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Growing Pains, or Not a Kirk Cameron Reference


This isn’t a story about the lady who offered us ham sandwiches at a motel in 1993. Maybe they were the most delicious sandwiches in the world, I’ll never know. We snuck out to an Arby’s under the cover of night. I mean, we probably dodged a gustatory bullet. But, again, this is not a story about that nice lady who offered my mother, sister, and me ham sandwiches unbidden at a motel in 1993.

This time of year makes me think of moving. New lease. New part of town. New city—sometimes even a new continent. Though that’s increasingly rare these days.

Do you remember your childhood friends? I had a few—Chris K., Nick F., Mary M., even my siblings on good days (I was the youngest and five years is a lifetime when you’re five). On special occasions we’d go to the Salmon Rush Mall to see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Because it was always sold out. Something like five times. Imagine getting your parents or your friend’s parents to take you to a movie theater five times. Saint-like patience.

These were idyllic years. Summers? Running around outside. Going to the pool. Water balloon fights with SuperSoakers—shout out to Mr. Lonnie Johnson, the overdue and oft-uncredited inventor. We’d map out some fictional battle against intergalactic enemies, find a field and get lost in it. Everybody lived on the street or a few blocks down. Winters? We’d cross country ski, pray for snow days, get free cable for a few hours when the power came back on. Small town stuff—population was under five thousand back then. I also just saw the potential literary pun of my childhood mall, a joke that will land with an even smaller crowd than my Fireproof subtitle written as a Tolkein shout-out.[1] Everything around us was on such a small scale—maybe that’s why I love Star Wars so much. Because my older brother did. The lull between billion-dollar industries hey-decades.

(That’s me on the left – my first memory is  playing with those same toys while my Mom held me in one arm and one of those impossibly long corded house phones in the other hand.

That’s Sasha on the right, our childhood dog who’d howl at the moon on top of her dog house every winter. The old-school flash is giving her red eyes, but she was a heterochromate: one blue and one black-brown. My favorite childhood memory is when jumped the kitchen fence, she ran up the steps, jumped on my bed and licked my face to wake me up. She was half-wolf and I loved her. More stories for another time.)

If you’re from the States and you grew up anywhere remote or in the Midwest you can probably relate. Long trips in the car to visit family, or the big mall with a carousel in it. Side note—they rebranded in 2012. “Destiny, USA the shopping mall so big it needs its own zip code.

In our zip code there was small town cultural stuff like a youth ballet company (my sister) and high school sports like lacrosse (my brother). Skating was popular. Our next door neighbor had MULTIPLE Precious Moments display cases. We’d all get excited when the fair came to town with the one Tilt-a-Whirl. Our elementary school gymnasium became a bingo hall, the bloom of cigarette smoke mixed with funnel cake. The sweet smells of nostalgia.

I don’t remember how I met Tommy J., Scouts maybe? Camping wasn’t a big thing yet—it was all about that pinewood derby. Regardless, he had a house that smelled exactly like my house but somehow weirder. His dad was cool—I think I remember him being around as the biggest qualifier since my dad was usually away with work. He was a goofy kid like me back then—skinny, maybe a little taller, glasses. We bonded over video games. One of my first yell-myself-awake nightmares was being trapped in the Lost Woods. Very sheltered.

I can’t think back on a ton of memories with him that weren’t in his house and feeling happy. This sheen around having somebody I could just spend time with and have fun. No drama. No prying. No arguments. Just sitting side by side. I couldn’t even find any pictures of him.

I’m not sure why I don’t remember him in school or on camping trips. Or getting each other birthday gifts or eating pizza together. I remember when one kid got stung by a bee and I mimicked the tough love I thought boys needed. I remember when another friend swiped my Terminator 2 trading cards—do you remember the absolute insanity of collecting crap as a kid? They would sell you packs of cards with stale gum that you had to keep buying so statistically you would eventually get a complete set. Outside of arcade machines eating quarters I can’t think of a stranger piecemeal pyramid scheme for impressionable young minds.

The only clear description I have of us together is when my family moved. Mom was packing stuff up, Dad was already in the new town waiting for us halfway across the country. I’m sure we dutifully helped. Three days driving without air conditioning, stopping at McDonald’s for ice to rub on our faces and arms. And, of course, the infamous aforementioned ham sandwiches.

As my Mom tells it, she went looking for the two of us after picking up some fast food—an exceedingly rare “treat” those days. It was our last meal together, french fries and yellow-mustarded burgers. She was walking around calling for us throughout the house. It wasn’t until her second lap that she heard the faint hiccup-crying that only little kids allow themselves.

Our house had a trap door covering steps down from the mud room (a mud room!) to the root cellar (a root cellar!) that was our unfinished basement. With one small incandescent light above us, Tommy and I were sitting next to each other, arms clutched in a side hug, just weeping.

The biggest ball of tender emotion these two boys, two kids could share.

I wonder sometimes what I’d be like if I hadn’t moved. Would I be looking over the string-theory void, conjuring something like my current life, seeing greener grass? Or maybe hometown me would be supremely content, “knowing who I am.”

Reminds me of the time I was six or seven and I was sleep-walking on a regular basis. Apparently I’d walk into my brother’s room (he didn’t have a door, ha), flick on the light, stand and stare in his direction (eyes closed), wait for him to ask what the hell I wanted, and walk back to mine. That’s some metal somnambulism. One night I woke up surrounded by furniture in a strange bed. Stuff poking my side—I was in a complete state of terror. Turns out my folks were just doing some rearranging and sleeping downstairs. I whispered “Mom” like a stranded otter pup for the better part of two hours. Eventually I picked myself up by my own damn scruff, flicked on the light, saw what was what, and walked back to my room. I ’spose the point being most of my stuff felt intolerable as a kid until I shed some light on it myself. Daylight remains the best antiseptic for most foolishness after all, especially for me and my fellow whites.

Tommy and I drifted out of contact (never was much of a letter writer). I saw him again briefly when we were high school seniors—he had one of those Disney makeovers when he started wearing contacts that left a penchant for bragging. I guess we weren’t in a place where we could just share time together again without some kind a measuring tape.

I wonder if he thinks back on being a kid—maybe he has a son of his own who brings him back to that simpler time of being. Part of me misses when friendships weren’t complicated by life. Utterly unremarkable and completely forgettable.

It’s all pretty myopic. Childish even. Holding on to those two kids saying goodbye the only way they knew how.

I’m going back up to the old house on a mini biographical road trip this summer. I wonder if Red & White is still there. If the community pool lasted with its ten-cents entry fee. Maybe it’ll help me start this new decade saying less and sharing more. I’ll probably be a better friend for it.

And I just might stop yelping for other people to flick on the damn lights.


[1] If I had read Mary Shelley or Octavia Butler when I was a kid then they would have been the reference point, but shoehorning them in decades before I knew their names feels as awkward as these explanations. Comedy is always best with footnotes, right? This incel re-reading Infinite Jest knows what I’m talking about. I’m deep inside of a reference joke spiral now that I can’t get out of gracefully—much like our American lionizing of “frustrated male genius.” Deep breaths. Take this cartridge out, blow on it, try again.