With the high-school reunion approaching, I’m recalling all those weird little quirks so many of us had back in high school, the late 70s turning into the early 80s. Of course, it wouldn’t have occurred to us at the time, but it was a good time to be a teenager. We thought we were in hell, and if you took me back in a time machine now and made me spend a week in high school, wandering around like a Dickensian Ghost of Christmas Past, I’d more than likely agree. But I can see through the scope of passing time, the life of a relatively care-free teenager in a small town circa 1982 wasn’t a bad place to be.
We weren’t imbued with the useless negativism and self-loathing that came into play with so many kids in the 90s. We weren’t raised by people from the 60s, i.e., the Baby Boom Generation, thank God. We were the tail end of it. Rest assured, the parents before them stuck to a far more traditional background that had been in place for decades. And as the 70s wore on, kids weren’t as wild. When I watch the movie Dazed and Confused now, while I can view it with nostalgia, the truth is that movie represents kids from the early 70s, who tended to be far more druggy and lost than we were. Not like we were rockets aiming towards the future. But if you described a kid as a burnout, you knew exactly what that meant, and it was a much smaller group of kids from previous years. Even with that heavy drug influence of the early/mid 70s, I can see a lot of those people, as they aged, maintained more of a stoic/Korean War vet take on life. Much like their parents. That’s what you don’t pick up on as a kid. You somehow morph into your parents over time. Which might make you shit your pants in terror. But is comforting as time goes on. Unless you were raised by assholes.
College wasn’t considered a financially crushing endeavor back then. If you had halfway decent grades, it was expected that you’d go, mostly because it was reasonably affordable, at least compared to today. Going to Penn State, I worked two years in the factory, worked part-time when I got up to the main campus, and when the smoke cleared with my B.A. in hand, I was $5,000 in debt, which was comparatively low to most of my friends. But most of them were looking at no more than $10,000. These days, I hear of people tens of thousands dollars into their college educations by the time they leave. And the kids who didn’t go? The ones I know have fended reasonably well for themselves, falling into long-term working-class jobs that ended up not being such a bad deal 20-30 years down the road. They might complain about security and lack of pensions, but we’re all in the same boat now, no matter what color our collars are. (Dad worked three decades in a factory and left Mom with his pension that allows her to live comfortably in her old age. You think this is going to happen with 401-K’s and Social Security?)
But never mind all that. Going back to the early 80s. For some reason, I keep thinking about this guy M, who was known for being a great wrestler. In one of our English classes our senior year, I distinctly recall one of those round-table discussions where we all talked about what wanted to do with our lives. I’m sure I said something about writing … not knowing then that hardly anybody has the life of Stephen King, making a fortune, living comfortably in large houses in the New England countryside. If you had told me I more than likely wasn’t going to make a living at this, unless I took some insane editorial job with lousy hours, low pay and a constantly shifting future, I might have thought twice. But nobody warned me about that, not even in college.
I remember when it came M’s turn, unironically, he said, “I want to drive a truck around the country with a chimp as my only companion.”
What the fuck. We all knew what he was talking about. A few years earlier, Clint Eastwood had a massive hit movie with Every Which Way But Loose with the exact same story line. He followed it up with Any Which Way You Can. In those movies, Clint made side money by staging impromptu bare-knuckle brawls in factory and farmyard lots for big money. I’d imagine M saw himself doing the same, as he was a tough kid. More importantly, he probably wasn’t referring to these movies, but the hit TV show, BJ and the Bear, with the dashing star Greg Evigan taking over the Eastwood roll, sans brawling, as a care-free trucker traveling the land with Bear, his chimp compadre.
Never mind that we had no idea of how wild and hard-to-tame chimpanzees are. That thing would be shitting in the cab routinely. Tearing up the upholstery. Jerking off constantly. I suspect chimps on a movie set like that are routinely drugged to keep them under control. Driving around the country in an enclosed space with one? Come on. For every cute scene of the animal charming people in a diner while wearing a captain’s hat and faking human laughter, there’d be a few hours of him kicking out windshields with his powerful legs and rubbing his erection on teenage girls in parking lots.
No one laughed when M said this. Probably because doing so might entail him tying the offender up like a human pretzel. He was a nice guy, anyway, when not wrestling. I’m sure a few of us gave each other a “what the fuck” look, but his declaration was taken as seriously as anyone else’s. In fact, I remember him getting into a brief discussion with another kid about the logistics of acquiring a chimp and taking it on the road … as if this was as viable an option as attending a local community college for Accounting.
And that’s a berserk form of innocence that no longer exists! Maybe thanks to reality shows, which are horrible, but at least are a strategically-edited form of reality. As opposed to the endless stream of cockamamie sit-coms we were raised on in the 70s.
On the other end was my friend L. I wrote a piece about his passing for Leisuresuit.net back in the 90s called The Blue Shirt. Which was actually about our entire-class picture in the yearbook, all of us gathered in a field behind the high-school, a cool picture to this day. My friend J, standing next to me in the picture has a fluorescent blue shirt and no right hand. In reality, he had both hands and was wearing a white shirt. The problem being, in each of the five pictures taken that day, he was giving the middle finger with his right hand wrested on his should each time. The pain of it being, I was doing the same thing, with my arms crossed, save there was a guy standing in front of me just enough to block out my hands from each picture.
But that picture also reminded me of L, who was right next to us, laughing his ass off. He was gone within a year, suicide, although I suspect to this day loved ones probably consider it accidental. But I knew the guy, and he was smart enough not to leave a car running in a closed garage, which was how he was found, and also knew he was despondent over a break-up. It’s a touchy subject I’d rather not get into – the few kids/adults who have committed suicide from our class are always hard to discuss because no one wants to think about a life ending that way, especially for somebody that young.
I remember the lunch-room discussions we used to have. R was also part of that lunch crowd, I think in our junior year. (Here’s a goodwrite-up of how R was.) R could often be found doing weird things to his food, like taking his hot dog out of its bun, cutting it up with his butter knife to make it look like a penis, tearing up and shaping the bun to look like two testicles, and placing his mashed potatoes at the head of the hot dog/penis to make it look like recent ejaculation.
Doing so would make him laugh that horsey laugh of his for minutes on end, past the point of tears, to near heart-attack level. What can I say, this is how we were as teenage males left to our devices, and I suspect little has changed over the years.
But I remember L and I once getting into a red-faced argument over my opinion that, “Anything was possible.” L scoffed at me and told me it wasn’t. I can’t even remember how I framed it or what we were talking about. But it quickly grew into a deep philosophical difference between us, that I thought anything was possible, and that L knew for fact that some things had to be impossible. The lynch pin of his point of view was that there was no way scientists could invent something that would allow his arm to snake 15 feet over three tables and steal French fries from a girl’s plate sitting that far away.
And I told him, don’t be silly, I’m not talking about possibilities in terms of crazy shit like that, I mean in terms of your life, what you want to do with it, how you want to live it, anything is possible, positive or negative.
I can’t recall why he got so angry, but you could tell he was genuinely offended that I would hold such a point of view, positioning himself as the voice of reason and experience, while I had to be out of my mind and childish to hold such a point of view.
All these years later, I could see that moment now as an omen of what was to come. Because you have to believe life is impossible to check yourself out in a closed garage a few years later, car engine running, while you sit there hoping nobody finds you before the deal is done. I’ve had some dark days in my adult life, but never to the point where I’d ponder checking out like that. Because I’ve lived long enough to know that all things pass, good and bad, continuously, and it’s a rare life that gets locked into one or the other for long periods of time.
And yet, as I get older, I can see what L meant, that things are a lot less likely to happen for some people than others, particularly when you’re raised working-class like we were. That was probably the heart of the issue for him, recognizing our place in the world. Whereas I refused to recognize that, pictured myself going to college, getting an English degree, writing all the time, getting famous, making truckloads of money as a result.
Well, three out of five aint bad. And that’s the difference. L would have looked at three out of five as a demonstration of impossibility, a failure of sorts. I probably would have, too, back then, before the internet rolled around and made writing a damn near impossible stand-alone job. I’ve learned that the simple ability to write whatever I want is all I really need, since I’ve been supporting myself by other means since the day I left college all those years ago. It would be lovely to write all the time and get paid a fortune, but I suspect the quality would be no better or worse than what I’m putting out here, and you can take that for whatever it’s worth!
But L did touch on some sense of disappointment, not just within myself, but within everyone I knew from back then. Even the extremely intelligent kids, I could sense, were not going to change mankind and alter the course of humanity, despite having the potential to do so. From what I’ve seen, most of them have fallen into lucrative professions and, pretty much, learned how to cover their own asses. I’m not knocking it. In this world? That’s to be expected by any sane person.
It’s enough to make sense of the world and your place in it, to not lose hope or sanity, to keep on keeping on, because as I saw on my father’s death bed, we’re all going to end up in that place, in that room, taking our last breaths one day, and pondering what it was all about, and what, if anything, is going to happen next. And whether you set the world on fire, only covered your own ass or checked out early because it was all too much, there’s bound to be a sense that life, in and of itself, was enough.