S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Stretch Marks,” Park shares what it’s been like being tall his whole life.
The best example of my relationship with height is the house I sold in Portland, Oregon in 2013. The realtor told me the buyer was a young, tall guy with a wife and daughter, but it’s not like I stuck around to meet them: I couldn’t hit the road fast enough.
Then a year later I was back in town with time to kill so I drove to the old neighborhood and parked. Walked up to the house where I’d grown dope for a quarter century and there, on the front porch, was a guy who had to be the new owner. I was surprised at how tall he was, and how ridiculous he looked pacing back and forth on that small porch, as if he could go from one end to the other in three strides. He was so tall, in fact, that his head disappeared beneath the eaves as he moved a series of boxes. Damn, buddy, I thought, you should have bought a bigger house. I’m glad I didn’t look that silly when I lived here.
“Can I help you?” he said, spotting me in the driveway.
“Oh, I didn’t want to bother you,” I said. “I was the last owner of this house.”
He started down the steps. “You’re the guy?” he said.
I sensed some acrimony but that was natural … it’s not like I’d taken care of the place. (In twenty-five years the only thing I repaired were the rain gutters.)
Then he walks up to me and I’m stunned to see we’re the same height. I remember nothing of the ensuing conversation because: (1) after a lifetime of looking down (or even up occasionally), it’s unnerving to finally be eyeball-to-eyeball with someone; and (2) just moments before I was feeling bad for him, smirking at what a towering, geeky giraffe he was.
Which is just what I look like, goddamn it!
It surprises me every time … I’m a 5’10” guy in a 6’6” body. Once in a great while I’ll be in an enclosed space, like an elevator, and I’ll glance around and realize I’m taller than other people, but otherwise I’ve always taken my height for granted.
Perhaps because—relative to my peers and family—I’ve always been the tallest guy in the room. I was twelve pounds and twenty-two inches when I came out of the womb, establishing a lifelong acrimony with my mother (she claims she gained seventy pounds lugging me around, as opposed to twenty pounds for each of my brothers). I can hardly blame her for this, as raising a beanpole was a pain in the ass. For openers: where did I come from? My father was 5’9”, my mother 5’6”, and my three brothers are average-sized men. There were also, at least to our knowledge, no tall people in the family lineage. (Though with Scandinavians in the mix you never know.) So, to get ahead of the questions when we’d meet strangers as a group, my mother would crack about our “tall milkman.”
I was the tallest kid in my grade school classes, then when I reached junior high I grew nine inches in a year to seal the deal. I also spent a lot of time in the doctor’s office, moaning from the constant ache in my sides: it felt like I was being pulled apart. The family M.D. would do some perfunctory checking, then shrug and attribute it to growing pains.
“Remember his knees,” he’d tell my mother.
This was a reference to x-rays he’d taken of my legs when I was three. A space in your knee area allows physicians to predict your height, and he’d told my parents I’d be 6’6”. (I urge all parents, particularly those who think they have a jock on their hands, to have this test done. It’s witheringly accurate and whatever sport your child enjoys it’ll be helpful to him or her to know how tall they’ll be later.)
Unfortunately I was always the skinniest guy in class, too, and this constituted my biggest grievance with verticality. If I’d ever had meat on my bones then height would have been useful as a kid, particularly on the football field; as it was I was so painfully thin that basketball was my only option. (My nickname was “Auschwitz” as a kid and “Bird Legs” when I reached high school; I’ll take the former every time, gallows humor or not.) In the meanwhile I tried every conceivable remedy: extra meals, milk shakes, sweets, Gain Weight formulas, lifting barbells, even visits to a quack in Portland who, for ten bucks a week (half of my bag boy salary), would give me “protein shots.”
At the end of six months I’d lost four pounds. Little did I know then that, except for the beer years in my twenties, I’d be rail thin all my life. Even now, at seventy-one, I’m still 6’6” (I think), and weigh exactly what I’ve weighed for decades, i.e. a hundred and ninety-five pounds. What’s more I have to work to maintain that, forcing down meals I’d skip otherwise, because I suspect my natural weight is fifteen to twenty pounds lighter.
And I’m not going there: I still see “Auschwitz” in the mirror as it is. Another drawback to my constant growing was the whole war with gravity thing. As I’ve noted before my younger brothers were superbly coordinated athletes. It irked me, frankly … I knew I had the same instincts they did, I just couldn’t act on them. (Even as they, in turn, longed for my extra inches when we all became high school/college basketball players.) Hell, I was fifteen before I could run and dribble a basketball at the same time, and I’d been trying for years!
Then one day in the summer of my sixteenth year, at a basketball camp in Washington’s Snoqualmie Pass, coordination arrived overnight. I can remember the exact moment, executing a perfect drop step on another center in a scrimmage, then spinning smoothly to the basket for a lay-in. He looked at me like I’d been faking my clumsiness earlier, and I was reminded of the New York City schoolyard legend who, when queried about the hook shot he’d acquired, replied, “Well, I tried it one day … and it was there.”
Two weeks later I dunked a ball for the first time and everything was right with my world.
Two weeks later I dunked a ball for the first time and everything was right with my world. Do I think I appreciated coordination more after waiting that long for it, unlike family and classmates who’d been born with body control? Absolutely. Suddenly I felt integral to the varsity team instead of just another tall guy.
That doesn’t mean I played like it, of course, but when my basketball days were over the most important use for my height still loomed, i.e. the army draft physical. It was my understanding that anyone 6’6” or over (I was 6’6”-1/8th at the time) would be disqualified from service. That was fine with me. I had no real philosophical objections to Vietnam, I just thought I’d enjoy my freedom more. So I hedged my bets and lined up a second excuse.
The day of the physical the first thing the army did was weigh and measure you. As I stepped on the scale the squat Sergeant-in-charge hopped on a stool. Stood on his tiptoes to check my height. Then leaned over and grunted in my ear, “Bet you thought you were going to flunk, didn’t you?”
“Well, now that you mention it, Sarge …”
“Think again, Stretch!” He pushed down on my head until my knees bent. “Seventy-seven and 7/8th’s. Enjoy the army, kid!”
I was disappointed, of course, as it wasn’t likely my note was going to work. I’d mainly brought it along to show my fellow attendees; it was my doctor stating that, if I were drafted, I’d go straight to the stockade and be a waste of taxpayers’ money.
Who wouldn’t be proud of that assessment? It got big laughs from everyone who saw it, even the medical officer reviewing our notes at the end. After he read it he asked if he could keep it for their “Most Ridiculous Excuse” contest.
“It’s a sure winner,” he told me.
I’m sorry I agreed … it’d be a nice keepsake now. As it was the doctor had mailed the same note to the draft board, adding a series of initials beneath his signature; turns out he was an active Major in the Marine Medical Corps, so not only was I declared “Permanent I-Y,” but I’d only be eligible when all the women and children were gone.
Tall? Lucky? I’m grateful, believe me. My only real issue with height (other than how hard it is to buy clothes) is the multiple concussions I’ve endured walking into things. It’s aggravating because it’s always my fault. I’m like the driver trying to squeeze a fourteen-foot truck under a twelve-foot overpass: all possible outcomes are bad. (I had so many head bangers in that Portland house that I ended up wearing a hard hat around.)
Ironically a lot of those collisions were abated by drug stupors, even as research suggests I protected my brain by smoking and eating pot for fifty years. In the meanwhile I can vividly remember my favorite tall guy moment. It was on my first trip to Amsterdam in 1990. I flew Martin Air and reserved a seat in the exit row. I was sitting in it when two Dutchmen plopped down on either side of me.
One of them, it turns out, was 6’11”, the other 7’0”. When we stretched out our legs I looked like the little kid in the group.
The seven-footer laughed and turned to me.
“Hey!” he said. “How’s it goin’ … Shorty?”