Muppets came into my life somewhere around birth. Sesame Street informed my childhood, and as I entered those tumultuous post kindergarten years, prime time weekly Muppet shows broadened my imagination, perspectives, and sense of comic timing. There were films, Fraggles, and myriad other points of interest that furrowed into my consciousness from the minds of Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and the rest of the merry band that brought Muppets, Labyrinth, Dark Crystal, and so many Star Wars characters too life.
Ninth grade is when I returned to public school from private and Catholic schools. No more uniforms, no more morning church in the chapel or Thursday masses unless you count what showed up served on the trays in the lunchroom. Also, with the family’s relocation to Lexington Kentucky from the rolling hills of Eastern Tennessee, no more bullies or tobacco fields or ample acres of fields with nothing by cows and corn around to call friends. Relocated into suburbia, into a sea of strangers and cliques and big haired Heathers in the making, I’d moved from an Appalachian academy with a student body of a couple hundred to a high school with an anticipated graduating class of a half thousand.
Layer by layer things I’d held dear from my childhood were hidden away or discarded, embarrassingly more often than not from fear of being different, or ostracized, or called out and ridiculed.
One example would be a baseball jersey I had from when I briefly held the post of Assistant Bat Boy for the Milligan College baseball team when I was in fifth grade. The jersey had been given to me with some faux ritual by one of the chewing tobacco spitting players after one of the practices at the tail end of a semi-decent season with a few more wins than losses. I’d helped carry gear, man the press box and press buttons to update the new electric score board with all the numbers made out of a multitude of light bulbs. It could fit an adult, a fairly burly, Eastern Tennessee scale adult, and it had across the front, half on either side of the zipper, a huge embroidered buffalo, the team name and mascot. On the back were the numbers zero and zero, since the Head Bat Boy’s jersey just had a zero on the back, and he outranked me and had all his adult teeth in already. And could shave. And needed too.
That jersey had been a prized possession I’d sport proudly through sixth grade wearing gthe thing like a gown as I hadn’t hit my growth spurt yet. I kept it folded up nicely and hidden away during my family’s stint at Washington College Academy for seventh and eighth grade, not wanting to share my prize with anyone for fear one of the bullies I endured there might damage or steal the thing. So of course, about a week or two into being the new kid at Tates Creek Junior High, as that middle school included grades seven through nine, I decided to wear my cool, unique jersey to school with poorly formed hopes of wowing the lads and wooing the ladies. Neither happened, and I didn’t get within forty yards of the school before Big Al, a kid on the plus side of an early growth spurt and towering seemingly several feet above me, pointed and asked with much snickering ado what the hell I had on, was that a furry cow on my shirt?
I’d shrugged, turned around and walked home to change, grumbling in my head and anger in my heart. Retrospectively, Big Al turned out to be a pretty funny guy, and had some great sight gags of his own to enhance his wardrobe that demonstrate a confidence I simply didn’t, couldn’t muster, at least, until I’d gotten older and developed a sense of self that extend beyond kicked cat and that hotline to inevitable failure that is the sense that you need to please and be liked by everyone. Someone famous said something I saw quoted somewhere, I believe on a slide in a theater between shows, that if you live a life afraid to piss people off, that you’d be living a futile and ineffective life indeed. And yes, I’m clearly paraphrasing, so good thing I can’t attribute the quote. Want to say it’s from Jimmy Carter, or Teddy Roosevelt. Regardless, makes sense, and when I can keep my insecurities at bay, when I can self-validate (or medicate) enough to drop a pair and erect a spine, then I’m really not one to be bothered with other’s concerns over my attire or cosmetic choices, all the more so true for my significant or substantial choices. If I’m not hurting anyone else, well then to paraphrase and not credit someone else famous: fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.
During high school as rap became a thing suburbanites glommed too – predominantly meaning white kids, a rash of hood ornaments began disappearing off the Mercedes around town, and you’d be impressed in Lexington how many of those rides there were to be looted, horse money maybe? Big Al, already reknowned for actually being black, being physically mature well before most, being great at most sports, and generally being able to jokingly get along with pretty much anyone, even me once I got over the whole Buffalo jersey slight, decided to lampoon the stolen Mercedes hood ornaments thing. I’m not sure if he meant to mock it the way Flava Flav did, as a deliberate act of satire, or if he’d just youthfully decided one of those bling Benz trophies looked to definitive on his broad, JJ “Dynamite” Walker / Daymon Wayon’s physique chest. What I’m sure of is the kerfuffle he caused when he showed up to school with a massive VW bus hubcap dangling from a chain around his neck, a thick chain like you’d secure a bicycle with. And no matter how people reacted, he kept his chin up, his grin wide, and strut through the halls slapping skin and punching biceps with the best of them. Even when his personal parade became abruptly detoured into the principal’s office and resulted with a school wide ban on all necklace ornaments of automotive origins, his notoriety and status simple ratcheted up safe and secure. A far cry from the balls I should’ve shown, or at least, bemused apathy, when he’d poked fun at my unique, atypical, didn’t get this thing in the local mall jersey.
Late in my ninth grade year, roughly around the time I’d begun making friends and finding some sense of my place in, or at least, alongside the social order of things, the junior high and elementary school band mothers threw a fundraiser flea market to sell off the contents of people’s garages and crawlspaces. My Mom, siblings and I walked up to the school that misty Saturday morning and entered the gymnasium with perhaps about ten or fifteen dollars between us. I’d only just started mowing lawns for money, picking up Kenny Dyer’s yards and later expanding my range across a couple more regulars. I made two purchases, one for fifty cents, a little plastic skull that opens in half to hold whatever might fit, jelly beans maybe, that I named Corpus Christy and told folks it was an aborted sibling, very heady wordplay for a ninth grader. Later in life I procured a sweet big headed, small bodied foam filled latex skeleton I also named Corpus Christy, proving getting older doesn’t necessarily mean getting more clever.
I probably walked past my second and final purchase about three times before I discovered it. Five dollars later I owned a 1978 Fisher Price Animal Muppet puppet. Still pre-growth spurt, my hand fit easily inside the gap in his vested back to work his eyebrows and jaw flaw with ease. The moment ensured a couple things. One, that my deepest, darkest dream of dreams is to work for Hensen Studios, perhaps not as a puppeteer, but as some creativde aspect, designing puppets or writing skits or painting backdrops or post-production compositing and wire removal. The other, that I will tour any flea market or garage sale more than once before deciding there is nothing there of interest. Simply too easy to miss the details, to separate the gems from the wall of sound white noise of other peoples flotsam. Too easy to miss the tuft of orange felt and pink fuzz that once exhumed from a pile of plush pandas and stuffed rabbits turned out to be a true mascot for the ages, at least, for me.
The summer between ninth and tenth grade I attended a summer camp of a different sort called the Kentucky Humanities Institute, a multi-week, dorm residence, deep soak indoctrination to arts, culture, musical forms, theater, literature, and a myriad other things like getting to see a sixteen year old’s boobs or discovering the mood soured for me when I learned I had prudish dispositions based on my repulsion on discovering she had lost her virginity at fourteen. And Animal went with me, on the bus, in the classes, to the ice cream socials. I practiced voices, poses, reactions, and generally had a lot of fun with it. Not like a ventriloquist with his dummy, I never went that far or tried to mask my voice or anything. Rather I tended to defer to the Muppet as a prop, an extension of myself, and something to draw away attention I didn’t necessarily feel comfortable having focused on me, an irony considering the puppet drew more attention than my horrible John Hughes era accurate fashion sense ever would have.
Fast forward to a bit over a year later, somewhere between sophomore and junior year. I’d fallen into hanging out with a girl that brought around all the hormonally drenched emo inclined jealousy jiggling pathos laden bad poetry writing reindeer game playing boy girl idiocy you might expect from kids in the drama club, art club, school plays, and on the speech team. She’d moved to Lexington to live with her biological father, a guy who had remarried, had more kids, and afforded the girl shelter largely because he feared his ex wife more than he feared having a teenage girl under his roof. The girl, Jackie, had a twin sister back in Louisville. Same genetic template, cell split identical twins physically, driven to extreme lengths mentally and sometimes violence physically to try to differentiate themselves from one another. Jackie had the Wednesday Addams thing going on, round Peanuts head and big eye poster art peeps nested in deep, dark sockets, small to petite body and several years of violin lessons to sound out her personal woes on.
Jackie went home for the summer and after a couple months of pretty regular fighting, I somehow thought trusting her with my most prized possession would win her heart and mind for her triumphant return at the end of summer. Imagine my surprise when a mutual friend stopped by the theater where I worked to give me an unmarked white envelope full of developed photos, considerately with duplicates in case I wanted to share any, that document the deconstruction, the demise, the murder of my Muppet. She cut Animal into pieces small enough to flush into the toilet. The mechanisms of the head were stripped clean, and what couldn’t be flushed got flung into a tin waste bin wrapped with a floral print paint job. I went numb thumbing through the pictures, leaning heavier by the second on the concession stand counter top, and eventually I had to excuse myself and retire to the break room for a good sob.
Fortunately Jackie chose to stay in Louisville, at least, for the rest of high school span. I glimpsed her once during my freshman year walking with some punker brute past the Cut Corners Records, army jacket looking all the worse for wear, and I found that my anger, rage, hate had only gone slightly blunt, only a bit dulled. I still wanted her dead and quickly steered myself in any direction that went opposite where she appeared to be headed.
Freshman year of college, not long after seeing Jackie in passing, though sadly not passing away, I had to go to the Administration building to see folks about my grants and loans. And imagine my surprise to discover Jackie’s twin holding down the front reception desk, setting up appointments, taking calls, and filing student folders after their meetings or consultations have concluded. Where Jackie had appeared a college age, dark haired understudy for the pre-grunge Seattle set, her sister belonged to a sorority, though the fact that she had a job and I could discern her actual skin tone meant she didn’t belong to a fuck me I’m rich not find me a man that’s richer sorority set. The tri-delta, everyone else has set. And more surprising, she recognized me. We’d never met, guess she’d seen pictures, and since we both disliked her sister, we became friends. Not let’s make a baby friends, just friends happy to see one another around campus or catch up when I stopped in to sign this or turn in that for the administration office.
I remember the episode of the Incredible Hulk about twins, and how the punch line in the end is that a childhood tragedy that had killed one of the twins had left everyone thinking the evil twin had died, when really, the evil twin had spent the rest of her life trying to live up to and effectively be the good twin, because of guilt, or shame, or maybe actual love. Meeting Jackie’s sister was like meeting a version of Jackie that had decided to be the good twin, and succeeded. The sort of Jackie that could’ve been trusted with my Muppet for a summer. Regardless, the experience largely ensured I’d never again date a twin.
Fast forward to decades later living in Vancouver and having access to things like EBay. For months I’d check with bran diet regularity to see if another 1978 Fisher Price Muppet were out there in the world, as Halford would sing, just waiting to be had. And one fine autumn morning one appeared. I won the auction, though stranger that I won it as the only bidder, and stranger still the auction hadn’t mentioned that the seller still had the original box and sales receipt. Those discoveries were made when the toy arrived.
The new Animal, while different, is an identical twin to my original one, the murdered one. And there is no evil twin among these, unless you consider that this iteration of me that happens to be wedging a short nailed hand inside of Animal’s gaping maw is a kinder, gentler, trying to be the good person version of the megalomaniacal me that once weld the Muppet like a shield so many years ago.