Armagideon Time

The notion that I’m an asocial recluse has been a recurring gag since Armagideon Time’s inception, and it’s certainly based in reality to a fair degree. I don’t like to travel, for various reasons I’d rather not get into or feel capable of articulating at this time.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy visiting Gettysburg or Montreal or Charlotte these past few years, but that I enjoyed getting back to familiar environs that much more. From 1992 up until Maura needed a ride to roller derby recruitment event in Nashua in 2009, I didn’t set so much as a foot outside the borders of my fairly small state. It wasn’t anything intentional, just how things happened to shake out.

1983 was a significant year of my life because it included not one, but several voyages outside the boundaries of Boston’s northwest suburbs.

The first of these was a spring excursion to Mount Cardigan in New Hampshire. It was the event that soured me on the whole Boy Scout experience, which had been losing luster since the Cub-level days of making lanyards with other neighborhood kids around the den mother’s kitchen. I don’t know why I didn’t fall away from the organization when most of my friends did, apart from my parents’ strategy of forcing me to stick with things long after my initial wave of interest had guttered out.

Their idea, I suppose, was to instill a stronger sense of self-discipline but it only exacerbated the traits that they were trying to shake out of me. All it did was foster an even greater aversion to committing myself to things, lest I get trapped in something that takes a turn for the shitty down the road.

Mount Cardigan was where things turned shitty on the scouting front. This was not a campfire jamboree at some fenced-off patch of exurban wilderness. This was an actual mountain climb which I was physically and materially unprepared to undertake.

It started off promisingly enough — with a bunch of rowdy boys swapping dirty jokes and listening to Top 40 radio in the back of a Scout Dad’s custom van conversion. It ended with me pretending to throw an ankle in order to get the fuck out of there and back to my stack of comics, Atari 2600, and warm bed by any means necessary.

I felt guilty about it at the time, but now I just feel pride in my younger self’s attempt at self-preservation through transparent deception.

That summer vacation saw me embark of two extended trips away from home. The first was a road trip with my maternal grandparents down the length of the Appalachians from western Massachusetts to Asheville, North Carolina.

It was my grandfather’s idea and entirely by his many eccentricities. Everything I saw, I witnessed either through the rear passenger window of his oversized Chevy, the vantage point of a rest stop parking lot, or from a motel window. Most of the trip was spent avoiding his wrath as he white-knuckled the steering wheel and accused other drivers of being “pinko traitors.” The only non-essential stop we made was at a roadside fireworks stand in eastern Tennessee, where I stared in horror at a taxidermied rattlesnake exhibit as my grandpa dropped a hundred bucks on recreational pyrotechnics. After spending a night at a HoJo’s in Asheville, my grandpa turned the car around and headed back along the exact route in which we came.

The experience was beyond weird, but it was memorable and mostly enjoyable. I found a Biker Scout action figure in a dingy department store by our hotel in Wilkes-Barre and the conclusion of so many of the previous year’s big comic events in polybagged three packs at a Dutch Country Stuckey’s.

Even from a car window, the sights were awe-inspiring, from banks of fog winding through the Blue Ridge Mountains to the massive auto graveyard in Scranton to the strip-mine scarred landscapes of West Virginia. It stuck deeply enough that when the Three Weiss Men retraced the first half of the route on our 2011 trip to Gettysburg, I kept getting hit with recurring bouts of decades-delayed deja vu.

My brother and I only had a couple of weeks to recharge from that trip before we were hauled off to spend a week at my great-gran’s cottage on Cape Cod. It was well away from the ocean but across an unpaved lane from a freshwater water pond where my mother attempted to teach me to swim by holding my face under the water for extended periods of time. (I still don’t know how to swim and also abhor having my face covered or submerged in any manner, so good work, Mom!)

Most of our time was spent in the garden while my mother worked on an oil painting and I tried to come up with excuses why I should be allowed to go down to my cot in the finished basement and read Bowdlerized retellings of Greek myths and dated articles about prehistoric life in the volume of the 1959 Book of Knowledge I brought with me. I can also remember getting slapped because I yelled too loud after getting stung by a bee, my uncle and father arguing over the Woburn’s toxic waste contamination, and a lone copy of the “Rock the Casbah” 7-inch sitting the window of a Hyannis department store.

Mostly what I remember was the food, my great-gran’s combination of mid-century American and Gilded Age Scandinavian cuisines with a heavy emphasis on vegetable-laced gelatin concoctions — minced beets and raspberry jello drowned in lakes of ranch dressing in the vain hope of making them even marginally edible. That shit still haunts my dreams.

My final excursion of the year took place in the autumn of 1983, when we piled the entire family — mother, father, two sons, teenage aunt, disabled grandma — into my dad’s Cordoba and drove down to Washington, DC for a long weekend.

We spent a couple of days visiting the various branches of the Smithsonian (The Hope Diamond! The Spirit of St. Louis! Archie Bunker’s chair!). My dad got to see a fallen squadmate’s name on the then-new-and-somewhat-controversial Vietnam Memorial. My brother and I had our picture taken in front of the Lincoln Memorial. I got a splinter in my ass cheek after sitting on a bench near the Jefferson Memorial.

Our last night in the Washington happened to be the night The Day After aired on ABC. My brother and I were sharing a motel room with my aunt, who insisted on watching it. Fearing the nightmares I knew it would cause, I begged my parents to let me sleep in their room. They agreed, but I could tell they were disappointed by my squeamish anxiety.

I never got around to seeing the film until a decade later, during a retro-armageddon VHS rental binge. I was amazed to discover it was made-for-TV cheese on par with a lesser Iwrin Allen joint, but that was a product of age and hindsight. It would’ve traumatized the hell out of me if I had watched it when I was eleven…though the same can be said of the X-Men’s “Brood War” arc, which quite definitely did.

2 Responses to “1983: The Year My Voice Broke – The Journeys”

  1. William Gatevackes

    I’m from Wilkes-Barre. Any chance you remember if that dingy department store was named Zayre’s? That was the dingiest department store in the area that I can recall from my youth. The store got famous for a Cabbage Patch Riot one holiday season. That was a strange source of pride for our area.

    And the car graveyard most likely was the DiNaples Junkyard. Another legendary landmark of my hometown.

    None of this means anything, except that your trip down memory lane has struck one for me as well. A non-sarcastic thanks.

  2. bitterandrew

    I don’t think it was a Zayre’s. It was an anchor store for some dismal mall down the hill from a Holiday Inn.

    Zayre’s was a major chain in New England, and the primary department store in my area growing up. It’s where most of my childhood toys came from, the first comics I owned (from bagged three-packs) and so many $5 Atari 2600 games.

    The last thing I bought there (before it was absorbed by the equally doomed Ames) was a pair of cheap dress shoes for my grandfather’s funeral.

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