Sep 30, 2010

Frost's "Birches." SELF-ESTEEM AND LUCKY STRIKES.







I'm back. Thanks for your patience.

Left: Two Kids in Competition. (The Checker Players, Bingham, 1850)


While visiting the town of Houghton Lake in north-central Michigan, I was parked next to an elementary school at quitting time. As they waited for their rides, one ten-year-old boy said to his buddy, “If you fist-bump me again, I’m gonna bite your face.”

But school was out and both kids needed their rides, maybe even from the same driver. They were stuck with each other. When I pulled away, The Fist-Bumper still had a face, and the two were bosom buddies, lazily shooting the bull.




When my gang was ten, playing Lucky Strike was one of our rituals. Walking around town, the first guy to spot a discarded pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes could step on it, holler “Lucky on me,” and slug the shoulder of the nearest other guy, who was expected to endure the blow without protest or tears.

Usually, the Lucky puncher gave a dramatic but half-hearted jab, partnered by a lot of shouting and editorializing about his victim's character flaws. The intent was to menace and annoy, not to inflict important pain. No one said this, but we understood it.

Occasionally, some thug-kid joined us from the margins and showed his poor breeding by lambasting the victim with an all-out roundhouse that brought tears, curses, or both. The violator would then feign innocence; he didn't know the rules, he didn't swing that hard, blah blah blah.

That might have been my introduction to a phrase I’d hear so often in life, verbatim or paraphrased or silently implied: “Not our kind of people.” These days, I use it only in order to mock it, even as I grudgingly admit its significance, see pretty clearly the dangers of any We vs. Them.

By the way, the Lucky Strike mayhem rarely happened with only a pair of kids. An audience of two or more somehow validated the tradition and bore witness. Who had quick enough feet to get to the empty Lucky pack first? And how hard was the punch to the shoulder? After all, if it was too weak, the puncher’s manhood might be in doubt. Oh, yes--and how stoically did the victim receive the blow?

So as we walked our streets and alleys, each kid was constantly on the lookout for used-up packs of Luckies. I won't speak for other towns, but that is how the Clawson males, always on the prowl, became such rotten listeners. I thought you ought to know, and those guys don't say much.







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17 comments:

Jean Spitzer said...

You made me laugh; good story, good surprise.

altadenahiker said...

Gosh that was good. I saw everything.

gothpunkuncle said...

Lucky Strikes figure into a damn fine poem by Norman Dubie called "Ars Poetica." He'd be on my list of UNDERrated poets, fo' sho'.

Paula said...

It's easy to forget how resilient we were as children. Some of the things I did make the hair on my arms stand up. The poem reminds me of some footage I once saw of a pack of boys in some Manhattan borough, prolly in the 30's, scrambling up into a tree in a park climbing out onto the smallest branches and then bailing out. They defied gravity for sure.
I think you and your buddies must have been the basis for "Stand By Me". Wonderful story.

BANJO52 said...

Thanks, all (so far). I hadn't thought about the Lucky tradition for a long time and was going to stop at the Higgins Lake incident, just to get something posted. But at the last minute, the connection popped to mind.

GPU, I remember your interest in Dubie, and he's one of my gaps. Send me some more titles, OK?

Paula, "Stand By Me" rang really true for me, though I had no such dramatic event in childhood. I should watch the movie again.

Also, I don't know how tight my gang's bonds were, but these high school reunions have me mulling it over again. You might be invited to hear more of such stuff.

I hadn't read "Birches" for at least a couple of years. I think Frost handles childhood and other invitations to sentimentality much better than Wordsworth or Dylan Thomas. What other poets, or writers, would be in this dumb competition I just tried to create?

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Your funny. I suspect you were the luckless striker among Clawson males

re; the Frost poem about childhood...kinda long. Kept loosing my way in the woods. I thought it was some metaphor (probably not the academically correct word) for the father/son conundrum.

Groups of young males always scared me. Especially if you chanced upon them after a day spent at catholic school

fun read

Ken Mac said...

i love birch! We lived on Harlow near Eight Mile. It's the hood now

Birdman said...

Ha! You brought back a few of our games too, with jackknives and such.

BANJO52 said...

PA, actually I did all right in that dumbness--might be the last time I can refer to myself as adequate in speed of anything.

I'll hold of on commentary about the poem because I might make that a post of its own soon.

Ken, that's not near me, but I'm not surprised to hear it's the hood now. Your photos imply nice big houses, and as I said on AH's recent posts about neighborhoods in L.A., I'm usually mystified about people's reasons for leaving them.

As for birches, they are for me a reason to stay in Michigan. Unless I'm badly misremembering, there are far, far more of them in Michigan than in southern Ohio. I'm ambivalent at best about the whole north woods feel of upper Michigan, but I do love the birches.

I think they're also plentiful in upper New England and NY state, but memory is fuzzy.

Good to hear from you again.

BANJO52 said...

Birdman, I think we did a little of that, but I don't remember much. How about touch football with a sockball?

Is it my imagination, or have the women grown silent?

PA, I bet you wouldn't have been scared of us, although we'd have been flattered.

We had to go to much bigger towns to find a Catholic school.

altadenahiker said...

I was just remembering that, growing up, I always had a cast on something, or a broken finger taped to a tongue depresser.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

OK, maybe not Lord of the Flies but I would have still crossed the street

I was public and catholic kids...well, they just were mean. I don't know what those nuns did to them but I swear they produced a generation of cynical atheists....and I crossed the street gladly

BANJO52 said...

AH, horsewoman, hiker, activist, you were probably a lot more reckless than we were.

PA, glad you said that. Earlier, I thought you were the one in Catholic school. Yeah, a day under that kind of law and order could make someone cross. Or anxious and submissive?

gothpunkuncle said...

Here's a link to the thing I mentioned:

http://www.aprweb.org/poem/ars-poetica

"Danse Macabre", ""New England, Autumn", "Elizabeth's War with the Christmas Bear"

Groom Falconer and Springhouse Poems are both solid collections.

Susan Campisi said...

Nice story. I like how the grade school kids brought you back to your gang. Like Hiker, I could see everything.

The Birches poem made me ache for chillier climes.

BANJO52 said...

GPU, thanks. Will do.

Susan, thanks. I do believe you L.A. and Phoenix folks have made me even more glad to be north and east-ish. The grey, gloomy winters are an issue, but so far I'm choosing that over year-round heat and sand, quakes and fires (I know that's a gross oversimplification . . . ). And would I have to pull for Southern Cal, the speed-demon bullies, the Yankees of the West?

Susan Campisi said...

I lived in Seattle for 10 years (and grew up in NY) so I know gloomy weather. I'm often nostalgic for it. That said, I know I'd miss the burning heat on my shoulders if I left Southern California.

And I'm happy to say it's raining in Pasadena at the moment: cool, grey and wet.

Lovers' Lane