I had the biggest crush on a blonde hair, blue eyed boy in my 2nd grade class, Scott Van Seiver. Proximity is what made these feelings so urgent: he sat next to me alphabetically in class and lived down the street from the lady who babysat me, so I saw him on the walks to and from school. Sometimes he’d join us, and all this togetherness was exhilarating.
One day in class, I was quietly singing the chorus to “Ruby Red Dress,” and Scott said, “I love Helen Reddy.” I felt an odd pang of jealousy; if he loved her, could he possibly like me?
“Leave me alone, won’t you leave me alone…” After constantly refusing to join, I finally said “yes” to becoming a Brownie. Hell, the meetings were at the babysitter’s house, and since I was already there, it was getting hard to avoid it. I liked the snacks and the crafts (jewelry boxes made of popsicle sticks and Elmer’s glue – what’s not to love?), but was most enthralled when we gathered in a circle and sang songs. I especially loved that each meeting ended with the singing of the same song, much like Sonny & Cher always ending their show with “I Got You Babe.” I appreciated this adherence to showbiz tradition.
What I did not appreciate was the Brownie uniform. If it had been the cotton, shirtwaist dress model with the crisp, elf collar and bow tie with matching belt and hat, I’d have been ultra happy. Snacks and that uniform were the reason I gave in and joined. But 1973 was the year the Girl Scouts of America decided to update its image.
The uniform they sold to us at Goldie’s department store in the Village Square shopping center was a shapeless polyester jumper (you had to supply your own shirt to wear underneath!) the color of cheap chocolate milk. The hat had become a dark brown polyester/wool beanie that didn’t match the jumper, and the formerly natty bow tie was now a strip of burnt orange polyester shaped like a bowlegged man’s tie.
The new uniform made our troop look like walking baked potatoes, and even the troop leaders must have felt negatively toward the new look because they only made us wear them when out in public doing official Brownie business. And after suffering through one public Brownie event in that ridiculous costume, I made sure to somehow forget/skip out/be sick for every event after that.
See Helen Reddy perform "Leave Me Alone" on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
The walls of their tiny apartment were paper thin, so I had to endure hearing them make sex noises, which was gross and maddening. But even more damaging was Joy constantly trying to win me over with things that I had no interest in.
For example, for my birthday, she gave me the Donny Osmond album My Best To You. A new teen idol had yet to take the place of my beloved David Cassidy, and Donny certainly wasn’t even in the running. But Joy was thinking that since Donny was so hot at the time, surely I liked him, thus the album was presented to me with great fanfare.
She obviously did not remember how important teen idols were, and that a deep love for them happens spontaneously and organically. It cannot be foisted upon you like an arranged marriage, and I wanted nothing to do with that album.
But Joy insisted upon us playing it repeatedly, with her bopping and singing excitedly in an attempt to engage me in some giddy girlie bonding. I did like the song “I Knew You When,” and maybe I would have liked the rest of the songs if she hadn’t been so desperate to make me like them.
Then it turns out Donny covered a song that Wayne Newton had also covered, and turns out Joy absolutely adored her some Wayne Newton. So she pulled out that album so I could hear his version. You’d think that since the moment traumatized me so much, I’d remember clearly what the song was, especially since she was exuberantly singing along with it while Dad smiled wildly. But the mind tries to be kind by blocking out ugly things, and this was one of those things.
See Charlie Rich perform "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World."
With one song, Cher made me switch sides from wanting to be a cowgirl to wishing I was an Indian maiden with the floor-length headdress like the one she wore while singing the song on The Sonny & Cher Show. I still want that headdress, and I’ve come close to it a couple of times: the Cher half breed doll and being invited to portray an Indian in a music video.
Cher performed the song on horseback, and I, too, could sing it on horseback…well, technically, on the back of my Shetland pony. But since she was short, there might be a problem with the feathers dragging on the ground. And there was one other technical glitch with executing this idea: Sugar had recently given birth, so was busy nursing a little one.
Yes, that public moment of copulation with Billy Blue Blazes did result in an exquisite little colt my Father named Star. Yes, Sugar gestated for about 370 days, which is not all that unusual.
During the separation, my Dad had shipped the pregnant Sugar from our paddock on Douglas Road to the ranch of Art and Ann Klein in Brighton, Illinois. Art and Ann were the couple who gave me the red cowgirl outfit, so this (and about 10 acres of fenced pasture) made them the perfect adoptive parents for Sugar.
I was enchanted by the little colt, and thrilled to see Sugar every now and then, but because it was every now and then, it felt more like visiting a petting zoo than spending time with my pony and colt. Sometime later when Dad sold the pair to a co-worker living in Troy, MO, it registered nowhere near the sadness he expected upon telling me the news. I had to pretend to be sad just to match his expectations. There was no way for him to understand, or me to explain, that I had a callused heart from having lost Sugar – among many other things – in September of 1972, and that I was just happy that some big, happy family would now love and play with my pony.
Here's an iconic Cher moment: "Half-Breed."
My Mother begins dating a man named Dale, who has a modified version of Charlie Rich's hair, drinks too much, drives too fast and smells of Old Spice (with a Cutty Sark top note). He also has a skinny blonde son named Jeff, who is the same age as me.
Jeff was a deeply morose little guy because his mother had died the previous year. I was angry because I’d “lost” my father around the same time. When we had to hang out together, it always felt like we should have had a connection but something key was missing. Now I realize that if we’d been adults, we’d have spent our time together moaning about how life sucks over way too many cocktails and bonding for life. But as it stood, I was full of piss and vinegar while he was mopey and lethargic, and that was an uncomfortable combination.
See Paul Simon perform "Loves Me Like A Rock."
Considering my age, I knew more about the solo Paul McCartney work than his legacy as a Beatle. In essence, I was unencumbered by the weight of his history, so I just took his solo work at face value, and was very happy with it. And his song “Live and Let Die” allowed me to work off a lot of steam.
In this month, I got two disturbing pieces of news.
#1: My Mother had to break the news that my Father had married Joy. This meant that when I went for a weekend visitation to their one-bedroom apartment in Ferguson, I had to be nice to wife #3.
Oh, she tried to win me over, plying me with macaroni and cheese and popsicles, but she felt more like an obstruction between me and my Dad. And it was especially confusing when he started talking about how I could come live with them – wouldn’t that be fun? But since I had to sleep on a fold-out cot in their living room, I didn’t think doing this full-time would be all that fun. And I noted that Joy never joined in these “come live with us” monologues, since they always happened when she wasn’t around.
#2: My Mother had procured me a babysitter, a place I could stay before and after school, as I was about to start 2nd grade.
Previously, I’d been staying with a lady named Linda, who was in the same apartment building as ours, so it was familiar surroundings. And even though Linda had me drinking powdered milk (ewwwww!), she also introduced me to making Charlie Brown Christmas ornaments out of dough that was baked solid in the oven, so she was cool.
But now I’d be staying with a lady – Shirley - who lived in Seven Hills, a subdivision about a quarter mile away from the apartments. This meant I’d be walking in the opposite direction after school, and would be in a new setting with her 3 kids, Kim, Lisa and Brian. I noted that Shirley had a little dog, which was a bonus, but not enough of a bonus to keep me from reacting badly to this change of plans.
Which is where Paul McCartney came in handy. He made me feel better when he sang, “But if this ever changing world in which we live in makes you give in and cry/Say live and let die.” Never underestimate the therapeutic qualities of good melodrama.
See Paul McCartney & Wings do "Live & Let Die."
This was the theme song to The Poseidon Adventure, and this movie marked my first visit to a drive-in theater (the 270 Drive-In, Florissant, MO).
Mindy was an older girl in the apartment complex, and I piled into her family’s station wagon for this maiden movie voyage. Now, my Mother had a serious, life-long movie-going jones, so I’d been to a lot of movie theaters, but this outdoor experience was really something special.
The sound of pebbles crunching under the tires was exciting, and then the car parked, the father rolled down the windows and attached a tiny radio to the window and that’s how we heard the movie! Then others in the car brought us popcorn – this was getting better by the minute!
But about 20 minutes into the flick, the problems with this concept became clear: Kids jumping around and screaming in the station wagon made it impossible to see or hear the damn movie! I had to wait many a year to finally see the entire movie and glory to Shelly Winters Shamu-swim through the water. But I did learn a valuable lesson: drive-in movies were about everything BUT watching the movie.
And the next time Mindy asked if I wanted to go with them to the 270 Drive-In, I simply said, “no.” She tried to bribe me into going by giving me a plastic Tyrannosaurs Rex. I took the dinosaur, but still refused to go.
Hear "The Morning After" with scenes from the movie.
My Mother’s best friend, Blanche, was marrying a quintessential Irish cop, and Mom was in the wedding party. On the night of the wedding, I stayed at the house of the woman who made the pink and white polyester bridesmaid dresses, and was left in the care of her 15-year old daughter.
The daughter was tall and skinny with long, frizzy hair (when I saw Lorraine Newman on Saturday Night Live a few years later, she reminded me of the daughter) and a dark brown suede vest with beaded fringe, which I thought was pretty cool because it constantly made a quiet clinking noise.
I thought it was even cooler when she me took upstairs to her attic bedroom and started sharing her stuff with me. She put on a record by a group called Deep Purple (turns out it was Machine Head) and explained what “Smoke on the Water” was all about. I nodded my head as if I understood, and then said that one of the guys (Ian Gillan) was really cute, which set her off into a spasm of excitement.
She yanked out her high school yearbook to show me that the guy she had the biggest crush on looked “just like” Ian Gillan. It was confusing, because the cute guy in the tiny black and white photo had long blonde hair, but she was a high school girl, so obviously she knew better than me, right?
After turning her back to me for a few minutes, she got all animated. I asked what that smell was.
“It smells like burnt Pop Tarts.”
She giggled wildly, interspersing it with the phrase, “Pot Tarts!”
There was that word again: pot. Just what in the hell is pot?
Somehow, I became her Mother Confessor, as she told a fast string of stories about pot, and booze and boys that made no sense, but because I was listening intently, she kept rambling on while slapping a rotation of vinyl onto the stereo. I was perfectly content absorbing all this new data (I really dug the beads hanging in the doorways), and was really liking the circular keyboard squawking of a song she told me was called “Frankenstein.” But then she handed me the album to look at, and on the cover was a really creepy looking white guy – really, really white – with makeup and ladies’ jewelry. And even though there were some cute guys in other photos on the album cover, the creepy white freak was in all of them, too!
All of a sudden, “Frankenstein” started sounding as creepy as that freak looked, and the daughter’s non-stop yammering became grating, and I’d hit my limit. I tossed the record on the bed and bolted out of the room and down the stairs. The daughter came running after me, asking what was wrong. I now stood in the kitchen, and simply said, “I want a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”
She made me the sandwich, and asked if I wanted to bring it upstairs to eat. I simply took the sandwich into the living room, sat on the couch and stared at the TV. Daughter finally got the hint and left me alone.
See "the freak" doing "Frankenstein."
My Father’s reaction to the divorce was introducing me to his girlfriend, Joy. She was way younger than my Dad, which was confusing, and I didn’t like all the Aqua Net blonde hair piled atop her head and the thick black eyeliner. When she offered me a stick of Juicy Fruit in that high, sweet tone women use when talking to other women they dislike, I knew it was a bribe, and my distrust of her was immediate and enduring.
Incapable of making sense of all these changes, I focused – as usual - on the radio and my new favorite song, “It Never Rains in California.” I was hooked by what I considered the second chorus of the song – the repeating flute refrain, and I considered it a companion piece to “Do You Know the Way To San Jose”: this is what became of our heroine after show biz chewed her up and spit her out.
After learning the truth about the weather in California, I lumped it in with “A Horse With No Name,” wherein songs pass off inaccurate information as facts. After telling my Mother about the “lies” of “in the desert you can’t remember your name” and “it never rains California,” she explained the concept of poetic license. After mulling this over, I determined that America’s poetic license was just plain silly, while Albert’s was touching. In retrospect, I probably let up on Albert because he wrote a perfect, melancholy pop tune while America was just plain crap.
Shortly after this moment, I was cursed by two embarrassing moments at school:
#1: I wet my pants while sitting in the school chair during a reading lesson. I’d raised my hand to ask Miss Kelly if I could go to the bathroom, and she said no, since we were going for a bathroom break in just a bit. But I couldn’t hold it, and out it came. After my bladder was empty, Miss Kelly takes me to the bathroom, and then baffled me by asking why I did that. Adults are very confusing!
#2: I got chewed out by the art teacher over my painting. I was trying to depict a nature scene with tempra paint: a blue slash at the top of the paper, and a green slash at the bottom. The teacher – Mr. Kurd – took me to the window to point out that there was no white space between the earth and the sky – they meet, so my painting should reflect this. But back at my seat, I decided I wanted that white space between the earth and sky so I could paint some people in. Mr. Kurd swung back by, saw that I’d ignored his lesson, and said my painting would not get a passing grade.
Both of these incidents left me just as weepy and whiney as Danielle, and it taught me a lesson: if someone says it’s “my song,” leave it to them.
See Elton doing "Daniel."
Alongside the radio, variety show television was how we heard new songs, and the power of a TV star singing a song (hello, Cher!) could not be ignored.
The Carol Burnett Show was like a religious service in our home, so when one of its stars – Vicki Lawrence – put out the single “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia,” it was mandatory that I own it. Plus, the single was on the Bell label, so this was a no-brainer.
Luckily, I loved the song, playing it over and over again, trying to figure out the story line. No matter how hard I concentrated, I’d get confused by the plot: murder, multiple infidelities, and corrupt judges… hard for a 7-year old to keep it straight. But all this confusion and misunderstanding just added to the allure, and that chorus was undeniable!
Things got even more intriguing when two teenagers in the apartment complex overheard me singing the song while out riding my bike. Jackie and Janel stopped me to ask if I knew “what that song means.” I was too thrilled to have junior high kids purposely talking to me to give an intelligible response, but it didn’t matter, because they started talking animatedly between themselves about plot points, and “pot” and getting in trouble for sneaking off with boys.
I asked a question about this last point, and they came back to the reality of talking in front of a dumb grade schooler and went silent, staring at me. Finally, Janel said, “This song has real deep meaning for me, and I can’t tell you why. It’s a secret. And you wouldn’t even understand if I told you.”
With that, Jackie and Janel looked at each other and began laughing uproariously as they walked away from me. This sent me back home for a few more listens to the song, trying to unlock Janel’s secret… did she kill someone? From then on, I stayed far away from those two, but watched Janel with a cautious eye because, well, what if she was a murderer?
Hear the song.
Bell bottoms. Flares. Elephant flares. All the older kids in the apartment complex wore them, as did so many of the dancers on American Bandstand and Soul Train. I wanted a pair, real bad, and I finally got a pair!
They were elephant flares, of a dark blue, light weight denim. They made the most satisfying thwap thwap sound when I walked, and they swayed magnificently when (figuratively) joining hands with the kids on Soul Train to form a “Love Train.”
I loved those “dancing pants,” they made me feel as cool as those kids on TV. I started asking for platforms and an afro. I was told no, and “don’t let your father hear you say that.”
I understood what my Mother meant – my Dad didn’t like blacks, and he wouldn’t dig my burgeoning Black Pride. But everything he’d say about them didn’t seem to apply to the black kids I knew from school. This marked the first time I knew my Dad was wrong about something, and my elephant flare dancing pants became a symbol for “Father Does Not Know Best.”
Watch a Soul Train line dance to "Love Train."