Story Time With Bomb Volume 2...Hard Knock Life: The Truths You Find While Truant
In the fall at age 8, during the Orwellian year in which I first experienced death, directly and up close, my parents moved me from private to public school in time for that third-grade fall. My grandfather on my mother’s side who was one of my first in-the-flesh idols, over the course of my early childhood, was like many before and after him, in the throes of a prolonged losing battle with cancer.
He would ultimately become my first real confrontation with mortality. I started at the new school at the top of September, just as fate determined he would not make it through that month.
And while the walk to the new school, rather than a thirty minute bus ride, was now set to be just a quick stroll through the mini-mall parking lot while the class I was put into in hindsight contained at least least a couple of the kids that back then and still now would prove to be among the very best friends any man could be blessed to have……the truth was I genuinely hated that place, at least initially.
Over the course of that first or month two, it was not uncommon for a then Young Bambino to begin quietly crying for no real reason until someone would spot me, then point it out to the teacher at which point I'd get pulled outside to be fussed over, despite the fact that my tears routinely stopped instantly once I'd been scoped out anyway.
That's not to imply that third-grade at my new school was all bad, at least occasionally we'd be able to use the record player.
Sometimes kids were allowed to bring albums in for play but even if that hadn't been a bring-your-favorite-record-day Ms. Voss always had 'Thriller' on deck anyway. Our class' shared introduction on the first day of school was Ms. Voss regaling us with tales of Michael Jackson & his brothers' 'Victory' tour stop at JFK Stadium in Philly a couple nights earlier.
She must have still been basking in the afterglow of seeing MJ in his prime, none of us snotty-nosed kids (some of whom were parroting an older sibling or a parent who'd begun to buy into the backlash, grousing about high ticket prices on that tour or making a Pepsi burn joke) could tell Ms. Voss a bad word about Michael Jackson from Day One in September of 1984, until summer mercifully came, some ten months later, in late June of 1985.
In addition to playing records, that tiny freckle-faced red-headed girl in the pigtails with her designer-polo-shirt, which she wore with the collars popped up who sat beside me talking so excitedly (and incessantly) in my direction that I wondered when she had a chance to breathe, was bizarrely intriguing for reasons then-somewhat-unknown.
Meanwhile, my best friend from my first season of Little League at 6 was in the back, primed to launch an eraser out an open-window as soon as the teacher turned away, which in the moment was the height of hilarity.
All of these thoughts were bubbling around in my young brain for that first week or two, until one morning I just said 'eff this I'm not going'. Knowing my parents would not understand my choice, I determined (like many times to follow for better or worse) that they must be left out of the decision-making process.
I got up as usual, then went thru the obligatory early morning routine, walked outside to meet my best-friend next door, along with the girl across the street who walked to school with us. When we arrived into the sea of children heading towards the entrances, I surreptitiously slowed my pace. Once behind them just far enough, pausing as they both continued in, making sure not to attract attention to myself, as I began walking back in the other direction, towards my house, but then stopping short in the parking lot across the street, camouflaged by a parked car along with a nearby bush. Once there I waited out the next 10-15 minutes or so, before my mom's car was preparing (likely five minutes late and in a purposeful rush) to pull out of the driveway, then head towards her office down the road in Camden.
Having averted her line of vision until she was around the corner, heading down Haddon Avenue towards the New Jersey State Employment Office, with renewed swagger I strolled right back across the street to the house I had awoke and just left, only to arrive right back at my front door, before realizing that my plan was fundamentally flawed: our house was never left unlocked when unattended.
So now being forced to figure out what the hell I was going to do, over the course of the next eight hours as an unchaperoned eight-year-old, with only a lowly single note of US Currency with George Washington’s face on it to be the dead president to represent me.
Problems began piling up and applying pressure to my young dome:
I couldn't sit on the porch because a neighbor would see me.
Couldn't go to the Acme grocery store, directly behind the house to buy candy or a TV Guide to read, mostly because the manager knew me from my many trips sent there with a list, trying to play like I was grown from about five years old on, and would inevitably ask me where my parents are or why I wasn't in school on a weekday at 9-10 AM. My looking-into-an-adult’s-face-and-lying-directly-into-it ability had not yet been fully formed. We were likely closer to 13 before we began beating on that particular piñata of progression and/or transgression.
Eventually, I made my way to the CVS where teenagers who didn't care about shit worked behind the counter. It was there that I ended up buying a 'Get Well' card for Granddad, along with some Bazooka Joe's with whatever change remained. The young buck logic in me had deduced that gum could keep my mouth busy for a while, with no one to talk to, plus I'd have some comics to examine.
At some point I suppose the school attendance-office called, as a formality, to confirm with my mom that I was sick or had some other legitimate reason to not be present, which she had just forgotten to inform them about. Meanwhile she had to have been wondering what on earth that woman from the school was talking about, that her son wasn't in school, seeing as how like the good mother that she is had watched him walk there with her own eyes, just a couple hours earlier that day. At some point as a courtesy, despite not being missing long enough to warrant a report, a representative from the police department around the corner, did decide to check if I was actually at the house, but from the backyard I could see them first, and naturally in a skill I'd go on to develop further over the years, when I saw policeman first, I did my best to make sure they didn’t see me second.
Knowing trouble surely awaited if I was stuck in a situation that had me talking to a police officer, instinctively knowing all the secret passage ways around the premises like Emmanuel Lewis as Webster did around his adoptive parents M’am and George’s, I managed to find a small narrow space, between the far side of the woodshed, alongside the wood fence separating our property from the one next door, then squeezed my 48-pound truant truss into the gap.
Soon I could hear the sounds of the walkie-talkie squawking and heard the cop's footsteps across the bricks…….oh sh*t.
I began working on controlling my breathing through my nose to make as little noise as possible.
The cop walked back, presumably looked around for a bit, then finally made his way to the far side of the backyard where he was now, just a scant few feet from my hiding spot, but somehow never checked the gap on the far side of the shed. I'm not sure what he was looking at, since by that point I reflexively had my eyes closed, just in case my blinks were audible as well I suppose.
At last, after what felt like forever, but was likely approximately the same amount of time a beat cop from my town spent on anything remotely worthwhile during my time as a child, I heard him walk away & then mutter something into his radio before leaving the yard.
Waited longer until I heard his squad car crunching against the rocks in the driveway, then waited still another full minute or two, just in case he took the back-way out through the Acme parking lot, where I could still be seen if I re-surfaced too soon.
Once the sufficient amount of time passed I sprang back out from the tight space, let loose with a long exhale of relief, then returned to my safe place, in a purgatory of boredom on the steps of the back porch. Because while the drama had died down, the levels of excitement (even of the scared/nervous variety) had dissipated, and any Ferris Bueller-like fantastical dreams that might have been brought about by my short-sighted scheme had all but disintegrated.
Almost as soon as those bargaining thoughts of inevitable failure began to arrive inside my brain, I started to hear the sounds of a diesel engine in the distance, probably a block or so away, but audibly increasing in volume which could only mean one thing: NANA.
My ears had, by then, become trained to hear the sounds of my grandmother's old diesel-engine, an old four-door coffee-with-two-creams-colored 1976 W123D Mercedes-Benz, which she had bought a year or so earlier, in hopes that my grandfather/her-husband and by extension herself would enjoy it.
We both were frozen in the headlights of a raw deal in that regard, but as I was only beginning to discover, she had long since learned, beginning at the tender age of 12 in losing her father due to a high-ladder accident on the upstate New York farm that they grew up upon, leaving her older brother Bud to replace him, as her favorite person in life until my grandfather was to come along, for a few decades before the cancer started to come on.
**Anyway to paraphrase The Biz, forget about that let’s get back to the story (I share both my nana’s otherwise unrivaled ability for recall as well as non sequitur) about that chugging diesel car driven by a woman that adored me**
The vehicle certainly looked classy even if the interior had far less accouterments than my pop's '82 Ford EXP and didn't so much 'purr' as it did squeal/vibrate in rhythmic unison.
Sure enough, the diesel got louder & louder, reaching a crackling chugging crescendo as it entered the driveway, accompanied by the shifting of tires against its small jagged rocks, before both sounds stopped altogether.
I could first hear Nana's voice, but then realized she had to be talking to somebody, which shortly afterwards I recognized as my Aunt Mary's. Not sure what the topic of conversation was, but through the gift of deductive reasoning and self-awareness, started to figure that I very likely might have been the subject.
I slunk back to my newly designated hidden place, to wait for this wave to pass like the last, although feeling a bit guiltier about it since this was not some police officer I didn't want or need to meet, but a couple of loving core members of my extended family.
Perhaps being family was what enabled this particular sleuth tag-team search-party to almost immediately find me tucked away, in between the toolshed and the fence, less than thirty seconds or so after that damn diesel engine had finally ceased rumbling into park.
It was all over now. I can't really recall their exact words upon discovery but the tone seemed to be more bemused than berating, while they then demanded I come out from the uncomfortable shed/fence sandwich I had formed, but before doing so loving warned me to do so slowly, since neither of them could actually fit in there, to pull my young and dumb, defiantly third-grade-truant ass out themselves.
Further inquiries as to my mental state slowed once they saw a card-and-envelope protruding from the inside of my windbreaker, and then read the content of the still-unsigned item. My aunt gave my grandmother a look before passing it to her, then they had a quick mother/daughter exchange in a neutral corner, just out of earshot, before determining that rather than go back to my school-day in progress, past the lunchtime hour, that we'd all go to Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Camden to visit Granddad.
When I got there he looked gaunter then ever, laying in his hospital bed, it was the first time I remember thinking he looked like someone might beat him in arm wrestling, which was a feat never witnessed at his house, even by his 29-year-old twin sons (who had been collegiate scholarship athletes, one in football and the other in basketball).
As recently as earlier that calendar year, when the challenges had been issued, I had been honored to drop the hammer on the coffee table, once both parties were positioned and set to give the long-reigning champ a proper go.
But by this day in September of 1984? Yeah, they'd have gotten him.
This frail shrinking man didn't even look that much like my grandfather anymore, but he was still in there despite the pounds he had shed, still happy to see me, and immediately garnered the strength to adjust himself, from his horizontal and tube-tied position, to sit up a bit to greet his young surprise visitor, in the middle of what was scheduled to be a school day. We visited for a stretch, first me solo then joined by his wife and daughter once they got back from the cafeteria.
All the other stuff (my parents explaining to me why what I'd done was wrong later that night, Ms. Voss seeming overly concerned with me the next morning in school, the girl across the street's mom eyeing me suspiciously as we set out the following morning, Ms. Voss seeming overly concerned with my movements that day at school) passed in a blur but that afternoon was the last time I'd ever see my grandfather, which means no amount of missed class on times tables could divide my feelings on how glad that I was then, and remain today, to have it.
In a very real way, the universe rewarded me for deliberately doing something I knew, even back then, was wrong by any technical/objective interpretation of 'rules'. That's a dangerous lesson to learn at a young, impressionable age. Probably got me into trouble more than a few times in the years to come, particularly in my 'I've got it all figured out, fuck off' stretch, which likely lasted a good ten years (estimate 14/15 through 24/25) in its full-fevered outbreak form.
Soon cancer, which he'd already fought off once prior to my arrival on the planet, both fairly clearly traced back to the asbestos he was exposed to in 20+ years working on the plant floor of Berlin, New Jersey's Owens-Corning Fiberglass Insulation, claimed another victim in my grandfather: a proud, tough old dude, who walked from his home to stand in attendance at nearly every Little League *practice* 'not a game'(c)AI that my squad had that spring, despite the growing objections of his grown children, because his firstborn grandson (he'd go on to have 12 grandkids, most of whom he would never meet) that he'd taught to grip a baseball, was playing on a field less than half a mile away.
My grandmother is now 97 years young, sharp as a tack, and I tell her every time that we speak that I need her to give me 120 and then we can perhaps sit down to re-assess quality of life at that point.
And while we both smile and laugh each time that joke gets rehashed, deep down I know, like even me, she must from time to time feel like she’s drifting closer and closer to a reunion with the spirit.
But until then, for all those gone since then or who might again, much like that old diesel Benz, I promise in these pages to keep my heart chug-a-lugging loud enough for both of them to hear it.