This is a semi-autobiographical piece I wrote in my early 20′s. I won’t tell you what is fact and what is fiction, but it made me chuckle as to which is which. Maybe you can guess – I promise to answer truthfully.
How many times have you read a story that was about the loss of innocence? How many times, do you think, were those stories based upon the actual life stories of the authors? I’d put my money down on most of them. What is that rule that all good high school English teachers tell their students? Write what you know. Okay. This is what I know.
I grew up in rural upstate New York. Not the upstate generally recognized by people from the Big Apple, which would be the Catskills, but further north. Just about forty miles north of Albany in a little town called Wilton. Wilton isn’t exactly someplace you’ll find on a map, although if you can find Saratoga Springs you’re pretty close. Wilton doesn’t boast much except for corn farmers and Grant’s Cottage.
Well, that’s how I remember it from when I was young. Now, there are at least fifteen different housing developments, all aimed at the upper-middle classed consumer. There’s a country club and a park, two fire stations, and three huge shopping malls. I shop at the malls from time to time, though I never joined and probably never will join the country club. Still, I like to remember Wilton the way it was.
I remember the long walks through the now non-existent woods. I remember playing hide and seek in the corn fields with my friends. I remember fishing for brown trout in the Snook Kill Creek. I remember sitting under the big maple tree in our front yard on breezy summer days reading old, beat up, musty smelling copies of “The Lord of the Rings.” I remember those same types of days, when I would ride my bike five miles to a part of the Snook Kill and sit on a boulder in the middle of the creek and just listen to the birds singing and the sound of the waterfall farther upstream. I remember a lot of things about my childhood, a lot of nice, pleasant memories, but almost all of them are very, very lonely.
I never really had any friends when I was a kid. Well, there were the kids that lived on my street. They usually beat me up or never picked me for their teams when they played sports. The kid who beat me up the most was the girl who lived next door. She’d punch me in the nose, kick me and pull my hair. When I tried to fight back, that got her even more enraged and she would shout, “You’re not supposed to hit a girl!” and attack me with renewed vigor. All the other kids would cheer her on because I was the one who broke the rules. All I was trying to do was defend myself. I haven’t seen any of them since I was sixteen, but I’m convinced they probably think I’m a wife beater because I would hit a girl in self defense.
So, I spent a lot of time watching the neighborhood kids play football or baseball, or whatever it was they were up to. My brother got picked first all the time. He was the best athlete on the street. I hated him for it. I fought more with him then I did with the girl next door. He hurt me pretty bad sometimes. Once, he even hit me in the head with an aluminum baseball bat. The baseball bat was a gift from my father to him. My brother was on little league teams, the county soccer teams and the football teams. In high school he got a varsity letter for playing soccer. I wasn’t on any of those teams. My parents wouldn’t let my play. I guess they figured that if the neighborhood kids didn’t want me, then I would only embarrass them if I played some organized sports. Truth is, I really wanted to play, I was just never given the chance.
Looking back now, I can see that I wouldn’t be the person that I am today if I hadn’t been beaten up by girls and not allowed to play sports. I guess that my isolated childhood and the feelings of anger and resentment I felt back then have made me the satirist I am today. I learned how to think about things and how I could change them. I spent a lot of time daydreaming about a better world for myself, that now has developed in me a certain empathy for suffering in others around the world. My old anger and resentment has transformed into a dark, satiric humor that seems to weed its way into everything that I write.
Eventually, I stopped watching the kids, and struck out on my own so to speak. I started taking long walks through the woods and riding my bike everywhere. Whether I was walking or riding, I would always find some quiet place to sit down and read or just think. By this time, I was reading quite a lot, usually anything that I could get my hands on. Fantasy, horror, sci-fi and even non-fiction like scientific journals and nature books. My head started to fill up with seemingly trivial information that just couldn’t wait to come pouring out of my mouth to anybody who would listen. As you can imagine, this made me even more unpopular among my peers because they now saw me as a nerd. Not just an average nerd, but an annoying one as well. And all that happened was that my feelings of isolationism grew stronger.
My parents, instead of being proud of me for being smart, were upset because I neglected my schoolwork for my own interests. My grades never suffered for it though, I was maintaining a steady A-, they just wanted a steady A+. I never caved in to them though, I just kept on reading. I would even read my books in class. The teachers didn’t like that either. Many was the time I found myself in the guidance councilor’s office. He would tell me that I was a smart kid, that I was doing well, but that I was setting a bad example for the other kids in my classes. He thought that they would follow my lead and not pay attention in class either. I would tell him that he was full of bunk, nobody was going to follow my lead, I was a nerd. They would just laugh at me after class. I told him that he had nothing to worry about. Still, he insisted, I should stop. Well, I never did. I wound up graduating ranked number sixty-seventh in a class of over five hundred. Not bad for someone who never paid attention in class.
Reading all the time, I eventually got the idea that I would be able to write as well. My first attempts at it were horrible to be honest. I tried to write some fantasy fiction about a ghost who was haunting the forest around a castle. In two words, it sucked. So, I tried sci-fi, mystery and romance and they were all mediocre. I couldn’t write, and that really depressed me. I had thought that because I had read so much, I would be qualified to be a writer. Boy, was I wrong.
Then, I discovered Vivaldi. I had locked myself in my room after a particularly bad day at school and was fooling with the tuner on my radio. I kept turning to the left, left again, and once more, when suddenly, the speakers breathed forth the most beautiful music I had ever heard in my life. It was beautiful, but sad at the same time. It was the second movement of “Spring” from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” I sat, entranced by the emanations coming from my radio until the entire “Four Seasons” was over. After that I left the radio on, grabbed a pencil and some paper, and started to write. I stayed up all night, and only stopped for some short breaks because my hand had cramped up. By the time the sun came up, I had finished my first work of short fiction. It was about a boy who discovers that school is nothing but a government program meant to brainwash the citizens. The boy avoided the brainwashing process because he drew pictures during class and didn’t pay attention. You see? Write what you know.
Just as exciting as writing my first real story, was how I was able to do it. The music played by the classical station was what got my brain focused enough in order to be able to write. To this day, I still listen to the “Four Seasons” every time I start a new project. My classical music collection now consists of over 500 compact discs; enough for me to be able to choose the right music to set the tone of my work. (By the way, I have 19 versions of the “Four Seasons”). When my wife is home, I have to listen with headphones on because she doesn’t like the music as much as I do. She isn’t able to talk to me, because I can’t hear her, but she says that it’s okay; she’s just happy to see me writing. It is one of our sources of income after all.
After the brainwashing story, I wrote many more short stories; most of which dealt with dark subjects. Suicide, murder, drug use and vampires often dominated my plots. I also wrote poetry about the same types of things; Death and decay. I became morbid. I always dressed in black, never talked to anyone and always had a far off look in my eyes. People became afraid of me. Most of the faceless adults on the street probably thought I was a crook, up to no good. Actually, everywhere I looked I saw death and it horrified me. I remember something now one of my English teachers once said, “Writing is a process of change.” You got that right. I sure had changed.
I started smoking cigarettes about the same time as my physical change was taking place. When I got up the courage to buy my first pack to try them out, the clerk asked me if I was old enough to be smoking. “Sure,” I said, “anybody can smoke. It doesn’t matter how old you are. It’s just that the law says how old we can be when we should start.”
“What do you want to smoke for?” The clerk asked.
“I’m committing suicide,” I replied. “Smoking seems to be the most socially acceptable way of doing it nowadays. Of course, it does take an awfully long time.” The clerk laughed, and sold me the cigarettes even though I was under age. Out of all the old habits I’ve had and broken, I still smoke. I’m still slowly killing myself.
My ninth grade English teacher found out about my writing talents when she assigned the class with a creative writing project. We were told to write about anything. I just turned in a vampire story I had written earlier in the year. My teacher put it in the school literary journal. She came to me about a week later and said that a publisher friend of hers would like to see more of my work. I told her no. I didn’t want to publish anything I had written. She seemed disappointed, but she didn’t push the issue. I have no regrets about not entering the publishing game at such an early age. I probably should have never gotten involved. But, what’s done is done.
After my work appeared in the literary magazine, I got an idea to write a very dark story. Well, very dark according to my parents. It was going to be about Satanism and Witchcraft. I bought a few books about the subject to get myself up to speed. The story was coming along great, but it was too long for me to finish in one night. The next day I went for a walk to figure out how I was going to finish it. When I got home, all of my books were gone as well as everything that I had ever written. I ran outside and saw my father in the back yard tending to a fire. Scattered about him on the ground were books. And in the fire were burning papers. I ran up to him and demanded to know what he was doing.
“Your mother found some stuff you were writing.” That was all that he said. That was all he needed to say. I had suspected my mother was crazy for a long time and this just proved it to me. I pleaded with my father to stop, he wouldn’t but I convinced him to let me keep the books he hadn’t burned yet. I collected my books, fled to my room and cried myself to sleep. It was five years before I wrote anything ever again. When I did, I was scared. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to ever again.
In the interim, my life hit rock bottom. During my remaining years at high school, I used my sob story of a life to get girls. I lost my virginity when I was seventeen and after that, I screwed everything that moved. Well, not everything, it just seemed as I was doing it a lot. I will admit, sex stroked the male ego I didn’t even know I had. I also found out that most of the girls I knew were actually willing to listen to that ever present babble of trivia. They said that I was fascinating. Why hadn’t they ever met me before? I told them I was too busy trying to fit into the walls. Oh, you shouldn’t do that. You have too much to offer the world, they would say. Yeah, okay. I never really listened to them. My belief that I didn’t belong to this society was too strong for me to even entertain the idea that I had something to offer it. I never let them know too much about me. Just enough so they would sleep with me.
After graduating from high school, I tried to attend college. I don’t think I was ready to go to college. I still don’t. When I got there, things went according to plan for about a week. Then I found out how easy it was to get alcohol. I lived the life of a drunk. I was never sober and stopped going to classes. I met a girl there and no matter how many times we told each other how much we wanted to fuck each other, we always got too drunk to actually do it. We hung out together a lot though anyway. I enjoyed her company. I wasn’t ready to abuse substances alone yet. That came later.
As it happened, going to college in Potsdam was the start of the downfall. I was drunk every day and I had stopped going to classes. I joined the Medieval Re-enactment Club where I became an instant member of the family. They loved me there. I was taken on as the clan musician. I would entertain the females while the males practiced at their fighting techniques. I had finally found people who actually accepted me. But, I screwed that up too.
Once every Fall, the MRC would hold a gathering. It was then that I found out that every member of the MRC was also part of a world-wide society. The Gathering that I was going to attend would include the MRC as well as the other people in the “Shire.” These other people were members of SCA, the Society for Creative Anachronism, which the MRC was a part of. We all dressed up in period medieval clothes and spent the weekend living in the woods in a very festive atmosphere.
Friday was the Gathering Day. That is the day when all who are invited show up and stories are shared around the campfire. I arrived in the morning. I was too excited about it not to be there. People from the MRC filtered in all day long but it was the newcomers I was more interested in. People came from all over Upstate New York, and a husband and wife from Pennsylvania. I spent all of that day sitting by the fire, meeting people and listing to the tales they had to tell. They often spoke of an event called the Pensic, where people in SCA from all over the country gathered in Pennsylvania for over two weeks to re-enact the medieval period. It was held in the summer, so I had missed it that year, but I vowed to attend next summer. I never did.
Someone finally noticed that I was not participating in the story-telling. I said I had no stories to tell. Come, come now, surely you can contribute something, they said to me, We must all join in. I didn’t know what to do. While I was entertaining thoughts of disappearing into the woods, someone from the MRC suggested that I play a tune on my wooden flute. I replied that I did not bring it with me. A female voice answered that I might borrow hers. I declined, insisting that a musician without his flute is no musician at all and she was surely better than I.
“A contest then,” suggested the man from Pennsylvania. “Your people say you are the best flute player that they have heard in years, but I’ll wager my wife will best you. If you win,” he said to me, “then you may have my wife tonight. If not, than you fight me in the tournament tomorrow!”
There were cheers all around, even from the man’s wife. Obviously, I would be defending my life tomorrow. I stood up.
“Well, it seems I have no choice in the matter. It is a contest you shall have. Madam…” And I turned the attention over to the woman from Pennsylvania.
She played a beautifully haunting Celtic lullaby. As we listened, I couldn’t help feeling that I wouldn’t see the sun set tomorrow. I could tell that her music moved through everyone, they all watched her in rapt silence. When she finished, all heads slowly turned in my direction and all I saw were looks of pity. I new what they knew, I was a living dead man.
The woman from Pennsylvania, Gwen, stood up and walked over to me. She held out the flute and said, “Go ahead, I know you can do it.” She winked and bowed low so I could see down her dress. I took the flute and thanked her. “A very moving piece,” I told her. I raised my voice so all could hear. “It appears that I will be fighting tomorrow.” Laughter all around. Then, very slowly, I started Greensleeves.
I started slowly at first and it may have seemed that I was stumbling over notes, but I wasn’t. The MRC folks had heard me do this hundreds of times. They knew what was next.
I started to speed up the tempo. At the start of the third time through, I was playing up to tempo, and one of the people from the MRC started to beat a drum. Four bars in, a second drum. Then another and another. By the end of the third time, I had four drums beating a medieval rhythm.
The fourth time we had sped up again and the rest of the MRC females were up and dancing around me. We played through three more times, when some of the new comers started dancing as well. Twice more, playing as fast as we could, we stopped. The cheers were deafening. Everyone was clapping and smiling, laughing when the man from Pennsylvania approached me.
“Well done, Master Minstrel! Well done! I think you have won the prize. Have fun!” He brought over his wife, introduced us, and left us.
After some more songs and stories and about five jars of mead later, I found myself with Gwen in her tent. I remember trying to stop her advances, saying something about her being married and she said that she wasn’t married. So, if memory serves, I think we did it. It wasn’t until Sunday night that I found out she wasn’t married, she was the man from Pennsylvania’s daughter and that she was fifteen. I never returned to the MRC. Bunch of sick mother fuckers.
Well, I was asked to leave Potsdam after only being there for two and a half months. I wasn’t attending any of my classes because I was either drunk, high, tripping or hung-over. I came back home and bummed from my parents while I searched for a job. I didn’t find one.
Four months after I came home from collage, my childhood ended. I received a phone call from the local Navy recruiter and I enlisted. In retrospect, joining the Navy was one of the major mistakes I made in my life, however, I am glad I did it. Without enlisting, I don’t think I would have ever grown up. The only thing the Navy did for me was cure me of immaturity. I grew up. I was officially an adult.
And it’s not so bad. Really.