My sister Nicole wanted me to write about a few things from our childhood, some of which she only vaguely recalls because she was so young when they occurred. This entry gets its title from the fact that until 1971, I was known as “Rusty.” That year we moved to Lawton, Oklahoma, and their was another kid named Rusty who lived across the street. I decided to go by my real, given name, but no one had ever told me how to spell it, so on my first day of second grade in April of 1971, I wrote my name at the top of my schoolwork as “Richerd.” The teacher must have assumed I was a retard.
Stepping in Tar: This happened before we moved to Lawton, in about 1970, in a suburb of Saint Louis, Missouri called Manchester. My sister Nicole says she only remembers being told about it, not the actual incident. For some reason I was barefoot on the hot concrete street. I consider that unusual, but I don’t know the exact chronology, and I wonder if this was the incident that prompted us not being allowed to go barefoot. (Compare this to my wife, who was probably barefoot all day every day from Memorial Day to Labor Day every year until she was 18.) A crew was spreading tar in the joints and cracks of the street, and the kids in the neighborhood were drawn to this interesting and unusual activity. The crew moved slowly down the street, and as we followed, we got more immersed in watching them. Before I knew it, I stepped dead center into a line of this tar, which must have cooled some, because I don’t recall it hurting much. I do recall one of the workers sitting me down immediately and picking up my leg, dowsing my left food with gasoline, and repeatedly wiping the tar off with a filthy rag. I don’t recall being particularly upset about the whole thing.
The Pine Tree Incident: When we lived in Saint Louis, one of our favorite activities was climbing the pine trees planted at the corners of our house. The roof was the flat-top kind, but the tree was just a little too far for me to jump onto the roof, or so I thought. My friend P. G. and I were in the tree when he decided to leap onto the roof. He encouraged me to follow, but there was a branch in my way, and it seemed like a huge leap, so I refused. Somehow my dad saw this happen, and came over to tell me to get on the roof too. It’s odd that Dad would do this, since he spent most of his life being afraid of things like water and electricity, but perhaps he just didn’t like having a wimpy son. The branch that blocked my way was thorny and stiff, but he ended up yelling at me to get on the roof, so I sucked it up and did it.
The Bouncy Tire Incident: At some point in that same year, our family got an inner tube from a tractor tire for the expressed purpose of being a kind of trampoline, and it became known as the “bouncy tire.” One day P. G. and I were bouncing on the bouncy tire and his finger found its way to my eye. I immediately slapped my hand on my eye and said, “I have to go inside,” where I laid down on my bed with my hand on my eye. It hurt a lot. Within half an hour my mom discovered me and took me to the doctor, who examined it and covered it. For the next week I wore a big, white padded patch on my right eye. There was no permanent damage.
“Big Trouble, Boys!”: I recall that P. G. was a year older than I was, and that another kid, Mike, was even wimpier than I was, since I could pin him to the ground pretty easily. One day a block from my house, we discovered a house under construction, and next to it was a pile of dirt. It was a pretty big pile of fresh dirt, probably dredged from the Mississippi and sold to the company building the house for landscaping or foundation leveling. We were unable to resist, so the three of us got into a huge, uproarious game of “king of the hill.” As we rushed the top and rolled to the bottom and pulled each other down and laughed our butts off, a large sedan arrived at the curb. Three men in suits got out, and one of the sternly said, “Big trouble, boys!” We froze where we stood, stunned by the notion that someone in authority (which might have been the FBI based on their attire) told us we were in “big trouble.” We slowly, silently stepped off the hill and, with our heads down, hoping for a silent getaway, walked home.
Rusty and Me and the Vulgarity Trailer: The kid across the street in Lawton who bore my nickname, Rusty, and I became friends. His sister Stacy became friends with my sister. I particularly remember being interested in Stacy in a pre-teen sexual way, and I can vividly recall tying her up once with my very-1970s-esque double-hole belt. On one occasion, Rusty and I decided to lock ourselves inside the derelict travel trailer in their back yard. To do this, we used plywood and furniture to cover the doors and windows. When we felt we were sufficiently trapped, we watched for people to go by, which was very rarely, and when they did, we would make up the most vulgar possible name we could imagine calling them. I recall the most vulgar, and at the time funniest, we “shit-ass.”
The Pallet: I think most kids with syblings did this. On a weekend night, with Mom and Dad’s permission, Nicole and I would make a pallet on her bedroom floor and surround it with her Barbie dolls and my G. I. Joe stuff, where we would play until we fell asleep. It was during this play that we invented the “E Machine” (link).
The Kansas City Shave Cream Incident: Our grandfather, Mom’s father Richard Batten, passed away in the spring of 1972, and Mom and Dad came to my school to pick me up in the early afternoon for an emergency trip to Missouri. They were going to drop Nicole and me off in Kansas City with the Barrons and go on to the funeral in Saint Louis. I remember Dad getting me out of class, but by the time we got back to the car, we saw that Mom had discovered that a can of shave cream had discharged inside a suitcase, filling it. I was sent back to my classroom, which at that time was a “portable” sheet metal building at Hoover School in Lawton, to get some paper towels. I remember how unbelievably awkward it felt to open the door after returning to the class, all eyes suddenly on my, saying, “My mom needs some paper towels.”
Me as E. G. Marshall: Since the very first day Mom and Dad brought home Grandpa Batten’s reel-to-reel office tape recorder, I have been interested in creating audio recordings. That was 1973, and that tape recorder might have been my favorite toy of all time growing up. I took speech in ninth grade. As the year neared an end, one of our assignments was to produce a radio show and present it to the class from behind a curtain. For my intro music, I used a clip I stole from the intro to a real radio show I loved at the time called The CBS Radio Mystery Theater, hosted by E. G. Marshall. (Sidebar: when my English class acted out 12 Angry Men that same year, I read the Juror Number 8/Henry Fonda part, not the E. G. Marshall part.) It probably comes as no surprise to those who know me that my radio show was the best in the class.
Saving the Marriage: This is the one my sister really wanted to hear. During my early teen years, Mom and Dad fought a lot. Their fights were quiet, bitter affairs that centered around the usual suspects: chronic dissatisfaction with work, inequity in home life, money, their children turning out ugly, etc. Nicole and I seldom even heard the actual fighting, since it was so covert, and since the television was usually at rock concert volume levels. Mom sat in her recliner, Dad in his underwear on the couch, both smoking. Occasionally one of them would ask us to get the Darvon bottle from the medicine cabinet. All we heard were whispers and mumbles, as in, “…you hmmmr fmmf mm h.” “Mm? Mf yuu fmmff too. Fffle the mo mummle.” Then Mom would be crying.
One night I guess the fuffles and murmles got to be too much. There were shouts and slamming doors I only partly remember, then an announcement. I was stunned, and suddenly quite scared to learn that Dad was “leaving” for a while, maybe for good. I remember that he was so shaken that his shirt was buttoned wrong. Something inside me did not want this to happen, so I rather pathetically insisted that we sit down in the living room (often called the Christmas Room in our family) and talk it out. They did sit down, and with me in the role of councilor, they managed to calm down enough for the family to stay together. They never separated or divorced.
Every marriage has ups and downs, and every marriage runs into crisis points. That night was probably the low point of their marriage. In the years that followed, their ugly children turned good-looking, their work and social situations improved, and their marriage thrived for the remainder of their lives.