The devil incarnate
Author’s note: Since March 2016, I have been working on a long-and-winding memoir titled, “Back East: A Topophobic Road Trip Down Memory Lane,” which deals with a two-month journey I took to reconnect with the places of my youth, mainly Frankfort, Kentucky; Plattsburgh, New York; and Gloucester, Virginia. This is the first time in a long writing career that I have birthed a book via pencil. I then utilize a Dragon voice-recognition software program to translate those scribbled words into pixels, which takes a lot of time, though it is time well spent, as, since I like for my writing to resemble, as much as possible, the way I speak, this tedious technique allows me to add vocal-ish inflection to transcriptive communication. As it stands, I have finished four of six sections, totaling between 150,000 and 200,000 words. When completed, “Back East” will likely contain between 350,000 and 400,000 words. I have pulled myself off this project for a month, at the behest of my literary agent, to work on a formal book proposal centered around my recently completed quest to hike every day for a solid year with my dog, Casey, who was also with me on my “Back East” journey. I hope to be done with the first draft of “Back East” by the end of December. This snippet, which is not yet polished into final form, comes from a week I spent in Plattsburgh, where I lived for my first 12 years.
“Angels of fire
I’m here on the outside
This evil within
Has got me addicted”
— “Angels of Fire,” the Jezabels
I drove with Casey to Bailey Avenue Elementary school, which I attended first and second grades while still living on Plattsburgh Air Force Base, and again in the fourth grade, after the only world we knew was shattered, after we were unceremoniously punted out into civilian life following the drowning death at age 32 of my stepfather, a captain who had served as a navigator on a B-52 during the darkest days of the Cold War.
Since it was a Saturday, the school was locked tight. Fortunately, there is a dog park located right next door. While Casey cavorted with the North Woods canine crowd (pleasantly heavy on scruffy, goofy mutts adopted from the local pound), I was able to sniff the musty/sweet air that often wafts down Memory Lane. From where I sat, I could see the windows lining the very room where I came to understand that, from my self-absorbed perspective, mandatory formal education was less a road to enlightenment than it was a particularly cruel and ironic form of incarceration.
My first-grade teacher was a strict though pleasant lady of maybe 40 named Mrs. Pfeiffer, who somehow managed to teach my recalcitrant, ADHD self the rudiments of reading, a skill I did not come to appreciate, much less cultivate, until I was old enough to legally drink. Consequently, to this day, I am a poor reader.
The one classmate I remember was a pretty blonde named Janice Gustafson, who, over the course of the next several years, became one of my best friends. Janice, who had never stepped foot on the base before meeting me, was a townie raised by a single mom in a partially disintegrating abode that also housed a drooling grandparent or two and a sibling with clear behavioral issues. It was a domestic environment as marginal as my own, though different in its specific makeup.
Janice was what we called in those insensitive cultural days a “tomboy.” She could run through the woods with admirable reckless abandon, but she did not have a destructive, criminal bone in her body, usually a prerequisite for membership in my wayward social circle. She didn’t exactly overlook my inclinations toward arson, vandalism, thievery, criminal mischief and trespass, but she wanted no part of any activity that could result in disappointing her already-haggard mother. It was just not in her nature.
When I was with Janice, we played tackle football, pretended we were rock stars by lip-syncing songs by the Beatles (“A Hard Day’s Night”) and the Stones (“As Tears Go By” and “19th Nervous Breakdown”) and skipping stones across the stagnant pond located at the bottom of a nearby abandoned quarry that I walked by twice a day on my pedestrian way to and from school. Janice and I once launched a hastily constructed raft onto that pond, but it promptly sank on its maiden voyage. We laughed about that for months.
Given her ethnic background, Janice and I tried, via a tattered phrasebook, to learn Swedish, but only got as far as (and here I rely upon poor memory combined with poor phoneticization): “Rerk in tah un cigaret.” “Don’t smoke a cigarette.” We considered ourselves borderline bilingual. Our classmates were mighty impressed as we wandered around, saying“Rerk in tah un cigaret” over and over. This is what passed for cosmopolitan in the North Woods.
In later years, we learned to ski together at a small rope-tow area called Beartown.
I recollect my second-grade year a bit better. The teacher was Mrs. Mathis, the first person who ever encouraged me to try transferring my untethered inclination to gab incessantly onto paper, probably in faint hope of getting me to occasionally quit running my mouth. She did not negatively judge the results of my newfound attraction to penning stories, or, if she did, she kept those judgments to herself. She was one of the few teachers — and here I’m talking about all the way through college — who inspired my transcriptive endeavors. While in Mrs. Mathis’ second-grade class, I wrote my first book, the title of which escapes me, though the basic plot does not: It was centered around a noble young man who found himself misunderstood by a world of dim-witted adults who did not appreciate his many obvious talents, which caused him to devise a plan to rid the world of everyone over 20. There were ray guns and malevolent aliens who considered the protagonist to be an enlightened being worthy of worship. Mrs. Mathis graciously annotated the work with the words, “very imaginative.” I suspect she followed her succinct review with a call to the school guidance counselor.
It was from Mrs. Mathis, who wore short skirts and had really nice legs, that we learned about the assassination of President Kennedy. Everyone cried, though we were too immature to accurately process the information and its implications. I, personally, did not really understand what a president was. But, as a result of that national tragedy, we got a few days off school, so all was not lost. During that short period of national mourning, I saw Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV.
Mrs. Mathis left Plattsburgh shortly thereafter, moving to Florida because her husband had been transferred to a different base. The whole class cried once again, which in turn made Mrs. Mathis cry. Thereafter, we were taught by a series of temporary teachers who did not make a lasting impression.
Early on during the school year, an enticing combination of fiscal and criminal opportunity knocked so loudly, it could not be ignored. Before recess, which took place in late morning, those students who bought lunch in the cafeteria — which covered the majority of the 30 or so pupils in Mrs. Mathis’ class — placed their lunch money — I believe it was 25 or 30 cents — on the upper right-hand corner of their desks, so the school secretary, a perpetually morose middle-aged woman named Mrs. Marcy, could come around and collect the cash. As far as efficient monetary retrieval and accounting methodologies go, this one was inexplicably ill conceived. I’m proud to report that I played a prominent role in the school administration opting to scrap that procedure in favor of one that was even more stupid.
For a week or two, I scrutinized this system, trying to come up with a plan. It wasn’t hard. What I decided to do was, when recess was called and the other students hemorrhaged out of the room at breakneck speed — Mrs. Mathis trying and failing to herd the group into a semblance of orderliness — I would linger — sometimes under the highly unlikely guise of putting the finishing touches on a particularly vexing arithmetic problem, sometimes pretending to use the restroom, sometimes simply lagging behind. I would then make the rounds, picking up a nickel here, a dime there, never the full amount, never the same desks on consecutive days. Then I would stroll out to the playground with my pockets jingling and an innocent song on my lips.
Lucrative though this crime spree might have been (all things being relative), there was no way on earth I was going to pull it off over the long haul. I should have taken week- or month-long hiatuses designed to defuse suspicion. But my greed got the best of me, as it always did.
Initially, the shortfalls were written off by way of speculating that a given student, whose lunch money was inexplicably missing a dime, had simply miscalculated. Maybe this other student had lost an errant nickel while walking to school. Or maybe he or she had stopped by a grocery store to purchase a pack of gum and didn’t want to admit to spending money specifically earmarked for the midday repast. There was even speculation that perhaps Mrs. Marcy had messed up. The thought that there was a thief among us apparently was never seriously considered.
Inevitably, some light bulbs began to illuminate the thought processes of the resident grown-ups, who consequently organized a primitive surveillance operation, wherein Mrs. Marcy would hide in the classroom utility closet with the door ajar, while Mrs. Mathis peeked through the windows from the playground. It took a couple days, but, eventually, I was caught red-handed. Damn! I likely could have evolved into a successful criminal — the kind profiled on contemporary shows like “The Defenders” and “The Saint” — except for the bad habit of always getting caught! I routinely spent far too much time planning my various escapades and not enough time formulating the means by which I could avoid apprehension. Were I a bank robber, I would have neglected to check the gas gauge on the getaway car. That’s a definite shortcoming when you’re an aspiring felon.
I was summarily perp-walked to the principal’s office and my mom was called and apprised of the latest transgression committed by her eldest child. Mom then showed once again that she missed her vocational calling; she should have been employed by the military in some sort of psychological warfare capacity. After hearing the charges against me read in full, she patted me gently on the head, assured the principal she would take care of the problem and told me to expect a nice surprise when I arrived home from school later that afternoon. I was sent back to class, where I was once again shunned by every other student, except Janice Gustafson, who always stuck with me, no matter what form my anti-social behavior took, because that behavior was never pointed in her direction. I believe she must have seen a kernel of good somewhere deep down in a sea of muck and mire. Or maybe she was attracted to bad boys.
I spent the next few hours shitting my pants in expectation of a beating I would surely receive the instant I arrived back at our drab military residence. Based upon considerable experience, I assumed mom would be awaiting my return with fire in her eye, wielding the dreaded cane — her weapon of choice for many years. (I still, more than half-a-century later, bear a scar delivered by the cane on the back of my left hand.)
Unexpectedly, she was sitting calmly at the Formica kitchen table, which had upon it a paper grocery bag that contained what appeared to be a medium-sized box. She calmly commanded me to sit across from her. Unfortunately for my mental well being, this confrontation took place two weeks prior to Halloween.
Every Halloween since I passed my short-lived “Have-Gun-Will-Travel/Paladin” phase, I had dressed in a flimsy store-bought devil costume. Cheesy, yes, but it fit my persona and my spirit like a glove. I loved sliding into the bright red onesie adorned with sparkles that looked when I strode past the base’s dim street lights like glittering flame. I loved the contrived anonymity of the cheap plastic mask, adorned with protruding horns, with eye slits just barely big enough to see through. Dressing up as the devil was one of the highlights of my year, ranking up with the annual TV broadcast of “The Wizard of Oz.”
That joy was about to be snatched away by my evil mom.
She told me, as punishment for my lunch-money larceny, that, not only would I not be dressing up as the devil, but — she drew this part out while patting the paper bag on the table — she had decided it would do me good to travel through the neighborhood begging for candy dressed up as an … angel! My mom had purchased a goddamned angel costume, which included — I was told by this cold-hearted woman — a little wand, a set of wings and, worst of all, a halo! My heart sank as I conjured up an image of “Glinda,” the “Good Witch of the South,” who, I understand, was not technically an angel, but that’s what came to me at that tense moment.
My heart sank as I tossed dignity out the door by unabashedly prostrating myself. “I know I shouldn’t have stolen all their lunch money,” I pleaded, “and I promise to never do it again. I know I need to be punished severely, but please, beat me within an inch of my worthless life! Ground me forever! Put me to bed every night without dinner! Restrict my access to Saturday morning cartoons! Cut my ears off! Do all those things simultaneously, but, please, do not force me to go out trick-or-treating as an angel!”
I always sucked at abject groveling.
Mom smiled cruelly, picked up the bag and sent me to my room, where I considered jumping out the second-story window rather than risking the indignity of being seen in public on the holiest of holidays dressed as an angel.
As I fretted over the course of the longest fortnight in recorded history, I entertained the thought of foregoing Halloween altogether rather than suffer the humiliation that would surely descend upon me if my chums saw me wearing a halo and wings. Mom milked this rare opportunity to emotionally scar her son clear down to the marrow. Every day, she would add to my ever-growing angst by saying something like, “Maybe some of the neighborhood girls will let you go trick-or-treating with them.” Or: “You’ll probably get more candy dressed as an angel.” And: “I’m hoping that being an angel will rub off on your behavior. Maybe you should go out as an angel every year!”
She kept the angel costume — still in its box, which was hidden in the brown paper bag — prominently displayed on the uppermost shelf of the dining-room buffet, directly above her prized Hummel collection. I hated those fucking Hummels — little boys wearing knee socks while reading or playing the violin and little girls snuggling with lambs or sitting in a well-trimmed tree while holding a basket — but they were mom’s most-prized possessions. She knew I would not risk assured capital punishment by climbing atop the buffet to dispose of that costume. If even one Hummel was displaced by so much as a millimeter, mom would know. Those Hummels served as knee-socked, basket-bearing guards. I wanted to dismember every one of then, then pour gas on them, then set them ablaze!
By Halloween morning, I was about to puke. The day’s festivities were set to commence at Bailey Avenue Elementary with a parade up and down the halls, during which the students proudly displayed their costumes. As I forlornly prepared myself for school, mom very theatrically pulled the goddamned angel costume down. She then theatrically removed it from the bag and placed it before my dejected self. By that point — zero hour, as it were — I had actually grown stoic, like a Viking warrior before pillaging a village — at the notion of trick-or-treating dressed as an extremely unlikely member of the heavenly host.
The concept of an avenging angel was several significant notches below my intellectual pay grade at that point in my young life, but that is essentially what I decided I would be. If I was going to be an angel, I would be something straight out of the Book of Revelation, which I had heard about the one and only time I’d been cajoled by a neighbor kid to join him and his family on a Sunday-morning visit to a house of worship called something like the “The Church of Perpetual Trembling Fear.”
While it might come as a surprise, I generally viewed Halloween as a night off from my budding career as a professional hoodlum. While the amateur juveniles were breaking loose with bush-league forms of vandalism like toilet-papering shrubbery and egging cars, I was all business, trying with the focus of a Wall Street hedge fund manager to increase my sucrose-thick portfolio. It was my sole goal to get my trick-or-treat bag as full as humanly possible over the course of a four- or five-hour window of opportunity.
We had contests between local kids, wherein, at the end of the night, we would compare the numbers of pieces of candy we had procured. Though it was often difficult to accurately judge the relative value of the individual components of a bag — do 10 Hershey’s Kisses equal one full-sized Snicker’s bar? — such concerns played second fiddle to the joy of barely being able to carry a bag fully laden with sugary wealth all the way home. There were 364 other nights available for more traditional bedlam. But in the lead-up to me being unleashed as a messenger of God, I had decided to forego my usual acquisitive consciousness and focus totally on wreaking Old-Testament-like angelic pandemonium throughout the base. Windows would be shattered. Tires slashed. Lawn decorations destroyed. The bags of younger trick-or-treaters stolen and scattered. Songs would be sung about my exploits!
As mom continued her slow-motion opening of the box, out of the corner of an eye that was livid with barely suppressed rage, I saw a flash of red. No angel costume I had ever seen contained so much of as a glimmer of that bright satanic shade. When the costume was fully unfurled, I saw, to my utter astonishment, that my mom held not the raiment of an angel, but, rather, that of the Prince of Darkness! The box even contained a trident with hard plastic tips sharp enough to pierce skin if properly thrust! I tried not to shriek with joy. Mom laid upon me a standard parental bullshit lecture about changing her mind at the very last minute (I learned to lie from my mom) because she felt confident I was sincerely remorseful and, if I crossed my heart and hoped to die that I would never ever under any circumstances, no matter how tempting, steal lunch money from my classmates again, I would be allowed to don the duds of the evil one. I swore. I double swore.
The annual parade of costumes up and down the halls of Bailey Avenue Elementary School was generally a somewhat staid affair that culminated with the awarding by the faculty of some inexpensive prizes — wax candy fake teeth seemed popular, as did golf-ball-sized red-hot Jawbreakers — for best costumes in each class.
Self-conscious youngsters were marched single file, one class at a time, past the other students. There were astronauts, nurses, race car drivers, monsters and, yes, angels. But, in the three years I attended Bailey Avenue Elementary School, there was only ever one devil, a perplexing reality likely blamed on the fact that the far northern reaches of New York State, a stone’s throw from French-speaking Canada, were heavily Catholic.
For about the first nine steps of Mrs. Mathis’ second-grade class procession, I remained as stoic as the rest of my peers. But I could not contain my excitement about having been resurrected as Satan. Ever the showoff, I began to taunt the kindergarten and first-grade students lining the hall, pretending to jab them with my trident, telling them they had better be on the lookout, lest I come and snatch them away and take them to a dark and unforgiving place, a candy-free zone, where the only sustenance was bread and water. (I dared not actually use the word “hell.”)
After initial shocked reactions, several of the other costumed kids went into character.
A soldier yelled, “Charge!” and started strafing the hallway with his fake rifle, spitting impressively accurate machine-gun noises from his pursed lips. A cowboy pulled out his six-shooter cap gun and pointed it at an Indian, who whooped and returned fire with a fake bow-and-arrow. Smoke from the caps filled the air. A pirate started swinging a cutlass in the general direction of a baseball player, who was carrying a bat. They ended up having a mismatched sword fight. In a prescient example of what America would one day become, a cop pulled out a set of plastic handcuffs and tried to take a nearby doctor into custody. The medical practitioner admirably resisted arrest and, when the police officer started pressing the issue, yelling, “you have to come with me!”, the doctor doinked him on the forehead with a rubber knee-reflex-testing hammer. The cop grabbed his unblemished noggin as though it had been split open with an ax. He started bawling and ran as fast as his stubby legs could carry him to the office, in front of which stood poor Mrs. Marcy, who, judging from her facial expression, was thinking something like “only three more years of this shit, and I can retire.”
It wasn’t long before the Halloween anarchy had spread throughout the school. It took a solid half-hour before the teachers and staff restored order. It was glorious!
At least 10 kids, including yours truly, ended up being reprimanded by the principal — who, to his credit, could scarcely contain his laughter — for our unprecedented unruliness, which resulted in nothing more serious than a few split lips, a bloody nose or two, one shiner, a couple of ripped costumes and several mildly traumatized first-graders.
I remained on my best behavior that evening, focusing fastidiously on the process of obtaining as much candy as possible. It turned out to be my best haul ever. I wanted to prove to my mom that, when it came to pure, unadulterated avarice, no one could beat the devil.
As a result of my thievery, the means by which lunch money was collected at Bailey Avenue Elementary School was modified. Under the new system, the entire student body was lined up before lunch in the gym, which was adjacent the cafeteria. Mrs. Marcy, who understandably came to hate my guts, would walk down the line collecting everyone’s money in her bare hands. After the first dozen or so members of a student body that numbered in the hundreds deposited their coins, she had to cup her mitts to accommodate all the pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters that were laid on her. And woe be unto the hapless student who needed change. By the end of the line, this obviously unimaginative woman would find herself bearing a mound of coinage so large she could scarcely muster the physical strength to carry it. As she shuffled back to her lair, she often left a trail of lucre, like breadcrumbs, behind her.
For the rest the school year, I wondered why Mrs. Marcy didn’t carry with her a bag or box into which she could deposit all that lunch money. I mean, if a second-grader could come up with what, when you get right down to it, was pretty much a caveman-level solution to a predictably recurring problem, why on earth could the school secretary not concoct a strategy for rectifying her daily dose of fiscal frustration?
I eventually offered my services as her assistant lunch-money toter. The suggestion shocked poor Mrs. Marcy so badly, she twitched and dropped all the coins in her possession. Shiny pieces of metal rolled off in every direction. She stood, face down, and sighed.
“Let me help you with that, Mrs. Marcy,” I said.
And I did.
I piled Casey, exhausted from her time in the Plattsburgh dog park, back into my 4Runner and drove to a nearby imbibery named Meron’s, a name indelibly etched into my consciousness, for this was where my deceased stepfather used to drink with his fellow flyboys, a frequent recreational diversion that generally earned the considerable wrath of my mom. For the few years the young navigator was in my life, the word “Meron’s” was synonymous with “impending domestic violence.”
A wall calendar above the expensive liquor section informed me that Halloween was a mere month away. I had been on the road long enough, I was starting to lose track of time.
From the barstool, I could look out a large picture window and see the since-renovated house where once dwelled Janice Gustafson, who moved to Connecticut before my family — which, by that time, had a new stepfather — left the North Woods for points south during the middle of my fifth-grade year. Janice, who generally avoided the limelight, usually dressed up for Halloween as something low-key, homemade and obviously scrounged from available material. One year, she was a generic hobo. The next, a generic lumberjack. I rose a mug to her memory, and to the memory of the young navigator who died well before his time, and to the memory of Mrs. Mathis, and even to poor Mrs. Marcy.
Then I started wondering where an old man could get his hands on a cheap devil costume.