Three strikes and you're out. In 7th grade, at Oakley Elementary School in Asheville NC, I had two nicknames: Tubalard and 'Fessor. I was fat and smart, 2 big strikes against me. Some fat kids were good with sports, but for me, choosing up sides was like "OK, I'll take Tubalard but you have to take the Gimp AND Arnold." Poor Arnold.
In Asheville, I learned to rely on myself. I think that was the year President Kennedy's fitness initiative came to our school. We were lined up and publicly humiliated, I mean tested: situps, pushups, 50-yard dash, softball throw. Especially the throw: one at a time, while everyone else watches.
I was OK. I did things alone; I loved being alone. There was no introversion back then, I was just a shy fat kid with no friends, and I was fine with it. I loved being out in nature, and I did a lot of things I now see were meditation.
Riverside to Oakley. That was my second year at Oakley. It was a big shock moving from Riverside Elementary in Marianna to Oakley in Asheville. The crux of that: at Riverside, we had recess; at Oakley we had phys ed.
I loved recess; it was my favorite part of school. Riverside was a brand new school in those days. I narrowly missed having to bus across town to Golson, the other elementary. Riverside I could walk to. When I went on that big hike with my dad, we hiked all the way around Riverside. It was about a 4 block walk to school, less if I cut through the woods kitty corner to our back yard, which I always did, ducking through the pole fence that separated our yard from the back neighbors'.
Unsupervised play. Riverside had the requisite baseball diamond & gridiron, but it also had a much larger area with trees left standing and all the underbrush cleared, so it had an open park-like feel. I never cared for ball games or team sports, so I hung out among the trees with my buddies.
There were 3 of us: me & Joe & Dale; we were like the 3 Mouseketeers. Our favorite game, prophetically for me, maybe for all 3 of us, was to play drunk men. We staggered around comically with our arms on each other's shoulders singing How dry I am. I'm sure we did other stuff, but I do remember drunk men so clearly.
Grand Ridge. Joe lived in Grand Ridge, which I see is 14 miles east of Marianna. Back then, that was an exciting Greyhound bus ride for me. I used to go spend weekends with Joe and we'd go swamp walking. Joe's folks ran a motel in Grand Ridge which is long gone. It was already kinda subsiding into the swamp back then, like something in an Anne Rice novel.
Truckers. Joe & I would stand on the side of Highway 90 and wait for a semi to roll by. Joe taught me a secret hand signal: you made a thumbs up then stuck your arm straight up and pumped it up & down, staring into the cab. It was supposed to make the trucker give you a friendly blast on his air horn, and it worked. About half the time.
Swamp walking. Joe's folks' motel backed up to the cypress swamp surrounding Lake Finnely, itself more of a swamp than a lake anyway. There were lots of fallen cypress trees slowly decomposing in the swamp. Swamp walking was walking along one fallen tree to another, seeing how far we could find a log pathway into the swamp without falling in.
Joe moss. We carried a cooking pan that worked as a single dry step between logs that were just a bit too far apart. We'd lean out and drop the pan, bottom up, into the muck. It worked as a step if it landed on joe moss. Joe moss was what we called a prevalent moss that I thought was maybe peat but wasn't sure, so I named it after my friend, Joe instead of Pete.
I worked hard to be Tubalard. Back to Asheville. Being all unathletic & fat, I did my best to help my cause by eating vast overloads of sugar; I was a candy fiend. I liked nothing better than to curl up with a book and a bag of candy. I'd spend the whole afternoon like that.
Every Saturday I had a date with myself. I'd take the bus downtown; bus fare was two dimes, later a quarter. I'd start with the public library because I'd be carrying a big load of books from last time. My load lightened, I was free to wander around, and I'd explore downtown Asheville.
Woolworth Luncheonette. When I got hungry I'd go there and sit in a booth, hiding out next to the wall, bouncing on the vinyl bench. I always ordered the same thing, a fish sandwich and a cherry coke. The fish sandwich seemed so much classier than a burger, I think because my mom had ordered it one time when I went there with her. A breaded square of white fish fried up on the grill, served on a soft burger bun with dill pickle, lettuce, and tartar sauce. Looks like they don't serve that anymore. That's OK, now I like tuna melts better anyway.
Mint patties. Then I'd go into an old-school department store, I don't remember the name. I'd go through the revolving door and up the escalator, sharp left then left again to the candy counter. My target was the creamy mint patties. Smooth on top but a zigzag texture on the bottom, sharp ridges & valleys. All pastel colors: mint green, orange, pink and cream; different mints & citrus. Sold by the pound from behind a glass counter. I loved those mints; they melted in my mouth.
No chocolate. I didn't like chocolate as a kid, especially as an ice cream flavor; the bitterness of chocolate ruined good ice cream, tho' chocolate syrup or hot fudge was OK. I was a vanilla kid; once I discovered it, I became a fanatical devotee of Breyer's vanilla with the specks. Chocolate came later, in Kenya, when I discovered Cadbury bars, and After 8 thin mints.
Books. After more wandering I'd go back to the library to replenish my book stash. My taste in books was influenced by The Swiss Family Robinson, which was in our family library and a very early read; I was 7 the first time. After that I read it 30 times. I identified with Ernest, the smartest son, the less athletic one; go figure. I read outdoor adventure & animal books: Big Red, Irish Red, and Outlaw Red. The Call of the Wild and Misty of Chincoteague. Nancy Drew mysteries. Laura Ingalls Wilder. All the Doctor Dolittle books. Rudyard Kipling.
More sugar. For weekday sugar needs, the feed store was close to home; I'd ride down on my bike. It had an old-fashioned candy counter where I bought horehound drops, lemon sticks, candy cigarettes, bubblegum: Bazooka, Double Bubble, pink bubblegum cigars. I'd chew bubblegum until the taste & sugar started to fade, then spit it out and start another wad.
My diet was atrocious and I was a fat loner with no friends, but I still had a rich and mostly satisfying life, in addition to the fantasy life I found in books. I got help from my family.
Family help. Dad was my champion. He got me started in vegetable gardening, for instance. That was a big boost in Bridle Trails. He took us for drives on the Blue Ridge Parkway, to Craggy Gardens. That was a favorite spot of mine, the scene of spontaneous meditations in the mist. I'd find a spot and just sit there, soaking up the beauty, talking to the fairies.
Highbrow. Dad turned me on to classical music in the 50s, and he made sure I got some real live highbrow culture now that we were in a city that had some. He got season tickets to monthly shows: symphony orchestras, plays, & operas. The classical music I already loved; now I was charmed by Hamlet, Amahl & the Night Visitors, Julius Caesar, and La bohème.
Piano. My parents supported my interest in music. In 6th grade I started piano lessons with a woman who taught from her home in the Oakley neighborhood; I walked to her house. I didn't last long with piano lessons; I sure wish I'd stuck with it. Oh well, next time for sure, eh?
Saxophone. I did better with the saxophone. I picked saxophone because the band director suggested it; he was weak in that department. My father got a deal on a used Martin alto sax in a pawn shop. His frugality was perhaps misguided; it needed all new pads, which probably cost as much as the sax had. But I got a very cool horn out of the deal. It was silver plated brass; I kept a polishing cloth treated with jeweler's rouge in the case to shine it up.
My parents never complained about the horrific squawks I made, but they did set hours for music practice. By the time I entered 9th grade I was a pretty decent horn player, for band stuff. I was definitely better than the girl in first chair, but she was a senior, and she got to finish her high school education without the humiliation of being challenged & whupped by a lowly freshman.
Pep band. As a consolation, I got to be in pep band. The main function of both bands, of course, was to support the athletic program; that's what bands are for. The marching band was a trip, literally: lots of away games. Alas, I didn't have anyone to make out with on the bus. Not until Kenya. One striking memory: we started practicing our halftime drills in August, same as the football players. Only we were wearing scratchy wool uniforms in the scorching sun on mid-August Saturdays.
I loved pep band. We played at basketball games and sometimes pep rallies. There were 4 of us: trumpet, trombone, baritone, and sax. We played fun upbeat stuff, a little jazzy: Hold that Tiger and Tico Tico are the ones that stick in my memory. The other 3 were all upperclassmen, and they were really sweet to me.
Ace in the hole. As if all that weren't enough, my saxophone won me my first close friend, in Nairobi. And far past that, even tho' I never stuck with any instrument long enough to get any good, my musical background became my ace in the hole once I took up partner dancing.
Collecting. In Marianna I got interested in collecting rocks & artifacts by walking fields and snorkeling in rivers & creeks with my brother, a consummate collector all his life. I found some cool stuff, but I never came close to developing an eye like his. He could walk down a plowed furrow I'd just walked down and come up with 3 arrowheads I missed. I didn't like walking with my eyes glued to the ground; it made my neck hurt. Snorkeling was better.
Rockhounds. When we first moved to Asheville, Dad got us a membership in the Southern Appalachian Mineral Society. We went on their organized field trips and started finding cool stuff, crystals, agates and corundum (rubies & sapphires). This led to a whole family craft industry of sorts.
Tumbler. First my dad built a tumbler. He didn't like the commercially available tumblers, so he built his own, subbing out the hefty metalworking bits. The 3 tumbler barrels were sections of heavy pipe, steel a quarter inch thick. A welder added ridges inside so the stones would tumble. The tops bolted on, and there was a relief valve. Lining up the bearings so the barrels wouldn't take off across the floor took hours working with a micrometer. It was a thing of beauty, an industrial-strength tumbler. The sound of rocks tumbling in the basement became part of our family soundtrack.
Lapidary. But we wanted to make things, and tumbled rocks are limited for that, so next Dad got us a lapidary setup to cut cabochons: a diamond blade saw and a 4-wheel grinder. Sanding we did by hand, 220 grit up to 1200. I hated sanding. But I loved the things jewelry we made. It was fun to be a jeweler around Xmas. We left it all behind in storage when we moved to Kenya, and I think my brother ended up with it. I gave away almost all of what I'd made; the thought of wearing jewelry makes me cringe. All I have left are a few bolo ties, and I never wear bolos. Who knows, maybe I will someday, and show off my dad's star sapphire.
Arkansas. My lapidary career had an interesting coda. In the late 80s I went with my belly-dancing girlfriend Doña to visit her folks in Arkansas. Her dad was an avid rockhound and a jeweler with a much more sophisticated setup and tons of slabs just waiting to be cut & polished. He was delighted by my interest, and gave me free rein to use any and all of it. I spent the rest of our time there engrossed, overjoyed to be transported back into that craft. A couple of my bolos are picture jasper cabs from that trip.
Booze in one hand, pot in the other. So despite my execrable diet, utter lack of athletic prowess, and lack of friends, I was really doing OK in Asheville; writing this up helps me understand my intense reluctance to leave. But Nairobi was waiting.