Saturday, February 11, 2012

Summer Camp and Standing Ovations

Stepping up to the podium, I positioned my guitar the best I could and willed my fingers into position. My palms were slick with sweat, and my mouth was dry as cotton. Looking up briefly I was immediately blinded, albeit temporarily, as the stage lights were boring into us like a dozen late afternoon suns. I locked my knees into place so they wouldn't shake and readied myself by pretending I belonged there. I was pretty sure my best friend Shannon was having an anxiety attack next to me, which only served to irritate the heck out of me. Why couldn't he just pull it together? After all, this was important. This was our big shot...

Our chariot had whisked us away to Hughsville Summer Camp.

The words, “Summer Camp”, will elicit one of two responses from those of us who have had the experienced; it will either illicit wonderful memories or overwhelming dread. For me, it was wonderful beyond compare. 7 days of freedom, with no worries, no tension, no stress of any kind. Imagine if you will an inmate on furlough, except nobody knew that you were on furlough. You were just this cool kid from New York who came down to camp every year. Nobody knew the real you… just the one you wanted to portray, and HE was cool.

New York sounds pretty important to kids from rural Pennsylvania, especially in the little town of Hughesville, and I played that up for all it was worth. “No, I’m not from the city”, I would reply when asked, “but I’ve been there enough”. True to a certain extent because I’d been there on a field trip once and had seen all I thought there was to see.

The drive to camp only took a few hours, but it was great fun. The whole way there my best friend Shannon and I, along with my brother George and cousin Mark, would make big plans for the week. We would need to build a dam in the river to create a swimming area like we did last year. Sneaking out at night was an understood adventure that would occur at least once during the week. We’d count our money to make sure we had plenty for all the supplies that we would buy from the "Snack Shack" throughout the week, (mostly soda and candy). We also needed to make sure that we had a full supply of punk sticks, bought from the same store once we got there.

(Punk sticks were these incense type sticks that you lit and let smolder down slowly. They may have looked alot like incense, but they didn't smell nearly as good. Supposedly they were to keep away the bugs, but I never met the insect they would deter. Having said that, one looked very important with one of these glowing sticks jutting from their mouth and so it was important that we had plenty. In retrospect, it seems unlikely that the use of such implements would ever be condoned today, as we were more likely than not to burn ourselves a half a dozen times while climbing the closest tree, rafter, or whatever. I am more than a little surprised that nobody burned down one of the ancient, dried out wooden cabins at some point through the years.)

Of course… there were girls. We were just reaching the age where this was an all important factor in our lives, and truth be told, they were the main motivation for us going. Many a summer camp romance bloomed into an all out passion over the coming year, and every one of us was looking forward to seeing the girl they were keen on last year. Even so, I can’t remember a romance ever being taken up again the following year. There was just no way that anyone could measure up to a year's worth of build up and expectations, so more often than not there was an awkward reunion once eyes set upon our intended. Excuses were made, hearts were broken, and new romances with the next perfect member of the opposite sex began.

Hughesville camp was a Christian camp, but none of us minded. Sure there were assigned chores, tabernacle services every evening, and assorted other organized events put on by the staff, but we had enough free time to ourselves and with our friends to make it so worth our while.

We were at an age where we didn't have to be "doing" something to be having fun. Just hanging out with our friends and girlfriends was fun enough. But there was still plenty to do.

There was the basketball court where I could show off my prowess, built soley on the fact that I was taller than everybody else. The volleyball court was much the same scene. There were a hundred diffeent places to hang out and hide out, behind and between buildings, in fields, and on the many paths that criss crossed the camp grounds.

A short walk away was a path that led to a small river, or perhaps it was a large creek. Many a warm day was spent splashing in the water, piling up rocks, and generally just having a good time.

However, of all the activities, and all the fun available, my favorite night of all was the talent show. It was where I knew my dreams of being a performer would someday be realized. Standing in front of all of those people... not only camp kids, but local town folks as well, was a heady experience. The best part of it all was that none of them knew me well enough to know that I didn't belong on stage in front of people... that was a place for people like my Dad or my Aunt, or others... you know, the TALENTED people. But here... here I was as talented as I wanted to be and these people would be none the wiser. They would only judge me by my voice, and nothing else. I was pretty confident that I could fake it well enough given those parameters.

For whatever reason, I only remember two of the talent shows, although I am fairly certain I took part in more than that. The one that really stands out is the one I did with my best friend Shannon. I had written some sort of cheesy love song called "You and Me" that was about walking hand in hand with my beloved on the crystal sands of some imagined beach, (remember the girls?)

It was another one of those defining moments in my life...

I began to strum confidently and purposefully. When I opened my mouth I defiantly belted out the melody, making sure that people got the impression that I believed I belonged up there in front of them. There was no hesitation, there was no timidity, I was the COOL Paul when I was at camp, and the COOL Paul would never have given into any kind of nervousness.

The first verse went off without a hitch. Shannon joined me on the chorus, emboldened by my dispaly of hubris, and rang loud and clear with his accompanyment. Shannon was a good singer, so our voices mixed with rich harmonies, and reverberated through the rafters of the tabernacle hall. We were on point, feeling good, and singing like we were on American Idol. Then came the next verse and Shannon's turn...

For whatever reason he hestiated. Later he would say he just froze and forgot the words, but that one second of hesitation felt like 10 minutes of awkward slience. My heart jumped into my throat. A thousand thoughts went through my mind in an instant. Was he going to start? Was everybody going to be able to tell? What are we going to do? First panic, then anger then a plan formulated in my mind. I kept playing the guitar like I was doing exactly what I wanted and had planned to do. I quickly played one more time through the last chord progression, and when I got to the appropriate place in the song I picked up the verse where he was supposed to sing. I almost felt Shannon's sigh of relief when I did so, and he quickly rejoined me. We again transitioned into the chrous and we ended the song strong, and together.

What happened next was the stuff of dreams... as the last notes rang out, I looked up from my guitar and saw everybody standing. Girls were tearing up, boys were hooting and hollering, and the grown ups were smiling good naturedly. In my mind, the lights had dimmed, a spotlight had clicked on, and all eyes were on us. The girls wanted to be with me, the boys wanted to be me, and the grownups were clearly dazzled by the display of talent they had just been priviledged to bear witness to.

The girl I would later call my first love met me at the back of the tabernacle, making sure all the other girls saw who I was with. There was a decidedly blatant staking of claim that happened right then and there that was undoubtedly inapproriate and a little too risque for a building called the 'Tabernacle".

A dialogue began to run throgh my mind. Whoa! I might actually be good at this. I might actually be worth something. Am I lovable, if I am talented? What a revelation! This is how I will get the world to love me. I will woo them with my voice and my songs, and they will love me.

I have defeated all comers! I have out performed them all! I... AM... SPARTACUS!!

Folks, it was NOT that good of a song or performance, but it was clear that we were the stars of the show and I can remember the wave of warmth that washed over me from head to toe.

The rest of that camp, I was the man. My status had risen significantly more than when I had everybody convinced I was a breakdancing savant with my electric blue shirt. I was clearly going to be a star someday, and they were the first ones to see the unveiling. Of course, I made sure to make everybody feel special when they approached me, and I felt pretty good about myself whenever I paid attention to somebody who was clearly interrupting my fun/free time at camp.

My chin began to raise ever so slightly, my view began to slant down my nose, and the "normal, untalented people" began to lose importance for me. After all, I was clearly something special, and special people are way too busy for the mundane and blase'.

I was finally feeling good about myself in a very real and tangible way. Since it was clear that there were losers and winners in the world, and I had for so long been a loser, I felt that now that I was a winner it was incumbent upon me to handle myself accordingly. Wasn't it?

Nobody told me that arrogance isn't really the over abundance of confidence. Nobody told me that arrogance is actually a defensive mechanism designed to mask insecurity. I am not sure I would have listened if they had. Instead, the world told me that arrogance is considered to be a strong belief in ones self and is actually a sign of a confident and self assured individual.

I bought into this thinking, hook, line and sinker. I was actually worth something now. I was actually worthy of love now.

Just try and take that away from me.

Back To Nothing

Hmmmm... feels like we've been here before.

When is Groundhog's day?

Truth is, it has been an exceedingly black couple of years, and I am just now beginning to see a glimpse of the sun again.

Two days from now is my birthday. I will be 44. I am officially middle aged. Some would say that happened when I turned 40, but I was able to work the math just right so that I was convinced it wasn't true. My Grandfather died at 86. I've actually given myself an extra two years.

Man, that makes me laugh out loud. Imagine the audacity to try to work the numbers on how long I may or may not live? Fortunatly, God's grace is sufficient... even for me.

Truth is, these first 44 years have gone by in the blink of an eye. Cliche' it might be, but one gets to a point in their life when the inevitability of our humanity can no longer be ignored. Our relative unimportance in the grand scheme of things, the nothingness that exists in response to our daily worry and strife is a sobering pill to swallow... if you allow yourself to be sober enough to swallow it.

But this is not what started my decent into darkness, and some might say, madness. My decent began two years ago this past January 15th when my Dad died.

I had fooled myself and convinced myeself that he was already dead to me. I really hadn't seen him in 10 years, and I hadn't spent any time with him in 15 years. So, he was dead to me.

Until he actually died.

I lost myself. I became somebody I was not. I disconnected from myself and those who love me in a very scary way... and it was touch and go there for a while whether I would ever find my way back.

Now I am extricating myself from the laberynth that is my head and taking a look around me. I am realizing that my son is 6 years old now, and one third of my time with him is already gone. Having two beautiful girls in college reminds me of how fast time can slip through our fingers.

"Time is the hunter, and we are the prey."

Forgive the language, but it is time to get my head out of my ass and start looking up.

Part of that process requires that I continue writing this book. Selfishly, this writing is more for me, and my children, than for anybody else. However, enough of you have encouraged me to continue that it seems there might be some application for others as well.

I would consider my self richly blessed and deeply honored if you all thought the ramblings in this little book of nothing were worthy of your time and effort to read and comment on.

Regardless of whether you do or not, I'm going to do it anyway. ;-)

Here goes nothing...

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Cinderella's Chariot

The bus started with a familiar roar, and we excitedly steadied ourselves for the inevitable lurching motion that always seemed to accompany its labored movement. As it groaned to gain momentum, the noxious fumes from the diesel engine billowing up behind the bus. For a moment its dark tendrils began to creep inside the back windows of the bus, before rushing out again to envelope the group of floundering parents that I assume were waving goodbye. It’s unclear if that was really the case, or if it was that they were just simply trying to dissipate the toxic cloud they now found themselves engulfed in. At any rate, whatever they were doing, they did it in earnest.

Ah yes, Cinderella had her chariot, but I had my big yellow bus. Her's carried her to the Ball, whereas mine would just carry me away...

I had a whole host of firsts on the bus. I had my first crush on a girl on a bus, and subsequently had my first kiss from a girl, (other than my mother), on a bus, (albeit just a quick peck on the cheek).

My first fight was on a bus. My first swear word was learned on a bus. My first cigarette, dirty picture, and joke were all experienced on a bus.

The bus was a gloriously inappropriate and sinful place to spend one’s time, and I could simply not get enough of it.

On this particular day, the bus had no sooner begun to rumble away from the milling cluster of parents before I began to get undressed. It was a practiced disrobing, superficial in its nature, but before mere moments had passed I had transformed into what I thought was cool, hip and happening. Nobody seemed to care or notice as they were all in the middle of their own make over's, changing themselves into what they wanted to be.

Painter’s cap cocked sideways on my head, with sun flaps hanging awkwardly down the back, fat colored shoelaces in my untied Nikes left gaping wide open, the same colored shoe laces tied around my legs, bandanas on my wrist, and a shirt... the shirt.

This was no ordinary shirt. This was one of those shirts that all the great break dancers wore on TV. It had poufy short sleeves, that bound tight around the arm, a 3 button opening half way down the sternum revealing a white mesh material underneath, and it was Electric Blue.

I so badly wanted to be like the character ‘Ozone’ from the early 80’s cult classic movie ‘Breakdance’. Dancing on the corner, impressing the girls, and battling against the bad guys in the neighborhood... if I was going to try to be anything, it was going to be a break dancing hero.

And my big yellow chariot would take me there...

I and my friends were off. Didn’t matter where, or when, we were just gone, and we were thrilled to be leaving. The bus transported me away from where I was a complete screw up, insecure and gawky, to where I could be anybody I wanted to be. I could be headed to school, on a field trip, or to summer camp, it didn’t matter. The joy was in the leaving, and in the being something new and different.

I wonder… if Cinderella’s chariot turned into a pumpkin at midnight… what would my chariot turn into? The obvious answer is a Yellow squash, but I’d rather envision something a little more stream lined and elegant… maybe Butter Nut.

But I digress...

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Here we go again

Welcome to all...

As I just got laid off, I finally have some time to write.

Therefore new chapters will be coming shortly.

Please take the time to start at the very first blog and work your way through them... it is meant to read like a book and won't make much sense if you go backwards through the blogs....

And for those few fans that still exist out there...

Keep your eyes open for an artistic blog coming soon that will be where I post all of the poetry and songs many of you are familiar with, and many new ones that you aren't...

It will be called:

"Melancholy Meanderings and Maudlin Musings of a Morose and Mournful Mind"

Unless I decide that this is way to pedantic as a title and then I'll just call it something like "Paul's Thoughts".

nahhh... I'm way to artsy fartsy to call it that... but I'll think of something...


Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Friday the 13th

OK... it's been a year since I wrote anything for this book.

Truth is I got stuck.

I've been writing the chapter that most defined my early adulthood, and I just couldn't seem to get it right.

But that's OK. I probably never will. There just aren't the right words... at least not right now.

It's also OK that this happened. I started writing my first songs after this event in my life, and credit can be given for any success I've had in that arena to this part of my life.

And OK, it was my brother who found the blog today, called me up to tell me how moved he was to both laughter and tears, and how dissapointed he was when he came to the end and found there was no more chapters.

You see, I never told him about it... or anybody else in my family. Nevertheless, he didn't hold that against me, he called to ask me to finish it, and I am loathed to dissapoint him.

So... OK... In the interest of moving on I will post what I have written, but I will admit not being happy with it.

Having said that, I will do something that borders on cheesy... I will begin this chapter with the song I wrote about that day, a song entitled "Away".


Have you ever wondered, have you ever cried
Have you ever wanted to but instead just sighed
Cast within the shadow, that’s getting hard to take
Gets tougher every day for me to breathe, to sleep, to wake

What if I called upon the wind, offered my soul from deep within
Would it pick me up and carry me away?

What am I to do when I’m feeling so unsure?
When I have the realization that my mother isn’t pure
Who do I turn to, and who will understand
When the father I’m looking at is now a strange man

What if I called upon the sea, offered the life inside of me
Would it sweep me under and wash away the pain?

The past is all too clear, the future yet unknown
When old scars reappear why can’t I let them go
How about all these choices, decisions I must make
What are the implications if I make the same mistakes?

What if I called upon the earth, yield my last breath to the dirt
Would it cover me and shelter me from the rain?

I believe that I could fly, beyond the earth, the sea, the sky

Away... what will carry me away from all this pain?

The room began to spin ever so slightly, and my stomach felt a little off as I tried to absorb what had just been said. Like trying to catch your balance while grasping at thin air, I could not seem to wrap my mind around her words. I was also having trouble understanding how they could sit there so calmly while proceeding to run me over with this Mac truck they had been hiding in their secret closet… no… secret garage, all these years.

My mother must have noticed because she asked me if I had any questions. Questions? I was in no shape to formulate any intelligent comments much less questions. In a lame attempt to come up with something, I ended up looking at my dad and asking him if he has always had a mustache. I really couldn’t have cared less if he had always had one or not… I just couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to say at that moment.

Truth be told, I’d been looking forward to this particular birthday for a long time. From the moment I turned twelve I had my sights set on the day I would be officially a teenager. I would no longer be a child anymore, and I would be one step closer to sixteen, seventeen and then freedom.

I had been joking with my friends and brothers for months about my upcoming birthday. Imagine, turning thirteen on Friday the 13th. It was downright creepy but I liked the extra attention it seemed to be bringing me, and I relished the opportunity to be special in some small, additional way, even if it was due to a spooky coincidence. While I had quipped that something big was going to happen that day, I wasn’t even remotely prepared for what did transpire.

1981 was a rough year all over. Forget about the fact that before the year even began, John Lennon was shot and killed during the Christmas season, but then less than 4 months later President Reagan was shot by Hinckley. It was one of those moments where you can remember exactly where you were at when you heard the news. I was on the school bus headed home.

Two months later the Pope was shot. I wasn’t particularly a huge fan of the Pope but I couldn’t comprehend why of all people somebody would want to shoot him. He seemed perfectly old and harmless to me, plus, he supposedly talked to God all the time. Shooting him seemed a little too much like thumbing your nose at God. What a crazy world.

The following fall, Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat was assassinated. I didn’t know much about him, but I knew he had done some good stuff in the Middle East in regards to Israel, so I was sad to hear he had been killed.

In retrospect, none of those events impacted me the way my thirteenth birthday did.

There were always two days out of the year that I felt safe from reprisal. Those days were Christmas, and my birthday. Being free to be a child was like being weightless, hanging on the edge of happiness and hovering on the brink of what it must feel like to be normal. I cherished those days above all others, and relished the chance to speak, act and behave with relative impunity.

When I was called downstairs from my room, shortly before bedtime, it didn’t dawn on me to be worried. It was still the 13th and I still had some birthday currency left before it invariably lost its value come morning light.

Dad was sitting in his easy chair, and Mom perched on the arm. There was an expectation written on Mom’s face, whereas I noticed my dad was sitting very still and strangely quiet.

The whole scene felt anomalous.

Clearing her throat, my Mom began to speak. She informed me that I had been adopted. Not by her but by my Dad. As I tried to figure out how that worked, she started to explained to me in short, crisp details.

She had met my real father when she was 19. She had become pregnant shortly thereafter and her father, my grandfather, insisted that they get married. It was a true “shot gun” wedding.

When it inevitably didn’t work out, she was left holding the bag, (me), and the man I knew as my father came into her life a short time later.


It’s rare that a person can pick an instant in their life and know that it was a defining moment. Sure, there is graduation, and marriage, children being born and those kinds of milestones, but for all intents and purposes a person sees those moments coming. These kinds of defining moment are not seen until they are upon you… and from then on there is nothing you can do except to be defined.

My mind was racing, and I could taste a bit of bile in the back of my throat. It felt like somebody had punched me in the stomach and I was having difficulty catching my breath. What was she saying? She had been with another man? My Mother had been with another man? The thought made me a little sick. She was my mom, my touchstone, and my angel. She couldn’t be one of those… people. I couldn’t bare the thought.

I’m ashamed to say that at that very moment my perception of my mother changed forever.

Then gradually, unexpectedly, a different kind of feeling began to take over. Again, I was not at all prepared for it, but there it was all the same.


I actually felt liberated. I had abruptly been handed a reason for why my dad treated me the way he did. The anger, the hostility, the abuse, everything, it was all because I wasn’t his, and he resented me for it. I was an every day living testament to the fact that he was not the first man in her life, and it must have eaten him up.

I was beginning to realize that I wasn’t the problem… he was.

Somewhere deep inside I was freed.

After asking the mustache question, I noticed the frustration on their faces at my lack of succinct inquiry. They no doubt had expected a stream of questioning, but instead they got a silly question. I really didn’t care; I left the room in a bit of a fog and headed upstairs.

As I got ready for bed with my newly anointed half-brothers, I tried to figure out what it all meant.

Had I known then what I know now I would not have slept very well.

Friday the 13th was definitely not my lucky day.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Seeds of Doubt

“What’s wrong with you” he bellowed. “I’ve been calling your name for 10 minutes, and you just sit there.” I immediately assumed my dad was exaggerating due to frustration, not that my assumption was a conscious process, it was just what he did and I was used to it. However, I could see from the look on my mother’s face that she was under the same impression that he had been addressing me and I had been ignoring him.

Truth be told, I had never heard him and I could offer no explanation for my behavior. Secretly I supposed they’d have to chalk it up to another child’s grey matter being turned to mush by the boob tube. After all, it was a very common thing that happens and dad had reminded us on an almost daily basis that it would eventually happen to us too. This was just proof in the pudding.

My brain damage wasn’t limited to home either. School was becoming more and more of a nightmare, with sliding grades and my increasing inability to pay attention. It was during this time that my mother and my teachers agreed that something needed to be done. Fortunately, they did not see eye to eye on what that something was.

The school administration was convinced that I needed to be in remedial classes, and they consequently enrolled me in such. I wasn’t there to see it, but I would later learn that my mother went ballistic. She knew that her son was a bright boy and she wasn’t about to let them write me off. Most likely a way to help the faculty make their case, it was decided that I would be tested in a number of ways and the appropriate arrangements were made.

It was one of those corner stone moments in my life.

The first test done was a routine hearing test, but the results were far from routine.

Sitting in a dark, soundproof booth not much bigger than a linen closet, I began wondering what the delay was as I waited for the test to start. There seemed to be rather lengthy and unnecessary pauses between the tones I was hearing, and I was starting to get fidgety. At the same time, I couldn’t understand why the technician kept interrupting the test to re-explain the testing process and remind me to push the button on the device when I heard the tones. Young or not, it didn’t appear to be too complicated to me, but they seemed to think I didn’t get it. I began to suspect their equipment might be broken.

We were on our third go around before they realized that it wasn’t that I didn’t get how the process worked, it was that I wasn’t hearing the tones. Apparently the hearing test was so routine they weren’t accustomed to people failing it.

From there it was quickly learned that I was deaf in one ear and nearly deaf in the other. Upon further investigation it was discovered that the cause of my loss of hearing was plugged ear canals. The prognosis was good as my hearing was easily remedied by the insertion of tubes. The details of the resulting surgeries are lost in a vague fog of anesthesia and dreamlike memories.

Evidently, as I grew up I had simply learned how to read lips. No one had caught on to the fact that I wasn’t hearing them, and being so young it never occurred to me that I had a problem. This was the only way I had ever taken in the world. And it had worked fine for me when I was watching and paying attention. On the other hand, if I was looking elsewhere, (such as reading a book or watching T.V.); it didn’t work out so well.

With my hearing problem discovered and addressed, it was still clear that I was not doing well in school. I wasn’t keeping up, and they were all at a loss. While the school administration was sympathetic to my hearing set back, it was still their opinion I needed to be moved to remedial classes and schoolwork.

In an effort to determine where my learning capabilities were at it was decided that I would be administered an IQ test.

Again, the results were unexpected.

I tested extremely high. Near as they can figure, I was simply bored out of my mind in class, and therefore was unable to focus on what was being taught because I was not being challenged enough in class. I needed to be put at a higher learning level, not a lower one.

More importantly, I had learned something. I wasn’t stupid… I was smart.

I was smart. I WAS SMART!!! How wonderful it is to find out that you are better than you thought you were. Oh, they wouldn’t tell me until years and years later what my true IQ was. They said it wasn’t important, and that I didn’t need to make anybody else feel less smart because of how I tested. Yet I was able to figure out I must be pretty smart if they didn’t want to tell me for fear of it going to my head. And how did I figure that out? Because I was smart!

There was a flip side to this information. It was in direct contradiction to what my dad had been inferring for as long as I can remember.

That could only mean one thing… he was wrong. For the first time in my life I knew him to be wrong about me, and for the first time I doubted his omnipotence. More significantly, I recognized that the person really looking out for me was my mother.

I loved my Mother. I guess every little boy does, but it seemed different for me. I knew my father hated how clingy I was with her, but I didn’t care. As long as she was around I always felt a little safer, like there was a line he wouldn’t cross with her around. I didn’t understand it, but I sure did pick up on it, and I used it to my advantage. As I look back now, I believe these were the first conscious acts of defiance leveled by me toward my dad.

My mother spent a good deal of time with me taking me back and forth to the doctor’s office, and being there when I came out of surgery. It was the first time I remember being different in a good way, and it made me feel special. Anything that caused me to miss school and spend more time with my mom was all right with me.

I ran to her for everything. If I had a question I would ask her. If I had a secret I would share it with her. If I had a hurt I would turn to her. If I felt threatened I hid within her for safety and if I needed love I looked for that love in her.

Why did I not have this kind of relationship with my dad? Why did he seem to be so displeased with me all of the time, when my mother seemed to be fine with me? When I thought I was dumb it was easy to rationalize his disdain for me, but now that I knew I wasn’t I couldn’t seem to figure it out. If anything, things had gotten worse between us since it was determined that I was exceptional instead of challenged.

Something was not right, and neither was he… or was he? The seeds of doubt were planted, and the strife began to grow.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Ichabod Crane

“Where’s the flood, Jones?” Somebody called out from across the hall. I pretended not to notice as I fumbled with the combination on my locker. I felt my ears begin to burn, turning a deep shade of burgandy while I hastily traded in one set of books for another, and slunk down the hall to my next class. It was important that I didn’t let on how much it embarrassed me to be singled out that way, otherwise my humiliation would just fuel the fire.

A gangly kid growing up, my arms and legs seemed to develop two years ahead of my torso, and the resulting look was not at all flattering. It was sort of the Gumby look gone awry. As I rapidly grew out of my clothes there were rare moments when I wore pants that weren't just a little bit too short. This would be at the root of the “flood” comments.

On one particular occasion I came home from school near tears when some kids at school had noticed something different about me. I hadn’t done anything on purpose to garner their attention, perish the thought; all I had done was stop in the hallway at school and scratch my kneecap… without bending over. It never dawned on me that this was an unusual event until it was pointed out to me that nobody else had arms long enough to scratch their knee caps without bending over. It was a distinction that only I held. When I demonstrated my abilities to my mother in an attempt to emphasize my point, she couldn’t help but stifle her own giggle over my dubious talent.

I knew from an early age that something was wrong with me. I was forever doing things the wrong way or incorrectly. Not big things, just little things that would drive my father, and other adults, crazy. I had an inherit ability to crawl underneath the skin of many an adult and irritate them like some sort of ringworm. It was not uncommon for them to want to rid themselves of me as quickly as possible, as one might rid themselves of a parasite.

A jumpy kid, I had a tendency to be “twitchy”. I was constantly fidgeting, moving, scratching or shaking in some sort of nervous fashion. This caused me all manners of grief both at school and at home. It was a subconscious habit that I would have stopped if I could have, but I never seemed to be able to get a handle on it.

Kids thought I was weird and teachers found me annoying. Worse yet, at home my dad loathed what he perceived as an undisciplined activity of a willful individual. My jittery presence would prompt him to stop whatever he was doing and begin mimicking my nervous actions in the most disturbing manner possible. His sneering face and mocking tone were always accompanied by grotesque gyrations that seemed bent on humiliating me. It worked.

I’m not sure when it started, but sometime around this time he took to calling me Ichabod Crane. He made no bones about explaining to me that I was a geek patterned after this iconic character from Sleepy Hollow, and it became routine for him do one of his “twitch” dances shortly after calling me “Ichabod”.

One day I made the mistake of asking him what a geek was. I was young and nobody had ever told me what a geek was, but I sure heard the term frequently enough. He began to elucidate that it was a large bird with long wings that flew down the middle of the river screeching, “Geek, Geek!” I took him at his word.

Later that same week a fellow student called me a geek and then stared at me in stunned disbelief as I proceeded to fill him in on the true definition of what a geek was.

This did not contribute positively to my image.

It didn’t take a whiz kid to realize that there must be something off beam about me; subsequently I began to accept my place in the social order of school and our family. On top of that, I never saw dad go after my brothers the way he did me, so facts are facts.

It certainly didn’t help that I was a daydreamer. I loved books, and I could get caught up in a book for hours, sometimes days. Every book represented a strange new world where dreams came true and there was almost always a happy ending. The escape was intoxicating, and while caught up in the headiness of my next exploit I was given a reprieve from my own woeful inadequacies. For a very small period of time I was no longer the screw up, I was the hero of the story, riding to save the princess, or better yet, the world.

My teachers were really to blame for my interest in literature. I can still remember 2nd grade story time when my teacher would read from the novel, “James and the Giant Peach”. The boy who had such adventures, such freedom, fascinated me. I would imagine myself living and traveling in the giant peach, totally disregarding the stickiness of the situation, and I’d drift away from whatever stark reality would be waiting for me in class or when I got home.

Add to that, the school library having every book, and every adventure that I could ever dream of being a part of and you had a recipe for trouble. This was one of the original problems for me at school. Frequently the teacher would catch me stealing moments of surreptitious reading with a book opened in my lap, protruding half in and out of my desk. I’d be devouring the latest adventures of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn when I should have been paying attention in class.

Television was even worse. I would get so sucked into the television that everything around me would cease to exist. More than once I was made privy to a conversation my dad had been having with me while picking myself up off of the floor.

I had other irritating tendencies too. At the dinner table, we were required to “keep our faces” in our plate, as dad put it. A military man, he believed in quiet children at the dinner table, and his idea of respect was not in question. We were not allowed to look up from our plate or speak without permission, but I could never seem to master this. I would often get caught “eyeballing” him out of the corner of my eye. I couldn’t help but always be watching out for his next move. At any moment his hand could strike out and catch me in the mouth, leaving the taste of blood mingling with my meal. He was lighting fast, and it almost always caught me by surprise.

This would cause another one of my more grating tendencies to crop up.

Until the day I turned 13, I was a crybaby. A smack in the mouth was a guaranteed occasion for water works, but it was the other times that I broke into tears that would really annoy the adult figures in my life. Sometimes it would only take a comment or a look or something seemingly insignificant, but once the tears started to flow there just didn’t seem to be any way to stop them.

As far as my dad went, this would prompt a barrage of disparaging remarks. As far as other adults went, the reactions were varied.

One time, the buses left school without getting all of the students, and I was one of the students left behind. As I sat there in the administration office, I started to panic and cry. One of the teachers there trying to make sense of the madness was Mrs. Stuemiller. She had been my 4th grade teacher the year before, and it was no secret to me that she was not my biggest fan. When she saw me starting to cry she lost control. She marched up to me, placed her face six inches away from mine and screamed, “Cry! Just go ahead and Cry!”

In those earlier years, there were more nights of sleeping on a wet pillow than a dry one.

However, by far the most irritating thing about me was the “mouth” thing. “Catching flies” my dad used to call it. I have no idea why it happened. I would start watching a show, reading a book, or generally focusing on something else and like magic the thing would just drift open. This infuriated my dad. Any time he saw me with my mouth gaping open it was open season on the insults. Comments about catching flies were one thing, but after a while that wasn’t enough for him.

We would often watch sporting events together, my brothers and my father. We would sit on the floor and watch while he sat in his easy chair. Inescapably, a moment would come when I would get caught with my mouth gaping open as I lost my self in the events unfolding before me.

Invariably, this would send my father to the garage. He was after something and we all knew what it was.

He was getting the duct tape.

As he ripped off a large piece of duct tape and taped my mouth closed, my ears would immediately start burning and tears would begin stinging my eyes. The rancid smell of duct tape would choke my nostrils as the edge of the tape chafed the bottom of my nose. Once the sobbing started I would begin to get congested, effectively plugging the airways in my sinuses. Breathing through my nose would become difficult, so I would have to create a breathing hole with my tongue. Eventually, the glue would wear off and it wouldn’t taste so bad.

My brothers would avoid making eye contact with me, and they would do their best to steer clear of acknowledging what was going on. There I would sit, using my tongue to create an air hole around the bottom edge of the tape so I could breathe, praying that dad wouldn’t notice, and sitting in a puddle of tears and humiliation.

This is how my father and other adults in authority felt about me. This was normal for me; this was my every day life. They were always right and I was always wrong. They set the bar, and I didn’t measure up.

I knew I was a geek that would never amount to anything, because they told me so. Why would a boy think differently? Why would a boy doubt those given the responsibility of raising him?

I hated that I couldn’t seem to make them happy, and I hated that I was such a loser. I guess I was just who I was and there wasn’t much I could do about it except try to stay out of their way.

No, I didn’t doubt them… it wasn't my place to.

I was, after all, Ichabod Crane.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Man, the Myth, the Legend?

At five foot six inches tall my dad seemed like a giant to me. Barrel-chested with Popeye arms, he was easily the most powerful man I knew. His thick police style mustache, and close-cropped hairstyle exuded an air of authority that I rarely saw anybody challenge. His personality was quiet but strong, and his powers of persuasion second to none.

He himself came from a rough childhood. His father took up drinking at some point and the results were disastrous. By all accounts my dad's father was a great man until he started drinking, but when he was drunk he was a mean, angry drunk. He could grow extremely violent, and more than once my dad would have to step between his father and his mother or sisters, or sometimes both, in order to shield them from another drunken rage.

My dad was a man of honor. It would not be from him that I learned his childhood history, for he never had a sour word to say about his father. My aunt was more forthcoming with the details of their tortured upbringing trying to survive the wrath of a tormented soul who was drowning his bitter disappointments in alcohol and taking it out on his family. However, my dad would never breathe a word of it, even after we kids had become adults. Earlier than I can remember, and after my dad was an adult, he would give his father a place to live when he had nowhere to go, and my grandfather died knowing he could count on his son.

An extremely hard worker, he moved his way up the ranks in his company and ended up being handed a territory in Upstate New York. It wasn’t long before he held the distinction of top sales rep in the company, and was recognized with a number of prestigious awards. As a result we as a family never wanted for anything. He provided us with a nice home, plenty to eat and new clothes every year. We had every material need met and he was the reason why.

Having served a stint in the Navy, he was a particular man preoccupied with details. He expected his sons to stand at attention when he addressed them and he had no patience for slouching or fidgeting. Anyone or anything that resembled laziness was summarily dismissed as worthless, or not worth his time. He expected perfection when you performed your duties or chores, and he did not settle for less. One of his favorite clich├ęs was “If it’s not worth doing right the first time then it’s not worth doing at all.”

As a youngster I wanted nothing more than to make him proud.

However, my dad was a strict disciplinarian and he ruled our home with fear and an iron hand. His demand for respect was of paramount importance, and our actions were sculpted by our need to abide within the parameters he laid out.

As children, we were never to address him without calling him sir, and it was yes sir or no sir when asked a question. While at the dinner table, we were to keep our faces in our plates, unless specifically addressed. We were taught to anticipate our chores and take care of them before we were told to. If he had to actually tell us to do our chores we knew it was already too late to avoid the consequences of not doing them. We were expected to excel in school, to never question authority, to be better behaved and more attuned than the average child from the average family, and to know all of this intuitively.

He expected compliance from us children, and he would watch us to make sure we were acting in accordance with his wishes. Often, he would sneak up on us when we were unaware and catch us in some act of childish behavior. To affect the most dramatic outcome possible he would burst in upon us with a loud and sudden eruption and catch us by surprise.

To this day loud, startling noises cause me to consider tearing the head off the person who perpetrated the act.

It was common practice for him to watch us play outside from just inside the window, behind a curtain. He would stand there for long periods of time to see what we were up to and try to catch us misbehaving. My brothers and I became experts at detecting his silhouette behind the glass and adjusting our behavior accordingly.

We also learned every creak and groan of the stairs coming up to the second floor and every noise caused by loose floorboards in the hallway leading to our bedroom. Many times, upon his explosive entrance to our room, he would find us pretending to be playing in a manner that we thought he would be least likely to find fault with. Although he almost always did, the end result was not nearly as hard to deal with as when he caught us unaware.

What worried us most was provoking his anger. His rage was legendary, and just a look from him could send me blubbering in a pool of tears. His vicious putdowns and withering words could be unleashed without warning, and it took little from me to raise his ire. Combined with his sometimes-violent outbursts it created a dangerous mix that could go off without any notice.

I don’t remember ever feeling relaxed in his presence. Truth be told, if he was home, nobody in our family was relaxed.

There was no questioning that he was the man, (our household revolved around him), and although measuring up to his standards proved to be a myth for me, he has long since passed from legend to mere mortal.