I’m going to be a cliché for a little while. I’m turning 40, and I’m reflecting back on my life. However, this isn’t bemoaning my current situation or longing for by-gone days, but a genuine desire to remember.
So to that end I’m going to post a piece on each decade and tell a few stories of unique or strange experiences that made the biggest impression on me or seem like something few can say they’ve done.
From birth to 10 years is of course a long time ago and life was so much simpler then that it makes for few life shaping moments. But here goes:
The memories I have from this era come from time in England, and more specifically they are connected to our house and neighborhood in Weybridge.
I remember climbing to the very top of the tree by our driveway. Of course lots of kids climb trees, but this was the only time I climbed all the way up a tree, past the big limbs and upward, to where things get tiny and precarious. I went up there with a tree climbing friend who was smaller than me but convinced the tiny bending pencil-limbs would hold us. I remember placing my feet carefully and moving as quickly and steadily as possible. Even then I knew I was pushing my luck.
But we made it, and I remember pushing my head up out of the top of the canopy. Leaves brushed my cheeks as I looked out past our whole back yard. Only a few seconds, but the memory of that view and the scary accomplishment of the getting there remain in my mind. I then retreated back to thicker branches.
I forget this friends name, or even his face, but I remember he loved that tree in our driveway. Another time he fell out of a low branch and landed flat on his back. His head hit the gravel drive hard enough that it knocked him out. I remember staying with him for a few seconds and getting no response before I became very freaked out and went to get my mom. Thankfully, when she came out of the house my friend was standing up and brushing himself off.
I was always on my bike. Once I mastered the balance I was trying to get airborne. I built ramps out of everything. Crashed a lot. Flew a few inches countless times over lines of matchbox cars, rocks, sticks, and even friends. Eventually I connected with far older kids who had built dirt ramps in the forest. That’s when things really got airborne. See “ET” below.
The Movie Lover:
My dad had a 8mm projector. Since this was the late 70s & Early 80s, the VCR was still a ways off and the only way to watch Hollywood movies at home was to get the 2-5 minute piece of the film that was sold for 8mm projectors. We had clips of various Disney films (“101 Dalmations” and “Lady and the Tramp” stick in my mind) and after we watched whatever home movies my Dad had most recently shot, then we watched these. It was always my favorite part.
At about age 5 I went to a friend’s birthday party and I remember the incredible excitement all the other kids had about the 8mm clip they were going to show. This was 1978. They played a 8mm version of the Death Star Trench run from Star Wars. This was the first Star Wars footage I’d ever seen. My little mind was blown out of my skull. I began my relentless asking to see the film, and by the time Empire Strikes Back came out I got to see it in the theater.
Then there was the big ask to go see my first James Bond film. I had a friend who was Bond obsessed and his dad wanted to take us to “For Your Eyes Only” as it was everywhere in Britain in the lead up to the film. My parents were understandably concerned about 8-9 year old me seeing a bond movie, but eventually the uniqueness of seeing this British Icon as part of our UK experience came through. I remember the Volkswagen Thing with Bullet-holes that sat in the lobby of the theater where we saw the film. I was incredibly impressed the black-haired-blue-eyed beauty in the film. There was a Lotus Esprit Turbo with a ski rack! They rock climbed using folding cams as gear! And all these years later the film remains one of my favorite Bond movies.
Then… there was ET. By the time this came out I was completely obsessed with my BMX bike. I subscribed to BMX magazines. I was jumping ever higher and farther. And here was a kid discovering an Alien and then getting away from adults with only his friends and his BMX bike. Forget superheros, I wanted to be Elliot and really fly on my BMX! I distinctively remember the first Saturday after seeing the film I got up before my parents (I was 9 or so, and I got up at dawn on Saturdays) I found some paper and drew out the BMX park sequence of ET, giving the characters thought bubbles to tell my parents where I was going. Then I got on my bike and rode about a ½ mile to the forest where I knew there were dirt jumps. I think other friends where there when I got there, but I mostly remember the ET themed note. I was very concerned my parents would wake up before I was finished with it and had the chance to leave. Then riding away I felt awesome and very responsible to have left such an elaborate and fun note to tell them where I was going.
Riding with Strangers:
Remember that this first decade of my life was not only long before cell phones, but also pre-pager or answering machine. I think back and marvel at how anything got arranged without the confidence of reaching out mid-task to make a change or confirm. The result was some strange plans.
Of course I was told to be skeptical of riding with any adult I didn’t know. But there were still two instances I remember that would never happen today:
There was the day that my school bus was very late. Incidentally, in England I didn’t go to school in the big yellow school bus, as those don’t exist overseas. We were transported on a big tour-bus style high-end vehicle and on this particular morning it never arrived. My mom began calling around to try and find out what was going on, but information was scarce. I went to a private school for American kids and there was one other family in our neighborhood who were on the bus route, and he was a friend. So eventually the decision was made that I would walk to this friends house and his mom would take us to school. Looking back, I have many questions about how all this got decided, but this is where we ended up and off I went.
I’d gotten about ½ way to my friends house when a car pulled up beside me. Here I was, an American kid walking through the damp streets wearing my little backpack and this driver opens the door to talk to me. He says the bus broke down and he’s come to take me to school. I didn’t move. I didn’t believe him.
I wanted to go talk to my mom, but she was just as far away as I was from my friend’s house. I remember thinking I could walk back home, with this guy following along in his car but that felt absurd. Somehow I expressed this and he said he’d just been to my house, talked with my mom, and she said I was walking to his next stop.
I was young, and far from able to outsmart this guy, so I imagine I gave him too much information. I remember telling him I was headed to my friend’s house. I may have even given my name and my friend’s name. Again, I was not doing this well. Some part of my little brain knew I needed some way to tell this guy was legit. So I asked where he was headed next… and he knew. He knew the house he was going to, and I knew it was where my friend lived.
I got in the car.
No other part of the morning stays in my memory. I don’t remember picking up my friend or the ride to school in this guys car. But, I remember this strange pick-up, and how it would never have happened today with cell phones and easy connections. I know I got to school, and then came home that night on the bus as usual. This had all the pieces of a terrible story, and it ended completely mundane. Yet I remember the uncertainty and visuals of standing on that curb like it happened this morning.
The American School I attended did a good job of creating American experiences in the middle of our English surroundings. But the school was more than a ½ hour from our house in the best of traffic and there was no direct way to take the train. With one car and two kids this sometimes made afterschool activities difficult.
I was a Cub-Scout and at one point the Scouts hosted an Native American Dance group to come to the school for a bonfire. Scouts of all ages came to sit around the fire and watch the Indians. (this was the 1970s… they were Indians). I remember the bonfire got so hot that buckets of water around the firepit melted. People’s shoes were damaged if they pointed them too close to the flames. This was no half-assed bonfire.
The Indian dancers were very impressive but any time they weren’t hollering war chants they spoke with thick British accents. This raised all kinds of questions in my little mind. This was quite an event, and at some point my parents had to leave and take my sister home to bed. A carpool was arranged for me to get home.
We had close family friends with three boys. The middle one was only a year older than me and we had a love-hate relationship. (Love whenever we played at his house and got along like best friends. Hate whenever he was at school and needed to impress his classmates by bullying me. Ironically… he’s now about 5’6”.) He was also at that bonfire, so we were going to carpool home.
Except that the person arranged to take us both home was a girl I didn’t know. She must have been at least 18 as she was old enough to drive in the UK but I remember nothing else about her. When it was very late, and dark, and time to leave I discovered something else disconcerting; she drove a convertible MG. That meant only two seats and a carpeted center tunnel interrupted by the stick-shift.
Since I was the smallest it was decided that I would ride in the middle with my friend taking up the passenger seat. So, I climbed in and sat on the carpet of the center tunnel right behind where this girl was rowing through the gears. It was very dark, and her lights weren’t that great, but in some ways it felt like an adventure. Somewhere along the way there was a discussion of music, and it was discovered that we both knew the work of John Denver. Soon she had cued up “Country Roads” and we were driving through an English evening belting out the song together. When you consider we had just seen Englishmen hollering Comanche war songs, it seems to fit somehow. All the while I sat on a bump beneath the canvas top and my friend looked at me like I was insane.
I did get home, and I have no idea who that girl was. I do know I’ve never ridden in a MG since.
An American in London:
In spite of the above, the most profound car memory I have from those early years was a ’57 Chevy parked in our neighborhood. On many of my biking excursions I would go out of my way just to roll by this house and see if the Chevy was outside. I remember my dad explaining to me what it was and I was transfixed by the chrome, the fins, and sheer scale. The late 1970s were a sad time in car design, and England was a sea of boring sheetmetal. This blue and white monster was some sort of space ship / worm hole that linked me to America. One car that seemed to touch on so many parts of my young self: biking, cars, freedom, and one boy out of place and finding his way.
The more I think on these moments the more they bloom in my mind. I’ve already written too much, and I realize I could walk through them in even greater detail.
I guess time travel exists…
…Continue with Part 2.