By Tammy Darrah Wenberg
There existed no policy against it. But said travel had never been risked in the known history of our rural Wisconsin high school. Undoubtedly, because the workings of the younger teen brain, as they ignite the awkward body and torpedo off a forked tongue, would be construed as menacing by pretty much anyone.
I’m not sure administration considered the necessity of a no-freshman policy, based solely on the roadmap to potential disaster situated midway between a kid’s ears. But clearly they should’ve.
After all, adolescent cognition mimics a many-tentacled creature of questionable origin, frolicking in its own spittle: outrageous in its deft maneuvering, deadly to prospects for a sound reputation and future employment. The creature can’t help itself, at once skulking in caverns of quiet inertia, amidst the strident sea of pink jelly emotions and spinyass attitude. It’s a thing of breath and stamina, which succumbs to electrical impulses, zip zip, and gives way to intermittent urchin reactions. About once every .2 seconds, its conscience traverses watery chasms of will and good-versus-evil forces, desperate to survive, if only to get away from itself.
I did, indeed, embody such a beast. And since “stupid is as stupid does,” I was no different than my counterparts, except chronologically dumber. To add to the list of crimes, our kind was wholly concerned with wearing the attire of stupid as well.
We’re talking spring of ’82, pre Valley Girl, pre Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but in our minds we were trending and about to let loose on another continent. Sperrys were untied, laces knotted, Levi’s cuffs rolled, legwarmers bold. Gold-belted tunics hung off shoulders, and chunky bangles crawled up skinny arms. Guys moussed their spikes, and babes threaded sparkly headbands through stiff, spiral curls.
My look wasn’t quite on par with the jet set crew, but by god I had a shot on foreign soil, sights set on fashion flare that would bespeak my eternal panache. Never mind that I donned a uniform of jeans from Fleet, pastel poly blouses, with matching fabric bows tied snug at the neck, a slinky metal belt, and wedged loafers, or that sadly, just before the trip, Mom got wind of the 110 volt differential and had me permed to the max, to compensate for the mysteries of European circuitry.
Sporting that look, there was no mystery on this side of the ocean about how I managed to appear pulled together enough to meet the approval of requisite adults. I was wearing their clothes and hair! But the flitshit of my medulla remained on warp—a setting far beyond autonomic.
Someone in charge should have guessed I would be the brat, on tilt from excess hair chemicals, bummed we were flying Lufthansa into Frankfurt instead of something wicked awesome like Continental into Paris. As if a Bavarian tour would divert to France to avoid offending me. But who’d ever heard of flippin’ Luftwhatsa? And Frankfurt sounded like a hotdog. Why couldn’t we touch down in Berlin with its super neat wall?
Given my confirmed brain damage, I still wasn’t sure how it’d happened that my parents set aside their propensity for restriction to allow for growth of this magnitude. They’d long since pledged allegiance to ultra conformity and utter obedience, including dictating, to the millimeter, the length of my bangs. No need for that now, with wiry tufts sprouting from my forehead. Unlike the Dorothy Hamill cut, which immediately secured my place among the happening chicklets of Clarington Elementary, my new do, the Shari Lewis, hold the Lamb Chop, served to take my vanity and narcissism down a notch.
But I hid my pouting, because to their credit, they’d garnered an exception from the school to let me travel overseas at fourteen, signed the permission slip for alcohol consumption (educational beer and wine only), and handed over real money that I might afford all manner of debauchery. It was wildly absurd and freakishly cool. Did they know they’d been had?
Never underestimate a teen’s ability to appear normal, while actually being committably crazy inside her head. Sooner or later that dung bomb of biology will crap up the carpet.
The trouble with once-in-a-lifetime travel, for someone who’s saddled with stupid, is I mostly can’t remember the particulars of each time I stepped in it. There remains merely a residue of what my shrink calls, “explicit, declarative memory,” socked away in the trove of my amygdala. Apparently we hang onto the stuff that really makes us feel something.
Sixteen days, hundreds of experiences, and here’s what’s left—I do remember stumbling, jetlagged, off the plane and Frankfurt not being Paris.
In Endorf I became Romantically European, eating pizza, drinking Lambrusco, and playing “American Pie” 27 times on a jukebox, with the evening culminating in jokes about the chaperones “doing it” and an arm-in-arm, drunken sing along, on the way back to the refuge of feather ticks.
There was Ingolstadt, where I stayed with a host family for two days, encountered my first disco, watched Elvis movies dubbed in Deutsch, and embarrassed myself moment to moment by adopting a British accent, fully convinced I was best understood when using the King’s English. Oh, yeah!
Munich offered a beer garden adventure followed by exotic entertainment—a really big clock and dancing statues—or was that a vestige of hangover, after smoking unfiltered cigarettes and pulling bottles of Dunkel from a vending machine on the street? Mmhm.
Neuschwanstein, has stayed with me and had something to say about beauty and majesty. No girl, who ever wished for a prince, forgets her first real castle. But in seeing it, there’s no escaping the voice of reality—“you won’t end up here, so keep your fool head on.”
Dachau was on a gray day. Not even a bozo with brain fire could forget an inch of the savage place. Anguish depicted in life-sized, photographic installations. The starkness of gas chambers, rough brick of ovens. The ritual placing of roses in the blood ditch. A lingering film of despair that never washes away.
When we finally reached Garmisch, exhausted, pretty grown up, and craving any miracle, it snowed on Easter.
The last leg of the trip was cancelled that we’d gain a day to practice straddling our two big worlds—now. And everything that came before.
The weather emerged as admonition that eventually everything scars over, soft and white. You cannot live a thing twice. The balm of happiness, like the wound of wretchedness, can then only be approximated in memory.
Tammy Darrah Wenberg holds an MFA from Hamline University. She lives and writes in Lowertown, St. Paul, MN.