Table of Contents

Asheville North Carolina

Alone. In seventh grade, at Oakley Elementary School in Asheville North Carolina, I had two nicknames: Tubalard and Fess, short for Professor. I was fat and smart, two strikes against me. Some fat kids were good with sports, but for me choosing up sides was like, OK, I'll take Tubalard but you have to take the Gimp AND Arnold. Poor Arnold. I think that was the year President Kennedy's fitness initiative came to our school. We were lined up and publicly humiliated I mean tested: situps, pushups, fifty yard dash, softball throw. Especially the throw: one at a time, while everyone else watches. I learned to rely on myself in Asheville because I didn't fit in. But I was OK. I did things alone; I loved being alone. There was no such thing as introversion back then, I was just a shy fat kid with no friends. I loved being out in nature. I did a lot of things I now see were meditation. It was a shock moving to Oakley from Riverside Elementary in Marianna. The crux of that: at Riverside, we had recess. At Oakley we had phys ed.

Schoolhouse gothic. Oakley Elementary, where I attended grades six, seven and eight, was an old classic. The hallways were dark; there was no antiseptic fluorescent lighting, just inadequate incandescent fixtures dangling by their cords. The janitor oiled the dark wood floors with something that smelled intensely of banana. The desks had tops you could lift and inkwells, and the doodles and scratchings of generations of pupils. The chalkboard was real slate of an indeterminate bluish black; the coat closet stretched the width of the room with a door at each end so we could simply file through as we arrived and departed. I developed a love of old buildings when I explored the First Methodist Church in Marianna, so I soon took to exploring my school building. I hit the jackpot in the attic. No ingenuity or derring-do required. I saw a rope dangling from the ceiling of the little-used third floor. I pulled the rope and a slanting ladder came down. Over the next few months I made many after school exploratory trips up into the attic, which was the full size of the building but with outer walls only a couple feet high under the sloping roof. Decades of forgotten projects and class materials had been shoved back against the wall by more recent decades. I made one especially delicious find: an ebony piccolo. It had mostly open holes, with just a few metal keys. It was in a rounded case like an oversize eyeglass case. The case was lined with worn blue velvet and it had that wonderful scent you only find in musical instrument cases. There was a swab on a chain to pull through to dry the inside. I stole that long abandoned piccolo without hesitation, and spent many hours over the years trying to coax a decent sound out it, with modest success. I carried it in my sax case, as if I were carrying a spare, although I only ever played it by myself. Exploring the attic was the best thing I ever did at Oakley Elementary. Except maybe learn to play the saxophone.

Poetry. Every year we got a Christmas card from Robert Frost. He was a somewhat distant relative on my father's side. The card took the form of a chapbook, a little saddle-stitched booklet containing one of his poems, very nicely printed. I don't remember which poems; longer ones, I guess. I remember reading Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening; that could have been one, though it's a bit short for a chapbook. I did get rather taken by that poem, with its dreamy repetition and imagery. We read it in school when Mrs. Williams was introducing poetry to us seventh grade heathens. We also read E.E. Cummings's [in Just-] in seventh grade, and I was delighted by the playful typography and juicy images of someone's seemingly carefree childhood. Mrs. Williams encouraged me, lending me a hardcover collection of Cummings's poetry, which I devoured. I put several of his books on my birthday/Christmas list, and my parents happily supported my growing interest in his subversive, erotic poetry, none the wiser. I discovered The Enormous Room in the card catalog: wait, here's another book by Cummings? Not in the poetry section? Like most of his poetry it went far over my head, but I was riveted. Cummings became a friend of sorts, a touchstone, and when I fell in love for the first time, in Kenya, it began with i carry your heart with me(i carry it in and ended with it may not always be so; and i say.

Dating myself. It's not surprising I was fat; I was a candy fiend. I liked nothing better than to curl up with a book and a bag of assorted candy and gum. Every Saturday I had a date with myself: I would take the bus downtown. Riding all by myself all the way through Biltmore Village into downtown Asheville was a grand adventure. The map tells me it's not even five miles, but in my young eyes it was an expedition. On the way into downtown Asheville the bus went up a long hill right before it got where I was headed. On the way up that hill it passed the pawn shop. I'd start with the public library because I'd be carrying a big load of books from last time. My load lightened, I was free to wander around, and I'd explore downtown Asheville. When I got hungry I'd go to Woolworth's Luncheonette and sit in a booth, hiding out next to the wall. I always ordered the same thing, a fish sandwich and a cherry coke. The fish sandwich seemed so much classier than a burger, I think because my mom ordered it one time when I went there with her. A breaded square of white fish fried up on the grill, served on a soft burger bun with dill pickle, lettuce, and tartar sauce. Looks like they don't serve that anymore. Then I'd go to a department store. Through the revolving door and up the escalator, sharp left then left again to the candy counter. I was headed for the creamy mint patties. Smooth on top with a zigzag texture on the bottom, sharp ridges and valleys. Pastel colors: mint green, orange, pink and cream. Spearmint, peppermint, wintergreen, citrus. Sold by the pound from behind a glass counter. I loved those mints. They melted in my mouth. After I was all done with wandering, shopping and lunch I'd go back to the library to replenish my book stash before taking the bus back home.

No chocolate. I didn't like chocolate as a kid. I didn't mind a little bit, say chocolate chip cookies still warm from the oven and the chocolate's all melty, or a chocolate shell on a candy easter egg, but I preferred eggs with non-chocolate covering. Chocolate ice cream was the worst. The bitterness of chocolate ruined good ice cream. I was a vanilla kid when it came to ice cream. Maybe a little strawberry or butter pecan, but vanilla was the best. As an adult I would buy a carton of Breyer's vanilla ice cream with the specks and eat it straight out of the carton in one sitting. I finally acquired a taste for chocolate after we moved to Kenya, when I discovered Cadbury bars and After Eights. Not to mention alcohol and pot. Acquired tastes all.

Reading with candy. I prepared myself for a week of spending my free time reading by stocking up on books and sweets. In addition to the creamy mint patties I collected lots of other sweets either downtown or at an old fashioned feed store a few blocks from 50 Greenwood Road. It was a classic feed & seed that the city had overtaken, and it still catered to some actual farmers among the suburban weekend warriors. It had that smell that only feed stores have, and they sold chicks of many varieties and other small livestock. It also had a huge selection of old fashioned candies for sale by the piece. There I got bubblegum, including pink bubblegum cigars, candy cigarettes, and little wax bottles with fruity syrup inside. Also old fashioned penny candies like horehound and lemon drops. I preferred lying on the carpet to any kind of chair, desk etc. My taste in books was influenced by The Swiss Family Robinson, which was in our family library and a very early read; I was seven the first time. I used to know how many times I read it because I kept score on the endpaper. At least seven or eight times. I identified with Ernest, the smartest son, the least athletic one; go figure. I read outdoor adventure and animal books: Jim Kjelgaard's Big Red, Irish Red, Outlaw Red. The Call of the Wild and Misty of Chincoteague. Nancy Drew mysteries. Laura Ingalls Wilder. All the Doctor Dolittle, all the Rudyard Kipling. My tastes in literature slowly evolved, a mixed blessing.

Family help. I was a fat loner sugar fiend with no friends, but I had a good life; I was OK. I got lots of help from my parents, especially my dad. He had turned me on to classical music in the 1950s, and he made sure I got some real live highbrow culture now that we were in a city that had some. He got season tickets to monthly shows: plays, operas, and symphony orchestras. The classical music I already loved; now I was charmed by Hamlet, Amahl and the Night Visitors, Julius Caesar, La bohème. He got me started vegetable gardening. We often went for Sunday drives along the Blue Ridge Parkway as a family. We'd drive until we found a scenic trailhead. He and I would hike up the trail while Mom strolled near the car. Our favorite spot was Craggy Gardens, a high heathery area not far from Asheville. After the hike I'd find a nook with a good view to settle into and soak up the beauty to the sound of trickling streamlets. I had several moments of spontaneous presence in the mist. I was talking to the fairies. Mom actively supported my interest in music. Soon after we arrived she arranged for me to have piano lessons with a woman who taught in our neighborhood. I didn't last long with the lessons, but they got me started learning the language of music. I was actually most interested in getting my teacher to play Autumn Leaves for me. For some reason I'd bought the sheet music to a piano solo version full of shimmering arpeggios and broken chords, light years beyond anything I could even begin to work on. She steadfastly refused, sensibly aiming me back at my scales and baby beginner songs. On my last visit, when she knew I was giving up piano, she relented and sight read my request. I was transported. It would be decades before I discovered it really needed a voice. And what a voice.

Saxophone. I did much better with the saxophone, which I saw as much cooler than piano. Well, actually I picked sax because the band director suggested it. The AC Reynolds Consolidated Junior High School Band, his fictitious entity that groomed junior high musicians headed for Reynolds High School, was weak in that department. My father got a great deal on a used Martin E♭ alto sax in a pawn shop. His frugality was perhaps misguided; it needed a full repad, which probably cost more than the bargain sax. I practiced industriously. My parents never complained about the horrific squawks I made, but they did set hours for music practice. By the time I entered ninth grade I was a decent horn player. I was definitely better than the girl in first chair. But the band director would not allow my proposed challenge. She was a senior, and I but a lowly frosh. She got to finish her high school education without the humiliation of being challenged and maybe beat by the likes of me. I theoretically had three more years to shine. And I did, in my own way, first in Nairobi and then in Melbourne.

Pep band. As a consolation, I got to be in pep band, a small brass combo of elite players. We played at basketball games and pep rallies. The main function of both bands, of course, was to support the athletic program; that's what bands are for, right? Team sports? The marching band was a trip: lots of away games. Alas, I had no one to make out with on the bus. No making out until Kenya. One striking memory: we started practicing our halftime drills in August, when football practice got going. Only we were wearing scratchy wool uniforms in the scorching sun on mid-August Saturdays in the South. I did kind of like marching, in parades and at halftime. Being in band gave me a little status, at least in my own eyes. I even lettered. But not in band. Academics, duh. Marching band was OK, but I adored pep band. We wore comfortable stylish outfits, black slacks and white shirts with bolo ties; I borrowed one from my dad. There were four of us: trumpet, trombone, baritone and sax. We played fun upbeat stuff, a little jazzy: Tico Tico, Goofus, and Hold that Tiger are the ones I recall. The other three guys were upperclassmen, and surprisingly decent fellows. They were all very kind to me. Pep band made it a little harder to leave Asheville; I really fit in with that little combo.

Ace in the hole. As if all that weren't enough, my saxophone won me my first close friend, in Nairobi. And far past that, even though I never stuck with any instrument long enough to get any good, my musical background became my ace in the hole once I took up partner dancing.

Science. Dad fostered my interest in science and nature. He got me a subscription to the Allabout Books. I had most of the books on that page. Maybe all of them. He also got me another kind of subscription, I don't remember the company's name. Every month they sent out some kind of scientific adventure in a box. I grew orthorhombic copper sulphate crystals, ruined a test tube making a stink bomb with iron filings, lit magnesium foil on fire, dyed cloth with logwood, admired the pretty color of potassium permanganate solution, and took a piece of elemental sodium out of mineral oil and dropped it in water. Back then science education was wide open. Don't try this at home, kids. I got to reprise some of that fun at the USCS in Kenya.

Tumbler. When we first moved to Asheville, Dad got us a membership in SAMS: the Southern Appalachian Mineral Society. He was a Rockhound, I was a Pebble Pup. We went on their field trips and started finding cool stuff like crystals, agates and corundum (rubies and sapphires). This led to a whole family craft industry. First Dad built a tumbler. He didn't think much of the commercially available tumblers, so he built his own, subbing out the hefty metalworking bits. The three tumbler barrels were sections of heavy pipe, steel a quarter inch thick. A welder added ridges inside so the stones would tumble. The tops bolted on, and there was a relief valve. Lining up the bearings so the barrels wouldn't take off across the floor took hours working with a micrometer. It was a thing of beauty, an industrial-strength tumbler. Dad never built anything flimsy. The gentle sound of rocks tumbling in the basement became background noise, just part of our family soundtrack.

Lapidary. But we wanted to make things, and tumbled rocks are limited for that, so next Dad got us a lapidary setup to cut cabochons: a diamond blade saw and a 4-wheel grinder. Sanding we did by hand, 220 grit up to 1200. I hated sanding. But I loved the jewelry we made. It was fun to be a jeweler around Christmas. We left it all in storage when we moved to Kenya, and I think my brother ended up with it. I gave away almost all of what I'd made; the thought of wearing jewelry makes me cringe. All I have left are a few bolo ties. Maybe I'll wear one of them someday, and show off my dad's star sapphire.

Coda. My lapidary career had an interesting coda. In the late 1980s I went with my belly-dancing girlfriend Doña to visit her folks in Arkansas. Her dad was an avid rockhound and jeweler with an elaborate setup and tons of slabs just waiting to be cut and polished. He was delighted by my interest, and gave me free rein to use any and all of it. I spent the rest of our time there engrossed, happy to be transported back into that craft. Two of my bolos are picture jasper cabs from that trip.

OK. So despite my execrable diet, utter lack of athletic prowess, and lack of friends, I was doing OK in Asheville. Writing this up helps me understand my intense reluctance to leave. But Nairobi was waiting. Booze in one hand, bangi in the other.