It was said by those who knew me best that my most endearing behaviors reflected what might well be thought of as acute immaturity. On his point I must agree. A shift towards responsibility did begin after my father died in July 2002. As Ben Stone said to Adam Schiff in the TV drama "Law and Order," it is said that a boy never truly becomes a man until his father passes away. So it was with me, at any rate. Even after that most sad event, I clung to adolescence the way someone might cling to a knotted rope strung out over a pit of nervous crocodiles.
I would ask that the Reader keep that thought in mind while scanning the biography of a man unknown to far too many and known far too well by only a few. It has been suggested by those who care to concern themselves with such matters that I was often influenced by women far more than by men, or that my motivations were to gain favor with the feminine majority rather than with the hairy, barrel-chested brutes who often tried to enlist my company. The reality--at least, the reality I perceive--is that while I wished to be thought well of by everyone, regardless of gender, I imagined that I stood a somewhat better chance of being admired by women than by men. It is perhaps one curse of being an only child that the poor thing has no one in the family with whom he or she can bounce ideas with and so aims higher, often towards whichever parent provides the fairest opportunity.
To illustrate this point and to at long last begin the report at hand, I shall relate what may now be seen as a somewhat humorous anecdote of my early youth, one which, rest assured, I took little amusement in at the time, but which I believe will illuminate everything that has followed me in my life.
Mere days after my fifth birthday, I attended my mother (Martha Ellen Spradlin Mershon) to the Big Bear grocery store in the river town of Portsmouth, Ohio. This would have been in the year 1963, probably a month or so before the assassination of President John Kennedy. My mother entrusted me to wander off on my own, knowing full well that I hadn't any money and so could not waste said currency on what she considered to be nonsense.
This impulse towards nonsense was a reasonable concern of hers in no small part because of an argument that had preceded our visit to the grand ourse.
My breakfast cereal of choice in those days was Honeycomb [There is some argument about the possibility of this choice. According to reliable sources, the Honeycomb cereal was not available until the year 1965, and yet the author steadfastly maintains that his recollection as to the year and brand are beyond reproach.] I did not in fact so much favor the honey-flavored cereal bits in a honeycomb shape as I did the plastic automobile miniature replicas, i.e., toy cars, that came in the boxes of this brand of cereal. This promotion by Post Foods had been in process throughout much of the summer and was certain to be terminated soon, so I bowed to the psychological pressure brought down on my tiny head by the marketing department of the corporation and thus determined insomuch as it was possible that I would possess my own collection of every color automobile the Honeycomb people could offer. Green, red, blue, yellow and purple were the available options, the cars themselves all being otherwise identical four-door sedans without much else in the way of personality. At this time, I already had half a dozen green and a smattering of all the other colors except for one: I did not own a purple generic plastic automobile and I believed that failing the acquisition thereof, I might well fling myself into the tepid waters of Pond Creek and drown among the toad frogs and water moccasins.
And so this particular Saturday morning I strolled up one aisle and down another, giving my mother ample time to lose herself amid the anticipatory selections of coffee, meats and eggs. Of course I knew where the cereal aisle was. Every child in town--indeed the whole of the continent--knew where her or his cereal aisle sat. Mine was in aisle five and at long last I gained control of myself and sauntered as if I had no especial concern or desire when in fact what I aimed to do was to tear apart those boxes of Honeycomb until I found one with the very special toy surprise.
I had by this point already discovered that the cereal company dropped the cars into the bottom of the cereal box, presumably so the kids would have to eat all the yuck before being rewarded with the fabulous plastic prize. It had of course already been in my head to simply invert the box once I was at home and start at the end and finish at the beginning. But the bottom of the cereal boxes lacked any type of industrious flap that would allow the anxious child to reseal the rancid cereal product after extracting his prized possession.
My mother had made it quite clear, you may rest assured, that no more packages of Honeycomb cereal would waltz their way into our home until such time as I had eaten the other five boxes I had opened and then delightedly abandoned.
I stood next to the shelf with the hint of glazed sugar and flavor extracts dancing before my quivering nostrils. The yellow-colored box with a bowl the size of Utah on the cover smiled across the inches to me. Boxes of the cereal crammed the shelves, each with a special bulletin urging that I buy the box now because in no time at all those fabulous plastic cars in five breath-taking colors would be gone, gone, gone forever.
I grabbed the first box, turned it upside down, ripped open the bottom, shredded the plastic inner container, and pulled out--another green car! "Damn!" I shouted, just as I knew my father would have said had he found himself in a similar situation. "Damn it all to hell." Had there been prizes awarded for cursing, I believed my father would have had shelves of trophies and plaques. I was not so virtuous as to be beyond coveting such recognitions and had been practicing my own versions of swear words. "Shitty shit shit," I muttered, dropping the first box and seizing the next.
I availed myself of an impressive vocabulary of nasty words that morning before I at long last came upon a box that did indeed honor me with the long-sought after and heretofore never attained purple fucking car! That morning was I believe the first time I had used that word in public. My parents never uttered it whenever they believed me to be within earshot, but I had heard it all the same and had come to understand that it was a word to either be saved for the end of the argument or, conversely, one to be used to express the pinnacle of glutinous delight. Such delight I had to that point never experienced and I am certain I explored every conjugation of the verb that had ever existed.
It was while in the midst of doing my celebratory dance that I felt an unwanted hand grip my shoulder and spin me around.
I looked up at the face above the body and saw what looked to be a stock boy. I know he had blue thumbs from stamping products with his price machine. He also had a hint of acne and a somewhat unattractive haircut.
The stock boy shouted with what I can only describe as an unearned glee: "You! So you are the one who's been doing this! Caught you at last!"
The apprehending of John Dillinger had not been met with such self-congratulatory exhortations.
The little nit of an employee strong-armed me into the store manager's office, a tiny glass room that reeked of cigarettes and coffee. The two men laughed as I sat scowling in the ante-room, awaiting whatever fate awaits plastic car thieves.
At last the manager waddled his massive jelly frame out the door with his stooge salivating behind him. The big man leaned down towards me with his hands behind his back and said, "What is your name, son?"
"You go to hell."
It was a sentence I would repeat with some regularity the rest of the morning. In fact, every time someone--the manager, the stock boy, the eventual police officer--demanded I reveal my secret identity, I responded with the same four-word directive.
"Sour little snot, ain't he?" the cop observed. "Alright, then. Off to the pokey he goes, to be leered after by various hoodlums and ne'erdowells."
I held the jail cell bars just as I had witnessed many a convict before me in movies and on TV. I pressed my five-year-old face against those bars and as one after another disfigured officer of the local version of law and order would parade past me, I would grumble that he too should dance among the fiery blazes of the devil. Across the hall in the other cell, some putrid drunk wiped vomit off his chin and cried for his mommy. I told him to go to hell too.
"Funny thing is," said one cop to another. "He's a cute kid. Looks not to be the kind to get into trouble. Well-kempt, tidy. But what a mouth."
"Cute as the dickens."
"He is. He is just that cute."
"You go to hell."
"See. That's what ruins it."
In half an hour or so, my mother arrived to settle the score. Someone at the grocery had alerted her to my situation, she had taken care of the cost of the cereal boxes (a luxury we could have ill afforded at that time, though she never remarked about it to me), and drove herself to the local police headquarters, which, somehow, I recall as being on Second Street.
"Here's our master criminal in here, ma'am."
My mom did not acknowledge the officer's attempt at humor. She tapped the toe of one foot to add to the cop's nervousness as he unlocked the cell door. I ran out and resisted the strong impulse to fall up against my mother's leg and cry until I turned ninety. Instead, I reached up and allowed her soft, strong hand to engulf my own smaller one. We turned to leave and were nearly at the door when I felt my mother halt.
She turned and I heard in her voice a tone I had heard at home more than once. "Officers of the law, are you? You can all go straight to hell."