Lists: First Evers, Chapter One

1.  Selfishness

I don’t recall absorbing the difficult childhood mandate to share, but by age nine or ten, I had a grasp on the give and take of toys and the painful sacrifice of a split cookie.  At this point sharing was confined to friends and family.  It was the dentist’s office that taught me the abstract concept of sharing with an anonymous community.

The magazine Highlights was the staple of the waiting room, particularly the page with the line drawing camouflaging everyday objects – a pencil would be concealed in the bark of the tree, a bunny or a fish in the shape of the clouds.  Looking for that bunny, that baseball cap, that teapot, that fish, was the best way to forget that in a few short moments the punitive hygienist would make me spit blood.

What a soul-crushing disappointment to discover that a predecessor, probably someone exactly my age, had circled all the hidden items.  How could someone be so selfish and spoil the fun for the next anxious kid?  Here was my introduction to thinking beyond myself, beyond friends and family, to people I would never meet or know.  I never circled hidden pictures.

2.  Betrayal

I had an unruffled childhood – loving parents who never argued, a family of means with a home in an affluent suburb, tennis lessons, sleep-away camp, spring break ski trips and summer vacations.  Life unspooled before more – high school at a boarding school out east, college, perhaps a career, but knowing that a housewife was an acceptable goal.

Things fell apart a little bit when I was fourteen and walked into town to buy a pack of Dentyne.  This cinnamon flavored gum was the official gum of our family.  My mother never bought us candy, but did make an allowance for Dentyne, and Dentyne alone.  Bazooka gum was too déclassé and the other sticks of gum – Juicy Fruit, Doublemint – were large and unladylike.  Even better the cute chubby pieces of Dentyne came with a health message.  This gum kept my teeth white and breath fresh.

I marched into the drug store clutching my nickel and was stunned when the cashier told me the price had gone up.  Why did the owner turn on me?  I was the epitome of loyalty, always buying my Dentyne at his store.  And why did Dentyne betray me?  I never chewed anything else and looked down on those who did.  I scurried across the street to take my business elsewhere but was again disappointed. What was happening, were these two stores in cahoots?

Something bigger was going on.

It slowly dawned on me that I was experiencing the dispassionate grip of inflation, until then an abstract concept my father grumbled about.  Now it was a chilling reality. If inflation could attack something as lowly as a nickel package of gum, it must be pervasive, and that must be the reason my father worked so hard. Staying ahead of inflation emerged as a grim goal of the life-time of work stretching before me.

3.  Envy

As idyllic as my childhood was, I also lived in a suburb where you could always find somebody with a little bit more.  Our next-door neighbors the Reeds were that family.  We were exceptionally close with the Reeds, with kids from each family lining up in age with each other.  There was so much traffic between the houses that Mrs. Reed put in a paved path through the muddy woods that separated us.  But I always knew they were in a different category.  One year we went with them on a train trip to go skiing in New Mexico.  Mr. Reed was the president of Santa Fe Railway, so they all rode in the private car at the head of the train.  My father was a salesman for a printing company.  We went in the sit-up cars. I was standing next to my father looking out the window when the train curved around a sharp bend.  “Look, up there ahead, that must be the Reed’s private car,” he said.

The Good Humor man solidified their status.  Back in the 1960s, Good Humor ice cream bars were not available in stores; you could only get them from the Good Humor man, who parked his van at the beach, park or at other public places.  My parents never indulged in a Good Humor; they considered them a luxury compared to the economy of buying a tub of ice cream.  One evening I was standing with my father in our driveway when I heard the tinkling bell of the ice cream truck.  Why would the Good Humor man come to our dead-end street?  His eyes widened as the truck pulled into the Reeds driveway.  “Good lord,” he said, “the Good Humor man is making a house call at the Reeds.”

4.  Failure

In my grade school, social status was based on grades and athletic ability.  I was reasonably athletic and hard-working enough to avoid the visible signs of a loser – at least until eighth grade when the girls’ choir emerged as an additional status symbol.  I marched into the tryouts full of confidence since I had been repeatedly told, “You have such a musical family.”

The piano teacher thumped away as I sang with great gusto.  The music stopped in mid-verse.  The teacher said, “That’s enough,” and called for the next student.  I supposed the teacher didn’t need to hear the whole song to recognize my obvious talent.

I didn’t make the choir,a stunning blow since with a handful of exceptions –Kathy Washburne, Emily Clow, Peggy Huber and Nini Swift – everyone else was in.

This failure seeped into my identity, an immutable fact equaling my more visible successes.  I could not sing.  At one Christmas caroling party I was pointedly asked not to sing.  At the same time, I saw how much my mother enjoyed her music, and how much pleasure she brought to others – and by the way she was very bright and athletic.   I could not match all her footsteps.

5.  Fear

Before the days of cable, VHS or DVD, the Wizard of Oz aired once a year, always on a Sunday afternoon at 5 PM CST at the beginning of November.  I’d be horsing around outside, playing in leaf piles or playing touch football, when someone would announce, “Hey isn’t the Wizard of Oz on tonight?”   We would rush inside, through the scuttling fall leaves, trailing the brisk air into the family room where we squished together on the couch.

The movie scared me.  It wasn’t the troubling themes of finding your way home or menacing adults who wanted to kill your dog.  I had complete faith in Dorothy, in fact she was a fine role model – a young girl who was a leader with an infectious can-do attitude.  My respect for Dorothy blossomed as she moved on down the road.  In the sepia world of the Kansas farm, she was helpless, frantic and casually dismissed.  In her fantasy world, she became a better version of herself, formulating and sticking to a plan with a mentoring and equal relationship with men.

It was the flying monkeys.  They terrified me.

In the final third of the movie, the sky darkens with squadrons of flying monkeys sent off to bring Dorothy back alive.  This was my cue to skulk into the kitchen and make myself a honey sandwich, not returning until I heard “The witch is dead!”  It was too nerve-wracking to watch the monkeys drop from the sky, shred the scarecrow and snatch Dorothy away.  No matter how courageous and plucky, she could not surmount these overwhelming odds, nor could she rely on the non-violent Glinda whose best weapon was a soothing rain in the poppy fields.  Dorothy and her pals were doomed.  Of course it didn’t help that I was watching the movie at the same time as the Cuban Missile Crisis.   During our school bomb drills we would crouch under our flimsy wooden desks with our hands over our heads, but we all knew we were doomed if the Russians dropped one.

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  1. Richard Baker on April 11, 2018 at 2:04 am

    Nice little lessons from life.

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