Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Fantastic Miraculous Bicycle Wreck: Johnson City 1968

When we moved out of the rental house in Jonesborough, we moved to a brand new split-level house in a brand new developing development just outside of Johnson City. Really, the newer developing development was across Antioch Road and where Mother and Father had bought the house there were already quite a few homes. But the homes were new and they still had plenty of trees and it was, essentially, only a string of homes along a single street with thick woods, pastures and farmed land surrounding it.
And it was on a steep hill.
So, on our side of Antioch you'd turn and go up the steep hill (the other side led to flat fields, the creek, woods and then two steep hills) and then there was a turn and a cul-de-sac and then you'd have to turn around and come back down the steep hill. Our house was about half way up the slope, on the left, the lot with lots of black walnut and hickory trees that abutted a farmer's field where tobacco was grown and dried in an old wooden shed. But it was coming down that steep hill one day that I had my fantastic bicycle wreck.
First of all, I must have been eleven, maybe twelve years old. I had an oldish, beat-up-abused blue-black Stingray bike. It was beautiful. I used it about every day, over dirt and grass and asphalt, over rocks and broken glass and sticks and mud. There were a number of kids in that little one street neighborhood, a few who lived across Antioch and at the top of one of their hills, and we all had bikes (though by the next year, mini bikes would be added to the mix). But on the occasion, I was alone.
That's right, my fantastic bike wreck was only a wreck with myself.
Being kids and having Stingrays with fat tires, we boys would often take off, peddling as fast as possible and then slamming on our brakes to make big thick skid marks in the street. These were foot brakes not hand brakes, so you could really jam down on the pedals and make your mark. So, that's what I was doing on that day. All alone out in the street, I decided to go all out super fast down the hill and then slam on my brakes.
I went to the top of the hill, pedaled pedaled pedaled, coming down the sheer cliff face of the hill, picking up mach speed, still ramming forward, me all alone, no one else even seemingly remotely around, and then just around my house I slammed those brakes on, pounding my feet backwards on the pedals. And the bike's tires caught that pavement well. There was the big shhhqurinschhhh that the tires made as all that forward downhill motion came to a sudden attempted stop and, as you might imagine, the bike started to flip.
The bicycle fishtailed and popped up and jerked face-forward downhill with me still upon it. This all happened in a matter of seconds. I had no time to think but I also did have time to think. I did have no time to be scared. Okay, I knew I was crashing, I knew it was going to hurt, I understood that the bike was pitching forward on the hard concrete asphalt pebble-studded hard-sloped street, so I figured the best thing to do would be to let go of the bike, follow through with where I was headed anyway and just tuck my body up and roll with it, like a tumble. A somersault.
And that's what I did. I rolled forward with my bike, landing hard but not so hard on the pavement, my head tucked, my arms and elbows bent ball-like and over and over I went downhill, my bike clattering along next to me, until I and the bike came to a stop and miraculously I was not hurt. Even my bike was okay. I mean, I crashed and rolled and popped right up in the street as healthy and unscratched as a armadillo. And I was so pleased with myself. In those seconds of just before the crash, during the crash and jumping up from the crash, I realized what a great childhood event this was and I came up from the roll like a magician, my hands out, my face scanning the neighborhood for an audience.
But, there was no audience.
Ah, my greatest bicycle moment in my life and no one was there to witness it but myself . . . that must be why I'm compelled to write about such things as this.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Football and Clouds: Johnson City 1970

Now that I realize I spent most of the year of 1970 in Tennessee (and not Iowa) I realize that I first started football then as well.
That was not my first dream. Being a comedian was what I wanted to be when I was about five years old. But when I hit my early teens, my desires changed to sports, and of those sports football was the thing for me. I wanted to be a wide receiver. Well, I still wanted to be a comedian, so maybe a comic wide receiver? No, I was actually an athletic person and was very good at catching a football. My father spent a lot of time with me there in Tennessee, in our neighborhood just outside of Johnson City, throwing the football to me, long and short, straight and over-the-shoulder. This was one of my few lone connections to him--just he and I out of a family of four boys and one girl--as no one else in the family liked to watch football, let alone toss the ball around. (Another connection, later, became plants and gardening.) He had grown up without a father (my grandfather had been a WWI navy pilot and 'scout' (he'd go up an a balloon/blimp tethered to the ship and look out for coming enemy aircraft, a dangerous job) and had come back from the war shellshocked (post traumatic stress syndrome, nowadays) and my father never really saw him. We kids never met him. But, that's not football.
So, there finally came the day when I was going to enter the 7th grade. I'd gone to the county school but my parents had paid for me to enter the city school--East High--in Johnson City and I was going to join the football team. We lived out in the semi-sticks (well, all of Tennessee was pretty much the "sticks" to us back then), an area that was a development not yet developed that had only a scattering of houses, a lot of empty red dirt lots and a lot of woods, pastures, small tobacco farms and such. So on the day of my first practice (maybe a week before school was to begin) I recall riding my Stingray bike down the hill and over to where the creek was, my mind full of football and anticipation. I was telling myself that, "This was it!", the beginning of my fame and fortune (more or less that was my fantasy), the start of my football career.
But as I sat on my bike among the wild fields and the creek, I looked into the sky where it was blue and there were tall white clouds building up and up. Beautiful clouds. And my mind wandered there, into the dreamscape of the white and blue, the billowed terraces of cloudwork.
Football turned out to be quite different than my dreams of it. It was rough and dirty and they wouldn't let you drink water until the end. That's not to say I didn't like it, but let's say that I wasn't as well prepared for the aggressive aspects of it as I was for the more sublime. But I stuck through the practices, made the junior varsity team (but not as a starter), had a pretty cheerleader interested in me. And then came the news that we were leaving for Iowa that fall. Moving . . . But, this was not a bad thing. Our family, all of us except perhaps my father, had been wanting to get out of Tennessee, that little strange northeast corner of it. So, this was welcome news. I was ready to go. And, I quit the team.
The guys razzed me about it, called me a quitter (I guess I was) but, I wasn't really playing any and we were moving and, to tell the truth, I was more interested in other things.
I did play football in Iowa, but I found that I was not really the overtly aggressive type. I didn't have enough of a mean streak. My mind was always off somewhere.
In the clouds, I guess.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Mountain Man: Urbandale 1977

When I was eighteen and it was the nineteen-seventies I wanted to be a mountain man. Now, I knew I couldn't be a true mountain man (those days were long long past and I wasn't quite that naive and stupid) but I still dreamt of going out west (of which I had personal knowledge from childhood), of living close to the woods or at least living a nomadic existence, town to town, out west.
It's still a bit fuzzy to me, these memories of the seventies, of adolescence and very young adulthood. It's such a strange period in life--at least for me--as in some ways I was very mature and intelligent and understood basic principles for life and in other ways I was confused and exceptionally ignorant and did the dumbest things quite frequently. But by age eighteen in the 70s you could legally drink alcohol as well as vote as well as run off by yourself to see the world. In my case, my world was a suburb of Des Moines, Iowa--which I hated very much yet also felt very secure within--and I wanted out. I never thought much about true world travel: Europe or Asia and such. Sure, I had my tropical isle dreams, but my main idea of getting away was always within the confines of the United States and was almost always limited to the western states with usually Montana, Idaho, Washington/Oregon (where I'd been happy as a child) and Alaska. This idea of going to these states was not a fresh one in the 1970s--this was a time of a big ecology movement among young people after all and there was John Denver on the radio and Jeremiah Johnson on the movie screen, there were serious people--mainly out west--doing serious things to help and preserve the environment, to curb pollution and change corporate and factory ways.
The 70s were not all disco and polyester and leisure suits.
I was a big reader--though a haphazard one (or, eclectic, I should say)--and one of my favorite books was Mountain Man by Vardis Fisher. I read and re-read that book as a teen. I also had books by a man named Angier (I think) that told me how to survive in the woods, how to build a long cabin and such. I had pamphlets on how to obtain free land in Alaska (which i think was real, that there still was free Fed land in AK in those waning 70s years--though it was not a simple process to obtain it). But then again, I wasn't completely stupid. I knew I didn't have the discipline or self-knowledge to actually go out and try to live off the land by myself. So, when I was nineteen and done with high school and uninterested in college, was working full time at Younkers department store in the stock room and living at home and stuffing my money into a savings account, I decided that it was the highway nomad's life for me.
This was before I'd read such things as Kerouac and the Beats, so I'm not sure exactly where I got the concept, other than as a family we'd moved around the country and had always taken long car trips and I'd loved that.
But in 1977 I bought a used van from a friend of Second Oldest Brother. I saw an advertisement for a dog--puppies that were part wolf--and went out and got a puppy and kept it in my parent's basement (where I had a room). I'm not sure why my parents allowed me to do this, that is get a dog at their house, not buying the van and planning to travel. (And as a current dog owner, god, I feel bad about that puppy, who I of course named Wolf. I did not have time or understanding for the poor dog. I mainly kept him leashed beneath the basement stairs and didn't give him the attention and care he both required and deserved.) So, my plan was to quit my job, take my money and my dog and drive out west by myself, town-to-town (as I said), state-to-state, concentrating on Idaho and Oregon and Washington. No doubt I planned to go to Alaska. I was going to camp mainly. Live in the woods. Sleep in my van. Be lonely and mysterious. I'd write. I'd work some job or another if I had to (I didn't bother to think who in the heck would hire me, a man with no address, a van and a dog that was part wolf). I would be my own version of a mountain man.
Of course none of this came to be.
I was at least smart enough to give my dog away to someone who would care for it. (The people who sold me the dog contacted me and were not happy that they had sold it to me, but I can't recall if they were the ones who took the dog.) I kept the van and-instead of the mountains of the west I got three friends together (Bob, Kevin and Mark Lobsinger) and drove down to Florida instead.
I know.
But that was how I discovered the Florida Keys, Key West, which I still love to this day.
And then, after working a few jobs back in Des Moines/Urbandale, I decided that maybe college was not a bad idea and I enrolled at the University of Iowa in Iowa City (another place I came to love).
I kept the van even though I was in school, but it sat and sat back in Urbandale until the neighbors complained and then I sold it for a pittance. I was glad to be rid of it.
But, in the longer run, I did live my highway nomad life in a way. I did live in the west (New Mexico, California, Washington, Montana). I even made it to Alaska in 1983, though did not stay all that long, and though I lived in a tent in the woods (more or less the woods: a free state park north of Anchorage in Eagle River), I came back to Iowa and finished college. Which was for the best.
I don't get out to the woods much these days--and miss it. I get to the mountains even less and haven't been out west for many years now. Don't dream much about being a mountain man, though still sometimes dream of living a lonely and mysterious life.
I drive a Volvo.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Math, Detention and Mr. Shutters: Urbandale 1974

I always disliked Math. I always found it difficult, almost to the point where it was a phobia. I think I had a mental block against it--a stubborn sense that I'd never be able to do it, so why even try. (Some of this may have come from Oldest Brother, who I recall always telling me ho hard math was, scaring me about fractions and such . . . but, really, I can't blame it on him; I just plain hated math.). In high school, when it came time to do Algebra (ah, I remember in Junior High, when I first got to the school and they asked me to do math problems on the board in front of the class, I'd just go up there and stand [I'd become a shy and introverted boy] and wait and not even make a mark on the board) I had a teacher named Mr. Shutters. "Dr." Shutters, he was known as, because he had a PhD (and was teaching high school in Urbandale, Iowa?). Well, Dr. Shutters did not like me. He was teaching one day and while we were supposed to be working on some problems he caught me drawing my wild cartoon doodle pictures instead. I remember he grabbed me by the back of my neck and squeezed down hard (how today I'd like to think I would have acted differently, such as: Get your goddamn hands off me" or "Don't do that Mr. Shutters, it's indecent" or some such) and I just let him squeeze my neck as he asked what I was doing and, you know, it was obvious what I was doing and the next week I had detention.
This was not an after-school detention. This was a daily detention that I otherwise would have had as library time or extra lunch or something. It was really for troublesome kids, the bullies and pot smokers, the F students and trouble-causers. I was none of theses things. I really had no idea why I had even been sent to this long-term detention (though later was told it was because of my poor math scores). But I wasn't an arguer, and my parents--with five kids--never really got involved with my school life, so if the vice principle said I was in detention instead of the library (where I talked with my friends and read books--I loved books), then that's how it was.
And in detention is where I fell in with all the pot smokers and bullies and bad apples of the school. And you know what: they were not bad people. They could tell that I wasn't one of them, but I've always had the habit of winning over people, not in a gratuitous way, but because I rarely pass any big judgement on people and, if they treat me okay, I treat them okay. So, I got along fine with the school's malcontents.
I suppose there was some danger that I would become a troublesome student due to my association with the other troublesome students. I did get to know a number of the tough guys and relate to them but I never got to the point where I hung out with them outside of school I pretty much kept the friends I had made--which were good kids, middle-of-the-road kids who did what they were supposed to do, didn't fight, were not part of the high or low social strata, not nerds of jocks or anything--pretty much just the invisibles. That was me. A nobody in high school (and it wasn't bad, though I pretty much hated high school and assumed about everyone did [though I was wrong about that]).
I recall once, when the teacher who headed up detention was taking roll, she skipped me. I was behind a student in the row of desks and I usually hunkered down--writing or reading or drawing--and she missed me and that afternoon in the hall the vice principle stopped me--came to find me I guess--and asked if I'd skipped the detention class. I looked at him honestly, a bit bewildered, a bit scared, and said, "No." And, to the vice principle's credit, he believed me. He said something to the effect, "I didn't think you would." And if he hadn't believed me and my detention had been extended, who knows? Maybe I would have ended up with the tough guys, maybe I would have been a delinquent.
But what I came away with from that detention was:
1. The bad guys aren't always that bad.
2. It's not always best to do what you are told without question.
3. Dr. Shutters was an ass.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Jim Tiernan's Cake: Urbandale 1975

Thsi was the second-to-last year of high school for me. This was a post football season, or maybe it was homecoming during football season. I was on that team, but the next year (my senior year) I quit football (among many other things I quit). Jim was on the team--offensive guard, I believe--and he was a friend of mine.
Anyway, the cheerleaders or pom pom girls had baked each football team member a cake, or some such thing, and after the ceremonies at the gym we all got our cakes. I did not get my cake because I didn't give a damn about a cake. (I'm thinking maybe this was in 76 and the cakes were baked for the senior homecoming ball players, which I would not have been one of.) But, Jim liked his cake. Afterwards we were goofing around--our group of me, Jim, Randy, Bill, Dave and some others, maybe Rick--and it was busy outside the high school with cars coming and going and students and parents. It was evening. Maybe a light rain. Somehow, I had Jim's home-baked cake and, as a practical joke, I decided to put it out in the parking lot, in the driveway in and out of the lot to be exact, and watch the cake get run over. My friends were in on it, but i was the one to put the cake out there.
Jim discovered this act of treason. He wanted his cake! I was surprised that he wanted it, that it meant something to him. I suddenly felt bad about putting his cake out in the driveway. And . . . too late . . . just as Jim was going to go out and get it, a car came along and SQUISH ran right over his homecoming cake.
Ah. I did feel bad. Still do to some degree (no guilt like a midwesterner's guilt). But the thing was, I really didn't think he'd care. Who wanted a cake? Part of it was I didn't much care for sweets. I mean, I loved to eat, but a cake? The other was that--at that time--I considered it a silly gesture, someone baking a cake for you, for the team. Just more small town high school nonsense to me. But Jim wanted it, he was looking forward to eating it, I think and maybe even had a certain high school-sentimental attachment to the whole thing. Ah. But to his credit, Jim never held it against me, his squashed cake in the road, in the light rain. I have not talked to him in decades, but we remained friends.
And if this was in 76 and not 75, if it happened when I'd quit the team and was full of bile and uber-sarcasm towards Urbandale High, then the implications of my actions are different. Then there could easily be read some deeper meanings of resentment or revenge or self-loathing into my destruction of that football cake.
Or, then again, sometimes a cake is just a cake.