Discovery at 13—Clark Humphrey
Discovery at 13
by Clark Humphrey
When I was 13, I desperately wanted several things.
I wanted someone to tell me how to actually have a girlfriend instead of just fantasizing about having one. (Even to this day, nobody is willing to tell me this. They want to change the subject, from what I want into what they want me to want.)
I wanted my own bedroom, something I would not get for another year.
I wanted it to be possible for a boy to be popular and respected in school without having to be a successful athlete.
I wanted it to be OK to be intelligent without being called, of all things, a “retard.”
I wanted it to be OK to like girls without being called, of all things, a “faggot.”
But most of all, I wanted to be anywhere, anywhere but the house I was in, on the piece of property it was on, in the stretch of sterile exurbia sometimes falsely referred to either as a ‘town’ or as ‘the country.’
I wanted to be where something was happening other than pre-sterilized Nothing. Where men and women struggled over larger stakes than the school board. Where there was more to do than golf, bowling, roller skating, going to bland churches to hear sermons about recycling, getting drunk, getting stoned, and getting (or getting someone) pregnant.
Where dining out meant more than the choice between the Arctic Circle Drive In and the pizza place and the pie place and the steak house at the golf course.
Where reading matter meant more than the used book store full of old Harlequins, and peeps at the girlie magazines at the supermarket.
Where live entertainment meant more than cover bands.
Where a wild night wasn’t just getting plastered and driving one’s beater Camaro into a ditch.
Where you could go to the movies without having to drive 10 miles into the next biggest town.
A place where maybe, just maybe, intelligence would be respected, perhaps even admired.
It’s not that I’d had a ‘bad’ childhood by the current definition of one. I always had a roof over my head and enough to eat. I was never sexually assaulted. I was bullied; but these days a kid getting bullied seems to matter only if it’s because the kid was gay.
(‘Gay’, by the way, was a concept I didn’t understand at all back then. Not even after reading the Time magazine cover story about ‘The Homosexual’ with a picture of a clean cut young man standing in the shadows in shame. I mean, in my little town the bully kids would call a boy a ‘faggot’ if he hung around with girls too much, as opposed to ‘real guys’ who only desired the company of other ‘real guys.’)
That year I found just such a someplace else.
A college town. A ‘cow college’ town, but a real town nonetheless.
Sidewalks. Walkable streets, with destinations worth walking to. Real stores. Real movie theatres. Even live theater. Bigtime college sports. At least one real book store.
A sense of a real place, a place in its own right, not just some subdivisions and hobby farms with narrow, under-maintained roads in between.
How I got there:
My family went on a car trip to California. (That trip should be its own story. But I immediately knew we were crossing over into a cruder place when I saw the first neon sign after the Ore./Cal. state line: NUDES AT NOON.
On the way back, we stopped at the adjoining homes of my grandmother and aunt. We stayed there for a couple of days. One house had a back yard and a furnished full basement and a sloped-ceiling top floor; the other had a study, a kitchen with multiple lazy susans, and a full back patio.
The street they were on had sidewalks! Shade trees! Just blocks from schools, stores, burger and pizza joints, a Fred Meyer, and a university campus full of handsome
And the sky there was full. Clouds seemed to stand straight on top of you, like a tall ceiling. On sunny sunsets, the off-white of the Coast Range mountains contrasted with the purple of the sky.
I was so in love with houses, the street, the neighborhood, and the whole vibe of being there.
My parents let me stick around at my grandmother’s for another week. One glorious week of not being bored! Where I could look and explore and be amazed and learn what being somewhere really could mean.
I later wound up living in this town, for two nonconsecutive years. Each of those years is its own story. There was no practical reason for me to be there, except that I liked it there.
I returned to that town only once, in 1997. But it remains as a locale for some of my more “homey” dreams. I imagine it would be a good place to go on a writing binge, away from my normal urban distractions, but still with walkable access to beer and burgers.
My actual childhood home, no, that wouldn’t be a retreat for me. That would be returning to the childhood prison. Where there was, and would be, nothing but household chores and boredom. Two miles (nowadays) from the nearest strip mall, two more miles to anything else.
But back to the past. I finally got to an actual city (this one) five years after that thirteenth year. When I did, I began to meet people who were absolutely certain that I must have had an idyllic upbringing, so close to nature and far from the evils of The City.
I continued to meet this attitude when I came to the UW, whose English department was essentially totally ruled by fake-Gary Snyder nature poets. Even in the journalism school, several kindly teachers and students wanted to plat a career course on my behalf that would have me working at, and eventually running, a nice little paper in a nice little town.
These people never understood why I always screamed at them.