The start of my detour. When I was 14 the family moved from Asheville, NC to Nairobi, Kenya. The move to Kenya was the beginning of a critical passage in my life: it was my introduction to recreational drugs. My life went underground.
Kenya was more than happy to help me out with that. I was an adolescent. Pheromones were beginning to boil; I had my first experiences with girls. More centrally, Kenya was where I started living an addicted life: I took up booze and pot. I would have done that wherever I was, but Kenya gave addiction a huge boost; getting drunk and stoned was so easy there. Falling into an addicted life, like marriage, and writing as a career, was a mistake I needed to make.
Everyone drank. All through my boyhood my parents were teetotalers. Mom called booze bug juice; alcohol was never in our house. In Kenya they were suddenly in a very European milieu, and they went with the flow. That made it easy for me to get boozed up as well.
So ambitious: to be a miserable sophomore. I desperately didn't want to go, I wanted to stay with my nonexistent friends in Asheville. But, but, next year I'll be first chair sax! And I won't be a miserable freshman anymore! It didn't even take a day for me to get over all that once we were there, where the air smells different, and the dirt's a color I'd never seen before. The background smell of Nairobi, I learned later, was a combination of frangipani in bloom and plastic being burned in cooking fires; an arrestingly sweet tropical stink.
Tony didn't leave a lot of breathing room. Our first home in Nairobi was upstairs in a fourplex on Margaret Close. There was a lovely creek with bilharzia. Across the landing lived Candy, Tony & Mark, a charming English family. Tony was a pilot, ex-RAF, friendly and gregarious but very tightly wound. Also jaw-droppingly handsome, with his chiseled chin, eagle eye, and trimmed but luxurious black mustache. In keeping with the stereotype, Candy was lovely, voluptuous, and a bit of a ditz, perhaps for self protection. From her I learned to say "Taffy bye!" as a farewell. Mark was a studious lad a little younger than I; he was mild, more like his mum.
It's good to start 'em young, eh? They had us over to dinner right after we moved in, and after dinner Tony served after dinner drinks from his well-supplied liquor cabinet. With Dad's approval, I got to sip Cherry Heering. Brilliant marketing: make it like candy!
I'll pass on the advocaat. Soon after that, Tony & I established a ritual whereby I would come over on a regular basis to sample his extensive alcoholic candy collection, which included not only liqueurs but real candy: liqueur-filled chocolates. Mos def a new thing for me. Alcohol now had my undivided attention.
Everyone's bound to be some kinda drinker. I suppose the rationalization was to teach me to be a responsible drinker. Might as well train them up right. And if not there, I woulda got it elsewhere; god knows alcohol was easy to come by.
At that point I didn't even know about Kenyan runners. Margaret Close was temporary; my folks wanted to be in the country. After a few months we moved to Ruaraka, at that time way out of Nairobi. It was wide open country, just a few wind-sculpted thorn trees for shade. But southwest of us a coffee plantation began. I did my first running out in Ruaraka. Something about the countryside seemed to invite it. I loved running in the coffee. The rows of coffee trees were widely spaced, and the space between frequently disked to keep down the weeds. I treated it like a giant maze.
Way too fucking close. One day I am running along when suddenly a cobra rears up in front of me, letting out one helluva hiss. It's a world-stopper. I freeze, heart pounding, swamped with adrenaline, then very slowly start backing away. The cobra stays where it was, just weaving a bit in the air. Once I feel safely out of striking distance, I run like a scared puppy. That was to be my only spontaneous meditation in Kenya.
So I survived, albeit well-rashed. The move to Ruaraka made my father do something I could never have seen coming: he was gonna buy me a motorcycle. Getting to school on my own would make his life so much easier. My school and his work were at opposite ends of Nairobi, and his work schedule did not mesh with my school hours. We went shopping for a bike (bike=motorcycle; a bicycle was a push-bike). I secretly wanted a Bonneville or better yet an Atlas, agitated for a sweet CZ I saw on the lot, and got a Honda 150. When I laid it down in gravel I was only going 40, not 80.
I was mos def getting an education. My school was the US Community School, so new it didn't have teachers. We studied via supervised correspondence with the U of Nebraska Extension Division: independent study using a standard text plus a syllabus/workbook. Exams were supervised at the school and sent home for grading via diplomatic pouch. My smarts finally paid off: I could do all my coursework for the day (it was that mapped out) in an hour or two, and then I just took off and spent the rest of the day bombing around Nairobi on my bike.
Ooo, danger! A topic I was eager to get educated on was girls. I hadn't even had a crush on a girl since 3rd grade, when I was crazy about Sue Fiveash, a flaming redhead who probably didn't even know I existed, much less crushed on her. My first fling in Kenya was with Barbara, the daughter of my dad's boss.
Actually, no. The rents were playing matchmaker. Barbara was a year older, pretty in a wholesome way, funloving, zaftig, and as sexually frustrated as I was. We got introduced by all 4 parents: our two families went to a concert together soon after the Cassadys arrived in Nairobi. Ever hear of Julie Felix? Neither had I. Here I was in Nairobi at an American folksinger concert. A good folksinger if you like that kinda thing.
It wasn't too bad, kinda like a nonalcoholic shandy. I was watching Barbara closely. She ordered a drink from the steward; I thought I heard her say "lemon coke," so that's what I ordered. Of course she'd said rum & coke, duh. What'd I know? I got a coke with some lemonade mixed in.
Pas corps diplomatique. I corrected that mistake at my first and only embassy party. We didn't usually get invited to these; we were consular corps, not diplomatic corps. Our license tags read CC, not the so much sexier CD; it's a class difference. We got invited to this one for being newcomers.
And worked the room. It was a garden party; everyone just strolled, ate & drank. I didn't know anybody there, and it was pretty much all adults. But I got to know the bar steward, a bored but very polite Kenyan in spotless white.
My parents had to have known; I'm sure I stank. This time I pronounced rum and coke correctly, and when I came back I asked for more rum. He was happy to oblige; I think I made his day. I don't recall how many rounds I got through, but I do recall finding what I thought was a discreet spot behind a bush to puke. They never said a word, allowing me to suffer my consequences without adding humiliation.
We didn't waste time watching movies. Barbara and I started going to the movies together on Saturday afternoons. We were there to make out. She had no more experience than I did; she went to a girls' school. We made up for lost time. The best location was at the back, under the balcony. The usher was a genial older Kenyan gentleman. To save him the hike, I just pointed. He beamed at us, gave us a wink, nodded gravely and said "Kilimanjaro."
Diana was extremely straight laced. Fun with Barbara ended when I fell in love with Diana, another redhead (no, that was Sue; Barbara was brunette. I never had much luck with redhead crushes). Diana was from Akron; her dad did something for Goodyear. I met her at school. With Barbara it was lots of fun. With Diana it was a huge crush, but the fun dept was lacking. We kissed when romance first bloomed, but it made her uncomfortable so we dialed it back to hugging and handholding. But I was nuts about her, devastated when her dad was called home and the family left; my first heartbreak.
Drinking age: tall enough to see over the bar. Booze was dead easy: bartenders did not check ID. Parents would send kids to fetch another round; nobody was watching to see if there were actually parents there. Pot was easy too, tho' I didn't know it at first. I needed a close friend's help for that.
We always had to spell it out: tee are WYE pee. It was my prowess (ahem) on the E♭ alto saxophone that won me my first close friend, as opposed to girlfriend. I had played my sax at a "show us your hidden talents" school social. She heard about that and invited me over for coffee. She was the muse for an aspiring blues/jam band called (wait for it) Once Upon a Tryp. She already had guitar (Purcy), bass (Mumbles), & drums (Tom Behrendt; we jammed at his house); a horn player would be the feather in her muse's cap. So she wooed me a bit, and we ended up both getting kinda dreamy with each other over the course of regular afternoon get togethers.
She was really cute, too, tho' clearly out of my league. She made me sweet milky coffee and told me stories from her life. She was born in Reykjavik, grew up in Algiers. We traded poets: I gave her cummings, she gave me Rilke. It was breathtaking having a close friend. I had a crush on her for years. Nothing came of that, but we stayed friends, and years later when I was back visiting I took her on our one-and-only date: a romantic picnic in the Ngong Hills. I drove an inadequate VW fastback on roads I wouldn't drive anything on today.
Sign me up! She took me over to meet the band. They all got stoned and jammed once or twice a week. I learned how to jam with those guys, and got introduced to the blues. The song that won me over was Sonny Boy Williamson's Bring it on home. A collection of his hits and Electric Mud were among my first LPs, along with Sgt Pepper and Strange Days. My first was The Latin Sound of Henry Mancini, back in Asheville.
Addicted life established. Living in Nairobi gave me a huge boost into the world of recreational drugs. Two years there did the work of 8 years in the US. That helped me get done with drugs early. I got done with alcohol in 2016, and clean of pot in late 2019. I started the year 2020 clean and sober at the tender age of 68, ready to live an entire chapter of my life that way, not just a few days or weeks or months.
Not even a "wee bit tipsy" one. Recreational drugs made a fool out of me for most of my life. So many memories that make me cringe. Now I'm just my own kind of fool, neither a drunk nor stoned one. Drugs are drugs, and I'm profoundly grateful to be free of them.