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. I was OK. I did things alone; I loved being alone. There was no 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.
Precious metals. The building I attended sixth, seventh and eighth grades in was an old classic. The hallways were dark; there was no fluorescent lighting. The janitor oiled the dark wood floors with intensely fragrant banana oil. 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, and the coat closet opposite the blackboard stretched the whole width of the room with a door at each end so we could just file through. 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. I got up to the attic via pull-down steps. No ingenuity or derring-do required. There was a rope dangling with a handle at the end so I pulled the rope. Over the next few months I made many trips to to explore the attic. I made one especially delicious find: an ebony piccolo. At least that's what I think it was. It only had a couple of metal keys. Mostly just open holes. It was in a sweet little case that looked like an oversize eyeglass case. It was lined with worn blue velvet and there was a swab for drying after use. With little hesitation I stole it, and spent hours trying to get a good sound out it, with modest success. I kept it, case and all, in my sax case, as if I were carrying a spare. It sparked an interest in flutes. Years later in Melbourne I bought a well-used Bundy student flute and found a teacher for some lessons. She had me working my way through a book of Handel flute sonatas. I kept practicing flute when I entered college, and a girl I had an unrequited crush on took pity on me, struggling with my beat-up Bundy. She lent me hers for the rest of the time we were both at school. She was an accomplished flautist who just lost interest. Her flute was a solid silver Gemeinhardt. The first time I breathed into it that flute felt like it came alive in my hands. Playing it taught me there is something precious about certain precious metals.
Marianna. I loved recess; it was my favorite part of school. Riverside was brand new. I just missed having to bus across town to Golson, the other elementary. I was a Riverside Rat and proud of it. Alas, the Golson Gophers beat us at everything but we were still proud. Riverside was close enough to walk to and I did. When I went on that big hike with my dad we went all the way round Riverside. It was a four block walk to school. Less if I cut through the woods kitty corner to our back yard. I always did, ducking through the pole fence that separated our yard from the back neighbors'. Riverside had the requisite diamond and gridiron, but it also had a large area with trees left standing and all the underbrush cleared so it had an open park-like feel. I never cared for ball games or team sports, so I hung out among the trees with my buddies. There were three of us: me and Joe and Dale; we were like the Three Mouseketeers. Our favorite game, prophetically for me, probably for all three of us, was to play drunk men. We staggered around with our arms on each other's shoulders singing How dry I am. I'm sure we did other stuff, but I do remember drunk men so clearly.
Joe moss. Joe lived in Grand Ridge, fourteen miles east of Marianna. Back then an adventure on the Greyhound bus. I used to go spend weekends with Joe and we'd go swamp walking. Joe's folks ran a motel in Grand Ridge. It's long gone. It was already subsiding into the swamp back then, like something in an Anne Rice novel. Joe's folks' motel backed up to the cypress swamp surrounding Lake Finnely, itself more a swamp than a lake. There were lots of fallen cypress trees slowly decomposing in the swamp. Dad paneled the study with pecky cypress: a fungus eats holes in older cypress trees while they're alive. Old pecky cypress that's soaked in swamp water for decades gets decorated. That's what we had in the den. Swamp water had crept into the wood creating dark curlicues, Arabian Nights designs. My brother sometimes pulled ancient logs and sticks up from mucky bottoms, wood not petrified but black with centuries of soggy age. Those sticks were so hard they just sat there on your table saw making fragrant smoke if you tried to cut them. Even with a brand new carbide tipped saw blade. The same thing seemed to happen to wood under tin. A farmer near Riverhaven knew my dad liked to salvage things so when he was about to tear down an old shed he called Dad and asked if he wanted a crack at it first. Dad jumped at the chance. He assembled me and Tim from Marianna and Tallahassee and we spent the weekend wrecking. I don't know if I've ever done harder physical labor. We got all the good stuff out from inside then climbed up on the roof to salvage the corrugated tin. Something about the wood kept catching my eye as I sweated up there with my nail puller and crow bar. To confirm my suspicion I called Tim over. Yep, the nailers under that tin were oak. Oak that had been baking in the Florida heat under that tin for about a hundred years according to the farmer. Those oak planks were iron hard. You couldn't get a nail in. Once Dad saw them he became obsessed with using them to make a salvaged oak floor for the river house. He had to pre-drill for every screw. When he took a heavy duty floor sander to them they just ate up the coarse sandpaper belts one after the other. He settled for a rustic finish. There was nothing flimsy about the river house. Swamp walking was walking along one fallen tree to another, seeing how far we could go into the swamp without falling in. Joe and I carried a cooking pan that worked as a dry step between logs that were just a bit too far apart. We'd lean out and drop the pan, bottom up, into the muck. It worked as a step if it landed on Joe moss. Joe moss was what we called a prevalent moss that I thought was maybe peat but wasn't sure, so I named it after my friend, Joe instead of Pete.
Date. Back to Asheville. Being all unathletic and fat, I did my best to help my cause by eating vast overloads of sugar; I was a candy fiend. I liked nothing better than to curl up with a book and a bag of candy. Every Saturday I had a date with myself. I would take the bus downtown. 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. My target was the creamy mint patties. Smooth on top, a zigzag texture on the bottom. Sharp ridges and valleys. All pastel colors: mint green, orange, pink and cream. Different mints and citrus. Sold by the pound from behind a glass counter. I loved those mints. They melted in my mouth.
No chocolate. I didn't like chocolate as a kid, especially as an ice cream flavor. The bitterness of chocolate ruined good ice cream. Chocolate syrup was OK. Hot fudge was good. But I was mostly a vanilla kid. I adored Breyer's vanilla ice cream with the specks. Chocolate came later, in Kenya, when I discovered Cadbury bars. And After Eights. And booze. And pot. Those drugs changed my tastes, and not for the better.
Books. After more wandering I'd go back to the library to replenish my book stash. 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 identified with Ernest, the smartest son, the less athletic one; go figure. I read outdoor adventure and animal books: Jim Kjelgaard's Big Red, Irish Red, and Outlaw Red. The Call of the Wild and Misty of Chincoteague. Nancy Drew mysteries. Laura Ingalls Wilder. Hugh Lofting's Doctor Dolittle books. All the Rudyard Kipling I could find.
Family help. My diet was atrocious and I was a fat loner with no friends, but I still had a rich and satisfying life. I got help from my family. Dad was my champion. He got me started growing vegetables, for instance. That was a big boost in Bridle Trails. He took us for drives on the Blue Ridge Parkway, to Craggy Gardens. That was a favorite spot of mine, the scene of spontaneous meditations in the mist. I'd find a spot and just sit there, soaking up the beauty, talking to the fairies.
Highbrow. Dad turned me on to classical music in the 50s, 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: symphony orchestras, plays, and operas. The classical music I already loved; now I was charmed by Hamlet, Amahl and the Night Visitors, Julius Caesar, La bohème.
Piano. My parents supported my interest in music. In sixth grade I started piano lessons with a woman who taught from her home in our neighborhood. I walked to her house. I didn't last long with piano lessons. I sure wish I'd stuck with it. Oh well, next time for sure, eh?
Saxophone. I did better with the saxophone. I picked saxophone because the band director suggested it; he was weak in that department. My father got a deal on a used Martin E♭ alto sax in a pawn shop. His frugality was perhaps misguided; it needed all new pads, which probably cost as much as the 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 she was a senior, and she got to finish her high school education without the humiliation of being challenged and whupped by a lowly freshman.
Pep band. As a consolation, I got to be in pep band. The main function of both bands, of course, was to support the athletic program; that's what bands are for, right? The marching band was a trip: lots of away games. Alas, I didn't have anyone to make out with on the bus. Not till Kenya. One striking memory: we started practicing our halftime drills in August, same as the football players. Only we were wearing scratchy wool uniforms in the scorching sun on mid-August Saturdays. I adored pep band. We wore comfortable stylish uniforms and played at basketball games, sometimes pep rallies. There were four of us: trumpet, trombone, baritone, and sax. We played fun upbeat stuff, a little jazzy: Hold that Tiger and Tico Tico are the ones I recall. The other three guys were upperclassmen, and surprisingly decent fellows. They were all really sweet to me.
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 tho' 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.
Collecting. In Marianna I got interested in collecting rocks and artifacts by walking fields and snorkeling in Spring Creek with my brother, a consummate collector all his life. I found some cool stuff, but I never came close to developing an eye like his. He could walk down a plowed furrow I'd just walked down and come up with three arrowheads I missed. I didn't like walking with my eyes glued to the ground; it made my neck hurt. Snorkeling was better.
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. Try this at home, kids!
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. The sound of rocks tumbling in the basement became 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 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 a 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, pot in the other.