‘Why am I such a misfit? I am not just a nitwit. You can’t fire me, I quit. Seems I don’t fit in.’
–Hermey the Elf, 1964
When I finally saw the animated Christmas program “Rudolph” thirty years after its production, I took notice of the quirky idea that one of Santa’s elves, Hermey, wanted to become, of all things, a dentist. He felt himself different, and questioned very earnestly in song why he didn’t fit in. Looking back on my life from its middle, I didn’t miss this ironic lesson. It was with reflective amusement I realized that ‘back in the day’, still made of clay, I was a dentist who wanted to be, of all things…..an elf.
The best part of dental school was when I wasn’t there. It wasn’t awful and I did very well as a student, but where I really came into my own and learned a thing or two was out in the real world. Weekends and summer breaks were not to be wasted. The world was delightfully crazy. Society was in a glorious upheaval, and it was a good time for a coming-of-age story. (If only I had.)
Party Parking Only
From June to September in the early seventies, I joined a rowdy band of wily mischief-makers working at the state park near Ocean Shores on the Washington coast. Though it was summer, the sun rarely shown and the clammy damp would have made it a very grim place to earn $359 dollars a month cleaning restrooms and campsites, hauling garbage and registering visitors, were it not for the “side jobs” we picked up in our off hours. These included your usual gang-related activities such as goofing off, chasing girls, drinking, pranking the campers, stealing beer, and raising our own special brand of hell.
Each summer there were four to six of us college-kid delinquents who bunked in a noisy, moist, ant-infested garage. We were joined by a few young ladies who commuted from Aberdeen and several gifted local boys who were in their late teens to early twenties still struggling to graduate from the nearby rural high school so they could get the hell out of there.
It was quite the experience and I learned lessons there that go a long way to explaining the questionable life skills and character anomalies that are with me yet today. In spite of all the shirking and slacking, “work-arounds”, playing hooky, hiding from the boss in restrooms, and raiding the walk-in beer cooler in Patton’s Grocery down the road in Oyehut while patrolling the beach, we managed to get the necessary park work done. These were the days of federal ‘generosity’ in supporting employment opportunity, job training, and government social programs. The Great Society was throwing grants around like birdseed. As a result, there were three of us for every one job, and everybody was happy.
One night, perhaps a bit bored and certainly a bit sideways, someone – I’m pretty sure it was Pete, who eventually went on to put in his thirty years as a state park ranger — had the brilliant idea to build pipe bombs. Oh, HELL, yes! The park shop had all the plumbing fixtures and tools, and the trunk under Brumley’s bed had black gunpowder for his antique rifle. We would sift off what we needed in small quantities, much like sneaking your dad’s whiskey and replacing it with water. Packed powder in galvanized pipe, a firecracker for a fuse, and some fool to strike a match. Simple!
On the third volley we nearly decapitated a guy walking his dog up by the sewage lagoon. He wouldn’t have known what hit him. We told the head ranger it was Doug’s car backfiring. That broken window? It was always like that. Every time we lied and went on to almost destroy his park, I think he liked us all the more for being clever enough to get away with the shit I’m sure he wished he had done as a kid.
Fun While It Lasted
After four years I completed my dental education, and also managed to matriculate out of Ocean City State Park without getting arrested, married or maimed. I was single and highly degreed with friends in low, low places. I was succeeding in rejecting expected lifestyle and behavior, though in retrospect, all I was doing was choosing to be “different, like everybody else.” But I did feel wonderfully liberated and unstoppable. Naïve, self-centered, and arrogantly unpretentious.
I was so directed, or misdirected, I seriously thought about signing on for a fourth summer’s employment at the park after graduation. The wage had risen to $456 a month (!) and these were my people and this was my party. You can believe my poor father, who put me through eight years of college, was not at all happy. But he said little. Or I heard little. Receiving no direct orders, I was left free to project my choices onto him, and I justified those aberrant wishes in my favor. I’d like to say it all worked out in the end, but our relationship is another story.
This good young doctor was into country music and smoky taverns and sidelong looks from petite feral young women who had a taste for beer and the unknown. I had no commitments and no idea how to make them. The country western sound became part of my wannabe persona: simple, rough around the edges, and somtimes well-intentioned. No regrets, mind you. I was just full of myself. And you know what else. Acting like a grownup for-real dentist in the mid-seventies to me was like the rising sound of disco music – uncomfortably jerky, confusing, and too flashy for my style.
Next: The Teacher