Movies with Friends: From Frogs to Rocky Horror to Toco Hill

During my late elementary and middle school years, as now, a movie was a frequent element of the tween and early teen birthday celebration. The unintentionally funny horror film, often on the theme of nature’s revenge, was prevalent in the early 70s and perfect for group viewing. Such classic B movies, silly, clumsily cobbled together, yet still scary, wouldn’t have had the same impact had we been sitting around the TV in the cozy safety of a family room.

 

I think it was for my friend Katie’s birthday that we saw Frogs. It was playing in one of the increasingly faded theatres in Virginia-Highland. The movie poster shows a bloody human arm protruding from the mouth of a frog. Its breathless text reads:

If you are squeamish stay home!!! Cold, green skin against soft, warm flesh!  A croak, a scream. . .FROGS. The day nature strikes back.

The human villain of the story is the haughty patriarch of an old Southern family, eager to celebrate his July 4th birthday at his sprawling mansion nestled uneasily in the oozing spookiness of the swamps. Ray Milland plays Grandpa, as he is called by everyone. Fed up with the overabundance of icky, cold-blooded creatures that call the family property their home, Grandpa hires a man to saturate the surrounding landscape with pesticide. This, of course, does not sit well with the slime brigade, and lots of gruesome death ensues. Despite the movie’s title, frogs do no killing. They merely croak and look vaguely, disinterestedly malevolent. Snakes, lizards, alligators, leeches and spiders are among the many creatures that exact horrifying vengeance on the humans who have the nerve to try to move in on their domain.

Once the critters began to seek retribution, my friends and I huddled two to a seat, for better moral support. Sitting in darkness, surrounded by other shrieking kids our age, the experience was akin to a thrill ride at an amusement park.

We loved this kind of movie, in which most of the human characters are so proud, self-absorbed, or just plain clueless that one tends to root for the animals. The creatures, of course, were there first; it is the people who are interlopers. And like the rat army in the film Willard (for which the young Michael Jackson sang the theme song, Ben), from the year before, the fauna of Frogs were disdained and misunderstood. Their voices needed to be heard. They deserved respect, if not revenge.

Around this same time, we enjoyed another movie with a swampy setting, The Legend of Boggy Creek. It was a docudrama based on sightings of a smelly, hairy Bigfoot-like figure in the remote Arkansas woods. The film attempted a serious tone, which made it all the more laughable to us. Again, we empathized with the creature, whose existential angst was nicely expressed in his unnerving screeches. The rag-tag community of humans that inexplicably made their home in this marshy wilderness did not appreciate the beast’s sporadic appearances and attempts to dine on their pets and livestock. In an attitude common to city kids, we considered ourselves superior to our country counterparts, and the bog-dwelling Arkansawyers on screen were no exception. Yes, we were Southern, but not that Southern. We knew to avoid the double negative, and our accents sounded positively Yankee in comparison. Had anyone reminded me of my rural Kentucky roots, I would have pointed out that my family had the foresight to settle on higher ground.

During our high school years, more and more of Atlanta’s large in-town theatres closed. We continued to flock loyally to those that remained. On weekends we gathered, with crowds of other teenagers, at Garden Hills or The Plaza for midnight showings of Up in Smoke and Rocky Horror Picture Show. This was festive movie-going at its most social, its most raucously, gloriously communal.

The multiplex became more prevalent as the older theatres disappeared. When it was convenient, or for lack of anything better to do, we attended showings in such box-like rooms, the screens hardly larger than some of today’s TVs. A movie like Halloween, which appeared in 1978, was good fun, even at the multiplex. My eagle-eyed boyfriend still managed to note every inadvertent intrusion of the microphone.

My regular movie attendance in Atlanta ended at Toco Hill. Among all the cramped cinema spaces in the city, for years there still survived this 800-seat theatre in a suburban strip mall. Tickets cost just $.99. One needed only to wait a week or two, and nearly every major release came to Toco. Weekend showings filled to capacity, and every age group was well represented. Closed in 2000, the theatre may soon be the site of a bagel company. I hear Atlanta has been an absolute bagel wasteland.

The Plaza, though, now the last of its kind in the city, is still in business. And it still hosts Rocky Horror nights.

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Some of my movie-viewing pals and me,1972.
Apparently, during several years in the 70s, we only
took photos around Christmas time.

Back When the Movies were Big, and the Theatre was a Palace: Atlanta’s Fabulous Fox

My trove of movie memories was neatly packed, sealed, and hidden away in my mind, and it took a while to access them. I’ve grown so accustomed to the ease of home viewing, of DVDs, streaming video and Tivo, that I had nearly forgotten the thrill of the old-time movie-going experience.

Having grown up in Atlanta during the 60s and 70s, my most colorful movie memories center on the Fox Theatre, which opened in 1929. Originally intended as the Yaarab Temple Mosque, national Shriners’ headquarters, its flamboyant style is best described as Islamic with touches of Egyptian. When escalating costs jeopardized the project, William Fox stepped in and oversaw the completion of the building as his newest movie palace. The fanciful exterior is a wealth of onion domes, minarets, ornate tile work and arched colonnades.

The movie that stands out most clearly among the many I saw at the Fox was, strangely, a re-release of Disney’s Song of the South, truly a remnant from another world. I was with a group of fifth-grade friends, and it was the first time a parent had dropped us off at the theatre. Maybe the movie was chosen by that parent simply for its “G” rating. Had we been younger, we might have taken some delight in the singing, dancing, southern dialect-spewing animals of the Uncle Remus stories. We were mature enough to be uncomfortable watching wise and contented former slaves extolling the joys of life on the old plantation. (Because it is now generally considered a racially offensive film, it has never been released in its entirety on VHS or DVD.)

The movie wasn’t a good fit for us, but it didn’t matter, because the Fox Theatre was dazzling. Gilded opulence was everywhere, from the box office window, to the concession stand to the luxurious Ladies’ Lounge (no mere utilitarian restrooms for the Fox). The auditorium was vast and atmospheric, with nearly 5,000 seats. It resembled an enchanted courtyard from the Arabian Nights. Before the movie began, we marveled at the gradually darkening and slowly rotating twilight sky above, flickering with crystal stars and the occasional drifting, wispy cloud. Just before show time, the famous pipe organ rose from the orchestra pit. The second-largest theatre organ in the U.S., it filled the great space with the music of an entire orchestra, a variety of brass instruments and sound effects, such as thunder and lightning.

By the mid 70s, as potential movie-goers flocked to the suburbs, the Fox was struggling financially. Down at the heels and seedy, it had become the Blanche DuBois of movie palaces. The City of Atlanta, always quick to move on in the name of progress, proposed demolishing the theatre to make way for Southern Bell’s new headquarters. This plan awakened Atlantans, at long last, to the urgent need for hometown historic preservation. (The city’s once-magnificent Terminal Station, designed in the Spanish Mission style by the architect of the Fox, had been torn down in 1972.)

Perhaps because so many Georgians clung to their own unforgettable memories of the old theatre, the Save-the-Fox campaign gained support quickly. The building was not only saved, but eventually fully restored. It now serves as a popular concert venue, with a film series every summer, complete with organ sing-a-longs. The historic old girl looks better than ever. Blanche has bucked up, gone through rehab, become fit and healthy. An active, happy grandmother, it looks as though she has many good years ahead.

My daughter has never been to the Fox.  My husband hasn’t either, although he and I have eaten dinner across the street at the Georgian Terrace, while crowds flocked to a performance of Celtic Woman. I hope we can catch a summer movie at the Fox this year, so H & D can see that magical, indoor amethyst sky.

Belated Reflections on the Oscars: Does it Matter that the Pictures Got Small?

It took us part of two nights, but we watched the Oscars. We can’t see the show all in one go. It’s too long, and it’s on a school night. Even when we have the time, and a late-rising morning to follow, my family and I cannot sit relatively still and be attentive for much more than twenty minutes in a row. This is just one of the reasons that we don’t go to the movies.
We will see some of the Oscar-nominated movies, eventually, at home. There is no pause button at the theatre, and we like our pause button. It’s not merely valuable for snack and drink runs. When our daughter was very young, I realized how handy it was to stop the action to explain a word or concept. Because we could break for discussion during a program about the worst jobs in the medieval world, at age six or so she learned quite a bit about the nasty tasks required of the wode maker and the fuller. Perhaps such knowledge isn’t vital to everyday life, but it certainly does put a twenty-first century kid’s bad days in perspective. I pause too often, probably, to point out certain actors to her (the cowboy at the dude ranch on Modern Family—that’sTim Blake Nelson, who was in O Brother Where Art Thou. Remember when he sang I’m in the Jailhouse Now?) We replay funny scenes, or those in which dialogue is indistinct. Tensions arise, naturally, when we disagree over what constitutes overuse of the remote. Sometimes it seems that we’ll never get through a show. But that’s OK, because we can always finish it tomorrow, or the next day.

 

This year’s Academy Awards ceremony, with its focus on retro Hollywood glamour, was not a night for the young. It wasn’t the most entertaining of Oscars, but I found the somewhat geriatric slant very comforting. I fit right in. Some stars, like Billy Crystal, the veteran comic host, were aging oddly. Others looked great (for their age), but no one stood out to me as looking particularly young. Not even the truly young.

For such a lavish production, we were puzzled by the bad sound quality. What was that tinny, echoing noise after Billy Crystal’s every quip? I was reminded of the constantly jangling cowbells on the ski slopes at last year’s winter Olympics. D said it sounded like the buzzing of a hearing aid, which would be appropriate, considering the largely AARP crowd that was honored.

It was fitting, also, that the biggest winner of the night was a mostly silent, black and white film set in the roaring 20s. (The Artist will be in our Netflix queue if for no reason other than Uggie the Jack Russell.) Throughout the night, there abounded references to a powerful, collective love of the movies. Misty-eyed presenters and winners recalled formative childhood experiences, spellbound in a packed theatre, the big screen before them in all its majesty.

I have such powerful memories, but my daughter, as yet, does not. She missed the era of the opulent movie palace. She has never known a time when a movie was an event, a destination. Instead, she will remember sitting on the sofa watching our fairly, but not overly large TV in the armoire, wrangling for the remote. Is this a loss? Will rapid advances in technology and communications make up for the absence of the grand movie experience? Will we all be so well-connected through new social media that we will be perfectly happy to watch movies on our contact lenses or some other tiny device? Will it no longer matter that the pictures got small, to paraphrase Norma Desmond, the aging star in Sunset Boulevard?

What’s with the Ashes?

 

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Today, we are likely to see people walking around with a messy black smudge on their foreheads. Some may be sharply dressed in business attire, which makes the apparent dirt on their faces look all the more incongruous. My husband has remarked that these people strike him as somewhat irritatingly smug. He thinks they broadcast their piety too overtly: I went to church today, on a weekday. Aren’t I good? Aren’t I saintly? It wouldn’t hurt you to go to church, too. To me, they are brave. They took time off work for their faith, and they are willing to bear a visible sign of it in a secular world.

Here, then, is why I will go to church this Ash Wednesday (although our service is at night, and unless we need milk or some other grocery staple, I will head straight home afterwards.) 

                You are dust, and to dust you shall return. 

                –Genesis 3:19

Ash Wednesday is a reminder of what would have been, without the transforming salvation of Christ. God uttered the words above, angrily, to Adam and Eve, just before he booted them out of Eden, the garden of paradise that could have been their eternal, blissful home. Because they disobeyed God, they forfeited a life of ease and joy. They were sent out into desolation, forced to eke out a living through toil and pain.

If you grew up going to Sunday School, you’ve heard the story many times. (And if you haven’t, I hope you won’t let a discomfort with the creation story get in the way.) Maybe you’ve wondered: What were they thinking? The first couple had it great: full-time leisure, full-time luxury. Their every day made a vacation at one of the world’s supreme resorts pale in comparison. The trees dripped with delicious treats, theirs for the easy picking. All except for the apples on one tree.

There was a serpent in the garden. He was wise and wily, and he knew about that whole free-will thing. Indeed, he owed his existence to it. He looked with contempt upon the innocent contentment of the two humans. He realized the fragility of the thread that kept them in their lovely home. It wasn’t long before the serpent made his move. Appealing to Eve’s pride, he offered an opportunity for further greatness. Knowledge equal to God’s was at her fingertips, but God selfishly chose to keep this power to himself. She deserved better, didn’t she? So Eve ate from the tree. Adam, who apparently needed no convincing, munched along complacently.

Paradise was lost, for the taste of a forbidden fruit. We may think we would have known better. But probably not. Like Eve, we might have fallen for the pride trap. Or maybe, like Adam, we might have given very little thought to the matter: If Eve says it’s fine, it must be. (I envision one of David Letterman’s goofy expressions on Adam’s face.) In simply thinking we would have known better, it’s evident that we would not have. With free will comes the ability to make the wrong choice, a choice we tend to exercise repeatedly. Like Adam and Eve, if left to our own devices, our fate would be to wander in the dust. 

Repent and believe the good news!

–Mark 1: 15

But we are not abandoned, without hope, in a barren land. Paradise is still within our grasp. On Ash Wednesday, we confront the grim reality of our sin, of our tendency toward pride and selfishness. On our own, we could never be good enough to work our way back to Eden. But we don’t have to be. Jesus took our sins upon himself. As the spotless Lamb of God, the perfect sacrifice, he wiped our messy slates clean.

To accept Christ’s free gift of salvation, we need to acknowledge our wrongheadedness and to ask forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is granted for our willingness to repent; it’s not contingent on our going forward without a misstep. We are human; we will stumble and lose our way at times. We cannot be perfect in this lifetime, but we can desire to achieve perfection.

The ashes are marked on the forehead in the shape of a cross, the instrument of death that became the tree of life. Christ’s good news saves us from a future of ashy, dusty nothingness, replacing it with the promise of unimaginable joy in a paradise everlasting. We can’t even comprehend unending joy; our flawed human nature prevents us. But we will understand it fully, and magnificently, one day, I am convinced.

Today I saw the first few green buds emerging from the gray bleakness of our yard, in a wild tangle of honeysuckle. This seems very fitting, on Ash Wednesday, when we celebrate the life that comes of death, of the new birth offered to us without price. 

God demonstrates his own love for us in this:  While we  were  still sinners, Christ died for us.

–Romans 5: 6-8

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Fool-Proof Valentine’s Days

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My favorite memories of Valentine’s Day as an adult have nothing to do with romance. This is not a complaint about my husband. I have known great romance, much of it with him. Even when he could barely afford it, he did Valentine’s Day right. When we were first dating, I felt like the luckiest girl in the world because he had chosen me. But we were busy grad students, and it was also a stressful time. He was anxious about classes, research in the lab, and the daunting prospect of, say, the final in physics of gases. I was teaching and trying to make some preliminary headway on my dissertation. February was an especially angst-ridden month. In the early stages of our relationship, when Valentine’s Day could have been best enjoyed, we simply had too much on our minds.

Therefore, my happiest grown-up Valentine experiences occurred when my daughter was in preschool. I would arrive at church to pick her up. Unless there was snow, the kids would be out on the playground. D and her friends would probably be climbing on the little blue playhouse, or see-sawing vigorously on the green plastic alligator. She was adorable in her red fleece Scandinavian-style jacket and matching hat (both made by Mama), and her multi-colored Elephanten suede shoes. When she saw me standing at the fence, she’d smile delightedly, as though I were the most marvelous surprise. She’d yell out Mama! in her sweet, unmistakable voice. She was excited to see me, to tell me about her day, to show me her Valentines and the special holiday craft she had made.

Once home, we would open her cards and spread them out on the playroom floor. Some were accompanied by candy, cookies, or tiny toys.  We’d examine each Valentine, noting who sent each one. Did the child write his or her own name, or did a parent do it? This was a question of great interest to a preschooler. The cards were small and cute, bearing images of such childhood icons as Cassie from Dragon Tales, Scooby-Doo, Clifford, Barbie and Winnie-the-Pooh. There were always a few charming homemade cards.

After we had gone through all the cards, I would give D her Valentine gifts from H and me. These usually included a stuffed animal, maybe a fuzzy white bear with red accents, holding a heart-shaped balloon. No such gift was ever less than perfect. My daughter was always elated, always satisfied. She would giggle and hug her bear tight. She’d sleep with it that night. It was so easy. What could be better? These were enchanted, fool-proof Valentine’s Days.

The preschool years may be the optimum time to enjoy the holiday fully. Preschoolers are enthusiastic about the cards, the candy, the gifts, the festive snacks. Nothing is complicated, but this will change before long. The early elementary school years bring difficulties that tarnish the day: competition, rivalries, mismatched puppy-love crushes, disappointment.

If you’re like me, and didn’t go to preschool, maybe you had, or will have, the good fortune to savor the simple pleasures of the day through the eager eyes of a child.

And now that Valentine’s Day 2012 is history, I propose a toast to a cheerfully comfortable second half of February!

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Pure Valentine pleasure!

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Some of the Valentine gifts that met with my daughter’s complete approval.

Working the System: Getting the Hang of High School Valentine’s Days

At my high school, the junior class began Valentine carnation sales in early February as a prom fund-raiser. During our freshman year, my two best friends and I didn’t grasp the magnitude of the event. I had had my wisdom teeth removed shortly before February 14 (a procedure that, amazingly, required a two-night hospital stay, the same as for the birth of my daughter), so I was preoccupied. But I clearly remember the day the carnations were distributed during homeroom. I didn’t receive any, and it was not pleasant. It was especially unpleasant to be surrounded by those who were greeted with bouquets scaled more appropriately for Derby-winning horses than for teenage girls. My memory may be somewhat warped here, but its essence is true. Those blessed with flowers carried them around from class to class all day long, so each hour brought with it a new group of lucky carnation-bearing kids.

 

As sophomores we got with the program. The three of us sent flowers to each other, the envelopes signed “from a Secret Admirer.” As an investment, we also bought carnations for several boys in our circle. We chose funny, thoughtful boys who were likely to return the favor next year. When the flowers were delivered, we each received an additional one from a senior boy who had taken a big-brotherly interest in the three of us. Getting three carnations, even if none was from a potential boyfriend, was far preferable to walking around all day with none.

The next year, the boys did their duty, and by that time, we all got a couple of flowers from other friends. We had learned how to work it, and the annual event had become almost enjoyable.

By senior year, the day was a real pleasure. My two old friends and I were closer than ever. We each sent a number of carnations and received quite a few. I had a boyfriend by then, and he came through with candy, as well. How wonderful to receive Valentine candy I could feel good about! My friends and I made GQ-spoof magazines for our favorite boys. We wrote silly captions for clippings snipped from National Lampoon, Seventeen, and a French fan magazine our teacher had suggested we subscribe to. We called it Hunky-Stud Quarterly: The Magazine for Discerning Gentlemen. We found it hilarious. The boys, though pleased, were probably not quite as bowled over by our humor.

It took us four years, but we had mastered the art of the high school Valentine’s Day. Unfortunately, we had to start from scratch again the following year, because things were different in college.

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My carnation cards from Valentine’s Day, senior year (of course I saved them).

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A rare edition of Hunky-Stud Quarterly. I have this copy because my high school boyfriend returned everything I had ever given him after we broke up.  He left it all on the front porch in the middle of the night.  Evidently he knew I would appreciate it more than he did.


And he was right.

The Best Part of Valentine’s Day: Before the Day

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One of my favorite childhood memories is sitting at the kitchen table, eating cinnamon red hots and making Valentines. I can see the bright February sunshine warming up the room. Popi would be sleeping nearby on the dining room rug. After a while we’d hear Daddy’s car come up the driveway as he arrived home from work. Before long it would be time for dinner. It’s a vision of complete, homey contentment.

When I was little, my mother and I would make our Valentines together. We’d each make one for Daddy, and she would help me with those I gave out to my classmates. We used all the typical materials: red and pink construction paper, doilies, flowers and hearts that we cut from old greeting cards. As I got older I might use watercolors to paint my own designs. Our supplies were far more limited in those days. There were no stores that stocked a nearly infinite variety of stickers, archival papers, fancy cutters, punches and the like. Martha Stewart was still just a hardworking caterer.

The preparatory time was what I enjoyed most. The lead-up was always better than the day itself. I have few recollections of an actual Valentine’s Day during elementary school. The clearest memory I have is painful. In fifth grade, a boy gave me a heart-shaped box of Valentine candy. Of course, he was not a boy that I “liked,” so the gesture made me feel sad and uncomfortable. I wished I liked him. I knew how he felt; I was familiar with the misery of unrequited love. I liked another boy who didn’t like me. Fortunately, though, I hadn’t given him a special gift that made me feel even worse.

This seemed to set the pattern for my Valentine’s Days throughout middle and high school. A card, flower or candy, if one came, would be from a nice boy I didn’t like. If I ventured out and gave a gift, it was unlikely to be reciprocated. Although I kept my expectations low, the day was either mildly disappointing or fraught with anxiety. Best, then, to enjoy making cards for my parents and a few extras that I could pin on my bulletin board, eat red hots, and appreciate the winter light.

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Sitting by the kitchen window prompted me to paint this Valentine tree.  I painted lots of heart-trees during my early teens.
They were easier than trees with other foliage.

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This heart is made from strips of rolled paper, inspired by a library book Mama found on the art of quilling.  Now, there are kits to do this type of thing.

Remembering Doug

Two weeks ago today, my friend Doug passed away. Doug had a zest for life that never flagged, despite the direness of the situation. He was a character. He was great company. He will be sorely missed.

Doug was known for his sharp memory, keen sense of humor, and flair for observing the odd detail, qualities that made him a compelling storyteller. He had copious amounts of material to draw on, including high school days in his native Seattle, where one of his classmates was Jimi Hendrix.

Doug had an exceptional ability to talk to anyone about anything. What’s more, he could make the exchange interesting. Early in his career he worked for the CDC in the effort to combat the spread of syphilis. He coached interviewers on effective methods for talking with syphilis patients about those to whom they may have spread the disease. If anyone could make a conversation about VD less uncomfortable, perhaps even verging on enjoyable, it was Doug. Not simply a skilled talker, Doug was a thoughtful listener and an engaging conversationalist. He delighted in the give and take of a spirited conversation. He would have been in his element with Samuel Johnson in the clubs and coffeehouses of eighteenth-century London, or with the circle of the recently deceased Christopher Hitchens.

Doug found his true calling in his career with the Fulton County Public Defender. His outlook made him uniquely suited to the position. He had a profound respect for all people. He empathized especially with underdogs and with those who had been dealt life’s poor hand. Doug took pleasure in getting to know his clients. He could see their admirable qualities despite the shadows of their terrible decisions and ill-advised deeds.

Doug was a dapper dresser with a discerning eye. For years, he and my father made an outing of the annual sale at Muse’s, the old Atlanta menswear store. Doug recognized style wherever it appeared. I remember his remarking on the classic élan of one of his clients who happened to be a transvestite. He was so impressed with her smartly tailored dress and lovely jewelry that, with a thought to his wife’s upcoming birthday, he asked for shopping references.

For the past two decades, Doug had suffered from syringomyelia, a rare degenerative neuromuscular disease. It began with a disturbing loss of balance first noticed during his neighborhood jogs. Over the years, it progressed at varying rates, leading toward a nearly complete loss of physical mobility and bringing with it a host of related issues. As the disease accelerated, Doug never lost his dignity or his ability to laugh. When he could no longer work, his computer and the Internet served as lifelines to keep him mentally active and in touch with his many friends and acquaintances. He continued to be a force in the legal community, appearing remotely on several occasions as a commentator on Court TV.

During our visits to Atlanta, my daughter and I liked to stop in to see Doug on our walks to the park. He and I discussed recent events and swapped memories of former neighbors. Doug was a great resource for entertainment trivia, and he never forgot names. He knew, for example, that Rashida Jones, who had just begun appearing on The Office, was the daughter of Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton. Doug and I liked similarly offbeat movies and TV shows. I regret that I never got the chance to ask him if he watched Justified. Its dark, ironic humor would have appealed to him, I think. And in its colorful, flawed characters, he may have seen glimpses of his former clients.

When my daughter was very young, her primary motivation for stopping by Doug’s house (other than to marvel at his futuristic wheelchair) was the chance to see the elusive and fabulously fluffy Elvis the cat. Elvis is shy and typically avoids children. If we stayed long enough, though, he would usually appear from beneath the sofa, or slink in furtively from another room. After staring intently for a while, he sometimes allowed my daughter to pet him. Doug told D it was because she behaved in a calm and grown-up manner that Elvis was willing to trust her. But he didn’t condescend to children, and D came to enjoy talking with him as much as I did. She appreciated his addressing her as a full-fledged person, even when she was a preschooler. Doug asked interesting questions, and he heard her responses. He avoided the painful clichés children must often endure from well-meaning adults.

Doug’s devoted family was his greatest treasure. He never bragged, but he adored sharing amusing anecdotes about his beautiful wife and daughter, his handsome son. He chose Christmas and birthday gifts for his wife with the utmost care. To preserve the surprise, he had her presents sent to my parents’ house, where my mother would wrap them. Sometimes, however, his gifts needed no festive paper. As his illness increasingly confined him, he treated his wife to unusual thrills with an emphasis on motion: a flight in a hot air balloon, a ride in a speeding racecar. Doug was a NASCAR devotee. Anyone who thinks all NASCAR fans are cut from the same cloth never met Doug. His elegant wife is an even less likely fan, but under the influence of his enthusiasm, she became a convert.

After so much of his life spent in hospitals, subjected to a dizzying array of treatments and procedures, Doug took his last breath at home, asleep in his own bed. I like to think that where he is now, the opportunities for fascinating conversation are even more abundant. And he has no need, anymore, for that cool wheelchair.

Middle School Memorabilia, Part II

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Near the top of my miscellaneous middle school mementos was a stationery box containing several small notebooks I used as journals. My account of seventh grade begins on a cheap note pad shaped like a tulip and continues on others, equally makeshift. These messy little chronicles carried me back across the years, with jottings concerning such experiences and events as these: 

  • The chaos that accompanied every class change in that immense and heavily populated school. Unaccustomed to negotiating crowds, I was surprised at those who delighted in barreling their way through bullishly. By mid-winter I had come to enjoy the challenge of the crowded halls. It was valuable life training, useful in airports and on the streets of New York City.
  •  Locker drama. Considerable anxiety surrounded the necessity of learning my combination and opening the lock successfully in the midst of class-change turmoil. One day as I was focused on the lock, an unknown boy took hold of my long hair and kept walking. Another time, my locker was broken into and my money, all 45 cents of it, was stolen.
  • The opportunity to make friends from a broader, more diverse pool.  Many pages contained lists of my new friends and the wide spectrum of elementary schools they represented.
  • The obscenity-laced scuffles that broke out every day among a group of boys during art class. Thankfully, my table-mates, all girls, were a peaceful, non-confrontational group. As pandemonium exploded around us, we carried on resolutely with our drawing and painting. We quickly learned that some problems can be avoided by simply pretending they do not exist. The teacher, who could neither ignore the commotion nor deal with it, was often in tears at the end of class.
  • Hobo Day, which we celebrated in mid-November.  This astonishes me.  I do not remember Hobo Day, although I participated.  As a fund-raiser, the PTA sold “hobo permits”  (at 25 cents each), that allowed students to come to school dressed as hobos. Those growing up in the 60s and 70s may remember when Hobo was a popular Halloween costume choice; the term as yet had no ironic or politically incorrect implication.
  • The powerful presence of our assistant principal, Mr. Sharpe, who effectively blocked the gateway to total anarchy. On my mother’s first visit to the school, she walked in as he was breaking up a violent confrontation between two sizable female students. One girl refused absolutely to back down. She continued to struggle ferociously to get at her opponent, requiring the assistant principal, at last, to sit on her. Somehow he managed to do this with dignity and no sense of impropriety. I befriended Mr. Sharpe early in the fall when I discovered $2 in a stairwell corner. My conscience demanded that I take it to Lost & Found, evidently another of his domains (he managed to be everywhere at once). After two weeks, he said, if the money remained unclaimed, it would be mine. Sure enough, the rightful owner never appeared, and I was $2 richer. Mr. Sharpe was my champion ever after.  In the spring, I accidentally threw my retainer away inside my lunch bag. Mr. Sharpe immediately set about searching for it in the cafeteria trash. When that proved unsuccessful, he got in the dumpster to continue the search. He didn’t find it, but by then it mattered far less. His selflessness had transformed bad into good.
  • First crushes. My friends and I created complicated code languages to discuss and pass notes about the boys we liked. Seems like the note writing occupied far more time than actual class work. My friend Katie managed to infuse her notes (which she usually folded into flat paper footballs) with great absurdist humor. To this day, I find them hilarious. We’re still good friends, and she’s still funny. Two or more of us tended to choose the same boy to focus on. Looking back, this first struck me as a silly approach, but I see now that it served its purpose. We weren’t yet actually interested in having a boyfriend. We needed first to prepare ourselves for the idea of a boyfriend. Because we chose boys who were unlikely to fall for any of us, solidarity was maximized and friendship-threatening rivalries avoided.
  • The sea of flamboyantly-hued polyester that engulfed the teachers and staff. Our principal, in tinted aviator glasses, favored earth-toned leisure suits. Mr. Sharpe opted for the more traditionally tailored double knit suit. For some reason, the paunchiest of the coaches gravitated toward brightly patterned, body-hugging synthetic shirts. The sensible and impermeable polyester pants suit prevailed among the female teachers. Patent-leather loafers, in white and rainbow colors, were popular with both men and women. Jeans, always bell-bottoms, were worn by students, but never by adults.

 

  • Bus drama. Our bus number, P-50, is a fixture in my memory. A frequent afternoon announcement was this: All students riding Bus P-50 must report to the cafeteria immediately! P-50 was exceptionally crowded, the aisle filled with standing kids, and notorious for bad behavior. My friends and I weren’t generally involved. We kept to the front of the bus, a zone of relative order. In the back, mayhem ruled. Fighting, yelling, smoking, and profanity-spewing were among the typical pastimes. Various items, including left-over lunch foods and specially prepared “flour bombs” were routinely launched from the windows onto passing cars. On several occasions, our bus driver, unable to enforce discipline or to bear the pain any longer, simply stopped along the route and made us all get out and walk. This usually happened not far from my house, and after the uproar of the ride, the quiet was welcome.

I find it reassuring that my journals confirm the accuracy of many middle school memories. I really do know what it’s like to be thirteen. This should qualify me as a wise and valuable advisor to the young teens of today, right? Even though when I was thirteen, computers were the size of a house, and there was no such thing as the Internet, a cell phone, texting, Facebook or Twitter?  I’m hoping my daughter thinks so.

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Do you have middle school memories that beg to be shared?
Tell me about your odd ones, your funny ones, your unforgettable ones!

Middle School Memorabilia, Part I

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The fragility of memory has always bothered me. Even as a child, I hated that many experiences were already lost. During Atlanta’s mild February days, my parents would reminisce about the lovely white winters in Kentucky. Don’t you remember the huge snowman we made when you were three? No, I didn’t remember, and it angered me. Just as it angered me that my Georgia friends and I were so snow-deprived that the slightest dusting of powder, or more typically, ice, sent us outside in deliriously futile attempts at snow-related activities. The sled would get mired in leaves and mud, the smallest snowball was elusive. We would return inside wet, cold and grumpy. I had spent my babyhood in a winter wonderland, without a single memory to show for it. The old photo of me in a snowsuit stirs no wayward recollection. It seemed terribly unfair.

Partly in an effort to make up for the transience of memory, and partly because I have a strong thread of OCD, I save the stuff that declares I was there. My parents’ attic was once filled with boxes of papers attesting to my life’s various stages. There are letters, artwork, class papers, books, school information, playbills, calendars with notes of daily activities, and much more. Although I realize the line is fine, I’m not a hoarder. Not every scrap of my past made the cut; much has been thrown away or recycled over the years (sometimes, I admit, reluctantly). My collections are organized, to a degree.

Now that I live in a house with storage space, on every drive up from Atlanta, my parents bring along one or two of those memory-filled boxes. They are determined, little by little, to win back some space in their home, while mine becomes more cluttered. This Christmas, a battered file box labeled Middle School arrived with them. Its timing was perfect. It offered a window onto my early teen years, when I was my daughter’s age. And it proves that my memory is not altogether unreliable.

My seventh grade year coincided with the desegregation of the Atlanta Public Schools. This was accomplished, I am glad to say, without the riotous tumult that occurred in certain cities (not all of them southern—Boston comes to mind). The perceived threat of greater diversity prompted a few families to flee our in-town neighborhood for distant suburbs. But we would stay the course, as would most of my friends. This was no time to pull up roots so recently planted, roots that were just beginning to flourish. We believed in equal rights for all people, and we were in this together.

We were bused to a newly created middle school adjacent to the Georgia Tech campus. Previously a high school, it was a massive, rambling, red brick structure built in 1922. Impressive, yet down-at-the-heels, it would have made a spectacularly atmospheric haunted house. I can see it as the architectural star of American Horror Story: Schoolhouse.  Even now I have the occasional eerie dream that I’m lost in the shadowy recesses of the sub-basement, or peering out from a broken window in a third-floor classroom. If the details are vague, the spirit of the place remains very much alive in my mind.

The life that teemed within the walls was equally unique. The school brought together a diverse young population. We spanned every spectrum. There were kids from the grand old homes of Ansley Park, from Techwood Homes, the country’s first public housing project, and from every Atlanta neighborhood in between. All of the major ethnic groups were represented, as were many of the more obscure ones. For most of us, it was the first time we were outside our own comfortably familiar environment. For all of us, it was an adventure. A nearly unforgettable one, as my memorabilia box confirms.

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My 7th-grade schedule.

 

 

A blog about motherhood, marriage and life: the joys and frustrations, beauty and absurdity, blessings and pain. It's about looking back, looking ahead, and walking the dog.