The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 23 Chelwood

I became caught between worlds as well. Even though I was only ten years old, I was enamored with the psychedelic, antiwar, and counterculture scenes. I liked their antiestablishment theme because I felt fairly antiestablishment myself, and sometimes I even wrote about fantasy rebellions. But my world was only slightly larger than our house on Apache Street, and I could only observe and yearn for the larger movement down at the university and on our gray TV.

      Once again, I didn’t integrate well with my peers upon my midyear transfer to Chelwood Elementary. It didn’t have the charm of Mark Twain Elementary; it was a collection of painted metal barracks that felt dangerous to a timid boy—it felt like Antcondor. My new sixth-grade classmates didn’t have hippie attitudes. They wore belts with heavy buckles, which they slid off and whirled around their heads like maces when they fought each other. My social reticence was already entrenched, thanks to introversion, bullies, and violence, so the best I could do was put on my hard mask and hope that the Chelwood boys were unsure whether I was a badass or merely had a sour countenance. My nonthreatening face and toothpick body made my act somewhat unconvincing.

      At Mark Twain Elementary of the smiling frog, I’d never even seen a fistfight. At Chelwood, I saw fights almost daily. That is not an exaggeration. Of course, I was shocked and afraid. So I kept to myself, aware that an unappreciated word, cutting in line, or holding eye contact too long would prompt my new peers to slide their belts off. They segregated themselves into “cool dudes” and “pussies.” I wasn’t a cool dude, but I didn’t think I belonged with the pussies. It seemed that I was expected to be grown-up and independent, but in this strange new world of boys with whom I was supposed to bond, I hadn’t the faintest idea how to go about it. Even many of the girls were tough. I averted my eyes from them, especially from the square-jawed ones with practical hairstyles. Comb handles stuck out of the back pockets of their torn jeans. They wore Deep Purple T-shirts and skull-shaped silver rings, and they scratched angry red gashes into their forearms. They slouched against the breezeway walls, had potty mouths, and absolutely terrified me. They stared as I walked past them. “Don’t make eye contact,” was my personal mantra. Gosh, I was so afraid that I was a pussy. They were girls, after all.

      When I walked home from the bus stop, the black boys trailed me and said they wished I hadn’t moved there. I said nothing, but I wished exactly the same thing. The reason I walked instead of ran was that I knew a boy named Blanco who was already labeled a pussy. He ran from the bullies. If you run from vicious dogs, they’ll chase you—it’s in their nature—so Blanco was chased. 

      Blanco seemed fine to me, and I sometimes talked to him. But we failed to bond because I feared the association as I had feared being associated with Marsden at Mark Twain. One day, while being chased, he banged on my front door. I opened the door, and he breathlessly dashed inside. As a rescuer of pussies, I was concerned that I’d be targeted next. But the following day, the bullies said that he’d barged into my house without an invitation—they hadn’t seen me behind the door—and I felt great relief and just said, “Really? Dang, man!” I wasn’t yet strong enough to stand up for myself outside the home, let alone stand up for an acquaintance.

      Blanco sometimes came over with his 45 rpm records, and although I was glad to have someone interested in me, I was concerned for the reason I’ve already stated. He introduced me to “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.” I said that I liked the song, especially the part where Donald Duck sang. He said that wasn’t Donald Duck, it was Paul McCartney singing with a distorted voice. Being corrected by Blanco greatly insulted me because it meant that a pussy thought he was better than I was. So I lost track of Blanco after that. Forty-five years later, when I hear “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” I still think of Blanco and the label he couldn’t shake. If the relatively tame labels placed upon me in those tender years hurt, I wonder how badly Blanco was damaged. I wonder how he turned out. How did he compensate? Did he become tough, or crushed, or perhaps even a psychologist?

      See, again, I was caught between machismo and sensitivity. Dad was a hunter as well as a soldier, and he tried to make me a hunter, too. I was supposed to embrace the violence and gore, but there was something innately anathema about it to me. Oh, sure, I dabbled, but in the end, I only killed a few rabbits and birds, felt mean, and never found pleasure in it. The problem was that I identified with the prey; I knew what it was like to have predatory humans after me. Then I felt weak for caring for the pussies—the rabbits and birds of the world. Certainly, nobody around me took the animals’ point of view. I figured that I should be tougher than I was, that I should not care as much, that I should whirl a belt buckle around my head and enjoy killing. The thing was, although I enjoyed witnessing conflict just like everybody else who watches TV or reads a book, I didn’t particularly want to participate in it. But other than my anger, I didn’t feel very macho.

***

Riding a motorcycle was macho. I had a 1959 Yamaha 70 that I rode in the mesa. Then, just two doors up from us, a couple of boys on a motorcycle hit the back of a school bus. I didn’t see the bodies, only the chalk outlines, dark bloodstains, and tiny pieces of glass swept into the gutter. Every morning, as I walked to the bus stop, I stared at those chalk outlines. The boys were not splayed out like snow angels, the way I imagined they’d be. No, they must’ve lain on their sides, perhaps curled into fetal positions, as they bled out on Apache Street and disbelieved that it could happen to them. The boys were about my age. Back then, plenty of young boys rode motorcycles on the city streets. But because of those dead boys, my parents banished the motorcycle to my other cousins’ house in rural Bosque Farms, New Mexico. That seemed unfair to me; I hadn’t crashed into any school bus. Of course, my parents were protecting me; but at the time, building a tough, motorcycle-riding reputation seemed much more relevant tomy safety. It also seemed unfair that one of the boys killed wasn’t even driving, but he still had to die. With those boys dying young, it kind of seemed fairer that I die young, too, which was, of course, terrifying if you believed that life was fair, which I did at the time.

***

After another argument with Mom, I put more guilt on her by saying that I liked it better away from our new home. She never asked why I felt the way I did, but she made sure that when Dad returned from the university riots, he stood over me in olive-drab fatigues, smelling of the armory and the certainty that comes with military command, and ordered me to tell my mother that I didn’t mean what I’d said. I knew that no mother wanted to hear the words I’d used—that’s why I’d used them! I wanted to hurt her as much as she hurt me. Today I’d hear those words as a clear signal of family dysfunction, but my truthfulness wasn’t wanted, only my acquiescence or silence. So, not wishing to be jacked up against the wall, I lied. “I didn’t mean it, Mom,” I said. “I like it at home.”

      She hugged me. She really wanted Happy Jack back, and failing that, perhaps Ratty Snake. This kid teetering on the cusp of puberty, spilling milk, and showing attitude was far from the perfect Christian Science child I was expected to be.

      The Albuquerque Tribune flopped onto our driveway. David Brinkley, who was beamed into the living room, told me about feminists who threatened to burn their bras and college students who burned their draft cards. Eventually, the draft lottery played out on our TV. I turned on the radio in my bedroom—FM was really taking off at the time—and I made friends with music. I remember those days when Carole King sang, “Something inside has died, and I can’t hide, and I just can’t fake it…” I wasn’t playing the victim; I was just taking a breath and trying to figure out what my next incarnation should be.

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