Halfway through my first grade year and around my seventh birthday, we moved thirty miles away from everything and everyone I knew. We started in a rental home, because our actual house was still being built from the ground up. The rental house had an odd, mildewy smell, but at least my older brother had his own room which meant I had more space of my own. In the face of these changes, my younger brother and I clung to each other. We became close as we only had each other to play with. We created whole whole worlds with our stuffed animals. My older brother started to pay more attention to us as well. He wrote stories about our stuffed animals which portrayed them as super heroes. When I was younger, I had to have my tonsils removed. In the hospital, I had been particularly attached to a plush Pillsbury Doughboy doll that I found in the play area. So much so, that the nurses allowed me to take it into the operating room with me. My mom and dad saw how attached I was and bought me one of my own. It was one of my most treasured possessions. My older brother made him the main super hero who had obtained his powers one day when he ate a roll of radioactive Charmin bathroom tissue turning him into Super Sharmey.
For the first time, we were living close to both sets of our grandparents. My mom’s parents and my dad’s parents could not be more different. My dad’s parents gave unconditional love to the point of hugs and kisses whenever we walked in the door, lavishing us with homemade cookies and cakes and snacks, and handing us twenty dollar bills. My mom’s parents gave us the feeling that we were a burden by constantly telling us the things we were doing wrong. The holidays we spent with my dad’s parents were filled with joy. We anticipated our time spent with them, drawing them homemade greeting cards as a way of showing our affection which our grandmother tucked away in a special drawer for years and years. We loved dragging out the box of knick knacks filled with odd and wonderful vintage toys that our grandfather joined us in playing with. We would bring over our newest stuffed animals for him to name. Two of the most memorable where a little stuffed penguin and owl which he christened Elmo and Bevo. Those names stuck for decades, and I even drew a comic strip based on those characters. Conversely, we often dreaded the time spent with my mom’s parents who were from Texas and used antiquated racist language like “wet backs” and “chinks”. Even from a young age, we knew there was something very wrong about the way they talked. But we knew better than to disagree with them. There ire was not something we wanted to see. My mom told me stories about how she was beaten by her mother and verbally accused by her father in whose eyes she could do nothing right. Then there was their son, my mom’s younger brother, my uncle. He never worked a day in his life, smoked pot like a chimney and drank beer like a fish. He called us “rugrats”, and was basically inexplicably entitled. But to my mom’s parents, he could do no wrong. He was given everything on a silver plater including a boat which he chose to live in.
Across the street lived an enthusiastic boy named Jose. He showed my younger brother and I around the neighborhood. He introduced us to the local fruit trees including a small yellow orange fruit that became a favorite. I would later learn they were called kumquats but Jose called them quints. He bragged about knowing kung fu, and let us watch Johnny and the Giant Robot with him. He had a Star Trek Enterprise bridge play set complete with Spock, Kirk and McCoy. Although it would become a favorite to me in my teenage years, at the time the show was a bit of an enigma. Shows like Star Trek, Outer Limits, and Twilight Zone were still too scary to watch. As for Jose, I would meet him again a few years later when we attended the same school. For some reason, he harbored resentment toward me and threatened to beat me up with his kung fu. And one day, he did just that. It was the first and only fight I would ever be in. It lasted less than a minute with me on the ground. I wasn’t even sure how he had done it, but clearly kung fu was somehow involved.
In a field near the back of the rental house, my brothers and I found a couple of large trees that became our club houses. One was a smaller three that had a large piece of plywood as a floor. You could stand or sit in the center of it and not be seen. The second was an enormous one that was untrimmed. The branches hung low to the ground and created a large covered area like an enormous tent. We would take our dog Charlie Brown with us to the hide out to keep guard over us until something happened to him. Being a hunting dog, he was an excitable and made of pure muscle. Once he was running through the house and he smacked his head into a dresser. He hit it so hard his head swelled up to the point his eye was shut. He was taken to the vet where they had to cut open the lump to drain the puss. He came back with big gnarly yellow stitches. And he came back a different dog. He was unpredictable and no longer able to connect with people in general. We had an odd pattern with dogs in our family. Our first dog was Sloppy Joe who was best buddies with our cat Linus. Sloppy Joe and Linus would lay together and Sloppy Joe would lick Linus while Linus would suck on Sloppy Joe’s fur. Sloppy Joe was a great dog with kids, but unfortunately had one bad day. He came back from the vet where he was given shots. My dad gave him a bone as a treat to help him feel better, but my younger brother pulled the bone out of his mouth. Uncharacteristically, perhaps do to his earlier traumatic experience, Sloppy Joe bit my brother. My brother was taken to the hospital where he was given bandaids for his puncture wounds. Sloppy Joe was taken to the vet to be put to sleep, or as we were told he was taken to a farm. Charlie Brown eventually followed in his paw prints. My younger brother was pulling his food bowl away from him and Charlie Brown bit him. This time, instead of being put to sleep, he was taken to live with my mom’s parents where he eventually ran away.
Around this time, I joined the cub scouts which would become a big part of my life. My performance in grade school would get worse with every past year because of my lack of motivation and self-esteem. Cub Scouts was the one place where I was making progress through badges and achievements. I eagerly earned the bobcat, wolf and bear badges. Then I moved onto webelos to earn pins for things like art, fitness, astronomy, and forestry. My webelos leader was a supportive man who praised everything I did, especially the art project which was a pastel drawing of a barn owl. My parents never complemented me on my artwork, but when the webelos leader made a point of telling my mother how good he thought my drawing was my mom went out of her way to put it into a frame. Sometimes it seemed like the only time my parents could see something good about me was when someone else saw it first.
Despite the shock of moving, there were some good times as well. Our family almost never went on outings, but during this time we packed up the VW van for a few trips. A camping trip near a river was especially exciting. We hiked the side of a hill where we saw a horny toad. We walked around a golf course where we found old golf balls and torn them open to watch the long rubber bands unravel to reveal small rubber balls. Then we played in the river, teasing crayfish with rocks and sticks. My younger brother and older brother took off on a walk by themselves that ended up leading to disaster. My younger brother threw a rock at a cat in someone’s backyard and a lady came out to yell at them. My parents caught wind of what happened and my dad was especially upset. My dad was not a man you wanted to make angry. He was a man of few words and in fact would hardly ever talk to me when I was growing up. When he was angry, you knew it. It often ended with painful smacks. Another adventure in the van was a trip to a drive in movie to see Rocky. My parents loaded an ice chest full of various flavors of Crush soda, grape, orange, pineapple, fruit punch. We had a ball rolling around in the back of the van, but I ended the night with a horrible belly ache.
I was introduced to my new Catholic school and my new first grade teacher, Sister Lois. The nuns at the school wore full robes and cowls. You could only see their faces and hands. When you did something they didn’t like, they would slap your knuckles with a ruler. If you continued to misbehavior, you were taken to the head nun would pull out her paddle. I had only once been sent to the principal. She took out the paddle and held it up for me to see. “Do you want to be paddled,” she said rather than asked. I was so terrified, I could not say anything. Fortunately I left without being hit. Sister Lois divided us into reading groups named after Disney characters like Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy. She had us draw a little book of the stations of the cross that she hung up around the room for family night. Another assignment was to draw ourselves as adults and what we wanted to do when we grew up. I was torn between being a father and being a priest, so I drew a picture of each. The art projects were always my favorite in school, and I was always intent to do it my way. A Valentine’s Day project had us coloring in a lady’s heart colored dress. We were supposed to listen to Sister Lois’s step by step instructions on what colors to use, but I dove right in. I started to color the dress pink until sister Lois said: “Take our your red crayon.” I froze with pink crayon in hand. “Hold it up and look at the word RED. Now color in the dress with your red crayon.” Embarrassed, I put the pink away and tried my best to cover up what I had done with the red crayon.
Grade school in general was a difficult time for me.