On the left is the Great Waldo. He performed a regurgitating act where he swallowed a live mouse and then brought it back up unharmed. He is sometimes mistakenly categorized as a “geek”.
The old carny definition of a geek, discounting the Great Waldo who was unique and respected in the sideshow world, was one who bit heads off of chickens and rodents and other creatures. Geeks were at the bottom of the Carny pecking order.
In my childhood the term Geek (which means fool in English dialect and mad or silly in the Dutch root) was defined as “an unfashionable or socially inept person; a knowledgeable and obsessive enthusiast.” (The second part of its definition is what later came into common usage with the term “computer geek”, but that usage evolved many years after I was left Junior High School.)
The word “Geek” during my teen years was used as a derogatory slur toward smart, but socially awkward individuals.
That be me!
Junior High was not kind to me and I withdrew into shyness and fantasy. I tried to hide from the world. Yes, I had my small group of friends I spend some time with, but when my friends were unavailable I either hung out in the Library or hid in my room, reading and writing. I became ever more fearful and wary walking about town. People like Jimmy Charles, Joe Bird and Doug Way, who choose to gang up and pick on the weak, were present threats in my life even when they weren’t physically there. I was constantly looking over my shoulder. Every shadow made me jump. Every stranger was someone to keep an eye upon.
I tried to avoid as many kids at school as possible. I would hurry between classes, not speaking to any passing classmates, being careful to never make eye contact. I sought some relatively private spot to eat lunch if none of my buddies were about to hide among. I was receiving a number of bumps and shoves walking the hallways and attempted trippings on the stairwells. If I overheard passersby mumble something and giggle, I always took it as jokes aimed at me. Some kids did not mumble, but spoke clearly so I knew there really were insults or threats being send my way.
After my parents moved to 417 Washington and my father began to take us places as a family on weekends, my grandfather receded more from my life. I have already mentioned the family outings with my dad were not very comfortable ones for me. Once upon a time I had a grandfather I did not feel uncomfortable with, but he had changed and we will cover what changed later.
I was in now the Frankenstein stage of puberty where your features distort so nothing quite fits together. I had grown ever thinner. My arms were much too long for my body. My face was either very gaunt (1954 photo on left) or appeared round like a monstrous Mr. Potato Head about to explode (picture from same year on right). I was nearsighted enough to have to wear glasses continually. If this was not enough, I developed some afflictions that would affect me the rest of my life.
My theory is the diseases I suffer developed from the same source. I suspect my malfunctioning immune and endocrine systems are at the root of my afflictions. Medical experts do not know what causes what I have and there is no cure. None are life threatening, contagious or necessarily interfere with normal living (at least didn’t when I was young although the arthritis is a bit limiting in my old age), but the resulting distortions and markings of my body gave others more things to mock or, in some cases, fear. These set me further apart from normality.
There is hyperthyroidism, for example, which we will deal with in detail when we come to a later period of my life, although I believe it was already present in my teens. I had some gray hair by the time I graduated high school, a symptom of a thyroid condition. I also won’t deal with my arthritis at this point, but my form of arthritis is a direct result of a disease I did develop during adolescence called psoriasis.
I developed psoriasis as early as seventh grade if not before, although it wasn’t diagnosis or treated until I was fifteen. In began in my scalp. There would be flakes if I merely touched my head. If I scratched there would be a snowfall. I had a habit of absently scratching my head when thinking. If I didn’t catch myself doing this the top of my desk would become covered with a white powder. This was mistaken for dandruff and I either received derisive teasing or people would wrinkle their nose in disgust and move away from me.
This hurt my feelings, but the real painful outcome of having psoriasis was I eventually developed psoriatic arthritis, a serious form of that joint disease. I mentioned the ailments I had (and have, there is no cure) were non-life threatening. Generally this is true. However, I came close to psoriasis killing me when I developed erythrodermia (pictured right). But we will talk about that when I reach middle age.
The other disease that caused name-calling to be directed my way was Scheuermann’s Disease. I thought it was scoliosis and my current doctor says that's what it is, but I consider it more a kyphosis curvature. Scheuermann’s Disease quite often begins during adolescence, as did mine. It usually ceases any further curvature upon adulthood, as did mine. It can cause some restricted breathing and back pain, but normally requires no treatment. Doctors might lessen extreme curving by surgery. People might employe a back brace in severe cases for support, but this will not cure it. The brace my father threatened me with would have been useless in my situation.
Idiopathic Scoliosis, the common type, often begins early in life, even at birth, but can develop in adolescence as well. It is more common in females than males. It too can have severe symptoms requiring surgery or a brace. The main difference physically between the two is how the spine curves. In Scheuermann’s Disease there is wedging together of several vertebrae. X-Rays show I have vertabrae in my neck that have wedged. This results in a rounding of the spine, but the backbone remains straight vertically. Scoliosis is an exaggerated curving of the spine sideways.
From the side the resulting curvature looks similar. The male on the left has scoliosis. On the right is my Scheuermann curvature from the side. (You can see some of the ravages of psoriasis across my body in these photos as well, but the psoriasis was not this noticeable or prominent during my youth.) Notice how the scoliosis continues the curve outward down into the small of the back. My “hump” is up between my shoulder blades. A barrel chest is also a common result with Scheuermann.
From the front or back you can often recognize scoliosis because one shoulder will dip lower than the other similar to the person on the left. The presence of scoliosis can give a person this lopsided look from the front. Scheuermann’s (right) does not droop my front, but does cause a barrel chest effect. Because the lower spine tends to curve in more, it also pushes the stomach forward.
In the photo on the left you see the S-shape of this woman’s spine. This is a mild case. On the right you can see my spine appears straight and my round shoulders are less apparent than from the side. (You can also see the increasing extent of my psoriasis again in this photo.)
Here are examples of more severe cases, which might require surgery or a brace, scoliosis on the left and Scheuermann’s on the right. I was fortunate enough not to have mine curve further than it did. My internal organs or spinal cord were not endangered.
But my psychological wellbeing was. The combination of all these factors at a time when my hormones were beginning to rage took an emotional toll. During Junior High School I became a very troubled youth, in the parlance of today, I was a child at risk. They define a child at risk as one having trouble coping with life stresses. These are teenagers more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, engage in criminal activity, be sexually promiscuous and commit suicide.
There were times during Junior High when I thought about suicide. I was certain no one wanted me, that I had no future and life was hopeless.
I engaged in criminal activity – shoplifting, but not for the reason you might think.
I was not sexually promiscuous, not as we gereneraly think of promiscuous. I was too naïve about sex and too shy in personality, but I did engage in activity some would consider outside the norm of acceptability.
I didn’t abuse drugs or alcohol. Drugs were not readily available in that place and time. Alcohol was, but I didn’t like the taste of it. I had no desire to drink it.
I ran across is a list of 24 questions used by sociologists to determine a child at risk. It said if your child answers yes to at least four questions then they are a child at risk. These are the questions from that list I would have given a yes to during Junior High:
Is the teen withdrawn?
Does the teen lack self-worth and self-esteem?
Does the parent have difficulty getting the teen to do basic household chores and homework?
Does the teen struggle with family expectations?
Has the teen lost interest in former sports, hobbies or activities?
Has the teen had problems with the law?
I did not have many problems with the law per se, but I had one. I think it was the end result of my emotional stress, ignorance of the sexual changes in my body and a wish to escape the world I faced every day and to escape to one of my own making. And perhaps it was a cry for attention.