Puberty—A Search for Meaning

Where the river between the Caribbean and the pools at Sian Ka’an Biosphere meet the sea.

Puberty began a search for meaning in my life. No one I knew talked about this issue, I didn’t, but I think most people around this age begin to examine the same questions. It’s a time when one discovers art, music, poetry and, yes, sometimes gets into trouble. It’s all part of the “Who am I” search: “What am I doing here,” and “What is really important.” I believe junior high or middle school education should have more focus on this existential quest, not merely on memorization of facts and figures.

I had recently gone through a search for God and read my little white bible from cover to cover.

Mom had been raised Episcopalian, and felt religion was a personal matter and didn’t need a church. Our family tried a local Presbyterian church for a while and Diann and I were baptized when we were small but, as Dad had no interest, we soon quit attending. The experience of church and Sunday School hadn’t felt real to me. It had been more social than spiritual. I needed to feel purpose—why had these things happened to me? How might I feel safe?

I believed in the Christian God wholeheartedly. But why hadn’t he answered my prayers? Was I truly a bad person? Did I need to do something to be good again?

My best friend Mary’s family belonged to an Episcopalian church, so I started going with her every Sunday. I liked the young minister. I liked what he said and I liked their style of worship. It felt real. 

Then I joined Rainbow Girls, the young women’s Eastern Star. I cannot say what this group is about because one swears to never reveal a thing and, even though I don’t believe in it, I stand by what I swore. I will only say it was, once again, another attitude of privilege that turned me away. I run into this separation of those with and those without, us and them, again and again, and I refuse to be a part of it. I see it in churches, in schools, in so many organizations, and it makes me sick.

I opened my spiritual search wider and read books on other religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism. I read about Mohammed. I discovered that Christianity is not the most popular religion in the world. Popular? I can apply such a word to religion?

I was “freaking out.” I still said my prayers every night, but didn’t know if “anyone” listened. I felt betrayed by the one thing I always thought I could count on.

What if there was no God? 

Meanwhile, for the first time Diann and I had a bedroom with a door we could actually close, even though it had no lock and we were still in bunkbeds. That door was a new-found luxury.

Once in Coventry High School our classes were separated into college preparatory and those who wouldn’t be going to college.

I needed to prepare for work, which meant shorthand and typing, but I also wanted to be ready for college, though I knew my family couldn’t afford it. Mary’s could. I would be left behind when she left for college—that was a given. I took classes for both.

My sophomore year a new girlfriend entered my life.

Natalie, who lived above the bar her parents owned on the corner of 619 and Dusty’s Road, a short ten-minute walk from our rented house. She was a tall, precocious girl who could talk your head off and did. Probably because she had no siblings and was pretty lonely. She adopted me and Mary and attached herself to us and our walks, and our stories. If we weren’t available, she latched onto my mom, and talked and talked at her until we showed up to give Mom relief. Natalie was a straight A student, though, and the only one of us smart enough (and Catholic) to root for Kennedy in 1960. The rest of us had Republican parents and were, I hate to admit, for Nixon. Before then, all I can recall is my folks being for Eisenhower.

The Kennedy/Nixon election in our high school sophomore year was the first I was aware of watching debates or noticing news coverage. Natalie nearly had me convinced and, by the time Kennedy won, I didn’t mind in the least. Of course, I kept my mouth shut around Dad and, thank goodness, Natalie wasn’t at our house when he was home to argue with him. I can imagine what that would have been like. Nowadays, I wish I could have been more like her. Except for the horror that happened the year after we graduated.

The summer before my junior year we moved again.

Maverick and Karen

I don’t know why, except that we moved only a street away from Mary’s house! And a few streets from Patty, a new friend for Diann, who would become her best friend for life. Dad’s boss lived nearby (Dad had been a plumber for some years), and his sons’ German shepherd, Lance, discovered us and joined Mary and I on our walks all summer long, even to the drugstore where Mom worked. He’d wait patiently outside the door while we went in for frosted nickel root beers or strawberry floats. Poor Maverick had to be tied to his doghouse in the backyard because he would never stay with us or stick around our yard—ever the wanderer. If only he would have been like Lance, who was such a good pal and guardian. Our folks never minded our walking alone, but would always ask, “Is Lance with you?”

One night fairly late after supper Mary and I walked north along Boston Avenue absorbed in one of our stories.

Lance and Diann

At that time the west side of Boston Avenue was nothing but a large field with a pond and one large barn in the middle. The west ends of Melcher where Mary lived and Kruger where I lived met Boston a little north of where we walked. Lance generally trotted about eight yards ahead, circled around sniffing both sides of the road, wandered around behind us, and continued his loop to the front again. Once again in front, he stopped and growled while looking into the dark toward the field. I’d never heard him growl before. He quickly trotted up to us, wined and pushed each of us with his damp nose, looked back and wined again. This unusual action made us a little nervous, so we turned and headed up the road the way we had come. Lance kept looking back, growling, pushing the back of our knees with his wet nose, and circling around us all the way back to our streets and home. We will never forget that night.

Later we heard a young girl in the area was murdered and they never found the perpetrator.

In my senior year our band marched in the Orange Bowl Parade, and it was my first time out of Ohio.

Coventry’s band was famous in our area and my freshman year I wanted to join because I loved music and I wanted to be part of something special. I worked like crazy and got into marching band and orchestra. This made Dad proud as he liked music and could brag on his daughter in Coventry’s band, which consisted of exactly one hundred students. The rest were there in case somebody didn’t stay up to par, which is how I got in. Dad didn’t mind picking me and my friends, Mary and Janet, especially Janet, up from band practice after school. My third year the band leader, Ralph Heron, said, “Get your teeth fixed, buy a better clarinet, take private lessons, and next year you can play first chair.” I had a hole in my front teeth. Mom paid the dentist. I don’t know who paid for the lessons and my new instrument, but I got them and first chair in orchestra my following senior year. That was the year the band was invited to march in the Florida Orange Bowl Parade.

Florida! First ride on a train, a stop in Washington, D.C., on to a stay in Hollywood, Florida, fresh oranges, coconuts, ocean, the beach, a motel, all in the middle of winter. You can’t imagine what this was like for hinterland me. Like touching my toe into that long-awaited dream. How I wanted more. 

1960s Orange Bowl Parade
Florida Orange Bowl Parade in 1960

By my junior and senior years I was still afraid of boys, but I could talk to them a little, about schoolwork anyway.

I was good in English and reading and good enough in history and government. I held my own in college prep classes. My shorthand and typing were excellent. Algebra? A change in classes and I never caught up. I discovered years later that many students were being tutored outside of class; the rest of us suffered.

Did I have a crush on anyone? Yes. But I was too frightened and he was shy. Neither of us had any idea how to talk to one another the one time we went out together. Such a bust. It was a Sadie Hawkins Day thing where the girl asks the boy, and I don’t know how I got the nerve to ask him. Another risk I took. Poor fellow. Too nice, too polite, to say no. If only we had been able to be ourselves that night we might have been able to have a good time. 

Mrs. Miller, the college prep English Teacher held auditions for a production of Macbeth.

I loved reading, plays, Shakespeare. Did I have a chance with all the popular students wanting parts? I was one of the better students in her class. What if I tried out for one of the witches? It was a risk. One I could hide behind by being crazy. Lo and behold, I got the part! I frizzed my hair and cackled my way through my fear. Karen Klink, first witch. “Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble.” We played Macbeth for the parents and to a group in Cleveland. Another plateau overcome.

I graduated with a high B average. High enough for college except my parents had no money to send me. I would have to find a job.    

Gotta Have a Dream

 Those early years were filled with anxiety, were often depressing, and peppered with moments of joy. Dad’s greed and anger left me with a lack of self-confidence, but filled me with determination and toughness that enabled me to face life’s problems I might not have had otherwise. Sometime in my teens I decided that when I lay on my deathbed I did not want to regret the way I had lived. I wanted to live an adventurous life, no matter the risks. I wanted to experience what I read about in books. That dream was a major part of what enabled me to get past what I faced later.

He never knew, no one did, how strong that dream was. Years later, days after I graduated from Kent State University, refused a local teaching job, and prepared to leave for Colorado, Dad said to my friend Mary, “I didn’t think she’d really do it.”

It was in the summer when I couldn’t take Dad’s sexual abuse any longer, when that black bubble growing inside burst the first time. 

He’d done it again, downstairs because I recall running upstairs and making it as far as Diann’s bed, not my own upper bunk and not being able to stop the tears. More than tears as it all came up, everything I had been holding onto, all of it coming out and he followed up after me. Maybe he kneeled on the floor at the side of the bed or sat on it. I don’t know but he was there and he must have been scared. I recall most clearly him saying, “I wanted you to know what boys do. It was so you would know.”

That was the end of it.

John Paul Klink, my dad

Except for the way he teased my girlfriend Janet and Diann’s new friend, Millie, who was a flirt. And the fear of riding in the car alone with him, the silence, not knowing what to say, what he might say. The way he drove on the next car’s bumper, my not being able to say a thing. Sitting there, stiffly, hands at my side on the chair, holding my breath. Or, how he’d say to Mom, “What is the matter with you, stupid? Can’t you do anything right?”

This is the same man who was chief of the Portage Lakes Volunteer Fire Department for several years.

I must push through a series of plateaus, one risk after the other.

I had to prove myself to myself in order to build up confidence, and that took years, and therapy. But it can be done. I did it.

Looking back, puberty and junior high was the first plateau and one of the worst I faced.

Though it appeared Dad’s sexual predation had ended, nothing else about him had changed, and I felt more guilty than ever, was overweight, and overwhelmed with fear and anger about him and my entire situation. I hated getting “periods” and I hated getting breasts because I was no longer comfortable sleeping on my stomach. Turning into a woman was nothing but trouble. Look what had happened to Mom? Women were prissy and used by men. In tight situations they did nothing but scream and faint and act silly and I would never do that. It was stupid.

What saved me were the stories Mary and I put together where I was always a man.

Now I was old enough to ride my trusty bike six miles to her house on weekends where we would talk our tales for hours. I often stayed overnight and we played our characters into the wee hours of the morning until I could no longer remain awake. I never realized how our altered selves saved Mary as well as me.

Sometimes her Mom or Dad brought her to our house, and in the summer we slept on cots in the backyard with Maverick as guard. I developed a love of lying out under the stars, of the soft air drifting across my face, the sounds of night all around, the smells. If I can make it happen, I would like to die like that, outside, lying under the stars.

That was summer. The rest was the new Erwine Junior High School.

Horrible. I have never been “sick” as much as I was those two years of Junior High School. The first year we wore saddle shoes and wide crinoline skirts. Those skirts came in handy since we had a math teacher who loved paddling girls. The second year we wore straight skirts and warm hose. No such thing as girls wearing jeans or pants in those days.

Poodle skirt
Poodle skirt, but we wore crinolines underneath (from an ad on the web)

 I had a tough time keeping up with my school work because I was bored with most of it.

I would rather read a good book, and I did half the time. Or gab with Mary on the phone, anything to separate from the real world. One semester I received an “F” in a math class. When I saw that report card I knew I was in big trouble. Dad only had to raise his voice once. His attention was enough to terrify me and Diann.  The following semester I came home with an “A.” I can focus when I have to. That lesson has remained with me.

Supposedly, that first year in school we were allowed to choose an instrument to play, but only if that particular instrument was still needed by the band.

I wanted to play the flute but the band leader, Mr. Hadgis, had previously chosen his flute players. This was the story of my life in that local district. I, Mary, students like us, were perennially too late. The popular students always got the best book, the instrument they wanted, the tutors they needed. We received what was left. Funny how it happened that way. Ironically, some of those students quit the marching band to be cheerleaders anyway. Mary ended up with saxophone; I ended up with clarinet, Janet learned trumpet.

Poor Maverick—how he’d run when I picked up that cheap, silver clarinet. Squeak, squeak! Determination won the day, though, and I learned to play the thing.  

Dick Clark’s Bandstand was the hottest thing on television.

Dad bought a stereo player but not for rock-and-roll. He played Mitch Miller records and classical music. I was weird because I liked classical music. Mary and I played it as emotional background for our imaginations in the basement of her house.

These were also the days of TV westerns. “Gunsmoke” was a family favorite. In the evenings we watched what Dad watched, same on weekend afternoons, which meant football, even if he fell asleep—no touching that channel. During the week there was just enough time to pick up Mom from work and be home by 4:00 and put on our ears for “Mickey Mouse Club.” Fortunately, nothing else was on at that time that Dad wanted to watch.

Right before my high school years we lost the house on Pillar Avenue, as Dad couldn’t keep up the mortgage payments even with Mom’s contribution.

Maybe he shouldn’t have bought the TV, the stereo, the rabbits, the toy trains, who knows what else. All the time he’d spent at Uncle George and Aunt Betty’s working on their house instead of ours—now he had to finish our house so it would sell. Finally. Mom would miss her kitchen. I never said, but I would not miss a thing about that house, except the backyard and woods.

I was thrilled when we rented a house on Dusty’s Road within walking distance of Mary’s house a couple miles away, across West Turkeyfoot Lake Road (619). Our stories became “walking” stories, miles and miles of walking the neighborhoods and down to Rex Lake at the end of Dusty’s Road and back.

A new start.

A new house, closer to Mary. I would begin high school and get into the locally famous Coventry High School Band. I decided to lose those extra pounds I had put on. Everything would be different here. Wouldn’t it?