If you haven’t already, see the previous installment in this series.
My mother worked evening shifts (3pm to midnight) at the local Emergency Room and my dad had a regular 8-5 job at the university. This left three children (I was between 3 and 7, Brady between 4 and 8, and Haley, our sister, between 7 and 11) to fend for themselves. In many ways, we weren’t bothered in the slightest. We Gunnink children have always been independent. We were driven to school in the morning by our mother, but we walked home together from school, up the many blocks to our house, and just played until our dad got home. Dad was always a good dad, but not good at motherly ministrations, so he was more than happy to leave us to our own devices as long as we didn’t kill each other. He would come home, make dinner for us (or, on Tuesdays, we’d all go out to Long John Silvers, and then take dinner to mom at the hospital, where we’d get free stuff like giant syringes—without the needles, of course), and then he would watch war movies or westerns while we played, usually within his line of sight. Sometimes we convinced him to rough house with us, which I think he enjoyed immensely until we became big enough to hurt him by accident.
Each night, Brady and I had a bath, which for us was more about staging action figure fights and monkeying around in the water than it was about getting clean. When we had soaked long enough and gotten bored, we would call upstairs for our dad, who would eventually come downstairs to the bathroom, shampoo our hair, and dry us off. There are bathtime stories, which I’m sure Brady remembers, which are best left untold.
Since mom wasn’t home, we were often inclined to ask dad for our “special treat,” which was our euphemism for not having to brush our teeth—oh, how we despised brushing our teeth! Precious minutes of our day, gone, and effectively ending our ability to eat for the day. To our dad’s credit, this was a pretty rare occurrence, one that he only caved to in order to shut us up.
But for a while, anyway, we were too young to be by ourselves in those few hours between school’s end and my father’s return from work. At some point, my parents hired a babysitter named Julie, who I’m assuming my father knew from his work at the university—she was a college student, you see. We children were leery at first of a stranger entering our midst and possibly disturbing our fun1.
It turns out, however, that Julie was one of the most incredible human beings that ever lived. I can’t say how many countless hours she watched/entertained us, but I can tell you with some certainty that she came to see us even when our parents were home and she wasn’t being paid. One Saturday, I remember, I was watching E.T., which I found rather dull, when Julie showed up at the door, walked me downtown, and bought be ice cream and fruit leather at the drugstore. This wasn’t an uncommon occurrence, mind you. As odd as it is to think it, we must be been charming enough kids that Julie genuinely enjoyed being around us. I was almost jealous, then, to learn that she was seriously dating a guy named Guy, whom she eventually married after we moved away.
Sometimes, Julie or our parents would walk us down to the school, which had an enormous playground and was open to pretty much anyone to use, though I don’t think many children did. There were tetherball poles and a dodgeball court in the southwest corner paved with blacktop. In the northwest corner was a set of swings. In the very middle of the playground was a concrete wall that masked the five- or six-foot drop in elevation. On the south side of the wall was basically an open space for ball-based sports, or just running around like crazy. On the close side was more swings. The easternmost tip of the playground was set off by a fence—I don’t know why—and had a sort of standard jungle gym and a concrete basketball court. The centerpiece of the playground—at least in my estimation—was a large red wooden “bridge” that looked as though it had been picked up from over a canyon and plopped down in the middle of the schoolyard. I loved that bridge, as we were always fighting battles over it, hiding under it, or scampering through it.
We had plenty of chance, too; there were four recesses in a typical schoolday: one before school started, a 15-minutes one at midmorning, a 30-minute one following lunch, and another 15-minute one at midafternoon. Goodness knows how anybody ever got any teaching done. As it turns out, that wasn’t really a problem, since teaching wasn’t particularly high on anybody’s list of priorities, it appeared.
We all had the same lovely kindergarten teacher2, a Mrs. Cole, but my first grade teacher was Mrs. Packard, a humorless old woman who already looked embalmed. I managed to anger her at just about every occasion, despite my intelligence. Whenever she would yell at me, I would get very uncomfortable because she looked right into my eyes, so I crossed them in order to avoid looking at her, unaware that crossing one’s eyes was easily seen by others. She said nothing for a few week’s worth of that, and one day she yelled at me even louder to not cross my eyes. I was amazed—did the woman have psychic powers or something?
In the afternoons, since I qualified for whatever fast-track program there was at 6th Street Elementary, I left Mrs. Packard’s class and went down the hall to the room of a hippie-ish woman named Mrs. Tagliabooie. To a great extent, the Smart Kid Class™ was sort of a laissez-faire affair. I was always welcomed to use the computer in the classroom to do some sort of educational program. Each time, however, I pulled from the stack of floppies a karate fighting game (whose controls I never did figure out, though I tried) and Mrs. Tagliabooie would tell me exasperatedly that I was supposed to do an educational program. I’m not sure why she didn’t just hide the karate game, but it was still there every time.
The only other activity from that class that I remember is that we—it was multi-grade, I believe, and Brady was in it, too—put on a production of Snow White & the Seven Dwarves. I was the Woodsman, I think, and while I don’t remember much about it, I think that Brady and I probably turned Tagliabooie’s hair grey (Brady, if you’re reading: what did we do that was so exasperating?).
The memory of school for me—as it is with most children, I’m sure—is mixed: there were bullies on the playground, for one. One of them briefly choked my brother when he attempted to defend me; when we told the supervising teacher about the assault, she advised us to “stay away” from the bully in question. Gee, thanks, lady: where’d you get your teaching certificate, again?
The cafeteria was another source of consternation for me: it was dirty brown and dimly lit, highlighted with annoying “Drink milk!”3 posters and bright pastel chairs. It was like someone threw up an ice cream cake and they carved a room out of it. I never trusted cafeteria food (still don’t—during my 12 years of public education, I never once ate cafeteria food, unless you count buying french fries in high school), and brought my lunch every day. I was quite fond of pudding at the time, and was in the habit of bringing a particularly cloying confection known as “bubble-gum” Snack-Pak, which was legal to make at that point, I suppose. Who can know the number of chemicals that must have been required to make a foodlike substance of such an artificial taste and of a neon pink color so incredibly vivid that only regular droppers of acid would recognize it. Yet I ate it with relish. While the other students were eating, for instance, the circa-Thanksgiving meal of reconstituted mashed potatoes and dry strips of turkey, I munched happily away on a PB&J and inorganic pudding.
For the most part, though, school was breezily easy. Not to toot my own horn, but despite being thick as a brick, I was intelligent in a scholastic way, and had no problem getting through whatever assignments were thrown at me. Funnily enough, I was a late start when it came to reading books of any substance4.
See Spot Run
I still liked the library though. Actually, it was not far from the elementary school, in the small and quaint downtown area. If I close my eyes and remember, I can still visualize the view from in front of the circulation desk. It was dimly lit, with a big—to me— desk right by the doorway. Straight ahead, and more brightly lit, was the children’s section, which was a square of low bookshelves with rugs and odd little chairs in the center. This square was in a square room that itself was lined with bookshelves. I recall three books, particularly:
- Strawberry Thumb. I don’t ever recall reading this book, but I thought my mother liked it, and so every time we went to the library, I pointed it out to her. She thought, I’m sure, that because I always pointed it out to her, I liked it.
- Some picture book about a naughty boy who goes to the doctor for a vaccination and ends up chasing the doctor, the syringe in his hand. I relished this image because of my own hatred of needles, caused in no small part to the miserable wretch of a woman who gave me my first tetanus shot (poorly, I must emphasize) at age 5.
- A book about the samurai of feudal Japan. If there’s one love that predominated my childhood, it was samurai and ninja, mostly because I liked both katanas and martial arts. This book talked all about the various weapons, and more gruesomely about the rite of seppuku, wherein a dishonored samurai ritually disemboweled himself with a gorgeous fishskin blade (it was pictured). Why it was in the children’s section, I really don’t know.
If one went left instead of forward at the circulation desk, they went down a flight of stairs into the grown-up section. I would go there sometimes see what my parents were doing, and marvel at the books. On the far wall was an illuminated case containing various geological wonders like chunks of amethyst. As a child, all the book cases looked so tall, and the books so large, that this section was always kind of intimidating to me.
Blackmail material / a stitch in time
We children were pretty close then—Brady and I played together as two young boys are wont to do, but I also spent considerable time with my sister, Haley. She had a sort of love/hate relationship with us, as evidenced by her glee in tying us up (see previous entry) and her apparent consternation that we enjoyed it so much. One popular story that we still tell is that my mother made her cook pasta for my lunch, and Haley so resented it that she dumped a bunch of pepper into the water in hopes that it would make the noodles unpalatable. In fact, I loved the ‘pepper noodles’ so much that I insisted she make them that way in the future. Sometimes, a girl just can’t properly torture her brothers.
But as a young girl, Haley had more in common with us than she’d probably like to admit. She taught Brady and me our bathroom humor—when our meals would devolve from civilized conversation to making farting noises with our hands, it was always Haley leading the pack. There are also pictures—and some of you have seen them—of Haley and myself in makeup and dresses. Goodness only knows what my parents thought when I took so much pleasure in letting Haley crossdress me. Goodness only knows what they thought when we went around the neighborhood like that.
One day, she and my brother and I were all outside in front of our house, bored, and I was pestering her, as I was wont to do. Brady, feeling valiant, informed me that I’d better stop it, or he’d stop me. I ignored him. With a start, he came at me, doing karate kicks that were in all seriousness never intended to hit me. Regardless, I began backing up—realizing that I was backing up toward our then-newish 1990 Plymouth Horizon, parked in the driveway, I turned around…….. and hit my head, hard, its rearview mirror.
Bam! I was down on my knees immediately, and within moments heard and saw the quiet patter of bright red blood on the dull grey concrete. I sensed the presence of Brady and Haley standing above me. When they realized the gravity of the situation, they began to panic, and one of them—I forget which—said “Oh my god, he cracked his head open.”
Now, you and I both know that “cracked his head open” is a figure of speech. Even as a young boy, I’d heard it. But remember that I was a dumb kid, and didn’t quite have the cognitive capacity to differentiate between an idiom and a literal phrase. So, when I saw the torrent of blood hitting the pavement and heard the phrase “he cracked his head open,” I thought that the entire top part of my skull had opened, and so instead of holding the wound, I placed both hands very firmly on the top of my head and pushed down, in order to keep my brains from falling out. Someone went rushing into the house to fetch my father, who booked it outside with a fistful of napkins.
I don’t remember at what point I was relieved of my fears of literally losing my head—actually, the entire trip to the hospital was a blur. Funnily enough, my mother had been at work—the Emergency Room, if you’ll remember—less than three hours at that point. So imagine her surprise and dismay when her entire family comes in, ushering her youngest, who is bleeding profusely from the head.
It was she that prepped me for the doctor to stitch me up. I remember that she used an assload of Betadine on my wound and cooed into my ear as they injected the wound with an anæsthetic. I remember crying a bit at that part, but what was even more disconcerting was actually getting the six stitches put in, which didn’t hurt but which sounded awful. The sound of stitches being put in one’s forehead is akin to paper being crumpled. It’s awful.
The interesting corollary to this story is that weeks later, when I got my stitches out, I went to play with my friend, Tim. He, Brady, and I were at the end of our driveway, huddled like football players, and accidentally butted heads. Pop! goes the freshly-healed wound. Drip drip drip goes yet more blood onto the pavement. And again we drove to the hospital, and I’m sure my poor beleaguered parents began to wonder why they had children in the first place.
We had a number of pets in New Mexico. We had Jasmine, a rotund Siamese who we always thought of as our nanny; we had Buddy, a gruff grey tabby who only liked our parents. One morning, perhaps in 1991, my sister woke up on a Saturday morning to see a scrawny white cat limping around. We fed it some canned food, which it hungrily devoured, and we ended up keeping it. My father the English teacher named it Tiny Tim (after the Dickens character), although the limp healed and Tiny (as he became known) ended up a rather large, muscular British White. Also in New Mexico, we bought a Blue Siamese kitten, whom we named Wayne after my dad’s middle name. Wayne did what we called “nuzzling,” which was to lay on you, with his face buried in your neck, and basically drool or get snot on you. For some reason, we were never more thrilled about cat boogers. Maybe it’s just because he was so cute. Sadly, Wayne had a genetic predisposition to Feline Leukemia, and died after only a couple of years. It was my first experience with the death of a pet.
We gained two rodents, as well. I received a guinea pig for my birthday, which was officially named Richard in honor of my paternal grandfather, but which became colloquially known as ‘Pigger.’ Shortly before we moved, my brother received a hamster (‘Hammy’) from our babysitter’s roommate, who was moving and couldn’t keep it.
Imagine us moving: Two parents, three young children, three cats, and two rodents all piled into a van, driving three days to reach Illinois. To get there, we had to pass through a rather treacherous stretch of mountains, which caused both Buddy and Brady to vomit.
We were only in New Mexico for four years. Dad’s job at WNMU was less than wonderful for him, I think, and soon he got a significantly better position in Illinois (which ultimately proved so stressful that it contributed to his first heart attack, after which he found a much better position closer to home). In October of 1992, we piled all our crap into a moving van. We said our goodbyes to our friends. I laughed maniacally at never having to return to 6th Street Elementary. Bill Miller Sr. fetched an Audubon Society field guide to insects and arachnids, inscribed a short message on the inside cover, and gifted it me with it—though at the time I was a little disappointed that it was the reptile guide (which would have done me very little good in Illinois), I was honored. I felt like his second grandson. Years later, when Miller passed away, I wrote a wonderful narrative for an English class and promptly lost it, though I tried to recapture some of its spirit here.
It’s impossible for me to say whether or not I could have had a ‘better’ childhood if I had lived in an affluent suburb, or had stayed in Nebraska, or in Minnesota, where I was born. My childhood was simply my childhood, and I was lucky enough not to have it marred by poverty or violence or misfortune. In fact, despite my many foibles as a child, I look back on my four years in Silver City with an immense fondness: regardless of what it really was, me and my imagination made it a fantasy.
- Brady and I would ask our sister to blindfold us, tie us up with as many things as possible, cover us with blankets, and leave us in a tent set up in our playroom, and we would try to escape, Houdini-like—this, to us, was the zenith of fun. Who needed a babysitter?[↩]
- My siblings also went to preschool—I went for one day and hated it so much that my mother didn’t ever make me go again[↩]
- Like brushing teeth, we also hated milk, and vegetables, and any kind of casserole[↩]
- My first foray into chapter books were the Berenstein Bears chapter books that were out for a short while, and my first real chapter book was #13 of R.L. Stein’s Goosebumps series, which infatuated my brother and me long enough for us to purchase 30 or so editions—but all this occurred after our move to Illinois[↩]