Authors: Dennis McKenna
Having re-read what I’ve written above, I have to ask myself: are these things I should share with the world? Do others really need to know the intimate details of our early lives? If I am to tell an honest tale, the answer is yes. We grew up in small-town
Leave It to Beaver
Father Knows Best
America. But there was a darkness hidden beneath that portrayal of middle-class life, as many others who grew up in that era are surely aware. Certain unconscious emotions erupted all the more violently when, in the sixties, the layer of “niceness” was ripped away to reveal the wounds still festering underneath.
So yeah, a lot about that era was ugly and unacknowledged at the time, in our family, and perhaps in most families. Each had its dark secrets, and ours were not particularly
horrible by comparison. Just so I don’t give the wrong impression, let me stress that much—much—about our life together was very good indeed, even if as kids we didn’t always realize it. I know our parents loved us. They did the best they could in raising two difficult and recalcitrant boys. It took decades, but Terence eventually overcame much of his animosity toward our father. He certainly found a kind of love for our mother, which I saw most vividly in the kindness and solicitude he showed her when years later she developed cancer. As we grew up and overcame our sibling rivalries, we developed a mutual sense of affection and respect, and I’m grateful for that. Later, our closeness allowed us to experience some of the strangest adventures two brothers have ever shared. Had we not grown up in the twisted climate of the fifties, so rife with angst and neuroticism, we might never have forged the strong bonds that became the Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss.
What are your earliest childhood memories? How far back can you cast your mind? Recollecting childhood can be a tricky exercise, because the earliest memories are pre-linguistic; there is no cognitive framework within which they can be placed. Mine are mostly gestalt impressions: my father’s rough, stubbly cheek when he kissed me, contrasted with my mother’s smooth skin when she held me to her breast (though I’m pretty sure I was never actually breastfed—it just wasn’t what “modern” mothers did in those days, and Mom wanted to be modern). The eyes, the breath, the smell of various adults; the icy sting on my face on a crisp, cold morning, or the warm caress of sunshine on a summer afternoon. These vague recollections are entirely sensual and without context. It’s been said that we can’t recall anything earlier than about the age of three or four; others dispute this and assert that one can have memories from a time as early as two—mostly visual snapshots without narrative or structure. Based on my own vague memories, I’d have to go with the latter hypothesis. A recent Harvard study suggests that recalling childhood memories can make one more helpful and charitable, increasing “prosocial” behavior tied to recollections of a time when things were morally clear and pure. Based on my own experiences, I take that with a grain of salt. I have no doubt that childhood memories can stick with one throughout life. If they are good memories, they have a positive influence; if they are bad—memories of trauma, for example—they can be quite profound and even limiting. In my familial universe, Terence’s memories of the sandbox incident would be Exhibit A.
Among the most curious of my earliest remembrances are those that may not be real. I mentioned that our parents left their apartment and moved into their new home shortly before my birth. And yet I have a vague memory of Terence pushing me down those apartment stairs. It’s certainly a traumatic memory, but did it really happen? I have no idea. Maybe it happened to someone else and I falsely remember the experience as mine. Or perhaps I dreamt it. I have a similar recollection of my mother leaving me in her Chevy with the motor running outside her father’s house when I was three or even younger. Though I do believe she actually did this—foolishly, in that era before car seats and seat belts—my apparent memory of the event may actually have been a dream. I “remember” the car rolling slowly down the street a short way until it halted against a curb, my mother by then standing beside it in hysterics. But I’m not sure that part actually happened. To this day I sometimes dream I’m driving in a car, then look down to see there’s no steering wheel, or the steering wheel has come loose in my hands. The issue? Probably losing control, my wife would say. My “memory” of being trapped in the runaway Chevy was perhaps just an early instance of grappling with that in my sleep.
My earliest reliable memories date from when I was four. By then, Terence was often at school for much of the day, giving me a welcome respite from his tortures. That comfort with solitude has persisted throughout my life. I enjoy being alone with nothing but the whisper of my thoughts. And besides, back then I wasn’t alone. I had a whole gaggle of imaginary friends, some of them as real to me as my actual friends, of which I then had few. (With no kindergarten in Paonia, my socializing didn’t really begin until first grade.) I preferred hanging out with my imaginary friends because they were always there and more interesting. Some were even animals; how cool is that? We’d cross the street to the city park or, more accurately, I’d go to the park and “manifest” them, as if they were always there, waiting to play. And play we did! I created all sorts of adventures to share with them, performing all the roles and voices. As a child I had a very active dream life. In fact I’m not sure I ever really slept in the conventional sense. Or maybe I was in a constant state of high REM sleep, always dreaming. My imaginary friends were also available in my dreams, where our little dramas often continued. It was tremendously entertaining and fun, but one sad day I dismissed them, just bade them goodbye. It was all very formal. “OK, I’m moving on, you’re not going to see me again,” I informed them, and they were quite dismayed. But it had to be done. Time to move on. I could not have been more than eight.
Though manifesting various identities or personalities may be a disorder in adults, I agree with those who view such behavior as normal in young children. A child’s personality, or what eventually becomes his or her personality, condenses and coalesces out of a multitude. When it fails to do that, then you have pathology. Reflecting on this, I have to wonder about the similarities between the consciousness of a child and the consciousness of an indigenous person. To a child, these imaginary entities are real, as real as anything in the so-called “real” world. It must be much the same for an indigenous person who inhabits a world of spirits, of human and non-human entities, where the distinctions between dreams and reality are not so clear. I do not mean to imply that an indigenous person is childish, but rather that indigenous people and children may share some traits in their mentation. What I’m speaking of is not an age-dependent characteristic; rather it’s related to a state of pre-literacy. I think that as our brains develop, and particularly as we develop literacy, the brain becomes more compartmentalized. We develop a point of view, an ego, a sense of self, but we also sacrifice a lot to acquire those things. We give up a lot for our left-brain dominance. I think we sense that loss; that’s why we like to step out of it once in a while, using psychedelics or other altered states. Psychedelics make you childlike; they can reconnect you with that primal, pre-literate, pre-cognitive state. How can this not be a good thing? More people should try it. We take ourselves, most of the time, much too seriously!
Chapter 5 - Happy Day Rides
Denny with Skelly.
For the last two decades, my family and I have lived in Marine on St. Croix, a town in eastern Minnesota just across the St. Croix River from Wisconsin. Last year, as every year, a good crowd turned out to celebrate the Fourth of July. The festivities started the night before with a spectacular fireworks display over the river, then resumed in the morning with a parade down Judd Street, Marine’s main drag. The parade was, as usual, a motley assemblage; pretty much anyone could take part, though it helped to have
kind of message or theme. The big news in July 2011 was the political stalemate that led Minnesota’s state government to shut down a few days earlier. The winning “float” featured a gaggle of marchers carrying blank banners—their way of mocking a state that couldn’t even pay for ink. As always, the show was silly, hokey, drenched in small-town Midwestern charm, and quite moving in a nostalgic way. It’s a yearly reminder that though the pace of change in the world is ever accelerating, certain aspects of small-town life remain frozen in a timeless eternity of iconic Americana.
My memories of childhood in Colorado include the treasured recollections of events that could have been plucked from the same summer-dazed grab bag as the Fourth of July in Marine. As a kid in Paonia, the Fourth was second only to Christmas on my personal liturgical calendar. It was also Cherry Day, a series of events celebrating the luscious Bing cherries that were picked, in a good year, from the fruit orchards that covered the surrounding mesas. Back then, the local economy, such as it was, relied on two things: coal mining and fruit cultivation (apples, peaches, plums, apricots, and those sweet and succulent Bings, ranging in color from dark ruby to midnight black). The mining persists and has actually been more active in recent years, with the growing market for the area’s high-quality coal reserves. But due to climate change and the uncertain harvests, the fruit industry has devolved into a gentleman’s hobby. Even back then, a late spring freeze regularly wiped out the cherry crop, which meant the town had to get its cherries from Fruita, near Grand Junction, about seventy miles to the west. True to its name, Fruita always seemed to have a good harvest by the Fourth, a fact that many of Paonia’s farmers probably resented. There in the vaunted home of the best cherries in Western Colorado, it was never clear before the end of May if the festivities in their honor could count on local supplies to meet demand.
Though the cherries were good enough to tempt me and many other kids into diarrhea-inducing excess, they were not the highlight of my Fourth of July. What I most eagerly awaited was the appearance of the traveling carnival. Happy Day Rides was a dusty, ragamuffin caravan of carneys that would show up one day unannounced (at least, unannounced to me) a week or so before the Fourth. Their arrival served as a midpoint in the bucolic three-month ecstasy that was summer in Paonia. Here was proof that, yes, Cherry Day would happen, cherries or no cherries, and that the summer would spin itself out like every summer before it. Their two-week stay was an enchanted time, at least in the lives of young boys, inevitably followed by a touch of sadness. Their departure meant the end of another glorious, school-free, sun-drenched summer was not that far away.
I was blessed among my peers to live across the street from Paonia Park, where, in one corner, Happy Day Rides would set up shop. I’d get up one June morning and there they’d be, having quietly straggled into town during the night. They didn’t look like much: just two or three semitrailers and a few flatbed trailers and smaller trucks. They had no large animals, no lions or tigers or elephants, probably because it was too expensive to keep such a menagerie fed and cared for on the road. None of this mattered; I was most interested in the rides, which the carneys would spend the next few days unpacking and assembling like a scuffed-up, adult-scale erector set. As these marvels took shape—the roller coaster, the Ferris wheel, the Tubs Of Fun, the electric train, and, in later years, the Octopus and the Loop-O-Planes—I tracked the progress in minute detail, utterly engaged. Major fun was a few days out, and I was on it, monitoring the situation from morning till night.
In retrospect, it’s a wonder the carneys didn’t chase me off more than they did, which wasn’t often. According to conventional wisdom, these people were apt to be thieves, sleaze balls, and bums. And yes, our parents warned us about the dangers of hanging out with them, of being abducted and forced into labor (or worse). But Happy Day Rides wasn’t just any sleazy carnival; it was
sleazy carnival, a “clean,” family-oriented operation that the town mostly welcomed. Whether their good reputation was deserved or not, I had no idea. What mattered to me were their fantastic machines, which created much happiness until they were broken down and carried off as quickly and quietly as they arrived, leaving a new faint grief over the approach of fall. Beyond that, there was Christmas to look forward to, and the autumn distraction of Halloween, but in the distorted time scale of boyhood consciousness, those events seemed as distant as the next glaciation.
I may have had a touch of Asperger syndrome or perhaps even high-functioning autism as a child. I hazard this self-diagnosis because l loved to rock, and often did so, back and forth, in my chair, quite happily for hours. I remember the big rocking chair in the living room of my aunt and uncle’s ranch on the Crystal River, the place where we spent so many weekends. The chair was old and had a long back-and-forth arc to it and a very satisfying creak. As soon as we arrived on a Friday night, I’d head for the chair and start to rock and pretty much stay there for the duration, only stopping for meals or when my folks insisted I go outside and play in the beautiful forests and pastures. I enjoyed all that, but I was always happy to return. Unlike the present era, where the slightest behavioral anomaly is viewed as pathological, my rocking was seen as a little “quirky” but not really harmful, and anyway, “He’ll grow out it.” And I did.