Laser beams and chocolate bars

A ripped skirt, unzipped fly or a leaking maxi pad: any of these could ruin your life forever.

My classmates were the children of electricians, business owners, anesthesiologists. The sheer inhumanity of life at West Junior High during the Reagan-era in Kansas still amazes me 34 years later.

It was the worst kind of luck to have a father who was a professor of music. Even more terrible? He was a composer of chaotic experimental music that sounded like complete madness. At 12, all I cared about was fitting in among my izod and penny loafer-wearing classmates. It didn’t impress me one bit that my father attended music conferences where he rubbed shoulders with Philip Glass, John Cage, Frank Zappa.

Much later, his avant garde music would win him residencies at Yaddo and the Millay Colony, premieres at Carnegie Hall and enough published works that we’ve run out of new places to stash his yellowing bundles of scores. But back then? The crazy cacophonies of my father’s compositions filled me with nothing short of mortification.

Sometimes I daydreamed about having a dad like my classmates.

Maybe a tan doctor who golfed instead of a ginger-haired giant who wore a Mexican sombrero when he mowed the lawn to protect his tender skin. Or how about an attorney in crisp polo shirts who bought his cheerleader daughters a trampoline for the summer instead of dragging them from the Louvre to the Kunsthistorisches museum?

Of course I was too young to identify these feelings as disloyal.

The houses of the popular kids proudly displayed mantlepiece photographs that documented the deeply average life I aspired to then. Pictures of them throwing a softball. Pictures of them swathed in pink tulle for a ballet recital. My mother thought family photos in living rooms were hopelessly bourgeois. A black and white picture of me as a tow-headed toddler standing next to Aaron Copland resided on the dresser in their master bedroom.

Halloween 1982: did my father sense my pubescent angst? He spent hours lugging heavy electronics equipment up from our dank basement to the side of the house. He ran a river of extension cords to the side-yard, carefully positioning his bulky black amplifier towards our front walkway for maximum impact.

That fall, my father was using a synthesizer-guided laser to accompany his musical compositions. The louder the sound-waves, the crazier the patterns he created. As the sun went down, he pointed the thin red beam onto the side of our neighborhood water tower like a beacon for trick-or-treaters.

It was rare back then for your average person to own such a complicated collection of sound boards, microphones and electronic keyboards. What you can achieve with the slimmest silver laptop today required a complete arsenal of cobbled-together equipment. My dad took me on hours-long visits to Radio Shack the way some kids’ fathers took them to the ball-park. The smoky smell of his soldering iron was a constant in our house. When I wasn’t feigning disapproval for this project, I watched for hours as he touched the terrifying tip of his soldering wand to coils of soft silver wire. The instant the tip made contact with wire, a quivering pearl of liquid metal dripped onto the parts he was working to connect.

As intrepid trick or treaters finally braved our front walk in the twilight, he scrambled to his keyboard from his hiding place. He was a mad organist in a creepy Gothic cathedral one moment, Vincent Price cackling through the antique microphone the next.

He improvised terrifying tunes for kids dressed as Chewbacca, Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker. Our house quickly became the most important stop on the town’s Halloween route. My mother made a panicked trip to Rusty’s IGA halfway through the evening to get more bags of candy.

After my own trick-or-treating was done, I crunched up our driveway through leathery sycamore leaves to find my father’s Halloween show a great success. A huge cluster of “preps” stood around our front garden listening to his cat-scream music, pointing to the sky where the red beam now danced upon a low-hanging gunmetal cloud.

Once they left, I joined my dad around the side of the house. It was my turn to peek around the corner and signal him when more spooky ghost-howls were needed. We laughed together during brief intermissions and I fed him all my gross candy — Almond Joys, Mr. Goodbar, Bit of Honey’s.

The next day at school I basked in my newfound popularity, my stomach doing terrific flip-flops when I heard a gleaming group of 8th grade girls whispering “her house” as I walked past them in the hallway. My fame wore off completely by lunchtime, but I was still happier than I’d ever been my entire life. I sat alone at a long table like always, a pile of red Krackel wrappers on the lunch tray in front of me. I reached into my jean-jacket pocket and grabbed another chocolate bar from my stash, lodging it between my teeth and my cheek, allowing it to melt there slowly. It had never tasted so sweet.