Wednesday, October 29, 2008


I have always harbored a secret notion that the British are better than us. When my mother was little she lived on a British air base where she had a servant.

“They really know how to treat their officers” she would say. Her father had been an American liaison officer to the British after WWII and the Brits had set him and his family up nicely in an English manor home with manicured lawns and old stone walls.

Now when I see Hugh Grant or some other young British actor on the screen I admire them a little too much. I covet the culture that treats officers like royalty and gives them palaces to live in and servants to wait on them.

We didn’t live in any palaces. But we always thought we were rich. My father, like my grandfather, was an Air Force pilot. Grandfather just missed WWII but got to go through the two year program at West Point just in time for the war to end. My dad was in Vietnam when I was born. Just me and mom on a remote air station near the Canadian border somewhere in Maine.

My brother followed me two years later after dad was back from Vietnam. I never heard my Dad or anybody call it ‘Nam like they do in the movies and on TV. It was always Vietnam, pronounced properly so that it rhymed with bomb and not Ma’am.

When I was three I successfully escaped from our house by dragging a bar stool to the front gate and climbing over. I wonder now if that early tendency to find a way out wasn’t indicative of something prison-like about our family. Later in elementary school I would calculate backward from twelfth grade to figure out how many years were left in my sentence.

Kindergarten was in Washington State. On the first day Mrs. Fitzpatrick tore the top off the pencil box my mother had been instructed to buy and had helped me choose. I can still hear the sound of all the pencil boxes being ripped apart as I inched forward in the check-in line. It seemed incredibly unjust and wasteful to my five year old mind that mother and I should expend so much time and energy carefully selecting a box based on a design located on a top which was to be ripped off before the box was ever used.

I wondered some thirty years later if Mrs. Fitzpatrick hadn’t read an article in a scholarly journal that touted the psychological mastery that could be instantly obtained over five year old children by destroying something they love while they stood helplessly watching. Our mothers were all with us, they too seemed perplexed by the ostentatious display of force and destruction but none dared to challenge Mrs. Fitzpatrick’s authority. Thus she achieved the status of pack leader over parents and children alike in a matter of minutes. Brilliant.

First grade began in Texas where I learned that it was unacceptable to whistle in school. This caused me much distress as I had recently learned to whistle and wanted to show off. First grade continued in Germany. I stood in front of the Mrs. Kowal’s first grade class and my mom asked me if I would like to stay or come back tomorrow. I responded that tomorrow would be better for me and my mom smiled knowingly and led me out of the room and back to the hotel which, like the school, was inside a heavily fortified military base.

The fortification level was called into question when terrorists blew up the officers club where we regularly dined and I began asking my mom at night if the terrorists were going to get us. In my mind they always had long black beards and drove around in a Volkswagen van. Maybe I had seen a German movie or news clip with such an image. Or maybe I retroactively added that scene from "Back to The Future".

Second grade was where I was introduced to whole wheat toast by Ms. Halcomb. Third grade gave me the opportunity to interact with older kids on a daily basis as I was in a class euphemistically called “the third and fourth grade team”. It was at this time that I learned that I could alter my identity. I had long chosen my clothes based on what I was to be that day: brown corduroys and a red turtleneck to be an Indian, dark blue shirt and pants to be a policeman etc. But suddenly I learned that I could take on a new identity, outwardly project someone else such that others thought I was that someone else. This is also when I discovered the Archangel Complex.

It all began with a young Pittsburgh Steeler fan named Alex, whom I like to call Felix-Alex-Felix. Felix always wore his head-to-toe Steeler garb: gloves, hat, jacket and scarf. I was a Cowboy fun so I pitied him a little for his poor choice in teams but more so for his distinctive manner of running which was just a few shades away from a Special Olympic gait.

Felix would often return from recess with his Steeler hat askew and a bloody lip or some other sign of having been roughed up. I took umbrage to this outrage and considered it a personal affront to my dignity that someone would have the audacity to loay a hand on my friend. I always asked him to point out the villains but he would just mumble something and sadly take off his coat and return to his seat.

One day I asked Alex if he would trade coats with me at recess. He readily agreed and I pulled the Steeler hat low and the gloves high and set off through the playground in my best imitation of his strange running style.

The inevitable bully suddenly appeared in my path and I approached him in the sheepish manner I imagined Felix would have if he had been wearing his clothes that day. I kept my eyes low and scanned the ground as if anticipating that something bad was going to happen.

“Hey!” the ruffian bellowed.
I looked at the ground, shuffled a little.

“Hey I’m talkin’ to y……”

If I live to by one hundred I will never forget the look in his eyes as I slowly lifted my eyes to meet his. This boy had never seen me before, knew nothing of me yet there was terror on his face. He stammered and backed away, I shoved him hard, seizing upon his fear and weakness, closing for the kill.

“WHAT??!! WHAT did you want to say, didn’t you want to ask me something?”
I was chasing him now, grinning evilly, soaking up his fear like sunshine, relishing his confusion, this wonderful comeuppance I had wanted every time I saw Alex’s sad face after recess.

The memory gets foggy at that point, I smacked him around as best as one eight year old can do to another, stood over him, maybe kicked a little sand in his face or maybe kicked him in the face. Doesn’t matter, I was hooked. I learned the value of fear and confusion, the position of mastery one is in when his opponent is taken by surprise.

I would employ this lesson throughout my life.

Chapter 2

I had a dog when I was three or so. One day he chewed up a garden hose so my father took him to the pound. What a piece of shit. Who takes away a three year old’s sole companion over a garden hose. I guess they figured I wouldn’t notice or remember, but I learned another valuable lesson from that incident: act right or you will be eliminated. Though my dog Charlie was only with me a short time I had somehow stumbled upon a basic principle of pack hierarchy, there can be only one Alpha in any pack and if you think you are that Alpha you have to act accordingly.

We returned from Germany when I was nine. Dad was already back and had secured housing on the base for us and purchased a used Ford Torino which my brother and I thought was the baddest car we’d ever seen because it was the same one Starsky and Hutch had. Never mind that it was a Beige automatic with a white vinyl top, to us in was a heromobile. The air blew cold on my face when I got in and Tom and I started ranting and raving about how awesome it was and I think I asked my dad how much it was and he named a sum less than $2000. It was the first time I remember feeling air conditioning in a car other than my grandfather’s Buick.

My father was wearing a flight suit when he picked us up and he showed his great affection for mom and probably hugged us but I don’t remember now. I was too busy admiring the enormous leather and huge doors and windows. How could a car with only two doors be so big inside? I had learned all about Porsches and Ferraris, Lamborghini’s and BMW’s while living in Europe but I had never seen anything like this car. My enthusiasm for American iron was pretty short lived. I started to notice that all the cars looked very similar. In Germany I had been able to identify a silhouette from a great distance and proudly call out the name of the car. Now I had to wait until I was close enough to see some distinctive piece of trim or headlight to know what I was looking at. I didn’t know it then but the acceptable expression of reality was about to get a great deal narrower in more areas than car design.

Mom enrolled us in summer sports programs so that we could make some friends and get in a groove before school started. I made my first black friend Terry Thomas. Terry informed me in so many words that it was unacceptable for my dad to have a push mower because he was a major. We did get a power mower shortly thereafter, not sure if there was a connection.

That mower was destined to be dragged behind my bicycle all over the housing area on weekends as I searched for people who needed their grass cut before the Tuesday morning inspection. Some weekends I made sixty bucks and for a twelve year old kid in 1983 that buys a lot of skateboard parts and laser prints of big cats.

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