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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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The Long Road To Fifty: 12

June 23rd, 2014 No comments

You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.  – “Ben” Obi-Wan Kenobi

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For me, Hobart Junior High School was insane asylum, war zone and circle of Hell. Each day I would descend into its grim depths so that the vultures could eat my liver anew.

It is possible that this is an exaggeration, but it is just as possible that it is not. And given that the forbidding edifice subsequently was converted into the Police Department, I rest my case.

Here I am, surrounded by 47 fellow inmates. Yes, that is a ginormous fucking zit on my forehead.

7thgrade

I’ll have more to say about HJHS in the next post, but first, this happened…

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People complain about the impact that Disney princess culture has upon young girls. I had the opposite concern: a desperate need to rescue that princess. While Star Wars was by no means the first pop culture artifact to engage my inner swashbuckler, it crystallized every childhood fantasy of travelling to the stars, saving the day and getting the girl, just like Luke Skywalker. (Of course Luke would wind up with Princess Leia. How could it be otherwise?)

Here’s what I believe to have been my first, but hardly last, Star Wars birthday cake. The giveaways are the generic spaceman figure and the leftover Bicentennial partyware.

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The Long Road To Fifty: 11

June 18th, 2014 No comments

And here they are, the starting lineup for your George Earle Elementary 6th graders!

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The end of grade school brought with it an existential dread. Next year would be the last before I officially became a teenager.

I don’t know quite what instilled this within me, but it was if I feared some Kafkaesque metamorphosis. I would awaken one morning, and I would be an asshole. (More of an asshole, I can hear you saying.)

I believe that this may have been the reason I was such an iconoclast. If the cool kids were doing it, I wanted no part of it. Sports, rock music, fashionable clothes…not for me. Pot was right out.

In hindsight, perhaps the next six years were largely my fault.

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The Long Road To Fifty: 10

June 17th, 2014 No comments

I went home to visit Dad for Father’s Day, and while plowing through another cache of family photos, I discovered this piece of solid gold: the autobiography I wrote when I was 10! If only I’d known that this still existed, I could’ve saved myself weeks of blogging.

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The Long Road To Fifty: 9 Again

June 17th, 2014 No comments

When you’re a kid, so many things have “always been.” They were present before you were born, or at least before you noticed.

For me, one of those givens was a Chicago kids’ TV show alternately titled Cartoon Town or The B.J. and Dirty Dragon Show. And you can just climb out of the gutter right now; it was called that because the host was Bill Jackson and his most popular puppet sidekick was a fire-breathing reptile who served as the postmaster of Cartoon Town. (Though it’s a wonder that anyone ever got any mail, given that Dirty was always eating it to fuel his fire.) Cartoon Town actually debuted in 1968, but I was young enough at the time that I simply assumed it had been on much longer.

Jackson portrayed the town mayor, but his duties mostly consisted of introducing cartoons and giving drawing lessons. He frequently interacted with The Blob, a self-aware glob of clay whom B.J. would mold into various shapes.

Puppet neighbors Weird and Wally had a very Bert-and-Ernie relationship, though they pre-dated Sesame Street by at least a year. The two featured in several serialized adventures, the first of which was “Blast Off to Mars!” In it, Weird built a flying saucer named Tin Can Tessie and…well, you know.

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It seemed the fun in Cartoon Town would never end, but end it did. On my ninth birthday. On July 27, 1973 I tuned in at the regular time only to hear B.J. announce that it would be the final episode. I was devastated.

Many years later, I learned that the show was resurrected shortly thereafter for a one-year run on rival WGN. At the time, however, I was unaware of this. In 1975, B.J. and the gang resurfaced for a weekly series on WLS called Gigglesnort Hotel, but I never warmed to the FCC-friendly educational content.

Some years back I met Mr. Jackson at an event for Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast Communications, and had him sign my copy of the “Blast Off to Mars!” storybook.

blastoff01Jackson is retired, but he operates a website that sells DVDs of some of his old shows. I keep intending to buy a copy of the “Blast Off to Mars!” serial, though it would be easier if he would take advantage of the past 15 years of Internet commerce. (Really? Cash, check or money order? In an envelope?)

Considering the childhood trauma I suffered from this unexpected cancellation, it is deeply ironic that I have spent the past decade-and-a-half explaining to the parents of distraught children why their favorite show is no longer on TV.

 

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The Long Road To Fifty: 9

June 16th, 2014 No comments

I wonder whether children growing up in the shadow of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars felt the same way I did about Vietnam. From my perspective, the Vietnam War had always been, and always would be.

The big difference, I think, is that today’s kids don’t have to worry about the draft. For me, it felt like an inevitability. You grew up, you were drafted, you were dispatched to Vietnam, and you died. Granted, my understanding of the situation was far from complete, and as it turned out the troops began to come home long before I came of age.

In mid-1974 the song “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero” topped the U.S. chart. Wikipedia says that the lyrics referred to the American Civil War, but we all knew better. I participated in a group sing-along of it for a class talent show. And it was the very first 45 single I bought. (My musical tastes have not appreciably improved over the ensuing 40 years.)

If you found today’s entry a bit of a downer, please enjoy this picture of me and cake!

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The Long Road To Fifty: Interlude 1

June 14th, 2014 No comments

I loved my mother very much. And while I’ve amassed a lengthy list of regrets over the past fifty years, perhaps the greatest is that she died doubting that.

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It’s strange looking at these photos of Mom from before my birth. By the time I knew her, she’d put on a good deal of weight. The way Dad tells it, it began soon after she got away from her domineering parents. But as neither she nor they are around any more, I’ll never know for sure whether her self-esteem issues began with her folks.

What I do know is that Dad and I did not help.

Now, let me be clear. I know that Dad loved her deeply, and still speaks well of her 18 years after her death. But I also know that he tried to mold her to fit his blinkered vision of what a family ought to be. That I exist at all is because he pushed her into getting pregnant. After all, what would be the point of marriage without children?

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And at times I was an asshole of a kid. I made fun of her weight. I’m sure that I thought I was helping; I was concerned about her health and was trying to shame her into dropping the pounds.

I would dearly love to slap the crap out of eight-year-old me.

I also remember giving her crap about being “middle aged” when she turned 35. I’m sure that I was fucking hilarious. And I was wrong. She died at 58.

More on this in a couple of decades.

 

 

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