Coop’s Childhood Part 3 – In School & Out

Bach Elementary School
Bach Elementary School
Nowadays K-12 school has become such a high stakes endeavor that academically oriented parents like mine might do their best to “game” the system by letting their kid start school a year later than possible, thinking to give them some sort of developmental and competitive edge relative to other kids. But in 1960 when I turned five, judging me to be an intelligent and precocious kid, my parents had me tested to see if I could skip kindergarten and start public school in first grade instead.

I recall that I found the IQ test they gave me intimidating. Anytime adults focused on me, particularly in a more formal or judging way, I felt uncomfortable. All adults, including my parents, felt like another species entirely rather than simply older versions of us kids. They seemed like large all-knowing deities even, that had me at a total disadvantage.

I can only remember two questions from the test. The first was a diagram showing two paths from point A to point B, and I was asked to choose the shortest path. The second was simply, “Name a woman”, asked to me verbally by the person administering the test. I recall that I was afraid to answer and did not. I knew full well what women and men were and that my mother was a woman. But the question felt provocative to me, and that answering it would somehow be inappropriate and reveal a sexual knowledge that I should not yet have. It was certainly not a rational response looking back. The tester noted my non-response and went on.

Despite that non-response, I tested high enough to be considered for entry into first grade instead of kindergarten, which my parents and school staff all agreed to. I don’t recall being consulted on the decision, and had no sense at this point what I was getting myself in for.

So at age five, a year younger than most of my classmates, I was led into the first grade classroom, with perhaps twenty plus kids already a few days into the fall session. The classroom was a very strange venue for me, being confined to a room with a bunch of other kids my age and an adult ever present monitoring and even directing at times what I and the other kids were doing. I had no previous experience with this. At home I played often on my own or with a friend or two doing exactly what I wanted and with no adults present. Even at Towsley’s Play School (nursery school), I was mostly doing activities on my own or with another kid without any at least noticeable supervision.

Again, adults seemed godlike and intimidated me, even the nice and thoughtful ones like my first grade teacher Miss Gittleman. I tended to get very compliant when they were around and was generally mortified if I ever ran afoul of one of them and their dictates. Having one constantly in my presence and aware of everything I was doing was weird and unnatural. In the presence of these minor deities, I was always distracted, obsessing about what they thought I should be doing, which I judged to be more important somehow than what I thought. Beyond their radar I happily pursued my own interests and wrestled with what I perceived were the ethical and logistical dilemmas of the world. At least as best as I understood them in the moment or from watching TV and movies, reading comic books, and hearing about things from my parents, other adults, or my peers.

Since as early as I could remember I had been or at least felt like the master of my own fate, at least within the friendly confines of my basement and backyard. When asked and time permitting, my mom or dad would accept my occasional request for them to throw a ball with me or let me hit their pitches with my wiffle-ball bat. But most of the time I was happy playing by myself, or with my friend Molly or another peer, or even with my little brother as he got old enough to engage in and share my imaginary play narratives.

Beyond recalling the general sense of weirdness in an adult-led school classroom, I have only a few recollections of what I did in that classroom. I remember being taught to read using the Fun with Dick and Jane reader. I still recall sitting at my desk opening the book to the first page, which I remember showing baby Sally looking surprised by something and the only word on the page was “Oh”. I remember being taught how to skip with all my classmates and I circling the room trying, in my case awkwardly, to do so. Finally, I remember doing an extensive “unit” on dinosaurs, which my mom would later claim (possibly apocryphally) was initiated by Miss Gittleman based on my intense interest in the subject.

My school, Bach Elementary, was two-thirds of a mile almost due north of our house, across Almendinger Park and then another half mile or so down into Ann Arbor’s Old West Side at the corner of Fifth and West Jefferson. My only recollection is walking by myself to school and home again, twice a day since I came home each day for lunch. If I was driven to school that first year, or I walked with neighbor kids or possibly my mom, I have no recollection of that. Since I went to school at Bach for four years, my recollections of the walk may be more from third or fourth grade, but from an early age my parents observed in me intelligence and good sense, and gave me a great deal of autonomy.

I recall that walk fondly, like so many others I would later take through Ann Arbor’s tree-lined streets. I would cross the park and then head down Fifth Street with its cathedral-like ceiling of mature maple trees on either side fronting nice single-family homes behind. A ceiling of still green leaves in September, changing to mostly browns and oranges when colder winds started to blow in October, which stripped the trees to their bare superstructure of black branches by November. I loved the changing seasons, and Ann Arbor had all of them, mostly in nice predictable transitions.

I am not sure what initially inspired me, at age five, to become obsessed with dinosaurs. Could be it was being taken to the University of Michigan natural history museum and seeing the big reconstructed T-Rex bones or the tableaus behind glass of small scale dinosaur models in the best guess of what their living environment looked like. Or maybe it was seeing the movie, The Lost World (the 1960 version), based on the book by author Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame. The story was a wonderful tale about scientists and adventurers who travel to a previously uncharted plateau in South America and discover that the stories of living dinosaurs there were true (kind of the progenitor to Jurassic Park).

Probably both were inspirational, and lucky for me at the museum they sold these plastic versions of many of the dinosaur species with the scientific name and English translation inscribed on the bottom. Other than the obviously awesome Tyrannosaurus Rex (which translates to “Tyrant Lizard King”… how awesome was that!) one of my herbivore favorites was Stegosaurus (Roof Lizard), with its spiked armor plates down its spine. A cross between the two the obvious inspiration for the more formidable Godzilla, the pulp sci-fi movie monster from Japan with a penchant for wreaking havoc in Tokyo.

Seeing my interest and always looking to fire my imagination, over the course of that year my parents bought me an array of these plastic beasts, maybe 20 in all (they were not very expensive), from a six-inch-tall T-Rex to a two-inch-long Ankylosaurus. Like everything else I encountered in the outside world that intrigued me, I incorporated dinosaurs into my imagination play, in the basement and backyard of our house.

I loved stories of adventure, whether books, television or the movies. After learning the storyline and characters, I would then head to our basement to reenact, expand and spin-off on the story using my assortment of, what later as a parent I came to call, “imagination toys”. These included plastic figures (soldiers, civilians, animals (including of course dinosaurs), building materials (Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, Erector Sets, etc.) and various cardboard boxes and containers that I could cut up (with non-pointy scissors) and Scotch tape back together into boats and submarines and such.

Besides the Lost World, two of the movies of that time that fired my imagination were Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and its sequel Mysterious Island. (Later, at around age eleven I would actually read the books as well). These were stories set in the age of the U.S. Civil War (also of great interest to me) full of futuristic technology, colorful characters and moral dilemmas. Captain Nemo in particular, the captain of Verne’s now iconic futuristic submarine Nautilus and a nihilistic anti-hero, was a mad genius who was trying to use his incredible submarine in a quixotic anti-war crusade to destroy all the warships in the world. (BTW… the inside the submarine sets from the movie are steampunk classics!) He finally retired to a deserted island and played with strange forces (presumably something akin to nuclear radiation) to create mutant creatures (such as chickens that were 10 feet tall) to try and end the food shortages that he felt were a key cause driving humans to fight endless war after war.

My dad had been in World War II, and I was fascinated with all aspects of these human conflicts of men, weapons, machines, strategy and logistics. With my newly learned reading skills, I would check books out of the library and read about wars, battles, generals, warships, warplanes and weapons. Though as a shy kid I avoided any fight or any other heated confrontation in real life, I was intrigued with the passion of the committed warrior. Yet I also resonated with Captain Nemo’s quest to end all wars.

My fascination with these massive armed conflicts broadened when I discovered the American Civil War, an event a full century previous but still very much burned into U.S. cultural mythology. Not sure what turned me on to this conflict, but I guess it was only a matter of time given my perusing of the military history section of the local libraries looking at their WWII books. Soon somehow I had two-inch plastic Civil War soldiers to play with as well and set up various Union vs Confederate scenarios in my basement, based on reading those books and discovering the heroically framed characters and narratives of the likes of Generals Grant, Sherman and Lee.

The American Civil War was still so much a part of popular culture that I remember being able to go to the neighborhood newsstand (a dark and wonderful place in my hometown of Ann Arbor called the “Blue Front”) and buy Civil War cards, which were sold in batches of five or ten like baseball cards (including the bubble gum in every pack). They would have a picture on one side of a general, a battle, some logistical or other detail, or some particular dramatic or lurid moment, and then on the reverse side a paragraph or two describing the content of the picture.

I bought my share of cards that my allowance and other earned monies would finance. But as was my typical practice, I also set about making my own set of Civil War cards as well. I took a stack of three-by-five index cards from my dad’s stash and drew pictures in pencil or crayon on one side (including my stick-figure people) and then my own sentence or two of explanation written on the back. I can recall one of mine with the headline “Crushed!” on one side above my picture of a stick-figure soldier trapped under a broken-down cannon.

So down in the basement, armed with the story lines from Jules Verne movies, my blue and gray Civil War soldiers, my dinosaurs, Lincoln Logs, and assorted cardboard boxes and tape, I was ready to spin off my own epic stories which in my own way wrestled with all the human drama and ethical ambiguities of war, exploration, and a nihilistic war against war. First I chalked out one quadrant of the basement as “civilization”. With Lincoln Logs I built a fort controlled by the blue (Union) soldiers but frequently attacked by the gray (Confederate) soldiers. Across the basement in the area of my dad’s office, his ten by ten rug I dubbed “Jinx Island”. An area rich with minerals that the Union needed to mine (the underside of my dad’s desk being the mine) for war materials. The island was also inhabited by dangerous dinosaurs, plus Captain Nemo’s hidden submarine lurked in the ocean in between.

One of the most memorable narratives I spun with the help of my younger brother involved “Lieutenant Cord”, a blue soldier my brother and I had named who looked like an officer brandishing a pistol. He was in charge of the initial expedition to the island to set up the mining operation. Soldiers, supplies and mining equipment (built with Tinker Toys) were loaded into a large rectangular barge (a customized cardboard box), and with an escort of bean-bag shooting warships headed for Jinx Island. Captain Nemo attacked the convoy with his submarine but managed only to sink one of the escorts.

Once on the island, Lieutenant Cord and company set up camp and began the mining operation in a huge cavern (the space under my dad’s desk) that was rich with precious minerals, needed for the war effort. Dinosaurs (of course) attacked the camp, wreaked havoc and were finally repelled at great loss of life, and acts of individual heroism. The barge made a successful journey to the island bringing reinforcements and materials for fortifying the mine site.

My dad managed to do his work that week at his desk avoiding the camp and the lurking “thundering lizards”. I think he got a kick out of the whole thing and had me explain to him all the different aspects of my imaginary basement geography.

Day after day my brother and I would play out the arc of the story, inventing new dramatic twists and turns to keep it interesting. In one final pitched assault against the fortified compound, the monstrous ancient reptiles were on the verge of breaking through, destroying the operation, and killing (plus eating) all the soldiers, except for the tremendous courage of the same Lieutenant Cord, who lost his own life protecting his men and stemming the breach. Every man on the expedition, plus the entire Union army back home mourned the loss of this courageous and charismatic leader. My brother and I staged an official honoring ceremony on the island and his body (luckily not eaten by the dinosaurs) was returned to civilization on the barge. Even Nemo honored him by not attacking the funeral convoy.

Then came a difficult issue for my brother and I, the two co-creators of this epic, to resolve. The Lieutenant Cord figure was our favorite, of all the blue and gray plastic soldiers. If he was truly dead, then we should not recycle him for other characters in future stories. But that meant we would have to play all future scenarios without this prized figure. After much soul-searching, we finally agreed, and Lieutenant Cord was buried in full military honors, with both blue and gray soldiers present in our backyard. I believe I wrote a eulogy which I read at the ceremony. My brother designed the tombstone.

I don’t think we ever dug him up later. Now some 45 years later he may still be under the dirt or grass somewhere behind our house on Prescott Street, for plastic of course never decomposes…

So as a five-year-old in my self-initiated play I was already dealing with issues of narrative, human drama, moral dilemmas, logistics, leadership, archeology, history, ritual, construction, and geography, just to name a few. I was developing my own take on the elements of the human story, that I would continue to read about in books, see in movies and TV shows, and hear about from adults I knew telling the real stories of their lives.

Supplementing the imaginary adventures of my own creation were the occasional odysseys in the real world that my parents initiated, particularly traveling “back east” to visit my grandparents in Binghamton New York. I quickly found that a key part of the adventure of travel was sleeping in strange and interesting places. Nothing fit that bill more than having a sleeping compartment on an overnight train. No travel experience from my youth was more romantic and thrilling than the winter holiday train trip we took several times from our home in Ann Arbor to my grandparents in Binghamton, “over the meadow and through the woods…” as it were.

The train originated in Chicago and got into Ann Arbor in the early evening. Since Ann Arbor was a smaller town and just a short stop, we had to wait for the approaching train on a cold outdoor platform and quickly drag ourselves and our luggage on board. The conductor then led us to our small compartment, what they called a “roomette”. With our luggage either stowed in the baggage car or in a small closet, the seats folded down and a mattress was pulled down from the wall and pretty much covered the entire footprint of the compartment. This in effect turned the small space into one maybe queen-sized bed, shared by all four of us, with a window looking out at the passing countryside.

It was particularly that window, and the view it provided, that was the key to the exciting adventure ahead. My brother and I would change into our pajamas and sit on the bed looking out while our parents maybe had coffee or a drink in the lounge car before joining us kids under the covers. The fun was being all warm and snuggled under the blankets while being able to watch the cold winter world go by outside.

The train’s path took us from Ann Arbor some forty miles east through Detroit with a major stop at the big station there. From Detroit the train continued east, and in one of its most exciting anticipated moments, took the tunnel under the Detroit River, reemerging in Ontario Canada. The descent into the blackness of the tunnel, with only an occasional light zipping by for maybe a quarter of an hour underground, was one of the big highlights for me of the whole train adventure.

After a long straight run through the farmland of southern Ontario, the next great moment of the journey was crossing the Peace Bridge over the Saint Lawrence Seaway to leave Canada and arrive in Buffalo New York. Picture a small boy in a darkened train compartment under the covers in bed looking out a big train window down through a metal frame railroad bridge at the icy waters below, full of small icebergs, ghostly white against the dark water. What could be more dramatic and memorable?

I still love riding the train whenever and wherever I can. Maybe not the fastest way to get across town or across the country, but a multi-faceted adventure in ways that few other means of travel can offer. Driving a car or riding the bus, you can also watch the world go by, but on the train there is the interior dynamic as well – all the fellow passengers and train staff (even if just a conductor) that you can interact with, and an interior space that you can move around in and explore. The latter is particularly true on the longer-haul trains that have the various lounge, dining and observation cars. It all can synergize into its own little ad hoc short time span community of travelers. Certainly as a metaphor for life, on the train it is not just about getting from point A to point B. The journey plus sharing it with one’s fellow travelers, and not necessarily the destination, is the point.

At this age, having learned how to read, I also had become a great reader of comic books, including the well known DC and Marvel super heroes. But also the less known Classics comics, literary classics like The Time Machine, Lord Jim and Ivanhoe rendered in comic book form. Between the comics and our own narrative play, my well stoked imagination started imagining other stories of my own.

To that end, my dad, being an English professor, always seemed to have an abundance of those small format “blue books” that were handed out to students to write test answers in. With their blue paper covers and 8 or 16 ruled white pages, they were perfect media for my own stories, and my dad was happy to give me as many as I could use. The convention I generally adopted was to draw a picture from the story on the top half of each page and then write a sentence or two on the bottom half describing the action in the picture. (It was not unlike the format of the Fun with Dick and Jane books we read at school to help us learn to read.)

I actually completed a handful of these blue-book stories, filling all the pages with pictures and words and putting the book title (and an appropriate picture) on the blue cover. But there were far more that were started and never completed. Usually I would create the cover and draw a series of pictures on some of the pages, but only write in the accompanying sentences for one or two of the pages before my non-linear mind got stuck in the story weaving or lost interest in trying to tell this particular story.

Given that she was not religious at all (and would later tell me that though she believed in God she thought religion was the scourge of humanity), my mom had a great love for everything that had to do with Christmas, particularly the figure of Santa Claus. Perhaps remembering a perceived lack of love from her own mother, my mom believed that the world did not sufficiently love and respect children in general, so she gravitated to the mythos of Santa Claus, the avatar of the truly child-loving and child-honoring adult. She also enjoyed even the Christian celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus, and the bestowing on him of great gifts, seeing it as a metaphor for how all people should greet and honor all children with an abundance of love and the gifts of the world.

My dad had recently gotten his PhD in English literature, and gotten a job as a professor at Eastern Michigan University in the adjacent town of Ypsilanti. Though they lived on a new college professor’s modest salary, my parents made every effort at Christmas time to by wonderful toys to wrap and put under the tree to be opened by me and my brother on Christmas day. Perhaps more than a lot of parents in the 1950s, they understood the value of play, particularly imagination play, in the development of a young person and researched and bought me Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, wooden trains, bean-bag shooting pirate ships, erector sets and other such things. Everything they thought, witnessing the kind of play scenarios I laid out in the basement and backyard, that would further facilitate those scenarios.

Though not religious ourselves (perhaps we could be described as “ethnically Christian”), we would invariably be at some sort of gathering of family or friends where Christmas carols would be sung, and my mom, dad, brother and I would heartily sing “Silent Night”, “The Little Drummer Boy”, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, and other songs celebrating the birth of baby Jesus. I believe in my mom’s heart and mind, these songs were metaphorical about how all children should be acknowledged, in a world she saw as often very child unfriendly. It was truly “wise men” (and women) who bestowed gifts on children, tokens of their love and esteem for the newest generation of the human species. I learned to share this vision as well.

But the essence of the honoring of children in my mom’s thinking was the idea of Santa Claus. He was the icon, the avatar, of the relationship she felt all parents and other adults should strive for with the children and youth they were blessed to be in relationship with. There was nothing greater and nobler in the human spirit than the bestowing of gifts, blessings and love on the young. Some people might criticize this as “permissive” or “coddling”, but if they told that to my mom’s face, she would be hard pressed to restrain herself from punching them in the nose as she dressed them down for their shortsighted ignorance. She made every effort to imbue in my brother and I that Santa was real, and even as I figured out he was not, at some level I understood his continuing metaphoric reality, particularly to my mom and her world view, and basically continued to go along with that vision she was creating.

And every new year, I continued to love the winter holiday season more than any other time, with each day building in anticipation to December 25. The snow and cold outside highlighting the warmly lit tree glowing in our living room and those of our neighbors that could be seen through the windows of their homes. The gathering of family and friends in a context of warmth, gratitude and love. The seemingly endlessly awaited coming of Christmas Eve, with me so worked up with anticipation that I would barely sleep and by five or six in the morning start pestering my parents to get up so we could open those gifts under the tree. Finally when given the okay, tearing the wrapping paper off my presents and taking possession of the wonderful toys that my parents had researched long and hard to give me the most play value for the money.

Looking back on it now as an adult with a broader awareness of the context of my younger life, I must acknowledge the privilege that my parents did have, despite our limited funds, to muster the discretionary income to buy their kids gifts and take us over the metaphorical “meadow and through the woods”, by rail, to Grandmother’s house. As a youth I was not exposed to the reality of people with much less means than ours, and was never struck by the over-consumption associated with the holiday; realities that I would wrestle with many years later. Also it was later, that I met my partner Sally and heard of her very different experiences with this secularized Christian holiday, growing up in a Jewish family.

Beside Christmas, my second most anticipated day of the year, at least starting at age six when I was completing my first year of public school, was that day in June when school would be out for the summer. As the little diddy kids shared with each other went…

No more pencils
No more books
No more teachers’ dirty looks

When I was a kid, everything that endured longer than a couple weeks seemed endless. My first and second year of school seemed so, but I dutifully and compliantly endured losing my complete autonomy during my weekdays, except for those intermissions during the day when we were set free for recess. And when I comprehended that school would end in June until the next September, I anticipated that day with great longing. And when the day finally came and that last school bell rang heralding liberation, I remember the glee as I practically skipped home through a beautiful early summer afternoon. I could once again, for the vast time expanse of the summer, live outside the stressful presence of society’s bell, schedules and overlords.

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