The Ambassador of Misfits

Junior high is a tough time in any young person’s life.  It’s that time in our lives when we’re still not old enough to drive a car, but still too cool to be seen with our parents in public. It’s a time when we ridicule our enemies, but cut our friends down even worse. Our bodies are changing awkwardly, and our behavior is inexplicable. It’s the time when some kids move from puppy love relationships to actually getting physical with members of the opposite sex.  It’s that time when we all struggle to fit in, still finding out who we are and what kind of people we will become.   Everyone is self-conscious, and even the ultra-rich or ultra-popular could be susceptible to ruin and shame if they slipped up in the preservation of self-image.

Although no one would ever confuse me with being rich or popular, I was fairly well-known since I was, even at that age, outspoken, really just an asshole, and I could get away with it because I was so much bigger than my peers. Long before I became the bold, alluring, bad-ass I am today; (pause for laughter) I was a fat, sloppy, teenager, seeking approval from everyone around me. I had a big mouth but an even bigger waistline, so I made myself an easy target, which would ensure that I would never be physical with the opposite sex and that I’d never fit in with the cool kids. Looking back, I gave both my friends and enemies plenty of ammunition to use as ridicule, but it wasn’t just my fault.  The teenager in me still blames my parents for a lot of the agony I endured as an adolescent.

******

The first source of blame I put on my parents’ shoulders is that they had an amazing benefits package through their paper mill, which meant I got the finest dental care.  How could having a brilliant, white smile be the source of pain?  Well in order for it to get that way I had to undergo so many unnecessary procedures, at the hands of my orthodontist, a man whose name was Dr. Kruel. I’m not sure if that was his birth name, or just a dental “stage name” he undertook because the guy played the part of a cruel asshole.  Dr. Kruel installed a metal spacer in the roof of my mouth, which helped straighten my teeth, but first created a large gap between my two front teeth, a gap large enough to make me look like a beaten up boxer, without the muscles or glory. After that Kruel recommended a retainer that I was supposed to wear at all times, and I mostly did, except for when I was accidental throwing it away every other day.  I’d leave it on my lunch tray, or my plate, then scrape it off into the garbage and have to go dumpster diving just to retrieve it.  Because at this point in my life nearly half my caloric intake was from the six or so Pepsis I drank a day, my retainer was brown, and starting to corrode from all the different acids found in soda.  You think this would have been a warning sign, to quit drinking soda, but my parents always made sure we had no less than eight cases of soda in our house at any one time.

By far the most memorable dental experience, and Kreul’s second favorite form of medieval torture, was the headgear he forced on me like I was “The Man in the Iron Mask.”  Fortunately, I only had to wear this catcher’s mask to bed at night, and never out in public, but that didn’t prevent it from single handily ruining my life for almost two years.  The mask had plastic pads that braced my forehead and chin.  The pads were connected by metal bars, which formed a jagged grill on the outside of my mouth.  I then latched four rubber bands from the outer grill to my retainer inside my mouth, and then tried to sleep in a way that didn’t fuck the whole process up, a nearly impossible task. The rubber bands ensured that my mouth would be agape all night, and nightly I woke up in a puddle of drool.  In the morning I’d have crusty saliva all over my face, causing my skin to break out like wild fire.  The plastic pads on my forehead and chin also irritated my skin, which meant that my rather normal looking face had become the Mount Saint Helens of acne explosions, a poster child for Neutrogena if there ever was one.  It was horrible, but it only went on for two years, and besides teens never pick on kids with acne at that age.

To remedy the acne my parents took me to a dermatologist.  I don’t remember his name, but he must have gone to the same school as Kreul, the school where they teach wannabe doctors how to humiliate teens.  This doctor prescribed an acne medication in the form of a balm I applied to my face twice a day.  The stuff could have burned genital warts of the devil’s dick because it felt like it was made from 90 percent bleach.  However, it wasn’t able to cure my acne, in fact the medication made things worse, because it burnt my face, causing my skin to crack, peel and flake away.  My face looked like those images of a lake that dries up, to reveal crazy series or irregular, cracked lines.

The final straw with “Doctor” Kruel came when I reached high school and I was up to my teeth in his bullshit.  A couple years earlier he decided it was in my sister’s best interest to have her jaw broken to reset her smile. My sister’s smile was far from gruesome; in fact she was rather pretty.  But seeing her in the hospital after the procedure and watching her eat through a straw for a few weeks was more than I needed to see to know Kruel had lost his damn mind.  So, when lacking in other ways to suck my parents’ dental plan for money, he recommended breaking my jaw as well, I realized enough was enough.  I got out of his dental chair, walked out of the office and never returned.  I don’t care how many cute Garfield postcards he sent in the mail, reminding me I was overdue a visit; I wasn’t going to be subjected to his delirious torture plans any more.  The mild overbite Kreul sought to remedy persists today, and contrary to his caveats I’m able to speak, to eat and to smile without puncturing holes in my mouth

******

The source of my shame. Our Thunderbird  didn't have a pretty lady or sunroof though

The source of my shame. Our Thunderbird didn’t have a pretty lady or sunroof though

The second thing my parents did to ensure I would be an outcast, shunned by the popular kids forever, was to buy a new car while I was in junior high.  Well, the car wouldn’t even have been considered new in the year I was born, as it rolled on the line in 1977, and I came into the world in 1983. It was our neighbor’s dowdy 1977 Ford Thunderbird, a car more out of style than bell bottoms. Judging from the smell of moth balls that lingered for years after, the previous owners must have had it in storage for some time before my dad bought it.  Actually, I’m not sure if he bought it or lost some sort of bar bet, because the thing was a monstrosity.  It was mostly burgundy with a tan roof and rims.  People joke about old cars being as big as boats but this thing was an aircraft carrier.  No exaggeration, I think we were attacked by Somali pirates at least once a week riding home from school.  When we drove it on the highway, we would have to stop at weigh stations because it had to weigh about 8000 pounds.

My dad would pick me up after football practice out front of the school, but I’d beg him to meet me a block… or six away.  My friends would laugh as we’d see the red and tan ship sailing into port, my dad’s arm proudly hanging out the window. Sometimes I’d have friends who needed a ride home, but upon seeing it, they too decided it would be best to get some exercise and just walk home.

The inside was the same tan color as the exterior trim and the vinyl seats were brutal in extreme temperatures.  In the summer your legs burnt if you wore shorts; in the winter you’d freeze if the car wasn’t preheated.  Regardless of temperature any exposed skin would cling to the seat and you needed a spatula to pry yourself free after long rides.  One of the few luxuries was that it came with AC, a feature we probably used three times a year.  My dad preferred to roll the windows down, and besides, running the AC meant being trapped inside with the odor of moth balls. Luckily I was just a few years away from a license and having my own car, but the damage was already inflicted on my social standing.

******

A third form of misery I dealt with as a teen in my parents’ house was that we didn’t have cable television until I reached junior high.  Actually since we lived out in the Styx there was no cable, we finally arrived when we got a shitty satellite. When we did finally get some premium channels going there was one program that I’d never miss: Monday night wrestling. This didn’t make me a complete lame ass, since wrestling was at its highest popularity in those days.   Muscle-bound men leaping around in their underwear, with shaved legs and chests would never be more enthralling than at the height of the WWE/WCW rivalry. A couple older friends who didn’t have cable would drive over, and we’d be engrossed by three hours of wrestling each week. My parents would let me occasionally order Pay Per View events and we’d get together 10 or 20 guys and hoot and holler over our favorite wrestlers.

Wrestling was always a hot topic at our lunch table in junior high.  The lunchroom again, represented a caste system similar to the bus we took to school.  There was a table for the jocks, druggies, rednecks nerds, minorities and handicapped kids.  Our table was a hodgepodge of kids who didn’t fit in anywhere else.  These were the kids who didn’t play the “cool” sports: wrestlers, linemen from the football team and perennial bench warmers.  We also had the skater kids who didn’t really skate, a couple of nerdy guys, a kid who was half Indian and a few kids who were known to spaz.  We’d spend the lunch hour ripping on each other, and occasionally things would get so bad that our group would break apart into smaller factions when grudges formed.  I’d like to think of myself as the Ambassador of Misfits.  I could bring everyone together, and on some days when I’d bring in a box of the best cinnamon rolls in town, I’d get us a place at the cool table with my former jock friends from grade school.

There was one kid, named Adam, however, that took his love for wrestling to extremely nerdy heights and eating lunch with him meant my friends and I were lame by association.  He owned every “Stone Cold” Steve Austin shirt ever made, and in the days when the internet was still a novel thing to all of us, he created a website dedicated to his favorite wrestler.  One day in class, Adam had a seizure and missed a couple days of school. We were relieved to hear he was ok, but wickedly we were relieved to not have him sit by us for a couple days.  When word quickly spread that during his seizure Adam lost control of his bladder, and pissed himself we knew it was going to be a delicate situation when he returned.  We speculated on how to handle it and my friend Jake summed things up best.  “If I pissed myself at school I’d change my name and move to another town.”  We laughed for days about that remark, but knew it was true; junior high was a tumultuous time, all that anyone wanted to do was survive without a catastrophic embarrassment.  Adam came back a couple days later but soon decided to ostracize himself from our group, which was probably the best for all of us.

austin

******

One final thing I can blame and thank my parents for is that they allowed me to dress however I chose, provided it fit within their budget.  I graduated from Shopko brand jeans to Levi’s during junior high.  I refused to wear any sports gear that wasn’t Nike or at least Reebok.  They bought me some killer Shawn Kemp and Jamal Mashburn basketball shoes, which helped place the focus on my abnormally huge feet, and off my greasy, disgusting face.  But there was one thing they’d buy for me that I’d regret almost instantly.

Around this time a clothing label known as FUBU rose in popularity among teens.  FUBU started in New York and was popular in the hip-hop community.  Most of their clothing was outfitted with the colors of gangs: red and black or navy blue, and was branded with the number “05,” which I never understood.  FUBU stood for “For Us By Us,” which meant that it was largely intended for African-Americans.  In my junior high this meant it was worn by the druggies, the gangsta wannabes, the kids who listened to ICP (a god awful bunch of white rapping clowns), and more sparingly the few minorities who could afford it.  I didn’t really know who I was at that time, so I decided I wanted in on this trend and my mom obliged, buying me a red FUBU hooded sweatshirt from the mall.

That night my older friends came over to watch wrestling and I could hardly contain my excitement.  When they asked what was causing me to be so wound up, I told them I was dying to wear my new hoody to school the next day, my popularity would soon be soaring through the roof.  They asked me to put in on and when I did their reaction was absolute horror, chastising me,  “NOOOOO!!!  You aren’t serious are you??  Do you know what kinds of kids wear those? No, Ben, NO!”  All I wanted was approval, and here my best friends were tearing me a new asshole.  I put the FUBU hoody back in the bag with the receipt; we returned it to the mall that week, and never spoke of the day when I almost became a Central Wisconsin hip-hop mogul.

By the time I graduated high school FUBU went under in America and focused solely on international markets.  Part of this is because everyone copied their style.  Wal-Mart rolled out similar clothing, but in place of the signature “05” they instead had “08” printed on them.  The kids who couldn’t afford to shop at the mall were blasted for wearing these knock-offs and there was no surer way to guarantee your low spot on the social totem pole, with the exception of pissing your pants at school. I’d like to think my buying the FUBU hoody also contributed to their demise.  Surely, that trend had jumped the shark when I brought it home from the mall and tried it on for my friends that night.

******

Looking at myself now, it seems the more things change the more they stay the same.  I still find myself driving piece of shit cars.  I still dress like a total clown some times. My friends and I still tear each other apart, worse than any enemy ever could.   One thing that has changed is I no longer have to deal with acne.  The other big change is that I don’t care what people think anymore.  I once read somewhere a quote that I can paraphrase to sum up my feelings on growing older as it pertains to the opinions of other people.  Before you turn 20 you care too much about what other people think.  When you hit 30, you no longer care what people think.  By the time you reach 40 you realized no one was thinking about you all along.

I find that fitting because we are all tied up in our own little worlds as teens, thinking the world revolves around us, when in reality, we’re all too busy to constantly notice everyone around us. No matter what age we are, we all strive to be accepted, but it’s self-acceptance as we age that tends to matter most.  These days I don’t care what people think, but when I find myself worrying about my friends’ opinions a little too much I grab my lunch and eat alone.

Unflinching Determination

Barry, the man in the window

Barry, the man in the window

I found myself pressed up against a wall of icy snow, hopelessly using a plastic shovel as a chisel.  I had been stuck in this driveway for over two hours and I was furious.  The heat coming off my head in anger could have melted any freshly falling snow. I was cussing and muttering under my breath, all while the owner of the house looked on from his living room.  When I would finish this job I’d hang up my boots and retire from this business forever, but right now, no matter how bad things got, I just couldn’t let Barry Alvarez down.

******

I don’t watch a lot of television but I hear there is a show with the worst jobs around.  Snow removal could easily head up that list because of its variety of ways of breaking your will.  First, there is the danger.  You get called into work in the wee hours of the morning, before anything else is plowed and before it even stops snowing.  I don’t know how many times I drove in white-out conditions, unable to see the road or three feet in front of me, just to get to work and make a few bucks.   Once you got to work you were there until every job got done.  Not just your jobs, but you were liable to help some other clown who might just be incompetent, who may have been drinking when he came in, or who was intentionally dragging ass so he had to do less.  This was a psychological kind of torment, made worse by the fact that weather is unpredictable.  If we got the forecast wrong and it started snowing again, every job you did before the new snowfall would have to be touched up before we could go home.  Inevitably this meant working as much as 20 hours in a row just to get everything completed.

There was also emotional pain.  Everyone yelled at you.  “Why don’t you come to my house first?  You missed a spot over there!   It’s not even done snowing yet, why are you here??  You tore up my grass!  I know another guy who can do this for a lot less money!  Your truck wakes me up at night.”  And on and on.  Everyone has a list of complaints and as much as you want to tell them to blow it out their ass, you can’t.  Hardly anyone ever thanks you, thanks you for risking your life, just so you can be there to clear their driveway and shovel aside their insults.

Physical pain is derived from not just the back breaking work, and long hours, but also the diet you take on as a snow removal expert.  Coffee and soda are the lifeblood of these workers.  If you can manage to unthaw your fingers in the three minutes between jobs you could inhale a cigarette.  When it finally came time to pause to eat, typically not for 7-8 hours into the night, your main course, your only real sustenance for the day, came from fast food joints and gas stations.   Throw in the fact that, as you plow, you’re constantly slamming into snow banks, at 15-20 mph just to move the snow, and your body really begins to take a beating.  All that junk you put in your body to stay awake begins to feel like a washing machine inside your belly, sloshing around, mixing, and waiting to pour out of you. Then take that washing machine and throw it down a flight of stairs, and that’s what it feels like to plow snow for a living.

******

A series of unfortunate circumstances led me to my place of misery in Coach Alvarez’s driveway.  First, it was the first big snow storm of 2007, about 6 inches of heavy, wet snow.  The kind of snow you can’t even push with a shovel because it just packs as you push. I had been working for this snow removal company for two winters, but it was my first night of driving a plow, as opposed to being the shovel bitch/snow blower operator for another plow guy.  Our company had a fleet of roughly 30-40 trucks that were sent out to plow residential and commercial properties.  Each truck consisted of a team of two or three guys, one driver who plowed; and the other one or two shoveled, salted sidewalks and pushed a snow blower.  If things went well the driveway would be finished just as the steps and sidewalk were cleared and we’d all hop in the pickup together and roll to the next house.

The route I was responsible for was located in Fitchburg, one of the more affluent suburbs of Madison, Wisconsin.  The mansions in this neighborhood were notorious for long, twisting driveways, many of them uphill. These houses also had big yards, which meant long sidewalks, and lots of stairs leading up to the front door of each extravagant house.  Many of the steps were made of large marble stone, which meant they could be both extremely slippery, but also uneven, which could be far more painful than a slip and fall.  If you ever shoveled snow for an extended period of time you know what I mean.  You’ll be cruising along, pushing a light dusting of snow when… WHAP… you hit a crack in the sidewalk and the wood handle from the shovel stabs you right in the guts.   Even worse, is when it hits you square in the balls.  When you’re doing this at home, you want to snap the shovel in half.  When you’re doing it for a living, you absorb the pain and remind yourself not to dig in too hard, and to position the handle above your crotch, so at least the pain is less severe next time.

Besides the snow being extremely heavy and thick, besides it being my first night plowing and being totally outmatched, I had one other issue complicating matters.  I was riding solo.  My boss took one of my two laborers away from me because some other people didn’t show up for work, and the one he left me with had a broken wrist.  About 90 minutes into our shift the kid was bawling, so I had to take him home, which led me to falling even further behind.  How he, or my employer, ever thought he could handle shoveling snow with one arm is beyond me, but this was pretty typical of the bullshit I dealt with, so I soldiered on into the night.

By the time I got to Barry’s driveway I was already fatigued  and pissed off.  I had completed about four of my thirty driveways in six hours, instead of the typical 30-40 minutes per job.  The first mistake I made at Barry’s house was that I got out of my truck and did the all the shoveling first, which took me close to an hour.  The second mistake involved where I pushed all the snow.  Barry’s driveway was uphill and slightly to the left.  To the right were a basketball hoop and some shrubbery that I could not push snow into.  On the lower left side was a set of boulders that formed a retention wall.  As I approached the top of his driveway there was his sidewalk that ran from the garage to his front door.  Instead of trying to push the snow over his boulder wall, and with my luck, risk knocking loose some immovable stones, I pushed all the snow in his driveway onto his sidewalk.

So there I sat with a four foot high, rock-hard wall of packed snow, blocking Barry’s sidewalk and garage.  I would have to shovel the entire sidewalk a second time, but first I’d have to break down this wall. It didn’t take long before I’d broken the aforementioned plastic shovel chopping at it. I kicked at it with my size 16 boots.  When my feet started to ache I chopped at it with the handle from my broken shovel.  When that proved to be futile I went back to kicking, clawing and punching the wall.  This is how East and West Germany must have felt, tearing down the Berlin Wall.  The whole time Barry stood in the window of his den, arms crossed in a black Wisconsin sweater.  After all my hard work, I thought for sure he was going to come out and offer me a scholarship to play football at UW.  Granted, I may have been a total fool for my role in getting into the predicament in the first place, but once there I fought for three hours in a manner that would make former #1 pick, Joe Thomas, proud.  Alas, there wasn’t even so much as a wave or nod from the house, as Barry stood there stoically. I packed up my truck and drove away, defeated.

Within the hour I met with my boss and told him I was going home for the night. I couldn’t take any more, and I never came back.  The last driveway I ever plowed was for Barry Alvarez.  But I did some soul-searching that night; I knew I wanted something more for myself than breaking my back for the next 40 years.  Within a year from that episode in Barry’s driveway, I was enrolled in my first college class, and was on my way to a better life.

******

Less than two years removed from that night I had another chance encounter with Big Barry.  My brother had taken an internship at a local news station and was able to cover Wisconsin Football as part of the job.  Since he knew I was a Wisconsin sports nut, he got an extra pass for me.  Together, we got to film football games from the sidelines, interview players afterward, and receive all the perks of being media members.  Part of that gig was attending Head Coach Bret Bielema’s press conference after the game, with all the real media members, and of course the man himself, Athletic Director Barry Alvarez, presided over the whole thing.

I stood just a few feet away from him, even closer than the night he watched me from his window, no doubt I was grinning like a fool.  I wanted to ask him if he remembered me.  I wanted to tell him how that night in his driveway pushed me to do more with my life.  I wanted to thank him for building such a fucked up driveway that it single-handily broke my will.  In the end, I didn’t do any of that.  I just stood there in silent reverence for the man.

******

Somewhere around that time Barry and a local Madison journalist penned Barry’s autobiography called “Don’t Flinch,” which was a phrase Coach Alvarez repeated to his players when he was the Rose Bowl winning coach at the University of Wisconsin.  Maybe that was why he stood there in his window watching me; he wanted to see if I would flinch.  I like to think I didn’t let him down.

The Young and the Reckless

A pic from one of our theme parties: Greasers v. Squares

A pic from one of our theme parties: Greasers v. Squares

It wasn’t quite the Summer of 2002 yet; I had just graduated from high school and had a solid job working 50 hours a week doing landscaping and mowing lawn.  It was the time of the year when graduation parties were going on every night, some more raucous than others, some more legal than others.  It was a late Sunday night, and I was hanging out at my good friend Jenny’s party while her parents were out of town, when the cops showed up to kill the party.  Everyone took off running.  We were in the garage drinking and smoking, so everyone became track stars and bolted for the back door, including myself, before I got two steps onto the lawn and realized I was one of the only people there who had not had a drink that night.  I wasn’t sober…. but I hadn’t been drinking, so I watched my friends high tail it into the bushes and neighbor’s yards and turned around to talk to the cops.  They weren’t in the mood to chase down kids so they wrote a ticket to Jenny, the host of the party, and went on their way.  My other friend Adam lived just down the road so I knew most everyone was fleeing there.  I spent the next two hours rounding up and giving all my drunk, frenzied friends a ride home.

It wasn’t a great big concern to me when I finally rolled up my parents’ driveway at 3am that I had to work at 7:30am, but what did concern me was the little, yellow light burning in the kitchen.  I know my old man was still up and a lecture would be in store.  At this point in our relationship things were pretty tense between me and my dad.  I had grown sick of his oppressive thumb and he had grown sick of my attitude and late nights.  As I walked in the door he barked to me, “This coming-home-at-3-in-the-morning-shit has to stop.”  He wasn’t going to ask for an explanation, he was the type to get right down to business.  However, I had an action plan of my own.

“Well, dad you won’t have to worry about me coming home late anymore, because I’m moving out.”

“Oh really, when?”

“This week.”

“Oh Ok, we’ll see about that.”

“Yep, we will see.”  I shut my bedroom door and went to bed.

Within days I’d be all moved out my parents’ house and into my new home for the summer.

******

The two guys I had moved in with were already evicted from another house just a couple weeks before landing in their new pad. I should have seen this as a warning sign, but I was desperate to escape dad’s watchful eye and they were desperate for a third person.   I had partied with them a couple times in high school, but I don’t think they would have considered me a good friend.  I knew the real reason they wanted me to move in was because I was making great money and would be able to pay my share of the bills.  It was a relationship that would be mutually beneficial for all parties involved.

The better half of my two new roommates was BJ.  BJ was also working long hours that summer, scouting fields for a local vegetable producer.  Our other roommate Shaun didn’t hold a job all summer, and he mostly paid the rent by selling drugs and stealing from his mom.  Because BJ and I were the only ones who worked we forged a unique bond, spending hour after hour on our front porch burning down smokes, whining about our jobs like we were 40 year old men.

BJ might have been the most wild, theatrical, eccentric individual I have even known, due in part to his ADHD.   When BJ was on his meds he could be pretty subdued, able to read a book, have a steady conversation or do some house work.  When off his meds it was his excuse to be an absolute loon, an unlit firecracker ready to shoot off in any direction. Since we lived on one of the busiest streets in the city, kitty corner from the town’s YMCA, we gained a lot of attention drinking on our porch, sometimes as many as 10 or 15 of us outside.  I’ll never forget the second week we lived together, BJ strutting down the sidewalk in only a pair of boxers, posing for, waving at and receiving catcalls from passersby.  Some things stay etched in your mind and in my mind BJ is always strutting, always roaring with laughter and always the epitome of youthfulness.

******

Our house wasn’t an absolute shit hole, but over the next couple months it would become a party palace for hundreds of our classmates.  I’d come home from a ten hour work day to find friends already getting high in my  bedroom , or other guys half loaded on my porch.  I’d shower, run off to the liquor store, procure booze and join them in getting lit.  After half a bottle of booze and a pack of smokes, I‘d drift off to sleep, to the sound of the bass bumping from Shaun’s stereo system below me. In the morning, there would be 10 people passed out in my living room, some I remember seeing the night before, some I had never seen before in my life.  We were like a big, drunk hostel for young vagabonds that entire summer, and we loved every minute of it.

The parties got much bigger on weekends.  Fueled by BJ’s concoction of “Sexual Punch” (basically Barton’s Vodka mixed with juice, served from a big Gatorade container) we burned through the night.  BJ’s punch was not for me, but I came to know the ingredients because I had the honor of buying half the city alcohol that summer.  There was a little liquor store in town called Charlie’s that never carded me, and boy did we abuse the hell out of that.  I don’t know how they didn’t catch on, or maybe they knew and didn’t want to refuse to sell to one of their best customers.  I remember one night where I made two trips to Charlie’s for over $80 worth of booze each time.  A feat made more impressive by the fact that everyone of us was bargain drinkers, slamming piss beer and terrible alcohol like the antidote for growing old was inside. I was in the midst of a five year love affair with Kessler Whiskey, and at one point that summer had convinced myself that the best chaser for shots of whiskey was, in fact, milk.  This myth was destroyed on a Friday payday when I set my goal to be drunk by nightfall, and after accomplishing the goal all too easily, woke up in a rancid puddle of regurgitated whiskey-milk.

******

Even when every night seemed more savage than the week before, and the three of us living there teetering on the verge of sleep-starved, alcohol-driven insanity, It’s not hard to pinpoint the crescendo of the summer.  Like many summers that followed, July 4th produced the climax of summer.  That weekend was marked with drama.  I was in a car accident where a motorcycle slammed into the back of my car, just blocks from our house, on the way to pick up couple hundred dollars’ worth of party favors.   But as always, BJ’s actions would steal the show.  On a Sunday night BJ ate some psychedelic mushrooms and hopped on a boat with the girl he was seeing to watch our town’s fireworks display down by the river.  He told us he had freaked out, dived out of the boat and swam for shore.  With BJ, if it was hard to believe it was probably true.  From there he and his friend Rob got in trouble stealing hot dogs from a local gas station.  I think it was, at the time, BJ’s 4th underage drinking ticket.  When he got back to our house he was still rolling madness, so he decided it would be a good time to shoot bottle rockets off our porch.

There was this old man in our town that drove a bright red, convertible Dodge Viper, which in Stevens Point meant he had to be a big fucking deal.   His ride had custom plates that read VIAGRA, which absent of explanation, I assumed were meant to let everyone know he was a giant hard-on.  Not two bottle rockets in to BJ’s outburst the guy picked the perfect time to ride by our house, because just as he did, BJ shot one right in front of this guy’s expensive ride.  The dude slammed on the breaks, and whipped it into reverse, screeching to a halt in front of our front porch.  As he did, BJ ran off into the house.

He screamed at us, “HEY!  What the fuck?!”  The three or four of us who remained on the porch were extremely apologetic for BJ’s recklessness.

“We’re sorry mister!  Our friend has had too much to drink and we’ll make sure he doesn’t do it again.  So sorry… please… it won’t happen again… yes it is an awesome car… so sorry!”

He had just about calmed down and was telling us he wasn’t going to call the cops, but we should all tone it down, when suddenly from inside the house, BJ erupted with a bombastic, “FUCK YOU!!” We all couldn’t help but laugh and shake our heads.  Mr. Viagra peeled off and 15 minutes later the cops were at our door, remarkably for the only time all summer, so we got off with only a stern lecture.

******

As summer drew to an end, the parties got more bitter.  There were always the uninvited guests to deal with.  People, including myself, got in fights and caused drama.  Eventually, a lot of our high school classmates would move away for college.  A few months into Fall, I swallowed my pride and moved back in with my parents.  BJ left for Minnesota and no one cared what happened to Shaun. We always had that summer though.  That summer of being young and reckless.

******

A couple years ago, I was saddened to hear that BJ passed away unexpectedly. Although his laughter, his mannerisms and his spirit could not be replicated; every now and then I’ll meet someone and see a little glimpse of BJ in them.  I think that’s part of getting older; I always meet people who remind me of someone else.  Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to make tighter connections as I age, to forge those incredible bonds, because I’m grasping at the past, to cling to those nights when we were forever young, where BJ’s spirit radiates in the night like the loudest, most magnificent firecracker of all.

Shine on Shaman.

Riding the Bus to Hell

If you polled a sample of my classmates from childhood and asked what the most memorable aspect of their experience in elementary school was they’re likely to recall an important educator, the horrible school lunches, recess, or maybe the first Goosebumps book they read.   I, however, will never forget the bus ride to and from school and the important lessons I learned outside the school walls.

The first lesson pertained to the social hierarchy of the world.  Unlike the days of Rosa Parks, the most coveted seats were the seats at the back of the bus, I think, in large part because they were the furthest away from the only authority figure, the lowly bus driver.  Seating on the bus represented a caste system, and the bus drivers were most definitely the Untouchables, so it was important to distance yourself from these mongrels.  Bus drivers are similar to cabdrivers, in the sense, that all that seems to be required to hold the job is an overwhelming body odor and a spastic personality.

Only one bus driver ever had the wherewithal to manage our unruly bus route for more than a year.   He was known to us as Charlie.  Charlie had coke-bottle glasses, wore a tattered jacket with holes in the sleeves, and had long greasy shoulder-length hair, which he kept covered by wearing a blaze orange winter hat year-round.  His hats and his appearance were a constant source of our ridicule and pranks. One classic zinger that was repeated way too often was asking him “Charlie, what were you eating under there?”

“UNDERWEAR?!” He would belt back to us and we’d roar with laughter.

Other jokes weren’t as clean.  There was one week when a kid kept bringing in straw to stuff in the holes of Charlie’s jackets giving him the appearance of a not-so-intimidating scarecrow.  One way to prove yourself to the rest of the bus was to sneak up to the front seat and pull Charlie’s hat off and throw it to the back.  Once there, his hat was used as a form of abuse, by stretching out and forcing it onto some poor, unsuspecting kids head.  Charlie would pull over to the side of the road, storm to the back and demand the return of his hat, which he told us he paid $.25 for from Goodwill, only adding to the hilarity of the situation.  Beet red, Charlie would scream, then snag his hat and huff and puff his way all the way back to his driver’s seat.  If it was a particularly wild day he’d then get on his radio to call the bus garage, “52 to Base,” he’d holler into his radio, “52 to Base, I’m going to need some assistance here!”  We’d be in stitches, rolling on the floor laughing at the sound of Charlie calling “Base” like he was some sort of astronaut or army general.  When we’d get to school, the superintendent of schools would be waiting to visit our bus, something that happened numerous times every year.

One day we learned Charlie’s last name, and it was such a unique name that there was only one name in the phone book, but the first name wasn’t Charlie, it was Earl.  With this new information we made it a point of calling him Earl, until he finally snapped and told us that he lived with his parents, even though he was probably in his late 30s at best.  I never saw it necessary to harass Charlie outside of our time together to and from school each day, but others did, and it wouldn’t be long before his phone number went unlisted.

No matter how awful we were, and as a group we were pretty awful, Charlie was always quick to forgive us.  We’d get “write ups” for acting up, something that was a last resort, or assigned seats for a couple weeks, but that only meant sitting near the front of the bus, where we could inflict more damage on the bus driver.  Usually after a few weeks things would simmer down and the process of misbehaving would start all over again. Charlie would try his best to keep the peace by occasionally bringing in food for us, which only led to more shenanigans on our part.  One day he brought us homemade caramels, which he had apparently hand-wrapped in either Kleenex or toilet paper.  Not that we would have ever eaten candy from Charlie to begin with, but the fact that he wrapped them in ass wipe was both disturbing and hilarious.  The caramels became missiles we launched at kids at the front of the bus, pelting them in the head and back until our arsenal of hand-crafted candy was depleted.

Besides wanting to distance yourself from the bus driver, two factors determined where you sat on the bus: how cool you were, and what time sequentially you were picked up. The first, socially determined factor was more important because coolness superseded everything else.  If a popular kid wanted your seat there was little you could do to keep it.  You could be beaten out of your seat, tossed about, punched, ass kicked, until you realized your role and moved down a caste (seat).  Or they could take your hat, jacket or backpack and throw it so you would have to go fetch it.  Perhaps worse than physical torment would be the emotional damage of insults hurdled at you if you refused to move.

The kids on our route were pretty vicious so I learned another lesson in how to avoid beatings, usually by avoiding eye contact all together.  A prime example was Bart, a kid who grew up on a farm just down the road from my parents’ house.   Bart’s house was notorious for having the mangiest farm dogs that would attack you once you got within 100 yards of their property.  Maybe this is why he was so nasty, stealing other kids’ stuff, or throwing the dead batteries from his Walkman at people.  When junior high rolled around Bart and his monstrous friends would use the back seats for smoking cigarettes, burning holes in the seats or trading hickies with their skank girlfriends. Two guys that were part of Bart’s posse would later go on to pull off a couple armed robberies around town, but I know where their delinquency really began, in the back seats of Bus 52.

Not everyone was as inhumane as Bart and his friends, some were just really disgusting.  There was a group of older boys who organized a “Binaca Challenge,” where they would load their mouth up with as many sprays of breath fresher, (usually about 10-15 sprays) then, eyes watering, spit all over the back windows of the bus. This went on for weeks before anyone noticed, and besides spit, leftover lunch meat, boogers and god knows what else made its way all over the back of our bus.  I learned the power of harmful associations that month when a few of those boys were kicked off the bus and somehow, although I had never once hit the Binaca spray and spit all over the bus, I was forced to help clean up the hardened, crusty saliva after a morning bus ride.

By the time I had reached 4th grade, the bus ride also taught me more about sex than I’d ever learn in “Human Growth and Development” class.  Through the use of jokes that ended with punch lines like, “Mommy turn on your headlights, there’s a snake in your grass!!”  I had a pretty good understanding of how most basic sex acts worked, long before I’d ever try any of them out.  Besides the dirty jokes I also learned about different cultures, namely through racist jokes.  Blacks, blondes and Poles were the most likely target, the last of which I’ll never really understand because we were all Polish, hailing from a little church community known as Polonia (Polish for Little Poland).   I guess the lesson here was that as long as you were laughing at yourself as much as others it was okay to say really awful things; it’s a lesson I still practice to this day laughing at strangers, but needing to look no further than my mirror for the real joke.

******

In retrospect I’m not sure why we were such a wild group.  I know many of the guys I rode the bus with were physically abused throughout their childhood.  This was a different time though, when parenting tactics weren’t discussed ad nauseam on every daytime talk show or in magazines.  I think part of it was just that feeling of freedom, out of the watchful eye of our parents, but not yet under the supervision of our teachers at school.  The only adult responsible for the whole lot of us was Charlie, and he couldn’t even bathe himself regularly, let alone possess the demeanor necessary to supervise 50 frantic kids with one eye in a mirror and one eye on the road.  How that bus made it to school each day, free of flames and dead bodies, I’ll never know.  I guess that’s a testament to Charlie being qualified to do at least half his job.  It wasn’t his fault he got saddled with the bus from Hell.  In a way I think he almost liked us, kind of like we liked having him.  We were all misfits, learning lessons from one another.

A Time When I Was Scared

After being in the workforce for five years after high school, I decided I wanted to improve my socioeconomic standing and head back to college.  Before making the leap to a four year university, I decided it would be best to get my feet wet with a few courses at a technical college, while I warmed up my brain to fancy book learnin’ again, and decided what I wanted to focus my studies on. I enrolled in two night classes, English and Public Speaking at a small Central Wisconsin technical college. Technical college is like the Purgatory of secondary education.  People of all ages, some 19 and fresh outta high school without a plan, some seemingly 90 years old and closer to death than a new job, come there to try to pay their dues, atone for their previous sins, all in hope of ascending to a higher plane.

Although I got a great a deal out my classes the same can’t be said for my colleagues.  My classmates were a pretty homogeneous blend of people.  Although the occasional senior citizen was sprinkled in, most of these people were 20-something rednecks that had no drive, no goal, and no hope for the future.  At first I felt bad for them because a lifetime of changing oil or pipefitting was most likely in store for them, but after a couple weeks I began to hate them, like I do with most people I’ve spent more than 30 minutes with.  Most of them were camouflage-wearing, tobacco spitting, pickup-driving rednecks.  I shit you not, one kid wore a black hat to class that simply said “REDNECK TECH” on it.  Obviously, we were a proud group.

There was also “secrets” guy.  This guy took every chance he had to interject conspiracy theories into discussion about proper public speaking, a tall task unless you are absolutely bat shit crazy, which he was.  Secrets, the name I dubbed him, would fill our discussions with talks about government cover-ups, UFOs, or diseases being spread purposefully as a form of population control.  Secrets was also a closet racist, so from time to time he sprinkled in his thoughts about minorities’ plans to take over the country.  This played well in class because it was, after all, Central Wisconsin.   Not quite Jackson, Mississippi during the Jim Crow era, but you still see your share of confederate flags around town.

Like so many truly insane people I have met in my life, Secrets had no ability to pick up on cues in a social setting.  Or maybe he did have the ability but he completely disregarded the rules of conversation.  I had the pleasure of sitting directly behind him, and since no one would ever sit next to him, this put me in the closest of proximity to him, for more detailed accounts of Secrets’ secrets.  On breaks or before class, no matter how busy I acted, no matter how curt I was in my responses, nothing would prevent Secrets from rattling off his noise to me,  a privilege I won’t soon forget.   At least one good thing came out of it, he knew my name and seemed to like me, so in my daydreams where he comes into class wielding a semi-automatic, I’m able to dash away and he gives me a big “thumbs up” while he pumps lead into my classmates.

Secrets was the exception though, most of these people didn’t really stick out.  They all seemed to be passing time, waiting for life to happen to them, instead of making something happen.  I wouldn’t describe any of them as good public speakers or even slightly creative, so the day our instructor came in to class and informed us that we would all be giving a descriptive impromptu speech that evening, the collective groan was to be expected.  I am one of those people, one of those people who actually relish public speaking, so I was excited for the opportunity.  My classmates, however, we’re not as enthused.  We were given a list of topics which included a rainy day, a sunny day, a time you were scared, or a time you were happy.  About 80 percent of the class chose the “rainy day” topic, which led to the same speech, given in monotone over and over by everyone.  Together this is how I remember all of their speeches: “I’m sitting in my tree stand with my rifle…..  I hear a buck…  it steps on a branch…. the branch breaks… leaves are on the ground…  I take in a deep breath… I feel a drop of rain… more drops of rain… it’s a rainy day…”

I wanted to add, “I place rifle in mouth… rifle tastes metallic…  finger caresses trigger…. POW!”  By the time it was my turn to speak, half the class was already asleep and a gunshot would be needed to gain their attention.  I decided on the topic about a time I was scared, and recanted a story from a couple summers back.

******

It’s 4am on July 3rd, and I had been out celebrating America’s freedom down by the river at the town’s annual Fourth of July shindig.  Although 3 or 4 hours had gone by since my last shot of whiskey, the booze was still coursing through my veins as I drove home.  About two miles from my parents’ house, way out in the country, I made a left hand turn and as I did, I rounded the corner and crossed the center line.  Not because I’m drunk, but because I do this every day driving to and from school, and because I drive like a dick head.  As I round the corner four squad cars come into view in the parking lot of a tavern, and four officers stood outside the tavern writing up a report.

As I sped by the cops, I look back in my rearview mirror to see them all run to their cars. Without a moment’s hesitation I slammed my foot on the gas pedal.  My heart was pounding in my chest and my mind raced.  Up ahead, there was a T-shaped intersection.  If I went straight there was a big hill, if I turned right, another series of large hills.  “If I can just make it to those hills,” I thought to myself, “I’ll have a chance.”

Actually there was no thought process involved.  As I buried the needle on the speedometer of the Buick Cutlass Ciera, a car that was handed down from me from my grandma, I flew through a residential zone at a whopping…. 85 miles per hour.  As I approached that intersection that was my goal, the crux my master escape plan, I actually drove by my grandparents’ house.  How proud they must have been, when they woke up to hear the news!  I took one last look in my mirror and saw a stream of berries and cherries not exactly losing ground to me.  I turned off my lights and without breaking much, whipped a wild right-hand turn onto the street on which I lived.  My car dashed off the road, like a bounding jackrabbit, into the ditch and then back on to asphalt as I regained control.  I headed down the first large hill, pleading for more speed to get over the next hill before the police saw my route, cloaked in the darkness of the night, still driving with my lights off. As I reached the top of the next hill, I looked back and my heart sank.  The circus of red and blue lights following me had made the turn, and they were gaining on me.  I was not as covert as I thought I was.  There were no more hills, no more lightening quick genius ideas, no NOS to throw the old Buick into overdrive, so less than a half mile from my parents’ house, I pulled over to the side of the road and parked my car, waiting for my imminent demise.

When the cops caught up and arrived they barked some orders; I opened the door to see all four of them standing with guns drawn, pointed at me.  And that was a time in my life when I was scared.

******

I look up at the class to see most of the students bug-eyed and my teacher’s jaw on the floor.  “Is that a true story?”  She asked me.

“Every word.”  I replied.

“Let’s all give him a round of applause.”

I always found it funny that I was the only one whose speech we applauded.  What was my instructor lauding? Was it my openness?  Certainly it wasn’t my criminal behavior she was advocating.  Probably, she thought I was another “Redneck Tech” reject, who was perhaps fresh out of prison or maybe even rehab so she wanted to recognize my efforts for coming forward with such a telling story.  Regardless of her intention my speech earned a perfect score, but after that we went back to stories about rain drops and descriptions of deer in the forest.

******

The guns being drawn on me might not even be the scariest moment of the weekend.  There was the fear I felt when I was placed in a holding cell with 12 other criminals and had to spend the Fourth of July weekend waiting for bond. If I survived that, there was the fear of the wrath of my parents waiting when I got out, since I was only 19 and still living at home.  There was also the fear of what would happened in the ensuing months of pending litigation, when my freedom, the very thing I’d like to think I was out celebrating that night, was put in jeopardy for the next five months. I persevered through all the bullshit and came away a better person.  I learned a lesson flying through the darkness that night:  you can try to run from your problems but sooner or later they catch up to you.  Sometimes you just gotta throw it in park and face your problems head on, even if the “problem” is four handguns fixated on your head.