Chapter One - Garbage, Hillbillies and Other Facts of Life
Why can’t I say I’m a Beatles fan? I used to get criticized for that.
- Buck Owens - Performer on popular television show Hee Haw
Southern California was a raucous place to grow up in the Sixties and Seventies. There were communes in Topanga Canyon where you could live naked and hit a big, therapeutic gong to cure whatever ailed you. Peace-loving hippies, druggies and other flaky people started hanging out at Venice Beach, giving that town a permanent reputation as a destination for the weird. It was an era of self-empowerment. Black Panthers raised their fists, women burned their bras, anti-war protestors marched and yelled slogans, and a couple of thugs in South Central Los Angeles upped the gang violence ante by forming the notorious Crips gang.
It was a time when laid back surfers ruled the waves at Huntington Beach, the Beach Boys ruled the air waves, and the term “coming out” no longer referred to parties where rich girls wore frilly ball gowns and white silk gloves.
In this super-charged atmosphere of political and social upheaval, where daily battles against the status quo were fought in the press and on the streets, my family still went to church, made our beds every day, joined the Girl and Boy Scouts, ate pineapple upside down cake after supper and didn’t even suspect that maybe WE were the hold out weirdos.
The state of California may deserve its reputation as Land of the Freak and Home of the Babe, but this was a reality far different from my evangelical Christian upbringing there. Our fundamentalist, church-centered life represented a distinct, evolving subset of Southern California culture during the Sixties and Seventies, which may surprise those who assume everyone from California is a hippy, liberal flake. My strict, conservative parents made Howard and Marion Cunningham, from the TV show Happy Days, look like wild-eyed liberals.
I grew up in a black and white, morally absolute world. Right was right, wrong was wrong, and there was no wiggle room in between. Despite the rebellious spirit of the times, I knew better than to question the authority of parents, teachers, preachers or politicians or dare to look beyond the infallible Word of God for literal answers to everyday problems.
However, even as a youngster, I recognized signs that maybe the world was more muddled and gray than I thought.
The Beatles were my first clue.
Aunt Kim, my mother’s youngest and most subversive sister/artist, shocked me when she gave me and my siblings the first record album we ever saw that didn’t have someone named Mitch, the Limelighters, or Burl Ives on the cover. It was Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a bona fide rock album. I stared in slack-jawed amazement at the album cover that displayed John, Paul, Ringo and George decked out in their bizarre, psychedelic, hallucinogenic glory.
My mortified mother threw the album in the trash as soon as Aunt Kim left. Obviously, there were secrets that Mum wanted to hide in the dumpster, although I didn’t know why. Perhaps, like any protective parent, she feared the Beatles were an evil force that would corrupt her innocent and unsuspecting children if she didn’t intervene, but even my third grade classmates sang “I wanna hold your haaaaand.” After seeing the Sergeant Pepper album cover, those mop top boys from Britain fascinated me, too. While Mum was busy paying for groceries at Ralph’s Market, I flipped through magazines in the checkout line, pretending nonchalance, but eager to feast my eyes on more freaky, colorful photos of the Beatles.
The Beatles were bold, outrageous and titillating. Curiously, they never inspired me to take LSD.
My ultra-Christian parents popped out five kids between the years of 1959 and 1971 and tried valiantly to stop modern society from tainting our characters. They did not drink or smoke or willingly mingle with anyone they considered “non-Christian.” My father, affectionately known as “Deah,” was a stern, authoritarian man whose favorite word was “garbage.” When he disapproved of something, it was “garbage,” and he pronounced that word with such jowl-jingling finality, there was rarely any doubt or argument from anyone.
Rock music was “garbage,” in fact, all music, with the exception of old-time church hymns, was “garbage.” Art was “garbage,” even Aunt Kim’s famous paintings, including a memorable one called Portrait of Ed Sullivan As A Young Girl. In Deah’s view, ninety-nine point nine percent of television was “garbage.”
Mum and Deah attempted to protect my two brothers, two sisters, and I from television pollution by tightly controlling the shows we watched. When other kids were watching the risqué Laugh-In and Love American Style, my family watched I Love Lucy reruns and Flipper.
There were only two television shows my stern, incorruptible father watched: The Lawrence Welk Show and Hee Haw. The Lawrence Welk Show was a benign celebration of song, dance and bubbles, which appealed primarily to the American aged, which, in my thinking, included my parents, who hadn’t even hit their forties. The voluptuous Mexican singer, Anacani, may have worn slinky, shimmery gowns when she sang in Spanish, but her style was indisputably tame, tasteful and, by virtue of the fact that she appeared on The Lawrence Welk Show, dorky.
Hee Haw confused me. Hee Haw was Laugh-In with a twang. Daisy Duke bikini tops …bare midriffs… corny off-color jokes. Deah loved it. Everything else in the world might be “garbage,” but I never saw Deah laugh like he did when he was watching Hee Haw. Sitting in his recliner, he’d laugh so hard he’d shake, hiccup, cry and scare me. Deah’s weakness for Hee Haw caused me to ponder another gray-colored dichotomy: if hillbillies did it, apparently it wasn’t garbage.
The pivotal problem of growing up in an evangelical, god-fearing home is this: you can’t avoid sex.
Truthfully, I was so clueless about boys and sex, my parents shouldn’t have worried. In the sixth grade, my girlfriends giggled uncontrollably when they found something in the school ball field.
“What’s that?” I asked.
One girl lifted the item up with a stick and twirled the white fabric around like a sling shot, causing paroxysms of girlish laughter from my friends.
“What is it?” I asked again, baffled.
Not wanting to say it out loud, she resorted to the ancient tongue of adolescent females, Pig Latin.
“Ock-J, Rap-Stray,” she said, sending everyone but me into more maniacal spasms.
Even after I deciphered the Pig Latin, I still had no idea what a “jock strap” was. My ignorance was apparently the most hysterical aspect of the entire episode because for the rest of the afternoon the girls chanted “Ock-J Rap-Stray” to me in sing-song unison.
In my defense, if my older brother needed a “cup” to play basketball, Mum obviously took care of it in such quiet confidentiality no one ever knew it. In the kind of household where my sister famously got her mouth washed out with soap for saying the word “bosom,” I’m sure “jock strap” would have sent my mother scrambling after me with a bar of Lux soap, too.
Mum tried to tell me about the facts of life, but it was a disaster. I give her credit, though. For a straight-laced woman with unusual Puritanical sensibilities for the Sixties and Seventies, the thought of having “the Talk” with her oldest daughter must have been a fearsome proposition and I’m sure she only did it out of an unshakable sense of civic and moral duty.
When the day arrived, I was sitting in the bathtub singing cheerily when the bathroom door opened and Mum walked in.
“We need to talk,” she said a little too sweetly.
I sensed impending doom.
For decades I’ve asked myself: why did my mother talk to me about sex while I was naked in the bathtub? Doesn’t a preteen girl have a right to keep her pudgy rolls of belly fat private? When Mum entered the bathroom and sat on the toilet to explain sex to me, I was in such a state of red-faced humiliation I could barely make eye contact with her.
Whatever she said made no sense anyway because Mum was not only close to ruining my life, she was also having a significant communication problem. If she were writing a story, she covered the introduction and the conclusion adequately, but for reasons too delicate to mention, she deliberately omitted all the mechanics in between. In the end, I learned nothing more from Mum’s befuddling attempt at sex education than what I already gathered from watching Hee Haw.
She must have realized that “The Talk” was not going well. After a few unbearable minutes, she stood and walked out the door. If Mum had failed in her civil and moral obligation to society, it didn’t matter. To my knowledge, she never said another word about sex to any of us, and my two younger sisters, Pam and Deborah, really lucked out because Mum left their sex education completely up to chance.
Religious people commonly believe they are different, special and set apart from everyone else in the world, and this was undoubtedly a dominant religious theme in my childhood. Maybe we lived in a wildly diverse, ego-centered, hedonistic and liberal-leaning state, but we were evangelical, born again Christians, which, to my parents, largely meant white and politically conservative. Like most evangelicals, they voted Republican and quietly dismissed Catholics, Pentecostals, Mormons and other assorted religious practitioners as imposters because, to them, if you weren’t “born again,” you weren’t a “real” Christian.
I truly wanted to be a good Christian, honor my parents, love God and country and live an obedient red, white and blue life. But like generations of conflicted youth before me, I struggled between wanting to belong and breaking free. Wanting to conform, but needing to defy. I wanted to feel special, but I didn’t want to be different. In other words, I was just like any other chubby, insecure, Wonder Bread, red-blooded, American girl.
In my family, though, I was the “problem child.” I was raised in the tradition of the great religious killjoy, John Calvin, whose most significant accomplishment was convincing Christians that humanity is utterly sinful and depraved from birth. If John Calvin didn’t even cut babies a break, imagine how hard growing up was for an independent-minded, curious kid with strong opinions and the bad habit of speaking her mind. If anyone got in trouble in my family, it was me, mostly because I couldn’t keep my big mouth shut.
Maybe I just wanted to understand the world on my own terms, which wasn’t easy when Deah fixed his steely, bug-eyed glare at me and barked the word “garbage” to dissuade me from serious dissent.
Though I was naïve, idealistic and blissfully ignorant of the ways of the world, I contemplated and questioned things that I was supposed to accept as irrefutable truth. I was supposed to believe the basic born again precept that as Christians, we were spiritually superior to everyone else, who lived in an unfortunate, yet willful state of spiritual ignorance.
My deepest, childish heresy, which had the potential of blowing all my family rights and privileges completely out of the water, was thinking that maybe we weren’t.
Mum and Deah always warned me about facing the “real world,” which implied that, at such time that I actually faced it, I would miss and be grateful for their protection. Until that time, my parents shielded me as long as they could. I walked one block to my elementary school and one mile to my high school, less if I cut through the wash. I played the piano, learned how to bake chocolate cake from scratch, sewed Barbie clothes by hand and grew up in the comfort and safety of a quirky, but typical, middle-class family. I tried to do good.
But after being raised in such a strict, sheltered environment, the “real world,” with all its funny, disturbing, and confusing complexities, would eventually come as quite a shock. I was wholly unprepared for it.
I wish I learned to curse sooner.