Chris Crutcher, author of young adult novels such as Ironman and Whale Talk, tells of growing up in Cascade, Idaho, and becoming a writer.
About the Author
Chris Crutcher is a young adult fiction novelist and a family therapist. He received the Margaret Edwards Award from the American Library Association in 2000 for his lifetime contribution in writing for teens. Many of his books have been challenged and in some cases banned from classrooms, including his debut novel Running Loose (1983), Athletic Shorts: Six Short Stories (1989), and Whale Talk (2001). Athletic Shorts was loosely adapted into the film Angus in 1995.
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King of the Mild FrontierAn Ill-Advised Autobiography
By Chris Crutcher
I grew up riding a rocket. If legendary rocket man Wernher von Braun could have harnessed the power of my meteoric temper, we'd have beaten the Russians into space by a good six months. The bits of evidence lay in the wake of my explosive impulsivity like trailer-house pieces behind Hurricane Andrew: broken toys, holes in walls, a crack from top to bottom in a full-length mirror on the bathroom door of "the little house" where I lived until just after my seventh birthday. My dad purposely didn't replace that mirror as a reminder, a monument to me. Subsequently, when he'd see me heating up, he'd point to it and ask one of those questions to which adults never really want an answer: "Are you proud of that?"
"No," I lied, my bottom lip stuck out so far he could have pulled it over my forehead. Of course I was proud of it; I'd had to slam it three times to get it to break.
There was a famous family story about how my temper had been "cured" right around the age of two. It was told by my mother at bridge club, Christmas get-togethers, and you-think-your-kids-are-a-pain-in-the-butt afternoon coffee sessions at the Chief Café. It went something like this: "Chris was very difficult to deal with, even at an early age. When things didn't go his way, he would throw himself into the air, kick his legs out from under him, and land hard on the floor. I was afraid he'd hurt himself, so I called Dr. Patterson for advice. Dr. Patterson said, 'Just roll one of those wooden alphabet blocks under him when he goes up. That should take care of it.' So the next time he launched himself, I rolled the block under him, and sure enough he never did it again." I knew how to keep this story going; I'd done it for years.
"But ...," I'd say, pointing toward the sky.
"But," my mother went on, "then he began storming into the bathroom and hitting his head against the bathtub when he got mad."
"So you called the ever-compassionate Dr. Patterson...." I said.
"And he told me to 'help' him. Just push his head a little harder than he intended."
"And lo and behold ..."
"He stopped hitting his head against the bathtub."
I'd heard that story all my life, and had been convinced it was a good one, probably because it was about me. On the thousandth telling, however, I sat in a circle in my parents' living room with a group of their friends on Christmas Eve. I was in my mid-thirties, and a thought that should have crossed my mind eons ago pried its way into my consciousness. I said, "Jewell"-the Crutcher kids always called our parents by their first names, which probably deserves closer scrutiny somewhere in this confessional-"do you remember the long crack in the full-length mirror in the bathroom at the little house?"
She frowned. "Of course. Your father wouldn't get it fixed. He left it as a reminder to you."
"Of my temper," I said. "I did that when I was five. Do you remember the hole I kicked in the plasterboard in my bedroom when Paula Whitson asked Frankie Bilbao instead of me to the Sadie Hawkins dance?"
Jewell released a long sigh. "Your father didn't have that fixed, either."
"As a reminder of my temper," I said. "I did that when I was a junior in high school. Do you remember the Volkswagen Bug I had up until about six months ago? With the top that looked as if it had been stung by bees from my punching it from the inside when the electrical system died on a busy street?"
"Crutch wouldn't have had that fixed, either," I said, smiling at my dad. "I did that when I was thirty-three, a little over a year ago. Your story isn't about curing a kid's temper. It's about pissing him off for the rest of his life by rolling blocks under him and whacking his head against the bathtub instead of letting him have his two-year-old rage. Stop telling it."
What my mother didn't say then-and something she and I often talked about years later in the long-term care wing of Valley County Hospital where she had gone to die slowly of emphysema resulting from forty years of a two-and-a-half-pack-a-day habit-was that her fear for me in those days wasn't really that I'd hurt myself bouncing off the floor or banging my head, but that I would grow up with the same temper that stalked and embarrassed and humbled her throughout her own life. Though I couldn't have known it in those early years, it was one of my first experiences with a phenomenon I discovered years later as a child abuse and neglect therapist at the Spokane (Washington) Mental Health Center: Shit rolls downhill.
I'm sure I could audit my early life and find times when my temper was my friend, when it got me through situations where my fear stopped me cold. It certainly helped me survive my early years on the Cascade High School football team where I started out as a 123-pound offensive lineman, when in practice I'd get so angry at the grass stains on my back and the cleat marks on my chest that I'd finally hit someone hard enough to satisfy the coach sufficiently to let me out of the drill. And it got me through my one and only full-tilt fight in junior high school when my embarrassment turned to rage the moment I saw the aforementioned Paula Whitson witness Mike Alkyre cracking my jaw. It took three guys to pull me off, and though I was still the odds-on kid most likely to have my butt kicked by someone from a lower grade, some of them would think twice after watching me cross over into the land of I Don't Care. But far more often than not, my temper brought out behavior that made me embarrassed to show my face around our lumber town of fewer than a thousand citizens for a couple of weeks.
Excerpted from King of the Mild Frontier by Chris Crutcher
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