When I started these digital postcards last year, my intention was to connect on a deeper, more personal level with all of my friends around the world, old and new. So when I was brainstorming for a topic for this month’s postcard, I realized that not all of you know where I came from.
Of course, I grew up with many of you in our humble and gritty hometown, or maybe we went to college together, or ran in the same circles in California. But for the majority of people receiving this postcard, we’ve met somewhere along the way, probably briefly. And for a large number of my friends here, we’ve never even met, as you’ve been kind enough to read one of my books or blogs and we connected that way, but never in person. A lot of you have never been to America, and haven’t heard of a little place called “Connecticut.”
So I decided to sit down to write a little bit about my family, childhood and upbringing so we can become better acquainted. I’ll share the beginning with you now, and the rest from high school, college and beyond (and trust me, it get’s entertaining!) in later postcards.
I hope you feel like you know me a little better after reading it. I also hope that you keep saying hello and sharing your life with me, too.
Thankfully, my family had nothing at all to do with the war effort. In fact, my grandfather even rescued his Jewish best friend from certain death at Auschwitz.
I don’t know much about my father’s side of the family, except that he grew up in the eastern part of Germany, which became the Communist Eastern Bloc after WWII. His family actually escaped to the West when he was just a boy, leaving everything behind, including a factory they owned. He was an engineer, artist, musicians, and pilot.
My mother and father both emigrated to the U.S. to work for Polymer, a company, in Connecticut (a small state sandwiched between New York City and Boston, for my foreign friends who aren’t familiar with it).
My mother, Angelika, was a secretary and translator who spoke three languages fluently, Moving to a far off foreign country at only 20 years old was a huge and brave accomplishment for a woman in those days.
I was born in Bridgeport, a rough city in southern Connecticut, but my family lived in nearby Monroe, a rural and quiet area not far away. My parents bought their house for $19,900 in 1968. It was a split-level ranch home with 3 acres of forest around and a series of big rocks in the front yard.
As a clumsy toddler, I’d run out the front door and trip and fall in the same place every time, busting my lip open on the same rock. (I still think that’s why I have big lips.)
But I do have a few distinct memories of those first years of my life.
The first thing I can ever really remember is sitting in a high chair in the kitchen in that house in Monroe. I was facing the kitchen window and the sunlight was streaming through. At that moment, suddenly, I was conscious of my life. The sunlight made everything glow and it was so beautiful.
My father, Ferdinand, was also a recreational pilot and owned a couple of small aircraft. While other families packed up their station wagon and went on a road trip, he’d have us pile into his Cessna and fly to a remote island on the Bahamas. I don’t remember anything about those trips – even about being there – except that I’d play with plastic toy safari animals on the back window ledge of the plane as we flew.
My mother, not even 30 years old at the time, was left alone in a foreign country far from any family. I’m sure she thought long and hard about returning to Germany. But instead, she decided to stay in the U.S. and Connecticut and restart our new life. We moved to Hamden in Connecticut, right outside of the small city of New Haven where she worked at prestigious Yale University.
I realize that most of what she did from that point on was with her young children in mind, trying to give them as good of a life as she could, and I respect the hell out of her for that. Eventually, she even put herself through nursing school, graduating magna cum laude, and went back to get her graduate degree later on.
When we first arrived in Hamden, I was enrolled at Sunshine and Lollipops Preschool, a name that permanently ruined any chance of having street cred.
The next year, I started school at Ridge Hill School, which was not far from our house. I walked to school every day. (Yup, uphill. Both ways. Even when it snowed. Which was every day.)
I went through a phase where I was pretty damn cute, complete with pimped-out little 1970s outfits. Then, I went through a phase where I wasn’t so cute. In fact, my ultra-dorky, buck-toothed “Schriever Beaver” phase lasted right up until high school. (Some would argue that it’s never ended!)
Throughout grade school, the dark cloud of the Cold War hung over all of us. We really thought that any day, the Soviet Union could push the button to launch their missiles and the world would escalate into nuclear war, causing all of our demise. It was very real to all of us, and permeated not only newspaper headlines, but also in movies, songs, video games and other popular culture.
We even had emergency drills where we had to hide under our desks in case of a nuclear war. (I don’t know how the hell being under a desk would help if someone dropped a nuke on us.)
I played football and baseball with Tyson and Greg a few streets over, or hung out and rode bikes with Bruce and Ed down the street. It seems unimaginable these days (at least in the U.S.), but our parents would send us outside to play and tell us not to come home by dinnertime. The world sure has changed.
We even had the requisite neighborhood bully, Fat Pete, who tormented me. Hell, I don’t blame him, as I was an easy target. I tried watching as many ninja movies as I could to mount a defense, but for some reason, it didn’t help.
When it was time to name our new family puppy, I preferred something like “Killer” or “Kujo,” but my mom and sister outvoted me and named the dog “Sunny.”
There was little league baseball (which I sucked at) and soccer, but my true love was art. I’d draw for endless hours and really had a natural gift for it, even getting accepted into an adult art class as a kid. I used so much expensive paper that my mom started buying industrial rolls of newsprint for me to sketch on. It was definitely my way to escape into another world, and I was introverted to a fault but never short on imagination – something that hasn’t totally left me.
I even had my first real kiss right there in the neighborhood, when an older girl with braces named Cynthia planted one on me. It was both a terrifying and exhilarating experience, sort of like doing something very French with barbed wire.
I remember being sent home from school early when President Ronald Regan was shot in 1981. We all watched in on TV again and again, as that’s all that was played on 13 channels. But by the next year, Michael Jackson’s new groundbreaking video, Thriller, on the newly-released cable channel, MTV, was a much bigger deal.
The PacMan video game was taking over, everyone was wearing Nike Cortez, Nelson Mandela was still locked up in a South African jail, and Live Aid brought the famine in Ethiopia to our conscience.
The times were a-changing, and soon, sixth grade was over. But while my elementary school had been decidedly suburban, my middle school was in the rough inner city, which created its own problems for me…