Archive for the ‘Early’ Category

Memories of Mary Jane

Wednesday, December 7th, 2016

In my thirties, I smoked marijuana, occasionally or regularly, depending on life’s circumstances. I know people who never liked it or never got much of an effect from it, but I liked getting stoned. It’s been decades since the last time I even saw any grass (as we called it back in my day—that and “dope”). I can’t even remember when that would have been.

I voted for the recent ballot question legalizing “recreational” marijuana use in Massachusetts, based on my belief that the drug is less dangerous than alcohol and that people should be free to choose how they want to enjoy life, even when there are risks involved, assuming the risks are not too great and can be evaluated.

I might say more about that question some other time, but here I want to write about two singular events—mental or spiritual events—that I experienced when stoned on marijuana. I am not selecting two out of many. There were only two in all the time I smoked grass (how quaint that word seems now). They were different from each other, but both were very powerful, unforgettable, and came out of the blue. I have no idea how unusual my experience is, but I know I am blessedly susceptible to epiphanies. There is really no way to convey the power of such an experience, but I’ll try to make clear what was revealed to me in each instance.

The first experience was something akin to a Proustian onrush of memory. Proust (or rather, Marcel, the first-person narrator of his long work) famously described how his tasting the crumbs of a petite madeleine cake in a spoonful of warm tea triggered a mental event which suddenly took him back to a time and place from his childhood, not merely reminding him of it, but mentally immersing him in it, as though he had traveled in time. Marcel recounts a few other such events, which seemed to nullify the passage of time and which inspired him to write the book in which he is the narrator.

All of Marcel’s “involuntary memories” came about because of a fortuitous similarity that his immediate physical circumstances, as mediated through his body and its senses, had to some others in his past, which circumstances had been stored away in his memory, awaiting just the right correspondence to the present ones to suddenly evoke the past, not just as a remembrance of similarity, but as a vivid experience of the earlier time and place. Well, you’ll have to read Proust to see what I’m floundering around to convey.

The point I want to make is that Proust discovered that the mind, the brain, whatever you want to call it, holds the past in a detailed and holistic way that we couldn’t expect it to, since we cannot voluntarily, intentionally retrieve our earlier selves stored there.

My Proustian-like experience while stoned was triggered by nothing at all that I can recall. It just came. I don’t even remember where I was (vaguely seems to be Berkeley) or whom, if anyone, I was with. I’m almost sure I didn’t tell anyone about it at the time it happened. In any case it was years after my maternal grandparents had died. I have told at least one person about the experience, but it had happened years before I met her.

The time of my memory is when I had only one younger sister, and we were the only grandchildren my mother’s parents had. They lived out in the country in Northeast Texas. My family usually went there for Christmas. In the summer, my mother, sister, and I would spend weeks at a time there. Children, if they are lucky, as we were, can take the love of parents and grandparents for granted. It is only when we grow to adulthood, becoming ourselves a part of the older generation, that we can really understand, internally, the love that a parent has for a child, a grandparent for a grandchild. I know that my sister and I went through a period as older children where we could be quite disrespectful to my grandmother. Even now, I wish I could take that back, but, of course, I can’t.

The scene from my past into which I was thrust out of the blue takes place in the driveway under the bois d’arc tree (board arc, in the local vernacular) in front of my grandparents’ house. My sister and I, both quite young, are in the back seat of our family’s Ford. We are about to depart, about to be driven back by our father to our home 300 miles away, to be gone from here until the next time we visit, months in the future. My sister and I are not alone. Sitting between us is our grandmother. It is her presence that struck me so forcefully. I had totally forgotten how she would get into the back seat of the car and sit with my sister and me until the very last minute before our departure, just to be close to us for that much longer. Love so strong and deep, love that suffered so from parting, oh so many years ago! What a wonderful gift it was to have recovered that memory! To have received once again that love from her at an age at which I could appreciate it! As I still can. That is something precious I received in a state induced by marijuana, and I have no reason to think it would have happened otherwise.

The other experience is of a different sort. It is more like a revelation, though the truth that was revealed was something I knew already, in theory. What happened was a sudden insight, a stripping away of an old unconscious way of thinking to, in effect, show a miracle taking place. I do remember where this happened. It was in Cambridge in a Peabody Terrace apartment. One of the benefits of being stoned, to those of us that marijuana works on, is an enhancement of aesthetic pleasure. At this particular time, my attention was caught by the gorgeous geraniums we had growing in pots. I looked at them intently. The green stems and leaves. The red flowers. Not roses. Not carnations. Geraniums. Beaming beauty into the room. Growing out of the nondescript dark brown soil. Suddenly—for the first time in my life—I realized what was happening. The dirt was being turned into flowers! It was a stunning, joyful recognition. I had somehow managed to live my whole life still thinking as a child thinks, that the dirt was basically just holding the flowers. They needed to be stuck in something that would hold water, and dirt was what they needed to be stuck in. Of course, I knew about “nutrients” in the soil, about soil becoming exhausted, about the need to fertilize soil, etc., but the wonderful transformation that was actually occurring had somehow not made it into my consciousness with its full significance. It was like discovering God! Actually, it was discovering God, but I didn’t realize it at the time. Could I have had that insight without the aid of marijuana? I suppose so. But the fact is that the marijuana was instrumental in the event.

I’m writing about these experiences just as I’ve written about other intense experiences, both good and bad, just because I feel like sharing them for the first time, as my time becomes shorter, I guess. I’m not advocating anyone try marijuana in the hope of having a similar experience. After all, I have only two to report, and it’s not like there’s no such thing as a “bad trip” on marijuana. Also, the marijuana around these days is reportedly a lot stronger than it was back when I smoked it, and I really don’t know whether that makes good or bad experiences more likely. I should distinguish these experiences from the sort which I gather (only from reading, not personal experience) are induced by hallucinogens. Yes, I was stoned, but I was still myself, and I just happened to get lucky, or maybe I should say I received undeserved blessings, which is pretty much the story of our lives, isn’t it?

The Most Shocking News I Ever Heard

Tuesday, February 16th, 2016

I recently had occasion to read an old blog post of mine called The Second Most Important Event in My Life, which is about my suddenly becoming aware, during a high school physics demonstration, that there was a deep mathematical order to the world, of which I had had no inkling before. That blog post begins: “Excluding from consideration my birth, the two most important events in my life have been moments in which I have suddenly and for the first time become fully aware of something fundamental and wonderful about reality which has permanently changed my perception of the world.”

Perhaps it was the reading of that sentence that has brought to mind another experience of sudden revelation about the world, one less spiritual and intellectual, which occurred years before the others, but which was also stunning in the degree to which it transformed my world view.

When I started school at the age of six in a small Texas town, many years ago, my knowledge of procreation was limited to the fact that a baby somehow grew inside its mother (in the stomach, I believe I was told) until it was ready to be born, and that marriage was the necessary and sufficient condition for a man and woman to become potential parents. If this connection between marriage and pregnancy puzzled me, I don’t remember it. I was a child, after all, and one that trusted what adults said more than the average perhaps. I do recall, upon hearing about a child being born to unmarried parents, saying I didn’t believe that was possible. I imagine I got the runaround if I tried to get to the bottom of this anomaly.

One of the things I soon learned in first grade (I didn’t go to kindergarten) was that children had a secret society that grownups didn’t know about, or if they did, they at least must never be allowed to see any of the society’s activities; because, either way, grownups were sure to severely punish the society’s members. There were new words to be learned like “fuck” (Or was it “fulk”? I wasn’t sure.) and a secret hand sign, called giving the finger, that I had to learn through practice. We must never let grownups hear us say these words or see us make the sign. They were dirty or nasty, whatever that meant.

This sudden entrance into an underground dual existence of a sort was somewhat troubling, but I did not want to be excluded from it, or be punished for living in it. I should add that, as far as I knew at the beginning, this was a society of boys, because our recesses were segregated by sex, boys on one side of the playground, girls on the other. And it was at recess that the secret society became open to new members. I should also add that I’m speaking of a secret society just to convey its status, as I saw it, with respect to grownups. There was nothing formal about joining it. There was just an oral passing on of lore gained from older siblings, accompanied by the grins that came with the pleasure of demonstrating knowledge of the forbidden. My memory is of gaining this new incomplete knowledge from other first graders, as there was no mixing of grades on the playground, though the whole school had the same recess period. I seem to remember learning the middle finger sign in the center of the playground’s merry-go-round, the inner part where you push on the radial bars to propel it into motion. I imagine there must have been boys that could have defined what fuck meant, but I did not want to show my ignorance, so I would never have asked. It was only over a fairly long time (years?) that I came to have near certainty, but not quite complete certainty, about what was entailed in the act of fucking.

At some point, I also learned that there were men and women who actually engaged in this activity, which was so taboo that its very existence mustn’t be acknowledged. What perversity possessed them to do this, I couldn’t imagine. I had not picked up the idea that it was supposed to be very pleasurable, which would make it tempting. Nor had I connected it in any way to the interest I and my male friends had in seeing (even collecting) pictures of good-looking women without much clothing on. This was an instinct without an object, as yet. We had no access to any kind of “girlie” magazines, so I assume we just found underwear ads and such. This was also an underground activity, of course.

It turned out that there were also girls in our kids’ secret society of dirty words and knowledge. The telling of “dirty jokes,” half of which I didn’t really get, became a relished pastime for neighborhood boys and girls. We would sit on the ground or floor in a circle and retell such classics as “Johnny Fuckerfaster” or pass on new ones heard outside the current circle. I lived on one side of a one-story apartment building with a hallway down the middle. I remember participating in joke sessions in that hallway and holding hands with Dot, a neighbor from across the hall there. I think the main pleasure in these joke-telling sessions was the forbidden-fruit secrecy, which carried a certain status of mature-beyond-our-years exclusiveness in our eyes. I’m pretty sure that not everyone, especially not all the girls in my class, were engaged in dirty joke telling. I don’t remember feeling very guilty about it. It was just one of the secret pleasures of childhood. That was the limit of how dirty I would ever get. Jokes about it were one thing. Actually doing it? Unthinkable! I had a crush on Dot, but it had nothing to do with the subject of our jokes, or so I thought.

Sometime when I was probably in the third of fourth grade I heard something very disturbing about one of my classmate’s parents from a friend. He told me that the classmate had told him how he had been asleep in the same bed as his parents and had awakened to find them fucking! I was shocked to hear that someone I knew had parents that had committed this unspeakable act. I felt sorry for him. I never said anything to him about it, of course, and I have no memory of who it was. I’m sure it wasn’t a close friend though, or I would remember.

So that was the way I understood and viewed sexual matters. The topics were fun to discuss and joke about, a way to demonstrate how mature I was compared to children that knew nothing of this stuff and were excluded from what we’d call the cool kid circle today. I was not tempted to do anything beyond kissing with a girl, an activity that had no connection with that other thing, the dirty thing we called fucking. I’m not sure we were even aware of the word sex as having a meaning related to that thing.

Then one day, again in the third or fourth grade, out of the blue, I heard the truth. Our apartment had a driveway beside it that led to a garage. Another set of garages for other apartments in the cluster was farther back from the house, and we kids of the apartments would climb up on the roofs of the garages sometimes. We climbed a lot, so there was nothing unusual about my being on one of the garage roofs. What was less usual was that I was there with a girl a little older than I, who probably lived in one of the other apartments for a short time. I can’t remember her name or anything else about her except that she was on that roof with me on the day I’m thinking of and that I guess I knew her pretty well or we wouldn’t have been there together, just the two of us. She had news. I’m almost sure this was news she had just received herself and which she couldn’t wait to spread. She told me that babies were conceived by the parents fucking. This was a stupefying announcement, and I objected to it. It was unbelievable. She was certain. Her source was someone who would know. My world spinning, I had to accept that this startling assertion about what all parents—including my own!—had done in order to have children was true. Perhaps the story of the classmate seeing his parents in the act came to mind with a new interpretation.

One of the most important facts of human existence had been unknown to me until that day. The news couldn’t have been more unexpected. I had absolutely no idea. I wonder how many people have a memory of when they learned “the facts of life”? Maybe today most kids just sort of know from an early age through actual school sex education.

Of course, the new knowledge not only made me look at my parents in a new way, it changed how I had to look at my own future. What had been unspeakably vile must now be considered perfectly normal. That was quite a jump. It was not that grownups had directly given me my view of sexual activity as alien to decent people. It was the avoidance of the subject by grownups and my coming to hear of it as a very secret, extremely naughty topic that had formed that strong impression.

As usual with these old memories of mine, I don’t know what came next. How long did I and my revealer of the truth stay on the roof? Did we discuss the philosophical and practical implications of this knowledge? Did I ever see this girl again? I think I must have told others not yet in the know (my sister?), but I have no memory of their reactions or even of my telling them. Perhaps you are the first to hear this story.

A Valentine Memory Revised

Thursday, February 14th, 2013

In a Valentine’s Day post I made here in 2010 (A Valentine Memory: Art, Love, and Pain in the First Grade) I recalled an incident from back when I was in the first grade. At least I thought it was the first grade. I went back and forth trying to decide whether it was the first or the second, finally deciding to go with my longstanding conviction that it had been the first grade. My mind has evidently continued to work on the problem in the unconscious background, and I am now almost completely sure that I combined two strongly remembered events, separated by a year, into one, which was the source of my uncertainty. I recommend to anyone that wants to understand fully the rest of this post that they go back to the original post, linked to above.

The emotional truth remains. The terrible dread I felt as I had to make and then present the “I love you” cards to all the girls in the class was real. The pain of disappointment I felt as Carol tossed my card aside disdainfully was true, and I can still feel it. My mind knitted together the two events into a narrative that enhanced the story in a way.

I did have to make the cards for the girls in the first grade, but Carol was not the girl I “claimed” in the first grade. Linda Jane was. Linda Jane had moved across town before the second grade and attended a different school that year.

Carol was the girl whose esteem I most valued in the second grade, which seemed right as I was trying to decide before, since I knew Linda Jane had been every boy’s dream girl in the first grade. But in order to sensibly make the two events become one, I had pretty well convinced myself that by the second semester my affection had been transferred to Carol. The thing that really made me realize I’d been wrong is that I clearly had the feeling that I was in my second grade classroom, as I watched Carol look through her stack of Valentine cards. I am totally sure of that now, in a way I could never explain. Somehow that vague feeling of the room I was in kept getting stronger to the point of certainty. Yes, I was seven years old, and not six.

I was tempted not to make this confession of my having joined together into one the two episodes from my early life, but the very fact that my mind came up with a plausible way to do it is interesting, and full adherence to the truth demands disclosure to the few that have actually read the original reminiscence. I imagine—not saying I remember now—that I did give special care to the card I made for Linda Jane, wanting to please her and gain her attention.

I also imagine that there was something special about the card I gave to Carol, something that would distinguish it from the silly “Bee mine” cards, even though it was not handmade, as all the first grade cards had been. Yes, I’m feeling that. It must have been a more expensive and expressive card of the type a boy would give to his girl friend. I would not have been watching so expectantly for her reaction otherwise. That makes it even worse, as the intent would have been more obvious. Yes, I feel pretty sure that was the case now. There’s really no reason for me to have been so interested in her response otherwise.

So, all I got wrong was my hope that my artistic talent would win favor with Carol, but that is only wrong for the imagined card. I certainly did hope to impress with my drawing ability. Naturally, the only boy in the class that could draw as well as or better than I was Philip, the boy Carol really liked. I might as well illustrate that with another memory involving Carol and Philip. We learned cursive handwriting in the second grade, and our ability to form the letters beautifully was a great point of pride. Cursive writing, as we saw it, fit into the category of artistic achievement. I know we also viewed it as a step into maturity to master handwriting.

Philip, Carol, and I must have had seats in the classroom very close to each other. I recall a time we were working on our cursive writing. I was evidently very impressed with my results as compared with Phillip’s and saw an opportunity to gain an advantage over him in Carol’s eyes by drawing her attention to our writing and asking her to judge which was better. This was entirely my doing. Though only seven years old, Carol was diplomatic. They were both really good, and she really couldn’t choose one over the other. I knew she was just trying to spare Phillip’s feelings, but I was not letting this opportunity slip by. I insisted that she choose which got the prize. Seeing that I would not relent, she reluctantly admitted that Phillip’s was just a little better. I was dumbfounded.

That is the merciful end of the memory. I have no memory of any expression on Phillip’s face. Or Carol’s. If I argued the point further, the memory of it has been mercifully obliterated. Nor can I begin to make out what our writing samples were like. Probably they were similar. At the time I was sure Carol’s decision just showed how much she preferred Philip to me, since I could see, as anyone could, that my handwriting was clearly superior to his. Thus gross injustice was added to the disappointed hope of winning favor, which made it even more crushing, because it meant there was no hope for me with her.

But did I really abandon hope? Which came first—the handwriting contest or Valentine’s Day? In any case, I know I really fell for Carol Ann, Snow White to my Prince Charming (walk on role), in our class’s stage production of Books Are Our Friends before the year was over. Sadly, she moved out of town in the summer. But the memory of regret is weaker than the memory of rejection.

So strange to enter again into my seven-year-old mind and feel once more the staggering smackdown of the handwriting judgment. I can never know how my life would have been different, if in any significant way, but for that hard lesson, but I know that it taught me not to be so sure of myself, perhaps at the everlasting expense of my self-confidence. In any case, those memories of painful disappointment (along with those of great joy) are among the few that persist.

ADDENDUM (February 15, 2013): My mind has not stopped trying to complete my memory of those long ago Valentine’s Days and has come up with yet another version that brings the two events closer to the single one I described three years ago. I have come to believe that I did make a Valentine card for Carol in the second grade. I’m sure it wouldn’t have said “I love you,” but it might have said “Be my Valentine.” It would have been the only one I made by hand that year. It’s a little hard for me to imagine myself having the courage to do that, but when I think about how I watched to see Carol’s reaction and how crushed I was when she tossed it aside with hardly a glance, I feel that it had to have been a rejection of more than a card I had bought. As I mentioned above, I did rate my artistic ability highly, never mind how accurately. It would also explain how I so easily conflated the two events when I first wrote about them. As of now I’d say I’m 95% sure that the making of cards for all the girls at the insistence of my mother was in the first grade and 95% sure that the watching for Carol’s reaction when she looked at my card was in the second grade. I’m at a somewhat shakier 90% certainty that it was an artistic creation of mine that Carol disdained. And that is the last I will have to say about it.

A Valentine Memory: Art, Love, and Pain in the First Grade

Sunday, February 14th, 2010

Since Valentine’s Day is here it seems the appropriate time to delve into my past and relate one of my first memories of that holiday, one that has stuck with me through more decades than I care to think about. St. Valentine’s Day is a quasi-holiday, not really a day on which anyone gets out of work or school, but which is still widely celebrated because it relates to ineradicable (wonderfully animal) feelings between individual human beings. It’s a very old holiday that to this day sometimes mentions its “Saint.” We learned in elementary school of St. Valentine’s celebrated love for his friends, though the holiday is much more devoted to romantic love than to the kind they were saying St. Valentine was known for. I seem to recall he wrote letters to his friends from prison, which was supposed to be the origin of Valentine cards, a tradition that figures crucially in the memory related below.

As anyone that has read any of the reminiscence posts to this blog before will have already noted, my memory is very selective, which is another way of saying it’s totally blank for most of my past. I don’t remember anything in any detail at all except events that made a strong impression at the time they happened. As it turns out, a lot of those memories are painful ones. Since a good portion of the others are of the sort I’m not going to write about, readers may obtain a false picture of my satisfaction with the life I’ve had, but that’s not something I’ll worry about.

The Valentine memory I’m about to relate is a painful one, but I wouldn’t want to give the impression that all my early Valentine associations are bad ones. My father would always get a red, heart-shaped box of chocolates for my little sister and me to give our mother on Valentine’s Day when we were little. The special shape of the box and the pleasure of giving it and then of sharing in the eating of the candy, each individual piece a new mystery to be solved by taste and sight after we’d bitten into it, made this family ritual one whose memory I cherish enough to have renewed the tradition with my current family.

When I started to write this piece I had no doubt the memory in question was from my first year of school. Then, as I began to dig the details out, I started to wonder if it hadn’t actually been a memory from the second grade. I went back and forth on the year, using clues of the details to try and nail it down. In the end I realized that process was not only futile but foolish. Why try to determine the year by clues and reasoning when I really had no doubt that over the years my memory had always placed the event in the first grade? Trust the earliest record.

There was never any doubt about which girl was the central figure in the story. It was Carol. One of the things that characterized the nascent social life of those first years of school was that the concept of “claiming” a girl was presented to a boy (and that of claiming a boy to a girl). “Who do you claim?” was a question of great interest. There was not in fact anything at all proprietary in these claims, as it required no acknowledgement or even knowledge by the person being claimed, and any number of boys could claim the same girl without antagonism. Actually, most boys did claim the same girl. In the first grade that girl was Carol. It seemed obvious that only one boy—Philip—had actually won her heart, and Philip is one of the few people that I must admit to having envied in my life. I always kept secret from everyone, even friends, the name of the one I claimed, I suppose from not wanting to be seen as one entertaining false hopes, though uncertainty as to what might be required of me should the girl I claimed claim me back may have played a role.

Carol lived near the municipal swimming pool. I think her father was the pool caretaker or something. I can halfway picture her house up on the hilltop across the road from the pool. I vaguely remember attending a birthday party there once. Naturally, Carol could swim like a fish. That fact and her being so completely comfortable at and in the pool, which I liked to go to, but could not yet actually swim in, was somewhat intimidating. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear she was athletic in her high school years, but my family moved away in the fifth grade, so I have no knowledge of her after that. I really have no memory of her after the second grade, now that I think of it, which just means she doesn’t figure in any more intense memories. I don’t believe I was ever completely comfortable with Carol, who was more mature and self-assured than I. Though I was never one to make public whom I claimed, I secretly joined with the majority in asserting my wishful title to Carol.

The question of what “claiming” a girl meant to me is not an easy one to answer now. I can’t remember having had a strong crush on Carol really, and I had experienced that phenomenon at an even earlier age. It’s just that somehow my embryonic yearning for the female of the species had become focused on her. This was, from the standpoint of my consciousness, a presexual phase of my life, in that I had no inkling of even the existence of copulation as a phenomenon of human or animal existence. I knew girls liked boys and vice versa (no other possibilities were mentioned) and that there was some silliness involved in their pairings, and that they kissed and of course got married. I even knew that my friends and I were fascinated by pictures of pretty women without much clothes on, but I had no idea why. All this is worth a lot more contemplation, but now I just want to make the point that, while it was a time of innocence, yet I felt a sort of attraction to members of the opposite sex of my own age and was susceptible to their charms. In addition to this attraction there was a prestige that went with being liked by the prettier, higher status girls. And at the top of that list in the first grade was Carol.

While I was still trying to decide on the year in which this story took place, one of the strongest arguments in favor of the first grade was that I didn’t think my mother would have been able to make me do what I’m about to relate by the second grade. Since I was in the minority that hadn’t gone to kindergarten, which was not mandatory then, I had not been assimilated into the general culture of my small Texas town’s children before I started first grade. I had to contend with being slightly different from and uncomfortable with the other kids. In some ways my mother made it harder. She had her own ideas about what a first grade boy should wear, for example. I was one of only two boys (the other being the son of one of my mother’s friends) sent to school wearing shorts and sandals. It was hot in the fall in Texas, so this was a reasonable choice from the standpoint of the weather. And no doubt I was “cute” wearing them. The problem was that every other boy except for Billy (I was so grateful there was one other!) was wearing blue jeans and tennis shoes (as we called sneakers in those days, assuming anyone still knows what sneakers are). I felt intense discomfort from this deviation in my attire from the standard and was eventually able to get my mother to buy the regulation outfit, to my great relief.

Unfortunately, as my first grade Valentine’s Day approached, my mother had an idea which my strong and prolonged resistance proved unable to overcome. She had somehow arrived at the notion that I should make every girl in the class (not to hurt any of their feelings for having been left out, always one of her prime concerns) a Valentine card. I mean literally a hand-made Valentine card, a heart cut out of red construction paper and with a lace border. That was bad already. Very bad. Hand-made was bad. Heart was bad. Just for the girls was bad. A hand-made heart to each and every one of the girls was very bad. The final detail that made the proposal insufferable was that each card was to bear the hand-printed message “I love you.” I don’t know how my mother could have been so out of touch with the reality of first grade life as to think that was something for a boy to do. The charm of the idea was so great for her that she would not yield to my objections, and I, a six-year-old, had to accept this unfortunate whim of hers.

How I dreaded that day when Valentine cards would be distributed in class! All of the cards other children were giving were of the five-and-dime store humorous sort: silly puns like “bee mine” with a bee pictured. I’m almost sure I only had cards for the girls. It’s my duty to say that a big part of my reluctance to giving such cards was my dread of the ridicule and teasing I might receive from having given “I love you” cards to the least esteemed of the girls. Anyway, there was that fear of ridicule which went beyond the already strong desire not to be the odd, possibly sissy, boy with the hand-made cards for the girls. I dreaded hearing one of the boys say to the class “Hey look! Bobby gave a card with ‘I love you’ on it to Thelma!” (Not a real name.)

The fateful day of our class Valentine party arrived. Full of dread, I dutifully took my cards to school and handed them over for distribution when the time came. Did I actually meet with ridicule for my cards? I can’t remember anything distinctly about it, which probably means I didn’t encounter much, and none from a class opinion leader. But there is a very strong memory associated with the cards which has flooded other details, leaving them submerged under murky water.

The absurd thing about this Valentine card episode is that, despite my struggle against having to make and present these cards to the girls, at some point, possibly at the last moment, I had begun to hope that it might actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise in regard to Carol. Here was the opportunity, though one I would never have chosen, to show off my artistic talent to Carol through my card. Certainly hers was the one I had truly taken care with, while striving to make it beautiful. Surely hers was the one for which the words in some sense spoke truth. I had no doubt that the card was beautiful. How could Carol not be struck by that beauty? What a thrill it would be if she looked over at me and smiled with pleasure after admiring my card! I could picture her complimenting me on it as she thanked me for having created it. Perhaps my card would so impress her that its message of love would be met with favor. Perhaps she would even start to “claim” me. What a boost it would be to my status in the class when her new fondness for me became known!

I watched intently as Carol went through the pile of Valentine cards on her desk, casually examining each one. Anxiety, anticipation, and hope mounted in me as she came to mine—and instantly tossed it aside! Discarded my masterpiece with scarcely a glance! It was hand made. It was ugly and unworthy of a second’s contemplation. It had a contemptible message from an insignificant boy.

I don’t know how far away I was from the scene of my secret rejection or whether Carol had been aware that I was watching. There was no look my way. I’m sure she never gave it a second thought or had any idea of the pain her indifference had caused. But to me it was a rejection, and nothing is worse for a man’s ego than being rejected by a woman, even when the “man” and “woman” in question are only six years old. Nothing had really changed, but, in the split second it took to dash my unwarranted hopes, the acid of disappointment became so concentrated that it etched the memory deeply in my mind.

The memory of Carol’s indifference to my art work and its message of love is still painful, much as my baseball misadventure related in Show Me Where It Hurts is painful; but it’s pretty much the nature of my lasting memories that, as the song goes: “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” So I’m grateful for this memory that is strong enough to place me back in my first-grade classroom, once more that six-year-old boy full of watchful hope—even unreasonable hope that I know now is about to be demolished.

ADDENDUM: Since I wrote this I have realized that I almost certainly combined two events into one, which was the source of my uncertainty about which year I was trying to recall. See my later thoughts at A Valentine Memory Revised.

Thinking of One Who Died on September 11, 2001

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

A number of my posts here have noted the way my memory of past events is quite restricted. Only memories of certain events in my life—exceptional in the impression they made on me—have survived the decades, and even then in fragment and mist. I talked about this phenomenon in Something on Memories. I’ve actually become much more aware of it through my writing here, and I can’t say how typical it is.

As the fatal date September 11 approaches, I’m moved to write of one of those memories from my childhood that is dreamlike and without clarity of detail, yet definitely grounded in real events and with strong, undefinable feelings and impressions attached.

I know the setting, though not the exact date, of this memory. It was at my Uncle Herman’s house in rural Northeast Texas. Herman was one of my maternal grandfather’s younger brothers, perhaps the youngest. Although the two brothers lived only a short distance apart, there wasn’t much social intercourse between the two families, at least whenever I was there for summer vacation and holiday visits. The little community’s Methodist church was very important to my grandfather, but I don’t recall seeing Herman there, even though he and his wife lived close to it, on the same road. It could be that they went to a different church, but their failure to attend the same church as my grandfather would have made them seem less a part of the family and the community. In any case, we would see Uncle Herman in my uncle’s general store on a fairly regular basis. Almost everyone in the surrounding area would be there sometime or other during the week if only for the society.

As I recall him, my uncle Herman was a lively, outgoing man who liked to kid a lot. But in my memories of him from childhood a couple of things stand out more than his personality. One is that he had had his larynx removed due to cancer, which made his appearance quite singular and rather disturbing to a child that only saw him occasionally. I can remember him before the operation though, and before that alteration in his appearance and speech, the main thing that made him stand out in my mind was his hound dogs. On the few occasions I went with my grandfather to visit Herman, it seems we always saw him outside the house instead of going inside, as one would do on a normal visit. He had numerous coon hounds which he kept in an enclosure not far from his house, and the dogs were always part of the picture when we were there. I suppose he kept the dogs for his own hunting pleasure, but for all I know he bred them for sale. They were a noisy and undisciplined lot, and I did not like being close to them. I don’t know how many there were of them, but there were more than enough to intimidate a town boy who wasn’t used to semi-wild canines who lived for the thrill of the hunt in the company of men experiencing the same primal pleasure. I don’t know if they became agitated at the sight of strangers or from seeing my uncle, with whom I imagine they shared delicious memories of hunts and kills.

The event I am now seeking to recall was a large family gathering at Uncle Herman’s house. Perhaps it was a family reunion, though I have a vague feeling it might have been a wedding anniversary. It may be the only time I was actually inside the house. Large gatherings with relatives that one barely knows are not a great pleasure to children. This one was exceptional though, because among those present was a cousin I had never met before, a boy about my age named Jimmy, one of Uncle Herman’s grandsons, presumably just visiting for this special occasion. Jimmy and I hit it off immediately. Perhaps he had inherited something of Uncle Herman’s exuberance. All I’m sure of is that Jimmy and I had a great time playing together and that I liked him a lot. I think we must have run through the unfamiliar house a few times, because I have a tantalizing sense of what it felt like to jump onto and off the porch and can vaguely picture the room that opened to the porch. Cousins of my generation were not numerous in my family, and the unexpected discovery of a new one my own age was exciting, with its implicit promise that we would have many more days of fun together.

That was not to be the case. As far as I know, this was the first and only time I ever saw Jimmy. I have no memory of what he looked like. I’m not sure how old we were when we met; my guess is about ten. The very singularity of our meeting and the thrill of discovery must have preserved from that day a small pool of feelings and impressions deep in the cavern of my memory, long after the details of the event had evaporated. I know I would have wanted to see more of Jimmy, but I don’t remember wondering about him. Perhaps such fleeting encounters are not unusual in childhood, as grownups determine the where and when of our lives. Given the loose connection between our grandfathers, Jimmy and I may well have been in the same small area at the same time both before and after that day without being aware of it.

Now I need to say how the September 11 attacks brought me back to that day long ago when I met a new cousin. Talking to my mother on the telephone sometime after 911, I was surprised to learn that one of my cousins, whose existence was news to me, Jimmy Nevill Storey, a Houston businessman, had been killed in the World Trade Center, a trip to New York City having been timed with the worst possible luck. He was one of Uncle Herman’s grandsons. It was quite some time later that the memory of the family gathering at which I had met a delightful new cousin came creeping into my consciousness. Yes, he was the one, it had to be so.

There’s a lot to ponder in this: the way we led our separate lives, only crossing paths once, my presence at his grandfather’s on just that day being almost as much a matter of chance as his being a victim in the events of September 11, 2001; and the way my recalling our single meeting was only the result of the circumstances of his death, which made me search my memory for some recollection (for if I’d heard that a cousin I didn’t know had died of a heart attack it probably would barely have registered and wouldn’t have set the wheels of my memory into motion).

I wonder what it would have been like to have met Jimmy as an adult? Would we have remembered our first encounter from so long ago? Would we have had enough in common to have felt even a small fraction of the rapport we’d felt our first meeting? He was a businessman and a graduate of Texas A&M, whose students—”Aggies” then and forever after—have traditionally viewed and defined their school as the polar opposite of my alma mater, the University of Texas (with its “tea-sip” students). I think A&M at that time was still all male, with military training a requirement for everyone. That was definitely not my cup of tea. Given that we were roughly the same age, we would have been cheering for opposite sides in the big rival games between our two schools. Scratch “cheering.” Aggies make a point of saying they don’t cheer; they yell, and have yell leaders. Jimmy and I probably would not have agreed on the Vietnam War had we met while it was going on. Perhaps those accidental facts of our lives would have been insurmountable barriers to connection. Such thoughts can make me long for the simple days of boyhood.

As with other victims, a few details of Jimmy’s life can be found on the internet. I came across a web page that had the text of an article from the Houston Chronicle, which had details I found touching. It was transcribed on September 26, 2001, but the actual date of publication wasn’t stated. The memorial service for Jimmy reported in the article was held only after the family had given up any hope that he could have survived. He had been on the 99th floor that morning. The article implies that he must have lost his father at a rather early age; and a cousin of mine has told me Jimmy’s father died at around the age of forty. Jimmy’s mother is quoted in the article as saying “He was kind of thrown from boy to man real fast, but he handled it well. He was a very devoted son, a very, very good father to his children.” Jimmy Storey was just one of many who died that day, but he’s the one I’ll be thinking about this September 11.

Show Me Where It Hurts: Memory Illuminates a Few Moments of My Baseball Career

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

This is going to be another brief example of how the survival of ancient memories depends, not on the real significance of the remembered events, but on the intensity of the feelings associated with them at the time they took place, a subject I’ve touched on before (Something on Memories). I was fourteen years old on that evening of which some small portions have stuck in my mind. Few, few are the moments that come to memory from that far back.

The occasion was a baseball game. I was on a Pony League team, which in my Texas town near Dallas was the step above Little League, played on a bigger field, but one which I believe was still smaller than a full-sized one. Despite my having come to love baseball (listening to the 1952 World Series between the Yankees and Dodgers was the turning point at age ten) a few years before, I had never played in an organized league before the age of thirteen, not having lived any place that had organized youth baseball until I arrived in my new town for the seventh grade. Baseball was a big sport in this town, the Little League all-star team having made it to the State tournament the summer before I arrived to start school in the fall.

Before then, I had done my best to acquire baseball skills without the benefit of organized play or coaching, most of the time without the benefit of a partner to play catch with. I was not that bad at fielding and catching. My arm was weak though, and I had never batted against fast pitching. My hitting skill level was low, and my confidence in it was even lower. In truth, I had been one of those kids that hoped for a walk whenever I was at the plate in a game important enough to have an umpire, such as the sixth versus fifth grade softball game with a teacher umpiring. Yes, I can remember a painful called third strike I took in a crucial situation!

Despite being conscious of my below-average baseball skills, a condition which I still hoped was temporary, I was eager to play at last on a real team, so I had signed up at the first opportunity and had gone to the tryouts, which were conducted on a real field under the lights and open to the public. I don’t remember much about the tryout beyond being nervous, dreading to hear my name called, and then getting ready to field ground balls from one of the league officials, as all the coaches waited to judge my performance. I recall no details of the tryout, just the feeling that went with the knowledge that I had done poorly, worse than I had hoped, and being relieved it was over.

In addition to making the jump to a high-level baseball culture, I had experienced substantial culture shock in this new town and school due to the advanced boy-girl relationships compared to what had known before. There were lots of couples going steady. They danced to “cat music” (more on that some other time). I was not part of this social scene and had slipped into a low status slot, which I was not accustomed to, having the previous year been, in a small school, very popular with the boys and girls alike. I was really quite intimidated by the social scene, and my self-confidence had been battered.

But in that spring of my first year in the new town, I recall that my mere trying out for baseball had evidently impressed one of the fairly high-status girls, who was a baseball enthusiast (perhaps a bit of a baseball groupie). She had approached me with a smile and a glowing face saying she’d heard (I think) that I was playing baseball. Rather than accepting this as a good icebreaker, I had evaded the subject, though I can’t recall the awkward details of how. I felt ashamed of how poorly I had done, and I think I was afraid that she had only heard I had tried out, without getting a performance report, so that it would be better for her not to view me as a “real” baseball player, especially since she valued baseball so highly. I was realizing just how far I was behind the good players in my new league. But for all I know—it would not be surprising—she had been in the stands during the tryouts. Perhaps just being on a team (like playing in a rock band for some) was enough to give me prestige in her eyes. Or maybe she had been wishing for a way to approach me before. Maybe she just relished any chance to talk about her favorite subject. I’ll never know. Though I can picture very well how she looked those many years ago, I can’t recall her name. I do feel a certain tenderness toward her now, though; and retrospective gratitude.

When I started writing this piece I thought that the remembered events I was going to relate had occurred in my first year in Pony League, but on reflection I feel sure they were in the second year. That’s the strong feeling I got from picturing the catcher on my team on the night in question and then remembering who the catcher was on my first team. Catchers are central to the game, so I guess it’s not surprising I can remember them.

Speaking of memories, I might as well relate another that just popped up. It was during an intra-squad game of some sort on that first team, so that half our team was playing the other half. I had just come to the plate to face one of my teammates, a pitcher from the previous year’s all-star team. The catcher was into the game and said to the pitcher the same thing he would have said when an opposing batter came to the plate in a real game: “OK, this guy can’t hit!” Then he must have realized just how true that statement was in my case, and that I might be stung by those words, so he quickly added “Just doubles, triples…” Of course, I understood what had gone on in his mind, and it would have been better for my ego for him to have treated me like anyone else, since the change revealed just how lowly he estimated my batting prowess. It was an attempt at kindness that made things worse, leading me to mutter something in protest of the supposed compliment to show I knew better. Still, I had to appreciate the tough thirteen-year-old catcher’s consideration for my feelings, and I haven’t forgotten it. Thanks, Gary.

After I had been in town for a while and gotten to know more neighborhood kids, I started playing baseball with some of them in a vacant lot practically every day. I enjoyed that a lot more than the organized baseball. I got plenty of batting practice in those games, but our rule was not to throw full speed. We could only try to get people out with pitch location. Other than that it was like batting practice. I’m sure my batting eye and swing improved over time. I was comfortable hitting in those pickup games. Of course a real game with fast pitching and game pressure was something else.

Anyway, the Pony League game I’m going to talk about was one of those in which the other team only had eight players show up. As a coach, I’ve always hated those games and tried to make sure the game just got rescheduled before teams showed up at the field. That only works for anticipated absences though. Once the players, coaches, and umpires have arrived at the field, possibly for a night game which requires a lot of electricity for the lighting, it’s hard to just leave and reschedule. No, if one team is short and the other has more than it needs to field nine, the frequent solution is for the team with a surplus to lend a player to the other team for the night. On this night, I was that player. As a coach, I made it a point not to choose the worst player on the team as the automatic substitute for the other team, but that’s not the way it usually goes.

On this night long ago I was certainly being offered as a substitute because I was deemed by my coach (whose name and face even are lost to me, though I can remember those of my first-year coach) as the worst on our team. It was embarrassing, of course, to have that distinction, even though I imagine I was asked to volunteer and probably thanked for agreeing to. I was performing a service and I would definitely get to play the whole game this way. I can’t remember any details about the team switch; just the fact that it happened and that it was embarrassing. Nor can I remember anything about the game until the first time I came to bat.

So here I was on this night facing a pitcher named Bud, who was wearing the same uniform as I. I can’t be sure if I only remember one pitch or if it was in fact the first pitch I was thrown (as it seems) which I lined into right field for a clean single. I do remember it was very satisfying to be standing at first base, especially under the circumstances. I remember the coach of my temporary team saying “He wasn’t supposed to do that, was he?” to my regular coach.

The next thing that I remember distinctly is being on third base after that hit. I can’t recall the exact details of how I got from first to third base: some forgotten sequence of events drawn from the possibilities of hit, walk, error, and wild pitch. I just remember being on third when the batter took ball four to bring me home: yet another contribution I was about to make to this my adopted team-for-the-night.

As I proceed in my trot toward the plate, the catcher (my “real” team’s catcher) evidently decides to start playing psychological games with me. Or is he just having a little fun with a teammate? But he looks serious and irritated, as though I were rubbing it in that I was helping the other team. It’s not my fault. I’m just playing the game! He’s glaring at me and faking throws to third base. What’s the point of that?

Soon, but not soon enough to escape the terrible destiny Fate had prepared for me, I realized my situation. The bases had not been loaded! I could not walk home. The throw was made to the third baseman. I was tagged out. Shame and ignominy fell on me like heavy shrouds! The Earth did not open up to let me escape through an underground passageway, so I must have trotted to the dugout, but I have no memory of anything beyond the realization of my mistake, not of the tag nor of who was playing third. Did anyone on either team or any coach say anything to me? Did I bat again that night? Did I make any plays in the field? Who won the game? All of these details have been wiped clean from my memory.

All that remains is the humiliation of being the player given to the other team, the brief glow of satisfaction from my clean hit, and the anguish of comprehending my boneheaded mistake. Was there no third base coach? I suppose not. Did anyone suspect that I had deliberately made an out to help my real team? I would probably have preferred that to the felt certainty that everyone had clearly seen my mistake, one that a “real” player would never have made, so that in the commission of it I had thereby amply justified my selection as the giveaway player, my blunder having effaced that beautiful single. I don’t remember anything about the rest of the season, before or after that game. Just those few moments have survived. Such is the way of memory.

A Painful Christmas Blessing

Sunday, December 28th, 2008

Among the strong emotions that can make an event stick in the mind is that of shame, the intense recognition of one’s failings, especially that of selfishness, even when the shame is completely internal and private. One of my strongest such memories is associated with a short time after Christmas many years ago, when I was eight or nine years old.

My family was not well off back then, to say the least. We lived in a small Texas town in a small apartment, which was in one of only two clusters of apartments I know of in town, not counting a group of houses I mention below. We had one side of a single-storey structure, separated from two other apartments by a long hallway that ran the length of the house. We had the comparatively luxurious apartment, not only larger but with its own bathroom. The tenants in the apartments on the other side had to share a single bathroom in the hall. Despite our very modest dwelling place, I never thought of us as poor; this was just where we lived, and it seemed fine. There was one other apartment house of a similar design close by. The landlord’s house was on the corner, flanked by the two apartment houses, one on each of the intersecting streets.

Our family always had a Christmas tree: a very small tree, smaller than any that I see on tree lots these days. I can remember our having a tree on top of the radio (radios were big pieces of furniture back then), placed in the front window so people going by could see the colored lights. How big was the tree? I’m guessing it was about three feet tall, if that. When my sister and I were very young, any tree in the house that we decorated and put lights on was wonderful; but, as we grew a little older, we either saw pictures of bigger trees or encountered them in friends’ houses and began to complain about the small size of our trees and to beg for a bigger one. Whether from space or cost reasons, my parents did not buy one of the bigger trees; and the Christmas tree was no longer such a perfect source of joy. I suppose we were coming to sense our lowly status and suffer from it. We had made a fuss about the tree to the point of reducing everyone’s pleasure in having one.

Now, Charles, one of my best friends, had a paper route. He delivered the Fort Worth Press, an evening paper, which he was able to do after school. Charles was only a year older than I, as I recall. There were a few times that I went with him on his paper route, which took us through parts of town that were otherwise foreign to me. Among his subscribers were African-Americans in the section of town where the streets were far inferior to those in the rest of town. It felt a little funny to be going through the area in which all the residents were Black, though I don’t recall being afraid to do so. Somewhere by the railroad tracks was housing for railroad workers. These houses were painted in special colors that designated them as railroad-owned buildings. The first colors I remember were yellow with black trim, though that changed later to some other combination, I think green with red trim. The railroad workers tended to be Mexican-Americans. I knew that the families living in the railroad houses were poorer than mine.

Sometime after the Christmas that was marked by my sister’s and my complaints about the smallness of our Christmas tree, long enough after Christmas for it to seem well in the past, I had occasion to accompany Charles on his paper route. We paused among the railroad workers’ houses for Charles to throw a paper on one of the porches. Unexpectedly, there on that porch I beheld an object, evidently cast aside and waiting to be disposed of, the sight of which suddenly brought my deepest inner self to its knees in shame and guilt. It was the tiniest Christmas tree I have ever seen, less than half the size of the smallest my family had ever had. I could not imagine anyone would consider such a tiny thing as even a candidate Christmas tree. And yet, there it was, bearing witness to the fact that one family had made do with it, had likely found it a source of joy. Pitifully, pitifully small it was. And yet I had complained about having to do with so much more. I don’t know that I have ever felt more ashamed about anything. No, I didn’t run home to tell my mother I was sorry for my complaints. As always seems to be true for me in these cases of sudden soul-jarring experiences, I didn’t say anything about this to anyone at the time and have mentioned it only to an intimate few until now, partly, I suppose, because one’s shame is not something one likes to publicize.

What was the source of the shame? To what standard was I comparing myself and why? I don’t fully know the answer to that question. I imagine I may already have been somewhat conscious of how petty it had been of me to have lessened our family’s enjoyment of the marvelous custom of bringing a tree into the house to decorate for Christmas. Certainly my mother had always made a point of not letting us look down on anyone less fortunate than ourselves; and by making such an issue of the tree, I had been doing that without knowing it. In essence it was the comparison between my own petty behavior with what I imagined to be that of the poor family, and the consciousness of my ingratitude for what I had that shamed me. Before whom was I ashamed? My parents weren’t aware of it at all. So, it was before my own conscience, and in some sense before God that I was ashamed, though I don’t remember thinking of it in religious terms at the time.

It seems that feeling shame as the proper response was something innately obvious, like recognizing some very basic principle of arithmetic or logic. I had no choice in the matter, that’s for sure. Unfortunately, I did not become a saint as a result of the experience, since selfishness can take many forms and is very adept in its use of rationalization; but the rebuke I received from that tree may have spared me the worst tortures of covetousness. I don’t know that I can say that I’ve never envied anyone’s material possessions since that day, but I know that the vision of that pathetically small tree shamed me so deeply that it changed me; and I count it a true Christmas blessing. To me, that tiny little tree seems as emblematic of beautiful dignity in poverty as a baby lying in a manger.

Souvenirs of the Pacific War

Friday, December 12th, 2008

I was born during World War II, less than seven months after Pearl Harbor. For those as old as I, the name of the place is all that’s needed to specify the event, whose sixty-seventh anniversary just passed. The war was over before I was aware of very much beyond my extended family circle; it was nonetheless a dominant presence in my early life because everyone talked about it, and almost everyone’s father or uncles (my case) had served in the military. References to “during the war” were constant. A couple of my grade school chums had lost their fathers in the war. (Joe and Ronny, I never made any better friends, and I’m sorry we lost touch so long ago.)  I was fascinated by war, though of course without much understanding of it. I can remember, for example, asking my mother where the battlefield was, imagining that this word I’d heard must refer to a special place where soldiers and tanks and airplanes from warring countries went to fight, just as football teams met on a football field.

Even though my father had been 4F, I viewed fighting in a war as the natural goal of a male of our species, and I fervently hoped there would be one going on by the time I was old enough. About that 4F, the physical evaluation that meant he was unfit for military service, my father probably had mixed feelings. Although it had saved him from the risk of being killed in battle (and I have no idea how much he desired to serve his country militarily, as he had been called up in the draft), it must have made him feel uncomfortable knowing that his brothers were serving and that people probably looked at him and wondered what a young man with no obvious disability was doing out of uniform the whole war. I imagine he must have felt less a man to some degree.

The 4F decision came as the result of a urine test that showed an elevated sugar level. Although, much later, his mother would develop diabetes and die at a relatively young age because of it, my father never showed any symptoms of the disease that I am aware of. He seems to have thought the urine test was a false positive. Did he ever follow up on it with a doctor? I really don’t know. The impression I got was that he felt it was a mistake, verging on an injustice, with the implication that it was an irrevocable mistake, though I would think if he were determined enough he might have had the decision reversed should he have been able to present test results that contradicted the one from the induction line. Bureaucracy is hard to overcome though. I remember  my father recounting how the doctor had been stubbornly adamant, saying my father would require a special diet, which was impossible in the military. He had probably had to tell that story many times during the course of the war.

Perhaps the doctor liked to spare some men. Assuming my father was not one of those called up in the early lottery-selected group before the US was officially at war, then I was already either born or on the way by the time my father was drafted, which, if the doctor was aware of the fact, might have influenced his decision on a borderline reading. I should add that I never really asked my father for details about how it all happened, so exactly how he responded at the time and what he thought about it are unknown to me. I know he had a great deal of respect for those who had served in the war and would never have been a draft dodger.

One of those who did go to war was my Uncle Bryant, my mother’s sister’s husband, who had been taken by the US Army out of rural Northeast Texas and sent to fight the Japanese in the Pacific. I first became aware of his existence, at least as I remember it and while he was still in the Army, when I tasted for the first time the candy my grandmother called Divinity. Although I didn’t know the meaning of the word, and it was my first time hearing it, I would have concurred in the choice of a transcendent word to denote that candy. My grandmother had made some to send to my uncle “overseas,” and I was fortunate enough to have been there during the candy making to get my share. Forever after, I’ve associated divinity candy with my uncle, so I’m sure my memory is true.

There was at my aunt’s and grandparents’ (they lived in the same big old house in the country) a bird dog named Wewak (called Wacky) after the place in New Guinea where my uncle was. I may be wrong, but my memory is that the dog was there before my uncle came back from the war. My uncle was a quail hunter, so he put bird dogs to good use, and the dog might have been obtained in anticipation of and as promise of his safe return, as well as for the companionship. In any case, the awareness of someone important being absent because of the War was no doubt one of the first ways I came to know that the War, whatever that meant, was in progress.

It’s very unlikely that I was really there for Uncle Bryant’s homecoming, but I think that in my childish understanding of things, I took the first time I saw him as the day he returned from the War. Pictures of him wearing his uniform have made me imagine seeing him arrive in it. Or perhaps it’s a real memory.

Uncle Bryant was every child’s favorite person pretty much. No use to restrict it to children, he was probably the best-liked man in the county, esteemed by Black and White alike as a friendly, fair, and compassionate man, outgoing and giving of himself to a degree far beyond the norm of humankind. I’d have to say he was the best man I’ve ever known.

He had been a supply sergeant in the Army, so he was not carrying a rifle most of the time, but he lived amidst death nonetheless. He brought home a few war souvenirs. The most impressive was a Japanese officer’s sword. It had a push-button release mechanism to allow the sword to be removed from its sheath. So many times I have unsheathed that sword and held it high! There were also photographs. The women of New Guinea went around bare-breasted we saw. That was novel and amusing.

There was also an item taken from the body of a Japanese soldier: a black and white photo, as almost all were then, of a pretty, smiling, young woman and one or two young children. Strain as I might, I can’t make the children out across the years, though I know that there was at least one child and probably two. I can’t quite see the face of the young wife in my mind’s eye, but my heart sees her well enough.

My uncle had thought it noteworthy that the “Jap” soldier had carried a picture of his family just as “we” did. It was almost as if he were pointing out another unexpected cultural trait, like the attire of the New Guinea women, only this time one that was surprisingly the same as ours rather than different. It was another interesting thing to know. This was certainly no solemn lesson, nor was any moral teaching meant, as far as I know. I think my uncle was passing on important information which had struck him, perhaps as a discovery—information about our shared humanity with this enemy of a different race, portrayed to us only as cruel and treacherous.

My family visited my grandparents’ home, where the war souvenirs were, during school vacations. Those objects from that enormously important thing called The War and the distant place called the Pacific, where there were names like Wewak, had a great prestige for me as items in a private museum collection and as proof that my uncle had truly been involved in The War, where some men with Asian features had carried swords in battle. For years, I would always ask to see them again soon after we arrived for a visit.

I don’t know if it happened the first time I saw the dead soldier’s family photo or not, but during one of these examinations of the war souvenirs, probably when I was four or five years old, in one of those moments of epiphany that I’m realizing I must be prone to (or should I say I’ve been blessed with?), I came to see war permanently in a different way. My mind was jarred by the recognition that this was a picture of a real woman, who had lost her husband, and of her young children, who had lost their father; and I felt a great pity for them and for the man who must have treasured the images, now transported so far from the place in which they had been captured. The “Japs” were real people who had families, suffered, and, most importantly, felt love for one another. The soldiers looked at pictures of loved ones and longed for them. When they were killed, families grieved. I had understood none of this before. War was not the simple grand game I had imagined. This new knowledge, deep as it was, didn’t totally replace my idea of war and the enemy, but it revealed another reality to exist side-by-side with the romantic and heroic picture of battle, a reality in which dead bodies, rather than being a way of keeping score, recorded tragedy and grief. I wondered what had become of the young woman and the children.

The fate of the Japanese soldier’s family during the war could have been as bad as his, of course. For all I know they perished in a Tokyo firestorm or the nuclear bombings that ended the war. Otherwise, the kids, if they still survive, are a few years older than I, which means pretty old. Damn old. I hope they got through their trials all right, and I wish there were some way I could meet them; and, in a sense, be reunited with them.

The Second Most Important Event in My Life

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

Excluding from consideration my birth, the two most important events in my life have been moments in which I have suddenly and for the first time become fully aware of something fundamental and wonderful about reality which has permanently changed my perception of the world. The first of these (second in importance) occurred when I was sixteen years old, some forty years before the other (which was, I now see, actually the long-delayed completion of the first). This event from my high school days was not connected with any notable historical event or outwardly impressive occurrence. It was personal and internal, purely intellectual and unaided by any drug; and it affected the future course of my life in manifold ways.

There have of course been key events involving people and personal relations in my life which have determined the unique details of it, including those most important ones—in regard to earthly happiness—of wife and offspring; but none of these events, even those that seem to have been ordained by benevolent providence, changed my basic understanding of the world in the way the two I’ve called most important did.

The dramatic (though secret at the time) change I am writing about today occurred early in the fall semester of my junior year when I was one of a group of students gathered around our physics teacher’s desk at the front of the classroom. We were there to watch our teacher (then, I believe, in her second year at our school), a young woman, imposing by virtue of both her appearance and intellect, go through a physics demonstration.

That I was taking physics that year as a junior was pretty much an accident. I can’t recall if this was usual or not, but I clearly remember that my father had helped guide my decisions on which courses to take that year. He had recommended that I take physics. I think the idea was to get a hard course out of the way before the other hard courses that would be coming up my senior year. Whatever the reasoning, I had written physics in, and no one had suggested I switch, though somehow everyone else seemed to know that the standard path was to take chemistry in the junior year followed by physics the next. I remember being surprised to discover on the first day of school that all the other students in the class were seniors with whom I had never taken a class before.

Anyway, once I had signed up for physics, I remember expressing my dread of it. It wasn’t that I didn’t like natural science; I was very interested in biology, mainly from my fascination with the diversity of life. I was also interested in the stars, solar system, and planets. But I just didn’t like the sound of physics, about which I had somewhere obtained the vague notion that it dealt with how machines worked. Machines were neither alive nor celestial, and I think I held their being man-made and functional against them. From all I can remember, I seem to have had no idea that physics was a quantitative, as opposed to a merely descriptive, science; and I don’t think that concept even existed in my mind.

I recall a fellow student trying to sell physics to me as a great way of increasing my understanding of how automobiles worked. However, I really had no interest in the actual workings of any machines, including those most highly esteemed ones around which social life and status in our high school revolved. I had had to learn a certain amount about how cars worked, or at least the terminology used in discussing modifications for speed, just to avoid being seen as irredeemably ignorant in the most important area of knowledge (at least of those unrelated to sexual matters) in the male adolescent culture of my group. But when that fellow student tried to convince me that physics would be valuable because of the insight it would give me into the internal combustion engine, it only made my heart sink lower at the thought of having to endure a year of such boring stuff. Even accounting might have been more attractive.

Before I go on, let me briefly sketch what kind of place I was in emotionally, academically, and socially. The central fact of my life and that of my family was that my father was an alcoholic on the way down. That affected our family in numerous negative ways that anyone can easily imagine. For my mother, my sister near me in age, and me, it meant a good deal of anger, embarrassment, shame, stress, fear, worry, and resentment; which is not to say that we never shared good times with my father (for example the choosing of courses I mentioned), just that we could not depend on him for anything; and the bad times were frequent.

A few years earlier I had fallen in with a group of boys, among the leaders of which were a couple (one of whom I considered a good friend) that had an antisocial streak, which I didn’t share but which I was too weak to reproach or reject. It was a good feeling to have a group to “run around with,” and I enjoyed a greater status being with these kids than I had felt before, having come to this town in the seventh grade and found myself lacking the friends or standing I might have acquired in elementary school.

As a result of some thrill-seeking (for them, not me) illegal acts with my companions, I had gotten into a little trouble with the law also (hinted at in Times I Might Have Died). My milieu was basically a semi-delinquent one that overlapped with that of kids that had already dropped out of school and who carried switchblades. My companions liked to go looking for fights (which I hoped we wouldn’t find) and drive fast. We all smoked cigarettes, and we regularly found ways to purchase beer illegally, so that I may have been placing myself in danger of following my father down the path to alcoholism.

The year before I had skipped school many days. For example, in those days when World Series games were played during the daytime, I hadn’t missed watching a single one on television though the series went to seven games. My fellow baseball-watching friends and I got caught for that and made a short gesture toward running away from home to avoid facing the consequences. To my shame, I reflect that none of the others finished school, lacking the academic capital to fall back on that I had.

I was in no danger of flunking out of school, but my grades were not great, certainly not what they should have been; and I had been something of a class comic going back to the second grade, partly as a way to gain respect as one willing to go against authority, risk punishment, and take it like a man when it came in the form of getting “busted,” as we called paddling. I had decided it was time to get serious about school and had definitely ruled out getting involved in any illegal activity (with the exception of alcohol possession), but I was still without any real purpose or idea about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I had no girl friend and had trouble envisioning that situation changing. To say I was not a happy lad, would be an understatement.

As I try now to remember back fifty years, I wish I could see my old physics text to see what subjects came first in it, so I could tell if we had gone through other topics before coming to the way the pressure in a fluid depends on the depth; for that was the subject of the demonstration on this momentous day. It may have been the very first thing we dealt with in that class, though I have a feeling it was not. I can’t remember if this was the first classroom demonstration.

Physics demonstrations can be quite dramatic, and there are high school teachers and college professors who go to a lot of effort to make entertaining shows for students out of them. These demonstrations can have a certain magic show quality, as things can occur that go against the students’ expectations, sometimes accompanied by impressive sounds and visual displays.

The physics demonstration I was to witness that day was not of that dramatic type. It might even be the most boring of all physics demonstrations, as it is merely a series of measurements, with no motion or visible phenomena occurring, except for the adjustment of the measuring device to the different conditions. Nothing visibly exciting happens in the statics of fluids.

How I wish I could remember in detail the actual steps my teacher went through in the demonstration! But those are lost forever. I can only remember what the demonstration was about, but not what the apparatus looked like in detail. The demonstration was designed to show how the pressure in a fluid depends on the depth below its surface. The specific details are not really important in the context of the story. The apparatus must have consisted of a manometer for measuring pressure differentials, a flexible tube to connect one side of the manometer to a means of probing the pressure under water, and a vessel containing water.

Here is a plausible guess at the steps I must have witnessed my teacher carrying out. The teacher lowered the probe into the water, and we saw the fluid in the manometer adjust to the new pressure it was experiencing on the side connected to the probe. The fluid level in the manometer column on the probe side went down, and that on the other side went up. My teacher recorded the difference in the two levels, which is a measure of the pressure in the water, and also recorded the depth in the water at which it had been observed.

She moved the probe lower into the water tank, and we saw the manometer fluid levels respond once more, this time with a greater difference between them. My teacher recorded the new pressure and depth and went on to repeat the procedure at several more depths in the water. Then she made a graph of the measured pressure versus the depth, to show that the points traced out a straight line. She thus showed us that the measured pressure p followed a simple formula: p = constant • h, where h is the depth. It was the same linear relationship that we had in our books.

Alternatively (and, as I’ve said, I don’t remember), she may have started with the equation we had in the textbook and for each depth calculated a predicted pressure measurement, which she would then compare to the actual measurement to show that it was very nearly the same.

Whatever procedure she followed, she certainly had my full attention and could not have made a more successful demonstration from my perspective. Thank you, Virginia Rawlins, dear first physics teacher!

What had I seen? Changing the depth of the probe had caused the manometer fluid levels to change, and to change in a very precise way. The measured values of the real-world quantities of pressure and depth were related through a simple algebraic equation in the abstract world of mathematics. As I pondered what was being demonstrated to me, my mind’s eye must have looked back and forth from the physical to the mathematical. From the real to the abstract back to the real. From the predicted to the measured back to the predicted. What is going on? There is new and important information here, but I can’t tell what it means.

I suppose only a few milliseconds elapsed between the powerful seismic disturbance, which must have occurred deep beneath the surface of my consciousness, and the resulting tsunami of revelation that slammed into my conscious mind and swept away its previous view of the world, now revealed to have been pathetically inadequate.

I remember that I walked back to my desk totally stunned by that first look into the deep mathematical order of the physical world. I knew I was in my physics class, but everything and everyone around me seemed distant, muted, and temporarily irrelevant, as my mind worked on reconstructing its view of reality.

Here was a mystery deeper than any I could have imagined; and a power greater—the ability to know what a physical measurement was going to be before it had been made! The physical measurements I had seen carried out in the real world with real physical objects and fluids had been written down and the corresponding numbers shown to fit almost perfectly with a particular relationship that existed only in an abstract world having no connection with the physical one I lived in. Or so I had thought until that moment. This unexpected, undreamt of connection between those two independent worlds—one the physical world as I haphazardly experienced it, the other a precise realm that existed only on paper and in people’s heads—was the most astounding fact I had ever encountered.

The world was describable by mathematics! I had to know all about it! I had to learn all the physics there was. At first I assumed everything to be known had already been discovered; that it was just a matter of learning it. While it was a disappointment to find out that not everything was known, it also meant there was still an opportunity to help finish the job. As soon as I heard about relativity and quantum physics I wanted to know why we weren’t learning them, not realizing that would require math and physics far beyond what I knew.

Later that year, when my mother and I visited the physics classroom during the school open house night, my teacher said to me “Bobby, we’ve got to get you a scholarship,” and to my mother “He’s the most brilliant junior student I’ve ever had.” Now, for all I know my teacher had never had a single junior physics student before, but it filled me with joy to hear her words, as I had had no idea she thought so highly of my abilities. Now I knew for sure what my next step in life was going to be. I was going to major in physics in college and go as far as I could with it. Thank you again, Mrs. Rawlins!

This personal discovery of my passion in life and my teacher’s encouragement gave me a new focus and goal. I decided I needed to make all A’s from then on and almost did. With the help of (in retrospect, almost laughably small) student loans and family support, I found a way to pay for college, which was pretty cheap at the University of Texas back in those days, and successfully got physics and math degrees there. I fulfilled a dream by going on to get my PhD in Physics from the University of California at Berkeley. I imagine I will write more about my experiences both as a physics student and a physicist later. There are a couple of posts already here about my time in Berkeley.

Looking back at how adrift I was at the beginning of my junior year in high school, I can say that my discovery of physics may have saved me. I never said anything about my experience to my teacher or anyone else back then that I recall. It was personal, possibly a little crazy-sounding, and ultimately incommunicable. A number of questions have arisen in my mind during the course of my writing about that life-changing experience of long ago. Why me? Why then? Why with such suddenness? Maybe I’ll return to them at a later date.

From my current outlook on the world, I believe that what was so stunning about the universe’s being describable by mathematical laws was that it hinted at the Divine Intelligence behind that mysterious order. I did not make that connection at the time, however, and instead came to adopt the viewpoint that the perfection of physical laws governing the universe (as I would have put it) only showed the superfluousness of the God concept. Now I view my recognition of the beautiful mystery and power of physics as a gift from God which launched me on a trajectory that led eventually to my recognition of God’s existence some forty years later.

Times I Might Have Died

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

I have not lived a life fraught with peril. I have never been in combat, nor have I been attracted to dangerous activities such as mountain climbing or sky diving, which others find recreational. The physics jobs I had were not dangerous. I was on one demonstration where a man was shot to death by the police, but I was not even aware of it when it happened. Yet, there have been a few moments in my life which have left a lasting taste of possible fatality.

This is not going to be an all-inclusive account. The one serious car accident I was in is not going to be dealt with here. Instead I am going to talk about three times when I was lucky, and nothing serious happened. Yet the thought of those times makes me realize that I’m alive through luck or providence, and thinking about them gives me an uneasy feeling, a bit like having to go through them again. What a short life it would have been! The three incidents have in common the hurtling toward a road, with the danger of death coming at the road. The scenes seem well suited for appearing in a nightmare, and I suppose that may be what makes them so vivid and gives them their lasting power to evoke fear.

The first of these times was when I was quite young, probably eight. To my shame at the time, I was one of the last among my peers to learn how to ride a bicycle. But I got one for Christmas, and I mastered bicycle riding pretty quickly after that. To be more precise, I mastered the balance and pedaling part. I didn’t get braking. This was an old “balloon tire” American bike without hand brakes. To brake such a bike one has to apply pressure to one of the pedals in the sense opposite to that which propels the bike forward. I understood there was something different about the pedal work to brake, just not what. Instead of standing up and applying the back pressure on one pedal, as I had observed others doing, I stood and applied pressure to both pedals, one in one sense and the other in the other, so that I just balanced them and might as well have taken both feet off the pedals. It was coasting, not braking.

I think I knew that method wasn’t quite right, but it resembled what the others were doing to brake. I remember that when I needed to stop, I would run off the sidewalk into the grass to help me slow down, then dismount while the bike was still rolling to pull it to a stop. I was not thinking this through or verifying stopping power. I guess I basically thought I knew how to brake the bicycle just from the looks of things without analyzing the actual effect. It never occurred to me to ask anyone, adult or child, to show me how to brake.

Highway 80 ran right through my small hometown as broad, red-bricked Main Street, whose surface, I remember, seemed especially hot to our bare feet in the summer. This was the busiest street in Eastland, Texas. Given our theme of luck and fate, it’s perhaps worth mentioning that Eastland was named after an early Texas Ranger, William Mosby Eastland, honored for a brave death as the first to draw a black bean, fatal in the “lottery of death” ordered by the Mexican dictator Santa Anna in 1842 to determine which prisoners were to be executed after an escape attempt.

One day I was out riding my bike by myself and rode up by the high school, which was on a hill above Main Street. I rode along the street that went past the high school parallel to Main St. then turned to go down the steep hill, intending to turn right on Main as part of my loop back home. I don’t remember if I picked up extra speed by pedaling downhill, or if my acceleration was strictly due to gravity, but I know that I was going fast as I came to Main Street. Of course, any attempt at braking with my method could do nothing to slow me down.

This is naturally the part of the journey that gives me that uneasy feeling and makes me want to ward off the memory even as I call it up today. I was trying to make the right turn, but I was moving much too fast for that, and I was moving so fast that a driver in a car approaching that intersection would have had little warning time to try to stop. Unable to slow down, I might as well have shut my eyes and trusted God or Fate to get me safely across. I crossed Main Street at an angle, unscathed, then hit the curb on the other side of the street and went on up it.

Embarrassment now became stronger than fear. There must have been people around that had seen me hit the curb. I tried to give the appearance that that had been my intent all along by continuing to turn to the right so as to ride on the sidewalk alongside Main Street. But I was still going too fast to do that either. I ran into a low stone wall, which finally stopped the bike. More embarrassment. I wasn’t hurt; and the bike, though dented, was still rideable. I can’t remember if I walked it home or rode it. It would have been sufficiently uphill for safe riding.

Eight-year-olds do get killed in bike accidents, and I could have been one of them. In those days, I might add, a kid would have been as likely to wear water wings as a helmet when riding a bicycle. I don’t remember telling my parents about the accident, and I don’t remember when I learned how to brake my bike. The accident did teach me not to go down steep hills until I had mastered stopping. Rest assured that I made sure my own helmeted children learned to brake before they went very far on their bikes.

The next time that sticks in my mind was when I was fifteen living in Garland, Texas. My friends and I would ride around in a car almost every evening. This was a Saturday night, and we were out late. It was one of the rare times when I had gotten our family Ford and was the driver for the night. There were five of us, all fifteen or sixteen years old. It was well after midnight, perhaps as late as 2 am, and we were in a heavy rainstorm. Without going into the details here, suffice it to say that we were being chased by a determined adult in a pickup who had good reason, relating to certain decorative auto accessories recently in his possession, to be chasing us. The consequences of his catching us might be physically dangerous, for all we knew, and would likely involve trouble with the law (and of course our parents) for us. It was a living nightmare: I was responsible for making sure we didn’t get caught.

The windshield wipers on the car were of the type that completely stopped working whenever you accelerated, which meant a lot of driving blind, given the circumstances of the heavy rain and frequent acceleration. We were sliding around like crazy, fishtailing as we turned corners on the slippery streets. The part I remember most vividly is our approach to a major thoroughfare we would have to cross. The chances of a car coming down that street were much lower so late at night than during regular hours, but still not zero. There might be some other speeding teenagers! Before we came to the street someone shouted “Don’t slow down!” so I flew across the street without slowing or looking. The street had been empty; we had won that round of automotive Russian roulette. Soon after that, however, we realized we were not going to shake the guy anyway, so that we had better stop and throw ourselves at his mercy.

Playing the mental tape of the approach to that intersection at full speed gives me the same quasi-panicky feeling as remembering that uncontrolled street-crossing on the bicycle years before and makes me want to put my hands out in front of me to stop it. The difference between the two times, during the actual events, was that I remember being scared of a crash at the time I crossed the street in the car. I was conscious of the possibility that I might be in my last seconds of life. Now I wonder what in the hell were a bunch of kids that young doing out that late in a car? That was the fifties in Texas.

The third incident occurred sometime later while I was in high school. Near the town I lived in there was a 3M plant. Next to the plant was a street that mainly served as a way for workers at the plant to enter the plant parking lot. The street, which was probably less than half a mile long, ran between a major street and what amounted to a country road. It was straight and wide and had very little traffic except when workers were coming to work or leaving. The 3M plant was on one side of this street, and the fenced backyards of houses that faced away from the street were on the other. This broad side street was regularly used as a drag strip by area teenagers, illegally of course.

A drag strip needs to be a quarter of a mile long plus sufficient additional track length to enable the racers to stop or slow down enough to turn after crossing the finish line. The object of a drag race is to accelerate from a complete stop to the quarter-mile line in the fastest time. Improvised drag races along the 3M strip were head-to-head matches between two cars that raced side by side for a quarter-mile. I don’t recall what landmarks were used for the start and finish lines, but I assume there must have been some. One kid would stand in the middle of the street in front of the two cars and signal the start of the race with a dramatic gesture. The cars would accelerate to the finish line and then start braking because the street’s end was not far ahead. Even beyond the obvious danger of speeding, each race would have been something of a gamble, as the street was not marked as being one way, so an unlucky driver could have turned onto the drag strip from the country road to meet a speeding car head-on. Drag races were usually late at night when that danger was minimized. In addition to accommodating two-car races, the 3M road provided a place to see what speed your car could reach in a quarter of a mile.

I don’t remember any of the circumstances of the next event beyond the fact that I was once again driving the family Ford and that I had two passengers in the front seat beside me, Bobby and Jim. Bobby was a year ahead of me, Jim in my class. I recall that it was broad daylight, most likely on a Sunday. Probably at their urging, I drove to the 3M “drag strip” to see what the car could do in a quarter. I should mention again that I didn’t drive all that much, usually relying on one of the other members of our group to get his family car or, in the case of a couple of them, drive his own personal car, to cruise around in. I really didn’t share my friends’ fascination with cars and speed. Somehow I had ended up running around with a certain group, starting with a couple from my neighborhood, despite my not feeling a very deep connection with them or sharing their tastes and opinions on much of anything except music and sports. It did provide me with a group identity, something to do, and a certain status, since a couple of the group were known as being very tough in a fight.

Anyway, there I was at the wheel of our Ford, ready to make a test run. The car had an automatic transmission. I revved the engine up, while holding the brake down with my left foot. The back wheels spun slowly, squealing a little, but without propelling the car forward until I took my foot off the brake and the car surged forward “burning rubber.” There was no gear shifting required on my part; all I had to do was keep that gas pedal on the floor as we raced up the strip, checking the speedometer to see what speed we’d reach in the quarter. I believe it was about eighty miles an hour. We continued speeding on. On down the straight road, pedal on the floor. I must have seemed transfixed.

“Bob! Bob! Shut off!” Jim’s voice broke through to my blanked-out mind to alert me to the reality of the danger we were in, as we rushed toward the road at the end of the street. I don’t remember what was on the other side of the road, probably a ditch and a barbed-wire fence, but we would not have wanted to go flying into it at ninety miles an hour. I managed to slow the car down, without a panic stop, just enough to make the turn onto the road. Fortunately, there wasn’t a car on the country road approaching the intersection at the same time.

I don’t know what was actually in Bobby’s mind, but he was merciless in ridiculing Jim for having been so afraid as to cry out. I was still in a daze, weak with relief and residual fear, realizing how close we had come to a terrible crash. I didn’t join in Bobby’s razzing of Jim, but I also didn’t let on that we had been in danger because of my freezing at the wheel. And I never thanked Jim. I was weak, and in my weakness I didn’t want to acknowledge weakness. I haven’t seen Jim in close to fifty years.

Jim Allen, I hope you have had a good and interesting life, which you are still enjoying. Thank you for speaking up that day when seconds truly mattered.