Welcome to My Autobiography
Sitting in the shade sipping ice-cold tea.
Look up through the trees, what do I see?
Blue sky dangling gently up there in Heavenly places,
Wispy clouds sometimes look like faces.
Sometimes they look like deranged and mangled creatures.
All white shoes and teeth like a Pentecostal preacher.
Sometimes in evening they lay on the horizon,
All dark and jagged and looking like a mountain.
They tumble and roll and sag and flex.
A skinny woman one moment, a fat man the next.
Sometimes theyíre cotton, as white as death shrouds.
And sometimes they just look like clouds.
There are Giants in the Land
(The Wonderless Years)
††††††††††† My first day of public school was
very traumatic. I started school at Martha Turner Reilly Elementary in a neighborhood
several miles from our house, because we were moving to that neighborhood, on
††††††††††† Reilly was a brand new school. In fact, it was still under construction when its first classes began in September of 1955. We had to eat our lunch in our classrooms for the first few weeks while they completed the cafeteria. I was scared in this new situation. I had never been around so many people, not even kids, at one time, so halfway through my first day I sneaked outside to wait for school to end. My aunt was picking me up and when she arrived, I was sitting under two sawhorses in the schoolyard, where I had been hiding for what seemed like hours. I donít think I got into trouble, but I canít remember. I may have been knocked unconscious.
††††††††††† What I remember about elementary school are the smells of Brylcreem in winter and butch-wax in spring, moron jokes, big ďmoĒ pencils, the smell of crayons, the sound of new blue jeanís legs scraping together, looking up girlís dresses, high top tennis shoes with the round U.S. Keds emblems on the side, grass stains on the knees of pants, drinking out of those little milk cartons with a straw stuck through the top, jamming paper in the drinking fountain to make it squirt water into someoneís face, Lick-m-ade in a straw, cinnamon toothpicks and the blisters they left on your tongue, staring out the window in a hot classroom, fish-balls on Friday, metal lunch boxes with a thermos inside, cuffs rolled up on your blue jeans about 3 or 4 inches so, when you unrolled them at home, you dumped a pound and a half of dead grass on your motherís floor, old metal skates that only clamped onto your dress shoes and you werenít allowed to play in your dress shoes, Archie comics, girls who wore pants in winter, but still had to wear a dress over them, and the smell of that red stuff the custodian pushed around the halls with their wide dust mops.
††††††††††† I can still remember the echoing silence of the halls in elementary school. A hundred children walking in single file without uttering a word, only the sound of squeaking tennis shoes and the rustle of new blue jeans. There was always a teacher in the restroom making sure nobody spoke in there while we used the restroom and tried to wash our hands with those faucets that turned off when you let go of them. I never did figure out how to get soap off of my hands with those faucets, so I just quit washing my hands.
No Longer the
††††††††††† Five months after my brother was born, my first cousin was born, and, after being the only grandchild for six years, I was now sharing attention with two other, younger and cuter contestants. It didnít take me long to start working for attention in school, because I sure wasnít getting any at home. The only attention I seemed to be getting at home was in the form of punishment, and thatís what I started getting at school, too, as I became the class clown.
When the teacher asked the definition of defense, I answered, ďDefense is what they put around de cows to keep dem in.Ē I lost my bird name Inza. I opened the window and influenza.
By high school I had advanced to, ďPrecipitation means: before cipitation. Protagonist means: for tagonist.Ē What can I say? I have always wanted to make people laugh. Those things didnít work, though. But I never gave up trying to make people laugh; whatever it took.
Yea, thatís me
††††††††††† I grew up confused. I thought the pill bug that rolls up in a little ball was the doodle bug. I didnít realize until I was grown that the doodle bug is the ant lion that made those little funnel shaped holes in the soft dirt in my grandparentís driveway. Remember, I told you earlier they (my grandparents not the ant lions) had the cheap driveway with two strips of concrete to accommodate the carís wheels. The soft dirt was between those two strips.
††††††††††† I thought the boat-tailed grackle was a crow. I mean they are so big and black. I thought Sucrets was a brand of hair-pin. And I was in high school before I discovered fruit cakes came in those fancy tin cans that my mother kept her sewing in. Nobody ever told me these things. Either that or I just wasnít listening. That couldnít be it, could it? Huh?
My first Bike Wasnít a Ford
††††††††††† We always had Fords when I was growing up, because the giant worked for an insurance company and he got a new company car every year or two. In the rear window of every car we had was that oval decal that read, Built in Texas by Texans. This isnít going anywhere. I just put it in so my title for this section about my bike would make sense.
††††††††††† I got my first two-wheel bike in the summer of 1956. Iíve got a picture of me on my first day of second grade wearing a new shirt, new jeans with big olí cuffs over new high top Keds, hair shiny with Brylcreem and a plaid briefcase. I was about to ride my new bike to school for the first time and anyone of the aforementioned things could have gotten me beat up by a bully, especially that briefcase.
††††††††††† My bike had white-wall tires that were so fat they could have substituted for car tires. The tires were covered by two wide fenders, one on the front and one on the back. Kids today donít even know what fenders look like on a bike. They donít know what itís like to ride through a puddle without getting a muddy stripe up their back.
My Life Ė One Trauma after another
††††††††††† My next brush with trauma came one
pleasant, summer night, when my little brother, Joey, was learning to walk.
He fell and hit his forehead on the base of a big recliner. He turned into a
beautiful fountain as blood spurted from his forehead with each heartbeat.
The giant stuck his finger in the hole and we headed for the hospital,
††††††††††† Not long after that, one of the two elderly sisters that lived next door came over in a panic. Their visiting brother had passed out and wasnít looking too good. It was another pleasant summer night and the giant was in his boxer shorts and undershirt, which is how he was dressed when he ran from the house. Mother and I followed. I stood on the front porch and watched through the screen door as the giant pushed on the old guyís chest. Later, after the ambulance left, I learned the old man was dead, and, unlike Lazarus, he stayed dead. I think. At least I never heard if he rose from the dead, so Iím assuming he didnít.
Lying to Tell the Truth
††††††††††† Through the first and second grade I was always late to school, because I would stop at the creek and play. I loved creeks. To this day, nothing takes me back to my childhood faster than the smell of a slimy creek bottom. Despite knowing I would get into trouble, I just couldnít resist the lure of the water, the seclusion and the little animals.
††††††††††† I remember bringing home some pink skinned baby squirrels, which turned out to be field rats that had fallen off their motherís back, when I chased her. I found out years later that mother had put those baby rats in a jar and thrown them in the trash. She started to throw them in the street, but couldnít stand the thought of them getting squashed. But it didnít bother her to think about them slowly suffocating?
††††††††††† By the end of the second grade I had managed to get only two whippings at school, both for being late. I canít remember how many detentions I got. But I know I only got two whippings. At the end of the school year the giant asked me how many whippings I got at school that year. I said, ďTwo.Ē He said, ďIf you lie Iíll give you another one.Ē I repeated, ďI got two whippings.Ē He retorted, ďThis is your last chance. Tell the truth or get a whipping.Ē So, without another thought I said, ďTen.Ē To which he smiled and patted my shoulder. ďDonít you feel better?Ē I said ďYea.Ē And I really did. I never forgot that I had to lie to keep from getting a whipping for lying.
††††††††††† By the third grade my temptation to be late was removed when they built houses along the creek and it became the divider between peopleís backyards. There were still plenty of creeks and woods to play in, but they were beyond the school and I didnít have to go past them. They were for weekends. I was never late to school again. Thatís a lie.
††††††††††† My first attempt at shoplifting was
a bust. Thatís probably why I didnít pursue a life of crime. I was six or
seven and had walked up to the Seven-Eleven in
††††††††††† I always suspected the man had called the giant anyway and they had agreed to my punishment, because after that incident the giant would go out of his way to stop at that store whenever I was in the car. And he sure was friendly with the man.
I Could Have Invented the Frisbee
††††††††††† In the summer of 1956, a friend and I got his sisterís phonograph records, unbeknownst to her, and took them outside and threw them back and forth to each other like flying saucers. It was neat the way they glided and hovered. Little did we know we were just a patent away from being millionaires. We just got punished for ruining the records. Just a year later Frisbees were invented, probably by a guy who ruined his sisterís records.
††††††††††† I was that close to becoming rich and famous. I believe God gives people ideas, but if they donít use them He will give the ideas to someone else.
††††††††††† I had a cedar chest in my room that I would pretend was my desk with stacks of papers and pencils in a can. I would scribble real fast pretending to be writing in cursive. I had one of the giantís old briefcases and a toy telephone. I rolled up pieces of paper to look like cigarettes and even made a paper package to keep them in so I could shake one out and pretend to light it and smoke while I was talking on the phone. It seemed like everybody important smoked back in the fifties. (Of course, most of those people are dead.) But for a little while, in the privacy of my room, I was somebody important.
††††††††††† It was at that very desk that I learned I could erase the manufacturerís lines in my coloring books, and I would erase the clothes off the girls and try to draw them naked, but I had one problem. I didnít know what a naked girl looked like. My curiosity began to get the best of me. I was looking up every dress I could. Was that healthy curiosity or did I have a problem?
††††††††††† As a family, we used to take
weekend trips to Winnsboro, a small town in east
††††††††††† Our reason for going there was to see the giantís family, especially his mother, whom everyone called, ďMom.Ē She was about four feet tall, ancient, and sharp as a tack. I donít remember ever beating her at a game of checkers. Although I tried and tried until she died and I still couldnít beat her.
††††††††††† The trips there were almost as much of an adventure as the visit. Our cars never had air-conditioning, so the windows were always down during warm weather. Those hour and a half trips taught me a great lesson, which I learned quickly. Never hang your arm out the window when sitting behind a giant in a moving vehicle. He could expectorate from his lungs. And it only took one long, green ďlungerĒ wrapped around your forearm to get the message. I learned that lesson real good. It only happened once.
††††††††††† Oh course, mother and the giant just laughed like it was a game and I lost. They also thought it was funny when they poured Joeyís urinary jar out the window without warning. The back of the seat behind me had a yellow outline of my head and shoulder.
††††††††††† The giant drank long neck beers and when we were on the road he would throw the empties out the window. I used to love to watch them hit the ditch and bounce along after us like a dog trying to catch our car. That shows you just how exciting my life was at the time.
††††††††††† Before we would leave on a trip the giant would make me sit behind him and he would make sure he could swing his arm and the back of his hand would line up with the side of my head. That way he could hit me without having to take his eyes off the road. I donít remember him actually having to use that action, though. Just knowing he could do it kept me in line, which, Iím sure, was the whole purpose of the ritual.
††††††††††† Winnsboro was a great place for a city boy with a big imagination. My step cousin and I went hunting with bb guns, fishing, exploring woods and creeks, and skinny dipping in a stock pond, and all within walking distance of Momís house. We even went frog gigging, and guess what? Frog legs really do taste like fried chicken, really good fried chicken.†††††††††† I packed more fun into a weekend in Winnsboro than I had in six months back home in the big city. Most of the streets were made of asphalt and in the summer seemed so much hotter than the city streets, but we still walked on them barefooted.
††††††††† We would all sit on Momís screened-in porch at night and listen to the quiet. During the day there was a cacophony of sounds, doves, blue-jays, and crows (they could have been grackles). And there was the wonderful summertime smells of hot sand, pine trees, and those hot blacktop streets.
††††††††††† Next to Mom, my favorite person in the giantís family was his older brother, Uncle Bud, who was a local sign painter and apparently, was pretty prominent.† He would come down to Momís on Saturday night and he would tell stories about hillbillies and draw pictures to illustrate as he talked. I still have one of his drawings. That was when I knew I wanted to be an artist.
††††††††††† In third grade I had an art teacher who drew pictures with crayons and I thought he was a freakiní genius. I was in awe of the guy because he could draw his own pictures to color. He didnít need no stinking badges or coloring books. I was thinking, ďIf I could only do that.Ē Then I began to wonder if I could? Naaaa! But then again, maybe.
††††††††††† I began to draw pictures out of my comic books, mostly Disney characters, as my dream was to work for Walt Disney. My mother wasnít impressed with my drawings, because she thought I was tracing them. I didnít even know what tracing was, which is good, because I probably would have if I had known. It would have been much easier. But, like everything else in my life, I did it the hard way.
††††††††††† When she discovered I wasnít tracing, she had me draw one of those pictures off the back of a matchbook cover that says, ďDraw me. You may have talent.Ē She sent it in and, surprise of all surprises, they accepted me in their art school. Of course, they accepted everybody who sent in a drawing, but we didnít know that at the time. When mother discovered they wanted money that idea went south for more than the winter. I guess she thought they would be so impressed by my brilliant talent they would pay me to go to their school.
Only Let Gentle Giants Adopt Your Children
††††††††††† In 1958 my daddy gave up all rights as my father and agreed not to attempt to see me again. Mother told me daddy didnít want to pay child support anymore. Daddy told me, many years later, that he couldnít stand seeing me cry every time he took me back home. It doesnít matter which excuse it was, because either way it was about his feelings and not mine.
††††††††††† Once the giant adopted me, my last name wasnít the only thing to change. I had called him ďpopĒ when he was my stepfather, but after he adopted me, he wanted me to call him daddy. That was fine, but habits are hard to break, especially after almost four years. When I accidentally called him ďpopĒ shortly after the adoption he got really mad and may have hurt me, but something stopped him. I believe, now, my heavenly Father was watching over me, even though, at the time it didnít seem like it. Joy, like fame, is fleeting. I thought adopted children were supposed to be special. Things had suddenly changed. The scary giant was becoming a scurrilous giant. He was no longer just using angry words. He was becoming physical. I didnít feel like his son. I still felt like a stepchild.
††††††††††† Over the next three years the giant started drinking heavier and heavier and gradually became meaner and meaner. But it seemed to be just toward me. He treated my mother and my brother (his real son) like human beings. It got to the point where he would give me a whack or a thump on the back of the head for no particular reason. There were times when I would walk by him and he would suddenly raise his hand and start scratching his head and, of course, I would flinch, then he would get angry at me for flinching. He slowly became very unreasonable. Now I know it was the alcohol, but at the time I didnít know why he was treating me like he did. When I had done something wrong, I was expecting it, but it was the surprise attacks that got me jittery.
††††††††††† With everything that was going on I became a sneaky person. Mother and the giant would go to the store and leave me alone for short periods of time, and while they were gone I would turn into Cookie Monster. Normally they would only let me have one or two cookies at a time, so when they left I would stuff cookies in my mouth as I ran to the window to watch for their return. I would also hide cookies in my sock and underwear drawer for later, after I went to bed.
††††††††††† I always thought I was getting away with it, but now I wonder. Didnít mother notice that half the Oreo cookies were gone? And didnít she notice the crumbs in my socks and underwear? She was either stupid or afraid of what the giant might have done to me if he found out. I donít think she was stupid. After all, I was her real son.
††††††††††† They left me home like that one time just before Christmas, and they probably werenít gone twenty minutes, but in that time I carefully opened all my presents enough to see what was inside each package. I never did that again, because that Christmas wasnít very much fun. The surprise element was gone. Remember that lesson if youíre thinking about having sex before you get married.
††††††††††† Another sneaky thing I thought I was getting away with at holiday times was when mother made divinity candy from scratch. That stuff would melt in your mouth. It was wonderful with a capital FUL. When it was done she would drop the hot candy on wax paper in pieces about the size of two Hershey kisses.
††††††††††† She would tell me I could have one piece, but her mistake was in not watching me. I would take two or three pieces and mash them together into one big piece like they should have been in the first place. That way I felt like I wasnít really lying when I said, ďYes, I only got one piece.Ē
On Saturday Afternoon I Was the Hero
††††††††††† I started going to the Saturday
††††††††††† I also had to hang wet clothes on the ďclothes line,Ē then take them down when they were dry, and fold them and put them away. I also had to vacuum all the floors and dust all the furniture. For this I got a quarter, of which I spent every penny at the movies. It cost ten cents to get in and candy bars were a nickel each. Drinks were a nickel for small and a dime for large. If I found an extra dime or quarter on the floor I could make myself sicker than a dog, then I would have to pick up my own poop.
††††††††††† The movies opened around eleven a.m. and they played the same two movies over and over with the same cartoon and newsreel in between until about six p.m. I would usually stay there the whole afternoon then go out into the courtyard and wait for someone to pick me up. I always hated when they forgot me.
††††††††††† After a day at the movies I was the hero for that next week, especially if it was a western. I loved to play cowboys. I liked to get shot while I was running. That fall was my specialty. Usually kids argued about who got shot, but not me. Just shoot me. After all, I was only dead for a few seconds then I was up and running again.
††††††††††† I wasnít very good at sports, so when the other kids started getting into sports, I was still playing cowboys, mostly by myself. I was pretty good at tetherball, four-square, and dodge ball, but when it came to the ďbig three,Ē football, baseball, and basketball, I was among the last two or three kids picked for any given team, even if one of my friends was choosing sides.
††††††††††† One morning while playing softball, during P.E. class, I threw the ball to the first baseman, who stood there with his glove out in front of his face. The ball went over the top of his glove and hit him between the eyes and knocked him out cold. They carried him away and I didnít see him the rest of the day. I went home and told my parents that I thought I killed a kid. Itís funny. The giant didnít get angry about that. Huh. Oh well. The kid showed up the next day with a knot on his forehead. Other than that he was okay.
††††††††††† Every year on field day I would sign up for almost everything and come in last in almost everything. I never won a ribbon for any field day event. Now they give ribbons just for participating so as not to lower the childís self esteem. It seems to me that would lower it even more getting a ďpity prize.Ē
††††††††††† The area where I excelled in school was class clown. Even when I got called down in front of the class I was getting laughs. The kids in that school knew who I was. I was the kid who couldnít play sports and was always in trouble. One of my favorite routines was in library class. While the teacher read the story I would pantomime to what she was reading, behind her back, of course.
††††††††††† It was that same library class where I learned not to trust girls. Once, and only once, I stuck my finger under a stapler and dared a girl to push it down. Without a second thought she hit the plunger. My first instinct was to jerk my finger out, except the staple was half in my finger and half still in the machine. So instead of two small holes in my finger, I had a long gash. I didnít have to worry about infection as it bled really well. I think it was the same finger I had grilled a few years earlier with the cigarette light.
I See Dead People or Maybe itís Just My Imagination
††††††††††† The summer of 1958 was the first time I stayed home alone all day, because mother had gotten a job at a toy store. The sisters, who lived next door, kept my little brother, Joey. I wasnít supposed to watch television while no one was home, so they tied the cord in a special way so they would know if I had taken it apart to plug it in. I donít understand why they didnít want me watching, because there were only four channels and nobody cursed on television in the fifties, anyway. There were those beer and liquor commercials, though.
††††††††††† Mother and the giant would leave me a ton of things to do each day to keep me busy, but I still had time to figure out how to take the cord apart and put it back just like it had been, after I watched television most of the day. I also had time to build things out of kitchen matches in the big ashtray and set them on fire. Fortunately, I never burned the house down. God was watching over me and protecting me, mostly from myself back then.
††††††††††† But suddenly, the ghosts came. I donít remember an exact time, but I saw something move out of the corner of my eye one day, then a noise on another day. It was gradual, but I became scared to death of that house, when I was alone. If someone else was there it was okay. I figured even the ghost were afraid of the giant.
††††††††††† It got to a point where I would do my chores real fast, as I would try to keep my back to the wall and my eyes and ears wide open. Then I would sit out by the curb and watch things move past the windows until someone came home. I was so glad when mother quit her job, despite the fact that she would occasionally bring me a new matchbox car.
My First Loss of a Dear Friend
††††††††††† That was the year those people (my parents) put Dinah, the cocker spaniel, to sleep. I hated them for murdering my dog. It didnít matter that she was eleven years old, blind and deaf and probably suffering. She was my only real friend. It took me awhile to get over that.
††††††††††† I cried. But then, I cried about everything. I even cried when I saw helium balloons get loose and float away into the upper atmosphere. That still makes me sad, even now. But you know how, when a loved one dies, you take a kind of comfort in the hope that youíll see them again in heaven? Well, I figured when we got to heaven it would be full of helium balloons. And the angels would all be talking with funny little voices; or maybe not.
††††††††††† After Dinah died I would lie on
Iíll Give It a Ten Because You Can Dance to It
††††††††††† The 1958-59 school year was the time of my musical awakening. I donít remember paying much attention to music before that. My parents always listened to big band music and I just remember it being there, like elevator music. I just didnít think about it.
††††††††††† The Chipmunks became a new
phenomenon that year. Tom Dooley was my favorite song. In
††††††††††† I would take my little, rocket shaped transistor radio, with no speaker, just an ear-piece, and I would go fly a kite. Today kids fly kites in parks, but in the fifties we flew our kites right in the neighborhood between huge trees and power lines. Every street and alley was a graveyard of old kites hanging from wires and tree limbs like an ancient Indian burial ground. It was rather sacred to those of us who had kites laid to rest in the vicinity.
††††††††††† One day I was flying my kite in the front yard when I lost my grip on the spool. I watched in awe as the kite dragged the spool across the neighborís yard, up his wall, and across his roof, where it hung in his television antenna. The kite continued to fly. I just went in the house and pretended nothing happened. The kite was still flying from his antenna when the sun went down.
††††††††††† The next day the spool was still hung in the neighborís antenna. The string lay stretched across the back of his roof and his backyard. I followed it for about two blocks across streets and through treetops like a giant spider web. Then it just ended, with a dangling piece of string. I never did find out what happened to the kite.
††††††††††† Sometimes our lives are like that kite string, just hanging out or wandering loosely through life. Thereís no real meaning to their existence, and at the end itís frayed and dangling. The source to carry it into the heavens is missing.