I felt the profoundest sense of relief when the last bell rang ending the last day of my first year at Tappan Junior High School. All us students spilled out onto the big front lawn on the south side of the school overlooking Stadium boulevard, a part of the school’s campus that seemed rarely used during the school year. We had all been given our yearbooks and the idea was we would all mill around together signing each other’s copies with cute or poignant little memorable comments. One last exercise in social hierarchy. All the cool kids clustered around each other laughing, joking and signing each other’s copies.
At the end of my first year in this institution I maybe knew the names of a hundred of the some thousand kids in the school, and most of the ones I knew I was uncomfortable asking to sign my yearbook. Uncomfortable asking the few girls I had gotten to know as classmates, project or lab partners, hoping they would ask me, which one or two actually did, to my relief. Uncomfortable asking the cool kids (or who I perceived to be the cool kids) I knew for fear of their scorn leveled deftly with a roll of the eyes or a blank gaze and an obligatory “sure”. Playing it safe, I ended up asking just a handful of the boys in my immediate neighborhood that I knew previously from elementary school and interacting with them in the park across the street from my house. I left the campus once more diminished by my experience in the place, but glad at least that I had a ten week reprieve.
I had first entered Tappan’s nondescript halls imagining myself one of the “alpha” boys and a star student. Now ten months later I was questioning both those presumptions and feeling neither. Best to just lick my wounds and retreat from the battlefield still with a heartbeat, and maybe share war stories with my neighborhood friends over the summer in an attempt to process the post-traumatic stress and reframe and regain a little self-esteem. None of them had ascended into the ranks of the cool kids either.
The routines of my “normal” summer were comforting. My Little League team from last year reconvened, now with a new coach and sponsored by Bimbo’s restaurant rather than Michigan Tube Benders, the plumbing supply company our old coach had either owned or worked for. I was again acknowledged as one of the better players and our team’s main first-baseman and had a successful summer season hitting and fielding my position. We were finally playing the game with all the adult baseball rules on the major league sized diamonds and with base stealing allowed, which I had the occasion to do myself, particularly when the other team’s catcher did not have a good throwing arm. It was good to be back in a milieu where I felt respected by my fellow participants and could demonstrate and be acknowledged for my skills without worrying about getting on the radar of the cool kids.
There were new Avalon Hill games in the toy and hobby store downtown to be saved up for and bought: Anzio, simulating the Allied World War II campaign in Italy that drove that Axis country out of the war, and 1776, the first real strategic level game I had encountered, encompassing the entirety of the American Revolutionary War. Buying a new Avalon Hill game was still a joyous and exhilarating experience for me. An initial reconnaissance (as it were) of the game at the store, reading all the info on the box or even opening it up if it wasn’t shrinkwrapped, noting its price and how many weeks of allowance plus maybe babysitting the neighbor’s kids it would take to finance its purchase. Then the triumphant subsequent trip to the store with cash in pocket and that delicious anticipation of a new simulated world of geography, history, military formations and game system to be plunged into.
I have always had a things for maps, they visually engage my mind to the geography they are representing, and particularly ones that are beautifully rendered. I loved these Avalon Hill board games because they presented me with a piece of the Earth’s geography on which the game would be played, the peculiarities of that geography needing to be studied to be best leveraged in playing the game. This was particularly so in setting up the side that was defending the map from the attack by the other side. The juxtapositions of cities, rivers, mountains and forests was critical, along with the transportation corridors within that geography that either facilitated or restricted movement of your military formations. I loved having the opportunity of getting intimate with every new patch of our planet’s surface.
When I first opened the Anzio box I saw its gorgeous map of the Italian peninsula (with a grid of hexes superimposed over it) which I was not that familiar with but instantly fell in love with. A narrow peninsula with lots of mountains and rivers, when I first set up the Italian and German units to defend against the Allied invasion, I could see how ideal it was for defense, particularly the defensive position across the southern portion of that peninsula anchored on Monte Cassino, which I had read about in World War II history books.
The military units for the game were the typical die-cut, half-inch, cardboard squares, color-coded by nationality, and printed with symbols and numeric factors indicating the type and capabilities of the particular unit. But these were more varied and more appropriately colored than the units of previous games (German units in various shades of gray and black rather than D-Day’s pink) and looked great deployed on the artistically rendered board.
As always, the game’s system was of particular interest to me. This game featured more complex rules around logistics, weather and combat, including a completely new combat results system involving step reduction of units rather than just complete elimination. Each unit had two “steps”, represented by a two-sided cardboard counter with the full-strength unit on one side and the half-strength version of the unit on the back. The results of a battle would involve a certain number of step loses by the attacking and defending units in that battle. Each player would choose which units involved in the combat would take the losses. Flipping a full-strength unit to its half-strength side counting as one step. Removing an already half-strength unit counting as a second. This seemed more realistic than the elimination of entire units in the combat results system in previous Avalon Hill games I had played.
The game board for 1776 was a hex-grid representation of the map of the east coast from Georgia to New Brunswick of what is now the United States and Canada, extending as far inland as the Appalachians, Lake Erie, and Quebec. Again for me, the joy came in becoming intimate with the terrain as I tried best to defend it as the American player. The generally superior British army could pretty much seize any of the coastal cities they wished to concentrate their forces against using their superior naval forces as transport. But the rag-tag rebel American army could retreat up into the mountains on the western half of the board where better defensive positions were to be had and the British lines of communication with their coastal strongholds were more easily threatened by rebel militia.
The game introduced me to the whole concept of militia. These were the populace that were locally and hastily organized into informal temporary military units, rather than being part of the smaller, better trained and organized regular army (like the one led by then general George Washington). Each region of the thirteen colonies – New England, Middle States, and South – would produce a certain number of militia units each year (New England produced the most), and these “irregulars” made up the bulk of the rebel American force.
Interestingly, there was also colonial militia that fought for the British side, particularly in the South. This spawned further reading on my part about the history of the period, learning that it was probably roughly just a third of the colonial population of the time that supported the revolt against Great Britain, while maybe another third of the colonists supported the British and the last third did not support either side. It was a different perspective than I had gotten from my elementary school history textbook.
Another interesting aspect of the game system was the discontinuous combat rather than the continuous combat that dominated the World War II games. In those more modern military simulations, all attacking units that were moved to hexes adjacent to the defending units were combined into one continuous coordinated attack. But in 1776, attempting to simulate the very different combat from this earlier period of history without long range weapons and radio communications, each stack of units (that is all the units in one hex) attacked separately, making it harder to concentrate your troops for a big battle, and giving an advantage to the defender.
Like my other Avalon Hill war games, I became adept at playing Anzio and 1776 either solitaire at home (the long narrow boards of both fitting nicely under my bed, though they were vulnerable to our cat deciding to lie down on the board or bat at the little cardboard units with his paws) or with one of my neighborhood friends with a shared interest in these geeky games. The long unstructured days of my summer vacation were perfect for this activity, which was framed conventionally as a “pastime”, but for me was a compelling developmental experience, embracing geography, strategy and systems theory, beyond just passing the time between presumably more important structured activities.
The summer of 1967 began with the Monterey Pop Festival, taking the rock and roll music that my generation was growing up with to a new more powerful and sophisticated level with rock heavyweights like Jimi Hendrix, The Who and Janis Joplin. Though it would be years later that I would learn about the “Summer of Love”, this more sophisticated rock music was beginning to breakthrough onto the radio stations I was listening to. The more tame and conventional Top 40 hits, like The Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” and The Association’s “Windy” were sharing the charts with powerful rock anthems like Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love”.
Grace Slick’s strident and provocative vocals, singing a song written by her brother Darby, particularly the first several lines of the first verse, jumped out of the radio and grabbed me by the throat (if not the balls)…
When the truth is found to be lies
And all the joy within you dies
Don’t you want somebody to love?
Its first fifteen words were a nihilistic sledgehammer, certainly seeming applicable somehow to the experience I had had that last year at Tappan junior high. And somewhere inside me the hormones were starting to flow and begging me to answer the siren’s question that followed that blow. Suddenly I had been alerted that there was a complicated and somehow disingenuous world out there that my generation may need to destroy and reassemble in a better more honest way. It was perhaps the dark and difficult unspoken reality behind the Beatles’ more upbeat “All You Need is Love”, which also trumpeted from the radios that summer with its brassy orchestral accompaniment.
The music of The Beatles had been a part of my life since 1964 when I was nine years old and my brother and I had our first little record player to play 45 RPM singles of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You”. But during their initial Beatlemania boy-band period, their music did not resonate with me as much as the local Motown music coming out of nearby Detroit.
It was a couple years later when our little record player had been upgraded to an inexpensive stereo and my brother and I started purchasing LPs (the long-playing 33 RPM vinyl records) that we began buying Beatles albums with our allowance money. Their music, on American releases Beatles ‘65, Beatles VI, Help!, Yesterday and Today, Rubber Soul and Revolver, influenced by Bob Dylan and American black R&B artists, had evolved to that more edgy, thoughtful and soulful pop music commentary on contemporary life and love, with some of the same high calibre lyrical prose as the best of local Motown stuff.
The stereo was in my brother’s room, which had originally been shared by both of us while our dad still lived in the house and used the other bedroom as an office. After dad moved out that became my bedroom, but we tended to hang out together in his room, which was bigger, brighter (it had two windows including a big one looking out at our neighbors house and Burns Park beyond) and he had the stereo and we both loved listening to music as we engaged in whatever other activity we were involved in.
The turntable had the tall spindle that allowed you to stack up to a half-dozen LPs then would drop and play the top side of each automatically in sequence. Thus we could cue up a couple hours of music as background as we drew, read, played a game or wove our joint fantasy narratives. The Beatles’ albums in particular played over and over for hours burrowing deep into both our conscious and subconscious minds, to the extent that even nearly a half a century later I still can hear those songs playing in my head, and when i do hear one on the radio from time to time, as it ends I still remember the next song that followed on the album.
Their songs were a spectrum of fables mostly about about the ups and downs of romantic relationships set in the contemporary adult world we would be entering into in our future and we were trying to come to grips with. Stories of good behavior and bad, true confessions and hypocrisy, love and loss, fidelity and infidelity, imperfect human souls learning, sometimes painfully, from their naivety and mistakes. And each fable had a moral that we got or posed a question that we pondered in the back of our minds while we otherwise focused on whatever activity we were about while we listened. And as we noted and pondered these seemingly real-world stories, the level of our own sophistication was increased, and our overwhelm at that big adult world out there was mitigated some.
There was the complications of pride undermining a good relationship in “I’m a Loser”…
Of all the love I have won or have lost
there is one love I should never have crossed
She was a girl in a million, my friend
I should have known she would win in the end
What have I done to deserve such a fate
I realize I have left it too late
And so it’s true, pride comes before a fall
I’m telling you so that you won’t lose all
I was certainly feeling like a loser after my school year at Tappan, and resonated with the song line, “What have I done to deserve such a fate?” even though the context in the song’s narrative was different than mine.
Then there was frustration transitioning to some sort of painful acceptance in “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”…
How can I even try
I can never win
Hearing them, seeing them
In the state I’m in
How could she say to me
Love will find a way
Gather round all you clowns
Let me hear you say
Hey you’ve got to hide your love away
I particularly resonated with that last line based on my experience the past year in junior high being afraid to even initiate a conversation with a person of the female gender I might be interested in for fear my peers, particularly my male peers, might challenge me on it.
And in a more upbeat and hopeful vein, pondering the randomness of an important but chance encounter that might not have been in “I’ve Just Seen a Face”…
I’ve just seen a face
I can’t forget the time or place
Where we just met
She’s just the girl for me
And I want all the world to see we’ve met
Had it been another day
I might have looked the other way
And I’d have never been aware
But as it is I’ll dream of her tonight
And resignation on the flip side of hope, knowing one has made a misstep but not understanding what it was and now facing that there is no going back in “Yesterday”…
Yesterday, love was such an easy game to play
Now I need a place to hide away
Oh, I believe in yesterday
Why she had to go I don’t know she wouldn’t say
I said something wrong, now I long for yesterday
Based on my past year’s experience, I could easily substitute “life” for “love” in the song’s lyric. And as to the “game of life”, being strung along on false pretense in the idolatrous world of celebrity and stardom in “Baby You Can Drive My Car”…
Baby you can drive my car
Yes I’m gonna be a star
Baby you can drive my car
And maybe I love you
I told that girl I can start right away
And she said, “Listen baby I got something to say
I got no car and it’s breaking my heart
But I’ve found a driver and that’s a start”
Employing sarcasm to call out the contemporary snake oil salesman in a world looking for a pill to pop to solve all ones problems and take that shortcut to heaven in “Doctor Robert”…
If you’re down he’ll pick you up, Doctor Robert
Take a drink from his special cup, Doctor Robert
Doctor Robert, he’s a man you must believe
Helping everyone in need
No one can succeed like Doctor Robert
My friend works for the national health, Doctor Robert
Don’t pay money just to see yourself with Doctor Robert
Doctor Robert, you’re a new and better man
He helps you to understand
He does everything he can, Doctor Robert
Moving beyond your naivety and finally seeing things as they really are, wrestling with whether this person you care about has either changed or is not really who you thought they were in “I’m Looking Through You”…
I’m looking through you, where did you go?
I thought I knew you, what did I know?
You don’t look different, but you have changed
I’m looking through you, you’re not the same
Your lips are moving, I cannot hear
Your voice is soothing, but the words aren’t clear
You don’t sound different, I’ve learned the game
I’m looking through you, you’re not the same
From knowledge and acceptance to celebrating the adventures of life both outside in the world and within the other human beings you encounter along the way in “Got to Get You into My Life”…
I was alone, I took a ride
I didn’t know what I would find there
Another road where maybe I could see another kind of mind there
Ooh, then I suddenly see you
Not rocket science here, but The Beatles, The Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, The Temptations, The Jefferson Airplane and others were part of the Greek Chorus of my generation, urging us to examine our shortcomings, challenge society’s hypocrisies, and broaden our humanity. I generally took their advice seriously and committed myself to try my best to be the best sort of person they were singing about, however long that actually took.
It was also that summer that the Beatles’ latest album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Band, was released and hit the airwaves. We did not have the allowance saved to buy it right away, but from hearing the songs on the radio and seeing the album cover with The Beatles new psychedelic marching band look, we knew that the world had evolved somehow (or at least that part of the world that they inhabited). One way or another John, Paul, George and Ringo were somehow calling out important developmental curriculum for us and our generation. Their new colorful and whimsical marching band uniforms and retro facial hair were a facet of the “hippie” counterculture we saw emerging in the TV stories about the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco, Plum Street in Detroit, that summer’s Monterey Pop Festival, and a similar look emerging among some of the college and older high school students that we would encounter heading into town and crossing through the University of Michigan campus.
Having gotten comfortable with the body of The Beatles more conventional work over the past three years (I could sing most of the songs from memory), the songs on Sgt. Peppers’ were more musical theater than rock and roll, but intriguing new curriculum for pondering. And when we finally saw the actual album cover with its array of images of famous people and the grave-like floral arrangement of the word “Beatles”, all the song lyrics on the back like a multi-column newspaper, and heard the album in its entirety (rather than individual cuts on the radio) we knew this was something new and different, some sort of unified and conceptual work of art rather than just a portfolio of songes. Many of the nuances of the thirteen songs on the album and their sequence were still beyond our immediate comprehension (and I would continue to find new meaning in bits of each song over the next five decades), but we knew this was some sort of a quantum leap and we listened cautiously and with due respect.
The most initially interesting piece on the album to me was the psychedelic dream journey of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, the first letters of the key words in the title spelling the hallucinogenic drug LSD. A bit heavy-handed of a title in retrospect, but to my preteen sensibility at the time it was just right. I knew from television, discussions between my mom and her friends at parties, plus the grapevine of my peers who had older siblings who had friends who had even older siblings who knew all the drug lore. Like the popular songs with the veiled drug references, Nancy Sinatra’s “Sugar Town” or the Association’s “Along Comes Mary”, mind-altering drugs like Marijuana and LSD were part of the hippie culture. “Lucy” gave me a glimpse into that experience (whether accurate or not) and that was enough for me for now, I would not go anywhere near drugs or even alcohol at this point.
That summer I had reached an age where my mom was starting to be comfortable sending me on foot or bicycle to the Food and Drug store about a mile south of our house with a note to sell me a pack of cigarettes for her. She would also have me buy a six pack of diet soda for her (her other vice, Tab, the gnarlier predecessor to Diet Coke) which I was learning to drink as well, because it was always there in our refrigerator. The general understanding that the money she gave me would include enough for me to buy a candy bar or some Hostess fabrication (cupcakes, Twinkies, etc) as well.
That task I generally did willingly, but not my other main chore of emptying the kitchen trash can when it was full. She had clearly explained the job to me on more than one occasion. I should keep an eye on the kitchen trash can, and when it was full I should take it out and dump it in the trash can outside. Pretty simple stuff, right? But invariably the trash in the kitchen would build up to overflowing and my mom would have to remind me to take it out, which I would immediately do. So what’s the problem?
Big problem it turns out! It pains me now to think of how many times my mom explained to me the fundamental difference between proactively taking responsibility for something versus following an immediate order to go do something here and now. Sometimes she delivered the explanation with a nicely modulated voice, but other times, exasperated, she would raise her voice and show her frustration and disappointment. Then I would be angry and feel hurt and not appreciated. But after being on the wrong side of that lecture, when I saw the trash can full again, why did I not just take it out? Waiting again instead for that frustrated reminder that should not have to be given.
The context of course was critical here. We were two years out from my mom and dad’s divorce. Their relationship had suffered because my mom liked to deal with issues and feelings directly with what later became known as “I statements”. My dad, on the other hand, struggled with being direct and assertive, was passive-aggressive instead, and showed his anger not verbally but by some sort of passive resistance to going with the program. When it came to my relationship with my mom, I had learned to be just like my dad, like some junior proxy, continuing his fight with the evil queen of the household. I was still mad at her at some level for the divorce, what she did to both my dad and me, but I was not in touch with my own feelings enough or possessed of enough self-esteem to say so.
She was going through a difficult period where, as a single woman and “divorcee”, she was continuing to be excluded from some of the circles of my dad’s friends in the university community. Or else, in this time of a more relaxed approach to sexuality, being seen as just a potential sexual conquest by other male friends and acquaintances who were single or even married themselves. She was open to, even longing for, a new relationship with a man, as she would sometimes share with me, sitting on her bed trying to figure out how to pay all the bills, while I sat in her rocking chair keeping her company, listening uncomfortably to her “true confessions”.
But with each such confession, she was seeming more and more like a flawed human being like me, full of longings, anxieties and frustrations, and not some iconic unimpeachable parental figure, like I had viewed her years earlier before her panic attack and her life with my dad starting to unravel.
Our dad was beginning a new chapter of his life having been offered a professorship at Wilberforce University, a small black college about 200 miles south of Ann Arbor in southern Ohio. After several years working in language research for the University of Michigan he was excited to have the opportunity to get back in the classroom and work with students again. So in early August of 1967 he moved down to the small town of Xenia Ohio, about 30 miles southeast of Dayton and about 10 miles north of Wilberforce. He rented a tiny upstairs apartment carved out of a single-family house in a somewhat rundown neighborhood on the south side of town.
It was unassuming, utilitarian and cheap, adjectives that appealed to him and could be used to describe him as well. He was never much for worldly possessions, just a place to put his mattress (it sat on the floor in his tiny bedroom), a basic kitchen (cheaper to cook food than buy it prepared), have a desk for his typewriter (in his kitchen next to the stove), and a functioning car. His bathroom just had one of those old four-legged tubs with no shower curtain or shower. But since he kept his hair short and unadorned, he washed it with a bar of soap and didn’t even have a bottle of shampoo. His car was I recall a 1964 Plymouth Barracuda that he had bought used. (I don’t think he ever bought a brand new car in his entire life!)
It was a bittersweet move for him and for my brother and I, since we would have less opportunity to spend time together. Though he never talked about it directly, I was getting empathetic enough, having all that practice with my mom, to begin to see the sadness in his eyes and the way his head would hang. He too was becoming a real person to me and not some iconic parental deity. I was really beginning to care about my parents, not as my benefactors, but as flawed striving human beings like myself that I had a deep connection with, with their own compelling and difficult life stories.
To his credit, and true to his ongoing commitment to be the best parent he could be, over the next decade he proactively made the effort to drive up to Ann Arbor once or twice a month and bring one or both of us down to Xenia to spend a weekend or longer with him.
August was coming to an end, as it always unfortunately must finally do. The first cooler, more fall-like breezes signalling that stressful introspection tied up with the beginning of yet another school year, with the resignation that my life’s path forward was once again returning to the direction of others. Like the intro monologue at the start of every episode of the sci-fi TV series The Outer Limits…
There is nothing wrong with your television. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are now in control of the transmission. We control the horizontal and the vertical. We can deluge you with a thousands channels, or expand one single image to crystal clarity and beyond. We can shape your vision to anything our imagination can conceive. For the next hour, we will control all that you see and hear.