Living as I am in the shadow of Los Angeles, I spend a lot of time in the company of television stars and writers and producers and their outsized egos. And it’s quite the habit for people out here to tell you who you are and where you came from. When everyone lives to be on camera and on stage, everyone is no better than who they seem to be.
Let me tell you who I am. I grew up in a small town called Sissonville, West Virginia. For years I slept on a bunk bed, suspended from the ceiling, that my stepfather constructed from a sheet of plywood and a few two-by-fours. There was a junkyard behind the house. I used to go out there with a slingshot and shoot at the tentworms that spun sticky webs. The roads were poor. I remember that a big truck came through and paved the broken streets one day. Within a week the pavement flaked and chunked apart into pieces, making the roads mostly undriveable. We were poor.
I made do, with my imagination and with my brothers and sister. I invented and recorded radio shows with my tape recorder. I made up sketches and stories and little plays. I watched reruns of old comedies on one of the three television channels that we received. Eventually I got a cheap computer, a Vic-20. It plugged into the television. I learned how to make games on it.
I remember my father and my mother fighting, before they were divorced. Once she slapped him and I remember Dad on top of her, holding her down.
I remember learning to play baseball. My stepfather taught me. I remember learning to walk in the back woods, and how to avoid sliding down the mountains and hills. I know how to skip rocks and shoot guns and how to blow things up with bottle rockets and bang caps.
I remember my first fight. I wrestled the kid down but didn’t punch him. He left me alone after that. Come to think of it, all the kids who ever threatened me, left me alone after I went after them.
I know how to chop and carry wood, and how to sharpen a pocket knife. I know how to hoe corn and carry tomatoes and dig septic tanks. I know how to catch crawdads by hand without getting pinched. I remember the wooden toys that my grandfather carved for my father to play with.
I have walked in the woods and heard nothing and heard it loudly.
I suppose it struck me today, as I was being lectured about what I was and what I wasn’t, that perhaps I forgot that I am somebody, that I have a colorful and unlikely past.
I know who I have been. And I know where I came from.
And as I am starting to learn, precious few people in this traffic-jam town remember who they have been, or where they came from.