While the events of the U.S. civil rights movement and the Vietnam War were roiling the larger society, the first big event that I was privy to in our little family’s cataclysm was in early April of 1964 around my ninth birthday, bearing helpless witness to my mom having what later I would learn was a panic attack. I recall that I was in my room and heard her out in the living room pacing the floor and crying haltingly punctuated by gasps for air. When I came into the living room to see what was going on she looked at me with absolute terror in her eyes, “Cooper… I can’t breathe!”, as if somehow she was hoping I could do something about it.
Just this event itself was a cataclysm for me personally. Adults seemed like a different species than I and my peers, even like deities, and no more so than my mom. Besides having always been healthy and energetic, she seemed always a magnitude larger than life and always on top of every situation and able to articulate strong words and take the needed action in any crisis. But here suddenly she was incapacitated, perhaps even dying, I did not know in that immediate moment. If I had been confronted by one of my peers in the similar situation I probably would have sprung into action to try to help them. But to witness this foundational being around which my presence in this world was built seemingly coming apart at the seams was devastating and I was nothing but frozen and dumbfounded, and of no use to her at all in her awful moment.
I remember her furiously dialing the phone and then sobbing to someone on the other end of the line, perhaps my dad, that she needed immediate assistance. I probably went into some form of shock at that point, because I have no memory of what happened after that. Did someone on the phone talk her down from her perceived precipice? Did the person on the phone, my dad or a friend perhaps, come and take her to the emergency room or otherwise assist her?
Looking back, my mom had been approaching this psychological brink for a while. Her angry words on several occasions to my dad that there was not enough money, that she felt like a drudge, and that she needed the opportunity to pursue her own continuing development as she had helped him pursue his to get his PhD and become a college professor. Now he was ensconced teaching English at Eastern Michigan University, albeit earning a very modest salary, but loving his engagement with young adult students, and pouring much of his energy and focus into his work.
She needed more in her own life than just trying to manage a household on a shoestring budget such that she could not afford to buy new clothes or even furniture for the living room. Such that dinner was often just some cooked macaroni noodles mixed with a can of stewed tomatoes, a cheap quick meal that must have been a staple of her parents during their own lean years, because she referred to it, perhaps even derisively, as “Roberts Spaghetti”.
Since marrying my dad in 1950 they had lived as starving students for fourteen years now with visions of rising above their humble roots to join the intellectual elite. With his career launched as professor with PhD, he could now lay claim amongst his work colleagues to a spot in that elite. In an era when most smart young women who went to college were expected to only aspire to the “MRS degree”, but without any money for the props or costumes of that role, she could not even properly play the part of a college professor’s intellectual wife.
But after that wake up call of the panic attack, with my mom back on here game of taking effective action to resolve issues, and my dad engaged now not just in his teaching, things changed. In August of 1964 we moved from our little two bedroom house in our modest neighborhood to rent a house in a more upscale part of town around Burns Park, about two miles due east. A neighborhood with big trees and big brick houses, where college professors lived with their families. Our parents, still looking for close proximity to a park for their two growing sons to play, had found a house almost exactly juxtaposed to Burns Park as our old house had been to Almendinger; just out the front door and to the left across the street.
Still with little more than basic bedroom furniture, my dad’s old desk, and bricks and boards for shelves, my mom and dad pooled their talents for artistry and craft and directed them towards creating nice furniture for the house at minimal cost. My mom called it “junking (differentiating it from “antiquing”), looking for garage sales or when the university sold its old furniture. Finding a table, chair, cabinet, dresser or other such piece, even old and battered with peeling paint or worn upholstery, but basically a “good piece of wood” that could be purchased for a mere five or ten dollars, then stripped down, refinished and/or reupholstered.
I can remember my mom, out there in our driveway of our new house wearing rubber gloves and wielding her putty knife, spreading oily solvent on a piece of old furniture that she or my dad had recently “junked”, scraping off the old finish down to the bare wood, then cleaning it up and applying her favored finish, linseed oil, to bring out the grain and beauty of the wood. When needed to replace a broken board or shore up a weak table leg, my dad would add his carpentry skills to the effort. They both figured out how to reconstruct upholstery as well. Pretty soon we had a house full of beautiful wood furniture, the sum of which had been purchased for less than a hundred dollars total.
And leveraging the more casual dress of the university community in the mid 1960s, my mom developed her signature look with turtleneck tops and sweaters above cotton skirts or slacks. Now with more than a small barebones house, and lots of intellectually stimulating neighbors, my gregarious mother met them walking the neighborhood or at someone else’s party and invited them to her own soirees, usually more intellectual salon than superficial cocktail downing parties.
Though prickliness continued between my mom and dad in day to day aspects of running the household and what to spend money on and how much, they both loved to travel, and as a family unit we were at our finest planning for and executing long trips for vacations and holidays. All four of us shared a framing of long trips as an adventure rather than an ordeal, and our parents did everything they could to make it especially so for my brother and I. That first August after our move and before school started we took the first of several memorable August vacations “back east” as my mom would say to Cape Cod in Massachusetts.
The routine we developed for these long day drives began the evening before with the preparation of the car for a very early start the next morning, to avoid as much as possible driving through a long hot afternoon in a car with no air conditioning. The configuration of the area behind the front seat was of particular interest to my brother and I, and all four of us would contribute our ideas to its exact arrangement. The back seats would be folded down flat with most of the suitcases stuffed in whatever space there still was under them. Then two thin cot mattresses would cover the entire back seat area, followed by blankets and finally pillows festooned about so my brother and I could sleep in the early morning and play during the day. This of course was before the days of seat belts and I shudder to think what would have happened in this configuration if we had gotten in a bad crash.
For me at least, anticipation of an adventure can be as much or even more fun than the actual adventure itself. So after preparing the car I would get in bed but struggle to sleep, not unlike Christmas eve having my mind buzz with thoughts of what would happen in the morning. Bleary eyed we would awaken at four-thirty or five in the morning and still wearing our pajamas stagger sleepily but with great excitement into the car, climb under our pre-arranged back seat covers, and then we’d be off. Dad at the wheel taking the first shift driving, mom next to him in the front seat with maps at the ready on her lap or in the glove compartment. My brother and I nestled under the blankets and amongst a plethora of pillows and peeking up and out through the windows watching the street lights go by.
These trips took us far afield from the flat same-old same-old topography of southeast Michigan through an array of interesting terrain and landmarks. Crossing grand bridges like the Ambassador Bridge across the Detroit River into Canada and later the Peace Bridge exiting Canada to Buffalo New York. Paralleling historic rivers like the Mohawk and Hudson in upstate New York and meandering through the long valleys created by the glaciers from many thousands of years before. Cutting through the granite-laced Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts and then through Springfield and Worcester (pronounced “Wooster” mom would remind us). Finally to the greater Boston area, my mom’s childhood stomping grounds, and from there down along the coast and over the Sagamore bridge to the west end of “the Cape” and then east and finally north to our destination near Provincetown on the Cape’s tip. Our shared anticipation would be heighten by all four of us competing to see who would be the first one to see each great bridge along the way, or the Atlantic Ocean.
There would also be those funky one-of-a-kind places where we would always stop. Like a little restaurant that had this really cool pinball-esque bowling game played by sliding a heavy metal disk down an eight-foot metal alley. The disk would slide over triggers which would cause the pretend pins to fall, and then the mechanisms would calculate and display your updated bowling score.
We all understood that the whole point was the adventure, the change of scenery, the change of perspective, going with the flow and rolling with the punches. Even bad weather was reframed from an anxiety producing obstacle to an exciting challenge that would make this trip that much more memorable (at least for my brother and I in the back, if not the driver and partner riding shotgun).
Finally at our destination, the accommodations would be quite modest, all our tight budget could afford, but still the joyful logistical exercise of negotiating who was going to sleep where and figuring out where the nearest grocery store was in the days before Google Maps. Then after a night’s rest, days at the beach playing in the sand or body surfing in the waves, or picking blueberries, or going into funky little “P-town” (Provincetown), before embarking on the return trip.
After returning from Cape Cod, I reported to my new school in September, with my typical resignation and anxiety at losing my complete freedom, but now just a two or three minute walk across the park to the classic colonial three story brick school building, up to my fifth grade classroom in the southeast corner on the top floor. I still have a picture in my mind of the room with its big framed windows on two walls, chalkboards and teacher’s desk at the front, and student desks in rank and file filling the rest of the room. Most of what went on in that room I have no memory of. In fact it is the one elementary school teacher whose name I cannot remember, only recalling that she was a pleasant young woman who I don’t recall ever interacting with in any more than a cursory way.
I also remember the other rooms in the building where I spent a significant amount of time (I have had a lifelong thing for landscaped exterior and built interior spaces). The big auditorium that included a balcony accessed from the third floor looking down on a sizable stage with (pragmatically like my previous elementary school) double doors at the back of the stage that entered into the gymnasium. The gym with its high ceiling and west facing windows placed high and covered with wire mesh, letting in the afternoon sun. Then the library on the first floor, which I recall distinctly with books on three walls and the fourth with windows looking out across the park. It doubled as a space for music lessons, and I signed up and started learning to play the saxaphone. From as far back as I can remember I have always loved organized amalgamations of books, whether library or bookstore. (In our house today we have many bookcases, each with a different subset of our large book collection!)
I recall that there was a big effort by our teacher to employ the classic elementary school tools of behavior modification – charts and stars – to train us to read as many books as possible. With each subsequent year of going to school, I was learning to cope with the discomforting artificial environment by becoming more and more of a “trained seal”, proactively and even at times passionately doing everything I could to please my teacher and demonstrate my exemplary student credentials relative to my peers. When it came to getting stars for reading books, my strategy was quantity rather than quality, focusing on reading an array of biographies of famous people written in a kind of boilerplate for young readers. They were quick forgettable reads and turned into quick book reports for yet another quick star… what could be better!
Contrast that to the reading I had been engaged in on my own initiative when I wasn’t being incentivized to read. They were lengthy sci-fi classics like Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Mysterious Island (I had previously had my appetite whetted by seeing the movie versions). Also pulpier sci-fi like Edgar Rice Burrough’s A Fighting Man of Mars, plus various Marvel and DC comics.
Fifth grade upped the ante on the expertly designed educational behavior modification techniques that I was being exposed to and moving me even further away from intrinsic motivations towards an obsession with leveling up. The Ann Arbor public schools had purchased McGraw-Hill’s SRA reading program. It’s interesting that what I remember was not the content of any of this reading, but the glossy cardboard title pages of the pieces I was supposed to read that were brightly color coded, based on the reading level you had attained. I started in at maybe the red and had to successfully read a certain number of prose pieces – some stories and some expository – and then answer multiple choice questions about the piece I read, before I could “level up” to maybe the blue level and eventually the green or purple, however the levels were represented graphically.
Until I had achieved my elite status at the highest color level I consumed and processed the reading pieces voraciously to complete the exercise of reading and answering questions on each piece as quickly as I could possibly do so. As I worked through more and more of these little stories and essays, I learned the technique of scanning for the important bits of info in the text that I anticipated would be in the test questions. To the point where I could scan a piece, parse the important bits, and successfully answer multiple-choice questions about those bits without really synthesizing what I had read into my conscious mind and its body of knowledge.
I don’t recall if what I was reading was interesting or not, but I do recall not really caring, just thrilled by the exercise and the extrinsic rewards associated with successful pursuit of the exercise. I was also being trained, mostly below my conscious awareness, to be a compliant student, and to paraphrase the catch phrase these days, “learn to the test”.
With fifth grade came my first assignment to write a lengthier report than a one-page book report. Hearing of the assignment, at my parents’ suggestion, I chose New York, the state they had both grown up in. Given my active imagination and my strong desire to please my teacher and stand out academically, I envisioned writing a lengthy report with labeled sections dealing with history, geography, population, industry, etc. But given my right-brained non-linear mind, any extensive writing effort was a very linear task (particularly before the invention of the word processor allowing text to be cobbled together), that was very awkward and excruciating for me. Plus, even though I was excited about the thought of having written such a piece, the act of researching and writing it quickly bored me.
I had already learned that my mind tended to naturally think in several directions at once. For example, a conversation that I engaged in could have a profound influence on me, but I generally would not be able to recall it as a series of statements, but more as just a holistic gestalt that had moved me. My non-linear mind resonated with the continuing imagination play I engaged in outside of school. After reading a fantasy epic like The Lord of the Rings, and understanding the dynamics of that invented world, the various competing actors, the techniques and strategies, I would then enjoy creating some sort of play situation, either purely in my mind or with plastic figures, to play out various alternative narratives. This would later evolve into being able to effectively analyze or design complicated systems, how I would end up making a good living decades later as a “knowledge worker”.
But that same mind was not so suited to writing essays, which involved creating long sequences of words and paragraphs that built arguments step by step and one thing at a time. I would be constantly challenged to try to torque my multi-directional thinking into a single linear stream of thought and words. It often felt as impossible as singing a three-part harmony with one voice. (This was particularly true during this time before the invention of the word processor!)
So with the deadline the next day on my state report and just a handful of my scrawled paragraph’s about the New York’s history actually written, my dad noted my frustration and offered to “help type” my report. Being a longtime student himself and now a teacher of English and writing, he was so in to the whole production of academic product that he was more than willing to have me benefit from (along with perhaps appreciating) his hard-earned skill. He took my paragraphs, edited them extensively, and then essentially wrote the other sections of the report himself, producing a beautiful document that I ended up getting an “A” on with a handwritten note from my teacher commending the quality of my work. Though I had not actually written much of the report, it was definitely consistent with the kind of work I would like to have done and bolstered my own self image still so tied to how adults perceived me. Bullet dodged!
Even though future work would be more my own, I was developing the bad habit with school writing assignments of writing for the grade. Since most of what I wrote for school was not something I would have chosen to write on my own, I quickly learned to write very mechanically so that I met all the requirements in the teacher’s explicit or implicit rubric with the minimum of effort. Style and voice, which are so much a part of real writing, were generally not worth the effort in academic writing assignments, particularly for me with the writing process so inherently painful.
Though in the area of the written word, there was an experience around school that did have a lasting positive impact on me. As I was starting to do more and more due to the stress of going to school, I missed two full weeks of class due to some sort of flu bug. One of my classmates offered to share her notes with me from the science unit the class had participated in while I was out. When I opened her notebook to copy them, I saw how beautiful her calligraphy was and how effectively she had organized each page of her notes. She used block letters, rather than the cursive ones we were encouraged by our teacher to use. At a deeper level it hit me how a well-designed page that was pleasing to the eye attracted me to the content of the page and therefore made the notes more effective in presenting the information they contained.
Thus inspired, I copied her notes into my own notebook and followed her convention as best I could of using block letters scribed with my best possible effort to make them look pleasing to the eye. And going forward, as I would take my own notes, I continued to do so, including using her outline formatting. It both made the note taking more artistic and therefore more fun, plus making those notes easier for me to look at and review later. Eventually, everything I wrote by hand used block rather than cursive letters, even though I could not write as fast.
One of my most profound experiences I had in connection with school at Burns Park Elementary during my fifth and sixth grade years was my participation in an essentially anarchic school-day ritual outside the school building that was completely youth-initiated with not a single adult ever present that I could remember. Every morning maybe a half hour before class started at 8:15, and again during the lunch hour before classes resumed, fourth, fifth and sixth grade boys (but no girls that I can recall) would gather at the football/soccer field (defined only by two sets of goal posts maybe 60 yards apart) in front of the school.
Once at least one person had brought some sort of a soccer or other kickable ball to the gathering, the game would begin, always with the sixth graders on one team and the fourth and fifth on the other. As more kids with balls arrived, more than one ball would be in play at the same time. Often there were over forty kids participating, everyone playing at the same time with no fixed team size. The sixth-graders superiority based on age matched by the larger numbers of fourth- and fifth-graders generally on the other side. Though there was some effort to keep score, the real point was just the collective thrill when your team, or maybe even you personally, scored a goal. When the school bell rang the game would end and we would all tumble into our classrooms, flushed, panting and sweating profusely.
At the time, it did not seem like anything special or unique, but I don’t recall seeing anything quite like it since. Again, there were never any adults present, and besides a few informal conventions about how the teams were divided and that a ball kicked through the goalposts and under the crossbar was a goal, there were few if any other rules, besides a general implicit agreement that this was not a contact sport. If there was some pushing and shoving at times, I don’t recall it rising to the level of being a problem for the assemblage. I participated almost every day, and though coming into the classroom with the bell possibly stinking with sweat, at least the blood was flowing strongly to my brain for whatever more academic exercise was ahead. There was also something very empowering about the whole exercise, me and my peers (male peers at least), convening for our own self-initiated and self-governed community activity before adjourning to join the one led by the adults.
I don’t know whether it was developmental for kids this age to form secret organizations and spy on each other, or it was more the influence of popular culture and TV shows of the time like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and later I Spy and Get Smart, plus films of the James Bond movie franchise, at that time particularly Goldfinger and Thunderball. But small groups of four to six of my male schoolmates would form secret cabals that would hold clandestine meetings at each others houses. I can recall joining two such groups at the same time, the two representing competing factions with me playing a sort of “mole” or “double agent” role for one in regards to the other. I don’t recall us actually doing much more than gossipping about our peers in the other cabals. If our female peers were doing this too, their level of stealth was apparently effective enough to keep us male types clueless.
As my parents became more integrated into the predominantly white adult university community that lived in the neighborhood, I was meeting their kids at school and in the park, the latter always an informal gathering place for the neighborhood youth without their parents or other adults present. These were families with a sense of intellectual privilege, seeing themselves as members, even key players, in the progressive academic elite at this major public university, and therefor the intelligentsia of the country. Their sons and daughters were growing up in an enriched environment of progressive humanist ideas with most of my young peers being given a lot of latitude to develop their unique talents and personas, and not being required to conform to traditional religious or other conventional strictures.
Just to give you a sense of the kind of young people that were growing up in this milieu, a handful of my neighborhood peers that I am aware of have gone on to play notable roles in the larger society as social commentators and activists. Ken Burns and his brother Ric Burns are now well-known documentary filmmakers. Peter Kornbluh is a director of the non-profit National Security Archives and an activist for declassifying secret government documents. Keith Hefner is a pioneering activist for youth rights.
Among my larger group of male peers in the neighborhood was a subset of kids who were into more esoteric hobbies and pastimes (they would likely be called and even embrace the label “nerds” today). One of those pastimes was playing military simulation board games. This might include the fairly popular game Risk, but generally went beyond that fairly simplistic game to a number of more sophisticated simulation games of historic military conflicts, many at the time created and/or sold by the Avalon Hill company.
I had my first encounter with an Avalon Hill game around when I turned nine, before we moved to Burns Park. My growing obsession with experiencing and re-imagining the history and logistics of military conflicts could not be satisfied by playing with toy soldiers in my basement or pretending with my friends in the park. Lucky for me, by that age I had the confidence of my parents to let me ride my bike into town to several local toy stores. At one of those stores I frequented, I discovered the Avalon Hill board game called “D-Day”.
Sitting in the aisle of the store with the not yet purchased game in my lap (but enough accumulated allowance money in my pocket to purchase it) I read the rest of the words on the box cover…
Now you change World War II History in this realistic Tournament GAME by Avalon Hill
Whoa! Yes! This looked like it could be the next developmental step in pursuing my obsession.
I opened the (luckily not shrink-wrapped) box. My recollection was that on the top of the stack of stuff inside was a sheet of shiny cardboard with an array of half-inch squares, roughly half of them a pale blue and the rest a pale pink, with printed black numbers, letters and symbols on them. With my basic knowledge of military formation indicators from reading all those military history books, I figured out that each square represented a military formation, divisions in this case.
There were over a hundred on the sheet and they were die-cut in such a way to facilitate being easily punched out and separated. Below that intriguing sheet in the box were various charts on card stock and an entire booklet of rules. I was of course familiar with game rules, usually on the inside box cover or an a single sheet… but this was a booklet with pages of rules with sections titled things like “Initial Set-up”, “Movement”, “Combat” and “Victory Conditions”, with little embedded diagrams to illustrate things referenced in the section text. I read enough to understand that the game was a strategic level simulation of the Allies invasion of France in 1944.
I got more excited with each piece of box content that I carefully exhumed and examined (being well aware that I was in the store and hadn’t bought the thing yet). The clincher was the four attached sections of heavy fiberboard in the bottom of the box that I tentatively unfolded to reveal a shiny multi-color map with a grid of hexagons imposed over it. Unfolded, it was a colorful eighteen by twenty-four inch map displaying the real terrain (including coastline, cities, fortresses, rivers and mountains) of France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and southern Germany.
With great excitement and anticipation I quickly refolded the map and reclosed the box with all its contents, took it to the rather school-teacher looking older woman at the store cashier’s counter and bought the amazing thing and rode it home in the pressure basket over the back wheel of my bike. I think it was probably a Saturday with nothing in particular I had to do, so when I got home I took the game down in the basement (my main interior imagination venue), opened it up, took all the components out and spent the next couple hours examining them all, plus reading and trying to figure out all the rules. The more than a hundred half-inch cardboard game “counters” were printed with the designations and quantified movement and combat “factors” of historical German and Allied division-level military formations, including the American 3rd Armor division that my Dad was part of.
Turns out, the game took two to five hours to play and required the reading and mastery of eight pages of rules before even starting, so initially I had to play the game solitaire, since I did not have any friends in my Almendinger park neighborhood I could interest in committing the time and the focus to this somewhat esoteric exercise. Playing solitaire presented some interesting philosophical dilemmas for my nine-year-old mind. From what I had read about the histories of wars, one general often was successful because they disguised their intentions and then caught their adversary by surprise. Given that I was playing both sides, there was no way I could do that. And given that at any point that I might be biased to one side or the other, how could I best manage that bias so the game played out evenly. I had to develop the discipline of taking the point of view of one side, making the best possible move of all its units and resolving any battles initiated by that movement, then switching to the other side and its point of view, and then making the best possible moves for that side.
I can remember sitting on the floor in my basement with the game spread out in front of me, spending the most time and getting perhaps the greatest enjoyment out of setting up all the German units in initial positions to best defend against the Allied invasion. Over the course of several weeks after playing the game a number of times and seeing the consequences of various initial setups I became fascinated with the question of whether there was in fact one best way to deploy all the German forces initially on the map. So I would set them up and then stare at the setup for an hour or more making slight adjustments in the positions of key units, counting out how many hexes they were from key positions they might need to reach (and thus calculating how many turns it would take) depending on which of six choices of beachheads available to them the Allies chose to invade. I would even think about it further as I lay in bed trying unsuccessfully to get to sleep.
At age nine, this was much more compelling curriculum than what I was being directed to learn at school in math and social studies. I was not only intrigued by the historical content of the “D-Day” game, but also the components of the systems, rules and algorithms built into the game to simulate the aspects of conflict, including how a degree of uncertainty in the results of a particular military action was built into the simulation. By that age I was developing the capability to do some pretty abstract thinking, and this subject matter engaged that developing part of my mind. I was intrigued by the use of very simple arithmetic abstractions to simulate key aspects of the real world situation. In this game the four key elements were the units, “zones of control”, the map and its terrain, and the combat results table (CRT).
The capabilities of a particular unit (represented by a half-inch square of cardboard representing a real-life military formation or 15,000 to 20,000 men) was boiled down to three numbers printed on the unit’s counter – an attack factor, a defense factor, and a movement factor. The first two were the relative strength that the unit contributed to any battle it was involved in. The latter was the number of hexes of clear terrain the unit could move into in one turn. So for example, all Allied units and German tank and “mechanized” units had a movement factor of four, based on the fact that all the soldiers in these units had trucks and other vehicles for transport. German infantry and coastal defense units had a movement factor of three or two because their soldiers moved about on foot. So as I lay in bed I would ponder why a mechanized division with its soldiers transported in vehicles (with a movement factor of four) could only cover 33% more territory in a week than a division marching on foot (with a movement factor of three).
Every unit exerted “control” of the six hexes surrounding it. If an enemy unit entered one of those hexes it had to stop and move no further during that turn, and must attack all enemy units it was adjacent to, after all other units on its side were moved for that turn. It was intriguing to me that they had chosen hexagons for the grid of the game rather than squares. But it made sense, since each hexagon had six adjacent hexagons that were equidistant, while a square would have eight other squares surrounding it, four on the sides closer than the four on the corners. This all seemed much more compelling than the multiplication tables I was trying to memorize for school.
The effects of geography and terrain – particularly coasts, mountains, cities, fortresses and rivers – were simplified to an impact on movement and a multiplier applied to the combat factor of a unit based on the terrain. Though all other hexes cost one movement point to enter, and you could continue moving through additional hexes if you had unspent points in the unit’s movement factor, once you moved a unit into a mountain hex it could move no further in that turn. That of course reflected the extreme difficulty moving huge formations of men and vehicles through these mountainous areas with generally few roads, and those often narrow and winding. As I have said I loved maps and logistics, and the logistical exercise of travel, which unless you are flying by airplane, involves the most effective transversing of a particular geography.
As to terrain’s impact on combat, the defense factor of a unit located on a city or mountain hex was doubled, and was tripled on a fortress hex. Coastlines and rivers had a similar impact on combat, but one based on the relative positions of the attacking and defending units. Units attacking across a river or a coastline had their attack factor halved. I recalled reading in the various World War II history books about the difficulty the Allies had in 1945 fighting their way across the Rhine river and into Germany.
In the many hours I spent playing “D-Day” I became intimately familiar with the geography of France. Its extended and not completely defensible coastline, the coastal cities and fortresses that made defending a particular section of that coastline so much easier, its difficult to traverse mountains in the south and northwest, and its numerous rivers in the northwest providing great defensive positions because they flowed mostly east to west rather than north to south.
As I stared at the game on the basement floor, or pondered it under my covers in bed, or when I was bored at school, it was a revelation how, these fairly simplistic movement, terrain and combat rules, applied in their various permutations and combinations, added significantly to the strategic complexity of the game. The geography of the country being fought over, including the locations of mountain ranges, rivers and cities became particularly significant, in the overall strategy of attack and defense.
I wrestled with the concept of what went into an effective simulation. The success or failure of the Allied or German side in the game revolved around the results of the movements of each side and the subsequent battles that resulted from those movements. For the simulation to be roughly realistic, it had to give an advantage to the stronger force in a battle (as modified by the effects of terrain aiding the defense) but build in a certain amount of realistic uncertainty in the outcome. This was accomplished by the “CRT” (Combat Results Table) to be used to determine the results of a battle by adding up the combat factors of the attacker (as modified by terrain) versus those of the defender (as modified by terrain), expressing them as a ratio (1 to 2, 1 to 1, 2 to 1, etc.) and then cross-referencing that ratio with the result of a roll of a six-sided die to add that degree of realistic uncertainty to the outcome. Outcomes could involve one side or the other being forced to retreat, or part or all of the attacking of defending force being destroyed.
Having the best chance for success in a battle involved carefully planning out your moves so that units with a sufficient sum of combat factors attacked to get the best possible ratio relative to the sum of the combat factors of the units attacked. This could be maddening, because attacking units with a sum of 29 attack factors attacking defending units with 10 defense factors was still a 2 to 1 and not quite a 3 to 1 ratio, with the latter being a much better attack in favor of the attacker. Playing the game, I quickly got really good at doing simple sums, multiplications and divisions in my head.
Returning to my larger narrative here, it was the move to the Burns Park area that finally gave me access to at least a handful of other kids who enjoyed these simulation games, and would be willing to devote an entire weekend or summer afternoon to trying to play one with me. I certainly was hooked, particularly because Avalon Hill had a whole series of such games and publishing new titles all the time.
After my deep dive into “D-Day”, I subsequently bought or received as birthday or Christmas presents a number of their other titles. Games for various theaters of World War II, including “Stalingrad” (the German invasion of Russia), “Afrika Corps” (the North African campaign), “Anzio” (the Allied invasion of Italy), plus games like “War in the Pacific”, “Bismarck” and “Midway” focused on the naval battles that dominated the war between the Americans and the Japanese. Other games from earlier wars, “Guns of August” and “Jutland” (World War I), “Gettysburg” (U.S. Civil War), “Waterloo” (Napoleonic Wars), and “1776” (U.S. Revolutionary War). All of these involved a similar size of fiberboard map, number of die cut cardboard units, plus similar rules for movement and combat, and similar combat results tables (though all of that somewhat different in the naval games).
I continued to spend many hours pondering and playing these games, again occasionally with a fellow neighborhood enthusiast but often on my own. The games motivated me to read more about the history of and surrounding these military simulations. Learning about the generals, their actual strategies, the historical results, and the larger context of the wars. The latter to understand the implications if any of these conflicts had been won by the other side, which made the pondering and playing that much more heady.
In the fall of 1965 when I was ten years old and enthralled by these games, and also putting in my time at school, my mom found out that my dad was having an affair with another woman. Given her fidelity to him and putting many of her own ambitions on hold to help him achieve his, this revelation devastated her, and she reacted with a rage that I had not seen before.
Of course I had previously overheard many arguments, often heated, between them. He had what I would learn later to describe as a passive-aggressive approach to their relationship. A typical scenario was when he would bring home a cheap brand of orange juice, rather than the brand my mom had specifically asked him to get. She would get upset and then he would respond by reminding her that she kept complaining that they did not have enough money. My dad was not one for “I statements” and his real emotions showed only when his attempts to hold them in finally failed and he would say something like “Damn it Jane” and stalk off. For me as a kid, all their anger and arguments had been traumatic, so much so apparently that still today I am generally very uncomfortable getting into a verbal exchange of strong negative feelings with somebody. This trauma was mitigated by the fact that it was clear that both my parents loved me, and even though they had serious differences with each other on every other subject, they seemed always aligned when it came to parenting me.
After learning of his affair my mom confronted my dad in the “sitting room” of our house. She had apparently been wrapping leftovers with aluminum foil when he returned home. Though I can’t recall her exact words, I can remember hearing from upstairs in our bedroom her screaming at him about his betrayal of everything their relationship was supposed to be about. She was consumed by such a rage that she apparently started hitting him with the long rectangular aluminum foil box, its serrated cutting blade inadvertently slicing into the flesh between her thumb and forefinger. Next I heard, she was sobbing and my dad was calling up to Peter and I that she would be okay but he had to take her to the hospital emergency room, and they left the house and drove off. When I got the courage up to venture down to the sitting room, there was blood spattered all over the walls.
As it had a year and a half before when my mom had had her “Cooper, I can’t breathe” panic attack, here I was again feeling helpless, this time surveying the bloody evidence of my mom’s violent reaction to my dad’s alleged actions. I being shy like my dad, I had been tending to quietly side with him hearing his more measured tones in their previous arguments, rather than the loud angry and at times exaggerated statements of my more extroverted and heart-on-her-sleve mother. Could his actions of having sex with another woman somehow have a context for being justified? It was difficult for me to think that ill of her, but the blood on the wall made such a powerful statement in that moment. At some level below that of my conscious thought, I was profoundly angry at her.
So soon after that incident my brother and I learned that our parents were getting divorced. Neither Peter or I at this point have any memory from back then of who told us what and when, but I expect we probably learned it from our mom, who was always the one to directly confront difficult situations and speak the difficult words. I being more passive-aggressive like my dad, listened and was angry but did not say so. Because my mom was more the obvious aggressor in their arguments, most of my anger was directed towards her. She had obviously been unreasonable and my poor dad had suffered the consequences and had been driven to his infidelity.
So as a consequence of the divorce our dad moved out of the house to live with some university graduate student friends in a house across town on campus. But he was still involved in our lives in different ways. On school days, he would pick us up at lunchtime and take us to the soda fountain at a local market and buy us hot dogs and a soda. I can still remember sitting on those old metal swivel stools and putting nickels into a juke box on the counter to hear the latest hit songs. We would also spend every other weekend with him at his new residence, taking walks in the nearby Arboretum, throwing a baseball or football, or watching TV together in the evening.
The initial trauma of the divorce faded as my life continued mostly unchanged and I still was getting the support I needed from my parents to move forward with my life. It was actually a relief to no longer have the two of them in the house fighting with each other, though my mom would still have very angry phone conversations with my dad at night, that I overheard from my bed in the room next door to my mom’s bedroom. And now on the fairly numerous occasions where we spent time with dad, he was happy to see us and generally let Peter and I set the agenda of what activities would be most fun. He might suggest we shoot some baskets, but if my brother and I wanted to just hang out and listen to records he would be fine with that too.
I was still processing a lot of pain, anger and anxiety, but doing so mostly below the level of conscious awareness, but evidence of it did surface in some of my behavior at school. In my sixth grade class we had an overweight, socially awkward boy in our class that the alpha boys routinely teased. To get in with that male “elite”of my classroom peers (and not be a possible target of their wrath myself), I went so far as to get special pencils made through mail order that were embossed with one of the most frequent scurrilous accusations made to bully him. The pencils were embossed with the name of the cutest girl in class, followed by “loves” and then his name. My pencils were an instant success with the crowd of other boys I was trying to impress, and the targets of our wrath, both girl and boy, were duly mortified and intimidated. Our teacher investigated, traced the pencils back to me, and had a private talk with me expressing how inappropriate my behavior was, but no further ramifications or restorative actions were taken. All the pencils were confiscated, I was duly chastened, but the incident was a harbinger of things to come and future classroom environments where I would be intimidated by the other boys in my class.
Like most kids who go through their parents’ divorce and the “breaking” of their family, my self-esteem took a serious hit. I was sad, in need of consoling, and in need of reminders that life will go on and better days would be ahead. I actually got a lot of that support from the larger culture and in particular the popular music that was playing on the radio. It was like a Greek chorus of sorts accompanying my life’s tragedy, reminding me that life goes on and I need not despair, and at some level I understood and was heartened by that message.
The first piece of music that I recall playing such a role in my life was Petula Clark’s 1965 hit, “Downtown”…
When you’re alone
And life is making you lonely,
You can always go downtown
She sang those words with her clear and beautiful British diction and voice like a bell.
When you’ve got worries
All the noise and the hurry
Seems to help, I know, downtown
The chorus accompanying my life’s tragedy was reminding me that life goes on and I need not despair, and at some level I understood and was heartened by that message. When I hear the song even today, the intensity of the feelings and other memories of that time envelop me. The emotional memory is soulful but I would not characterize it as sad. The song can still lift me up even today, and like other pieces of music that strike a deep emotional chord in my consciousness, it can literally give me goose bumps all over my body.
Just listen to the music
Of the traffic in the city
Linger on the sidewalk
Where the neon signs are pretty
How can you lose?
Well I was still just ten years old. My mom let me go out on my own as long as I came home “when the street lights come on”. So I was going to have to postpone the whole lingering by those neon signs thing until I was older. But Petula’s image of the call of the urban metropolis did resonate with me, a child transitioning into youth. It reminded me that if I could hang in there I would eventually be an adult myself, and hopefully better able to control my world and create my own reality than I could at the moment.
The lights are much brighter there
You can forget all your troubles,
Forget all your cares and go
Downtown, things’ll be great when you’re
Downtown, no finer place for sure,
Downtown, everything’s waiting for you
It was certainly nice to know that everything was waiting for me and the rest of my Baby-boom generation to come of age and make our mark on the world. I took great solace in that at the time.
And her further advice was somehow prescient to directions my life would take over a decade later.
Don’t hang around
And let your problems surround you
There are movie shows downtown
Somehow Petula knew that I would eventually get caught up in my birth family’s “diaspora” and leave my friendly Midwestern college town to plunge myself thirteen years later into the big pond of Los Angeles, initially with the goal of working in the film and TV business. But at ten I had no inkling yet of all that, just perhaps a vision that my life was somehow going to turn out better.
At age ten, it would still be five years before I would realize, as my mom wrestled with depression and thoughts of suicide, that she was just another flawed but striving kid like me (just three decades older), and the whole divorce thing had been her problem and my dad’s, not mine. Rather than continue and act out based on my own frustration the best I could do was to be of assistance, to her and to myself.
Just listen to the rhythm
Of a gentle bossa nova
You’ll be dancing with ‘em, too,
Before the night is over
I would find my own love, my own mate to dance with some day. It would be very different than what my parents were going through. Just as both my mom and dad had committed to raise me with love (as opposed to the fear and anger directed at them by their parents), I would end up finding a partner I could share my life with in joy.
And you may find somebody kind
To help and understand you
Someone who is just like you
And needs a gentle hand to
Guide them along
Petula took me aside, my head in her hand. “Coop… hang in there sweetie! You’ll have your shot to make it right… just give it time.” And any of the many times I have heard that song since I can feel that loving hand.