Saturday, October 29, 2016

'A' IS FOR ANGRY


It's not easy for a little boy growing up in a home where dad has left the family and mom is testing out a relationship with a boyfriend. Here's a six-year-old trying to make sense of it all--dealing with the frightening anger of adults and perplexed by their peculiar obsessions. The story is written with the disconcerting clarity of a child, and with the powerful understatement and irony of an astute young man, still today I believe in his late teens, who remembers these things. The writer is a member of the English side of my own family, currently setting out to find his path in life. He left home a while ago to discover the world in the time between high school and, perhaps one day, college. Last I heard, he's teaching English in Hanoi, Vietnam. His story is called:


‘A’ is for Angry (or Arsehole)
By Hugo Docking 

You are six years old. It’s past your bedtime but you can’t sleep, so you’re lying in bed reading a book. You like reading because you are good at it. You have long surpassed the purple level books at school (the highest level books at school), and The Teacher lets you bring your own books in for reading time because she doesn’t quite know what to do with you. You are quietly quite proud of the fact that The Teacher doesn’t quite know what to do with you. You also like that you can take your own books into class because they are far more interesting than the purple level reading books.

You hear voices downstairs. They are raised. One is highly pitched and broken with uncontained sobbing. The other is booming and laced with rage. You would like to know why. This particular occurrence isn’t common, you think to yourself. But, then again, not exactly uncommon, you also muse. However The Boyfriend is being particularly loud tonight and his voice is deep and manly and the bass of the thing is resonating through the house and you are now fully awake.

You realise you have become inquisitive and will not be able to get to sleep until you understand why there is such a commotion going on below you. You try to be quiet as you tiptoe downstairs. You want to ‘eavesdrop’ (which means to listen without the people you are listening to knowing you are there). You use the bannister to take most of your weight so that your feet will be light on the stairs like a cat. However the stairs still creak and the voices go quiet. You are still curious, and you’ve come this far, so you open the door and ask ‘what’s going on?’

The Boyfriend explains that The Mother has taken some of his bread from the freezer. Which, he says, was clearly marked with an ‘A’ in permanent marker. (‘A’ is the first letter of his name, and there should be no confusion as neither you, nor The Mother, has a name that begins with the letter ‘A’.) Even though you don’t see the packet, you don’t doubt that it was permanently marked with the letter ‘A’, as it is not uncommon for The Boyfriend to mark his food with an ‘A’ in permanent marker. You know that anything written in permanent marker is worthy of note, as the mark is permanent, which means that it can’t be undone, and is there forever, or at least as long as there is bread still in the packet.

You don’t quite understand why the boyfriend has to be so ‘stingy’ with his food but the fact that you think that, in itself, is understandable as you are an only child. If, like the boyfriend, you grew up with siblings, you would understand the importance of marking your food with the first letter of your name in permanent marker.

But the process of clearly labeling your food becomes redundant if someone who’s name does NOT begin with the letter labeled clearly on the packet in permanent marker decides to help themselves to the contents of the packet ‘willy nilly.’ With this information clarified you now understand why the mother is crying and the boyfriend is shouting and you head back to bed.


But for some reason you still can’t get to sleep…

Thursday, October 27, 2016

MY APOLOGIES...

... for the neglect this week. I've had some medical issues to be taking care of. Be assured that I'm still committed to both this blog and, eventually, the prospect of a book of "Boyhood Memories." So please stay tuned. I plan to enter another post here in the next couple of days--and promise that it will be a good one!

Monday, October 24, 2016

LOVE IN TWO WORDS

Thankfully, along with the difficult memories of father-son relationships, there are glowing memories like this one:


LOVE IN TWO WORDS
By David Sheffner 4/12/16


     They hadn’t seen as much of each other since the divorce.

     The day was hot, so the top was down, increasing the rhythmic sounds of the Packard on the old highway. It was another spur-of-the-moment long car trip—possibly to Mexico. The man and his eight year-old were settled in. It was good.

     As the boy glanced left, their eyes locked. A pause; the father smiled, and in a soft, slow voice, he said, “Hi, boy”.

     They turned, and looked ahead.

     The boy understood; it wasn’t just a “hello”.

    Remembered, and savored, six decades later.




Saturday, October 22, 2016

MISMATCHED MEMORIES

We return today to the question about how much of our memory--no matter how intense it seems to us--is accurately recalled, and how much is invented or reinterpreted in retrospect by the mind. Here's a prime example of a story that addresses the issue with a particularly interesting, even poignant twist at the end, as it comes up-to-date. It also touches, disconcertingly, on the themes of boyhood bullying and cruelty. It's written with alarming honesty by the artist Joel Barr


SIBLINGS
by Joel Barr

My older sister is five or six.  She is small and will always be small.  We blame an early fever associated with a kidney problem, but we are guessing.  Whatever the reason, she’ll always be looking up at five feet.  Even back then, when I am only four, I am as tall as she is and much healthier.

She is squatting, bent over forward.  I’ve caught her after a short chase.  She must have crossed me in some way.  Her shoulder blades are extended back and toward each other as she tries to present the smallest target she can.  It is understood that I will be socking her in the middle of the back.

This is the punishment I always deal out to her.  This, to a child who could do no mischief and who knows nothing whatever of trying to anger or hurt another child.

I will close my fist and, like a retriever covering its teeth so as not to puncture its capture, I will hit her with the fleshy heel of my hand.  Kinder maybe, but still I will hit her.  I will never hit anyone else.


*  * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


My sister has a condominium at the beach.  We are sitting on the balcony, seven floors above the ocean.  By now, she has a child in his twenties, another a bit younger, and I have two of my own.  Her husband is out of town on this day; I am divorced.  Our parents have died and we are beginning to understand each other.

“I can still remember…” she begins.

“I know what you are going to say,” I interrupt.

 “I don’t think you do,” she says.  “I still remember your shoulder blades poking out when I went to sock you in the back.”
                                                                  


Tuesday, October 18, 2016

TRANSISTOR RADIO

After the levity, we have time for a happier memory, perhaps. We still have a good deal of risky business, danger, pain and heartache to look forward to. But not all boyhood memories are traumatic. Some glow with sunshine, innocence, optimism and good cheer. Some bubble with hero worship. Some reflect the boy's natural curiosity and sense of fun. And some, as today's post, celebrate the fascination with everything mechanical, with workshop tools and cars and technological devices. My friend Brian Jones recalls the advent of the transistor radio, and the access it allowed to a boy growing up in Oklahoma to a whole wide world beyond the limits of his previously known horizons, and especially to distant sports events...


TRANSISTOR RADIO
By Brian Jones

The introduction of the transistor radio in 1958 opened a world up to me. The voice coming through that tinny aluminum speaker grill was both a teacher and a friend. Growing up in a small town in Oklahoma my world was riding bicycles with friends, leaving in the morning and not returning until sundown. It was a real live Andy Griffith show. My best friend, Marshall Mabry, had a large yard with a baseball backstop and a basketball court, so we would spend hours and hours playing and competing with other neighborhood kids.

Listening to baseball on my transistor radio was my connection to cities outside of our little town: the New York Yankees, St. Louis Cardinals, Baltimore Orioles, San Francisco Giants, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Those cities sounded amazing! Imagine going to Los Angeles, where movie stars lived and surfers like the Beach Boys caught waves!

This was a time when space travel was in its infancy. Sputnik had carried a live monkey into space and back again. But to me, the thought of traveling to a big city like Los Angeles was beyond the realm of possibility. I was happy to listen to games and hear about ball parks like Wrigley Field and Candlestick Park, about the Green Monster, and dream that I could somehow, someday play in one of those parks.

My hero was Mickey Mantle, also an Oklahoma boy, who played baseball for the mighty New York Yankees. I was a centerfielder on my little league team just like Mickey. I was a fast runner like Mickey. I wore the number 7, just like the Mick. Unfortunately, I couldn’t hit a curve ball, which diminished my future baseball prospects. And I suspect it would not have been as eminent as I thought it might be. One of my best memories was listening to the Yankees play in the World Series. I would sneak my radio into the classroom and turn the volume down as low as it could go. The beauty of listening to baseball on the radio is you can always tell when something exciting is happening. The usual quiet drone of voices is interrupted by a burst of excitement. The announcer goes wild; the crowd goes wild. Then, during recess, I would compare notes with other boys to see what the score was while we engaged in a game of kickball.

The transistor radio also introduced me to the world of music. Radio station WKY in Oklahoma City would broadcast the music of the times, exciting new releases that were changing popular music. Frank Sinatra was out, Elvis was in. At night I would listen to Top 40 announcer, Ronnie Kay, who would play Roy Orbison, the Supremes, the Four Tops and would later introduce me to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. So now not only did I learn about the big American cities; Liverpool and London also came into the picture.

To this day, when I work in the garden or in my shop, I still carry a transistor radio with me and listen to a game. I don’t really care what game it is. I just like the sound of the announcer’s voice and the sounds of the crowd and the feeling of being magically transported to another place in the world.


Monday, October 17, 2016

POOP

Time for a little levity. We have been perhaps too serious of late! Although poop is certainly serious business, and I'm sure we all had our own experience with it. This is Bob Zoell's--accompanied by a couple of his idiosyncratic, irreverent and, here, clearly appropriate images. He's a terrific artist! (See his previous Boyhood Memories post here...)

SCARY POOP COME OUT
By Bob Zoell

My earliest memory is probably when I was around 2 or 3 years old, sitting on a little white enamel potty; and when I looked between my legs and saw the poop coming out, I jumped up, frightened, and ran from the room.

I think my mother told me about this when I was in my early teens but I am not sure if that (her telling me) is what I’m remembering or if it was really my earliest memory at 3 years old, or maybe both.



Thursday, October 13, 2016

BOARDING SCHOOL SURVIVORS

Sticking with the theme of punishment for a while...

Some boys had a wonderful time at boarding school. But few, I think, including those who had a wonderful time, escaped unscathed. Even those whose social standing and fine education has led to privileged, influential lives in the corporate world or public service--and there are many of them--are likely to be showing signs of emotional damage in one way or another in their lives. 

This story is about three of them. One of the three is me. 


THREE BOYS FROM BOARDING SCHOOL
By Peter Clothier

I was watching a public television program about Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey and The Who a couple of nights ago when I heard a familiar name: Kit Lambert. Kit was at the same boarding school, in the same “house” as myself, though I think perhaps a year ahead of me. He was the son of the British composer, Constant Lambert, one of a group of boys whose fathers were among the prominent British cultural figures at the time, including the composer Ralph Vaughan-Williams and the painter John Piper. They attracted a number of their friends to the school: Benjamin Britten was a frequent visitor, along with the soprano Margaret Ritchie and the tenor Peter Pears. It was a place of privilege.

Back story aside, I learned, somewhat to my surprise, that Kit had become something of a creative entrepreneur in his adult years, producing and managing for, among other luminaries, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, as well as for The Who. It appears, though, that he later sabotaged his own success and squandered much of his reputation on a serious and self-destructive drug addiction. He died of a brain hemorrhage at age 46 following a fall downstairs at his mother's house.

One of Kit's creative endeavors involved a 1961 trip to the Amazon to make a film documenting what turned out to be an ill-fated expedition to discover the source of the Iriri River. With him—and I believe the leader of the expedition—was another product of the boarding school we had all three attended. His name was RichardMason. The expedition came to a brutal end when Mason was hunted down by a band of previously uncontacted Amazon Indians and done mercilessly to death with arrows, spears, and clubs. With no connection whatever, and certainly no animus, I personally have reason to remember Mason quite well: as a school prefect, he had given me what we then called “six of the best”—a caning—in the prefect room.

My punishable misdeed was to have been caught with another boy—Bridger, but that’s another story—in a (strictly out of bounds) local pool room, where we were not only playing pool but drinking beer and smoking cigarettes, both serious violations of school rules. The caning was a ritual event, in which the offender was required to bend over a chair with his pants pulled down to ensure no palliative measures had been taken; the insertion of blotting paper in the underpants was a favorite way to lessen the pain. The prefects (senior boys) then lined up in gauntlet formation and the head prefect (Mason, in this case) thundered down between the lines with his cane raised in the air, and brought it down across the victim's buttocks with all the pent-up energy of his furious run.

A nasty business. And I admit, a rather circuitous story, to get to, um, the meat of the matter. I believe all three of us were scarred, each in our own way--not necessarily by this particular experience, but by being forcibly removed from parents, siblings, and the security of home at an early age, and deposited into that peculiar, hierarchical, often cruel and isolating island of boys. 

Note: For a fine British organization set up to provide help and support for Boarding School Survivors, check out the link to their website.

Where we were: Lancing College




Tuesday, October 11, 2016

PUNISHMENT, REVISITED

It's not only parents, teachers and other adults who punish. Boys punish each other. They can be cruel. Physical bullying on the playground is one thing, emotional and psychological bullying are just as cruel--and just as effective. Here's a vivid memory from a younger brother, who asks to be identified only by his first name. It's remarkable that so many years later he remembers the incident so physically, with such clarity, and with such evident emotion.



TABOO TOYS
By Richard

Home from school sick, the youngest stealthily plays with oldest brother's toy soldiers.

Unexpectedly, the bedroom door opens.  Caught behind enemy lines.  

No truce.

Big brother binds and gags his little brother with neckties. “Into your footlocker." 

The lid compresses his lungs. Latches lock. His temples ache. His heart races. No one can hear his silent screams.  

Trapped. 

Downstairs making dinner, far away unheard, Mother asks: "Where's your brother?"

Brother points upstairs. 

"What have you done?"

The toy chest opens. Mother liberates him from prison.

Untied, ungagged, the youngest gasps for air. He thinks. Next time I'll ask before playing with brother's toys.


Claustrophobia and memories last forever.


Monday, October 10, 2016

BOY TRUMP

Just thinking... It would be interesting, given the theme of this blog, to hear Trump's "most intense of boyhood memories." No? I mean, there has to be something in the history that accounts for what manifests in his "adult" life as extreme narcissism bordering on sociopathy. I use the quotation marks around "adult" advisedly, because in my view he remains an over-sized little boy. So... a moment in early childhood, perhaps? A critical experience as an adolescent in military academy? I actually heard an interviewer last--I didn't catch who or where--ask almost precisely the question I have been asking of other men: What is your most compelling childhood memory (I paraphrase.) Unsurprisingly, the Republican candidate for President of the United States completely ignored the question and went off on some unrelated tangent.


But I do wonder what intimate memory haunts him when he looks back on his boyhood... I mean, there has to be something, right? What does this man "hide, repress, deny"? (Aside from his tax returns...)

Sunday, October 9, 2016

FOR A SUNDAY...

... from my grandson, Luka, aged 5 next month, this picture:


... made over dinner, signed top right to left. A worthy "boyhood memory"! Thanks, Luka. Love, Grandpa

Friday, October 7, 2016

THE POOL

Some of the boyhood memories I've received are of idyllic experiences, the glimpse of a sparkling moment when everything seemed right with the world, with no clouds yet gathered on the mind's horizon. One of the challenges I once received, in the course of a weekend workshop, was to write down the memory of the last moment at which I could recall being absolutely and completely happy--the kind of unalloyed bliss that I can rediscover, these days, only very rarely, at peak moments of meditation. I'll post the memory I myself came up with one of these days. For today, this post by Jim Belson seems to start out with such a moment--but ends with the intrusion to the "real world" in the form of an ugly interloper, and a subsequent flash of self-doubt and guilt. Jim today is President of a company that specializes in the production of health care videos; he is currently at work on a novel of seemingly epic proportions. Can't wait to see it...!




THE POOL
by Jim Belson

The winter is long in Idaho, the summer brief and blazing, the nights cool to chilly. 

On a Sunday morning in July my father turns on the garden hose to fill the back yard pool.  The water spurts out cold and then just gets colder.  It would take hours for the water to fill up the small, 12 x 15 concrete pool Pop had built with one of his a farmhands, using hand shovels, between the lilacs and the giant oak, then hammered the forms and poured the cement for the floor and walls and whitewashed it smooth.  This morning, I check the water level incessantly as it inches up the sides of the pool. Once you turn off the running water, the sun has a better chance to heat the pool.  By the time its full, the sun is high, filling the water with light and warmth, another an agonizingly slow process.

Around noon Mom decides the water is warm enough (meaning she can bear to hold her hand in it for five seconds) to allow my brother and me in the water, where, for thirty minutes, we can jump around to keep from freezing and fight over the little raft my older brother has been struggling all morning to inflate.  Then shaking with cold, wrapped in thin, striped beach towels, we go inside for peanut butter and jelly washed down with a glass of milk, and try, half-heartedly and unsuccessfully to take a nap before the cousins arrive.  Anyway, you have to wait at least an hour after eating before you get back in or you risk getting stomach cramps and drowning in two and a half feet of water. 

But all this waiting, anticipating, as the water level in the pool slowly rose, then warmed, was the finest part. 

Mid afternoon, honeybees are swarming the lilacs, the water is warmer, at least you can stand it for short spurts.  The cousins have arrived and the insect buzz is replaced by shrieks and laughter from the children crowded in the pool (including five cousins). The oldest cousin, Marilyn, takes up half the pool, floating in the coveted raft; a cousin my same age, Ida, is not acknowledging my presence; a younger cousin, Karen, with an eye condition, is trying to keep her eye patch dry.  And there are others, among them Steve, a slightly older cousin who is visiting from California.  Hes an acknowledged bully not a scary bully, an obnoxious one    a tall, skinny, red-haired kid, who taunts the cousins and my brother and I from the edge of the pool. He is afraid to go into the the cold water himself, so Im not sure what was feeding our resentment.  Maybe it was enough that he was afraid to go into the water but that he was not sufficiently afraid of us.  At one point he digs up a handful of mud from under the lilacs and throws it in the pool and some of it inadvertently hits Karen. I ran up behind him and pushed him in with a muddy foot.  The others laughed and cheered while he screamed, gasping.


Maybe Im the bully?  it felt very good doing it, both the act itself and the general approval of the others.  I didnt receive any punishment from the grownups either, no reprimands, unless Ive just forgotten that part.  I remember the water felt very comfortable the rest of that afternoon, even though Mom made me get out when she noticed my lips were turning blue.

___________________


Jim adds a related note on this phenomenon that he experienced as a child:

MACROPSIA

Its called micropsia.

When I was little, a boy, an intense feeling would come over me from time to time, rarely, maybe a few times a year, a brief stillness, followed by a feeling that would render everything I touched a pencil, a fork, a wall seem huge.  They felt many times larger than I knew them to be.  At the same time, everything got louder.  Sound was magnified, but what mattered was the physical sensation of touching something that was transformed. I dont remember whether these experiences were especially joyful or fearful.  Neither, I think.  But they were all encompassing and I treasured them as something very special.  They were bizarre and somehow wonderful.  Never threatening or scary as you might expect.  In fact, as I recall, if I had wanted to break the spell, I felt I could have done at any time.  But I didnt want to. I moved slowly, if at all, in order to maintain the spell for as long as possible, although it may be, when I first experienced this state, I might have been afraid.  I dont remember back that far. I was 5 or 6.

These raptures became few and far between as I aged, so that when it happened again at the age of 12 I had had no such experience for years I may even have completely forgotten about them but when it came back, I asked my brother if he had ever experienced or even heard of such a thing.  He hadnt. But I was recently happy to hear, from Oliver Sacks, that my experiences had an actual name macropsia; it was a real disorder, not a common one, very uncommon in fact.  

Sometimes, a hint of this ecstasy revives, I sense a stillness, the husk of the experience, almost a smell, though I dont think there was ever an odor attached to it, and it flows back over me as memory.  


Wednesday, October 5, 2016

HOT DOGS--11 CENTS

Picking up on the father/son theme, it's always delightful to find a much-loved, quirky dad like the one Daniel Cardozo describes in this story. Daniel--full disclosure!--used to work for me as a personal assistant, and a very fine personal assistant he was. Ellie and I were sad when he moved north and on to an admittedly more noble occupation, as a passionate proponent and now board member at Ethix Ventures, an organization that "aspires to serve as a gathering place for commerce that puts people and the environment at the head of a value chain today dominated solely by price." Look for the union label! Given the unconventional background evoked by his "Hot Dogs--11 Cents" story, it's perhaps hardly surprising to find him devoting his working life to an unconventional marketing company. It's refreshing to be reminded that some among us still devote their professional lives to service in an ethical cause.


HOT DOGS--11 CENTS
by Daniel Cardozo

Fatherhood fit my dad like a glove...eventually. Looking back, knowing what I know now, dad was frankly miserable during my early youth, barely keeping his head above water while navigating a marijuana addiction, the fading glory of college, and an ignominious career with the U.S. Postal Service of the 1980s (remember "going postal?").

And fatherhood. After his own hemmed-in rearing by old-school disciplinarians had been thoroughly gainsaid by the Sixties, dad was in no mood to keep us kids in line with spankings or a stern countenance. At the same time, boys will be boys and a man, despite the Sixties, still needs some peace and quiet after a hard day. When I was about five, and my brother about seven, my dad turned a corner and began the long crawl out of a truly terrifying bout of depression. Around this same time, not coincidentally, he learned how to keep us in line, but by using his creativity and his imagination, rather than an iron fist.

After a particularly riotous afternoon of chasing each other around the house, complete with the usual tears and tattle-telling, my brother and I were shocked to find ourselves locked together in the bathroom. Dad had relied on a certain authoritative tone to get us into the room, but once safely locked inside, his tender eccentricity came back to the fore as he cooed cryptically, "You can't come out until you can tell me the price of a hot dog in 1917."


Ben and I looked at each other, a cease-fire immediately prevailing as we united in a solemn quest. At five and seven, we had no idea how much hot dogs cost in the present day, much less 1917.  After a few minutes we agreed to simply shout guesses through the door until it opened, but to no avail. We sat in silence for a time, Ben on the toilet seat and me propped on my elbows in the tub. The minutes ticked by and all seemed hopeless. We began to really wonder if we'd ever be let out. Suddenly, shattering the gloomy quiet, Ben called out a very precise number, much lower than anything we'd guessed so far. To our everlasting delight, the door opened and dad appeared, grinning. Ben had been staring at an old black and white photograph on the wall, of an old saloon with a menu just visible above the bar, if you squinted. Hot dogs -- 11 cents.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

PREJUDICE

The Jewish High Holy Days began Sunday night. Ellie and I attended a splendid Rosh Hashanah New Year's celebration dinner with friends on Monday, so it seemed like a good moment to post this poignant boyhood memory, contributed by a friend who wishes to remain anonymous; and, at the same time, to add a story that I wrote myself, based on a memory from my own Christian upbringing. I post it not to shame my mother, but merely to show how unexamined, mindless prejudice can be passed on across the generations. Anti-Semitism, shamefully, is not yet extinguished: we should all be outraged by the realization that, along with other cultural and racial bias, it is making an ugly resurgence in today's America. First, then, my friend's story:


PREJUDICE



“You killed Christ!”

“Kill him?  I didn’t even know him!”

As Thanksgiving approached in the early 1940s, I sat schmoozing with a small klatch of my young buddies on a curb in a suburb of Pittsburgh, called Dormont.  

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and much of the U.S. during the 1930s and 1940s was anti-Semitic. These were the days of Father Coughlin’s excoriating radio broadcasts and the German-American Bund.  Their prejudices aligned only too well with the teachings and sermons of the Catholic and Lutheran churches at that time.  And in turn, these feelings and attitudes filtered down to the sons and daughters of their congregants.

As a kid, I never thought much about it until that emotionally painful moment when, as my young friends and I were casually talking about the approaching holidays –– Thanksgiving and Christmas –– and one of my buddies casually asked, “Where are you going to buy your Christmas tree?”

Without hesitation, I replied, “We don’t get a Christmas tree.  We’re Jewish.”

And that’s when one of my closest friends, “Chinkie”  jumped to his feet and whacked me on the back of my head, blurting out that I had killed his Savior.

Stunned by the abruptness of his attack and the shock of friendship betrayed, I got up and ran home.  From that moment on, I became more and more aware of the malicious undercurrent of Jew-hatred which even some of my young schoolmates seemed to possess.

To my young psyche, it almost seemed as though they had stitched a yellow star to my soul.  

Luckily for me, there were many other children in my Brookline Elementary School classes who did not share this hostility and even though I was defeated in my election bid for class office because “he’s a Jew”,  I enjoyed my early education and particularly my teachers, who seemed to quietly sense that I was special –– but for different reasons.  Upon graduation from the 8th grade, I was selected as the winner of the American Legion Honor Award, which stated that I was “selected for this award because he is found to possess among others these high qualities of character –– Honor, Courage, Scholarship, Leadership and Service –– which are necessary to the preservation and protection of the fundamental institutions of our government and the advancement of society.”

Seventy years later, I happened to reconnect with one of my very best and true friends from those days at Brookline School, Arthur R.  This is an excerpt from his recent email to me:

“You were the first Jewish kid I ever met. Thanks to my upbringing and Mom and Dad, that was no big deal to me but I know it was to some. The very first time I ever seriously thought about how it must feel to be a ‘minority’, was worrying about how you felt at Christmas time each year when for weeks all around you people were up to their ears in all things Christmas. I liked you very much, and so admired how you went along with it all with good humor, extending best wishes to all, and flashing that Bob Sallin smile that was as genuine as it was bright. Thinking back, maybe that's why I never forgot about you. You played a good role in the early stages of what has been thus far a fulfilling and satisfying life. And I'm grateful for that.”

A few friends like Art made me feel valued for who I was. 

And that perhaps I was not an assassin of biblical proportions after all.

_______


Coming from one who today lives, as I do, in Los Angeles, this story ignited a rather less benign, but related memory of my own. I was brought up in war-time rural England, in a Church of England parish where my father was the Rector. I was old enough, after the war, to remember adults speaking in hushed, horrified whispers about what had happened to the Jews. I was aware, too, that one of our neighbors was a prominent Jewish publisher; he was a "very nice man," in that polite British parlance, but his religious affiliation was spoken of in our family with a kind of awed suspicion. Otherwise, I had really not the first idea what it meant to be a Jew, and was not particularly aware of knowing any before coming to America in my 20s. I would have been heartily surprised to have learned, as a nice Christian boy, that I was destined to spend the better part of my life with a nice Jewish wife...

So here's my own little horror story:


_______



LITTLE SAINT HUGH
by Peter Clothier


It’s bedtime in the nursery. There are two beds, on opposite sides of the room. My sister’s bed is under the window that looks out over the rhododendrons in the Rectory garden. The foot of own my bed rests against the big doll’s house my father built for my sister. When the lights go out, I am always scared that thieves will come in the night, climbing out through the doll’s house window.

The curtains are drawn. We are little children, my sister and I. We love the bedtime stories that our mother reads to us. Our mother is the most beautiful woman in the world. She reads our books to us before we go to sleep. Her favorite is “All Saints for Six O’Clock.” So that’s our favorite, too.

Our mother is the Rector’s wife. Our father is the Rector. He wears a black cassock and a white dog collar. He wears a thin black leather belt and shiny black leather shoes that squeak when he comes upstairs.

Our mother’s story tonight is “Little Saint Hugh.” Little Saint Hugh was a martyr boy, who was stolen by the wicked Jews as he walked the streets alone at night. He was stolen and killed, because it was his blood they wanted. The Jews. They wanted the blood of a little Christian boy. This was the story. Our mother reads it to us before she puts the light out. The story of Little Saint Hugh.

Our mother is the most beautiful woman in the world, and she is the kindest person in the world. We know that she could never hurt anyone, she is so very kind and gentle. She has blue, blue, faraway eyes and lovely hands, and she reads to us at bedtime.




Saturday, October 1, 2016

FICTIONAL MEMORIES

As one contributor pointed out to me a while ago, it's not always easy to know how much of our memories is invented. Our minds tend to embroider, elaborate, exaggerate some and suppress other parts of the stories we "remember" from long ago. No matter how clear the memory appears to be, there's inevitably an element of fiction in what we believe to be factual.

I say this in part because I've just finished reading a work of fiction where "boyhood memories" play an important role. William Luvaas, whose story The Beating you might recall as having appeared in this "Boyhood Memories" blog, has just published a new novel, Beneath the Coyote Hills. Its hero--more accurately an anti-hero--Tommy Aristophanes is a believer in destiny. Unfortunately, in his case, he believes it to be a bad one. Pretty much destitute and homeless--he's camped out in a shack in an olive grove in Southern California--he's writing a novel about his fictional nemesis, V.C. "Volt" Hoffstatter, whose wild and seemingly unstoppable material success is the polar opposite of Tommy's bad-luck karma.

(Volt, we should note, is short for Voltaire--a reference to the 18th century writer/philosopher whose fictional hero Candide, you'll remember, was plagued by the same inescapable bad luck as Tommy. His mentor, the Leibizian philosopher Pangloss, preached the gospel that "All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds." Luvaas has created with all this a nearly impenetrable web of ironies!)

Relevant to us, here in this blog, are Tommy's recurrent, traumatic memories of a boyhood plagued by "spells," or fits, whose advent was heralded by a mocking "Lizard Man"--a malevolent figure that continues to haunt and taunt him through his present miserable existence, and one that is readily confused with Tommy's abusive father, another mocking and intrusive presence in his life, for whose accidental death the son blames himself. His mother, by the way, was a bedridden wreck, quite unable to provide him with the protection little Tommy obviously needed.

If all this sounds a bit like a bad acid trip, well, it is. The wildly eccentric characters flitting at apparent random in and out of Tommy's adult life read like something out of either Mad Max or Alice in Wonderland. The lines between reality and fiction increasingly blur as the story progresses in a bewildering, sometimes brutal (and always highly entertaining!) mind game, until a final apocalyptic inferno intervenes to incinerate fact and fiction alike into an aching void. Voltaire's Candide ends with its hero's abandonment of the Panglossian ideal and his sad resignation to the immediate realities of life: il faut cultiver son garden ("we must tend our garden.") William Luvaas concludes on a strikingly similar note: "Maybe, if I'm lucky," (Tommy writes) "I will find myself another olive grove somewhere. There is always hope."

Forlorn, we suppose, though it may be.