Escape from Noeland
Santa Monica, California
This is all true
The moment I was cast out of the puppet universe, I wasn’t thinking about growing pains. I was not aware that I was setting in motion the fall of a monarchy, the demise of a culture, and the end of a way of life. I just knew that it was warm by the fire with my old dog, Lively, and that my brother should get his own damn book.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Let us go back – shall we? — to where all stories begin.
I have two older brothers, Andrew and Matt, three and four years older than me, respectively. When I was five and Andrew was eight, my liberal-leaning parents were introduced to Father Matthew, a Nigerian Episcopal priest who in turn introduced my parents to the horrors of the starving children of Biafra.
The Christmas when I was five, Father Matthew took Andrew and me to G. Fox Department Store in downtown Hartford to sit on Santa’s knee, where we asked the inevitable question: “Father Matthew, do Biafran children sit on Santa’s knee?” To his credit, Father Matthew did not even try to respond. (He was a very kind man.)
That day he bought us presents: a stuffed hamster for me, and a Danny O’Day ventriloquist puppet for my brother. The hamster landed in the dusty bin of unloved toys, but the puppet was christened Noel in honor of his natal day and was played with periodically. He was, in retrospect, biding his time before his coronation.
Cut to two, three? years later, summer vacation time. Most of the summer was completely un-scheduled, in that 1970’s way. My parents worked full time, but our neighbor Diane Adamson — who was all of 13? — would periodically "look in" on us. We had no car. We had no pool. We had no plan. One summer, I remember learning how to fry hot dogs, so I’d eat two fried hot dogs on buttered toast with mustard every day, watching the entire three-hour ABC lineup of soap operas, usually with Diane Adamson, who was getting paid by the hour. It was, however, the summer of Luke and Laura so I counted myself blessed.
At the end of every summer, during the last two weeks of August, my hard-working parents would take two weeks, and we would cram into the Rambler and drive north, pop-up trailer in tow. We did all of Maine — Boothbay Harbor, Camden, Bar Harbor, Mt. Desert – but, not satisfied, would then keep going to New Brunswick, Quebec, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, on a wild quest to find the most damp and cold camping ground imaginable. I was nineteen years old before I knew there was an ocean called the Caribbean where you could swim without having your lips turn blue.
We camped. We tried to camp. My parents were nerdy Harvard Law School lovebirds that were desperately trying to make up for everything their childhoods lacked — family vacations, healthy outdoor experiences, mental health — but they had no inherent knack for the wilderness. There was much cursing in inclement weather and poring over tent instructions as if they were the latest statute. We hiked and quarreled and periodically read a historic plaque. But mostly, we drove.
My post was the way back. Crammed next to the camping stove, refrigerator, sleeping bags, duffel bags and tarps, I would carve out a wee play space and set up my dolls. Everyone told me that was the plumb spot, but I knew they were full of shit. Andrew inexplicably had the entire passenger row while Matt rode shotgun with my parents up front. Nobody was strapped in. Everyone bounced around for hours on end. We listened to lots of Gilbert O’Sullivan and Three Dog Night. We waited for the next dull historical plaque, waited for Andrew to get car sick — but mostly we waited for the start of The Noel Show.
In the three years since Father Matthew’s trip to G.Fox, Noel had become — how do I put this? — alive. Andrew sometimes brought him to life, but mostly it was Matt. He’d move his lower jaw with his thumb and wave those cloth arms around and channel a wholly different dialect. The language was called Noelish and consisted of dropped L’s and R’s and try as I did for years, my brothers always laughed at my feeble attempts.
It was in those long car rides where Noel’s character bloomed. For hours on end, Noel talked, danced, and pontificated like a tiny plastic- headed Mussolini. He had a way of cannibalizing all my precious toys. He married my beautiful Dancerina doll, and then subjugated her to a life of domestic slavery. He flirted with another, lesser, cloth doll named Martha, but rejected her cruelly because she couldn’t compete with tight-bunned, pink-tights-wearing Dancerina. Martha, despondent, entered a nunnery. We knew that because Matt drew a cross on her cloth forehead with Mom’s ballpoint which never, EVER, came off.
Noel was cloth, with a plastic head and hands. His features were drawn on somewhat garishly, and his teeth started out sparkly white. Over time, the cloth became filthy, and more disturbingly, his head cracked. My mother was forever buying different styles of tape to find one which best held Noel’s head together. There was also the problem of the wax bean, fed to Noel through his ventriloquist’s mouth but never sufficiently retrieved; eau du Wax Bean became part of his charm.
Now the country of Noeland, over which Noel ruled, was a large principality made up of many warring provinces. The names of the provinces were taken from all my stuffed animals – like Rabittown and Gerblinton – who, in turn, served as governors. The Island of Lesbos also featured prominently, which seemed inexplicable until Matt fessed up what he was learning in salacious seventh grade.
Noel, who became affectionately known as Neppy, also had a variety show in which all the stuffed animals had their act. Our favorite act was a guy named Stretch Cunningham, who changed voices and attitudes every 10 seconds or so and had me laughing so hard that Fritos came out my nose. One interminable Canadian trip featured the "last Neppy show." We drove through frigid pelting rain and Matt held Neppy’s head out of the window, so his plastic head feigned sweat for the final "I just wanna say …" which went on for days and days and which also forced more Fritos out of my nose.
There was also a protracted election (unclear why, as I think Neppy was King for All Time?), which also took place on that interminable Canadian trip. Matt developed the slogan, “Little Finger for the Little People! Vote for Peep!” and forced me to lean out the window as we crossed through Quebec, bellowing the slogan at the refined Quebecois. Even more, he and Andy (and Neppy) would strongly “suggest” that I campaign in person with individuals under the age of five since Neppy especially needed that vote. Picture a lovely café in Montreal – and seven-year-old Amy, pinky raised for the Little People, passionately trying to convince a bewildered, French-speaking five-year-old that they should cast their imaginary vote for a ventriloquist puppet in a foreign election that doesn’t exist.
Matt always referred to Noeland as a feudal system with one serf. That would be me. And as we know from our history, life was not easy for the serfs. I was forced to tote bags, share Fritos, and fetch gear for my brothers or risk the wrath of Neppy. However, all was not grim. Through Neppy’s benevolent despotism, a credit system was established. If I fetched gear, I would earn ten credits. If I displeased my brothers, or Neppy, I would hear the cry, “minus ten credits!” ringing through the Canadian wilderness. The Prince Edward Island trip had me on a roll. First, I earned enough credits to own my own store! Amy’s Maggoty Meats! And then I ascended to the pinnacle of my Noeland career: Maid of Palace. I was proud, so proud, as I toted Matt’s sleeping bag through the campground. I was really part of things now!
I think if we try, we can always remember the moment of a growing pain. The exact moment when things shift and never quite return. The breakup, the job loss, the move from the hometown; those things are clear. But for Noel and me, it came somewhat out of the blue.
We were home in Connecticut, away from the magical Rambler. Neppy would mostly go dormant in the winter, but that November night he asserted his presence.
“Maid of palace: get my science textbook,” mumbled a newly adolescent Matt from the love seat.
I lifted my head from where it was buried in our Springer Spaniel’s fur. We sat in front of a lovely fire, drowsy with winter weight. “What? Where is it? Why don’t you –?” Feeble attempts to assert myself.
Matt lowered his Mad magazine and glared at me. “Minus ten credits,” he hissed.
I froze. My intellectual knowledge was desperately dialoguing with my emotional reality. I knew, I knew that Neppy was a doll; I knew that the credit system was not real, and I knew that Matt should get off his butt and get his own frickin book. And yet …
Matt’s eyebrows arched at my inactivity. My mother put down the New York Times Magazine. Something was afoot.
“Minus another ten credits!” Eyebrows arching, now eyeballs flaring.
And still, I didn’t move.
“Minus ten credits! Minus ten credits! You are no longer maid of palace!”
My mother murmured support. “You don’t have to get the book, Amy.”
Still, I stood, a weary Rosa Parks on my own bus out of Noeland.
“I just don’t think I –“
“MINUS TEN CREDITS!”
“It’s just that you can get your own –“
“MINUS TEN CREDITS! Amy’s Maggoty Meats: GONE!”
I was losing it all.
“I’m ten now, and I don’t see why –“
“MINUS TEN CREDITS!”
“After all, Noeland isn’t even real.”
Pin drop. And that was that. The spell was broken. My mother laughed nervously but I stood firm in the truth. Still, it didn’t feel good to hear my credit rating dip into the negative ten thousand, such that I was ultimately cast out of the Puppet Universe.
Where I remain to this day.
When I was sixteen, Joni Mitchell taught me that “something’s lost but something’s gained in living every day.” I suppose that’s the nature of growing pains. The inevitable breaking of bonds that have kept us safe but then begin to cut off circulation. For a while, after my counterrevolution, my parents and I reveled in my courage, but soon after we were all nostalgic for the old, tyrannical system. Because soon after, Matt would not be caught dead on a family vacation, and soon after that, he was dealing dope in our family room. I hid in musical theater land, and Andy left for Oberlin with Neppy in tow.
Andy regained control of his puppet, who went on something of a spiritual quest while in college. Some undergrad found a small, plastic penis, which was sewed onto the appropriate spot. A yarmulke was used to cover the cracks and hold together his increasingly frail head. Neppy moved with Andy from Ohio to New York where they took up residence on 4th street during the go-go mid-eighties. It always made me laugh to think of a new generation of Manhattanites meeting a twenty-five-year-old filthy, cracked ventriloquist puppet with a penis, and even then I realized that no one, ever again, would know the full power of his majesty.
Matt told me later how deeply influenced by Tolkien he was while growing up, and how Noeland was one big rip-off of “The Lord of the Rings.” The Neppy show, he said, was based on Jackie Gleason and Carol Burnett – influences that were in his blood and oozing out creatively, I guess. I was shocked. I thought he had made up the whole thing. Even now, I think he improved upon Tolkien, and even now, I think that my brothers were the smartest, funniest, most inventive brothers ever.
I don’t want to be back in that Rambler. I’m not nostalgic that way. But I do think of us speeding northward in that station wagon with no real destination and all our needs met. We can’t stay that way. We outgrow ramblers and develop new needs. So, we have to trust. We have to trust that growing pains will yield more growing than pains, and trust that what his essentially good about our relationships will endure. For the most part, mine have. Two weeks ago, I told my now poet brother Matt that I was going to write about Noeland and he visibly blanched. I laughed. “It’s nothing bad,” I said, “it’s one of your greatest creations. And who knows? Maybe standing up to King Noel made me the mouthy rebel I am today.” Matt looked dubious and took another swig of Pale Ale.
And as for you, Neppy? Don’t let all this swell your cracked head. I’m not giving you ALL the credit — you crazy, megalomaniacal, fascist ventriloquist puppet, you.
But I’ll give you some.