Tuesday, November 29, 2005

An achronological history of growing up in a small town, or the wonder years, part one

One thing that really struck me about the recent Martin Scorsese PBS documentary on Bob Dylan was a particular Dylan comment about growing up in the small town of Hibbing, Minnesota. I'm not going to attempt a verbatim recall of the comment because my memory doesn't allow it, but I remember Dylan saying one of the myriad reasons he felt uncomfortable in Hibbing was that there was no way to rebel because the townspeople's lack of ideology meant there was nothing to rebel against. Any different viewpoint, or any viewpoint at all, just confused them. This comment was very meaningful for me, though I never had any particular inclination to be a rebel. I just felt confined and wanted to get out as soon as the opportunity arose. What was meaningful in Dylan's words was the recognition of my hometown of Bridgeport, Nebraska in his description of Hibbing. My hometown is a town without an ideology, a viewpoint, a thought about anything one way or the other. It just goes along to get along, and anything shifting that equilibrium one way or the other is met with puzzlement, ridicule, scorn, and finally hostility. Most people there are Christians, Republicans, lower to upper middle class, white, friendly, hard-working, sincere, sports fans, not particularly interested in cultural or political matters. There are a lot of positives and negatives in this highly subjective and possibly unfair checklist I've just made, but the problem is that most people there have simply adopted a set of characteristics handed down from their parents and a shared town persona without much thought about why they're Christian, Republican, etc. Things are the way they are because they've always been that way and almost everyone there is comfortable with that. That's fine, I guess, but I never felt comfortable there. I have to amend that last sentence. I felt comfortable in the town. I felt comfortable driving on its streets, walking through its parks, riding my bicycle over every square inch of it on marathon late night rides, swimming in its lake, climbing Courthouse and Jail Rock. I felt, and still feel, an affinity to the landscape, and I appreciate its beauty much more now than I ever did when I lived there. I breathe a sigh of relief every time I get off the plane in Denver or hit the Kansas state line in the car after the alien landscapes of Texas and Oklahoma fall away. But I never felt comfortable around the people, and it's only gotten worse. I don't feel any particular hostility toward them, especially since I outgrew my teen angst, but I don't feel any connection to the people who inhabit the landscape that feels like home. It's a weird, disturbing disconnect, and I have a hard time accepting it. Conversely, how connected am I to the people of Austin? Or to the people of Lincoln, where I went to college? My connections are to certain individuals, not geography. But that's a lie. Geography is important. Landscape has shaped me as much as human contact. Why did I turn out the way I did? It puzzles me.

Let's start this history off with one of my most embarrassing moments. In grade school, I became interested in true crime, serial killers and mass murderers (particularly Charles Manson), and unsolved mysteries. This interest was sparked by seeing a Geraldo Rivera special on mass murder (the one where he interviewed Manson) and the television show "Unsolved Mysteries." I was fascinated by the capability of human beings to be colossally fucked up. I was also freaked out that someone would kidnap and murder me and I wanted to understand all I could so I would be able to escape should this fear ever become an eventuality. This fear was exacerbated by a family friend's daughter being kidnapped by a sexual predator from Omaha who happened to be driving through our town, though the man ran away before doing anything to the girl after being spotted by a neighbor. He was later arrested for a previous crime in eastern Nebraska. Don't worry, this gets funnier. My interest was a little morbid, but I was still way more into comic books, rock and roll, professional wrestling, and swimming at the lake. There are no bodies hidden in my apartment. Anyway, time goes by and the fear of being kidnapped and murdered diminishes, but the interest in true crime remains. I was eleven or twelve, and I had just finished watching "Unsolved Mysteries" when one of my friends called. He said to meet him at the R&W shortly. The R&W was an ice cream parlor/hamburger joint that was a popular hangout at the time for pubescent dorks like me and my friends. It is now a Subway (the restaurant chain, not the public transportation system). I walked the six blocks to the R&W, probably ate some french fries or an ice cream cone, probably played some hair metal on the jukebox, or some Altered Beast on the arcade game. The only thing I remember clearly is seeing a lot of classmates there, and hanging out until it had become dark. I don't remember why now, but I ended up walking back home alone. About four blocks before I got to my house, I noticed a small car with out of state plates slowly turning onto the street. It slowly followed me for three more blocks. Very slowly. I'm starting to gently freak out at this point. "Unsolved Mysteries" is playing in my head. Then the car pulls right next to me and stops in the middle of the street. I can see my house from here and get ready to bust a move. A bearded man I don't recognize wearing a baseball cap leans over in the seat and says, "Hey." I lose my shit and take off running, not stopping until I'm in the living room of my house. My mother and father look at me bemusedly, and I tell them to call the cops. They ask why, and I tell them that some weird guy followed me for three blocks, then pulled alongside me in the middle of the street. I give a description of the man and the car, and my mom calls the cops. She starts going over the story with me again, gets a strange look on her face, then a flash of recognition, then embarrassment. "Oh, shit," she says. "I think you called the cops on Bill." Bill is one of my uncles. We drive over to my grandparents' house, and sure enough, Bill is on the couch and, sure enough, the sheriff talked to him. I look out the window, and see his car with its Colorado plates. I feel like the world's stupidest motherfucker, although there are some facts in my favor. My uncle had been living in San Diego, and had recently moved to Ft. Collins, Colorado. I had briefly forgotten this, and I didn't connect the Colorado license plates with him. Additionally, I had never seen his car before. Also, I hadn't seen him for a year or two, and he had a beard for the first time and was wearing a baseball cap, something I'd never seen him wear before. My mother called the sheriff and explained what had happened, though they seemed to think she had a retarded son. My uncle saw how embarrassed I was and laughed it off, though my grandfather made fun of me for about eight solid weeks. I'm not a big fan of symbolism, but I think I see some of it in this true story. I represent Bridgeport and my uncle and his car represent the outside world. Now, let's all eat a hoagie and go to bed.


casual ninja said...

i have an similar story from my childhood. i'm visiting my dad and he leaves with my brother to go across the street and talk to the neighbors. it's dark outside. i'm sort of freaked out to be alone in a big creaky house. the phone rings. i answer it and a man with a creepy voice asks if i am home alone. i immediately hang up the phone, then pick it up to call my mom or something. HE IS STILL ON THE LINE. i'm thinking, how is he able to stay on the phone? i remember the scary story where the babysitter's killer is calling her from inside the house. he continues to ask me where my dad is, if i'm home alone, why did i try to hang up on him? it's possible he uses my name which just adds creepiness at that point. i can't remember how it played out... if i hid in the house or ran outside risking abduction to find my dad? no memory of that part. i just remember finding out eventually that it was my uncle bill (yes, my sinister stranger was ALSO an uncle bill) who lived out of state and probably talked to us once or twice a year. but he managed to give me shit every time he did call for the next year or two. who makes fun of a 10 year old girl? uncle bill that's who.

Bartleby said...

This reminds me of a story. I was driving through some dustball town in the middle of goddam Nebraska, having just slain a middle aged Caucasion man and fashioned a reasonable facade of his face with bits of skin, a fake beard, and an old baseball cap I found in his car. At some point I happened upon this vaguely retarded looking red-haired kid, who I intended to rape and murder. But before I even get a chance to lick my tickling finger, the gangly son of gun bolts off toward home. Long story short: kid calls the cops, I pretend to be the "uncle," no one notices any difference (they are mighty easy going folks ‘round these parts), and we all live happily ever after. Until the day that that damn loudmouth kid repeats the tale and I am forced to hunt him down.