I’d love to turn you on | Field notes from the Pacific coast

This is a series of posts I started in late May and plan to continue for 40 days, with a goal of hitting 50,000 words by July 5 (#32 post). It’s inspired by a three-day solo trek on the Washington coast, with side-story memoir scenes wrapped by a few themes. I’m writing each post live, pulling in stories I’ve drafted before or I’m writing for the first time, for this project. You can come and go (it’s non-linear) or start at the beginning here, which is really the end.

It starts with the father, for the boy. But it does for the girl too, Dawn says: they wind up marrying a version of their dad. For better or for worse, familiarity trumps change, or getting to root cause, even with the prospect of pain.

My first memories as a kid deal with pain: pain makes an impression, you kind of come out of the womb experiencing it for the first time, fallen from the tree, the nest.

The summer of 1976, I was 5 going on 6 and almost didn’t make it past that year, had a T-shirt with an illustrated Henry Winkler as the Fonz from the show Happy Days, his smiling, greaser, everything’s-going-to-be-alright way, the collar on his leather jacket turned up, his thumbs…and mom said there were blood stains on that shirt from at least three accidents I’d gotten in, we laughed: the worst was putting my arms through a glass window, running: that was a scary drive to the hospital in our VW bug—I remember the way the wound was bubbling in my arm, wondered if I’d die: that got me a scar like a three-inch worm on my bicep, and another on the same arm that looks like a suicide attempt, an “X” on the wrist where the glass just missed the vein…there was getting hit in the head with a rock (kids actually threw rocks at one another in my neighborhood) and feeling my scalp, gone wet…and getting chicken pox, falling out of a tree onto a freshly pruned limb that gouged my stomach, made a wound that looked like a mouth, I thought. I kept that last one from my parents, hid the wound, for fear they wouldn’t let me out again.

All that when I was 5, and as a parent now I wonder why we pamper our two kids (or perhaps, an argument they should be pampered?). Was it me being a boy, allowed to roam the apartment complex alone with sticks, killing slugs, vandalizing hood ornaments on cars?

There was the awful memory being found out as a shoplifter, my younger accomplice Stevey, a pathetic boy with curly hair, eternal snot-crusted nostrils, who resembled the brand of bacon “Hatfield” from our area, the cartoon pig on the package, the slaughterhouse where they made it off Hamilton Boulevard, driving between Allentown and Bethlehem, the odd stench there, the things you remember.

Stevey was cute and innocent looking and to that end, I exploited him: I taught him how to steal from the local convenience store, where we amassed petty fireworks (snakes, caps), dirty magazines, chocolates, baseball cards, pretty much anything we could fit into Stevey’s oversized winter coat, which was vast.

And the moment Stevey’s mom called mine and I could deduce what was going on from mom’s side of the conversation. And Stevey, his mom and dad, would be stopping by for a discussion on all this…and those moments I stood by the washing machine in the living room of our apartment, waiting. Time took on a new quality then. I learned it could slow down and stop, expand.

And then the memories to follow from our first house after we left the apartments and moved to 12th street: the Dugan family, their clan of Irish-American cops and laborers, the big picnics and volleyball matches, learning to play street hockey, to fist-fight. The rites of passage that snake out from childhood to adolescence, that circle around sex, drugs, alcohol, trying on the masks of our adults, what we perceive we need to grow up.

We moved from that first house to our final one together in Bethlehem, English Tudor style, what I later learned is called Fachwerk (framework), the exposed beams—across the street from a baseball field and a park, the bus stop where I waited before I had friends who drove.

That’s when I met my favorite teacher Mr. Perrett, the one with the lazy eye and male pattern baldness, who wore a denim jacket and smoked, would walk from his house to the pharmacy where I worked and buy Winstons by the carton—and I’d give him shit and he’d give me a smile like fuck you, and it was in his class I learned to write, had someone dedicated to reading my writing for the first time, and he liked it.

And I went to Mr. Perrett’s house a couple times because he lived near ours—he lent me a tent for the senior prom so my girlfriend Marie and I could sleep in it together in our back yard—and there were a couple young men like me who went to his house I knew, a kind of privilege because he was a cool teacher—he lived alone with two dogs, had friends he’d go see in New York: and looking back now I have to think he was gay, and there was some level of unease about him for myriad reasons I imagine now, having a student come to the house—but that one time he told me how he and another English teacher (Judy Smullen) would laugh and read my journals (probably drinking), and how they both thought what a great writer I was, and how much that meant to me. How that never seems to change as we age—the need to be, by what others believe.

I tried to reach him before I moved to France, and sent him a letter but I don’t know he got it. It’s funny how we perpetuate who we are by being with those who see us that way. Or we “un-become” by being with those who don’t.

Mr. Perrett was friends with Mr. Midway, the sociology teacher, and Midway had us do a project where we wrote a letter to our future selves: we spent several weeks documenting our lives then, as 16-year-olds, who we wanted to become, and gave it to him with postage, so that five years later he’d mail the journals back to us.

I got mine finally, well into college, but couldn’t open it. Like something precious you’d put in a jar and save, those things often change form or go off when you open them.

When I finally did, there was my handwriting, that sad, old journal where the spine broke off but the glue still kept it together, yellow and sickly looking, and the title was from a Beatles song, A Day in the Life, by Bill Gibbard.



Categories: identity, Memoir, writing

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

26 replies

  1. That corn head again! Damn, that thing is terrifying.

    It’s so strange, the things that form our personas, and how you can’t really control what happens to you as a kid, so a certain randomness goes into who you turn out to be. The kids who are near you, the teachers you happen to get. Where you live.

    “Trying on the masks of our adults …” — good one!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. it’s so interesting, the tiny details we remember and the many we forget. i wonder why some stay and some go. i love the future journal assignment.


    • Have you done that or heard of that same assignment, as a teacher?


      • the first year i thought, i had a my multi-age (3rd-5th) grade class write about how they were feeling on their first day and how they thought they would feel on the last. i saved them and they read them out loud to each other on the last day, many were quite surprised by what they had written. i’d love to do a longer term one though –

        Liked by 1 person

      • That’s brilliant. And to look at that progress from start of the year to the end is always amazing and a bit bittersweet; easy to apply the same to our lives or other endeavors. Cool, all around.


      • it was my first year teaching and i was replacing a much beloved teacher who had been there forever. one of my students was the principal’s daughter. she wrote about how she hated me so much and was going to have such a miserable year. as the year progressed, we actually got quite close and she saw that i was okay. she began to read it out loud on the last day and was so embarrassed, so i just let her stop when she was ready and read the rest to herself, but i thought it was a good lesson in making judgements and jumping to conclusions. we still keep in touch to this day.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Neat, wow. Yes, one could say all life’s lessons reside in small places, those spaces….in school.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. We did that letter to our future self thing too in senior year. I remember being so excited to read it that I wrote my teacher back and tried to play up the writing angle to my job then, which was minimal. She encouraged me to write and also another teacher I’d had just before her. I was only in her class a couple of weeks and she recommended me for the other class and I’m pretty sure I never thanked her. Here’s to the teachers who maybe didn’t know how much they meant to us then and still years later. Awesome post and writing here, as usual. I liked the glimpse into your rough and tumble early years. That Fonz shirt, ‘aayyy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That makes me glad, how much you can relate. It’s funny, a bit humbling and revealing to step back from my intensely focused self and recognize how much these themes aren’t entirely original you could argue…and yet not care or feel slighted by that, because we can all tell the same story differently, with our unique POV. That’s what I’m going for, and to connect,. So cool, and glad I have with you! And grateful too. PA pride, yo’! Represent…


  4. This reminds me of our orange VW camper we had, and the time I was running and clipped the open tailgate of a pickup with my forehead and got rushed to the hospital to get the two lips of flesh that opened up on my forehead sewn up. And getting caught stealing cigarettes from the Winn-Dixie and riding home in a cop car. And Mrs Wilson who forced us to journal in her English class, which I hated being forced to do. Mr. Perret reminds me of Holden Caulfield’s Mr. Antolini. Now, that corn head… I don’t want to see that horrific thing again. Makes me think of picking scabs, only instead of scabs it’s corn and it’s coming out of your face-flesh. No more corn head, man.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I especially related to this: “It’s funny how we perpetuate who we are by being with those who see us that way. Or we “un-become” by being with those who don’t.” I remember when I moved across the country with my new husband, and realized that all that time and effort I’d put into becoming me, suddenly I had nobody around me who knew those stories, who remembered, who could mirror back those times and those meanings and those realizations. Like I had to start all over again, build up all those layers from scratch. And it was liberating and terrifying at the same time and, looking back, should have been a clearer signal about how my new husband didn’t know me, and why that had been a terrible, terrible idea.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. My first memories are of pain as well. I may blog about this. It’s an interesting topic — what is your first memory?

    I had an eight grade English teacher everybody believed was gay. But I don’t recall ever getting any encouragement from teachers to continue writing or lauding my writing. Once I really started writing fiction about 12 years ago, I got a lot of encouragement. It carried me for quite awhile. Now, as I continue my struggle, the encouragement is nice, but falls on deaf ears.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes the pain memory. You could go deep in that, why pain makes an impression…pretty straightforward. Maybe we learn from it in a sense, sometimes? Sorry you didn’t get a teacher like that, I think I was lucky. Bill


      • Part of it for me was that I didn’t like to write and didn’t think I was very good at it. So, it’s not something I sought out. Even if I was on the high school newspaper staff for a couple of years. I still don’t understand that. Why the hell did I decide to do the newspaper gig?

        But writing and writing mentors and that type of thing was something I never looked for or wanted. For the most part, I wanted my writing to disappear into the ether.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That’s interesting…you wanted it to disappear into the ether? Wow, that’s like zen in a way. I mean that respectfully, is that what you were thinking? Like write to release, and let go, kind of…?


      • Nope. I only wrote because I had to when Iw as in school and I wanted it to disappear because I didn’t think I was a good writer. Wish it was a zen concept, but it was my feelings of inadequacy and insecurity.

        I didn’t actually start writing for fun or for meaning until I was around 40 years old.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Lovely. I have some poetry somewhere. Can’t read it, can’t throw it away.



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