Mr. Hicks and the Backwards Dreaming Experiment
Mom still worked night shift at Montgomery County Hospital, and Dad often entertained business associates from the National Institutes of Health, where he was a subcontractor with the Pitman-Moore Division of Dow Chemical. Dad leapt into his career with élan and an appreciation of camaraderie. The picture at right is from that time, with him no doubt making a potent punch of vodka, grapefruit and orange juice at a work function.
Mom, on the other hand, was nearly always exhausted. A side memory: Mom’s gallstone, kept in a linen closet in Minnesota. The story goes back to 1968, Maryland. Mom needed an emergency operation to have a gallstone removed. Dad recounted to me later how he drove his VW Bug through roadblocks set up in the wake of the King assassination riots just to get her to a hospital in Bethesda for the surgery. Can’t recall where Brian and I were at the time, but likely one of the Alyward girls was sitting with us.
My lasting memories of that time revolved around our big colonial house, our pets (Brian and I caught and domesticated two ground squirrels; Brian wanted to take Chipper, his squirrel, to school for show-and-tell. So the night before Chipper’s big Olney Elementary debut, Brian made sure the squirrel was shampooed, rinsed and blow-dried … days later Chipper died of the ’flu); the pine trees; the family road trips to Pennsylvania Dutch country, with its hex symbols on barns, apples in bushels and dried leaves in the autumn; riding along with Mom to pick up Brian at his basketball practice in Sandy Spring, me sitting in the gym bleachers and reading ruled-paper-lined notes that the high school kids had dropped on the floor…
Before we leave Maryland, never to return, just gotta say this about bad times: they never last. Truly.
Farquhar was jarring—more kids than I’d ever seen in one place in my whole life. The hallways were bustling, the older kids taunted us newbies, and suddenly my life was upside down. I dreaded going to school (Mom must’ve taken this picture, at left, in 1970; Dad and I are walking toward the school in the left frame). My fourth grade girlfriend Mandy was now dating some big dude named Bubba; Sam and Jay had split off, and I was left to fend for myself. Black kids and white kids traded candy and bubble gum in the boys’ room, and often took the liberty of beating up on the smaller boys. We were under siege.
I remember the echoey hallways, the library, the auditorium and band room, the home economics class where we learned to cook and sew vest jackets (I wore mine for the family Christmas photo that year). I’d stare bleakly out the picture windows in science waiting for someone or something to whisk me away from Cell Block Farquhar.
My homeroom teacher was a balding, short guy named Mr. Hicks. Picture Wallace Shawn in My Dinner With Andre. What I particularly remember about Mr. Hicks is some advice he gave us on vocabulary-building: “Remember, kids, if you hear a new word, I guarantee you— GUARANTEE—that you’ll hear or see it again within 24 hours.” I put it to the test with every new word I encountered. And sure enough, there was the word again, within a day of first discovering it.
Years later, after we’d moved to Minnesota, I sat alone in our garage attic with a candle, focusing on the flame and clearing my mind of all thoughts. After a while I saw that I was back in the band room of Farquhar Middle School. I’m guessing this meditation session happened in 1975, so it was at least five years after the fact. Not a long time, but it was more than just “remembering” … it was like being there again. I could smell chalk dust. The spit valve on my cornet was dripping. And to my right was the horn case of the kid who sat next to me. Written on a wide swatch of masking tape I saw his name—then immediately snapped out of my reverie.
Time is not linear, even though it seems like it. The “conventional story” is a fable I tell myself over and over again: “here’s where I am, so it must be what’s really going on.” But it’s not. It’s just something I dreamed up, in my head.
Around Christmas that year, or New Year’s Day 1971, Dad made an announcement: He’d accepted a full-time job at the University of Minnesota as lead manager of their new health-sciences building project. He’d already flown out to Minnesota and scouted locations for us to live. Plunking a down payment on a renovated summer cottage on Lake Minnetonka for a mere $40,000, all we had to do was call the Mayflower movers. And then move.
I reacted: “Where’s Minnesota again?”
Brian jumped up and down. “Yeah! Go, Green Bay Packers!”
“Hey dummy, Green Bay is in Wisconsin.”
But I was happy. My deliverance from the Farquhar Prison Blues was close at hand.