Dynamite In The Wrong Hands

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on August 25, 2011, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)

“It’s not fair!” whined the little boy as he tore from his mother’s grip. “Everybody else has an iPad or a Nook; why do I have to use a stupid Kindle? It’s not even in color!” He jammed an e-reader back onto the shelf, knocking the “Back to School” sign off in the process, before his mother managed to wrangle him out of the electronics department. She kept apologizing to him, asking him to realize how much it cost, even as she dragged him out of the store. A few of the other customers exchanged condescending glances, but I understood the moment all too well: it was Dynamite magazine all over again.

When I was that kid’s age, I was going into 6th grade at Timothy Dwight School. Among the many rites of September was the magical hour when the teacher would spread the Scholastic Arrow Book Club sheets on the tables before us, inviting us into the world of reading through a series of tiny checkboxes we’d fill out in pencil. We could order any book or magazine we’d like, provided we came in later that week with the cash or check from home. The teacher would give a short summary of each magazine and show us a few sample issues. Alas, like Wyle E. Coyote, I only had eyes for Dynamite.

Dynamite was a glossy magazine for children that fed us popular culture in elementary school bits: think People magazine on training wheels. It featured the biggest stars of the day on its covers without the girlish stigma of Tiger Beat or the amateurish camp of Bananas. Before the days of cable TV and the internet, magazines had cache. In short: if you were cool, you got your copy of Dynamite each month in the big brown box the teacher lugged from the staff room. If you weren’t cool, you waited to be handed your free copy of Junior Scholastic.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Junior Scholastic, mind you, just as there’s nothing wrong with a free VD shot or buying ramen noodles in bulk. It contained the news of the day in digest form, followed by a series of reading comprehension questions and quick quizzes or word searches. It was supposed to make current events fun, a form of Flintstones chewable vitamins meant to cover up the aftertaste of Walter Cronkite. The good folks at Scholastic carefully chewed up the news before regurgitating their monthly cocktail into our eager 6th grade hands, their cover stories bearing headlines like, “Understanding The Hostage Crisis” or “The SALT Treaty and You.” If Dynamite magazine was dinner and drinks with Alec Baldwin, Junior Scholastic was jumping bail with Daniel Baldwin.

In addition to Magic Wanda’s page of tricks, the Good Vibrations advice column, Count Morbida’s puzzles, the Bummers page (adolescent bits of satire that always began with, “Don’t you hate it when…”), or the occasional pull-out poster, Dynamite’s crack staff of journalists touched upon the truly important topics of our time. One need only review these actual headlines from my sixth grade year in 1979/1980 to appreciate the coverage. September: “Face to Face With Erik Estrada.” October: “Gary Coleman, TV’s Little Big Man.” November: “The Dukes of Hazzard.” December: “Steve Martin, A Wild and Crazy Guy!” January: “Mork and His New Pals!” February: “Buck Rogers, Then and Now!” March: “Live From New York: It’s Gilda Radner!” April: “BJ and The Bear, A Special Talk with Greg Evigan!” May: “Benji, Hollywood’s Top Dog!” June: “Meet John Schneider!”  After December, all the headlines ended in exclamation points (!) and sent a clear signal to every child that something truly wild and crazy was going on between those covers.

My mom was immune to Dynamite’s charms, however, and no amount of pleading would convince her to part with the requisite subscription money. Much like the cold-hearted witch who’d refused her growing boy’s desperate petition for a decent e-reader (the one he has isn’t even color, for goodness sake), my mother was content to see me locked in a cell of cultural ignorance that haunts me to this day. The headlines I saw when I peeked over to my classmates’ desks offered a glimpse into a world I’d never know. “The Bee Gees vs. The Beatles! Who’s The Greatest?” (I was never told.) “Dynamite Spends A Happy Day With Scott Baio!” (I was never invited.) “Meet Rick Springfield!” (To this day, I have yet to do so.)

Lady, if you’re reading this, spring for the kid’s Nook. Don’t rob him of the intimate, backstage knowledge of the Jonas Brothers latest tour lest he grow up and regret his ignorance for the rest of his life. There are some holes you just don’t fill. Worse yet, he might become even more obnoxious and someday write a column about it.

On a side note, I’d like to apologize to my mom for most every back-to-school shopping trip we ever took.

Fending Off The Inevitable

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on August 11, 2011, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)

The moment you realize you’ve slowly become your parents is always a surprise; my moment arrived when I told my wife we’d joined a boat club. While I’d never made a secret of my desire to get out on the water, she reacted the same way my mom had years ago when my dad announced he’d just bought the family a boat. An odd smile formed on her lips as if forced to appear at gunpoint.

“Really?” she said. Just like Mom once did. “That’s interesting.”

Women are smarter than men; all the women in my life, at least. In the second week of August, however, the brutal heat and humidity of Fairfield County can lead otherwise reasonable men to ignore the wisdom of these women and seek refuge in the comforting arms of material excess. For some it’s a red convertible, for others a shiny new motorcycle; for the Walsh family, it’s always been boats.

Growing up, my six brothers and sisters and I were prisoners of the thermostat. Because my dad didn’t “believe” in air conditioning any more than he believed in swimming pools or Bigfoot, the summer heat reduced us to boneless, moist clumps of flesh draped over the couches like melted chocolate. When he told us about the boat, we felt as if Moses were leading us out of the desert. My mom stood stoically to one side, no doubt mouthing a silent rosary in anticipation of the future headaches in store. While my dad was trying to recapture his glory days in the navy, my mom would be saddled with the practical realities involved in readying seven kids for an afternoon on the water with this unapologetic perfectionist who’d never owned his own boat before. While he climbed up the tiny flybridge to steer, it was she who’d have to cram the brown bag lunches, sunblock, blankets, and seven kids into the tiny galley below deck every time it rained.

When we arrived at the Housatonic marina for our maiden voyage, we caught our first glimpse of the new (used) twenty-four foot cabin cruiser—or at least what had been one in a previous life. It bobbed sadly in between the majestic boats on either side, as lifeless as the floating bunker fish that surrounded it. These being the days before they cleaned up Long Island Sound, this was a far cry from “sailing the ocean blue.” My mom’s eyes began to tear up, but I couldn’t tell if it was the smell of the fish, low tide, or the sight of the boat.

Dad christened his dream boat “The Irish,” a loving nod to our family heritage, ignoring the somewhat checkered maritime history of the Irish themselves. He’d soon discover the irony. Out of necessity, my dad required that we immerse ourselves in nautical jargon. There was no front or back of the boat; only “fore” and “aft;” no left or right side, only “port” or “starboard.” We learned quickly not to speak of the “bathroom,” and even quicker not to complain about it. “It’s not supposed to be comfortable,” he’d explain. “It’s called the ‘head’ for a reason—now use your head next time so you don’t have to go to the bathroom on the boat.” When the “head” wasn’t working (which was pretty much the entire time we owned the boat), he suggested we “go for a swim” if we couldn’t hold out until we returned to the dock. Needless to say, the Walsh kids rarely swam too close to one another in those days, just in case.

As the summer wore on, my dad demanded we leave earlier and earlier for our trips on the Sound. Most assumed this was a practical matter: when something went wrong (as it often did), it dramatically reduced the time we had to wait to get towed back into shore. The Coast Guard was always very friendly as we chatted on the short ride in: “We didn’t know the radio was broken until we tried to get help, after we figured out the sonar was broken, after we hit the sand bar.”

The real reason was simpler: The Irish had no reverse gear, and my dad didn’t want anyone to see what we were doing to their boats as we left the docks. My brothers and I would line up on either side of the boat and push it out of its slip, inevitably bouncing off the boats to either side in the process. “Fend off!” my dad would scream, each of us assuming he must have been talking to the others. It turns out that “fend off” means to keep pushing the boat away from the other boats, but we just assumed that’s what the bumpers were for. Putting the Irish to sea was like playing a giant game of bumper cars, only with more cursing and a lot more smoke. One could be forgiven for assuming the Walshes were shoveling coal for fuel with that giant black cloud billowing from the engine.

Things weren’t much better coming back into dock, but we grew adept at pulling ourselves into the slip by grabbing the boats to either side. It was awkward if their owners were on board, but we smiled our way through it. Each trip was followed by a total scrub-down of the boat, nine people worn by hours on the water in cramped quarters now secretly humming “It’s A Hard Knocks Life” and praying for rain the next week. After two seasons of fending off the inevitable, the Irish came to permanent dock in our back yard, killing a large patch of grass underneath in symbolism so strong I am almost reluctant to include it here.

Still, on a sweltering August afternoon, I can’t help but think it might be time to get a boat. Maybe if it’s cheaper than the convertible, my wife will let me.