Right from the jump, I was outcast. When I thought they were laughing with me, they were laughing at me. I always knew this, but it’s what I wanted. I always craved attention; it just didn’t matter to me in what shape or form. I didn’t want what everyone else wanted. However, deep down, I wanted to be something that mattered. I wanted to do something that had never been done before. I wanted to write my own story, even back then.
I never had a shot. In Hell or in Heaven, they said.
Before anyone gets confused any longer, I’ll just spill it. I’m talking about the moment I let it be known I wanted to be a funeral director. The year was 2002, Junior, high school. The class was that of social sciences and in it, we discussed the social problems and what was actually going on in the world outside of us at the time. We were fresh on the heels of 9/11, so global protection, terrorism and finding ways to lead a fulfilling life before it was too late, was on our minds. We were all but 17 years old then. Still kids.
I remember the various field trips we took during this class. We visited a jail, in which the inmates and apparently everyone but us students thought it was a “Scared Straight” program. Needless to say, that was the shock of a lifetime. We’ve all seen the programs on TV of the like, and this field trip did not fail to deliver. Afterward, our teacher apologized profusely, because of the misunderstanding, and gave us all A’s.
Another field trip consisted of a nursing home, but the one that would change my life more than the “Inmate-Scream-a-Thon” for 4 hours, would be our funeral home visit.
Now, we’ve all seen Fast Times at Ridgemont High, right? The totally awesome, and wickedly funny 80’s movie? If you have, your favorite character is arguably Jeff Spicoli, ably played by the now great, method actor, Sean Penn. Throughout the movie, any scene he is in, he steals the show. With his one-liners and… well, one-liners, it’s hard not to love the guy. Long, blonde, flowing locks and that total aloofness, Spicoli was me in high school.
When Spicoli visited the hospital and saw how it preserved human life, it was akin to my class visiting the local funeral home. In the movie, as the human heart was being taken from the body of the man who had donated his body to science, Jeff Spicoli uttered but two words, “Ohhh, gnarly.” This was me. It was just in my nature.
Save for me playing basketball and baseball, I really only cared about making jokes, playing videogames, skateboarding and having fun wherever I was. I didn’t take anything serious. On the rare occasion I did, no one believed me.
It was like the boy who cried wolf, only, I was a moppy haired punk, kicking the doors down at every turn I could.
I pretty much did the same thing as Spicoli did, when my class field trip was being led around the funeral home. We weren’t shown the deceased or anything like that, as respect factors and the order of needing to be a licensed professional in order to even step foot in certain areas prevented that. To me, this was the best experience I could have had. As the old football saying goes, when being averse to celebrating a touchdown scored, “Act like you’ve been there before.”
That, I did not. I had asked a bunch of questions, some trying to be funny, and others, because I genuinely was interested in the arts and sciences aspect that entails being a funeral director. I was told by one of the funeral directors at this establishment that schooling is required (an Associate’s Degree), an interest in science, art, state laws, and above all else, have an affinity for helping people during their most awful moments in life. That being the death of a loved one, of course.
I started to really think about this, as I could check off the sciences and arts part, since those were the classes I aced, provided I showed up or wasn’t busy getting detentions or playing my GameBoy during class with the old, “Lean-Back-And-Hold-Up-The-Book-Trick.” I’ll never forget the director noticing that I was the only one who wasn’t weirded out by everything, and that once in awhile, my questions had meaning behind them. Gnarly. I think she could relate to me, or must have felt as though I did, during those years about my surroundings in life or just wanting more.
I didn’t want to be boring. I dyed my hair. A lot. I went from mohawks to dreads in a matter of years. Probably part of the reason I am now bald. I would use washable markers on my body because I wasn’t of legal age to get a tattoo yet (that would come a year later). I would listen to alternative punk rock music. I would skateboard. I wore whatever outfits I thought looked cool. Basically, I was what a lot of kids are in today’s world. But back then, I was my own person, with my own attitude and style.
A conformist, I was not.
Back then, in my ultra conservative town, that just didn’t fly. As a teenager, my dad even paid me not to get my ears pierced. I would do it once I turned 18, naturally. Twice, in each ear, for good measure. And let’s not forget the lip piercing. That just had to happen, too.
This was who I was and still am today. I am the person who doesn’t do what everyone else wants. I’m still that same kid who was crawling in the back of a hearse at a funeral home field trip in high school. You’ve heard of the saying, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should?” Well, if I can, I will. If I can’t, I’ll find a way to do it regardless.
When everyone in my class laughed at me and said I couldn’t be a funeral director because I could never be serious or dress nice, I told myself I could not only do this, but be the best funeral director this town had ever seen. And I was going to do it my way.
I was going to be myself every step of the way. I was going to take a traditional, serious and highly respected profession and bring some funk to it. I wasn’t going to just become a funeral director, I was going to become a rockstar mortician. I was going to help every family I could, but have fun doing it. Really personalize things for the family and make things memorable for them.
The director told me that I’d have to stop dying my hair, but tattoos were acceptable provided I could cover them up. So, when I started getting tattoos, I made sure that they would be able to be covered up from the wrist to the neckline. As long as a dress shirt covered my body, everything underneath was fair game. I wasn’t going to let a stereotype of someone being tatted up stop me from being a professional.
This was my way of saying to the funeral industry, “New school meets old school. And new school will take over.”
Just the fact of this director being a woman, she broke the stereotype of it being a man’s profession. She could relate to me, and I could relate to her. I don’t remember her name, or what she really looked like, but I’ll never forget her. If I could, I’d thank her greatly, because without her taking the time and taking a chance that I might be serious in one of my random questions, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
After high school, however, I didn’t attend college right away. I was still in that phase of just maxing and relaxing (and shooting some b-ball outside of school). I was intent on playing videogames all day, skateboarding, or wandering around my town aimlessly. It wasn’t until I was 19 years old, when I finally decided to check into the local college… for Criminal Justice. Aye, what a turn of events, eh?
I had thoughts of still pursuing the funeral service degree and even a landscaping one, as I also enjoyed being outside when I wasn’t playing videogames. I loved the smell of fresh cut grass, picking rocks until sundown, roto-tilling a garden, etc. I still do, to this day actually. But after all was said and done, I thought becoming a cop would be the thing for me.
In my dream scenario, I would become the next member of S.W.A.T. or even, the next Bond, James Bond.
A pipe dream, to be sure. I went through a year and a half of this, with each month, fading and tuning out to the idea that it would actually happen. I was doing nothing to make sure it happened. The interest was over. Not only did I decide during my last semester of the program that it wasn’t for me, but that college altogether wasn’t for me. I was giving up on it.You see, I had met the wrong kinds of people, a whole new world opened up to me when I was in college. Everything was so new to me, I didn’t know where to turn, or what to turn down. And I became that rockstar, finally. Actually, unfortunately.
I made a lot of poor choices and every one seemed to catch up to me. I dropped out of school not once, but twice. In fact, I even quit or lost the jobs I was working at the time, because of a love for the lifestyle I was leading. What allowed me to keep living like a rockstar was my love for poker, where I was making a ton of money. The poker boom of the early 2000’s online would allow me to make between $1-2k a week. Being a rockstar sure isn’t all it’s hyped up to be. It isn’t exactly a fulfilling life unless you have healthy relationships or outside interests. It ultimately lead to my demise, as you give a young kid with that much money, an eye on excess and no guidance, only bad things will follow.
Eventually, it was sink or swim, and enough was enough. I was now 23 years old, with nothing to show for my life. And it was time to grow up, and get my life in order. But what to do? How to do it? Well, the grind would be long. Clearing debt would require working my way up through various jobs (eventually leading me to welding). Gaining trust and respect back from family and friends would require a lot of patience and proving myself. Allowing my local college to take me back and let me take classes again would require money and a couple classes at a time, earning high honors.
Sometimes, you need to crawl before you can ball. And I needed to be reborn.
I had my sights set on leading a better life, and in turn, paying it forward. I had a new goal in life: To help as many people as I can. To make people laugh again. To show everyone that I am not the joke I portrayed in high school or the way I once acted after it. It all came down to what I was first interested in, from a field trip at age 17. One way or another, I was going to become a funeral director. And to be the best, like no one ever was.
Interested in Part II? https://noahwatry.tv/2017/06/03/a-humbling-foray/