Choose Your Own Adventure For ’80s Kids by Paul Crenshaw
Paul Crenshaw bases his essay “Choose Your Own Adventure for ’80s Kids” on the Bantam Books series Choose Your Own Adventure, tremendously popular in that decade. He also evokes the era through references to pop culture and pervasive fears. It was a time when the nightly news and TV shows were filled with abductions, Satanic cults, the hole in the ozone layer, the dangers of aerosols, acid rain, nuclear holocaust, drug pushers, AIDS, hijackings abroad, gang violence at home, the failing economy. There were multiple possible outcomes for multiple frightening scenarios right in your own neighborhood, starting with the stranger in a van offering a candy apple.
The essay opens on a cold fall day. “You are walking home from school. The year is 1983 and you’re 9 or 11 or 13” when the van pulls up.” Second-person narrative point of view can be seen by some as a gimmick; but second person can serve many purposes, as Siân Griffiths observes in “Oh You!: A Taxonomy of the Second Person” in Waxwing. Her first experience of second person was in fact the Choose Your Own Adventure books, which invited young readers to “participate and be in control of the narrative,” offering them the “power of decision making.” But what if, Crenshaw asks in his accompanying author’s note, every one of those decisions entails a new danger? Griffiths suggests second-person narratives can also underline readers’ lack of power and choice. “Choose Your Own Adventure for ’80s Kids” describes an era overpowered by paranoia, showing “how easy it is to fall into patterns of fear” and what the consequences might be.
Take a look at Paul Crenshaw’s short story “Ricochet” and nonfiction flash pieces “Abbreviated” and “Not Manager Material” in CRAFT as well, and his author’s note, which explains how this essay started with a tweet on quicksand. —CRAFT
You are walking home from school. The year is 1983 and you’re 9 or 11 or 13, some awkward age when even the air hurts your thin skin. Maybe it’s the hole in the ozone the news is just now announcing, the one eaten away by the hair spray containing all the fluorocarbons. Maybe it’s that the year of your birth was, like every year before and after, one of anger, or maybe the atmosphere is only as cold as the global climate, the war everyone warns is coming.
But today is a fine fall day. A faint hint of frost hangs in the air. The leaves are lifting from the trees and rattling along the sidewalk and you suddenly, in a first flash of adulthood, imagine them as the years of your life. So you stand and watch the leaves scuttle away downwind and feel the cold come on and the darkness begin to set in early, and it is in this moment that a man in a van pulls up beside you.
Get in the van despite all the times your parents have warned you about strangers, kidnappings, vans?
Take the candy apple the man offers you but otherwise ignore him?
Flee through the nearest backyard and into the woods behind your house?
Ask a neighbor to call the police?
Ignore the man in the van and run home to all the emptiness of your quiet house?
Get in the van:
The stranger is, of course, not a stranger—he tells you he knows your Uncle John.
You mean Uncle Jerry? you say.
Yes, the stranger says, Uncle Jerry.
So you get in the van. It is moments like these that all choices hinge upon. That make us or break us, a saying your father is fond of. But the man cannot be a stranger because he knows Uncle Jerry, logic that seems at the time irrefutable, but which will, as the future unfolds, become increasingly suspect.
The man puts the van in drive and you slowly pull away from everything you know. The mailboxes are switching past as you cruise down the once-safe street, the one your parents have let you walk by yourself since you were six. It will never be safe after this, but you don’t know that yet, so you simply ride with the man who knows, he assures you, your Uncle Jerry. He drives with one hand on the wheel. His eyes stare at the street, at you, at the street. His shirt is gray, a color that seems to mean nothing. You haven’t yet learned kidnappings rarely happen like this, that it isn’t strangers your parents should have worried about. You don’t even know what the word kidnapped means, but your parents do. They, like you, are products of their time, all the TV shows and mass media proclaiming the world increasingly unsafe, so of course they imagined a man like this, and not the monsters they already know. This is why they’ve warned you about strangers and men in vans and children taken from once-safe streets. You will, someday, air on a TV show about missing kids, but you don’t know that as you ride slowly out of the neighborhoods you know and into ones you don’t, where the houses sit too far apart for screams to be heard and the basement at a certain home holds ropes and duct tape in one small room, the one that will be yours forever.
Take the candy apple:
You take the candy apple the man offers. It is bright red, and for a moment you think of the poisoned apple the evil witch gives Snow White. Or Sleeping Beauty. Whichever one it is. You do fear, for a moment, that the man wanted to grab your hand as he gave you the apple, but it’s a fine fall day and nothing like that has ever happened here, no matter how many TV shows your mother watches, nor what the nightly news says about abductions.
So the van rolls on and out of your life, you never knowing how close you came to living tied up in a basement, or so your mother would tell you if she knew about the van. She’s told you not to eat candy apples because they’ll pull the fillings from your teeth and Lord knows she can’t afford any more dental work, but she won’t be home when you get there because she’s at work. Your mother is at work and your father is at work and this is why you walk home alone. Why you sit in an empty house for hours after school. Why they’ve warned you not to talk to strangers. A therapist could tell you their guilt of leaving you alone has manifested your fear, or that the air around you—in this time, in this place, with the socioeconomic and political upheaval going on, the rise of the 24-hour news network, the changing values brought about by changing technology, a return to what are being called core values, which really means staying afraid of everything outside what we already know—has manifested that fear inside them. All you know is that you aren’t supposed to take candy from strangers, but at least you weren’t stupid enough to get in the van.
So you unlock the front door of your house with the key strung around your neck and put down your bookbag and lock the door behind you and unwrap the bright red shiny candy apple, in which, everyone who grew up in the ’80s knows now, there lurks something even shinier, and sharper.
You’ve been warned about the man in the van, so you flee through the nearest backyard to the woods behind your house. You cross the small creek, only getting your shoes a little wet. Your mother will be mad about this, she’ll worry about pneumonia and the flu and the common cold, which might turn into pneumonia or the flu or an even worse cold. But you’re fleeing the man in the van and so you aren’t worried about wet shoes or pneumonia.
You also aren’t worried about quicksand, and that’s when you hit it. That’s always when you hit the things that will hurt you, which is why you have to stay worried all the time. Running full speed from the man in the van you suddenly sink to your knees. You struggle, but that only makes you sink faster. So you try to slow yourself. You try to remember what the men on TV do when they fall into quicksand, but there is no vine lying close. No tree branch you can use to pull yourself out. No one comes along to help, despite your repeated shouts. You can only wonder if they’ll ever find you. You can only think that the men on TV always made it out but you aren’t a man on TV so why didn’t your mother warn you? On TV quicksand was everywhere in the ’80s. Every small patch of unknown land held some goop that would suck you down. The ground, always so steady before, was suddenly unsettled. Surely your mother would have warned you, if she had known what lay in wait in the woods. She would have forbidden you from ever going out there. She has always known how easily young children can be swallowed up by the things their mothers can’t foresee, which is why she tried to stay afraid of everything.
Ask a neighbor to call the police:
You sit in the kitchen of the Carlsens, eating cookies, until the policeman arrives. Through the front door you see Mrs. Carlsen talking with the police officer. The police officer wears a big gun and black baton and he looks at you both kindly and unkindly as he herds you to his car. The man in the van, of course, is long gone.
At home you stand in the front yard while the policeman speaks to your parents. They have come home from work by this time and have been worried, and when the police officer—Officer Clarke—questions you, your mother smokes the cigarettes she’s sworn to quit a kabillion times, the ones she calls cancer sticks and coffin nails.
We thought someone had up and taken you, your father says, cracking open his first beer of the night.
We were worried sick, your mother says, inhaling. To Officer Clarke she says, With everything going on in the world … She says, If something happened to him …
Standing on a fine fall day in the front yard of a street that seems only a little unsafe, you tell Officer Clarke about the man and the van. You tell about the candy apple he offered and how you thought he was going to grab your arm. You say the van looked sinister, a word you’re not sure of but know means something more than scary.
Officer Clarke listens intently, but when you’re finished he asks if maybe you’re making this up. Was there really a van? he says, and frowns at your emphatic nod. His voice grows a little gruffer when he says children can have fun with their imaginations but they mustn’t let them get out of hand, and it sounds downright mean when he says they can’t ever lie about men in vans or candy apples. What would happen then? Officer Clarke says. We’d have a whole country seeing bogeymen everywhere, that’s what. Everyone would be scared all the time, Officer Clarke says, as he rests one hand on his bright big gun and the other on his black baton, as he looks at your parents and shakes his head as if to say Where do you think kids come up with such ideas?
Ignore the man in the van:
You ignore the man in the van. You walk home and unlock the door then relock it. You look around the house. It seems still and cold, like the war the news announcers talk about every night on TV, the one that seems to have gotten inside your father, who stays up later now to catch the news again at 11:00, see what might have changed since he started drinking at 6:00.
Outside it has begun to rain, a cold light rain that obscures the distance. You wonder how much acid is in the rain. How large the hole in the ozone layer is. You know that the acid in the rain is different from the acid drug pushers try to give children on every street corner. You have, of course, never seen any drug pushers, but everyone assures you they are out there. Along with men in vans. With quicksand. With razor apples. With nuclear missiles. With every other thing you’ve been warned about, including the Klingons from Star Trek (obviously Russians) and the Stormtroopers from Star Wars (obviously Nazis).
The question is then, do you stay at home where it is somewhat safe, if cold and lonely and full of some emotion you can’t explain at that age?
Do you stay there, scared of all the dangers that might possibly exist in the world, or go out?
If you go out, do you go out:
The next morning?
You go out now:
You’re tired of the emotions of that house. Of the sad way your parents come home from work, your mother to the stove and your father to the fridge he keeps in the garage where he used to woodwork. How your mother’s stirring at the stove signals her defeat. How your father sits smoking in his chair, staring at the nightly news but not really seeing it, just listening to the reports of all the bad things out there in the world: the gang-related activity in the city, the drugs and violence; the threat of nuclear war hanging above our heads; the tanking economy, the closing of everything; the AIDS epidemic; the hijackings and kidnappings in foreign countries, the children found missing or murdered. Your mother is listening as well. Neither of them are talking. Dinner is a quiet affair of tiredness. The house is still cold.
So you unlock the front door and walk out into the world, assuring yourself you’ll never become your parents. You’ll never take a job you hate just to make ends meet and you’ll never fear everything you can’t control. You can only try to bring some small light to this world, and it is with this realization, this sudden glow inside you, that you see a brief white light bloom on the horizon and missiles begin to streak skyward, as everyone always said they would.
You go out later:
It’s evening, and the lights are coming on in the houses. Cars are coming along the street with their headlamps on and turning into the drives and the blue glow from the TVs are turning the windows to screens. The fine fall day has turned cloudy and cool, but people are still out enjoying the last bit of fall before the real cold sets in or else they are settling in themselves to see what news the day has wrought.
Your parents, too tired from work and the weight they carry with them, choose the TV, but you go out into the evening. Your breath flowers before you. Gone are thoughts of the man in the van, the weight of the world. There is only this moment, you think. A light rain has begun to fall. You can see it slantwise through the streetlights. It rattles on the rooftops of the houses and the world seems fine in its traces until you step out from under the porch and the acid in the rain starts to eat your thin skin.
You go out at night:
The rain has ended. It is cool after the rain, and the world smells like new hope. You pass the Bixby’s house with their pit bull chained in the backyard, the one everyone calls Killer, and the Smiths with their mailbox made to look like a smaller version of their house. At the corner you cut behind the Methodist Church with its bell tower that tells you the top of every hour, a reminder that time is passing.
At the park you see the pushers. You wanted to swing for a few minutes, to try to negate the feeling of gravity, of being tied to this time, but the pushers are there, standing just outside the circle of streetlight. They are older than you and scary in the way they wear their hats backwards, as if they don’t care about convention, so when they wave you over, you go.
In the cooling night they give you a small square of paper, tell you to let it dissolve on your tongue. They say you’re only going to take a fun little trip, but for years afterward you don’t know who you are. When your parents come to visit you in the institute they can’t afford, looking older and older each time, you don’t recognize them. You don’t recognize anything except the colored lights in your head, the ones that wouldn’t be there, you know, sometimes in small moments of clarity, if you hadn’t taken anything from the pushers. If you had only listened to all the fears your parents warned you about.
You go out the next morning:
To a friend’s house to play Dungeons and Dragons. It’s Saturday and your parents say you should play outside but you’re remembering the man in the van. The apple he offered, like the fruit of knowledge in the Garden of Eden, the one that woke everyone up to what the world really was, all its sex and sin and serpents just waiting for the unwary.
So it’s inside on Saturday, down in your friend’s basement, making characters who will face the dangerous world for you. You create a warrior, a big barbarian who would never be afraid of a man in a van. Kevin creates a cleric and Mark makes a mage, but some arcane symbol in some ancient dungeon corrupts your characters. Mark’s mage flings a fireball at Kevin’s cleric and your warrior cleaves them both as they turn on you, and you end up all angry at each other.
Saturday ruined, you head home, and somewhere along the way the anger or the corruption of your character—no one has ever known how this happened—begins to bother you. It takes a few weeks, but this anger, this corruption, is like acid. Or quicksand, dragging you down. You can’t sit still in Sunday school. Your teacher asks if you are all right, and you say a word not found in any scripture, at least not the holy kind.
A year later you’re in a Satanic cult, because that’s what Dungeons and Dragons did to kids in the ’80s. It’s the same as Ouija boards. As magic tricks. As witchcraft. So many corrupted children who only wandered into the wrong board game.
Soon you’re drinking blood. Sacrificing virgins. You become a man in a white van and abduct children off the streets for your rituals. Later, you’ll murder your own parents, and just before you kill your mother she’ll say she saw this coming. She’ll say she should have loved you harder.
You go out years later:
But now there are spider eggs in bubble gum. Pop rocks and soda can erupt inside you and damage your internal organs (everyone knows that’s what happened to Mikey from the Life Cereal commercials). Another Skylab might fall on you because now the stars are clouded with satellites. With missile systems. With Star Wars. You might spontaneously combust. There have been alien abductions, Bigfoot sightings. Killer bees are coming. The hole in the ozone layer now engulfs Antarctica. Other wars have replaced the ones you knew but no one has yet replaced man’s enmity toward those different from him, nor have the men who burn the world stopped burning it, so you go back inside. Stay there, behind the TV screen or the computer screen or the window screen, only occasionally peering out, remembering what it was like out there, once, before everything got inside you. When you have children, try not to transfer your fears to them.
You stay home:
You stay home. You’re not sure how, but you know that staying home will keep you safe from the quicksand, the razor blades, the strangers in vans, the nuclear holocaust. The killer bees, Bigfoot, playing records backwards, D&D, HIV, AIDS, acid, crack, crystal meth. From rock stars who have swallowed gallons of semen. From alligators in the sewers. From the bathtub and the missing kidney.
What you don’t know is how easy it is to fall into patterns of fear. How easy it is to fear everything outside the small rooms of time we walk around in. So you grow old while the world spins on its axis, indifferent. You come to realize the only thing we have to fear is fear itself but lo the thing’s inside the gate. Your parents will divorce before you turn 10, or 12, or 14. They will grow distant first, as if all their fears have gotten inside them. Or they are tired of being afraid. You’ll come to know—years later, worrying for all the things that could happen to your kids—that they had many more fears. The strangers and razors and nuclear war were only the ones on the outside. The drugs and the acid rain were only the ones they could tell you. They couldn’t tell you how hard it was to make ends meet. To struggle through jobs they hated. To worry they weren’t enough. That they did not give you enough, didn’t love you enough to protect you from everything that might hurt you, including their own faults and failures. They couldn’t tell you how much they worried about the world you walked around in, and they couldn’t tell you how much they worried they could not change it enough to make it a better place, so they told you in the only way they could.
The question is: how many of those fears do you carry around now?
If your answer is none of them, turn back to the beginning. Try again. Don’t keep your thumb on the previous page so you can pretend you didn’t make a mistake. Try to learn from what you’ve done, what we’ve all done, how we’ve kept our fingers on pages all our lives, always trying to keep the end from coming or wishing we could rewrite it, still somehow unable to understand that never works.
If your answer is all of them, because none of us escape from who we once were, then congratulations. You made it. You’re still mostly intact. Now go to the next page, whatever that is.
PAUL CRENSHAW is the author of the essay collections This One Will Hurt You, published by The Ohio State University Press, and This We’ll Defend, from the University of North Carolina Press. Other work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Pushcart Prize, Oxford American, Glimmer Train, and Tin House. Follow him on Twitter @PaulCrenstorm.
Featured image by Alberto Contreras courtesy of Unsplash