By Christopher Green
A very close friend thought that the original post left out too much and glossed over far too many details. After reading, I have to agree. Since this was probably the most important two years in my young life, I wanted to get it right. With your indulgence, I ask you to read this post again. In life, we rarely get a do over. Of this I know. Please give me this chance to have that rare do over. Thank you very much. And a big thanks to Eric Hensal for being such a good friend, the smartest man I know and man enough to tell someone he cares about the truth.
When my mother remarried after her divorce from my dad, I left the very urban Lakewood for the almost rural Westlake. I was a sullen loner torn between the love I had for my mother and the loyalty I felt toward my father. Because of these attachment issues, I retreated into myself even more than I already was, finding solace in music, comic books and the movies.
This was the time when Marvel Comics and Stan Lee was reaching out to us disaffected kids who felt alienated, confused and disillusioned. I could relate to Peter Parker who always had to suffer the consequence of his alter ego.
Over at DC, the home of Superman and Batman, Neal Adams and Dennis O’Neil brought realism right from the headlines to kids like me. I think their Green Lantern/Green Arrow series in the early seventies had a lot to do with making me into the political animal I am today. In one series, Green Arrow’s sidekick was hooked on heroin. It was gritty, it was real, and it changed how I looked at comic books forever.
In Lakewood, there were three or four stores where I could buy comic books within walking distance. There were two theaters in Lakewood, one by my house and one over by my dad’s. When we moved to Westlake, I was suddenly isolated from the two main distractions that helped me make it through the day.
But the greatest thrill of my young life and the thing I missed most after the move was getting on the Rapid Transit and riding it straight to Downtown Cleveland, ending up at the Terminal Tower. This was the time when downtown was a wonderful concoction of commerce, entertainment and shopping. There were thousands of people scurrying about. It was pretty cool for an eleven year old to land right down in the middle of all of that.
My best friend Richie and I would sneak on the rapid transit, Cleveland’s light rail system, going downtown. We would hop the fence and walk along the tracks to get to the Rapid platform. Since they took the tickets down at a booth and not on the train, they never saw us.
There was this huge bookstore, a three level affair that occupied me for hours. I have to admit, I was always trying to sneak a peek at the vast collection of girly magazines they had up on the third floor. Thinking back now, I wonder why they taunted us by putting the comic books up on the third floor as well.
There was a fair amount of old-fashioned urban sleaze down there. And it attracted the two of us like moths to a flame. We would go down to the burlesque theater, the Roxy, and look at all the posters of the exotic women. Right next door was this place called Gene’s Fun House. In the back room was a peep show, but up front, there were a few dozen pinball machines. I loved banging the silver ball. The Who were talking to me. I wanted to be the pinball wizard.
When I went downtown by myself, I usually ended up at the Cleveland Public Library. It was an enchanting place for me. Lakewood had a good library system, but it paled in comparison to the stacks and stacks of ancient books and magazines the Downtown Library had to offer. I would lose myself for hours in that warren of old knowledge.
The sounds, the smells and the overall downtown atmosphere were like an elixir to me. It was tough place teeming with people. And it was filthy. The industrial might of Cleveland was still churning 24/7 and all the pollution released from the mills would settle down on the Downtown making it all seem black and white to me.
I often wonder how I would have turned out if we hadn’t moved out to Westlake.
Out in the far reaches of suburbia, Westlake was twenty minutes further out from Cleveland than Lakewood; I was suddenly miles away from any store, let alone one that sold comic books. I was even further away from a movie theater.
My beloved urban adventures abruptly ended. There was no bus service this far from downtown, let alone the lurching, leaning and almost dangerous Rapid Transit. There certainly wasn’t a pinball machine to be found anywhere. I guess I was suffering from a mild case of cultural downsizing.
All I had left was music and thankfully, WMMS and WNCR, were just coming on line making the FM dial an oasis for music our parents simply hated. Suddenly I discovered Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa and Crosby, Stills and Nash. If it wasn’t for those two radio stations, I would have been totally alone.
I was also becoming somewhat of a hypochondriac. I remember watching my first Labor Day Telethon around this time, convincing myself that I was in the early stages of MD before dawn that Monday. Up until I graduated from High School and finally realized I didn’t have MD, I would call in pledges to help find a cure just to cover my bases.
I was a very strange child.
When we moved out to Westlake in the early spring of 1970, we left our city street where there were no yards to speak of and landed in a utopian development that had acres of grass. The houses were surrounded by huge yards. Power movers replace the push kind that did the job back in Lakewood. We moved from an Avenue to a Drive, Elbur to Radcliff. I was suddenly knee deep in suburbia.
In an earlier post, I talked about how I was a whisper of a student at Harding Junior High School in Lakewood. I knew we were going to move to Westlake in the near future, so I skipped school so much that I never got to know anyone. You could put a gun to my head and I could not name one person or teacher from that brief part of my life.
I think it was that experience, getting away with as much as I did, that made me into the obstinate, “hears a different drummer,” the hell with authority, sullen and very moody child. I realized at the tender age of twelve that authority was not worthy of my respect, but was rather something to hold in utter contempt.
Of course when I stepped foot into Parkside, the brand new Junior High just built to serve the burgeoning east side of Westlake, I ran right smack into Mr. Authoritarian himself, Mr. S. He was a stocky man who walked with a slight limp, an old war injury I was told.
To make matters worse for me and my brother, the “guidance counselor” had student taught where my mother was now teacher. This nebbish man reminded me of Howard on the old Andy Griffith show.
The first thing Mr. S barked at us was, “We have a dress code and I expect these boys,” he pointed at my brother and me while looking straight at my mother, “to be in compliance by tomorrow morning.”
Three days later, “Howard” gathered my brother and me out of our classes and took us to the barber to get a haircut. He never called my mother. It was a very degrading experience. For them, having hair touching the collar was more important than getting an education. Well, unless you consider utter compliance to petty rules as the true purpose of an education.
My mother had intended on getting us haircuts over the weekend. She was a working mother and thought going to teach children was more important than missing school to get her boys a haircut.
She was furious.
What made it worse for me was that my brand new stepbrother, who had hair longer than I did, didn’t have to get his cut since he was in the Elementary school right next door to the Junior High. Arbitrary rules.
My year and a half under the command of Mr. S and “Howard” was contentious, to say the least. It was a weird school in many ways. Everything was highly structured and any deviation was met with swift corporal punishment.
At least for the boys.
There were days when up to ten of us would be lined up outside of the shop room, where I gather manly men go to punish misbehaving boys, waiting to be swatted. All those power tools just added to the macho mystic.
It never helped, all this swatting, as far as I could see. Most of us in that line were repeat offenders. Of course, there would be enough new kids sprinkled with the usual suspects to keep the rest of the students in line, so in that case I guess it was effective.
What bothered me most was that the system of rules seemed to be made-up on the fly. There certainly wasn’t any rhyme or reason as to how punishment was parsed. Well, at least to my young mind.
Given all the turmoil out in the country at large, it was 1970, I have to think that one of the reasons parents moved their kids out here to Westlake was to keep them from all the ills that were plaguing the urban school systems. If that was the case then I am sure most parents condoned the over the top discipline.
I remember thinking that these teachers, many of them in their early twenties and still full of bravado, enthusiastically bought into this punishment culture. The focus of the school seemed to be more about discipline than education. I saw this and even as a child I knew it was just wrong; this school culture of violence and fear.
There was no reason to be so cruel and borderline sadistic. I am positive it was the man at the top, the drill sergeant turned middle school principal, who set the tone. He must have seen this as a mission, a calling to restore order to what he probably viewed as an increasingly chaotic world.
Then there was the gym teacher. Well, he was a stereotype right out of a John Hughes teenage angst movie. Of course he used his power to torture the kids that were not physically adept. I know it has become a cliché, but he really did put all the nerdy kids on one side when we played Dodge Ball. He would watch and then encourage the more fit to physically establish their place in the pecking order by pummeling the weak.
It’s an urge that is as old as humanity, I suppose, this need to dominate the weak. But in that day and age, halfway through the 20th century, it was more than a little disturbing. I think it is pretty interesting that it is the geeky kids from that era who now dominate the world. I bet Steve Jobs and Bill Gates had targets on their backs in their Dodge Ball games.
I remember one particular horrific day when he made two geeky kids wrestle each other, pulling the whole class off the mats to watch as these two unfortunates were forced into a brutal kabuki dance just to entertain the bastard.
I cannot imagine how those gentle souls felt, stripped of all dignity just to please this moronic gym teacher. All in good fun, he would probably say. Probably to this day.
There is one more incident from my time at Parkside that was particularly disturbing to me. I wanted more than anything to be on the student council. I have this insatiable need to be on the inside, to see what is going on.
I went around collecting all the signatures needed and went to turn them in. The faculty advisor, Mr. M., tore the petitions up in front of me letting them fall from his hands into his wastebasket and said, “We don’t want YOUR kind on Student Council.”
Who could I turn to, “Howard,” Mr. S? Not likely, so I finally told my mother all about it.
That was the last straw for her. Even though we had only lived on Radcliff for a little over a year and she was trying her best to cobble together a family out of the ruins of two broken homes, my mother started to look for a new home out of Parkside’s jurisdiction.
In the spring of my eighth grade year, I escaped the Gulag.
I left even more sullen and still a loner. After that “educational” experience, I was starting to question authority, all authority. No figure from teacher to step father to real father to employer is, to this day, afforded my respect if they choose to exercise authority in a manner that appears even the slightest arbitrary.
I was still a chunky kid, but my days of being a nerd were fast coming to an end.
Before I left, I did something so cruel that it still haunts me today. When I first came to Parkside, a couple of the nerdy guys befriended me. One boy in particular, Mike, invited me to his birthday party and I turned him down in such a way that he started to cry. I do not remember exactly what it was that I said to him.
This was after I had been at Parkside for a while. He still wanted me to be his friend, but I had long since moved on. He pleaded with me to come, but I would not budge. I can still see the tears streaming down his face. This was in eighth grade in the cafeteria in front of dozens of kids. He was mocked silly for crying. It was perhaps the cruelest thing I have ever done. But the social pecking order was being established and I wanted no part of my nerdy past.
I was still getting in fights, but not nearly as regular as I was in Lakewood.
To top it all off, I smoked my first joint when I was in the eighth grade. It was in the back of the Clark gas station up on Center Ridge. It was a couple of high school motor heads who “turned me on.”
Meanwhile, the child support war was escalating. Not only did my folks battle over who had responsibility for health care as I mentioned previously, they fought over everything. I remember being forced to wear glasses held together with tape and wire for months at a time because they argued over who was going to pay for a new pair.
It was right for my mom to stand her ground with my deadbeat father. Unfortunately, my brother and I were left to deal with all the fall out.
Through all of this, I still was earning good grades and I was still interested in learning. However, it would not be long before my grades began to suffer, as I started to do anything I could to escape from what I considered my harsh reality.