Friday, April 29, 2005

Chapter 1, P.K.: continued, (end)

In those days the use of child psychologists was rare, and Dr. Spock was just hitting his prime. My parents could not have afforded one anyway, though Mom had a copy of the Spock book. The best advice Mom got came from Dr. Pilpel, our family physician, who said she should just stop worrying about it and I would eat sooner or later. The worst came from the school physician, Dr Folkes, who told her he feared I was malnourished, (I was anemic) and needed to be force fed. I got a combination of the two advises, along with something called “Vidalin,” a noxious honey like liquid that was supposed to increase my appetite and provide vitamin supplements. It spoiled my love of honey for a while. I was “punished” a lot for not eating what everyone else was eating, and sent to my room. No, I was never spanked for it, or treated bad physically or mentally. It was just, well, constant. One does, after all, have three meals a day normally. Grandma would bring a cookie or some other treat up to my room. When Dad discovered this, he would tell her in quiet fury that she was “meddling” in the boy’s upbringing. She kept doing it anyway, of course.

Like all brothers everywhere, mine were sympathetic to a degree. But like all brothers, they also loved to tease. Since I was the youngest, smallest and “sensitive”, it was easy to tease me. Ways were found to make macaroni and cheese sound even less palatable than their odor already rendered them. A comparison to maggots was one of the more gentle ones. Of course, when I refused to eat something like Spam (it had all kinds of things ground up in it you know) or hot dogs (don’t go there!) and the lumps in the mashed potatoes were cooked parts of bugs, I attracted Dad’s attention. The conversation went something like this:

Mom: You haven’t eaten anything but your (fill in the things a kid would like). Eat your string beans!
Dad: I never saw anyone cut the meat away from the fat before. Why do you do that? Cut the fat away
from the meat!
Dick: (sotto voice) you know they grow beans in dirt? Mom doesn’t wash them, either.
Joel: Stop that!
Dad: All right, that’s enough. Joel, go to your room.
Mom: Young man you sit right down. You’re staying at this table until you finish those beans! And eat your hot dog!
Dick: (to low to be heard by parents) They put dog’s eyes in those, you know...

It often became a contest of wills, and of course, there was the family pet...

Jim: Mom, Joe’s given the dog his meat again!
Mom: All right young man, you’ll sit here until the last of that hamburger is gone, and I’ll be watching you!

Now what kid hasn’t experienced some of that? Of course, I had three very loving (and very typically sadistic) brothers, who loved to start things. That always happens to the youngest. Later in life, when I realized that they would do anything (particularly my brother Dick) to protect me, I came to love them even more. I think they wanted, consciously or not, to help harden me against the cruelty of the world, and may even have worried, along with Dad, that I might become a “homo”. With all this, lying around with one eye in the dark, being unable to breathe through my nose, sometimes unable to catch a breath at all and probably weak from self induced hunger, it is little wonder that I had protracted bouts with asthma. But there is more.

Dick, who was four years older than I, had very serious asthma attacks in the middle of the night; so serious that the dreaded fire siren blew in answer to Dr. Pilpel’s call for the “inhalator”. Mom would get frightened (probably not as frightened as Dick, who could not catch his breath) and call the doctor from his bed at 2 am. The doc would give him a shot, prescribe some benadryl, and go home usually, but on occasion, the call had to be made. Dick was what would now be called an overachiever. When Dad referred to his asthma problem, he often said Dick needed to learn to “pace himself” so that he wouldn’t do more than he could handle without going into a breathing problem. He eventually was able to do that, but never lost his enthusiasm for doing things full out. He just decided he would conquer the problem, and did. It could be said he “outgrew” it. I would say he conquered it. But he never beat the hay fever, even after he saw a succession of allergists for shots to desensitize him to the various toxins from which he was likely to go into massive histamine reactions to.

My asthma may have been psychosomatic, due to fear, nervous reaction, etc., but I don’t think so. Even today I have so many allergies (including hay!) that I am never sure what it is that is making me sneeze, wheeze or break out. I can not use liquid fabric softener, or fabric softener sheets in the dryer, and if someone uses them before my clothes or bed clothes go in, I break out in an itchy rash and may sneeze a lot. Sprays like room deodorizer, fabric softener, deodorants, etc.; perfumes and body powder, carpet shampoo, the cleaning supply aisle in supermarkets... all choke me up and or make me sneeze.

In grade school, a classmate named Bill lived on a big farm. There was a big hay barn there, and it was a favorite place for Bill’s other friends and my classmates to play. I only went there once, as I really am allergic to hay dust, but it was a traumatic experience. It was the discovery that boys like me were expected to be thrilled with the concept of danger, the possibility of pain. The main attraction of the barn seemed to be the hay loft. The 8 or 10 foot (since I didn’t have a ruler, it didn’t get measured) drop was child’s play, unless you were an undernourished 10 year old with huge glasses, hay fever, asthma and stick thin arms and legs.

While many of my classmates were enjoying the playground, playing ball, raising 4H animals on the farm, enjoying kick the can and hide and seek in the evenings, I was inside, sniffling and wheezing and reading. As a further complication, the drugs available for these afflictions were likely to turn the strongest individual into a zombie. Try being 30 pounds underweight and playing ball with coke bottle bottoms strapped to your face and perpetually sneezing, wheezing and coughing while unable to coordinate your limbs. To this day, I can not fathom what people see in getting “high” on drugs. I spent my youth “high” on things that made me sleepy, dopey and uncoordinated. When I was able to quit taking them (I just stopped, one day) I never went back. Ah, sports! The local paper just published a story about schools possibly being required to drop dodge ball. Boy, do I wish they’d done that in 1950! You haven’t really lived until a squishy, sweaty red or blue dodge ball has smashed your glasses into your bony nose and left a long lasting red welt on your cheek where the lenses hit. OK, that’s not so bad, but now try it with a softball, then a baseball. And, since you can’t see very well to the sides where your glasses don’t cover, basketball passes take on a whole new meaning.

All right, enough whining. It was probably no harder than any other normal kid’s life. Actually, I look back on those years with a good deal of nostalgia, for they were the time in my life that I was not aware that being a P.K. was a hard row. That was one of Dad’s favorite expressions: some person’s “got a hard row to hoe...” meaning the person referred to had a difficult time with something. How about this for a hard row: “Your dad and mom are rich. You’re just a spoiled rich kid. Everybody knows the principal gets paid lot of money. My dad has to work for a living. Yours just has to show up at school an boss everybody around.” Or, “I hate your father; he’s mean. He... (fill in the blank). Or, this or that kid is going to take out his or her frustration on you, and never tell you why. They don’t need to. You just know. So, you develop a method of getting through it. You have some choices: you can get thick skinned (or appear to) and just take the punishment. You can become mean and a bully (if you are big enough) and get even. You can retreat into your shell and avoid contact with everyone who might hurt you. You can convince yourself that you have the moral high ground, and become a priggish defender of your own moral code, and a sharp tongued smart ass. You can become a wild, nonconforming, hard drinking man’s man who finds a way to fit in by rebelling. Or, you can do a combination of all those things and have people wonder about your sanity. One thing some children do when bullied and isolated for some reason is become mass murderers. I guess I had a good upbringing. I didn’t ever take any of the guns I had easy access to as a young hunter and kill anyone. Never even thought about it.

I refuse to use the background I have for an excuse. I am what I am because of what I experienced, and it was by no means all bad. One of my best friends in high school used to beat me up regularly in grade school. It was really more of the “say uncle and I’ll stop” variety, but the effect was the same. He once asked me why I didn’t fight back. I said “why do you beat me up?” We both realized that it was pointless, and when he reached that point he stopped and never did it again. He died young, before I had a chance to tell him how much I respected him. Another boy used to hit me on the head with a book in study hall; hit me hard. When I got up and moved, he moved with me. Mr. Netto would ask me why I was moving around, what was going on. I did not tell him. Eventually, the hitting stopped. When I got older, I realized that that boy, now a man, was not a monster, just a misguided boy with a sense of mischief who knew an easy mark when he saw one. He is a much better man today from his own life experience, and I like him.

Some years ago at a class of ’60 reunion at the C-Way restaurant I was standing at the bar, waiting to get a drink for my wife and myself. Carol was at a table with some friends. A woman who had obviously had enough to drink to allow her to express a long held opinion said loudly “you’re that Charles kid, aren’t you?” I said yes, I guess I was. She said “I hated your old man. I just wanted you to know that.” I said “well, OK, have a nice day.” or something like that. We’re talking 30 years here. The man had been dead 20 years. She still feels the pain, for whatever reason. I would say to her, today, as I would say to anyone else with the same sentiment, “get over it. Move on. I have.”

My Dad was a school principal because he loved it, not because he could not do anything else, and not because he liked inflicting punishment or enforcing rules. He enjoyed the light that seems to go on in a student’s eyes when he or she learns something. All good teachers do. He was a fair man, and would never have done something to deliberately hurt anyone. When he showed me my I.Q. score, it was to make me aware of a potential that he saw in me, not to make me into something he wanted me to be or feel bad. He had no way of knowing the damage it did, and was probably incapable of seeing that it might not help but hurt. I grew up believing he felt I was letting him down, not living up to my potential. I finally understand that he just did not want me to waste my abilities. I wish I’d had the wisdom to understand then.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Chapter 1, P.K.: continued, (2)

I began reading real books at about six. Mom took me to the library in the basement of the K of C hall in Clayton when she went to get the latest Ngaio Marsh mystery. I would have been about 4 or 5. While she browsed, the librarian put me in the children’s section. It was very small, but then, so was the library, since replaced by a magnificent brick building; but more about that later. There I was exposed to Peter Rabbit et al, which my Grandma had read to me as a little tyke. Also I found Raggedy Ann, Brer Rabbit, and “Little Black Sambo,” whom we mustn’t talk about anymore because he represents oppression. In those days, I found Sambo to be an inspiration. What a clever and resourceful little boy he was, I thought. No one had ever told me that the fact that he was black made him inferior, oppressed and in need of freedom. I thought it was a story about a little boy![1]

Enough about my politically leftist views and my white liberal attitudes: that’s another chapter. We were in the library, where I apparently began to read from those books. The first sign of it might have been when people began to point out my increasing vocabulary, and praise my parents on what an intelligent little boy they had (a somewhat mixed blessing, considering the above)! The next thing I knew I was no longer allowed to play with my Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls, because Dad was worried they might make me effeminate. I am confusing ages here, but the info goes together, because it reveals something about my parents and me. I was to become a bookworm, and for some time afterward, Dad, and my older brothers, could be seen to worry that, in today’s parlance, I might become a “girlie man.” But countless reads of Nancy Drew series notwithstanding, I did not (I can hear my friends asking rhetorically “how do you know?”). I also read The Hardy Boys, Tarzan, and Superman Comics.[2] Later, when I discovered that Mom had thrown out all of my Superman comics while I was off at college, I was furious. Of course, I was even more so many years later when their real value became apparent, along with all of the other collectible comics I once stored in an anonymous cardboard box that “looked like trash.”

I was amblyopic as a baby, and Dad’s job as principal probably helped get my eyes checked early enough to detect and correct it. They did not routinely test for it then, as they do now. Along with it came asthma. My older brother, Richard (Dick to all of us and his friends), had it before me, and of course its cousin Hay Fever. Many people considered Hay Fever to be a joking matter in those days, not worth serious medical attention. Remember Sneezy, the dwarf? It was even a misnomer: people who have Hay Fever are often allergic to many other things, but not hay. I was not one of those people, nor was Dick. Also, at two and a half, I was required to sit for hours at a time, attempting to cross my eyes (they both turned out) through the use of some eye exercise cards. In between those times I wore an eye patch until I was fitted with glasses, and then I had a set of black disks that went over one lens of the glasses or the other, so that I could exercise one eye at a time or rest the right eye, forcing the use of the weaker left one. The glasses were nearly as thick as the bottoms of coke bottles, and very heavy, though small enough to fit my baby sized face. They had wire rims and hooks on the bows to hold them behind my ears, and large nose pads, as I was blessed with a skinny little nose. My glasses were always falling down or off. Somewhere there is a series of studio photos of me which Mom felt were so cute, with the sailor suit and all, without the glasses. I still have them, but would like to trade them for all of the photos of Clayton which I lost later on. It was the last photo taken of me as a child without those glasses.

In our back yard was a deep sand box, in which I used to play. I frequently “lost” my glasses in the sand, probably because I hated them. This behavior went on for some years, until my eyes began to develop, and the lenses could be thinned. By the time Kindergarten rolled around, they were like old friends, because they allowed me to read. When the other kids were reading “see spot run/see Dick and Jane,” etc., I was very bored. Something I did not hide at all well, unfortunately. Also, along with the Hay Fever came an extremely developed sense of smell, like the overdeveloped auditory sense. Many foods just smelled “bad” to me, and I had no appetite for them. Macaroni and cheese (a staple for families with limited income such as ours) smelled like something rotten and moldy. It was the same with plain cheese of any kind, and don’t even mention hard boiled eggs! They smelled like sulfur. I still can’t eat them.

[1] The Story of Uncle Remus, by Joel Chandler Harris; Little Black Sambo ,by Helen Bannerman; Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter; Raggedy Ann & Andy dolls with made up stories, still sold today by Hasbro Toys.
[2] Nancy Drew was actually written by a “syndicate”, Edward Stratemeyer, Harriet Adams, Mildred Wirt Benson, etc.; The Hardy Boys Created by Franklin W. Dixon (pseud. of Edward Stratemeyer, 1862-1930, and others); Tarzan, by Edgar Rice Burroughs; Superman from DC Comics