I enjoyed school for the most part, even though I had troubles paying attention and sometimes got distracted enough to blow off a whole work session. My first day in first grade was a disaster for me. I was supposed to divide a circle into halves and quarters and color parts of them and time was up and I had nothing to show. How humiliating! My first day and I blew it. It was the end of the world for me.
I went to David Crockett Elementary School, named after a famous Texan, who I found out later was from Tennessee; and he was just unfortunate enough to be killed in Texas by a whole lot of Mexicans. Later on in life, I discovered that I was surrounded by Mexicans. In Texas, most of the schools were named after men who died in the Alamo. Most El Paso schoolchildren could rattle off the names of a dozen martyrs who had given their life for the Republic. All they had to do was close their eyes and name all the schools in town.
I had crushes on pretty little girls from the very beginning. I had to learn about the pecking order of who is worthy (meaning me) and who is unworthy (me again). I really felt sorry for the girls that looked like they would grow up to look like Eleanor Roosevelt. There was one such girl in my class. Her father was the fire chief and I thought he was really great because he treated me very well when we toured the fire station. She was quite gangly and awkward and couldn’t keep the hem of her dress down to save her. One day, I accidentally got flashed by her private parts as she was squirming in class and it grossed me out. I stopped seeking those experiences for quite a while after that.
I always wondered what happened to Sandra Kay O’Connell. She was so pretty, petite, and smart. I was mostly speechless in her presence. One day, the teacher announced that she had moved away. Forty years later when Sandra Day O’Connor became a Supreme Court Justice, I got excited about the pretty, blonde judge and tried to make a connection between the two. The age was right; the location was close; but no connection, just similar sounding names.
I consider myself fortunate to have known Mary Mahoney in grade school. She was very attractive with large, dark, wide-set eyes, and a great head of dark hair. We sometimes walked part-way home together after school. I could tell her special things like when my mother was pregnant and when it turned out to be a boy. She was my first date. We went to a downtown movie; which was a big deal, because we had to use public transportation and neither one of us had ever made the trip before. Money was a problem and I budgeted very carefully but I just had to splurge on a Hershey bar for her and wound up having to borrow 15 cents from her so we could get home. She was really nice about it and we were good friends until one day her father reminded her I was not Catholic. I had a good eye for beauty. The most beautiful woman in the world to me was Jane Russell who appeared in The Outlaw. I had seen published pictures of her in the paper and on the cover of Life magazine. I thought Mary might grow up to look like Jane Russell. Can you imagine a third grader who looks like Jane Russell?
When I was in the fifth grade I took a little piece of copper pipe to school and a pocket full of barley. Pea shooters were very popular at the time but I found them too large and inconvenient and so I combined the smaller, shorter copper pipe with a smaller projectile and I had a stealth weapon that could easily be concealed. I even shot barley in the classroom when the teacher turned her back. I was getting away with it for a while and then it was time for math. We were studying fractions and had just been introduced to the concept that division was just like multiplication except you had to invert the divisor before multiplying. The teacher suggested we demonstrate the principle in a way we all would not forget. I was nominated to become the divisor. Two of the larger boys would perform the inversion operation. I had forgotten that I had a cache of barley in the bib pocket of my overalls, but I remembered as soon as my feet were in the air. The teacher was absolutely right. I never forgot how to divide by a fraction for the rest of my life. I was never quite sure whether that was an accident or whether I was set up, so to speak.
Once I learned to read, I became a voracious reader. One summer, I read 100 books. After making that trip downtown with Mary Mahoney, I could navigate to the library and back and my mother thought it was worth underwriting the bus fare if it would help educate me. There were about 40 Hardy Boys books and I managed to find most of them. There was one other book that simply amazed me. It was like a dictionary of inventions and mechanisms published by Popular Mechanics magazine. It was the key to how things worked. I read it from cover to cover and went back many times for a refresher.
I was given as a gift an autobiography of Chief Sitting Bull called My Indian Boyhood. Since it was mine, I could read it over and over. It left very vivid pictures in my mind.
The other favorite was The Autobiography of Ben Franklin, written for children. In writing my own memoir, I pulled Franklin’s original text and margin notes from the internet and decided the original document was far too deep for me to have read, even though he did write it specifically for youth on advice from some of his French friends. What I read as a child had obviously been dumbed down to my level. He was my first historical hero.
Franklin started setting his course when he was very young. He was apprenticed to a printer and immediately recognized the power of the press when he wrote articles which he signed ‘Silence Dogood’ and slipped under the newspaper publisher’s door when he was 16 years old. Later, he created Poor Richard’s Almanac; which he authored for 25 years and influenced the psyche of the American people. Circulation was about 10,000 copies. He was a scientist and an inventor. He invented bifocal eyeglasses, designed musical instruments, and discovered many electrical properties. He eliminated the fear of thunder and saved the lives of thousands of church bell ringers by inventing lightning rods. Up until that time it was thought that lightning was God’s wrath. He went to France and became the representative of the new America. He was very popular there and then he returned home just in time to participate in the Declaration of Independence and our great constitution.
I wanted to do things like that. So I asked my parents for a printing press and for Christmas it came. It was a toy with rubber type. I could shove the type into the slots on the roller and crank out multiple copies. It took me a while to figure out the backwards characters but I was prepared by Ben’s description of minding the p’s and q’s. There were other duplicating devices such as dittos, carbons, hectographs, and mimeo stencils. Before long, I was an expert at printing. Eventually I too, would serve a printer’s apprenticeship.
In honor of my hero Ben Franklin, I punctuate new thoughts with some of his famous sayings.
“Being ignorant is not so much a shame as being unwilling to learn.”
– Ben Franklin
I remember that my father took pictures and developed them himself. He had several bellows type cameras that used large film formats and his pictures were always sharp and clear. He taught me about lenses, f-stops, and timers. This also became ingrained in my thought processes and when I had a chance to do my own, it came easy. My dad taught me how to make crystal radio sets and another man in the neighborhood bought a transistor and upgraded the crystal set. I don’t remember who the man was; but he was on the bleeding edge of technology. The transistor was invented in 1947; and this man, living in a converted chicken coop, sleeping on an army bunk, had a transistor in a circuit mere months after it was invented. It must have cost him a flat fortune because years later when they became available to the public they were around $40 each. It would be another ten years before transistor radios would be available to the public. Who was that man anyway? Years later, my interest in electronics would serve me well.
Harry Blackstone, the magician, came to town; and they had matinee
for school kids. Mom came up with the admission cost; which covered the
streetcar fare; and the school put us on special streetcars going to
Auditorium in El Paso. I had a very good seat in about the fourth row
to see the famous floating light bulb trick and Blackstone cut his
two with a giant lumber saw and no box. From that moment on I was sure
like to become a magician.
Later on my father took me to see the Great Oznola (Alonzo spelled backwards). He introduced me to him because he, like my father, was a railroad mechanic. My father impressed upon me the fact that there were more magicians than there were jobs for magicians and that I ought to have a day job as well.
the end of World War 2. The Germans were defeated in May of 1945 but
Japanese kept on fighting and then we dropped the bomb; twice. We had
close to the site where the first atom bomb had been tested. It was
65 miles away near Alamogordo, New Mexico. They called it V-E Day
Europe) when the Germans were defeated. It was called V-J Day (Victory
Japan) when the Japanese surrendered. School was out and it was a hot
day in El Paso. The buzz went around the neighborhood and someone said
something about celebration. I was nine years old and was badly in need
something to celebrate. So I took myself down to the drugstore about
blocks from my house and ordered something I always wanted, a cherry
made with crushed maraschino cherries, whipped cream, and a cherry on
was an old fashioned soda fountain in a corner drug store. The fountain
shaped like a long island instead of against the wall. It had several
stations with a pair of spritzer faucets at each one. You could look
fountain and see the people on the other side. I don’t think there was
else at the fountain that day except the soda jerk, so I explained to
I was celebrating because it was V-J Day. It was a very delicious
sundae. I ate
it slowly and marveled at how sweet and flavorful minced maraschino
could be; and I vowed to order it again instead of the syrup sundae.
went to pay for it at the front counter with my 15 cents, I discovered
was so good. It cost more than 15 cents. After explaining to the
my plight he reckoned he could help me celebrate and covered my check.
offered to get the rest of the money later and he told me to forget it.
celebrating too. That was my first experience with redemption. Someone
paid and got me off the hook. I walked on the opposite side of the
the way home because there was a bar there, the only one I knew of, and
certainly there must be someone celebrating there. I walked by and it
like beer and urine so I assumed someone was in there. I didn’t turn my
look in; just kept walking, so I am not sure whether I celebrated alone
Paso or maybe there were other people in another neighborhood whooping
Later I saw, on a Life magazine cover, a sailor kissing a girl in the middle of the street in New York City. I begin to form the idea that I lived in a really boring place.
We had become very paranoid with the ideas that Germans might get loose on the streets of El Paso. There were a lot of POWs being kept at Fort Bliss and they sometimes were used to do clean up jobs around the residential neighborhoods. We always were on the lookout for escapees. And then they showed up at school, not POWs, but the kids of the 116 rocket scientists that came over with Werner Von Braun! We were traumatized. These were not little kids like us. They were big kids that were being mainstreamed in at a lower grade until they could pick up the language. They would jump up and click their heels when called on in class, and spoke with great authority. They dressed very sharply and made us look like slobs. I could tell they were very bright. They were children of the men that developed the V2 rocket and buzz bombs. I had read about these things in my spotter manuals. These guys scared me! The girls had grown up bodies with breasts and I, being very short, was at eye level with those breasts. Any of the guys could have punched us out in short order. I avoided them as much as I could. They pretty much liked to stick together anyway. I didn’t blame them for that.
Then, one day at about 11 AM, there was a boom that shook the earth. Were they testing another atom bomb in Alamogordo? No, it sounded like it came from the south. Maybe it was a natural gas storage tank. I checked from the top of my grape arbor in the back yard. No, the tank seemed to be intact. There was only one source of information, the radio in the house. The noise came from the edge of Juarez, the town across the border from El Paso. There was some activity from Alamogordo. Someone had seen a vapor trail go up just prior to the boom. The German scientists had bombed Mexico with a V2 rocket they had shipped from Germany! It was claimed to be an accident. It had no warhead, sure. People around El Paso were not so sure they wanted to have their old arch enemy playing with weapons of mass destruction so close to town. I don’t remember seeing the German kids after that. The year after I graduated high school, the Germans moved to Huntsville, Alabama to build the rockets that allowed men to go into space and walk on the moon. In 1955, Werner Von Braun became an American citizen.
I don’t know what finally precipitated it; but my folks decided it was time to move at the end of sixth grade (1947) at Crockett Elementary School. Maybe it was because all four of us boys were sleeping in the same tiny converted sleeping porch. I went back to that house fifty years later and couldn’t believe how it had shrunk. The original kitchen stove and sink were still there and I had to side step through it to keep from bumping things. What I had remembered as a draining board next to the sink was a fold down pantry door in a cabinet. Maybe my mother was putting on weight and could no longer navigate that kitchen.
I did mark this time in my life by my first wet dream. I was so confused I almost fell out of the top bunk. Life was changing, maybe for the better.