When I was a kid, adolescence was called “The Awkward Years.” I think the awkwardness was due to wanting to belong to some group or other, but not making the cut.
Luckily, it wasn’t an awkward time for me.
It’s not that I was an enlightened being who’d risen above all the petty issues and stupidities of the teen years. Instead, I knew my place in the pantheon of juvenalia – or more exactly, outside the pantheon – and I accepted it.
I was a lousy student and non-existent athlete. I couldn’t sing, play a musical instrument or trip the light fantastic. I was never the life of any party since I never got invited to one … Unlike the science geeks, I wasn’t enthralled by bomb-making. I didn’t smoke, drink or aspire to rascality like the hoods. So there was no group I could belong to, and I was fine with it.
Mostly, I spent my time wrapped in a cocoon of fantasy spun by my “library,” which consisted of Mad and whatever men’s magazines I could scrounge. So living in my make-believe world of goofy satire and macho adventures was a distant remove, if not a full retreat, from what’s commonly accepted as “reality.” Rarely did I acknowledge real world activities, let along get involved in them, a noticeable exception being the Halloween window painting contest of 1959.
Halloween window painting was one of the great traditions of My Home Town. Kids’d team up and ask one of the downtown businesses if they could paint their window. Permission was always granted. Then with poster paints supplied by the school, the windows were painted, admired by one and and all, and then judged. As I recall, the top prize was 10 bucks — a virtual fortune.
The lure of such wealth was irresistible, as it had to be in order for me to try for it: In addition to all my other incompetencies, I couldn’t paint a stroke. But I had a way around that – I’d planned to paint a piece of what would now be considered conceptual art.
And what, you ask, is that?
From what I’ve seen of conceptual art, it’s something the average third-grader can draw but that has a brilliant idea behind it. Or at least that’s the theory. In reality it all looks like something drawn and thought up by the average third-grader.
So I had my idea. Next, I snagged Debbie Robinson as my partner.
Debbie was arguably the prettiest girl in eigth grade, if not all junior high. She was also one of the smartest kids in the class, and, beyond that, a really nice person. So if she had all that going for her, what was she doing with a schlemiel like me? I never knew, but I suspected it was an act of Christian charity on her behalf, maybe some kind of challenge they were given in MYF.
A thousand words …
When we first got together to talk about the window, she asked if I had a specific scene in mind.
“You bet,” I said. “And it won’t the silly crap you see every year.”
“Oh?” she said. “What will it be?”
“I’d rather not explain it,” I said. “You know, a picture being worth a thousand words and all.”
“OK,” she said. “So when will I see it?”
“I’ll draw up a rough draft tonight and then show it to you tomorrow, if that’s all right,” I said.
“Sure,” she said, “that’s fine.”
True to my word, I did the rough draft, staying up till the wee hours to finish it. I’d say it made me sacrifice doing all my homework, but that’d be a shamefaced lie since I never did homework anyway (which may explain my deficiencies as a scholar).
During lunch the next day, Debbie and I got together in the cafeteria, and there amidst a background of the usual hormonal hubbub, I handed her the rough draft.
I don’t know what I’d expected, probably seeing her face alight with joy at what a brilliant guy she was doing the painting with. Or a sign of her wholehearted approval … or even mild approval. Sadly, none of those things happened. First, she looked confused. Then after she studied it some more, she slowly shook her head back and forth.
“Something wrong?” I asked.
“No … not really wrong.”
“Well, it’s … um … something that … ah … that I’m not sure would go over well in town.”
“No?” I said. “Why not?”
She paused, obviously choosing her words carefully.
“It’s not that I’d label it ‘tasteless,'” she said. “But it’s more like it’s in dubious taste.”
At the time, calling it “in dubious taste” eluded me. Now I think “in dubious taste” was enormously generous.
… gone to waste
Across the top of the drawing I’d printed in big letters, “The Rock n Roll Bone Yard.” Of course, the scene was a cemetery, and what a cemetery it was! Each of the tombstones had the name of a famous rock song or star. Among them were Little Susie, Peggy Sue, Johnny B. Goode, Dream Lover, Poor Little Fool, Venus, and Mr. Blue. As an added touch, I tried to make the tombstones symbolize the departed’s name. I thought the whole thing was brilliant, but somehow this brilliance didn’t come across to Debbie.
“Can you give me any specifics?” I asked.
“Well, to start, most of these are kids,” she said. “I think older people would see that as tragic, rather than amusing.”
I thought about that for a long moment.
“I can see that,” I said. “Is there anything else?”
“Yeah,” she said. “How about Earth Angel?”
“What about it?”
“You’ve got a halo coming up out of the ground. To a lot of folks that’d be really morbid.”
“Good point,” I said. “But death is morbid.”
“Sure is,” she said. “But we want to amuse people, not depress them.”
I nodded. She was right again.
“And there’s Charlie Brown, with ‘He got caught’ on it?” she said.
She shook her head and went on.
“The Big Bopper’s stone? A half-buried airplane with ‘Big dropper’ written on it? I think that’d be way too much for most people.”
“So you think it’s a crappy idea?” I said.
She paused again, once more considering her words.
“Nooo … not crappy,” she said. “I just think the town’s not ready for it. There’s a French word for it, avant garde.”
“What’s that mean?” I asked.
“Something really inventive, something that’s far ahead of its time,” she said.
By God, I thought, she just hit the nail on the head! My thinking was way in the 21st century, but Saranac Lake was stuck in 1959. Yeah, that’s it – I was avant garde!
“So what now?” I asked.
“Now you come up with something else, something really clever that everyone’ll like.”
I struggled, but I did it. It was entitled “The Jones’ Yard Bone Yard.” It had a creepy old house with Jones on the mailbox and on the lawn in front of it were a whole bunch of tombstones. And here’s where it got clever: All of them had different first names but with the same last name –Jones. I even had two small stones, one for Fido Jones, the other for Fluffy Jones.
I liked it, and Debbie said she did, too. Unfortunately, the judges didn’t — we didn’t win the big prize.
But we each got a consolation prize — a ticket to the Pontiac Theater. Sure, it wasn’t ten bucks, but I could put a movie pass to good use … and I did. On a Friday night, I saw a sci-fi classic — “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”
I not only enjoyed it, but I also related to it perfectly.
And why wouldn’t I? In addition to being a great flick, it was tres, tres avant garde.