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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.

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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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The Long Road To Fifty: 8

June 12th, 2014 No comments

In retrospect, joining the Cub Scouts seems an unlikely move for someone lousy with tools and afraid of nature. Yet for one year, I donned the blue-and-gold dork suit.

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I don’t know, maybe it was the badges. Or the mistaken belief that chicks dig a boy in a neckerchief.

As a Bear Scout, I was highly qualified to scout bears or something. But all I remember doing was making a ceramic Christmas tree lamp and a sluggish Pinewood Derby car.

My time in the Scouts was short-lived. I quit after a single year, because–and I am not making this up–I did not want to become a Webelos.

I suspect that this anti-Webelos attitude was an early manifestation of my anxiety about growing up, which would become more pronounced as I approached double digits.

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The Long Road to Fifty: 7

June 11th, 2014 No comments

I can’t say that I remember anything interesting about 2nd Grade, and I don’t have any photos from that year, so in today’s post I’m going to talk about my early fascination with monster movies.

The early ’70s were the time for Chicagoland kids to gorge themselves on fiendish films. Both WFLD-TV’s Screaming Yellow Theatre and WGN-TV’s Creature Features debuted in September 1970, putting the scare into Friday and Saturday nights.

Creature Features had the advantage of access to Universal Pictures’ horror classics: Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, the Mummy and the Wolf Man. And it had a skin-crawlingly creepy open featuring a montage of black-and-white ghouls set to the tune of Henry Mancini’s theme from Experiment in Terror.


While Screaming Yellow Theatre‘s library of films was inferior, it was enlivened by the hippie horror host known as Svengoolie.

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For three brief years, Jerry G. Bishop’s alter ego performed skits and songs, and mercilessly mocked the hapless Chicago suburb of Berwyn. (“Berwyn?!?”) His legacy lives on to this day, with a namesake successor portrayed by Rich Koz.

Monsters weren’t confined to the tube, of course, and I cajoled my folks into taking me to the Ridge Road Drive-In in Griffith, Indiana to see Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster and the misleadingly titled Godzilla’s Revenge.

Heck, even my grade school got into the act. George Earle Elementary occasionally screened afterschool movies in the gym. I saw Frankenstein vs. the Space Monster there. And it’s thanks to them that I was introduced to one of my all-time favorites, The Monolith Monsters.

Halloween was one of my favorite days of the year. The neighbor across the street used to dress up as something new every year to hand out candy, and she served as an inspiration to me. I knew that when I grew up, I wanted to be the cool adult on the block.

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Boo, I’m a ghost.

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The Long Road To Fifty: 6

June 10th, 2014 No comments

While it now seems to be a given that little boys are into dinosaurs, when I was six I was treated as if it was unusual. Certainly, none of the other children in my class were as dino-obsessed. I could name (and spell) all of the major species. I could spot the difference between a Tyrannosaurus Rex and an Allosaurus; a Brontosaurus* and a Brachiosaurus. I even knew the periods of the Mesozoic Era: the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous. (Though I pronounced the latter as “Creature-ous.”)

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Dad once told me that the school wanted me to skip a grade. While I’m not certain that’s true, I do know that when I was in 1st Grade, I was invited to visit the 2nd Grade to teach them about dinosaurs. I’m sure they were impressed.

All of today’s photos are from one of our family vacations. Over the years we toured or at least passed through most of the central and upper western states, which was fine by me because dinosaur-related museums and parks were everywhere, and it was my intention to visit all of them.

While we traveled many of these United States, Dad’s favorite destination to this day is Colorado, and we went there a lot. Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park, Denver, Colorado Springs and Cripple Creek were as familiar to me as Indianapolis.

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The next photo, as well as the one of the dinosaur above, were likely taken at North Pole, a Christmas-themed amusement park near Pikes Peak. While it’s known for being the home of Santa’s Workshop, apparently Mary and Joseph made the rounds as well.

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A highlight of the Colorado trip was the journey up Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. These days Dad is far too acrophobic these days to make the drive up to its 12,000-foot summit, but back then it was one of his favorite things to do. Personally, I cared less for the spectacular tundra views than I did the opportunity to feed the chipmunks at Rainbow Curve. A steep, rocky slope, it was home to dozens of the little beggars. A bag of peanuts was all one needed to get very, very close to nature.

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Oh sure, I suppose that I could’ve gotten rabies or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, but not even my tremendous fear of disease would’ve deterred me. You haven’t known joy until you’ve seen a chipmunk shell a peanut.

*This was several years before scientists declared that the Brontosaurus never existed. Stupid, fun-ruining scientists. In addition to being well-versed in all things prehistoric, six-year-old me could name all nine planets–that’s right, I said nine–in order. Six-year-old me has a bone to pick with Neil deGrasse Tyson regarding Pluto.

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The Long Road To Fifty: 5

June 9th, 2014 No comments

Here’s where undated photos become a problem for me. I don’t have any that I can definitively identify as being from my time at kindergarten.

Instead, here’s a page from my 6th grade yearbook. I went to George Earle Elementary in Hobart, a building tucked away in the far corner of my neighborhood. It was a single-story, utilitarian structure, basically one long hallway with a bend in the middle and a gym/lunchroom on the end.

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Our principal was Stewart Mattix. I remember him being a friendly figure, like everyone’s favorite uncle. Judging by this 1999 article marking his death, it seems that I wasn’t alone. The school secretary was Madge Kellams, and I liked her too. A quick Google search suggests that she died in 2005, and I’m sorry to learn that.

I don’t recall much about kindergarten itself, but the one thing that sticks out is the failed effort of my teacher (Mrs. Winslow, I think) to correct my penmanship. I write “failed” because, well, this is how I hold my pen.

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And yes, I know it’s “wrong,” so you can all stop commenting on it now. I tried your way, and it feels unnatural. I’ve somehow managed to survive all these years despite my deformed grip, so I think I’ll just run out the clock on this one.

You may note that I’m still biting my nails, too. Aunt Maggie told me that I’d never pass a job interview if I didn’t stop. Ha, I win.

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