I have taken to calling the family I grew up in, the Sputnik Family, since one incident in 1957 involving the Soviet Sputnik - sums us up completely.
My family has always been, what shall I say? Out of touch, It's not as if we're insane or anything. But, there was and still is a basic disjuncture between us and commonly held reality.
I guess you could say we pass for normal. Partly because It takes people a while to realize how out of it we are, and also because most people are so self-obsessed they don't notice. Some people, however, notice right away. REAL crazy people, for example.
I remember being on a subway car in London, when one of these completely nutty street people got on the car dressed in a rather elaborate diaper. He scanned the assembled passengers and within seconds, his eyes were riveted on mine.
"You." He thundered, pointing a long finger at me thereby causing every head in the car to turn and look.
Yeah, it's me. I felt like saying. One of the Sputnik family. But you don't have to TELL everybody.
But, the way we got our name was this: In the small town where I grew up people would compete every year to win the prize for best outside Christmas decoration.
We had tried to win for as many years as I could remember, but had never succeeded. One year, we built a train out of painted paper boxes and put it in the yard. A waving Santa Clause set in the Engine holding the reigns of reindeer who were out in front of the train (I know, it doesn't make sense, but remember who you're dealing with here.) Each car was filled to overflowing with elaborately wrapped Christmas presents.
We thought we were sure to win. We didn't. We drove by the house that won, narrowing our eyes. The winning house had decorations on the roof Next year, we decided, we would perch our decoration, whatever it was, on the roof.
Then, one day, the telephone rang. I remember, standing beside my mother and fathers bed, the telephone in my hand listening to someone explain to my father that the Russians had successfully launched a "Sputnik" into outer space.
The person made it sound ominous, but Daddy was elated. When he hung up the telephone, he began shouting and dancing around the living room, his arms raised over his head.
"That's it. That's it." He exclaimed. "The winning Christmas decoration..... the Sputnik..... Just imagine it."
He put his hands out in front of him and spread them as if he were showing us a marquee. "Santa Clause riding the Sputnik, lit up on top of the house." He was so excited he was vibrating. "A marvelous scientific achievement." Daddy went on. "Marvelous."
Daddy was filled with admiration for the Soviets. During the next year, he brought home articles about and pictures of the Sputnik. We would all pour over them at night, reading everything we could get our hands on.
And, come Christmas, there it was - the same waving Santa that had been in the train was now riding the round Sputnik off our roof lit up like an airstrip.
We counted the number of cars that came by. There were hundreds, literally hundreds. We were sure to win. When we weren't counting the cars coming by our decoration, we were riding around looking at the competition. None of the other displays had cars stopped in the street, like ours.
When the day of the announcement of the winner arrived, my brother tore out the front door, grabbed the paper from the startled paperboy, opened it and stood frozen - staring. We all crowded around.
It wasn't Waving Santa and the Sputnik on the front page. It was a creche - a stable, mules, a manger, Mary, Joseph and the frigging Wiseman.
We had lost, and we couldn't figure out why.
"But, all those people," my brother protested "came by and STOPPED THEIR CARS to look at our display.
"It is a testimony to the unfailing power of mediocrity." Was Daddy's one and only comment.
It took me over forty years to understand. People were building BOMB SHELTERS in their back yards in 1957. During the height of the cold war, we put up an elaborate Christmas Display celebrating the scientific accomplishments of the Soviet Union. And we didn't even have enough sense to make the connection that that was why all those people were driving by and stopping.
See what I mean? The Sputnik family.