Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Boy Heaven

I have not read Time magazine at any time in the last 50 years. The other day, because of my interest in the "War of Northern Aggression" (being a Southerner by birth and temperament) I spotted an article on the internet by a Time editor. He proposed to illuminate the cause of the Civil War. His argument was that slavery in the South and abolition in the North caused that tragedy. As hard as it is to admit that a Time editor, and Yankee to boot, might have a thought of any value, I came away convinced by his arguments.

Finding someone who agrees with me on anything is rare enough. Finding one worth reading is almost unheard of. So, I looked him up and started reading some of his offerings. I liked what I read.

Forth or fifth in the list was "The Myth About Boys". He begins by outlining how current opinion says boys in the American society are being reduced to ruin. Then he argues "'taint necessarily so". After some 4000 words on the subject he strives for a conclusion. He describes "Boy Heaven" and finishes (quoting a woman there): "When no one's looming over them, they begin making choices of their own," she says. "They discover consequences and learn to take responsibility for themselves and their emotions. They start learning self-discipline, self-confidence, team building. If we don't let kids work through their own problems, we get a generation of whiners." But, then girls, lovers, wives, and mothers have always thought they knew what was best for us boys of any age.

I have always thought I grew up in a sort of Boy Heaven. The very earliest memory of my life was of discovery, on my own. The second was of moving from one place to what I now think of as home. The third was of, again, adventuring on my own. Here I met my first and oldest friend.

My parents owned a small, marginally successful business. Keeping tabs on me was not a priority. For the years four and five, I experienced nearly absolute freedom. I was told to be careful crossing the road and never to go with strangers. I cannot recall any other restrictions placed on me at that time. I remember adventuring around the house we lived in and the store my parents operated. I was "watched" when the store was closed and when my brother, twelve year my senior, was not in school. Kindergarten was a diversion, the only part of which I liked was when we were given a half a graham cracker and two ounces of orange juice. Nap time was an absolute bust. I still like Graham crackers and I learned, much later, to like naps.

I grew up in a mill town. Two mills actually, A lumber mill and a paper mill had control of everyone's life. Even mine. The mills had whistles that blew, and could be heard for miles... shift change... lunch hour start and finish... end of day... 7am, 8am, noon, 1pm, 4:30. Who needed a watch, or even a clock. Neither of the banks in town put up their time and temperature signs until after the lumber mill closed and we lost half our whistles. My parents bought me a self-winding watch about the same time.

The noon whistle summoned me to the store for lunch. I usually was not far away for that. In the early years, lunch was a sandwich. One slice of balogna or pressed ham, two slices of bread, mayo or sandwich spread. 8 ounces of milk. Later I got two sandwiches and a 16 ounce glass of milk. (One should never think my mother deprived me of food. She was a wonderful cook and prepared her family great meals for breakfast and supper. Sunday dinner was best of all. Many years later [Bar-b-cued Chicken was one of her many great offerings] Mama told me she always planned a whole chicken for me.) I was in college, living off campus and 20 years old before I even tried to make a sandwich any other way. Huge discovery! Lettuce... sliced tomato... chopped sweet pickles... slice of cheese... two, count them, two slices of pressed ham.

Four thirty was the time for me to come to the store. After we built a new building money got tight. My parents sold the house and we moved to the back of the store. Four thirty became the time to come home and do school work. HA!

The definition of "adventure" comes from the play "Matchmaker" (Hello Dolly was the musical) "An adventure is when you are in the middle of it, you wish you were home safe in your own bed." I knew the truth of that statement the moment I first heard it, in high school lit class. This somewhat formal definition came long after I had experienced many adventures.

I can track my adventurous years by the building the store was in. The old store was a corrugated sheetmetal structure. It was old when we bought it. It is still standing 60 years after we got it. The new store was concrete block... across the street... next to the creek.

My wanderings brought me into contact with various characters around town. An old magician had a photo tent near a friends apartment. He would pull a peppermint stick from your ear or a dime from your hair. An old gypsy would come every summer and park on a vacant lot near our old store. He was always trying to make friends, but I gave him a wide birth. He didn't know any magic tricks. Gone in the fall. Back next summer. On Tuesdays and Fridays another old man pushed a cart around town selling hot tamalies. As a Catholic, the no meat on Friday seemed an awful imposition. The negro employees of the various businesses got to know me and my companions. One old man from the furniture store, for many years afterwards got a huge laugh from reminding me of an adventure, that need not be recounted here. I have called all these "old" but when you are six or seven, everyone else seems ancient. These and a dozen more.

My companions, I should call them in order that we met. F1 I met about the age of three or four, He is two years younger. Neither of us remembers how or when we met. Our families went to the same church. We contact each other every 20 years or so if it is convenient. We joined a group of classmates for a cruise last year.

F2 and I met, we claim, crawling through the same trash box. The one of many that littered the alley between our parents stores.  I was maybe five, he six months younger. Throughout my life I have always referred to F2 as my best friend. From earliest childhood to old age we continued to share adventures. He was the one person with whom I could sit for an hour and never feel the need to entertain or even speak. Now that he has died I find a loose thread in my life. No best friend.

F3 lived near F1 for a time. When F2 was working in his parents store, F3 was my usual companion. Not long after F3 entered high school, and F2 had moved to another town. F3 was motivated to punch out his band teacher and was invited to leave the school system perminently. After fifty years, I found him again. We exchanged life stories.

F4 lived in an apartment next to the old magician. we probably met there. for two years we were close friends. Then his dad got a job in another town. I never saw him again.

By the age of eleven I had gotten into organized things. F2 and I were in Boy Scouts and organized baseball. Friends too numerous to enumerate played Pee Wee football... well we practiced anyway.

Maturity brought on responsibility. Before the age of eight I was hauling feed from the railroad to the store. I could throw a 25 lb sack several feet and lift and carry 50 lb bags... several pounds more than I myself weighed. In the Spring, busy season in the store, I would help serve customers by weighing out products and carrying out sacks. We had chicken houses. 5,000 to the house. I help feed them and cleaned their waterers. When the summer came, I helped paint the roofs of the houses with aluminum paint. I helped catch the chickens when it was time to move them to market. I was probably of limited use here. Each adult caught 9 at a time and 18 went into each cage. At the age of 6 I could only hold 2 in each hand. they had to keep a separate cage set aside for me until I caught my 18.

My earliest uniform was a pair of khaki shorts. No shirt, no shoes. The hot tar roads and the sharp rocks on the gravel roads taught me to wear shoes and socks. I have never been able to wear shoes without socks. Even sandals. For those who comment that sandals are worn without socks. I just tell them I am eccentric.

What did I do with my freedom? Whatever pleased me. I learned the rules by irritating adults, or just plain making them mad. I was siting on the porch of the old store with my new store-bought slingshot. As a car passed I took a shot at it. The driver's window was open and the object zipped right in the window and passed just inches from the driver's face. The picture is as clear today as the second it happened. The man came back and told my dad. Daddy whipped me, a couple of sharp whacks on the butt. The real pain came when he took my slingshot and broke it in pieces and threw it away. Lesson one: Don't shoot at anything that it would be best not to hit. Lesson two: don't get caught if you do. Actually I have been mostly a rules follower. Learn the rules, follow the rules... mostly.

The local park was huge attraction. It had a bandstand in the early days... they built a new one recently. It had swings, tennis courts and a wading pool and sandbox. Most attractive of all was a swampy area where natural springs originated and formed a tiny stream, with crawdads and minnows and frogs and tadpoles. If you don't know what to do with the above... well use your imagination. I was once warned not to go in the wading pool but I accidently fell in anyway... another whipping. Lesson one: obey your parents. Lesson two: or don't get caught.

I have been a lot like the chicken that crossed the road. What is the mystery here? I crossed the road to see what was on the other side, like the bear that went over the mountain, to see the other side. Or just because it was there. I went to be going. walking just to walk. Running just to run. Riding a bike or motorcycle or car just to be going somewhere. Got that from my mother.

Money was never a problem. If I had it I spent it. An unfortunate habit that persists today. I I have money, I tend to leave it at home. One way or the other I would not have it long. If I needed money, I earned it. My parents paid 25 cents an hour for me to work in the store. That was back when you could get 5 candy bars for a quarter. Had to wait for Saturday payday for that money. For quick money, we would pick up cold drink bottles and exchange them for the two cent deposit. Five coke bottles got you two candy bars, Or child's admission to the Saturday movie.

Shoplifting seems to be a phase for boys. I don't remember actually stealing anything but I went with others who, I knew, were going to steal and did steal. The last such adventure happened in the 8th grade. The other guy stole a candy bar. I made him put it back. He was not happy. End of that friendship. For the record I was caught in the snair three or four times when others stole. Not a pleasant experience. Lesson learned: don't steal the price is too high and the price is not punishment, it is in loss of self respect and loss of pride in who you are as a person, a price paid even if you are not caught.

A huge change widened my adventures when my parent decided I was responsible enough to have a BB gun, then later a pellet gun. (Their faith was well placed except for one small weakness. I shall not tell about it as the evidence remains to this day... I checked on it not long ago.) I now had a reason to go to new places, bird hunting. I think, for the thousands of BBs and pellets I fired, I only hit one bird with a BB and one with a pellet. I actually hit a kid once as well. Never knew who it was. He and his friends wanted to have a BB gun fight with me and my friends. Just a friendly BB gun fight. The consequences didn't seem relevant until I took careful aim and hit the kid square in the forehead. The others got mad because one of them was hit. Lest you think them stupid, they came up with a brilliant response. They left.

My confession here is far from complete. However I must confess to one more thing. I really hate to admit that a Yankee and editor from Time, and a woman, goodness forbid, could agree with me, that it takes a Boy Heaven, somewhere, sometime to make a boy into a man instead of a whiner.

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