Still Point

Except for the point, the still point, there would be no dance, and there is only the dance.  T.S. Eliot – Four Quartets

Drove my Chevy to the levyBeing the oldest of five (eventually to be six) children in 1956, the age of ten brought with it occasional responsibilities that would be surprising to most ten year olds in 2013.  We shared one bathroom, and the four boys shared one bedroom in a three bedroom cape with two small one window dormers in the front.  When I was thirteen or so, my youngest brother, Marty, filled out the nest, and my dad added on a family room.  We never questioned and rarely felt put upon by the living arrangements; our family was secure and happy in our daily routines.  My parents had one car; my father worked two jobs and my mother worked full time as a mom, which was quite enough for anyone.

Intermittently my mom asked her oldest to help out paying bills downtown, which was a mile or so from our house.  Accomplishing this on my bike was an easy adventure and invited me in to the mysterious grown up world.  My mother didn’t have a car when my father was at work, and in 1956 in addition to me, she had two kids in diapers plus a set of five year old fraternal twins, one of whom had a severe hearing disability.  She handled this all with aplomb and good humor most of the time, but when the bills were due, she needed some assistance.

The budget was managed by accruing cash weekly in separate envelopes for various expense categories.  I would be given the utilities envelopes and the mortgage envelope, and then mount up on my bike.  There were no bike racks or bike locks, none was needed, just a kickstand or a convenient wall to leave the bike against.  First, I would go to the bank, then the electric company and the telephone office.  No gas company bill in 1956 and I think she paid cash to the oil man, when he delivered.  Grocery shopping was a full family affair when we were little.  The checkout clerk would help load the groceries into our car.  I lost five dollars in change once, which was a minor disaster in a time when it represented nearly fifty percent of the weekly grocery budget.  She was disappointed, but kept her concern brief and tight lipped – almost. I was admonished after that to return straight home with no stops at friends’ houses or especially the library, which could delay my return for hours.

card catalogA bike ride to the library was also about a mile, and with the possible exception of a sandlot baseball game behind the elementary school, my favorite activity.  I was a constant reader and shy at ten.  There are pictures of me my mother still has, sitting on the floor reading a book absolutely absorbed and still, amid the chaos of my five siblings.   I haven’t changed all that much – except for the shy part, although I remain private.  My reading consumption was and remains omnivorous, but at ten inclined towards biographies of Indian fighters and tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.  As I got a little older, I was spellbound by biographies of Thomas Edison and Babe Ruth with The Count of Monte Christo not far behind.

The Walpole Library was small, but well stocked. Upstairs was for the adults, but the basement was reserved for children and adolescent fare.  The librarian was a genial and skilled substitute far superior to Google for a ten year old; the card catalog held the keys to the kingdom.  If the librarian was preoccupied, we could sneak out to the front steps and edge our way around the whole structure on an eight inch granite ledge that circumscribed the building as a design feature just below the windows.  The children’s section had round low reading tables with small chairs.

In one corner, two stereoscopes resided along with boxes of the two photo four by ten inch cards that fitted into them.  Most of the pictures were black and white, although some, including Civil War historical shots were sepia. As a ten year old, I especially liked the battle aftermath photos.  When viewed through the lenses, they appeared in 3D.  Developed in the mid nineteenth century and vastly improved by Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1861, the stereoscope opened previously undreamt wonders to a ten year old.  From Egyptian pyramids to the streets of Paris to the Grand Tetons, our new world was limited only by our imaginations.

StereopticonStereoscopes are now valuable antiques and anachronistic reminders of simpler times (that is simpler unless one lifts the edges of the curtains).  They were supplanted sadly by more enticing moving pictures and eventually television.  Our television was a big box in the living room with a small black and white screen and three somewhat fuzzy channels.  Ozzie and Harriet, I Love Lucy, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Jack Benny Show, The Honeymooners and many, many Westerns like Gunsmoke and Have Gun, Will Travel drained away our family hours as we got older. I could still slip away to my sanctuary in the eaves of the attic, which had a single pull chain light bulb and a hook and eye latch, to seek the quiet harbor of my books.

I’ve heard it said that we all have our nineteen year old selves permanently emblazoned on our personalities.  Can it be any less so for ten?  My tenth birthday was in February of 1956, eleven years to the day after the Marines raised the American flag on Iwo Jima, securing a key stronghold on the long drive to Tokyo.  To idealize any period of time is to trivialize it, however to hold it at the center of our innocence is quite another.

The fifties were in some ways innocent and optimistic, yet they also harbored Jim Crow laws and the hypocrisy of country club adultery and too much liquor.  But most families were hard working and held traditional morality dear; the parents were the “Greatest Generation” determined to leave behind the Depression years of the thirties of their youth and the killing years of the forties of the war, and to pass on to their children a safer, more stable and more comfortable future.  For this they worked steadily and generally cheerfully for the rest of their lives.  Comfortable was achieved; stable and safe eventually were beyond theirs to bequeath, but in the fifties, at least the illusion of simpler times was lovingly preserved.

“We don’t know what we are doing, because we don’t know what we are undoing.” G.K. Chesterton

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4 Comments

Filed under Background Perspective, Personal and family life

4 responses to “Still Point

  1. Greg

    Jack,
    As you reminisced the simpler times ( as it appears to us) it came to mind, again, that it was hard fought for our parents to provide and we ( at least I) never gave a thought to the pain and suffering they endured until I was a young man. In retrospect I have so much respect and sympathy for my parents and what they did to give us that. They truly are the Greatest Generation.

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  2. Jack,

    Nice stroll, or bike ride rather, along Memory Lane. It’s nice to occasionally revisit childhood memories, both the pleasant and the not so. They contain the seeds of who we became. Who we are. And yes, you are correct, as Wordsworth so accurately pointed out, the child is indeed the father of the man. In fact, back when I sat in on corporate meetings it was difficult for me not imagine all of the participants sitting around the table as ten, eleven or twelve year old kids. After all, at those ages they were already displaying many of the mannerisms and attitudes that they would carry into adulthood. I loved the picture of the card catalog! (If you’re younger than 30, Google it!).

    Funny, I believe that your post is the first place I’ve read about Walpole, MA outside of a Robert B. Parker novel.

    Keep ’em coming!

    Av

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  3. Barry

    A time of memories forgotten, we were a race of innocents. A time where Ike was in the White House where we were born, Where navels were for oranges, and Peyton Place was porn. Only girls wore earrings and boys rode bikes not givin rides Miss Kitty had a heart of gold, and Chester had a limp, Reagan was a Democrat whose co-star was a chimp. We had our share of heroes, we never thought they’d go,
    A time where youth was eternal and life was yet to be, Elvis was forever and Beatles only lived in gardens and Monkees lived in trees
    We’d never heard of microwaves and dreamed of telephones in our cars, babies might have been bottle-fed, but they were not grown in jars. Pumping iron got wrinkles out, and ‘gay’ meant fancy-free where microchips were what was left at the bottom of a bag, Hardware was a box of nails, and bytes came from a flea, Rocket ships were fiction and bathing suits came big enough to cover both your cheeks, the moon was made of cheese, Coke came just in bottles, and skirts below the knee. We had no Crest with Fluoride, had no patterned pantyhose or Lipton herbal tea or all these prime-time ads for these dysfunctions, no Perrier to chill and when middle-aged was 35, old was 45. Our parents and thiers made this land where all things have a reason or part of the season and now at a point we now get invitations to join AARP.
    We’ve come a long way and now face a new world in larger or tighter jeans, wonder why they’re using smaller print and now telling our children or childrens children the ways it used to be, Funny how this record repeats as we ride this beat, that this was the greatest time in history we did not know was, indeed. Thanks for the ride, was a trip, I tip my hat for the sharing.

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    • Barry, It seems to me that it was an innocent time to us because we were innocent. Dien Bien Phu and Vietnam were still a distant war that colonial France was fighting to hold on to its empire, not someplace that took my childhood friend, “Charlie Joe” Drake, and many others. Took them from boys who played whiffle ball and street football with me to young men frozen in time now, engraved on a long, long polished black granite wall in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. Kids died of polio or were disabled for life, if they survived the “Iron Lung.” The Walpole swimming pool was closed all one summer with the polio epidemic, and Mom wouldn’t let us out of the yard as she nervously monitored each of us. Children were poisoned and brain damaged by biting the lead paint on their cribs. Summer houses ran their sewage and gray water in straight pipes into pristine lakes, and chemical plants dumped their waste into New England rivers until they could be lit on fire. The Cold War had us practicing in the third grade to duck under our desks to practice for the beginning of a nuclear winter, when the prudent course would be just to bend over and kiss our asses goodbye.
      The ‘best of times and the worst of times’ applies to many times, including our own. We need to make the best of each day gifted to us in gratitude. And that will be enough.

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