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Stop Being OCD
Image Source: The Bad Chemicals

We moved to Florida a few months before I turned ten in 1982. Before that I was enrolled at Jordan Acres Elementary, Brunswick, ME, and inundated with tiny niggling fears.

Just across from the school playground was a street with a few low-slung brick buildings and an overpass. We walked under the overpass to get to the corner variety store for Slush Puppies, Reggie Bars and candy cigarettes. The buildings were nondescript, and could have been either residential or commercial at one point. Now they were abandoned, with the windows on the upper floors boarded up. I was convinced that this was a hideout for robbers, and I was sure that there was a hostage inside trussed up on a meat hook. And I was convinced that if the robbers ever walked out of one of the buildings while I was passing, I would be grabbed and trussed up, never to see my mom and dad again. It was certainly a frightening way to get a Slush Puppy.

On my road I had to watch out for the hippies. I have no idea who called them the hippies or why, nor how many there were. But I knew they had to be dangerous. I only ran afoul of them once, but it was terrifying. I remember there were two of them on one motorcycle, and they rode after me for a little bit. Probably just revved their engine, really, but that was enough. I remember hearing the engine gunning, seeing red and black plaid flannel and long hair and hearing a laugh which, over the years, has turned into a maniacal cackle. I remember screaming and running like hell for the house, and the sickening feeling that I might…not…make…it… My mom was probably home, and she probably hugged it all better. And I don’t remember ever seeing the hippies again. But they have remained in my brain ever since.

One time we returned from a vacation at Disney World to discover that our lock had been picked. Nothing was missing from the house, and no arrests were ever made. Who knows what that was about? But I remember the sense of violation from a robber (one from the building with the meat hooks?) being in the house, and the fear that they could come back. That they would come back, while we were home, and my dad would have to fight them all off…

On the bus to Jordan Acers we drove by the end of the runway of the Brunswick Naval Air Station. At the time BNAS was home to several squadrons of sub hunters, who flew P3 Orions over the North Atlantic searching for enemy submarines. We lived about two miles away from the base, and the sound of the propellers and the sight of the planes flying low and turning in graceful arcs toward or away from the runway was a perpetual background loop. On the bus, as we passed the runway, or parked at the Dairy Joy or Fat Boy Drive-in, I often had an image in my head of a P3 careening nose-first into the ground and exploding into a fireball. I could see the pilot frantically pulling the stick back through the cockpit window as the plane plummeted, to no avail. It never happened, but the image was frequent and extremely vivid.

Fire was a constant fear. I saw the episode of Little House on the Prairie where Albert accidentally burns down the church by leaving a lit pipe in the basement at too young an age, and the trauma settled in. Every clap of thunder, I was sure, brought with it the bolt of lightning that would hit the house and destroy my teddy bear and burn our cats alive. I remember my dad counting the seconds between thunderclaps to prove that a storm was moving away, and just reassuring me in general when a storm approached.

But the fear was real, and it came from experience.

I remember walking through the woods one winter afternoon and seeing The Thompsons house burn to the ground. I don’t remember The Thompsons, but I’ll never forget the sight and sounds, and especially the feel, of seeing their house burning down, and the charred smoldering wreckage after the fact. I remember this was the first time I ever heard of anyone having a “Saltbox House”: we had a Ranch, and most of my friends had Ranches or Split-Levels or Trailers. To this day, whenever I drive by or see or hear mentioned a Saltbox, I immediately see The Thompsons Saltbox house fully engulfed in the cold woods of my youth.

It happened to The Thompsons, I remember thinking. It’s going to happen to us too!

Retrospect, I can see that this is where the narrative thread of my life started to emerge. This was not just the slightly overactive imagination of a kid who may have watched a bit too much TV. This is where my OCD really started to present itself. The obsession, the rumination and the spirals…it all makes total sense to me now.

I don’t recall any rituals or number obsessions or any other coping mechanisims I may have used back then, but I find it very comforting somehow to see that my OCD clearly goes back this far. It explains a lot. And it makes me feel a lot (okay, a bit) more normal. One of the most dominant traits of my internal wiring was right there all along, screaming for attention and being unintentionally ignored.

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Image Source: Maine Project

It was a mundane life, but I was happy. Solidly middle-class, no entitlements or luxuries, but we never went without either. Growing up on such an even keel made me appreciate what I have and not lust after what I don’t. This balance has served me well.

I was born in Brunswick Maine, September 12, 1972, in Parkview Memorial Hospital. It’s a big Jesus hospital now, but I don’t think it was then. My mom said I was a good baby, but it took me forever to grow hair. And now, after my hirsute high school days, I’ve come full-circle.

My dad was a travel agent for Stowe (yes, named after Harriet Beecher, who also hailed from Brunswick) Travel, and my mom occasionally sold Avon. Her parents lived on the family farm in Whitefield, ME, and my dad’s mom kept her apartment in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, until I was eight and she moved in with us. I went to the elementary school across from First Parish Church, next to the Bowdoin College campus, and I had a black, white and purple blanket for naptime.

We lived in a red ranch house on Thomas Point Road (there was an apartment first on Pleasant Street, but I don’t remember my time there). It was my older brother Eric, my parents, assorted cats and our beagle Ginger. Ginger was a fat little thing, and I loved her. There was a little stream in the woods behind the house, and I remember my mom flinging Ginger’s messes into the stream. Don’t tell the EPA.

First through third grades I went to Jordan Acers Elementary. The principal was Ms. Kurz, and the music teacher was Ms. Elser. I didn’t know it at the time, but Ms. Kurz and Ms. Elser were a couple. My teacher was Mr. Barrett, and he could be a mean bastard. But I suffered no trauma back then. I had friends, my bus ride was long and scenic (from the trailer park to the tidal basins of the Sheepscott River) and we spent the ride rocking out to Huey Louis, Greg Khin and Christopher Cross (sic) on the radio and dreaming of playing at Fenway for the Sox.

Eric and I played Nerf football in the yard and basketball in the paneled hall leading to the bedrooms. We played KISS, Bee Gees and the Star Wars and Saturday Night Fever soundtrack records on our turntable. I once backed into a wall-mount space heater in the bathroom, and I had griddle marks on my butt for a long time afterwards. We went to Thomas Point Beach, and we viewed all the artifacts from Admiral Peary’s exhibition to the North Pole at the Bowdoin College Museum.

We visited my grandparents at the farm, and we visited my grandmother in Brooklyn. We saw Star Wars and Poltergeist and Raiders of the Lost Ark in the theater and we played Atari at home. We played on the rocks at Bailey Island and we bought Smurf figures and other toys at the Maine Mall. We went roller skating at the rec center and we watched the Blue Angels from our driveway when the air show came to the Brunswick Naval Air Station. We ate out at Pizza Hut and we ate home cooking at home.

We were a happy American family unit in 1970s America. It was middle of the road America, and it was all I knew and all I knew I wanted.

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It occurs to me just how much my passions in life were informed by shapes and colors, specifically signs. Growing up in Brunswick, ME in the 1970s and 80s, I was treated daily to great living examples of American advertising.

On Rt. 1 there was a sign for MaClean’s Restaurant, a gigantic vertical sign with

M
a
C
L
E
A
N
‘S

in block neon letters. I loved how the apostrophe kicked the S over to the side a bit. The MaClean’s sign was near a similar Texaco sign, thus giving me twice the visual joy.

In town on Main St. was (and still is) J&J Cleaners, with its canopy and butterfly sign with “j&j” in classic script. I seem to remember the j&j having flashing bulbs, but I could be imagining that.

Out by the Naval Air Station is Fat Boy Drive-In. Recently they replaced the classic neon and bulb sign above with a hideously bland LED sign, and I still haven’t quite gotten over this spiritual gutting.

I entered my formative years at the end of a great era in gas station signage. The old neon splendor of an angled Sunoco sign, an oval Amoco sign with torch flame on top and a Texaco star still inspires me. Those classics are unmatched in today’s era of generic LED signage. Fortunately I had family in New York City, thus giving me the opportunity to see the greatest gas station sign ever: Gaseteria.

Gaseteria stations were all over the Apple back then, and I fell in love with that American hamburger on the sign immediately. It was like a cross between an Amoco sign and a Burger King sign, and it meant that I was home in my other favorite place in the world, New York City. This was the beauty of the era: mass chain homogenization didn’t yet exist on the scale it does today, so I couldn’t see a Gaseteria sign anywhere but New York. Seeing that crazy sign made our trips much more special for me.

Most of these great signs of my youth are now gone, and I give in to nostalgia and lament at the change. Of course people my age no doubt called the old J&J sign vulgar and an eye-sore when it was first installed, and probably longed for the days of tin signs on storefronts. Fair enough.

But I was shaped into that landscape of vulgar neon dreams. I am of that great American cloth. Those old signs inspired in me a love of Americana, history and pop-culture, and I’m turning that into these snapshots and stories.

J&J Cleaner Image Source: RoadsideArchitecture.com
Fat Boy Drive-In Image Source: Bowdoin Orient
Gaseteria Image Source: Autoculture.org

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Photo Source: MLive

I got hit in the nuts with soccer balls a lot as a kid. I don’t know if that’s a skill, exactly, but if it is I had some serious game. My soccer career only lasted for one season of Brunswick, Maine rec-league, but it was enough to do some physical and psychological damage. I suffered the pain of not winning a single game, not scoring a single goal or steal and not escaping without a few good whacks to the manhood.

Also, wearing shin guards seems to have killed off all my follicles. My legs below my knees would not be miscast in a Nair commercial. I remember pulling sweat-soaked foam and plastic guards out of my sweat-soaked socks, and now I’ve got bald legs. It may be a spurious connection, but I can’t find a better one.

I played one year of tee-ball, on a team that also went completely defeated. I played right field very badly, and I had a penchant for swinging and missing spectacularly. Swinging and missing a ball on a tee. Yet another nonexistent skill that I was extremely skilled at.

Throughout my “career” in Brunswick, I was able to just play with my friends, and nobody cared. When I moved to Florida, at age nine, the teasing began. My chums said I ran like I had a brick shoved up my ass sideways, and much more, so by the time we moved back to Maine, at age fourteen, I was a wee bit sensitive and traumatized.

Attending the same high school as Stephen King, and running laps in the same gym that inspired Carrie, didn’t exactly help matters.

NOTHing in my life ever filled me with terror more than gym class my freshman and sophomore years at Lisbon High School. The fear of running, making an idiot of myself, being exposed, was all-consuming, like taking a walk to the chair. One was allowed to skip five gym classes per semester with impunity, and after that, it was laps in the gym after school. I may have cashed in my five skips my first week.

I preferred doing laps and walking the four miles home. It was easier, less terrifying and even comforting, running my penance in the company of other degenerates. And walking home, I often took the train tracks through the woods and along the river, just like that King guy, and I saw first-hand how Lisbon became Castle Rock and the Androscoggin River became the Royal.

I love watching sports, but I learned early on that I was not going to be the Maine boy that beat the odds to start for the Sox in Fenway. Not a chance. Take enough soccer balls in the junk and you just know.

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