The first year my world expanded beyond my house and yard, I got a bully. He intercepted me in the afternoons after kindergarten, stepping in front of me when I was on my way home. One day he showed me a little pen knife and said he was going to carve me up if I didn’t find a way to climb through a small tree that had split at the trunk into two thick, tightly entwined branches. I spent what seemed like a very long time trying to climb through the nonexistent space between the branches. For most of that time I was afraid to look up from the task, and even when I finally did and saw that my bully was gone I kept trying for a while, afraid that he’d somehow know that I had defied him.
Another day he was starting to menace me with a fallen branch bigger than either of us. My best friend Nick happened to come by.
“Hey, get out of here,” Nick shouted at my bully. He stepped toward him. Nick was a big kid, a year older than me. “Go on! Beat it!”
The bully beat it. From that point on I lingered after school every day for a little while, waiting for Nick’s class to get out so we could walk home together.
When does a person’s life begin to separate itself from other lives? There are a few years there, after the womb, after the cutting of the umbilical cord, of glowing unconscious preverbal attachment to others, to those holding you and feeding you. Then things start getting a little more complicated.
The first lie I ever told was to Nick. One day my next-door neighbor dragged a little plastic wading pool out into the grass between our houses and I discovered that Nick had abnormal feet. His toes were all melted together. This upset and disturbed me tremendously. Another day, maybe the next day, he came over and asked if I wanted to play in the wading pool again. He was standing outside our open front door like a salesman.
“I have a TV show I have to watch,” I said. “Bye.”
I shut the door on him and went and turned on the TV. I have imposed onto this memory that I then watched Lost in Space, a show I watched a lot in that house in New Jersey, but I’m not sure if that’s what was on. It didn’t matter what was on. Nick never asked me to play in the wading pool again.
Lost in Space was my first favorite show. In it a standard clean-cut Eisenhower era television family augmented by a perpetually angry young hothead, a safety-conscious robot, and an aging flamboyant narcissist drifts through the universe, unable to get back to the world they know. At that time, my own family was in an early 1970s experimental open marriage phase that must have made the unusually configured clan of Lost in Space seem comfortingly familiar. My mother and her boyfriend shared a room, and my dad had a room of his own. My brother and I watched a lot of TV.
There was this recurring character on one of the shows we watched, Sesame Street, a big droopy pachyderm-like creature named Snuffleupagus, whom only Big Bird could see. I remember him as always being a little depressed that the adults didn’t believe he existed. After every appearance he’d galumph off just before an adult happened by, and Big Bird’s claims that they’d just missed Snuffleupagus would be met with skepticism. Of course, besides Big Bird, all the children watching at home could also see Snuffleupagus.
“You don’t understand!” we would say.
I guess the idea was that one of the beauties of childhood, and one of its hardships, was that as you grow up and out of the crawling and sucking stage you start seeing and living a different life than the lives of your guardians. You start separating, becoming an individual. The adults can’t see what you’re seeing.
Sesame Street still features Snuffleupagus, but in the mid-1980s they got rid of what had been the key element of his story. Someone at the show noticed that having adults disbelieve stories of what happened in their absence came dangerously close to the historical tendency of adults—of society in general—to disbelieve children’s claims of molestation. So I can see the reason behind revising the Snuffleupagus story, but I’m also glad I got to see it in its original form. It makes me better able to understand why I have put so much undue importance on a baseball player who was not anywhere near my favorite player and never played for my favorite team.
There are plenty of differences between Snuffleupagus and Johnny Wockenfuss, of course. For one thing, I don’t think Snuffleupagus could rake left-handed pitching like Johnny Wockenfuss could. For another, I’m sure if I’d told my mom or dad or stepfather about Johnny Wockenfuss, they would have believed that someone called Johnny Wockenfuss existed. But as they then turned back toward whatever they’d been doing before being interrupted, I would feel that the most important thing about Johnny Wockenfuss had been ignored, had been lost somewhere between my young tongue and the adults’ ears.
“You don’t understand!” I would say.
And how could they? It’s thirty years later and I still can’t explain it myself. All my Cardboard Gods matter to me, but there’s a little extra magic about Johnny Wockenfuss, and I’m not sure why.
When I first found this card in a pack I’m sure I felt compelled to say the words aloud. Johnny Wockenfuss. The sound was mine alone, a droopy galumphing imaginary companion. Every once in a while I still say Johnny Wockenfuss aloud. It’s a habit that may bloom into full flower someday, as I lie bald and decrepit in a stiff metal-railed bed in an underfunded institution.
“He keeps saying Johnny Wockenfuss,” one staff member will say. “Who the hell’s Johnny Wockenfuss?”
“Nobody,” another staff member will reply. By then my tongue won’t be able to form any other words. So only groans will come out when I try to protest.
“You don’t understand!” I’ll try to say.