My nephew, technically grandnephew, turns seventeen today. I was up early working on a musical play when I remembered to log onto Facebook and wish him a happy birthday and I thought how ironic it seemed that only a few heartbeats ago I was doing the same thing for his sixteenth birthday.
I’ve been asked a few times in my life that if I had a year to revisit which one would I pick. The first year that came to mind each time I was asked was my seventeenth – and then I would try to understand why that particular year erupted from my memory banks.
The day I turned seventeen Shamu died. Less than a month later I would have my heart so badly broken I left the town I was living in and never returned. Viet Nam still raged and we all feared turning eighteen and the draft. I graduated a year early from Lawndale High School and worked fulltime in Buena Park, where this Saturday’s child had another Saturday birthday and built bird and animal cages for pet stores and distributors, and oh yes, the many monkey cages for Walter Knott’s defunct Japanese Village and Deer Park. Seventeen would also see me: angry when the staff of KPPC was fired; head out for Orlando to work at Disney World (we never made it); spend Christmas alone in an airport; suffer another broken heart; break another’s heart; see the Rolling Stones up front and personal; live in my car; get arrested twice (and released without charges); and smoke marijuana for the very last time.
Why seventeen? It was a year of emotional turnovers, a year of disappointments, and a year of coming of age. Why then seventeen? Maybe, perhaps – because it was a year of turnovers and disappointments along with dramatic changes and intense emotions – I knew what it was to be alive. Once, long ago, I wrote in one of my notebooks: “I cry to know I am alive,” because, after all, when we stop feeling we are already dead.
Seventeen is a year of youthful health and exuberance, a year to taste the adulthood that lurks just around the corner, and hopefully a year to remember, however bittersweet those memories might be.
Five years after my seventeenth birthday a young man called Johnny Cougar was making a name for himself. Later as John Cougar he would write: “Hold on to sixteen as long as you can/Changes come around real soon/Make us women and men.” I would assert the same holds true for seventeen.
And, for my nephew, I wish him the happiest of days, a year of the highest good, and memories to treasure for a lifetime.
Happy Seventeenth Birthday, Quade.