An imagined “memoir”, with fictional details that I believe are consistent with what really happened, of my life as a young child, growing up in the late 1950s in the progressive university town of Ann Arbor Michigan in the U.S. Midwest. My challenge is to try to capture the emerging world of a precocious three to five-year-old kid and his interactions with his peers and the adult world. The story starts just before my third birthday, in April of 1958, when I am just beginning to really talk. (Click on the highlighted chapter/part names below to read, or click on the white triangle in the green circle to hear the podcast version.)
My challenge is to tell a first-person tale from the point of view of a very precocious three to five-year-old, with a limited, but quickly evolving understanding of the world and the people in his life. To that end I try to keep the prose simple and the vocabulary limited. At times the dialog of the grownups around me, though not fully understood by me at the time, will give you the reader a better sense of what is going on in my life and the world around me. I might also occasionally break into the narrative, to parenthetically make a point as the grownup author that I just can’t stop myself from making, but I’ll try to keep that to the absolute minimum.
I’m not aware of anybody else having written a story quite like this, told from the first-person point of view of such a young human being. But I am excited to try to do so, and one of my key points in trying to tell this story is to remind everyone that young kids are sentient, and very aware of themselves and the world around them. Their lack of verbal communication skills in addressing others, masks a more involved thought process going on inside them, that they just lack the words and grammar still to share with others. My goal is to share that developmental interior monologue, along with all that’s going on around me.
I’m coming into my sentience in the late 1950s in a liberal, predominantly white, Protestant, Midwestern college town, Ann Arbor Michigan. Eisenhower is still the U.S. President, but Stalin has just been replaced by Krushchev in the Soviet Union. It’s still the conservative sexually repressed 1950s, but this is an acedemic town that prides itself in forward thinking. Plus the launch of the first Soviet Sputnik 1 satellite to orbit the Earth at the end of 1957 has totally shaken up American thinking, particularly in a university town like Ann Arbor, and created a strong societal urge to embrace science, progress, and therefore other things new as well. My parents, particularly my mom, were progressives and free-thinkers, including a libertarian streak that applied to their approach to parenting. They tried to create as child-friendly and enriched an environment for me as possible, and then were mostly hands-off, letting me chart my own course and proceed with my development, though always doing their best given a limited budget, to assess and give me what I needed.
According to my parents, I didn’t start really talking until I was three years old. Prior to that I responded to words and sentences from my mom and dad, as well as others, but rarely uttered more than a single word or two myself. My smiles and frowns, head nods and shakes, plus following verbal instructions, and other nonverbal indicators reassured my parents that developmentally I was on track. My dad said I was just “dubious” about the world. He sensed my shyness and introversion, which he shared. My mom was the opposite, gregarious and an extrovert, and worried more about things, including her mostly silent son. Perhaps to tease her, or to ease her worries, or both, my dad made up a story that I was a noble Roman philosopher reincarnate, skeptical about this modern world I had been born into. “Clubius” he nicknamed me, since it rhymed with “dubious”, while sounding classically Roman.
My mom, who was pregnant at the time with my soon to be brother, enjoyed that story, and being a lover of nicknames too, agreed that I was that noble “Clubius”. Her original nickname for me was actually “Zuper”, a combination of “Zale”, my last name, and “Super”, her take on, or at least wish for, my capabilities. Sometimes when you don’t say anything while appearing to be thoughtfully listening and responding nonverbally, it convinces other people that you must be intelligent, whether that is in fact the case or not.
My given name was “Jonathan”, which my mom had suggested and my dad had gone along with. She thought it was a dignified name for a future scholar, or lawyer, or even president. But most other people circa 1955, the year I was born, were not inclined to call a little infant or toddler by that three syllable grownup sounding name. So instead it was “little Johnny” or some such diminutive, which didn’t bother my dad but pushed my mom’s buttons bigtime. Her two years younger brother was named John, and all her life she had had a difficult relationship with him. So there was no way in hell that she was going to let people call me “Johnny”.
So in the episodes that follow I will read my imagined “memoir”, an autobiographical novel really, “Clubius Incarnate”, told from the point of view of a very precocious kid starting right before his third birthday. It’s mostly based on what my parents told me of my young childhood from ages three to five, plus my own spotty remembrances of things from that time. I have made up the bulk of the details and certainly all of the dialog, based on what I was told and my own remembrances. I have enjoyed inhabiting the character of my young self as best as I can recall him/me. I hope you enjoy hearing his story from his point of view as well!
Click on the chapter title to read the chapter…
PART 1: DUBIOUS – Shy to speak more than a word here and there, I finally come forth with full sentences a few days before my third birthday, noting that, “I will be three years old!”, to the surprise and relief of my mom and dad. And so the tale of my young life begins, including an imagined drama played out in the bathtub.
PART 2: INTERIORS – On a rainy early spring morning after breakfast with my mom and dad, I launch a personal exploration of all the spaces of our house with my dad off working in his office in the basement, and I find some surprises in places I would not have thought of, that might impact my upcoming birthday.
PART 3: BASEMENT – I spend the rest of that rainy day doing my imagination play down in the basement, a follow up on the same scenario, good guys vs pirates, that I played last night in the bath tub. My dad is also down in his part of the basement working in his office. Our worlds intersect for a moment and he tells me about some of his own experiences 13 years ago in World War II.
PART 4: THIRD BIRTHDAY – Rain holds off and we have my 3rd birthday party in the park, with my best friend Molly in attendance, along with other kids and adults. Have an altered consciousness experience on the merry-go-round with Molly before her accident. Finally get to open my presents and solve the tricycle mystery. The day is all about my rules of engagement with adults vs other kids like me.
PART 5: TRICYCLE – With my dad on the periphery to make sure we are safe, particularly crossing the streets, Molly and I go on an adventure on our tricycles pretending to be the “Sky King” character that we’ve watched on the television at Molly’s house. That imagined adventure leads us to the nearby Michigan football stadium where we transition to a real-life adventure watching the sudden approach of and take refuge from a violent thunderstorm.
PART 6: ATTIC – Molly and I return from our tricycle adventure with dad and the big storm at the stadium to her very complicated house to have cocoa with her mom and my dad. Becoming bored with the adult conversation, she and I head upstairs to her wonderful attic room to do some “pretend” play, and defend the fort from the approaching enemy cars until calamity strikes us.
PART 7: BASEBALL – A baseball game on the radio down in the basement between the Detroit Tigers and the New York Yankees draws my mom and dad into conversation about loyalties and what they do and do not have in common, and puts me “at the plate” and on the spot to show off my batting skills with plastic bat and wiffle ball. My mom brags about her baseball prowess and actually shows off some of her alleged skill by snagging a line drive.
PART 8: DIRT – Dad takes me on an early morning adventure in the car across town to get two trashcans full of dirt at Killins Gravel pit to be dumped in theT area between the maple tree and my bedroom window, for me to play with in our backyard. I get to be his helper on the way home, making sure the filled cans, standing in the open trunk, don’t fall over. He waxes melodically and otherwise about the nature of fences.
PART 9: HIDDEN – At Molly’s suggestion we hide in the spruce tree in our backyard where we can see out but nobody can see us. It seems like the perfect secret hiding place for us away from all the crazy world of the grownups and the baby in my mom’s tummy that is about to come out. But our disappearance causes quite a bit of consternation for our parents, until Molly accidentally gives our hiding place away, just before my mom goes into labor.
PART 10: BROTHER – That baby my mom and dad kept talking about finally came out of my mom somehow but I balk at going to the hospital and instead play at Molly’s house awaiting this event that is way beyond my comprehension. My mom and dad finally return from the hospital bearing that tiny human being that they call “David” who they tell me is my “brother”. His arrival as a new member of our little family causes unexpressed concerns on my part, but also the beginnings of a possible connection as well.
PART 11: COOPER – My mom and dad take me to a grownup party across the street at Molly’s house one evening, and in that milieu I see my mom in action, mixing it up with a couple of the male friends of my dad’s. Also my various names, proper or nick, become an issue that my mom feels needs to be resolved.
PART 12: TELEVISION – Dad surprises us with a small television that he bartered for, since we don’t have the money to buy a new one. It’s not as big as the one at Molly’s house, but it’s still pretty amazing. At my suggestion, we find a place for it in the fourth “quarter” of the basement and we turn the thing on.
PART 13: TOM SWIFT – My dad reads to me every night before bed, and draws from a number of adventure stories featuring adventuresome boys like Treasure Island, and more recently our just finished Tom Sawyer. This brings up the dilemma of what to read next, and Dad remembers the Tom Swift books I got for a birthday present, and he lets me pick out one of them out to read. And with this humble literary beginning I am introduced to a new world of science fiction, that will become a mainstay of my imagination play going forward, and my overarching literary interest throughout my life.
PART 14: CIDER MILL – On a fall day, I am invited to go with Molly and her parents to the Dexter Cider Mill for wonderful cider and donuts and Molly and I do our imagination play in the car and in the middle of the stream by the Mill. Along the way words kids and adults should and shouldn’t say are discussed and I get a sense of Molly’s dad and mom and their family dynamic.
PART 15: CAPTAIN KANGAROO – I discover a show on television that I really like to watch and my mom teaches me how to tell time well enough to figure out when it is on every morning. The show includes my favorite cartoon that features yet another young main character named “Tom”, who in this case has this amazing ability to transform himself into whatever he needs in the moment to solve his problems and continue with his adventures.
PART 16: ROOMETTE – My mom and dad take me and my baby brother on an overnight train ride to visit my grandparents in Binghamton New York, which is my first time ever riding on a train, and doubly exciting because we have a small sleeping compartment. Dad and I explore all the different “cars” on the train, which is more like a moving house to me. But later I am fixated with being “cozy” under the covers, of the bed I am sharing with my mom and dad, looking out the window at all the different things we go under, go by and go over.
PART 17: WESTWOOD COURT – I am reintroduced to my grandparents, my “Aunt Pat” and their very interesting house on Westwood Court in Binghamton. The grownups do lots of talking and try to include me, but I prefer a journey to the donut store and other explorations of the house on my own and with “Aunt Pat” and a shared fantasy with her that leads to a fitting climax!
PART 18: CHRISTMAS – Christmas morning at my grandparents house culminating in opening my presents. First my recollections of the party the previous evening with my grandma and grandpa putting on a bit of a show, my dad lending his voice (he always loved to sing). Then Christmas morning with my “Aunt Pat” (I thought that was her name, I didn’t understand the concept of having an “aunt” yet), providing a buffer and running commentary for me vis a vis the “grownups”, which though she sometimes seemed like one of them, I knew she was more like me only older. It all culminating in me opening my presents, my most favorite thing in the world to do.
PART 19: MOLLY’S 4TH BIRTHDAY – Hanging out with other neighborhood kids at my best friend Molly’s 4th birthday party, in her parents’ split level house with all the kids round the table in the dining room and all the grownups up in the living room. Conversation in both circles turns to the news of the day, and this older kid Ricky brings up the issue of “nucular” (nuclear) bombs, “radiation” and “Commies”, and the rest of us kids try to process our fears…
PART 20: SPRING – That magical first day that feels different after a long winter. I feel it, and it energizes me, and my family. I am drawn to the backyard and that special Spruce tree and somehow summon Molly to join me for a very close encounter of a different sort than we’re used to.
PART 21: MY 4TH BIRTHDAY – Relieved it’s not a rainy day, we celebrate my 4th birthday in Almendinger Park. Some of my mom’s behavior towards me is beginning to push my buttons. But I have a great day pretending with Molly and the other kids at my party as we journey to the Moon and later Mars, where we must be friendly with ugly Martians to protect the Earth from invasion. Molly has another fall off the merry-go-round but we manage to keep it under wraps.
PART 22: ALMENDINGER PARK – Mom decides I’m old enough to run free in the park across the street from our house, as long as she is sitting in the middle of the park and can see me off in the distance, the next step in my development as a “free range” kid. I explore every venue of the place and interact with all the other kids who are playing there and report on our main topics of conversation among us kids, including sports, space, war, mysteries, “cooties” and other issues and rules of engagement between girls and boys.
PART 23: THE SWAT – I am impatient and get mad at my mom for not tying my shoe laces, and use a swear word in my frustration. Then my dad “swats” me on my bottom, and I try to process the fact that he “spanked” me, something I cannot recall ever happening to me before, and something with a whole range of problematic implications to my rules of engagement with the grownups in my life, and a lasting remembrance going forward, despite what my dad said.
PART 24: NURSERY SCHOOL – It’s my first day in this strange new place called “nursery school”, where my mom hopes I will have a good time playing with the other kids and can prepare for starting kindergarten next fall.
PART 25: PLAY SCHOOL – After that bad day at the “nursery school”, mom and dad pony up the precious funds to send me to Towsley Play School, and it works out much better for me. The place is bigger, the other kids are more welcoming, and their array of toys is spectacular!
PART 26: WIFFENPOOF – Dad has a bad day after having a “fight” with mom about grapefruit juice. But at bedtime he still sings the usual three songs to my brother and I, tonight including “The Wiffenpoof’s Song”, which brings out the emotions he usually doesn’t share. I ponder the issues between grownup men and women, along with the issues between my dad and mom in particular.
PART 27: MARGIE – Mom and dad go out for the evening to play Bridge, and interesting game played with that “deck” of cards. So Margie comes over to babysit and I get a chance to ask her some questions that I can’t figure out myself and haven’t found anyone else to ask. She also introduces me to Rock and Roll.
PART 28: FELIX – On a cold and blustery late fall day, I revel in my current favorite cartoon, Felix the Cat, and watch yet another episode where Felix helps save Poindexter (and the world) from Master Cylinder and the badguy Martian, General Clang! Then dad watches the Michigan football game on TV, but we listen to the end outside.
PART 29: THE WIZARD OF OZ – At their invitation, I watch this “musical” movie with Molly and her parents in their basement on their “color” TV. It is at times pretty silly, and at others very scary, particularly the flying monkeys, and seems to speak to the issues between kids and grownups that I wrestle with.
PART 30: THE ARB – With the used Flexible Flyer sled that dad managed to trade for, he takes me to the Arboretum to go sledding. After a few times down a hill sitting on his lap, I even do it by myself, but not “head first”, like mom said she used to sled when she was a kid. When dad and I take a break from sledding, he tells me about what he did in World War Two.
PART 31: MOLLY’S 5TH BIRTHDAY – Molly’s party includes a number of exchanges between the usually separate groups of the kids and the grownups, featuring Ricky of course, and when Molly opens her big present, both she and I know it’s a problem, but that’s not Molly’s only problem.
PART 32: BICYCLE – It’s suddenly spring, but because I still can’t tie my shoes and still don’t have a bicycle, I feel like I’m still a little kid. Unlike Molly, who can tie her shoes now and has her new bicycle she got for her birthday back in February. At Molly’s urging we address the situation with my mom.
PART 33: CAPTAIN NEMO – I see this movie just before my 5th birthday, and is profoundly influential in my development. Even at my young age, the moral ambiguity of its pivotal character, fascinates me to the extent that I could sort it out, and I play out scenarios in my play, processing this unique character and his perspective on a world I am just starting to get exposed to.
PART 34: MY 5TH BIRTHDAY – It’s the day of my fifth birthday party, and despite the iffy weather we have the party in Allmendinger Park. We kids play Captain Nemo and his submarine on the monkeybars, including two newcomers to our group. Molly processes the growing split between her parents as best she can. I finally get the bicycle I need, along with my newfound ability to tie my own shows, to continue the push towards being a big kid who can run his own life. And as my mom and dad hoped, the rain doesn’t come until we are mostly done with the party!
PART 35: STREETLIGHTS – Mom has a “meeting” with some of my neighborhood friends and their moms about letting me play by myself in the park. Then us kids have our own “meeting” to talk about things. That night, my mom reads me the first chapter of a new book, “The Child’s History of the World”, and I learn that the world, like me, is growing up too.
PART 36: SCENERY – Because of all the stuff happening between Molly’s mom and dad, she decides to head out on her bicycle and try and find her dad’s new house, and I figure that I should follow because I’m her best friend. We get a long way from home, use some money, and find our way back, pretty much on our own.
PART 37: HARDBALL – I ponder some of the aspects of war and baseball, and what it means to be “tough” and not be a “sissy”, particularly if you are a boy instead of a girl. I also ponder how kids, mostly boys, play both of them, though one involves a lot more pretending than the other.
PART 38: TED WILLIAMS – My dad takes me to my first major league baseball game between the Detroit Tigers and the Boston Red Sox. My best friend Molly and her dad go too. Dad wants me to see Ted Williams play in his final year before his announced retirement. Dad says he’s the greatest left-handed hitter ever to play the game. Williams does not disappoint, and I also see another side of my dad.
PART 39: THE LOST WORLD – My mom takes me to see the movie, “The Lost World”, the first I’ve ever seen in a movie theater. I’m enthralled by the lobby, the concession stand and the theater itself with its metal chairs and big screen. Plus of course the dinosaurs, and intrigued by other aspects of the story about how the humans behave too. At the theater my mom relaxes and just has fun watching the movie with me and commenting on everything, without trying to act like a grownup. She answers all my questions and it gives me so much to think about these dinosaurs, and about these grownup humans too, particularly how grownup men and women interact with each other, as I see play out in the drama of the movie and as explained to me by her.
PART 40: DINOSAURS – After seeing “The Lost World” I become obsessed with dinosaurs, and get my mom to take me to the museum that she says has dinosaur “skeletons”, where I can also buy plastic dinosaurs I can use for playing. We also go to the library to get books about them that she can read to me. I share my obsession with Molly, and she convinces her dad to take her to the movie and I come along. These ancient “terrible lizards” add a new element to my play stories.
PART 41: NAKED – In the final chapter of my story, I find out sad news that Molly and her mom are moving across town, but she and I strengthen the bonds between us playing upstairs in her attic bedroom and exploring what it means to be a “boy” or a “girl” and how significant (or not) those differences are.