My dad used to describe kids like me as “big boned”, “solid” or “husky”. Even at an early age, the word ” husky” bugged me as it seemed to be a verbal primer meant to gently veil an uglier undercoat adjective –“chubby”. Just hearing the term “husky” still makes me want to suck in my gut. Having two older brothers who could consume 12,000 calories in a single sitting and still look like extras in the remake of Angela’s Ashes made me even more self-conscious and in search of a cure for the metabolic deuces that I had been dealt in this unfair game called adolescence.
I took after my German grandfather with a square frame and large head. It was not actually until the second grade that anyone outside of my family called attention to my unique physiology. We had moved in our town forcing me to switch elementary schools. I hated everything about my new school “Valentine”– its’ unisex name, it’s strange children, the long, sterile hallway that descended down to the adjacent middle school and our massive playground that would make an agoraphobic run for cover. I was a big kid for my class – often mistaken for a third or fourth grader. I was desperately lonely for my old friends the first day I was shoved out of the car and into Mrs Stone’s second grade class.
It was less than an hour before I got tagged with my first epithet. “Hey, pumpkin head!” I turned around amused, looking for the person who would be the butt of this funny word. I whirled to confront two elfin, toe-headed boys – identical twins dressed in white tee shirts, blue jeans and red cloth Keds. I had the sudden sensation of sea sickness as my twin tormentors merged into a symphony of abuse. “How come your head is so big?” The slightly older brother by two minutes, David, looked at his brother, Ed. “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!” Another kid wandered over as my blood pressure rose. Soon there were five kids forming a crescent-shaped peanut gallery behind my two hecklers.
I was unprepared and could only retaliate with a pathetic reference to their microscopic size. Years later, I would regret not coming up with something infinitely more cutting such as “my dog leaves larger %$##@’s than you on our front lawn.” However, it is always in retrospect that we come up with our best retorts – – normally thirty minutes following verbal fisticuffs.
“For a guy with such a big head, you’re pretty dumb.” (laughter)
I can’t recall exactly which insult made me snap but I distinctly remember taking off after the Dillhofer twins. In a scene out of Animal Planet, I was thoroughly confounded by the twin meerkats darting in opposite directions, mocking me and shouting “pumpkin head” A teacher intervened and to my shock, five kids fingered me as the instigator. On my first day attending Valentine school, I was marched to Miss Pratt’s office fuming and despondent.
After school, I raced home and went into self-exile behind the garage – plotting my revenge on the Dillhoefers, my teacher, the principal and anyone associated with moving their children to a new school. I sat crying with my dog Max, a mongrel kindred spirit with Rastafarian-matted hair. He was my unconditional shadow indulging me as I sat cursing my fate and physique.
My older brother had been kicking a soccer ball against the other side of the garage when the ball lifted over the tile roof and landed in the ivy near my hiding place. I did not move to pick it up but waited until my brother turned the corner. In an act of sheer compassion that only an older sibling could muster, he saw me crying and asked, “What are you blubbering for, fat boy?” Thus began my journey as a husky kid.
When I look back at those pictures now, I see a happy boy who loathed running, could hit a baseball a country mile and who never met a donut he did not like. I grew into a well-mannered, husky adolescent that could navigate his way through most challenges. I became the anchor man in tug of wars, the clean up hitter, the guy who lifts everyone else to safety but then gets caught because he can’t lift himself over the wall. I never completed a single pull up in the President’s fitness challenge and could not run a mile in less than ten minutes.
Yet, when you are 12, today is tomorrow and also the rest of your life. Stories and parables about people “growing out of this” and “ overcoming that” are propaganda created by parents too loving to break the inevitable truth to you – that you will one day grow up to do belly flops in a local circus or perhaps haunt some stretch of woods in rural America. “There he is ‘Big Head’, run!” As the children scream and retreat down the mountain path, the pathetic middle-aged ogre with the hydrocephalus head whimpers and retreats to his cold, midnight granite cave.
As a husky kid, my biggest challenge was clothing. There was no such thing as elastic. In a modest family, one must wear hand me downs from older siblings. I do not recall ever having a waist size less than 32” and was perpetually popping buttons, ripping crotches and tearing the seat of my older brothers’ worn corduroy trousers. The advent of denim prolonged my wardrobe but could not completely compensate for my thunder thighs and U-Haul rear end. While these attributes made me every coach’s dream on the baseball diamond, I was a tailor’s nightmare and an expensive line item in my parent’s back to school budget.
My greatest fear was removing my shirt in public. My brothers looked like POWs with washboard stomachs and adolescent hair in all the right places. I resembled alabaster play dough in process. I had annoying baby fat under my arms which seem to accentuate my chest. My brother’s referred to them as “man-boobs” – a term which I did not care for.
Summer meant the beach, public swimming pools, swim parties and sun bathing. I loathed the fast metabolism jocks with their abs and muscle definition. They were like relief maps with distinct features – mountains of sinew and flat deserts devoid of flab. I was like Antarctica – a large white land mass with no distinguishable features. I could not exactly pinpoint my biceps, abdominal muscles or quadriceps as they were all well insulated under a protective layer of permafrost baby fat.
Further trauma would await me in the Fall at school when we would invariably square off in basketball requiring one to either be shirts or skins. To be go skin in middle school PE was to advertise your darkest fears to an audience of unforgiving, insensitive pinheaded boys. To further exacerbate the problem, a game might be held outside in full view of the girls who would be doing jumping jacks or running the way girls who did not exercise often ran – in a sort of headlong tumble as if they were falling down hill.
My gym teacher, Mr Stebbins, loathed me for my myriad efforts to avoid Physical Education. My conscientious objection to sweating made him angry. He resembled an adult film star with his dolphin gym shorts, tight muscle shirt, blond sideburns and moustache. He looked at me with sardonic disdain as he picked sides for basketball. “Turpin – skins”. He might as well have said, “Turpin, naked!” I took my shirt off and quickly crossed my arms convinced from my brother’s chiding that I had bigger breasts than Raquel Welch and most of the girls now circling the playground with their spastic, angular lunges. For the next 30 minutes, I felt like a bowl of jello moving from one side of court to another. I became lost in my self loathing.
My mother sensed my despondency that evening when I refused to eat dinner. This was indeed an event as rare as a lunar eclipse. Oblivious to my plight, I heard my father groan from the other room pleading with God to exterminate every liberal in Congress. My mother noticed I had not touched my Swanson’s fried chicken TV dinner. Her nickname was “Sodium Pentathol” because she could induce a confession faster than a priest threatening you with a hair shirt. My loss of appetite was concerning and she was determined to root out its cause.
She tried not to smile as I dredged up the last few years of frustration with my physique.. She suggested I write the pros and cons of my temporary condition on paper and when done, we would weigh the right and left sides of the ledger for balance. I winced at the word “weigh” but agreed to consider trying to find the positive side of my weight. Was there a constructive side? Where was it? Could you see it in the mirror? At last, I agreed to indulge her. As I pondered the positives of portly, I came up with a few “advantages”.
1) I would be last to die in a famine or of radiation poisoning after a nuke given my slow metabolism
2) When my voice changed, I could become rich and famous like R&B singer Barry White aka The Walrus of Love
3) My size made me a success in any activity that involved as little running as possible. This left me golf pro, baseball player or bakery chef as potential career paths
4) I was less likely to be injured if ever shot in the stomach by a cannonball at close range
I quickly ran out of pros and shifted to the cons which invariably revolved around girls – the inability to attract or retain one. I had girls as friends but they treated me more like a brother or a cuddly Cyrano whose physical liabilities disabled him as a threat and relegated me to a role of trusted confidante and romantic go between.
After perusing my list of assets and liabilities, my mother resorted to what all parents do, she told me a series of lies about family members. To believe her was to accept that my razor thin uncle who could shower in a shotgun barrel had spent his adolescence trapped inside an ugly duckling façade of baby fat. Others in my family had also been dealt these identical character building cards and had emerged post puberty with the physiques of swans. I took the bait and began patiently to wait – scanning my own horizon lines for any signs of maturation.
True to her word, I did grow over the summer before high school and like a stunted winter plant finally stretched to new heights under the arc of omnipresent sunshine. My body changed and with it, I moved on to the more myopic and selfish preoccupations of teenagers. The story had a happy ending as Cyrano eventually got his Roxanne and later became a social advocate – carrying a message to a next generation of huskies whose self esteem seems more under attack from media images that perpetuate an airbrushed myth of acceptance through visceral beauty.
I still see that husky kid. He comes around from time to time. He rents a guest house in the back of my mind and occasionally orders a pizza or eats too many cookies. He does not come with me to the gym and stays home while I go out for a jog. He loves old movies, hanging out with the family and gets excited when he sees fresh bananas in the fruit bowl because it means Mom has gone to the supermarket. He’s a kind kid. Most of all, he understands that words can hurt more that just about anything – – except perhaps, any sport that involves running or a cannonball shot directly into your stomach at close range.