The house into which I was born, a surprisingly long time ago today, was a cracker box on a slab. It was in an unassuming neighborhood in Toledo near a school called Shoreland. We had a dog named Judy and a neighbor named Sparky, and I liked eating cereal while watching a breadbox-size TV. That’s pretty much all I remember.
Things were not great with the world. America tested the H-bomb, Joe McCarthy raved, the age of fallout shelters had begun. The Tigers stunk and so did the Pirates, my other favorite team. (Interestingly, they are playing each other today, and both are vying for pennants.)
But Les Paul invented a guitar that would change the sound of pop music as well as my life. In 1957 Gibson turned out the Les Paul Special, a model of which my brother gave me 10 years later. I still own it and keep it safely stowed away from the world. So from the ashes of war and the ravings of madmen arose rock and roll, and all our sins were redeemed.
Viewed backward from the telescope of my life these many years on, my childhood looks like a series of snapshots. Much of it actually is snapshots, taken mostly by my mother: Dad reading to me in bed; my first day of school; me with a chipmunk on my head. Thanks to Betty Honey, designated historian, I have many images of me smiling. They match the image I have of myself inside: smiling and playing in summer grass, even while looking under my bed for monsters before I went to sleep.
My life plays out in pictures over time, in black-and-white, washed-out colors and incredible images yet to be captured.
The scenes change over time: first to Grand Rapids, on the edge of Ottawa Hills, throwing Frisbee in the driveway and playing Ping Pong in the basement. Playing cowboys and Indians with Jimmie Freeman, whose mom first fed me cottage cheese (ick!). Watching “Wagon Train” and “Sky King” and listening to my brother Mike’s Ricky Nelson records. Tagging along with him and his cool friends. Admiring my sister Maureen’s blooming beauty and her poodle skirts. Almost getting hit by a car, plus thunked in the head with a baseball bat. It was Norman Rockwell tucked inside a Mad magazine.
Then on to Williamston, an exotic little farm town of dusty roads and apple orchards and its very own movie show called the Sun. Flattened frogs lined the dirt roads like dried fruit. I read “Old Yeller” in the crook of a tree and threw a tennis ball against the barn roof. Mowed an acre on hot summer days and ate sour cherries from the trees. Saw “A Hard Day’s Night” at the Sun and later took tickets there and watched “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” seven times. Learned the secrets of sex though not fast enough. Threw out my back playing football. Wrote about the Williamston High Hornets sports teams for the local weekly. Started to become, unconsciously, a writer. And kept turning up the volume on my Les Paul.
Somewhere in here childhood ends and agonized adolescence begins. The uncertainty of adulthood followed all too soon. I look back on these later pictures of childhood with mixed feelings. I remember how good it felt to throw that tennis ball against the barn, but am aware of the confusion to come.
I would like to rewrite much of this history. Yet I know it is all one and the same thing, a whole life, complicated and painful and full of joy. I look back with a mixture of regret and gratitude, but mostly gratitude. Because it all led me to today, which is a good day. It’s a day filled with dear friends, my precious children, a woman I love, devoted siblings, meaningful work, and wonderfully loud rock and roll.
The world is still screwed up, but hey, you can’t have everything.
On this day, all I can do is give thanks – to God and to the beautiful mother and father who brought me into this life. I have pictures of them all over the house, and deep in my mind.