Growing up in Wild Peach, Texas, was a little like growing up in a third-world country. I have only my wife's descriptions of childhood in Indonesia to go by, but I have noticed a resemblance. Despite an abundance of fresh dairy products and the absence of stilt houses, the experiences were pretty similar.
You know how people will say, "We were poor, but we never knew it?" I've always liked comedian John Pinette's line: "We were poor, and I was sure of it. And I didn't like it." But the truth was, we were "sort of" poor in my house. We got by on a fairly meager income earned by my stepfather, as an insulator with Dow Chemical. But we never went hungry, never went without clothes or school supplies, and had plenty of trips to the dentist. So I guess we weren't "poor." Just "modest."
And by this, of course, I mean to say we did not have cable.
I remember getting up on Saturday mornings around 5 a.m. and rushing to my station in front of the TV. The Saturday-morning cartoon block began with NBC, and only transitioned to other networks as the morning wore on and the fare became scarce. These channel changes necessitated a shifting of the rabbit ears on top of the TV, resulting in a slightly less fuzzy and static-filled picture. I pressed on. No cartoon shall go unwatched.
By noon, most anything of interest was over, and I would stumble out into the "beginning" of the day, bleary-eyed and frightened of the giant fiery orb in the sky.
I don't remember eating as a child. I have vague memories of frozen Flava-ice and generic-brand soda, but not really much in the food department. I'm sure I must have eaten both breakfast and lunch. I remember cereal ... lots of cereal. Or were those just cereal commercials? Bless me Lucky Charms, I just can't remember.
Anyway, at noon-ish I would stumble out into the world and go wander into the woods behind my house, where there was a clearing filled with the Wonders of the Universe.
Here is an inventory of the Wonders of the Universe:
- One rusty but usable boat winch, which would someday result in a catapult that would fling a young friend to his near death
- Several large pieces of plywood and some long, nail-filled two-by-fours in the shape of what might be called a tree house (if one were feeling generous)
- Miles of rope, much of which formed the basis of a swing system built precisely for the purpose of Spider-man practice
- Various electronic doodads and thingamabobs, all of unexplained origin and purpose, which served as instrument panels for various spaceships and time travel devices
- One or two porn magazines, pilfered from the older kids down the street and hidden discreetly in a garbage bag buried under a fallen tree
- Several karate magazines, hidden (for some reason) in the same garbage bag
- Four unsharpened throwing stars
- A pair of nunchuckus (sensing a theme here?)
- Pipes, wires, tubes, and other outlets of imagination
I know there was more. There felt like more. But you know how these kid havens work. I may not have had much more than a Slinky and some action figures, but it seemed like a vast booty to me.
One thing I did have plenty of was imagination. And I'm now convinced, as I sit in front of the titanium casing of a MacBook Pro and tap word-candy into the brains of readers, that I had more opportunity for creativity and "big ideas" while rooting around in those woods and tinkering with all that junk than I have ever had in even the most productive brainstorming session or all-night, coffee-fueled writing binge. I think a lot of the stories I've written over the years have come from those days bouncing around in the woods behind my house. It's really too bad TV has killed my capacity to ... something.
Now that I'm all growed up and have a house of my own, a yard of my own, and a neighborhood of my own, I find myself looking back wistfully on those moments in my Cave of Wonders, and contemplating how to get back there. Is it possible, as a grown man with responsibilities and bills and a slight weight problem, to slip back into the stream of carefree fun and creativity that I once swam in? Is there a way to be more child-like without being childish?
Dammit, I intend to find out. And I plan on finding those lost porno and karate magazines in the process.
To be continued ...