Sunday, August 15, 2010

My Childhood in the 1970s Part Four

I have mentioned before in various ways that I am a creature of the senses, that, in William James' taxonomic antinomies I am perceptual rather than conceptual, however much I may conceptually dwell in the world of ideas and however hungry my brain may be for its own intellect.

When I remember my events from my past I remember snippets, shards, images. There is a story but the story is always subordinate to character, to place, and to image.

When I remember my past I remember not entire events but foreground and background. I remember Lydia, Sally and me playing in the trees and Lydia's wild curly hair that transfixed me, it didn't seem to remind me of hair I'd ever seen before, unless it was like Rita Coolidge's on television. I remember Sally's awkward and bookish glasses and her straight blonde hair. I told her she was prettier than Gloria Steinem which Lydia was not too happy to hear.

Not all of these "imagistic" memories are entirely pleasant however. Win and Jane, the hippie/"Jesus freak" couple with the VW minivan showed me religious cartoons of such horror: random and harsh pictures of the Devil with horns, swooping down to possess little children, humans not so far apart from me in age or demeanor. It looked as if these devils (it seemed plural) would have stolen my soul if I should go to sleep alone. And I had heard great forbidding rumors about the recent movie THE EXORCIST. Of course, in Win and Jan's minds they were getting me saved early through Christ by my being exposed to such comic books. But in reality, those cheap self published Christian cartoons did more to scare me than any commercial "adult" horror movie my dad took me to see. I had nightmares for days and only upon waking could I be assured that demons did not devour or infect little boys.

I felt as if I were naturally "high" as I could become engrossed in the tiniest details: the patterned carpeting, a mustache, Lydia's hair, ALL of Carla.

I felt overwhelmed by a world I barely understood but with which I was forced to cope. It would be many years, even decades before I would develop any sense of real agency in acting upon an external world. I am quite horrified when I read in psychology texts that such a sense is supposed to develop in the first years of life.

Sometimes the unpleasant memories are of a single physical trait on an other person. My best and first male friend George had a father named Olly and Olly had this mustache that simply gave me real creeps. It was long and it sort of drooped down. You could say it looked like Tony Orlando's mustache but it was not correct looking to my eyes and was somehow WORSE than any mustache I had seen. It was a little like Nigel's mustache - the bassist (played by Harry Shearer) in that classic rock mockumentary SPINAL TAP - if that helps to give a picture. Even worse this father had, shall we say, not always the best relations with his kids. Thus I was forced to witness as he sat his daughter on his knee and he lectured her in the most harsh and condescending way, drilling his budding genius daughter on historical and geographical facts. He would issue forth question after question and all the while I would stare at that, for me terrifying mustache, and then look at his daughter's blank, frightened stare as he "tutored her" in front of me and George as if we boys were invisible and didn't matter to him as much as his little girl. Olly's little girl was his genius project and wanted all of us to know how dumb we boys were in comparison to his perfect little girl, all the while twirling that damned "stache". And, just on cue, and in character, Julia would answer every question with unerring accuracy.

Sometimes when he was "done" with Julia I could see her rock back and forth for a while. She and George did not get along well and he would torture him because of his lack of intelligence, his slowness, and his banishment from her world with her daddy. But George always looked after me like an older brother, and was the only male peer with whom I could relate for my total childhood. (If you exclude my adult male friends like the stud Don or the newspaper man I befriended).

Olly would do a show and tell of "the greatest contemporary music" which consisted mostly of the band RENAISSANCE. Now I hated this music and yet, as if Olly's mustache gave him special powers we had to defer to his taste in music and, worse, hear him engage in lengthy musicological disquisitions on the virtues of progressive rock.

Sometimes my memory was of a part of person like Olly's incessant mustache. More often, it was a piece of home or institutional decor. And no single object haunted me as much as the orange and green fuzzy, extra wide and thick deep pile rugs that covered items in the bathroom and toilet in George's home. His mother seemed possessed by such decorating and decreed it suitable for anything associated with bodily functions. I felt and feared there was nobody to whom I could express my disapproval of this kind of design. As the years passed what started off as toilet decoration moved to other rooms. Like a Chia Pet the shag seemed to grow, even including home appliances, all in shades of mustard, green, and various acidic oranges.

Still worse was a neighbor's "rainbow" carpet. I lived near three girls next door - all sisters - but before I can think of any of these girls, all of whom but one I was crazy about, I must first confront that carpet. Their mother decided to take scraps of primary colored carpet and stitch them together. I am sure today or even then the shock of color might be considered charming and fun but it genuinely frightened me. It didn't frighten me as much as the mother did however, but that is a story for a later date.

Then there are memories of people who I never got to fully know. My dad used to hang out with an old man - you might have called him an old thespian since in his young adulthood he had been an acting star in South Florida. Now as a senior he lived in a rundown trailer park. (There were so many of those in the industrial wasteland which seemed to surround our home). But it was rumored that he was a witch or warlock and my father would go visit him for great lengths of time. Sometimes I would have to sit in the hot car outside of the trailer while my father went in to speak with Noah. Only once I was invited in and his trailer was filled with occult memorabilia and ephemera. Though the material was from a point of view opposite than that of the Christian stuff Win and Jan showed me, since it was by Alistaire Crowley and others, his "books" disturbed me as much as Win and Jan's comics, perhaps because of because of their deep mystery. My mother didn't trust Noah and didn't want me associating with him, but I guess my father won that particular battle.

Noah's appearance confirmed his reputation an eccentric since he was incredibly obese with a huge mane of unkept white hair and a beard that seemed to reach practically to his navel. Because he frightened me I was only too happy to sit locked up in an unhealthily overheated wide bodied red Thunderbird - and roast. Though I wondered what my dad was doing in Noah's trailer for so long. I would spend many an afternoon in that car in a shopping mall lot, (those few times he didn't take me along with him), wondering where my father had gone or how long he would be. But on this particular day it seemed a better deal than Noah's trailer.

Since I had appeared in a play with Noah, and it was a play that required me to sit through the whole performance for a single walk on and a single line as a token little kid, I had known Noah socially. Yet nobody talked to Noah as most were afraid of him. Anyway, for long periods of time I was told he took a vow of silence. (That is, except while he was onstage).

But what I remember most about that play was that there were girls in the cast, and since I had practically two hours of nothing to do backstage we got into some trouble. Apparently, as I heard later, when I was old enough to comprehend, these girls taught me how to kiss or "neck". But since my sense memory is stronger than any "holistic" scene I remember the sheer physical joy of our mouths touching and physical closeness. I later learned that they were actually trying to distract me so I would be late to go on stage. Were they being cruel or merely friendly. In today's age, which thinks of all things in terms of Psychological Correctness, of boundaries, of appropriate and inappropriate, I wonder how this would seen. I have no idea how "innocent" it was but I know it gave me sensations that were most exciting and even comforting. How I hated for it to stop, and for the adults to pry us apart and scold the girls and for me to go on stage and deliver that one fleeting line.

As far as my stint in children's theater was concerned, I much preferred a part where I could cut loose and really improvise. My best stint in children's theater was when I got to play a drunk chef. I would study old Red Skelton routines and other bits from a time when plying drunk for laughs was more canonical in comedy, before contemporary "AA consciousness" had thoroughly overtaken the culture. Thus, the end result of such background culture and study was my act of a drunk chef and I planned to play it to the hilt.

Without telling my father - he was often the director of these "plays" - I planned to get so drunk and spill so much wine on myself that I would take a dive - a pratfall - into the front row. Rather than get worried the whole audience screamed with laughter. I felt like a child Marx Brother - Harpo to be specific - getting a whole theater to applaud like that. Though afterwards I was given some stern talking to for departing from the prescribed blocking, however safely I had planned the fall. I promised not to repeat it if they would let me slur my words and spill extra wine.

In writing these memories I hope to get some semblance of pattern. But I must start from my perceptions because as William James said:
"The deeper features of reality are found only in perceptual experience. Here alone do we acquaint ourselves with continuity, or the immersion of one thing in another, here alone with self, with substance, with qualities, with activity in its various modes, with time, with cause, with change, with novelty, and with freedom."

1 comment:

  1. It's all too clear that for one such as yourself, who lives by sensation, the 1970s was a really punishing time to grow up in. It's really comical to think of a sensitive, innocent child being so tormented by the excesses of an era characterized by horrible profuse hair, horrible profuse rugs, horrible profuse colors, and horrible profuse bad taste. Thank you for writing your memoirs or the '70s. It makes for a most entertaining read!