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The Even Longer Road To Fifty

July 21st, 2014 No comments

It should be blindingly clear by now that I am not going to finish this series in time for my birthday as originally conceived, given that the big day is this Sunday and I’m still only 17 going on 18. I’ve gone off on tangents and have split some years into multiple posts. I’ve skipped some days due to behind-the-scenes research and scanning, and others because I simply haven’t felt like blogging every available moment.

Rather than trying to rush 33 years into a single week, I thought about leaving the series unfinished. But I’ve still got a bunch of stories to tell, and at least some of my friends and associates claim to have been enjoying previous entries.

So, I’m going to continue. It’ll take some time, and I’ll probably intersperse some of my typical nerd rantings in between biographical bits. But hey, I’ll be fifty for an entire year, right?

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The Long Road To Fifty: 17 (Part 3)

July 15th, 2014 No comments

In my junior year, drama teacher Ms. Mumaugh told me that she had a future show in mind that would be perfect for me. So, when she announced Inherit the Wind as our senior year play, I assumed that I was a lock for one of the battling lawyers. Not that I didn’t give the audition my all; I made a big show of dramatically walking around the classroom as I delivered my oratory.

Now, it must be clear to you from this introduction that I did not get the part. It was certainly a shock to me. Instead,  in a deeply ironic casting choice, I found myself playing the fire-and-brimstone preacher Reverend Brown. Which wouldn’t have been so bad, if the person who was cast as Henry Drummond had been capable of learning his damned lines. Or not pronouncing “Copernicus” as “Kerpenis.”

inheritthewind

All in all, I had a solid if not spectacular high school career. As someone with talents for word-slinging and test-taking, I never had to try all that hard to academically succeed. I was never in contention for valedictorian, but I finished in the top 10% of my class and won a small scholarship from my college of choice, Ball State University.

graduation2

But before college came summer vacation, and with it my very first job. Dad arranged it with a friend of his, and I’m pretty sure that it was patronage employment in the grand tradition of Greater Chicagoland politics.

Mind you, it was a shit job. I spent the better part of the summer working on a road crew in Lowell, walking behind the truck and shoveling tar into potholes. I was hot, achy and covered in asphalt. I amused myself by giving proper burials to roadkill. Somewhere on the outskirts of Lowell there was a drive-in (or drive-on) pet cemetery.

Still, it was money, most of which went to buying new clothes. I had my friend Deb to thank for whatever level of fashion I brought to my freshman year of college.

 

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The Long Road To Fifty: 17 (Part Two)

July 14th, 2014 No comments

There’s a good reason that I’ve continued to watch the TV series Glee long after its inarguable decline, and it’s because it truly speaks to my high school drama club experience. No, we didn’t break out into highly choreographed cover renditions of popular songs, nor were our ranks filled with improbably beautiful football players and cheerleaders. We did, however, share the need to perform. We were perpetual underdogs. And, man, did we ever have the backstage romances.

frank

Well, I didn’t, and that became a source of frustration. Around me, the heat of the stage lights and the close proximity of the boys’ and girls’ dressing rooms cooked up a roiling hormonal soup. For me, however, the hookups and breakups remained at a distance. I was firmly in the “friend zone.” For my 17th birthday, I made a half-assed attempt at asking out one of my crushes, who–once she realized that I had not invited her to a party–delivered the dreaded, “But Dave, you’re like a brother to me.”

If there was an upside to my attempts to woo, it was that they provided the motivation for me to learn to drive. (This skill served me well on my single high-school “date,” dinner out with a girl named Laurel.)

At my most pathetic, I took the bluntest possible route in pursuit of romance. Like a latter-day Martin Luther, I tacked papers to the door of the girls’ dressing room. Rather than 95 theses, however, they were an invitation to join me in a backstage romance. Yes, I literally put it that way. There was even a sign-up sheet.

And while this lamentable effort did not catapult me into boyfriendhood, at least it did not lead to my being mocked into oblivion. As a matter-of-fact, a lot of people signed the paper.

Don’t believe me? I still have it.

signup

 

Honestly, it was rather sweet of them. And more than I deserved.

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The Long Road To Fifty: 17 (Part One)

July 8th, 2014 No comments

Hey, remember when I said you’d see that plaid jacket again?

seniorThat’s right, in my senior photo I’m wearing a nightmare jacket that I stole from the theater department’s costume room.

Looking back, it occurs to me that I always have challenged authority. I was especially troubled by matters of censorship. For my senior talent show, I wrote and performed a song-and-dance number about the Moral Majority, the would-be cultural arbiters at the time.

banit

Here are the (partial) lyrics, set to the tune of the old Frank Loesser song, “Murder, He Says.”

We’re trying to pass a law now
To ban sex on teevee
What you think doesn’t matter
You’ll have to follow our decree
We’ll boycott all of your companies and annoy ya
Just because we’re religious don’t mean we won’t destroy ya!

Ban it!
We say, we don’t think it’s right, we say
Can it!
Today, we’re achin’ for a fight, we say
Ban it!
All day, we’ll have to censor it all!

When it comes to satirical songwriting, I am not exactly Tom Lehrer.

Censorship became a more personal concern during my year on the school newspaper, the Ho-Hi Life. (Theme song: “Ho-hi! Ho-hi! It’s off to work we…guy?”)

hohi2I was in charge of the editorial page, which suited my dual interests in writing and having opinions. There I took bold stands against school buses and mandatory student convocations.

That winter, our intrepid news team encountered the heavy hand of The Man. Embarrassed by an unflattering story about one of his “Talk to the Principal” sessions, Dr. Wirtz declared that all future issues would have to be pre-approved by him. Outraged, I appealed to Indiana’s Attorney General. I still have the reply that I received. (“…it seems that the principal, in screening the paper, is acting as publisher. Understand that freedom of the press principles apply primarily to prevent outside interference.”)

I did have the last laugh, after a fashion. Around the masthead of our final issue, I carefully laid out a border of Morse Code dots and dashes: “Dr. Wirtz is a jerk.” Vengeance was mine.

Yet my enmity toward Dr. Wirtz was nothing compared to my white-hot resentment of the football team.

Understand that I attended Hobart High during the early years of Brickie Football mania. (Our team was named for the former brickyard which housed the football field until 2008. Our mascot Yohan was a knock-off of Purdue’s Boilermaker. So was our coach, Mr. Howell. Seriously, Coach Howell was built like Yohan. It was creepy.) Football was the only thing of importance at HHS.

I learned this the hard way the time our drama club tried to participate in the pep rally. We had rehearsed a skit that we felt would show our support for the team, but were booed out of the gymnasium. It would be the last time I had even the slightest school spirit. Thereafter, I made a point of sitting for the school song. I was just like Rosa Parks, except for the not-making-a-difference part.

Hell, not even the other sports teams were respected. After one notably unpeppy rally for Brickie Basketball, Coach Howell railed against the assembly, infamously declaring “We sweat blood for our jerseys!” Soon, “Sweat blood!” became a rallying cry for me and my disaffected friends.

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The Long Road To Fifty: 16

July 3rd, 2014 No comments

And then I had a mustache.

junior

My facial hair kept coming in thick and fast, and one day, after hearing the taunt “You’re growing a mustache!” for the eleventy-billionth time, I decided, “Fuck it, I will grow a mustache.” That showed them.

rally

Junior year was the pinnacle of my high school acting career. I scored the second male lead in the Cold War comedy Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys. (Take note of that jacket I’m wearing in the above photo. You will be seeing it again.) My “wife” in the production was a stunning blonde named Cathy, and I was to kiss her. It said it right there in the script. Now, you may be thinking “score,” but honestly, I was scared.

Miss Mumaugh ultimately had to pull the two of us into the spare choir classroom so that I could practice kissing. Again, I know what you’re thinking, but it wasn’t like that at all. It was painfully awkward, and I’m sure trebly so for her.

I survived the ordeal, and went on to land the part of Buffalo Bill in the spring musical, Annie Get Your Gun. That was a lot of fun; I got to wear a white, spangly cowboy suit. I was also supposed to sport a ridiculous wig, but ultimately we opted for spraying my hair grey. I liked the grey hair look. Unfortunately, my follicles abandoned me decades before I would be able to adopt that look for reals.

annieget

The following summer, I was one of a handful of HHS students selected to go to theater camp at Indiana State University in Terre Haute (a French phrase meaning “hot dirt”). It was my first time away from home for an extended period, and I was seriously freaked out. (It did not help that I discovered my roommate was stealing my prescription pills. Buddy, you were not going to get high off what I was taking.) I got a grand total of four hours’ sleep those first two nights. I was literally zonking out during our relaxation exercises.

After that I settled down and had a great time. I got to hang with the funny kids, listening to Monty Python albums and singing “Sit on My Face.”

summerstage

I was totally smitten with the girl in the white blouse in the above photo. You’ll note that I managed to slip in beside her for the group shot. Her name was Celeste, and she fit my “type”: pretty, brunette and smart. While, of course, I went absolutely nowhere with this summer infatuation, I did spend the next few years saying that I wanted to name my daughter Celeste. Eventually, someone pointed out to me that that would make her full name “Celestial.” And then I wanted to do it all the more.

 

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The Long Road To Fifty: Interlude 3

July 2nd, 2014 No comments

It should go without saying that I was one of the founding members of the Dungeons & Dragons Club at Hobart High School. Here is the initial membership in our virginal glory.

danddclub

You may notice that here I have proof positive that even back then there were female D&D players. Well, one. In my senior yearbook, however, eight are pictured.

Now, I’m not in this next photo, but I thought it was worth posting all the same. Here is the inaugural HHS Computer Club.

computerclub

“Computer Club” is a precise description. There was one computer for the club’s 17 members. According to the 1981 yearbook, “A new Computer Club was added to the students (sic) extra-curricular activities when a TRS-80 computer was purchased at the request of Principal Thomas Wirtz. Students were able to write their own computer programs, directing the computer to do certain tasks. The computer also came with pre-written games that the students enjoyed experimenting with during club meetings.” The reader is left to speculate upon the nature of these games.

I never did get my hands on the powerful TRS-80, but in senior year I did have my first computer experience with this beauty, a phototypesetting machine excitingly named the Quadritek.

computer2

The first personal computer I would own–a Commodore VIC-20–was still more than six years in the future.

 

 

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The Long Road To Fifty: 15

July 1st, 2014 No comments

Sophomore year saw me rocking a Beatles Patrick Troughton Moe Howard haircut. And yes, I know it was the ’70s and no one was exactly a fashion plate, but for crap’s sake, Teenage Me, put down the salad bowl and go to a stylist.

sophomore

As sophomores, we at last escaped the future home of the Hobart Police Department and moved on to Hobart High. New building, new opportunities.

For me, it was the chance to follow up on my interest in public performance. I signed up for theater class and joined the school’s drama troupe, the Genesius Players.

The single biggest influence of my public school career was theater and speech teacher Shirley Ann Mumaugh, the beloved grand dame of the dramatically inclined. Her classroom was a haven for eccentrics like me, a place for encouragement rather than derision. It was a rare afternoon that I didn’t find myself hanging out in the hallway just outside.

mash01

I auditioned for the fall play, an age-appropriate adaptation of the movie M*A*S*H, and scored the small speaking role of General Hammond. While my scenes were consigned to a small space on the end of the stage apron, I had the very first line. I tossed myself into the part, making a point of being “off book” (having my part memorized) as soon as possible.

mash02a

While I was still a lower classman and existed on the periphery of the group, it was wonderful finally to feel like I was a part of something.

I snagged another small role in the spring musical, Anything Goes. I played a bishop whose contribution to the plot was to be tossed off the cruise ship in the first scene. This would not be the last holy man I would portray. I spent the rest of the show as part of the chorus, an experience which taught me that I really, really didn’t like being in the chorus.

My budding show biz career was very nearly derailed from the start; days before the M*A*S*H tryout I had been playing tennis (yes, I briefly had an interest in tennis) with my friend Fred when I badly twisted my knee. Now, the reason that I twisted my knee was that Fred was deliberately smacking my tennis balls over the fence and into the weeds. The top part of me turned to follow; the bottom stayed where it was.

The swelling went down after a couple of days, but what I didn’t discover until later was that one of my knee bones had chipped. Said chip began floating around, occasionally becoming jammed in the joint. I could feel the lump, and even push it around with my finger. (Say it with me, “Ewwwwwww.”)

I spent Thanksgiving in the hospital in an unsuccessful attempt to have it removed. Unfortunately, the surgeon was unable to find it. Shortly before I was scheduled to go in, my knee swelled up a second time, and I believe that it was because the chip had permanently lodged itself out of sight. As far as I know, it’s still there.

Thanks a fuck of a lot, Fred.

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The Long Road To Fifty: Interlude 2

June 30th, 2014 No comments

My dad was a company man. The company in question was the Northern Indiana Public Service Company (NIPSCO), the local gas and electric supplier, and Dad made it his career. He’s told me how fortunate he felt finding a good-paying job that he also happened to love. It was not, however, a love without complications.

On January 15, 1971, we received a phone call to let us know that Dad had been caught in a house explosion. He had been investigating a gas leak in Gary when the place went up. Dad escaped more or less intact, though the shock wave slammed him into a door frame. The home owner did not make it; Dad saw her engulfed in a fireball.

The event changed him in a couple of ways. One was that he suddenly took a strong interest in religion. To this day he’s not a regular church goer, yet he loves to rattle on about his interpretation of the Bible. (The problem with most churches, he says, is that they only follow the parts of the Bible that suit them. Now, if they only read the whole thing, they’d see…)

The other change was that for a time he became a crusader for truth. Now, if you ever ask him to recount the story of his quixotic quest (which I do NOT advise), be prepared to devote 90-120 minutes. It’s like The China Syndrome, except that he does not in any way resemble Jane Fonda.

chinasyndrome

Not my dad.

As part of his training, he was told that natural gas only burns when at a concentration between 4 and 14%. (As far as I’ve been able to determine, this is still accepted fact.) However, to this day he swears that the concentration of gas in that house was considerably higher when it ignited.

Long story short, he spent the next year or so trying to convince the company to publicly admit that it was possible for natural gas to burn above that upper explosive limit. Allegedly, he was told off the record that they knew about this possibility but were sticking with their story. (My cursory Googling of the subject turned up that explosive limits vary with temperature and pressure, so perhaps both sides were right; it did happen as Dad describes, but it was such an edge case that the 4 to 14% range generally holds true.)

Frustrated by NIPSCO’s unwillingness to tell their employees and customers the truth as he understood it, he went to the ultimate authority: Paul Harvey. Unfortunately, the veteran radio broadcaster was too busy telling “the rest of the story” to come out and talk to him.

In the end, Dad toed the line to keep his job. I don’t blame him. I really don’t blame the company either. I’ve been a supervisor, and I know what it’s like when an employee JUST. WON’T. STOP.

Dad did stay with NIPSCO until his retirement, and in general he still treasures his time on the job. Just don’t ask him about the furnace repair program (he has opinions), and really, really don’t ask about the gas explosion.

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The Long Road To Fifty: 14

June 25th, 2014 No comments

Another year, another yearbook photo. Haircut courtesy of a convenient kitchen bowl. (Not actually.)

9thgrade

Officially, 9th grade was high school, though we were still housed in the junior high educomplex. With it came the start of a long, slow climb upward. For one, my P.E. class no longer took place in an actual pit. True, moving on to the main gym also meant the shame of the public shower, at least until a case of plantar warts brought with it the temporary reprieve of a doctor’s note.

One thing I’ve found looking back through these yearbooks is that I had little involvement in school life outside of class. The only group to which I belonged was Honor Society.

honorsociety

Changes were coming, two of which were particularly significant.

First was that I began to notice girls. Okay, that’s not quite true; I’d been noticing them since kindergarten. But it was around this time that I developed that most painful of childhood maladies, the unrequited crush. There are four in the above photo alone; I always had a thing for smart girls.

With my lacking social skills, appalling dress sense, unimpressive physique and bouts of pizza-face, I counted myself fortunate to get as far as the “friend zone.” And that is where I stayed; I never dated for reals until after I graduated high school. With ideals of movie romances dancing in my fevered brain, I spent the next several years dreaming from an insurmountable distance.

The second big change was that I began to find some purpose, courtesy of the prodigiously mustached speech teacher Mr. Leach. Despite or more likely because of my shyness, I loved speech class. One of the most satisfying days of my life was when I realized that I could get people to laugh with me. I raided my dad’s record collection for comedy material, performing one of Bob Newhart’s classic telephone routines.

Even there I occasionally stumbled. One day I attempted a drunk act most likely inspired by Foster Brooks, and it took an unearned round of applause to get me to stop.

Still, it was here that I discovered the joy of public performance, and it has served me well to this day.

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The Long Road To Fifty: 13

June 24th, 2014 No comments

I won’t pretend that my junior high experience was in any way unique. I’m sure that many others suffered as much if not more of the bullying and humiliation I felt.

And, as I suggested a couple of posts back, in hindsight I can see that I was at least in part responsible for my alienation. If I had only one opportunity to give my younger self advice, I would say this: “At least try to give a damn about the way you dress.” No, it wouldn’t have solved everything, but I think that not showing up in garage sale cast-offs would’ve given me more confidence.

8thgrade

Gym class was predictably traumatic, providing a showcase for both my lack of coordination and Ed Asner-ian thicket of body hair. My classmates dubbed me “Captain Caveman.”

The smaller of the two gyms at HJHS was a sunken pit covered in rubber wrestling mats and surrounded by several levels of concrete seats. It had all the character of a gladiatorial arena, though if lions were ever released, I was absent that day.

But even the institutionalized abuse of P.E. paled to the absolute nadir of my junior high school days: Mrs. Schuster’s 8th grade science class. It wasn’t so much that she was a terrible teacher. (Though it’s telling that she appears in neither my 7th grade nor 9th grade yearbooks.) It’s that she had no control over her classroom. At least gym class came with a certain expectation of discipline, but every hour spent with Mrs. Schuster was like Fresh Banana Day in the monkey house.

Ironically, the one time I received corporal punishment was over an incident in her class. A classmate was kicking me under the lab table, and when I kicked back, we were both sent to the Vice Principal’s office for a paddling. Where was the justice, I ask you. WHERE WAS THE JUSTICE?!?

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