S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “House Money,” Park thinks back on childhood and how he’d do it all over again.
Over a twenty-year period I organized four reunions for my Portland high school class. As a dope grower I had plenty of time on my hands, and as Senior Class President I felt a certain duty to my ex-classmates. It was a misguided effort on my part (the women who take care of it now do a much better job), but what sticks in my mind is the thirty-year reunion. I composed a survey for the Class of ’65, and the central questions were: What is your best high school memory? and What is your worst high school memory?
Sounds pretty innocuous, right? I moved to Portland from Burlingame, California when I was fifteen, going from a school of seven hundred to one of three thousand. All of the latter (from my perspective, anyway) seemed happy, hearty and milk fed. (If Burlingame High was Grease without the music, McKinley was Pleasantville.) I couldn’t believe my good fortune: every time we moved (and we moved a lot when I was young) it just got better. For the next twenty years McKinley played like a schmaltzy movie in my head.
Then I read the answers to those thirty-year reunion questions. Roughly two-thirds of the recipients (to paraphrase) responded thusly: BEST memory!? You’ve gotta be kidding me! I’ve no good memories! Every day was hell and I was humiliated constantly. Someone even threw pennies at me at a dance once!
Huh? What happened to Happy Jack High? You might as well have told me Beaver and Wally were contract killers. Was I really that clueless about the kids who elected me? And, more importantly, how could anyone have had that bad a time growing up?
I loved childhood. Now I have to look for challenges, but as a kid they were everywhere. How do I look? How do I get that girl? Why’s everyone laughing? Who does that teacher think she is? Where do I put this firecracker? Or even better: how about your voice changing? Like the onset of coordination it happened to me overnight. One day in my thirteenth year I had this squeaky, high-pitched voice, the next I was a deep baritone. I was typically grumpy at breakfast and didn’t speak to my brothers, but when I answered a question in my home room later the class burst out laughing.
“What’s with the bull frog voice, High?” someone yelled.
“Yeah … you think you’re on Dragnet!?”
I didn’t know what they were talking about. Then the teacher took me aside at recess and explained that my voice had changed overnight.
“You mean … I get to keep this one?” I asked.
I nearly jumped for joy. You walk through life with one voice, then you go to sleep and wake up with a totally different one? How fantastic is that?
My body was constantly amazing me as a kid. Not only the tall and skinny part, but all the strange diseases I contracted.
My body was constantly amazing me as a kid. Not only the tall and skinny part, but all the strange diseases I contracted. Out of nowhere in my tenth year I came down with spinal meningitis and nearly died, then repeated the process with encephalitis. It sounds awful but, except in the early (spinal tap) stages, it really wasn’t. Every time I’d emerge from a coma (with no idea I’d been under for a week or longer) my mother would be standing beside the bed. The fact she was wearing a surgical mask should have told me something, but in the meanwhile she treated my inflamed brain like the flu. This was her “Christian Scientist” approach, so even after I came home and missed most of fifth grade recovering I didn’t give much thought to what I’d been through (or, certainly, how lucky I was to have survived).
Then the summer after seventh grade I had a heated argument in the back seat of my dad’s Buick with my older brother Ray. I remember it graphically because not only did we never fight, we rarely even spoke to each other. He was five years older than I was (a member of what would later be dubbed the “Cheney Generation”) and we had completely different ideas on how the world worked. (I actually appreciated the way he avoided me, easy as it must have been for him.)
But apparently we had simmering, unspoken hostilities, because once we began arguing it quickly became heated. After a series of barbs I insulted his complexion and he responded with “What do you know, Wilson? You should be dead! Your brain’s a fried egg!”
The car went deathly quiet. I actually had to think for a moment: not only had I mostly forgotten the spinal meningitis and encephalitis episodes, but I couldn’t remember anyone in the family mentioning them again, either.
I finally reached up to the front seat, tapped my mother on the shoulder. “Mom?” I asked. “Is that true? Should I have died?”
“Yes, Wilson” she sighed.
“Yes. You were deathly ill.”
I looked at Ray and he shrugged. “All right, I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have said that.”
“Sorry?” I laughed. “What could be cooler than almost dying twice!?”
Then when I was a freshman in high school I developed a nightmarish sinus infection. I’d always had trouble with hay fever and the like, so I didn’t think much of it until my breathing became labored. My mother would take me to see an ancient Ear, Nose and Throat physician every Thursday, and his nurse would hook me to tubes that sucked the snot out of me. (A quart jar minimum every time.) It went on for months and finally, after all the antibiotics and suction proved futile, the old guy opted to shove a long electric needle up my nose and cauterize my sinuses.
And it worked! I went through hell to get there, of course, but it’s the gift that keeps on giving. Not only did I never have a bad cold again, but years later, when cocaine came on the scene, those same scarred sinuses prevented me from burying my face in it.
Or maybe it was just sitting in a deserted house in the dead of winter, trying to snort an ounce by myself. In any case everything that happened to me as a kid seemed outsized and extreme. It might have overwhelmed the next guy, but not only did I have an all-or-nothing nature going for me … I was a cartoonist: the more absurd it got, the better I liked it.
Which isn’t to say I went through childhood with a smile on my face, as grumpiness and impatience are part of my nature, too. (Especially after the brain fevers.) No, it was more a propensity for the long view, of “being in the skybox” as I call it now. The notion that it was important to learn from existence itself. I way overdid young love, for instance, so when my high school girlfriend and I broke up the heartbreak was staggering. I was so poleaxed I walked for twenty-four hours straight. Didn’t eat, didn’t look around, don’t remember where I went. Left the family home at eight in the morning, came back the next morning at the same time. Part of that was my inclination to swallow misfortune until I gagged on it, but it was also my first chance to circle the emotional drain.
And what an experience that was: I learned I had a plug in there! That there was a little guy in the control room who couldn’t be touched. The confidence that gave me was a huge boon later, when I was threatened with madness in the d.t.’s, say, or had taken strychnine thinking it was acid.
And all the way through, from the age of seven or eight, I’m smoking. It seemed every home in our neighborhood had those silver canisters full of cigarettes. I rarely walked by one without filling my pocket, then graduated to buying packs for a quarter in machines. I’m so proud of that little guy now; long before I rationalized my pursuit of alcoholism I was quite the addiction advocate. At reunions in Burlingame I’ve had a number of ex-classmates tell me I’m the one who started them on cigarettes. They seem peeved when I treat it as a compliment (as if they haven’t broken a rule since), but after fifty years they still remember us hunched over a Parliament in their attic? I’ll take that every time.
Which is why I don’t understand when baby boomers tell me they’d hate to be a child again, much less a teenager. As if we didn’t have it better than any kids who ever lived; as if we didn’t get away with anything we could think of. It used to break my heart in Portland when I’d answer the door on Halloween, only to see trick or treaters with their parents standing behind them. Really? What’s the point? For my juvenile delinquent buddies and me that was the most tyrannical night of the year. We used to throw rocks at police cars and smear Roquefort cheese on the leather seats of Mercedes. At Christmas we’d find palatial homes with Evergreens in the front yard and cut them down for our parties. We were horrible little bastards who’d languish in juvie prison now.
And maybe that’s why I’d do it again: I was beyond blessed. I have this theory that, if there are past lives, we all get one where everything goes right, and this has been mine. I taught myself to read when I was four, I could draw, I was a born storyteller, I made friends easily and my parents and teachers loved me in spite of myself.
Even as I had nothing to do with any of it … all I did was show up.
If there’s any justice I’ll come back as a baboon. One of those ugly ones with the pink faces and shiny red asses.