I could also ride the thing, and ride it in a macho manner that would completely dispel any inclinations to brand me a sissy. I must prove my worth.

Bit of background: My training in the proper operation of a bicycle was notably minimal. This critical schooling took place when Mom was still married to Dad, and we still lived in Tulsa, so, at most, I was 6 years old. Dad plunked me on a bicycle, (screw the training wheels), got behind me, and started running and pushing the bike when my own pedaling efforts proved unsatisfactory.

Dad ran faster and faster, my tiny feet flying off the pedals that were whipping around in a blur, and then with a tremendous grunt Dad shoved me forward with Herculean strength. I shot down the quaint little urban street with amazing velocity, left to my own devices. Dad did not believe in expending any wasted time on things like nurturing, carefully-controlled learning environments, or my unknown capacity to save my own ass.

So basically, I had just a very few seconds to either learn how to control a speeding vehicle, or die. After several jarring pedal-whacks that tore hunks of flesh out of my legs, I managed to get my feet properly positioned and was actually somewhat responsible for the speed of the bicycle, although I had to pump my legs with incredible rapidity, looking like a hamster on diet pills.

The body can do amazing things in times of stress, and somehow I gained mastership of the bicycle. And the wobbling stopped. I could actually steer the thing. I did a few lazy arcs back and forth across the street, my heart racing but now in a good way. I was riding a bike, on my own and not dying. I eventually did a full turn and headed back up the street toward home, grinning and happy.

Dad was already walking back in the house. I hadn’t been killed, so he was done. No congratulations, no kudos. My smile and the speed of the bike tapered off. I was six years old, and already knew this routine, knew this wall. There was something missing in him, something he couldn’t give, or didn’t know HOW to give. I slowly pulled up to the curb in front of the house, dismounted, thought a bit about things that six-year-olds shouldn’t have to think about, then went to put my bike away.

Flash forward to the boys in the hood at the new house in Broken Arrow, after the divorce, with the neighborhood gang assessing my ride. One of the older boys had a question: “Can you ride that thing down The Hill?”

The Hill. This was located on the next street over, to the east. The area around our house and the accompanying street was flat as a board. As was most of the county. But here and there in the burg were these odd hills that rose dramatically out of the landscape. Probably had something to do with the pressure of massive glaciers back in the day, but who knows, I’m not a geologist. We just had these random hills, that’s all we knew.

And The Hill in question was a real humdinger. The street where it was situated started out flat as hell like most of the streets, but then you suddenly encountered this mind-boggling, very steep incline that shot up at an amazing angle. If you were in a car, you had to shift into the lowest gear just to get up the thing, since the road was gravel and traction was always in question.

So this menacing hill became a proving ground for the entertainment-starved boys in the neighborhood. If you could ride your bike DOWN the hill and survive, what with the astonishing speeds you couldn’t help but attain, then you were pretty hip and worthy of admiration.

I gulped and carefully considered my response to the inquiring older boy. “Well, I haven’t tried it on this bike.” (I hadn’t tried it on ANY bike, but I was hoping to save my ass here.) “This thing’s pretty old. Maybe I better wait until I get a better bike…”

Luckily, the gang took another glance at my modified ride and decided I was probably right, maybe not a good idea to take the Mt. Everest plunge on something as questionable as what was currently between my legs. But the big boys wanted to make a run anyway, so all of us made our way to the next street over.

Once at the base of the mountain, us younger guys took up a watching position down below, while the older guys made the long trek to the top, pushing and shoving their bikes ahead of them since there was no possible way to ride UP the hill. Then, one by one, the big boys plunged over the crest of the hill and raced downward, shooting past the peanut gallery at the base with amazing speed, the wind pressure flattening their cheeks into ghoulish masks as they zoomed to the right or the left of the ancient tree in the middle of the road.

Yes, dear reader, there was a tree right smack in the center of the gravel road at the point where the street leveled off. I guess somebody thought this was a really cute idea, leaving the tree standing and making drivers swerve around it. It was Oklahoma in the 70’s, need I say more?

Eventually, all of the older boys made their run, and then raced home for dinner. The rest of the younger boys tagged along after them. Until it was just me at the base of the hill, staring up at the precipice above me as the lowering sun cast odd shadows across the landscape. And then madness seized me with its seductive hands.

I decided I was going to try it, hybrid bike be damned.

So there I went, trudging up the hill, shoving my piece of crap bike ahead of me. To say it took a while is an understatement. It took forever. Loads of sweat and strain later, I reached the summit. Wiping my brow, I turned to survey the perilous descent before me.

I could barely see the massive tree in the middle of the road, way down yonder. Oh boy. But something egged me on, and I was going to do this. I straddled my bike, took a deep breath, and rolled forward.

The first several seconds were deceptively easy. I really wasn’t moving that fast. I actually thought I might enjoy this little mission. But then gravity and physics muscled their way in, and before I knew it I was hurtling downward in a jaw-dropping rush of utter panic.

I lost all sense of time and space. I was beyond anything that I understood. I slightly lost my mind. Things were happening so fast that my quivering brain could not process the input.

Then the handlebars started to shimmy. I was cognizant enough to realize that this was not a good development, but I didn’t know what was expected of me to correct the situation. The front wheel was wobbling at an alarming rate as I approached the final third of the descent. Oh, this was SO not good.

Then the front wheel took on a life of its own, jerking dramatically to the left and completely locking up the bike. It stopped moving, but I didn’t. Suddenly, I was airborne over the handlebars. Stupidly, I didn’t let GO of the handlebars, clinging to them with some short-circuited fervor.

I slammed into the gravel roadway with a brain-rattling crunch. The demon bike landed on top of me, and both of us slid the rest of the way down the hill, completely out of control and subject to some law of nature that I hadn’t studied yet. As we tumbled head over heels, my bouncing body pivoted in a crucial way and I could see where we were headed.

Directly toward that freakin tree in the middle of the road.

Three seconds later, we hit the stupid tree. It stopped my descent with an alarming noise that didn’t sound healthy at all. The bike was wrenched from my grasp and landed somewhere else. Gravel dust was billowing all around as I tried to figure out if I would ever be able to walk again. It was too late to scream and I was too shocked to cry, so I just laid there as chalky grit covered my body.

Then I heard a car coming.

Some instinct that I didn’t even know I had kicked in. I scrambled to my feet (okay, great, I wasn’t paralyzed) and I searched for the bike. (Why I even cared about the bike at that point, I don’t know.) I spied the twisted metal a few feet away. I staggered over to it, grabbed one of the handlebars that had failed me, and half-crawled to the side of the road, falling into the ditch just seconds before the car thundered past.

I laid there for quite a while.

Eventually, I stirred and stood up, and then assessed the damage. I was bleeding in several places, but nothing seemed life-threatening. The bike, however, was a complete mess. The front wheel frame was so jacked that the tire wouldn’t even turn. And the banana seat, interestingly enough, was split.

So I took a deep breath, sucked it up, and started dragging the bike home. It took some time, because I wasn’t in the best of spirits, and everything hurt. What seemed like hours later, I made it to our yard, still dragging the hated, non-functioning bike.

Mom came racing out of the house, and it wasn’t until that exact point that I started crying. This is where I need love, people. Everybody act accordingly.

Mom determined that I would live, patched me up, and said all the right things. I felt much better, even though I vowed that I would never ride a bike again. (This conviction lasted approximately three days.)

Then Mom startled me with another question. “Well, are you ready to head to the skating rink? Kerry and Kristy will be there. Won’t that be fun?”

I almost died a tragic and dusty death, and now you want me to put up with the Hellion twins? You have GOT to be kidding me.

But she wasn’t.

I sighed and hobbled to the car.