Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Taking the Stand.

I was searching this blog for something I had written ages ago, and was surprised to discover it wasn't here--it had only been on my old site, which has been cold in the digital grave for at least eight years. I offer it again now. You're welcome. Oh, and I've sprinkled this story with a few links to other writings of mine, so you can waste even more time before you die. Again, it's my pleasure.

When I was in the fifth or sixth grade, I had an epiphany of sorts, although I can't say for certain that I was aware of it at the time. We all have one at some time or another: the recognition of a truth, of something immense and your role in it, the flea unimaginably imagining the dog, and consequently a gradual dawning. I'm glad I had my first early.

It began with music. Sure, I liked some songs, but they tended toward the novelty side, Father Christmas by the Kinks, some Jonathan Richman tracks my brother Charlie played for me. The albums I enjoyed were usually inherited comedy records of the sixties---Cosby, Newhart, a single of Soupy Sales doing Pie in the Face (b/w Soupy Sez). I hadn't yet discovered new wave, if there was such a label at the time. The kids at school were toting boomboxes and listening to AC/DC, while I knew by heart every song on Allan Sherman's "My Son, the Nut."

Everything changed when I got a cheap, compact AM/FM headphone set from some kind of mail-in offer---actually, it was my mom who sent away for it, with cigarette coupons or something, and she then gave it to me. I remember the Styrofoam halves it came in, and the cardboard sleeve holding them together. There was something exciting about the package, as if I knew I was holding in my hand a portal to a new world.

If mom had foreseen the many hours that I would spend listening to that radio, hours customarily intended for sleeping, she may have ordered an ashtray from the Raleigh catalog in its place. It wouldn't be long before I'd be listening to Elvis Costello and the Clash, but I cut my new teeth on WPIX's soft rock, drifting off to John Denver and Barry Manilow songs.

In no time I became a true night-owl, although I had always enjoyed climbing out of bed to see what the grown-ups were up to, sometimes as late as the wee, wee hours. Often I'd find the folks watching television, and there were things on the TV at those mysterious hours that did not look like the programs I was used to. There were newscasters that seemed as important as the impenetrable stories they gravely told. I remember one team I liked because they reminded me of Washington and Lincoln (if Roger Grimsby had a powdered wig and Bill Beutel grew a fringe of beard around his chin). In the even-later hours, bleary-eyed under the dreamlike fluorescent lights of our blue plywood-paneled TV den, I'd hang with my older brothers and their friends while they sat on the sofa, probably stoned, watching pre-cable television's meager late-night offerings. They seemed to find my eager performances intermittently amusing, but I wasn't there to entertain them, not really. I was there to see the shows they watched, to gather clues to their adult world.

The new radio offered more clues, especially when I began tuning around to other stations. I found WBAB's Joel Martin, an interviewer who had guests of every stripe, and often did shows on the paranormal. Soon I was also regularly partaking of Larry King's hours-long program.

The introduction of the radio into my pre-teen world meant not only late-night listening, but often reading as well. At first I re-discovered my collection of Mad magazines, reading them under the covers with a flashlight night after night. I marvelled at how they were still amusing to even a sophisticated twelve-year-old such as myself. Once I'd tired of those, I began reading the books I took out of the Plainview Library, generally books on UFO's, the Loch Ness monster, Mothman, and every other aspect of unexplained phenomena. Throw in the odd assortment of books about old comic strips, Guinness records, card tricks or horror movies, and you had one cranky kid at the bus stop in the morning.

Through a radio contest (WGBB, naturally), my mom won a paperback copy of "The Stand" by Stephen King. It sat in the dining area for a while, uncracked, until one day I picked it up for examination. I had seen it laying around, the orange eyes peering out from the blue-black cover, but had never really looked. I saw then that the eyes were of two different faces---one of a shadowed male face, the other a raven in profile. I found it creepy and intriguing. I held the book in my hand, pondering its heft. Could I possibly attempt to read such a book? Eight-hundred seventeen pages. In a row. Daunting, to say the least.
I embarked upon this journey of a tome, unwisely, at the middle of the school year. It took a tremendous amount of time away from my studies. It wasn't even as if I could use this for a book report---my teachers would not have allowed it. But after the first few, hard-going chapters, it was too late. I was hooked.

I read through the Long Island winter (back when Long Island had real winters, but I suppose many of us recall harder hardships than we actually endured), on the bus, in the classroom, under the covers, and the book consumed me as I consumed it. I remember taking walks through deserted streets after reading sessions, imagining that I was in the world of the book, where the majority of the population had been decimated by disease. I'd step over piles of wet leaves, pretending they were bloated corpses. If I happened across someone, they'd become a character from the book, usually a villain, and I'd hide from them. Every time I heard some genuinely flu-infected person sniffle or cough, I 'd think to myself he's got it, he's got it and it won't be long before his tongue swells out of his mouth and pus flows from every orifice...

Perhaps thinking I would make a good character in the book, I took to wearing a pair of heavy, oversized brown work gloves instead of regular insulated ones. I wore them day in and day out, even as the weather warmed, and not just outdoors. I remember sitting out recess activities at St. Pius one afternoon. The class was in the gymnasium, probably due to inclement weather, but as the others played pigpile or kickball, I sat on the stage where our pageants were performed, reading The Stand and wearing my "murderer gloves." I can't recall if I had dubbed them that, or if my friends had. (Two years later, during the graduation yearbook tallies, not only would I inexplicably score "most likely to succeed," but I was also elected by a buddy as "most likely to kill people.") The principal, Mrs. Kawecki, strolled by me as I sat at the edge of the stage and made some idle conversation, during which I actually told her what I called my gloves. If I remember correctly, she just laughed. (Imagine some dopey kid saying that today---he'd most likely be forced to take weekly trips to a psychiatrist, if not immediately suspended.)

I had found that it was possible to surrender yourself to a book, to be utterly drawn into it and become part of it (and vice-versa). I finished the final chapter with a mixture of sadness and elation, wishing it would go on. I tried to re-read the book immediately, only to find that the moment could not be recaptured. The book had had its time in my life, and the time was over. Thankfully, there would be many other books to come and briefly claim my imagination, but few that would do it so completely as "The Stand."