“There are, at present, nine-hundred, fifty-eight boroughs in Pennsylvania. A borough is a self-governing municipal entity, smaller than a city in its residential areas. I was raised in the borough of Hollidaysburg with close access to one of fifty-seven cities in our Commonwealth – that being Altoona, the “Railroad City” of generations with a footprint embedded in the Horseshoe Curve. A National Historic Landmark, this tourist attraction was built to help trains cross the Allegheny Ridge, a barrier to westward trade.”
Do you have any (bleeping) idea how difficult that last paragraph was for me to write? If so, raise your hand and I’ll buy you a drink. Geesh. Can you say, “adjectivally challenged?”… I can smell the halls of the school where books of expected middle school enlightenment were strewn face up at my feet. Stinky, prepubescent bullies on full tilt taking out their own insecurities on me. A single-minded, get through to the next class, should-have-been there already, hall “unfortunate” was I. It was in that very school above I would have written such a dry, colorless passage … no wonder. Save a few moments of private reflection, those days were stretched longer and tighter than the roughly seven hours allotted for state mandated public education. It was as if the pull of earth’s four cardinal directions acted in concert to tear apart the fabric of any normal, wearable smile I had before doors of entry. Day in, through the back IU8 off-yellow doors – and day out, through the same. Time after time.
We lived only a short block or two from the back side of the school – behind the football field as shown. Our house is seen nestled in behind the little black dot. In this archival postcard, the house was not yet ours, however. I was probably ten years too soon a thought when this picture was taken, mom hadn’t been swooned by a semi-bald sweet talking history major “dad”, and Richard James was ten years along manufacturing his Slinky toy only three miles away. By my estimate, sixty years have passed in this faded green and brown representation of a small borough located in western-central PA. These vanishing once vibrant colors being a small palette of superficial history. The memories I have of the past – in that school – are, by contrast, the formative, deeper, well-defined darker shades. On this basis alone, I invite you into my classroom of experiences.
If, in America, a reunion of adults who struggled through the terrible teens was ever organized, I’d gladly volunteer to head ALL the subcommittees such as the “gross locker room shower episodes” group, to mention one. At what point in the code book did mature, well-meaning adults decide a thirty second window was enough time for twenty-five icky, sweaty boys (yes, boys! .. not young men) to jam under less than twenty-five shower heads. To compound the problem, it was athletes vs. non-athletes pushing a way to the water spouts .. which wasn’t really a problem, anyway, because the jocks were the ones who “athleted” during gym, anyway. Most of us instrument blowers and finger peckers didn’t pore-sweat, but had to show success “after” the shower. Nothing like being embarrassingly naked having to prove wetness in front of a male gym educator for what, I now ask? … So he could check a box saying I took a shower? … which I never did because Big Billy, the football player, hogged the second to last shower in the corner. PS. I splashed a few drops of cold water on my bare chest from the water fountain. Didn’t take much. Don’t ask.
I also want to chair the “over-heated school dance” commission. If by, “over-heated”, you think I mean the large wooden room where, only hours before, boys and girls chucked their way around in tight, colorless unitards while sweaty big Billies swang a dirty dodge ball violently at sticky thin oboe players, you’d be wrong. I’m talking about genetic troopery marching through veins of anticipatory teens headed toward the front lines of heated first kisses. This, while clueless chapter-paws (parents & teachers disguised as chaperones .. my mash-up) adulted their way around in casual leisure suits pretending to monitor, but oogley-boogling each other across the room. Like we didn’t know. Bleaek .. and double-bleaek.
I went to two dances in three years. If you look to the left of the smiley part in the picture, that’s where the dances were held. Pillars representing, if you will, the teeth of the dragon – the mouth of hell where darkness invited a cascade of pulsing red, yellow, green, and blue lights filling a room already saturated with noise so loud an adolescent fart was only known by a vibration in your underwear. I entered my second dance expecting more of the same: 1. dirt on the backside of my faded jeans from leaning up against the racked bleachers, 2. not knowing anyone because I wasn’t a raccoon being able to spot trash in complete darkness, 3. acquiring Beethovian hearing by the third song due to the DJ’s complete obliviousness of his own auditory handicap, and 4. wondering why I was really there … it certainly couldn’t have been my idea. (Who invited me, anyway, and where the f**k is he..she…? “Maybe I should go talk to Mr…oh, wait. Can’t he’s snorking up to Mrs… What the …!! Now I’M getting over-heated and it ain’t the chick in the white David Cassidy t-shirt over there … Oh, wait, that’s sweaty Billy. Shit. I can’t see a damn thing.”)
Trauma never ending, over walked the twins. Not just any twins. THE twins. Now I remembered the “why” as in, “Why I came to the stale, drippy, hormone-burdened meat locker that night”. I promised I would … kiss … one of the twins. Just which one, I didn’t remember. Oh, yeah, this was epic for sure. Nearly deaf, blind, and alone, being approached by a set of babes beset with beguiling beauty,…eer…. actually at my age then, let’s just say “approached by ANY girls” …, I quickly realized a chance was close at hand to know FINALLY what girl lips felt like pressed, voluntarily, against mine (don’t ask). Trauma subsided into anticipated pleasure zones as blood quickly rushed to my formerly muted cheeks. This was my chance….
… Although, I did agree earlier in the day – at study hall where I never studied – to kiss one of my gal-mates at the dance NOT because I liked her … just because I was soooo lonely. Even with that foreknowledge, as the twins approached I couldn’t remember with which one I agreed to have early-teen magic lip bonding. They were identically equal and had similar ideas on how to confuse me. The best idea in their duplicitous (see what I did there?) plan? Take this neophytically numb newby outside behind a bush – with two male friends of theirs – to witness the act. Sure, why not, right? Twins girls, two dudes (one not sweaty Billy), a lot of bushes (as it turned out), a brick wall, darkness, dirt, aaaand me.
So tempting to stop. Right here. I’m a well-adjusted adult. You are, probably as well. I can assume nothing more needs to be written and your life will go on …
But, I won’t do that. Even though I really, really, really ….. want to …
I didn’t like it. Uck.
And by the way, for the record, I don’t remember which twin it was so don’t be looking back in any yearbook and calling out names. I’m also going to assume she liked it more than I did. She HAD to. There can’t be anything worse than what I experienced that night. Take any ordinary garden hose, dip in in gasoline, have an elephant spit on it, set it on fire, then jam it down my throat for five seconds. THAT would’ve been better. Heck, sweaty Billy may have done a better job!
Look, I’m not blaming her at all. I think she was a sweet girl. Pressures of those years can be horrible. She saw me as a possible target and that’s ok. I was willing to be because I had flaws as well. The whole kissing thing was so stupid, anyway. So was trying to get through the halls without a bully knocking books out of my arms. That school is a place of memories, … fantastic, great, good, bad, and horrible.
We have them. They’re not unique to any of us. Middle school years are tough and that school, to me, represents the hardest years of my life save a few adult years recently. My dad and I had really hard times back then. Fortunately, we’ve been able to patch all that up lately – forty years later.
My days were stretched longer and tighter than the roughly seven hours allotted for state mandated public education. Maybe, looking back, I’m glad they were because being pulled apart early on opened up spaces. Spaces in between the pieces of my life I only started to know later in life that were missing. Chances to heal. Chances to enliven the adjectivally challenged and bring color back to a once vibrant soul.
There are, at present, nine-hundred, fifty-eight boroughs in Pennsylvania, but only one way to heal in each one of us. Revisit your past, live through it and laugh. Find your sweaty Billy and maybe give him a kiss on the cheek for me.