These paragraphs and stories are about my life growing up in Portland, Oregon. In the heat of summer, I see myself running into the house, screen door slamming behind me. Breathless and sweaty, I'm only taking a quick respite from the sun. The old forward pull-handle of the fridge blasts me with immediate coolness. With a suck of air, the inside light shows a plastic pitcher filled with Kool-Aid. Thinking back during the glorious days of growing up in the 60's, I can see images, clear and crisp, and as vivid as any. I sit in sunlit balconies and look down upon a boy that casts a mop-headed shadow against a decrepit shed, hiding behind chicken wire and tall weeds. There's a dirty bandage on his right knee from falling off his bike into the gravel. Enough blood has seeped through the gauze to make him look heroic to the girls on the block. That kid is me.
My family moved every year. I don't know why, I guess my folks just had itchy feet. In any event, I went to a different school every year -sometimes two a year. I often returned to certain schools, but never in the same year. Needless to say, we also lived in different places and neighborhoods. What I'd like to try and do, is capture the flavor of growing up in my formative years of the sixties. The neighborhoods were quite a bit different back then; many had dirt, or gravel roads. We mostly lived in the area of SE Portland, but we did migrate to other neighborhoods as well. On theses pages rest ghostly apparitions; friends, family, teachers, and neighbors, all play a part in a world once probably as complicated as the days we live in now.
So, I'll try my best to describe a view of life as seen through the scratched lens of distant memories. The year was 1959, and my induction to life and the concept of society all started with the nightmare of Kindergarten
Kindergarten was a weird transition for me. It was a time of leaving the house to be in a classroom with other kidnapped/stranded children. It was a time of crying for mom to come and get me. Kindergarten was the first truly social experience I had, and it took me awhile to warm up to it. I can still remember the classroom, the small set of tables and chairs, and the painting easels. The room was brightly lit and had lots of construction paper decorations everywhere. As rooms go, I remember thinking that it would have been acceptable had it been in my house.
Still, Kindergarten was a time of structure and learning, and I didn't care for structure and learning; I really didn't care for it when it came to so many fun things to play with. Rules be damned, I wanted to paint with temperas! Oh, the smell of them once the jars were opened. I can still see the bright, bubbly colors, the blues and yellows and reds and greens. We painted on giant easels of newsprint, a surface with a quality just one step above toilet paper. There were other things that the teacher wanted me to do before I could paint. I had to learn to interract and play with others. Have you ever heard of such a stupid notion? I had to not only be nice to girls, but I had to play with them as well!
Now, if you're a five-year old boy in 1960, the last thing you want to spend even a shred of your valuable, non-nap taking time on, is girls. I had to learn to play house. Girls loved to play house. Fortunately for me, I ruled my household wearing the boots of a dictator. I was selfish with the monopoly money. I took no interest in household affairs. "You take care of it while I read my paper" was generally my attitude toward the activity. Had I known what divorce was, I would have begged for it. It soon became abundantly clear to the teacher that I was not interracting well with females. "You want cooperation? Then get me to that easel and open up the temperas!" It was quid pro quo; you give, I give.
Eventually, I did find myself at the easel, and I painted a glorious rocket that I can almost remember vividly to this day. The background was the brightest blue, and the rocket was just a basic triangle shape. At that young age, I knew the step-by-step method of drawing stars. My mom taught me how to start at one point, criss-cross, then finish with a perfect star shape. That was pretty hot stuff!
So, with brush in hand, I was painting bright yellow stars in space. Reds, yellows, and oranges made up the fire coming from the rocket ship. The background was the deepest blue. It was bright and almost neon and soon became my favorite color. I can still feel the dried tempera on my hands and the feel of the big brush as I applied color and technique. I was so proud of that painting that I remember running home with it to show mom. She too was impressed.
For what it's worth, I also learned how to tie my shoes at a very young age. I was fascinated by the way the bow knot worked, and spent hours tying and untying my shoes. I'd untie my dad's workboots while he sat in his chair reading the paper. Over and over again, I'd tie and untie, then tie again. Step two on my incredible journey of shoes and knots, was learning how to lace shoes. That I also did at the pre-school level. In my latter years I taught myself how to make the laces run straight across instead of criss-crossed. My mother was quite impressed.
Upon reflection, I imagine that daytime television was so addictive to me because it was a special, quiet time in the house. As a youngster, I remember playing with toys and listening to many of these great shows. The theme songs, the introductions, and the endless stream of commercials became comforting. For me there was something so safe about repetition and routine. I could depend on it. The programs droned in the background, or foreground, depending on my location, and to this day I revere and love them like siblings. Daytime TV became a part of my ambient evolution. I adapted to its environment. I'm trying to remember as many as possible, but some will be hopelessly lost in the black hole of my memory.
There were the soap operas like, "Secret Storm", "Search for Tomorrow" and "The Edge of Night." I remember watching, and actually playing along with "The Match Game". In some cases, I did remarkably well. "Ben Casey" was also a favorite. "Man, woman, birth, death, infinity." I'm not exactly sure if those were the opening, or closing remarks, but they were accompanied by these really cool symbols that I always drew. In my pre-schooled opinion, the symbol for "Woman" was the most interesting and represented stability. The symbol for "Man" was screwy, off balance, and basically uninteresting. It was a round circle with a little arrow sticking out the side. Still, I drew these symbols faithfully on any type of paper I could get my hands on. "Birth" was a sort of asterisk shape, "Death" was a cross, and "Infinity" was a sideways figure eight. Now, how cool is that? It was also the majesty of that narration that I admired, even at that age. It projected the medical profession as being rather ominpotent and extremely important.
"Dr. Kildare" was another show that my mom watched regularly. For some reason, I always thought of it as TV doctor show overkill. I remember ignoring the program as best I could because it was so boring. After all, "Ben Casey" had Dr. Zorba. You just don't find characters that cool on daytime television. Instead of "Dr. Kildare", I found greater pleasure in spinning around in circles on my knees pushing a plastic fire truck. Interestingly, I remember "Ben Casey" and "Dr. Kildare" playing in the daytime. They must been in syndication reruns for they were both initially prime time programs.
Art Linkletter was the man. He had a program called "House Party" that was tremendously popular and ran from 1952-1969. That sort of longevity in television programming is rare these days. Art had a big smile and an incredibly amicable personality. The very end of the show was spent interviewing a group of school children. I was glued to the set when that part came on. I even remember writing him a letter one day (my mom wrote it for me). I actually expected an answer to it in the next day's mail. Art was such a great guy that he would naturally sit down and respond to me before anything else. If I'd had the power of reasonable deduction, I could imagine that the letter never even saw an envelope. And so goes another case in the on-going tradition of appeasing childhood ambitions.
Another favorite memory is lying on the couch watching such daytime TV favorites as "Make Room for Daddy." The show ran from 1953-64, but changed networks in 1957 and was titled "The Danny Thomas" Show for the rest of its run. I always had trouble with names then, and assumed that my own adaptation was the correct one. Therefore, I called the show "Make Room for Danny". It didn't matter that the on-screen credits read: "Daddy"; the television was wrong, I was correct, end of story.
A second favorite was "The Loretta Young Show", or "Letter to Loretta" as it was originally called. The program ran from 1953-1961 and was hosted by Loretta Young herself. She also starred in some episodes, but that's about all I can remember about it.
I can remember many of the above mentioned shows from staying home from school sick. Staying home sick was a marathon sport which I excelled at. I usually fell victim to some catastrophic illness around Sunday evening. Amazingly, I was as healthy as a horse during the summer months. The great plagues of the sixties usually began sometime after Labor Day and ended around the middle of June. When I was sick, I was pampered. My mom would make me one of my usual favorites, peanut butter toast and milk. Life didn't get any better than that.
Still, staying home sick could also backfire on you. I had the knack of giving Academy Award-winning performances that could extend my homestay into two days. Usually, a visit to the doctor was in store when that happened. It didn't matter what I had; I could have a tiny bump on my head and the doctor always gave me a shot in the butt. I lived in fear of the doctor. I even went so far as to think that I might actually see him on the street, or in the grocery store. I could imagine him coyly whispering to his nurse, "There he is! Get him, and get his pants down." He had a needle that was three feet long that he only used on me.
Of all the episodes of "Ben Casey" that I watched, Ben never betrayed his patients. He never gave them a shot in the butt. Dr. Casey was a true humanitarian. Our doctor was a sadist. I spent the bulk of my formative years fearing the word "penicillin." However, I can gladly say that he didn't get off so easily. It took six nurses, three police officers, and the U.S. Army third batallion to hold me down.
A possible snippet of a conversation between our doctor and my mom might dialog something like this: "Oh, he's fine. No fever, and he can return to school tomorrow. However, we'll give him a shot just to be safe." Just to be safe?! You just said I was okay! I swore that when I got older and bigger, I'd track him down to the far ends of the earth. And then, do you know what he'd get? That's right, a shot in the butt.
I was probably about four, or five years old when I saw something that terrified the wits out of me. It was a vision of unbridled horror that crept into my soul and unraveled it from the core. It was a television commercial for the movie, "Village of the Damned." Even the word, "damned" was frightening to me. However, nothing, and I mean nothing, was more horrific than the white, glowing eyes of the children. There was something so inhuman, so absolutely corrupt and fiendish about those white eyes.
Whenever I was alone in the house, those devil eyes of neon white were there with me. I could see the evil children materialize before me. If I went upstairs, they were waiting at the landing for me. When bedtime came I was terrified. It was in the dark that they chose to appear and keep me company. It was much worse in the sense that they were children. Kids were supposed to be your allies, the ones you could identify with and understand.
Kids were your immediate support, the ones who helped you view the paradox of the adult world through a more feasible lens. What happens then when kids become the monsters? The world becomes a place where there is no safe haven. Those "children of the damned" paved the way for me to truly grasp the concept of deception. My ever-active subconcious was able to summon forth from the black depths of school lessons, bigger, better, and much scarier monsters.
Soon, monsters and evil could be seen in shapes. Once my eyes adjusted to the dark, anything was possible. Truth was fiction, and the dead came back to life. A coat hanging on the door was a demented hunchback waiting for my parents to fall asleep so he could kill me. Stuffed animals took on a presence of their own, staring at me in the dark, and moving from one position to another so slyly that I barely took notice. Sometimes if I looked just right, I could see an arm move. If the closet door was ajar, then all hell could literally break loose.
I was always amazed at how stupid adults could be. Leaving a closet door open? Why not let me play with matches, or run in traffic? Anybody with even an ounce of gray matter knew that an open closet door was the gateway to hell. Pathetic, unearthly creatures clawed and slithered their way up from the putrid slime just waiting for mom and dad to go to bed.
Now, here's the kicker of it all: In the daylight, monsters were cool. They were good friends because they were harmless. You could study their pictures and almost say out loud "hey, why can't you be this cool at night?" Whenever monster movies were on TV, or any scary program for that matter, I had to watch. It was only when bedtime came that the monsters became deadly predators.
If that were not enough, during lunch period at school, movies were shown in thirty-minute installments. It was in my earliest days that I saw "Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers." I was really beginning to grow as a person and thinking human being. I had just gotten past the "Village of the Damned." Blonde-haired children no longer put me in a coma. The white glowing eyes? Well, if you've seen one set, you've seen 'em all. It was now alien robots that did it for me. They clumped along with their arms outstretched, shooting out some kind of ray at helpless victims. Yes, robots were the new horror.
Was there anything better than Play Doh? Of course, Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs were serious runners up, but they didn't have that pliancy, the soft, yeasty smell, or the striking colors that the Doh had.
My mom cannot remember this, and I'm not sure that I have it all completely straight, but I can vividly remember walking through Ladd's Addition on a sunny afternoon. I mention this because I had a friend who lived across the street named Lenny. He had a Play Doh Fun Factory! We used to spend hours playing together with the mysterious modeling compound. For some reason, I acquaint these memories with those of walking through Ladd's Addition. Oh well.