Friday, January 24, 2014

Hometown musings

I'm often asked what kind of reaction I get from people in my hometown, specifically from my fellow classmates from Revere High School. 

The answer will surprise you. I haven't received much reaction at all!

That's understandable. Not many kids in the Class of 1978, or any of the surrounding classes,  had anything to so with Jeff, as you know from reading the book. He was never a popular kid, even before he began spiraling out of control, and once he started to weird out, he was totally ostracized. He wasn't physically bullied that much in junior high and high school, certainly no more than I was. Mostly he was ignored. That's a form of bullying in my view, maybe a more insidious form than a direct punch in the mouth. Junior high was pretty rough, but by high school, most of the sadistic creeps had lost interest in slapping geeks around anyways, or had been shuttled off to the vo-ed school to learn auto repair, or had dropped out, or maybe just got bored with the "sport." Bullying in the last years of high school was mostly verbal, unless of course, a geek stupidly forgot his place and got uppity. Then he was taken down in front of a cackling crowd in the cafeteria or someplace else where the humiliation could be maximized.

This was my lot, too, and I didn't really give a shit, to be honest.  I happily kept to the band room, the art rooms and the library. It was a survival technique, and an effective one. I knew well to avoid certain areas of the school. The long hall that ran past the gym and athletic office was always full of jocks and their toadies. A hall in the lower level that contained the shop classes was always packed with psycho stoners. I wouldn't have wandered down that hall on a bet. There was always that fear that some stoner troll would jump a passing dork just for yuks. I didn't take photography in high school for this reason, even though I had an interest. The photo lab was right across from the shop room. "I remember that feeling," said friend Neal when we talked about this. "Vividly."

That's the reason I adopted my first pen name, "Tonto Bahovich." I was subversively filling that school with art, as the self-proclaimed Minister of Propaganda for the Dahmer Fan Club, but also, outside of the Dahmer nonsense, on my own. I hung up fake political posters, drew weird cartoons for the school paper, illustrated screeds, all sorts of things. No one, outside of my friends, who I swore to secrecy, knew who Tonto Bahovich was. I've used pen names ever since!

Needless to say, I didn't keep in contact with many kids from my school. I observe in the book that Dahmer's sudden disappearance after graduation was remarkably complete. He just vanished, and I thought that odd at the time that I never saw him again, not around town, or at the mall, or the movie theaters, anywhere. But, truth be told, the other 198 kids from my class vanished from my life just as quickly and almost as completely. I kept a small contingent, my inner circle of ten or so. The vast majority of the rest I never saw again. Maybe I'd spot one of my classmates in the months or years that followed, at the local mall, or on campus at Ohio State where 50 or so Revere kids attended. I confess I usually ducked into a building to avoid them. Seems stupid now, but I wanted a clean break. After college, I lived in other places. When I returned to Ohio, I moved to Cleveland. My Mom and my brother still live in my hometown, but outside of visiting them, I have nothing to do with my birthplace. Don't get me wrong. I'm glad I grew up there. Bath-Richfield is a great place, to be from. I can't imagine living there. 

It's a bizarre construct, a high school class. These people are so important for that crucial period that you can't envision life without them, and then they're gone and life improves dramatically. It's not like I'm still lugging around any baggage from my school years. Why would I? I went off to college, rebooted, and achieved all I wanted. At Ohio State University everyone knew my name, and my work. That's how college is supposed to work. High school was simply something I had to endure to get where I wanted to go. I'm grateful for the experience, every miserable and/or joyful moment of it. I wouldn't be the person, or the writer, I am without that history.

I went to my last class reunion in 2008, several years before MFD came out, and had a lot more fun than anticipated. I was reluctant to go at all, but a couple friends harangued me into tagging along. There were several events that reunion weekend, including a tour of the school, which was surprisingly fun. I walked the halls again, after quite a few years, and used the opportunity to take a couple dozen reference shots for MFD, which was still in the planning stages.  Near the main entrance, high up on the wall, is the school's Hall of Fame, honoring illustrious grads. Yeah, I'm in it, the first and only art grad selected. There was a crowd of alum gathered under the display, looking it over. One guy, a minor football star with whom I don't recall ever exchanging a single word despite attending school together for seven years, was pointing out to his family the HOFers that he knew. He came to my display, furrowed his brow and said "This Backderf guy, he graduated with me, but I have absolutely no memory of him AT ALL." I was standing right next to him. I just laughed and walked away. 

Only a couple dozen of my schoolmates bothered to track me down after the book came out. I would assume they all know about it, and that quite a few have read it. Wouldn't you? Since the silence has been deafening, I must also assume that these people don't approve of it, or don't approve of me writing it. 

So that sums up my contemporaries, but what about the townsfolk? Bath-Richfield is a small town, after all. Truth is, I also heard very little from them. In Bath, Ohio, there are only a few who remember the Dahmers. A lot of the other adults in that neighborhood have, sad to say, died. That generation is all in their 80s and 90s now. Besides, the Dahmers moved away decades ago. Joyce split in 1978, never to return, and Lionel and his second wife sold the family home in 1983, relocated briefly to a condo in town, then moved to an adjacent community, where they live to this day. Younger brother David moved away for college and never came back. So the sum total of the Dahmer family's time in Bath was around 15 years. There are still families in town who can trace their roots back to the 1850s!

My Friend Dahmer got lots of coverage in my hometown when it was released. Unlike Milwaukee, where I refused any and all interview requests (and still do) and my publisher made no promotional push at all, I made the media rounds here in Ohio. Dahmer doesn't generate the kind of anger and shame in the Akron area that he does in Milwaukee. He "only" killed one victim here, and there isn't the political and racial  blowback that his spree in Wisconsin generated. 

And local media in Ohio was interested plenty. There isn't a lot of media left in Akron. There's no tv station, for example, and only a few radio station, all owned by the same Akron company. Cleveland's media, 50 miles to the north, has always dominated, and that stretches all the way back to my day. But I did what I could. I appeared on the Akron AM talk radio show for a couple hours. The Akron Beacon Journal, the paper I grew up reading,  did a front page story on me and the book (above). That was a goofy thrill. Best of all, my little hometown monthly magazine (a newspaper, when I was a kid), The Bath Journal,  featured it, as well. This magazine is delivered free to every resident in town. Between the two publications, everyone knew about MFD

Bath-Richfield, like all suburbs, is a transient place. A large percentage of the population rolls in and out every few years. No where is that more evident than in my graduation class, the Class of 1978. There are only a few of the 200 kids who stayed. This is stark contrast to graduating classes as little as 10 years prior. Most of those kids remained in town, or nearby. What happened? Well, the Great Seventies Recession for one thing. The nearest city to Bath was Akron, the Rubber City, tire capital of the world. In 1968, it was a booming place. The sidewalks were packed downtown, the highways were jammed at rush hour, the tire factories ran day and night and the economy roared. By 1978, Akron was a ghost town. The tire factories were closed and the  downtown was a board-up wasteland, crumbling and desolate. There was no reason for us to stay, because there was nothing to stay for. We had to leave, and almost everyone did. As a result, for the first time in history, a generation's connection to our hometown was broken, and that dramatically changed the nature of the town. Today, there is a greatly diminished sense of place.

My point here is, by the time MFD was released, there simply weren't many left in Bath-Richfield who had any personal attachment to the story.

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