“Life is a highway / I want to ride it / all night long…” – Tom Cochrane
One of my most enduring memories was coming across a top-flight sports-car upside down in a ditch on a highway in the middle of nowhere (which on that occasion was the middle of North Island, New Zealand). It was the 1970s, so no mobile phones. We stopped to investigate, fearing the worst. It was inverted, but intact. nothing for it: I scrambled into the ditch and finally worming my head in to check for trapped people.
Another car had stopped soon after us and they hurried to the scene of the crash too. Suddenly a powerful torch stabbed at me from the other side and a panic-stricken voice shouted, “Oh my God there’s someone in there!” but there wasn’t (except for my head). The driver had already pissed off, without even leaving a helpful note. We soon did the same thing. I imagine that same scene repeated itself all night long.
As to the highway of my life: I’ve been down many highways, literally and figuratively; and had some quite splendid adventures. I’ve been nearly-famous. I’ve performed in front of literally thousands of people on a few occasions, & cumulatively to 50,000+. I’ve sat in a room waiting to be announced author of NZ’s Children’s Book of the Year. (As earlier emphasised – the word ‘nearly’ figures in this.) I’ve been a ‘key-note’ speaker, and so on.
And every time – like coming off a rollercoaster, I was all: “WOO! Let’s do it again!” Every time. (Well: every time I proved good at something. Which was often enough.)
But on my highway, I always ended up in the ditch and walked away from each crashed car. Oh they ran well until then, proper little sports cars some of them. (I won’t bore you with the entire list. Let’s just say that in most instances it involved being on stage in some capacity. Public speaking. Workshop presenter. Storyteller. Stripper. That sort of thing.)
I have a friend. He’s a psychologist. After one of our men’s groups he asked me, “So how come you’re not successful?” Upon reflection it was not a casual question, nor was it asked (as I took it) in a perplexed/empathetic kind of way. I had no answer, but it sank into me anyway, like a depth charge. It’s still there.
What has been flinging me aside? I kept putting it down to circumstances; Bad Luck; Market Forces; it is just ‘how I rolled’ (<cough> into the ditch, every time). As some people like to put it – I blamed things. Other things. I have sat with professional psychologists, psychiatrists and counselors, and every time I tried to tell them “I have a fear of success” absolutely none of them took it up. FAIL!
But I was right: If I ever succeeded, especially Something In My Fathers’ World (sports, career, normalcy, holding down a government job for 38 years), it would break the programming my parents injected, and make him out to be a liar. (I mentioned his sideline barracking in the previous post, but to summarise: his final remark about me – uttered two months before he died – was, “So how’s that no-hoper getting on?”)
The only way I could completely fulfill his expectations was to keep on failing. I had been the mysterious force flinging myself off the highway. I was doing it via various strategies – usually by leveraging my circumstances at the time. After every success, as I walked away thinking, “Ooo! Nailed it! I have got to do more of this!” I was already plotting out exactly how I was going to fail to do any more. Unconsciously.
Really, there is no better explanation. Not a blinding flash; this hasn’t required expensive cathartic therapy; It has just been the sound of a penny dropping from the top of the world’s tallest building for 60 years. You have no idea how important this is to me.
NOW I PROMISED YOU AN ASTOUNDING STORY, all hinging of the word ‘Flung’.
As a boy I followed my big brother around. Gordon was 2 years my senior, and more physical than me, more social, and more in touch with reality. Thus he was my guide (to trouble) and saviour (when he wasn’t thumping me). He was also part of a gang that went around together. It’s what boys do, worldwide. Membership was fluid. I barely knew any of them; can’t remember a single name now. The Big Boys Gang.
The thing about these groups is, they’re very local. Other gangs, just a few street over, had their patch too. Strangers all. And thus, of course, they were Our Enemy. My gang said things about them, how they were all stupid, or all violent … Basically, they were Other. (And our gang was, in their eyes I’m sure, equally ‘Other’.) Fights sometimes happened. So we stayed away from their territory, and they from ours.
Come winter and we’d inevitably get snow, and since we were literally on the edge of town, adventure was to be had going upwards past the farmland, into the bush, and if conditions allowed, we could get to the very top of our local mountain; Mt Flagstaff; 2,000ft high.
“Let’s go see how deep the snow is!” “Huzzah!” “(etc.)” Off we went, with Gordon’s Little Brother tagging along. We hurried up the road and within an hour were well into the native bush on a track overgrown with scrawny trees. Everything was dredged in thick powdery snow. Then we noticed we were being followed. It was another gang, the one from the next suburb over: Halfway Bush – a rough tough state housing area. Trouble coming!
My gang sped up. Faster, faster they went, and I began to fall behind, panicking, gasping, struggling along in my gumboots on the deep snow and mud, too blown to as much as shout “Hey, wait up!” Well, I did, but it seemed the snow absorbed all sound. Panic shrivelled my voice, and I had every reason to panic. Pounding up behind me, just paces away, was an alien gang of towering 8 & 9-year-olds. Then they caught me.
Ever seen those nature programs when the cheetah catches its prey? How the poor beast, knowing it is doomed, instantly ceases the struggle? That was me. I went into shock, braced myself for awful things, and the humiliation began. They promised frightening things coming soon, declared me a wimp, sissy, etc (‘wimp’ and ‘loser’ were not used in 1959, but you get the idea), roughed me around, rammed snow down my collar, then flung me deep into scrubbery, laughing. What a hoot!
I tripped on a dead branch, fell painfully in a shower of snow, and listened to them laughing and jeering as they moved on. I was, understandably, rather glum. I fell at once into a severe depression, being – with all my might and skill – the miserable hapless victim … trapped … severely in need of rescue … soon … which finally did not come.
Believe me, I really radiated victimhood and neediness. I wallowed in the moment, I really worked it, but I had no audience. There was no Mother to pull me out. No feckin’ brother, either! Just silence, discomfort, some minor scratches and bruises, and my bum attitude.
I should be grateful for that moment. I finally got sick of being a pathetic wimp/sissy/loser, regained a bit of spine, struggled back to the track, saw nough of my group, and (hating them and their utter failure to protect me) I went home.
Now here’s the kicker:
40 years later I was living in Temuka (- a small country town in NZ’s South Island), and I befriended the guy at the local video-hire place. We’d talk about many things. He bought some of my books. I gave him a woodworking commission. Then one day we realised that we were both from Dunedin. In fact he was from Halfway Bush. We had lived a mile apart, but worlds apart too. Different school, slightly different ages, etc… “You know it was a funny thing; that:” I began, “We boys all had our little gangs, almost street by street, and we treated each other as strangers; enemies; but really we were all the same. Just kids. Yet there was this ritual of humiliating that we just had to dish out to each other…” And I began telling him about my lonely assault in the snow…
And he suddenly became very shifty. Very, VERY, shifty. Suddenly: no eye contact. Slowly my story dried up. Something was amiss – And we both quickly moved on, “Yeah, boys will be boys, eh?!” “Yeah, hah-hah-hah.” He did not admit it, but I knew then that he had been there that day. There was no mistaking it. Him and his gang. He remembered.
How freaking bizarre is that?!