At some point along the line, I apparently set a recording on my DVR for a retrospective of the Ed Sullivan Show and Rock and Roll. The other night, as I was trying to bore myself to sleep, I watched the episode that features the rock-n-roll hits from 1968-1970. I watched songs from The Beach Boys, The Carpenters, The Jackson 5, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and even Tom Jones’s Delilah. Everything about that show–from the fashions to the songs themselves–brought an unexpected feeling of melancholy.
I turned 11 years old in 1968. When that year dawned, we had already seen one president shot dead on the streets of Dallas, a neighbor of mine–the father of a classmate–had been gunned down at his front door by a stranger who remains at large to this day. Three of my heroes–the astronauts of Apollo 1 (and previous astronauts of the Mercury and Gemini Programs) had burned to death while trapped inside their capsule. More than a few of my neighbors’ dads had been shipped off to Vietnam. Five years earlier, I had been rescued from the roof of my grandparents’ burning apartment building in Pleasantville, New Jersey, the most egregiously misnamed city on the planet.
By the end of that year, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King would be dead, and just a few miles away, Washington, DC, would be set ablaze, just like so many other cities across the country. That was the year when civil rights-based busing came to my neighborhood, causing me to be shipped off every day to a school 35 minutes from my house in the midst of a culture where everyone was angry and nobody told us kids how we supposed to deal with such startling changes. I learned to fight, but I never liked it, and I was never very good at it.
1969 brought such protests to Washington that my father, a career Navy officer, was ordered to wear suits to the Pentagon for his own safety. Woodstock happened that year, but that was also the year when Charles Manson went on his rampage. Things at home were beginning to unravel between my parents, and I was still fighting a lot in school. The thrill of my lifetime occurred on July 20, 1969, when the crew of Apollo 11 conquered the moon. Five days later, another Kennedy, Ted, was in the news for his actions in Chappaquiddick. We closed that year with the news of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.
In May of 1970, soldiers from the National Guard opened up on student protesters at Kent State University. We actually had the discussion at our dinner table that perhaps the protesters brought it on themselves. In August of that year, our vacation at Split Rock Lodge in the Poconos ended after the first night when the lodge burned to the ground, taking all of our stuff with it.
By autumn of 1971, my brother had gone to college, leaving me to cope with family stuff as a solo.
As I write this post, that knot of anxiety returns to my gut as a ghost from the past–equal parts fear, anger, sadness and disorientation. It was during those years when I turned most desperately to fiction–both reading it and writing it. I escaped to places in my head where good guys always won and bad guys were always brought to justice. I rarely showed my writing to anyone back then, and I’m not sure why. Looking back with decades of space between then and now, I think I was afraid of people knowing just how twisted up I was inside. The “me” I projected was immune to such things as emotion. Back then, there was no greater embarrassment for a boy than to cry in public–or show any real emotion for that matter. In those days, I never had a friend who was close enough to let me lower the armor. Hell, maybe I wasn’t a good enough friend to anyone else to let them share with me.
Life in a bickering household can be very lonely. I think now, in retrospect, that the adults in the house were so wrapped up in their own unpleasantness that having me be quiet was probably a blessing. I know that it was a blessing to be relieved from my role as marriage counselor, listening to their grievances as they each tried to pull me to their side.
My high school had 4,500 kids. Talk about anonymity! As a young teenager with less than zero athletic ability (or interest in such), the school library became my hangout spot. I have no idea how many books I read in those days, and how many stories I wrote, but they have to number in the hundreds. When I was into a book or writing a story, I was safe.
Life took a sharp turn for me when I was sixteen years old. I called a family meeting–the first in the family’s history–and I announced to Mom and Dad that I wasn’t doing this anymore. I told them that they were being unfair to me by airing problems that I could not solve, and that I was going to start taking chances at school. I was going to join things and risk the taunts of others. Since my parents wouldn’t drive me and we couldn’t afford a car for me, I told them that they would have to let me ride with friends. I told them that an 11:00 pm curfew was unreasonable on a weekend night. To bolster my argument, I had a long list of straight-A report cards to show them.
As I presented my case, they said nothing. I think they were shocked–in fact, I know they were because that night is still the stuff of legend among my extended family. But they didn’t argue. From that moment on, the “me” I projected moved closer and closer to the “me” I actually was. I don’t think the two will ever meet, but asymptotic is close enough.
I realize now that my imagination saved me from what could have been a terrible end. I don’t expect the demons ever to go away, but at least now they know their place. August 27 marked the 40th anniversary of my first date with my best friend, who would become my bride. Later this month, we will celebrate our 38th wedding anniversary. We have been blessed in countless ways, but had I not planted my flag on Mount Angst, and opened the spigot to honest emotion–which still flows much more easily through my stories than in real life–I don’t think I would have recognized the blessings for what they are.
As a society, while we fawn all over celebrity, we don’t show a lot of respect for the inherent virtue of artistry. I think that each of us needs an outlet to shorten the distances between the “me” we project, the “me” we know ourselves to be, and the “me” to which we aspire. Whether through music, dance, writing or perfecting one’s golf game, it’s the process that matters, not the sales record. It doesn’t matter if no one else in the world appreciates your art if it honestly reflects that slice of time in your journey.
Dare to try. Dare to dream.