Last night, the only way I knew how to deal with my fear was to angrily write this piece. Still not sure where to go from here. This world. Yikes.
Christmas, 1984. My family was living on base in West Germany, all eight (EIGHT!) of us shoved in a three-bedroom, one-bath apartment. We were on the top floor of three, one of six apartments per stairwell, two stairwells per building. Built in World War II, the architecture was best described as, “early oppressive Stalinist utilitarian.”
Living conditions were cramped, but the youngest three of us were small and therefore not quite as affected. We had the first bedroom when you entered the apartment, a roomy retreat with a set of bunks and my single bed. There was a door into my parents’ room from ours, and as we lived on a guarded and fenced-in base with bars on the window, they probably didn’t feel at all worried that we were the first room accessible from the front door. They wouldn’t have expected any of us to escape, anyway, as we were just not that type of children.
We were, however, the type of children who loved Christmas. And that first winter overseas, we were excited to open up the boxes of ornaments we’d lugged over the Atlantic and make the apartment as close to home as possible. That Friday night, we’d secured a tree from the only lot on base, and after getting it situated in the corner of our crowded living room, had only managed a few decorations before it was time to go to bed. The rest would have to wait until morning.
Around six A.M., the sun was up and so was my brother, Joe. While his twin snored away, his six year-old self was unable to sleep and so he shook me awake. He had a plan: we would tiptoe out to the tree and finish decorating it before anyone else woke up. They would be so excited to see a fully decorated tree!
It was a lovely plan. Truly. We had the best of intentions. We envisioned all of the thanks and admiration we would inevitably receive from our parents and siblings.
But we were two of the shortest kids you’d ever seen. And when two tiny people kneel down, they can only reach their tiny arms so far onto a tree.
And when two tiny people are overloaded on Christmas joy, they overpopulate a very concentrated section of tree branches with every ornament their tiny arms can hang.
Which is right around the time that two tiny people are pinned under a falling tree.
I distinctly remember the clinking and clanking and yes, sadly, some shattering, as the ornaments went every which way, along with our cat who had been silently judging us from her perch on the back of the sofa. My parents shot out of their room and while I’m sure they were ready to murder us, the sight of us trapped under the pine tree more than likely made them unable to stop laughing. As everyone scurried to free us and salvage the ornaments that hadn’t broken, my dad realized that the tree water had poured all over the floor and seemed to be leaking through to the apartment below us. As my mom rushed to warn our downstairs neighbors, the far more refined Bradleys with their perfect two children and their lovely sportscar, I’m sure she momentarily regretted having a big family.
I usually remember the times I was punished, and they were many. But I don’t remember getting in any trouble for this particular disaster. I do believe, however, that was the last Christmas the tree trimming was put off until morning.
Today was madness. It was a good madness, but madness all the same. I had three magazines post a piece of mine online, and one that was somewhat vulnerable, controversial, and miraculously well-received.
I wish I could tell you about when I first started writing. If I think on it long enough, I bet I could, and I shall try, but it’s 7:38 and I need to do a blog post for my Write 31 days challenge, so instead I’ll be telling you the hilarious tale of my sister’s first brilliant written story.
In the 2nd grade, my quiet little mouse of a sister was asked along with the rest of her class to think of the funniest possible story and write it down. She took the assignment to heart, went home with a stack of that manila-colored triple-lined paper, and drafted what she considered to be the most hilarious story her seven year-old self could muster.
I suspect the commercials for the local musical theater may have contributed to her inspiration. They were playing ads for the upcoming production of Victor/Victoria.
The story was a simple one: a man liked to wear dresses. He met a woman who liked to wear suits. This was a perfect match! They fell in love and got married. The End.
Now, I realize this hardly sounds scandalous. But in 1976 or so, it apparently sent waves through Crofton Woods. The teacher brought it to the counselor who brought it to the principal who called my mother and requested she come in for a conference immediately.
When my mother arrived at school, she sat down across from the panel of three experts. The principal slid the story across the desk to her with a dour look on her face. My mother was understandably concerned about what the paper said. Were there curse words? Gruesome violent details? Was someone hurting my sister and she had confessed it on this page? The looks on the faces of the school officials betrayed their own concerns too readily.
Then my mother read the story. And commenced hysterical laughter.
When she realized that the teacher, counselor, and principal didn’t find the story the least bit funny, she caught herself and tried to recapture her concern. Which is when the counselor began a particularly bizarre kind of questioning, attempting to determine just how my sister had found her inspiration for this clearly disturbed tale.
“Does your husband….enjoy wearing women’s clothing?” the counselor ventured.
My mother’s laughter resumed. “Oh goodness, you’re serious, aren’t you?” she finally managed.
At that point, my mother remarked that to a 7 year-old, this was merely the funniest thing she could think of, that no, my father was not into trying on her pantyhose, but thanks for asking, and that she also found it to be a delightful little tale and my goodness did they really have her find a sitter for this nonsense.
I am nearly certain there was a mark in the old family file from that point on. But it does remain my favorite “birth of a writer” story.
….talking about the modesty police.
Living overseas is an amazing experience for anyone, but particularly for children. And getting to live on an American base offers a “best of both worlds” situation, which was the case for our family during my second half of elementary school.
As civilians, there were actually two cultures to learn: the military one and the German one. For example, each day at 5 o’clock meant stopping in your tracks no matter where you were for the playing of Taps and the flag lowering in the square. I had never seen a gun in real life, yet I was now walking to school alongside soldiers carrying impressively large firearms. Hilariously, the elementary school shared a fence with the firing range. On the one side, the playground equipment, the other side, target practice.
As these were the days before internet, another country was a mysterious thing indeed. There were fashions we’d never seen, like track pants, strange pronunciations of familiar words, like AHDIdas and CAPreeSOHnah. And there were strange foods such as whipped cream without sugar.
My parents were definitely more relaxed than my generation when it came to letting us wander about, and I know a good portion of that was the times in which we were raised. But when I think back to some of these memories at age 10, I can scarcely believe it. Recently, my best friend from sixth grade was in town and we met up for brunch. Her parents were also there, and we all told stories of those years spent on base and the crazy adventures we had.
Lara and I loved riding our bikes around, and since base was only a measly square mile, we’d often ride through the MP-guarded gates and out “on the economy,” as it was called. In the summer months, we’d bike up to the outdoor pool, which would cost about two Deutschemarks entrance and then another mark or so for an ice cream. We wore no helmets, we had no cell phones, no one made sure we applied sunscreen or monitored us from the water’s edge to prevent our drowning, and we possessed only enough language skills to say “Einen Erdbeereis, Bitte,” and of course, “Danke!” when handed a strawberry ice cream cone.
As we rode along the bike path to Vaihingen Freibad, we had to cross through a tunnel. Under the Autobahn. It was a popular place for graffiti, and I learned some fascinating words as well as saw some new symbols. I was wise enough to not ask my parents what they meant.
I know we were safe. I know we were prepared. But I can’t help but be horrified at the thought of sending my own nearly-10 year old off in the same fashion. And I know my mother would be, too! But I guess if you can play on the see saw overlooking the Rod & Gun Club and survive, what’s a little bike ride?
I used to joke that the reason I was immune to most peer pressure is that I knew somehow, some way, no matter how inconceivable, if I dared to stray from the straight and narrow, my mother would find out. Yes, my own disposition lent itself to good behavior, but were I ever tempted to rebel in the slightest, I had years’ worth of experience to know that woman was some kind of freaking sorceress when it came to her children and their missteps.
This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you. I am confident that my seemingly-omniscient mother kept me from making a handful of stupid mistakes in my teen years. I aspire to convince my own children that I know and see all, for their sakes as well as my own. The groundwork for this illusion is being built every day, in fact. (insert maniacal laughter)
But there was this one time, this one, magnificent occasion, where I got away with something.
When we were younger, my parents would host parties from time to time for my father’s colleagues. As these were for grown ups only, my dad would carry the only household television into the den, tinker with the rabbit ears until we got a decent picture, and stuff us full of popcorn. We’d watch whatever movie was available on public television and then head off to bed.
On one of these occasions, we were happily plunked on the floor, probably watching Wizard of Oz, when the picture started to go wonky. We weren’t to disturb our parents, and since I didn’t have the patience required to wait until one of their periodic check-ins, I decided that I would rise to the occasion and adjust the antennae myself.
As was usually the case, the twins attempted to talk me out of my stupidity, to no avail. I was seven years old, darnit, and I could save us all. I’d seen the grown ups do this a hundred times, how hard could it be?
Being a short kid, I had a time of it attempting to even reach the long, metal pieces, so I focused my attentions on the lowest bits which stuck out of the back. I kept at it for a while, relying on my sidekicks to let me know if I was on the right track. And just as I had nearly finished saving the evening, I heard and felt a dull snap.
Complete and utter panic ensued. In my zeal, my weak little hands had broken the plastic piece which attached the antennae to the television. My heart beat fast, my hands shaking and clammy, I wonder how I didn’t pass out at that moment. We started to brainstorm plausible explanations, but came up empty. My only option was to prop it up like nothing happened and hope no one noticed.
And so we waited.
Not much long after, my parents sent us off to bed. I can remember lying there, wondering when the hammer would fall. Would it be at breakfast? Perhaps I would be woken up in the morning and interrogated? Would all three of us manage to keep the secret?
But something so completely and utterly bizarre happened that next day. I came down the stairs, walking as slow as possible, dreading the fate I would meet, and there in the living room was the television, bunny ears extended toward the sky. Was this a trap? Or had I dreamed the whole tragic mess? No, I didn’t think so. But why weren’t my parents interrogating us? No sense was to be made.
Hours gave way to days, and eventually my heartbeat returned to a healthy rhythm. And every once in a while, I would catch a glimpse of the duct tape holding the antennae on and wonder how it is that I got away with breaking it.
Finally, one afternoon after we had moved overseas and back again, I heard my parents talking as they were setting up our furniture. It was then that I had beer to thank for my fortuitous escape from punishment. It turns out that my father had one too many and decided to move the television out of the den that night before going to bed and regaining sobriety. He was operating under the delusion that HE had broken the bunny ears clean off the television!
Oh thank you, glorious, glorious beer.
If there was one thing that drove my mother completely over the edge, it was food waste.
We were a timer family, for sure. And there were many nights where we children would sit at the table, faced with the impossible choice between consuming whatever was set before us or suffering the punishment for committing the unforgivable sin. Since we had cats and no dog, there was no pet under the table to help, either.
My mother didn’t just have starving children in Africa stories. She had depression-era horror stories and Germany post-WWII famine stories to add variety to the starving children in Africa. They all seemed to be on rotation.
In what can only be described as a deadly combination, she had no regard for expiration dates.
Which is how I found myself in this particular predicament.
One fall morning, around 1983 I would guess, I sat at the breakfast table where I had been served a bowl of Rice Krispies cereal with sliced bananas floating atop. Pretty typical breakfast, definitely one I enjoyed. Beat the hell out of reheated oatmeal, but I digress.
As is typical of most 7 year-olds, I was particular about the details of my food. I complained to my mother about the unusually high number of burnt rice bits. While normally you could find the errant brown bit, this bowl was pushing a 50/50 ratio, and I did not appreciate it.
Now timers for dinnertime were a possibility, but in the middle of the morning rush, you just ate your breakfast and moved on with life. This was unchartered territory, and so my exasperated mother suggested I just pick out the burnt krispies. A magnanimous gesture on her part, since that meant a half of a cereal bowl-worth would be wasted.
I’ve never been a patient person, but at that moment I knew I had best take out the burnt ones so I could handle eating whatever was left. Using my spoon, I isolated each brown krispy and transferred it carefully to the folded napkin next to my bowl.
When I had done at least enough work to navigate a few bites of brown bit-free cereal, I went back to eating my breakfast. My plan was to go layer by layer, stopping in between to eat what was salvageable and then returning to brown krispy extraction detail.
I wish I could tell you that I removed every single brown rice krispy. I wish I could tell you that thanks to my diligence, not a single burnt rice kernel passed through my lips. Oh, how I really wish I could tell you this, because after a few rounds I got sloppy and gave up on the sorting, and around that time I glanced down at the napkin full of brown Rice Krispies and saw them wiggling about in their little dance.
Oh yes, I had consumed a solid number of banana slice topped weevils.
I’d also like to tell you that my mom felt horrible about this fact, but that wouldn’t be true. She was upset, however, that the cereal had to be discarded. At least she didn’t take the opportunity to let me know that the starving children in Africa would have happily chewed up the weevils as part of their complete breakfast.