In first grade, while doing a Svengoolie impression in the mirror in the bathroom, I was discovered by a teacher who moonlighted as an actor at the Robert Young Repertory Theater, a leftover from when Smithville was a resort town, a place where Chicagoans would go to avoid the summer city heat. The teacher was hiding in the middle stall, cloistered for a moment away from the children, flipping through an Aquaman comic that a random child had left behind.
I was trying to will myself to be someone different, or at least to come across as someone different. On the playground, in the classroom, I was silent. I had no friends. I had no enemies, either. I was part of the background, a nobody, as blank as a sheet of typing paper. Some days, I wished a bully would discover me, beat me up, and humiliate me in front of everyone, and then I could become one with all the picked-upon boys. That seemed preferable to being a blank.
Svengoolie was a Chicago TV horror movie host. His bad accent was meant to be either Swedish or Transylvanian, I think. Or maybe it wasn’t. It wasn’t consistent enough to emulate, but I tried anyway. Everyone seemed to like him, so my thinking was that if I could become him, everyone would like me. But I didn’t want to roll this new me out without working on it.
“Berwyn!” I said, over and over, leering into the mirror. “Berrrr-wyn!”
The teacher sat in the stall thinking, “I could start a little drama department here at the elementary school.”
His name was Edgar Gallardo, and he did not live in Smithville. The residents there would have thought he was “a little dark.” As it happened, it was his third day as a teacher and the third day he’d been pulled over by the Smithville Police Department for possibly going over the speed limit. After he’d show the letter that said he was a teacher, he’d be let go with a warning. Between getting pulled over on the way to the theater, and getting pulled over on his way to the school, he was becoming acquainted with each officer in the police department, and they, eventually, would get acquainted with him, saying, “Hey, Edgar,” when they got to the car, a rusty Dodge Dart Swinger.
And Edgar would say, “Hey, Steve,” or “Hey, Phil.”
“Goin’ a little fast there, Edgar.”
And so on.
Edgar emerged from the stall, Aquaman comic in hand, and said, “Hi, little guy.”
I turned and looked at him quizzically. Adults took about as much notice of me as the kids. I did not assume that he was a child rapist, as children might assume today. You could say that those were more innocent times, but you’d be wrong. We merely hid the horrors of life better then, before we had 24 hours of cable TV news time to fill with the awfulness of the world and with pharmaceutical advertising that promised to ease that awfulness.
“Doing Svengoolie, huh?”
“I’m trying,” I said. I stepped off the little wooden stool in front of the basin, continued studying him.
“So you like acting?” Edgar took a knee, and I was still too short to look him in the eye. I was undersized, and would be until high school.
“I guess,” I said.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“George,” I said. “George Dobromil.”
“What kind of name is ‘Dobromil’?”
“We’re Bohunks,” I said.
And Edgar winced like I had slapped him.
Edgar gathered up the only four kids from the student population who seemed like they would enjoy acting and worked with us during a period called, “Enrichment.” During enrichment other kids, like my brother for instance, would work on complicated math problems, or would grow corn in a little plot near the school fence line, or would learn how to tie-dye shirts (until the school board heard about it, and nixed the program lest we be infected with incipient hippy-ism).
The other actor kids were Carol Jones, Steven Kenyon, and Graeme Martin, Jr.
Carol would end up being my brother’s first girlfriend in college, living next door to Bob and me when we were rooming together at U of I. She became an engineer/inventor, creating a contraption that could manufacture deep fried fruit pies from raw materials tossed into a hopper. She made regular appearances on late night TV during the 1990’s wearing a lab coat and a maniacal smile, hawking her device.
“It can make apple?” an audience member asked her.
“It can make apple!” she shouted back.
“It can make peach?” another audience member asked her.
“It can make peach!” she shouted back.
And so on, and so forth.
Kenyon is still my best friend, and also an actor.
Graeme, last I heard, is a CIA analyst, or he works for the State Department, depending on what you’re willing to believe. By the time he was in high school, he spoke fluent Russian, Mandarin Chinese, and Japanese. He also had an affinity for firearms, as did his father. Once, during the summer between our junior and senior years in Smithville High, he was left alone at home by his father, who had gone off to a gun show in Georgia. I can’t remember whether Graeme Senior was buying or selling. Probably both. The home and day job for Graeme Senior was running the Poke Along Inn, a no-tell motel just west of the city limits, notorious for renting rooms by the hour. Graeme sat in the office behind a wall composed of brick and bulletproof glass, its bulletproofness in evidence from a couple of concave dents, which had stories of their own. Graeme was dressed in a pith helmet, baggy shorts, and a Steve Martin-inspired t-shirt announcing him as One Wild and Crazy Guy. He spun himself round in an armless office chair, a Springfield rifle in his lap. He was trying to make himself dizzy, or so he told me later on when I came by to help him patch the walls. Yes, the gun went off, as guns do, but not into the bulletproof glass. It went the other way, sending a thirty-aught-six round through three empty motel rooms and lodging itself in a dresser.
“Good thing it’s a Wednesday,” Graeme said, as we putty-knifed spackling paste into six not-so-neat holes and dabbed paint on the walls. In the final room, we debated whether or not to pry the bullet out of the dresser. We decided against it. “As Mr. Gallardo would say,” Graeme said, taking off the pith helmet and wiping his forehead with a snot rag, “it is organic to the piece. Or at least it looks that way.”
Edgar brought in makeup and found little costumes for us to wear from the Robert Young Repertory Theater, where they were currently performing Oklahoma, and Edgar was playing Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler.
Edgar wrote a short play, about seven minutes long, which all of us in our nervousness made half as long, in which I was a mad scientist. Graeme was the monster I created. Carol was my girlfriend, who, after telling me that I should not be playing God, would be carried off shrieking by the monster. And Kenyon was my assistant, a quasi-Igor with a hump, a bug-eye and a lisp.
When we were ready, at the end of the school year, we went from classroom to classroom performing our play and were a big hit with the kids. The thrill of it, the applause and laughter, were overwhelming to me. At the end of each performance, I could not stop blushing and hugging myself. After the final performance, I walked into a closet and passed out on top of a pile of Wellingtons. When I awoke, I was in the emergency room at St. Oswald’s, in my mother’s lap, staring up at the stained acoustic tiles and florescent lights. I knew what I wanted to do with my life.