But They’re a Christian Band–Part Two

stryper-togehterasonesoldiersundercommandConvincing mom to go to Maranatha was as easy as convincing an old woman in Kansas that God needed her to give money to a televangelist. She was always reading Bible study books and she was good for needing more than she could finish in a month. While she meandered the self-help section, I browsed the cassettes looking for something that I knew wouldn’t be there. I flipped through the plastic cases of familiar names like Petra and Stryper and the REZ band. My parents had bought everyone of their cassettes for my birthday, Christmas, and Easter. I could count on a cassette with the Maranatha price tag half-way peeled on any of these holidays.

“Did you find what you were looking for?” my mother asked with a handful of study guides for Corinthians and Ephesians and tucked between were books on raising a Christian Boy in A Secular World and When They Don’t Honor Their Parents. Mom figured since God had made me, the manual had to be out there somewhere.

“Not really.”

“Do you have any of these?” She was looking down at the collection of REZ tapes. I wanted to say I have two of each! You’ve bought them for my birthday and Easter this year. Instead, I just nodded.

“Well, there’s always Christmas.”

Of course there was. One more Petra tape and I was going to pull a Fountain of Billy myself. I wanted to Rock. Not be rocked to sleep with another rendition of “The Coloring Song”. I’ve never heard anyone take such an inspiring message and turn it into a song that would lull shepherds to sleep.

“I was looking for U2.” There. I had fired my initial shot. Mother looked at me quizzically. I knew that she and the other mothers spoke in their little Bible study groups about things like the Anti-Christ/Devil’s Children and the Culture Club, and how they were poisoning the minds of America. To be honest, I thought Boy George was as absurd as my parents did, but that didn’t stop me from singing “Karma, Karma, Karma, Karma Chameleon” all day. Each time I did, I’d lose my radio for a week, but it was worth it just to see the frightened reaction on my parents face. If I had the balls, I’d have stolen some of my sister’s makeup and painted myself to look like him, too. I’d have strawberry stained lips and I’d paint my eyes to look like the eye of Ra and I borrow a rainbow of felt and fabric from mom’s sewing kit and make my hair look like a clown threw up on me. I didn’t only because I was afraid I’d be sent to some dark rehab for future homosexuals. By the quirk in her look, U2 hadn’t made it into their specter of fear.

“They’re a new Christian band,” I said sheepishly.

Mom shrugged. “Did you look in the U’s?”

Yep. She really said that.

“They don’t have them.”

“Let’s ask at the counter.”

Oooh. Not what I had planned for. I was just hoping that I’d be able to move into the second phase of my plan smoothly. Once it was firmly established that Maranatha didn’t have everything Christian they’d have to take me to the West Covina Mall where there was a Tower Records. I’d seen the place many times. It was a giant brick and red tile building with red and white metal awnings over the floor to ceiling windows in the parking lot of the mall. The windows had posters of Madonna and David Bowie and Adam Ant. And that was why I was never allowed to go inside. Damn you awkward gender-bending music trends!

Mom had thrown an unforeseen twist to my plot. I knew that the clerk would look through her shipping records and announce that, no, there was no such thing as U2. If Maranatha didn’t have it, then it wasn’t Christian. That would be the end of that.

Before we could get to the counter, I found a young lady wearing a soft peach/pastel shirt and blue jeans, her hair bunched atop her head in a pile of curls and feathering. Her Maranatha badge said her name was Clare. “Do you have U2?”

She looked dumbfounded and I could tell she was lost. Here’s what she probably heard: “Do you have you, too?” If I let this moment go on too long, the spellbinding silence would lull my mom into anxiety and she’d lose it. She rationalize that I’d broken the poor girl’s brain asking about a band that was clearly not a Christian band. “They’re a new Christian band,” I blurted.

“Oh,” she said pleasantly. “Did you look under ‘U’?”

No matter how hard I tried to scrub it off, the I’m-A-Complete-Idiot tattoo on my forehead wouldn’t come off. “Not there.”

“Maybe you can come back next week. We get more tapes then.”

“Okay,” I replied. “Can we come back next week?” I asked as I turned to my mother. I hoped this question would settle it and she wouldn’t bring it up to the manager behind the counter. “We’ll see.”

As the cashier handed my mother her change I thought I’d made it out free and clear. She didn’t say anything to the young girl other than a polite “God bless.” She always said that to people. But then the stubby, portly manager with thinning brown hair, a face that showed the torment of acne filled high school years, and a light blue and white Hawaiian flower print shirt walked up behind the cashier and asked, “Did you find everything you needed?” Uh. No. Wasn’t going to find it here in the first place. This was all a ruse. Please don’t ruin it.

“My son wanted a cassette by U2.”

I swear, if he asks if I looked under “u” I was going to hit someone.

Instead, he looked at his clipboard, flipped some pages, scowled, and replied, “We don’t have them. Maybe you should try Tower Records.”

Holy shit! Some middle-aged, balding, Magnum-wannabe managing a Christian bookstore suggested we go to Tower? I probably should have dropped to my knees on the spot and prayed a long prayer of forgiveness and repentance.

“No,” my mother said softly. “My son says they’re a Christian band.”

The man looked at me for a moment. He saw right through me and through my hollow lie. “They have a small selection of Christian music and they can get Christian bands from Europe that we cannot.”

Okay. Prayer wasn’t enough. I probably should run off to some monastery, shave my head,  take a vow of silence, and live the austere life! I could see it now. Me walking around a cloister in a brown robe with a rough hemp rope for a belt, shaved head, chanting, humming, and reading all the dirty pages of the Bible over and over again. It’s a shame they no longer made illuminated manuscripts. I’d have had a blast drawing some of those pictures. A regular Biblical Penthouse forum.

My mother and I didn’t say a word until we pulled into the driveway of our blue trimmed  white house. I opened the door and slid out the backseat of the “banana boat”–a overtly derisive term used for my mother’s yellow 1977 Dodge Aspen wagon. I was always embarrassed going to school in a Chiquita fruit. I followed my mother in silence. In the dining room, she set down her new collection of books on the table just as silently as she walked. She had a weird way of being deadly silent. I’d be in my room looking at the TV Guide, reading all the shows I’d never see including the late-night HBO ones and then there she’d be standing in my door. I swear she had a sixth sense when it came to my soul and its temptations.

“So can we?” I asked meekly.

“Can we what?”

“Tower records?”

She pursed her lips. I had as good of a chance getting my mom to go shopping with me in the Red Light district in Amsterdam than I had of getting her into Tower. At least there, you knew for certain the girls were girls. But that wasn’t my hope. No, if fate was playing on my team–and it was after Mr. Magnum Christian guy–then my sister would take me.

“We’ll talk with your father when he gets home.”

And, just like that, I was back to recording on my two year old Memorex cassette. It was getting so bad you could barely hear the underlying recordings as I recorded new songs over the past. U2 would have to go into the dusty, neglected hope chest of my youth along with becoming a professional BMX racer, a big rig truck driver, hearing AC/DC for the first time, and living in a household that had cable television.

The topic of U2 and Tower Records never came up at dinner. Father, in his usual dour, stern voice, asked how school was, why my math test scores were low, and if I finished my homework for next week. I nodded. Anything more invited too many questions. After dinner, I finished my chores of clearing the table and cleaning the dishes. I was about to retreat to my room when dad came up to me and said, “You need to go to Tower Records?”

I’d heard about The Exorcist from kids at school whose parents were less fastidious about their faith. I knew that the girl in the movie was possessed; Satanic possession was something my parents feared would, or maybe had, happen to me. I’d heard the older kids quoting “What an excellent day for an exorcism” whenever something strange happened at school, or one of the teachers decided that it was paddling time. At our school, the administration exorcised the demons from us not with holy water or scripture but with a solid ping-pong paddle. I had my fair share of turns leaning over the principal’s desk counting to three or five or the dreaded seven.

I looked up at my father, the austere man who’s love I knew I had, but had to decipher through This-Is-Going-To-Hurt-Me-More-Than-You moments, and wondered if I needed a priest.

“You wanted a cassette.”

I blinked blankly. It was that slow blink you might have as you drove by a car accident as they were pulling the bodies from the wreckage.

“Do you want to go or not?”

Oh. There he was. Stern and to the point. Glad to have you back.

Like most of the time I spent with my father, we drove the twenty five minutes to the West Covina mall in a silence that you’d hear in funeral homes or the Antarctic.

The actual Tower Records in West Covina, no long since closed.

The actual Tower Records in West Covina, now long since closed.

The inside of Tower was everything I imagined and then so much more. There were posters of bands that I had never heard of–New Order, Echo and the Bunnymen, Violent Femmes, Ultravox–and some familiar names as well. Men At Work blared over the speakers. There were punks with leather jackets emblazoned with “The Ramones” on the back. There were guys wearing frilled white shirts that looked like something from a vintage 40′s era pirate movie and girls wearing all black from hair, to eye makeup to lips to clothes. There were preppy kids and nerdy kids and just plain teenagers. It was an entirely different world to me, but it was the normal world. I was the one who lived in a void.

My dad’s drill sergeant face became more stoic than Lincoln’s on a rock in South Dakota. His mind was trying to grasp the unholiness of the situation, but it was like trying to capture smoke with your fingers. There was no way he’d be able to absorb the entirety of the place and I knew that I’d have to be quick about things or we’d be out the door faster than a Jehovah’s Witness was kicked off my front porch.

And there was another problem. U2 was supposed to be a Christian band. I knew that was total bullshit. Their albums would be found in the rock section. The problem being, dad would follow me there and stop me dead in my tracks. Mr. Magnum guy from Maranatha Books couldn’t help me now. I rushed over to the UVW section of the rock music hoping that my furtive darting, like a squirrel on a street not knowing which way to go as the car came to hit him, would help me elude my father.

Not Mr.-I-Was-A-Green-Beret guy. He had me as though he was a hound and I was the fox. He parked his massive body behind me as I pulled “War” from the rack. “This isn’t Christian music,” he said.

“Maybe they misfiled it.” Yeah. Like that was going to work.

My father took one look at the record cover with the young boy, hands behind his head, a little cut on his lip, all in black and white, with “U2/WAR” in blood red and said: “Nope.” He turned, and I knew that as a dutiful foot soldier, I was expected to follow quickstep.

On our way out of what must have seemed to my father to be one of the three portals to hell–the other two being Hollywood itself and Las Vegas–my father paused by the “new release” rack. I tried to follow his eyes across the rack. There were the usual sinners: A little girl in a white dress playing peeping tom (Violent Femmes); A building exploding as viewed through a sniper’s scope (Def Leppard); An orange haired, bondage masked Annie Lennox; A pentagram and title “Shout At The Devil”. At least Madonna looked somewhat decent. Then my eyes caught Juice Newton’s latest album. God no. If he picked up that pastel cacophony of wretchedness I’d be shamed for all time.

What he reached for instead was “Built For Speed”. I could see a twinkle in his eyes. He looked back in time through that cover. Maybe he saw himself in those Rockabilly outfits and slicked back hair standing in front of two amazing hot rods. In that moment, I realized that my father was a person, too. That there were memories and hopes and dreams behind that icy veneer.

And that’s how I ended up walking into my bedroom with my first ever record. I played that album almost raw. I still have it, along with hundreds of others that I have since collected. Oh, I did end up with “War”, on cassette, for my birthday. It was a gift from my sister.

Read Part One here

Read more stories from the ’83 series here

On writing–language and bias

If you haven’t accepted that words have the power to manipulate, take a look at this headline recently from the Huffington Post:

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Here’s a link to the article in question.

Shame on UPS, you “heartless” evil corporation. Its what the majority of Americans believe corporations are: Heartless, Unfeeling, Thieving, Conniving, etc., etc. The article goes on to say that the UPS facility in Queens will be firing 256 people. Gutless evil entity! And why? Well, because one employee decided to question work hours, got fired, and 250 walked out in protest. Saying it like this, you’d think, absolutely, what a “heartless” way to treat your employees. But this is where the biased language of our current media comes in to play. And they are all guilty of it. I’m looking at you Fox, CNN, MSNBC. It just so happens that Huffington Post committed the latest one. And it is a whopper.

Look closely at the published and updated dates/times. If you are not on the link, here they are:

Posted: 04/02/2014 4:38 pm EDT Updated: 04/03/2014 2:59 pm EDT

What I find amusing is that it took a day for Kevin Short, the author of the piece, to ask a simple question: Can the employees of UPS walk out? You’d think not since a work stoppage at a place like UPS or FedEx or the Post Office would cost the company millions. Of course, we all want our latest thing from Amazon shipped on time and would raise Cain if delivered late. And so, a day later, this is posted:

Update 4/3: Thursday, a UPS spokesperson informed The Huffington Post that the contract between UPS and the Teamsters includes a no-strike clause. Management at the Maspeth facility, where employees worked, warned the employees as they were leaving that their jobs were at risk, the spokesperson said. The Teamsters did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Too little too late, or maybe just perfectly executed, depending on your position in politics. Reading the comments section, you find the battle lines clearly drawn by the people who will never ship with the “heartless” UPS and those who believe that UPS is in the right to fire the employees. I’d be amazed if some of the posters who said that UPS should face a nationwide boycott even read the article or just caught the tag on Huffington Post’s main page and commented. There’s even a moveon.org petition available. Of course, the petition says nothing about the language of the contract that these employees worked under. It all comes down to language.

One simple word–”heartless”–has energized what really should be a non-issue. Amazing. In this case it is not the power of words but the power of one word. As writers it we should be cognizant of the words we choose in our own writing. But we aren’t or we choose not to be. In the realm of published media, I’d argue it’s the choose-not-to-be category. Huffington Post, Fox, MSNBC, CNN all have an agenda to drive. Where this agenda comes from is usually clouded in conspiracy, but there’s a clear agenda. Sadly, many readers and viewers are blinded by that agenda. We hate corporations. We love unions. We hate the 1%. Hence, we’ll say that UPS is a “heartless” company and our followers will agree. What a wonderful way to continue to divide and conquer.

Maybe it is time that we have a truly unbiased, truly “fair and balanced” (sorry FOX, you can’t claim this), source of news where the bias is obvious. There is none.

Those of you who cannot read the bias in the Huffington Post (or FOX, CNN, MSNBC) article, and see it in their delay of reporting all the facts of the issue, welcome to the Church of the Blind. Services are being held daily. They will provide you with the liturgy. Don’t think for yourself. Just rinse and repeat.

 

The Supreme Court confirms politics is bought

I see where Nancy Pelosi is complaining about the Supreme Court decision to uncap campaign donations. She said this in her weekly radio address:

“Is this supposed to be a money war? Is that what this is?” Pelosi said at her weekly press conference. “Nothing again is more disillusioning to the public than the vast display of money spent in campaigns.”

 

I’d agree with her if she hadn’t accepted money in her last campaign from donations and instead spent her own cash only on the election. Glass houses Mrs. Pelosi, glass houses. Here’s a link to her most recent campaign donations. What is disillusioning is that she is decrying this when she is willing to take the cash herself. According to the website, she took $120,000 from unions alone. Think about the union member who wouldn’t vote for her, but whose dues go to support her. I suppose that’s not disillusioning? Wake up Mrs. Pelosi and realize that politics has been bought and sold for centuries and that you are just another cog in the sad wheel. Take a look at what you and your party chief did last October and November; three major fundraisers where the cost to get in was $16,200 per person? Sorry, Nancy, but your disdain rings hollow. Or have you forgotten how much money President Obama raised in the last election? In case you have, Mrs. Pelosi, here’s a reminder. $432,120,370 is quite the haul. I’d say that’s really where the disillusionment rests. Imagine the good that could have been done with that kind of money.

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But They’re a Christian Band–Part One

erin_gray0248(1)It was already a hot day and it wasn’t even nine in the morning. The heat shimmered off the black asphalt like a steady rain falling upwards. I was walking two houses up the street to Adam and Billy’s. Adam was my age and Billy was his younger brother; we’d been friends since kindergarten. Above me, past the sagging eucalyptus trees and overgrown shrubbery, trucks ground through their gears as they made their way up the 210 freeway along the slopes of South Hills. I loved going over to Adam and Billy’s house for two reasons: Rock music and their stepmom. She drove a burgundy MG convertible and she looked exactly like Erin Gray from Battlestar Galactica. Yeah. She was hot. She’d take us to the beach in that convertible and we’d be the kings of the road. And she’d let us go into Adam’s room and blare the music and we’d dance and sing and act like little rock savages. We’d play air guitar to “Eye of the Tiger” and “Abracadabra” and “Don’t You Want Me”. Our favorite song to play pretend band to was Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘N Roll”. It became my little anthem. And whenever Michael Sembello’s “Maniac” came on the radio, we’d be joined by Adam’s stepmom who would belt out her voice as though she was calling us into war. I’d pick up Billy’s wooden tennis racket, Adam would jump onto his chair with two pencils substituting for drum sticks and we’d play our own little private concert. To say that Adam’s house was a sacrosanct temple of music doesn’t do it justice; I watched MTv’s launch at his house. I was confused by Boy George there. I watched Madonna and got turned on there. While my house only had free channels and the gospel networks, Adam had cable! I had convinced my parents to let me sleep over at his house that fateful August night in ’81 and together we watched The Buggles change how we listened to music. After a few weeks of Rod Stewart videos we tired of MTv and went back to AM radio and our rock gods.

1982-84 were good years for music. The Police. Duran Duran. Michael Jackson. Prince. But in my good Christian naivete I had no idea what it was that I was reciting despite the clear connotations: “I feel the magic in your caress/I feel magic when I touch your dress/Silk and Satin; leather and lace/Black panties with an angel’s face”. Uh, yeah. Nope didn’t get it! And this from a kid who’d read all the naughty stuff in the Bible. Though it doesn’t help that the Bible is rather cryptic with its messages with its “goes in to her” stuff. [Extra points for anyone who can name the song quoted above! No looking up on the internet either.] To be honest, I was beginning to get things figured out and by ’84 I would be pretending to not have a clue just so my sister and her friends could get a laugh.

It might sound callouss, but I would head over to Adam’s just to listen to music. We were friends though, and did the things friends did. When the older boys on the street dared us to a game of “rat tail” we’d be there for each other, until the boys caught us. Rat tail was just that–We’d all have towels rolled up and soaked wet. The older boys would hide inside one of the houses and Adam and I would have to come in and try to find them. The older kids would jump out from their hiding places and start snapping their wet towels against our bare legs and arms and once cornered Adam would abandon me to the tortures of those rat tails or vice versa. We were good friends! But we shared a love of music. There really wasn’t music in my house. Juice Newton’s “Queen of Hearts” was tempting fate. My sister tried to bring in Purple Rain and the tape was destroyed twice–she dared to buy another copy–when my parents heard “Darling Nikki”. It didn’t help her cause any that my sister’s name is Nicole.

So, there I was wandering up the street ready to immerse myself in everything holy about rock ‘n roll. Adam and Billy were standing outside on their driveway. They’d just waved good-bye to their dad and were standing idly in the morning heat. Like usual, we stood around debating what to do: Ride bikes? Ride our skateboards down Concord Lane? Ask the older boys to go to 7-Eleven? Listen to music? Then Billy stopped mid-sentence and gurgled a burp. Adam and I laughed, but Billy didn’t look good. Billy looked around as though a wild spirit had just flown through him and he was trying to find it. Adam and I paused. When Billy looked skyward, we both looked too wondering what it was that he was looking for or at. Then we heard the gurgle again. Only this time it was accompanied not with a burp but with a steady flow of breakfast. There was Billy standing on his driveway, eyes to the sky, vomiting like a fountain in Vegas. It went on for what seemed like minutes. Billy puking to the sky with chunks of bacon and eggs and milk and toast raining down on his shoulders and the pavement with a faint splattering sound almost like the sound of leaves rustling in the wind. The longer he puked, the paler his face went until he finished and his face matched the white of his eyes. After we’d finished laughing what Adam would later call “The Fountain of Billy”, Adam took Billy inside. That was the end of my day with them. If Billy couldn’t play, neither could Adam. I went home.

Martin-f_Panasonic_RQ2108

The creator of so many mixed tapes in the early 80s

I had two ways of listening to music: A Panasonic slimline cassette player or my record player/stereo. The only redeeming value that my Panasonic had was that I could record my favorite songs off the radio. I’d sit next to the speakers and hold up that old cassette player, careful to not make too many movements because the microphone would pick up all the cracks and knocks of the plastic case. It wasn’t worth listening to music on since it’s one speaker sounded about as decent as a conversation between two tin cups tied with a string. But I would record all my favorites off the radio.

The stereo was a hand-me-down. As were most of the things, expensive things, that I had in my life. My first bike was a lime green–that late ’70s green, like peas meet Andy Warhol–girls bike with a two foot long beige banana seat and glittery tassels that hung from the opalescent, green handle grips. It had been my sister’s and she’d long since outgrown it. My first car was my dad’s old, old business car that he bought off the company, but that’s getting ahead of myself.

The case was fake wood and the AM/FM dial often stuck in the higher numbers. The opaque green lid wasn’t hinged so if I was playing a record, it was just better to leave it off otherwise I’d make the needle jump. The speakers were massive, yet they only produced a tinny, static noise if I turned the volume anywhere past five. And that was okay, because if my parents knew what I was listening to, I’d have gotten in trouble. My mother forbid me from watching such subversive shows like Sesame Street–she’d never let me learn my numbers from a vampire!

At school there was a sixth grader named Chad who wore a simple black pin with “U2″ in white on the collar of his shirt. I had no idea what a U2 was, and thought it just was a cool way of saying “you, too?” In March I’d heard them for the first time. “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. I had to have their album. I’d talked to Chad and he told me they were a Christian band. I knew he was full of shit, but, hey, a band singing about Sunday I could play this off on my parents. I recorded the song off the radio with my little Panasonic but you could hear my mom in the background clanking dishes in the kitchen as she made dinner. Kind of took the edge off the protest song.

Walking home from Adam and Billy’s, I decided that I would screw up the nerve and get my parents to take me to the music store and buy War. I had an elaborate lie crafted.

“Sunday Bloody Sunday” was a song about Christ fighting for our sins; “New Year’s Day” was about His resurrection and how it made a new day for us Christians. The album title was a bit complicated so I had hoped to navigate around that one, but if it came up, I’d say something about it being a “war” against Satan.

When I say music store, what I mean is a Christian Bookstore on Arrow Highway. It was next door to Southeast Construction Products and their bright red sign that looked a 2-D image of an arrow’s fletchings. It was a strange place. The fence bounding Arrow Highway was made of beige brick columns with pearl white statuary atop them and chain link fencing between. I always imagined the place as some ’70s drug induced shrine to Italian stereotypical lawn decor or a Roman gladiator pit. The latter seemed more appropriate since Maranatha Christian Books was next door.

Read Part Two Here

Read more stories from the ’83 series here

First Kiss

burt_lancaster_and_deborah_kerrImagine Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in the surf or Westley and Buttercup perched high above a soft, cloudy sunrise and you might just have the most perfect kiss. You are holding your lover’s chin cupped in your hands. As you look into their eyes time and space seem to eclipse into a burning hot singularity. From the corner of your eye you can see the flutter of butterflies slow and the wind gently caresses your head tenderly nudging you closer. A quick slip of your tongue across your lips to wet them. You can begin to feel the warmth of their skin and breath as you draw even closer, and the sweet smell of yearning envelops your senses. A soft tilt of the head. Your eyes close, but not completely. You want to savor the sight of passion. Your lips touch…. and, yeah, my first kiss was nothing like that!

That I had a first kiss is an amazing fact in its own right. My social skills when it came to interacting with others involved not wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day just so I’d get pinched. The other problem was that I’d spent the last five years in class with the same girls year in and year out that the thought of kissing any one of them was about as repulsive as kissing your sister. But, by 1983, new girls were being introduced into our little social sphere. There was Renee and Trista and Julie and Niki.

Niki came to Foothill Christian in 1981 (third grade), but she was in the other class. So, for all intents and purposes, she was living in Outer Mongolia. As fate would have it, she was seated behind me for the entirety of the fourth grade (’82-’83). Her sandy blonde hair ended in little ringlets and curls. Her thin lips always turned up in a smirk belying a mischievousness that I would soon learn about . She’d wear skirts with knee-high socks and a pair of black, leather girl’s loafers. Given the chance, she would have dawned “jelly” but that was strictly verboten at Foothill Christian–as was any semblance of the New Romantic look, Madonna, or punk. It was preppy or nothing.

There I was, sporting my popped collar and Levi jeans, carrying my gigantic, red Rubbermaid lunch box–the one where every aspect of your lunch could be compartmentalized into smaller Rubbermaid containers–and overstuffed blue winter coat trying to get Niki to recognize me. Strike one. Anyone gets noticed carrying a red Rubbermaid lunchbox. And not for good reasons. To make matters worse, the powers that be decided that this year, all fourth graders would be tested to see if they were too smart. Of course, my parents had me tested, and I would spend the fourth grade in a tiny–me and Inger–reading group segregated from the rest of the class sitting in front of a reading box. It looked like a light box an artist might use to transfer an image, but instead of a glass screen, there were velum pages on a roll illuminated from behind and a dial on the side that could increase the speed of the rollers. Let’s single out the nerds. Strike two.

In our cloistered world, a new girl was like throwing blood into shark infested waters. Every boy immediately set upon Renee and Trista and Julie and Niki as though we’d not seen a living, breathing girl before. But Renee and Trista were only with us for one year and by the summer of ’83 they’d disappeared as quickly as they had arrived. That left Julie and Niki, and I figured I stood about as good a chance with them as Grenada had fighting the U.S. Strike Three.

I don’t recall who said anything to whom. As all playground romances, it was probably initiated by friends of Niki who talked to my friends and so on.

“Did you know Niki thinks Bryan is cute?” Tina said at lunch.

“Really? He said the same thing.” Craig replied.

And then the it happened. We were an item. Dating as only fourth graders could do. We’d sit next to each other at lunch. She’d push me down stairs. I’d shove her into the sandbox. True love. We’d play tag at recess and, of course, I only chased her and all her friends made sure that I couldn’t get near her. And then the gossipy little mites asked the one question that would shake my world. “Have you kissed her yet?”

Uh. Kissed? “Sorry, I don’t speak your language.” And I ran away like I had piss running down my legs.

By the summer after fourth grade, Niki and I had held hands, sat next to each during Friday chapel, and played countless games of tag. We talked about horses even though the only thing that I knew about them was that they were big and that Jack In the Box supposedly put them in their hamburgers two years earlier. Niki loved horses. She had one in a paddock beside her house. She wanted to ride horses all day, but her parents dragged her to school. She taught me about grooming and bathing and saddling. All skills that I have put to about as good of use as trigonometry. I told her my stories. I drew pictures for her. And when I was standing in my corner I’d think about her beautiful sandy blonde hair and her soft eyes and her sneaky smile. But that kiss lingered over us like the threat of a playground tattle-tale.

We saw each other quite a bit over the summer; her brother James and I became friends and I’d spent the night often. Niki’s house was up San Dimas Canyon. I’d been up that road every Christmas I could remember each winter on the family trip to the Sturrock Christmas tree farm. I’d wander the acres of Monterrey pines looking for the perfect tree to plant in our living room. I even remember driving past Niki’s house. A two story house, it was twice the size of mine and it was set back from the road behind a lush yard of green grass and live oaks. The paddock was to the south of the house. That my first kiss would happen so close to another site of fond memories is one of those things you just chalk up to cosmic coincidence. Nothing is left of the house or the Sturrock farm. In its place is a golf course and Puddingstone Diversion 32-016 Dam.

Niki’s birthday party would be in her backyard. She invited nearly half the girls in our grade. And me. Those odds played perfectly into my social skill set. Tease the girls. Runaway. Get them to chase you. Attention on me.

It was a cool afternoon when my mother dropped me off at Niki’s house. I had a sleeping bag with me; I was going to be spending the night with James, and my present for Niki. All the girls were in the backyard around the pool, and I found James inside watching TV. Per household rules, I wasn’t allowed upstairs–I never saw Niki’s bedroom, or James’ for that matter–so we stayed downstairs and played games. When we finally got the nerve, we went outside with the girls and the game was on.

“Niki and Bryan sitting in a tree…”

“Come here, hug her,” a Jennifer said tugging on my arm.

“Kiss her. Kiss her.”

Of course I wanted to but I had no idea what to do. If I had an ounce of charisma I might have walked up to Niki, put my hand on the back of her head, drew her near, and say: “Kiss me.” But I didn’t. So. I ran. I ran around the house with James in tow and the girls following squealing and giggling like ten-year-old girls do. Then, what started as a game of chase to get me to kiss Niki became a challenge to catch me and toss me in the pool. Oh well. At least they were still chasing me. After about ten minutes, the girls finally cornered me and wrestled me toward the pool. Fully dressed, feigning a struggle, I was tossed in. A triumphant roar echoed through the canyon as I bobbed in my shorts and t-shirt staring up at Niki and wishing I had just gone through with the kiss.

Like a cat coming in from the rain, I dragged my soaking wet corpse from the water. Niki stood nearby with a towel her mother had given her. The girls were scolded: “We don’t do that to our guests,” Niki’s mother said. I went inside, changed into some of James’ clothes, and joined the party outside just as Niki was about to open presents. I have no idea what I got her; my mother probably picked something out with me standing beside her in the girl’s aisle of Gemco. We played games, ate cake, and played chase again. This time, the girls were chasing Niki. Jackee was sitting on me and Jennifer held my arms against the plastic lawn chair. They were going to get us to kiss one way or another.

And that’s how it happened. Three or four girls tugging and pulling Niki toward me while was was being held captive by two others. It was a quick peck on the lips. We were both flushed red with embarrassment and the other girls started singing “Niki and Bryan sitting in a tree…” once more. I had kissed her. And at that moment it was the most amazing thing that had ever happened to me.

Niki and I were in different classes again for the fifth grade and our worlds drifted apart. She moved to Northern California after the fifth grade and we never spoke to each other again. Every once in a while, when feeling nostalgic, I pull out my old fifth grade yearbook and read what Niki wrote:

Yo Bryan,

Have a great summer!

Your [sic] nice! Good luck in

6th grade. I still think your [sic] cute!

From Niki

 

Read more stories from the ’83 series here