40 from 40

a life recalled

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1986: Mountains

One late afternoon in the late spring of 1986, my father took me to a truckstop diner (where we rarely ate, which was fitting, as he and I rarely ate alone together) to tell me that we were moving. From Virginia, where I had lived ever since I could remember (so, 1974) to Connecticut. The news wasn’t a surprise. I had known it was coming, had felt the shift happening for months already, the sense that life as I knew it was ending, that a provisional new life was being hammered together out of sight somewhere, by unseen, indifferent forces. But before my father said the words, I could live in a cloud of speculation, fearing (correctly) what would come, but taking slight solace in the fact that no one had spoken the future out loud yet. Now the future came.

Throughout my childhood, I had stayed in Connecticut with my grandmother during the summers, and we had gone there for Christmas vacations (so Connecticut, in my mind, was associated with the two best times of year for a child—-it was disillusioning to be stuck there in, say, February), so we weren’t moving to some unknown place. The move felt right; no, it felt inevitable. Our life in Virginia had turned out to be a provisional one after all, an experiment. We were a failing, near-bankrupt colony being recalled back to the mother country. We hadn’t put down deep enough roots, and we were falling back to the old borders of family and the groove of a life that my parents, in the absent idealism of youth, had thought they had escaped when they got into their car in the summer of 1974 and gone south.

We gave up one of our two dogs, put the house on the market. The dog who we gave away had given birth to a litter of puppies in the spring, so prospective house buyers would visit a house where an adorable mass of Golden retriever/Labrador puppies would tumble out to meet them—-unsurprisingly, the house sold quickly. The real estate agent should have given us some of the commission. And one day in August 1986, my father and I shut the door to a house that held the whole of my childhood within its walls and got into his truck to drive north (my mother had already gone—she got a teaching job and needed to be up there earlier, if I recall). I cried for a minute as my father hugged me, both of us slightly embarrassed.

We moved to Colchester, Connecticut, a then-small town (it’s since come up in size and reputation, reportedly—I haven’t been back there in nearly two decades) east of the Connecticut River. We chose it because it was close to my mother’s school and that the house we found there, a rental, was relatively cheap. It was the dreariest place that I’ve ever lived in. Three narrow rooms, a bathroom, a garage, and an enormous basement that flooded given the slightest pretext. The back yard bordered a pasture where horses occasionally rambled, and sometimes they came over to the fence and deigned to be fed apples from the crooked tree that, with its tangled, gnarled roots and its seemingly endless profusion of rotten, bee-infested fruit, had annexed nearly a quarter of the yard. The horses served as a intermediary between my old life of farms and my new one of shabby strip malls, cable television (a plus) and snowstorms before Thanksgiving. But the horses also brought fleas, which infested our house the following spring, to the point where you couldn’t walk down the hallway without your legs being completely coated with the buggers.

There was a boy next door named Klimer. He looked like a red-haired Sasquatch. Before I met him, I would see him roaming around, ferally, in his backyard and out in the horse pasture. I was slightly afraid of him, as he was probably a foot taller and 50 pounds heaver than me, but for whatever reason he took a shine to me and didn’t give me any grief. He began harassing the only other kid on our street for not crossing the street quickly enough. We lived on the main two-lane road connecting Colchester to East Hampton, and cars would go over fifty on it, so you’d think some measure of caution was called for. But for Klimer this was a character failing—-the kid didn’t have the guts to cross the street unless there were no cars anywhere in sight. “Cross the street!” he would yell at the kid (who was even spindlier than I was), and once he even pushed the kid into a snowbank out of sheer rage at his cowardice. I felt rotten at my passive role in this (I would watch, looking disgusted but not doing anything), began to really hate Klimer and considered walking down the road for half a mile to the next bus stop, just to avoid him. But then he stopped catching the bus for some reason, and that was the end of it.

So let no one tell you in 1986 was a good year: it was a rotten one, a dispiriting one. The whole country felt slack and bloated, life had gone mealy and mean, or so it seemed to a 14-year-old who’d been rooted out of his home and was living in exile in a flea-infested house.

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14 Plays
Prince & The Revolution

Prince and the Revolution, “Mountains,” Parade, 1986.

Also, the video, feat. Kristin Scott Thomas doing her audition reel.

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Personal Canon: Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen, 1986.

A memento: This scene was shot at Tower Records, on the upper West Side, Lincoln Center, NYC, likely sometime in late 1985. The rows and rows of vinyl; the store hopping with life, late in the evening. I used to go to this store probably every week. All gone now: the records; the alternative weeklies in their stacks by the door; the store itself; the entire chain. Memory soon fades and lies to you: all you can do is hope that a film or a TV show occasionally, and randomly, trapped a shard of your former life, as Allen did here.

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And the answer, said the judge. If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now? Wolves cull themselves, man. What other creature could? And is the race of man not more predacious yet? The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day. He loves games? Let him play for stakes. This you see here, these ruins wondered at by tribes of savages, do you not think that this will be again? Aye. And again. With other people, with other sons.
Personal Canon: Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, 1985.

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1985: A Man You Don’t Meet Every Day

When I was 13 in 1985, my last full year of living in Virginia, I could feel the plates shifting. Things had gone sour and luck had turned hard against us. My mother had quit her job to get a better one, but she didn’t get a better one, and we were stuck. We drained the meager savings account intended for my college (a future as inconceivable to me then as old age or death): I recall my mother bringing the passbook, a half-decade’s worth of deposits neatly penciled on the credit side, into the bank for the last time, like a dog to be euthanized. Another of our cars was totaled—this time by a high-school kid to whom my mother, in a colossal misjudgement, had lent our car one night. He had looked down to push in a fresh cassette and had plowed the car into a tree.

That November, following a week’s worth of rain (it had already been a wet autumn), the floods came. The news broke in the afternoon at school, and everyone was herded into the cafeteria, left to wait to hear which roads had been washed out, which were still navigable. My parents managed to get me before it got dark, but some kids were left in school all night. The creek that laced our border with the Robinsons, a creek that in summer was a choked rill that moved so slowly that waterbugs could sun on its surface, had grown three times its size. It had become violent and turbid, overflowing its confines as easily as a sweltering man sheds his coat, and when it crested, its waters stood some twenty feet away from our porch (I was grateful that we lived on a hill, and I have tried to live on a hill ever since).

A friend had left his MG under a tarp in our driveway—he had been intending to fix it up for years, but he’d moved around and had left the car to sleep in our care. The creek rose up to its windows, leaving the car for dead, its engine drowned. A truck had to haul it away for scrap. The morning that the creek crested my father and I walked down to a bridge some hundred yards to the west of us. It had been washed away. In its place, in place of the road, in place of the fields, was now an undulating sheet of dirt-brown water. The heads of various households—Mr. Peters, Mr. Miller, Mr. Robinson—stood in a half-circle, watching the flood. It felt somehow medieval, as though they were vassals assembled to watch the ruin, to plan a counter-attack. They passed around Styrofoam cups of coffee liberally spiked with Jack Daniels. “Well, you’re not going to see this again,” one of them told me, and I suppose he was right.

In those waning months in Virginia I spent much of my time with my friend Mosher, often staying weekends at his house and going to school with him on the Monday morning bus. His was a better home than mine was, or so I felt. I had picked up Mosher as a friend in seventh grade, though I’d known him for longer. He had been in and out of my school—his mother, in occasional fits of concern, would place him in some prestigious academy in Roanoke. But he was an indifferent student at best, and eventually she realized it that would be just as well if he went to the public school that was five minutes away from his house.

He lived with his mother and his grandmother, a well-preserved specimen of post-Reconstruction-era Virginia, and occasionally a cousin who crashed in a disused wing of the house. It was a rambling, three-story house, painted as white as chalk. If you walked through it long enough, you eventually came upon a room that you’d never seen before: a living room whose furniture slept under sheets; a greenhouse filled with geraniums. The house stood atop a hill and could be seen from anywhere in Fincastle.

Mosher’s parents were divorced, an arrangement that I studied in the hopes of divining my own future. I wasn’t sure where his father lived. Something about him suggested a life spent in amiable management of grander personalities, that he was the man who made sure that the three-Martini-lunch party left an adequate tip. Once I woke up in the living room, where I usually stayed, to find Mosher’s mother and father at breakfast. One would offer a mild joke that, when given the blessing of the other, they would slightly inflate until the two chuckled together, but always warily, always being sure to watch each other for cues. Mosher’s grandmother was in the kitchen, which was off of the living room, making their breakfast. When she saw that I was awake, she swatted at my feet. “Time for this one to be up,” she said in her refined Piedmont accent. She put me to work when I was there—painting fences, picking the roadside yard of trash, clearing brush. I worked harder at Mosher’s house than at my own. It was fine: I thought it was the price of staying there.

I believed she liked me more than her grandson, for Mosher would sometimes sleep until noon, and he showed little inclination to administer the farm that he would one day own. He never rode the horses that they kept in a paddock down the hill; he never showed the vaguest of interest in how the corn harvest was going, or the progress of what seemed like an endless campaign of deforesting and tilling fields beyond the range of hills. His grandmother, when she made me breakfast, would churn up an astonishingly dense glass of chocolate milk for me—she spooned in heaps of crushed cocoa from an aluminum bin that seemed to be her relative age, then whipped the milk until it had the consistency of broth.

Mosher and I would spend hours in his room on the second floor, his windows offering a view of the whole manse—the horse pasture to the south, the small bungalow that the caretakers (a married couple) lived in, the spooling black band that was Rt. 220 off in the distance. His room was always heaped with the detritus of some new hobby or infatuation—Atari consoles, epees, karate belts, stacks of comics. We played Dungeons and Dragons (his cousin poked his head in once, saw what we were up to, and muttered: “why are you doing this? It’s like school”) and some other role-playing game that involved spies. We found the latter boring and began tweaking the modules to bring in robots and orcs. I would like to say that we talked about the future, trying to guess at where we were heading, but no, ours was a friendship without perspective. We talked about girls and comics and TV characters, of useless things, as kids, happily indifferent to their fates, always will.

I last saw Mosher in 1987—I came down to visit him around Easter, and we had a good time, but it was obvious that it was the end. Our ambitious plan to write each other once a week had long since come to nothing. I have no idea of what’s become of him and I don’t particularly care to find out, for I feel that he likely turned out all right, and I’d prefer to keep him as a memory pressed in my keepcase. I remember the first time that I met him. I had come to his house years before I had become his friend, on some other Easter, invited by another friend. Mosher’s family was holding an Easter egg hunt. I didn’t find any. Mosher, prodded by his mother, went around to his guests and, if he saw that we didn’t have an egg, he gave us one from his basket. There was a nobility to him then, a genial sense of service. In another, better life, he would have been a lord.

I’ll end this rather tenuous collection of memories with a fine one. It was a summer afternoon party at our house in ‘85, one of our last parties, as they had started to dwindle, the victims of my parents’ relative age, of the breaking up of the gang (Yeary had gone off to San Francisco, others had headed down to North Carolina), of an ever-thickening history of cooled friendships and broken marriages. We were out on the lawn when we saw a hot air balloon in the southern sky. It grew larger and more distinct, until we realized that the pilot intended to land nearby, possibly on our lawn. As our lawn sloped rather suddenly (the hill that had kept us from the flood), my father waved the balloon off. It drifted, growing ever more discernible (we could now see the orange tongue of flame that kept it aloft), and the balloon soared over us, quickly sinking towards Etzler’s fields down the road, some half a mile.

So the party packed up into a few trucks and cars, a couple of the more inebriated choosing to walk, and we went down Etzler’s spooling driveway, joined now by at least a dozen cars that apparently had been tailing the balloon for some time. The balloon gently sank to the ground, the crew tossing out sandbags with rope lines affixed to them. The crew, three or four men, vaulted out of the basket like boys and made jokes, stretching their legs and backs. Their leader, a gregarious man with a thick beard, asked for help in gathering up the balloon, which, deprived of purpose, was now billowing on the ground. My father and a few others grabbed clumps of the fabric and gradually pushed it together into a pile under the lead man’s supervision. He asked a few men to help him shoulder the pile and he shoved it, like a massive wadded set of bedding, down into the wicker basket.

"We’re going to need some weight to really push it down," he said, and, without warning, he picked me up like a sack of flour and tossed me, somehow gently, above his head and down into the basket. I fell sideways into a heap of parachute silk, which felt as generous as a bed. I lay there on my back, staring up at the sky, which had been reduced to a narrow circle of blue. Above me, staring down at me, was seemingly everyone that I knew, my mother and father, my neighbors, their kids: everyone, arrayed in health and seeming goodwill, laughing, beaming down at me, a few offering their hands for me to pull myself up with. But for a second I wanted to stay there in the basket, because I had a feeling of absolute security and confinement, of being safe and ridiculous and just so damned indescribably happy in what, as it turned out, would be the last moment of my childhood.

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23 Plays
The Pogues
A Man You Don't Meet Every Day

The Pogues, “A Man You Don’t Meet Every Day,” Rum, Sodomy & The Lash, 1985.

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1984: Voice of Harold

In June 1984, I left Breckenridge Elementary, where I had gone since I was six, with no pomp and little circumstance. That September, my class, rather than returning to worn-out (in our eyes) old Breckenridge, now stayed on our various buses for another half mile. We were going to an intermediate school that served the entire county.

We had been a rivulet, and now we were channeled, along with streams of 12-year-olds from six or seven other elementary schools, into the great brick reservoir that was Botetourt Intermediate. After two years there, we would be divided again, as half of the incoming freshmen would go off to Lord Botetourt High, the remainder to James River. As these were rival schools, the parting of the ways at the end of eighth grade could be legitimately tragic: old friends going to different schools would often never speak to each other again.

Going to B.I. was an immersion into sudden adolescence: it shook up everything, shook out everyone. B.I. meant lab partners, pre-algebra, lockers, gym class (and showering together), and shuttling from room to room for your classes rather than sitting at your desk all day and having a bounty of subjects brought to your attention. So you went from the life of a tutored princeling to doing the first trial runs of being a wage slave, of training to work to someone else’s timetable and caprices, such as having to sprint to a class in another wing of the school, desperately running against the bell ringing.

And B.I. meant sex. Not actually having it, of course, though likely some elect few did. It just meant that suddenly, everyone thought and talked about it. Even those that didn’t want to, did. Sex, particularly in its now-quite-conceivable masturbatory stage, infected everything, giving even the books we plodded through in English a queasily erotic tinge, even Of Mice and Men, even Diary of Anne Frank. Things that seemingly the summer before I had absorbed blithely now had lurid implications: wait, that issue of X-Men where Phoenix and Cyclops were apparently naked on a mesa—they were having sex! In the desert! Sam and Diane on Cheers—they were having sex! In the bar! Sex! On the first day of business class (a room full of electric typewriters) a wiry boy named Kevin Finney was fidgeting in the row behind me. The business teacher asked him what he thought of school so far. He replied in a sing-songy, nasal voice that I can still reproduce in my mind: “Well, I like health class because we talk about fucking.” Finney gave each syllable of the last word a clean, lilting, delicate pronunciation, with a slight emphasis on the suffix. Everyone seemed to hold their breath. The teacher flushed and sent Finney to the assistant principal’s office. But there seemed no real repercussions. Finney was back a day later.

Hierarchies built. The basketball players, the cheerleaders, the ambitious Student Council kids, those kids who had established a solid reputation for thuggishness in the waning years of elementary school and the odd assortment of kids who were generally and suddenly deemed sexually attractive: these became the ruling class. The kids who had long been teased, those who had some shameful past (like Eric, who had soiled his overalls in third grade), the poor kids who lacked style or menace, the quietly religious, the fat, the dullards: these fell into a figurative pit. They no longer existed except as butts of jokes or as extras in some drama a popular girl was playing out in homeroom.

I was part of a small, embattled middle tier. It was as though there had been a great, genial empire, an Austro-Hungary of childhood, that had collapsed, falling into internecine wars, with old neighbors turned out onto the streets. We were left trying to hold our ground in, say, Slovenia. I was fairly safe at first: I wasn’t horrendous looking, I still had provisional friendships with the likes of Curtis and Gates, who had firmly joined the ruling class, and my mother was a popular teacher. But the lines were fraying.

It happened to Ned. Ned was a judge’s son, a likeable enough kid with an enormous head, one that seemed two sizes too big for his thin stack of a neck. You could make out Ned from across a football field by looking for his head. Crowned with cropped blond hair, it seemed carved out of gypsum. Now some girls said he looked like a troll. An ominous sign. Ned was oblivious. He had played basketball in fifth and sixth grade, as I had, and so he’d been in with that set and considered himself popular. This coarsened him. He cursed more, acted the fool. Once he sat in the back seat of my mother’s car, as she was driving a bunch of us home after a game, and carried on as if she was his chauffeur, bobbing his head to the radio. “What’s this one, Chris?” he barked. “Neutron Dance,” I said, and he nodded. “‘Sallright.” He was wearing sunglasses.

It took maybe a week. One by one, the old team “cut” Ned, often publicly and humiliatingly. He was asked to not sit at their lunch table. A former friend tripped him in the hall, to cheers and applause. As Ned was too inept to qualify for even junior varsity, he no longer could play basketball (I hadn’t even tried). He wasn’t invited to a key birthday party. His name became slang for a dick, and this soon spawned a school-wide trend. You cupped your hand in the air as if you were about to grasp a door-knocker, and yelled “Feed!” “Feed, Ned!” “Feed!” This soon mutated into “Juice!” or “Fruit!” “Fruit, Ned!” All morning on the bus, all day in the hall. It was an astonishingly brutal and efficient business. It easily could have happened to me.

I grew both paranoid and detached. I began to build a short circle of new friends, carefully chosen among other middle-tier dwellers. As a unit, we had a provisional power. I dug further and further into books and now comics, attempting to write and/or draw both. For the comics, I built a jerry-rigged universe of inept superheroes—Vultureman, Captain Matter, Mr. Mystic—created solely to be destroyed. I was a capricious, vindictive God. In the first issue (12 penciled notebook pages stapled together) of Captain Matter, the title character, who was some eighth-rate Superman knockoff, was brutally killed off on page three. That was the end of the run, as he stayed dead. (Mosher, my best friend in middle school, said my comics should have the logo: “When they die, they stay dead.”) I created new superhero teams only to splinter them apart, to have them bicker and fall into wars against each other. The symbolism, from this distance, seems ridiculously obvious. I got out of this mood soon enough. But this attitude—the conflation of “darkness” with adulthood, of a leaden somberness with a sense of morality, baked in a humorless desire to scribble over sad childish conventions—seems the force behind a number of recent superhero films, the Nolan Batman trilogy in particular coming to mind. (FYI: I wrote this before that lunatic’s shooting spree in Colorado).

I suppose you could blame some of my morbidness on living the last days of the New Cold War. Give me some license. We were still, or at least I was, worried that at some point in the near future, the world would be annihilated. The nightly news was still filled with MX missiles, ancient Soviet despots who kept dying, Communists on the march in Nicaragua, in Grenada (the latter liberated in ‘83—Clint Eastwood’s Heartbreak Ridge equated our victory there as a balance to our “tie” in Korea and our loss in Vietnam). As a chaser, the TV would occasionally offer some new apocalyptic movie of the week: The Day After, Testament. I recall some SF show episode in which a man stopped time just as a stream of missiles were about to rain down on his suburb, leaving them hanging in the air like wind chimes (the irony being that the man had to keep time stopped forever to prevent the world from ending—it was very heavy stuff. I likely recycled the idea in an issue of Mr. Mystic).

There was a boy on my bus, a mountain boy with a pompadour who mainly talked about hunting and dirt bikes. I think his name was Alan. He once had a conversation with a girl which somehow became a discussion of what would happen if the nukes ever fell. “I reckon I would just get the shotgun and end it,” he said, sounding rather unconcerned. Alan was all right. He had a plan even for Armageddon, he was confident, the world still wasn’t cryptic to him.

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31 Plays
Voice Of Harold

R.E.M., “Voice of Harold,” B-side of “So. Central Rain” (later collected on Dead Letter Office), 1984.

2 things: 1) this is the greatest R.E.M. song.

2) if someone were to ask me what it was like growing up in the Carter-Reagan-era South, I would pick this song as my testament.

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Personal Canon: Ian Richardson reads Milton’s Sonnet 23, Six Centuries of Verse, 1984.