As the school year wore down in 1970, the time for our family to move to Illinois soon arrived. My father moved out to Illinois after taking a job with an electronics company in rural Geneva. He lived in an apartment in St. Charles for months. Looking back, the uncomfortable truth is that he likely valued the time away from the family––and perhaps even time away from my mother. He let loose in a bit of mid-life crisis. But when he crashed the greenish ’57 Chevy at an intersection one day, the crush of reality probably caught up with him quickly. Some omens arrive by way of metal. Others take the form of flesh. In either case, the collision with reality can be awkward, and often rough.
My mom worked hard to keep our family together back in Pennsylvania. She worked all day teaching school and ran her boys around to practice most evenings. On weekends she tutored students from my class with special learning needs at our home. She made sure I made no mention of their difficulties lest they be mocked at school. The social order was merciless back then.
To me, that spring was a strange holding pattern between normalcy and all the changes that I sensed were about to come. I was a self-conscious kid with crooked teeth who refused to fully smile when having my picture taken. It was hard enough maintaining some sort of social status among kids with whom I’d grown up from the age of five until seventh grade. Now I was going to have to reinvent myself in an entirely new state? It was best not to think about it day-to-day.
Then one day my father called long distance to relay that he’d found a house in a little town called Elburn. He sent us Polaroid photos of the house and driveway. I noted that the basketball backboard affixed to the barn had a nice orange square behind the basket. That was an all-new feature of basketball backboards in those days. It gave me the slimmest hope that life in Illinois could somehow turn out to be cool.
The news that I’d be moving out of town swept through our class at school. People wanted to know why I was leaving, and I didn’t have much of an answer except that my dad had gotten a job far away. Even relating that bit of foreign information made a difference in how some friends treated me. There are always people that don’t cope well with any change in a relationship, especially when it means you might be moving on in one way or another. Often to protect their own sense of security, they hide their true feelings and the person leaving winds up getting treated like dead meat. That’s how it worked with some, but not all classmates.
Over the years, I’d feel that same sensation in other situations as life went on. When things weren’t going well at work, or if you actually got laid off or fired, the ‘friendship’ dynamic changed in an instant. Whether for superstitious or practical reasons, people don’t want to associate with anyone anywhere near the chopping block. If someone is sick or worse yet, even dying, people have trouble knowing how to act. They don’t want to say the wrong thing, so they say nothing at all.
And if a lover cheats on you and other people find out about it but are afraid to tell you, the communication dynamics get awkwardly clipped and odd. In all these situations, people often choose to avoid or hide from the truth. Perhaps there is some evolutionary explanation for these types of human interactions. People see any form of weakness or signs of separation from the herd as a potential threat to themselves. It’s a dynamic as old as wildebeasts and lions, and it is one of the tarsnakes of human existence that even longtime friends will duck and run if they don’t feel they have the emotional energy to sustain you in a time of need.
But that was not the case with everyone in our class. Some of the junior high teachers sympathized with me about moving away. One in particular, a music teacher and the choir director, organized a Going Away party that my classmates attended. Someone took a collection and the group purchased me a an actual sweep-second-hand wristwatch, the first I’d ever owned. I was overwhelmed by the gift even though it probably wasn’t all that expensive. Others gave me 45 RPM records that were popular at the moment. That included the newly released Let It Be single, a 45 single that had the amazing parody number You Know My Name on the back. I loved that song because it captured the odd humor of my brothers and I. We all looked a life like a parody in so many ways.
But the record given to me that hurt the most was the single Get Back by the Beatles. Its refrain…”Get back to where you once belonged” was hauntingly real to me that last month in Lancaster.
After all that social attention, I did the one thing that comes natural to me when human relationships get too much to handle. I retreated to nature. I headed to the woods and walked trails along the small brown river called Mill Creek, and wandered over to the Conestoga River as well. Even as a young kid I loved spending time alone. On warm days I’d sometimes strip naked and walk through the deep woods feeling free and wild. To this day I love the feeling of being naked outdoors. Not everyone appreciates that sensation, but millions do. It would be better for the world if more people did, and if it were legal in the United States, the most uptight country on the planet.
Of course, a little kid, I was afraid of being caught while naked. But I was cautious as heck and that never happened. I was like a wild little animal carrying my clothes around or leaving them in some safe spot to run back and forth for twenty or thirty yards like the skinny little roadrunner that I was. These days, I’m not beyond finding some massively remote place to strip down and stand a few minutes in the sun. It is cathartic in many ways.
Finally I’d get anxious enough about getting caught naked to throw clothes back on and hike out of the woods and find something else to do.
Along with my human friends I’d made friends in those woods and streams with crayfish and salamanders, frogs and fish including bass, suckers, carp, catfish and bluegill. While fishing, I once watched a squirrel try to leap from one tree to another and fall into the stream, only to swim back out. In winter the ice from Mill Creek heaved up during an ice dam. It collected on the banks and made an astounding playground, but I was always careful not to fall and hurt myself. I never liked the idea of dying alone.
There was a massive aviary near the golf course and I loved visiting the fenced in area to stare at the peacocks strutting with their raised tails. You could hear them calling at all times of the day, and the guinea fowl would race around with their insane clucks and protestations if you got too near.
Time to move
Then came the day that the Mayflower moving van showed up with that classic mustard yellow and green pattern with red lettering. I can still feel the dull pain of seeing that truck in our driveway. The movers hauled all our furniture and belongings out to the giant truck. Then our home at 1725 Willow Street Pike sat empty, and I walked around the house with my footsteps echoing off the walls. I could not believe it was actually happening. We were leaving home, and for what? What awaited us?
I walked around the yard with its newly grown layers of green grass. I stood there and thought about the seven years we’d spent living there. I loved that home with all my heart. Because despite the pains of growing up, and the occasional whippings we’d get with a switch or a brush, or a hot pan of water thrown by my mother to settle our asses down, that house would forever be considered the place I called “home” no matter where else I lived. I knew every corner of that lawn. I’d learned to pitch a baseball, throw perfect spirals with a football, and kick a soccer ball with the side of my foot like you’re supposed to do. And I also ran my first timed race around the side yard that was the size of a tennis court, because that’s what it used to be.
Life in images and sound
I loved how the dogwood tree blossomed white in spring and how fun it was to climb the tall hemlock on the east side of the property. Looking out from the upstairs windows of my bedroom, I could always see what was going on in the yard. My mother used to send me to bed before dark in the summer months, and I’d be jealous of my older brothers and their friends running around outside playing Kick the Can or Capture the Flag. But eventually I grew up enough to join them, and racing around as the fireflies rose from the grass is the substance of my youth.
So many evenings we’d be out there playing in the yard or somewhere nearby in the neighborhood and my mother would come out calling our names for supper. She’d mix them up half the time, “Grary, Chrimmy, Jissy…” she’d call out in some kind of confused hurry. That was because she loved us all equally, and deeply. For all our fights and differences at times, in many ways were were inseparable.
My memories of that home include birthdays spent working on plastic models given to me as gifts. Sometimes I spent hours doing watercolor paintings or pastels with the art supplies that my mother purchased for me.
In the summer of ’69 I sat with my mother watching the moon landings together in the living room. And my dad once turned to his kids before a Muhammad Ali fight being broadcast from the other side of the world, and said, “Have you ever seen a miracle?” Then he explained how those pictures were being bounced off satellites in space. But we were all so excited about seeing Ali in action we hardly absorbed the lesson. Float like a butterfly. Sting like a bee. Rumble, young man Rumble.
We watched the television shows Laugh In and Batman together. On Sunday afternoons and evenings, we’d lock in for the sequence of American Sportsman with Curt Gowdy, Mutual Of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, then an episode of Daniel Boone or Davey Crocket, all capped by the Sunday Disney show that week. Of course, half the time I’d be watching those Sunday shows knowing that I’d not done my homework.
One fun summer we roared over the Marty Feldman comedy show as a family. The program began with the wild-eyed Feldman playing a hole of golf in which he putted into all kinds of crazy situations. On Saturday mornings, I’d watch Looney Toons with Bugs and Daffy, Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, Sylvester and Tweetie, and Roadrunner, my favorite. Then came the weird-ass live shows like the Banana Splits (whose them song Bob Marley copped for one of his songs) and HR Puffnstuff, with its tongue-in-cheek drug references. and the Monkees. Then we’d watch American Bandstand and go outside after that and play.
With all those memories and joys stored in my conscience, I was numb that day we packed up to leave. The day before I met with my best friend out on the drop hole of the golf course, where he asked, “Why does everything I love have to leave me.”
As for me, I felt raw emotions burrowing into my soul. But I tried to be brave and hide them. The night before we left Lancaster, I stayed next door at the neighbor’s house. The girl next door named Amy was a sweet and kind friend all those years. Her mother Van made a special meal for us. Her father Dick used to take me fishing down at the Susquehanna dam. His eldest son was too old for going fishing with dad by then, and his two daughter had no real interest in it. So he’d ask me to go along, and I loved plunking a heavy line and sinker with a worm on the hook into the swirling waters. He trusted that I would not fall in, and I never did. Some aspects of common sense in those days were assumed.
I knew that he worked at a meat-packing plant in Lancaster. On his wall at home was painting of a bullfighter and a bull done in cow’s blood. I didn’t think much about it back then, but it is amazing how the sensibilities of generations change with time.
The morning that we left, my family arrived back from the various houses where they’d stayed the night before. My friend David and I hugged liked we’d never hugged before. We both cried deeply, sobbing. And then he stopped suddenly. That was his nature. We were two twelve-year-old boys knowing that they were losing a longtime friendship, and there was nothing we could do about it. But David learned along the way how to put pain behind him. After his parents’ divorce, and so on, he processed what he could and moved on.
The Trip West
We climbed into the 1967 Buick Wildcat with my younger brother sitting between my parents in the front seat and my two older brothers parked on either side of me in the back seat. Normally they didn’t want me touching them in any way, but that morning my oldest brother leaned close to me and we sang the refrain from the backside medley of the Beatles Abbey Road album. “1 2 3 4 5 6 7…All good children go to heaven…” Somehow that was a solace to us both.
Down the driveway we rolled for the last time. Then we drove straight through Lancaster past the Armstrong baseball fields where we all learned the game. The Buick Wildcat with its .357 engine wound onto the Pennsylvania turnpike and we traveled west toward Illinois and an entirely new life. I wasn’t exactly happy about it. Nor were my brothers, or even my mother, I’m willing to bet. But my dad had made up his mind that his future lay with that new company out in Illinois, we were all along for the ride. We’d stop in St. Clair, Michigan that night to stay with his former Cornell University college buddy. I recall having an immediate attraction to the prettiest girl among the three. She was my age and know she was pretty, so she took to running me around all afternoon, exploiting my desire to please and earn favor from her. Such is one of the tragic flaws of my personality. It always comes out during times of great duress.
Then we drove the rest of the way through Ohio and Indiana to Illinois.
That period was all part of a horrifically awkward period of transition. My oldest brother was just enrolled in college back at Millersville next to Lancaster. My next oldest brother would be a senior in high school that year, and it was the worst possible timing to move to another state. I was only heading into eighth grade, and I’d soon enough make new friends and adapt to the new life in Illinois. My youngest brother was a mere nine years old, but growing like a big weed.
I was determined to hit the ground running once we arrived. Few things in life make you run faster in place than moving to an all-new town. Within a week or two, the word got out about my basketball skills, and I tried out for the local baseball team only to throw a perfect game against much less skilled players. So they moved me up to the American Legion ballclub that started at sixteen years old and there I was, a soon-to-be thirteen-year-old pitching against the older kids.
And Competition’s Son was suddenly in his element.