Back in grade school, I had a very strange friend: Hot Rod. We were in the same grade, all the same classes. He wasn’t a tough guy by any means, but he took great joy in trying to beat me with branches during recess when we went outside. Our house back then was literally right next door to the grade school (now a daycare center). I’d go home for lunch some days. I recall eating french fries drenched in ketchup on a paper plate, watching cartoons, while Hot Rod would stand at the chain-link fence outside the living-room window, pleading with me to come out to play. Which invariably meant running away from him as his mind switched into some bizarre overdrive, a branch in one hand, a murderous look in his eye.
The odd part being, we were good friends. The branch-beating thing didn’t last long, probably a few weeks in the second grade, but it’s stuck with me all these years later. I wasn’t a mean kid by any stretch of the imagination – anyone raised with me can tell you that. I’m not a mean man – got my moods like everybody else, but I’m basically a kind-hearted person. Strangers see this in my face all the time. Not necessarily a plus in New York City. But I’m large enough that if you mess with me, I could harm you, so it tends not to be a burning issue.
But I’m still wondering why I didn’t try to kick Hot Rod’s ass back then: it would have been justified and made sense. Kids were always getting into scuffles, usually over nothing, like dogs marking their territories. I can safely say Hot Rod was a nerd. He had a tendency towards large-collared shirts and weird wire-frame glasses.
I can also recall us laughing our asses off on many occasions. His family was from Belgium, but he was American born. His parents had thick European accents, were very sweet people, but this set him apart from the rest of us. He’d often bring postcards and such to class to explain where his parents were from, most of which were urinating statues and naked guys in helmets – this stuff was comedy gold for grade-school kids, we would piss ourselves laughing over these postcards.
But above all else, Hot Rod was known for one thing: singing. The guy was just a natural performer, had a great voice, was taught how to use it from an early age. Music class would find most of us terror-stricken at the prospect of singing solo in front of everyone. It didn’t help that we had to sing retarded shit like “My Hat It Has Three Corners” and “Senior Delgado.” These songs were goofy and unfamiliar to us, but we learned them by heart as we sang them over and over, usually at our desks in a group, so you could mouth the words most of the time. When it came my turn to sing solo, I’d be up there with my head down, blushing redder than a rose, plaid bellbottoms, murmuring in a toneless soprano, the idiotic lyrics of “Billy Boy” or “Old MacDonald” … while the music teacher hammered away on an out-of-tune upright piano and wondered what in the hell went wrong in his life to end up there.
Hot Rod would get up there, and he may as well have had a beer stein and lederhosen. He always knew the lyrics, and he’d be emoting, waving his arms, walking up and down the aisles, and the kids would respond to him as a performer, smiling and laughing, in disbelief that this weird kid with glasses would turn into something else when he opened his mouth to sing. A more serious song, like “Stille Genacht” (“Silent Night” in German … we learned a lot of songs in German, don’t ask me why), he’d be leaning over the music teacher’s out-of-tune piano, Dixie cup of ginger ale in hand, gazing off into the middle distance as he effortlessly reproduced the hushed tone of the night Christ was born in a manger.
As you could imagine, after the class, at recess, the tougher kids in the school would sometimes have him in the corner of the schoolyard, in a headlock, muttering shit like, “Sing for me now, songbird.” At which point they’d make him sing something like “I like big dicks” in a clenched voice of a kid trying to breath with an arm around his neck. Tough guys were always jealous of guys who could sing, or dance. It wasn’t considered manly to kids. And maybe this is why Rod went through his tree-branch phase with me. He knew I was good enough a friend that I wouldn’t reject him for letting off that sort of steam, with the knowledge that most of us felt behind the eight ball as kids.
Flash-forward a few years, and Hot Rod is the star of the glee club, with his clip-on tie, ill-fitting blazer and peach-fuzz mustache. We went on being great friends straight through high school, into our early adulthood. I can still recall him doing those dicky glee club presentations. It wasn’t like glee clubs now, doing hip pop-rock songs from the 70s and 80s. (Check this out to see the way music class never was for so many of us … fucking Listzomania!) They were doing show tunes mostly, which was ghastly uncool to 99.9% of teenage kids at the time. That 0.1% percent are now out of the closet and living happily in major urban areas.
There was one weird thing he did that solidified his geek status. The concept of human beatboxes rolled around with rap in the 80s: guys imitating the sounds of funky drumming and percussion with their mouths. Acapella groups have always done that, but it became a fad in the 80s with early rap music. But Hot Rod was doing this long before the trend started, in the late 70s and early 80s. We’d be sitting there, goofing around in home room, when suddenly, Hot Rod would start beatboxing “Love Is Alive” by Gary Wright. To get that wah-wah guitar sound, he’d go “Diddle, diddle.” Along with all the hiccups and hard blowing to illustrate the shifting between beats and chords in the music. It was seriously weird, especially when he’d air drum along with his beatboxing. You may as well have put a sign next to our group of giggling guys, wearing polyester leisure shirts with unicorns on the front, that stated: “Ladies, don’t fuck us.” If one of us had shit out pants, it would have been no more or less enticing than this.
We were part of the faceless rabble in high school. Kids not weird enough to pick on. Too decent to pick on anyone. Not smart enough to be the elite brains (but close). Not into organized sports. Not into drugs. Not into popularity contests. We just had our little group of slightly misfit kids, who tried to have one foot in every camp, but never the whole body. Much like our adult worlds now, we realized the world was a ragged and insane place, and it made sense to band together in a small informal group that most people couldn’t identify if they tried. Even now when I meet people I knew in high school and we talk about who we hung out with back then, no one seems to recall my gang of friends. I don’t recall what we were doing as any form of defense mechanism – it was just gravitating towards people who “got” each other and quietly navigating that deeply fucked-up world of teenage American life.
No chicks in that group, of course! It was rare that guys and girls would be friends, or in any group of friends in high school. The stoners and jocks could pull that stuff off, but kids in the middle didn’t. You’d walk around the cafeteria before the first bell (when all the buses pulled in and deposited the kids to wait in there), and nearly every group would be all girls or all guys. If kids were dating, then you’d have boy-girl groups. Again, the jocks and stoners would fall into that category, which made them seem cool because they had bridged that gap of casually appearing to have good friends of the opposite sex.
Hot Rod and I didn’t get laid in high school – most of us didn’t. The few who did, the situations were awkward and forced, like throwing dicks at a dartboard to see where they’d land. Very few bull’s eyes. Usually just radically immature kids with raging hormones making all the wrong moves that would set the pattern for greater adulthood miscues and transgressions. Most of us fell into that category in some sense. I can see the hesitance and overly cautious consideration I had as a teenage male has been my basic M.O. in my adult life, too. And going for the “wrong girl” in some sense with my innate ability to pick out that one girl who’s unavailable in some discrete sense but presents herself as clear and open as the ocean on a sunny day.
I say all this, because Hot Rod was a desperately horny guy. He really wanted to get laid, as we all did, but it was a burning passion for him. I can’t recall if he met Cindy in high school or college. It had to be high school, because she was in ours, a few grades lower. I recall thinking she was a pretty average-looking girl. Hot Rod knew her through various church-related singing functions. I don’t think Rod was a burning Born Again Christian, but he was part of some church groups that surely leaned in that direction. And the kind of groups who always had hip young kids singing Christian-themed pop music as part of their introductory offer.
So I’m sure it came to pass that Hot Rod was doing his songbird thing when Cindy laid eyes on him and saw her own little Elvis. He was a funny, charming, guy, too, so that didn’t hurt, nerd or not. He was older, too, which a lot of nerdy/unattractive guys played to the hilt in high school with younger girls. But it wasn’t until our first year at a branch campus of Penn State that they started becoming an item, and then he’d fill me in on the wacky stuff.
As detailed earlier, I went nuts for a soon-to-be Born Again and had that experience shade nearly my whole college experience, when I should have been banging everything in sight instead of walking around tangled up and heartbroken half the time. Cindy was a Born Again … but one of those fairly typical Born Agains who swung that way because she was a naughty, naughty girl. I recall Hot Rod telling me of a routine date: “Her parents were at a Christian retreat last weekend, so I went over to her house. Knocked on the door and it didn’t seem like anyone was home. So I let myself in, walked over to the stair, and looked up. Cindy was standing at the top, naked from the waist down. The way she was looking at me, I knew to go up there. I ate her out on the staircase, and she returned the favor on the living-room sofa.”
Why couldn’t I have run into a Born Again like that? Hot Rod hit jackpot every time he pulled the lever. I wouldn’t call either a nymphomaniac, just two horny kids made even crazier by that thin patina of teenage pseudo-Christianity. He’d give me the weekly lowdown on their escapades, and I couldn’t help but be jealous. Cindy didn’t seem particularly bright or college-bound. I’m not sure where she went after high school, but it probably wasn’t the same direction as Hot Rod. He didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, that much was certain. That first year out of high school, he was the one guy I knew who was blissfully happy in a no-bullshit relationship. Most guys with girlfriends already had that sense of a very heavy anchor around their necks, with what I’d wager were very choppy sex lives based on that “wait until we’re married to really get into it” promise … that really meant “this is as good as it’s ever going to get as I find penises and sex as desirable as football and the band Rush.” Cindy loved sex, Born Again or not.
I recall her being argumentative, too, so I guess that would explain the short-term super nova effect she had on Hot Rod’s life. I don’t doubt that wherever he is now, sitting in an armchair, big-bellied, pondering his choices in life, he thinks back on that one with a genuine smile. That had to be the one relationship where everything spiraled out of control, but he hung on for as long as possible, knowing in the back of his mind that this was like a star flaming through the night sky that wouldn’t do so again for another 50 years, by which time he’d be dead or too old to care.
Hot Rod held on, but the flame went out. I recall some pretty raw years right after that. He didn’t go up to the main campus with me, where I had a blast and blossomed in some sense with a whole new pack of friends and ideas. He got a job as janitor at our old high school: sanitation engineer to be exact, when he had been studying engineering at a college a year earlier. He’d tell me of scraping dried, bloody tamp-ons from the ladies’ room walls with a paint chipper. His stories about female hygiene, and the much worse practices of women in their respective restrooms, were legendary. Strange part was, he really like working there!
Things got better after that, but that’s also when we started losing touch. When I moved to New York in the late 80s, the only times I’d see him would be when I came home and went to the firehouse, where he was a volunteer fireman in his early 20s, along with a group of a dozen or so other guys who forged a tight little drinking group down there for a good few years. It was a great place to hang out and get bombed on a Friday night. The place would be empty, so we’d sit in the main hall, where meetings and Bingo normally took place, and drink at the bar, cheaply, putting a dollar or two in the till for every bottle of Yuengling or Miller we’d pull from the fridge. There was a pool table in the next room, and I can recall more than a few fun nights hanging out with the guys, in a place that felt like a clubhouse we never had as teenagers.
And, of course, it was a guy thing, so there was that ongoing sense of all-male camaraderie we had worked to perfection in high school. Not a bad deal in high school, but being at the firehouse routinely also meant no one was getting laid or moving on to relationships, so I can see that time as a sort of holding pattern/refusal to grow up in some well-meaning sense. That should serve as a mild warning to guys in their early-mid 20s who are living the high life with their buddies and think those days will last forever. They just don’t … as well they shouldn’t. A few years later, guys get married, have kids, get real jobs, move away, etc. The loose ends get all tied up, one way or another.
I think that’s what happened with Hot Rod. I know he did go back to the branch campus, got his Associates in some type of Engineering, and then got a job as an engineer at the plastics plant my father had worked at for decades before retiring in the early 90s. Being an engineer in that place was a pretty good deal – slightly better working conditions and pretty good pay if a guy stuck with it, which I’m assuming Hot Rod did. I’d also heard he started singing in a country band with his older brothers, which sounds like the exact thing I’d hope he do in his life. Obviously, not appearing on CMT any time soon, but professional enough to play covers at bars, county fairs and weddings for good money in his spare time.
So I can see Hot Rod up on stage, probably a burly guy now, some permutation of facial hair, be it a handle-bar mustache or goatee, plaid shirt, jeans, cowboy boots and hat, with two guys who look just like him, blasting through “Friends in Low Places” while the crowd two-steps away and cheers loudly afterwards. Who knows with Hot Rod. I guess it would be easy enough to find out as there are a few people around who are still in some kind of remote touch with him. I get the vibe the life I imagine for him in a good way wouldn’t be too far from the truth.