In this second part (Read Part 1)of recollections on my life’s first four decades, we enter and exit the difficult and awkward teen years. Everyone struggles here against life shaping forces. In the midst of it I changed whole cultures more than once.
We moved back from England in the summer of 1983. I left the private American school in England where I was well liked and one of the most popular kids in my class, to enter a private, affluent, Baptist school in Houston. The first thing I noticed was my fashion sense and awareness of pop-culture were about 5 years behind my classmates. I knew this because I was teased and regularly told of my ignorance of shoes, clothing, hair, and entertainment by my newfound fifth-grade classmates.
My only solace was my ability to drop into a killer English accent and amuse those around me. At the time, my accent was so convincing that I could fool strangers into thinking I was actually British. (Please note that I can no longer do this, my British accent is now marginal at best). Meanwhile, I tried to cram my skull with the pop-culture and awareness that I’d missed in my first ten years. To this day my wife will mention something that was “Everywhere” when she was a child and I’ll look at her like she made it up. “That’s right,” she always says… “You were in England”
This problem no longer exists. The internet has created a singular global pop-culture. Yes, there are regional variations but the movies, songs, stars, and fads of today can be found in some form in every developed country at the exact same time. I returned to the US when it was still far ahead of the rest of the world in pop-culture creation and in some ways I’ve been behind ever since.
Right about the time I started to get my bearings, we moved overseas again… this time to Oslo Norway. To say I didn’t want to go would be an enormous understatement. This meant I would be starting 9th grade in a new school and a new country. I believed I was a few years away from popularity in my Houston high school, so this felt like a huge disruption and I went to Norway expecting the worst.
Interestingly, that one year in Norway created more clear memories and shaping lessons than any other teenage year. Ultimately I had an amazing life experience at a terrible time in my life. I could fill pages with what I remember, but I will resist.
To my great surprise I was a star athlete for this one year. Apparently my basketball skills peaked at 13 and I was also decent at Volleyball. As a result I became one of the popular kids at this tiny school, and I found it to be shockingly empty. My less popular friends tried to undermine me, and the popular ones talked behind my back.
The life experience was equally extreme. I’d never lived anywhere it snowed. Norway made up for it. Winter days so short that I went to school and came home in the dark. Snow up to my hips in any field (I know because I walked through some for fun). Cross country skiing and sledding in epic proportions. I couldn’t wait to go back to the US, but had adventures that I’d never have otherwise.
There was the school trip we took to a ski-able glacier. We cross country skied in blowing blizzards at negative 25 degrees. That’s not an exaggeration, this was the actual temperature on the day we went out to learn snow-cave making and first aid. Though this had all the elements of a grim survival film, we were actually playing at it and calling this school. Try doing that in your 9th grade year of Second Baptist School, Houston.
The Bobsled Run
Oslo hosted the winter Olympics in the 50s and the bobsled run remained. But unlike modern bobsled runs with concrete banked turns and a tunnel design, this was now a dirt road with berms in the corners. Every winter kids and adults of all ages would bring their sleds and do the entire run. It was precarious, and in places unbelievably fast.
Plus there were mobs of people all around you.
You’d be flying down the run, passing others, dodging the person that just wrecked themselves into the fluffy snow bank, all while racing your friends. When you got to the bottom, and it took a while, you were close to a transit stop. We’d jump on and ride one stop higher where the whole thing started again. This remains the most fun snow activity I’ve ever done. By now someone’s probably stopped this pastime in the name of safety, and frankly that would be tragic.
I was out of Norway early the next summer, in fact a couple of weeks before the school year ended so I could attend a trip with my Houston Classmates. This thrilled me at the time, but looking back I think I missed out on more experiences I would still cherish today.
Back in the US I was completely obsessed with being a fighter pilot. It didn’t help my efforts to be in the popular crowd of my US high school, but I was certain it was what I wanted to do. “Top Gun” and “The Right Stuff” had further solidified my interest yet I never realized what I was responding to were the stories and the adventure, not the realities of being in the military.
We had a first-gen computer at this point and I even though I’d been hand-writing stories since the seventh grade, I was now typing and moving much faster. Over the course of high school I wrote four novellas, all between 60 and 100 pages. The story telling bug had hit hard.
Yet my interest in flight remained so strong that when I got my first job (sacking groceries at a high end store where you still tipped your bag-boys) I spent most of my paychecks on two things: Gas, and flight school.
One hour of flight lessons cost as much as my full week’s paycheck, so I took a lesson every couple of weeks. I would drive out to the middle of no-where enjoying pushing my car to high speed as much as the hour in the plane. Sadly, I couldn’t afford this for very long.
The talents I had in High School were consistently mis-aligned with a potential military career, but all I imagined was a modern equivalent of pushing a vehicle to its edge, and I wanted to do that. I struggled for average grades in any Science or Math, but I excelled in English and artistic areas. I was taking two art classes a day by Senior year, spending time in photography and drawing. My teacher even got me a scholarship offer from an Art College in Georgia. I turned it down as I couldn’t imagine going to art school. I’ve wondered how different my life would be now if I’d taken that offer.
I chose Baylor University, not because I was particularly Baptist, but because it seemed more intimate than UT, and a very “non-Baylor” friend of mine was attending and loving it. The fact that they had Air Force ROTC kept me on my flight dream. Then a year of marching and military infrastructure showed me just how ill suited I was for the military. Due to cutbacks at the time, my chances of flying anything were slim at best unless I wanted to major in math or computer science. I was already taking film classes and I realized there wasn’t anything else I wanted to study. As a result, I left ROTC after my Freshman year, before it required signing any commitments.
In the summer of 92, at the ripe age of 19 I worked as the morning DJ for an Oldies Station and weekend guy for the #1 Pop station in tiny Laramie, Wyoming. I was growing out my hair, learning to climb, and spending my off time in the mountains. This was my most stereotypical college summer, a long way from home and doing and seeing things that were all new. Looking back, it’s interesting to note the things that started there and are still a part of me… the hair, the climbing, the time in the mountains, and living somewhere I had to mostly forge for myself.
Upon returning to Baylor, I began to develop toward my interests. I focused on film classes, worked at a local radio station, designed T-Shirts for money, and climbed anything I could find. I directed a short film (yes, a Western) on 16mm film. At that point I was the first undergrad at Baylor to work on film. I was the writer, director, and editor on the project. I even shot about a third of the film. I cast one of my best friends at the time, mainly because I couldn’t do the acting in addition to everything else. I loved everything about doing this even though the result was marginal. By the time I graduated I knew I wanted to make films.
But like my dreams of flying jets, my knowledge of Hollywood would prove fanciful and misguided.
And that’s a whole other decade…. Read Part 3