Looking back, the most consistent memory I have is that of being a bookworm. When I was very young I loved to have my mother read to me. She read to me so often that I had all of my books memorized within a few months. One of my favorite protagonists to this day remains Grandma Tildy in the acclaimed But No Elephants. If you’re not familiar with the story, you need to check it out.
I was also one of the kids who received records once a month in the mail with different stories on them. If I was not reading with my mother, I was cranking up my Fisher Price record player to listen to my favorite stories from Fraggle Rock or Star Wars. This was a huge thing for kids in the early 80s. They had almost any movie or TV show condensed into short-playing records, all with the original voice actors and songs. These records were great fun and did a lot to help me cultivate a vivid imagination.
I was also a very inquisitive kid. I wanted to know things, ALL things, and I was constantly asking my mother for explanations ranging from the definition of words to the meaning of song lyrics. I loved learning. I loved uncovering things. I loved finding out definitions, origins, and big words. I loved putting things together. I loved the feeling of satisfaction that you have just gained another piece of knowledge. I was the biggest nerd a kid could be.
But there was a secret shame I held: I was hyper. I heard that word tossed around so often in my presence that I had begun to think that I needed to apologize. Neighbors, teachers, and even family members beat it into my head at such an early age that it would take quite some time for me to get over my impulse to apologize for me being me. I’m not sure that I’ve ever fully lost that impulse.
Though the meaning of the word escaped me at the time, “hyper” was something I attempted to figure out. As far as I could tell, it had something to do with my energy level. I supposed that I did have a lot of energy, but so did the kids around me! What made us different? In my mind, having a lot of energy should not be a bad thing, anyways. Why were all the grown-ups treating it like it was so bad? Furthermore, why were they discussing these things at a low volume where they think I can’t hear them? Whether they knew it or not, I wanted to conquer this word from the first time I heard anybody use it.
Because I knew it was an ugly word. I knew it was bad. Some adults seemed to use it in a more serious context than others, but it was still tossed around so casually by just about every adult with whom I made any form of contact. I could never escape that word no matter where I went. Furthermore, I could not escape the concerned looks that everyone gave me. What the was so wrong with me? Why was I so different? I’m not sure how much it directly influenced the way I acted during those days, but I do know that it was something I had to think about quite often.
Kindergarten came around, and I very quickly started hearing the word coming from my teachers as well. However, they didn’t seem as concerned as my parents or anybody else. In fact, they insisted that I was intelligent, and I would actually hear a lot of praise when my name was discussed. Sure, they would still call me “hyper,” but it didn’t bother me as much because they always seemed to dote on how smart I was.
I knew it. I knew I was special. It just took the right people to see it. It was good to know I was intelligent. I had plans. I couldn’t live with mom and dad forever. I wanted to join G.I. Joe. If knowing was half the battle, it was good that I knew so much. They weren’t going to accept a dummy.
I was even given intelligence tests by my teachers. I remember these tests being great fun. I would be called away from what everyone else was doing to read from different books and worksheets, and I would try not to smile when I saw the teachers’ reaction to how well I could read.
One test in particular was held during nap time. There were three of us selected to take this reading test. Among the words they showed was the word “island.” As you may imagine, this would be a tricky word for your average five-year-old, but not a few weeks prior I saw the word and asked my mother what it was. I even told the teachers what it meant for added flair.
As I lay down to pretend to take a nap, I listened very closely as the other two girls took the reading exam. They were definitely both smart like I was, but neither of them knew the word “island.” I silently cheered to myself as I very clearly heard both of them pronounce it “is-land.”
I would make G.I. Joe for sure.
I ended up exhausting their reading materials, so my teachers gave me a few tasks that were different from the rest of the students. I was put in charge of helping Jason Murray, a guy who was autistic but a very fast learner, and I was also given the opportunity to play with the class computer. Believe it or not, I began learning a little bit of BASIC at five years old. Since nobody was interested in computers, I was free to spend as much time messing with them as I could, provided I was finished with my work.
There was something, however, that always served to snap me out of my bliss. Once a month I had a doctor appointment with a woman named Dr. Greenberg in Savannah. Mom always seemed to be frustrated on these days. I didn’t exactly see the point of what we were doing, especially since the teachers all said I was intelligent, but we went to these appointments like clockwork.
The visits were always the same. The doctor visits were always the same. “How is he doing? OK, let’s keep him on the drugs.” They always served to make me feel helpless. They always gave me the feeling that I was not OK. They made me feel like I would always need to be monitored, and I would always need to apologize for something. I learned how to play along, mindlessly confessing to things to get me out of these uncomfortable situations. Sorry for being a pain, guys. Here’s to hoping the drugs work so I don’t let you down.
They would talk about me as if I wasn’t there, and then they would talk about medicine. I did my best not to think about what it all meant, but once again I was not aware of any other kid having to take medicine. I assumed it was going to make me better, and just left it at that. I never bothered to ask what it was or what it did, I simply operated under the assumption that it was going to make me a better kid. I assumed that it was going to “fix” my “hyper,” and one day everybody would stop using that word around me.
There was also another complication: I had a rather severe hand tremor. It was very obvious, too. My handwriting was dreadful, my coordination was bad, and I often faced ridicule from one or two little shits in my class for it. Most kids seemed to have a lot of sympathy for me, but it didn’t change the fact that I was horribly ashamed. This was no doubt a side effect of some potent medication, and I can’t see why nobody was able to make that connection.
Or maybe they did and simply felt it was a necessary evil.
Regardless, I was still a generally happy kid in kindergarten. I loved to play, I loved to read, and I loved parading around the classroom sharing the little pieces of information that I would round up from day to day. I remember one day in particular, where I found a crayon that said ‘Carnation Pink.’ That was quite a big word for a five-year-old, and I needed to know what it was. I asked Mrs. Norris, and she told me how to pronounce it and that it was a flower. As soon as I acquired this new bit of intel, I immediately marched around the classroom with that crayon in hand, enlightening all who would listen.
I also had friends. My earliest recollections are the afternoons spent on the playground with my friend Damien excitedly informing me about Dr. Who. We even pretended that a certain piece of playground equipment was the TARDIS. He was weird and so was I, and we very quickly formed a kind of bond that only a couple of nerds could have.
The principal of our school, Mrs. Meeks, was also a friend. She would often keep me in her office after reprimanding me, asking me questions and trying to get me to discuss what my life was like outside of school. I felt safe with her. I never felt like I had to apologize for my impulses. I always felt like an actual human around her and possibly even, dare I say, normal.
However, Kindergarten would be the last year that my life would have any simplicity for a long time. First grade rolled around, and the playing field drastically changed. My stepfather sustained a horrible injury at his workplace, and as a man with no marketable skills other than his strong back (which was ruined in a split-second bad decision), our family would never again be the same.
I was born Peter Joseph Bauer to Walter Fredrick Bauer and Karen Lee Bauer (nee Hansen). As far as my biological father goes, however, I have no idea who he is or where he is. My mom married him in the air force while she was stationed in the Philippines, and it was over not long after I was born. I have never so much as seen a picture of the man, let alone even heard a physical description. My mother has told me her side of the story and my aunt has filled in a few details, but I know absolutely nothing about him and probably never will.
Maybe getting published will make him come out of the woodwork. Who knows?
Jim McCollum was the only father I ever knew, and I actually didn’t realize for a while that he wasn’t my biological father. Actually, it was not until first grade when somebody brought it to my attention that my last name was not the same as the rest of my family. My mother explained it all to me, but I was young and I do not believe very much of it made sense to me. However, even after figuring out that Jim McCollum was not my father, it actually did not change much for me. Not at first, anyways.
The year was 1987, a year that will always have significance to me. It was the last time I would ever see my stepfather happy.
My stepfather and I actually got along quite well when I was young. There was never any meanness or hostility towards me. He was manly and a little impatient, but he was also hilarious and fun. My mom was the one who fussed over me being hyper. My stepdad… alright, screw it, my dad never really got impatient with me over being hyper. He would just encourage me to get outside and run around, and that is normally what I did.
Dad was also divorced. He had two children with another woman that he left behind, and although they would be in contact with his parents, they did not have much contact with my dad. I saw them a few times when I was young, mostly at my grandmother’s house, but outside of that I never had any further contact with them until very recently.
As far as employment goes, my dad was a blue collar worker. He, too, had a military background, but never seemed to gain any traction in life. Even though he was the son of a wealthy man, he never was able to follow in his father’s footsteps. His father, ineffectual and coldly pragmatic, was scarcely a father himself. He simply cut checks for everyone when they were in a bind, then retreated to his office to get away from everyone.
When my dad was young he pissed away all his money drinking, but when he met my mother he decided it was time to clean up. To his credit, he did stay clean. However, he was never much of a provider, as his parents constantly had to bail us out of problems over the years. We originally lived in a trailer until I began kindergarten, but his parents helped him secure a loan for a HUD home. We moved to Richmond Hill, Georgia just shy of my fifth birthday, and that is where I grew up.
Dad had a job working as an A/C repairman for Coastal Heating and Air. He seemed to enjoy the job and always had funny stories about his co-workers. Again, I always saw him as a happy, funny guy. He was always joking and singing and roughhousing with me. I loved my dad very much.
Then one day I came home from school and saw him on his hands and knees. This was odd, because he always came home from work in the evening. However, it was not as odd as what he was doing on the floor. He was not saying or doing anything, he was just propped up on all fours with mom hovering over him. I wasn’t sure what kind of game this was, but I came over to try and figure out what he was doing. I noticed in the corner of the living room there was a vase that held somebody’s bodily waste. Now that was particularly odd. I was beginning to think this was not a joke or a game.
I do not recall anything that was said that day other than the fact that my dad was hurt. Wait a minute. Hurt? MY dad? The guy who could beat up anybody? The guy who could toss me into bed with no effort? How on earth did this happen?
No, this had to be a joke. Daddy was just being silly. I walked over and tried to climb on his back to call his bluff, and my mother began shrieking like a cat that just got its tail run over. All dad could do was groan and try to hold still.
Whoa. Dad was really hurt.
It was a hard thing to witness at that age, because every child believes their father to be invincible. To see him this way on the floor unable to rise was devastating. I’ve never seen a person in such a helpless state before that. I will probably carry this particular memory with me until I die.
Apparently what had happened was that my dad was at a job site waiting for his partner to show up. His partner was running late, so he decided to offload an air conditioning unit from the truck on his own. In the process, he ruptured a disc in his back, and was never the same again. For the rest of his life he would never be able to hold down a job, nor would he be able to make anywhere near even a partial recovery. Worse still, he would never be funny or fun again. It would always be forced or insincere if he was being funny. I would always be able to see how tenuous and fleeting any joy we were having would be.
This single event changed my family forever.
First grade was still pretty cool, however, at least from a kid’s perspective. It was the mid-80s, so the trends at the time all had a big effect on my imagination and my interests. The Real Ghostbusters Saturday morning cartoon gave me a set of heroes to follow, and G.I. Joe gave me a vocation for which I continued to strive. Pop music was a big deal to me, as were The Karate Kid and Star Wars. I was still happy, I was still silly, and I was still a kid who loved to play.
In fact, my social life was quite good that year. I had some great friends, both male and female, and I was able to have my first sleepover with Mitchell Ladson that year. He introduced me to computer games like Space Quest and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, and he also introduced me to a safe environment where I could be myself without fear of correction or repercussion.
Mitchell was the son of a very successful lawyer, and although I was not aware of social class at the time, I immediately noticed a bit of a discrepancy between what his family had and what mine had. I was not jealous of him, however, because he was my friend and always shared everything he had. His parents let me run amok with few restrictions, and we always ate well and played hard until the wee hours of the morning.
Things seemed different in the Ladson home, however. Mitchell didn’t have to take medication. His dad was large and happy and very intelligent. He challenged us to use our brains. He would often quiz us or play a challenging board game with us. Wit and intellect seemed the primary lesson in their home, and although education was emphasized to me by my mother, my dad always tried to emphasize being tough. There were no lessons of toughness being taught in this home. I tried my best not to compare our lives too much, but I knew that one of us had to be atypical. I figured that I was the atypical one, and just tried to enjoy the environment with lots of toys, lots of room to run around, and parents that engaged us like little adults and not dumb kids.
I was given more intelligence tests in first grade as well. These tests were all a lot longer and a lot more intense. I would be taken to a room with an Amanda Waller-type figure, and I would be grilled relentlessly on my home life and my feelings. This Amanda Waller figure had large brown eyes, always wore a suit, and always smelled of perfumes and hair products. She wore a jheri curl that was common during that era, and I noticed that her presentation was always sharp. Most women wore pretty clothes, but this woman wore business clothes. She looked professional and intimidating.
This had to be the woman who was building my dossier for G.I. Joe.
These tests were a drain after a while. I actually found myself quite bored with them after the third or fourth one. How many different ways did you need to check to see how smart I was? In retrospect, I know that some of those supposed tests were actually mental evaluations, but it was hard to tell what was going on at that age, especially when I was always shut away in a room with some strange person who seemed to be concentrating on my movements and reactions far too intensely.
These tests would cover everything from long reading marathons to talking about my family. Although they were tedious and sometimes uncomfortable, there was a significant amount of smug satisfaction in taking those intelligence tests. Not only were they a break from class, but they were a break from reality as well. My dad’s injury had had a profound effect on the family, and there was very little peace at home.
Following my stepfather’s injury, my mother became prone to some rather intense freakouts, and the teachers at school began to show concern as my actions at school undoubtedly became more erratic. Even though my little brain was smart enough to get the sense that I was being treated harshly and unfairly at home, I still defended my mother. It had been beaten into my head by that point that everything was my fault, anyways, so when I explained myself to Mrs. Meeks in that fashion, I truly meant it.
One day mom gave me a black eye, and that could not be explained away. I never held it against her, but once again I had an inkling of injustice and a sense that the punishment did not fit the crime. I never spoke of it, though, because I knew I was being an undue burden to my family during this time where our financial future was looking extremely grim. How did I know this? I was told, of course. I was told my medication and doctor appointments were costing a lot of money. I was told that I was a burden on the family because of these things.
I was told.
The fallout following the black eye incident was a cautious observation of me and even my family. Mrs. Meeks had me over at her colonial estate a few times that year to let me run around and ask me questions about my family. She did not seem to care much for my family, especially my little brother. I could tell by how her gentle southern eyes would narrow at the mere mention of my little brother’s name. Mitchell’s mom, as volunteer class assistant, even asked me a few questions in passing once or twice that year, but again I was not going to betray my mother by telling them what was going on.
This was the first year where being smart was not enough to get me out of a bind. I had a ton of energy that year, and our impossibly ancient first grade teacher was always having to tell me to be quiet and sit down. Any time I was corrected I knew I was wrong, but I never knew what compelled me to be so rambunctious. All I knew is that I had a lot to say. All I knew is that I loved to make my peers laugh. Sure, I knew nobody else was doing it, but people need fart noises. Plain and simple. It is known, Khaleesi. I had an obligation to keep that crowd in stitches, and I would not be derelict in my duty.
I was also a big fan of physical comedy. I liked to take a fake fall every now and again, and I would even up the ante by smacking into doors. Anything that got a reaction, I was up for it. Mrs. Meeks took note of this, I am sure, because one day I did my little smacking into a door trick and she saw me. She grabbed me out of some motherly instinct and began rubbin my forehead, asking me why on earth I was doing that to myself. I insisted to her it was an accident, and she let it go at that.
At first the teachers had no problem with my antics. However, as first grade wore on I noticed that they were all taking a much harder line with me. Mrs. Ladson never really seemed to change her approach with me, but my teachers were beginning to be far more severe with me. I remember one of my teachers even attempted to tie me toe my chair when I would not stay seated. Those were definitely strange days.
And the backlash at home was swift. I would be slapped without question and sent to my room. No trial, no question. And I would always be sent away with the reminder of my father’s injury and how I was making everything worse for everyone. I don’t know how my little brain processed that data, because that is quite a shitty thing to lay on a kid, especially so persistently. I always seemed to shake it off in those days, however. It was impossible to break my spirits because of how lively my imagination was, but my imagination could not gloss over the fact that there was definitely something wrong in the McCollum household.