The following is a draft excerpt from a collection of stories and essays that I’m working on in 2014:
“Full Dress Uniform”
One of the most important lessons I learned growing up was “You are on your own.” It was a lesson I was taught early and often by my parents… and most adults. The lesson could take the form of answering most of my questions with the phrase “Go look it up.” That set of 1970 World Book Encyclopedias in our living room got a lot of use. It slowly began to sink in that my parents didn’t have any real answers, and a lot of their advice was suspect. There was the time that our neighbor, Mrs. Scott, told us that we shouldn’t run the vacuum cleaner when the television was on or else it would suck the color out of our color TV. It made absolutely no sense! But there my Mom was, just nodding her head in agreement and saying “You know, I’ve heard that too.”
One memorable moment of learning occurred during a Boy Scout award ceremony in the fall of 1984. The ceremony was called a Court of Arms, and it occurred twice a year, in the fall and spring. It was the night when the scouts were awarded their merit badges and promoted in rank that we worked to earn through the year. I was excited to go because for the first (and last) time, I had earned the most merit badges in Troop 2005. I had even more than our neighbor, Alton Scott, who was my secret nemesis. During the Court of Arms, our Scoutmaster would call us up individually to walk up from the audience to the stage for each badge that you’ve earned. Alton always got more than I did. He’d be called to the stage 100 times while I only got to go up once or twice. Alton was also the idealized version of what a kid should be to my parents. “Why can’t you be more like Alton?” was a question I was asked on a regular basis. Let’s see, Mom… Alton is a spoiled, good-looking, only-child who gets everything he wants. I am the doughiest of 5 boys, who has only worn hand-me-downs, doesn’t have his own room, and who is constantly told to seek solace in the set of encyclopedias his parents haven’t updated in 14 years. In addition, he’s a year older than I am. The difference of a year may not mean much when you’re in your 40’s, but that year between a 12 and a 13 year old is significant chasm. It could mean the difference between elementary and junior high school. Or it could mean the difference between pubes and no pubes. “I would love to be more like him, Mom,” I’d imagine saying. “I’d love to murder him and assume his identity if I thought I could get away with it. But since I can’t, I’ll continue to trying to use the sheer force of will to make hair grow around my genitals.”
By earning the most merit badges in our troop, I was finally going to beat Alton at something. After all, he had allowed himself to get distracted this year with dating every pretty girl in our school. It was my moment. Unfortunately, I hit a snag. I was outgrowing the Boy Scout uniform that my parents bought me two years ago. The uniform was the only thing that wasn’t handed down from my older brother. My parents bought it for me when I was 10 and hadn’t replaced it. I could wear the uniform shirt, though it was a little snug, but the shorts were out of the question. Who issues shorts as part of a uniform, anyway?? I emerged from my room wearing the uniform shirt with a pair of jeans.
“Go and put on your FULL uniform,” my mother said.
“It doesn’t fit. I’ll just wear this.” I said.
“No! Mrs. Scott says you’re supposed to wear your FULL uniform to the Coat of Arms.”
“Mom, everyone wears jeans. No one wears their full uniform. And it’s called a COURT of Arms not a COAT.”
“Mrs. Scott says it’s a ‘coat’ and you’re not going unless you put on your full uniform.”
“But it doesn’t fit!”
She had taken what Mrs. Scott said as holy gospel and would not budge. I was resigned to go back into my bedroom and try to stuff my ever-growing 12 year old body into a 2 year old pair of green shorts… so I could be honored. The shorts fit me like a pair of girls’ hot pants. I was ground meat shoved into a green sausage casing. They were so tight that I couldn’t wear underwear. The tolerances on these pants were such that they could not endure the extra millimeter of Fruit-of-The-Loom cotton. I emerged from my bedroom walking like Frankenstein trying to carry a jellybean between his butt cheeks. Mom took one look at me and said, “Let’s go.” The woman, who but a few moments before wanted me in full uniform for what she saw as some kind of formal event, had not an ounce of concern with how I looked. Her requirement of being in FULL uniform was satisfied, and everything else was inconsequential.
The Court of Arms did not turn into the good time I hoped and dreamed it to be. I did get more merit badges than Alton Scott. Our scoutmaster called my name for every badge, and each time I got to shuffle up from my seat to the stage to muffled snickers more than Alton or any other scout in Troop 2005 that night. Every single one of them dressed in their uniform shirt… and blue jeans!! It was the first time I ever killed on stage, thus prophesying my comedic future. For the next year, Mom loved to tell this “hilarious” story to whoever would listen—completely omitting the part where she made me wear those shorts despite my begging and pleading, as well as the part where she looked me over and drove me to the event looking like that. Then it wouldn’t have been so funny. It would have been a story of parental abuse and neglect. But who wants to hear that story at parties and barbecues if you want to be invited back? That was a moment when the message “You are on your own” was received loud and clear. My goal after that was to declare financial independence from my parents. I began getting part time jobs and earning money so I could not only buy my own clothes, but also so I could find a way to learn things that weren’t contained in the 1970 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia.