When 1983 began, I was ten-going-on-eleven, starting the second half of my fifth grade year. That was a significant grade for kids at the Linscott-Rumsford Elementary school because the teacher was a — GASP — man, a polyester-clad F. Murray Abraham lookalike who had a rep for being both a Fun Dude and an impatient hardass. (He was the same guy who’d later loan my little brother his Star Trek VHS tapes.)
It would be the last full year I would live in North Woburn. There were six of us — my parents, my little brother and I, and my father’s disabled mother and teenage sister — crammed into a tiny two bedroom apartment halfway between Route 38 and the industrial park. Personal space was at a premium in those days, but could still be found in the semi-heated “back porch” (actually an enclosed foyer-slash-laundry-room carpeted with grungy industrial pile of a goose shit green hue) or the space below the sideboard in the combo kitchen and dining room, where the Atari 2600 was hooked up to a dying portable color TV donated by my paternal grandpa.
When even those private refuges felt cramped, I had the entire North Woburn wilderness in which to stretch my legs — either in kid-broody solitude or alongside a constellation of childhood pals. There was the troubled and reckless Artie, the cheerfully clueless Scott, and my shifty cousin Jason. Sometimes we played colors and hide ‘n’ seek with neighborhood’s parallel contingent of girls our age, sometimes we’d lob fragrantly rotting crabapples at them as we howled past them on our store-brand knockoff BMX bikes.
Outside that cul-de-sac culture was my buddy Brian, a fellow Boy Scout who was the only other kid in school as obsessed with funnybooks as I was. Brian orbited our group but was never fully a part of it, especially after his family moved to a ranch home by the Burlington line a few months into the year. We still kept in touch, though, as the bonds of shared geekiness overcame geographical distance. Brian was the one who sparked my interest in Jack of Hearts, thanks to a stack of old Iron Man comics (read in his backyard toolshed turned clubhouse on the day Reagan was shot) and an unwanted issue of Marvel Two-In-One he tossed in my direction.
We were given — intentionally or though parental oversight — great licence to roam free at the very age when we were eager to test the limits of that freedom. Sneak off to the mall over in East Woburn. Sneak off to the multiplex by the highway. Sneak off to wilds Down Back to build secret hideouts from jagged scraps of construction waste. Yeah, there’d be a chance of getting grounded or a whupping or an emergency tetanus shot, but that didn’t discourage even the most tyrannically parented among us from diving in headfirst.
It helped that the our neighborhood was rough ‘n’ tumble to start. When you’re growing weed in the backyard or tearing an illegal go-kart around the block, you’re not as inclined to be uptight when a bunch of noisy tweeners spray “BALLS” in industrial adhesive on the street and set the letters on fire with a stolen Zippo.
I could probably make a strong case for the aesthetic merits of the stuff I plan to cover from here on out. It was a significant moment, for good and ill, but that’s ultimately irrelevant to what I’m trying to unpack here.
1983 was the year that I became aware of the wider world of pop culture, within the context of an emerging sense of self outside the hand-me-downs of parental-pleasing osmosis. If I was born a few years earlier, it could’ve happened in 1979 and been so much cooler. If I was born a couple of years later, it could’ve happened in 1986 and been irreversibly damaging.
As it happened, I muddled through this developmental phase at a moment where I don’t have to angst too much over a “chicken or the egg” scenario…except where Fame is involved.