Chronicle 46: The Early Years

January 1946:
I was conceived, probably on New Year's Eve, the culmination of a celebration. There was, after all, a lot to celebrate. The war was over, the sailor was ashore in warm, sunny Florida, and he'd met a dark-haired beauty. It would be his second marriage, and her third

I hope my tiny presence didn't hamper their happy, carefree time together. I imagine them walking barefoot on the beach, waves lapping at their toes, laughing and holding one another, never wanting to let go. It was right and good that they enjoyed one another to the fullest, full of love and hope for the future in a world again at peace. They would not have known how short their time together would be.

September, 1946: I was born. Four hours later, my mother died.
My mother really was beautiful. Her hair was long and black, like mine, before it turned grey. I wish I'd known her.

My father took me home to Hannibal, Missouri, and joined his father's real estate agency

September, 1950 I became 4, and therefore able to reason and remember significant details. Four is the age when education can formally begin, A child can begin to learn to read and write, to speak other languages, to learn art and music.
Like other children then and now, I had to wait another year before kindergarten, wandering about exploring my small world.

Kindergarten was my first exposure-- that I can recall-- to other children When young we are not surprised by much, because almost everything is new. Later, when we've had time to build up expectations, it gets a little harder to learn something new, because first we have to unlearn its nonexistence. At five, I discovered there were others my age, and that about half of them were girls. Those who claim that children are not sexual simply don't remember. I was very attracted to a girl who called herself Brian. I had no idea what to do about that, but I remember thinking it would be great if, at nap time, our floor rugs were adjacent.

1952: My father remarried, and we moved from his parents' house on Bird Street to a house in the country. He and my stepmother remodeled it, installing indoor plumbing, electricity and propane gas. That fall I entered the first grade. Two months later my father died.

March, 1953:
My little sister, Patricia, was born, 3 months ahead of schedule. I still remember her weight at birth: 2 pounds and 9 ounces, because I heard it over and over at the time. After some initial incubation she became a normal child.

1954: I transferred to Clear Creek School, a nearby rural, one-room one-teacher eight-grade school. My first two grades had been spent in Mark Twain elementary school in town, despite the fact that the rural school was closer. For the next six years I had the same teacher, Mrs. West. She was a large woman of middle age who had been a schoolteacher since she was 16. Before school she would go to the basement and shovel coal into the furnace and light it. On cold days it would be warm enough to take our coats off in an hour or so.

There were about 40 of us divided among the 8 grades. For efficiency the grades would be taught in pairs: 1 and 2, then 3 and 4, etc. When not actively being taught, we were free to read from a small but adequete library including 2 sets of encyclopedias, and several novels by Albert Payson Terhune about heroic collies. In many ways that system was better than the modern one, at least for a curious and avid reader like myself.

1958 : I visited my maternal grandparents in Madison, Wisconsin, spending most of the summer there. For the first and only time I got to know my grandfather, a dedicated fisherman, my grandmother, my Uncle Joe, an alcoholic podiatrist, my half-sister Sheila, then an attractive teenager, and my half-brother Keith, nearly 6 1/2 feet tall and just back from the navy. They were an interesting bunch of relatives, the Owens'. Black Irish: not light-skinned and freckled, but light brown with dark hair. The legend is that the Black Irish were descended from Moorish pirates who raided the coastal towns of Ireland, impregnating Irish girls. The truth is probably more complicated and less romantic.

1963 : My first summer job, for 50 cents an hour, as an apple thinner. Apples grow too close together. It was my job to remove some of them so the others could have some elbow room.

1964 Graduated high school and began a summer career as a Gandy Dancer for the CB and Q Railroad, in the freight yard near the river in Hannibal, Missouri. Though it was hard work, it was an good job, paying $2.18 an hour, about twice the minimum wage. That was because of the union. Some of my fellow workers were my age, but many were older and been on the job for years. Every time the Mississippi flooded, the tracks would sink into the ground, and they had to be raised up again and fresh gravel tamped underneath the ties.

For the first time then, I had a chance to get to know black people, which about half of them were. Though Hannibal schools were integrated, hardly any blacks were in my classes, because most of them lived in nearby Monroe City. I had no reason to think of them as any different. I knew history, and I knew there was prejudice, but I thought that was in the South, in places like Little Rock.

One evening at dinner I was casually telling my stepmother about a car I was thinking about buying. One of the younger black guys I worked with had it for sale, and he had given me a ride in it to show it to me.

And my stepmother said, You know those people are all right as long as they stay in their place.

That struck me as odd-- she had never really talked about colored people to me before. I asked Where is their place? I was surprised and disturbed by her attitude. I didn't think I knew anyone who was racist.

She didn't have an answer to that. Instead she started talking about the black housekeeper her family had when she was a child, a woman who helped raise her and who she loved just like family. So she didn't hate black people; they just had their place.

I had suddenly become aware that racism was not just a problem in the deep South, but one lurking beneath the surface within much of the older generation. That fact that I still remember that moment with absolute clarity over 40 years later indicates it was an important awakening for me.

A crack had appeared between generations-- one of serious principle, and it was time to move on alone in the realm of ideas.

I didn't buy my co-worker's car. I found a cheaper one for $75, a pale blue 1954 Ford. It leaked lots of oil from a bad rear seal, but it was mine, and it had a V-8. That fall I entered the University of Missouri at Columbia.

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