The brooding and mostly repressed sexuality of America in the 1950s that I was born into, was being transformed by a sexual revolution that was taking form in the early 1960s. The seeds of this insurrection included Zoologist Alfred Kinsey’s reports on his research on human sexuality in males (1948) and females (1953), along with French feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir’s book, The Second Sex (1949), starting to rekindle the feminist movement including the right of women to have the same freedom to express and act on their sexual desires as men.
Many of my huge Baby-Boom generation born starting in 1946 into a burgeoning middle class after World War II were beginning to come of age in a relatively prosperous America. We had better access to education, and through the growing electronic media of radio and television, access to a popular culture that included championing the expression of sexuality and other forms of human liberation. Facilitated by the development of a reliable birth control pill in 1960, elements of American culture were moving away from traditional values and social strictures towards more permissive and informalized attitudes. Rock-and-roll music, emerging in the 1950s borrowing from black R&B roots and becoming mainstream in the 60s was a huge cultural aphrodisiac, urging its listeners to “rock”, its thinly-veiled code word for sexual activity.
Add to this that I was growing up in a progressive college town where a secular humanism of the prevailing academic thought was trumping more conventional religious beliefs and practice. My own parents and many of their social peers did not go to church or share traditional moralistic attitudes with each other or their children. An exception was that homosexual behavior was still taboo, considered still a psychological disorder, even associated with pedophilia, if not a mortal sin. From an early age, my parents instructed me to be cognizant when I was in a public restroom and wary of men who might want to view or even touch my private parts.
So as a kid growing up in this milieu, other than being wary in public restrooms, there were no behavioral rules being taught to me by my parents or other adults that would lead me to repress my own precocious sexuality, other than my own inherent shyness and modesty. That sexuality, first expressed by my previous encounter briefly getting naked with my best friend Molly, continuing to percolate within me looking for new avenues of expression.
Having been liberated from my first year of schooling the previous June of 1961, a seemingly endless and joyful summer of self-directed play finally did come to its end in September as I steeled myself to return to Bach Elementary School for second grade. From my first day in the first grade classroom, despite a nice young talented teacher who appreciated me, I was uncomfortable in the formality of a classroom environment with an ever-present adult monitoring and even directing my activity. By the end of that first year I had gotten more used to it, but still was overjoyed to be done, and discomforted now that I had to return. I did not share these feelings with my parents, since I did not believe my feelings on this were legitimate, since all my adult superiors, including my own parents, seemed to accept schooling as an integral part of life.
I have few recollections of second grade, other than recalling the classroom itself with its view out to the street that would take me home at the end of the day, and that I had another nice young female teacher, Miss Kelsey. The one specific memory was of a project where we asked our parents what countries our ancestors came from and then posted those connections on a big bulletin board with a world map using thumbtacks to stretch lengths of yarn from our posted name to all our countries of origin. I remember getting into this exercise in a competitive way, taking pride in having more connections than most of the other kids, including Wales, Scotland, Germany and Poland, plus a few more that I made up to burnish the scope of my ancestry. Miss Kelsey did not challenge the unlikely breadth of my forebears, happy I imagine that I was so enthusiastic about the assignment.
I suspect I have so few memories of my time spent in this or my other elementary school classrooms because I was mostly just going along with the program and a routine of regular activities led by my teachers. Contrast that amnesia with the detailed memories I have of the books and comic books I read, movies and TV shows I watched, play I engaged in at home and the trips we took during this same time period.
Likewise few memories of third grade, other than again recalling the classroom and its view out the window to the street, and my teacher, an older woman in this case, with a name right out of a Dickens novel, Mrs. Rood (pronounced “rude”). And recalling a horrendous experience that she was integral to that would turn out to have more of a negative impact on my life than any other single event in my youth, including my parents later divorce.
Spending a significant amount of time playing with other neighborhood kids and unsupervised by adults, there is a shared “kid culture” that emerges with its own assumptions, values and rules of behavior. One such assumption among my male peers when I was in elementary school was simply stated that “girls have cooties”, an endemic disease that can infect and disable boys who have too much contact with or interest in girls. Given the presence of this contagion, the challenge for boys was to function in a world where half the people were female without contracting the disease. This was accomplished by either staying away from girls, or when that was impractical, limiting interactions with them to more adversarial encounters. Boys who did not sufficiently practice this prophylactic behavior were subject to shaming by their peers, for their own good and to protect the male herd generally.
I became a victim of such shaming when my need to share my precocious sexuality got the better of my cootie avoidance. There was a very cute girl in my third grade class named Mary who I had a crush on. After school I would occasionally walk with Mary to her house and then continue on to my own. One day, playing in the park with one of my male classmates, (perhaps inspired by my earlier experience getting naked with my best friend Molly) I confided in him that I would love to “pull down my pants for Mary”. The next day at school, as a bunch of us classmates were all standing gathered by our classroom door waiting to go out to recess, my male classmate revealed my intimate admission to everyone there assembled, including Mary. Adding to my initial mortification (which was huge) was the fact that Mrs. Rood called me up to her desk later to tell me that what I had said was inappropriate, rather than saying it had been inappropriate for my male classmate to reveal my confidence.
I felt like some sort of sexual deviant, internalized the feelings of shame and really never recovered from that experience. I did not even share the traumatic event with another human being until some fifteen years later when I was 22. During my subsequent teen years there were a number of women I was attracted to who were also attracted to me and even shared their feelings with me, but I was afraid to reciprocate or even say why, generally leaving them feeling bewildered that I would rebuff them given my apparent shared feelings for them. I can say even today that it has been a deep and lasting wound, psychological shrapnel which fifty years later I am still working through and purging from my psyche (Thank you Mrs. Rood!)
Beyond that festering wound, in the moment I realized that from now on I would need to repress my true feelings in this area at least where there was any possibility that adults could observe or otherwise become aware of my apparently inappropriate proclivities. Any romantic or sexual feelings for another person could not be expressed publically, where I was vulnerable to further adult judgement or peer shaming. I had to take my precocious sexuality (and at age eight I did not even conceive of it as such… it was just part of who I naturally was) underground.
We kids in the neighborhood were on our own most of the time, playing outside and in Almendinger park without adult supervision. Adding to that was the fact that many of us, including myself, were not constrained by any religious indoctrination that told us that God would punish us if we did certain things outside the acceptable behavioral norms of society. Others of us had had that indoctrination but chose to ignore or proactively rebel against it.
Despite that lack of, or rebellion against, externally imposed morality, I and my fellow neighborhood male peers had our own instinctive sense of shared ethics. Our rules of conduct and engagement with each other were built around an informal application of the Golden Rule, the understanding of what was and was not “safe space”, plus an application of “don’t ask, don’t tell” to facilitate occasional boundary pushing. And between those three principles that was pretty much sufficient ground rules for a lot of shared fun, adventure and outside the box exploration.
I was maybe nine years old when I fell in with a group of neighborhood boys, some my age and some a year or two older, who were inclined to explore, on at least a couple memorable occasions, nudity and other elements of pre-puberty sexuality. We would convene one of these rare sessions inside one of the big clumps of lilac bushes in Almendinger Park, just across the street from my family’s house. In late spring or summertime, a clump of six or seven full flowering bushes surrounded a little clear space, maybe three by six feet in the middle, mostly shielded from external eyes.
One of the older “alpha” types of our circle would pass the word that we were gathering inside the lilac bushes. Once assembled, that same ringleader would dare all of us to take our clothes off. I’m sure there was a different mix of motivators for each one of us to participate, from the joy of our own sexual precociousness to the fear of shaming and ostracism resulting from chickening out. Egging each other on, item by item we removed socks and shoes, tee-shirt, shorts, and finally underpants in sequence with the others so not to get too far ahead and seem overly eager.
Eventually we were all completely naked, a handful of boys eight to eleven years old without even pubic hair yet, in our small sanctuary. Sharing this erotic moment with the additional virile pleasure of the intoxicating fragrance of nature, particularly the flowering lilacs all around us, I enjoyed both looking at my peers private parts and feeling their gaze on mine. We were consenting human beings sharing an experience that was equally voyeuristic and exhibitionist. For me it rekindled the joy of getting naked previously with Molly, and soothed the wound that Mrs. Rood had delivered. On at least one such occasion, our ringleader pushed the envelope and burnished his alpha status by daring us to let him briefly touch our penises, which several of us actually agreed to, enjoying this forbidden sensation, and all of us marvelled at his chutzpah.
And on one of these occasions, after we had replaced our clothes, exited the lilac bushes, and the older alphas had departed, I donned the alpha hat and invited the remaining two of my co-conspirators over to my basement for more such fun at my lead. While my parents were blissfully unaware upstairs, the two other boys and I cloistered ourselves in our basement walk-in closet with the door closed for privacy. We all agreed to take off our clothes again and then we took turns lying on top of each other’s naked bodies. We didn’t do anything beyond that, but such as it was, it was wildly sensual, exciting and liberating, at least for me, to feel another peer’s naked body against mine.
Compared to just standing and looking at each other, like what I had done with Molly, this was definitely a developmental escalation in this sort of casual eroticism between peers. But again, like with Molly previously, the fact that my fellow recreants were boys and not girls was of little significance to me. If Molly had been there as a willing participant, it would not have changed the dynamic of the exercise, at least for me.
Having finished that exercise and returning to conventional clothed mode, no further words were exchanged on the topic and my fellow libertines went home with our shared implicit understanding of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” protocol. It was a profound and memorable moment, since now fifty plus years later I recall it in every sensation and detail. But I don’t recall ever having the urge to do something like that again. Or maybe the circumstances where this could be done again in safe space never presented themselves again.
Looking back, it seems part precocious sexual experimentation, and part thrill of sharing a willingness with my fellow travellers to challenge and diffuse societal conventions and even taboos. I think I have always been a nudist at heart, living fitfully in a clothed world, always feeling closer to being my real self the less I am wearing.
Speaking of Molly, her family had moved to the Burns Park neighborhood about two miles east of us on the southeast side of town. But we continued to be close friends, visiting her from time to time by bicycle or when my parents took me over and they spent time with Molly’s mom and dad. Molly’s parents even took me along when they rented a cottage for a week on Lake Michigan, and Molly and I shared a bedroom.
I clearly remember, probably again at age nine, one time when we were alone in her room and I suggested to her that we take off our clothes and let me touch her vagina with my penis. I don’t recall I used or even knew the word “vagina”, somehow conveying to her what part of her anatomy I was referring to. I had only a very sketchy sense of how people had sex, but I was motivated by a more general thought (maybe even an urge perhaps) to be physically intimate with our most intimate private parts. Given our continuing soulmate closeness she thoughtfully considered the proposition, but then decided against it and said simply “nah”. It is interesting that there was no sting in that particular rejection for me. I had put forward my precocious suggestion matter of factly, like one kid suggesting to another to play dress up. Her response was matter of fact as well, a negative answer but no concern or negative feelings about me on her part, and probably followed by a suggestion by her that we play something else.
The motivation behind my suggestion of this clandestine activity was simply that it would have been a fun exploration of these generally hidden parts of our bodies, maybe beginning to give us an inkling of what the general fuss was all about around their being hidden and not generally referred to directly. That’s what “play” is all about, not just mindless enjoyment instead of more purposeful “work”, but an exploration of the dynamics of something that was going on in the larger world.
But most of my engagement at the time was with my male peers, not having the same level of access to and close relationship with any other girls my age (my peer ratting on me and Mrs. Rood’s reaction having ended any fraternization between myself and Mary). Most of that engagement with boys at the time was either imagination play around being soldiers engaged in warfare, or more concrete and corporeal team sports. Both were generally organized informally by all of us kids participating without any adult supervision, and featured that uneasy mix of camaraderie and competition that I found thrilling at one level but discomforting at another. It was a thrill to be part of a team of people that were depending on each other to be successful and even, in the case of the imaginary warfare, stay alive. But then it was discomforting to be adversarial with a particular peer on the other team or side when one of you had to get the better of the other to achieve your side’s success. I particularly liked the military imagination play where all the participants were on the same side, and the enemy was perhaps very formidable but completely imaginary.
The exception to this in my case was Little League baseball, a formalized team sports event with predefined opposing teams and adult overseers as coaches and occasionally as spectators as well. Like both my parents, I enjoyed these competitive activities, and I was pretty much willing and able to pick up and play most any sport that I had the opportunity to watch and participate in. But among the team sports, it was baseball that was a favorite of mine as it was for both my mom and dad, and at age eight (always a year younger than most classmates since I skipped kindergarten) I signed up for my neighborhood team in the nine-year-old tee-ball league.
In the early 1960s, Little League baseball was still a completely gender-segregated activity for boys only and their fathers and other adult male coaches. (FYI… it would be a decade later that my mom’s friend Marcia Federbush, would be one of the key feminist activists to open opportunities for girls to play organized team sports as boys could.)
Though I really enjoyed and was knowledgeable and skilled in baseball, I don’t recall really bonding and making friendships with the other boys I played with. I think I was never comfortable being a “jock”, or any of the conventional assumptions and behaviors around the world of “jockdom”. Though I enjoyed a friendly competition with the other teams we played, I was not comfortable with the competitiveness even between my own teammates and the pecking order they developed.
Dealing with my own delusions of alphaness, the shy kid that I was, I did not find any pleasure in sparring with my other teammates with good baseball skills. But then I was not self-confident enough to openly bond with my teammates lower down the pecking order with lesser skills. I simply played my position (usually first base because I was left-handed) and took my at bats as best I could doing my part to fit within and enhance the larger organism that was the team.
My mom also occasional got me involved in other conventional structured group activities specifically for boys like Cub Scouts and summer day and overnight camps, but they generally did not fully engage me because, like school, most of the activities were led and monitored by adults. I continued to struggle to appreciate that adults were just grown up kids like myself, they always seemed to me like another species entirely. Though I was by nature shy, I also had a natural urge to be a leader among my peers, but having adults present meant that they would want to be in charge, or at least observing, which would invariably cause my shyness to trump my urge to lead. Alone with my peers I was comfortable engaging others more freely and negotiating more authentic rules of engagement.
As a seven and eight year old, now an avid reader and electronic media consumer, I was becoming aware of the larger world, its history, and the narratives of that history, real and fictional. With my world at school mostly routine and not capturing my imagination, I found my developmental edge outside of school in these worlds of fantasy around real historical military conflicts and imagined future scenarios I experienced in popular media.
I continued to have a deep interest in war, the ultimate male “team sport” it seemed. I had been fascinated since age four with World War II because of my dad’s participation in that conflict along with its massive scope and all the machinery, weaponry and other technology it involved. My dad had a two-volume pictorial history of the war that I spent many many hours looking through and later reading. Similarly the earlier U.S. Civil War captivated me for its scope and scale and the fact that it was a key chapter in our own country’s history and fought on its soil.
Everything I read about that was of interest to me became fodder for my imagination play and my own created narratives. I checked every book out of the library I could find about World War II and the U.S. Civil War that had pictures in it. I particularly enjoyed all the maps of the campaigns. I became an avid consumer of the popular culture narratives around war, mostly World War II, through comic books, TV and movies. I would read each monthly issue of the comic Sergeant Rock, regularly watched Combat! and the more humorous McHale’s Navy on TV, and saw the movie The Longest Day when it was shown on TV. Real or imagined, all grist for my imagination mill. But also the Civil War through buying Civil War News trading cards (like sports trading cards, bubblegum and all).
One of the things that really attracted me to these historic conflicts and the related real and imagined stories around them was the massive logistics. I was fascinated with the moving of large armies by land and sea and the logistical support required to do so. And from there the grand strategies of great generals that leveraged those logistics to the highest degree possible. I read about Patton, Montgomery and Romell in World War II. General Sherman’s “march to the sea” in the Civil War and how it was part of an overarching strategy concocted by Sherman and General Grant to carve up the South and destroy its ability to properly supply its armies in the field. General Lee’s repeated outmaneuvering of his Union counterpart in Virginia. The brilliantly executed marches of Napoleon, and millennia earlier Hannibal, marching armies across the Alps. (I recall drawn pictures in a library book of Carthaginian soldiers leading one of their war elephants up a precarious mountain pass.)
My other area of great interest, spawned by the media and popular culture, was science fiction. Sputnik and space were big on the culture’s agenda. Previously inspired by seeing the movies The Lost World, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea on TV, it was now catalyzed by the full spectrum of popular media I had access to at home, occasionally at movie theaters, or in libraries, bookstores and newsstands. Movies including First Spaceship on Venus, Atragon, Godzilla, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (later also a TV show). TV shows including Jonny Quest, the 1960s reboot of Felix the Cat, The Jetsons, Supercar, and Fireball XL5. And now that I could read, the many books in the Tom Swift series and a range of DC and Marvel superhero comics, Batman being the first to catch my interest at the newsstand I frequented.
I loved the imaginative possibilities of sci-fi, particularly all its fantastical technology and logistical possibilities stemming from that technology. Felix being able to turn his “bag of tricks” into any sort of device needed in the moment, and employing young science genius Poindexter’s portal to travel to the moon and encounter the mechanistically tyrannical Master Cylinder. Tom Swift sailing the cosmic “winds” in his space kite. Batman’s Batcave and array of vehicles, body armor and gadgets. Even in its way The Flintstones, with its “modern stone age family” and all the commensurate fanciful “stonepunk” technology, including family cars propelled by the scampering feet of the riders and harnessed dinosaurs doing the work of modern excavation equipment.
I particularly had a thing for submarines, starting with Captain Nemo’s steampunk Nautilus (still the most iconic submarine name). Later the Seaview and its small FS-1 “Flying Sub”, deployed either underwater or on the surface by opening bombay doors under the big sub’s control room, and able to navigate both underwater and at supersonic speeds in the air. Seaview done one better by the humongous Japanese submarine Atragon, the entire monstrous thing able to rise out of the water and fly. Supercar able to negotiate land, sea or air. (Later I would read Verne’s 1904 book Master of the World, featuring the all-terrain vehicle Terror, racecar fast on roads, speedboat on the water, submarine under and aircraft as well!)
In a different developmental thread, I was also beginning to appreciate the sophisticated and nuanced humor and social commentary of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, getting at least a measure of its puns, satire and self-referential humor. It’s lampoon of the real life Cold War. The town of “Frostbite Falls” (instead of International Falls) in Minnesota. The pun-laced self-referential promos for upcoming episodes. And best of all to my precocious eight-year-old sensibilities and fascination with history, the supporting feature Peabody’s Improbable History. It featured the professorial Doctor Who-ish talking dog Mr. Peabody, his WABAC time machine (pronounced “wayback”) and his young human assistant which the narrator referred to as “his boy Sherman”, turning the whole “boy and his dog” thing on its head.
Lampooned as it was on Rocky and Bullwinkle, the real Cold War came to a head when I was in third grade in the fall of 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when there was apparently a real possibility of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Somewhere in that time frame I became aware of this possibility, probably as a result of TV news coverage and a couple “Duck & Cover” drills led by my teacher in my third or fourth grade classroom. For those of you too young to to have participated in these exercises, you were spared a bizarre experience of powerlessness and contemplation of the apocalypse, done outside of any meaningful context. For me, all the news coverage of possible nuclear war, “Duck & Cover” drills, and all the discussion and speculation about it among us kids outside the purview of adults in the park or on the school playground, led to my first confrontation with my own mortality. And with it, contemplation of what might really happen after we died, including the possible existence of heaven and hell, and a God directing traffic to these two very different locations.
For those readers not familiar with “Duck & Cover”, during the 1950s and into the 1960s, in classrooms throughout the country, teachers instructed their young students something to the effect that, if there was the brilliant flash of a nuclear bomb explosion, students should immediately duck under their desks and cover their faces with their hands. This would supposedly give you some small modicum of protection from the immediate effects of the blast. Whether or not this technique would provide any real help if there ever was an actual nuclear apocalypse, probably not, but it sure scared the crap out of me (thank you very much!) a new fear to live with every day.
So I can recall thinking about it while I walked home from school after one of these drills. It was pretty easy to let my very active imagination run wild envisioning the blue sky rent by a flash brighter than the sun. Would I be killed instantly or have enough time to realize that this was the end of everything before I died. And then my imagination would invariably refocus on what might happen next. Was there a god? Would I go to the gates of heaven for some sort of judgment? And if I was not believing in that god, was there a hell and was I in danger of going there instead?
Honestly, I had no evidence at that point that gods or the “God” with a capital “G” actually existed at some transcendent level. I had never sensed the presence of or been spoken to by he/she/it. I had never had the yearning for this ubiquitous deity to be present and a guide in my life. Despite my shyness I was basically comfortable with my own counsel. I had the love and guidance (when needed) of my parents, teachers, my friends’ parents and other adults in my life. But I knew at this point in my life that I lived in a world where most people believed in this deity in some form or another.
But it did raise anxiety in me that I needed to confront this whole god concept, because if I died (in a nuclear war or otherwise) I might actually be faced with God’s representative (Saint Peter in conventional Christian theology) and my belief or lack thereof could send me to a very less hospitable permanent residence. Was I willing to risk going to hell on the chance that my intuition that I had not sensed the existence of a god was misguided? I pondered this many times as I walked the tree-arched streets of my hometown between school and home, and not being able to completely and comfortably resolve it, hoped upon hope that some such event like the Cuban Missile Crisis would not lead to such a holocaust.
I don’t recall ever asking my parents about god and whether they believed. Maybe I was embarrassed to even admit that I was possibly a non-believer and flirting with being damned forever. Later in my teenage, when my mom would confide in me that she believed in god, even talked to god (though I don’t recall her relating that god responded in any way) but was totally opposed to organized religion, which in her mind, was the source of most of the war and hate on Earth. I think my dad in some vague way believed in some sort of god, but he was pretty inscrutable on these sort of topics and I never asked him directly.
Focusing more on adventures while one is still alive and kicking, I was about seven when my parents bought the first of a series of used station wagons, including that wonderful peculiarity, that third row of seats in the back, and in the case of our Mercury station wagon, even facing backwards. Since the second row of car seats was generally referred to as the “back seat”, my brother and I came to dub the third row as the “wayback seat” or simply the “wayback”, riffing on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show and Mr. Peabody’s amazing time machine.
Since my mom was in homemaker parent mode during the week (certainly not a natural fit for her, though she loved her kids), and she and my dad tended to get on each others nerves if they spent too much time together (they divorced when I was ten), my dad took the opportunity often to take my younger brother and I out on day-long adventures on Saturday or Sunday in the various used station wagons we owned.
One of the best parts of these many day trips, was that they were mostly set out on with no specific destination that my brother and I were aware of beyond simply a direction to start off in. I think our dad craved encountering things that were unexpected, and therefore perhaps, more interesting. Throughout the course of the day’s drive we would end up at some cheap fast-food place for lunch, a miniature golf course or bowling alley for a few games and maybe a donut shop for “goodies” and jolts of caffeine (Cokes for us and coffee for him). He seemed happy to be alone in the front driving while we were seemingly at times miles away in the “wayback” playing out some fantasy world which might or might not be incorporating the world we saw going by.
Sometimes my brother and I were tailgunners in a World War II bomber being shot at by, and returning fire on, the other cars and truck behind us. This was usually more narrative invention than simulated first-person shooter video game, because each of us tailgunners had a back story and a long relationship with the other. We were often injured by enemy fire invoking dramatic prior-to-death confessions and/or miraculous recoveries. Sometimes we rolled the time-clock forward a few centuries and wielded imaginary laser-cannons instead of machineguns.
On other car trips we would informally survey the general friendliness and shyness of the drivers and passengers of other cars behind us by animatedly waving at them from our perch, and seeing if they would return our boisterous and friendly waves with the same, or a more restrained wave or none at all and perhaps even a grimace. It was certainly an interesting informal survey of the range of human social behavior.
Given my love of logistics, my brother and I were not always off in our own invented worlds but also spent plenty of time collaborating with our dad on the logistical details of the day’s agenda. Which cheap fast-food restaurant to stop at. How to best recover from getting “lost” and getting back on the intended path, even consulting maps where necessary (we even might have asked for directions once or twice). We learned to expect the unexpected and go with the flow, and that every ostensibly wrong turn could lead to something interesting, fun and even memorable. We learned how to entertain ourselves for hours on end where others might succumb to boredom. We learned all the techniques (making up some ourselves) to spice up the adventure of travel, and by extension, the adventure of life.
Part and parcel with developing my own homegrown ethical compass, I developed a strong sense of awareness of and responsibility for my own self. I suspect that my parents’ awareness of the extent of my development in this area encouraged them to grant me a great deal of freedom to venture from the house on my own, starting at about age five, when they let me walk the two-thirds of a mile to and from school each day, across the park and down through a friendly single family residential neighborhood.
My mom and dad were a pretty good example of an egalitarian approach to parenting that was all about providing an environment for me to pursue my interests and my life but not attempting to direct any of those pursuits. I say egalitarian, because they treated me as a fellow human traveler like them, with my own mind, my own will, and my own responsibility for directing my life. They saw their role as facilitators, to the best of their ability and resources providing me with a stimulating environment to live in and the developmentally appropriate “tools”, like imagination toys and a bicycle. Beyond that they mostly did not involve themselves in my activities, other than observing from afar and only participating if I asked them too and they were available to do so. Occasionally they would suggest an activity that they wanted to do with me, like throw a ball together or accompany them on an errand, just to talk and enjoy my company or maybe discuss a particular matter with me. It was all more like how very good friends engage with each other than the more conventional parenting practice of raising and training a semi-functional being who is “just a child”.
We lived just three blocks from the University of Michigan football stadium. On those fall football Saturdays when the Wolverines were playing a home game, a lot of fans from across town and the surrounding area would drive to the game. Finding a place to park was always a problem for them, so some of the people in the neighborhood around the stadium would make a little extra money selling spaces to park in their driveways or even front yards. My mom and dad let me park cars in our yard and keep the money. I would stand out by the street waving my sign and yelling, “Park Here fifty cents!” (Rates would go up to a full dollar for the big Ohio State rivalry game.) My mom would also make her special family recipe “Roberts Fudge” which I would then sell to people walking by heading to the game for a quarter apiece.
By halftime of the game, when all the latecomers had parked and had their chance to buy fudge, I would walk over to the stadium by myself. At that point the gates would be open with a lot of people going in and out and I would walk in, find an empty seat and watch the rest of the game. (In later decades the games would become so popular that the big 100,000 seat stadium would sell out every game and sneaking in at halftime was no longer possible!) Certainly the size of the event was many magnitudes greater, but to me it did not feel that different than walking over to Almendinger park across the street to say watch an adult softball league game with maybe twenty other spectators in the small bleachers.
By age eight my mom had worked out ground rules with me that I could go where I wanted in the neighborhood and even downtown (about a mile away from our house) as long as I started home “when the streetlights came on”. This of course given that Ann Arbor was a mid-sized, middle-class, progressive college town, with a fairly homogeneous population. So on summer and weekend days and school-day afternoons (particularly in late spring and early fall) I would venture out either on foot or by bicycle to friends’ houses, the park across the street, other nearby parks for little league baseball practices and games, the town library, my favorite toy and five-and-dime stores, and ice cream parlors, among the many destination within a mile or so of our house. Ann Arbor had (and continues to have) friendly tree-lined streets and cozy little parks nestled within its friendly neighborhoods. I recall that at least some of my peers who I considered friends or acquaintances were granted a comparable freedom of movement.
So other than walking to and from school, the occasional visit to a family friend’s house with my parents, going out to dinner a couple times a month with my parents, or taking day trips on weekends with my dad, the majority of occasions I left the house to go somewhere was at my own initiative and to my own chosen destination. What better way for a kid to develop the currently much prized and talked about skill of “executive function”. Per the Wikipedia article on this subject…
Executive functions is an umbrella term for cognitive processes that regulate, control, and manage other cognitive processes, such as planning, working memory, attention, problem solving, verbal reasoning, inhibition, mental flexibility, multi-tasking, and initiation and monitoring of actions. The executive system is a theorized cognitive system in psychology that controls and manages other cognitive processes. It is responsible for processes that are sometimes referred to as executive functions, executive skills, supervisory attentional system, or cognitive control.
Whereas in school I was every day directed by adults to where I should come to learn, what to learn when I got there, when I should learn it, how and from whom; outside school I would set out on most journeys from my house at my own direction as to where, when, how, and to see whom. Both of these scenarios are part of adult life, but we usually enter into the former, and continue to abide by its strictures, at our own direction.
Outside of my wonderful mostly unstructured summers, I was continuing to be psychologically manipulated and behaviorally modified by these many hours I was required to spend in my school classrooms, with its adult locus of control. I was ever compliant when in the presence of those adults, particularly those responsible for directing and passing judgement on my actions. My survival mechanism was to slowly learn to, as the protagonist of the novel 1984 (that I would later read) did in the end, “love big brother”, and at least at school try to seek my self-esteem by being the most well-behaved and praiseworthy “trained seal” I could be. More and more drinking the koolaid of compliance with each successive year in this institution.
I would try my best to continue to put on an exemplary presentation of myself to my parents in their presence. That I was thoughtful, capable, could fend for myself and would always come home when the street lights came on. These were in fact all true, but any negative feelings I had from time to time I was more comfortable sharing with my peers than my parents or other custodial adults.
In response my mom and dad continued to parent without any resort to the conventional behavior modification techniques of rewards or punishments. My mom would always provocatively announce to her peers that she didn’t believe in spanking, because it was essentially “hitting children”. But what she did not announce was that she and my dad did not employ any of the non-physical alternatives to corporal punishment. I wonder if they would have been able to maintain those rules of engagement if I had been one to push more boundaries (that they were aware of) or act out more in their presence. What my mom in particular did do was to call out my bad behavior on the few occasions she would witness it, indicating, sometimes with an angry tone, that it was inappropriate and even that she was disappointed to see it. Given my continuing discomfort around adults plus my sense of pride in my good and capable kid persona, I was always quick to correct any misbehavior once brought to my attention, though the wound to my pride would often remain.
The main area where my consciously crafted good kid persona broke down was with my brother and our occasional bouts with sibling rivalry. Given that I accepted the age-based hierarchy of superiors and inferiors which had me putting my parents on such a pedestal, it was my younger brother, in his status as inferior, that took the brunt of my anxiety and other negative feelings. We were always very close and could play together for hours on end, engaged together in mostly imagination play. But on those occasions where my mom had balled me out or something uncomfortable had happened to me at school or I was just tired of maintaining my good kid persona, I could get prickly and bossy with him. And if he stood up for himself (and unlike me he was more direct like our mom in sharing his feelings) and responded with direct angry words (like my mom) I would consider it mutiny. My mom was my superior, so much as I disliked it, I had to put up with it when she got mad at me. But my little brother as my inferior in the accepted pecking order, had no business doing so. Such action by him warranted an even angrier response by me including actually hitting or pushing him to assert my dominance physically. (I had not signed on to the no punishments policy when it came to my younger sibling!)
I recall one incident where I got really angry with him and pushed him and he fell awkwardly and hit his head hard against the metal support beam in the center of our basement, cutting his head open so that he needed stitches. I certainly heard about that from my mom, with anger and no uncertain terms, but again no punishment.
Looking back, I think I would have been well served if I had had an older sibling, particularly a sister, who possibly could have been a thoughtful non-judgemental confidant and ally on the other side of the “cooties” gulf. Someone who could explain the dynamics of the world to me, and that I would be comfortable asking for advice on such.
The closest I got to someone being not unlike my ideal big sister were the yearly occasions when we would go east to visit my grandparents (my mom’s parents). My Aunt Pat, born a decade and a half after my mom, would be there, and as a young adult but with a very positive energy and youthful outlook about her, seemed to me more like a grown up kid than a member of that alien species of real grownups. I remember most fondly how she used to love to play with me, including chasing me around my grandparents house with a pillow squashed on her head at one corner so the other three resembled one of those 19th century bicorne hats worn by naval officers. Picking up on my continuing love for imagination play, she was the maniacal pirate “Captain Pillow” and I was the always mutinous mate.
She loved me dearly and was my ally always in that completely non-judgemental way that I craved. She also played a role in my life as sort of liaison or halfway house of sorts between my kid world and that alien one of adults. Over the years I continued to visit her perhaps once or twice a year. That gave me the opportunity to witness her continuing development into the more complex world of adulthood – including career, marriage and parenthood – and help me reframe all the adults around me, including my own parents, as just kids like me just aged, rather than pedestalled deities.
The fall of 1963 I entered fourth grade at age nine. I had spent the last year hearing the trouble brewing in the relationship between my parents, hearing ever more frequent arguments between them from my basement sanctuary below, particularly my mom’s clear and angry voice responding to my dads more modulated words. She was feeling like a drudge, having worked hard at jobs supporting them while he was in graduate school. Now that he was doing his dream job as a college English professor she wanted to pursue her own further development beyond just being a parent and housewife.
If they realized that I had been within earshot for their verbal exchanges, they would later tell me, usually separately and more often from my mom, that though they had had a “fight”, they both loved me and my brother dearly. But particularly in hearing my mom’s loud and angry words, sounding like those that she occasionally directed at me, now backed by more of her general anxiety with her life’s situation, I began to feel that despite their protestations otherwise, I must somehow be part of the problem. I also started seeing my more soft-spoken dad as the victim of my mom’s anger, not picking up on his own passive-aggressive tactics, thus siding more with him and against her, at least in the private thoughts of my own mind.
While struggling with his relationship with my mom, my dad was at his finest as a college professor, a role he was happy to play, and from all I heard and witnessed, he was beloved by his students and admired by his colleagues. We shy people like my dad and I can be at our best, even in the spotlight, if we have a definite role that others are anticipating us playing, rather than just “being ourselves”. He would sometimes take my brother and I to work with him and we would hang out in his office, or play elevator tag in the big marble hallways, while he taught a class or sat at his big office desk grading papers or preparing assignments for an upcoming class. But when one of his student’s might come by, it was clear how much they thought of and looked up to him.
I have a memory of one such assignment where he handed out somewhat nondescript empty tin food cans, with the labels removed, so they all looked pretty similar though not exactly alike. The assignment was then to write a page about the details of your particular can, and when sharing it with the class later, seeing if your fellow students could pick out your can from the others assembled with it on a table in the classroom, based on your written description.
Alongside the deterioration of his relationship with my mom, bad things were happening in the larger world as well. It was November of 1963 when President Kennedy was shot and killed. My dad and I heard initially about the shooting on the car radio in the parking lot of Schlenker’s Hardware store in downtown Ann Arbor. I recall how deflated and concerned he suddenly was. He drove us quickly home and my mom was already down in the basement doing the ironing and watching the news on our little black and white TV. She informed us with tears in her eyes and an unusually measured tone that they had already announced that he had died.
A cataclysm was coming for our little family as well!