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VOL 013: learning propellers, People Express, and Port Richey

    There were no more flights for the remainder of junior high. There was one big drive, though. Ed, Dora, and I were moving. 

    I had to pack up the contents of my room, including all those airline posters I’d collected from suburban-plaza travel agents. They’d all be replaced with posters of bands. With our final West Springfield home emptied, I spent the early June eve of the last day of school overnighting at Mike’s house. That final day of junior high was a half day, and a little group of us left afterward for lunch at a nearby Pizza Hut, awfully close to that 7-11 landmark to which I’d made so many beer and candy runs with Obie in years prior. With Pizza Huts famous for their jukeboxes, we listened again and again to one of the hottest songs of summer 1983, Prince’s “Little Red Corvette.” 





    We went back to Mike’s afterward to wait for Dora and Ed. And in the beginning of Friday rush hour, Ed in his Oldsmobile and Dora and me in her Datsun station wagon, we joined the highway crowds to make our long drive to Tampa Bay, Fla., with stops in North Carolina and St. Augustine. After a summer-long house hunt, while living out of the Tarpon Springs Days Inn, we settled in Port Richey.


    My first impressions were that my mother, in her early 50s, was the youngest woman on our new block; my high school was much smaller than its West Springfield counterparts; and we finally had cable, which meant MTV.


    Somehow, in the waning months of eighth grade, I’d managed to lose some weight. There was an adolescent hormonal shift that had me waking up in the dark morning hours to go jogging. A growth spurt bolstered my exercise effort. Ed enjoyed pointing out to Dora – however off-base – that I’d obviously hit the point where I’d “discovered girls.” I was so grateful that there was anything I could do that could be characterized that way.



    In this smaller pond, a bit smaller myself, I was free to reinvent my identity. Already confident in my taste in music, having joined The B-52’s Fan Club in eighth grade, and in my experience as a globetrotting UM, I was ready to jettison my bullied-fat-kid baggage. Slowly, I built up a reputation as the somewhat edgy, though entirely harmless – a perfect combination for attracting adolescent girls, both a blessing and a curse – kid. Not a native with a 4H background, not a transplant from Michigan or Long Island, I was already something of an oddball at Ridgewood High School. Adds to the cachet, right? Still, I was a bit homesick for my northern neighbors. How grateful I was that Dora agreed a summertime trip was appropriate.


    Mike’s family would usually spend a couple summertime weeks at his maternal grandparents’ place on Lake Mascoma in New Hampshire. After a year in Florida, Dora was actually eager for me to get back to some civilization. She’d seen plenty in her life, and she knew the difference between civilization and backwater. For her retirement, backwater was fine. For her son’s chances at a bright future, questionable. 


    As influences went, Mike’s family was at the top of her heap. And I now had the experience to help plan the trip. I would pore over the St. Petersburg Times travel section on Sundays, eagle-eyed for sales. In 1984, that was as good as going to a travel agent. Beyond travel agents and newspapers, there were no other options. What I found was something dirt cheap on People Express. Though I had little experience with money at that point, cheap fares seemed to get the adults excited, so that’s what I looked for. I figured that if I could find an amazing sale, my pilgrimage was secure. And I did and it was.

IN 1903,



    The People Express itinerary to metro D.C. offered me a unique tour of two depressing terminals. First up: St. Petersburg/Clearwater International Airport. During my first year in the Tampa area, I learned that the Tampa International Airport was a point of pride. “It has a people mover! Several!” Where Atlanta stuck its tiny train underground, TPA flaunted its many trains on raised tracks. Each terminal got its own pair. Cutting-edge people-moving, really. I wanted a piece of that, believe me. Instead, I got PIE, the airport code for the ugly stepsister across the bay. Granted, St. Petersburg, Fla., has an illustrious footnote in the annals of commercial aviation. In 1903, the first airline tickets were sold in this city, allowing two passengers to wing across the bay to Tampa at an altitude of 50 feet via the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line. What I got was less thrilling. At a midsummer sunrise, we – Ed, Dora, and I – arrived at the airport. No inspiring architecture. If there was some particular style (Early Century Shoreline?) on show, it went over my head. What I saw was one plane, hard formed-plastic seating, and much empty space.


    At least by now any notion of registering me as an unaccompanied minor was akin to me asking for a booster seat. The evidence had shown that I was quite likely better off without the escort. Getting onto that People Express 737 after Dora and Ed dropped me off was certainly routine. I had this down. No jetway? No problem. Have you been to Tunis? From PIE, it was a smooth couple hours into Newark Liberty International, the People Express hive where I’d be changing planes. If I’d thought PIE was depressing, it was only because I’d not seen this old Newark terminal. With its cinderblock walls and heavy, metal, industrial double doors leading to unknown spots on the tarmac, it reminded me of my junior high school. Only there were many more adults. So many more. Generating these crowds, perhaps this discount model of flying was on to something? From Newark, it was a short hop to down to Dulles. “Dulles?” I had heard Mrs. Albo questioning in the background as I phoned Mike my flight details weeks earlier. Booking my flight, I had the choice of landing at either National or Dulles. I just assumed everyone preferred Dulles for its aesthetic value, so that’s the airport I chose. That National is only 13 miles from Springfield while Dulles is 27 did not enter my adolescent equation. I was learning many of the lessons needed to become a seasoned traveler, but I still had miles to go.


    At Dulles, I had to wait a few minutes for Mike and his mom to collect me. I killed time by calling Dora on a pay phone, letting her know I’d landed safely. I thought it would be a hoot to tell her that there’d been no sign of the Albos, but that a kindly stranger offered to drive me to them. “I don’t know his name. I think he’s from Eastern Europe…? He’s really friendly.” It was wasted teasing. She wasn’t registering that I was on the verge of abduction. Dora can be suspicious, but it’s sort of limited to being shortchanged, unnecessary auto repairs, and infidelity. Her 14 year-old son being raped by some guy named Vladimir was a stretch. “The Albos are there, or they aren’t? What are you saying?”


    “Yeah, they’ll be here in a couple minutes. I landed early. I’ll call you later.”




    Driving from Dulles back into West Springfield, it was unsettling how greatly my life changed course. From the internationalism of the airport, to the vibrancy of even the suburbs of Washington, the realization that overwhelmed me was that in Port Richey, I was living on a Floridian frontier. I’d only ever assigned that term to romantic ideas of Siberia or Alaska, geographic wastelands. What I was realizing on that drive was that frontiers were not necessarily geographic wastelands, but certainly could be solely cultural. West Springfield was tied to Washington. We took our field trips to museums of the renowned Smithsonian Institution. Port Richey, on the other hand, was off the map. As I pondered that, I wasn’t sure it if was good or bad. In Springfield, I’d been the fat kid living in the single-mom apartments. In Port Richey, I was an alien outsider. 


    I tucked away that analysis and got on with summer vacation. After a few days on the patio behind Mike’s house, laying out with lemon juice in our hair, it was time for Gail, Mike and me to head north to New Hampshire. In one of the brief discussions with Mike and his mother preceding the trip, I asked about New England’s location, relative to New Hampshire. “New England’s not a state,” Gail pointed out. The region was nebulous to me. I could speak a little French and name you European capitals, but Vermont? Maine? What’s a Cape Cod? Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ogunquit – these may as well have been islands in the Dahlak Archipelago. Up the seaboard, once you got past Baltimore it was all a blur to me, even if I’d been to Massachusetts for Patrick and Sandy’s wedding, upstate New York to visit Grandma O’Bryan, and a couple times through JFK and LaGuardia. As soon as she said that, I realized New England my error. I also realized that my education had a few holes in it. How embarrassing. But “New England Patriots”?


    The morning we headed out, Mike’s dad drove the three of us to National for the New York Air flight to Boston. New York Air, literally giving Eastern Airlines a run for its money on the Northeast corridor shuttle flights, was so brash. Not only an upstart discount airline, but candy-apple red. And with this New Yawk attitude of serving bagels. New York Air heralded the era of on-the-go travelers spreading Kraft’s Philadelphia cream cheese out of little plastic tubs onto pre-sliced, plain, untoasted bagels with plastic knives.


    In the layover lounge in Boston, there was a setup of yet more raw bagels. Not yet a coffee drinker, I wasn’t too eager to jump on the bagel train. Coffee can make a raw bagel somewhat acceptable. Nothing else can.


    The next flight, Command Airways to Lebanon, N.H., was my first propeller flight. I did not realize that scheduled prop flights existed. This was the realm, I thought, of private business travel, scientific expeditions, and developing countries. Flight attendants bounced around the remote corners of the country in these noisy planes? I added this new knowledge to learning New England wasn’t a state. This was turning out to be a very educational trip. As our boxy Short 330 – seriously, it looked like a box with wings, a pinewood derby entry for the air – weaved its way over the countryside, Mike and I drew on our little sketch pads, illustrating lyrics from Human League songs and swimmers being knocked off floating decks by oversized great white sharks. 

    The bouncy flight ended with the beginning of a pattern. From that summer afternoon to this day, the pattern is: “Watch your head.” “What?” Thud

    I likely would’ve watched my head while deplaning, had the flight attendant not distracted me at just the moment I should’ve been paying attention. It still gets me. Every fucking time. Perhaps the Black’s Beach Frisbee was evidence it was an inherited trait Megan and I shared.




    New Hampshire took my mind off my head lump. The lake was beautiful. The house was perfectly rustic – not too Spartan, not at all pretentious. Mike and I slept on mismatched sofas in the enclosed-porch addition. There was a window that once offered the home a view other than of a sun porch. At this point, it had little purpose. Aside from humiliation. Sharing this memory with Mike, he reminded me of what I’d forgotten: “You forgot to mention when you lipsynched ‘Worlds Away’ in the window reflection on the porch, and then realized everyone inside was looking at you."


    There was also a little bathroom on the porch, though we’d usually bathe in the lake. It really made no difference since the water for the house was provided by a simple hose running straight from the lake. No mystery. There it was. You can shower with that lake water in the bathroom, or splash in it in the lake. Your choice. As I’d just turned 15, I still opted for the shower on occasion. I was learning with ever-greater urgency that a boy has needs. Obnoxious, ever-present, judgment-clouding needs.  

Teen boy stands in front of a lake, positioning his hands to imitate Egyptian hieroglyphs

Mike as cutting-edge prophet on Lake Mascoma. This was the summer of 1984. The Bangles' 'Walk Like an Egyptian' wasn't even released till 1986. 

    It was a charmed week of out-swimming horse flies at dusk, blueberry picking, craft fairs, and the Dartmouth bookstore. At that bookstore, I aped Mike and bought a book of poetry. Mike looked very comfortable on campus. His father had graduated from Dartmouth, after all. Still, I don’t think I would’ve been as nearly at home at Obie’s alma mater, Yale. The New England lessons continued. In a class system of intellect, Mike was simply my superior. If I’d not been so preoccupied with my torrid imaginings, this might’ve bothered me. Or if I’d simply been a bit brighter. There’s the rub. To my juvenile brain, Mike’s intellect was a cross to bear, the artist’s curse. I just wanted to play. Rather than envy his hours of writing, his nostalgic celebration of the Velvet Underground and the Age of Aquarius, I occupied a lighter, more pedestrian world wrapped in MTV, hair mousse, and Friday nights at the mall.


    With another boxy flight, bagel flight, and People Express flight, soon enough I was back to just those pillars of my teenage existence. 

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