Brian Williams Raps “Rapper’s Delight”.
From The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
Brian Williams Raps “Rapper’s Delight”.
From The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
I was born at 1:15 in the morning on February 20th, 1976 in a Kaiser hospital that overlooks the Willamette River on the East Side of Portland. After insurance wiped out much of the costs associated with my birth, I’m told that the out-of-pocket expenses for my parents came to a grand total of just one dollar. Not bad.
About six months later, we left Oregon for Iowa. Even at that age, I probably had some inkling that we were headed in the wrong direction along the Oregon Trail. But in truth, my dad just wanted to return to the state where he grew up.
At some point in Iowa, my parents divorced. From then on, I lived with my mom and brother in a 2 bedroom apartment at Hillside Courts in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
Cedar Falls is a university town. The neighboring city is Waterloo. Combined, the 2 towns had a population of around 100,000 people.
You may think of Iowa primarily as a farming state. And you’d be right. But where I lived, I didn’t know anyone with a farm. We had people from literally all over the world living in our apartment complex who went to the University of Northern Iowa. My brother and I had friends from India and Uganda. I went to school with a Russian and a couple Australian boys. That being said, Cedar Falls was overwhelmingly white. And it was still very much Iowa. There was a large crop of corn within a two minute walk from our apartment. There was also a creek nearby and train tracks, which made for a perfectly fun location for a kid who could easily find other kids in the area to play with.
Hillside Courts was a very large apartment complex, even by big city standards. Hundreds of people lived there. But as common as new kids were, it was just as common for a friend to leave after their parent graduated from UNI.
Hillside Courts had an interesting story as well. One of the property managers we had, who was really nice to me, and once gave me a whole handful of cashews, ran over his wife, quite intentionally. Hearing that as a kid, you just think, “huh…” Thankfully, it was not my fate to be run over while I was there.
As a baby, I had casts on my feet. In pictures, it looked like gangsters had broken my legs after my parents refused to pay the ransom. After a slight correction, my feet were as good as new.
Apparently, after my feet were corrected, I needed to break something else to fill the void. So, one day I stuck my hand into a fan with a metal blade. I’m told that 3 of my fingers were dangling from their stumps. But again, even that was fixed and I have perfect use of all my fingers and toes.
My first childhood memories are of Jimmy Carter on television towards the end of his time as president, and being in a Radio Flyer near a jungle gym.
I had a little red tricycle and brown shoes I referred to as “my peanut butter shoes”. They acted as excellent brakes for my tricycle.
I was largely a child of the 80s. It was an era of burgeoning entertainment, minus the internet, DVDs, digital cameras, and iPods. Instead, we had records, tapes, WalkMen, cable television, Transformers, Legos, Micro Machines, Smurfs, Nerf Basketball, Pogo Ball, Slip N’ Slide, Speak and Spell, Lite Brite, Monopoly, Connect Four, Rubik’s Cube, Teddy Ruxpin, Battleship, Risk, Stratego, Simon, Hungry Hungry Hippos, Candyland, Uno, Operation, Mad Libs, Slinky, friends, baseball games, cap guns, yo-yos, toy planes made of balsa wood, rubber bouncy balls, frisbee golf, and Garbage Pail Kids!
In the 80s, everything was turned into a cartoon and a cereal. Mr. T? Cartoon and a cereal. Pac-Man? Cartoon and a cereal.
In the early 80s, you had to put down a deposit to rent a VCR. They were just that expensive. Full-sized VHS camcorders cost about $1000 when they became available, and you had to rest them on your shoulder because they were so big.
The CD had been invented in 1981, but they cost about 50 percent more than records and tapes. That’s my guess as to why they took off so slowly and why most people don’t remember CDs until the late 80s. But, I was amazed by the idea that there were lasers used to play CDs. “Lasers? Cool!”
Only the wealthy had cell phones, and they were about as big and heavy as a man’s steel-tipped work boot.
This was a time when people only recycled cans and bottles. A time when, at the end of the broadcast day, they played the star spangled banner on television before it went to static. A time when you went to the drive-in movie theater and bought a foot long hot dog at the snack bar. A time when scores of kids ran through the neighborhood gathering candy on Halloween.
I went to school at Orchard Hill Elementary. I was the only kid in kindergarten who couldn’t tie his own shoelaces. They marched us up to a large wooden shoe one day to see that we could do it. It was the age of Velcro shoes and that skill just wasn’t a necessity at that point. I figured it out eventually.
Computers were brought into our school around 3rd grade. It was very exciting. Each class was brought into the library to play with a handful of Apple IIes with 5.25″ floppy disk drives. Some of the computer “monitors” were actually full-sized television sets.
Trapper Keepers and Friendship Pins were big at my school. I don’t know if Friendship Pins were known throughout the U.S., but they were safety pins with beads on them that we put on our shoes. Both girls and boys wore them. I remember they would occasionally come undone in gym class when you’d kick a ball and beads would fly off everywhere.
And speaking of gym class, I loved when the gym teacher would break out the parachute! Pure magic. That had to be the coolest thing ever at school. My favourite part was when we would all lift the parachute way up, then run underneath and sit on our portion of the parachute and smile and look around at this giant air filled bubble we had created. I could have done that all day.
Sometimes, when we were jump roping in circles around the gym, the teacher would put on a pop record. I remember jump roping to Party All The Time by Eddie Murphy. At the time, it was really cool.
We also square danced! It wasn’t as boring as it sounds. I remember touching a girl’s hand for the first time while square dancing. It was amazing. I held onto this cute and sweaty little hand as I felt both nervous and excited.
Like many others, I took the bus to school. There were two elementary schools in our area. Ours was Orchard Hill. The other was Southdale. You were generally considered retarded if you went to Southdale. Our only basis for this assumption was that our bus dropped off a retarded boy at the school before the rest of us went to Orchard Hill. Only one kid I knew ever transferred from Orchard Hill to Southdale. He knew about the assumption. Poor kid. He was totally freaked out. I remember him saying, “I don’t get it! I’ve been getting gold stars on my math tests!” Apparently, that wasn’t enough to save him from the tragic fate of being shipped off to Southdale, never to be heard from again.
There was an unusual kid who rode our bus. Unlike the rest of us, who carried backpacks, he took a briefcase to school and wore a glove on one hand. It’s not what you think. It was a woolen winter glove, and it was duct taped around his wrist. I asked him, “Why do you have a glove taped to your hand?”. He told me, “My mom taped it to my hand because she doesn’t want me sucking my thumb. She dipped the thumb of my glove in vinegar too.” I wonder what measures his mom would’ve taken if she ever caught him playing with himself?
My first kiss was from a girl on the playground in first grade. Her name was Leah. She was the pee girl. You know, the girl in class who, for whatever reason, smelled like pee? She came up to me and said, “I have a secret to tell you.” She then leaned in and kissed me. It was quite a surprise! I remember wiping it off like she had somehow personally offended me.
On a side note, there was a group of girls in our neighborhood who we referred to as the Kissing Bandits. A group of them would run through the neighborhood, hunt down boys, and kiss them against their will. My sister thought it was hilarious that I wanted her to protect me from the Kissing Bandits.
School picture day was very come-as-you-are, as I often forgot about it until the day of the event. I’m happy I did. I have one picture where you can see I’m wearing an E.T. shirt. In another, you can see the ear of a Gremlin. However, my mom also gave me bowl haircuts. She didn’t actually place a bowl on my head or anything, but it seemed to be the only style she knew. Strangely, I don’t recall but maybe one incident where kids at school teased me about it.
I didn’t read many books as a kid. Only a few really come to mind. There was: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, McElligott’s Pool, Green Eggs and Ham, Wacky Wednesday, The Fat Cat, 7 Chinese Brothers, Aesop’s Fables, and some collection of famous fairy tales. There were several other short books, but I can only remember fragments of them.
For a few years, I remember my teachers would occasionally read the Little House on the Prairie books to us. That may sound funny being that I grew up in Iowa, but I always really enjoyed those readings.
There’s a small historic chapter of my childhood. My 3rd Grade teacher was one of the final 12 candidates in consideration for the Challenger flight. I remember when he told us he might go up into space. He handed out these little space shuttles made of thick paper that you were supposed to throw like a paper airplane. You placed a coin in the middle for some kind of weight balance. I seem to recall that they didn’t fly so well. Apparently that was a sign of things to come. After the accident, I never thought to ask him what he thought about dodging that bullet.
I was hardwired to like girls as early as I can remember. In the first grade, my friend told my crush that I liked her. She walked up to me on the playground, threw a fit, and told me she hated my guts. It crushed my little heart. But there were plenty of fish in the sea. And many of them wore leg warmers!
I had my first girlfriend in the fifth grade. Her name was Gwen. She was cute, with freckles and the sweetest smile. Her eyes sparkled. I had a huge crush on her before we became a young couple of sorts. I remember it was the most amazing thing that she actually liked me too. I even thought, “Is this what it’s always going to be like? If I have strong feelings for a girl, is she always going to strong feelings for me in return?”
If I was hardwired to like girls, the same can be said of music. I remember when cable was first installed at our apartment complex. I was there for MTV, Prince, and Michael Jackson. I remember when Thriller and Purple Rain came out. Michael Jackson’s videos were at the apex of coolness. Plus, there was Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, and a slew of the weirdest and funnest one hit wonders, like The Safety Dance and She Blinded Me With Science.
If you didn’t have MTV, and could stay awake long enough, Friday Night Videos on NBC would give you your fix of Pat Benatar, Billy Idol, or “Weird Al” Yankovic.
One of my first 45s was Prince’s Let’s Go Crazy. The B-side was Erotic City. Me and the neighbor girl, Lisa, would sing along to Erotic City. Maybe you know the lyrics and can envision the strange image of an 8 year old boy and 7 year old girl singing to each other, “We can funk until the dawn, makin’ love ’til cherry’s gone.” Neither one of us could have told you what a cherry was, but we had the best time singing that song together.
My mom and brother bought me the Thriller LP one day and I was so excited. My friend, Paul, and I would grab my record after school and race down to his place to listen to it over and over again. He also had The Making of Thriller video that we watched several times with rapt attention. Michael Jackson’s moonwalk blew everyone away, kids and adults alike.
Paul claimed his father was George Brett, the famous baseball player. I don’t think any of us believed him, but it was great to go to his place, because there was rarely adult supervision.
Actually, that describes much of my childhood. My mom was attending UNI for her masters in the fine arts, had to work, and raise two boys. However, we were mostly well-behaved boys. Still, I was left to my own devices a lot.
My mom was a very open-minded parent. I don’t think any subject was ever off the table. We were raised without religion or prejudice. We could watch R rated movies too. Interestingly enough, neither of my parents ever sat me down for a “sex talk”.
I saw my dad every other weekend, and took a Greyhound bus a couple hours away to see him.
My mom encouraged anything I showed an interest in, especially art. She loved when I would draw hot air balloons. My drawing skills haven’t improved much since then, but a few years ago, I drew a hot air balloon again for the first time since I was a kid.
My dad was a social worker, was always nice to me, and sent me an allowance of $1.00 a week.
I made the most of my allowance. At one point, I actually saved up for a $50 savings bond. That’s tough to do when you’re a kid. But I knew that I didn’t want to be poor the rest of my life.
On Saturday mornings, I’d let our hamster out of it’s cage, watch it race around a corner, and then I’d watch cartoons. I was a fan of: Muppet Babies, Snorks, Dungeons & Dragons, Monchichis, Shirt Tales, The Littles, Galaxy High, Kissyfur, The Gummy Bears, Mr. T, Looney Tunes, Smurfs, Pac-Man, Thundar the Barbarian, Laff-a-Lympics, Super Friends, Transformers, and Spiderman.
Saturday morning breakfasts were from a specially designed menu I’d come up with on my own. I’d often eat Trix with a Capri Sun. If they were in the freezer, I loved popping Toaster Strudel in the oven. Fruit Roll-Ups and Jell-O Pudding Pops were also staples.
On Sunday mornings, my mom would often take us to McDonald’s, where she would have a Danish and a coffee and read through the classifieds. I was probably snacking on one of those deep fried apple pies McDonald’s used to make.
We might also go to Donutland, where my favourite donut was the snowball, which was a wonderful cream filled donut with a powdered sugar exterior. Two donuts and a chocolate milk were pretty standard for me.
I grew up poor. We received food stamps, section 8, and occasionally went to the food bank. I also had free lunches at school. My mom convinced me one winter that a pair of boots at Goodwill weren’t actually women’s winter boots. They were. I was teased. It sucked.
Even though we were poor, somehow my mom scraped together enough money to buy us an Atari 2600. It was the coolest thing. I remember being one of the only kids in the neighborhood who had one. It meant that we had friends show up often. Even kids we didn’t know would somehow end up at our place for video games. Even though Pac-Man on Atari was a far cry from the arcade version, we could play it for hours on end. We might also enjoy Asteroids, Pitfall, Frogger, Missile Command, Combat, or River Raid.
My friends and I spent a lot of time at Hyper Space arcade near the UNI campus. I loved the original Mario Brothers, Super Mario Brothers, Space Ace, Mr. Do, Galaga, Track and Field, Karate Champ, and 1942. Gauntlet was awesome too, but it would drain you of quarters in no time. I had to make my quarters last, so I had to choose wisely.
Next to the arcade was a little store called Hill Street News where we could buy a wealth of candy. They had candy for as little as a penny. Some of my favourites were the Ferrara Pan varieties, like Lemonheads, Mr. Melon, and Cherry Clan. Those little boxes were 10 cents apiece. Life Savers had lollipops I loved. I also had a thing for Zots, Fun Dip, Gummy Bears and Gummy Worms, Drumstick Ice-Cream Cones, Jolt Cola, Like Cola, Mr. Freeze, Push-Ups, and Choco Taco. I had quite a sweet tooth.
I remember that I once stuffed a fistful of Gummy Worms in my mouth and rode off on my bike. What a sight I must have been.
There were also two kinds of candy cigarettes at the time. One version came in a fake cigarette pack and was a brittle candy with a wintergreen flavour. The other was a tube of bubble gum wrapped in paper. The cool thing about that kind was that, for just a couple seconds, when you blew on one end, powdered sugar smoke would puff out of the other end.
Like many kids, I sold chocolate bars and chocolate Easter bunnies door to door in my neighborhood for school. I once knocked on the door of a man with an Electro Larynx. I couldn’t understand a single word he was saying. It would have been easier for me to understand him had he just given me a dollar bill and a smile, or just given me the finger.
Summertime in Iowa is hot and humid. I loved it. My friends and I would go to Ray Edwards Pool to cool off. The first time I saw man boobs was at the pool. I was shocked. “Oh my god! That girl’s topless! Then I quickly realized, “Wait, that’s a boy!” It was quite the mind twister. Why did this boy have boobs and why were they so misshapen?
As strange as it may sound, a few of us kids in the neighborhood would regularly dumpster dive for cans, bottles, and Playboys. Money from cans and bottles turned into arcade money. Playboys were pored over and studied like the Torah.
Between school, hanging out with friends, and studying Playboys, I managed to fit in a lot of television. Our family would often sit down for dinner in front of one. It’s hard to believe that I would’ve watched the Dukes of Hazard, Little House on the Prairie, and Knight Rider, but so many of us did.
And who can forget the big 80s movies? Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, E.T., War Games, Splash, Tootsie, Crocodile Dundee, Tron, The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Footloose, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Gremlins, Cocoon, Scarface, Ladyhawke, Amadeus, The Karate Kid, Police Academy, Top Gun, Trading Places, Romancing the Stone, The Sword in the Stone, Flashdance, Starman, Repo Man, Nightmare on Elm Street, Poltergeist, Vacation, Dead Zone, Rambo, Firestarter, Weird Science, Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Revenge of the Nerds, Desperately Seeking Susan, Witness, The Color Purple, Red Dawn, The Outsiders, The Hitcher, Bladerunner, Brainstorm, Road Warrior, The Sure Thing, On Golden Pond, and Gotcha!
It’s funny, one of my classmates called me E.T. for a while because my neck was apparently a little long. It’s interesting to note that the kid’s last name was Elliott. I guess we made a perfect team.
In the 5th grade, I had the misfortune of getting pneumonia and missed a whole month of school. I must have thrown up a few times a day for a couple weeks. It was horrible. I spent my days on the couch in my underwear coughing, sleeping, watching cable, eating, and throwing up.
Pneumonia was probably the worst of my memories from life in elementary school. I had a really good childhood in Iowa. My teachers, friends, and adventures were all great.
At 22, I went to visit Orchard Hill on a weekend to wander the grounds and think about my youth. At one point, I thought, “Before this time, I wasn’t here. I didn’t exist, and then I did.” When you arrive in this world, it’s like someone drops the needle of a record player randomly on a record. You start playing in the middle of it all, and at some point, the record ends. But at age 6, I never thought about there ever being a beginning. I was just on my way somewhere. Nothing was old news. There were only new discoveries to be made. The whole world and my entire life was on the horizon.
P.S. This paper is being graded, so cross your fingers that I’ll get an A.
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Photo on Silly Boy Artistry