underground man

grease2a

By 5th, 6th and 7th grades I was being bullied by kids of all races, creeds, and genders. Kids who were being bullied by other kids bullied me.  Disabled children bullied me. Friends let friends bully me.  Bullying me was like a local Rite of Passage.  You just weren’t anyone in Wyoming if you didn’t beat me up, first.

Why was all this happening to me?  Luck of the draw?  Punishment from God?  I wasn’t that much of a nerd.  Okay, I was obnoxious, uncoordinated, dressed clownishly (by my mother), and wore huge, thick glasses.  But I felt normal.  Or believed I could be if only given the chance.  

To make matters worse I had become a straight C student.  And bad grades and bullying had fostered resentment and a lack of interest in doing anything sociable or even hygienic.  For weeks, in 7th grade, I became an Underground Man, and stopped showering entirely.  But resistance to showering not only didn’t improve matters, it earned me the nickname “Greasy.”  

Grease!  Greasy!  Greasejob.  Mr. Greasehead.  Mr. 10W-40.  Mr. Butane-Lighter-Head. Greasemonkey.  Crisco.  

Why don’t you take a shower, Greasehead?  

Why don’t you wash that stanky grease off your shoulders?!

 

Where were my parents during all of this?  Working mostly.   

My father was a long-suffering insurance agent at Frederick Rauh & Co. whose life rarely intersected with mine.  He went to the office, came home to eat with the family, and then disappeared into his office to pay bills or play with his massive HAM radio set.  My mother owned a local mom and pop bookshop and retired early most nights suffering migraines.  

As frustrated as my parents were with me, they were much more unhappy with each other and made no effort to hide it.  Their fights – about nothing – would rage for hours as they parried through the kitchen, challenging one another to see who could shout the loudest.  My father typically retreated, rejoined, and eventually conceded, frustrated and beaten down.  

Stealing began to frame certain parts of my life.  By the time I was ten I’d become expert at creeping into my parents’ room and slipping copious $5s, $10s, and $20s from Dad’s money-clip while they slept.  As a cashier at my Mom’s bookstore, I was skilled at skimming $20s here and there.  

What did I do with the money?  Buy comic books, mostly.  I was a big fan of the Flash, and the Atom, and most especially Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen.  The notion of a Deus-Ex-Machina-best-friend coming to bail you out seemed highly appealing to me.  Thanks, Superman! Can you give me a lift downtown?  Can I borrow $20?  Superman – ?  

As my grades worsened, my parents’ disappointment grew.  Having lost all faith that matters could improve, I focused my creativity on changing report card grades, destroying teachers’ notes, and generally lying about how I was doing in school.  It didn’t take much effort since both of my parents were so out of touch with my daily life. But the guilt and fear of reprisal wore on me and I’d lie awake at night, contemplating my lack of a future.  

I would never go to college or hold down a job.  Everyone else I knew would leave home, become self-sufficient, and get doctorates at universities.  And where would I be?  Curled up and shaking on a park bench somewhere, clinging to newspapers for shelter.  

 

walletGround2a

In August of 1978, I was kicked out of summer camp for stealing ten dollars.  I was a counselor-in-training at Camp Livingston in Vivay, Indiana, and I was actually doing a helluva lot more that they could’ve kicked me out for.  I had my first hangover that summer after drinking bottles of rank Kedem wine with Rob, Harvey and the camp cook. And I had smoked enough pot to improve the lives of several dozen glaucoma patients. But I wasn’t kicked out for any of that.  I was kicked out for stealing ten bucks.  

True, it was a drug-related crime.  The $10 would’ve been used to buy more pot.  It was a scheme by Rob and me.  (Harvey had already been sent home along with about a dozen others in the Great-Marijuana-Smoking-Counselor-Purge of ’78.)  We “borrowed” my primary counselor’s wallet – a dude maybe seven to ten years older than us – took the cash and left the wallet up on the A-field.  Some camper would likely take the rap, but that was fine with us.  We were dope fiends after all.

But the next morning we were called in to the administrative office.  They knew it was us, no question.  They weren’t going to press charges, but Rob and I were to be sent home immediately.  We were driven home in the camp van, over two hours of rocky country terrain in complete, shameful silence.  As for the reception awaiting me at home, I was resigned.  There was nothing I could do about it now.

It had been a good – no, a great – summer.  And I was unrepentant.  I had learned a lot – and not just how to build a workable bong from a Coke can and a ball point pen.  I had been accepted by peers for simply being myself, even when not stoned.  And acceptance had given me a new view on life.

My parents had been called ahead of time, so our reunion was absent of shock.  I expected them to be beyond disappointment – mortified, frightened; their response – grounded for life, community service, or military school.  (I’d been threatened with military school before.)  

But when I finally saw them they weren’t angry or disappointed.  They were simply bewildered.  I was beyond their experience.  

There was only one thing to do:  turn me over to a shrink.

And in that moment, I experienced what can only be described as pure freedom.  They didn’t punish me.  They let go of me. Gave me up to a doctor – a psychologist – and, ultimately, to myself.  From that moment on I might live under their roof but I’d be responsible for my own life, my own future.  No one was going to save me, protect me, or provide me with any clear cut direction in life.  From now on – for better or worse – my life would be up to me.

I was 14.

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