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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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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.

Boo, I'm a ghost.

Boo, I’m a ghost.

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