Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Preface To 1981: Middle School Life Crisis

This week's show features music from 1981.  If you don't already know why, I'll tell you tomorrow.

In 1981, I was 13.  It was in seventh grade that I met my friend Russell, who's my friend to this day.  He plays (or inhabits) the Reverend Dr. Howard Gently on the show.  Here's something interesting: being two shy kids, who spent way too much time in their rooms, we actually pretended on the phone to be a radio show - I was Gary Franklin (no idea why that name happened), he was all the callers.  I have tapes of us doing that that one day I may share.

Because Russell lived a fair distance away & because we were both introverted, we were friends mainly on the phone.  I still had a few friends in my apartment complex where me, my mother, & my little brother lived, but, usually because poor families don't stay in one place for long, & those friends would come & go, mostly I spent time alone.

My memory is fuzzy about the difference between the summers that happened between the grades.  I suspect that the summer after seventh but before eighth grade is when I became friends with a fellow named Gus, who had been a classmate of my little brother's, who contacted me out of the blue to ask about comic book collecting.  The truth is, at the time, I suspected I might be outgrowing comics.  I couldn't really afford new ones, & the convenience store at which my mother worked had been sold - she would let me show up, grab some off the rack, & make off with them - & instead she was working at a drug store which was, shall we say, less easy to pilfer from.  But I also had read the ones I had too many times & found the style a little tiring, especially when compared with books I was reading.  But Gus told me about comics by people with names like John Byrne & Frank Miller who were apparently revolutionizing the industry.

Gus was just interested in making money through selling comics, but I had always loved them & would eventually spend the better part of my teens collecting them.  That summer, though, my little brother & I would walk nearly every weekday from the apartments to Gus' house to hang out with him.  (Google maps says it is 1.2 miles away - I imagine we did it even when it was quite warm out, but luckily the route was shaded by big old trees.)  It must have been the summer of 1981 because "Bette Davis Eyes" was always on the radio when we listened.

What we spent our summer hours doing I haven't the foggiest.  I remember two things.  One, I shot my little brother point blank with a b.b. gun.  I didn't know it was loaded.  It luckily didn't break the skin.  To this day he believes I did it on purpose - he brought it up a year & a half ago at my sister's memorial!

The second was that we were walking around in the attic area & I stepped off one of the wooden bars & went right through the ceiling landing on Gus' bed.  It was terrifying & I was lucky I didn't break anything - it could've been, for example, above the bathtub or the kitchen.  I don't remember if I got in any trouble.  For either of these incidents.  We would come back to Gus' house & there'd be a hole in his bedroom ceiling.

On days we didn't go to visit Gus I probably talked on the phone with Russell.

One thing I think happened at that time is that my sister Karin moved back in with us briefly.  She had moved out after she "ran away" the year or two before, & would eventually move in with the man who would become her husband, but for a time she slept in a bed in my room (I assume my little brother slept downstairs) & she'd wake me when she came in during the nights.  It often unnerved me, like someone was breaking into my room.

As for eighth grade, well.  I think I liked it better than seventh grade, but things were still confusing.  I didn't really have an idea of what I thought "attractive" was & puzzled over the tastes of my classmates.  Simply put, I didn't think any of the "popular" girls were all that pretty, but it had little to do with how they actually looked.  I could tell they were snobbish, & they were vary fashion-conscious - this was around the time the "preppy" look became the suburban style.  I still mostly wore hand-me-downs & whatever my mother bought me.  (Still!  I dress the same.  In fact, one KOOPer once told me I dress like a thirteen-year-old boy.)  But I paid attention, & tried to see girls through the (stupid, young, gross) eyes of my classmates.  & of course I had no idea about anything like kissing or sex.  That was so outside of any experience I could imagine having that it went beyond science fiction.

That's not entirely true.  I did have a crush on someone.  But it wasn't much more than a kind of far away admiration.  It became harder & harder to talk to her as time went on.

One teacher I was very fond of was my American History teacher, Mrs. Lane.  She was very kind to me.  Another was my English teacher, Mrs. Bishop, whom everyone hated but who was unusually rigorous about understanding literature for a middle school teacher.  It just occurred to me they're both probably dead now.  It's strange that's not easy to find out online.

My classmates were the same classmates I had had for my entire run of middle school, so it was a more comfortable grade I entered, even if I was still mostly thought of as an outsider, or a nerd, or a weirdo.  Man, thinking about eighth grade has made all kinds of memories flood back.  I can tell three stories & then I have to stop.

The first one is in health class.  I have always been squeamish about intravenous drugs &, just like in sixth grade, I passed out while watching a film strip about heroin.  Spent the day in the nurse's office. Was asked about it all the next day.  Experience the odd thrill of minor celebrity.

At some point - I'm not sure how this came up - I think this was with the Yearbook staff - we were in the school after hours - I dared another student - I can't remember who it was - to go write some bad words in the boy's room.  No, it was someone I worked with in the library.  Library staff got to travel freely in the halls during school.  The other person was in the seventh grade, & I was in the eighth.  I dared him to write something awful in the boy's room in his hall & I would do the same in mine.  I wrote something that today would be completely innocuous - something I'm not entirely sure I knew what it meant - but it was something like "Cheerleaders are easy."  I was shocked to find out some time later than this so affected the cheerleaders that one of them got in trouble for going into the boys' room to scrub it off the walls.  I felt just awful about it.

Finally - & this may have happened in 1982, because it feels like something that would have happened at the end of the year - I was in Beta Club - it's where I met Russell, I was very amused by his heckling at the dire meetings we had - & occasionally we were told we had to sell stuff for whatever club budget shit.  In this case it was M&Ms.  I lived in an apartment complex with lots of poor people, who knew a fifty cent box of M&Ms was no deal at all when you could walk to the Minyard's & get them for twenty cents, so I didn't sell many.  I actually barely tried.  I hated selling things.  I had tried before, tried to solicit newspaper subscriptions & just hated it.  Hated knocking on doors & hated pushing products.  I helped my mother at a convenience store, I would wait while people picked out what they wanted to buy & then came to me.

When the time came to collect, I returned a nearly-full box to the Beta Club sponsors.  One of them - the same woman, I believe, who was my Yearbook Club sponsor - was furious with me.  She accused me of not trying, of being lazy, of being indolent.  I told her, because I couldn't really see the point, that I didn't enjoy & wasn't very good at selling things, & if it was a condition of my membership that I sell a certain amount of M&Ms to be in the Beta Club, I guess I wouldn't be in the club.  She just stared at me, then gave a cry of exasperation, & left.

You see, I didn't really understand about things like service groups & college applications back then - how could I?  None of my siblings had gone or would go to college, & my mother was a working-class woman raised in Germany, where none of her family would have even dreamed nor had the opportunity for higher education.  I didn't really know what Beta Club was for.  I didn't like the meetings, I didn't like the parties - although my friend Russell tells me that it was one of the parties where we sat in someone bedroom & talked about the Beatles.  I vaguely recall that.  That's how a friendship was born.

Russell was watching, too, when I gave back the M&Ms & explained myself.  I looked at him & saw him wide-eyed.  It may be why I remember the story.

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