When Neon Was Normal

Audrey Thompson

Ivan once broke up with a girlfriend over bowling. That was when he was just out of high school and working at a bank. When he was much older, he broke up with a girlfriend over basil, but I am not going to tell you that story. It is true that practically the first thing Ivan asked me, before we began dating, was how I felt about basil, but by then he had already found out how I felt about bowling. He did not want a repeat of the bowling break-up. When Ivan was a teenager, he had a new girlfriend practically every month, and more in the summer time, but the girlfriend he broke up with over bowling was a girlfriend he particularly liked. If it hadn’t been a matter of principle, he might have stayed with her another week or more. But she gave him an ultimatum: either he was to go bowling with her or she’d give him back his class ring. He struggled over the decision. In the end, there was really no choice, though, and she knew it. When he came by her house that Saturday, she met him at her front door with the ring; she had realized that Ivan could not compromise his firm anti-bowling position.

I only know three or four stories from Ivan’s youth. No one in his family was able to tell me any stories because they hardly ever saw him. It’s too bad, because family members’ versions of stories can be quite illuminating. When Chuck was little and was always covered in dirt or mud, talking up a storm, and racing clompingly around the house with Brad Hatfield, Dad asked Mom, “Why is Chuck so dirty and noisy?”

Filthy Chuck

“I don’t know,” said Mom. “He’s a kid. Weren’t you like that as a boy?”

“No,” said Dad. “I was always very good. I never caused any trouble at all.

Mom believed him. Some time later, she happened to say to Mom Mom, “It must have been so easy having Tom for a son. I guess he never got in any trouble at all.”

“What are you talking about?” Mom Mom asked.

“Tom said that he was a perfect child and never caused you a moment’s trouble,” said Mom.

“I suppose he wasn’t counting the time during the war when he and Danny Wesselhoft used up an entire month’s sugar and flour rations, making brownies without asking,” said Mom Mom.
Dad being good
Innocent Tom Innocent Tom

I am sure that there are lots of stories like this about Ivan — not that Ivan ever pretended to be a perfect child — but no one will tell me the stories. Today I asked Ivan to tell me some anecdotes from his youth so that I could put them in my story, but he refused. At first he said that he didn’t remember any. Then, when I reminded him of the bowling story and another one about him hotrodding around icy parking lots in the winter time with his buddies, he said, “Oh, those stories. I think I will write about those stories myself.”

I would not mind if Ivan really did tell those stories himself, but the chances of his doing so are slim. He is still busy telling the story of his trip to Vietnam, and since that story has taken him a year so far and shows no sign of being even halfway done — this being a trip that took place only last summer — I don’t see how he will be getting around to stories about his faraway youth any time soon. It is possible that this refusal to tell me his personal history is just a ruse to keep stories of his youth out of my hands, but if so it is an ill-conceived ruse, because he knows perfectly well that if I am not given the facts, I will have to make them up.
Ivan in Vietnam in 1970 Ivan in Vietnam in 1970

Ivan in Vietnam in 2002
Ivan in Vietnam in 2002

If you read Ivan’s Vietnam saga, you will see that he is an excellent storyteller about trips to Vietnam, but it is no use asking him to tell stories about trips to Kansas City because he can’t. When I asked Ivan to tell me about the summer he spent in Kansas City, he said, “Yes, I went to Kansas City to take a computer course the summer after I graduated from high school. It was fun.”
Ivan Graduating Ivan graduating

Ivan about to leave for Kansas City
Off to Kansas City

“What was fun about it?”

“I don’t know. It was just fun,” he said.

“Well, I’m looking for stories, and ’it was fun’ is not a story,” I pointed out.

“Yes it is,” Ivan insisted.

“There is no build-up, nothing you could call a narrative arc,” I told him. “Can’t you tell me what you did for fun?”

“Once I went to the Harry Truman Museum,” Ivan said.

“Oh,” I said doubtfully. “The Harry Truman Museum. And . . . ?”

“And it was fun,” finished Ivan triumphantly.

The trouble is, unless you know what counts as fun for someone, you can’t really imagine what was so fun about it. When Ivan was eleven, he decided to see if the joke that he’d seen in cartoons, about people stepping on rakes and getting bonked on the forehead, was playable in real life. Holding out his hands to catch the rake handle, Ivan stepped on the end of a rake and looked down to see if the rake end was behaving like it did in the cartoons. The rake handle rammed through his outstretched hands and bonked him on the forehead. Just like the cartoons. So I guess that was fun, but it doesn’t really help me understand what was so fun about the Harry Truman Museum.

Ivan’s Dad, George, used to tell some good stories about when he was growing up. Apparently, things were better all round in those days. Personally, I would not have cared to live in those times. I am not going by the stories so much as by the fact that, every time George dropped by Ivan’s apartment, he would adjust Ivan’s painstakingly tuned television set until the colors glowed bright orange and green. “There!” George would say with satisfaction. “That’s better!” Then he would go off to rattle around at the backs of cupboards and drag out whatever was at the very back and underneath everything. Ivan would grit his teeth, knowing that he could never restore the television to anything faintly resembling normal color. I do not fully understand the color adjustment business, but I gather that, when George was growing up, neon was normal.
Ivan and George
George holding up Ivan’s head Ivan and George in Mattoon

If you go by the old photos, a lot of things used to be normal that are no longer normal. There was a kind of housewifely glee, for example, over owning an automatic dishwasher or vacuum cleaner that you just don’t see a lot of anymore. Then again, my father is thrilled enough to call long distance every time he gets grapefruit on sale. And my sister was extremely pleased when we gave her the pink mixer.

Proud owner of a Kitchenaid

After George retired, he bought a new orange motorcycle. Except for the time that he owned a Shelby Cobra, George’s cars had never been anything more exciting than a Ford station wagon. We asked him why he had bought a brand-new orange motorcycle. “To ride on top of the Great Wall of China,” he explained, “now that I am retired.” “Ah,” we said, nodding sagely. My mother had always claimed that she was going to buy a motorcycle when she retired, but she never did. Instead, she barrels down streets in her red hotrod. When she gets stopped by cops, she explains falteringly that she is just on her way to get her heart medicine.

So far, Ivan has been satisfied with his new orange mixer and has not needed an orange motorcycle. This is good and it is also handy, because I don’t do a lot of cooking or baking any more.

Smashing Pumpkins

The other day, I said to Ivan, “What are you making to take to the potluck?”

“What am I making?!” he said. “Why do I have to make anything at all? Why can’t you make something?”

“Okay, I will,” I agreed.

Immediately, he was suspicious. “What are you going to make?” he demanded.

“Toast,” I said.

“You know what, I think I may make some sesame noodles to take with us,” Ivan said musingly.

We have come a long way from how we used to fight over food when we were first dating. Once we drove up from Peoria to Chicago, to visit the Field Museum and meet some friends of Ivan’s for dinner; we had got as far as Harlem Avenue when I said, “I’m hungry. Can we stop for lunch now?”

Lunch?!” said Ivan. “We are not having lunch.”

“What do you mean, we’re not having lunch? Of course we’re having lunch,” I said.

“But you had breakfast before we left! You told me so yourself!” said Ivan.

“Yes, I did have breakfast this morning,” I explained, “and now I am going to have lunch.”

“You are not having lunch,” said Ivan. “The whole point of coming up here was to have dinner and you have already had one meal; if you have another one, you will spoil your dinner.”

Many people have three meals a day,” I said, “and I am one of them.” The conversation was actually rather more bitter and pointed than I am making it out to be. Ivan was incredulous that anyone could eat two meals in a day, let alone three, and I was incredulous that anyone could not want lunch. Since there was a lot more riding on this argument for me than there was for him, we stopped for lunch at a deli in a strip mall. Even though Ivan claimed not to be hungry, he had what turned out to be the best Nova lox and cream cheese bagel sandwich that he’s had in his life.

I’m glad that he remembers that sandwich so fondly. I just wish he also could remember a few details about growing up. If he did, I could write an awfully nice story about what it was like to grow up in a melodramatic family like Ivan’s.

Naomi wearing her glasses
Ivan’s Mom, Naomi


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