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About the Author
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I was raised in a mind-numbing suburb in upstate New York, the third of four, aka the middle child, aka forgettable (3). Unlike my siblings, I wasn't born with a built-in "look at me" trait. I realized early on that if I was going to get any attention, I was going to have to develop something.
This isn't to say that I was neglected. There was yelling, constipation, groundings, bed-wettings, hernias, bloody noses, stitches, and masturbation, but there was also a lot of love. My parents were not shy about showing affection for us and for each other. They were just outnumbered; that, and the competition was fierce.
My father had been in the Air Force, and, as a consequence, we did a number of things military style, despite the fact that we were all so different from one another. Like my brothers, I had a crew cut until my seventh birthday. My father would clear out a spot in the living room, take out his electric razor, set it on the shortest setting, and one by one we would be sheared, rubbing our stubbly heads as we left the chair. My mom stuck with meals best prepared in bulk. Most of these meals were cooked in a big pot and served with a ladle: beans and franks, tuna casseroles, and goulash. We ate a lot of meatloaf.
Greg was the oldest (1). He had his own bedroom. He was deaf and had a learning disability due to a case of German measles my mom contracted when she was pregnant. To say he needed more attention than the rest of us is an understatement. As a consequence, he created, through no fault of his own, a domino effect that reverberates through the family to this day. There are many examples I could give to illustrate this, and the first that comes to mind is that my name is Dwayne. Around the second grade, my parents decided that Greg would never be able to pronounce Dwayne. He could pronounce my middle name, however, so Paul it was.
My sister, Sharon, was next (2). She was the only girl. This meant she also got special treatment, ostensibly in the form of a gender quarantine.
She rode in the front seat during family trips. When (not if ) things escalated in the back seat, Dad would threaten to "pull over." If my brothers and I kept at it, the car would slow down. "WE'LL STOP! WE'LL STOP!" we yelled, but once such an event was set in motion there was no turning back. The car would stop, Dad would reach into the back seat, and my brothers and I hit the deck, trying, in vain, to avoid the hand. I always imagined what this would look like to passersby. From the outside, the car would be bouncing, windows steaming up, with muffled screams coming from the inside of the station wagon. My sister, who would watch this unfold from the front seat, just shook her head.
She was sometimes strategically placed in the back seat as a way of separating us.
Sharon never got a crew cut.
Angus was the youngest (4), my roommate until I went to college. He liked to throw frogs into the busy street in front of our house in Johnson City and watch them get run over. Once you hear the sound of a fat toad exploding under a car tire going thirty-five miles per hour, you never forget it. Angus was spanked a lot.
As the youngest, Angus would have stood out for that reason alone, but he was also what my dad referred to as a "towhead," meaning he had blond, almost white, hair; this in a family with predominately dark hair. Strangers would frequently ask if he was albino. One of my dad's favorite quips involved Angus being "delivered" by the mailman.
As Angus moved on from frogs to spray-painting the neighbor's trees, my parents took him to see a child psychiatrist. He was diagnosed as hyperactive and put on medication. His behavior issues worsened, so that experiment didn't last long.
We were two years apart and I was his defacto protector, at least where the outside world was concerned. It was only at home that I would throw him under the bus, mainly so I didn't get in trouble for something he started.
Despite all of it, Angus was a very likeable kid, an extrovert. I was the opposite: shy, introverted. Angus always made friends before I did. If we were somewhere new, he would be playing with every kid on the playground and I would be off on my own. This held true for us as adults, too, only for Angus those playgrounds turned into bars.
In the middle of all this was me, making rumbling noises with my mouth as I pushed my big yellow Tonka truck around in the backyard. Scooping and dumping, scooping and dumping. I would never be the oldest or the youngest or a girl. Furthermore, I could never be better than my brothers at being learning disabled, deaf, or getting into trouble. This left only the refrigerator. Before I knew much, I knew that a finger painting, crayon scribble, or collage with glitter and feathers displayed on the refrigerator meant praise. We all had artwork on the fridge early on, but as we got older I continued to draw. I got better. The refrigerator became my Ferus Gallery.
Being a five-year-old in the late '60s was confusing and often terrifying. Protests. Strikes. Marches. Riots. Assassinations. War. I was insulated from all of it, except for the images that flickered in black-and-white on our Magnavox television set. Dad tuned in to the CBS Evening News every night. The program consisted of a flood of strange words spoken by a man seated in front of a screen. He didn't encourage me to watch the news, but he didn't discourage me either, even if he had to answer questions like "Who are the Viet Cong?" or "What is a body bag?" or "Why would someone shoot that man?" It took me a while, but I eventually learned to avoid the living room from 6:30 to 7 pm.
My father was an aerospace engineer, so I made an exception (as did the rest of the family) for anything related to the Apollo space missions. We watched it all like church. "Daddy, what is yaw?" Questions like this were certainly easier for him to handle.
The Sahre family drove. All six of us would cram into the car for vacations and visits to relatives. These trips were typically between two and three hours in duration (not counting our cross-country trip to Disneyland in the summer of 1974; that was an outlier). Most of the time, we would be driving north to Herkimer to visit Nana and Uncle Carl, or south to Lakehurst, New Jersey, to see Grandma and Grandpa Schoop. For years they operated a yarn shop out of their big house on Route 10, in Morris Plains, but they had since retired to an elderly community farther south.
Lakehurst was where the German zeppelin Hindenburg exploded in a fireball in 1937. We visited the naval station on more than one occasion, standing in the field where the disaster happened, touring the huge hangar. We frequently drove to air shows and aircraft museums anyway, so these trips to see the in-laws were two-for-ones as far as Dad was concerned.
Paul Schoop was a Swiss dairy farmer who immigrated to the United States in 1926. My mom would tell us stories of him skiing between farms making milk deliveries as a teenager, or of his forcing her to learn to play the accordion growing up. She also claimed he could yodel, but fortunately I never witnessed this. He left his homeland to look for work and to start a new life.
My mother always suggested that he had a case of wanderlust. I could never reconcile that last part with the person I knew. He didn't seem like a restless spirit. My grandfather was stern, reserved, and predictable, like his Swiss watch. He would sit in his La-Z-Boy recliner for hours in the same room with you, watching The Lawrence Welk Show, and never say a word. My grandfather was intimidating, especially when I was younger. His Germanic accent didn't help. Kid impressions aside, he was a gentle man — though there was that time in the Toys"R"Us parking lot when he climbed over two rows of car seats to whack Angus after he talked back (none of us thought he could move that fast). But mostly he tolerated us. Grandma Schoop was the affectionate one.
Now that I'm a father, I have a better appreciation for how disruptive our visits must have been. Theirs was a quiet house in a neighborhood of quiet houses. Not only did the Sahre family never fly, we never stayed in hotels, either. Our visits were more like invasions: We slept on cots, dug holes in the yard, and left toys strewn everywhere. We would leave, and then a few weeks later the process would start all over again. My grandparents must have spent all the time in between our visits rebuilding their defenses.
Grandpa Schoop had a distinctive smell — he wore Old Spice. I liked to play with the iconic cone-shaped bottle, with its etching of an old-time sailing vessel and script typeface, but only after locking the door. You never wanted to be caught playing with anything in the bathroom.
One day, I was running around in the yard and I ducked inside to take a piss when I noticed the head of one of our G.I. Joes sitting atop the bottle.
My first thought was one of my brothers had done this and that I should remove it before our heads started to roll. But when I brought them inside to see it, neither of them fessed up. They shrugged their shoulders, as confused as I was, and we all went back outside.
Although seemingly out of character, it was Grandpa Schoop who had reappropriated the head. He must have found it lying around in the aftermath of one of our visits and noticed that the neck diameter was the same as the cap on his cologne. I like to imagine his satisfaction when he placed it on top of the bottle and it fit so perfectly, as if the bottle was designed to be anthropomorphized. He transferred that G.I. Joe head from empty to full bottle until the day he died.
By combining two things that were designed for other purposes, he had created a design object, something Duchamp would have appreciated. It also demonstrated a playfulness and sense of humor that I didn't think he had. This new object clearly had meaning to him (it reminded him of us), but it also communicated something. Maybe it was a warning about what would happen if we left our toys lying around, or maybe it was a sign that we weren't such a nuisance after all, even if he never put that into words.
While the rest of us were walking to school down the block, Greg was flying (with Dad) to St. Mary's School for the Deaf in Buffalo. It was strange not having him around. And quiet. Because of Greg, everything in the house was at full volume, from our conversations to the TV. He had a hearing aid that helped him hear just enough to process some of the world around him. The earliest device had a molded earpiece connected by a curly wire to a silver box that was strapped to his chest. He was always adjusting it, trying to eliminate the acoustic feedback, and every time he did this, his hearing aid emitted a loud modulating whistle.
He had a very specific way of playing. He'd act out all the parts in an imaginary movie scene, with each character speaking loud enough for him to hear. He also liked to sing when he was alone in his room. By "sing" I mean a loud, guttural, off-key, chant-like chorus of repeated sounds with words thrown in every once in a while.
echoed through the ductwork to all corners of the house. When I would bring a friend over to play for the first time, I'd warn them in advance. If I didn't, they might never come back. As with Angus, I defended my older brother outside of the house. This typically involved teasing, and twice the word "retard." Both times this ended with a bloody nose.
Greg seemed to always be in trouble. But his trouble was different from Angus's. Angus liked doing things with a purpose, like knocking over a glass of milk to see what would happen. Greg wasn't willful. He had a temper. If he didn't understand something (which happened a lot) things could escalate, often ending with my dad sitting on him until he cooled down. As he got older and bigger, he became more difficult for my father to subdue. These episodes increased in intensity and got more frightening, with stuff crashing off of shelves and whoever was in the house at the time helping out by grabbing a leg or an arm.
Angus and Greg were a potent combination, and it was left to Sharon and me to provide some sibling balance. We were both good, pretty much all the time. Seeing the mayhem and the consequences of bad behavior — spankings, groundings, threats of coal in the stocking — we, for the most part, avoided trouble ... at least the obvious kind. Mom was petrified of the sound of the doorbell or the phone ringing, thinking it was the cops or a disgruntled neighbor again. As I watched Mom fret, it occurred to me that if I added any more trouble, she might very well be carried away in a straightjacket. I don't think I soaped my first window until I was in college.
The late '60s was the golden era of American board games, and Greg loved board games. He treated everything he got for his birthday and Christmas like a priceless artifact, taking each thing out of his closet and letting my brother and I play with them, ONCE. He would hover over us while we played, carefully return the game pieces to their rightful place in the box as soon as we were done, then back into the closet it would go. He knew better. He saw how Angus and I treated our toys. We destroyed anything we came into contact with. Sharon was just as fastidious, only we didn't have that much interest in "Dawn's Fashion Show."
Greg still has every game he's ever gotten in that closet of his, all of them mint — Battling Tops, Stratego, Headache, TipIt, Sorry!, Spirograph, Battleship, Hands Down — along with everything else he's ever come in contact with: Wacky Packages, rubber bands, a bowling pin lamp, souvenir mugs, Disney pennants, his Marvin the Martian collection, puzzles, football helmet plaques, marbles, dice, Action Jackson dolls, and every Publishers Clearinghouse award letter he's ever received. Greg is a hoarder. His room in the basement resembled a hamster cage. A really fun hamster cage.
St. Mary's was the closest school for the deaf in the area, so Greg spent a few years with the nuns. While he was there, he learned to read lips and he underwent speech therapy. He learned sign language, but our family didn't, so when he returned home we communicated with Greg the way we always did — by speaking loudly. My parents were instructed NOT to teach the rest of us sign language. The accepted educational practice in the '60s was the Oral Method. Back then, schools prepared deaf students for life in the hearing world, requiring them to study English, undergo speech training, and learn to lip-read. It was thought that someone who was hearing impaired had to adjust to society and not the other way around. In retrospect this was a terrible idea, especially for a child who had other issues, but at the time I didn't know any of this. It was just nice to have my big brother home.
My Father the Sports Fan
The other thing my dad watched on TV was sports. He watched it all: horse racing, boxing, gymnastics, bowling, luge, and anything on ABC's Wide World of Sports with announcer Jim McKay's familiar "and the agony of defeat," followed by that ski jumper bouncing down the mountain. The one thing he didn't watch was professional basketball. He would change the channel saying, "Give each team 100 points and put one minute on the clock."
During commercial breaks, he pointed out basic rules or subtle nuances, depending on the sport. As a consequence, I know what a mudder is in horse racing, I can keep score in baseball, and I know the difference between a football referee signaling "false start" and "illegal use of the hands."
His favorite sports were baseball and football, so they were mine too. When he was very young, his father would take him to baseball games at Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds. The two of them were at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939, for Lou Gehrig Day. He was only three years old at the time, so he had no memory of the game or, of more historical importance, the pregame ceremonies when Gehrig, dying of what would later be known as Lou Gehrig's disease, gave his famous "Luckiest Man" speech. All he remembered was a miniature commemorative bat that he brought home from the game. I was skeptical — after all, it is one of the most iconic moments in sports history — but Nana confirmed it. She said that when they arrived home and she asked about the game, my father exclaimed: "Mommy, the man cried!"
Excerpted from "Two-Dimensional Man"
Copyright © 2017 Paul Sahre.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
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