39 Years of Memories: A Retrospective (PART 1)

Guest post by Grant Chastain

image

This is a huge undertaking.  I know this going in.

I am going to set about the relatively impossible and completely absurd task of cataloging my life.  This isn’t a memoir, so much as a life in temporary review.  I am hoping that this exercise will help me discover something about myself.

I got to thinking about memory recently.  As I approach 40, I’ve of course discovered that my memory is beginning to flag.  This isn’t in any kind of worrisome way – just the general-purpose CRS that affects us all.  But it occurs to me that I remember less with each passing year.  The events that I found most important, or the ones I promised myself I’d always remembers… they fade a little each day, like a yellowing Polaroid.

I wish I could still remember all the little moments when I looked at something and thought, “This… I’m going to remember THIS for the rest of my life.”  Instead, we’re going to look at the defining moments that I truly REMEMBER, and well.  Those little milestones that made me the person I am today.  I will leave nothing on the table.  This will include the important and the not-so-important.

Maybe it’s all important, and I’m just too close to it.  I suspect I’ll never know.

In order to make this readable — hell, ACHIEVABLE — I will break it into four equal parts.  This is the first of those, encompassing my first 10 years.

This is what I remember about my life.

1975:  I am born, the son of Eugene and Dianne Chastain.  Her second marriage, his third.  My parents would remain together until my dad’s passing in 2008.  I was born in St. Louis County, and lived the first years of my life in Arnold, Missouri.  I have little recollection of it – what little I do is classically suspect, and may well be simply my memory of an old photograph, taken in the backyard next to a white picket fence.  We would subsequently move from this home to another just outside Bonne Terre when I am 4.  This is the home I would have until I was 9.

THINGS I LEARNED THAT YEAR:  Drinking from a bottle.  Terrorizing the dog.  Missouri in September is flat and grey and boring and wonderful and quiet and it is my home.  Now and forever.

1978-1979:  I have jagged shards of memories from this time.  Memories of lost pets, and an endless grassy backyard that seemed miles in length to my tiny legs.  I remember getting bitten by a mother dog while trying to pet puppies, and how I cried more from the perceived betrayal than the actual bite itself.

We lived on what was, more or less, a de facto farm – but I remember little farming taking place.  It was, essentially, a repository for animals.  We also lived less than a mile from my paternal grandmother, and a short drive from my maternal grandparents.  I could walk to one grandmother’s home, and we frequently visited the others a short drive away.  I remember my aunts and uncles on my mother’s side of the family.  Our visits were filled with love, and hugs, and other pets, all of whom I adored.  I remember giant fields spanning miles in distance.  I remember the warmth of the sun on my cheeks as I walked the footpaths from my home to my grandmother’s home.  I remember cookies when I arrived, and hugs when I left.  I remember my grandmother’s cat, Boots.

In 1979, I started Kindergarten at the age of 4.  I remember being told that I HAD to drink my white milk, even though I hated it passionately, and still do to this day.  I remember at recess accidentally dropping my Han Solo action figure down a deep drainage grate, and my teacher refused to retrieve it.  This led to somehow – through sheer cult-of-personality – convincing my classmates to work as a team to lift up the heavy metal grate, so I could drop down into the sewer cistern to retrieve it.  I remember sitting in the principal’s office waiting to know whether I’d be punished for having organized the effort… and yet secretly proud that I managed to get my Han Solo back without parental intervention.  I remember laughing at a little girl that cried because she was late to school one day, thinking how silly she was… until I was late a few days later, and found myself suddenly bursting into tears while others laughed… for reasons I did not understand.  I never laughed at someone for crying ever again.

I also saw my first movie at the local theater – “The Aristocats.”  I will forever have a soft spot in my heart for Thomas O’Malley, the Alley Cat.

THINGS I LEARNED THAT YEAR:  Sometimes people will try to make you drink your milk even though you hate it.  And it seems unfair, because you hate it, and because the world seems unusually cruel to milk-hating folks.  But sometimes people try to get you to do things for your own good, and failing to do something worthwhile just because you hate it sets you up for a lifetime of disappointments.  At other times… knowing when to fight for something you love, and convince others to help you achieve your goal, teaches you a completely different lesson.

And crying is not what makes us weak.  It’s what makes us human.

1980:  My school earmarked me as some kind of “gifted student,” though I cannot to this day imagine what sort of special aptitude I could have shown in 1st grade that would have warranted special recognition.  This meant that I got to spend a few hours each day in a 2nd grade classroom.  I felt very isolated and alone – no one could satisfactorily explain why I was there, and none of the other students welcomed me in, so I spent much of the day trying to keep up on school work.  One day, my teacher forgot about me while the rest of my 1st grade class went on a field-trip, and I missed my return bus home.  I panicked, and my teacher — whose name I cannot remember — had to drive me home based upon my 1st grader directions, which meant that I drove her down every single road and inlet that my school bus would have taken.  A simple drive to my house, normally a 15-20 minute drive, took us nearly an hour.  I feel less shame about this than I probably should.

I remember seeing two movies this year – the Robert Altman adaptation of “Popeye” starring Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall, and “The Empire Strikes Back.”  I do not know if I had seen “Star Wars” by this time, but this was the first film that showed me how powerful films can be to a young mind.  I am officially hooked.  I remember seeing my 1st grade teacher at this movie – she says hi to me, and I say nothing in return.  My mother is embarrassed at my having said nothing to her in greeting, but passes it off.  Later I am asked why I did this, and my best guess is that I thought I wasn’t supposed to talk to teachers outside of school.  I’m not certain where I picked up this notion, but it may have been from an old Peanuts comic.

My brother Gene gives me a handful of Mad Magazines.  I am hooked.  It’s one of my first exposures to the concept of comic books or sequential art.  This, along with Savage Sword Of Conan, are the only two comics they have for sale at the grocery store.  Mom refuses to buy me SSOC, but acquiesces to Mad, and I become a faithful reader.

THINGS I LEARNED THAT YEAR:  There is precious little magic in this world, except for the feeling of being transported to another world by masterful storytelling.  So far I have yet to find a way to replicate the amazing feeling of having your breath taken away by a film for the very first time.  I will chase it forever.

1981:  I catch the school bus every single day at my grandmother’s house, at the base of her steep gravel driveway.  This happens at 7:00am.  My routine is to eat Quaker Apples & Cinnamon oatmeal while watching TV.  The only program that plays on KPLR-11 every morning at 6:30am is the 1950s version of “The Lone Ranger.”  To this day, I am the only 39 year-old man that’s seen every single episode, and can instantly identify which ones star Jay Silverheels and Clayton Moore.  Every episode features a skirmish in front of gigantic fake-looking boulder, for reasons no one ever bothers to outline.

Among my Christmas gifts that season was included an Atari 2600.  I spent untold numbers of hours playing Combat by myself, despite it being almost solely a 2-player game.  My brother plays with me sometimes, but less often than you’d think.  We are 8 years apart in age, and he prefers to play with the kids across the street — our only neighbors for several miles.

I take part in a single year of Little League.  I am the worst player on not only the team, and possibly the entire league – but our entire team is terrible, so I fit in.  I only cross home plate once during a game, and it’s because a fellow player hit a home run, driving me in from first.  As I instinctually know this will be my only opportunity to do so, I slide feet-first into home plate during my trot down the basepath.  I have zero regrets about this decision.

One day, I find a tiny bird, fallen from its nest – chirping madly for its mother.  My brother and I spend hours trying to figure out how to protect it from the elements that would do it harm, to return it to its nest.  At last my brother manages the feat, requiring a climb up a tree with no footholds and no protection from gravity’s pull.  I do not know if the bird survives its fall, if it ever grew to become an adult.  What I do know is that my brother accepted my proclaimation that this was a necessary and correct feat.  And he is my hero that day.

I also spend a solid 4 weeks in the hospital with pneumonia.  At one point my class takes a trip to the hospital room to see me.  It does not occur to me until many, MANY years down the road — we’re talking in the last 4-5 years — that the primary reason they did this is because there was a chance I might not survive.  It’s probably for the best that I did not know this at the time.

THINGS I LEARNED THAT YEAR:  There is value in solitary pursuits.  Reading, gaming, or simple gazing at stars.  Each of these things can bring joy to one’s soul, and illustrate the power of solitude upon one’s imagination.  Also, Quaker Apples & Cinnamon oatmeal is, at this time, the best thing to happen to breakfasts.  Its introduction to the breakfast aisle is clearly some kind of watershed.  Some people may feel that Cinnamon & Brown Sugar is a superior choice, but they have clearly overlooked the dearth of small dehydrated apples, which makes their opinion invalid in every measurable way.

Also, that there are some feats that seem impossible, and may well be… but that does not mean you should not try to do them anyway.  For the good of one’s soul.

1982:  I watched E.T. and was the only one in the theater that yelled out HEY THAT’S HAN SOLO when Harrison Ford showed up as Elliott’s school principal.  Later, it’s explained to me that actors can play different roles in different movies.  In that same year, I receive the “E.T.” game for the Atari 2600.  For years I labored under the delusion that I was the only person that actively hated this game, when in fact I was part of a larger group of individuals I refer to as “everyone in the entire world, forever.”

My parents also came home with a heavy black box featuring a new gadget they called a “VCR.”  There were all these tapes we could put in to instantly watch movies we liked.  There was also a store in town that allowed you to pay some money to borrow them, like a library.  We ended up with some copies of movies we watched a whole lot.  I watched “Airplane!” and “The Jerk” almost incessantly.  I have also watched “Foul Play” starring Chevy Chase, but there is a little person in the movie, and I shriek like I’m being murdered every time he appears on-screen.  My sincerest apologies to Billy Barty, who I am positive never meant to scare me.

Mere minutes after buying us both an ice cream cone, my mother is forced to run her car off the road to avoid hitting a negligent driver.  To his credit, he pulls over to make sure we are both okay.  My mother responds by launching her ice cream cone at the driver’s windshield.  This is not atypical.

My grandmother has a bunny hutch, inside which are beautiful rabbits for sale.  I routinely climb inside this hutch to sit with the bunnies – I am scarcely bigger than one myself.  It is still one of my happiest memories.  Sitting in a wire bunny hutch as tiny rabbits hop and climb all over me, watching the sun set over a Missouri country sky.  It does not occur to me until many, many years later that these bunnies were being bred to be eaten.  So it’s fair to say my periodic introduction into their universe is not the worst thing that will happen to them, and may well be the best.

On a school field trip, I received my first kiss on the cheek from a girl on the school bus whose name has forever been lost to the sands of time.  A few months later, she bequeaths to me her pet goldfish that she cannot take with her because she is moving away.  On the off-chance that this woman is now stumbling upon my blog entry… let me assure you that the goldfish lasted for quite some time, considering you gave it to a 6 year-old goof with zero survival skills of his own.  But I think that was mostly my brother’s doing.

THINGS I LEARNED THAT YEAR:  There are few joys in this world that compare with being accosted by a dozen small bunny rabbits whose only desire is to hop all over the new obstacle in their way.   Unless, of course, it’s the sudden and unexpected kiss of a pretty girl on a school bus.

1983:  Long days at school, followed by longer, beautiful summers.  I watched my brother try to kill a rattlesnake with a BB gun by STANDING OVER IT and firing downward, which even at the time seemed a little crazy.  I wasn’t allowed to shoot the BB gun myself, but I remember days coming home from church when my brother was allowed to purchase BBs from the local corner store.  I remember holding the container and feeling the heaviness of it, and being enamored with the idea of one day having a gun myself.  At 39 years old, I have yet to fulfill that destiny.

My grandmother comes home one day with a bag of potting soil purchased at the local Wal*Mart, intending to use it to plant tomatoes.  Inside this bag is the aforementioned soil, as well as a rather lengthygarter snake.  I am immediately paralyzed with fear.  My grandmother – who might well have been described by some as a “sturdy woman,” and a woman who did not truck in such pedestrian concepts as fear or hesitation – picked up the snake by the tail and chucked it out the screen door and onto the lawn.  There is never one moment where she considers filing a lawsuit against the store.  She never even considers calling the store manager to tell them what happened.  My grandmother shrugs her shoulders, and moves on with her day.  When you buy a bag of potting soil, you gotta expect a few garter snakes.

Later that year, I will see “Raiders of the Lost Ark” for the first time.  Indy is also afraid of snakes, which makes me feel a bit better about my phobia.  He is, to a 7 year-old boy, the coolest hero in the history of the world.  He’s still that way to a 39 year-old man.

THINGS I LEARNED THAT YEAR:  1)  Snakes are evil and must be thrown out of screen doors in order to establish dominance over the species.  2)  Just because you don’t like something – even if you’re actively afraid of it – does not mean life won’t sometimes throw it your way to see how you deal with it.  3) My family should probably own that Wal*Mart, or at least have a serious discount from here on in.  4)  Seriously, I hate snakes.  Forever.

1984: Teachers identify that I have a mild speech impediment with my S-sounds, probably due to some dental issues.  In response to this, I am put into what is referred to as “L.D.” – a class for those with learning disorders.  This is considerably scarier than the time when I got put into a grade ahead.  I am now in a single catch-all classroom with other kids who have emotional, behavioral and mental disorders.  I am terrified, because I appear to be the only person that realizes that I’m not supposed to be there.  Eventually, through no meaningful intervention on my part, I am moved back.  My speech normalizes once my teeth grow back in, which is a scenario that certainly could have been predicted by anyone who either A) has teeth, or B) once been a child.

My teacher also takes great pains to point out that I’m “holding my pencil wrong.”  For months I am forced to write sentences with a little rubber triangle around the center of my pencil, a trainer of sorts that is intended to force me to “hold my pencil correctly.”  I am confused, but acquiesce to this plan.  Each day I write more and more slowly, trying to do it the way my classmates do.   Eventually it is pointed out that “he’s really not hurting anything, is he?”, especially in light of my good penmanship, and I am allowed to hold my pencil the way I currently do.  To the polite outside observer, the way I hold a pencil is by gripping it with all five fingers.  This admittedly looks like I am trying to write with my less dominant hand, or that I perhaps have two broken fingers.  No one ever suggests I change this again.  My penmanship is above average.

One day, I make a remark in my 4th grade class that causes everyone to laugh.  I am instantly – for a fleeting moment – popular.  I file this away for later use.  My teacher is displeased.

My brother and I go see “Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom,” and later I con my mom into allowing me to see it by myself on the pretense that I fell asleep the first time, which I most assuredly DID NOT.

By 1984, it becomes clear that we are going to be moving to Kentucky – my dad has accepted a new job.  My mom and I are traveling back and forth between our old home and our new one.  I will be leaving my friends.  I will be leaving my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins.  We are staying in a double-wide trailer while we await the home we will move into.  One night, while we are staying in Kentucky, we receive a call.  Our old home has caught fire, and subsequently burned to the foundation.  All of my pets, and all of my things, are lost.  I remember having to make a list of things I owned for our insurance claim.  All I can remember are toys, and my cat, and my guinea pig.  My mom cries when we see what remains of our old home.  Our path forward is set because there is now no path back.

THINGS I LEARNED THAT YEAR:  1) Just because an adult says that something is supposed to be a certain way… doesn’t necessarily make it true.  We are all of us equally capable of making bad decisions.  2) Some movies require repeated viewings on a big screen.  3)  Your world can change in the blink of an eye.

1985: We spend our summer living in a rented trailer while we await the availability of our new home, a single-story, 3 bedroom ranch home in a quiet suburban neighborhood in Paducah, Kentucky.  The trailer is small, and the kitchen – such as it is – is cramped.  I spend my days outside as much as possible walking the tiny corridors and inlets of the trailer park, and my nights watching TV on our newly-acquired cable TV.  This means hours and hours of HBO and MTV.  Due to the way HBO is programmed at the time, I spend my summer watching “Raiders of the Lost Ark” at least once every single day.  I would estimate I have seen this movie at least 150 times.

At a yard sale, I purchase an old Yankees baseball cap for fifty cents, mostly because it is similar in style to the one Short Round wore in “Temple of Doom.”  My father reimburses me for the money I spent, and throws it away.  It’s clear that Yankee allegiance is not going to fly in the home of a man raised in Missouri.  Not today, and not ever.

We move into our new home.  I have a bunk bed now, but no one to share it with – my brother gets the bigger bedroom at the end of the hall, so there’s no need to bunk in with me.  I alternate between the top and bottom bunks from night to night because I am bored and lonely.  One day, I am looking for a toy in the darkness under my bed — but without a flashlight, I cannot see.  I grab one of my mother’s cigarette lighters to see in the dark space underneath.  The tiny flame licks the plastic underneath the box springs, and a glob of hot melted plastic drips onto my right hand… scorching the skin, and leaving a tiny round burn-mark just below the knuckle.  The scar never heals, and is still visible to this day.  It was a blight for so long, but today… I like it quite a lot.  I have found that there is character inherent in one’s flaws, and I celebrate mine.

My father buys me a Playmobil toy fire truck for my 10th birthday.  It’s disappointing, because I’m clearly too old for this gift by at least 2-3 years.  At the ripe old age of 10, I have realized that my dad has spent so much time supporting his family financially… he’s neglected to learn much about us.  We do not share many of the same interests, because I am not yet a sports fan, and he does not seem to enjoy any of the things I do.  Regardless, I play with this truck on occasion for the next few years, until it finds its way into a yard sale.  I couldn’t say why I would pull it out of the closet and run it around the carpet, even years later.  I guess it felt like treasuring an opportunity to interact with something that my dad bought for me himself.

THINGS I LEARNED THAT YEAR:  The importance of “being there” in the development of a child cannot possibly be overstated.  The relationship we have with our children, at any age, sets the table for the relationship you will have with them when they are grown.  I wish my relationship with my father had been different, and so I take great strides to lead a different kind of life with my own child.  Whether I will be successful in my strategy is not for me to say.  Maybe we are all destined to make mistakes, but mine will, at minimum, not be for lack of effort.  I will show up to this game, ready to play.

Oh, and Midwestern boys are by law not allowed to like the Yankees.  Not today, not ever.

___________________________________________________

This is the first of four retrospectives.  I will continue this list later in the year.  I think I need a little distance before I tackle my teenage years.