It was summer, and we kept the windows open all the time, except when it rained, because mom loved “fresh air”. She said it “kept her going” and she didn’t like “feeling all closed in”. Every morning mom would do chores in the kitchen and the basement. She said there was “twice as much laundry” because of all David’s clothes and especially his dirty diapers. Dad was usually at his desk in the basement typing on the typewriter trying to “finish this damn dissertation”. He would work on it all day, though he would always read to me and David at bedtime and also sing songs.
When mom finished her morning chores, if it wasn’t raining, she would take David and me over to the park. She said it was called “Allmendinger Park” because, “There was a family named ‘Allmendinger’ that was nice enough to give the land to Ann Arbor so it could be a park”. We didn’t just live on Prescott Street, we lived in Ann Arbor too. Ann Arbor had lots of streets, not just Prescott.
Mom would take David’s diaper bag, and another big bag with a blanket to sit on, “snacks” and a “thermos full of coffee”. She would also bring a book to read and “baby oil” that she would rub on the parts of her body that didn’t have clothes over them.
Even though I didn’t ask, she told me the book she was reading was, “The Affluent Society, by John Kenneth Galbraith”. She said it was about “some people getting rich but not wanting to help other people who weren’t rich”, and that it was an “interesting idea, though I’m not sure I buy his whole argument.” Mom was always talking about “arguments”. I couldn’t quite figure that out, because sometimes she liked them but sometimes they made her angry.
She said the guy who wrote it was a “college professor”, like dad wanted to be, once he finished his dissertation. She didn’t say “damn dissertation”, like dad said sometimes, because she said “damn” was a “swear word”. She said it was okay to use swear words sometimes, especially when you were angry, but not other times. And for a kid, “You probably shouldn’t swear until you’re old enough to know when it’s okay and when it’s not”. Like it might be okay when you’re just with other kids who are already swearing, but not when you’re a kid talking to grownups, even if THEY were already swearing. Grownups could be bad that way, not treating kids like regular people.
When we got to a “good spot”, usually in the grass part of the park between the “outfield” of the two baseball “diamonds”, she would spread out the blanket and sit. She would rub that baby oil stuff on her face, neck, arms and legs. Then she would “sip” coffee, read her book, and if it wasn’t cloudy, “bask in the sun”. She said I could go wherever I wanted to in the park as long as I didn’t cross the street and she could see me. If there was a baseball game I could watch from the side parts, outside the “foul lines”, as long as I didn’t wander on the field where I might get hit by the ball. She said the way I could check if she could see me is if I could see her.
She would say, “If I can’t see you, then I’ll get worried and I’ll have to grab David and come looking for you, and I’d rather not have to do that.” That made sense.
Even though I didn’t like her telling me what to do, I liked that she was letting me do things by myself in the park, like she already let me do in the house or the backyard. So I could play with other kids without them knowing that my mom was in charge of me. And I figured that the more times we went to the park and I did those things the way she wanted me to, and she didn’t have to come look for me, the more other things she would let me do by myself. If I could only tie my damn shoes.
Allmendinger Park was a giant square with streets all around it. It kind of had “quarters” like our basement did. The quarter closest to our house had one of the dirt baseball diamonds with its grass outfield part, and on the edge part by the streets most of the big bunches of lilac bushes. The bushes were now covered with leaves, and flowers that smelled like candy. You could walk inside each bunch of bushes to an inside part where you could hide from people outside the bushes. Sometimes kids would play like it was a cave or a fort or some kind of secret place.
I would “explore”, that word dad used when he took me somewhere we hadn’t been before, those inside parts of the lilac bush bunches sometimes. Inside, that sweet smell was so strong it made it hard to think about anything else. But I’d make sure to come back out so mom could see me again and maybe even wave to her if she was looking my way.
The other quarter of the park that was close to our house had the other baseball diamond and grass outfield. It was actually on “Molly’s side” of the park, since Molly and I decided that that side was closer to her house than to mine.
Like the other baseball diamond, it had that big metal thing that people could sit on that looked like very wide stairs. When there weren’t people sitting watching a baseball game I would run up and down it, like the stairs to our basement, except my feet would make this neat clanging noise. And like the other baseball diamond it had that giant metal fence thing, just around part of where the “home plate” was. Mom said that the giant fence was to “keep the missed and foul balls going off somewhere where someone would have to take a long time to go find them”. That also made sense.
Home plate was where you tried to hit the ball in a baseball game. Mom said it was shaped like a square and a triangle put together. It was stuck in the ground so you couldn’t move it, even if you kicked the edge part really hard. When I touched it or jumped on it it felt different than other things you walked on, like dirt or grass or sidewalk or floors in the house. It was hard, but also kind of soft at the same time. Mom said it was made out of “rubber, like the tires on our car”.
Then there were those white lines they made on the ground. This grownup with this box on wheels with a turning thing would start by home plate and then make two lines way out to the grass part of the outfield. Mom said those were the “foul lines” and that they were made of white powder stuff called “chalk”. So when you hit a ball in a real game, if it went outside those white lines it was a “foul ball”. But if it didn’t go outside it was a “fair ball” and you could run to “first base” or go to second base or even farther, if you hit the ball where the other team was having trouble getting it. Sometimes, even when there wasn’t a real game, there would be some of that white chalk stuff still on the ground and I would touch it with my fingers and it would make them feel really dry.
So the home plate was always there but the other “bases” were not. When they had a real baseball game or a real “practice” some grownup would bring out the other three bases and figure out where they were supposed to be somehow. When he had figured that out, he would pound this big nail thing into the ground to keep each base in the right place. You knew it was real if the players were wearing uniforms and the guy behind the batter was wearing that helmet thing with the bars over the face that made him look kind of like a spaceman. Each team would also have this “coach” guy who was in charge of the team and was always an adult, even if the team was kids, which I thought was kind of strange. But I REALLY liked the uniforms because everyone on the same team wore the same colors and they really looked neat.
And if it was a real game, and not a practice, then there was also this “umpire” guy who had a dark blue shirt and pants and had one of those same kind of helmets as the catcher. He wasn’t on either team but he was in charge of the game. He would say if it was a “ball” or a “strike”, “fair” or “foul”, or “out” or “safe”. He would talk to the coaches and sometimes he would even have an argument with one of them. If it was a practice there wouldn’t be an umpire and just one coach who would be in charge of everything. I thought it was interesting that a coach could be in charge of his team, but also have somebody else in charge of him. I wondered if mom and dad, who were in charge of me and David, had somebody who was in charge of them. Maybe that “President” guy grownups sometimes talked about
When kids played a game without grownups mom called that a “pickup” game. Though when it was real, it was exciting and looked neat with all the uniforms, I liked it when it was pickup because the kids were in charge. When it was just kids they had to do a lot of pretending, because there were no adults around to make it real. The kids would have to make up pretend teams, so usually one kid would be the “captain” of each team and they would take turns picking the rest of the team. They would have to make their own pretend bases. Sometimes they would use pieces of cardboard. Other times they would use a bat or the back part of their shoes to dig a square shape in the dirt where the base should be. And when they started playing they would have to all decide if a ball was fair or foul or a kid was out or safe, and usually there were only strikes and no “balls”. And because it was pretend, kids would play on both teams.
Then there were the other two quarters on the “far side” of the park, farthest away from where we lived, one on Molly’s side and one on mine. That quarter on Molly’s side had a tennis “court” and a basketball “court”. Tennis and basketball were “sports” like baseball except they were played on a “court” instead of a “diamond”. I figured they were called courts because they had that really hard stuff like sidewalks and our basement floor instead of dirt like the baseball diamond.
The other sport I knew about was football, which was played on a “field”, like the one at the “Michigan Stadium” that dad and I would go to, sometimes with Molly too. That field would have lots of those chalk lines that dad said were “yard lines”, “side lines”, and “goal lines”. Allmendinger park did not have a real football field, but kids and grownups sometimes played football games on a pretend field on the grass part between the baseball fields.
That quarter of the park that had the tennis and basketball courts also had this place called the “shelter”. It looked like a house but it didn’t have any windows and just one door. It was where the grownups that were in charge of the park kept all the sports stuff to let kids or grownups use when they were playing baseball and basketball. They had all kinds of balls and bats and bases and even catcher’s masks. They had balls for games that I didn’t even know what they were. They even had one of those box things on wheels to do the chalk lines.
The grownups who were in charge of the park were there sometimes, but not all the time. When they weren’t there you couldn’t go inside the shelter and use all that stuff, but kids would bring their own stuff, balls, bats and gloves and make their pretend bases. No one could stop us kids from playing what we wanted to play, particularly in the park. That is something I liked about the park A LOT, that kids could do all kinds of playing there, either alone or with other kids.
The last quarter of the park was on the far side, but my side of the far side. That was the part that had most of the trees, and had the picnic tables and the “playground” stuff. That was the name grownups used for where the swings, teeter-totter, merry-go-round and monkey bars were. That’s where a lot of the kids were who weren’t playing baseball. So that’s where most of the girl kids were since they didn’t seem to play baseball, though I’m not sure why not, because they seemed to do stuff just as good as boys. There were usually more boys than girls in the park, and I wondered if there just weren’t as many girls as boys.
As I went around the park watching boys play baseball, and playing with other boys and some girls in the “playground”, kids would talk to me about things or I would hear them talk to each other. Boys talked a lot about sports, especially baseball, because it was the “baseball season” and the real teams were playing games that they talked about on the radio or maybe you could even watch on TV. They talked about the “Detroit Tigers”, which dad had said was the “local team” so we should “root” for them, even though mom still rooted for the “Yankees”. Some of the kids, mostly older than me, had “gone to a game” at “Tiger Stadium”. Different kids had different players they thought were the best, like “Al Kaline” or “Mickey Mantle”. They would try to tell the other kid why their best player was better than the other kid’s best player. Sometimes they would even have an argument about it.
Some of the kids had these cards with pictures of baseball players on them and they’d show them to other kids. They were always trying to get more cards, so they’d get them in a “pack” from the store, which also had this big piece of bubble gum in it. They tried to get one of every player but instead they got lots of “duplicates”, cards of players they already had. But those were good too because you could “trade” them to other kids who didn’t have that card, who had duplicates of a card you didn’t have.
That chewing gum stuff was really good and you could also get it in little squares at a store. When I went with dad to a store he would get two pieces and throw one to me and say “catch”. I could usually catch it with my hands the way he showed me how to hold them together to make them “like a basket”. If I did catch it he would make this clicking noise with his mouth and his eyes would look all happy and he’d say “good catch”. If I didn’t catch it he would just say “better luck next time”. Though they weren’t the kind with baseball cards, I liked the ones he got because they were wrapped up like tiny presents and they even had this piece of paper inside the wrapping called a “comic”. It had tiny pictures and words about this kid “Bazooka Joe” who had a baseball cap and this other kid with a really long neck and this red shirt that went up over his mouth.
Those comics were really small but there were bigger ones in the newspapers mom and dad got. Dad liked looking at the comics in the newspaper and sometimes he’d read me one he thought was funny and made him laugh. His favorite comic was “Pogo”, which had a bunch of pretend animals that talked and lived in a place with lots of water and trees called a “swamp”. It was interesting that real animals didn’t talk but pretend animals almost always did. I guess people really wanted animals to talk but real animals hadn’t figured out how to do it yet.
Sometimes he would read a comic to me that he liked or he thought was funny, and it would make me laugh too. But other times I couldn’t figure it out and dad said that it “probably went over your head”. But I really didn’t want things to go over my head. I wanted to figure everything out, especially all these things that grownups were talking about that they weren’t telling kids about.
Boys in the park also liked to talk about war and being soldiers. Like dad, a lot of the other boys had dad’s that were in World War Two against the Germans. Other dad’s were sailors on ships that were against the “Japanese”. Like sports, where boys would talk and even argue about the best teams and best players, they’d do that about the best war stuff too. Was the most important battle “D-Day” or “Midway”. Who had the best generals. The Germans had “Rommel” but we had “Patton”, who was even better. At the start of the war the Germans had the best “battleship” called the “Bismarck”, but it got sunk by the “British”, because they had a bunch of battleships and the Germans only had that one. What was the best “fighter plane”, the Germans “ME 109”, the Japanese “Zero”, the British “Spitfire” or our “Mustang”. Everyone seemed to think that the Germans had the best tanks with the best names, “Panther” and “Tiger”.
Molly’s dad had “models” of planes from World War Two that he put together himself and then painted to look like it was real, just a lot smaller. Molly liked watching him make one, and I thought they looked really neat when they were finished. Some of the older kids said they made and painted models too, of planes, ships or tanks from the war.
One boy said we dropped the first “atomic bombs” on the Japanese to make them “surrender”. I wanted the other boys to think I knew something about that so I said those were also called “nucular” bombs. But another kid said I was saying it wrong and they were really “nuclear” bombs. Even though I didn’t like it when he told me I was wrong, it was okay because he was a kid like me and just wanted to make sure I knew the right stuff when I talked about it. Better a kid telling you than an adult who might think you were just some stupid kid.
Boys also talked about maybe having to fight a new war against the Russians and the Soviet Union thing. Some kids thought that they wanted to be soldiers, or fly the big “bombers” and drop the nuclear bombs on them. I think we all wondered if we would have to be soldiers when they got older, so it was important to know as much as you could about the whole war thing.
I at least liked pretending to be a soldier to figure out what it felt like, since my dad had been one. A lot of us played at being soldiers when we played together in the park. Fighting the pretend Germans or Russians, and sometimes winning but sometimes losing too. Sometimes getting “wounded”, or even getting “captured” and then trying to “escape”. We even “got killed” sometimes when we were trying to be “heros”. We all tried to be brave and be heroes. It felt good even if you got killed, and at least when we were pretending, getting killed while you were trying to be brave and save people or get all the bad guys, felt especially good.
A lot of kids liked doing space stuff too. A lot of older boys had read Tom Swift books and knew all the stuff he had invented. They knew about the moon and Mars and “aliens”. They would talk about Tom’s submarines and planes and rocketships, but also about the real submarines, planes and rockets. The “nuclear” submarines that could go to the “North Pole”. The “X1 Spy Plane” we used to “spy” on the Russians, that could fly so high they couldn’t shoot it down. The “Atlas” missile that would soon take astronauts into space.
Some girls would play space stuff, but not war stuff. But a lot of girls liked playing “mysteries” and “detective” stuff because THEY were reading books about this older girl called “Nancy Drew”. She and her friends did a lot of figuring things out and finding out about bad guys. Girls would sometimes make their pretend stories while they talked to each other when they were swinging on the swings or climbing on the monkey bars or riding on the merry-go-round. Sometimes they’d be hiding in the lilac bushes, watching boys or grownups, pretending they were following bad guys and figuring out the bad things they were doing. One time I found a couple girls hiding in that special place in the spruce tree in our backyard.
I played some of that “detective” stuff, pretending with older girls I met in the park. I really liked the sneaking around and hiding part. Some girls would let me play, but others wouldn’t because I was a boy. One older girl wouldn’t let me play because she said I was “just a child”, like she was pretending she was a grownup or something. I really did not like it when anybody called me a “child”. Because a grownup would call another grownup a “child” when they thought they did something stupid. But I didn’t say anything to that older girl, since I almost never got mad at other kids.
Most people thought girls and boys were different, but I wasn’t sure that was really true. Girls had longer hair than boys and sometimes wore those “dress” things. But I had short hair because dad was always taking me to “The Union” to have this grownup man in that big white shirt cut my hair, and Molly wore dresses to parties because her mom made her.
One thing that a lot of boys talked about was that girls had “cooties”, whatever that was. I could never figure out exactly what it was, but they said that if you talked to girls or played with them, then you could get it too. Somehow that was bad, and maybe other boys wouldn’t want to play with you anymore, or something else bad might happen to you. Like maybe you’d become a “sissy”, whatever THAT was. You’d start acting like a girl and that would be the worst thing that could possibly happen. You could even turn into a “faggot”, whatever THAT was.
So I learned not to talk about playing with Molly when I was talking to other boys I met in the park who didn’t know her. And when Molly and I played together in the park, I tried to make sure we stayed away from other kids, especially a bunch of boys playing together with no girls part of their group. If Molly and I talked to or played with one other boy, that was okay, because he’d never say anything about “cooties” or that playing with Molly was bad. And if other boys and girls were already playing together, then Molly and I could play with them too.
But if it was a bunch of boys playing together, not playing with any girls, there was usually one boy in charge of making sure there were no “cooties” or “sissies”. And since Molly and I were best friends, and other kids could figure that out, that in charge boy might say I had gotten “cooties” or had become a “sissy”, and all the others would tease me or not want to play with us.
If Molly and I played with just girls, especially if they were older than us, some of them would tease us, especially Molly, that I was her “boyfriend”. Molly would tell them I wasn’t. And a couple times a girl even sang a kind of talking song and put our names in it…
Cooper and Molly sitting in a tree
First comes love, then comes marriage
Then comes baby in a baby carriage
With the girls, it wasn’t that me being Molly’s “boyfriend” was bad, and that they didn’t want to play with us. They thought it was “cute”, but Molly and I did not like it when they said that. Usually it was just grownups who would say kids were “cute”.
But even when I wasn’t playing with Molly in the park, and was just playing with or listening to other boys, they talked about different stuff that happened with girls. They talked about getting cooties from girls, and then you might be “in love”, which made you “kissy faced”, which meant that you couldn’t think anymore, and which could even make babies somehow. It was yucky kind of secret stuff that you wouldn’t know about unless your friends who knew more than you did told you to be careful about. I would listen but never say anything to the boys who were talking about it. And if one of them asked me if I thought it was true I would nod but not say anything.
One time I was playing with James in the lilac bushes. We were pretending we were soldiers waiting for the Germans to attack. He asked me if I thought Molly had cooties. I wasn’t sure what to say at first and I could tell he was getting worried that she might. And when I finally said I didn’t think so I could tell he felt better. But then he said that he saw his older sister without her clothes on once, and she didn’t have that “little thing sticking out between her legs”.
There was this whole thing around that part of your body, for both kids and grownups. I think the name it was supposed to have was “penis”, but nobody liked saying that word. I could only remember mom saying it once or twice when she was trying to tell me why I shouldn’t go outside without any clothes on. It was part of your body, along with your bottom, that you weren’t supposed to show anyone else. They called it your “private parts”. Maybe it was okay if your mom or dad saw it when you were in the bathtub, but even then only just a little. I was never sure why, but it seemed like all grownups thought the same thing. It was “private” but also “dirty” somehow, and if you let other people see it you were a bad person and all sorts of bad stuff could happen to you. It was something way worse than just having cooties.
I wasn’t sure it was so bad if people saw those parts, but I didn’t want people thinking I was a bad person, so I didn’t talk about it at all or show people. But when James said his sister didn’t have that “penis” thing, I started to wonder about Molly. I got brave enough, since it was just James, to ask him what his sister had there instead. He shook his head and said, “I don’t know”. I wasn’t sure about that either, but was now really curious.
Molly and I both wanted to see the same things and not be different from each other, like when she didn’t sing happy birthday to me at my birthday party. So I wondered if she and I could show those parts of our bodies just to each other and not tell anyone else. They would still be “private parts” to everyone else, but Molly and I didn’t want to have to keep any secrets from each other. I told James what I was thinking. He looked worried and thought about it for a minute. Then he said I shouldn’t do it, though he also said he wouldn’t tell on me.
There was even more stuff around all these private parts and what grownups did with them. Like grownup women always had to have a shirt on though grown up men didn’t have to. Even their bathing suits were different with a top part that hid their “figure”. I think that’s what it was called, their chest part that stuck out. It was some sort of private part up there that men didn’t have. But it wasn’t as private as the parts below, because if it stuck out a lot on a woman then men said she had a “nice figure”. Molly or the other girl kids at the park didn’t have figures, but they still always had to wear shirts and weren’t supposed to take them off in front of other people. But when girls got a lot older, like Aunt Pat or Margie, they had figures like grownup women.
But there was even more than that. I think maybe some grownup men wanted to stick their penises into a woman’s private part between her legs, for some reason, like that was something men really wanted to do. There was this “joke” an older boy at the park told to other boys about Roy Rogers the cowboy and his girlfriend Dale Evans. The first time they saw each other without any clothes on, Dale pointed at Roy’s penis thing and asked what it was. Roy said that was his “six gun”. Then he pointed at her thing between her legs and she said it was her “holster”. Then he pointed at her chest and she said those were her “headlights”. Then later they were in bed together and Roy woke up in the middle of the night all scared and said, “Dale, Dale, wake up and turn on your headlights. I think my gun is stuck in your holster.” Kids would laugh and I would too, even though I couldn’t figure it out. But it seemed important somehow.
I was really wondering about all that and had so many questions, but I couldn’t figure out who to talk to about it. Not mom and dad, I couldn’t let them think I was a bad person who was thinking about this kind of dirty stuff. The kids I knew my own age, like James or Kenny, didn’t know any more than I did, and I didn’t trust Kenny not to tell his parents if I talked to him about it. Maybe I could talk to Danny, because he was older and might know more, and like James, he probably wouldn’t tell on me. But it would have to be when Danny and I were together with nobody else around. I also thought about Ricky, because he seemed to know EVERYTHING, but I didn’t see him very much.
I thought about Molly and I talking about it, and just thinking about doing that with her was exciting. But she would have to talk about it first, because if I did, I was worried she would think I was a bad person and wouldn’t want to play with me anymore. That would be the worst thing ever. But since I was worried about that, I wondered if she’d be worried about talking about it first because she would think that I would think she was a bad person. I wouldn’t think that, but if I was worried about it she might be worried too. It was a problem I just couldn’t figure out!