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.
Quality. Oakley Elementary, where I attended sixth, seventh and eighth grades, 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 after school exploratory trips up into the attic. It was littered with detritus from bygone projects, classes and labs, covered with dust. I made one especially delicious find: an ebony piccolo. At least I think that's what it was. Maybe a fife? It had mostly plain open holes, with just a couple of metal keys. A traverso, at any rate. It was in a rounded case that looked like an oversize eyeglass case. The case was lined with worn blue velvet and there was a swab to pull through to dry it. I stole it without hesitation, and spent many hours over the years trying to get a good sound out it, with modest success. I kept it in my sax case, as if I were carrying a spare. It got me interested in flutes. Years later in Melbourne I bought a beat up Bundy student flute and found a teacher for some lessons. She had me struggling my way through a book of Handel flute sonatas. I was still actively working on my sonatas when I entered FPC, and a girl I had a crush on took pity on me, struggling to get a decent tone out of that Bundy. She brought me hers to try out, a solid silver Gemeinhardt. I was scared to even touch it, but with her encouragement I put it together, warmed it up, and blew a G♯. The tone blew my mind. It felt vibrantly alive in my hands. I was in love, and not just with her. She was an accomplished flautist who had lost interest in playing, and she was fine with me keeping it to play on for the next four years. Oddly enough the same thing happened to me in Boulder, with saxophones. My Martin sax had gotten the worse for wear over a couple of decades, and a fellow Harmonizing student was a much more serious sax man than I ever got to be. He hadn't really lost interest, but gigging was, as we said, not good for his process, so his Selmer Mark VIs lay idle. I had become fixated on the soprano saxophone thanks to Paul Horn and I easily convinced him to lend me his Selmer. Like the Gemeinhardt it had an incredibly sweet tone. But I found it maddeningly hard to play. I got as many squeaks and squeals out of it as sweet tones. Still, lots of fun to goof around with, especially in my Salida days.
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. My target was 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. 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. I didn't mind a little bit, say a thin milk chocolate shell on a candy easter egg, but I preferred eggs with a pinkish covering, strawberry flavored. I especially disliked chocolate ice cream. 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 loved to pig out on Breyer's vanilla ice cream with the specks. I acquired a taste for chocolate after we moved to Kenya, when I discovered Cadbury bars. Not to mention booze and pot. Acquired tastes all.
Reading with candy. After more wandering I'd go back to the library to replenish my book stash before taking the bus back home. I'd collect other sweets, in addition to the creamy mint patties, either downtown or at a feed store/general store a few blocks from my house, where I got pink bubblegum cigars and old fashioned penny candies like horehound drops. I made sure I had a good stash of assorted candies before I settled in to read. 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. I think it was sever or eight. 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 books. All the Rudyard Kipling I could find. My tastes in literature eventually 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 growing vegetables, which 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. My 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, within walking distance. I didn't last long with piano lessons. I sure wish I'd stuck with it. I was actually most interested in getting her to play Autumn Leaves for me. I had purchased 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 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: Hold that Tiger and Tico Tico 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 harder to leave Asheville.
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.
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! I got to reprise some of that fun 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. 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 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.