I've always had an overactive imagination. My hunch is that most writers do. Along with obsessions and paranoia. And bizarre thoughts.
E.B. White starts one of his wonderful short stories with a psychiatrist asking his patient, a man named Trexler, "Do you ever have any bizarre thoughts?"
Trexler recoils from the question and begins to go through all the bizarre thoughts in his mind. No, he can't tell the one about the zebra. The underwear and the birthday cake are out, too. He desperately searches for a bizarre thought that doesn't REVEAL too much about himself. Avoidance.
Writers frequently do the same thing, but another way to handle a bizarre thought is with humor. In Burning Fence, I tried to make light of my childhood obsession with leprosy. For those who missed yesterday's entry, my stepfather Vern took me to a creepy movie about leprosy and I was terrified, truly terrified of getting the disease. When a missionary came to our church and showed slides of the horribly deformed lepers, my terror increased because somehow I thought God was in on it. This was in Baker, Oregon, 1953 when all the "experts" thought leprosy could be transmitted ny touching.
Convinced that lepers would come into my room and touch me while my stepfather was away working in Lime, I used my Boy Scout know-how to build a leper trap. This consisted of a series of spiderweb ropes stretched between the footposts of the twin beds in my bedroom.
Any lepers coming into the room would trip on the ropes, I figured, giving me time to leap out the bedroom window which I kept thrown wide open for such an occasion in spite of Baker's below freezing temperatures.
I only caught one leper that winter, and he was cleverly disguised as my stepfather Vern, but I knew his real identity. Vern was scheduled to work in Lime that night, so I knew this was an actual leper. Apparently, he was in the early stages, having lost no fingers (I couldn't see his toes) and a fairly intact nose.
After discovering the window was open and we were paying heating bills the size of elephant feet, my mother made me keep the window shut for the rest of the winter. She insisted the leper was Vern after all and gave him succor and a Ace bandage for a sprained wrist. I remained unconvinced.
Soon after that incident, my actual stepfather started staying away from home for longer and longer periods of time. Natuarally, he was having an affair but my mother told me nothing about it until one day I came home from school and found a moving van backed up to the porch. They had already cleared my room of the Hopalong Cassidy poster, the signed picture from Rex Allen, my almost-full piggy bank with one flopped ear. We left that night, hopping the streamliner "Portland Rose" as far as The Dalles where my mother's parents lived.
Baker was gone and much of my childhood. I never saw my friends there for twenty years and most of my classmates never knew what happened to me. Several showed up at my Baker reading of Burning Fence out of curiosity.
Now that I'm a parent, I've had two daughters go through school, and sometimes they'd come home upset that a classmate had vanished without so much as a goodbye. We live in a neighborhood where divorce, drugs, and crime are high, so many of the kids had to leave suddenly ? with or without their parents.
As I wrote Burning Fence and thought of my daughters' anxieties over those missing classmates, I realized that I too had been one of those who disappeared overnight. And in writing the Baker sections, I also realized how deeply that wrenching displacement had affected me.
If you've never seen Baker, now Baker City, it's a gorgeous place and to me, as a kid, it was paradise ? in spite of my terror of lepers. One day we were there; the next we were gone.
Almost as if we were lepers banished to distant colonies.