Friday, October 29, 2010

If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of the Spotlight. Part 1.


For a guy who was afraid to call a stranger on the phone, playing guitar and singing to an audience might seem an unlikely choice of a hobby, but I was drawn to it. I couldn’t have made a speech in front of even a moderate sized group of people, but I could play my guitar and sing to them. At first I would close my eyes so that I didn’t have to make eye contact with anyone in the audience, but eventually I was able to sing and play and look at the crowd all at the same time. After some years of practice, I acquired enough skill as a vocalist to become the lead singer in a band of my own. Don’t get the idea that I was any less of a social pariah as a musician, though, and I was still completely hopeless as any sort of public speaker, or at any other sort of extemporaneous banter in front of anyone except for my friends. It’s called “stage fright” and I had it. I was afraid of looking foolish and being ridiculed by the audience. With good reason, I suppose, for in the beginning I was not very good at either singing or playing.

I took up the guitar when I was fifteen years old. It had been my dad’s guitar, but he wasn’t playing it so I decided to give it a try. I bought some song books that featured chord charts above the music and began learning chords. I practiced for hours alone in my room. Sometimes I would play one of the songs I was learning for my girlfriend while we were on the phone together. Once I got the chording and strumming more or less under control, I added singing. There was no stopping me now. Every place where it was even remotely acceptable for me to play and sing, there I would be. When I would play in public either people were too polite to tell me I was awful, or perhaps I was not as bad as I thought I was. With a bit of encouragement, I took the few chords I knew and started writing songs with them. I knew the songs weren’t very good, but I sang them anyway. I wrote love songs for my girlfriend and I wrote Christian songs for my Young Life friends.

I don’t remember how I got involved with Young Life. It was a group of Christian high school students who met once a week and sang songs about God and Jesus and got a sort of sermon from one of the adult leaders. We were encouraged to pray a lot and share our experiences and realizations about our faith. For me, it was a great venue for my playing and singing, so I wrote some songs just for that group. I was the only one doing anything like that, so I was asked to perform on a regular basis. I was happy to do so, since I had a captive audience comprised of people mostly too polite to tell me to stop.

Some of my high school band acquaintances were working on putting together a rock-and-roll band and I was invited to sing with them. I was thrilled. If anything would make me popular with my peers, singing in a rock-and-roll band should certainly be that thing. It wasn’t, or course, but it was fun in a scary sort of fashion. I was still terrified of getting up in front of a crowd and making a fool of myself. To prevent that, I spent most of my time in classes writing out, over and over again, the lyrics to the songs I was to sing. The band played a couple of high school dances and a private party, but it was not to last. The rest of the guys in the group were a couple of notches above me in the social strata and I was just not what they were looking for in a lead singer. They told me that I was singing flat and that I was out of the band. The real problem was that I couldn’t afford the kind of equipment that I needed to keep up with the rest of the more affluent group members. My singing was fine; my financial and social status was not. I’d had a taste of the rock-and-roll life, though, and I wasn’t about to give up my playing and singing. I would just have to find a way to do it on my own.

That’s been the one constant theme in my life: Find a way to do it myself. Since I was a complete social reject, I had no choice but to find ways to do things using only my own resources. If there is a way to do it myself, I will find it. It’s become a philosophy for me. I’ve applied it to home repairs, computers, automobiles, photography, education, music and anywhere else I can. You can immediately see the basic flaw in this philosophy; it tends to leave one doing everything alone. Everything. This philosophy automatically excludes any sort of team effort, and it completely bypasses the “many hands make for light work” maxim. On the other hand, it does make one independent of mechanics, repairmen, teachers and schools. A couple of things you do need, though, are authors and tools. If you can read and follow instructions, then you can fix almost anything. And if you have and know how to use tools, fixing things can be rather easy. With the right tools, you can do a great many things by yourself. With the right tools, I would eventually become a one-man band.

At the end of my-first-and-only-year of college, I had no more reason to play the trombone. The guitar is just as portable and much more versatile an instrument for someone seeking a stage from which to communicate. I dragged that guitar with me wherever I went; on family vacations, to a job at a YMCA summer camp, to parties. It was my constant companion until I moved to Denver. Once I had a few dollars of my own to spend, one of the first things I bought was a new guitar. It was a beautiful thing, an Epiphone with an oversized body, steel strings and a nice narrow neck. My dad didn’t approve of the steel strings. I guess he liked the sound of the nylon-stringed classical guitar better. Now that I had a guitar of my own, he asked for his to be returned. He kept it with him as he moved about the mountains of Colorado and would ask me to play it whenever I would visit him. I’m not sure where that guitar is now; I think my sister had it for a while. I have another classical guitar now, one that I fished out of a trash can where my niece had placed it. For some reason, she had decided to get rid of it, though all that was wrong was that it had a broken string. I retrieved it from the trash, fixed the broken string and discovered that it had a wonderfully rich tone. That little rescued guitar sits on a stand within arm’s reach of the desk where I am now sitting. Whenever I need a little music boost, some soothing energy to warm the soul, I strum that beautiful instrument.

I got my first paying job as a musician through my dad. He was selling real estate at a development in the mountains near Granby, Colorado. When the real estate company brought people up to tour the property on weekends, they would treat the potential buyers to a steak-fry at the end of the day. I was hired to provide a bit of entertainment to the guests while they enjoyed their dinner. With my old sound system from high school days, a microphone and a pick-up I had installed in my guitar, I began my career as a one-man band. It was great fun and the people I was playing for seemed to enjoy it. I bought a 12-string guitar to go with my new six-string and learned some new songs. Whenever there was a big tour, I would get a call to drive up from Denver and perform. When my dad moved on to a different real estate project, that gig ended, but I’d been paid to perform and now considered myself a professional. I began looking for other venues where I could get myself in front of an audience, but only found some showcase and open-mic type shows around Denver which were free. I didn’t find another paying gig until I moved to Steamboat Springs.

Steamboat Springs was a town with a split personality. On one hand, it was a nice, friendly little mountain town surrounded by cattle and sheep ranches, with a couple of mines just a few miles up the highway. In the summer, the off-season, it was just a quiet little town where folks would come to shop, visit the post office, eat at one of the restaurants, or have a drink at one of the bars. The people who lived there worked on the ranches, or in the mines, or for the forest service, or for the county, or owned or worked for one of the businesses in town. It was a small community where going to the post office, or the grocery store, was a social event, in that you always ran into someone you knew wherever you went. When the skiing season arrived, the little town underwent a complete personality change. The population jumped from 6,000 to 20,000 or more. The stores, shops and bars were packed with tourists and skiers; the parking lots were full; and most of the locals were busy working at some task that served to separate the tourists from some of their money. It was amazing to watch the transformation of Steamboat Springs from small mountain town to major destination resort each year. One of the things that the tourists demanded was entertainment. Some of that entertainment was provided by people from out of town, but quite a lot of it was provided by local musicians. I knew I would have to become one of those local entertainers and I set about learning the skills I would need to do that.

I acquired some better sound equipment and built a little stage out of two by fours and plywood. I set up the stage in the living room of the trailer where Carol and I lived with her two sons. On Friday nights, we would have some of our friends over and we encouraged anyone who wanted to, to get up on the little stage and play for the group. We all got some experience playing and singing with the sound equipment in front of an audience without the added pressure of performing for strangers. It was a very good performer’s classroom where we all learned from and supported each other, but, best of all, it was great fun.

Playing for your friends in the living room is one thing, but taking that experience, or lack thereof, out into the marketplace and trying to get a paying gig is an entirely other thing. There was already an overabundance of local musicians who had been playing in the bars and restaurants for years, and there was very little interest from the owners and managers of those establishments in trying out unknown and unproven talent. They already had good, crowd-drawing entertainment, they figured, so why take a chance on a unknown? From a business standpoint, they were right. I needed to prove myself somehow. I needed to show that I could bring people into wherever I was playing and make money for the bar. That would prove to be more difficult than I thought it might.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Thanks, Dad.

October 16, 1976

There are three quite notable events in my life for which I owe a debt of gratitude to my father. The first one is that, with his help and guidance, I made it up the Boy Scout ranks to Eagle. It was my first big achievement and I never would have gotten there without his help. He did the same favor for my brother.

I liked being a Boy Scout. I got to go camping, hiking, canoeing, and shooting. I learned to tie knots, build bridges, made campfires, handle a knife and axe, cook over an open fire, pitch a tent, lead a group of my peers, and safely handle and accurately shoot a rifle. I also learned about local, state and federal government, first aide, lifesaving and water safety, citizenship, woodcraft and all sorts of outdoorsman type activities. I took to it immediately and easily advanced up through the lower ranks, acquiring and demonstrating the skills necessary to achieve each level. I had no trouble with most of the badges needed for the upper ranks until it came time to call up a merit badge counselor who I had never met. I discovered then that I had a completely irrational and nearly unconquerable fear of calling strangers on the telephone. Up until that time, I’d been working with people that I knew, my dad and other adult leaders of our troop, plus some counselors at summer camp. There were some required badges for which I needed to meet with a complete stranger in order to earn that particular award. Of course, these people I was supposed to call were simply volunteers who had knowledge in the area that the badge requirements addressed. All I needed to do was pick up the phone, introduce myself and set up an appointment to meet with the man. I couldn’t do it. Pull out my fingernails with pliers, set me on fire, do anything but make me place a phone call to a stranger. It was the hardest thing I had to do. I don’t know why I was afraid of make that call. I never have discovered the reason. I still have that fear, but I’ve learned to conquer it. I can actually make a phone call now and I can do it almost without that little adrenaline spike, almost. It’s strange, but the fear is still there to a very slight degree.

My dad helped me make those phone calls. It wasn’t easy for either of us, but we got it done. My dad helped me sell cookies, too. During the East Peoria years, there was this summer camp that I was supposed to go to one year. For some reason, I was required to sell cookies to earn part of my camping fees or something. I never did get an explanation as to the necessity of the cookie selling, I just got the job of selling cookies door-to-door. My mom or dad would load me up in the car, drive me to a nearby neighborhood and send me up to total stranger’s houses with this box of cookies and an order form in my hand. I was supposed to tell the person who answered the door that I was selling these cookies to earn my way to camp and they were supposed to give me money. Knocking on stranger’s doors was even more frightening to me than making phone calls. I hated it. I was scared. Again, I don’t know why, but I was. My parents made me do it anyway. My dad is the quintessential salesman so he had no idea what I was afraid of, and my mom thought it was stupid to be afraid of knocking on doors. Of course, she wasn’t the one who had to do it. No, I had to do it. I whimpered and cowered and quivered and shuffled my way up to door after door, hesitantly repeating the same spiel to each new stranger and, more often than not, having my sales pitch answered with a “No, Thank You,” or just a simple “Not Interested.” Eventually we ran out of nearby strangers and my cookie sales career came to an end. It ruined me for sales, though. My fear of “cold calls” (talking to strangers) in sales and my fear of telephone calls (talking to strangers), no doubt, stems from a fear of rejection. As every good salesman knows, sales is a numbers game; you have to get through a lot of rejections to make that sale. The secret is to not take the rejection personally. I haven’t ever been able to do that very well. I almost always take it as a rejection of myself and not of whatever I might be selling.

When we moved to Colorado, after my first-and-only-year of college, my dad got me a job working in the factory where he was national sales manager. That was one of the reasons we moved to Colorado, so that my dad could take that job. I don’t feel like I owe my dad for getting me that job at the factory, but I suppose I do. It was my first real job. Back in Peoria I spent one summer getting paid to wash dishes at the same Boy Scout camp I had gone to when I was younger. The two summers after that, while I was still in school, I worked as a life guard at the local country club. Washing dishes was a job. Sitting in the sun watching girls and keeping the little kids from downing was not what I consider job. It was more being paid to do what I would have done for free if someone had asked. The factory job was a real job.

I spent six years working in factories in Denver. I never got to like it very much. The job that my dad got me was in the factory that made the fluorescent lighting fixtures for which he managed the national sales. I started work on the paint line with a crew whose job was hanging the bare, stamped metal parts of the fixtures on a continuously running overhead chain. The chain took the metal parts on a journey through the washer, the dryer, the paint booth and the paint dryer. When they came out of the paint dryer, another crew took them off the line and stacked them up on pallets so that the parts could be taken to the assembly line. If that sounds tedious and boring to you, you would be correct. It was painfully boring and intolerably tedious, and I was miserable most of the time. It wasn’t so much the tedium that made me miserable as it was that my mind didn’t need to be engaged to any great degree upon the task at hand, which left me free to think about how much I missed the girl I had left behind in Peoria. I got myself off of the paint line and wound up driving a forklift. That was slightly more interesting and not nearly as boring, but still not very engaging. I was not very well motivated to make it to work on time each morning, and after about three years was fired so as to set an example for all the other chronically tardy employees of the consequences of that sort of behavior.

Since I didn’t feel qualified to do very much else at that point, I got another factory job. I went to work for a paper box company. I clawed my way up through the ranks of paper box making employees and got back to forklift driving and order fulfillment in the warehouse. It wasn’t a bad job, as factory jobs go, but I failed to find any motivation at this factory, either, and was tardy and chronically absent to as great a degree as was possible to be while not getting fired again.

Meanwhile, my dad had been let go from the lighting fixture company and had taken up selling used cars in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. He and my mom had gotten a divorce as during that time as well. I wasn’t at home when the breakup happened, so I don’t really know the whole story. I do know that it’s not my story to tell, so I’ll just leave it alone. I do know that my dad was not pining for my mother and wasn’t having any trouble finding other women willing to spend time with him.

I was still living in Denver, working my uninteresting, unexciting factory job and dating women who were very bad for me. Not that they were bad people, it’s just that they weren’t quite what I needed at the time. My dad had me come up to Steamboat Springs for the weekend and showed me around town. He offered to get me a job at the auto dealership where he was working. I thought it was a great idea. It would get me out of the factory, but, more importantly, it would let me kindly and gently end the bad relationship I was trapped in. Moving out of Denver and starting over again in Steamboat Springs was the best thing I could have done at that time. I gave my notice to my landlords, and a couple of weeks later, packed up my stuff, said goodbye to the girlfriend and moved up into the mountains. Thanks to my dad looking out for my best interests, I was free to start a new life. I called my former employers on the Monday after I moved out of Denver and let them know that I wasn’t coming back. This was the second thing my dad had done for me, but it wasn’t the best thing. The best thing was yet to come, and the only person that it didn’t surprise was my dad. He knew me, better than I knew myself at the time, and he saw it coming.

I started work at the Chevy dealership in the parts department. There I learned to read a parts book, learned how to place orders with the GM parts depot, and learned how to deal with customers and mechanics. I knew something about cars and their inner workings from having to repair my own vehicles when they broke down. For a variety of reasons, lack of funds being the primary one, I’ve never been one to take my car to a mechanic when it breaks down. Instead, I go out and buy a repair manual and figure out how to do the work myself. Most of the time I have been successful in getting the whatever-it-is I’m driving at the time back on the road. I mostly liked selling Chevy parts and I got to know some of the local ranchers and mechanics who were repeat customers at my counter. I liked living in the mountains, too. The air was clean, the people were friendly and I was feeling rather good about myself.

My dad, salesman that he is, already knew lots ofpeople around Steamboat Springs and he would introduce me to one or another of them from time to time. One of the people he introduced me to was a woman that he’d dated a time or two, or more, her name was Carol. It was at the home of a mutual friend where I first met Carol. As we were leaving, we stopped on their lawn and talked for a while. Carol told me about her recent divorce and explained to me at length that she considered all men to be beneath contempt and untrustworthy. She stated emphatically that she was not interested in any long-term relationship with anyone. I listened and made what I hoped were sympathetic responses at what I also hoped were the appropriate moments. I must have done it right since when we said goodnight that evening, she agreed that it might be interesting to get together again and continue the conversation.

At that time, Carol had a job driving a nine-passenger Mercedes bus with which she shuttled tourists and locals back and forth to the ski area east of town and destinations in between. One day she called a meeting between me, herself and my father. She came to pick us up at the Chevy dealership in the bus and drove us to her house in town. When we got there she served us a nice lunch which she had bought at KFC for the occasion. As we sat on her porch and ate our lunch, we discussed the situation and what the future held for each of us. After lunch, she drove us back to the dealership and dropped us off. After that, Carol had decided that I had somehow won the bid for her affection and my father was no longer in contention for that prize, though he was still to be considered a friend. So, really, when you think about it, I stole Carol away from my father. Thanks, Dad.

The initial courtship took place in the early spring of that year. Carol and I had fun together, hiking in the surrounding mountains and getting to know each other. I got to know her two children, too, one of whom was five and the other seven years old. I even got to meet Carol’s ex-husband who turned out to be a nice guy. We all got along fairly well, so well, in fact, that in July when Carol set off to clear hiking trails for two weeks with the Volunteer Conservation Corps (VCC), she asked me if I wanted to move into her place. I immediately accepted and while she was gone I moved my stuff into her house. Okay, well, it wasn’t really a house, it was a double-wide trailer, but it was set up on a city lot in town just a few blocks from downtown Steamboat Springs. It had three bedrooms, one bathroom, a living room, a kitchen and a deck that wrapped around one end of the trailer. There was a creek running through the front yard, a strawberry patch on the east side of the lot and a nearly vertical hillside on the south side. It was a beautiful location and I spent the two weeks trying to find places to stash all my stuff. One day, during those two weeks I drove up into the mountains to where the VCC had their base camp. I took with me a few supplies and my Coleman stove and cooked breakfast for Carol on the tailgate of my pickup truck. I opened a can of corned beef hash and dumped in into a frying pan. I then made little hollows in the hash and broke some eggs into them and cooked the whole breakfast in one pan. It was delicious and Carol thought I was pretty clever to even think of doing it that way.

Things between Carol and I just got better and better, and soon we decided that for the kids’ and our parents’ sake we ought to get married. We bought some nice handmade stationery from a local shop, made a guest list, and hand-wrote our own invitations. We bought our rings from a local silversmith. In October of that year, we were married in the front yard of the trailer with Carol’s sister presiding, my father as best man, and one of Carol’s friends as maid of honor. In attendance were my mother and her new boyfriend, Carol’s parents, Carol’s ex-husband’s parents, a bunch of our friends and, of course, Carol’s two boys. We had a pot luck reception and everyone had a great time eating and drinking. It was the beginning of a new life for me, one that has gotten better every year, and it was all thanks to my Dad. Yep, I’d say I owe him for that.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Help, I'm Drowning. Throw Me a Trombone!!

High School Bandsman

For a social pariah, music was just the lifeline I needed to rescue me from the depths of the lonely, pitiful abyss into which I would, no doubt, have fallen. Playing trombone in the band resulted in me belonging to a group to which I was able to make a useful contribution. It was almost as good as having friends. I had my own part of the music to play and, if I did my part well, my contribution helped create a product that was pleasing and enjoyable to the listeners, two of whom where my parents. Between playing the trombone and working my way through the ranks of the Boy Scouts, I was building a solid foundation on which my future could stand.
I played that trombone all the way through my first-and-only-year of college. I played in concerts in elementary school, junior high school and high school. I marched with the bands in high school and college. I played at the pep rallies and the home football games all through high school. Once a week I took a private lesson from Hap Hallor (I’m not sure of the spelling of his name). Hap was a great trombone player. He had a special trombone with a lever near the mouthpiece which allowed him to play without having to extend the slide past the middle of its range. He needed that valve since, due to a birth defect, he had very short and deformed arms with no real fingers at the end. There were just a couple of little appendages on the end of each arm that allowed him to pick up small objects, for anything else he had to use both arms. He sure could play that trombone, though, and he was a good and patient teacher. I was a terrible student, though, and didn’t take full advantage of the opportunity I was given to learn from this wonderful man. I learned enough to be able to play in both the high school marching and concert bands, and that was good enough for me. I didn’t really want to become a trombone virtuoso; I just wanted to be part of the band. I enjoyed being part of the band and the trombone parts of the music were interesting and challenging. The one drawback of playing trombone is that it is definitely not an instrument that attracts the attention of women, and, in high school, attracting the attention of the women in my peer group became more and more important.
Once I took up the trombone, my dad felt the need to satisfy his own artistic side and took up playing the trumpet for a short while. When that didn’t prove to be the answer to his need, he handed the trumpet down to my brother and took up guitar. He bought himself a nice little nylon-stringed, classical guitar and began to learn to play it. He worked his way through the beginner’s instruction book, but the guitar wasn’t the emotional or artistic outlet he was looking for either. As soon as his interest in the guitar had waned, I asked him if I could borrow it and try to learn to play. He was willing to let me try and handed over the guitar and the instruction books. He even showed me how to hold the guitar pick and got me started on a chord or two. I tried to learn it from the books he gave me, but they just didn’t have any songs in them that I was interested in playing. I found a music store that sold contemporary song books, bought a couple and brought them home to see what I could do with them. They had these little pictures above the music that showed where to put your fingers to make the chord called for in that part of the song. I spent hours and hours making my fingers bend into the required positions so that I could make the chords. Once I was able to play the chords quickly enough, I could then use the guitar to accompany myself as I sang the song. Now we were getting somewhere. Playing the guitar and singing were most certainly two skills that would attract the attention of the girls.
Of course, by this time, I had already attached myself to a lovely lady from the neighborhood and I would play to her over the phone in the evenings after school. I learned to play “The House of the Rising Sun,” first. It was great. I had a song I could sing and play that was also currently playing on the radio as performed by Eric Burdan and the Animals. I was almost “cool” for a moment, at least in my mind. My girlfriend sometimes thought so, too. My dad was pleased that the guitar was being played, though he would rather I had learned to play it properly and not just as an accompaniment to my singing. My mother, for some reason, disliked my guitar playing altogether. She never did say why, but she made it clear to me that she disapproved of the whole concept of my singing and playing. She wasn’t the girl I was trying to impress, though, so I kept on practicing and learning new songs and even writing a few of my own.
I was still playing the trombone, too, but only because I enjoyed being in the band. I maintained my trombone skills enough so that I could keep up with the other players in the band, but no more than that. As long as I stayed out of trouble with the band director, band was a guaranteed “B” grade every semester. That was about the only “B” that I got during high school. I was basically a “C” student as long as I was in classes that built on skills that I had acquired from previous years. For some reason, though, I wound up being enrolled in “AP” science classes. The “AP” stood for advance program and I was flattered that I was considered an advanced student, but I soon discovered that I was in no way qualified to be in these classes.
Sometime before I started high school, I was put into an experimental mathematics program called SMSG (Student Mathematics Study Group). In the SMSG program I was taught something that vaguely resembled math and algebra, but what I was taught was not what I needed in the “AP” science classes, so when it came time to do the required mathematics in those classes, I was adrift in a sea of ignorance and incomprehensibility. I was being asked to apply mathematical concepts which I had never even heard of before that time. I had no idea what I was supposed to do, or the remotest notion of how to do it. I didn’t even have enough knowledge to ask the right questions so that I might receive some small clue as to how to proceed. I thought it was just some failing on my part to understand what I had been taught. I didn’t realize until years later that the problem was that I had never been taught the required math concepts in the first place. I got “Ds” in those classes. I should have gotten “Fs.” When my parents asked me what was wrong, I told them that I didn’t know. That turned out to be the absolute truth. I actually did not know. I didn’t know the math. I had never even heard of the math I was supposed to be using. I figured that it must be my fault for not getting it. Why would they put me in these advance classes if I didn’t have the math skills to handle the material? I was obviously a poor student. It was a great relief to me, many years later, when I finally figured out what had happened, but at the time it was a nightmare. No one could understand why I was doing so poorly in school and I was constantly asked what was wrong with me. Scholastically, high school was a complete disaster for me, but socially and artistically I made great advancements, and that was what saved me.
Music saved me, and literature helped, too. I learned to love reading in high school. Of course, I read very little of the required material, that stuff was awful and the teacher would pick it apart and analyze it until even the most interesting of material was sucked dry and rendered lifeless. We read an abridged version of “Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens and I rather enjoyed the writing style so I began reading Dickens. I would walk around with a nine-hundred page paperback of one of Dickens’s novels and my peers would remark that I must have lost my mind to be reading something as long and obscure as that. In fact, I found my mind through my readings. I learned more from my extracurricular studies than I ever did from my teachers or my textbooks. I learned to love books and good writing and that has saved me on more than one occasion throughout my life. I still read constantly. We have a whole house full of books. I like being surrounded by books; they are filled with old friends who never change and I look forward to visiting them from time to time. I like knowing that they are always there waiting for me to come visit with them, walk with them, learn from them, or just sit quietly with them whenever I have the notion and the time. More than TV or radio, or parties and dances, or even family, it was the books and the music that saved me. And the Girl. Always the Girl.
The music and the books kept me sane, but the Girl made me happy. She lived just a few blocks away in the neighborhood. She had braces on her teeth and she was two years younger than I, but once we started dating, those things didn’t seem to matter much. In fact, I found the braces rather appealing, though she never believed it when I told her. She was beautiful and we spent as much time together as we could. If we weren’t physically together somewhere, we were on the phone breathing and sighing at each other. I would sing to her or play bits of the new song I was learning on the guitar while she listened on the other end of the line. My parents would eventually yell down to tell me to get off the phone, and I would reluctantly hang up. She and I had the usual childish upsets and occasional break-ups, but we always got back together. She was my constant companion and trusted friend. I loved her, I still do in a way. The high school years passed, though, and I graduated and went off to college. There were a great many distractions in college, but I would still hitchhike home on as many weekends as I could to see her. It wasn’t the same. She was still in high school and had her own set of distractions and her own life to live. We tried to keep up the pretense that we were still a couple, but it was never going to be the same again.
My family and I moved to Colorado after my first-and-only-year of college. I got a job in a factory. I missed the Girl terribly; she was all that I could think of most of the time. I would call her on the weekends from a pay phone. I would buy rolls of quarters and talk to her until I had used them all up. It just wasn’t the same. We drifted apart and my heart broke. It was the books and the music that saved me again. I would stack up some LPs on the turntable, put on my headphones, pick up my book and read while the rock-and-roll music played. I worked in the factory all day and read, with the music playing in the headphones, all evening and I survived. The music and the words in the books helped keep the pain under control, and, after some time had passed, I learned to live with the heartache and the loss. I’ve never forgotten, though, and I’ve never been completely free of that lost love. I have another love now who is just as good a friend and just as constant a companion. We have been together now for over thirty-three years and I am blessed to have such a loving, understanding, demanding and intelligent partner. We’ll be together until our hearts stop beating and perhaps even beyond that. I’m happy to have known and loved both of them, my first love and my last love. My life’s adventure is far from over and having a loving companion with whom to share it is the best part of the story. No matter what the end of this tale may bring, love can never leave us with other than a happy ending. I have it all now, the books, the music and, of course, the love. The music is on CDs now, or on my MP3 player. I still pick up my guitar now and then, though not as much as I used to. The books are all around me, my love is nearby and the adventure continues.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Life in the Middle Lane, New Beginnings

The Suburban Family Home in Peoria

Sixth grade in Peoria was so much better that fifth grade in East Peoria that life began to seem almost pleasant for me. I had a great teacher and the classes were easy since I’d been exposed to most of the material in my split fifth/sixth grade class the year before. I had friends I could talk to at recess, I was playing in the school band, and I was learning lots of useful skills as a Boy Scout. Of course it was too good to last.
On a hike with the Boy Scouts, I lost my eye in an accident involving a stick. As a result, I was in and out of the hospital for several weeks of the school year. Fortunately, spending all that time in the hospital, plus all the other doctor visits didn’t actually seem to be too much of a set-back in my education at that point. At least, I haven’t noticed any ill effects to date. Walking around school wearing a bandage over my eye prevented me from fading into the background socially, as I likely would have done otherwise. Instead, I was “the kid who got his eye poked out.” Getting attention for something other than my complete lack of social skills was a welcome change from my previous condition, so, for me, it was a positive experience for the most part. I was cautioned by my father to never use my injury as an excuse for anything, or as any sort of self-pity kind of crutch to prop myself up with. It was good advice, but then it wouldn’t have occurred to me in for first place. People were interested in me for something that had happened to me and not interested in torturing me for being such a misfit. In my world, this was a giant step up towards the top edge of the elementary school snake-pit in which I’d been living for the last couple of years.
Not that life was all roses and lollipops, no, not at all, but there were moments, sometimes hours where I found myself doing something I enjoyed with people who, sometimes, almost seemed to enjoy my company. There were still the occasional encounters with people who objected to my existence, or, at least, my presence at some particular location we had, momentarily, in common. I was still not prone to hold my ground during such encounters and suffered a number of self-esteem set-backs as a result, but there was microscopic, incremental progress in a positive direction. There was enough progress that I was able to find reasons to continue to strive to fit in with my peers, rather than wallow in self-pity. It seemed like a worthy goal at the time. It was only much later that I discovered that it was not only unachievable, but undesirable as well. At the time, though, I was hoping to finally persuade a few people to like me and want to do things with me. Eventually, I found a couple of them in my neighborhood.
School, for me, was a job. Every weekday, you got up in the morning, got dressed, ate breakfast, grabbed your books and undone homework, got on the bus and went to school. You spent the day trying to finish the homework you hadn’t done the night before, you tried to look interested in whatever material you were supposed to be studying, you talked to your friends at recess, and you watched the clock. At the end of the day, you grabbed your books and homework assignments, which you really did intend to complete, you got back on the bus and you went home. Once at home, you had a snack and went out to play with your friends until dinnertime. After dinner, you were supposed to do homework, and I did try, but there were so many other more interesting things to do. There were TV shows to watch, Lightning Bugs to catch, and all sorts of adventures to be had on the dark suburban streets. School was just something I had to endure so that I could do the things I really enjoyed, like exploring the neighborhood and the surrounding forest and the railroad tracks across the highway. Almost anything was more interesting to me than schoolwork, and though I did enjoy reading the occasional assigned work of fiction, I much preferred spending my time outdoors exploring.
Weekends were filled with Boy Scout hikes and family outings. We were a camping family, so between trips with the family and trips with the Boy Scout troop I was getting to do lots of things I enjoyed. I also had a few household chores for which I was responsible. I did a few dishes, mowed the lawn, pulled weeds, picked the bugs off the pine trees, and a variety of other necessary tasks which I reluctantly performed. I was also charged with babysitting my little sister when my parents went out for the evening. Like a lot of very young children, she wasn’t happy when her mother wasn’t immediately available to take care of her and so, as soon as my mom and dad would leave, she would start crying. The crying usually went on for quite some time while I tried to find ways to distract and amuse her to make her stop. Babysitting by sister included changing her diapers, another one of those necessary but unpleasant tasks. I did it, though, since that was part of the job, but I was always glad to turn responsibility for that job back over to my mother when she got home.
With help and indulgence from my teacher and my parents, I graduated from the sixth grade, even though I hadn’t been able to spend the required amount of time in the classroom. Like I’ve said, though, I don’t think I missed very much while I was absent and I was confident that my life would continue to improve. I had no reason to think any differently at that point. I would start junior high school in the fall and we had been told that it would be quite different from the elementary school experience. We’d even had a day of orientation at the end of the sixth grade year to give us an idea of what to expect. Worrying about that could wait, though, as summer vacation was beginning. The new school year with its unknown challenges was weeks and weeks away, while the summer’s adventures were right there waiting for me.