The year was 1977 when it dawned on me that I wasn’t like other people. Given the bizarre nature of my childhood, I never felt that anything was wrong with me, but I was definitely a square peg. Two years into grade school, numbers were becoming a second language to me. My brain computed nonstop simple addition and subtraction problems during the endless hours spent in classrooms, doctors offices and church. Even at home if I was awake, I was thinking about numbers. Little did I understand that fixating on one concept after another was going to be a life pattern for me.
In third grade I was introduced to a phonic set for memorizing multiplication tables. Those songs ramped up my obsession with simple arithmetic to a whole new level and was a revelation to the cathartic nature of music. I walked about a mile each way to school which took no less than forty five minutes. Looking down at the ground so as not to fall off the face of the earth while my mind raced, I recited those songs in my head over and over to take away from the monotony which was my barely perceptible movement.
The converse to my mathematical ability was an utter disdain and ineptitude for reading. The same teacher who pulled me out of class to run metric conversion drills would literally have to paddle me to get me to read. While I could memorize vocabulary tests with ease, the printed words rarely made sense and very quickly blurred into a distorted jumble of letters and phrases. I would quickly lull myself into a state of reading the same lines over and over. Before long, I would be staring entranced at the blurry page while calculating numbers in my head.
Coming from a fairly strict Christian home, I was forbidden to listen to any music that was racier than Mamas and the Papas, Frankie F***ing Vallie, Simon and Garfunkel, etc. Not exactly fitting the bill for this kid. That all changed when I snuck my dad’s AM-FM radio up to my room one night. Hiding under the covers with the volume low so my dad wouldn’t hear, I fidgeted with the tuning dial until just above the electric mosquito like hum coming from the loudspeaker, I heard the sound of raindrops and thunder. A soothing baseline led into my first rock and roll experience, “Riders on the Storm.”
When Jim Morrison crooned the fateful words into my ear, “There’s a killer on the road. His brain is squirming like a toad.” I knew I had found a reason to live. Petrified with fear about serial killing hitchhikers, understanding exactly what a toad’s brain felt like and trying to figure out what a man was supposed to understand from girls taking him by the hand, I listened until the song was over. After turning the radio off I lay in bed, my mind whirling with a kind of stimulation I had never known before. I had broken the rules listening to that music and the terror I felt from the lyrics and the threat of discovery along with it’s corresponding heart rate was to become the most addictive sensation known to me for the next 20 years.
I grew up in a small, one stop light town bifurcated by train tracks. I had to cross those tracks coming from and going to school. This was a busy trunk line that sent noisy auto racks and coal gondolas hurtling through my stomping grounds at highway speeds several times each hour. Each time I was forced to wait for an approaching train, I would inch closer to the tracks to see what it felt like when the locomotive went racing by. Trust me, it felt good.
Sometimes I swear that had I reached my hand out, it would have vaporized into a crimson mist from the inertia contained within the metal screaming past me. I never once wanted to die, but there’s nothing to put the spring into one’s step like a butterfly kiss from the Grim Reaper.
This grew tiresome when I got a bicycle and made a point of racing to beat the train to the crossing each time I heard the whistle. To the east I could see 100 yards or so down the tracks. To the west was a school building, trees and a maintenance shed which made spotting the train trickier. I loved racing down the sidewalk and jumping my bike over the tracks a second or two before the train arrived. I also enjoyed the gaping mouths and obscene gestures of motorists waiting at the gates who apparently didn’t approve of my decision. There were some very close calls.
Other times my bike would be afflicted with the types of maladies that I would soon be doling out on my musculoskeletal system. It was broken. On these days I would walk about a quarter mile east on the tracks from my usual track jumping location. If I was lucky a westbound train would appear on the horizon which would give me a few minutes to decide if I was going to hurl rocks at it, climb the signal tower and wave at the engineer from eye level as he whizzed by or play chicken. I shall now describe a fateful day when I chose the latter.
Miles west of me the rails seemed to come together at a point. On a sunny day, the reflection often looked like an approaching headlight. Many times I would stand in the middle of the rail bed squinting as if wishing a freight rain to materialize out of the glare. Many times I would leave disappointed. This day was to be different. As the distant pinpoint of light changed ever so much in size and intensity, my ears detected the faintest whisper of a train whistle. Yes!!!
A mile out I hear the familiar whistle pattern signifying the train had reached the last crossing to the east before coming into town. Now my brain is coming coming online. The butterflies are in my stomach and my heart is starting to thump. Time for some musical math problems to keep an even keel. I start playing the multiplication jingles in my mind starting with nine. Why nine? Why not?
One long blast, two short blasts, followed by a final long blast precedes trains at every crossing in the nation. On previous episodes I got a couple of extra quick chirps out of the engineer because his job required him to grant me the courtesy that hindsight tells me I failed to show him.
A few hundred yards out I feel the ground begin to tremble. Bearing down on me is a low nose GP-35 with the yellow cat painted on the front. I now had a visual point of point of reference to time what I was about to do. Nine times seven is sixty three, nine times eight is seventy two. Look around. Nobody is coming. Good.
One hundred yards out and the rail bed is really beginning to shake. The engineer goes into his pattern of warning whistles which is now uncomfortable to my ears. The cat looms larger with each foot the train roars closer to me. At this rate of speed I now have about three seconds to live. No worries, I’ve been here dozens of times. I’m just getting warmed up.
The first long blast has ended. As the second short blast trails into what may well be the final sounds heard by me on this earth, I notice movement from the seat opposite the engineer. There’s a second man in the cab. He’s waving his arm in a sideways motion as if to sweep me out of the path of his locomotive with a simple gesture.
Now things go into slow motion. I reference the movie where boys are nearly run down by a steam locomotive on a trestle. The final sequence before the kids jump is one of my favorite pieces of cinematography. The entire world behind those boys seems filled with a thundering train. The suspense felt by that movie’s audience offers a glimpse into what was about to happen to me.
The air horn screams it’s full agonizing glory. The ground is quaking at a frequency that makes my legs numb below the knees and I start to have the first feelings of panic. I’m in uncharted waters and my brain is screaming for me to jump. In response to such preposterous notions I extend my left arm at the screaming yellow cat and raise my middle finger to the heavens.
I don’t have time to turn my head to scan for onlookers, A darting glance to the left tells me that all is well. No pesky motorists or policemen to louse up what is sure to be a glorious train dodge. A look upward shows me that the engineer is screaming at me while tugging on the lanyard which is unleashing Gabriel’s trumpet straight into my brain. His rider is now more or less standing up waving both arms in the same sweeping motion as before.
Now my mother had never taught me to always leave the house with clean underwear(probably because she didn’t want to do the extra laundry) but even at my tender age I know that if I didn’t move real soon, it would be a moot point. This thing was on top of me and I was about to die. Would it hurt? Would I hear or feel the impact? Would Jesus be waiting just on the other side of the yellow cat that was quickly becoming all encompassing in this young boy’s field of vision?
As the leviathan crosses the final 25 yards something in my mind snaps. I have reached a complete sensory overload. The noise is so loud I can no longer hear. The ground shakes so that I feel as though I am truly levitating and all fear is gone. A calm such as I’ve haven’t known before or since envelopes me. Thirty five years of introspection leads me to believe that this is the one moment where my brain actually stopped. That is to say while striking a defiant pose in the face of instant doom, I found peace.
My friends never believe this part of the tale. I suppose it remains between me, those poor men in the cab of the GP-35 and our Maker. I held my body in check until I could no longer see the engineers which meant they could no longer see me. From their perspective I had vanished under the hood of the engine. The railing on the front and the coupler preceding the beast came into view and I knew I had miscalculated yet still I held. I felt a wind on my face and whether you care to believe I was feeling the hand of my guardian angel or the knuckle of air being displaced by the locomotive, the effect was the same. The wind propelled be into action. I pushed off with my dominant leg and leapt a couple of feet to the right and dropped down off the ballast maybe eighteen inches or so. With my hand to God, I swear the train passed me before my feet hit the ground.
Having barely reacquainted myself with Terra Firma I bent down and grabbed a rock in each hand to fire off at the engine. I looked up to acquire my target and what I saw made me drop the stones back to the ground.
Staring down at me from the rearward facing window of the locomotive was a look of such malice that for an instant, real fear clouded the mania coursing through my body. This guy didn’t want to tell my parents, or the police about what I had done. He wanted to have his way with me and toss my corpse into the swamp 50 feet away. Our eyes remained locked as the momentum of his train propelled him mercifully away from me at 60MPH.
So how does this relate to a 41 year old ADHD nightmare? Simple. I spent the years 1978-1998 chasing the dragon, trying to relive a millisecond in time when I wasn’t thinking about 10 things at once. Metal concerts, consuming enough booze and drugs to kill a couple of elephants, driving at speeds well north of 100MPH while occasionally getting all four wheels of my vehicle off the ground are symptoms of a condition I didn’t know by it’s name until the age of 28. That’s 2 decades almost to the day of the most reckless behavior I could engage in to simply feel respite from the maddening cycle of never ending consciousness.
The psychologist who worked me up indicated that most people who score as high as me on the screening test usually don’t live to be my age. That just made me chuckle. I had lied on half the questions to not make the lady who was to save my life think I was looking to bail on her.
Fast forward a dozen years and we have a boy and girl in the 6th grade. They have grown up at my side and experienced a miniscule version of the impulsivity and frustration that accompanies my condition. They also have brilliant minds and are two of the most polite, funny, kind and benevolent children I have ever met.
Since ADHD is hereditary and afflicts predominantly intelligent women, you can imagine my alarm as my sweet baby girl grows into a young lady. I see her walking in slow motion with her head down and I want to cry because I know what lies ahead and understand more than she the role I played in her impending struggle. She told her mom recently that she can’t make her brain slow down at bedtime. I laugh off that indictment by imagining me putting “Riders On The Storm’ onto her iPod. Her comment would most assuredly be, “Dad, what the hell is that?”
My heart lifts when I see her pick up book after book and devour their contents like a stoner with a five pound bag of Dorritos. This little girl is an intellectual force of nature and is so much more balanced than her dad will ever be. Where she will probably never be called “Rain Man” like her father, I can’t wait to see the possibilities her mind unlocks. It truly gives me hope for the future.