Essay #1 : Childhood in a Nutshell
Right off the bat, I’m sure you’re wondering what sort of nutshell is the right size for Mickey’s entire childhood to be put into?
Is it a coconut shell? That would certainly be big enough to contain a lot of big words, complex sentences, and stuff that Mickey is likely to write repeatedly in this book. His paragraphs are filled with purple paisley prose that use way too many adjectives and lists of things pointlessly put together in difficult and unlikely ways. And he’s known for using lots of details when only a few would do quite well for making the pictures he is describing pop into the movie theater that is your imagination.
Or is it a walnut shell? Mickey’s brain is all twisty and has deep grooves in the middle of it, lots and lots of wrinkles, and probably looks exactly like the walnut’s own nut meat.
Or maybe it is a Brazil nut, as those things are dark and had to crack like the themes that rattle around on the inside of nutcase Mickey’s peanut head.
But it is not a peanut. It just isn’t. Mickey’s childhood can’t be put in a peanut shell. Because peanuts grow underground. They are not actually a pea, nor are they a nut… by definition of each. And Mickey did sometimes have to pee, but he was also not a nut. So, not a peanut. Definitely not.
Anyway, Mickey was born in Mason City Iowa. It was mid-November, and a blizzard was raging. And it was somewhere in the middle of the night. It was 1956. Dwight Eisenhower was President. Richard Nixon was nefariously somehow the Vice President.
It was the age of television, but mainly in black and white. My parents watched shows like “Garry Moore’s Variety Show” with Carol Burnett and Durward Kirby on it, “What’s My Line?” the blindfolded guessing-game show, and, of course, the Lawrence Welk Show with the champagne orchestra music and wild polka dancing to the accordion stylings of Myron Florin.
Mickey was not much more than a little, fat, and stupid thing until the 1950’s ended and Mickey turned at least four.
He lived in Mason City where his sister was born in 1958. He was moved to Garner, Iowa, a place he barely remembered at all, and then to Rowan, Iowa. It was a little farm-town where his mother’s family lived while she was growing up. Lots of blood relatives lived in the area. Which led to big family reunions with many Aldriches, Hinckleys, Beyers, Hoaks, and Utzes attending. There was lots of German food, as well as Swedish meatballs, casseroles with who-really-knew-what in them, potato salad, deviled eggs, carrot salad, tuna salad, and other salads with meat and mayonnaise and lots of gooey green bits in them. You were all right as a kid if you remembered not to ask what was in the food. You could eat it until you had a basketball where your stomach used to be, and you would need a nap or lots and lots of running around Grandpa’s or Uncle Larry’s farm yards.
Mickey went to grade school in Rowan, where he could walk to school by himself, even in the snow, and walk home the long way home so he could get into trouble with Larry from next door, Alan the preacher’s kid, the other Mike and his brother Danny, Verner from the old house with the cinders in the basement, or sometimes with Bobby or Richard from the other side of town, a whopping five blocks away.
He had a huge crush on Alicia but could never tell her, even though he often sat next to her in class because of last names arranged alphabetically. He kept up the story that he hated girls, the same story all the other boys told, and was surprised to eventually learn that they all had a crush on Alicia too.
He had to survive not only chickens from Grandpa Aldrich’s hen house, with occasional roosters who would chase you like they wanted to eat you, but also the constant fear of those Muscovy ducks with red wattles on their faces and bills. Those feral ducks, when they had ducklings with them, were even more terrifying than the roosters who regularly got their heads cut off. Muscovies would chase you down the farm lane, out onto the gravel road, and all the way to Uncle Don’s place if you didn’t find something along the way to distract them into thinking about their deadly vendetta and need to slay you. Dried cattails at the railroad crossing worked. A well-aimed stone raised a cloud of snowy white things rising into the cool autumn breeze like some alien creature that could actually scare wild ducks. And wild ducks never got beheaded because, except for Grandpa’s original pair bought from a catalog, they didn’t have their wings clipped and could simply fly away. They only stayed around because of the duck pond in the south pasture, and the fact that Grandpa always fed them kernel corn from the corn crib.
Roosters, once their heads were gone, actually deserved to be cooked in the oven after hours of cleaning, removing pinfeathers, and extruding weird smells in Grandma’s kitchen as they had their chicken guts removed. We didn’t know it until Mickey grew up and went to college, but chickens are related to bird-hipped dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus Rex, and they longed to live up to the deadly reputation of their distant ancestors. Yes, they definitely deserved to die in the cook pot. Chicken-pot-pie was a well-earned fate. Mickey never liked eating chicken much, even though it was a form of revenge. It wasn’t that he just wasn’t vengeful enough in spirit. He was an Iowa farm boy, after all. But he really didn’t admire the taste with the gusto his cousins all had for it.
Mickey was fifty-percent raised by television in the 60’s. He learned a lot of moral lessons from “Gunsmoke,” but never actually got any practice shooting bad guys with a six-gun, though he did have a cap gun more than once that he wasn’t allowed to point at anybody… ever.
And he learned about real life problems from “I Love Lucy” and “The Beverly Hillbillies.” But he was confused by never seeing a real-life chocolate factory like the one Lucy and Ethel worked in and then got to eat most of the chocolate on the fast conveyor belt. And he was confused when the only “cement pond” he knew about, the public one in Belmond, didn’t allow “critters” to “swim wif the young-uns.”
And he learned about love from “Gilligan’s Island” where Mickey was definitely “Team Mary-Ann,” even though if Gilligan ever got the girl in any episode, Mickey never saw it.
And Mickey learned that Mr. Howell and Mr. Magoo were the same man. Wow!
And Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller and Jungle Jim Johnny Weissmuller were both the same guy, but Jungle Jim wore actual clothes. And Tarzan Ron Ely was on Friday Nights along with “Daktari” while both Johnny Weissmullers were on Saturday Afternoons along with, sometimes, Flash Gordon Buster Crabbe. And if you took any of them for role models and began swinging on the pipes in the cellar ceiling at Grandpa Aldrich’s place, something would break and your Mom and Dad would get very mad, though Grandpa just fixed the pipes and told it as a funny story every Thanksgiving after that.
So, what kind of nutshell can actually contain all of that? It would have to be a nut with a funny name. Cashews would qualify because the name sounds a lot like a sneeze. That’s an undeniable rule in life, “Sneezes, burps, and farts are all funny.” But Mickey learned that, while nuts are, in fact, seeds, roasted salted cashews do not grow into trees when you plant them.
Macadamia nuts also have a name that would qualify. But the macadamia nut is round and a pile of them can look too much like goat poop. But when they are sliced and baked into cookies by old German ladies who really know how to cook, they are good enough to make your toes curl up and your smile to get so big you risk having the corners of your mouth meeting in the back of your head, causing the whole top part of your head to fall off. So, that’s too dangerous of a nut for Mickey’s childhood.
No, I think it has to be the humble hazelnut. Because, after all, not only does it have a witchy sort of name, it is also called a filbert. Now there’s a funny name if ever I heard one. Imagine if SuperMickey had to assume a secret identity as a newspaper reporter. You couldn’t call him Clark because that name was already taken. But Filbert! Ah, comedy gold! And therein lies the true nutshell, round and stumpy-small, a nut you can’t just crack with your fingers. Along with the Brazil nuts, it was always the last available nut in the Christmas nut bowl at Grandma’s house, the perfect little place to store childhood memories for winter. And there’s a lot of winter in Iowa. I know. I was born there.