Idle minds are the devil's research-and-development department. An early and persistent aversion to doing assigned work -- in college, I always felt a compulsion to read the selections in the Norton Anthology of Literature that the professor did not assign -- led to a habit of dreaming up mischief, some of which mischievous schemes actually came to fruition.
I'm just thankful the Internet and digital cameras had not been invented when I was in middle school. Me and my hoodlum buddies would have cooked up some felonious trouble quicker than you can say, "Hi, I'm Chris Hansen from Dateline NBC."
There can be no doubt that Turner Middle School in 1973 enrolled a few girls who would have been hanging out in the wrong chat rooms, had Internet chat rooms existed in 1973. But me and my hoodlum buddies would have probably scanned in the yearbook photos of Vicky Jones in her cheerleading outfit, created a bogus online profile ("blondchrldrvicky"), and found some way to monetize it, reaping profit from the lascivious interest of old creeps . . . kind of like Dateline NBC does, really.
Vicky Jones is now a respected middle-aged Atlanta businesswoman, no longer known as Vicky Jones, but if you were to ask her today, she'd tell you there were some very bad boys at Turner Middle School back in the day.
When the school band sold candy for a fundraising drive, who stole that candy and re-sold it -- one piece at a time -- to their fellow students?
When one of our hoodlum friends discovered that a local scrap-metal dealer would pay a certain amount per pound for stainless steel, who organized the scheme to pilfer spoons from the school cafeteria?
Hal Coffee ratted me out to Mr. Bell when I came back to science class with both pockets full of spoons. Then I screwed up by telling the assistant principal the name of the scheme's mastermind -- I should have exercised my right to remain silent -- so me and my friend each got a paddling and a week's suspension, and my friend also nearly strangled me for naming him . . . which I shall not now do, as he also is eminently respectable in middle age.
'Noble Savages' -- Not!
We were wicked, you see? I hung around the hoodlums because (a) they were more fun than the nerds, (b) if you've got enough hoodlum buddies, nobody messes with you, no matter how scrawny you are, and (c) Original Sin.
OK, I was a kid from a respectable middle-class home, whose parents spared no effort -- Baptist church, Boy Scouts, music lessons, youth sports, their own stern discipline -- to steer me into the paths of righteousness.
Thanks to parental guidance, I had every opportunity to do right and yet, by the age of 12, I was already a notorious hellion. I nearly didn't graduate high school because of repeated suspensions (e.g., showing up drunk for homeroom) and those four days in April 1977 I spent in the Douglas County Jail (subsequently acquitted at trial, having learned my lesson about the right to remain silent).
So when I got to college and was presented with the naive theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and other altruistic philosophers, I recognized that stuff for the dishonest scam it was.
"Noble savages," my right butt-cheek! Somewhere, in one of those unassigned anthology selections I insisted on reading, Mark Twain dispatched rather brusquely with the notion, then prevalent among certain East Coast "reformer" types, that the American Indian (whom political correctness had not yet converted to a "Native American" or, better still, "indigenous peoples") was the embodiment of the natural virtues of humanity unspoiled by the supposedly warping influence of civilization.
The "state of nature," and all that rigamarole, you see. Twain exposed that Rousseauean myth of the Noble Red Man for the hokum it was, describing the reality of the situation with such cold brutality as to make anything I've ever written about David Brooks seem mild by comparison.
A childhood spent in the companionship of hooligans and ne'er-do-wells -- hanging around the kids your mother specifically told you not to hang around with -- sort of spoils a man for Rousseauean myths. An early and direct acquaintance with wickedness makes it difficult to believe that people always act on motives of sincere goodwill.
All Girls Named Tonya, the title of that childhood memoir no publisher will ever pay me to write, derives from a principle of human psychology first postulated by a genuinely evil little bastard who became one of my dope buddies in 10th grade. That title is 67% of what I call Art Hembree's Law:
All Girls Named Tonya Are Sluts.If your name is Tonya, I apologize on my old friend's behalf, but as a lowlife trying to score some easy action circa 1978-86, I can testify that Hembree's Law proved amazingly reliable.
When I was a freshman in college, I was deeply in love with a sweet brown-eyed girl named Amy, who was still in high school back home. My dad didn't allow me to take a car to college, so one Friday in mid-February 1978 I hitchhiked home -- about 100 miles from my college -- in order to be there for a big date with Amy I'd been dreaming about.
Lithia Springs High School was playing a home basketball game that Friday, and there was going to be a "Valentine's Dance" afterwards. I was a pretty good dancer, and my plan involved taking Amy to the dance, leaving early and . . . well, taking the long way home, so to speak.
A Likely Excuse
Alas, when I called Amy, she told me her mother refused to let her go that night. (Maternal intuition, no doubt.) This infuriated me, as I believed the mom-won't-let-me-go story to be one of those lame excuses girls use to avoid dates with boys they don't really like that much.
In such a mood, then, I got slicked up for the dance, hopped into my '73 VW Bug and went off in search of trouble, which I soon found.
Of course, I did not actually go to the basketball game (lame), and by the time I pulled my Bug into the parking lot off County Line Road, the game had just ended and everybody was on their way to the dance in the cafeteria.
Now, I was never one of those cutie-face boys, but I was lean and funny and had figured out a few things about maximizing whatever advantages came my way. My acne was in remission that weekend, my hair was a cool shag, and my wardrobe was disco-fantastic. So despite the infuriating misfortune of Amy's refusal, I felt like a million bucks when I paid my $2 at the door and strutted into the dance.
No one was dancing. Teenagers are self-conscious and nobody wants to be the first one out on the floor, but I was always bold and shameless. So I grabbed a girl named Lori (one of Amy's best friends) and dragged her onto the floor, where we danced for one song before I went off to chat with some of my old hoodlum buddies I hadn't seen in months.
Out in my VW, an eight-pack of pony Millers was chilling in the February night. Legal drinking age in Georgia at that time was 18, which made for surprisingly easy access to alchohol at far earlier ages. As a 14-year-old freshman playing the part of Pappy Yokum in our high-school production of "Li'l Abner" in spring 1974, I'd arrived at the cast party after consuming at least half a quart of Boone's Farm strawberry wine, and by the time I got there, the seniors had already spiked the punch with PGA. (Violent 2 a.m. wretching ensued.)
Hello, Foxy Lady
Fast-forward to that night in 1978 when, with my eight-pack of cold ponies, I was ready for whatever action came my way at the dance, which didn't take too long. When I went looking for trouble back then, I seldom missed it.
Soon a girl I knew approached me to explain that there was another girl who had seen me dancing, and thought I was cute, and wanted to dance with me. This girl I knew led me over to a gaggle of her friends, amongst whom I espied a girl with bleach-blonde hair in wing-shag "Farrah" style, platform shoes and tight faded jeans.
This blonde displayed two telltale signs that any perceptive 18-year-old horndog in 1978 would have recognized instantly: She wore light-blue eye shadow (ding!) and a black T-shirt with gold-glitter script declaring herself to be a "FOXY LADY." (Ding! Ding! Ding! Like you just hit the slot-machine jackpot, baby.)
As fate would have it, this Foxy Lady was the very girl who had seen me dancing earlier, and who was most grateful for the invitation to join me on the dance floor. We boogied through a funky number (maybe it was "Brick House") and then the DJ played a slow song (maybe "Always and Forever"), and when I danced slow, I danced slowwwwww, with whispered conversation in my partner's ear.
Within five minutes of the end of that slow-dance, Foxy Lady and I were on our way to my VW in the parking lot and perhaps I forgot previously to mention an important fact: Her name was Tonya.
Hembree's Law proved reliable and, after quickly consuming a few of those pony Millers, Tonya and I were parked at the end of a dirt road near the Vulcan rock quarry. The Bug had reclining seats and we were at third base, with a home-run clearly to be anticipated, when an unprecedented thing happened.
I thought about Amy. Somewhere in my cynical young hoodlum soul, a warm ember of conscience still flickered, which now flared up into a most inopportune flame of guilt.
"Ah, maybe I better take you back to the dance," I told the disappointed Tonya, as we zipped up and I cranked the VW for the return trip to school. No, I thought to myself, it wasn't worth blowing my chances with sweet brown-eyed Amy just to score with this other chick, Foxy Lady though she was.
Is there a moral to this story? Is there even a point? asks the exasperated reader. Well . . .
- Amy found out.
Douglas County was (and still is) kind of a blue-collar place, so dating a college boy was considered a prestigious thing, which partly explains Tonya's boasting. And boys named Stacy were as rare then as ever, so Amy didn't need any further corroboration to know what I'd been doing the night of the Valentine's Dance.
Ironic, you see. Tonya was letting on to her friends that we'd gone all the way, with certain notorious details -- derived from her visit to third base -- which had the effect of providing Amy with entirely superflous corroboration of a tale which, nevertheless, was a lie.
- Amy broke up with me.
Perhaps I should have done the wrong thing. After everything blew up, I cursed myself for having missed a chance. Had I gone all the way with Tonya, and added a few endearing words to our assignation, perhaps she'd have felt the kind of emotional bond that would have ensured our affair remained a guilty little secret.
Instead, having had but a fleeting grasp of passion -- yes, I was notorious for a reason -- Tonya felt entirely free to boast of the legendary magnificence, so that nothing I could say in my own defense would exculpate me.
- I blamed Amy.
Still, it burned. If she hadn't turned me down, I'd have never been at that dance alone, and Tonya the Foxy Lady would have had to take her chances with some inferior fellow. (Obviously, a girl named Tonya wasn't going to do without on a Friday night.)
Amy's refusal to accept my explanation or give me a second chance seemed entirely unjust, given the extenuating circumstances. For all my disco-hoodlum ways, I genuinely did love her, and this heartbreak was painfully damaging.
Henceforth from that breakup with Amy, it is fair to say, my attitude toward romantic life became tainted by a spirit of vengeance that blinded me to the fact that my female companions might be as deeply in love with me as I had once been in love with sweet brown-eyed Amy. No, they were all just faithless little heartbreakers, undeserving of trust or consideration, no matter how (temporarily) innocent they might be.
Ladies, I did you wrong. And it wasn't Amy's fault or Tonya's fault. Blame only me, and I am without excuse.
Force of Habit
What became of all those broken hearts? Oh, they got over me, I suppose. Surely no man could ever be as special as I imagined myself to be back then. And so I but rarely hear of any of those girls, and Tonya's fate remains a mystery, but what friends have said of Amy racks my conscience. Blame only me.
Youthful habit is a powerful force in life. Now a happily married father of six, those old habits are sublimated (rather than dishonestly denied or, as they say, "repressed") as harmlessly charming flattery. What my arrogant young heart craved, I came to realize in belated maturity, was the praise and admiration of women which my impatient hoodlum passions led me to solicit by the most direct means possible.
Fool! Even old and ugly, I now get abundant admiration by the merest exercise of innocent courtesy.
Oh, yes, and the sequel was most interesting to any student of psychology. In 1988, I brought a lovely young lady to Atlanta for an inexpensive but romantic evening that included visits to meet some of my kinfolk.
Dad was polite and friendly enough, but initially less taken with this latest girlfriend than he had been with her buxom predecessor, green-eyed Christine from Marietta. Aunt Pat was her usual gracious self, making quite a favorable impression on my date.
What I remember most, however, was the reaction of my older brother Kirby, when my date and I visited him at home with his wife and new baby daugther. Leaving his wife to get acquainted with my new girlfriend (they were about the same age), Kirby invited me outside for a smoke.
"Damn, Stacy," he said. "Could you have found a better lookalike for Amy . . .?"
Well, it took me 10 years to find her, and though I really think Mrs. Other McCain is much better-looking, the resemblance was indeed striking, though it never occurred to me until Kirby pointed it out.
Twenty years into our marriage, Mrs. Other McCain -- whom I told all about my misspent youth -- keeps a watchful eye on me, and is always keenly suspicious when I go off to Washington for one of those "events" I must cover from time to time. I assure her she has no need to worry, as I would not impair the magnifent legend by permitting any improper contact with my middle-aged decrepitude.
Ah, but she knows me too well, and Mrs. Other McCain's suspicion is actually quite flattering, as if I were still the Speedo-sporting prime stud she married.
Nevertheless, I'm still mindful of Art Hembree's Law. Even an old guy can never be safe around a girl named Tonya.
* * * * *Well, as I said, All Girls Named Tonya is another one of those books no publisher would ever pay me to write, but I don't think that little story is entirely worthless. Do you?
Hit the tip jar.
UPDATE: Thanks to all those who have hit the tip jar, and to Melissa Clouthier, who calls this "a slice of genius." (Let's not get started about girls named "Melissa," OK?)
Meanwhile, I got a call Friday from Vicky, who read this and says she sure hopes none of her clients in Atlanta -- who know her as a respectable middle-aged businesswoman -- read Part Two: Don't Start Me Talking.
Some things from the '70s are easily forgotten, but the legendary magnificence is a hereditary trait.
UPDATE II: Part Three: The Disturbing Case of David Copperfield.