The List and the Story: Against the Eighties
Mike Watt, founding member of Eighties hardcore band the Minutemen, wrote a song in the Nineties titled “Against the 70’s” with a refrain of “The kids of today should defend themselves against the Seventies,” and a coda in which Watt almost wistfully croons, “Speakin’ as a child of the Seventies…” Speaking as a child of the Eighties, I’ve spent the rest of my life defending myself against them.
The Eighties were a period of change for me. For instance, my name. I started the decade John Light, but in 1982, when I was nine years old, the municipal court of Lawrence, Kansas delivered me into the paternal custody of Greg Proctor, and my name became John Proctor. They even changed the name of the father on my birth certificate. I didn't know who my father before him was, and my mother had started having me call him Dad when I was five. My new grandparents bought me t-shirts with the words “My Name Is John Proctor” broadcast across the front and back.
I got most of my culture secondhand. "Big Bad Bill Is Sweet William Now" was David Lee Roth in Spandex before it was Emmett Miller in blackface. I knew every word Steven Tyler sang for Aerosmith, but still don't know one word Sinclair Lewis wrote in Arrowsmith. Xanadu was Olivia Newton-John in rollerskates before it was the castle that held Charles Foster Kane’s youth hostage.
For most of my childhood, my sole aspiration was to become a professional wrestler. Central States Wrestling was my Sunday morning service, Bulldog Bob Brown and “Freight Train” Rufus R. Jones were the disciples, and Sheik Abdullah the Great was the devil with his minions the Masked Grapplers. But the traveling preacher, the baddest of them all, perhaps the most popular cross-promotional wrestler of the time, was Bruiser Brody. He looked like a modern-day Genghis Khan, and was the only force for good who could stand up to the 400-pounds-of-pure-evil Abdullah the Butcher or even the 500-pound Kamala the Ugandan Giant. I never saw him lose a match.
Absent a trusted father figure, I turned throughout my childhood and adolescence to my uncles for male guidance and role models. My Uncle Mike taught me to fish. I developed my love of reading from my Uncle Monti’s bookshelves of horror novels. My Uncle Butch Proctor taught me sarcasm. My Uncle Butch Martin also taught me sarcasm. My Uncle Dana took me to Tae Known Do lessons when I was continually beat up in grade school. My Uncle Harry taught me by example to bear the blows of life with gentle humor. My Uncle Buster fixed my car and watched basketball games with me in high school. My Uncle Rob introduced me to my birth father. My Uncle Joe Gaines became my Alateen sponsor. My Uncle Brian sent me his two front teeth for Christmas when I was two years old, thirteen years before I ever met him. At least half of these men were not actually my uncles.
In 1981 William S. Burroughs moved to Lawrence. His life and my family’s intersected twice. The first time, he came to my house and threatened to shoot me for chasing his beloved cats in front of his house on Learnard Avenue. He knew my name by the t-shirts my grandparents had gotten me when I became John Proctor. The second was when he took up residence at my grandparents’ bungalow on Lone Star Lake. Every day, he rowed our old boat to the center of that muddy lake and convalesced. His manager bought it from my grandpa for $29,000. After Burroughs died, that bungalow was sold on eBay for $159,950.
I spent much of the Eighties chasing, capturing, eating, domesticating, petting, and feeding animals. My grandparents’ grey tomcat, known only as Mister Cat, and my bulldog Sassy watched over me. My Uncle Harry had a parrot named Samson, and my Uncle Mike had a mynah bird named Coco. Samson only repeated “How’s it going?” and then bit me. Coco, short for Cocaine, was acquired in a drug deal, and his phrases were “Roll a joint!” in a high woman’s voice and “Co-co-co-cocaine” in a low baritone. Every Easter my grandparents bought about 200 chicks that we would chase and fondle, and I would help cut their heads off, boil them, and pluck them in the fall. The seasons defined what I fished for—spring, crappie; summer, catfish; fall, stocked trout. I spent my winters alone in my room with my kingdom of animals I’d acquired that year, keeping them in cages and aquariums and imposing my own anthropomorphic moral code on them. If a crawdad, for instance, hurt another crawdad, I would boil it alive. If a snapping turtle crawled out of the aquarium, I would cut its head off.
While watching the Iran-Contra hearings, I learned a very important rhetorical strategy from Oliver North. “Did you mean to leave the store with this in your pocket?” I don’t recall. “SRS had three calls about domestic abuse in your household in the last month. Is there anything you want to tell us?” I don’t recall. “Who is your father again?”
Many times, when I was walking the street, I raced the cars that passed me. I made it my mission to keep up with a car until it turned onto another street or stopped. One day, after I’d chased a blue minivan all the way to my friend’s house, my friend’s older sister was on the porch. “Why do you do that? You know those people are laughing at you?” That was the end of my street racing career.
Parts of The Day After were filmed in Lawrence when I was in the fourth grade. Greg Proctor fancied himself a makeup artist and was obsessed with slasher flicks of the time. But watching Kansas City destroyed in the movie broadcast, families I grew to love in the first half hour of the movie turned to skeletons in one blinding flash, I was terrified more than I was watching Scanners or I Spit on Your Grave or any of the other movies Greg Proctor made me sit through with him. After the movie was over, my mother called the hotline ABC had set up for people who were traumatized watching it, then locked herself in her room. Greg Proctor told me it was just TV, probably made by the communists in Hollywood. The following week, a girl in my class gave a presentation on her performance as an extra in the movie. She was one of the thousands of radiation victims in the scenes at the KU Medical Center. I remember being jealous of her, and not knowing why. Sometimes when I tell this story now, I say I was an extra in the movie.
Like everyone else, I wanted my MTV. So much, in fact, that in the sixth grade I called their 900 hotline every morning to hear Martha Quinn’s prerecorded message about Def Leppard or Duran Duran or Madonna at 50 cents a call. After Greg Proctor saw the phone bill, I spent the summer before I started junior high with my four-year-old sister at the babysitter’s.
I was caught shoplifting, twice. After the first time, I ran away from home. After the second time, when I was caught on Vermont Street running away from the Ben Franklin with a Transformer under my shirt, I was locked in my room every day when I came home from school during the long, cold winter of 1987. Every book, cassette tape, or other item that could be considered entertaining was removed and placed in my parents’ closet. My mom let me out every weekday from 4:00-5:00, before Greg Proctor came home, and ask me how school was that day. It was my favorite hour of every day. She smuggled into my room the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Stephen King novels, and a series of fantasy novels involving a dwarf, a bear, and an otter. I hid them in the AC vents. Almost a decade later I stopped reading King, when he wrote The Shawshank Redemption. It was still a little too close to home.
The town of Lawrence, where I grew up, is considered by most as either the redheaded stepchild of Kansas or the state’s only merit. An abolitionist stronghold after the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 with the streets at the center of town named after the New England states the settlers came from, it was burned to the ground in 1863 by a band of mercenaries and thugs led by William Quantrill. After the war, it then secured the University of Kansas (nearby Leavenworth got the federal prison) and is now called variously a progressive bastion and a refuge for aging hippies. Sometime before I started junior high, the Lawrence City Council decided, in the spirit of economic equalization, to bus the residents of lower-income North Lawrence, where I lived, to upper-middle-class Lawrence South Junior High School. My friend Adrian, with whom I used to compare the size of the cockroaches in our respective houses, was permanently scarred. He recently posted on Facebook that he still hates Swatch watches, as that was how the natives separated themselves from the imports. I looked at it differently. That bus commute was my underground railroad.
After my first year of junior high I had an additional thing to keep me company in my room at home—the yearbook. I knew everybody’s name and profile, what clubs they were in, what sports they played. I examined everyone’s signature, especially the ones who wrote me personalized notes. “Stay cool, Spidey.” “See ya next year, Monkey.” (My nickname was Spider Monkey.) “Hi eat a lot this summer and please lift weights.” “I’m glad you got out of my math class—the smell was getting to me.” I made friends and enemies with people I didn’t even talk to. Now, with Facebook, I can relive this.
As an eleven-year-old adolescent living in Kansas, my only connection to the burgeoning, wilting New York City art scene was Madonna’s self-titled debut album. Like so many other children of the Eighties, my own early conceptions of sex were shaped by my mediated interactions with her. It started innocently, with a dream I had sometime after hearing “Borderline” for the first time, that she visited my school with her artsy entourage and picked me out to be her friend. Things got complicated when Playboy printed photos in 1985 from her now-mythic 1978 Lee Friedlander photo shoot, and I spent more than an hour at the 7-11 pretending to play the Journey Escape video game while sidling over to the magazine rack, only to be kicked out by a college student working the front the moment I touched the Playboy. And I was spurned when she married Sean Penn in 1986 and rubbed it in my face by dedicating her next album, True Blue, to him. I was secretly gratified when the marriage publicly failed, and wanted to find Penn and hold him to account when I read that he’d beaten and left her “trussed up like a turkey” when she gave him the divorce papers. I’ve since forgiven Penn, but I still haven’t watched the movie At Close Range, which features my favorite Madonna song, “Live to Tell.”
It seems everyone who lived through the Sixties remembers where they were when Martin Luther King and JFK were assassinated. People who lived through the Seventies all seem to remember where they were the day Nixon boarded Air Force One for the last time after resigning. Those of us who lived through the Eighties all remember where we were on January 28, 1986. I was in math class when the principal’s voice came over the intercom. She said she had some very bad news—the Space Shuttle Challenger had broken apart and exploded shortly after taking off, killing all seven passengers, including teacher Christa McAuliffe. When we all gathered in the gymnasium to watch the crash together, I remember being relieved. It was just TV.
Perhaps because of the clashing cultures of North and South Lawrence, perhaps because we were acting out what our parents said at home, perhaps because we were junior high boys and needed to throw our out-of-control bodies against each other, a series of race-related fights broke out at South Junior High my ninth-grade year. I wanted in on them. One afternoon in the crowded hallway between classes, Brent Tolbert pushed me from behind to get me moving. I told him to meet me in the morning, in front of the school, trying to sound ominous. He looked at me, puzzled, and just said, “OK.” I told everyone I knew that I was going to fight him the next morning, thinking of our jostle as the undercard of some professional wrestling bill. He showed up the next morning expressionless, and followed me out to the side of the building with most of the school in our wake shouting, “Fight! Fight! Fight!” When we got there, he asked me, “You really wanna do this?” I lunged at him. He picked me up with surprisingly little effort, and held me over his head. Then he put me down to his left. I lunged again, he held me in the air again, and put me down to his right. “We done.” Then he walked away. Later on in high school, when I met my birth father, I found out Brent was my cousin by marriage.
In spring of 1988, I witnessed the University of Kansas basketball team winning the NCAA tournament on a black and white TV in my room. I could hear the town explode outside my bedroom window as the whole town of Lawrence flooded into the streets, but I'd played sick that day so I had to stay in my room. The next day, other boys at my junior high school told of coeds on campus running naked around their sorority houses. To this day, I tell people that night was the first time I saw a naked girl in person.
In the summer of 1988, Frank Donald Goodish was stabbed to death in a locker room shower in Puerto Rico by Jose Huertas Gonzalez. Huertas had followed him into the shower with the knife concealed in a towel after telling Goodish he wanted to talk to him about a contract dispute. Both were professional wrestlers, and Huertas represented Carlos Colon, the commissioner of the World Wrestling Council, a Puerto Rican wrestling federation. Colon was nervous that Goodish was going to use his accumulated wealth to buy a stake in the WWC. Goodish had toured extensively through the United States and Japan, and was rumored to be looking to retire from active wrestling and invest in the Latin American wrestling market. After being stabbed, Goodish was reportedly left bleeding on the shower floor until his friend Tony Atlas, perhaps the only American wrestler at the venue, carried him to an ambulance. Goodish died during surgery, and Huertas was later acquitted of all charges by a jury of his peers. Goodish’s stage name was Bruiser Brody.
Right before I entered high school, Greg Proctor sat me down and told me I needed to start masturbating, referring to it only as jerking off. He told me methods, and asked me at the dinner table how it was going. I didn’t masturbate until I was 22 years old, after I’d been in two sexual relationships, each with a girl I thought was the love of my life.
From 1986-1988, I listened only to hair metal. This era ended for me when I entered high school and fell in love with the daughter of a professor at the university. I followed her everywhere from a distance, until my friend Kevin overheard her talking to her friend on the bleachers of a varsity football game. “John Proctor likes me,” she said. When asked who John Proctor was she replied, “You know, the guy who wears the same Whitesnake shirt every other day.” I threw that shirt away the next day, started listening to the Steve Miller Band, and joined the football team.
I was perhaps the worst high school football player in the history of the sport. I had to constantly hold up my pants because they didn’t make them small enough to fit my 26-inch waist, and I could never remember plays. To be honest, I didn’t really know what position I played. But it was through the football team that I met my birth father, Wayne Martin. In 1989, my junior year, the starting left guard on the offensive line approached my locker before practice and asked me if I wanted to meet my dad. I didn’t know it until later that night, but his sister was married to Wayne Martin, who had opened up a discount furniture outlet on New Hampshire Street. I played even worse than usual at practice that day and probably spent more than half of it doing wind sprints.
When I came home from meeting Wayne Martin, I told my mom. She told Greg Proctor, who locked me in my room for the rest of the night. By the end of the next year, the advent of the Nineties, they were getting divorced after Greg Proctor had beaten my mother unconscious with a chair. Wayne Martin had expanded his business. And I was a fundamentalist Christian.