Sunday, October 21, 2012
The post for age 21 in the October Memoir and Backstory Blog Challenge is by Jon Egan.
When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.
~ Mark Twain
When this blog challenge started and we were asked to pick ages that we wanted to write about, I chose twenty-one thinking it would be easy. I didn’t give any thought to where in my life I was that year, to what was going on, to what relationship I was in, or to what I was even doing. I just figured it would be a no-brainer.
Twenty-First, normally equaled a big bash, a huge all in, three-day drunk, even though in Australia the legal drinking age was and still is eighteen, there was just something special about turning twenty-one.
I’d been looking forward to my twenty-first for years. I think I was probably seventeen or eighteen when I began imagining the party I was going to have, I had the food picked out; I had the bar set-up formed in my mind; I had the music and D.J. already selected; I knew all the pre-drinking tricks to use so I wouldn’t end up with a legendary hangover; it was destined to be huge, maybe even four days if my mates could hang in there.
Of course there’d be all manner of women, all the sheilas in town, and maybe even from neighboring towns would clamor to be on the invite list, they’d be dropping hints for invites, I’d have notes shoved under my door begging me to add them, they’d walk up to me in the street asking if they were indeed penciled in.
Legendary, that would be the word used to describe my twenty-first, yea legendary!
Aside from the party, there were other fantasies flashing through my mind. My old man, he and I weren’t that close when I was in my teens. Truth be told, we were never close in my younger years. The Coal Man's boy, that’s what he’d call me, sometimes with a grin, but usually not. “No son of mine,” was a constant phrase, uttered under his breath, or spoken with venom, sometimes yelled accompanied with a glare of hatred. But my twenty-first would change all that. He’d probably call me early in the day, wish me a grand birthday, offer me a fecking whiskey, and go on about how proud he was of me and my accomplishments…. He’d speak about how chuffed he was watching me play football, and he’d brag to the blokes at union meetings about my footy prowess. He’d tell me how he really always did love me, and only treated me the way he did so I’d grow up strong and be able to stand up for myself with my fists. “That’s the only reason I smacked you around a bit,” he’d say.
Yea, we’d have a good old chin wag before the party got started, he may even join in. All my mates, for the longest time, thought he was the best old bastard Irish man they’d ever met. They loved when he swung by and sang a bunch of the old ballads, as he was apt to do when he’d had few. Legendary, yep no other word for it. Legendary.
Mum would for sure drop by too. She’d have the perfect card picked out--no present--I was never that big on presents, but a good card, that was always the best. Nothing like a good soppy card, even if the verse wasn’t hers, the words she added were always heart-warming, sincere, and never failed to bring a tear to my eye.
I kept the big bash alive in my head for so long, the anticipation was almost unbearable, I’d get butterflies when I thought about it. I wondered if my team mates would make me deliver a speech, just because they knew how much I hated public speaking. They’d get a kick out of that. So I practiced in front of my mirror: speaking out loud, laughing at my own jokes, even choreographing the way I moved as I spoke, thinking that not only was my party going to be, ya know, legendary, but my speech would be a highlight for all in attendance.
The year I turned twenty-one, I quit playing football, not by choice, but by injury, I blew my knee out and never recovered. Even if I had been able to play again, I was told by my specialists that my knee would never hold up to the strain, so I quit. I never did play competitive footy again, but it wasn’t so bad. I stopped going to games, hated watching from the sidelines, hated hearing people tell me how unlucky I was buggering up my knee the way I did. Funny but my dad never said any of that.
I was working the mines and driving truck the year I turned twenty-one. I had a room in SMQ, Single Men’s Quarters, C Block, a two-story building with about a hundred twenty 12 x 8 rooms, paper-thin walls, a bed, a desk with table light, and a small hanging area, two shower blocks on each level, tenants organized by the shift you worked, so afternoon-shift workers wouldn’t wake the night-shift blokes, stark white with aluminum foil on the windows, so not only wouldn't the light wake you, but it helped keep the heat down. There were lots of shift parties in the blocks, usually when you finished your 21st shift (3 blocks of days, 3 afternoons, and 3 nights), because we’d get a four-day break before going back on rotation. Those were some crazy, fight-filled events that always, always started out friendly, degraded into fighting, and then swung wildly back to friendly before the obligatory passing out.
My big day arrived. My family: all four siblings, and my mum and dad, lived less than ten minutes away. All of us ended up working in the mine, except my mum. We all worked different shifts, and we never saw as much of each other as you’d think. But this was my twenty-first birthday; they’d all make an appearance. I’d given up on the legendary party months ago, since I was scheduled to work the night shift, but I was still looking forward to seeing everyone. I was still like a kid on Christmas Eve. I felt like I was entering a whole new phase of life, and looking forward to the words of encouragement form my mates and family. I showered mid-morning to avoid the rush, and then I wandered over to the mess hall. It was weird sitting there at my table in a room of 70 tables by myself eating silently, trying to hurry so I could get back to my room before someone came by. The Romanian bloke that bussed tables smiled at me as he picked up my empty plate. I said G’day and he nodded back. I’d never heard him speak, except when he was with other blokes that worked in the mess. He had no clue it was my birthday. I downed the rest of my cuppa tea and hurried back to the block. I passed a few night-shift stragglers that were wandering the halls. We ignored each other.
I let myself into my room, and flipped on the radio. The announcer was spewing out the weather report, then went on to play a record without mentioning a thing about my birthday. I lay on my bed and listened to the music and waited. I waited all morning, and into early afternoon. No one knocked on my door. I got up and went for lunch, turning the sign on my door to “Quiet Please, Night Shift.” The Romanian had finished his shift, and a bloke from Scotland had taken his place. “It’s my twenty-first today,” I blurted out as he picked up my plate. He cocked his head sideways, “You done wi tha cup, laddie?” He picked it up not waiting for an answer.
I went back to my room, locked the door, and climbed under the covers. I woke when my alarm went off at ten o’clock. Then I dressed in my usual bib-n-brace coveralls, pulled on my safety boots, sat on the edge of my bed and cried, before dragging myself to the bus stop to spend the night driving truck in a dusty, remote, iron ore mine, where no one cared what day it was.