I was a teenage love child – born on the fifth day of 1963 in the snow covered Colorado Rockies to parents married six months earlier in the neighboring state of New Mexico. As my father tells it, he was in the Boulder Hospital waiting room watching the nurses walk past with bundles of laundry. Suddenly, he saw a nurse with a load of laundry that looked like him. It was the large satellite dish ears that would have been the dead give away. It turns out I also inherited his freckle gene (as a little boy who looked like a walking chocolate chip cookie, I was promised that the freckles would fade from my face when I grew up – they didn’t), his relatively quick wit, his relatively quick metabolism (the skinny gene) and… his name. Yes, I was dubbed Charles Wynn Amsden Junior. I have since spent my life being called Chuckie, Little Chuck, Chuck, Upchuck, Chuckles, Charlie and, of course, Charles. What my dad didn’t pass onto me was my lop sided face. I had thought for years that this was due to a forceps birth but have since been told that I entered this world forceps free. So I suppose this Picasso-esque feature is uniquely mine.
I have no memory of Boulder but many of Albuquerque New Mexico, where we later moved. There were bunches of red chilies hanging from front porches. ‘Old Town’, with its mixture of Navajo jewellery, cowboy shops and the world’s best sweets store with candy rocks and sugar crystals on a string. And there was the wonderful scent of mesquite smoke in the air – a lost memory that was re-booted after a visit to Albuquerque more than twenty years later (turns out smell is a powerful memory trigger).
I don’t have many recollections of other children, partially because we moved around quite a bit but mostly because I was surrounded by university students: my parent’s peers – all of whom were childless. There are two kids I do recall though – ‘Didi’ and ‘Dodo’ – our Mexican neighbors for at least a few months. I doubt those were their actual names – but ‘Dodo’ was a boy (the youngest) and ‘Didi’ a girl. I don’t recall the specifics but vaguely remember that we had numerous adventures in an era where even the littlest of kids took off in the morning and returned home in the evening, dirty, scruffy and hungry.
The upside of being surrounded by adults was that I felt like they were my equals and was often treated as such. The downside was when my parents reminded me that this was not the case and I was in fact a little kid who had to do what he was told. These episodes often sparked such a fierce blind rage within me that I would bang my head – against walls, floors – any hard surface would do. Yes – I was a ‘head banger’ long before heavy metal made it a popular past time.
Yet there was also a flip side to this angry, manic behavior. I remember having a rocking chair and would rock for quite some time without saying a word. This would usually occur after waking, either in the morning or especially after a nap. My parents might try to engage me but often I would remain silent, rocking back and forth. One exception to this was on the morning of my fourth birthday when my parents saw me rocking away and wished me a happy birthday. My reply: “It’s not my birthday until tonight when I have my cake and get my presents”. Yep – I was a little brat (but one who was thrilled to unwrap a G.I. Joe later that night).
This was also the time when my love affair with tv began. Batman, The Green Hornet, The Beverly Hillbillies, Get Smart, Bewitched, Gilligan’s Island, Bonanza, The Lone Ranger and I Love Lucy. I didn’t just love Lucy – I loved them all – and then some. Looking back, the 60’s really were a golden era of television – especially half hour comedies. There was a level of imagination and craftsmanship that doesn’t exist in today’s sitcoms. Sure – we are currently in another golden tv era but these are mostly drama (or ‘dramedy’) series. Of course trying to watch these 60’s shows now is usually disappointing. But at the time – it was magic.
One of my best ever childhood memories did involve some tv magic – and two very thoughtful parents. One night I was asked to dress in my Batman pyjamas and then told we were going out. Yipppeee – no bedtime! As we drove through the city, I was very excited – hoping we were going to Baskin and Robins for ice cream. So I was disappointed when we pulled into the parking lot of a car seller. Oh well – beat being in bed. So I accompanied my parents inside and there it was – the Bat Mobile! I nearly wet myself – I was so excited. Of course being a little guy in his Batman PJs, I got to actually sit inside the coolest car ever. So instead of Baskin and Robins – I got Batman and Robin (well –their car at least).
There were also movies that swept me away. While I saw the usual Disney classics (and like most kids, was traumatized when Bambi’s mother got shot), the movies that really had an impact on me were pitched to a much older audience. I saw ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ with my dad, ‘Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid’ and ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ with a family friend (and it really blew my mind – didn’t have a clue what was going on but was completely transported). But the 60’s movie experience that had the biggest impact on me (and caused the biggest stink) was seeing ‘Easy Rider’ at the drive-in with my parents. Wow! Not long afterwards I was asked by my Granny what I wanted to be when I grew up. “I want to be a hippy and ride a motor bike and smoke grass.” My parents were then marched into the kitchen where I heard my Granny shout several words I hadn’t heard before.
My Granny was also part of another, less controversial, episode of my childhood – my best Christmas ever. In the winter of ’68 she, her husband and my teenage uncle hosted our family, my adventurous Californian Uncle and his gorgeous wife for a white Colorado Christmas. They say everyone has a stand out Christmas and this was mine. Making a snowman, sledging and being the only grandchild on the scene all made for a magical holiday. There were tears on Christmas morning, however, when Santa’s letter confessed to his reindeer having eaten my beloved beagle, Chewy. All was rectified once a very live and slobbering Chewy was released into the living room. For years I thought that Santa had a bit of mean streak, though I now believe this was my teenage uncle’s mischief making.
My first year of school occurred in the last year of the decade. Interestingly I seem to recall more about what happened in the huge playground and cafeteria than in the classroom. This may explain why I spent much of the summer break alone in the cafeteria with a reading tutor. To his credit, this guy pulled out all the stops, including comic books, in an attempt to interest me in reading. But I remember just staring off into space, towards the shuttered kitchen. At that stage of my life, reading wasn’t really floating my boat.Looking back at my first seven years as a strong willed, little freckle faced American during some of the most turbulent times in that country’s history, I wonder to what degree my personality has been forged by this period. After all – there’s that old Jesuit saying – “Give me the boy until seven and I’ll show you the man.” And although it’s now been over four decades since my time as a Yank, certain things like my taste buds (I still love the combo of peanut butter and chocolate) and my appreciation of American football (possibly the most confusing sport ever created) – things like these remain evidence of an American upbringing.
But change was on its way. At the age of seven and a half, I was about to do something that, in only a matter of a few years, would have me despise all things American. I moved to Canada.