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Brant Goble


            You’ll eat when I damn well tell you to eat!” I said, waving the spoon menacingly over the head of my younger brother, Patrick.

             A year prior I would have never imagined myself making such a pronouncement, much less being able to enforce it, but in the summer of ‘96, having just turned thirteen, I discovered something wonderful—the hand that stirs the kettle rules the house—and I was enjoying my newfound position of spoon- and cleaver-wielding power quite a bit (not that I had taken on the responsibility willingly).

            The previous officeholder had, under doctor’s orders, vacated the position to attend a month-long drying out, detoxing, and deloonyfication program in blues- and booze-filled Memphis, Tennessee, where a team of highly trained experts were hard at work trying to wring the alcohol, pill, and self-pity-induced neurosis out of her and restore her to her previous state of more nearly manageable misery. In reality the functions, if not the titles, of cook, housekeeper, and gardener had been badly neglected for so long that organization and order had all but been forgotten, and I was left at the helm of a 70s split-level with molding sheetrock and ceilings low and soft enough to punch a fist through.

            Despite my heavy-handedness, I was proving more reliable than my mother (and my baking considerably better than hers), and more a Ralph than a Jack Merridew, so my over-enthusiastic planning and discipline were well-tolerated by all. Thus:

            “But just a little something to hold me off?” Patrick said, smiling. “I really won’t make a mess.”

            “You know the drill, cornbread and mac’ at noon, no sooner, no later,” I said. “And keep those damn drums down or you’ll not get a bite.” Patrick, already a good twenty pounds heavier than me and more than large enough to take whatever he wanted, shrugged agreeably before shuffling back down to his cavernous half of a converted garage festooned with Christmas lights, guitars, and cheery nature posters. He rarely left the room until years later, when he emerged as a full-blown, self-taught composer—something for which no one else could rightfully take credit (although they might try).


            There is something purgative—both mentally and, somewhat less pleasantly, physically—about working in the summer heat, when all the Commonwealth becomes one great sauna, and simply walking in the midday humidity becomes an act of defiance against nature (and an amazingly effective way to steam the wrinkles out of a shirt), and all but the lightest outdoor work becomes an heroic struggle.

            It was then, in the middle of summer, I decided to begin setting trees—a quixotic undertaking, and not only because our house was not so much in the woods as a part of them, complete with sociable resident blacksnakes (and dangerously overfamiliar copperheads) and giant puffballs that sprouted from the gray-green carpet after every spring flood.

             At issue were the trees themselves. Trees, of course, can be planted any time, assuming someone cares to dig the holes, but getting summer plantings to live is another matter entirely. They, like so many young men, prefer to keep their roots properly moist, but despite the asthma-inducing mugginess, the farm’s clayey ridge soil was dry and rock hard, unyielding to any but the heaviest pickax blows. The only way to prevent this sadomasochistic exercise (sadistic to the trees; masochistic to the digger) from resulting in disaster was through a constant infusion of liquids to replenish both the digger and trees and prevent either from withering away to desiccated nothingness. 


            What exactly possessed me to undertake such self-flagellation, I’ll never know, but it might well have been the same irrational exuberance that caused millions to hopefully descend upon the swelled, sweltering city of Atlanta and book un-air-conditioned rooms, their faith in the Olympic Committee’s promises of fair weather and safety as unshakable as their trust in the ever-rising Dow. Were they lacking in such meteorologically uninformed certitude, could anything have convinced so many of them to spend small fortunes to travel across the globe to test their physical prowess through the ancient Greek tradition of eating, shopping, and watching pharmacologically enhanced athletes exert themselves in the summer sun in hopes of earning Wheaties endorsements? 


            Whereas I and my saplings had the benefits of nearly free water (which I did, however, have to haul to them, bucketful after bucketful), the sports-crazed found their options for rehydration effectively restricted to the expensive and none-too-healthful hornet attractants produced by Atlanta’s very own Coca-Cola Company, which in a gesture guaranteed to impress upon the citizens of the world the benefits of unrestrained corporatism, had decided to establish a beverage-based martial law over the city (with the understanding that anyone who dared to bring a PepsiCo product to an Olympic venue would have a bottle cap launched into their posteriors).

             For the manufacturer of a product that has been a (if not the) major contributor to obesity in the United States to sponsor a much-touted demonstration of human fitness seems counterintuitive (and nearly as ironic as a Marlboro Man Marathon), but such was the spirit of the times, when brains were boiled in a spend-happy fervor and logic held in lower esteem than the macarena. 


            While I was refining my skills in totalitarian housewifery, my father, brimming with his own flavor of sun-baked reasoning and with far too much free time on his hands (time previously spent listening to my mother’s never-ending tales of woe), devised, quite without my knowledge, a plan to afford me a memorable summer. First, I (but not my younger brother or sister) would visit my just recently soberized mother in Memphis during family counseling week with the intent of pleading for her health while stressing her value in the family and all the reasons she needed to stay on the wagon. Second, I would attend, for the first time, the torturous childhood rite of passage of 4-H camp, where I would presumably befriend (and be befriended by) the same Rebel Flag-waving, Skoal-dipping, faux-Southerners I had so politely avoided the better part of my life.


            Memphis, unlike Atlanta, was spared the worst ravages of Sherman’s march, ‘70s era child killers, and the improvements of unrestrained industry, and as such, retains a bit of the charm of the unreconstructed South—something quite absent from the wide spots and Wal-Marts of home. To anyone as rustic as I was, any city would have seemed seemed fascinating, if not exotic, and anywhere with more twenty thousand souls, a major metropolis.

            Wherever humanity has seen fit to settle, metropolis, town, or yurt-filled camp, there is a certain number of unusually likable people, people adept at all the social niceties—conversation, humor, and an apparent friendliness that’s difficult for less socially adept members of society to muster—and a good percentage of them are alcoholics (not that there aren’t some pretty vicious ones as well), and among the most magnetic of them are the true Southern drunks. Such souls are just what I met, and was duly charmed by, in Memphis. 


            All of the apparent grace and certainty, which came so easily to these people in normal conversation, melted away in awkward confessional session after session. Around their parents they were surprisingly inept, squirming like scolded children; around their spouses, evasive. At first I assumed I was the problem, attributing their discomfort to being called to account in earshot of someone decades younger than they were, yet I sat impassively, and when a doctor glanced up at me and looking puzzled, said quietly, I thought you left, I assumed I had effectively blended into the wallpaper, not realizing how out of it the doctor still was.

            Even in my naiveté, I began to see that addicts (even reasonably successful ones) and my peers had more in common than I initially thought: they could both project considerable, if not outright unbearable, confidence, making it easy to overestimate them, just as they could go from genuine concern for others to stunning, nearly all-consuming narcissism in an instant. The single greatest difference was that addicts had mastered manipulation; my peers, still learning.

            Charismatic dentists who, so badly under the influence they could barely stand, had skillfully extracted (the wrong) teeth; former literature teachers who had stayed awake on meth for weeks before crashing into psychosis; and forcibly retired air traffic controllers who had tried to swallow stress with alcohol and almost downed planes in the process—all seemingly intelligent, and all surprisingly adept at concealing their problems until they had reached catastrophic proportions—none of these people had been truly capable of running their own lives, much less anyone else’s. Yet they managed to keep up the illusion of competence until one too many things went wrong, and their open secrets ceased to be secrets at all. 


            The more I heard of broken homes, lost jobs, failed businesses, and abandoned children, the more difficult I was finding the task of cheerleading for my mother’s return. Lives and families had crumbled when so many of these people faltered, leaving a path of destruction and unhappiness in their wakes. But when my mother left, everything had gotten better. The house (all the way down to freshly washed baseboards) was cleaner, the meals hotter, the expenses better managed, and everyone (myself included) was happier. So much of the constant anxiety and headache—the ever-present sense of impending crisis—which I had taken to be an inevitable part of life was gone.

             Leaving Memphis and a tearful, bumbling mother behind, I offered the best I could— “Everything will be fine.” And everything was until she returned.


            I’m not quite sure what compelled my father to think camp was a good idea, just days after nerve-racking Memphis. Time off from us (his children) is the first thing that comes to mind, but given the fact that I had assumed most of his household chores (mowing, etc) in addition to those of my mother, such would have been doubtful logic. Rather, my father spoke of his own youth—camping, playing in a band, throwing cherry bombs under the cars of the elderly, and generally raising hell and hanging out—with a gauzy sentimentality that made me suspect his memory had aged far worse than his forty-five years would suggest. I could only imagine how he thought my summer experiences would play out.

            I cared little for the tedious pastimes of youth, and after years of playing amateur counselor and having just recently been given a crash course in household management and the DARE class from hell, I found birdhouses, bunks, and brats to be less pleasant than hearing earnest tales of foreclosed homes and confessions of surgeries gone awry. There was, it dawned upon me, no grand objective, no overriding logic in the program my father had devised for me, only the firmness of his belief that I somehow secretly wanted to follow in his slightly delinquent footsteps, for what he enjoyed I would enjoy, too.


            There was no real plan in Atlanta either (at least to address late-night terrorism)—no bomb-sniffing dogs; no Guardsmen on patrol, rifles in hand; no omnipresent drones; no army of sensor-wielding technicians—only the security of a few ill-equipped guards. Yet less than a year after the bombing of the Murrah Building and only ten days after the unresolved mid-air explosion of Flight 800, thousands felt confident enough to attend a late night concert in vulnerable Centennial Olympic Park.

             In retrospect the bombing seems almost inevitable.

             The hero of the day, Richard Jewell, found himself vilified almost as soon as he was praised. Thus, scorn was the price of caution and forethought. Who else but a terrorist would be suspicious of unattended backpacks? How could any innocent man look at a milling crowd and see potential targets?

             And caution be damned, we already knew he was guilty, as surely as we knew the sun would rise on our land of eternal prosperity and that the era of big government was over— speculations were evidence enough. 


            Nothing is quite as oblivious (or obnoxious) as fearless children, and nothing more dangerous (or useless) than oblivious children overgrown into adult form. At the best of times they are inattentive to reality, consumed by themselves and their constant indulgences. Denied these things, their impatience wells up in an instant. When crisis does come, and the first shot of adrenaline hits them, they, untempered, fly into a panic, and the great glassy-eyed herd sets to stampede, or they freeze, overwhelmed by alien feeling.

 Growing Up Exuberant