Pee-stained memories

There are certain memories that belong to a specific age group.

Going to Woolworth (remember the Five-and-Dime?) to pick out my lunch box before school began in the fall.  Typically metal, but occasionally vinyl, one’s “cool factor” was often determined by what television show was depicted on the outside of that box.  Your cool status could also be boosted by the addition of any type of junk food inside the box.  I rarely fell into the “cool” category during elementary school.  I usually had white milk, fruit cups, and sandwiches with butter no matter what was in the middle.  Kids who couldn’t afford lunchboxes brought sack lunches.  At some point, the tables turned and it became very uncool to carry a lunchbox, so I had to convince my mom to pack a sack lunch for me.  Even then, she didn’t buy the plain brown bags.  She bought fancy bags with green checks and peach-colored checks instead.  Sigh… I couldn’t win.

At the start of every school year, we had to cover our school books.  We were given pre-lined covers.  My dad was a world-class book coverer (I’m pretty sure he took night classes on the side to master this art, and it paid off!), so I would bring my books home for him to do it each year.  Some kids got super creative and covered theirs in newspaper or paper sacks from the grocery store.  These were usually the same kids who would wrap their birthday presents in comics.  I later learned that it had to do with money.  But at the time, I thought it was the coolest thing ever!  By Junior High, I had figured out to cover my books inside-out, so that the outside was blank.  Then I could put the names of all my favorite bands and their logos all over them.  It helped to have artsy friends and boyfriends as well.  I spent a lot of time (this may explain some of my grades) doodling my name with the last name of whatever boy I was currently in love with.  It was NEVER cool to recover books, so as they wore out, I would use tape on the corners and along the spine to hold them together.  By the end of school, those worn paper covers resembled soft fabric.

Halloween rolled around and I would return to the Five-and-Dime to choose my costume.  There would be stacks of boxes along a wall.  Each box had a plastic window through which you could see a mask.  The second part of the costume (cape/skirt/dress) would be tucked behind it.  Those plastic masks (with the tiny elastic string holding them on) would get cold and wet with sweat on the inside while Trick-or-Treating, and I would always make the mistake of trying to stick my tongue through the mouth hole.  This usually resulted in a papercut on my tongue.  But I would do it again…every damn year.

Christmastime was a neighborhood event.  And maybe it still is on the military bases.  I would like to hope so.  But everyone’s mom would make something they were famous for.  Divinity fudge, pecan sandies, peppermint bark, rum balls, chocolate kisses, and Christmas cookies would show up at our house.  My sister and I would make heavily decorated sugar cookies.  We did not belong to the “Less Is More” club.  Mom made ginger snaps.  Ah-mazing ginger snaps! She also made fruitcake (primarily because it was my grandfather’s favorite, but it became tradition.  We hated the stuff, but had lots of fun cutting up all the dried fruit), so we would send those over to other houses.  No matter whose house you ended up at, there would be plates of similar treats.  And we sang Christmas carols door to door.  Does anyone do that anymore?

Junior High rolled around and we would record Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 off the radio and bring it to school the next day to discuss during lunch.  We would also record (on audio cassette because that was our only choice) Saturday Night Live (only for me this was contraband) and laugh our young asses off to ‘The Not Ready For Prime Time Players’.  We had a snack bar and could buy stuff like chocolate shakes and honey buns.  School lunches were for suckers!  We were grown ups!

Speaking of Junior High, does anyone remember (on purpose) those hideous one-piece zip-up gym outfits?  Even girls with fabulous figures looked like shit in those.  And then we had to shower together, Carrie-style, and cross a long, fluorescent-light-enhanced room back to our lockers to get dressed.  I don’t know who made all of those decisions, but I hope they come back in their next life as a roll of toilet paper.

High School and telephones.  Let’s start with phone books.  We all had them, and used them.  Fun fact:  I was a little kid when we lived in California.  The phone book was a huge fat book.  When we needed a booster seat at the dining room table, that was our go-to.  Flash-forward to Great Falls, Montana.  I was older, so I don’t remember the exact circumstance, but someone needed a booster seat, and it was suggested that they get a phone book.  The looks of confusion made total sense when the rather skinny book was produced.

The main phone was usually located in the kitchen.  On the wall. (I had a friend whose mom wrote EVERYONE’S number on the wall next to the phone.  I thought she was the coolest person I’d ever met)  With a cord and rotary dial (ask your parents if you don’t know what I’m talking about) So talking with friends involved a lot of background noise. Dinner being cooked.  Dishes getting washed.  Lots of yelling between moms and kids.  Siblings arguing.  Doorbells ringing and dogs barking.  There was no social media.  LIFE was social.  The need for privacy prompted trips to Radio Shack to buy the WORLD’S LONGEST CORD.  I would answer the phone, and then walk as far as the cord would allow.  Sometimes into a closet, where I would sit in the dark and talk and laugh for hours.  And although I never actually did cartwheels while on the phone, that cord would always end up hopelessly tangled in twisty knots by the time I hung up.  That remained one of life’s little mysteries.

I was not allowed to call boys.  If a boy wanted to talk to me, he had to call me.  This posed some problems.  Timing.  Who was home?  Who was available to talk?  Who had finished their homework/supper/chores?  So we had to develop a system.  I would sneak a call to their number and “buzz” them.  Let the phone ring once, and hang up.  This would be their signal to call me.  Much to the chagrin of their parents, I’m sure.  This came to a sad end with the invention of *69.  Ugh.  So I hassled my parents until they let me have an extension in my room.  I got a Princess phone (I wanted pink, but got blue.  Oh well…it was a phone!) and it had push-buttons!  The privacy, however, only lasted until a parent or sibling picked up the line and yelled for one of us to hang up.  Or, worse, listened in!  So I hassled my parents until I got my own separate line.  I will never forget how cool it was to give out MY OWN PHONE NUMBER!  (FYI – hassling parents back then is the equivalent of today’s powerpoint presentations.)  The coolness of having my own phone only worked when I wasn’t grounded.  And I was grounded for much of my high school career.  I may have snuck  a call or two, or snuck out of the house once or twice…but those are stories for another blog.  Spoiler alert:  Dad ended up nailing my windows shut…

Walking to school.  Hey kids!  We actually DID walk to school.  Uphill.  Both ways.  In all kinds of weather.  There was no such thing as a “Mommy Line”.  You little whiners really have no idea.  Every time we would move, my dad would drive between our house and school and “map out” the best way to go.  Let me just say that this was not always the shortest way.  I’m sure it was chosen for safety.  I, on the other hand, was a crow.  I wanted to fly directly to school.  When I was in 1st grade in California, the school was on the other side of a park (a very cool park, I might add, with a slide coming out of a rocket!  Probably because this was a rocket base…but that’s also for another blog), but I was not allowed to walk through the park.  Oh no… I had to trudge ALL THE WAY down Aspen Street, then up Korina, and then BACK up Utah Avenue to the crosswalk…which was right across from the park.  Hello!  (for the record, I looked it up.  That would have been a .3 mile walk.  5 minutes.  Don’t feel too sorry for me.)  Of COURSE I crossed the park!  Somehow mom always knew.  Maybe it was because the park was filled with Eucalyptus trees, and the bark was all over the ground and smelled of cat pee, which transferred to my shoes.

My second elementary school was in San Antonio.  In the heat of Texas, I was forced to walk a grueling .6 miles between home and school.  12 minute walk.  But there was a ditch that cut directly between our neighborhood and school.  Duh.  Isn’t that what ditches are for?  Besides the whole dead-body thing?  Anyway, ALL the kids did it (totally not kidding here), so my choice was to trudge the entire .6 miles in the heat. Alone.  Or skip merrily through the ditch with my friends.  Anyone want to guess which I did?  Not painting myself as the greatest kid in the whole USA here, am I?

Back to California we go!  This time for junior high and a year of high school.  We lived directly across the street from both schools.  At most, the walk was .3 miles.  6 minutes.  This was the opposite of what I would have liked.  Turns out, mom could look over the back fence and see if I was actually walking to school.  She could also see if I was skipping school, leaving the school grounds at lunch, or taking rides in cars with boys.  Of course I NEVER did any of those things, so I NEVER got in trouble.  I also NEVER did a lot of stuff.  (sigh…I guess that’s another blog)

I finished out high school in Great Falls, Montana.  My house was 2 miles (40 minutes) away from the school.  Now…I didn’t mind walking in general.  I walked everywhere anyway.  But there were two problems with this walk. The first was that I was always (always) (did I mention always?) late for school.  I was late for anything that happened before 2 pm.  And late for most things that happened after.  The other was that Montana is cold.  Actually, I’m not sure “cold” is a good descriptive.  I could go into a long narrative about how survival in Montana involved layers, covering up every inch of skin, good boots, and lots of beer.  But that’s for another blog.  Or maybe it’s not.  There’s some stuff that needs to be experienced.  Writing may not do it justice.  So…back to late and cold.  I had no choice about the time school started.  But instead of walking, I could take the bus.  Let me add here that all my childhood life, I had dreamed of taking the bus.  It seemed like the coolest thing to do!  And on tv, that’s how people met.  Think Forrest and Jenny.  Turns out, my bus stop was almost 5 blocks away, in the opposite direction as school.  It was also the first stop on the route.  So I got up at 4 am to make the 5:30 bus.  It would take that full hour and a half to wash a head full of teenage girl hair, apply layers of makeup, blow dry and spray and re-brush and re-spray that same head of hair, and get dressed.  (I am a sucker for a good snooze bar, so quite often, I was only able to get half my head of hair done.  I would pull the other side back in a clip, which I told myself looked stylish.  It did not.  It looked half-done)  (Also…”Snooze Bar”.  That sounds like a great name for a club.  Note to self:  Look into starting a club)  There was also homework to be done, but some things are more important.  Besides, I could do it on the bus.  After all, I would be on the damn thing for an hour and a half and arrive at school in more than enough time to finish.  So I would walk.  In the dark.  And the cold.  5 blocks.  And wait with a girl named Lisa.  At the second stop, the bus picked up Bruce.  Bruce became the highlight of my bus-traveling experience.  (Which didn’t last long).   Occasionally (more often than I would like to admit) I would miss the bus.  This was a real pisser because now I was 5 blocks further away from school.  In the cold.  And the dark.  I tried once to walk back home and ask for a ride.  That didn’t end well.  I ended up making friends with a sweet Saint Bernard who lived a couple blocks from the school.  I would hang out on the end of the chain-link fence and have long conversations with him about love and life and how much it sucked to walk to school.  Shortly after, I began riding to school with friends and boyfriends.

My *almost* first car.  Not everyone had a car in high school.  And those who did typically drove old hand-me-down cars.  Kids either saved money and bought a piece-of-crap car, or were allowed to drive their parents’ car.  I was lucky enough to have use of my parents’ late ’70’s Pontiac Catalina.  Blue.  4-door.  Huge. As I try to teach Doofenshmirtz the importance of taking care of her first vehicle (a hand-me-down from her grandmother), I remember driving my car into the ground.  I loved driving, but had very little respect for my vehicle.  I learned more about how to be a good driver from my boyfriend than from anyone else, because I didn’t listen.

I turned 16 in February.  Sub-freezing temps were the norm.  Dad took me to the Air Force Base where they had hosed down part of an airstrip and left it frozen for people to practice driving on ice.  Cones and all.  I hit the gas and felt the spin and skid.  I would like to say I learned a lot from that lesson…but my friend and neighbor, Mike, would beg to differ.  I gave him a ride to school every day.  As we headed down the final hill before turning right on to the street where the high school was located, I would go into a skid and out of the corner of my eye I would catch a glimpse of Mike gripping the dash for dear life.  I’m pretty sure he left permanent indentions.  I always slid into that turn, and never hit the curb or another car, so I’m calling it a win.

Even with a car, I was still almost always late for school.  I didn’t have time to park all the way in the parking lot, so I would park directly in front of the school (which also happened to be right in front of my first period class.  This worked out well for me, because I could just run in and be in class.  Turns out, the class enjoyed watching this happen each morning) and by the afternoon, I would usually have a ticket.  I don’t think I ever paid a single one.  I haven’t been back to Great Falls since 1984.  I’m not sure how long parking tickets stay on the books, but I’m imagining a bench warrant was issued for my arrest sometime after graduation, and I don’t have time to spend in a Montana jail…

I did rear-end a car or two, and I routinely hit (and knocked over) a short cinderblock wall that was on the right side of our driveway.  In my defense, the car was a boat, and I was (okay, am) short, and I don’t have the best depth perception.  Plus, the wall was short.  I was set up for failure.  I found out years later that my dad just stacked the blocks back up each time and never bothered to mortar them together, because he figured I would just knock them down again.  He was right.  I also managed to blow up the engine.

That car didn’t go with me to college.  (see: “blown up engine”)  In fact, my dad took it to a scrapyard, and some time later I got a call from a friend who went to a Monster Truck show and saw it being used as one of the cars in the lineup for Grave Digger to drive over.  Later that year, I got a call from someone else who said it had been placed, upside down, on a pole in front of a body shop or something with a sign reading “Don’t let this happen to you.”  (I can’t say I was surprised.)

I went to college in San Marcos, Texas.  My parents drove me from Montana, and dropped me off with a bicycle.  I can’t say that I blame them.  They also warned me that I needed to lock it up each night.  Throughout high school, they used to warn me to lock my car, but I never did.  I returned to my unlocked car one afternoon to find my boom box (yes) was missing.  I assumed it had been stolen.  I was sad until I got home and Dad opened the trunk and there it was!  He was just trying to teach me a lesson!  I was so relieved!  So, the next time I returned to my unlocked car and my boom box (still yes) was gone, I popped the trunk…assuming it would be there again.  It was not.  I had been robbed!  Well, maybe.  I’ve always secretly thought my dad just took it to teach me an even bigger lesson.  I clearly never learned, because I didn’t lock my bike on my first night at college, and by morning it was gone.  Considering my parents were halfway back to Montana by that time, I didn’t think it was my dad who took it.  So I was afoot.  I learned my lesson and got awesome calf muscles at the same time.  That school was nothing but hills!

My first apartment.  Nothing screams independence like buying your first answering machine and leaving your first outgoing message!  I would practice for long periods of time before leaving “the perfect message”.  Then I would change it with my moods (or how much I had to drink).  I used to leave funny ones, and one was particularly long.  At first, callers would leave messages of laughter and approval, but it got old fast, and eventually the messages became angry and threatening (okay, that’s a bit extreme…but they did get bitchy).  “Couples messages” were the most fun (for me, of course).  And yes, I’m aware of how annoying those are.  Screw you.  They are great.

One of the other things I remember about my first place was the chance to be my own interior decorator!  I raced down to Walmart (yes, I know) and picked out a bathroom set.  You know the one I’m talking about.  Those furry, shag-carpet-esque combinations of bathroom rug, toilet tank cover and toilet lid cover.  I’m pretty sure my first set was burgundy.  Maybe hunter green.  Of course there were also towels, a shower curtain, and the soap dish/toothbrush holder combo.  I got fancy a couple times with a Dixie-Cup dispenser.  But, it’s that 3-piece shag combo that simultaneously holds a place in my heart and haunts me.  Over the next 10 years, I bought a new set for no less than 13 different apartments (some with more than one bathroom) and changed colors as I changed moods.  It signaled the beginning of something new.  The chance to start over.  To decorate and create a pretty space.  But seriously, they are possibly the most disgusting things I’ve ever owned.  I try not to think too hard about it, but the idea of just the bathroom rug is pretty gross.  They weren’t like the washable ones we have now.  But the lid covers and tank covers.  Really?  Let’s put some absorbent fabric on something that gets multiple types of bodily fluid splashed on it.  There’s no cleaning them.  And they always smelled weird to begin with.  And those sad little white elastic bands holding them on (never very well) would yellow with, what?  Time?  OMG!  It wasn’t time that was yellowing them!!!  I had parties in my apartments.  Lots and lots (sorry mom and dad…but I’m guessing this may not actually come as a surprise) and lots of parties.

I’m just not sure I can think about it anymore without having to take a Silkwood shower.