1981: Summer Camp of the Nerds

The summer of 1981 brought great relief. I had survived the eighth grade and would be going to high school in the fall. (Considering that our middle school and high school buildings were positioned about 30 yards apart, this was not so much of a big deal.) I had made it through two years of marching band and was attending summer band practice. (There was this thing called “band camp” coming up in August, but that probably wasn’t going to be a life-changer.)

My big deal was that I was going to spend one week in July at Miami University, in a summer camp emphasizing science and math. Not only was it a camp about science and math, but it was pretentiously and embarrassingly titled the “Summer Institute for Tomorrow’s Leaders.” Nice job, Miami. Apparently I had been considered nerdy enough to attend this camp the previous summer, but my parents hadn’t gotten my application in before the spots filled up — grossly underestimating the number of extremely nerdy seventh and eighth graders in the nation’s heartland. I was waitlisted for the following year, and off I went to Oxford, Ohio.

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Our drive of one hundred miles went due southwest along I-71, wound through Lebanon, south of Middleton, and north of Hamilton, and then ended at the top of a steep hill where State Route 73 would have run straight into a forested campus if there hadn’t been a stoplight. We were in Oxford. The sky was sky blue, the grass was grass green, and every building was made of weathered dark red brick crawling with real ivy, with cream Georgian columns out front. The campus screamed COLLEGE in 72-point bold type, and I imprinted on it like a newborn duckling on Konrad Lorenz.

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We stayed in the dorms, and my roommate for the week was a girly girl named Kelly. She had come equipped for the week with a curling iron, a metric ton of makeup, and cute clothes. If I had missed some memo that summer reminding me to be girly while I studied science, it was to be the first of many. In my jeans and sneakers I happily ran around all over campus with the boys while we caught moths, saw early LOGO programming on the Apple II, played 20 Questions on the DEC VAX in the lab in Kreger Hall, and worked out solutions to math problems of our own devising.

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For example, a bunch of us made it to Culler Hall to watch a Foucault pendulum in action. A sign next to the pendulum noted how long it took the bob to swing once out and back. The same idea came to each of us simultaneously: how many times would the pendulum swing in one year? We took out pens, papers, and calculators and calculated furiously. We were astonished to find that each of us had arrived at a different answer. This led not to arguments, but to a longer conversation about our different assumptions and methods. I was in nerd heaven. And when I was with the boys, it didn’t matter that I was a girl – all that mattered was getting the right answer or asking the right question. With the girls, it seemed to matter how girly you were. I knew I wouldn’t ever win that contest, so I ignored as much of girl culture as I could afford to.

However, I did temporarily align with the girls when it came to deciding who was the cutest boy at the camp. I don’t remember his name now, but he was medium height with blue eyes and curly golden brown hair. The entire girls’ wing of the dorm was swooning over Mr. Cute & Curly, but by Wednesday I noticed that his roommate got less attention even though he was friendly, tall, and slender. I can’t tell you how it happened, but by the time my parents came to pick me up at camp’s end I had found a hand to hold as I navigated the campus. I think my parents were as surprised as I was when I introduced them to gangly, dark-haired Scott and took his picture on the front steps of Minnich Hall. Even though I never saw him again, it was a confidence booster. Thanks, Scott.

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Four years later, when it was time to apply for college admission, no college ever measured up to the memories I had of Miami. No other school had a chance at capturing my heart. When I did attend Miami, my new experiences overlapped my old paths: in the lecture room where I had heard about moth selection and elementary statistics, I took a night class on American literature. In the Bishop Woods where I had captured insects, I later darted from computer lab to geology class in a spring rain. In the computer lab where we had played text games on the mainframe, I later had the chance to alpha-test a new computer called a NeXT. And in Bachelor Hall, where our group had composed a song, I later worked at my first student job, took English and math courses, survived creative writing workshops, and — much later — shared an office with my future husband as I prepared to begin graduate school and teach my own English class. But I’m getting far ahead of myself, and the future wasn’t going to be as simple as a well-crafted ambiguous sentence can make it appear.


Knitwise… I have spent quite a bit of time reorganizing my patterns and stash over the last week. I started and finished the blue-green rectangle that I described in my previous post, and went looking for yarn to complement it. When I went stash-diving for blue fun-fur yarn for a friend, I found the unfinished projects about which time had truly forgotten. Felted loafers, two steps from being done? I pulled them out to re-prioritize them. Red, white, and blue cotton yarn? I’ll re-home it. And I found several would-be project bags filled with some high-class skeins of laceweight. In some cases I can almost remember the patterns I meant to use to knit them up. These are bags of hope, of ambition, of misplaced yet admirable levels of confidence. When I can start them, I will.

Meanwhile I have cast on for a simple triangle shawl made of fuzzy grey-and-white yarn, with a eyelet rows three stitches in from each edge. I use the easiest pattern in the world, which works just as well for a small cotton dishcloth as it does for a king-sized blanket, and it will allow me to knit on with confidence and hope through all crises.

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1980: Shots fired

Out in the backyard of our house in the country, my brother and I learned to shoot with his Daisy BB gun and some larger firearms. Our property was host to varmints galore, but we left those to the dogs — by the dogs I mean Toby (who came with the house) and, later, Babe (who came home with me from gym class); poor Charlie, the middle dog, was a rescue from German Village and was always an inside dog. We took aim solely for target practice, with a range consisting of soda cans set atop fenceposts. Plink, plink, plink. Set them up again.

Dad was not obsessed with guns, but over time he had acquired a few diverse and interesting specimens of home protection. I remember when he taught me how to cope with the kick-back on a .357 magnum Ruger. It was a powerful gun, and knowing how to handle it properly was pretty satisfying. Dad also emphasized safety and proper cleaning, so when you wanted to blow some empty Coke cans away you knew you had to prepare beforehand and clean up afterwards.

We never had to fire a shot in anger, but we almost came to it once when someone spotted a field mouse in the closet by the front door. By then I was accustomed to rescuing lost and/or slightly damaged animals, and I wanted to cage it and release it. Mom rushed in with a broom to whack it into submission, and had it cornered when Dad charged down the hallway with his shotgun.

“Jim!” she yelled before he could pull the trigger. “NOT IN THE HOUSE!”

I have previously written about some of the loveliness of that apex of public education, eighth grade. It was in the middle of that school year when other people with guns began making the headlines by bringing tragedy to the world. On Monday, December 8, 1980, Mark David Chapman murdered John Lennon. My generation, born after the assassination of President Kennedy, was alive during the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, as well as the attempted assassination President Ford, but we were hardly aware of these events. This one got our attention. Everyone knew the Beatles, and everyone knew who John Lennon was. Double Fantasy, the album he had just released, played endlessly on the radio, and the track “(Just Like) Starting Over” now sounded like a cruel joke but rose from No. 6 to No. 1 on the Billboard charts after Christmas and stayed there for more than a month.

Having recently read something about the Beatles, John, and Yoko, I wrote a letter of condolence to Yoko Ono. A month or so later I received a reply — a copy of a letter she had sent out in response to the thousands of people who had acted on a similar impulse. I wish I could find this letter today.

A few months later, we heard the shocking news that President Reagan had been shot by John Hinckley, Jr., and some of his Secret Service agents had been wounded while protecting him. The whole incident had been caught on film, and we the captive audience watched it over and over for days, still disbelieving. There was a brief period of procedural chaos while Reagan underwent emergency surgery, but soon order seemed to have been restored.

Two months later, I was leaving school and headed for my bus when I heard, probably from a radio in the school secretary’s office, that the Pope had been shot. When I raced onto the bus and told my driver the breaking news, she thought I was making it up. To tell you the truth, it could have even been the other way around: perhaps I heard the news on the school bus radio and then ran back into the building to inform the secretary. It was a confusing time, and it was all a long time ago.

 


 

Knitwise, I wasn’t sure what project to take up next after I finished the slippers and hat. So I went to the biggest bin that was easiest to reach, and pulled out two items that could be considered works in progress. The first was a purple-and-white acrylic project that had begun as a hat, then transmogrified into a baby sweater. (I was bored. Work with me, people.) Now it’s sort of a toddler-sized vest, with some stitches on holders, some stitches live, and with no clear plan as to how to bring it all together into something that a very young person could actually wear. If I look at it for much longer, it might turn back into a skein and get donated to someone more clever than I. At this point, that could be anyone.

Another project on hand was Nakia’s Infinity Scarf. With the jury still out on whether one should knit a Noro Silk Garden ball of yarn from the inside or the outside, and with me nearly paralyzed by looking at the charts for this pattern, I moved along to Project Three.

Said Project Three turned out to be two skeins of the Michaels version of Lion Brand Homespun in a blue-green blend. I had set them aside to be used in a pattern that used three blue-toned yarns in an alternating sequence to produce…something. The pattern wasn’t even with the yarn any more, so the yarn was available for reassignment. I tried a US 13 needle, frogged the unsatisfactory results, then cast on 42 stitches on a US 15 needle and gartered away. At this point I have just started knitting the second skein. I have plans to make something a bit classier (and more complicated) than a blue-green rectangle, but first I have to finish the basic rectangle. It’s good to have goals.

Published in: on April 9, 2018 at 9:50 pm  Leave a Comment  

1979: This ain’t no disco

Let’s face it, 1979 was not exactly a peak year in American history. I searched for a cultural high point and I found events that included the nuclear reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island, the start of the Iran hostage crisis, and even Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park. In my personal history, this year is associated with seventh grade — the middle year of middle school. It’s also tough to find a personal high point.

Merging with the other elementary school students in sixth grade had been an opportunity to get sort of a fresh start at making friends, but my circle hadn’t gotten much larger than the few people I had met and hung out with at Derby Elementary. Being in the marching band would eventually be the the activity that led to travel, danger, challenge, and achievement — but not this year, when I was still learning notes and trying to march and play at the same time.

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Recently we had gotten some new music into the house, after a lapse of more than a decade since my parents’ college days. In a flurry of purchases we wound up with the soundtracks for Annie, Star Wars, Tron, Grease, and Saturday Night Fever. This was followed up with a Bee Gees album and two multi-disc John Denver albums. We actually had a wide range of music in the collection, and I was never quite sure which belonged to Mom and which belonged to Dad. Eventually, it just became one eclectic shelf of albums by 101 Strings, Mott the Hoople, the Smothers Brothers, the Chad Mitchell Trio, The Christy Minstrels (not to mention The New Christy Minstrels), Crystal Gayle, the Kingston Trio, Jethro Tull, the Brothers Four, Godfrey Cambridge, Tom Lehrer, Helen Reddy, and the various casts of several Broadway plays. Oh, yes, hipsters — it was all on vinyl.

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Many years later, my parents sold their house, moved into an apartment while they built their next house, and had a garage sale to get rid of the extra items before they had to haul them all over Pickaway County and back. Before the sale, my brother and I cherry-picked the album collection, and I think we’re each happy with what we saved. Those weird albums are our childhood, and they were shared with the open air and everyone else in the house in the days before headphones, the Sony Walkman and Discman, and even boom boxes. Digital music, CDs, and iPods were decades away. Music in our house was public, and if I ever annoyed anyone with the stack of albums I queued up on the record player, they never mentioned it or I have long since forgotten their dissatisfaction. Perhaps I didn’t even notice it at the time.

Stacker Changer

The other medium of music in our house was the audio cassette. The blank ones came in three-packs at KMart and I always seemed to be running out of them. I was a devoted listener when the American Top 40 with Casey Kasem came on every Sunday, and I often positioned the portable tape recorder next to my clock radio and did my best to record my favorite songs without any of the commercials. (Funny that, these days, I might be more eager to hear those old lost, local commercials than the songs I’m likely to still hear on ‘oldies’ radio stations.) This was a tricky enterprise, as I could not sing along or even make any noise in my room while making the recording, or the creaky floor would end up on the tape, too.

The prerecorded tapes came via the Columbia House Music Club at six for a penny and a flat fee for every month thereafter (or until you got sick of them). My six selections were the soundtrack to the Muppet Movie, the soundtrack to The Rose, and four Barry Manilow albums. I do remember that there was a default album that came if you didn’t send in your selection in time (by postcard, if I remember correctly). I accumulated plenty of music this way, but the one genre I never really expanded upon was disco.


Knitwise, I finally finished two pairs of slippers, then decided to turn as much of the leftover yarn as I could into a hat. It ended up fitting better than the slippers did, but since it was for a toddler it didn’t stay on for long. Sometimes it really is the thought that counts. You’ll appreciate it when you’re older and colder, Jake.

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What’s next on the needles? Probably something I still need to finish, but I haven’t settled yet on one of my myriad options. Stay tuned!

Published in: on April 2, 2018 at 10:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

1978: The Blizzard

When my family moved to the country, we found ourselves on an unexpectedly steep learning curve. There were school buses to ride, new living arrangements, new chores to do, and new routines to learn. Boots slunk through the house pressed up against the walls for a long time before she was brave enough to venture into the rooms’ open spaces. One of the things that was surprisingly hard to adapt to was how dark it was at night.

I hadn’t even realized that I was accustomed to the glow of headlights sweeping their way around the walls of my bedroom as cars passed our house at night on our comparatively busy city street (only compared to the one-way streets which ran parallel to it). The lights and the mild road noise of the cars must have been soothing to me, for without them I found myself wide awake on the top bunk in the room I now shared with my brother. There were no lights from other houses, and no streetlights.

The nights at our new house were dark, but they certainly weren’t quiet. Outside of a Disney movie, there is no such thing as one cricket chirping; they must have contracts that prohibit them from singing in choruses of less than a million. The ropes in our old pulley windows were broken, so my bedroom window was propped open with a slat of wood to let in all that fresh country air. It also let in all the loud and mysterious country sounds, all night long.

Eventually I was able to sleep through the night. This was proved on the night when the wood-slat slipped and the window crashed down to the sill and woke my terrified parents, who were convinced that I had fallen out of the top bunk. They arrived at my room to find me and my brother sleeping soundly.

We had moved in August, so there hadn’t been time to put in a vegetable garden. That would have to wait until spring, when we also learned about hanging clothes on the line about two days before we learned about the manure spreaders used by the farmer who lived on the adjacent property. (Several months later we learned why people don’t, under normal circumstances, plant twenty hills of zucchinis.) Dad learned how long it would now take for him to drive to work, Mom learned how long it would take us to get home from school, and my brother and I learned how long it took to walk from the house to the road and wait for the school bus. We learned that no one would come to trick or treat at our house on Halloween (I was sick with the chicken pox anyway; my costume-and-candy days were over). We learned that the Columbus paper would be dropped off at the end of our 600-yard driveway, not at the house as promised by the circulation department.

On January 26, 1978, we learned about blizzards. I woke in the middle of the night to a howling noise that swirled above my head, which was positioned in the uppermost spot in the northwest corner of the house. Scared, I crept down the ladder at the end of the bed and tried to sleep on the couch instead. I lay still and realized that now, with all the space between myself and the ceiling, the winds were even louder and more frightening. I don’t know how I made it to morning, but by the time everyone else woke up the noise was easier to bear. When the wind finally died down, we found that we had been snowed into the house. Literally. I couldn’t budge the front door for the three-foot drift on the front porch. It was a Thursday morning, but it was obvious that school was out of the question for quite some time.

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Not my father’s Volkswagen.

I remember parts of the Blizzard like snapshots from an album. With my brother, I dug tunnels in the six-foot snowdrifts behind the barn. I sat in the passenger seat of Dad’s green Volkswagen Beetle as he attempted to clear the driveway by driving to the road; the Bug stuffed itself in the drifts when we reached the top of the hill, and we returned to the garage to fetch snow shovels and dig it out. I trudged through the drifts with a broom, using the handle to pole for several days’ worth of Columbus newspapers that we had to carefully dry out over the floor registers (competing for space with boots, and sometimes Boots). When we were finally able to reach the road, the snowplows had created eight-foot walls of hard-packed pure-white snow all the way to the state highway. We were living in a world beyond our control.

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This was not our road, but this is how it felt to drive on it.

We didn’t run out of food at our house; if the power went out, we must have coped somehow. From the point of the view of a ten-year-old, it was an extra vacation with all the snow forts, sledding, and tobogganing anyone could possibly want. From the point of view of an adult it was a killer storm that claimed dozens of lives, across Ohio and the rest of the Midwest, mostly those of highway motorists who had abandoned their cars. But as a child I didn’t know that, and I never heard the term “white hurricane” applied to this storm. For us it was always known as the Blizzard of 1978, and no subsequent winter ever measured up to this one.

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Just give us our paper, darnit!

 


 

Knitwise, the project-after-the-Olympic-cowl is done. I’ll have to contact the recipient to see if she wants delivery right now or in time for next winter. Meanwhile, I discovered a slipper project that I abandoned for some reason after finishing the knitting (but not finishing the finishing) of the first slipper. I hadn’t left myself any helpful notes, but I looked at it carefully, cast on for a second slipper to match, and compared the two projects all the way along, until I cast off the second slipper and found that it was clearly larger than the first slipper. I have since cast on for a third slipper in hopes that it will match the second one (or even the first one; at this point I can hardly afford to be picky). Time will tell.

Published in: on March 26, 2018 at 9:40 pm  Comments (2)  

1977: Transitions

Sometimes I look to the past and think about how an event was “so many lives” ago. In this context, a life is just the length of time it takes you to feel as if you have become someone new, someone distinctly different from your prior self. The first time I can draw such a line between lives is in the summer of 1977, when so many things changed for me, never to change back.

The most obvious change in my life was that my family moved — out of the gentle edges of the city into the green and decidedly fragrant countryside. We changed houses, schools, counties, and friends. My parents must have been preparing for this move for a long time, because I remember going along on visits to several houses that were for sale. I loved inspecting the empty rooms while my parents asked serious questions of the real estate agents. My brother and I explored closets, basements, garages, back yards. I don’t remember visiting the house we bought in Orient before we actually closed the deal, but I do remember taking the long trip to it via Grove City, and the whole family being absolutely overwhelmed by the stench of a road-kill skunk as we approached a small town that was no more than a stoplight and a sign. The sign read “Pleasant Corners.”

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During the time that my parents were house-hunting, one of my father’s brothers was trying out a career as a real estate agent. It was his company’s sign that was erected in the front yard of our Westgate house, so I assume that he was the selling agent. He was, however, less than impressed with the property that we ultimately purchased. Someone’s sanity was definitely called into question. The acreage was more than we could use, and the parts of the yard that weren’t overgrown were covered in cow manure, goat droppings, and/or chicken…manure. Electric fence ran almost all the way to the house from a cinder-block barn that had basic electric service but no running water. The house itself had one bathroom and two bedrooms for a family of four, a basement that took on water after a hard rain, and lights that dimmed when we made toast. My father rented something called a “bush hog” to clear the land — though he did let us take a few whacks at the tall grass with a rusty sickle — and started improving everything that he could.

The house also came with a dog, Toby, who was the son of the dog of the folks who lived next door. At the time, my romantic mind thought him to be a Gordon Setter based purely on his coloration. His mother Pookie, however, was a tiny scrap of brown and black fur that looked like a Yorkie, and his father could only be imagined. Toby was a real country dog who didn’t hesitate to challenge the local groundhogs, snakes, and raccoons to combat. It didn’t matter — I finally had a dog! Maybe this “moving to the country” thing wasn’t going to be so bad after all.

And now…I even looked different. I had loved my long, thick hair and putting it up into ponytails that flew out behind me from under my baseball cap when I ran the bases, but my mother gradually complained more and more about how hard it was to take care of. One evening before we moved, she sent me down the street so a family friend could cut my hair. I wasn’t in on the plan, and cried when my long waves were cut off and the remaining hair sprang up into tight curls. I didn’t recognize myself, but there wasn’t much that I could do about it.

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That 70’s vacation.

And now I was ten years old. We had taken our summer vacation to visit Niagara and Horseshoe Falls and make a brief trip into Canada. We were on the road on my late-June birthday; a waitress brought out a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting on a ceramic plate that rotated and played “Happy Birthday,” and I was embarrassed at being the center of attention. But on the same trip we visited what must have been a corner drugstore, shopping for road food or other supplies. I wandered over to a newspaper stand and picked up a copy of the local paper, and the store owner snapped at me to put it back, as if I were a thief. My parents didn’t hear him. I felt scared and didn’t know what to do. I put the paper back. I was furious at having been falsely accused, and it was decades before it occurred to me that the storekeeper had probably been the victim of young shoplifters and was just looking out for his store. He probably couldn’t imagine that I just wanted to read the newspaper.

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The ‘new’ gym was added in 1937.

And now we had a different school to attend. My mother drove us there in the early August heat and let us play on the playground while she attended to the administrative details. My new elementary school, where I would be in fifth grade and my brother would be in second, was an immense brick structure built in the early 1900s as a K-12 institution (replacing a school built in 1886). There was a large central staircase that, supposedly, had been made wide enough to accommodate girls ascending and descending in hoop skirts. The story was utterly credible. In my single year there I wasn’t brave enough to explore much but I found three staircases. I wouldn’t have been surprised to be told there were more. The whole place was a woodworker’s dream, with hardwood floors and walnut-stained railings. But once school started I had a lot of adjustments to make — the new school used different reading books and no one was sure which level I should be in. My classmates all seemed to be related to each other somehow, and even if they weren’t, they had still known each other since they were born. Their country accents were so thick that sometimes I didn’t understand what they were saying, and some of them made fun of me for doing my homework in class instead of taking it home. I became more shy and withdrawn, hesitant to either make a mistake or do well.

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And there weren’t Camp Fire Girls in the country — just Girl Scouts and 4-H. I had heard of 4-H groups as the ones who trained seeing-eye dogs, so that was what I picked. Luckily, there was a much wider range of activities under the 4-H umbrella, and it was a good organization for me to join. I took projects to the county fair in birds, cats, dogs (attempting to show Toby in the middle of the sheep barn was a memorable experience), photography, and creative writing over the next several years.

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And the next year…I would be off to the middle school, mingled with kids from the other two elementary schools in the county. Our teacher promised that everything would be harder. And I’d have to make friends all over again.


Knitwise, I finished and gently blocked the Olympic cowl. The colors were bleeding while I was working on it, so I did some Internet research and gave it a cold-water vinegar rinse before laying it out to dry on an old towel. We’ll see if that does the trick. It’s a pretty thing, and now it’s soft as well.

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See? I really do knit.

Then I started to collect yarn for a future project: Nakia’s Infinity Scarf, which is designed by Jeff Giles, featured in “Black Panther,” and free on Ravelry. I have NOT started this project yet, as I have not yet finished the project I said that I would finish before I started my next project. Sheesh. All I did was print out a new pattern and buy one LOUSY FREAKING SKEIN OF YARN and put them in the same project bag. (Okay, it was Noro.)

Nakia Shawl

Gotta finish some stuff before I start some stuff. And I’m in the mood to start some stuff.

1976: Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart

Oh, so many things happened in 1976. It was the country’s Bicentennial, and in our city — as in many others — the fire hydrants were temporarily painted in Bicentennial schemes. I’m willing to bet that, all these years later, there are still a few of them out there that didn’t get painted over.

1976 hydrant

I was in the Camp Fire Girls, and we marched in a Bicentennial parade in which I was dressed as Betsy Ross. Yes, I wore a long skirt (Mom probably made it) and walked down West Broad Street pretending to sew a flag with a giant needle cut from a piece of poster board. I honestly don’t know how I did it with a straight face, as everything involved in the previous sentence was abhorrent to me. At this point I still wanted to be a professional baseball player when I grew up. (No, I hadn’t figured that out yet.) Ah, well. Good times. Our Camp Fire troop (group? squadron? fleet?) also painted Bicentennial pictures on storefront windows at the Great Western Shopping Center. Wo-he-lo to Connie, Becky, Renee, Laurie, Michelle, Dodie, Susan C., and Susan W.!

Oh, yes. I do have photos of this. Somewhere. But I also remember that it must have been unseasonably cold on the day we painted, as I recall that I’m wearing my beloved winter coat in the photo. And it was an iconic 70s winter coat to boot: navy blue, it sported a fake-fur-trimmed hood and about a dozen zippered pockets, one of which I used to keep worms in. (Remember what I said about not being a skirt-wearer? I meant it, and all that it implies. At one point I was using those worms to chase boys around the playground. It was all fun and games until Mom found the worms after the dryer cycle. But I digress.) Oddly enough, on the day of the parade it was quite hot, and after marching for quite some time along the roadway in a long skirt I fainted, probably gracelessly.

From this year I also remember a special school project that didn’t quite turn out as my teacher had planned. Elton John was at the top of the pop charts, and he was still in his super-glam, platform-shoes, funky-glasses phase. (Right now I am trying not to spend too much time wondering how it didn’t even cross my mind that this man was gay. I must not have known what gay was.) My teacher’s idea went along the lines of “Hey, kids! Let’s write fan letters to Elton John and send him our drawings of even funkier glasses for him to wear on stage!”

I threw myself into my drawing, and goodness knows what ridiculous design I came up with. These days a teacher would have been able to make color copies of the kids’ designs, or take digital pictures, or just scan the darned things in and make a CD-ROM to take home to Mom and Dad. Mercifully, none of those technologies existed yet, so you are spared the sight of what a classroom full of nine-year-olds would have designed for the most flamboyant superstar on the Top 40.

For some reason I expected that our fourth-grade class would receive immediate and personal replies from Elton John. Well, we didn’t receive immediate replies. And as the days and weeks went by, we gradually realized that no reply was forthcoming. It was a hard lesson. My teacher stopped mentioning the project, and we moved on to something else. It took years for my resentment to fade, but I did gradually understand that not only did he owe us nothing, he was probably confused and annoyed by the kind of fan mail he likely received at that time. Certainly he had enough going on in his life back then that he didn’t feel much urgency to respond to a bunch of 9-year-olds from Ohio. But for a while, it did sting. Really, how dare he. What a jerk.

That year featured an array of great songs and memorable TV shows, and one of my favorite shows was “One Day at a Time,” starring Bonnie Franklin as the struggling (but honest) single mom of Mackenzie Phillips and Valerie Bertinelli. I don’t know which character I liked the most, but my favorite episode was probably the Christmas 1976 one called “Happy New Year,” in which Phillips and Bertinelli totally costumed up and performed “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart” as Elton John and Kiki Dee. This website tells more of the story.

Elton John, of course, went on to change his look and perform about a bazillion more successful songs, including this one that may be familiar:

Okay, Elton… I think I forgive you.


Knitwise, I have almost finished the Olympic cowl. I’m not sure how deep it should be, but I think that another inch will do it. Then it’s time to complete the long-overdue project that may also be long-forgotten by the person for whom I agreed to knit it three years ago. For the sake of all that is good in the world, let’s hope so.

Published in: on March 12, 2018 at 9:09 pm  Comments (1)  

1975: Letters

I loved my years at Westgate Elementary. After conquering kindergarten, I spent two years sitting on the younger side of what were called either “split” or “combined” classes made up of children from different grades. Some fluke of demographics had created this circumstance of first/second and second/third grades, membership in which had been framed as a reward for children who could work independently. Not only did I get to listen to everything the older grade was doing on the other side of the room, but sometimes I was picked to do something like read the spelling test words to the older students. I was absorbing everything I could, and my reading level jumped so high that even the double classroom couldn’t contain it. When it was time to join the new reading group, Joe D. and I picked up our workbooks and went down the hall to read with much older kids.

This was also the year of the Carpenters’ remake of “Please Mr. Postman,” when my father swore I would drive him mad with my constant playing of the Number One single on my box of a record player. I probably came pretty close to sending him over the edge. What can I say? I loved the Carpenters and loved the song. #sorrynotsorry

1975 record player

1970s technology is very 1970s.

Third grade was a wonderful time for me, but I combine a lot of my memories with those of fourth grade; the teachers of these grades were new to my school, they were friends who had taught together at a prior school, and I thought they were awesomely cool. I have happy memories of Miss Rood bringing her guitar to school to teach us the song “There’s a Hole in the Bucket,” of a Christmas play where I got to hide behind the curtain and plug in the Christmas tree at a dramatic moment, of a school visit from a painter who worked from photography, of playing kickball and foursquare and dodgeball on the playground, of Miss Bahorek getting married and including some of my classmates in the ceremony, of a school visit from a published author, and of a class trip to the Columbus Zoo to visit Colo, the gorilla we had raised funds to adopt for a time.

Underwood Leader

My beloved Leader.

It was also around this time that my parents gave me a typewriter. Why? And where did they get this one? Who knows? (Was I an eight-year-old who asked for a typewriter? Do I want the answer to that question?) It may have been the best present ever. I have dim memories of whacking away on a mostly-plastic children’s typewriter, probably from Sears, but this was a real typewriter, a manual Underwood Leader from the 1940s. It was the same model E. B. White posed with on the dust jacket of my copy of Trumpet of the Swan; for me, it might as well have been the very specimen. With it came endless opportunities for storytelling, neighborhood journalism, and labeling; with it also came the occupational hazard of never being able to develop into a true touch typist. The keys required such strength for me to strike that hunt-and-peck became hunt-and-pound out of necessity. Over the years I was able to come up to some respectable speeds. To this day, people who have watched me type at full speed have often called it “interesting.”

This was the typewriter on which I retyped Quotable Quotes from Reader’s Digest, composed newspaper copy, and wrote original (and awful!) short stories. After an incident in eighth grade science class (I hand-wrote an eight-page research paper and developed a callus that never left) I was given permission to use my beloved Leader for homework. I used it constantly in high school and took it with me to college, where it finally locked up halfway through a report on every short story in James Joyce’s Dubliners; I switched to a Smith-Corona electronic typewriter somewhere around page 12, and I held my tongue when my Freshman English professor criticized the inconsistent appearance of the final paper.

I set the Leader aside for several years then, writing on the electronic typewriter until I switched to a Macintosh SE in 1987. From there I went through a series of Macintoshes that culminated in a 2009 iMac, a hand-me-down from my late ex-husband, that I’m using today. The fun bit is that I’m actually typing on a vintage-look Bluetooth-enabled keyboard that has a slight family resemblance to my Leader.

QWERKY Keyboard

“Wine for writing, coffee for editing.”

I have purchased a few other vintage typewriters, usually manuals, in recent years. I still own the Leader, and I even own the little spring that I need to install to return it to full functionality. I have also purchased a complete repair manual for my machine; thank you, Internet! I’ve carried the spring around for over a decade now, but I’ll get around to it. A gift like this, you take care of.


Knitwise, I haven’t been doing very much. I knitted on my Olympic cowl but am still a long way from done. In fact, I made an error early in the last round I knitted and now I must un-knit (so to speak) 110 stitches of [Sl1, P1] before I can again make forward progress. I have looked at a few interesting knit and crochet patterns in the past week, but I know that I am forbidden to cast on anything new until I finish a couple of projects which have been waiting (for an unreasonably long time) to be completed. I’ll take a progress shot of the cowl and get going again. It’s a neat pattern but I would like to FINISH IT and move on to something else.

Published in: on March 5, 2018 at 10:57 pm  Comments (3)  

1974: This is not a drill

If you’re even a casual student of history, you’ll know that several society-shaking events took place in 1974. (I’m not even counting Seth Green’s birth on February 8 or the meteoric rise of Barry Manilow’s recording of “Mandy” on the Billboard charts: thank you, Wikipedia!) Patty Hearst was kidnapped. President Nixon resigned. Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. The first UPC code was scanned (in Ohio). And the Cleveland Indians held a Ten-Cent Beer Night they’re probably still trying to forget.

Another event that year shook the ground and the skies. In the first week of April 1974, lines of storm cells formed that were eventually called the “Super Outbreak,” a spawning of 148 tornadoes that ranged from Mississippi to Ontario. The deadliest of them struck Xenia, Ohio on Wednesday, April 3.

Xenia was about an hour’s drive away from where I lived on the West Side of Columbus (okay, the Hilltop). I had never been to Xenia by the tender age of seven, and now that I think about it, I’m not sure I ever have been. But on April 4 the mention of the word “Xenia” was enough to give an Ohio kid chills in a way that didn’t happen again until 1981, when a tornado wiped out downtown Cardington in Morrow County.

Our own sky was an odd color, and it was eerily quiet outside. Dad banished us to the basement to take shelter, but stayed on the front porch as long as he could to scan the skies. The next day he let me ride along as he drove around to survey the local damage from the F2 tornado and surrounding storms that had struck Franklin County the previous night. I remember a concrete structure, a beer/wine drive-through, that had been turned into a pile of cinder blocks. It was one block east of Hilltop Hardware and just a few blocks from our house. Dad didn’t say anything, but I sensed that we’d had a narrow escape.

dorothy-wizard-of-oz2

If you grow up in the Midwest, you have to come to terms with two main natural disasters: blizzards and tornadoes. There is nothing you can do to prevent either one, but you can learn to prepare for them and cope with their devastation. If you survive, you’ll have a story to tell. They share an essential unfairness of spirit, as they hit hard and seem determined to cause the maximum amount of damage. Tornadoes in particular seem driven to show you how erratic and cruel they can be: they’ll toss cars through the sky, skip over random houses, and cause power outages and floods when you have no safe place to go. An image from a film shown in elementary school sticks with me: a blade of straw driven into a telephone pole by gale force winds, sticking out boldly as a nail.

straw

The expert analysis of home movie footage from Xenia, shot by some very brave souls with Super 8s, led to the debunking of several tornado-related myths. I remember when our teachers used to tell us to open the windows to help equalize the pressure in the house and potentially reduce the damage. Nowadays the convention wisdom is that the tornado’s winds are going to blow out all the windows anyway, so you would be better off to spend your time taking shelter. But not in the southwest corner of the basement! The next advice was to get under a mattress in the bathtub. I think that these days they just want you to get to the lowest part of the house, away from windows, and if possible under something heavy that probably won’t break. And of course neighborhoods now install and test tornado sirens that will give you an extra minute or two to get to that safe place.

Weather Radio

“Weather station KIG86, broadcasting on a frequency of 162.55 megahertz from the National Weather Service office in Columbus, Ohio.”

Many years later, when I was in graduate school, I wrote an essay titled “Tornado Nights” about the time my family spent taking shelter from potentially dangerous weather. I don’t remember feeling scared; I looked back upon those nights as a time of closeness and security, even if that security was just an illusion my parents felt compelled to provide. (Perhaps I felt a bit too secure; that same year I was playing tennis with friends in some questionable weather when my college roommate uttered the immortal words, “I don’t know about y’all, but where I come from, when the sky turns green we go inside.”)

Time passed; now I was the parent and it was my turn to change scary times into fun times, defusing anxiety with stuffed animals, blankies, video games, and light chatter. And next they became old enough and big enough to bring their own supplies as well as treats to calm a nervous dog who isn’t sure why he’s suddenly being led into the cellar. Now we’re scattered in different locations more often then not, keeping an eye on the sky when the sirens sound, hoping for the winds to pass us by.

Published in: on February 26, 2018 at 11:19 pm  Leave a Comment  

1973: Here, kitty kitty

When I was little, I desperately wanted a dog. My near-neighbor and default best friend, Joe A., had a succession of dogs: an elegant Collie named Princess and her unworthy and hyperactive successor, a Shetland Sheepdog named Kipper. Though Kipper was probably the right size for a small city house, there was unfortunately no flock of sheep for him to herd. Each time the doorbell rang he flung himself into action, barking furiously as he turned quicker and quicker laps on a short track comprising the living room, the dining room, and the kitchen.

I still wanted a dog. I watched Lassie and Rin Tin Tin on TV — so intelligent! such faithful companions! — and continually lobbied for a dog of my own. Of course I was far too young to think about the more practical concerns of where a dog would stay and who would take care of it. I petted Kipper — when I could catch him — and played with my Ohio grandparents’ dog Simon whenever I visited. Simon liked to fetch but he didn’t like to return whatever it was he had been fetching, so I had to go out into the back yard with two tennis balls at a time: one to throw initially, and a second one to throw to trick him into dropping the first one. Fetching sessions continued until the tennis balls were too wet from dog slobber to try to pick them up.

My West Virginia grandparents had a pair of dogs at this time, but since I only visited a few times a year there was not much satisfaction to be gained. Mickey was a scruffy black terrier mix of some sort, and Annie was a Dachshund. Both of them were getting along in years and not terribly fond of playing with a girl whose other source of fun on vacation was skating on the concrete sidewalk on metal strap-on roller skates.

The memories of my childhood are highlighted by encounters with unexpected dogs — the English Bulldog that Joe D. brought to school for show and tell, the Boxer we found in the park and who waited stoically in our back yard until his owner came to pick him up, when he sprang ecstatically to life. Real dogs, cartoon dogs, storybook dogs, movie dogs — they were all fine with me. I read a book called Follow my Leader that not only offered me practical tips for coping with unexpected childhood blindness but also made me wish, for decades, to raise a seeing eye dog for the blind.

But the dog above all dogs, the dog of my heart, was a Collie. I don’t think Joe A.’s dog was as responsible for this desire as much as the ubiquitous Lassie was. If there was a smarter, friendlier, more beautiful companion on earth I couldn’t think of it, and it seemed a great travesty of justice that I could not have a dog when others could. (Come to think of it, this attitude probably led to my great empathy with Fern Arable in Charlotte’s Web, at just the age it should have.)

Somewhere in the midst of this canine adoration, my father came home one day with a pair of kittens in a cardboard box. They had been left outside the hardware store where he used to work. (Did he still work there every once in a while? Dad always had several jobs as a time, and I’m not sure when some left off and others began. However, when he took me with him to Hilltop Hardware, he was clearly familiar to the current owners.) The other abandoned kittens had found homes, and these last two littermates would be ours: Boots, a grey female with four white paws and a white bib, and Bounce, a male orange tabby. Bounce wasn’t ours for long, as he spent too many of his waking hours climbing up the draperies and being generally incorrigible. But Boots was ours for keeps.

One problem with your first pet is that you tend to assume that its qualities are the qualities of all pets. It turns out that Boots was an unusually jealous animal, exacting a calculated revenge for each infraction you committed, such as petting another animal. Revenge usually consisted of her peeing in an inappropriate location, such as under my bed on the hardwood floor. If you followed her rules, she settled into a kind of benevolent queenship. (Hmm. Now that I think about it, perhaps Bounce was framed!)

Oddly enough, Boots and my father didn’t get along well. She slept on my parents’ bed until one morning when she didn’t get up as usual and my father suspected the worst. “Vickie,” he said, “the cat’s dead. Get a bag and I’ll put her in it.” When the bag was brought over she leapt up with a scream and ran out of the room. They didn’t seem to trust each other after that, and for years the only thing I heard my father say about Boots was, “When that cat dies, we’re never getting another.”

Bootses

Boots and a boot. Get it?

Boots occasionally went outside in the back yard, and though she had all her claws she really couldn’t climb trees. If something spooked her she would race up the nearest tree trunk, then look around as if puzzled at how she came to be there. I’d have to go out and unhook her from the tree to bring her down.

She had an epic confrontation in that same back yard. Both sets of next-door neighbors were retired couples, but while the Meginnesses let me come next door to practice on their piano and sit with them to watch the “Lawrence Welk Show,” the Millers were on the grouchy side. Doc Miller surprised us with his acquisition of an English Springer Spaniel, a young purebred whose name was Sonny. I’m sure that as an active child with neighborhood friends I was an annoying neighbor to Doc Miller, but Sonny was insufferable. Every time he was let outside he would race up and down the Millers’ short sidewalk, barking at everything in existence until he was let in again. Usually I would give up first and go inside to get away from him. One afternoon, however, I was in the backyard with Boots while Sonny was out. Boots sat on the sidewalk that ran up the center of the yard, facing the white picket fence that separated her and Sonny as they fell into a staring match. With the tension at its peak, Boots spat at the spaniel, something I never saw her do before or since. Sonny erupted into a fury of barking, lunging ineffectively at the fence while Boots got up and walked to the house with the calm demeanor of a matador.

Boots went on to tolerate a pet goldfish and a pet hermit crab and, after we moved to the country, our own succession of dogs (none of them Collies, alas). But they were outside dogs, and she ruled the interior. She settled into being jealous only of other cats to which we paid attention, and enjoyed the rare indulgence of a sudden romp down the hallway that recalled her more active kittenhood. When she wasn’t dozing in a sunbeam, or surviving the winter’s cold by seating herself directly over the furnace vent, she accompanied me as I wrote my way through high school and college. I have had other cats and now enjoy the company of a dog, but there will be no cat like Boots.

Boots in drawer

Circa 1987.

Published in: on February 19, 2018 at 10:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

1972: Big Time

In the fall of 1972 I was off to kindergarten. It was just a part-time gig, and my time slot was chosen so that I could still watch Captain Kangaroo every day. It was a new routine and I loved it. I must have loved it, because in one of the few pictures of me from this year I am looking deliriously happy while wearing a pink and white crocheted poncho. Trust me, I would have to have been even happier before putting on this poncho. Even at age five I wanted to do all the same things the boys did rather than look for one instant like a girly girl who was too dressed up to be able to climb a tree at a moment’s notice. (Those of you who only know me as a baking knitter who wears skirts almost every day should be warned that in my heart of hearts I still imagine that I’m a tomboy who’s playing against type.)

I’m amused to review the scant materials tucked in the pocket of my “school days” book. There is one extra copy of my school picture (another is glued or taped into the book), but no class picture. There is a report card that notes various qualities I displayed Consistently, Most of the Time, Part of the time, or Not yet. “My Kindergarten Skills” were marked with an X when I accomplished them, and I’m so proud to say that by the end of this school year I could not only say my full name and use a crayon, but I could also tie my shoes and “put on and take off my wraps.” (Who says that anymore?) Apparently I also knew how to use paste. That skill has really come in handy.

In the book I list no less than sixteen “New Friends” and can even remember who three or four of them are. I list my two favorite activities as coloring and reading (we’ve already discussed the reading part). Alas, I doubt that any examples of my highly developed coloring skills have been preserved from this year.

I’m also amused to note that my “school days” book was filled out by myself, and in cursive. Judging from my progressively more mature handwriting samples in the rest of the book, I learned to write cursive in the third grade (I asked Mom to teach me at home so I could read the notes I carried from my classroom to the principal’s office!) and backfilled the pages from there.

As satisfying as all these memories are, I also remember the confusion and disorientation I felt on the day when the morning and afternoon kindergarten classes switched time slots. I can understand why the powers that be thought it was a good thing to do, but boy am I glad they only did it once. It was probably intended as a gentle orientation to change, but a longer period of that kind of change would have exposed my deep reliance on routines that would, in some cases, evolve into ritualistic behavior.

And I remember the fear and nervousness I felt at the thought of the trial I would have to undergo; before the year was up, I would be expected to stand up in class and count aloud from one to one hundred. In front of Mrs. Medland and everyone! I don’t know how many times I rehearsed this act in my head before finally getting it over with. Was I already someone who shrank from the spotlight and avoided attention, believing all attention to be negative? Accomplishing this task sure didn’t make me feel more brave or confident.

I accomplished one other task this year, not that I had much to do with it: having my tonsils removed. Society has not yet come up with an accurate name for my generation — I was born between the Baby Boomers and Generation X — but I was born to that narrow demographic of children whose tonsils were removed at age 5 whether or not they had been troublemakers. This window was so narrow that by the time my brother, born just three years after me, turned five years old they simply weren’t doing this any more. (That was so three years ago.) It really was like being on an assembly line: turn five, go to the hospital, go to sleep on a table, wake up with a sore throat and be told that you could have as much ice cream as you wanted. (Totally worth it.) I recovered in the hospital next to my best friend Joe, who was born two days earlier and lived two houses down the street. (The only reason he didn’t make it to my list of kindergarten friends was because the book asked for new friends.) My mother sat up all night in the same room with us, nervous. Joe’s mom, more experienced than mine at this motherhood thing, had come prepared, and we should probably just leave it at that.

In 1972 the world was busy turning inside out and upside down, but I was finding my groove. My inside world was developing, and the outside world wouldn’t have a measurable impact on it for years to come. There were now books to read, bicycles to learn how to ride, and trees to climb.


Knitwise, I seamed up the four slippers last week and have mailed them off to West Virginia without even a thought as to Actually Taking a Picture of Them for the Sake of Posterity. As a matter of fact, several items got shipped off today. I have good intentions, then I search for the right-sized box, and then somehow it’s five years later and the only thing pressuring me to finally send the gosh-darn whatever-it-is is my remaining shred of honor. Over the weekend I prepared five packages that ranged from almost-timely to three-years-late, and a friend took them to the post office today and launched them into the mailstream. Safe passage, tardy objects! May you be appreciated on the other side. I also pawned off the baby blanket items to my crocheting friend, who will make the rest of the squares. We might have to arm wrestle to see who has to gets to seam them all together for Oliver.

Meanwhile, as an apparent delaying tactic to avoid making the finishing touch to a knitted object begun three years ago, I cast on for an Olympics project. I used to participate in Ravelympics and Knitting Olympics events, but have fallen away. But this year I had to do something, as a high school classmate’s son almost qualified for the Olympic speed skating team (you’ll go next time, Austin Kleba!) and I just felt I had to have a project on the needles while I watched my favorite events. I have habitually watched ice skating in all its forms, and gradually expanded my viewing to include skiing and snowboarding events, but for the last few Games curling has been my new love. I wish I could play. Anyway, I chose the Sochi colorway from Cephalopod Yarns and cast on for a slip-stitch cowl. I’ll try to remember to take some pictures of this one, as the pattern shouldn’t get lost in the admittedly vibrant rainbow colorway.

Published in: on February 12, 2018 at 9:43 pm  Comments (2)