I was always considered weird. I will pause a moment so you can feign an appropriate level of shock and surprise. But yeah, I was a square peg from the word go: a dreamer, not terribly (or at all) athletic, disinterested in sports, overly sensitive, always singing a song or reading a book (or comic book). My childhood was certainly not unhappy, but I felt more like Charlie Brown than, say, David Watts.
|In 1969, I had neither heard nor heard of "David Watts." Nonetheless, this blog will never pass up on a chance to mention THE KINKS!|
After our third grade production of How The Grinch Stole Christmas, 1969 began with a welcome return: Batman! With a tag line of "Holy 1969!," one of our local stations began rerunning the 1966-68 TV series on weekday afternoons. Batman every day! Maybe this new Nixon Administration was gonna turn out okay after all!
A Saturday morning TV cartoon series based on the popular Archie comic books had begun the previous fall. I had read some Archie comic books (and the Sunday comic strip); it wasn't my preferred genre of superheroes, but I liked Archie well enough, I guess. In retrospect, I'm surprised I never sampled Archie's own comic-book foray into superherodom, as the mighty Pureheart The Powerful (circa the 1966 Batman boom).
Still, I watched The Archie Show. I think I was a bit put off by Veronica's unexpected Southern accent ("Archiekins!"), but it was fun. And there was music! The songs were catchy, engaging bubblegum (though I don't think I'd heard that term yet), and I would sing along with delight. When The Archies had a # 1 hit record on the radio, the irresistible "Sugar, Sugar" was my favorite song, too. Other than a few cardboard records cut off the backs of specially-marked boxes of Post breakfast cereals, I never owned any Archies records at the time; I own all of them now.
(Years later, I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Ron Dante, the lead singer on The Archies' records. He was one of the nicest people I ever had the pleasure of interviewing. Material from that interview was included in my "Informal History Of Bubblegum Music," which will be serialized on this blog in the near future. Oh, and my current favorite comic book is--surprise!--Archie, though the book's tone today is more somber and serious [if you will] than the Archie of my youth.)
The summer of '69--no, that doesn't make me think of any specific song; why do you ask?--presented a real-life realization of those long-ago Flash Gordon adventures, as Neil Armstrong took one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind. I experienced my first-ever shock of inflation when the price of a single comic book rose from the familiar 12 cents to a whompin', stompin' 15 cents per copy. Oh, the humanity...! Mom and I returned to Missouri, and then back to Syracuse for the start of fourth grade.
Bear Road Elementary School at that time housed grades K through 5th. My fourth grade class was a double-classroom, with two teachers--Miss Lynch and Miss Burns--presiding over something like fifty to sixty kids. That's crazy. How they managed that without murdering one or more of us (as far as I know) is a mystery; how we managed to learn anything is equally mystifying. But somehow, both statements are true.
I got along with, I think, all of my classmates. We weren't all best buds, but I don't remember any specific rivalries or antagonism either. It was the only time I ever shared a class with my friend Steve Goettel, who lived across the street from me; like Sharon Doyle, Steve had been my friend for as far back as I could remember.
Fourth grade was the best year I ever had in school. I don't mean in terms of grades, but in terms of comfort, in terms of camaraderie and companionship...yes, in terms of belonging. There was a kid in my class, Michael LaHair, who was the first person I ever met who was into comic books just as much as I was. We got together at his house on Moon Valley Drive to trade comics, and we remained friends for a few years, until he too moved away.
|Neither Michael LaHair nor I ever owned a copy of this 1941 comic book.|
The book store at Bear Road--The Paperback Shack--implicitly embraced the philosophy that all reading is educational, so why not let kids read books they're interested in reading? I got into something called Big Little Books, which were small-but-thick kids' books starring licensed characters, with pages of text alternating with pages of illustration. I would later discover that BLBs predated comic books, with the first Big Little Books appearing in the 1930s, starring characters like Tailspin Tommy, Buck Rogers, and Captain Midnight. My first BLB starred The Fantastic Four, and I subsequently purchased as many of them as I could. Years later, I sold my BLB collection for rent money. Wish I still had 'em!
But more importantly, I had friends. Some of my classmates thought I was funny, some of them liked my drawings...I was bordering on popular! When the class put on a play for parents, I didn't have a part to play; somehow, I wound up horning in anyway, with an ad-libbed part about a student phoning home from college (and ending the conversation by saying he had to go "bean the Dean"). This was a big hit with my peers. I had arrived.
My grades were, I guess, better than adequate. My occasional struggles with math and science made it increasingly clear that I wasn't going to be a brilliant millionaire inventor/crimefighter like Iron Man, but reading and social studies were easy. And that's where trouble planted its seed.
Tests indicated that I was reading at a ninth-grade level. Now and forevermore, damn those tests to Hell. It was decided that I needed more of a challenge; so, for reading, I was separated from the rest of my class. I had my own, different reading textbook. I had my own individual reading assignments. I was...other. No one in class gave me any kind of hard time about it, but it felt weird. I was even asked to periodically leave my classroom, and visit another fourth-grade student in another classroom, so that I could tutor him. That felt really weird.
All of the above would likely have still been okay, if not for the unfortunate decision that came next: I would skip a grade. Fifth grade? Never heard of it. It was sixth grade or bust. And, since Bear Road only taught through the fifth grade, that meant I had to leave Bear Road a full year before my friends did.
This was a terrible idea. Regrets? I've had a few. This was the biggest one.
NEXT: Only my radio can save me. And comic books. Comic books, too.