A Word Comes to Life

Ostensibly, the hometown of my boyhood was identical to Beaver's Mayfield. People lived strictly external lives, and all were exceedingly similar, rolling off the conveyor belt of procreation, one after another in an endless procession of level-headed citizens, completely free of societal aberration. What went on in Cleland's Fanny Hill, or Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, or Flaubert's Madame Bovary or Zola's Thérèse Raquin, and especially De Sade's 120 Days of Sodom never saw light here, being so distant from decadent Europe which delights in such deportment.

Or so we thought.

I was sixteen, and just starting this wonderful adventure of drawing my own conclusions. I merely observed, reserved judgement completely and rarely commented on the goings-on. Life was starting to appear much more variable than I had first imagined.

Looking back on it now, all these years later, it's pretty clear that for whatever reason I hated the notion of inherited axioms. I wanted to select my own.

In some ways, this is the story of Armpit, one of the members of The Gang. We grew up only a couple blocks from each other, indeed were classmates all the way from kindergarten on up to when I was ejected from high school. Yes, we were friends the duration, but Armpit really was a strange duck, ready to embrace the Age of Aquarius and every excess it offered, while simultaneously feeling no end of guilt for doing so. He epitomized Hamlet's:
Conscience does make cowards of us all.
Because my conscience never got in the way, he was always just a smidgen standoffish toward me. But not enough to keep us from enjoying a fair amount of rascality together. Let's put it this way: if I needed someone to lie, cheat or take a rap for me (or vice versa), Sheel-Teat, Tiny, Dugg Bedd, Van O and Fake-Nose were always at the ready; but Armpit had certain reservations about going the whole hog. I read him well, and never called upon him in that manner. But, as I say, we were certainly friends of a sort and for a long, long time.

In high school, Armpit was continually chasing the prettiest babes and as a consequence, constantly having girl-troubles. As a rule, he had a decent record, and was typically able to win them over. But after just a few months, something would go awry and there would be all sorts of wailing and gnashing of teeth. Looking back on it, I suspect it was jealousy, possessiveness, and a bit of WWJD. For in fact, while Armpit really did seek freedom, he grew up in the midst of the very clan H. L. Mencken once described:
Puritanism. The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.
Still, there is something endearing about a teenage boy who is pretty good at being naughty, yet tosses and turns at night worrying about it.

For example, in junior year, Armpit fell prey to an inguinal hernia. In those days, hernia surgery was a big deal and required a three-day stay in the hospital. So, there he was lying in his starched antiseptic bed at Mary Greeley Hospital when who should pop in to see him after class one day but Betsy, by far the most attractive hippie chick in our class and his current inamorata. She apparently did something of a stimulating nature, and his nether regions promptly responded, blowing out the recent stitches on the spot. They had to wheel him back to the operating theater for a bit of repair work.

Incidentally, he had a falling out with Betsy in the autumn of senior year. In a fit of pique he completely destroyed a lavatory at high school during the Homecoming Dance, something I got blamed for instantly by Beetface, the vice-principal. This all had an amusing conclusion which I'll save for the next entry.

No, tonight I want to relate the tale of one of the strangest evenings carousing I was ever involved in.

As mentioned elsewhere, The Gang frequently hung out in the youth centers of the various churches about town. One Friday night, I popped into the dark brown Lutheran church on Hyland Avenue just to see what was what. I was on my own this night, and had never been to this particular venue before. But you just never know what dido is lying in wait.

Heading into the lounge I encountered Armpit, upright and rigid as though on sentry duty. Sprawled on the over-stuffed sofa in this darkened room lay a lump. (What's with the cheery outlook of those Lutherans? The building exterior was a dismal burnt umber, as were the interior walls; the carpeting, the furniture, the fittings and even the lampshades were also a lugubrious brown. This single-hued scheme was clearly designed to remind the frivolous that one should not go through life happy, especially in a church. Pretty clearly the last job the interior decorator of this establishment undertook was a kybo in the north woods).

On the divan was a guy I knew vaguely from school, a chap named Mike. Though he always tried to ingratiate himself with The Gang via big talk, we all instantly discerned that here was a guy not to be trusted. None of us had anything to do with him except, apparently, Armpit which surprised me just a trifle.

Mike was in the thralls of an acid trip and Armpit was playing protector. I sat for a while, just to observe this liver-lipped kid, pocked with sporadic pimples, repeatedly giggling at the nonsense he was envisioning.

This went on for quite a while. Armpit had his guitar with him that night and it rested near the sofa. It eventually caught Mike's eye who, foaming with an excess of spit bubbles, sputtered to Armpit, "What would you do if I smashed your guitar?" This was followed by even more immoderate giggling while Armpit pondered a response.

Eventually he replied in a (I'm afraid all too typical) condescending and fatherly tone, "Well, you probably shouldn't do that unless it's in your best interests."

That's all the opening Mike needed. He leaped to action, grabbed the guitar by the neck and swinging it like a gandy dancer's pick, repeatedly pounded it onto the poured concrete floor lying just slightly beneath the threadbare brown carpeting. An amateur Pete Townsend as it were.

I watched Armpit. He didn't flinch a bit, watching the smithereens fly, still smiling in that way. Do you know what I mean? Have you ever seen a three-year-old acting up at the grocery store, while the totally ineffectual mother attempts to reason with the brat in an adult manner? "Billy, is that really in your best interest to create a ruckus just because you can't have candy?"

It looked as though Mike was going to get away with this wanton destruction. But he kept giggling, and that was his downfall.

After a moment to take it all in, Armpit's eyes glowed red. (He was a Taurus, too, our birthdays not far apart). I saw it coming.

Armpit grabbed what was left of the splintered guitar and proceeded to beat Mike on the noggin with it, cutting him open, and sending him tumbling down into the depths of that hideous dark brown corduroy sofa for a bit of reconsideration. Mike stopped giggling. He groveled in fear, convincing me that my first impression of him was dead-on accurate.

It was such an amazing scene that it was hard to tell who was on acid that night, Mike, Armpit or me.

Well, I had had enough of this little scene and moved on to yet another church that evening. I don't recall if Mike and Armpit patched up their differences or not. But I do know that the former never attempted to hang out with The Gang after that.

One last thing. I started this episode mentioning how at age sixteen I was starting to discover that Freud, Krafft-Ebing and De Sade didn't write fiction. By this time my vocabulary of deviation had grown quite large, thanks primarily to the timely push from Sheel-Teat which I've yet to describe. I knew the word urolagnia, of course, but always considered it so obscure that I would never have call to invoke it.

We later found out that Mike had made it a habit to frequent what may be most politely described as a "friendly house" in Des Moines. But let's not mince words; this actually was a pretty well known brothel with the name of "Dorothy's Place" and appeared regularly in the court reports of the Des Moines Register. Dorothy's tenure as madame was quite lengthy and the vice squad knew her well, as one dip into the newspapers from that time will prove.

So as I say, we eventually came upon the tidbit that Mike would visit this cat house for some frolics. (Rumor had it that his father supplied the admission fee). That made us all quite envious, of course. But then it came out that his purpose in visiting was to pay the strumpets twenty bucks to urinate on him.

No more envy.

But a word just ceased to be purely academic in my growing experience of the world. 

Next installment: King's Food Host

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