Sunday, February 11, 2007

Days Gone By

I didn’t grow up like other kids. In case you haven’t noticed by now.

I read about the cliques of boys, tiny “gangs” of “Li’l Rascal” type ensembles, having adventures in small towns and experiencing the slices of Americana like those kids in the short story/movie “Stand by Me”. I hear about life-long friendships forged from grade school, the ones that make life complete, carried on over the distances of time and space by phone conversations and letters, or now, email. I hear about the ones that grew up to be successful and left town, going on to bigger and better lives, and those that stayed behind in the sleepy hamlets to live out their own lives not far from family and familiarity. I never experienced that.

I read books by folks that grew up in a different time, on a different patch of the country, and how they made life interesting. I read about their pre-pubescent longings and aches for the pretty girl sitting across from them in Mrs. Henderson’s 5th grade class, and the collection of friends with interesting nicknames like “Stinky” and “Socks” and “Slim”, and their wild plots to take advantage of her whether they knew what they’d do once they had her or not. I hear about them sneaking out and having hiding places and forts behind the empty lots near the junkyard by the river, exchanging stories about what Billy Stecker said and how that caused them to plot their way through a misadventure that made the summer of that year unforgettable for all of them. I read about the special places, like old man Claver’s farm, and the time they found the dead coyote on the lot. The way they thought that the strange, quiet old man from out of town was a sinister, underworldly creature of demonic or supernatural design come to steal souls. I read about the way they lived and spoke, and the ideas they had about the world around them, which usually never extended beyond the new shopping center off the highway just beyond the town limits, and how TV and radio played various roles in their lives. I hear about the quiet, tree-lined streets and sidewalks, the way that everyone knew the names and phone numbers of their neighbors, and the way that parents of children all related to each other. Everyone’s old man knew everyone else’s old man; sometimes the friendships were inherited.

I read it, and I’ve even heard it. I’ve never lived it.

I grew up a loner. I was always outcast and made to feel strange. When other boys my age were ready to pursue girls, however platonic the relationship that blossomed from that pursuit turned out to be, I was shy and quiet and reserved, unable to speak to them intelligibly and to carry on like normal boys did. That was especially awkward for me when I crossed into 4th grade and for whatever reason, became popular with the girls in my class. I was without prior experience to fall on, and without courage to follow through on the “advice” I was getting from my “father”, whose sentences always seemed to begin with “When I was your age …” They were interested in me, and I didn’t have a clue what to do with them or about them.

All of that seemed to change in the 6th and 7th grade years; I couldn’t get their attention to save me. There was a kindly girl, a gentle soul, in the 8th grade – whose name escapes me all these many long years hence, but I think it may have been “Kathleen” – who seemed to express interest in me again in the 8th grade. Actually, it wasn’t until the dance at the end of the 8th grade year. Like all the others, she slipped into the vapor of history without ever getting so much as a dance from me, which is all she asked for as she tugged gently on my arm and said “please.” I just couldn’t do it; I didn’t have the guts then, and things didn’t get any better as I entered high school. I set my feet against the hard tile floor and stubbornly sat in my folding chair until she eventually gave up and went away. I don’t think I ever saw her again.

Stories like “Stand by Me” serve to accentuate the differences in the way that I grew up and the normal way that boys generally grew up. I’ve wondered, more than once, if there is a consequence that I pay to this day for the strangeness that surrounded my formative years. My difficulty in making and retaining friends is a combination of bad relationship habits and poor correspondence. I could have kept up with any of them, those friends that I have made as an adult, and kept those friendships alive. On the other hand, my phone’s not ringing off the wall either. No one’s breaking down my door to spend time with me. And the “friends” that I made in high school weren’t exactly prize-winning, textbook friends. I never finished more than a semester at college, so I can’t say what may have come from that time and those circles. The idea of friendship that I grew up with was far shallower and less meaningful and fulfilling than the examples of which I grew up reading and hearing.

My “friends” were people that tolerated me – for whatever reason – until something better came along for them. A new kid came to school; a new girl found interest in one of them; a new record was released. They had a clique formed well before I met them because they had a common grade school they went to; I joined them in 6th grade only to move on to the deep south (for another heapin’ helpin’ of being an outsider) for a year and a bit, then returned in 8th grade in time for all of my classmates to scatter to various high schools. Those that went to the same school as me formed new friendships with each other and with new people, and I was again outside, for the most part, looking in. I got popular briefly when I got my driver’s license ahead of most of them; when they received theirs, I was again left out. That’s just the kind of people they were. I was convenient. I was better than no company at all. And that’s about it. I can’t count the number of weekend evenings I spent with my “family”, doing things like watching TV and playing games with my “brother” because there wasn’t anything else to do.

I was more like my “parents.” They, were loners too, withdrawn to familial ties and establishing relationships prominently with each other and not extending them beyond that boundary. My “mother”, in particular, was isolationistic to the point that my “father” – due in part to being a gutless, spineless wimp – never got to see his distant family. At least not until they died. When I was a child, we’d make trips every few years to see them. As I grew up, those ceased. Eventually, the paternal relatives were dropping dead without his having seen them. I almost pitied him … almost.

My “mother’s” family, however, was ever present. At least, they were a lot more present than the other side. They all lived in uncomfortable proximity; sometimes within our own walls. More than one of them came to park a carcass in our “spare room”, which usually meant my room. I had to share a room with my “brother” and endure him, sharing in blame for the stink of the room, which was always a pig sty. There were drunken arguments and quiet hung-over days that followed every holiday, birthday, and sometimes just random weekends.

I can recall my “parents” visiting people they called friends (usually neighbors) for typical 70’s or 80’s style dinner/cocktail parties. The soirees usually ended up with my “mother” slurring, sloshing, falling down drunk and my pathetic “father” trying to get her home. The embarrassment that followed those episodes usually meant they were never invited back, or if they were, they didn’t accept. Farther and farther into isolation they receded, and even after the alcoholism was “healed” by their spiritual rebirth, their habits of clinging desperately to each other and shielding themselves from outside lives continued. It still does today.

The world has changed a lot in the ensuing generation(s) I read about in those interesting books and articles. People are more cocooned, segregated and separate than they’ve ever been before in our society. They’ll as likely sue you as speak to you. There aren’t any parents at home with the kids anymore; they’re both working 70 or 80 hours a week earning a “living” (if you can call spending all of your time and waking hours accumulating your paycheck “living”), and there is no more time for friends and family vacations and backyard barbeques. There is no more time for forging those life-long friendships that stay with you from cradle to grave. There is no opportunity to have those influences in your life. Children play Nintendo and Xbox and PlayStation, they don’t play outside. There’s no one supervising them. When I was young, you still COULD play outside without parental supervision. Now, you’ll be abducted if you do.

Yes, the world is very different than it was in those wonderful stories and wonderful places. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have those types of things in my upbringing. What would I be like today? What would my life be like? Until recently, I still dreamed of the candlelit dinner parties with close friends around good food and wine, laughing and passing the night away each and every Friday or Saturday. I gave up on that when I realized that my life would never be a Michelob or Beringer commercial, and that, in general, people don’t seem to like me. Maybe I’m too much like my “parents”.

I guess I’ll never know what it is to have friends like the people who write those wonderful articles and books, and I’ve wondered if my upbringing has fashioned that for me. If so, am I going to forge that same binding for my children?

I hope not.

May God help me. And them.