I know that I’ve been careless when I’ve gotten introspective in the past. Memories are malleable and mushy. Every time we go back to touch them we break something, or add something, and before long, if we’re not careful (and sometimes even if we are), we end up with something quite removed from what we started with.
That being said, I’m pretty sure I learned about death when Mr. Hooper died.
If you were a kid my age you grew up watching Sesame Street. You may have also watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, or reruns of Romper Room or The Electric Company, and those were good shows, but in my time, Sesame Street was the place we were always trying to get. If we happened upon one of those old metal garbage cans, Oscar was in there. Where was Sesame Street? New York City, of course. It was actually there and I imagined that if I went there and turned some corner in Hell’s Kitchen, I’d be met with friendly faces and Muppets.
Mr. Hooper ran the corner store on that fabled street. Will Lee was the actor who had played him since 1969, and he had been one of the people blacklisted as a Communist during the red scare of the 1950s. He died of a heart attack on December 7, 1982, a day after my little sister was born. Instead of sweeping his absence under the rug they hit it head on, albeit almost a year later, during an episode which aired on November 24, 1983, a day after my fifth birthday.
I don’t know if I saw it at the time, and I don’t want to squeeze the Play-Doh of my mind too hard lest I dent it even more, but I must have. I remember kids talking about it on the playground. Still, that’s not the moment that sticks with me. It may or may not have been the spark, but Cyndi Lauper was the fire.
MTV was very much a part of life in those days, just as much as YouTube or Facebook is now. We old folks tell tales of a time when videos played all day and from dusk ’til dawn and that’s the place I’m taking you, fellow traveler. Again, it cannot have been the case, but it seemed like our television was always on that channel. Of course, there were a slew of terrible music videos at the time, but there were also loads that we thought of as high art. I recall having significant emotional responses to them, as they seemed to represent important concepts, especially to a little kid. Adventure. Romance. Loss.
Sometime in 1984, my brother and sister and I were riding in the car with Mom, about right here. I do remember that, distinctly. “Time after Time” was playing on the radio and I began to feel a growing heaviness in my chest. It was an emptiness I’d never experienced before. Through hindsight goggles I clearly identify it as grief, but at the time I was afraid. Then, I looked up from the back seat and asked Mom when she was going to die.
She laughed a little, probably a bit surprised, and told me that she wasn’t going to die for a long, long time. Not anytime soon. I calmed down shortly and my mental film reel ends there, in the fog between Tulot and the Trumann city limits.
And then, it was 1985. Back to the Future. Rambo II. Rocky IV. The Goonies. National Lampoon’s European Vacation! Another Friday the 13th film. How did we see some of these things? I’m sure it involved VHS tapes and unsupervised cable viewing, but they were all the talk of the playground. My siblings and I stayed after school at a daycare center at the end of our street. We lived at 111 North Magnolia.
I don’t want to touch this next day too much. I’m afraid my mischievous brain will create something that didn’t occur. In my research online, which only turned up old posts on a gossip forum, someone claimed it happened in March, because the pool water was greenish black and full of leaves. I remember the water, but I don’t think it was March. It must have been September.
We were in that fenced-in yard and there was a commotion across the street at the municipal pool. It’s a skate park now, and for years before that it was a raised dirt mound beside an abandoned pumphouse, but then it was a concrete pool surrounded by a high chainlink fence. The entryway was cinderblock, painted sky blue, and it too was secured. Closed. On this day, however, someone found their way in.
At some point a teacher called an ambulance and we were ushered inside. I am not sure if I saw the next part from the yard or the window, but I do remember the view. The teachers were too preoccupied to stop us from peeking. I distinctly recall a wet shirt being thrown on the ground beside a stationwagon. The shirt was striped, red and something else. Brown? My mind says long sleeved but I don’t trust it. The weather data for that day says it was 82 degrees Fahrenheit, scattered clouds, no precipitation. Was it grey, or are the skies of my memory always overcast? I’ll step away from that scene before my mind splinters that eggshell any further.
Mom took me to Thompson Funeral Home to see her, the first in a long line of bodies I would view there: great-grandparents, grandparents, friends, and my Father.
The room was dim and a woman was wailing to my right. Tina had one of those kid-sized caskets. It was a light metallic color but I’m not certain which. She was surrounded by toys. This stands out to me now, crystal clear. Little me, standing in front of that box, and her, already buried in a nest of Barbies, miscellaneous toys, a Cabbage Patch Kid. They were well-loved and I could tell that they had been played with hard. Their little faces were dirty. Hers was clean.
I want to say her hair was curly. Please let it have been curly, because that’s what I remember.
If we travel back some time before, fellow adventurer, we’ll find me standing in Mrs. Chitmon’s room, near her desk. It’s an indoor play period and Tina is there, in front of me. We’d probably just spent twenty minutes burning the knees of our jeans out on the concrete floor, a neat trick that some miscreant taught us that day. I had fancied myself a young “Weird” Al Yankovic and no person or song was safe from my parodies. So there she is, looking up at me and I sing, “Tina, tiny little Tina.” She isn’t impressed. She frowns, turns in a flash of hair, and runs away. That’s it, and we fade out. Far out.
What a day, a year, a life it is.
I have been an anxious person as long as I can remember. I was the kid waiting for the sirens to sound and the bombs to drop. Thanks, Nightly News. I was the kid who could read above his comprehension, so that while I knew all about continental drift and the ice age and the expansion of the sun, I was also terrified about volcanoes and glaciers and the sun engulfing the Earth. That bad boy is still coming, and we’ll all be here for it, right? Right?
There was a time in there, though, in the early 1980s, in the foggy grey mud of memory, when I started to realize that we won’t have to worry about crashing into continents unless we’re on a hijacked plane. I recognized that it actually may not be a long, long time.
I learned that they make caskets that will fit a kid.
I can’t tell you what that means. All I can do is tell you what it is, and as Roscoe Orman, playing Gordon, says to Big Bird in Sesame Street episode #1839, it’s “just because.”