My Dickensian childhood

Some years back a very nice man posted frequently to a listserv I was on. He and I disagree greatly about how to teach languages and he often took the conservative view that people shouldn’t be cry-babies and he just could not see why students wouldn’t go home and do their studies.
In trying to paint a picture of homes where school work might not be the priority, I mentioned a few things in my childhood that interfered with a focus on school. I thought they were pretty mild but he replied that my childhood had been “Dickensian”. From then on, I realized he had a white picket-fence view of the world, what we now call a Leave It To Beaver world view. Later, I recounted in some detail the things I had seen as a child, things I made clear were not at all unusual in the world I grew up in.
Before I recount these again, I would like to point out that I realize there are people who choose not to dwell on such matters. I understand that; I have a dear relative who is like that, to the extent she will not watch movies and watches only comedies on TV. Given what she went through as a child, one can understand.
Then there are those who have a highly structured world view granted them by some organized force in society, something they adhere to with great fervor and faith. Once when battles over the concept of self-esteem were raging on this same listserv, a lady wrote me privately to explain why she and many in her “camp” believe it unwise to foster high self-esteem and a good self-concept in their children. I was taken aback by the highly articulated world view and with how deeply committed this very intelligent woman and mother was to it. Essentially, it is, IMHO, based on fear, fear that one’s children will be too prideful and thus fall into sloth and other sins. Underneath all this, it goes without saying, lies religion, a force vastly underestimated in the efforts to reform our educational system and our society.
So, to my childhood.
I was born when FDR was president, just a few months before Pearl Harbor. My dad joined the Marines in 1943 and my mom was scared to death that German paratroopers would descend on us there in Ohio.
As laughable as that seems now, we were living next to a huge artillery proving ground, Camp Perry, in a small town on Lake Eire. That’s where I grew up, shuttling back and forth between Port Clinton and Toledo until I was 10 and we moved to Arizona. My mom and dad had divorced in 1946 and my dad, who had passed through Phoenix on his way to the South Pacific, told my mom jobs were to be had there. What we didn’t know was that houses were to be had, too, brand new houses that even a secretary raising her son by herself could afford.
To the conditions. We had always lived in rooms, i.e. we’d rent a bedroom and I would be cared for by whoever we roomed with. I therefore passed through a lot of different homes and different schools. I had gone to 4 schools by the time we got to Phoenix. There I entered one school for 2 years when we had to return to Ohio b/c of work shortages in AZ. There I went to 2 schools in 7th grade, went to San Diego to be with my dad for one semester, returned to Ohio, then, with my mom’s remarriage, moved to Texas, then Alabama, and finally back to AZ. With all that I had attended a total of eleven schools by the time I graduated.
I never had it tough. I did work as a pin-setter in my uncle’s bowling alley in Port Clinton when I was eleven (a picture of 4 boys in front of the bowling alley appears on the fly-leaf of the hardback version of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, an influential book on sociology; Bob was a boy I remembered from Port Clinton High School). I worked briefly scamming businesses for a boiler room operation my dad got me a job in when I was 13 – good experience working with all the drunks and con men, working the phones. Later in life, whenever I took a sales job, I was good at it.
My experiences with school were often very poor. An 8th grade teacher gave me a C on a book report I had worked hard on b/c he believed a kid couldn’t write that well and I must have copied it. A math teacher reviewed by As in algebra and told I would fail her class b/c of the sequence in which I had been taught; she was right. I vowed I would never treat anyone like that myself, not dreaming I would become a teacher. I’ve kept my vow.
My 5th and 6th grades in Phoenix were wonderful. When we had to move back to Ohio at the start of seventh grade, I got depressed. I had to live with my cousin and his wife and the uncle who owned the bowling alley. My cousin was also my history teacher in this small Ohio town. One day I walked a girl home from school – this may have been later when I was a freshman in the same school – and he warned me away from her since her mother was divorced and the man she had dated committed suicide. Small town, Payton Place….. it was all there.
This small town had lots of town characters – the Gold Dust Twins, Hap, Cletus Matthews, and many others. Some of them lived in Dooby Town. I didn’t know what any of this meant, just the stories. My Catholic dad went to a Methodist service with my mom and noticed that Cletus jerked around every few minutes; no one else seemed to notice. My mom had to explain that Cletus thought he was a volunteer fireman and was listening for the fire bell. Hap had what I assume was severe cerebral palsy and flopped around when he walked and talked with grimaces and groans. His story was that the whole town had turned out to watch Psycho, and when it got to the shower scene and everyone was on the edge of their seats, Hap couldn’t take it anymore and emitted a groan cum squeal of warning which caused everyone in the audience to shoot right up off their seats and then convulse with laughter as Janet Leigh bled to death. And so on…..
Decades later in Phoenix, I was interviewing a schizophrenic my age and as we talked, we discovered he was from Port Clinton, too. But he lived in Dooby Town. He and his family had lived in the marsh, on the ice, in the way-below-zero winter winds off the lake, in a tent. That was Dooby Town. I finally realized it wasn’t a small town joke.
So if you want to talk about Dickensian, talk about people who lived like that, not about me. My worst thing was the – and here I’ll use an ethnic slur to conjur up the attitudes of the day – hillbillies we shared a bathroom with in our apartment. They put coal in the bathtub and urinated all over the toilet without lifting the lid b/c they had come from dire circumstances and did not have modern appointments like flush toilets and bathtubs. Later, I found out from my mother that she had come from that background, though not as poor, and had lost her accent at age nine when the family moved from West Virginia up to northern Ohio.
I had a few unpleasant experiences. Two older boys I lived with seemed to be interacting with me in a sexual way, but it is hard for me to go back and ascertain if they were being inappropriate with me or just teasing me. One time was really bad; I was 9 and my mom took a trip to Florida and left me with a couple she knew. They had a 12 year old boy who turned out to be really disturbed. He kept after me for 2 weeks, trying to molest me. The mother admonished him once or twice but pretty much let him do what he wanted while the father would come home and go into his room where he built model trolley cars. That part was interesting. But it took me one year to tell my mom about this kid. Anyone who says they don’t understand children who don’t come right out and tell what happened to them is an idiot.
In my family, my mom married 4 times but had had dinner with my dad a couple of days before she died; they never lost the flame but golf kept getting in the way. My dad married three times and I stayed with him for about 6 months when he got married. He married an absolute witch. I hated her daughter with a passion even though the poor child never did anything – she was just HER. The mother slapped me hard once for just sniffling when she had told me to stop it. I got my revenge though. One day I was talking to my dad….. this was about 50 years later…. and mentioned her. “Who?” Now my dad was not senile at this point, he had just flat put her out of his mind, which tells you a lot about how he dealt with the war. He saw a lot of combat, but I could never tell how much of his behavior was due to the war and how much was due to his childhood. I think most of it was his childhood.
My dad maintained contact with me in a good way throughout my childhood. I have pictures of my family and there’s my dad, just like he and my mom had never divorced. My mom’s family loved him. Most people really liked him and we found out after he went into the nursing home at age 89 that both my wife and his ex-wife had been coming over to his house to keep things cleaned up. I got to know her after his demise a little bit, along with her two daughters. He was a good father to them and that made me feel good. However, he did put all three of them to work in his restaurant while he played golf everyday. He worked at a pro shop until he was about 88. I always thought he was just unique until I started watching the Sopranos and saw all of his behaviors in those guys. Amazing. It was mostly cultural.
My mom spent from my sixth year until my fourteenth year unmarried. She had boyfriends; one in particular was a great guy. Thankfully, 30 or 40 years later he came out to Phoenix to visit and I got to see him. Too bad they never got married. My mom never did anything to make me uncomfortable regarding her dating except with one guy she almost married. She assumed I was too young to realize the nature of the relationship but I wasn’t. Other than that, my problems came from her not being able to find work.
Back to Phoenix. As I said, we had lived in with people. There were several mitigating factors. One was that my aunt’s house was always there for us, either to visit, to leave me, or to live in. My grandmother’s apartment was available, too. My aunt’s was great. The smithy at the John Deere tractor repair shop next door would let me stand next to the forge while he worked – OSHA would not approve. My grandmother’s had absolutely nothing to do there – remember, this was before TV. I had a yardstick to play with – period. My gun, my sword, my magic wand, my spear – OK, I was a pretty violent kid.
My aunt’s friend owned a bowling alley and I would sit at the bar when I was six or seven and drink out of a Bud longneck. I was given shot glasses with tea when the adults were taking real shots. By the time I was 8 or 9 I was drinking beer out of a water glass, a couple of ounces, or a shot glass of Mogen David wine. I attribute my lack of problems with alcohol to that training, although no one in my family had alcohol problems.
Genetics play a huge role according to my friend. I don’t think it’s all that great, but no one on my mom’s side ever died of anything but old age. On my dad’s side, we don’t know except for my grandparents, one of whom died in 1921, probably of the flu, and the other who lived a long life.
I want to get back to pathology, picking up on the divorce issue. My grandmother was divorced, too, twice, I think. My aunt was divorced twice; her first husband, the owner of the bowling alley, used to chase her around the house with a shotgun. Another aunt had a husband who beat her, sometimes for nothing more than having fixed potatoes in a way he wasn’t expecting. Their only child was born severely disabled after he hit my pregnant aunt in the stomach. People thought he was a great guy.
What else? My great-aunt’s boyfriend sucked on a gas pipe, probably b/c he was an alcoholic. My other aunt’s good friend, the one who let me drink at her bar, died a raving alcoholic. She had a husband named Wanda. He was English and I was told that was a guy’s name there. Their friends drank and one took me out back to shoot a .22, and was so drunk he shot just past my head as I went to retrieve the targets. I was about 8.
The last mitigating factor in housing was that when we got to Phoenix, my mom was able to buy an actual house. I had never lived in my own house and had just got into my first apartment the year before. I turned 10 and started my new life in Phoenix. When I watched the original Karate Kid and saw the boy and his mom arriving in California, it touched me. A great new start, away from those hide-bound people back East with their rigid social lines. Of course, all that is childhood memory and therefore distorted, but I believe a lot of people moving West had similar experiences.
I’ll add more as I think of things, but what do you think, was my childhood Dickensian?
Oh, and very little religion. Thank goodness.

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