The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 27 Freak

My chameleon color slowly morphed from groovy hippie to grungy freak to better fit in with my eighth-grade peers. These days, we might call freaks “druggies” or “stoners,” whether they use drugs or not. The label just referred to an individual who wasn’t the same as mainstream society. I liked that, since mainstream society didn’t seem very enamored of me. I wore Wrangler jeans that didn’t look exactly like Levi’s back then, so they were considered fake blue jeans. The snarky boys called them “Wrangler Janes,” which mortified me. I received two new pairs at the beginning of each school year, and as jeans were expensive and Mom’s time to shop was limited, I was stuck with them. So, I wore those Wrangler Janes and imagined that kids smirked and pointed at me behind my back. But I also wore Dad’s old jungle fatigue shirt. It had “US ARMY” and my last name on the chest. Mom sewed on a yellow smiley face and a red peace symbol, which were not nerdy at all but extremely cool. All of us freaks dressed that way. I wore it as a jacket all winter and was cold, but it was totally worth it. I also wore it in hot weather, so although I was sweaty, I looked exactly right, especially when I leaned against the wall and acted as if I hardly cared about anything at all, certainly not school or whatever L-7—square—message authority tried to lay on me. The only thing missing was a cigarette, but I wouldn’t make that leap for a couple more years. I also wore those old black-and-white Adidas running shoes that had no support. But man, they totally completed my look.

      One day, some cholo who sat behind me in social studies wouldn’t stop tugging my hair, so I whupped him in the classroom. Naturally, Mom was hyperpissed when she received that phone call; that behavior was more along the lines of what we all expected from me. By that point, she’d landed a teaching position at another junior high school, and so after dealing with “shitheads” all day, she came home, and one of them sat on her couch, spilled graham crackers and milk, and got suspended for fighting in class. Oh, and he still didn’t know his times tables or his phone number. This neophyte freak was not the son she was supposed to have. She sentenced me to hard labor during my suspension: I pulled weeds, vacuumed, and dusted, and the TV stayed off.

      Dad seemed OK with me fighting, proud that I stood up for myself. He snickered and saw it as boys squabbling, certainly not a horrific event like it was in Mom’s and my minds. Apparently, in Roswell, New Mexico, during Dad’s time, it was simply a boy’s rite of passage, not some monolithic event. To me, it signaled the difference between becoming a warrior and being one of those “men” who peed sitting down and stayed home with the women and children. For Dad, it was just something he and my uncles joshed about around deer-hunting campfires. Their stories were better than mine, though, because they included fistfights against the Unser boys, the famous Indy race-car drivers. Which, of course, meant that Dad had to add to my story, spicing it up with the additional facts that the kid I’d beaten up had a father in the National Guard who had to answer to his superior officer, Dad. The assistant principal who suspended me was also one of Dad’s military underlings. So although I was suspended for three days, two of those days were Saturday and Sunday. The liberal part of Mom hated the good-old-boy system that got Dad out of speeding tickets, as he knew many cops from the university riots, and got me out of additional days of school suspension.

      Mom cried on the phone to her girlfriends about her “shithead” son (yes, I lurked in the hallway), while Dad told me to take the fight out of the classroom and into the mesa the next time around. Did he expect there to be a next time? I hoped, with a rep as a brawler, that there wouldn’t be a next time. I didn’t know how to reconcile Mom’s feminine, liberal, and emotional model with Dad’s masculine, conservative, and emotionally detached model. As a kid, I thought my failure to live up to my parents’ expectations was my fault, that it was my imbecility and poor character that made me unable to navigate my life by somehow integrating their opposing messages. 

      I’d spend years exploring both world views. As an adult, I’d have to go deeper, beyond the influence of genetics and parenting to my authentic self, and then keep what worked and discard what didn’t work for me, which is exactly what I’d recommend for others.

***

When I finally became a teenager, I figured that I should step up my game. Although I liked identifying with the freaks, they didn’t seem to do much except hang out and act tough. That meant I still hadn’t done much as an adolescent other than change my clothes and talk tough. Something inside me felt that I could be better, that I had more to offer the world. As my pride had recovered somewhat from the basketball fiasco, I went out for track. Bizarrely enough, I won the half-mile time trial. I emulated Dave Wottle, the previous summer’s Munich Olympic 800-meter champion. I, too, came from behind with a devastating kick—crushing the other boys. In just two and a half minutes, my life shifted from being a nobody freak to a kind-of-somebody jock, at least to the handful of boys whom I outran on the junior-high school’s clay track. A jock, to me, meant someone who was not only athletic but also popular and attractive. I didn’t necessarily want the negative stereotype of being rude, arrogant, stupid, and a bully, but if a gang would give me the feeling of belonging and keep me safe, then, hey, I was in.

      I earned my first athletic letter, a Grey Poupon mustard–colored “J” for Jackson Junior High School. I felt better than I ever remembered feeling before. Still, winning a junior-high athletic letter didn’t seem to make a difference to anyone except the other runners and me. What does a guy have to do? I wondered. I concluded that I needed to succeed in a bigger way, to letter at the high-school level. If I achieved more, I’d be more attractive and loved, and people would rush to me, eager to accept me in a way that I struggled to accept myself. What I mean is, that’s how I had it figured at thirteen.

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