By Marc Gilson (From the series “A Vintage Upbringing”)
You’re about to read an article from my series, “A Vintage Upbringing.” These pieces are stories distilled from my own experiences growing up in Portland, Oregon with my rather unconventional but loving family, including my mom, grandmother, grandfather, and a half-dozen cats and dogs. They’re snapshots of my own experience of the 1970s and 80s when I was in school. I don’t know that my experiences as a kid in the 70s were any more or less “typical” than anyone else’s. But I do hope these stories appeal especially to others of my generation – the latch key kids, Generation X.
I grew up in a suburb of Portland, Oregon, in area to the southeast of town that used to be called “Felony Flats,” maybe still is. Personally, I think that makes it sound worse than it was; a middle-class neighborhood with families like mine, concerned about the price of gas and who shot JR Ewing. Still, as its moniker implies, it wasn’t exactly Beverly Hills.
There was a criminal element present, and while there were far more dangerous places to live in town, Felony Flats had it’s share of property crime, assaults, and drug dealings. My friends and I avoided such things, and kept to our own world; a world consisting of perhaps six or seven square blocks in which we’d ride our bikes and play Wiffle Ball in the streets. It felt safe because we knew pretty much everyone living in the neighborhood, and they knew us. We were always within a few yards of the Carlsons, Groshongs, Coopers, Collisteros, Richardsons, or some other family who seemed – in varying degrees, perhaps – watchful and protective of us. Together, they comprised a kind of unofficial community of good and caring people. These were the butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers of our childhood.
There was Old Mr Haskell Carter, who lived right across the street. After a long career as a successful industrialist and business tycoon, the rumor was that Mr. Carter was very rich (even though he and his wife lived in a small two-bedroom duplex). The rumor was vividly reinforced in our minds when, for Halloween, he would give out silver dollars in lieu of candy. We ALWAYS made sure to stop by the Carter’s on Halloween. Sometimes twice.
There were the Richardsons, including Laurie and Carrie, the only two girls in the neighborhood roughly the same age as my friends Scott and Chris, and me. Being the awkward boys we were, our view of Laurie and Carrie was a conflicted one at best. They were, after all, just some weirdo girls teeming with cooties, constantly chewing their gum, and pointing and giggling at us as we rode our bikes through the gravelly mud. But on the other hand, there was sure something kind of interesting about them, in spite of the cooties risk. Interesting or not, we all knew their heavily tattooed, bearded, motorcycle-riding dad would have proudly displayed our heads on stakes on their front lawn should any of us even consider staring at them for too long.
Then there were the Lenskis. The Lenskis lived around the corner, about three blocks to the north of the beloved pea-green split level home with the fake white window shutters I occupied with my family in the 70s and 80s. They had a modest but comfortable three bedroom home with a real picket fence and a gravel driveway with the best basketball hoop in the neighborhood. I say “best,” because it actually had a net and was set to NBA regulation height. But although the ground was level, the gravel made for some rather surreal trajectories when it came to dribbling the ball. To this day, I retain a scar on my right knee from a failed dunk attempt on the basketball hoop in the Lenski’s driveway. If I had been wearing the ankle-length baggy shorts kids today wear, I might have escaped unscathed. But no, I wore crotch-high, tight, white shorts that kept my voice from lowering and made me look like an escapee from The Village People. That, along with a horizontally-striped red, white, and blue tank top that fit me like a cigar wrapper was my basketball uniform of choice. I also proudly sported a pair of red and white sweat bands around each wrist and wore white Keds, which only stayed white for about two hours after I first laced them up. Based on my attire alone (not to mention me being under 6 feet tall), I had absolutely no future in the NBA.
I won’t get into a complete description of the Lenski family except to say that for my best friend Scott and I, John Lenski was a 70’s God. John was 18 when we were about 12, but the age difference seemed much more immense at the time. To us, John was an adult – an amazingly cool adult. He was everything we wanted to be and had everything we wanted to have in 1978. He was cool, in the way Hutch from Starsky and Hutch was cool. Blonde, tan, thin, slightly dangerous, and knowledgeable in the ways of the 70’s world. John was the God of Felony Flats.
John had a 1974 red Camaro which he worked on almost as much as he worked on his blonde mane of Ted Nugent-like hair and mustache. It was a thing of beauty (the Camaro, not the mustache). When John started it up, it roared like the cannons of Navarone and rumbled like a Zeus’ own thunder cloud. It looked like it wanted to kill something and I was pretty sure it would go from zero to the speed of light in about one second.
I discovered just what the Camaro could do one day when John allowed Scott and I to sit in the back seat of the car while John did a “test run” to see how his newly installed carburetor was working. Once we were comfortably ensconced in the back seat, enveloped in smoky, black leather, John slowly taxied out onto the quiet street. Even idling, the Camaro chugged like a locomotive.
“Peel out!” Scott goaded as we sat at one end of a long straight-away. John revved the engine, cranked up Foghat on his 8-track, and duly obliged. I remember a cloud of stinky rubbery smoke arising as tires screamed to life against the poor, tortured blacktop, and we emerged with our backs pressed so hard against the seat I expected to end up in the trunk. As we lurched forward I distinctly remember feeling like an Apollo astronaut leaving the launch pad.
The scenery outside seemed to shake and blur as the engine screamed and the little plastic hula girl glued to the dashboard went into a full convulsive seizure. It was the fastest I had ever traveled as a mortal being, and I was sure we were about to either die in a fiery crash or escape the bonds of gravity, and either way I just didn’t care. Thinking about it now, dying to Foghat’s “Slow Ride” would have been an ironic, but not prosaic way to go.
After what seemed like an eternity of deafening noise and violent vibration, we came to a screeching stop. My heart wanted to jump out of my chest, my stomach was crying like a thumb-sucking toddler in the corner, I was about to vomit, and I began seriously rethinking my career choice of becoming a race car driver. In spite of all that, Scott and I both yelled in our pubescent falsettos, “Again! Yeeeah! Again!!” And, of course, John obliged again, deftly spinning the car around like Jim Rockford chasing drug smugglers, flinging us back into our seats for another stomach-wrenching launch.
This was just the kind of thing that endeared us to John, but it was only one of the reasons we loved him. Another reason was because of his room. Somehow, he had managed to turn the attic of the Lenski abode into his own private, glorious bachelor pad.
Let me set the scene: You entered John’s room by climbing a ladder from the main floor into the attic, emerging into John’s room as though escaping through the hatch of a submarine. And what met your eye as you stepped up into the room was a 70’s paradise. The whole attic, extending the length of the entire house, was carpeted in white shag carpet. I’m not talking about the floor alone. I’m talking about the walls too, vaulting upward from each side to the peak of the roof. And this carpet was so thick, it was like someone had plastered the room in sheep. It smelled of the 70’s – patchouli incense, leather, burnt wiring, and Brut cologne. It had the effect of feeling both expansive yet cave-like, with a certain hushed quality.
Pinned to the carpeted walls and ceiling were around twenty posters. If an alien civilization were to visit our planet in a thousand years and wonder what the 70’s were all about, all they need to know could be gleaned by a glance at the walls of John Lenski’s bedroom walls. There was Boston, Peter Frampton, Styx, Rush, Journey, and – this almost goes without saying – Farrah Fawcett and the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. There was a poster of Uncle Sam in his famous “We Want YOU!” finger-pointing pose, except this version added the phrase “…to STOP WAR NOW!” There was even the famous “Hang In There, Baby” poster, with the kitten clinging to a thin twig – a testament to John’s sensitive side.
John had a row of black track lights installed along the top beam in the room, which made things like our shoe laces and Farrah’s white toothy grin glow like radioactive material.
It goes without saying that John had an amazing stereo system. In the 1970s, the best way to judge the overall quality of a stereo system was to look at the size of the speakers – the bigger the better, unlike today. John not only had eight speakers, each about the size of a Greyhound bus, he had somehow mounted them to the ceiling (thus inspired, I would later try something similar in my own room, with unfortunate results and some costly structural damage).
The Marantz stereo receiver was always on, and always tuned to the local hard rock FM station. The thing generated enough heat to cook eggs. I remember hearing the beginning of Fly Like An Eagle, by Steve Miller through John’s stereo, that long opening drum fill rolling through the room like a row of two-ton dominoes falling over.
Even John’s closet was something to behold. It was built into one side of the wall. Inside were enough polyester shirts, white shoes, and bell-bottom pants to make John Travolta weep with envy. Me? I still had Garanimals in my closet. Don’t judge.
John slept in a heated waterbed covered with a zebra-striped comforter. Within reach of this was a stack of Mad Magazines and his own, private, miniature refrigerator. A refrigerator in his room! And this was no ordinary fridge. For inside, John kept a small stock of Schlitz Malt Liquor. Never mind that he wasn’t old enough to drink; it was there, none-the-less. He never offered us any of his “magic brew;” we never saw him drink one, and we never asked for any. It was enough, at our age, to be in the mere presence of all this beer, rock, shag, and polyester. It was so aromatically, acoustically, and visually amazing, Scott and I could only stand in quiet slack-jawed reverence at the spectacle we beheld upon our first visit. It was the dimly-lit Cathedral of Cool and we were but humble acolytes. To us, it was a 70’s Shangri-La.
John had it all. But the one thing he had beyond the bitchin’ Camaro and the ultimate 70’s teen bachelor pad was something Scott and I would never have. Her name was Trish Morgan. Trish was the Cleopatra to John’s Marc Antony. The Josephine to his Napoleon. The Farrah to his Lee Majors. She was, to us, perfect, which is to say: she was a real live girl with curves in all the right places who smiled at us sometimes. And, damn, what a smile.
I’m not going to get into a detailed physical description of Trish and all her physical attributes because that’s just rude, juvenile, and unnecessary. Hey, I’m an adult now, and fully understand that women are not just “objects” to be stared at. But if you were to ask me about her in 1979, I would have gotten shaken up in a hormone-saturated teenaged lust, blushed, and looked away shamefully. Scott, perhaps more forthright than I was, just said, “Hells bells, what a fox!”
Trish and John were the “It” couple of the neighborhood, and we often stopped riding our bikes just to watch them drive away in that Camaro, Trish checking her lip gloss in the visor mirror and tossing her gorgeous curls of brown hair at us as they drove by. She was just one of those girls who always seemed to move in slow motion, like Bo Derick walking out of the surf while Scott and I stared from our bikes with our mouths hanging open.
When John eventually dumped Trish, Scott and I decided to go to his house to say, “Dude! What are you thinking??” Of course we had no such balls to confront John Lenski as to his decisions where women were concerned. After all, all we knew about girls was based mainly on our shared celebrity crushes on Charlie’s Angels and Lynda Carter.
Even so, Trish was the pinnacle of hotness, and it was just hard to understand how John could have broken up with her. In a way, the act itself made him all the more of a hardcore stud to us. We were friends with the guy who dumped Trish Morgan! That is wicked! Still, the break-up sent shock waves through the neighborhood and the word was that everyone at the high school John and Trish attended were talking about it. Romances of the 70’s were nothing, I suppose, if not both dramatic and fleeting.
There’s one last story to tell about John Lenski, and I’ve wrestled with just how to convey it. John was our idol for all the reasons I’ve described above. But it was an incident in June 1979 that actually solidified him as a bonafide mentor in my life, and that shaped a portion of my character as both child and adult. And the funny thing is that I’m confident that to this day, wherever John is now, he has no idea…
During the summers we used to play flag football in the street. John and his brother James were both older and more athletic than Scott and I. So in our two-on-two games, I would often be paired with John, who served as quarterback, while I attempted to use what little agility I possessed to avoid getting flagged and gain some yardage. Our “flags,” incidentally, were strips torn from one of John’s old greasy mechanics rags, so it was always hard to explain to mom how my hands ended up with engine grease all over them when all we were doing was playing football.
During this particular game, John and I were tied with Scott and James, and the hour was getting late. Scott had already been beckoned home for dinner once, and I knew I would be called home soon as well; a lukewarm tuna casserole and peach slices on cottage cheese awaiting me. We stayed to finish the game anyway, damn the casserole!
John was always very competitive where his brother was concerned, and I always felt the need to do my best to help him win against James. Being on John’s team could be a blessing or a curse depending on the outcome of the game. He was many awesome things, but a good loser wasn’t one of them, and he’d often mope for a day or two after a loss. John, being bigger and stronger, often overthrew the ball to me, and being a gangly kid, I wasn’t exactly Lynn Swann when it came to catching footballs.
But this game had turned into a real slug fest, and I knew John wanted to win, at any cost. Scott and James had pulled to within a touchdown, and after James intercepted a pass despite being momentarily interrupted by a passing car, Scott – that wretched turd of a best friend – eluded me on the next play and ran between the two bean bags in the street for a game-tying touchdown.
After I failed to make any serious yardage on three successive tries, John and I were down to our last play. When John huddled with me, we were both sweaty and tired. He leaned in and just said two words in an exhausted and very deliberate tone: “Go long.”
I hated this because it meant he was going to launch the ball and I would run like crazy only to watch it bounce wildly on the pavement about ten yards beyond me and into the bushes. He always overthrew me. Or I under-ran him, depending on your perspective. And making matters worse, as we lined up for the play, I realized that James was going to cover me this time instead of Scott. Scott I could outrun. But James? James: fast, mean, heartless, and built like a tank. He was more than willing to send me scraping onto the pavement without an ounce of remorse.
Too late to protest. “Hut, hut, HUT!!” called John, and I was off, down the street, prepared for the worst. James was matching me step for step, but – I noticed – huffing and puffing like a locomotive. He was tired too. Maybe more tired than me. I was a scrawny kid, but my lack of heavy musculature was paying off; I was gradually outpacing him.
A few yards farther down the street, I glanced back to see John side-step Scott’s up-stretched hands easily, and launch the ball into the air like an Apollo rocket. My heart sank. I instantly knew I wouldn’t catch this pass. This pass was a Roger Staubach Hail Mary pass. It was going to end up in the next zip code. It was showing up on NORAD’s radar.
As the ball began its decent from the ionosphere, I heard John shout from behind me. And what he said was not very eloquent, but it changed me as a person. He said, “You are going to catch it, so run your f*$&ing legs off!!” The voice was desperate, intense, and certain. It was also cursing, which always scared me as a kid. I wasn’t used to being cussed at.
Of course I didn’t have time to think about this. Nor did I realize that I was going to be a different person by the time the ball came down. All I knew was that, yes, I was going to catch the ball, and yes, I was going to run my f*$&ing legs off doing it.
I flushed my legs with a fresh supply of adrenaline and, despite feeling like I was about to collapse, I kicked my scrawny legs into a higher gear, left James wheezing behind me, and leaped forward over bare asphalt, hands outstretched, as the ball plunked into my fingers. I cradled the ball like I’d caught a baby falling out of a three story window, and slid about five feet along the rough pavement.
I gingerly got to my feet, bloodied, bruised, tearful in pain, and, for one of the few genuinely rewarding times in my life, absolutely victorious.
Looking back up the street, I saw John leap into the air yelling like a banshee, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeeeeeah!!!” I didn’t receive a high five or get carried around the neighborhood in triumph. Instead, something better happened. As I staggered back to John, he ran to me, poked me hard in the chest, grabbed me by the shirt, mashed his forehead into mine, and quietly said, “I TOLD you, you’d catch it.”
Kind of a silly story, maybe. But it was a life lesson for me. Every so often, life launches a Hail Mary pass in my direction. It often seems so far away and unreachable that I just want to sit down and give up. The older I get, the more I realize that life’s full of such passes. And to be perfectly honest, you won’t catch most of them. Most will sail right over your head and bounce wildly into the bushes.
But the odds don’t change the fact that there are ultimately two kinds of people: Those who throw themselves against the pavement with their arms outstretched to at least try to catch that ball, and those who don’t. When life throws a pass my way, I know what I have to do. That’s when John Lenski’s voice enters my head and reminds me, again and again, that, yes, I am going to do everything I can do to catch that ball. Even if I get scraped up. Even if I endure a little pain. Even if I have to run my f&$%@ legs off.