Monday, May 05, 2008


My World Gets Wider

In 1952, I turned five. The leap from four to five was a big one as I ventured out, both willingly and unwillingly into the neighborhood and to school. It was exciting, terrifying and fraught with opportunities for new ways of being.

In the world at large the Cold War was actually hot in the Far East and in various skirmishes in Africa. Attempts to achieve an end to the Korean War dragged on in 1952 due to the Western powers’ use of that battleground to try foiling the USSR’s timetable of world conquest. A communist inspired revolution against British supported King Farouk in Egypt would eventually put Nasser in charge and Egypt in alliance with the USSR. In Kenya, the Mau Mau uprising resulted in response to British interests that had ruined native farming there. Meanwhile 16,000 people escaped from East Berlin into West Berlin and the Western powers continued their efforts to rearm Europe and raise the standard of living in western European countries.

King George VI of England died putting Elizabeth in line for the throne, though it was really Churchill as Prime Minister who ran the country and what was left of the Empire. Eisenhower was elected President of the United States while our military boys achieved the first test of the hydrogen bomb, a weapon so destructive that war by nuclear force actually became an unthinkable future for planet Earth.

Odd developments at the time were the rise of Christian Dior in Paris and the production of the first birth control pill in the United States. If I look at history at this time from a viewpoint such as that in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, I can see the rising up of all kinds of oppressed minorities: blacks, women, natives in Africa and Asia, etc. It is as if the world is growing up and seeking a more balanced civilization with ideas of freedom and liberty which began in the 18th century finding their way around the world, but the powers that be, the money and armaments guys, are certainly not ready to give an inch. While I would not want a world run on communism, I can see that it played a part in raising the consciousness of peoples everywhere and was perhaps a necessary stage in history which was what Karl Marx might have been trying to say.

The Academy Award winning films this year range from a silly musical to romantic and marital disorder causing plenty of censorship ills. “An American in Paris” is the musical and took Best Picture. George Stevens won Best Director for “ A Place in the Sun”, an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. “The African Queen” won for Best Actor (Humphrey Bogart) in a romance with Katherine Hepburn set in WW I. Vivien Lee took Best Actress in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Mostly fairly racy stuff and a harbinger of a change in standards in the motion picture industry.

The popular songs of the year included “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” which would have mystified me if I’d heard it. It was condemned by the Catholic Church for mixing sex with Christmas and has since been recorded by The Jackson Five and Jessica Simpson among others. “It Takes Two to Tango” is what my very staid maternal grandmother said years later when my cousin Rich, whom I idolized, had to get married and give up his dreams of being a doctor. “Wheel of Fortune” performed by Kay Starr actually later became the theme song of the TV show.

Among the books I read for this year, four of the bestsellers were historical novels and only one was about WWII. But the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award both went to war books: The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk and From Here to Eternity by James Jones, respectively. The bestseller list included four literary novels and a good slice of Americana. Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano came out in 1952, a futuristic look at the soul-killing aspects of big business. I was most impressed by East of Eden by John Steinbeck, which I think is his greatest novel; My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier for its compelling main character; The Natural by Bernard Malamud for a deep look at the American psyche; and Martha Quest by Doris Lessing because she began her probing of women’s issues. This was also the year Charlotte’s Web was released and I read that many times as a child. Once again, though I had thought books from the 1950s would be bland and boring, I was engaged and enlightened as a reader, even by the bestsellers.

As for my life in 1952, in one year I went from the close family circle into a social existence. At home, my consumption of sweets was closely controlled and I never felt I could get enough but my sweet tooth got me into trouble this year. I remember a party at our house when among other things my mom served homemade brownies. I don’t know how many I ate when no one was watching but I threw up all night and could not eat brownies again until I was an adult. Another time, I was at a birthday party in the neighborhood and was offered some of those orange spongy candies that look like peanuts in the shell. Though I wanted one desperately I told the mother of the birthday girl that I wasn’t allowed to have candy. (My mother was there.) Sadly regretting being such a good girl, I later snuck around until I found the plate of candies and gobbled several while my mother was not watching. I also discovered where my mom hid her gum at home and would sneak a piece now and then, going off by myself for a good chew. But I was busted by Daddy one time when he asked me what I was chewing. I shamelessly lied and said it was celery strings, which he believed. This may have been my first lie to my adored father.

Then there were boys. Two little brothers from a couple doors down used to come into my yard and we would go off exploring the big field next to our lot. Exploring included crawling under a clump of bushes and taking off our clothes so we could see how our bodies were different. Somehow I sensed that this was secret and not to be discussed with my parents. Across the field was our closest neighbor, the Steigerwalts. To get to their house, you had to cross a hanging bridge over a gully that lay between the road and the house. I was terrified by this bridge because you could see through the slats and I was afraid of falling through, but Mrs Steigerwalt always served cookies and she had two sons older than I was. I would take my sister Linda by the hand and with Mom watching from the back porch we would navigate the field, creep across the bridge, trudge up the front walk giving a wide berth to the garter snake that would be sunning himself there and finally make it to the back door. I always thought Mrs Steigerwalt was a bit scary herself the way she would stand at her ironing board looking stern and slamming that iron about. The boys would start roughhousing with me until I screamed for mercy but she would just laugh. So I learned that pleasures in life often came with pain and danger.

Across the road lived Mr Muchow who seemed to me a very old man with his white hair sticking out beneath the cap he always wore. He had an invalided wife whom I don’t remember ever seeing, but he would come over and get me for walks through the woods behind his house. To me he was a combination of Santa Claus and Jesus as we walked along hand in hand and he listened to all I had to say as if I were the most important person in the world. I dreamed about this man whenever I was going through something stressful and lonely all the way into my 20s. After my grandma and my dad, he was the third great person in my life up to that time.

But then came my first major challenge: school. In the fall, I began kindergarten. For someone who grew up to love travel, change, new people and adventures, I started out as a complete wimp. I wailed when my mother left me there until, after a week or so of that, she got angry and told me to stop being a baby. Then I held it inside, but I was afraid of the stairs up to the door, of the kids dashing around me, of being knocked down. Inside the classroom was a slide that became an object of obsession for me. It seemed very high, I remember it as having no sides and I was completely conflicted between wanting to go up there and slide down but being convinced I would fall off and die. My only happy memory of kindergarten was the day I finally got to paint at the easel. You had to get on a list and it seemed I was on that list for weeks but at last it was my turn. I painted a huge red apple that took up almost the whole page. Apparently I took too long because the teacher came over and said I did not have to cover every bit of the paper with paint. Of course I did! After that I rarely met a teacher who did not specialize in saying ridiculous things. My kindergarten teacher was first in a long line of authority figures whom I perceived as enemies.

By this time I was five years old, the year was drawing to a close, I suffered from consecutive earaches (probably brought on by the stress of school) and big changes were afoot. Mom got pregnant about August and near the end of the year, United States Steel decided to transfer my dad to the New York City office. I don’t have memories of these things, although I do recall the earaches and visits to the doctor. According to my mom, it took two people to hold me down while a third put in the eardrops. Well, who wants people dropping cold liquid in your ear when it hurts? In any case, it would be our last winter in Pittsburgh and by the following Christmas, I would have moved twice.

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