Thursday, October 25, 2012

Barbara Eden, Boris Karloff, and Halloween at the YMCA

As Halloween nears, my mind wanders to the YMCA.

It's not what you're thinking.

By the time I was born, my parents had already raised four daughters. My father, at the time, was 47, and my mother was 39. No doubt exhausted by the whole child-rearing thing, they gave me a lot of freedom to do what I wanted, to a point. For example, while other kids played kickball in the street, I positioned myself in the middle of the downstairs hallway, drawing cartoons. My entire family had to step over or around me for hours at a time. Surprisingly, no one seemed to mind.

As I grew older, my lack of typical boyhood interests and skills became difficult for my parents to step around. My father, I suspect, was in denial and tried to find a rationale behind my behavior whenever one even remotely plausible might be deduced. One night, during an episode of I Dream of Jeannie, I drew a diagram of what Barbara Eden's hair must have looked like when completely unknotted. Having sketched something vaguely resembling a cantilever bridge, I showed it to my father. One of my sisters shot me a look of icy disapproval.

My father studied the drawing and gently chastised my sister for her scorn. "He might grow up to be an architect one day," he said.

My mother had other strategies in mind. At first, she used shame as a tactic. "Why can't you be more like So and So?," she'd ask. I'd usually respond by citing that So and So just got into trouble for catching the nearby woods on fire or breaking Coke bottles in the church parking lot.

When the shame game didn't work, my mother tried bargaining with me. If I'd take basketball lessons at the YMCA, she'd give me a reward. I don't remember the exact bribe, but it must have been good because I begrudgingly accepted it. Soon, my mother was driving me to the downtown Greensboro YMCA on a regular basis. Each time, there was a little bit of hope in her heart and a big knot in my stomach.

As I expected, my adventures in basketball were a failure. I was the skinny asthmatic kid who, if he were lucky enough to actually possess the ball at any given moment, looked at it as if it were a live hand grenade. I couldn't get rid of it fast enough. During every game, I was threatened at best, spit on at worst.

But all was not lost.

The conclusion of my long basketball nightmare coincided with the YMCA's Halloween costume contest. It was a big to-do that included a showing of a Boris Karloff movie called Die, Monster Die. The film is chiefly memorable for a scene in which a young man enters a creepy old house, decorated with cobwebs, creaky doors and dry ice. The young man approaches a bed draped in a thick canopy, behind which an ailing old woman with a raspy cigarette voice is shrouded. "You must think this house is obsessed with mystery!," she says. It's still one of my favorite movie lines.

Back to me. I'd gone to extreme lengths for my costume, wrapping myself in a big decorative blanket, painting my face red, and wearing a black wig. In other words, I went as a kid's politically incorrect idea of a Native American back when we still called them 'Indians.'

After the party was over, my mother picked me up. "Did you have fun?" she asked.

"Not really," I answered. "But I won the costume contest!"

Halloween with sisters Julia and Mimi. I'm afraid that's me in the tutu.
That was the last time my mother attempted to coerce me into extra-curricular athletics. There would be battles between us in the future, especially during my rebellious teenage years. But on that Halloween night, despite my ineptitude on the basketball court, I suspect my mother was just a little bit pleased.  

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  1. I am absolutely amazed that you thought about Jeannie's hair being down from that awesome ponytail. I always wanted and still DO want that ponytail. To know that you saw BEYOND the hair impressed the hell out of me.

    Well done on the costume. Although, I think you should have worn this lovely little ensemble to the movie/contest. I especially enjoy the mustache/tutu combination. Very "Swan Lake." :-)

    1. "Swan Lake"! Of course! Now my costume in the photo makes sense to me. Thanks for illuminating the situation, as always, JuJu!

  2. Jim, I worked at that YMCA! Paul will roll his eyes every time I mention it, because I was the kid who "buzzed" the men into the locker room and handed out towels.....Every gay kid's dream. I can completely see your story in my mind. Wonderful story.

    1. So funny, Bill. Thanks for letting me know. I wonder in what other ways our paths might have crossed in Greensboro?