My parents made no waves. What I mean by that is I never saw them send a steak back because it was undercooked. If my dad bought a pair of shoes that turned out to be too tight, he would put a shoe stretcher in them until they fit or the seams pulled apart. If my mom brought home a half gallon of milk that poured out in bleu-cheese-like chunks, she would defend the milk and tell me to eat my cereal in between the globules.
I grew up in a No Wake Zone.
I remember saving up my allowance money for weeks when I was ten with the goal of buying the Magical Mystery Tour album. It cost $2.99 at the PX, one of two stops on our Saturday shopping route, the other being the base commissary. My mom traded three dollar bills for my pennies, nickels and dimes and I was ready to go shopping.
I was so excited about adding this record to my Beatles collection that I was up early, dressed in my buttoned-to-the-top-button plaid shirt, slim cut jeans and Keds high-top tennis shoes. Tucked next to the three dollar bills in my wallet was my audio/visual team ID card from school. I was a nerd’s nerd.
We made the 10-mile trip to Ft. Bliss and, after I bought the album, I had to suffer the excruciating hour-long visit to the commissary. With our bags of groceries safely stowed in the trunk by the bagboy, we headed home. “Can I open the album?” “No. Wait until we get home.” I was a tortured young man.
I raced in and out of the house until the groceries were all in the kitchen. I then eagerly cut the plastic wrap off John, Paul, George and Ringo’s latest masterpiece. Pulling the record out of the sleeve, I noticed something very wrong. Very, very wrong.
The vinyl disc in the package was not a Beatles album. It was the New Christy Minstrels “New Kick!” record. Oh no! I was crushed. What happened? (It was years later that I became aware of this “purchase and return” scam that people pulled, returning empty boxes or, in this case, an unwanted album for a full refund.)
My mom attempted to console me. “Oh, I love the New Christy Minstrels. Let’s listen to it.” Are you kidding? I wanted to go back to the PX right then. “No, we can’t do that. You’ll have to wait until next Saturday.” At 33 cents a gallon, I couldn’t see how the 20-mile round trip was going to wreck the family budget.
Long story (a week is an eternity for a 10-year-old kid) short: I made the New Christy Minstrels for the Beatles hostage swap the next Saturday, but not without receiving the third degree from a disbelieving store manager.
That was a success story. This next one was not. Or so I thought at the time.
I got a bicycle for Christmas, just a few weeks after the Minstrel debacle. I had dreamed about a three-speed bike to replace the beach cruiser I had outgrown. The seat had been raised to the highest notch and I was afraid that my dad might weld on an extra foot-long pipe to make it last until I started high school.
There’s nothing quite like Santa getting it wrong. Next to the Christmas tree stood a three-speed bicycle. A champagne-colored three-speed bicycle. A girl’s champagne-colored three-speed bicycle.
I was convinced that my mom was serious when she told me that she had hoped for a girl to complement my two older brothers.
Once again, attempting to make lemonade out of lemons, my mom pointed out how much easier it was to mount this bicycle without a crossbar between the seat and handle bars getting in the way. Besides, you’re less likely to injure your private parts, she said. Believe me, at this point, none of this justification was in any way convincing to a prepubescent boy who was already concerned about his high level of sissyness.
But there was no negotiation. My dad, having been raised during the Great Depression and having fought in World War II, was unimpressed by my disappointment. “Do you know what I would have given up to have a fancy bicycle like this when I was growing up?” “Yes Dad. Your manlihood,” I would have loved to have said. Of course, I would never have done that without risking certain physical injury.
So there I was, the proud owner of an ego-deflating girl’s bike. I promptly removed the plastic streamers that hung out of the handle bar grips and started telling my friends that I was borrowing my cousin’s bike. They figured it out soon enough.
I rode that bike for five years. It did have the effect of toughening me up. I learned to deflect the teasing by picking on something equally deflating about the teaser. I also made the decision to never accept anything again (gifts excepted) that didn’t meet my expectations. That was a life lesson worth learning.
In case there’s anyone who doesn’t get the connection of my story to Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue,” here are the lyrics from the Shel Silverstein song. Sure, it’s a huge stretch to think that my situation even approaches the horrible stigma laid on The Man In Black’s character. My dad was always there for me, we never had any fist fights, and I respected and loved him. But somehow I’ve alway seen some parallels between my story and Sue’s.
“A Boy Named Sue”
And he didn’t leave much to ma and me
My fist got hard and my wits got keen,