You didn’t think I could remember that far back, did you?
Thirteen years old. No girlfriend. No car. Nothing but stacks of comic books. And then some. Nevertheless, quite the eventful year…
January I remember being cold and clear and dry. Seventh grade was going about as well as could be expected. I was learning my way around a trombone. I was noodling around for the first time with the idea of putting words on paper for something other than a homework assignment. I was trying to square a runaway imagination with the notion of acting grown-up. And I strangely felt myself paying more and more attention to that one woodwind player in the eighth grade band, for some inexplicable reason…
Spring was green. I don’t remember any spring ever being greener. I saw North Carolina for the first time, on a trip to be given a book for some sort of score on some sort of test that I didn’t think anything of at the time. I discovered Cherry Coke, in cans. I also discovered the original Marvel Super Heroes role-playing game. I had very little interest in actually playing it, but the rule set gave me something I’d wanted forever: a way to systematically compare and analyze different characters and a framework for conceptualizing my own creations. A carefully-filled-out-and-annotated character sheet was a work of short fiction as complex and absorbing as any brain-numbing short story from English 7, and I put a hell of a lot more work into it, too.
Summer was hot as hell, the last summer before I would have a job between school years. Nothing to do all day but hang around the house, reading comics, re-reading the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy over and over, taping “Money For Nothing” off Kicks 106 and playing it until my ears bled. I don’t know if it was red sails in the sunset or just too much time in the crossover books for DC’s “Crisis On Infinite Earths,” but in my memory, the sky’s always red in the summer of ’85. Oh yeah, and there was that little thing called Live Aid which you can still find on three fraying VHS tapes somewhere back in the ancestral country. This was also around the time I obtained a reasonably-sized (for a kid) Casio keyboard, with a range of a couple of octaves. To this day I don’t know how or why I came by it, but I started to use it. This was also the summer that somebody, late one night, shot out my bedroom window with a BB gun. I like to think I was ahead of the curve on drive-by.
Fall was…strange. I know I experienced all this before, but for the first time, I was really aware of cooling temps and turning leaves and Alabama football, not just as something where I knew I was a fan but something to watch, and listen to on the radio, and pay attention to – especially with Cool Mike Shula, the smartest QB I ever saw at Alabama, calmly zinging precisions passes to Al Bell to win one game after another in the last minute of clock time. The thing that sticks out in my mind was a trip to the Lion and Unicorn when it was still a comic shop rather than a sports-collectible emporium, and when it was still located on Highland Avenue in Five Points South. And that was a name and a land to conjure with – for the first time, an awareness of a world beyond the northern edge of downtown. (Apart of course from trips to relatives in Tennessee and that one black swan of a trip to Cedar Rapids, Iowa…of which more someday, maybe.)
Strangest of all, though, was that I started picking out pop tunes on that Casio. And playing them. And occasionally playing them where people could hear them. Like the Halloween bonfire party that year, two hundred folks – half of them some sort of relative and the other half just folks from up the holler – and enough adolescents that we went in the house to watch Ghostbusters on VHS, followed by my semicousin inviting me to “go work your magic” with that Casio. I played tunes, and people paid attention. Girls paid attention. A couple of girls I’d never met, from the high school out the way, paid particular attention. One of them was twelve years away from a prescription fraud case – and eighteen months from being my first kiss.
Fall melted into Christmas, propelled on the toe of Van Tiffen’s 52-yard bullseye into the wind to beat Auburn. I cracked my head on somebody’s drop-ceiling when I leapt off the sofa. Elsewhere, I was discovering all sorts of things – croissants. Croissants filled with chocolate. Perrier. All sorts of strange exotic things that suggested a world beyond the rural exurban life. I wrote the fall play for the gifted class (for the second year running) and this time had the sense to write myself the lead, turning it into a thinly veiled bit of desire for a world where I lived by myself in a comfy little bungalow and could actually be visited at Thanksgiving by a motley collection of punks, rednecks, and curious space aliens. (Look, I was still 13 in the Deep South, imagination only goes so far.) And by this point, I had actually gotten out a notebook, gone through last year’s junior-high yearbook, and assembled a categorical list of everybody in 8th grade, classifying them by archetype (jock? social outcast? brain? popular?) and relationship to me (acquaintance? positive or negative? friend? probably not. unknown? Known but not enough to classify?) What it lacked in design rigor, it made up for in its use as a harbinger of what was to come: the grand delusion that if only I could figure out how the system worked, if only I could crack the code, I could have the life I wanted.
All this, and yet – no computer. No cell phone. No trivia background or Scholar’s Bowl team, no Doc Martens or sports obsessions, just the barest skeleton of what I would eventually become (and skeleton isn’t far off – try 5-10 and 138 lb, and most of my weight in the size 13 feet) – but you can see the outline. Almost a quarter-century later – if you’ll pardon the geekery – there’s still some of that code in the operating system.