Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Boys Will Be Boys

Another unedited excerpt of Wrecking Ball

Boys Will Be Boys

While in elementary school, I was aware that I was part of a close-knit community. Everyone knew my name. My parents associated with other parents who had small children. It is a natural impulse, I have learned, for young parents to stick together. Raising children requires lots of energy. It is an incredibly difficult, sometimes lonely endeavor. My sympathies are with those who have chosen to start a family.

My two sisters and I spent summer days together at the local swim club. There I learned a rudimentary version of the backstroke and to despise the smell of chlorine. The same fifty or sixty kids had classes with each other, year after year. Though we might be assigned to a different teacher in third grade, we'd usually be in the same room come fourth grade. A small town, laid back attitude was in place, something my own parents were strongly seeking when they moved us south of the city.

They'd both grown up in small, rural towns, but seemed to have an ambivalent attitude towards them. There was much they disliked about their past, but a small suburb seemed to be the compromise they sought.

I consider myself fortunate to have had this experience. Nowadays, community spirit and allegiance is rare, especially for children raised in urban settings. Increasingly, class size in public school swells beyond all proportion, depriving kids of the ability to feel part of an extended family.

If I’d been able to get a hold on my anxiety, I would have thrived in this environment, where my classmates weren't testy and competitive as was true in other parts of Birmingham. Even with my limitations, I was still accepted by many, who saw me as somewhat eccentric, withdrawn, but a generally worthwhile person.

My boyhood was fragmented, split between good times and bad times. I have fond memories of my best friend impulsively stealing a machete that had been left out in the woods. A soon-to-be Eagle Scout was building a bridge over the creek as part of his mandatory service project. He left behind his tools. Nowadays, I’m sure many hyper-vigilant parents would have confiscated the instrument as soon it was discovered. We knew instinctively how sharp and dangerous a tool it was, and mainly used it to hack away at tree branches.

I remember the medicinal, waxy smell of the exposed bark. The tree was native to the area and I haven't run across one since in other parts of the country, even during lengthy hikes. The trunk had been felled by high winds during a thunderstorm, cracking completely in half. Its inside was greasy and thick. The two of us took care to avoid accidentally smearing the sticky balm on the soles of our shoes as we made our way towards the creek bed. I’ll never forget the pungent, sickly-sweet scent for the rest of my days.

Once, both of us, plus two others ended up taking shelter inside a cave during a heavy rainstorm. Our clothes were soaked by the time we entered the rock overhang, which was not especially tall, requiring us to sit rather than stand. It was decided that we ought to start a fire and dry ourselves. My friend had recently run across some green-tipped waterproof matches, from God know where, perfect for this kind of situation.

Inside the cave were piles and piles of dry leaves, which we promptly burned for heat. As we waited out the storm, our soggy clothes grew less so, though we now reeked of acrid smoke. We extinguished the remaining embers, then made our way back home. That was a typical day in my boyhood.

In those days, we didn’t have a care in the world. Someone would suggest an idea and, provided it made halfway decent sense, we’d do it. Whether that meant hiking up to the caves in a blinding rainstorm, as we’d done, or taking a trip down the creek in an inflatable raft, we pursued it. I've never again felt as free and unrestrained as I did then.

The outcome of the rafting trip, unfortunately. was a disaster. The decision to depart in December, which is cold even in Alabama, should have been taken under consideration. After the raft accidentally capsized, halfway towards the intended destination, one member of the party ended up with minor frostbite on one of his hands.

I grew up not much different from most boys, which is to say I was fixated on sports. I even invented a sport of my own. According to the rules, both players grabbed tennis rackets and stood on opposite ends of a grassy lawn. The backyard served as an all-purpose field, regardless of sport. It was divided from other backyards by a chain link fence.

The point of the game was to hit a tennis ball past one’s opponent until it made a ringing, slightly musical contact with the fence behind him. Doing so scored a point. Complicating the game was that one half of the yard was on a slight incline, meaning it took extra force to propel the ball forward from uphill. It was easier to score when directing the ball downhill, relying upon gravity for extra force.

These days, I observe the super-serious, overly structured parenting of those who have privilege and money to burn. When walking home the other day, I overheard a father giving his son the third degree as to whether or not the boy had taken a drug test.

Did you test? The father kept asking this. Did you test?

The child could not be much older than ten. When I was ten, I didn't even know what drugs were.

I narrowly missed this kind of litigious parental regulation. Three or four years after I graduated high school, athletes and those in extracurricular activities were required to undergo periodic, mandatory testing. These tests were so advanced that even recent tobacco usage and alcohol consumption could be detected, not just the heavier drugs.

Around the time of high school, my father demanded regular drug tests of me. Through word of mouth, I’d learned how to beat the system. All one had to do was take an overdose of the dietary supplement Niacin, which flushed out the system or at least concealed the presence of other drugs. It made one’s skin itchy and flushed for most of a day, but the momentary discomfort was entirely worth it.

Childhood was not all punitive, not all misery. Like many kids my age, I collected baseball cards, always chasing after the rarest and most elusive ones. It was my bad fortune to be a child at a time when sports cards were mass-produced. Printing too much currency for a nation creates excessive inflation. The same thing happened with the cards I purchased at convenience stores and supermarkets. Twenty years later, the monetary value of most of them remains under a dollar. The price hasn’t budged in all of those years.

Once a year, audiophiles would meet in a large hall to sell and swap rare albums and singles. I looked forward to these gatherings, though I’m glad I didn’t buy much. Much of what I found was eventually digitally remastered, sounding ten times better than a worn out vinyl LP. I mostly appreciated looking at titles, cover art, and becoming familiarized with previously-unknown artists. If I was ever truly compelled and fascinated by a new group or new sound, I committed those pertinent details to memory and never forgot them.

These are only a few of the fond memories that collectively represent my formative years. It’s fortunate that the abuse occupied a relatively short time, though its effects have persisted. I’ve known several people in my own life who went through multiple years of molestation at the hand of a close family member. How would I have responded had the perpetrator been my own father or my own uncle?

At least two of my childhood playmates have likely asked themselves that very question over the course of their lifetimes. How can you love someone who contributed to your birth, then used you for his own ends?

The stories shared in this book must necessarily be somewhat sad and tragic. My intent is to show the common humanity present inside each of us, even if we do not identify as survivors of any shape or size. Readers may struggle from chronic illness themselves, but they know well that lives are certainly not over. We will all have our own life struggles and trials. If we have not had them by now, we definitely will have them sooner than later.

Life is, to my reckoning, an exercise in survival. Not that long ago, women faced the real risk of perishing in childbirth. Men knew that the latest pandemic illness could be deadly, or could damage their bodies for the rest of their lives, should they survive. That which we now call life expectancy was once a fraction of what is expected now. A corresponding increase in lifespan has provided us ample leisure time. I'm still not convinced we know how to handle it properly.

It is only in the last century that our expectations of health have risen, as we now believe that sustained health ought to be a kind of entitlement. Our lives may be yet fragile, on one extreme, but we’ve also put together centuries of adaptive, evolutionary responses that have strengthened the human race. The good and the bad must therefore be measured and equally weighted. We can't have one without the other.

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