Had she not earned a “D” in PE her senior year—an achievement I topped with an “F” in the same class by the tenth grade—my mother could have been the valedictorian in Manatee High School’s Class of ‘59. Instead, that academic faux pas earned her a one-way bus ticket to secretarial school in Jacksonville, Florida. Hardly the scholastic springboard to fame and fortune mom dreamed of. Still, Jeanette emersed herself in her studies with customary fervor. After mastering the arcane language of Gregg shorthand and accelerating her typing skills to a blistering 172 WPM, mom shared laughs and smokes with an acrobatic water skier at the Jacksonville YWCA. When the company of bull dikes and unwed mothers became too much for mom and her roommate to swallow, the girls would dodge curfew at the Y and hit the town. With a bottle of Thunderbird and a pack of cigarettes stuffed beneath their trench coats, the ladies would sneak off to shoot pool with the sailors on R&R in Jacksonville harbor.
One sailor who caught mom’s eye was an 18-year-old yooper from Michigan. Friends called him Harold. Family members called him Sluggo. By their third date, mom was calling him Mack. One year later, friends at the Y were calling their ex-roommate “Mrs. McGruther.”
Precious few memories I have of my father were formed by any real experiences I shared with the man. His triple commitment to manic depression, marital infidelity and serving his country didn’t leave much time for baseball and bike rides. Instead, nearly all the illuminating portraits of dad hanging in my head were painted by my mother. One of my favorites shows a short, solidly built Italian guy tearing the Jacksonville phone book in half with this bare hands. Then there’s the SCUBA diver loading his gear into a white ‘64 Chevy II with a red vinyl interior—the only paint combination that appealed to his double-colorblind eyes. Other snapshots include yo-yo coach, car crash victim and wearer of small pants.
When I was 12 years old, I wore the same sized pants as my father: 28 square. Among fashion-conscious preteens of the day, Sears Toughskins were all the rage. Boys dug the groovy colors. Budding young flower girls liked their hip-hugging silhouette. Mothers and Catholic priests praised their reinforced knees. Unlike conventional blue jeans, grandma could cut off a pair of Toughskins with pinking shears and the ballistic-grade polyester would never fray. Pegged or flared and in every color of the rainbow, Toughskins where the pants to wear when you had to wear pants. Of course, I wore Moleskins. These thinly veiled pretenders to the Toughskins throne were the house trouser at Montgomery Ward’s.
Because it didn’t have a power tool line to rival Sears’ Craftsman brand, Ward’s was where divorced women and their fatherless crumb snatchers shopped for frocks and togs. Mom’s favorite flame-retardant pantsuits came off the rack at Montgomery Ward’s. When there was money left over from the 125 bucks per week she pulled down at the law offices of Frank Arpaya, Mom would buy me a pair of Moleskins in mustard, avocado, or some other funky earth tone. Among boys my age, one polyester pant was as good as the next. To the discerning eye and supple flesh of this young haberdasher, Moleskins were a tactile abomination. I blame no one but my father for the anguish and discomfort I suffered in those relentlessly abrasive, ill-fitting jeans. Fortunately, it didn’t take too many of grandma’s Boston cream pies to snatch me out of Ward’s boys department and straight into menswear. After reaching that milestone, my sartorial priorities took a turn for the wurst. Although I was built like a sausage, my mom was determined not to let me dress like one.
If the look for boys in the summer of ‘69 was Tom Sawyer, mine was Tom Jones. Mom took great pride in turning me out at holiday dinners and grade-school music recitals in ruffled tuxedo shirts, polyester bellbottoms and pastel suits. Pimps are expected to dress like that. It’s good for business. When your business is practicing magic and hiding boogers beneath the sofa, prancing around the schoolyard like a Welsh lounge singer was an invitation for an ass kicking. Then as now, I deflected caustic confrontations with a shield of self-deprecating wit. With so much good material to draw from, learning to laugh at myself came easy.