Many of the folks living on Salem's Branch in the late 1970s, when I was a kid living there, shared a party telephone line. When I ask my kids to put down their cell phones and text devices long enough to tell them stories about the olden days, they scoff when I mention a "party line." But it's true; and using the party line to talk to friends, and the girls I hoped would become more than friends, was tough.
Me: "Well, how about we meet at Groves Theater on Saturday? I hear they are holding Rocky over for another week!"
Potential Girlfriend: "Sure, even though I saw it last week, I'd..."
[Interrupted by Mrs. Nichols, who lived up the street. She picks up the phone, and clicks the hang-up buttons a couple of times]
Mrs. Nichols: "Kenny? Is that you, Kenny?"
Me: "This isn't Kennie, Mrs. Nichols. It's Marc, from down the road. I'll be finished with the phone in a minute."
Mrs. Nichols: "Do you know Kenny?"
Me: "Yes, ma'am..."
Mrs. Nichols: "Have you seen Kenny?"
Potential Girlfriend: "Uh...I'm gonna go now."
It happened way too often.
For lots of reasons--like the telephone party line, and the fact that there were no kids my age living within a mile of me--I spent a lot of time alone.
Eating cereal, riding ponies, horses and motorcycles, hoeing gardens and feeding chickens. But rarely hanging out with other boys.
In fact, I can recall only once that another kid slept over at my house.
As a result, I grew up a bit of a social misfit. Unsure of myself in social situations, and unclear how to behave. Especially around other men.
The stereotypical, testosterone-filled stuff came naturally. I could play sports with other guys, talk about girls with other guys and even fight guys once in a while. But put me in a room with a dude and expect me to carry on some small talk?
I just couldn't do it. Still can't very well, even today.
Like Peter Klaven, the lead in I Love You, Man, I was mostly a girlfriend guy, more comfortable with women than men. Unlike Klaven, I didn't go on a series of man-dates in order to improve my skills. In fact, I did the opposite: I mostly avoided other guys who wanted to hang out, at least until they stopped wanting to hang out.
I wish there had been a Sydney Fife in my life at that time to hang with, jam with and exchange nicknames with. As it was, my only nickname came from Kenny.
And "Shit-Licker" ain't that cool a nickname...