Slice of Life: Jon Lackman

  • Jon Lackman —KEVIN GUTTING / Gazette Staff

Friday, April 21, 2017

Remembrance of things past

The doors on our powder blue VW Beetle clanked shut. My long-haired, bell-bottomed mother had dressed me in penny loafers, a white button-down shirt, and brown corduroy overalls still warm from the iron. She drove us into town, then hip-carried me up the concrete steps that split a tree-lined, grassy hill and led to a brick building with double doors, wide hallways, and linoleum floors that amplified her heels' click-clicking. 

Her teacher-colleagues were busily arranging chair-desks for the new academic year, but one, stapling decorations to the corridor walls, saw us and came over to tousle my hair and coo, drawing out the others, until I was surrounded by perfumed women of all ages, stroking me. I glowed, thinking I could make them stay forever if I just kept smiling.

It's my oldest memory, just an impression really, but for me it represents the dawn of my consciousness, of the universe entire, the moment I tuned into my own Truman Show.

And it contains in miniature nearly all of my early childhood: my love of novel experiences, my hunger for affection, my fondness for the female sex (all my best friends were girls) and my attachment to my proud, protective Portuguese-Italian-American mother.

My father's absence here is telling: while also doting, he worked long hours and at home was often abstracted, the one I'd ask to bless my more dubious schemes, such as sliding down our two-story laundry chute. Without lifting his head from his book, he'd nod and mutter, "Sure." 

The memory represents my progression from home to school, from outdoors to in, from nature to culture, from the gnarly oaks at home, climbed at whim, to the straight pines that led in two lines up to the classrooms I would march through one year at a time. 

I didn't lament what I lost in starting kindergarten. The second the door squeakily hinged open, I scampered aboard the yellow bus that looked to me like a metal bread loaf; I’d take a sticky vinyl seat on the left atop the vibrating wheel well. I adored learning and all its rewards, its stars bronze, silver, and gold, the hand-written report cards like billets-doux, and the parental bribes: candy cigarettes, ring pops, and red hots. 

When summer broke, I would anticipate September, the scrum of kids not yet under control, like dogs just let out for air, teachers rested and enthusiastic, halls scrubbed, and textbook piles waiting to be dispensed, tomes I'd pencil my name into, quickly devour at home, and then use in class to conceal my X-Men comics.

Scientists say that at seven years old the brain deletes most of its memories, to make way. The few that survive stick out like the freethinkers a dictatorship has failed to purge, cornstalks a thresher has missed, waving in the wind as reminders of what was. 

The warmth of my oldest memory has repeatedly lured me back to education — college, master's, doctorate, continuing ed, ambitious reading programs, binged podcast seasons. It's also bred in me submissiveness, permission-asking, and conservatism, a reliance on pre-sanctioned endeavors that's made me reluctant as a writer to light out into the unknown. 

So I've resolved to undertake a long, uncommissioned article about Forrest Fenn, an eccentric, autodidact ex-antiquities dealer who in 2010 published a cryptic poem leading, he says, to a treasure chest he's hidden in the Rockies. I wouldn't be the first to tackle the subject, but I believe its true importance remains unseized. 

I don't have an editor's green light, not even a hint of interest in what I might produce, but for once I don't care.

Jon Lackman lives in Hatfield. He has written for The New Yorker, Harper's and The New York Times magazine, among other publications. He can be reached at jonlackman@gmail.com.