Monday, February 24, 2014

The Adventures of a Babe in Toyland: Retrospective of a Societal Microcosm - Ages Zero Through Seven

As I have trudged the winding road of my life, many people have asked me why I am such an ass-hole. Let this be my reply.

It all started in the year of our Lord, one thousand, fifty-three when I had the misfortune (or otherwise depending on POV) of being hatched in a cabbage patch (or so I was told). Everything was hunky-dory in my personal Dreamtime, because I did nothing but demand the complete attention of those other outside BIG beings that attended to my needs. Then about five years later I became aware that I was NOT the center of this, my universe. No, I shared this extraordinary realm with beings that looked like me, although they came in assorted shapes and sizes. I also discovered bugs, which to my immense pleasure entertained me far more than the variety of human species. Bugs made me smile. Humans made me frown. I also became conscious of a sense of wonder about my environment. It was HUGE and I was so very little. I was in IT and IT surrounded me. I discovered dichotomy, polarity, and duality and was able to make comparisons. Heavy shit for a five-year-old.

Also, about this time, I heard two “voices” that were not made by the immediate humans who inhabited this space along with me. No. These “voices” were coming from points just above my head and near my right shoulder, approximately one foot away and they were male. These voices revealed seemingly contradictory information. The “head” voice was sternly letting me know the outcome of a particular habit that I had developed and the “shoulder” voice informed me that it didn’t make much difference whether I continued the action or not. Both voices used a vocabulary that I did not understand, but the “shoulder” voice made more sense. I never heard from them again. Really heavy shit for a six-year-old!

From that point on, my life went on like a movie show, reel changes coming at fairly expected intervals. I began school, REAL school—first grade in fact. I had finished kindergarten in St. Louis, Missouri and started first grade in Aurora, Colorado. Okay, I have to admit it was not the usual reel change. Yet, it definitely was a REAL change in my small life.

This missive is about school and my experiences with the educational system of post-War America. School is a microcosm of the so-called “real” world. I observed all of these incidents as if from the outside looking in. Except for the occasional pummeling from bullies or my father, I kept a fairly adequate objectivity. Although, pain has a tendency to immerse one’s self into the real reality. My reason for the preamble that you have just read is to illustrate that my objectivity was a bit tainted from previous perceptual preconceptions; i.e., my unusual frame of reference.

I had my “child’s garden” when I had lived in St. Louis. To be more accurate, I attended school in Wellston, Missouri, a suburban city-within-a-city. I have no remembrances of being afraid upon my initiatory entry into the grand two-story solid brick edifice during the year of nineteen fifty-eight. What I do recall is; how to drink a half-pint of cold milk quickly, before it became warm, how to lie down upon a plastic mattress and meditate to Brahms, how to make a balloon on a stick for John Lennon’s favorite digit, how to share and feel empathy, and how to come home when school let out…immediately.

Kindergarten was where I became a social unit in harmony with others. I encountered within me a sensation of stomach drop, akin to what one would feel of falling or on an elevator’s sudden plummet. This sensation would appear as I witnessed a fellow child becoming hurt and in pain. It did not occur when they cried for a stolen toy or spilt finger paint. I later realized that I had experienced a form of physical empathy. To my consternation, then as now, this feeling has never left me. I write “consternation”, but not “dismay”, for although I do not enjoy the experience, I know now that it is something to be cultivated, if I wish to understand my brother and sister human being…Homo sapiens sapiens.

This impression of philadelphos led to my becoming friends with a neat kid named Charles, and Charles was as excited about the coming space race, as I was. We played astronaut on the jungle gym, sometimes attempting to chase the other kids away—who ignored us—so that Charles and I could gain the upper reaches of the playground structure and have our very own cockpit. I was increasingly amplifying my imaginative thought processing. Due to our inability to achieve our goal, one-day we decided to stay after class and have the “monkey bars” all to ourselves. Our friendship and shared imagination was all consuming and afternoon too quickly changed into evening with the arrival of my father, who by then was not amused. I learned that hierarchical dominance was to be given complete attention. I whipped me rather severely. This put a damper on my friendship with Charles and any ideas of mine of exploring my universe without adult supervision for at least a year. All in all my kindergarten adventure was very productive. I highly recommend this form of early childhood education. I wish that the rest of my academic careening had been as much fun.

I learned to read in first grade and to do so silently. The book of curricular choice was Fun with Dick and Jane. Wow! I thought to myself. I wish I had friends like Dick and Jane and Sally and Spot and whatever that kitten’s name had been…Fluffy? And, I wished that I had a mom and dad just like those kids did, too. As I read, I’d peek around to determine what the other kids were up to. Did they read with their lips moving like I did, or out loud as I did not do? I learned social awareness expressed in comparison with my peers. So far, the only thing that the elementary school had given me was the book and lunch. Therefore, I developed a fantasy life. I was hooked on books forever more. I was on the fast track to becoming an ass hole.

Elementary school is a class system graduated upon age. Everyone knows this and suffers from it to this very day. One day, this social stratification was upended when a student from Mexico came to our class and stayed. He was ten years old and knew little English, but he could make a really nifty gun with his hand. He used TWO fingers for the barrel and said, “Pow-pow!” Not, the usual “bang-bang” or the index fingered barrel as we typical USA kids had been doing. His name was José, he always smiled and when he was with us on the playground, I never once had an encounter with a bully. I thought that he was the neatest kid I had ever met. I learned to say, si, gracias, amigo and pow-pow. I was becoming multi-cultural and class indeterminate. Only in America!

One must remember that this was in the time of President Eisenhower and the country was slowly coming out of the post-War economic doldrums. My school had recently been built in the modern brick façade, one-story, small window category that used tons of hydrocarbons to keep it warm in the Colorado winter. Of course, this was beyond my pay grade at the time. I was not aware of the physical plant and the maintenance of it, as I am now. I did “see” a janitor now and then, but he (they were stereotypically “he”) was faceless and therefore rendered unmemorable. This also applied to the kitchen staff, unless one wished a second helping of mashed potatoes. The only important people in my academic life were the teachers and the principal (who was God and the devil rolled into one). I had learned of the anonymity of the service sector and the hierarchy of rulers. I had already understood the tyranny of leadership from my service-retired father, so I knew when to jump and how high. I was rolling right along, educationally speaking. I made it out of first grade and my father made it out of Aurora. I started second grade in Denver.

So far, I had been to three different schools and I was only seven years old. I was an academic pro by then. Plus, I had become a good judge of character—at least little kid character—and knew when to hold, fold or run away. This is about the time I needed glasses or my educational career would be completely ruined. Some enterprising member of my new school’s administration, in consultation with my new schoolteacher, came to the conclusion that my grades might be slipping due to my inability to see the blackboard. Voilà! Mr. Holmes would have been very proud. Also, I was having trouble following instruction and was sent (with parental permission) to a social worker, much to the chagrin of the aforesaid parental. Whispers around me from these savants of early childhood education suggested that I might be having “problems at home”. My father insisted that this could not be the case, with a shaking fist in my face. I went alone by bus, into downtown Denver. When I arrived at the building, I looked at inkblots and put puzzles together, talked with a very nice man in a tie and was sent home. I had ascertained my psycho/social relationship with the predominate culture. I never told him that I hated my glasses, because they were the mark of Cain, as far as I was concerned. This was parentally verboten, too.  I totally knew that from then on, I’d get my ass whipped quite often and called “Four eyes!” Therefore, I developed an almost sixth sense for ally identification and a wicked sense of humor. Hey! I had to protect my scrawny ass one way or another and I chose both. I became an adapter.

I went halfway through my new school, then Dad dragged me out and I went to a new-new school in the Rocky Mountains. Idaho Springs to be exact. Had a great time. Even became a Cub Scout, an extra-curricular branch of modern American education where I learned uniform conformity. It was in this sleepy, tiny locale of a once bustling silver/gold boomtown (that happened to be next to the innovative Interstate 70 highway and not far from the dynamite and earthmovers of the Eisenhower Tunnel construction project) that big screen motion pictures revealed themselves to me. Wow! Now, I could envision the outside world beyond my immediate ken. I saw my first 3-D movie there, The Mask. Unfortunately, I saw it all alone and had to go back home, all alone, then go to sleep, all alone, and it had scared the living shit out of me! I understood real fear for the first time, a fear that was not only of MY imagination, but a fear instilled within me from an ethereal flickering fuzzy tri-dimensional source. Not fear as a lion or tiger, REAL kinds of fear, but something brand spanking new that invaded my small world paradigm. I had to endure it all by myself with a paper bag of chocolate-malted balls…Leaf Brand, if I remember correctly. I had found out the utility of using chemicals to modify my brain chemistry in order to “deal” with uncontrollable events. Similar to drug addiction causation. I was well on my way to becoming a “normal” fucked-up American.
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My dad and I lived on Main Street; at least I remembered it as Main Street. From recently inspecting maps of the area, I may have lived on Colorado Blvd. or Miner St. I was only seven at the time and it was many moons ago, so my recall is a little bit weak. I do remember that it was also called US 40. We lived on the second floor of a very old brick building that used to be someone’s house and sometime later was divided into apartments—up and down. There was a small kitchen just inside the front entry at the top of a narrow stairway and a large bedroom off the kitchen that we shared. Dad had invested into a bar with some man that I never met before, which was why we had moved there. I walked to school and it wasn’t too far, five or six blocks or so west of the apartment and I always walked past the bar on the way to school. The school and the bar had names, but both escape me now. About the same distance away, toward the east were the drug store and the movie theater, they had unremembered titles as well.

In this school I learned many new concepts and ideas. The most familiar idea that I remember learning was about the “Indians” of the Southwest. Of course, now we know them as native Americans or the indigenous peoples. But in nineteen-sixty they were Indians. Since Colorado was home primarily to the Utes on the Western Slope and the Arapaho on the Eastern Slope, we studied the Navajo. We got to do sand paintings and made clumsy pots out of ropes of terra cotta, watched slides and read our textbook out loud to the class. That’s about all I can remember. I must have learned some arithmetic, yet it is absent. I should have learned some English grammar, but this draws a blank. I was very interested in science, but nothing lingers in my mind. Nothing but Indians and orange juice popsicles is present in my memories. I learned to make and desire orange-juice popsicles. Our class had special deep molds for the juice. I also learned to use a straw for the half-pint milk carton. I had always opened up the little spout in first grade, but in second I discovered a new type of carton, one that had a foil covered hole on the top and that came with a straw attached. The straw was shaped into a point on one end and I jammed it into the foil, on through and down into the carton.

What I seemed to have learned must have been very subliminal and may reside deeply in my sub-conscious, because I have such miniscule memories of the experience, yet I do know that most of my education was freely given to me, but outside the classroom environment. I remember a whole lot of that. Since this a treatise on formal education, I feel obligated to leave this extracurricular activity to the side, although it is very telling of the inadequacy of the system of education in Colorado at that time. It seems a shame, too. I had great adventures and fun, which if you really think about it is the preferable method of actually learning anything substantial that will withstand the erosion of time.

One fine late Autumn day, my dad’s partner ran off with the cash box and we had to move away, back toward the metropolis of Denver, so he could get a job. Somewhere around this time, he also picked up a woman named Suzie. It was almost as if she had been a misplaced marionette and was lying around in a dark closet, then after rooting around, Dad had rescued her, brought her to Pinocchio status and helped her to set up house with us. One day she was not there, then one day she was. She stayed with us for about five years. She wasn’t a replacement for my mom, still alive and living back in St. Louis, but I liked her and she liked me. This was the third appearance of a post-mom female in our lives after Dad’s divorce and Suzie stayed the longest.

In Denver, I went to an almost carbon copy of the earlier Aurora elementary school to finish up my second grade. I was to learn later that schools were almost identically massed produced to keep up with the baby Boomer tsunami that swept the nation. Mostly cheap glass and brick veneer that could be set up in a big hurry. I’m not sure exactly where in the Denver metro area this school was located. It was on the outskirts and in a suburban setting, as I recall. Dad, Suzie and I lived in a small two-bedroom apartment that later became home to another woman—a friend of Suzie’s—to help with the rent.

Winter set in as I attended this school until the end of the year. That year’s snowfall was up to a couple of feet deep, yet all that I remember of it is when it began to thaw. I suppose this was because I knew soon school was to let out and the happiness this gave me caused the memory to be retained, but that’s about it. Nothing, nada, zilcho is in my mind from that school, at least anything that I would in the least label tangible. Once again, my mind has brilliant visions of the world outside of the academy, but inside the murky hallowed halls of knowledge…oh, I do recall a big globe of the earth.

Soon, Dad and I were on the move, as spring changed into summer, yet no Suzie. It seemed that her friend had vanished as well. For all that I knew, maybe they had been repossessed and sent to Geppetto’s workshop to be refitted and loaned out to a more deserving customer. We were on the way to Fort Logan, Colorado! Before we were to embark on this great adventure, we had to make a pit stop, because Dad had to rent another apartment in Denver. We had to wait for an old officer’s quarters to open up in the fort, before we could move in. Dad commuted, while I was babysat by a woman who was a retired army WAC. After we moved to the fort, she suddenly appeared and wanted me to call her mom. Dad said they were married.

The excitement of living in a real fort must have pushed Suzie and her friend right out of my mind. Of course, it wasn’t like the forts that I envisioned. These forts consisted of hewn upright logs placed in a circle around the homes of soldiers and guarded by patrolling men on the walls with black powder rifles and who patiently scanned the horizon for marauding Injuns. No. This fort seemed like a small village set on acres and acres of land, as far as my tiny eye could see, although it did have a parade ground, but with no parades that I ever saw. It also was the location of a mental health facility and on the outskirts of the fort was where my new school resided. I would soon begin my third grade there.