Monday, July 03, 2006

Cabbage Head Malarkey

No, that’s not the name of a new Pogues-style celtic rock band. If I could think of a perfect name for a new band, it would be The Strip Mall Psychics.

Cabbage Head Malarkey was the smartest kid I knew: a genius. Why his parents didn’t push him forward through a few grades, I have no idea. He had the brains to be one of those kids who graduates Harvard at 16. We called him Cabbage Head because he had an oblong-shaped head, and since he was so smart, we thought the shape of his head was necessary to hold all those brains.

His parents still live out the road back home in Pennsylvania. I imagine finding out what’s going on with him would be as easy as pulling up in their driveway, telling them who I am (they would remember me) and asking how he’s doing these days. But it seems like one of those mysteries of life that people you once knew but have lost track of will always remain this slightly out of reach. Maybe having that mystery is better, or maybe I just don’t care enough to follow through. Last I heard he was a lawyer working for the U.S. government in Germany (which, as I’ll illustrate later, makes perfect sense).

His parents freaked out many people back home when they planted “Bush/Cheney 04” signs in their front yard. The Malarkeys had been staunch Democrats for years, but I guess they changed their minds somewhere along the road. Bush/Cheney signs and bumperstickers are not unusual back there, but the Malarkeys swinging their allegiance so far that they’d willingly put signs up in their yard is.

Back in the 70s, I can’t recall how Cabbage Head and I became friends. It must have been that we went to the same grade school (right next to my house, which is now a day-care center), and since we were both recognized as smart kids, we usually sat next to each other and got put into the same groups learning-wise.

This explains my most vivid memory of him: vomiting all over Joy R. in our first-grade reading class. We were in that upper-echelon reading group, sitting in a circle. I’d imagine that month’s package of Scholastic books had just come through. I used to love that function in grade school – having the teacher pass out the circular, filled with books for us to choose for our reading assignments. Some kids loathed that stuff, but I’d have my parents buy me books on top of the assignments. Since they were cheap paperbacks and often only a buck or less, it wasn’t that big a deal. I loved seeing that huge Scholastic box being delivered and knowing that my books were coming in.

Kids were always puking in grade school. Why is that? I’d imagine it has more to do with wacky diets, kids eating anything they can get their hands on, junk on top of good stuff. But it seems like kids were always blowing chunks at school, usually in the lunch room or halls. This was often hilarious, provided you weren’t directly involved. (I never vomited in school, but I do have my infamous “vomiting in front pew of church on Easter Sunday, 1972” story, but for another time.)

But I’ll never forget Cabbage Head looking woozy as we all sat in a circle in our “enlightened” group, reading a biography about Roberto Clemente or something. He casually stood up and gushed out a stream of vomit that absolutely coated Joy R., who was sitting next to him, from head to toe. I’d never seen anything like it, before or since.

Another grade-school hallmark: chain vomiting. One kid vomits, the sight and smell of it freaks out kids in the immediate vicinity, and they start vomiting, too. This started happening – three other kids started blowing chunks, albeit with far less shock and awe than Cabbage Head’s original fountain. I remember laughing hysterically, although when Cabbage Head got Joy R., he also tagged some on the corner of my red plaid polyester bell-bottoms. (I was a fat kid – I looked like a mental patient in those pants.) It looked like clam chowder and had that awful stomach-acid smell. The teacher freaked out, heaving kids away as if Cabbage Head had spontaneously human combusted. It was a disaster zone, complete with weeping, hysterical children, that took about half an hour to calm down. When Louie Balls (“Balls” being a playful shortening of his much longer and hard-to-pronounce Slavic surname), the janitor, showed up with his mop and bucket, things slowly got back to normal. All throughout this, Cabbage Head just stood there with a maniacal gleam in his eye, while Joy R. wept in disbelief. I can’t remember how she got cleaned up.

The problem with Cabbage Head was that while he was clearly the smartest kid in the entire school, including kids a few grades ahead of him, he was also diabolical. In that same first-grade class, I also remember him getting Melissa M. to show us her tits in the back row of class. Please, no freak-outs here – this was all very much in the “playing doctor” category of kids innocently finding out about each other’s private parts.

Besides, as a chubby kid, I had bigger tits than Melissa M., who had a crush on Cabbage Head because of his huge brain. Still, I can recall the slow process of Cabbage Head convincing Melissa it would be advantageous of her to show us her tits, bribing her with cartons of milk and orange juice, to the point where one day she turned around at her desk and flashed us. Both of us probably had erections like those science-book bananas frozen to 100 degrees Kelvin used to hammer nails. It became a regular thing, until someone squealed on us, and our parents were called in for a stern talk which didn’t really amount to much.

Worse, by far, was Cabbage Head’s fascination with Adolph Hitler. In the fourth grade, he kept a picture of Adolph in his locker and would give it a “Heil” salute every morning.

What do you do when the smartest kid in grade school appears to be a Nazi sympathizer? For a long time, nothing was done, because it was a well-kept secret among all of us. His parents were staunch working-class Irish Democrats. His father may have been a World War II vet, although I suspect he was a bit younger than my dad, and probably a Korean War vet.

Cabbage Head’s fascination was based more so on the documentary The World at War, which we all watched religiously Saturday nights on the local PBS station. (Our grandmother also forced our family to sit through The Lawrence Welk Show before this, which frightened me more than the Nazis. But, later, we’d also watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus – Saturday night was a wild time on PBS back in the 70s.)

I have The World at War series on DVD. It’s a very well-done, comprehensive documentary on World War II, from the causes in the 1930s to the aftermath in the mid-1940s. It’s what documentaries should be and no longer are: a fair-minded, historical look at an event without shades of personal politics thrown into the mix. Much of it was horrifying: the episode on concentration camps in particular, which gave all us kids nightmares for months afterwards. But it was deeply influential on kids like us who still played army and were enmeshed in that culture, thanks to movies, TV shows and comic books, who had older brothers in Vietnam, and never quite got the memo that war culture was a no-no. Most of us had army-style fatigues and uniforms, and played war regularly with toy guns. Rural America in the 70s still lived very much in the shadow of World War II.

For whatever reason, Cabbage Head took a real shine to Hitler. I don’t ever recall him espousing anti-Semitism or such. He was just enamored of the war process and how Hitler came to power. I think in his nutty, advanced mind, he saw that Hitler pulling his country out of a deep depression and then moving forward to near total domination of Europe was an amazing transformation, and he was also probably fascinated, in that little boy’s way, with the darker side of how this transpired. He threw in the "Heil" salutes as a show of black humor.

By the way, none of us followed him on this endeavor! I knew that the Nazis were bad news and couldn’t quite wrap my mind around putting a picture of Hitler in my locker, much as I wouldn’t put a picture of Charles Manson up there either.

Cabbage Head’s undoing was writing an essay about Hitler for our fourth-grade teacher, Mr. D., whom we called Wedge Head because he was a big guy and had a very angular shaped skull, with a giant forehead. Wedge Head thought the essay was brilliant, but was a little freaked out by its thoroughness and scholarly intent. He knew Cabbage Head was a genius, but he thought that either he must have cribbed some of the material, or if he hadn’t, needed a serious talking to about Hitler. This coincided with Wedge Head seeing the Hitler picture in the locker, and that called for a parent-teacher sit down. After which point, Cabbage Head got over his Hitler fixation in a hurry.

The nicest thing Cabbage Head did for me was let me win the class spelling bee in the third grade. I knew he was miles ahead of me in terms of intelligence and could easily out-spell me. He knew it, too, but must have also sensed that I was tired of always coming in second to him in these sort of contests. The spelling bee came down to him and me, and I can clearly recall him purposely blowing a word I knew he knew how to spell. Then me pulling in for the glory and getting some kind of paper crown with the word “champ” scrawled on it in blue crayon. I went along with it, and felt fine, but I knew he had let me win. He was basically a friendly, well-adjusted kid beyond his intelligence -- he was a good friend to me back then, and vice-versa.

Cabbage Head eventually went to Catholic school, which was where we started losing contact with each other. I played basketball on the CYO team in the 5th/6th grades, but felt like an outcast because I was one of the few public-school kids in the program. That was probably the last real contact I had with him, although we’d see each other occasionally in our teen years. Catholic school was like that – even kids in our neighborhood, houses apart, got separated by that divide.

So, right now, Cabbage Head is probably sitting in an office at some consulate in Berlin, late afternoon, making plans on where he’s going to watch tomorrow’s World Cup match between Germany and Italy. Hats off to him. A strange, brilliant kid, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the adult version was any different.

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