Friday, September 28, 2007

The Beginnings

I was born on September 30, 1960, in Fargo, ND. A mother was involved. At some point, so was a father. Or so I surmise. That's as much as I know.

The transfer was swift. Healthy white American babies rarely linger in orphanages. My sister Terry arrived first. For three months of the year we were the same age. We learned of our adoptions while rummaging through a forbidden desk. We were twelve.

Our parents said it had never been a secret. We must have forgotten.

My first memory is of the Jolly Green Giant. I'm in a small cluttered living room, sitting in a high chair. Dinner is in front of me, and the family is in front of a black and white TV. The Green Giant has a nice smile and a square jaw. Peas are everywhere. Not just any peas. Green Giant peas. His voice is deep but friendly. I don't know how I know that he's green, but I just do. Ho, ho, ho. Green Giant.

My second memory, I've always thought, was later that night, although it may not have been. I'm face down with my pajamas around my knees. My mother has inserted a suppository with a pencil. She's delighted with herself because she's hit upon the right tool for the job. The eraser has a soft tip. My sister is in the crib across the room, and a lamp is on the white bureau between us. It has red felt ship's wheels glued to a white shade. The base is a night light that, with its copper and red glass, looks like a lantern.

She describes how it went in to my father, who has somehow wandered into the room. "Ploop!" Later, when I learn the word onomatopoeia, I think of this moment.

My only other memory of our time in Fargo has to do with leaving. Just as I turned two, we moved to Sioux Falls, SD. There is a two car caravan, and my mother has the lead with my sister and I sleeping in the back and our father behind us pulling the trailer. It is night. I remember a roadside conference with his headlights shining into our car.

We moved to a small two bedroom rental house with a yard and a red wooden fence. When we dug in the backyard sand pit we'd find charcoal. I drew big Xs on each of the boards. There was a girl next door named Tammy. Her older brother died in a gun accident in their living room, but we were too young to understand. The adults were sad.

A big family lived across the street with a boy around our age, but our parents didn't approve of them, so we rarely saw him.

My dad sold insurance for Universal Underwriters, and was often gone for long stretches. He was pretty good at it. One day a truck arrived with prizes he'd received as premiums. There was a multi-band radio, a Weber grill, and a three speed english racer. He had a Master's degree in romance languages and could read Don Quixote in the original classical Spanish, but opted against an academic life for a bread and butter career in sales.

He would later say this was his life's biggest mistake.

My mother was of that generation of women who, when asked to describe their occupation, would write "housewife." She ran a pathologically orderly home. Our toys, some wood blocks, a plastic bowling pin set, and some crayons and paper, were stored in a closet at the end of the hall, and would come out when she said so. She was what was then described as "strict."

We mostly played outside. We had red trikes and a wagon. I was terrified of dragonflies, but loved fireworks and the Fourth of July. My dad would sit in a lawn chair, drink beer, and smoke while he ignited snakes and sparklers for our benefit.

The world was an animated place, full of things I didn't understand. I remember squinting my eyes at streetlights in the backseat of the car at night, and asking my mother whether the sharp spikes of light that would grow long and short as I moved my eyelids were real. She didn't understand the question.

My mother slammed on her car brakes once to avoid going through a red right and I pitched into the seat in front of me. From that moment on I thought red lights threw up some sort of an invisible wall that made cars stop. I also thought ear aches were caused by tiny rakes embedded in one's ear.

The days started and ended with TV. My sister and I would get up before our parents and look at the test pattern, which had a drawing of an indian in a war bonnet. Davey and Goliath was always the first thing on. There was also Romper Room and Captain Kangaroo. Early evenings, the local weatherman did double duty as Captain 11, and showed cartoons while managing a live audience of kids. During commercial breaks he yelled at us. It was common knowledge that he was an alcoholic.

He was the original Krusty the Clown, but Nordic, and in a pilot's outfit.

Dinner was usually in the living room. We'd watch the Honeymooners, Gunsmoke, Ed Sullivan, Gomer Pyle, and Petticoat Junction. On hot summer nights we'd get into our pajamas and go for a drive in the family's 1956 Chevy Bel Air.

Christ the King Church was a few blocks down the street. When my mother drove past she would always gently strike her heart three times with the inside of her closed fist. A Saint Christopher statue with a magnetic base perched on the metal dashboard.

My most momentous memories from that time were all from television. On Nov. 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. In our Catholic home, the TV was on constantly. On Sunday, February 9, 1964, we had fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and canned string beans for dinner and watched the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show along with 76 million other Americans. "Mopheads" my parents called them.

Life was uneventful, and we were mostly happy. My sister went to kindergarten and I was jealous. I was on the cusp of being old enough, but everyone thought it best that I wait so Terry and I wouldn't be in the same grade.

That summer, my parents bought a modest three bedroom one bathroom stucco house about ten blocks from Saint Mary's School, and my sister and I got our own rooms. There was a big crab apple tree in the back yard next to a cement and rock fireplace that had stone benches attached on each side. I went into kindergarten at a nearby public school while my sister started first grade at Saint Mary's.

Shortly after we moved, my dad was fired from his job. The way we heard it was that daddy stood up for something he thought was right, and he lost his job because the people in charge had no ethics. Our lives changed. We kept the house, but things got very tight for a long time.

See also:
The Beginnings
Young, Gifted, and Miserable
Everybody Must Get Stoned
Life Begins at Seventeen
The Year of Living Dangerously
The Air Force Years: Part One
The Air Force Years: Part Two
The Air Force Years: Part Three
The Air Force Years: Part Four
The Air Force Years: Part Five
Working Poor In Waltham: Part One
Working Poor In Waltham: Part Two
Birth of a Student Radical
Harvest of Shame
The Owl of Minerva Flies at Midnight
The Road to Street
The Street Years: Part One
The Street Years: Part Two

1 comment:

Bruce said...

I had to stop when I saw the sign for "Blue Earth Minnisota" home of the thirty-foot statue of the Jolly Green Giant!

There was a woman in the little trailer "visitors' center." She said when the first European settlers came, the dirt was so rich it was blue. When I asked though, she told me they didn't have any of that topsoil for me to see because it all washed away.

That's sustainable farming for you.