Episode 11: Shore Leave – Nerdy Spring Breakout
“There’s a call to adventure. It’s something in the inner psyche of humanity…”
Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons
I’m slowly crawling down a dark hallway, flat against the pristine beige carpet while attempting to move silently and hide in the shadows. I hold my breath as I slide towards the door of the master bedroom that rests slightly ajar, like two perfectly poised lips, open and waiting to either kiss you or scream in terror. The bedroom light peeks out through the crack, creeping across the hallway and reflecting twenty years of family photos that line the passage. I imagine the stoic judgment of these frozen witnesses watching a costumed stranger attempt to escape their otherwise ideal home. Two generations perfectly coiffed and documented, proving that within this suburban ranch house resides another upstanding Texas family. As I glide past the off-white bedroom door, I sense movement within, but I’m too afraid to sneak a glance where I might glimpse a strange woman in her early 40s, so similar to my mom as she goes through her nightly ritual applying mysterious lotions and creams before settling down to sleep. I am worried that if I see her, she will sense my glance and look around alarmed.
I remind myself that this suburban Texas ranch house has the customary central air-conditioning blasting throughout, creating both a low ambient roar to help muffle the sounds of my escape, as well as maintaining an artificially stable environment. Like my parent’s giant refrigerator, it is as if everything in the house is organic and fragile, waiting to crumble and rot from the slightest change. If sweating were an Olympic event, I’d easily win the gold medal, so I’m also grateful I won’t nervously drip my makeup off along this journey. I try to resign myself that if I’m caught and arrested, or more likely shot on sight, at least I’ll die looking good. My friend Mike is also there, beside me in the cool darkness as we attempt our great escape. We successfully make our way past the bedroom and continue towards our next challenge: the dark living room, lit up with the bouncing light of a TV being watched from the comfortably clueless, plump suburban dad. How did two nerds looking for spring break excitement end up in this predicament?
Spring Break holds a special place in the hearts of nerds. The iconic Star Trek episode “Shore Leave” is essentially a science fiction Spring Break story. The premise is that the crew needs a break, so they beam down to a paradise planet for some rest and relaxation. Typically, nothing goes as planned when an actual threat appears. Through regular repeats on our two Houston UHF channels, 39 and 26, I had watched this episode enough to grow up craving that same sense of R&R, along with its promise of hedonistic adventure.
Normal teens in the early ’80s were bombarded with Spring Break films featuring standard hijinks where a group of young men cut loose with loads of drinking, debauchery and romance with the opposite sex. These films were added to the lexicon of our lives, and these events were seen as a rite of passage before the inevitable responsibilities of adulthood. In contrast to the formulaic aspects of the films, Spring Break for nerds seldom worked out that way.
Before I was old enough to drive I had occasionally tagged along with my sweet older sister, Michaelle and her friends as they made the one-hour drive down to Galveston Beach to join the massive tailgate parties. Those were the unrestricted days when cars could still drive out on the sand, the legal drinking age in Texas was 18, and Rock and Roll filled the airwaves. Hundreds of fit, tan and socially adept teenagers would line up their cars in the sand, smoking weed and sharing ice-cold beer in Styrofoam coozies, while they flirted and blasted the soundtrack of their lives: Van Halen, Rush, Journey, REO Speedwagon, J. Geils Band, and Foreigner, all competing for air space from exhausted car stereos.
For me, these trips were both terrifying and fascinating. By eavesdropping along the journey, I received an education about the desires and trials of teenage girls. These were invaluable lessons, although I was too shy to fully comprehend or incorporate them into my own limited perspective. Those were the days when I would inevitably carry a book everywhere, often re-reading the Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook in the back seat and silently struggling to balance my dice I was rolling across the book cover as the car propelled down the 45 freewayAt the beach I would struggle to avoid staring at the oiled, bikini-clad bodies of the girls basking on garishly colored beach towels in the sun. I was terrified that I would not be able to hide my nearly omnipresent teenage erection before I could run waist deep into the salt water and stand, distracting myself by thinking about the vastness of the Gulf of Mexico while watching the oil rigs on the horizon and waiting for my arousal to subside. This hormonal “game” of hide-and-seek dominated my life in those early teenage years, always hoping to avoid being obviously turned on, yet nearly anything involving girls or thoughts of girls would trigger it.
Along the sweltering beach, I would eventually gather enough courage to walk around, hoping that my bright red Birdwell’s Beach Britches would make me at least appear “cool,” and that some lanky, beautiful teenage girl would find me irresistibly cute and interesting enough to introduce herself.Ideally my time on the beach would resemble a languid scene from The Man Who Fell to Earth, with the androgynous and graceful coked-out alien portrayed so beautifully by David Bowie.Instead, I felt like a pathetically skinny, self-consciously pale and horrifying version of Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera, unmasked and no longer able to hide behind my façade in the darkness as I was exposed to the bright sun and clumsily staggered around on the hot sand.
A few years later during senior year, my friends Steve, Mike, and I decided that we should experience our nerdy version of this rite of passage as well. Of course, like most nerds then, we didn’t actually see ourselves as truly nerdy. It was only later that we realized just how truly nerdy we were. Spring Break seemed fairly easy since Corpus Christi was less than four hours away and my family had the pop-up camper that my dad and I had also used for hunting. (link) Steve researched where to go and made our reservations at an inexpensive beach camp ground just outside of Corpus. This was going to be Ground Zero for the end of high school. Finally, a real life Dungeons & Dragons wilderness adventure, where we would encounter “wandering monsters” and discover treasure along the way.
In 1519, the Spanish explorer and cartographer Alonso Álvarez de Pineda named Corpus Christi bay as he attempted to map the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico. He chose the name because he discovered it on the Day of the Corpus Christi, Latin for Body of Christ, celebrating the Christian belief in the body and blood of Christ as a real presence in the Eucharist (thanks, Wikipedia!). De Pineda couldn’t have anticipated that nearly 500 years later it would be a destination for thousands of teens to create their own sacred mating rituals as they migrated to the pristine white beaches, worshipping toned bodies and exchanging body fluids in this summer breeding ground.To prepare for the trip, I went to Texas Tapes and Records, our local head shop/record store, and bought the Survival Sampler, a cassette compilation brilliantly packaged in a can. It was an ironic embrace of the omni-present Cold War by marketing the music as essential rations for our post-apocalyptic future.
However, like misleading comic book covers that show an event that never occurs inside, none of the songs actually fit that theme. Instead it was just a brilliant marketing ploy by Warner Brothers records to throw together some new singles by a few of their British and Australian New Wave bands. I also brought along cassettes by Bauhaus, as well as the first album by The Smiths. This provided a brilliant soundtrack for the drive, although unlike the rock I knew from the beach trips with my sister, it certainly didn’t wet any appetite for unbridled hedonism.
Everything began smoothly with us driving down, finding our campsite and getting the camper set up with running water and electricity. We had borrowed my dad’s Blazer to drive there, so after getting settled, we headed to a local grocery store for snacks and beverages. In spite of our goal to “go wild” during the vacation, in true nerd fashion none of us actually drank. We had fake IDs, which we used to get into clubs, but we didn’t even drink when we went out. The grocery store trip provided nothing more than the opportunity to get hopped up on caffeine and sugar.
For me, part of it was a result of my uptight Baptist upbringing mixed with my fear of losing control. I also had an underlying fear of the unknown, instilled by my conservative family. I saw teens around me drinking, smoking weed and experimenting with hallucinogens, but I felt that if I would truly be able to escape from Pasadena, Texas I had to do something different. I saw these things as only offering a mental escape, a potential trap for complacency. Twenty years later the death of my friend David Gregg only reaffirmed those teenage decisions.
After a quick dinner, we prepared to go out. The camp had public showers, which left us wary of possible confrontation while spending the necessary time to achieve the right appearance. Our strategy was that Mike and I would take showers and shave, then at the last minute apply makeup and finalize hair (lots of Aqua Net Extra Super Hold) while Steve kept guard at the door.
This was a vulnerable moment where the risk of a stranger walking in and being shocked while you’re applying makeup in public might result in a confrontation that we wouldn’t be able to talk our way out of.
Characteristic for the time, we first headed to the local mall, but aside from buying a new Bronski Beat single and a Duran Duran postcard at the record store, it was a dead end. After aimlessly drifting through the sultry town and listening to the melancholy sounds of the Smiths, we discovered a large, mostly secluded park buried in a suburban neighborhood. As we drove up we noticed a group of four teenage girls silently watching as they languished on the swings, barely moving in the heat. The three of us clambered out of the Blazer, headed toward the benches in the general direction of the girls, casually acknowledging them with our eyes as we made dumb jokes and laughed with each other. As I’ve noted before our unusual appearance often brought us attention, both good and bad. Before long, someone said something and we were all laughing and acting like long-time friends. One girl, Tracy, seemed to be the ringleader, and she asked what we were doing later that night. Before they piled into their car we exchanged phone numbers and agreed to meet at a club around 10:30. The adventure had begun!
After eating a tough $5 steakhouse dinner, we headed across town to meet the girls at the club, anxiously navigating past the bouncer with our fake IDs. Inside it was small and dark, casually crowded with a bored variety of 9-to-5ers. We stood around casually dancing every so often at the mediocre hits while avoiding interacting with the other club-goers. In spite of nervously waiting for the girls to arrive, we mostly stayed near the back to avoid looking desperate. Unfortunately, they never appeared.
The next day we headed down to the beach, splashing around in the water, playing catch with a tennis ball, embarrassing ourselves at Hacky Sack, and playing Frisbee, but New Wave/Gothy kids and the sweaty beach don’t mix well. That last night we bought a newspaper and looked up local movie times, deciding to see John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, which had just been released. We called the girls to see why we’d been stood up, but only received vague replies about being grounded by their parents; cryptically not explaining any details while simultaneously promising to keep in touch. The response wasn’t surprising for us since we were the guys often picked last for the team in P.E. We were accustomed to a world of rejection when we reached too far.Later that night after returning to the camper on the beach, I lay in my bunk writing on the Duran Duran postcard to Melinda, my new friend at school. She was considered a “popular” girl, and at that time I was still torn between an attraction and repulsion to some of the popular kids. I was hoping to walk a balance that my recent Nick Rhodes look could help me achieve. I ended the postcard by asking Melinda to the prom, which I will describe in another painful chapter. Steve, Mike and I lay on our bunks in the camper during that warm but breezy Texas night and discussed the movie. As outsiders, we analyzed what it meant to be popular and if it would be worth the sacrifice to attain it; the contradiction in that the less you cared about it, the more likely it would appear. We discussed David Gregg’s newfound local celebrity status. David had recently abandoned any social concerns regarding his actions or appearance. As a result, he had become “noticed” and accepted in his own uniquely freakish but entertaining way. Growing up as nerds we were essentially invisible except to others who were also rejected. Band geeks, drama freaks, science clubbers, Whovians wearing long scarfs and fedoras, Rocky Horror fans, the kid that carries a briefcase to class–we were outcast and unpopular, visible only to one another as we shuffled through each school day. Little did I realize at the time that this was also how many of the minorities felt in our culture. This didn’t register with me because although my neighborhood was primarily white, I had close friends who were Hispanic, which I never considered. That being said, our school was for all intents closed off to African American students. I didn’t have any black friends until I ventured out of Pasadena and started going to clubs.
The next morning, Steve, Mike and I packed up our camp and headed to the local Waffle House before the drive home to Pasadena. When I walked into the house, my mom surprisingly reported that “some girl from Corpus has called a few times.”
Over the next few months, Mike and I kept in touch with the Corpus girls through regular phone calls. They insisted that we return and stay a night so that we could finally all go dancing. We also heard promises that we would be able to sleep on the sofas at someone’s house, always swearing that it wouldn’t be a problem. Just as a note, these offerings weren’t presented in a flirty manner, nor were Michael and I flirty in return. Of course there was always hope for something casually romantic, but it wasn’t the promise of sex that led us back to Corpus just after graduation and during the heat of the Texas summer. Instead, it was a hunger to find something unknown and new, unprescribed by the staid society we were born into. This hunger for adventure has guided me through most of my life, despite being raised as a fearful, over-protected child. Soon enough, Mike and I convinced ourselves that it would be worth it if we made the drive back down.
That Saturday we threw together some clothes and makeup for the night and took off. Arriving in Corpus, we pulled into a gas station to buy a Corpus map and use the payphone in the booth outside to call the girls. I still remember the bad feeling I had holding the receiver on the side of the road as I heard the vague response when I pragmatically asked where we would stay that night. We were first given one address that we dug up on our map and headed there, expecting to meet friendly parents. I’ve always gotten along well with parents and older people, so I was surprised when we were only let into the house once the parents had gone out to run a few afternoon errands. This made no sense because I was accustomed to friends and family where out of town guests could sleep on the sofa, even if they were the opposite sex. Although I was convinced that if their parents could just meet us they’d see that we were harmless, Mike and I started to realize that to the girls we represented something exotic and potentially fearful to their parents, not limited to gender or even potential sexual proclivities. Before long the girls shooed us out of that house where we were given another address and told to arrive around 8pm. Michael and I milled around town, discussing the possibility of just driving back to Pasadena, but we held out hope that one of the four girls wouldn’t be ashamed of us.
That evening as the sun set, Mike and I pulled up outside the fateful low suburban ranch home and parked on the street several houses away as we had been instructed. We both had a duffle bag with our clothes inside as we walked up to ring the doorbell. The door quickly opened and we were whisked into a small foyer by Tracy, before she glanced around outside to make sure no neighbor’s prying eyes had caught a glimpse. We were then escorted down a hall and led into her pink and white bedroom, still partially decorated with lacey remnants of the child she had once been, mixed with personal touches from her teenage years such as a few male pinups and posters featuring modern bands. When Mike and I asked about her parents she vaguely replied, “They went to dinner and will be gone for hours. Let’s just get ready to go out!”
I showered first because it took a while to dry and style my hair, but soon both Michael and I were standing in her bathroom as we customarily applied our makeup to finish.
Suddenly Tracy ran into her bathroom yelling, “Shit, my parents are back too soon! We’ve gotta get out… dammit it’s too late. Hide on the other side of my bed!”
I thoughtfully blurted out, “Why don’t we just pop the screen and climb out the window?” although I felt a chill as I grabbed the pink curtains and flung them to the side to reveal locked bars installed along the window.
Tracy replied, “My parents put these in my room after they caught me sneaking out,” revealing the repercussions Mike and I could face if we were caught.
Tracy yelled, “Hurry you only have about a minute to hide!” as we grabbed our things, stuffing them into our duffle bags. We quickly hid on the floor behind the bed, while Tracy frantically wedged our bags into her closet. Suddenly I heard a door open in depths of the house.
Tracy whispered, “Stay here and keep quiet! I’ll talk to them and come get you once it’s safe!” She turned out the light and walked down the darkened hall blurting out, “Hi guys! How was dinner?”
Through our fear with hearts pounding, Michael and I looked at each other and laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation as we lay on the carpet in the dark looking like rejects from a Duran Duran meets A Flock of Seagulls video.
Remaining still, we could hear movement around the house mixed with occasional voices that we hoped wouldn’t grow closer. After a while, Tracy returned and whispered, “Okay, my mom is getting ready for bed. My dad is watching TV in the den. The only way I can get you out is if you sneak down the hall past my parent’s room, then through the den and slide open the patio door to crawl through the curtains without rustling them too much, which would get Dad’s attention.” I frantically whispered, “We have to actually sneak through the den and open the patio door with your dad in there?!”
With an air of confidence, Tracy casually replied, “It’s not a problem. I’ll just distract him.”
Suddenly I was thrown into one of our Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, becoming the Elven thief Greyhound, while Mike was the fighter Gregor, characters we had played for years with David Gregg guiding us along as the Dungeon Master. This sprite Tracy, who had lured us into the dungeon and hoped we could help her escape, slowly guided us into the dark hallway and pointed towards the den where I could see the bouncing glow of a great fireplace illuminating the stone walls. Gregor and I knew that a troll king sat in that room, focused on the entertainment of his magical, mechanical box while we had to silently sneak past.
The sprite quickly whispered, “Wait until the right moment and then go!” before disappearing into the den, leaving us flat and silent on the cold, damp floor of the dungeon passage. With no other options, we slowly began to crawl, making our initial dice rolls to “move silently” and “hide in shadows.” Before long we reached the doorway to the chambers where the troll queen was preparing for her night’s rest. The great oaken door was only half shut and I caught glimpses of the queen moving around the well-lit room, wearing her sordid semblance of a nightgown as I held my breath and ever so slowly crawled past. The Dungeon Master suddenly rolled his dice to see if the queen noticed anything unusual, but thus far the dice favored Gregor and I.
As we moved towards the flickering light of the den, I was struck with the realization that the troll queen might suddenly leave her chambers, searching for a late-night snack of raw meat before retiring for the night. This would be the worst-case scenario, stumbling across us in the dark in our strange evening clothes. She would quickly cry out, sounding the alarm that would bring the troll king running with weapon in hand, determined to swiftly kill any intruder. This realization only strengthened our stealthy resolve to move quickly along the dank passage.
Past the queen’s chambers, we stealthily moved outside the door of the great den itself. I could hear the mechanical voice of the automaton as it recited a bawdy poem the king often requested, accompanied by the well-oiled clicks and whirls of this remarkable gadget. I could also hear the voice of Tracy the sprite, brattily demanding a few copper pieces so that she could enjoy the cool air and games with her friends that night in the village square, located just outside the dungeon.
As I peeked around the frame of the great door to the den, my heart fell when I saw that the king’s throne resided directly next to the secret escape passage/patio door that the sprite had guided us to use. Our only path to that door took us across the den, easily in the peripheral vision of the king, although his troll senses were even more keen in the dark of night. All we could hope for was the distraction provided by the sprite and the entertaining mechanics of the automaton.
Tracy indifferently met my gaze as I slowly crept into the room. The Dungeon Master once again rolled the dice to see if we would successfully move silently and stay hidden in the shadows. My heart raced as I heard the dice drop on the table, hidden behind his screen so that we would only know the outcome of our slim odds of success by what the king did in response. I kept my eyes focused on the side of the king himself as I ever so silently crawled across the floor of his den while Gregor stayed back at the entrance.
Meanwhile Tracy was jumping around, enthusiastically fluttering her delicate arms as she attempted to charm the king with her story. I realized through the ease of her performance that that we certainly weren’t the first adventurers she had smuggled out of her chambers.
For the remaining five feet of my journey I held my breath and slowly slid my body along the floor, glad that it was covered in heavy fur to help stifle the sounds of my movement. Suddenly, I was safely behind the throne where I felt around through the curtain for the door to the secret passage, and slid it open just wide enough to safely crawl through, glancing back at Gregor as he began the same treacherous journey.
Once outside, I crouched down beside the patio door, anxiously listening if Mike/Gregor would be caught, while cringing at the thought of rushing back in to help one of my best friends get safely out. Before long, I saw the curtains shift as Mike crawled out with a look of relief and a ridiculous grin. We quickly walked back to my car where we laughed and waited for Sherrie to meet us.
That night we drove and picked up the two other girlfriends before going to a club they had suggested. We danced together, laughing and acting silly, although I felt little chemistry aside from being simply friends. The music was good, but all I remember dancing to was the rhythmic propulsion of “Trommeltanz (Din Daa Daa)” by George Kranz. The song played as we all danced under the flashing colored lights that strobed in time to the beat.
Later, as we drove them each home, Mike and I tried to persuade them to meet us for breakfast the next morning, but Tracy only agreed to see us briefly at the gas station in order to return our things.
Neither of us had enough money for a hotel, so I parked the car on a quiet street buried deep in the suburban neighborhood near the park where we had originally met the girls. We sat in the reclined bucket seats, soaked in sweat and unable to sleep in the oppressively humid night air. We returned to the gas station the next morning and took turns using the filthy restroom. I applied toothpaste to my finger and rubbed it across my teeth in a vain attempt at brushing. I remember looking in the scratched mirror as I removed my stiff contact lenses; an exhausted reflection staring back as I used the pink soap granules and rough paper towels in a vain attempt to remove my smeared eyeliner.
Tracy eventually arrived with our duffle bags and we exchanged quick hugs before Michael and I set off on our exhausted journey home. We kept in touch for a few more months before life took over and our friendship faded.
Four years later, I was an art student at The University of Houston. One day, I had just parked my car when I heard a woman’s voice yell, “Jeff!”
Struggling to get out of her car on the next aisle was Tracy, visibly pregnant.
I walked over and said, “Wow! Congratulations! You look great!”
She replied, “Thanks! Maybe you know my boyfriend? He is also from Pasadena. His name is Derek Smithson.”
I just laughed and said, “Yeah, he was on my Little League team when I was in 4th grade.” I avoided mentioning that he had been a nightmarish jerk, always trying to start fights. Maybe he had changed.
Tracy and I exchanged an awkward hug, swapped phone numbers and swore to keep in touch. We never saw each other again.
Ten years later, I was living in New York and visiting my family in Pasadena. As was customary, I met up with David Gregg, who was struggling with health issues that had forced him back into his parent’s home, returning to the misery and oppressive reminders of his childhood bedroom. That night we decided to drive into Houston for a drink at the grungy Lola’s Bar, which David had frequented for over a decade.
Sitting at the bar, I sipped on a beer while David chatted with the other regulars as he drank his customary Crown and Coke. I eventually stepped outside to get some fresh air on the patio, but as I walked through the door a belligerent man was charging inside. Although I squeezed to the side, the man who was looking for an excuse to be angry, blurted out, “What the fuck, man? Trying to start some shit? Come on! Come on!” He began to push me as I coolly tried to talk him down, but suddenly David appeared between us, shoving the guy back as he said, “Don’t fuck with my friend! This is my friend Jeff. He’s from New York. Do not fuck with him! Jeff, this is Derek.”
I finally had enough light to see the angry man, recognizing him as Derek Smithson, the same jerk I’d last seen on my Little League team and supposed father of Tracy’s child.
Derek was oddly subservient to David, as he apologized, scurrying away, “Oh man, I’m so sorry. I’m cool. Don’t worry.” David calmly stood there as I realized the authority he commanded at the bar. We sat back down as he dryly said, “That guy has some serious problems. Major crack addiction. His parents died a while back and left him over 100K, which he smoked away in less than a year. Imagine that? Fucking nuts. Always looking to start some bullshit.”
I thanked him for talking Derek down, curious how he had this information, but David remained silent, sipping his drink with a knowing smile.