McMan's Bipolar Story
Story originally written and
published at Suite101
Part One: When I first knew
I was different
Part 2: Alone, Against
Part 3: Aloysius and Me
Part 4: Crash and Burn
Part 5: To Madness and Back
Part 6: A Companion Called
part 1 of 6
When I First Knew I
"Had this been 1955
instead of 1956, I might have passed for
normal, but 'Hound Dog' blew
I always knew I was different, but the day I
knew that I knew came in the fall of 1956 when
I was six going on seven. The big event of that
time from my perspective - and ultimately the
world's - was the Coming of Elvis, but it wasn't
until the release of "Hound Dog" that I was
aware the cosmic order was no longer the
I knew it then and there with all the sagacity of
one uncorrupted by life experience.
The world that fall had irrevocably
altered - a techtonic plate shift - a movement of the heavens and the earth
that had the ground and everything on it vibrating to a new frequency.
Nothing would ever be the same again.
History, of course, would prove me
We had just moved into a new
house in a new neighborhood cleared out of woods and old pasture land in
central Connecticut. I didn't know it then, nor did the rest of my family,
but we were making history every bit as significant as the Coming of Elvis.
In moving out of their old
Irish Catholic neighborhoods back in
Springfield, Massachusetts - actually
a series of moves over eight or nine years - my parents, along with the
millions of others of their generation, had taken us to the uncharted shores
of a brave new world, an immigration every bit as significant as the ones
associated with the Potato Famine and Ellis Island, and I can sum it up
in one phrase: Jews next door.
With simply this to add: Italians
next to them, followed by Irish again, two origins undetermined, German-Jews,
WASPs - you get the picture. Whites were integrating. We were never just
It was then and there, in
my new neighborhood, just as white America was in the process of becoming
one, that I realized I was different.
Our new house backed onto
second growth woods which abutted pasture land not yet slated for the bulldozer.
I had made friends with Bobby, who was my age. Thanks to Bobby, I fell
in with his older brother Billy and his friends. The woods in back, together
with all the house construction going on, amounted to our adventure playground.
Had this been 1955 instead
of 1956, I might have passed for normal. But "Hound Dog" blew my cover.
I couldn't just splash through the mud or climb trees or kick through smoldering
piles of raked leaves or jump off half-finished garage roofs into conical
piles of sand like the rest of the kids. No, I had to stop and savor the
moment as I gyrated my body and yelled out, "Y'aint nothin' but a hound
dog!" at the top of my lungs.
There was something about
the song that put me in a different place, that temporarily stopped the
sun and suspended gravity and lifted me into a different realm. The shrinks
have a name for it. Peak experience, they call it.
My new older buddies were
not slow to recognize the amusement value in my antics, particularly when
yet a new Elvis song came to my notice, "Hard Headed Woman".
So it happened that one day
we headed home from a far-flung corner of our great vast adventure playground,
needing only to cross the bull pasture to get back in time for the "Spin
and Marty" episodes on "Mickey Mouse". Okay, I confess, it could have been
"Corky and White Shadow" or the "Hardy Boys", but "Spin and Marty" with
its Triple-R Ranch and kids doing dangerous things on four-legged animals
seems altogether more appropriate to a story involving a six-year old Elvis
fan and a herd of bulls. Probably they were just steers, but that sort
of distinction would have escaped me at the time.
Anyway, here were all these
bulls on the other side of an electric
fence, casually munching grass or
else taking their afternoon siestas while the flies enjoyed a field day
making their lives miserable.
We were standing there, just
watching, when the topic of rodeo bulls came up. At first, this was an
abstract discussion. Then Billy
happened to mention what a pathetic
lot these particular bulls were. No horns, just munching on grass,
lying down, waiting to become steaks, too lazy to even chase the flies
You could see where this conversation
was heading. Now I could vault the fence in a second without getting an
electric shock, but Bobby had thoughtfully lifted the bottom wire with
a stick so I could crawl under.
No challenge from the animals.
So far so good. I looked over to my friends, who reassured me with Elvis
gestures. I picked an animal that seemed popular with the flies, and without
giving the matter a second thought straddled one leg in the air over the
reclining beast. I thought this would impress my friends, but half of them
were gesturing me to sit while the others were gyrating to "Hard Headed
A brief note of explanation
here. I've always had difficulty picking out the lyrics to any song. Words
to me have always been a sort of abstract spoken texture to the music,
so I usually made them up as I went along. Thus "Hard Headed Woman" became:
"She's a hard headed woman,
a soft-hearted man," (so far, so good), "there she goes, rockin' rollin,
in a garbage can."
A few more bars in and I would
dispense with the English language entirely. "Shrinka-shrinka-shrinka,
oh yeh," fit the bill quite nicely.
So now you can picture the
entire scene: Me with one leg straddled over a thousand pounds of future
ground chuck - who was barely paying me any notice, by the way - looking
over to my friends on the other side of the fence for reassurance, one
of them urging me to sit while the others approvingly sang out, "shrinka-shrinka-shrinka,"
which I took to be a good sign.
I shifted my weight and the
leg came down. Instantly the horizon
dramatically changed. I was high
above it and the scenery was
moving. I didn't wait to see how
this would turn out. I jumped off, but without kicking off. Somehow, I
willed myself into the air, and when gravity reasserted itself I landed
like a cat, found my bearings, then dived through the fence with a precision
and athleticism that would have put Jim Brown, the best running aback in
all history, to shame. Chalk one up to the brain's flight-or-fight center.
Mine checked out just fine.
My first thought - once the
luxury of thought returned - was that I had somehow not lived up to the
faith my friends had in me. I had bailed out, aborted the mission in mid-flight.
I was nothing more than a scaredy cat, which is the worst fate that can
possibly befall a kid, particularly one looking for approval from the older
boys. I gathered myself on the ground, trying to hide my shame, then stood
up to face the music.
But instead of the barrage
of ridicule that I expected, I gazed up into expressions of amazement and
disbelief, the kind of looks that might have greeted me had I just emerged
from a pool of crocodiles. In other words there was no way my older buddies
were going to do what I did, not in a million years, not even to show me
how easy it was.
How could I be so stupid?
I suddenly realized, feeling my face go red. What idiotic thing would
I do next? Stick my hand in a running lawn mower? Suppose something had
happened? Suppose I had got these bulls really angry? Suppose I had set
off a stampede?
Bulls on the patio, bulls
in the flower beds, bulls crashing down
houses and trampling babies, here
in this brave new world that our parents had created. No, it didn't happen,
but suppose my friends turned me in? Okay, the law might let me off with
a warning, but what about my parents? Maybe I should just start running
But it was the prospect of
school the next day that frightened me the most, for here I knew with absolute
certainty what fate had in store. Humiliation before my peers, forever
branded as the moron too stupid to stay away from danger. I could see those
big fifth and sixth graders now - hey, kid, come here - not to mention
those in my own class. Even the kindergartners would show me no mercy.
But none of my friends were
laughing. If I were red, then they were pale. I was safe, I realized, much
to my infinite relief. Turning me in, after all, would only draw attention
to themselves, brand them as accessories for egging me on, expose them
to the same ridicule, get them into even worse trouble than me. This was
serious business, and it was all taking place on the unspoken level.
It never happened, simple
as that. That was the silent pact we made. We wouldn't talk about it, even
amongst ourselves. We wouldn't even think about it. It was as if we had
the power to take those last few minutes back. By the time I got home it
was even a secret from me.
But one thing had irrevocably
changed. I knew that I was different, that the momentary terror I had felt
on that back of that bull had been nothing compared to that fear in my
gut over being singled out for ridicule for the rest of my life. Sure,
it didn't eventuate, but the warning had been sounded. I had been given
a little foretaste.
In the meantime, I still had
a few carefree years ahead of me. Elvis would later go into the Army, and
when he came out the world would once again be different. And so would
he. And so would I.
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Part II - Alone, Against the World
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