Coop’s Childhood Part 6 – Childhood’s End

long nook beachMy mom rose to the occasion after the divorce with my dad. Though she continued to have a great deal of unresolved anger towards him, and ongoing worries about paying the bills, plus other disruptions in her life, it seems it was perhaps the first real opportunity in that life to be truly on her own, and not pulled and tugged by parents, fiancée or spouse. She was beginning to learn to navigate as a completely autonomous person, including as a single parent, and I was just beginning to become sophisticated enough about this sort of stuff to notice, now that I had started to move her down from the former pedestal I had previously elevated her to.

She was getting enough in child support each month from my dad so she could barely, just barely, pay the bills if we lived frugally. And though some of the couples that had befriended her based on her status as a professor’s wife now distanced themselves from her as a divorcee, her irresistible extroversion and heart on her sleeve emotional honesty was beginning to win her a new community of friends and comrades. Our little household, now three instead of four, was definitely becoming the “Jane Roberts Zale Show”, for better or for worse.

It was now the summer of 1966. In May Martin Luther King had made his first public speech against the Vietnam War, a conflict that was mobilizing the activist segment of my Baby-boom generation and was roiling the progressive intellectual elite that my mom was angling to connect with as well. In June, the Supreme Court’s decision in Miranda v. Arizona now required police to inform suspects of their rights before questioning or arresting them. Later that month the National Organization for Women was founded in Washington DC by Betty Friedan and a handful of other women. In August The Beatles held a press conference and John Lennon apologized for saying he was “more popular than Jesus”.

With summertime came my annual liberation from school and the return to my more natural state of running my own life including planning my own day. Since I tended to stay up late, reading sci-fi books or listening to Ernie Harwell call the play by play for Detroit Tiger baseball games on the radio, I would generally sleep in. I had my own room now, taking over the third bedroom that had been my dad’s office while he was still living with us.

It would often be our cat, Midnight, a cute little black fuzz-ball of a kitten a year ago, but now a huge black tom cat with sharp teeth and even sharper claws, that would wake me up in the morning with his crying. He spent his nights outside, roaming the neighborhood and often getting into fights with other cats. In the morning when he wanted back in, he was strong enough to leap up onto a windowsill and from there another jump up onto the low gable over our front door and scale the raked roof to just below my upstairs bedroom window. Then he would yowl until I opened the window and let him in.

Our mom was always an early riser, and by the time I was up she was well into whatever project she had planned for that day. Since the divorce, she had gotten back into her art work and might be working away on a big canvass on an easel in the living room or out in the front yard. She worked with oil paint, and little dabs of the various colors she used would be all over her fingers and hands, and the living room would smell of that petroleum based paint and the turpentine she used to clean her brushes. Her paintings were abstract, all about color and form but mostly not representing anything recognizable. If I lingered she might explain to me the concept of “negative space”, that the space between objects in a painting was as important to making the thing “work” as the objects themselves.

Other mornings she would be out in the yard gardening. She was a highly skilled gardener who could grow almost anything, and loved to have her hands in the soil and often had dirt under her fingernails. Whenever I showed some interest she would teach me how to plant and transplant, or prune, or make cuttings of the pachysandra groundcover we had in the beds in the front of the house, to frugally produce more plants without having to buy them. I still have an image of her, on her knees in the dirt, pruning shears clutched in her teeth as her hands parted the overlapping branches of a hedge looking for the exact right place to make the next cut, “just above the bud”, as she would explain to me (after taking the shears out of her mouth).

Or she would be out in the driveway, a thick layer of old newspaper spread everywhere, and an old piece of furniture – chair, table or cabinet of some sort – the current focus of her skill and craft. It would either be recently purchased from a garage sale or university storage sale, or a piece that she had previously refinished that she had now decided to paint a different color, or remove the paint completely and apply a linseed oil finish to show the natural wood. Again if I lingered she would explain to me the steps of the process. How to strip the paint off the wood with chemical solvents and a putty knife. How to sand a previously painted surface so the new coat of paint could adhere to the underlying wood. This expression of her craft was as pragmatic and concrete as her paintings were abstract, but all flowing from the same spirit of the creation of beauty.

Given her own projects, plus managing the household including the very stressful challenge of paying the bills, she had set down new ground rules with my brother and I that she would cook us dinner (even if just “Roberts Spaghetti”), but we could make our own breakfast and lunch. For me breakfast was generally cold cereal and milk and I would eat the Kellogg’s Concentrate she was buying for herself. Though once you poured the milk on the tiny flakes of cereal you had to eat it quickly before it turned into total mush. It actually worked better if you poured the milk in first and then sprinkled the tiny flakes on top.

My summer day was mostly play, either in the park, the yard, with toys down in the basement, or over at a neighborhood friend’s house. It’s just like all us kids spilled out of our houses in the morning, wandered the street or the park for a bit, encountered and coalesced with each other. After greetings and sharing the news of the day (perhaps the hijinks of someone’s parents or older sibling or even something happening in the larger world) we would decide whether and what to do together. Perhaps a pickup baseball or basketball game in the park (football being reserved for later in the fall). Singles or doubles tennis on the courts. A gritty bicycle race around the small dirt circular drive by the park’s small recreation building.

Just about anything could be a venue for a game with the right ball. We would play a three square version of “Four Square” using the three contiguous segments of sidewalk at the street corner just beyond our yard. Or we would completely make up our own games. One I came up with, which I called “Terrain Tennis”, was golf-like using a tennis racket and ball. The object was to see how few “strokes” it took to hit the tennis ball from point A to point B, say from our front patio eventually into a trash can a couple hundred yards away across the park.

If one had a little pocket money and maybe friends with the same, there were nearby destinations accessible on foot or bicycle. Less than half a mile to a candy store. Just a quarter mile further to the “Blue Front”, a wonderfully dark and musty newsstand, crammed with comics and other magazines (even some with naked women if you could manage to sneak a peek), paperback books including lots of pulp sci-fi and fantasy, candy, chips, ice cream, soda and even more on shelves in the farthest corner of the back room. Balsa wood gliders or with windup rubber band engines. Plastic Frisbee, boomerangs, and rockets propelled by compressed water.

I was invited by one of my park pickup baseball buddies to come to the first practice and join the neighborhood Little League team, which I did. Again the contrast, pickup games informally “governed” by the assembled group of boys, with perhaps an “alpha” youth or two calling the shots, but Little League definitely run by adult coaches, usually a dad of one of the team members. From my previous three years of experience in this organized sport, I found it interesting that the coach’s son was usually the best player on the team, often a dominating pitcher. In the case of my new team, our coach was the dad of one of the nerdier, less talented kids on the team. His son played mostly in the outfield which, in Little League was generally the refuge of the less skilled players. The teams were named for the sponsoring business, in our case the coach’s plumbing supply company, “Michigan Tube Benders”.

I had missed most of the previous year of Little League, breaking my left collarbone tripping over one of the kids on the other team while running to second base after getting a hit my very first at bat. I was not able to play for pretty much the rest of the season, and had felt frustrated at the time that with the loss of a season of play I might fall behind my peers in my baseball skills. I had a lot of ego involved in my baseball playing at that point, and particularly so in Little League where, like school, your skills and execution were constantly being judged by adults along with your peers.

Participating in practice with my new team, I was pleased that my baseball skills (and my confidence in those skills), both hitting and playing in the field, were really gelling. Despite my previous missed season, I was actually one of the more skilled players on my new team, and quickly secured my position as the team’s regular first baseman. Looking back, and again acknowledging the ego involvement in a situation that features ranking and winners and losers like Little League, I was a year younger than all my teammates and would have really shined if I had been playing with kids my own age. The pitching would have been that much easier to hit!

As in previous summers, Little League was my own thing that I chose to be involved in, got myself to practices and games, and my parents had nothing to do with. I actively discouraged my mom and dad (he was still living in town at this point) from coming to watch my games, I did not want the added pressure of familiar eyes watching me perform, for better or worse. I just enjoyed being a contributing member of my team and acknowledged by my peers for being so.

Looking back, I think this might have been particularly frustrating for my dad, a former sports writer who loved the game, both watching and playing. When he was with us during these years, he never missed an occasion during “the season” to throw the ball with us or pitch and hit, or even participate in a pickup game together with youth and adults. He was always so proud of me and probably would have loved being invited to attend my games. In hindsight, if I could do it over again, I would invite him.

Speaking of my dad, for the first three years after he and my mom divorced he continued to live in Ann Arbor. Though he was no longer in the house he made the effort to be very much a part of our lives, taking us to the Food & Drug lunch counter for school day lunches and having us spend the classic divorce two weekends a month with him. He was not just going through the motions of the non-custodial parent, he really enjoyed having us with him and it gave him great pleasure to think up fun things for us to do together.

His parenting style, given his introverted demeanor, had always been very egalitarian, and perhaps more like an uncle than a classic father figure. He never commanded a room like our mom often did. He rarely tried to give unsolicited advice, but would do almost anything if asked for assistance. But he was never one to speak from the heart or be a good listener when someone else did so. Strong emotions, and particular difficult ones, were always problematic for him, so I had learned not to share that sort of stuff with him. If I needed a ear to vent to, to unburden my load, I would always choose to go to my mom. I think he knew that and begrudgingly accepted his limitation in that area.

After moving out of the house the previous year, his first new residence was on Henry Street, just off State Street a mile south of the University of Michigan campus and about halfway between our new house and old. He lived with two University of Michigan graduate students in a three bedroom apartment. Being near the stadium and basketball arena and the whole University athletic complex there were plenty of practice fields close by where we could play baseball, football or basketball together.

He was a dad playing ball with his kids, but looking back the interaction was more like peers or buddies than some patriarchal father figure. He played every sport like he meant it, even if just the three of us, with a competitive intensity which included getting mad occasionally when he missed a shot of whiffed on one of our pitches. Mind you, he never got mad at us, just his own athletic imperfections. That said, he was reasonably good at baseball, basketball, football, tennis and even Frisbee, a sport not of his own GI generation. Later we would find out that he was an excellent handball, racquetball and squash player as well.

He would sometimes recruit his apartment-mates to join us or would meet people out on the practice fields and encourage them to join us in a pickup game. If nothing else just Peter, dad and I would play. During baseball season, we’d take turns with one of us hitting, one pitching, and the third in the field. In the fall, one of us quarterbacking (usually him), one of us going out for the pass and one of us defending. In the spring, Peter and I against him in basketball or maybe a shooting game like “HORSE” or “Round the World”. Sometimes sharing a fantasy that we were major league players in a big game. A fantasy he seemed to indulge in as deeply as my brother and I did.

After a year he moved from Henry Street to another shared apartment with two other graduate students on the east side of campus by the University Hospital and the Nichols Arboretum. Soon after that he got his own place with “The Arb”, as it was called, practically in his backyard. This added the dimension for our weekends together of hikes and adventures in the 123 acres of woods and hills of the place.

It was a small single apartment with just a couch-bed that pretty much filled the room when it was open. When Peter and I spent the night there we would sleep on the bed and he some sort of bedroll on the floor. I never recall him being much for any accommodations beyond the Spartan. He was never about material things really, other than books and junk food.

I remember the typical Friday night, Peter and I sitting on the couch, dad in his chair, watching TV on our dad’s little black and white set. The TV show I remember watching those nights was The Green Hornet, with Bruce Lee pretty much stealing every show as the main character’s sidekick Kato. The typical culminating fight scene, had Green Hornet and Kato facing off against the main bad guy with usually at least a dozen henchmen. While Green Hornet and the main bad guy slugged it out, Kato would quickly dispatch all the henchmen with his martial art skill. So quickly that he had time to relax and watch his boss just barely outlast his opponent in an exchange of punches. When the villain finally collapsed, Kato would smile wryly and say, “Good work boss!”

Peter and I always got pleasure out of that wry smile, like a knowing wink to the audience that Kato knew who the badass really was but as a truly disciplined martial artist and warrior he had no need to toot his own horn, but would humor his “boss”. Maybe it planted a seed in my mind that the whole old hierarchical order was dead, just no one had broken the news to its patriarchs yet!

In August, after the Little League season had completed, our mom, ever the frugal planner, had scrimped and saved all year to be able to rent a cottage again on Cape Cod, this time for two full weeks. Certainly the New England Atlantic shore was her beloved childhood stomping grounds, but more than that, “the Cape” was the playground of the WASPy elite, that she aspired to be part of, and wanted her kids not to be denied the experience of as well. So Peter and I would never have to play second fiddle to some rich kid talking about his family vacations at said location, with all its cache.

This August trip to Cape Cod, financed by a year of very frugal living, had become a yearly family ritual since our mom’s panic attack two years ago, one aspect of the strategy, along with our move to Burns Park, to mitigate the drudgery in her life that had triggered the attack. But for the first time we would be going without our dad, it would be her thing entirely. Previously, with her and my dad taking turns driving, the 850 mile trip could be done in one very long day on the road. But with just her at the wheel she planned it as a two-day drive with an overnight stop roughly halfway at a motel off the Thruway in Upstate New York.

This trip was very significant for me developmentally. Now eleven years old, finished with elementary school, coming off a confidence building experience in Little League, and dad no longer with us, I did not feel in any way like a child anymore. In the car driving east I had sat in the front seat much of the time reading the map and helping mom navigate.

She had rented a small house about a mile from Long Nook beach, on the ocean side of the Cape outside the little town of Truro, just south of Provincetown. It shared an acre or so of wooded land with a second slightly larger house where the woman that owned the property lived with her three cats. We saw a lot of those cats which freely roamed the yard around our house, but saw the woman only occasionally. The road to the beach was also through the woods and in the early morning you might not encounter another person on it. The cumulative effect was that of a secluded retreat, and for all three of us it was a needed two weeks to recuperate from all the stresses and strains of the divorce and just, as they say these days, “chill”.

I was in the midst of reading the complete series of James Bond books, my appetite whet originally by seeing several of the movies based on the books, then finding the paperbacks on sale at the “Blue Front”. Bond’s was an adult world, though as pulp fiction, perhaps presented in a way that was more intoxicating for a young male like me. The adventure of espionage in a wide world of venues with danger, intrigue, violence, brutality, craft and occasional sexual situations of the sophomoric male-fantasy sort. My sexual knowledge was pretty limited, so I did not get the fairly crude anatomical `joke in Fleming naming one of the sexy female characters “Pussy Galore”.

James Bond was stoic and confidant, but perhaps lacking the internal monologue of a more fully realized character one can truly identify with. More poignant in that regard was the Johnny River album, And I Know You Wanna Dance, I had brought with us and played over and over on our little record player. The album included his apropos hit, “Secret Agent Man”

There’s a man who leads a life of danger
To everyone he meets he stays a stranger
With every move he makes
Another chance he takes
Odds are he won’t live to see tomorrow

Rivers album was quite compelling, at least to me, covering some of the lyrically powerful Motown songs that were becoming my personal Greek Chorus of sorts. Holland and Dozier’s “I Can’t Help Myself” about a man’s consuming passion for a woman. Otis Redding’s “Respect” and Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight” calling out the ethical bottom line for a man who loves a woman, here from the latter…

No football hero or smooth Don Juan,
Got empty pockets, you see I’m a poorman’s son.
She says give her the things that money can buy
But I’ll never, never make my baby cry

Wilson Pickett’s allusion to sexual intimacy that I could barely imagine…

I’m gonna take you girl and hold you
And do all things I told you in the midnight hour

Rivers’ rendition of the Righteous Brothers hit about the fleeting complexities of love, “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”…

You never close your eyes anymore when I kiss your lips
And there’s no tenderness like before in your fingertips
You’re trying hard not to show it
But baby, baby I know it
You’ve lost that lovin’ feeling

His cover of Beatle John Lennon’s threatening, even misogynistic “Run For Your Life”…

Well I know that I’m a wicked guy
And I was born with a jealous mind
And I can’t spend my whole life
Trying just to make you toe the line
You better run for your life if you can, little girl
Hide your head in the sand little girl
Catch you with another man
That’s the end ah little girl

Finally Oscar Brown Jr’s cautionary fable “The Snake” about a “tenderhearted woman” who nurses the poor half-dead serpent back to life only to have him turn on her as is his nature…

Now she stroked his pretty skin
And then she kissed and held him tight
But instead of saying thanks
That snake gave her a vicious bite

Pretty powerful stuff to have on in the background and let marinate in your young impressionable mind almost subconsciously over and over while your conscious focus is following the literary narrative thread of a hardboiled macho hero with a license to kill. Seemed the world of love and sexual intimacy was way too difficult, dicey and dangerous for a gentle young soul like me. Would I somehow develop the thick skin some day to venture into this arena? At age eleven my libido was not yet juicing my brain to make it that much more complicated.

One of the big developments of the trip was my younger brother Peter really coming into his own, recently turned eight, and blossoming into his own maturity as a thoughtful and highly creative person. For several years now, totally on his own initiative and at his own direction with never a single art lesson, he was teaching himself to draw the human body in action. Inspired by the comic books we both were into, he started out tracing then copying the human figures in those comics. Soon he was drawing them totally on his own and was showing great talent. His deep dive into this realm was facilitated by our mom, the artist herself, who made sure he had the paper, colored pencils and markers he needed to render his figures, but otherwise did not try to direct or critique his work at all and made sure no school art teacher did either.

I don’t know if our mom had learned this Montessori-like approach to human learning from somewhere or had completely intuited it herself, she was certainly capable of both! Eight years earlier, after initially putting me in a preschool program that i hated, she had done the research to find Margaret Towsley’s unorthodox “Play School” program, based on Maria Montessori’s ideas that children’s free play was the most profound form of learning and human development. I had already heard our mom’s mantra that, “Bright kids will tell you what they need!” any number of times. She herself was certainly intuitively brilliant and a true believer in self-direction.

So now at age eight, my “little brother” was demonstrating that he could engage with me as a creative partner in the imagination play that was still a staple of my own life at age eleven. During this Cape Cod trip that partnership was fully exercised. Peter was a big fan of the DC Comics Justice League, featuring the collaboration of superheroes Superman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, Atom and Wonder Woman. We both bought and read the Justice League comics, along with Batman, Flash, Atom and Green Lantern, and he loved to draw all those characters in action. Exploring my own dark side, I resonated more with some of the villains in those comics, particularly those who faced off with Batman and Flash. So inspired by his embrace of the Justice League, I decided to develop my own counter group of bad guys which I dubbed the “Crime Society”.

Riffing on Batman’s villain Catman (who was eventually superseded by the sexier Catwoman), I came up with with a character “Ratman” as the leader of my inglorious society. He was a highly intelligent but physically diminutive bottom feeder who traveled the city through the sewers and other underground passageways. That he could pull together these other powerful super villains to create this “society” was a testament to his great guile.

Two of my Crime Society’s members were my favorite villains from the Flash comics, Mirror Master and Mr. Element (aka Dr. Alchemy). I particularly resonated with Mirror Master’s use of smoke and mirrors (literally) to create illusions and distractions that allowed him to perpetrate his crimes.

The rest of my Crime Society were characters, like Ratman, I had created myself. “Cronoman”, who could jump back and forth in time at will. “The Purplet”, a medieval witch who had been burned at the stake but managed to will the remaining upper half of her burned body into the future and now was outfitted with a gravatronic device below her torso that allowed her to be upright and move. “The Brute Brothers”, two Hulk-like physically imposing powerful humanoids that shared one brain and could therefore act as the ultimate fighting duo. Finally “Dimo” (short for “Dimension Man”), a very alien being with the ability to warp small areas of time and space at his will.

Each of us with our cast of characters, my brother and I spent hours each day creating shared narratives of how his Justice League and my Crime Society battled it out. We filled in details of each character’s back-story as appropriate and wove joint tales that allowed for triumph and tragedy at times for both warring sides. We were engaged in our own amateur version of the sort of artifice practiced by the professionals who developed the stories for the comic books we bought and read. This sort of imagination play is still looked upon by many as mere daydreaming and childish fantasy, but the ability to conceptualize stories drawing in various elements of fiction and real world circumstance has proven to be valuable to me in ways I could have never imagined. It is the processing of human culture through the engine of ones own creative mind exercising the prized ability to think “outside the box”. Having these two weeks together off in our wooded retreat away from others and most of the muggle world gave full rein to the inventions of our imaginations.

Finally, and very significantly to the development of my own agency and sense of self, was the mile trek down the road through the woods to the beach. Though in my hometown I would easily walk a mile or two or bicycle much farther to get to a desired destination, running had been something I would do in a ball game, and only reluctantly in gym class when required to run “the six-hundred”, that third-of-a-mile distance required by the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. It was one of the Councils metrics of fitness along with situps, pushups, and pullups by which all us kids were ranked (and the “unfit” were duly ridiculed!) Being occasionally required to run made it somehow onerous and something I would never consider doing on my own, at least until now.

So one of our first mornings at the cottage I announced, fanning my own budding ego, that I was going to “run to the beach”. And so I started out, but after a quarter of mile of what was feeling like an endless road of twists and turns with no destination visible ahead, and my lungs starting to burn a bit, I reduced to a walk. But with a little caught breath at a couple more points along the way, then persevering, I was able to mostly run that distance and arrive at the beautiful destination of tall dunes, broad beach and pulsing ocean as far as I could see to the horizon.

When I got to the beach I was mostly alone and I would sit for maybe a good half hour before my mom and brother came along in the car. The exhilaration of the run pumping the oxygen and endorphins to my brain, the perch atop the towering wall of dunes, and the grand vista of the Atlantic and a few tinyish people on the beach below, gave me a sense of truly being the master of my own destiny. It wove together all the developmental threads of the trip. Dad not with us and mom relying on me to sit in the front seat and navigate with the map during our trip here. Enjoying the relationship with my younger brother who I could share imagination play with and seemed to admire his older brother. Reading James Bond books that seemed very adult, at least to an eleven-year-old kid. All this thought flowing over the pleasant burn of my muscles. And after maybe two more mornings of my solo run, I could complete the entire mile without any walking breather.

On a day when it rained and my brother was absorbed in his drawing, feeling my new sense of agency, I decided to design my own military board game. Setting up and playing these games, solitaire mostly, had become a bit of an obsession for me (and a great go to activity when I was bored), but I had not thought to bring one with me on the trip. But with the rain outside, burnt out for the moment reading the further exploits of double-o-seven, my brother occupied in his own creation, and finding the necessary materials I launched into my own solo creative endeavor.

I taped four sheets of my brother’s plain white paper together to make the game board, had the pencil and (a found) yardstick at ready to first draw the hexagonal grid on which I would then draw the terrain map. I immediately faced the challenge of how to actually draw a grid of hexes (rather than a much simpler one of squares). After a few experiments unsuccessfully trying to draw a field of hexes on another sheet of paper, I was stymied until I eventually stumbled into the answer in the bathroom, where a patch of square tiles had been arranged like bricks rather than a simple checkerboard. They were not hexagons, but they had all the properties of a hex grid, with each tile touching six adjacent tiles.

The next challenge was how to render that sort of hex-like, brick-like grid of squares on my paper board using a pencil and ruler. Again more trial and error until I figured out to mark off two opposite edges of my board every half inch but then mark the other two edges every quarter inch. I then lined up the yardstick between two corresponding marks on the sides with half-inch marks and drew lines across the page, a half-inch apart. Then lining up marks on quarter-inch side, drew perpendicular line segments between every other pair of the previously drawn lines. Alternating with each adjacent set of marks, I was able to create the brick-like grid of staggered squares that had the topology of the hex grid.

I felt a great sense of satisfaction with my completed hex grid and excitedly began tracing out the topography of my terrain. My vision was a gap in a mountain range with a river running through it. The attacking army would try to force its way through the gap with the defending army resisting. My brother’s colored markers, rendered blue rivers, green woods, brown ridges and black lines for roads and circles for cities on the previously penciled out terrain features. I noted that though different terrain types could be indicated by black pencil markings only, how much the use of color to highlight a type of map feature not only made the whole board pop and be pleasing to look at, but also allowed the human eye to quickly recognize relationships between various color-coded terrain features. I decided to call it “The Lonheim Gap”, which sounded appropriately European.

Next came the creation of the army units, which in my purchased games were generally half-inch die-cut squares made out of a heavy card stock with numbers and other markings printed on glossy paper glued to the card stock. My units were much more rustic, finding an empty pastry box in the trash made out of white card stock, on which I penciled a half-inch square grid and filled in by hand (in blue pen for one side and red for the other) the symbols for unit types (infantry, armor, and artillery) along with their single numeric digit combat and movement factors. I cut out the squares as best I could with a scissors.

Finally I drew up a Combat Results Table from memory with the usual columns for each ratio of summed combat factors of attacking units relative to defending and rows for each of six die rolls. I had not brought any dice with me and could not find one in the few board games in the house. I was stumped initially on how to generate a random number between 1 and 6. First I tried to make a die out of cut, folded and taped cardboard, but could not make one balanced enough to roll each number equally. Finally a simple solution hit me, and i cut six more half-inch squares out of my cardboard and wrote the numbers one to six on them. Then I put them in a coffee mug, shook them, and then pulled one out to replace the die roll. That worked.

The red side (Russian perhaps) would set up on the board and try to defend the gap while the blue side (German) would enter the board from one side, fight thru the red defenders and try to move a certain number of their remaining units off the opposite edge of the board by the twentieth turn. So I spent a couple hours setting up the red units in the best possible defensive positions. In my Avalon Hill military board games, this was generally my favorite part, the initial setup. Trying to leverage the defensive terrain to the utmost and anticipate every possible attack strategy by the other side.

The major river ran through the middle of the board from the west edge to the east, but it could only be crossed at a limited number of bridges. That meant that defending units set up on one side of the river might have difficulties getting quickly over to the other side as needed. Once the defender had set up their units then the attacker would choose where to bring theirs on the west edge of the board, choosing say to concentrate almost completely on either the north or south side of the river, or choose to attack on both.

So in setting up the red side to defend the gap, the placement of your units had to account for and be able to react to any possible attack. Say you deployed your units close to the west edge of the map, equally divided between the north and south sides of the river. Then the larger attacking blue force could concentrate on one side, breakthrough the defending units at the point of their attack and then have a clear path to the east side of the board before you could get the rest of your defending force that was deployed on the other side of the river across to help stop them. After much satisfying and even joyful pondering, I finally decided that the best defensive strategy was to set up the bulk of the red force in the middle of the board by one of the key bridges and away from the west edge, with just a few units close to that west edge at key points where they could maybe slow the blue force’s advance. Then once the blue force appeared on the board, the bulk of the red force would be in a position to react and assume the best defensive positions on either side of the river as appropriate.

If you are not into this sort of logistical military strategy stuff these dilemmas might not make any sense or seem worth pondering, but for me, it was very compelling, and I spent the evening that rainy day, well past midnight, pondering the best placement of little squares of cutup pastry box marked with red ink on a map made out of four sheets of paper taped together. Entertainment for a rainy day by the creative exercise of a mind using paper, cardboard, pencil, ruler and markers to create a graphic representation of an imagined setting for a dramatic narrative of conflict.

During our two weeks, though sleeping in the next room and making dinner for us (for breakfast and lunch we were generally on our own to have cold cereal and make sandwiches), mom was mostly on her own, enjoying getting up each morning with no pressing agenda or financial issues. Though not bringing her canvas and oil paints, she did bring her wooden box of charcoals and pastels and a big pad of heavy art paper, and spent hours during the day sitting in the yard or at the beach drawing. She always seemed happiest when she had a paint brush or pencil in her mouth and fingers stained with color pondering her current work in progress, darkening a line here, or using her finger to soften a different line there.

Our main shared activity with her was going to the beach. She was a very strong swimmer and had had a love affair with the ocean since she was a kid coming to the shore in the summer to visit her aunts. Her grandmother had taught her to swim when she was a little girl, and her mother and her mother’s sisters were all very capable swimmers. While my brother and I built castles and adjoining cities in the sand on the beach, mom would sometimes go way out and swim back and forth parallel to the shore, with only her white bathing cap visible bobbing in and out of the waves. And when Peter and I would wade out with her far enough to where each wave would require us to tread water as our feet lost touch with the bottom, she would show us how easy it was to float in the salt water, and how to catch a wave just right and body surf back to the beach.

She also took us one afternoon to pick blueberries, and another into Provincetown to walk up and down the cute main drag and explore the funky shops. She had great confidence in me, so as long as I stuck close with my younger brother, she let the two of us explore the venues of the little beach town on our own for an hour or so while she was across the street looking for earrings and necklaces. I particularly liked the army-navy surplus store, with its rabbit warren of aisles and array of military exotica including helmets, goggles, and (non-functional) military ordinance. Upon reuniting with her a little bit later she even accepted the fact that I had used my money to purchase an old gas mask and a hand grenade.

When our two weeks at the cottage by Long Nook beach were finally over, we were all three sad to leave, but happier and significantly re-created from when we came. Our mom again had to do all the driving, two long days worth, with a stop at a motel overnight in between. And though the second day was particularly long and hard for her, again I was in the front seat next to her with the map, helping again to chart our course forward.

We were returning to the stresses of our lives. My mom to managing the household and the shell game of not quite being able to pay all the bills. My brother and I to starting school for yet another year, for me always a difficult time, doubly so because I would be starting junior high at a big new school.

Click here to read next chapter!

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2 replies on “Coop’s Childhood Part 6 – Childhood’s End”

  1. Patricia Merena says:

    Wow! Always knew you were beyond bright and truly a Mensa Kid, but your memory of what you felt is mind-boggling.

  2. Cooper Zale says:

    Pat… I appreciate the comment. As I am trying to reconstruct my life to write this series, it is the events and the feelings I tied to them that keep them in my memory. A great deal of my young life, particularly when I was in school, was just putting in time, so no real emotions tied to things I did and therefore no memory of that now.

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