I hate coconuts.
I mean, I really hate coconuts. I will never drink a Pina Colada nor eat a coconut custard pie so long as I live.
My wife thinks I have psychological trouble. She may be right.
My earliest experiences with coconuts were nothing less than terrifying. The first was at a Luau.
Context: For a brief period in the late 1970s and early 80s there was a 'Hawaii fetish' going on in the American conscience. Syndicated television was all about Hawaii 5-0 reruns and re-telecasts of the old Brady Bunch Hawaii special. On the fore of new broadcast drama lay Magnum, P.I. and his Hawaiian escapades. Perry Como still reigned supreme at Christmas time and the ground work was laid in fashion for middle-aged men to get away with wearing Hawaiian shirts all summer. In short, America was 'Hawaii-crazy'.
Now, this is all kind of hazy because I was only like four or five years old, but I still can draw upon the deep emotions that were branded onto my psyche. There we were: my father, my mother, myself, along with my 'uncle' (not really an uncle) Dave's family. As I remember, Dave had a daughter named Yvonne and a son also named David. I could be wrong. No matter. What I do remember is that at four years old, Yvonne (who was probably eight) seemed like she was in her twenties and David (her younger) not far behind. David was the coolest kid on the planet. He looked like he had stepped right off the set of Eight is Enough.
Now I remember what I do of this because of where we were. You see, this was our 1980 summer vacation to Disney World.
I think everyone on the planet either went or wanted to go to Disney World in 1980. I have no idea why. To this day, I can think of no less appealing place on the planet to visit than that soul-sucking living hell known as Disney World. But I digress. In 1980, I really didn't know so much as to even be able to tie my own Buster Browns, so concepts of crass commercialization and psycho-marketed capitalism really didn't mean much. I just liked the guy dressed up in the big Goofy costume.
Our Disney World vacation seemed to go exactly as planned (go figure) and once we got used to the idea of standing in line for seventeen hours for a three minute ride on a tea-cup, all the cosmos seemed to become aligned in a new order of Mouseketeering physics. All was well. That is, until the luau.
Again, these are only the memories that have surfaced after almost thirty years of tortured suppression. I apologize to my family if I've got any of the details mistaken. But, there we were on the final night of our Disney World trip. Sitting around a big white table with a big candle centerpiece smiling and wearing leis. We were at the luau -- which up to that point in my young life I had no idea was Hawaiian for 'hell night'.
As the sky darkened, young men came forth to play drums followed by girls in grass skirts performing their most enticing hip shake. 'Uncle' Dave ordered another round.
And then the food came.
I think I noticed the carcass hanging from the spit before I had actually been presented with a plate of flesh. Something about growing up Catholic maybe had ingrained in my mind images of torture, so I didn't necessarily put it all together right at first. Perhaps I though the cadaver on the stick was just a mock up telling a story from the Lives of the Saints.
What I do remember was that everything smelled... different. As though there were a way Hawaiian food at a luau was supposed to taste and Disney just upped the ante by creating a spray bottle version of that smell and covering everything with it. I struggled through my dish as the adults -- with the exception of my father who never drank -- enjoyed outsized versions of the Disney Pina Colada.
And then came the coconuts.
A man who looked sort of like an extra from the Love Boat began singing pop hits on the Hawaiian guitar. As a side-note: earlier in the week we had spent a day at Sea World where I witnessed the most gruesome of late-1970s / early 80s particles of culture come together in a mash as Spiderman and Wonder Woman did water-skiing tricks to the light-rock sounds of the Manhattan Transfer. So, I had had my share of ridiculously horrifying syntheses of music and images long before this guy started playing a Hawaiian guitar version of 'Light My Fire'.
So the man comes on to sing and the waiters bring us what appear to me at first to be shrunken heads, which they promptly slice in half revealing a pale white brain. These are the coconuts. And the last thing I remember was my mother leaning towards me with the white stuff on her fork.
Which leads us right into the second terrifying event in my life surrounding coconuts.
My mother's parents lived in a rowhouse in Philadelphia all their lives. Walking in the front door, the first thing one would notice was just how immaculate my grandmother kept the place. A green low-shag carpet and wallpapered walls made a proper environment for the Modern L-sofa and the console television.
Walking into that house, no one would suspect that in the basement lay the greatest horror known to a four-year-old boy.
You see, my grandmother was a bit of a collector. Actually, she hoarded things. All kinds of things. Anything she could get her hands on. Her basement was full of boxes upon boxes upon boxes of stuff. Newspapers, clippings, doilies... all preserved in cardboard liquor store boxes stacked three and four high.
It was scary enough to be a four year old wandering through this strange-smelling musty maze of my grandmother's design. But then to come to 'The Back Room'! Dear God, have pity on the boy who is asked by his grandmother to fetch something from the back room.
I remember my first time.
The old lady asked me to go downstairs and fetch soap for her. Slowly I made my way down the dark stairs. My grandfather had long ago covered them with no-slip rubber pads and these seemed to create an un-earthly sensation under my feet as I crept. Reaching the bottom of the stairs, I pulled on the long string leading up to the room's single bald forty-watt bulb.
The light cast shadows, only making things worse.
Steeling my resolve, I straightened my shoulders and edged towards the door to the back room.
Reaching it, I pushed upon it and it squealed a horrendous shriek. I jumped back, brushing off imaginary cobwebs.
My grandmother's voice called down shouting my name. I knew it was now or never.
I reached forward and pushed the old paint-stripped door with all of my might. And that's when I saw them.
Whoever thought it would be a good idea to paint faces on coconuts really should have thought twice about what effect their artistic inspiration might have had on young boys in dark basements. Because when I saw those coconut heads hanging in the darkness of the back room, I nearly died of fright. All I can say is that, fortunately, urine stains are not so noticeable on dark green corduroy.
I tell you, friends: To this day, I can't look at a coconut covered sheet cake without those old memories rushing back in waves. Coconuts scarred me. And I'm sure I'm not the only one.