FEBRUARY 2008 – NO. 21
I wasn't uncommon.
I wasn't an uncommon eight-year-old. We had just moved. I opened the dresser drawer in my bedroom and found World War II illustrations left behind. U.S. Marines with flamethrowers blazing, tanks firing at enemy compounds, amphibious landing crafts, men angry and powerful streaming out.
Our house was on a gradually sloping hill. Uphill were the wealthier homes.
The house was quite a bit down from the top. I could see one large house from our
yard; an executive in the company where Dad worked lived there. "That home should be on a Christmas card," my mother said, commenting more perhaps on the trees and greenery surrounding the home.
I began having temper tantrums in the kitchen, kicking and screaming on
my back whenever I didn't get what I wanted. Instant gratification came early to me. Now, and its concomitant anxiety, would become the shibboleth of my life. Mother made me toothbrush my mouth with soap because I shouted "God damn!" at her while I kicked and thrashed on the linoleum floor.
Once my sister hid in a kitchen cabinet, surprising me when she popped out. That day I climbed a shale cliff a few blocks from home. When I wouldn't come down my sister came back with Mother. They pleaded and coaxed me down finally. I clambered down the way I ascended, since Mother hadn't seen me climb up. To be a heroic, overcoming obstacles: the bane of my life. On my back on the bed for my afternoon rest period I'd toss a handkerchief in the air. If it floated down, I curve-balled and struck out a hitter. If it dived straight down, I fast-balled another batter out. Strike three! I said to myself.
Living inside my head gradually became my reality, where things happened. After resting I usually climbed the willow tree in the backyard. A sweet, narrow stream ran near its roots. Not the view I craved, but the solitude was my pleasure. The first day of school the bus stopped in front of the house to pick me up. It was overcrowded and I stood in the aisle next to an older student. She slapped me on the cheek. I'd somehow managed to be "fresh," her word, though I never knew what offended her and had no comeback to the remark. If I had asked for a kiss, would that prompt her slapping me I later wondered. Getting what I wanted out of life, its joys and rewards, would always be a hazardous affair.
Dad fussed around during weekends, like stacking fireplace logs in the garage. He'd sometimes raise his voice, "Why don't you find kids to play with." He disliked me at his elbow, making him nervous. Whenever I left, kids were always around and I joined them. At school one kid bullied me, seeing weakness or passivity, disturbed I wasn't combative, or one of the guys. It became so ferocious that his parents and mine conferred to put an end to it. The boy and his father invited me to their cabin in the north woods, so an understanding could be reached. At dinner I drank a glass of water but it kept dribbling down my shirt. The boy and father laughed every time I got soaked, tears coming to their eyes. Finally, the father showed me it was a trick glass, no hard feelings. But it rendered me pathetic, none the less.
Another boy and I fought once and I gave him a black eye. It must have been a lucky punch since he was bigger than me. We shook hands later when our fathers were present. Then a solid friend, we sought out alleys, burning whatever we could from garbage cans. He swiped wooden matches from home. Once a fire became so large we could not stand there and watch it like we always had, so we ran away. We never knew what happened to it.
To give me independence mother handed me money to see "The Wizard of Oz" at the downtown theater. I had never walked alone that far before. I saw it twice, mesmerized. I fell asleep in the second showing during the poppy field sequence. Going back I found a dollar bill on the sidewalk. The magic clicking of Dorothy's glass slippers giving me good fortune? I'm attracted to film noir now, though.
Our house was coal-heated. A coal truck always parked in our steep driveway when delivering. Once it suddenly backed up without a driver, turning sharply left, careening over the curb on the other side of the street. It stopped on a creeping bent lawn after it smashed into a tree. I watched in stoptime, amazed at the entertainment. The joys of disasters of every kind had commenced that day.That night Dad heard the news on the radio. "We're at war," he told us. The Korean War began June, 1950. I asked if I could go with a flamethrower. Dad looked amused and said, "Maybe some other war."
The visits to neighbors two houses away, their begonias; how I loved to sit quietly as the older couple and my parents chatted about the marvelous tuberose begonias. Their bright yellows, reds, pinks, how the plants survived the winter, how scrupulously the couple attended to them: it awed me. Mother spoke of the begonias charm, asking questions about their care. The older couple always had answers. Dad, too, spoke of their "delicacy," a word I never heard before. It was better than Sunday school. My sister carefully touched a flower. A swarm of wasps swam through the air. I sat lulled, watching, listening, waiting for more beauty.
More. Begonias had ignited publishing poetry and fiction in later life.
I wasn't an uncommon boy.
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