1972: The Summer of ’72.

Let me stress that I am not trying to cause any embarrassment;  I am trying my best to “sanitize” this post so no one feels uncomfortable – but what I am about to write about was one of the most pivotal events of my life.

In these times metaphors involving vinyl records are lost on most readers but some of you can remember cassette tapes well enough to understand a point I am trying to make: “ghost tracks.” Voices from recordings t you’ve taped over that managed to avoid total erasure. Cassette-tape manufacturers go to great lengths to assure us that taping over something or running a tape through the machine with everything set on “erase” will eliminate that first recording…but it doesn’t. Some recordings will survive and invariably will be revealed, usually when they can be the most embarrassing. With me it involved trying to whistle the instrumental accompaniment to “Here Comes my Baby” by the Tremeloes but I’m leaving that for another post….

First loves are like that too. No matter what imprints you gain on your heart later in life there is something about that first love that never completely lets go of you. Even though you love your spouse so much that you are two halves of the one whole, there are still times when hearing a particular song evokes a memory that turns back the clock in a heartbeat.

Years before I swept my beautiful Saxon princess off of her feet there was another young lady with whom I was very smitten. What made the relationship even more special was the fact that she just wasn’t my girl friend; she was also my best friend – my best friend for two of the most pivotal years of my life. At the time I wasn’t a bad kid   but I wasn’t necessarily a “good kid” either …but her interest (and that of her family) caused a very fundamental change in the nature of my life.

However, the nature of my life at the time was such that we were periodically separated. The reunions were wonderful, but one reunion was very different from all the others and I remember it like it happened last week. I had gone home to my job as a roustabout in the oil field but I had promised to return for a major event. While we were apart we both wrote every day and were both looking forward eagerly to our reunion, but it turned out to be much less romantic event than either one of us expected.

After a long flight following a long day at work I arrived at her home to a living room full of people. For moment I wondered if my Best Friend was even there, but then I saw her curled up on the couch across the room, having dozed off while reading so I gingerly made my way across the sea of people to kneel down by the side of the couch.

At that moment she woke up, looked me in the eyes, smiled – and reality changed.

I use the word “smile” because the word that accurately describes the action and emotion of that moment has yet to be written. The situation in the room was not conducive to any sort of PDA other than fingers curled around in a sort of hand-shake clasp. As I knelt across the end-cushion of that couch we just kept looking at each other and beaming…and then all of a sudden it was like the sun rose again. I was vaguely aware of noise around us but instead of looking into deep brown eyes I was looking simultaneously into the past, the present and the future, andcould feel a source radiating a fundamental “positivity’ just like the sun would be warming us at the beach.

I could feel joy rush all through my body from the top of my head down to the tips of my fingers and toes and it seemed as though my heart was going to burst. It didn’t feel like we were clasping hands as much as it felt like we were fundamentally connected in some way , the thought of it filling me with a joy and happiness that I cannot verbalize. Not “new Neil Young album happy”. Not “touchdown pass happy”.

Joy with a capital “J”.

….then just as quickly the spell was gone and the cacophony of the room full of happy people rose again. At the end of the weekend I flew back home and in the fall we went off to school and an emotional roller-coaster that lasted until we parted ways eighteen months later. . My Best Friend and I went on to find marvelous mates and build wonderful families – but there are still sometimes when I stop and think about the day her smile made the sun come up a second time and I learned a vital lesson: that love and joy can transcend these frail physical bodies and that some of the most desperately important things in our young life pale next to other less tangible but more eternal things.

1964: Joy – Part One

I missed the whole vampire thing in popular culture – at first,  I’d see students come through my classes that were as obsessed with the “children of the night” motif as former students had been with centaurs ten years earlier and as was the case with the centaurs, I gave the subject short shrift. Even though I work quite a bit in the fantasy and science fiction genre I am adamant that students learn the basics before tackling more complicated projects.

However, the TV series ANGEL blind-sided me. I was hooked from the first with the complex character interactions, the believable way the show dealt with “grown-up stuff” like atonement, addiction, dysfunctional family issues…even the in-jokes and humor. I wasn’t the only geezer the show appealed to either; one of the reasons it was canceled rather precipitously at the end of five years was precisely because geezers were tuning in.  ‘Angel’ scored well with the Nielsen ratings but it skewed “old” to my demographic . The network wanted was something to pull in teens and young adults so away it went.

The nature of vampirism is explained a little differently in ANGEL. Instead of the individual turning “eevvviiillll” (said in a spooky voice) when turned into a vampire, in this series when you are turned a demon from another dimension comes and takes up residence inside your body. They have access to all your knowledge and memories – but they aren’t “you” any more. Your soul is gone. It makes it all both less and more scary at the same time for me.

One theme ANGEL came back to time and again was the nature of true joy. That caught my attention because  I am at the point of my life where I wonder if there is such a thing. I get very jaded at lectures or sermons about the contrast between the types of life-styles that bring you transient happiness vs. long-term joy and how it is better to wait for joy. The only long-term emotion I have had in my life has been clinical depression – not because I have been “bad” or lack a positive mental attitude – but because my brain doesn’t make enough of the right kind of chemicals. In the same way a starving man dreams of a steak, I fantasize about what true joy must be like.

Angel is a vampire with a soul – he was cursed with getting his soul back after murdering a band of gypsies so punishment he would live forever realizing what truly horrible things he had done as  ‘Angelus” (the name he went by as a 100% bad-guy vampire). Right off that made me sit up because as I have written before in this blog I have a freakishly sharp memory which means I keenly remember any and all unkind things I have ever done to anyone else. I can understand the exquisite hell Angel lives with.

Most of the time. There are a couple of times when Angel’s soul leaves his body and the totality of Angelus takes over completely – and it ain’t pretty. The first time it happened was when he was with Buffy (yes the Vampire Slayer). During one “interlude” Angel was so overcome with his love for Buffy that he experienced a moment of “pure joy” – which caused his soul to be released to go back to heaven. Angel becomes Angelus for the rest of the season and he is just viciously wicked and cruel. The series almost lost me at that point in fact.

But once again I sat up. A true moment of joy. I thought about it hard, wondering if I had ever had a moment of unqualified true joy – that didn’t blow up in my face afterwards. I have had lots of happiness in my life but it has always been very transitory. I love sitting with my grandson Jayden on my lap while I read – but when he has to go it isn’t long before that mental dump-truck  of distress  starts backing over my brain. If I could ascertain the existence of a moment of true joy in my life, then there was the possibility of more, so I started combing through old letters, journals and artwork – and just sat and thought a lot.

I found three.

1. Discovering comics coincided with discovering that I was different from my friends in terms of artistic talent. Artistic talent usually doesn’t manifest itself until age 11and I was right on schedule.  When I discovered Batman, the Composite Superman and the Crime Syndicate from Earth 3 in the summer of 1964 my first reaction was to try “to make more” though at first it was because there was precious little in the way of licensed items available to buy.  Toys weren’t the huge industry they are now, living in Anchorage, Alaska meant that we were at the end of a very long logistical pipeline – and as we were still recovering from the Good Friday Earthquake (second worst recorded quake at 9.2 on the Richter scale) three months earlier most cargo space coming in from Outside was devoted to more practical items.

Undeterred I went to work. Using every trick I could think of I drew my own adventures.  I used carbon paper (too messy), I used the window as a light table to trace ( too indistinct) so finally I broke down and just drew Batman…and it wasn’t half bad.

Toys were a little harder. I had a set of “Ring-Hand Soldiers” – plastic army men that were molded without helmets, weapons, packs or belts. They sold with accessories that would snap into the hands, which were molded closed in a ring-shaped grip. This arrangement left their uniforms with limited detail allowing me to paint superhero costumes on them.

…which was great until I got to Batman. How was I going to get those ears on his cowl? I thought about just painting the hood without the ears – and I even though about just not having a Batman – but it just broke my heart to leave my favorite out of the set.

I don’t know what exactly happened next but I did notice that the enamel model paint that I was using made my fingers sticky when it would drip. Then I looked over at the sheet of paper I was using for a drop-cloth and the light-bulb went on. I snipped out a small strip of paper with two bat-ears space out along the top, then painted it with blue enamel. Next I took my working figure and painted blue enamel around his head, then took the strip of paper and wrapped it around the head (paint side in) and adjusted the fit until the ear’s lined up. I painted the outside of the ears, then added another coat of blue when I worked up the Batman uniform on the whole figure…when the two coats of blue paint on the ears dried it was as durable as the rest of the figure. I’d made my Batman.

I still remember that moment, sitting back  in the sun coming through the door of our living room in the house on the corner of McRae Road and Barbara Drive in deepest, darkest Spenard. I had my Batman figure, but that wasn’t the real thrill in much the same way that the sunlight wasn’t what was making the warmth and light I was enclosed in.  I closed my eyes and for a minute I had that true moment of joy (and the launch of my creative career) when I realized that I could make any toy  – anything I wanted.