“Know that a mistake is not a mistake. There’s no such thing as a mistake. It’s only a learning process.” JSM
I didn’t have a ton of friends growing up. I had “my” friends, but I could count them all on one hand. The friends I started with? I still have a few to this day and they’re friendships I honor and treasure.
Not being a member of certain cliques, or meshing with the right people, or accomplishing ridiculous initiations and double-dog-dares to prove self-worth, kept you tight with others who were also in the same boat; especially through high school. I can say I was popular, but not in a good way.
I was among the small clan of teens who didn’t fit in with the athletes, or the social clubs, or the popular gangs. I was among the socially awkward. I was the one who knew the safe routes to avoid trouble. The nooks and crannies around corners and hallways where certain groups or (what I call) difficult people won’t see you. I knew schedules and routines and kept them memorized. I found places to duck away and disappear when being chased.
The four or five of us “outcasts” read and traded books, played games of Chess and Stratego in a classroom behind a closed door, away from the ones who knew we didn’t fit in. The teachers understood and kept a stash of items and things for us to do, if ever needed. We always avoided becoming a target for whatever wave of ridicule awaited us from each area of whatever room or corridor.
Instead we sat at our own little table in the cafeteria and kept to ourselves and pretty much only made eye contact with each other. Making eye contact with the others, always invited a potential “accident” or incident.
While eating lunch we’d be rolling dice, chatting about the new fantasy book, trading silly cards, talking about the arcade downtown where we plan on spending some quarters over the weekend, organizing a game night for Dungeons and Dragons, Hero Quest or Risk. Maybe Monopoly if we get bored. Deciding whose house we were crashing at for a twenty four hour Super Mario gaming marathon. Making jokes at each other’s expense, shrugging off each insult, and firing back with one much worse.
Cause, ya know… that’s what good friends do.
Insults from anyone outside our circle of safety and trust were painful, heartbreaking and just plain awful and sad.
Many have been able to get through high school unscathed or barely grazed, but for me, it was a prison. Anyone else who’s reading this and trapped in prison, do me a favor and do your best to get through it. Fight through the struggle if you must and don’t give up! When you get to be my age, that time in your life will seem like another galaxy light years away. Do your best to muscle through it. Keep your eyes on the prize. Please.
In the intro post I mention waving my nerd flag high with pride and with that said, I can say with confidence, I was the stereotypical “nerd” during my years of schooling. Middle school, junior high, and through the end of high school.
I made sound effects when playing games, or battling on a game board with plastic figurines. I wore glasses with thick brown frames and sometimes had tape in places to hold pieces together. My acne was obvious and always made an appearance at the worst of times in the worst of places… like days of school pictures, or the night of the dance in the gymnasium. My shirts had the IZOD lizard embroidered and I kept important items in the breast pocket. My plain white sneakers had Velcro along the top.
I had a short mullet at one point in my teens. Not as extreme a mullet as a popular fictional character we all may know and love, but it did fall below my shoulders. For those of you who remember this time in history, feel free to now laugh at my expense.
Being picked on and “bullied” if you will, was a day to day gig. Only times during evenings, nights, weekends, holidays and school vacations I felt completely safe from the real world.
Going back further in time when TV only had a few channels and the internet didn’t exist, during the days of playing outside in the neighbor’s yard without getting shooed away, staying outdoors until the street lights activated and the planet felt much safer, my childhood friends and I played with homemade swords and shields. Plastic and wooden guns. We pretended to fight dragons and hordes of trolls and goblins, witches, alien invaders, vampires and mighty beasts; regardless of the weather.
Heavy snow, blazing sun or pouring rain, we battled viscous creatures and otherworldly demons. We’d make forts along the tree lines and shout battle commands to our soldiers and climb towering pines to a small house built within the branches above. We’d hide in the bushes and choreograph action sequences to destroy the army advancing on our position then join our make believe warriors in heroic battle. The cruel and manipulative sorcerer in the center of the menacing group forcing us to fight each other, until one of us was dead or dying on the battlefield.
The battlefield being the driveway, and we probably looked the fool to anyone driving by.
For a time we delegated certain rooms in our homes the “lava room”, or the area with the blue carpet the “water room”. The staircase to the second floor was the Mountains of Death and the closet was a secret portal to safety. Once we reached the attic with the war room table, we’d take the fantasy world outside, furthering the impossible quest; whatever that quest happened to be at the moment.
When the yard and the small rooms seemed to diminish in size, we’d expand our realm by riding our bikes elsewhere. Our backpacks filled with whatever’s required for the day’s itinerary, and journeying to another kingdom. Perhaps at a friend’s house or backyard, or the small group of us would coordinate and gather at the nearby stream trickling through the woods to regroup and resupply for the long adventure ahead. We constructed secret work stations in our basements and outdoor sheds, using borrowed tools from our dad’s toolboxes to repair our broken items, magical devices and weapons, as a result of a long and tiresome battle.
We created our own world during that time in life. My childhood was based within the realms of the fantastical. Always pretending to be someone else, but never being anything less than who I am.
We once guarded the sword maker in his shop from an evil wizard bent on destroying a magical anvil and hammer. Slinking among the shadows dressed in black, we’d pretend to be spy ninjas and secretly follow our families around the house and if spotted by anyone–game over. Sometimes we’d stay up into the wee hours of morning having philosophical conversations and debates about why the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, Raphael, was the weakest of the four.
That was my childhood.
In my youth I immersed myself in fantasy. I wanted to know all there was to know about that universe and all the other universes within.
I’ve never been a decent artist (in other words, I can’t draw to save my life), so I traced mythical creatures on plain white paper and copied what I saw on the covers of my novels, to hang as art on my bedroom walls. With the money I earned mowing lawns I collected pewter figures of warriors and wizards, hand carved dragons and trinkets, statues and sculptures.
Allowing myself to become as engaged as possible within that fantasy world and my imagination, I created a place of peace and quiet and a location within my mind to retreat if needed. My own self-made safe haven.
As an adult, I still immerse myself in the things I have interests in, just on a different wavelength. Now, when I begin a new job or undertake a new position I strive to know and understand all I can. I want to hear the history. I want to know what’s under the surface and why something’s important. I want to understand the inner workings, specific functions, and certain details if possible. I ask questions no matter how ridiculous they may seem. The more I know and understand, the better I can potentially be at whatever it is I’m doing. If the ridiculous question somehow served a purpose and led into conversation or other questions where I pick up some knowledge, then it was a question that needed to be asked.
At the steel mill, I inquired how frigid cold in the dead of winter affects beams and structural integrity during construction. I wished to know about the paint and the chemicals used to keep steel protected and rust free. I wanted to be involved in every department possible: Forklift driving and crane operation. Using a blow torch, driving a boom truck and learning a plasma cutter. Making stairs and railings, parts and pieces and working with a welder.
I force myself to be interested in whatever I do, so I can potentially do it better.
In our off-time at the mill we had permission to purchase material at a discounted price (or using scrap steel to save a few bucks) and create our own little projects and tools. We welded together detailed steel figures out of nuts and bolts and thin metal rods in various positions, to emulate human characters. We built multipurpose tools for varieties of tasks that could make our jobs potentially easier. We even invented some games and time killers along the way during the dead spells.
We had machinery that could bend steel and twist it, roll it, heat and shape it for molding and fashioning our little keepsakes and crew office knick knacks. In essence we had the ability to create whatever we pleased, as long as the tools were available and we had the time.
So imagine my overwhelming surprise and childlike wonder when Bill opens his door and reveals a fully functioning, straight out of the world of the medieval, blacksmith shop. It was as though I stepped into a back room in King Arthur’s castle. I was teleported out of reality and my mind was quite literally carried away to another place and time.
The small room had a high ceiling with a large ventilation system installed, and a squared section of his daylight basement was carved out of the foundation. In place of concrete he had two large wooden doors attached to the framework that swung outward and connected to the walls outside. When the heavy doors pulled closed, a long wooden beam slid through two metal brackets and sealed it shut from within.
Hot coals glowed inside a red brick stove, and attached to the side of the arched shaped furnace, a hand pump bellows to manually force air inside. At the center of the room on a short table sat an anvil, with three varying sized hammers leaning against its base. Hanging beside the brick oven, Bill had three brown leather aprons, each one charred and blackened in areas, and a variety of random tools scattered throughout.
On shelves and walls he had swords and antiques. Small daggers, and what appeared to be sections and pieces of armor sat upon cluttered work benches. Some tarnished, dented, rusty, and weathered and others polished and shining.
Bill gestured to the anvil, “look here.” He pointed to the table where the mammoth block of solid steel was mounted, and we both dropped to our haunches, “I painted it this morning and drilled out the holes last night, but the angle piece you gave me the other day is for right here. It anchors the base down and pulls it all together. Keeps it from shifting. The assembly was loosening and I needed to reinforce it.” Bill smiled at his handy work and only one thought raced through my brain.
Holy cow. I should call the guys, give them directions, and get them out here. We need to go fight with these killer blades in his back yard… right… now.
Whisked away back to childhood.
Bill rose from the floor and I followed suit. My eyes continued to browse the room, taking in all the details. I was still in shock at where I was, but I allowed my host to continue on.
With one hand placed firm on his hip he gestured to his collection with the other. “I picked this piece up in Arizona. This one up here, I found in Texas. I bought this one at a pawn shop in New Hampshire. My nephew and I worked on this one together over his school break. It’s not done yet. I don’t want to finish it without him. Have you ever worked with steel this way before?” He pointed to the glowing coals.
“No. Only in my imagination. It’s quite the sight. I’m impressed with your room, Bill.”
“Yeah, I have fun in here. A little hobby of mine.” He sighed and smiled with gleaming pride, joining me in a look around the area.
He strolled to a corner, pulled two stools from under a table, and gestured to sit down. Bill sat on his seat across from me, relaxed against the wall folding his hands in his lap and said, “I brought you in here first, for a reason. Something about you really resonated with me and I don’t know what that is yet. Because you work in steel, I thought breaking the ice in here would be more comfortable.”
He seemed to notice something on the floor to his side that captured his attention and he lowered his eyes to that spot. Bill sat quiet for a time and it appeared he was completely lost in his thoughts.
I cleared my throat and shot my attention to a shelf overhead.
Bill snapped out of it. “When shaping steel with a forge, the most important thing to remember is, without the right tools, a hunk of steel is only a hunk of steel. Not until you get it glowing hot, and then struck with a hammer, does the steel change. Once heated and hit with something, can we now begin to mold it into what we want it to be. It takes work and sometimes its try and try again, but as long as you have a vision for what you want it to look like, anything is possible.”
“So what are you saying, Bill? Are you going to hit me with a hammer?”
“No. After we have some food and I show you around the rest of the house, I’m certain my wife will be the one carrying the hammer. She’s really the one who’s in charge. I hope you’re hungry.”