by John Wyatt
Looking back through the haze of time can be a dangerous pastime. There are many things in my past I would prefer to forget – nothing horrible like raping and murdering; but as I matured, I found that many of the things I once held sacred were mere illusions – and that’s a hard lesson to learn. It’s like returning to my home town and finding that everything has changed. The message is clear: I can’t return to my childhood without being embarrassed by my innocence.
I’m not certain how old I was in many of my early memories. We moved almost every year for the first twelve years of my life. My mother recalls what years we lived in which places, and that is how I have determined how old I was at the time. Any discrepancies between my memories and my mother’s memories is clearly not my fault. (It feels more natural to write ‘mother’, though I never called her that. I always called her ‘mom.’) Memories are more clear after third grade – sometimes more clear than memories of what I did last week.
My earliest memory was of taking my first steps. I vaguely remember a farm; we must have been visiting someone. I recall pulling myself up by the arm of a chair and taking uncertain steps across the room. I don’t remember who was there, but everyone was impressed, most of all myself. What I remember most is the exhilaration of my new freedom! No longer was I bound by earthly limitations! Silently, I proclaimed to the heavens above: “I can WALK!”
With my new freedom I became quite an explorer. Over the next few years I explored the limits of our house and yard. I roamed freely; nothing was safe from my inquisitiveness – except, of course, never outside the yard. Something called danger lurked out there and I could get hurt. A barrier of mild fear kept me confined to the yard. That wasn’t so bad though; we had a big dog named Fluffy who was fun to play with. At least she seemed big at the time. Actually, I don’t recall if Fluffy was a boy or a girl, or even what kind of dog he or she was; but those distinctions didn’t mean anything to me yet.
At that time I was already into wearing shoes. I never went outside without my shoes. Some kids love to run around barefoot, but not me. I might step on something. Finally one day, I believe I was about three years old, mother coaxed me into playing outside in my bare feet. I only did it to please her, the promised joy of grass on my bare feet seemed ephemeral and somewhat scary. I ran outside and…stepped on a bee! As I write this, I’m 47 years old and I still haven’t stopped saying “I told you so!” And I never go outside barefoot.
Those were fun years, before I realized that anyone could be different from me. My dad was a Methodist minister, which carried an air of respectability that must have rubbed off on me. I simply assumed that everyone liked and respected me. At the time I didn’t know that a preacher’s kid is expected to behave differently from other kids – preacher’s kids are supposed to be the biggest hellions in town, at least according to the lore I’ve heard since then. But I enjoyed the admiration of others too much to be very rebellious.
We lived in a small town where everyone seemed to know everyone. There was a forest nearby, though we weren’t allowed to play in it. Apparently someone got lost there long ago and the town had erected a little museum about it: the Limberlost I think it was called. Mother said it was a famous place. That made me feel more important, living near a famous place. Not everyone lived near a famous place!
I knew that grownups never lie and I could trust the government. It was obvious from every science fiction movie that the government and the scientists were the good guys; maybe not as good as Roy Rogers, but the movies made it clear that the government was here to protect us. I also knew that what dad said about God was true, even if I didn’t understand it. It just felt nice to have the Creator of the Whole Universe looking down on me, loving and caring about me every day – except the day I stepped on the bee. Maybe he was sleeping that day. Then Fluffy disappeared.
I never knew what happened to Fluffy. Mother doesn’t know either. I was told that Fluffy “ran off,” though I couldn’t imagine why she (or he) would do that. After all, Fluffy belonged here. Dad went out and brought back a new puppy – something he called a toy fox terrier. It was more like a toy fox terrorizer; and I don’t know why they called it a toy – it wasn’t any fun to play with.
I will pause briefly to say that about a year earlier my mother had gone away to the hospital for a few days and brought back a small child - and she kept him! She said he was my baby brother. It was now a year later and he was still here, being too little to run off like Fluffy did, though personally I thought Fluffy was more fun. His name was Steeb (I had a problem with my V’s then) and he was nothing but trouble, at least to me. Years later I decided that his real name was Fish, but for now I knew the little beast as “Steeb.” I’m glad I was nothing like Steeb when I was his age. After all, being older makes one better.
Steeb didn’t like that toy fox terrorizer any more than I did. The little monster would yap and charge at us, scaring the hell out of us. Dad said it was just trying to play; but the thing had sharp teeth and was faster than us, so we tried to stay away from it. Mother wanted to get rid of the thing, but Dad liked the puppy and talked her into keeping it. One day he called mother in to show off the puppy monster, which was sitting like a human on the low rung of her clothes drying rack. He went on about how cute that was and wasn’t this a wonderful puppy! Mother still didn’t like the puppy though, because it scared us kids. I think that was when I first started drifting away from my dad and towards my mother. Dad cared more about the puppy, while mother cared more about us.
But the puppy’s days were numbered. One day it charged Steeb, who ran as fast as his little legs could carry him. The puppy bit him on the rear, getting a mouthful of diaper, despite which the puppy still lived. Steeb, scared witless (to this day his wits still haven’t returned), screamed and kept trying to run, dragging the growling puppy after him. After that, the puppy was history. Now, whenever I see those Coppertone ads with the puppy pulling down the girl’s bathing trunks, I think of Steeb and that toy fox terrorizer.
Then came a day of true freedom! Mother said that I could cross the alley next to our house and play with the girl next door! Now I could safari to the distant lands outside our yard – by myself! I don’t recall her name, it might have been Lisa, but I’m not sure. Anyway, I’ll call her Lisa because it’s a nice name and she was a nice girl and fun to play with. I was too young to realize that girls were yucky and had cooties. I still thought that a ‘girl’ was basically the same thing as a boy, only with long hair and they wore dresses. Boys weren’t supposed to have long hair or wear dresses; dad said it was a sin. He said it to all the people in church too, and everyone agreed.
Someone named Paul wrote in the Bible that it was a sin to have long hair, and some guy named Noses, or Moses, or something like that, said that men can’t wear dresses and women can’t wear pants. It was written in the Bible and dad preached it every Sunday, so it had to be true. I wasn’t allowed to write in the Bible. That was also a sin. Someone named John wrote in Revelation that anyone adding to the Bible would be punished. That meant I couldn’t write in it. Mother gave me blank paper to write on while we were in church, I think she did that so I wouldn’t write in the Bible and be punished. A few years later, Steeb took a pen and scribbled in his Bible. I warned him that he would be punished and I waited for the Divine retribution, but it never happened. If I were God I sure would have punished him.
Dad was always telling people what the Bible meant, which was nice because I couldn’t read it. It must be a hard book, since dad had to stand up each week and tell people what it meant. It was important too, since God punished you if you didn’t know the Bible.
So when I played with Lisa, I knew that she wasn’t as lucky as me because she couldn’t wear pants; besides, she also played with dolls and played “tea party.” She didn’t do fun things like hunt wild Injuns or catch bank robbers. But she had a swing set and that was enough to endear her to my heart. Once mother said I could cross the alley, I was there every day. Lisa was an older girl, maybe four or five, but I didn’t mind. She wanted me to play with dolls too, but that didn’t matter either. The swingset compensated for everything. Besides, she didn’t try to hit me the way older boys did.
Swingsets have a thing we called a teeter-totter. It wasn’t a real teeter-totter like they had in the park; it swung horizontally rather than up-down. However, unlike the teeter-totter in the park, this one could be ridden without someone on the opposite seat. Later, someone told me that the teeter-totter in the park was called a “see-saw.” I just knew that I had to really trust the kid on the other end. Sometimes one kid would jump off his end while the other kid was still in the air, so he could laugh when the poor kid hit the ground. I preferred the teeter-totter on the swingset.
Lisa taught me how to swing. The trick was to lean far back in the swing just as it started forward; a trick Lisa called ‘pumping’. Each time, I would swing higher and higher, maybe all the way up to the sky!
“Look how high I’m swinging!” I called to mother. She liked to watch me swing. I thought it was because I was swinging so well. She often watched the things I did.
“Be careful.” She would always reply. That was silly, of course I was being careful (which in kid-language meant that I wasn’t getting hurt at the moment).
“Look, I can swing with no hands!” I let go of the swing and spread my arms out like a bird taking wing! I felt free as a bird!
That’s me hitting the ground on my back! The swing went forward and I didn’t. Lisa told me that I was supposed to hold onto the swing, so that sort of thing wouldn’t happen. Mother ran over to make sure I wasn’t hurt. The only thing hurt was my pride. Pride is a funny thing, I never realized I had it until it was hurt. It’s like my stomach – I never knew I had one until it hurt.
“Why’s it hurt so BAD!” I cried to my mother.
“It’s just a stomach ache. Here, take this.” She gave me a tablespoon of something pink that she called Pepto-Bismol. It tasted a bit chalky, but the immediate relief was so wonderful that I instantly fell in love with Pepto-Bismol! I still love Pepto-Bismol. In retrospect, maybe it was a Pavlovian kind of thing.
“Why do I have to get a stomach ache?” I whined. I didn’t yet understand the concept of sickness. I thought that only bad people got sick. God was supposed to watch over the good people; at least that’s what dad always said.
“Everyone gets stomach aches,” mother calmly explained. At first that was comforting, knowing that I wasn’t really damaged or being punished by God. I had really thought that the pain would last forever – I didn’t know that it could be made to go away. Then the dread hit. If everyone had them, and everyone thought them to be quite common, then everyone must get them more than once!
“You mean, I’ll get this again?” I asked meekly, praying that the answer would be ‘no.’
“Yes, you could get a stomach ache again. Don’t worry though, it won’t kill you.”
It didn’t matter that it wouldn’t kill me; it hurt! This wasn’t fair! God was supposed to be looking after me, and getting stomach aches just wasn’t fair!
“What’s a ‘stomach’?”
Mother patiently explained what a ‘stomach’ was and I understood it completely – which is to say that I got it all wrong and had no concept that I was wrong. A ‘stomach’ is a basket that sits at the bottom of the belly, just above the belly button. Food falls into it, and what falls through the basket, you poop out. I later learned that there’s also a thing called an ‘appendix’ somewhere inside. I figured it must sit above the stomach. Anyway, if food hits the appendix it swells up big and bursts, killing you. This was good to know, so I was very careful afterwards to swallow correctly, and lean a bit to one side so the food wouldn’t hit my appendix as it fell into my stomach.
We had another neighbor that wasn’t so nice. He was an older boy, he was actually in school – I don’t know what grade. He was also a thief. He used to sneak into our house while we were gone and play with my toys, sometimes he even stole them. At first I think mother didn’t believe me, but dad had an argument with the thief’s dad, who was a mean drunkard and probably a thief as well. It seems the boy had been seen playing with some of my toys outside; now my parents were forced to admit that the boy really was a thief. Years later mother admitted that she had once caught the boy hiding in her closet. I guess that’s also when we started locking our doors, which was something we had never had to do before. I asked dad to make the police take him away, but he said it wasn’t that easy. I couldn’t imagine why the police wouldn’t take him away. We knew he was a thief, so why didn’t they lock him in jail? That’s what the police were for! Yet each day he was still there. I began to suspect that there was something impotent about the law.
Next year we moved away and I never saw Lisa again, or the thief. I made new friends in our new home, and the new church was more impressive – at least it seemed that way to me. That was also the year that I learned about monsters.
Monsters live in closets and under beds. Grown-ups can’t see monsters. Well, technically neither can kids, but we know they are there. Kids have a sixth sense when it comes to monsters. The church should have been comforting, but it had a big stained glass window that looked into my bedroom – with a huge eye! Mother said it was the Eye of God watching over me. I wasn’t so sure.
Monsters can’t touch covers, another thing grown-ups don’t understand. The only safe way to sleep is to huddle completely under the covers, leaving only a small crack for breathing. Every child knows that the instant any part of the body slips out from under the covers, snatch! The monsters will grab it and eat it! Monsters can also hide behind closed doors. By leaving doors open the monsters can’t get as close, so I kept my bedroom and closet doors wide open. Windows are a different matter. Everyone knows that a monster will peek in a window any chance it gets, and leaving a window open is an invitation to disaster. That big eye in the church seemed more like a monster peering in than a protector, so I had to be constantly on my guard. Light destroys monsters outright, but dad wouldn’t allow a night-lite. He kept saying that there were no monsters in the dark. How come grown-ups believe in God and the Devil, but not Monsters?
We lived in this town for almost three years, until I had finished first grade. I learned a little about horses too. Although we lived in town, a neighbor girl kept a horse in her back yard. You can still do that today in many small towns. She was an older girl, I’m not sure how old, but old enough that we considered her as a grownup. She was very nice and I wish I could recall her name. I remember Steeb sitting under the horse when it was parked outside. Mother kept punishing him for it, but he wouldn’t stop. We all told him it was dangerous, but luckily for him nothing ever happened. I wanted to see the horse pee on him, but it never happened. Drat.
Steeb also liked sitting on the curb with his feet in the gutter.
“Steve! Quit sitting in the gutter!”
“I’m not in the gutter, Mom! I’m on the curb!”
Too bad he never got splashed by passing cars.
One Sunday morning Steeb and I were playing with some Play-Doh.
“Look,” Steeb bragged, “I made a Play-Doh pancake!”
“Yep, it sure looks good. Good enough to eat, I bet.”
“Really?” And he ate it. The whole thing!
“Boys!” Mother called. “Put your toys away and get ready for church!”
It’s a funny thing about boys. It’s more fun to laugh about someone doing something dumb than it is to warn him or tell a grownup. I wanted to see Steeb get sick from the Play-Doh pancake – and he did, but not right away. We got dressed in our Sunday clothes, complete with tie. Back then real ties clipped onto the collar. Church was right next door, which was good – it gave us more time to play before having to get ready for church. Being the preacher’s family we all sat right up in front, where everybody could see us. And that’s where Steeb got sick – right in front of everybody.
It began during the hymns. I always hated the hymns. You can’t nap during the hymns because you have to stand up. Steeb didn’t stand up, but started moaning and holding his stomach.
“Are you feeling ok?” Mother asked.
“Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” was all Steeb could say. He held his tummy and rolled over to lay on the pew. Mother probably though he was faking, so he wouldn’t have to stand up and pretend to sing, like I did. (I was pretty good at pretending to sing.) Mother didn’t like to punish us during church, so she just let him lay.
After the hymns came the sermon. This was a good time to nap or draw. Steeb cuddled up to mother and looked green. I waited. Dad preached. Suddenly Steeb stood up and barfed right over the pew and all over the floor! It was glorious! I grinned triumphantly! This ended the sermon and mother hurried Steeb outside and back home, while dad cleaned up the mess. Mother and dad never did see the humor in it.
Today Play-Doh isn’t as much fun. It’s water-based instead of oil-based, and I think Steeb is the reason why. Now instead of getting sick and throwing it up all over the front pew, it just goes through the system and gets pooped out. That may be more fun for parents, but not for older brothers.
After all these years, I still chuckle when I think about it! Mother thinks it’s childish of me. I once read a bit of sage advice from a psychologist. Her advice was to women who were frustrated by the childish behavior of men. Her advice was simply: “If you kill the boy, you kill the man.” So there! If women think I’m being too childish, I’ll just take my ball and go home!
Bulldozers are fun. I think every boy has a love affair with bulldozers. The town was expanding the school, and the contractors were digging and grading and scraping a huge hole for the foundation. Ever since then, it was my dream to dig a huge hole in my back yard so I could build something. A good fort is always useful – in case of Injun attack or alien invasion. Mother, however, didn’t appreciate the value of a good hole. All she could say was “My good silverware!” I wouldn’t have needed her spoons if I had a good bulldozer.
When I started first grade, one of the bulldozer drivers let me ride on back. That was great fun! When my teacher found out I was taken to the principal’s office and soundly spanked. They kept saying that bulldozers are dangerous, but I don’t see how that can be true. People drive bulldozers all the time. It’s not like I stood in front of it.
I had my first girlfriend in first grade. I had learned something wonderful about girls: they were different from boys, and I mean really DIFFERENT! There are certain things I had always taken for granted, like plumbing. I mean boy’s plumbing. Finding out that girls were different changed my whole outlook on life! I used to think babies came from hospitals; that’s where mother had gotten Steeb. Now I found out that babies came from girls. Now the dolls and tea parties made more sense.
“Is it better to be a boy?” I asked mother.
“No, boys and girls are both good. It’s not better to be either a boy or a girl.”
Drat! This had been my first real chance to be better than someone else, but it turned out that girls were just as good as boys. Oh well, I still liked being a boy.
After learning about girls I liked them differently. I still didn’t like tea party or dolls, but it gave me a chance to be with girls. Especially Debbie. My first love! Every Saturday my mother gave me a dollar to buy donuts. I walked to the store, bought some donuts, then walked to Debbie’s house to play tea party. I didn’t care about tea party, but Debbie was so beautiful and I loved just talking and being with her! I knew it was okay to like girls, so I didn’t mind telling her she was my girlfriend. Nobody teased me about playing tea party – which would be just the thing you’d expect any red-blooded boy to tease another boy about. But it never happened. Maybe they too had started liking girls.
One day at recess I decided it was time to kiss Debbie. I called her over, pretending I was going to whisper something, then kissed her sweet mouth. Her reaction was not what I expected. Her eyes went wide and she ran away! I was crestfallen! Of course, I had never kissed a girl before; kissing my mother doesn’t count. It’s not like mother is a girl or anything – she’s my mother. But Debbie was a real girl so this was a real kiss! She ran and told our teacher, who admonished me for kissing Debbie – saying that little boys shouldn’t kiss little girls. I can’t imagine why not. I wonder if something was wrong with my teacher? So ended my first tragic love affair.