I was an odd child.
Most of the memories I have of growing up-and there are many- do not reflect the average 1960’s childhood. The things I’m about to describe were never covered in Doctor Spock’s Baby And Child Care. Nowadays, I’d probably be hauled in posthaste to see a pediatric psychologist. But because I was the first born, my mother might’ve even assumed that my behavior was normal.
One of my earliest memories is of a game called Dummy, which I actually forced my mother to play over and over when I was four years old. She went along with it quite patiently…even though I made her repeat this specific scenario dozens of times, throwing tantrums if she didn’t go along with me, or if she got the sequence wrong. I was obsessed with statues and department store mannequins, desperately wanting to become one, and my little game revolved around that fantasy.
I’m not sure how this fetish began, but I recall being absolutely fascinated with Greek and Roman statues, which I stared at for hours in the over-sized art books that filled the shelves of our house. I knew the statues were old- that was explained to me- but many of the questions racing through my mind went unanswered, for instance: why didn’t the statues have eyes and eyelashes? Their eyes were blank, they didn’t even have eyeballs or irises…did people look like that back then? Why were most of them naked except for fig leaves? How come the statue men wore dresses? Why did some of them have horns or animal heads? I didn’t understand why many of them were missing arms and legs; it disturbed me to no end and gave me nightmares on a regular basis. Why would somebody make a crippled, mutilated statue? It seemed sick.
I finally worked up the courage to ask –as casually as possible so as not to appear as terrified as I was- about the severed limbs on these stone people. My mother patiently explained that because the statues were so ancient, they’d been buried under rubble for centuries before they’d been discovered. It seemed plausible. But that still didn’t explain the many statues that were just a lone torso with no head or limbs. That really scared me, especially when the explanation was just that the torso was “an anatomical study”. It made no sense whatsoever. I became fixated. I was so fascinated with turning into a torso that I’d fold my legs up under myself Indian style, clasp my hands behind my back so that my shoulders looked like stumps, close my eyes tightly (pretending I had no face or head) and hoist myself up onto my knees, hopping my way around my room at night on my knees until they were bruised and bloody.
Finally, I came to the conclusion that store mannequins were a modern version of statues… but with all limbs intact and with clothes. I decided that I wanted to be a mannequin instead of a statue or torso…it just seemed like a more practical choice, I could actually have arms, legs and a head. I’s study the mannequin’s stances and pose alongside them on their display platforms whenever we went to Best & Company or Lord & Taylor’s in New York City, as well as to our tiny local department store, Hickman’s. When that wasn’t enough to nourish my imagination, I brought this insanity home, deciding I needed to be a mannequin come to life…so I coerced my mother into being the Mannequin Manufacturer, and I was the Dummy, waiting to be formed.
I’d give my mother explicit instructions, getting exasperated if she didn’t do things correctly, just the way I wanted them done. As the game began, I’d curl up on the couch, my eyes and lips scrunched closed and tight. It was Mom’s job to paint my face on, starting with the eyebrows. When she painted my eyes, they would open as if by magic and when she painted my lips, I could (finally) move my mouth. I recall her doing this extremely carefully and being very sincere in her efforts. Once my face was painted on, it was Mom’s job to pose me. She had to drag me off the couch and stand me on the floor, slumped over limply cause I wasn’t positioned yet. I made her bend my limbs into the exact poses I had seen at Hickman’s. They had to be very specific and mannequin-like. My feet had to be placed as though they were bolted to a platform and I’d tilt my head, staring blankly off into space. I remember all of this in exact detail, like it was yesterday. Who knows why my mother went along with this, but she did. She was probably frightened not to.
As my siblings and I grew older, another game we used to play- and of course roped the entire neighborhood into playing- was Different Country, which was a catchall term for whatever place we wanted to pretend we were from on any given day. I don’t think we ever used real countries, but we’d figure out our “customs and traditions” and babble to each other incessantly in a made-up foreign language. Often, the Different Country scenario involved being evacuated from some horrible natural disaster or wartime coup de tat and we’d frequently pretend to be refugees. The emergency aspect came into play more frequently when we moved our base of operations to the roof of Sandy and Michael MacDermott’s garage, where we played “Hurricane” and “Ship Wreck”. With me as the director, all the neighborhood kids would gather on the roof to “weather the storm”. My brother Charlie would yell lustily, “ We’ll all be killed!” at least every five minutes.
But even the natural disasters didn’t prepare Mom for what was yet to come. The Gehman kids got the entire neighborhood into playing Cops And Robbers, but since it was the 1960’s, we called it “Pigs And Pushers”. Charlie, our twin sisters and I were always the bad guys, and reveled in playing all the real people from the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List, like members of the Black Panthers, The SLA and The Weathermen. I particularly liked to be Bernadine Dorne. We had Walkie Talkies from Radio Shack, and used them to evade the Pigs. As fully prepared criminals, when the Pigs shot us we’d never die, claiming we were wearing bulletproof vests.
When Pigs And Pushers got old, Concentration Camp took its place. Obviously inspired by Hogan’s Heroes, Concentration Camp mostly consisted of the Gehmans tying up various victims in the junk yard across the street from our house, and force-feeding them concoctions made of Jell-O, mayonnaise, grass clippings, dirt, Ajax and the powdered drink mix Tang. That none of the prisoners ever really got sick was a miracle!
Speaking of miracles, after seeing The Miracle Worker, Helen Keller became my new obsession and I soon turned it into everyone else’s. Of course, whenever we played The Miracle Worker, I got to be Helen. With her head tilted and face upturned, Helen felt way around the house, and when she didn’t get her way, she’d fight violently with Anne Sullivan.
One night while Mom was serving dinner, Helen started walking around the dinner table, serving herself by swiping her hands across the other diner’s plates and smearing the food haphazardly across her mouth, dribbling it everywhere and grunting incoherently, just like Patti Duke did in the movie.
“Pleasant, stop it!” my mother admonished, cigarette dangling as she dished up her signature chili and elbow macaroni.
She didn’t even have to turn around to know what was going on because it happened all too frequently. Helen continued feeding herself while Charlie and the twins, playing the other members of the Keller household, merely slapped Helen’s hand away, until Mom couldn’t stand it anymore.
“Sit down right now…” she warned.
When Helen didn’t stop, Mom grabbed her by the hand and tried to force her into her seat. This drastic move-my mother assuming the role of Annie Sullivan- resulted in Helen throwing herself to the floor in a massive meltdown, exactly as the film depicted, clutching the leg of the table kicking, screaming and drumming on the linoleum with her heels, wailing incoherently at the top of her lungs.
“I SAID STOP IT!” Mom exploded, finally at the end of her rope.
Watching from their booster seats, the twins raised their eyebrows in unison. Little Meg turned to regard our mother patiently, as though she was really slow, and then explained in an almost lackadaisical voice,
“Mom? Helen can’t hear you!”
Helen Keller was merely an introduction to the truly psychotic game that dominated our Gehman childhood… and I’m sure it haunts our mother to this day. The origins of this game, which was never known as anything other than the names of it’s main characters, Ment and Steffenson- are a bit unclear, but appears to have developed out of a couple of the unlikely role models Charlie and I had. Charlie was extremely taken with Hugh Heffner and Howard Hughes. He aspired to their high level of jet set executive glamour. The fact that both millionaires seemed to spend most of their time in their bathrobes didn’t faze Charlie, it heightened his admiration. While he was reading Playboy and buying minuscule shares of stocks with the money he’d saved from his paper route, I was devouring monster magazines. I was preoccupied with horror films and classic movie monsters, particularly infatuated with the Phantom of The Opera. I’d mug in the mirror, spending hours trying to replicate his bulging eyes, cock-eyed mouth and drooling speech.
Somehow, Charlie and I turned our respective crushes into Ment and Steffenson. The game-which provided years of gleeful mayhem- had a very loosely organized plotline. Charlie became Steffenson, a billionaire exec who owned a Magic Flying Armchair. Evidently, Steffenson had become disenchanted with the lack of decent household help on Earth, so he piloted his Magic Armchair off to the distant planet of Horrorlandia, hoping to export a decent alien butler who could be trained to suit his wishes. Unfortunately, Steffenson returned with Ment, an outer space horror monster that was mentally retarded.
Slurping and slobbering non-stop, Ment was a docile, happy creature that was eager to please Steffenson, and sincerely wanted to take on the duties of a butler, but because of his severely limited intellect, was absolutely incapable of it. Aside from having the looks of the Phantom Of The Opera, Ment’s personality was strictly Bugs Bunny meets The Marx Brothers. Everything on Earth befuddled Ment; he could never remember how to answer a ringing phone no matter how many times he’d been reminded. Growing agitated, he’d pick up every object in sight, screaming “HELLLOOOO” into it. This resulted in fits of growling and salivating while, not unlike Helen Keller, he’d pound his fists on the floor in pure frustration.
“ Now, Ment,” Steffenson sighed in a patronizing way as he tried to explain the way a telephone worked.
Ment snuffled and groveled, begging not to be sent home.
Steffenson soon became exasperated at Ment’s bungling ways, blasting off in his Magic Armchair back to Horrorlandia, where he picked up three more monsters. These were Ment’s cousins, who’d apparently been trained from birth to be butlers. Their names were Chimes The Lime, Chimes The Lemon, and Chimes The One Hundreth. A little more together than Ment, all three of them -saluted Steffenson military style every time he barked an order… but never quite succeeded in fulfilling the task Steffenson had in mind. The supporting roles of the Chimes Trio were usually awarded to whoever was available, or sometimes all four horror monsters were played by one person, usually me.
Of all the childhood games we played, Ment and Steffenson somehow became such an integral part of our lives that more than forty years later, if one of the Gehman siblings calls another out of the blue, we’ll both automatically lapse into Ment or Steffenson’s voices. Many family members and close friends even leave public social media messages to each other using the Ment and Steffenson identities. Through the years, most of our previous room mates or significant others have also become hopelessly involved with the game. Once while examining my face in the fluorescent-lit bathroom of a trans-continental flight, I was dismayed to discover a new wrinkle. It was a faint horizontal line on my chin, running just under the right corner of my bottom lip. I started for a few moments wondering how it got there, and then suddenly the light bulb went off in my head.
It was Ment’s fault.
Years ago, when my brother first introduced me to his fiancée, he beamed with pride, stating that she had something to show me.
Suddenly, the gorgeous, willowy blonde who only moments earlier been so soignee and elegant began slobbering, her mouth twisted in a sideways Phantom Of The Opera grimace before she dramatically threw herself down on the floor, clutching her future husband’s leg, begging not to be sent home to Horrorlandia.
In retrospect, it’s a miracle that our mother – or any of us kids-ever survived our childhood.
If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more, you can get a signed copy of my memoir “Showgirl Confidential” (2013,Punk Hostage Press) here: