Vacation 2016: Coming of Age
Having grown up in a community of elders with a long heritage, I have a deep connection to my old home town of Adams-Friendship, Wisconsin. I lived there throughout a blissful childhood until my family moved away when I was eleven years old. I struggled to adapt to my new environment always feeling like an outsider. In my Junior year of high school, I hatched a plan to go back to Wisconsin to have the high school experience I felt I was denied in Arkansas. I went home to come of age.
It was 1985, my thoughts were short my hair was long Caught somewhere between a boy and man She was seventeen and she was far from in-between It was summertime in Central Wisconsin
I arrived back in Adams in the dead of winter. The second week I was there, the daily highs never reached above zero degrees. One morning, I went out to start my car to drive to school, and the temperature was minus thirty-eight degrees. That’s cold. The cold weather stood in stark contrast to the warm reception I received from my friends. One of them changed the letters on a local marquee to read “Larry R is back in town.” I was home again.
My friend David and I picked up where we left off over six years earlier when my family left town. From the time I arrived, I was his wingman, and he re-introduced me to the broader circle of friends I left behind all those years ago. I was immediately accepted as part of the group. In many ways, it was like I never left.
One of the unique rituals of social life in Adams-Friendship is taking laps. The two towns share a single main street that’s a couple of miles long. During lunchtime and early on Friday and Saturday evening, most teens looking for fun will drive up and down Main street. As you passed by one another, you would wave to your friends, scowl at your enemies, and ignore the rest. You knew where you were in the pecking order by who waved to you and who did not.
You could gauge the enthusiasm by the way people waved to you. Waving became a ritual onto itself. Young men and women who wanted to hook up would send signals by how they waived or whether they waived at all. Waiving to someone you previously ignored acknowledged them and invited them into your world. If they reciprocated the wave on the next lap, it was nearly as good as asking for a date. Most hookups were preceded by an exchange of niceties on the ritual lap through town.
At the time, I didn’t fully appreciate what a unique and useful ritual this was. It was an important part of the socialization with a broader group of friends and acquaintances. Coupled with the in-car conversations with your closest friends, you heard all the gossip and knew what was going on. As a bonding ritual, taking laps was only second to the weekend parties.
Friday and Saturday nights
When I arrived in Wisconsin the legal drinking age had just gone up from eighteen to nineteen. It was due to go up to twenty-one six months after my nineteenth birthday. I was one of the last few who made the deadline. Since these changes were so recent, it wasn’t terribly difficult to find a friend a few years older who would go into a bar or liquor store and buy beer. Most would do this out of friendship, and perhaps a cold one for their efforts. Each Friday and Saturday night, the first thirty to ninety minutes were spent trying to get beer. It was rare that it took longer than that, and we never went without. Getting beer was part of the routine, and we had fun doing it.
After getting enough provisions to last the night, we would set out to find people to enjoy it with. Usually, early Friday and Saturday evenings were lap-taking time. Everyone cruised town to find out where the parties were and who was going to be there. Often there would be a gathering at someone’s house, but if nobody was having a party, there were a number of designated party areas at the end of deserted roads a few miles from town. The selected place would vary often just in case the police tried to crash the party.
These parties were fun, but the conversations were hardly intellectual. The most important thing you had to know was the engine sizes of eight-cylinder motors put in various muscle cars of the 60s and 70s. For instance, Chevy manufactured both a small block and large block 400 cubic inch motor in addition to its 327. Ford made a 298, a 302, a Boss 302, a 427 and a 454. Chrysler made various sizes as did American Motors. Lucky for me, my father owned a 69 SC Rambler when I was growing up. That made me cool.
My grandfather owned eighty acres just outside of town. It was a gathering place for some epic spring parties. Some of the better ones had a hundred or more people come and go during the night. One April day we all decided to skip school and play football out on the back eighty. We played football and drank beer all day long, then we brought in more beer and partied until nearly four in the morning. A good time was had by all.
All these experiences were fun and relatively harmless. They were also the type of experiences that was denied to me when I lived in Arkansas. I went to Wisconsin to have a good time with friends. That’s what high school was supposed to be about. I’m thankful I went. I matured a great deal during my last semester of my senior year. I had come of age.
Summer in Wisconsin Dells
The summer after graduation, I stayed local and worked in Wisconsin Dells. I worked at an amusement park operating rides and spending my evenings down in the Dells where plenty was going on. It reminded me of the fun of my youth, but the activities had changed. Instead of racing go-carts and playing mini golf, we cruised laps and picked up on cute tourists. It was another wonderful and carefree time.
As the summer wore on, a certain foreboding began to set in. Everyone knew it was going to end. Many of my friends were preparing for college like I was. I knew I was moving to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the fall, and as the time approached, I felt sad and uneasy. When times are very good, you want them to last forever. Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. Life is always changing, and no matter how much I wanted to stay and hang out with my friends, I couldn’t, and neither could they.
Another turning point A fork stuck in the road Time grabs you by the wrist Directs you where to go So make the best of this test And don’t ask why It’s not a question But a lesson learned in time It’s something unpredictable But in the end is right I hope you had the time of your life
Left again, unhappy again
I was excited about college in my freshman year. I got a scholarship to play golf at the University of Tulsa, and I felt prepared for the challenges ahead. I though college life was going to be similar to the fun I had in my senior year of high school. I was wrong.
The culture shock hit me again. Tulsa, Oklahoma, is far too conservative for the life I was looking for. Plus, I ran into the limits of my own talents at playing golf. The demands of maintaining a good golf game and good grades wore on me. I left Tulsa for the University of Arkansas for my second semester. My dreams of playing golf were done, and my fond memories of life in Wisconsin were fading fast.
The eighteen months that followed were the most difficult in my life. The lone bright spot was when some friends of mine from Wisconsin came down to live for a while. We partied and had fun like old times, and one weekend we drove back up home and met up with some high school friends still in the area. It was a joyous weekend in the middle of unrelenting misery. When the weekend was over, the idea of going back to Arkansas left be distraught and near a breakdown.
I pulled myself together and pledged a fraternity. I was looking for a group of friends like the ones I had left behind. Although I met some interesting characters, I never quite fit in there either. I left Arkansas for good in 1987 and moved back to Wisconsin to rediscover myself.
Return again to turn my life around
When I arrived in Wisconsin, I had two years of misery to put behind me. I couldn’t enter school right away as I needed to work for a year to establish residency. I took advantage of my time off school to clean up my act. I took a job as a bartender in a local supper club and wove myself back into the fabric of local society. Happy days were here again.
My year of tending bar rebuilt my social skills and purged me of my bad attitude toward life I took on while living away from home. I was good at tending bar. I remember on night when I memorized everyone’s drinks, I didn’t say anything too stupid, and I made an above average amount of tips. I performed at that job the best I could do it. After that night, I started to lose interest in bartending. I was ready for something more.
I knew I was never going to raise a family on bartender’s wages, and the only way I was going to do better than that was to leave Adams County and get a college degree. I knew it was time to move on, but this time, I would be ready for it.
Time to leave for good
I stayed in Wisconsin for four more years and completed my undergraduate degree. I didn’t make a lot of friends in college. I was too busy with my studies to maintain a time-consuming social life. I still had a good time, but it was much more subdued than it was in high school. I recognized applying myself to my studies was more important in the long run.
As the time approached to leave Wisconsin, I knew I would be leaving for good. The foundation of family and friends that nourished and sustained me in my childhood and teenage years had served me well. Despite the setbacks when I left previously, I believed I had finally matured enough to make it on my own and bring my own happiness with me. It wasn’t the people or the place that made me happy, it was my own attitudes toward my experience that mattered. Once I recognized this, I knew I could create my own reality and shape it to my liking. I was finally ready to leave the nest for good.
Every time I look in the mirror All these lines on my face getting clearer The past is gone It went by, like dusk to dawn Isn’t that the way Everybody’s got their dues in life to pay Yeah, I know nobody knows where it comes and where it goes I know it’s everybody’s sin You got to lose to know how to win