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VOL 007: fourth grade, fat, and Flying High

    When I left for Tunisia, I hadn’t realized that also meant saying good-bye – at least, à bientôt – to single-family, detached, three-bedroom homes and block parties. 

    As a child, my forethought could be measured in weeks, and even that was a stretch usually reserved for anticipating Christmas or the last day of school. So while I may have known that Dora would be moving out of our nuclear family’s last house sometime during the summer while I was sampling my first divorce summer in Tunis, I hadn’t contemplated exactly what that might mean. My focus was airplane seating assignments and threats of paternal abduction. I had not considered that our circumstances meant downsizing. What I came home to was a terrace-level, two-bedroom apartment in a vast, newly built, village of four-story, walk-up apartment blocks. West Springfield was evolving with the times.



    As newly divorced Dora and one elementary-school-aged child, we were the target demographic for these hundreds of new apartments, West Springfield Terrace, a community sprouted out of some unused patch of scraggly forest behind a Grand Union shopping plaza. These buildings were the perfect expression of the new reality. Single mothers and kids my age fully filled these fresh buildings. Among the broken-family diaspora, I also met immigrant children from Vietnam. And now there were black kids in my neighborhood. These low-income, yet tidy, blocks were giving Paris a run for its diversity money. Or, perhaps not. Certainly, it was more diverse than the all-white Springfield neighborhoods I knew prior, where Italian or Jewish families might’ve been considered the most exotic elements of the vanilla landscape. 

Smiling middle-aged couple sits at a banquet table in official "Holiday Inn of Paradise Island" commemorative photo

Thankfully, Dora didn't spend the entirety of this first 'divorce summer' with a candle in the window and crying into her pillow. Rather, come July, Ed arranged a jet-set getaway to the Bahamas. She is pictured here, with Ed, holding back the tears. Obviously.

    While this apartment was still in familiar West Springfield, as opposed to peculiar North Springfield – South Springfield and East Springfield conspicuously nonexistent – the move to our drab yet sturdy apartment of rust-colored bricks and brown-painted steel put me in a new school district. Good-bye, Rolling Valley Elementary of my childish years; hello, Cardinal Forest Elementary of my emerging pubescence. Into fourth grade I went, meeting new, surprisingly interesting children. Granted, it was probably just the Kristy McNichol/Donna Summer/Grease pop culture of the time that infused all youth with added magnetism. At 9, zooming toward double digits, I was still too young to engage fully in that pop culture, but I found my place nonetheless. By late 1978, I couldn’t yet disco skate – that would come about a year later – but I could turn the FM dial at my discretion. And with Obie deposed, I was also master of the TV. This was best expressed on my cherished Friday nights. Ed would usually take my mother out on Fridays. Fine by me. I was left at home with a bag of Doritos and a 2-liter tank of root beer. For a 9-year-old, this was VIP catering. Most delicious of all, however, was Flying High. Oh, Connie Sellecca, please let me have your life.


    Connie starred as Lisa Benton, the rich girl who escapes her gilded cage of country club living by signing up with Sun West Airlines. The critics held Flying High in the same esteem as they did Mr. Billion. So did I. Five stars! I would lay on the fold-out sofa, sprawled with my treats of gluttony, watching the airline action while fondling my newest treasures, two die-cast airplanes. To call them “toys” seems an insult, “models” too generous. I’d bought my Braniff “Fat Albert” 747 and Eastern 727 Whisperjet at the toy store at the mall. I might as well have bought them at Tiffany’s, as they were my most precious possessions. Every Friday – at least through the meager 19 episodes that were produced – as the Sun West 747 filled my TV screen, lifting off to the uplifting, goose-bump-raising theme music, I would reflexively, lovingly, mimic the take-off with my own little 747. I would caress the tiny details of the nacelles and tail wings, sometimes mindlessly holding them against my lips as I watched to better create a more intimate bond with my jewels, nose of the Whisperjet moving slowly across that most sensitive skin. Were it not for the beautifully crafted sharper angles, I likely would’ve kept them stuffed in my underpants for that Flying High hour. Pan Am flight 111, there is no mistaking you got under my skin. 



    During that year, Flying High and my precious planes – and endless classroom sketches of jumbo jets when I should’ve been paying attention – were the closest I came to being airborne. Those escapes would have to do. 

    On the ground, Dora and Ed were getting ever closer. On the occasional Saturday night, we would stay over at Ed’s North Springfield home. North Springfield…. So alien. I’d never been to this part of town. I couldn’t begin to imagine how one might walk to North Springfield from West Springfield. I didn’t even know it existed till Ed came into the picture. Add to that his Southern accent. He was just so different than anything I’d known, and certainly a 180-degree turn from Obie, who appreciated Woody Allen and France. Ed preferred Burt Reynolds and the Outer Banks. When Obie’s life got messy, it was generally his own fault. Any messiness in Ed’s life came from outside. For example, what I enjoyed most about going to his place was his dachshund, Red. But where most small dogs might enjoy the run of the house, Red was kept on a tether at all times. The civil-engineering Ed built a track in the ceiling of the rec room, in which Red’s tether would constantly slide, one end of the room to the other. He had space to roam, but always bound. Ed embodied order. After years of Obie’s surprises – a sudden interest in duck hunting, buying a banjo, extramarital affairs – Ed wrapped up the security, the planning, the rational forethought Dora craved, and put a big bow on it. Who could blame her? I wanted to blame her, but even I could not. I wasn’t nuts about the guy, but I was entering those moody pre-teen years where I didn’t much care what Ed and Dora might be doing. 

    Actually, fourth grade afforded me enough solitude that I found time to discover masturbation, though it took quite a few tries. In our hovel, where Dora kept the wintertime heat at a miserly low to economize, my after-school hours were spent keeping warm. If there were no pressing duties, I would watch TV – the same little old black-and-white that offered me Love Boat and Obie's ire a couple years prior – after school in my room buried under blankets. Beneath the heavy layers, it was easier to reach for my junk than for my precious planes. I just needed something to fondle during cartoons. But between my Friday night feasting and hiding at home in bed, I was becoming a bit of a porker. My esteemed peer was Braniff’s Fat Albert, so maybe I surmised that bigger was better. Whatever the case, Dora noticed. Could she lose custody if I got too fat? Why take chances? 



    She attempted to make a stand upon coming home from work one early evening in winter. I was tucked up in bed, and Dora wasn’t having it. She marched into my room and reached for all my warming layers, pulling them all back in one frightening sweep as she shouted, “Get up!” That, as far as I know and certainly hope, was the last time my mother saw my penis. 


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