It is 1980, I am twelve years old, and there is so much blood.
Not mine, but my younger brother Adam’s, who is lying on the floor at my feet, crumpled and stunned, and cradling his head in his little hands.
It’s New Year’s Eve, we are in Provincetown at a hotel by the beach, and our parents have gone out to dinner.
The room is typical of those many of us stayed in during that era—Bob Ross look-a-like paintings of the sea shore; rough, Brillo-aspiring blankets; brown, faux wood paneling; a television with ten somewhat fuzzy channels, three of which are the hotel’s own; and a rug that is moist to the touch, but not so much as to leave your socks wet.
Our mom and dad told us not to jump from bed to bed while they were out, much less fight in mid-air between the beds.
But it’s all we’ve been doing all trip, and if there has been the sense that a crash was inevitable, it has somehow been avoided until now.
Now being the operative word, because we may have been told not to jump, but it was too tempting, and too beautiful, and Adam has just fallen short.
Like Icarus, he was aloft, only to have his wings melt, leaving him hurtling towards the sea, ever spiraling, the ocean spray hitting him in the face as he descended for all eternity.
Then nothing, except for silence and blood, and shock, both his and mine.
I know I have to do something. I could call the front desk. Or Nappy’s, the restaurant my parents are at, maybe the police, a hospital.
But none of these things seem like the correct choice. What does seem like the right choice is to go get my parents, on my own, and on foot.
Though not just by foot, I will run to them.
I tell Adam to sit tight and that I will be right back with our mother and father.
He doesn’t respond.
I lace up my running shoes and head out into the night.
The air is salty, crisp, and inky dark.
This isn’t the summer Provincetown where the night is filled with packs of boys dressed in leather who follow Adam and I as we go to meet our parents after wandering the streets; where music plays everywhere, pulsating and full of kinetic energy; where every other storefront is a souvenir or T-shirt shop selling cans of Cape Cod air and where Spiritus Pizza, the Penny Patch, and the Army-Navy store filled with its ancient scuba gear are always jammed with tourists while rainbow flags flutter from every building, and there is life, so much life, and so much joy with every stop.
This is winter, and even on New Year’s Eve, the people on the streets are few, except for the drunken guy who yells, “Happy New Year’s” at me as he and another guy stumble by, and I think, “Happy New Year’s for who man, because it’s not happy for me and my brother?”.
And what must Adam be thinking at this point, laying on the floor of our room, alone, scared, and far from home, as he wonders whether keeping his hands clasped tightly around his head will keep his brains from spilling out onto the rug as he awaits my return?
Not that I’m really thinking about any of that.
Because while I am worried about Adam, what I’m truly thinking about is me, and how I’m saving the day, and that feeling of triumph is what drives me towards Nappy’s.
Well that, and the certainty that I will be recognized for my actions.
You see, I’m also thinking about the magazine Boy’s Life.
Do you remember Boy’s Life?
It was, and is, the Scout magazine, not that I was a Scout.
I thought about it, the Scout thing, but it didn’t stick. I didn’t care about knots, camping trips, Jamborees, or fat dads with red necks and too tight polo shirts tucked into their polyester, pseudo-polyester football coach shorts.
What did I care about?
What I cared about were books and running, and girls, and that was pretty much it, except that I also cared about being noticed, and finding a way to be heroic and larger than life was a clearly a means for getting there.
Which brings us back to Boy’s Life, a magazine, which despite its religious leanings, something I happily overlooked, spoke to me as much Dynamite, Teen Beat, and Sport did.
Exactly why its voice beckoned was not entirely clear to me then, but now I know it was the picture of normalcy it projected, and what qualified as mainstream and domestic. I didn’t have that. I had parents who loved me and showed up at every game, took us on trips, and made sure we had dinner together every Friday night.
But they also went to protests, ate meals at the empty Middle Eastern restaurant, and generally acted way too ethnic for my upstate town. What they didn’t do is watch sports, or drink, or hang out the Jewish Community Center, much less the Country Club. My dad was an artist and he rode his bike everywhere and my mom was therapist and worked late. None of which actually embarrassed me. Even at an early age I knew they were cool, but I still wanted nothing to do with it, them, or whatever we were.
Mostly, I didn’t want to be weird. I wanted to be normal, even if I don’t remember thinking that in any conscious way
And Boy’s Life portrayed a picture of what a kind of normal looked like, or could look like, boys going to Scout meetings and talking about Jesus, and everybody looking happy as they were doing so. Which is also not to say I wasn’t happy, I don’t remember that anyway, it’s just that I wanted to be part of a community like the one portrayed in Boy’s Life.
I just didn’t want the Scout part getting in the way.
I also knew, however, even if it wasn’t totally conscious, that I wanted to be more than all of that too. I wanted to be among the normals, wherever they were, but I also wanted to be recognized as still being something special among them.
Hence my particular fascination with “A True Story of Scouts in Action,” an illustrated feature in Boy’s Life which highlighted great feats of heroism by kids just like me, though not like me exactly, but my age certainly.
The episode that still lingers with me was titled “Fall From a 40-Foot Cliff.”
It portrays the story of a Scout who saves a friend, who, well, you will see this coming, has fallen from a 40-foot cliff.
The colors are terribly vibrant, the friend is falling in his bright red sweater, hands aloft, and the hero is wearing a blue jean jacket, his Scout neckerchief loosely tied around his neck.
The hero calms his friend, stops the bleeding, and splints his leg with branches, a belt, and that amazing Scout neckerchief.
Why couldn’t I be that kid?
I could, except for the fact that apparently I could not.
For, isn’t it true that I hadn’t stopped to calm my brother before I left to get my parents?
And wasn’t it also true that I had not bothered to try and stop the bleeding?
That is true as well, though in my defense, I was not a Scout and did not have a neckerchief at my disposal.
But I did stop to splint Adam’s head at least, right?
I don’t even know if that’s possible, but no, not remotely.
However, despite all of that, did I think about the heroic boy highlighted in “Fall From a 40-Foot Cliff,” as I ran, and also kind of think that could be me?
I did, all the way to Nappy’s.
Did I also think about how they would illustrate my feature, a larger-than-life image of me in full stride, brow furrowed, splashed across the page, the smell of salt so distinct it would distract the reader from the abject selfishness otherwise running roughshod throughout the piece?
I did that as well.
But were my parents at the restaurant when I got there?
They were not, not at all.
For several summers during my teen years I mowed lawns, picked weeds, cut brush, hated myself for not knowing a better way to earn money, and managed the endless tedium and self-hatred by picturing myself being interviewed on Late Night with David Letterman.
What I was being interviewed about was beyond me then, and remains so now. At some point it may have involved the vague idea of writing, something that didn’t seem any less improbable to me than getting on the show itself.
It was all fantasy, though it was also a need, and what I know, is that Dave and I laughed and laughed as our brilliance was wordlessly splashed across the screen for the whole world to see and consume.
I was having a moment, and it was spectacular, and while said moment was based on no discernible action I was aware of, I had seized it, just as I once believed I had all those years before when I went out into the night to save Adam.
Which for the record, was in fact an actual action, albeit a largely misguided one.
When I got back to the hotel, my parents were already there, and Adam was being attended to by paramedics who then took him to a local hospital where they could stitch up his head.
It turns out that someone had heard him moaning on the floor of our room and called the front desk. They had in turn called for an ambulance, and then located my parents after Adam told them where they were.
No one asked me why I made the decision to leave Adam and run off into the night. He was safe, and apparently that was all that mattered.
I never apologized to him for that, my bout of hubris, and my trip to the sun, but I hope I’ve made it up to him.
I also never made it into Boy’s Life, and now that Letterman has retired, my appearance on his show is unlikely to happen either.
I could tell you how none of that is important to me anymore. That getting through every day, working 9-5 so that we can pay our mortgage, getting my children to school on time, and trying to be a good husband, father, son, and brother is enough for me.
That truth be told, I am finally normal, just as I wanted to be, and it rocks.
But I would be lying to you.
I still want to be special. I still crave the sun. And even more than that, part of me still craves someone knowing that I got there, or tried at least.
Am I embarrassed about this?
But does that need still lead me to make rash decisions that put others at danger?
It does not.
My hubris is now moderated by a sense of responsibility, my wings and wax have been set aside in place of a pen and laptop, and this I truly do consider a kind of victory, even if the need for more still lingers just beyond my reach, and I remain painfully aware that such actions will likely never garner me an illustrated column in Boy’s Life, much less anywhere else.
Art by Michael Tanzer.