I spent most of my childhood on a magical island named Catawba, and although it wasn’t technically an island, it felt like an island to me. A causeway had been built across a bit of Lake Erie to connect it to the mainland, which made access a whole lot easier than a ferry boat could, which was the usual mode of transport to the other islands off the coast.
It was heaven, that island existence, though I of course didn’t know it at the time; but when I remember the ease and safety and natural beauty of the place, I see it for what it was: a veritable kids’ idyll.
The grey lake was for swimming and fishing in summer, and ice skating and ice fishing in winter. There were long expanses of rock walls guarding the houses at the edges of the lake; the tops were smooth and flat, and just made for walking on. If you were careful, you could leap across the gated openings; if you fell…well, take my word for it, you didn’t want to fall.
There were forests to explore, and plenty of giant fallen trees that could be used as bases for the forts we’d build (there were mostly boys to play with). We’d sometimes find chunks of flat rocks with fossilized plants and sea critters imprinted in them. We had vague ideas about their history and how they came to be unearthed by our fallen trees, but hadn’t a clue about their rarity; how I wish I’d kept some!
The world was safe, so were allowed to be gone as long as we wanted, as long as we’d promise to be home by sunset for dinner. That was easy; our buttered graham cracker and apple picnics only kept hunger at bay for so long!
Well, I should have said the world was pretty safe; there was an old Peeping Tom who’d look in people’s windows once in a while, but everyone seemed to know who he was, and figured he was harmless, although from this point in time that seems pretty careless.
One night when our parents were gone, I saw his face at the bathroom window, and just about peed my pants; I’m sure I must have screamed. But he was gone by the time our mom and dad got home; I think they always thought I’d imagined him. His face was about two feet away from mine, and it took some time to register what I was seeing. Remember that feeling? At first your mind refuses to believe in something so out of the ordinary? And you try to tell yourself it’s something else? And then you get it?? Brrrr.
There was an old rickety two-story house on the northern end of the island; the mailbox said Myron Kutcher on it: he was the Peeping Tom; I recognized his face and his beat-up old felt hat. The Kutcher’s land had an electric fence around it, and boy, were we afraid of that! Come to think of it, I didn’t even know what an electric fence did, but our collective fear of it was pretty delicious, anyway. They had chickens, mostly Rhode Island Reds. To this day, when I hear the Why did the chicken cross the road joke, I think of one of those dudes strutting across that dusty road.
There was a giant old weeping willow catty-corner to the Kutchers’; we could hide under the branches that swept the ground and keep an eye on the place unseen; the boys in our ad hoc gangs seemed to figure that one day we might get to witness some unnamed crime.
Marshall might say in his gravelly old-man voice, “Ya think he’s got some stolen kids in there?”
The rest of us would just shiver…
I went to the same little school from first to sixth grades, so everyone and everything was totally familiar, if not entirely predictable. Shoot, I can still name just about every teacher I had back then, and picture where they lived; back then you were allowed to visit your teachers at home if you wanted…some of them you actually did want to visit.
But not Mrs. Heidorf ; she had to make us come…she’d tell us she’d made us some of her creepy divinity fudge that hurt your teeth and tasted like cat pee, so we had to go. She’d con us into bringing her some of the black walnuts that grew everywhere, but she didn’t know to roast them before mixing up that evil white confection; I’d find places to ditch mine when she wasn’t looking. Ish.
She had black hair made into some elaborate kind of braided bun at the back of her head, and a baggy neck and droopy cheeks she’d rouge up to make herself look attractive, I guess; but it didn’t work: she was sort of a grouch, and looked and acted like a red-faced bulldog. My mom said it would just kill her when she’d come to visit our third grade. She’d hear Mrs. Heidorf yelling at us as she came down the hall, and she’d knock on our door, tap, tap. Through the window, she’d see Mrs. Heidorf swivel toward the door, and the expression on her face would change instantly, and she’d saunter to the door and open it, and say. “Oh, hello Mrs. Weaver; you’ve come to see one of my little people!” all bright and cheery. My mom didn’t even care that we hated her…
Anyway, you get the drift. All the Catawba little people lived in a cocoon; we knew pretty much everyone on the island, and danger only came from nearly drowning (once), or falling through thin ice while skating (maybe twice)…or walking by the Kutcher’s house…or getting beat up by my sister, but that was different; no fault of Catawba’s.
At the end of the summer after sixth grade, my world shifted, both literally and figuratively. My dad got a new job in Cleveland, and we had to move. Move? Leave my friends, and my little garden, and my animal cemetery? The house with the great sledding hill in back? That’s not fair!
My dad left it to my mom to pick a place and a house; I could have chosen better with a freaking Ouija Board! Or closing my eyes and stabbing my finger down on a stupid map!
She was in love with words; that was her big problem. She’d drag us off to some nasty house she’d found because it was on goddam Morningside Drive, or Moonbeam Place or some idiotic misnomer.
We ended up in North Royalton, on Ridgedale Drive, I think it was. Pretty dreamy name, right? The vaulted ceilings didn’t hurt, nor did the giant lithograph of the Grand Tetons in the sunroom. My dear mother, God love her, was sort of a snob, and liked the finer things in life sometimes. When she’d have too many highballs or martinis, she’d trot out a slightly affected and dreamy, ‘cultured accent’. It really was pretty funny.
The house was okay, and it was sort of cool to blast Judy Garland on the stereo in that big, high-ceiling living room. Damn, my pop loved Judy; and he taught me to. ‘Zing Went the Strings of My Heart’. I used to perform a little medley of her songs, and always figured he was smilin’ down at me…How ya doin’, Pop?
Our house was at the end of a dead-end road, which was pretty nice, since the woods started at our house on two sides. What wasn’t nice about it was that we had to walk almost a mile to the bus stop. Not only was it a long walk, but along the way my sister and I would be joined by other kids pouring out of their houses, and joining the trek up the hill to the main road.
The boys outnumbered the girls, and they seemed huge; high school age, and they seemed not to like my sister and me on spec. They’d say stupid and mean things to us, and we’d try to ignore them. They seemed to be almost a different species than we were used to. Greasy hair, pointy shoes, jeans, shirt- and jacket collars up; fags dangling from the corners of their mouths; if they carried any schoolbooks at all, they seemed to carry them with disdain somehow, as if to say, “They’re makin’ me do this shit, and I resent the hell out of it.”
The girls came in two basic categories: The Prissy, buttoned up Catholic Girls, and the flashy, short-skirted girls with giant bouffers and pointy bras that made their breasts stick out like missiles. Now I know they might have been Catholic girls, too, but back then I didn’t know about acting out Catholics so much. The hairdos, I learned from my cousins later, took a lot of time to perfect. You would take a comb and a chunk of hair, and run the comb backwards down the strands, making a static mess, then blast it with hairspray. You’d repeat it all over your head until you looked like an electrified porcupine, then start smoothing it out on the surface. When you were finished, your hair might be hard to fit through the narrow bus doors, but the driver would wait for you. And the ‘do made a great place to store pencils and things. (Shut up; I didn’t rat my hair. Hell, I didn’t even wear a bra yet; I was a year younger than the other seventh graders…)
Now the Weaver girls hadn’t developed any of the skills one might need in a suburban area, crowded with people of different backgrounds, and income levels, and accents, and clothing styles and…unknowns. And we knew exactly zilch about menacing behavior; real twinkies we were. The boys would throw crap at us, little stones, snowballs, take our books and purses, though we almost always got the things back. Ignoring them didn’t work that well, but even now I can’t think what might have worked. Somebody finally let it slip that they thought we were rich; kind of funny really, since we weren’t…Our dad finally went to talk to the parents of one of the worst harassers; we begged him not to, but he had to go; and of course it made things worse. Now the Cretin could make fun of our dad, to boot! Crap. Bus-stop hell.
My new school was an old stone two-story edifice with basements and tunnels with plumbing pipes along the walls. It was for seventh graders only, and over 350 kids went there! If the enormity of it was daunting, the crush of kids in the halls was utterly intimidating.
On my first day, I was shown to my homeroom, where Miss Olzonowitz ran the show. She was tall and blond and gorgeous, with a generous red-lipped mouth and bright azure eyes. She was kind as she was beautiful, and welcomed me warmly to the school. (Okay, you can stop staring at me now, folks.)
Homeroom was where you started the day, listening to announcements, shuffling papers and books for your morning classes, boys making fart noises and throwing spit wads. Girls might check their compact mirrors, just in case they had turned into a Miss Olzonowitz during the bus ride, or more likely, sprouted a zit.
I made it through my morning classes, then followed the crowds to the cafeteria in the basement, waited in line, and got my lunch tray. I turned to look out at the sea of tables:
Oh my. Jammed. I wandered here and there, finally found an almost-empty table, and sat down.
Moments later, I sensed a presence looming over me, and looked up. It was the enormous Louise Tubbs from homeroom. She towered over me, and smiled sweetly; one tooth was missing in her smile, her unwashed and stringy blond hair swung toward me as her head bobbed.
“Can I sit with you?” I nodded, feeling my crest falling as I did; my smile must have been as rumpled as Charlie Brown’s. I could feel the New Kid Target with its neon arrow pointing at me now: ‘Calling all loners and geeks!’ Oh, goodie! Here comes another one! Jackie sat down and introduced herself; we talked a little while Louise shoveled her food in; she sure must have been hungry. Jackie seemed nice enough, although she seemed inordinately proud of her breasts: she wore them under her sweater in a way that seemed to defy gravity, and her nose turned up at the end like the girl in the before part of the Esmerelda book of my childhood. (Never mind; it was a bad girl does good, gets her wish from the fairy thing…)
By and by, she excused herself, whispering, “I have to use the restroom; I need to change my napkin.” (Oh, thank you; I needed that information just so I could finish my lunch…) It turned out she was also very proud that she’d gotten her period
When it was time to leave, I discovered I had acquired a satellite: Louise followed me like an enormous puppy that had bonded with the Wrong Mother. (Just ducky; the New Geek and her Pet Monster tromp the halls.) Louise looked ever so pleased as she lumbered along half a step behind me; a full step would have been preferable; I forgot to say that she didn’t smell all that good.
(Yeah, yeah; I know. All you saints were so big-hearted and kind at that age that you wouldn’t have minded, and are thinking what a mean cow I was to have wanted to press her flat, fold her up, and wing her out the window like a Frisbee.) She was my companion for several weeks in the hallways, but I did manage to convince her I didn’t need her help in a toilet stall. (Yep, yep; been doin’ this all by myself for years now, Louise! Be right back!)
By and by I settled in, and more or less found my way through the tunnels, avoided Louise, and found a few girls for almost-friends. And learned about passing notes in class. The reality was that notes from boys were the best, and worth getting caught over.
“Check one: Do you like me? Yes. No. Do you like someone else better? Yes. No. Are you going to the dance on Friday? Yes. No. Erudite missives of that order. And the notes would be folded into tiny packages that required some effort to break into; they must have seemed more secret that way.
I had a few boy-crushes, but I mostly flew under the radar. That fact made this event seem very peculiar.
I was in homeroom one day when a girl rushed in.
“Rita Malvestuto wants you in the restroom. She is challenging you to a can-opener fight!”
Now Rita looked as though she must have been held back a few times, older and tougher looking than the ordinary female hoods in the school. She had a giant heads-worth of ratted black hair and wore what was probably a fake leather jacket. Her nails were long and painted red to match her lipstick; she could have been the girlfriend of The Leader of the Pack; remember that song? Vroom, vroom? (James Dean, eat your heart out.)
Can openers? What the hell? I’m thinking she probably means those sharp, pointy can-openers, not the kind you clamp onto a can and twist the little key, right? The world went still; all the blood in my body fell into my feet; my ears roared with a hot wind.
People did this? Girls did this? Uh-oh; I’m really and truly not in Catawba anymore… All of a sudden I had to pee; not such a good idea to go the restroom with Big Hair waiting for me. Cripes. Did those girls stash can openers in their bouffers? What in the world could I have done to piss her off? She wasn’t even in any of my classes. I was picturing the little triangle gashes a can opener could make. Arrggh.
“Hurry up! She wants you!” Message-girl’s voice broke me out of my dark reverie. I must have opened my mouth, but no words came out. And the bell rang. O, sweet clanging school bell! I stalled as students rushed out, students rushed in, finally gathered my books, and peered into the hall. No Rita. I crept next door to the bathroom and opened the door a crack: empty. Sweet Jesus. I had a quick pee, washed, and hurried to class, where I may or may not have gotten detention for being late; who cared? I’d been saved from can opener mutilation.
Oddly, I never heard from Rita again. She must not have known she could have extorted anything she wanted from me; all she’d had to have done was breathe the words ‘can opener’, and I’d have given her all I owned; including my fourteen carat gold circle pin!
Not being used to fear, and owning no skills at self-defense or whistling past graveyards, I began to do what any red-blooded geek sub-teen would do: make myself sick. I developed symptoms: stomach ache, headaches, hair aches…whatever could allow me stay home from school. I didn’t exactly know I was becoming neurotic, but I sure did know I loved sick days home from school. In winter, I’d lie in bed in the dark in the early mornings, fingers crossed, while the voice on my clock radio listed the school closings due to snow. Oh, how I loved it when the voice got to “…North Royalton public schools”! Yahoo! That winter the Cleveland area broke records for snowfall; some storms would dump three feet at a time.
I’d be so relieved by the school Snow Days that I didn’t even mind the endless snow-shoveling, or trudging a couple miles to the little grocery store for staple foods, and hauling them back on our little sled. Bliss!
One night my father was late coming home. It was at the tail end of a big storm; the roads were icy, and as the hours ticked by we grew more worried.
When we finally saw car lights, we practically swooned with relief. When my pop came in through the door, his face really and truly was green. As he was driving home, an accident had happened. Some sixteen cars just ahead of him crashed into a mega-pileup; many people were injured, and some died that night. It affected him deeply, though he spoke only minimally about it. Poor daddy.
Perhaps that was the kicker; I’m not sure. But it wasn’t long before my mother had her maps out again, and was making calls, and seeking out another place for us to live. We were luckier this time: a college friend of hers talked her into looking at a house for sale in her neighborhood in Kent. It was, of course, a university town, and the house looked over one of the Twin Lakes the area was named for. It seemed to be a world away from the nasty place we’d been stuck in for almost a year. My sister, mother and I begged my father to buy this house. His commute to work would be longer, but at least not right through the Snow Belt. He gave in, and signed the papers…we packed our belongings, and bid a hearty hi-ho, fuck you to North Royalton and its greasers and hoods. Ta da!