The Early Years
My folks were very frugal. They took out a mortgage and bought a house when I was about three. They bought a Model A Ford Coupe with a rumble seat; which I had fond memories of. I was allowed to play in and on the car and took great delight in driving it in my mind. A rumble seat, for the benefit of anyone younger than I, was a compartment where the rear trunk is on a modern car that hinged from the bottom and revealed an outside bench seat for those passengers that did not fit in the front seat. There was a running board; which was a place to stand on the outside of the car, and footsteps up the back fender for climbing into the rumble seat. A Coupe could seat three adults that were not afraid to touch one another or two adults and one squirming kid. The rumble seat was only useful in dry weather; which was most of the time in El Paso. There were one or two spare tires. One spare tire was kept in an open well of the front fender and the other hung on the back of the rumble seat. The reason I was safe playing in the car was that it had to be cranked to start it and that took a very strong man like my father.
Life changed on December 7, 1941. I was six and in kindergarten; and a radio was brought into the room so we could hear President Roosevelt. Radio was a big part of life at that time. Everything stopped and we paid attention when the radio was on. This time the teachers were very serious and we tried hard to understand about Pearl Harbor and the Japanese. I had heard H. V. Kaltinborn talk on the radio about the Germans in Poland but I didn’t understand how it affected us. My world was very small then and I didn’t understand about nationalities or any place but El Paso. From that point onward my education was controlled by the events of the world.
I was signed up for violin lessons and had taken several lessons from a stern man with a bald head. My dad and grandfather had lots of hair so I would notice that. After a few lessons I was introduced to a big room full of kids playing all manner of instruments. The leader said, “Give me a G.” I didn’t have a clue. That day was the last time I saw the bald man. I asked my mother what happened to him and she just said, “He was a German.” There were no more violin lessons. Some things are not explainable to a young boy. I was beginning a new education.
Fraternal orders were big then. Mother had signed us up for the Woodmen of the World. It was like an insurance company. You paid your dues and had a small insurance policy in your name. You also went to a meeting hall and wore a cap like a soldier’s cap and marched to the music. A woman had a clapper made from four castanets on a stick and kept time even when there was no music. I still remember the marches, All American Promenade, Over the Waves and some Souza marches that were played on a 78 rpm record player. We marched in patterns of columns and ranks and split and recombined the columns. In the movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou? there was a scene where the Ku Klux Klan marched before a flaming cross at night. It was like that, only done by women and children in a big hall.
I had other influences at that time. My mother was a Mormon, descended from pioneers who crossed the western plains to Utah and on to Arizona. My father was not a member but I attended Church and Sunday school on Sunday, and Primary on Tuesday after school. I learned to give short talks to my peers and had a circle of friends there that did not necessarily correspond to the friends in my neighborhood or at school. Mormons were a very small subset of the El Paso community and so I had very compartmentalized sets of friends.
My Uncle Fred had just married and was the age to go into the military. When you were called then it could have been to any branch of the service. It would seem unlikely that anyone from El Paso would be called into the Navy. Ninety-nine percent of young men in El Paso have never seen any body of water larger than the pool at the Y, much less an ocean. Nevertheless, Uncle Fred became a Seabee or, as the name suggested, a member of a Construction Battalion, C-B. His specialty was refrigeration and that would become his occupation for the rest of his life. His location would be secret. There were lots of secrets about the war. “Sh! Loose Lips Sink Ships” was the motto. The family wanted to know where he was going so they assumed the Pacific region and made up girls names for every island they could think of. So when he asked about someone not in the family we would have a clue where he was. When he wrote about something between two strange girls we suspected it was Midway Island; which was one of the islands that did not get a name. Now we could listen to the news with some understanding of his risk.
getting scarce and even postal letters were involved. The government
V-mail. Now you know how email became instantly accepted as a moniker
new technology. The V stood for victory and became attached to
remind us of our priorities. V-mail was a method for taking hundreds of
of precious cargo space and compacting it on a roll of microfilm for
and printing it out at the destination for distribution. Everyone wrote
page message on a large sheet of paper which was sorted and filmed for
destination and then printed half size before delivery at the other
both parties wrote every day then both parties might receive mail in
14 every two weeks. I think everyone including the censors read
several times and pretty soon the same jokes would show up all over the
in V-mail. The address and the message were on the same side of the
a postcard, so anyone that handled it could see it. The little teeny
was not used until it was at its destination. You could buy preprinted
cards on V-mail blanks so all the person had to do was address it. Some
drew pictures and cartoons. That’s when we learned about Kilroy, the
peeking over the fence. ‘Kilroy was Here’ began popping up all over the
Before that, the only universal graffiti I could remember was a
spray painted on every building, alley, and wall where cars would be
‘Watch the Fords go by’. The words go and by were very close to each
I assumed ‘goby’ was a word I had not learned yet. Of course the word
in the trademark font on the radiator caps of all Fords at the time.
Ford got a
lot of cheap advertising in those years. The only other thing that came
was the Burma Shave signs along the road set out as a rhyming series of
signs to break up the monotony of a long drive. Here is an example: Henry The
Eighth - Sure Had Troubles - Short On Wives - Long On Stubble! -
I think some people may have made up their own versions. Some of the signs did not end with Burma Shave. That was the clue. Even when it was missing, you would just say ‘Burma Shave’ to yourself. Before billboards there were barns. An unpainted barn could last a little longer with a tobacco or snuff ad painted on the side.
I had an early experience on what it was to be a boy. My mother became concerned that I would not learn to keep my foreskin clean and explained that she thought it ought to be cut off. The thought horrified me. I was becoming aware that those were my private parts and didn’t want anyone messing around in that area. I was five and having problems with sore throats so it was decided that I would have my tonsils out. And my adenoids. And maybe the foreskin thing. I was worried. I requested just the tonsils and adenoids, please, and promise you won’t touch anything else. I was confident when they put the ether cup over my face that I was safe. The anesthesia was a real thrill. I remember seeing a great fireworks show and hearing heavenly music like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir hitting a major chord. Years later I would discover the joys of nitrous oxide and remember the same feeling. It was happy going in.
I was betrayed! When I woke up I had pain at both ends. I had been circumcised against my will. I was not impressed by the Jell-O and ice cream that was promised to ease my throat. I had been violated and amputated and I didn’t know what residual damage existed or how long it would take to stop hurting. How was I going to pee? The indignity of having a bandage at my crotch and having to be attended at every urination was devastating. The whole world knew. It might have been okay to have stayed in the house, but I had to go out in the car to visit my mother’s friends. I think I kept my eyes shut all the time. I eventually healed. To a five-year-old it seemed like a whole lifetime. Eventually I would come to accept the new shape and show it off to anyone who seemed interested. And that became a problem.
I think I must have been born with the knowledge of sex. It became important to learn some new nouns and verbs to become proficient in the subject and these were supplied by some older boys in the neighborhood. For some reason my parents did not seem willing to facilitate my education in this area and would respond with definitions of nice boys and warnings of being shunned by nice people. So, it became a secret compartment in my mind. I thought about it all the time. It became the foundation for guilt. I learned not to say certain words. I was worried that even if I said them privately they would be so easy to say that they would just pop out of my mouth at the wrong time. I did try them out on a typewriter in the house to see how they worked in correspondence. I boasted to an imaginary friend of my conquests and accomplishments. They looked kind of exciting on paper but I was careless and the wrong person saw them. I wouldn’t make that mistake again. It also curtailed my literary development since I was not allowed to touch the typewriter again until I was in high school.
I knew about girls, too. Our next-door neighbors had twin girls born four days after me. Birth mothers stayed in the hospital for about a week in those days and the twins did not have enough milk from their own mother so volunteers were asked to express milk and donate to the cause. So, we were not bosom buddies but we started out on the same mother’s milk. I did have bath tub experiences with the twins and knew their genitals did not resemble mine at all; which became a fascination. By the time I was five I had figured all about sex. I had a very startling dream in which I saw up one of the twins dress and there were genitals just like mine. That dream stayed etched in my mind for the rest of my life. A few years later, I had a dream where Porky Pig was standing behind me in the grocery store and it gave me some comfort that dreams did not necessarily express reality. Many years later I would question the fuzziness of reality. Thirty five years later I would meet Mel Blanc face to face and he would talk like Porky Pig and that time it was real.
Thoughts of war were everywhere. Movies were a very important common experience for Americans. Movies were cheap and were the source of our wartime propaganda. We always started with the national anthem and newsreels along with the movie and cartoon and serialized superhero short. It didn’t take long to incorporate Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo into the animated cartoons. They were clowns to be humiliated by the likes of Popeye and Daffy Duck. Cartoon dogfights took place to illustrate how the USA could whip those Japs; and the kids would cheer. WW2 was a very popular war.
We saved everything for defense; balls of string, balls of tinfoil (there was no aluminum foil), and even grease from cooking. Anything could be used to make weapons. When word got out that spider webs were being used to make crosshairs for bombsights, we almost collected cobwebs but could not find anywhere to take them.
I saved my pennies to buy airplane spotter manuals. Next to a Boy Scout manual, there couldn’t be a more valuable reference book. I really needed to know the good guys from the bad. Who knows when a Japanese Zero would fly over El Paso? They flew over Honolulu, didn’t they? It was then that Mitsubishi came into my vocabulary. For many years, most Japanese manufacturers chose an alias for their company name like Panasonic for Matsuchita.
Rationing was very prevalent, starting with gasoline and going on to sugar, meat, coffee, and butter. It became more important than money. People were robbed for their ration books and they felt devastated beyond any monetary loss. After all, you can get more money. The books were about 2 by 5 inches and about ten pages at a time. Each page had perforated panels like stamps with symbols of tanks, guns, and airplanes on each stamp. The stamps would expire so you had to use them in the time period that they were valid. The stores would have a sign indicating which stamps were valid. If you didn’t actually buy the food in the time period it was too bad. Short-term cash problems could cause a great inconvenience and you could not easily plan ahead because sometimes the stamps were used in a random manner. It was illegal to sell stamps. Butchers could sell a single piece of baloney and so he had to also make change for the ration stamp. This was in the form of red and blue tokens; which did not expire. Using too many tokens raised eyebrows and you might be considered unpatriotic to be guilty of hoarding your privileges. Then margarine became popular. To make sure no one was counterfeiting butter, the only margarine you could buy was pure white and also contained a color envelope so you could dye it yellow after you got home. Being caught transporting colored margarine was a very serious crime. Some families, like mine, learned to eat white margarine because it was more convenient. You had to soften it, color it and re-refrigerate it before eating, otherwise.Gas rationing was very tricky. There was a ration symbol like the letter ‘A’ placed on the windshield. Your ration stamps had to match the information on the windshield. Taxis had one symbol and private cars had another and farmers had their own. Sharing a ride was a patriotic thing, as well as an economic thing. Being caught with a siphon hose just about made you a foreign spy. My dad just used his for moving gas to the blowtorch which was used for soldering stuff around the house.
Sugar was in short supply and so home canning became a problem. We were fortunate that we lived on the Mexican border. I can remember going across the bridge to Juarez to buy sugar. We had to park on the US side and walk to the store, then return carrying a five-pound bag for each person in the group. When the customs inspector came around to check our haul, there had to be a warm body to represent each bag of sugar we had. I think there was a period of time involved or maybe the custom agent took a ration stamp. Anyway, sugar was a scarce item, so they invented saccharine and lots of people used it, but didn’t really like it. If you said someone was saccharine, it wasn’t a compliment; it meant phony, not sweet. Coffee was not a big problem for our family, but something we took advantage of it in the Mexican market. It could be traded or we could use it for our friends who drank it. It is a curious thing that we could go to a poor country to get luxury items in wartime. Could it be that scarcity of goods is more related to team building than inability to provide? There goes my fuzzy reality again.
You hear stories about ladies stockings and how women learned to mend them using tiny hooks to loop around the runs. My mother bought one. I have seen women taking their stockings to Kress’s department store to be mended while they waited. The women wanted to wait for fear they would never see their stockings again, so they were willing to stand in lines. Standing in lines seemed to be the only solution for a lot of things.
Later, when the war ended, I became aware of who had to stand in lines and why. People stand in lines for entertainment and sports and seem to have a good time of it; but to have to stand in line for the necessities is inhumane. I always felt sorry for the East Europeans and Soviets for their grim queues and for their interpersonal conflict in line. It is a symbol of the good life to never have to stand in line for necessities.Chewing gum, especially bubble gum was the subject of rumors, false information, and denial for my age group. I could smell Fleer’s Double Bubble gum from about 30 feet away and my first question was, “Where did you get it?” I think that sometimes they lied, because by the time I could get there, there was no evidence of gum. Sometimes a single piece of gum was offered for the exorbitant price of twenty-five cents. Ordinarily, it would sell for a penny. Little gray market stores would be in someone’s home and there may or may not be a sign in the window. You would think it was an illicit drug by the way it was handled.
One of the things that happened at a tender age that affected me all my life concerned Christmas. I had expressed a desire to have a 16 mm movie film projector and was told that it was not likely that such an expensive item would be available. Some time later it was noted that my father needed new underwear. The night before Christmas Eve we all went downtown and drove around the block while my mother went in to a department store. She came out with a package that went into the trunk and the comment was made about getting underwear for Dad. On Christmas morning I got my projector but there was no underwear for Dad. I learned something about Christmas that year about Santa and sacrifice, but mostly about guilt. I still get angry about the commercialization of such a serious commemorative. As I learned Latin and Roman History and learned about the hijacking of the Christian faith and traditions, it just added to my dissatisfaction of our current practices. How do we expect children to accept the seriousness of the atonement of Jesus Christ when we fill their heads with Santa, flying reindeer, Easter bunnies, and other lies?