Puppy Love and the Red-Headed Humbling

Posted: January 25, 2014 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

…or how a passion for Spanish and undying devotion to heavy metal jointly shaped the course of my whole life.

In late December 1992, while laboring studiously as a high school student, I volunteered to sing Christmas carols at an old folks’ home. Always the death metal screamer, and proudly fronting my own band by that point, my scratchy pipes were poorly suited to serenading half-defunct long-past-retirees on themes of Yule tide. And yet there I was, Deicide shirt hidden beneath decency’s flannel shirt, hair tied back, and big dumb grin plastered across my face. What calling so great, what mission so worthy, that a teenage death metal fan would be caught in such a situation, concealing his very metal-ness and allowing non-Satanic song lyrics to cross his lips? It could have been none great than the vixen Dawn, a 12th grader who had invited me to the event and with whom I was desperately, wholly smitten.  I was getting desperate, as she hadn’t responded to my decidedly un-subtle onslaught all school year, and I thought that perhaps ratcheting the ante up would do the trick. In high school two year’s different constituted a virtual chasm separating us, and thus Dawn seemed all but unreachable to lil’ sophomoric me as 1992 faded to 1993. In the mania of my teenage mind, I assessed that perhaps – just perhaps! – crooning to a roomful of geezers would showcase al the qualities I was sure an older woman like Dawn might appreciate, compensating for my age and total lack of jock-ness: my holiday spirit, love of humanity, and if I were really lucky, my on-key delivery of choice Christmas classics.

It was not to be, sadly. The night before we caroled, my band performed, me on the mic. While I admit that it was a rousing performance in which I turned up the volume far beyond what any decent Peavey speaker cabinet can reasonably endure, my vocal cords were in a state of ruin: a collapsing Mayan temple, a dilapidated Appalachian shack. An agonized throat may well be music to a metal fan’s ears, but not so to my elderly audience that day. My pitch was atrocious, a hideous disfigurement of holiday music, and because of it, my much-trumpeted “love of humanity” and “holiday spirit” were sorely un-evidenced by the third song. It shown clearly upon my mournful countenance, and became even more acutely clear to all present after I started sulking. And why did I sulk? Because of an occurrence I had prayed to circumvent, but which the Lord decided to visit upon me that day, a Job-like test of my capacity for punishment.

More specifically: Dawn’s boyfriend made a cameo at the retirement home, held her lily-white hand, and macked on her before my very eyes, likely aware of my interest in his lady and staking his territory publicly. It is true, I mused pathetically in silence, that possession is indeed nine-tenths of the law. This immediately dashed The Master Plan for the eventual (though in retrospect impossible) conquest of her heart. Nearly ready to admit defeat and leave the premises of the retirement home altogether, I was looking for my final in-road, scanning desperately about the room to see if something, anything, would present itself as an avenue by which to woo this lass.

And that’s when I saw the Old Spanish Lady.

She was in a wheelchair, secluded in a corner of the room. Whilst the other retirees enjoyed our high school sing-song rendition of their cherished holiday ditties, she stared out a window, morose and downcast, isolated, clearly pondering with resignation how many feathers remained on the chicken of her life. I asked an orderly why she was there. “She’s from Spain and doesn’t speak any English. She doesn’t talk to anyone.” And just like that, I saw the gauntlet tossed at my feet as though by Destiny itself. I would woo the old bat with Spanish phrases I’d learned in school, by extension wooing my fair maiden who would doubtless witness this act of kindness and linguistic acrobatics. Happily-ever-after never looked so probable.

Verily I approached the old Spanish biddy, rolling up my sleeves in anticipation as I searched the abyss of my mind for precisely the right Spanish phrase for a knock-out introduction, rapidly reviewing every lesson I’d been taught in Dr. Stewart’s Spanish class, poignantly attempting to cobble together anything bearing even the slightest semblance of proper grammar and pronunciation. I slowly grew aware – neigh, intense was my cognizance! – that the entire room’s attention was on me.

And then, the singing of Christmas songs stopped. The crowd watched. Dawn gawked curiously. I had the spotlight and struck:

“Hoh-lah moo-hair… No haw-blow s-paaaaa-nol paaay-ro feluuuuz ni-va dude!”

It was my first complete Spanish sentence, ever, and I wasn’t about to let the total wrongness of every aspect of it deflate my pride in having spoken a foreign language publicly. Dawn’s cock-bag boyfriend, take THAT. I stood back triumphantly waiting for the Old Spanish Lady’s response. She continued to stare out the window, unaware, unresponsive, her stoicism befitting Shakespearean intrigue. And that’s when the orderly approached me anew, now with a clarification: “Oh sorry. She’s actually from Bulgaria.” I didn’t look up as the flop-sweats forced itty-bitty trickles of perspiration down my furrowed brow.

(In the background: the faint sounds of muffled snickers. A snort or two.)

At that very moment, I swore never to suffer that kind of public humiliation again.

Thus it was a function of terribly unfortunate timing that a mere three weeks later, in early 1993, I was compelled to smack the bejesus out of a chap named Paul, who embarrassed me one cold afternoon leaving the cafeteria and on the way to geography class. His transgression was egregious in my prideful land o’ leading a garage band: he voided his bladder on one of my band’s promotional fliers. We used to pass them out during lunch hour. Were we expecting some push-back from the other kids? Sure.  Hip-hop and Nirvana were in, and metal was anathema in those days.  But didn’t we deserve, demand, a modicum of respect for our labors?  So pissing on my flier was not something I could, with any dignity, take in stride.

But in truth, though his golden shower was the immediate precipitator leading to Paul’s humiliating comeuppance before half the student body, the roots of out tiff lay in a heavy metal beef set to pasture and grazing for six intense months by that point in the school year. Simply put, Paul hated me for being the superior guitarist to him. But it wasn’t my fault that his assigned lot in life was that of a six-string douche. We cannot all be cut from the cloth of musical glory.  So this, his lack of instrumental ability, I could forgive him as it affected me not.  I could even pardon his frequent public challenges to my birth legitimacy and sexual orientation. These, typical for teenage boys prepping the battlefield for a late-day scrap, were sufficiently vulgar (though, admittedly, creative) to have sent an arsenal of angry little rockets screaming out of any teenage boy’s affronted ego. I was certainly no exception.  But no, I contained my wrath, choosing to be the proverbial “bigger man”. But then there was the pee-peed flier… Oh, how that pee-peed flier obliged me to a full defense of my offended metal honor, so incensed was I at this punk’s contemptuous and cavalier attitude toward my musical art. As a (literally) red-headed step child, Paul should have known he was statistically six times more likely to be beaten, and whizzing on my flier that day exponentially increased those odds to the point of dead certainty.

The next morning I told my mother, cryptically, that she ought to “be ready to come get me by about 8”, and listened to Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power, strutting and flexing in front of the mirror to dissipate the horror I felt for what was about to happen. Truth be told, I’ve never been a fighter, and hate violence. And I was scared of Paul, who I was told had quite a bit more experience with fisticuffs than I.  But I knew what had to be done. Thus, by the time I got to school shortly thereafter, my jittery nerves counterbalanced only by the simmering ire I felt over the poor pee-peed flier, I exploded like Van Halen in 1984. Before homeroom bell even struck, I had delivered a sound thrashing with the precision of a smart bomb and the glee of a child on Christmas morning, a million purring kittens playfully swatting at the butterflies in my tummy whilst my clenched fist rocketed into Paul’s unsuspecting cheek.

Dr. Stewart, my high school Spanish teacher, intervened and broke us up, truncating my splendid brutalizing. She never let me live it down, constantly reminding me that only “bad students get into fights”, doling out goodly amounts of reproach to me whenever I came into her line of sight. And this bothered me: I was always a good and mindful student, filial to the end, and it was a cause of shame to me that a teacher would not think highly of me. I was not a big fan of foreign languages in those days, and unless a foreign tongue would help me nab one of the Mexican weather girls on Telemundo, I wanted nada to do with Spanish class in particular. But seeing that the only avenue by which to bring Dr. Stewart back around was to at least feign an interest in the material, I started paying closer attention in her class. I hoped my scholastic achievements would overshadow her low impression of me, showing her I wasn’t a bruiser but in fact was a responsible, upstanding young man.

Not so shockingly, it worked. Any teacher appreciates an earnest pupil. I was surprised, however, at how quickly I took to the language, and how speedily I began developing a taste and even talent for it. The following school year, 1994, my band Witch Hunt broke into the global underground metal tape trading and fanzine network. We recorded some demos and began shopping them to anyone who would listen to us, yet because of the ever-growing global network to which we were now party, we broke the mold of the typical gonna-go-nowhere, after-school band by marketing our material to other countries.  We established low-level distribution with a few helpful pen pals around the planet, paned off free copies of our demo material to select popular fanzines for review in their upcoming issues, and before I knew it, we were receiving interview requests and even fan mail from foreign lands.

Latin America became a particularly friendly region of the globe for us.  This was almost exclusively because of the efforts of one expatriate German buddy living in central Mexico with contacts all over the hemisphere. I began receiving weekly letters (mind you, this was in the pre-Internet days in which “snail mail” reigned king) from places like Colombia, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and even Cuba. And unlike the Europeans who boasted English usually better than mine, our Latin American brethren spoke only their own language. And I understood next to nothing of it. A conundrum; yet if they were confident enough to reach out, then in decency the only proper response on my part was to reach back their way. I began toting the letters to school, asking Dr. Stewart for her assistance in translating them and my responses. At first, she was dubious: how many high school teachers field requests from students who need help translating responses to Chilean fanzine interview requests? But when she saw the proof, she was entertained and, in no small measure, inspired. She realized, and rightly so, that this was her chance to make a difference to a student and a lot of other people that would be tangible, in print, for others to read and enjoy.

Dr. Stewart began giving me extra credit for answering the letters in Spanish. She named me, later that year, Spanish Student of the Year. As my knowledge of the language grew at a steady clip – in no small part due to the Latino exchange students who took me under their wing – so grew my understanding of the region’s politics, history, society, and culture.  These I could also discuss with my Spanish-speaking pen pals as well,  all more than willing to tell me in languid detail of the circumstances facing each of their respective nations. In this manner I learned about the Colombian guerrilla and paramilitary problem; Nicaragua’s long decade of the 1980s and their return to pseudo-democracy in the 1990s; the Cuban censorship police and their occasional crack-down on heavy metal because of their belief that its political content might incite counter-revolutionary activities; and even, as one Mexican contact put it, “That Taco Bell is not really Mexican food.” Latin immigrants from Central America were not very visible in those days at metal concerts where I lived in Northern Virginia, but they were beginning to make a dent in our local scene, gradually; and at concerts in venues like The Cave (Manassas, Virginia) and Jaxx (Springfield, Virginia) I always found one to speak with, to ask about his country, and to cut my Spanish chops. They were always more than happy to oblige, simply pleased that a gringo would take the time to try learning their language.

Such was my passion for this language and its people that once I got to college in mid-1995, I knew I would ultimately declare Spanish as a major. I wanted more, in any way I could get it.  Following my junior year in 1998, I spent a summer in Guatemala working as a volunteer with war orphans and street children. A year later in 1999, upon graduation, I took up with the Peace Corps in El Salvador. During that two-year period, I lived in a small community of 300 ex-guerrillas from the Salvadoran civil war, which had ended a few years prior to my arrival, and traveled throughout Central America. After Peace Corps, I taught Spanish in the US Virgin Islands, obtained a Master’s Degree in Latin American Affairs, and got full-time professionally into regional affairs. Since then I’ve resided in Colombia, Mexico, and currently Brazil (amazingly I speak Portuguese now as well), and have independently traveled the depth and breadth of Latin America.

Metal and Spanish have been, therefore, my two enduring loves. They have outlasted any pet, girlfriend, or hobby I’ve had over the years. And while my love for the Spanish has helped me developed my career in a different direction than most of the headbangers I used to run with, my dedication to the music has never dampened, not for a instant: I’m still a metal-head, and proudly so. It’s the only music that truly churns me, the only kind I find worth paying to see in concert, and the only tuneage to which the vast majority of my best memories are tagged and cued. A song for every personal highlight dating back all the way to the first time I heard Cinderella’s “Somebody Save Me” in 1987 and, intuitively, knew no other music mattered to me afterward.

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Comments
  1. Good post. I learn something new and challenging on websites I stumbleupon every day.
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