Chapter 2 BABY STEPS
I don’t know how you feel about first memories, but whenever I hear anyone talking about theirs or read about them I find myself questioning my own memories. I have learned that we remember things differently than others around us, and tend to color the memories with our own experiences, sometimes reformatting a memory to suit what we would like to remember about a certain incident. Not all memories are flattering, nor are they all pleasant. Don’t worry; I’m not going to dwell on the latter. I will say, though, that my life has produced some of the former that I would just as soon forget, and as a result, some of those memories may be, well, colored more favorably.
When my Dad, Robert A. Charles, and my Mom, Ruth (no middle initial) Fowler Charles moved from Mooers to Clayton in the early ‘40s, I was only two years old. Dad was to be the new principal of a new school partially constructed at the beginning of WWII, and would eventually preside over the finishing and enlarging of the school which became known as Clayton Central School, or “CCS” as many called it. I was too young to know about, or to understand, the local politics involved, and have not since delved into it enough to know all of the details. Suffice it to say that Dad was popular with some, not so popular with others, and Mom.... well, Mom was Mom. She had 4 active boys to rear, and had no real interest in the social life of Clayton as a principal’s wife, but you can’t avoid that in a small town. She wanted people to like her for what she was, but it was difficult.
Ruth Fowler grew up in the “big city" of Syracuse, New York, and probably had “big city ways” stamped on her record somewhere in people’s minds. That was funny, because by 1944 she had lived in Mooers, Pompey and North Lawrence, New York on and off for 10 or more years. She and Dad were married after meeting in New York City. Dad worked for a fruit company there, and Mom worked for Woolworth’s. I have never been too clear about their courtship, as by the time I was old enough to understand such things, she had stopped talking about them. Like many children, I made the mistake of remaining ignorant of that subject until it was too late. Mom died several years ago, and I just never got around to asking again. I do know that they loved each other very much, and though they sometimes fought like cats and dogs in their later years, it would never last very long.
Many of the experiences I had were family experiences, and revolved around all of us getting into an old car and going somewhere: Branchport, New York on Keuka Lake to visit Dad’s father, Dr. Oscar Charles, a retired dentist; Syracuse, New York to visit Mom’s sister, Carolyn and Uncle Leo, her husband; and once, to Binghamton, New York to attend Mom’s Aunt Lena’s funeral. Sometimes these trips were boring and interminable; sometimes they were the most exciting part of the year. We always took a slightly different route, occasionally combining a trip to see Grandpa and Grandma Charles. Grandma was Oscar’s second wife, Mila. His first died of cancer before I was old enough to know her. Often there would be a side trip through Syracuse. Sometimes, we went to the place where the school bought buses, and Dad would drive a school station wagon back. Those were fun trips, but I don’t recall any details. I learned to read at an early age, and often killed the time with a book, occasionally looking at whatever scenery was passing by.
When I was about three, WWII ended, and my earliest memory, literally, is of the huge noise outside. The Clayton Fire Department (Still, I believe, known as the Calumets) was then located about one hundred feet south of our rented house, and had an air horn siren on a mast right outside the building. On VJ Day, so I am told, there was great celebration in the land. Church bells pealed, and fire sirens went off every few minutes (to me it must have seemed all day, and maybe it was!) to announce the news. Japan was defeated: the war was over! I don't recall VE day, but then, we could have been out of town at the time.
I also learned as I got older, that all of my senses were more acute than normal, except for my eyes, which were affected by amblyopia, and which had caused me to be “walleyed.” Since my eyes weren’t good, my hearing probably overcompensated, and what a lasting effect that had on childhood! Both a curse (that siren sure was loud and frightening) and a blessing (I could hear conversations about things like Santa Claus, whispered across the room), having acute hearing caused some funny and sometimes embarrassing situations. More about that later.
That loud noise, both joyful and terrifying, was my first clear memory; probably because my Mom and my Grandmother (Mom’s mother lived with us at the time) tried so hard to make me understand that it was a joyful thing, not something to be afraid of. I have no clear memory of how they stopped my tears and, no doubt, loud crying, but they did. In later years, the fire siren was to take on many different meanings in my young life, but that was the first. What I remember most, however, is the love and comfort that followed successive siren songs.
Later, and time was not one of those things a three year old could relate to, Mom began to illustrate her lifelong passion for change of scene. Since she could not leave and return to Syracuse, where she apparently left her heart, (not in San Francisco where she had traveled with her sister as a girl) she elected to engineer at least 5 moves while living in Clayton. Admittedly some were options for better housing, but in her later life, she continued to love moving from home to home to home. Oddly, until later in my life when I became aware of the backbreaking labor involved in moving, I found these moves comforting, albeit confusing when I was a child.
I really don’t know how Dad felt about these relocations, as I never heard him complain about them. Either he did not mind or he saved his complaints for when I was not within earshot. I recall a lot of Pig Latin being used when I was a child, but I soon caught on to that, too. Once, we moved to a house near the school, our second to last location in Clayton, and just a few hundred yards from the front door, which was good for Dad, because he could spend more time working and less time walking to work.
That was where I began to relate to animals, I guess. We always had a dog or a cat or dogs and cats or, well you get the picture: some kind of animal, bird or fish. It was the first time I was left to my own resources, I guess, because my Mother was very protective of her children, and normally would not have let a 5 year old alone with so much open space around. The stress of moving, and my being a typical curious child led to my wandering off behind the barn with the white cat, Marshmallow or Fluffy or whatever, and a short piece of rope. The house sat back from the road a great distance, to my childish eyes, and the barn was huge and dark. I wanted the cat to follow me around for company, and when it deviated from that path, I tied the rope in a loop around its neck and towed it into the high weeds behind the barn.
Now, I know that sounds like a cleaned up version of what actually happened, but it is the truth as I remember it. I was not, as it was later reported by my family, torturing the cat. Since I was six years away from becoming a Boy Scout, my knots weren’t very good, but the slip knot I inadvertently tied around kitty’s neck was very effective. She lay down and began to choke and gasp. I immediately ran to my Mom, and yelled something like “there’s something wrong with the cat!” Like Lassie with Timmy down the well, I led them to the troubled kitty, and one of my brothers rescued her. “Something’s wrong with the cat” became a catch phrase for Joey getting in trouble after that. I really do love cats, to this day, and would certainly never do anything to harm one on purpose. But it became obvious that day that I did not take well to being teased! My brothers took a perverse delight in “pulling my chain” ever after, and still do. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
All of us have things we would wish hadn’t happened, or at least had happened in a different, less embarrassing way, I suppose. Like my dad, I have high blood pressure. Like my Dad, my face goes red easily. It was one of those ways people could tell he was angry. I recall a friend saying “Boy, your dad was so mad at (So and So) his face got as red as a tomato!” Well, mine does too, and when I laugh, and when I am embarrassed. I think my earliest memory of shame (which was not all that shameful, but a normal childhood thing) was when a girl playmate, some two years older than me, offered to show me her “bummy” for a quarter. I have no idea how old I was, maybe 5 or 6, but I remember casually announcing to my shocked family at the dinner table that I had seen my first “bummy.” Into the silence that followed came a huge roaring of the wind in my ears, as I realized that something I had said had caused one of those “moments.”
I would not read or hear the term “faux-pas” for many years, but the embarrassment generated by having seen a pair of white undies flash by my astigmatic eyes for a second has lasted to this day. Not that it ranks right up there with finding my fly down in public, but just as memorable. Even as a child, I guess, I was prone to opening my mouth and saying inappropriate things at inappropriate times. Stepping ahead, I would love to take that one back, and many others, but you can’t unsay things. It caused me to lose a good playmate, who was only doing something all kids do, or think about doing, the equivalent of “playing doctor” but even more innocent. At some point, adults come into the picture and innocence turns to guilt. Thus, when I lost my babyhood/childhood innocence about many other things, my Dad’s principality was among them. If I struck out at you, dear reader, as a result, please accept my apologies. See this book for what it is, a tribute to a good place to grow up. One of the firm groundings of my life as an adult has been that I shall never stop learning from experience. Like everyone, the lessons are not always remembered at exactly the same time as they are needed, but they are remembered.