Story#49: My Childhood

I was born in the city of Los Angeles in the year 1970, a year of disillusionment following a time of idealism.  It was the year of the My Lai massacre which lead to nation-wide protest for the war in Vietnam and the ultimate end of the war.  It was the year the Beatles broke up, never again to perform together, their loss irrevocably changing music forever.  It was the year Apollo 13 nearly saw unspeakable disaster preventing any subsequent moon landing to date.  It was the year of the Kent state shootings, the first incident of its kind opening the flood gates to future such atrocities.  It was the year the Ford Pinto was introduced eventually to be recalled because of engine fires marking this the first large scale failure of the great American automaker.  It was the year Congress gave President Nixon authorization to sell arms to Israel thus solidifying America’s perspective in the gulf and leading to decades of conflict which continues to this day.  It was the year Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix died, both of drug overdose, both at age 27, putting a taint on the once exuberant and youthful counterculture of the previous decade.  To say the least, it was an inauspicious year to begin one’s life.

My family was as topsy turvy as the times.  We were not necessarily poor but we definitely struggled, making do with hand me down clothes, thrift store finds, and discarded furniture.  We ate the same meals week after week:  frozen fish sticks, canned chop suey, spaghetti with tomato sauce, grilled cheese sandwiches, and sloppy joes.  My parents, especially my mother, had to be creative in order to get the things they wanted.  She found a highly regarded pre-school she wanted to send us to but of course did not have the extra money to pay for it.  So she worked there in exchange for my younger brother and I to attend.  My father was inventive in his own way, finding old lumber to construct a club house and to cut pieces into the shape of a machine gun.

My two brothers and I shared a small room taken up mostly by our beds, two of them being bunk beds.  From an early age, I was prone to nightmares.  In one inspired by the little orange worm in Sesame Street, I dreamed that a thousand such worms were wiggling under the bottom bunk, trying to get at me.  From then on, I was unable to sleep in that bottom bunk.  Another nightmare saw me fighting for my life in a brackish pool of black water filled with mysterious tentacles.  I ran weeping to my mother’s side.  She wearily brought me back to bed and turned on the closet light so that I would go back to sleep.

This was the time before cable TV and video game consoles.  What little TV we watched had a specialness to it.  We looked forward with anticipation to a handful of shows that came on every afternoon or sometimes only once a week.  Speed Racer was on during weekday afternoons and was our childhood source of adventure and romance.  Meanwhile The Wonderful World of Disney came on Sunday nights and was not to be missed.  In fact, one of my strongest childhood memories was of one time I missed the show.  It was Old Yeller, and a few hours before it started I stuck a chocolate chip up my nose.  My mother panicked and rushed me to the emergency room only to be told when we finally saw that doctor that it had most likely melted hours ago.  All I could think about was the fact that I had missed Old Yeller.

What little toys we had were given to us at Christmas time which, besides our birthdays, was the one grand day of the year.  Our dad would buy the largest tree he could afford and cover it with a hodge-podge of ornaments and countless blinking lights.  On Christmas morning, my brothers and I awoke to piles of presents.  In old super 8 films, you can practically feel our joy as we tear into each present, hold them up for out parents to see, and then happy play with them.  A favorite of such films was one where my older brother receives a set of dinosaurs and pre-historic plants.  He meticulous created his scene complete with brown plastic stones.  Once he had it just right, he picked up a dinosaur and made it dance around the trees and rocks.  Another notable Christmas memory was the day Santa’s reindeer came to town.  They were housed in large stable which had been set up in the Sears parking lot.  “Where’s Rudolf?” I remember asking my dad.  He pointed to one whose nose had been painted a bright, shiny red.  It was enough for my three year old mind to confirm that the story of Santa was absolutely real.

To add to the ambiguity of my childhood, I was a bit of an odd child.  At three years old I had odd thoughts about things in general, and ruminated on ideas that most children did not like death.  As if in physical proof that I was usual, I was born with an amblyopic eye or what is most commonly referred to as a crossed eye.  My mom always insisted that she could not see it, but whenever I looked in the mirror it was extremely apparent to me.  The doctors I worked with referred to it as a lazy eye.  Both terms added to my perception of myself as inadequate and inferior to other people, a feeling I harbored for over half my life.  Kids did not often make fun of me because when it came down to it it was not that easy to notice.  But when they occasionally did make fun of me, it stung badly.  Being called things like “retard” and “weird” would reek havoc on anyone’s self-esteem, especially that of an impressionable child with a “crossed” eye.

The doctors tried all kinds of therapies to get my eye to turn to “normal”.  When I was younger, one doctor had my parents force me to wear a patch over my eye.  I can still feel the itch of the adhesive when I recall the memory of that patch.  And for many many years I had an aversion to the smell of bandaids which would immediate bring back the memory of the eye patch.  While wearing the patch, I was made to sit at the coffee to trace dot-to-dot pictures.  A universal symbol of childhood fun turned into a harsh punishment as I struggled to see the dots.  My lack of success usually left me in tears.  The doctor eventually gave up when I saw no progress in changing my eye.

When I was in my teens, another doctor insisted on take a crack at curing me.  He would have me draw shapes with my good eye covered.  He gave me a contact lense which blurred the vision in my good eye.  I was told to wear it during the day time, and even remember wearing it to Knott’s Berry Farm.  Dutifully I wore it day after day, but again nothing changed.

The truth of the matter was I did have one good eye.  With this eye I could see with 20/20 vision.  I was told by every doctor I had poor depth perception, but I could never understand what the problem was because I had never seen the world in any other way.  People would ask me to describe what was different about the way I see.  I would say “I don’t know what’s different” or “Tell me what’s different about the way you see and maybe I can understand what’s different about the way I see”.  Then of course there was the internal question “Are you cross eyed?” I came up with the stock answer: “In one eye”.  In retrospect I believe I was trying to say:  “Yes my eye is crossed and I know that makes me look strange, but it’s only a part of me and not all of me.”

The pre-school my younger brother and I attended was progressive and even a bit enlightened.  We participated in a number of impressive field trips, including a trip to a honey factory and another trip to a silk factory.  Reading time was a particularly impressionable time for me.  I was entirely enthralled by any story that they teachers presented:  The Hungry Caterpillar, Green Eggs and Ham, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Curious George, Are You My Mother?, and best of all, Where the Wild Things Are.  The teachers turned any opportunity they could into a chance to learn.  When I found a little pink dead baby bird under a tree one day, the teachers decided that we would hold a funeral.  A small hole was dug.  The baby bird was placed in a box.  I was allowed to place it in the hole.  A teacher covered it with dirt.  Some of the children placed tiny flowers around the grave.  A prayer was said.  It was my first real experience with death.

I had an innocent crush on one of the teachers.  She had long straight blonde hair and wore bug eyed glass and silk scarves.  Best of all, she had a brand new shiny green Ford Pinto with metallic brown vinyl seats.  I got to sit up front with her once on the way to a field trip.  I felt like the coolest kid in pre-school that day.

Despite my occasional odd thoughts, I always managed to have a lot of friends.  There was the Chinese boy who liked to dress in a skeleton costume even when it wasn’t Halloween.  There was the Hispanic boy across the street who called himself my best friend but was most memorable for once showing me a large dump his dad had left in the toilet.  There were the brothers up the street who always seemed to have the best toys and got to do things that were forbidden in our family like drink Coca Cola.

Then there was Adam, the love child of a couple of young hippie parents.  My mom once left me at their house for an afternoon.  It was a large Victorian style home where several families communed together.  Adam showed me his treehouse in the backyard which was his private sanctuary away from the crowded house.  He had a Snoopy snow cone machine but had long ago run out of syrup.  So we ground ice and ate our tasteless snow cones in bliss.  Then his father called us into the front yard where he said he had something to show us.  With a big smile on his face, he set a small gosling on the ground.  It peeped loudly, presumably searching for its mother.  I couldn’t help but feel sad for it.  At lunch time, Adam’s mother gave us a bowl of mushy brown liquid.  Adam dug eagerly into his bowl, asking for more.  Turns out they were vegetarians, or what we now call vegans, and they had given me a bean and lentil stew.  When it was clear I would not be eating the mush, the mom began to look worried.  At her urging, Adam’s dad took us to a nearby deli where they bought me a tuna salad sandwich, the lesser of evils in their eyes.  I picked at it and ate as much as my small stomach could hold.  I remember being hungry and enjoying the taste.  To this day, tuna salad is a favorite.

Like anyone’s childhood, mine was littered with occasional mishaps.  Around the corner from our house was a dime store, a magic place filled with every imaginable candy including chewy ribbons of red and black licorice for one cent a piece.  My older brother once had a couple of nickels and a notion to share a some licorice whips with his two younger brothers.  The three of us piled onto his bike.  My older brother of course took the driver’s seat.  My younger brother sat on the handle bars while I stood on the bolts of the back wheel.  Off we went, until somehow my foot slipped and caught in the spokes of the wheel.  Down went the bike and all three of us.  I screamed in pain and fright.  My ankle was twisted and several of the spokes were bent.  My brother untangled my foot and hefted me up tto carry me a few hundred yards back home.  My mom ran out to see what was going on, ready to tell my brother off.  My brother was in tears, and could barely say what had happened.  My mom took me inside and put my foot into a pan with ice water.  I remember complaining about the cold, but doing my best to bare it.  After a while, it definitely felt better than the pain.  A friend of my mom’s came over to take a look at my ankle and told my mom she thought it should be checked by a doctor.  So once again I was whisked to the emergency room.  After an x-ray, they proclaimed it was not broken.  My older brother came in to give me a candy bracelet he had bought with my dad at the dime store.  Many years later when we would talk about this incident, he would share his feelings of guilt for having hurt me.  I never saw it that way.  Even at the age of four I knew it was an accident.  In my memory, I saw him as the hero.  He had carried me home, which was not easy.  And when all was said and done, he had given me a candy bracelet.

Much to his detriment, my older brother was caught in the midst of the school integration movement.  He was forced to take the bus daily to school where he was merciless teased by an older boy.  One day, he snapped and hit the boy.  He was pulled into the principal’s office where both he and the boy where punished.  After all he had been through at the hands of this bully, it stuck my brother as a severe injustice that he received the same punishment.  To my parent’s credit, they decided to remove him from public school and to place him in a private Catholic school.  A year or so later, this is where I went for the early part of the first grade.

The structured school day was a bit of culture shock for me.  Kindergarten and pre-school had been all about play and discovery.  In the first grade, we were expected to sit still for extended periods of time and to do the work that was assigned to us.  There was no time for free thinking, no time for creativity, no time for play.  In truth, I never quite adapted to grade school and struggled throughout my early years in school.  It didn’t help that we made a major move halfway through my first grade year.  It also didn’t help that I would attend no less than four grade schools during that time.  Every time I seemed to get settled somewhere, we would up and move.  Relentless change was one of the major themes of my childhood.

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