By thirteen, I was well on my way to my new identity as a pothead. In 1973, I was all about Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, Yes, Pink Floyd, and getting high as often as possible. My best friend and I worked as dishwasher/busboys at the Canton Cafe. School nights we were home by ten, but Fridays and Saturdays the place closed at 2 a.m. We'd finish mopping the floor and leave at around 3. We got high before work, on our breaks, and after we got off when we'd go out for breakfast.
At Saint Mary's, my chronic truancy began in the seventh grade. I hated everything about school. I was physically clumsy, emotionally immature, and near the bottom of the social food chain. My homework was never done, since most evenings were spent huffing Pam or finding other forms of trouble. I was behind in most things and couldn't really focus very well on course work anyway. Life at home was a nightmare. I got good at being checked out in almost any situation where adults were involved.
One fall, there was a tragedy at nearby McKennan Park where a kid chased a kite into a tree and came in contact with a power line. He died instantly. I would often fantasize about following his example. Obviously, I never did.
As shut down as I was, I was still precocious, but mostly in ways that didn't help. In social studies we did a segment on systems of government. I said that Communism and Christianity had a good deal in common on paper, but neither really lived up to their promo. This merited a trip to Monsignor Sullivan's office, where I listened to a sanctimonious, late-model Mercedes driving old fart ramble about lost sheep. My mom said, "You never had these ideas before you started hanging around with Jeff Thompson."
Jeff was three years older, lived two houses down, and was the embodiment of cool. He had Robert Plant hair, knew karate, and played guitar in a rock band. While I was a late-bloomer, Jeff could have passed for twenty at sixteen, and often did. His band, named for a vinyl faux-masonry sold by the yard in hardware stores, was called Z-Brick. They rocked. Jeff had an older brother named Bob who was an honest-to-god hippy, and all the other neighborhood hippies congregated at his house.
Bob had done jail time for what was quite possibly the dumbest robbery ever committed in Sioux Falls. He pretended to beat up the manager of the Pizza Hut where he worked and locked him in the walk-in cooler just before the alarm was tripped. There was a light dusting of snow that night. It was early morning. The cops followed the tire tracks right to his house. Everyone got fired and the whole town had a good laugh.
Jeff and my other friends from the neighborhood were into rock & roll, cars, getting high, and girls, pretty much in that order. I was never cool, but at least they let me hang around. Our house was a place for them to party.
My sister and I learned we were adopted when we found paperwork in a desk at the end of the hall. I was already sufficiently alienated to not much care. My sister, on the other hand, kind of lost it. Within a year she was stealing large amounts of money from my parents by forging checks for cash to the local grocery store. The money went to junk food, pot, and buying the attention of one of the neighborhood boys who pretended to like her. She was morbidly obese. It was sad.
As much as I hated my parents, I knew they didn't have any money. The check writing went on for months and escalated over time. She wouldn't stop. I finally told my mother. She was in the basement doing laundry. I was as clear as I could be. Checks. Forged signatures. Several times a week. A few days later she told me that she'd looked into it, and that I must have been mistaken. I let it drop.
About a month later, my sister and I were smoking with a friend at the rock fireplace behind our garage when we heard brakes screech and a car door slam. It was my dad. "How could you do this ," he bellowed as he struck at her with his fists. "You've ruined me!" His rage had reduced him to tears. Terry was bawling. My stomach turned to ice.
It was arranged for me to leave and spend the night at a friend's.
I never understood how the forgery could have gone on as long as it did without being noticed. Once I'd said something, I figured it was out of my hands. I decided my sister had something on them. Something terrible. Something I didn't want to know about. And that my mother, for her own reasons, had covered.
In 1974, I started ninth grade at O'Gorman High, the Catholic school across town. My sister was already there. She never went to classes either. Neither of us were doing very well. In the middle of my first year she dropped out, never to return. My parents tried various things. Weight Watchers, counseling, Junior Achievement. Nothing took. The idea of her returning to school was soon dropped.
My mother asked our parish priest whether Terry might be possessed by Satan, and he said the problem could be found much closer to home. That was the end of that relationship.
They moved their business to a few blocks from our house and tried to resume their role as parents, but their efforts were ham handed and authoritarian and did more harm than good. They were the enemy, and we resisted.
My truancy became a full-time commitment. I was stoned most of the time. Weekends were spent in detention under the kid-hating glare of Father Wagner, the closeted gay Principal who was fooling nobody.
All the kids called him Father Fagner, or Father Fag for short. But we wanted it both ways. The second most hated teacher at O'Gorman was the woman who ran detention study hall. Apparently, her and Father Fag were an item.
In high school, there were the jocks, the nerds, and the heads. My choice was clear. I loved everything about stoner culture. Nothing was as cool as a forty dollar lid of Columbian.
My friends all had little pipes designed for smokeless hits between classes in the boys room. We passed joints in the grassy quadrangle over lunch. The essential high school car accessories were an eight-track and a bong. School was little more than a series of occasions to get high. I was too bored to even know how bored I was.
The truancies led to a series of suspensions, and finally, a few months into tenth grade, expulsion. As my mother walked me out of the administrative office where we had received the news she turned to me and said, "How does it feel to be a failure?"
I treated it as a rhetorical question.
I was enrolled immediately in the downtown public high school. My days were spent a few blocks away at Uncle Earnie's Pinball Arcade, a smoky little store front with about ten machines and a couple of pool tables. When the school truant officer was spotted, an alarm was sounded and we disappeared out the back door or into the basement until the threat had passed. There were a few suspensions, and by the end of the year I was expelled from there as well.
Next, I went to summer school at Lincoln, the high school in the wealthier part of town. A gym teacher caught me smoking a joint on the sidewalk before class, which got me expelled for the third time that year. I made up information for the police about my source, fingering some nobody losers that I didn't need to worry about.
The charges were dropped but I was required to see a counselor. He met with my mother and I together and then with her alone. The next week, I walked to his Augustana College office to see him on my own. Whatever she'd said to him, it must have been a thing to behold. She was bat shit crazy and couldn't feign normalcy to save her life.
He told me I wasn't the problem. My family, he said, just wasn't a good place to be. I needed to get out as soon as I possibly could. I had to hang on for another year or two.
I'd been waiting all my life for that. I could leave. The thought kept me going.
Young, Gifted, and Miserable
Everybody Must Get Stoned
Life Begins at Seventeen
The Year of Living Dangerously
The Air Force Years: Part One
The Air Force Years: Part Two
The Air Force Years: Part Three
The Air Force Years: Part Four
The Air Force Years: Part Five
Working Poor In Waltham: Part One
Working Poor In Waltham: Part Two
Birth of a Student Radical
Harvest of Shame
The Owl of Minerva Flies at Midnight
The Road to Street
The Street Years: Part One
The Street Years: Part Two