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On Turning 21: Goop, Gum, Geysers and Little Men

by on June 03, 2015 6:30 AM

My baby boy turned 21 last week, so naturally I thought back to my own attainment of the age at which one can legally consume alcohol.

I built tennis courts in Denver that summer. Here is how humiliating the experience was:

The first time someone tossed me the keys to the stake-bed truck, I had to confess I had never driven a stick before.

The first time I had to move a wheelbarrow full of liquid tennis court, I should have confessed that I had never driven a wheelbarrow before. Instead of pushing it ahead of me, I pulled it behind me – with disastrous results. I'm surprised I wasn't fired on the spot.

As the lone New Yorker in a crew of Coloradans, I did not cover my place of origin in glory. The only time I gained any prestige was when I told the guys about the coed dorm I lived in during freshman year.

This was beyond their wildest imaginings. I should have let them picture their clumsy colleague cavorting his way through a yearlong orgy, but I couldn't resist exposing their unworldliness.

"You guys have sisters?" I asked.

They did.

"That's what it was like," I said.


I didn't know a soul in Denver, but I was too tired at the end of the workday to do anything other than scrape tennis court goop off my body. After an hour or so I would have transferred the dark, oily speckles from my skin to my pink porcelain bathtub, which did not endear me to the silver-haired lady who had made the mistake of renting me the room over her garage.

On the weekends I would thumb a ride into the mountains and hope to find a female hiking partner. Needless to say, I never did.

Once, though, I met a guy who needed a climbing partner. This was another thing I had never done before. He said he'd teach me. So up we went, with ropes and harnesses and carabiners and such.

At one point, I could not find the next handhold or foothold and worriedly told my mentor that my strength was ebbing.

"Let go," he said.

"Let go?" I asked.

"Let go. I gotcha."

I let go. And dangled like a spider until I was ready to resume groping the rock face. Thus rested, I found a miniscule outcropping to grab onto and continued triumphantly up the boulder to the top.


Meanwhile, I didn't get any better at building tennis courts. When my buddy Michael and his brother Ron rolled into town late in the summer in a cab-colored Pinto, I gleefully quit my job to join them for a few weeks of camping.

In Rocky Mountain National Park, a ranger warned us of an impending lightning storm. We would know we were in danger of being struck if our hair stood on end. Michael, whose hair permanently stood on end, spent a sleepless night convinced he was about to be zapped.

In Grand Teton National Park, Michael was inspired to stick a wad of ABC gum in my mutton-chop sideburn. When I was unable to extract it, he pulled over to help. My reflexive reaction to the sharp pain of his slight tug on my facial hair was to punch him in the stomach as a hard as I could.

He staggered back, eyes wide.

"That really hurt," he said.

"I know," I said. "I meant it to."

It was the hardest I had ever punched anyone. Then it was the hardest I had ever laughed. Michael, too.

In Yellowstone National Park, we hiked in the rain to the Lone Star Geyser. Just as the geyser began to spew, the sky cleared, the moon rose on one side of the cone, the sun sank on the other side of the cone and a rainbow arched between the two. On the hike out, we saw a herd of elk.

Finally, we were back in Colorado. It was our last night in the west and the first night I was legal. We hit the bars in Boulder and when we set out in the morning, I was dead to the world.

I slept through eastern Colorado and on into Kansas, and woke with a start when the car lurched to a stop. When I opened my eyes I saw that the Pinto was in the median strip, facing the wrong way, and that Michael's eyes were as wide as they were when I punched him in the stomach.

"There are these little men," he said.

"I think I'm ready to drive," I said.

A few minutes later I saw the little men. They were roadrunners.

A day or two after that, my parents frog-marched me into a shop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where a little man tried to sell me a "tvid" (tweed) or a "hengbun" (herringbone) suit to wear to my cousin's wedding.

I was so deeply culture shocked that my hair stood on end.


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A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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