DISLAIMER: There is nothing obscene or potentially offensive in this story, though the word ‘penis’ does appear once. Now it appears twice.

        The Castillo de San Cristóbal in Puerto Rico is one of those imposing historical landmarks that conjures images of epic battles, scandalous romances and cloak ‘n’ dagger intrigue. There are beautiful ocean views, towering turrets and gigantic black cannons spaced out along its impressive stone walls. The centuries-old fortress has been gently worn down by the elements, but it still possesses a stirring majesty.
        That is, until you insert a 9-year-old American kid wearing a neon green shirt, Coke bottle glasses (with superfluous sunglasses strung around his neck), an ill-fitting white baseball cap with a white braid on the rim, and shorts plastered with skulls and crossbones. Though he’s leaning against a cannon in a pose he cribbed from Never Say Never, there’s absolutely nothing suave or debonair about him.
        That kid was me.
        Most people get to edit their childhoods, because much of what they’d rather forget wasn’t photographed. I’m not that lucky. I ruined a lot of family photo ops, though my depraved indifference to style never stopped my father from snapping endless pictures of me trampling good taste. The worse I dressed, the cooler my father assured me I looked and the more shots he took. There are literally dozens of photo albums jam-packed with my crimes against high fashion. My outfits were so bad, even low fashion would have been offended. Evidence like this shot from the Caribbean fortress is why I have so many memories of dressing like the slow kid that somebody left at the zoo.
        No matter where we traveled, I did my subconscious best to be the loudest dresser in the area code. There is photographic evidence of my ill-conceived Davy Crocket phase (buckskin jacket, coonskin cap, brown corduroy pants, and a wooden pistol stuck in my belt) that I introduced to Nova Scotia during one summer vacation. From 1987 until I discovered Nirvana, I made a point of wearing bad hair metal t-shirts on every school field trip and Model U.N. meeting. I still have a dresser drawer full of t-shirts emblazoned with Britny Fox, Winger, Cinderella and dozens of other long-haired, glammed-up guys who couldn’t define the word ‘androgynous’ even as they personified it. Unfortunately, my parents still have all the photos of me wearing these t-shirts, so my dreams of indie rock credibility are ruined forever.
        Perhaps the most arresting photos of my misplaced aesthetic intentions are in the series my father took on our trip to Pentecost Island, a small blip in the South Pacific that is part of the Republic of Vanuatu. It’s out of the way in the profoundest sense of the phrase, but limited accessibility never stopped my father from pushing us to Captain Cook levels of exploration. In fact, the farther a location was from clean linens, telephones and US Embassies, the better. All these stipulations were part of an effort to avoid over-touristed sites, but it often lead to the avoidance of any comfort, much less luxury.
        This particular out-of-the-way gem has a single claim to fame, land diving, which is basically bungee jumping, minus the safety harness. On Pentecost, land diving is not a sport, but a fertility rite that insures divers have bountiful harvests. The locals construct massive towers out of sticks lashed together with jungle creepers, then they jump off these rickety structures with little regard for personal safety wearing nothing more than a reed penis sheath, an appropriately pious expression and the vines strapped to their ankles. They are brave, both for what they do and what they wear.
        We arrived on the island on a small Cessna plane that was literally held together with duct tape (“It’s stronger than steel,” I remember the pilot reassuring us as my father naively nodded) and metaphorically bound together by the fervent prayers my family ceaselessly uttered during the short flight from the main island. When we landed, we were met by a local guide, who was in charge of one of the few vehicles on Pentecost – a beat up old US Army jeep that had been in service since the Second World War. There was duct tape holding together the jeep as well and my father cheerfully pointed that out to all of us, reminding us that work like that meant that we were in safe hands. We rolled our eyes as we renewed our beseeching to the heavens above.
        Though we were there to watch the land divers, we soon turned into local attractions ourselves. My blonde haired sister and I were the only white children some of the younger islanders had ever seen, so they crowded around the jeep as we made our way slowly up to the jump site. I couldn’t have known that I was going to be the object of attention, but I certainly dressed the part. I had on thick glasses, a white t-shirt advertising a Pennsylvania youth soccer team and bright blue fanny pack to complement a pair of tiny gym shorts that Richard Simmons would call “outrageous.” It’s sad to think that some of those kids grew up thinking that this was how all foreigners dressed. If any anthropological studies were going on while we were there, I single-handedly ruined them by doing inestimable damage to those childrens’ expectations of the outside world.
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