My father’s parents had a very powerful impact on the shaping of my personality. My grandfather, an aeronautical engineer instilled in me a scientific, intellectual curiosity. My grandmother gave me a love for the arts and taught me to paint.
My earliest recollected ambition was to become an inventor, like Thomas Edison. His Menlo Park laboratory is on display at the Henry Ford Museum/Greenfield Village in Michigan. I visited it many times as a child on school field trips. I remember talks with my grandfather in the car during the long drives to our cottage in Northern Michigan about Edison and his many inventions. Sitting in the back seat I would focus my mind on trying to come up with an invention, waiting for something to come to me in one of those fabled “eureka!” moments. And they would, but they were things like “tape recorder”… “camera”… “flashlight”. All things that had already been invented. This was a very frustrating process for a six year old but I did zero in on what what was the fundamental challenge. From the backseat I asked my grandfather as he drove “how do you think of things no one has ever thought of before?”
The unique character of my mind is really the result of a lack receptivity to the process by which other people are socialized and develop their understanding of “they way things are”. I was a very daft child. I remember being very very confused about basic, fundamental things that other people seemed to know or didn’t seem to be bothered by. I had to ask very basic questions in order to figure things out for myself and as a result have developed very personal viewpoints and at times, odd perspectives.
There was a dirty little corner store a few miles from our cottage in Northern Michigan. As a six year old boy this was a magical, magical place. It had all of my favorite things; smoke bombs, BBs for my BB gun, candy, flashlights and Lucky Charms. I was enchanted by that little store in the middle of nowhere. I wanted to own that store. And this is where I stumbled upon a confusing question that nagged at me for years. I knew that when I wanted Lucky Charms we went to the store to get them, but if I owned the store where would I get them. Where did the Lucky Charms really come from? I’m not exaggerating, this question plagued and confused me for years. I would ask employees when I was in the store “where do the Lucky Charms come from?” I remember getting the “who’s retard is this that’s bothering me?” look from people, often.
Unable to answer the questions “how do you think of things that no one has ever thought of?” and “where do the Lucky Charms come from?” I refocused my scientific ambitions on the goal of becoming a doctor. At about 8 or 9 I began doing anatomy drawings from pictures in my mothers old nursing textbooks and our family’s World Book encyclopedias. I would fill notebook after notebook with carefully labeled drawings and facts about the humany body. I memorized the names of all the bones in the human body, which to this day, I still remember.
My scientific ambitions were interrupted only once during my childhood, by the “sweet science” of boxing. Someone had given me a pair of “Muhammad Ali” boxing gloves. Red, inexpensive, toy gloves with the champ’s signature printed on the back of the hand. I remember, at 9, staying up late to watch Muhammad Ali suffer a disappointing loss Leon Spinks. A few day after the fight my father gave me a large-format, limited edition magazine that featured a history of the Heavy Weight championship. I was flipping through the magazine looking at the pictures of the men that had held the title when I came upon something that confused me. At one point (the 50s or 60s) all the portraits went from being pictures of white guys to pictures of black guys. All white to all black, I just didn’t get it. One evening, after dinner, my father was at the sink washing dishes when I walked up to him and gave him a poke. “Dad” I said, “when was the last time there was a white heavy weight champion?” He smirked a bit and told me the answer. I nodded my head thoughtfully then said “OK. I’m going out to do some roadwork”. (My father enjoyed retelling that story for many years.)
I returned to my scientific ambitions when I discovered the television show “Quincy” staring Jack Klugman. Quincy was about a nosy medical examiner who was always butting in and solving the mystery. (I now realize that “Quincy” and “Murder She Wrote” are the same show except Quincy was a playboy, M.E. that lived on a houseboat and the “Murder She Wrote” lady is a menopausal, pulp novelist with a library card.) From that point on I began to tell people that I wanted to become a forensic pathologist when I grew up. I set up my geology and chemistry sets in a corner of the basement on a folding card table. I referred to this as “my laboratory”.
One day I was hunting frogs and crayfish in the creek behind a friends house and we caught a MASSIVE bullfrog, by far the largest I had ever seen. I was overwhelmed by how big, how alive it was. My friend cried out “that thing is a monster”. I instantly thought of Dr Frankenstein and decided to do the only logical thing, kill it and try to bring it back to life again.
I took the monster back to my basement laboratory and using one of my mothers canning jars and my fathers Listerine mouthwash, I “gassed” the giant frog.
I needed to find something that could be used to deliver a jolt of electricity to the inanimate beast in order to bring him back to life. I pillaged the storage boxes in the basement until I found what I was looking for, the electric transformer unit that powered my old Lionel train set. I was in luck, the 2 wires that connected to transformer heads to the tracks were still attached. I pulled the transformer from the box below the basement stairs and went to work on the frog. I tried in vain for an hour to electrocute the thing back to life, but it was useless and my little Frankenfrog lay lifeless and dead.
I refused to let the day go down as a failure. Drawing upon what I had learned watching Quincy I proceeded to perform an autopsy. I went to work dissecting the dead amphibian and swiftly determined the cause of death. It was, of course, asphyxiation.
Years later, although still marvelling at the memory of myself as a quirky, young scientist I knew in my heart that that day was a turning point. Deep down I knew that my mind was not ideally suited for a life of science, a life of applying the scientific method. On some level, I had come full circle and embraced my original ambition, to be an inventor, but the path would not be science. The path would be born from a boundless, wild sense of imagination, a lust for making things up. That day I turned from a life of science to the life of the mind and a life of art.
Other excerpts from Tears of a Crocodile Clown: Sick Days (early bouts with megalomania)