It’s my birthday this week, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to tell you a little bit about how I got to where I am today.
I come from some seriously humble beginnings, born in the small town of Humble, Miss., which is just across the tracks from the even more nondescript town of Nondescript. The town mascot for Humble was an acorn squash. Though a regular acorn generally is associated with humility, it eventually does grow into a towering, mighty oak, and the Town Council felt that was a bit too uppity. An acorn squash, at its best, can achieve the level of casserole. That’s the kind of humbleosity we were looking to convey from our town. The neighboring town of Casserole, Miss., also had an acorn squash as their mascot, which actually seemed more fitting. Not to brag, but our costume was more realistic.
My mother worked in a factory that made factory parts. She spent her work day hunched over a conveyor belt while conveyor-belt pieces rolled past on it. Her job was to gently loosen the bolts that the person just up the line from her had overtightened. The person in line after her would take the bolts out altogether. She was from a poor family and never had more than a kindergarten education, which lasted for 16 years. But she was smart and determined, and later she got her preschool GED.
My father was from a relatively well-to-do landowning family, but was disowned early on for his refusal to weed-whack. He went on to become self-employed. Later he fired himself, sued for unlawful dismissal, and landed a tidy settlement. Acting as his own investment broker, he accidentally embezzled his settlement from himself and eventually lost everything. In court he claimed that his embezzlement was accidental and was due to his having a condition known as reverse dyslexia, a very rare disease that affects only about none out of every 10,000 people. The judge took pity and declared him reverse not guilty.
The story goes that my parents met at a Veterans of Foreign War dance. Neither of them were veterans of a foreign war, but they each misinterpreted “VFW” in their own way. My father thought he was going to a Very Fine Winnebago trade show, whereas my mother was packed, and dressed, for a Voracious Frankenstein Watchers convention. They married almost immediately, holding the reception at the Masonic Temple. Neither of them were Masons, they just both really liked canning.
My birth was, I’ve heard, a graceful one, but there were minor complications afterwards — namely that the hospital staff became somewhat irritated when my parents left without taking me with them. They later claimed that they just forgot, like when you go to the grocery store and buy your bag of groceries, pay for it, chat with the checker, get your receipt and say a grand goodbye and just walk right out of the store without your bag of groceries. It happens. I’ve seen it. Well this is what my parents said happened, that their enthusiasm at having a new child initially wasn’t enough to overcome the habit of not having to carry a child with them when they left a room. That’s what it said in the police report, anyway. I never asked them why the cops had to shoot out their tires to make them stop. I guess parenthood is pretty exciting, and they couldn’t wait to get home and get started.
My childhood was normal enough, I suppose. We ate a lot of yogurt growing up, nothing unusual about that. When times were tough we ate what I was assured was yogurt. When things were really tough we had powdered yogurt. And when they got even tougher than that, we just had powder. My parents, due to their Spartan, bootstrap-pulling upbringings, insisted that I learn to make my own toys. I made my first stuffed animal at age 4, and I slept with it every night until I was 13. I still have it to this very day, and it has held up really well. It’s amazing how things will last if you weld them properly to begin with.
My teenage years, not unlike most people’s teenage years, were a blur of popularity, confidence, clarity, self-discipline and over achievement. In my 20s I began trading in the soup stock market and set myself up for life, so my 30s and 40s have pretty much been a carefree, uninterrupted stream of jet-setting, philanthropy, snorkeling and wine tasting.
So as I approach yet another birth anniversary, what advice do I have to pass on to you? Just two things, actually: 1) always tell the truth, and 2) snorkeling and wine tasting are best done as separate activities.
Barry Smith’s column appears Mondays.
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