Our would-be stepfather needed a new spread for the family when his house started to fall down. Literally. It was built on an unstable hillside in a subdivision of custom homes where dozens of other would-be masters of the universe also built their starter kingdoms without knowing a huge fault went right through the neighborhood.
Mom had been learning the ins and outs of real estate law as part of helping Doctor Demented build his new practice, so she used this new knowledge to get him out of the contract on the unlivable house and helped secure the loan for a new one with money left over from building the dental office. She then found a new house at a fire sale price by way of a contractor who was hard up for cash and selling his huge corner lot in a nearby subdivision of custom homes. Next thing I knew, we were living in an enclave of upwardly-mobile, upper middleclass nuclear families basking in the heady glow of the American dream.
It was an oddly-modest, split-level home with commanding views of our neighbors from the wraparound deck and a huge yard keeping them at arm’s length. The only part of the house near the street was an asphalt driveway leading to two garage doors with curtained bedroom windows overhead. An almost invisible walkway disappeared around the corner to the right of the garage and led to the front door. First floor windows were all above head height and the yard sloped away in terraced grassy folds to the street below, so the house felt isolated even in the midst of a fairly dense neighborhood.
My best friend’s place was now an easy walk through swanky houses on monster wooded lots and a giant gravel pit with discarded cars rusting into art. Depending on the time of year, boys and girls from the surrounding hills would gather at the pit to have snowball fights on snowmobiles well into the endless night after school or race bicycles along well-worn trails brightened by a summer sun that was up well past bedtime. During winter months, we would meet on schoolyard hockey rinks and slap frozen pucks at each other with more enthusiasm than skill. Summers brought day-long bike rides down the hill to the Diamond Mall where I practiced shoplifting the latest toys Doctor Demented already kept in steady supply to maintain appearances.
This hyperactivity happened outside the purview of adult supervision for the most part, though we stayed amazingly intact given our pre-pubescent predilection for improvised sport. The BB gun fights standout as being particularly hazardous even with gloves, ski goggles and winter jackets. Any excuse to build a tree fort from scavenged wood and plan elaborate campaigns to capture your competitor’s flag while liberally peppering the enemy with small copper ball bearings under no more than ten pumps of power. We also jumped our BMX bikes off of plywood ramps balanced in all sorts of precarious ways and helmets were for sissies or pre-existing injuries.
Back at Casa de Dentistry, things went from strict to stricter and straight to schizoid ten seconds after mom said “I do…” in a small ceremony in the living room of our new house. There must have been a reception as well, but I don’t remember the blessed event in the slightest.
The first hint there was a new sheriff in town came when dad abdicated his parental rights in favor of Doctor Demented’s desire to adopt us as his own. Now in legal possession of both wife and kids, the freak flag was free to fly. Impossibly high standards of surgical cleanliness and pharmaceutical-fueled parties met in contradictory patinas of Pine Sol and sweat. The steady barrage of precise beatings left their mark in places most people never saw. I learned how to take a punch and fake a fall simultaneously, so it wasn’t a total waste of time. This skill was especially handy facing down bullies as a teen since I lack the ability to simply shut up when my mouth was usually the problem at hand.
I’m first to admit I was (and remain to this day) an out-of-control soul hell bent on wringing every last drop out of every last moment. I kicked-ass on all the standardized tests while simultaneously inspiring teachers to design ways to murder a child in their care without getting caught. I would have been drugged to the gills in today’s environment, but in 1977 there was no easy way out for parents except through their own exotic mix of medicinal cocktails and alcohol. I think it was a better process, drugging the parents and not the kids, but it did carry with it an increased level of attention needed to keep high-strung youngsters from spinning out of control.
To make up for a lack of parental finesse, Doctor Demented favored Tougher Love over its mouthier cousin. This style of parenting started with the rod then moved to the belt, the wooden cutting board and the occasional hurling into a closet door for delivering a bad report card requiring a signature. A door that would never be fixed on a closet that would never be used again. I had a second closet that mirrored the first with a dresser in between them, so I was luckier than most kids in my position could claim.