I had unusual career aspirations when I was a kid. The first career I ever remember being thrilled about in my imagination was that of bus driver. I thought driving anything with such a big steering wheel would be extremely fulfilling. I spent countless hours in my basement with a bike wheel and rows of make-shift seats behind me, driving through an imaginary town blurting over a pretend microphone “Keep it down in the back,” or, “Have a good day ma’am,” or my dream come true, “Next stop, 7-11. Vrrooom.” I suspected most riders would get as much of a thrill out of me making the ‘vroom’ sound over the microphone as I had pretending to make it.
That love affair ended with a surly bus driver who kicked me off his bus for being a nuisance. I sat in the seat adjacent to his and talked his ear off, asking repeatedly if I could take the wheel, or give out a transfer, or open the door. “Anything to get a taste of the job of my dreams, mister.” He got mad when he realized I didn’t have anywhere to go, and I’d be taking the route all the way back to where I got on, which happened to be the beginning of the route. My future as a transit driver was not to be because of that angry guy.
Since I was seven I did not brood for long. I never brooded when I was a child; a trait I wish seven year old me could teach today’s me. In any case, I decided what I really wanted was to drive a tractor, a front end loader, or a snow plough with the super-sized shovels able to push mountains of snow to the curb and create enormous snowbanks. I would I be the toast of my peers for driving a great machine and making mammoth snow hills for tobogganing.
For a time I imagined a career as the guy who delivered chips to all the convenience stores. Ostensibly, I assumed it would have guaranteed an endless supply of free chips. Except I had a friend who was a masterful thief and was easily able to steal boxes of chips of all varieties, seemingly at will. The idea of more chips at my disposal became passe, and with it my career aspirations as the chip guy. Ditto the same story for the professions of milk-man and ice-cream truck guy.
Eventually, the desire to be a stuntman consumed me – no, possessed me – for years. My imaginary dalliances as a firefighter, a fighter pilot, a marine, and a cowboy were all passing fancies; insurance careers in case I didn’t make the cut of daredevil super-stardom. They were subsumed well below the ultimate aim of television and movie awesomeness, though it took me a long time to stop envying the firefighters who got to hang off the back of a fire engine at full speed or better, to drive the fire engine. As a grown man in my fourth decade I still dream of driving a fire truck through town. I asked a couple of old friends who are now fire fighters – they insist they CANNOT let me do that, no matter how much I pay them. They assure me the only way to achieve this goal is to become a firefighter, which is too much of a hassle.
In pursuit of my daredevil dreams I accumulated all the Evil Knievel figurines and filled scrapbooks with costume ideas for my own trademark daredevil suits. I wish I had kept my prototype cape drawings, because my recollection is they were stunning. My cape ideas and other artifacts of my pre-pubescent youth were obliterated by the onslaught of testosterone, which gave me plenty of boners, seething rage, acne, and clouded my mind with macho ideas that led to a purge of all remnants of my dreamy, artistic former self. But it kept the flames of my passion for stuntman stardom burning bright.
I knew I had to toughen up my body for the shock of stunt legendariness, or legendrification, or legendiferousness – superlatives I invented to set myself apart from the pack. I knew contusions and broken bones were the standard fare in the life of stunt legends like “Evil Knievel”. I needed a few dates with papier-mache and crutches to get my stuntman cred.
First, I took to rolling down stairs. It used to drive my mother insane with fear, but I got pretty good at it. So good, in fact that, much to my seven-year old chagrin, I never broke a bone or even had a date with an x-ray machine. I got bored of falling down the stairs before I had done enough of it to get really hurt. I was unaware, until much later, the stunt-people profession had tried and true methods of falling down stairs to minimize the risk of injury. I was extremely proud I had learned it on my own.
I used to try daring bike-jumps over neighborhood kids and, thanks to repeated failure, knew how to shake off an ass-over-tea-kettle face plant if things went awry in mid-air. My mother and friends could count on being repeatedly shaken from their Saturday afternoon cocktails by the sight of me plunging from the window of my second story bedroom into piles of leaves or snowbanks on the ground. Sometimes, I wanted to see if I could land gracefully and without reeling in pain after jumping from a high surface. The thinking was I could train myself to be like a cat, notoriously able to land on both feet no matter how they were jettisoned from the surface above. I usually did land on both feet, but then turned on an ankle and ended up in crutches with a sprain.
I fully expected the years of falling down and self-destruction would make me a shoo-in to be the stuntman in the 1990’s run of The Six Million Dollar Man. My eight year old self had zero doubts that such an amazing, dramatic series would remain popular among fickle television viewers for twenty years. When I was a child I believed beyond a doubt that, if you willed something badly enough, it would happen.
I plunged headlong into many six foot fences as I tested this theory, running at full speed while mimicking the sound the bionic man made as he jumped over a speeding car, or ran in slow motion bionically, or threw a shoe at bionic speed toward a gun-toting criminal. The ill-conceived activity severely compromised many of the fences subjected to it, while completely demolishing others.
Most kids my age would have been teeming with panic and guilt at the damage their misguided actions had caused. Not me. I scoffed; the fences were obviously shabbily put together for a seven year old to have brought them down so easily. If anything, my efforts were the excuse someone needed to get the ball rolling on replacing the rickety thing before the fact of its poor construction brought harm to an unsuspecting child fool enough to sit on it. I had done the universe a service. This is one of countless examples of the extraordinary capacity I had to rationalize away the destructiveness caused by my impulsive behaviour; a sublime gift possessed by children with both ADD and a high IQ.
In terms of sharpening my precision-throwing skills, the project was fraught with abject failure from the start. No matter how much I practiced I could not hit a large target in my backyard, even with dodgeballs stolen from my school. By sheer fluke, I discovered I could pitch a fastball amazingly well. For a time I seriously considered playing baseball to hone my skills as a pitcher – until I realized I could not hit a beach ball with a tree trunk. In any case, The Bionic Man did not routinely throw baseballs. He threw shoes and tire irons; things available in routine life as imagined in Hollywood. Fastballs were never used by the Bionic Man. As it happened, I had zero ability to throw shoes of any kind. It was weird and perplexing, given my exceptional pitching arm. I realized shoes have no aerodynamic surfaces and produce too much drag for my laser-like arm – an insight suggesting a career in physics, given I was seven when I made it. Physicians did not seem cool to seven year old me.
My mother stopped me from trying to throw a tire iron. Soon enough I abandoned the idea of throwing projectiles at any thug brandishing a weapon. Instead, I hoped to goodness I would never need that skill; that the writers would soon realize having a Bionic Man throwing random, mundane objects was kind of lame and stupid given the fact of his bionicity, or bionic-ness, or whatever they called it. The Incredible Hulk series, which arrived in the late seventies, would soon have the television-watching public in awe at the range of items a protagonist with other-worldly strength could throw.
I loved the character of Steve Austin with all my childish heart. Lee Majors, on the other hand, not so much. He stole Farah Fawcett away from me. I did not care if he was the bionic man. She was mine. I loved Farah Fawcett very much, she stimulated me in places I was oddly unfamiliar with. I can’t confirm but she may have given me my first hard-on which, because I was still really young, was more of a curiosity than a source of fun for the three minutes after it emerged – as would be the case in my tween years.
When The Fall Guy came to air, all grudges against Lee Majors were forgiven, and my dreams as a knockabout movie stand-in were once again in full swing. I took my practice on the gridiron, getting my “bell rung” countless times. (“Bell rung” is crude, 1980’s medical terminology for what we today call “mild concussion”).
I had every confidence in the world I could withstand the ill-effects of jumping out of a helicopter or plunging off a bridge into the river below, which happened every week on the Dukes of Hazzard, a show about blue-blooded rednecks that no black kid like me should have ever had affinities with. The sounds “Heeeee Haaaaaw” bellowing from a vehicle with a Confederate flag should have genetically provoked fear and trepidation in my black ass. To the contrary, it put a smile on my ten year old face! It’s the colour-blindness that develops when you live in a WASP family as I did. “Gaw-awl-leee I sure do like them short-shorts on you, Miss Daisy.”
I never did become a stuntman, in case you were wondering. At some point it occurred to me Lee Majors was just an actor, that stuntmen were underpaid adrenaline junkies whose careers were as short-lived as the thrills they sought. They sometimes die. And for what? To help Hollywood make a quarter billion dollars churning out another mindless comic book movie? No thanks. I’d rather be a firefighter – at least the risk to my health and safety is in the service of helping regular people who are truly grateful for your sacrifice; for whom the effort is, beyond a doubt, deeply rewarding.
Yet, in those rare instances I am conned by my testosterone-laden amygdala to watch a dreadful action movie, whenever the story necessitates the protagonist jump out of an airplane, or speed through a European city in an Austin Mini, or run away from a thug along the roof of a high-speed train, a part of me becomes wistful. A part of me thinks: ‘If only I had kept rolling down stairs and leaping off tall structures for no reason, THAT coulda been my job.’
Instead, I sit at a cubicle and dream of smashing through a wall; not to practice my stuntman skills but because the torrent of pointless, spirit-crushing, goddamned e-mails is driving me nuts. At the end of the workday I flee that enclave of corporate hell-dom as if from a burning building and scurry towards the exit, throw open the door to the stairwell of the fire escape, and ponder the coming descent into the remainder of a typical day in the humdrum life that imperils my existence daily. Standing at the top of the landing, I think to myself, “I could tumble down those stairs and into a new life!”
Then I think better of it; the fall would most certainly destroy my MacBook, not to mention scuff my blazer and break my designer glasses. No, on second thought, I will carefully descend the stairs to start my journey home for the evening. Maybe I will make that vegan Mac and Cheese recipe I’ve been itching to try, after all. Yes, that’s what I’ll do. I had better stop at the grocery store to get some raw cashews. A text comes in, an old friend living in Japan is in town and wants to go for drinks. Sounds good. I leap into the evening, feeling unexpectedly energized.