Physical Labour

The old man treated me like a damn dog.  I don’t think he was cheap exactly.  More like he was doing it the way his old man had done it to him, like my time and energy were his to do with as he wanted, and if he wanted to throw it away, it was no skin off his nose, now was it?

So somewhere he met this guy who wants his driveway repoured.  I get out of the truck and the old man hands me a sledge hammer, points at the driveway—cracked in places—that is still there and says, break it up, will ya.  So I take to it with the sledge hammer and damn I can’t make a dent.  The hammer just bounces off the stuff.  After thirty minutes of that I am about ready to cry.  I feel like a damn weakling.  And my hands are starting to blister.

The old man comes up from whatever he has been doing, probably chewing the fat with strange guy who has hired us, who goes around breathing oxygen out of tank and smoking at the same time.  I guess, I will have to get a jackhammer, he says.  What? The hell, I think.  He had thought, probably need a jackhammer but let’s see if the kid can do it, like I was some sort of experimental human jackhammer.  But it was no skin off his nose, now was it.

Another time, he wants to pull the engine on his ’47 truck to fix it. So he pulls the car under the car port; ties nylon rope to four points on the engine, rigs a pulley, and my brothers and I yank and yank on that nylon cord till it is cutting our skin and we can’t get the engine out.  We can get it up alright, but not out.  So we let the air out of the tires to lower the truck, and we go at it again.  And we still can’t get it out; we are swearing and cursing, my hands are bleeding, and we hear this “crack” because the car port is about to go.  So we give up; the old man rents a hoist and we have the  engine out in five fucking minutes.

I guess he figured, why the fuck not.  Our time was his time, the way he figured it, and it was damn cheap since it cost nothing.

And every spring, we did the chickenshit run.  I would go and I would fill up the truck with chickenshit, and then he would pull the truck into the back yard and I would throw the chickenshit out to where the garden was going to be that year.

I think it says something about my family that I count among our happier outings together going to the dump. You didn’t get to go to the dump every day and it was a blast with all the noise and the big tractors and junk every where and seagulls flapping about and making a racket.  And when we got that truck emptied out, I had a feeling of accomplishment.

Another Damn Brick

brickIt still hurts if I think about it.

We got to the finals of the pre-season Christmas Tournament in 1963.  The coach stole everything he could from UCLA.  We pressed constantly and for an entire quarter one poor team we played in the tournament never made it past half court.  Their guards looked like they were ready to cry with frustration.

But the team from La Jolla had scouted us out, I think.  They brought their big center to half court and broke our press easily.  Also I didn’t know it till I walked on it but the college court where we played the finals was bigger than a high school court.  We had more territory to cover and we couldn’t cover it.

 They played a zone on us, and the piss of it was they dropped way off  me on the outside and clamped down on our best player, a shooting guard.  Over and over the guard threw it to me.  I didn’t know what to do with it but shoot.  I could have been more than 18 feed out, a lay-up for me on a normal day, and I threw up one brick after another.


 If I had made even a couple of those, we might have pulled them out of the zone a bit.

After that—and it was my senior year—my playing time declined.  I had started as a junior and up till that point as senior.  But the coach started playing a junior instead; he couldn’t shoot for shit as far as I could tell, but he was six feet three and near 190 compared to my running weight of 148 at six feet.

They didn’t call me “Nick the Stick” for nothing; or “Mahatma,” in acknowledgement of my more spiritual side, or maybe because I looked like I had been on a fast.




Aw.Glowing hard wood.The stink of socks and sweating bodies.The squeak of sneakers.The bong bong bong of the b-ball.The steady muttering of low level cussing.

Basketball probably saved my ass.

I tried out for Pony League and made a team.  But I didn’t get to pitch or play much.  Once the coach put me at third base.  A guy makes it to second and—for god’s sake—he tries to steal.  I make like what I have seen on the TV.  I go for the ball with a sweeping motion.  Completely miss.  And the ball hits me right in the testicles.  Fucking-A did that hurt.  So much for baseball.

I had grown nine inches in a year and become quite ill coordinated.  I actually fell over my own two feet on several occasions.  My feet had shot out too.  So I had to reassess my sport’s career.  Suddenly I was towering over my peers.  Obviously I needed to make use of my new found height and basketball recommended itself.  Besides I liked it.

 So I did what I had done with baseball.  I practiced.  As with pitching, I could practice basketball alone.  Out back was an empty space of flat white dirt.  Leche, it was called.  Like milk.  Apparently it was a left over from some ancient time because it had been created out of decomposed sea shells and such.  I decided to put up a hoop and my father said he would help.

I dug a hole, mixed up some concrete and stuck a 15 foot long four by four piece of redwood in the ground.  Bolted to it was a backboard, made out of ply wood and painted white.   The hoop was attached to that.

The playing area was narrow.  I couldn’t go much to the right or I would run into a rock wall that held up the little lawn out back and if I went too much to the left I would go over the edge of the little plateau  down into a field full of anis weed.   But I could shot straight away from at least 20 feet although by that point the ground began to slope and I was shooting at a hoop about six inches too high.

I was pleased.

Rebel without a Cause

Behind your back, teachers make notes on you and stick them in a file so other teachers can see what kind of person they think you are.  So if the teacher thinks you are a screw-up, she writes down, this kid is a screw-up.  And then your next teacher reads that you are a screw-up.

This is known as letting people make up their own minds.

Mrs. Seaward, my junior year English teacher, must have read what Mr. Richards wrote about me.  That’s the only way I can figure out why she jumped down my throat at practically nothing.  She was primed to do it at the first sign of anti-authority tendencies.  For a semester at least, she assigned us “themes” at least 3 times a week.  She might as well have just taken her “themes” from the dictionary, since they were one word affairs like “patriotism,” or “honor,” or “education.”  But all you had to do was write a paragraph on the “theme,” so it wasn’t so bad.  In fact, I enjoyed writing them.

But one night she gave us the theme of “time.”  I had already got it into my head that I was a better than average writer maybe because in fact I was a better than average writer.  But with this theme, I couldn’t find any way to display my talents.  I was super frustrated because all I could do was come up with one cliché after another.  I remember feeling that I was angry and that maybe I was stepping across a line, even though I was also trying to solve a problem, when I typed out an entire page of “tick-tocks” and interspersed them with parenthetical remarks like tick-tock (time flies) tick-tock or tick-tock (tempus fugit—since I was taking Latin) tick-tock or tock-tick (time heals all wounds).

So this teacher calls me back into her little cubby hole of an office space and tells me that if I ever again submit a paper like this she will have me kicked out of her class.  And then she says, “You are just a rebel without a cause.”  I was a bit flattered because I have always felt it was better to be something than nothing.  And being a rebel without a cause seemed more romantic than simply being insolent. But I didn’t know what she was talking about because I was unaware of the movie with that title.  When I did see the movie I couldn’t believe it; she was comparing me to what we called “hoods” or “juvenile delinquents.”

No one was less a hood than I.  Crossing the police scared the living piss out of me.  And I didn’t have a car to try to crash into somebody else with.  I thought James Dean was a fucking spoiled brat.  All my fellow students thought I was the most proper guy alive; that’s why the guys on the basketball team didn’t invite me to get drunk and drive around knocking off rear view mirrors with a hammer.  They knew I wouldn’t do it.  Nobody knew me really.  I wasn’t a damn James Dean and I wasn’t Mr. Proper either or else I wouldn’t have a father who seemed to want to kill me or teachers accusing me of being a rebel without a cause.

I was one confused puppy.

Career Choices

Sophomore year of high school was a beast.  That was the year– my mother later said–that “they,” meaning her, had thought of sending me to a counselor because I had stopped talking.  That was the year too that I attacked Richards in the papers for my English class.  And towards the end of the basketball season, the coach came up and asked me if I wanted to quit the team.  Of course I didn’t; what the hell had made him think that I did?  Had I been screwing up or not trying?  I almost started bawling at the touch of personal attention he showed.  That was the year too I sat around thinking about killing my parents all the time.  I thought a lot about running away also as a less violent way to alter my situation.

I saw this vicious killer on TV who said his slide down hill started when he ran away from home.  You know, he said, I got a couple of miles from home and it started raining like hell and I hadn’t brought a jacket.  Man I was soaked.  And then a bit further down the road I got hungry but I’d only brought a quarter or something, so I went to this gas station and hit the attendant over the head with a brick and cleaned out the cash register.  And that was how he started his downhill slide to death row.

This killer simply didn’t know how to look before he leaped; or maybe he lacked impulse control.  My problem was that if I were to run away, I would be sure to check the weather forecast in the paper before I did so.  I was just too rational for my own good.  I had no money; I had no skills; and I was too thin to be any good at manual labor.  All and all, neither running away nor killing my parents seemed like a really good career choice.

I was glad I had done pretty well in school; I liked the attention and I even liked some of the stuff I was learning.  And if I didn’t do well my parents would be down my throat.  By sophomore year I began to realize there was such a thing as college and I more or less decided I would run away from home by making sure I went to college. Getting good grades was easy, but I had to make sure I didn’t rile my teachers.  So there in my sophomore year of high school, with no knowledge of the world and in many ways emotionally stunted, I decided what to do with the rest of my life.  I was going to college, get a degree, and make what they used to call a “decent living.”

Sophomore year was also the year I realized that they weren’t kidding about death.  I was walking home from school and was flooded with the realization of my morality.  It was a kind of mystical experience, not a rational realization; but one in depth.  The fuck of it was I felt almost, if not happy, at least free.  There had always been a way out right under their nose; I sort of put it into words at that time by thinking there was a part of me so small that they just couldn’t get to it.

A Tale of 2 Cities

Mr. Richards was my sophomore English teacher.  He wore bow ties.  And occasionally he would launch into a lecture, nearly a sermon, about the importance of being virtuous and how virtue was its own reward.  And how sometimes we might have to sacrifice stuff for the greater good.  Maybe he had been inspired by Kennedy—that turkey—; I don’t know.  But he got on my nerves

 Every year in home room, somebody would nominate me to represent the class on the Student Council.  I considered student government a complete joke.  I declined every time.  But this time Richards took me aside into his little office and gave me a lecture on how my fellow students looked up to me and that I should accept the role and the responsibilities of being a leader.  I thought the guy was full of shit.

So I started attacking him in my papers.  I’d write something like: if anybody thinks this particular character is virtuous and acts unselfishly, then he or she doesn’t know anything about the human race and should on such matters as these keep his or her mouth shut on things beyond his grasp of reality.  The he or she was Richards, of course; and I would always go on to back up my argument with intelligent counter evidence.

Things got pretty tense between us.  He liked to change the seating assignments.  So one week you’d be here and the next there.  Whenever I had any kind of choice, I gravitated to the back row or the sides.  I hated the front row; that’s where all the kiss ups and brown nosers sat.  So there I was sitting in the front row while he was going on about something, and very casually I stretched out my long legs and rested my feet on the edge of his typewriter stand.  Then I yawned.  Jesus, the look I got.  I pretended not to notice, till he whacked my foot and told me to put my feet down.

Those fuckers could always dish it out but they couldn’t take if for a second.

One day I was sitting in the back row—where I belonged—and when he launched into one of his moralizing monologues, I raised my hand.  He made the mistake of acknowledging me and for the next 10 minutes we went back and forth.  He tried to assert virtue; I asserted that people acted solely from fear—fear of punishment, fear of pain, fear of the law, fear of justice, fear of death, fear of failure.   There was nobody in the room but me and him; the rest turned their heads this way and that like they were watching a tennis match.  The bell rang, and my fellow students applauded.

I figured I had licked the fucker.  Still, I had to admit he had let me talk; in all my years in school up till that time I had never seen a teacher and student go back and forth like that.

I wrote another paper attacking the guy; I think it was on that damn Tale of Two Cities, with that idiot Sydney Carton—or something like that.  Mr. Richards stopped me after class, and said he hoped I knew he wasn’t an idiot and that, if I wrote another paper like the last one, he would kick me out of his class.

That gave me pause.  I had never heard of somebody kicking anybody out of his class before.  Out of the whole school, yes, but not out of a class. Where would I go?  And what for really—sticking my feet on his typewriter stand and telling the truth.  But something like that could get back to my parents and there would be hell to pay.

Looked like where ever I turned, the assholes had me by the throat.

Locker Mates

By the late 50’s SoCal was booming.  At Junior High, there weren’t enough lockers for everybody, so we had to double up.  My locker mate, I noticed, did not eat normal food.  He had little sacks—some paper, some cloth—with nuts and raisins and such in them.  One day he had three carrots and another day a couple of onions.  He was the first vegetarian I ever met.

He was short, had broad cheekbones, and long hair comb straight back. The look was enough to set him apart.  Most boys back then sported a skin head look maybe because their fathers, back from the war, felt that if it had been good enough for them over there, then it was good enough for their kid.

Roland was intelligent too.  All ten kids, plus the parents, were intelligent.  The father had been graduated from MIT at 17.  He was some sort of genius; now he was an engineer working at one of the aircraft plants and an inventor.

One day we were eating lunch, me with my traditional white bread baloney plus a little bag of potato chips, him with some lettuce and what looked like bird seed, and he said, in this abrupt way he had, “Do you think jerking off makes your hair fall out.”

While I had been thinking about this very issue for some time, I had not up till that moment spoken of my concerns to another human being.  I was a bit nonplused, and my hesitation must have made him think I didn’t know what he was taking about.

“You know, beating the meat, whacking off, choking the chicken.”

I said I knew what masturbation was and had research the subject in a regular dictionary, an encyclopedia and a medical dictionary and they had all said it was normal and one had even said it was natural as long as you didn’t do it excessively.

Was 5 times a day excessive, 10 times a day, what the hell did they mean by excessive? He asked.  This “excessive” word had bothered me too; though I was wondering if once a day was excessive.  I said I didn’t know and asked had he beaten off ten times in a day.

No, he said.  But one of his older brothers had; he had beaten off six times in a day but gotten sore.

Who knows what a friend is.  There are all sorts of definitions.  Gide says a friend is somebody you’d be willing to do a bad job with.  I heard a guy say he was going home to look at the super bowl with some friends; so they sat around watching commercials during the super bowl with friends sitting around watching the super bowl.

I think friendship is based on some form of shared pathology.

Yes Sir, No Sir, Thank You Mam, Please

Yes Sir, no Sir, thank you Mam, please. 

A proper southern boy was taught to address folks in particular ways.   Being the eternally curious boy I was I asked why and was told that saying sir and mam was a way to show respect to my elders.  The next time I happened to be introduced to another little boy, I asked him how old he was, and since he was a year older than I, I addressed him as sir, since he was my elder. My parents told me to stop it.  I knew of course what I was doing; I was being aggravting, bordering on insolance.  They knew I knew that’s not what they had meant.

So they tried to define elder which ended up being impossible; and then I asked should I say “sir” to a criminal since such a person might be older but not worthy of respect.  Intelligence is a mixed blessing.  Half the time—more than that probably—that they thought I was being insolent, I was really asking a question that they couldn’t answer because there wasn’t an answer, except “because I say so.”  I got that one a lot, and “you will know when you are an adult.”

 I don’t think on this particular occasion that I was in a bad mood. Thought it might have been my second year in high school when I was always in a bad mood.  I recollect having been really quite abstracted, off in my own mind someplace.

We were at the dinner table.  I sat at one end, as the number 1 son, and the old man sat opposite; and my mother and my youngest brother still in his high chair sat on one side and the two other brothers on the other side.  Usually Popeye the Sailor Man was on TV. The way the room was shaped and sitting where I sat, the damn TV was directly behind me and I couldn’t see it at all.  But the old man looking over my shoulder could see what Olive Oil, Wimpy and the rest of the gang were up to.

 My father asked me to pass him something.  Like the salt.  So I did, and as far as I was concerned that was over with.  But then the old lady said, “Say Sir to your father.”  What the hell was her problem?  I couldn’t remember having said anything at all; had I said yes with out the sir.  I felt sort of startled like you do when somebody sneaks up behind you and makes a noise and you jump.  It was like out of nowhere….

 And I found myself saying, “I don’t say sir….”  And about there I knew what I was going to say and I decided to say it all….”to people I don’t respect.”  Things would just come over me sometimes.

 So the old man started huffing and puffing and banging his fists on the table and looking like one of those cartoon creatures with smoke coming out of its nose and ears, and then he stood up and lifted the whole table about up to his neck and slammed it down again.  So my favorite meal ended up flying every whichaway and mostly into my lap.  Pork chops with minute rice and gravy and an iceberg lettuce salad with some sort of fucking vegatable out of a can.  If you really want to turn kids off to their veggies, be sure to serve them out of a can.

 I don’t know what happened after that.  The old lady started bawling of course and the two young brothers too.  But I didn’t get hit because this was after the time they had decided to stop beating me.  Probably I was sent to my room and deprived of my one pathetic hour of TV viewing.  Like missing Mannix was going to kill me.

Probably there’s no excuse for what I said except maybe for the fact I was telling the truth.  I had thought about it long and hard and concluded that the old man, while my elder, was not worthy of my respect and thus did not warrant a “Sir.”

Piano Lessons

After class one day, as I was headed to the bus, my third grade teacher, Mrs. Cannon stopped me, handed me a sealed envelope, and asked me to give it to my parents.  Her tone was friendly; still my stomach got knotted up with anxiety wondering what was in the letter.

My father was home and stood there as my mother read the letter.  She started talking immediately to my father, and I was not sent away because they forgot I was there. Otherwise I probably never would have heard what was in the letter.

Miss Cannon had written that she believed I had some musical abilities and that I might benefit from piano lessons.  Some parents might have been made happy by such a letter and thinking that their child might have some talent.  Not mine.  My mother immediately became upset.  Lessons cost money.  And how would they get me to the lessons.  My father had work, and my mother didn’t drive.  And surely I would have to practice.  That would require a piano, an upright of course, and they could not afford one of those.  But they could rent, she imagined, but where she wonder could they put a piano in that tiny house; the front room—well, there was no room there either.

My mother became such a wreck thinking about all the reasons I couldn’t have piano lessons that I wished I hadn’t shown a talent in the area.  Later, she asked if I would miss having piano lessons, and what with her pathetic whining tone and what I had heard before, the only answer to that was “no.”  She said I was wise because musicians lead horrible lives, never make any money, and become alcoholics.

So it’s just as sociologists have said.  The musical instrument of the middle class is the piano.  Some educator, in an article about struggles over homework, mentions how his mother sat and listened to him encouragingly while he played and how he was doing the same thing for his own son.  What!  The idea of my mother sitting and listening to me work on my scales fills me with terror.

 I have a guitar now—just a 300 buck one–; that’s the instrument of the working class.

 Someday before I die I will buy a Martin.

The Prisoner’s Diet

I believe that the psychological metabolism of a person is pretty well established by the time he is two.  Basic set points have been installed about such things as one’s ability to love or to accept love, to trust or to accept trust, to idealize and to accept idealization.  The thermostat tolerance levels for anxiety, fear, and rage are also established.  I developed the metabolism of a starving person; or at least a person on very short rations.  I learned to get the minimum daily requirement of nutrition out of the poison I was fed.

I have a hard time finding an answer when I look around in amazement and ask myself why I am not already dead and buried or locked up in a loony bin.  One answer might be nature; I was brought up in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by trees, and bushes and birds, and I was able to spend a lot of time outdoors.  One of my brothers describes our stay in South Carolina as idyllic.  I don’t think so, but whatever of the idyllic there might have been perhaps helped to sustain me.

But most important—I am now convinced—was my Aunt Addie.  She lived those days 100 yards away in her mother’s house.  During my first five years in SC, she was a teenager, and a mother in training.  She spent time with me; read to me; and talked with me.  I won’t say it was love at first sight.  But she was a decent young woman who liked me. I was always smiling, she said, polite, and endlessly curious; and I was happy to see a person who looked at me welcomingly and called out my name with excitement.

 The misery of this for me is that I don’t remember a damn bit of it.  I feel sad that I can’t remember if she held my hand while she read or ruffled my hair or hugged me goodbye.  But anxiety is a memory killer and I was in a perpetual state of inward anxiety.  Still, when I returned to SC after having been away for 35 years, as soon as I saw Aunt Addie, I knew I knew this person and that I liked her.  So while I can’t remember, I am certain she played a central part in keeping me on the sane side of the sanity-insanity spectrum.  This point was hammered home for me when I happened to look and see that my wife and my Aunt were two peas in a pod in height and weight.  So, I thought, I married my Aunt and not my Mother, and that was a good thing.

I think people want to grow and to change.  Some souls are so stomped into submission that they are fated to endure life only or to give up entirely.  We are all sort of like potatoes forgotten in a dark drawer, sending out pale sprouts, looking for light.  The lucky have light aplenty; the unfortunately very little.  But even a little, at the right time, can mean a great deal.  My Aunt was for me this little light.

I must have taken it in as a kind of promise that I would not always be lost in the dark.