1949, the year I came into this world, was like most years of the Cold War era of the American Century in that it was fraught with triumph, angst and threat. On New Year’s Day, when I was a mere bump in my mother’s belly, things started out on a promising note – the UN sponsored a ceasefire brought an end to the Indo-Pakistan War of 1947, and then Harry Truman was inaugurated for his first elected term as President, but by the end of the month PLA forces from the Communist Party of China entered Beijing. In May Israel was admitted to the United Nations as its 59th member and the Soviet Union lifted its Blockade of Berlin. In June George Orwell's book Nineteen Eighty-Four was published and the South African Citizenship Act suspended the granting of citizenship to British Commonwealth immigrants and imposed a ban on mixed marriages.
Five days before I came into this world Israel and Syria signed a truce to end their 19-month war, so overall things were looking up. Thirty days later the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was established, but on August 29th the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb, code named "Joe 1" and that’s when the shit really hit the fan.
In October Chairman Mao stood on a balcony above Tiananmen Square and declared the formation of the People’s Republic of China and those two events dovetailed to totally seal the deal on the Cold War. Oblivious in my infancy, I’d lived 36 days blissfully free from the threat of annihilation. I remained oblivious until 1955 when I entered public school and began my childhood training as a Cold Warrior with the ubiquitous drill of “Duck and Cover!”
I have almost no recollection of that time with the exception of a cold wet November morning in 1954 when my mother returned from the hospital with my baby brother and even that is vague. We moved from Indianapolis to a small town called Acton, about forty miles south where my first complete memories became etched in my little kid brain. The first was a nightmare spawned by television: not the vivid full color flat screen digital images of today, but a fuzzy black and white picture on a little nine inch screen in a wooden box the size of a small refrigerator. It came from the broadcast of an old Tarzan movie with Johnny Weissmuller.
Tarzan and Jane’s son “Boy” was running from some jungle threat when he found himself wrapped up in the gooey ropey strands of a giant spider web. With his tenor version of the famous warbling Tarzan family yell, “Boy” called for the Apeman’s help. While spiders the size of dinner plates descended upon him, Cheetah jumped up and down and tried to pull him free. Of course Tarzan arrived in the nick of time, stabbing the spiders with his giant Bowie knife and cut “Boy” out of the web. Don’t remember any other part of the movie but after I finally fell asleep that night my five-year-old brain went into overdrive.
My older brother slept in the top bunk and when - in my dream - I woke up to find our silent bedroom covered in giant spider webs, my first impulse was to call out to him. I immediately realized that he was already dead, and that was when the giant spiders began to crawl down the web surrounding my bed. I can’t imagine how my brain came up with this twisted flourish, but the spiders in my dream were anatomically augmented with telescoping fangs that approached my body from ever angle. Knowing that if I called for help, my mother would come into the dark room, I ducked under the covers and resisted as long as I could - but I must have succumbed, because I woke up crying in her arms.
Not that my life as a child was a complete horror, I do remember one summer afternoon when my mother was listening to the radio while she ironed my dad’s work shirts. Ella Fitzgerald sang the Cole Porter song, I Love Paris which I heard as I Love Parrots. Mom laughed out loud when I belted out that loopy lyric over the next week or so. My mother’s smiles and laughter were mostly nervous giggly things and I delighted that my rendition brought her laughter to near tears.
Dad worked full time at an aircraft engine factory and supplemented the family income with freelance auto repair and body work at night. He’d come home for dinner at four or five and by six we were hard at work in the single car garage behind the house. My job was to hand him tools as he made his repairs and I was eager to do that because hanging on the wall above the work bench was a calendar with a famous color photograph of Marilyn Monroe lying nude on a red satin sheet. By the tender age of six I had no idea about what sex or art might be, but I knew what I liked.
Not long after those innocent days I fell under the beguiling spell of an older woman – a feisty eight-year-old tomboy who lived next door – and entered my life of intermittent crime. Chocolate milk was a rare treat in my family’s house and I could never get enough. One summer morning when we spied the milkman making his deliveries (Yes at one time local dairies delivered glass bottles of milk and other dairy products to your home.), we calculated that he was away from his truck for quite a bit of time. We cased his routine for two more days before we made our move.
I was the B&E man while she stood lookout. I slipped into the truck and opened the cooler doors in a frantic search for chocolate milk and I couldn’t find any!! A hissed whisper, “Hurry up, he’s coming back!”
Closing the doors I grabbed a couple of half pint cartons of whole milk and slipped out the door. Keeping the parked truck between us and him we tucked our booty under our shirts and casually walked down the sidewalk toward our front yards. He started the engine and we ran into my back yard to indulge in the stolen spoils from our crime.
In aftermath of the adrenalin rush, we would have gotten away Scot free except I forgot to wipe my upper lip. My mother confronted me with the evidence. I lamely lied and she sent upstairs to my room for the rest of the day, condemned with the ultimate sentence, “Wait until your father gets home!”
During the inquisition I ratted out the tomboy, and we both got our little butts paddled. I went to bed with no supper which added insult to injury because that night Mom made chocolate pudding for desert!! Such was my introduction to the wiles of wild women and the narcotic rush of the criminal life.
Next installment: Life on the farm, chasing down headless chickens, more spiders in the dim corners of the outhouse and other terrors and delights.
except for attributed photos and text all content is copyrighted © 2012 JKM