A Portable Childhood

by Charles C. Cole

Bewildering Stories is a friend of the unconventional, and we like pleasant surprises. We also offer a home to speculative writing, which includes experimental forms, such as Charles C. Cole’s thematic account of his family’s moves when he was young.

You can read the account in various ways, for example:

  • As cause and effect: First, read the paragraph in the left-hand column and then the accompanying paragraph(s) in the right-hand column.

  • As parallel chronicles: Read the first column from top to bottom and then the second column likewise.

However you choose to read the account, one thing will become clear: parallel universes are real. Parents live in one and their children, in another. The universes may coexist simultaneously and be intimately related in terms of cause and effect, but they are not the same.

While I was in my teens, my father moved us three times, each town at least an 8-hour drive from the last. I’m not blaming anyone; circumstances directed us. This is the reason, I always insisted, I’ve had so few “old” friends as an adult — because I kept leaving them behind or because I expected to move yet again, just as I was getting close.
My dad announced we were moving to Montana for a career opportunity, beginning my transient childhood toward the end of fourth grade. Ironically, as things happened, we didn’t move — after I had told all my friends. I was excited, eager for adventure. My classmates said their good-byes and all my relationships pretty much ended as we prepared to go our separate ways. I felt estranged and friendless for a few years afterward; you see, my young friends had moved on emotionally.
At the start of eighth grade, during a particularly bumpy period in my father’s career, my dad announced we were moving to Pennsylvania for a regional executive position. I told my classmates and more than one said, “Weren’t you supposed to move to Montana a few years ago?”
We uprooted from suburban New Jersey (a commuter train ride to New York City) to a small town southwest of Pittsburgh, where the cattle grazed on the hill above the family-run grocery store. Bucolic. Because I wore horn-rimmed glasses, some wiseguy nicknamed me “Brainiac.” I’m fairly certain it was an intended compliment but, as if in response, the other kids kept their distance, as if they feared I could read their minds if they stood close.
We stayed less than two years, then moved again, the summer after 9th grade, this time to southern Maine. The family doctor had said the stress of my father’s job was giving Dad an ulcer and was otherwise going to kill him. Dad’s boss, with a gift for yelling at close range in tight quarters, often called him late at night, rousing the household from restful sleep. The classmates I was leaving behind said, “People from Maine don’t like outsiders. You’ll hate it there.” They didn’t know that my father was born in Maine and his family went back 13 generations. In fact, I was his only child born in New Jersey (unplanned youngest of five, last at home). My adult siblings were true “Mainiacs.” I was the only one “from away.”
Dad, with no job, just 40 acres of undeveloped family land and a youth spent helping his contractor uncle, was able to secure a loan and construct us a house — without the luxury of power tools. My parents used the unfinished dining room as their bedroom, while I slept in a four-foot high attic space on a loose sheet of plywood with a bare mattress. That first summer was slow-going. I held boards in place while he hand-sawed them. I mixed cement with water from a nearby spring and sand taken from an old quarry in the woods, to hold the basement cinderblocks and the stone chimney together. To be honest, the “bathroom” was a “pickle bucket” in a corner of the basement. Home.
I remember, towards the end of summer, when Mom dropped off my school transfer papers, taking me along to start introductions. “No moping at home. Get involved,” she said. “Pick a club or sport before we leave the parking lot.” I chose running cross-country because it had minimal rules, a smaller team, no physical contact, lots of personal space, and it was easy to practice from the convenience of my isolated neighborhood.

In English class, I overheard a classmate, John, talking about running on the cross-country team. Also, he only lived about a mile away from us, so we could run together, though I think I slowed him down.

John was a little older and driving. He took me bowling once, mostly to use me as a sounding board about the stresses of being in a serious relationship with a girl. He was also from away, having moved from St. Louis in third grade, when his parents divorced. I think he saw a kindred spirit.
My folks had been checking out potential new digs with me in tow but requested I keep mum until everything fell into place. They managed to get me home just in time for an after-school race. John finished first, as expected, while I was third for our team, ahead of the other team’s third place runner, winning us the race. I waited until the following Monday, barely holding onto my secret, to confide we were moving. John was shocked. “What about the team?” he asked.
Dad continued to work on the house while I was at school. He hired a plumber and an electrician, but he fully expected me to continue helping him (hanging wallboard, spackling, painting) after finishing my homework.

Things went along swimmingly until Dad announced we were moving back to New Jersey for a newly available position, ironically one town over from the one I’d left. To be candid, Dad had been blacklisted briefly for publicly complaining about his boss, until others stepped forward.

At my next school, I got involved, initially campaigning for president, though the rules required one to have already served on the student council for a year, not easy with my background. I settled for vice-president. Not even my manager voted for me. Thankfully, the Literary Club was more accepting.
My parents supported an arrangement where I stayed with my married brother, who lived in the same town as John. Then, unexpectedly, Mom required surgery. Being a “momma’s boy,” I knew my place was with my parents, moving yet again.

Copyright © 2014 by Charles C. Cole

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