Friday, July 17, 2015

Chapter 6: Turdlock

Chapter 6: Turdlock

I think I was in the fifth grade when we moved to O-Town. We moved midway through the school year, so I finished that grade at Eastside Elementary School, in a quaint little old building that was probably built by the WPA during the Great Depression. It was “kitty-corner” from the high school I would later attend. Our new house was only a few blocks away, which was mighty convenient.

There is a funny aside about that house. Even though our family consisted of just me and my parents by this time, my mom wanted a three bedroom house. She had really enjoyed having an extra room in LA for her many arts and crafts projects, and wished to continue to have that. My dad went up to O-Town first for work and house searching. He found what he said was a suitable home. It was a funny little cinder block affair on a corner lot, with a small backyard and a couple of grapefruit trees in a side yard. It had a detached garaged and a covered patio, not unlike our short-lived home in LA. When my mom and I arrived, my dad was showing us around our new home. My mom asked, “Where's the third bedroom?” My dad expressed surprise, saying that he could have sworn there was a third bedroom. I thought it was funny at the time that he could make such a silly mistake, but years later I figured out that he must have just decided we only needed two bedrooms, and had told my mom a bald-faced lie, which she had no choice but to accept.

Another weird thing about that house, beside the missing bedroom, was the deceased lady in the garage. The old couple my dad had bought the house from hadn't yet finished moving all their stuff, which was stored in the garage. One day we were snooping around their stuff. My dad found a small parcel which had a label stating that it was the final remains of a woman who shared the last name of the former owners. Of course, it was her ashes, but my dad just had to say, “There's a dead woman in this box.” I was horrified. It was a very long time before I summoned up the courage to enter that garage alone, even after the former owners had carted off their relative.

I started sixth grade at Bird Street school. I was about to guess as to that building's age, but luckily I remembered there is this thing called the internet. Now I know that it was built in 1912, and it looked it. It was an imposingly grim two-story monstrosity. My classroom was on the second floor. There were sections of that floor that were off-limits to students, apparently because they weren't exactly structurally sound anymore.

There was nothing too remarkable about any of my grade school years. School and I were never a good fit. I was smart, but I was hyperactive. In fact, as far back as my early years at San Luis Obispo, I had been diagnosed with what was then called “hyperkinetic impulse disorder” (thanks again, Internet buddy). The doctors or psychologists or whatever they were wanted me to take Ritalin. My father, however, adamantly refused. I don't know if his decision was well thought-out or just his usual knee-jerk opposition to drugs of any kind. In retrospect, whatever his intentions were, I think he did me a favor.

In San Luis Obispo, I used to get out of class periodically to attend special classes with other, “hyperkinetic” kids (all boys, of course). I can't recall what exactly went on during those sessions, but I think they were trying to teach us concentration skills or something to help us cope and learn. Those teachers must have had the patience of saints, because the proceedings often devolved into an orgy of giggling and screaming little nerds.

I also had a series of tasks I had to practice at home with my mom. One I recall involved her rolling a tennis ball across the table. My task was to follow the ball with my eyes. My eyeballs, of course, wanted to jump ahead to the far edge of the table in anticipation of the ball's inevitable fall. I really couldn't see the sense of watching it roll boringly along. I wanted a good seat for the real action. I tried to be good and do as I was told, but it wasn't easy. I really can't say whether that or any of the other forgotten exercises I performed helped me, but I hope so, at least for the sake of the memory of those anonymous, well-meaning childhood education specialists.

Despite the efforts of those forgotten heroes, in sixth grade I was still a spaz, a class clown and a frequent disrupter of other children's education. I spent a lot of time sitting in the vast and gloomy hallway outside my classroom, ostensibly to think about my behavior. In reality, I was enjoying a refreshing break from the drudgery of compulsory education. I suspect my teacher was also enjoying a break from me. A win-win, in my book.

As the school year wound towards summer vacation, all of us sixth graders looked ahead to...(cue dramatic stinger)...junior high school with fear and loathing. This is probably common for most school children, but we had heard stories from our peers (who, of course, had older siblings who knew a kid know how it goes) about the torments and savage beatings awaiting us at the hands of cruel, gigantic eighth graders.

I tried to put these thoughts out of my mind as I contemplated my upcoming school holiday. This year was going to be different from my usual carefree summers. Well, it turned out to still be fairly carefree, but I was going to be spending most of it in Turlock, California.

My dad was working on a freeway project down there. He was staying in a large travel trailer he had bought for that purpose (we never went traveling in it, since we already had the good old motor home) on the job site. I guess it was appropriate that my mom and I should come down there for the summer, rather than my dad having to drive home every weekend, as he usually did during the school year. I rather suspect, though, that my dad didn't fancy the idea of the two of us lounging about in air-conditioned comfort while he slaved away to support us. In fact, I know so, because years later my dad actually said to me words very similar to those about my mom when he and I were alone.

So it had been decided that we would journey down to Turlock the very first day of summer vacation. I guess my dad couldn't wait to start the torture. I had already accepted my summer fate, but there was a new development in my life which suddenly made it seem truly tortuous: I had started to notice girls in a big way. Liking certain members of the opposite sex was nothing new to me. Back in first or second grade, I was quite smitten with a dark-haired cutey named Jane. One day, I was told to pass out papers to my classmates. As I came alongside Jane's desk, I guess my impulse disorder got the better of me, for I suddenly bent down and planted a big smacker on the top of her adorable little head. Needless to say, there was a huge uproar in the class. It took me a long time to live that one down.

In sixth grade, however, girls suddenly took on a greater significance. I had a terrible crush on one particular brunette (what is up with that?) classmate named Jeanette (maybe it's the “J” names -guess what Mrs. Rimpington's first name starts with). On the last day of school, Jeanette and her plump cousin came up to me and asked me if I wanted to play tennis with them the next day. I had never played tennis in my life, but here was my crush wanting to spend time with me. I was overjoyed. I readily agreed, then suddenly remembered that on the morrow I would be wending my way to Turlock. I sadly informed them of this, and silently cursed my father. That was a classic example of a “what if” moment that life sometimes hands you.

It was certainly different spending my summer vacation on a dirt lot next to a future freeway, surrounded by trucks and hopper trailers. The trailer was roomy and cool, and our family camper, which was parked next to it, was my bedroom. This was good, because it gave me lots of privacy at night to practice a new hobby I had picked up, one that dove-tailed nicely with my increased interest in females.

We had a tarp stretched between the two recreational vehicles to form a sort of covered patio area. There was no television, and at first I missed it, but I quickly adapted to its absence. I had always enjoyed reading, and my mom and I made regular trips to the local library for new material.

I created a way to earn money by going around the construction site, collecting discarded aluminum cans. I would redeem them for cash, which enabled me to religiously purchase the latest copy of Mad Magazine (and it's weaker competitor  - Cracked - for good measure) as soon as it hit the stands. Back then I thought I would like to be a cartoonist, and I spent a lot of time working on my own shamelessly ripped-off versions of Mad's movie parodies. I also tried to build a balsa wood model airplane, but that never got much further than the wings.

Most days, when my dad got off work, we would drive a short distance to one of the many cement-lined irrigation ditches in the area for a swim. On weekends my mom would go, too. I also got to go to a real pool in town frequently.

All in all, it wasn't a bad existence. My sister Buff and her husband Roy, and his two sons, Doug and Corey – who were about my age - came down one time to visit us. The two boys couldn't comprehend how I could possibly survive without television. By then, I had stopped even thinking about it, and I found their shock and awe both amusing and flattering.

My mom and I made occasional trips up to O-Town to check on the house and what not. At the beginning of summer, some pumpkin vines were just beginning to sprout in the backyard. I don't remember if we had planted them, or if they were volunteers. I guess the next door neighbors were keeping the yard watered. On each infrequent trip home, we would find that the vines had taken over more of the backyard, and then finally the whole patio. By the end of the summer, we had quite an impressive crop of jolly orange orbs.

But getting back to life on the truck lot. As I said, I was able to keep myself fairly well entertained. The only really bad part of my life there was the people poop I had to deal with. Being a truck yard, it was of course lacking in some of the usual amenities one might find at a place where people park travel trailers. We of course had electricity, and fresh water coming into the trailer, but no place for our waste water to go, except into the holding tank for such filth, and from there into a galvanized wash tub (the kind that cute kids wash a large family dog in) under the trailer.

Using a back hoe, my dad had dug a burn pit for the truck yard's and our trash. It was one of my chores to periodically pull a handle under the trailer's bathroom, which emptied the holding tank into the tub. I then had to drug the foul-smelling tub several yards to the edge of the pit and dump it in. The liquid would soak into the ground, and I guess the solids would kind of dry out until the weekly burning. Yeah, I know  - gross. If anyone involved in the trucking company knew what we were doing, they must not have cared. It's just a good thing no local health official caught on.

The worst part of the shit tub (after the smell of my and my parent's fermented shit and piss) was its weight. I don't know how many gallons it held, but it was fucking heavy. It smelled so bad that I couldn't get close enough to it to grab it by one of its little handles. Besides, it was usually so full that some shit-water always slopped over the sides, precluding direct contact. I had some kind of length of iron with a flat piece of metal welded onto the end that I could hook over the edge of the tub to drag it. I think my dad made that up specially to aid me with my chore. Why he couldn't have just purchased a length of RV septic hose that would have reached the burn pit, or made some sort of wheeled conveyence for the  cart, I didn't wonder until years later. I think it was all just part of some lesson he was trying to teach me, or else he was just getting a sadistic kick out of watching me struggle with a shit bucket that probably weighed more than I did.

There was a one-time incident in Turlock which also made me wonder if my parents always had my best interests at heart. My dad was trying to set up a canopy over his work area for shade, similar to our tarp patio over our miniature hillbilly trailer park. He had managed to get a parachute from somewhere, and he had welded together several tall poles out of pipes attached to truck tire rims. He was planning to suspend the tarp between the poles and anchor it to the ground with ropes and stakes, kind of like a circus tent. He was working on this project after hours, so he only had my mom and I for help. Helping my dad with any kind of project was never pleasant, because it usually involved getting yelled at.

My mom and I were tasked with pulling back on the ropes to keep tension on the structure, while my dad did the same on his side, whilst also trying to manage all the other intricacies of the project. This was definitely something he should have been doing with other big, strong men who understood how things work, and not with a nervous middle-aged woman and boy.

One of the poles started to fall right at me. In the interest of self-preservation, I let go of my rope and jumped out of the way. Of course, this caused the pole I was supporting to topple. My dad was furious, and demanded to know why I had abandoned my post (heh heh). I tried to explain, but he wouldn't have it. My mom whispered to me, “Oh, it wouldn't have hurt that much.”

I was flabbergasted. I thought my mom always had my back. However, she had recently begun talking to me about how she was afraid that I was fast approaching an age - like my brothers before me had done - when I would start fighting with my dad. She told me of the terrible rows my dad and brothers had gotten into, and how she didn't think she could stand to live through another period like that. I didn't want to upset my mother, so I think I made a partly-conscious decision right then and there to be passive with my dad. Being passive was already in my nature, but my mom's distress made it seem of vital importance.

The day of the tent pole incident, I wasn't yet old enough to consider fighting with my dad over such a ridiculous point, although I suppose it would have been better for me had I stood up for myself a little more. After that evening, though, I realized that my mom actually seemed willing to disregard my welfare in exchange for some sort of peace in her relationship with her husband.

I think this was one of the first times I realized that my parents were just humans, and pretty flawed ones at that. I haven't had any jobs that were quite as nasty as dragging that shit bucket (with the possible exception of job # 76 – Osmosis), but it gave me an unpleasant foretaste of what life in the workaday world might be like.

The End

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